Great Reads

Coniff, Richard. The Species Seekers: heroes, fools, and the mad pursuit of life on Earth

Until the 1830s, the word “scientist” didn’t exist and biology, botany, and related sciences were not professional fields of study for which practitioners studied at universities, but were the purview of dedicated amateurs. The late 1700s and the 1800s saw the rise of the naturalist, beginning with Carolus Linnaeus’s creation of a methodical and organized classification system for species.  Naturalists traveled the world, braving the most adverse and sometimes fatal of weather and geography, all for the pure joy of discovery and the lesser joy of monetary remuneration from museums and collectors back home.  Coniff profiles these pioneers and their discoveries, while simultaneously discussing the importance of the naturalists’ findings on our understanding of our own place in nature.


Compelling, meticulously researched, and yet accessible to scientific amateurs, The Species Seekers is fascinating reading.

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Donoghue, Emma. Room

Jack is five years old. He’s spent his entire life living in Room, an 11’x11’ space he shares with his mother, Ma.  Jack is happy with his life. Ma teaches him reading and tells him stories and lets him watch just a little bit of TV and breastfeeds him when he wants it and at night, he sleeps in Wardrobe just in case Old Nick comes in the night. Old Nick is the keeper of Room, and he brings their food and occasional treats, and at night he sometimes visits Ma and makes the bed squeak.  Though Jack doesn’t know it, the whole world he sees on TV is actually real and his Ma came from there originally. Old Nick took her seven years ago and put her into Room and now, with Jack getting so big and old, Ma knows they can’t live in such a small space together much longer. Ma tells Jack the truth and Jack doesn’t want to believe it at first. But then, he has to be very brave and help save his Ma from Old Nick. The outside world is very scary and other people are very strange, but Jack is smart and strong and he thinks he can handle it. But can Ma, after seven years locked away from her own Ma and father and brother?

Donoghue’s latest novel is intense, frightening, and, at times, surprisingly funny. Told entirely from the perspective of Jack, whose voice is simultaneously naïve and amazingly mature, the reader is distanced slightly from the misery of his mother. In some ways, this makes the story easier to bear. And in others, it is far more creepy. Jack’s complete acceptance of his strange world is at times chilling. An important book in many ways.

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Harkness, Deborah. A Discovery of Witches

Diana Bishop is the last in a long line of witches who can trace their ancestry back to the Salem Witch Trials and beyond. She has rejected her magical heritage, however, in the wake of her parents’ terrible deaths when she was a child. A historian, she is studying her chosen subject—the history of alchemy—in Oxford when she discovers a strange manuscript that has been bewitched and lost for centuries. Suddenly, she finds herself the focus of the interest and hostility of every witch, vampire, and daemon in England.  Only her new-found relationship with Matthew Clairmont, a vampire scientist, may save her. But that relationship might be the downfall of both, as well, as such cross-species are strictly forbidden—and the penalty is death.

“A Discovery of Witches” is just the first in a series about Diana and Matthew, and the ending is left very open, with nothing resolved. Despite some slightly uneven pacing, readers are sure to be hooked by both the centuries-old mystery of the lost manuscript and the forbidden love affair between the protagonists.

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Valente, Catherynne. Deathless

Young Marya Morevna has watched her sisters married off, each to a man from a different strata of Russian life.  Awaiting her own husband, she is surprised when Koschei the Deathless, the mythical Tsar of Life, shows up at her door to take her away to his lands as his bride, asserting his power over her at every step.  At first repelled by the land of Koschei, in which everything is alive and fountains spout blood rather than water, she soon finds herself at home as its mistress.  But in her need to prove herself to Koschei’s frightening sister, Baba Yaga, Marya inadvertantly overturns the balance between Koschei and his brother the Tsar of Death and must spend many years leading Koschei’s troops in the never-ending war between the two.  When, finally sick of spirit, she allows herself to be seduced away from Koschei by a seemingly uncomplicated human man, Ivan, and returns to the human world, her problems are far from over. For she has returned to the city of her birth, now renamed Leningrad, in the midst of the worst of the famine and horror of Siege of Leningrad. She must struggle for her own life, the life of Ivan, and the lives of her friends. And when Koschei comes for her once more, the power balance between the two shifts alarmingly as Marya asserts her own control over her immortal lover and husband.

Author Valente seamlessly and fascinatingly blends 20th century Russian history with Russian folklore in her most recent novel.  The details of the Siege of Leningrad are painstakingly researched and painfully depicted, as is the history of political turmoil which turned St. Petersburg into Stalingrad into Leningrad, dragging its citizens unwillingly along. Those unfamiliar with the rich tradition of Russian folklore will find much of interest here as well.

Buckley, Christopher. Boomsday

 After her father stakes (and loses) her tuition money on a dotcom startup, our heroine sheds her family name and takes to the blogosphere as Cassandra Devine. An aggressive, uber-caffeinated voice in the night, she unwittingly mobilizes her brethren into a battle with the “Ungreatest Generation” – their parents. The baby boomers are retiring en masse, buckling the social security system as they reach for their nine irons. Cassandra Devine is not prepared to foot the bill.

 Her big idea to right the ship – offer huge tax breaks to seniors who agree to kill themselves by age 65. She enlists Senator Randolph Jepperson to get the “voluntary transitioning” bill on the floor. He wants a shot at the presidency. She wants a serious national discussion about social security reform. They both may be in over their heads as the issue goes viral.

 Christopher Buckley brings his trademark wit to this irreverent comedy. The characters are eerily recognizable and the dialog lights up the pages. The author of “Thank You For Smoking” hits another national nerve. Debt and social security issues have only become more ominous since this book’s publication, making it funnier still. Or does that make it less funny?

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