Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak, Louisa Hall’s richly imagined and beautifully written sophomore novel, tells the story of the rise and fall of artificial intelligence through six intertwined narratives that span centuries.

  • In 1663, thirteen-year-old Mary Bradford writes a diary about her sea crossing from England to America with her Puritan family, her trusty dog, and her unwanted new husband.
  • Between 1928 and 1954, renowned mathematician Alan Turing writes letters to the mother of his deceased best friend.
  • Spanning from 1968 to 1988, correspondence between Karl and Ruth Dettman reveal the growing distance between the couple, as Karl, a Jewish refugee, pulls away from the talking computer he created and Ruth demands the computer be given memory.
  • In 2040, Stephen R. Chinn writes his memoir in prison while doing time for creating intelligent babybots that caused children to forsake relationships with other human children.
  • A 2035 Supreme Court document presents the online chat transcript of a conversation between Gaby, a young girl physically paralyzed by the loss of her babybot, and MARY3, a chatbot that uses a complex algorithm to participate in meaningful conversations.
  • And in the back of a vehicle full of confiscated robots classified as excessively lifelike and marked for disposal, one robot muses upon its destiny and the lives stored in its memory.

Each of these characters is searching for connection, and their stories call to mind themes of memory, voice, story-telling, and what it means to be human. Like David Mitchell’s Cloud AtlasSpeak weaves a universal story through characters whose lives are intricately connected despite living centuries and continents apart. Each character has a distinct voice, and I loved that Hall let each of her characters use different formats to tell their stories.

“It was then that I dreamed of the seduction equation. I dreamed of a pattern, reaching backward in time, producing a new term for the present. I saw the cycle that links us to the terms that came before we were born: our parents, our grandparents, the first settlers who came to our shores. We’re linked to histories we can’t ever know, forgotten stories that form our most intimate substance… I saw that links aren’t actually chains, but rather widening spirals, delicate as the ripples that build into waves, the shoots that grow into branches on the most magnificent trees. I knew then that I was a branch, no less connected than anyone else. I encountered the dreamers I came from, and understood that I was the link between them and the world as it would become in my lifetime.”

I haven’t seen much buzz about this book, and that is a huge shame! Speak blew me away with its eloquent writing, connected narratives (each of which are compelling in their own right), and eloquent musings about whether technology makes us more or less human. This is definitely going to be a contender for my list of favorite books at the end of the year. I would high recommend it to fans of Cloud Atlass connected narratives, Station Eleven‘s portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world, and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles‘s post-modern questions about the Singularity.

This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

What I’m Reading Monday, July 13

Oomph, it has been a roller coaster of a week. My car has a broken exhaust system, and the first quote I got for the repairs costs more than my car is actually worth. I took a lightning-fast trip down to NYC, where I got to see one of my best college friends. And then my boyfriend of nearly six years and I broke up. We want different things out of life, and it’s for the best, but it still feels impossibly sad to end a relationship with someone I care deeply about. Luckily, I have some wonderful girlfriends, who came over with wine and ice cream. We went out to see Shakespeare in the Park, and then followed up Romeo and Juliet with some bar hopping. A girls’ night was so needed, and I’m thankful to have them — and to everyone who has been incredibly kind to me in tweets and messages.

The personal tumult meant I didn’t participate in the 24 in 48 Readathon, but my reading this week was actually pretty good. I devoured Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins (coming in September from Riverhead) on the train ride down to NYC, and it was so bonkers crazy awesome. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti kept me company on the bus ride home, although I wasn’t crazy about it. I liked the experimental format, but I just didn’t care about the characters.

The day after the breakup, I indulged in some serious book buying. (I NEEDED some comfort books.) I picked up When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams because I’ve been wanting to read it forever, and now seems like a good time; The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick, because a memoir about an independent woman walking the streets of NYC seemed like just the ticket; South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami, because something about his writing always makes me feel calmer and he is my favorite comfort read; and Letter to a Future Lover by Ander Monson because a collection of ephemera found in library books sounded like a lovely, charming thing to read before going to bed alone.

From that stack, so far I’ve read South of the Border, West of the Sun, and it was exactly what I wanted. It was also fun to play Murakami Bingo while reading. Next up is When Women Were Birds.

What are you reading this week? Do you have any recommendations for getting through a breakup?

Book Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

The summer Lois and Carly May were 12 years old, they were abducted by a charismatic stranger and held in a remote cabin in the mountains of upstate New York for six weeks before being rescued. Twenty years later, Lois is a literature professor at a small college and the author of a thriller based on her abduction, written under a pseudonym, and Carly May has reinvented herself as an actress in Los Angeles. After two decades of silence, the two women are brought back together when Carly May, acting under a stage name, lands a part in a movie based on Lois’s book. Reunited on the film’s set, they must work out their complicated relationship and their unresolved feelings about the man who kidnapped them.

This kind of ripped-from-the-headlines story is irresistible, and Maggie Mitchell takes a really interesting approach to the girls’ abduction; mixed in with the trauma of being held in an unfamiliar place with a strange, enigmatic man is a surprising pleasure — that they have been chosen, that their difficult or dissatisfying lives have been interrupted with a grand adventure. It’s a really complex dynamic — both between the two girls and between them and their kidnapper — and it’s fascinating to see how they have dealt with the fallout for most of their lives.

If Pretty Is had stayed within these bounds, I would have loved it. However, Mitchell inserts a thriller component that feels out of place. Before going to meet Carly May, Lois is working on a sequel to her moderately-selling thriller when events in her life take on an eerie parallel to the story she is inventing. At times, it felt delightfully mind-bending, but mostly it felt forced and wasn’t resolved very well; I think the novel would have been stronger without it, and it lowered my rating a bit on Goodreads.

Overall, Pretty Is is a decent novel to take camping or to read on the beach this summer, especially for fans of Room by Emma Donoghue. It thoughtfully handles some really interesting relationships, and the thriller angle gives it the pulpy quality of a summer vacation read.

This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.


What I’m Reading Monday, July 6

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday weekend! The boyfriend had Friday off work, so we took the opportunity to go hiking in the Niagara River gorge, and it was absolutely glorious. There are few things I love more than hiking, and although we only spent a few hours on the trail, it felt wonderful. Following up our hike with a late lunch and beers at our favorite neighborhood bar wasn’t bad, either. We then celebrated Independence Day with a BBQ at the house of some friends and then biked downtown to see the fireworks at Canalside. It was perfection… especially since biking allowed us to get home twice as quickly as driving would have! Hashtag horrible downtown traffic.

It was a fairly slow week for reading, but I really have no complaints. I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time since high school, and I really, really loved it. Atticus for president!

I also read the first quarter of You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits. I don’t have any complaints about it, but it also didn’t grab me, so I set it aside for a book I’ve been super excited about — Speak by Louisa Hall. It sounds like Cloud Atlas meets Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, so you know I’m sold. I’m only 100 pages in right now, but it hooked me immediately, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

What are you reading this week?