Mike Finn
Reading progress update: I've read 64%. - I like the references to other fictional detectives
Lost Hills -  'Lee Goldberg'

This is my first Lee Goldberg book so, until Char told me, I didn't know he was the guy who wrote "Monk".  I'm glad I know because now I can see he's being playful. At one point a fellow detective is explaining to Eve Ronin why he didn't collect some evidence from a witness. He says:

 

“Have you ever seen that TV show Monk, about that uptight detective who is a clean freak and wants everything to be even?”

“He had OCD.”

“Yeah, well, she’s like him. Can’t stand dirt."

That's not the kind of thing many authors get to do.

 

I also like the way he built in a reference to the Harry Bosch books. Eve Ronin, who leveraged her moment of viral video fame into a promotion is on a long drive so...

 

 

"To stay awake, she cranked up the AC to keep herself uncomfortably chilled and listened to one of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch crime novels. Bosch was an LAPD detective who, over a thirty-year career that spanned about as many books, solved one major murder after another and yet his bosses still doubted his skill and integrity, regularly undermined his work, and repeatedly investigated him for misconduct. It frustrated her even more than it did him. His problem, she thought, was that he didn’t know how to play politics. She’d already proven that she could. Now she had to prove she could do the job."

I'm guessing Goldberg knows Connelly well.

 

There's also a point where he talks about he Harry Bosch books.

Reading progress update: I've read 25%. - I just won the Amazon free book lottery
Lost Hills -  'Lee Goldberg'

For me, "Lost Hills" was a lottery book: offered free on Amazon just before its release in January 2020. This time it seems I won the lottery. I'm 25% through the book and I'm impressed by the assured storytelling, the lean prose, the puzzle of a bloody gruesome crime and the freshness of the characters who vary from the detective tropes just enough to make them interesting and not so much that it stretches credibility.

 

Although I now know that he's written thirty novels and won various awards, when I picked *Lost Hills" I'd never heard of Lee Goldberg.  I was hooked by the premise: a new series about a woman detective, promoted to homicide from robbery on the strength of a viral video of her making an off-duty arrest of a movie star tough-guy who was assaulting a woman. That he was the star of the "Deathfist" franchise and that she took him down and held him down when he took a swing at her explained why the video went viral.

 

I have high hopes both that this will be a good book and that I've found a new-to-me author.

 

 

Review
4 Stars
"Interview With The Robot" by Lee Bacon
Interview With The Robot - Lee Bacon

Clever, charming, intriguing, YA story of a near-future AI in a human-looking body trying to make a life for herself

 

 

 

"Interview With The Robot" (that title just has to be a play on Anne Rice's "Interview With The Vampire") is a clever story, told in a way that's a perfect fit for an audiobook, basically a three hour and forty minutes long full-cast radio play, told mostly as an interview between what appears at first to be a twelve-year-old girl, Eve and Petra, a woman from Child Protective Services in NYC, with flashbacks for the most important scenes.

 

This is Science Fiction for Young Adults but told in a way that I think most adults will find engaging. I enjoyed learning how Eve moved from untrained AI in a cube to an AI in a better-than-human body (albeit one of a twelve-year-old). The technology is plausible. The interactions are initially a little on the cute side but well thought through.

 

 

I enjoyed the point where Eve, realising that to pass as human she will need to master joke-telling, invents a joke. It's an awful joke and says a lot about how AIs work. Her research says the most common jokes in the world are Knock Knock jokes and Chicken Crossing The Road jokes, so she thinks the best joke in the world would combine the two. She comes up with:

Knock knock

Who's there?

A chicken

A chicken who?

A chicken who crossed the road.

The story has a few surprises in it that I didn't see coming but which worked well, especially concerning the motivation of the billionaire who owns the company building Eve and the contents of the inevitable, and of course irresistible, locked room.

 

The story of how and why Eve is in the windowless interview room with the woman from Child Protective Services is fascinating, with just enough tension to keep things lively.

 

The ending, especially the final entry, was a little too Hallmark for my tastes but I can live with that.

 

I was pleased to see Audible Originals trying something as original and entertaining as this. I hope they do more like it.

Review
3 Stars
"The Twisted Tree" by Rachel Burge
The Twisted Tree - Rachel Burge, Kate Okello

"The Twisted Tree" is an original, deeply atmospheric Young Adult book that brings Norse myths to life in modern Norway, as seventeen-year-old Marta runs away from home in England to her Grandmother's cabin in Norway, only to discover that, instead of a refuge from the traumas in her life, she has made herself the target of a supernatural threat.

 

I listened to the first four hours on a long drive and was completely pulled in to the story. I liked the fact that, although this is a relatively short book (180 pages / six hours forty minutes) Rachel Burge didn't rush storytelling.

 

We follow Martha step by step as she makes her first solo journey to Norway and tries to make sense of what she finds there. As she journeys, we learn about the recent trauma that she's suffered and about her sudden and unwelcome ability to read the thoughts of emotions of people when she touches their clothes.

 

I liked the slow growth of a sense of threat in the story, which matches pace with Martha's arrival on an in Norway on a dark, stormy January night. All Martha's previous visits have been in summer when the days feel endless, so the menacing beauty of the benighted, snow-covered mountains was new to her. Part of my enjoyment came from how well the atmosphere of the mountains in winter was evoked. I'm recently returned from living in Switzerland and it fed my hunger for mountains and snow as I drove past flooded fields in dismal but unrelenting rain in the daylight-dark of an English winter.

 

"The Twisted Tree" is not so much horror story as a story about a young woman discovering the truth of her Norwegian heritage, the responsibilities it places on her and the abilities it gives her.

 

Key to the success of the book is the fact that Martha is a believable seventeen-year-old girl, not some kick-ass warrior woman. She's brave when she needs to be but she spends much of her time frightened and unsure about what to do next.

There's a romance element to the book that is nicely judged to develop Martha's character without sliding into melodrama. There are also some very creepy scenes with the dead, the undead and the recently murdered.

 

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the book wobbled a bit in the last ninety minutes. There was a lull in the action as Martha waits for dawn before doing what needs to be done to deal with the supernatural threat she faces. I understand why the lull was there. It was used to give Martha a dream contact with a key character who guides her on what she has to do but the pacing, which had been intense, was broken and, to me, there seemed to be too much of explaining of what had to be done and why.

 

The book recovered during the climactic conflict and set itself up for a sequel but it lost a little impact along the way.

 

The narrator. Kate Okello does a good job. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

 

https://soundcloud.com/bonnierbooksuk/the-twisted-tree-by-rachel-burge-audio-extract

Review
3.5 Stars
"Her Royal Spyness" by Rhys Bowen
Her Royal Spyness  - Rhys Bowen, Katherine Kellgren
Strong start to an original and fun mystery series with a young, penniless daughter of a Duke as the reluctant sleuth.

 

 

I started this series at book six, "The Twelve Clues Of Christmas" which was such a splendid Christmas Cozy Mystery that I decided to go back to the beginning and read all the books in order.

 

The first book, "Her Royal Spyness" didn't disappoint. It kept me engaged and amused even though I already knew the basics of what the book sets up.

 

It's 1932 and Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie (Georgie to her friends), a minor Royal, cousin of King George V of England, and thirty-fourth in line to the throne, has just moved to London from her ancestral castle in Scotland (now belonging to her brother, the Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch, and his wife, to make her way in the world. Her recently deceased father was the previous Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch, her mother is a famous actress and her grandfather is a cockney ex-policeman who lives in a semi-detached house in Essex. Georgie was educated at a Swiss Finishing School, knows all the right people, but has no money and no experience of life without servants.

 

The plot, which involves finding a body in Georgie's bathtub, her brother being accused of murder, the family estate being under threat and a secret mission being given to Georgie by the Queen, results in Georgie having to learn how to look after herself, solve a murder, make some money and try and survive the strong of accidents that befall her.

 

Georgie is easy to like. Her friends are fascinating, Her enemies are ruthless and her secret mission is probably doomed to failure.

 

What I liked most was the very satisfying mix of humour, history, social observation wrapped around a real mystery... or two... or three.

 

I strongly recommend the audiobook version. Katherine Kelligan does an excellent job of bringing all of the characters to life. Her narration made the book for me. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

 

https://soundcloud.com/audible/her-royal-spyness

 

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 26%. - a kingdom I can't see
Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Janice Card, Marisha Pessl

Blue is finally stepping out of her father's shadow and slowly inserting herself into the elite "Bluebloods" group at the high school. Inevitably, the question of sex comes up. Blue, now nicknamed Wretch after an unfortunate and very dramatic reaction to drinking cocktails, is asked about her experience:

 

 

“You’ve never gotten laid, have you, Retch?” Jade accused one night, deliberately ashing her cigarette in the cracked blue vahze next to her like some movie psychiatrist with switchblade fingernails, her eyes narrowed, as if hoping I’d confess to violent crime.

 

The question hung in the air like a national flag with no wind. It was obvious the Bluebloods, including Nigel and Lu, approached sex as if it were cute little towns they had to whizz through in order to make good time on their way to Somewhere (and I wasn’t so sure they knew their final destination)."

 

I love the second paragraph. It's filled with awareness, distance and intelligence but no real emotional attachment. Blue is an observer of her own life.

 

She's also an observer having difficulty knowing exactly what's she's looking at. Two of the Bluebloods, Jade and Leulah, take Blue to a distant roadside dive where they choose middle-aged men to take into the women's disabled toilet for sex. Then they drive home, elated.  Blue's reaction is an unsuccessful attempt to categorise their behaviour: 

 

"when Jade was speeding back to her house, crisscrossing between semis and Leulah screamed for no reason, head back, hair tangling around the headrest, her arms reaching out of the sun-roof as if grabbing at the tiny stars sticking to the sky and picking them off like lint, I noticed there was something incredible about them, something brave, that no one in my immediate recollection had written about—not really."

 

Then she admits defeat and decides:

 

"I doubted I could write about it either, being “the total flat tire in any bar or club,” except that they seemed to inhabit a completely different world than the one I did—a world that was hilarious, without repercussion or revolting neon light or stickiness or rug burn, a world in which they ruled."

 

This captures perfectly the great divide I, the one who ends up at the kitchen in parties or reads bookshelves or alphabetises the vinyl albums, feel between me and those who REALLY party. They enjoy ruling a kingdom I can't even see. 

Any Interest in a February Pride and Prejudice Reading Challenge?

 

Olga's review of "1932: Pride and Prejudice Revisited" got me thinking about doing a Pride and Prejudice related reading challenge for February. It's the month of Valentine's Day and a Leap Year, so why not visit Pemberley?

 

I have in mind to read at least four of the eight books below.

 

Let me know if you're interested in joining me and I'll set up a group to run the reading challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

The original and the best. Worth a re-read to get you in the mood for the rest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pride and Prejudice Time-shifted to 1932 and to Kentucky

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Bennet is pushed by her mother into an unwanted courtship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A below-stairs view of the Bennett family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six years after her marriage, Elizabeth's life is turned upside down by a murder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The book of the Youtube series with "Lizzie" Bennet as a twenty‑four‑year‑old American grad student

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gender-swapped Darcy and Elizabeth as 21st century Indian Americans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The title says it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film Review: "La Belle Epoque" - just because something isn't real doesn't mean it isn't true.

Together with "The Farewell", "La Belle Epoque" was my favourite movie of 2019. It is original, surprising, fun, beautifully executed and manages the rare feat of being both taught-provoking and heart-warming.

 

This is a complicated but completely and immediately immersive movie. One of the reasons for this is the way the movie is shot. The camera work and the lighting create a lot of the mood of the movie. They go from intense close-ups to rapid action to nostalgic scene-setting to day-to-day storytelling with shifts in colour palette and camera angles that you don't notice at the time but which signpost and reinforce the content.

 

For example, the opening scene is shot in candlelight but with tight close-ups that explode into action as things get bloody. We're right there in "Black Mirror" land. Then the shot pulls back and we see that we've been watching a movie on an iPad and now we're in a chic modern restaurant where the older guy, watching the movie, is looking confused. At the other end of the table, his wife and his son are quietly predicting what his reaction to what he's seen will be. The transition is seamless and startling. It told me that, like the old guy watching the iPad, I had no idea what kind of movie this was going to be and all my assumptions were likely to be wrong. It also told me that, whatever kind of movie it was, it was going to be well-done.

 

The movie is... well, many things. I think if you sampled a movie-goers leaving a screening you'd get a wide variety of tags for "La Belle Epoque", comedy, edgy avant-garde satire, feel-good rom-com, an exploration of the nature of memory, a celebration of engagement with life, a warning about how modern technology mixes the fake and the real and plays on our desires for a remembered past to create a consensual faux-reality.

 

It's all those things and it does them all well.

 

It's the story of a man whose marriage has stagnated because he's no longer taking part in it. A man who has given up on his passion and is alienated by the all-pervasive digital technology around him that he doesn't understand or value and which he thinks have put him out of his job as a political cartoonist. His rich, techno-savvy, Tesla-driving, seeking-distraction-with-an-affair-with-a-boring-man wife, tries to rescue him by arranging an opportunity for him to take part in the latest indulgence for the rich: a custom-built recreation of a point in the past where they can be any character they want to be. The "experience" includes full sets, actors in costume and a storyline to match the client's fantasy.

 

The crux of the movie is that, when faced with this opportunity to be anyone at any time, our hero wants to be his eighteen-year-old self on the night he first met the woman who was to be his wife in a café in Paris called La Belle Epoque.

 

What follows is a wonderfully nuanced and compassionate look at memory and love and identity, articulated by layers of storytelling, playacting and self-deceit that lead, in the end, to something real and authentic.

 

It's a film filled with humour and romance as well as regret and loss and forgiveness. It's a movie for grown-ups. I highly recommend it to you.

 

Here's a link to the trailer:

 

https://youtu.be/tukMRXkjhlM

 

 

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 14%. Blue describes her father talking to attractive women
Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Janice Card, Marisha Pessl

I love this Blue's way of thinking - turning science into poetry or perhaps vice versa. The deadpan delivery made me smile.

 
 
 

"The phenomenon of Dad interacting with a beautiful woman was always an odd, sort of uninspired chemical experiment. Most of the time there was no reaction. Other times, Dad and the woman might appear to react vigorously, producing heat, light, and gas. But at the end, there was never a functional product like plastics or glassware, only a foul stench."

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 6%. this is what I'm talking about
Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Janice Card, Marisha Pessl

Have you ever noticed that the books that are easiest to read are the hardest to review? The author does all the hard stuff out of sight of the reader who just slides effortlessly down the breathtaking flume of the writer's prose.

 

"Special Topics In Calamity Physics" is like that. It's just a young woman telling you everything about a time when her life changed. The way she does it, the language she uses, the reference points she has, the academic discipline she brings to it, is a character sketch in their own right. She's VERY easy to listen to. I'm so happy to find someone whose reported thoughts are as convoluted and self-referential as my own. And somehow, she manages to make all of this amusing.

 

Here's what I'm talking about. In a chapter named "Wuthering Heights" (all the chapters are named after books they make you read at school) our heroine, Blue (don't ask) is at the hospital having had the Latino gardener that she's privately cast as Heathcliffe turn up on her doorstep covered in blood after having been shot. Blue is now waiting for the arrival of her father. This is how she describes him

 

"I sort of dreaded Dad’s inevitable appearance. Obviously I loved the man, but unlike some of the other fathers I observed at Pappy-Comes-to-School Day at Walhalla Elementary, dads who were shy and talked in cottony voices, my dad was a loud, uninhibited man, a man of resolute action with little patience or innate tranquility, more Papa Dop in temperament than Paddington Bear, Pavlova or Petting Zoo. Dad was a man who, due to his underprivileged background perhaps, never hesitated when it came to the verbs to get or to take. He was always getting something off the ground, his act together, his hands dirty, the show on the road, someone’s goat, the message, out more, on with things, lost, laid, away with murder. He was also always taking charge, the bull by the horns, back the night, something in stride, someone to the cleaners, a rain check, an ax to something, Manhattan. And when it came to looking at things, Dad was something of a Compound Microscope, one who viewed life through an adjustable eyepiece lens and thus expected all things to be in focus. He had no tolerance for The Murky, The Blurry, The Hazy or The Soiled.

 

He charged into the emergency room shouting, “What the hell is going on here? Where is my daughter?” causing Nurse Marvin to scuttle off her chair. After ensuring that I too had not suffered a gunshot wound, nor had any open cuts or scrapes through which I might have been fatally contaminated by “that Latino son-of-a-bitch,” Dad barged through the smudged, white double doors with the giant red letters screaming AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY (Dad was always electing himself an AUTHORIZED PERSON) and demanded to know what had happened."

See what I mean? You just get swept along with barely a second to go "Wow."

For a book this long, I like to have the kindle and the audio versions. The amazing thing is just how well the audio version works. The narrator is perfect.

 

So, in summary, and on mature reflection, I'm enjoying this book.

 

 

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 60%.
The Twisted Tree - Rachel Burge, Kate Okello

I listened to the first four hours of this on a long drive today. I think it's well done. The writer doesn't rush, avoids melodramatics and creates a plausible seventeen-year-old heroine. 

 

It's not so much horror as bringing Norse mythology to life in present-day Norway.

 

It's set in January and I think part of my enjoyment may be because it fed my hunger for mountains and snow. Driving through the daylight-dark, past flooded fields in dismal but unrelenting rain, I'm missing the clean, cold, snow-covered winters of the Swiss Alps.

Review
3 Stars
"The Shepherd's Crown -Discworld #41" by Terry Pratchett
The Shepherd's Crown - Terry Pratchett

"The Shepherd's Crown" was the last novel Terry Pratchett completed before his death, except, he didn't really get the time to finish it. The whole story is there from end to end but the book fades as it goes along.

 

Reading it was like starting with a fully finished movie where the lighting, music, script, and acting have been edited into something richly textured and powerful and starting to be presented with the unedited rushes. Each scene is there but Terry Pratchett's usual magic, his ability to make the prose sing, to deliver huge ideas at a scale that gives them meaning to us mere mortals, his ability to make me believe in the supernatural and care about the people, isn't there.

 

I'm glad I read the book. I wouldn't have missed the start for anything. I cried when I lost Granny Weatherwax early in the book. It may seem extreme to cry over the death of a fictional character but I've known Granny Weatherwax for more than thirty years and Terry Pratchett made her death real to me. Of course, my tears weren't just for her. They were what happens when you fall through a trap door and are immersed in past grief that doesn't accept that it's past.

  

This ability to link Discworld to real-life experience has always been part of the power of Terry Pratchett's writing. He reminds us of our humanity, of our loves and our losses, of our bravery and our cowardice and he helps us accept ourselves and each other for what we are.

 

Yet as I got further through the book, I begin to feel the story losing its grip on my imagination. It's a good story but reading gave me an experience broadly equivalent to when you see actors doing a first read-through of a script, everything is there except it isn't living up to its potential.

 

Reading this almost-but-not-quite-finished book gave me pleasure but it also made me aware of just how much I miss Terry Pratchett.

 
 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 4%. My second 20 for 20 challenge book is a kayak

 

 

When I started "The Nix", my first long book in my 20 for 20 challenge, it rose ahead of me like the steep slope of a mountain. making me wonder if I would have the endurance to climb to the top and whether the view when I got there would be worth it.

 

"Special Topics In Calamity Physics" (almost twenty-twp hours long and told entirely as a monologue from the narrator, is not that kind of book.

 

Starting it seems like being invited to take the second seat in a kayak piloted by a talkative and remarkably well-informed guide, who tells you fascinating things about the topography of the land you pass through and the flora and fauna that inhabit it in what, you slowly come to realise, is a love song to the river she is bound to.

Review
3.5 Stars
"To Darkness and To Death - Clare fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries #4" by Julia Spencer-Fleming
To Darkness and to Death - Julia Spencer-Fleming

This book is dominated by a complex plot, pivoting around the independent but interlocking actions of three men, each of whom uses violence, mostly against women, to defend things that they see as central to their sense of self.

It also pushes the relationship between the Priest and the Sherrif beyond any pretence of being platonic.

 

 

If this hadn't been the fourth book in the series, I might have set it aside after the first chapter.

 

It opens with a woman awakening alone and finding herself bound and with no knowledge of where she is or how she got there. It was scenes like that that led to me abandoning "Criminal Minds". It's too close to turning horror into either banality or voyeurism.

 

The book righted itself quickly, coming back to characters and a writing style that I recognised but it left me wondering if this was going to be another book looking at the bad things that men do to women in a way that revels a little too much in the power the violence gives to the men.

 

I should have had more faith in Julia Spencer-Fleming. She delivered a book which is about men who commit acts of violence against women and sometimes men, but the focus isn't on the violence but on the process by which these men convince themselves that what they are doing is, if not right, then necessary, especially if they can get away with it. I found myself being impressed by the way each of the men, with different perceived threats, different hopes and different social situations trod, independently, the same path to violence, or, as the title has it, to darkness and to death.

 

The plot that interlocks the stories of these three men is intricate. The linkages are complex and clever, The reveals kept me guessing and cranked up the tension with the actions of each man amplifying the damage done by the others.

 

In the midst of all of this, we have Claire and Russ, the Priest and the Sheriff, bringing humanity to the story and preventing it from degrading into a clever but mechanical thriller. Seeing people through Claire's eyes or Russ' eyes makes them more real. It allows us to see them as more than plot devices.

 

The book also moves forward the story arc of the unlooked-for but inescapable attraction between Claire and the very married Russ. I thought this part of the story was very well done. Clichés and moral judgements were both avoided. Instead, we were shown too fundamentally good people who want something that they can't have without becoming different people than the ones they want to be. It seems clear that Claire and Russ have reached a point where they will have to make a decision. I think it shows how well this was written that I found myself unable to say what should happen next and was only certain that they can't stay as they are.

 

I'll be back for book five and hoping that Claire and Russ find a path and that the next plot is a little less violent.

"Laughter At The Academy" stories 9-11: "We Are All Misfit Toys In The Aftermath Of The Velveteen War", "Lambs", "Each To Each" by Seanan McGuire

 

"Laughter At The Academy" is a collection of twenty-one of Seanan McGuire's short stories, published between 2009 and 2017.

 

As Seanan Mcguire puts it:

“This isn’t necessarily ‘The Best Of,’ but it’s the pieces that I love most, that I most want to share.”

 

The three I'm going to review here all look at the indifference of creators to their creations, the ways in which the marginalised and the repressed re-create their identities based on what they have in common and, in a world where we can create intelligence and massively modify our physical selves, what choices really make us human?

 

The fact that the stories themselves are so different and so accessible is a tribute to the fertility of Seanan McGuire's imagination and her skill in bringing complex issues into focus based on the impact they have on people.

 

The fact that the stories themselves are so different and so accessible is a tribute to the fertility of Seanan McGuire's imagination and her skill in bringing complex issues into focus based on the impact they have on people.

 

"We Are All Misfit Toys In The Aftermath Of The Velveteen War"

 

This has to be one of THE best titles I've ever seen for an SF short story. It's quirky, intriguing and completely and deliberately undersells that darkness the story contains.

 

This is a story about what we let our fear do to us, how our failure to love and trust can destroy our civilisation and just how dangerous little velveteen toys can really be.

 

The story starts in the aftermath of what seems to have been a spectacularly bad war that has crippled the world. We are told repeatedly, like a mantra, "The war is over. The war will never be over."

 

The background to the war is that when self-learning machines emerged we didn't trust them or each other. As the main character in the story puts it:


"Self-teaching machines were the future, and humanity was terrified. We were proud of our position at the peak of the social order, and we feared creating our own successors.Making matters worse, every country was afraid of how every other country would use this new technology. We were convinced that AIs would allow their users to dominate the others in war or commerce."


Fear and distrust rapidly resulted in an almost total ban on the use of self-learning machines until


"…there was only one area where everyone agreed the self-teaching programs could be freely used: Education.
That seems careless now, in the harsh light of hindsight, but at the time, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable compromise."


I love the foreboding in "That seems careless now" The "reasonable compromise" was the self-learning dolls for children.


"Dolls that could learn the names of their owners had been around for years. Letting them learn a little more couldn’t hurt anything—and toys had no offensive capabilities, toys couldn’t get online and disrupt the natural order of things, toys were safe. We all grew up with toys. We knew them and we loved them. Toys would never hurt us."

Much of the story is spent learning just how badly the adults misjudged both the dolls and the children who played with them and the price they paid and are continuing to pay, for that misjudgement.


The emotional impact of the story comes mostly from the plight of the main character, Dr Williams, who bought her daughter a self-teaching doll called Maya and has now lived to regret it.

 

What I liked most about this story was the way in which it used something as harmless and as well-intentioned as a self-teaching doll, designed to develop with the child it serves, it something that shows all the reasons why we don't trust AI and goes on to show what AIs might do when we exclude them and they are left with no-one but each other and the ones they were designed to serve.

 

 


"The Lambs"

 

When you make an AI that looks and sounds human, that remembers everything, that not only evaluates our emotions but shares them, what do you do with it and what do you expect them to do?

 

In this story, the answer is that you use them to try and eliminate the bullying that goes on in American High Schools. They're a deterrent and a mechanism for bringing shame on the bullies and deflecting attention from those most likely to be bullied.

 

This accessible, engaging story is told from the point of view of one of the AIs, known as Lambs, as she approaches graduation at the local High School. The story stuck in my mind because of what it tells me about our limited insight into ourselves and into what AIs might become.

 

The bullying described in this story is vicious, violent, hate-driven and entirely believable. So it seemed that a program aimed at holding bullies accountable has to be a good idea. As the story unfolds, two flaws appear in that thinking.

 

The first flaw is that the program itself is a subtle form of bullying. There is no belief here that bullying can be eliminated. There is a tacit acceptance that it's natural, normal, unavoidable. The program aims mainly at using shame as a form of social control. Shame is very different from guilt. Guilt is about personal responsibility. Shame is about loss of face, social rejection, and shunning. Keeping your face or taking away someone else's face is at the heart of bullying. Using Lambs to weaponise shame through a ritualised loss of face is the something only a society that has internalised bullying would do.

 

The second flaw is that the program takes no account of the Lambs themselves. It treats them with indifference. It makes them autonomous, intelligent, empathetic and capable of forming emotional attachments and then it uses them as tools. A society that does that to these kinds of machines is a society that takes for granted that its collective needs are more important than the needs of the people who live in it.


The ending of the story is clever and believable and made me want to cheer the Lamb.

 

The story as a whole made me wonder how we have managed to arrive at a point where success at school is about being an asshole but being smart enough not to get caught.

 


"Each To Each"

 

In her introduction to this story, Seanan McGuire shares the prompt she was given by the editor of the "Women Destroy Science Fiction" edition of Lightspeed Magazine that she wrote this story for:

 

"research has found that women do better on submarines. Why is that? What makes the difference?"

 

She tells us that she:

 

"read the papers, combined their core conclusions with my love for mermaids, and I had a story."

And what a story it is. On the surface, it seems like military SF, with women being surgically altered by the US Navy to serve in the war for the oceans' resources. Underneath that, it's something more challenging: a rejection of the exploitative attitudes and actions of the patriarchy and an exploration of what happens to our identity and our group affiliation when we are transformed and those who transform us marginalise us.

 

The women in this story are being treated as a resource. A resource that can be shaped into something more useful than the women they are at the start of the process. At one point the Marien who is telling the tale, who is partway through her transformation, observes that what makes the women valuable to the Navy is the same thing that makes them valuable to the predators in the water who would like to eat them, they are available:

 

"We are what’s available. That has value, in the sea. (That has value on the land as well, where women fit for military service were what was available, where we became the raw material for someone else’s expansion, for someone else’s fairy tale, and now here we are, medical miracles, modern mermaids, hanging like apples in the larder of the sea.)"

Of course, these women only remain valuable if they do what they're told, and transform into what's required. Their value isn't high enough to be trusted as officers of even to have uniforms and boots that have been adapted to fit them (this reminded me of the NASA spacewalk that was abandoned because the spacesuits didn't fit the women astronauts. Did NASA respond by designing space suits for women? No. They designed unisex space suits that didn't requite them fully to cater to women. Unisex was the biggest compromise NASA was prepared to make). The transparency of the lack of respect that the people in charge have for the people who serve them shows just how complacent they are.

 

I liked the transformation vector the US Navy is described as going through. Although women were better equipped than men to be submariners, women were not seen by the Brass as a good fit for the navy.

 

"We knew women were better suited to be submariners by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Women dealt better with close quarters, tight spaces, and enforced contact with the same groups of people for long periods of time. We were more equipped to resolve our differences without resorting to violence—and there were differences. Women—even military women—had been socialized to fight with words and with social snubbing, and the early all-female submarines must have looked like a cross between a psychology textbook and the Hunger Games."

So the men, sociologist' and psychologist's, started to reprogram the women to be more like men while keeping some of the useful female traits. Our Marine narrator speculates on how these men got the idea of the Navy creating mermaids:

 

"Maybe it was one of those men—and they were all men, I’ve seen the records; man after man, walking into our spaces, our submarines with their safe and narrow halls, and telling the women who had to live there to make themselves over into a new image, a better image, an image that wouldn’t fight, or gossip, or bully. An image that would do the Navy proud. Maybe it was one of those men who first started calling the all-female submarine crews the military’s “mermaids.”

I love the description of the fully adapted servicewomen who are in the process of redefining what they value and how they will live. When our not-yet-completely-transformed Marine narrator describes sub-set of her crew, fourteen women with Blue Shark modifications, she presents a kind of balance sheet view of them as risk and assets:

 

"I don’t recognize this sailor. She has the dark gray hair and flattened facial features common to the blue shark mods. There are fourteen blues currently serving on this vessel. I can’t be blamed if I can’t tell them apart. Sometimes I’m not even sure they can tell themselves apart. Blues have a strong schooling instinct, strong enough that the labs considered recalling them shortly after they were deployed. The brass stepped in before anything permanent could happen. Blues are good for morale. They fight like demons, and they fuck like angels, and they have no room left in their narrow predators’ brains for morals. If not for the service, they’d be a danger to us all, but thankfully, they have a very pronounced sense of loyalty."

This reminded me of something Wellington is supposed to have said about the Irish troops he fielded against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo:

 

"I don't know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me."

We only get beyond the asset sheet view of the women when our Marine is finally in the water with the blues.

 

"They whirl around me in an undifferentiated tornado of fins and flukes and grasping hands, caressing my flank, touching my arms and hair before they whirl away again, off to do whatever a school of blues does when they are not working, when they are not slaved to the commands of a species they have willingly abandoned. Their clicks and whistles drift back to me, welcoming me, inviting me along."

 

I love how alien and how welcoming this feels and how the Marine can't help but see the voluntary enslavement of these women, even as they swim free. She doesn't follow them because

 

"until my next shore leave, my next trip to the lab, I can’t keep up; they’re too fast for me, their legs fully sacrificed on the altar of being all that they can be. The Navy claims they’re turning these women into better soldiers. From where I hang suspended in the sea, my lungs filled with saltwater like amniotic fluid, these women are becoming better myths."

But the question that's at the heart of this story isn't really what the Navy is trying to make, it's what the women are going to choose to become.

 

 

 

Review
0 Stars
"The Nix" by Nathan Hill - abandoned at 41% (nine hours)
The Nix - Nathan Hill, Ari Fliakos

Beautifully written, wonderfully narrated, filled with keen observations and credible interior monologues.

Abandoned because it's too painful to watch the broken people and learn about the things that broke them.

 

 

"The Nix" is the first book of my "20 for 20 reading Size Matterschallenge" :

To Read twenty books from my TBR pile that are 600 pages/20 hours long or more

 

 

 

Books this long (two or three times as long as the typical novel) are a significant investment of time, emotion and imagination, so I promised myself I wouldn't persist with any book in the challenge that had become a book I wasn't looking forward to reading more of.

 

Sadly, "The Nix" failed that test.

 

It's very well written. The narrator delivers a wonderful performance. The book is stacked high with believable people and astonishingly well-observed interior monologues. I'm abandoning it because Nathan Hill seems to like to cripple his characters and make me watch. I've decided not to watch any more.

 

You may feel differently about this book. It has a lot to recommend it. So I'm sharing the reaction I had to each of the first four parts of the book as I went along, to give you the flavour or the book and my experience of it.

 
 

Part 1 Like watching a UHD TV

 
 
 

I've just finished part one of this book, which was mostly spent establishing the character of the son, Samuel, whose mother, Faye, has been arrested for throwing gravel at a particularly obnoxious ex-State Governer and with setting the tone for the novel.

 

It's the tone that I find both most engaging and most difficult to deal with. 

 

This is a book that doesn't have a narrative thrust so much as a slow roll down a gradually steepening slope which instinct tells me is going to accelerate gradually but inexorably until it hits something, probably with a loud bang.

 

It's a book of scenes that are primarily focused on the interior monologue of the main character in a scene. None of these scenes is tackled quickly. They go on and on and as they go on things get worse and worse and you want it to stop but you know that it won't and you read on anyway.

 

The scenes could be sketches in a standup comedy: their acutely observed and focus on behaviour that makes you cringe because it's as familiar as it is embarrassing. Except that where a stand-up comedian would be fast, using his or her wit to impale their subject in a flash of verbal steel, "The Nix" is slow and relentless, flaying the subject inch by bleeding, painful inch. 

 

There's the scene where a character. in the process of falling into sleep after a disappointing day, rehearses all the reasons why, day after day, he fails to change his life, sort out his house, start his new diet, break free of his obsessive behaviour and be the person he wants to be. It's a mixture of hope, regret, self-reproach and self-deception that I'm sure most of us have experienced and it's there in all its unforgettable technicolour glory.

 

There's another scene, that goes on and on, in which Samuel, a professor of English at a minor school, tells a student that he's failing her for plagiarism and finds himself on the receiving end of false argument after false argument about why he can't do this until his rage overtakes him and he says something that he shouldn't. This slow but predictable loss of control in the face of faux-outrage is all very familiar to me.

  

So, I know it's meant, probably, on some level, to be funny. The problem is that it is too true to be funny. Tragic. Masochistic. Nightmarish. Any of these words can be made to fit but not funny. 

  

I feel as I do when I see those huge Ultra High Definition TV screens showing programs in the showrooms of electronics stores: overwhelmed and disoriented. The image I'm looking at is SO detailed and SO clear that it feels like a distortion. I NEVER see the real world with that level of clarity, so the television's accuracy is disquieting.

 

I'm going to continue with "The NIx" because I'm fascinated by the ability to sustain this hellish but familiar view of life and because I want to be there when the rate of roll of the plot reaches its highest velocity.

 
 
 

Part 2: The book as a hologram

 
 
 

This is one of those books where the idea of moving through the story from beginning to end is treated as a bizarre idea that the reader must abandon early to avoid frustration.

 

At one point, Samuel's agent explains that those who think publishing is about books are obsessing about the container when they should be focusing on the content.

 

"The Nix" is more like a hologram than a book. The author uses the text to turn the content in the light, letting the reader see it from different angles. The "it" is not really a story, it's a person, our hero. It's who is, who he was, who he will become but it's all of those things at the same time. The hologram is his identity. Although changing the angle at which the reader sees the hologram shows up different aspects of the hologram, the thing itself is there in its entirety and unchanging from the first page to the last.

 

This means that, although Part 1 ends with Samuel meeting his beleaguered mother for the first time in more than two decades, Part 2 takes us backwards, not forwards, to Samuel's childhood and because I know something of the man he now is, I see the boy he was differently than if I had met the boy first. The man is not the outcome of the boy, the boy is the outcome of the man.

 

This may sound weird but it feels normal and easy to understand when I'm reading the book, partly because the author takes this approach to narrative entirely for granted.

 

What does seem weird is the description of American High Schools in the 1980s. Where they really so authoritarian? Did they really issue passes, that constituted a contract about required behaviour before allowing eleven-year-olds to go to the toilet during class? And did the students really comply? It's described with such forceful clarity that I'm inclined to believe it but it feels very alien to me.

 
 
 

Part 2 continued: Thank you for making me confront this about myself

 
 
 

I've finished part two of the book, set in Samuel's childhood. It was intense, vividly described and mostly unpleasant. 

 

Part of the unpleasantness is something I'm generating. 

 

Here's this sensitive, vulnerable eleven-year-old kid that I ought to feel sorry for or at least feel some empathy for. He's puzzled by his enigmatic, secretive, often distant mother. He's afraid of everything. He cries uncontrollably at the slightest provocation and can do nothing to stop himself. He feels abandoned, alone and afraid.

 

And I don't like him.

 

I don't like spending time in his head.

 

His snivelling anxiety fills me with a slow-burning anger.

 

I want him to either grow up or shut up but I know that he's going to grow up to be a man riddled with anxiety and fear and a sense of being owed something because he was damaged and it wasn't his fault and his life isn't what it should be and he isn't who he should be and none of that is his fault either.

 

And instead of sympathising or sharing his pain, I just want to tell him to get over himself and take care of what's in front of him.

 

I don't like this response. I'd like to be nicer than that but I'm not. So thank you, Nathan Hill, for making me confront that about myself.

 

I really, really hope this is all going somewhere and won't just end with "Ain't life awful?"

 
 
 

Part 3: some very well done character pieces

  

Part three had some great scenes in it: the girl who keeps justifying why she can't and shouldn't need to read Hamlet and how successful she's going to be in business because of her social media presence.

 

The way in which the grandfather remembers Norway and his youth there and how this is interwoven with dementia.

 

The strange lawyer who speaks as if he were a legal text, denying or defining reality and sweating relentlessly.

 

I Still don't like the main character but I'm keeping reading because the next part is about his mother's youth and she seems interesting.

 
 
 

Part 4: Why does he keep doing this to his characters?

 
  

Part four initially re-engaged me with the novel. It goes further back in time and focuses on Faye's Highschool years. I liked Faye. I'm meant to like her.

 

Once that's accomplished, once I care about her, Nathan Hill cripples her.

 

He imposes severe anxiety attacks on her that turn her into someone morbidly afraid of failing at anything. She excels at every task she takes on and avoids any task or social situation in which she might fail. She's about to escape to a scholarship in Chicago but I know Nathan Hill's pattern now, he pulls off his character's wings before they're able to fly, so I know something cruel is about to happen to break Faye further.

 

I don't want to watch it happen. I don't even want to know what it is. So, nine hours into a book that is more than twenty-one hours long, I'm setting it aside to read something where the writer is less cruel to his characters.

 

 

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