Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

I knew Jennifer Chiaverini as the quilt novel author.  She introduced me to the idea that quilts were signposts for the Underground Railroad in The Runaway Quilt which I loved.  I knew that she'd been writing biographical novels of female historical figures, but I didn't sit up and take notice until it was Ada Lovelace in Enchantress of Numbers.  I've always wanted to know more about her role in the development of the early precursors to computers.   So I requested an ARC from Net Galley and was delighted when I was approved by the publisher.   This is my review.

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Most discussions of Ada Lovelace begin by mentioning that she was Byron's daughter and that her parents scandalously separated.    What's really astonishing in the context of the period is that her mother got custody of Ada.   Children were considered property belonging to their fathers in 19th century England.  In this case, it came down to the fact that Ada's mother, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke known as Annabella to her friends, came from a wealthy family and Byron was debt-ridden.   Debt was a major motivation for his marriage.  So it seemed to me that Annabella's family was in a good position to buy justice for their daughter.  It's probably just as well because the only time Byron did have custody of a daughter, he relinquished his parenting responsibility by packing her off to a convent.

Based on Chiaverini's depiction, Annabella wouldn't receive any awards for parenting herself.  Yet she should be credited with making certain that Ada followed in her footsteps by pursuing mathematics.   This was an extraordinary education for a daughter of the aristocracy.  According to the article about her on Wikipedia, Annabella's parents hired a Cambridge professor as her tutor.
 If Ada hadn't had Annabella as her mother, it's unlikely that she would have been so advanced mathematically.

 In The Enchantress of Numbers, Ada's scientific mentor Mary Somerville told Ada about her conflict with her own parents over her studies.   It was widely believed at that time that women's health would be jeopardized by intellectual stimulation.  Mary Somerville's experiences caused Ada to appreciate her mother's encouragement of her scientific inclinations.  I had never heard of Mary Somerville before I read this book, and was glad of the opportunity to learn about this foremother for woman scientists.

We can't really know about Ada's contribution to Charles Babbage's conceptualization of his proto-computers the Difference Engine and the Analytic Engine.  This is a topic that is fodder for  speculation for historical novelists like Chiaverini.  I made the same argument about Einstein and his first wife in my review of The Other Einstein here.  I feel that it's just as legitimate to claim that Ada made a significant contribution as to claim that she made none, and that it was all Babbage's idea.  I believe that Chiaverini is persuasive about what she attributes to Ada Lovelace.

Ada's written notes are clearly attributable to her, and they show her to be a woman ahead of her time.   The Enchantress of Numbers displays her context.  She had influences, and sources of support which do not lessen her achievements.   Isaac Newton is quoted as having said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of giants."  Jennifer Chiaverini helps us to identify who Ada might have stood on.   Yet every designer of a computer algorithm stands on Ada's shoulders because she created the very first such algorithm.




 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Avishi: The Warrior Queen With An Iron Leg-- Blog Tour and Review


                               
                                                 


 SUMMARY:



Long before the times of Draupadi and Sita
Immortalised in the hymns of the Rig Veda
But largely forgotten to the memory of India
Is the Warrior Queen with an iron leg, Vishpala

Brought up in the pristine forest school of Naimisha, Avishi reaches the republic of Ashtagani in search of her destiny. When Khela, the oppressive King of the neighbouring Vrishabhavati begins to overwhelm and invade Ashtagani, Avishi rises to protect her settlement. But peril pursues her everywhere.
Separated from her love, her settlement broken, with a brutal injury needing amputation of her leg, can Avishi overcome Khela?


 Review

 I'd like to add a new warrior queen to my favorites list alongside Boudica and Zenobia.   Avishi fought for her people against an empire building tyrant.  She is remembered in the Rig Veda as Vishpala who fought with a leg made of metal in ancient India before recorded history.   Avishi by Saiswaroopa Iyer tells her story, and the story of  Satya, the extraordinary healer whose dream was to create an artificial leg that would allow amputees to continue the lives they had before the amputation.  I received a free copy of this novel from b00k r3vi3w tours in return for this review.

Avishi  celebrates a forgotten milestone for the disabled, but it's also a plotted narrative with characters who experience internal and external conflict.   Avishi and Satya have a romantic relationship that is complicated by the fact that marriage is a recent innovation in their society.   Marriage is associated with monarchy. Monarchy is represented in this novel by the invader, Khela who seeks to conquer the democratic settlement  of Ashtagani.  Ashtagani is the home of Avishi and Satya.

 So the institution of marriage becomes bound up in the political struggle.  In our contemporary context questioning the value of marriage is a radical idea, but for these protagonists the acceptance of marriage is a very fundamental change.   There was no agreement about the purpose of marriage, how marriage should work or who would be ideal partners in a marriage.

I loved Avishi and Satya, and was moved by their story.  I was also fascinated by the themes raised in Avishi.  For readers who are interested, there is a bibliography of the author's sources which includes resources on prosthetics, marriage and democracy in ancient India.  Saiswaroopa Iyer deserves recognition as an emerging talent, and as a thorough researcher.



About the Author:




Saiswaroopa is an IITian and a former investment analyst turned author. Her keen interest in ancient Indian history, literature and culture made her take to writing. Her debut novel Abhaya, set in the times of Mahabharata was published in 2015. Avishi, her second novel set in Vedic India explores the legend of India’s first mentioned female warrior queen Vishpala.
She holds a certificate in Puranas from Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. She is also trained in Carnatic Classical music and has won a state level gold medal from Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams. 


 
 






Sunday, September 17, 2017

Perfiditas: Defending The Matriarchy of Roma Nova

Perfiditas is the second book in Alison Morton's Roma Nova series.  I received it as a gift from the author through Book Funnel.  I recently reviewed the first of the series Inceptio here.  For more information about Morton's alternate universe read my review of Inceptio.  I do need to tell readers that the former Karen Brown is now Roma Novan Carina Mitela and an officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces (PGSF).

                           


It's the responsibility of the PGSF  to protect Roma Nova from all threats foreign or domestic.   In  Inceptio there was a foreign threat, but in Perfiditas there is an internal threat to the matriarchy.

In order to defeat this threat, PGSF really needs Carina's unorthodox tactics, but officers who think by the book dominate the hierarchy as is typical in military organizations.  This makes Carina a controversial figure similar to Captain Kirk of Star Trek.  Readers who identify with Carina may be outraged on her behalf.  They may think that her husband Conrad should be more supportive.

The plot is exciting.  It includes suspenseful sequences of events, and reversals of fortune.   It shows the fortitude of female Roma Novans from small girls to grandmothers. Perfiditas also displays the loyalty of most of the men of  Roma Nova to the matriarchy.
I was pleased that men in general didn't want to see the Imperatrix overthrown, and weren't interested in collaborating with misogynistic men.   During the alleged "Golden Age of Science Fiction" there were a number of matriarchal dystopias that appeared in which the men rose up against them.  So I find Perfiditas a refreshing turnabout of this classic formula.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Mistress Suffragette

My readers here know that I love to read and review novels about suffragettes.  This year  I've reviewed a YA mystery dealing with suffragettes here and a novel about a suffragette in South Carolina hereMistress Suffragette by Diana Forbes is a debut romance taking place in America during the Gilded Age.

I rarely read or review romances. I like unusual books, and romances tend to run to formula. So when I got the request for this review, I had to take a look at what was being said about Mistress Suffragette on Goodreads.  It sounded like there would be more emphasis on the context than I would normally find in a historical romance.  This is why I accepted a review copy, and I am now posting an honest review.

                     


There is a repeating pattern for all three of the suffragette novels I've read this year.  It seemed to me that the protagonists aren't as strong or as interesting as supporting characters.  I always find this disappointing. In my review of In The Fullness of Time by Katherine Stillerman which is the second review linked above, I speculated that the authors may think their protagonists are more relatable.

  When we first meet Penelope Stanton, the protagonist of Mistress Suffragette,  she's sheltered, spoiled and somewhat shallow.   She makes the occasional witty remark, but frankly I found her thoroughly unsympathetic.   I told myself she would improve when she stopped being under her mother's thumb.  She did improve.  She began to be more thoughtful.   Yet throughout the novel, Penelope ends up being swayed by those who surround her.  Some of her worst decisions could only be explained by the proximity of a strong minded individual over-riding her judgment.  She seemed to lack self-determination.

I preferred Verdana, a feminist activist that Penelope encounters after she leaves home.  Verdana's focus is on women's clothing reform to increase mobility.  Verdana is bold within the context of her period.  I liked her self-acceptance and genuine desire to help other women.   For much of the book, Verdana's cause is more central than women's suffrage.  Yet I enjoyed Verdana's expansion of Penelope's consciousness by introducing ideas and experiences that were foreign to her.

Speaking of new experiences, I thought that the scene in which Penelope learns to use a gun and becomes an instant sharpshooter unrealistic.   If you've ever tried to handle a gun for the first time, you know that there's a kick that will be unexpected.  It tends to throw people off.  Diana Forbes should have consulted with someone who knows guns when she was writing that scene.

I  was also irritated by certain character name choices. Names like Daggers or Stalker sound like mustache twirling villains in staged melodramas from the period that Forbes was writing about.  Real people weren't likely to have names like those. I felt that they were heavy handed and predictable.  They would be more appropriate for a satire.

So although there were characters and moments in Mistress Suffragette that pleased me, the book definitely did have flaws.  Judging from reviews, some readers may overlook those issues.  I am hoping that Diane Forbes learned from the experience of writing this book and will produce better work in the future.
                              

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Inceptio-- What if Rome Was Ruled by Women?

Alison Morton tells us in her acknowledgements at the end of Inceptio  that she'd been wondering what the Roman Empire would have been like if it were a matriarchy since she was eleven years old.  That was the origin of the Roma Nova alternate historical thriller series.  Inceptio is the first volume in that series.

 Instead of going back to the beginnings of Rome for the divergence point of her alternate universe, Morton starts with the establishment of Roma Nova.  Morton's Roma Nova is a Roman colony beyond the borders of the Empire which was established during the reign of Theodosius in the 4th century C.E. which is very late in Roman history.   Roma Nova may be located in part of the territory that we call Switzerland in our universe.  There is also a mention of a nation called Helvetica which may be where the peoples of  our Switzerland reside. I'm not entirely certain.  If the author had provided a map, that would have settled the matter.

 The founders of Roma Nova left Rome when Theodosius outlawed all Pagan practices.  This and other background appears in the Introduction which avoids info dumps within the novel's text.  I applaud Morton's solution to this world building problem. 

I received Inceptio for free from the author through Instafreebie which doesn't require downloaders to review free books.  The premise sounded fascinating, but it took me a while to get to Inceptio due to review commitments.

                           


Inceptio takes place in the altered 21st century. Roma Nova is a place where Latin is the primary spoken language.  It's ruled by an Imperatrix and families are matrilineal.  Men marry into the families of their wives. We follow the story of a young woman whose mother was a Roma Novan. She was born in the alternate version of the US.  As the novel opens she is introduced to us as Karen Brown, but events rapidly change her sense of identity. I admired Karen for her adaptability, resourcefulness and courage.

The plot is appropriately fast paced for a thriller with a great deal of action.   Morton doesn't linger to provide very many cultural references or explanations.  There are Latin terms, but I found it easy to understand them from context.  Aside from the setting, the events could be taking place in our 21st century.   There may be variant power hierarchies, but I got the impression that this isn't really a world that's very different from our own.  Modern technology is ubiquitous and societal problems are similar.  I didn't feel that Roma Nova was either a utopia or a dystopia.   

My one disappointment with Inceptio is that I expected to see characters more involved in Roman Pagan customs and institutions.   The founders of Roma Nova apparently left Rome when they did because they valued the traditions and practices of Roman Paganism.  I hoped that there would be more extensive content related to Pagan rituals, and that there might be at least one character who was a priestess.   I wondered if Morton's Praetorians might be Mithrans like many of the ancient Roman soldiers in our world, but there were no mentions of Mithras or any practices associated with Mithraism in Inceptio.   There were also no references to other popular mystery cults of the ancient Roman world.  Perhaps Morton believes that Pagan religion would have largely faded away as a response to science and technology, but in our 21st century there is a significant population that are believers in some form of religion.   I wanted to meet Roma Novans who were equally committed to some of the spiritual paths of ancient Rome.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Inceptio and the evolution of its female protagonist into a strong and capable woman.   I expect to continue on her journey in the remainder of the series.            
                                

                            


Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Exiled: Anna Fekete Demands Justice In Serbia

The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto is the third in a series of mysteries dealing with police detective Anna Fekete who lives and works in Finland.  In this book, she goes home to see her family in Serbia and encounters murder in Kanizsa, her home village.  I won this novel in a Goodreads giveaway in 2016. It is the last of  five Goodreads giveaway wins from last year.  I have finally gotten it read while it's still  Women in Translation (WIT) month. Kati Hiekkapelto originally wrote this book in Finnish.  For more information about WIT month see an interview with the Israeli woman scientist who originated it here .

                                 


This is the first novel I've read in this series, but my perception is that Anna Fekete is not a noir detective.  She believes in values that are considered old fashioned in the 21st century like integrity and justice.  The violence in this novel also isn't on the level of the really dark Scandinavian noir that I've read.  There are no stomach churning details.  Although there is 21st century cynicism and corruption on the part of the local authorities in Serbia, I would call this noir lite, and I definitely prefer that. I hate finishing a book feeling totally disgusted as happens with most noir.

I was also glad to see a woman who wouldn't back down no matter how many people told her not to investigate the death of the man who stole her handbag.  It seemed to me that she's a rare woman. Someone else wouldn't have cared about the death of a thief--especially when the thief had stolen from her.  He was Romani and Anna thought he deserved justice.    Anna relied on the assistance of her loyal friend, Reka, a local journalist who gave her information and contacts.  Another woman that I really liked in this novel was Judit, a Romani community leader.

The parallel between Romani in Serbia and African Americans in the United States was very clear in The Exiled.  Romani lives didn't matter.  Whites in Serbia made the exact same sort of  contemptuous comments about Romani as white racists tend to make about African Americans in the U.S.   The people in Anna's village were Hungarians, an ethnic minority in Serbia.  They didn't like it when the government of Serbia discriminated against them, but too many of them looked down on Romani and considered them worthless.

Anna reflected about the village where she was born, and wondered about what home meant.   Could she really feel at home with people who didn't share her values?  I identified with Anna's inner struggle over this issue. 

The current massive refugee problem is part of the background of The Exiled .  The same people who denigrate Romani were equally prejudiced against refugees.  Anna went to the refugee camp with the village's Orthodox priest to see if she could help them.  

The genuinely decent woman protagonist, and her fight against both bigotry and corruption gave The Exiled stature.   It's a cut above the usual mystery.  I look forward to reading the next in the series when it becomes available in English.   



                                 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Pearl Thief

I've read two books by Elizabeth Wein dealing with female pilots, and reviewed one of them on this blog here.  Female pilots are a focus of  this blog. Wein created some memorable women and girls flying planes in  Rose Under Fire  and Black Dove, White Raven.

 I do need to point out that Julie, the central character of The Pearl Thief , isn't a pilot.  She's the spy protagonist of Wein's Code Name Verity which I didn't read because it was written in a way that didn't hold my attention.  There's supposed to be a movie in development.  If this film ever manifests, I suspect I will like it better than the book.

The Pearl Thief  is a prequel about Julie's early life in Scotland.  So why would I want to read the prequel to a book I didn't even like, and why would I think the review should be posted to Flying High Reviews?   You'll have to read my review to find out the answer to these questions, but I'll tell you right now that I did read every wonderful page of The Pearl Thief.

                                   


The main reason why I wanted to read The Pearl Thief is because British Travellers are prominent in the plot.  Travellers are often confused with the Romani who are now believed to have originated in India.  Travellers are native to Britain.  They were also called Tinkers because they mended pots and kettles, but the term Tinker was used as an insult.  Elizabeth Wein serves up intriguing snippets of the history and culture of Travellers in this novel.  I'd love to find out more.
 
Yet this blog is supposed to center on strong female characters.  Are there any in The Pearl Thief ?  You bet! First and foremost is the Traveller girl, Ellen who braves prejudice and abuse whenever she tangles with people in authority.   She's also fiercely loyal to her family.   Another strong female character is Ellen's dog Pinky who also exhibits bravery in the face of any threat to Ellen. Julie is willing to challenge convention by calling Travellers friends and defending them.  She also occasionally dressed in a man's kilt and was mistaken for a boy.

Another reason why I wanted to read this latest book by Wein is that it's a mystery beginning as a missing person case.   I am a fan of the mystery genre and this one involves several surprising twists. So this is an absorbing and well constructed mystery with great characters and a strong statement against prejudice.  I expect this to be one of my best reads of 2017.