Friday, 7 June 2019

Book Review: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Machines Like Me
Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape Publishing (Penguin Books)
My copy provided by the publisher in exchange for review.

Machines Like MeThe Artificial Intelligence novel is hardly new. Novels which imagine the possibilities of the technology-- its potential for disaster as well as for progress -- have been a constant in the science fiction genre for a number of decades, but in recent times, we have seen an increase in the number of big name literary authors turning their attention to the concept. In 2019 alone, we have Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, as well as Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me, a counterfactual look at England in the 1980s, where the central changes in technology seem to hinge on the fact that Alan Turing did not in fact suicide in the 1950s. Both novels make reference to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a novel which began science fiction's preoccupation with the line between human and inhuman.

Machines Like Me is the story of Charlie Friend, a highly demotivated thirty something, living in a version of 1980s London where Britain has lost the Falklands War, and unemployment is extremely high, presumably thanks in some small part to the advanced technology which makes humans unnecessary for certain jobs. Charlie has, perhaps unwisely, spent 86 000 pounds of his inheritance on an 'Adam', one of 26 artificial humans which have been rolled out world wide. The 13 Eves were the first of the AIs to sell out, a fact which foreshadows the novel's later themes surrounding women's role in the new world and indeed in the real one outside the novel. Charlie spends his time playing the stock markets (unsuccessfully) and in a bold move to connect with his upstairs neighbour, Miranda, he decides he will share Adam with her and that they will both be involved in 'setting' his personality so that Charlie does not simply create a facsimile of himself in robot form.

Adam is highly technologically advanced, thanks in no small part to the masses of Turing's research which the computer scientist and mathematician has insisted on making available via Open Source publication. He has access to troves of information, and can learn and make decisions, in many instances making it possible for him to pass as a 'real' person when out in the real world. His adherence to the concepts of truth and what is right, versus wrong, however, means that he is unable to process the complexities of human behaviour, such as the various shades of grey within the spectrum of morality. As Adam learns and becomes more a part of the world-- and learns how to disengage his own 'killswitch'-- the concept of a 'happily ever after' becomes more and more abstract for our morally complex human characters. The novel seems to happily engage with Turing's own theories on the boundaries between man and machine, and whether or not machines can 'think.'

At times, the narrative of Machines Like Me is bogged down as McEwan attempts to get his reader up to speed on the new world he has created. The reasoning behind using an alternative 1980s, one assumes is to make it possible for Alan Turing to make a number of small cameos in the text. But I wonder if a character who was a student of Turing's might have served the narrative just as well, as the character did not ring true for me-- in fact it was Charlie's voice which reminded me more of the Alan Turing I have encountered in my own studies.

What was heartily surprising about Machines Like Me was the detour that it takes into examining the role of women in the new world order. Miranda's story, involving an incident from her past which is dredged up by Adam's deep dive into her online records, calls for the reader to understand when she entraps a man in order to get her own form of justice. Adam's initial warning to Charlie-- that she is a pathological liar and will harm him-- at first only fuel's Charlie's jealousy, particularly when Miranda invites Adam into her bed and Charlie overhears them. When she is confronted later, she asks Charlie if he would feel the same way about her using a vibrator, calling into question whether either of them truly see Adam as what he really is -- a machine-- or if his ability to learn and 'generate' his own personality makes him something more.

As we get to know the characters more, body autonomy and the right to protect the physical body become more and more important to Miranda. Though Adam has his own concept of this, in that he does not want Charlie to turn him off via the killswitch, and therefore 'accidentally' breaks his owner's arm (and Asimov's first law of robotics), he cannot translate his own need for self preservation into judging the actions of humans. The other robots in his 'set' also have trouble understanding their 'place' in the world as they become smart enough to understand it, but Adam's relationship with Charlie and Miranda (with whom he says he is in love) seems to save him, and bring him close to achieving 'humanity' in that he feels moved to write poetry and to read novels. His haikus, however, are largely clinical, and it is this final frontier that seems to separate his kind from ours -- that ability to understand the nuances of being human, and to translate it into art.

There is a lot packed in to just over 300 pages, and McEwan gives his readers a lot of food for thought.

I gave Machines Like Me three stars out of five.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

The 'Well-Behaved Women' Reading List

AKA all the wonderful short story collections that have inspired me on this journey.

Little White Slips by Karen Hitchcock
A Lovely and Terrible Thing by Chris Womersley
The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill
Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Zebra and Other Stories by Debra Adelaide
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
The True Colour of the Sea by Robert Drewe
The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe
Australia Day by Melanie Cheng
Pulse Points by Jennifer Down
The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Bird Country by Claire Aman
Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy
Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy
Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh
Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Thing Around your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Promise by Tony Birch
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Rosie Little's Cautionary Tales for Girls by Danielle Wood
Mothers Grimm by Danielle Wood
Feet to the Stars by Susan Midalia
A History of the Beanbag by Susan Midalia
Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba
The Turning by Tim Winton

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Book Spotlight- After the Party by Cassie Hamer

I first came across Cassie Hamer's work when some of her short fiction was published in a couple of the Margaret River Press anthologies. As well as being a fantastic short story writer, Cassie also has a great blog, and as of earlier this year, a novel called After the Party, which I just inhaled over a few days of reading. It brought to my mind comparisons to Liane Moriarty's work circa the Big Little Lies era, and combined the day to day playground politics of parenting with a high stakes plot in a very entertaining way.  I thought I would invite Cassie to come and have a chat about her book, and she very kindly agreed, so without any further ado, here's what she had to say...

1. Welcome to the blog, Cassie! First of all, can you tell us a little bit about your book, After the Party?
Thank you so much, Emily, for having me. I love what you've done with the place...

So - After the Party begins with a fifth birthday party that goes terribly, horribly badly. Firstly, the mum, Lisa, has made the rookie error of inviting the whole class of 32 kids. Then, on the day of the party, she unintentionally wakes up late and things go rapidly downhill. There's a smashed cake, burnt sausage rolls, an unfortunate encounter with a mixmaster and a unicorn pinata that turns into a scene from Lord of the Flies.
Eventually the party ends and as the kids go home, Lisa assumes she's in the clear. 
Not quite. There's one guest left - a little girl, Ellie, who Lisa discovers hiding in the dog kennel.  At first, she reasons that Ellie's mum is simply running late, but then she opens a mysterious note that reveals she has no intention of coming at all.

2. When did you first decide that you wanted to be a writer? When did you first discover your love of books? What is your favourite book at the moment?
I can't remember a time when I didn't love to read. My parents were always telling me to get my nose out of a book. I was that kid. But the idea of becoming a writer really didn't strike me until after the birth of my first child when I was 32. I'd been a TV journalist in my 20s but being an author seemed far too unrealistic.

3. What was the first thing you ever got published? Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?
Ha! Well, funny you ask as I've recently tracked down my first creative publication - a poem, printed in Dance Australia magazine when I was 12 years old. At that time, I clearly loved adjectives and weird verbs. 

A full 26 years later, I Margaret River Press published my story 'The Life in Her Hands' in the anthology The Trouble With Flying. The story is about a woman, struggling with new motherhood and while the events were in no way autobiographical, it certainly was triggered by some of my own, complex feelings around my babies. 

The experience of being published was thrilling. It's such a solid, tangible realisation of creativity - something that can never be taken away from you.

4. Where did the idea for After the Party come from?
I have three children and a love/hate relationship with their birthdays. Here's the truth - all kids' birthday parties teeter on the edge of disaster. It's such a combustible mix of high emotion, win/lose games, and excessive sugar. I always breathe a huge sigh of relief when that last child leaves. But after one, particularly frantic party, I thought to myself - but what if that last child never left? That was the beginnings of the story..

5. What was the process of writing it like? How did you go about getting it published?
Writing it was a blast! I gave myself six months to bust out a first draft, writing three days a week while all the kids were in care/school. I'd previously written two other manuscripts which were sad and serious - what I thought I should be writing. For After the Party, I gave myself permission to have fun.

In comparison, the process of trying to get it published was torture - a tale of near endless rejection until that magic YES from Harlequin. An editorial assistant, Johanna, picked it up from the slush pile and if I were going to have a fourth child, I would name it after her.

6. Your book tackles the tricky subject of parents behaving badly at kids’ birthday parties— namely by not staying to help supervise at a kid’s birthday party, which conjures up comparisons with Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. What made you want to explore the field of playground politics, and what other authors do you think your work sits alongside?

When my kids started school, I'm not sure who was more nervous - probably me! But it's interesting how those old insecurities come back to the surface. I've now made some brilliant friends, but still now, get a little prickle as I approach those school gates and wonder if anyone will want to talk to me. I suppose that's why it's such brilliant fodder for fiction. Much as we'd love to believe that adults really should have their sh*t together by the time their kids start school, the reality is that we don't.

I hyperventilate when my name gets mentioned within fifty yards of Liane Moriarty's. I am not worthy. And, I'm generally not great at making comparisons of my work to other's. But - if you ask me which authors I admire - I can reel off a huge list of Aussie women writers such as Rachael Johns, Sally Hepworth, Natasha Lester, Josephine Moon, Jane Harper, Melina Marchetta, Melanie Cheng... and I could go on and on. 

We're in a golden age of Australian women authors. I firmly believe that and I'm delighted to be playing my small part in it.

7. Are you working on something now? What (if anything) can you tell us about it? Are you superstitious about talking about upcoming work? Do you already have a contract for your next book?
Not superstitious at all! I spend so much solo time writing that it's actually a pleasure to talk about works in progress, and also helps me know if the premise will appeal to others. So, in that spirit, I'm happy to say the second book is contracted to Harlequin and due for publication in March next year. It's a neighbourhood drama - a bit like that early 2000s hit TV show Desperate Housewives, but minus the dead bodies. My publisher is reading it at present. Fingers crossed that she likes it!

8. What is something surprising that your readers might not know about you?
I hate cucumber, I have a small tattoo on my ankle, and I'm completely inflexible (physically, that is).

I hope this has piqued your interest! After the Party is published by Harlequin and should be available through all good bookstores. 

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Book Review: Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

This review originally appeared on the AU review on 15 January 2019.

Beautiful Revolutionary
Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Scribe Publications, 2018

In the summer of 1968, Evelyn Lynden and her husband Lenny move to Evergreen Valley, California so that Lenny can work as an orderly in an asylum- part of the agreement he has made as a conscientious objector, so that he does not have to go over and fight in the Vietnam War. Their arrival in town is eventful, and they are pulled over by Officer Gene Luce. But Luce fails to notice the ‘Mary Jane’ plant in the back seat, and the couple continue on their way. It is Evelyn’s cool head and her strong will that get them through, and continues to get her through as their lives change in this new town, even if perhaps those changes are not for the better.
The book is Beautiful Revolutionary, the first novel from Laura Elizabeth Woollett, whose debut collection of short stories The Love of a Bad Man was an award winning take on the women who were involved with some of history’s less savoury characters. Jonestown featured in this collection too, but in Beautiful Revolutionary, Woollett focusses not so much on the commanding (and slightly unhinged) figure of Jim Jones, but on the people around him. She seems to be asking why so many seemingly normal people could have been taken along by a person like Jones, and while the answer of why is something we may never actually know, she certainly renders the strange fascination well on the page.
Evelyn Lynden is one of the main characters, although the book is not always told strictly from her vantage point, but again and again, the story returns to her. She is, of course, based on Carolyn Layton who was Jones’ lover and the mother of one of his sons. The daughter of a preacher, and a student of political science, Evelyn should be too smart to be taken in by a con man like Jones, but she is drawn to him in a powerful way, and her marriage to Lenny Lynden falls by the wayside early on.
Other characters whose point of view we see are Rosaline Jones (Marceline), Jim Jones’ long suffering wife and an ex-nurse, who plays a central role in orchestrating the ‘healings’ with which Jones demonstrates his power; Gene Luce; Lenny Lynden; Bobbi Luce and Wayne Bud. If one were interested, it would perhaps be possible to unmask all of these pseudonyms. But the book is a work of fiction, and to do so might be to break the spell. Jim Jones is the only figure in the book who has not been disguised, and Woollett wrote in an article for the Alternate Consideration of Jonestown and People’s Temple website that ‘it feels absurd and disingenuous to call him anything else.’
By hearing from so many different voices surrounding the temple, we get a complex portrait of a community filled with people who needed something that ‘normal’ society was not giving them; people who found a saviour in Jim Jones, for whatever reason, and were willing to follow him to Jonestown, Guyana. But the cacophony of voices, while being in some ways an asset, also makes the book a little hard to get into, giving you no time to identify with characters before it is moving on. It is not a book about  Jim Jones, and yet at times, he is the only constant, even if he’s only in the scene at a distance. The title comes from an oft-repeated nickname that Jones gives to Evelyn, as he believes that he was Lenin in a past life, and that she was his lover then too. The link between Jonestown and Communism/ Socialism is a key part of this book, and was an interesting element for me, as it provided a little insight into the ideology of the people involved.
For those who persevere with the book, readers are rewarded with a rich portrait of a highly mythologised historical incident. The passion that the author has had for her research shines through, and it is the scenes in Evergreen Valley which provide the most interest, as less is well known about the cult’s activities before their mass suicide in 1978. The strength of the author’s talent is in full force here- her sentences hum with energy, and though the build is slow, her characters feel real by the end of the book. I would be unsurprised to see this appear on prize shortlists in the year to come.
For those who are Jonestown experts, perhaps there will be less appeal, as the unfolding drama will be nothing new to you, but for readers who appreciate a well-written, well-researched novel that approaches things from different angles, this book is for you, and you should add it to your summer reading stacks immediately.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Book Review: Zebra by Debra Adelaide

This review originally appeared on the AU review 11 February 2019.

Zebra and Other Stories
Debra Adelaide
Picador Australia, 2019

Eccentric, heartbreaking and hilarious- this is how Debra Adelaide‘s latest book of short stories is described on the cover by her Picador stable-mate, Jennifer MillsThe book is Zebra and Other Storiesa collection comprised of fourteen stories, divided into three sections: First, Second and Third. These sections refer to the point of view taken in the stories. Adelaide covers a lot of ground in just over three hundred pages.
Her opening story, “Dismembering” is told from the point of view of a woman who suddenly remembers helping her ex-husband to, at some point during their marriage, bury a body in their backyard. She remembers helping him to cut off the body’s arms, legs and head in order to fit it better into the shallow grave they have dug, but oddly, not whether it was wearing long pants or shorts, or who it was, or why they have killed and buried him. Is this a true memory, or a symptom of some other panic? As the woman begins to purge her house of everything that is connected to her ex– right down to the dining room table, the chaos outside of her house, littered with things for her ex to take away, begins to reflect the chaos inside her mind. This story is a powerful note with which to open the collection, rooted in relatable, specific description of suburban life.
In fact, throughout the collection, it is the stories of suburbia that tend to shine– “Migraine for Beginners”, a second person account of the medical back and forth one woman suffers in her quest to be free of the migraines that make her life unbearable, “No Hot Drinks in the Ward”, a starkly honest account of a mother coming to terms with the cancer treatment of her child, and “The Recovery Position”, in which the protagonist must reflect on the way their flaws has torn apart the family that they took for granted.
But, the book is not all suburban interiors. Zebra is a collection which tackles bigger issues as well, with stories such as “The Master Shavers’ Association of Paradise” and “Welcome to Country” attempting to comment on the issues that run parallel to the lives of these other characters but often go unremarked on. “The Master Shavers’ Association of Paradise”, for example, is a heartbreaking account of life in detention. told again in second person, Adelaide puts the reader in the shoes of a man who was an apprentice Barber back home and who has attempted to hold on to some fragments of his dignity, and help those around him, by helping the men in the camp with him shave their faces. The telling of this story is cleverly done, as Adelaide slowly introduces clues that this detention camp is not in some far flung country, but off-shore of Australia, and when the reader realises that they are not reading some historical account, or some dystopian future, the impact is powerful. It is perhaps a shame that this particular piece had been buried so far into the middle of the book.
While not all of the stories in the book strike exactly the chords that they seem to be reaching for, many are almost there– “Festive Food for the Whole Family” is highly relatable and enjoyable, but perhaps the lead is buried by the humourous descriptions of the woman at the heart of the piece trying to make sure she caters for all of the various picky eaters, vegans, gluten free, fruitarian, sugar free, etc… guests at her Christmas dinner. Likewise, the story “Carry Your Heart”, in which a lonely man and woman find that spark that could be the beginning of love in a bookshop and bond over poetry and martinis, feels unfinished and almost unbelievable in its fairy tale-like randomness.
The title story, “Zebra” is more of a novella than a short story, and I have yet to make up my mind yet whether it was wonderful or a little too weird. In it, an unorthodox female Prime Minister is sent a zebra by the owner of a zoo that is closing down on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, she must contend with an outspoken misogynistic neighbour (though his hatred of women is not actually dealt with even after it is described) and the burgeoning romance that may or may not be feasible between herself and her assistant. The zebra itself is extremely interesting, but doesn’t play all that much of a role in the action of the story.
Zebra and Other Stories is a varied collection of stories that showcases the skill of its author across a range of short story approaches and styles. While not every piece resonated with this reviewer, I predict that it will delight all those short story readers across this country, and I do recommend that you give it a read, if only for those stories that really sing.