Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

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).

Grip

Grip: A SciFi Dystopian Thriller (The Slip Trilogy Book 2) - David Estes

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

Keeping on catching up with my NetGalley readings. I finished the first book earlier this week, now on to book 2, which was also a good one in its own way, and not the dread ‘second book syndrome sufferer’ I usually fear in such cases.

It does pave up the way to the ‘grand finale’ of book 3, of course, among other things by introducing new developments and therefore a third way, so to speak. It’s not about the hunt for Slips only, not anymore; the Lifers are also involved, and no party is all black or all white. The action is not only about running away/reacting this time, although the book does have its share of such scenes since they’re part of its premise, however the characters also start making moves of their own, instead of only the villains setting plans in motion. And even if said moves are a little on the clunky side, the characters are clearly proactive and taking on their enemies now.

The story has its share of twists. Like in the first book, they are partly predictable (e.g. the one where only the audio part is played), yet at the same time some of them are of the gritty kind, that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected in a YA story (this is not YA for 12-year-old, for sure). And as far as I can tell, there’s one major twist that is a definitive one, there’s not going to be any ‘surprise, I’m back’ scene (I hope there won’t be because it was a sad moment, and retconning it would cheapen it).

The ads and propaganda inserts are interesting, too. At first I didn’t care much for them, but little by little they’re helping draw a more comprehensive picture of the world (the technology people have at hand, the comments—both published and deleted—on newspaper articles

The characters keep evolving, Harrison especially is going on a path I like: at first he felt to me like he was ‘just there’, some kind of afterthought patched onto Benson’s story, yet here he takes action, initiates moves that have their own ethical backlashes, gets to go through ordeals as well, discovers betrayal... At the same time, while he does resent his father and seems to unconsciously prevent himself from properly grieving, he’s also accepted his brother like, well, a brother. He’s an interesting counterpoint to Domino: both children had very similar backgrounds (a Slip sibling, one parent being constantly away to take care of the Slip), but Harrison is going a completely different path. On the other hand, I don’t care that much for the Destroyer, perhaps because at this point he’s so broken that even his fighting against his leash doesn’t look like there’ll be much development her, apart from ‘yay I get to be a psychopath 100% of the time now’.

A few new characters get introduced, like Destiny (another Slip, who goes through her own dark moments because of the mistakes she made, and has to learn to outgrow this—all the while showing her inner strength and resourcefulness in terms of survival techniques, -she- didn’t have a Michael Kelly to craft a false ID for her after all!). Or the Agriculturists, more in the background for now but with an agenda of their own.

Conclusion: A solid second book that furthers the overarching plot.

Slip

Slip (The Slip Trilogy Book 1) - David Estes

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

I hadn’t read anything by David Estes in quite a while, and when I saw this series on NetGalley, I thought, well, time to address this state of affairs. I shall also confess that nowadays, I do have a bit of a love-hate relationship with YA dystopias in general, for various reasons, and I was glad that this book, while it is a bit predictable and uses expected tropes, avoids what are the usual pitfalls of the genre for me.

The main characters in general were likeable. Benson is a good mix of resourcefulness, emotions and inner strength. Luce is the obvious ‘love interest’, but without falling in his arms, and with a past that makes it possible (while awful for her) to develop this relationship more slowly and believably than what usually happens in YA novels; she’s also resourceful, daring, and doesn’t hesitate to stand by her friends (well, OK, I guess her decision to face danger with Benson who lied to her was kind of stupid, but...). Michael Kelly as well is an interesting man, torn between his job and his mission of killing unauthorised babies and children, and his desire to protect his son. I didn’t care much for Harrison, though, perhaps because of his ‘perfect athlete and student’ record, and I thought that his mid-book decision came a little out of nowhere, considering he wasn’t seen pondering much about it (and his feelings) before. And I’m on the fence about the Destroyer, in his case I believe I -would- have want to see more of him before he became a Hunter, for his evolution into a psychopath to be better pitched against him as a child (in a way, I love to hate him for his appalling personality, but he’s too one-sided as a villain).

The world in which these characters evolve was also better rounded up than usual in dystopian YA novels (where I often get the feeling of a ‘pocket world’, totally isolated from the rest of Earth, which always makes me wonder where are the other countries and why they’re not poking their noses in). The population control method in those new USA is harsh, however the situation that led to it makes sense: climatic change, rising water levels, drowned coasts, less resources left to feed all the people, and it is logical to expect that the rest of the world has met a similar fate, hence if everybody stays in their corner and develop their own policies, it’s not unbelievable. This world is all the more creepy because it’s not such an impossible future, all in all.

Minor pet peeve: I really have a hard time with the name ‘Pop Con’, that just looks so much like ‘pop corn’ to me. XD (But I do see the naming convention roots à la 1984.)

I found the beginning a little slow, possibly because it devoted quite a few chapters to a part of Benson’s life that I felt I didn’t need so many details about—the story becomes more interesting after the boy grows up and we meet his friends. After that were more action scenes, especially once ‘the chase’ gets into motion (that’s no spoiler, of course at some point people would realise who the Slip is!). There was a bit of a plot hole/flimsy explanation, though, regarding the Wire/Jumpers/Lifers connection; it would’ve demanded some more preparation to be more logical, I think.

Conclusion: 3.5, not perfect but definitely enjoyable, especially its second half.

Artemis

Artemis - Andy Weir

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

I loved “The Martian”, so of course I was bound to request this one. To be fair, I didn’t enjoy it as much, but it was still a good, fun read in several ways.

I found the characters in general likeable enough, in definite ‘shades of grey. The ‘heroes’ of this story are seldom all white, and go about their business with good intentions and shady ways. The businessman who moved to the moon to help his ailing daughter, but is a crook on the side. The economist who almost single-handedly set a whole country as the only entry point to the Moon, and won’t shy away from closing eyes on criminal deals as long as they help keeping Artemis afloat. The city’s policeman (Artemis has something like 2,000 inhabitants, minus the tourists, so Rudy does the job) who’s keeping order by breaking a few arms at times if he deems it’ll be a better punishment than prison. And, of course, Jazz Bashara herself, porter by day, smuggler by night, of sorts, running her little operation with no one the wiser.

(Granted, not everyone is a complete a-hole here, Jazz’s father for instance is a law-abiding citizen who doesn’t want anything to do with his daughter’s shady side; on the other hand, Jazz clearly has him to thank for her own ethical side, the one that makes her never renege on a deal, and puts her in the (trustworthy criminal’ category, so to speak.)

The story itself starts in a fairly typical way for heist stories: Jazz needs money, her criminal activities aren’t bringing in as much as she needs, nor quickly enough, so when a dangerous but particularly juicy deal comes her way, she shoves her qualms in her pocket and accepts it. Only it turns out she’s bitten more than she could chew, and finds herself embroiled in an almost conspiracy, forcing her to gather all her wits, resources and allies in order to find a way out. All in all, the kind of story I like to read: maybe not the most original, but with high potential for action, fun, quirky characters, and, well, capers.

There isn’t as much technical detailing in this novel as there was in “The Martian”, so it’s definitely not hard to follow. The whole caper(s) resting on scientific knowledge and using the moon’s gravity and peculiar sides to work within the plan, that was really interesting for me. Maybe the welding-related descriptions were a little too long at times, though; at least, I didn’t care as much about those as I did about other scientific explanations.

I liked the overall diversity in Artemis. This small city has, from A to Z, a multicultural side that I think worked well, and didn’t rest on the usual ‘Western world colonises space’ (Kenya and its space company holds the entry door to the moon, Artemis’s administrator is a Kenyan woman, the policeman is Canadian, Jazz and her father are from Saudi Arabia, many of Jazz’s contacts are Vietnamese or Slavic, etc.).

I wasn’t totally on board with the way Jazz told the story, though. The wit didn’t work as well here as it did in “The Martian”, mostly, I’d say, because there’s too much of a dichotomy between Jazz’s ‘voice’ and her age: sometime in the middle of the story, we learn she’s 26, but from her tone, attitude, expressions and way of being, I would’ve thought her late teens/20, and not older. There -is- an immature side to her character, so in itself it’s not like her voice doesn’t fit at all, yet it didn’t feel ‘right’ either.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Disregard the author’s previous best-seller, take this story as it comes, and enjoy the heist parts, the assembling of Jazz’s motley crew, the description of Artemis, and the outings on the Moon in an EVA suit that can spring a leak just any time due to the characters attempting bold moves and daring rescues.

A Beautiful Poison

A Beautiful Poison - Lydia Kang

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

Loved the backdrop in this book. World War I (with the reader knowing it’s nearing its end... but not the characters). The dreadful influenza reaching American shores and starting a war all of its own. Socialites in their own little world, feeling the bigger world as an intrusion that may or may touch them (whether draft or flu). Murders in those ‘higher spheres’, with the reminder that with a little money, nobody will try and look further. The early times of another type of poisoning, too, for the girls who painted clock dials with magic glowing in the dark (if you haven’t done so yet, read The Radium Girls, it’s really interesting).

I liked the beginning well enough: an engagement party, one of the guests falling to her death on the stair, and it turns out the fall isn’t what killed her—poison did. This murder, more than the party itself, reunites the three main characters, who got separated four years prior to these events, due to various reasons, but mostly selfish ones, such as falling out of favour (God forbids your daughter keeps associating with the child of people who committed suicide, right, this is so vulgar and out of taste); and considering the latter, there’s no wonder this relationship is tainted, poisoned, from the start, simmering with both happiness at having friends back yet also with resentment and bitter memories. Which in turn made Allene, Birdie and Jasper unreliable narrators to the power of ten, because in a mystery with murders aplenty, they were part of the pool of potential culprits just as much as other people at the engagement party.

There was a lot of unhealthy tension in this book, because of the characters’ past, and because of other secrets that got revealed later. Although in a way, I liked it, I wasn’t too keen on how it all unfurled; the characters weren’t very likeable, but for me that wasn’t even due to their personalities (I can enjoy a ‘non-likeable’ character), more to the fact they were somewhat inconsistent with what was told of them at first. For instance, Allene is presented as loving chemistry, but this didn’t play as much of a part as I expected (mostly she still remained the socialite totally oblivious to the people around her, unless what affected those people affected her as well). Perhaps Birdie was, all in all, the most consistent of all. I’m not sure where the line was, that line that would’ve made me like these characters more; it just didn’t click with me here.

The narrative, I think, was also poised between too little and too much. Part of me wanted more of the setting (New York, descriptions, parties, how the flu claimed people—horrifying symptoms, and so many deaths), yet at the same time, the setting plus the murders didn’t mesh fully, and the plot felt too convoluted when nearing the end. And, of course, what’s happening to Birdie—as the author mentioned at the end (and I agree), historical accuracy demanded there could be no closure on that specific point, but this means that, well, either you already know about that bit of history, or you don’t, and it makes no sense. Tricky.

Conclusion: It was an OK read for me: mildly entertaining in general, but not a gripping mystery. Here I preferred the setting to the characters.

I Will Find You

I Will Find You: Solving Killer Cases from My Life Fighting Crime - Joe Kenda

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

I never watched the show, so I won’t be able to compare for now (I may watch some episodes later if I can find some episodes that aren’t available for US only or through shady websites); actually, I hadn’t even known about Joe Kenda before requesting this book. The book itself, when I read its blurb, looked interesting, and I was in the mood for crime-related non fiction, so here I am now.

Interesting it was, indeed. I learnt quite a few things about police procedures, all the more because I don’t live in the USA, and basically all I know is what I’ve seen in TV series (no worries, I was kind of already suspecting that TV =/= truth ;)). Not that it surprised me, but it’s always good to see that, well, one was right in wondering ‘do these things really happen like that?’

What also really happens like that is crime itself, and sadly, what Kenda described in the book didn’t surprise me either (I don’t have a very good opinion of man as a species). Again, I can’t compare with the series, and I don’t know if what he writes about here is something watchers already know, or grittier/less gritty than what has been aired. It did seem gruesome enough to me. I’m not easily disgusted to the point of physically having to stop reading, but I can envision this being a turnoff, at least at times, as a reminder that people can do horrible things, including to their kids, innocent bystanders, for the stupidest reasons, for something as trivial as 20 quid, etc.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the tone/style. Not sure how Joe Kenda fares in the show, but here there were some turns of phrase, some vocabulary, that I felt was... not sure how to explain it, too demeaning or for shock value? I would probably have such words about criminals myself, so it’s nothing like ‘oh noes, swearing is bad’, and more like ‘the stronger the vocabulary/opinion, the lesser the impact’? Yes, I think that’s it: the grit and dark side can very well stand on their own, and they would have more impact if presented in a more ‘neutral’ tone. It may just be me, though.

(On the other hand, of course, you can tell that the author feels very strongly about this, and it's completely understandable!)

Apart from this, I definitely found this book interesting, both for the police work it presented, and for the other aspect of Kenda’s life (his family, how they too had to cope with his career, how the horrors he’s seen affected his whole home, etc.).

A Man of Shadows

A Man of Shadows (Nyquist Mystery) - Jeff Noon

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

Possibly more ‘SFF' than truly ‘noir’, for the gritty/detective side was second to the mysterious/dusk/visions side; but I like both genres, so that was fine with me. It took me a while to get into the story, though, and I’m not really sure whether it’s because it didn’t fully grip me, or because I was also busy at the time with other books.

The story follows John Nyquist, jaded detective with quite a few dark shades in his past, after both his parents died; hired to find the runaway daughter of powerful businessman Patrick Bale, he stumbles upon more than what he’s signed for, including the daughter’s true heritage, a drug cartel, and the mysterious killer nicknamed ‘Quicksilver’, who offs their victims in the blink of an eye. As any good noir detective, Nyquist can’t leave enough alone, and feels compelled to help the daughter, who he feels has run away for a reason that’s more than just teenage angst.

The setting is definitely interesting, and would even lend itself to more developments, I’d say, considering the two sides (Nocturna vs. Dayside), the mysterious Dusk in-between, the microcosms in each part (like the bulb monkeys in Dayside, always running from one light bulb to the other in a desperate effort to keep the light going), the time-screwing aspect (how can anyone goo on different timelines that keep changing depending on where they go and what they do?), etc.

I felt that there was a lot going on here, especially with part of the plot revolving around characters and events with a foot in all those parts (as in, things like ‘works in Dayside, lives in Nocturna, has ties with Dusk’); but while some of it was shown, I expected more in that regard—and yet, at the same time, there were moments when the world superseded the narrative, making the latter muddled. I’m not sure if the intent was to show Nyquist’s descent into his own time-related problems, or to echo the ‘time drug’ concept, but it made the plot difficult to follow even though it’s not -that- complex.

In the end I couldn’t decide if this was a novel about these different cities or about the characters—I felt that one way or the other, there wasn’t enough to really keep my interest.

Darkover Landfall

Darkover Landfall  - Marion Zimmer Bradley

Erf. I've started re-reading this series, because I remember how much I loved it when I was a teenager... but damn, I didn't remember this one was so bad. (Or is it because I sometimes used to like shite as a teenager, and that was part of it?)

The story in itself is not uninteresting, all the more since it's THE origins book in the Darkover series, but the relationships... especially the way women are viewed and treated... Wow. That was one special level of bad.

I can sort of accept a patriarchal society, women being treated as wombs, etc. in the more 'medieval-like' novels of the series, because 1) it fits a certain conception of 'dark ages obscurantism', as cliché as that may be, and 2) as far as I remember, in those books, it was often presented as something that isn't so good: while it does remain infuriating, it's part of the conflict underlying those narratives.

Here, though, in a group of engineers, colonists, space crew, scientists, where men and women have similar levels of skills, with gender equality laws on Earth? Nope. Doesn't sit with me. Especially not as soon as pregnancies enter the picture, and give yet another reason for males (and some women!) to be patronising, chalk every reaction to 'she's pregnant', veer towards gaslighting at times (because obviously, the guys in the story know better than Judy Lovat who's the father of her child), and go spouting crap about how not wanting children is some sort of mental illness. Camilla's arc was particularly painful, because, yes, she is being reduced to a walking womb, what's with the doctor even threatening to sedate her during her pregnancy (actually, it does happen once), like some kind of stupid, ignorant being who needs to be locked for her own good. Empowering much, right?

So basically, you get accidentally pregnant (not through any fault of hers—ghost wind was to blame, same for her partner), while you thought your contraceptive was doing its job, you don't want to have a child, but you're denied an abortion. OK. Not cool. In the context of colonists stranded on a hostile planet, that poses an interesting conundrum (= it's obvious that either they need to spawn as much as possible, or they'll die in one or two generations). However, was it really necessary to lay it in such rude and demeaning ways? The Battlestar Galactica reboot has a similar subplot, but the episode about it was at least treated with much more gravitas and moral ambiguity.

It is also important to note that, no, Camilla didn't sign up for this, so treating her as a spoiled kid throwing a tantrum was inappropriate. Putting it back into context: she's an engineer and programmer, she signed up to be part of the ship's crew during the trip, not to be a colonist meant to help populate a new planet. And even in the event of staying on that colony, it would've been in a society where she would've had a few years to make the decision.

(show spoiler)



I have no idea if anyone considers this book as a 'feminist' work, but if you do, please stop. This is not feminist, it's patriarchy at its worst: insidious.

[To be fair, I didn't remember this book as being the best in the series either, nor my favourite at all, so I'm still going to try rereading 2-3 others.]

Good As You

Good As You: From Prejudice to Pride – 30 Years of Gay Britain - Paul Flynn

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

This was a really interesting insight into gay culture in the UK, from the seventies to nowadays: how it shaped itself, the hurdles gay people had to go through, how other people’s views gradually changed...

The book’s chapters follow specific themes, such as TV, AIDS, politics, football or pop music, rather than going in a purely chronological order. This makes for a rather comprehensive view of various areas of British culture, in the light of what being gay more specifically entails. The chapters are also well-segmented, and it’s fairly easy to pick up the book again if for some reason you had to leave it (to go do those pesky things called ‘work’ or ‘sleep’, for instance).

I learnt plenty here: how the introduction of explicitly gay characters in shows like East Enders or Coronation Street was perceived, how their actors were perceived at the time, how it changed with more recent series. Or how specific bands and singers were seen, who became a ‘gay idol’, who remained in the closet, who openly announced it. Or the many people who lost their lives to AIDS—and may not have, if they hadn’t had to remain closeted and more information had been available. Or Clause 28, which I had never heard about until now (not being from the UK probably didn’t help in that regard), and the journey from there to legalising same-sex marriages.

Paul Flynn interviewed quite a few interesting figures within the scope of this book, including Alison (who worked at the Lighthouse, offering end of life comfort to patients dying of AIDS), David Furnish (Elton John’s partner), or football player Robbie Rogers—not being particularly interested in football in general, I admit I somewhat knew that the latter is still a difficult area when it comes to being gay, but I wasn’t sure to which extent.

If anything, I would’ve liked to see more about the AIDS period, and somewhat less about the Kylie Minogue parts, so I guess I’ll have to pick other books for this.

Conclusion: Probably better as an introduction that will give you pointers to what to research in depth, so if you’re already very familiar with the country and period, the book might seem a little simplistic. Otherwise, go ahead.

Three Dark Crowns

Three Dark Crowns - Kendare Blake

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

This is the story of an island on which, every generation, three potential queens are born: one with the power to poison and resist toxins, the other to command elements, the third to befriend animals and make plants grow. On the 16th birthday, then begins the year during which they have to fight, and only one of them will survive. ‘Fight’ meaning, of course, that the winner can only become so by killing the other queens, a.k.a as her own sisters.

Sounds like a gruesome premise, and obviously this got my attention, especially since two of the queens are complete underdogs, and presented as such from the start (the poisoner isn’t very good at resisting poisons in general, and the naturalist one can’t even make a bud flower, least of all call her own familiar). It’d be too easy for them to just get offed quickly, though, so I expected political manoeuvers and other intrigue moves. Which I got, at least partially, as the poisoners aim at discreetly making their queen look more seducing in order to garner support (get people to like you best, and they’re more likely to try and protect you from the other queens), and the elementalists hatch a plan of their own, with the poisoners in turn trying to divert it...

Too bad the story developed so slowly, and in a way that didn’t even allow to develop the queens’ characters that much. Well, to be fair—it’s not uninteresting, it’s just that, all things considered, the setting was ripe for much, much more intrigue (or to get more quickly to the beginning of the Ascension Year). So 80% of the book read like a prologue. On top of this, a couple of things rubbed me the wrong way; unfortunately, they were things that took up quite some space:

- The style. Sometimes I can do with third person present tense; other times, it just feels weird, and keeps throwing me out of the story. This was one of those times. (I’m really not convinced by that narrative style in anything longer than 20-30 pages, to be honest. Still waiting for a story to fully convince me.)

- The romance: Katharine’s... all right, there was a political edge to her getting lessons in seduction, and once you can seduce, I’m not surprised to see romance ensue with someone at some point. But Jules’s took too much from ‘Arsinoe time’. Not that I didn’t like Jules herself, only the guy takes up screen time instead of letting us see the Jules/Arsinoe relationship, which could’ve really shone as a strong friendship, and... let’s be honest, he’s nothing special, the triangle (of course there’s a triangle) is nothing special, and all the fuss didn’t make much sense to me. Colour me callous. Get out, Joseph. You’re an appalling boor.

This said, I was expecting a twist at the end, and there was one, and for once it wasn’t the one I was expecting. So there’s that, and I still want to read the next book to see how the actual Ascension Year is going to unfold (hopefully with more intrigue and less half-baked romance).

On the positive side:

- The characters weren’t too clever nor developed, but I quite appreciated that they weren’t all black-hearted, and certainly not from the beginning. As much as I bemoan the lack of intrigue-action, this kind of story wouldn’t be interesting at all if the characters supposed to kill each other could do so with a flick of a hand without even arching an eyebrow. Mirabella is sweet, and the one who’s least blinded by hate. Arsinoe is very much no-nonsense, knowing she’s very likely to be the first to die, yet not spending her time woe-is-me’ing herself. Katharine is scrawny and weakened by her training, but she doesn’t cry over it, and keeps doing her best and putting her willpower into it. They’re not perfect, oh no; nevertheless, they each have a likeable side.

- Surprisingly, I liked Billy, too. You’d think ‘obvious love interest’, but he was definitely more the good, loyal friend than the charming suitor, and this worked much, much better for me. Also, his (kind of) ballsy move at the Disembarking.

Conclusion: 2 stars. I really liked the last 20%, but I wish more time had been spent on the actual intrigue, with more blood and twists there, and less on the romance.