Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

Monstrous Devices

Monstrous Devices  - Damien Love

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

One of my favourite themes being in here, I still enjoyed the story for that aspect, but I admit that otherwise, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I expected to.

While it definitely deals with cool concepts (the aloof, badass grandpa; the robots; the mysterious men wanting Alex’s just as mysterious robot; their magic, both awesome and gruesome), plot-wise the story was also completely over the place. In a way, it reminded me precisely of the way I envisioned stories myself when I was a young reader: “Something mysterious! A bully! School woes! Something else happens! Grandpa arrives! Mum is not happy with him! Something else happens! Let’s run away!” And so on. So perhaps this would appeal to a 10-year old audience? I’m not entirely sure either. (To be clear, it’s not the fast pace itself I found problematic—such a pace can be very powerful indeed؅—but the disjointed way in which it was handled.)

“Monstrous Devices” also contains a very specific pet peeve of mine, a.k.a “I’m not telling you anything because for some reason, I think it will protect you, yet I completely fail to see that it actually endangers you more.” I don’t know why this trope is so prevalent. Just talk to your kids, people, they’re not stupid, and if you think it’s OK to take them traipsing all over Europe while pursued by murderous robots, then why not equip them to deal with it better, hm? (And as a result, the reader is none the wiser either. Having a few things left open at the end, for the next volume or two, is cool; having too many is not.)

Conclusion: 2.5/5. Cool themes, and this will probably work for part of the intended audience at least, but not so much for me.

The Mother Code

The Mother Code - Carole Stivers

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

A bit of a sore spot for personal reasons as well as in the current situation (long story short, and not spoiler since it’s revealed in the first chapters: man-made bio-weapon targeting lung cells to make them immortal and proliferating, aka welcome lung cancer). But that’s just me, of course, and the story itself was a good read all along, even though I didn’t absolutely love it.

The premise of this novel hinges on the “illness” I mentioned, on the need to conceive human babies with modified genes who’ll be able to survive in this not-so-brave new world, and on that other need: the babies will need mothers, and those won’t be human women, since they’ll be pretty much, well, all dead soon. Quite a ghastly future, this. The story thus follows two timelines: one where Kai, one of these new children, travels with his mother Rho-Z; and one, a few years before that, where scientists desperately fight against time to engineer suitable embryos and robotic mothers.

I must say, I liked that second timeline: as frightening as it was, I enjoyed the technological and genetic basis on which it was built. Another aspect of the book I liked was that, all in all, it still deals with hope, with thoughts about what being human is and about parent/child relationships, and with a deep-seated desire to help the children survive. The world they’re in is not hostile the way it is in traditional post-apocalyptic stories—no bands of looting survivors is threatening them; but it is empty, desperately empty, and that means scavenging for dwindling resources while also being restricted in some ways by the “Mother Code” . For 10-year-old kids, that’s not so grand.

Where I didn’t love the novel was in terms of characters. They’re good in general—they have motivations and background stories of their own—yet for some reason, I didn’t feel a connection with them, or not enough to make me really love them. The children didn’t feel like they were “children” enough, and the world of the adults was a little too… distant?

Conclusion: Interesting story and an overall interesting read, even though I didn’t connect much with the characters.

How to Find a Higgs Boson—and Other Big Mysteries in the World of the Very Small

How to Find a Higgs Boson—and Other Big Mysteries in the World of the Very Small - Ivo van Vulpen

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

A good, solid read about particle physics in general, and the confirmation of the Higgs boson at CERN. The beginning may seem deceptively simple for a layperson who already knows the basics, but it's obviously here to pave the way for what follows, which goes a little more into the nitty-gritty technical details. Maybe someone who really doesn't know anything about physics might find it difficult to follow, although I'm not convinced; the way it's explained should take care of that. It was really interesting, and a testament, too, to what a venture such as CERN can accomplish.

Also, yet another proof that we really, really need to stop funding research and experiments according to "how much money we can make off it", because if this keeps happening, we'll just stop making new discoveries altogether. Another interesting side of this book was how it illustrated in which (often unexpectedly) physics CAN actually lead to very useful applications, even though the research may have appeared as random at first--PET scanners, for instance: who would've known?

The author's writing is easy to follow, both when it comes to the book's structure and to its translation. I'll have no qualms recommending it to non-physicists, and to physicists as well, come to think of it.

Mooncakes

Mooncakes - Suzanne Walker, Wendy Xu

[I got a copy of this book through Edelweiss.]

Thoroughly enjoyable story, featuring witches, a teenage werewolf trying to kill a demon, protagonists who're in general not the average white protagonist, and LGBTQ relationships.

Leading With Gratitude

Leading with Gratitude: Eight Leadership Practices for Extraordinary Business Results - Adrian Gostick, Chester Elton

[I received a copy through Edelweiss.]

An interesting read in general, whose first part especially was really good, dealing as it does with common myths such as "if I tell people they did a good job, they'll be full of themselves" or "I had to do it the hard way, so why would I make it better for others now?" It also has several examples of how to exert a more gratitude-oriented approach at work, although this seems to be more geared toward the corporate world/office/business work (I'm not sure if it can be applied per se in every single branch of work, or depending on the circumstances, as it lacks examples for those).

Why We Eat (Too Much)

Why We Eat (Too Much): The New Science of Appetite  - Andrew Jenkinson

Not a traditional diet book, but one that explains the whys and hows our bodies do what they do when it comes to food, how they process nutrients, and the effects modern, processed foods have on us. I already knew part of this, but had forgotten it, and that was a really good refresher about it all. The rest also makes so much sense.

(Also, I definitely appreciate that while the author is a bariartric surgeon, he's not pushing his practice on overweight readers, on the contrary: it's all about giving us tools to understand and make better food choices in general. Not about ready-made diet recipes and diet "tips and tricks".)

Your Brain, Explained

Your Brain, Explained: What Neuroscience Reveals about Your Brain and its Quirks - Marc Dingman

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

A pretty informative read on what’s going on in our brains, I found this book to be a good introduction to the topic: it doesn’t go too deep into complex science, but it also provides enough to be interesting even if, like me, you already know a little. What I already knew was there, so that’s consolidated knowledge for me, and what I didn’t, well, now I have new things to mull over.

On top of anatomy, the author also covers current (and past) research about the brain—apparently, there was a time when people found it OK to experiment on dogs’ brains without anaesthetising the poor pups—as well as brain chemistry and pharmacology. Several case studies, usually found at the beginning of each chapter, illustrate each topic, the latter ranging from language to memory, from addiction to fear, and more. The part about sleep especially interested me, due to my own difficulties with that—I knew that I shouldn’t drink coffee too late in the day (in my family, we used to say “never after 1 pm”) but now I also know that it’s because of caffeine’s long half-life, and putting numbers on this definitely helps enforce the point.

One mistake I made with this book, though, was to not always read it at the right moments. So don’t be like me, don’t read it right before bed when you’re already half-asleep. It won’t do it justice. (I basically had to read a couple of chapters again the next day to make sure I’d get everything. It’s not complicated writing or concepts, but that’s on a fully awake brain, right!)

Conclusion: A strong “introduction”, that actually also has good nuggets for people who have some knowledge on the topic.

You Let Me In

You Let Me In - Camilla Bruce

[I read this book through Pigeonhole.]

A very surprising read, in that I had an (albeit vague) idea of what it’d be about, and it turned out it was actually much more grounded in dark fantasy than in the “basic contemporary” setting I was expecting. Which was, in fact, for the best, as I got sucked in very quickly into the story. I was, as usual with Pigeonhole, glad I didn’t start on the very first day, since it meant being able to read more chapters in one go. For some books, it doesn’t matter to me much; for this one, I really appreciated that.

A word of warning about the very beginning, which makes it sound like the whole novel will be told in second person POV present tense (a.k.a something I instinctively dislike): it doesn’t last, so don’t let this stop you like it almost stopped me. The story is worth its salt after that, and this point of view quickly makes sense at the end of the first chapter.

The story follows the life of Cassandra Tipp, nee Thorn, a rumoured crazy writer living in the woods, who from early childhood had a very conflictual relationship with her family. Did she commit the murders she was suspected of, or was there another explanation? Was she crazy, or gifted with a second sight? Was she a victim of abuse, and was that abuse committed by people she should’ve been able to trust… or was there something else altogether behind it? The author toys with her readers all along, because no matter which “explanation” you decide on, the other one still cannot be completely discounted, and many situations can, in fact, be read and understood both ways.

It is a gruesome story, all in all, full of blood and ancient things, with passages clearly not for the faint of heart. Disgusting and revolting? Sure. But fascinating at the same time, so very fascinating. I had a hard time putting it off when I did, and kept wanting to get back to it. And for once, while the ending is somewhat ambiguous, the quality of this ambiguity didn’t bother me like it usually tend to.

Rules For Perfect Murders

Rules for Perfect Murders  - Peter  Swanson

[I read this book through Pigeonhole.]

It's the first time I read a mystery by this author, and I had no idea what to expect, but the setting (a book store, its owner as the narrator, and the whole "list of mystery books prompting murders" blog post) appealed to my inner bookworm, so here I am.

In general, I really liked it—I'm glad I started it slightly late, since that meant being able to read more than one stave a day. It had a lot of characters with uncertain motives, dark areas, and overall suspicious traits that kept me guessing throughout the whole story. Is Malcolm the murdered? Is the list a coincidence? Is someone trying to frame him? What are the FBI agent's actual motives? And so on. I did end up guessing who the murderer was, but only a few page before the reveal, so I almost didn't see it coming at all, and that's pretty good.

I'm not sure I really liked the ending. It made sense, but it felt slightly... low-key, compared to the rest? I don't know. I'm not sure what else I would've expected here anyway.

A warning: while the books in Malcolm's list are old enough now that many people have read them, the way the narrator tells about them is still liable to spoil them if you haven't (it was my case for a couple, but I trust my memory to forget about the spoilers at some point, and then I can read the books, haha).

Conclusion: 3.5/4 stars.

The Companions

The Companions  - Katie M. Flynn

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

A fascinating theme, that ties with certain questions I see raised when it comes to consciousness, AI, and “the cloud”: what if, someday, we found a way to upload human consciousness at or shortly before the moment of death, so that our minds could keep existing on a server, or, in the case here, in artificial bodies? With an added theme in “The Companions”: all these “reborn” humans are actually no more than slaves, being the property of the Metis corporation, leased to people wealthy enough to afford them, and hindered by safeguards so that they remain the, well, obedient little slaves they’re meant to be.

Interesting, right? There are so many things wrong here, starting with the property part, and going on with what happens when the artificial body is damaged, or how memories fare after years spent like that. This is one of the conundrums of Lilac’s existence: now the companion to a teenager named Dahlia, she was murdered as a teenager herself, and keeps her memories alive at first by telling Dahlia her “story”. Up until the day she gets information that the person who killed her is still alive, and realises that, for some reason, her “failsafes” aren’t exactly working.

But.

The narrative itself turned out to be increasingly… random. At first, having Lilac’s perspective to rely on was fairly intriguing, and the additional, other characters’ points of view seemed seamless at first (after Lilac, we get Cam, who works at the place where Lilac goes to find her killer, so that does make sense). However, it quickly became quite muddled, with the characters themselves not leaving much of an impression. In a way, this read at times like a collection of short stories that were trying to form into a novel, and in the end, that made for neither strong short stories nor a strong novel. The overall story, all in all, kept meandering, and never gave the sense of an actual plot/red thread tying everything together.

Conclusion: Good theme, but not particularly well-handled.

Reflections on a Surprising Universe

Reflections on a Surprising Universe: Extraordinary Discoveries Through Ordinary Eyes  - Richard Conrad Dieter

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

A good, “popular science” introduction to quite a few concepts, including quantum physics, DNA, string theory and black holes. I’m not rating it higher because, for me, it was definitely just skimming a surface under which I’ve been diving regularly these past few years. That said, I have no doubts that a reader wanting the “beginner’s version” of these scientific ideas, before branching into more in-depth reading about them, will find “Reflections on a Surprising Universe” fairly useful, and easy to approach.

Notwithstanding the limited interest for me (since I already know more than what the book carries), this was still a fascinating read, if only for the author’s obvious (and contagious) passion for the subjects covered here.

It is also a reminder that there is still so much we don’t know, or aren’t sure of—some of our theories can’t be accurately proved yet, after all, and granted, we got lucky with the Higgs, but who knows if all of this won’t be overhauled (again) in 50 years?

Conclusion: Consider this a 4 stars if you want to get into physics/astrophysics but have little or no knowledge about it yet, and could do with a good primer in layperson’s terms.

Why We Can't Sleep

Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis  - Ada Calhoun

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

A hit in some ways, a miss in others for me.

I am technically a Gen-Xer, after all, and have been curious about what it’s like for other people—what it’s like, hitting your forties? Are their experiences the same as mine? Am I even experiencing the frightful middle-life crisis, or not yet, and how can I tell? The author worked with her own experiences, as well as those of friends, and from research, too, so the result was a good mix, I think, of personal plus scientific/psychological. And it is definitely interesting to see all these experiences, some very close to each other, others pretty varied, all the more since a lot of women I know then to bag it all and have less visibility when it comes to reaching middle-age.

That said, it was also a miss, because a lot of the aforementioned also didn’t resonate with me. (Mostly it’s about cisgender, middle/upper class women.) I identify as agender and aro-ace; I’m not nor do I want to be in a romantic relationship; I don’t have nor do I want children; my background and career path place me much more among millennials than xennials; I never felt the pressure of “having it all” (no family to take care of), I don’t particularly feel “invisible” (I probably am, but I don’t feel it since I’m not interested in romantic love, and I’m enough of a nerd, in a branch where this is desirable, for people to notice me regardless). So, this was all interesting, but in a distanced way. I didn’t relate that much. Is it because I haven’t reached that point yet? Or because my path is different enough that my experience will never be so close to what’s most often depicted here?

I guess I did enjoy this book, although it didn’t particularly “speak” to me. I’d recommend it only to someone who matches that demographic and is interested in a mirror—“I’m not alone and this comforts me”.

P.S. It's not about how to cure insomnia.

The Quantum Garden

The Quantum Garden - Derek Künsken

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

A good second instalment to this series, expanding this time not completely on the immediate aftermath of the con performed in the first volume, but also on what happened in the past.

Although I had a bit of trouble with some parts, in general, I enjoyed once again diving into this world. The story begins on a strong note—let’s just say the Scarecrow doesn’t play nice, and neither should he (it? they?)—which ups the ante for Belisarius and Cassandra when it comes to their species as a whole, now that more and more people become aware of what the homo quantus’s abilities could be turned into, once out of their contemplative little corner of space. Faced with the responsibility to save their people, our two protagonists have to turn to unlikely allies.

While I did regret the absence of a new con here (I really like cons), of course I’m aware it couldn’t have just been a copy of Bel’s shenanigans in the first volume. Moreover, this time it’s not just about Bel and the gang he assembled, and not only because some of said gang’s members aren’t present here. We still get to enjoy Stills and his foul mouth, but Cassandra, even though she’s not as present as Bel, also reveals herself as surprisingly resourceful—or able to develop a resourcefulness she wouldn’t have been able to discover and exploit on the Garret, maybe. More interestingly, the story also places a sharper focus on Ayen and on the dilemmas she has to face when confronted with some inconvenient truths about people she had blindly trusted up until now. There’s some really twisted stuff going on here, and in the end it all makes sense, but also casts a bleak light on whether she’s really free to act or not.

The “quantum garden” that appears mid-novel (hence the title) was also oddly fascinating. I don’t entirely agrees with the author’s take on the observer’s role (I’m more a many-worlds than a Copenhagen person when it comes to physics), but it was cleverly used nonetheless.

The parts I mentioned having had trouble with were more a matter of pacing than of characters or plots I didn’t like: moments when the story slowed down, and where a character, for instance, kept running the same things over and over in their mind. It did make sense in that they had a lot to mull over; it just didn’t flow that well in a novel.

Conclusion: 3.5/4 stars

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.