Super Shark Encyclopedia by DK Books

Super Shark Encyclopedia truly lives up to its name – beautifully presented, mountains of facts, and information intelligently ordered to make this a book children can grow with – from basic information suitable for grade school interspersed with more detailed information useful for older kids/middle school.  It’s the type of book that is so incredibly well done that it should be in every library and school. Certainly, it’s a fantastic home resource as well.

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Although the focus is on sharks, other deep sea creatures are also presented. The book breaks down as follows:

Amazing anatomy (discover what makes ocean animals ideally suited for their environment – fins, tusks, teeth tentacles, colorful camouflage, spines, etc.).

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Animal athletes (jumpers, flyers, surfers – from boxing with crabs to thrashing around with a thresher shark).

Life stories (survival techniques from krill/safety in numbers to parrotfish covering themselves in slime.

Supernatural senses (some animals have extraordinary abilities – from sensing electrical signals to detecting light that other creatures can’t see).

Exploring the deep (all the incredibly strange and fascinating creatures at the greater ocean depths).

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While parents and kids may at first be interested in the shark aspect, there really is so much more here. Illustrations, photographs, call out boxes (e.g., ‘California horn shark at a glance, including size, habitat, location, diet) help tell the story.  There are fun facts, interesting comments, and a slew of very interesting tidbits. But it is rarely presented in block paragraph form – instead everything is presented brightly and in creative and engaging ways that encourage young readers to devour the topic. Never does the book talk down to kids or strike a false or syrupy note.

Because it is so incredibly informative and beautifully presented, this is an easy 5 star, highest recommendation. I’ve rarely seen a better ‘encyclopedia’ type of presentation on the subject of sealife. As well, I’ve gone over it with my 11 year old many times and she loves to explore the various sea creatures and their facts – it’s definitely a hit with her. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Artful Rainwater Design by Eliza Pennypacker, Stuart Echols

Artful Rainwater Design is beautifully illustrated yet extremely informative and well presented. It lives up to the title, thoughtfully educating on the various ways that rainwater is collected, showcased, stored, and disseminated. From watersheds to storm drainage, nature preserves to art pieces. There’s something for everyone here: landscapers, scientists, policymakers, environmental advocates, urban planners, and even home gardeners looking for inspiration.

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The book breaks down as follows:

Part 1: The history of storm water management and background for artful rainwater design.

Part 2: Achieving amenity with artful rainwater design (education, recreation, safety, public relations, and aesthetic richness in artful rainwater design).

Part 3: Achieving utility with artful rainwater design (gray and green infrastructure techniques for sustainable storm water management; the ARD utility axioms)

Part 4: Case studies of artful rainwater design. Included: Educational applications, recreational applications, safety applications, public relations designs, and aesthetic richness examples.

Although highly technical, the case studies are definitely the highlight of the book.  Needs and design are merged at places such as The Dell at the University of Virginia, Rain Garden at the Oregon Convention Center, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, and the Queens Botanical Garden. Examples of great rainwater designs cross the US – from Arizona’s deserts to rainforest Portland.

Though mostly of an industrial nature, I learned quite a bit and, even more, greatly inspired. This isn’t a book full of pretty pictures; great pains were taken to thoroughly discuss the subjects presented. As well, inner City to nature locations give testimony to the scope of the book.

In all, a fascinating book that is well researched, nicely photographed, and useful for both education and inspirational purposes.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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How Your Child to Thrive by Liane Brouilette

Help Your Child To Thrive is a treatise explorating the issues of the public school system in the United States and how it affects children. Problems such as belonging, bullying, and other soft issues are discussed through other writing and pop culture. But a rambling narrative and over reliance on other sources make the book feel more like a college dissertation than a practical ideas book. Author Brouillette pulls all punches and rarely makes a strong statement or impact. This passivity of writing render too many of the points impotent.

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Typically, I would list a table of contents here – but the book rambles so incoherently as to make me throw up my hands in frustration and give that up. From a parents’ standpoint, it meanders around movies and tv shows as metaphors without focusing on any age group (to me, one of the most important ways this book should have been classified). As such, I didn’t find a lot for parents in here. Conversely, since so many points are regurgitated studies or summarizations from other authors, I don’t know how useful this is to educators. I kept looking for Brouillette’s point or voice and never found anything definitive said by her.

Most frustrating was the constant referencing of movies and how their popularity is explained by kids’ frustrations with public schools. E.g., Harry Potter was popular because Harry is a modern day cinderella who has to fight class systems just like in middle school. Star Wars was popular because Annakin had to decide whether to use the Force for good or evil – just like kids have the choice to use facebook and other social media for good or evil. To get to those points, we have to slog through 3-5 pages of plot summarization and then what honestly feel like simplistic deconstructions forced into an illogical mold simply to further a point (i.e., pounding a square peg into a round hole). 15 pages into the Star Wars discussion and I was thinking of chewing off my own hand so my Kindle would drop and go away.

Honestly, it became difficult to take the book seriously; though written by a professional, I too often felt this was an academic discussion suitable for junior college students or a student end of semester paper using movies to demonstrate issues in public schools. Nothing ever became concrete, useful, or anything I felt I could take serious outside of theoretical classroom material. It was all so disconnected from reality and academic. I have to wonder if perhaps I was the wrong audience and this is meant for students. Reviewed from an advance reader copy.

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The 20/20 Diet by Dr. Phil McGraw

The 20/20 diet book by Dr. Phil is a brief but easy to follow motivational and eating/exercise plan with the goal of health and weight loss. Although the diet is surprisingly restrictive (just 20 foods), it is smartly tailored to be easy to follow and with a small time commitment. As befitting a book by a psychologist and not a dietician or doctor, the wording is accessible, down-to-earth, and tailored to help prevent failure.

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The book breaks down as follows:

Part 1: Fundamentals of the diet (intro, what makes this diet different, a diet that defies your logic).

Part 2: Prepping for success (getting out of your own way, set the right goal, extinguish your fake hunger, stock up on your 20/20 foods).

Part 3: The three phases of the 20/20 diet (phase 1: the 5 day boost, phase 2: the 5-day sustain, phase 3: the 20 day attain).

Part 4: your body’s capacity for change (the 30 second burn burst exercise program, when your body won’t follow your mind: are you resistant to weight loss?).

Part 5: Protecting your weight loss for a lifetime (maintaining your success: the management phase, your return to health, conclusion: the new you.

Grocery lists, phase 3 meals, the management phase foods and portions.

The diet revolves around 20 key foods that are used in a variety of ways but have specific health benefits or synergy (e.g., either make the stomach feel fuller or help burn fat faster). The efficacy of the diet is likely going to come down to how many of the foods you really don’t like; since the recipes revolve around interchanging those key ingredients, it may be more difficult to follow the recipes if you don’t like even 1-2 items (I’m not a fan of yogurt, for example, so that knocks out a chunk of recipes). Substitution ideas are given (even for special conditions/needs such as vegan or lactose intolerant) but it may just come down to learning to like new foods.

The 20 key ingredients are very common – again, this isn’t a diet set up for failure by being difficult in any way. Shopping, preparing, following – it’s all extremely easy for nearly all lifestyles. Because it has both a short term (5 day) middle term (30 days) and then lifetime goals, it is also something that can be done in increments and doesn’t get old fast.

While the diet is interesting and easy, it’s definitely Dr. Phil’s motivational writing in the beginning that make the book worthwhile. He’s done his homework and really studied the many reasons why diets fail. Couple that with his trademark down-to-earth and incisive approach to problems (“And how is that working out for you?”) and he does take away a lot of traps dieters fall into with the weight loss roller coaster.

The book is mercifully brief – you don’t have to commit a lifetime to reading through a lot of rhetoric. I found the kindle version to be difficult to follow because of the lack of formatting – I do recommend the physical version of the book for that reason.

In all, this is one of the best ‘everyman’ diet books out there right now; using logic and examples/experience to get right to the heart of obesity and controlling it. The plan itself may be very limiting but that’s what I think most people need in order to get started and have something they can really stick to and get results.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Honey Girl by Lisa Freeman

Honey Girl is an engrossing coming-of-age story set in an early 1970s Santa Monica. Navigating the beach culture, adhering to strict unwritten rules for girls, and coming to understand her own self are at the heart of 15 year-old half Hawaiian girl Nani’s story.

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Synopsis: Grieving over the recent loss of her larger than life Hawaiian father, Haunani “Nani” Grace Nuuhiwa is forced to relocate to her white/haole mother’s territory: Los Angeles. She will have to navigate the hierarchy of surfers, their ‘honey girls’, the valley girls, beach bums, sons of elite society, and her own deteriorating relationship with her mother. Complicating things, Nani likes the girls just as much as the guys; budding relationships with each gender will each have their own pitfalls.

Although the location is Southern California, the book is very much about Hawaiian culture before the corporate takeover of the Islands in the late 1970s. The playground of the elite jetsetters and local stars like Don Ho, it is a Hawaii that was both laid back and very intimate – where Nani’s father owned a famous bar that attracted celebrities and surfers at the same time.

It is that laidback world that Nani brings to Santa Monica. Following a strict set of ‘rules’ laid out by her former surfer girl Aunt, Nani will use them as a guide to slowly navigate her way around the elite crowd at the beach.  At times she will succeed and at times she will fail but the book captures perfectly the game the girls will play both to survive and to thrive in a boy’s world. Jealousy, pettiness, camaraderie, viciousness, redemption – Nani will find these and more in ‘the line up’ – the elite girlfriends of the ‘hottest’ surfers on the beach.

The pathos in the book is what keeps the story moving and riveting. From the callous disregard of the girls by the surfer boys to the machinations running as deep as the bay surf, it is beautifully played and faithfully low key. There are no over-the-top antics or drama here – no beach blanket bingo or MTV crassness. No one is evil or good; each character is looking to find their own place in the world. And while this has a YA age character, this is very definitely a book written for adults. Never lurid, always grounded, it is an engaging read.

From the description, one might assume the book was about Nani’s budding lovelife. But honestly, whether gravitating toward the boys or the girls, the story is much more about the bigger picture of Nani’s life rather than a microcosm of the lurid. Nani is dealing not only with the change in her life, accepting the death of her father – but also an alcoholic mother only too eager to abandon Nani’s Hawaiian heritage. A heritage that Nani begins to question by the end of the story. Most of the interrelation scenes in the book is Nani feeling her way around unwritten by very static social mores.

I would imagine this is fairly close to being autobiographical; there are just so many bittersweet details of a Southern California (and Hawaii) now gone. Skateboarders, Tab, roaches and joints, mismatched crochet bikini tops and hippy ‘Topanga girls'; dolphin shorts and overgrown bougainvillea, iceplant borders along ocean-side roads. Really, the only thing missing was a stronger soundtrack and I felt that lack keenly.

This is a beautiful, grounded, and nostalgic flashback of 1970s Los Angeles surf culture, Hawaiian heritage, and the trials of growing up in an era of easy drugs, tricky subcultures, and great change. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Class Dismissed by Allan Woodrow

Class Dismissed is an engaging elementary/middle school read about a class of students who find themselves without a teacher – and then try to hide that situation from school, other classmates, and parents so they can have a long school holiday. But along the way, they learn some valuable lessons about the usefulness of a teacher – and that school really isn’t as bad as they always thought it had been.

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Story: A 5th grade class of mostly misfits manages to finally annoy their teacher enough to make her suddenly quit. Unfortunately for the school, no one has figured that out yet – and the kids band together to continue that ‘wonderful’ situation.  But they soon find out that school is actually harder without a teacher – and maybe goofing off and the hard work needed to fool parents and principal isn’t worth the trouble. Perhaps teachers aren’t the enemy after all.

This is a very entertaining read that intrigues enough to keep pages rapidly turning. The kids sound like kids and did the things they normally do like throwing erasers and spitwads. Class characters include: The smart girl in the class, Maggie, who goes along with the ruse and manages to keep it going – she never really needed a teacher anyway. An invisible kid, Eric, is actually amazing and talented with social skills and making up stories/excuses – he finally gets to shine. Loudmouth Kyle is at first just a goof (burping and throwing objects), but in time he realizes that isn’t what he really wants – he wants to learn and get better.

What makes the story entertaining is the lengths they go in order to keep up the charade. Each of the students contributes to the problem in different ways; parents must be fooled, fellow schoolmates’ curiosity kept at bay, and administrators kept in the dark. It’s not as easy as it seems but the class will get very inventive!

The kids all learn a lot about each other – discovering hidden talents and how they really aren’t all that different as they think. There were many good lessons contained within the story but none overstated or heavy. It’s the type of book where you enjoy the plot and then realize afterwards that there were many good points made as well.

The above summary is from my 11 year old – a 5th grader. She couldn’t wait to get into the book (Dork Diaries is one of her favorite series) and didn’t put the Kindle down once she started. When describing it to me for the review, she was animated and excited and really happy she had a chance to read Class Dismissed.

Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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In Search of Lost Dragons by Élian Black’mor, M Carine, Jezequel, Hannah Gorfinkel-Elder

In Search of Lost Dragons is an exquisitely illustrated faux travel diary of a reporter/illustrator’s adventure as he explores dragons. There are sketches, illustrations, and many sketched/drawn paraphernalia such as train tickets, posters of dragon shows, etc. While cleverly done, I felt a bit let down in the execution. It never felt real and was far too ‘manufactured’ to be disingenuous.

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The story is roughly chronological but honestly I grew bored reading the text – it was difficult to follow due to a ‘cursive’ script and rarely had anything interesting to say. As well, a lot of the story was kind of disjointed – perhaps to emphasize breaks due to travel but instead feeling ‘off’ somehow. To really make this a magnificent book, we needed a much more fascinating ‘angle’ to the narrator; something to really make him distinct and pop. I was first inclined to blame the translation but I have a feeling this might be too minimalistic French for me. All the same, it should have had a Jules Verne adventure feel but somehow came across observational rather than inclusive to the reader.

That said, the drawings, illustrations, faux ephemera, etc. are all exquisite. The artist did an excellent job of creating ‘real’ and imaginative dragons around the world as well as how the world perceived them.  It’s the type of book that you just sit back and enjoy slowly: deep black and white wood block type illustrations paired next to vivid, beautifully painted scenics of dragons in their habitats. Newspaper ads warning of cannibals (very cute!), penny dreadfuls, and posters from shows including Houdini’s Chengdu appearance in The Jaws of the Dragon!

Where the book let me down was in presentation. From the unreadable script font to the unrealistic travelogue, it’s little things – like someone doing a painting across only 1-1/4 page, leaving just enough for script or the perfect size for a fake ticket, for example.  I just can’t see anyone successfully painting in the middle curve of a book binding. It was just too perfect and far too manufactured – and that took away the enjoyment for me. As well, there are so many mediums presented – charcoal to watercolor to pencil, that it also felt like the writer must have carried an entire art studio wherever he went.  I didn’t buy it.

Due to issues reading the script (and because the art is so imaginative and enjoyable) I recommend getting the print version of In Serach of Lost Dragons. I think I would have enjoyed reading this more had I done so.

This would make a really nice gift for a fantasy or dragon fan. There is a lot to love in the graphics.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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