There is a certain kind of mad science that takes great joy in things exploding, imploding, melting, burning and otherwise flying around violently. If that sounds exciting, Randall Munroe's What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is for you. The answers are fast, easily understood and amusingly illustrated.
A former NASA engineer, Munroe has made his name as the creator of xkcd, one of the most successful webcomics. Three times a week he releases a strip, or something like a strip, (there have been some really wild experiments on the art form that will never be printable in any meaningful way). He covers science, mathematics, engineering, computer programming, romance, language, pop culture and velociraptors. As a public figure who is recognized as being good at science, he gets a lot of questions on scientific ideas, and has compiled quite a few of those questions into a book.
Questions answered here include:
- Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?
- If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
- From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked by the time it hit the ground?
Munroe then proceeds to answer most of these questions with three to five pages of information, full of gleefully horrifying explosions, scientific laws, formulas and an explanation of how he got the answer based on experiments people have done before. Also included are the surprisingly complex stick figure drawings he uses to illustrate his webcomic. The result is quick, smart and guaranteed to make you the life of the party.
And for a palette cleanser, also included are several of the questions that didn't make it into the book, such as:
Would it be possible to stop a volcanic eruption by placing a bomb (thermobaric or nuclear) underneath the surface?
What if everyone in Great Britain went to one of the coasts and started paddling? Could they move the island at all?
Apparently, there are questions so ridiculous that they don't need answers.
“Shots have been fired at the high school. Calmly report to St. Michael’s across Route 5.” When Simon Connolly gets the text message from his children’s school that there’s been a shooting, he wastes no time getting to St. Michael’s church where he’s expecting to meet his son, Jake, and daughter, Laney. As parents are taken one by one out of the church to be reunited with their children or given the horrific news, Simon waits. His wife Rachel escorts a tearful Laney outside. When he is the last person seated, his heart cannot bear the idea that his son Jake is still missing. As rumors start to spread that Jake was one of the shooters who planned and carried out the attack, Simon is desperate to find him.
Bryan Reardon’s new novel, Finding Jake, centers on a tragedy that has become all-too-familiar in news headlines: a school shooting that leaves 13 students dead. Simon’s perspective moves back and forth between the horror unfolding of the present day and his memories of Jake’s birth, childhood and adolescence. It is through these memories that Simon clings to one objective: to mine every detail for a clue that will lead to finding his son. However, as he adds up these details, he cannot help but wonder if he missed signs that Jake could be capable of such a terrible act. As tension mounts, any mundane or trivial memory about Jake consumes Simon and his quest to discover the truth. Compounding his grief is how the media has influenced the court of public opinion into trying and convicting Jake, leaving the entire Connolly family to bear the brunt of the community’s anger and fear.
There is no shortage of novels dealing with school violence: Lionel Shriver’s excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin, Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, and Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed are a few examples. Finding Jake is a sharp page-turner that, similar to these novels, will stay with the reader long after the conclusion.
Martin Short is a comedic icon known for his zany characters and frenetic humor. Whether he's portraying the unctuous Jiminy Glick or the lovable loser Ed Grimley, Short’s genius lies in his ability to find the absurdity in life. In his biography, I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend, Short candidly shares stories about his private and public life which help to explain how he evolved into a comedy legend.
Short was born and raised in Canada, the youngest of five children in an Irish Catholic family where humor was a major part of life. Two things Short enjoys doing are relating humorous stories and dropping names. For instance, Short, Steve Martin and Tom Hanks hold a bi-annual male bonding ritual of sorts. They gather together on the evening before their perspective colonoscopies to play poker while cleansing their lower GI tracts. This odd ritual, which Short has dubbed “Colonoscopy Eve,” helps the men to endure a rather unpleasant ordeal, and the next day they are “toasting our good colorectal health over margaritas.”
Besides this one story, the book is not scatological in nature, but an homage to Short’s friends, colleagues and family. Actually, considering the list of celebrities that he either knows or is friends with — including Martin, Hanks, Eugene Levy and David Letterman, to name a few — this book reads more like a who’s who of comedy legends. A few of his stories are poignant, but he never gets maudlin even when faced with some of life’s greatest challenges.
Whether you are a Martin Short fan or not, I Must Say will give you insights into a world that is pretty much like anyone’s life. There are ups and downs and plenty of laughter, but the big takeaway from Short’s biography is that celebrities are human, too. They just have a lot more money.
Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap is a beautifully told story that teen and adult readers alike will enjoy. Finn O’Sullivan and his older brother Sean have lived in the town of Bone Gap by themselves since their mother abandoned them a few years before the novel begins — that is until Roza appears as if by magic. After a nasty storm, Finn finds Roza, a Polish immigrant, hiding in a bale of hay in their barn. Roza is clearly hurt, but refuses to explain how or give any other information about herself. The brothers let her stay with them, and eventually she becomes like another member of the family, helping around their farm and becoming a well-liked member of their small town.
A year later, Roza is kidnapped, and Finn, the only witness, can’t give a good enough description to help police find her kidnapper. To add to his problems, no one believes that the distractible, “moon-faced” boy is actually a credible witness. Despite their apprehension about Finn’s claims, it turns out that he is correct — Roza has, in fact, been kidnapped by a terrible man who refuses to let her go. Roza tries her best to escape from captivity, but she can barely understand the place she’s being held, let alone escape from it. Meanwhile, as Finn investigates Roza’s disappearance, he becomes engrossed in a relationship with the prickly Priscilla, who only wants to be known as Petey. Petey, an odd-looking, self-conscious girl who is ridiculed by her classmates, believes that Finn’s obsession with finding Roza stems from romantic feelings for the missing girl.
Bone Gap alternates between the perspectives of Finn, Roza and Petey seamlessly. Ruby has woven a story that is wholly unique and utterly engrossing. Finn, Roza and Petey are each characters that the reader won’t want to leave behind when they close the book.
“Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish on on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it’s stupid.” — Mr. Daniels quoting “a wise person” in Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
In Hunt's new novel, sixth grader Ally is one such Fish in a Tree. Because her father is in the military, Ally has transferred to her sixth school, where she is already known as a troublemaker. She will do anything to get out of reading or writing, including defiantly drawing on the desk right in front of the teacher. When she gives her pregnant teacher a sympathy card at her baby shower, her teacher and principal are horrified. The reader, however, knows the truth: Ally can’t read.
Expertly portraying the reality of a learning disability and the impact it has on a child’s academic and social life — as well as her self-esteem — Hunt delivers a heartfelt, beautiful story about school, friendship and hope. Ally’s savior is her new substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels. Besides figuring out her secret, he convinces Ally that she is smart and that he can help her. New friendships with other “outcasts” boosts her morale and brings a little more happiness to her life.
This is an overall great read with believable characters the reader will cheer for. Fans of Hunt’s other book, One for the Murphys, and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will enjoy this book for its characters and theme of overcoming an obstacle to survive in middle school.
An Ember in the Ashes is a deftly written debut novel by Sabaa Tahir, a promising new author not to be ignored. With alternating chapters, this teen novel skillfully intertwines the lives of two young people living in a martial society.
The book opens with Laia, a member of the colonized Scholar society. Though they’re called Scholars, these people have been beaten down and denied their heritage to the point that people are no longer even taught to read. When Laia’s home is invaded by law enforcement, her life is forever changed. She’s put on a path to go against her demure disposition and rally to save the only family she has left.
On the other end of this society, we follow Elias as he completes his training to become a “Mask.” Masks are the highest form of defense in the Serra community. They are both feared and revered. As a Mask, Elias is trained to be a graceful killing machine, a skill which disgusts him to the point that he contemplates desertion.
The setting and power struggles of this book are reminiscent of Game of Thrones while the trials that Elias faces are evocative of the Hunger Games or Divergent. Despite this book being suggestive of these other series, Tahir creates a unique and captivating read that is hard to put down.
We have become a food-obsessed society, and no wonder. Besides providing necessary sustenance, the right meal has the power to transform, transport, unite, comfort and even show love. Three new memoirs center on very different culinary experiences. In Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork, British expat Simon Majumdar ventures near and far from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles to find out more about Americans through food.
Majumdar, a food writer and frequent face on the Food Network, uses his impending naturalization as the impetus to embark on an authentically American culinary tour. Each chapter of his book describes a different food-related experience, from fishing in New Jersey to making cheese in Wisconsin. As the husband of a Filipino wife and a transplant himself, he is quick to point out the influences of immigrants on our national table. He cooks traditional Filipino fare under the tutelage of AJ, the head chef at Salo-Salo Grill in West Covina, California; and “tours Mexico” by eating his way through an array of diverse food stands in South Los Angeles. Majumdar is an affable host, and readers will enjoy his journalistic efforts, which are liberally dosed with historical facts to provide background. Fed, White, and Blue is an enjoyable, distracting read.
Graham Holliday looks back to his experiences working and eating in Vietnam in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Eating Việt Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table. British-born Holliday travelled to the country to teach English, eventually becoming a journalist. It doesn’t take him long to realize that some of the most delicious, authentic, vibrant food to be had was found off the path beaten by tourists. The term “adventurous eater” doesn’t even begin to describe Holliday, as he takes on all manner of offal from stalls, restaurants and makeshift kitchens that know nothing about health code. He enters the world of blogging with noodlepie, a blog dedicated to the street food of Saigon. From duck fetus eggs to the more approachable banh mi and pho, Holliday’s prose celebrates the country’s distinctive dishes in a way that will make you eager to seek out a stateside Vietnamese restaurant.
Writer Sasha Martin is well known for Global Table Adventure, a blog dedicated to virtual travel around the world. Martin spent four years cooking and sharing approachable recipes from 195 countries in her Tulsa, Oklahoma, kitchen. When she began writing a book intended to chronicle that undertaking, Martin found herself on a journey of introspection that resulted in Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family and Forgiveness. Hers was far from an idyllic childhood, raised in poverty in working-class Boston by a single mother who struggled in myriad ways to take care of herself as much as her children. When her mother failed, she did so dramatically — leading to visits from social services and ultimately the decision to put her children in the hands of family friends in order to give them what she thought would be a better life. The thread that runs through the poignant, heartrending story of Martin’s early life is the anchoring, inspiring power of food — learned from her erratic, mercurial mother — and eventually passed on to her own family.
Prepare to embark on a journey through desolation in Laura van den Berg’s debut novel Find Me. Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Find Me is a deglamorized record of post-pandemic survival, one where recovery cannot begin until what’s held dear is forsaken.
Joy Jones is in the hospital, but not because she is sick; rather, she’s flotsam in the wake of a new virus that has left America 400,000 people fewer. Joy is one of around 90 survivors living in quarantine at the hospital, hoping to avoid the sickness which manifests as silver skin lesions and deteriorates the memory until the body forgets how to function. Under Dr. Bek and his armada of imposing nurses clad in hazmat suits, the 90 undergo daily stress tests to increase their chances of survival. Despite the uncomfortably close monitoring, some of the interned contract the illness and are sent to the upper floors to die. Joy knows that things at this medical sanctuary aren’t as they seem, and the sudden imposition of a localized media blackout exacerbates her fears. Armed with a photo of her estranged mother bequeathed to her by a deceased aunt, Joy plans her escape with the hopes of finding all she has squandered and relinquished.
Find Me is about loss both immediate and lifelong; it’s a mural of a populace haunted by all things unrecoverable. In a world where there is no hope or love left to fill voids, chasms consume those desperate souls who can’t bring themselves to let go. Laura van den Berg writes in a superb literary voice without betraying her young heroine, and brings ancillary characters to life through their unique memory mnemonics and coping mechanisms. Readers who enjoyed or who are anxiously awaiting their copies of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven should go to great lengths to track this one down.
The central conceit of Jim C. Hines' Magic ex Libris series is that practitioners of magic can pull tools out of books, creating arsenals of the wildest ideas that authors have ever come up with. Consider the benefit of Lucy's magic cordial from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a potion that can heal all wounds and sickness with just a drop, or the devastating power of Robert Jordan's balefire, a fire so strong that it doesn't just destroy its target, but erases it and all its works from existence. For years, Isaac Vainio was a Porter, a magical librarian tasked with keeping the public from knowing that magic even exists. In Unbound, book three in the Magic ex Libris series, the lid gets blown off so far that there's no chance magic will ever be secret again.
The value of the secret of magic is small compared to the incoming threat. An ancient queen has re-awoken, possessed the body of the only libriomancer who has so far figured out how to tap into e-books and started a rampage that should eventually result in a collapse of mortality and a whole lot of destruction. In her path: a former mage, the most kick-butt dryad to ever grace the pages of literature, a cranky psychiatrist not sure any of her extended family has any business in the field and the rapidly collapsing network of the Porters.
The greatest brilliance of Unbound may take place between the chapters, in one or two page stories that perfectly capture the fear and excitement of a world waking up to magic in its midst. As YouTubers fight over the special effects used in videos, wizards sneak into cancer wards and family members berate people for not doing enough when they had the power. It's exhilarating, heart-breaking and hopefully a promise of a fourth book set in the completely shattered status quo.
“What was he thinking?” is the first line of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, and anyone who has ever given birth to or even encountered a teenager at some point may very well have uttered that same question. Being a teenager is difficult, and interacting with a teenager can also be very hard. Luckily, Dr. Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt are here to answer that particular query: The answer is brain science.
In The Teenage Brain, Jensen breaks down the tumultuous and terrifying teenage brain, a long-neglected niche in the field of brain study. While more has been learned about the human brain in the last 10 years than the whole of human history, the startling revelations of what actually happens to us in those years from 12 to 22 are just recently becoming well known. While past research has been quick to blame “hormones” for every idiotic thing teens do on a day-to-day basis, Jensen points out, it is really the teen brain’s inability to deal with those surging hormones that is the real culprit. As she explores the myriad of ways that teens are wired for impulsivity and poor decision-making skills, we get a better sense of why everything is a big deal to a teen. Minor inconveniences seem like life-and-death situations to teenagers because in their blossoming dendrites they are!
This book is written in such a way that doesn’t intimidate or talk-down to the reader. Chock-full of helpful information on everything from risk-taking, driving, sex, drug and alcohol use, video game addiction and the differences in the genders (and with plenty of great ammunition for winning that argument against your teen who wants to wear earbuds while studying), this is the perfect read for parents, educators and everyone who enjoys working with young people in this age range.
So the next time you think you’ve had it up to here with your teen, take a deep breath, remember this book and think that it isn’t personal; it’s just brain science.