Iron Thunder by Avi

Subtitle: The Battle Between the Monitor & the Merrimac

Published: 2007

Genre: children’s historical fiction

Length: 208 pages

Setting: Brooklyn, 1862

Interest: It’s the first book we’re reading for our American History Club while we focus on the Civil War.

Summary: Tom is a young boy, living in Brooklyn, NY during the Civil War. His fathers died fighting in the war, and he has to go to work in order to support his family. He finds a job working in the Brooklyn Naval Yards on the Monitor, the first iron-clad ship that’s being built to fight the Confederate-built Merrimac. No-one believes it will float, let alone fight. Tom ends up as a runner for Captain Ericsson, who has designed the ship and is overseeing its construction, so he’s able to follow all the details of the construction. He gets into trouble when a Copperhead (a Confederate spy) targets him for details on the ship. Instead of spilling secrets, Tom signs up on the crew of the Monitor and helps in the fight against the Merrimac.

Final thoughts: An excellent book. It’s written in a very conversational tone that puts you right in the main character’s shoes. Actual illustrations and photographs from that time period helped put me in the time period. In fact, there were several times I wondered if it was a nonfiction story because of all the detail. (Based on the author’s note, Tom is a fictionalized amalgamation of several people who were involved in the project.) There’s plenty of tension (will the ship actually sail? How will Tom avoid the Copperheads?) and action as the Monitor fights the Merrimac, but it is all child-appropriate. I highly recommend the story for any kid who’s interested in the Civil War or naval battles.

Title comes from: The Monitor was one of the first iron-clad ships (along with the Merrimac) and when the two ships battled, the cannons striking each other were like thunder.

Reading challenges fulfilled: 32/100 in my 100 Book Challenge, and an A in my Alphabet Soup Author Challenge

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The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Published: 2009

Genre: post-apocalyptic science fiction

Length: 359 pages

Setting: Bangkok, Thailand, near future

Interest: I read a summary of the book and was intrigued.

Summary: Anderson Lake is a calorie man, employed by AgriGen, and in Thailand under false pretenses. Officially, he’s in charge of a kink spring factory using a new algae bath to crank more joules into the springs, but he’s really on the look-out for resurrected fruit in the Thai markets. He also crosses paths with Emiko, a New Person from Japan left her by her master. Emiko has no rights in Thailand and is in danger of being mulched if she doesn’t satisfy the owner of the brothel she works in. We also follow Jaidee and Kanya, policemen in the Environmental Ministry trying to keep out new diseases from ravaging the crops and people of Thailand. The Environmental Ministry works in opposition to the Ministry of Trade, who is trying to open their borders more. It all comes to a head when Emiko kills several important Thai officials after they abuse her and Trade uses that opportunity to make a move against the Environmental Ministry.

Final thoughts: Bacigalupi provides a fascinating post-apocalyptic world dominated by rapidly mutating engineered pathogens that humans are barely able to stay ahead of. You’re thrown into the aftermath of the apocalypse and have to piece together the details of how things have changed. It takes a bit of time to immerse yourself in that world, but Bacigalupi does a great job putting the reader in a future Earth that is completely possible. Even with all the changes, there are still many elements of our world left in this future – slums, refugees, people trying to get ahead just a bit. He also provided just enough details on the apocalypse (there’s a strong thread of genetics in the story) to make it believable, but not so much that you would pick apart the science.

The story was excellent right up to the last sentence where the rogue genetic engineer finally has a challenge worth of his intellect. It is an adult story, though. Emiko works in a brothel and is publicly and sexually humiliated nightly, but sex isn’t the purpose of the story. It’s just another element in a very real society.

Title comes from: The New People are also called windups because of their jerky movements. The Windup Girl refers to Emiko.

Reading challenges fulfilled: 32/100 in my 100 Book Challenge

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Little Fuzzy by Henry Beam Piper

Published: 1962

Genre: first contact science fiction

Length: 142 pages

Setting: far future, an Earth colony called Zarathustra

Interest: John Scalzi wrote a novel in the Little Fuzzy universe called Fuzzy Nation and to promote his book, he provided a link to the original story. It’s still available free through Amazon to your Kindle.

Summary: Jack Holloway is a sunstone prospector on Zarathustra. He is befriended by a local species he names a Fuzzy. Turns out, the Fuzzies are sapient. The Company that own the title to the planet will lose that title if the planet has a sapient race, so the upper management does everything it can to disprove the sapience claim. Ultimately, they fail to keep control of the planet.

Final thoughts: A very fun little story. It made me want to get Scalzi’s new story now, so his marketing strategy worked quite nicely.

Title comes from: Holloway named the native species Fuzzies because they were cute and fuzzy, and the first one he came into contact with he named Little Fuzzy.

Reading challenges fulfilled: none since this is a review of a book read in a previous year

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Field Notes From a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

Subtitle: Man, Nature, and Climate Change

Published: 2006

Genre: science nonfiction

Length: 206 pages of story, 225 pages with bibliography and index

Interest: I put it on my reading list a long time ago and finally decided to read the book.

Summary: The author talks about global climate change. She starts with evidence of climate change, traveling to different parts of the world and talking to many scientists working in the field. She then moves on to discuss how climate change is affecting humans and how its predicted to have even more of an impact. Finally, she discusses what kinds of changes (and there are many) we need to make to minimize the impacts of climate change.

Final thoughts: I was not the target audience for this book. It’s a great introduction to climate change, providing many details on the causes and impacts of climate change. The thing is, I’ve done extensive research on the topic for lectures, so I didn’t learn too much. The unique part of the book was the discussions with the scientists and the different locations Kolbert visited. The sad thing is the book is only ten years old and it’s already feeling dated. The science changes so quickly in that field.

Title comes from: It’s descriptive of the subject

Reading challenges fulfilled: 31/100 in my 100 Book Challenge, and an F in my Alphabet Soup title challenge

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Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

Published: 1994

Genre: historical fiction

Length: 436 pages

Setting: the Greek island of Cephallonia, from 1940 to about 1960

Interest: It’s the highest ranked of the BBC’s The Big Read books I hadn’t read (there were only two books in the top 30 I hadn’t read). I made it through the Time Top 100 books (although you’ll see quite a few posted in the future as I go back through some of my old reviews) and needed a new list. This one is British-literature heavy, but still provides some interesting books I might not have read otherwise.

Summary: Dr. Iannis and his daughter, Pelagia, live very happily on Caphallonia. Dr. Iannis tries his best to cure the ills of the villager, while writing a history of the island. Pelagia is in love with the local fisherman. Their lives change when the Italians invade Greece and Dr. Iannis is forced to billet the charming Captain Corelli. They try to make his life miserable, but he overcomes their attempts at hostility. Eventually, Corelli and Pelagia fall in love. Life is surprisingly good until the Germans turn on the Italians, killing most of the soldiers stationed in Greece. Corelli survives a firing squad due to the heroic actions of his friend Carlo. He’s healed by the doctor and smuggled back to Italy. Pelagia adapts a baby left on her doorstep and lives her life believing Corelli died in the war.

Final thoughts: Even though I had a hard time getting into this story (it was over 100 pages before I was truly interested and not just reading because someone said it was good), I really enjoyed it in the end. For one thing, the characters of Corelli, Iannis and Pelagia were so vibrant and I wanted everything to work out for them. The other charming aspect of the book was the strong sense of place in the small, Greek island. You really got the connection between all the members of the village living on the island.

I did feel a bit sorry for Pelagia. She was a pretty girl who was just thinking about getting married when the war hit. The general starvation during the war meant she lost her beauty, and then Corelli never came back, so she moved right into old maidhood. She never really got to live.

The overall style of writing in the book deserves a quick mention. Each chapter was told from a different point of view from the previous chapter. I like the chapters outside of the village the least, although they were important to set up the larger political situation in Greece and Italy. It wasn’t until Corelli was introduced that the story really piqued my interest.

Title comes from: Corelli really wanted to be a mandolin player and he originally became a soldier so he would have lots of time to practice. Too bad a war started and he actually had to fight.

Reading challenges fulfilled: 30/100 in my 100 Book Challenge, a D in my Author Alphabet Soup challenge, and a European country for my Global Reading Challenge

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Talk by Abraham Verghese

nav_babelLast week, as an early birthday present from my mother-in-law, I attended a talk by Abraham Verghese, part of the Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel series. I enjoyed the talk quite a bit. The audience filled up most of the ground floor at Kleinhans in Buffalo, NY. No one came away disappointed, since Verghese is an amusing speaker who kept the audience’s attention with humor and stories from his life.

The night was broken into two parts. For the first half hour or so, Verghese spoke to us about his life, how he became a physician, the lessons he’s learned from that job, and how he became a writer as well as a physician. One of Verghese’s first jobs was in a small city in Tennessee in the 1980s, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. From these patients, he learned how to empathize with a patient, and what to do when the medicine fails. He eventually became a writer because “medicine was too cold to address the humanity of suffering.”

The second half of the night consisted of Verghese answering questions from the audience and his interviewer. We learned some details on his writing craft. For instance, his overall writing style (he just starts writing and sees where the story takes him). Also, he has a day job he’s passionate about and out of that passion, he finds the ability to write. Luckily, Stanford (where he currently works) treats his writing as research.

He did provide a couple of details about Cutting for Stone. For one thing, the title refers to itinerant surgeons in the Middle Ages who could remove bladder stones with minimal damage to a patient (although they probably died of sepsis). He wanted the title to be slightly mysterious. He had chosen the title early on in the writing process, and eventually changed the Doctors’ names to Stone to match.

Finally, he closed with some hints about the next book he’s writing. It is not a sequel to Cutting for Stone. Instead, the book is set in South India and has a female spinal surgeon as the protagonist. Don’t hold your breath for its publication date, though. Since he’s privileged with such a good day job, Verghese plans to take his time to ensure the story is a good one before bringing it to publication.

Overall, it was an interesting night. I’d consider attending another author talk as part of the series. The 2014/2015 season was announced, but I don’t recognize any of the authors they chose. That doesn’t mean they aren’t big names, though, because the audience reacted with surprise and pleasure for each name that was announced.

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Weekly Wrap-Up: Starting Electricity

We started a new unit study this week on electricity. I’m still working out the details of what exactly we’re going to cover over the next couple of weeks. All I know is I want to end up with hydroelectricity so we can visit Niagara Falls as an endcap to the topic.

We started the week answering “what is electricity?” by reading The Magic School Bus And The Electric Field Trip by Joanna Cole. I’m sure I don’t have to explain what a Magic School Bus approach to a topic is. I will admit I like the books better than the show itself. The books seem to have more information in them, even if they’re hard to read out loud. I can never figure out where the speech bubbles fit in the story.

I brought a little history into the discussion with Who Really Discovered Electricity? by Amie Jane Leavitt. This book is a Fact Finders book that discusses Benjamin Franklin, Dr. William Gilbert, and Stephen Gray and their additions to the science of electricity.

Finally, I had Miss Adventure read Energy Island: How one community harnessed the wind and changed their world by Allan Drummond. This book details the efforts of a Danish island to become energy independent, with sidebars providing more details on energy and its sources and uses. It’s a picture book introduction to some of the problems associated with traditional sources of power and some of the renewable alternatives.

To play with electricity – safely – we’ve also been playing with our Snap Circuits set. We’ve had it for a while, but the kids really got into building some different circuits and testing out variations of the projects provided in the manual. If you’re thinking of buying a set (we definitely recommend it), go for the biggest one you can afford. You want as many pieces as possible.

And that’s what we’ve been doing this week!

weeklywrapup300If you’re interested in purchasing a book, you can click on the cover image or title to follow an Amazon affiliate link to the book and thanks for supporting my blog!

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