Book Review: Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’s Information Society by R. David Lankes

Cover of the book Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’s Information Society by R. David Lankes
Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’s Information Society
by R. David Lankes
Rowman & Littlefield, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2021.

Modern knowledge infrastructure is a fractured complex of filter bubbles, tracking our every move across platforms, websites, and apps, gathering our personal data to sell to the highest bidders. To understand how this came to be, Lankes studied the origins of knowledge systems from the time of the world wars through the twentieth century. Most of our communication systems and technology were designed to be weaponized in response to wartime threats. Propaganda, manipulation, and ubiquitous surveillance are built in as data analysis is optimized for the cold calculations of war. These tools weren’t intended for commerce or entertainment, and certainly not to protect the privacy of users. But these are precisely the features businesses and designers use to capture attention and increase profits. Lankes argues for more humanist values to redesign our knowledge infrastructure: policies and systems that prioritize privacy and give users control of personal data, intellectual property rights that better serve the common good, and nuanced data analysis instead of algorithmic dataism. Lankes’ historical perspective is compelling and his arguments convincing.

Book Review: Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects by Jonathan Balcombe

Cover of the book Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World's Most Successful Insects by Jonathan Balcombe
Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects
by Jonathan Balcombe
Penguin, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2021.

Flies, two-winged flying insects that include everything from houseflies to mosquitoes to midges, are some of the least studied insects on the planet, which is surprising given that they’re among the most populous and varied. But associations with filth and blight, biting and pestilence, and crop destruction don’t make them very appealing. Balcombe wants to change that. Flies are fascinating, vital, and beautiful creatures. Flies are essential to the food chain, among the most common plant pollinators, and clean up rot and decay. They help solve crimes and heal wounds, and even unlock the possibility of insect sentience. Most famous for helping scientists study genetic inheritance via fruit flies, Diptera, it turns out, have far more to teach us. Balcombe also warns of the potential catastrophic effects of human actions on fly populations. Monoculture and pesticides are greatly reducing their numbers, but without flies, ecosystems will collapse. They may be pests, but flies deserve our respect and admiration. This is an excellent overview of what we know and what we’re discovering about flies.

Book Review: Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement by Faith Kearns

Cover of the book Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement by Faith Kearns
Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement
by Faith Kearns
Island, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on April 30, 2021.

With more than 25 years of experience as a science communicator, Kearns has a persuasive vision for how to improve the relationship between science and the public. She covers the history of science communication and offers guidance to make it more effective, illustrated by the experiences of a range of science communicators at work today. Science communication can’t be an objective authority handing down information to the public. Communicators must connect with people in the context of lived experience and the trauma that accompanies the natural and human-made disasters science seeks to solve. Science communicators aren’t separate from the public, instead often living in the communities they serve and affected by the same traumas. Science communication must engage with empathy, negotiate interpersonal and structural conflicts, interrogate the privilege and lack of diversity in the field, and embrace the emotional landscape of science. This book is written for professional science communicators but will appeal to anyone interested in a growing field, and it offers good advice about communication that applies far beyond the confines of science.

Book Review: Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim

Cover of the book Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim
Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life
by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim
Greystone, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on April 1, 2021.

Nguyen-Kim is a chemist and a science communicator who runs a popular German-language YouTube channel. Her first book takes readers on a journey through her typical day, from waking up and having her first cup of coffee through visiting a friend to charging her smartphone to an evening dinner party, showing how chemistry defines the world along the way in terms understandable to science newbies. Chemistry is central to food and nutrition, cosmetics and cleaning products, technology, even moods and how we fall in love. (The nutrition labels examined are German, not American.) Nguyen-Kim uses everyday examples to teach the basics of chemistry, and illustrates (aided by illustrations by claire Lenkova) that scientists are cool and interesting people, far from the stodgy stereotype. The more we know about how chemistry works, the better choices we can make about the things we use and consume. Ultimately, she wants to inspire a passion for science, which makes the world more fascinating, more beautiful, and more complex. Altogether, this is an impassioned, quirky, fun, and engaging read.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/Curriculum Support: Teens needing a rudimentary breakdown of chemistry will find this engaging book helpful. —Susan Maguire

Book Review: Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Cover of the book Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells
Fugitive Telemetry
by Martha Wells
Tor, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2021.

Preservation Station doesn’t see very many murders. So when a dead human is found in an empty corridor, Murderbot wonders if GreyCris is finally making their next move on Dr. Mensah. To find out, they’ll need to work with Station Security on the investigation—which could prove problematic, as the head of Station Security doesn’t like having a rogue SecUnit onboard. Things get even more complicated when a group of passengers from a passing ship goes missing, systems start malfunctioning, and no one knows who’s behind it all. After the first full-length, standalone Murderbot novel (Network Effect, 2020), Wells returns to a shorter novella and the main plotline from the first four books in the series. The formula remains successful: fast-paced and action-packed, with plenty of sarcasm and plans that don’t work as intended. But maybe this time Murderbot is starting to find their place in their new home. Maybe they could even make a friend or two along the way. And maybe that’s not as horrible as it sounds. Another strong entry in a series fans adore.

Book Review: Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger

Cover of the book Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger
Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX
by Eric Berger
Morrow, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on February 15, 2021.

Tech billionaire Elon Musk set out to revolutionize the space industry, and founded aerospace company SpaceX in the hope of one day landing humans on Mars. Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, was granted unprecedented access to interview Musk, as well as current and former employees of SpaceX, and here shares first-hand accounts of their experiences. The main focus isn’t Musk himself, but the engineers, technicians, vice presidents, and lieutenants: passionate and driven people bold enough to take on Musk’s ambitious vision. Berger shares how they came to work for Musk, their experiences of toil and sweat, uncertainty and victory. There’s very little technical detail in this book; instead, it’s a story about people and their faith in one man’s compelling mission. What stands out most is the author’s command of pacing. He depicts race-against-the-clock crises as fast-paced as a thriller, with moments reminiscent of Apollo 13 or The Martian (albeit with slightly lower stakes). An exciting and insightful read for anyone interested in the story behind the early days of SpaceX.

Book Review: Glow by Tim Jordan

Cover of the book Glow by Tim Jordan
Glow
by Tim Jordan
Angry Robot, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on February 1, 2021.

Just as humankind was on the brink of reaching the stars, fueled by new biotechnology that conveys near-immortality, the Earth was almost destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. Now, a once-great corporation is clinging to power from its orbiting stations, an Earth-side alliance seeks to overthrow it, and a new kind of artificial life lurks in the dark, where nothing is as it seems. Rex is an addict of Glow—a nanotech drug—who can’t remember who he is. When he’s taken in by a sect of nuns who promise salvation, he finds himself in a conflict that could destroy all he holds dear, hunted by something not of this world. He must survive long enough to solve the mystery of his own identity. In Jordan’s impressive fiction debut, the action and pacing are taut, the characters well drawn, the conflict compelling, and the world he creates is fascinating and immersive in its detail. His world building is reminiscent of the best space opera mixed with the gritty, violent dystopia of cyberpunk. Recommended for fans of Alastair Reynolds and William Gibson.

Book Review: And Then She Vanished by Nick Jones

Cover of the book And Then She Vanished by Nick Jones
And Then She Vanished
by Nick Jones
Blackstone, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on January 15, 2021.

When Joseph Bridgeman was a teenager, his younger sister, Amy, vanished while under his supervision. She was never found and the loss tore his family apart. Twenty years later, in the midst of crippling depression, a hypnotherapy session unlocks a strange new ability: Joe discovers he can travel back in time. If he can figure out how this power works, maybe he can save his sister. Time travel is used to tell an intimate, personal story here: a tale of grief and guilt and what a loving brother will do to heal the wounds of the past. But there are moral quandaries posed by changing history and Jones doesn’t shy from that. The novel, originally self-published in 2015, offers an ending that isn’t as neat and happy as readers might expect: there’s a cost to getting what you want. Jones’ version of time travel is compelling; though the mechanism remains secret, the rules of time travel are clear. It’s a compelling set up for the next in the Downstream Diaries series.

2020: My Year in Reading


I read 41 books this past year, which is one more than the least amount I’ve read of any year since I started tracking (2014 only had 40). Honestly, this is more than I thought it would be because… well, because 2020. This was not an easy or normal year. 22 titles were assigned to me by Booklist to review.

2020 is the first year in the past six that I didn’t track my reading in depth. I kept a list of titles but I didn’t record start or end dates, or the number of days spent on each book. I explained why I chose not to keep a detailed reading list anymore in a previous post.

Now it’s time to assess: Was this a good choice?

Continue reading “2020: My Year in Reading”

Book Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline-Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist by Robert Lefkowitz and Randy Hall

Cover of the book A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline-Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist by Robert Lefkowitz and Randy Hall
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm: The Adrenaline-Fueled Adventures of an Accidental Scientist
by Robert Lefkowitz and Randy Hall
Pegasus, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2021.

Lefkowitz grew up wanting to be a doctor, not a scientist. But life took him down some unexpected paths and his pioneering research identifying the nature and structure of beta receptors won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012. An avid and inveterate storyteller, he chronicles his life in medicine and science. Well on his way to becoming a cardiologist, he found himself drawn to the world of medical research, where he contributed to groundbreaking discoveries for more than 40 years, and became one of the field’s great mentors. Told with humor and humility, what shines through most is his love of stories. This book came about because of his penchant for sharing tales about his life, but he also argues for the central importance of storytelling in both patient care and scientific research: knowing a patient’s story is essential to understanding their ailments, and research data doesn’t mean anything without a story to make sense of it. His passion for science and discovery, for helping people, and for celebrating stories is infectious.