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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Rachael

Working at the Reisterstown Branch has helped to appease Rachael's rapacious/voracious/capacious appetite for reading material. Still, she inevitably ends up combing through reviews and author's websites in search of the next great read. She indulges her domestic side with craft and cooking books, soothes her emotional side with love stories, and sharpens her intellectual side with narrative nonfiction about science, technology, history, and various social issues. And for balance she scours the latest picture books for kooky and endearing stories with amazing illustrations. In the five minutes of her day not spent working reading or sleeping, Rachael enjoys baking, knitting, geeking out online, and singing show tunes.

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The Joy of X

The Joy of X

posted by:
February 7, 2013 - 8:01am

The Joy of XDo you find it difficult to remember how to solve a differential equation? Do probabilities and statistics drive you up the wall? Is your six year-old’s math homework giving you fits? If so, you may enjoy The Joy of X: a Guided Tour of Math, From One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz, a sophisticated and lighthearted refresher of some of the most basic and some of the most cutting edge mathematical concepts to ever grace our minds (or our bookshelf). 

 

Strogatz starts with the easy stuff—addition, subtraction, the number line—and progressively moves on to more abstract and advanced subjects, like calculus, group theory, and analytics. Using diagrams, literary allusions, and Sesame Street, Strogatz draws you into each topic and before you know it the rather short chapter is over. Presto! You’ve learned something. While this is by no means a comprehensive picture of mathematics, Strogatz simultaneously enlightens and entertains with each successively more challenging chapter. Like a magician willing to share a few choice trade secrets, Strogatz invites us to peek behind the curtain and uncover the mysteries of long forgotten concepts, such as quadratic equations, infinity, and the elusive prime numbers.

 

The chapters, many of which have been adapted from Strogatz’s New York Times column "The Elements of Math", are brief, accessible, and threaded with his enthusiasm for the topic at hand. This is a fascinating, quick, and approachable read for anyone who would like a math reboot, including parents, the curious, and those interested in discovering what sine waves have to do with Romeo and Juliet’s love life.

Rachael

 
 

You Are What You Eat With

You Are What You Eat With

posted by:
December 20, 2012 - 9:15am

Consider the ForkWhat do frying pans, spit-jacks, and molecular gastronomy have in common? They are all kitchen technologies that have affected how humans accomplish the very basic task of feeding themselves. Some are ancient, like the wooden spoon, which has been around for thousands of years. Some are complex, like the SousVide SVK-00001 Supreme Water Oven, which can hold a vacuum-sealed package of chicken breast at a constant temperature of 137 degrees Fahrenheit until the meat becomes succulent, juicy, and somehow safe enough to eat. And some, like the basic cooking pot, are more influential than others. They all have a place in Bee Wilson’s insightful and entertaining new history, Consider the Fork: A history of how we cook and eat

 

In a work that spans time from before the development of agriculture through today’s high-tech kitchen gadgetry, it is impossible to be comprehensive. Wilson, instead, focuses on certain culinary implements that have had an impact on what we eat and how we go about preparing to eat it. Each chapter explores a different kitchen tool or concept, with charming hand-drawn illustrations of the various equipment sprinkled throughout the text. Wilson also includes short spotlights on particularly useful, unique, and interesting examples of kitchen technology that punctuate the end of the every chapter. 

 

Witty and filled with wonderful obscure facts about famous and long-forgotten kitchen equipment, Consider the Fork is perfect for anyone who has ever looked in their kitchen drawers and wondered, “Where did all this stuff come from?” Food history enthusiasts and fans of Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A world history will devour this delightful read.

 

Rachael

 
 

An Everyday Obsession

An Everyday Obsession

posted by:
December 3, 2012 - 9:15am

The Dangers of Proximal AlphabetsTo the average observer, Ida, Jackson, and James are ordinary childhood friends. They imagine fantasylands, have sleepovers, and run amok outdoors, all in each other’s company. But they don’t stay children forever. In The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, Kathleen Alcott exposes the obsessions, insecurities, and weaknesses of the trio as they grow from closely enmeshed friends into troubled and estranged adults. 

 

Told from Ida’s point of view, much of the story focuses on Ida and Jackson, or I and J, as they call each other. From their earliest meeting Ida sees Jackson as uniquely hers, and Alcott’s simple and poetic prose unveils the seeds of Ida’s disquietingly intimate obsession with him. As an infant she cried when she was first separated from him, as a child she listens to his eerie sleep-talking conversations with James, and as an adult she proudly catalogues for the reader some of his most personal idiosyncrasies. James, Jackson’s younger brother, is slowly marginalized within the friendship into a mere witness to Ida and Jackson’s growing closeness. As they age, Ida and Jackson gradually become a couple and James drifts into mental illness. Jackson’s boyhood sleep-talking has transformed into more disturbing sleep-walking, and Ida’s response to his unconscious actions threatens to unhinge their strangely dysfunctional relationship.

 

Although quite short, this novel is packed with subtle emotions and extremely human relationships. The characters are all eccentric in one way or another, yet they seem so normal when viewed through Ida’s eyes. Part coming-of-age story and part psychological drama, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets is a thought-provoking and bittersweet read perfect for a cold fall night.

 

Rachael

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Make it Happen

Make it Happen

posted by:
November 23, 2012 - 8:01am

MakersIt used to be really difficult to make things. First, you had a great idea. Then you had to design it, build a prototype, and get a company to buy it. That company would then take your idea, send it through committees, change it to be mass manufacturable, and finally (maybe years later) sell it to the public. By the time your great idea goes through all that, it might not be so great anymore. But with twenty-first century technology, there is a better way. In his book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson of Wired magazine envisions faster, cheaper, more open, and more individualized ways to make products that can be sold to a global audience. 

 

Say you want to make an innovative watch using your own design. Nowadays you can buy desktop manufacturing equipment and make the parts in your garage. Or you can post your idea on a website and have people from around the world fund your production costs by preordering the final product. Or you can collaborate with other inventors online to collectively transform your idea into a tangible object. According to Anderson, the people who use this more hands-on personal approach to manufacturing, called Makers, are gaining momentum as a new force in the global marketplace. He advocates the Maker movement as a way for America to reestablish itself as a manufacturing hub through a million individuals and small businesses creating products using the Maker mindset and selling them worldwide. In a book that is as much manual as manifesto, Anderson provides insider tips on how to get started making your own ideas into reality. A Maker-turned-businessman himself, Anderson’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. Tinkerers, creative souls, and budding entrepreneurs will be itching to start making after finishing this inspiring read.

Rachael

 
 

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit

 

The Mansion of HappinessAnyone who has ever played Milton Bradley's The Game of Life knows that, whether you are winning or losing, players inexorably move in one direction. Fresh faced college graduates turn into employees who become parents and eventually, if all goes well, age gracefully into retirement. But real life doesn't really end (or start) that way.  Jill Lepore, Pultizer Prize finalist and frequent essayist for The New Yorker, challenges our understanding of the origins and rules of the modern game of life in her recent book, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

 

Lepore uses Bradley's game and its antecedents (one which carries the name of the book) to frame her humorous and often biting discourse on such disparate topics as abortion, cryogenics, time management, and children's libraries. Each chapter explores an aspect of a different stage of life, starting with before birth and ending after death along with nearly everything in between. In every section, Lepore features an eccentric, influential, and often morally ambiguous cast of characters who have all shaped how we view our lives and our society.  She draws these wide-ranging people and subjects into a fluid and accessible narrative that is, though not historically comprehensive, certainly thought provoking and resonant for a modern audience. And for those who are especially inquisitive Lepore provides a wealth of footnotes and a well-developed index, which the more casual reader can safely avoid. Like many of the best histories, The Mansion of Happiness uncovers insights into our twenty-first century lives in the decisions, coincidences, and consequences of the past. Fans of American history and the intellectually curious will both be satisfied with this engaging and compelling journey through the game of life. 

Rachael

 
 

The Blue Dream of Sky

The Blue Dream of Sky

posted by:
October 12, 2012 - 8:45am

A Once Crowded SkyWhat is the difference between a hero and a villain? How does a superhero know that he is doing good? What happens if there are no villains to fight anymore?  If superheroes lose their powers, what do they have to live for? Tom King, in his debut novel A Once Crowded Sky, takes a fresh look at these questions and turns traditional comic book superhero tropes inside out.

 

PenUltimate, former sidekick of the great superhero Ultimate, is the last hero standing after the rest of the world’s superheroes sacrifice their powers to stop the mysterious world-destroying force of the Blue. Considered a coward for refusing to relinquish his powers in the battle that Ultimate gave his life to win, Pen is an outcast among the newly powerless heroes. But soon a new threat arises and Pen is the only one who can face it.  Will he meet the challenge this time? Can he defeat this new threat? Will Pen sacrifice himself to restore the other superheroes’ powers? Has Ultimate returned from the Blue? Will the world, in usual comic book fashion, return to normal by the final page?

 

King deftly creates a world of superheroes and villains that are also real people, with deep emotional lives who may not always do the right thing or have all the answers. Yet he also maintains and meddles with typical superhero themes, like the hero’s sacrifice for the greater good, the interconnectedness of the hero and the villain, and the eventual return of the hero, no matter what. Peppered with illustrations by comic book artist Tom Fowler and imaginatively written, A Once Crowded Sky is a great pick for readers who enjoy edgy comic books and superhero movies like Watchmen and The Dark Knight.

Rachael

 
 

A Banquet for the Senses

Alyssa Harad has a secret: she is obsessed with perfume. She owns a dizzying array of tiny bottles of scent, tucked away in shoeboxes, drawers, and what she calls her “perfume closet”. She plans her vacations around visiting exclusive boutiques stocked with the rarest and most coveted perfumes, elixirs so precious that she can barely dream of affording a sample, let alone an entire bottle. She became so entranced that she wrote a book, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, that describes her gradual emersion into the decadent world of perfumery. 

 

Harad is not the most likely person to develop a fixation for such a sensuous and rather commercial subject.  After spending years obtaining a PhD in English, Harad thought she knew who she was—literate, feminist, more likely to spend money on books than on beauty supplies.  But she was also drifting, aimless, searching for an avocation that would spark her passions. Oh, and did she mention she was getting married? To distract her from her life and her upcoming wedding, Harad embarked on a voyage into the mysterious and complex realm of perfume, where she found a community of bloggers, commenters, perfumers, and retail salespeople who share her preoccupation with all things olfactory. Her descriptions of how the different notes of a perfume unfold over time are exotic and imaginative. She can paint images, evoke memories, and plunge into the unknown, all from a single drop of fragrance.

 

As her wedding date draws near, Harad reconciles her conflicting feelings over her marriage and her obsession, leaving her more grounded and more fully present in her own life. Coming to My Senses is a personal journey of rediscovery, remembrance, and recognition that will tease your senses and soften your heart.

 

Rachael

 
 

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

DreamlandImagine waking up in the middle of the night on the floor, disoriented, clutching your leg in pain. How did you get there? Why aren’t you still asleep in bed? And what happened to your leg? After actually living through this frightening sleepwalking scenario, David K. Randall, a journalist for Reuters, decided to investigate his personal nightmare, determined to find out  how he could prevent it from happening again. His book, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, leads us into the mysterious and occasionally bizarre corners of neurobiology, psychology, and sociology that deal with how and why we sleep.

 

Each chapter in this fascinating book deals with a different sleep conundrum, from sleep exhaustion in the military to the effect of artificial light on circadian rhythms to whether you can commit murder while sleeping. Over the course of the book a deceptively simple formula emerges—what you do while you are awake affects your sleep, and how you sleep affects your mind and body while you are awake. Intriguing tidbits of information sneak their way into the pages with such frequency that the reader marvels at how little she seems to know about such a vital bodily function. 

 

Though not a scientist himself, Randall’s forays into the realm of sleep science are well backed by an abundance of research, as evinced by the lengthy bibliography he includes at the back of the book.  His prose remains accessible, captivating, and often humorous while still keeping science at its core.  Dreamland provides an enigmatic taste of the often unsolved mysteries of sleep science that is sure to satisfy both the curious and the casual reader. 

 

Rachael

 
 

A Feast of Knowledge

A Feast of Knowledge

posted by:
August 9, 2012 - 7:03am

The Cookbook LibraryNowadays it seems that every day a new cookbook is published, filled with gleaming pictures of succulent dishes and step-by-step recipes for tantalizing sweets. But where did the idea of the cookbook come from? And when? Anne Willan, founder of the La Varenne Cooking School and cookbook author, with help from her book collecting husband Mark Cherniavsky, tackle these and similar questions in The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook. Willan intelligently explores the evolution of the European and American cookbook as cooking and the culinary arts blossomed over the course of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.

 

Willan draws most of her information and recipes from her and her husband’s personal library of antiquarian cookbooks, and the text is studded with captivating illustrations and woodblock prints from their collection. Each chapter encapsulates a century and contains first a history of the cookbooks and cuisine of the time and then is followed by a selection of recipes that have been reworked for a modern kitchen. These recipes give the reader a sense of reaching backward in time to explore dishes that are both foreign and strangely familiar. Recipes vary widely in difficulty from a very simple pork loin roast from the fifteenth century to the tremendous Yorkshire Christmas Pie of Five Birds from the eighteenth century. But perhaps the most intriguing portions of the book are the inset articles that are sprinkled throughout each chapter. These short sections feature fascinating and often quirky themes, like the menus for the court of Mary Queen of Scots, a history of ice as a cooking ingredient, and how to set an elaborate eighteenth century table. Each vignette tangentially relates to the larger chapter that frames it and contains interesting factoids and trivia. 

 

Part cookbook, part culinary history, part history of the book, The Cookbook Library is as accessible as it is entertaining. You don't have to be a scholar to get some serious enjoyment from this unique read.  Cookbook enthusiasts and history buffs should definitely add this title to their to-be-read list.

Rachael

 
 

Inside the Information Highway

Tubes: a Journey to the Center of the InternetHave you ever wondered how your email travels all the way from your computer to your mother’s laptop half way across the country in a few milliseconds?  Or how a sports fan with a smartphone in LA can know the outcome of the World Cup in Spain moments before the live TV broadcast?  Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: a Journey to the Center of the Internet, explores how the Internet works as a physical system, full of buried connections, rivers of wires, humming servers, and fiber optic transoceanic cables. 

 

Blum journeys on a pilgrimage to the Internet’s most important data centers and information hubs in an effort to find ‘pieces of the Internet’, and to view the Internet as both a virtual and physical place.  Along the way, he meets with many of the Internet’s unsung heroes and follows his nose to ferret out just where all our data goes when we press ‘send’.  Through his surprisingly personal trek across the world in search of the Internet, Blum grapples with conflicting definitions and perceptions of the Internet that in the end help illuminate its many facets.  With the emergence of cloud storage and wireless everything, it’s refreshing and relieving to realize that even something as amorphous as the Internet is grounded in the physical, real world. 

 

A little bit history, a little bit philosophy, a little bit spiritual, Tubes is great for readers who are curious about the behind the scenes action of the largest connected interface in the world.  Fans of James Gleick’s The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood and Tim Wu’s The Master Switch will certainly enjoy this thought-provoking new title. 

Rachael