Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

Gone

Gone - Leona Deakin

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

This mystery/thriller deal with psychologist Augusta Bloom and her partner Marcus Jameson, as both start investigating (first for personal reasons) the disappearances of four people, all after receiving a mysterious card on their birthday. A lot of the investigation rests on psychology rather than on typical clue analysis by the police, in that there are very few physical clues, and so Augusta tries to find out more by relying on what psychological profiling can tell her. Which in itself was pretty interesting, all the more after she develops her theory about who/what exactly the vanished people are.

The novel also makes use of contemporary internet, both when it comes to its strong points and to its weakness: one of the involved policemen goes to the deep web to look for clues, for instance, but it’s also clear that relying on social media to glean information is definitely a double-edged sword, since it allows other people (shady characters included) to get to know you.

Then there’s the setting—I always enjoy being able to relate to the places in a story, so with part of the action set in London (and the UK in general), that was good for me. And it was good, too, to see the investigation progress with both the ‘private eyes’ and the police working hand in hand, rather than have one try to hide information from the other.

It was a good story in general, but I admit I sometimes had trouble with the pace (in places, it was just a tad bit too slow) and with really connecting with the main characters. For reasons I won’t detail because Spoilers, Augusta was fairly aloof and emotionally remote, so it was difficult to empathise with her. I found Marcus, in spite of his past as an ex-MI6 agent, was too quick to trust certain people, which jarred with what I had expected of him. Finally, the ending was slightly too rushed, and too open as well—but then, I took this book as a standalone, so I guess that if it turns out not to be, then said open ending will not be a problem.

The Kingdom

The Kingdom - Jess Rothenberg

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

Not as good as I had hoped it would be from the blurb, but still an entertaining and interesting read.

(I’ve seen it compared to/inspired by “Westworld”, but not having seen it, I honestly can’t tell, so that won’t play a part in my review.)

I definitely liked the premise: “the Kingdom”, an amusement park of the Disney World variety, with seven princesses, a.k.a the Fantasists (Ana and her sisters), and various themed areas, such as Mermaid Land, where customers can spend the day, have fun and live mini-adventures, far away from their bleak everyday life (the world outside seems in a constant financial, housing and environmental crisis). Moreover, the visitors can interact with the perfect-Disney-like princesses—always smiling, kind, helpful and aiming to please—and see “hybrids”, animals that used to be extinct, but have been re-created through a combination of genengeering and cybernetics (yes, including dinosaurs).

Of course, this immediately raised controversial questions as to the nature and role of the hybrids, whether the princesses or the animals, and the way they were seen and treated by people in general, and by their creators more specifically. The veneer of a dream-like life for the princesses is very early shattered when Ana describes how they are tied in their beds for the night, how firewalls prevent them from accessing the whole of Internet and communicate with the outside world, and how sometimes, some of them seem to lose their memories of the previous day or evening.

The story is seen through Ana’s eyes, as well as through snippets of interviews and articles, most of which are related to a trial following Owen’s death at Ana’s hands. I usually tend to like this kind of format, for several reasons (varied points of views that are easy to separate from each other, short “chapters” that are really convenient when I can’t read for long stints…), but some of those weren’t too relevant, or at least, only became relevant long after, which gave me enough time to dismiss them. These different narratives offer more and more information as to the “dark fairy tale” that unfolds throughout the novel, with Ana and her sisters developing more and more of a personality and feelings of their own, in spite of their creators claiming they cannot do more than what their programming allows them to. While we don’t get to see through her sisters’ eyes, Ana’s recounting of the story lets us see what a slippery slope it is, when AIs in human-looking bodies are meant to act like human beings, but at the same time constricted into prisoners’ roles that deny them any claim at even a scrap of humanity.

Why I didn’t give more than 3-3.5 stars to this book was, first, how the romance itself unfurled. I get what happened, I get what the characters did, but I never really got a strong feeling for their relationship, nor did I feel strong chemistry between them that would justify, well, an actual romance. I also found Ana’s narrative style somewhat dry and bland, which in a way fits well with her nature as an artificial intelligence, but didn’t do much in terms of gripping writing. And the last third of the book lacked coherence at times, as if everything collided together at the same time without tight reasons in the background—so in the end, it felt rushed, and poised on the edge of unfinished (“was that a standalone or will there be a sequel?”).

Conclusion: Not as gripping as I had hoped, although it does lend itself to interesting discussions about AI, artificially created beings that are nevertheless sentient, and how they should be treated.

The Grace Year

The Grace Year - Kim Liggett

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

A strong premise that definitely caught my interest (what’s not to like about a female-driven version of “Lord of the Flies”, so to speak?), but whose execution unfortunately didn’t work for me.

The story starts with a typical “dystopian place where women are expected to behave in certain ways, and are under men’s yoke without any recourse”. Bleak (and sort of over the top), but that’s why it provides for a good starting point: heroines aren’t born from cozy lives where nothing unpleasant ever happens, after all.

Tierney is that person: a girl on the cusp of her sixteenth birthday, after which she’ll be exiled for one year with all the other girls born the same year as her, to live in some remote camp in the woods where they’ll all have to expel the “magic” out of them. (A magic that is clearly threatening only because it is meant to have an impact on men, of course, such as the girls being rumoured to be able to seduce anyone if left unchecked, and so on.) So that’s where we start: on the eve of that fateful day, with Tierney disagreeing with it but not having much of a choice, and determined to make the most she can out of it—she knows that no boy in the county will give her a veail (= propose to her before she leaves), due to her being the local tomboy, so she wants to work in the fields instead when she’s back, to at least have some kind of freedom by working outdoors. To no reader’s surprise, things don’t go exactly as planned, and Tierney finds herself leaving with the promise of enmity in that camp, rather than of working together to survive the upcoming year.

The “grace year” is clearly not a good year for these girls, and I did like that part of the world described in the book. Again, not a rosy part at all, rather an infuriating one at that, for the girls having to live in that camp on an island was an obvious attempt at breaking them and better subdue the future wives and female workers of the county. Is the magic real? Most people in Tierney’s town probably wouldn’t be able to recognise it if it stared them in the face, but they are nevertheless quick to seize this as an opportunity to get rid of a wife judged as too old now, or to smear someone’s reputation. You want to root for Tierney here, hope that she, at least, will find a way out of this, or a way to turn the table and bring change to her society…

…But that’s where the book lost me, for several reasons:

- The camp setting could’ve been a perfect opportunity to show us young women having to cooperate in spite of their differences, and perhaps finding and retaking their own power in a place where no one else would see and judge them. Unfortunately, it went down another road, one I don’t care for much, in a “one vs. all the others” way, complete with mean girl extraordinaire and appalling behaviours. Although the latter was somewhat part of the very patriarchal society depicted here, the problem was how it only contributed to pitch girls against girls, even more than in their hometown, instead of giving them a common ground on which to build something else.

- Tierney was introduced as resourceful, but there were several moments when she was helpless in situations where she should’ve made more use of her skills, and let herself be bullied to an extent that could’ve been lethal. Maybe I was expecting too much here? I expected her to catch on much more quickly on how the others would behave towards her, and have, I don’t know, some backup plan?

- Following this: the huge problem, for me, of having the female lead placed in dire situations… and get out of them only because men helped. This completely underminded the feminist aspects, from the man who helps Tierney in the woods, to the one who lies to save her skin. Not only did it make her look helpless, but it also enforced the message that, all in all, men were deciding everything about her life. Again.

- The romance. Unnecessary in such a plot, and without any real chemistry anyway.

- The world itself. I’m still not sure whether it’s a fantasy world, or whether the county is located in England or the future USA or something (mention is made of people from varied origins with different languages, then of English having become the common language; Vikings are also briefly mentioned). It was pretty much a bubble world, with only the county and the one town in it, and nothing else beyond this. Still unsure whether societies in other counties was the same or not, if they had grace years as well or not, etc.

Conclusion: I filed this one as “it was OK” because I did finish it and it had a few points I liked, but it could’ve been so much more, and ultimately wasn’t.

Tangle's Game

Tangle's Game - Stewart Hotston

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

A techno-thriller with interesting AI-related themes, although in the end, I wasn’t awed by the story.

Set in a somewhat near future where transactions are handled through blockchain-based contracts and people’s quality of life is dependent on their social credit score as well as on their financial credit score, “Tangle’s Game” tells the story of Amanda Back, a successful investment banker who finally got a complete grip back on her life after an ex-boyfriend stole her money and left her betrayed. Flying back to London, and after an invasive search episode at the airport, she comes home only to realise that said boyfriend has involved her in a dangerous game where a mysterious USB stick and the information it contains is key. The only problem? Amanda isn’t a hacker, or a conspiracy theorist, or a whistleblower, and is probably the last person with the proper connections to do something with said information.

The premise really hooked me in, and I quickly wanted to know more about how this would all unfurl: who were the enemies, how would they try to get the info, what was Tangle’s exact part in that, who could be Amanda’s allies… Most of all, I was interested in Tatsu, the little AI contracted to help her decrypt the contents of the USB stick. I always have a soft spot for AIs, and Tatsu was definitely endearing.

By contrast, though, I never really warmed up to the human characters. Mostly they were “unlikeable” as people (Amanda is pretty much self-centered, Tangle is no better and probably somewhere on the sociopathic ladder…), but that in itself is not a deal-breaker for me—they can be the most rotten pieces of crap in the world, I can still find them likeable as characters, provided the execution goes this way. It wasn’t much the case here, in part because these characters as a whole made problematic decision after problematic decision, in a way that made me keep wondering how on Earth they were still alive. (I’ve been a tabletop RPG player for over 20 years. Trust my experience when I say that “’eceiving mysterious information and just hanging about in one’s own flat—where everybody know they can find you—while trying to come up with ideas about what to do” is a sure way of being assaulted at night by men in black or other unsavoury characters.) I was actually glad when one of the bad guys finally called them on their ability to come up with plans that may work in movies, but never in real life. And that was worth for pretty much the whole cast, not only Amanda, who at least I would’ve expected to be the most clueless.

The last 20% picked up, and with Tatsu still involved by that point, that made me want to read until the end at any rate. The ending itself is fairly open, and leaves much unresolved, but in a way, it also makes much sense: things got mired, then exploded, and now the world’s in turmoil… and the fragile situation at the end, teetering between hope and potential catastrophe, fits that pattern.

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. Mostly I didn’t care much about the human characters, and there were a few plot holes that annoyed me, but I did enjoy the part played by the AI, and the way Amanda (and Tangle, too, after all) considered it.

The July Girls

The July Girls - Phoebe Locke

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

Here’s a mystery about a killer, nicknamed “Magpie”, who every year, on July 7th, abducts and kills a woman. In this case, though, it’s not the police’s investigation we follow, but this story seen through the eyes of Abigail, a young girl born on July 7th as well: because on her 10th birthday, her father comes home covered in blood, and that’s when she starts questioning more and more what other secrets her family is hiding.

Just as much as a crime story—there is an investigation as well, after all—“The July Girls” is the story of a small family, specifically Addie and her big sister Jessie, who’s more a mother to her, since their mum has vanished abroad and never comes home. Their father is seldom around either, trying to make ends meet as an unlicensed cab driver, and it is clear from the beginning that Jessie loves Addie so much that she tries to shield her from basically everything, including their relatively bleak prospects in South London. And when things take a turn for the worst, we also get to see how the sisters’ life goes on, how Addie gets bullied at school because of her father, and how she tries to make sense of the events that unfolded until that point.

The novel spans about ten years in Addie’s life, which is good: it allows the readers to ‘see’ her voice mature, and her thoughts processes go from a girl’s to an adult’s. It’s also good in that it makes the killer’s arc into a slow-going investigation, as is definitely needed here, with the murders happening only once a year: if it had been solved in two years, it wouldn’t have been as suspenseful, for sure.

I kept guessing and guessing regarding who the killer might be, as there were a few valid options here. There were several twists and turns, and while a couple of them were slightly erring on the far-fetched side, I still found the novel as a whole a pretty good one, that kept me reading and interested until the end.

The Escape Room

The Escape Room - Megan Goldin

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

A quick read, in that it’s not complicated and you don’t need a lot of focus. I didn’t find the story compelling, and the writing style was quite dry, with much more telling than showing.

The initial idea, that of four people trapped in a lift masquerading as an escape room, and forced to be together when in fact they’d probably much prefer to kill each other, was a good one. However, it was also difficult to execute—there isn’t much room in a lift, which limits action possibilities—and after the first couple of “lift chapters”, the thrill here dwindled down to our four bankers not doing much with the few clues they were given. I think there was an element of “things didn’t turn out exactly as the mastermind behind it had envisioned they would”, but it fell flat for me. It was also pretty obvious from the beginning who said mastermind was, and with this removed, the remaining “how” and “why” weren’t able to fully carry the story afterwards.

This said, I could’ve worked with the above under certain conditions: the twin narrative of Sara Hall and what happened within Stanhope a few years prior to the escape room scenes had interesting ideas, exploring the ruthless world of investment banking, colleagues smiling to each other but trying to undermine each other from behind, backstabbing, the women vs. the “old boys’ network”, and so on. I could’ve worked with this… if the characters had been compelling, only they weren’t. Almost all of them (except the one that dies mid-story) weren’t likeable people—and when I say likeable, I don’t mean that they necessarily have to be kind, positive, etc., but that they have to make me feel for them, and keep interested, in spite of their flaws. Here, though, they were just unlikeable, without many redeeming qualities; their more human aspects (struggling with their relationships, divorce, and so on) mostly make them look like what mattered to them wasn’t so much the relationship, but the standing that came with it; not so much saving one’s marriage, but avoiding losing alimony money; and so on. In other words, whether they got out of the lift or not, I didn’t care.

As for the plot behind the whole escape room, it felt more contrived, and a little ridiculous, than thrilling, and the few twists and turns didn’t awe me either.

(On the plus side, I did like the characters who died. Unfortunately. I mean, for them, because, well, they’re dead.)

Nonbinary — Memoirs of Gender and Identity

Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity  - Micah Rajunov, A. Scott Duane

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

A collection of essays by and about nonbinary authors. (Incidentally, July 14 is International Nonbinary People's day, so I guess this review comes at just about the right time.) There’s more than just “either man or woman”, and I wish this was more understood, all the more because I have a hard time with the current of hostility exhibited by some people whenever they can’t put others in neat little boxes (doesn’t only apply to gender, but the latter is a definitely a sore spot).

The essays range across a variety of people and assigned genders, and show well that “nonbinary” is not something that only “happens” in specific places, or to specific people. There’s too often a tendency to see all things enby or trans as a “phase”, as something that people should “grow out of”. Here, not all authors are younger people who may be called “too young to know” and who will “stop being confused and change their minds”, the way the usual narrative goes whenever the two little boxes I mentioned above cannot be ticked. Half the authors are at least in their 30s, or even born in the 1950s-60, which goes to show that it’s not a generation thing. The same way, “non-binary” is too often seen as “assigned female as birth who now presents as androgyne”, when the truth is that this concerns many other kinds of people, across all ages, origins, colour and sexuality.

It was really interesting for me to see how all these authors came to understand they were nonbinary. For some, it was obvious very early, others had more trouble putting a name on it, or thought they were looking for transition, and so on. We are formatted from a very young age to see ourselves as either boy or girl, and this formatting can have a strong impact, in that it’s not so easy to sort out what we feel, and the spectre of “having to be normal” weighs heavily. Because you don’t feel like a boy doesn’t mean you’re a cis girl, and conversely. And more visibility (and less dismissal) in general for nonbinary people would be a welcome thing.

In terms of diversity, the one thing I regret here is that it felt like a very US-centric collection, so it doesn’t shed light about what being non-binary may entail in other parts of the world. Maybe it wasn’t possible to get authors from other countries, or maybe it was overlooked? I was also not too thrilled with the chapter told by the parent of a nonbinary teen; I would’ve been more interested in having the direct point of view of Bailey themselves as well, also as someone with the perspective of a teenager.

The Science of Storytelling

The Science of Storytelling - Will Storr

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

Pretty interesting both regarding the science part (how our brains work) and the writing part (how this translated into fiction, and more specifically creating compelling characters with a ‘fatal flaw’). The author illustrates those points with examples from a few well-known books, like ‘Lolita’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’, an approach that could easily be problematic. On the one hand, illustrating the theory with examples is always better. On the other hand, if one hasn’t read those books…spoilers! (I had read those in the past, so I was good here.) At any rates, these examples were good ones in my opinion, especially where ‘Lolita’ is concerned: Humbert Humbert is clearly not the kind of character one is supposed to root for, so for Nabokov to make him and the story compelling, specific techniques had to be used. And once analysed the way they are in “The Science of Storytelling”, they do make a lot of sense. (Please note that this has likely been explored in studies about ‘Lolita’ as well, but I haven’t read them, so I can’t tell whether there’s anything original in here, or not at all.)

Having plenty of examples, though, was perhaps a little overkill in places, in that it left less room to explore more in terms of neuroscience / how the human brain works. I chose to take this book as one I can go back to for ‘writing advice’, but I admit that I felt a little down regarding the science part (I expected more, in a more scientific way). So best is to approach this book as one about writing rather than as a bona fide ‘science’ book’.

(I also didn’t care much for the few moments when the author went more into political opinions. This I found jarring, and it pulled me out of my funk.)

Probably my favourite section was actually the last one (as in, the appendix), which gives good pointers into creating and fleshing out characters based on what the author developed throughout the book. In hindsight, it’s probably ‘logical’ advice, and I suppose that there are quite a few authors out there who’re doing that (consciously or not) as something that is completely obvious and/or logical to them; for me, it was definitely interesting, and I need to keep it in mind when developing my own characters. Which isn’t necessarily easy when you have more than one main character to focus on, but that’s a whole other conundrum.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

Whisper Network

Whisper Network - Chandler Baker

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

I enjoyed this novel for its theme and its message, along with the format: interspersed with interviews gradually unveiling more of the “present time” plot, while the chapters themselves started some 2 months before and showed what led to this point. I guessed some things, I didn’t guess some others, and all in all, piecing things together was fun.

The topic at hand, of course, wasn’t fun. It balanced between office politics and double-standards—how female employees are (often) viewed vs. the “old boys club” feeling—, between deciding whether to complain about potential harassment or shut up for fear of retaliation, between wondering what does constitute harassment and whether or not one is “overreacting”, and let’s not forget also the usual “these women are lying and destroying lives” (funny enough, the people complaining about this don’t seem to react as often about how rapists are ruining lives as well). All well-made points, including the latter, because it -is- true they come forward right as the guy is poised to become the new CEO, in reaction to feeling suddenly even more threatened, but also one of opportunism… but not everyone would think about it this way, since there’d be lots of money involved as well. All uncomfortable topics, too, yet that need to be pointed at and discussed.

This said, I really had trouble empathising with the characters. I don’t have much in common with them for starters—apart, that is, from encounters with sexist douchebags and other run-ins involving the usual patriarchy-fed bull, although I’m aware I haven’t had it the worst either (fingers crossed). But I’m not a new mother, nor a single one, nor someone who cheated on a partner, etc., so I usually need a bit of extra connection with such characters, a little dose of something else, something more, to relate to their problems, especially their rich people problems, and… that didn’t really happen here. The impression I got out of the main female characters was more that they weren’t very pleasant people, who yet kept trying to justify their behaviours to themselves, a little like “but at least I do this better” and “but -I- am not like that, right?” Kind of weak in my opinion.

The story also dragged in parts, and even though I read it in 3 days, at times I wished it would get to the point faster. And I’m still unsure of who the narrator exactly was. The author? Not one of the characters, or at least, it doesn’t sound like it. (Their voices were quite similar, so I needed to see them named in each chapter anyway in order to quickly get who it was about.)

Conclusion: 3 stars. I did like the story, but never really connected with the characters.

Quantum Convention

Quantum Convention - Eric Schlich

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

As with every collection of short stories in general, some in this book were spot on, and some didn’t touch me much.

I enjoyed how relatable the stories were: the characters, their actions, their past, their motivations were altogether very human and understandable. It was easy to empathize with Lyssa’s fear of ending up left all alone, or with Owen’s desperate desire to go out and meet other people. Their themes were food for thought, the kind that will lead to introspection and wondering, and there would be a lot to say about those afterwards as well.

On the other hand, most of the stories left me with a feeling of lack, as if something undefinable was missing from them. I think I was expecting more of a punchline, something to let me know that the narrative was over and that now I could think about it on my own, but instead of that, it seemed that the thread was cut short, almost as if someone had stopped talking in the middle of a sentence. Why I wouldn’t mind filling in the blanks, and while I do enjoy open endings, whatever the length of the story, here, it was more jarring than thought-provoking. Almost every time, I got thrown out of my reading, wondering “and…?” As if the author didn't know how to wrap it up, and so just left it there. Or maybe there was something to get, and I just didn't get it. Hard to tell.

Conclusion: A quick and enjoyable read, but one that felt unachieved to me (eight times).

Recursion

Recursion - Blake Crouch

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

This novel definitely dealt with an interesting idea, one that raised a lot of ethical conundrums—and not only when it comes to mapping and injecting memories. It’s hard to fully develop this without spoiling, and whoever has read the book will know anyway what I’m talking about. Suffice to say that considering the successive outcomes after the turning point “experiment”, it was only logical that things would go to the dogs a little more each time.

The events immediately after the leak were particularly shocking due to how.. logical and expected they were: one group trying to prevent terrorist events, and the terrorist group causing them switching to a new attack every time the previous one is unmade. I can totally see that happening.

(show spoiler)



The concept explored here is one that lends itself todiscussion and to a lot of divergingopinions, and illustrates perfectly how the road to Hell is so often paved with good intentions. And I’d definitely side with Helena here: as much as her technology would be great if used at a very small scale, I wouldn’t trust humanity with it either.

The DARPA episode illustrated this so very well. Here we had this group of government-type people, who were committed to use the chair, but at least had enough wisdom to keep Helena on board as their safeguard, precisely so that they could make sure to use her technology to do good and never go too far. Then a leak occurred, and all their good work was thrown under the bus, and the worst-case scenarii started to happen.

(show spoiler)



In terms of the plot, I was totally on board. The story demands one to stay focused on the details, since several events happening throughout the novel become essential again later on—I read mostly while commuting/walking, so I tend to unconsciously ‘skim’ at times, and here, I had to go back to realise that what felt like a plot hole was just my not having paid enough attention. I didn’t agree with everything in terms of science (doesn’t matter what happens at the quantum level, you can’t exactly use that and apply it to the macro level), but it didn’t have much of an impact on my enjoyment while reading, and I’m OK with that.

Where I didn’t like the book so much was when it came to the characters. Due to the nature of the plot, a lot rested on repetitive scenes, with the same characters. However, while I didn’t dislike them, I didn’t feel particularly connected to them either. Which is really too bad—you’ve got to admire Helena’s courage and resiliency, and the sacrifices she made, to try and repair the damage; that would turn more than one person completely mad after the first couple of attempts. But I wasn’t convinced by the shortcuts taken with the characters’ relationship (how they get to know each other, how said relationship developed). To be honest, for me, this was Helena’s story. Barry mostly seemed like he was needed so that there would be someone (anyone) with Helena to give a hand, with more importance towards the end, which in itself also tasted a little too much like “in spite of all the girl’s efforts, the guy’s the one who saves the day”, so…

Conclusion: 3 stars. It was a plot-driven story, a plot that I liked, but in this specific case, it also needed to be character-driven, and that didn’t happen.

Underdogs

Underdogs - Chris Bonnello

Overall, it was both a fun and an emotional story, with good pacing and an appropriate mix of calm moments and tense ones. Also, since I read it through Pigeonhole, the staves were cut in such a way that they stop just at the right moment: if they hadn't, I sure wouldn't have stopped reading until the next day.

I really liked the cast, and the choice of relying on different people for a change: not your typical teenagers, but clearly the "underdogs", those seen as "problem children", considered from the start as "inferior", "useless", and all other manners of stupid clichés by "normal" people (whatever "normal" means anyway, eh?). Our heroes were clearly much more than their differences: they were human beings, something that should never be forgotten. They were good people, with their positive and negative traits like everyone, with a hefty dose of bravery and a genuine desire to do the right thing. And without being bogged down by "regular" society's demands, they were given the space to grow into themselves as people.

Which is why it pains me not to give more stars to this book, because as much as I liked the characters, I also couldn't overlook the rest. Mainly:
- The plot holes. Because much time is spent with the characters (which is a good thing), too little is spent on the backstory, and the latter in turn looks very simplistic and cliché. Bad guy uses his money to acquire private companies and get the government to trust him, then surprises everybody with an army of clones, seizes power, and stuffs all the population of Great Britain into prison-cities. OK, I get a villain having a desire for power, but it still felt "empty". Also, clones wouldn't prevent another country from simply nuking his factories from above, so... What was the rest of the world doing?
- The bad guys in general were pretty cliché, too, especially Nat and Oliver. They made me laugh and roll my eyes more than thrilled me.
- The last point is one I hate making (although, to be fair, I've noticed this in other stories as well): when the main characters' neuroatypical aspects were mentioned, I most often found it too... didactic, so to speak. I have the same feeling when non-binary characters, for instance, are portrayed the same way: it screams "must show the readers how this character is trans/asexual/non-binary/etc., but surely most readers have no clue and are too lazy to do their own research, so let's spell it for them." Same thing here, only in this case, of course, it was about Asperger's, or Down's syndrome. And I get it, I really do: it's definitely hard to find the right balance, the one where enough is explained for most readers to receive the right information (and not lose them if, indeed, they don't care about doing some research), yet without slamming it in their faces either. Still, the fact remains that it tended to throw me out of my reading here.

Conclusion: 2.5 stars because of the clichés/holes and the explanatory tone. But without that, for the sheer entertaining factor and the very likeable characters, I'd have rated this book higher.

Unearthed

Unearthed (Unearthed #1) - Meagan Spooner, Amie Kaufman

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

I struggled a little to get into this book, and I admit that I skimmed over a few parts, but in the end, while clearly not-mind blowing, it was entertaining enough.

The dynamics between Mia and Jules is, overall, one that worked well throughout the novel. They have their moments of snarky banter, they peel their layers gradually to each other (sometimes because external circumstances don’t really give them a chance, and sometimes voluntarily), and they get to really look at each other, past their completely different backgrounds. While Jules was introduced at first as perhaps completely lacking common sense—seen through Mia’s eyes, of course he would come across as some unprepared, pampered rich kid who had no clue what he set his feet into, he is actually more savvy than that; and, conversely, he soon learns to see past the ‘filthy scavver’, and see the actual human being behind the mask. Both are also less ‘gender-coded’ than one would expect, which I appreciated, and make use of skills such as linguistics and mathematics to get out of various pinches, which is always cool in my eyes.

The plot itself was OKish. I would’ve liked more details about the state Earth was in and the bigger plot—in terms of the science in the science fiction part, it wasn’t developed at all, and the portal bit felt like a hasty shortcut and let’s be done with it. The puzzles and exploring and spelunking in alien temples were interesting, yet I felt a little distanced from it all, as they demanded a fair share of description to become something easy to picture. The beginning and the ending were more exciting in that regard; the middle dragged. Probably would’ve dragged less without the romance. (Yes, there is a romantic relationship, of course. It’s a young adult story, so having a bit of romance is as much a surprise here as finding a Tube station in the heart of London. I don’t have much to say about it. My personal sense of priority is much more geared towards “more escaping the dangerous situations, less snogging and finding the other person hot”, and even as a teenager, romance left me cold. I’m not a good target audience for this.)

The story picked up again in the last third, and the reveal at the end was something I half-expected and somewhat hoped for, so that’s that. I’m not sure if I’ll be interested enough to read book 2, but maybe if it’s available at the library?

Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact

Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact - Matt Mair Lowery, Cassie Anderson

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

This comic reads quickly: the story flows from page to page, and there's no lagging behind. After the first few pages of Cleo’s life at school and with her father, with a short insight of what’s been happening behind the scenes, Invasion Day is here, and they both have to run for their lives. All the while, they to maintain a semblance of normalcy, such as when they find shelter at abandoned houses, living in the remnants of another family now gone or dead, or meet other survivors and have to make a quick choice between driving them away or being simply human and welcoming them.

The relationship between Cleo and Alex was a touching one. Very early on, it is obvious that her father won’t be who we met in the first chapter, and Cleo has to fight her distrust while not really having many other choices than either going with him or being all alone. Gradually, she learns to accept this new balance in her life, learn to follow at first, then fight a little, then fight more. And while she is obviously sad and has her small breaking points, she also keeps her smile and courage up, and doesn’t give up.

The downside of this fast pace is that it goes a little too quickly at times—especially when there are several panels without dialogues—and as a result, there isn’t that much room for character development. The latter is partly left to the reader to imagine, by filling in the blanks, but this is a somewhat uneventful process, and leaves a slight feeling of blankness at times.

Nevertheless, I did like this first volume, as well as its ending (both positive and at the same time highlighting the protagonists’ fight as “one against the world”, so to speak). 3 to 3.5 stars.

The Chalk Man

The Chalk Man - C.J. Tudor

[I originally received a copy of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It just took me ages to get to it.]

Kinda OK in terms of the storyline, but this is one of the books that felt “I’m going to like it” in the beginning, and in fact… Well, no.

The 1986 parts were more striking in my opinion than the 2016 ones, perhaps because of the whole dynamics involving kids living their last summer before leaving childhood and becoming teenagers, drifting off from each other… only not completely, never completely, because of that one last tie, that one thing they discovered together and that filled them with horror.

From there, I was hoping that the 2016 arc would see them get together and come to grips with the “evil from the past”, so to speak, but… let’s be honest, that didn’t happen, not really, apart from a few scenes with Ed meeting his chums at the bar or taking the train to have coffee once with another of his former friends. So, the 2016 narrative plodded its way along and wasn’t the thrilling ride I had expected.

The mystery part has a few turns and twists, with Eddie’s dreams/visions blurring the boundary; he may or may not be affected by the same illness that took away his father; or having had an actual hand in the misdeeds committed; and while these plot points were somewhat of the expected kind, they still worked at the moment they happened. Still, I found that the beginnings of plots threads that I found exciting fell flat in the end, and rested on clichés clearly present to elicit some sensationalism (the casket, the dog, the character who gets blamed and commits suicide, the coat at the bottom of the wardrobe, etc.). It may have worked in other circumstances, other stories. Not here.

I had a beef, too, with the issues that were tackled throughout the story. The abortion clinic part was accurate enough—all it takes it to look at the daily news right now to see that the same hypocrisy about the whole “pro-life” movement is here and strong as ever—but the question of abuse (sexual and otherwise) was frankly not dealt with well. There’s one assault in particular that just gets dismissed as “it wasn’t so bad”, and seriously, are we still on about this? It is ALWAYS bad. And it doesn’t only happen to girls, or to people who “look like they deserve” it, or whatever other crap the rape culture continuously feed us.

The ending didn’t work for me either. When the actual culprit is revealed, it just feels like it’s coming out of nowhere, and is quite unbelievable. The way it looked to me, there were all those threads about hidden horrors that suddenly needed coming together, and so were tied at the last moment into something that didn’t make that much sense.

(Also, I may be mistaken because I haven’t read these books in 25 years or so, but quite a few scenes were reminiscent of older King novels, and I couldn’t tell whether it was simple homage, or pretty much the same scenes in a different writing style.)

The Warehouse

The Warehouse - Rob Hart

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

In a not-so-distant-future America, where most of society has collapsed, Paxton and Zinnia get hired in the same Cloud facility, each for their own reasons. As they start seeing each other more and more, and confirm (more than realise, to be honest) that their jobs aren’t as shiny as the recruitment ads would let people think, their own deadlines loom over them: for Paxton, the visit of Cloud’s CEO; for Zinnia, her actual job, that is, finding out what really powers Cloud’s warehouses.

Not so much a thriller per se, although there is definitely an element of mystery when it comes to “what powers the Cloud facilities”, as well as a couple of other things. More than that, “The Warehouse” is part social commentary about corporate practices pushed to an extreme we may, in fact, not be so far of: living at your workplace, eating at your workplace, with your days governed by your employee rating, until the line between both tends to blur and losing your job doesn’t only mean “losing your financial means” but pretty much “losing your whole life” as well—there’s very little hope for any other kind of employment out there. Cloud is most obviously a future Amazon, but also Uber and all other workplaces where one is just but a cog in the machine—and just as replaceable—all the while being lured in by shiny promises of being a “valued employee”.

In terms of story, I enjoyed it general, but I admit I didn’t feel that much invested in the characters, perhaps because a lot of their interactions was coloured by the daily grind of their respective jobs, which made the pace slower than I would’ve liked it. I liked the couple of twists towards the end (I had already guessed who was Zinnia’s employer, though it’s always good to see one’s theory vindicated)—I was expecting maybe something a tad bit more gruesome, but what actually happened was still good. I was, however, left unsatisfied by the very end itself, I guess due to the way it dwindled down rather than stopping on a “high” (it was back to the grind, sort of, which was like going out with a whimper rather than with a bang). Fitting, in a way, considering the prospects of one's life at Cloud; less fitting for me in terms of storytelling.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Enjoyable, but I think I was expecting more from it.