Book reviews: Year 2020

The Fractal Prince (Jean le Flambeur, #2) by Hannu Rajaniemi

I look at my review for the first book and see delight and enthusiasm. Reading the Quantum Thief was hard work but getting to understand the world and the characters that inhabit it was such a reward, brought such enchantment. Reading the Fractal Prince felt like hard work and that's about it. I had some vague curiosity about one of the characters but everyone else felt so flat. Most interactions felt so negative. Most descriptions felt so confusing. There was nothing for me in this book. Maybe there is a particular mood that's required when deciding to read this series, and I didn't pick it up at the right time.

Provenance (Imperial Radch) by Ann Leckie

I loved the Ancillary trilogy, and I loved Leckie's fantasy book The Raven Tower as well. Provenance is a stand-alone novel set in the same universe as that first trilogy, but unrelated to it except for the way some events affect the news here. It has everything I enjoy in a book: compelling characters. Friendships and kindness. Sentences I can understand (*). There's plotting and politics and betrayals too of course.

All those books had very different atmospheres to them and yet I enjoyed them all tremendously. I think Ann Leckie is going onto the list of authors whose books I know I can always look forward to.

(*) (I am clearly still bitter about the Fractal Prince.)

After the World by Máire Brophy

This is a very short book so I'm a bit annoyed that some of the descriptions out there manage to spoil stuff that happens later. It threw me off when reading, because what I thought would be the start was more like the end. Anyway. All one needs to know is that this is the story of an orc after their side, which we would normally see as the bad guys, have lost the war. It's quite interesting and different from the usual fantasy stories, in that I don't think I had read any with an orc as the narrator before. I quite enjoyed it. I picked up the book after hearing the author speak at a panel about what makes a good villain when WorldCon was in Dublin, and I loved how enthusiastic she was about good bad characters. The book delivered, and I wouldn't mind seeing more.

The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill

This is a story about magic and love. It's hard not to feel your heart grow a little bit bigger as you read it.

City of Stairs (The Divine Cities, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

What a wonderful series. It's a bit more modern than I usually like my fantasy, with cars and some light industrialisation. But the setting is so original, and the characters so well-written it's an absolute pleasure to read. Everybody feels so multi-faceted. Complex humans with motivations that are not always straightforward despite what they may say or even believe themselves.

The setting is a world in which the gods used to walk the earth, but then they were killed. A few decades have passed and their worshippers are still trying to cope with this new reality, dwelling in half-destroyed cities that were once held up by miracles that no longer work.

The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason

A short book and nice way to learn about the basics of personal finances in parable form, if stories speak more to you. I wouldn't have hated it but the dialogues in thou/thee/thy/thine format hurt my head enough to distract from the message. This was compounded by the fact the edition I read (black and red hardcover) was riddled with typos, including footnotes not at the foot of the page but floating between paragraphs. If you decide to read it, pick any edition but this one.

The Money Doctor 2020 by John Lowe

I really enjoyed it.

City of Blades (The Divine Cities, #2) by Robert Jackson Bennett

This series continues to be amazing. The main narrator is Mulaghesh this time. I liked her from the first chapter of the first book, she's a great character and such a hardass.

There's a silence. Mulaghesh holds up her hand. Sigrud, without a word, tosses her the jug. She catches it, pulls the cork out with her teeth, spits it into the fire, and takes a long pull.

In the main storyline we investigate a potentially miraculous ore, which raises some concerning questions on how dead the dead gods are exactly. I really enjoy how internally consistent the worldbuilding is. This is a world where reality-bending miracles are or were commonplace, but they still respond to rules and every new discovery feels logical once understood.

City of Miracles (The Divine Cities, #3) by Robert Jackson Bennett

I'm a little choked up after closing this book. I was planning to take a short break and read something else before reading the conclusion to the series, but first I read the Goodreads blurb for book #3 and wow. A beloved character was assassinated and we must find out who and why? I had to read immediately.

It was good and a lot happens. A lot of reflection on war and the cycle of life. The ending scene wasn't unexpected but it is staying with me.

This series really was excellent, with tight and original worldbuilding and a story that spans close to two decades. You don't always get to see what happens after the protagonist changes the world, the things that go right and the ones that go wrong, what becomes of everyone. There is a lot to think about. But probably it is the characters, all of them, their hopes and pain that will stay with me the most.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

Wow, so many relatable moments! Sweet and awkward. Laugh out loud hilarious at times.

The chapter towards the end on losing your sense of community, your tribe was heartbreaking. Especially after so many chapters where crippling anxiety was mentioned. But still, I feel inspired after closing the book. It makes you remember your abandoned creative projects and go like "Hm... Yeah? Yeah??! HELL YEAH!" and that's a pretty cool feeling.

Wayward Son (Simon Snow, #2) by Rainbow Rowell

I think I like this sequel much better than the first book. The first book was fun, breaking a number of magic school/chosen one stereotypes and parts of the ending took me by surprise. But at the same time it was hard not to constantly compare with other magic school books, and on the way to the ending there were a number of plot points that didn't quite work for me and made reading frustrating.

This book happens after. Quest complete, prophecy fulfilled - what happens after? We follow the characters as they decide to take on a road trip through America and end up having to face up to the broken parts of themselves. Parts that sometimes they didn't even realise were there but now seem oh-so-obvious even just remembering a little about the previous book. There's a lot of vulnerability and sweetness, and of course also a lot of hitting people in the face with axes as things start to go wrong. Sometimes the voices weren't distinctive enough and I had to jump back a couple pages to remember who the hell was narrating. Even then though, thoroughly enjoyable and I read it in one go.

Good Economics for Hard Times : Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems by Abhijit V. Banerjee

I think I would recommend this book to everyone. Written in 2019 by the winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics for their work on alleviating global poverty, the authors take a hard look at a number of issues and concerns that affect us all today: immigration, free trade, automation, climate change, inequality... and take us through the latest research. The conclusions are not always the obvious ones. The authors don't necessarily give us "the answer" either but they show us the data, how they interpreted it and the conclusions they drew from there. You are free to draw different ones but will be left with plenty of thought anyway. The overall picture is not rosy, but it is not hopeless either. The last 80 pages or so contain all the references to the various papers mentioned through the book, but it still reads easily.

Last Colony by John Scalzi

I was readying myself for a tale of colonisation, like, strange beasts and diseases, human drama, etc. I certainly got that, but really I was hooked on the story right from the start when the spaceship bringing them to the new colony gets sabotaged.

Also appreciated the little asides to remind the reader about what happened in previous books since it's been years and I forgot. The humour was nice too. There are a number of events happening that are bigger than the characters themselves and their summaries are nearly news report-like, which was probably unavoidable but made the pace at a bit strange at times. Still, good political intrigue on top of everything else.

The E-myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber

This is a book about small businesses. The format reminded me of the "Richest Man in Babylon" in places. An allegory with the paternal figure who's seen it all benevolently offering guidance to the lost lamb. Warm-hearted chuckles when they don't quite get it. Long monologues on both sides to illustrate understanding. I find this kind of format a bit difficult. However the ideas are interesting, and the later chapters describing systems and how to build them particularly so.

L'autre côté des ombres by Noëmie Auke

Quelle histoire merveilleuse. J'ai été fascinée par ce monde d'exorcistes dès les premières pages, terriblement curieuse d'en apprendre plus. Les courtes descriptions de créatures entre les chapitres sont très sympas et entre ça et la richesse des détails qui parsèment le roman, on sent qu'on entre dans un monde très recherché et bien plus grand que seule cette histoire peut nous faire découvrir.

Les personnages sont attachants, sans être trop parfaits. Les mystères auxquels ils se confrontent, petits et grands, sont fascinants ; on se demande toujours ce qui va se passer après, s'il y a un lien avec ceci ou cela, et comment ça va se résoudre... J'ai vraiment passé un bon moment avec tout ce petit monde et j'ai fini le livre d'une traite.

J'ai hâte de lire ce que l'auteure nous proposera d'autre dans le futur !

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Let me start with, this is one of the best titles ever. So enticing. I saw it pass through goodreads and I was like, "yeah clearly this is a book for me."

And it was! Although I wasn't sure at the start. Fancy prose, I thought. Maybe I've been reading too much straightforward writing and that's why this is so jarring, so difficult.

But this is way beyond attempts at appearing literary. Blue and Red are two agents in a war fought from so far downthread, with ways of life we can barely comprehend that they might as well be alien. They come from two different worlds, strands, universes and we feel that in the way every chapter and letter is written and woven and the metaphors are chosen. It's beautiful. Slowly in their words we learn to perceive the world the way they might, and the way they experience their love feels different and yet it is the same and also so much more.

I started this book thinking, "4 stars because I kind of have to work at this" and I finished it thinking, "what a glorious 5 stars," with so many emotions still bursting through my seams.

How to Write Lots, and Get Sh*t Done: The Art of Not Being a Flake by Jess Mountifield

I really enjoyed it.

Self-Editing On A Penny: A Comprehensive Guide by Ashlyn Forge

A pleasant read, easy to finish in one go yet still jam-packed with useful advice that make it also useful as a reference. I'm not sure that it lives up to the 'comprehensive' part of title but it certainly approaches editing from many angles (plot structure, common grammar mistakes, line edits, ...) and gives you good ideas for approaching revisions when you can't figure out where to start. The examples are written especially for the book and illustrate the point of each piece of advice very well.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

A wonderful little book about creativity, full of hope and interesting thoughts. I didn't necessarily agree with every idea, not everything resonated with me but every section had something that made me think, consider. I really enjoyed the chapters around fear, around trust, around giving yourself permission to create. I liked the concept of dedication without ever taking yourself or art seriously. "Done is better than good" keeps floating around my mind and making a lot of sense, especially because something else in me really wants to oppose it. But still the concept resonates so deeply and I want to embrace it.

A gentle, hopeful read that I think I will return to from time to time when I find myself lacking courage.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Life advice masquerading as writing advice, and sometimes the other way around.

Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries, #5) by Martha Wells

A bit slow to start, I felt, and although I do enjoy tremendously the sarcastic parenthetical asides, the beginning really truly had a great many. Once the banter got properly started though, the story flowed a lot better for me and I enjoyed a lot getting to spend time again with those characters. Can't wait for the next book!

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Whenever I see a rec list for writing books, this one always tops it. I even saw people say that if you can only read one book on writing, this should be the one.

I think... maybe if you're a Stephen King fan, that's true, but if you're more neutral about him (I don't reach much horror), this book can get tough going at times. It's like, 4 or 5 different books. The first part is autobiographical, it's called "CV" but except for a couple of anecdotes, I found it difficult to stick with it at times. Then there's the Writer's Toolbox, which I thought I would enjoy but also found difficult to get through.

Then comes the section of the book called "On Writing" - I loved that part! Deeply interesting, the metaphor of the story as a fossil to dig out and the different methods to approach it were really interesting. The part on research, leaving that until the second draft and using details for verisimilitude as opposed to accidentally writing a paper within the story... Interesting food for thoughts, and lots of other titbits like that.

Then there was the story of his accident. Reading about the driver being described like a character was compelling, great storytelling in action again despite it being real. Then a bunch of book recommendations to finish things off.

I think it's an interesting book for the "On Writing" section, and understanding how some writers work (no outline!). I just found everything around it a bit more difficult to get through.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

What a wonderful book and story. It has the intriguing, unsettling, alluring atmosphere of an old fairytale, and the worldbuilding is so captivating and artfully done. Like, the story seems to start small although very mysterious, but as the story moves forward the world starts to feel larger and larger in captivating ways - it's very well done, like in such a way that the reader doesn't feel overwhelmed, and I enjoyed losing myself in it. Despite everything that is going on, it's easy to pace yourself reading the first half of the book - but when I got to the mid-point and the stakes suddenly feels so much higher and yet it's unclear what is going on, what is going wrong, and how much might be lost, and I just couldn't stop reading until I reached the ending. The ending was most certainly not what I expected, but I liked it, and I think some of the images painted in it will remain in my mind for a while. It fits the rest of the book well, and I enjoyed it a lot.