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review 2019-08-08 19:18
Tangle's Game
Tangle's Game - Stewart Hotston

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

A techno-thriller with interesting AI-related themes, although in the end, I wasn’t awed by the story.

Set in a somewhat near future where transactions are handled through blockchain-based contracts and people’s quality of life is dependent on their social credit score as well as on their financial credit score, “Tangle’s Game” tells the story of Amanda Back, a successful investment banker who finally got a complete grip back on her life after an ex-boyfriend stole her money and left her betrayed. Flying back to London, and after an invasive search episode at the airport, she comes home only to realise that said boyfriend has involved her in a dangerous game where a mysterious USB stick and the information it contains is key. The only problem? Amanda isn’t a hacker, or a conspiracy theorist, or a whistleblower, and is probably the last person with the proper connections to do something with said information.

The premise really hooked me in, and I quickly wanted to know more about how this would all unfurl: who were the enemies, how would they try to get the info, what was Tangle’s exact part in that, who could be Amanda’s allies… Most of all, I was interested in Tatsu, the little AI contracted to help her decrypt the contents of the USB stick. I always have a soft spot for AIs, and Tatsu was definitely endearing.

By contrast, though, I never really warmed up to the human characters. Mostly they were “unlikeable” as people (Amanda is pretty much self-centered, Tangle is no better and probably somewhere on the sociopathic ladder…), but that in itself is not a deal-breaker for me—they can be the most rotten pieces of crap in the world, I can still find them likeable as characters, provided the execution goes this way. It wasn’t much the case here, in part because these characters as a whole made problematic decision after problematic decision, in a way that made me keep wondering how on Earth they were still alive. (I’ve been a tabletop RPG player for over 20 years. Trust my experience when I say that “’eceiving mysterious information and just hanging about in one’s own flat—where everybody know they can find you—while trying to come up with ideas about what to do” is a sure way of being assaulted at night by men in black or other unsavoury characters.) I was actually glad when one of the bad guys finally called them on their ability to come up with plans that may work in movies, but never in real life. And that was worth for pretty much the whole cast, not only Amanda, who at least I would’ve expected to be the most clueless.

The last 20% picked up, and with Tatsu still involved by that point, that made me want to read until the end at any rate. The ending itself is fairly open, and leaves much unresolved, but in a way, it also makes much sense: things got mired, then exploded, and now the world’s in turmoil… and the fragile situation at the end, teetering between hope and potential catastrophe, fits that pattern.

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. Mostly I didn’t care much about the human characters, and there were a few plot holes that annoyed me, but I did enjoy the part played by the AI, and the way Amanda (and Tangle, too, after all) considered it.

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review 2019-07-15 19:14
The Escape Room
The Escape Room - Megan Goldin

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

A quick read, in that it’s not complicated and you don’t need a lot of focus. I didn’t find the story compelling, and the writing style was quite dry, with much more telling than showing.

The initial idea, that of four people trapped in a lift masquerading as an escape room, and forced to be together when in fact they’d probably much prefer to kill each other, was a good one. However, it was also difficult to execute—there isn’t much room in a lift, which limits action possibilities—and after the first couple of “lift chapters”, the thrill here dwindled down to our four bankers not doing much with the few clues they were given. I think there was an element of “things didn’t turn out exactly as the mastermind behind it had envisioned they would”, but it fell flat for me. It was also pretty obvious from the beginning who said mastermind was, and with this removed, the remaining “how” and “why” weren’t able to fully carry the story afterwards.

This said, I could’ve worked with the above under certain conditions: the twin narrative of Sara Hall and what happened within Stanhope a few years prior to the escape room scenes had interesting ideas, exploring the ruthless world of investment banking, colleagues smiling to each other but trying to undermine each other from behind, backstabbing, the women vs. the “old boys’ network”, and so on. I could’ve worked with this… if the characters had been compelling, only they weren’t. Almost all of them (except the one that dies mid-story) weren’t likeable people—and when I say likeable, I don’t mean that they necessarily have to be kind, positive, etc., but that they have to make me feel for them, and keep interested, in spite of their flaws. Here, though, they were just unlikeable, without many redeeming qualities; their more human aspects (struggling with their relationships, divorce, and so on) mostly make them look like what mattered to them wasn’t so much the relationship, but the standing that came with it; not so much saving one’s marriage, but avoiding losing alimony money; and so on. In other words, whether they got out of the lift or not, I didn’t care.

As for the plot behind the whole escape room, it felt more contrived, and a little ridiculous, than thrilling, and the few twists and turns didn’t awe me either.

(On the plus side, I did like the characters who died. Unfortunately. I mean, for them, because, well, they’re dead.)

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-04-01 14:50
Another Not-So Likable Protag and a Plot that I Did Like
Grave Witch - Kalayna Price

 

The world-building in this novel is good for a first novel. I also liked that the protagonist is a different kind of witch, i.e., she raises shades from dead bodies so she can solve murders. The whole part about raising one so it could give her testimony in court was fabulous and tastefully done.

 

What I don’t like is the main character. I don’t know I find her annoying. Again, I think I would have enjoyed this book more had I read it a few years ago.

A funny line.
9565574 Since there was a cliffhanger, I will try the next book in the series.
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review 2019-01-17 19:57
Fawkes
Fawkes - Nadine Brandes

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

Gorgeous cover (I admit the cover + the title are what drew me to the book in the first place), and also an interesting take on historical events by showing them under the colours (see what I did there) of magic rather than religion. In this alternate early 17th-century world, people are able to bond with a specific colour, and exert control over items of this colour through the wearing of a mask. The conflict arises from how people view the use of colours: Keepers (the ‘Protestants’) believe that a person should only master one colour and not give in to the ‘White Light’ that governs them all, lest greed devours them and twists their powers to nefarious ends; while Igniters (the ‘Catholics’) believe that listening to the White Light, and controlling more than one colour, is the way to go. Both factions are in conflict not only because of these views, but because of a plague that turns people to stone, with each camp blaming the other for the advent of this mysterious illness.

Enters our protagonist and point of view character, Thomas Fawkes, son of the (now) infamous Guy Fawkes, who’s been struck by this very Stone Plague and can’t wait until he gets a mask of his own, learns to master a colour, and hopefully manages to heal himself, or at least make sure the plague will stay dormant in him and never spread further than his eye. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and as he finds himself reunited with his father, the latter offers him a place in a plot meant to blow up the King and Parliament (as in, literally blow up, re: Guy Fawkes, Bonfire Night, and all that).

So. Very, very interesting premise, and I really loved reading about the London that is the backdrop in this novel—not least because I actually go very often in the areas depicted here, and I enjoy retracing in my mind the characters’ steps in streets that I know well enough. Little winks are found here and there, too, such as Emma’s favourite bakery on Pudding Lane, or a stroll to the Globe. It may not seem much, but it always makes me smile.

The story was a slow development, more focused on the characters than on a quick unfolding of the plot. I don’t know if the latter is a strong or a weak point, because I feel it hinges on the reader’s knowledge of the actual Gunpowder Plot: if you know about it, then I think what matters more is not its outcome, but the journey to it, so to speak. If you don’t know it, though, the novel may in turn feel weak in that regard, by not covering it enough. I didn’t mind this slow development, since it allowed for room for the side plot with Emma and the Baron’s household, and I liked Emma well enough. I still can’t decide whether her secret felt genuine or somewhat contrived, but in the end, it didn’t matter so much, because she was a kickass person, with goals of her own, and actually more interesting than Thomas.

As a side note: yes, there is romance here. Fortunately, no gratuitous kiss and sex scenes that don’t bring anything to the story and only waste pages. In spite of the blurb that mentions how Thomas will have to choose between the plot and his love (= usually, a sure recipe for catastrophe in YA, with characters basically forgetting the meaning of things like “priorities” or “sense of responsibility”), it is more subtle than that. Thomas at least also starts considering other people being involved, such as, well, the three hundred Members of Parliament meant to go up in flames along with the King. Casualties, and all that…

Bonus points for White Light, who we don’t see much of, but was overall engaging and somewhat funny in a quirky way. I just liked its interventions, period.

Where I had more trouble with the story was Thomas himself, who was mostly whiny and obsessed with getting his mask. All the time. You’d get to wonder why his father trusted him and invited him to be part of the plot in the first place. Often enough, he came as self-centered and constantly wavering in his beliefs. While I can totally understand that the prospect of his plague suddenly spreading left him in a state of constant, nagging fear, and therefore prone to focus on this more than on other people’s interests, the way he hesitated between which way to pursue (stay faithful to the plot, or listen to the White Light, or shouldn’t he listen to his father, but then are his father’s beliefs really his own as well, etc.) was a bit tedious to go through. Good thing Emma was here to set his sight straights, and by this, I don’t mean showing him the light (OK, OK, I should stop with the puns now), but making him aware that her circumstances are more complicated than he thinks, in his own ‘privileged’ way, even though his being plagued does contribute to a common understanding of being immediately rejected because of what one looks like.

Also, let’s be honest, Guy wasn’t exactly Father of the Year either, and the story didn’t focus much on developing his ties with Thomas. They were united through the plot, but that was pretty much all, when this could’ve been a wonderful opportunity to reunite them differently, in deeper ways, too. There just wasn’t enough about him, about his personality, and in turn, this lessened the impact of Thomas’ decisions when it came to him.

Another issue for me was the magic system. I got the broad lines, and the reason for the Keepers/Igniters divide, but apart from that, we weren’t shown how exactly this magic works. It is, I’m sure, more subtle than simply voicing an order to a specific colour, and there seems to be a whole undercurrent of rules to it, that aren’t really explained. For instance, why can the masks only be carved by the biological father or mother of a person, and not by an adoptive parent (or even by anyone else)?

Mention in passing as well to language: sometimes, it veered into too modern territory (I mean 20/21st-century modern English specifically, not ‘but Shakespeare’s English was technically Modern English, too’ ;)). I think it was especially prevalent in Thomas’ discussions with White Light, and I found this jarring.

Conclusion: 3 stars, as I still liked the story overall, as well as the world depicted in it, despite the questions I still have about it. I was hoping for a stronger story, though.

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review 2019-01-12 22:58
Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights - Lucasta Miller,Pauline Nestor,Emily Brontë

Pop Sugar 2019 Challenge prompts:

Book by 2 female authors

 

Call me unsophisticated. Because I hate this. I find the writing disjointed and pretentious. The characters unlikable. And the events all over the place. I enjoy classics, but this one is a big NO from me. I will stick to Jane Austen.

 

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