New Post on SMALL THINGS CONSIDERED: Children’s Books on the Microbiology of Soil

My latest review is up over on the Small Things Considered blog hosted by the American Society of Microbiology. It features two new books in the fabulous Small Friends series published from Scale Free Network, an Australian-based Art-Science Collaborative.

These illustrated tales of soil habitat symbioses entertain while also teaching about microbial ecology. The text is by Ailsa Wild and the vivid illustrations are by Aviva Reed. Following the fictionalized narratives, the books each contain a detailed section on “The Science Behind the Story.” Filled with additional illustrations and photographs, these sections are useful for microbiological education of children and adults alike.

Read the full post here.

INK AND BONE, by Rachel Caine

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Ink and Bone
(The Great Library #1)
By Rachel Caine
NAL – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780451472397 – 368 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


Imagine if the Royal Library of Alexandria had not been destroyed in flames.
My latest review is now up at Skiffy & Fanty on Ink and Bone, the first book in Rachel Caine’s new series: The Great Library. Read the review here!

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher as part of the Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

CUCKOO SONG, by Frances Hardinge

My review of Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge’s new dark fantasy novel for middle-grade readers is up at Skiffy and Fanty:

cuckoosong

“It is England during the reign of King George V. The Machine Age is at its peak, and human society is in flux, becoming increasingly urbanized, secular. The Great War has come to a close, but the traumatic devastation it has wrought echoes on in family’s lives. Nations struggle to recover and political/economic turmoil presages greater conflicts and changes to come. What the future holds is not only a concern for humanity, but also for The Besiders, a race that has lived alongside us in the margins, driven further into the isolated shadows as human civilization spreads….”

Read the full review piece here!

THE FIFTH VERTEX, by Kevin Hoffmann

23000230The Fifth Vertex
The Sigilord Chronicles Book 1

By Kevin Hoffman
Self Published – 2nd August 2014
ISBN 0990647919 – 290 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Picking up a book with no established publishing provenance, large or small press, is always a bit risky in terms of time, a lot like going through a slush pile, or scraping the sidewalks of New York City’s jewelry district for gold shavings.  James Patrick Kelly has a great On the Net feature about this topic for this month’s Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Kelly writes about the need for some sort of better curation of ‘indie’ authors; that is definitely the case, but I too am unsure how this can be pulled off until a group of already-respected indie authors organize some type of recommendation system. Until then, it is an unfortunate matter of chance, of some undefinable element attracting a reviewer’s eye to fit it into reading schedules.
I don’t recall why I requested this on NetGalley, but it was probably the combination of seeming like a plot I may enjoy and the novel already having some reviews that indicated aspects, such as the protagonists here, that seemed noteworthy to give it a shot. Whatever the reasons, I’m glad I had the chance to read this fantasy novel, which bills itself as young adult mostly to my eyes because of the protagonist’s age. Based on this first book of a planned series, I think that The Sigilord Chronicles could go into some really interesting directions and will be looking for the followup to come.
The plot of The Fifth Vertex is a standard one, familiar to any fantasy reader and perhaps even one you might be tired of: the coming of age tale of a likable, socially outcast young man who ends up on a quest and discovers powers of which he previously was unaware. But, while Hoffman doesn’t particularly cover any new ground in this regard, he does make this archetypical tale really entertaining. Through the development of an interesting society and well-formed protagonists, Hoffman makes the story compelling.
The first protagonist is Urus, and though he comes from a well-to-do stratus of his society, his place (role) in that society is not determined as much through birth as much as through testing his worth as a warrior. For it is a warrior that the society most respects, and what Urus is expected to be as his family before him. Urus defines himself according to this limited narrative and perspective, but at heart he is more of a gentle soul, and while full of brains, has no brawn. The novel starts with his failure in his ‘testing’ and his subsequent attempt at suicide at having failed to live up to those expectations of society. The simple theme present here is easily recognizable and relevant to the world of reality, particularly for a young adult, so the story would have appeal for those readers. In addition to not meeting the expectations of being a warrior, Urus additionally must adapt to living in his society as a deaf person.
Characters with physical disability aren’t exactly common, and when present they usually serve as unfortunate caricatures or vehicles for showing how certain perceived limitations can actually have strengths of their own. Sadly they are never just included as a ‘regular’ person without the detail of disability ‘called out’ in a way integral to the plot. Here is no exception, but at least Urus is not objectified or mishandled here, falling more into that category where limitations perceived by the abled turn out to be vital for saving society and everyone’s life. For Urus this is not just the perceived weakness of his deafness, but also the perceived weakness of his physical strength and stomach for violence. Hoffman handles the deafness aspect in terms of the narrative with respect and it is interesting to read the explanations of the signage made between Urus and his companions.
The other point of view protagonist, a young orphan girl named Cailix, is another interesting character who starts as a servant at a monastery but is soon forced to ‘grow up’ too quickly when forcibly taken captive by a group of blood mages intent on gaining secret knowledge. As this plot intersects with Urus’, the reader begins to appreciate Cailix’s development from scared, somewhat sheltered child, to stronger, more wise young lady (in a manner similar to Sansa Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire, actually). There is a certain darkness and pessimism to Cailix that is a perfect complement to Urus, made literal in the way their ‘magical’ talents end up complementing.
Though fantasy, Hoffman makes some effort to explain the magical elements in The Fifth Vertex, from a rudimentary scientific perspective, making this a blend of speculative genres in some ways. Overall this is a really impressive book that will appeal to many SFF fans, and there is a diversity to the characters (including race that as others have noted is sadly not reflected in the cover illustration). Though taking the ‘self published’ (or ‘indie author’) route, The Fifth Vertex was really indistinguishable to me from something I’d expect from a genre paperback publisher.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the author via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats, by Sandra Markle

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery,
by Sandra Markle
Publisher: Millbrook Press
ISBN: 1467714631
48 pages, Hardcover
Published: 1st Sep. 2014
Source: NetGalley

 With bat decorations just around the corner for Halloween, now is a perfect time to check out this wonderful nonfiction science book with any curious young scientists in your life.
The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats is about the recent fungal infections (white-nose syndrome) that has decimated brown bat populations in North America.
As a biologist and bat lover myself, I appreciated the way that Markle told this scientific story of epidemiology in an engaging way that can introduce children to diverse concepts: the wonders of nature, the effects of the microbial world on larger familiar organisms, the process of scientific investigation, the power of curiosity and creativity, and the importance and benefit of research.
Markle relates these rather complex ideas with straightforward language that is ideal for a middle school (or even late elementary) aged child, all in the format of a ‘scientific mystery’: the observation that something is wrong with bats and the steps that were taken to try and discover what was causing the problem. Only then, with dedicated research and understanding can the problem be addressed, a mystery must be solved.
Apparently this book is part of an entire series, so I’ll have to look into the other titles offered. Although I could only look at this on a Kindle, the photos and illustrations are plentiful, bright, and well-done. I should note that given the topic of a deadly disease of bats, there are illustrations that may be considered ‘gross’ or ‘uncomfortable’. I appreciate the honesty that the text and photos show in just how awfully devastating disease can be for any organism and the price that must be paid to try and determine its cause and treat it. I also really appreciated the realistic images of scientists just simply doing their work in the lab, the latest equipment at hand.
This book is really a great opportunity to expose a child to the wonder of nature and the appeal of science. It makes complex, and perhaps even frightening realities accessible to children and may help inspire curiosity or dreams in a future scientific researcher.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood and Starlight,
by Laini Taylor
Daughter of Smoke and Bone Book 2
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
ASIN: B0076DCLF6
517 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2012
Source: NetGalley

The first book in the series left me impressed even with heightened expectations from glowing recommendations. I really had no idea what to expect from the second. Could it keep feeling fresh, or would it rehash the same themes? Would the characters remain engaging? In what directions would the plot be taken and would its emphasis focus on the romance angles or not? It is easy for a series to unravel after a well-received introduction.

Thankfully, Taylor makes this middle volume and its characters go places, focusing more on the battles and larger scale conflicts between the ‘angels’ and ‘devils’ side of the war. Where the focus of the first book was on the development of protagonist Karou and her personal relationship with Akiva, this focuses on the larger issues of what that relationship now means within the historical context Karou has uncovered by the end of volume one. The scale here is larger, and the themes transfer from being centered on personal or ‘destined’ romance to ones of war, what situations of conflict do to influence lives and how prolonged conflicts can enter into never-ending cycles of loss and retribution.

If these are changes you weren’t expecting, and leads the stories into directions you don’t care to go, this may frustrate you. Liking the first book won’t mean you’ll like the second. But, if you find yourself appreciating the broadening of scope with new characters, new relationships, and most certainly new complications, I think you’d still love this.

Despite continuing to love the story here and the characters, and appreciating the evolutions Taylor writes to avoid simply repeating the same story again, her style of writing begins to get old. Specifically, Taylor tends to forward the plot by ending a chapter with a sudden revelation or occurrence (often in cliff-hanger fashion) followed by starting the next chapter well ahead in time. She then goes back and fills in the missing details of how the character or plot got from the end of the previous chapter to the start of the next. This technique really maximizes reader interest, but when used continually over the course of the two novels it begins to lose its charm.

I’m eager to see where this story and its characters go in the presumably last novel of the series. I would expect a merging of the first two novels and the battle between these two races entering fully into our Earth. I suspect the events will surprise me and the underlying themes of individuals struggling to connect humanely amid horrific conflict will continue to prove interesting.

Four Stars out of Five

Nightmare City, by Andrew Klavan

Nightmare City, by Andrew Klavan
Publisher: Thomas Nelson Publishers
ISBN: 1595547975
311 pages, hardcover
Published November 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This is the first book by Klavan that I’ve read, but I was intrigued by the information about this book’s plot and the reception of others to his previous novels. This one turned out to be a disappointment however, which is a particular shame in that due to shipping problems I ended up with two copies (one I passed on to a friend), and the publishers were very kind about this. I hope others enjoy these copies as I pass them on at least.

Nightmare City suggests to me that Klavan can write really well, but it just seems lazy here in terms of plotting and development. Although the main character, Tom, is compelling, the others are all flat and the story is too straightforward, remarkably predictable. The first half of the novel consists of Tom wandering around in a literal fog, trying to figure out the situation he is in, with moments of filling in backstory or him being ‘threatened’ by so called ‘malevolents’. We are told how awful these creatures are, but never get much more than a vague sense of what they are or the danger they supposedly present. I say ‘supposedly’ because many a chapter seemed to end with Tom in dire straights only to start the next chapter with him ‘waking’ anew in a new situation, apparently safe and fine. As such, after awhile these ‘malevolent’ threats start to lose their effect.

Repetition of themes also occurs throughout the novel, such as truth and the search for it. To Klavan’s credit the theme doesn’t get too preachy or too beholden to any particular religion until the tail-end of the story with a few too-sappy moments where the protagonist is urged to keep on living because of Christ’s sacrifice. Which is kind of an odd theological view in itself.

The ideas and themes here are straightforward thus too, but they are also simplistic, and not particularly realistic or helpful for a young person as presented in the absolute sort of world “Nightmare City” exists within. Moreover, at no time does Tom actually remind of any teen I have ever known. Some questions at the end of the book could help getting someone to think a little more deeply about the issues Klavan raises through his story, one only wishes there were a bit more complexity in addressing those same issues in the story itself rather than simply following the obvious paths.

One Star out of Five

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00EMXBD9S
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast of NPR Books and someone mentioned that young adult books often focus on how the actions of adults affect the lives of children, but rarely how children drive the lives of parents or other adults. That made me think about this novel and how Carleson’s work follows both directions of impact. The majority of this novel is about how the life of Laila (and the lives of her fellow young) are dictated by their family and culture. Yet, the novel also addresses the lack of freedom inherent even in the lives of the adults, whether they be parent, dictator, or (apparent) CIA officer. Furthermore the novel is that coming-of-age tale where the child begins to exert more freedom and actually turn the tables of control over so that they are now steering the course of their parent’s life.

I finished “The Tyrant’s Daughter in one day. It is an ‘easy’ read, but it is also full of great ideas, intriguing characters, and compelling plots. The story is profound and it is populated with realistic people; the text flows naturally. Nothing in this book seems superfluous, and Carleson nicely makes use of her personal experience to craft a taut thriller amid the literary underpinnings of Laila’s story.

I appreciated just how well this novel mixes entertainment with significance, conflict with insight. This is a book I would have enjoyed even when younger.

Five Stars out of Five

John Snow, by Jack Challoner

John Snow, by Jack Challoner
Publisher: A&C Black (Bloomsbury)
ISBN: 1408178400
112 pages, paperback
Published March 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This short biography covers the work of doctor John Snow in investigating outbreaks of cholera in England, a key event in the development of the science of epidemiology, tracing an illness back to its source and ultimate cause. Although Snow was no microbiologist, and it fell to Koch to eventually clearly identify the bacteria Vibrio cholera as the causative agent of the disease, Snow’s work laid the foundations for establishing a way to control cholera, namely to focus on water supplies rather than the prevailing view of the time, ‘bad air’.

Challoner, an established writer of communicating science to a lay audience, particularly youth, writes this geared for older children and young adults, but for those unfamiliar with Snow’s work and epidemiology, it would be quick, highly readable primer on the topic. Challoner focuses on the cholera-related work of Snow, rather than writing an all-encompassing birth-to-death biography, though he does discuss tangentially Snow’s role as physician and pioneering anesthesiologist.

Despite focusing on this history of science and medicine, Challoner relates the story with descriptive warmth, including small details of everyday life at the time (mid-late 1800s) and conversationally, anecdotally through the thoughts of Snow and those he comes in contact with in his endeavors. Though fabricated in that retelling, the facts behind the story, the history, remain solidly accurate to my eye.

Beyond introducing Snow’s accomplishments, this book in general outlines the scientific process of mystery, curiosity, research, refinement, and ultimate success, but with more work for others to carry on. In this sense it is a good general introduction of children to science in general.

The only drawback to the book relates to who the audience may actually be. With text alone, it tends towards the dry and detail-laden, including some medical/scientific vocabulary, despite being related in a straight-forward way, more relatable perhaps to an adult. Yet, it is written in a short and succinct manner with phrases interspersed in the detail that seem geared towards the young. It thus seems most appropriate for a teen with a keen interest in science or medicine, or as a fine source for some school project or paper.

Four Stars out of Five

Witch Hunt, by Tabitha Morrow

Witch Hunt, by Tabitha Morrow
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DY5KS0A
183 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

There were some good aspects to this young adult book, but ultimately I found it disappointing and lacking.The overall plot is an interesting take on witch trials and, (I’m being vague so as not to give spoilers) is actually a mix of several genres, not simply a rehash of history with an exaggerated magical spin.

As a young adult genre book it has a certain amount of thematic predictability: a focus on strong young characters that must step up to take on responsibilities of the impotent adults; a focus on action, protagonists getting out of stick situations; forbidden romance and erotic yearning. Yet each of these elements are handled well from a plot perspective. The plot is kept lively, it is not predictable in the details of its outcomes, and it features both strong female and male characters without that mistake of making the females beholden to their attraction to the male and reliant on his presence to save them from trouble. The action scenes are well composed and the more horrific supernatural moments are perfectly described.

However, the downside of the book is foremost its character development. The protagonist begins the book clueless of her reality, both personal and universal. She does not yet know she has magical powers. Her powers appear, and her knowledge increases in bursts from chapter to chapter with little explanation on how they have developed or how they truly affect her. No particular rules for the magic are established, so its ultimate use in the conclusion of the novel feels like a fantastic deus ex machina – there is no reason to suspect anything isn’t possible for the witches, so there is no resonance with or empathy from the reader when the climax arrives. This lack of character development is not limited to magic. Many actions or decisions by characters seem to just happen. At times explanations for actions are given by characters, but with nothing more than a statement that makes it appear nothing more than the author covering their bases of ‘explanation’. In other words, it often felt as though the author was ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. Other actions or key elements of the setting that are eventually revealed are not explained at all, perhaps setting up a sequel, but leaving this novel unfulfilling.

Despite my not liking the book much due to the above, it would likely be of interest to a young person wanting to read a quick entertaining fantasy tale with characters they can relate to. The themes are obviously overt and not subtle, but they are all good themes and moral dilemmas for a young person to consider. With a little more work establishing this world and its characters it could have been phenomenal, so I would read something else by the author in the hopes of that aspect improving.

Two Stars out of Five