Book review: The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You have to set your expectations when reading this book. First and foremost, the author is British, so, not surprisingly, Bletchley Park and the contributions by the British codebreakers in the European theatre is what he focuses on. Second, did I mention the author is British? So the extraordinary contributions of the Polish mathematicians and codebreakers to the Bletchley Park effort is limited to 7(!) pages. And, third, I don’t know if you know this, but the author is British, so he explores in detail the differences of British social classes and the effect that it may or may not have had on Bletchley Park’s successes.
In all seriousness, this is a well-researched book that uses anecdotes from many Bletchley Park veterans to describe how life was there. There is little discussion on codebreaking techniques (unlike, say, the book “Code Girls”) but, rather, the book mainly covers life at Bletchley Park and some of the squabbles between Bletchley Park and Whitehall.
There are some interesting peculiarities beyond what I mention above. For instance, Alan Turing’s death is referred to as a “premature tragedy” throughout the book. It is not until near the end that you discover that the author is unconvinced that he died by suicide. And the author firmly believes that the Turing machine would not have been built if it had not been for the efforts of a brilliant engineer named Tommy Flowers, who is unappreciated for his efforts.
Overall, it is an interesting read. The tone is chatty and informal, and the book reads easily. I would have given it 3.5 stars had Goodreads allowed for such a thing. If you’re interested in the period, it’s a nice add to your collection.

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Book review: The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend gave this book to my husband, but I borrowed it (temporarily, of course) because it looked so interesting. There are generally two types of history books–a narrative history or an agenda-driven history. This is a narrative history.
The second thing I will say about this book is that it is dense. (Which should go without saying since it is 800 pages (including index and bibliography) and covers only 3 years of the Revolutionary War.) It is the first in a planned trilogy.
Finally, I will say if this is a period in history that interests you, this book is a must read. The author uses a plethora of primary sources, and he is skilled at describing both battles–in detail including the location of trees and the weather–and the overall strategy. People get short shrift in this tome, but if you want to know more about the major players of either the American or British side, there are plenty of biographies available. But if what you want is a timeline of the events of the Revolutionary War, how they unfolded, and why they unfolded the way they did, this is definitely the book for you.
Now I’m off to read something light and frothy…but I highly recommend this book!

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