Category Archives: Shopping guides and reviews

The Dictionary Of Difficult Words: Great kids book for all ages

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The Dictionary of Difficult Words: With more than 400 perplexing words to test your wits! by Jane Solomon, illustrated by Louise Lockhart* is a grandiloquent lionization of lexicon, with a plethora of terms allowing you to emulate an egghead as you enunciate extemporaneously. No flapdoodle in this tome, a true juggernaut of of pithy cirumlocutious verbiage.

This is actually a really fun family read, coffee table in format, and I promise, it will be on my coffee table through the holiday seasons. I suppose it is a kids book, but my kid can have it when I’m done with it.

This dictionary has some helpful front matter to assist in understanding, learning, and pronouncing hard words.

The illustrations are charming and helpful. The definitions are engaging and accurate.


Jane Solomon is a lexicographer based in Oakland, California. She spends her days writing definitions and working on various projects for different dictionaries and reference sites. She was at Dictionary.com for seven years, and she’s also worked on projects for Oxford, Cambridge, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Thinkmap, and K Dictionaries. She’s a member of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, the group that decides what new emoji pop up on our devices. She has a twin sister who is also a lexicographer. Louise Lockhart has illustrated about one gazijllian excellent children’s books.


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The Animal Awards: This year there are 50 winners!

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The Ice Lover Award goes to the Polar Bear, the Crafty Hunter Award goes to the Tiger, and the Terribly Tall Award goes to the Giraffe, as usual.

This new coffee-table format kids book, The Animal Awards: Celebrate NATURE with 50 fabulous creatures from the animal kingdom, by Martin Jenkins with illustrations by Tor Freeman*, is a rollicking riot of excellent information about (fifty) animals, with fun illustrations.

The ceremony is about to begin. Roll up, roll up, roll up! The ceremony is about to begin so prepare to be amazed. We’re here to celebrate the crème de la crème of the animal kingdom, and shine a spotlight on the finest achievements and unique qualities of some special individuals. Among others, we will be awarding prizes to the fastest, the oldest, the strongest, the smelliest, the tallest, and the longest. We have some unusual prize winners and some quite scary ones, too. As we run through our short lists you’ll have the privilege of meeting our esteemed guests from dangerous, frogs to organised ants, to spiders that have devised all sorts of strange and admirable ways of catching their food. It’s been a really difficult job choosing winners but we hope you approve and find plenty to marvel at in this beastly line-up of champions. Now put your hands together and clap! The Animal Awards is about to begin…

Tor Freeman is a London-based illustrator. In 2012 she was awarded the Sendak Fellowship. In 2017 she won the Guardian Graphic Short Story Prize. Her books include the Digby Dog and Olive series.

Martin Jenkins is conservation biologist and children’s writer. His jobs have varied greatly: “I’ve been an orchid-sleuth in Germany, a timber detective in Kenya and an investigator of the chameleon trade in Madagascar.” His titles include Emperor’s Egg, winner of the Times Junior Information Book of the Year Award, Can We Save the Tiger, winner of the SLA Award, and Gulliver’s Travels, winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal. He lives in Cambridge and London.


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Kitchen Item as Holiday Gift? Maybe, maybe not

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Historically, kitchen items have been iffy as holidy gifts, because the person that might like something kitchen related is probably a cooking geek, and therefore, either already has the thing or has a better idea of which one to get than you, the gift giver, does.

On the other hand, Covid-19 has caused a surge of interest in cooking. People are cooking all over the place these days because it is something you can do without getting the plague. Usually.

On the third hand, if you look at prices of the more desired kitchen items, they are up about 25% or more. I assume this is a problem of limited supply (Covid-19 effects) and increased demand (more demand because of the aforementioned new interest in cooking).

Whatever. Point is, I’ve put together a list of suggestions, with links to Amazon*, but do not just click on these things and buy them. Prices vary widely, and also, in many cases there are multiple possible options (especially for the Instant Pot, I’ll tell you right now) that you’ll want to consider.

Peternatural Toaster Oven

One of the coolest presents that I got about two years ago was the Panasonic 1300 Watts FlashXpress Toaster Oven. It is a little narrower than other toaster ovens, which is both a feature (fits on your counter nicely) and a bug (you can’t do as many pieces of toast at once, if you make toast in it). I got it because I wanted a device that would make an open grilled cheese sandwich in nine seconds. I never actually make those, but I wanted to be able to do that, so I could apply that technology to other purposes. This device does not make a grilled cheese sandwich in 9 seconds, but it does a much better job of super cooking things than a normal toaster oven. I use it on average once a day.

Everyone has one, so should you, and it won’t explode

The Instant Pot is the novel device of last year. If you don’t have one, get one. If you know someone who does not have one, get one for that person. There are MANY different versions so look around and chose wisely. I know several people who have one but refuse to use it as pressure cooker because they are afraid it will explode. THIS IS A PRESSURE COOKER THAT WILL NOT EXPLODE and if you won’t use it as a pressure cooker, please give it to someone who will and get yourself one of these.

During the a last in-person annual local Democratic Party Chile Cook Off, it was funny to watch the contestants with their Instant Pots full of chili. This was funny because the lid on an Instant Pot, which is a pressure cooker, is clumsy and can not be casually and loosely put on something, like the lid of a crock pot. I recommend considering accessorizing your Instant Pot with a Glass Lid.

This is the difference between civilized society and the Iron Age

Everyone who does not have some sort of KitchenAid is living in an earlier, simpler, but less edible time. The one I point to here is a reburbished job, which may not be a bad idea for this device that can’t easily be killed. There are no subsittutes for an actual kitchen aid. I used to say you need to get the 5 quart model and forego the smaller flip up model, but I’ve changed my mind. They are both good.

Of all the attachments you can get for a KitchenAid, the Grinder Attachment is probably the one that does the most impressive job. I do not have a Flex Edge Beater accessory for my KitchenAid but I covet one. (The one linked to right here is seriously on sale at this exact moment in the US.)

Be like the British Baking Show

… and get a Kitchen Scale. It should be capable of holding close to 10 pounds. “When will I ever have to measure out ten pounds of something?” you protest! You won’t! But you use the scale to weigh out what you put in the bowl. The bowl is on the scale. It weighs a lot. The one I link to is recommended by all the usual sources. They are remarkably inexpensive.

Be cool. Very cool.

I don’t know anything about cold press coffee, other than that it is surprisingly good. But I don’t know how to make it, or what device is needed or what works and does not work. I’m hoping you will experiment with something like a Cold Brew Coffee Maker and report back. Thanks.


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Encyclopedia Of Animals: Time to upgrade the science shelf in your library

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When I was a kid, I had an encyclopedia of animals. I cherished it, read it several times. For a long time, until I was in middle school, I knew more about animals than anyone else I knew because I had read that book. I also used it as a jumping off point to learn more about each type of animal, looking them up in the two general encyclopedias we had in the house, taking notes, drawing pictures, all of it. That one single book probably is the reason that I went in certain academic directions. In fact, I had flashbacks to the pages on the leopard and the Cape buffalo while poking around actual wild leopards and Cape buffalo in Africa.

There have been a lot of encyclopedias of animals in print, and now there is a new kid on the block, and it is probably the one you should get for your emerging naturalist. Encyclopedia of Animals by Jules Howard, illustrated by Jarom Vogel*, covers 300 species. Unlike my old volume, which only had large mammals and a snake or two, this volume gives a much more uniform treatment of “animal” with roughly equal treatment for six Classes. The book uses bleed-tags to quickly find the inverts, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, or mammals.

There are over 500 illustrations across 192 nicely laid out pages, interesting facts about each animal exemplar, including Latin binomial.

It is hard to define the age range for this book. Adults will find it useful as a reference. Kids from about 3rd grade and up will browse it. It aligns with the kinds of science taught in fifth grade and up (10-11 years old.) A middle school science teacher will want this handy in the classroom library.

Jules Howard is science writer and presenter, regularly contributing to The Guardian and BBC Wildlife Magazine. Jarom Vogel is an illustrator, designer and digital artist.


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An Excellent Science Oriented Book About Horses: The Horse, a Natural History by Busby and Rutland

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How much do you know about the natural history of the horse? Not enough, I’ll wager, considering that the horse is a key, central element to much (but not all) of human history. The evolutionary story is classic, and central to much interesting conversation. The spread of the modern species across the globe, its domestication and eventual diversification through breeding are fascinating stories.

Consider The Horse: A Natural History by Debbie Busby and Catrin Rutland*. Most books about horses are about how to take care of your horse, or how to learn to ride your horse, or some other thing about your horse. This book is about the horses themselves, about their biology, behavior, and history.

This volume is loaded with excellent illustrations including graphs, charts, and photos. If you leave it on your coffee table, people will pick it up and thumb through it, and be glad they did, once you start letting people into your house.

This is the best horse book out there currently, and is a perfect holiday gift for your horse loving relative who, once they recieve it, will surely not look it in the mouth.

Debbie Busby has degrees in applied animal behavior and welfare and psychology, specializing in horses, and is certified by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Catrin Rutland is associate professor of anatomy and developmental genetics at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Nottingham, UK, and writes for a number of outlets including the Telegraph and the Guardian.


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Excellent Book Series for Kids and their Adults

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An odd group of adults, including Mr. Benedict, his two live-in assistants, and his usually not at home spy, contrive to attract and collect an odd group of children, each with a unique and stunning set of abilities, in order to enlist them in a dangerous and critically important adventure. Then they do that again and again several times until there are four volumes of this engaging, must read story.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Steward is an award winning young adult mystery series dating to the last half of the 2010s.

The process of introducing the characters and the story settings results in a hilarious first third of the first book in the series, then it settles down a bit. The side-plot twist found in the first volume (no spoilers) is one of the most gut-wrenching I’ve ever read, as in my gut is wrenched because I’m laughing so hard. The plots are good and quirky and the the characters are quirky good.

Oddly, the books teach that families can be made up of people that are not really related, and that at the same time some of the most closely related people can be so opposite that one can embody true good and one can embody true evil. There is nothing too edgy here for kids, the only lower limit on age is the complexity of the plots. There are very vague generic parallels to the Harry Potter series, in that unrelated kids become thick as thieves, and do battle against a powerful enemy who seems to not be defeated again and again. Unlike Harry Potter the characters don’t really age through a long period of time, though there is definitely growth and development. Then suddenly they are adults in the last book.

A key feature of the stories is the frequent need to solve puzzles or interpret vague clues in order to save someone, get away from the bad guys, etc. One of the characters is extremely good at figuring out riddles. Another has a didactic memory and reads a lot, so he simply knows everything, at a factual level. Another character exhibits stunning physicality for a kid, and will climb to the top of a building or through a series of vents to discover the answer to a question while the other kids are busy thinking it through. The fourth kid’s main super power is to be very whining and complaining, and she is also unnaturally clumsy. These features end up being startlingly important, though it takes a while to figure out how. The four children survive and solve the mysteries they are faced with by being different, each contributing something unique to the problem, while the Mysterious Mr. Benedict himself seems to have the big picture in mind, but not in control, the whole time.

The story is laid out in four books following the same main characters. Then, there is a prequel that explores the origin of the main adult character (Mr. Benedict himself). A sixth book is a collection of puzzles and fun activities that are inspired by the riddle and mystery based nature of the books themselves.

I’ll also mention that there is yet another book not in the same series but with a similar look and feel (but I have not yet read it) by the same author. I’ll include it in the list below.

You can get a a boxed set of these books (as far as I know in paperback) but that won’t include the quiz book. I found a very good used copy of each of the books in hardcover. If you know a family with kids between 8 and 14 (roughly) who don’t have these books, this is an excellent Covid-era bunch of reading for a holiday gift. Start it in mid January, finish them all, then go get your Covid vaccination!

The Mysterious Benedict Society Books In Order


with links to Amazon*

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages

Prequel: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict

Activity book: The Mysterious Benedict Society: Mr. Benedict’s Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious

The other book by Trenton Lee Steward: The Secret Keepers


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Games in the Covid Era

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I’ve been thinking about games (mainly two person or more board games) as a great idea for gifts in this era of Covid. So, I asked my Facebook friends to suggest some, and that resulted in about 90 comments so far. I’m put many of them here. I skipped a few games because they are fairly common yet not classic, included the classics, and focused more on games I’ve only recently heard of. Pandemic, Arboretum Codenames are newish and great. I try to indicate if I’ve had personal experience with a game, or in some cases, if the recommendation comes from a recommender that I would automatically fully trust. I’ve included Amazon links* but note that in many cases there are multiple versions of a given game, and I’m only linking to one. You’ll want to look laterally at the alternative versions and see if you want a traditional Stratego or a Star Wars Stratego, for example. The deluxe versions of the “traditional games” I’m suggesting here are simply taken off 2020 lists of deluxe versions of games, so again, just a suggestion, not really a recommendation.

Traditional games that would make a great gift if you get a nice one

Chess is only fun for some people. I’ve noticed in my own personal life that people who like to play chess and who are good at it have a knack for making the people they beat feel bad. And, it takes a lot of work to learn to play it well. For this reason, chessphobia is common. Don’t get a chess set because you think you can get someone to play with you. But, if you know someone who likes chess, an upscale chess board such as this “Handmade Chess Set European Ambassador with 21 Inch Board and Hand Carved Chess Pieces WEGIEL” may be just the gift. Or, perhaps a Harry Potter Wizard Chess Set for the person who already has a nice chess set but not a Harry Potter chess set. Also consider the less stressful No Stress Chess.

Cribbage is one of the more fun and challenging card games, and it requires a Cribbage board. It is way underrated and worth the time it takes to learn it.

There was a time when everyone played Backgammon all the time. Maybe that time will come again. Get your Backgammon set now and get good at it so when the Return of Backgammon happens, you are ready.

Go is a classic game, and people who like it probably a have a set, but they might not have something fancy like the Brybelly Go Set with Reversible Bamboo Go Board.

Similarly, everybody has a Scrabble board, but the Scrabble enthusiast might need something like a Scrabble Deluxe Edition with Rotating Wooden Game Board.

Strategy board games.

I don’t know Tiny Epic Galaxies Blast Off! – A Game of Cosmic Combos but it comes recommended by a trusted friend. Same with Castles of Burgundy Strategy Game.

Stratego is one of my favorite games. It is from ancient days but modern humans seem to like it. The version I link to is absurdly priced, but it gives you a hook for your own search for a version you may like. There is a Star Wars version, and probably other versions as well. I like the traditional form just fine, and I also like games that when you put them away they fit on a bookshelf. (Most versions of Stratego do not do that.)

You’all against the game.

For these games, the players play against the house, as it were. This is an interesting break from the usual games where one person tries to win against all the other players.

One of the best games I’ve played recently, and recommended by my FB friends as well, is Pandemic. You are on a team trying to save the world from a rapidly spreading deadly disease (as if that would ever happen!). This is you against the pathogen, and in my experience, the pathogen usually wins, but it is fun anyway. Pandemic: The Cure is a version of this game that is somewhat simplified and uses a different randomization and play direction strategy. I’ve not played it but it has been recommended to me.

You must check out one or another version of this game: Codenames.

Design and Strategy games. This is a category of games I’m not too familiar with but may of my FB friends recommended.

Azul and the variant, Azul Summer Pavilion look fun. Blokus might be in this category as well.

Patchwork: Americana Edition seems to come in different forms, so look laterally in your search for variants.

The one game in this amorphous category that I do know is Arboretum. It is very hard to explain how this works, and frankly, you’ll do best by playing it a time or two, and even discussing strategy with your opponents the first time. Highly recommended, and I think it is new enough that it could make a good gift.

I’ll put the classic Mastermind Game : The Strategy Game of Codemaker vs. Codebreaker (Packaging May Vary) in this category as well. If we weren’t’ already committed to other plans for Huxley’s birthday, this is what I would get him.

Card-based strategy games.

Recommended by FB friends: Race for the Galaxy Card Game

Pegasus Spiele Fungi may be good practice before actually looking for wild mushroom.

Recommended by an actual game maker friend of mine: Lost Cities

Small, clever games that abuse animals.

Not really, but you get the picture. These are all good: Pass The Pigs, Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza, and Exploding Kittens.

Not easily categorized but recommended by the Game Master herself, Rachel:

The 7th Continent. Looks really good.


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Great new kids’ science book

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Don’t Mess With Me: The Strange Lives of Venomous Sea Creatures by Paul Erickson is part of a series that is currently small but hopefully growing by Tilbury House. I previously reviewed One Iguana Two Iguanas (about iguanas).

Like the Iguana book, Erickson’s book for third through seventh graders (8-12 or so years of age) contains real, actual, science, evolutionary theory, and facts about nature, along with great pictures. The key message is that toxins exist because they provide an evolutionary advantage to those organisms that use them. Why are venomous animals so common in watery environments? Read the book to find out.

Species mentioned includ the blue-ringed octopi, stony corals, sea jellies, stonefish, lionfish, poison-fanged blennies, stingrays, cone snails, blind remipedes, fire urchins.

Highly recommended as a STEM present this holiday season.


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One Iguana Two Iguanas: Children’s evolutionary biology book, with lizards!

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The land and marine iguanas of the Galapagos Islands are famous. Well, the marine iguanas are famous, and the land iguanas, representing the ancestral state for that clade of two species, deserve a lot of credit as well. The story of these iguanas is integral with, and parallel to, the story of the Galapagos Islands, and of course, that story is key in our understanding of and pedagogy of evolutionary biology, and Darwin’s history. Continue reading One Iguana Two Iguanas: Children’s evolutionary biology book, with lizards!


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Gift Guide: Science and technology books for adults and kids

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This is a short list of science books that came out over the last year that I’ve reviewed, and thought you might do well to be reminded of. Since your holiday shopping list surely includes targets with a range of demographics interests, I made this a diverse list. Continue reading Gift Guide: Science and technology books for adults and kids


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Gift Guide: Books About Trump And The Fall of America

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Might as well admit it. America has been ruined. Oh, it is fixable, not “totaled” like your car after you roll it down a hill during an ice storm. More like you failed to set the parking break and it got loose and crashed into a brick wall, then some hoodlum broke through the window and ripped out your radio, then there was a hail storm…

Anyway, here is a carefully selected list of books related to Trump and the Trump fake Presidency, integrated with a list of books that are NOT about that, but rather, leadership in history. The former are to get you steamed up, the latter, they are the control rods. A few are just about attacks on democracy from the elite and powerful.

I thought it would be fun if everybody gave at least one of these books to somebody as a holiday gift this year. I’ll be giving a few. Continue reading Gift Guide: Books About Trump And The Fall of America


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STEM Holiday Gifts for Kids

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Tis the season to give robots and slime.

The two big news items for STEM holiday shopping this year are a) Robots have leveled off in complexity and price and b) slime has come of age. Continue reading STEM Holiday Gifts for Kids


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