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Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle by Bob Pflugfelder & Steve Hockensmith

Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle: A Mystery with Spy Cameras, Code Wheels, and Other Gadgets You Can Build YourselfPremise: Twin siblings Nick and Tesla are back in this third installment of the series. They are suspicious of people spying on them because of the secret held by their parents, who are supposedly studying soybean irrigation in Uzbekistan, but with the help of their friends and their clueless but intelligent scientist Uncle Newt they will learn the identity of the spies. It could be anybody: Newt’s unusual new apprentice, the old ladies hired to clean Uncle Newt’s messy house, or the exterminator.

The kids will try to find out the truth about a lot of things, including who is placing spy cameras around their uncle’s house, why all of these different strangers appeared at their house on the same day, but especially more of the truth about their missing parents.

Themes: The love of family is a common theme through all of the Nick and Tesla books, and Secret Agent Battle is no different. Uncle Newt cares for Nick and Tesla, but the twins show us the great love of siblings for each other through protective actions.

Nick and Tesla have learned to be suspicious of everybody, especially since they suspect people wish them harm. Their parents obviously sent them to live with their uncle for a reason, and somebody is spying on them. It’s only a matter of finding out who it is. That’s where the science comes into play.

Pros: Secret Agent Battle tells us a little more about Nick and Tesla’s parents, even hearing from their mother via voicemail confirming the assumptions already made about their soybean irrigation research from the previous two books. With the many suspects available on who is spying on them, the amount of peril is kicked up a notch from the previous two books.

Cons: Everything in the story happens in one day, so while the pacing is fast, the writing felt a bit rushed. The books are a little formulaic with the same structure in each one with a minor mystery followed by a science project as a solution, rinse, then repeat. I also fear the holding back of information about the kids’ parents might drag on if we don’t finally learn much more in the next book.

Recommendations: Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle has the wonderful combination of giving more information about the kids’ family than in the previous two books, with more fun and creative science projects to try with your own kids. This third book begins to reveal some things about the twins’ parents that we already suspect, but I wish it would have given us a little more since we already waded through two other books before getting here. It’s not really necessary to read the first two books to know the background of these kids and their scientist uncle, but it would probably be more fulfilling to at least read the first in the series, if not all of them for the fun stories and science projects. I’ve been enjoying this series and look forward to making some cool gadgets with my own kids.

Nick and Tesla
Bob Pflugfelder’s website
Steve Hockensmith’s website
Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle on Goodreads
Buy Nick and Tesla’s Secret Agent Gadget Battle on Amazon
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I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

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Posted by on July 26, 2014 in Childrens, Mystery

 

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Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage by Bob Pflugfelder & Steve Hockensmith

Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build YourselfPremise: In this second book in the series, Twin siblings Nick and Tesla have been sent to live with their Uncle Newt while their parents are in Uzbekistan where they claim to be researching soybean irrigation. In the small town of Half Moon Bay, Nick and Tesla learn about a string of robberies plaguing the sleepy community. Once again putting their scientific knowledge to work, they decide to help one of their friends by attempting to solve the mystery themselves.

Uncle Newt is smitten by Hiroko Sakurai, a former colleague of his from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who also happens to have purchased the Wonder Hut where Nick and Tesla purchase electronics and other scientific doodads for their experiments. She is in the process of cleaning it up when a series of break-ins begin, including at the comic shop, Hero Worship, Incorporated, owned by their friend Silas’ family. A rare comic that could help save Silas’ family from a mound of debt has gone missing.

With the help of some ingenious robots and quick thinking, Nick and Tesla go to task on helping their friends and the town by tracking down the thief. They will just have to watch out for the strange robots that are also popping up around town.

Themes: Robot Army Rampage, as with the previous book, exemplifies the loyalty between siblings and with their friends. As Silas’ shop is in jeopardy, Nick and Tesla do their best to track down the thief of the Stupefying #6 comic book. Nick and Tesla also do their best to protect their uncle, even if it means endangering his relationship with Dr. Sakurai.

Nick and Tesla does a good job of showing that even when it appears that kids are up to no good, they might have more noble reasons for what they do. Even their friend DeMarco, who is always getting into trouble, is loyal to his best friend Silas. And the hijinks that occur because of Nick and Tesla’s investigation are because they care about their friends, family, and the town of Half Moon Bay.

Also: more science!

Pros: Robot Army Rampage has some even cooler projects than High Voltage Danger Lab, especially if you’re into robots. The instructions for building are straightforward for building simple robots, including part numbers that you might need to buy at an electronics store. The dialogue is funny and the tone lighthearted, perfect for kids and fun for adults. With most of the same characters from the previous book, Robot Army Rampage stays consistent by developing each of the characters deeply enough for the reader to care about them and enjoy the story.

Cons: The robot projects will probably require some assembly help from an adult, and will definitely require money to buy parts like batteries, motors, and LED lights. Contains mild peril from exploding robots.

Recommendations: Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage is a load of fun, but kids will probably enjoy it even more than adults. If it weren’t for a little deeper background setting from the first book, anybody could pick this one up and jump right into the action without needing to read High Voltage Danger Lab. As each book contains science projects that correspond to story elements, you probably won’t want to skip it anyway. I think Robot Army Rampage is even better than the first, especially with these projects. They are fun for electronics buffs and for piquing kids’ interest in science, but most of all this is just a fun story.

Nick and Tesla
Bob Pflugfelder’s website
Steve Hockensmith’s website
Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage on Goodreads
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I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2014 in Childrens, Mystery

 

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Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow

Andrew's BrainPremise: Andrew is a brilliant cognitive scientist discussing the important events of his life with his therapist. As he talks about losing a child and a wife, Andrew wonders if he might be an agent of death.

In the back and forth narrative of Andrew’s Brain, we get an insight into what makes Andrew tick and the neuroses that inform his decisions. In order to cope with his losses, he floats from job to job, teaching high school and university classes, and working for the president of the United States who also used to be his roommate in college.

Themes: Loss and death is at the forefront of Andrew’s Brain. Andrew’s child dies from his first marriage, causing their separation. Andrew’s new young wife dies as a result of the 9/11 terror attacks. When he doesn’t know what to do with his new child, he takes the baby to his first wife, thereby losing everything in his life that he loves.

Andrew’s Brain also peers into human existence and consciousness as Andrew attempts to teach his students about how the human brain interprets information, and ultimately how human sentience works. In turn, the reader receives brief lessons in cognitive science.

Pros: Andrew’s Brain shows how people can react to loss in their grief in different ways. As Andrew loses children and wives through death and separation, he shares his feelings to his therapist. It’s probably the biggest redeeming quality of this book.

Cons: There is a lack of character development in Andrew’s Brain, including Andrew the protagonist. As Andrew talks about his life he looks upon most everyone else as beneath him, excusing his own behavior when he acts in much the same way. Andrew comes across as neurotic, and in contrast to the attempts to paint him as a genius he instead sounds mentally ill. Without naming him, this book also clearly speaks against a certain president during the 9/11 terror attacks, but it felt more like filler politicizing.

Recommendations: Andrew’s Brain comes across as self-righteous as it talks down to the reader in its self-indulgent philosophizing. With a few humorous moments and a serious look at loss and grief, this short book lacks compelling characters or a true conclusion. I haven’t read any other of Doctorow’s work, but unless you’re into existential intellectualizing through life, I doubt this would be the one to begin with as it doesn’t really go anywhere.

E.L. Doctorow’s website
Andrew’s Brain on Goodreads
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I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2014 in Fiction

 

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Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab by Bob Pflugfelder & Steve Hockensmith

Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build YourselfPremise: Twin siblings Nick and Tesla are sent to live with their Uncle Newt for the summer while their parents study soybean irrigation in Uzbekistan. When they arrive in Half Moon Bay they discover it’s a pretty boring place, but their uncle is far from boring. In his basement is a science lab where he performs various experiments. The incredible thing is that he tells his niece and nephew to have a ball in the lab (with several safety caveats) while he is away. Their time in Half Moon Bay is about to get interesting.

The siblings go outside to test their soda bottle rocket made from materials laying around the lab, but when it rips the necklace from Tesla’s neck as it launches things go awry. This wouldn’t be a problem if the necklace wasn’t one of the special necklaces their parents gave each child right before they were sent to live with Newt. Now they must venture onto the property of the abandoned house next door in order to find the necklace, but there are remodelers there with very large dogs who want them to stay off the property at all costs.

Nick and Tesla craft various devices to attempt to retrieve their rocket and necklace, and in the process uncover a nefarious plot in the quiet town. Along the way the siblings make new friends, learn more about their quirky uncle, and find there is more in the abandoned house than just remodelers. Nick and Tesla are also left questioning if their parents are really studying soy beans in Uzbekistan.

Themes: Nick and Tesla think they have a grasp on who their parents are, but when the siblings are sent away for the summer so their parents can do research they learn there is so much more about their parents that they don’t know. They begin to wonder if their parents really are studying soybeans or if they are even scientists.

Nick and Tesla discover there are mysteries about the house next door, its inhabitants, and its past that fall on them to solve.

Summer vacation takes on a different spin when it is spent at a strange uncle’s house. Nick and Tesla get to learn more about their Uncle Newt and his unusual inventions. With his inexperience in caring for kids and making his lab available for them to use helps to give the siblings insight into the kind of person he is.

Also: science!

Pros: Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab was way more fun than I was expecting. The science experiments not only introduce some cool concepts, but they fit right in with the storyline. The characters are unique and the story has the perfect tone for kids to be reading: lighthearted and fun. I like that Pflugfelder and Hockensmith didn’t try to add too many characters, but each one is well developed within this first book. Nick and Tesla is a complete fast-paced story, but it also leaves the reader wanting more in additional books.

Cons: One of the experiments might be a little dangerous dealing with air pressure that will probably require some adult supervision. Also, the concept of kidnapping might be a difficult concept for younger kids to grasp, especially the threats made against these kids. Contains some mild peril and the riding of small bikes down the middle of city streets in the dark.

Recommendations: Not only is this a fun read for kids and adults, it offers several science experiments kids can do with parents, including instructions and materials needed. I’m really looking forward to the next book in the series to find out more about these kids and their secretive family. I am also excited about having more science experiments to do with my kids when they are old enough to read these books. Pflugfelder and Hockensmith have introduced a neat series combining science concepts and experiments with good, lighthearted fiction. Nick and Tesla is educational and fun.

Nick and Tesla
Bob Pflugfelder’s website
Steve Hockensmith’s website
Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself on Goodreads
Buy Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab on Amazon
Download Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2013 in Childrens, Mystery

 

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The Deep Zone by James M. Tabor

The Deep Zone (Hallie Leland, #1)Premise: A deadly bacterial strain is introduced into a military hospital in Afghanistan, and it is from there that it makes its way back to the United States. Common antibiotics aren’t working on this mutation, and the only hope comes from a “moonmilk” from the deepest cave in Mexico that has the ability to fight off the most powerful of pathogens. And the person who discovered the moonmilk must go back in to get more samples, even though she was fired from her position for unexplainable reasons.

Hallie Leland is an expert diver, caver, and microbiologist, and she is just the person for the job to find the one thing that can potentially save the lives of millions. Hallie has been added to an elite team of hand-picked people with very specific specializations of diving, caving, and cultural experience to go deep into the cave to obtain more of the moonmilk while doctors in the U.S. fight off the quickly spreading infection with available means. The doctors themselves risk exposure to the infection, while their last hope goes on an incredibly dangerous recovery mission.

With the burden for salvation solely on Hallie’s shoulders to obtain the moonmilk and bring it back to synthesize a cure for the deadly ACE bacteria, the real source of the outbreak comes to light with players working every angle to achieve their own goals. Some shady dealings with foreign governments and private corporations reveal the real threats to the country and the world.

Themes: Trust becomes a problem as those who Hallie could depend on before lose their credibility, while others regain trust that was broken when she was let go from her previous position. Trusting the government to make wise decisions and to handle this outbreak effectively becomes essential for this team going on the moonmilk recovery mission.

One major theme in The Deep Zone centers around the governmental and private response of a major epidemic. Turnaround times for vaccines and treatments must be factored against the time it takes for such an epidemic to spread. And individual officials working for their own benefit threaten the fabric of the governments they work for.

Romance develops, especially toward the end, as Hallie begins to care about a member of her team. The imminent danger helps to fuel the feelings that are growing, with the chance of loss of the other person at any moment.

Pros: James M. Tabor obviously knows his stuff and has taken the time to do proper research into many facets of the story, especially when it comes to certain details. Different types of gear for diving, climbing, weapons, medical technology, and caving are all over The Deep Zone. The terminology is accurate for all these aspects, making sure not to dumb down anything for the reader’s sake. The action is pretty solid for most of the story and you get a real sense of danger, becoming especially perilous for any and all characters at key points throughout the story.

Cons: There are simply way too many descriptions in The Deep Zone. We get details into the types of military gear being used, the types of climbing gear, even the types of medical gear. The author might know a lot about the subject and have done his research, but I just stopped caring about these things halfway through the book. And the romance between the protagonist and a not quite main character seemed forced. I got the sense she didn’t care for him at first and at some point that seemed to change inexplicably. There is some deus ex machina stuff going on at the end that isn’t quite explained very well. The book could have probably been cut down another one hundred pages and had a better clip than it does without losing much in the way of its tone.

Recommendations: The Deep Zone is a serious adventure novel that includes political and military intrigue suitable for anyone looking for a lengthy intelligent read. The characters are fine, if not somewhat taking on characterizations of various personality traits. The most consistent part of the book are where the author takes the time to share the details of his knowledge and research of every aspect of the story, some of which makes the book drag at times. The Deep Zone has a serious tone that is consistent throughout, with language and terminology that lends to a more mature and intelligent audience. With all that said, The Deep Zone has a lot of everything, including some decent action, adventure, political intrigue, and even a little romance thrown in. It would have been even better if it were a shorter book.

James M. Tabor’s website
The Deep Zone on Goodreads
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I received a copy from Goodreads to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2013 in Fiction

 

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The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E.B. Hudspeth

The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer BlackPremise: Dr. Spencer Black spent his childhood in the 1870s robbing graves with his father and brother. From there he attended the Academy of Medicine in Philadelphia and became an esteemed young surgeon until his strange and disturbing theories proved too strange for most scientists to accept.

Dr. Black finds ways to fund his research, from joining traveling carnivals to doing private showings of his horrifying taxidermy specimens. When his work becomes too much for his family to bear, Dr. Black becomes estranged from his brother. The specimens that he gathers from all around the world lead Dr. Black to some strange beliefs that ancient and mythical creatures may very well have existed, and his obsession is to make them live again. He is labeled a madman by most people and a miracle worker by others.

The first part of The Resurrectionist is a biography of Dr. Spencer Black with correspondences between Dr. Black and his family and colleagues included. The second part is The Codex Extinct Animalia, a collection of labeled anatomical drawings of mythical creatures with explanations of their existence.

Themes: Dr. Black’s descent into madness shows the reader the extent to which obsession can harm someone and those around them. Not only are his relationships with his colleagues and family tarnished, but some are also physically affected, some under unexplained circumstances.

There is a vein of science versus religion, science versus nature, or something of the sort in the biography. As Dr. Black delves deeper into his work, his claims against the existence of God become more vocal. His ability to create new creatures, and life itself, grow more insistent, even as other scientists decry his work.

Pros: The drawings in The Resurrectionist are splendid: the work of an artist who has obviously had practice drawing people and animals. The idea encompassed in The Resurrectionist is unique. The only thing I can think to compare the plot to is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Hudspeth does a good job capturing the obsession of Dr. Black in his work, especially how it negatively harms his relationships.

Cons: Aside from the drawings, there just isn’t much depth to the story in The Resurrectionist. The idea is there, but it is like a short story attached to a book of drawings. As Dr. Black pushed those around him away, I found myself siding with everyone else instead of him. Some of the anatomical claims about certain bones fitting together and evolutionary anomalies causing ancient genes to reemerge in certain cases just didn’t make sense, as splicing animal parts together through taxidermy doesn’t support claims that they once existed that way. It also wasn’t clear which creatures claimed to have existed because of natural specimens or which were created by Black.

Recommendations: The Resurrectionist is the kind of book you can pick up in the store, flip through the pages, and know if it is something you would be interested in. The Codex of drawings in the back might be enough for some people to pick it up, but the biography was just too short for my taste. The weaknesses in the text wouldn’t be enough for me to purchase a copy myself. I only wish the writing had been more fleshed out because I think E. B. Hudspeth had a good idea and the potential to execute it, but didn’t take the time to do so. More story to back up the drawings would have made The Resurrectionist much better.

E.B. Hudspeth’s website
The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black
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I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2013 in Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Horror

 

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The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare & Vanessa Woods

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You ThinkPremise: Brian Hare, founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, is an evolutionary anthropologist and dog researcher. Along with his wife, research scientist, journalist, and author Vanessa Woods, they have uncovered new findings in the cognitive abilities of dogs through their research as they compare canine intelligence to that of other animals, such as chimpanzees, bonobos, rats, cats, coyotes, foxes, and their closest relatives: wolves.

Hare and Woods put our presuppositions to the test as they walk us through vigorous tests with these animals, revealing interesting data that might change our thinking when it comes to understanding and living with dogs. Hare’s research is revolutionary compared to that of previous scientists in how it takes a cognitive approach to how we train and interact with man’s best friend.

Themes: Past research and training for dogs has been behavioral at its core. Behavior correction was the formula to understanding the intelligence of dogs. Hare’s studies challenge this approach as inherently flawed since behavioral training considers evolutionary changes and cognitive understanding as irrelevant for all animals. According to Hare, a cognitive approach takes into consideration the evolution of different animals and breeds, physiological factors, and how they interact socially and within changing environments.

Hare’s research also puts our understanding of different dog breeds to the test. The research pits different breeds against each other as certain cognitive skills are studied through specific tests. The ideas we have that certain breeds are smarter or more aggressive than others might change when we consider the data that is gathered through these tests.

Pros: The Genius of Dogs lays out a comprehensive research approach that challenges the work of previous scientists. The Genius of Dogs doesn’t talk down to the scientific layperson but the data is simplified and it is pretty easy to understand how it was gathered as we are walked through the various experiments. Hare is pretty upfront with conflicting data between different studies and even cites them through extensive notes at the back of the book, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions in these instances.

Cons: There is a lot of evolutionary information up front that might be difficult for some to wade through. I also felt that in the last two or three chapters Hare and Woods started to repeat themselves. By over-explaining and repeating their research approach in these final chapters, they either needed to better explain the research they were challenging or they should have left some of this out. By my understanding, their arguments were weakened through this repetition.

Recommendations: For a new approach to how we think about the intelligence of dogs, and by default the intelligence of other animals, The Genius of Dogs does a great job in laying the foundation of dog evolution, the findings of past research, and an understanding of how they think to bring us to a better understanding of them. If you know nothing about dogs or dog training, this is a perfect place to start. If you are a dog trainer or owner, from my limited knowledge, this will only broaden your understanding of these beloved pets and family members and strengthen your ability to train and live with them. Extreme dog lovers should read this book.

Dognition
The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think on Goodreads
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I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2013 in Nonfiction

 

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