Between The Bookends 9/16: Monsters, Steampunk and Embalmed Heads

Reading Time: 10 minutes
Between the Bookends Header © Sophie Brown
Between the Bookends Header © Sophie Brown

The summer break is over, the kids are back in school, and the GeekMoms finally have some time to get some reading done… Ha! With homework, sports clubs, and more we’re as busy as ever! Still, that hasn’t stopped us getting a number of books under our belts and we hope you find something to enjoy with us. Our reading interests are varied, including science books for kids, supernatural thrillers, Night Vale novelizations, Webmages, steampunk, and an off-kilter historical fiction memoir about the embalmed head of Oliver Cromwell, plus several others.

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Big Science for Little People, Image: Roost Books.png
Big Science for Little People, Image: Roost Books.png

Sophie and her six-year-old son spent an afternoon working through some of the experiments in Big Science For Little People by Lynn Brunelle, a beautiful volume of 52 science experiments aimed at children aged four to eight that kids and parents can do together in the home, garden, or park. Each experiment is laid out with an equipment list, step-by-step instructions, an explanation of the science behind what’s happening, and a “take it further” section which suggests some variations on the basic experiment to give you comparisons. The equipment lists make it easy to figure out which ones you can do without making an emergency trip to the store (hint, buy baking soda and white vinegar in advance. Lots and lots of baking soda and white vinegar…) or allow you to easily plan a science afternoon in advance.

Sophie’s son really enjoyed Magic Milk (adding drops of food coloring to milk on a plate, then dropping in dish soap) and “Make Water Float on Air”, the classic trick of tipping a glass filled with water upside down and having it stay put – although he still didn’t trust her or the laws of physics enough for Sophie to hold it over his head! It had to be said, however, that he was deeply unimpressed by the “Mysterious Mobius Strip.” Sophie particularly enjoyed the “Geek Mama Fun Facts” after each experiment which delved a little deeper into the science and background. Although she enjoyed the book, Sophie couldn’t help feeling that most of the contents could be easily located with a quick Google search for “fun science experiments to do at home,” and, indeed, there are only so many times each one can be performed giving the book something of a limited shelf life. Still, for kids with an interest in science and (perhaps) parents or grandparents without much internet know-how, this would be an awesome gift.

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American Monsters, Image: HarperCollins UK
American Monsters, Image: HarperCollins UK

Sophie has learned from past experience not to grow too attached to characters in Derek Landy books as there is a very good chance they’ll die a grisly death before the end of the novel or book series. Landy’s final book of the Demon Road trilogy, American Monsters, is no exception with more than one shocking and unexpected death

In this third novel, Amber and Milo hunt Amber’s murderous parents across America to ensure Amber’s salvation. However, her parents have their own plans and machinations at play to save their own lives. In addition, Amber and Milo have new and recurring supernatural villains and monsters to contend with before on their journey before a climatic showdown.

All in all, Sophie felt this was a satisfying end to a solid trilogy of supernatural thrills, horror, and witty humor, and the ending leaves ample opportunity to revisit this series again in the future. After all, Landy has just announced he is returning to the world of Skulduggery Pleasant in 2017 so he likes to return to his popular works.

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Mostly Void, Partially Stars, Image: HarperPerennial
Mostly Void, Partially Stars, Image: HarperPerennial

Finally, Sophie read Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 1 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. This book contains the scripts from the entire first year of Welcome to Night Vale episodes, plus the script from “Condos” – the first WTNV live show. Each episode’s script is prefaced by a short introduction from one of the show’s creative team: creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, guest writers, and voice actors including Cecil Baldwin and Dylan Marron. It is these short introductions that Sophie particularly enjoyed as they offered a deeper insight into the process of creating Night Vale during its first year. She felt the inclusion of “Condos” in this volume was somewhat out of place as it occurs much later in the Night Vale timeline making it potentially confusing for readers not familiar with the original podcast.

Night Vale is something of an auditory experience, and Sophie found that reading the scripts without the dulcet tones of Cecil’s voice and the gentle yet occasionally ominous background music from Disparition lacked something. Perhaps someone who had not listened to the show wouldn’t experience that same sensation of incompleteness. Popping on a Disparition album in the background definitely helped, yet for Sophie these scripts simply belong with Cecil’s voice (and the rest of the talented Night Vale voice cast) and reading them felt as if she were only getting half the story. Regardless, she is excited to soon read Volume Two – The Great, Glowing Coils of The Universe – which is also out now to learn more about season two.

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Cybermancy, Image: Ace
Cybermancy, Image: Ace

This month, Shiri devoured books 2-5 of Kelly McCullough’s Webmage Series (Cybermancy, Codespell, MythOS, and Spell Crash). Ravirn simply can’t keep himself out of trouble with the Fates. Or Zeus. Or Odin. Or… well, he’s a rogue which is very much Shiri’s preferred sort of protagonist, even if it does land said protagonist in heaps of trouble.

Science fantasy is a difficult sub-genre to get right; the balance of magic and tech is a very delicate one and the whole thing can fall apart as easily as one of (literal) web goblin Melchior’s improvised spells. McCullough weaves together a tapestry of magic and computer coding, spells and data transfer, souls, and ghosts in the machine that is wholly believable (within its own context) and populates the world with well-drawn characters who grow as the story does. There is just the right amount of snark, balanced by genuine emotion and humanity, to keep a reader like Shiri completely engaged and watching the clock for reading time. And, if Ravirn’s initial relationship isn’t Shiri’s favorite sort, he does much better the second time around. Each installment of Webmage builds and improves on the previous one – a sign of a good series and an excellent writer.

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The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell, Image: Curious Books
The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell, Image: Curious Books

Shiri also partook of the historical-fiction memoir, The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell, A Memoir by Marc Hartzman and wrote an extensive review of the book for GeekMom. Shiri tends to learn a lot more from historical fiction than she does from straight up non-fiction (for reasons she discusses in the longer review) and found herself engaged with the character of Oliver Cromwell far more than she imagined she would engage.

Hartzman researched historical events extensively in order to craft this tale told from the perspective of Cromwell’s preserved cranium and though he did, of course, take some liberties for the sake of narrative flow (the true/false events are documented in the end-notes). “Cromwell’s” fantastic whimsical/dark/self-important/cutting sense of humor and keen observational skills make for an incisive study of man’s need to leave a legacy, his ever-present ambivalence with regards to progress, and many other facets of the human condition. If you are going to read only one memoir authored by an embalmed head this year (perhaps one historical fiction work will leave you with more options), Shiri highly recommends The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell.

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Clockwork Angel, Image: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Clockwork Angel, Image: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Rebecca Angel found this book on her shelf and has no idea how it got there, but the cover was steampunk and the plot looked interesting. Clockwork Angel By Cassandra Clare is a YA fiction set in the same universe as the author’s Mortal Instruments series- a series Rebecca had heard was good. This first book in the series starts out in Victorian-era London. After her Aunt dies, Tessa Gray, an unassuming American, comes across the ocean to be with her brother, her only living relative. But she is immediately kidnapped by the Dark Sisters and tortured into learning her magical power to change shape into another person. The sisters use her power for their own purposes, telling Tessa that her brother will only survive if she doesn’t resist. Tessa is rescued by Will, a gorgeous Shadowhunter, who brings Tessa to safety with his brethren. She learns about the underworld of magical creatures, hunters, and humans with powers (like her) that live and die unnoticed by the people around them.

The world building is very good. The plot certainly is interesting. But the characters…eh. Rebecca was frustrated by the main character’s lack of plot movement. Tessa “thinks” a lot about doing things, but in the end, she is usually in the way, reacts, yells at people, or needs to be rescued by the other characters. Granted, she doesn’t have the physical training to fight, but she also doesn’t ask to learn either. She has a superpower that is only used a few times in the book and only because other people make her or ask her to. In fact, she only uses her power once in the ENTIRE book of her own decision. The two romantic interests are not well-rounded, and Rebecca does not find a guy saying “Stay put!” and “Don’t move!” constantly, very attractive. Rebecca still enjoyed reading the book but wished Tessa was more active and creative.

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Good And Cheap, Image: Workman Publishing Company
Good And Cheap, Image: Workman Publishing Company

Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day By Leanne Brown is a fantastic cookbook for all your teens and young adults learning how to be independent. “Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food.” Rebecca loves that quote and it’s one that her son learned very well last year. He took a cooking class that included giving each kid this book at the end. It was a ten-week class that taught basic kitchen skills, but best of all, he came home with a cooked meal for the family each week. There was not one bad meal!

The final meal was a challenge for the students: using this book, they had to pick a meal, shop, make it and report back how it went. My son chose Pasta With Eggplant and Tomato. Her son was amazed at how inexpensive the ingredients were for a meal that was big enough to feed everyone and delicious. The author writes so clearly and lays out the recipes step by step; it was perfect for him.After the course was over, Rebecca’s son was in charge of one meal a week. They have many cookbooks, but he likes this one and knows it helps the family stay on budget. The focus of the meals is on vegetables. This is exactly what every healthy diet points to around the world.

That doesn’t mean no meat, just not as much. Learning how to chop and flavor your own food cuts down on the expensive pre-packaged stuff (which usually has crappy additives in them anyway.) Besides sections on the basic meals, desserts, and snack foods, there are pages on shopping well, utilizing leftovers, drinks, seasonal food chart, and even the basic kitchen utensils needed. Rebecca highly recommends this book.

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The Name of The Wind, Image: Gollancz
The Name of The Wind, Image: Gollancz

This month Jena read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. A long book (well over 700 pages), it was her book club’s book of choice for July and August as the book club moderator was on maternity leave. At first intimidated by the length, Jena found that the fluid writing and fascinating story made her thankful it was so long, letting her be immersed in the world a little longer.

The Name of the Wind is the story of Kvothe, a legendary warrior, and musician, who lived an extraordinary life. The book is told from his point of view through most of the book and with a third person telling filling in the gaps. Kvothe sits down to tell his life story to a traveling scribe, and the tale is both heart-warming and tragic. The sheer amount of adventures the man goes through would have broken a weaker man but there is none in the world quite like Kvothe, The Flame. The Kingkiller.

The book is the first in a trilogy, each book one day in his story telling. Jena plans on starting the next book soon as she can.

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Mission Mumbai, Image: Scholastic Press
Mission Mumbai, Image: Scholastic Press

Nivi would really love for her boys to learn about India. She’d love for them to read. So she ordered Mission Mumbai by Mahtab Narsimhan and read it. But her boys didn’t. It is summer vacation, after all, and there are Magic: The Gathering cards to play with, so she really shouldn’t have been surprised. Nonetheless, she liked the book.

Mission Mumbai is written from the point of view of a British boy who travels to India on vacation with his Indian best friend. The narrator is endearing, the plot is complex enough without being convoluted, the characters are distinct and interesting, the conflict is realistic and sufficiently urgent, and the dialog is well done. All in all, as far as realistic fiction for middle-grade readers go, this is a great story. Nivi’s only issue was that, for a book about India, it was a little disappointing that the story was told by a white, male narrator. Perhaps that makes it more marketable and more relatable, or perhaps Nivi has just been too hyper-aware of the whitewashing of Hollywood to have been able to let it go, but there it is.

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The Wright Brothers, Image: Simon & Schuster
The Wright Brothers, Image: Simon & Schuster

Nivi read The Wright Brothers by David McCullough for her book club, and despite missing the book club discussion, she’s glad she read it. What a great lesson in perseverance and character, in hard work and dedication. And being an Ohioan, she appreciated the tribute to her home state. As a parent, she would love to have her kids read this story, and offer a great example of how siblings get along, allowing each sibling’s strengths to shine (and letting each one stay comfortable). There was so much more to the story than she had realized, and this story was an easy-to-read history lesson.

Nivi also realized that perhaps she’s started to take air travel for granted, focused more on the cost, comfort, and convenience of particular flights. This book returned her to an earlier time, deftly painted a portrait of an era when traveling to Europe required a boat ride, and made her return to a moment of childhood awe when listening to the Blue Angels soaring overhead in preparation for Cleveland’s Labor Day air show.