Posts Tagged: 5 stars

In the Shadow of Man
by Jane Goodall

March 26, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0



In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall | This edition April 2010, originally published January 1971 | Mariner Books | Paperback $15.95

World-renowned primatologist, conservationist, and humanitarian Dr. Jane Goodall’s account of her life among the wild chimpanzees of Gombe is one of the most enthralling stories of animal behavior ever written. Her adventure began when the famous anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey suggested that a long-term study of chimpanzees in the wild might shed light on the behavior of our closest living relatives. As she came to know the chimps as individuals, she began to understand their complicated social hierarchy and observed many extraordinary behaviors, which have forever changed our understanding of the profound connection between humans and chimpanzees.

In the Shadow of Man is a classic in the realm of science non-fiction for good reason. Jane Goodall and her fellow researchers spent years — well, decades actually — studying the chimpanzees of the Gombe Stream area near Kigoma, Tanzania. She not only observed an astounding range of wild chimp behaviors, but she brought the plight of these chimps (whose forest home and own bodies were/are endangered by humans) into the spotlight for the rest of the world.

This book was originally published in the early 1970’s, well before the author observed some of the more violent chimp behaviors like “war” and infant cannibalism. However, it was revolutionary at the time because it sort of humanized chimps and debunked some misconceptions about the nature of their primitive tool use or their typical diets.

(One thing to keep in mind if you decide to read this as well — it’s fairly apparent in a few instances that this was written in the 1970’s, when the general attitude of Westerners towards the native peoples of Africa was still slightly colonialist, or at least more openly superior than is generally accepted nowadays.)

Goodall and her team gradually came to know the apes as individuals, with particular personality traits as well as physical features. She was particularly fond of a few of them, which made it all that much more difficult to deal with leaving them to go back to Europe, or watching them suffer or die. The section on the polio epidemic was particularly brutal, as by that point in the book I was also beginning to feel as though I “knew” the chimps and care about their fates. However, even that section was incredibly interesting, because I had no idea that a disease like polio could cross the species boundary. It makes sense now that I think about it, though, because after all we are so closely related genetically to these particular apes.

Jane Goodall has written several follow-up books about the chimps, as well as several other books on topics like spirituality and environmentalism. I read her book Reason for Hope, about how her spiritual beliefs have developed with her experiences and scientific studies, last year. She has a way of writing that makes you feel as though you’re have a thoughtful but laid-back conversation with a good friend. You know that feeling you got when you watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a little kid, as though this intelligent but kind man was speaking to you personally about something that really mattered? It’s a bit like that, but for grown-ups and involving chimpanzees.

I’m so glad I chose to read this because I feel like I learned quite a bit + it made me hungry for more information about chimpanzees and east African wildlife in particular. I’ll have to see if I can pick up any of Goodall’s follow-up books at the library sometime soon.


This book also counts for my Classics Club challenge and Women in Science History Challenges.

Publication information: Goodall, Jane. In the Shadow of Man. New York: Mariner Books. Print.
Source: Barnes & Noble
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
by J. Kenji López-Alt

January 31, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Keni López-Alt | September 2015 | W. W. Norton & Co. | Hardcover $49.95

Ever wondered how to pan-fry a steak with a charred crust and an interior that’s perfectly medium-rare from edge to edge when you cut into it? How to make homemade mac ‘n’ cheese that is as satisfyingly gooey and velvety-smooth as the blue box stuff, but far tastier? How to roast a succulent, moist turkey (forget about brining!)—and use a foolproof method that works every time?

As Serious Eats’s culinary nerd-in-residence, J. Kenji López-Alt has pondered all these questions and more. In The Food Lab, Kenji focuses on the science behind beloved American dishes, delving into the interactions between heat, energy, and molecules that create great food.

López-Alt is a director and columnist at Serious Eats, one of my favorite food websites. Almost every recipe or technique I’ve tried from SE has been worthwhile, so I had high expectations for this cookbook. I was not disappointed!

First, here’s something you need to know about me: I love science-based anything. If someone is going to put the time/effort into trying out different techniques or gathering data on the most efficient use of X, I am happy to read all about it. (See my review for Cooking for Geeks for another example of excellent food experimentation.)

Here’s another thing about me that affects this review in particular: I enjoy cooking (and enjoy eating good food even more), but I’ve been in a cooking slump lately. This is due to a number of factors: schedule changes, high-stress events, finally coming to terms with the fact that my spouse just does not enjoy about 80% of the stuff that I like to eat, and other stuff like that. So when I do cook these days, it’s almost always going to be something tried-n-true and not too labor/time intensive. So that’s a huge part of the appeal of this book for me — the recipes have already been thoroughly tested and a great many of them happily do not require the cook to spend hours in the kitchen (although several do, if that’s your thing).

Beyond that, though, this is also a “book-book” as well as a cookbook. In other words, it isn’t just a collection of recipes. Personal anecdotes, investigations of various methods, and informative graphs/charts abound.

As an example of exactly how thorough López-Alt gets in this book, let’s take the section on making chicken stock. He explains a bit about the history of making/using stock and the various versions of it before jumping in to the experimentation. What part of the chicken makes the tastiest stock, or the most gelatin-y stock: wings, legs, breasts, or the leftover carcass? What is the best method for clarifying the stock or removing extra fat? What is the best storage method and how long can it be stored? And then: what kind of soups make the best use of this perfect homemade chicken stock?

Of course, you can use the traditional method of throwing a bunch of stuff in a pot and simmering it for a few hours, or you can just buy the dang stock from any grocery store, but that’s not the point. If you want the best possible chicken stock that makes the most efficient use of your time and kitchen resources, The Food Lab can tell you how to do that — and more importantly, WHY you should do it this way.

The thing that pushed this into 5-star territory for me, though, is the physical qualities of the book. There are a ton of full-color illustrations, the pages themselves have a nice thickness and a slight gloss to them (helpful for messier cooks like myself), and the binding is sturdy and — best of all — the book lays flat so that the pages stay open to whichever recipe you need with no struggle. These things are all signs of a cookbook constructed with real attention to detail.


Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.

Publication information: López-Alt, J. Kenji. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2015. Print.
Source: Purchased from Barnes & Noble.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Birth of the Pill
by Jonathan Eig

December 14, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig | October 2014 | W. W. Norton & Co. | Paperback $16.95

Spanning the years from Margaret Sanger’s heady Greenwich Village days in the early twentieth century to trial tests in Puerto Rico in the 1950s to the cusp of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, this is a grand story of radical feminist politics, scientific ingenuity, establishment opposition, and, ultimately, a sea change in social attitudes. Brilliantly researched and briskly written, The Birth of the Pill is gripping social, cultural, and scientific history.

I absolutely devoured this book, but I’ve had a hard time writing a decent review for it. I’m having a hard time because I get pretty passionate about some of the issues discussed in this book, but this space is not — or shouldn’t be — a platform for my political views. IMHO, mixing hobby stuff and political stuff is probably not a great recipe for a blog. Hobbies and politics are not two great tastes that taste great together.

But. Every once in a while, these things do get mixed. It’s unavoidable, if you’re reading and enjoying a book about a contentious topic and you happen to keep a blog where you share your opinions on the books you’ve read. The topic of a book and one’s opinion of that book are necessarily entwined. So, fair warning: this review gets a little political.

– – –

The Birth of the Pill is about, well, just that: the development of the first pharmaceutically produced hormonal birth control method, and its impact on society.

Now, the Pill in and of itself might not seem like a particularly controversial thing to modern readers. After all, it and other forms of hormonal contraception have been in use since my grandmothers were my own age. Obviously the Catholic church has its objections, as do a handful of smaller groups (don’t even get me started on the Quiverfull movement), but overall the Pill has been a common fixture in household medicine cabinets for well over half a century.

The controversies are more apparent when we consider the events and people involved in the making of the Pill. Questionable treatment of experimental subjects? Potentially serious side effects brushed under the rug? A major backer involved with the eugenics movement? Ties to an organization that was (and still is) the most prominent abortion provider in the country? Check, check, check, and check.

– – –

I had to read this book chapter by chapter, breaking it up with other less rage-inducing books or activities. From the male doctors and researchers failing to take their patients’ concerns/needs/side effects seriously to the male, celibate priests of the Catholic church presuming to tell women how sex and babies should work, to the refusal of so many policymakers to allow even discussion of contraception much less development/distribution of it, to the lives damaged or lost to botched home-induced abortions and unwanted pregnancies resulting in dangerous, deadly births. . . there is no shortage of issues to rage about in this book.

Overall I think the author does a fine job of presenting the facts as they are, even when they might not be particularly palatable — and in this case, there are plenty of unpalatable facts to choose from regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. In the end, though, this story is a great reminder that history is not made by people who back down from controversy. Nor can the history of something that has had a profound impact on the world be tied up in a neat little bow without ignoring the knots and messiness that were part of its story as well.

– – –

I think this book is also a great reminder of how hard women had to fight — not that long ago! — for even basic forms of equality, and how important it is that women be allowed to control their own bodies in order for that equality to continue/grow.

It’s hard to imagine my doctor refusing to provide contraception because it isn’t curative medicine (and if you don’t want kids, too bad, you’re a married lady and have a duty to your husband — and if you’re not married, you’re a whore), or not being allowed to even discuss contraceptive options with me without breaking the law and possibly losing his/her (though let’s be real, it would have been his) license. And yet, these are things women — our own great-grandmothers! — were having to deal with less than a century ago. It’s just so hard to fathom and I’ve never been more grateful to be living in the 21st century than I was after finishing this book.

And yet, there are still people in this day and age who make women pawns in their political games, who make very real health needs collateral damage in their efforts to win votes — and even more frighteningly, there are still people who will go to any lengths to punish people who don’t step in line with their own beliefs about what women are allowed to do. The day after I finished reading this, a domestic terrorist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, killing 3 people because he thought he was somehow saving babies.

This is why I couldn’t just write a cute little “Good book! 5 stars!” review for this title on Goodreads and leave it at that. If you’re a woman (or partner of a woman) who uses modern contraceptives, you need to read this book. You need to appreciate the small miracle that is the Pill.


Publication information: Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2014. Print.
ource: Owned, self purchased.&
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Le Petit Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

November 20, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry | April 1943 (this edition 2000) | Reynal & Hitchcock (this edition Harcourt) | Paperback $11

Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

What perfect, terrible timing for this book.

By now, everyone has had their say about those terrorist attacks in Paris this last weekend. There’s probably nothing I can add to the discussion that won’t sound too frivolous or political. I’m just terribly sad for all the people there who have to fear for the safety of their beautiful city, of their home.

I read The Little Prince in French along with an English translation. It took me quite a bit longer than it should have. My French is rusty from disuse. It’s been a decade since I went to Paris for a study abroad program. I’m ashamed to say I found even this small, simple book a challenge to read. But I’m glad I read it.

Le Petit Prince is the story of a man who is stranded for several days in a desert with a boy who claims to have come from a tiny asteroid. The boy — the little prince — describes his journeys and the people (mostly asinine adults) he’s met along the way. This sounds simplistic, but every part of the boy’s story is designed to reveal some facet of the author’s experiences or human nature in general.

I vaguely remember seeing the 1974 film version of this story ages ago as a child, and I don’t think I entirely understood the implications of the prince’s “going home” at the end. Even though it is often considered a children’s story — whether that’s because it’s so short and poetic, or because of the illustrations, or because it is about a child — I think that this is a book that you really get more out of as an adult, with some awareness of subtext and some experience of the world.

I was going to see if I could get a hold of a DVD copy of the animated/stop-motion film based on this book that came out just this past summer. Hearing about it is what prompted me to put Le Petit Prince on my TBR Pile Challenge list for 2015, after all, and the trailers I’ve seen look lovely. But it looks like I’ll have to wait for March next year for the US release!


Publication information: de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine. Le Petit Prince. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Print.
Source: Owned, original source unknown.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas

November 7, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 2


★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas | 1844-1846, serialized (this edition May 2003) | Penguin Classics | Paperback $16.00

Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantès is confined to the grim Chateau d’If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration. Dumas’ epic tale of suffering and retribution, inspired by a real-life case of wrongful imprisonment, was a huge popular success when it was first serialised in the 1840s.

I have to confess, I was terribly nervous about this one. I kept putting it off, even though several people told me it was worth reading, because let’s face it … 1,270 pages of translated French from the 19th century is intimidating.

So, yes, I was pleasantly surprised. This book is not at all a chore to get through, nor is it a challenge to read (which I have come to expect and worry about with these older classics). This can no doubt be attributed partially to the skills of this edition’s translator, Robin Buss.

I had to stop and tweet about it at one point:

This story is so well known that I don’t think it is necessary to offer a summary, but if you need one: hit up Goodreads. (But if you want to avoid spoilers, don’t read the reviews. Not even this one.)

– – –


Here are a few of my favorite bits (SPOILERS, obv) ….

  1. The grand escape from the prison. Even though I knew the basic storyline before reading — in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen at least one movie, even if I don’t remember it/them at all — I was still surprised by the sheer thrill of Edmond’s daring escape plan and his unexpected plunge into the stormy ocean. (Although… didn’t the abbé tell Edmond to give him 12 drops of the potion after his 3rd seizure to attempt to revive him, yet the dumbass only gave him 10? Or was that a translation error in this edition? Because, uh, that’s not a minor detail.)
  2. One entire chapter was devoted just to a dude getting high on hashish and having some kind of epic wet dream.
  3. Albert just generally being a sweet summer child. He wants so badly to have a fling while travelling in Italy but can’t even manage it — until he falls head over heels for a notorious bandit’s lover and allows himself to be tricked into getting kidnapped. Then he somehow manages to fall asleep while being held for ransom with the promise of execution if it can’t be paid. All this after he declared that he didn’t even believe in bandits! And he loves his mamma so dang much. The precious boy will do anything to keep her happy, and in the end he has to sacrifice quite a lot in order to do so. Such a beautiful cinnamon roll.
  4. Everyone faints all the time. Every single named character faints or nearly faints at least once. Except for the butch lesbian.
  5. Speaking of the butch lesbian, yes, this novel involves lesbians. One of them dresses as a dude and somehow gets away with it… until she’s caught in bed with her lady lover/piano teacher… by her 2nd ex-fiancé, a con artist on the run from the law. Anyway, these ladies are 2 of only 6 characters to actually get a happy ending, if you don’t count the aforementioned slight embarrassment.
  6. Do I even need to tell you how satisfying the Count’s revenge was? Multiple counts of revenge, and happily guilty of every single one. Well, no, he wasn’t 100 % happy with certain events, and frankly this wishy-washy, “Does God approve of my avenging angel plans or nah???” nonsense got a bit tiresome. But for the most part the whole revenge thing was extremely satisfying.
  7. Don’t forget about all the funny little bits that make this more than just an overly long adventure novel. The book is a pleasure to read because Dumas makes the reader feel like you’re in on the plot and you know all the inside jokes. I don’t think he ever went so far as to have the characters flat-out break the fourth wall, but some passages are written in such a way that I could practically hear the author having a good chuckle about the whole thing.

– – –


Just to give you a little of the flavor that I found so amusing ….

He did not perceive that his friend was in the slightest concerned. On the contrary, he was paying the meal the compliment that one would expect from a man who has been condemned for four or five months to suffer Italian cooking (which is among the worst in the world).


The Turks — so picturesque in the old days with their long, brightly coloured robes — are now hideous in their blue buttoned frock-coats and those Greek hats which make them look line wine bottles with red tops. Don’t you agree?


As the steward had said, the notary was waiting in the antechamber — a respectable-looking Parisian assistant solicitor elevated to the insurmountable dignity of a pettifogging suburban lawyer.


This was accepted in society, where it was attributed to the amount and gravity of the lawyer’s business — when it was, in reality, a deliberate arrogance, an extreme example of aristocratic contempt, in short, the application of the maxim: ‘Admire yourself and others will admire you’, a hundred times more useful in our days than the Greek one: ‘Know thyself’, which has now been replaced by the less demanding and more profitable art of knowing others.


Mlle Danglars was still the same: that is to say, beautiful, cold, and contemptuous. Not a single glance or sigh from Andrea escaped her, but they appeared to be deflected by the breastplate of Minerva, which philosophers sometimes say in fact covered the breast of Sappho.


Beauchamp was in an office which was dark and dusty, as newspaper offices are from the day they open for business.


‘Well, while we were sleeping, from twelve to one…’
‘Convicts taking a siesta! Poor creatures!’ said the abbé.
‘Dammit,’ said Caderousse. ‘No one can work all the time. We are not dogs.’
‘Fortunately for the dogs,’ said Monte Cristo.


‘All men are scoundrels and I am happy to be able to do more than hate them: now I despise them.’


Danglars thought for a moment. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
‘Did the leader tell you to treat me this way?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But my money will run out.’

And let’s not forget the most delightful chapter title:

How to Rescue a Gardener From Dormice Who Are Eating His Peaches

– – –

Uh, except for this bullshit

There was only one thing that I somewhat disliked about The Count of Monte Cristo, though I’m inclined to partially forgive it as a mere reflection of the values of the time the book was written in. I’m talking about the supposedly loving or merciful way that the Count treats 2 particular women, which is clearly meant to make him seem kind and fair and righteous, but which — for me — only highlighted an outdated double standard made possible by the sort of infantilization/objectification of adult women that was a normal part of European culture at the time.

Mercédès, Edmond’s fiancée prior to his imprisonment, assumed he was dead or lost forever and she ended up marrying one of his enemies, whom she thought was a friend. The poor woman

  • lost the man she loved,
  • married a presumed friend only because society expected it of her,
  • lived a dull life with this man for many years and provided for him a son/heir like any good wife should,
  • discovered far too late that the man she loved had survived and blamed her for infidelity,
  • watched this man help ruin her husband’s admittedly ill-got fortune and her stability along with it,
  • had to beg her long lost lover not to kill her son,
  • and was ultimately driven back to near poverty in the town where she grew up,
  • with her son running off joining the military to atone for his father’s sins,
  • where she survived only by the mercy of a small amount of money provided by the count that was originally meant to have been a gift to her on their ruined wedding day,
  • while she prays to God to forgive her for being unfaithful.

And this is all seen as her just desserts because she didn’t pine away and die of sorrow while Edmond was in prison. That ain’t right. I stopped feeling sorry for the Count well before the end of the book, but I never stopped feeling sorry for Mercédès.

The other woman that I think gets the short end of the stick in this story is Haydée, the Count’s slave girl. That’s right, he has a slave girl. Who used to be a princess! In fact, the Count bought her as a child and practically raised her like a daughter… except for the whole “slave” thing. But wait, it gets even grosser, because:

The count felt his breast swell and his heart fill. He opened his arms and Haydée threw herself into them with a cry. ‘Oh, yes! Oh, yes I love you!’ she said. ‘I love you as one loves a father, a brother, a husband! I love you as one loves life, and loves God, for you are to me the most beautiful, the best and greatest of created beings!’

That’s right, this girl that has up until now thought of her owner as a father figure or older brother is now supposed to see him as a lover. Um, how about NO. That is not how the human brain works. That is gross. That is not allowed. Je refuse.

– – –


Anyway, other than the weird slut shaming of a super not-slutty character and the yucky pseudo-incest… I really liked this book! So much ridiculous melodrama!

I don’t have any other Dumas on my Classics Club reading list, so I’m trying to decide whether I want to go ahead and read some other stuff by this author anyway or if I ought to wait a while and stick some other Dumas titles on my next Classics Club list (if I ever do another one).

Have you read The Count of Monte Cristo — and if you have, did you like it as much as I did? What about other works by Alexandre Dumas?


Publication information: Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Source: Owned, original source unknown.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Invention of Science
by David Wootton

November 6, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750 by David Wootton | December 2015 | Harper | Hardcover $35.00

We live in a world transformed by scientific discovery. Yet today, science and its practitioners have come under political attack. In this fascinating history spanning continents and centuries, historian David Wootton offers a lively defense of science, revealing why the Scientific Revolution was truly the greatest event in our history.

The Invention of Science goes back five hundred years in time to chronicle this crucial transformation, exploring the factors that led to its birth and the people who made it happen. Wootton argues that the Scientific Revolution was actually five separate yet concurrent events that developed independently, but came to intersect and create a new worldview. Here are the brilliant iconoclasts — Galileo, Copernicus, Brahe, Newton, and many more curious minds from across Europe — whose studies of the natural world challenged centuries of religious orthodoxy and ingrained superstition.

Note the first: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through Edelweiss.
Note the second: Uh, this review is unreasonably long. I got a bit carried away. You have been warned.

In the beginning

The book begins with a quick overview of the Scientific Revolution and its numerous effects on the modern world. It goes on to describe the historical and philosophical arguments for the very idea of a Scientific Revolution, including some rejections or redefinitions of the idea from modern scholars. The author makes the point that, unlike the American or French Revolutions, “which were called revolutions as they happened,” the Scientific Revolution is a comparatively recent idea, described by post-atom-bomb scientists/historians who saw in their own time an echo or reflection of the major advancements or upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (-ish) in Europe.

The redefinition of “science” over the years was quite interesting. Once upon a time, things like theology and philosophy were considered sciences. Science was essentially any theoretical system, generally accompanied by some practical skill — its associated art. Astronomy was a science; astrology was the equally valid art based on it. Politics and law were the “arts” that developed when the concepts of the “science” of moral philosophy were applied in practical scenarios; medicine was the “art” associated with the “science” of natural philosophy (here used to refer to observations of the natural world rather than ruminations on the nature of existence… you can see how this can all get rather confusing for the modern interpreter).  Furthermore, there was a hierarchy of these sciences, with theology naturally being the most valued and dominant. Which brings me to one of the most interesting passages in the book:

A basic description of the Scientific Revolution is to say that it represented a successful rebellion by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers, and of both against the authority of the theologians.

I had a little chuckle to myself about the early arguments against the term “scientist” for one who practices the natural sciences. It is, as the author puts it, “an illegitimate hybrid of Latin and Greek” which most of the earliest scientists generally rejected. The English language is now so full of these anachronisms that nobody notices or cares about them anymore.

– – –


I think that some of the concepts and occurrences discussed in this book have helped me understand why so many people, even in this day and age, have a difficult time accepting the idea of authoritative science (and the big “issues” that go along with that — evolution by means of natural selection, for example). If the greatest philosophers and scholars of the ages have continually argued over what science even is, much less the specific value of certain scientific advancements, how can your Average Joe hope to understand or be expected to accept unfamiliar, sometimes complicated or nuanced concepts? Especially given the sorry state of science education in many of our most disadvantaged public schools?

A part of the book briefly touches on philosophical relativism as it applies to the very idea of science, which gave me terrible flashbacks to a Philosophy of Science class that I attempted (and dropped) as an undergrad. It’s a pretty significant part of the focus of modern historians, but I just could not get into it. Relativism sort of short-circuits my brain. Maybe someone with a more open mind can make sense of this.

One particular philosophical viewpoint (the “strong programme”) is that our ideas of how the universe works are necessarily limited by our language; if we have no way to describe something, we cannot fully understand it. Further, basically every description or idea is a mere language game, no more inherently valid than any other. But Wootton makes his case thus:

A revolution of ideas requires a revolution in language. It is thus simple to test the claim that there was a Scientific Revolution in the 17th century by looking for the revolution in language that must have accompanied it. The revolution in language is indeed the best evidence that there really was a revolution in science.

In other words, the expansion of language necessarily follows the expansion of understanding; just because we have no words for something doesn’t mean we can’t observe it, think about it, or eventually figure out how to name it. Furthermore, the author postulates that all “language games” are not equal, and that this view of evidence-based science as a philosophy that is just as limited as any other ignores its very insistence on impartiality and application across (or outside of, or in spite of) cultures.

As you can see, a great deal of this book is dedicated to the exploration of philosophical approaches to understanding the history of science rather than only on a just-the-facts timeline of events.

Likewise, a great deal of the author’s energy was spent on the etymology of the words we now use to express scientific and science-adjacent ideas, like evidence and discovery. This might sound a bit boring, as though the narrative is simply made up of OEM citations or something, but in reality the way that the author traces the usage of science-y language is rather fascinating.


Illustration from the book, with commentary by author

– – –


The final part of the book (well, prior to the Conclusion, where the author takes 3 extra chapters to reiterate several previous points) addresses the consequences of the Scientific Revolution for the modern world, particularly in relation to the Industrial Revolution. Machines — both the “simple machines of mathematicians” (the pulley, the lever, and so on) and the later mechanical inventions that were made possible by a fundamental shift in our understanding of the way nature works — are the real focus of this section. The Industrial Revolution, and thus all of our modern Western culture, would not have been possible if not for the invention of the methodical, evidence-based approach the natural world that we now think of as science.

The rise of one particular machine, the printing press, happened nearly simultaneously with the Scientific Revolution. This is no coincidence. Just as the spark of curiosity set fire to humanity’s old ideas of the world, it produced a machine that could spread that fire further and faster than ever before.

This was the most fascinating section of the book to me, not just because of the discussion of the practical consequences of the invention of science, but because of the discussion of the theological consequences (the two being inherently tied together). The teleological argument from design (the “watchmaker argument”) is discussed at some length here because a machine-focused science naturally lead the assumption that anything “mechanic,” whether it be a human body or the motions of the stars, was assumed to necessarily have had a creator or guiding force. Of course, the Scientific Revolution also bolstered arguments to the contrary: that non-observable forces (much less a force with a personality, like the God of Christianity) could have not place in a universe made up of observable, quantifiable pieces. If a piece was being manipulated or made, it was due to a bigger or more complicated piece of the machinery of the world, not a divine influence.

Where once questions of the existence of gods and their nature were mere thought exercises of philosophers who assumed the existence of an eternal, unchanging universe, the Scientific Revolution opened the floor to arguments based on new (or heavily modified) scientific rationalizations. This “disenchantment of the world” (a lovely phrase!) included a decline in the belief in magic, haunting spirits, witchcraft, and so on. The founding of serious scientific societies and schools, with their sanctioned missions to defeat ignorance or uncover the secrets of the natural world, can be seen as both a cause and a reflection of this profound belief shift.

A side note: I thought it was very fitting that the author should spend some time on the work of his namesake, William Wotton, who in 1705 wrote the first analysis of the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution. Talk about a family legacy!

– – –


Here’s another little side note: I was a tiny bit disappointed that this book did not discuss in any depth any non-European scientific advances. Of course the concept of THE Scientific Revolution is a European one. But, for example, only passing mention was ever made of the famously advanced Arab medicine, a comparatively evidence-based practice that gave us important ideas and techniques still in use in the modern world. Anyway, I imagine that there are other books out there that include more information on the worldwide history of science, and now that my interest is piqued I’ll be looking for them!

Also, fair warning that this book is pretty dang dense, as befits a well-researched and well-argued collection of thoughts on a somewhat contentious topic. Besides the actual content, it includes a ton of notes and a very impressive list of sources. It’s certainly “readable” in my opinion, but this isn’t something I’d personally like to curl up with for a bit of light leisure reading. I read it bit by bit during my lunch breaks at work, and it was perfect for keeping boredom at bay during those quick little snippets of time.

The Invention of Science will be released in early December here in the US (it’s already out in the UK). I think it would make a great Christmas gift for any science-y type person in your life, so preorder it now to be sure that you’ll have it in time for the holidays.


Publication information: Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750. New York: Harper, 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 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.

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 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.

Under a Painted Sky
by Stacey Lee

March 2, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee | G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group | March 2015 | Hardcover $16.99

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician — not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. […] This debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

I was pleasantly surprised by Under a Painted Sky. Here’s the thing: I’m not into “Westerns” (in the traditional genre sense, involving cowboys and pioneers and the like). Yeah, I know, I bring a deep shame upon my über-Texas family. Such is my burden.

Anyway, I wasn’t sure about the whole Oregon Trail/California Gold Rush angle but I requested a review copy anyway for 2 reasons:

  1. The publisher bills this as “a powerful tale of friendship and sacrifice for fans of Code Name Verity” and even though I haven’t read that one yet I did read its companion novel, Rose Under Fire and liked it very much.
  2. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the need for more diversity in publishing, especially in children’s/teen books, and I want to put more effort into reading/promoting books with diverse characters. The main POV character in Under a Painted Sky is of Chinese descent in an era when being anything other than “white” in America was terribly difficult and dangerous.

Under a Painted Sky comes out in about 2 weeks on March 17, 2015. This review is based on an e-ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Pay close attention to the term “heart-wrenching” in that summary quoted up above. It is not an exaggeration. I was fooled by the colorful, almost cheerful cover. The cover is a LIE. This book will rip your heart out.

Lee doesn’t shy away from the realities of racism, disease, natural disasters, and general violence in the Wild West. No one is safe and nothing is sacred. The main characters (the two runaway girls and their cowboy friends) experience serious danger and hard losses.

That said, there is a healthy dose of humor and sweetness to go along with the horrors. It’s not all bad. One of the best things about this book is the way the characters’ relationships develop. I think it is quite obvious to the reader that the cowboys have guessed at Sammy and Andy’s big gender-bender secret well before the end of the book, but Sammy and Andy don’t know that and so they go on pretending… and some of the predicaments they deal with because of this disguise are definitely giggle-worthy.

Under a Painted Sky gets extra points from me for just being so different from everything else that’s currently big in the teen book publishing arena right now. Perhaps the comparison to Code Name Verity is a good one. Here’s an historical fiction book that’s obviously well-researched and fairly historically accurate, but it is so full of adventure and OMGFEELS that it won’t feel like just some boring history/ethics lesson.

I highly recommend this book, with the fair warning that Lee does use historically accurate racial slurs on occasion (though within a sensitively handled context), plus some sexual situations/language — nothing too shocking in comparison to most modern YA books. Even though I got to borrow an e-book pre-pub version, I think I’m going to buy a paper copy for myself to keep. Plus, I might get to rub shoulders with the author at the TLA conference in April!

Here’s the author blurb from the review copy:


Publication information: Lee, Stacey. Under a Painted Sky. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015. EPUB.
Source: This review is based on an e-ARC that I received from the publisher via NetGalley.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.