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review 2018-07-26 13:04
Fun sci-fi for lovers of action, genetics, and intriguing monsters.
Survivors' Club - Ann M. Martin

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank Rosie Amber (check here if you would like to have your book reviewed) and the author for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

Let me start by saying that this book is a pretty wild ride. I quote one of the Amazon reviewers (Eric Witchey) because he says it very well and more concisely than I can (as those who read my reviews know all too well): If Andromeda Strain had mutant, undead Cthulhu babies, this would be the offspring. Yes, indeed. Those of you who follow my blog and my reviews probably know I read some science-fiction but I’m not a big authority on it and it is not one of my default genres. But somehow, when I read the description of this book and the biography of the author, I decided to give it a go. I’ve been interested in genetics since long before I decided to study Medicine, and although I pursued a different line of work, I know I’m not alone in following new discoveries and studies on that field. The book also promised plenty of action, and the author’s own military experience and her degree in psychology intrigued me as well.

The story is narrated in third-person from a variety of characters’ points of view, although each chapter is only told from one point of view, so there is no head-hopping or confusion (although due to the frantic pace the story moves at once the infection starts, it’s important to remain attentive). The three main characters are a scientist (a geneticist), Marius, the head of security at Chrysalis Biopharmaceuticals, John Courage (perfect name), and Miranda, the 18-year-old daughter of the company’s CEO (she joins them later in the book, during the first appearance of the monster/infection). Other members of Chrysalis and other settings also play a part and help create a more rounded view of the events and provide an outsider’s evaluation of the characters. Although there are no lengthy disquisitions, navel-gazing, or tons of biographical information, the main characters are fleshed-out, and they have their quirks (Marius is quite nerdy, with a love of British TV series, while Miranda is a credible young girl, at times losing focus of what is at stake to moan about lack of TV, and she can easily be swayed by the winning smile of a charmer, while John is strong and professional but not without his humanities), their strengths and weaknesses.

The voices of the characters are credible and they use the jargon and technical terms appropriate to their jobs and positions, although the alternating points-of-view ensure that we gain the necessary knowledge from other characters who are also novices, and the story is not difficult to follow, without ever falling into dumbing down or easy explanation. There are likeable and less likeable characters and we get to change our minds about some of them as we read, but I think most readers will find somebody to identify with or care about (and a few individuals to hate too, not to mention the monstruous creature, which has more nuances and is far more intriguing than at first might appear).

The first part of the novel is mostly about setting up the characters and introducing the background information (equivalent to world building) necessary to fully appreciate later the scale of the threat and the difficulties in navigating Chrysalis. The company and its labs are set in an isolated location and their procedures and features turn it into a complex and effective setting for the action scenes, as eerie and creepy as the gothic mansions of the classic horror genre.

The writing is nimble, the scientific and the security topics are well-researched, the action scenes very visual and gritty, showing the expertise of the author, the pace increases as the infection/invasion advances; there is gore, the creatures… Well, the Cthulhu mention is quite apt. There is humour and there are lighter moments, although towards the end of the novel there is not much letting off and the rhythm ramps up to a mad crescendo.

There are pop culture references and some themes running through the novel (what happened in Argentina?) that will amuse some readers more than others, but I feel they add to the atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed the mix of danger and humour, the realism and inside knowledge of how the ex-army security personnel worked and their esprit de corps, and the way the three seemingly disparate protagonists come to know and care for each other. Ah, and there is no explicit love story (there are hints at possible loving feelings between some of the characters but, thankfully, no true or fake romance going on. Hooray!).

The is a sample of the catalogue from the publishers, Not a Pipe Publishing (I love Magritte as well), at the very end of the book, so don’t get too comfortable while you read it, as it will end before you expect it, but the blurbs of the novels made me feel very curious and I’ll have to try to explore it further.

Talking about the ending, yes, it ends with a promise of more adventures and a twist that did not surprise me but I found satisfying. (Oh, and I’ve also read that the author is thinking about writing a short story about what happened in Argentina for her subscribers. I think that’s a great idea and something I was thinking of suggesting as well). I wonder if adding a list of abbreviations or technical terms at the end might assist readers in not missing a single detail, but it is not essential.

In sum, a wild ride, with plenty of thrilling action, scarily credible science, likeable and relatable characters, good doses of humour, in a great setting, and with horrifying and intriguing monsters, who are not, by far, as guilty as the corporate greedy industry behind the plot. I recommend it to lovers of adventures set in a scientific/genetic research environment, especially those who like their monsters to go beyond easy scares. An author to keep an eye on.

 

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review 2018-07-24 21:00
The Ape that Understood the Universe
The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve - Steve Stewart-Williams

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

That was interesting. I always find myself on the fence when it comes to “nature vs. nurture”, to be honest, because it can be presented in very deterministic ways in which I don’t find my place anyway (a.k.a my instinct to pass on my genes is close to nil, and I’m definitely not a poster child for “maternal behaviours”). So, I was a little worried at first. But I needn’t be, because while the author is definitely on the side of nature rather than nurture when it comes to quite a few behaviours, the explanations make sense, and are actually more along the lines of the “selfish gene”, which is quite different from “survival of the fittest”.

Basically, it’s not about passing on the traits that are useful to our survival. It’s passing on -genes- , which means that if we survive long enough to do that, those genes go on as part of global “package” more suited for survival than not. Subtle difference. Like the peacock’s tail. In itself, the tail’s an impediment, and definitely isn’t what we’d deem an attribute that promotes survival in the face of predators, but having it sends a message that “look, I’m so fit that I’ve managed to survive so far -in spite of my tail-, now let me make you babies”.

Definitely interesting, and something I haven’t read much about recently, so it was a nice change. The beginning of the book, where he imagines an alien scientist observing human beings, was also a welcome shift in point of view, if only because it was amusing, and provided food for thought as well.

Some points could spark controversy, which is expected, especially when it comes to differences between men and women. That’s the kind of thing I’m usually on the fence about—in fact, whoever’s non-binary will probably find them controversial as well, since from the beginning we don’t fit the men vs. women mould. It’s clearly best to approach this scientifically, and not with any socio-psychological approach in mind, because a clash is bound to happen. Still, as mentioned previously, it does make sense, and I can’t (and won’t) say that nothing of that is true. And in the end, there -are- differences anyway. We just have to remember that sex =/= gender, and that whatever occurred in nature doesn’t mean that it’s the ultimate law either (which is a position that the author doesn’t defend anyway, so we’re all good here). If it was, all men would be serial rapists and would keep murdering their male neighbours for looking a little too pretty for the women around.

Other parts of the book deal with altruistic behaviours, culture, and memes, in other words what is passed socially and not genetically, but following similar principles: the “memes” that survive, like language, survive because one of their side-effects is to be “useful” to the group, while “destructive” memes such as becoming a martyr aren’t too widespread, due to people “practicing” them not leaving that many descendants to follow. (I had a bit more trouble to follow the latter parts, though, because I had the feeling there was some redundancy here.)

Conclusion: Overall, it was an instructive read, while being also funny and easy to follow.

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review 2018-07-16 21:02
F*** You Very Much
F*** You Very Much: The surprising truth about why people are so rude - Danny Wallace

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

That was an interesting read. Perhaps not as funny as I had expected, but interesting nonetheless. Basing his argument on what he calls the ‘Hotdog Incident’, where he had to wait for 1 hour to get served a hotdog, and was rudely treated when he dared complain, Danny Wallace goes to explore rudeness and rude behaviours in general. Why are people rude? What’s in it for them? Why are the usual reactions to rudeness, and what do they reveal about people in general?

According to Wallace, it seems that there is something in it for rude people. Rudeness and bullying often tend to create a cognitive dissonance in people who’re at the other end of it, making them slower to react to it; so it looks like this explains why we keep wondering why rude people ‘get away with it’, when it’d stand to logics that they should be pointed at and shamed for their behaviour. I bet most of us had at least one experience of that kind (not necessarily about an actual hotdog) where hours later, we were still thinking about what we should’ve said or done instead. Why didn’t we do it for starters? Because of the shock of being treated rudely. I don’t know if the science behind this is really exact, however, I’m willing to agree with that out of empirical evidence, so to speak.

There were moments when I thought, ‘Did he really dwell on that Hotdog Incident for so long, isn’t that a little far-fetched?’, and it felt more like an artificial gimmick than an actual example to write a book about. But then, I guess it also ties with the point the author was making: what seems like little incidents can indeed stay with us for a lot longer than the few minutes or even seconds they took to happen.

And I do agree that rudeness is contagious. It’s happened to me quite a few times. If someone bumps into me in the street and doesn’t apologise, I’m much more likely to stop caring about the people around me: ‘If -they- don’t make way for me, why should -I- make way for them?’ So, it’s a vicious circle. Being aware of it helps, of course, because then it’s easier to act upon it. Still, it’s frightening how being rude can come… naturally.

A few parts are also devoted to exploring cultural differences, such as what is considered rude in one country but not in the other. Some of those I already knew about (the ‘Paris Syndrome’), others I discovered through this book. This, too, was interesting, because it puts things back into perspective. That’s not to say that we can afford to be rude because we can ‘make it pass as if it’s normal somewhere else’, of course.

The book definitely makes you take a look at yourself: we’ve all been rude at some point or other, and will be rude again. Yet acknowledging it is the first step to stop. (And if it helps facing rudeness from others in a calmer way, because we know the mechanisms behind it, I guess it’s also good experience to put annoying people back in their place.)

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review 2018-06-12 11:12
The Ape That Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams
The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve - Steve Stewart-Williams

TITLE: The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve

 

AUTHOR:  Steve Stewart-Williams

 

EXPECTED PUBLICATION DATE:  December 2018

 

FORMAT:  ARC ebook

 

ISBN-13:  9781108425049

_________________________________

 

NOTE:  I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.  This review is my honest opinion of the book.

_______________________________

 


In this book, Steve Stewart-Williams gives us a story of the human animal by taking a look at the human species from a new perspective: through the eyes of a hypothetical, hyperintelligent alien.
  " If an alien did drop in on us, how would it view our species?"  

This is a fun way of discussing human behaviour and culture, without devolving into baby talk.

The author draws ideas from evolutionary theory to shed light on the human mind and behaviour (i.e. evolutionary psychology); and evolutionary principles to shed light on human culture (i.e. cultural evolutionary theory).  Stewart-Williams discusses a variety of multidimensional aspects to provide a deeper understanding of the evolutionary and cultural (memes!) foundation for human behaviour.  

The guiding assumption is that: 

"humans are animals, and like all animals, we evolved to pass on our genes.  At some point, however, we also evolved the capactiy for culture - and from that moment, culture began evolving in its own right.  This transformed us from mere ape into an ape capable of reshaping the planet, traveling to other worlds, and understanding the vast universe of which we are but a tiny, fleeting fragment."


This book is well written and the author makes his arguments in a lucid manner without fluffy, irrelevant, biographical side trips.  A worthy successor to Desmond Morris' "The Naked Ape" and "The Human Zoo", as well as Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene".

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review 2018-06-07 19:21
Irresistible by Adam Alter
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked - Adam Alter

This is a pop psych book that has its problems but still has interesting information to offer in an accessible package. I would change the subtitle to “The Rise of Behavioral Addiction in the Digital Age,” which more accurately describes the book’s contents. It is not all about screens – the author discusses exercise addiction frequently – and it is in no way an exposé of the tech industry, as the actual subtitle might lead you to believe. Rather than focusing on how companies suck people into their products, the author is focused on the nature of behavioral addiction itself, how it affects people, and the aspects of technology that most readily create addiction.

The book starts off by discussing behavioral addiction generally, whether it’s an addiction to email, social media, gaming, gambling, or exercise. Like chemical addiction, this is often something that fills a hole in a person’s life, and that the person comes to depend on to feel good (if the addiction is the only thing that causes the person’s brain to produce dopamine anymore) but that ultimately is detrimental to his or her life. The author then moves on to discuss elements that can make technology addictive:

1) Goals: Technology creates goals for us that we might not have formulated on our own, like walking a certain number of steps per day. This is especially true of exercise addictions. One dangerous idea is the Running Streak Association, which celebrates people who have run every day for a period of time (as in years or decades): people who didn’t want to lose their streak have gone so far as to run while the eye of a hurricane was passing over, or while injured or even in the hospital for a C-section.
2) Feedback: Games tell you how you’re doing and how close you are to your goals; when you post on social media or message boards, you can track how many people liked your post.
3) Progress: The author talks about the illusion of near wins and the fear of losing, but it seems to me that the illusion of actually accomplishing something is an especially addictive aspect to games and some social media, particularly for people who feel like they’re just spinning their wheels at work or otherwise.
4) Escalation: This is especially true of games; the game gets harder and you get better at it.
5) Cliffhangers: Discussed in the context of Netflix binges; people don’t like unfinished stories and loose ends. In fact, a story sticks out far more in our memories if we don’t hear the end.
6) Social interaction: Keeps people on social media, and playing social games like World of Warcraft.

All good to be aware of, but the book’s message tends to get a little muddled. The author talks about “the addict in all of us” and how the average office email sits unread in the recipient’s inbox only 6 seconds, but then writes at length about a World of Warcraft addict who played 20 hours a day for 5 weeks straight before committing himself to a detox clinic. Detailing such extreme examples tends to make everyday overuse seem like not such a big deal, and repeatedly returning to the clinic and its methodology throughout the book isn’t especially useful for people whose technology dependence doesn't rise to the level of requiring a residential treatment program. 

Wearable fitness devices are criticized throughout the book for promoting addiction (an exercise addiction psychologist, who unsurprisingly sees the people who are damaged by them, is quoted as saying no one should use wearables ever). Then in the final pages the author acknowledges that a device meant to increase motivation to exercise is likely to be helpful for those who need motivation, though potentially dangerous to those who are already motivated. Given that according to his numbers that 61-67% of Americans, Brits, Germans, Australians and others are overweight, perhaps he shouldn’t have slammed the fitbits quite so hard.

But suddenly in the last chapter gamification is presented as a solution to everything, when the entire preceding book was about why game addiction is bad. Sure, FreeRice promotes learning and donates ad revenue to feed the hungry, but it’s still a virtual game that creates artificial goals and uses progress and escalation to keep people hooked. Suddenly that’s okay if it’s for a good cause? I thought the point was that we were supposed to try to disconnect and focus on more meaningful things? What is the point, exactly? There isn’t a cohesive thesis here so much as a variety of interviews, studies and observations around a general theme.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily make a bad book; it’s informative though lightweight and sometimes confused in its presentation. If nothing else, it will probably make you reflect on the role of technology in your life, which is a good thing to check in on every now and then.

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