Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The Jazz of Physics, by Stephon Alexander

Monday, March 20th, 2017

The Jazz of Physics

The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe

by Stephon Alexander

Basic Books, 2016. 239 pages.
Starred Review

I heard Stephon Alexander speak at ALA Midwinter Meeting last year. He speaks with passion about how his love of jazz gave him insights into cosmology. (Of course, I was disposed to like him, because when I got the book signed and showed him my prime factorization scarf, he liked it so much, he called over his girlfriend, an artist, from another part of the exhibits so she could see it.)

As a Black American with roots in Trinidad, Stephon Alexander knows what it’s like to be a minority in physics. This book also tells his story and how he was inspired to turn to science.

I’ll admit, I don’t understand much about the equations or the physics mentioned in this book. But the author’s excitement comes across as he explains how he discovered insights about physics in music.

During all the years of formal training as a scientist, I found myself trying to reconcile my passion for music with physics. I started to not only see how the act of doing physics research could benefit from musical analogies but how our physical world actually had a musical character. Aside from the few mentors, such as Chris Isham and Robert Brandenberger, who had encouraged me to blend the two, I felt pressure to keep these two worlds separate. Physics to some is about absolute truths encoded in rigid mathematics, and music is a language of emotion. Perhaps this tension would not have been a big deal had I known that in the early days of science, music and astronomy were inseparable. To the modern musician and scientist, this may seem preposterous, but to early people, who lacked the scientific tools we now have, music became an analogy for the ordering and structure of the cosmos.

The book talks about sound and vibration and how it relates to string theory. He talks about sonic black holes and cosmic background radiation. Especially interesting is how he arrived at a breakthrough in string theory and cosmology by thinking about jazz improvisation.

I may not understand the details presented here, but I understand passages like this:

Weaving music and physics into one avenue of thought has showed me how to use notions in music as points of access to various fields in modern physics and cosmology. Analogies have helped make the physics more accessible and stimulating.

It is wonderful to think of following the footsteps of our ancestors — the great ancient thinkers who sought to understand physics through sound, and sound through physics. Pythagoras played with hammers and strings to try to understand where the pleasures of music came from, while Kepler used his intuition that the universe was musical to make major advances in the fields of astronomy, physics, and mathematics.

He talks about how the analogies not only help explain physics, but they also help new discoveries be made.

This book is not only about the analogy between music and cosmology but also about the importance of musical and improvisational thinking in doing physics. Theoretical physicists exemplify John Coltrane’s approach to music. We use an arsenal of conceptual and mathematical tools that we practice through examples that were worked out by past masters, like Einstein and Feynman. Likewise, jazz musicians like Coltrane master their tradition throughout countless hours of practice. But for both the theoretical physicist and the jazz improviser, it is not enough to simply master the material of the past; discoveries must be made.

He ends the book by saying, “My journey to reconcile jazz with physics serves as a living example of how a small group of physicists, in the spirit of the jazz tradition, embraced me and allowed me to improvise physics with them, while challenging me to go beyond my limits.”

stephonalexander.org
basicbooks.com

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Source: This review is based on an Advance Reader Copy I got at ALA Midwinter Meeting and had signed to me by the author.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh? by Alison Limentani

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh?

by Alison Limentani

Boxer Books, 2016. 28 pages.
Starred Review

The more I look at this book, the more I like it. Right now, I’m planning to use it for my next Toddler and Preschool Storytimes, and even bring it to Kindergarten and first grade classes for booktalking. The idea is simple, but it’s got so much depth.

Here is the text of the first several pages:

10 ants weigh the same as 1 ladybug.

9 ladybugs weigh the same as 1 grasshopper.

8 grasshoppers weigh the same as 1 stickleback fish.

7 stickleback fish weigh the same as 1 garden snail.

You get the idea! The book progresses, counting down, through starlings, gray squirrels, rabbits, and fox cubs to 1 swan. Then, of course, to finish off, we learn:

1 swan weighs the same as 362,880 ladybugs.

The illustrations are simple and clear. This whole book could almost be thought of as an infographic, except that the animals are not icons, but detailed illustrations.

I love that the animals chosen are not your typical animal-book animals. But most of them (except maybe the stickleback fish) are ones a child is quite likely to see in their own yard or neighborhood.

The back end papers list average weights of all the animals (in a colorful diagram) with the note, “Different animals of the same species can vary in weight, just as different people do. All the weights in this book are based on animals within the average healthy weight range.”

I love the way this is a counting book, a math book (about relative weight and even multiplication), a beginning reader, and a science book (about these different species).

It’s also a beautiful picture book. The note at the front says, “The illustrations were prepared using lino cuts and litho printing with digital color.” They are set against lovely solid color backgrounds, so the animals show up nice and clear.

I have a feeling that reading this book frequently with a child will get that child noticing small animals and insects in the neighborhood and thinking about weights and differences and good things like that.

A truly brilliant choice for early math and science thinking.

boxerbooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Thunder and Lightning, by Lauren Redniss

Monday, September 19th, 2016

thunder_and_lightning_largeThunder and Lightning

Weather Past, Present, Future

by Lauren Redniss

Random House, New York, 2015. 262 pages.
Starred Review

Thunder and Lightning is another Science Picture Book for Adults by the author of Radioactive.

As with Radioactive, which is a biography of Marie Curie, Thunder and Lightning is full of facts – but the most striking thing about it is the dramatic pictures.

I can’t really describe the pictures adequately, so I’m going to focus on the words here, but be aware that if this is a book you find interesting at all, you should check it out and see for yourself.

The author explores so many aspects of weather! Mainly she tells weather-related stories, but there are also many things about the science of weather. Some of the stories told include a cemetery washed out by a flood, the secret forecasting formula used by Old Farmer’s Almanac, people struck by lightning, a ship that sunk in fog, swimming from Cuba to Florida, devastating fires in Australia, a World Seed Bank in Svalbard, the ice trade on Walden Pond, and making rain in Vietnam. This perhaps gives an idea of the wide range of topics covered here, which all relate to weather.

The author relies heavily on quotes, which bring an immediacy to each story, each exploration.

Here are some things Arctic explorer Vilhjálmur Stefánsson had to say in 1921:

The daylight is negligible; and the moonlight, which comes to you first through clouds that are high in the sky and later through an enveloping fog, is a light which enables you to see your dog team distinctly enough, or even a black rock a hundred yards away, but it is scarcely better than no light at all upon the snow at your feet.

I think my favorite chapter, though, is Chapter 7, “Sky.” After fascinating ramblings and explorations on various topics, I turned the pages on “Sky” – and discovered 16 pages of paintings of sky. Lovely.

This book is surprising and hard to describe. Check it out and see for yourself.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of What in the World? Numbers in Nature, by Nancy Raines Day and Kurt Cyrus

Friday, September 9th, 2016

what_in_the_world_largeWhat in the World?

Numbers in Nature

by Nancy Raines Day
illustrated by Kurt Cyrus

Beach Lane Books, New York, 2015. 32 pages.

This is a simple picture book introducing a little bit of counting and a little bit of science to young readers.

Each number is introduced by a question, “What in the world comes . . .” and gentle pictures by the seaside illustrate each set.

Here’s an example from the middle:

What in the world comes four by four?

Petals of poppies, hooves – and more.

What in the world comes five by five?

The arms of sea stars, all alive.

There are only two lines per double-page spread, and plenty of open space in each painting, so this is for young readers who can handle the gentle pace. It would make a nice bedtime book, since the book finishes up with “sets too big to count.” The final two spreads show us a darkening sky with the words

Stars in the sky –

a vast amount!

You can hear from these examples that the rhyming isn’t stellar, but it’s doesn’t quite cross the line into bad. One other quibble I have is that on the sets of ten page with “Fingers and toes that wiggle and bend,” the picture of the boy does show his fingers and toes (in the water), but his arms are crossed with one thumb hidden – so you can’t use the picture to count ten fingers and ten toes.

However the simple idea – a counting book based on nature – is a lovely one. This is a gentle book that naturally leads into counting with children things in the world around them. A great way to practice counting and a great way to open their eyes to nature.

NancyRainesDay.com
KurtCyrus.com
KIDS.SimonandSchuster.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Butterfly Counting, by Jerry Pallotta

Saturday, July 2nd, 2016

butterfly_counting_largeButterfly Counting

by Jerry Pallotta
and Shennen Bersani

Charlesbridge, 2015. 32 pages.
Starred Review

I’ll admit, I am already a huge Jerry Pallotta fan. Why? Because 27 years ago, The Bird Alphabet Book was one of the very first books my child loved. We read it so often, she could recite whole paragraphs from the book with her cute toddler voice. Phooey, 27 years later, I can recite whole paragraphs from the book. (I especially remember, “Wait a minute, bats are not birds! Although they have wings and can fly, bats are mammals…. Get out of this book, you bats!”)

This book does a little of that playing with the reader as well. It starts with a spread of 20 moths. After counting them,

But wait . . . these are not butterflies! These are all moths. We tricked you! Moths can be very colorful.

Then it goes on to count butterflies of different varieties. The first ten butterflies are red, blue, green, purple, orange, black, white, pink, yellow, and brown. The next nine are multicolored and patterned butterflies. Then for 20 to 25, they look at the lifecycle of the butterfly, beginning with twenty Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly eggs.

Each page tells us the word for butterfly in another language. And the book is full of facts about the different varieties of butterflies.

And the book is so beautiful! The illustrator has made stunning paintings of each variety of butterfly (or moth).

It’s so easy for me to imagine a small child, like young Jade, avidly learning and reciting these facts.

The last page shows a lovely creature with wings that go from yellow to bright pink.

A butterfly in Great Britain is called a butterfly. But don’t be silly! This is not a butterfly. It is a grasshopper. Should we write a grasshopper book next?

jerrypallotta.com
shennenbersani.com
charlesbridge.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Traveling Butterflies, by Susumu Shingu

Saturday, July 2nd, 2016

traveling_butterflies_largeTraveling Butterflies

by Susumu Shingu

Owlkids Books, 2015. First published in Japan in 2012. 42 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a children’s nonfiction picture book that is simple enough for preschoolers. Yet it’s interesting enough for older readers, and the pictures are stunningly beautiful.

The story is of the migration of monarch butterflies. It shows their life cycle, then how very far they travel.

There’s a fascinating author’s note at the back. I didn’t realize that most monarch butterflies live only two to six weeks. But the generation of monarchs that migrates south, traveling nearly 2,500 miles, lives six to eight months. Interestingly, the butterflies that fly back north from Mexico to Canada don’t live any longer than the others — so it takes three to four generations of monarchs to fly back north.

This is a wonderful introduction to the story of these butterflies. I couldn’t stop looking at the beautiful and vivid paintings.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Pink Is for Blobfish, by Jess Keating

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

pink_is_for_blobfish_largePink Is for Blobfish

Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink Animals

by Jess Keating
with illustrations by David DeGrand

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2016.
Starred Review

Here’s a book that simply begs to be booktalked in the schools. All I will have to do is show some pictures. I don’t know if I’ll be able to attract kids who normally like pink, but I’m sure I’ll be able to attract those who enjoy unusual animals or like reading about disgusting ways of getting a meal.

As the book begins, “Think you know pink?”

It proceeds to feature sixteen bizarre animals — that happen to be colored pink. It gives the general information about the creature along with some of the more notable facts. All the animals have a photograph — the more cartoony illustrations go with the information about the animal.

The book begins with the blobfish, which was voted the ugliest animal in the world in a poll taken by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society. It continues through such animals as pinktoe tarantulas, pygmy seahorses, and Amazon river dolphins.

Did you know that orchid mantises look so much like flowers, insects will land on them more often than on actual flowers, when given a choice in a lab? Or that pink fairy armadillos have a special “butt plate” to compact the dirt when they dig tunnels? Or that hippopotamuses ooze a thick pink oil all over their skin to protect themselves from sunburn? Or that hairy squat lobsters catch their food in their hair?

This is a strange-animals book with one amusing characteristic in common. All of the strange animals in these pages are pink!

JessKeating.com
DeGrandLand.com
randomhousekids.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Great Monkey Rescue, by Sandra Markle

Monday, June 6th, 2016

great_monkey_rescue_largeThe Great Monkey Rescue

Saving the Golden Lion Tamarins

by Sandra Markle

Millbrook Press, Minneapolis, 2015. 40 pages.

Here’s a nonfiction picture book about science – with a practical problem of saving an endangered species.

In the 1960s, scientists believed only about two hundred of Brazil’s wild golden lion tamarins were still alive. Their habitat was shrinking, and the ones in zoos were not having babies that survived.

This book tells the story of how that turned around. First, people learned more about their habits in the wild to help them live better in zoos. Then they learned how to successfully introduce zoo-born tamarins back to the wild.

A recent problem was that remaining forest habitats were in islands separated by cattle pasture, which tamarins couldn’t safely cross. Conservationists purchased land to plant a forest bridge between separate habitats, thus expanding their range.

This story is told in a much more interesting way in the book, accompanied by an abundance of pictures of the photogenic animals.

It’s a story about science and activism and hope – accompanied by adorably cute pictures! I’m already thinking I’ve got booktalking gold.

lernerbooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Headstrong, by Rachel Swaby

Monday, March 28th, 2016

headstrong_largeHeadstrong

52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World

by Rachel Swaby

Broadway Books, New York, 2015. 273 pages.
Starred Review

I was going to write that all parents of daughters should read this book. Then it occurred to me that this would be a fabulous book to hand to a teenage daughter. Then I realized that all educators should read this book. Finally, I realize that I think this is a book everyone should read.

Quick, name a scientist who was female and who changed the world with her work. Most people think of Marie Curie and draw a blank when they try to come up with any further names. Rachel Swaby specifically left out Marie Curie from this book. But she found 52 other women who did world-changing scientific work.

I heard Rachel Swaby speak at the 2015 National Book Festival. She was wonderful, so delighted and intrigued by the stories she’d uncovered about these amazing women. I checked out the book and since then have been reading one chapter a day. The fifty-two chapters are an easily digestible 3-4 pages, but highlight the way these women changed the world.

The author chose women who are already dead (“whose life’s work has already been completed”) and she leaned toward women who overcame obstacles, so these stories are inspiring as well as informative. She includes women who worked in the fields of medicine, biology, genetics, physics, geometry, astronomy, math, technology, and invention.

The Introduction explains why this book is so needed:

This book about scientists began with beef stroganoff. According to the New York Times, Yvonne Brill made a mean one. In an obituary published in March 2013, Brill was honored with the title “world’s best mom” because she “followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Only after a loud, public outcry did the Times amend the article so it would begin with the contribution that earned Brill a featured spot in the paper of record in the first place: “She was a brilliant rocket scientist.” Oh right. That.

The error – stroganoff before science; domesticity before personal achievement – is so cringe-worthy because it’s a common one. In 1964, when Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin won the greatest award that chemistry has to offer, a newspaper declared “Nobel Prize for British Wife,” as if she had stumbled upon the complex structures of biochemical substances while matching her husband’s socks. We simply don’t speak of men in science this way. Their marital status isn’t considered necessary context in a biochemical breakthrough. Employment as an important aerospace engineer is not the big surprise hiding behind a warm plate of noodles. For men, scientific accomplishments are accepted as something naturally within their grasp. . . .

We need not only fairer coverage of women in science, but more of it. . . .

As girls in science look around for role models, they shouldn’t have to dig around to find them. By treating women in science like scientists instead of anomalies or wives who moonlight in the lab as well as correcting the cues given to girls at a young age about what they’re good at and what they’re supposed to like, we can accelerate the growth of a new generation of chemists, archeologists, and cardiologists while also revealing a hidden history of the world.

By her own standards, Hertha Ayrton was a good scientist. So was the detail-oriented seismologist Inge Lehmann, and the firecracker neuroembryologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, too. The scientists in this book aren’t included because they were women practicing science or math in a time when few women did – although by that criterion, many would fit. They’re included because they discovered Earth’s inner core, revealed radioactive elements, dusted off a complete dinosaur skeleton, or launched a new field of scientific inquiry. Their ideas, discoveries, and insights made earth-shaking changes to the way we see the world (and that goes for the seismologist, too). . . .

So instead of calling every standout woman in science the Marie Curie of her field, the next time someone really lives for their work, let’s call them the Barbara McClintock of their specialty. If a scientist charts new territory, let’s refer to them as the Annie Jump Cannon of their particular exploration. If a researcher puts herself in physical danger for an experiment, let’s say she’s like any number of the scientists here who worked with radioactivity or mustard gas.

There are fifty-two profiles in this book. Read one a week, and in a year you’ll know whose research jump-started the Environmental Protection Agency, who discovered wrinkle-free cotton, and even whose ingenious score has now saved generations of struggling newborns. So little coverage has been dedicated to these scientists elsewhere that, in going through these profiles, I hope you’ll feel like you’ve gained a breadth of knowledge that rivals that of Salome Waelsch.

This book hit home to me because I was one of a small minority of women in a graduate mathematics department in the 1980s. It would have done me good to know that outstanding scientists and mathematicians who were women were nothing new at all.

And the book is interesting, too! Each brief biography begins with an intriguing paragraph and then gives you the rest of the story about these women who indeed overcame challenges and accomplished great things.

This book would be a fantastic place to start for novelists looking for actual historical characters with fascinating lives. I say this because I’ve already read a wonderful novel about one of the featured scientists, Sophie Kowalevski, Beyond the Limit, by Joan Spicci. I’m left wanting to know more about most of these amazing women.

Here are a few introductory paragraphs to get you intrigued:

Maria Sibylla Merian loved bugs long before scientists had uncovered their mysteries, loved them at a time when few people were interested in those vile, disgusting things. Acquantances assigned credit or blame for her unusual passion to her mother, who had looked at a collection of insects while Merian was still in the womb. Something about those pinned and polished bodies, shimmering powdery wings, and articulated legs instilled a fascination in the child growing inside her.

Two members of the division of war research at Columbia University spent an entire day grilling Chien-Shiung Wu about her work in nuclear physics. Regarding their own top-secret projects, the interviewers remained dutifully mum until the very end of the day, when they asked if Wu had any idea what they were up to. She cracked a smile. “I’m sorry, but if you wanted me not to know what you’re doing, you should have cleaned the blackboards.” They asked her to start work the next morning.

During the last two and a half decades of her 103 years, Italians liked to joke that everyone would recognize the pope, so long as he appeared with Rita Levi-Montalcini. Though she stood only five feet, three inches, the stories of her work and her life were as large and dramatic as her iconic sideswept hair.

Alice Hamilton’s professional successes – of which there were many – fell at the intersection of science and social issues. Although she earned a degree in medicine from the University of Michigan, gaining further training in bacteriology and pathology at the University of Leipzig and the University of Munich, she didn’t think herself capable of becoming anything more than a “fourth-rate bacteriologist.” But what she lacked in bravado, she made up for in her dedication to problems both “human and practical”: typhoid outbreaks, lead poisoning, and the widespread horror of occupational disease.

Learn the fascinating stories of these and forty-eight other women and along the way become better informed about history and better understand how capable women are and have long been at being scientists.

rachelswaby.com
broadwaybooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Inventor’s Secret, by Suzanne Slade

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

inventors_secret_largeThe Inventor’s Secret

What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford

by Suzanne Slade
illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Charlesbridge, 2015. 48 pages.

This is an introductory picture book about the work of two great inventors, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The overarching message of the book applies to any aspiring inventor: It’s what Thomas Edison told Henry Ford the night they first met: “Keep at it!”

The Author states in a note at the end (along with plenty of interesting backmatter):

For nonfiction authors a new story often begins with a fascinating, little-known fact that sparks a magical “goose-bump” moment. When I learned Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time, pounded his fist on the table and shouted, “Keep at it!” to Henry Ford, that was one of those moments for me.

She weaves their stories together, with this meeting the central event. She used patent records to establish a timeline, and we get a taste, especially for Henry Ford, how much of his success was based on multiple attempts.

This is an entertaining story with cheery (but informative) and cartoon-like illustrations. But it also presents an encouraging message for future inventions. Follow your dreams. And don’t worry if your first several efforts don’t achieve success.

Keep at it!

suzanneslade.com
jbreinhardt.com
charlesbridge.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?