Review: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan (Spoiler-Free)

Alan Turing’s life-instead-of-death in 1954 sparks great advancements in artificial intelligence, and thirty years on, serial idler Charlie Friend purchases Adam, one of the world’s first synthetic humans. Together, Charlie and his beautiful neighbour Miranda design Adam’s personality, but the maybe-person that comes of their joint venture is something far more than either of their expectations.

The main thing that held this book back for me was its setting. Alternative history seems like such a specific and deliberate choice for an author to make, that it feels very strange for the setting to have no real bearing on the story. The political drama of the era only effected the characters insofar as giving them something to argue about, and while the portrayal of Alan Turing as playing a(n even more) key role in the development of artificial intelligence obviously necessitates a world in which he didn’t commit suicide, his direct role in the book was actually very small, and could have been taken on by any scientific genius, real or imagined.

I can’t say that the setting detracted from the story, exactly, but it was distracting, and for no apparent reason; I frequently found myself in the middle of lengthy passages of alternative-history-backstory, wondering if this particular (often not all that interesting) bit of information was going to matter at all, and spoiler: the answer was always no.

But disregarding this – admittedly small – issue, there’s a lot to like about Machines Like Me: I didn’t always like Charlie and Miranda, and was never entirely convinced that they were as in love with each other as they believed, but their relationship was very interesting regardless; the way that it changed throughout the book felt very organic, and Adam’s integration into (and interruption of) their relationship was also well-done – though to call it a love triangle would, I think, be somewhat misleading.

I found Miranda’s backstory incredibly powerful, too; we find out early on that she’s keeping a big secret from Charlie, and both the secret itself and the way in which it’s eventually revealed provide a huge amount of dramatic tension, as well as doing a lot to flesh out her character.

Finally, the idea of sentient AI, and the ethical dilemma it presents, is something that’s always fascinated me, and McEwan’s exploration of Adam’s personhood-or-lack-thereof portrays that dilemma perfectly; do Adam’s words and actions indicate feelings or programming? And how much does it matter, if we can’t even tell the difference? Naturally, you won’t find any answers here, but you will find a compelling human drama, and plenty of food for thought.

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Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi (Spoiler-Free)

The Universal Union’s flagship, the Intrepid, is exactly the first assignment that Andy Dahl was hoping for, and he’s off to a great start, forming the basis of a solid friendship group among his fellow new crewmen before he’s even on board. But the longer he’s there, the more he starts to realise that there’s something rather strange about the Intrepid – and its secrets are deadly.

For those who don’t know, Redshirts is a parody of Star Trek, and uses as its central theme one of the show’s most dark-if-you-think-about-it-but-usually-you-don’t tendencies: killing off minor characters (who usually wear red shirts, hence the name) for dramatic tension. As with most parodies, this premise probably won’t hold much appeal for those who aren’t aware of what it’s poking fun at, but as a fan, I was eager to see what is essentially Star Trek as told by the extras. And although parody isn’t my usual genre, I was pleasantly surprised by the balance Scalzi struck between humour and sobriety; the situation was absurd, but it was having a serious impact on the characters.

That said, the book definitely had its flaws. Though the characters were generally likeable, most of them were largely indistinct from one another, which wasn’t helped in the audiobook version by the fact that Wil Wheaton (the voice actor) didn’t do much to differentiate the voices. Most of the secondary characters were also completely forgettable whenever they weren’t being directly mentioned, and I found myself having to frequently pause to remind myself who everyone was… and considering the small size of both the book and the cast, that’s an impressive feat.

The other major mark against this book is its dialogue, which, with every single line attributed, was abysmally repetitive. (Conversations between Dahl and Duvall – who get the most screen-time out of everyone – were particularly bad, as their rhyming names made the line-attribution almost comical.) This was perhaps necessary, as the aforementioned character-indistinctness meant that it would often have been difficult to tell who was speaking from context alone, but it certainly wasn’t necessary to this extent… And in any case, the issue could have been much more satisfactorily fixed by giving the characters a bit more individuality.

I was also a little disappointed by the solution that the characters came up with to their main dilemma, as I was (eagerly) anticipating something quite different – which I still think would have made for a more entertaining second half, though admittedly it would have been much more full of plot holes. Nevertheless, my expectations were completely baseless, so my feelings on this can’t really blamed on the book. And as it was, I did get drawn back in once I’d overcome my initial impulse to sulk, and I found the three codas (which dealt with the consequences of the main characters’ actions in the second half) very interesting.

Overall: A quick, amusing read (/listen), if you can get used the the continuous stream of he-said-she-said.

#TomeTopple Readathon: Update 2 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Eragon by Christopher Paolini. [497 pages]

When a mysterious rock appears before Eragon in a blaze of magic, he has no idea that it’s about to hatch into one of the first dragons to be born in Alagaësia in close to a century, or that the almost-forgotten legacy of the Dragon Riders has just become his inheritance.

I’d realised before I decided to read this that it’d had pretty mixed reviews, but I had no idea it had reached such Marmite levels of polarising-ness… Have I become that rare person who has no strong opinions on Marmite? No, Marmite is gross, but my views on this book are very centrist; buried beneath the fanaticism and vitriol, I think both proponents and detractors of it have made some good points. But before I go into the book’s pros and cons, I want to address the thing that always, always seems to come up in every defence of Eragon: Paolini’s age when he wrote it.

So, people seem to love to excuse the poor writing in this book by citing the author’s age, but I really don’t think this defence has any merit; there is, after all, no junior league for writing. Eragon is competing for your attention with every other book that’s ever been published, and should therefore be judged by the same standards. Yes, it’s pretty impressive that a teenager managed to write a book good enough to be published, but while his age might make people more inclined to forgive the book’s flaws, it doesn’t change the fact that those flaws are there, and they still have an effect on the reading experience.

In actuality, while the writing isn’t super-great, it’s nowhere near as bad as all the criticism might lead you to believe, and in particular Paolini seems to really excel at describing things very vividly. I did have a problem with the dialogue, however, in that it was often very stilted and over-formal (for instance, when he meets the dwarven king in Tronjheim, he seems to be using almost ceremonial language, but it’s difficult to imagine where he might have learned to speak in such a way). I only found this occasionally distracting coming from most of the characters, but it was especially unconvincing coming from illiterate farm-boy Eragon.

One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen of Eragon is that it’s unoriginal, and I’m inclined to agree; it reads like Star Wars set in Middle Earth, with added dragons, and a liberal dose of fantasy tropes that render the plot predictable, though not unenjoyable… The influence of The Lord of the Rings on Eragon‘s setting is particularly noticeable throughout the book, but while this perhaps shows a lack of… world-building initiative (?), it doesn’t automatically make the book bad. After all, one of the reasons The Lord of the Rings is so popular is that it takes place in such a rich, compelling world, and Alagaësia has managed to retain a lot of that charm.

On the whole I found the world-building rather lazily done. The world itself is, as I mentioned, quite interesting, but it’s built up chiefly through massive info-dumps from Brom. Naturally this tapers off as the book goes on; after all, the more of the world we’re told about, the less of it we need to be told about, but it made the first half of the book a bit tedious – and it definitely didn’t make me care much about Brom. And speaking of Brom, what he was and wasn’t willing to reveal at any given time seemed extremely dramatically convenient in a very unrealistic manner.

Characters that I did really enjoy included Saphira and Murtagh, who were hands-down the most realistic and compelling members of the cast. Arya I also thought had potential, as she was interesting in the scenes that she was conscious for, even though there weren’t very many of them. I imagine that she’ll be getting a lot of development in the later books, however, as she seems to be a pretty important character to the series as a whole.

Eragon (the character), on the other hand, was really frustrating, and swung from eye-rollingly stupid to super-genius and back again on a regular basis. He was incredibly overpowered, as well (and gave off some definite teenage wish-fulfilment vibes). For example: Only a couple of chapters after he begins to learn to read, he is able to competently (if not confidently) read inscriptions in “the ancient tongue”; he’s able to match Murtagh with a sword only a few months after first handling one; and his dream visions are apparently an incredible, unprecedented feat. Saphira’s powers also seem very random and vaguely-defined, but were less annoying because she used them much less frequently. (And hopefully more will be explained about the strengths and limitations of dragons’ powers later in the series.)

Lastly, for a book that’s supposed to be all about dragons and dragon riders, it’s surprising how much this book focuses on Eragon exclusively; namely on how being a Rider effects him and his powers – Saphira isn’t even present for much of the book! In its defence, the characters are trying to keep her hidden for much of the story, but it’s notable that she doesn’t show up until the very end of the climactic fight between Eragon and Durza. When the narrative did focus on exploring their relationship, however, I found it one of the most compelling aspects of the book (and I was especially pleased that Saphira wasn’t shy about pointing out when Eragon was being an idiot 😉).

My main problems with Eragon were all the info-dumps, the distractingly unrealistic dialogue, and (less frequently) how overpowered Eragon was. Ultimately, however, I enjoyed myself with this book, and wouldn’t be adverse to picking up the next one (though realistically I doubt I’ll get to it, as there are myriad other books that are higher up my to-read list). For younger readers, I think this makes a pretty solid introduction to the fantasy genre; for everyone else, temper your expectations and you might have fun.

CURRENT READATHON STATUS: Super-satisfied with my progress so far; I might even be able to get through a third book before the readathon ends! 😁 I’m a little frustrated, however, that it turns out that if I’m being really nit-pickey (which I often am), none of the books I chose should count for the challenge; Cloud Atlas because I had already read the first 100 pages, Eragon because the last 20-ish pages turned out to be a sample chapter for the next book, and The Stranger from the Sea because, although the edition I was looking at on Goodreads was 512 pages, the copy I managed to find at the library was only 499… 😓 I’m still counting them, obviously, but it’s a mildly unhappy coincidence.

On a more positive note, however, Eragon is also my pick for the Library Scavenger Hunt this month! The challenge was to read a book with a name in the title, and this was the only one on my (e-)shelf that was also 500+ pages (or claimed to be!). And I suppose what I’ve learned from all this is that readathon-review-formatting trumps LSH-review-formatting… at least for now. I leave it to you guys to determine whether that’s a valuable lesson or not. 😋

Tomes Completed: 2
Pages Read: 918
Challenges Completed: 5/5

#TomeTopple Readathon: Update 1 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. [529 pages]

From the 19th century Pacific to a distant, post-apocalyptic future, six people find themselves connected in an inexpressible way, as their stories ripple through time to impact the lives that they touch. Adam Ewing, an American lawyer, makes a perilous sea-voyage home; Robert Frobisher, a young composer, is hired as the assistant to an ageing genius; Luisa Rey, a journalist, uncovers a corporate conspiracy; Timothy Cavendish, a publisher, finds himself imprisoned in a retirement home against his will; Sonmi-451, a Fabricant, learns a horrifying truth about the society that engineered her; and Zachry, a goat-herd, is forced to share his home with a visitor from a technologically advanced tribe.

Reading this book has been the work of several years for me, so I doubt it’ll surprise anyone to learn that I really struggled with the beginning, partly because there were parts of Frobisher’s story that made me incredibly uncomfortable when I first started reading, and therefore have more to do with me than with the book, but also partly due to the way that the book is formatted – it starts with the first half of each of the first five stories, then the whole of the sixth, and then the ending to each of the first five, but in reverse order… For me, this meant that the first half of the book was rather a slog, as it felt like as soon as I was beginning to get invested in a storyline, it would abruptly cut off and move onto the next one.

And although even very early on we can see the stories begin to touch each other (i.e. Ewing’s journals are read by Frobisher, whose sextet is then heard by Luisa, and so on), it’s not until much later in the book that the true impact that these characters’ stories have had on each other’s lives becomes clear. Not to mention that, of course, I didn’t find all of the stories equally interesting; Sonmi’s was my favourite by a mile, but Zachry was difficult to connect with, and Timothy’s voice was outright annoying at times. However, while each of these stories would undoubtedly make decent standalone short stories, they are infinitely enhanced by the connections between them, and the way that the book as a whole was formatted made the revelation of those connections really impactful. By which I mean: it’s worth powering through. 😊

The theme of reincarnation, which is what initially sparked my interest in Cloud Atlas, is also threaded through the book, but is a much less important connection between characters than the physical form of their stories themselves (e.g. the journals).

In short, it’s a very clever book, and a very poignant one, and one that I suspect would probably improve further upon re-reading… which I may well do. If I start today, I might be finished by 2025! … Just kidding; six-year hiatuses aren’t my usual style, I promise. Though it definitely speaks to the power of Mitchell’s writing that I was able to jump back into the story without a hitch, even after all that time!

CURRENT READATHON STATUS: Done for the day, but glad to have finished my first tome (or at least the final 421 pages of it), and looking forward to starting on Eragon tomorrow.

Tomes Completed: 1
Pages Read: 421
Challenges Completed: 3/5

#TomeTopple Readathon: TBR

Today (or perhaps tomorrow, depending on your time zone) begins round 8 of the Tome Topple Readathon, which is all about reading those dauntingly huge books on our TBR shelves. We all have them; I personally have more than a few that I’ve been putting off reading simply because I know I could read two or three smaller books in the same amount of time… But no longer!

This round of Tome Toppling will run from 13th to 26th April, and the only real rule is to read books that are 500 or more pages long. Like most readathons, however, there are a few challenges to help shape your TBR (if you so desire). 😊 Here’s what I’m hoping to read:

1) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (529 pages). I’m already about a hundred pages into this book, but have been so for so many years that it’s beginning to get rather silly (if it’s not there already 😓). I may re-start it, or I may not, but in any case it’s my highest priority for this readathon, as it fulfils three of the five readathon challenges – and is the only book that can fulfil one of them. Those are #2 (the tome that’s been on my shelf the longest), #4 (a genre I don’t usually read; in this case literary fiction), and #5 (an adult novel).

2) Eragon by Christopher Paolini (512 pages) or The Stranger from the Sea by Winston Graham (also 512 pages, according to Goodreads), either of which will work for challenge #3 (part of a series). I’m hesitating over which to prioritise because while Eragon would work quite conveniently with this month’s Library Scavenger Hunt challenge (which I probably should have thought about before deciding to join a readathon), I also promised my friend Grace that I would try to read The Stranger from the Sea this month (though that was before I realised that I didn’t actually own it). Clearly I’ve been over-committing somewhat, but when did that ever stop me!? 😁 (Probably all the time, actually, but let’s ignore that reality for the moment. 🤫) Hopefully I’ll manage to get to both, but who knows.

The final challenge for the readathon is #1 (read more than 1 tome), so if I read even two of these I’ll have fulfilled it automatically, but in the very unlikely event that I finish them all with time to spare, I will be trying to pick up one of the Sarah J. Maas books that I’ve been putting off for what feels like a lifetime: Empire of Storms (693 pages) or A Court of Wings and Ruin (699 pages). I’m also currently listening to the audiobook of Fire and Blood by George R.R. Martin (706 pages in physical form), and intend to continue to do so throughout the next couple of weeks, whenever physical reading is impossible, but it will probably last me longer than the readathon does. 😋

Wish me luck! 🤞 And good luck to you guys, as well, if any of you are taking part; I’d love to know what you’re planning on reading, too! 😁

Library Scavenger Hunt: March

March’s challenge was to read a book with an adaptation, and since I’d had the Kate Bush song stuck in my head for a good two weeks at that point, Wuthering Heights seemed like the obvious choice. Once again, however, I have a small confession to make: I didn’t get this from the library, as it’s one that I’ve owned on kindle for some time, and I’m pretty sure we have several copies around the house as well; I actually ended up reading mainly from what I believe is my mum’s old copy (with this weird piece of cover art by Paul Hogarth)…

As I mentioned in last month’s LSH post, I’ve decided to really focus in on whittling down the number of books on my already-owned TBR shelf, so this pick wasn’t entirely in keeping with the spirit of the LSH, but I’m still finding that the challenges are doing a good job of inspiring me to read books that I’ve been putting off for one reason or another… so I’ll be keeping with it for now. Anyway, on to the review:

WUTHERING HEIGHTS
Emily Brontë

As a child, Catherine Earnshaw forms a strong bond with the wild urchin Heathcliff whom her father has taken in, but their relationship is shaken by her decision to marry another man. Years later, their children become friends, and find themselves pawns of Heathcliff’s vengeance.

Considering how well known Cathy and Heathcliff are, I was surprised that less than half of Wuthering Heights is actually dedicated specifically to the two of them; the impact of their relationship is definitely felt throughout the novel, but the focus of the book was primarily on the effect that that relationship had on the lives of the people around them… and most particularly on the lives of their children, who are the central characters of the majority of the book.

This was definitely a bonus for me, as although Cathy and Heathcliff were both quite interesting characters, this part of the story can be summed up as two horrible, selfish people doing their best to ruin their own lives as well as the lives of everyone around them. The second-generation characters (Cathy-the-younger, Linton and Hareton) were on the whole much more sympathetic; understandable within the context of their lives, if occasionally almost as horrible as their predecessors. And while she also had her petty moments, I thought that Nelly, Cathy’s servant/childhood friend, made for an excellent choice of narrator, as she was close enough to the main events to know a lot of the intimate details of it, but far enough removed that much of the situation remained a mystery to her.

For Mr. Lockwood’s part, he was an essential component of the story’s set-up (his introduction after the events of the story, but before Nelly’s recounting of them, shows us a tantalising glimpse of the future to leave us guessing at how it came about), but his role thereafter seemed rather redundant; I’m glad that his appearances in the story dropped off after a little while, and kind of wish that his final scene had been told from Nelly’s perspective instead.

I tend to struggle with books when I don’t like the characters very much, so (unsurprisingly) I found Wuthering Heights a little difficult to get into, but by the halfway point I was 100% invested. The plot, though often melodramatic enough to remove all believability, was incredibly gripping; the second-generation characters were (usually) likeable despite their flaws, and their individual struggles under Heathcliff’s tyranny were compelling; and the nightmarish atmosphere that suffuses the novel is spine-tinglingly affecting. This was a three-star read for me, but definitely a high three stars – and I’m looking forward to seeing how Emily Brontë’s most famous novel compares to her sisters’!

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (Spoiler-Free)

Set at the beginning of desegregation in the U.S., Sarah and a few of her schoolmates are about to become the first black students at the formerly all-white Jefferson High. Meanwhile Linda, another Jefferson student and the daughter of a prominent segregationist, just wants to get through her last year of school with as little interaction with these black students as possible, but unfortunately the school has other plans. And as they’re thrown together again and again, they each begin to find themselves inexplicably drawn to the other…

I have mixed feelings on this book. Pluses: It was clearly very well-researched, and sheds light on an incredibly important (and very under-used in literature, as far as I can tell) part of modern history. The conversations between Sarah and Linda were very interesting, too, as was the clash of Linda’s prejudices against her rational mind, when faced with Sarah’s arguments – and her very self (if that makes sense). And although it wasn’t a major focus of the book, I liked how their lives were compared and contrasted throughout the story, as they are both similar and dissimilar in surprising ways.

The book also ended very well, particularly as regards Sarah’s little sister Ruth, who – although her role in the book as a whole was quite small – really shone here.

On the other hand, it was rather one-note, and I feel like the book may have been more impactful if it had had an occasional change in tone; there’s a lot of food for thought here (and I think this would actually be a really great book to study in schools), but it’s very all-racism-all-the-time. The characters were also a little bland… Sarah was generally likeable, but had very little growth, while Linda – who started out more flawed and therefore had more character development – felt a bit more realistic (and I was definitely more engaged with the story when it was being told from her perspective), but considerably less likeable for the majority of the book.

The romance was also not great. Their physical attraction to one another was well built-up throughout the novel, but that seemed to be the entire basis of their relationship, as almost every interaction they had only gave Sarah more of a reason to dislike Linda. The second half of the book elevated romance from sub-plot to actual plot, as it  focused a lot on their respective struggles with their sexuality, but when they eventually do come to terms with their feelings, it’s incredibly sudden, and has no real impetus that I could see… they just change their minds. We hear a lot from both of them about why they shouldn’t be together, but never any reason that they should that had any real weight to it, so it ended up feeling rather unconvincing.

So this book definitely has its fair share of flaws, but I found that I enjoyed it nonetheless… just, not as much as I had hoped to. I do think it’s worth recommending to people who are interested in this time period, but anyone who’s looking for a compelling romance, deep characterisation, or a gripping storyline should look elsewhere.