THE MOTHER OF COMPUTERS: ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS

If you had to guess what would happen to Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of the infamous Lord Byron, the romantic poet described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, you might well imagine that she became a poet, or a notorious libertine (like her famous father), or that she reacted against her father’s life and disappeared into the silence of history. Almost certainly you would not guess that she grew up to be an outstanding mathematician, in an era when women were actively discouraged from obtaining higher education at all, let alone learning math, or that she collaborated with Charles Babbage in the invention of the computer.  But in fact, Ada Lovelace earned her fame (or deserved her fame) as a woman with a brilliant mathematical mind, not as the daughter of a wild and dissolute poet.  

How Ada turned into what it would not be an exaggeration to describe as the Mother of Computers is the story Jennifer Chiaverini tells in Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace.  Ada was fortunate that her mother was a rigorous mathematician in her own right, and a woman determined to protect her from Byron’s influence, and from any possibility that she might turn out to be like her father. That meant Ada was given tutoring in science and math as she was growing up, and kept away from all pernicious subjects like poetry and literature.  When she entered London society, Ada met the man who would shape the rest of her life, Charles Babbage, who had already built a prototype of his calculating machine, the Difference Engine, and was working on a more complicated and powerful machine, the Analytic Engine.  Ada joined his efforts, determined to help him change the world, and at the same time she pursued her own mathematical studies, fell in love, learned more about her parents’ tempestuous relationship and developed her own fierce imagination.

You don’t have to be a computer nut or a geek to appreciate the world of the 19th century that gave birth to the first computers. You don’t have to be a feminist to appreciate the strength of character that it took for a woman to study math and make a name for herself in the world of science in the 19th century.  But if you’re interested in a fun historical novel that will bring that whole world to life, filled with larger than life characters, by all means check out Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace.

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LORD BYRON, MISSING FAMILIES AND WASHING MACHINES: NEW MYSTERIES AT THE FIELD

The breadth of the mystery world can be amazing sometimes.  In our most recent new mysteries, we have one in which Lord Byron (yes, THAT Lord Byron, “mad, bad and dangerous to know”) is the investigator, one chilling one set in contemporary Sweden,and one in which a critical aspect is a man found on top of a washing machine in San Francisco. Whatever time and place interests you, odds are good there’s a mystery that covers it.

riot most uncouth cover

Let’s start with Lord Byron, and the historical mystery Riot Most Uncouth, by Daniel Friedman. It’s set in 1807 in Trinity College in Cambridge, where Lord Byron is enrolled as a student.  Whether he’s actually studying is a good question, given his general attitude towards rules (he circumvents the rule against having dogs on campus by having a rather large bear living with him).  A young woman is found murdered in her boarding house and Lord Byron decides he’s the perfect one to find her killer, in between his more usual pursuits of excessive drinking, seducing married women and generally making trouble for everyone around him.  While there’s no evidence that the real life Lord Byron actually went around solving mysteries, there’s nothing here that’s out of character for him, and spending time with such a famous larger than life rogue is worth the price of admission by itself.

cinderella girl cover

What is it about Scandinavian authors and dark, twisted mysteries?  For some reason, there seems to be a correspondence between Scandinavian countries and police procedural mysteries with horrifying crimes (think of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and sequels; think of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, etc., etc., etc.), which are almost always enthralling reads.  This month we have the book Cinderella Girl by Carin Gerhardsen, set in Finland, with all the hallmarks of another good Scandinavian read.  There’s a child in danger, a three year old girl who wakes up alone in her house to find herself trapped there, the family gone, the place abandoned and locked.  At the same time, a teenage girl is viciously murdered aboard the ocean liner Cinderella, and the investigation into her death reveals that a killer is afoot and that the murdered girl’s younger sister is in grave danger and must be found quickly if she’s going to escape the killer.  

the man on the washing machine cover

In modern day San Francisco, Theophania Bogart is hiding out after an ugly family scandal when she gets herself dragged into a web of murder and smuggling that starts with one of her neighbors falling to his death from a third story window opposite the building where she lives.  The doctor who initially examines the dead man concludes it was an accident, a death related to the recent earthquake, but Theo doesn’t believe him, and one thing rapidly leads to another and Theo finds herself scrambling desperately to stay on top of things, keep her secrets and keep herself alive. Theo has a crisp, funny voice and her story pulls you right in and keeps you turning pages until you find out the answers to the whole convoluted mess.