Book Review: Enchantress of Numbers

enchantress of numbersEnchantress of Numbers
by Jennifer Chiaverini
Historical Fiction
426 pages
Published December 2017

Enchantress of Numbers has been making the rounds lately – it seems there’s been an interest in books about women in STEM, which is a good thing. Ada Lovelace is considered to be the first computer programmer, though “computers” as we know them didn’t really exist at the time. What she wrote was an algorithm for making a machine spit out a specific result – a machine that was never actually built. Still, her contributions to the very early science of computing were invaluable and she is (rightly) revered for them. Sadly, she died in her 30s from ovarian cancer – a loss that undoubtedly slowed down the advancement of early computing.

The early parts of the book are told in third person, about her mother’s marriage to Lord Byron, and Ada’s own birth. From there, Ada tells the story in first person, as she grows up with her strict mother in English Aristocratic Society.

It is historical fiction, so the author has taken some liberties, though I was a bit confused that in the book she meets Mr. Babbage some time before meeting Mrs. Somerville; Wikipedia says Lady Lovelace was introduced to Mr. Babbage by her mentor, Mrs. Somerville. Odd that the author chose to change that up.

I’ve definitely read better historical fiction – Philippa Gregory is a personal favorite – but this wasn’t bad. It was a little slow, and a little dry in spots, but it was overall good. If you weren’t interested in Ada Lovelace or early computing and mathematics I don’t think the book would be very enjoyable at all. But if you do like those things, and are willing to put up with a little bit of boredom, it’s a decent book.

This is also my PopSugar 2018 Challenge pick for “novel based on a real person.”

From the cover of Enchantress of Numbers:

The only legitimate child of Lord Byron, the most brilliant, revered, and scandalous of the Romantic poets, Ada was destined for fame long before her birth. But her mathematician mother, estranged from Ada’s infamous and destructively passionate father, is determined to save her only child from her perilous Byron heritage. Banishing fairy tales and make-believe from the nursery, Ada’s mother provides her daughter with a rigorous education grounded in mathematics and science. Any troubling spark of imagination—or worse yet, passion or poetry—is promptly extinguished. Or so her mother believes.
 
When Ada is introduced into London society as a highly eligible young heiress, she at last discovers the intellectual and social circles she has craved all her life. Little does she realize how her exciting new friendship with Charles Babbage—the brilliant, charming, and occasionally curmudgeonly inventor of an extraordinary machine, the Difference Engine—will define her destiny.

Enchantress of Numbers unveils the passions, dreams, and insatiable thirst for knowledge of a largely unheralded pioneer in computing—a young woman who stepped out of her father’s shadow to achieve her own laurels and champion the new technology that would shape the future.

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Book Review: Into the Drowning Deep

drowning deepInto the Drowning Deep
by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire)
Fantasy Horror
450 pages
Published November 2017

WOW. I don’t typically read horror, but this was fantasy horror, and WOW. I picked up the novella precursor to this sometime last year – I never reviewed it here, probably because it was barely over 100 pages, but it was fascinating and haunting all the same. Rolling in the Deep told the story of the Atargatis, a ship sent out to the Mariana Trench to stage a mockumentary – supposedly looking for mermaids, but equipped with actors who could swim with mermaid tails. They never planned to find anything. Except they did. And they all died. One by one at first, a few people picked off, then the entire ship swarmed and eaten. The reader sees this happen, but to anyone not on the ship, the only thing they find is some footage on an abandoned ship.

Into the Drowning Deep fast forwards a few years; the production company, Imagine Network, is not doing so well, and they want to prove that the footage wasn’t a hoax. So they assemble a new mission, this one with a lot more security. (Though they still picked security with an eye for what would look good on TV, rather than what would be effective, which was a poor choice.) The reader, of course, knows that the mermaids are real, and that they are dangerous, so you spend much of the first part of the book in a state of suspense waiting for them to show up. (I actually thought it took a little too long for them to finally show up, but the time was used for character-building.)

The book is very Lovecraftian, actually – from the strong, building sense of foreboding doom to the creatures that should not exist, to the kind of gibbering insanity near the end. It’s probably why I liked the book so much; Lovecraft is about the only kind of horror writing I like, and I get the same feeling from Grant’s writing.

So yes, the book is about mermaids. But these aren’t mermaids as you’ve seen them before. They’re not cute, they’re not seductive, they don’t want to live on land, and they’re definitely not friendly. These mermaids are predators. Intelligent predators, but predators. And humans, apparently, are delicious.

Most of the characters in the book are scientists trying to prove mermaids exist, so there’s a lot of science happening aboard the ship, and Grant doesn’t shy away from it happening on the page as well. She also includes a pair of deaf scientist twins, and their interpreter sibling, which is important because the mermaids use a form of sign language as well. Most of the main characters are women, which is also great to see in such a large concentration of fictional scientists.

If you like fantasy horror, i.e. Lovecraft, you should definitely pick this up. Rolling in the Deep is also worth reading first – I think it definitely adds another layer to the sense of foreboding doom.

Technically this is billed as #1 in the series, which gives me hope for more. I’m counting it for PopSugar’s “next book in a series you started” because Rolling in the Deep came out two years prior and is a prequel. (It’s listed as #.5)

From the cover of Into the Drowning Deep:

The ocean is home to many myths,
But some are deadly…
Seven years ago the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a mockumentary bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a tragedy.
Now a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.
Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves.
But the secrets of the deep come with a price.

rolling in the deepFrom the cover of Rolling in the Deep:

When the Imagine Network commissioned a documentary on mermaids, to be filmed from the cruise ship Atargatis, they expected what they had always received before: an assortment of eyewitness reports that proved nothing, some footage that proved even less, and the kind of ratings that only came from peddling imaginary creatures to the masses.

They didn’t expect actual mermaids.  They certainly didn’t expect those mermaids to have teeth.

This is the story of the Atargatis, lost at sea with all hands.  Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.  Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the bathypelagic zone in the Mariana Trench…and the depths are very good at keeping secrets.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Take Place in Another Country

Hey! I’m trying something new this week, and participating in That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday. If I like it, I may continue with these on Tuesdays instead of my typical book reviews. (Those might get bumped to Monday, or I might actually start reading a little slower and only do Thursday and Saturday – we’ll see!)

This week’s topic is “Books That Take Place in Another Country” – and while I could probably cheat and list a bunch of fantasy, I’m going to try to stick with actual real-world countries!

Top of my list is definitely The Astonishing Color of After. It was my Book of the Month this month and it was outstanding. A small part of it is set in the US, but the majority of the book takes place in Taiwan.IMG_20180323_234037_500.jpg

bornacrime#2 is Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime – It’s set in South Africa. I’ve really enjoyed Trevor as the host of The Daily Show, and his book was laugh-out-loud funny.

 

 

hangman's daughter#3 I’m going with Oliver Pötzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter. Really the entire series. These are set in 17th century Germany, and they follow the Executioner, his daughter, and her man as they solve mysteries. They are translated from their original German, and they’re excellent.

 

 

 

city of brass#4 – I feel like The City of Brass only barely counts, as it began in Egypt and then moved to a fantasy realm, but it was amazing so I’m listing it anyway! I love non-Western inspired fantasy, and this has djinns, ifrits, court intrigue, a little bit of romance, hidden magic – everything, basically!

 

victorian#5 – I’ve read a lot of Canadian books in the past year for my Read Canadian Challenge, but surprisingly several of those were still actually set in the US! (Well, let’s be real, it’s unsurprising that most of their dystopia has its roots in the US, who’s more likely to be the cause of the end of civilization?) That Inevitable Victorian Thing was YA alternate future. I don’t want to call it dystopia because it was surprisingly positive. Though I really want to see the darker side of the world it’s set in, because that technology could be twisted to nefarious purposes SO EASILY. And as I was writing this, I realized THIS is what I know this author from – I was just looking at my bookshelf at the Star Wars Ahsoka book (which I haven’t read yet, I need to fix that!) and thinking the author looked familiar.

kissofsteel#6The London Steampunk series! Bec McMaster’s brand of steampunk romance and political intrigue is exactly my kind of escapist fluff. Vampires, werewolves, robots and London court politics and underground crime bosses – this series was great.

places in between#7The Places in Between by Rory Stewart is a book I read MANY years ago before I started this blog – Stewart chronicles his travels as he walks(!!) across Afghanistan. It’s REALLY good, and I really liked his style of writing. He also wrote The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.

 

handmaid#8 – You know, it might be cheating a little bit, but I’m going to throw in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a harrowing book, and it’s technically set in Gilead, even if it is supposed to be what’s left of the US. But it’s definitely one of my all-time favorite books, and it somewhat fits the theme! (It’s also free via Kindle Unlimited right now!)

crown's fate#9The Crown’s Game and The Crown’s Fate are Russian fantasy, and they’re beautiful. I cried like a baby at the end of the first, and the second was wonderfully bittersweet. Game was Evelyn Skye’s debut novel, and I WEPT at the end. It didn’t actually end on a cliffhanger; I didn’t know there was a sequel until much later.

 

 

his majesty's dragon#10The Temeraire Series covers the Napoleanic Wars, if there were dragons involved! It ranges from Britain, to France, to China. I’ve only read the first six books and there are apparently nine now. I got a little bored with the series and moved on to other things, but the world building, like all of Naomi Novik‘s work, was really good. (Uprooted, another book of hers not in this series, is an absolute favorite of mine!)

 

So those are my top ten picks for books not set in my country (The United States). It was actually a little difficult, because I didn’t want to use books set in entirely fictional countries, and I read a LOT of fantasy! I also didn’t want to use a ton of books set in the United Kingdom, and that’s where a lot of romance and urban fantasy are based. Honorable Mention probably goes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I almost included. Also anything by Philippa Gregory. I’ve reviewed several books that I didn’t include here that would fit, but I didn’t think they were good enough to warrant a spot in a Top Ten list.

This was kind of fun. What do you think, should I continue doing these on Tuesdays? Next week’s theme is “Characters I liked that were in Non-Favorite/Disliked Books.” That’s gonna be a tough one!

Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After

astonishingcolorThe Astonishing Color of After
by Emily X. R. Pan
Fiction – Magical Realism
470 pages
Published March 2018

So I finally subscribed to the Book of the Month club. Every month they select several books, and you get to pick one or more. (It’s an extra $10 for each one past the first, but they are GORGEOUS hardcovers, it’s worth it!) So for my first box I chose The Astonishing Color of After and Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, both books I’ve heard a lot of great things about. They’re also both debut novels, which is something I’ve had a lot of really good luck with. And that held true for this one, certainly!

Just WOW. The Astonishing Color of After is about a teenage girl, an artist, dealing with her mother’s depression and ensuing suicide. Part of what makes the book so fascinating is Leigh’s constant description of colors. She uses color as shorthand for emotions – her grandmother might have a vermilion expression on her face, or she might be feeling very orange while staring at her mother’s coffin at the funeral. Between colors-as-feelings and her insomnia-induced hallucinations (or magic – the book is deliberately, I think, noncommittal on whether some things only happen in her head or not) the entire book feels a little surrealistic. But grief and mourning DO feel surrealistic. The book is amazingly evocative and emotional and I absolutely adore it. This, along with City of Brass and Children of Blood and Bone, are definitely on my Best of 2018 list.

As an added bonus, the author is the American child of Taiwanese immigrants herself. So all the ghost traditions and folklore from Leigh’s journey to Taiwan are from her ancestry as well.

This book was gorgeous. It may need a trigger warning for depression and suicide. If you can handle those themes, read it.

From the cover of The Astonishing Color of After:

“I didn’t cry. That was not my mother. My mother is free in the sky. My mother is a bird.”

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between reality and magic, past and present, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a stunning and heartbreaking novel about finding oneself through family history, art, bravery, and love.

Book Review: City of Brass

city of brassCity of Brass
S. A. Chakraborty
Fantasy
400 pages
Published November 2017

So much to say about this outstanding debut novel! First I’d like to address the issues around the author, then I’ll delve into the book itself. (It’s fantastic, though!)

So the book has been touted as an “own voices” novel, seemingly much to the author’s chagrin. She is Muslim, but she’s a white convert (Chakraborty is her married name). She has striven to correct the misconception about her ethnicity when she finds it, tweeting about it and talking about it in interviews. (This interview is a good example.) Because the book is pure fantasy, in a fantasy realm after the first few chapters, I’m not too worried about it not actually being written by a middle-eastern author. She does note in the interview I linked that she’s not qualified to write some stories because of her ethnicity, and I appreciate that recognition of privilege. As far as I can tell, (as a white person myself) she did justice to the bits of mythology that she included. (Given the reception by people who were so excited about it being an Own Voices book, I think I’m probably right.) Her twitter (@SChakrabs) is FULL of links to minority authors and retweets about their books. I am very impressed by the level of her advocacy for minority authors.

So that aside, I LOVED THIS BOOK. I almost always enjoy fantasy inspired by non-western mythology: Children of Blood and Bone was fantastic, and though Forest of a Thousand Lanterns had a western fairytale at its heart, being reimagined through an Asian lense was really neat to read. The Bear and The Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower were Russian inspired, as were The Crown’s Game/The Crown’s Fate. I really do try to pick up non-western inspired fantasy when I can. City of Brass scratched that itch perfectly.

City of Brass opens in Cairo, where our heroine, Nahri, is a con-woman with small healing magics. When a ritual goes awry, she’s thrust into the world of the djinn. It’s when Nahri and her accidental bodyguard, Dara, arrive at the Djinns’ city of Daevabad that the story really gets started.

I’m still a little confused about the difference between djinn and Daeva; Daeva seem to be one of the tribes but also the name for the entire race, and some of them get offended at being called djinn but some of them don’t? I’m not really sure about that distinction. There is a clear line between djinn and Ifrit, though – Ifrit are immensely powerful, immortal beings who refused to subject themselves to punishment many centuries ago. I’m not sure I actually see a downside to being Ifrit, other than the djinn all think they’re evil. The Ifrit, however, are out to get Nahri, and Dara’s not having any of THAT.

I love Dara – he’s a fascinating character, with a violent, mysterious backstory. I’m very eager to read more about him and figure out exactly what’s up with his background. Nahri is also awesome – a little arrogant, but by the end of the book she’s starting to learn she might need help from those around her. Unfortunately, also by the end of the book she doesn’t know who to trust. The naive djinn prince, Ali, is the third main character of the book, and while I can see him having an interesting story, his personality is still a little flat. Hopefully the second book will see advancement in all three of these characters’ personalities.

And I can’t WAIT for the second book! City of Brass didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, but it did leave many questions unanswered and our main characters’ fates uncertain. Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on the sequel, just that it’s being edited. No release date or title yet.

Read this book. It’s fantastic.

From the cover of City of Brass:

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of eighteenth-century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trades she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, and a mysterious gift for healing—are all tricks, both the means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles and a reliable way to survive. 

But when Nahri accidentally summons Dara, an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior, to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to reconsider her beliefs. For Dara tells Nahri an extraordinary tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire and rivers where the mythical marid sleep, past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises and mountains where the circling birds of prey are more than what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass—a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.

In Daevabad, within gilded brass walls laced with enchantments and behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments run deep. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, her arrival threatens to ignite a war that has been simmering for centuries. 

Spurning Dara’s warning of the treachery surrounding her, she embarks on a hesitant friendship with Alizayd, an idealistic prince who dreams of revolutionizing his father’s corrupt regime. All too soon, Nahri learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences. 

After all, there is a reason they say to be careful what you wish for . . .

Book Review: The Notorious R.B.G.

notorious rbgNotorious R.B.G.
by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Biography
195 pages
Published 2015

This was EXCELLENT. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my feminist heroes (I have a long list, with biographies I should read!) and this book is great. It’s VERY easy to read, and was never less than fascinating. It includes some of her dissents, with commentary for the layperson written by various lawyers. There are photos of her at various points in her life; her face now is so familiar that seeing pictures of her as a young lawyer was really neat.

The only thing I didn’t like was that it’s not completely linear; there’s a chapter about her 56-year-long marriage to Marty Ginsburg, ending with his death, and then the next chapter starts talking about Marty’s reaction to something! So that was slightly odd and I had to flip back a few pages to find the actual dates for what I was reading about now.

Other than that, though, the book was really interesting, and talks about the cases she argued before the Supreme Court before becoming a justice, her nomination and senate confirmation to the Court, and the cases she’s seen since becoming a justice. It talks about how Ruth and Marty balanced their work and home lives, in a way that was definitely not normal at the time; Marty was a full partner in parenting and housework, taking over all of the cooking and the 2 am infant feedings because it was easier for him to get back to sleep!

Overall, this was a really neat look into the life of one of the U.S.’s most prominent female figures right now. Justice Ginsburg has been a tireless fighter for equality for her entire career, and this book reveals some of her motivations and thought processes. I loved it.

(This is also my PopSugar 2018 selection for “Book by two authors.”)

From the cover of Notorious RBG:

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame—she has only tried to make the world a little better and a little freer.

But nearly a half-century into her career, something funny happened to the octogenarian: she won the internet. Across America, people who weren’t even born when Ginsburg first made her name as a feminist pioneer are tattooing themselves with her face, setting her famously searing dissents to music, and making viral videos in tribute.

Notorious RBG, inspired by the Tumblr that amused the Justice herself and brought to you by its founder and an award-winning feminist journalist, is more than just a love letter. It draws on intimate access to Ginsburg’s family members, close friends, colleagues, and clerks, as well an interview with the Justice herself. An original hybrid of reported narrative, annotated dissents, rare archival photos and documents, and illustrations, the book tells a never-before-told story of an unusual and transformative woman who transcends generational divides. As the country struggles with the unfinished business of gender equality and civil rights, Ginsburg stands as a testament to how far we can come with a little chutzpah.