Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

Adventures of a Computational Explorer

Adventures of a Computational Explorer  - Stephen Wolfram

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

I’ve been mulling over this review for a while now, and have to conclude that I’m still pretty much on the fence about this collection of essays and articles.

On the one hand, it makes no doubt that the author is a smart and clever person, with such an insatiable curiosity for a lot of things, and this for his whole life, that in itself, his writing is lifting and passion-inducing. I was absolutely fascinated, with the first essay, where he chronicles his participation to the “Arrival” movie (he was asked to come up with plausible science to use during certain scenes), partly because I liked this movie, and partly because I love physics even though I don’t have an actual scientific background.

On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be any thread truly linking these articles, and I felt more like I was grabbing posts at random from a blog, some of which (like the one above) were really exciting, and some others I had no interest about. (I’ll be very honest and say that I couldn’t care less about his filing system, for instance, or statistics about his e-mail activity habits...) Because of the originally standalone nature of these “chapters”, there was also a lot of repetition and overlap, such as the many mentions to Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha. Again, on a blog with updates at different times, it’s OK, but as a book, it didn’t work so well. The whole, in the end, felt more “promotional”, where I had expected (and wanted) something that would appeal more to the computer/science geek in me.

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. Had more of the “chapters” been on the level of the first one, I would definitely have liked this collection much more.

The Vanished Bride

The Vanished Bride  - Bella Ellis

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

I don’t read much cosy mysteries in general, so this was bit of a change of pace for me. Overall, I found it an entertaining read, although it didn’t exactly suck me in like I would’ve hoped. I’m not not entirely sure what, since the style was good, and easily shows that the author is very enthusiastic about the Brontë sisters and their lives (from what I know of them, their background was spot on).

Some of the attitudes/conversations were a little too ‘modern’ in terms of feminist ideas to fully emulate a 19th-century style, but I didn’t find this too jarring, and I enjoyed seeing how the sisters navigated the mystery while having to make the outside world believe they were simple, meek, “angel of the home” parson’s daughters, so as not to attract unwanted attention (and, in turn, be confined or labelled “undignified”).

I did have my ideas about what had really transpired when it came to the murder. That said, they remained hypotheses until well into the story, since the clues were unveiled gradually enough for this to happen. And some of the details were clearly not what would’ve come to mind first. The story also has a few easter eggs that one may or may not find over the top (the “wife in the attic” motif, for instance); personally, I tend to like cameos in general, and having read the Brontë sisters’ novels, I liked seeing those here.

Possibly what didn’t win me over were the sisters’ personalities. I found it a little difficult to tell who was who (without having to refer to the names at the beginning of each chapter). It was strange, for they all had very defining traits (Charlotte as the romantic one, Emily as the “wild” one, and so on), and yet I found it difficult to really tell at the same time.

Conclusion: 3 stars

Are You Watching?

Are You Watching? - Vincent Ralph

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

Ten years ago, Jess’s mother was the first victim of a serial killer that proceed to claim many more—one woman every none months since then. Tired of said killer still being at large, Jess decides to apply to a YouTube reality show that will give her one day of air time every week, which she plans to use to appeal to potential witnesses, and basically keep the case hot so that her family can finally see justice being served.

All in all, this story turned out enjoyable and fairly well-constructed overall, with a nice balance of red herrings and suspense, even though the premise is slightly over the top. (The first thing anyone should think when it comes to Jessica’s means is “if that killer’s still around it will attract their attention and she’ll be their next victim for sure”, so it’s kind of baffling that the adults around her were relatively easily on board with it—especially in that time and age, when the flip side of social media is not a mystery.) It also has something very simple; but that I enjoy in this kind of novel: short chapters (sometimes 1-2 pages long, not more), which means that, since I mainly read while commuting and during breaks, I could easily stop and pick it up again pretty much at any time, even when I only had five minutes to read. And I did want to keep reading, and knowing what would happen next.

Of course, the heroine being 17, her decisions were often reckless and bordering on stupid, which is definitely not unheard of in YA stories… On the other hand, it does make up for twists and not-so-happy consequences for the characters, so that’s that. All TSTL tendencies set apart, though, I really liked the other aspects of the story. Jess’s relationship with her close firneds. How her family has been spending the past ten years mired in grief, with her father trying to function as best as he could but never becoming who he used to be again. Her meeting the families of the other victims of the “Magpie Man”. It wasn’t only about catching a killer, but also about (re)discovering how to live after such gruesome events, after a loved one is snatched away from you—and after realising that yes, one’s actions always has consequences.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars.

Tiny Habits

Tiny Habits - B.J. Fogg

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

I can’t decide if this book taught me a lot, or if, all in all, it was all logical stuff and I already knew it without knowing it. I’d say, it’s both.

In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense and is definitely logical: of course starting with baby steps / tiny habits is much more manageable than gunning for some huge change (hello, New Year Resolutions that 99.5% of people never uphold past the first week, and are basically one huge permission we give ourselves to fail, which is why I’ve stopped making them for years). On the other hand, it all *sounds* easy, but if it *was* so easy, we’d all be doing it naturally in a snap of fingers. And it’s absolutely obvious by now that a lot of people, myself included, are pretty much rubbish at “naturally” starting this kind of thing.

All in all, for me, the book wasn’t ground-breaking in itself—the basic theory was more of a “duh!” moment than anything else. However, the author gives pointers and exercises that seem in general useful, and give ideas to start if the whole thing appears really overwhelming. It’s possibly even more useful for people who tend to approach things with an all-or-nothing mentality, since going “all” with a tiny habit (ex: flossing one tooth) is easy to achieve, leads without too much trouble to doing the rest while we’re at it, but sill consists in a success. (Although, for anyone who’s remotely like me, doing more than you planned for also easily leads to unconsciously viewing the “more” as the only possible way of succeeding, which defeats the purpose. But that’s not what the book tells us to do anyway—that’s a personal pitfall.)

The End of Magic

The End of Magic - Mark Stay

That was a fun and intense read. I'd say it's between grim fantasy and a somewhat humorous one, the latter mainly owing to the dialogues (Malachy was definitely one of my favourites in terms of dialogues). The world depicted here is not a nice one. As magic disappears overnight, former mages that previously held people in check through the threat of their powers find themselves on the other end of the leash, and it's not going well for them. Meanwhile, a warlord uses this to raise to power and overthrow the current kings. Amidst this chaos, former mages Rosheen and Sander must make their ways—one trying not to get killed, the other desperately looking for her brother Oskar, a defenceless moon child. (Moon children being affected by the very same moon that allowed magic to exist, and left as impeded people who can't see and hear well, can't form words, and live in a perpetual fog.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Some parts were hard to read, because they depicted abject behaviours (the villain and the men doing his bidding and definitely, well, villains) and because there were some characters whom I really wanted to get a break. But the story was always enthralling, never boring—actually, I read it through the Pigeonhole, and I ended up piling on the last five staves just so that I wouldn't get interrupted every 10% of the book in my reading. :D

If anything, the ending, though, felt too abrupt. I see how we got there, and the final decision does make sense, but I felt that it was harsh, not giving the affected character enough of a second chance (there was absolutely no talk of trying to reason with them some more later, and in a way, that was maybe the most cruel decision in the whole book?). Also, there were still some things left without an answer, and... I just wanted an answer, haha.


Equal. A Story of Women, Men & Money - Carrie Gracie

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

A very interesting book in many ways, that also takes into account difficulties experienced by more women than just the author herself.

Carrie Gracie is/was obviously in what I’m going to call a “position of power” when this happened to her—in spite of not having equal pay, she still had very high pay (the kind of pay a high majority of people don’t and will never relate to), and in itself, this probably doesn’t invite readers in general to, well, relate (a.k.a “cry me a river, at least you’re not on a zero-hour contract). And I agree that this may easily lead readers, myself included, to see such reads as indeed interesting, but also too far away from most people’s daily reality.

This said, Gracie acknowledged this, and also definitely have a point when she states that, because of her advantages here, she was in a position to raise a dint about pay inequality problems, where women in more precarious jobs, earning much less and unable to get any kind of legal counsel (not to mention representation), wouldn’t have any other choice than either shut up or get fired, and probably end up in very dire straits. And -that- is without a doubt part of the problem: there’s still (too) much pressure applied on women, in too many places, when they don’t have the resources to push back, when even finding information about how to start pushing back is not easily available. If the ones who have enough resources to push back don’t do it, who is left?

After the list of the highest paid BBC employees was made public, Gracie wasn’t the only one who had concerns and was not just a little annoyed at what it revealed. Very interesting were the various “arguments” raised to justify why, as China editor, she didn’t earn as much as the (male) USA editor, such as suddenly mentioning that she was “in development” (after 3 years on the job?) when that had never been raised before. I don’t know how good (or not) she was at the job, but this should definitely not come out of the blue, “what a coincidence”, just after one demands equal pay. In the same way, sure, a company can justify higher salaries being paid to men because they’re more senior in their jobs—but that also begs the question, how come that, “what a coincidence”, those senior roles are still so often offered to (white) men? Obviously, when things are skewed in such a way, then yes, sure, “these salaries are higher.”

It was good to see, too, that many other women at the BBC took part in pushing back. Not all of them had the same resources as Gracie, but they worked together nonetheless to get things to progress. The book clearly acknowledges this, and also delves a little deeper into examples of what can happen in a workplace that tries to hide its pay inequality, how to recognise the signs, how to start the process to fight against it (for instance, the BBC didn’t want Gracie’s statements to be recorded, which led to many times rewritten transcripts—and a lot of wasted time—so this is something to keep in mind). Other examples highlight what men can do to help as well, all the more when they’re themselves in high positions, with high pay, but not only: anyone, at any level, can be an ally. Same for employers.

I’m not always sure about all the figures cited—I admit I didn’t cross-check absolutely everything, and sometimes it’s not always clear what exactly was taken into account (all jobs in a company, regardless of what they are? Or all jobs at the same level in a company?). The advice mentioned is also specific to the UK, so I’m not sure how useful it is for other countries. But at least it provides a basis, which is a good thing.

The Girl Who Could See

The Girl Who Could See  - Kara Swanson

I actually enjoyed the story, its premise was good. But I think this book needed to be longer. I wanted to see more of the Fern/Tristan relationship (not just the way it went in the end). I wanted to see the guys Fern needs to convince getting convinced, but not in a snap of fingers. More development about the world that was, and how it bears on Tristan (I mean, the guy has seen that happen for years, there should be more impact on him?), would've been welcome, too; same about the lab and who/why did they do this.

The Black Hawks

The Black Hawks - David Wragg

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

A decent fantasy story, although not what I was led to believe it would be—scratch that as another victim of the Misleading Blurb? (What I mean is that, if you sell me fantasy as “hilarious”, I’ll expect something that’ll really make me laugh, like Discworld. Which is not what we have here.) So, yes, please, people who write blurbs, stop doing that; you’re doing these books quite a disservice.

Anyway. As I was saying, the story is “decent”, as in it’s not going to revolutionise fantasy for sure, but remains entertaining. The world-building is on the generic side: easy to understand, no need for pages of exposition about how magic works, etc., and the geopolitics is introduced through events and dialogues.

My problems with this novel are, firstly, the main characters. The prince is pretty much a whiner all along, and not particularly interesting; whether he opened his mouth or not, it was all the same for me. Chel had a more exciting beginning—sworn to someone who basically swindled him out of his heritage through marriage, forced to run errands rather than be an actual knight, and liable to jump into whatever he can find, probably because he’s bored to death. The issue with him, though, is that he ends up wounded fairly early in the story, and stays like that for a while, which means he’s out of commission for anything fighting- or action-related. Add this to the second problem, a.k.a. travel fantasy, which I often have with such stories, and let’s just say it really doesn’t help.

(I don’t review fantasy very often, so I’m not sure I mentioned it in a previous review, but I have a weird relationship with stories where a good deal of the plot is devoted to travelling—and that’s as a writer as well! I got introduced to fantasy precisely through this—LOTR, I’m looking at you—and I keep gravitating towards such stories, yet at the same time, they also tend to bore me easily, because apart from the occasional wolf/bandit/assassin attack in the forest/mountains, not much else is happening. Here, the fight scenes themselves are good, there’s tension and blood and people do get hurt; but what’s in between tended to bore me.)

As for the Black Hawks themselves, they did have their interesting sides as well. Some light is shed on them throughout the story, a lot more mystery remains at the end, to be developed in the next volume(s) I hope, and in general, they were of the (somewhat magnificent) bastard kind, which is something I enjoy: unlikeable as people, yet likeable when it comes to following their antics.

On the other hand, the cliffhanger at the end was not one I appreciated. The twist was surprising (perhaps a little on the cliché side), but the cliffhanger was definitely too abrupt, as if a couple of chapters were missing from the book.

Hold Your Tongue

Hold Your Tongue - Deborah Masson

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

I think this is the very first novel set in Aberdeen that I read, which kind of surprises me, since I assume there are plenty of stories set in that city. Since I’ve never visited it either, I had absolutely no idea what it looks like, so I couldn’t rely on my own knowledge of it. We get a few streets’ names to place the action, but not so many that it becomes confusing, and what the city’s areas stand for (posh districts, less savoury places, and so on) is clear and presented concisely. It had a gritty side, and a sometimes stifling atmosphere that went well with the nature of the crime/murder mystery here. On the other hand, I have no idea if the real Aberdeen feels like this. I was under the impression that the setting here, while fitting, was perhaps more generic than anything else (it would’ve worked just as well in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham or Manchester).

“Hold Your Tongue” deals with DI Eve Hunter getting back to her job after a couple of harrowing events that left her and Sanders, a colleague, heavily wounded—and not only does she have to immediately investigate a series of gruesome murders, but a lot of people aren’t happy to see her back, including other police officers who hold her responsible for what happened to Sanders. While the novel is not entirely clear about the latter point in the first pages, it’s still obvious how much this is weighing on Eve, and her coming to terms with this (psychologically, emotionally and physically) is just as much part of the plot as the murders themselves.

The story comes with plenty of turns and red herrings. These included focusing on a suspect in spite of a lack of clues; gut feelings; and also chapters narrated from the point of view of the killer, spreading little clues here and there, but still vaguely enough as to not make the killer’s identity too obvious from the start—I got close to guessing who it was, but not too close either, which is good for me. At times, I found the characters perhaps too prone on jumping on certain clues or making certain mistakes because of how their own experiences influenced them (for instance, Eve and Ferguson’s strained relationship clearly doesn’t help them keep a straight head); this was partly understandable, and partly cast a shadow on them, in that it made them look less professional in such moments.

I liked that some of the tension gets resolved in this first volume in the series, but not other things (Eve’s origins and how they may colour her future take on life, or how the killer’s actions will weigh on her team in general). This was a good introduction to Eve and her partners, hinting at more depth—although I regret that one of those relationships just can’t be exploited anymore, or not directly, in the following novels.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. As a first story in a series, it sets the scene and characters well, with a partial resolution only, and therefore more left to explore later on. It was a bit slow in places, though, and could do with just a smidge of plot tightening. I'll definitely be interested in book 2 no matter what.

Body Tourists

Body Tourists - Jane Rogers

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

Interesting theme here: dead, wealthy people being brought to life for a couple of weeks in the bodies of fit, but poor youth for whom this is the only hope of making some kind of money.

There’s a lot to be said here in terms of morals and ethics, some on the religious front, and some not. In itself, this is ground for deeper discussion, from the value of money vs. one’s body to whether a human being suddenly “reanimated” in a younger body can be trusted with it or will just do whatever, and not care about their “host”, since they go back to being dead after that anyway. One could even argue that the rich are robbing (shall I say “once again”?) other people of something precious, in this case their time and their youth, and potentially more (this is a bit spoiler-ish, but it happens early enough in the novel anyway). Especially since, in the novel’s near future, the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots has grown even bigger, with “estates” now being entire towns from which their inhabitants just never escape.

The story explores several of these “body tourists”, from different points of view. There’s Octavia, one of the tourists herself; Luke, the scientist in charge of the project; Paula, a host who then has to go back to her life and the aftermath of this experiment; Rick, who wants to bring back his father; and Elsa, a woman whose partner died after a particularly harrowing event in their lives, leaving so much unsaid. Each narrative highlights a different take on the matter when it comes to reflecting on the whole body swapping angle—whether it’s a valid option, or should be banned altogether, or could work but only within a specific framework.

That said, I had a hard time getting into the story itself, in that these narratives don’t seamlessly join each other. Most of the time, I got the feeling that I was reading a collection of short stories forcefully brought together, rather than a complete story. (And for what it’s worth, perhaps it’s actually how it started, before being turned into a novel.) It doesn’t detract from the philosophical aspect, the concept of body tourism itself, but in terms of storytelling, it was jarring in several places, and because of this, a few parts of the various characters’ stories were also glossed over, when they could’ve been interesting to explore as well.

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. I liked the theme, but the story itself fell flat for me.

17 Church Row

17 Church Row - James Carol

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

A pretty interesting premise here: after the death of one of their twin daughters, Nikki and Ethan Rhodes decide to acquire a new revolutionary house, entirely automated and equipped with a virtual assistant named Alice. All this hoping for a new start, for a place where they won’t see memories of their dead daughter everywhere, and for their remaining child, Bella, to finally speak again.

The house itself, I admit, was both super exciting and a dreadful prospect for me. Exciting, because of all the technological gizmos and automation—a house that anticipates your needs, doesn’t that sound great? And at the same time, it -is- also scary, because if anything goes wrong, if the power goes down, well, you’re trapped in there, aren’t you? Which is—no surprise here—what kind of starts to happen, with a few glitches here and there that worry the Rhodes, just as much as they worry the architect of the house, though not for the same reasons.

The first part of the book was less interesting, to be honest, and I think that’s because it took its sweet time to establish the life of the Rhodes, the ‘slice of life’ moments needed for the reader to see how things are going inside the new house. In itself, that was indeed necessary, since how would we care about what happens next if things hadn’t been desperately “normal” before to offer some contrast? Yet at the same time, I didn’t really connect with the Rhodes, perhaps because their life in general, especially Nikki’s, was pretty much so sheltered that the rest of the world might have not existed at all. Wealthy family (they could afford a Tesla and buy 17 Church Row just like that—in London, so I guess they had an oil well stashed under their garden at some point or something?), with Ethan always out working and Nikki alone at home with her child. Bella doesn’t speak, and we don’t really get to know her, apart from her drawing and speaking through her tablet. There were only a few external elements, such as Sofia the cleaner. And while that highlighted Nikki’s isolation when it comes to what happens next, that still made for a sort of bland universe with which the characters could only interact in a bland way, too.

The second part was more interesting, yet also drawn-out and perhaps trying to enforce the point a little too much. Some parts of it were definitely in line with current possibilities and fears related to AI, and some others had moustache-twirling villain vibes that were quite odd here. The ending, too, felt rushed and unsatisfying.

Style-wise, one thing I found really jarring was the cuts between paragraphs. We’d have a paragraph about, say, Nikki thinking of her dead child, and then suddenly the last sentence of the paragraph was “She got up and went to make coffee.” (where I would definitely expect this to be the start of a new paragraph). I don’t know if it’s just me, but it happened regularly throughout the novel, and it felt strange.

Conclusion: Interesting ideas around the theme of artificial intelligence, but it was difficult to connect with (and care about) the characters.

The Orphanage of Gods

The Orphanage of Gods - Helena Coggan

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

It took me ages to get into this book (actually, I did it on my third attempt), and I have no idea why. It wasn’t terrible, the beginning was sort of ‘standard’ (= nothing particularly off-putting), it read easily, there wasn’t anything stylistically bad in here, and there was a good chunk of the novel where I actually wanted to read, once I got past the first chapters. However, in the end, I wasn’t sure what the point really was in terms of the story and the characters’ evolution, and this is the kind of thing that is likely to make me forget ‘The Orphanage of Gods’ fairly soon.

I never connected with any of the characters for starters. Hero was somewhat likeable, but too whiny and dwelling on the same things over and over again. Joshua had no redeeming qualities that I can think of. Kestrel was OK but pretty much thrown in there as a puppet. Raven (who’s the narrator of the middle part, out of three) was supposed to be that super future leader, but she was 10 and didn’t do much (apart from being targeted), so that defeated the whole purpose. Eliza, well… it was very convenient that she could avoid many consequences thanks to her powers. The guards were just depicted as monsters and never anything else, and whenever another god or demi-god was somewhat likeable, they just got out of the picture sooner or later.

(Bonus point for same-gender relationship, which is a nice change; but as usual in suYA ch novels, it was insta-love and came out of the blue… so I guess that’s no bonus point, all in all.)

The ending was murky and left me unsatisfied. It felt both unavoidable (it was either that or just offing everyone, I guess) and like a cop-out, because so many things were unresolved at that point.

The Nobody People

The Nobody People - Bob Proehl

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

It took me a while to get through this one. I’m not exactly sure why I wasn’t thrilled and not in the mood, but part of it probably had to do with the fact several characters have their arcs develop throughout the book, without enough screen time for each. When this happens Moreover, while there will be a second volume, and I didn’t expect everything to be solved here, some of these arcs were also cut short, without any proper ‘aftermath’ time being given. It’s akin to someone being deemed as super important because they will save us all, then that person suddenly refuses to do it, or dies, or is out of the picture for any other reason, and… that’s all. It’s supposed to be bad, but no one really dwells on it. It felt very strange.

I also struggled to get through and not skim. Not sure if it was the style (present-tense narrative is fine with me in small doses, but not for hundreds of pages). Or the apparent ‘main character’ who turns out to be sidelined pretty quickly, and wasn’t super pleasant to read about anyway. Or the plot jumping between characters but without really giving a feeling of cohesion. Probably a mix of all. In the end, the story deals with heavy themes (acceptance & rejection, internment for people with powers instead of trying to integrate everyone in a new society, being killed just for being different…), that affect the characters a lot, but… I didn’t really care about the characters. In fact, to the risk of sounding awful, the one character I enjoyed reading about the most was Owen Curry. Yes, that one. Also the circus/freakshow subplot. I guess that’s quite telling.

It wasn’t a bad story in itself. Depressing in parts, sure, because we already have enough of that intolerance crap in our real world out there. But that doesn’t make a story bad. As far as I’m concerned, though, the above made it a slog for me, so it was okay-ish in the end, but I can’t say I absolutely liked it.

Keep Clear

Keep Clear - Tom Cutler

(I read this book through The Pigeonhole.)

I found this an informative, witty and sad read altogether. I'm not entirely new to Asperger's (since I know a few people who were diagnosed with it) but reading textbooks about it and reading an account by someone living with it are definitely two different things.

Tom Cutler's writing style, interspersed with humour and poetic moments, was also definitely pleasant here.


Messengers - Joseph Marks, Stephen Martin

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

An interesting read altogether, although I sometimes found it too ‘light’ and superficial. Perhaps because of the many anecdotes it contains? On the one hand, they do help in getting the point, for sure, but after a while I felt that the book would be definitely more of an introduction (with the research quoted in it having to become the actual focus at some point) than a reference all of itself. Perhaps that was the goal all along, though.

In any case, I did find this research thought-provoking. It’s not the first time that I’m faced with concepts such as ‘we believe ourselves super good at judging people, circumstances etc, but in fact we’re lousier at it than we’d think’; and, let’s be honest, when I look around me at the kind of messages we get, at who broadcasts them, at how people listen to them… Yes, I’m willing to believe that -who- delivers the message is often better heard than the message itself (or allows for the message to be misunderstood in part). Is that a constant? Not necessarily, since behaviours, physical traits, and how we read them are much more complex than meet the eye; but it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that, yes, we may just as well be influenced by a “dominant” or “handsome” appearance rather than by sound judgement, while remaining convinced our decision is perfectly rational and informed. If this only leads to think twice and get back to finding facts and information before deciding, it’s a good thing.

(I must also admit that the book gives a few good ideas about things like posture and tone of voice to use if wanting to impress people or convey a specific meaning. After all, once aware of what people in general tend to respond to, well, might as well try to use it and see if it helps when trying to convince them myself, right?)

Conclusion: 3 to 3.5 stars. It was informative in a general way, yet I think it would’ve benefitted from a deeper analysis as well.

Gender Mosaic

Gender Mosaic: Beyond the Myth of the Male and Female Brain  - Luba Vikhanski, Daphna Joel

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

That was pretty much preaching to the choir here, so I’ll admit my bias from the beginning—I’m absolutely not convinced, science or no science, that gender has very legitimate foundations, and that your genitals determine how you behave, what you like, who you are, and so on. It doesn’t make sense to me that so many people insist putting everybody in a tidy little “man OR woman” box (and when you stand out of the box, you’d think it threatens the very foundations of -their- identity, which makes me think that there’s something fishy here anyway). So, I was definitely interested in reading more about this concept of gender mosaic, and… well, -this-, on the other hand, makes sense to me.

“Gender Mosaic” explores the binary perception of gender, how people in general tend to ascribe this behaviour as “masculine” and that behaviour as “feminine”, but also how we’re actually very, very seldom made of only masculine or only feminine traits. Most people have a bit of both, but due to the importance placed on gender (re: the little boxes I mentioned), what is seen as “deviations from the perceived norm” is usually also seen as something to stamp out, to hide, to reject (another of these things that make no sense to me: what does it matter that a little boy likes playing with dolls? What’s so frightening about it? That this kid will become a good father later?). Our genitals are part of our biology, sure, but they’re not the only factor that plays a part in how our brains develop: it’s not only about hormones, it’s also about external influences, social ones, stress, etc. Especially stress: this isn’t something I would have researched in relation to gender, not at first sight, and yet, in hindsight, studies that focus on this don’t look out of place.

Which begs the question: what truly affects us? Does a man behave “like a man “because he was born with a penis, or because external (social) pressures exerted on him since birth have affected him? If “boys don’t cry”, is it because they can’t (beats me why they have tear ducts, then), or because they are repeatedly told almost since birth that “real men don’t cry” (and shunned accordingly if they dare cry)? Are girls naturally better at cooking because they have a vagina, or because they’ve been traditionally stuck into staying at home and cooking? Are such differences between genders valid, or are they here in the first place because social expectations have increased them? And what of people whose traits don't lean enough towards one gender—too often, they're dismissed and conflated into the gender other people think is theirs, and this is harmful. A mosaic is a much healthier approach to this, to understanding what makes us human first and foremost.

Having a look at the various studies referenced throughout the book, I don’t think I’m an exception in leaning towards the latter explanations rather than the former ones. Said studies are also quoted in understandable, laypeople terms, and I found their relevance easy to grasp. Finally, I liked that “Gender Mosaic” discusses the scientific side, but also goes further in exploring what it means from a societal point of view: how we raise children, especially, and how so many pervasive behaviours that look “innocent” are actually deeply biased.

While I enjoyed these aspects, though, I’d also have liked seeing more clarity in terms of actual differences. “Men are like this and women are like that” arguments are all too easily used to claim that “men are superior to women” or “women make better parents”. However, science has also shown that there are physiological differences (not necessarily in brains—for instance, the way symptoms announcing impending cardiac arrest aren’t exactly the same in women as in men, causing too many of the former to be misdiagnosed, just like “male” is still too often used as the default template for “human” in many medical studies). It’s not that “Gender Mosaic” doesn’t mention it at all, but I found the line a little blurred here. For me, the problem is with gender (= the social & formative aspect, what it imposes on human beings, how it shapes them through peer pressure), which doesn’t mean that sex (the biological/genetical aspect) should be downplayed. I think the book wasn’t too clear on that, or perhaps went a little too quickly about it, and as a result, it would be easy to misunderstand it in parts.

This said, when it comes to genders, behaviours perceived as associated to genders—then, yes, my own perception of it, my own experience, definitely point me towards “this is indeed blurry, because we’re not made of all or nothing, and that blurriness is expected”.