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.

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.

Book Review: Out Past the Stars by K. B. Wagers

Cover of the book Out Past the Stars by K. B. Wagers
Out Past the Stars
by K. B. Wagers
Orbit, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2020.

Hail, Star of Indrana, seeks to broker peace between the Farian and the Shen, a task made unimaginably more difficult when she meets the Farian gods and discovers they’re not what everyone has long believed. Now, an ancient, dangerous enemy is hunting them down. To preserve peace and save her empire, Hail must discover the truth behind centuries’ worth of lies and avert an all-out war. But the cost might be more than she can bear, just when she was hoping to finally put violence behind her. What makes Hail such a likable character is her obvious love for her compatriots. What makes her admirable is her unwavering commitment to doing what’s right, even when it’s not at all clear what the right choice is. The story is a compelling mix of action and politics, but Wagers’ strength is crafting character-driven science fiction, and it’s on full display. Everyone, including the villains, are complex and compelling. Relationships, both old and new, are rich. Wagers offers a well-earned, heartfelt, and hopeful conclusion to the Farian War series (which began with There before the Chaos, 2018).

Book Review: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth by Avi Loeb

Cover of the book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth by Avi Loeb
Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth
by Avi Loeb
HMH, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2020.

On October 19, 2017, astronomers discovered ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object to pass through our solar system. But its behavior was strange. While many hypotheses have been presented to explain its anomalies, Loeb, the longest-serving chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy and founder of the Black Hole Initiative, postulates the most likely explanation is that ‘Oumuamua is evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. He offers strong evidence to support this conclusion, but perhaps more valuable is how he uses this as a jumping-off point for much broader musings on the state of science. He critiques the tendency of science to be too conservative and the pernicious effects of scientific elitism toward the public. He considers the larger implications of what it would mean if we do obtain proof of other intelligent life in the universe, including the need for humanity to overcome our shortsightedness and invest in further exploration. Some of his digressions are a bit of a leap, but whether or not readers agree with him, his vision and curiosity are compelling.

Book Review: The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2020 edited by Michio Kaku and Jamie Green

Cover of the book The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2020 edited by Michio Kaku and Jamie Green
The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2020
edited by Michio Kaku and Jamie Green
HMH, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2020.

The common thread in most of the works here is disaster and how one recovers from it. Disasters range from extinction-level asteroid impacts to natural disasters to accidents and illness. Works raise two questions: “How did this happen?” and “What comes next?” These questions occupy many of the writers featured here, and the exploration of the recovery process will be particularly resonant for current readers; because all of the pieces included here were published in 2019, the 2020 edition of this series feels a little like a pre-pandemic time capsule. Selected works cover everything from climate change to medicine to ecology to geology to cosmology to chaos theory: proof that any subject makes a good story in the hands of a talented writer. Also striking is the way this collection as a whole jumps through time, with articles about dinosaurs and the geological K-t boundary alongside explorations of future technology. However, the articles focused on the present are the most personal and carry the deepest emotional resonance. This series remains a must-buy for most library collections.

Book Review: How I Learned to Understand the World by Hans Rosling

Cover of the book How I Learned to Understand the World by Hans Rosling
How I Learned to Understand the World
by Hans Rosling
Flatiron, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2020.

In this deeply personal memoir, Rosling takes account of his life with the goal of exploring how he came to understand the world. Most famous for his work in worldwide health data analysis as the founder of the Gapminder Institute and one of the inventors of the Trendalyzer software system which creates animated graphics of data over time, he sought to comprehend the big picture as clearly as possible, to make the best decisions about how to improve the health and living conditions of the world’s most needful. He dedicated much of his effort to correcting the common misunderstandings most Western countries have about the state of non-Western countries. Rosling began his career as a physician in Mozambique shortly after that country gained independence, and pioneered new epidemiological methods to better address the lived reality of the people he served. Over the years, he applied these same methods throughout sub-Saharan Africa, all while he and his wife raised three children and he battled cancer twice. His memoir is kind, humane, and unflinchingly honest.