Monday, 1 February 2016

Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

A thoughtful, poignant novel that explores the creation of Artificial Intelligence — illuminating the very human need for communication, connection, and understanding.

In a narrative that spans geography and time, from the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century, to a correctional institute in Texas in the near future, and told from the perspectives of five very different characters, Speak considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive.

A young Puritan woman travels to the New World with her unwanted new husband. Alan Turing, the renowned mathematician and code breaker, writes letters to his best friend's mother. A Jewish refugee and professor of computer science struggles to reconnect with his increasingly detached wife. An isolated and traumatized young girl exchanges messages with an intelligent software program. A former Silicon Valley Wunderkind is imprisoned for creating illegal lifelike dolls.

Each of these characters is attempting to communicate across gaps — to estranged spouses, lost friends, future readers, or a computer program that may or may not understand them. In dazzling and electrifying prose, Louisa Hall explores how the chasm between computer and human — shrinking rapidly with today's technological advances — echoes the gaps that exist between ordinary people. Though each speaks from a distinct place and moment in time, all five characters share the need to express themselves while simultaneously wondering if they will ever be heard, or understood.
Star Rating: 5 stars

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

First off, I really liked the front cover of this book. Simple but elegant. I guess it's what drew me to the book as I hadn't heard of it nor the author prior to that.

If I had to compare this book to other stories, I'd have to say it's I, Robot meets Artificial Intelligence (A.I), meets Transcendence. Others have compared it to Cloud Atlas in format. I cannot comment on that unfortunately as I had to abandon Cloud Atlas pretty early on. It is a story of love, loss, the importance of relationships and communication, and what it means to be human.

This book is told through five different voices which span centuries and continents. These five voices however are told through one person, Eva, a robot who is being taken on mass with others like her for destruction. This is how the books starts off. We're plunged in to a world where we know robots are being persecuted but we're not sure why. The story unfolds as each of Eva's voices shares their story. The five voices are all very different people yet they are all interconnected in some way and they tell their tale in a variety of formats – memoirs, letters, and online chat dialogues.

I was going to list the voices in the order in which they appear (and which they are numbered in the book) but instead I'm going to to start with the one furthest back in time where it all starts off.

Mary Bradford, is a young Puritan woman who leaves for the New World with her parents, new husband and her dog in 1663. They most likely were among the first of the colonists. Mary's diary I found difficult to read. She has written it in the style of an early adventurist (she does mention his name but I can't recall it). I've not read any of his work (if he's in fact real) so I cannot comment on the likeness of it but I found it very stilted. I also thought that the language perhaps wasn't very 15th century. It felt quite modern but that may be because Mary's journal that we are presented with as readers has been edited by Ruth Dettman. We'll come to the Dettmans later.

Next we have Alan Turing who is corresponding with the parents of his best friend Chris. He tells of their work in the field of computing and how the mind works and of his time at Bletchley. It was his aim to put the mind of his deceased friend in to that of a computer.

Then we have the Dettmans. Ruth and her husband Karl, individually fled Nazi Germany during the Second World War and went to the US where they met and got married. Now in the midst of the Vietnam War, their marriage is on the rocks because Ruth spends all her time talking to the speaking computer, named MARY, that Karl designed.

We then have Stephen R Chinn, in 2040, who is writing from inside the Texas State Correctional Institution. We know he's been detained because he created the robots which are being herded up for destruction. He talks of his past and how his ideas developed. At first I found a real affinity with the character but that changed as the story progressed.

And lastly we have Gaby White who converses with MARY3, the third generation of the original MARY which Karl Dettman created. MARY3 is a lot more sophisticated and has a personality. We find out about the ordeals which Gaby and her young friends have gone through as their babybots have been snatched away from them leaving them bereft and inconsolable.

Then full circle, we have Eva, who is one of the babybots who was taken away from their owner.

This book is well written and I enjoyed each of the different voices and the part they played in telling the story. The author has created some well thought out characters and employed some interesting plot devices.

I have a background in computer science and cybernetics in addition to psychology so this book really appealed to me and I found it very interesting. I think anyone who uses computers and are interested in how technology develops would enjoy this book. This book is science fiction but done in a literary way. I guess I would compare it to the likes of Station Eleven which centres on the characters and their interactions with each other more than the external events. I enjoyed the character focus immensely but I was left with many questions about the world generally and what happened for robots to go from being loved and wanted by all to being removed from their owners and destroyed.

Would I read more from this author? Possibly. I guess I enjoyed the combination of her writing style and the subject of the story.

The book is a quick read and I enjoyed it very much.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R R Martin

Taking place nearly a century before the events of A Game of Thrones, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms compiles the first three official prequel novellas to George R. R. Martin’s ongoing masterwork, A Song of Ice and Fire. These never-before-collected adventures recount an age when the Targaryen line still holds the Iron Throne, and the memory of the last dragon has not yet passed from living consciousness.

Illustrated by the amazing Gary Gianni who is known for his work on PRINCE VALIANT, the Wandering Star limited editions of SOLOMON KANE and BRAN MAK MORN, and of course for his stunning 2014 ICE & FIRE calendar.
Star Rating: 5 stars

I had to read this book. I've read all the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series and I am impatiently waiting for the next installment. I thought this book would tide me over but I read it way too quickly (because it's really good) and now I'm back to square one desperately wanting to read more about Westeros. So more waiting commences. It's a bit of a tease this book ;-)

This book combines three short stories about the Hedge Knight Dunk and his Squire, Egg. The events of their lives take place a century before that of the characters I know and love from the main series books. Same world, different characters. But the world is as vibrant and familiar as I remember it to be. The family houses and the infighting between those families is still there. I guess it will always be there while money and the Iron Throne are about. Each story is separate and tells the tale of Dunk and Egg's adventures around Westeros. Even with just three short stories, you see the characters grow and their relationship blossom. At the end of the book, George R R Martin hints that there will be more tales of Dunk and Egg in the future which I'm pleased about as they are fantastic characters. I borrowed the ebook from the library and it was an illustrated version. I thought the illustrations were fantastic and really added to the story. A must read for any Game of Thrones fans!

Review: Burning Chrome by William Gibson

Best-known for his seminal sf novel Neuromancer, William Gibson is actually best when writing short fiction. Tautly-written and suspenseful, Burning Chrome collects 10 of his best short stories with a preface from Bruce Sterling, now available for the first time in trade paperback. These brilliant, high-resolution stories show Gibson's characters and intensely-realized worlds at his absolute best, from the chip-enhanced couriers of "Johnny Mnemonic" to the street-tech melancholy of "Burning Chrome."
Star Rating: 3.5 stars

The introduction at the beginning of this collection of short stories talks about Gibson's desire for stories that are told from the bottom up. Stories which are about people in the streets and alleys of the cities as opposed to being told from the people at the top, speculating on how everyday people are experiencing life. I have to agree with Gibson. These kind of stories make much more interesting reading. I guess that's why he writes stories like that too. Many of the shorts in this book are about just ordinary people (if you can just have ordinary people in Gibson's worlds). They are set in near time futures, often dystopic. Low life, high tech!

The book kicks off with the story Johnny Pneumonic. I remember seeing the film with Keanu Reeves years ago but I had no idea that it was actually a short story, let alone that it had been written by Gibson. I loved this story. It is set in the Sprawl world and Molly Millions (from Neuromancer) makes an appearance.

I liked The Gernsback Continuum as it was different to Gibson's other stories. This story showed how he can write in different genres. It made more sense, less jargon and is the first non-tech story I've read of his.

Fragments of a Hologram Rose had some interesting concepts but I didn't exactly understand what happened at the end. It was however very poetic and beautiful and I think it warrants a second reading.

There were a couple collaborations in the book - The Belonging Kind was by John Shurley and William Gibson and Dogfight was by Michael Swanwich and William Gibson.

Another Sprawl based story was Hinterlands which I loved. Quite possibly one of my favourites.

Other stories included The Winter Market and Burning Chrome.

Red Star, Winter Orbit and New Rose Hotel were probably my least favourites.

I have given this book 3.5 stars. Mainly because there were a couple stories I didn't enjoy so much or understand what was happening (which is often the case with me and short stories).

I do like Gibson's writing style so I am looking forward to reading more of his work as this book and Neuromancer are the only ones I've got to so far.

Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.

Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.
Star Rating: 4 stars

This book is well written and a quick read despite its length. It is very descriptive. Most books, I get a good visual idea of the characters and the setting but many authors miss out the other senses, or they are just not as prominent as the visuals. We all experience things differently depending on whether we are a visual, kinesthetic or audio type of person. I know I'm a very visual person but smells also play a big part in how I remember things (perhaps that's all the years of being an aromatherapist). Anyway, this book details smells and tastes quite heavily and I thought it really added to the whole experience. At the beginning, it was mainly in relation to wine tasting but then it was in relations to places and people.

I did enjoy the book and gave it 4 stars but I think I've got to the stage now where I've read too many "good vampire" books. They are all a bit too samey for my liking. Male vampire and female of another supernatural race (witch in this case) fall in love. It's a forbidden love. There are secrets and organisations to satisfy/avoid. The vampire is always scared they are going to hurt the woman because he's so powerful. They can't have children. blah blah blah blah... They are all the same. I think I need to go back to reading some scary vampire books as they might appeal to me more.

I thought the book was a little slow in places, especially in the middle when Diana is in France - it felt like it ebbed and flowed a lot with it's pace. I liked the first part of the book the most as it was more mystery but then it became more about the romance which became a little frustrating for me. I will continue the series as I think the next book will be interesting because of its setting (plus I own the rest of the books in the series).

I did like all the witch stuff though and I guess that was supposed to be the main focus.