Posts Tagged: 3 stars

Founding Brothers
by Joseph J. Ellis

July 4, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

ellis_founding
★ ★ ★

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis | January 2000 | Knopf Doubleday | Paperback $15.95

In retrospect, it seems as if the American Revolution was inevitable. But was it? In Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis reveals that many of those truths we hold to be self-evident were actually fiercely contested in the early days of the republic.

Happy Independence Day!

It’s July 4, the day that we celebrate our country’s Declaration of Independence (cue majestic bald eagles soaring through the sweet air of freedom from taxation without representation) so what better day than to check this book off my TBR Pile Challenge list?

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say about it. This book was just, y’know, fine. I kind of expected to be blown away, given its Pulitzer Prize win? Oh, well.

Ellis really delves deep into the personalities, motivations, and actions of several of America’s “founding fathers” during the years following the Revolutionary War. The country was still considered a doomed experiment by most of the rest of the world and they faced unbelievable challenges. I think the author did an admirable job of trying to explain why they said and did certain things within the context of their time.

For example, this book includes a seriously thorough, nuanced discussion of the slavery problem. The union of the colonies as one nation would collapse if the newborn federal government tried to force the southern states to give up their slave-supported economic foundation, but the continued subjugation of hundreds of thousands of people was ethically incompatible with the very principles on which the Revolution was based.

That said, even at only 248 pages (not including notes and the index), this book is dense. I often had to read paragraphs two or even three times to decipher what the author was getting at. And right now I’m really trying to read for pleasure and relaxation because my work and personal life is a little hectic, so perhaps I ought to have waited a while to try this book. Oh, well. It is obviously well-researched and insightful, so my complaint in this case is not about the quality of the content — it’s the overly academic quality of the presentation.


Links:


Publication information: Ellis, Joseph. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.
Source: Purchased from a library’s used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Astronaut Wives Club
by Lily Koppel

June 22, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

koppel_astro

★ ★ ★

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel | January 2013 | Grand Central Publishing | Hardcover $28.00

As America’s Mercury Seven astronauts were launched on death-defying missions, television cameras focused on the brave smiles of their young wives. Overnight, these women were transformed from military spouses into American royalty. They had tea with Jackie Kennedy, appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and quickly grew into fashion icons.

As their celebrity rose-and as divorce and tragedy began to touch their lives-the wives continued to rally together, forming bonds that would withstand the test of time, and they have stayed friends for over half a century. The Astronaut Wives Club tells the story of the women who stood beside some of the biggest heroes in American history.

This book was simultaneously fascinating and depressing. I zoomed through it, but felt a bit frustrated the entire time!

First let’s talk about what I found fascinating. To start with, I knew (and still know) next to nothing about the early days of NASA. The major tragedies and triumphs, sure, but I couldn’t tell you how those astronauts trained, how many missions they each participated in, or how their families were cared for in the meantime.

Of course, this book isn’t about NASA or the astronauts themselves, it’s about their wives. Did you know that the wives of the first few astronauts actually each had a Life magazine reporter following them around, observing and interviewing for hours every day? I can’t imagine the pressure. The upshot is that these “pet” reporters acted as buffers between the ladies and the rest of the press — Annie Glenn’s assigned Life writer even agreed to hide or downplay her speech impairment in order to save her further embarrassment, which I thought was quite sweet.

I also really liked reading about Houston and its surrounding communities during this time period. We are essentially dual citizens of two cities right now, my husband and I, and one of those cities is Houston. So I admit that I might be a little bit biased on this topic!

That said… let’s talk about why this book was a bit depressing. It’s hard to believe that women had to deal with the things these women did event just 40-50 years ago, especially these women, matriarchs of some of the country’s favorite families.

Husband cheating on you? Better just be glad that you’re the one he likes best. Emotional and psychological abuse? Better just smile and pretend to be happy for the sake of your husband’s magnificent career. Depressed or over-stressed? Better just pop these “little helper” pills, because most of the other ladies in your peer group are going to act catty about it. Spouse died in the line of duty? Better get over it pretty quick, you’re not welcome in this neighborhood anymore because no one wants a daily reminder of the tragedy waiting for them around the corner.

At the Bibliothekla

You know, I love the aesthetic of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The clothing, the cars, the homes, the media… it’s all quite appealing on the surface. But I can’t imagine the enormous pressure these women were under to model the perfect, plastic All American Family day in and day out.

In the end, I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in mid-20th-century American history, particularly the “Space Race” and associated events.

– – – –

P.S.

I didn’t realize that ABC was releasing a TV miniseries based on this book! The show is scheduled to run for 10 episodes on Thursdays at 7 pm CST. I’ve only watched the 1st episode so far, but I thought it was OK.

ABC_AstronautWives
Links:


Publication information: Koppel, Lily. The Astronaut Wives Club. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013. Print.
Source: Purchased for personal use.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Proof of Forever
by Lexa Hillyer

June 2, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

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★ ★ ★

Proof of Forever by Lexa Hillyer | June 2015 | HarperCollins | Hardcover $17.99

Before: It was the perfect summer of first kisses, skinny-dipping, and bonfires by the lake. Joy, Tali, Luce, and Zoe knew their final summer at Camp Okahatchee would come to an end, but they swore they’d stay friends.

After: Now, two years later, their bond has faded along with those memories.

Then: That is, until the fateful flash of a photo booth camera transports the four of them back in time, to the summer they were fifteen—the summer everything changed.

Now: The girls must recreate the past in order to return to the present. As they live through their second-chance summer, the mystery behind their lost friendship unravels, and a dark secret threatens to tear the girls apart all over again.

Sweet. I think this would be a lovely novel for fans of girl-group friendship / coming-of-age stories. Probably a perfect little bit of fun for some of the teens in my library’s summer reading club.

This story revolves around a group of young women, once inseparable friends, who suddenly find themselves thrust backwards in time at their summer camp together as teens. What went wrong in their lives at this pivotal point, and how can they fix their broken relationships?

This was a fairly short, easy read. The story is told in alternating points of view, giving each of the 4 girls a chance to tell their own side of the story and let their personalities shine (… or not, as the case may be). I would have LOVED this book when I was going through my Princess Diaries / Freaky Friday / Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants phase as a middle/high schooler. And I probably could have used some of the subtle-but-not-TOO-subtle friendship advice.

That said, this book was so damn predictable. Each of the girls felt like some kind of stereotype — not always in a bad way. I just mean that they’re very familiar, very well-used characters. I was really only surprised by one character’s particular development trajectory, but maybe I really shouldn’t have been. It’s just that I identified with her so heavily in the beginning that I didn’t expect her resolution to be so different from my own, haha!

The characters were actually pretty endearing. They all had their little quirks, special abilities, and flaws. I just love that.

I didn’t much care for the ending, to be honest. I don’t want to spoil anything for potential readers, but if you’ve read much contemporary YA at all over the past few years you’ll probably guess the ending anyway. Perfect teen girl gets a seriously bad phone call, withdraws from all her friends, then mysteriously reappears and insists that they all go on one last adventure together? Yeah, there’s only a handful of obvious things that those signs can point to….

I really don’t want to sound too negative about this book! I know there are going to be a LOT of people who like it and I sincerely hope it does well. Maybe I’m just too far past that phase when this book would have really meant something to me.

Anyway, HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY to Proof of Forever. It just came out today! Super exciting!


Links:


Publication information: Hillyer, Lexa. Proof of Forever. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. EPUB.
Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Illusionarium
by Heather Dixon

May 17, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Dixon_Illusionarium

★ ★ ★ 

Illusionarium by Heather Dixon | Greenwillow Books | May 2015 | Hardcover $17.99

Jonathan is perfectly ordinary. But then—as every good adventure begins—the king swoops into port, and Jonathan and his father are enlisted to find the cure to a deadly plague. Jonathan discovers that he’s a prodigy at working with a new chemical called fantillium, which creates shared hallucinations—or illusions. And just like that, Jonathan is knocked off his path.

This review is based on a digital ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss.

This book comes out on May 19! That’s only 2 days away, so if this one looks like it’ll appeal to you at least you won’t have to wait very long for it.

Personally, I kind of have mixed feelings about this one but mostly I liked it. I’ll happily rec it for anyone who’s into YA steampunk and portal fantasy.

I didn’t pay much attention to the summary (above) prior to starting the book, so I was completely taken by surprise when Jonathan ended up in that parallel world, exactly what it says on the tin. The book starts off with a terrible epidemic, which Jonathan and his father are hoping to cure. This new chemical, provided by a mysteriously strange version of Jonathan’s father’s mentor, can supposedly help them with their research — but Jonathan’s father won’t use it because it is too dangerous and mind-warping.

Jonathan decides to take matters into his own hands and ends up discovering a completely different version of his own world: Nod’ol. Yes, that’s London backwards. With an extra apostrophe thrown in for no good reason.

Don’t talk to me about superfluous SFF apostrophes. I can’t even.

ANYWAY.

So what starts off as a vaguely science-y steampunk morphs suddenly into a rather more magic-y portal fantasy involving your typical parallel universes that split apart at some point in the past due to a big game-changing event or whatever. You know how it goes. I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers so I won’t say much about the plot beyond that, though.

The promos also compare Illusionarium to Gail Carriger’s books. The exact term they employ is “sparkling wit” which… I mean, yeah, if you like Carriger’s YA books (I do) you might want to give this one a try. There are several funny and clever bits, but I wouldn’t put it quite on the level of the Parasol Protectorate series, humor-wise.

One thing I did appreciate — and this is a little bit of a spoiler, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to — is that Jonathan, despite being our main POV characters, is not actually the prophesied Chosen One. He’s got extra strong powers, but he’s not the only one. A big part of the story is the way he has to come to terms with his own actions and moral code, rather than him saving the universes or rescuing damsels in distress.

That’s something that I simultaneously liked + disliked about this book: the lady characters. I really appreciated that Jonathan’s main concern throughout the book was his sister and mother, rather than just some gal he had a crush on. Everything he did, he did for his family, and that’s refreshing. Hooray for happy families! Hooray for boys who care about their parents and siblings!

That said, something happened to one of the main characters that I think was contrived and unnecessary. Like, OK, the hero needs something to feel super angry about and this person is kinda-sorta important to him and has already served her purpose in the plot… Collateral Angst / Lost Lenore? Those are super common tropes because they can make for more emotionally complicated stories, which is fine, it’s just that for some reason it bothered me a little bit in this instance.

The cover, by the way, doesn’t make any damned sense with the plot. Not that it is a bad cover, nicely steampunk-y and YA-y, but if it makes you think you’re in for some kind of dark romance, well, it’s lying to you.

The only other thing that bugged me about Illusionarium is the footnotes. Normally I kind of like footnotes, or will at least tolerate them! BUT. Normally, I’m reading a physical copy. In the e-book review version I was reading this time, the “footnotes” were actually formatted as endnotes. I really hope that’s not how the final copy ends up, because after like 5 or 6 of these I just gave up and ignored them because flipping to the end and back interrupted the story so much that they weren’t worth bothering with.

Overall, though, this is a fun fast-paced adventure with just enough philosophizing to keep it from being all magic and fistfights and just enough humor to keep it from being too seriously moralizing.


Links:


Publication information: Dixon, Heathr. Illusionarium. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2015. EPUB.
Source: Edelweiss.
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

Mayle_FrenchLessons

★ ★ ★ 

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.


Links:


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

Blackmore_LornaDoone
★ ★ ★

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.

blackmore_lornadoone_film

 

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.


Links:


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.


Wonder at the Edge of the World
by Nicole Helget

May 5, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Helget_WATEOTW

★ ★ ★

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.


Links:


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.


The Next Species
by Michael Tennesen

March 22, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Tennesen_TheNextSpecies

★ ★ ★

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.


Links:


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.


Relish
by Lucy Knisley

February 13, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Knisley_Relish
★ ★ ★
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley | April 2013 | First Second | Paperback $17.99

Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe — many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions.

This was a fun, honest, and engaging pick for my first book off of my “Foodies Read” list.

Relish is a comic-format memoir that focuses primarily on the author/artist’s experiences with food – or rather, on the way that food has been a big part of her experiences. It’s a series of stories about growing up with a nature-loving, farm-to-table cook for a mom and an enthusiastic foodie for a dad. It’s also about the way food is inextricably linked to her most treasured memories. And it is about coming of age as an artist and foodie in her own right.

I loved Knisley’s voice. She comes across as optimistic, kind, and able to see the humor in every situation she shares in this book. Even though she writes about her parents divorcing and includes at least one ex-boyfriend in a story, she never crosses that line into “woe is me, these relationships were terrible and these people ruined my life” territory. Not that “woe is me” stories can’t be great, sometimes. I just mean that the author/artist did a great job of focusing on the upside (and on the food).

The main thing that I wish had been different is that the book felt a little… shallow, maybe? Like, sure, I respect that Knisley chose to skip over the nitty-gritty parts of her relationships, but even the descriptions of her travels and the foods she tried weren’t that detailed. Usually when I’m reading a food-focused book I expect to be drooling at every other page. I at least want to be intrigued by the setting of any given meal, whether it’s a posh café in some European city or a little corner shop with cheap, chipped white saucers. And you’d think the graphic novel format would be ideal for that, but somehow Relish didn’t achieve it.

This book includes several illustrated recipes, which look interesting, but I can’t speak to their quality because I didn’t try any of them. I checked this book out from the library and just read a chapter or two during my lunch breaks over a few days.

I haven’t read any of Knisley’s other books yet, but I did check out her website hoping to find some more comics. I was not disappointed. At the end of last year she published a short but poignant comic about having a miscarriage. If you’re interested in checking out more of her work, check out her website (link below).


Links:


Publication information: Knisley, Lucy. Relish. New York: First Second, 2013. Print.
Source: Public library.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?
by Patrick Di Justo

February 2, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Happy book birthday! Talk about a mouthful – just take a look at that title!

DiJusto_TIWYJPIYM

★ ★ ★

This is what you just put in your mouth: From egg nog to beef jerky, the surprising secrets of what’s inside everyday products by Patrick Di Justo | February 2015 | Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Publishing | Paperback $15.00

What do a cup of coffee and cockroach pheromone have in common? How is Fix-A-Flat like sugarless gum? Is a Slim Jim meat stick really alive? If I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter isn’t butter, what is it?

Based on his popular Wired magazine column “What’s Inside,” Patrick Di Justo takes a cold, hard, and incredibly funny look at the shocking, disgusting, and often dumbfounding ingredients found in everyday products, from Cool Whip and Tide Pods to Spam and Play-Doh. He also shares the madcap stories of his extensive research, including tracking down a reclusive condiment heir, partnering with a cop to get his hands on heroin, and getting tight-lipped snack-food execs to talk. Along the way, he schools us on product histories, label decoding, and the highfalutin chemistry concepts behind everything from Midol to Hostess fruit pies.

Though the supersized title doesn’t indicate it, this book is actually a collection of some of the most popular articles from the author’s “infotainment” Wired magazine column (What’s Inside). It isn’t really surprising that things like Kraft Easy Cheese and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter contain some weird-sounding ingredients (at least it shouldn’t be if you’ve been paying any attention at all to what you eat), but that gross factor is only part of the appeal of this book.

What I found more fascinating were the little asides about all the hoops the author had to jump through to get to the bottom of any particular product. As you’d expect, many companies were less than thrilled and subsequently tight-lipped when this investigator started asking complicated questions about what exactly they’re selling.

I was also pleased by the science-for-everyone feel of the articles. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to be able to understand the ingredients that Di Justo describes. There are also several science “highlights” (for lack of a better word) that dig a little deeper into particular aspects of a few of the products. Take, for example, this section on acid attached to the investigation of red wine:

Acid
One of the first things you learn about in grade school science class is that vinegar is an acid and it can make baking soda fizzle into foam. But what is an acid, really? [….] It all seems pretty complicated, but the bottom line is that an acid is a substance that can’t help but react with certain other substances. In many of our products, acids provide a tangy our sour taste – that is the effect of hydrogen ions on the taste buds.

Even though the title seems to indicate that the entire book is devoted to foodstuffs (“This is what you just put in your mouth…”), in actuality only about half the book concentrates on edible products. Part 2 is actually titled This is what you don’t put in your mouth, which I guess is a pretty straightforward way of telling you what sorts of products you’ll read about in the 2nd half of the book. This section covers things like Axe deodorant, Downy fabric softener, and Noxzema.

Now THIS is the section I found fascinating, possibly because I’ve done far too much reading about food science already and I’m difficult to surprise in that subject. But, just for example, did you know … ?

  • Antiperspirants include slightly flammable ingredients
  • Fabric softener is made from rendered cattle, sheep, or horse fats
  • Noxzema contains pig-derived gelatin, making it haram

Yes, I mostly liked this book. However, I do think that the format (short, often snarky summaries of stuff on ingredient lists) really works better for the online articles than for the full book. The extra behind-the-scenes info is kinda cool, but it does not do much to tie the whole thing together in a cohesive package.

More importantly: where are the sources? Bibliography, footnotes, anything? Sorry, but I find it hard to take a science-focused nonfiction work seriously if it does not even include some minimal form of source citations.

I do wish it had been made more clear at the outset that the book includes quite a lot of non-food info. Well, I was reading an e-ARC, so perhaps the cover copy on the final printing will mention something like that. I also think that this is not a book for someone who tends to panic over “chemicals” in whatever they’re eating or cleaning with or whatever.

Gift it to your friend who is fascinated by household chemistry, but keep it away from the friend who always equates natural with healthy. And above all, don’t take it too seriously.


Links:


Publication information: Di Justo, Patrick. This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth: From Egg Nog to Beef Jerky, the Surprising Secrets of What’s Inside Everyday Products. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015. EPUB file.
Source: This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.