Friday, 18 September 2015

Review of 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara

Image result for a little life cover

The blurb says 'brace yourself' and this is good advice. I came close to giving up on A Little Life (now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015) about a third of the way through, but I'm glad I persevered as it turned out to be a very rewarding read.

In brief, the novel is about a group of friends who meet in college and stay closely in touch, mainly living in New York, for many years to come. Jude, the main character, is intriguing and entrancing. I wanted to be his mother, his girlfriend, his wife and his lifelong friend. I wanted to belong in this book, to become one of the close and loyal group of friends who surround Jude because they love and admire him and want to help him learn to love and accept himself - which may well be an impossible task.

A Little Life ventures into the worlds of medicine, art, law, architecture and films, and the author has clearly done her research - there's a wealth of insight and information about them all. My one quibble is that almost all the characters are blindingly successful and wealthy. I'll forgive them that though, as I'll forgive Yanagihara for the occasional slippage into overwritten and laboured description. Most of the time you don't notice the writing at all, which, of course, is a sign that it's doing its intended job.

Some of the material from Jude's horrific childhood is very graphic and difficult to read. But you never have any sense of being a voyeur. It's as though you're being taken into the confidence of  these kind folk who befriend him in adulthood, with a gentle warning that this will hurt, but it's important that you hear it.

As a reader, I didn't want this book to end, knowing how much I would miss these characters. I suspect, though, that I won't be able to bring myself read it again and experience Jude's appalling childhood for a second time. As a writer, I feel inspired to do better, to look for characters as complex and challenging as Jude and listen to what they have to say. As a person, I am horrified yet again at the depths that my fellow human beings can sink to, while being inspired to try to be a better friend.

Ultimately, friendship is what this book is about. It's a treasure, but yes, brace yourself...

Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Date of publication: 10th March 2015
Price: Hardcover £18.38; Kindle £6.59

Happy reading,

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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Today's the day 'Lena's Nest' hits the electronic shelves!

Yes, the long-awaited (well, by me at least) day of publication of Lena's Nest has arrived. I'll be anxiously watching my Amazon page for the magical change in rankings showing that some wonderful person has bought my book. It's only £1.99 by the way ($3.02 if you're ordering from If you feel in need of an exciting new read, please go to Amazon UK or Amazon USA to obtain your copy. (You can read this e-book version on your Kindle, tablet, phone or laptop. The paperback version will be coming soon.) One reviewer has already described Lena's Nest as 'terrifyingly exquisite'. See if you agree.

Lena's Nest is science fiction, which is a new genre for me as a writer, though I've been a fan for years. It's 'hard' scifi in that it's based on real science; real knowledge of computers and artificial intelligence (AI). But the science isn't blasted in your face; a lot of it's behind the scenes. And there aren't any warring planets or sophisticated weaponry. There are no aliens either - just different kinds of human beings.

The main story is Lena's. She's a roboticist and also a mother - and when she ends up 90 years ahead of her time, her main objective is to search for traces of her children. Are they still alive? Does she have grandchildren and great-grandchildren? Or have her descendants been wiped out in the conflict fifty years before? (OK, there is some conflict - in fact there's been a war - but we don't  witness it first hand.) Lena's own research - or the lack of it, in some areas - may have helped cause that war. She will have to face the consequences of her work, as well as coming to terms with a very different kind of life in 2104.

I have a background in AI and computer science, and this book reflects some of my concerns about developments in these fields - in particular the ethics of research. I'm pleased to see that such topics are beginning to make the news and even the drama slots - e.g. the recent Channel 4 series 'Humans' and the programme on BBC1 last night 'Could a Robot do my Job?' Radio 4 also has a lot of interesting stuff about computing and AI at the moment, including the reading of Ada Lovelace's letters (Ada was the first computer programmer and yay, she was a girl!)

One of the things that concerns me is that if we succeed in developing robots with thoughts and feelings, i.e. ones that are capable of happiness, sadness, pain and all the rest, will we treat them fairly and with consideration, kindness and respect? Some people fear what robots might do to us. My fear is what we might do to them. We don't have a great record as human beings for treating people we regard as 'different' or 'other' with kindness and respect (dreadful phrases like 'swarms of migrants' come to mind, but don't get me started on that).

These are some of the issues that Lena's Nest explores. Others include the vexed questions 'Who am I? Where exactly does my consciousness reside? What makes me me? If someone stored my brain in digital form, would that still be me? What if they copied it? What rights would that individual (or those individuals) have?' The lawyers will enjoy themselves, for sure - but these are issues that need to be thought about by all of us, ahead of time.

Some argue that a computer or a robot - something non-biological - can never be conscious. But the arguments are far from conclusive either way. I believe it could happen, and it may happen sooner than we expect. Ordinary people, not just scientists, need to start thinking about these things.

Just click here (UK purchasers) or here ( purchasers) to obtain your copy of Lena's Nest. If you have Amazon Unlimited, it's free!

Best wishes 

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