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.

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.

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.