Bringing Up Mike Reviews

Did you ever notice that most of the people you know are good-hearted, intelligent, and generally fun to be around? But so many of the characters you meet in books, TV shows, and movies are horrible, often stupid, and hard to care about? Bringing Up Mike is a breadth of fresh air in this regard, because in it I met a lot of people I would love to have in my life: good-hearted, intelligent, and generally fun-to-be-around folks. Even Mike, the eponymous AI (Artificial Intelligence)!

Moreover, here you won't find murders, drugs, or high-speed chases—unless you include horse races—just nice, ordinary and extraordinary people helping each other deal with the ups and downs of life. Mostly ups, by the way; this is no tear-jerker. Instead, this coming-of-ager had me rooting for all of the major characters all the way, enjoying my visit into their lives, and learning much interesting stuff about race horses, music, and so much more.

And don't be put off by Mike being an AI. This is no science-fiction novel. It is a very human story, and Mike is just another character, and not really even the main character. Mike is also coming of age, as implied by the book's title, but he does NOT go wild and try to take over the world.

Bringing Up Mike brings up some provocative questions about the place of AI "persons" in our near future, while immersing us in a slice in the life of a very clever young man and the new friends he meets in and around a Tennessee horse farm. You'all come back soon, ya hear! I'd be glad to spend some more time with you!

—Lannie Rose, LibraryThing, June 5, 2014

A teen prodigy’s AI tries to pass for human in this quirky, thought-provoking novel.

A teen computer whiz and his artificial-intelligence protégé return to high school in this inventive YA fiction debut. Though occasionally a bit corny or overtly educational, Mark Duncan’s Bringing Up Mike will certainly provide food for thought when it comes to ethics and different forms of parenthood.

Seventeen-year-old Joe Lawrence is Caltech’s youngest-ever PhD, and the brains behind a new range of AI personal assistants. His virtual PA, Mike, is an erudite joker who imitates celebrity voices but fails to understand basic human morality. When Joe moves to Shelbyville, Tennessee, to live with a kindly older couple and complete his senior year of high school, he and Mike find they both still have a lot to learn, especially when it comes to horses, girls, and teenage diplomacy.

The author gives a convincing account of the modern teen experience, including getting a driver’s license, fighting for free speech, worrying about safe sex, attending prom, and applying for colleges. Joe is a particularly suitable tour guide because he is an outsider in the high-school world. No one knows he is actually Dr. Lawrence, computer science genius; they think he is an out-of-state transfer student with a disabled friend who only communicates via Skype. The author lacks a handle on teenage lingo, however; lines like “Hey, girlfriend, I knew we were going to be BFF’s first time we met,” and “You’re the man now, dawg!” sound inauthentic. Clichéd romantic dialogue and a dated cover are similarly cheesy.

The novel’s greatest strength is its characters. Joe, surrogate parents George and Martha, love interests Sue and April, and Mike himself are all believable individuals, each with their own idiosyncrasies and hobbies. The only stereotyped characters are Sue’s criminal stepfather, Sly Capo, and his henchmen, who try stealing back Joe’s stallion. This subplot is largely unnecessary.

A major theme in Bringing Up Mike is alternative family situations: Sue’s unsettled home life, George and Martha’s fostering, and even Joe’s parental role toward Mike. Mike is always asking Joe big questions: What is sin? How does morality influence lawmaking? Meanwhile, Joe himself is clueless about Tennessee life and has to solicit information, often about Civil War reenactment (George’s pastime) or horse breeding (Martha’s). Thus, Joe is perpetually in the position of either imparting or receiving life lessons.

Unfortunately, this constant didacticism overwhelms the novel. There are countless passages in which one character lectures another about something irrelevant to the plot, such as, “A Tennessee Walking Horse is a breed with a unique, four beat running walk having a very smooth gait,” or “Minié balls … caused over ninety percent of Civil War fatalities. When it punched a half-inch hole in a man, it crushed and splintered bones.”

Nevertheless, those interested in robot ethics will find a compelling depiction of learning and altruism in AI machines. As Mike comes closer to passing the Turing Test, he starts to question his identity: “Am I a pet? A slave?” However, Duncan never veers too far into science fiction territory. This quirky, heartfelt novel should appeal to adolescents who fall somewhere between geeks and the popular crowd.

—Rebecca Foster, Foreword Reviews, June 21, 2014

A wonderful story with great characters. This book can appeal to many ages, given the stories, within the story. I started to read this at the airport, and didn't put it down until my long flight was over!

I hope the author writes a sequel to this...I would love to see where Mike and Sue continue their adventures at Stanford University!

A great summer read.

—Ingrid Steinbergs, Goodreads, June 22, 2014

Teen genius Joe Lawrence finds having family and friends are more important than his top-secret work in Mark Duncan’s young-adult novel Bringing Up Mike.

Joe, who lost his parents years earlier, is 17 and working in Utah for a classified section of the government. He’s advancing a technology he helped create called “personal assistants.” Enter Joe’s assistant, Mike — a computer capable of asking questions, conversing and learning. After Joe’s director suspends him for an “attitude problem,” Joe decides—following an online chat with advice-giving Amy (who he learns via Facebook is a teenager named Sue)—to travel to Shelbyville, Tennessee, where Amy/Sue resides and to finish high school and continue his research.

There, Joe is taken in by locals George and Martha. Soon, he notices an abused stallion on some property and starts bringing him carrots. When Sly, the stallion’s owner, catches him, Sly makes a deal that he never expects to work: If Joe can find a way to get the anxious stallion home, he can have him for $4,000 — far less than the horse’s actual value. Joe accepts and eventually brings the stallion home, making Sly his enemy.

Throughout the novel, Joe transforms from a socially challenged, overweight nerd into an affable, fit young man. He develops a friendship with Amy/Sue, and at Joe’s every step, Mike is listening and learning.

Duncan does a fine job chronicling Joe’s changes, giving him a satisfying arc. The plots entwine nicely, are brought to fulfilling ends, and every character is well developed, with the exception of cartoonish villain Sly.

Unfortunately, one aspect seriously drags down the novel’s appeal: the many dry conversations about science, politics, youth rights and more. For example, Joe, George and Mike have a long conversation about slavery that feels like a history lesson and does nothing to further the story.

Duncan’s novel is carefully crafted, but the very scientific nature of Joe’s work, coupled with these superfluous conversations, is likely to deter most young adult readers, despite the story’s many strengths.

Also available in ebook.

Blueink Review, June 23, 2014

This book is a great read with very interesting topics. It only took me two days to read it because I got into the story and didn't want to stop for hours. I could relate to the main character and found that the story was easy to follow. There are a lot of little comments the author sneaks in that really improved the book, for example “Football is America's national religion.” This book is great and I highly recommend it.

—Steve, Goodreads, June 23, 2014

“You can learn something useful from anybody if you listen closely enough.”

Seventeen-year-old Joe Lawrence is a teen prodigy and the youngest person to receive a doctorate from Caltech. Intelligence aside, he is suspended from his Utah job because he’s irresponsible, immature, and spends too much time with Mike, an artificial intelligent personal assistant that he created. Joe needs to move to an area “that is away from any university” where he might be recognized, if he wants to keep Mike running. Believing his relocation to Tennessee is a good choice, Joe has no idea that serendipitous people and events will bring him through a life-changing experience.

Penned in third-person narrative, the storyline to Duncan’s sci-fi novel is so much more than artificial intelligence. Joe may be a genius, but he still has much to learn about human interactions since family tragedy has greatly affected his life. Living in Tennessee unexpectedly opens door to attending high school (which he never experienced), a new family and friends, a pet horse, and dating. While in learning mode, Joe also functions as parent to Mike, whose curiosity questions abstract thought, such as good versus evil and trust. Joe’s learning experiences cover factual information ranging from Tennessee history and horses to issues such as freedom of speech and voting rights.

Duncan’s characters include a well-developed and well-rounded cast of protagonists that he pulls from a variety of age groups, such as Joe’s friends—George, Martha, Zeke, and especially Sue. Of course, Bring Up Mike is not without its antagonists. While a few rivals periodically poke their ugly head, the most prominent is Sly, who is constantly plotting ways to get back at Joe and his horse.

A steady mix of questions and answers, hardship and healing, as well as love and laughter, this is a fascinating and engaging read. Though it is earmarked for teens, adults will find it equally intriguing.

—Anita Lock, The US Review of Books, June 25, 2014

I received this book as part of the Early Reviewers program. What happens when a child prodigy (PhD at 16) realizes he’s missed out on a lot of life and needs to give an extended Turing Test to his AI program? Bringing Up Mike.

The story moves well as Joe packs up and heads to Tennessee and the start of both his experiment and a year of high school. The writing is clean and clear; characters have distinct voices. Philosophical discussions on the nature of good, bad, friendship, love, etc. are sprinkled throughout the book as Mike, the AI, learns more about the world. Meanwhile, Joe navigates through high school, rescuing an abused horse, and realizing.

At times things are too pat. Just when something is needed, it turns up. Situations resolve neatly. When asked, every character seems to have the answer to the specific question. The author balances explanation and action well in this book. The pace is steady and I found myself interested page after page.

Mark Duncan does a strong job in setting the scene and carrying the main character through a year of high school.

I look forward to reading more by this author.

—Gael Grossman, LibraryThing, July 11, 2014

This book is a tour de force. Mark Duncan brilliantly tells the story of Mike, an ingratiating prodigy, with a second chance at life, love, and happiness. What's more, the book offers an intellectual sophistication that is captivating and unmatched among typical fictional books. The reader will learn so much about so many different topics, thanks to the author's encyclopedic and profoundly deep knowledge. Appealing to all ages, this book is one not to be missed!

—Anne Steinemann, Goodreads, July 14, 2014

A boy and his AI friend find adventure in Duncan's sci-fi debut.

Secretive young prodigy Joe Lawrence moves to Tennessee to quietly attend high school where not too many questions will be asked. He’s accompanied by the disembodied voice of Mike, a self-aware computer program with the emotional maturity of a small boy. Joe and Mike move in with George and Martha, a good-natured couple recovering from the death of their teenage son, Marvin. Presenting Mike as a handicapped friend and computer genius telecommuting to aid him in his everyday life, clever Joe soon becomes a real friend to George and Martha, filling the void in their lives and helping rekindle their love of life. After Joe purchases a rundown former racehorse from ex-mobster Sly, now in the witness protection program, Joe and Mike help the neglected horse while aggravating Sly by getting the better of him in the bargain; they also become involved with Sly’s smart and focused stepdaughter, Sue. As they help heal George and Martha, evade Sly’s revenge and aid Sue in her struggle with the school principal over her newspaper, Joe and Mike undergo a curious metamorphosis as human and AI. Mike was supposed to be the one being tested and trained to grow up—but Joe finds himself growing up, too. The clean, clear text trusts readers to fill in some blanks, and Mike is a prominent but not physical presence throughout the story. The characters are a little old-fashioned and broad but eminently likable and sweet.

Warmly human sci-fi for the YA set.

Kirkus Reviews, July 17, 2014

AI Can Be Human Too

Bringing Up Mike by Mark Duncan is a coming of age story told in reverse. The main character Joe is in many ways an adult who needs to learn how to be a kid. At the beginning of Joe’s journey he has achieved many of the goals attributed to adulthood: a home of his own, a degree, a job and a “child” (Mike who is an artificial intelligence computer program with the cognitive awareness of a four year old). Joe is, however, seventeen years old and hasn’t really allowed himself to be a reckless kid. He has no friends, pets or family, has never had his heart broken or played with kids his own age. At the peak of his career, he takes a sabbatical to experience some of these things he’s missed out on. Having no other human connections, he cyberstalks his online psychiatrist Sue and moves to her small town in Tennessee. As Joe learns what it is to be a kid, Mike learns what it is to be human. In the space of a school year, the two experience tremendous change from their routines and in turn affect the lives of the townspeople.

“He heard a raspy bee-buzzz and saw a small blue winged warbler take flight from a nearby tree. Blue, pink, and purple wildflowers had made their show among the grasses along the trail. The smell of flowers permeated the breeze.”

In reading this novel it is not hard to imagine that the author, Mark Duncan, is much like his character Joe, a CalTech alumni heavily involved in AI. Every subject discussed by the characters is thoroughly detailed as if an expert on the subject were giving a dissertation, even down to geographical locations. Mike has the entire knowledge of the internet at his “fingertips,” and that is exactly how some of the story sounds. The style of dialogue is most noticeable when the characters are discussing something about human nature. Every character seems absolute in their expression of thought, leaving little room for dramatic pauses. This feels like it is an intentional stylistic choice mimicking the format of an interview. These stylistic choices don’t take away from the story. There are moments, especially in descriptions of nature that are quite breathtaking. All in all Bringing Up Mike is a sweet humanitarian story with some unique flare that would be most appreciated by the nerds inside us all.

—Rachelle Barrett, Portland Book Review, July 30, 2014

Unusual, thought-provoking and educational. Interesting slant on coming-of-age.

I intend to use this with a Year Ten book group. I think they will be fascinated to learn about the differences in educational systems between the USA and the UK and the story is different enough that I think the longer length is easily justified.

I heartily recommend it. It's memorable.

—Linzi Day, NetGalley, August 8, 2014

A wonderful story about real people and real emotions

This book wasn't exactly what I was expecting. With an AI as the main character, it would seem that this would have more of a sci fi feel,which it does not. This is a story which takes everyday emotions and places them in the hands of some very nice people (sometimes extraordinary people) with very big hearts.

Many questions are explored, ones not only concerning AI's possible place in society and its ramifications, but ones concerning acceptance and finding a place in life. This is a book which made me stop and think. . .and continue thinking hours afterwards.

I can highly recommend this to anyone interested in coming-of-age stories. There's not much action, no teary moments, but a lot to learn and consider.

—Dr. Tonja Drecker, Amazon, August 28, 2014

I enjoyed reading the book and loved the idea of Mike

I enjoyed reading the book and loved the idea of Mike. I found most of the characters, especially Joe, a little too good to be true. For all that he was supposed to be geeky, with not many friends, he was able to relate to people very well, after only a few pointers, from Martha & George. If only it were that easy in real-life. At times, I found Joe's questions about morals and mores to George or Martha a little incongruent. Mike's questions to Joe were a better fit as he was an AI trying to understand the humans he was interacting with. There were probably just too many of these in the book, in my opinion, and sometimes, less is better.

Having said all that, it was still an enjoyable and easy read.

—M. Pond, Amazon, September 1, 2014

Can an AI Be Taught Morality?

This story starts with a rather stereotypical character: a socially-awkward teen prodigy with long hair, thick glasses and an aversion to authority. Using the resources of the government he’s developed a functional Artificial Intelligence program (AI) he calls Mike. The quirky program has passed the Turin test in the lab, but can “he” do so in the real world? Over the 11 months related in the book, our geek, Joe, is determined to find out.

When the novel stays on point it provides some intriguing comparisons between how humans grow to be moral (or don’t in some cases) and how an AI might be taught those lessons.

There are some interesting parallels drawn between those two types of “students” and how a horse is trained to be accepted in the human world. The author obviously knows a lot about horses. In fact, one can tell that, as a whole, the book was well-researched. The characters are well drawn and the novel is well edited. As a movie it would be rated PG.

I do have some issues with the writing itself. Readers will find many long stretches of dialogue written in a simplistic, Socratic-method pattern of question/answer, question/answer, question/answer.

Effectively, the technique forces moral topics (of all kinds) into the plot. In this “injection” mode, the characters all speak in perfectly-formed, complete sentences. These scripts can come across as didactic or “preachy,” and tend to detract from the narrative.

The novel is really more of a morality play, less science-fiction than social fiction with a “soft” SF component. Given the character set it’s definitely geared to a teen audience. Potential readers should keep that in mind when considering it.

—Joe Dacy II, The Kindle Book Review, September 14, 2014

This Book Rocks!

Bringing Up Mike is a coming of age story written by Mark Duncan. Joe is the youngest person ever to be awarded a doctorate from Cal-tech. He's also the creator of an artificial intelligence program named Mike that acts as a personal assistant. Joe was working for the government until one day he's suspended by his director and told to take some time to grow up. Joe decides to do just that. He's an orphan and an emancipated minor, so finding a family to take him in seems the best way. He is introduced to George and Martha, a transplanted couple from California who are now living on a horse ranch in Tennessee, and he gets ready to experience high school for the first time.

Mark Duncan's coming of age story, Bringing Up Mike, is one of the most enjoyable books I've read in some time. Duncan's characters have zing and sparkle. George and Martha are wonderful role models both for Joe and his AI creation, Mike. Watching Mike develop a personality and grow intellectually is awesome, as is seeing Joe experience more than coding and the technical world he's been thrust into. I loved reading George and Martha's takes on religion, intolerance and ethics and found a lot there to think about. The Tennessee venue for Bringing Up Mike is inspired and eye-opening. Joe gets a pet, a thoroughbred stallion named Comanche, and he and the reader get to experience the joys and hard work that having horses entails. There's so much to like about Bringing Up Mike. It's got me wondering just what Mark Duncan will come up with for his next novel. Bringing Up Mike is a marvelous young adult book that blends the science fiction and coming of age genres in an inspired and amazing way, and you don't have to be a young adult to have a grand time reading it. It's very highly recommended.

—Jack Magnus, Readers’ Favorite, September 22, 2014

Bringing up Mike by Mark Duncan is a book that introduces us to Joe, who is a teenage prodigy. He makes drastic changes to his life when he attends high school incognito with an artificial intelligence named Mike. The book intertwines many stories over the course of a school year following a teenage genius who grew up too fast due to his intelligence, a couple who is mourning the death of their son, a former mobster, and a girl who is struggling to attend college. It's a book about second chances and what can happen when people embrace them.

I can honestly say I have not read a book about an artificial intelligence before, but once I got into Bringing Up Mike I wondered why I hadn't or maybe I was just waiting for a book like this to come along. Mark Duncan does a fantastic job of bringing a science fiction to life for us as we watch not only what it's like to try to fit in when you're not quite normal like Mike and artificial intelligence, but how other people deal with emotions that come out through difficult situations in life. The book covers the gamut of human emotions and really does bring you in with a great flow and characters you can't help but feel connected with. I really would recommend that anyone who enjoys the genre or who just wants to read a great, well-written, emotion filled book give this one a read; you won't regret it.

—Kathryn Bennett, Readers’ Favorite, September 23, 2014

Bringing Up Mike by Mark Duncan is not your average coming of age novel. Joe is the youngest Caltech graduate to receive a doctorate. And Mike is his faithful personal assistant. Since the deaths of his parents, Joe has become an emancipated minor who does top secret work for the government. Mike is really an artificial intelligence that Joe has created. Needless to say, Joe is not your normal teenager. Things go south for Joe in Utah when his juvenile antics get him suspended. With a bunch of free time on his hands, Joe decides to follow the advice of “Dear Amy” and try to make some friends. Joe ends up living with George and Martha in Tennessee. A delightful match made in heaven. Joe’s life changes drastically in the nine months he lives in Shelbyville. He discovers girls, buys a horse, learns to ride and care for him, rediscovers family and eats really well.

Bringing Up Mike is a multi-faceted, seriously fun-loving work of fiction. This narrative is full of lighthearted limericks, puns and clichés. Yet, at the same time, it covers tough issues that young adults face, using meaningful metaphors, country music song lyrics and a few religious principles. The author’s writing style is simplistically real, scientifically intelligent and extremely sensory in description. Duncan’s settings are artistically scenic and change with the seasons, drawing you into the imagery. As a reader, you can hear the voice imitations and the musical melodies in the tone of the words. Furthermore, the food descriptions were written to heighten your taste buds. Mark Duncan guides you through the plot like a feisty horse on a lead rope - gently, but with a firm grip. To sum it up in the author’s words, the plot has “multiple, simultaneous battles that eventually result in a win.”

—Cheryl E. Rodriguez for Readers’ Favorite, October 1, 2014

MEMORABLE MOMENT {Page 267}: "The God-fearing fundamentalists of the town were convinced that anyone with tattoos and piercings had the mark of Satan, was possessed, a prostitute, and probably had hepatitis C. They made my life a living hell."

MY THOUGHTS: OK, so first to tell you what this novel isn't.

Despite what I felt was an awfully outdated cover it isn't a dated read but rather a very contemporary account of life as a modern slightly geeky, socially awkward teenager. Nor, despite it featuring a main character of Artificial Intelligence, would I describe it as a sci-fiction/fantasy read - rather disappointingly 'Mike' does not feature as often as I'd have liked and especially not in the earlier chapters. Bringing Up Mike is more a gentle coming of age story that actually isn't a story so much as a interwoven collection of events that occur when a teen prodigy finds himself, the guest of Martha and George, a newcomer at the local high school.

A book that you'll probably appreciate if you are after lots of morsels of information on subjects as diverse as the American school system and moving like a zombie to Civil War re-enactments and barbecue competitions and everything in between. A book that you'll doubtlessly love if you are into horses. For myself what I really enjoyed about the story and would liked to have read more of was Joe finding himself, the one-up-manship between himself and the almost pantomime like villain, Sly, and, more than anything else, Mike's questioning life and in particular his role in it (his pondering 'Am I a pet? Am I a slave' was one of the most moving things I've read in a while).

Overall an extremely thought provoking read for the young adult audience (and older) that will have you considering several moral/ethical dilemmas. Personally whilst I wasn't in awe of all the incidental information that came as part-and-parcel of the novel I do feel that Joe and Mike have a lot of mileage left in them, that this is only the beginning.

Tracy Terry, Pettywitter Blog, October 13, 2014

At 17-years-old, Joe was the youngest person to receive a doctorate from Caltech. For his dissertation, he created an artificial intelligence personal assistant named Mike. After being suspended at work for being viewed as insubordinate and immature, all Mikes fault, Joe drops out of sight by leaving Utah and moving to Tennessee. With his reputation unknown, he moves in with a nice older couple, and enrolls in high school to finish 12th grade, and receive a diploma. Unknown to his new family and friends, he is actually doing a study on their daily virtual interactions with Mike. He must prove that Mike can pass for an actual human. The study is a success, but Joe’s experiences during the nine months he lives in Tennessee leaves him a far better person than when he started.

I absolutely loved this story. The author gave the characters so much depth. I laughed so hard at the bumbling villain every time he tried to pull a fast one. I was hoping that there were recipes at the end so I could try out some of the dishes that were served. They sounded so amazing. As a side note, the town in this story is only 20 miles away from me. It was wonderful reading about all the things I have discovered on my own since moving here. I can truly say I agree with everything said and written about the area. I don’t know if the author will continue this story but I certainly hope so.

—Akshat, October 15, 2014