#balisebooks – January 2019

Ce post est traduit en français ici : #balisebooks – Janvier 2019

Let’s try a new format where I try to write a #balisebooks a month (and to write it as I go so that I can publish it on the last day of the month 🙂 ).

Un Cowboy à Paris – Achdé and Jul (in English: A Cowboy in Paris) – the latest Lucky Luke album, where Luke meets Bartholdi and Eiffel (and, indeed, travels to Paris). A very entertaining read: I laughed out loud more than a couple of times 🙂

Glamour in Glass – Mary Robinette Kowal – second book of the Glamourist series. It’s in the direct continuity of the first one, so the general mood and characters are the same. I liked it more than the first one: there’s more exciting stuff happening around the magic system, there’s more action, there’s less “will they/won’t they”. And there’s a couple of tough decisions and tough situations that are, in my opinion, very well handled.

Factfulness – Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund – I wanted to start 2019 with an optimistic read, so I picked Factfulness just after midnight on January 1st. I had put Factfulness on my “to-read” list after reading Bill Gates writing about it (Why I want to stop talking about the “developing” world) – did I already mention that I quite enjoy Bill Gates book reviews? Factfulness is a nice, short read about “facts about the world you probably have wrong”. The main thesis of the book is “the world is actually getting better; it’s also been getting better for a while, and in particular since you’ve been taught about it in school.” Rosling is very careful to not say that things are not bad, but as he mentions several times, “being bad and getting better are not contradictory”. He also explains a number of biases and ways people react to things that can make them see the world as worse than it is, and getting worse. I did like that book, and it fulfilled its goal of “starting 2019 on an optimistic note”; it’s however probably a fairly short-lived book, because the data and facts that it relies on are probably getting old fairly quickly as well.

Caliban’s War – James S.A. Corey – the second book of the Expanse series. I watched the first season on Netflix, I read the first book, I watched the second season a while ago, I read the second book… and I started the third one just after that (note: this typically doesn’t happen, I usually like a small break between two books of a series, if only as a palate cleanser). The Expanse is a series of books that take place in a few hundreds of years: humanity has conquered the solar system and put bases in a fair amount of places. There’s basically three “factions”: Earth, Mars, and the Belters – who, for the most part, were born in low-gravity and can’t really expect to ever go planet-side. In that universe, we follow among others a team of people led by Jim Holden, idealistic to the point of clumsiness, who ends up at the core of a number of large-scale incidents involving events way beyond his pay grade. In Caliban’s War, he’s mostly busy with finding the kid daughter of a scientist, who disappeared during one of those large-scale incidents. I really, really liked Caliban’s War – for me it’s just the sweet spot between world building, politics and action; the writing is very engaging, and I like the multiple point-of-views structure. Highly recommended (but start with the first one – Leviathan Wakes).

Abaddon’s Gate – James S.A. Corey – the third book of the Expanse series. It starts a few months after the end of the second one, and a mysterious ring appeared somewhere on the orbit of Uranus. And circumstances conspire such that the Rocinante and its crew end up being part of a flotilla of ships that go study it – and get into unforeseen problems. This was still good, but I liked it somewhat less than the previous one. I liked the newly introduced characters, but I missed a few from the previous books. The plot rhythm stayed on par with the previous one, even if the plot itself was less to my liking – I was bothered by the “mysticism” that shrouded parts of the plot, and I literally flinched at some unpleasant parts of the it. The latest chapters did make me raise an interested eyebrow and I’m looking forward to the fourth book (I’ll have a break before I start with the fourth one, though 🙂 ).

Harry’s Trees – Jon Cohen – Harry is an employee of the US Forest Service – a job that, to his deep regret, doesn’t have much to do with trees. And his wife dies in a very sad freak accident. Amanda is a nurse who lives in a forest house – and her husband dies with a very sad aneurysm. Her daughter, Oriana, is still hoping that her dad will come back, and retreats in a world of fairy tales. Until Harry and Oriana meet – and the fairy tale becomes a little more real. This was such a beautiful book – I loved it. First, it has a lot of trees, and a lot of love for trees, and I like trees. Then, it has just enough magic to be magic enough without being completely unrealistic. And there are books, and a library (and its librarian), and fairy tales… and more trees.

And if you were to read only one of these… Harry’s Trees.

#balisebooks from the end of the year

(Ce billet est traduit en français ici : #balisebooks de fin d’année)

I’m so behind on my #balisebooks reporting that it’s not even funny. So, the plan: remove the backlog before new year, and start 2019 on a reasonably clean slate. Let’s go!

Crazy Rich Asians / China Rich Girlfriend / Rich People Problems – Kevin Kwan – the story starts with Rachel, whose boyfriend invites her to meet his family in Singapore, without even hinting that his family (and the people who gravitate around it) is richer than rich – and not necessarily behaving in a “not richer than rich” way. Drama ensues, and continues for two more books. I liked it way (way) more than I thought I would – it does have a Downton Abbey meets Gossip Girl in Singapore kind of feel, it’s generally pretty funny, many characters are likeable (and you love to hate the ones you do), the sprinkling of Malay and Chinese expressions in the dialogs is pretty well done, and that series made me SO HUNGRY, there is SO MUCH FOOD!

Site Reliability Engineering – How Google Runs Production Systems – edited by Betsy Beyer, Chris Jones, Jennifer Petoff and Niall Richard Murphy – a very nice collection of essays around the SRE theme, on topics that range from “how to organize on-call in your team” to “how to handle consensus in a distributed system” via “what’s a cascading failure and how to deal with it”, with an interesting mix of “organisational” topics and “highly technical” topics.

Ivy and Abe – Elizabeth Enfield – a book where Ivy and Abe, as soulmates as people can be, meet for the first time at different points in their lives, which makes their common story vastly different depending on the timeline and circumstances of their meeting. I really liked the idea, and the characters, and the whole view that the moment at which people meet and what they’ve lived through so far is at least as important as who they are. I am however a bit sad that there’s so many timelines in which things don’t work out, and that some of these timelines kind of lack closure.

Altered Carbon / Broken Angels – Richard K. Morgan – the first two books in the Takeshi Kovacs series, happening in a universe where people can store their consciousness into “stacks” and be revived in new bodies, borrowed or grown. In the first book, Takeshi Kovacs is hired from a (very) rich guy to investigate his own murder (the rich guy’s, not Tak’s); in the second one, he’s gathering a team to go explore a seemingly lucrative alien archaeological find. I had read Altered Carbon a while ago, hadn’t been convinced; but I liked the TV series a lot, so I was wondering if I had missed something in the book. I did like it a lot more on the second read; moreover, the few things that had bothered me in the series were actually different in the book, which is quite funny. I did dislike the second book, though – I’m not sure if it was me or the book or the moment, but I got so, so bored :/

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyou – the story of Theranos, a startup that wanted to revolutionize the biological testing industry, and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Spoiler: it did not end well – the product never quite worked, and the whole thing went from embarrassing failure to something described as a full-blown scam. Fascinating story, great storytelling – a very interesting and entertaining read. A novel with that plot would seem barely believable… and yet 🙂 Highly recommended.

Romancing the Duke – Tessa Dare – I was very pleasantly surprised by this one. I’ll admit that I have a fair amount of prejudice towards the romance genre, but this prejudice is chipping away one book at a time 😉 Izzy Goodnight inherits a castle, which is a good thing for her, because other than that, she has basically nothing (except an ermine). Problem: said castle is currently inhabited by the Duke of Rothbury, who a/ is not aware the castle has been sold b/ as current owner, would actually have something to say about it. Stuff ensues. Including a bunch of cosplayers. (No, really.) And it’s funny, and it’s cute as hell, and it’s entertaining, and I just loved that thing.

When a Scot Ties the Knot – Tessa Dare – technically in the same series as the previous one, but with unrelated stories and characters. Madeline is shy to the point of social anxiety, so when the time comes for her to make her débuts in London, instead, she invents a fake Scottish fiancé who tragically dies after a bunch of letters. Until the day where said fake invented fiancé arrives on her doorstep, with a bunch of letters addressed to him. I did like it less than the previous one, but it was still a damn entertaining read.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling – yup, I started re-reading Harry Potter. Still great 🙂

The Calculating Stars / The Fated Sky – Mary Robinette Kowal – a series where the premise is that, in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to Earth, and made things very awkward climate-wise. It completely changes the timeline of the space conquest (“we need to go to Mars, and we need to do that sooner than later”), and in that context we follow Elma, mathematician and Lady Astronaut.
On the one hand, there’s two points I do have an issue with:

  • I’m not sure I’m buying the premises (of “moving the hell out of here” vs “finding a way to make things work on Earth” – because in any case the environment on the Moon or on Mars is not going to be much better, is it?)
  • I’m not often bothered by sex scenes, but I was in the first book (the second one is better in that regard). They feel kind of awkward, too numerous, and either too long or too short (but then that would probably be marketed differently 😉 ).

Buuuuuuuuuuut. First, it was VERY, VERY hard to put down, and that’s a major factor. Second, it made me audibly chuckle AND drop a few tears here and there, and I’m a sucker for emotional reaction. Third – the anxiety depiction is so fucking spot on I can’t even, and I couldn’t help rooting for Elma – more than I would for myself 😉 – so it’s kind of therapeutic, in a way. All in all: definitely something for which I’m looking forward to the third book.

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life – Anne Bogel – That was very neat, in a meta sort of way. What do we read, why do we read, how do we read? Nobody is unique in their reading (or non-reading) habits, which makes this small book very relatable – and funny. And I even snagged a few titles that I’ll have to put on my “to read” list 🙂 Also, it made me discover Anne Bogel’s blog, Modern Mrs Darcy, which I quite like 🙂 (And which eventually made me start journaling, sooo.)

The Great Gatsby – Scott F. Fitzgerald – this one counts as a classic, and there’s been a movie recently (which I haven’t seen) that made me want to read it. And honestly? I don’t know. I did like it, but I have no idea why. Probably mostly because of the mood and the writing (which are not necessarily what catch my attention usually, they’re more “nice to have”s, as far as I’m concerned). I don’t know.

The Technological Singularity – Murray Shanahan – “The singularity” is a term that any science-fiction fan and/or computer scientist will have heard. I will confess that the definition and implications of it weren’t that clear to me before starting this book. Shanahan does a very good job at defining it, considering how artificial general intelligence could possibly be achieved, how it can lead to singularity, and what could be the impact of this, considering both technical and philosophical questions, at a very accessible and pretty engaging level. A thoroughly interesting read – although it definitely adds to the general sense of World Anxiety instead of alleviating it 😉

The Consuming Fire – John Scalzi – a great sequel to The Collapsing Empire. Still very entertaining characters (same ones, so if you didn’t like them in the first book, don’t expect to like them more here), a fair amount of smartassness and kickassery, cloak&dagger&treason, and IS THE THIRD BOOK AVAILABLE ALREADY? 😛

Shades of Milk and Honey – Mary Robinette Kowal – apparently, Pride and Prejudice with magic. I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice (yet, it’s on my list for next year 😉 ), but I still enjoyed this one a lot (I’m, at the time of writing this, reading the second book in the series, and it’s even better). It’s an historical romance where the characters are able to manipulate “glamour”, basically magical visual illusions. That was a very pleasant read.

Happier – Tal Ben-Shahar – an intro book about positive psychology. Nothing mind-blowing, but ties a few things together neatly. Pretty good, all considered.

A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares – Krystal Sutherland – Esther is convinced that her family is cursed, and that every member of her family has One Great Fear that will eventually kill them. Esther has escaped it so far, by keeping a list of “possible fears”, and carefully avoiding getting exposed to all of them – until her friend Jonah challenges her to tackle these fears, one at a time. Funny and heart-breaking and great and generally wow.

Wool – Hugh Howey – stories from the Silo, where a small community of people live, sheltered from a very dangerous Outside, to which occasionally someone gets sent (and dies quite quickly). Really loved the beginning, was less convinced by the “late middle”. Still, a very good read, and I’m looking forward to the other installments of the series.

Wild Hunger – Chloe Neill – first book of Chicagoland, The Next Generation, following Elisa, related to the vampires from the first series, coming back from Paris to Chicago after her training. Scratched the UF itch, but I got slightly bored – and rolled my eyes more than usual, at least in the beginning. The ending was somewhat better.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing – Hank Green – Gigantic Transformer statues appear all around the world, and April May is the first one to document their appearance on YouTube, and becomes Internet-famous because of it while the whole story about the Carls (after the name April gave “hers” on a whim) and their mysteries unfolds. A very entertaining read with a quite believable protagonist and an interesting depiction of “social network fame”.

The Kiss Quotient – Helen Hoang – Stella, a brilliant 30-something econometrician, is still single, at least partly because of her Asperger. She decides to hire an escort to teach her sex and relationships. Basically a gender-swapped Pretty Woman; nothing much surprising, but very cute.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Ann Mary Shaffer and Annie Barrows – an epistolary novel set in 1946 where Juliet, writer, starts corresponding with a man from Guernsey – who is part of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet is intrigued and ends up visiting her new-found friend. This was at times fun/lighthearted, poignant and moving. Really (really) liked it 🙂

Altered Traits – Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson – a short book that aims at distinguishing scientifically validated facts from hypotheses that may not be (not necessarily wrong, but “more research required”) when it comes to meditation and the brain, particularly when it comes to long-term practitioners. It’s a very interesting summary of the research around meditation effects and it’s history, but it sometimes feels a bit messy/meandering.

And if you were to read only one of these… The Calculating Stars.