Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

Delta-v

Delta-v - Daniel Suarez

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

Quite an interesting novel, with parts that definitely made me want to keep reading in spite of my better judgment (read: “maybe it’s time to sleep it’s past midnight and I’m supposed to get up at 5:30 to go to work oh my”). Considering the stakes and the setting, obviously things couldn’t go perfectly, and the characters were bound to run into all sorts of trouble. Although there could have been more trouble than there was, but then, they’d have ended up all dead, because you can’t very well weather ten asteroid showers and the likes without any damage (not a spoiler, I’m just using some generic example here). So all in all, the ratio of suspense vs. things that work vs. things that turn to crap more quickly than you can blink was fairly good.

I also really enjoyed the science and the research behind the space technology presented throughout the novel. I wasn’t always on board (see what I did there) with absolutely everything in terms of medical impact on the astronauts’ bodies—but then, considering what our current astronauts already have to go through just after 6 months on the ISS, going for 100% accuracy may just have led, here too, to a bunch of very dead characters, very quickly. I guess we can use some suspension of disbelief on the grounds of “it’s 2030-ish and the consequences are better known, so they’re better prepared, too”. So, in general, I pretty much liked reading the explanations, how the ship was meant to function.

The geopolitical side was interesting, too. It is clearly grounded in our present, where corporations invest in space travel and research, and some of the investors/CEOs we meet in the story are definitely parallel descendants of people like Musk and Bezos—although in that regard, Nathan Joyce is probably closer to those, in terms of investing and betting everything on a very daring scheme.

The reason I’m not rating “Delta-v” higher is because, like other books of the same type, I found it too ambitious for just one volume. There are two very distinct parts in it: the training and the actual mission, and I kept feeling that each would have warranted a novel of its own. Because of length constraints (I suppose), the author had to go with storytelling shortcuts, which made for a choppy rhythm all along. For instance, one chapter shows what’s happening on the first day of training, and then two chapters later we’re at “a few weeks later”, and so on.

My other problem likely resulted from this “shortening an ambitious story into one book”: I found the characters too one-dimensional, and at the end, I didn’t get to know them well enough to really, fully care about them. Tighe is probably the one we know most about, but not so much the others (we get glimpses about Dave, Isabel and Han, but Nicole, Amy and Adisa remained rather a trio of unknowns, apart from a couple of defining feature such as “he’s a genius with computers and hacking” and “she needs to escape Earth because she can hear the movement of tectonics and it drives her bonkers”). And let’s be honest, in a story like this one, we need to care about the characters; we need to be much more invested about them.

Conclusion: 2.5 to 3 stars. Enjoyable and exciting technology, but too ambitious for just one book.

Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle

Burnout - Emily Nagoski, Amelia Nagoski

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

Not exactly an eye-opener, since I was already considering a lot of the stressors and consequences it lists as, well, logical—but in that regard, it was also good to see that “ah, so it’s not just me seeing weird things where there isn’t anything.” The concepts of Human Giver vs. Human Being especially make a lot of sense when you think about how society tends to view, and divide, and force a lot of things on women. (Not that men don’t have stressors and burnout either, but the book is labelled as being about women, not as a more generic book about burnout; and I doubt that being seen as “human givers” is the main cause for men anyway.)

“Human giver” has to be understood here as a person whose existence is seen as being devoted to others, and only others—and if they dare listen to themselves and take care of themselves for a change, shame on them, how dare they! I’m sure that if we take the time to think about it, a lot of us will have to acknowledge that it’s true (and is not only limited to obvious forms of giving such as volunteering etc.). I can clearly sense the discrepancy myself when I mention that I don’t want children and don’t want to devote my life to them, for instance: at some point I can cross out the “you’re so / what’s wrong with you” cases on my personal bingo, whereas the guy next to me who doesn’t want kids either gets a milder reaction. Or all the usual crap about getting your bikini body (‘tis the season right now, huh), about being pretty, about changing your body: the media don’t tell this to women because people are genuinely concerned about their health, but because that’s how women are supposed to present, and if they don’t—shame on them. I wouldn’t necessarily have linked this to Human Giver Syndrome, not just in passing, but in hindsight, it stems from the same source.

(And no, the solution isn’t for us to all become selfish monsters, but for a redistribution of the giving, i.e. women are human beings too, not only givers; and men are just as able to give as well. So if everyone gives a little here and there, it balances out. Makes sense.)

Again, nothing exactly new for m; however, seeing it in writing, seeing words put on my thoughts, allowing me to formulate them better, is something that I think can help in general. When we can word a feeling (or anything, in general), my take is that the “thing” becomes more tangible, more like something we can act upon. In that regard, I believe this book can definitely be of help.

The book is well-researched, as far as I can tell, with suggestions, self-help exercises and other ideas outlined. While they may not all be convenient, or applicable, or ground-breaking (exercise is good for you = who doesn’t know that by now?), what was most useful to me was the reasoning behind it, because once I understand the causes-and-consequences chain, then it makes sense and I can more easily devise my own techniques. For instance, now I can specifically explain why I’m always more productive, sleep better, and generally feel better when I walk back home from work (a 40 minutes brisk walk), even when the day was physically tiring and I would expect additional physical activity to tire me even more: this was/is all part of my own unconscious attempts at “closing the stress cycle”. Now the whole thing makes so much more sense.

(Basically, dealing with the stress and dealing with the stressors are two different things. The symptoms of stress—adrenaline, etc.—are hard-wired in us as old, old reactions, back when “stressor” was likely to be some wild animal threatening us—and so, we’d need to run. And once back to safety, after the run, that was “completing the stress cycle”, with our bodies being able to come down from the whole thing, and we’d be fine again. But you can’t do that anymore in a lot of situations now: if the stressor is your jerk of a boss belittling you at work, you can’t very well run away or smack them… so the cycle isn’t completed, and the stress, well, just stays.)

Now, to be honest, I didn’t always agree with the writing (the blog-like tone would work in a review or an article, but not in a book, I think) or about some of the quotes (Cassandra Clare… really?). Sometimes it threw me out of my reading. I would also have liked a little more science in it, or rather, a somewhat more scientific writing—so that ties more with the aforementioned tone in general for me, and not with the research itself.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. A lot of things I already knew/suspected. Some things I didn’t and that now make more sense. Some things we’re still a long way of getting out of our lives (Human Giver Syndrome), but once you get how it works, at least you can start. Also, beware: “Jane Eyre” spoiler in Part III.

Hacking Darwin

Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity - Jamie Frederic Metzl

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

This book is not heavy on the actual science details—if you’re looking for those, you’ll be better to get another book, but if you don’t know that much about genetics, then there won’t be anything in there impossible to follow. It focuses instead on the various advances in genetics in terms of “what do they do”, “what do they entail”, “what could the results be”, and “how should be approach those?” (You can tell that the author has also written novels, because there’s a definitive storytelling thread throughout some of the chapters, especially when he deals with IVF and the potential of modifying embryos to make their future selves healthier. This makes the reading all the more accessible and enjoyable.)

You can also tell that Jamie Metzl is probably more on the side of advocating gene-related manipulations than on the side of those who want them banned, but in a cautious way: it’s not all enthusiasm and sparks and giggles, and for every “good point” he lists, he also takes care to consider the negative sides (or potentially negative sides, since there are still many approaches that haven’t been tested, so we just have no idea how people would react when given the choice). And it is true that while the transhumanist in me is excited at so many prospects, the cynic is me is also convinced that, like we so many other things, humanity in general will bork its way through this and pervert it. But let’s keep hope, shall we?

“Hacking Darwin” considers the therapeutic potential of genetic intervention. Through current techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, we are already able to cut material that leading to genetic diseases, although this hasn’t been approved so far on human embryos destined to be implanted, because the results are good, but more on a “60% good” scale than on a “95% good” one. Which leads to understandable caution about all this, and with reason. There is something frightening and sublime (in the philosophical and literary meanings of the word) to all these developing technologies, because when we contemplate them, we are put face to face with how we are, all in all, code; and code can be hacked, and modified, and this could be for the best or for the worst.

The best: if we had a chance of preventing babies with genes condemning them to Alzheimer’s or to Huntington’s disease, for instance, shouldn’t we take it and thus prevent future suffering? If we can make crops that yield more nutrients (Golden Rice comes to mind, and is actually even mentioned), shouldn’t we do it, so that people dying of malnutrition illnesses can get a chance at life? And if we could give our future children better health and strength in general, better chances in their future lifes through specific abilities, wouldn’t we want to do that? But the worst, too: who’s to tell that this won’t spiral downward (eugenics and the earluy 20th century come to mind), lead to less diversity (not a good thing), to people all wanting the same kind of child—or, perhaps more alarmingly, to a growing chasm between those who can afford to enhance tyheir future babies, and those who can, thus leading to a class of “superhumans” trampling “subhumans”?

The book considers these aspects, and other ones as well, including the major religion’s take on it (you’d be surprised at some of them) and approaches and pitfalls that humanity as a whole must consider here. It doesn’t hold all the answers, far from it. But it gives you a lot of food for thought. And even though it is perhaps too optimistic (again, seeing the world as it is today, I just don’t trust us in general to avoid creating worst societies based on even more inequalities, this time from before the womb), it does remain a very interesting start for more discussions about genetic engineering.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes

The Department of Sensitive Crimes (Detective Varg #1) - Alexander McCall Smith

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

I thought this would be the introduction to a series with investigations a little on the strange side, and quirky characters. The cases indeed had a bit of oddity (a man knifed at the back of the knee, a boyfriend who may or may not exist…), but I didn’t enjoy the characters and their interactions much.

I think the breaking point for me (well, not really a point, since it kept going on throughout the whole novel…) was the way their thoughts and conversations were meandering. In a way, they surely did mirror how our thoughts in general go from A to E through convoluted paths and associations of ideas; the problem is that this doesn’t translate very well into written form, unless perhaps you’re called James Joyce, and even then, I wouldn’t bet on it systematically. As a result, the characters took their sweet time getting to the fact, and to be honest, I found that their reflections about their own lives intruded all in the wrong places, such as between two paragraphs pertaining the investigation. The amount of useless dialogue lines kept breaking the flow of the story, and didn’t endear me to said characters.

Another problem was the nature of some of those conversations, taking gratuitous jabs at people: reflections about the size of a policewoman’s buttocks (such a professional conversation, that), or calling a secondary character a midget, or being not even vaguely sexist—even coming from the female investigator, Anna, when she addresses the matter of the young woman in the second “crime”, and declares “Hormones come into it” (to which Varg agrees with a heartfelt “Don’t they always?”). I mean… No? Just no? Was this really necessary? What was it meant to achieve?

All in all, I was disappointed here. I was expecting a sort of quirky, adorkable atmosphere, but it felt at best bland, and at worst somewhat rancid.

Invisible Women

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men  - Caroline Criado-PĂ©rez

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

Wow, did this book hurt. And made me angry. In a good way, that is—not feeling angry at some, at least, of what it deals with, would have probably been abnormal. For two main reasons: 1) it points at things one doesn’t necessarily thinks about when reflecting at first upon all the ways women still get the short straw, and 2) once you consider these things, you realise you’re not even surprised, and -that- is proof that all of this stuff is… just sad. It’s the 21st century, and half of humanity is still forced to deal with rubbish.

Here’s a very simple illustration of one of the problems the author points. It’s very simple, and minor, and I bet a lot of people (possibly mostly men, but surely also some women) would tell me to ignore it and “suck it up” and “it’s not important, so stop dwelling on it.’ But it is a good example. I work in a fairly good company when it comes to treating people equally. It’s not perfect, of course, but let’s just say that for a Silicon Valley company, they actually openly try to recruit more diverse people than just 25-ish white male nerds, which in itself deserves to be pointed. And it gives its new hires little welcome gifts. So when I joined, among the gifts, was a pair of socks. They’re pretty, I like their colour, and I’d love to wear them. There’s just a problem that no one obviously though about: they’re not “one size fits all”, they’re “one size fits all MEN”. Which means they’ve been gathering dust at the bottom of my wardrobe, since wearing socks whose heels ride above your ankles is really incomfortable. And there you have it: the way the default “human being” is actually “male”, with female bodies being sort of a side show that those poor men have to accommodate (/le sigh).

(In defence of my employer, they do give us female version of T-shirts, too, so it’s not completely hopeless either. And no, my point is not to rant about socks. If someone hasn’t gotten my point by now, they should probably read this book because they’d make a good target for it.)

It is both enlightening and infuriating to read about this for 300+ pages, about all the circumstances in which women are still, more or less unconsciously, treated as the less important part of humanity, the part that can “suck it up” and “deal with it: look, we men deal with it”, except that it’s much easier for men to deal with it since the “it” was made for them at first. An example from the book: tsunami shelters in countries where there’s a solid separation between the female sphere and the male sphere, where women can’t go out unless they’re with men from their family, because if they do, they’re pretty much free buffet for all. So, when a tsunami hits, and the shelters are designed as huge places where hundreds of people have to cram, without any separation between the sexes, guess what happens? Well, women die, because they don’t dare to go in there (if they do, they almost surely end up shamed and beaten and raped); and that’s IF they get to the shelters in the first place, since a man from their family needs to warn them and take them there first. (It is also telling that in such dire circumstances, like these ones, or refugeed camps, the worst for women is often not even the wars or natural catastrophes that led them there, but male violence.)

And the worst of it, the saddest part, is that most of the time, it’s not even done on purpose: it happens because most people who plan these places, most people who decide about infrastructures, are still men, and the mere idea that not all people (read: 50% of the people) don’t have exactly the same needs as theirs doesn’t even cross their minds. How pathetic is that?

Conclusion: Read this book. Read about all these pathetic things, that you can’t dismiss as “oh well it’s not true, surely this (female, of course) author is exaggerating”, except that she’s not, nope, you can indeed see all this around you, every day, if you pay attention. I don’t even need to check sources to realise this. If it’s around me in 2019 Britain, I can’t dismiss it as “but it only happens in ‘certain countries’, luv”.

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side  - Julia Shaw

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

Interesting in its own ways, and raising a lot of prompts to question oneself about how we define ‘evil’, if such definitions are actually applicable, what would make us think a person is evil, or whether we are all capable of evil (and if we are, then what prevents us from tipping that way). Most examples given I already knew (Hitler—obviously, or the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments), but it didn’t make the questions less valid, of course. Like many things, the ‘evil’ label can be applied in haste, as a shortcut, and there are times when I believe it is indeed valid, and others when evil has nothing to do with it. Times when we tend to use the label to mean something that is too different from our own experience for us to want to acknowledge it and not treat it as ‘other’.

And it is definitely a tricky subject. It is not so easy to calmly consider, say, the case of paedophilia, and try to see people experiencing these urges as people who need help rather than just as ‘evil people who should be castrated’ (note that I wrote ‘experiencing urges’, which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘acting on them’). Are those people ‘evil’? Are they more victims of something they can’t control? And what would be more productive: just labelling them, or trying to find solutions to help before something bad happens? Probably your mileage may vary here, but I get the point, and I agree with it, that pointing the finger is seldom a solution in itself—and that saying ‘it’s evil’ is basically useless anyway if all we do is say it instead of acting. Which raises other questions, obviously: what does ‘acting’ mean here? Does it mean punishing, killing (and committing a harmful act as well)? Does it mean helping?

Regarding this kind of reflections leading to more reflections, the book is clearly interesting, and tends to push boundaries and make one feel uncomfortable: none of us want to realise ‘hey, wait, but I also have such thoughts at times’, or think ‘if I don’t call a murderer evil, then people will judge me as bad and reject me’. There’s a lot of philosophical aspects to go with here, and opportunities for good discussions.

This said, I found the ‘science’ side more lacking. While many examples presented in it do rest on actual experiments and reports, and some clinical reasons are given for certain behaviours (such as studies trying to pinpoint if specific areas of the brain are involved in psychopathic behaviours, etc.), for me, it didn’t go far enough in the scientific department (such as neurology), which is why I liked the book in general, but didn’t love it. The author also adds her own opinions, and does say they are opinions (= not trying to pass them as facts), and to be fair, I do agree with them (I never once considered that mental disorders were ‘evil’…); still, that is not what I expected here.

To conclude, this one is a good read for delving into more philosophical approaches, confronting ourselves when it comes to what we consider evil, and trying to understand what the latter entails. It is much less an actual scientific book, though.

The Quantum Magician

The Quantum Magician - Derek Kunsken

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

I loved the world built here. It took a bit of work and time to get into it and piece things together, but not so much time, all things considered, and I found the conundrums of the additional human species really fascinating. The Homo Eridanus, engineered to survive in several hundred atmospheres of pressure in hostile oceans, but unable to ever get to the surface unless they want to be crushed to death. The Puppets, twisted slave-race created by the Numen, who thought themselves superior to the others, and made themselves into gods… without really thinking about what this would make their “worshippers” do (a.k.a the Puppets are as fascinating as a train wreck). And the Homo quantus, made to delve into the mysteries of time and space, seeking a state of fugue which is the only one where they can fully observe the universe, but to the cost of their individuality and their health. (Speaking of which, the fugue demands the lack of an observing conscience in order to avoid collapsing the wavefunction; if the Copenhagen interpretation irks you to no ends, you may not like that part.)

And, behind this, a geopolitical system strewn through space thanks to wormholes, with patron and client nations, and a delicate balance between all of those. Many possibilities, only a few of which are explored here.

The story also has the proper elements of a good con/heist: an ambitious goal that most people would call crazy and impossible; a team of misfits and odd people gathered from various places to each play they parts (including, among others, an ex-soldier who loves her explosives, an exiled Puppet, a dying man, a geneticist, and an AI who believes itself the reincarnation of Saint Matthew); and, of course, things that don’t go exactly according to plan, because where would be the fun otherwise?

The characters, in general, are also compelling and well-developed. Belisarius and Cassandra draw an interesting dynamics: she loves the fugue but has trouble staying in it, he was engineered too well and can’t get out of the fugue before it kills his physical brain due to overheating. Gates-15 is a Puppet exiled because he cannot react to Numen pheromones, and so cannot experience the divinity of his captive gods, and who wants nothing more than to go back to his homeworld… with a twist, that is. William has to weigh what he stands to lose against all he could give his daughter instead if the con works. Marie was less developed, but her antics combined with those of Stills, the swearing Eridanian whose people’s credo is to give the finger to the universe who screwed them, were pretty fun to read (yeah, I loved Stills).

There was a downside here for me, though, in that while I loved the hard science incorporated in the foundations of this world, the way it was sometimes explained slowed down the whole caper/heist part. Also, I wouldn’t recommend this book to a reader who’s not keen on hard science fiction in general.

Conclusion: A solid 4 stars, I enjoyed the characters and the world, and I’m interested in any sequel that comes out.

Breakfast With Einstein

Breakfast with Einstein: The Exotic Physics of Everyday Objects  - Chad Orzel

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

Not exactly easy to grasp—basic understanding of quantum physics (and some classical physics concepts, too) is definitely needed here—but the use of typical kitchen/breakfast examples helps when it comes to illustrating each point and show how deeply intertwined quantum physics is with what we take for granted in everyday life. There were more than just a couple things about which I had never really paid attention, and once the obvious was pointed at, it suddenly made a lot more sense.

I usually find Orzel’s writing pleasant enough to help me follow through physics explanations. I can’t say I’ve memorised every single thing in the book, obviously, however, my understanding is definitely better now.

If there’s one thing, I would say that the idea of drawing parallels with breakfast rituals, while interesting, was probably stretched out here, in that it was used at the beginning and very end of each chapter, but not really throughout. So even the comparisons were useful, this book has a more typical approach to physics than the author’s books where he has conversations with his dog.

Conclusion: With my limited but not completely ultra-basic understanding of the subject, I enjoyed this book a lot. This said, it would probably discourage complete beginners, at least partly.

The Consolations of Physics

The Consolations of Physics: Why the Wonders of the Universe Can Make You Happy  - Tim Radford

Clearly an introduction to physics and astronomy, and not something more developed in that regard. But that's not the point of this book. This book is a love letter to science. And that's where it shines.

Obsidio

Obsidio (The Illuminae Files) - Jay Kristoff, Amie Kaufman

This ending to the series was unfortunately less strong than the other two books for me. I still liked it, but... it didn't strike me as much. Probably because it was harder to get invested in the new characters, after getting to know the previous ones, as they were spread thin throughout the story? While I liked Asha, I just didn't care about Rhys. At all. I cared much more about AIDAN, the murderous, unstable, evolving-yet-at-the-same-time-devolving AI, so that's telling. (But who am I kidding? AIDAN was creepy AF, of course, that was the point, but he also made an excellent villain you can't get rid of because you also need its help, and... I'm sorry to say, but its decisions aren't even illogical, and even though the characters were all shocked at them, they were decisions someone had to make at some point. In a way, AIDAN allowed them to keep their hands somewhat clean, and no one even noticed it.)

Special mention for AIDAN, as evidenced above, and also for Pauchok. When it came to the human characters, Ella was definitely my favourite. I am torn between wishing she had had her romance part as well (as in, it felt that 'romance was only for the main-main characters', which relegates her to the rank of secondary character when in fact she should've been a main one), and glad that she doesn't need to be in a relationship to shine.

I'm also a bit disappointed at the couples and at certain death scenes. The first one because I'd have enjoyed seeing more diversity in the couples, or no couple for a change (like, not necessarily involving a romantic relationship—friendship is a good thing, too). The second because... well, let's say it didn't go as far as it should have.

Still an enjoyable story for me, but weaker than the first two instalments (which I had loved).

Louis & Louise

Louis & Louise - Julie Cohen

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

Interesting concept, but one that could’ve gone further, and didn’t.

The novel tells the story of “Lou”, who in one life was born a girl, and in another a boy, and takes them through events of life that aren’t always the same, nor with the same outcomes, depending on the character’s sex.

I enjoyed the characters in general, whether the main one(s) or their best friend and parents, and the parts of the narrative where they had to come to terms with the impending death of a beloved one: the latter came, in one case, with heavy baggage of secrecy and forgiveness that could potentially not be given, which is always a delicate theme to explore. (Or, at least, it is for me, because it’s never all black and white, and the part of me that feels the character should not forgive constantly clashes with the other part, which isn’t a vindictive one. I’m not a very revengeful person in my own life, after all.)

While it was a quick read for me, and I liked following Lou’s path overall, I wasn’t awed, though. I think I was expecting more out of it: more of the many subtle, day-to-day ways society enforces gender stereotypes, for instance. The novel has some, such as Louise starting to wear contact lenses as a teenager because “you’d be so much prettier without glasses”, or her grandmother chiming in with “ladies don’t do this and later you’ll marry and have children because that’s what girls do”, but those were more tiny bits lost in the narrative. I also felt that some parts resorted to easy shortcuts: the corresponding gender stereotypes for Louis were mostly the oh so typical “are you gay or what” (there are so many other ways gender stereotypes are enforced for boys), and Louise’s “catastrophic night” event was… so expected that I guessed it just from the blurb. (Someone please tell me -that- is not the only dark/striking event a woman can have in her life… I mean, no such event at all would be better, of course, but there are so many other possibilities, and I believe one should’ve been tackled here, instead of resorting to the obvious choice.)

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. It is a pleasant read, one that raises valid points and lends itself to reflection, but for me, it took the easy road, where it could’ve explored so many other paths.

The Psychology of Time Travel

The Psychology of Time Travel - Kate Mascarenhas

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

A book that started a little on a rocky road for me, due to the writing style that I found at first fairly abrupt (too many short sentences stuck together), but that fortunately grew on me quite fast after the first few chapters.

The story doesn’t deal much with the science aspect of time travel, which in itself was rather wishy-washy—readers looking for ‘believable’ hard science won’t find it here. And I admit it rubbed me the wrong way at first, but I kept telling myself that when it came to this specific book, it wasn’t the important point here. The interest of “The Psychology of Time Travel” lies, like the title clearly hints at, in the characters’ psyches and relationships, in how the capability of travelling in different time periods affects them, in good and bath ways. All this articulated around a mystery and an investigation, following the discovery of a dead woman in a locked room.

Through the eyes of several characters, including the four pioneers of time travel and some of their descendants, we get to explore the various effects that going back and forth in time can have on human beings as well as on events. Here, the question of paradox, for starters, is tackled in the way events cannot be altered, even should a person go back in time several times to try and prevent it; as a result, time investigations do not aim at preventing a murder, for instance, but at making sure that enough clues can be gathered in advance so as to be able to convict the criminal. Following a similar logic, any person can also meet themselves in the past or future without causing the fabric of time to rip, which gives rise to interesting possibilities, such as dancing a ballet with several of one’s selves, having one’s older selves one’s (re)attend one’s own wedding, or even having sex with oneself.

With some characters going back and forth in times, it was sometimes a little difficult to properly follow the flow of the story; however, dates and names being provided at the beginning of each chapter help to quickly find one’s bearing again after the first moments of wondering who’s doing what, and when. The more the story progresses, the clearer it becomes, and there’s no confusion left at the end as to ‘whodunnit’ and why.

Exploring time travel-related mental health problems was definitely interesting, too. Due to one of the founders, Barbara, collapsing during the first live interview the scientists gave in 1967, her ex-colleagues, who kept forging onwards and created the Time Travel Conclave, adopted a hard stance when it came to psychological issues—especially Margaret, who immediately took the reins. On top of weeding out people who experienced some issues only once, for instance (such as situational depression), the Conclave paved the way for ruthless and dehumanising ‘tests’ and ‘hazing’, such as forcing a new recruit to announce to a person that their parent was about to die; this, and other acts, were meant to inure them to feelings and fear of death, so that the travellers wouldn’t develop issues after seeing their beloved ones die, then meeting them in the past, or conversely. This approach was both completely inhuman but also fascinating, in a way, because there’s no denying that such events -would- potentially traumatise a person (and repeatedly)—nor that people are able to behave in such callous ways, all the more when enabled through an organisation (see the Stanford Prison Experiment and the likes). The author explored several possibilities, such as that of an anorexic traveller who could only eat if going back to on a specific day in the past. It’s very likely triggering, or bordering on it—but nonetheless a different approach to the potential side-effects of time travel, veering away from the more usual ‘grandfather’s paradox.

It could probably have gone even further and deeper than that, too; so it’s a bid too bad it didn’t.

Where the novel lacked for me (and where it wasn’t helped by the writing style either) was in characterisation. I felt that I didn’t get to properly know most of the characters, the kind of people they were, and the way they built their relationships. Probably the only relationship that made sense was that of Bee and Ruby. The problem here came mainly, I think, from the fact that events couldn’t be changed, so whenever someone travelled in the future and saw that they were going to be in a relationship with someone, then back in the present, the relation just happened because that’s how it was meant to be—we don’t see it develop. (Also, due to that ‘fated’ approach, the Conclave’s judiciary system also made… uhm… well it did make some kind of sense, but also not so much at all.)

Conclusion: 3 stars.

Lakes of Mars

Lakes of Mars - Merritt Graves

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

2.5 stars? (As in, between “it’s OK” and “I kinda liked it.”) The story is interesting, and it clearly has its good moments, along with mysteries for the main character to unveil, as he is confronted with layer upon layer of uncertainties about who’s lying, who’s an ally, who’s a friend, and who’s only pretending and getting ready to stab him in the back.

I had trouble to connect with the characters in general, though. The only one we really get to know is Aaron, and partly Seb, but due to all the conflicting hints he had to wade through, his position remained on the fence and made him somewhat passive for a while, which in turn made the narrative confusing and muddled in parts as to what was going on. There’s also what looks like a complex world-building underneath, but difficult to properly grasp. While I mostly prefer when stories unfold “in medias res”, they also have to contain enough hints from the start to help the reader get into their concepts, and here, what was clear for Aaron wasn’t always clear for me (for instance, the Box is mentioned from the first chapters onwards, but it takes a while to fully get what is is and what it’s used for).

I found the pacing lacking between the first 20% and the last chapters, too, and I had to push myself several times to pick up the book and keep reading. The ending is quite intense, though, and with a couple of surprises as well.

The Mouth of the Dark

The Mouth of the Dark - Tim Waggoner

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

I enjoyed the story of this father in search of his missing daughter, when everyone else is brushing this off as ‘she’s an adult, she must’ve gone with a boyfriend, she’ll surface again later’. In itself, it’s a sad illustration of how people can sometimes be very callous and not pay attention to others, including Jayce himself, who acknowledged that he hadn’t been very close to Emory and wants to find her in part because he’s feeling guilty about neglecting her.

The world of Shadow was also fascinating, in a (gruesome) way: a catalogue of all that can go twisted in people, but given a sort of physical shape. This made for a weird read, with gory and sexual depictions at times, the latter diving at times into the very disturbing—for instance, when Jayce finds a sex toy in Emory’s bedroom, or that specific flashback when he goes home and finds her in the basement: the whole sexual angle intruding in a father/child relationship cranked up the creepy factor fairly high here, and I can’t say I’m comfortable with that. This ties well into the horror part, though, but let’s just say one has better steel themselves against it. For me, it was disturbing (= sex conflated with parent/child) rather than horrific (= it didn’t scare me).

From a storytelling point of view, I had trouble with the timeline: the whole plot unfolds over less than two days (if you except the flashbacks), and I felt that this was too short for Jayce to go from ‘don’t know jack to Shadow’ to ‘oh one more disturbing thing… m’kay, let’s go on’. I also guessed pretty early what the big twist would be, so I wasn’t surprised at all when that was confirmed.

All in all, what I enjoyed most here was the world of Shadow itself, in all its bizarre glory.

Conclusion: 3 stars

The Binding

The Binding - Bridget Collins

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

This was a little of a rollercoaster book for me, in that the blurb -is- pretty misleading when it comes to the expectations it rises—so there were quite a few chapters when my interest ebbed and flowed, as I poised between “this is not what I wantedto read” and “that’s pretty interesting” and “I expected something different in terms of world-building”, etc. Especially, there’s a romance element that is -not- in the blurb, and since I’m not a big fan of romance for the sake of romance in general, my first reaction was pretty much ‘ugh, no, not yet another romance plot, you should’ve warned me about this, since I don’t feel like reading romance these days’.

However, as everything settled, as the plot fully came together, as I got to know the characters more, this change of mood abated, and I found that I was actually liking this novel. I do regret that the art of binding wasn’t explored more in depths, with deeper explanations of how it worked, and this is something that disappointed me until the end. Still, I nevertheless felt myself rooting for several characters, getting angry at how other people treated them, didn’t accept them, at the rampant intolerance, too. It wasn’t ‘enjoyable’ (I so wanted to slap the parents), no. The main characters were often annoying in many ways, too. But it made for a good story.

I must say that I usually have several pet peeves when it comes to romance (yes, there’s some romance in it), one of the major ones being when the lovers lose sight of priorities (typical example: “who will she chose, the boy she loves, or saving the world?” --> everybody knows that 99% of the time, the world is doomed). Here, there is strong potential for turning these characters’ world(s) upside down, but I didn’t get that feeling of thwarted sense of priorities, because all in all, most characters had bleak prospects to start with, and what hinged on them was something that wouldn’t have made so many other people happy anyway: arranged marriages, bad job prospects, abuse, cannot go back to their old lives, etc.

Speaking of abuse, the world Emmett lives in is rather bleak in that regard as well. It reminded me a lot—and that was no doubt on purpose o nthe author’s part—of 19th century novels, with a strong country/town dichotomy: the countryside as a ‘pure, natural, innocent’ world where people have a chance to be happy, vs. the town as polluted, home to crime and vice, and where the wealthy treat servants and poorer people in general as dirt, as toys that can be broken and then mended at will. While the abuse is not depicted in gory ways, and usually alluded to rather than directly witness, the allusions are not veiled either. It is very clear who rapes their servants, and who gets others murdered for the sake of their own interests. Those aren’t triggers for me, but they could still be depending on the reader. All in all, that also reminded me of other literary movements of that time: there’s no shortage of showing people being sick, reduced to their ‘bodily functions’, shown as the cowards they are, and so on. If you’ve read Zola, you’ll know what I mean. This novel doesn’t sing the praises of human beings in general, for sure, and shows most people as being weak at best, and hidden monsters at worst.

I am… bizarrely satisfied with the ending. It’s fairly open, and there are still many loose ends, but it also allows the book to close on a kind of resolution that I found fitting, balancing between “it could still turn so sour so quickly” and “well, there’s hope left and the future looks kinda good”.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

The Flower Girls

The Flower Girls - Alice Clark-Platts

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

Interesting (albeit disturbing) theme: that of ‘the Flower Girls’, two children suspected of the murder of a toddler. The elder girl, Laurel, went to jail, where she’s still rotting many years later; the younger, Primrose, was considered as too young and traumatised to stand trial, and given a new identity. The story follows the two women nineteen years after the gruesome murder, when on New Year’s Eve, 5-year old Georgie disappears from the hotel where she’s been staying with her parents. A host of other characters quickly get tangled with the case: DC Lorna Hillier, writer Max, Hazel Archer and her boyfriend Jonny, the cook who was the last person to see the little girl alive, but also Toby Bowman, Laurel’s uncle who was the only one to stick with her, and Joanna Denton, the aunt of the murdered toddler. Of course, during the investigation, revelations start to surface, hinting at something else going on.

The first part of the novel was pretty engaging, as the search for Georgie takes place, and DC Hillier starts suspecting that the truth is not so nicely packaged as it seems. We’re also given to see snapshots of Joanna’s fight to keep Laurel behind bars, as well as Laurel’s relationship with Toby, who’s trying to get parole for her.

However, after that, the story started to peter out for me, and I found the ending rushed and lacking. I get the later twists (predictable, but I get them), and that novels don’t all have to end up tied with nice little bows, but I felt that too many characters were either ushered out the easy way, or left hanging to dry. Those I liked the most, all in all, were Laurel herself; Toby, who in spite of being reviled in the eyes of the rest of his family for helping his niece, was probably one of the most human ones; and Hillier, who wouldn’t let go and really tried to figure out the real truth behind it all. Unfortunately, they were all part of these characters who were left out in the cold, with their storylines “unfinished”. (Yes, I know, that’s how it often is in real life; but see, the thing is, when I read a thriller/mystery, it’s not to see a mirror of real life: I want an actual resolution at the end.)

So I reached the last page thinking “wha, that’s it?”, and that’s how it remains, which is too bad, because there was a lot of potential in this story.