Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

The Holdout

The Holdout - Graham Moore

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

A mystery where the “detective” is not actually with the police, but a lawyer. Ten years before the beginning of the novel, Maya Seal was drafted as juror in a high-visibility abduction-possible-murder case where a guilty verdict seemed the obvious result… only Maya wasn’t convinced, and managed to bring the whole jury to vote not guilty.

I really enjoyed this novel. As the prime suspect in the murder, and after the controversy that followed the trial from 10 years ago, Maya is well aware that no one is going to cut her some slack—on the contrary!—and that if she doesn’t do something, she may very well be found guilty. And so, she embarks on her own investigation, trying to root out the truth from her former fellow jurors as well as from the previous trial’s defendant. And all along, things are never truly certain, for there are in fact two mysteries, not just one. Was that man actually guilty, or not? And, of course, who’s the culprit in the recent murder?

It’s difficult to write much about this novel, for fear of accidental spoilers, but I can at least say that overall, I liked the characters (they all had their good sides and their darker little secrets), and I found the pacing appropriate.

One thing that I deeply regretted, though: one of the chapters completely spoils the endings to several Agatha Christie novels. Yes, I know, I know, by now the whole world is supposed to have read them, but I guarantee this is not the case (so now, I need to wait a few more years until I forget the spoilers to read those Christie stories…). I don’t know why authors do that, but please don’t. Seriously, don’t. I’d have made it a 4* book, but this kind of stunt makes me feel obligated to dock a half star just on principle.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars.

The Book of Queer Prophets

The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion  - Ruth Hunt

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

An interesting, if sometimes uneven collection (like every collection in general, I’d say) of essays from queer people regarding religion and faith, acceptance of LGBTQ+, and how organised religions and individuals alike have both progressed and still need to progress in that regard.

Many of these essays resonated with me, not because I am a believer, but precisely because I’m not anymore: I was raised a Catholic, but could never reconcile religion with all the intolerance (whether snide and discreet or absolutely blatant) it tends to teach. There was always, for me, a clear contradiction between “Jesus is love” and “…but only for people who correspond to the official credo (aka usual cisgender, heterosexual, and if they’re white, it’s even better). Not that these essays have given me renewed faith in any belief whatsoever, but it was good to read about how other people lived this, whether they retained or found their faith again, and especially when it comes to ministers (several of the writers in this collection are or were ordained). While there’s a depressing side to it, considering there’s still a lot of work to be done, there’s also much hope in here for society to change in the future.

I do wish there had been more input, though, from people coming from other faiths than the Abrahamic religions. The book’s synopsis does mention “Is it possible to believe in God and be gay?”, so I don’t know if that was to be read as “strictly God in its Islamic or Judeo-Christian acception” or not. I’d still have been interested in additional perspectives. What about Hinduism, Shinto, Wicca? Do monotheistic religions really have a monopoly on intolerance when it comes to LGBTQ+?


Conclusion: 3.5 stars

The Better Half

The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women  - Sharon Moalem

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

Some things in this book I already knew (such as the role of the X chromosome when it comes to colour vision, and why many more men than woman are colour-blind). Some others were completely new to me, although also related to the X in general (immune system features, for instance, including autoimmune conditions) and I was glad I could expand on my knowledge in that regard.

The book draws a lot on genetic research, obviously, both past findings and current ones. I found it easy enough to follow, and it didn’t strike me as heavy-handed on the medical lingo, but perhaps it would be a little confusing for someone who’s really a beginner in that area, and therefore would be better targeted at people who already have some basic knowledge about genetics here?

I did find it somewhat repetitive, though (as in, keep the examples for sure, but no need to reiterate so often that a lot of it stems from genetic females having a “spare”), and the narrative style, when it uses examples from the author’s real life to illustrate certain points, wasn’t always very clear. The concept behind it and the way it is at times expressed could also be easily problematic; the term “genetic superiority” is fraught with double-meaning, after all, and I can no doubt see it interpreted in less than savoury ways. So, one has to be careful about how they approach this: it is strictly about the advantages brought by having two X chromosomes rather than one if you’re a genetic human female (or having two Ws if you’re a male bird—same difference), and definitely not about who is “superior, with a hint of who should therefore dominate the other”.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

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 - 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.


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