Monday, February 27, 2017

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Sheerly

★★★★★

If you liked the movie, this book is definitely worth checking out. The movie was just the tip of the iceberg that is the full true story, which is rich in culture and history.

I was hooked from the first page of the prologue, when the author revealed her own personal connection to the NASA Langley Research Center. Though the movie focused on the space race, the story of black women at NASA actually started during WWII.

As it turns out, Katherine Goble Johnson joined her group during WWII, well before the space race, and in fact, West Computing was disbanded as part of the creation of NASA. Having loved the movie, I must admit to being somewhat disappointed that many of the most memorable parts of the movie were over-dramatizations and simplifications. Still, it was easy to set aside the movie as entertainment in order to focus on the book's steady reveal of fascinating information. From beginning to end, I was constantly calling out to my husband, "Listen to this!" I learned so much about the history of NASA, day-to-day life during WWII, and even a bit about aeronautics. Most importantly, the book described scientific progress alongside social progress for blacks and women, offering context and keen insight into race relations, segregation, and how WWII helped shape the advancement of racial justice and gender equality.

This book introduces to the reader lots of interesting pieces of history all interconnected at Langley, and many notable individuals who helped shape that history, from black computers and white computers to black professors and white engineer allies. Perhaps a bit like the Langley campus, the story is sprawling, but the author deftly ties it all together in a seamless story of talent, perseverance, and inspiration.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Mysterious Benedict Society Roundup

Having something of an old-fashioned feel, this series follows four children who are uniquely gifted in very different ways. Together, under the guidance of Mr. Benedict, they help foil the evil Mr. Curtain's plans for worldwide domination.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (The Mysterious Benedict Society #2) by Trenton Lee Stewart

★★★½

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

Another engaging installment in which the children use their unique skills both to solve Mr. Benedict's riddles and to escape the clutches of the evil Mr. Curtain. There's a bit of a lesson about how some people are capable of harming others, and some people aren't.

The book had somewhat of a slow start, but picked up once the kids got on the ship. Once again, we see how Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance have to work together to survive their journey and reach their goal. We also see a fair amount of character development in Constance and Sticky.

I was a little bothered by the children's encounter with the "boathouse prisoner". The whole incident seemed unnecessarily contentious, especially considering that Risker clearly had suffered at the hands of the Ten Man, and the children were there to help him escape, after all.

What most prevented me from giving this book 4 stars, though, was Reynie's misguided mistrust of Captain Noland. At one point mid-journey, he actually deceives his friends and cuts off all contact with Captain Noland - their one source of assistance!! - and in the end, Captain Noland was trustworthy after all. Yet, the book never addressed Reynie's miscalculation, nor the consequences it had on their journey. With Reynie always being the one the others looked to as the group leader with the best ideas, and him seeing himself in that role as well, it seems like his realization of this significant misjudgment could have been an important piece of character development.

Also, since I've already given the spoiler warning - I also didn't like the way the group took advantage of S.Q. Of course, they had to run for their lives. But I wish there could have been some way for them to avoid betraying S.Q., who had always been soft on all them. I haven't read the third book yet, but I would be sad to see S.Q. turn to the dark side out of anger and spite towards Mr. Benedict.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Mysterious Benedict Society (The Mysterious Benedict Society #1) by Trenton Lee Stewart

★★★★★

*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

A fun read!

Even though the book confirms that events are taking place in the United States, there is a storybook feel, or at least a sense that the story is taking place some time ago, back when orphanages still existed, and television was the most modern and prevalent kind of technology.

It turns out there is a sci-fi bent, with an evil mastermind trying to take over the world with a crazy mind control invention that uses children.

The idea is that Mr. Benedict - the good guy - uses an elaborate method of testing to bring four uniquely clever and intelligent kids into his inner circle to help him take down the evil guy. These four children each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they learn to work together as a team. There are all sorts of puzzles and challenges that the reader might enjoy tackling alongside the children.

The method of mind control, along with the kids' secret agent exploits, actually led to some pretty sophisticated themes like loyalty and betrayal, absolute and relative morality, reality versus perception, what it means to have fears, and how to best deal with those fears.

This probably isn't important, but there was one event that I didn't understand. At one point, the Recruiters actually break into Mr. Benedict's house and try to kidnap Constance. At first I thought they were targeting Mr. Benedict, knowing that he was an adversary, and they wanted to take one of his agents. Later on it became clear that the bad guys didn't know Mr. Benedict existed. So that means the Recruiters were just there randomly to kidnap Constance. But then, after seeing how hard everyone worked to save Constance, wasn't it weird that Constance just voluntarily showed up at the Institute? Why didn't the Recruiters recognize her and get suspicious?

Anyway, the characters and overall story, including some twists at the end, was entertaining enough that I'm giving the book 5 stars despite that bit of confusion.

P.S. There's a fun note at the back of the book directing the reader to look for a code to decipher!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Genius Files Roundup

A secret organization to identify kid geniuses is the premise on which Coke and Pepsi are given ciphers and chased to the death by evil masterminds.

Their family cross-country drive in an RV - stopping in little-known towns with little-known claims to fame - provides the basis for random facts of all sorts.

An entertaining read. As far I could tell, a couple of the books had extra ciphers directed at the reader, and I thought those were especially fun.

License to Thrill (The Genius Files #5) by Dan Gutman

★★½

First of all, don't let my low rating scare you away. I know I am not the target audience for this book, which is probably middle-elementary school boys. Sebastien, currently in 3rd grade, enjoyed this series quite a bit, and I credit these books with helping to get him interested in longer chapter books.

That said, it's just too silly and outrageous for my liking! In this book, we deviate a bit from the familiar cross-country trip during which Coke and Pep fend off Dr. Warsaw and his henchmen. Instead, the first few chapters pick up where the last book left off - with Coke and Pep being abducted by aliens! At least it provided some context for the author to impart a bunch of science and space-related facts.

The book does give us a conclusion, though maybe I'd stop short of calling it satisfying.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

From Texas with Love (The Genius Files #4) by Dan Gutman

★★½

Hm. This installment seemed lacking.

First, I was taken by surprise by the finality of Evil Elvis's demise in the last book. Given Evil Elvis's true identity, I kept expecting him to re-appear, as Dr. Warsaw did. It seems a bit much to think about the kids' role in that death.

While still trying to stay one step ahead of Mrs. Higgins and the bowler dudes, for much of the book there was no defined antagonist masterminding opposition to the twins. They continued to receive ciphers, so there was the promise of a new adversary - who finally showed up in the last quarter of the book - but most of this book just felt like a lot of waiting for something to happen.

I also am continually tired of the sexism - intentional or not. I haven't been keeping tabs, but it seems like every time the twins get into trouble together, it's Pep who cries in desperation, and Coke who comes up with a clever means of escape.

I'm not sure I like the supernatural twist at the end of this book... That would be going too far, even for this crazy series!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

You Only Die Twice (The Genius Files #3) by Dan Gutman

★★★

Hmm... Still not crazy about how these books reinforce sexist ideas along the lines of, "girls like bunnies and shopping, boys like water balloons and car crashes."

The first cipher was uncharacteristically easy, and I was annoyed that Pepsi had such trouble figuring out something so simple! CLEARLY, the cipher was meant to read "EVIL LIVES", as a warning that all their troubles were NOT behind them. Well, imagine my surprise when I realized I was wrong! Ha. The actual meaning was certainly more comical, but I still don't see why Pepsi wouldn't have gone down the same path I did.

I continue to not understand why Bones and Mya insist on making their presence known by initially kidnapping Coke and Pepsi and giving them a scare instead of just walking up to them and talking to them!

It also didn't sit well with me that Coke and Pepsi managed to illegally purchase fireworks.

With so many negatives, you'd think my star rating would be lower. But I did manage to find 3 ciphers directed at the reader in this book, and that made me happy. Plus, there was another crazy twist at the end! This series is obviously not meant to be taken seriously, so if you suspend disbelief and just go with the flow, it's an entertaining read.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

★★★★

This book is written as a letter to the author's 15-year-old son, though I didn't find it particularly accessible. The subject matter is heavy, the writing itself at times poetic.

My rating is mostly a reflection of my belief that the content should be widely read, especially by people who might not spend a lot of time thinking about race. In this book, we have a first-person account of what it's like to grow up with no choice but to think about race, to think about race in every facet of life, and what that race means not only to your sense of identity, but how it relates to your very survival. As Coates explains, at the most basic level, a black person's greatest concern is his struggle to control what happens to his own body.

Part think piece, part memoir, the author puts on display the raw reality of growing up black in West Baltimore. There's a dichotomy between the streets and school, yet both institutions failed the author as equally unrealistic paths to achieving the American "Dream".

The author writes about "being 'politically conscious' - as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty." (p. 34) Coates's lack of religious faith is notable. He faced all the tough questions without being able to fall back on a "greater good" or "God's plan", forcing him to continually grapple with a search for answers and explanations. Though he struggled at first with finding a common narrative, a single truth, he learned at Howard University - his "Mecca" - to embrace the dialogue and debate as being worthwhile in themselves.

Early on, Coates states an important premise: "America believes itself exceptional... I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard." (p. 8) Clearly, an "exceptional moral standard" would preclude pervasive and institutional racism, and at the end of the book, the author poignantly urges his son to "struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca." (p. 151) I get wanting to pass the torch, but I did wonder if maybe it's a heavy burden to place on a 15-year-old.

I found the memoir portions of the book most engaging, for example, the complete revelation he had when he traveled internationally for the first time, and his incredibly profound coming-to-terms in dealing with a friend's death at the hands of the police.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Never Say Genius (The Genius Files #2) by Dan Gutman

★★★

Coke and Pepsi and their parents continue their cross-country drive from CA to Washington, DC. Even more than in the first book, this book has the children caught up in outlandish situations. In between, we learn all sorts of random facts. In a way, this books actually seems less about The Genius Files and more about spreading quirky facts about Americana!

Truth be told, I was disappointed not to find any ciphers directed at readers in this book. But, I did enjoy the big twist in the end!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Mission Impossible (The Genius Files #1) by Dan Gutman

★★★½

A fun read about twins named Coke and Pepsi whose cross-country drive with their parents is overshadowed by their recent discovery of being secret members of The Genius Files.

The third person narrator frequently employs author intrusion, speaking directly to the reader for comedic effect. There is humor throughout the book, mostly of the "safe" kid-appropriate variety.

It's worth mentioning, though, that there is prominent scatological humor involving the dumping of waste from an RV. And I was slightly bothered by a reference to boys not having feelings; it just didn't seem like a productive thing to put in a book that many young boys are likely to read. We also see a bit of talking back to teachers, and the word "retarded" is used. Though effort is made to point out that "retarded" is not appropriate language, it's done somewhat dismissively. Oh, and the kids were required to keep The Genius Files secret from their parents. I don't know, I get that the appeal of many children's books is that the kids are supposed to figure things out for themselves, but the whole don't-tell-any-adults thing in kids' books always rubs me the wrong way.

All that aside, this book reminded me a bit of the 39 Clues series, not only because of the brother-sister pair who try to figure out clues while on the move with dangerous individuals on their tail, but also because the brother in each series is the funny one with a photographic memory, and the sister in each series is the more emotional but clever one. Also, like 39 Clues, the reader has lots of opportunities to learn about real people and places as the sibling duo travels from place to place. Only, in this book, the places and things that kids can learn about are not always educational, but more like fun facts, for example, the existence of a Pez museum in California, or giant balls of twine in Kansas and Minnesota. There are drawings and photos that are entertaining, too.

The book was published in 2011, so it's a very contemporary read, with references to Facebook and Twitter. The author even suggests that the reader follow along with the family's cross-country travels by mapping out their route on Google Maps.

There are some kind of mature ideas in this book, including assassins and references to genocide, cannibalism, and 9/11.

One last thing to mention, lest it is overlooked by readers as it was by my children! Three times in the book, a cipher is randomly printed along the side of a page. In each instance, curious readers will find that the same type of cipher is given to Coke and Pepsi a few pages later, and then several pages later the kids decode the cipher. Motivated readers can turn back to the cipher given to the reader and decode a secret message. It's fun!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

It Takes a Village, Tenth Anniversary Edition by Hillary Rodham Clinton

★★★★

When this book was first published in 1996, I was in college and not at all interested in parenting or politics. Now, 20 years later, I'm all about parenting and politics!

In the introduction, Hillary Clinton makes clear that "parents are the most important influences on the lives of their children." (p. XII) However, since "no family exists in a vacuum" (p. XII), the well-being of all children also depends on the society in which they live. The "village", of course, is a metaphor for not just the neighbors and teachers and police officers in a community, but also the institutions like government, churches, schools, and medical facilities that all play a crucial role in every child's development. In matters of public policy, the bottom line should always be, "Is it good for our children?" (p. XVI)

Like her public persona, Clinton's writing style is not especially engaging, however, this book is dotted with personal anecdotes that I found relatable. It was especially fun to read about Hillary as a young mother, and Chelsea as a child.

While certainly not a "parenting book", I would readily recommend this book to first-time pregnant women and new parents. In discussions that reference studies and experts (many of which are further explained in the "Notes" section), Clinton explores what's best for children. Along the way, she provides not just information, but insights and suggestions that I think any new parent would find helpful.

Ultimately, the book is about public policy. For each issue discussed in this book, Clinton talks about her own experiences, lays out the conclusions of what studies show, and then describes existing programs that successfully address the issue at hand. A couple programs might be implemented at the national level, but for the most part, a lot of them are state-funded or church-run or even founded by community coalitions. The point is, people are already finding ways to fix problems, and we need those fixes to be prevalent in all areas where they are needed.

The book covers a wide range of issues including support for new mothers, vaccinations, nutrition, public safety, gun control, adolescent drug use, race, education, child care, and public service - and that's not even an exhaustive list! It even talks about faith and building good character. Clinton looks at every issue from the perspective of, "What is best for children, and how can we make that happen for all children?"

Even as a staunch supporter of Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, I do not agree with every position she took in this book. But her intentions are clear, and I have to respect that her motivation comes from a good place. Every issue from the environment to the global economy can be boiled down to whether or not a particular policy benefits children and/or the world in which children live.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The 39 Clues Roundup

Dan and Amy are on a world-wide adventure, searching for clues to some mysterious prize while trying to outrun and outsmart older and richer members of their extended family.

Much suspended disbelief must be employed, but it's a good premise for learning facts about famous people and places in history.

The Sword Thief (The 39 Clues #3) by Peter Lerangis

★★★

Another book, another author! Despite the multiple authors, the style seems mostly consistent. If anything, maybe both Dan and Amy's personalities came out a bit more in this installment.

It's mostly more of the same, only this time in Asia. There're hidden underground tunnels, alliances, and betrayals. I still find it distracting that you just have to accept that other people have uncovered other clues in ways that are never explained. Like how did the Kabras get that antique coin? And I'm a little bothered by how Amy and Dan keep leaving important items in random places while trying to outrun someone in pursuit. It just seems like such a huge risk; I can't believe that they manage to get their stuff back, again. But I guess suspended disbelief is a pre-requisite for this series already, given the whole premise of two minors competing in a world-wide challenge to find a mystery prize of unlimited power!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One False Note (The 39 Clues #2) by Gordon Korman

★★★

The world-wide search continues!

Where the first book had Amy and Dan Cahill learning about Ben Franklin in Paris, this book has them learning about Mozart in Vienna, Salzburg, and Venice. The brother and sister pair travelling to different places and learning about important historical figures reminds me of the Magic Tree House series, but of course this series is written for an older audience.

I'm enjoying the chase for clues, but I have to get used to only having Amy and Dan's perspective. The first book of the series made a point to mention that there are multiple paths that lead to the actual clues that need to be found. So we follow Amy and Dan, but along the way, they keep getting intercepted by other Cahills. Since we don't know how other Cahills are figuring things out, I keep wondering about things like: How did Jonah Wizard know to go to Vienna? How did Alistair Oh get the paper that he hid in his cane? I guess none of those things are really important, you just have to accept them.