Hidden Figures (2016)

Once upon a time, the word ‘computer’ actually meant a person – someone who does computations. Before we had the electronic versions, even the ones that took up vast rooms of space never mind the power in your phone, calculations all had to be done by hand. And that includes the complex mathematics required to put a man in space – equations for speed and orbit and so many other life-threatening details, all requiring a human brain, pencil and paper.

In the early 1960s, a battle was going on between the USA and Russia to win the ‘space race’: being first was everything in launching satellites, putting a man into space, orbiting the Earth, reaching the moon. And while NASA struggled with such lofty goals, the people working for them were often facing much more fundamental struggles: to be fairly treated if they weren’t white men.

Hidden Figures is based on the true stories of three black women who not only worked for NASA, but were fundamental in the successes that included the famous “One small step” for Neil Armstrong in 1969. History tells of rooms of white males, and finally this movie is trying – albeit imperfectly at times – to point out that that is far from the whole story.

I absolutely *loved* this movie. It was heart-wrenching watching the snubs and struggles, and I felt so pleased to live in a world where my reality is to see that with a large dollop of ‘WTF?’ – shame we’ve still got a ways to go! The film has you rooting 100% for the three female leads – and quite frankly I’m shocked that there were no Oscars taken home – while keeping the story focused on the space race. Such is the power of the story-telling that, even more than half a century on and knowing how things turned out, I was still on the edge of my seat as the flimsiest of tech hurtled brave souls into space.

If I have any complaints about the film, it’s only that I think it still sugar-coated some of the struggles. I have read that the whole removing of bathroom signs was quite wrongly handed to a white character, for instance. It was fascinating – and a bit sickening – to see what life was like under segregation and when women were so openly second class citizens – but for every gain seen, I did find myself wondering if, for instance, the husbands were really so supportive of their ‘little women’, or if that had been brushed over for the sake of keeping the movie up-tempo and uplifting.

Still, absolutely recommended – best film I’ve seen in a long time!

Released: 17th February 2017
Viewed: 28th March 2017
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson

“Two tires fly.”

I finished Cryptonomicon on a snowy Saturday afternoon, exactly 50 weeks after I started it, and after quite a concerted push to get to the end. Afterwards, I sat in a oddly empty little space, slightly disbelieving that I’d actually got there.

Which isn’t to suggest Crypt is a slog – well, perhaps to some (and people who only know Stephenson from the new and rather excellent Seveneves should be very wary!), but not to me. It’s still rather huge and daunting! Each chapter was less than 1% of the total (I was reading the eBook), and I was averaging a chapter per night. The sheer scale of such a task…! And that’s before you count the massive gap in the middle: I put the book down, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because this was easily 3 or 4 ‘normal’ books, and my Goodreads challenge needed (!) the 3 or 4, not the 1. Which is precisely why I have no Goodreads reading challenge this year – this book broke that!

All of which is avoiding talking about the actual text, I suppose. Which isn’t entirely inappropriate: it’s sort of that kind of book. Things happen. Interesting things, to be sure, but not always things that feel wholly relevant, or at least necessary. They are not always high tension, or fast-packed action things, either. They are very readable little snippets in the more action-packed occurrences of the lives of the largish cast of characters; they get under your skin. A chapter or three later, you might come back around to that character, and think, “Oh yeah – what happened to them?”. There was something gloriously unrushed about my reading of this book, until that didn’t really suit the story.

Cryptography and cryptanalysis and cryptocurrencies aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Nor some of the ‘behind the scenes’ kind of things of the Second World War, told in one of the book’s two timelines, and via several characters’ stories. However, Alan Turing’s been the subject of several films of late – he gets a cameo here, while the story is handed to other characters – and while cryptography is not my subject, it is vaguely fascinating, all the more so given the actually life-and-death nature of its use at the time.

The second timeline ironically feels the more dated, talking about the ‘new’ language of C++ replacing C, etc. Still, I had to go look up when cryptocurrencies were actually around (vaguely 1980s onwards), given this book was published almost a decade before ‘Bitcoin’ became a thing. Slowly, slowly, slowly the two threads start to collide, pulling everything into a single, decrypted whole.

I’m not doing it a jot of justice, but I liked it rather a lot. It loses a star for a relatively weak ending, in my opinion, but really at over a thousand pages (depending on edition) this had to be about enjoying the journey – and I did. Just, let me have a nice long break before I pick up Quicksilver!


Kindle: 1139 pages / 102 chapters
First published: 1999
Series: vaguely linked to the Baroque Cycle
Read from 15th February 2015 -30th January 2016

My rating: 8/10

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

“A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café.”

Ursula Todd is born and dies. Ursula Todd is born, and manages not to die, at least for a while longer. Again and again her life is reset, as she falls foul of accidents and illness. Eventually it seems as if some of the past experiences seep into her unconscious, and she starts to shape events without really understanding why.

“Everyone seems to be waiting for something, Ursula thought. ‘Best not to wait,’ Izzie said. ‘Best to do.‘”

LAL is an odd book to get into. The first several chapters are told more from Sylvia’s viewpoint – Ursula’s mother, given Ursula is a baby. The switch to the ‘real’ main character thus takes a bit of getting used to, and does make the first part of the book feel a little disjointed. More, Sylvia never really returns as a strong presence, really, which makes it all doubly odd.

The repetition works far better than I’d feared: just before I got fed up of it, we start skipping the early/survived bits, and start taking more divergent paths through Ursula’s adult life. It seems that she tries out every way to experience the war that shapes her life and the story, including at least once from inside Nazi Germany. To what purpose? Well, that’s never really explicitly answered – it’s up to you, the reader, to decide, I think. The ending is the subject of much discussion online – and maybe that’s the point, this is that kind of ‘literary’ book, that’s meant to leave you asking questions.

So what is the book about? Partly, it’s the butterfly effect-esque exploration of how tiny alterations can make huge differences down the line. Mostly, though, what I got out of it was an examination of the second World War and life in that time period, and – occasionally – life afterwards, from the viewpoint of different kinds of lives. That it was fundamentally the same character in each just highlighted the circumstances over the person, and sometime the arbitrary cruelness or otherwise of life.

“They were the kind of clothes that might turn you into someone else.”

It’s not a book for everyone, and certainly not for every mood. I surprised myself, though, in soon becoming utterly gripped by the whole thing – a real rush home to snuggle up with kind of a tale. And while much of the material is very dark indeed, overall I found the whole thing oddly uplifting. Worth the awards – and the attempt, at least!

“Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.”

Paperback: 610 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2013
Read from 28th September – 5th October 2015

My rating: 9/10

How to be Both – Ali Smith

Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook…

The words ‘Award Winning’ usually have me running for the hills – Oscar nominees are usually very good, very boring films, for instance! But somehow, the accolade of winning the Man Booker Prize this year brought this book to my attention and I thought, why not shake my reading up a bit?

The big marketing ‘thing’ with this book is that the two sections can appear in either order. They are linked, but fairly loosely.

My copy started with the section on 15th Century artist, Francesco del Cossa – who, I only learned after reading, was a real person. I might have enjoyed this part of the book even more had I known I could go google for some of the artwork being described – so, maybe do that!

There are more than a few reviews suggesting that this section was difficult to enjoy, and had to be returned to after reading the more modern half. I confess, the opening few pages almost saw me give up: the stuttering stream of consciousness just did nothing for me, nor the repeated use of “Cause” for because, and “Just saying” – not very in-period, really! But I love art, and this period, so it wasn’t too hard to keep going. However, it all ends rather abruptly, and so I went on to the other section hoping for some explanations…

The other half of the book follows George struggling to cope after the death of her mother, in a contemporary setting. It’s (clearly!) very well done, interspersing grief and memories and the struggle to keep going with modern life. But of course, as it doesn’t actually ‘follow’ the tale of del Cossa, there is no resolution to be had.

So here’s the thing: literary fiction isn’t my usual read, and it sort of grates on me that it ‘gets away’ with a whole pile of things that so-called genre fiction wouldn’t. Like, no real plot, and certainly no real resolution(s). The two parts of the book do tie together, in a fashion, but with minimal explanation.

Overall, it’s obviously very well written, and the prose is a joy to simply read. But while it deals with art, and death, and grief, and all sorts of other ‘real’ stuff admirably, I can’t help but feel a small ‘well, what was THAT about?’. Maybe the flaw is mine, and I’m simply not deep enough for this kind of book! 😉

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment…

HB: 372 pages, 2 sections which can be read in either order.
Read 13th – 25th June 2015

My rating: 7/10