Review of The Code

The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America by Margaret O’Mara casts a far-reaching net to construct a long view perspective on the rise of Silicon Valley as a culture and society in its own right. O’Mara provides a superbly readable and fresh look at an area demonstrably not previously explored in such detail. The depth of research and careful craft involved in parsing such an ambitious scope into an approachable volume is successfully accomplished. Although I found it a slightly longer read than necessary at times, it brought forth tantalising previously unexposed tales as she worked towards demonstrating the unique confluence of time, place and personality that all came together to bring us to the technologically entwined society of today. She explores the nature of periodic cycles of investment in the military-industrial complex and its deep relationship with specific academic bodies in the US. At times I have to admit that her attempts to bring to light what has been termed ‘unjustly ignored’ contributions by women and minorities seems somewhat contrived – the importance of undertaking this search and identifying these previously unrecognised contributions is critical. It simply sometimes comes across as disproportionate – especially when held up against the more common tales that have been recounted in almost all other works. This is probably the point, but at times it seems to jar with her deeper conclusions about Silicon Valley as a socio-economic phenomenon.

This is a worthy read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Review of Shadowplay

Shadowplay is a sumptuously stunning read full of fact and fiction to enlighten and engage the reader. For me, it is a perfect balance of clever allusion and reference to documented factual occurrence and playful injection of plausibility and possibility.
O’Connor is a master of the setting, able to convey through evocative and crafted prose a multisensory appreciation of both the external as well as the psychological inner worlds of his characters. Taking to Bram Stoker and his unique relationships with both Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, O’Connor creates a multi-layered exploration of the mind and the events surrounding the eventual creation of the novel Dracula. The author is careful to assure the reader that he has not been bound by facts in this novel. In this, it doesn’t claim to be a biography and the reader has no sense that he is playing fast and loose with real history, but is more actively drawn to fact-check and investigate the real-life underpinnings of the tale.

The delivery is a smoothed staccato that attempts to find the voice of Stoker himself, harkening to the idea that this is an autobiography (with researched interjections from other letters and memories shared by other characters) rendered in the third person – as the author cleverly reveals in a direct exchange between Stoker and Terry at the outset. The tale itself is populated with a collection of prominent historical characters of the time who all make their entrances on stage throughout and events that help to ground the tale in a swirl of Victorian circumstance and tragedy.
The author’s references to eventual character names in Dracula draw the reader on throughout and it is this skilful narrative weaving that makes this a highly recommended read.
Deep, dark and delicious – to me a lovely whiskey barrel-aged imperial stout of a novel ;-)

Review of An Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future

I originally posted this as a far briefer review – which is unfair to the author and the material raised. Consequently – like Wallace-Wells’ transformation of an essay into a full-length book – I revisit this review to expand on my initial comments.
There is no disputing that the topic of this book is a worthy engagement. I certainly felt a human responsibility to entertain the subject matter and to give it my attention. I will admit that I undertook to read the material thoughtfully and to reflect on the issues and evidence raised to give An Uninhabitable Earth a fair read. Unfortunately and ultimately, to me, this a very random walk through a broad area and an attempt to define the issue, sub-issues as well as human perceptions and reactions to these. Writing this book was clearly no small task and possibly (and quite probably) much too much for a single book.
Structurally, Wallace-Wells adopts a logical approach. However, although I found the book very pithy and well constructed at the sentence level beyond this, at a larger scale it becomes very disconnected within paragraphs, between paragraphs within sections and feels rambling. There is a wealth of facts, figures, and fractural evidence presented inline to support the sentences. In the Kindle edition, assertions are not directly linked to footnotes, and this makes it somewhat difficult to question their integrity. Notes are grouped by chapter, and I might suggest I found that they read better than the text in fairness. This challenge placed by the author to easily interrogate the evidence and the sources disconnects and leaves the reader with unhealthy scepticism. This is not to say that one would not want to accept the evidence or naturally reject the sources, but the isolation of references from one another (they seem to stand alone with disconnected sentences) contributes to a sense of an incoherent (or cherry-picked ) evidence base.
The skeleton established by the chapters and sections shows potential and gives a slight metanarrative, but for me, it is not enough to save the experience. As a reader, I feel the book would have benefited from extensive editing to draw together the narrative and present a steady and logically coherent argument.
Now, that being said if you sat quietly and pondered and reflected after each sentence you’d probably find this an optimal experience. However, that would demand a lot from the reader – but maybe the gravity of the meta concept being explored asks for nothing less. Am I just a lazy reader and not up to the author’s challenge?
There has been some discussion over the genesis of this book as a lengthy (and well-received) essay. My impression of this book – coloured by this precondition – is that it is simply unrefined following a lengthy embellishment of the original work. What may have worked structurally for the essay did not necessarily translate into an appropriate frame of discussion to carry the reader through the far lengthier work. This leaves the reader asking – how much is gained from the enlargement from essay to book? Was this a book too far or a book stillborn?
There is wonderfully rich, compelling, engaging and dare I say essential information and data presented in this book. I wanted to be informed and enlightened, and there was much discovery for me in this work. I would have been better served was I able to quickly and efficiently verify sources for assertions and to read further.
As a coherent collection of well researched and substantive thoughts, this work fails for me as it lacks the minimum narrative string to assist, engage and ultimately persuade the reader. In that, for me, it is the product of a researcher and not an author.

Review of Rivers of London

Rivers of London / Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

A brief review. I give this first novel in the series a full five stars for pure enjoyment, wonderful inventiveness and how the author builds a wonderful clever relationship with the reader. Engaging and easy to pick up and come back to (although savoured over a quick two days) with a relatively tight cast of characters, the various character spheres are easily distinguished and full of lovely allusion.
Fantasy, murder mystery and magic…a great combination and full of promise going forward. Feeling a bit of a latecomer to the series, am glad there are some immediate volumes to move into with a spell (oops) before I catch up. Lively, well-paced and a remarkably relatable main character, combined with a tale well woven and well pub out…am hooked and on to the next.

Review of Codebreaker: The untold story of Richard Hayes, the Dublin librarian who helped turn the tide of World War II

Codebreaker: The untold story of Richard Hayes, the Dublin librarian who helped turn the tide of World War II

This is an odd book.
It’s well written, engaging, and comprehensive look at German espionage efforts in Ireland during the emergency. As such I would suggest that it would be better entitled to the more broad offering that it is.
It is not a biography of Dr Richard Hayes despite the title and if that’s why you picked up you will be disappointed. Not disappointed in the book, but simply in how absent Hayes is from this narrative. He is mentioned and clearly, the results of his deciphering/codebreaking are an aspect of this book, but they are quite subordinate to the overall treatment.
McMenamin has delivered a superb first work, and comprehensive survey of the principal actors in German espionage efforts – both axis, allies and neutrals. He does a superb job of defining the very fine line that was pursued by the ‘neutral’; Irish state during WWII as well as the strange politics that pitted IRA activists on the side of their enemies enemy – Germany.
The story is told largely in a chronological fashion, with some deviations to allow for the fuller story arcs of individuals. There’s limited use of pictures and maps which would indeed have enlivened the relating of the tales. More importantly and I am being critical in this, it is a story of codebreaking and potentially of the codebreaker.
The codebreaker is identified and lightly covered. He (Hayes) pops into the more colourful tales of specific operatives but remains a very two-dimensional character. It is only when the book is being concluded that his life following 1945 is related. His pre-wartime and wartime lives are largely left undivulged. I am left with a sense that he is a unique person and well worth a biographical exploration and in that one may feel deprived.
Moreover, given the attention to breaking of codes, it would greatly benefit the less mathematically inclined to use graphic illustration or examples of the means by which encoded messages were turned from gibberish to value. In this, I clearly recall reading the biography of Leo Marks ‘Between Silk and Cyanide‘ or even more well covered and explained in Codebreakers by David Kahn, where the authors do a notable job of explaining the techniques and methods of the codebreaker and of the particular means of encoding a text. In this volume, the author seems to presume a pre-existing knowledge of the same and refers to the technique and presumes the reader will either be aware or go off and do their own homework.
Nonetheless, I don’t mean to come of hugely critical of unrealised potential or promises unfulfilled, although it is clearly a case of the latter. I would highly recommend this read to appreciate the perception that the various German espionage services held of the neutral state of Ireland and of the attempts to exploit this neutrality during the Second World War. In this, the author writes a compelling work and demonstrates superior scholarship. If only I hadn’t been led to expect something entirely different by the title. Unfortunately, the ‘untold story’ remains largely untold.