Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

A Beautiful Poison

A Beautiful Poison - Lydia Kang

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

Loved the backdrop in this book. World War I (with the reader knowing it’s nearing its end... but not the characters). The dreadful influenza reaching American shores and starting a war all of its own. Socialites in their own little world, feeling the bigger world as an intrusion that may or may touch them (whether draft or flu). Murders in those ‘higher spheres’, with the reminder that with a little money, nobody will try and look further. The early times of another type of poisoning, too, for the girls who painted clock dials with magic glowing in the dark (if you haven’t done so yet, read The Radium Girls, it’s really interesting).

I liked the beginning well enough: an engagement party, one of the guests falling to her death on the stair, and it turns out the fall isn’t what killed her—poison did. This murder, more than the party itself, reunites the three main characters, who got separated four years prior to these events, due to various reasons, but mostly selfish ones, such as falling out of favour (God forbids your daughter keeps associating with the child of people who committed suicide, right, this is so vulgar and out of taste); and considering the latter, there’s no wonder this relationship is tainted, poisoned, from the start, simmering with both happiness at having friends back yet also with resentment and bitter memories. Which in turn made Allene, Birdie and Jasper unreliable narrators to the power of ten, because in a mystery with murders aplenty, they were part of the pool of potential culprits just as much as other people at the engagement party.

There was a lot of unhealthy tension in this book, because of the characters’ past, and because of other secrets that got revealed later. Although in a way, I liked it, I wasn’t too keen on how it all unfurled; the characters weren’t very likeable, but for me that wasn’t even due to their personalities (I can enjoy a ‘non-likeable’ character), more to the fact they were somewhat inconsistent with what was told of them at first. For instance, Allene is presented as loving chemistry, but this didn’t play as much of a part as I expected (mostly she still remained the socialite totally oblivious to the people around her, unless what affected those people affected her as well). Perhaps Birdie was, all in all, the most consistent of all. I’m not sure where the line was, that line that would’ve made me like these characters more; it just didn’t click with me here.

The narrative, I think, was also poised between too little and too much. Part of me wanted more of the setting (New York, descriptions, parties, how the flu claimed people—horrifying symptoms, and so many deaths), yet at the same time, the setting plus the murders didn’t mesh fully, and the plot felt too convoluted when nearing the end. And, of course, what’s happening to Birdie—as the author mentioned at the end (and I agree), historical accuracy demanded there could be no closure on that specific point, but this means that, well, either you already know about that bit of history, or you don’t, and it makes no sense. Tricky.

Conclusion: It was an OK read for me: mildly entertaining in general, but not a gripping mystery. Here I preferred the setting to the characters.

I Will Find You

I Will Find You: Solving Killer Cases from My Life Fighting Crime - Joe Kenda

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

I never watched the show, so I won’t be able to compare for now (I may watch some episodes later if I can find some episodes that aren’t available for US only or through shady websites); actually, I hadn’t even known about Joe Kenda before requesting this book. The book itself, when I read its blurb, looked interesting, and I was in the mood for crime-related non fiction, so here I am now.

Interesting it was, indeed. I learnt quite a few things about police procedures, all the more because I don’t live in the USA, and basically all I know is what I’ve seen in TV series (no worries, I was kind of already suspecting that TV =/= truth ;)). Not that it surprised me, but it’s always good to see that, well, one was right in wondering ‘do these things really happen like that?’

What also really happens like that is crime itself, and sadly, what Kenda described in the book didn’t surprise me either (I don’t have a very good opinion of man as a species). Again, I can’t compare with the series, and I don’t know if what he writes about here is something watchers already know, or grittier/less gritty than what has been aired. It did seem gruesome enough to me. I’m not easily disgusted to the point of physically having to stop reading, but I can envision this being a turnoff, at least at times, as a reminder that people can do horrible things, including to their kids, innocent bystanders, for the stupidest reasons, for something as trivial as 20 quid, etc.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the tone/style. Not sure how Joe Kenda fares in the show, but here there were some turns of phrase, some vocabulary, that I felt was... not sure how to explain it, too demeaning or for shock value? I would probably have such words about criminals myself, so it’s nothing like ‘oh noes, swearing is bad’, and more like ‘the stronger the vocabulary/opinion, the lesser the impact’? Yes, I think that’s it: the grit and dark side can very well stand on their own, and they would have more impact if presented in a more ‘neutral’ tone. It may just be me, though.

(On the other hand, of course, you can tell that the author feels very strongly about this, and it's completely understandable!)

Apart from this, I definitely found this book interesting, both for the police work it presented, and for the other aspect of Kenda’s life (his family, how they too had to cope with his career, how the horrors he’s seen affected his whole home, etc.).

A Man of Shadows

A Man of Shadows (Nyquist Mystery) - Jeff Noon

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

Possibly more ‘SFF' than truly ‘noir’, for the gritty/detective side was second to the mysterious/dusk/visions side; but I like both genres, so that was fine with me. It took me a while to get into the story, though, and I’m not really sure whether it’s because it didn’t fully grip me, or because I was also busy at the time with other books.

The story follows John Nyquist, jaded detective with quite a few dark shades in his past, after both his parents died; hired to find the runaway daughter of powerful businessman Patrick Bale, he stumbles upon more than what he’s signed for, including the daughter’s true heritage, a drug cartel, and the mysterious killer nicknamed ‘Quicksilver’, who offs their victims in the blink of an eye. As any good noir detective, Nyquist can’t leave enough alone, and feels compelled to help the daughter, who he feels has run away for a reason that’s more than just teenage angst.

The setting is definitely interesting, and would even lend itself to more developments, I’d say, considering the two sides (Nocturna vs. Dayside), the mysterious Dusk in-between, the microcosms in each part (like the bulb monkeys in Dayside, always running from one light bulb to the other in a desperate effort to keep the light going), the time-screwing aspect (how can anyone goo on different timelines that keep changing depending on where they go and what they do?), etc.

I felt that there was a lot going on here, especially with part of the plot revolving around characters and events with a foot in all those parts (as in, things like ‘works in Dayside, lives in Nocturna, has ties with Dusk’); but while some of it was shown, I expected more in that regard—and yet, at the same time, there were moments when the world superseded the narrative, making the latter muddled. I’m not sure if the intent was to show Nyquist’s descent into his own time-related problems, or to echo the ‘time drug’ concept, but it made the plot difficult to follow even though it’s not -that- complex.

In the end I couldn’t decide if this was a novel about these different cities or about the characters—I felt that one way or the other, there wasn’t enough to really keep my interest.

Darkover Landfall

Darkover Landfall  - Marion Zimmer Bradley

Erf. I've started re-reading this series, because I remember how much I loved it when I was a teenager... but damn, I didn't remember this one was so bad. (Or is it because I sometimes used to like shite as a teenager, and that was part of it?)

The story in itself is not uninteresting, all the more since it's THE origins book in the Darkover series, but the relationships... especially the way women are viewed and treated... Wow. That was one special level of bad.

I can sort of accept a patriarchal society, women being treated as wombs, etc. in the more 'medieval-like' novels of the series, because 1) it fits a certain conception of 'dark ages obscurantism', as cliché as that may be, and 2) as far as I remember, in those books, it was often presented as something that isn't so good: while it does remain infuriating, it's part of the conflict underlying those narratives.

Here, though, in a group of engineers, colonists, space crew, scientists, where men and women have similar levels of skills, with gender equality laws on Earth? Nope. Doesn't sit with me. Especially not as soon as pregnancies enter the picture, and give yet another reason for males (and some women!) to be patronising, chalk every reaction to 'she's pregnant', veer towards gaslighting at times (because obviously, the guys in the story know better than Judy Lovat who's the father of her child), and go spouting crap about how not wanting children is some sort of mental illness. Camilla's arc was particularly painful, because, yes, she is being reduced to a walking womb, what's with the doctor even threatening to sedate her during her pregnancy (actually, it does happen once), like some kind of stupid, ignorant being who needs to be locked for her own good. Empowering much, right?

So basically, you get accidentally pregnant (not through any fault of hers—ghost wind was to blame, same for her partner), while you thought your contraceptive was doing its job, you don't want to have a child, but you're denied an abortion. OK. Not cool. In the context of colonists stranded on a hostile planet, that poses an interesting conundrum (= it's obvious that either they need to spawn as much as possible, or they'll die in one or two generations). However, was it really necessary to lay it in such rude and demeaning ways? The Battlestar Galactica reboot has a similar subplot, but the episode about it was at least treated with much more gravitas and moral ambiguity.

It is also important to note that, no, Camilla didn't sign up for this, so treating her as a spoiled kid throwing a tantrum was inappropriate. Putting it back into context: she's an engineer and programmer, she signed up to be part of the ship's crew during the trip, not to be a colonist meant to help populate a new planet. And even in the event of staying on that colony, it would've been in a society where she would've had a few years to make the decision.

(show spoiler)



I have no idea if anyone considers this book as a 'feminist' work, but if you do, please stop. This is not feminist, it's patriarchy at its worst: insidious.

[To be fair, I didn't remember this book as being the best in the series either, nor my favourite at all, so I'm still going to try rereading 2-3 others.]

Good As You

Good As You: From Prejudice to Pride – 30 Years of Gay Britain - Paul Flynn

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

This was a really interesting insight into gay culture in the UK, from the seventies to nowadays: how it shaped itself, the hurdles gay people had to go through, how other people’s views gradually changed...

The book’s chapters follow specific themes, such as TV, AIDS, politics, football or pop music, rather than going in a purely chronological order. This makes for a rather comprehensive view of various areas of British culture, in the light of what being gay more specifically entails. The chapters are also well-segmented, and it’s fairly easy to pick up the book again if for some reason you had to leave it (to go do those pesky things called ‘work’ or ‘sleep’, for instance).

I learnt plenty here: how the introduction of explicitly gay characters in shows like East Enders or Coronation Street was perceived, how their actors were perceived at the time, how it changed with more recent series. Or how specific bands and singers were seen, who became a ‘gay idol’, who remained in the closet, who openly announced it. Or the many people who lost their lives to AIDS—and may not have, if they hadn’t had to remain closeted and more information had been available. Or Clause 28, which I had never heard about until now (not being from the UK probably didn’t help in that regard), and the journey from there to legalising same-sex marriages.

Paul Flynn interviewed quite a few interesting figures within the scope of this book, including Alison (who worked at the Lighthouse, offering end of life comfort to patients dying of AIDS), David Furnish (Elton John’s partner), or football player Robbie Rogers—not being particularly interested in football in general, I admit I somewhat knew that the latter is still a difficult area when it comes to being gay, but I wasn’t sure to which extent.

If anything, I would’ve liked to see more about the AIDS period, and somewhat less about the Kylie Minogue parts, so I guess I’ll have to pick other books for this.

Conclusion: Probably better as an introduction that will give you pointers to what to research in depth, so if you’re already very familiar with the country and period, the book might seem a little simplistic. Otherwise, go ahead.

Three Dark Crowns

Three Dark Crowns - Kendare Blake

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss.]

This is the story of an island on which, every generation, three potential queens are born: one with the power to poison and resist toxins, the other to command elements, the third to befriend animals and make plants grow. On the 16th birthday, then begins the year during which they have to fight, and only one of them will survive. ‘Fight’ meaning, of course, that the winner can only become so by killing the other queens, a.k.a as her own sisters.

Sounds like a gruesome premise, and obviously this got my attention, especially since two of the queens are complete underdogs, and presented as such from the start (the poisoner isn’t very good at resisting poisons in general, and the naturalist one can’t even make a bud flower, least of all call her own familiar). It’d be too easy for them to just get offed quickly, though, so I expected political manoeuvers and other intrigue moves. Which I got, at least partially, as the poisoners aim at discreetly making their queen look more seducing in order to garner support (get people to like you best, and they’re more likely to try and protect you from the other queens), and the elementalists hatch a plan of their own, with the poisoners in turn trying to divert it...

Too bad the story developed so slowly, and in a way that didn’t even allow to develop the queens’ characters that much. Well, to be fair—it’s not uninteresting, it’s just that, all things considered, the setting was ripe for much, much more intrigue (or to get more quickly to the beginning of the Ascension Year). So 80% of the book read like a prologue. On top of this, a couple of things rubbed me the wrong way; unfortunately, they were things that took up quite some space:

- The style. Sometimes I can do with third person present tense; other times, it just feels weird, and keeps throwing me out of the story. This was one of those times. (I’m really not convinced by that narrative style in anything longer than 20-30 pages, to be honest. Still waiting for a story to fully convince me.)

- The romance: Katharine’s... all right, there was a political edge to her getting lessons in seduction, and once you can seduce, I’m not surprised to see romance ensue with someone at some point. But Jules’s took too much from ‘Arsinoe time’. Not that I didn’t like Jules herself, only the guy takes up screen time instead of letting us see the Jules/Arsinoe relationship, which could’ve really shone as a strong friendship, and... let’s be honest, he’s nothing special, the triangle (of course there’s a triangle) is nothing special, and all the fuss didn’t make much sense to me. Colour me callous. Get out, Joseph. You’re an appalling boor.

This said, I was expecting a twist at the end, and there was one, and for once it wasn’t the one I was expecting. So there’s that, and I still want to read the next book to see how the actual Ascension Year is going to unfold (hopefully with more intrigue and less half-baked romance).

On the positive side:

- The characters weren’t too clever nor developed, but I quite appreciated that they weren’t all black-hearted, and certainly not from the beginning. As much as I bemoan the lack of intrigue-action, this kind of story wouldn’t be interesting at all if the characters supposed to kill each other could do so with a flick of a hand without even arching an eyebrow. Mirabella is sweet, and the one who’s least blinded by hate. Arsinoe is very much no-nonsense, knowing she’s very likely to be the first to die, yet not spending her time woe-is-me’ing herself. Katharine is scrawny and weakened by her training, but she doesn’t cry over it, and keeps doing her best and putting her willpower into it. They’re not perfect, oh no; nevertheless, they each have a likeable side.

- Surprisingly, I liked Billy, too. You’d think ‘obvious love interest’, but he was definitely more the good, loyal friend than the charming suitor, and this worked much, much better for me. Also, his (kind of) ballsy move at the Disembarking.

Conclusion: 2 stars. I really liked the last 20%, but I wish more time had been spent on the actual intrigue, with more blood and twists there, and less on the romance.

Yesterday

Yesterday - Felicia Yap

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

I’m not sure I can really call this ‘science fiction’—‘alternate history/contemporary world’, rather?— and for once I find ‘speculative fiction’ is actually more appropriate. ‘Yesterday’ is set in a 2015 world where people, due to a gene getting inhibited when they become adults, lose their short term memories. ‘Monos’ can only retain the previous days, while ‘Duos’ can retain two days... but nothing more. In order to function, people therefore have to keep writing in their diaries, and make a conscious effort to learn the important ‘facts’ that happened to them.

I found this premise quite interesting, especially when it came to setting a mystery in that world: how would an investigator go about their job, link clues together, if they can only rely on written facts and not on actual memories? Because they’re bound to forget to write some details that would then become important, only at the time they looked so trivial they didn’t think them so. This is DI Richardson’s conundrum, as the main investigator in Sophia Ayling’s suicide-or-murder case, since he knows he has to solve this very quickly, otherwise he may miss some important clues. Just like potential suspects will literally forget what a crafty interrogation session could have made them say. All of this, of course, while keeping in mind an important question: are diaries reliable?

The story revolves around four characters’ narratives and diaries: Claire Evans, a Mono ex-waitress who married a successful Duo writer, but struggles daily with her feelings of inadequacy compared to her husband’s ability to remember more; Mark Evans, whose career as a writer isn’t so satisfying anymore, just like his marriage, and who’s tempted to veer towards politics... and mistresses; Sophia Ayling, a woman with the rare ability to remember everything... including tiny little slights that built up into hatred and a deep desire for revenge; and Hans Richardson, the inspector determined to crack the case in one day, but who also harbours secrets of his own.

In itself, it was a fast-paced enough read (everything happens over 24 hours, after all), and one that kept my attention; the plot twists were easy enough for me to guess, yet at the same time I still wanted to see how the characters themselves, with their limited day to day memories, would go about making sense of everything that happened to them.

In the end, though, the memory limit proved to ask more questions than it provided answers, making the world building kind of... shaky? The society depicted here seems to have been built on the short term memory problem as if it had been here from the start. But while I can see how modern technology (paper diaries, then iDiaries—hello, parallel world Apple that I thought interesting in spite of being a little too obvious) would allow people to function, it makes one wonder how science and said technology developed in the first place: at some point, how was writing invented, if people couldn’t remember what they did two days ago, and couldn’t put it in written words? For me, it would’ve been more credible if the genetic shift had happened later in history—well, maybe it did, but the story doesn’t tell.

The ending, too, left me sceptical. I see what the author did there, but it felt too convoluted and resting on chance events (or perhaps, should I say, on a stroke of genius on one character’s part, but what led to it seemed too much like a convenient plot device?). Also, I would’ve expected the inspector character to make less blunders—either that, or other characters bearing on him for making them, because in the end there were no real consequences.

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. It is an entertaining first novel, I just wished the memory loss premise had been exploited better.

Lady Mechanika Volume 2: Tablet of Destinies

Lady Mechanika Volume 2: The Tablet of Destinies - Mike Garcia, Ben M. Chen

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

A slightly different take than in the first arc (which I read last month): this time, the story follows Mechanika from London to mysterious ruins on the African continent, following the trail of an old researcher who’s being forced to decrypt strange tablets under the threat of seeing his granddaughter killed. It’s not exactly the same kind of theme, and although some aspects were a bit cliché (of course the bad guys had to be German), I still appreciate it because... hey, let’s be honest, I do like myself a good old Victorian/early 20th century adventure with archaeologist-like people, secret societies, and, yes, in small quantities, even German bad guys. ;)

On the other hand, this volume didn’t bring anything to the bigger story hinted at in the first instalments (Mechanika’s origins, the history she shares with Commander Winter, the Engineer...), and I admit I would’ve liked to get a few more hints. It also keeps playing on the evil bad guy/female enforcer tropes, which, well, why not, but I hope this kind of dynamics will change later.

The drawing style remains detailed, with vivid colours that get more muted as they adapt to the various atmospheres of day and night. There’s still a lot of eye-candy, however this time I felt it took slightly less precedence depending on the scenes and panels (seriously, huge boobs and perceived sexy poses aren’t necessarily as exciting as they sound when it comes to depicting heroo-types characters... or, well, any character at all). And perhaps there were a few less walls of text, too? I read it in public transportation so I didn’t pay as much attention to that aspect I had noted in the first volume, to be honest.

Conclusion: The storyline remained entertaining, though definitely on the cliché side, and I can only hope this won’t last; nevertheless, large boobs over corsets notwithstanding, I liked the artwork.

The Tourist

The Tourist - Robert Dickinson

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

What to do, what to do... I liked parts of this novel, but in others I thought the story was sorot of... losing itself?

Time travel to the power of ten here. A lot of actions, reactions and motives stem from the need for the characters to keep thinking in terms of ‘agency’... which, in turn, leads to many questions. For instance: young!you meets old!guy, who tells you ‘we’ll meet later’, and then later!you meets younger!guy, who of course doesn’t remember you because for him it’s the first time, but at this point you know that whatever happens, you’re not going to kill him, because his older self has already met you in the past. Sounds complicated? Not so much, but... yeah, one has to keep track of such occurrences in ‘The Tourist’, for sure.

The plot mainly follows two characters: Spens, a tourism rep in the early 21st century, who knows he’s about to be sent home for breach of contract, even though he doesn’t know yet what the breach will be (but he’s not too worried about that: after all, records inherited from future centuries show he’ll still have a life after that). And ‘you’, a woman in the future, who has spent years in prison due to her many suspicious activities. Both their stories intersect in the person of Riemann Aldis, as ‘you’ has to help him on a mysterious assignment, while Spens in the past finds himself tracking one of his clients, who wasn’t on the bus when the latter came back to the resort.

Among these plots is the ‘War Ourobouros’ thread: a Russian novel about strange people from the future whose aim is actually to conquer and enslave 21st century civilisation. Red herring? Smokescreen? After all, Spens and his fellow travellers looks different enough (taller, for starters) than humans like you and I; their presence is known in 21st century cities; and they -are- weird, with their resorts full of tourists and the knowledge they’re suspected of having about the future, in the shadow of their mysterious Geneva ‘government’. And if only people knew, indeed: that a Near Extinction Event is looming close, and that the futurekind isn’t allowed to mention it.

I really enjoyed the subtle aspects of future society, with all their tiny dystopian hints and secretive 25th century reports—they make it more understandable why all these tourists want to catch a whiff of our own society, not to mention ‘extemps’ choosing to actually stay there. The time-related developments, too, definitely kept me interested, as I tried to catch what tiny event would cause that other event from a previous chapter, or how an encounter we know will happen will actually play out. In terms of causality, of events triggering other events in a non-linear way, I found it worked fairly well.

Ultimately, though, I was disappointed in the overall plot, in that I completely understood how the characters came to end up where they did... but I feel the story was missing a final ‘why’ that would’ve tied everything together. I get what happened to the tourist, to Spens, to Riemann, yet at the same time there’s no sense of a bigger plot. The ‘you’ part was also weird for me; second person present tense narration is really tricky, and let’s be honest, I sometimes had a hard time going through these chapters, precisely because of that narrative device. Finally, character development in general was too light to my liking; on the other hand, this is a book whose strong point is the time travel aspect, so I still managed to enjoy it enough.

Conclusion: I’m giving it 2.5-leaning-towards-3 stars because, let’s be honest, time travel is not easy to write about, and here I thought it was coherent enough, keeping paradox into account and playing well with how different people’s timelines may intersect. I wished it had had more of that ‘agency’ it advocates, though, instead of feeling in the end like it wasn’t really going anywhere.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum, Meghan Daum, Meghan Daum

A little on the fence about this one. Some of the essays were fairly interesting, and the matter in general resonates with me anyway. However, I found the whole too similalr in terms of backgrounds (white, middle-class, not much variety here), and too often, when reading between the lines, most of the writers involved were of the 'I didn't have kids/didn't think about it when I had the chance, and now I'm glad of it'—not exactly 'I made a conscious decision not to have any children when I was 20' or 'I've always known I didn't want any.'

Although this may make me look shallow or callous, I don't care. I do relate much more to the few who openly made that very decision or at least 'knew'. I am the same kind of person who will start a relationship by immediately bringing the matter of 'just so that you know, I don't want kids and I won't change my mind'—because, let's face it, I'm nearing 40 and I'm not going to waste my time (nor my prospective partner's) with building a relationship based on the false assumption/delusion that 'they'll change their minds.' To quote Tim Kreider's essay in the book, 'people have a bottomless capacity to delude themselves that their partners will eventually change' (in other words: never assume they will).

So: interesting, but could've done with more diversity.
Hm. I should probably write an essay of my own about that someday. Never tried it, but it'd be an interesting exercise at the very least.

Godblind

Godblind - Anna Marie Stephens

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

Attractive cover is attractive! Red and black? Count me in!

This is fantasy of the darker and grittier kind. People fight and die in puddles of gore; the Red Gods thrive on human pain and sacrifices (and their priests and believers are all too happy to oblige); and intrigue abounds in every corner of the world, making it difficult for the characters to know who are their allies, and who are their foes.

This is also the kind of novel about which I hold very divided opinions, because its selling points and its negative points are, for me, often sides of a same coin.

To be honest, I had some trouble to get into the story at first (not because of the sacrifice and rape in the first chapters—I guess it’s more related to the fact I don’t read a lot of fantasy these days, and while I am generally interested, I tend to have a harder time to get immersed in it). This may partly have been due to the short chapters, some as short as 2-3 pages, which creates a fast pace but makes it difficult to get invested in the characters, their predicaments and their stakes, all the more since the story follows several characters, and since the violence at times seemed a wee bit... here for the shock factor more than anything else? As a result, I didn’t feel very close to either the ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’, and that sense of ‘yeah, OK, that must’ve hurt, but I don’t really care’ unfortunately stayed with me.

(The short chapters were a positive thing in a way, though: I often read while walking or in public transportation, or during short breaks at work, and such chapters make it very easy for me too ‘break’ my reading and resume later.)

Another side of the book that is both positive and a hindrance is that it’s the first book in a series, and it looks like it’s going to be epic, with lots of battles and high stakes (a whole kingdom falling into war, people seeing their homes destroyed and families slaughtered, ambitious rulers, treachery and traitors in the heart of power, etc.). This said, it makes the story read more like an introduction, a prologue of sorts, before we get to the actual meat.

Yet another ‘same coin’ aspect: the intrigue. On the one hand, the plot twists were very easy to guess (who’s going to be a traitor, who’s going to double-cross who, etc.). On the other hand, for me, they were also of the ‘I know where this is going but I’m excited nonetheless’ kind.

I did like some characters enough (especially Crys, he’s the kind of easygoing trickster type I’m easily drawn to in novels) to feel invested at times. I’d wish for a little less sexism and homophobia, though (not on the author’s part, just in that specific world in general; it’s like it’s never accepted in most worlds, anyway *sighs*).

Conclusion: More an introduction to the actual plot, and with strengths that are weaknesses at the same time, but still interesting enough that I’d like to read book 2.

Lady Mechanika - Vol. 1

Lady Mechanika, Volume 1: The Mystery of the Mechanical Corpse - Joe Benitez

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

Set in an alternate Victorian (circa 1879) England, this comics deals with Lady Mechanika, a private investigator/adventuress whose limbs are actually mechanical, and who’d like nothing more than to find out who made her like that and where she comes from; all the while being pitted against the sinister Blackpool Armaments Co. and both its shady employer and soldiers. In this arc, Mechanika investigates the death of a mysterious young woman with mechanical arms similar to her own, only to realise that a lot more players are involved, including Commander Winter and a circus full of characters each with their own secrets.

The drawing style itself is, in general, well-balanced and elegant, and the colours match the mood of the various panels and situations. It’s probably a little overkill on the steampunk aesthetics (in that at some point, there’s going to be a lot of leather and corsets and goggles on top hats etc.), so depending on one’s mood about that, it may not be a selling point. On the other hand, there’s a lot of attention to details, which makes it a joy to look for those in panels, and even if they’re of the, well, aesthetic persuasion in spite of usefulness, there’s plenty to keep your eyes busy. (I usually tends to like steampunk aesthetics, so count me in the second category, even though I tend to criticise lightly. ^^)

Not bonus points on the boobs, though, and some of the extreme ‘female body poses’ that I see in a lot of comics. Eye candy and all that, I get it. It’s just... it detracts from the overall badassness of the characters. (And large boobs are seriously not convenient, especially since they easily hurt during stunts. Whatever.)

The characters as a lot were likeable enough: from Mechanika herself, with her doubts but also her resourcefulness and her desire to do what’s right, to Lewis the inventor whose bottle problems hint at dark events in his past. And the little Alexandra, with her gimmick ‘you’re an impostor’atttitude, which made her quibs with Mechanika quite funny—apparently some authors in the comics write stories about M, and the kid thinks these are the truth. There seems to be a current of underlying relationships that beg to be developed in later issues, creating a sense of an over-plot that will be gradually revealed (which I sure hope will happen in later issues because if it doesn’t, I’ll be disappointed). So far I’m not too happy with the two enemy women apparently becoming enemies because of a man (as it’s a pretty boring reason), but it may still turn out to be something slightly different, so we’ll see. I could do with a little less wordiness, though—it doesn’t fare too well in some panels, making pages difficult to focus on—yet I’m also torn about that because some of that dialogue was of the banter kind, and I think this fits well with Victorian/steampunk themes in general.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars, going on 4.Quite an enjoyable comics in spite of the (typical?) eye-candy. I still liked the artwork and additional covers no matter what, as well as the story and its slight cliffhanger/ominous tones at the end.

From Holmes to Sherlock

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon - Mattias Boström, Michael Gallagher

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

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, more than I thought it would be—the matter of course I was definitely interested in, but the way the author gathered and presented his material gave the whole book a ‘storytelling’ side that kept me wanting to read, and read, and read. Much like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. A biography-slash-history book that is in itself a big story.

I won’t deny that some chapters towards the middle (the period between Conan Doyle’s death and the modern adaptations after the 1970s-80s) weren’t the most interesting for me, but even those didn’t detract from the book as a whole. It takes us through the genesis of the original Holmes & Watson stories, how they came to be, how their author perceived them, the conundrum of seeing them more successful than his ‘most serious’ works and of wanting to kill Holmes... How they gradually escaped his and his family’s grasp, in spite of efforts to keep a hand on them, because what Doyle gave birth to was bigger than him, bigger than just a handful of people, and wanted out, plain and simple.

I’ve read all the original stories (will read them again), yet I admit I’m lagging behind when it comes to movies. Well, now I know exactly what to catch up on, what to look for, and what kind of tone these adaptations’ would be—the movies with Basil Rathbone won’t be the same than the BBC Sherlock series, nor is their Holmes the one from the 1980s series with Jeremy Brett. I’d need half a lifetime to catch up on all this (and I’d want to catch up several times, for sure), but now at least I have a clearer view of ‘the bigger picture’.

Arthur Conan Doyle gave life to Holmes and took it away, but the Great Detective just won’t stay dead, will he? It’s all the readers and actors and directors and other authors that gave him a much, much longer life than expected.

Conclusion: Highly recommended!

Nothing

Nothing - Annie Barrows

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss.]

Well, this book captures ‘nothing’, which is both good (the character Charlotte intends to show nothing exciting happens in her life, and she does that well), and not so good, because in the end, it made for a fairly plotless novel that read like a journal, quite slice-of-life, and it wasn’t exactly exciting. So I’m on the fence here, in that I get the intention, but don’t really enjoy it?

The author nailed the ‘teenager narrator voice’—also both a good and a bad thing: good for characterisation, bad for... hm, let’s say that 20 years later, it’s not particularly interesting (yep, I wasn’t interesting myself in my teens, hah). The intended audience being YA, possibly the latter won’t be too much of a problem, as younger readers may relate to Charlotte’s views on life... or maybe not? I tended to like Frankie more, in any case, because at least she sometimes -does- things, and tries to initiate change.

The awkwardness of relationships is also well-portrayed, for instance Charlotte’s relationship with Sid, how they met through internet and kept texting each other, and Charlotte likes him but is convinced they’ll never met and it’s doomed to fail anyway, and so on.

Of course, the book shows that the ‘nothing’ Charlotte complains about isn’t such a truth; little things happen, opportunities arise, the girls are just so convinced their lives are boring that they don’t notice those things are being important, through the way they add up. But that’s also something I wasn’t really at ease with.

First, the girls are quite similar, and it was difficult at times to know if a chapter was about Frankie or Charlotte (at some point I just went with 3rd person = Frankie, 1st person = Charlotte); they’re not helped in that by their common background, there isn’t much diversity in here, nor in the friends they mention, most often in passing.

Second, there’s a subplot that Charlotte sort of... brushes over as if it was trivial, and I’m sorry, no, I don’t think anyone would go through such an event and then just leave for home and not realise even for five minutes that what they did was awesome and, yes, important.

That’s the part where Charlotte prevents a school friend from getting raped by a boy who clearly saw she was drunk and didn’t know what she was doing anymore. Way to trivialise attempted rape, and way to show how selfish and shitty a person can be, I mean, hello Charlotte who won’t stay with her because, oh my God, then she has to tell her parents she was at a party and her parents will think she was drinking too and she’ll be grounded... Yeah. I get it, ‘nothing’ happens in your privileged little life. And let’s not mention the ‘wai things would be more interesting if we were gay’. Nope, no love from me, girl. Can we stop using LGBT relationships as plot devices, and use such characters as, you know, people with personalities?

(show spoiler)



Conclusion: At least it was a quick read, and points for writing teenager characters fairly well, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading Charlotte’s parts.

Bizenghast Collectors Edition 1

Bizenghast Volume 1 - M. Alice LeGrow

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

I've had this comic book on my shelf to read and review for quite some time, I just didn't get to it until now. (I've known about it for quite, quite some time, back when the author posted on deviantART, and when I saw it on NetGalley, well, it reminded me that at some point, many years ago, I used to check on the related art from time to time.) The copy I got is the Collectors Edition, vollume 1, gathering the first chapters of the Bizenghast series, and I'd say it's more an introduction for now, but still giving the reader to see enough.

A strange girl who isn't getting over her parents' death and whose health seems to suffer in consequence; a boy who seems to be her only friend, in the small remote town where she lives with her aunt who doesn't know what to do with her; and a contract signed in a mysterious castle with a strange arachnoid-slash-humanoid being, with the goal of freeing spirits who couldn't find solace in death, following a trail of riddles. I am not sure yet where this is leading, but in themselves, the first 'tasks' involved sufficiently creepy elements to keep me hooked.

The art is sometimes confusing and inconsistent, though, potentially because it's a work that started years ago, and one can see the author's style changed over the years. Still, it's worth a read.

Cold Hearted

Cold Hearted - James A. Hunter

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

I do believe I liked this second instalment in the series more than the first one (usually, it’s the contrary).

Still packed with action, a little less noir and but with perhaps a bit more grit towards the middle , and also more female presence this time (not the Damsel In Distress kind either—she’s the one saving his ass more than the contrary... and at the same time, she’s also the way through which he can realise he may be a better person than he thinks). A dash of potential romance, but it's light, and follows the no-nonsense I'm getting used to from Yancy, and from the other party as well: they both know they live in a world that isn't what it seems, that is more often than not hectic and unforgiving, and so they're going with a carpe diem attitude rather than the usual sappy 'true love forever'.

The plot felt a little tighter than in the first book, although I could’ve done with a few less flashbacks (we already know about Yancy’s past family and time in ‘Nam from book one, so having him think about it -and- tell another character about it was redundant). Here there are more hints of a meta-plot that I think is going part of the next books in the series for now, considering a certain name dropped during a conversation, and which is bound to resurface. So far I like the world the characters evolve in; the author keeps going with other supernatural creatures than the usual vampires, werewolves and ghosts—there is a sort of werewolf, but only in appearance, and that creature’s nature is actually really cool in my opinion. The Guild of mages is prooobably full to the brim with corrupt people, and I bet it’s going to end in Yancy and a couple of good guys having to save the world or something (if the ones appearing good aren’t the most corrupt of the bunch!), which would be predictable, but also fitting in that kind of universe. I’m not sure I’d like to see it otherwise anyway.

While the main antagonist was more of the pitiful kind, all things considered, he was a good reminder than sometimes one doesn’t need to be truly evil at hear to do evil... and thus, anyone in a moment of weakness may end up turning to means they shouldn’t envision. Yancy included (good thing he plans for failsafes).

Conclusion: It still reads in some places as if it could do with another editor’s pass, but all in all the story and the characters were entertaining (in a good way, that is).