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Book Review: The Long Valley

The Long Valley by John Steinbeck.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

The last time I read any of John Steinbeck’s fiction was back in high school, when I was required to read The Pearl and Of Mice and Men for my English Literature ‘O’ level, a qualification now known as GCSE. Even though it was many years ago, I still remember Lennie’s dream of living off the fat of the land.

The Long Valley is a collection of Steinbeck’s short stories mostly set in the Salinas Valley in California, his birthplace. It includes such classics as The Chrysanthemums, and The Red Pony. As a collection, it makes an excellent introduction to Steinbeck’s short form work.

There are many great stories, but my favourite is probably The Red Pony, even though it was sad and cruel in parts. Most of the works contain beautiful scene setting and description that capture the love Steinbeck clearly feels for his home. There is strong characterisation too, and the way he shapes his characters with a deft, light touch is subtle and masterful.

The only criticism I have is that he uses too many adverbs in places, and some of them are difficult to relate to, such as the concept of walking “martially”. Some stories also have little sub-plots that don’t go anywhere, like the old man who appears then disappears in The Red Pony.

All this can be forgiven, though, and I do recommend reading The Long Valley. I got a lot of pleasure from dipping in and out of these wonderfully nostalgic stories.

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Book Review: Understanding Artificial Intelligence

Understanding Artificial Intelligence by Scientific American.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Understanding Artificial Intelligence is a collection of ten essays first published in Scientific American. The essays are written by different authors, including Marvin Minsky, “the mastermind of artificial intelligence” to whom the final chapter in the book is dedicated.

The collection was published in 2002, and is dated in terms of the technology and ideas, but it makes for a fascinating read, allowing us to look back at how experts thought artificial intelligence would develop over the coming decades.

Some of the predictions turned out to be accurate, but many are wildly out in terms of the expected timeframe, and I found it especially interesting to recognise exactly how far we haven’t come in the last twenty years.

An area in which we have progressed is facial recognition. One of the earlier chapters claimed it was all but impossible to automate recognition of a friend’s face, as the rules for recognising a face could not be written down. Nowadays, of course, many of us take this capability for granted as part of the every day authentication mechanism we use to access our mobile phones.

I would recommend reading Understanding Artificial Intelligence. Some of the chapters are technical and difficult to follow, but the collection provides an enlightening glimpse back in time into the field of AI and what we thought it would become.

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Book Review: Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story

Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story.
Edited by Vanessa Gebbie.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

The title of this book suggests it’s a guide to the art of the short story. Let me start by pointing out straight away that it’s not the kind of guide that will teach you how to write short stories, step-by-step. The book is actually a collection of essays by different contributors (edited by Vanessa Gebbie) that explores how other writers approach the various aspects of the form.

I made the mistake of starting to read it like a How To guide, working through every chapter in linear fashion, hoping everything would come together at the end in one spectacular conclusion that would enable me to write perfect, flawless short stories with ease, every time.

That didn’t happen, and no book can ever teach that, but what I did come away with was the deeper recognition of two things I already knew: that there is no correct way to write a short story, and that short stories are neither right nor wrong, but entirely subjective.

Reading this book revealed a few more interesting things for me. One is the fact that the process of writing stories isn’t necessarily fixed for a given writer. Everyone seems to change their approach and try different things. What works for one story might not work for the next. Many stories appear to write themselves, while others require hard graft.

I would recommend this book to writers who are curious to find out how other writers approach the craft, so they can compare it to their own methods, and explore new ways of working. The exercises at the end of each chapter are interesting and useful, and may help those suffering with writers’ block to begin generating stories of their own again.

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