Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

Confessions of the Fox

Confessions of the Fox - Jordy Rosenberg

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Mmm, I really had a hard time staying focused on this one. The premise of a Jack Sheppard actually being a trans man (well, probably an intersex person for starters, considering the genitalia alluded to here and there when he’s concerned) was definitely good, since I would like to see this kind of character more often in general. Not to mention my soft spot for rogue-type protagonists, and the 18th seedy London depicted throughout the novel.

The relationship between Bess and Jack was interesting in many ways: Bess’s childhood, Jack’s indenture, both characters having been victims of men in authority and now finding freedom and power with and in each other… The novel explores acceptance in a way that I like, not as something that comes to be, but as something that is : there is no “period of adaptation” during which Bess learns to love Jack the way he is: she loves him, it’s natural, they’re two human beings attracted to each other. No need for that condescending “acceptance” that too often is, in fact, patronising and not so accepting when you think about it. “He’s always been there,” indeed, and then they find each other. Just like Voth has always been there, and many other people that tend to get ignored because it’s more “convenient” that way.

However, I found the academic-sounding footnotes rather disrupting, and to be honest, I wasn’t really interested in the running commentary when it diverged from Voth’s own personal life (probably because I haven’t read the works mentioned in said footnotes, so whatever clever ‘a-ha!’ moments there were to catch, I completely missed them). I guess it takes quite a lot of focus to read this story, and it’s not something I’ve had much this summer. Perhaps I should’ve read it at another time.

Another problem I had was how Jack’s story felt more about concepts than about actual characters—developing some events more, showing more of his ties with Aurie for instance, or more moments when he learnt his trade, would’ve helped flesh him. This would’ve been a good way of highlighting the message “we’ve always been here”: as human and not simply literary beings.

So, my 2 stars are mostly because I know I wasn’t the right audience for this book at the moment, not because I think this novel is “bad”.

Coding Projects in Python

Coding Projects in Python  - DK Publishing

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.]

Actually, I finished reading this book quite a while ago, as a quick read, and was planning on going through it a second time at a different pace in order to fully use it—namely, to teach myself Python. I thought (and I still think I was right) that I’d then be able to review it properly. Unfortunately, between work and studying for both network certifications and uni, I don’t really have enough time to add programming to my timetable, so this will have to wait.

I made it to 25% of the book, in terms of following its teachings. From what I’ve experienced here, while I wouldn’t recommend it to younger children, it looks to me like it’d be an appropriate place to start for kids around 10-12. And older kids as well, of course. Or even adults. Because we’re ‘adults’ doesn’t mean that the colourful pictures will magically alter our ability to follow instructions to develop programs in Python.

The lessons were easy to understand and to put in practice. There were a few typos, but since I had an advanced copy, hopefully they’re gone from the printed version. (I could find my way around them, it was a matter of logics, but I’m not sure if a child would? Or maybe they would, who knows! Also, it’s good training in debugging, and this is never a waste.)

I wish I could give a deeper review. Maybe at a later time, once I can pick it up again.

If Cats Disappeared from the World

If Cats Disappeared from the World  - Eric Selland, Genki Kawamura

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

An enjoyable read with an important message about the value we give to life, what we do with our lives, and what we’d be ready to sacrifice to extend them. Confronted to the prospect of dying very soon, in the next few months if not the next few days, the narrator is offered a bargain by the Devil itself, and a tempting one at that: for each thing he erases from the world, he gets to live one more day. Which quickly raises a lot of questions and conundrums, because if it’s worth earning more life time, it has to be a sacrifice… but if we sacrifice too much, is it worth keeping on living?

The chapter with the talking cat was well done, too: first because of the cat’s voice, second because he was very… feline (those bipeds never understand anything to cats, do they?), and third due to his selective memory, something that was sad, but also a reminder that we don’t know how animals think, and what we take for granted may not be what is important to them.

I did find the story too predictable, though, in that the message was obvious from the beginning, and completely expected considering the type of stories it usually goes with. There’s no real twist, nothing I didn’t see coming, and no ‘revelation’ either, if this makes sense—other novels on a similar theme already did it, and this one doesn’t go far enough with the associated tropes to rise above them all. (I also think that the Devil imposing choices about what to make disappear removed the possibility of things going awry because of the narrator: ‘he made me do it, so it’s not my fault’. I prefer when my protagonists make their own mistakes, and then atone for / learn from them.)

3.5 stars.

Strategy Strikes Back

Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict  - Max Brooks

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.]

A collection of essays relating real-world strategies to examples from the ‘Star Wars’ franchise. As usual with this kind of book, some were good, and some not so good, and there were a few that didn’t do much for me, and/or seemed to repeat themselves (as well as be repeats of others). Still, I found it interesting, and a good starting point for more reading, since many of the essays don’t only rely on Star Wars, but also on actual strategy theories (Clausewitz, modern strategy-related articles, and so on).

Having only watched the movies, and not the animated Clone Wars series (and not having laid my hands on more than a couple of books from the former SW extended universe), I can’t speak for the accuracy (or not) of the essays discussing, well, other aspects of SW. From what I know, though, these essays are fairly accurate in their interpretation and depiction of the chosen excerpts from the movies.

Rating: 3.5 stars. Apart from the couple of points I made above (mostly the redundancy), I think it’s more interesting in terms of Star Wars than in-depth military strategy, and I’d have appreciated seeing more examples of real-world situations contrasted with the SW ones.

Killing It

Killing It - Asia Mackay

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A fairly entertaining novel, although it didn’t keep me enthralled.

I couldn’t decide if ultimately, the whole spy organisation was believable or not; some aspects felt far-fetched, where I had expected something more on the… ‘realistic’ side? Not that I know much about actual MI6 operations are conducted, that is: it was more a feeling than anything truly objective. Some parts I found amusing and inventive, in a sort of parodic way that I could only envision in a novel or a game (such as conducting interrogations in disused Tube parts, so that nobody would hear the cries over the din of trains or wonder about ‘that drunk, stumbling friend I’m dragging with me at 1 am is absolutely not a suspect I’ve just finished torturing’). I’d say this works if you’re looking for the kind of caricatural spy network, and works probably less well otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, I’m on the fence with it.

As a result, the plot was a little unconvincing, and I couldn’t really connect with Lex as a character: I liked her snarky comments in general, but found it difficult to reconcile her callous take on offing and torturing people with the double standard of ‘I do it on a regular basis to other people, but no one dare touch my daughter’. While wanting to protect one’s family is totally normal, there’s an underlying hypocrisy here that doesn’t sit too well with me, probably because I usually have a strong reaction to ‘do what I say, not as I do’ people.

On the other hand, the novel raises interesting, if not unexpected points about age-old attitudes in the workplace regarding women, and especially mothers. In that, ‘Killing It’ is close to a lot of things we can still see nowadays, where in spit of feminist progress and workplaces generally opening up, a woman’s position is still subjected to ‘having to prove herself twice as much as the men’. (There’s been a lot of progress IRL, and I sure won’t deny this, but I’ve been in enough interviews with barely concealed sexist questions to know that the way to full equality is still long.) Basically, Lex’s struggle with coming back to work after her maternity leave felt real and relevant: some of her colleagues, and especially her boss, kept on questioning her ability to do her job and not ‘giving in to hormones’ and all manners of crap arguments. Here, too, some things were caricatural and laid out too heavily (like Bennie’s attempts at putting Lex down)—and, of course, Lex’s job is not just any office job, and is much more dangerous—but it doesn’t change the fact that many people (other women included) still assume too often that as soon as one becomes a mother, one becomes ‘weaker/less smart/less able/whatever’ and have to prove herself all over again… while nobody bats an eyelid at a man becoming a father.

Conclusion: The humour didn’t always work for me, and some things were definitely hammered in too much. Still, as a light novel that doesn’t demand too much focus, it worked.

Give People Money

Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World  - Annie Lowrey

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

This is more an introduction to the topic, I think, than a fully-developed treaty on how exactly a UBI (Universal Basic Income), but it remains an interesting book no matter what. While heavily focused on the USA, it also considers other countries, so it’s definitely not just US-centric with no mentioning the rest of the world (examples from Finland and India, for instance, are included).

The idea itself (giving a basic sum of money to everyone, every month, so that their basic needs are ensured) is not new. Lots of people will tell you “money can’t buy happiness”, but let’s be honest: when you don’t have to worry about when (when, not if) power will go out in your home because you can’t pay your electricity bills, when you know you can give your children the food they need, it makes life better all around—and also allows you to focus on finding a job and other needs, or simply help you not getting sick all the time, or any other issues one faces that lack of money can cause.

Of course, it clearly opens the way to many disagreements, including fear that “if people have money, they’ll become lazy and complacent”. Which is, 1) I guess, very specific to “work hard, thrift societies”, 2) not necessarily true, 3) why should the “American way” (that false assumption that if you only work hard, you will be successful no matter what) be the only valid one? Most people want a job, especially since our world in general values a human life according to whether it’s “productive” or not—another issue we’ll need to address sooner than later, since automation and incoming AI are very likely to make us redundant when it comes to jobs, and we’ll need to rethink ourselves in other terms.

Is it doable? Possibly, I think… provided governments think about it the right way, and provided people don’t consider it in terms of “something that should only go to a certain class of people”, or “welfare queens will abuse it”, or “those people will only buy drugs with it”, or “it’s good if it’s for us, but we don’t want immigrants to have it” (apparently, the more diverse a society, the more this question reveals rampant racism: “we want it for US, not for THE OTHER”—and sadly, I wouldn’t even be surprised if that was a wide-spread opinion).

The book considers these questions, as well as others and what they really entail, such as giving supplies, clothes etc. to people rather than money: it’s all well and all, but we don’t think about all it implies. One of the examples involves giving shoes to people in a poor village, with two unwelcome effects: what they need is not necessarily shoes, but, for instance, clean water; and doing this also deprives the local shoe-making economy of customers. If those people were given money instead, they could help that economy (by buying shoes, by buying a cow and starting their own farm/business...) AND get the water they need, too. To me, it makes sense.

On the other hand, the way the book is currently laid out doesn’t show references well enough. And while the ideas developed here are definitely food for thought, I believe they stand better as an introduction, as stepping stones for more in-depth research and reading, rather than as sturdy research. I wouldn’t call that an issue, because it does pave the way to opening up to the idea of a UBI, and to really thinking about it, about what’s trickling down from it and how current demographics may influence it (in a good or a bad way). I simply wouldn’t take the book as THE work of reference about it.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Clearly a good starting point if you’re getting interested about this subject, and aren’t sure how to approach it.

Stars Uncharted

Stars Uncharted - S. K. Dunstall

[I received a copy of this book through Penguin’s “First To Read” program, in exchange for an honest review.]

I have a soft spot for sci-fi stories with rag-tag crews and old spaceships; unsurprisingly, this is the kind of story that will get my attention.

The story revolves around two main female characters: Nika, a body modder on the run from her abusive-slash-mafioso boyfriend, and Josune, undercover engineer on board a ship known as “The Road” (these aren’t spoilers: you learn about it in the very first chapters). As they both have to face their own brand of trouble, their paths converge towards The Road, always underlined by the shadow of a man named Goberling, who almost a century ago came back from an expedition with precious metals… but never revealed where he had found them.

This is space opera through and through, with a dash of transhumanism. It’s a world where humanity obviously colonised many worlds, and where people regularly reinvent themselves through body modding—which offers pleznty of possibilities, too, considering how many characters in the book aren’t who they claim to be. It’s also a world of commercial ships, of big corporations that no one dares to cross, and of exploration and legends: The Road’s full name is “The Road to the Goberlings”, and another ship, the Hassim, is renowned through the whole galaxy as an exploration ship whose crew has dedicated itself to finding Goberling’s lost world.

In general, I quite liked the characters, and the relationships developing between them. They’re all their own kind of badass, even the ones, like Nika, who’re not crew that learnt to fight on a ship. There’s a slight dash of hinted romance, but never enough to interfere with the story. The budding friendship between Nika and Josune never veers towards that annoying trope of “female friendships always tinged with interest for A Man”. The Road’s crew sticks together, bound with a loyalty that keeps growing with each trip. And the regular quibbles between Nika and Snow (another modder), was overall fun enough, also because you can feel the nascent respect underneath.

Other things I liked less, though. First, the pacing was sometimes weird, carried in places by short sentences and paragraphs that felt too abrupt; the characters are constantly on the run, and at times it felt that not much happened, that everything was mainly their running away, with bits of story in between.

Another problematic aspect was Nika’s obsession with modding. I enjoyed the more technical side of it (I wish we had such machines, hah!), but she too often went about imagining how she’d reinvent the people around her, from their hair to judging them too fat, which was definitely obnoxious (and motivated much more by aesthetic judgements than by health reasons). For a character who prides herself on being a trend-setter, her trends were somewhat quite… conservative, a.k.a. everybody has to be slim and trim. Somehow, I’m not convinced that if our future does hold such body modding in store, everyone will want the same.

Finally, I wasn’t fully on board (look what I did there) with some of the plot twists, because they were too easy to guess, and I could see them coming a parsec away, to the point that I couldn’t understand how the characters didn’t see it sooner. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it was made too obvious, too soon? I don’t know. And we don’t get to learn that much about Snow, which is a shame, because I suspect he also has his closet full.

Conclusion: 3 to 3.5 stars. In the end, some parts I had trouble with, others kept me hooked, so while it wasn’t the best book I read this year, it was nonetheless very entertaining, and set in a world that I wouldn’t mind revisiting, because a single book can’t possibly reveal all there is to know about it.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century  - Yuval Noah Harari

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I read Harari’s two other books (“Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”), and quite liked them, so when this one was available, I couldn’t help but request it. It did turn out to be an interesting read as well, dealing with current problems that we just can’t ignore: global warming, terrorism, the rise of harmful ideologies, etc. It’s definitely not seen through rose-tinted glasses, and it’s a good thing, for it’s time people in general wake up and—to paraphrase one of the many things I tend to agree with here—stop voting with their feet. (Between the USA and Brexit Country, let’s be honest: obviously too many of us don’t use their brains when they vote.)

I especially liked the part about the narratives humans in general tend to construct (nationalism and religions, for instance, being built on such narratives)—possibly because it’s a kind of point of view I’ve been holding myself as well, and because (as usual, it seems), the “narratives of sacrifice” hit regular people the most. Another favourite of mine is the part played by algorithms and “Big Data”, for in itself, I find this kind of evolution both fascinating and scary: in the future, will we really let algorithms decide most aspects of our lives, and isn’t it already happening? (But then, aren’t we also constructs whose functioning is based on biological algorithms anyway? Hmm. So many questions.)

I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this book, and to be fair, there was too much matter to cram everything in one volume, so some of it felt a little hurried and too superficial. I’ll nevertheless recommend it as an introduction to the topics it deals with, because it’s a good eye-opener, and it invites to a lot of introspection, questioning and thinking, which is not a bad thing.

The Ape that Understood the Universe

The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve  - Steve Stewart-Williams

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

That was interesting. I always find myself on the fence when it comes to “nature vs. nurture”, to be honest, because it can be presented in very deterministic ways in which I don’t find my place anyway (a.k.a my instinct to pass on my genes is close to nil, and I’m definitely not a poster child for “maternal behaviours”). So, I was a little worried at first. But I needn’t be, because while the author is definitely on the side of nature rather than nurture when it comes to quite a few behaviours, the explanations make sense, and are actually more along the lines of the “selfish gene”, which is quite different from “survival of the fittest”.

Basically, it’s not about passing on the traits that are useful to our survival. It’s passing on -genes- , which means that if we survive long enough to do that, those genes go on as part of global “package” more suited for survival than not. Subtle difference. Like the peacock’s tail. In itself, the tail’s an impediment, and definitely isn’t what we’d deem an attribute that promotes survival in the face of predators, but having it sends a message that “look, I’m so fit that I’ve managed to survive so far -in spite of my tail-, now let me make you babies”.

Definitely interesting, and something I haven’t read much about recently, so it was a nice change. The beginning of the book, where he imagines an alien scientist observing human beings, was also a welcome shift in point of view, if only because it was amusing, and provided food for thought as well.

Some points could spark controversy, which is expected, especially when it comes to differences between men and women. That’s the kind of thing I’m usually on the fence about—in fact, whoever’s non-binary will probably find them controversial as well, since from the beginning we don’t fit the men vs. women mould. It’s clearly best to approach this scientifically, and not with any socio-psychological approach in mind, because a clash is bound to happen. Still, as mentioned previously, it does make sense, and I can’t (and won’t) say that nothing of that is true. And in the end, there -are- differences anyway. We just have to remember that sex =/= gender, and that whatever occurred in nature doesn’t mean that it’s the ultimate law either (which is a position that the author doesn’t defend anyway, so we’re all good here). If it was, all men would be serial rapists and would keep murdering their male neighbours for looking a little too pretty for the women around.

Other parts of the book deal with altruistic behaviours, culture, and memes, in other words what is passed socially and not genetically, but following similar principles: the “memes” that survive, like language, survive because one of their side-effects is to be “useful” to the group, while “destructive” memes such as becoming a martyr aren’t too widespread, due to people “practicing” them not leaving that many descendants to follow. (I had a bit more trouble to follow the latter parts, though, because I had the feeling there was some redundancy here.)

Conclusion: Overall, it was an instructive read, while being also funny and easy to follow.

F*** You Very Much

F*** You Very Much: The surprising truth about why people are so rude  - Danny Wallace

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

That was an interesting read. Perhaps not as funny as I had expected, but interesting nonetheless. Basing his argument on what he calls the ‘Hotdog Incident’, where he had to wait for 1 hour to get served a hotdog, and was rudely treated when he dared complain, Danny Wallace goes to explore rudeness and rude behaviours in general. Why are people rude? What’s in it for them? Why are the usual reactions to rudeness, and what do they reveal about people in general?

According to Wallace, it seems that there is something in it for rude people. Rudeness and bullying often tend to create a cognitive dissonance in people who’re at the other end of it, making them slower to react to it; so it looks like this explains why we keep wondering why rude people ‘get away with it’, when it’d stand to logics that they should be pointed at and shamed for their behaviour. I bet most of us had at least one experience of that kind (not necessarily about an actual hotdog) where hours later, we were still thinking about what we should’ve said or done instead. Why didn’t we do it for starters? Because of the shock of being treated rudely. I don’t know if the science behind this is really exact, however, I’m willing to agree with that out of empirical evidence, so to speak.

There were moments when I thought, ‘Did he really dwell on that Hotdog Incident for so long, isn’t that a little far-fetched?’, and it felt more like an artificial gimmick than an actual example to write a book about. But then, I guess it also ties with the point the author was making: what seems like little incidents can indeed stay with us for a lot longer than the few minutes or even seconds they took to happen.

And I do agree that rudeness is contagious. It’s happened to me quite a few times. If someone bumps into me in the street and doesn’t apologise, I’m much more likely to stop caring about the people around me: ‘If -they- don’t make way for me, why should -I- make way for them?’ So, it’s a vicious circle. Being aware of it helps, of course, because then it’s easier to act upon it. Still, it’s frightening how being rude can come… naturally.

A few parts are also devoted to exploring cultural differences, such as what is considered rude in one country but not in the other. Some of those I already knew about (the ‘Paris Syndrome’), others I discovered through this book. This, too, was interesting, because it puts things back into perspective. That’s not to say that we can afford to be rude because we can ‘make it pass as if it’s normal somewhere else’, of course.

The book definitely makes you take a look at yourself: we’ve all been rude at some point or other, and will be rude again. Yet acknowledging it is the first step to stop. (And if it helps facing rudeness from others in a calmer way, because we know the mechanisms behind it, I guess it’s also good experience to put annoying people back in their place.)

Lost In Math

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray - Sabine Hossenfelder

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

I can’t say for sure that I understood everything in this book, since my knowledge of physics in general is very patchy, but overall, I liked its tone, and its global idea, because I can get why one would be easily led astray by theories that look ‘beautiful’. It’s something that I feel is very human, after all, as we often look for a form of harmony in the world surrounding us, if only to try and make sense of it. Perhaps the fundamental, underlying laws of nature don’t make that much sense, or don’t always look like they do, and so we try to understand them in ways that would reconcile us with an apparent lack of… meaning, maybe? But what if the theories we pursue, albeit ‘pretty’ and nicely wrapped, turn out to be wrong? Shall we keep pursuing those, in the hopes that we just haven’t seen proof yet due to technological limitations, for instance? It seems that the answer to this isn’t so clear-cut. (The LHC being a good example. I’m tremendously excited by the LHC, and what it allowed to prove so far… but while we got the Higgs boson, we still haven’t gotten supersymmetry.)

The book also gave me pointers about things of which I clearly don’t know enough, especially in order to understand where the author comes from, so I know I’ll have to focus on those at some point in order to learn more.

As a side note, I don’t know, but I don’t feel particularly bothered by the ‘ugliness’ of the Standard Model. It may be in part because all I know about it, I learnt on my own, without following the regular cursus, so I never approached it with any specific idea in mind? We’ll see once I’ve studied more.

Conclusion: Definitely interesting, although don’t approach it if you know next to nothing to physics, since some ideas won’t make sense otherwise.

Bitch Doctrine

Bitch Doctrine - Laurie Penny

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

Hm, OK, this is a little difficult to review, because… I pretty much agree with Laurie Penny in general in this series of essays (I can’t tell about their other writrings, as I haven’t read them at present). Most of what I’ve just read here, are things I was already thinking on my own anyway.

Maybe I also feel this hits closer to home because of Laurie’s gender identity. I, too, was born sexually female, but I don’t identify as a woman (nor as a man)… yet society insists on treating me like a woman nonetheless, so no matter what, whatever women in general have to face, I have to face it, too, with the ‘bonus’ of not even fitting in properly.

Political essays notwithstanding, Laurie makes fair points about quite a few things that may not be so apparent at first, but do make sense. For instance, the fact that Siri & al. are given female voices, making them closer to the stereotypical ‘female customer service rep (preferably with low wages, yes I’ve worked that job, too, can you tell?’). I don’t recall ever having heard a male voice used in that context. Except on my GPS. But then, I’ve uploaded Darth Vader’s voice to my GPS for the lulz.

While I usually tend to be moderate, or try to be, all the more on internet where just about anything can degenerate into flame wars… Well, I do understand anger. I do understand calling a spade a spade, because subtlety can only take you so far. Subtlety is also the perfect excuse we can serve to people who don’t want to acknowledge what we have to say, and can then easily pretend that they didn’t get the point, that we weren’t ‘clear enough’, that we ‘can’t express ourselves.’
(Note: I mean ‘we’ as in ‘people’, not necessarily women.)

So, at times, enough with subtlety. Enough with double standards and with a good deal of human beings having to shut up because otherwise they’d be threatening the ‘current order’. If people behave like turds and then feel offended to be called up on that, maybe they shouldn’t behave like turds for starters.

Perhaps it’s even more valid now, being angry and refusing to shut up: because we’re in 2018, and perhaps feeling that our Western societies have progressed much (I can’t speak for other societies, I’ve only lived in Western Europe so far). And there comes the false, lulling sense of safety: ‘surely things have changed by now?’ Yes, they’ve changed, but they could revert back insidiously if enough people start shutting up and be content with the status quo, which in itself is not equal (I completely agree that, once you’ve scratched the layer of varnish, it’s still about white men, most often older men, who keep hoarding power).

The essays here aren’t perfect; they won’t bring you that many new things if you’ve already read a lot on the topics they deal with; and sometimes, I felt like they were dragging in circles. Nevertheless, Laurie’s writing is powerful, and deserves to be read.

It's a Question of Space

 It's a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut's Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions - Clayton C. Anderson

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

I’m going to admit I had no idea who Clayton Anderson was when I requested this book, but it sounded interesting, and interesting it turned to be, indeed. There were plenty of little things I never suspected regarding life on the ISS, and in space in general, and I feel like I’ve learnt a lot. Which I’m sure is absolutely not going to be useful if I write a sci-fi story someday. Never.

It’s a fast read, in Q&A format, which is ideal when, like me, you read a lot during breaks at work, or while commuting. No long chapters that make it difficult to stop (almost) any time. These cover a lot of various things, from how the human body reacts in space to the kind of operations astronauts have to be trained in, from the former space shuttle program to little things like ‘how to you wash yourself in micro-gravity’.

While I felt that Anderson might have misinterpreted a couple of questions (I’m thinking more specifically about the one regarding ‘what do you think of people who say the moon landing is a conspiracy’), overall his answers were simple and often full of humour. The man doesn’t hesitate to make fun of himself, and admits when he goofed on the station. He doesn’t always get into details, and he doesn’t hide it when he doesn’t know something, so perhaps some of the answers were a little lackluster; still, in general, this was fairly informative for me.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. And I wouldn’t mind reading his other book, for sure.

Nyxia Unleashed

Nyxia Unleashed - Scott Reintgen

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

Usually, the second book in a series tends to be the one I find weaker, but here, I actually liked it a little more than the first one. Back then, the whole competition thing, while good at first, got quickly repetitive. Here, while the characters also go through some repeated motions (get to first mine, mine nyxia, get to second mine, etc.), there were enough plot-related events to keep me interested. All in all, I wanted to learn more about the Adamites, their society, and Babel’s goals, and at least we indeed get more here. The Adamites are their own brand of shady with their own agenda, and while it’s justified considering what’s at stake

Another peeve with book one, a.k.a. how nyxia explains everything, wasn’t present here, so this helped, too. The kids do use it to shape weapons, shields, items, etc., but this is something I expected, and more credible than nyxia allowing fast space travel for… reasons? We get a few more explanations about where nyxia comes from. I hope that book three will yield more information still.

I still find the romance part kind of bleh, in part because it has the potential to devolve into a trope I don’t like, that of “will do anything for luuuurve” (Isadora and Morning are pretty open about how they’ll always choose the boy over the group; how much do we bet that one of them will betray the group first thing because Babel will dangle the boy’s survival in front of them?).

Also, maybe it’s just me, but Isadora’s attempt at using her pregnancy to gain favour is… I don’t know. It felt much more like using the future baby as a pawn, rather than at loving and wanting to protect him/her. I think this ties into how we don’t know that much about the characters themselves in general: we get that they’re all of “poor” and “broken” backgrounds, but apart from Emmett, we still don’t know what are their deep motivations. I’d care more about the whole Roathy/Isadora thing if they were something else than just antagonists. And the same goes for the diversity aspect, which is even less mentioned here than in the previous book.

Conclusion: Still some peeves with this novel, but a couple of others that weren’t so present this time. In general, I enjoyed it more.

One Way

One Way - S.J. Morden

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

An enjoyable read—it has elements that reminded me of both “The Martian” (which I loved) and of investigation novels in general—, although I found myself able to predict the twists (the deal comes to mind, but it’s not the only one), so the mystery part wasn’t 100% a mystery for me.

I enjoyed the preparation parts: how Frank gets “recruited”; his training; meeting the other convicts/astronauts (as well as the crushing realisation that he wasn’t going to be “a real astronaut”, just a prisoner sent to Mars and not necessarily considered as a human being). I tend to enjoy the hard science/technical details in such novels, so I was glad that some was included here, and that it made sense. Then there’s the Mars ordeal itself, of course, with this little group of ragtags and misfits having to face unexpected shortages and various problems before their base can even start being built. I expected a story where things go wrong, where the planet itself will kill you at the first opportunity, and I wasn’t disappointed in that regard. Also, the XO company had been cutting corners, and it shows; and it makes more sense, in a twisted way, the further you keep reading.

The main character, Frank, was likeable enough. He’s a murdered, but he “only” killed once, to save his son, and his reasons were more born from despair than from any twisted desire to kill for the sake of killing. At times, I found him perhaps a little “passive”, in that I thought he’d get to wonder about the deaths of his fellow inmates sooner than he did; on the other hand, he’s an older man who’s spent several years in jail and learnt to keep out of trouble there, so it also made sense that he’d want to keep out of trouble on Mars, too, by putting on blindfolds and focusing on his building and maintenance jobs. I believe his lack of curiosity was more an instinct of self-preservation, an ingrained desire to keep his head low in order to survive, rather than get interested in things that could put him in danger much sooner.

I was less satisfied by the rest of the cast, though, mostly because we don’t get to know them very well. They were defined more by what had sent them to jail (the cyber criminal, the ex-Neo Nazi, the doctor who euthanised her patients, etc.), than by what made them as human beings. As a result, I didn’t feel invested in them, and when they started dropping, I founder myself not really caring; they were plot devices, rather than characters. I don’t approve of padding a novel just to sell more paper, but in this case, I’d have gladly taken some 100 extra pages to get to know the whole crew better.

Conclusion: 3/3.5 stars. Not a novel I loved, but I still enjoyed it, and would still recommend it to readers who don’t mind a bit of jargon, and are interested in the struggle on Mars as well as in the murder mystery aspect.

Thirteen

Thirteen  - Steve Cavanagh

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

Hmm… The premise sounded interesting, for sure (the killer’s not on trial, but in the jury!). However, the execution made it a little too far-fetched to my liking.

I didn’t know the ‘Eddie Flynn’ series before—this is actually the fourth book, although it’s not a problem: it reads as a standalone, and whatever background you need to know about Eddie (ex-con artist, estranged family…) is mentioned soon enough for a reader not to be confused at some missing backstory. I also quite liked the character himself, who in spite (or perhaps because of?) his past displays a strong moral fiber, and doesn’t abandon his clients even when everything conspires against them. Maybe he had a slight tendency to boast sometimes, but nothing too bad.

On the other hand, many of the other characters were really one-dimensional, almost caricatures: the famous lawyer who pulls out as soon as the deal’s not so juicy anymore, the prosecutor who’s only interested in fame and winning all his trials, corrupt cops… I was hoping that things would go differently with the jury consultant, since Eddie and him didn’t like each other, but acknowledged their respective skills and made efforts to work together; alas, this didn’t come to pass.

Most of all, I had trouble with the killer’s part of the story. He was too much of a villain with everything going for him: special abilities, smart, always prepared, always one step ahead, with contacts on the inside, able to bug the lawyer’s office, etc. There were no flaws in sight, nothing I could really use to build hypotheses as to what would be his downfall… And yet, paradoxically, even with all those aces in his sleeves, Flynn was still able to guess he was on the jury. I think this would’ve gone down better for me if it had been Kane’s first time only; his plot is quite complex, and interesting. But as a repeat plot, it didn’t work for me—his successes vs. what happens in the novel don’t add up.

Writing: The book was a fast read, not difficult to follow at all even if you don’t know much to US law procedures. The writing style was OK in places, annoying in others (too many short sentences will kill the rhythm just as much as too many long ones). There were typos, too, but I don't know if I got technically an ARC, or the final copy; if they're in the final copy, it's not good.