Must-read books this April

James Walton

Ian McEwan delves into the unsettling world of artificial intelligence while Sara Collins puts a new spin on gothic fiction in April’s literary morsels

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

(Cape, £18.99)

A new novel by Ian McEwan is always a literary event—although in this case, a slightly odd one. Its main characters include Adam, a highly-developed, realistic-looking artificial human. The book, however, isn’t set in the future. Instead, it takes place in the 1980s—or, more accurately, a version of the 1980s in which (among other things) Tony Benn becomes Prime Minister. Most significantly, Alan Turing is still alive, and the “presiding genius of the digital age”.

Adam’s owner—a clever, somewhat aimless thirty-something Londoner—is initially delighted with Adam’s astonishing intellect. But then, in the traditional way of robot fiction, things start to go wrong. After all, Adam is programmed to be unfailingly logical and principled—and seeing as real human beings are neither, his mission to act like one is ultimately doomed.

McEwan gives the whole subject of artificial intelligence a thorough and fascinating examination (if an occasionally tricky one for the non-scientist). The alternative history stuff is fascinating too, and there are several subplots for good measure. In the end, these elements perhaps don’t all come together—but between them they certainly provide a rich and thought-provoking read.

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

(Viking, £12.99)

Sara Collins can’t be accused of making a timid debut. Her first novel is a passionate, sweeping blend of courtroom drama, slave narrative, whodunit, gothic adventure and love story—all set in a powerfully imagined Georgian world.

When we first meet her, Frannie is a servant on trial for killing her London master and mistress. We then flash back to her horrific girlhood as a Jamaican slave, before her villainous owner takes her to Britain and gives her away to an equally villainous friend and his racy, opium-taking wife. To general outrage, servant and wife become intimate friends, but Frannie is always aware of how vulnerable her presumed racial inferiority leaves her. And so it proves, when she’s brusquely dismissed and forced into the London underworld—until she’s brusquely summoned back. And with that, we return to the courtroom and find out the suitably grisly truth about the murders.

For most first-time authors the vast range of this material would surely be too much to take on. Yet Collins never loses control of it for a moment.

 

RD's recommended read—To Venice with Love: A Midlife Adventure

In The City Of Bridges

There are, I suspect, plenty of middle-aged British couples who fantasise about living a completely different life. What makes Philip Gwynne Jones and his wife Caroline unusual is that they decided to do something about it.

A decade ago, they had seemingly good jobs as IT consultants to the Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh. The only trouble was that they hated it.

It was then that Philip remembered that ever-reliable guide to life: a bloke he’d once met a pub. The bloke in question was back in Scotland for a few days’ break from teaching English in Europe—and, a few beers later, was strongly recommending it to Philip. Now, Philip felt, the time had come to take his advice.

Luckily, Caroline had just been made redundant—and Philip volunteered to do the same. And so they pooled their redundancy money, sold their flat, took a course in teaching English as a foreign language and headed to Venice to take their chances.

At first, the trickiest thing was to realise they weren’t on holiday. Strolling round the city might be lovely, but they needed to find long-term accommodation, fill in any number of bureaucratic forms and, of course, get some work.

Gradually their plans did fall into place—and this honest, warm and engaging book perfectly captures both the comedy and genuine anxiety involved, without either downplaying or exaggerating the difficulties they faced. It also provides lots of fascinating inside information about one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Here, Philip has reached the end of summer term teaching a class of seven-year-old girls (including “Very Little Emma” who’s begged him to return next year)—while a class of adults on the mainland seem pretty fond of him too…

I never received presents when I worked in IT. I might have got a free meal and a boozy night out at the end of a project, but that’s not the same. Teaching was different. By the end of that school year I’d received: a magnum of prosecco, a small green nodding turtle, a packet of Violetta paper handkerchiefs (it’s the thought that counts), a photocopy of a book on Buddhist philosophy, a bag of chocolate Easter eggs, and a handmade card that read ‘I love Inglish’ (a present that delighted and yet disappointed in equal measure). I liked the turtle best. Nobody at the bank had ever bought me a turtle.

My adult elementary class took me for a meal after the last lesson. They’d been a lovely class. Everybody got on well, people had a laugh, and even the weaker ones had come on.

We needed two cars to get to the restaurant, and Sergio gave me a lift in his. He’d worked hard all year, to the extent that he wanted an extra conversation class with me, during which we’d happily discuss the golden age of Italian football and great progressive rock bands of the past.

We drove into the country. We travelled quite a distance and I was starting to wonder if I’d pushed them too far and at any moment the car was going to pull over and they’d start digging a shallow grave. I saw an elderly lady crossing the road ahead of us. Sergio hadn’t noticed.

Time stopped.

I wanted to scream but I couldn’t think of the word ‘Stop!’ in Italian. I realised I couldn’t even think of it in English. We were about to take the life of an old woman because I couldn’t think of the word ‘Stop’ in any language at all. All I could come up with was a strangulated ‘NGARRGHHH!’ as I flapped helplessly at the dashboard. And somehow it worked. Brakes slammed on and we screeched to a halt. The old lady didn’t even break her stride…

I was expecting a beer and a pizza. I’d have been happy with a beer and a pizza. But what we sat down to was a four-course meal of exceptional quality, with not a few glasses of wine, and coffee and grappa. Everyone said they’d be back in the autumn. Sergio told an outrageous story involving Pink Floyd and a motorcycle, which was too good not to be true.

Someone asked, ‘Will you still be our teacher next year, Philip?’ Just as Very Little Emma had done.

Of course I would. I wasn’t going to let anyone else steal them.

Later that evening, as I walked—reasonably steadily—over the Calatrava bridge, I reflected on the past year. I’d earned next to nothing. But I had students who bought me nice meals, packets of handkerchiefs and small nodding turtles. I was, by any reasonable definition, a lucky man.