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.

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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.

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

by Jaqueline Kelly
First sentence: “To my great astonishment, I saw my first snowfall on New Year’s Day of 1900.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s a bit old-fashioned and there are a lot of scientific words, but if you’ve got that sort of 9 year old reader, it’d be perfect for them. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the library.
Others in the series: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

I was super excited to find out that my favorite scientific Texan was back in a second installment. I really adored Calpurnia the first time around, and was very excited to spend more time with her. It’s 1900, and Calpurnia is doing her best to keep up with her scientific studies with her grandpa. It’s hard, especially with pressure from both her parents to be more ladylike. Calpurnia would much rather be tromping around the forests and swamps near their central Texas home, collecting specimens. Or studying the stars and weather.

Then a hurricane hits Galveston (a fact which sent me to Google to find out if it was real. It was.), and Calpurnia’s life changes. In to town blows an older cousin (who is, understandably, distraught) and a veterinarian. All of a sudden, Calpurnia has found a calling. The problem? She has to fight to let people even consider the idea of her wanting to be a vet.

Much like the first one, the charm in this is in the narration. Calpurnia is such a delight to spend a book with. This time, I felt her frustration and pain at being a second-class citizen, in her school, in her house, around the town. It seems that everyone, except grandpa, decided already that girls can’t do anything non-girly, and it was a wall Calpurnia kept banging up against. I admired her perseverance in breaking down barriers.

Also, like the first one, I thoroughly enjoyed all the science and the little historical details that Kelly uses to make Texas in 1900 come alive.

Delightful.