Book Review: The Boy in the Book

It sounds like a novel but The Boy in the Book is more properly a memoir which is aping the pretensions of a novel. At times it is like a confessional, at other times like long-form journalism or general non-fiction, but for the greater portion of the book, Penlington employs the conceit introduced a few chapters in that, like the Choose Your Own Adventure books he loved, his story will henceforth be continually in the present-tense (though he doesn’t go so far as to write in the second person; first person as befits a memoir).

You can read my full review at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Book Review: Robert A. Heinlein, Vol 2

To even casual readers of science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein needs no introduction, but he made waves outside the genre as well. His three most famous and controversial books managed to scandalize or offend an amazing number of otherwise non-overlapping demographics.
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Read my full review at the Winnipeg Free Press.

A Final LJ Review

I did a quick write-up last spring on a book called The Science of Miracles — in fact, this was the last title I covered before resigning from the Library Journal due to my over-committed writing schedule. I missed its publication, however, until now. It’s reprinted in full on the book’s Barnes and Noble page, and elsewhere. On the B&N page you’ll find it as the first editorial review.

More LJ Reviews

Alas, the time commitment at Library Journal has become just a bit too much, and I’ve had to step down from my post. Since not every review I write makes its way online in any form, I don’t know if my final review for them can be expected to turn up.

My review of The New York Times Book of Mathematics is long out, however, and can also be seen at the Barnes and Noble page here.

LJ Reviews Roundup, Again

Here we are again. I reviewed Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe, and my write-up can be seen here.

I took a look at The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible (hooray Oxford comma) by Lance Fortnow (whom I keep wanting to call Lance Fortran — computer science in-joke). This appears to be his first book, but it’s a good one, about an esoteric question in mathematics/computer science with wide-ranging applications — if it’s ever solved. My review is quoted (though not in full) here.

Book Review: Wonderful Life with the Elements

One of the publicists at No Starch Press alerted me to this recent title, knowing my enthusiasm for the excellent Manga Guide science text series, whose English editions they publish. I was expecting this latest made-in-Japan outing to be similarly quirky, and it did not disappoint.

Would it have ever occurred to you to visualize the noble gases as afro-sporting Japanese men? It hadn’t crossed my mind, but after reading this book of comic-strip style element characters, now I can’t summon up xenon or helium without a full, puffy top. Halogens like chlorine, meanwhile, have a cueball look, while other chemical groups share anything from punk rock spikes to buzz-cuts.

On the other hand, each unique element is also dressed up in anything from an apron to a lab coat to a business suit — or even a simple pair of white underwear — depending on their most common uses. The basic idea of the book is to put the elements in a real-life context of where we’re most likely to encounter them, their important properties, and their uses and threats to people individually or society in general.

A slim read at 200 pages, just over half of this space is given over to brief descriptions of each element in a standardized format. A brief paragraph illuminates a few of the more significant facts of each type of atom, perhaps a bit of its history or important uses. Some other basic data (density, atomic mass, etc.) and an epigram also accompany each profile (radium is the element that “bit the hand that fed it”, no doubt a reference to Marie and Pierre Curie who discovered it, then perished from radiation poisoning), but the centerpiece is always the anthropomorphic sketch.

Other parts of the text include brief sections on the most expensive commercially available elements, elements necessary to human health, and an argument for rare element conservation as part of an ecologically-sustainable future. But the book is never text-heavy, and can be read from start to finish in just a few hours.

The central conceit is cute; an original approach to connecting the reader with abstract yet critical components of our world. It doesn’t make memorizing the periodic table a breeze (what could and who would?), but it has resulted in some patterns sticking in my head better than before. The fold-out poster-sized table is a nice bonus, though educators might be careful of how they use it, or images from the book itself, both of which sometimes contain some cartoonish male nudity (the Japanese simply aren’t as uptight about that stuff as us).

All in all, it makes for a fun little coffee-table book for either the chemically-minded or the simply curious.

(No Starch Press, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

LJ Reviews Roundup

My first three Library Journal reviews have run, and are partially or completely available online. Parts of my review of X and the City can be found here.

My full review of Benoit Mandelbrot’s memoir, The Fractalist, is quoted on the Barnes and Noble page for the book here.

My review of the coffee table book, Spectrums, gets the lead in a recent Xpress Reviews post at the Library Journal online.

Book Review: The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra

Vectors, matrices, and eigenvalues, oh my! The Manga Guide series’ triumphant return to the fertile and abstract realms of mathematics is, to this reader, most welcome and not a little overdue. This is not to say that previous forays into the physical-, life-, and computer sciences were at all unsuccessful. But even on their worst day, these real-world subjects are not nearly so difficult to penetrate as, say, set theory or integral calculus. And this is coming from a card-carrying math geek.

The wonderful and beautiful thing about this series is in its ability to come at complex and foreign topics from a sideways angle. I’m still amazed at the unusual points of reference the book authors find to bring the reader into some notoriously difficult topics – explaining onto and one-to-one functions in terms of restaurant orders, for example. The highly visual nature of the comic medium also serves as an anchor in what might otherwise be a text-heavy topic.

The manga scenario wrapped around all this math draws on a number of classic tropes, and not only from the realm of manga. Reiji is working hard as the newest student in his university karate club, a membership he paid for by agreeing to tutour his sensei’s sister in linear algebra. He’s the proverbial 98-pound weakling with a good heart, and it’s as good a reason as any to have two young people flirt and talk about matrix multiplication.

Of eight chapters, the first six are laid out as groundwork before the “real” linear algebra topics in the last two. The fundamentals in chapter two include reiviews of (or introductions to) set theory, some basic mathematical logic, and functional relationships. Following this are two chapters covering matrices, and two more on vectors (in a matrix interpretation). Only then are we able to tackle the true topics of the book title, linear transformations, eigenvectors, and eigenvalues.

It may sound like a hodgepodge, but it’s not. Each chapter builds carefully on the previous one. No calculus and only some basic algebra, trigonometry, and co-ordinate geometry are needed before reading this book. But the topics are tough for a newbie. This is university-level mathematics and requires a lot of practice problems before it will sink in for most readers.

The example problems in the text are great, but there are only a few. As with all books in the series, The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra is best utilized in conjunction with a thick textbook, chock-full of additional practice exercises. Much like earning a black belt, the road to mathematical mastery requires many hours of practice and perhaps more than a few forehead smacks on nearby slabs of wood.

(No Starch Press, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog