Posts Categorized: Book Reviews

Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures
by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater

May 15, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★

Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater | April 2015 | Scholastic Press | Hardcover $16.99

Pip is a girl who can talk to magical creatures. Her aunt is a vet for magical creatures. And her new friend Tomas is allergic to most magical creatures. When things go amok—and they often go amok—Pip consults Jeffrey Higgleston’s Guide to Magical Creatures, a reference work that Pip finds herself constantly amending. Because dealing with magical creatures like unicorns, griffins, and fuzzles doesn’t just require book knowledge — it requires hands-on experience and thinking on your feet.

This was so cute and fun! I’m so glad I got a chance to read it. Special thanks to my coworker who brought this back from TLA to share!

Here’s the premise: This world is very much like ours, except populated with various magical creatures that people can (sometimes) keep as pets. You know, unicorns and the like. Young Pip has a secret: she can talk to them and understand them! Unfortunately, this special ability has gotten her into a little bit of trouble.

I was totally charmed by Pip and her little friend, Tomas, who happens to be allergic to just about everything (the poor dear). One of the things I like about these characters is that they’re fairly quiet, unassuming kids — not that there’s anything wrong with boisterous, confident main characters, not at all, it’s just that sometimes it is nice to see the “background nerd” types get their own adventures. I personally relate to them a little more, anyway.

A big part of the fun of this book is the detail the authors put into all the various types of magical creatures that come up. We get to meet a HobGrackle, a Miniature Silky Griffin, the adorably terrible Tribble-like Fuzzles, and even a… well, I won’t spoil the ending for you, haha.

One of the other really fantastic things about this book is that one of the authors, Maggie Stiefvater, did all of the illustrations for it. (Authors don’t always get to illustrate their own books, so that’s kind of a big deal.) Stiefvater is the sort of person who paints designs on walls in her own house and makes custom tarot cards to go with her YA book series — she’s as much of an artist as she is an author.

By the way, it was a lot of fun watching these two authors go on tour together for this book via social media like Twitter and Tumblr. I wish I’d gotten a chance to see them in person!


Publication information: Pearce, Jackson and Maggie Stiefvater. Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures. New York: Scholastic Press, 2015. Print.
Source: ARC from the Texas Library Association conference.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

French Lessons
by Peter Mayle

May 13, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ 

French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle | Vintage Books, a division of Random House | April 2002 | Paperback $15.00

The French celebrate food and drink more than any other people, and Mayle shows us just how contagious their enthusiasm can be. We visit the Foire aux Escargots. We attend a truly French marathon, where the beverage of choice is Chteau Lafite-Rothschild rather than Gatorade. We search out the most pungent cheese in France, and eavesdrop on a heated debate on the perfect way to prepare an omelet. We even attend a Catholic mass in the village of Richerenches, a sacred event at which thanks are given for the aromatic, mysterious, and breathtakingly expensive black truffle. With Mayle as our inimitably charming guide, we come away with a satisfied smile (if a little hungry) and the compelling desire to book a flight to France at once.

It didn’t live up to my high expectations, but I’m glad I gave this book a try anyway.

I really enjoyed Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, so I assumed that French Lessons would be just as (if not more) delicious. Although I moderately enjoyed reading it, it didn’t really pull me in. I just didn’t get that strong feeling of atmosphere that I so enjoyed in the previous book.

I also expected to be drooling, to be desperately wishing that the stuff on my lunch plate could magically morph into whatever was being described in the book, but again… this book didn’t provoke the kind of strong feelings or imaginary tastes that I was hoping for.

Also, by the end of the book every story started to seem a little formulaic. Bumbling but well-meaning foodie Englishman goes to some place in France that is famous for some sort of odd French food or food-related event, usually with at least one sort of odd French person as nominal guide, just to try said food. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this formula — most of the stories are quite entertaining and Mayle does have a way of writing that makes the reader feel like he’s actually a good friend — but this is not really a book that I can sit down with and just read all the way through without getting a little bored.

I don’t want to sound too negative about this book. After all, 3 stars is actually a decent rating! I generally liked it and I wish I could find my paperback copy (I started reading it and then lost it somewhere, so ended up finishing with a library e-book instead). All in all it is a fairly enjoyable read and I’m happy to have tried it as part of my Foodies Read challenge this year.


Publication information: Mayle, Peter. French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.
Source: Public library used book sale; public library e-book platform Overdrive.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Lorna Doone
by R.D. Blackmore

May 10, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

★ ★ ★

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore, narrated by Jonathan Keeble | 1869 (Naxos unabridged audio edition 2010) | Naxos Audio Books | CD set $115

First published in 1869, Lorna Doone is the story of John Ridd, a farmer who finds love amid the religious and social turmoil of seventeenth-century England. He is just a boy when his father is slain by the Doones, a lawless clan inhabiting wild Exmoor on the border of Somerset and Devon. Seized by curiosity and a sense of adventure, he makes his way to the valley of the Doones, where he is discovered by the beautiful Lorna. In time their childish fantasies blossom into mature love — a bond that will inspire John to rescue his beloved from the ravages of a stormy winter, rekindling a conflict with his archrival, Carver Doone, that climaxes in heartrending violence.

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to in a long time. A couple of years ago my dearly departed Ford Escape “ate” 8 discs of a library audiobook, which was expensive, and also my CD player didn’t work any more. We subscribe to SiriusXM so at least I still had lots of music and news shows to choose from. But then I was rear-ended on the highway and my vehicle was harshly taken from me in the prime of his life. I was stuck with a rental and terrestrial radio — a true nightmare.

But this rental had a particularly interesting feature: it could sync with my smartphone via Bluetooth and send phone calls or music to the car speakers. On the same day as the wreck, my library started offering a new streaming/downloadable media service called “hoopla” and I decided to try it out. I downloaded the app, signed in with my library card, found an audiobook title from my Classics Club list, and I was all set for my daily commute.

The library offered both the abridged and unabridged version, and I sat through the full 25 hour unabridged story. I have a feeling that no modern editor would have let some of these scenes and rambling scenery descriptions make it into the final publication, but I enjoyed listening to the rambling book in the way that I might enjoy listening to an oldster tell a rambling story about his childhood. (Yes, I do actually like that kind of thing.)

East Lyne River Valley Gorge, Exmoor, photo by Sean Bolton for the London Natural History Museum, via Britannica ImageQuest

East Lyne River Valley Gorge, Exmoor
photo by Sean Bolton for the London Natural History Museum, via Britannica ImageQuest

The narrator did a great job (as far as I can tell) of telling the story in the Exmoor accent. I say “as far as I can tell” because I can’t even tell the difference between a lot of non-American accents, and actually at first I thought the story might be set in Scotland because the accent sounded Scottish to me. (If you’re British or Scottish, I hope you can forgive my confusion.) Anyway, the accents really added to the atmosphere of the tale.

The only bad thing I have to say about the audiobook in particular is that sometimes the narrator’s accent was too good. I really couldn’t understand half of what the really “rustic” characters like John Fry or Betty Muxworthy were saying! Sure, the accents were important for the feel of the thing, but I’m sure I must have missed some interesting bits of dialogue.

My main complaint about the substance of the book is that women are talked about and treated in a particularly, well, Victorian way. They’re the weaker sex, not given to deep thought, prone to cry, not worth much if they aren’t pretty or good at cooking, and always in want of a strong man to take care of them. The female characters of this world are frankly just too flat and boring to be of much interest other than as objects for the male characters to lust after or fight over or get meals from.

At one point I remember thinking that a particularly spirited horse was a more interesting character than any of the girls or women, even the oh-so-important Lorna. I know this book was written in the 19th century and is set in the 1600’s and I do try to take that kind of thing into account when judging a book, but for this modern reader the treatment of women in this story was pretty pathetic.



All in all, I’m glad I read it (well, listened to it, but I think it still counts as reading), but I can’t say it’ll ever be a real favorite. I’m trying to get my hands on a copy of that Lorna Doone TV movie, which I fondly remember watching with my grandmother.


Publication information: Blackmore, R.D. Lorna Doone. Franklin, Tennessee: Naxos Audio Books, 2010. Streaming.
Source: Public library and Midwest Tape’s hoopla service.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Sam Maggs

May 7, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Girl Geeks by Sam Maggs | May 2015 | Quirk Books | Hardcover $15.95

Fanfic, cosplay, cons, books, memes, podcasts, vlogs, OTPs and RPGs and MMOs and more—it’s never been a better time to be a girl geek. The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is the ultimate handbook for ladies living the nerdy life, a fun and feminist take on the often male-dominated world of geekdom. With delightful illustrations and an unabashed love for all the in(ternet)s and outs of geek culture, this book is packed with tips, playthroughs, and cheat codes for everything from starting an online fan community to planning a convention visit to supporting fellow female geeks in the wild.

This review is based on an e-ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.

This is such a fun book!

It’s kind of like a “primer” for newbie fangirls. It covers a lot of the basics, like popular terms (“canon” and “shipping”), getting started with cosplay, and navigating fanfic. I admit that my initial reaction was duh, I already know this, but (1) I would probably have been grateful for a book like this when I was but a wee baby geek, and (2) an older, grumpy, set-in-her-ways geek is maybe not the target audience. And after all… It’s just a book; I should really just relax. ^__^

For example, the “Let Your Geek Flag Fly” chapter is all about ways to incorporate fandom stuff into your everyday life, This can be anything from buying t-shirts from your fav indie comics (n00b level) to hosting a themed film/book prerelease party (intermediate) to getting a symbolic tattoo (hardcore — and yes, this particular section comes with lots of advice and caution).

I really enjoyed all the mini-interviews with various major players in online geek/fandom spheres, especially their bits of advice for geek girls. These are some wise ladies.

– – –

The chapter and section titles are amusing. “[Fandom Intensifies] Geek Girls Online” and “Everyone’s a Critic and So Can You” are perfect examples. This book does cover some serious topics, like sexual harassment at conventions and fangirl feminism, but the whole thing overall is so irreverent and fun that even the difficult stuff doesn’t seem so scary.

Oh, yeah, and the illustrations are really great, too! I love nonfiction books like this that include creative, topical illustrations scattered throughout. Yeah, I like books with pictures and will absolutely give them extra points, so sue me.

One of my only concerns is that it just won’t stand the test of time. A lot of the pop culture references — current fandoms, fangirl speak, convention conventions (har har c wut I did thar)– are very current… which is great for the immediate success of this book, but might mean it’ll need a reboot about 5 years from now.

Release day May 12!!! That’s next Tuesday, my friends. Go forth and preorder!


Publication information: Maggs, Sam. The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2015. EPUB.
Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World
by Rachel Swaby

May 6, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World by Rachel Swaby | April 2015 | Broadway Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing | Paperback $16.00

In 2013, the New York Times published an obituary for Yvonne Brill. It began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” It wasn’t until the second paragraph that readers discovered why the Times had devoted several hundred words to her life: Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites in orbit, and had recently been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Among the questions the obituary—and consequent outcry—prompted were, Who are the role models for today’s female scientists, and where can we find the stories that cast them in their true light?

This review is based on a print uncorrected proof copy, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway. That’s part of why it took me so long to get to — I was waiting on the preferred physical version. I also had access to an e-ARC via NetGalley.

Headstrong is a lovely little collection of profiles of lady scientists who probably don’t get enough credit for their contributions to our world. The first paragraph of the introduction explains the author’s motivation quite well, I think:

‘This book about scientists began with Beef Stroganoff. According to the New York Times, Yvonne Brill made a mean one. In an obituary in March 2013, Brill was honored with the title of “world’s best mom” because she “followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Only after a loud, public outrcy did the Times amend the article so it would begin with the contribution that earned Brill a featured spot in the paper of record in the first place: “She was a brilliant rocket scientist.” Oh, right. That.’

I remember when this happened, and I remember being so frustrated… but not so surprised. Women have been involved in the sciences for a very long time, but the various disciplines still often operate like good ol’ boys’ clubs (though obviously circumstances vary from place to place and from field to field).

This book is a little shorter than I’d hoped for. It’s more like a mini-buffet of biographies than a full feast of them, but that’s OK because it makes for perfect lunchtime reading. I’m sure it is difficult to do such interesting people complete justice in just a few pages each, but Swaby did a fine job and there were several scientists that I really want to learn more about now!

Every included scientist is treated with respect and honesty, which I wish could be the case for women in the sciences in every other situation. If I could, I would put a copy of this in the hands of every AP science high school student or pre-med freshman. More young people — young women and men, especially those who intend to make a career in any scientific field — need to know about these all-too-frequently forgotten scientists.


Publication information: Swaby, Rachel. Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World. New York: Broadway Books, 2015. Print.
Source: ARC from publisher via Goodreads giveaway.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Wonder at the Edge of the World
by Nicole Helget

May 5, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★

Wonder at the Edge of the World by Nicole Helget | April 2015 | Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | Hardcover $17.00

Hallelujah Wonder wants to become one of the first female scientists of the nineteenth century. She knows every specimen and rare artifact that her explorer father hid deep in a cave before he died, and she feels a great responsibility to protect the objects (particularly a mesmerizing and dangerous one called the Medicine Head) from a wicked Navy captain who would use it for evil. Now she and her friend Eustace, a runaway slave, must set out on a sweeping adventure by land and by sea to the only place where no one will ever find the cursed relic….

This review is based on an e-ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss.

I mostly enjoyed this middle grade historical/fantastical adventure.

First, let’s talk about some cool non-story stuff. I love the cover. The artwork and the title lettering are both just perfect. I also really appreciated that the book includes a basic map of North America during the time period the story’s set in.

The story starts out in pre-Civil War Kansas, where Hallelujah Wonder (cute name!) is dealing with the aftermath of the death of her father as well as escalating violence in the little prairie town where she lives. She’s not happy there, understandably, and she’s not shy about letting you know it.

The main character (the entire story is told in first person), Lu, is a slightly aggravating little know-it-all. It took me a while to figure out what her main flaw is (and other reviewers have called her a “Mary Sue” because at first she seems so perfect): she’s independent, intelligent, scientifically curious, an abolitionist and friendly with slaves in a border state just prior to the Civil War. Her self-confessed “flaws” are freckles and a lack of desire to pursue a traditional woman’s life of marriage and child-rearing, which aren’t so much “flaws” as they are characteristics that are meant to endear her to modern girls.

Unfortunately, much of the way she addresses the reader as well as other characters, comes off as… I don’t know, a little bit condescending or snobby? She’s constantly explaining things with a sort of tone that indicates that she knows she’s smarter than you, and the things she likes (whales, for example) are clearly more interesting than her current reality (a sadly whale-deprived Kansas prairie).

Here are a couple of examples of her “tone” to illustrate what I’m talking about:

“I haven’t got much oil left. It’s good oil, though, spermaceti, the best illumination oil you can get. Do you know what spermaceti oil is? Well, if you don’t, I’ll tell you.”

“Here in Tolerone, everyone uses the cheap stuff. […] I guess people here in this sea-empty place don’t have access to all the wonderful products humans can make out of whales. [Going on to describe how awesome whale stuff is and how pathetic Kansas people are for not having any whale stuff.]”

“‘I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of a place called South America,’ I say to Eustace. ‘Yes, I’ve heard of South America,’ says Eustace. ‘I’m not a dolt.’”

“Eustace leans his head against a cave wall and stares up at the ceiling. ‘I want to see a penguin someday,’ he says. ‘I heard they don’t fly. Like chickens.’ I’m annoyed that Eustace is interrupting my story. ‘Penguins aren’t even slightly close to chickens,’ I say. ‘Now, shush.’”

This is all from the first page of the chapter, but it continues on in that way for most of the rest of the book. I have to assume that this was purposeful, but I question the wisdom of making insufferable intellectual snobbishness a primary character trait of the voice of a middle grade level first person narrative. Of course, unlikable characters and unreliable narrators often make for wonderful stories, but I’m not sure that most kids of the target age group for this book would be able to actually appreciate Lu’s snobbishness – though she does eventually come to acknowledge that she can be “a little bit bumptious” at times, so there is some level of self-aware character growth going on.

I eventually came to a kind of grudging acceptance of Lu’s attitude, enough to mostly enjoy the story anyway. Lu herself has to find it in her to accept the idea that her beloved father wasn’t perfect, which can be kind of a hard thing for a kid to learn about a parent – especially if said parent is no longer living.

Anyway, the actual story itself is something between cute and harsh. Lu and her best friend Eustace end up running off, in part to escape a villainous character/slavery and in part to figure out the mysteries behind a particularly strange artifact that Lu inherited from her adventurer father. Their travels don’t even really start until nearly halfway through the book, though – when I read the summary I expected that this adventuring would be the focus of the plot, but there’s quite a lot of build-up while the kids are stuck dealing with various dramas in Kansas.

The latter 1/3 of the book was actually quite riveting. Here was the action-packed adventure I’d been hoping for, here was the answer to the mystery of Lu’s super creepy artifact, and here was the satisfying disposal of the bad guy who’d been chasing our intrepid kid-heroes across half the world. It’s almost as though the last part of the book doesn’t even really belong with the first – based on the pacing up to this point, I’d begun to think that this book would end with a set-up for a sequel rather than a full conclusion.

Also, I don’t know if a kid would be interested in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, but I certainly was – the insight into the actual historical people and events that inspired this story actually made me think more warmly of it – it’s hard to be grumpy about a book when you know how much research and careful thought went into writing it!

This is not exactly a stand out in the Unladylike Young Ladies Go Adventuring division of the Historical Fiction genre, but I’m glad I didn’t give up on it at the beginning because it turned out to be a quite fun, satisfying little story.


Publication information: Helget, Nicole. Wonder at the Edge of the World. New York: Little, Brown, 2015. EPUB.
Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Things We Know by Heart
by Jessi Kirby

May 4, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


I found this one hard to rate due to my personal experience with one of the main topics of this book: organ donation.

Things We Know by Heart by Jessi Kirby | April 2015 | HarperTeen | Harcover $17.99

After Quinn loses her boyfriend, Trent, in an accident their junior year, she reaches out to the recipients of his donated organs in hopes of picking up the pieces of her now-unrecognizable life. She hears back from some of them, but the person who received Trent’s heart has remained silent. The essence of a person, she has always believed, is in the heart. If she finds Trent’s, then maybe she can have peace once and for all.

This review is based on a print ARC.

I don’t want to go into too much detail because privacy but let’s have a quick Personal Story Time. . .

A little over 2 decades ago, my little brother was killed in a car wreck. He was only toddler. Due to the nature of his injuries, he was eligible to be an organ donor. His liver saved the life of a baby girl in another state. That girl grew into a smart, kind, beautiful young woman whom I’m privileged to be acquainted with.

The problem for me is that this all happened right around Easter. This time of year has since been particularly difficult for my family to enjoy. So what do I do, complete dolt that I am? I started reading this book… on Easter.

My subconscious is apparently supremely masochistic.

The characters in this book are not just lovey-dovey teenagers. They’re having to deal with the aftermath of a tragedy/miracle, an accident that took the life of one young person but granted it to another. This is not an easy subject to deal with, but I think Jessi Kirby handled it with wonderful sensitivity and insight.

Anyway, I hate to have to give this book an actual star rating because my feelings about it are really not entirely fair. I mean, all book ratings are at least partly subjective, but usually I can at least think rationally about them. Not so for Things We Know by Heart.

I do recommend this book, though. It’s a little more romance-y than I generally go for, but it fits right in with The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay and the other tear-jerker contemporary YA fics that have been so popular lately. This one is sure to do well, and I’ll tell my teens at the library about it.


Publication information: Kirby, Jessi. Things We Know by Heart. New York: HarperTeen, 2015. Print.
Source: ARC provided via giveaway managed by Lisa Schroeder.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Game of Love and Death
by Martha Brockenbrough

April 5, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0



The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough | April 2015 | Scholastic / Levine | Hardcover $17.99

Antony and Cleopatra. Helen of Troy and Paris. Romeo and Juliet. And now… Henry and Flora.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

This review is based on a print ARC.

Forbidden romances. Unexpected dangers. Anthropomorphized human conditions. Throw in a little jazz music and you’ve got the recipe for The Game of Love and Death.

The concept is simple: Love and Death are actual characters in this book, and they’re playing games with the lives of humans. The humans in this case are Henry and Flora, two young people facing impending adulthood in Seattle in the late 1930’s.

Henry is an orphan who is being raised by his father’s wealthy business partner; he is expected become some sort of businessman and marry a young lady of decent social standing, but all he really wants to do is play his bass in a jazz band.

Flora, also an orphan, has had to quit school in order to take care of her poor grandmother; she’s the star singer at her uncle’s nightclub but her real passion is flying airplanes. As if being an economically disadvantaged young woman with career goals in a male-dominated field isn’t hard enough, Flora is black.

So there’s your set-up for massive drama.

I mean, the drama keeps ratcheting up throughout the book. Hidden disabilities, illicit love affairs, amnesia, Prohibition, and WWII looming over the horizon… with a mix like this, the reader can’t help but feel some serious tension.

One thing I wish I’d had the benefit of understanding from the beginning is that Love and Death, the characters, are protagonists of the story just as much as Henry and Flora are — but they are not exactly heroes, nor villains. I think of them as something like the deities of ancient mythologies — in the same way that Aphrodite and Hades were personifications of / rulers over / dealers in their respective domains of love and death as well as players in their own stories, and prone to somewhat “human” whims or proclivities… and mistakes.

Overall, I think the pacing of this book is practically perfect and its various little plot twists are delightful. I particularly enjoyed the historical setting, too. I admit that I was frustrated sometimes by the way Love and Death continued to magically interfere, but once I accepted the idea that they are not supposed to be observers but characters in the book just as much as their human pawns are (albeit far more powerful and mysterious) this method of plot progression began to make more sense.

The Game of Love and Death is also sort of hard for me to categorize — it isn’t precisely “historical fiction” because of the fantastical elements, but it isn’t what I usually think of as “fantasy” or “paranormal” either, considering the lack of vampires and hobbits and such.

So, yes, I highly recommend this story! It goes on sale in the US on April 28 (though I think a paperback version is already in the wild in some parts of the world?), so there’s plenty of time to preorder it or put in your purchase request at your local public library if this book seems like it would appeal to you.

ALSO, Ms. Brockenbrough is going to be at the Texas Library Association conference! I won’t get to be there this year (huge bummer dude) but if you are, be sure to check out the panel she’s a part of (“After Harry Potter: The Future of YA Fantasy”) on Tues at 2 pm.


Publication information: Brockenbrough, Martha. The Game of Love and Death. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2015. Print.
Source: ARC provided via giveaway managed by Lisa Schroeder.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Next Species
by Michael Tennesen

March 22, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★

The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man by Michael Tennesen | March 2015 | Simon & Schuster | Hardcover $26.00

A growing number of scientists agree we are headed toward a mass extinction, perhaps in as little as 300 years. Already there have been five mass extinctions in the last 600 million years, including the Cretaceous Extinction, during which an asteroid knocked out the dinosaurs. Though these events were initially destructive, they were also prime movers of evolutionary change in nature. And we can see some of the warning signs of another extinction event coming, as our oceans lose both fish and oxygen. In The Next Species, Michael Tennesen questions what life might be like after it happens.

This is a decent pop-sci introduction to modern hypotheses regarding mass extinction events and evolutionary mechanisms, with a bit of “humans are probably going to accidentally suicide as a species” thrown in for funsies.

I guess I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. Perhaps my problem is simply that I’m not the target audience for it? I’m already familiar with many of the concepts discussed therein, and I’m quite interested in learning more about various subjects covered in the book, but there was never enough depth in the coverage of any topic to satisfy me. On one page we’re reading about the Burgess Shale, and on the next it’s tuskless elephants. I think the author must have been trying to gather lots of related topics into broad but shallow overviews of his ideas, but this left me unsatisfied.

One of the things I did like about this book is the inclusion of the author’s own experiences. From the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas to Vilcabamba in Peru, the readers is treated to first-hand accounts of various ecologically interesting locations. If the entire book had been a kind of travelogue from the perspective of an ecologist or evolutionary biologist, I’d have been 100% pleased.

– – – – – –

If it had been a mere matter of my preferred content vs. the actual content, I’d certainly have rated the book a little higher. But unfortunately, some key concepts are poorly explained. I’ll demonstrate this with an example:

“For life to really get going, to produce the complex forms of more evolved beings, it had to have oxygen. [….] But then some of the oxygen-free bacteria evolved into cyanobacteria or blue-green algae [….] Photosynthesis used sunshine, water, and carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates and, finally, oxygen. [….]

“Oxygen was the critical element in the burst of evolution that occurred during the Cambrian Explosion about 570 to 530 million years ago, when most of the major animal groups suddenly appear in the fossil record. At the time the air was murky, since there wasn’t enough oxygen to scrub the atmosphere of haze and dust1. Without oxygen, there was no ozone, either, so the searing intensity of ultraviolet light from the sun could fall without obstruction2. Ultraviolet life [sic] breaks up water (H2O), and since hydrogen (H) is so light, it can slip into space, and there goes your ocean3. Without oxygen holding on to hydrogen, the world today might look a lot like Mars: a dry, dusty, pockmarked planet with no seas, lakes, rivers, or streams and no visible sign of life.

“Oxygen gradually accumulated on earth from the photosynthesis of plants4. Once oxygen reached critical mass, changes were sudden. If you look at the paleontological record in the soil, there is evidence of oxygen-free microbes in one layer, followed closely by oxygen-dependent microbes in another layer. This introduction of oxygen, though a boon to most life, spelled destruction for a good deal of earth’s [sic] early ancestors who excelled without it.

“Oxygen made the planet livable. Once established, oxygen patrolled the atmosphere capturing all the hydrogen atoms trying to get away [….]”

1 I’m not clear on how a single elemental gas is supposed to “scrub” the atmosphere of haze (made of what?) and dust.

2 Wait, you just said the atmosphere was full of “haze and dust”… which sound like obstructions to me.

3 OK, so let’s get this straight: There was no oxygen in the atmosphere, so UV light could break up the water molecules of the ocean. The hydrogen just floated off into space, presumably leaving the oxygen behind. So what happened to the left-behind oxygen molecules?

4 I though you JUST said it was cyanobacteria? I mean, multicellular plants took X years to develop, well after single-celled organisms caught on to the whole photosynthesis thing.

– – – – – –

I guess the author is trying to simplify things to make the book more readable for the lay person, but (in my opinion) he succeeded only in making these science concepts more confusing than they have to be.

Though the review copy I read was full of random grammar or word choice errors, which have presumably been picked up prior to printing the final copy, I really think this book could have used the attentions of a more thorough content editor. In the same way that long fiction books/series need someone to keep an eye on the continuity of the plot, someone has to pay close attention to the flow of thought (from premise to evidence to reasoning) in science nonfiction books. The Next Species could have been so much more enjoyable and informative if only I didn’t have to constantly try to “translate” what the author was attempting to say or second-guess the logic behind the conclusions.

Perhaps this disconnect was due in part to Tennesen’s experiences as a writer for science magazines like Discover and Scientific American. Perhaps I may have found the book more enjoyable if it were published as a series of articles instead? I don’t know.

To end the review on a more positive note, I did appreciate the obviously massive amount of research that went into this book. Thorough evidence gathering/sharing is so important in science and Tennesen does this very well in The Next Species.


Publication information: Tennesen, Michael. The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. EPUB.
Source: Provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Walls Around Us
by Nova Ren Suma

March 10, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma | March 2015 | Algonquin Young Readers | Hardcover $17.95

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.

On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.

Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…

I was impressed by the tension and darkness of The Walls Around Us. I received an ARC of this book from a giveaway managed by Lisa Schroeder, YA author.

A reviewer from Oblong Books & Music, an indie bookshop in New York, said of this book:

Orange is the New Black Swan

And that is really rather accurate. This book is part ballerina-cum-psycho, part prison personality parade – except, of course, starring high schoolers instead of adult women. It’s also part ghost story and part “teen girls can be the absolute worst to each other” story.

I wouldn’t really say this is a realistic tale, though the ghost-y elements aren’t even really the focus of the plot up until the very end so I’m not sure I’d categorize it as paranormal, either. It tastes more like magical realism, almost? The focus is on the messed-up mind of a dancer, the consequences of her actions for the person who was her only real friend, and the life (or loss of life) of teen girls in a juvenile detention facility.

 Here are the first few lines:

We went wild that hot night. We howled; we raged; we screamed. We were girls  some of us fourteen and fifteen; some sixteen, seventeen – but when the locks came undone, the doors of our cells gaping open and no one to shove us back in, we made the noise of savage animals, of men.

Nova Ren Suma does an amazing job keeping the tension tight throughout the book. I’m not just talking about the pacing – though there is never a dull moment, which is another point in its favor. I’m thinking of the sort of creepy, something ain’t right feeling that permeates every scene.

The conclusion isn’t hard to guess at if you’re paying attention, but you’ll still want to stay up late reading this all the way to the end anyway.

Also, I have to say – I LOVE LOVE LOVE the cover. The cover artist is Connie Gabbert (see links section below for the artist’s website).

This book comes out in 2 weeks, on March 24th.


Publication information: Suma, Nova Ren. The Walls Around Us. New York: Algonquin, 2015. Print.
Source: ARC provided via giveaway.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.