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review 2018-04-15 12:05
Paris Adrift
Paris Adrift - E.J. Swift

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

I love myself a time travel story, and both the premise as well as the cover here caught my eye. Unfortunately, even though ultimately it was a quick an easy read (as opposed to a book I trudged through), I wasn’t sold on the story or the characters.

I think this is due to the prologue letting me expect a more ‘targetted’ time travel story: a group of time travellers (called ‘incumbents’) holed up in a bunker in Prague, the world dying around them due to a nuclear apocalypse. This war having been triggered by a speech made at the Sacre-Coeur in Paris, the group decides to send one of them back in time in order to prevent that man’s lineage from ever starting. But there’s a catch here: these incumbents can only travel using ‘anomalies’ to which they’re attuned, and since they can’t use someone else’s Anomaly, in this case they need to send someone with an Anomaly in Paris. Which turns out to be Léon, an incumbent with too many travels under his belt, who may or may not be able to perform -all- the time jumps needed to alter the past. Léon does jump, but his aim tis to find a budding traveller in 2017 Paris, and guide them to discover their Anomaly, then to perform the required jumps while they’re still ‘fresh’, so to speak. Along with Léon comes the chronometrist, a former traveller who lost her body (and probably her sanity, too), and whose task is to guide the new incumbent.

…And that’s where it started to turn wrong, because for most of the book, the plot felt only remotely touched, with our new incumbent, Hallie, being guided in such a circumvented way that from beginning to end, I’m not sure she really got what she was doing. And I’m not sure why that was, considering one of Léon’s directives (stated in the prologue, no spoiler here) was to guide her once her ‘mission’ was accomplished, but that… didn’t happen? It was weird. It mostly consisted of Hallie stumbling through her Anomaly, ending up in a different period, bumbling around trying not to get in trouble, with the chronometrist taunting her now and then. It tied up in the end, yet I never got rid of the feeling that plot-wise, the book was plodding rather than making progress.

Character-wise, too, I believe that time spent on stumbling around was meant for character development, but in the end, I didn’t get that much of a feel for Hallie and the people around her, and they end up rather boring to me.

Now, to be fair, I really liked the way the novel approached solutions to ‘prevent a person from being born’. In a lot of time travel stories, the usual approach is to kill them (the Sarah Connor effect), which obviously raises its lot of ethical questions. Here, Hallie found (well, was pushed to) other ways, and that was refreshing to see.

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review 2018-03-30 20:07
The Zanna Function
The Zanna Function - Daniel Wheatley

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

This middle grade/YA novel deals with Zanna, a girl who loves puzzles, science, and whose curiosity is never satisfied. When she learns she’s been accepted to St. Pommeroy’s School for Gifted Children, of course she jumps for joy, but from the first chapter on, things aren’t like what she expected at all: the school is a nightmare, her schoolmates are horrible, her teachers seem incompetent… or is that only a facet of reality, and truth is in fact much more complex? Don’t trust what you see at first! At St. Pommeroy’s, Zanna discovers that mathematics, physics and chemistry are doors towards understanding the very functions defining the universe, and with this understanding, people like her can learn to manipulate the fabric of the universe itself.

Magic through Science is a concept I love, and I had much fun reading about here (but then, I find simplifying surds relaxing, so…). The school itself follows patterns that aren’t new in many MG novels: Zanna meets the people who’ll become her schoolmates, there are friendships and enmities, but overall I found the school’s atmosphere was a positive one, encouraging cooperation and understanding each other, with the story not veering into the usual Mean Queen Bee and Gang vs. Nice Girl. Although, to be fair, I didn’t always find Zanna herself very nice, especially with the way she immediately started to judge one of the other pupils, when in fact she was best placed to understand his actions, and why he behaved like that. Good thing that this kind of attitude usually paves the way for character growth (both characters), all the more with one of the teachers latching on this and poking at said pupils to force them to look at their true selves instead of pretending to already know who they are and never looking further.

Other characters were enjoyable, too, although I wish they had been more developed and that we had seen more of them. I especially liked the relationship between Zanna and her quirky grandfather, and how Scientists are somewhat hidden from ‘the normal world’, but with presidents, officials etc. still knowing they exist: this way, they’re exceptional, but there’s no need for complete secrecy, keeping both worlds separated, having Zanna forever unable to share her new life with her ‘mundane’ family, and so on.

Overall I found the writing pleasant, and the book a quick, fun read, with the story always moving. The ‘scientific explanations’ peppered here and there may be difficult to follow for a younger audience, however the author usually made his explanations short enough, and with some very basic knowledge in chemistry and physics, they remain understandable. (Do middle grade kids still leanr that? I had physics lessons when I was 11-12, and we started chemistry at 12-13.) Anyway, I believe one can enjoy the plot and characters here even if having to gloss over the more ‘sciencey’ bits, since they effects they have are akin to ‘magic’, so the results can be observed nonetheless, so to speak. For instance, manipulating and changing the proprieties of nitrogen to make balloons fly: the result’s still flying in the end. (Bit of a pet peeve, though, for the use of the word ‘metallurgical’ throughout the book, because as far as I know, this world is related to the the extraction, refining etc. of metals, and has nothing to do with ‘illusions so complex that they’re not only visual, and actually feel real’. Every time the word popped up, it distracted me.)

Another peeve was the villain’s tendency to not reveal anything: ‘I’m doing this for your own good, because if I don’t, terrible things will happen to All The People You Love… but I’m never going to tell you what exactly will happen, trust me even though I’m the villain.’ I mean, I don’t know who would ever believe this would make a teenager keep quiet and passively accept all that’s happening to her. I’m much older than Zanna, and I still wouldn’t take that at face value either. Those reasons are never disclosed even at the end, so I do hope that there’s going to be a second instalment at some point: between that and Zanna’s second year at school, there’s definitely holes to close, and material to exploit.

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review 2018-01-20 20:45
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.

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review 2017-07-17 20:05
Turing's Imitation Game
Turing's Imitation Game: Conversations with the Unknown - Kevin Warwick,Huma Shah

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

That was an informative, albeit also controversial, read about Turing’s ‘Imitation Game’, focused on the game itself rather than on the man (who I like reading about in general, but here I was definitely more interested in his famous ‘test’, since I keep hearing about it, but never in much detail). It sheds light on Turing’s aim when devising the test, as well as on what he predicted, and that may or may not happen sooner than expected.

Several sections in the book are devoted to examples of studies and events during which the test took place, pitching human judges against both machines and other human beings, without the former knowing what or who the latter was. Actual, textual examples allow the reader to try and make their own judgment—and determining where the machines are is not so easy as it seems. I was accurate in my guesses except but once, I think, however I can see where judges were ‘fooled’, and why. At other times, I was surprised at the outcome, for instance quite a few human participants made ‘boring’ answers to conversations, which in turn prompted judges to believe they were talking to a machine—and conversely, some AIs were clearly programmed with a variety of lively potential responses. Eugene Goostman, especially, with its persona of a 13-year old Ukrainian boy whose English is only second language, has good potential (in that you can tell some of its/his answers are stilted, but not more than if it/he was an actual learner of ESOL).

The test as a whole posits several interesting questions and conundrums. Namely, the fact that it’s based on language, and that one may wonder whether being able to converse means one is gifted with ‘thought’. Another one is whether the test as it exists can really be used as a marker: aren’t the various chatbots/AIs out there simply well-programmed, but in no way indicative of whether they’ll be able to go further than that?

Also, I’m not sure I can agree with the 2014 ‘the Turing test has been passed’ result, as it seems to me the percentage is too low to warrant such a qualifier (if 90% of judges were fooled in believing they were conversing with a human, now that’d be something else... or am I aiming too high?), and it’s too early anyway for the current AIs to have been developed far enough (as fascinating as some of their conversations were, they still looked much more like complex chatbots than anything else—at least, to me).

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. I did learn quite a few things no matter what.

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review 2016-02-25 12:28
Try Not To Breathe
Try Not to Breathe: A Novel - Holly Seddon

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

An OK read, though I wouldn't go further than that. I could guess easily enough who the culprit was (there are plenty of hints if you pay attention), and while chasing those was fun, in retrospect, there weren't many really “suspenseful” moments—everything was well-packed by the end.

Told through the point of view of three characters mostly, the story deals with the mystery surrounding the coma in which Amy Stevenson has spent the past 15 years of her life, after having been assaulted and left for dead. She's still here, in her head, her mind still active, but very sluggishly, as if one year was perhaps only one day for her, and she's first convinced she's just sick, or hungover. Her only visitors are Jacob, who cannot let go, and Alex, a journalist struggling with alcoholism and the health problems that will follow (ironically enough, Alex used to be a successful health columnist). As Alex gets intrigued by Amy's fate, feeling close to her both geographically and in age, she starts digging into past events, trying to figure out if there's still a way to bring justice to the victim here, or if all trails have now gone forever cold.

I'd say the premises are definitely interesting, but the way the story unfolded was a bit... boring. Partly because of the style, that regularly was more about telling than showing (especially in the beginning), partly because, as previously mentioned, I thought there wasn't enough tension, not enough at stake—I didn't feel the sense of urgency and danger I like to find in mystery and triller novels, that foreboding, impending certainty that “something” is going to happen to the main character before the end. I also think I expected something different when it came to Amy's involvment: different ways of communicating, maybe, instead of Alex sitting next to her bed and talking? Or something closer to Amy slowly waking up, or desperately trying to let the world know what she knew, and failing due to her body not responding?

The characters in general weren't as fleshed out nor as interesting as I had hoped; in fact, they were more often annoying than anything else. Alex's drinking problem, how she screwed up her career and marriage, weren't such a “dark” background as a somewhat idiotic one (that is, her reactions, her way of going about a lot of things didn't make me think she was a clever person). Jacob's wobbly relationship with Fiona felt mainly like something that could've been dealt with in five minutes if the characters had been remotely willing to communicate—that was a no-brainer for me, I don't even see why Jacob had to lie at first. (And let's be honest, while Fiona's reactions can be viewed as understandable, considering that she had had a bad experience in the past, the way she immediately jumped to conclusions and put on the drama queen act weren't exactly encouraging for Jacob to start spilling the beans, making her appear like a harpy, and making me wonder if such a partner would be worth the trouble. But then, I guess I'm just not one to deal with high-maintenance people anyway.)

Conclusion: Interesting theme, but that would have worked better with more tension, and perhaps a different involvment of the comatose character. 2.5 stars.

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