Book Review: The Flatshare

This is going to be a quick review, not because I think it deserves a shorter one, I am just trying out a new format! Let me know what you think of this style, as opposed to the longer, more detailed form my reviews tend to have.

Author: Beth O’Leary

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: 4/5

Quick synopsis

Tiffy is working in publishing in London, on a minimum wage, barely able to make ends meet. After a relationship break down and desire to move out into her own space, she conveniently sees an advert for a flat share with a low rate. The catch – the flat only has one bed!

The conditions of the flat share are that Tiffy is out of the flat between 9am-5pm, whilst she’s at work and Leon, the existing tenant, is out of the flat when she gets back, as he works night shifts. Although it takes months for them to meet in person (when they do it’s incredibly funny) they get to know each other via post it notes left around the flat.

Featuring a psycho ex boyfriend, a great group of friends, the frolics of the publishing world and falling in love most unexpectedly, this book is uplifting and warming in a time of unease.

Review

  • The people in this book made it for me. The main characters (and alternate protagonists) Tiffy and Leon are complete opposites. Tiffy is untidy, extravagant and an extrovert, whereas Leon is tidy, quiet and introverted. Tiffy is endlessly likable with her wit and style and equally, Leon is both warm and thoughtful. For me, Tiffy is like an alternative Bridget Jones – whose humor and resolve make her perspective an entertaining read.
  • The situation is funny and relatable (given the housing climate in London.) The reader is left wondering how an earth this set up is going to work. Remarkably, it all runs very smoothly until a certain point.
  • The communication between Tiffy and Leon via post it notes is a unique and charming element of the novel which I really enjoyed.
  • The sub plot between Tiffy and her ex boyfriend, Justin, is revealing and adds a twist to the story. I thought Beth O’Leary dealt with the issue of gas-lighting and emotional abuse very well – but still obtained a sense of lightheartedness and humor due to Tiffy’s nature as a character.
  • BUT boy is it cheezy, however it is a rom-com so why wouldn’t it be? As soon as I started reading the book I kind of knew how it would unfold but this didn’t stop me, as I enjoyed every word and was captivated by it for two days.
  • It didn’t change my life but then again, it didn’t need to. (But this is the rationale behind my 4/5)
  • Reading this book itself is a warming and uplifting experience and I felt it was very much needed at this time!

As always, keep safe and happy reading 🙂

Book Review: Machines Like Me

Title: Machines Like Me And People Like You (2019)

Author: Ian McEwan

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis

Charlie lives in a rather dingy flat in London, it is some time in the alternative universe of the 1980s. After landing himself with a stack of inheritance money, he buys one of the first synthetic humans, a robot called Adam.

Charlie is in love with the resident living in the flat above his, a student called Miranda. After their love begins to blossom, together, they adopt Adam and play a hand in forming his design.

These first synthetic humans are designed by Alan Turing, as a result of his ongoing research into artificial intelligence. It is important to note that this novel is set in an ‘alternative 1980s’ meaning Turing is still alive – when in fact, he died in 1954. Additionally, Britain has just lost the Falklands war (which was won in 1982) and Tony Benn becomes Prime Minister under the Labour party. However, it was Margaret Thatcher who was in power from 1979.

Among the narrative of Charlie’s everyday life, adjusting to this new relationship with Adam and Miranda, we see snippets of political commentary based on this alternative Britain. Ian McEwan, although presenting an alternative history, still manages to convey the sense of change and upheaval that was the 1980s.

However, when Miranda opens up to Charlie about the events of her past, it throws their relationship and Adam’s involvement up in the air. The use of an artificial human, who appears perfectly likable, and morally aware, makes the reader question humanity’s assumed superiority of being.

Are we really superior, if machines too, are capable of love and compassion. What makes them a machine and us humans?

Review

I desperately wanted to like this book. However, I was left feeling endlessly disappointed.

I picked up this up, as I was fascinated by the theme which the novel aims to discuss. The novel centers on the extent to which artificial humans have the same capacity to feel, understand, and form relationships. McEwan poses the question with the interweaving of two sub plots, can artificial beings tell the difference between right and wrong? Can they feel quintessentially human emotions such as desire, compassion, and sadness?

In the featuring of a being so like us, it raises the question as to whether humanity is the superior being it often imagines itself to be. With the exploration of Miranda’s crimes and Adam’s want to put things right, McEwan infers firstly, that we are always flawed as human beings even if we essentially pursue a positive morality, but that artificial beings could also have a moral compass.

Image: NB Magazine, featuring Adam.

At first, Charlie is hesitant of Adam’s capacity to feel. When Adam reveals his feelings for Miranda, Charlie dismisses his capacity for love as a machine, but this is overshadowed by his anger and jealously. It is only at the very end, that Charlie admits that he thinks machines can feel like us. Turing himself, the fictitious creator of these synthetic humans, also believes his machines are capable of all the feelings and functions of an average human.

All in all, I loved the themes this book prompted and like many of McEwan’s novels, this one certainly caused me to think; about humanity, the function of artificial intelligence and science more generally. However, the way this theme was executed in certain events (which I won’t reveal due to spoilers) I thought was trivial, when it could have been done poignantly.

The complex theme and parameters of the novel were spoiled by the dystopian, alternative history setting, as this sets up an element of the ‘make believe’ which destroys the ability for readers to engage in the possibility of synthetic humans and their capacity – which I thought was the ultimate point being made by the novel.

The love triangle between Charlie, Miranda and Adam was made trivial by the events McEwan crafted between Adam and Miranda. It was, I believe, an unnecessary addition to the novel. Through the mere existence of their cohabitation and Adam’s display of friendship, the theme could have been explored in a more delicate way. However, it was erased by the acts that took place between Adam and Miranda. (You’ll have to read it to find out…)

Miranda and Charlie are likable enough characters and it is interesting to see how their relationship develops alongside an artificial human. However, the novel is completely told through Charlie. Although this creates an in depth, detailed insight into the mind of Charlie, I feel it could have been valuable to include alternative perspectives. Charlie is naturally hesitant about Adam’s capacity for humanity, whereas Miranda is more supportive. It would have added more depth to the novel to include her insight, and the insight of Adam himself. Adam could have shed a light on the nature of humanity from a non human perspective. This could have forced the reader to ask more questions about themselves, and the wider nature of humanity.

There is a few sub plots to the story, one which I thought was rather useless and poorly executed. One day Charlie stumbles across a young child, Mark, whom has been abandoned by his biological parents and eventually gets put into local authority care. Miranda takes a shine to him and convinces Charlie that they should adopt him. Adopting at 22 is strange enough, but Miranda knows she is about to gain a criminal record for her past offences. Additionally, she is cleared of all charges by social services and allowed to adopt Mark, despite spending time in prison. As someone who was adopted myself, I know this would never have happened. Nonetheless, I don’t think this subplot added to the novel at all.

As mentioned – I don’t believe the alternative history added to the story. We are currently living through rising artificial intelligence and the plausibility of synthetic human beings, so why set the story now? The element of dystopia makes the ideas and themes seem alien to the reader, due to the divergence from history. Thus, already, the reader is exposed to inconceivability, which is the opposite of what McEwan is trying to raise.

In portraying Adam as more human than Miranda and Charlie ever sought imaginable, McEwan infers that synthetic humans could be more like ourselves, and thus, more believable. However, in crafting an alternate history, miles from our own, he renders his inference implausible, and ridicules his own suggestion. Creating an inherent weakness in the execution of an initially enthralling theme.

Naturally, the writing is technically beautiful, and nothing far from what I expect from McEwan. It contains large sections of inner monologue from the protagonist, Charlie, with interweaving of political commentary from the alternative world. These parts do not add to the novel, although are sometimes interesting to ponder on.

I was lured into the novel as the writing is beautiful, but I was left feeling utterly disappointed. Nonetheless, this was an interesting novel which is well worth a read. Just not the best McEwan out there.

Book Review: Beartown – the quietly unassuming novel

Image: Pixabay

For a long time, I haven’t been so taken away by a book. I am a sucker for reading books I know are good due to their reputation, but I decided to read a book which hasn’t had the grand reception of other leading titles.

I was quite blown away by the premise and central message behind this book, which came as a reminder to myself to branch out and read lesser known titles. For once – this book has warranted an entire post by itself!

Beartown revolves around its surroundings – the geography and nature of the small, isolated hockey town, nestled in the icy depths of a Swedish forest, forms an essential part of the novel. The story is narrated through its various inhabitants, each paragraph takes on the perspective of a different character. At first, I found this format quite hard to keep track of but as the novel wore on and I got more familiar with the characters, I came to appreciate it more. The structure of the narration fits in with the centrality of community in Beartown and how nobody in the town has secrets or can live in complete isolation. They are all, in some way, bound to each other in some relation.

Hockey has central importance – at first, it is outlined as the running economic force behind the entire town. Due to its isolation and harsh climate, Beartown has little else to offer economically – the hockey industry is its saving grace. In some ways, it is a complete necessity. However, hockey also becomes the reason for its downfall. Hockey and community become completely intertwined in the novel, as “community” is the binding force behind the residents in Beartown – nobody would do anything to break that force – even for social justice to flourish.

The novel hints at the idea of how a community force can be potentially disruptive, even dangerous, when a sudden and unexpected, brutal crime takes place, perpetrated by a member of the town’s prized hockey team. Because everyone is intertwined and dependent on hockey to serve and maintain the community, the players, the managers and the investors all try to hide what happened. The lines between justice and injustice get blurred and members seem to be blinded by the actuality of what is going on around them. Community, rather than justice, is the force that is preserved.

“But they’re all silent. Because that’s easier.

Not only is this crime ignored by most, but residents in their defense of their humble “community” appear to be in the dark about other related social problems which feature heavily in the novel. Told through a range of character perspectives; the novel points to the issues of teenage mental health, rape culture and alcoholism – and how they can become so prevalent in small, rural communities. It feels like the novel is trying to make a critique of the concept of “community” and all the glamour and perfection which was presented at the beginning. At first, the community seemed humble, full of friendship, love and commitment. But as the novel unravels it is presented to the reader that it is all an image, a facade for what is simmering underneath.

“Difficult questions, simple answers. What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices.”

A small town in rural Sweden, nestled between a vast and beautiful forest, at a glance seems idyllic, even desirable for most of us who live in busy towns. We tend to look at small town communities in wonder. However, this novel pays homage to the idea that nothing is ever perfect or what it seems. The grass is always greener in our imagination.

As the novel draws to a close, a small sense of justice and re-evaluation is gained by some residents of the town. Some are beginning to question the nature of their community and realise that things have to change. But others simply move away from the town and do not address the problems they helped to create.

I found this novel to have a very profound and relevant message, presented in a very complex way. It deals with some central social issues such as homophobia, alcoholism, rape culture and loneliness – but in such a subtle way that the reader becomes invested in the people rather than the big issues at large. The criticism is subtle but prolific, and one that is entirely relevant.

4/5

I hope this post does not read too cryptically, but it is hard to write about this novel without giving the main event away!

August and September in Books

Caught between packing up my life in York and finishing my degree, it has taken me a while to sit down and write this – but I haven’t stopped reading (quite the opposite!) This is what I read between August and September.

Featuring: The Help, Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Normal People, Dance, Dance Dance and The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect.

Image: The Telegraph. The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius (1654)

The Help, Kathryn Stockett (2009)

I spent my first, initial bout of freedom with The Help, a book I had been meaning to read for years. Having only read about its reception after finishing the book, I was shocked to discover the critical reviews and accusations of ‘white washing’ surrounding Stockett’s depiction of the black maids. Upon reading it, I found quite the opposite. It was so refreshing to read a book set during the Civil Rights movement which was centered on depicting the struggle through the eyes and experience of the marginalized.

The novel is told through the experience of black, female maids working in Mississippi whilst the Civil Rights movement begins. Another perspective offered is through Eugenia Skeeter, an aspiring, young white journalist. Through her attachment to her own previous maid, Constantine, it becomes her ambition to write a book portraying the experiences of black maids in Mississippi. Through her lens, we get an insight into the difficulties of writing about a ‘taboo’ subject in an era still favoring the use of black maids in white households, the segregation and pull of white supremacy.

Stockett herself, makes no claim to be documenting the entirety of black maid experience. However, she draws upon her own experience having grown up in Mississippi during the 1960s – she was also close to an African American domestic worker – which formed the inspiration for this novel.

I loved this novel and thought it was incredibly eye opening and cleverly written. (5/5)

Gone Girl, Gillian Flyn (2014)

I found myself fully immersed in this novel as soon as I started reading it. I was gripped towards the two leading characters, Amy and Nick Dunne. Their relationship and lives are told through alternating chapters, featuring their perspectives of each other. The reader is left not knowing who is the ‘mad’ one in the relationship and who is responsible for the series of events which escalate.

The beginning of the book outlines their rather chaotic and different lives and questions how they have ended up together in the first place. It is interesting how Flyn has paralleled the two alternative perspectives of the same relationship to the point where the reader cannot side with either perpetrator.

Up until the point where Amy Dunne goes missing, I was hooked. But when the novel begins to shift towards its ending, I lost interest. I felt the initial complexity of it was lost and the ending was rather dull. I was left with the impression that the author had gotten bored with it and wanted to quickly wrap it up.

Still worth a read though, 3/5.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013)

These few words I’m about to write about The Goldfinch, will never pay homage to its genius (I am thinking about writing a separate post on it altogether), but I would just like to say I think it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it written beautifully, but it draws on all the essential assets of being human in the modern age.

It plays on what is is to be human and how we are all, in some way, suspect to being driven by the fallibility of beauty, art and illusion. Featuring the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which is stolen by the protagonist, Theodore Decker, during an explosion in an art gallery, each aspect of the story comes back to the painting and its central, symbolic message. There is beauty in everything but is is all essentially an illusion, and not necessarily worth saving.

It is also deals with the imperfection and fallibility of human experience, against the backdrop of urban America. Theodore experiences the trials and tribulations of an adolescent growing up in modern America. It touches on the sensitive, human issues of our times in the most beautiful way.

The extent of character development Tartt is able to create in this book blew me away. Although Theo was flawed, often wrong and subject to countless stupidity, I was always drawn to him and I felt bound to him in a way I never have to any other fictional character.

A must read for anyone, 5/5.

Normal People, Sally Rooney (2019)

For all the hype surrounding this book, and the claims it is the next D.H Lawrence or J.D Salinger, I failed to see how it could be comparable. I found it to be a good book, but I am unsure whether it is one of the best of our times.

It explores the lives of two main characters growing up in Dublin, Ireland. The two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, find themselves always drawn back to each other, whether by a platonic or sexual relationship, which appears to constantly alternate. It draws upon wider issues of class in the contexts of ‘modern’ relationships and the barriers that can remain between them.

Their lives are complicated, as all young adults’ are. I did I feel connected to them and the novel in general, but it hasn’t really resonated with me in the same way as it has with other people.

The relationship between the two protagonists is explored against a backdrop of the class inequalities in modern Ireland. However much I appreciate the sentiment and the characterization of the protagonist, I cannot quite fathom why it has had such a great reception. 3/5

Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami (2011)

I go through periods where I absolutely devour Murakami and others where I don’t touch his books. These few months were the former.

I will be biased as Murakami is by far one of my favourite authors but I really did love this book. The novel is told through the protagonist whom is struggling to acquire work as a commercial writer. A sense of restlessness seems to follow him around, so much so that he always ends up at the same strange, Dolphin Hotel; the place where two worlds meet. Strangely enough though, the protagonist is never named. Perhaps, like the premise of the book, he is not known in the present world? Who knows.

Like most Murakami novels, there is not just the present world, but an abundance of worlds where characters lose and find themselves. Although technically a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, I think this novel still works as a stand-alone if you are familiar with Murakami’s writing.

The novel deals with sexuality, friendship, love and loss through the typical sense of strangeness and restlessness which appears in most of Murakami’s novels. It also contains a subtle critique of some elements of modernity, including the wrath of capitalism and how it can be a force for destruction. 4/5

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect, Sarah Armstrong (2019)

I found this book whilst browsing through the proof copy bookshelf in the shop where I work. I was drawn to it as it was written by an author I had never heard of. Sarah Armstrong actually lives in the same town as I do, so I naturally wanted to become more familiar with her work.

I instantly fell in love with the feel and intrigue of this book and learnt a lot about life in Soviet Moscow in the 1970s. The book follows the main protagonist, Martha as she moves to Moscow with her new husband Kit, who is effectively, her gay best friend. Martha moves to Moscow in the hope to start a better life, having been sent away from Cambridge University for distributing left-wing leaflets.

Martha attempts to fully immerse herself into the Moscow life in her attempt to learn the language and make friends. But she is unaware of the dangers of her actions and the spy-like consequences of her actions. Life in Moscow is never quite what she imagined.

Armstrong depicts the Soviet state in the 1970s with startling realism. Like Martha, I too was lured in by the beauty, fascination and sense of the unknown that Moscow seemed to portray. The novel always feels slightly uncomfortable, but all the while, utterly fascinating and alluring.

I was very pleased to find out there is a sequel is in the works! 4/5