and has 0 comments

  Extra Virginity is basically a reportage, exploring the world of olive oil from its influence in antiquity on health, religion, economy and culture to the huge counterfeiting industry making billions yearly by selling us unhealthy crap under the guise of olive oil. It seems Tom Mueller specializes in this kind of report-books, having done multiple investigations into different domains, like health or whistleblowers.

  I was afraid the book was going to be too dry, but it wasn't. The author makes many interesting connections with people all over the world, interviews them and writes their story in the book with competence. If I were to complain about something, it was that some things were repeated throughout the book. Perhaps limiting it to just the essentials and editing more of the fluff would have resulted in a more impactful book, but overall I liked it.

  I also think it's an important book to read to understand not only oil, but our entire food industry and the supply chains that feed it. The most disgusting thing in the book, for me, was when it described how Europeans and Americans are being trained to associate olive oil with the bland industrially deodorized mix of different cheap oils, so when we get to taste the real thing we are shocked by its taste and believe it is counterfeit.

  Personally I've had the opportunity to taste and use regularly real olive oil and I can tell you that, yes, there is a big difference. The book goes further to talk not only of the taste, but the many apparent health benefits of real olive oil, which makes the counterfeiting industry not only guilty of fraud and wrong when they declare that if you can't tell the difference, why should it matter, but also enemy of public health, even when they don't serve you contaminated or poisoned oil (which also happened).

  In short, read this. It says a lot about the world we live in. Not a happy book.

and has 0 comments

  I did not like this book. The whole idea in Primitives is that two relatively identical characters, in almost identical situations, somehow get together for a sequel. The rest is so pointless as to be irrelevant.

  Maybe I am being overly harsh, but consider this: the world has ended, a disease and then a universal antidote that had even worse side effects have seen to that. And so we are somewhere decades into the future, where some kids, raised by educated scientists in what's essentially a zombie world, show us that indeed there is no hope for humanity, because they are entitled, stupid and strong willed to make all the bad decisions they can make. Ugh! Long story short: the world had ended and our only hope are Gen-Zs. We're doomed!

  Erich Krauss' writing style is first person from the viewpoint of the kids, so it's really painful even if it's not technically awful. I almost didn't finish the book, but I chose the pain now rather than the regret that would always follow me around if I didn't find out for sure the book was shit to its very end. And what an end that was... Ugh, part 2.

  Bottom line: don't read this. It's not good.

and has 0 comments

  Wow! This thing hit hard. In The Test, Sylvain Neuvel tells the story of a British citizenship test that a man has to take so that he is not deported with his family back to Iran, where it is not safe for them. The testing goes awry and nasty things happen. But the real important factors are the people involved and how, with often good intentions, they do terrible things.

  The story is deeply satirical without being amusing. The way form is respected in strict ways that are completely antithetical to the spirit or principle of the thing is especially gruesome. The ending is not even sad, it's devastating.

  Good stuff! And it's a short story. Read it. 

and has 0 comments

  I wanted to start the review with the tired "A love letter to fungi" cliché, but I stopped because I realized the feeling I get from the book is not love, but awe. Merlin Sheldrake is indeed enamored with fungi, but Entangled Life shines with admiration and the amazement of discovery for this life kingdom. The thesis of the book is that everything alive right now is supported by the fungal network either from below or above.

  For example modern plants, and especially the ones we use for food, cannot even grow without mycelial networks. They exist in symbiosis by feeding fungi sugars obtained through photosynthesis and receiving from them minerals and other soil resources. It's not just a matter of supplanting resources, though. Fungi form complex networks that collaborate and share resources and information. They are more than alive, they are decision makers, choosing to feed one plant more or less, moving resources from healthy to sick plants, keeping tight and efficient portfolios (heh, folios) of different organisms that help it grow and survive.

  Is it really symbiosis or is it farming? Who is farming whom, then? And where one individual start and one end if their lives are strongly connected through the Wood Wide Web?

  Without fungi there would be no soil and perhaps we are unaware of how much of the human pollution is being offset by these master decomposers. Their influence starts from the very base of the food chain and ends with the cultural: without fungi there would be no alcohol, for example, and that seems to have been a very influential substance in our own evolution from monkeys to overthinking apes. That and bread, I guess...

  The writing style was a bit exuberant and sometimes repetitive, but this book is filled with information and not the one I had expected either. I've read some books about fungi and they all kind of revolved around some very common pieces of knowledge. Entangled Life seems to be complementary to those books, skipping over lazy common information and bringing hands-on and modern research knowledge.

  What can I say? I loved this book and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

  P.S. And it's not even that long. From the 800 e-book pages, 300 were end of the book notes, which BTW were very detailed and brought forth a whole new level of data. But if you just want to read a book about how important (and poorly researched) fungi are, you can just read the first 500 pages and be done with it.

and has 0 comments

  It took me forever to read this rather short book, because I didn't want to. The Genocides features unlikable characters in a bland setting and written by Thomas M. Disch in a way that feels very religious, without also feeling spiritual. It was written in 1965, but feels older than that: it's unnecessarily dated, it brings nothing new to the table, it lacks any kind of moral or closure. Basically a bunch of rednecks die slowly as the Earth is choked by alien plants. The alien plants were the most interesting bit, but they were not really explored in any detail. I hated this book.

  In a way, it started really well. You have some spores that apparently arrived from outer space germinating like crazy into plants that choke everything, are not nutritious and adapt to anything people throw at them. The human response is swift: total societal collapse, followed by widespread famine, ecological death and ultimately extinction. And with humanity's whimpery end as the background we... read about a village controlled by a tyrannical religious patriarch as they... can do nothing about anything and die.

  The main characters are a family of hicks running the village and trying to save its people, a guy from the city bent on slow revenge, a bunch of cardboard people who are mostly represented by a number of how many are left. None of them actually achieve what they set up to do. They all fail miserably, disgustingly and pathetically, kind of like how the author himself died in 2008 when he killed himself. And then the book ends.

  The writing style was decent, but it was so obvious that everything was connected to some kind of biblical metaphor the author had in mind, even when it was not spelled out. It all felt like the sermon of that one skinny priest that doesn't seem to ever enjoy anything and resents it in other people. I don't know who recommended this book to me, but now I have a desire for slow humiliating revenge against them.

and has 2 comments

  I didn't know what to expect from Human Errors. Pointedly, Nathan H. Lents was describing the various biological systems that are not quite efficient in their functionality. But he goes further, explaining the molecular mechanisms that led to these errors, the evolutionary, sexual and societal pressures, all in a clear and understandable way. I've learned a lot from the book and I recommend it warmly.

  The book is structured into 8 parts: an introduction, six chapters on various themes, then an epilogue describing what the future may hold. The chapters talk about errors in: bones and anatomy, nutrition, genomics, fertility, immunity and the brain. Well researched and informative, one flaw of the book is that sometimes it comes up with very definitive explanations to something or some discussion about how a design should work, only then to add a small paragraph saying that maybe it's not so clear, but it makes the author feel a bit arrogant, like he wanted to shout from the rooftops about some things but he's holding it in.

  Ironically, this book was published in 2018 and already feels dated, especially the parts that talk about evolution of computer systems. If anything, it made me lose hope on biological solutions to the future. There is no fixing us, we need a complete redesign. The imperfections of living organisms is what gives nature beauty, but it isn't taking it anywhere. The Epilogue also talks about the Fermi paradox, which is, I believe, the perfect ending of this book about the mechanics of evolution.

  Bottom line: I liked it a lot, it's not hard to read and digest and very informative. Highly recommended.

and has 0 comments

  In 2016 I started reading The Dread Hammer and almost immediately gave up. It felt like an adolescent female fantasy about a wild man in the woods. In truth, it may be that, but it had more complexity once I ended reading it. The problem, though, was that I felt always out of phase with what was happening in the story.

  So we meet this girl running from her father and the man she was forced to marry and meeting this man who could turn into smoke and kill anyone who immediately takes a fancy on her and, very seductively and romantically, kidnaps her and makes her his wife. Then there is this whole history of the evil militaristic misogynistic empire at the border of a smaller country, protected by fierce warriors and ancient magic. And then stuff happens, which oscillates between very dark magical blackmail horror and rather silly and random romances and clumsy politics. Honestly, it was like someone was trying to write teen Irish Tarzan, but for children.

  Somehow, when I was getting chills about the horror of a situation and preparing for the worst, nothing actually happened. When I was chilling and not expecting anything interesting to happen, something did happen. But mostly everything felt random. Add to this that the story doesn't actually end in any way with the book, and I felt little satisfaction reading it and even less getting to a completely bland cliffhanger. Or rather, the end of the first volume of a story.

  Now I feel like I've DNF'd the book twice, even if I did manage to get to the end and for some lengthy parts of the book I was actually invested in the characters. I liked The Red series by Linda Nagata/Trey Shiels, but I won't continue with this. And why the hell was it called The Dread Hammer? It has absolutely no relevance to the story for now. 

  Bottom line: not a very good book, but it had a lot of potential, which is sad. I will raise my original rating with a star, but I can't recommend it to anyone.

and has 0 comments

  I've read Vita Nostra, by the Dyachenkos, and I liked it quite a lot. However, due to the defective pipeline for translating and publishing Russian books, I've never got to read the next volumes in the series. Luckily, Daughter from the Dark is a standalone novel, so I went into it with high expectations.

  And it delivered. It's not as interesting as Vita Nostra, but it follows kind of the same ideas, which I feel are very trendy in Russian culture at the moment: mythological and fantastical characters placed in a modern and very Russian setting. There is this bachelor, he is a DJ, lives the club life, has money, charms girls, etc. Suddenly, he is forced to contend with a young girl who claims to be his daughter. She also appears to be magical. A rather interesting examination of human relationships, a sort of adult coming of age story, with some buddy elements, and an exploration of human society, Russian one in particular, to boot.

  The book has some issues though, mainly pacing, but also some incidents that just seem to come out of nowhere, disappear and never be mentioned again. Coupled with the eternal confusion of the main character, it gives the story a feeling of a dream, one specific literary technique that I personally despise. It's just a tiny feeling, but it can be grating. Perhaps it's also a artifact of translation, I have no way to tell.

  Bottom line: a nice simple read that can be easily imagined as a straight to TV Russian low budget film. It's not great, but it can be pleasant. The Russian angle gives it a little freshness from a Western reader's point of view.

and has 0 comments

  Blind Lake starts well: a "new astronomy" installation, a small town enclave around a mysterious device that can image the individual lives of alien beings on another planet, is inexplicably quarantined from the outside. No information passes in or out and anyone wanting to leave doesn't get to live.

  In this situation, people act in different ways, as Robert Charles Wilson explores themes of families breaking up and their effect to children, "lockdown romances", but also paranoia, power dynamics, life purpose and other things. However, what is conspicuously missing is anything actually technical. Even the magical installation is just that: magical. One day a space telescope started to send worse and worse signals, so they used self evolving Artificial Intelligence to clean up the signal. And clean it up the little AIs did, even when the telescope stopped sending any signals. No one understands how and they are seemingly content with the situation.

  The sci-fi elements, even if always present throughout the book, stay in the background. Therefore, the entire story is about people: reporters, scientists, security guards, managers and their families or significant others. The ending isn't helping at all, it's a "whatcha gonna do?" kind of shrug-off.

  Bottom line: It is a well written book and I read it really fast, but it the end it felt like killing time more than reading a book. Like watching a TV series episode that I quickly forget afterwards. I feel like the author has a lot more to offer and maybe his other books, with juicy titles like Darwinia and The Chronoliths, would be better. I don't know if I will ever have time to read any of them, though.

and has 0 comments

  Disappointed by the very praised Every Heart a Doorway, I thought I would give Seanan McGuire another chance and try the Alchemical Journeys series. The first book, confusingly titled Middlegame, is not a bad book, but it is very long and goes pretty much nowhere.

  The premise, just like in Every Heart, is great: a world in which alchemy is real, a form of sciency magic in which people don't do spells, but use magical artifacts, created by complicated rules of time, space and emotion. And what do alchemists want? World domination and a pony, obviously. Through a complicated inheritance chain that vaguely links to the author's A. Deborah Baker children books, this alchemist creates the embodiment of "the doctrine" in two twin children that are separated at birth.

  Great start, only the children don't know anything about alchemy, their only superpowers seeming to be a penchant for words and languages for the boy and one for mathematics for the girl. Also, they discover they can talk to each other if they close their eyes, regardless of distances. And they spend three quarters of the book doing pretty much nothing. If they want to meet, the evil alchemists thwart their attempts. If they want to research their connection or their blood, evil alchemists find out immediately and eliminate any threat.

  Imagine a Harry Potter spin-off where the heroes are a bunch of muggles who don't know magic exists, occasionally meet something magic and then promptly their memories are erased, and you kind of get most of this book.

  The siblings could only get out of their situation by being helped by a third party, and instead of explaining everything from the very beginning, said party is just randomly interfering and being cryptic when she does reveal herself. The ending doesn't fix things at all, being again comprised of random moments strung together in which things happen to the characters instead for them to have much agency or choice in what is going on.

  Bottom line: another story about passive characters that can't help their situation in a cruel and unpredictable world, no matter how interesting. I guess that's McGuire's style and I don't care for it much.

and has 0 comments

  Right after the high caused by reading the first book in the series, it was obvious I couldn't give By Fire Above a fair rating. It would be pretty hard to top that one and, indeed, I enjoyed this book a little less. But just a little. Mostly set on the ground and (un)focused on too many characters, it lacked that weird and fascinating vibe that the battles in the first book brought. But I have to admire the courage of Robyn Bennis to take the story of an airship and make the sequel about anything else but.

  Yet what it lost in fascination it gained in depth: a glimpse of the noble's world, a way to explain Josette's personal history and touch on her romantic inclinations, ground skirmishes and sieges, covert operations and so on. I was more interested in air battles than the detailed emotional lives of people, but then that's just me.

  It almost felt like the setup for a grand new adventure in a following book, yet after writing the first two books in 2018 and 2019, nothing has come up from Bennis in 5 years other than participating in some short story collections and a short novel about the devil. She hasn't written anything in her blog since 2017, which being on Blogspot is not that surprising, but it is a bit off for a writer.

  Bottom line: I loved the first book and this one was quite enjoyable, too. However, knowing now that there isn't likely to be a third book any time soon, I would recommend you stick to reading The Guns Above only.

and has 0 comments

  Finally! A book written with joy and wit and action. Characters that make sense in a world built from the ground up. No agenda, no fillers, just pure enjoyment. Bravo, Robyn Bennis!

  The Guns Above takes action in a fictive world at the technological level of the 1800s, where various kingdoms carry pointless wars in the name of vague territory claims, dubious patriotism and incompetent kings and nobles. They use muskets and cannons and horses and swords and... airships. Big helium filled blimps that support land troops and fight naval battles in the air. In this world women are relegated to "auxiliaries" in the army, with no responsibilities or agency, but winds are changing as the supply of fighting men dwindles.

  The main character is a woman who through happenstance and own abilities becomes the first woman airship captain. For the rest of the book she and her crew carry on tense edge of your seat air battles and navigate both air and the political mire in which such a "revolutionary" situation puts her in.

  If I were to complain, I would say the writing style is a bit inconsistent, but only slightly so. If you are a fan of naval battle stories, witty repartées, sardonic views on the military, politics and life in general and good fun writing, this is for you. I will immediately start reading the next book in the series. Highly recommended!

  There are books better written and more effort went into them, but for the level of personal enjoyment while reading, I will gleefully rate this five stars.

and has 0 comments

  Should I rate a book low because I've read so many stories exactly like it, using the personal family experiences of the writer to create archetypal worlds in which a lot of people would recognize themselves? Should I be influenced by the fact I've just watched (and hated) The Tiger's Apprentice hours before I started reading this book and realizing the stories are almost identical? Or should I just rate it compared to better books and subtract a star? Because as it is, it feels a bit too harsh to rate it three stars, while being certain it does not deserve four.

  Labyrinth Lost is a children/young adult book about brujas (Spanish for witch). Just like in any number of similar stories, Zoraida Cordova takes some aspects of Latin culture and religion and then proceeds with the same exact plot: well meaning, but completely stupid teen who is also THE ONE does something emotional, then tries to undo it, growing in the process. She has protectors that have watched her from afar without her knowledge and friends who aren't what they seem, mentors that have imparted just a tiny smidge of knowledge before vanishing or dying, usually right before a life branching time or ritual approaches. The villain is a psychotic evil person without any hope of redemption, completely two dimensional, powerful beyond belief, yet reluctant to attack before the hero gathers enough information, power and friends to defeat them. There are magical worlds, magical NPCs, betrayal, love, friendship and [Vin Diesel voice] family. There are moments where the power of the hero is conveniently either not available or exactly the type and power required, and it comes from the heart, not - God forbid - from actual effort to learn or train. And when that's not possible, always a ghost, ethereal transmission or unexpected ally comes to the rescue. Decisions are taken from kindness or some sort of deep ingrained morality, but thought or planning. You know the drill.

  At no point of the book was I surprised or warmed up to any of the characters as they were thoroughly formulaic, like they had no identity of their own. I think that makes the book a completely average product. Predictable story, mid characters with no agency or realistic growth, average writing skill. Yup, three stars.

  P.S. Are teens actually reading stuff? Because it feels like people are writing books now solely in hope that they will be optioned for film adaptions which then will push armies of identical children to buy and read the books at the same time.

and has 5 comments

  I first heard of Lenny Bruce in a little TV show called The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In it, Luke Kirby did a great job portraying this smart, articulate, funny, charismatic comedian who can't stop feeling despondent about the world around him. And later in the series the character starts drinking excessively and, instead of being funny, reads court transcripts in comedy clubs, transcripts of his own trials, a direct consequence of persecution from authorities.

  Well, dear reader, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People has the same structure. The first half is autobiographical, the second is court transcripts and descriptions of the injustices the authorities have piled on him. And it's wasn't in his head either, as his was the first posthumous pardon in New York history. They really did a number on him. But that part just isn't funny or entertaining or truly educational. So high marks for the first half, low for the second.

  Also, if you are looking for a funny book, this ain't it. There is something about biographies of people born before 1950: they are more raw, more honest, more full. So is this one, and you read of the weird, wonderful and terrible that Lenny did, during the war and after. How he was always a sensitive person and thus pretty cautious around other people. But he yearned to love and be loved, so occasionally he was trying it out and getting screwed every. single. time.

  I mean, I immediately connected with the guy. What intelligent person didn't look at the world as it is and despaired? Only most people get beaten down, they "grow out of it", trained to accept every absurdity, atrocity and abhorrence. Not Lenny. He continued to not believe that the world could be like that and would do things like those and continuously exposed and criticized hypocrisy. So if you planned to read a light comical book, you get instead the (short) life story of a guy in a permanent state of "Are you kidding me?!". This book is not about the comedy, but about the life that lead of one Leonard Alfred Schneider.

  Bottom line: I liked it and I think you might, too, but I can't recommend it. The person Lenny Bruce must have been a lot more interesting than this book.

and has 0 comments

  The White Queen is a short reimagining of Alice in Wonderland where Alice is a small child in the Victorian era, plagued at night by demoniac creatures brought on by an evil white rabbit toy. Her parents, having born her just because it was proper, expect her to be meek, silent and not make trouble. Unfortunately, every morning her room is a mess and she is covered in scratches and bite marks. And if you thought this was bad, the parents set out to cure her by sending her to one of the state of the art mental asylums of the era. Jolly good!

  Addison Cain is relentless in torturing her character, using her as a vehicle to expose the hell that a woman's life could be. Is it a feminist story? Not in the bad sense of the word. Is it true horror? Yes, indeed. Is Alice crazy or is it all real? Who knows?

  Bottom line: a little story with a lot of uncomfortable horror in it. I actually liked it short because I don't think I would have enjoyed reading this for an entire week. This way you can finish this in an hour or so, get your horror kick, then return to normal life before mad hatters corrupt your soul.