Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins

Neill Bassett Jr has a very unusual job. His employer is trying to beat the Turing Test by building a computer program that can exhibit intelligent behavior.  The aim is to convince one third of a panel of judges chatting with it online that it is a human and not a computer program.

Neill, however, is not a computer programmer, or even a linguist. He is the son of the doctor who kept the twenty-year diary that has been used to build the foundation of the computer program. Neill’s job is to chat with his “father” – or rather, the computer program based on his father’s diaries – and refine the program’s answers so that it sounds more human.

To complicate Neill’s life, his father committed suicide at the age of 48. Neill’s feelings toward and about his father are conflicted and unresolved, and now he spends his days typing questions and being rewarded with answers that are actual lines from his father’s own writings. Sometimes what Neill gets back is nonsense; sometimes he is jolted by how real the conversation feels.

I thoroughly enjoyed Neill’s conversations with the program, called Dr. Bassett (drbas in chat). Intellectually I’m sure no computer program could carry on a conversation to the extent that drbas does, but the author had me convinced that it could. The conversations feel genuine and poignant. Neill has trouble separating his feelings for his father from his feelings for drbas. Also, Neill (“frnd1” in chat) keeps forgetting that the program doesn’t know Dr. Bassett is dead.

frnd1: do you think i expected too much of you?
drbas: why are you using the past tense?
frnd1: it would have been nice if you had expressed your love for us more often
drbas: why are you using the past tense? you no longer want me to express my love for you?

I am very intrigued by the Turing Test, so I liked that aspect of this book a lot. I enjoyed Neill’s corrections of the computer program, corrections designed to make it sound more human.

frnd1: what was your first memory of meeting your wife?
drbas: my memories all exist at the same time
[“first memory of meeting” = “memory of first meeting”; repeat]

Neill also interacts with his mother, who is excited about her husband’s chance at immortality through the program, his ex-wife, and two women he dates. His thoughts about his ex and the other two women get a little dizzying at times, but I understand all the emphasis on Neill’s search for love (the title of the book is after all A Working Theory of Love).

A Working Theory of Love came close to being a five star book but just didn’t quite make it. What prevents me from giving this book five stars is the sex cult that wends its way through the narrative. It seemed pointless and a drag on the story. The cult and its members quite irritated me. Also, there was a long stretch, too long, where the computer program was down and Neill was unable to chat with it. Since Neill’s relationship with drbas is the best and most intriguing part of the book, that stretch really slowed things down.

However, A Working Theory of Love has a mostly successful narrative and a strong ending. It is thoughtful and thought provoking. If you are a fan of computer science and the Turing Test, or if you like an intelligent book that makes you think, you might like this book. I read an advance reader’s copy; the book is scheduled to be for sale in October 2012.

Gold by Chris Cleave

This most recent title by Chris Cleave, author of the much-touted Little Bee, follows the lives of three aging British Cycling athletes in the race to their final Olympics. Kate (the nice one) and Zoe (the naughty one) have been friends and rivals in and outside of the sport since their teens. Kate’s husband, Jack (the loveable chump), is our third world-class cyclist. Throw in the tear jerking plot twist of a young girl with cancer, and you have the recipe for Gold.

I hate to say it, but I’m sorry that Gold was the first book that I ever read by Chris Cleave. I was amused, yes. I would even go so far as to say entertained, but I was not truly impressed. I found Cleave’s main characters (possibly excluding the rough-and-tumble, emotionally busted coach Tom) to be only somewhat unbelievable and, due to this general lack of believability, infuriating. Cleave clearly has exceptional talent as a writer. I just don’t buy that he had it fully employed here. His small glimmers of emotional insight and spot-on social commentary were too bright to ignore:

“This new species of guys paired city shoes with backwoods beards. They played in bands but they worked in offices. They hated the rich but they bought lottery tickets, they laughed at comedies about the shittiness of lives that were based quite pointedly on their own, and worst of all they were so endlessly bloody gossipy. Every single thing they did, from unboxing a phone through to sleeping with his athlete, they had this compulsion to stick it online and see what everyone else thought.”

Where is this Chris Cleave? I would like him all the time, please.

Gold by Chris Cleave had impeccable timing coinciding with the London 2012 Olympics, was clearly well-researched, and made me really excited to watch cycling in the Olympics. A solid bronze.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dearly, Beloved by Lia Habel

Dearly, Beloved is a sequel to Dearly, Departed (see my full review here:

Both are set in 2195. Disasters have reduced the Earth’s population to various settlements in Central and South America. One settlement, a wealthy one, has chosen the Victorian era as the perfect time period in the past, and the inhabitants follow Victorian protocols. The Victorians are in a running war with a poorer group of people called Punks. Into this mix comes the Laz, a disease that reanimates a dead body and turns the person into a zombie. Now, undead Punks and Victorians who have managed to keep their minds unite to battle it out with the mindless undead.

Nora, the living daughter of the undead doctor who had made it possible for those with the Laz to continue to exist in useful ways, has fallen in love with Bram Griswold, the handsome dead Zombie former Punk officer. The books are told by multiple narrators, and I find Bram’s the most interesting. There are so many narrators and important characters I had a hard time keeping them all straight. Also, it seems like the author feels compelled to put every character in some kind of a romance (or potentially romantic situation), and I felt the matchmaking excessive.

Dearly, Beloved did not drag quite as much as the first book, but it was still slow in parts. This book feels more violent than the first, and now that Nora and Bram are a couple, the ick factor over the lovemaking is a lot stronger. The satire of paranormal romance was more obvious in the first book, although it is still present in this one.

Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed reading both books, and I recommend Dearly, Beloved to anyone who read the first and to those who enjoy steampunk, lolita, unusual paranormal romances and dystopian stories.

I read an advanced reader copy. This book is scheduled to be published on September 25.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Author Tan Twan Eng's second novel is The Garden of Evening Mists. With a delicate touch he tells the story of the soul survivor of a cruel Japanese work camp in Malaya in World War II. Now a retired judge and ailing, Yun Ling Teoh, returns to a tea plantation in northern Malaya where she spent some time after the war. Her experiences and those of her sister in the prisoner camp are revealed in the memoirs she decides to write before her ailment takes her mind, leaving her unable to remember anything, even her own name.
Her memories take her back not only to the camp, but also to the time after the war when she first came to this same plantation to work with Aritomo, the exiled gardener of the Emperor of Japan. She wished to create a special garden in the memory of her sister who died in the camp. Her sister greatly admired Japanese gardens. Yun Ling chose to come to this area where Aritomo had been creating his own remarkable garden called the Garden of Evening Mists.

The story behind Aritomo's coming to Malaya, the aftermath of the war for Malaya, its 12-year communist insugency, the secrets related to war activities of various characters, their emotions and allegiances, create multiple layers to the novel. Like mists, they give clarity and then shroud over with impressions of what did and what might have happened. Because Yun Ling is writing in the evening of her years, before the darkness of her failing mind falls completely, the garden and the book are well named. Even for her, the mists of memory clear and fade, revealing, these many years later, new discoveries and understandings.

A Japanese garden is deceptively simple. There is much that goes into its design, capturing and duplicating larger natural elements in a smaller space. Tan Twan Eng has done much the same with his book. Larger themes of promises, power, connection and survival play out within the unfolding of lives and times in this more remote area of the world.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Circles Around the Sun by Molly McCloskey

In Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother, Molly McCloskey takes an intimate, personal, sometimes painful look at life in her family growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the focus is on her oldest brother Mike, diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 23, McCloskey also examines her own anxiety, the break-up of her parents’ marriage, and the dynamic between siblings.

The author is the youngest of six children; her brother Mike is the oldest. She has no clear memories of Mike before he became ill. Throughout her adult life she has wanted to write about Mike, and this book is the culmination of her efforts to learn about him and his life and how his illness affected her entire family. One of the most touching exchanges in the book comes when she asked Mike, “Do you mind being in this book I’m writing about the family?” “I would expect to be,” he replied. Then he added, “I don’t murder anyone, do I? Do you write murder mysteries?” “No, the author replied, “you don’t murder anyone.”

Mike’s mother and siblings have made a determined effort to stay in touch with him as he copes with his mental illness. McCloskey perfectly describes awkward meetings at a restaurant near his group home that made me cringe in discomfort. She captures the physical changes that the drugs have on her brother, causing me to feel great sympathy for those prescribed loxapine (an antipsychotic), lithium (a mood stabilizer), and similar drugs. They help control the illness but have a great detrimental affect on one’s physical well-being.

The author spends a lot of time talking about her own life and mental health challenges given that the book is presented as being primarily about her brother. There is a lot of background about how her parents met, fell in love, had six children, grew apart, and divorced.

Circles Around the Sun is as much a picture of American life in the 60s and 70s as it is an examination of schizophrenia. Scattered throughout the book are family pictures, which felt very familiar to me since I am around the same age as the author. The photos struck a real cord with me and are the biggest strength of the book.

There is no orchestrated happy ending for Circles Around the Sun. Life goes on for Mike in his group home, for Molly dealing with her own anxiety, and for the rest of her family. Circles Around the Sun is a sad book, but one worth reading if you are related to or spend time around someone with mental illness.

I read an advance reading copy; Circles Around the Sun will be available in October 2012. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

A spine-tingling, heart-pounding, page-turning read. Seriously, I would find myself reading this book, and then look up to check the time and it would be midnight. Elizabeth Haynes has written a brilliant first novel. It is a psychological thriller that literally makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and I can't wait to see her next work. We begin by reading court transcripts, and are introduced to the characters, hearing HIS (read: the bad guy) side of the story. We then get a shining example of how bad this guy really is from a completely unrelated issue. Then it jumps forward a few years and we get a glimpse into the life of a woman who has some serious problems. And then the story begins... I will be honest, there are some disturbing scenes in this book, as well as some language. We get to take an incredible journey with Catherine, watching her fall prey to a man who is insane. The signs are subtle, but the author has pegged this controlling behavior so well that it is clear she has done her homework. We also learn about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and get to see some of the ways it can be dealt with. I recommend this book, but again will state that there are some scenes that will stay with you for a while, and the language can be rough. It will, however, provide you with all the information you need to spot controlling behavior so you can run the other way when you see it. Read on!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Year Zero by Rob Reid

According to Year Zero by Rob Reid, it turns out that there are many sentient life forms in the universe, and all of them are terrible at music – except one species. Humans. Us. Other brilliant and peaceful species in the universe have formed a confederation called the Refined League (Earthlings have not yet been invited to join), and members of the Refined League value music as the highest of the 40 identified “Noble Arts.”

One day a few years ago some alien anthropologists eavesdropping on Earth heard their first music created by humans. And rhapsodic joy swept the cosmos. Human music was so much better than any music ever heard elsewhere in the galaxy that many aliens died from forgetting to eat while replaying the theme song. The Refined League was so moved by the discovery of human music that they begin counting time anew from the moment of the discovery, and that moment became Year Zero. And the song that inspired such exaltation and respect? The theme song to the television show Welcome Back, Kotter.

If that last sentence made you laugh, or even smile, than you will probably enjoy Year Zero, a kind of Men in Black meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a very funny take on human society through the eyes of young lawyer Nick Carter, a peon in a law firm specializing in copyrights and patents. He is in his office late one night when his assistant announces the arrival of two strange visitors. They are aliens trying to arrange for a license for all of humanity’s music. It turns out the Refined League has strict rules about following the laws of primitive societies like ours, and as aliens have been illegally downloading billions of copies of our music since the 1970s, they now owe us all the wealth in the universe. There are other aliens who figure it would be far easier, and far less expensive, to destroy the Earth instead.

Fortunately for Nick, the aliens mistake him not only for the founder of the law firm (now retired), but also for the Backstreet Boy by the same name. The interaction between the characters is great, and Nick is a likeable and totally believable guy. (At one point, the author spends half a page describing Nick’s thought process as he types up a brief text message to the girl he likes, so that it will sound friendly but not goofy, enthusiastic but not dorky.) Year Zero has references to other sci fi/fantasy series, but they are not overwhelming the way I’ve found them in some books. Year Zero also contains a wise-cracking sentient alien parrot and his sidekick, a sentient alien vacuum cleaner.

Author Reid offers a satirical look at the music industry, music piracy and the U.S. legal system. He takes many pokes at Windows, Microsoft, and Bill Gates. (“I twisted my fingers to hit the CTRL, ALT, and DEL keys – a gesture I associate so strongly with both annoyance and panic that my hand now reflexively makes it when I’m caught in traffic, stuck in a long line, flying in extreme turbulence – you name it.”) When Nick and a friend have trouble with an alien interface on a computer, the computer switches to a “native” interface that turns out to be Clippy from Microsoft Office (and no desperate act will make Clippy go away).

I completely enjoyed Year Zero, and I’m not even a big music fan. It’s funny and well written, and it moves at a great pace. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

False Memory by Dan Krokos

Submitted by Abby, teen reviewer:

Miranda North wakes up on a park bench and realizes that she's lost her memory. She doesn't know anything about herself except her name and age. Then a strange boy named Peter shows her who she is - an elite genetically altered teen with a shocking ability to incite fear in those around her.

I found this book exciting and unusual.  It was unlike anything I've ever read. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it a 9. I can't wait to read the sequel! This book is suspenseful, clever, and imaginative.  I loved the whole concept of the story and the believable characters.

False Memory is available in stores August 14th.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Dorchester Terrace by Anne Perry

Dorchester Terrace is the 27th book in Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Victorian mystery series. Although reading it was like spending time with old friends, the series is definitely ready to wind down. The author spent more time with side characters than she did with the two main characters. The plot did not grab me, and there was more language that felt out of place than usual. (I don't know - is "go rogue" really a phrase that would have been used about people in this time frame?) If you are a fan of the series, you’ll probably enjoy the book well enough, but if you are new to the series I predict it will be hard to follow and to feel engaged by the characters. I recommend starting with the excellent first book in the series, The Cater Street Hangman.