Friday, July 31, 2020

Book Review: The Engineer's Wife

The Engineer's Wife 
by Tracey Enerson Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whenever I read fiction based on a true story I go in skeptical. Does the story feel too perfect? Is our lead character too strong or too unbelievable? And while there are people in the world that are incredible human beings; the reality is that most of us are just average and incapable of most feats in our favourite novels. In The Engineer's Wife it's 1865; and so women are arm candy, the suffragette cause is protesting forward, and white men believe themselves to be the best of the best. Our lead character is the wife of the primary engineer whose tasked to build the Brooklyn Bridge. While the story is fascinating, deadly, and awe-inspiring at times in the end I can't quite give it five stars because of the romantic entanglement story (completely fictional). I will credit Tracey Enerson Wood however with being very honest in the afterword about what is true and what is not in this historical fiction novel.

I'm not a sucker for romances to start with; so anytime you want to try and justify why people should just fall into one another's arms instantly, or be compelled to cheat on their spouses because 'OMG the other person is just so amazing' (gag), it's going to be a hard sell. Yes I have a long-time spouse. It's a man (although be a woman) whom I've been with for 12+ years. We are not formally married (but call one another husband and wife). Neither of us is overly romantic or into the big gestures. Due to my health situation we don't have a ton of sex; nor do we take part in any overly romantic events or affairs. Why? Because that is not what the core of a relationship should be in my opinion. So when you give me a romantic story line that is seemingly 100% focused on the idea of 'good sex' and on grand moments of passion I will always remain unconvinced.
This is the problem with the developing relationship between our engineer's wife and P.T. Barnum (yes the circus man). The reality is it doesn't work because (most importantly) it probably didn't happen. This is man who made circuses famous, widely supported the thirteenth amendment to abolish slavery, and whom months after his wife of many years died married a woman 40-years younger than him. Barnum was a man of action, excitement, thrills, and didn't wait around for things to happen, he made them happen.
Thus the romantic side story and ridiculous insertion of Barnum is the entire reason this is not a 5-star book for me. While Barnum had some connection to the bridge construction; it's as though Wood thought no one would care to read the story without a famous historical figure to tote in the back blurb. I'd have much rather Barnum had a couple cameo's here or there like history tells it than have him smooching the engineer's wife time and time again.

Caisson Disease, the Bends, Depression Sickness
No matter what you call it, depressurization's affect on our bodies is intense. Those darn air bubbles wreak havoc on our ability to breathe, thus affecting the amount of oxygen our brains are getting and from there can ruin just about every aspect of how your body functions. I had no idea prior to reading The Engineer's Wife how prevalent caisson's disease was for construction workers, or the exact physics and math behind building giant bridges that was used in the late 1800's. It's impressive to me that humans were able to fathom these structures and then ultimately build them. However, they came at a price. Many lives were lost during construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and many others were destroyed from caisson's disease; including that of our primary engineer. There is a lot more death and sickness in this story than you might expect.
Caisson's disease is how a woman *gasp* ends up working directly on the Brooklyn Bridge plans and construction. If you want to be outraged by the way women were treated back then this is a great book to show it. With many references and lines like:
"Calculus. Trigonometry. Engineering. All subjects deemed unsuitable for women."

The Science and Math
I love how Wood gives enough details on engineering the bridge to whet my appetite; without going into vast amounts of detail. I understand tensile strength of steel cords, caisson building, weight allocation, and other engineering concepts better than before I read The Engineer's Wife. Yet, I never felt like the science and math were too belaboured. It is a real feat to balance a woman's suffragette story with a task as huge as building the Brooklyn Bridge. Not only does Wood do a good job in authoring this story but our leading lady does all the hard work fighting back every step of the way.
Everyone around her is gossiping, making fun, questioning her abilities, and/or deciding what political causes she can associate with because of her involvement in the construction. It makes me feel like my stories of being over looked, sexualized, or underestimated because I'm a woman are nothing next to hers. I can't decide if she would be pleased by how far we've come; or disappointed in the ~75% wage differential, number of female CEO's, that we still divide 'women's work' up in today's world.
”I set back my shoulders. To be successful in a man’s world, I would be strong.”

I did really, really enjoy this book. It's a fascinating time in New York as huge high-rises are being raised, bridges are reaching across water, and women are fighting for their rights. Wood does a great job of keeping the pace of the novel up, even if it does mean that some events are skewed (especially near the end of the story). I could forgive all of them if not for the ridiculous Barnum romance aside. Luckily the romance is not the crux of the story and each time it came up I could look forward to the next visit to the bridge site our leading lady would make or moment when she conferred with her debilitated husband over the building plans.
If you have ever had any interest in this time period, bridge building or the history of New York City I would highly recommend you read this book. Wood did a great amount of homework to put this story together for us and I"m so glad to have learned about Emily Warren Roebling and her immense contribution to the New York City skyline; and proof that women are just as smart and capable as men. I hope that I can continue my career and life in a male dominated industry (software development at this moment) with even half the dignity and courage that she had.
"Let them talk. Gossip has always been spread and there is nothing to do but to live ones life as best one can."

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Book Review: Strange but True: 10 of the world's greatest mysteries explained

Strange but True: 10 of the world's greatest mysteries explained 
by Kathryn Hulick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very practical introduction discussing Occam's Razor, coincidence and the idea that the most logic idea must be the truth if there is a lack of evidence either way. There are ten broad categories that encompass many different mysteries in the book. The categories range from alien encounters, sea monsters, zombies, ghosts and more. Each category touched on has examples from around the world (including starting off right with the 1961 Hill alien abduction story in Montreal, Canada --sorry the proud Canadian in me can't resist but be excited). The illustrations by Gordy Wright are equally creepy and accurate. From alien ships to Bigfoot to illustrated maps and scroll designs. Wright has done an excellent job of both activating the imagination, while keeping the known articles to their 'fairly' factual design (given they are illustrated).

There is a lot of skepticism in Strange But True. I do like that it almost never says people who have experienced supernatural events are lying. But instead it offers many other explanations that combined may start to account for the types of things people say they have experienced. For example in the opening category of alien abduction we learn about sleep paralysis, highway paralysis, TV show illustrations, preconceived notions of ideas (ie: we exist so why not aliens?) and pareidolia which is most common with clouds (where our brain likens a shape to something we know already), etc. All of which together can explain many of the different alien abduction or experiences stories from around the world. No one thing is clear or obvious; but combined it is seen as powerful to have the large majority of the alien incidents complying.

So we move through the book from aliens, Egypt, Bigfoot and more into our last category, Sea Monsters. And now here is where I love what writer Kathryn Hulick has doe. She has taken mostly explainable phenomena and ideas and disproves them. Except for one; the giant squid. In 2012 the Triton deep sea vessel found a real-life giant squid and photographed it. The photograph is amazing and the intricacies of the intelligence in the eye of the squid are enough to make anyone wonder about all the mysteries of the world and what else we might not know exists but have legends or myths about it. This is the perfect ending as it leaves the door open to encourage the reader to keep searching; keep looking and keep hypothesizing about everything and anything. A truly clever way to bring to light some clear and obvious misconceptions; while still keeping the imagination alive.

As a child of the 90's (I was a preteen when X-files first came to TV); myself and most of my friends of a like-age are fascinated by the supernatural. This would have been a perfect book for us between the pages of 8-13. For those, like me, that hope there are more unique sea monsters, Bigfoot, etc. out there it's an opportunity to link to aliens and perhaps accept that humans are far from the only intelligent life. All of these opportunities and more are left for anyone to explore at the end of Strange But True.

While there may be no magic in this book, or if there is it's likely disproven, I believe it certainly does have a magic that proves there is always more to learn. That science is never ending and that we can always strive to know more, find more and exist beyond our own mortal lives. Whether that's as a famous scientist or even a ghost. One thing is surely for certain; anything is possible after finding a giant squid; it's just that some scenarios are more likely to be true than others.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Sunday, July 19, 2020

Book Review: Sin Eater

Sin Eater 
by Megan Campisi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. Some great lines and moments; but the mystery plot was convoluted and I felt like I had no chance to guess the answer. Additionally I cannot figure out how this relates, at all, to Alice in Wonderland (as per the blurb)? There is no 'other world', no 'falling', or any bizarre creatures. There is a queen, and a clear hierarchical society; but nothing that would have ever made me think of Alice in Wonderland. All that said it wasn't a bad book; Sin Eater just didn't feel quite complete to me.

Food and Mood
The best part of Sin Eater is its overall disturbing and creepy themes. Right from the first chapter we are introduced to what a Sin Eater is, and our lead gal becomes one. As a Sin Eater she meets with people near death or their families post death and eats specific foods depending on their sins (so that they can move to heaven free of sin). Some of these foods are no big deal like nuts, seeds, etc. And others are fairly disturbing, including hearts of many animals that symbolize certain types of murder. The Sin Eater walks around town and no one wants anything to do with her (of course the Sin Eater is always a woman...), yet they appreciate her upon death. A great irony that the thing they hate is their ultimate salvation.

It takes about 100 pages for real plot (outside surviving) starts to emerge. Sadly this plot is where the book goes downhill. It's convoluted, confusing, and ultimately I didn't feel like I had a single chance to guess the outcome. I wasn't shocked or amazed at the reveal of our mystery in the end. Instead I was annoyed that, as the reader, I was never given enough information to unravel the story myself. This generally means that the reader wasn't a part of the considerations the author made when writing the book. A huge mistake, obviously, as the reader is an interactive part of the plot that matters the most. I want to feel a part of the events, emotions, and outcomes; in Sin Eater I felt like I was barely along for the ride.

Conundrums and Morals
All that said, there are some absolutely wonderful lines and thoughts or predicaments to consider in Sin Eater. Campisi has given us a Margaret Atwood dystopian set-up that allows us to consider many aspects of society and the types of decisions people are put in on an ongoing basis. Perhaps the most important being that of the 'privilege' of being Sin Eater. You will be hated and shunned by the community; but never ever starve. As much of the town is starving to death food is a luxury to many and so being Sin Eater does ensure you will have enough to eat. You may not like what you are eating or the way it is presented; but alas beggars can't be chooser's I suppose...
Religion or a belief system certainly plays a part in the choices our lead gal and others make. As they believe in a deity of sorts and the idea of Sin. For our heroine this means that she is stuck in a rock and hard place. Often she is found to be making a choice between doing what god wants her to (given the set-up belief system) and what she needs to do in order to stay alive. The sad part being that it never occurs to her that her belief system is wrong; or that the people around her are lying. Her innocence as Sin Eater is vastly contrasted by the situations a Sin Eater is bound to find themselves in. This is all very clever and fits in well with the overall darkness of the setting.
"Mayhap freedom is choosing for yourself. Even if the choices are piss-poor."

I want to say that I loved this. And in ways I did. I adore the concept, the setting and the characters. And sometimes that's enough; but in this case the plot was in the way of so many parts of the story and with it's overly complicated reveal I just felt like I wasn't really 'in' the story the way I wanted to be. I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading this; but I'm not sure that I would recommend it. Likely I would comment on it if asked but perhaps that's about as far as I might go to ever highlight it again.
I will say however that I am excited to read more from Campisi. Certainly she has the types of dark thoughts and ideas that parallel my own and she's not afraid to put her characters in unwinnable situations. Campisi needs some help with setting a plot barrier that not only makes sense but isn't too complicated for the average person to read. If that improvement is made I believe she could be a writer to rival some of the great YA/teen dark fantasy fiction writers.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Friday, July 10, 2020

Book Review: The Field Guide to Citizen Science

The Field Guide to Citizen Science: How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference 
by Darlene Cavalier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The coolest thing about the idea of citizen science is that you don't need a fancy degree or PhD in order to provide value to the overall contribution of science. With many of the major scientific discoveries these days relating to the natural world around us there is no reason to go much farther than your own backyard (no matter where in the world you live) in order to help contribute to worldwide scientific findings.

The Field Guide to Citizen Science is beautifully put together. With consistent page layouts and short, easy to understand instructions (along with reasons why the research proposed is important) this daypack sized soft cover book is a lovely gift or addition to any child's library. Using a green and yellow duotone colour scheme it feels more like you are reading a children's textbook than instructions on important, worldwide research.
Additionally at the back is a calendar suggesting which activities to review for each time of the year. It appears to be based on the North American seasonal timeline. This would help a teacher, parent or caretaker find appropriate activities for kids without reading the entire book.

As someone who has helped contribute to Zooniverse, the Gutenburg project, and more; I'm a large advocate of getting kids and adults involved in 'casual science'. Otherwise known as hobby science. Your average telescope buff or astronomer is a hobby scientist. They have the ability to make important breakthroughs; although it's far more likely you will contribute to a larger breakthrough by one of those PhD folks.

A great manual to realize the power of working together in science, and that sharing knowledge is always the best for humankind.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Book Review: Manhattan Beach

Manhattan BeachManhattan Beach 
by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A slow, lagging, literary read. I had to take breaks to read other books during this time to get to the end. The first 60% or so was fascinating and I loved our leading lady; but the latter half was mostly about her father on merchant ships during the war (snore). It quickly lost my interest and it became a slog to get to the end. Not near as good as A Visit from the Goon Squad. Infinitely too long and boring at times, and lacking real excitement throughout.
I have been putting off writing a full review for Manhattan Beach as I feel so meh about it. The longer I want the harder it gets to even remember what the book was about; never mind what I liked and disliked about it. So I'm going to say this: go read Jennifer Egan's other book. Pass this one by and save yourself some bored page flipping and grief.
I'm down grading my star rating to 2 stars as there clearly wasn't too much to take away from Manhattan Beach in the end.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: Hollow Dolls

Hollow Dolls
by MarcyKate Connolly
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF at 15%
Well I'm super disappointed. I didn't realize this book wasn't it's own series. One of the reasons is that the blurb promoting it says:
" brand new series starter "... liars!

Instead this is a direct(?) continuation of a previous duology. It appears to star some of the same characters or at least comes on the back of the events in the Shadow Weaver duology immediately. I am not a fan of reading series out of order; and given that there is sooo much back story here to explain in order to really know what is happening from the get go; I've decided that I'm not going to go any further.

It really annoys me when trilogies are done this way. It's much better to break things up like Mortal Instruments did. As long as we were with our same crew of teens it was books #1-6. When the Clockwork series came along, in a different time span and with different characters, it had it's own numbering of 1-3 AND it was toted as a prequel trilogy. This is respectful of the reader and makes life much easier for those of us (whom I think are the majority) that want to read series in order. 

Now I know publishers aren't generally a fan of the long series as it requires people to get in at the beginning; and maybe people are overwhelmed by starting a series with 3+ books in it. Hence the desire to stay with duologies and trilogies. This however is not me. My favourite genre is fantasy and so to me a series with many books in it is good, because I won't run out of content, and hopefully it's close to being complete (as nothing in publishing annoys me more than series that never get finished. Yes GRRM, it's literally all your fault).

If this premise intrigues you and you want to dive into MarcyKate Connolly's intriguing sound world, pick-up the first book of the first trilogy called Shadow Weaver. I've put the first book on my giant TBR list, but this experience means it's unlikely to get to the top anytime soon. Sad because the overall premise is super interesting.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Book Review: Look for Ladybug in Ocean City

Look for Ladybug in Ocean City
by Katherina Manolessou
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who doesn't love search and find books?
Even today I still love to look through a well illustrated seek and find book. Of course it's always more fun with a kid by my side these days. These pages are wonderfully colourful with whimsical illustrations. There is a real story here (which is unusual for a search and find book) that really allows this book to be used again, even after the child has found everything. Never mind were you to try and name all the aquatic animals drawn on each page. I know I'd be hard pressed to; but they do all look like they are based off real fish or aquatic mammals (there are otters that show up a couple times I love).
On each page there are little phrases or words in the illustrations, for example: way up, way down, eye tests, chill out and more. This is a great way to have a little one practice reading a bit; without them needing to read the entire story blurb on the page and getting overwhelmed.
We also visit many fun, and a couple not so fun but needed, locations along the way including the dentist, theater, a gorgeous museum (I want the two-sided head sea serpent on display!), and, my personal favourite, a garden maze!
There is a list of items to find at the beginning of the book (including ladybug of course) and then throughout the story blurbs there are phrases in all-caps that indicate they are to be found. For example: crab on a swing, portrait of a fish with a pearl earring, shrimp looking in the mirror, starfish with seven arms, etc. These are fun in that they aren't just an object for a child to find but in fact are often 'actions' inside the still illustration. So not only do you need to know the aquatic animal doing the item (ie: fish, octopus, crab, etc.) you have to know where something is or what something is. So to find 'penguin with a basket of ice pops' you need to know what a penguin looks like, what a bucket is, and probably what ice pops are. And yes there are tricks! On the page to find the penguin I saw at least four other penguins doing things like: eating ice cream, drinking coffee, walking, etc. So it's not as easy as just find the animal.
Don't worry parents for those who aren't so great at these, or have impatient children, there is a key at the back. Now if you're child is anything like my 8-year-old niece then you'll get in big trouble (like I did) for 'cheating' and looking at the answers. LOL

Overall I really liked this book. I love that it's a real story of 'detectives' looking for ladybug and it has an adorable twist at the end of the story. I also love finding things! So it's a double whammy and well worth the cost of getting this one in a nice hardcover that will last. Some of my favourite books from when I was a child are the search and find ones that helped me learn to read. It's too bad this one wasn't published many (okay yes a lot of) years earlier.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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