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Book Review: Nightmares and Dreamscapes

Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes is a collection of short stories by Stephen King, first published as a volume in 1993. I have had this book in my library for well over ten years, and finally got around to finishing it after a false start several years ago.

For me, the best story in the book is Dolan’s Cadillac. This is classic King, and a thoroughly researched piece as he explains in the notes at the end of the book. It deserves its place as the opener in the collection.

A few of the other stories jumped out at me as being special too, including My Pretty Pony, which was quite beautiful, written in a similar style to that of John Steinbeck. Another diamond was Umney’s Last Case, a detective story with a difference, and one with an interesting twist and PoV switch towards the end.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King begs writers not to use steroid-filled dialogue attribution verbs such as grated, gasped, barked, etc., and goes on to say he has never fallen so low as to use ‘he grated’ or ‘Bill jerked out’ in any of his own dialogue attribution. Well, actually … I was surprised to find Umney grating at someone on page 750 of my copy of Nightmares and Dreamscapes. I found this hilarious, and don’t hold it against Mr. King at all. I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first person to pull him up on it anyway.

There were some stories I didn’t like so much. One was Head Down, the only piece of non-fiction in the book, so not a story as such. If you’re into baseball, this one might be of interest. However, if you have never seen a baseball game in your life, you probably won’t make it to the end.

Would I recommend Nightmares and Dreamscapes? Absolutely. The majority of the stories are enjoyable, and the introduction and notes are full of insights into King’s writing process. The collection is well worth picking up and dipping into if you have a spare hour or two.

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Book Reviews

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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