Review: The Hazel Wood

Posted on March 14th, 2018 @ 21:20
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The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

My rating:


Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: Her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother’s stories are set. Alice’s only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother’s tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong.


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

Kind of a darker retelling of “Alice in Wonderland”, down to the character’s name, but more hinged on fairy tales (the ones with not so happy endings, that is). Alice Crewe has spent her whole life going from one place to the other with her mother Ella, never meeting her famous grandmother, Althea, an author whose book is also impossible to find. When Althea dies, Ella and Alice startto believe they can finally have a normal life, but of course this isn’t meant to be, as things keep changing for the worst.

I liked this book, although I didn’t love it, possibly because I had a hard time connecting with the characters. I had mixed feelings about the time devoted to them, to be honest: on the one hand, I wanted the Hinterland part of the story to start much sooner, on the other hand, I felt that I also needed more time to get to know Alice and Finch better. Mostly they were all ‘on the surface’, and apart from Alice’s pent-up anger, I didn’t feel like there was much personality underneath. (I did like them, just in a sort of… indifferent way?)

The fairy tales / nonsensical parts of the book appealed to me more, in spite of similes that made me go ‘huh?’ more than a few times. I do have a soft spot for that kind of whimsical atmosphere, I guess. And what we see of the Hinterland tales Althea wrote made me think that I’d like to read *that* book, and know how its tales actually end.

The plot had its good sides and its downsides. I liked how its Hinterland part dealt with the power of stories, their straps, and the sort of twisted logic that one can find in them; however, I felt like it was a little lacklustre, and dealt with too fast (compared to the part devoted to the ‘real world’). There were a few loose threads, too—for instance, the red-haired man showing up at the café, then disappearing again. (Why did he go away at that specific moment? It was never really explained.)

All in all, it was an enjoyable novel, for one who likes this specific brand of atmosphere. It jusn’t wasn’t exceptional for me.

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Review: Break Out

Posted on March 11th, 2018 @ 21:20
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Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming RevolutionBreak Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution by David L. Craddock

My rating:


Around the world, millions of people hijack cars in Grand Theft Auto, role play fantastical heroes in World of WarCraft, and crush candy on phones as small as wallets yet nearly as powerful as desktop computers. But long before video games became a multi-billion-dollar industry, two hackers invented the Apple II, a PC that contained less memory than the average Microsoft Word document and bowled over consumers by displaying four colors at once. Some users tapped its resources to design productivity software. Others devised some of the most influential games of all time. From the perils along the Oregon Trail and the exploits of Carmen Sandiego to the shadowy dungeons of Wizardry and Prince of Persia’s trap-filled labyrinth, Break Out recounts the making of some of the Apple II’s most iconic games, illustrates how they informed the games we play today, and tells the stories of the pioneers who made them.


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

I never owned an Apple II, but my family did have a Commodore 64 when I was a kid, and I do have a soft spot for the history and evolution of computing (and computers) in general, and I was glad to read this book, for it reminded me of a lot of things. The Apple II, after all, was part of that series of personal computers on which a lot of developers cut their teeth, at a time when one still needed to dive into programming, at least a little, if one wanted to fully exploit their machine. (I’ve forgotten most of it now, and was never really good at it anyway since I was 7 and couldn’t understand English at the time… but I also tried my hand at BASIC to code a few simple games, thanks to a library book that may or may not have been David Ahl’s “101 BASIC Computer Games”, I can’t remember anymore now.)

In other words, due to a lot of these developers coding not only for the Apple II, and/or to their games being ported to other machines, C64 included, I was familiar with a lot of the games and software mentioned in Craddock’s book. Even though, 1980s and personal computer culture of the time oblige, most of what we owned was most likely pirated, as we happily copied games from each others to cassettes and 5 ¼ floppy disks on which we punched a second hole (instant double capacity! Just add water!).

A-hem. I guess the geek in me is just happy and excited at this trip down memory lane. And at discovering the genesis behind those early games which I also played, sometimes without even knowing what they were about. (So yes, I did save POWs with “Choplifter!”, and I haunted the supermarket’s PC aisle in 1992 or so in the hopes of playing “Prince of Persia”. And I had tons of fun with Brøderbund’s “The Print Shop”, which I was still using in the mid-90s to make some silly fanzine of mine. And even though that game wasn’t mentioned in the book, I was remembered of “Shadowfax”, which I played on C64, and some 30 years later, I’m finally aware that I was actually playing Gandalf dodging & shooting Nazgûls. One is never too old to learn!)

This book may be worth more to people who owned and Apple II and/or played the games it describes, but even for those who never owned that computer and games, I think it holds value anyway as a work retracing a period of history that is still close enough, and shaped the world of personal computing as we know it today. It’s also worth it, I believe, for anyone who’s interested in discovering how games (but not only) were developed at the time, using methods and planning that probably wouldn’t work anymore. All things considered, without those developers learning the ropes by copying existing games before ‘graduating’ to their own, so to speak, something that wouldn’t be possible anymore either now owing to said software’s complexity, maybe the software industry of today would be very different. And, last but not least, quite a few of our most popular post-2000 games owe a lot, in terms of gaming design, to the ones originally developed for the Apple II.

My main criticism about “Break Out” would be the quality of the pictures included on its pages. However, I got a PDF ARC to review, not a printed version, and I assumed from the beginning that compression was at fault here, and that the printed book won’t exhibit this fault. So it’s not real criticism.

Conclusion: If you’re interested in the history of computers and/or games; in reliving a period you knew as a gamer child or teenager; and/or in seeing, through examples and interviews, how developing went at that time: get this book.

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Review: The Girl in the Tower

Posted on March 7th, 2018 @ 18:34
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The Girl in The Tower (Winternight Trilogy, #2)The Girl in The Tower by Katherine Arden

My rating:


The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.


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

This is the direct sequel to “The Bear and the Nightingale”, and resumes where the latter left off, following both Sasha and Vasya from that point onwards.

I’m a little torn about this book. While still calling upon Russian folklore and legends, these didn’t play as much of a part as they did in the first book, and I was a little disappointed to see them take the backburner. (Morozko was still here, but I don’t know if it was so good for him, all things considered when it comes to the ending.) Paradoxically, this time, I also liked that the focus shifted more towards city politics, with the characters having to grapple with ‘what consequences will our actions have in the grand scheme of things’, for instance Dimitrii re: the Golden Horde. And that, I think, ties into one of the big themes of the story, a.k.a it’s well and all to want your independence, but finding ways to achieve it with minimum damage should be part of your focus as well.

It followed that I liked Vasya less in this second instalment. On the one hand, I sympathised with her plea of not wanting a life where she’d be locked up in the terem most of the year, and forbidden to do what she loved (riding Solovey, for instance) because ‘it didn’t become a woman’. Because not having a choice is the lot of most people, doesn’t mean we have to always accept it meekly without fighting (I mean, if everybody did that, we’d still work 14 hours a day and send children to the factory at 12 or something, I suppose); and that she’d see her niece doomed to the same kind of fate was painful. On the other hand, more than in the first volume, Vasya’s desire to travel and not live under restraint like her sister caused even more problems, likely because of the stupid ways she often approached this, and/or completely ignored any other character’s warnings. One extremely obvious example: if you aim at passing for a boy, cut your hair first thing, don’t just hide it under a hood. I think this is one detail that kept baffling me every time Vasya’s hair was mentioned, because it was so illogical to me. Getting giddy with the feeling of freedom and making mistakes? Okay, understandable. But other problems could’ve been avoided with a little common sense.

I’m interested in the third book, to see how all this will unfold, but I definitely hope Vasya will have learnt from her mistakes this time.

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Review: They Both Die At The End

Posted on February 24th, 2018 @ 20:52
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They Both Die at the EndThey Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

My rating:

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

An alternate-world story where a company named Death-Cast informs people of their impending death, and in which a lot of aspects of society are built around this: ‘Deckers’ (those people who got eh alert that they have less than 24 hours left to live) get meals , night club entrance, etc. free; a lot of blogs get devoted to chronicling their last hours, as they go about trying to make the most of what they have left; and an app, Last Friend, allows people to connect so that they’ll be able to spend that time with someone. (It is to be noted that because D-C only announces the day one is meant to die, and not the causes, a lot of Deckers try not to stay with close friends and relatives, in case their death will be due to a terrorist attack, car crash, or any other type of circumstances that could wound those other people.)

The novel follows two teenagers, Rufus and Mateo, as they meet through Last App and get to live their last day together, making memories, becoming friends, realising what they missed on, but also becoming the people they would’ve liked to be—in a somewhat paradoxical twist, in that perhaps they would never have done that, and perhaps never even known who they wanted to be, had they had their whole lives still ahead. I found this story dealt with its themes in a touching but never depressing manner. I would’ve been very miffed indeed if it had been about moping and lamenting; obviously the two boys aren’t happy about it, but they go around trying to make the most of it, trying things they may not have done on their own, and so on.

Of course, as the title explicitly says, the reader knows from the start that they both die at the end, and part of my interest in this was also to find out how they’d die, if it would leave them enough time to grow into that friendship I was promised, and whether events unfolding around them would indeed be the ones leading to their demise, or not.

I enjoyed the characters in general. Mateo’s way of gingerly opening up to braver actions was adorkable. Rufus had the making of a ‘bad boy’ but also revealed he definitely had a heart of gold. How they go about their last day was empowering. And I also liked the minor characters whose point of view I got to see as well. They were diverse (in many ways, including background, ethnicity and sexual preferences—by default I tend to consider every character as bi unless proven otherwise, cheers for Rufus here), and they allowed me to get a glimpse into the other side, what the living had to go through when confronted with the knowledge that their best friend had received the alert, and what D-C employees and related people also get to feel. (I don’t think spending your career as a customer service rep announcing people they’re going to die before tomorrow is very healthy in the long run.)

For some reason, though, I wasn’t a hundred percent invested in the book. To be fair, I suspect that’s partly because I was invested in interesting non-fiction books at the same time, and those demand more focus and attention from me. But I think that was perhaps also because of the theme: very interesting, yet necessarily leading to ‘live your life to the fullest because you’re not immortal’. Which is true, and expected, and because of this, it makes it hard to deal with it in a way that hasn’t been done already. Another thing I wasn’t sold on was the more romantic involvements; I think full-on friendship would’ve worked better for me.

Conclusion: Perhaps not a definite favourite for me, but I’ll happily pick another story by this author in the future.

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Review: Why We Sleep

Posted on February 11th, 2018 @ 21:54
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Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and DreamsWhy We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

My rating:


Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our life, health and longevity and yet it is increasingly neglected in twenty-first-century society, with devastating consequences: every major disease in the developed world – Alzheimer’s, cancer, obesity, diabetes – has very strong causal links to deficient sleep.

Until very recently, science had no answer to the question of why we sleep, or what good it served, or why its absence is so damaging to our health. Compared to the other basic drives in life – eating, drinking, and reproducing – the purpose of sleep remained elusive.

Now, in this book, the first of its kind written by a scientific expert, Professor Matthew Walker explores twenty years of cutting-edge research to solve the mystery of why sleep matters. Looking at creatures from across the animal kingdom as well as major human studies, Why We Sleep delves in to everything from what really happens during REM sleep to how caffeine and alcohol affect sleep and why our sleep patterns change across a lifetime, transforming our appreciation of the extraordinary phenomenon that safeguards our existence.


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

It took me so long to get to this book (which I also requested late, it didn’t help), and I’m wondering why! Although it *was* definitely scary, it was really interesting—and anyway, the ‘scare’ makes a lot of sense, so I wouldn’t be inclined as to consider it ‘alarmist stuff I can probably safely ignore because all these doctors and scientists write alarming stuff anyway’. I’ve had trouble to sleep for decades—while not a full night own, I’m clearly not a lark either, and this is part of my problems—and let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that on periods when I sleep less than 6-7 hours/night, I feel sluggiosh, fall sick more easily, stay sick longer, and am less focused in general. Considering my natural chronic lack-of-attention-span disorder, you can guess what it looks like.

(And now I’m wondering how much of this attention problem was really related to my Tourette’s, and how much was actually due to not sleeping enough… considering that when tics are flaring while in bed, well, falling asleep becomes an issue, too!)

Mostly what the author mentioned makes sense to me from a layman standpoint. Not enough sleep leads to increased risks of car crashes, due to microsleep attacks: yes, definitely, I almost went through that, and when I had to assess the risk of falling asleep at the wheel on a French motorway vs. stopping in a parking lot along that same motorway at 4 am to catch a couple of hours of shut-eye… Let me tell you, no argument about ‘it’s dangerous to be a female being alone at night in a deserted place’ would have made me keep driving. That was a scary, scary moment: feeling that I was falling asleep, and having those two or three seconds of complete inability to react, before I regained control of my body and managed to pull out. Yes, it was that bad. And I was extremely lucky that time. So I was definitely willing to consider Walker’s research in earnest, and not with my usual rolling-of-eyes at ‘alarmist books’.

Now, I also understand why my ageing parents are chronically tired, to the point of crashing on the sofa for a long nap every afternoon, yet can’t sleep most of the night. And why I’m going the same way, with the difference that for now I can’t afford to nap due to being at work. Naps reset the build-up of ‘sleep pressure’, and this affects in turn the moment when you’d get naturally tired in the evening, pushing it back by a few hours. (Also, now I get why melatonin pills don’t work for me: apparently I’m not old enough yet. XD)

In short, I finally got to understand a lot of things about sleep, which in turn will help me—I’m the kind of person who needs to ‘do’ and ‘understand’ in order to acquire and retain knowledge and act upon it, so this was actually perfect for me. Now I now what happens while we sleep, all the waste it helps our bodies get rid of, why sleep deprivation affects our emotions and moods, and many more things. It’s not a self-help book—while it does have an appendix with a few ‘tips and tricks’ about how to sleep better, don’t expect to see only that for two hundred pages or to find miracle cures—but it’s already doing a lot for me, just thinking about it. I can’t change my work hours, and society is not going to rearrange itself around me to give me more sleep time; but I can do little things like filtering out blue lights from my screens, not drinking so much caffeine (the old saying ‘coffee is OK as long as it’s before 5pm’ isn’t good enough, so slowly does one’s body processes caffeine), and stop begging my GP for sleeping pills.

Bonus point for the book’s accessibility. You don’t need to have medical knowledge or master its jargon to understand the author’s points. There’s even a bit of humour thrown now and then (that part about the women’s fashion magazine that was delighted to hear confirmed that ‘yes, sleep deprivation favours weight loss’… before the interviewed researcher went on to talk about the loss being mostly muscle mass and not fatty tissue, and let’s not forget the skin sores and generally awful look one develops).

Conclusion: If you do have sleeping troubles, read this, it should help with at least a few things. If you don’t, read it anyway, because it’s interesting.

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