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:

Blurb:

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.

Review:

[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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Review: Nyxia

Posted on February 2nd, 2018 @ 12:42
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Nyxia (The Nyxia Triad, #1)Nyxia by Scott Reintgen

My rating:

Blurb:

Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why the Babel Corporation recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family.

Forever.

Before long, Emmett discovers that he is one of ten recruits, all of whom have troubled pasts and are a long way from home. Now each recruit must earn the right to travel down to the planet of Eden—a planet that Babel has kept hidden—where they will mine a substance called Nyxia that has quietly become the most valuable material in the universe.

But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. And Emmett will face the ultimate choice: win the fortune at any cost, or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise what it means to be human.

Review:

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

A fast-paced and fun read, although in the end I wasn’t particularly impressed. Perhaps because, while I enjoy the ‘tournament’ trope to an extent, I’m happier when it doesn’t extend over the whole story? I liked reading about the competition at first, but towards the end of the book it left me somewhat cold, as the cool tasks from the beginning became repetitive. I think it’s also because in made little sense once the book reaches it turn after the 65% mark or so, and you realise that pitting them against each other like that from the beginning had a huge potential for backfiring (and, no surprise, it does).

I was also on the fence regarding the nyxia mineral, which seems to be able to do everything, make coffee, just add water. I’m totally OK with a substance you can manipulate through willpower, and that may even be sentient to an extent, but I need some more explanation as to how this suddenly makes a space trip possible in 1 year instead of 27, for instance, or allows to create instant multi-language translators.

As far as the characters go, they worked for me as a disparate group with strengths and weaknesses, and there are a few I liked well enough, like Kaya, probably the one smart enough to understand what’s really going on; yet individually, not many stood out, and I could only get a solid grasp on a couple of them rather than on the whole crew. As for the romance, it sprang up from nowhere, had no chemistry, and is to be filed under that category of insta-romance that is only here so that we can tick the box on the bingo sheet. (Seriously, why must YA books have romance everywhere? Half the time, it just doesn’t work.)

Moreover, I’m not sure the attempt at bringing diversity worked too well, probably because we still end up with several Americans in the lot instead of having a really worldwide cast, and their cultural differences as a means of enriching their relationships and background weren’t really exploited. We see a little of it through Bilal and Azima, but the others? Not so much. They could all have been from the same city, in the end, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. There was much more potential than was actually exploited here, and that’s too bad.

Conclusion: A story whose beginning was better, but that didn’t live up to the expectations it had set for me.

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Review: Circe

Posted on January 31st, 2018 @ 16:35
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CirceCirce by Madeline Miller

My rating:

Blurb:

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child–not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power–the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Review:

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

A few years ago, I had read and really liked “The Song of Achilles”, and I had high hopes for Miller’s “Circe”. I wasn’t disappointed.

A retelling of myths surrounded Circe, daughter of sun-god Helios and nymph Perses, this novel focuses of course on the eponymous character, from a much more humanised point of view, making her closer to us and easier to root for. I haven’t brushed up on my Greek mythology in quite some time, and my memories of what I knew about Circe were a bit foggy, but I quickly found my marks again—the deities she’s surrounded with, the mortals she meets (Odysseus being the most famous), as well as slight variations (although I don’t remember reading myths where Circe and Daedalus meet, that was definitely a touching addition, and not an illogical one anyway).

I do remember how, when I was much younger and got interested in Greek mythology, most of the legends I read were the usual male-centric ones, with figures like Circe or Medusa presented as antagonists, somewhat evil and monstrous, impediments to the heroes’ journeys. So whenever I get my hands on a retelling from their point of view, and it happens to be humanised and qualified *and* well-written on top of that, as is the case here, I’m definitely happy about it. Here, turning Odysseus’ men is much less an act of evil than a way for Circe to defend herself before the sailors do to her what previous sailors did (and she doesn’t do it immediately, she does ‘give them a chance’ and studies them first to see how they’re going to behave). Here, the heroes are larger than life, but through Circe’s gaze, we also see their mortality and the imperfections that go with it, the difference between what the bards sing of them and the men they actually were.

No one is perfect in this story; not Circe herself, not the gods, not the humans. In a way, even though half the cast is made of immortal deities, this novel is a study of humanity. Circe’s voice—a voice the gods perceive as shrilly, but is in fact, all that simply, a mortal’s voice, soft and weak compared to theirs—has a haunting quality, too, thanks to the poetic and evocative prose that carries the story. And so it takes us through her contradictions, her pain and hopes, her realisation that she’ll never get her father’s approval, her exile, and her lingering her regrets at what she did in the past (Miller went here with a version similar to Hyginus’, making Circe the cause to Scylla’s transformation, as well as Glaucus’ through her first act of witchcraft). From a little girl neglected by her parents and bullied by her siblings, she goes through life making mistakes, angry and exiled, but also learns from this, and becomes in time a wiser person, who won’t hesitate to stand up for what she cares for, using her magic to better ends.

This read was perhaps a little confusing without more than just a basic notions about Greek mythology (the glossary at the end helps, though). I’m also not entirely happy with the ending, which I probably would have enjoyed more had it been reversed. Nevertheless, I found it mostly enjoyable and enthralling.

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Review: Paper Ghosts

Posted on January 26th, 2018 @ 21:37
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Paper Ghosts: A Novel of SuspensePaper Ghosts: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

My rating:

Blurb:

An obsessive young woman has been waiting half her life—since she was twelve years old—for this moment. She has planned. Researched. Trained. Imagined every scenario. Now she is almost certain the man who kidnapped and murdered her sister sits in the passenger seat beside her.

Carl Louis Feldman is a documentary photographer. The young woman claims to be his long-lost daughter. He doesn’t believe her. He claims no memory of murdering girls across Texas, in a string of places where he shot eerie pictures. She doesn’t believe him.

Determined to find the truth, she lures him out of a halfway house and proposes a dangerous idea: a ten-day road trip, just the two of them, to examine cold cases linked to his haunting photographs.

Is he a liar or a broken old man? Is he a pathological con artist? Or is she?

Review:

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

I had liked ‘Black-Eyed Susans’ by the same author well enough, and I thought I’d like this one as well, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. As evidenced by the time I needed to finish it, that wasn’t because I had too much work and no time to read, but because it kept falling from my hands and I’d reach something else to reach instead.

It started well enough, and I thought that the story would be a game of cat and mouse between the main character and the suspected killer. However, while I kept waiting for said character to reveal her hand—for instance, to show that she had made this or that mistake on purpose, in order to better turn the tables—such moments never happened. I think this is where it went wrong for me, and I believe the first-person narration wasn’t an asset in this case: with a third person POV, I could’ve been fooled into thinking the ‘heroine’ knew what she was doing, since I wouldn’t have been completely ‘in her head; but with first person, it’s more difficult to fool the reader…

So, well, I wasn’t fooled. In spite of all her alluding to her ‘trainer’ and to how she had taught herself to face various difficult situations, she wasn’t really one step ahead. Perhaps in the very beginning, but this fell down the train as soon as Carl started coming up with new ‘conditions’ along the way, and she was totally taken aback, and… just relented, or protested weakly. That didn’t fit my idea of someone who had planned carefully, or whose plans were unravelling but who still had the savvy to bounce back.

Also, I wasn’t convinced at all by the twist at the end. Something you can’t see coming because there was never any hint of it throughout the story, is not what I call an actual twist, but cheating the reader. (Now, when I read something and I’m all ‘a-ha! So that’s why she did this in chapter2, and said that in chapter 6, and that character did that in chapter 14’, well, that’s a proper twist.)

Conclusion: 1.5 stars. Too bad.

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Review: Undercover Princess

Posted on January 20th, 2018 @ 22:37
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Undercover Princess (The Rosewood Chronicles, #1)Undercover Princess by Connie Glynn

My rating:

Blurb:

When fairy tale obsessed Lottie Pumpkin starts at the infamous Rosewood Hall, she is not expecting to share a room with the Crown Princess of Maradova, Ellie Wolf. Due to a series of lies and coincidences, 14-year-old Lottie finds herself pretending to be the princess so that Ellie can live a more normal teenage life.

Lottie is thrust into the real world of royalty – a world filled with secrets, intrigue and betrayal. She must do everything she can to help Ellie keep her secret, but with school, the looming Maradovian ball and the mysterious new boy Jamie, she’ll soon discover that reality doesn’t always have the happily ever after you’d expect…

Review:

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

There were good ideas in there, and I was fairly thrilled at first at the setting and prospects (a boarding school in England, hidden royals that looked like they’d be badass, etc.), but I must say that in the end, even though I read the novel in a rather short time and it didn’t fall from my hands, it was all sort of bland.

The writing itself was clunky, and while it did have good parts (the descriptions of the school, for instance, made the latter easy to picture), it was more telling, not showing most of the time. I’m usually not too regarding on that, I tend to judge first on plot and characters, and then only on style, but here I found it disruptive. For instance, the relationship between Ellie and Lottie has a few moments that border on the ‘what the hell’ quality: I could sense they were supposed to hint at possible romantic involvement (or at an evolution in that direction later), but the way they were described, it felt completely awkward (and not ‘teenage-girls-discovering-love’ cute/awkward).

The characters were mostly, well, bland. I feel it was partly tied to another problem I’ll mention later, namely that things occur too fast, so we had quite a few characters introduced, but not developed. Some of their actions didn’t make sense either, starting with Princess Eleanor Wolfson whose name undercover gets to be… Ellie Wolf? I’m surprised she wasn’t found out from day one, to be honest. Or the head of the house who catches the girls sneaking out at night and punishes them by offering them a cup of tea (there was no particular reason for her to be lenient towards them at the time, and if that was meant to hint at a further plot point, then we never reached that point in the novel).

(On that subject, I did however like the Ellie/Lottie friendship in general. It started in a rocky way, that at first made me wonder how come they went from antipathy to friendship in five minutes; however, considering the first-impression antipathy was mostly based on misunderstanding and a bit of a housework matter, it’s not like it made for great enmity reasons either, so friendship stemming from the misunderstanding didn’t seem so silly in hindsight. For some reason, too, the girls kind of made me think of ‘Utena’—probably because of the setting, and because Ellie is boyish and sometimes described as a prince rather than a princess.)

The story, in my opinion, suffers from both a case of ‘nothing happens’ and ‘too many things happen’. It played with several different plot directions: boarding school life; undercover princess trying to keep her secret while another girl tries to divert all attention on her as the official princess; prince (and potential romantic interest) showing up; mysterious boy (and potential romantic interest in a totally different way) showing up; the girls who may or may not be romantically involved in the future; trying to find out who’s leaving threatening messages; Binah’s little enigma, and the way it ties into the school’s history, and will that ever play a part or not; Anastacia and the others, and who among them leaked the rumour; going to Maradova; the summer ball; the villains and their motivations. *If* more time had been spent on these subplots, with more character development, I believe the whole result would’ve been more exciting. Yet at the same time all this gets crammed into the novel, there’s no real sense of urgency either, except in the last few chapters. That was a weird dichotomy to contend with.

Conclusion: 1.5 stars. I’m honestly not sure if I’ll be interested in reading the second book. I did like the vibes between Lottie and Ellie, though.

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