Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Johnston Flood - David McCullough

Summary:  The stunning story of one of America's great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation's burgeoning industrial prosperity. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam. Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing through Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal. 

Graced by David McCullough's remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly. (Summary and cover from goodreads.com)

My Review: I read David McCullough's book, John Adams, a few years ago for a book club. I was so impressed with his writing and research and knowledge of the topic that I really wanted to read another of his. I wasn’t aware of his book The Johnstown Flood until I heard a podcast about the flood, so when the podcast referenced it, I was really excited.

 Reading McCullough is an intense experience and The Johnstown Flood is no exception. The book starts out slowly, but McCullough uses those pages to give an incredible back-story, covering everything from the people involved, to the time period, to the political situation, to the history of the town. He doesn't beat around the bush. I admit that it was a little slow-going at first, but by the time things start to pick up, you definitely know all details surrounding the flood. As soon as it starts raining, however, and the imminent danger of the flood becomes apparent, the book gets really exciting. Because here's the great thing: by the time the action really gets going, you know the people, you know the details, you know the history and the politics, and so when the flood actually does happen, you're invested. And that's perhaps the best thing about McCullough—not only does he give you every minute detail, but he writes them in such a way that it’s understandable and thorough and you can't help but understand what it would have been like to experience the Johnstown flood. Even after hearing the podcast, I had no idea of the extent of the flood, let alone the key players who would go on to change American history; knowing those things is the difference between simply having heard about the Johnstown flood to actually knowing about the Johnstown flood.

McCullough, as a writer, is extremely proficient. His language is beautiful and clear without the unnecessary baggage of many other academic writers. Although I set off knowing full well what it would be like to read a another McCullough book, I was impressed again at how easily he incorporates details and facts into his writing. It makes history come alive, and that’s what’s great about this book. I knew what the Johnstown Flood was. I was familiar with McCullough's writing and style, but I was pleasantly surprised again to experience an author who is a master at his craft.

My Rating:  4 Stars


For the sensitive reader: As with many true disaster writings, there is tragedy and loss of life in sometimes horrific ways. This book is not unnecessarily graphic and treats those situations with respect.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A is for Abinadi - Heidi Poelman

Summary:  In this adorably illustrated alphabet book, children will discover stories o the amazing men and women in the scriptures.  Each page features a letter from the alphabet that corresponds to a hero from the Bible or Book of Mormon.  For added fun, readers can search for hidden objects that start with that letter, too.

Use this book to teach your children power examples of courage, obedience, faith, and friendship.  Your children will love learning about spiritual heroes form Abinadi to Zoram, while practicing their ABCs! (Image from goodreads.com, summary from the back of the book.  A copy of the book was provided to me in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review:  It's no secret that getting LDS-based scripture books is a little more difficult in Texas than it was when we lived in Utah.  But with three young ones at home, I had to have this book!  We piled on the couch and had a great time reading it.  The illustrations are hilarious - for example, Daniel and the lions are dancing while one plays the drums and another eats a donut.  The bricks on Captain Moroni's wall each have a "C" theme.  Some angered Nephite was so enraged with Samuel the Lamanite, he threw a skunk.  All three of my kids loved looking for the hidden objects in the illustrations while I read about the highlighted prophet. They continued to fight over the copy long after we were finished reading.

We love having a well-stocked church bag, and this is a welcome and wonderful addition.  Not only are my children learning the basics about the prophets, scripture heroes, and key events in the scriptures, they are wholly engaged by the book.  The descriptions are well-suited for children, not too long, well-written, and geared to pique their interest in the scriptures.  As a mom, I don't think I could ask for more from this book!

My Rating:   Five stars

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Straw into Gold - Gary D. Schmidt

Summary:  What fills a hand fuller than a skein of gold? By order of the king, two boys, Tousle and Innes, must find the answer to this puzzling riddle within seven days or be killed. A former nursemaid to the queen’s child tells the boys that the banished queen may have the answer they seek. Danger presents itself at every turn, for the boys are pursued by the Great Barons, who are secretly plotting against the king. Another pursuer, the greedy King’s Grip, reveals a strange story of a little man who once spun straw into gold of incredible beauty for the queen but then disappeared with her firstborn son. Tousle realizes that the man he calls Da is the strange little man and, even more amazing, that he himself may be the lost prince. Or could it be Innes, who although cruelly blinded can hear the music of the dawn?
This skillful blend of fantasy and adventure reveals what might have happened before the queen makes her third and last guess and the story of Rumpelstiltskin—as we know it—ends. (Image and Summary from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Tousle has lived in the meadow surrounded by forest as long as he can remember.  His Da, a funny little man who seems to have a bit of magic about him, has always been protective and more than a little enigmatic about Tousle's past.  However, as Da says, that which has already been woven is about to pass.  Within minutes of first arriving in the capitol city, Tousle's life, and the lives of numerous "rebels", are at risk.  Worse, Da has disappeared.

Gary D. Schmidt puts his unique telling on a fairy tale we all know and does a masterful job recreating Rumplestiltskin's story to be one of love, protection, and redemption.  This is a short book - under 200 pages - and I didn't want to put it down.  The relationships that the characters develop, the riddles and puzzles and intrigue from multiple sources, the perfect reimagining of Rumplestiltskin's character, I fell in love with the story all over again.  The way that Schmidt crafts his story kept me guessing--not an easy thing to do.

Schmidt is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors.  He has a wonderful way with words and such an optimistic way of telling a real story.  This is definitely a story I could hand my eight year, or a reluctant reader, and know they'd be enthralled.

My Rating:  Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This is an incredible story, but Schmidt realizes that not everyone is good.  There are a few battle scenes.  Both boys are shot by either an arrow or a javelin at one point.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Sanity-Saving Announcement

We are absolutely thrilled to introduce the newest addition to the Reading for Sanity team, reviewer Ashley Rayback!  We look forward to getting to know her better, as well as to getting a peek at her bookshelves!

Without further ado, let's meet her!  


I  have always loved reading. Growing up, I read anything and everything, though I almost forgot how to read for fun when I was working on my Masters of Public Administration (MPA). A random book club invitation during that fateful time reminded me of that love and I've never looked back.

Now, I'm a member of two book clubs and am a voracious reader on my own, choosing from a wide range of genres and styles that are almost as varied as the many facets of my private life. I'm a wife and a mother to three little hooligans, a professional harpist, a piano teacher, a mighty huntress with my dad, a somewhat willing member of PTA, and more. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cress - Marissa Meyer

Summary:  In this book in the Lunar Chronicles, Cinder and Captain Thorne are fugitives on the run, now with Scarlet and Wolf in tow.  Together, they're plotting to overthrow Queen Levana and her army.

Their best hope lies with Cress, a girl imprisoned on a satellite since childhood who's only ever had her netscreens as company.  All that screen time has made Cress an excellent hacker.  Unfortunately, she's just received orders from Levana to track down Cinder and her handsome accomplice.

When a daring rescue of Cress goes awry, the group is separated.  Cress finally has her freedom, but it comes at a high price.  Meanwhile, Queen Levana will let nothing prevent her marriage to Emperor Kai.  Cress, Scarlet, and Cinder may not have signed up  to save the world, but they may be the only hope the world has.  (Summary from book jacket and image from http://goodreads.com/)

My Review:  I am thoroughly enjoying how Marissa Meyer is weaving old fashioned fairy tales into a futuristic series.  Cress takes us even deeper into the Lunar Chronicles.  I always fear giving too much away with reviews of series books.  If you're even the slightest bit worried I might spoil it for you, please quit reading.  The last thing I'd want is to ruin this series for someone since it's been so fun to read.

I will start by saying that Cress was far longer than the previous two books.  While this is expected when so many characters are combined and their storylines intertwined, I also think there was probably less editing on this one (similar to how Harry Potter ended up...).  That said, the beginning was a bit slower for me to jump into--it had also been a while since I'd read Scarlet and Cinder, which means the cobwebs were being dusted off in the process as well.  Once the rising action started to build significantly, I had a hard time putting the book down.  Meyer does a nice job of throwing in just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, but not enough to seem unreasonable.

Her characters are of typical depth for YA lit, but aren't your typical "I'm falling in love at the drop of a hat with a bad boy" that seems to dominate the YA world.  Her characters are dealing with difficult decisions and they take them seriously.  There are even descriptions of the characters feeling shock after traumatic situations--again not something you always see in YA lit.  Is it all believable?  No.  But this is futuristic and fairytale.  I love that I can suspend disbelief and enjoy a world where our previous notions of fairytale stories are shaped into a new form.

There's an aspect to these books that I feel I need to expound upon because I have been so pleased with it. I am loving these strong female protagonists!  The emphasis for all three women (Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress) is not on their beauty, but on their intelligence and what they can do.  How refreshing for today's girls!  It's so, SO important to focus on what girls can do and think, and not just their looks; especially when today's media says otherwise.  Girls are bombarded daily with a perfect image from a very young age.  I'm not immune to wanting to look my best, but I also want my daughters to know that that's not everything.  Thank heavens there are good books to help guide our daughters as well (thank you Hermoine from HP for being a great start amongst many others).  Cinder also brings into play the consideration of not being beautiful by societal standards.  Just because you don't look like what's on the cover of the magazine doesn't mean you're not beautiful and worthwhile.  Additionally, Cinder brings up the comparison of inferiority perceptions based on race.  I truly hope this spurs young readers to consider the implications of prejudice.

I am truly looking forward to the next installment, Winter (2015?!  Really?).  I just hope we don't have to wait too long!

Lastly, I just have to share this last little piece of goodness: Marissa Meyer has a great website.  After searching through it for more information on Winter, I found this little Gem.  The Little Android (a version of The Little Mermaid) that you can read for free online!  Check it out!

For the sensitive reader:  There are a couple kiss scenes, depictions of violence and death (but not graphic), and talk of deception and lies.  

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up:  Take Rapunzel, throw her story into a futuristic earth and moon world, combine a version of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, and you get this fantastic piece of YA lit.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

If You Were Me and Lived in ... India - Carole P. Roman

Summary:  Let's travel to India! Land of bright colors and delicious spices, If You Were Me and Lived in...India, takes young readers on a road trip to learn about this interesting place. Children will learn how to say mommy and daddy, what type of currency is used, games that youngsters play and a lot of interesting facts about the beautiful land of India. If You Were Me and Lived in...India adds this ethnically diverse country to the growing, award winning series that is out to cover the entire globe, teaching children about culture and customs all over the world. The ForeWord Review, Clarion Review gave "If You Were Me and Lived in...Kenya" a coveted five star ranking. The first book in the series, If You Were Me and Lived in...Mexico" received the Pinnacle Award for Best in Children's Nonfiction 2012. (Image from author, summary from goodreads.com.  A copy of this book, and of Roman's other books in the series was provided in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review:  My children are fascinated with geography and other cultures.  They always love learning about other countries, their customs, foods, and languages.  Carole P. Roman's series "If You Were Me and Lived In ... " is a wonderful series to fuel any child's curiosity about other cultures.

Roman's books are fairly formulaic, which, for a child learning to read is wonderful.  My kids loved reading where they would visit if they lived in India, and got the biggest kick out of calling my husband and me "Paaji" and "Maaji" (daddy and mommy) for days.  They loved the illustrations (I did, as well.  The pages describing Holi are especially vibrant!), the applications to how they would live if they lived in India, and I think they memorized the handy pronunciation guide in the back.  I loved that they were so excited about learning more.  Roman writes in such a way to pique a child's interest, and it left my kids hankering for more information.  In fact, they've been on my case to make curry as soon as possible! 

These are definitely a book worth checking out soon.  I would love to see them in our school library, as the information provided is presented in a timeless manner.  

My Rating:  Five Stars


Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Legacy Letters - Carew Papritz

Summary:  From Our Family to You...

Out of the more than two hundred letters written by our father, our family eventually chose over forty for the publication of this particular book.  Our most difficult task was deciding not only which letters to leave in, but which to take out, for many are wise as others are magical, many enlightening, as others are haunting.

Throughout the years, these life letters, love letters, and spiritual letters have instructed us, inspired us, even helped define us.  Many have become family favorites.  Others are personally intimate.  Some are magnificent.  And all are truly revealing.  His words, much like the songs he also left to us, are soulful, curious, provocative, tragic, passionate, and timeless.

Through these letters, a man discovered his life.  In these letters, we found our father.  His final gift, to our mother and to us, changed our lives forever.  Yet we know this gift cannot end with us.  Now this gift must be given to you, the reader, to find your own wisdom, inspiration, and hope within these Legacy Letters - and hopefully and somehow changed forever.  (Book given free for review.  Summary from book jacket cover.  Image from http://www.thelegacyletters.com/)

My Review:  The above summary does a thorough enough job setting up the story, so I won't elaborate further.  Thinking about this though, wouldn't everyone want to have letters of advice from their father?  At least, I would hope you'd want advice from your father if he was a good man.  And even if you didn't have a father that could or would give you solid advice, this is a nice way of getting that kind of advice from another source.  We could all use to have a little perspective added to our lives.  Because it truly isn't until you know you're going to lose everything that you evaluate deeply what matters in life and how you want to spend your time. 

I think this book should be read slowly; for example, a letter a day.  When you're reading it like a novel, it loses its substance.  Each letter is full of imagery and descriptive language.  Surrounding these descriptions are a lifetime's worth of advice.  While I appreciated the advice, I've never been one who has enjoyed long-winded writing.  It's just not my taste. I do know there are many out there who thoroughly enjoy a verbose description of ones surroundings and such.  Therefore, if you're a fan of Dickens, but don't like how much of a downer most of his stories are, this might be the book for you.  If you like Tolkien, but need a break from fantasy, this might be the book for you.  While I enjoyed the idea behind the book and the sentiment, I can't say I thoroughly enjoyed it.
 
For the sensitive reader:  A few swear words here and there, but mostly of the Biblical sort.

Rating: 3.5 stars--a bit too romantic (not the lovey-dovey romantic, but more of the classic Romeo and Juliet, drawn to intense emotion romantic) and verbose for my tastes.

Sum it up:  A sentimental compilation of letters meant as advice for life.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Book Club Selections

Mindy sent me a list of amazing books if you're looking for a good read for Book Club.  Check it out!  http://www.readinggroupguides.com/features/special-feature/share-your-2013-picks

Thanks to Reading Group Guides for putting it together!!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

GUEST POST: Angelfall - Susan Ee

A warm welcome to guest reviewer, Lara Zierke! 

Summary:  It’s been six weeks since angels of the apocalypse descended to demolish the modern world. Street gangs rule the day while fear and superstition rule the night. When warrior angels fly away with a helpless little girl, her seventeen-year-old sister Penryn will do anything to get her back. Anything, including making a deal with Raffe, an injured enemy angel. Traveling through a dark and twisted Northern California, they journey toward the angels’ stronghold in San Francisco, where Penryn will risk everything to rescue her sister and Raffe will put himself at the mercy of his greatest enemies for the chance to be made whole again. (Image and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review:  When Penryn sees five angels ganging up on one to cut off his wings, she can’t help but intervene—even if every angel is considered the enemy. As a result, her young wheelchair-bound sister is kidnapped by the angels and Penryn makes a shaky pact with the injured angel, Raffe—she’ll help him survive without his wings if he takes her to the angels’ stronghold so she can find her sister.
Together, they survive street gangs, starvation, a strange human resistance camp, Penryn’s psychotic mother, and flesh-eating demons as they both get closer to the angels’ aerie in San Francisco.
Despite their friendship—and a blossoming romantic tension—their truce has an expiration date. Angels are forbidden to fall in love with humans, and Raffe (the archangel Raphael, known as the Wrath of God) is the one who punishes angels for doing so. Besides, Penryn is too headstrong to fall for the enemy. She struggles with the moralities of war as she turns her back on the resistance movement to help the enemy. She doesn’t know what’s right or wrong anymore, all she knows is that however broken it is, she needs her family back.

It’s been a week since I’ve read this book (and I’ve read three books since) and I am still thinking about it. The characters are immensely complex and fascinating. Penryn is very likely my favorite tough-girl heroine ever. Strong, compassionate, decisive, feminine, flawed, and not annoying. Raffe makes an excellent counter-character, though as the “strong, silent type” I’d really like to get inside his head more. The book opens with action and never lets up, sucking you in from the first paragraph.

My rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: A good amount of fighting and violence (though not described explicitly). This definitely has some darkness to it that could easily be the stuff of nightmares.


Sum it up: A captivating mash-up of urban paranormal and dystopian genres—think Hunger Games meets City of Bones but without annoying heroines. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Dragon King - Nils Johnson-Shelton

Summary:  The exhilarating final book in the Otherworld Chronicles trilogy, whichSchool Library Journal called "a surefire hit with the legions of Rick Riordan fans."

Artie Kingfisher, his sister, Kay, and the New Knights of the Round Table have finally reached the legendary isle of Avalon. But before Artie can take his place as King Arthur reborn, he must recover nothing less than the mythical Holy Grail. And as the greatest battle of his life looms, Artie finds himself facing off against the one person he never dreamed he'd be fighting.

In The Dragon King, Artie's life-changing quest comes to a spectacular close as the young king discovers what it truly means to be a hero. Rich in mythology and bursting with twenty-first-century fun, this high-spirited spin on Arthurian legend is perfect for middle grade fans of Percy Jackson, the Alex Rider Chronicles, and House of Secrets.   (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book at no cost in exchange for my opinion.) 

My Review:  Spoilers.  Warning.  There will be SPOILERS.  I can't write a real review of this book without SPOILERS.  (Granted, these are spoilers only if you haven't read the first two, reviewed here and here.  If you're caught up, no worries.)




Did I mention the spoilers?  





Oh, my goodness, Merlin!?  I don't think I've ever been so grateful I had a whole series to devour at once, because an evil Merlin?!  I've got to quote Junie B.  Wowie, wow wow!  I was flabbergasted that Johnson-Shelton went there, but to have Merlin's parentage (his father was a demon in most legends, hence his amazing power) actually brought to the forefront of the series and the way that the author handled it was amazing. 

I am a sucker for a good retelling, and the approach that Johnson-Shelton took to the whole Arthurian legend has been a pleasant surprise from the start.  This book, the final book in the series, was an amazing story full of betrayal, amazing quests, redemption, and sacrifice - both of a personal and a collective nature.  Again, it's darker than its predecessors, but it never felt unnecessarily so.   I found myself on the edge of my seat during the final battle scene - Artie and his knights were faced with so many daunting challenges and it highlighted their nobility well.

Even more, I loved the strength that Artie's father and Qwon's mother leant to the group.  There is a disturbing trent in YA/Children's novels that the parents are either mindless automatons or doofuses in order to provide a contrast for the brilliant and amazing protagonists.  Parents aren't the main characters here, but Johnson-Shelton has done an incredible job writing supportive, strong, and loving parental figures in this series.

However, the final resolution - that last chapter - felt so harried and rushed that it didn't ring true.  I had to keep reminding myself that this is a children's series, and they probably don't want lingering conflict (um, I mean room for growth), but it very much felt like "And then they won and everything was magically perfect and nothing went wrong ever again, hooray!", and it just didn't ring true to me.  But up to that point?  Masterfully written.

My Rating:  3.75 stars.  Would have been 4.5, but for that last chapter.

For the Sensitive Reader:  Merlin enslaves children through the playing of video games and uses them as soldiers.  None are harmed, but the principle was creepy.  Again, battle scenes and some pretty heart-breaking deaths (of both humans and dragons).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

GUEST POST: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon - Alexander McCall Smith

Please join us in welcoming Ashley Rayback!

Summary: Modern ideas get tangled up with traditional ones in the latest intriguing installment in the beloved, best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. 

Precious Ramotswe has taken on two puzzling cases. First she is approached by the lawyer Mma Sheba, who is the executor of a deceased farmer’s estate. Mma Sheba has a feeling that the young man who has stepped forward may be falsely impersonating the farmer’s nephew in order to claim his inheritance. Mma Ramotswe agrees to visit the farm and find out what she can about the self-professed nephew. Then the proprietor of the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon comes to Mma Ramotswe for advice. The opening of her new salon has been shadowed by misfortune. Not only has she received a bad omen in the mail, but rumors are swirling that the salon is using dangerous products that burn people’s skin. Could someone be trying to put the salon out of business? 

Meanwhile, at the office, Mma Ramotswe has noticed something different about Grace Makutsi lately. Though Mma Makutsi has mentioned nothing, it has become clear that she is pregnant . . . But in Botswana—a land where family has always been held above all else—this may be cause for controversy as well as celebration. 

With genuine warmth, sympathy, and wit, Alexander McCall Smith explores some tough questions about married life, parenthood, grief, and the importance of the traditions that shape and guide our lives. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon is the fourteenth book (I know, right?!) in the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series.  I’ve read every book in this series, and so not only consider myself an aficionado on all things Precious Ramotswe, but am obviously a very big fan.

Let me start by saying this—if you haven’t read the series, you should. You don't need to read them all or read them in order to understand what’s going on, but you’ll probably want to. They’re well-written, insightful, kind, and wise. Although they are technically mystery books, I’d venture to say that they're about much more than that. They explore friendship and relationships and human nature in a subtle, poignant way that I love.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon is a good installment because it goes into depth about the two main characters and their relationship. In the midst of normal goings-on in life, the book helps us understand what others mean to us and why, and explores the ways in which we support or tear down those around us.  One of my favorite things about this series is McCall Smith’s simple, beautiful insights. They’re quotable and everywhere in the books. I find myself thinking about them quite a bit long after the read is over.

These books are also, ultimately, about Africa. They’re a very interesting look into another culture, another place, another people. McCall Smith obviously has a deep love and understanding of Africa and of Botswana, and after reading this series, I very much appreciate Botswana and its culture and beauty. This book, more than others in the series, challenges traditional versus new views, which is a constant issue in Botswana and Africa as a whole.

My rating: 5 stars


For the sensitive reader: These books are clean. In this particular book there is an issue of incest discussed in brief, vague terms.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage - Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith

Summary: Nick and Tesla return in an all-new, robot-filled adventure! 

When a rash of robberies hits the town of Half Moon Bay, 11-year-old sleuths Nick and Tesla are determined to catch the criminals—but to do so, they'll have to build a host of new gadgets and gizmos! In this robot-themed follow-up to Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab, the brother-and-sister duo build four different droids out of ordinary household objects—and illustrated instructions are included throughout the story, so you can build them, too! Make bristlebots that buzz, hoverbots that float above the ground, battlebots that duke it out, and more! Can Nick and Tesla catch the criminal mastermind—and foil his army of rampaging robots—before it's too late?  (Summary from amazon.com, image from goodreads.com.  I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion.)


My Review:  If you don't remember, my son and I were completely smitten with the first adventure of Nick and Tesla.  In fact, we loved it so much that for my son's eighth birthday, he requested a Mad Science theme - in their honor.  We had a blast.  (I'm still recovering.)  It came as no shock, then, than when I asked my son if he'd like to read the second one, there was screaming, and shouting, and the kind of mayhem that only an extremely excited boy can execute.  (He stole my copy from me.  He also guarded it in his sleep!)

We join Nick and Tesla two weeks after their first adventure, and although life with Uncle Newt will never be boring, they've settled into their summer.  Until, however, their favorite shop The Wonder Hut is purchased by a former colleague of Uncle Newt's ... and things start inexplicably disappearing from the neighboring shops.  Why do our favorite scientists-in-training care?  Because their best friend, Silas, asks for their help.  His family's store was hit, and they'll lose everything if the stolen item isn't found.  Nick and Tesla can't let that happen!

Goodness, Pflugfelder and Hockensmith are a fantastic team.  The story they've created is fun, engaging, mysterious, and completely true to character.  The teamwork their characters have created is not only inspiring, it's so much fun to witness.   However, it's not all sunshine and rainbows - because reality isn't.  Our main characters miss their parents terribly.  Uncle Newt is great, but he's not the same, and Nick and Tesla haven't heard from their parents since they left for Uzbekistan.  The mystery behind their "work" deepens in this book.  Okay, that's enough of my review - want to hear what a science-obsessed boy thinks of it?

Charlie's Review: I really liked the experiments that Pflugfelder put in the book.  It's weird [REDACTED - SPOILERS!!] sets off the rampage.
Charlie's rating: Five Stars a lot of the funny plans help the good rating.

My Rating:  Five Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The word 'butt' is used a few times.  Since I'm strict with my kids' language, that stood out to me.  But that's me being nit-picky!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science - John Fleischman

Summary:  Phineas Gage was truly a man with a hole in his head. A railroad construction foreman, Phineas was blasting rock near Cavendish, Vermont, in 1848 when a thirteen-pound iron rod was shot through his brain. Miraculously, he survived another eleven years and became a textbook case in brain science. But he was forever changed by the accident, and what happened inside his brain will tell you a lot about how your brain works and what makes us who we are.  (Summary from amazon.com and image fromhttp://www.saratogareads.org/)

My Review:  Have you ever wondered how the brain works?  How it came to be that we know as much as we do about the brain before technology moved us ahead?  How we went from believing the heart governed the body to the brain?  Or are you simply looking for a book that could possibly capture the attention of your teenage child?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, I highly recommend picking up this book.

Phineas Gage is a captivating story about a young man who had it all going for him, only to have it come crashing down after a tragic accident that by most accounts should have killed him.  And it did.  But not for another ten or so years. That's not to say he left unscathed for those years in between.  In fact, most that knew him said he was almost an entirely different person after the accident.  So what happened?  Here's a Reader's Digest version: By a fluke accident, a metal rod, called a tamping iron, fell from his hands, landed on explosives set below him to blast a track for the railroad track he was working to build, and flew up and through his skull.  How he survived?  I'm going to make you read the book to find out.

This is young Phineas Gage after the accident holding the tamping iron.  (Image from mindhacks.com)  
Initially I was going to add more photos, but decided against it in case it offended an unsuspecting reader sensitive to images of this sort.  Feel free to Google his name if you're curious; you'll find lots of interesting pictures about what happened.

While most of the book follows Phineas' story, there is a lot of scientific information about the brain, how it works, and what we learned over time and from Phineas' story. I found this a pleasant surprise.  So much of what we know about the brain has evolved since Phineas' accident in the 1800's (lumps on the head indicating the type of person you are, etc.), and while it's sad to hear of someone loosing so much, I loved learning how it shaped what we know about our brains.

Great nonfiction is exploding onto the marketplace of libraries and classrooms (corny pun intended).  This is another example of one of those books.  If you have difficult to engage readers, ones who really don't get into a fictional tale, try handing him or her this.  My middle school students couldn't help but want to know more about how this tragic story ended and why he didn't die in the first place.  And honestly, so did I!

For the sensitive reader:  If you have a hard time with images depicting what could have happened, even though they are drawn, I recommend you skip certain pages in the book.  Otherwise, it's factual and clean.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up: A fascinating story of a brain injury that helped the world understand more about how the brain works.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

Summary: In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction—into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist—but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.

Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who—born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution—bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.
Summary and cover art from indiebound.org

My Review: Alma was an unexpected blessing, born to intellectual parents late in their lives. Being an only child she was raised more like a peer than a child. She is a wildly intelligent girl but also rather peculiar. This is her story beginning with her father's childhood in the 1760's and transcending over a century to the 1870's. Alma has a natural love for botany and finds reprieve in the natural challenges through her garden studies, especially in her study of mosses.  She is fluent in many languages and possesses a great aptitude for science, particularly biology. Her work in this field will eventually define her life.

The Signature of All Things could probably be most easiest defined as a heart-wrenching love story. Alma falls in love with two men over the course of her life but is also deeply in love with her work. As we can all relate to she faces a multitude of difficult decisions throughout her life. At times she is able to make a wise choice but at other times she chooses quite poorly. In hindsight the better path seems quite obvious but it is difficult to determine when closely viewed. Regardless the combined outcomes of her decisions, regardless of their seeming magnitude, shape her life for better or for worse.

There is a multitude of material to ponder over but above all else is the study of love and humanity. This book is bravely done, written with great pose and confidence. To tell a story of this magnitude is a huge feat but it is accomplished masterfully. This tale covers heartache and loss, self discovery and small triumphs. It ponders several universal questions, such as what sacrifices have others made unknown to you in order to ensure your happiness and, likewise, what desires have you smothered in order to ensure the happiness of others?

Overall I have mixed feelings on this one. It is somewhat anticlimactic. There are bouts of drama but they are almost overshadowed with large amounts of scientific and historical detail. Yet the writing is smart, artful, and easily accessible to the layman. The tale is incredibly thought-provoking and sticks with the reader long after the cover is closed. And it can't be denied that Gilbert has a talent for drawing one into her tales.

My Rating: 3 Stars

To sum it up: A highly researched historical novel that explores the impact of choices throughout a lifetime.

Sensitive readers: There are many sensuous moments explored in detail that may be uncomfortable.

Friday, March 7, 2014

John Smith: Last Known Survivor of the Microsoft Wars - Roland Hughes

Summary: What if the Mayans got the start of the end correct because they had survived it once before? What if our written history was just as accurate as the old tale about three blind men describing an elephant? What if classic science fiction writing and television shows each got a piece of it correct, would you know which ones? If your eyes can only see a tiny portion of a collage do you know it is a collage?

Fans of Babylon 5, Star Trek TNG, Battle Star Galactica (the new one) and classic science fiction writing will enjoy the bountiful Easter Egg hunt contained within. When you were a child you learned to connect paper clips or thread beads together to make a necklace. Sit back and watch the beads you’ve had all your life form the picture you could not see. Consider for one second the possibility of the story, then hang onto your mind with both hands while you take the ride.  (Summary and book cover from goodreads.com.  A copy of the book was provided for me in exchange for my honest review.) 

My Review:  "SK" shows up to a dwelling to interview the oldest living human about the "Microsoft Wars", a cataclysmic series of wars that changed the face of earth, essentially ending the world as we know it.  Her purpose is to provide her readers with a firsthand account of the end of the wars, in order to prevent them happening again.  John Smith was only 11 when his grandfather and he sealed themselves in a bunker at the end of the wars, but at nearly 80, he is the world's oldest man.

Roland Hughes writes John Smith as though the reader has obtained the transcript of the interview between "SK" and Smith.  While refreshing to read straight dialogue, there were times that I felt I would have identified or bonded with the characters more had I been privy to their mannerisms or other clues not available in a transcript.  I felt like the style of Hughes' writing was so disjointed and scattered that it took all of my brain power to follow where he may be heading.  I had none left over to develop the characters on my own, and I think that would have endeared them and their stories to me more.

As for the story itself, I am a fan of science fiction, and I was so intrigued as to the bones of Hughes' story.  Also, the title itself, Last Known Survivor of the Microsoft Wars, got my imagination racing.  However, given his propensity for jumping around from subject to subject, skipping forward and backward throughout time, and mixing pop culture as fact, I found this book very difficult to read.  (I just quit trying to understand once he tried to pass Soylent Green as real.)

I was frustrated trying to understand the mythology and the rules that Hughes tries to set up from the beginning.  By the time the pieces of the puzzle would have started to fall into place, I had stopped trying.  It felt like I was trying to assemble one 1,000-piece puzzle without knowing what it looks like, with no edge pieces, and with three other 1,000-piece puzzles mixed into the batch.  

My Rating:  One and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  It's clean, but I found the views about religion offensive, as well as the condescending view taken toward women.

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