J’s Take on Alan Turing: The Architect of the Computer Age

Alan Turing: Architect of the Computer Age Cover
Today is the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth. I figured that since I’d procrastinated more than 2 years over writing my Turing review, I should do it today to make it look deliberate. Though I only have a little more than an hour left to go in June 23rd. And technically June 23rd is over in the UK. But we’ll ignore that!

Back when I was originally supposed to do this review, I had chosen a book called The Man Who Knew Too Much by David Leavitt. I tried reading this book. Then a long time later, I tried again. Then I just had such a block against even trying that I let it sit around and sit around. Finally about a month ago, I thought I’d look up what my other options are. There are surprisingly few books all about Turing. And no children’s books I could find. I borrowed two through interlibrary loan. One was a hefty textbook-looking thing. I didn’t even crack that one open. The other was Alan Turing: The Architect of the Computer Age by Ted Gottfried and written for a YA audience.

Finally, a book I could get through!

The problem with the Leavitt book was it was too dry and full of footnotes. Of course I’ve read dry things with footnotes before, and it’s fine if the subject is interesting enough, as Alan Turing certainly should’ve been. But it also suffered from a lot of time-jumping that was driving me up the wall. It was pretending to be chronological, but the author kept inserting comments about how this and that and the other thing would happen later. I just wanted a nice story about his childhood and time in school and everything that follows after that.

The YA book gave me that. There are a few spots where there’s a comment inserted. Like, spoiler alert, he’s going to get into running eventually, with Olympic potential. But it happened much less frequently.

I wouldn’t call this book eminently readable; I have read much better, more enjoyable nonfiction. In fact at first it was reminding me of school history books and I was thinking ‘no wonder I found history boring’. But once I got used to the style, it was fine. Plus the subject matter was very interesting.

I had watched, years ago, (even before this review was originally due), the docudrama, “Breaking the Code”, about Alan Turing. It’s great and I highly recommend watching it. In fact I intend to watch it again before the weekend is out.

What I failed to get a sense of from the movie that I got from the book was just how geeky a kid he was. In a time and place where it was not very nice at all to be a geeky boy (there are many times and places like that, of course). It also surprised me to learn just how absent his parents were. It’s not that they dumped him at boarding school, which you sort of expect, but they weren’t even in the country for large portions of his childhood. He’s still a toddler and they’ve both gone back to India. And not even left him with grandparents or aunts and uncles. Even when his father’s job in India is over, the two of them move to France! It’s just so bizarre to me.

The book does a pretty good job of explaining Turing’s accomplishments in mathematics, biology, and of course computer science in a way that’s understandable to me, and probably understandable to most high school students. It also doesn’t shy away from talking about his evolving identity as a gay man and his relationships with other boys and men, and one woman. I didn’t feel like the book was leaving things out to protect the Impressionable Youth ™.

Several times Gottfried referenced the biography by Andrew Hodges. K read and reviewed that book, if you’d like to read her review.

Halfway through the book, I stumbled upon photos. I hadn’t realized there were photo pages in the middle. I never like photo pages being in the middle of the book. I might like to see a picture of Turing as a child, while I’m still reading about his time in school. And then I get to the photos and start looking at them, and then there’s spoilers! It happened with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book too. So I refrained from looking and went back later, after finishing the book.

The author describes the adult Turing as ‘unhandsome’, but I don’t see that. Maybe it’s the 50’s hairstyle that makes him look like the typical handsome dark-haired man. Or maybe I don’t know what ‘handsome’ means. In a group photo, I can see a little more what the author’s talking about. But I still don’t see him as looking geeky or mad scientist-like. The author a couple of times refers to his appearance or laugh as like a mad scientist.

I paused in the descriptions of a Turing machine to play a second time with today’s Google Doodle. I don’t know if either helped me understand the other more, but it was a nice break from reading.

Turing’s birthday anniversary is only today, but Gay Pride Month lasts until June 30th. So take the opportunity to read or watch more about Alan Turing. He’s an important part of science history and an important part of gay history.


J’s Take on In Lane Three, Alex Archer by Tessa Duder

In Lane Three, Alex Archer Cover

Published in 1987, this novel recounts the fictional story of one young New Zealand swimmer as she tries to win a spot on the 1960 Olympic team.

I’m going to save the spoilers for the end, so you can stop reading when you get to them if you don’t want to be spoiled.

When I first picked up the book, I was expecting a quick, easy read. But then it turned out to be one of those publications from the 1980s where the print is tiny and cramped and so the book wasn’t as short as I thought. I went ‘ugh’ and put it aside for later. Once I finally did pick it up again and start reading, it was easier than expected. Overall, I’d say I liked the book. It was an interesting read.

I wouldn’t classify myself as someone who likes sports books and reading about jocks, which is what this book is, so I’d say I liked it despite of that rather than because of it. The main character is likeable, even if I want to just shake her plenty of times. We hear about her rivalry with a swimmer who usually beats her, her family which sacrifices for her, her friends and her school life.

What probably interested me the most was the gender stuff. And the book opens right away with that, with Alex reacting an article written in a women’s section of a paper. How despite training hard, she and her rival also have “feminine” interests and things like that.

It was a little odd to be reading a book that was ~25 years old written about a time nearly 30 years before that. In a way, it felt very much like an 80s book, even though it was written about the late 50s. There were times where I felt it was being a little too obvious about “the 50s were a different time, especially for girls”, and a little preachy about drinking and driving. One character asks rhetorically and hyperbolically whether he should’ve taken his drunk friend’s keys away from him. The 80’s audience is meant to think “Yes, yes, you should’ve!!”

At some point, I started questioning the author’s research. I was stopped by wondering how a girl swims with her period, and had to do some Googling. I had a vague notion that pads were way different and weird in the 50s. Turns out it’s not an easy thing to Google, probably because Wikipedia is written mostly by men. But I did discover that tampons have been around longer than I thought. Not that I’d want to be a 14 year old in the 50s wearing them in a swimming pool. Especially since one of the pools is described as a warm soup of chlorinated salt water. YUCK!

It’s not until nearly the end of the book that it was confirmed for me that tampons were involved.

Yes, dear readers, it’s a book about periods! Well, not really, but it didn’t shy away from it. Even though it was coy about the tampons until the end.

So when Julie Andrews’ voice is mentioned, I had to stop and Google that too. This is before Sound of Music, so how did kids in New Zealand not only know about her, but hear her voice? Well, she was on Broadway in the mid-50s and made a TV appearance just about the time this book takes place. So I gave the author a pass, on the theory that theatre geeks would have records of her Broadway singing. Maybe.

Oh yes, I neglected to mention that Alex is a theatre geek. And a hockey player. And a piano player. And good in school. And into ballet. And I feel like I’m forgetting at least one other activity. She’s doing so many things at once that thinking about it, I just want to lie right down on the floor and take a nap. Most kids would consider being in a theatre production and one other activity plenty. Or, you know, maybe training for the Olympics is enough! She even practices piano for an hour a day. At least we finally learn she’s not so good at school as we were led to believe. At least judging by the grades she got.

A lot of the book is about how she’s doing too many things at once, but she keeps doing them! And nobody forces her to stop. Not her parents, not her coach, not anyone at school.

In the end, I had to trust the author got things right. Or at least more right than I could’ve. Her bio says she was a swimmer in the 50s in New Zealand. So, yea, I don’t have a leg to stand on with my Googling.

Alex’s relationship with her boyfriend is what bothered me the most. She’s 14 and he’s 17. Which, all right. Though her parents and his seem completely fine with this! Her father even arranges a beach trip for her and her boyfriend and gives them alone time to do like, whatever. :} When they do make out, the first time, and subsequent times, her reaction to it is completely unbelievable to me.

Alex is tall and plays the men’s roles in plays in the all-girl school she attends. And there have been comments hinting she might be a lesbian. So she’s a little insecure about her femininity, though mostly she doesn’t let it bother her.

So here’s her first time making out with her older boyfriend.

“I’m also regarded by some as a second best specimen of femininity around the place — except that Andy not only kissed me so many times I lost count on that day of the bridge walk, but also, later in the car, very gently traced the outline of my breast with his fingers, deliciously reassuring me of my femininity…”

The thoughts of a 14 year old? I didn’t buy it.

Throughout the book, she kept seeming to me to be about 16. It was really hard to remember she was 14 and barely 15 by the end of the book.

I’m a big believer that kids are smarter and know and see more things than authors usually give them credit for. But that doesn’t mean they’re emotionally mature.

Okay, I’m going to venture into spoiler territory now. So be warned!

*** Spoilers ***

Remember the drunk driver I mentioned before? Well, Alex and her boyfriend do get out of the car. And then it gets into a wreck, justifying their actions. But the driver and his girlfriend, despite her being thrown completely out of the car, only have minor injuries. If you’re going to try to teach us not to drink and drive, especially without seatbelts, maybe you should give them believable injuries, huh?

But this was just foreshadowing.

About halfway through the book, I had a sneaking suspicion something was going to happen to her boyfriend. And lo and behold I was right. Don’t drink and drive, kids, but that doesn’t matter, because a drunk driver will kill you anyway. The only surprise was that this death meant her ailing grandmother who was “fading away” didn’t have to die.

Sigh. I haven’t read as many Newbery books as K has, but I’ve still read enough books like this to be fed up with the trope. The only thing that would’ve made it more trope-y was if her boyfriend was gay.

And then she’s all.. I have to go to the Olympics for him. And having some weird telepathic conversation with his ghost while she’s racing. Like, not just talking to him in her head, but he’s actually feeding her information she shouldn’t be able to know. Um, all right.

So I liked the book, but liked it much less by the end of it.

I’ll end this review not with a bang, but with a siiiiiiiiigh.


J’s Take on Dragon Keeper by Carole Wilkinson

Dragon Keeper Cover
At first this seemed like a typical dragon book. A orphan who’s about 10 is caring for some captive dragons. One talks to her telepathically. She escapes with him and this dragon stone. Yawn, ho-hum. It’s even set in ancient China, which is about what you’d expect once you rule out a straight fantasy world setting.

Fortunately it got more interesting than that. The dragon is more like an eccentric grandfather than say an intellectual military dragon like Temeraire or a more beast-like military dragon a la Pern or a fighting pit dragon in Jane Yolen’s awesome series. Wait, I’m sensing a fighting trend here. Well, what I mean to say is the dragon is different from some of the more popular dragons out there today (and yesterday). He can even appear to change form, which you don’t see very often.

Ping, the orphan, is okay as a character. She’s a girl, so that’s nice. She’s not dumb, but.. she’s really dumb about this one thing, and that’s the dragon stone. You all know what it is, right? As should anyone who’s ever encountered a dragon in a book before. And since there are dragons in several Harry Potter books, well, then who hasn’t? Yet she’s smart enough to figure out how to barter, though she’s never had money before or been to a market before.

There are some twists and turns and I can’t say I really knew where the story was going at any given moment. So all in all it was a fun read.

At the end is a glossary and a pronunciation guide. Glossaries I don’t mind missing, because I’d rather figure words out from context while reading. However, I would’ve liked the pronunciation guide at the front of the book. I was saying some of the names wrong in my head, and now they’ll always be wrong, because I won’t retain what I learned by reading the guide afterward. I got no practice at think-saying them right.

This book was also a nice change to the previous books, because while it was written by an Australian author, it wasn’t set in Australia. I suppose reading 12 books set in Australia or New Zealand shouldn’t really seem boring. Logically it shouldn’t. I read books set in America all the time. It wouldn’t be too surprising if I had a streak of books set in the UK going on. A lot of Triple Take books are set there. I’d read several manga set in Japan back-to-back without batting an eye. And it’s not like Triple Take books are all I read, so it wouldn’t be 12 books in a row, but.. still it does seem like it’d be monotonous. Too much novelty because I haven’t read many books set in Australia or New Zealand like.. at all, ever?

So, yea, ancient China, I can dig it. It’s a fantasy China, of course, what with the dragons and all.

Likeable characters, unpredictable story, fairly entertaining read, and as a bonus.. dragons!

Oh, and there’s also a rat. If you like that sort of thing. Rats, I mean.

Even though I probably won’t be putting it in my top ten list for books read in 2012, I’d still recommend this book without hesitation.

Ah… but this makes me sad. It would’ve been so good as a stand-alone novel. But we can’t have that these days, can we? Sadly, it’s a series. I see four books listed on her website. I’m not sure if I want to read them or not. The book was nice as it was. Then again, it could be interesting to watch Ping grow up.

Maybe I’ll see if my fellow Triple Takers are interested in reading them or not before I decide.


Conspiracy 365: January – March by Gabrielle Lord

Conspiracy 365 CoverFor 2012, the three of us at Triple Take have decided to focus on YA fiction from Australia and New Zealand. First up is the first volume (January) of Gabrielle Lord’s Conspiracy 365 series, in which a teenage boy named Cal must survive attacks on his life for the next 365 days whilst investigating his father’s mysterious death. The publishing schedule was pretty nifty for this series, with the first twelve books (named after the months of the year) coming out throughout 2010 during the month reflected in their title. The thirteenth book in the series, Revenge, was published in Australia in October 2011, but hasn’t made it to the US yet.

Because I couldn’t read just one, please enjoy the first three books in the series, with more to follow!

Conspiracy 365: January
Fifteen-year-old Callum Ormond thought his father’s death six months ago was due to illness, but when a crazy-seeming figure (in requisite billowing black cloak) accosts him on New Year’s Eve and tells him his father was killed over something called “the Ormond Singularity,” he begins to wonder. Initially downplaying the warning that he himself should hide out for the next year, he is soon plagued by perils including: nearly drowning in a storm at sea, sharks, a sneaky uncle, foreclosure, fire bombs, kidnappers, criminals, and life as a fugitive. Aided by his friend Boges (no clue how to pronounce that), he tracks down some drawings his father made in his final days (which are reproduced in the book) and attempts to decipher their meaning, all while hiding out from the bad guys, the authorities, and his family.

It’s hard to really know what to say about January, since it’s almost entirely action. “Fast-paced but really kind of… empty” is a phrase from my notes that seems to sum it up best. That’s not to say I disliked it, because it was pretty entertaining. Okay, yes, already the repeated kidnappings are wearing thin, but it really does feel a bit like a 24 for teens, with Boges filling the role of Chloe to Cal’s Jack Bauer. This is aided by the way the story is written, noting the date and time for each first-person entry (though sometimes these occur during moments when one generally wouldn’t pause to describe what’s happening, like when trapped in the trunk of a car) and counting down the days until safety. The pages are numbered backwards, as well, which is a neat touch.

In addition, Cal seems like a pretty good kid. (You know you’re old when, instead of being fully swept away by the adventure, you’re thinking, “Aw, he’s thinking about how worried his mom must be. What a nice boy.”) I genuinely have no idea how he’s going to get out of the situation he finds himself in at the conclusion of this installment, but that’s okay because I have February right here!

Conspiracy 365: February
The basic plot of the February installment of Conspiracy 365 can be summed up as: Cal hides a lot, and also runs a lot. Perils faced by the teen fugitive include nearly drowning in a storm drain, nefarious people circulating recent pictures of him, and a freakin’ lion, which I thought was going to be the most eyeroll-inducing part of the book until the final pages saw him trapped on the tracks while the driver of an oncoming subway train frantically applies the brakes.

A teensy bit of progress is made toward solving the Ormond Riddle, as it appears that one of the drawings Cal’s dad made references the statue of an ancestor who died in the first World War. But that’s it. There’s no real change in Cal’s situation or his goals, unless you count the introduction of Winter Frey, ward of one of the guys out to get Cal. She proves useful, but may not be trustworthy.

Like January, this is a fast-paced and decently enjoyable read, eyerolling aside, but it’s difficult to find much of anything to say about it beyond that. I predict this will be the case for the next handful of volumes until some answers are actually forthcoming. I further predict that the answers will be rather lame, but I still intend to persevere.

Conspiracy 365: March
At first, I thought I was going to need the next batch of three installments immediately after finishing these, but now I’m ready for a break. It’s not that this series is bad, because it isn’t. But it is very repetitive, and the format enforces some implausible behavior on to the characters.

In support of the “repetitive” claim:
• In volume one, Callum has a wildlife encounter with a shark. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

• In volume two, Callum is rescued by a stranger, who becomes somewhat of an ally. Callum has a wildlife encounter with a lion. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

• In volume three, Callum is rescued by a stranger, who becomes somewhat of an ally. Callum has a wildlife encounter with a venomous snake. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

It’s probably not a good thing when your readers burst out laughing when the protagonist is bitten by a death adder! This makes me wonder what creatures will appear in later volumes. I am thinking there will be a bear. Are there bears in Australia? And there’s gotta be a dingo!

Regarding the implausible behavior… back in volume one, Callum discovered a slip of paper with two words on it, possibly the names of places in Ireland, where his dad discovered the details of this big family secret. Since that time, he’s been in internet cafés a number of times but only now, two months later, does it occur to him that he ought to look them up online. He also tries a couple of times to contact a former coworker of his father’s by calling the office, only to find the guy is out on sick leave. Why doesn’t he, say, find a phone book and try looking up the guy’s home number? Maybe we’ll have to wait until May for him to think of that.

More reviews of this series will follow eventually. In the meantime, feel free to make predictions for future wildlife encounters in the comments.


J’s Take on The Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner

The Tomorrow Code Cover
I’m going to venture into spoilers for The Tomorrow Code, but I’ll try to do this chronologically, so the big spoilers won’t come until near the middle or end of this review. I’ll warn you when we get there.

The story is essentially about three kids in New Zealand. Tane, his best friend since forever, Rebecca, and his older brother, called Fatboy. Tane and Rebecca are chatting about time travel and hit on the idea that all you really need is a receiver and you could get any messages that people from the future were sending back. So as you may guess, it doesn’t take them long to find these messages. Takes them a little longer to decode them.

At this point in the story, it’s okay. I like time travel stories and who doesn’t like a book with some good codes and cryptic messages in them? The style of the writing was what I’d characterize as very YA-y. By that I mean it tries to be a little clever, while treating the reader as a bit of an idiot. It’s hard to pick out a specific example, but this sort of captures it:

That may not have sounded like much, but it wasn’t very often that Rebecca thought that Tane had an interesting idea, so it was kind of an important day, if only for that reason.

Although, in hindsight, it was actually an important day for much bigger reasons than that.

I like my foreshadowing to be more subtle than that, but actually this quote illustrates another thing that started to bug me pretty quickly. Tane is a spineless, weak-willed jellyfish. (Which is ironic, considering what they end up fighting later.) ((See what I did there?)) Rebecca is super-smart when it comes to science and technical things. Supposedly. So when they start talking about time travel, she says things he doesn’t understand. He pretends he does. Not to boost his own ego or save face, but just so he doesn’t disrupt her flow of conversation and thought processes.

Apparently Rebecca is also a bit of an activist and goes on protest marches a lot. Tane goes with her. Not because he cares two whits about the protest. He doesn’t even take the time to learn what they’re protesting about. Just because she wants him to go. Look, there’s being supportive of a friend and doing things because they like to do them, and then there’s… being a spineless jellyfish. It’s not that he’s a martyr, because he doesn’t mope about saying how he doesn’t want to be there. He pretends he does. So that’s two cases of him lying to her and deceiving her just to… be friends with her? How has this friendship lasted since birth?

When his older brother asks her out and the two start dating, you can only cheer for them. It’s not like she should be going out with Tane! How much worse would he get about this all if he were actually her boyfriend? Ugh.

I thought, maybe, maybe, the author is just being a bit heavyhanded and this is a lesson Tane is supposed to learn by the end of the book. He’s supposed to grow and change and turn into his own person and not be pushed around by Rebecca (who doesn’t even realize she’s pushing him around, since he goes along with it so easily). This does not happen. Tane does get less annoying, but mostly because the story stops focusing so much on their relationship, not because he’s actually grown into a less annoying person.

So I’m digging on the codes for a little while. Rebecca whips up this program to analyze signals and whatnot. It’s reminding me a bit of that series of choose your own adventure type books that were all about programming in BASIC. It had the programs and you had to put them into your computer, and usually debug them or alter them in some way to fit the story. You were a secret agent who was also a kid and a computer whiz. Anyway, they were awesome. So a book that reminds me of those in some small way gets a little boost to my opinion of it.

That didn’t last long. Most of the codes are cryptic in a way the reader couldn’t ever figure out. Heck, most of them are cryptic in a way the characters couldn’t figure out. Which is just bad cryptozizing skills! These messages are meant for Tane and Rebecca, so they ought to be written so they can figure them out. Of course it doesn’t help that they are idiots.

What do you think this means?,GUEST,COMPTON1.

Yea, she’s writing a program in one chapter and completely stumped by this a little later. It’s Tane who eventually (eventually) figures it out, by harkening back to something they learned in school. LEARNED IN SCHOOL!!

This book was written in 2008, btw.

And that’s the most legible of messages, to the reader. The rest you can only figure out as the story progresses. Because they’re crap. If you’re going to shorten the word ‘bitmap’, why would you not use BMP? Why would you use BTMP? The theory in this book is that the messages have to be written to save as much bandwidth as possible. (They don’t call it bandwidth, but yea, essentially.) Why add a letter there? And not add a letter where it would make more sense to? On top of that, yea, there’s an actual bitmap sent through. If you’ve got the space to be sending an image, you’ve got the space to write a few complete words. Kthnx.

So now that the book has annoyed me on several fronts, and I was seriously thinking Forever War a more interesting read (until that ticked me off so so hard, but more on that in a later Nebula Project discussion), the book takes a 90-degree turn.

‘Book 2’ of the book, which is to say the next section of the book, shifted in tone. Suddenly things weren’t about time travel and codes and Tane being jealous of Fatboy without ever telling anyone, but about this bioterror threat and almost-dead 4-year olds. It got pretty serious and rather dark awfully fast.

There’s more action in the back half of the book. Boring action. I was skimming it, because I hate action scenes without any character or emotion really pushing it and backing it. It also wasn’t written very well, but that was par for the book. Not that it was bad writing. It was competent writing. It just didn’t read easily to me. It didn’t flow.

The action also stops centering around the three kids. There are suddenly a lot of scenes with adults as POV characters. Adults who weren’t even in the first part. Until the end we’re jumping between all sorts of different people, fighting battles, and just.. blah. I was glad when I finally finished it.

Not that the end didn’t suck.

Okay, now I need to talk about the spoilery bit. It’s two paragraphs in white font below. Highlight it to read it, if you don’t mind me ruining the Big Surprise. Otherwise skip down to the second set of –‘s.

So there’s this Chimaera Project, which is playing with viruses and trying to cure the common cold, essentially. But things go wrong. Very very wrong. It’s not a mutant virus getting out and killing everyone though, oh no. It’s the planet taking the opportunity to create ginormous antibodies and macrophages to seek out humans and destroy them. Oh, and they look like jellyfish and snowman. Because, of course they would. This is the perfect opportunity for a Maori lesson on treating the Earth respectfully and whatnot. And the soldiers get all upset at being told this, because they’re offended at being considered germs. Oookay.

Yea, no. Been there, read that. It wasn’t very well-executed in the book I read it in either. (I resist naming names, because it might be a spoiler for that book.) Plus however many movies and TV episodes involve being shrunk and injected into somebody’s body.

Now for some final, non-spoilery thoughts.

Tane was remarkably self-aware and sensitive to other people’s thoughts and emotions. Granted, mostly Rebecca’s. It struck me as ungenuine for a 14-year old boy. However, the author is male, so I’m not sure if I have a better grasp on what teen boys are capable of than he does. It’s like.. he knows he’s jealous and why. And even he even knows that his brother knows that he’s jealous. He knows all these things, he’s aware of all these things, and he still doesn’t say anything or act on them at all!! In contrast, Rebecca must be mostly oblivious, since she doesn’t seem to know (or perhaps to care?) that he’s not into protesting or that he doesn’t like her dating his brother.

In another situation, I might like Tane for that and think the book is a breath of fresh air. But Tane was that spineless jellyfish, so his insight just made that trait all the worse.

Some of the chapters have song snippets at the head of them, and near the end, the soldiers start singing a song. I felt like all the songs were ridiculous and out of place. Yellow submarine? Really? I feel like if you’re going to use quotes like this, they should be there for a good reason. Not because the song popped into your head while you were writing that chapter.

So, yea, redeeming qualities of the book are a smart girl character, the unusual (to me) setting of New Zealand, and the glimpses of Maori culture. If that’s a combination you’re looking for, go for it.