The circle – book review and thoughts on privacy and transparency

One of my students was reading this book by Dave Eggers, and I decided to read it too so that we could discuss it in class. I don’t always do this, but I thought the book looked interesting and I was looking for something new to read. Fortunately the library had a copy, and it didn’t take me long – I was done in a couple of days!

Mae Holland has a boring job until one day a college friend helps her to get a job at the Circle, the most influential technology company in the world. Exciting projects, recognition, rewards and opportunities are waiting for her, but even on the first day, things aren’t quite right or what they seem. As Mae becomes more and more involved, she looses touch with her old life and even though her family is proud of her at first, her new life and career leaves no room for her relationships, made worse by the fact that the company provides help for her family that Mae would never have been able to give on her own.

The new projects, whilst exciting, become increasingly intrusive and sinister. Slowly the company swallows up competitors and silences anyone who would stand against it.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it wasn’t the ending I wanted. Still, it was believable and I suppose these dystopian novels never end well!

There is a film too with Emma Watson, but I haven’t seen it so can’t comment. I only read the book – the original was in English, but I read the German version.

Overall I think the book explores some interesting topics such as the potential dangers of a world in which one company has the power to affect every area of life, what happens when people are completely “transparent” and there is no privacy, and what happens if an idea is taken further than it was ever intended to go.

There are some interesting characters, even though I felt the main protagonist was a bit of an idiot at times! I think we can see clearly how she was brainwashed, but it would have been good if the author had developed the sense of being torn between two completely different points of view a bit more. Did she really never lie awake at night questioning some of the things she was told?

I can believe that some people are so taken in that they’ll believe anything once the organisation has got its claws in, but it would maybe have been good to have some other figures to put the alternative point of view. We did have her ex, who made a good case, but maybe one of the other politicians could have made a stand too about why it’s not good to have every single meeting or discussion in the public domain. Why were there no legal challenges about secret cameras being installed everywhere, including in people’s homes? It felt for me as though some corners were cut here, even if the overall end result would have been the same. At some points, the narrative moved too fast, and the lack of resistance made it less believable for me.

It certainly opens up the discussion around privacy, who really owns your data, surveillance, the right to be forgotten, and how much of ourselves we should be willing to share.

The problem I have though, is that often people are unwilling to accept responsibility for their own part in the problem. Ok, if large companies are misusing data, selling data unlawfully, not adequately protecting data from theft or abuse by third parties, they should be called to account for it.

But if you have a public profile and publish your full home address on it, and I have seen someone doing that, then I hope nothing happens to you. But if you then post on that public profile that you’re going on holiday for two weeks, you’re not doing yourself any favours.

The bloggers that I follow don’t do this, and people have different thresholds for how much information is too much information, but I’ve seen things that people post on social media about their children that have made me cringe –things that most people would only want members of the family or close friends to know – not any random that they may have added on Facebook. Private things, that, if the kid found out about it in ten or so years, could leave them feeling unduly exposed or betrayed. I don’t mean general things about struggles they’ve had, but things that are intimate or deeply personal and their own story to tell if they want to. Blogging gives a certain extra layer of anonymity that social media sites don’t, particularly if you’re operating under your own name.

If people go to random websites and give details of their home address, phone number, date of birth, or anything else for that matter – without checking out the site first – of course it’s wrong that the sites exist, but would you give all this information to a random person on the street?

If people sign into all kinds of apps and games with their Facebook account, without checking out what other permissions they are agreeing to – of course it’s not ok if that data is then used in some illegal or morally dubious way, but some responsibility has to lie with the person who clicked the “ok” button, or just used their Facebook login because it was easier.

So yes – large companies need to be held to account, but on a smaller scale, we all have a role to play too. We’re not just mindless passive players, being swept along with the current – or if we are, we shouldn’t be.

When I was taking part in a feedback exercise for my university, I was amazed at a section of the group that was so anti social media because it was so scary and dangerous. I don’t see that in my day-to-day life. I work online and my friends generally don’t feel that way either. Some concerns may be valid, and I wouldn’t just dismiss all of them, but writing it off completely seems like saying “cars are dangerous because you could get run over by them” Let’s not educate people about safe driving. Let’s just ban them all together.”

The danger I see with books like this is that half the population will go running scared and feel vindicated because this is where we’ll all end up you know when the big tech companies take over every part of our lives, and the rest think it’s exaggerated and will never happen. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Checks and balances should be in place. The law needs to keep up with the advancements in technology as some things are only not illegal because the current legislation hasn’t caught up with what’s now technically possible (for example, existing harassment legislation had to be amended to specifically address stalking, which includes activities associated with cyberstalking, as these became more prevalent..)

But on the other hand, dumping vast amounts of previously classified information online without considering possible consequences, or saying “I have nothing to hide so I don’t care what’s known about me” are both somewhat naïve.

It’s like so many things – balance is important. A couple of the early ideas in the Circle had potential to be useful, but when taken too far, they weren’t.

I think some things are close enough to real life to make you smile as you relate to something, like going through 101 reasons someone may not have responded to you when the real reason was just that they hadn’t been glued to their phone and hadn’t seen your message or post. Or, even though we don’t have a bunch of screens on our desk for every single app, the juggling act you do when there are multiple ways for people to keep in touch with you and you have to keep on top of all of them. (Yes, message me on WhatsApp and I still may forget to reply!)

Mae comes across as very naïve and gullible, and she never questions or says “no”. Maybe that’s the path we take when our digital footprint becomes more important than anything else, but real life is rarely so black and white. Some parts of the novel reminded me of my teacher in year 5 “you’ve got some good ideas Kirsty, but this is just the skeleton. His bones are fine, but now put some meat on him!”

Maybe it was meant to be more of an easy read, but I was left wanting to unpack the issues a bit more, or to get a bit deeper into some of the characters which felt a bit superficial.

Have you read this book or seen the film? What did you think?

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8 books that I have read recently

I haven’t done a books post for a while. I started doing them monthly, but if I only managed one or two books in a month, that wasn’t very exciting. So here are my 8 most recent books. It’s an eclectic mix again – personal story, travel, drama, sci-fi and easy reads. Some are things that I’ve been wanting to read, others are audio books that I read with S, whilst others are books that people have recommended. As always, there are no pictures of the books because I read them electronically, and in any event I don’t bow down to the assertion that you need a bunch of images every time you want to write something.

1. Northanger Abbey audio drama

By: Jane Austin
I got this when it was the daily sale purchase from Audible. They have deals on every day, and if something you want to read comes up when you already have a subscription, it’s a good way to get extra books cheaply.

After visiting Jane Austen’s house, I decided I wanted to read more of her books. I love the way that the characters spoke to each other and have adopted “odious man” into my own vocabulary! I think it’s fascinating to see how life was so much different in those days, particularly in relation to the role of women and how finding a suitable match was seen to be so important. The social events may have changed, but humanity hasn’t changed that much. I saw huge parallels with social media nowadays and how people can be so busy constructing the image of themselves as they want others to see them.

I thought the dramatization was really well done and will look out for more.

2.
Twirling naked in the streets and noone noticed – growing up with undiagnosed autism

By: Jeannie Davide-Rivera
I got it as an audio book from iTunes
This is one of the few books that I have read twice. I first got it a couple of years ago when I was doing some research about autism in relation to an adult learner, but although I have never experienced the specific difficulties that the learner was having, I soon realised that I shared some of the traits described in the books and articles that I was reading.

This book follows the story of a child who becomes a teenager, then an adult, and it is only in adulthood that she discovers that she has autism. There’s plenty of information about boys and men on the spectrum, but not so much about women, which is why I particularly enjoyed this book.

I don’t relate to everything she says, but some things really made sense to me on a level that was deeper than just academic understanding, I got it! These ranged from sensory sensitivities (which in my case people thought for years were just a blindness thing), to the way she approaches some tasks, interacted with other children, and responds to people and/or specific situations. Some of the things in the book and on Jeannie’s blog sounded like something I might write, and that felt good to read because most of the time people don’t think that way. I like it because it isn’t a book “about” people by someone with no first-hand knowledge, but a book by someone giving an honest account of their own experiences.

3. The peacock Emporium

By: Jojo Moyes
This was another daily sale book and I picked it up because I’d read some other books by the author.

I struggled a bit with the narrative because I found it really hard to relate to the main character. She seemed so passive. People can’t help you to get what you want if you don’t try to work out for yourself what that is. But I think it also addressed some important issues such as what it’s like for newcomers in small communities, and how or when you should get involved when it’s clear that someone is being treated badly by their partner.

4. Steelheart

By: Brandon Sanderson
This was another of my monthly Audible books.

We got this because it was written by the same author as the Way of Kings series. The idea is that a handful of people have been given superpowers and become known as epics, but the epics want to rule, and in doing so, crush civilisations and fight with each other. One young boy, who saw his father killed, wants to join the good guys, ordinary people trying to bring down the worst band of epics. He has knowledge that they need, but will he be allowed to join them?

There was a twist or two in the plot that I didn’t anticipate. I got a bit bored during the lengthy weapons descriptions, but I liked the idea that with every superpower comes a weakness, which means that nobody is really invincible, and the clever tech was cool. Maybe just a bit less talk about guns?

5. Around the world in 80 days

By: Michael Palin

I seem to remember this was on offer too – in any event I was in the mood for some non-fiction, so I got the audio book from Audible.

The story of this adventure wasn’t new to me because I had seen the TV programme as a child with my grandparents. I didn’t actually know it was a book. But I wanted to revisit all the places again, so got the book when S was away and I wanted something to read – because I know I always go to bed really late if he isn’t around!

Each day is described in terms of the places the team visited, the people they met, and the things that happened as they travelled around the world, following the route that Phileas Fogg had taken around 100 years earlier.

6. Fated

By: Benedict Jacka
Another book that I got from Audible!

We got this because it was said to be similar to the Jim Butcher Harry Dresden urban fantasy series, but this one is set in London. Camden to be specific, and I used to work not far from there! It’s fun to have places like Camden Market and the British Museum popping up in the stories that you read.

It is similar to the Dresden files in that it explains life from the perspective of a magic user in a world where magic is all around you, but most people just don’t notice it. There is friendship, sometimes with unlikely creatures, questions of conscience, hunger for power, fear, and excitement. There isn’t much violence, but the book does touch on issues of slavery and torture. I’m not quite sure which reader demographic the author was going for – the writing style would have also made it suitable for a younger audience, but some of the material was not.

7. Fallen Angels

By: Richard Morgan
This is the second in the altered Carbon series. Another one from Audible.

This is the second book about Takeshi Covacs, set 50 years after the Altered Carbon book (and TV series). It’s a mix of sci-fi thriller and war novel that includes politics, philosophy and action.

I loved the idea of this – all the different characters having to work together whilst discovering technology from a civilisation that was so much more advanced than their own. But some of the scenes were a bit disturbing – I think that because bodies are dispensible as people can be downloaded into new ones, they are treated as mere sleves with quite horrifying results. It kind of shows that whatever changes, whatever advances are made in science and technology, things like greed, the need to be in charge and have the biggest and best stay pretty much the same.

It was still an exciting read though with several points at which you were convinced that everything was lost, only to find another plot twist.

8. The one plus one

By Jojo Moyes

I actually read this in German, but found an English link for you!

Another non-demanding, highly improbable book about a family and the struggles they faced. The sad scene with the dog did actually make me cry. But on the whole I found this too farfetched. Everything isn’t suddenly ok if an absent parent suddenly shows up again, and as someone who has had accessibility struggles, it’s not ok to pretend that your dog is a guide dog just so he’ll be let in somewhere.

I like the idea of bringing people together whose lives are so different – a mother struggling to make ends meet and a successful businessman who made a mistake, but I don’t think this is one of the author’s best books. I did however read on to the end, so it can’t have been that bad because I’m not someone who’ll finish a book just because they started it.

Have you read any of these books? Let me know in the comments!

Your chance to get a free audio book from Audible

If you’re in the UK or Germany, you can get a free ebook if you sign up for an Audible subscription. Whether or not you continue with the monthly subscription, you get to keep your audio book, and you can choose from 200,000 titles on a wide range of subjects. You can then download the Audible app on your phone and take your book with you wherever you go! (Books have to be purchased on the website – you can’t do it on the app).

Link for the UK
Link for Germany

1. This offer is open to people in Germany and the UK. Remember to use the correct link for your country.
2. You are eligible if you haven’t had a free audio book from Audible in the last year.
3. If you don’t want to pay, you must remember to cancel your subscription within the first month. You will still be able to keep your free book.
4. If you like the service, you will continue to receive a credit each month, which can be used to buy a book. Buying books on subscription is often cheaper than buying them individually.

Never miss another post!

If you’d like to get my catch-up emails, usually twice a week, you can sign up using this form.

The emails contain news of my new posts, other things that I’ve enjoyed (podcasts, posts from other bloggers, interesting articles etc), and any UK shopping deals or discounts that I think my readers might like.

This post contains some affiliate links. All views are my own honest opinions.

The books that I read in January

This is another new feature on my blog – the monthly book review.

Every month I plan to write about the books that I’ve read, what I thought of them, and I’d love to know if any of you have read these books too.

Don’t expect to see pictures of my books because I read them all as audio or ebooks on my phone, but I’ll try to provide links to where you can get them or read more about them – both as printed and audio books. Also, I sometimes read books in German, so in those cases I’ll try to find an English translation to link to as well.

If I hated a book, it probably won’t end up here because I don’t make myself complete books if I’m not enjoying them! There are too many wonderful books out there to waste time on one that’s not fun to read!

I don’t have a yearly challenge in terms of the number of books I want to read. When some are 50 hours and others are 10, the number doesn’t seem to mean much. However I am trying to broaden my horizons in terms of the type of books that I read, although I doubt I’ll ever be able to get excited by horror or detective novels!

1. After you

Author: Jojo Moyes
Available on Amazon in a range of print and audio formats. I bought it as an audio book from iTunes.

I got this on Christmas Day when I was downloading some other books that I’d been given for Christmas. One of my blogger friends Sophie Laetitia had been talking about it because it’s the sequel to “Me before you”, which was also made into a film.

If you haven’t read the first book in the series, I’d recommend that you first read that – but not on the train coming home from work like I did. The end is very sad, irrespective of where you stand on the question of euthanasia.

Following the death of the man that she loved, Lou has to decide what to do with her life,, made complicated by a stranger she meets after an unexpected accident, and someone from her partner’s past.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but this is an easy read and I finished it quite quickly. Having said that, I like the way the author makes relatable characters, even if they frustrate you sometimes! I wasn’t happy with the ending, but I guess a happy ending to the second book makes a bad trilogy! Maybe the idea of moving to New York doesn’t have the same attraction for me but still – you only get one chance at life – is it really worth risking everything in pursuit of something else if you think you already have a chance of happiness? It’s one of those books that take you through a range of emotions – happiness, sadness, wondering what will happen next. Ideal for the Christmas break!

2. Oathbringer

Author: Brandon Sanderson
Available as a printed book, Kindle or Audible book from Amazon.

This is book 3 of the Stormlight Archive series, so if you’re interested, again I would recommend adding the first two before starting this one. We got it as one of our monthly subscription books from Audible and S and I read it together.

Before meeting S, I never read any fantasy books. However he introduced me to this genre a few years ago and I think one of the fascinating things for me is the way they explore different cultures and the way that different societies work. For example, in this culture, the men mainly fight, and it’s the women who can read and have the education to understand how things work and develop new items to improve their lives. If you want something to be read, you have to go and find a woman to do it for you. Interesting social concept!

There’s also love, magic, fighting, and soul-searching questions about the right thing to do.

The basis is that humanity is facing desolation by the Voidbringers, assisted by the previously subservient parshmen, who had been enslaved by men.

There is not one main character, which makes the book more interesting. There’s ~Dalinar Kholin, with his violent past that prevents some of his allies from believing he wants to do good. Shallan Davar, who is exploring and developing her illusion abilities, whilst at the same time trying to keep a lid on a secret from her past and stay true to the man she’s going to marry whilst keeping in check her attraction to another. Then we see the world through the eyes of some of the Parshendi, whose take on past events is very different from what the humans have been taught.

It’s kind of complicated, but boils down to people with a range of abilities trying to work together to prevent the end of civilisation as they know it!

3. The deed of Paxanarian

Author: Elizabeth Moon
Available from Amazon in various formats and as an audio book on iTunes.

This is the first of a trilogy that I got for Christmas.

According to iTunes: “Refusing to marry a pig farmer and joining the army, even if it means never seeing her family again, Paksenarrion begins an adventure that enables her to restore an overthrown ruler.”

There is quite a lot in this book about fighting, but it helps you to understand what life was like in this kingdom for the common soldier. Ok, this character becomes powerful later, but everyone has to start somewhere, and I think this book did a good job of setting the scene for her.

Also, it’s a fantasy book, so magic, elves, dwarves all exist, but most of the ordinary people don’t get to see magic at work. In the ordinary towns, life goes on and the farmers or traders are at the mercy of the people around them with the biggest army, or maybe the most powerful magic.

It was good to see a strong female in a world where usually it’s the men who control what will happen next. For anyone who plays Dungeons and Dragons, it’s like when you have a really low-level character – but low-level characters have backstories too and sometimes the things that happen to them later only really make sense if you know where they came from.

4. Horse dancer

Author: Jojo Moyes
Available from Amazon as paperback, kindle edition and audio book.

This was my Audible subscription book for January.

This is the kind of book that filled my shelves when I was a teenager – because one of the main characters was a big horse called Boo! Having read After You, I wanted to try out something else from Jojo Moyes.

What happens when a young girl’s life is torn apart by her Granddad falling ill, and all she has to cling on to is her horse. Who can she turn to when even he isn’t safe from a man who is always used to getting what he wants? How do two people in the middle of a messy divorce cope when they find themselves living under the same roof again with a teenager who won’t open up and who keeps disappearing?

Parts of this book were a little far-fetched – but I loved the way that the relationship between horse and rider was described, and the lengths people would go to in order to protect their best friend! Overall it’s a positive book, but it does explore the way that life can spiral out of control when you feel there’s nowhere to turn, and I think this series of events was described in a believable way.

5. Divided allegiance

Author: Elizabeth Moon
Available in paperback, Kindle edition or as an audio book from Amazon or audio book from iTunes.

This is the second part in the Paksenarrion saga and according to iTunes: “Paksenarrion, once a sheepfarmer’s daughter, now a veteran warrior, meets new challenges as she breaks up a robber gang, dispells an ancient evil possessing an elvish shrine, and is accepted for training at an academy for knights. Clearly, a high destiny awaits her.”

But life isn’t all that it seems – after so much goes well for Paks, it seems like nothing will stop her. That’s not real life though. Nobody is invincible, and when the thing that is most precious is taken away, what will Paks do, and will she survive?

I actually enjoyed this book more than the first – a bit less fighting and more time spent developing the characters, discovering what life is like for the different races, and how people in authority don’t always know best.

6. Die Zwerge

Author: Markus Heitz

This book was originally written in German, and I read the original, but it’s also available in English. Apparently there’s going to be a video game too.

The Dwarves – available as a paperback or Kindle version from Amazon or an audio book from iTunes. I borrowed it from the library.

This book was recommended by one of my blogger friends from The Cozy Den. S said she’d also read it, so I decided to give it a go. I usually have a book going in German because it’s good for my German language skills, and I’ve read so many German books now that it doesn’t feel like a language exercise any more.

According to iTunes: “For countless millennia, the dwarves of the Fifthling Kingdom have defended the stone gateway into Girdlegard. Many and varied foes have hurled themselves against the portal and died attempting to breach it. No man or beast has ever succeeded. Until now… Abandoned as a child, Tungdil the blacksmith labors contentedly in the Kingdom of Fifthling the only dwarf in a kingdom of men. Although he does not want for friends, Tungdil is very much aware that he is alone – indeed, he has not so much as set eyes on another dwarf. But all that is about to change. Sent out into the world to deliver a message and reacquaint himself with his people, the young foundling finds himself thrust into a battle for which he has not been trained. Not only his own safety, but the life of every man, woman and child in Girdlegard depends upon his ability to embrace his heritage. Although he has many unanswered questions, Tungdil is certain of one thing: no matter where he was raised, he is a true dwarf. And no one has ever questioned the courage of the Dwarves.”

How do you lead an unlikely team, some of whom hate each other, and convince them all to focus on your common goal? How do you relate to a culture that you belong to, but which you’ve never experienced? These are some of the questions that Tungdil has to answer. Whom can he trust? Can people be your friend, even if they look like your enemy?

I thought there would probably be a happy ending to this book, but it’s not what I had expected. I use German most days at work, but it’s also been good for me to learn some new fantasy-fiction-related vocabulary!

How about you?

So, have you read any of these books? What have you been reading this month? Let me know in the comments!

Your chance to get a free audio book from Audible

If you’re in the UK or Germany, you can get a free ebook if you sign up for an Audible subscription. Whether or not you continue with the monthly subscription, you get to keep your audio book, and you can choose from 200,000 titles on a wide range of subjects. You can then download the Audible app on your phone and take your book with you wherever you go! (Books have to be purchased on the website – you can’t do it on the app).

Link for the UK
Link for Germany

1. This offer is open to people in Germany and the UK. Remember to use the correct link for your country.
2. You are eligible if you haven’t had a free audio book from Audible in the last year.
3. If you don’t want to pay, you must remember to cancel your subscription within the first month. You will still be able to keep your free book.
4. If you like the service, you will continue to receive a credit each month, which can be used to buy a book. Buying books on subscription is often cheaper than buying them individually.

Never miss another post!

If you’d like to get my catch-up emails, usually twice a week, you can sign up using this form.

The emails contain news of my new posts, other things that I’ve enjoyed (podcasts, posts from other bloggers, interesting articles etc), and any UK shopping deals or discounts that I think my readers might like.

This post contains some affiliate links. All views are my own honest opinions.