Book review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo CityZoo City by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes the albatross around your neck is alive.

Zinzi December is scraping by finding lost things and writing email scams to pay off her debts. Her life as a Zoo, someone magically saddled with an animal for their misdeeds (a sloth), in South Africa is a struggle to stay afloat. When one of her clients is murdered she is offered a job finding a lost teen pop-idol. The money is too good. The job isn’t.

It’s been a few years since I met Lauren at a writers festival. In that time I’ve read several of her books, including The Shining Girls and her collection of short stories. She always manages to bring something fresh to the page. If I was to tell you that characters in this book have a spirit animal magically tied to them you’d immediately think His Dark Materials. Well, no, nothing like that at all. In The Shining Girls, there was time travel. Nope, not in the way you’re thinking. And that is the skill Lauren brings to the page.

Zoo City is a compelling read. The world feels dirty and nasty inhabited with characters who are hustling or surviving. And the missing person case is a great excuse to traipse through this world. But this strength is also why some people may not enjoy the book. After spending some time in Zoo City you feel in need of a shower and there is a sense of hopelessness or nihilism. Best to know that going in or this could turn you off.

I’m looking forward to reading Lauren’s other novels.

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Book review: Tripwire by Lee Child

Tripwire  (Jack Reacher, #3)Tripwire by Lee Child

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m going to refrain from making any applause or hot jokes. We need that like a nail in the head.

Reacher is digging swimming pools in Florida when a private detective comes looking for him. Later that day two thugs come looking for him as well and he finds the detective dead. This motivates Reacher to go to New York to find out what is going on. Who is looking for him? And what has that got to do with MIA Vietnam soldiers?

This was the second time I’ve read Tripwire. The first time I thought it was enjoyable but not one of the best in the series. I think that judgement still holds but is slightly less enjoyable for a second read. I think part of the problem was that this is a much earlier novel in the series so it felt somewhat less polished in its execution compared to the tight prose Lee is known for. But Tripwire is also early enough in the series that some of the superhuman aspects of Reacher have not yet surfaced.*

Something else I noticed was the ending. It would not surprise me if Tripwire marks the end of Lee’s first publishing contract. There is a feeling that he was writing a potentially final instalment. It’s a bit funny when you know how many more Reacher adventures there are and how at odds Tripwire’s ending is with that.

I wonder how I will feel about Bad Luck And Trouble or 61 Hours now?**

Tripwire was enjoyable but certainly not peak Reacher.

* Which is ironic given the ending. Although, that ending is very plausible. There was a well-known bodybuilder who experienced a similar incident with the same results for the same reasons.

** I’ve re-read a few books of late (E.g. Ice Station). Some haven’t been as entertaining, but others have been just as good, if not better upon a second (or third, in several cases fourth and fifth) read(s). I am noticing a pattern to which ones are better and which aren’t. This may be something I will have to assess in greater detail at some stage.

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The Write Noise

Recently on Twitter I was discussing writing in noisy environments with fellow writers. Jennifer mentioned she had managed to finish a draft whilst sitting in a particularly noisy cafe. You would think this would be the most distracting place to try and be creative in.

I’ve noticed that there is a certain amount of noise needed or not needed. Too much noise and it’s annoying, too little noise and it is distracting, and urgent noise like a truck reversing siren gets your heart pumping too much. That’s why I’ve been successfully able to work in cafes, airports, and buses, but have found libraries and open-plan offices too distracting.

It appears that there is some science to this sweet spot.

optimal-noise-level

The research suggests that most people reach peak creative performance at approximately 70dB. This is about the noise of a person talking on their phone on the train, or how loud your neighbours are during sex after you’ve just broken up with your partner. The reasoning as to why this level of noise isn’t distracting isn’t fully understood. But the authors reckon that:

We theorize that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise is likely to induce processing disfluency or processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing, thus impairing creativity.

In other words, if you need to have a high level of focus for something requiring accuracy, detail, and/or linear reasoning, then silence can help make that happen. But it can be a distraction if you need to let your mind wander in that creative zone. Maybe you want to make several careful and precise cuts to a piece of leather as you make a woman suit, that requires quiet and not the distracting sounds of a small dog, so you lock the dog in your basement. However, if you wanted to write a compelling serial killer novel, you probably need a bit of noise to help you think.

Okay, put on some tunes and creative masterpiece here I come?

Not quite.

Why would a cafe level noise be conducive to concentrating but the co-workers in the next cubicle who are discussing how busy they are just makes you want to throw a stapler? Because it is about the sort of noise. It needs to be a constant background noise such that any one sound is mashed up with any other sound into a meaningless wall of sound. This means that music doesn’t really fit the bill and can be a distraction for creativity.* If you’re hearing lyrics or a cool riff, you’re trying to pick out the words or instrument and losing focus on what you’re meant to be… SQUIRREL! Better to have quiet library noise conditions.

But before you rush out and buy yourself a white noise generator or invite your child’s classmates over for a playdate, it is worth noting that this is pretty preliminary research. The study itself only used 65 participants. I’d want a lot of repeat experiments finding the same results before drawing any strong conclusions. It’s also worth noting that while there appears to be notable research on creativity (e.g. another paper from the same researcher), this aspect hasn’t been investigated further.

So while this research appears to confirm the anecdata of myself and other writers on Twitter, it’s hardly settled science.**

Hat tip: Jane Friedman.

* Although, many would argue that music can help creativity. I personally find it distracting. If I like the music, I’ll be listening to it and not focused. [Insert EDM or Pop joke here that doesn’t make me sound too old]. I’ve previously discussed a study showing music hurts your ability to be creative.

** Which is all too common in these studies on artistic endeavours. I’ve previously discussed how many wild claims are made from either marginal data, misrepresentations, or feelpinions.

Book review: Sartre – Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

Sartre: Philosophy in an HourSartre: Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So little time to give meaning to life.

The Philosophy in an Hour series is written to give a brief overview of a philosopher’s life, some key points about their work, and a recommended reading list for more insights. This Jean-Paul Sartre instalment covers the famous existentialist, some anecdotes about his life, particularly as it relates to his open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and the barest of insights into his contributions to philosophy.

Having started down the road of philosophical learning with Soren Kirkegaard several years ago, I was well overdue to read some Sartre. I’m not sure this is the place I should have started. While it was conveniently available from my local library, it was somewhat lacking.

While I do appreciate the biographical aspects that appear to be part and parcel of every philosophy course and textbook, this is where Strathern starts to inject his views on Sartre. He continues to do this in his thoughts on Sartre’s work.* When Bertrand Russell does this it comes across as witty, snarky, and probably deserved. When Strathern does it he comes across as childish and distracting.

I think my biggest criticism was that this book felt lacking in substance and critical insights. I was probably after something a little more substantial as an overview, along the lines of a university lecture. For those wanting a short biographical overview with a few ideas sprinkled in, this would probably hit the mark.

* E.g. He mockingly describes Sartre’s existentialism and his insights. Strathern describes Sartre as a brilliant thinker, but also a pretentious windbag. One way he did this was by saying Sartre spent 1933 in Germany studying the ”phenomena” of existence. That was the year Adolf Hitler came to power, but Sartre was too busy pondering existence to take much notice of reality, a condition that stayed with him for the rest of his life. An easy criticism to make but also an ignorant one if you understand that Berlin was a mecca for thinkers, cultures, and artists until after Hitler came to power.

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Book review: Superhuman by Evan Currie

Superhuman (Superhuman, #1)Superhuman by Evan Currie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Little known fact: just about everyone has been in the military. Apparently.

Former Marine, Captain Alex Hale, is meeting up with his mates/buddies. They are all ex-military and now love to catch up to wear leathers and go biking. The two local bikie gangs have chosen the same night and location to go to war with one another. They roll on the same campgrounds, armed, and ready for mayhem. Just as the shooting starts something intervenes. When the survivors awake, they have been changed. They are now Superhuman.

A few chapters into this novel I pulled out my phone to check some details. Not my usual fact-checking (although, there was need of that too), but to see who had published this novel. The answer didn’t surprise me.

My biggest criticism of this book is that it felt like a first draft, not a completed novel. Throughout there were so many little things that hadn’t been tidied up that it brought a lot of other problems into view. Normally you wouldn’t notice those issues because this novel is quite fast-paced and entertaining. If only more effort had been put in this could have been a really good action story. Instead, it feels like a let-down.

And I have to mention the genetics mistakes. There is one scene with “scientists” rabbiting on about gene editing, DNA, and various other sciency sounding stuff. It would have been nice if those “scientists” had at least read the Wikipedia article on Non-Coding DNA before talking about it. I mean, Wiki is right there for everybody. You don’t even have to mortgage your house to buy a genetics textbook.

I’m being generous with the 3 Stars because Superhuman was quite fun to read, especially the last third of the book. But Superhuman felt amateurish and the material deserved better.

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