Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Author: Neal Stephenson
Title: Cryptonomicon
Publication Info: New York : Avon Press, 1999.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorQuicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque, Bonanza, The Juncto, Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World
Summary/Review:

A decade or so ago I read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series, The Baroque Cycle.  I’ve finally followed up on reading this single-volume tome that has connections to that series, albeit set in a different time.  All of these books are historical novels that incorporate Stephenson’s interests in cryptography, mathematics, currency, banking, and philosophy.  They also include characters from the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families and the mysterious Enoch Root.  Cryptonomicon was published prior to The Baroque Cycle, but the latter is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, while Cryptonomicon is a 20th century story.

Cryptonomicon features two interweaving plot lines.  The first story is set during World War II and focuses the Allies’ effort to win the war by breaking Germany’s enigma code.  Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is an American mathmetician who works with the historical figure Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and is put in charge of a detachment that stages events behind enemy lines to deceive the Germans on how the Allies are gathering intelligence, when in actuality they’ve broken Enigma.  Bobby Shaftoe is an experienced Marine Raider drafted into the detachment who has various adventures around the world – many of them ludicrous.  Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer and engineer who suffers some of the worst effects of the Allies cryptographic knowledge in some of the most gruesome descriptions of war in the book, and then is put in charge of Japan’s efforts to bury gold in caverns in the Phillipines.

The other storyline is set in the 1990s and tells the story of a tech startup company co-lead by Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson).  His company sets up a data haven on fictional island sultanate near the Phillipines.  He hires Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe (Bobby’s son) and his daughter Amy to do the underwater surveying for laying cables.  Complications arise when the discover gold under the sea. The ageless Enoch Root plays a part in both stories.

I found the World War II story more interesting than the 1990s story.  There just isn’t much that grabbed me aboutthe tech-bros and the nerd culture only faintly hides a toxic masculinity.  In fact, this book is a sausage fest, with Amy Shaftoe the only promiment female character, and her major role is as Randy’s love interest.  The Baroque Cycle was also tilted heavily toward male characters but it least it had Eliza who had agency as a spy and financier and was a major driver of the plot.

So I guess this is a half-good novel? Albeit the signifigance of the WWII story would be less apparent without the 1990s story.

Favorite Passages:

Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.


“You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says. “Then I won’t.”


“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior? I think not; at least then you are conscious of the distortions. Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”


“But before this war, all of this gold was out here, in the sunlight. In the world. Yet look what happened.” Goto Dengo shudders. “Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”

Rating: ***

Book Review: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird


AuthorSarah Bird
TitleDaughter of a Daughter of a Queen 
NarratorBahni Turpin
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a historical novel loosely based on the true story of Cathay Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army.  The fictionalized Cathy’s story begins when Philip Sheridan’s Union Army liberates the plantation where she was enslaved, and mistaking her for a man, assigns her as an assistant for the cook.  The real Sheridan was a problematic figure, but the rapport and eventual friendship between Cathy and Sheridan in this novel is one of its most charming aspects.

After the war, Cathy decides there isn’t much opportunity for her as a freed person, and disguises herself as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay.  In the novel, she gets herself into the cavalry and is known as a sharpshooter.  Nevertheless, she faces the challenge of keeping her real identity secret amid bullying from the other soldiers and the fear of the danger she faced if discovered.

The earlier parts of the novel seem stronger to me as a plot in which Cathy has romantic feelings towards her sergeant dominate the latter half of the book.  I suppose it’s a natural plotline, but it seems the most obvious trope of stories in which someone disguises themselves as the opposite gender going back at least to Shakespeare.  On the other hand, if you are drawn to romance, it provides a nice balance to the grim realities of war, toxic masculinity, and racial prejudice depicted in the novel.

My enjoyment of this novel was greatly improved by the terrific voices that Bahni Turpin provides in her narration.
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Recommended booksJubilee by Margaret Walker, Blindspot by Jane Kamensky
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand


Author: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
Title: My Lady Jane
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This work of historical fiction flat-out revels in the fact that it is completely made up.  This version of the story of Lady Jane Grey, a.k.a. the Nine Day Queen, has the boy King Edward being manipulated and slowly poisoned by his adviser Lord Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Edward designates his favorite cousin Jane to be his heir and has her married to Dudley’s son Guildford.

So far, similar to reality, but sillier.  In this alternate history, some people are Effians, that is having the ability to change into an animal.  Swiftly, Jane inherits the throne when Edward is declared dead, and then she and Guildford are forced to flee when Mary in turn claims the throne.  Jane, Guildford, and Edward (spoiler: he’s not dead) all have adventures, discover new powers, and meet interesting people along the way to a happier ending than reality.  The book is riotously funny both in the dialogue and the authors asides.  The audio book is excellently performed by Katherine Kellgren.

Recommended booksThe Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain and The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
Rating: ****

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


AuthorAnthony Doerr
TitleAll the Light We Cannot See
Narrator: Zach Appelman
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2014)
Summary/Review:

This novel set in World War II and the years immediately preceding the war focus on the parallel lives of two individuals.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who loses her vision as a child, evacuates from Paris to her shell-shocked uncle’s house in Saint-Malo once the war begins.  Werner Pfennig is a German orphan in the country’s mining region who learns to repair radios and whose talent with circuitry earns him a spot in an elite but draconian Nazi training school.

Marie-Laure eventually ends up helping her uncle broadcast messages to the French Resistance using a secret transmitter, while Werner ends up working in a military unit that tracks  illegal radio transmissions and shuts them down.  Their paths are obviously set to converge from the earliest pages of the book, and when they do it is a wonderful and unexpected encounter.  There’s also a story about a precious gem intertwined with their stories, but it seems a bit of a macguffin to me.

This is a wonderful novel that illustrates very personal stories of war, and especially the effect of war on limiting the options of children and forcing them to make choices they’d not otherwise be ready to make.  The characters, even the minor characters, are very well-developed and I enjoyed spending time with them.  It’s a beautiful book and likely to make one cry a little bit.

Recommended booksThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
Rating: ****

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson


AuthorLaurie Halse Anderson
Title: Chains 
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2008.
Summary/Review:

This historical novel set during the early days of the American Revolution focuses on 13-year-old Isabel, an enslaved girl promised freedom on the death of her master, but finds she has no recourse when she and her sister Ruth are sold to cruel new masters in New York.  Working a Loyalist household she finds herself drawn into spying for the revolutionaries, but soon learns that despite promises from Loyalists and Patriots alike, that neither side is concerned with freeing Africans from the bonds of slavery.  Anderson captures the anger of Isabel, but doesn’t neglect to also characterize her as having many concerns typical to a young teenager as well.  The author also really captures the uncertainty of the Revolution, the people of New York taking different sides in 1776, with some among them willing to shift loyalties to whomever has the upper hand.  She also doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war on the civilian community from a brutal fire to depictions of captured Americans cruelly held in cold, overcrowded, and disease-ridden prisons.  The book is the first of a trilogy of books called The Seeds of America and ends on a cliffhanger at a momentous occasion in the narrative so I will be sure to read the rest of the series.

Favorite Passages:

“Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither. They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.” – p. 25

The woman in the yellow head cloth worked the pump for Grandfather. “The British promise freedom to slaves but won’t give it to the white rebels,” she said as she pushed the handle up and down. “The rebels want to take freedom, but they won’t share it with us.” She set down the first bucket and picked up the second. “Both sides say one thing and do the other.” – p. 166

Recommended booksThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
TitleThe Buried Giant
Narrator: David Horovitch
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2015)

Previously read by the same authorA Pale View of HillsAn Artist of the Floating World, and  The Remains of the Day 
Summary/Review:

I went through a phase in the 1990s when I read every Kazuo Ishiguro book up to that point. Since then, I’ve completely failed to read any of his new books as they were released.  I decide to make up for that by reading his most recent novel.  While his earlier works are set in the 20th century and have first-person narrators reflecting on their interior lives, and the melancholy of everyday life, this novel is quite different.  The Buried Giant is set in England at a time after the Saxon invasion when the Britons and Saxons are living side-by-side in an uneasy peace.  The novel focuses on an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who have low social status in their community and are suffering from a forgetfulness that’s plaguing the land.  They decide to visit a son that they vaguely recall living in another community, and as they set off on their journey, the seemingly historical fiction begins to take on elements of fantasy.  King Arthur lived and reigned in recent memory and the meet his aged nephew Sir Gawain as well as a Saxon warrior Wistan, and a boy named Edwin who is feared to have been bitten by an ogre.  Others encountered on their journey are a mysterious ferryman, duplicitous monks, and the she-dragon Querig who is responsible for the mist that is causing the forgetfulness. As memories returns, the characters begin to question if they want to remember as forgetting has helped them heal and put aside guilt.  It’s a deeply meditative and atmospheric book that works as a fantasy story and a highly symbolic parable.

Recommended booksThe Sword in the Stone by T. H. White, Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger


AuthorBruce Holsinger
TitleA Burnable Book
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2014)
Summary/Review:

This historical novel is set in post-plague London during the reign of Richard II.  The key character in this novel is John Gower, a real life poet who Holsinger has also earning his keep by trading in information and intrigue.  The events of the novel kick off when Gower’s friend Geoffrey Chaucer (Gower and Chaucer were friends in real life too) asks Gower to find a book that has prophecies of the deaths of English kings that would be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.  Gower’s investigations take him into brothels and the criminal underworld of London which Holsinger describes in all their gritty details.  Too often Holsinger tells instead of shows, so the narrative gets paused while a character explains exactly what has happened. The plot gets too complicated as loose threads are tied off too soon and new contrivances are added to keep the narrative moving.  Holsinger is good at getting the feel of medieval London and has a few good ideas, but the book never lives up to its ambition.

Recommended booksCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland, The Plague Tales by Ann Benson, and Dr. Johnson’s London by Liza Picard
Rating: **

Book Review: Jackie & Me: A Baseball Card Adventure by Dan Gutman


Author: Dan Gutman
TitleJackie & Me: A Baseball Card Adventure
Publication Info: New York : Avon Books, ©1999.
Summary/Review:

This is the second book in the Baseball Card Adventure in which Joe Stoshack uses  his power to travel through time using baseball cards to meet Jackie Robinson.  As an added wrinkle to the story, he initially arrives in 1947 as an African-American boy and directly experiences the racial animus of New York at that time.  I felt that Jackie Robinson’s character in this novel was one-dimensional, too much of a heroic martyr, although the book does offer some nice glimpses of his family life.  Meanwhile, it seems too flippant that Stosh is traveling to meet Robinson merely to write a Black History Month report for his school, and spends much of the novel trying to gather rare baseball cards to bring to the future.  The lesson of the book is how to stand up to bullies without resorting to anger, which Stosh applies in his own youth baseball games, but seems to miss out on the heart of the Jackie Robinson story in the process.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Ted & me: A Baseball Card Adventure by Dan Gutman


Author: Dan Gutman
TitleTed & me: A Baseball Card Adventure
Publication Info:  New York : Harper, c2012.
Summary/Review:

Joe Stoshack is a kid who can travel in time by touching baseball cards which take him to the time and place of the player in the photo.  In this installment of the series, the FBI learns of his ability and send an agent to convince him to go back in time to warn Franklin Roosevelt of the Pearl Harbor attack and prevent the United States entry into World War II.  The person to help Stosh on this mission is Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, an appropriately patriotic figure who gave up five seasons of his career to serve in WWII and the Korean War.  The characterization of Williams is well done since it captures a person who could be alternately an abrasive jerk and good-humored and generous.  Williams is also impulsive enough to take Stosh under his wing, and after finishing up the season in Philadelphia ensuring his .406 batting average, takes Stosh on a road trip.  There are a few stops along the way which I won’t spoil, but add to the characterization of Williams and his bond with Stosh.  Obviously, Stosh doesn’t prevent World War II, but it’s interesting to see some of the historic detail through his eyes, including a frightening encounter at an America First rally with supporters of Charles Lindbergh, something you wouldn’t expect to see in a children’s book.  It’s a good adventure for kids who are fans of baseball and American history.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain


Author: Mark Twain
TitleThe Prince and the Pauper
Narrator: Kenneth Jay
Publication Info:  Naxos AudioBooks , 2001
Summary/Review:

I remember enjoying this book as a child (although I can’t remember what age) and since my son is interested in Mark Twain, we listened to the audiobook on a recent road trip.  It was a little bit more complicated than I remembered, and frankly we both had trouble following parts of the story, but perhaps that is a challenge of audiobooks compared with print.  The basic story is well-known in which the poor and abused Tom Canty meets Prince Edward and discovering they resemble one another, swap clothing.  Through a comedy of errors, they are separated and end up with Tom unwillingly becoming king and the prince having to live life at the very bottom of society.  All works out in the end, and Twain is probably too kind on Edward VI’s actual legacy as king, but the book delves into some of the gritty realities of impoverished masses and the court intrigues of the elites.

Rating: ****