Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It doesn't take two eyes to see the excitement!

The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #2)
Rick Riordan

Is this book still cheesy? Yes. Do totally impractical and unexplained events occur? Yes. Do I still love the world of modern Greek demigods? Yes!

After (almost) successfully completing an entire year at school, Percy starts his last day with a feeling of dread. He has been having weird dreams about Grover (who is still on his quest to find Pan) and managed to become friends with the social outcast at his school - a gigantic boy, Tyson, who is not the sharpest tool in the shed. I'll just say that Percy's feeling was right and he ends up running to Camp Half-Blood for his life, with Tyson in tow.

When they get to Camp, amazingly with Annabeth, they find that the Thalia Tree has been poisoned and, with it's death, the Camp defenses are down...the Camp has been under near-constant attack all year. To add insult to injury, Chiron has been accused of poisoning the tree and fired! The only thing that can save them now is to find The Golden Fleece, which is conveniently tied to the Grover storyline, but can they return it from The Sea of Monsters?!

This series is written for a younger age than the YA books I typically read but I still enjoy it. I have to occasionally suspend my reason and logic and just embrace the events that are occurring. The books are highly entertaining, quick reads, and I can totally see why they are a huge hit among elementary school kids! I will be picking up the next installment in the not-too-distant future.

Vampires that lack bite

Bloodsucking Fiends
Christopher Moore

My vampire kick is insatiable, I eagerly bite in to books that feature these bloodsuckers and particularly like a dash of romance to spice it up. However, this one just left me feeling drained.

Moore is witty (as always) but I really disliked the main character, Jody. She was a whiny, dependent woman who was transformed into a whiny, dependent vampire*. Strike one. Tommy was a pouty, naive, irritating man who's mood-swings drove me insane. Strike two. The story was sluggish, moving forward in very jerking motions as it progressed slowly between brief areas of fast-action. Strike three. You're out.

I'm definitely not giving up on Moore in general (I definitely am going to fit in Island of the Sequined Love Nun at some point) but I don't know that I really care to read Bite Me or You Suck. Moore + Vampires = blah.

*Shocking that I can put up with whiny and dependent Bella in Twilight but not Jody. I think it was her red hair - redheads are supposed to be firey.

Whether it be tattoos or fire, Salander is HOT

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Millennium Trilogy #2)
Stieg Larsson

W-O-W! This book was phenomenal! After reading Dragon Tattoo, which I really enjoyed, I just wasn't left with a burning desire to immediately jump into the next book so I took my time getting to it. However, this book was everything Dragon Tattoo was, plus everything it was lacking.

Larsson follows the same kind of plot format that he did with the first book - a story within a story - only this time the first and last bits didn't bore me to tears. The opening catches up with Salander about a year after the last book ended - she has been travelling a bit, learning complicated math, and still investigating those people around her. Blomkvist is back at the magazine and the next scandalous expose, this time about sex trafficking, lands in his hands. The expose would implicate many high-society people, cops, journalists, and sleaze-balls.

I don't want to give too much away but the sex trafficking story is intricately woven into Salander's story of running from the law that leads to a rekindling of the unlikely partnership between the journalist and the genius social-outlier. There was a total OMG! twist at the end that I never saw coming! Seriously, it was a jaw-dropper.

Now I can't wait for the final installment of the Millennium Trilogy - The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest - which I have no doubt will seal Larsson's immortality.

Monday, March 29, 2010

All the world's a stage

Witness in Death (in Death #10)
J.D. Robb

By now, I think everyone knows the premise of the In Death book - ass-kicking lt. in the futuristic New New York married to drop-dead gorgeous yet sensitive Irish businessman. Batman and Robin step aside, this is the crime-fighting duo of tomorrow.

Roarke has convinced Eve to have a night on the town and see the opening of a play that is in the playhouse that he owns (surprise, Roarke owns something!). The play is a bit of a throw-back because it is using actual actors instead of holograms so all the towns glitterati are there. In the final scene, as the female lead goes to stab the male lead, Eve notices that the knife is real....and there has been a murder. As the investigation unfolds, real life eerily mirrors the play!

I loved the premise of this book and thought that the use of actors as suspects, witnesses, and victim added an interesting angle because you never quite knew if they were being honest or acting...and they're flair for the dramatic left me smiling. However, I am still confused by the ending of this book! There were many twists I didn't see coming but a couple of them were so out-there that they bordered on ridiculous, not to mention confusing.

All in all, I enjoyed the book (I thought it was adorable that Eve tried to do something for Roarke) but the ending was a bit of a disappointment. Not my favorite book in the series but still a solid contribution - hey, not every book of your almost 40 installment series can be my favorite!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Overfishing, habitat destruction, and now a deadly virus - a sea turtle FML

Fire in the Turtle House
Osha Gray Davidson

I have been fortunate enough to swim with sea turtles; aside from seeing several at a distance on my various adventures to the Bahamas, I swam with a large green turtle for an extended period of time. This gentle giant gracefully glided through the turquoise waters, dodging large outcroppings of coral as he moseyed on his way. I kept a safe distance (harassing endangered species isn't really my thing) but after about 15 minutes, I apparently got a little too close for comfort and he took off with a speed that was beguiled by his bulk. I have encountered many marine creatures but, to this day, swimming with this prehistoric relic remains a highlight for me.

I have known for some time that the fate of sea turtles is in the balance - overfishing for consumption and sale on the black market, unfortunate by-catch of commercial fisheries, urban sprawl that affects nesting sites, and the shocking decline of their habitat (appropriately named turtle grass) have all combined to form a near insurmountable challenge for turtles that were once so abundant that ships had to stop and wait for groups of them to pass. What I didn't know was that a deadly virus can be added to these myriad threats.

Fibropapilloma virus (FP) entered the turtle scene with a splash in the 1970's when George Balazs too notice in the coastal waters of Hawaii. He meticulously tracked down the first documented occurrence of the tumors and then dedicated his life to determining the cause of the tumors, how they are transmitted, and what we can do to help. Fire in the Turtle House tells the story of FP from discovery through present day through the eyes of the scientists and volunteers who don't want to see this endangered species disappear for good.

I really love Davidson's writing style. I have also read The Enchanted Braid, and was once again struck by his unique ability to weave together stories of scientific research, historical anecdotes re: turtles and related species, and manage to thread honest emotion through it all. I also enjoyed that the book tells the story of FP but it also subtly reveals how scientific research is done: observation of tumors, hypothesis as to the cause, careful experimentation to support or reject the hypothesis, collaborations to conduct more complex research, workshops and meetings to discuss the findings and their implications, the dissemination of information, and finally large projects to protect the turtles based on sound science.

If you are interested in sea turtles, or marine epidemics, I whole-heartedly recommend this book. If you are simply interested in reading a science book that is fantastically written, then I whole-heartedly recommend Osha Gray Davidson!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A better title: Specific areas of the world without us

The World Without Us
Alan Weisman

What would happen is humans instantly disappeared from Earth? Would the organisms that were driven to the brink of extinction by humans make a resounding comeback? What would be the longest-lasting human contribution to the environment? Would extraterrestrial life forms ever know what the Earth was like under human-rule? Theoretically, Weisman's book could have been an incredibly interesting discussion of Earth's resiliency or inability to overcome the significant damage it has experienced; in reality, this book fell short of my expectations.

World Without Us started extremely slow for me, perhaps because I am not overly interested in the description of my home being returned to nature - the rusting of nails, the slowing infiltration of rainwater, the infestation of rodents. These dull and redundant stories did not grab my attention but the interesting side stories that occasionally seemed like pointless wandering kept me reading - how often the New York City subway system fills with water and must be pumped back out, the history of now-extinct large mammals in the Americas.

As the book progressed, it got more and more interesting. Weisman began discussing the human contributions that would tattoo Earth for long after we're gone - the changes in soils due to large-scale monoculture farming, nuclear wastes, the meltdown of power plants, and the indestructible plastic. Weisman included novel information that was extremely mind-blowing - I had no idea where nuclear wastes were stored! I found these stories scarily amazing while continuing to enjoy the side-bars that were prominent in the first part of the book as well.

Ultimately, my dissatisfaction with this books arose from the lack of a cohesive story - I was expecting one story that told about the future of the Earth as a whole but instead was a collection of very specific scenarios about very limited geographic areas. This wasn't necessarily bad, just not what I was expecting at all. Also, even after finishing this book, I can't figure out how it was organized, there were four parts to the book and I couldn't identify a single unifying theme among the chapters included in each (apparently he couldn't either because the parts are title-less)! His writing was also unnecessarily convoluted and complex. An overabundance of punctuation and multi-compound sentences caused me to lose the meaning of his words.

Overall, you might enjoy this book if your expectations are fairly low and you are prepared for structure that borders on schizophrenic.

A rare clear and concise explanation of a complex scientific theory

Why Evolution is True
Jerry A. Coyne

Oh, I am such a cheater this month! I totally started this book a couple of days ago but, in my defense, I finished it up this morning....I just couldn't help myself.

Evolution. Very few words in science can raise the religious hackles and get the debate juices flowing like this one. Even numerous court trials have become involved to help decide if evolution is science fact or fiction and whether the opposing viewpoint - creationism - deserves to be taught and considered on the same academic level.

Granted, I went into this book a full-fledged supporter of evolution but I was still struck (again) by the beauty and elegance of this biological process that was thought of hundreds of years ago. Coyne logically and concisely went through the evidence for evolution - tracing his way through the fossil record to show dinosaurs evolving into birds, fish invading the land as terrestrial tetrapods, and terrestrial mammals going migrating back into the oceans. He not only shows fossil evidence and supports it with rigorous hypothesis testing (the hallmark of robust science) and examples from nature, but also brilliantly illustrates evolution rapidly occurring during a human lifetime. The vast majority of the book focuses on evolution in general - single-celled organisms up through mammals - but the final chapter focuses on humans evolution from primates and, what I feel is, irrefutable evidence that this process is the best explanation we have for how Homo sapiens came to be.

Sometimes science books can be a little tedious (shock, I know) but Coyne's writing style had me anxiously awaiting to pick the book back up! His words were illustrated by lovely drawings that I prefer so much more to pictures because it brings uniformity to book. And, possibly my favorite part, is that Coyne didn't attack any other belief system - he occasionally brought up the creationist argument against a specific evolution viewpoint but I didn't feel like he was hostile in any way, he simply laid out the facts and let them speak for themselves.

If you are a supporter of evolution but want to learn more, are unsure on the issue but would like more facts, or are even staunchly against evolution but think it's important to know the opposition, then I would highly recommend this book.

Nancy Drew + Sherlock Holmes = Flavia de Luce

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Alan Bradley

If Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes had a child, it would be Flavia de Luce! Extremely precocious, unbelievably mischievous, and a flare for Holmesian reasoning, Flavia sets out to unravel the mystery behind the dead body she discovered in her family cucumber patch - especially because doing so will clear her fathers name. Her inquiries set her down the path of historical uprisings, schoolboy tragedies, plot twists and turn - and an extremely rare postage stamp is at the heart of it all.

Flavia is a character that should garner your sympathy - the youngest of three sisters who seems to be the odd-man out, a mother who passed away when she was too young to remember, and a father who has emotionally checked out. However, these things have not kept her from exploring her love of chemistry in an attic lab, torturing her older sisters in creative ways, and cultivating a sincere friendship with the family handyman, Dogger (who happens to be my second favorite character!)

Sweetness is reminiscent of classic suspense novels where the violence happens off-screen and the heroine manages to stay a half-step ahead of you as she weaves her way through the facts and to the ending.

Mayan culture plus Amazon tribes equals more energy than a cold-fusion reaction

Black Rain
Graham Brown

Susan T's review of this just a few short days ago had me scrambling for my Kindle to download it immediately! A society that is the source of the Mayan story, an isolated Amazonian tribe notorious for their blood-lust, and the rumors of cold fusion to solve the world's energy crisis - these three seemingly unrelated plots were brilliantly woven together as Danielle Laidlaw, field agent for a covert government agency, leads a team of civilians and ex-pats deep into the Amazon to unravel all three mysteries. However, her intentions aren't what they seem and danger soon catches up to them as they are tracked by humans and mysterious animals, contact with either results in a vicious death.

I couldn't get enough of the Mayan history that was the basis of this story - I love anthropology, religion, and science and felt like a kid in a candy shop with every page I turned! While Brown took liberal rights with Mayan stories, the basis of them were grounded in fact, which I feel always makes a story better for me...and sends me searching the internet for the real stories to compare the fiction too. I really liked the characters and, while I didn't connect to every single one of them, I did connect to most of the main ones - especially Dr. McCarter who was enough of a nerd to have me smiling every time he opened his mouth to share a new and exciting fact with his comrades. Less than impressive was Brown's lack of vivid descriptions of the physical surroundings. He talked about temples and alters but I had trouble picturing them from his descriptions. I also felt like the story repeated itself over and over, with a new nugget of information being revealed at the end of each lap - minor conflict, full-fledged fight, people injured, regrouping, epiphany, repeat.

Despite a little bit of redundancy in the middle (which the great plot kept me plodding through) this book was a surprise hit from a debut novelist! Several twists and turns and a nice little contemporary tie-in at the end has me awaiting Graham Brown's sophomore publication :)

Ummmm, but hello? What happened with Danielle and Hawker?! Definitely a disappointment when it came to the subtle romantic storyline But, seeing as Mr. Brown is a MISTER and I have an affinity to any story that even hints at romance, I will let this one slide. But there better be some follow-through next time! lol