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.


Deadly Design

by Debra Dockter
First sentence: “I was five years old when I found out that my older brother wasn’t just my brother.”
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Review copy downloaded from Edelweiss.
Content: There was a LOT of swearing in this (including quite a few f-bombs) plus some off-screen sex. That puts this squarely in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I didn’t quite know what to expect out of this one, when I first picked it up. It’s billed as a sci-fi thriller, but I don’t quite think that fits. It’s not really futuristic, though it is dealing with gene splicing and genetic manipulation. And it wasn’t really thriller-y, except for a bit near the end. So, I came to think of it more as a medical drama, and on that level it worked for me.

Kyle McAdams is the younger son of a couple who had problems conceiving and bearing children. The one they did have died fairly young. So, they went to a doctor who promised them that he could “create” healthy children for them: one egg, one sperm, some genetic manipulation and they’ll have a healthy kid. Except, in the petri dish, the egg splt, and suddenly they had two children. They chose to have one at a time, and so Connor was born two years before Kyle. The catch: they were identical, pretty much in every way.

So, Kyle spent most of his life (in small-town Kansas, outside of Wichita. Yes, the author is local(ish).) in the shadow of his older, perfect brother. Connor was into sports, the Valedictorian, had the perfect girlfriend. Kyle was… not. Even so, when Connor drops dead right before his 18th birthday, Kyle is shaken: they share the same genes, does this mean he’ll die, as well?

When Kyle starts going down the rabbit hole of his origin, what he finds out gets creepier and creepier. He and his brother aren’t the only genetically modified humans out there, and they all seem do die right before their 18th birthday. The question is: why?

I’ll be up front: Kyle is a bit of a moody jerk. (A bit is an understatement.) That makes it hard to connect with him. And so, what kept me reading at the beginning was the novelty factor: I love a good Kansas book that gets Kansas right, as opposed to being just a “nowhere” place. I loved that she got the feel of small town right. Or the visits they made to Wichita. Or the weather. It was lovely. And I loved her ruthlessness: she was killing people off right and left in the first third of the book. It’s always refreshing to have an author write like that.

It also helped that Kyle became less sulky and annoying as the book went on. I began to care about his plight, though I never really felt a sense of urgency about his death. I don’t know why that was; Dockter showed herself willing to kill everyone off, and they told me that Kyle was going to die. Therefore, there should have been tension, but I just didn’t feel it. I came to care about the people Kyle interacted with, and when the twist happened, I was pretty shocked. (No, I didn’t see it coming; then again, I never do.)

That said, I do have one major complaint: Kyle didn’t DO much of anything. He went to doctors who told him stuff, and people helped him, and doctors solved his problems (mostly). But he was more a reactor than an actor in his life. I wanted Kyle to be brilliant and find a solution to save his life, but no. Mostly he had other people do the work while he waited around for them.

But, that said, I did enjoy the science and the drama of it. It’s a solid debut novel and I am interested to see what Dockter writes next.

Moonpenny Island

by Tricia Springstubb
First sentence: “Transparent.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s pretty basic, language-wise, with short chapters and simpler words. Good for anyone who likes friendship stories. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Flor and Sylvie have been best friends forever. Growing up on a small island in the middle of Lake Erie (it’s doesn’t exist, but it’s possible, though I had to look it up) on the Ohio side, they were pretty much all they had. Which was just find with Flor. Then things change: Sylvie is sent to Cleveland to live with her aunt and go to school there. And Flor’s mother leaves as well, and they don’t know when — or if — she’s coming back.

With her life falling apart, how can Flor cope?

Once I got over my annoyance about the whole there’s an island in Lake Erie by Toledo thing… I found I really liked it. It’s not magical quirky, but it does fit with the whole small-town quirky thing. I liked how Flor knew everyone on the island, and was willing to stick up for the less “acceptable” members of their community. I liked how Springstubb introduced a scientific-minded, homeschooled girl into the mix, and how she wasn’t weird or unusual or super-religious. I felt like Springstubb tackled everything — from problems at Flor’s home to problems with her friends — with an evenness that suited her audience.

The only thing that bothered me, really, about the story was that it had the feel of a first person narration, but it wasn’t. For the most part, I was able to flow with it, but every once in a while, it pulled me out of the story.

But that’s a small quibble in an otherwise good book.

Audiobok: Stiff

by Mary Roach
Read by Shelly Frasier
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Content: Um, Roach doesn’t mince her words when she talks about scientific stuff, and so some of this is kind of … gross. Fascinating, but gross. There’s a few mild swear words, but if you’re interested in dead bodies, go for it. It’s in the science section of the bookstore.

I picked this one out because I was in between audio books and because I really enjoyed Roach’s writing in Gulp. This time (it’s an earlier book), Roach takes a look into what happens to bodies after people die. From the ones that are donated to science — used in anatomy labs, for surgery practice, for research, etc — to the way the bodies decompose, you have to say that Roach is nothing but thorough.

On the one hand, this wasn’t the best book to listen to. Frasier did a good enough job narrating (though I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t Roach talking; much of the book is in first person), it’s just that when you read about bodies decomposing, you don’t want to LISTEN to the words. Or at least I don’t. I never got physically ill, but it did make me queasy on a couple of occasions.

On the other hand, though: it was fascinating. Even if the book is 10 years out of date, it’s interesting to think about what can be accomplished through science after one dies. If anything, it got me thinking about what I want done with my body (though Roach pointed out that much of what is done with the body is decided not only by the deceased but by the family members) after I pass on. I think I was most swayed by one of the final chapters where Roach wrote about a woman in Sweden who was advocating for promession, which is a way of composting bodies. For some reason, this really struck a chord with me. I’d much rather be turned into earth and help a tree grow than sit in a graveyard. Shocking, I suppose. But my kids are on board with that (at least right now).

In the end, even though it was gross at times, I really enjoyed this one.


by Mary Roach
First sentence: “In 1968, on the Berkley campus of the University of California, six young men undertook an irregular and unprecedented act.”
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Content: One f-bomb (in the chapter about the rectum as a criminal accomplice) and a bunch of s-words (in the chapters on the colon and intestines). It’s in the science section at the bookstore.

I never would have thought to pick up a book on the Alimentary system (that’s your digestive system for the non-medically minded), except that this was picked for my in-person book group.

I’m so glad it was: it was fantastically fascinating.

She takes apart the digestive system, starting from the nose, working her way down. It sounds like it’d be boring, but it really isn’t. Roach is not only an engrossing and accessible writer, but a hilarious one. Especially the footnotes. All her little asides and historical facts had me laughing out loud.

True, the last few chapters aren’t for those who get queasy talking about bodily functions. But if you can get past that, it’s an excellent book.

The Fourteenth Goldfish

by Jennifer L. Holm
First sentence: “When I was in preschool, I had a teacher named Starlily.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment
Release date: August 26, 2014
Content: I think it’s geared towards younger readers: larger font, lots of white space, and everything is pretty much spelled out. It’ll go in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but could go for strong younger readers.

Eleven-year-old Ellie has a pretty normal life. Her parents — both Theater People — are divorced, but get along. She is dreading middle school, especially since she and her best friend since Kindergarten seem to be drifting apart. But, mostly, it’s just your normal, every-day life. That is, until her mom gets call to go pick up “Melvin”. Who happens to be her father, Ellie’s grandpa. Except now he’s 13. Turns out, he discovered a new species of jellyfish, one when ingested, gives you back your youth.

But things aren’t all roses and unicorns for Melvin: being 13 is not the same as being in your 70s. There are some upsides: a good digestive system, and the lack of a need to pee in the middle of the night. But the downside is that Melvin has lost access to his lab, which means if he can’t get the jellyfish, he can’t prove his theory, and he won’t win the Nobel Prize.

While Ellie is our narrator, it’s Melvin who drives the action. He’s the one who introduces Ellie to Science; gets Ellie to talk to her new friend, Raj; the one who needs to break into the building. One of my problems with this (aside from being Too Old; I do think younger readers will love it) is that Ellie is not proactive, but rather reactive in her own life. She’s a sweet girl, and a nice person to read about. But the book just wasn’t exciting.

It was, however, charming and informative. Holm managed to put a ton of science in her science fiction book: everyone from Galileo and Newton to Oppenheimer and Einstein make an appearance. And she explains some basic scientific concepts in pretty general — and clever — ways. So, while it wasn’t exciting, it was interesting. It did take me a while to figure out the title, why it was called the 14th goldfish (since goldfish didn’t play much of a role), but I thought the ending was sweet and Holm did explain it.

Not my cup of tea, but I’m glad I read it.

The Glass Sentence

by S. E. Grove
First sentence: “It happened long ago, when I was only a child.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing objectionable or scary. It is, however, nearly 500 pages and it’s small type and that can be intimidating. (A was initially intimidated. I think I’ve convinced her to read it.) It’s also kind of slow-moving, with a lot of tricky names, so probably not the best book for a reluctant reader.

I think the best place to start with this one is Megan Whalen Turner’s quote on the back cover: “Not since Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass have I seen such an original and compelling world built inside a book.”

That’s quite a lot for a book to live up to (MWT! Philip Pullman! Original! Compelling!) but you want to know something? She was right. So very, very right.

In 1799, something happened, and the whole world shifted. It came to be known as the Great Disruption, and what it did was cause different parts of the globe to be in different time periods. Europe was stuck in the middle ages, the Northwest Territory in a prehistoric ice age. What we know as the 13 colonies stayed in linear time, for the most part, though they never developed much farther than that. Past the Mississippi River and into Mexico is what is known as the Baldlands, a hodgepodge of raiders and outlaws, except for three cities which are known as the Triple Era, with people and creatures spanning 3000 years in the same place.

Pretty cool, no?

It’s no wonder that in this world explorers and map-makers are held in the highest esteem. And Sophie Tam’s uncle, Shadrack Elli, is one of the best. He’s been raising his niece ever since her parents — also explorers — disappeared. She’s learned to live without knowing about her parents, and she’s learned how to read the maps that Shadrack makes. So when he’s kidnapped, she’s really the only person who can save him.

The world is brilliant, and the use of maps and magic (of sorts, though kind of not really “magic” as you’re thinking about it; it’s more future techonology) are refreshingly unique. But, once the plot starts going (which, admittedly takes a while), it picks up and becomes one of those books you can’t put down. I was thrilled with the world, with Sophie and her friend Theo and their increasingly intense and urgent adventure. I thought that Grove captured an interesting balance between the older people — like Shadrack — and their expertise and the younger ones — like Sophie — who were able to see things in a new and different light. I loved the use of time and Ages and invented words; I haven’t seen this kind of  creativity in naming things since Harry Potter. I also loved that the “bad guy” wasn’t wholly evil. That while they did some morally questionable things, it wasn’t a pure black and white thing. There’s layers here: yes, it’s a middle grade fantasy adventure, but it’s also so much more.

I can’t wait for the sequel.


The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas
by Jim Ottaviana & Maris Wicks
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable, content wise. There is, however, some text in cursive, which may make it difficult for younger readers to read. Also, A found the format confusing, since it bleeds from one story into the next. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) graphic novel section at the bookstore.

This one caught my eye when it came into the store, because honestly? A graphic novel about women scientists: how rare is that. Granted, it’s the same famous women scientists (we ALL know Jane Goodall, right?), but still. Women, animals, science: I’m there.

It’s a loose (read: slightly fictionalized) retelling of how Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas became the sort of scientists they did. It was full of information on how they all met Louis Leakey and how he sent them out to observe and study chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans in the wild. Their styles were vastly different: Dian was the most emotionally involved in her study, I think, and the most passionate about her work. That said, Birutė went the most native; her husband left because she devoted too much of her time to the orangutans purely for the sake of studying them.

I think that’s what fascinated me most about these women. They weren’t in it for recognition or even for purely the sake of science.They were in it because they loved the animals, they wanted to understand them,  and ultimately protect them from ignorance through educating the world. I admire that.

As for the format, I mentioned that A found it difficult to follow. I didn’t, but then I’m an adult. It made me a little sad, though, that she did, because if the kids find the book hard to follow, they won’t be inspired by these women’s stories. And that makes me sad. Perhaps it would have been better to do this in three books, but I enjoyed seeing the connections between these women. I don’t know if I was inspired, but I was at least interested. And that counts for a lot, I think.

The Rosie Project

by Graeme Simsion
First sentence: “
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.
Content: A ton of f-bombs, a character who has multiple one-night stands (because he wants to have sex with women from every country of the world), a lot of alcohol consumption (granted, all the characters are in their 30s). Thematically, I could see this having older-teen appeal, but it sits in the adult fiction section at the store.

Someone at work — my boss, perhaps — described this to me as a “romantic comedy.” Nothing of substance, really, but generally enjoyable. But because of the way the characters are, I kind of came to think of this as Sheldon gets a makeover.

Don Tillman is a genetics professor at an unspecified university in Melbourne, Australia. He’s got a brilliant mind, but his life revolves around… routines designed for efficiency. He wears Gortex shirts because they work for both regular life and exercise. He has a designated meal plan — lobster every Tuesday, for example — that enables him to both 1) minimize shopping and 2) free his mind to think instead of having to focus on cooking.

Granted, his idiosyncrasies — I liked that even though in the first chapter Don gives a speech to an Aspergers conference, it’s never stated outright that he’s been diagnosed on the autism spectrum — have made it difficult for him to have a relationship. As in: he’s never had one. He’s never had a second date. At age 38, he’s decided that it’s not only his inability to figure out social situations, but also his inability to find someone he’s compatible with.  So, he initiates the Wife Project: a survey designated to weed out unacceptable potential partners.

Then Don’s best friend Gene (who’s a real jerk, on so many levels) sends Rosie in. Don initially thinks Rosie is a candidate for the Wife Project, but it turns out it’s something more. She’s looking for her biological father, and wants Don’s help. Thus begins the Father Project, to which Don happily agrees. And although Rosie is far from “acceptable” as a prospective partner, Don finds that… well… opposites attract.

So, did it live up to the book talk? In some ways, yes. It was a very sweet book. Don was likable in the same way Sheldon is: you like them, but they drive you nuts. For the record: Don is much less abrasive than Sheldon. But since that’s the extent of my experience with Aspergers, I’m not even going to venture to comment on how Simsion treats it. That said: I get the feeling we’re supposed to be laughing at Sheldon, but I never felt like we were supposed to laugh at Don. It felt more inclusive than that.

I was disappointed that it wasn’t snort-milk-out-your-nose funny. There was only one scene — when Don and Rosie take over making cocktails at an event — that made me actually laugh out loud. But I did smile a lot. And I did like the dynamic between Don and Rosie, which offset the fact that Gene is a complete jerk. (And that’s being nice.) And I did think the ending was endearing.

So, yeah: it’s worth your time.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jacqueline Kelly
ages: 10+
First sentence: “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.”
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Calpurnia Virginia Tate (Callie Vee for short) is the only daughter of seven children, positioned smack dab in the middle of all those boys. It’s not an enviable position, even though she’s her oldest brother, Harry’s, only pet. It’s made even less enviable because Calpurnia is not a huge fan of anything domestic: sewing, tatting, knitting, cooking… no, she’d much rather be outside.

Then, the summer of 1899, she and her grandfather (who has been living with them all the time) discover each other. Her grandfather is a naturalist of sorts — a founding member of the National Geographic Society and all — and Callie discovers that studying the world around her is what she really wants to do. She spends as much time as possible with her grandfather — in between piano recitals, forced sewing, school, and managing her brothers’ crushes for her best friend — living for and thriving off of the time spent studying and observing.

Of course, since this is 1899 and Texas, Callie couldn’t be allowed (allowed!) to proceed this way: good, proper, well-off girls just didn’t tromp through the underbrush looking at bugs. For me, this was the heart of the novel, this pull for Callie to do what she wanted and not what everyone expected of her:

I clomped through the kitchen on the way to washing up and said to Viola, “How come I have to learn how to sew and cook? Why? Can you tell me that? Can you?

I’ll admit it was a bad time to ask her — she was beating the last lumps out of the gravy — but she paused long enough to look at me with puzzlement, as if I were speaking ancient Greek. “What kind of question is that?” she said, and went back to whisking the gravy in the fragrant, smoking pan.

My Lord, what a dismal response. Was the answer such an ingrained, obvious part of the way we lived that no one stopped to ponder the question itself? If no one around me even understood the question, then it couldn’t be answered. And if it couldn’t be answered, I was doomed to the distaff life of only womanly things. I was depressed right into the ground.

The other things about the novel are true: Callie’s mom is a bit much (though I think I understood where she was coming from), and her father is little more than a cardboard cut-out. But, I adored the brothers — especially J.B., Travis and Harry — and her grandfather more than made up for her parents in character. Callie is, yes, spunky, but she’s more than that: she’s curious and observant, and — the thing that really got to me — doesn’t really want everyone to grow up and change. A girl after my own heart.

I also liked the way Kelly evoked a particular feel; the sense of anticipation, of change that must have accompanied the time period was quite palpable in the book. It’s a historical novel that actually felt like it. Callie was modern, sure, but she was struggling with her modernity against all the traditional values that were around her, and that dichotomy was intriguing.

A good story.