Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

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Home - Amanda Berriman

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

This started as a bit of an annoying read, due to the ‘child voice’ narrating it—it wasn’t so easy for me to get into it. Jesika is a difficult narrator to contend with, in that, on top of being unreliable because she sees the world through her own filters, those filters are very much naïve and different from an adult’s. The way she perceives and interprets events wasn’t always easy to follow, and the fact that the words she used weren’t necessarily the right ones didn’t help. However, after the first couple of chapters, I got used to her voice, and I didn’t notice its ‘quirks’ anymore, or at least not in a way that disrupted my reading. Which was, of course, a good thing.

The story itself deals with difficult themes, too, that aren’t completely visible at first due to the aforementioned filters. But don’t mistake those for callousness: because Jesika seems ‘remote’, this actually makes events more… raw, in a way, in the absence of adult filtering. The reader soon gets to realise the issues Jesika’s family is facing: poverty… but not enough to really get help; having to contend with shady people; illness, probably due to their dire living conditions; and, of course, what comes later, once Jesika meets Paige and starts to wonder if what’s happening at her home is normal or naughty, and if she should tell her mother Tina, and won’t her mother stop loving her if she does that? (And that’s the biggest fear for her child: being rejected by their parents…)

Although the novel never veers into sordid (I don’t want to say that Jesika’s narration revealed Paige’s secret in a ‘cute’ way, because it’s not cute, it’s never cute, it’s creepy AF and no child, well actually no one, should ever have to go through that—but it did soften the blows in a certain way), it wasn’t exactly an easy read. Jesika and Paige are both so very young and vulnerable, all the more when one remembers that getting through the regular babble of children at such a young age can be exhausting, and doesn’t leave much room for actually listening, really listening to them when they try to convey something serious. I did enjoy the grown-ups’ reactions around Jesika, though, since they did take things seriously. There was a particular moment, for instance, when Tina could’ve done the coward thing, could’ve chosen to ignore the signals, because acknowledging them sort of put her at risk, too. There are so many stories, so many happening in real life, too, when unfortunately people close their eyes on the obvious and choose the easy way out.

At the same time, the circumstances Jesika, her mother and her baby brother have to face aren’t all in shades of black only. There are people around who’re ready to help them, and once Tina manages to get past her pride and accept those outstretched hands, she realises that friendship and trust are things you can find even when everything looks bleak. There could have been darker consequences, and in fact, it’s good there weren’t, considering the story’s themes are already dark enough as it is.

Conclusion: 3.5 / 4 stars.

Zombie Abbey

Zombie Abbey - Lauren Baratz-Logsted

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

A story with Austen undertones… and zombies. (I’ve seen it compared to ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, but not having read that one, I honestly can’t tell.)

At Porthampton Abbey, a couple of years after World War I, the Clarke family has to contend with the problem of the entail, just like in ‘Pride and Prejudice’—meaning that if one of the daughters (preferably the elder, Kate) doesn’t marry very soon and has a male heir, their family will lose their estate after the death of Earl Clarke. Which is why the latter has invited a couple of potential suitors to stay for the weekend, including an older businessman from London, a duke, and a recently discovered cousin who’s very likely to inherit anyway, considering he’s the only male heir (but here’s to hope he’ll marry Kate, and all will be well in the world). And the story would go its posh, merry way, if not for the strange death of a villager, found half-devoured… A villager whom his widow has to kill a second time with a bullet to the head.

The beginning of this story definitely has its appeal: the Clarkes display a comical mix of common sense (Kate when it comes to hunting, for instance) and quirky, whimsical inability to grasp that other people are not only their servants, they’re, well, human beings with their own lives, too. This was a conflict in itself in the book, with the ‘Upstairs’ people having to realise that they have to pay more attention to the ‘Downstairs’ people. The build-up to the part where zombies actually make an appearance was a little slow, but in itself, it didn’t bother me, because discovering the characters (and rolling my eyes while trying to guess who’d kick the bucket) was quite fun. Granted, some of the characters weren’t very likeable; the earl felt too silly, Kate too insensitive… but on the other hand, I liked where Lizzy and Grace started and how they progressed—Lizzy as the girl whom everyone thinks stupid, yet who turns out to be level-headed when things become dangerous, and Grace being likely the most humane person in her family. The suitors, too, looked rather bland at first, however a couple of them started developing more of a (pleasant) personality. And I quite liked Fanny as well, the quiet-at-first but assertive maid who refuses to let ‘propriety’walks all over charity.

After a while, though, the style became a little repetitive. The way the various characters’ point of views were introduced at the beginning of each chapter or sub-chapter, for some reason, tended to grate on my nerves, I’m not exactly sure why; and while I don’t have issues with casts of more than 2-3 POV characters, here the focus regularly went back to some action already shown in a previous chapter, but this time from another character’s point of view, which felts redundant.

I also thought that while there -were- zombies, I’d have liked seeing a little more of them. There was tension, but I never felt the story was really scary (for me and for the characters both), and the moments when a character got hurt was usually due to their being too stupid to live and doing something that no one in their sane mind should’ve done anyway.

Finally, I’m not satisfied with the ending: I don’t know it there’ll be a sequel or not, but if it’s meant to be a standalone, then it leaves way too many things open.

Conclusion: 2.5 /3 stars. I’m curious about how the situation at Porthampton Abbey will unfold, and if there were a sequel, that’d be good, because it’d mean the characters could finish growing, too.

The School for Psychics

The School for Psychics - K. C. Archer

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

An enjoyable fast-read when it came to the ‘psychic powers’ theme. I really liked the premise: a young woman who’s been making questionable decisions, and gets a second chance in a school for people with psychic abilities, where they’re trained to protect and server… but a few people on the inside have different agendas, and it’s a constant game of trying to figure out what’s at stake, and if it’s going to be a bunch of revelations, or something much more lethal. The powers the students have are varied, ranging from precognition to telepathy and even pyrokinesis, and I liked how the novel tried to bring a scientific approach to it: after all, they’re training people who’re going to end up working for the FBI or NSA.

The first scene also engaged me from the beginning, what’s with Teddy being banned from Las Vegas casinos, but still sneaking into one, disguised as a different woman, to hopefully win the money she owes a Russian crime boss, because otherwise her own parents will be targeted. Well, OK, nevermind that she should never have let things go that far, all the more if she’s so good at reading people at the poker table, but ‘questionable decisions’ being a key here, alright, I can go with that.

On the other hand, I never really got a good feeling for Teddy, or for the other characters. Some of them had a sort of ‘larger than life’ vibe, with their quirks (the animal medium who likes doing yoga naked, the ex-cop who’s a charmer and can literally set things on fire, the hacker who’s also an empath…); but they remained fairly one-dimensional. Teddy barely thought of her family except in the beginning, we know nothing of the others except for a couple of things like ‘his family’s rich and he has a boat’, and so when the story took a more action/heist-oriented turn, it was hard to root for them.

The other thing I didn’t like—and which contributed to my not enjoying the sotry as much as I hoped—was the globally juvenile aspects. These people are 20-something (Teddy’s 24, and Pyro must be at least 25 considering he served in the police for some time, and I doubt you just start there at 15 or so), but the whole Whitfield academy had a strong high school feeling, and I constantly thought I was reading a YA novel when in fact it was marketed as geared towards adult, with adult characters. I don’t mind YA in general, even though I have my gripes about a lot of books; I don’t think that ‘because it’s YA, it’s necessarily stupid and uninteresting.’ This said, the aforementioned gripes involve a certain number of tropes that I find cringe-worthy, such as the mandatory romance and love triangle, the professor who immediately favours certain students and begrudges the heroine and her friends, or the whole ‘school stars vs. misfits’ aspect. And those tropes were clearly present here, to the point of making me forget that those characters were, uh, two years from going to work for the FBI? Suspension of disbelief was then shattered every time forensics or the shooting range was mentioned; it’s like the story couldn’t make up his mind about whether it was meant to be about teenagers or about adult people.

Not sure if I’ll be interested in the sequel.

Paris Adrift

Paris Adrift - E.J. Swift

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

I love myself a time travel story, and both the premise as well as the cover here caught my eye. Unfortunately, even though ultimately it was a quick an easy read (as opposed to a book I trudged through), I wasn’t sold on the story or the characters.

I think this is due to the prologue letting me expect a more ‘targetted’ time travel story: a group of time travellers (called ‘incumbents’) holed up in a bunker in Prague, the world dying around them due to a nuclear apocalypse. This war having been triggered by a speech made at the Sacre-Coeur in Paris, the group decides to send one of them back in time in order to prevent that man’s lineage from ever starting. But there’s a catch here: these incumbents can only travel using ‘anomalies’ to which they’re attuned, and since they can’t use someone else’s Anomaly, in this case they need to send someone with an Anomaly in Paris. Which turns out to be Léon, an incumbent with too many travels under his belt, who may or may not be able to perform -all- the time jumps needed to alter the past. Léon does jump, but his aim tis to find a budding traveller in 2017 Paris, and guide them to discover their Anomaly, then to perform the required jumps while they’re still ‘fresh’, so to speak. Along with Léon comes the chronometrist, a former traveller who lost her body (and probably her sanity, too), and whose task is to guide the new incumbent.

…And that’s where it started to turn wrong, because for most of the book, the plot felt only remotely touched, with our new incumbent, Hallie, being guided in such a circumvented way that from beginning to end, I’m not sure she really got what she was doing. And I’m not sure why that was, considering one of Léon’s directives (stated in the prologue, no spoiler here) was to guide her once her ‘mission’ was accomplished, but that… didn’t happen? It was weird. It mostly consisted of Hallie stumbling through her Anomaly, ending up in a different period, bumbling around trying not to get in trouble, with the chronometrist taunting her now and then. It tied up in the end, yet I never got rid of the feeling that plot-wise, the book was plodding rather than making progress.

Character-wise, too, I believe that time spent on stumbling around was meant for character development, but in the end, I didn’t get that much of a feel for Hallie and the people around her, and they end up rather boring to me.

Now, to be fair, I really liked the way the novel approached solutions to ‘prevent a person from being born’. In a lot of time travel stories, the usual approach is to kill them (the Sarah Connor effect), which obviously raises its lot of ethical questions. Here, Hallie found (well, was pushed to) other ways, and that was refreshing to see.

Wendigo Rising

Wendigo Rising - James A. Hunter

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

Still an original setting, one that makes use of less known supernatural/folklore creatures (such as Sasquatches—I don’t think I’ve seen a single vampire yet in this series, and this is refreshing). We also find again some of the previously involved characters, such as agent Ferraro, Yancy’s old Vietnam comrade Greg, and James from the Guild, along with unlikely allies in the person of, well, Bigfoot and his daughter (he’s not named Bigfoot, although Yancy keeps calling him Kong, for want of being able to remember his full name). To be fair, at times I preferred these two Sasquatches, once they got past their tendency to refuse to explain their real reasons.

Some of the action scenes were pretty interesting. There’s a curious ‘battle of the bands’ at some point, mixing music with combat, and that isn’t something I’ve often read. Other such scenes left me quirking an eyebrow, though, like the one with Cassius. I quite dig Cassius, but I’d like to know more about him, apart from the little Yancy tells us about him, and the fight scene I’m thinking about, the one at the end, was… OK, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to make of it. It was fun in a WTF way, but it jarred with the rest of the UF/supernatural-oriented action. I think a little less action in parts would’ve been good here.

This book tended to annoy me more than the previous ones when it comes to Yancy’s personality, though. I’m all OK for the grumpy, no-strings-attached guy who prefers to live in his car, but the way he acts at times is much too childish for someone with so many years of experience, and especially so many battles and betrayals behind him. I guess this is why I particularly appreciated the moment when ‘monsters’ put him back in his place regarding ‘all the people they had killed’ vs. ‘did you ever wonder if the monsters you killed had friends and families?’

Conclusion: 2.5 stars, there are good things in this series, and the end paves the way for more, since part of the threat is gone, but not fully… and things could still go terribly wrong.

Flip

Flip - David Estes

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

The conclusion to this trilogy, and a satisfying one, although I found the ending a little too quick and predictable.

One of the things I liked here is that we got more information about the world around the RUSA. Not a lot, of course, the trilogy’s aim wasn’t to paint a full geopolitical portrait; nevertheless, I always appreciate it when sci-fi/dystopian settings take into account not only to focus country, but also the others. This shakes off the ‘pocket universe’ feeling that is very often prevalent in this genre. In fact, it’d almost deserve a spin-off so that the author can have fun with what’s happening around and outside the RUSA.

Like in the previous books, I also enjoyed the family relationships. Benson and Harrison could’ve been awful to each other, even when thrown in the same predicament, with constant jealousy and resentment. While there were some tensions (it was unavoidable), though, they embraced each other’s respective existences, as a discovery of the brother they didn’t know they had, instead of embracing negative feelings. Which was great. And which leads me to another aspect I enjoyed: the toned-down romance. Yes, there is a romantic subplot, however:
- It’s not the main focus;
- It doesn’t cause the characters involved do stupid things and make stupid decisions because LUUUUURVE (I’m so tired of those silly romance plots where the world is ending but the main character is still too busy pondering which of the guys/girls s/he’s in love with);
- I mentioned this in my review about volume 2 already: when Benson is concerned, I liked seeing such a predictable romance -not- happen. Having everyone find their Twue Wuv or whatever would’ve been too saccharine for me. The focus here is FAMILY, not romantic love, and especially not romantic love as the be-all and end-all and the Highest Form of Love Ever.

Bonus point for Jarrod’s arc. That character was a POS and I hated his guts, but you know what, that’s GOOD, because it means I cared. He helped emphasize one end of the spectrum (the other end being the corrupt government), with his ‘a means to an end’ attitude and terrorist ways, including what he roped Geoffrey into doing. Who does that to a kid, spewing BS such as ‘your sister would be so proud of you’? Yeah. Exactly.

Now, to expand a little on my comments about the ending:

- ‘Too quick’: that is, compared to all the reversal of fortunes previously encountered.
- Predictable: there were quite a few more twists in this instalment, with the last secrets being revealed. However, as a result, the ending felt somewhat… uneventful? As if it was indeed the last sprint, but one that led to no more surprises. Don’t mistake me, it’s a good conclusion, only just a little too well packaged and ‘clean’ and neatly tied, for a series that was grittier than a lot of YA series out there… so I guess I expected something more bittersweet, with some last twist, maye?
- Some parts were anti-climactic, like what happened with the president.
- I gather that the Destroyer is gone, buuuuut… Like THAT? Now that was disappointing, all the more since we didn’t get to see him do much in the first half of the novel. Alright, as a villain, he was ‘too much’ anyway. Yet that end felt almost… comical? And it jars with the darker tones of the trilogy, because deep down, Domino is a broken human being—he was already deranged before, but he was also treated like an object, stuffed with mechanical parts, brought back from the brink of death instead of being let go with dignity, and generally it was as if everybody discarded his humanity from the beginning, never giving him any chance at all. (I’m not saying a redemption arc would’ve been good here—he was too far gone. Just… not -that- kind of ending.)

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. In spite of my criticisms, I did enjoy this last volume.

Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done

Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done - Andrea Gonzales, Sophie Houser

That was a pretty interesting read, and an encouraging one, in a world where encouraging girls to go into technical careers is still not such a given (yes, even in 2018).

Also, bonus points for introduction to Python at the end, with a few examples of short, easy programs you can try. The only coding I've done so far was with Scratch, and I'm not very familiar with Python apart from a short foray with Ren'Py, but this basic syntax was very easy to get. I like that the authors chose something 'simple': I believe it won't look discouraging to someone who knows nothing to coding.

Invictus

Invictus - Ryan Graudin

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

What I liked:

- The beginning. Of course, you can tell immediately where this is going, and that there’s going to be another proposal to offset the bad news, and you can guess what that proposal will be, but it’s OK because it’s why you’re reading the book. Well, why I was reading it, at any rate.

- Some aspects of the world building, with the idea of trained people going back in time to record events, and having to follow specific rules to avoid creating paradoxes. It makes a lot of sense, since the ‘grandfather paradox’ is definitely not the only risk in such a setting: it’s obvious that you wouldn’t want to kill your own grandfather if you hope to be born someday… but it’s much less obvious that even ‘small’ actions like gambling in a casino can have consequences, for instance by preventing the ‘normal’ winner from winning, in turn preventing them from doing things that should normally have happened, and so on. The most noticeable actions aren’t the only ones that can change the world.

- The crew’s dynamics. I have a soft spot for heist stories carried by a crew (ship, spaceship, band of misfits, whatever), and when the latter works well together, it’s even better. In itself¸ this part wasn’t the most exceptional ever, but I could feel the ties uniting them, and that was good.

- Diversity. Priya is obviously of Indian origin, Gram is dark-skinned, and Far also has inherited a darker complexion from his father. It’s not mentioned more than once or twice, but it’s good to see.

- The book was entertaining, I wanted to know how the story would go (good thing I’ve been on sick leave and with time on my hands to rush through it, huh), and in general the action and tension scenes were gripping.

What I didn’t like so much:

- The romance. I’m not particularly keen on romance in general, for starters— in my experience 90% of such subplots, when they happen in stories whose main genre is not romance, are there because it’s what people (or the market, or publishing houses, I’m never really sure) expect. As a result, the romance feels forced, and that’s the feeling I got here. I didn’t particularly care about Imogen having a crush, all the more since it led to some screen time being used up for conversations about boys and should-I-oh-no-I-don’t-dare. As for the romance between Far and Priya, it was announced very suddenly, its beginnings happened off-scene, and I never felt any real chemistry between these two. In a story revolving around an all-for-one type of crew, friendship all the way would’ve worked better for me.

- The lull mid-book, the part where they go to Las Vegas. Partly because of the romance-related conversations, partly because I wanted to shout ‘Seriously, characters, is partying and getting drunk the best you can do right now?’

- Some other aspects of the world building. Yes, I know I partially liked it. However, some elements were there for… no reason? Example: How can Priya be 17-18 and already a full-fledged medic, with mechanic skills to boot? When did she got time to learn all that? Or why do they eat synthetic food, why is ice cream so expensive? I felt the latter points were here to give a ‘science-fictiony’ sheen, but without explanations about why the world came to be like that, I can never fully buy it. (I’m not asking for a treaty about 24th century economics, but at least a couple of lines about the whys would be nice.)

- Part of the plot when it comes to Eliot’s involvement. First, it’d have been good to see a couple of successful heists before she appeared, so that the disruption she created would be even stronger. Second, the true reason for her presence is somewhat complicated, and may have worked better with a little more development. An example of what I felt rushed with that is how easily an antagonist character convinces other antagonist characters to work with him, towards the end, in order to stop her; it happened very quickly, wasn’t very convincing, and anyway, why didn’t he enlist his own after that, to add a strike force he could fully control?
(Side note: I found the names they used very confusing. I could deal with the endings, like FLT6, but the whole strings of numbers in the middle… I kept trying to imagine the conversation with Eliot speaking these numbers, and I’m surprised she didn’t make a mistake every two sentences when using those.)

- The characters, outside of their role as a group. As a crew, I thought they functioned together well; but as individuals, they felt flatter. They have their quirks, sure (Imogen dying her hair, Gram and his games), but quirks don’t make a full-fledged character. I didn’t really like Far, he had too much of the ‘strong ego/insufferable’ vibe without enough of the ‘dashing captain/charisma’ vibe, so to speak. Also, I would’ve liked to see more of Gram, for some reason I liked him best.

Conclusion: Cool concepts, with good action scenes. The book was an entertaining read, although it failed in other parts.

The Sacrifice Box

The Sacrifice Box - Martin Stewart

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

The blurb for this book immediately reminded me of some of the horror books I’d read in the early 90s—mostly Stephen King paperbacks my mother gave me, so this ‘80s + horror + kids’ combination is one I’ve known in quite a while, even though I haven’t read such books in at least a decade or more. I suppose watching Stranger Things also put me back in the mood for those, and so here I was, getting into ‘The Sacrifice Box’.

As far as horror stories go, a lot of the usual ingredients are here. Strange happenings. Kids who find they have to gather to stop something evil from happening (and they can’t tell their parents, because they’d just sound crazy). School life with its teachers, sports kids, and bullies and picking on a couple of the main characters, but all things considered, those pale compared to the real threat. A mysterious item with mysterious rules to follow, rules that get, of course, broken—madness ensues. Dead animals coming back to life to attack people. Noises at night. A tiny town on an isolated island. The Halley comet looming over it all, like a bad omen.

All in all, I liked the setting itself, although at times it ‘tried a little too hard’, so to speak. However, where the book lacked a lot was the characters. The main point of view is Sep’s, interspersed with chapters viewed through the eyes of a couple of minor characters, like Mario, the vet doubling as chippy owner, in whose restaurant Sep works; or Thom and Aileen, two older people who also opened the box and made sacrifices back in 1941 when the war was raging (the story’s set in the UK, by the way—it’s not always very clear, as the atmosphere feels very ‘US-like’). The problem is that, as far as the other four kids are concerned, I didn’t get more than superficial impressions about them. For instance, Lamb is the hockey player, lives on a farm with her father, and lost her mother when she was a kid, yet apart from that and from her anger at whoever broke the rules of the box, I never really ‘saw’ her, who she was, how she really felt, her fears, and so on; and in such a horror-driven story, with such a concept of a box into which a band of children placed items loaded with both good and bad emotions, childhood fears, hopes and feelings would’ve been a necessary element to play on for all the characters, not just one.

I also didn’t see the point to the bully. At first, I expected him to play more of a part—perhaps the kind of character who ends up completely crazy, starts muttering about having to ‘kill the evil’, grabs a rifle, becomes an impediment to the kids’ efforts to restore the order (it’s a bit cliché, but it’d have its place in such a plot). And then… It just petered out. In the same way, I would've appreciated more of a conclusion regarding the events and the box itself: the epilogue doesn't shed light on all the things that should've followed (how did the parents react, what about all the dead people, how were events explained officially, etc.). Here, too, some plot ends were left dangling.

Conclusion: A fast read, and rather entertaining in a superficial way; but the novel kept feeling like an attempt to surf on the “Stranger Things” wave, and didn't live up to the kind of books/stories it tried to be an homage to.

[Preview of] Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge

[I received a preview of this book through Netgalley. For this reason, I’m not going to rate this book, considering only the preface and first chapter were contained in the preview, and my review is going to be just about that as well. I’ll have to pick up the complete book at some point later.]

This said, I must admit I wouldn’t have requested it if I had noticed sooner it was a preview: I much prefer reading & reviewing full books. Oh, well.

I get the voluntarily provoking title, which is loaded in itself, but I guess that’s a good way of testing oneself and see if we want to read further. Examples given in the first chapter didn’t surprise me either, much unfortunately.

Obviously, being ‘white’, I can’t relate directly, however, for some of the examples, well, just replace ‘white’ and ‘black’ by ‘men’ and ‘women’, and you get pretty much a similar effect. (Yes, I know, ‘not all men…’, just like ‘not all whites…’, but as usual with that kind argument: it’s not the point.) I’m thinking here of the preface more specifically: “You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us.” Or “They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.” In other words, I can’t fully relate, but pushing myself to imagine what it must be like isn’t a big stretch; I got into similar conversations with patronising people who thought they were right because they had a penis instead of a vagina (hint: they weren't).

Anyway.

Now, where I believe I can’t judge without having read it all, is because, for the moment, I can’t exactly tell in which direction the book is going. Is the title misleading, and the author does actually want dialogue? Or is it exactly what it says on the tin, and veering into ‘reverse racism’? (Note that as far as I’m concerned, racism is universal and goes every way and from any colour to anywards any colour, and it sucks, and I wish the human species as a whole would finally grow up, but then I suppose I’d also like to get a sports car and a penthouse in the City for my birthday, and it just won’t happen.)

So, yep… To be read fully later.

After the End of the World

After the End of the World  - Jonathan L. Howard

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

This novel picks up where the previous one left (if you haven’t read it yet, stop here), or roughly, after Emily Lovecraft and Daniel Carter, alogn with Detective Harrelson, have been stranded in the Unfolded world for a few months, slowly adjusting to their lives in Arkham-instead-of-Providence.

And it’s not easy, because even though the Unfolded world is fairly similar when it comes to daily life (and better, in some ways, as in when Emily realises she own a nice house here instead of renting a flat), in many other ways, it is tremendously different. For starters, World War II ended much sooner, when the Third Reich dropped an A-bomb on Moscow in 1941, obliterating its whole leadership; and the Reich is now one of the world’s superwpoers, having been accepted because, well, the Holocaust didn’t concerned Jews but Communists, and for some reason this was much more acceptable to the West who turned a blind eye and ha-hemmed in a corner while it happened. Which infuriates Dan and Emily just as much, a different kind of evil still being evil after all; also, the Nazis are welcome in the USA and racism much more prevalent, so the Unfolded world isn’t so peachy for Emily herself.

(On a side note, I wish we had seen more of that. I don’t enjoy racist slurs in the least, but in terms of ‘show, don’t tell’, it never felt like Emily was really ostracised, apart from a couple of instances when some Gestapo guy said ‘who’s that black down there’ or something to that extent. In turn, the ‘lessons in political correctness’ given at times didn’t have the impact they could’ve had.)

The world is definitely not right by our heroes’ standards, who want nothing more than bring back its Folded version, but have no clues where to start… until Emily finds out she has the Necronomicon in her safe, Henry Weston is at his shenanigans again, and Daniel gets hired to spy on a joint German-US project in Miskatonic University. Weird stuff ensues, veering into spy-thriller-weird more than HPL-weird at first, but no worries, the latter is never too far behind.

Although I was hesitant at first about the spy thriller part, probably because of its apparent simplistic aspects (US vs Communists or US vs Nazis, it’s kind of the same... also Nazis make easy enemies: Instant Evil! Just add water!), the way it was handled was all in all interesting, in part because, let’s be honest, it makes for contrived enemies… but it also makes for entertaining scenarii. In fact, it reminded me of the Call of Cthulhu/Adventure! Crossover RPG I had played a few years ago, as well as of Indiana Jones movies, and I soon found my bearings again in that kind of plot and setting. We get typical but useful ingredients: scientists working on a secret project infiltrated left and right by Gestapo, Abwehr and probably a few others (Daniel even manages to throw the CIA in all that, and it blends in perfectly); research influenced by esoterism; evil cultists who’re all the more evil because they treat sacrifice as if it was a mere bureaucratic matter; a secret research facility on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean; not exactly human beings; and this mix works fairly well here.

Another thing I liked was that the focus shifted slightly in this book from Dan to Emily. We already know by now of Dan’s ancestor and the abilities he’s inherited, and there was a solid risk of Emily remaining more of a sidekick (a badass one, but a sidekick nonetheless) when it came to the weird/non-Euclidian parts. Well, let’s just say that reading can indeed empower people. (I bet you can already tell where this is going.)

Conclusion: 4 stars, it was an enjoyable read in spite of the few peeves I had about it, and I breezed through it, and now I want the next instalment.

Wild Card

Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files: Wild Card - Mark Powers, Jim Butcher

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

I put up reading that one, thinking it’d spoil me too much about some of the Dreaden Files books I haven’t read yet, but, uhm, turned out it didn’t. Or maybe I’ve ‘forgotten’ just enough details from the books that whatever may have been a spoiler, I just didn’t realise it? Oh well. Good thing in any case.

Globally an entertaining story, with high stakes of the kind you’d find in one of the novels, and a plan coming from a devious enemy who’s clearly understood how to pit people against each other. Because, as silly as it may sound, sometimes the people in charge do act in what appears to be the non-smart way just not to lose face—as much as I find it non-rational, previous plots in the Dresden Files have seen the tension mount enough for this to be believable. This was helped by pretty dynamic fight/action scenes. Also, bonus point for little Karrin and her dad.

On the downside:
- As usual with a lot of comics, I could do without the sexualised-woman-poses, many of which looked definitely weird (you know, those ‘let’s strike a sexy pose while wielding heavy weapons, it’s not as if I need my balance for that’ poses). Just like that scene in the hospital, where a character’s wounds are listed, but when you see said character in bed, well… That didn’t look like such a beaten up and bruised body to me.
- That ending. WTF? In a way, it made sense, but it was so totally anti-climatic that I kept looking to see if I hadn’t missed a few more pages in the book.

So, yes… Something like 2.5 stars, because mostly it kept me entertained, right until that odd ending?

Lady Mechanika - La Dama de la Muerte

Lady Mechanika: La Dama de la Muerte - Joe Benitez, M. M.  Chen, Joe Benitez, Martin Montiel, Peter Steigerwald

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

Not sure where chronologically this volume is set, among the other ‘Lady Mechanika’ ones. In this story, Mechanika travels to Mexico without a goal, grieving for her friend Dallas, and finds herself taking a room in a village whose inhabitants are about to celebrate the dead.

The characters she meets throughout the pages were in general endearing and friendly, passing along their traditions and encouraging Mechanika to have fun for the sake of fun itself, and teaching her of a different way to celebrate her departed ones. To be fair, I don’t know that much about this specific tradition, but from what I know, the comics seemed to respect it and try to delve into it deeper than just ‘oh hey let’s paint skull faces’—a welcome addition.

Less steampunk-oriented than the previous volumes, the story follows some typical western codes: a village terrorised by bandits, and a lone vigilante stepping up to defend them. Not an unwelcome change, although in terms of scenario and plot twists, it was easy to guess where this was going, and that made the story unexceptional in that regard.

The art and style remain very good in this volume, too, mixing Victorian and steampunkish aesthetics with more traditional ‘Día de Muertos’ ones, including costumes and face paint. The latter somehow contributed to keeping the ‘outlandish costuming’ toned down, in that apart from one short corset, Mechanika appears in clothing that looks more tribal, but also easier to move in (much as I like the style, the ‘tiny corset + narrow sleeves’ combo is an awful one for fighting, so I’m all for graphically striking options that are also convenient). If just for the art, this series is definitely worth reading.

The Trauma Cleaner

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster  - Sarah Krasnostein

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

Ohh, I’m torn about this one.

On the one hand, it tells the touching story of a woman whose life started on a completely wrong footing, who had to both lose and find herself throughout various trials in her life—a marriage that couldn’t last, realising that she couldn’t be herself if she stayed a man, sex work, bad health, and so on; a woman whose memory is badly altered, so much so that her biographer admits how difficult it was at times to piece together all those events. And yet, at the end, in her daily job of running her trauma cleaning business, a woman capable of empathy and compassion towards other, even though she may still not have that same compassion towards herself, having been forced to disconnect herself from relationships due to her own trauma.

There’s the trauma cleaning business, too, showing various situations of the kind Sandra and her crew have to deal with on a regular basis: hoarders’ houses, a flat where a woman died of an overdose, another where a sexual offender lived, the sofa where a man bled to death, a house turning out to be so bad even the walls have grown soft with mold inside… Gruesome situations, but never considered with condescension or bad feelins, and always with the aime of both cleaning and making those people feel at ease with the job, especially when the ‘hoarders’ were concerned (that desire to ‘check that one last bag just in case something good got mixed up with the trash’… I mean, who’s never spent more time than they thought cleaning their place because they were distracted by checking the contents of this or that forgotten box?).

Going back and forth between eight trauma cleaning jobs and various periods of Sandra’s life, in chronological order, the book, the book clearly points at how entwined these two narratives are, the first one mirroring Sandra’s own trauma and how she got through life in spite of it, ‘cleaning’ behind her by severing ties with people who had hurt her, or always moving from city to another.

On the other hand, it also felt that the book could never decide what its focus was: the cleaning, or Sandra herself? These can’t fully be taken separately, but I admit I didn’t see as much as Sandra’s own insights as I wanted, nor as much of the trauma cleaning as I wanted—not in a voyeuristic way, ‘oh look at those hoarders living in squalor’, but from a practical as well as from a relationships standpoint. The author treats us to her observations of Sandra and her crew on various jobs, yet this was always coloured by her views of Sandra, and… I don’t know, for that specific part, I would’ve preferred if she had been more ‘detached’, more matter-of-fact (because I was genuinely interested of knowing the details: about how Sandra handled her contacts in the police when there was a murder house to clean, for instance; or about the exact techniques used to restore an apparently unsalvageable home to a clean state). Perhaps, in fact, this would have deserved to be two books instead of one, with more careful research regarding Sandra herself? But then, it would’ve made it difficult to show the connection, to show how Sandra, not in spite of, but thanks to her own hard life, is able to connect with her clients. It’s a tricky fence, this one.

Conclusion: 3 stars, it was enjoyable and compelling to a certain extent, but it left me feeling that something was missing nonetheless, that it wasn’t going in-depth enough.

The Zanna Function

The Zanna Function - Daniel Wheatley

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

This middle grade/YA novel deals with Zanna, a girl who loves puzzles, science, and whose curiosity is never satisfied. When she learns she’s been accepted to St. Pommeroy’s School for Gifted Children, of course she jumps for joy, but from the first chapter on, things aren’t like what she expected at all: the school is a nightmare, her schoolmates are horrible, her teachers seem incompetent… or is that only a facet of reality, and truth is in fact much more complex? Don’t trust what you see at first! At St. Pommeroy’s, Zanna discovers that mathematics, physics and chemistry are doors towards understanding the very functions defining the universe, and with this understanding, people like her can learn to manipulate the fabric of the universe itself.

Magic through Science is a concept I love, and I had much fun reading about here (but then, I find simplifying surds relaxing, so…). The school itself follows patterns that aren’t new in many MG novels: Zanna meets the people who’ll become her schoolmates, there are friendships and enmities, but overall I found the school’s atmosphere was a positive one, encouraging cooperation and understanding each other, with the story not veering into the usual Mean Queen Bee and Gang vs. Nice Girl. Although, to be fair, I didn’t always find Zanna herself very nice, especially with the way she immediately started to judge one of the other pupils, when in fact she was best placed to understand his actions, and why he behaved like that. Good thing that this kind of attitude usually paves the way for character growth (both characters), all the more with one of the teachers latching on this and poking at said pupils to force them to look at their true selves instead of pretending to already know who they are and never looking further.

Other characters were enjoyable, too, although I wish they had been more developed and that we had seen more of them. I especially liked the relationship between Zanna and her quirky grandfather, and how Scientists are somewhat hidden from ‘the normal world’, but with presidents, officials etc. still knowing they exist: this way, they’re exceptional, but there’s no need for complete secrecy, keeping both worlds separated, having Zanna forever unable to share her new life with her ‘mundane’ family, and so on.

Overall I found the writing pleasant, and the book a quick, fun read, with the story always moving. The ‘scientific explanations’ peppered here and there may be difficult to follow for a younger audience, however the author usually made his explanations short enough, and with some very basic knowledge in chemistry and physics, they remain understandable. (Do middle grade kids still leanr that? I had physics lessons when I was 11-12, and we started chemistry at 12-13.) Anyway, I believe one can enjoy the plot and characters here even if having to gloss over the more ‘sciencey’ bits, since they effects they have are akin to ‘magic’, so the results can be observed nonetheless, so to speak. For instance, manipulating and changing the proprieties of nitrogen to make balloons fly: the result’s still flying in the end. (Bit of a pet peeve, though, for the use of the word ‘metallurgical’ throughout the book, because as far as I know, this world is related to the the extraction, refining etc. of metals, and has nothing to do with ‘illusions so complex that they’re not only visual, and actually feel real’. Every time the word popped up, it distracted me.)

Another peeve was the villain’s tendency to not reveal anything: ‘I’m doing this for your own good, because if I don’t, terrible things will happen to All The People You Love… but I’m never going to tell you what exactly will happen, trust me even though I’m the villain.’ I mean, I don’t know who would ever believe this would make a teenager keep quiet and passively accept all that’s happening to her. I’m much older than Zanna, and I still wouldn’t take that at face value either. Those reasons are never disclosed even at the end, so I do hope that there’s going to be a second instalment at some point: between that and Zanna’s second year at school, there’s definitely holes to close, and material to exploit.

Globe

Globe: Life in Shakespeare's London - Catharine Arnold

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

I love going to the Globe, although I can’t afford it very often (but I still try to enjoy at least a couple of plays a year, which is the least I can do considering I almost live on its doorstep by London standards ;)). My knowledge about how it came to be was a bit fragmented, so I was glad to be able to read this book.

Throughout it, you can feel the author’s passion for her subject—the device of fictionalising Shakespeare’s first visit to London isn’t what I’d expect from academic research, and I’m not sure it’s pareticularly welcome, but on the other hand, it’s definitely a window on that passion I mentioned, and is entertaining no matter what. It’s also a window on London at the end of the 16th and the early 17th centuries, and I admit I wish this window would’ve been larger, because I couldn’t get enough details on what the city must’ve looked and felt like at that time, all the more now that I can fully compare it to nowadays London (Shoreditch for Burbage’s original Theatre, Bankside for the Globe, the Rose and Blackfriars’ locations, and so on).

I appreciated that the book chronicled the building of the modern Globe, which I believe is as much part of that theatre’s history as the original one, for starters because it’s on its way to last just as long and possibly more, considering the length of its current lease. I learnt about quite a few interesting facts in both cases, from the controversy around Sam Wanamaker’s project (an American trying to resurrect the Globe! So shocking!) to how the original Globe came to be, built from the timbers of the Theatre that Burbage & Co happily scavenged to keep their dream going.

The book also sheds light on the political and social climate at the time, an interesting part since Shakespeare’s plays were often in accordance with current events for his public to better relate. On the other hand, I believe I spotted some factual mistakes that may have been corrected through more careful editing (but I’m not a specialist, so, well, for what it’s worth…).

Conclusion: A good introduction that paves the way for more reading, although not going in-depth.