Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren
First sentence: “People love the ocean.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This was the Big Read for Wichita this year, and I kind of knew what to expect going in. A science-based memoir of a biologist. And that’s pretty much what I got: Hope Jahren grew up in Minnesota, the daughter of a scientist, and she knew she was going to be one when she “grew up”. She went away to Berkley for her PhD in biology, and picked up a lab partner, Bill, and embarked upon a really weird career. Interspersed with facts about trees and plants (they really are very awesome, trees), Jahren tells about her ups and downs of being a research scientist and the odd brother/partner/friend she has in Bill.

It’s a fascinating story — being woman in the research science field in the late-1990s/early-2000s wasn’t easy, and it was made more difficult by Jahren’s eventual bipolar diagnosis — interspersed with interesting science. It did drag a bit in the middle, and I’ll admit to skimming some of the science, which I find interesting but I don’t always understand. But, in the end, she’s had an interesting life, she’s a brilliant scientific mind, and I’m glad I read it.

Nine Pints

by Rose George
First sentence: “There is a TV but I watch my blood.”
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Content: There are some mild swear words, and some frank talk about sex and sexually transmitted diseases. It’s in the science section of the bookstore.

This one, kind of obviously, is all about blood: what it does in the body, sure, but more about the business of blood, about donating and transfusions, about the history of bloodletting and leeches, and about the diseases that are transmitted by blood. It’s also about the stigma that surrounds blood: we like it when it’s in our body, but not so much when it’s not. It’s a fascinating look through the world of medicine and science surrounding blood.

I liked some chapters better than others. The chapter on donating reminded me that it’s been a while since I’ve donated, though I know they probably don’t use my blood and plasma for transfusions (something about hormones in a woman). I didn’t like the leeches chapter (it made my skin crawl!). I found the chapters about HIV and menstruation to be the most powerful. George focused on the stigma behind both in third-world countries (though we are not without it here) which I found fascinating.

Then again, I do like these pop-science books. George is much like Mary Roach, picking a topic and delving deep and making it interesting and accessible to those of use who are not scientists. It’s a fascinating book.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

by Mackenzi Lee
First sentence: “I have just taken an overly large bite of iced bun when Callum slices his finger off.”
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Others in the series: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Content: There was some mild swearing and some frank depictions of 18th century medicine. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, because that’s where Gentleman’s Guide is.

First off: you don’t have to read Gentleman’s Guide before reading this one, though it will probably help with some small references, and with knowing who the characters are.

It’s been a while since Felicity has come back from her “tour” with her brother and his now-boyfriend, Percy. She decided that instead of going back to her parents, she would rather try her hand at getting into a medical school in Edinburgh. However, that didn’t go well. At all. For all the reasons you can guess: she’s a woman, women are inferior, why don’t you go play with the midwives, honey? So when this man she has befriended, the Callum of the opening sentence, proposes, Felicity panics and heads back to London. Where, through a series of chance encounters (and some standing up for herself), she ends up on a trip to Stuttgart in the company of a less-than-trustworthy woman, to attend the wedding of her former best friend.

Of course, adventures ensue. Felicity and the other women — Sim, who turns out to be a pirate princess, and Johanna, the daughter of a naturalist — have to fight (both literally and figuratively) for their right to be heard, to be understood, to be listened to. And, along they way they learn a bit about themselves.

I adored this one (as much as Gentleman’s Guide, which means it wasn’t all the narrator with that one). I loved that Lee got in many different kinds of women, and several different feminist points (you can, in fact, loves clothes AND science!). I loved that Felicity was asexual, and was okay with that. She thought maybe she worked differently from other people, but that was okay with her. I loved that the girls all ended up as friends (even though Sim has a bit of a crush on Felicity), and that there wasn’t a romance in the plot. I loved that Lee gave us some feisty and fierce historical girls, who were willing to blaze paths and be unapologetic about making the world a better place.

A very excellent read.

Sanity & Tallulah

by Molly Brooks
First sentence: “Wow you’re so wrong right now that I don’t understand how we’re even friends.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 23, 2018
Content:  There’s a couple of scary moments. It will be in the  Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Sanity and Tallulah are best friends living in a space station at the edge of space. They go to school — where Tallulah excels at science and Sanity is basically comic relief — they hang out — a lot, since Tallulah’s dad is the station director and her mom is off doing border patrol — and sometimes get into trouble. But nothing major. That is until Tallulah’s illegal science experiment — a three-headed cat named Princess Sparkle Destroyer of Worlds — gets out and starts wreaking havoc on the station.

Or so they think. As Sanity & Talullah investigate further, in search of their pet, they discover that there may be something more wrong than just an escaped cat.

A super-fun adventure/mystery in which girls take the lead, this one is great for fans of Zita the Spacegirl and Amulet. It’s got an action-packed and science-filled (well, futuristic science-filled) storyline, and it’s funny as well! Brooks is definitely a graphic novelist I’d like to see more work from.

The Countdown Conspiracy

by Katie Silvensky
First sentence: “Nearly every single person in this auditorium is wearing a T-shirt with my name emblazoned on the front.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s death, but it’s all off screen, and some mild crushes. There are also some intense situations. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d probably not give it to the younger set, who might find it confusing.

Miranda is brilliant, especially when it comes to robotics. And so when she’s given the opportunity to apply for a Mars training program, she jumps at the chance, small as it may be. She gets in, and is off to Antarctica to train and learn with five other kids from around the world for their mission to Mars. Except things don’t go right. Her boat is attacked. The program is harder than she thought. Things are being sabotaged. And, possibly worst of all, some of the other kids are difficult to work with, and consider her a liability. It’s not at all what she expected.

So when the kids suddenly find themselves launched into space — which wasn’t supposed to happen for nine years! — the question becomes how on earth are they going to figure out how to get home?

I really enjoyed this book! There’s some good science fiction going on here: lots of science and technology, balanced out with a good plot (including a mystery: who is behind the bombings and attacks?) and some great characters. While there was more pre-space stuff than actual space stuff, it was still a lot of fun. Slivensky is a science educator and it shows; I felt that the science was both realistic and plausible and that she had done her research well. An excellent read.

See You in the Cosmos

seeyouinthecosmosby Jack Cheng
First sentence: “Who are you?”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some illusions to difficult situations, but they’re pretty vague. I’m waffling between putting this in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) or YA (grades 6-8) sections of the bookstore, because it could go either way. I’d definitely say it’s for 5th grade and up.

Alex, age 11 (but 13 in “responsibility years”), has a passion for science and rockets and Carl Sagan, the scientist. He wants to send his Golden iPod up into space in a rocket he built, which is why he’s headed out to SHARF (Southwest High Altitude Rocket Festival) in New Mexico. It’s where It’s All Going to Happen. And it does, though not in the way Alex thinks it will. He meets some broken and incredibly nice people, and that leads him to Las Vegas where he finds he has a half sister. Which leads him to LA before heading back home again. It’s part road trip, part family story, part musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything. And entirely delightful.

The best thing about this book was the voice. The chapters are a series of recordings that Alex does as he goes on his trip, talking to the aliens to whom he’s intending on sending the iPod. Cheng captures the uncertainty of being eleven, Alex’s passion for his family and his dog without much exposition at all. It was the perfect way to tell Alex’s story, to experience all the crazy serendipitous things that happen to Alex. (Seriously: he’s a magical being, Alex. It’s like he wills good things to happen to him, and they do.) Cheng captured the heart and soul of the book and reminded me that there are Good People out in the world.

And that, perhaps, is the best thing about this book.

Radioactive!

radioactiveby Winifred Conkling
First sentence: “Their moment had finally arrived.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some science terms and such in this, but they’re explained pretty well. It’s a bit on a higher grade level, but I think 5th graders and up could handle it.  It’s in the kids’ biography section at the bookstore.

I’m a sucker for biographies highlighting people or things I don’t know much about. And this one definitely fits the bill. Conkling highlights two physicists doing research in the 1920s and 1930s, ones that I didn’t know anything about.

Irene Curie was the daughter of the more-famous Marie, but was a stellar physicist in her own right. Along with her husband, Frederic Joliot, she discovered artificial radiation. This opened up many avenues in the scientific world. And while she got credit, no one (well, not us non-scientists anyway) remember her for this. The other scientist Conkling highlights — and in some ways, the more interesting story — is Leisl Meitner. She, along with several other scientists, discovered nuclear fission. The rub, though, is that because Leisl was considered a Jew in Nazi Germany (her grandparents were Jewish), she had to flee to Sweden. Then her partner (and friend?!), Otto Hahn, completely wrote her out of the research. He said he did this all on his own, mostly because he was afraid of the Nazis.

It’s a fascinating story, and Conkling does a good job of explaining the science (there’s some helpful tables, etc. throughout the book) as well as making both of these fascinating women come to life. There’s a bit about their history, their relationship with the scientific community (which was incredibly sexist, no surprise), as well as a lot on their contributions to the advancement of physics.

It’s fascinating and well worth the read.

The Martian

by Andy Weir
First sentence: “I’m pretty much f***ed.”
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Content: As you can tell from the first sentence, the big content issue with this book is LANGUAGE. If you have problems with that, then this book isn’t for you. It’s in the science fiction section of the bookstore.

Mark Watney was one of six astronauts sent to Mars as part of an exploratory and scientific mission. He’s a botanist and was trained to be the fix-it guy, and he was expecting to spend 31 days on the planet with his crewmates and then head home. Then, six days in, a storm kicked up, and an accident happened and he was considered dead. So, the captain made the decision to leave him. Turns out, though, that he wasn’t dead.

Thus starts 368 pages of the best problem solving novel I’ve ever read. Seriously. Weir throws all sorts of things — most of them being normal, every day sorts of things; there’s not many super extreme situations here — at Watney and has him figure out how to survive. You wouldn’t think it would make for a fascinating, gripping novel but it does. Part of this is because Watney is a hilarious (if foul) narrator. He’s SO snarky, and laugh-out-loud hilarious, which helps diffuse the tension in the novel. It also makes it a very practical book, which makes me wonder how much of it is actually accurate science. (I gather, from the author notes at the end, quite a lot.) I kept turning the pages (and staying up late) wondering just what the heck was going to happen next.

I don’t usually go in for books that have a lot of hype or even a movie coming out, but this one is definitely worth all the buzz surrounding it.

The Thing About Jellyfish

by Ali Benjamin
First sentence: “During the first three weeks of seventh grade, I’d learned one thing above all else: A person can become invisible simply by staying quiet.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 22, 2015
Content: It’s longish, but there’s nothing questionable for younger kids. It is a bit on the depressing side, so maybe super-sensitive ones wouldn’t want to read. That said, the science is pretty cool. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though the 6-8th grader would like it as well.

Suzy Swanson knows why Franny Jackson died. Sure, everyone has been telling her that it was “just one of those things” when her former best friend drowned in the ocean, but Suzy is convinced that there Needs to be a Scientific Explanation. And she knows she’s figured out what it is: deadly jellyfish stings. So, Suzy sets out to research that, and even plans a trip to Australia in order to come to terms with her best friends’ death. And Suzy’s guilt about what happened between them before.

There’s a LOT going on in this book: dead friend, grief, friends growing apart, bullying, science, divorce…. it was almost too much for me. I ended up focusing on the science aspect of it, which was really pretty cool. I really liked all the jellyfish facts, and the research that Suzy ended up doing on them. I liked that she had a fantastic science teacher (my girls’ 7th grade science teacher was really pretty awesome too) who inspired kids to want to learn.

But other than that, it was just drama and more Drama. Middle school kids are mean, and Benjamin caught that perfectly. I felt copious amounts of pity for Suzy; such an awkward girl, and no one (hardly) had any compassion for her. No wonder she stopped talking.

That said, while the resolution was done well, I never really wholly enjoyed this book. Too much being made uncomfortable by Suzy’s awkwardness and the bullying of the kids around her.

But then, maybe that was the point?

The Blackthorn Key

by Kevin Sands
First sentence: “I found it.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence, but it’s not grisly and mostly off stage. There’s a lot of white space and fairly large print, so even though it appears long, it goes fast. It’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Christopher Rowe has a good life, especially considering he was brought up in an orphanage. He’s apprentice to an apothecary, he has a best friend, and he’s given a bit of freedom. Until the Cult of the Archangel strikes, killing off apothecaries one by one. And finally, they reach Christopher’s master.

Suddenly Christopher’s stable life is turned upside down: the Guild, the King’s men, and the Cult are all after him. And he’s got to figure out the cryptic note that his master left in the ledger before they catch up.

It’s a simple premise, and yet it’s SO much fun. Seriously, people: So. Much. Fun. And no magic, which is really refreshing these days. It’s historic fiction — set in 17th century London — and I loved that it didn’t get too bogged down in history. Sands keeps a balance between historical tidbits and action so that it feels like it’s 17th century London, but it moves like a modern book. There’s a mystery of who is in the Cult, and who is behind all the murders. Sure, it’s pretty much white boys (I think there was two female characters, and no people of color), which means it’s same-old in that respect. But, I can forgive it for that because it was SO much fun. (I’m just going to say it again. You want some fun action/adventure/mystery? This is it!)

I couldn’t put it down.