Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Dancer in the Dust by Thomas H Cook ****

Twenty years ago Ray Campbell went to the fictional African country of Lubanda as a young idealistic aid worker. There he met (and fell in love with) Martine Aubert, a white, but still native born, Lubandan. As too often happens in Africa, things did not go well.

Two questions drive the narrative of A Dancer in the Dust by Thomas H Cook. First, what really happened twenty year ago, The Tumasi Road Incident? This is the mystery, but the soul of this novel is in the second question: What is the role of aid in the development of Africa?

With liberally interspersed combinations of flashbacks and sleuthing, Ray Campbell, the first-person protagonist, solves the first question. If you want an international, geopolitical mystery, this is the book for you.

However, this novel is more than a mystery. The story explores Ray's growth and his change in understanding. In the beginning he has a naive view the need, benefit, and potential of aid and development. He is a committed part of the network of NGOs bringing help to Africa. In the end his position is shaken and he is unsure of the way to go.

Cook makes a compelling case against both humanitarian and developmental aid. Unfortunately, the alternative is ... a dancer in the dust.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on May 22, 2014. I received my copy on June 13, 2014.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow ***

Sarah Losh, contemporary of Jane Austen,  was a victim of a crime against women beyond the systematic lack of economic freedom and opportunity so well presented in Jane Austen's novels. This crime was so pervasive, and so long a part of the culture that I doubt if even Jane Austen realized it.

Reading between the lines in the biography of Sarah Losh (The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow), one can not miss the reality that women were conditioned to perform historical suicide. In Jane Austen's case, even though her survivors published her unpublished novels, they also destroyed much of her correspondence.

Jane Austen and Sarah Losh are two sides of the same coin of the suppression of women. They were both single women. Jane Austen was a writer who left a written legacy while being boxed in economically. On the other hand, Sarah Losh was a rich and powerful woman. Her family's substantial wealth was not entailed to the male descendants, so she inherited and controlled a fortune. This fortune enabled her to pursue a life of travel, charity, and architecture.

Even in the 19th century, capital trumped male dominance. Once Ms Losh offered to fund over 1,000 pounds of the cost of a new church, compared to the town council's 30, she had a free hand in the design and construction. This church and the few other buildings that survive are her legacy.

In spite of her financial power and influence, she still followed the dictates of feminine historical suicide: burning her notebooks, papers, and correspondence, like some many women before and after her.

Author Uglow struggles valiantly against the lack of information about Sarah Losh's life. This biography is so much more a history of the Losh family than a biography of Sarah. Just too little remains of Sarah's life, so the book must be filled with accounts of Sarah's relatives and friends, the majority of whom are male (since this is what the historical record offers).

This is a wonderful book for people interested in English history for the early 19th century, maybe especially for the many Jane Austen enthusiasts. However, if you are looking for a biography of the extraordinary Sarah Losh, you might be disappointed by the dearth of fact or feeling. I was constantly wishing that Sarah Losh had instead been a subject of a historical novel.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on May 25, 2014. I received my copy on June 7, 2014.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson *****

I reviewed Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson in 2008. Follow this link A Book for Today: Snow Crash for a character and plot overview, and a nice acronym list.

Some psychologists and brain scientists see many similarities between (human) brains and computers. Analogous to the the mind-body dichotomy is an idea to differentiate between programming a computer in binary machine language and the multitude layer of higher-level abstractions, such as the various programming languages (C++, Python, XML, Java, ...), operating systems (Windows, OS X, Linux, ...), application, user interfaces, ...

At its technological core, Snow Crash is based on the existence of a subconscious way to program brains and computers (in a basic machine language). While this is a wonderful plot device, I doubt it is based in anything more that wild fantasy. None the less, it makes for wonderful reading.

In between the wild adventures of hacker, greatest sword fighter in the world, Hiro and 15-year-old female, skateboarding Kourier Y.T., author Stephenson's fantastic view of the future includes some interludes of sarcastic humor such government regulations for the control and distribution of toilet paper in the office, and several, unfortunately hyper-realistic, descriptions of the management of large software teams.

A classic science-fiction novel of computers, hackers, and virtual reality, still relevant into the 21st century, though much the underlying technology might be only accessible to computer scientists and hardcore gamers. For the touch screen crowd, it still offers a fantastic view of the world behind the their toys.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi ****

Zoe Boutin is 17 and she is the subject of a treaty between the human Colonila Union and the very scary alien Obins. Two Obin, Hickory and Dickory, accompany her, protect her, and record her. She is a long running reality show for an entire race.

But the story isn't about the Obin, or the conflict between the Colonial Union and the Conclave, or the new Roanoke colony. It is about Zoe and her boyfriend Enzo, and her BFF Gretchen, and Gretchen's boyfriend Magdy. It is about being a teenager, first kisses, breakups, friendship. Zoe is caught between being a teen and having responsibility for Obin diplomacy.

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi is a coming of age story where Zoe transforms from a teenage girl to a woman of courage and power.

This is a terrific story, except for one detail ...

Zoe's Tale is part of John Scalzi's wonderful space opera series of intergalactic conflict and intrigue, and there are the seeds for its problem. This book retells a previous book, but from Zoe's point of view. For most of the story, the history can be ignored, and the reading is wonderful. However, at the end, the author seems to remember that he has set this strange objective to not only deliver Zoe's story, but also to answer readers' questions from previous books. Thus, the last few chapters consist of long discussions and explanations ... info dumps of the type that drive SF readers mad.

A great read for all ages and genders.