Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Codename Villanelle (Villanelle #1), by Luke Jennings

book cover I started watching Killing Eve, the BBC TV series starring Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, and I quite liked it. So I've decided to read the books it is based on, Codename Villanelle being the first one. The result is a mixed bag. I clearly prefer the TV show, but the book is not bad either. They are, I have to say, quite different.

While both focus on a police woman trying to find a highly skilled female professional sociopath assassin, the show adds a little dark humor, which is both nice and off putting, while the book is going for the full "secret world of spies and weapon technobabble" route, which is also half and half. I think Luke Jennings wanted to write a simple spy story, inspired by the likes of John le Carré, while the show screenwriters have more ambitious goals. Most of the little episodes there are based on stuff in the book, but wholly reinterpreted, the characters changed or added, their fates changed.

But enough about TV. The book is easy to read, but a bit one sided: kill after kill and the chase of the department that has to uncover not only the identity of the killer, but also who are the high placed people who help hide her tracks, without most of the emotional exposition that makes a character relatable. Funny enough, there is more emotional content related to the killer than the cop. Makes you wonder which one of them is the psycho sometimes.

In conclusion, I will not read the rest of the books, but I will continue to watch the TV show. I feel like reading the first book opened my eyes on what the characters were supposed to be and thus Codename Villanelle acted like a nice companion book for an interesting series that I enjoy watching.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Binti (Binti #1), by Nnedi Okorafor

book cover I liked Binti, even it is a short story. It is my first contact with the Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor and I loved how African ideas blended with science fiction concepts in Binti. I will probably read the others in the trilogy, sooner or later.

The story is about a girl that leaves her tribe and planet to go to a university she was just admitted to. Just when getting there, an alien race of Medusae kills everybody except her. You will have to read why that happens and how she becomes the ambassador of the aliens, because the story is short enough to get spoiled by a detailed review. The writing is not without flaws and the character is dangerously close to the one in Who Fears Death, but I felt that it made a lot more sense in the context of an interstellar Federation as in Binti.

Read it. It was fun.

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

book cover Who Fears Death is an interesting book mainly because of the Nigerian background of Nnedi Okorafor, the author, and the subject vaguely inspired by the atrocities in Sudan. The fantasy plot revolves around a girl resulted from intertribal rape who has to deal with the injustices of her world using her magical powers. Imagine a Harry Potter book in a German extermination camp scenario where he is a Jewish girl and you get close. In fact, this and other books on the subject of tribal hatred in Africa should make any white supremacist feel good about themselves, because there is no worse racism than between violent religious uneducated tribes that pretty much look the same.

Yet the book's interesting factor kind of stops there. The African culture references throughout the story keeps it entertaining, but the plot is a classic hero arc with pretty much all of the flaws inherent to the genre. Hero is young and powerless, discovers powers, is guided by mentors that keep from her just about everything there is to know and use up until she needs it, evil villain to whom she has a direct connection and opposition, friends that are there just to support the hero, things that happen for no other reason than they needed to further the story in a particular direction, she has amazing powers but uses them sparingly and often is stopped from using them for moral reasons by her friends and so on. In fact, it gets a lot worse, considering the hero is an African girl who could get killed at any moment by an angry mob just for the color of her skin, moving around in a society where even her boyfriend thinks it's OK to keep things for himself or treat her patronizingly just because of her gender, not to mention the old male mentors.

So while the book is interesting and well written, it does have a major flaw in the way it was structured as a story. Perhaps the docile Black woman who occasionally gets upset and then regrets it resonates better with African audiences, but for a Westerner it might get a little frustrating. It is a book worth reading, mainly because of the culture shock one experiences while reading it, but it could have been better.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John M. Barry

book cover Who writes like this in this day and age? Around 10% in the book I was convinced The Great Influenza was written sometime in the middle of last century, when people still did painstaking research and paid attention to every detail, not like now, when researching something involves trying different Google keyword combinations ad nauseam. And how many people can pack so much information and knowledge into a book that is also easy to read and incredibly captivating? Apparently, John M. Barry, with this book published in 2004.

I can't stress enough how much I liked this book. I would give it 6 stars out of 5 just because I rated books with 5 stars and this is an order of magnitude better. Imagine that I only found it because I was curious about the influenza epidemic from 1918, what is popularly known as The Spanish Flu, and at the time I was worried that one book on the subject would clearly not be enough. Not only would it present just one point of view, but surely various interests or lack of resources would influence (pun not intended) the end result. Instead I was shamed, that is the right word, by the amount of care the author used to research and write this book.

In order to explain what the book is about I would have to write a lot about The Spanish Flu, a disease that killed between 50 and 100 million people globally within six months in the middle of a five year world war that killed just 20 million in military and civilian deaths combined. Yet very few people care about it or even know about it. There are few documents about it, no movie that I know of, very few books. Inside the pages of The Great Influenza are the seeds of a dozen Steven Spielberg war movies, various crossings of The Outbreak with The Knick and a few Netflix series - I find it criminal that no one thought about it so far. Therefore, I urge you to first read a little about the disease itself, on Wikipedia and Google like normal people, then read this book. It will blow you away.

John Barry is clearly an investigator at heart. Not only does the work for this book, but clearly empathizes with the people who fought to understand disease and find cures, locked in laboratories and sacrificing everything for understanding. He calls them The Warriors, the name of the first part of the book, where he describes the history of medical science in the Unites States and the people how would ultimately champion it further and fight the outbreak. The second part (out of ten) describes the disease: a type of influenza so virulent that it makes the immune system destroy the body it's supposed to protect. Only from the third chapter on we start reading about how the pandemic started, what influenced its movements, how people reacted and so on. The last two chapters are solely about the after effects (almost as important as the ones during the pandemic). A whopping 10% of the book is just notes and thanks and references.

Also relevant, I think, is the fact that Barry is American and clearly proud of it. The book has a very American centric view, not only because of the nationality of the author, as probably because it would have been a lot more difficult to research the actual events in other parts of the world. Yet even for an American patriot the book is filled with outrage at the way governments and local authorities and narrow minded bureaucrats treated the disease and the people affected by it. For an European as I am, the way a fanatical American president managed to turn an entire country into a weapon, effectively disabling the values that Americans are known for: democracy, freedom of speech, pursuit of happiness, etc, is beyond chilling. America was a sleeping giant way before Pearl Harbor and the way it awakens and consumes everything and everyone that stands in its way is ironically similar to the way the influenza virus swept the world. One of the main reasons people don't know about the disease is because any mention of it that could have affected morale during times of war was censored in the land of the free. The name Spanish Flu itself comes from the fact Spain was not censoring its media at the time.

Bottom line is that I urge everyone to read this book. It's a wonderful example of how one man can dedicate seven years to research and document something as scary, monumental and mysterious such as the great influenza pandemic of 1918, analyse it from multiple viewpoints, name, quote and praise the people who were right in the midst of battle, the unsung scientist heroes of unheard of laboratories and the people who gave them the wind under their wings. Great job, John Barry, great job indeed!