JUNE 2019 BOOK GROUP SELECTION: THE SOUL OF AMERICA

Thanks to everybody who showed up to discuss May’s Field Notes selection, Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen.  We had an interesting and wide ranging discussion about privilege and New York City and marriage and other issues raised by the book.  We also made our selection for June, though it was so evenly divided that in the end we had to decide via a coin flip. The next book is The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham, copies of which will be here at The Field Library for pickup this week.

A New York Times bestselling history book, The Soul of America does what the best of history does: it illuminates the present by looking closely at our shared past. If you’re feeling depressed about how divided America seems to be these days, and despairing of the possibility of the country’s pulling together and making progress, you’re exactly the person Meacham wrote this book for.  A greater understanding of American history will make it clear that we have been in bad places before, in places where the divisions between Americans have seemed intractable and hopeless, and that on those prior occasions we have managed to overcome those divisions, not always easily and never perfectly, but enough to continue as one nation striving for the promise of the American dream.  Meacham doesn’t just talk in generalities, either, but looks at specific people in specific times and places, studying Reconstruction in the 1870’s, anti-immigration panics in the 1920’s, the rise of demagogues like McCarthy and Father Coughlin, the fights for women’s suffrage and for civil rights, and examining how ordinary people behaved in extraordinary ways.

As someone who loves history and has a degree in history, I’m delighted that we’ve chosen this particular book, and I’m looking forward to vigorous discussions on June 15, when the Field Notes Book Group meets again.  As always, there will be donuts and coffee and lots of thought-provoking questions and issues, so be sure to come in and get your copy and then join us in June.

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CONTROLLING THE UNIVERSE: MIDDLEGAME

Sometimes the mere description of a book isn’t enough to encourage you to read it.  And sometimes you’re right to avoid a particular book based on its description, but sometimes you’d be missing out.  Case in point: Seanan McGuire’s newest book, Middlegame.  If I weren’t familiar with the author (more about her later, if you didn’t already recognize her name from my other reviews), I’d be looking askance at the concept of the book.  Twin characters named Roger and Dodger? Isn’t that a little cutesy? One of them, Roger, is all about the power of words and is a genius with words, and the other, Dodger, is a brilliant mathematician who can do anything with numbers?  Doesn’t that ring familiarity bells with King Azaz and the Mathemagician of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, respectively, in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth?*  And the tagline, “Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained” just makes me think of any number of annoying books about would be masters of the universe.  If this book weren’t written by Seanan McGuire, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all.

I’ve already written about McGuire’s brilliant Wayward Children series, including Every Heart a Doorway (winner of a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award), Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, and In an Absent Dream. I know from that series (and the Incryptid series which mixes humor with suspense and supernatural beasties) that Seanan McGuire does not write cliches, and does not write cutesy, and so I took a chance on this book despite its description.

Not surprisingly, given the author, the book is much better than you would think.  In fact, it’s a terrific read, one that surprises you at almost every turn, with characters you care about and an outcome that’s far from obvious and yet ends up being very satisfying indeed.

Roger and Dodger are creations of a rogue alchemist, designed to embody the forces of language and mathematics so that ultimately, when they’re brought together (under specially controlled circumstances), they will embody the forces that control the universe (the Doctrine), and if they themselves are being commanded by James Reed, the alchemist in question, he will be able to control the universe.  Classic mad scientist (or in this case, mad alchemist) stuff.

It’s necessary for the purposes of the experiment that the two be raised apart, so Roger is adopted and brought up by parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Dodger is raised in Palo Alto, California.  Almost from the outset, however, the two of them break the rules of the experiment, becoming “quantum entangled” with each other from across the country, being able to see through each other’s eyes and communicate without talking. This starts when they’re very young, and starts again when they’re seven.  Reed uses his creation, Leigh (who’s the most terrifying creature in the book, completely without ethics or morals and delighting in some pretty horrible destruction), to break the two of them apart, but since they’re the most promising pair of “cuckoos” he’s created, he’s not willing to have them destroyed, yet.  

Roger and Dodger are both fully realized characters, similar to each other and yet different. Roger’s the more socialized of the two, as befits his skills with words and language, and Dodger is a little more the eccentric mathematician and chess prodigy who doesn’t deal well with other human beings, but neither one of them is a cliche and the bond between them is strong enough to withstand even the efforts of Leigh and her minions to keep them apart and keep them from realizing their potential too soon. Of course, sooner or later they do find each other, they do work together, and they do set out to embody the Doctrine, as time ticks down and disaster chases after them.

One of the fun aspects of the book is the use of quotations from a famous (in the world of this universe) children’s book (think The Wizard of Oz) which turns out to have been written by the alchemist’s creator and is actually a guidebook, if you understand it, to what Roger and Dodger are ultimately doing.  There are parallels between the fantastic characters in those excerpts and the people (and almost-people) our protagonists encounter themselves.

I don’t want to tell too much of the plot, because there are many surprises along the way (and even though the book appears to begin at the climax, things are not what they seem, so you have to keep reading even if you think you know where things are going).  Suffice it to say that things work out the way they should, the ending is very satisfying (I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that were ruined by an ending that felt tacked on or that felt like a cheat), and it’s a thrilling and fun read.

So don’t choose the book on its description or its tag line.  Choose it based on Seanan McGuire’s great talent for storytelling, and you will not be disappointed, I guarantee it.

 

*Not that I have anything against The Phantom Tollbooth, which is one of the few children’s books I own in hardcover, and which both my daughter and I can quote from prolifically.  Seriously, if you haven’t read it, do. You’re in for a treat. This, however, has nothing to do with the review at hand.

CHEER UP WITH A FUN READ

Sometimes you just need to read something light and charming to help you deal with the woes of the world, or the miserable weather in a month that should be warm and springlike, and if you’re in that kind of mood, come by The Field Library and check out three of our new books, which will put a smile on your face regardless of the outside world.

Start with The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang.  Hoang is the author of the wildly successful book, The Kiss Quotient, and her new book promises to be as good-hearted and charming as that one. Khai Diep, the hero of the book, is on the autism spectrum.  He believes there’s something wrong with him, that he doesn’t have any feelings, but his family recognizes that he does in fact feel things, he just needs to process his emotions in a different way from most people (and here let’s praise his family for being so sensible about his neurological differences).  His mother takes matters into her own hands and goes back to the Old Country, Vietnam, to find him a bride. There she finds our heroine, Esme Tran, a mixed race young woman who doesn’t feel as if she belongs anywhere. Given the opportunity to go to America, even if it means she has to make a complete stranger fall in love with her, Esme’s eager to take her chances.  Things don’t work out quite the way she expected, though: instead of helping Khai to fall in love with her, she’s starting to fall for him. With the clock ticking and Esme’s time in the United States limited, Khai has to discover that there’s more than one way to feel, and that maybe he’s not as damaged as he always believed.

The “enemies turning into friends, or more than friends” trope is an old and solid one in romantic comedy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a lot of fun, and The Unhoneymooners, by Christina Lauren, proves just how entertaining it can be (and hey, these tropes became tropes because they work, right?).  The setup: Olive and Ami are twins, but it seems Ami got all the good luck and Olive got all the bad luck. Olive loses her job, gets involved in inexplicable accidents, and Ami not only gets the nicest guy as her fiancee, but she manages to finance her wedding AND her honeymoon through contest winnings  Olive is used to her bad luck and her sister’s fabulous luck, which even extends to Olive’s pairing with the best man, her enemy, Ethan Thomas (and yes, of course she could choose not to be the maid of honor and then avoid him, but family matters are complicated). But then their relative luck shifts, when everybody at the wedding reception falls ill from food poisoning EXCEPT Olive and Ethan.  The honeymoon is all paid for, and the bride and groom are in no position to take advantage of it, so . . . Olive and Ethan take their places, pretending to be honeymooners to be able to spend a free vacation in Maui. Of course, over the time of the fake honeymoon, Olive begins to enjoy spending time with Ethan, and maybe this un-honeymoon could turn into the beginning of something wonderful.

Or, if world events are making you crazy, try an alternative foreign relations problem in Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston.  In this book, the President of the United States is a woman with a teenage son, Alex, and Alex has a beef with the Crown Prince of England, Harry, to the point where a picture of the two of them mixing it up emerges and almost causes a breach in diplomatic relations.  Cooler heads prevail on both sides, and the handlers of the two young men set up a fake reconciliation between the prince and the First Son. What starts out as fake, however, takes a turn for the real, as Alex gets to know Harry as a person and not just as a figurehead.  The fake friendship becomes a real romance, though a secret one, and the question becomes whether honesty might be the best policy, whether true love really does conquer all, and whether diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the United States can survive a romance between the crown prince of one and the First Son of the other.  And really, isn’t that a much more pleasant foreign relations problem than some of the ones we’re actually dealing with?

So take a break from all the miserable weather and the frustrating world of the daily news, and check out some fun new books from The Field Library.

THE BEST OF THE LAW: MEET HORACE RUMPOLE

The most recent category in The Field Library’s Reading Challenge for 2019 is “Read a Book About Law,” and frankly, that’s probably the easiest category of the lot.  If you want fiction, there’s the usual Grisham and Turow, Grippando and Scottoline, just to name the most obvious and popular choices. If you’re more a nonfiction person, there are books about famous trials, famous Supreme Court cases, about the operation of the District Attorney’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice, criminal and civil law practitioners.  Nobody should have any trouble finding a book he or she wants to read in this category, but I just want to recommend what I consider to be the best series of books about law and lawyers around: the Rumpole books by John Mortimer. We have a couple of them here at The Field Library, including The First Rumpole Omnibus, which contains Rumpole of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole and Rumpole’s Return, a fabulous introduction to this wonderful character and his world.

Horace Rumpole, if you’ve never encountered him in print or on television (Leo McKern portrayed him, brilliantly, on the old Mystery! Series on PBS), is definitely a character.  A British barrister who’s been around the block many times, senior to most of the other barristers in his chambers (don’t worry, you’ll learn all the British terms for the practice of law by reading Rumpole), forever an ordinary barrister and not Queen’s Counsel (which Rumpole refers to as “Queer Customer”), the kind of barrister who gets the high paying, high prestige cases.  While barristers can choose to prosecute or defend accused criminals (and some do both), Rumpole is resolute: he never prosecutes (his argument is that he doesn’t want to be responsible for putting some poor unfortunate in jail), but only does defense. He loves trying cases, and while (as is almost always the case in criminal defense) he loses a lot of his cases, he has more tricks up his sleeve, a greater ability to draw out the truth in cross examination and a greater ability to size up and persuade a jury than almost all of the other barristers around him.  He drinks too much (his favorite cheap drink is a vintage he refers to as “Chateau Thames Embankment” or “Chateau Fleet Street”; in one of my favorite stories he’s involved with wine connoisseurs, where he’s hilariously out of his league), he smokes cigars incessantly, he eats badly and refuses to follow any trends. He’s sarcastic and well-read, and he is riotously funny.

Rumpole is such a great character I would read his escapades even if he were the only person in the stories, but half the enjoyment of the stories lies in the supporting cast, from his long-suffering wife, Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”, as Rumpole calls her behind her back), to the Timson family which seems to consist of thieves, burglars, fences and general fodder for Rumpole’s work, to the (shifting) population of Rumpole’s chambers, all of whom are individualized and given their own nicknames by Rumpole.  He appears before some judges more than once, so you get to recognize them by their names and their behaviors, but even those we only see once are memorable characters in their own right.

Through the many stories (only Rumpole’s Return is a full length novel), we get to see the English justice system in action, we learn the difference between barristers and solicitors, and we get to know an extraordinary collection of characters on all sides of the law.  Honestly, if you want the best possible introduction to the glories and tribulations of the law, you could hardly do better than starting with Horace Rumpole.

LIGHTING UP MOTHERHOOD: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE

So here we are in the shadow of Mother’s Day, and I’m about to recommend to you a book about mothers and children that starts with a teenage child burning the family home to the ground.  You’ve probably guessed what the book is if you’ve read the bestselling Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, but if you haven’t read it, go and check it out.  It’s the kind of book that could start a lot of interesting conversations (and I hope it will for the people in the Drum Hill Book Group, who are reading it for June) about a number of topics, from what makes a good mother to which secrets are worth keeping and from whom, to the biggest of all: what makes a good life?

Modern writing courses always tell you to start with a bang, with some exciting scene to draw the readers in, and Ng certainly does that, opening with Elena Richardson running out of her house as it’s engulfed in flames.  We’re told from the outset that Izzy, the one offspring we don’t meet in the first chapter, is assumed to be the one responsible for lighting the fires in all the bedrooms that led to the conflagration, though her brother, Moody (yes, the names are all like that), is skeptical from the beginning.  Spoiler: Moody’s wrong, and Izzy did in fact set the house on fire, deliberately (“a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there”, to quote from the book). Why she did it, and what led up to that scene, is the plot of the book, but even that’s just a small part of the universe of Little Fires Everywhere.

The plot begins when Mia Warren, with her teenage daughter, Pearl,  moves into the rental house owned by Elena Richardson in beautiful, carefully planned and regulated Shaker Heights, Ohio.  Mia is an artist and something of a gypsy, staying in any one place only long enough to finish one project and then moving along to the next place.  Now, after a health scare, Mia’s promised Pearl they’ll put down roots here and stay for good, and the two of them begin to entangle themselves with the lives of Elena Richardson and her four children, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy.  Moody befriends Pearl, who goes to his school and starts spending more and more time in the classic suburban type home of the family, so different from the nomadic and impermanent living situations she’s had with her beloved mother. Mia, working a couple of jobs to keep herself and Pearl going while she works on the photography she really cares about, finds herself working as a sort of cook and housekeeper for the family.

At first you think Mia is going to be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who changes the lives of the staid suburban family and causes them all to look at the world differently and see the value of art and so forth, but that’s not what’s going on at all, and kudos to Ng for not falling into that trap. Nor is it a story about the child of a wandering, bohemian parent discovering how much she likes the settled life or the people who live that kind of life. Mia and Pearl are agents of change for the Richardsons and the other people of the city, but they are changed as well by their relationships with the people of Shaker Heights.

Because of Mia’s having one foot in the Richardsons’ world and one in the world of low wage jobs, she realizes that the Chinese baby found at the local fire station and given to the McCulloughs, a childless couple who are friends of the Richardsons, is the baby her coworker left at that fire station, and once she tells Bebe, the mother of the baby, where the child is, Bebe demands her baby back.  Now we have a court case pitting a poor immigrant biological mother against a well-to-do middle class couple who have been taking care of the child for a year, in the process of adopting her.

The family court case divides the town, and Elena Richardson’s loyalty to her friend, Linda, turns her against Mia, with dramatic results.

Throughout the book, there are mothers and would-be mothers: Mia and Elena, Bebe and Linda, and other characters (I’m not going to spoil the plot by giving more details in that regard), raising uncomfortable questions about what makes a person a mother: biology? Care?  Choice? Izzy attaches herself to Mia, seeing her as a better mother than Elena, and Elena and Izzy spend much of the book at odds with each other, and only in the end of the book does Elena actually begin to understand why she’s had so much trouble with Izzy (a revelation that feels earned, not as if the author felt Elena had to learn a lesson and imposed it on her).  

There are no characters who are idealized, no lifestyles that are presented as being better in an absolute sense than others.  Everybody makes mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, and people have to live with the consequences of their actions. It would be easy, in a book like this, to choose sides and paint everything black and white, but this is a book of greys, and at different points everyone in it is lovable and infuriating at the same time.

It’s an excellent book to spark discussions and make you think; it’s also an enthralling read that’s hard to put down. Check out Little Fires Everywhere and settle in for a reading adventure.

 

STEAMPUNK CAIRO: THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015

Steampunk, the subgenre that is usually set in the Victorian era (19th century), using steam powered technology, as if other kinds of motors were never invented.  It can be a lot of fun to read, if you’re interested in alternate histories or you just like the idea of stopping the clock at a particular historical moment and moving forward in a different direction from what actually happened.  The fashions inspired by steampunk are also pretty cool. One problem with the genre, though, is that it does tend to be kind of Euro-centric, often focused on England. If you’re going to reimagine a whole era, you should be aware that there’s more to the world than America and western Europe, and it would be fun to see how these technologies play out in other societies.  If you’re interested in a non-European take on steampunk, let me recommend a new book, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djeli Clark.  Set in 1912 Cairo, Egypt, it blends the fun elements of steampunk with Middle Eastern history and mythology.

It starts with our protagonist, Agent Hamed Nasr of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities (don’t you just love the title?  Don’t you just want to hear more about the work this particular ministry does?), meeting an official of the Train Safety and Maintenance organization to discuss the recent haunting of one of the local tram cars.  The car has apparently been noticeably haunted for a while, but things have escalated to the point where its ghost (or whatever the supernatural entity is) has now attacked a female passenger, and now something must be done. Hamed expects that this will be an ordinary exorcism (and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, just watching an exorcism of a tram car would be interesting enough), but of course there are complications that make this a major headache for Hamed and his new partner (don’t all detective stories start with an experienced officer working for the first time with a new partner?), including the nature of the being haunting the tram car (hint: it’s not an ordinary ghost), the presence of suffragists (and not just human women, either) shaking up the foundations of the society.  

Hamed and Onsi, his partner, are charming characters, and the milieu of 1912 Cairo, with its airships and mechanical people, its djinn and other spirits, is a wonderful place in which to spend some time with our protagonists.  If you like steampunk but wish it were a little more diverse, or if you’ve shied away from the genre because you’re not interested in Victorian England, check out The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (and we’re the only library in Westchester County that has it).

 

CELEBRATE MOTHER’S DAY WITH NEW THRILLERS

I’m sure this isn’t done deliberately by publishers or writers, but it does strike me as interesting that just in time for Mother’s Day, we have two new thrillers, both of which involve mothers and motherhood as a critical element in ratcheting up the suspense.  Whether you’re getting sick of all the sweetness of the usual Mother’s Day tributes or whether you just appreciate a good dark look at something we’re all very familiar with, check out these new thrillers at The Field Library.

One of the hardest things a mother can face is the disappearance of a child, whether that disappearance is due to death or crime or whether the child in question has been in trouble or alienated from his family for a long time before the disappearance.  It must be worse to have to face that grief if your day job is as a psychotherapist, dealing with other people’s painful emotions on a regular basis. That’s the starting situation for Ruth Hartland, the protagonist of A Good Enough Mother, by Bev Thomas.  Ruth’s son, Tom, disappeared a year and a half ago, and while she has no reason to hope he’ll return, she still doesn’t have any kind of closure, and the half life of waiting and almost hoping is draining her.  So probably it’s not a great idea for her to treat her new patient, Dan, who looks strikingly like Tom and reminds Ruth in dangerous ways of her lost and damaged son, but Ruth does anyway, setting herself up for a professional and personal nightmare.

Those first days and weeks of motherhood can be really stressful for a family and especially for a mother who’s just given birth.  So it’s natural enough that a new mother like Lauren Tranter would be utterly exhausted and maybe having irrational thoughts in Little Darlings by Melanie Golding.  When she tells people that she saw someone in her hospital room trying to steal her newborn twins and replace them with other babies, nobody believes her, even her doctor.  But a month later, the twins disappear from her side at a park, and when they’re found, she’s convinced they aren’t really her children. Again, nobody believes her, attributing her wild talk to the stress she’s suffering, but Lauren is convinced, and she intends to get her real children back.  The concept of stolen babies replaced with changelings is a very old one, with deep roots; it was explored in a terrifying and enthralling way in The Changeling, this year’s Fantasy Award winner (reviewed here).  If Little Darlings is half as creepy and disturbing as that book, it’s going to be a fun Mother’s Day read (for certain definitions of “fun”).

Celebrate Mother’s Day by contemplating the worst that can happen to mothers.  Come in and check out our new thrillers.

DO-IT-YOURSELF HAUNTED HOUSE: THE INVITED

What’s the point of having tropes in a genre if you can’t have some fun with them?  And by “fun”, sometimes I mean “turning the trope on its head to bring it to new and terrible life.”  Case in point, the classic haunted house story, given a ferocious twist in Jennifer McMahon’s new book, The Invited.

We all know how a haunted house story goes: someone innocent and naive moves into an old house, looking for comfort and change.  Maybe it’s city people moving to the country to try to simplify their lives, maybe it’s newlyweds or a new family looking for a nice place to live that’s not too expensive.  The house in question turns out to have been built on a graveyard, or to be the scene of some horrible murder or murders in the past, and the newcomers are terrorized by the ghosts resident in the house. There have been quirky versions of this trope (for my money, one of the best is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; if you haven’t read that book, check it out immediately), but the basic outlines of the haunted house story are familiar to us all.

Helen and Nate, the couple at the center of The Invited, move from the suburbs to purchase 44 acres of rural land in Vermont.  There, they plan to build their ultimate dream house, so they can live a simpler, more authentic, life. However, the land comes with a violent past.  Back in 1924, a young woman, Hattie Breckenridge, was hanged by a mob for a crime that was actually committed by her daughter. When Helen finds out about this, she’s fascinated.  As a former history teacher, she wants to learn more about the Breckenridges and their lives and deaths, and as she starts digging (figuratively speaking), she starts adding historical artifacts to the house she and her husband are building: bricks from an old mill, a beam from a former schoolhouse, and the like.  Hattie, it turns out, was only the first of three generations of Breckenridge women who died under suspicious circumstances, as Helen discovers. In the meantime, between her obsession with the past and the pieces of that past she’s incorporating into her new house, Helen and Nate are building a haunted house, where the Breckenridge women still seem to be seeking something necessary and dangerous. Of course, they don’t realize what they’ve done until it’s too late . . .

Find out what happens when you inadvertently invite damaged and frightening spirits into your dream house, in The Invited.

 

WELCOME TO NEW YORK: ALTERNATE SIDE FOR THE MAY FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP

Proving once again that we don’t need to all like the book in order to have a good discussion about it, the Field Notes Book Group met and discussed Inside of A Dog and then chose Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen, as our book for our next meeting on May 18, 2019.

Anna Quindlen first earned her reputation as an astute observer of the New York City scene when she wrote a regular column for the New York Times, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.  Since leaving the Times, she’s written numerous novels and nonfiction books.  Her gift is to create real people in her fiction and put them in believable situations, using her deep knowledge of human nature and especially of New York City.

Alternate Side, for anyone who’s not familiar with the way of the world in New York City, refers to the rules governing on-street parking in the city (how many times do you hear the radio announcer say that alternate side parking regulations are suspended for one reason or another?), and in this case it has special significance for Nora Nolan*, who lives with her husband and her college age twins in a dead end block in the city, which functions almost like a small town rather than a part of one of the biggest cities in the world.  In this insulated community, Nora convinces herself she’s living her dream life, deliberately ignoring the strains in her marriage, her community, her job, her life. Until there’s a violent dispute about — what else? — a parking space that sets neighbor against neighbor and reveals to Nora all the flaws she’s been hiding from herself about her family, her job, her marriage and her life.

Join us for what promises to be a stimulating discussion about a well-written novel.  Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation desk at the library this week, and of course we’ll have coffee and snacks at the meeting itself.
*And no, I did not suggest this book because of the main character’s first name.  Actually, I find it kind of weird to keep reading about a character who has the same not terribly common first name as I do.

HUMAN AND ROBOT INTERSECTION: MACHINES LIKE ME

Ian McEwan can always be counted on to write something interesting, whether he’s playing in the worlds of historical fiction (Atonement), or modern “problem” dramas (The Children Act).  Not content to stay in one genre, he has now turned his hand to speculative fiction in his newest book, Machines Like Me.

The trope of the person creating his or her ideal human being is an old one, going back to Greek mythology, through G. Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady to the recent Under the Table.  The trope of robots becoming more and more human also has a long and fascinating history, from Isaac Asimov through Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for the movie Blade Runner), through the award winning Murderbot series by Martha Wells.  Now McEwan combines the two for a look at how humanlike robots could really complicate human lives.

McEwan starts with England in an alternate history 1980’s.  Great Britain lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher is fighting for her political life, and Alan Turing, not a martyr to homophobia, makes a breakthrough in artificial intelligence.  In this world, Charlie, our protagonist (and a bit of a loser in general), spends his inheritance to purchase an Adam, a synthetic human being and the most up to date kind of robot. Charlie and his younger girlfriend, Miranda, design Adam’s personality to make him into the ideal person.

Naturally this goes wrong.  There wouldn’t be a story if it didn’t. One of the first things Adam does is fall in love with Miranda.  And, since Adam is physically perfect (and Charlie, like most of us human beings, is not), Miranda finds him attractive and has an affair with him, much to Charlie’s dismay.  Adam begins writing haikus to express his feelings for Miranda. Does he have “feelings” the way human beings do?

Charlie meets with his hero, Alan Turing (a tantalizing vision of what he might have been able to do if he’d taken the jail time instead of the chemical castration for his “unnatural acts” conviction, what he might have done if he’d had more time), and discovers that the robots like Adam (and Eve) are starting to commit suicide, raising questions of why the most highly developed artificial intelligence in the world can’t seem to live with human beings.

A provocative book that raises more questions than it answers, Machines Like Me is a speculative fiction book to give to people who think they don’t like speculative fiction.