Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Charlie is a bit of a no-hoper living in a reimagined London in the 80s. he inhabits a rundown one bedroom flat and plays the stock market on his beat-up computer and makes enough to get by. His love interest is Miranda, a history student, who lives in the flat above. Although it’s the 80s in McEwan’s alternate history, Alan Turing had not committed suicide, so computing technology is far-advanced – the result of this is that a private company (Elon Musk-esque) has developed advanced AI androids. They have just put on the market a trial group of 12 females (Eves) and 13 males (Adams). Charlie gets an inheritance from his mother and, on impulse. Buys an Adam (all the Eves are sold out).

So far, this is perhaps your average SF/spec fic scenario, but McEwan isn’t interested in going there. This novel is not for thrills; it is a philosophical examination of what it means to be human with all McEwan’s trade mark humour, stylistic and structural pyrotechnics, and impressive erudition. Most writers would baulk at depicting Turing discussing AI but McEwan goes right in there with convincing detail and bravura. McEwan grounds the story in complications between Adam, Charlie and Miranda. There are twists and twists and twists – nothing about the narrative is straightforward and tired ideas about android/robot/human interaction are turned on their heads.

This novel made me think about things and challenged my assumptions – it’s a rare thing when a piece of literature makes you look at something anew, from an angle I hadn’t encountered before, and he achieves this through the framework of a very enjoyable and entertaining read. Maybe, if I had to critical, I’d say McEwan can’t help but be a little too clever, and conceited about it.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers

If you have read “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (see my review), the plot of Sally Vickers novel is surprisingly similar, so much so that I felt this book was a literary tribute to the former novel. Both are set in the ’50s, both have a youngish woman as a heroine who loves books (one starts a bookshop in a small English town, the other takes up a position of children’s librarian in a similar town). Things initially go well for both: the bookshop is set up and becomes a small success and, in the other story, the heroine (Sylvia Blackwell) makes changes to the library to bring the magic of books to the children of the town. Both women, by perhaps not understanding the narrow-mindedness of such towns, fall out of favour, and are cut down. Both books are peppered with nostalgic references to books loved, and books that might be recommended. I felt that Vickers’ heroine had the same rather distanced, naive, but also perceptive voice, of Fitzgerald’s heroine, Florence Green. However, while I found Fitzgerald’s book both annoying and frustrating, Vickers gives us more of a satisfying story, with Sylvia putting up more of a fight than Florence was able to muster. Fitzgerald packs Florence off into an uncertain future (all the more bleak because Florence is in her forties, not her twenties like Sylvia, and so we assume it would be harder for her to start over). While Sylvia, too, moves on, Vickers provides a coda in the last section of “The Librarian” where we move into the future and see the effect of Sylvia’s influence on some of the children she encouraged. Both books are more hard-edged and less sentimental than a you might expect from their titles and plot-lines.

Goodreads review

The eye or the ear?

I’m not really a devotee of audio books but having had Elizabeth Kostova’s long novel The Swan Thieves on my ‘to read’ shelf for over a year, and seeing the audio book was available, I thought, why not?

My experience of listening to this audio book has made me muse over the difference between reading and being read to.

I loved Elizabeth Kostova’s first book, the literary vampire novel The Historian so I expected to also love The Swan Thieves – but I didn’t. I thought the story was very slight for a lengthy book, it was painfully detailed, the main narrator, a psychologist called Marlow, was uninspiring and terribly middle-American, and the sections set in late 19th century France were unconvincing.

In Kostova’s favour is a wonderful eye for detail, an ability to construct a beautiful sentence and to write authentically about art.

In the end, having merely listened to the book, I was unsure whether my impatience and ambivalence was really about the book itself or about the reading. This particular audio book was read by five actors/readers representing the different narratorial voices in the novel. Did I really hate Marlow the character, or Marlow the actor? Were the French parts really as bad as I thought, or were the Americanised French accents what turned me off?

Ultimately I can’t unequivocally say the book was as weak as I think because I can’t ascribe it all to Kostova. It does make me think that, just as I look for a narratorial voice I like when I select a book I want to read, I should also check an audio book for a reader whose ‘take’ on the narrative is sympathetic to my own.

Eat prey love

I love it. Move over Elizabeth Gilbert!

“New York Times bestselling author Kerrelyn Sparks pens the next book in her witty Love at Stake series, in which a sexy agent finds untamed passion in a world she never knew existed.”

Now that I might read. How much better than Elizabeth’s “journey in search of three things she has been missing: pleasure, devotion and balance”.

What are they thinking?

I read and loved the YA novel A Brief History of Montmaray and a main motivation in buying the book was it’s lovely cover that captured something of a love of reading and the solitariness and yearning for freedom of teenagehood. Imagine my horror when I saw the sequel in my local bookshop – The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Okay I haven’t read this sequel yet but the cover looks like something for a non-fiction book. The post next to the girl looks like some sort of farm implement and her hunched-over pose suggests she’s exhausted (the book description says “Sophie’s dreams of making her debut in shimmering ballgowns …” hmm nothing about toiling on a farm!). The publishers have also rebadged the first book to have the same look. This effort is a bit better. At least it has our heroine looking out over the sea but it’s still not a patch on the original cover.

The same thing has happened to The Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zinks. The first cover was evocative and caught my eye and luckily the tale was as spooky as the cover. Now they have rebadged this book to be in keeping with the sequel Guardian of the Gate. These later covers are just ghastly. I refuse to read anything with a cover like that which is a pity because I’d really like to read the sequel. I’m sure the publishers are attempting to position these books in the vampire/zombie/horror teen fiction market when Zinks’ books are much better than that and have cross-over potential.