Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

The Hazel Wood

The Hazel Wood - Melissa Albert

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

Kind of a darker retelling of “Alice in Wonderland”, down to the character’s name, but more hinged on fairy tales (the ones with not so happy endings, that is). Alice Crewe has spent her whole life going from one place to the other with her mother Ella, never meeting her famous grandmother, Althea, an author whose book is also impossible to find. When Althea dies, Ella and Alice startto believe they can finally have a normal life, but of course this isn’t meant to be, as things keep changing for the worst.

I liked this book, although I didn’t love it, possibly because I had a hard time connecting with the characters. I had mixed feelings about the time devoted to them, to be honest: on the one hand, I wanted the Hinterland part of the story to start much sooner, on the other hand, I felt that I also needed more time to get to know Alice and Finch better. Mostly they were all ‘on the surface’, and apart from Alice’s pent-up anger, I didn’t feel like there was much personality underneath. (I did like them, just in a sort of… indifferent way?)

The fairy tales / nonsensical parts of the book appealed to me more, in spite of similes that made me go ‘huh?’ more than a few times. I do have a soft spot for that kind of whimsical atmosphere, I guess. And what we see of the Hinterland tales Althea wrote made me think that I’d like to read *that* book, and know how its tales actually end.

The plot had its good sides and its downsides. I liked how its Hinterland part dealt with the power of stories, their straps, and the sort of twisted logic that one can find in them; however, I felt like it was a little lacklustre, and dealt with too fast (compared to the part devoted to the ‘real world’). There were a few loose threads, too—for instance, the red-haired man showing up at the café, then disappearing again. (Why did he go away at that specific moment? It was never really explained.)

All in all, it was an enjoyable novel, for one who likes this specific brand of atmosphere. It jusn’t wasn’t exceptional for me.

Break Out

Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution  - David Craddock

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

I never owned an Apple II, but my family did have a Commodore 64 when I was a kid, and I do have a soft spot for the history and evolution of computing (and computers) in general, and I was glad to read this book, for it reminded me of a lot of things. The Apple II, after all, was part of that series of personal computers on which a lot of developers cut their teeth, at a time when one still needed to dive into programming, at least a little, if one wanted to fully exploit their machine. (I’ve forgotten most of it now, and was never really good at it anyway since I was 7 and couldn’t understand English at the time… but I also tried my hand at BASIC to code a few simple games, thanks to a library book that may or may not have been David Ahl’s “101 BASIC Computer Games”, I can’t remember anymore now.)

In other words, due to a lot of these developers coding not only for the Apple II, and/or to their games being ported to other machines, C64 included, I was familiar with a lot of the games and software mentioned in Craddock’s book. Even though, 1980s and personal computer culture of the time oblige, most of what we owned was most likely pirated, as we happily copied games from each others to cassettes and 5 ¼ floppy disks on which we punched a second hole (instant double capacity! Just add water!).

A-hem. I guess the geek in me is just happy and excited at this trip down memory lane. And at discovering the genesis behind those early games which I also played, sometimes without even knowing what they were about. (So yes, I did save POWs with “Choplifter!”, and I haunted the supermarket’s PC aisle in 1992 or so in the hopes of playing “Prince of Persia”. And I had tons of fun with Brøderbund’s “The Print Shop”, which I was still using in the mid-90s to make some silly fanzine of mine. And even though that game wasn’t mentioned in the book, I was remembered of “Shadowfax”, which I played on C64, and some 30 years later, I’m finally aware that I was actually playing Gandalf dodging & shooting Nazgûls. One is never too old to learn!)

This book may be worth more to people who owned and Apple II and/or played the games it describes, but even for those who never owned that computer and games, I think it holds value anyway as a work retracing a period of history that is still close enough, and shaped the world of personal computing as we know it today. It’s also worth it, I believe, for anyone who’s interested in discovering how games (but not only) were developed at the time, using methods and planning that probably wouldn’t work anymore. All things considered, without those developers learning the ropes by copying existing games before ‘graduating’ to their own, so to speak, something that wouldn’t be possible anymore either now owing to said software’s complexity, maybe the software industry of today would be very different. And, last but not least, quite a few of our most popular post-2000 games owe a lot, in terms of gaming design, to the ones originally developed for the Apple II.

My main criticism about “Break Out” would be the quality of the pictures included on its pages. However, I got a PDF ARC to review, not a printed version, and I assumed from the beginning that compression was at fault here, and that the printed book won’t exhibit this fault. So it’s not real criticism.

Conclusion: If you’re interested in the history of computers and/or games; in reliving a period you knew as a gamer child or teenager; and/or in seeing, through examples and interviews, how developing went at that time: get this book.

The Girl in the Tower

The Girl in The Tower - Katherine Arden

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

This is the direct sequel to “The Bear and the Nightingale”, and resumes where the latter left off, following both Sasha and Vasya from that point onwards.

I’m a little torn about this book. While still calling upon Russian folklore and legends, these didn’t play as much of a part as they did in the first book, and I was a little disappointed to see them take the backburner. (Morozko was still here, but I don’t know if it was so good for him, all things considered when it comes to the ending.) Paradoxically, this time, I also liked that the focus shifted more towards city politics, with the characters having to grapple with ‘what consequences will our actions have in the grand scheme of things’, for instance Dimitrii re: the Golden Horde. And that, I think, ties into one of the big themes of the story, a.k.a it’s well and all to want your independence, but finding ways to achieve it with minimum damage should be part of your focus as well.

It followed that I liked Vasya less in this second instalment. On the one hand, I sympathised with her plea of not wanting a life where she’d be locked up in the terem most of the year, and forbidden to do what she loved (riding Solovey, for instance) because ‘it didn’t become a woman’. Because not having a choice is the lot of most people, doesn’t mean we have to always accept it meekly without fighting (I mean, if everybody did that, we’d still work 14 hours a day and send children to the factory at 12 or something, I suppose); and that she’d see her niece doomed to the same kind of fate was painful. On the other hand, more than in the first volume, Vasya’s desire to travel and not live under restraint like her sister caused even more problems, likely because of the stupid ways she often approached this, and/or completely ignored any other character’s warnings. One extremely obvious example: if you aim at passing for a boy, cut your hair first thing, don’t just hide it under a hood. I think this is one detail that kept baffling me every time Vasya’s hair was mentioned, because it was so illogical to me. Getting giddy with the feeling of freedom and making mistakes? Okay, understandable. But other problems could’ve been avoided with a little common sense.

I’m interested in the third book, to see how all this will unfold, but I definitely hope Vasya will have learnt from her mistakes this time.

They Both Die At The End

They Both Die at the End - Adam Silvera

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

An alternate-world story where a company named Death-Cast informs people of their impending death, and in which a lot of aspects of society are built around this: ‘Deckers’ (those people who got eh alert that they have less than 24 hours left to live) get meals , night club entrance, etc. free; a lot of blogs get devoted to chronicling their last hours, as they go about trying to make the most of what they have left; and an app, Last Friend, allows people to connect so that they’ll be able to spend that time with someone. (It is to be noted that because D-C only announces the day one is meant to die, and not the causes, a lot of Deckers try not to stay with close friends and relatives, in case their death will be due to a terrorist attack, car crash, or any other type of circumstances that could wound those other people.)

The novel follows two teenagers, Rufus and Mateo, as they meet through Last App and get to live their last day together, making memories, becoming friends, realising what they missed on, but also becoming the people they would’ve liked to be—in a somewhat paradoxical twist, in that perhaps they would never have done that, and perhaps never even known who they wanted to be, had they had their whole lives still ahead. I found this story dealt with its themes in a touching but never depressing manner. I would’ve been very miffed indeed if it had been about moping and lamenting; obviously the two boys aren’t happy about it, but they go around trying to make the most of it, trying things they may not have done on their own, and so on.

Of course, as the title explicitly says, the reader knows from the start that they both die at the end, and part of my interest in this was also to find out how they’d die, if it would leave them enough time to grow into that friendship I was promised, and whether events unfolding around them would indeed be the ones leading to their demise, or not.

I enjoyed the characters in general. Mateo’s way of gingerly opening up to braver actions was adorkable. Rufus had the making of a ‘bad boy’ but also revealed he definitely had a heart of gold. How they go about their last day was empowering. And I also liked the minor characters whose point of view I got to see as well. They were diverse (in many ways, including background, ethnicity and sexual preferences—by default I tend to consider every character as bi unless proven otherwise, cheers for Rufus here), and they allowed me to get a glimpse into the other side, what the living had to go through when confronted with the knowledge that their best friend had received the alert, and what D-C employees and related people also get to feel. (I don’t think spending your career as a customer service rep announcing people they’re going to die before tomorrow is very healthy in the long run.)

For some reason, though, I wasn’t a hundred percent invested in the book. To be fair, I suspect that’s partly because I was invested in interesting non-fiction books at the same time, and those demand more focus and attention from me. But I think that was perhaps also because of the theme: very interesting, yet necessarily leading to ‘live your life to the fullest because you’re not immortal’. Which is true, and expected, and because of this, it makes it hard to deal with it in a way that hasn’t been done already. Another thing I wasn’t sold on was the more romantic involvements; I think full-on friendship would’ve worked better for me.

Conclusion: Perhaps not a definite favourite for me, but I'll happily pick another story by this author in the future.

Why We Sleep

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams - Matthew Walker

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

It took me so long to get to this book (which I also requested late, it didn’t help), and I’m wondering why! Although it *was* definitely scary, it was really interesting—and anyway, the ‘scare’ makes a lot of sense, so I wouldn’t be inclined as to consider it ‘alarmist stuff I can probably safely ignore because all these doctors and scientists write alarming stuff anyway’. I’ve had trouble to sleep for decades—while not a full night own, I’m clearly not a lark either, and this is part of my problems—and let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that on periods when I sleep less than 6-7 hours/night, I feel sluggiosh, fall sick more easily, stay sick longer, and am less focused in general. Considering my natural chronic lack-of-attention-span disorder, you can guess what it looks like.

(And now I’m wondering how much of this attention problem was really related to my Tourette’s, and how much was actually due to not sleeping enough... considering that when tics are flaring while in bed, well, falling asleep becomes an issue, too!)

Mostly what the author mentioned makes sense to me from a layman standpoint. Not enough sleep leads to increased risks of car crashes, due to microsleep attacks: yes, definitely, I almost went through that, and when I had to assess the risk of falling asleep at the wheel on a French motorway vs. stopping in a parking lot along that same motorway at 4 am to catch a couple of hours of shut-eye... Let me tell you, no argument about ‘it’s dangerous to be a female being alone at night in a deserted place’ would have made me keep driving. That was a scary, scary moment: feeling that I was falling asleep, and having those two or three seconds of complete inability to react, before I regained control of my body and managed to pull out. Yes, it was that bad. And I was extremely lucky that time. So I was definitely willing to consider Walker’s research in earnest, and not with my usual rolling-of-eyes at ‘alarmist books’.

Now, I also understand why my ageing parents are chronically tired, to the point of crashing on the sofa for a long nap every afternoon, yet can’t sleep most of the night. And why I’m going the same way, with the difference that for now I can’t afford to nap due to being at work. Naps reset the build-up of ‘sleep pressure’, and this affects in turn the moment when you’d get naturally tired in the evening, pushing it back by a few hours. (Also, now I get why melatonin pills don’t work for me: apparently I’m not old enough yet. XD)

In short, I finally got to understand a lot of things about sleep, which in turn will help me—I’m the kind of person who needs to ‘do’ and ‘understand’ in order to acquire and retain knowledge and act upon it, so this was actually perfect for me. Now I now what happens while we sleep, all the waste it helps our bodies get rid of, why sleep deprivation affects our emotions and moods, and many more things. It’s not a self-help book—while it does have an appendix with a few ‘tips and tricks’ about how to sleep better, don’t expect to see only that for two hundred pages or to find miracle cures—but it’s already doing a lot for me, just thinking about it. I can’t change my work hours, and society is not going to rearrange itself around me to give me more sleep time; but I can do little things like filtering out blue lights from my screens, not drinking so much caffeine (the old saying ‘coffee is OK as long as it’s before 5pm’ isn’t good enough, so slowly does one’s body processes caffeine), and stop begging my GP for sleeping pills.

Bonus point for the book’s accessibility. You don’t need to have medical knowledge or master its jargon to understand the author’s points. There’s even a bit of humour thrown now and then (that part about the women’s fashion magazine that was delighted to hear confirmed that ‘yes, sleep deprivation favours weight loss’... before the interviewed researcher went on to talk about the loss being mostly muscle mass and not fatty tissue, and let’s not forget the skin sores and generally awful look one develops).

Conclusion: If you do have sleeping troubles, read this, it should help with at least a few things. If you don’t, read it anyway, because it’s interesting.


Nyxia - Scott Reintgen

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

A fast-paced and fun read, although in the end I wasn’t particularly impressed. Perhaps because, while I enjoy the ‘tournament’ trope to an extent, I’m happier when it doesn’t extend over the whole story? I liked reading about the competition at first, but towards the end of the book it left me somewhat cold, as the cool tasks from the beginning became repetitive. I think it’s also because in made little sense once the book reaches it turn after the 65% mark or so, and you realise that pitting them against each other like that from the beginning had a huge potential for backfiring (and, no surprise, it does).

I was also on the fence regarding the nyxia mineral, which seems to be able to do everything, make coffee, just add water. I’m totally OK with a substance you can manipulate through willpower, and that may even be sentient to an extent, but I need some more explanation as to how this suddenly makes a space trip possible in 1 year instead of 27, for instance, or allows to create instant multi-language translators.

As far as the characters go, they worked for me as a disparate group with strengths and weaknesses, and there are a few I liked well enough, like Kaya, probably the one smart enough to understand what’s really going on; yet individually, not many stood out, and I could only get a solid grasp on a couple of them rather than on the whole crew. As for the romance, it sprang up from nowhere, had no chemistry, and is to be filed under that category of insta-romance that is only here so that we can tick the box on the bingo sheet. (Seriously, why must YA books have romance everywhere? Half the time, it just doesn’t work.)

Moreover, I’m not sure the attempt at bringing diversity worked too well, probably because we still end up with several Americans in the lot instead of having a really worldwide cast, and their cultural differences as a means of enriching their relationships and background weren’t really exploited. We see a little of it through Bilal and Azima, but the others? Not so much. They could all have been from the same city, in the end, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. There was much more potential than was actually exploited here, and that’s too bad.

Conclusion: A story whose beginning was better, but that didn’t live up to the expectations it had set for me.


Circe - Madeline Miller

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

A few years ago, I had read and really liked “The Song of Achilles”, and I had high hopes for Miller’s “Circe”. I wasn’t disappointed.

A retelling of myths surrounded Circe, daughter of sun-god Helios and nymph Perses, this novel focuses of course on the eponymous character, from a much more humanised point of view, making her closer to us and easier to root for. I haven’t brushed up on my Greek mythology in quite some time, and my memories of what I knew about Circe were a bit foggy, but I quickly found my marks again—the deities she’s surrounded with, the mortals she meets (Odysseus being the most famous), as well as slight variations (although I don’t remember reading myths where Circe and Daedalus meet, that was definitely a touching addition, and not an illogical one anyway).

I do remember how, when I was much younger and got interested in Greek mythology, most of the legends I read were the usual male-centric ones, with figures like Circe or Medusa presented as antagonists, somewhat evil and monstrous, impediments to the heroes’ journeys. So whenever I get my hands on a retelling from their point of view, and it happens to be humanised and qualified *and* well-written on top of that, as is the case here, I’m definitely happy about it. Here, turning Odysseus’ men is much less an act of evil than a way for Circe to defend herself before the sailors do to her what previous sailors did (and she doesn’t do it immediately, she does ‘give them a chance’ and studies them first to see how they’re going to behave). Here, the heroes are larger than life, but through Circe’s gaze, we also see their mortality and the imperfections that go with it, the difference between what the bards sing of them and the men they actually were.

No one is perfect in this story; not Circe herself, not the gods, not the humans. In a way, even though half the cast is made of immortal deities, this novel is a study of humanity. Circe’s voice—a voice the gods perceive as shrilly, but is in fact, all that simply, a mortal’s voice, soft and weak compared to theirs—has a haunting quality, too, thanks to the poetic and evocative prose that carries the story. And so it takes us through her contradictions, her pain and hopes, her realisation that she’ll never get her father’s approval, her exile, and her lingering her regrets at what she did in the past (Miller went here with a version similar to Hyginus’, making Circe the cause to Scylla’s transformation, as well as Glaucus’ through her first act of witchcraft). From a little girl neglected by her parents and bullied by her siblings, she goes through life making mistakes, angry and exiled, but also learns from this, and becomes in time a wiser person, who won’t hesitate to stand up for what she cares for, using her magic to better ends.

This read was perhaps a little confusing without more than just a basic notions about Greek mythology (the glossary at the end helps, though). I’m also not entirely happy with the ending, which I probably would have enjoyed more had it been reversed. Nevertheless, I found it mostly enjoyable and enthralling.

Paper Ghosts

Paper Ghosts: A Novel of Suspense - Julia Heaberlin

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

I had liked ‘Black-Eyed Susans’ by the same author well enough, and I thought I’d like this one as well, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. As evidenced by the time I needed to finish it, that wasn’t because I had too much work and no time to read, but because it kept falling from my hands and I’d reach something else to reach instead.

It started well enough, and I thought that the story would be a game of cat and mouse between the main character and the suspected killer. However, while I kept waiting for said character to reveal her hand—for instance, to show that she had made this or that mistake on purpose, in order to better turn the tables—such moments never happened. I think this is where it went wrong for me, and I believe the first-person narration wasn’t an asset in this case: with a third person POV, I could’ve been fooled into thinking the ‘heroine’ knew what she was doing, since I wouldn’t have been completely ‘in her head; but with first person, it’s more difficult to fool the reader...

So, well, I wasn’t fooled. In spite of all her alluding to her ‘trainer’ and to how she had taught herself to face various difficult situations, she wasn't really one step ahead. Perhaps in the very beginning, but this fell down the train as soon as Carl started coming up with new ‘conditions’ along the way, and she was totally taken aback, and... just relented, or protested weakly. That didn’t fit my idea of someone who had planned carefully, or whose plans were unravelling but who still had the savvy to bounce back.

Also, I wasn’t convinced at all by the twist at the end. Something you can’t see coming because there was never any hint of it throughout the story, is not what I call an actual twist, but cheating the reader. (Now, when I read something and I’m all ‘a-ha! So that’s why she did this in chapter2, and said that in chapter 6, and that character did that in chapter 14’, well, that’s a proper twist.)

Conclusion: 1.5 stars. Too bad.

Undercover Princess

Undercover Princess (Rosewood Chronicles) - Connie Glynn

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

There were good ideas in there, and I was fairly thrilled at first at the setting and prospects (a boarding school in England, hidden royals that looked like they’d be badass, etc.), but I must say that in the end, even though I read the novel in a rather short time and it didn’t fall from my hands, it was all sort of bland.

The writing itself was clunky, and while it did have good parts (the descriptions of the school, for instance, made the latter easy to picture), it was more telling, not showing most of the time. I’m usually not too regarding on that, I tend to judge first on plot and characters, and then only on style, but here I found it disruptive. For instance, the relationship between Ellie and Lottie has a few moments that border on the ‘what the hell’ quality: I could sense they were supposed to hint at possible romantic involvement (or at an evolution in that direction later), but the way they were described, it felt completely awkward (and not ‘teenage-girls-discovering-love’ cute/awkward).

The characters were mostly, well, bland. I feel it was partly tied to another problem I’ll mention later, namely that things occur too fast, so we had quite a few characters introduced, but not developed. Some of their actions didn’t make sense either, starting with Princess Eleanor Wolfson whose name undercover gets to be... Ellie Wolf? I’m surprised she wasn’t found out from day one, to be honest. Or the head of the house who catches the girls sneaking out at night and punishes them by offering them a cup of tea (there was no particular reason for her to be lenient towards them at the time, and if that was meant to hint at a further plot point, then we never reached that point in the novel).

(On that subject, I did however like the Ellie/Lottie friendship in general. It started in a rocky way, that at first made me wonder how come they went from antipathy to friendship in five minutes; however, considering the first-impression antipathy was mostly based on misunderstanding and a bit of a housework matter, it’s not like it made for great enmity reasons either, so friendship stemming from the misunderstanding didn’t seem so silly in hindsight. For some reason, too, the girls kind of made me think of ‘Utena’—probably because of the setting, and because Ellie is boyish and sometimes described as a prince rather than a princess.)

The story, in my opinion, suffers from both a case of ‘nothing happens’ and ‘too many things happen’. It played with several different plot directions: boarding school life; undercover princess trying to keep her secret while another girl tries to divert all attention on her as the official princess; prince (and potential romantic interest) showing up; mysterious boy (and potential romantic interest in a totally different way) showing up; the girls who may or may not be romantically involved in the future; trying to find out who’s leaving threatening messages; Binah’s little enigma, and the way it ties into the school’s history, and will that ever play a part or not; Anastacia and the others, and who among them leaked the rumour; going to Maradova; the summer ball; the villains and their motivations. *If* more time had been spent on these subplots, with more character development, I believe the whole result would’ve been more exciting. Yet at the same time all this gets crammed into the novel, there’s no real sense of urgency either, except in the last few chapters. That was a weird dichotomy to contend with.

Conclusion: 1.5 stars. I’m honestly not sure if I’ll be interested in reading the second book. I did like the vibes between Lottie and Ellie, though.

Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age

Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age - Susan Landau

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

An interesting foray into encryption and privacy, especially when considering the point of view of authorities who may need to access data on devices seized upon arrests.

The author makes a case for strengthened encryption, and I feel this makes more sense than the contrary. The book is positioned around the main controversy of including backdoors to allow police and intelligence services to access a device, so that when they need to do it during an investigation, to apprehend a perp or to follow the trail of other people potentially involved, they could do so easily; whereas strong encryption would make it difficult or impossible. However, as has been discussed during actual investigations (an example given in the book involves Apple), there’d be no guarantees that in-built backdoors would be used only by authorities: if they’re here, sooner or later someone with ill intentions is bound to find them and use them, too.

This ties into a general concern about how we have evolved into a digital age, and have to envision security from this perspective. Here also, while not going into deep technical details, the book explains the principles underlying this new brand of security; how this or that method works; the pros and cons of going towards more encryption or less encryption; what other solutions have already been tested, especially in military environments; how cyber-attacks can disrupt governmental operations in many different ways, such as what happened with Estonia and Georgia, and even the 2016 US elections. All very current and hot issues that deserve to be pointed at and examined, because whatever solutions get implemented, if they create less security and impinge on civilian privacy as well, they’re not going to be useful for very long (if ever).

Also interesting, even though it’s not the main focus, is the concept of encryption methods needing to be made public in order to be really efficient: the more people have a chance of poking at them, testing them, and finding faults, the more these methods can be revised and strengthened.

Conclusion: Not a very technical book, but that’s precisely why it makes a good introduction to such matters: easy to understand, while highlighting major concerns that not only deal with national security, but with our own (and with our privacy) as well.

The Book of Joan

The Book of Joan: A Novel - Lidia Yuknavitch

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

A tricky rating to give, for I did like some parts of this novel, but others just didn’t sit with me.

It made for intense read, for sure: for the catastrophe it depicts, the parallels it draws with our current world, the violence inflicted to characters (and especially women), the crude representation of a degenerated mankind, the desperate way the main characters live their lives. Christine and Trinculo, lovers in bodies that cannot experience physical pleasure anymore, united through skin grafts and art instead, as well as through their common support of Joan of Dirt, burnt for heresy. Leone, sexless and hardened warrior who never gives up. Nyx and their willingness to bring about destruction to help creation in turn.

One may or may not appreciate, also, the literary references. Jean de Men is most obviously a reference to Jean de Meung, and his perverted goals a direct echo of de Meung’s writings about women being deceitful and full of vice. In the same vein, Christine is Christine de Pisan, whose own writings attacked de Meung’s. Trinculo, both in name and behaviour, is the Shakespearian fool, whose apparently nonsensical language and insults are used to carry unconvenient truths. This goes further, since Christine is a feminist voice who lost her physical femininity, while Jean defiles bodies too close to his for comfort. As far as I’m concerned, those worked for me.

The writing itself, too, has beautiful moments, and weaves metaphors and descriptions in a way that gives the story a surreal aspect. Something larger than life, something that the characters try to reach for and clutch to, just like they clutch to their past sexualised humanity because they don’t really know what to do with their new bodies, much too fast devolved.

The science fiction side, though, didn’t work so well, and even though I was willing to suspend my disbelief, I couldn’t get over the evolutionary processes throughout the story. Joan’s power? Alright, why not. But human bodies degenerating to sexless, hairless, mutating in such a rapid way affecting everybody, not even on two or three generations but within one’s own lifetime? That’s just completely illogical. I see the intent, I understand it to an extent ( as it pitches this broken mankind with its broken bodies against the one being who brought destruction yet at the same time is the only one who can still bring about true creation), but it still won’t work for me from a scientific standpoint, which is something I still expect to see in a sci-fi/post-apocalyptic setting.

The writing deals with first person points of view that aren’t necessarily the same person’s from one chapter to the other, and it made the story confusing at times, until a hint or other made it clearer whose voice I was reading. At times, it made the narrative disjointed and the characters ‘remote’, which made it more difficult to really care for them.

Nevertheless, it was a compelling read that goes for the guts, violent despite—or because of?—its poetry.

Lady Mechanika, Vol. 3: The Lost Boys of West Abbey

Lady Mechanika TP Vol 03: The Lost Boys of West Abbey - Marcia Chen

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

Beautiful artwork like in the first two collected volumes. I didn’t notice the same ‘eye-candy’ level during action scenes as in the first volumes, which is good since it makes those scenes more believable. Exception made for the illustrations at the end, these are all fine since they’re meant to depict the character posing anyway. Also, they’re beautiful. The art and colours remain as enjoyable as ever.

While there’s no resolution as to Mechanika’s past here either, we do get a few glimpses into what she has been through, thanks to her nightmares and memories. I can only hope that at some point she’ll get to find out the information she’s seeking.

This volume dealt with body transfer into what appear like a mix of golems and automata, which means that of course I got sold on that idea pretty quick. There’s a mix of dark experiments with magic and technology, action, and conundrums about what defines life, that I tend to enjoy. There’s a tall, dark and somewhat mysterious detective (Singh) that for once I felt more connection with than I usually do with that character archetype. Oh, and creepy toys, in a sense, considering the golems are doll-like and can easily be mistaken for toys.

This third instalment felt darker to me than the second one, and more interesting even though there was no trip to mysterious temples or adventures in the jungle; I guess that’s my natural preference for urban settings speaking, along with the themes explored in this ‘Lost Boys of West Abbey’ story.

The one thing I really regret is how short this volume was compared to the others. The plot deserved more.

The Last Dog on Earth

The Last Dog on Earth - Adrian J. Walker

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

Hmm, bit of a tough one, I don’t really know why it took me so long to finish it, because it’s not a particularly long book?

The topics are both hopeful (a man who embarks on a journey with his dog, to help a child he doesn’t want anything to do with at first, with their relationship developing along the way) and bleak (a maybe not so unbelievable future, unfortunately, considering the current state of affairs in the world, with political parties rising to power and starting to test people to see if they’re ‘of the right type’, rounding up people and putting them in camps ensue...). Probably not the kind of thing I’ve wanted to read recently, which may explain in part the lull I was in regarding this novel, but the latter theme is interesting nonetheless!

So. Great moments throughout the book. Having both Reg’s and Linekeer’s narratives side to side. The dog’s musings about life, what it means to be a dog, how he perceives the world (the smell of fear or grief of happiness, etc.), how he sees us humans and is both awed yet unable to comprehend us. The dire landscape of London, or rather what’s left of it, after a series of attacks coupled with the raise to power of the ‘Purple’ political party. Reg’s progress, from agoraphobic to forced out of his cocoon to actually choosing to stay out, and why he retreated so from the world.

However, I still never really connected with the characters in general. At times they’d have reactions that made me pause and wonder how they had survived so long in such a city, because let’s be honest, ‘fight or flight’ is OK, but ‘stay where I am, paralysed with fear, while bullets fly around me’ is not exactly conducive to long-term survival. I also wished we had had more of the bigger picture, instead of snippets about what happened to the world/London. (I know that wasn’t the focus, the point was the characters and their developing relationships, but it still bothered me.)

Although I do tend to agree with Lineker regarding how people who acknowledge how shitty they are, are the ones who may become the kindest, whereas the monsters keep thinking of themselves as being better, and never question themselves. It... makes sense.

Conclusion: As mentioned, possibly it wasn’t the right moment for me to read this book. I didn’t really enjoy it in spite of finding good, interesting points in it. But I don’t even really know why. I’d say, clearly a matter of ‘in the eye of the beholder’ here, rather than plenty of faults on the novel’s part.

London: Orbital (The Change #1)

The Change 1: London: Orbital - Guy Adams

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

(For some reason, when I requested it, I thought it was a graphic novel. Probably because of the cover. I really like that cover.)

This was a fast read with good and bad sides, and I’m very much undecided about it.

The quick pace gave a sense of urgency to the plot, and made the events all the more gruesome for the characters involved: some you don’t get to know that much before something happens, but at the same time, in a post-apocalyptic setting where whatever caused all the surrounding may still be around, it does make sense. Can’t have kittens and flowers and all the time in the world, it’s gritty, and it shows.

I liked this first episode’s depiction of a ravaged Greater London, and very likely world in general. There isn’t much information at this point about ‘the Change’, although it’s heavily hinted that whatever it was, those who saw it died, so now nobody really knows. There’s a lot of gory stuff going on, too, as people along the way get picked by... well, what’s following Howard, basically. The way that was depicted conveyed the feeling of horror well enough, and made those parts of the story pretty frightening?

On the downside, the quick pace I mentioned previously was also a two-edged sword. For one thing, it made things confusing. It’s difficult to have a story that unfolds quickly without revealing too many details in one go, but at the same time keeps interest fully up by still giving out enough answers; for me, at this point, I was just lacking that extra bit of information. And with Howard missing his memories, it’s one more point of view that cannot bring answers to the many questions raised throughout the novel, so in the end I had a hard time keeping my attention up.

The pace also made it hard to connect with the characters, which is something that often jars with me in post-ap stories in general, anyway: characters clicking with each other very quickly because ‘we’re all in this together’ vs. ‘the world as we knew it has ended, how can I trust just about anyone I meet?’

Conclusion: There are interesting elements in here, but the story left me more confused than curious about the final answers, and I couldn’t really care about the main characters.

The Library of Light and Shadow

The Library of Light and Shadow: A Novel - M. J. Rose

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

When I requested this novel, I hadn’t realised it was the third instalment in a series; however, it turned out you can read it even without having read the previous ones, since the narrator does summarise well enough what her family is about, and that’s what you mostly need to know as far as background is concerned.

I liked the premise—Delphine’s gift and how it can turn out badly, the family with witchcraft gifts... I also liked how most characters felt like they had a life of their own: they definitely weren’t just plot devices, but had relationships, past experiences (sometimes together, sometimes not), and generally breathed and lived.

A lot of descriptions, too, were vivid, and allowed me to picture the places and scenes quite clearly. I’m definitely not sure about all of the fine details, though (avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt in Paris in 1920... uhm, it was avenue Victor-Emmanuel III, but even without knowing that it doesn’t make sense), so I advise not getting into that with a historian’s mind. Unless those were corrected in the final copy, that is. Anyway, the prose does have its charm, and whether New York, Paris or Southern France in the mid-twentied, it conjures the needed images easily.

I had more trouble with the pacing. For a good half, Delphine doesn’t do that much, to be honest, apart from being depressed because of her gift (which she probably wouldn’t have been if she hadn’t been such a doormat to her brother) and remembering her love story. I don’t know about the format it was told in (a diary), background info was needed here, yet on the other hand, it felt disjointed from the story. Moreover, while in terms of relationships the characters had a life, indeed, their actions and decisions were at times... silly. I could guess the turns and twists, and seriously, Delphine, that vision you had, that made you run away to the other side of the world... it was so obviously opened to many interpretations that it being a misunderstanding was a given here.

The story picked up after the characters arrived at the castle, but at that point I wasn’t ‘in’ it anymore.

Still, I may try the first book, because the parents’ story could be interesting (there’s a duel and a bargain with the spirit of a dead witch, apparently?).

The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript: The Complete Edition of the World' Most Mysterious and Esoteric Codex - Dr. Stephen Skinner

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

I discovered the Voynich Manuscript sometime last year, and since then have been intrigued by it, both its text and illustrations.

Most of the book is devoted to scans and photos of the manuscript’s pages. In that regard, while I got a PDF copy here, but I definitely recommend a paper one to fully appreciate those since the illustrations in the PDF were a little blurry, perhaps because it was an ARC and not the final, sold version (I’d get such a copy myself if I had enough space to keep physical books). A paper copy also lends itself more easily to going back and forth between photos and the introduction & commentary, at the beginning of the book, and I think being able to do that is a must-have here. Finally, for want of deciphering the Voynich, being able to admire and contemplate its content is part of the pleasure, after all—so, paper all the way. (I do hope it’s printed on some nifty glossy paper with a very nice smell; yes, I sniff books, I’m liable not to buy one if it literally stinks.)

Speaking of the introduction, I found it really interesting, regarding the manuscript’s history but also the many interpretations, and descriptions of specific illustrations and why exactly they’re puzzling (such as the one with women bathing in an intestine-like shape—I learnt something new about what that may represent, and further than that, if it’s the right interpretation, what it reveals about the manuscript’s author).

The manuscript itself... Fascinating ‘gibberish’, I wish I had more abilities in deciphering, for I would fail for sure, but at least I might have more of an insight about where to possibly start? It doesn’t seem based on a European language, at least not an alphabetic one, and is thought to rely on a syllabic system. Was it an entirely created language?

I do hope someone will one day fully decrypt it. Preferably while I’m still alive to see it.

Conclusion: 4 stars (well, 3 for an ebook version because you can’t leaf through as easily, but I’m nitpicking).