Speak – Louisa Hall



Wow. I loved, loved, loved this book. I found myself going to bed at increasingly early times just so I could read this. True Story: I am usually in bed by 10pm most nights, then I read for an hour, one night when I was reading this, I was in bed for 9pm. I know I can read anywhere is my flat, but my favourite place to read is in bed. Or in the bath. Bath probably trumps bed, but you get the idea.

The book follows 5 narrators, each from a different point in history, all of whom have contributed to a single artificial intelligence. A baby bot. Then there is the additional narrator, that of the AI, and it is she, who is telling the story, through each of the narrators own stories, their own histories, and how those have contributed to the AIs existence, and their knowledge. And the writing, oh the writing! It is absolutely beautiful. But, let’s go back to the beginning.

I found the opening confusing, but in a good, drawing you in way. I was, however, concerned about the comparisons to Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. A book which I read, and expected to love, but didn’t. I even watched the film, which I felt demonstrated the link between the characters more clearly, but resulted in a lack of clarity in respect of the important details. I also saw part of it being filmed in Glasgow, so that was exciting, but I digress. I actually really enjoy this literary device, multiple narrators, telling their own tales, and seeing how they weave together. I am not sure why, but it is a way of telling a story that I find really satisfying. Particularly when they stretch across different times in history. I love seeing the parallels, and this was wonderfully created in this novel.

As I said above, the writing was stunning, the metaphors are incredible. One of my favourites from the book was, “For some time the writer looked upon shell: white, and patterned with rust, and having a lip like a pearled trowel”. How incredible is that?  “A lip like a pearled trowel. I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head through the following few pages. I found that the metaphors were so potent, that they pulled images to my mind unbidden. Another that I loved was “His handwriting on labels like little flocks of black birds”. There were so many though, that it was almost distracting from the writing, I kept pulling back and just thinking, “wow”.

I find that sometimes, with writing so detailed, and so thought over, that often it can feel forced, but the whole narrative, all the descriptions flowed seamlessly, and beautifully, it didn’t feel overthought as I read it. It all seemed so natural, when I know, that the author must have put so much time and effort into each and every word. Including, a word which is new to me ‘Contumacious’, which is an excellent word and means ‘refusing to obey or show respect’, in the context in which it was used. I may need to start using it in everyday life. But, anyway, the narratives all felt effortlessly interweaved, through all the characters and all the timeframes.

Each of the characters stories was fascinating, and I did not prefer one to the other. Instead it just kept me turning pages, well past the point where my eyes had initially started to droop. The chapters are so short and sweet, it was always too easy to think, another one…just one more…OK, this is definitely the last one, and before you know it, it is all ‘Shit, I have work in the morning’. Which seems quite apt in this respect, as the novel discusses time and the nature of time, and how past and present will both be contained in the future. I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, and it just felt like the right book to be reading right now, and I am really sad it is finished. Although, probably not as sad as my bank account, owing to my spending spree in the bookshop today in a bid to find something to replace it with.

I mean, I could have taken my time with it. I could have savoured it, but instead I walked down to Drygate on Sunday to have a look at the Urban Market (their name, not mine) that is held there, and to get a pint and to finish the book. I am unsure what music they were playing, I don’t know if it is just general background music, but it was perfect, and seemed to tie into the final few chapters of the book so well and it was just a lovely, relaxing way to finish off the weekend. Despite the judgement from everyone around me for daring to go to the pub and sit by myself and have a pint. What else are Sunday’s for?

So, this book is a definite 5 out 5, 10 out of 10, whatever you want to call it. Either way, you should absolutely, 100% read this book. It is worth it. Next Sunday’s book is ‘The Girls’, by Emma Cline, which has been on my reading list for a little while now.

I took some time last week and today to type up my ‘to-read’ list, which is nearly 2 full pages of A4. Then, typically, I struggled to find the books that I wanted, and ended up buying other books. ‘The Girls’, is actually the only one off my list out of the three I bought today. I need to start ordering ahead.

Also, if you enjoy reading about ancient cities that have disappeared, and are clearly ripe for exploration in a fantasy novel, you should read the article from The Guardian on Thonis-Heracleion. The description of it makes me feel like I want to disappear into it, to step back in time and to experience it. Both as a traveller, seeing it for the first time, and as an inhabitant at all the strata of its society (well, maybe not all). It is strange that it is gone forever, and that we will really never know what it was like, or entirely how it functioned, or all the other minutiae of day to day life that each of it inhabitants would have taken for granted. In the way that we take so much of our understanding of how the world functions at this time for granted Even if you were to go back 100 years to a blood relation, you would never really know, or understand, the ins and outs of their lives. Things get misinterpreted, or misplaced, or are purposefully obfuscated, so that descendants will never really know what happened, or where motivations lay. I guess that is the beauty of stories. We can always imagine.

Sorry, that went a bit philosophical there! Here is the link:


I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.


The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

Three Body


OK, so I am not sure where I cam across this book, but it was near the top of my list in the back of my diary, so when I was in Waterstones, I picked it up. I am not sure what I was expecting, or what I anticipated, but what I did know was, it was a translated book, which, most of time, means it is excellent. I had taken part in a survey about translated science fiction books a few weeks ago, and it came up. Plus, it won a Hugo Award, so I was pretty sure I was going to like it. And for the most part, I did. So, let’s get into it.

The blurb states:

“1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beat her father to death during China’s Cultural Revolution. This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind.

Four decades later, Beijing police ask nanotech engineer Wang Miao to infiltrate a secretive cabal of scientists after a spate of inexplicable suicides. Wang’s investigation will lead him to a mysterious online game and immerse him in a virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredictable interaction of its three suns.

This is the Three-Body Problem and it is the key to everything: the key to the scientists deaths, the key to a conspiracy that spans light-years and the key to the extinction-level threat humanity now faces.”

That is a really fair summary of the book, and I don’t want to go into too much more detail as it would ruin a pretty massive plot twist moment, which was a bit mental, but also entirely in keeping with the novel. Apparently, I did not read the blurb before purchasing the book though, so the ‘Three-Body Problem’, as a physics problem, was only introduced to me within this novel, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The book opens with a list of names, and as you know from previous blog entries, this immediately panics me. Especially as the names are Chinese names, and therefore, not as familiar to me as Western names. This is entirely a fault on my part, but as I can have difficulties following names anyway, this was concerning. However, in order to mitigate this risk (that is total work chat, need to stop talking like an auditor), I ensured that I read the names closely, and ensured that as I came across them in the text, I memorised their name, and the actions they were attached to. Which I know sounds obvious, but I also knew that if I did not make a conscious effort to do this, I would come across a name later and be like ‘Who? What did they do?”, before realising I had a read a whole chapter about them and failed to associate the actions to their name and could only recognise them in a particular context. This approach totally worked, and will be a system I will use in all books in future, as it isn’t uncommon for me to be describing a book to someone at a later date, and be entirely unable to recall the characters names, but to be able to talk quite happily about what they did, their character traits, and what their plot points were and so on. tl;dr, the names were not an issue.

It also interweaves the history of the Cultural Revolution in China throughout the narrative, which was fascinating, if grim, and made me realise just how little I knew about this. I have picked up bits and pieces from movies I have watched, other books I have read and various Wikipedia trawls in my call centre days, but my knowledge is really patchy and I am hoping to find the time to read a book on this in future. One of my favourite aspects of this book was that you learn pieces of Chinese history throughout, not just the Cultural Revolution, but older history also, key figures and characters that are part of Chinese shared culture.

The translator did a wonderful job of explaining small snippets that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by myself, or I would have skimmed over thinking that my not understanding or knowing something was down to my own ignorance. The translator’s note at the end was also enlightening, as he explained what the difficulties were in translating the text, and what he had tried to achieve in his translation, but his efforts in bringing forward the context for various parts of the book really added to the novel for me.

Another focus of the book, which I am sure was obvious to everyone else upon immediately picking it up is Physics. I am terrible at Physics, and I think I have mentioned this before. For example, in High School, in my Second year I think, we did a pretty basic Physics test. Now, I won’t reveal my score, just know it was below 50%, and I probably could have scored higher, but I made next to no effort in this class. That is the limit of my Physics knowledge, and had I known the importance of this to the book I probably would not have picked it up. However, most of the text around this was pitched at exactly the right level for me, it was explained clearly and simply and was easily followed. Despite that, there were parts I did not understand, and I suspect that there was much that I completely missed or did not realise I had misunderstood, but the fact that I, with almost complete ignorance in this area still managed to read and enjoy the book, is a testament to the author (and translator’s) abilities to appeal to the mass market.

Physics and Philosophy are also merged together, and while I don’t have a clue about Physics, from a philosophical standpoint the ideas expressed in the book are fascinating. The way the author has merged these ideas together is beautiful and invited me to consider these ideas and questions myself. Especially questions around the nature of the universe, the laws that govern it, and the  impermanent nature of Earth itself. I had tried to read the Stephen Hawking book, ‘A Brief History of Time’, and while it was fascinating, it escalated the physics and ideas a bit too much for when I read it, but I may give it a go again, as inspired by this.

Having said that, towards the latter half of the novel, I found the science became more complex and I found myself skimming certain parts that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to follow, but were integral to the plot itself. This allowed me to get a grasp of what was being discussed, without me being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the information. The novel is also a bit mental.

Some of the imagery described was just so fantastical, I wondered how the author had come up with it. It really is a work of great imagination, and the way all the ideas flow through it was just incredible. Still, it wasn’t really my kind of book, and then I discovered that it is part of a trilogy. And I am fed up of reading trilogies. Can someone please just write an excellent standalone novel? There are so many books I want to read, and I have read so many book series, and I am getting a bit frustrated at the dedication to reading these take. Also, quite often I find with trilogies, is that the first book is the best one, and anything after that is a bit lacklustre. I am not saying it is true in all cases – indeed, some of my favourite books are parts of series, but I was a bit disheartened when I found out this book was part of it.

It is an enjoyable book, and certain readers will adore it, and I would recommend reading it, but I will not be reading the additional books in the series. Well. I say that. I am planning on having a look at reviews and seeing what they say, so I may come back to it in the future. Or, at the very least, skim over the plot on Wikipedia. I also had a lot of fun lying in the bath pronouncing the Chinese words probably horrible inaccurately. Still, what else is there to do while lying in a glitter filled, Lush bath-bomb paradise? This book is definitely a 4 out 5, and for those science fiction, Physics knowing readers, you will love it.

That is it for this week, and next week we have ‘Speak’, by Louisa Hall. I am finding it really hard to put down.


A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick


My second Dick book within a month, and I found I didn’t quite enjoy this as much as the first. I find his short stories far more engaging than his long form novels. From the blurb:

“Substance D – otherwise known as Death – is the most dangerous drug ever to find its way on to the black market. It destroys the links between the brain’s two hemispheres, leading first to disorientation and then to complete and irreversible brain damage. Bob Arctor, undercover narcotics agent, is trying to find a lead to the source of the supply, but to pass as an addict he must first become a user…”

I don’t think that is a fair description of the book, as there is so much more to it than that, but the blurb was the reason I picked it up. Still, I struggled to read this, and I found I skimmed the last 90 pages or so, just because there were so many inane conversations which didn’t seem to lead to anything. There are various stream of consciousness rants, which don’t move the plot, paragraphs in German, obscure scientific facts – and I don’t know if these were based on real scientific understanding at one point, or lifted from an academic journal, or were a fiction from Dick’s mind – and so much of the prose and conversations between characters seemed absolutely pointless.

However, there are moments where you see Dick’s genius come through, mostly in agent Fred’s thoughts. So, the main character is Fred, a.k.a Bob Arctor. Fred is an undercover narcotics agent, posing as Bob Arctor, and the narrative of the book flicks between the two perspectives, until there is a total disconnect between the two, and neither recognises the actions of one in the other. There is also the odd situation where Fred, as agent, is reporting on drug user, Bob Arctor, to his colleagues, but his colleagues do not know that Fred is posing as Bob Arctor. The reason for this, is that all agents wear, what are known as, ‘Scramble Suits’, and these cause a persons features to flicker constantly through as many variations of the human face as you can imagine, which renders them, ultimately, unidentifiable. Therefore, even when surveillance cameras and similar are placed in the home where Bob Arctor lives with a number of his junkie pals, they still do not know which one is Fred. Although, ultimately, they manage to establish who he is through a process of elimination.

This situation did not make sense to me, I did not understand why Fred would not simply disclose who he is to his colleagues. It was never sufficiently explained, and there seemed to be no real reason why his colleagues could not know who he was posing as. I considered that perhaps the reason for this facelessness, was to illustrate the facelessness of authority, and to justify the paranoia of Bob and his friends. Dick’s own paranoia comes through quite clearly in this book, and is manifested in a number of ways, including listing an impressive number of ways in which to hide illegal substances from law enforcement (the author note at the end of the book indicates the Dick was, himself, a drug user, so potentially these are from experience).

We can also consider the split personalities of the main character as a literal exploration of the concept of ‘Who am I?’, as both personalities seek to develop their individual conciousness. It also raises the question of who was in control, Fred, Bob or the drugs? Then, Fred starts to forget he is Bob, and Bob forgets he is Fred, and they become entirely different human beings, motivated by different ideas, emotions and needs. In the meantime, Fred is required to undergo psychiatric tests by his colleagues as Substance D starts causing him to behave more and more irrationally. The ending was unexpectedly dark (which is saying something for a book this grim), but fitted the overall tone of the book.

Having read a fair bit of Dick’s writing, there are a number of ideas and themes which are recurring, this includes paranoia (whether justified or not), his interest in loops, how the world is perceived, his politics, breasts – or tits in his parlance, and so on. While I found the premise of the book to be an interesting concept, which was reasonably well executed, I felt there were too many detours into pointless conversations and ramblings. I appreciate that this is meant to show a descent into drug addicted hell, but it is about as interesting as listening to other peoples “Oh my god, this one time, I was so drunk and I did xxx” stories. You know?

However, I would really only recommend this book to people who are Dick fans (lol), or who have enjoyed his other work. I would not recommend starting here. However, I did wonder, given that Dick’s books have inspired so many films, is this the book that inspired the show ’24’? Not that I ever watched it, so I may be way off base with that.

Next week’s book, ‘The Three Body Problem’ – Cixin Liu, which I am already enjoying immensely.


Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of The Sun King – Antonia Fraser


Recently, I became obsessed with ‘Versailles’, the TV series. Not the place…well now the place too, but I will come to that. Here is a picture of the cast of ‘Versailles’.


How can you not want to watch that? I love men with long hair, I love historical fashion and I really love a historical drama, so of course, I started watching it, and now I am obsessed with ‘Versailles’, Versailles, and Louis XIV. So, during my trawl of Fopp, when I spotted the book about the women in the life of Louis XIV for £3, I kind of had to buy it.

Immediately, the book was kind of intimidating. I have read a number of historical biographies, and history books, I have a degree in history, but there was so much detail within the first few pages, I was pretty sure I was going to get lost of lose the plot, or not enjoy the book. Here is an example, there are 8 pages detailing a ‘Chronological Political Summary’.  I did not read this, first, because I knew I would forget it all immediately, and second, because I know very little of this period of history, and I knew it would confused me when I tried to relate bits of the chronology to parts within the book itself. We then have 4 pages of principle characters. And I don’t mean a size 14 font over a few pages detailing these people, it is size 10, tiny font, detailing around 50 people, with a bit of additional information about each. Once again, I did not read this, as I knew it would confuse me. Finally, before we reach the meat of the book, we have two family trees…I would repeat as above, but I am pretty sure you have gotten the picture.

TL;DR, this book intimidated me. A lot.

Did I have reason to be intimidated? A bit, but the Fraser makes it clear from the outset, who is who, who relates to how, what part they play, how they will be referred to throughout. I can’t say I totally knew who everyone was the whole way through the book, but I had a pretty good idea, and I flew through the first 50 – 65% of the book, it was so engrossing, so interesting, and then suddenly. I did not have a clue what was going on.

We seemed to spend some time veering away from the women and into politics, and then into the historical context, and I know that is important and that we need to know this to understand certain parts of why who acted how, but I ended up lost and confused. There are so many illegitimate children made legitimate, so many legitimate and illegitimate children that died, there are family members from this royal dynasty, from that royal dynasty, from that royal family and so on and so forth, through what seemed to be all of the aristocracy in the world.

What didn’t help, as it turned out, was the TV show ‘Versailles’. Apparently, some parts are pretty inaccurate. However, some of these issues and errors, are of course, due to the nature of TV programming, but, at the end of each broadcast in the UK, we have a 5 minute show called ‘Inside Versailles’. This helps clear up what is true and isn’t, what is and isn’t accurate, and I have to say it is highly satisfying watching these 5 minutes and already knowing the facts they are spouting, so clearly, I have taken in more than I realised about the book. Also, Professor Kate Williams comes across as slightly manic in this segment, however, I have read two of her books and have really enjoyed them both, so she gets a pass.

Anyway, the book, overall, was excellent. It is a highly readable piece of history, and although I didn’t quite want to be in the court of Versailles (it sounds highly stressful and political), it does give it a wonderful sheen, and you kind of wish you could have been there, or even just go to see it as it was. There was a quote in the book from Madame de Sévigné, who is a famous letter writer who was present at the court, wrote ‘I believe that the histories which will be written about this court after we are gone, will be better and more entertaining than any novel, and I am afraid that those who come after us will not be able to believe them and will think that they are just fairy tales.’

The book gives you a real sense of that, of a moment in time to never be repeated, fleeting, ephemeral, and made me wish that I could be part of something like that. The book is engaging, and so well written, that although I felt it fell down at the end, even just flicking through it for the purposes of this entry, made me remember how good it was. If you enjoy French history, then definitely read this, if you just enjoy the TV show, then I would still recommend giving it a go – especially if you can pick up a cheap copy.

As for me? My friend H and I are planning a trip to Versailles next year and I am so excited. She is my fellow history geek, and we spend a fair amount of time talking about history, visiting galleries and museums and making plans about what we would do if we won the lottery (hire out Versailles for the day, get period clothing made for us, and swan about). Although, hilariously, she does not enjoy history books by female authors as a whole – I clearly disagree – and when I mentioned I was reading this book she asked if it was good. I replied that I was enjoying it, and she could have it when I am done. Her response? “I don’t like Antonia Fraser, she thinks she can write books just because she is married to Harold Pinter”. Hilarious, but not quite true.

I am also planning on reading more books about this period of French history, the next one being, because of course I am obsessed with the Mitford sisters, Nancy Mitford’s ‘The Sun King’. Gah, I am excited just thinking about it.

Next week’s book shall be, ‘A Scanner Darkly’, by Philip K. Dick. Yes, I will be making more dick and boob jokes, if only because he mentions the word ‘tits’ a lot in his books…until next time,