Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

Bad Girl Gone

Bad Girl Gone: A Novel - Temple Mathews

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

This ended up being a very uneventful read for me. The premise felt really cool: a girl finds herself in a creepy orphanage, realises it’s actually a kind of purgatory for murdered kids, and tries to find out who killed her so that she can move on. The beginning was intriguing, especially since, like other ghosts in the orphanage, Echo first has to piece together memories of her death—reliving the trauma at once would be too shocking—, and investigating why you’re in an orphanage when last you knew your parents were definitely alive, well, that’s tricky.

The problem lied mainly in how all this was executed. Not particularly thrilling, for starters. Echo has a couple of culprits in mind, so she and the other kids go to ‘haunt’ them and see if they’re going to wield under pressure, or are actually innocent, but… it wasn’t anything scary or memorable, more like pranks, not like the really creepy kind of haunting you could get when adding children/teenagers to the mix (in general, I find kid ghosts scarier than adult ones). The mystery itself—finding the murdered—wasn’t exciting either, nor were the murderer’s reactions. Perhaps this was partly due to Echo’s power as a ghost: entering living people’s bodies in order to perceive their thoughts. The investigation part, in turn, was more about vaguely picking a maybe-potential culprit, scaring them, popping in their mind, then be gone. Then the story. And then Echo’s past as a ‘bad girl’ was revealed, and it turned out it wasn’t so much bad as introduced without much taste.

Definitely cringeworthy was the drama-addled romance. Echo’s living boyfriend, Andy, is all about moping and wanting to kill himself over her death, and… well, call me hard-hearted and callous, but you’re 16 and that kind of relationship is by far NOT the first one you’re going to experience in life, so pegging everything on it always feels contrived to me. Then there’s cute ghost boy Cole, who’s not about murdering the hypotenuse (thanks goodness), yet was strange, considering Andy is not aware of his presence, and so the triangle is… incomplete? (Its attempts at becoming a square later didn’t help either.) Also contains examples of stupid Twue Wuv/The One/soulmate 4evah/Doormat Extraordinaire. Such as Echo being so happy that her corpse was dressed in her favourite dress at her funeral… Favourite because her boyfriend Andy liked it. I still have no idea if Echo herself liked the pattern or colour or whatever. In any case, these are the kind of tropes I dislike in novels in general, and in YA even more. Why always make it look like couple love is the ultimate end, as if nobody (whether girl or boy) couldn’t have a good life in different ways?

In fact, I was more interested in the orphanage’s headmistress (whose back story plays a part for a chapter or so) and other inmates, all with their own murders to solve. These I would’ve liked to see interact more than just as Echo’s sidekicks. But we don’t get to learn much about them, apart from how they died. Too bad.

Conclusion: Nope

The Girl from Rawblood

The Girl from Rawblood: A Novel - Catriona Ward

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

I did like the narrative weaving back and forth between past and present, shedding more light on characters that came before Iris and Tom, as well as the atmosphere of Rawblood, both stifling and inviting to nostalgia. I had more trouble keeping interested in the story itself, though: the characters weren’t particularly engaging, so I never cared much about them. I never really felt the connection between Iris and Tom, and therefore its role in the ‘immediate and terrifying’ consequences mentioned in the blurb didn’t have much of an impact

The present tense narration tended to throw me out of the story from time to time, which didn’t help; I’m not sure why, I’m not too keen on that tense when it comes to historical fiction (and/or when several narrators are involved, as it’s often difficult to tell who’s telling the story, and it was the case here at times).

The reveal towards the end made sense in a way, yet seemed to me like it fell a little abruptly, and wasn’t completely… justified. Revenge? But why, considering ‘her’ identity, why would she inflict that on the Villarcas? Accident, couldn’t help it? Hm, not really convinced here. Quite a few things were unclear, and not in a way that contributed to a mysterious / gothic atmosphere.

Conclusion: I may have liked it more, if not for the style and the characters.

The Diabolic

The Diabolic - S.J. Kincaid

A lot of good ideas in this book, and I really liked the first part... but it started to go downhill when the Mandatory YA Het Romance plot waltzed in. I felt there were so many other ways the whole 'Diabolic without emotions may actually discover her humanity' could have unfolded, instead of romance (especially the boy/girl kind) being touted as the one means to everything and the main dilemma all at once. Also, NOT bonus points for the one LGBT aspect, considering how it turns out.

Too bad because the Empire in space/religious faith vs. technology revival side of the story, coupled with GoT-like politics, could've been really interesting otherwise.

One of Us Is Lying

One of Us Is Lying - Karen  M. McManus

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

I’m not sure how I feel exactly about this book. I did expect a lot clichés when I started this book (which the blurb makes clear anyway), and clichés there were, but I’m still not sure I liked or not? Sometimes I do want to see how they pan out; sometimes I want something different from the start. Here, I’d say that mostly they don’t really deviate from the usual outcomes (girl falls for the bad boy, girl/boy cheats on partner, etc.), and the plot is a little heavy on high school stereotype drama at times. I suppose I also expected that the four teenagers’ secrets would be ‘darker’ than ‘oh noes I cheated on my partner’, since this seems to be so very common in plots (and here’s a reminder about how everything feels like the fate of the world depends on it, at that age).

On the other hand, even though these things were predictable, and even though I had my suspicions about the murderer halfway throughout the story, I found myself reading fairly fast because I wanted to see if other secrets would pile up on the existing one, if other characters would help shed light on what really happened, or what other clues would appear. Not that many, it turned out, but... it still kept me entertained.

The mystery was... okay-ish? The story focused more on the characters and their lives unravelling than on providing lots of clues or red herrings—entertaining, but not thrilling.

I had trouble with the 1st person narrative: our four suspected murderers take turns to tell the story, but their respective voices sounded too much like each other, so at times I found myself not too sure of who was telling a specific part, and I had to re-read, or use the ‘chapter’s title’ to see who it was about. The style is somewhat juvenile, however it wasn’t jarring (and definitely -less- jarring than that trend of having teenagers speak like 40-year-old chaps!).

Conclusion: Probably a novel that will hold more appeal for younger readers, but not so much if one is already used to such themes/plots and want to go further than stereotypes.

Clock Zero: I'm not my social feed

Clock Zero: I'm not my social feed - Nawar Alsaadi

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

Quite an interesting story, with likeable characters—possibly a like goofy, too, but I was in the mood for that, and also, taking jabs at helpdesks/customer service? Count me in, I’ve been in that kind of jobs that for some time now, and we all need to find our fun somewhere, otherwise we’d just get bonkers.

Anyway. That was for the fun parts, enhanced with the way the narrator swipes at social media, the amount of time we spend checking Facebook and Twitter, and how it’s so easy to get lost in it. Not that I don’t like my little FB time, but I know what it feels like to turn your computer on at the end of the day and realise you’ve spent the past two hours going through clickbait crap when you could’ve been doing something else. (Like reading, and reviewing, and therefore catching up on your backlog of NetGalley books, so that you can then post your reviews on your blog and FB page and... Wait a second.)

There are less fun parts, too, closer to actual terrorism, with a plot meant to destroy cell towers, satellites, etc., through a virus uploaded on everybody’s smartphones. A revolution of sorts, to force people to look up from their phones and enjoy life again. Kind of extreme (I’m trying not to spend too much time on social media, but let’s be honest, if internet and networks in general are gone, I’m out of a job). One will like this idea or not. It’s probably a case of ‘doing the wrong things for the right reasons’. In the light of recent years and the growing amount of terrorist attacks, this commentary is not, well, enjoyable, yet one can also (unfortunately) relate to it while reading about it (my main Tube hub is closed today because of that, now let me tell you that’s one instance I was glad to hang on FB instead of being out socialising!).

Style: the writing is OK, some typos now and then (it was an ARC so hopefullyl those were corrected in the final version), and at first the narrator alluding to hashtags and emojis was a little confusing. Nothing too bad, though.

I’m torn about the twist in the end—can’t decide whether I like it, or would have preferred the story to end one chapter earlier. Still unsure as well if the book was meant to be totally satirical, and if I should get angry at it (I preferred to treat is as satire and fun, because I’m too lazy and it’s too hot outside to waste energy into such feelings).

Conclusion: Maybe not the best read you can find when it comes to taking jabs at social, yet enjoyable nonetheless.

Upside Down

Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling - John Hornor Jacobs, Maurice Broaddus, Rati Mehrotra, Nisi Shawl, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Michelle Muenzler, Michael R. Underwood, Jaym Gates, Monica Valentinelli

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

3.5/4 stars; I liked quite a few of these short stories, none of them made me roll my eyes, and to be fair, the essays at the end of the book were also quite interesting.

My favourites:

* “Single, Singularity”: While it doesn’t really invert the trope it’s based on, I’m a sucker for AI stories, and this one was both thrilling, and chilling in its ending.

* “Seeking Truth”: The ‘blind psychic’ trope, subverted in that here, the blind person is extremely skilled at reading other people, no need for special powers for that.

* “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Paprika Place?”: A mix of Sesame Stree-like TV shows and jaded ex-super soldiers trying to go home. Very nostalgic, perhaps a wee bit long, but a good read nonetheless.

* “Chosen”: A comic twist on ‘the Chosen’, with jabs at tropes like the gun-toting weapons maniac, the Buffy-like teenager fighting demons, and pedantic occultist scholar. This one was really fun.

* “The White Dragon”: A different take on the ‘yellow peril’, in a 1920s San Francisco (also, I liked revisiting that city in such a light, now that I’ve finally been able to actually travel there).

* “Her Curse, How Gently It Comes Undone”: The Witch and the Damsel In Distress, poised against each other, each with their wiles and strengths, and with the story playing on the trope of men rescuing the Damsel... only they’re not the right people to do the job.

* “Burning Bright”: I really liked the main character here, just the right mix of slightly hinged and yet fairly grounded at the same time.

* “Santa CIS (Episode 1: No Saint)”: This story plays well on both the Santa Claus/Christmas and ‘old soldier goes back to war’ tropes.

* “The First Blood of Poppy Dupree”: At first I thought this would be about werewolves, and it turned out it was something else, which I liked.

* “Until There is Only Hunger”: A strong story, with a definite end-of-the-world feeling, dwindling hope mixed with growing despair, and characters trying to find whatever comfort they can, although this rings more and more hollow. Bonus point for characters not being typical cis/hetero/white.

* “Drafty as a Chain Mail Bikini”: I suspected where this one was going, but I liked it, and it made me laugh.

* “The Tangled Web”: Love at first sight and romance woes... but not among humans, which lent a different dimension to this story.

The essays: definitely read those. They deal with the Hero’s Journey, its limitations, the Heroine’s Journey, its limitations as well, and push further, when it comes to trans and gay/lesbian heroes, which is really needed. Because let’s be honest: it’s already difficult to find a good story where a woman is not reduced to accomplishment = family/motherhood/taking care of others, but it’s even worse when you’re non-binary.

The Breedling and the City in the Garden

The Breedling and the City in the Garden (The Element Odysseys) - Kimberlee Ann Bastian

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

I thought I’d like this novel more. It has an interesting and probably complex mythos, juxtaposing our world and another, Elemental-like creator powers, a Fates triad, soulcatchers, the Devil, and quite a few more—something I wouldn’t have minded dive in more. However, the way information was revealed was strange: both an info-dump and confusing, which is an unfortunate mix. I don’t doubt that, had it been presented differently, I would’ve warmed up to it.

I don’t mind a book starting in medias res, but here I felt I was thrown into a story without having enough background elements to fully grasp who the characters were, what their roles were, and why they were important. Stingy Jack, the Tales Teller, the Apothecary... After a while, it started to make sense, yet too late into the story for me to have been allowed to care about them, and too little (for instance, the relationship between Buck/Bartholomew and the Shepherdess is only made clearer right at the end; had it been manifest sooner, I may have cared about the Breedling a bit more, I suppose).

Also, some of the decisions the characters made were odd, or at least presented in a way that that made them look like they came out of nowhere, or without subtlety. I was particularly unsure about Charlie’s ‘plan’ involving the speakeasy—it made sense in one way, but not considering the kind of people would go there, as if he couldn’t have thought about that (hint: precisely the kind of people Charlie didn’t want to see near Buck).

The style was the other element that really bothered me. Omniscient point of view isn’t my favourite, so when it comes with a prose I don’t enjoy, I don’t do well with it. Dialogues were often stilted, with characters telling about their past as if they were reading from a book (I never expected Charlie to speak the way he did), and a lot of telling instead of showing. Since there were a lot of heated feelings in the story (grief, tension between gangs, wariness, simmering violence, threats...), this ‘telling’ was all the more obvious.

Nevertheless, there were good parts in the novel. Charlie especially was a relatable character: not perfect for sure, torn between his desire to follow his mother’s wishes (by helping those younger than him) and his wish to be free to live a life of his own—and yet, his natural tendencies always carry him towards taking care of others. He had to go through a lot, dealing with his grief while trying to follow his sense of duty, and no matter what, I definitely cannot fault a person for accepting their responsibilities.

I don’t think I’ll pick the second book though. It’s more a 1.5/2-star read for me.

The Nightly Disease

The Nightly Disease - Max Booth III

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

This one’s a bit of an oddball: the story of Isaac, night auditor in a hotel in Texas, spending his days sleeping and his nights in the drudgery of his job full of annoying customers, endless requests and weird happenings. And ‘weirder and weirder’ is how his nights become throughout the stories, from the moment he meets his new colleague Mandy who wants to pet an owl, and gets involved with Kia the bulimic homeless girl. Follows a gallery of shady characters, odd encounters, bodies piling up, and owls. (Yes, owls. The little creeps.)

I can’t tell whether I enjoyed this novel or not. It’s very bizarre, and Isaac’s descent into this half-believable, half-what-the-hell crazy world, was a mix of enjoyable and uncomfortable. (I it’s not the gory side that created that feeling for me, but the bulimic girl—to be fair, that’s probably because I myself have a history of eating disorders.)

On the other hand, the depiction of hotel jobs was quite funny, and the various circumstances Isaac had to fend through, from clogged toilets to murdered customers, even though somewhat unbelievable, had just enough of a touch of ‘based on something real’ for the surreal parts to flow in a... logical way, should I say? In that sort of inner logic pertaining the book.

Conclusion: 3 stars. Interesting and funny enough for me to probably try another novel by this author at some point.

Waking Hell

Waking Hell - Al Robertson

[I received a copy from the publisher through NetGalley.]

Sequel to 'Crashing Heaven', a novel I read a couple of years ago, and quite liked. The world is roughly the same—Station, floating in space—but the protagonists are different, and the situation has changed: one of the gods was forcibly removed, and the fetches (dead people reconstructed from their memories) now have existences of their own, even though their community went through a plague that almost destroyed them along the way.

The characters: as mentioned above, no Hugo Fist or Jack Forster here, although they're briefly mentioned. This time, the story mainly follows Leila, a fetch who's trying to save her genius brother Dieter, and Cassiel, a Totality mind who's investigating said brother's death. It starts with Dieter falling prey to an old tech artifact, and dying from it; however, contrary to what Leila thinks at first, he cannot be brought back as a fetch, due to a fishy contract he signed at the last moment with a couple of shady characters called 'pressure men'. Finding herself the unwilling beneficiary of this contract that left her a rich heiress, Leila uses her newly acquired money—and the door it opens—to try and find out what really happened to Dieter, and bring him back at all costs, the way himself helped her build herself back up after the fetch plague almost deconstructed her for good.

Even though I admit I didn't like Leila much at first (too whiny and self-centered), and would have hoped to see Jack and Hugo again, soon enough the new characters grew up on me. On the one hand, Leila tends to keep focused on Dieter and not on the bigger picture, but this bit on the selfish side makes her, in a way, very human. On the other hand, she puts herself on the front line as well: you definitely can't call her a coward, all the more as the enemy could very well wipe her out of existence. As for Cassiel, she brings a lot of information about the AIs, the way they live, and how close they are to humans even if the latter don't always notice it.

(Interestingly, as a fetch, Leila is just as much dependent on hardware and on the local equivalent of the online world to exist and manifest herself. The world of Station definitely keeps blurring the lines and questioning what makes us human, especially once you throw the gods into the mix: the Rose who isn't so infallible, East who's obsessed with the media and her reality shows...)

There are a lot of epic virtual reality/online world/hidden servers moments. Because both Leila and Cassiel are reconstructed or artificial AIs, they're both powerful and frail. Without a physical body, and armed with a weapon Dieter had once designed for her only, Leila has means of her own to fight and resist; and Cassiel was designed as a weapon herself, with a nanogel body making her suited for both physical and digital combat; and yet, because they're software-based, they're vulnerable to viruses and similar attacks... which makes the pressure men and their ability to edit data (including memories) all the more dangerous to them. Memory is clearly one of the stakes in the novel, because there comes a point when neither characters nor readers can really tell whether their memories are true or were manipulated.

A few discrepancies in terms of style (I had noticed that in the first book already: sometimes the prose switches to short sentences that jar a little with the rest), but not enough to really be a problem. All instances of 'brought' were also printed as 'bought', but since I got a preprint copy, this was hopefully corrected in the final version.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. I found the ending a little rushed, with some loose ends not so properly tied, and there were a couple of moments when I had to push through for a few pages (for some reason I can't exactly pinpoint). Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed diving into Station and its particular blend of bleak cyberpunk and transhumanism. Should there be a third book, I wouldn't mind reading it either.

The Apothecary's Curse

The Apothecary's Curse - Barbara  Barnett

(I got a copy through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.)

The story of "The Apothecary's Curse" intertwines different plots, mostly mid-19th century London, a short early 20th century stint, and 2016 Chicago. All feature Gaelan and Simon, two men who became accidentally immortal through ingesting an alchemical compound, and struggle to lead a life of their own. Condemned for a crime he didn't commit, Gaelan was tortured for years by a mad doctor, before fleeing abroad, while Simon pines for his dead wife, unable to join her in death. As the decades pass, they find themselves remaining that strange brand of friends who can't stand to be in each other's presence for too long, yet always gravitate back towards each other. Until a strange book and a geneticist fall into the mix, and both men realise they may be about to know worse than one single mad doctor in a now closed asylum.

All these plots aren't only concerned with alchemy and immortality, but also with love: love for a woman, love of friendship, love of knowledge (even though gained in twisted ways), love of family, love of life itself... because when all's said and done, Gaelan still doesn't want to die, still finds wonders in the way science has been progressing.

In general, I found the main characters compelling, especially Gaelan, who never really loses hope in humanity in spite what he's been through. I found the contrast fairly interesting: Gaelan, who tried to help and was tortured and killed for it, called a criminal and a madman, forced to flee, but kept enjoying life, becoming a dealer in old books and antiques, nevergiving up in spite of his struggles with PTSD; and Simon, who seems to have everything (respect, fame and money as a doctor, then as a famous author), but cannot find peace, haunted by the memory of his departed wife—his story was tragic, though I admit I tended to side with Gaelan much more because, well, who can fault the guy who tries to live instead of wallowing in despair for a whole century, eh? As for Eleanor and Anne, they had their own struggles to go through, their own decisions to make, trying to fight evil as they could, even if it sometiles meant resorting to another kind of evil.

If anything, I was a little disappointed in the 2016 part. The 1842 and early 1900s one felt more vivid, better developed, whereas the modern era plotline, while interesting, was also a bit lackluster. Perhaps because I kept thinking there wasn't enough danger in it, considering what was at stake and the 'evil genetics/pharmacy company' that sooner or later would be after Gaelan. I guess I expected more development here, more of a feeling of urgency, especially towards the end.

Conclusion: Still a solid 3.5 stars. I enjoyed this novel.

Cyber World: Tales of Humanity's Tomorrow

Cyber World: Tales of Humanity's Tomorrow - Paolo Bacigalupi, Stephen Graham Jones, Alyssa Wong, Saladin Ahmed, Cat Rambo, Nisi Shawl, E. Lily Yu, Madeline Ashby, Joshua Viola, Jason Heller

[I received an e-copy of this book through NetGalley.]

A collection of short stories with virtual reality, AI and technology themes in general. Despite the 'cyberpunk' flair, I agree with the curators: it's not so much cyberpunk in its original meaning, as dealing with various ideas that fit our current societies more than the 'old cyberpunk' feeling.

* "Serenade:" 3/5

A hacker decrypting data on an old USB sticks realises that said data is not about future useful information, but memories.

* "The Mighty Phin:" 3/5

In a prison ship controlled by an AI, not everything is as it looks, and truth may be more difficult to stomach than the characters think at first. Bit of an abrupt ending, though, when I think about how it could've been more developed.

* "Reactions:" 3/5

What a drone pilot pumped up on battle drugs goes through when the operation he's on is suddenly cancelled... but not what's still lingering in his organism. I found it interesting, although, like the story before it, I'd have liked some more development (especially regarding the soldier's decision to break his family).

* "The Bees of Kiribati:" 5/5

Chilling because even though this doesn't exist (yet), the principles behind the murders in this story could very well be applied in other ways. It also raises the old but still accurate ethical question: would you kill a few people, even babies, if it meant being able to save many more?

* "The Rest Between Two Notes:" 2/3

Promising theme (a teenager killing her mother repeatedly in virtual reality), but I found the plot too muddled in places. The resolution brought at the end wasn't too clear--I wouldn't mind in a novel, but in short stories it's another matter.

* "The Singularity is In Your Hair:" 5/5

Touching and horrible. A girl suffering from a degenerative disease, who can only experience living through virtual reality, performs jobs and meets people thanks to an AI who may or may not be so benevolent. The promise of one day being fully uploaded to virtual space, and leaving the meat behind instead of facing the prospect of her impending death, keep her going. And she desperately hopes this will come true sooner than later.

* "Panic City:" 5/5

In an underground city that is both a refuge and a prison, people have been living for generations following models and using technology that are gradually failing. When something threatens to break an opening into this 'homeostatic' environment, the AI controlling the city has to make a decision: is their original programming really ideal in this case?

* "The Faithful Soldier, Prompted:" 4/5

A veteran from corporate wars receives prompts on his augmented reality system, even though the war is over. While such defective prompts are known to be useless, and should be discarded, these seem different... and so he follows them, desperate in his hopes that the rewards will save the woman he loves. I liked the writing here--even the prompts sounded poetic.

* "Your Bones Will Not Be Unknown:" 4/5

An assassin is sent to kill a rival boss, knowing full well there are little chances of success here. But what the boss has in mind for them is not necessarily death, and could even actually be a gift.

* "Staunch:" 2/5

A group of kids-hackers-rebels, led by a doctor who used to be part of a legendary team, travel through what's left of the UK to save the life of one of their own. Though the plot itself was a bit weak, I liked the technological problems used in it (replacement organs shutting down if the firmware's outdated or the copyright has changed hands, etc.)—definitely freaky.

* "Other People's Thoughts:" 2/5

About empathy, telepathic powers and gender fluidity. Good themes, and I would've loved actually liking the story, but it was more descriptive than actual plot, and I found it too weak to hold my interest.

* "WISYOMG:" 1/5

Almost skipped that one. The style and character weren't appealing, and I'm still not sure what was the idea. Warning people against body mods and fads? It was hard to follow, so I'm really not sure.

* "We Will Take Care of Our Own:" 2/5

Of corrupt politicians and corporations trying to make money by officially solving problems, and officiously sweeping them under the carpet. Again, good theme, especially since the politician has a skeleton of her own in the closet, but in terms of plot and development, it wasn't strong nor long enough.

* "A Song Transmuted:" 3/5

A young musician comes up with a new concept to be music, rather than simply playing it—spurred by her relationship with her grandfather, his way of encouraging her to meet other people and play music with her, and this in spite of a dishonest colleague stealing her idea. Good, though not groundbreaking.

* "It's Only Words:" 2/5

A sort of neo-Luddite theme, of a boy writing his school project on paper when everybody else is constantly connected to the web and not doing anything in an "analogue" way anymore. I'm not sure where this story was going, though: I felt that something was missing, that the point wasn't strongly made enough at the end, because nothing really changes, and the people targetted may not even have understood what was happening?

* "Small Offerings:" 5/5

Horrific but fascinating. A story about the means that may be necessary, in a future and over-polluted world, for people to carry healthy children to term, by sacrificing others.

* "Darkout:" 2/5

Good build-up to something bigger, in a society where everybody's living under the camera's eye... but the end just fell flat, and nothing really happened.

* "Visible Damage:" 3/5

A hacker goes on the trail of a nascent AI, in the hopes of finding it before everyone else obliterates it. Interesting, but a bit confusing.

* "The Ibex on the Day of Extinction:" 4/5

A man far from his family comes home to find everybody and everything gone—no GPS, no radio, no internet, and only empty clothes left behind.
I kind of suspected what had happened early on. Still, I liked this story. Sometimes all I need is for the conclusion to vindicate what I'm already thinking.

* "How Nothing Happens:" 1/5

Kind of what it says on the tin? I get the basic idea, but the way it was developed didn't grab my attention.

Wraithborn

Wraithborn - Marcia Chen, Joe Benitez

[I received an e-copy of this comics through NetGalley.]

This first volume collects issues 1 to 6 of the 'Redux edition. Most of the book is actually a flashback (explaing what led to the events of the first pages), but reads as a full story nonetheless. It introduces us to the main characters of 'Wraithborn', starting with Melanie, a normal and shy teenager who only wants to go through high school life relatively unscathed and unbullied, and thus does her best to remain invisible and not attracted unwanted attention. Only that's what she does when she accidentally receives the power of the Wraithborn, intended for another, and finds herself pursued by an antagonist who wants nothing more than this power for herself.

I found the art in general fairly good, with dynamic action scenes and vibrant colours, although (as often in such cases) the women's clothing is nothing too practical, and Melanie's features seemed maybe too... mature? Including when she's still a clueless teenager. So at first I thought she was more like 25 instead of 15, which felt a bit weird.

Some characters were likeable, like Zoe, with her weird fashion sense and the way she helps Melanie. Mel herself was more subdued, so it took me more time to warm up to her. Val... well, I still kind of wonder if he's going to tell Mel the truth, or if he'll do the not-so-nice thing. Could go either way. He didn't act like the vindicative, jealous type he could've been, all circumstances considered, so bonus point.

The story itself was interesting enough, albeit not too original compared to other works with similar themes. The villains are ruthless, the heroes may or may not be set up for betrayal later by those they trust most, and there's the lingering mystery of why the original 'carrier' of the Wraithborn was outside, instead of preparing for the ceremony (and therefore had to give his power to the first passer-by who happened to be around): either there's something fishy here or it was a plot hole, and I really hope it's the former... but, of course, this is the kind of information that is likely to be revealed only later.

Conclusion: I may pick the next volume in ebook, but probably not in paper version.

Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation - Ken Liu

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

An interesting collection of science-fiction stories by Chinese authors—I didn't like all of them, but none was particularly bad either, and the themes and places they dealt with offered different perspectives on what I'm used to see throug a more "westernised" prism. I found both similarities and differences gathered here, making those stories familiar in parts, and a journey in unknown territories in others.

"The Year of the Rat": 3/5
Quite creepy in its theme (students without much of a job prospect are enlisted to fight mutant rats whose intelligence and abilities may be more than meet the eye), and in its conclusion, although I would've appreciated a bit more insight in the exact reasons why the whole situation turned like that.

"The Fish of Lijiang": 3/5
By the same author, and another take on a society where freedom is only an illusion, where everybody and everything is at their designed place.

"The Flower of Shazui:" 2/5
An ex-engineer who fled his designated area tries to help a prostitute whose desires aren't necessarily in check with her partner's. Still interesting, but less exciting?

"A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight": 4/5
The author later mentioned a few inspirations for this story, and I agree, for I could feel them (especially the Miyazaki-like tones of a district/street full of "ghosts", souls in robot bodies gradually getting discarded). I really liked the atmosphere in this one, and the sad ending was pretty fitting.

"Tongtong's Summer": 4/5
I read this one in another anthology already, but I liked it the second time round as well. Caretakers operate robots remotely in order to help elder people, and their increased role in society gives birth to other issues, but also to great hopes for a generation that, all in all, has still a lot to bring to the world. The characters were also attaching.

"Night Journey of the Dragon Horse": 2/5
A mechanical dragon and a bat go on a journey to bring back light to a dead world. Beautiful, but unfortunately a little boring.

"The City of Silence": 5/5
In a world become one State, what happens when so many words are forbidden that communicating becomes impossible?
Very chilling, because the way this State evolved is, in fact, extremely logical and cunning.

"Invisible Planets": 3/5
Glimpses into little worlds. I wouldn't mind seeing some of them explored more in depth... and at the same time, I feel they wouldn't have the same impact anymore if this was done? Very strange.

"Folding Beijing": 2/5
A city living in three different spaces, each alloted its own time of the day, and with inhabitants forbidden to cross from one space to the other. Which the main character wants to do, of course. Also interesting, however I felt the ending didn't have much of an impact on me. I kept expecting something more... dramatic?

"Call Girl": 3/5
The call girl's wares are fairly interesting here. I would've liked some more background about them, how she came to be able to provide such services.

"Grave of the Fireflies": 2/5
Loved the atmosphere, this rush through the stars to escape a dying universe, guided by the last queen of mankind... However the story itself felt too short and rushed.

"The Circle": 4/5
I could see where this one was going from the moment the gates were introduced, and I wasn't disappointed. I definitely liked how it was all brought.

"Taking care of God": 4/5
Depressing in a way, but dealing with a theme that I'd deem definitely different from my own 'western' vision, with taking care of one's parents and elders being part of culture in a way it isn't in my own corner of the world.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

The Emperor in Shadow

Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow - Richard Parks

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

First, please note this is not a standalone novel, contrary to what I thought when I requested it, but part of a series (and very likely the last volume). However, I didn't find it difficult to follow the story and understand the characters: when the narrator alludes to events of the past or people he had previously met, he always adds a couple of sentences, nothing too long, just enough for a reader to understand the context. So this was good with me.

The setting here is that of feudal Japan (the Emperor and his court, bushi, military governors, geisha and courtesans) with a dash of supernatural: ghosts and youkai are common knowledge, and onmyôji and priestesses have actual power. In this world, Yamada and his faithful friend Kenji are confronted to attempted murder and political intrigue, from the Ise temple to the capital and the Emperor's court; I found the mystery decent enough, not too complicated (my guesses about a few things turned out to be right) yet not too easy either for the characters to understand, without convenient deus ex machina bringing the answers (Yamada deducted those).

It took me a couple of weeks to read, but it definitely wasn't boring (that was much more a matter of having lots of things to do and needing to prioritise other books in the meantime). The events made sense, the characters were likeable, and even though it's not my favourite novel ever, it was entertaining and believable.

On the downside, there were instances of Yamada 'hiding' things from the reader, which I don't particularly appreciate in mystery novels, and the female characters, while attaching, didn't have much to do apart from conveniently be here when a specific piece of information was needed, or wait in their palace for the men to do all the work. Granted, the setting itself doesn't lend itself to a lot of female freedom (aristocratic constraints, expectations placed on princesses, and so on), but it didn't help.

Conclusion: Still enjoyable in spite of these flaws.

Look Who's Back

Look Who's Back - Timur Vermes

Provocative satire, that is definitely not "pro-Hitler", but also raises quite a few interesting points when our modern societies are concerned. Mainly, the power of the media; the way one can use it to ends that aren't the ones the audience thinks; and how it can be easy enough for a person with heinous ideas to abuse people who are mostly nice into paving the way for a monster. And let's be honest, considering some current events, this satiric novel is also very, very frightening when you think about it.

Big Mushy Happy Lump

Big Mushy Happy Lump: A Sarah's Scribbles Collection - Sarah Andersen

(I received a copy of this book through NetGalley).

A little disappointing, compared to the first book, which I really liked. Although it was still spot on in many ways, it didn't feel as funny—perhaps because of the choice of panels this time, or perhaps because some of those were already present in volume 1, so I admit I didn't really see the point in including them again here. I was also expecting more 'summer-related' panels, owing to the blurb. Maybe the blurb was ill-chosen?

As mentioned above, it's still pretty accurate regarding many aspects of life (cats! And cats on Instagram!). But it's much too repetitive.

Conclusion: Only buy it if you never checked the author's website and haven't read book 1.