A Canopy Walk, Hidden in Fine Print

With work beckoning Thad to Kota Kinabalu for the short week of the Columbus Day, we decided to make a trip of it, going early to enjoy the long weekend, before he had to hit the ground running with site visits and American Citizen Services for those living on the Malaysian island. We were last here in the summer of 2009, when we stayed in a hostel just a few blocks from the hotel that provides our lodging this time around. While the accommodations are different, the city is much the same. (Originally, I wrote “drastically different,” but then I realized that it isn’t necessarily *that* different. The hostel we stayed at a few years ago had private rooms with small private bathrooms. The hotel we are at this time around gave us a huge room, but it is mostly unused space. I could easily host a Zumba class with the vast expanses of open area available. But, while the bathroom is larger, the shower leaks, creating a lovely ode to Lake Superior each time we bathe, just going to prove the old adage, “bigger isn’t always better.” To be fair, I didn’t have to schlep a backpack up several flights of stairs on Sunday evening, instead my luggage was delivered to my room by a bellhop and the view is much nicer this time around. It turns out, our current digs might not be “drastically” better, but they are definitely several rungs up the accommodation ladder- maybe even a few coveted stars.)

Thanks to Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, we had an extra day to play before Thad’s calendar was overwhelmed with a variety of appointments, so we decided to get out of the city for the day and see what Mt. Kinabalu had to offer. Last week, Borneo was lashed with a massive amount of rain, making the windy road up the mountain a bit slower of a route due to several landslides that had recently been cleared, but other than a few bumps and jolts, the ride was enjoyable. We stopped at the base of the mountain for pictures and were regaled with our tour guide’s stories of how there is a race up the mountain each year, the fastest climber having done both the ascent and decent in a mere two hours. (Two hours wouldn’t even be enough for me to get a few kilometers from the trailhead!) As a part of our day-long tour (on which we were the only participants- yay!), we also stopped at a small botanical garden where Bibo (the tour guide) enumerated the various orchids found in the park, which ferns were safe to eat and the story of why he had renamed one tree in the park as “the sexy tree.” (I had a hard time following the whole story, but something to do with the fact it didn’t have bark or had peeling bark, so it looked naked. Needless to say, even without full comprehension, it was an awkward moment in the tour!) After an overwhelming number of flora-related facts, all starting with “For your information…” it was off to the pinnacle of the day’s events- the hot springs.

When we signed up for the tour on Sunday evening, I saw a vague reference to a “canopy walk,” but it was hidden in the fine print of the brochure, not really registering with me as a part of the day’s events. It may be wise, in the future, to pay a bit more attention to those tiny details scribbled at the bottom of schedules. As it turns out, before we could have a go at the hot springs, we had the “opportunity” to enjoy a canopy walk through the treetops of the Borneo rainforest. Even as I type this, it sounds beautiful and relaxing and a pleasurable way to spend a bit of time. How have I forgotten the torture so soon? (It’s the traveler’s version of childbirth. Combinations of strange chemicals override your memory, lessening the horrors of the event so that you will sign up to do it again and again! One propagates the species while the other seems to keep this blog alive!)

To the canopy walk we went.

To get to the tiny walkways in the treetops, we first had to trek our way up the mountainside, which in a rainforest means a rather humid and sticky climb. From here on out, I’d like to blame the sweaty palms, shaky legs and general irritable mood on this ascent, rather than them being symptoms of my irrationally strong dislike of all things high.

The problem with this canopy walk, and I would imagine many such ventures worldwide, is that once you make the initial choice to start through the maze, you are stuck a gazillion meters above the ground with no recourse other than to continue forward. There is no way to step off the course, wave to your friends and promise to meet them at the other end. Start and you must finish.

So, with sweaty palms, shaky legs and a generally irritable demeanor, forward I went. Foot in front of foot, eyes locked on the next platform (slightly more stable, but not exceedingly) and party to a continual running dialog with myself. (This ongoing self-talk was not the uplifting and encouraging pep talk one might imagine, but rather included a slew of words my mother doesn’t know I know and self-chastisement for having gotten myself in a 40-meter-above-the-forest-floor predicament.)

One would think the reward of some time relaxing in the hot springs would be incentive enough to get across those high wire-esque paths, but, again when you travel, you never know what you are going to get. Rather than the highly heated hot spring pools of Idaho (both Givens outside of Marsing and Zimm’s in New Meadows were childhood favorites), these “springs” were a series of small, deep tubs that the bathers filled themselves from slow-release spigots. After about fifteen minutes and enough lukewarm water to cover our shins, we decided we had experienced this strange version of relaxation to our hearts’ content and headed back to the van; I figure I’d just take a hot soak in the tub back at the hotel and get the same experience, but with the bonus of reading material!

Kota Kinabalu (lovingly referred to as KK to Kuala Lumpur’s KL) is a fantastic town on the ocean with a much more chill vibe than KL offers, even on its quietest day . If State ever decides to open a consulate here, I’ll be pushing for a bid in a heartbeat. It has enough western “stuff” going on to feel less alien than many places we’ve traveled, but still retains more of its core personality than does KL, where foreign influence is seen on every corner, both because of historical occupations and the current fervor for all things western.

Even after tricking me into a death-defying walk through the jungle treetops, Kota Kinabalu still earns a top spot in my ever-burgeoning “Things to do in Malaysia” list and will definitely be a destination for future visiting friends.


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Penang- Where Street Art Meets Street Food

With yet another long weekend upon us, it was time to venture out on the first road trip of our “Ross’ in Malaysia adventure-time.” (I have no complaints about another long weekend- the holidays are one advantage of this lifestyle, as Thad gets both American and local holidays. Last weekend was Hari Raya and this upcoming weekend will be Columbus Day. We celebrate all the things!)

Maybe we chose poorly.

You see, it seems everyone in Malaysia owns a car, or maybe two. The government has done a lot to subsidize the prices for vehicles, so many families actually own more cars than they have people able to operate them, which makes for some horrific traffic, any day of the week. Then, add on top of that a national holiday and maybe one should consider holing up in the house for the extended weekend.

But of course, we did not do that.

Instead, we joined the masses leaving the city, heading to a variety of vacation spots around the country. Our destination of choice was Penang, an island off the west coast of the country, known for two main attractions- the street food and the street art. A mere four hours away, I thought this would be the perfect getaway for a few days.

But, there was traffic. Lots of it.

Oh yes, and a monsoon.

We headed out for our four hour road trip at 3:45PM and finally made it to Paradise (Who wouldn’t book a hotel on the beach called Paradise?) at midnight.

Eight hours.


Really, traffic was flowing okay until we got to about twenty kilometers outside of Penang. (Yup, I now judge distances in kilometers. I still have to look up the Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion every time I turn on the oven, but my driving references are all KM these days.) Once we hit that last stretch though, our path was blocked first by the most inanely set-up toll both known to man (three lanes of traffic filtered into no lanes- just a jumble of cars trying to get through the station) and then by the pouring rain. After finally paying our toll and getting across the bridge to the island, we came to a literal standstill on the surface streets of Penang, as the heavy rain backed up traffic for hours. From the edge of the island to our hotel should have taken maybe twenty minutes, but it ended up taking nearly two hours. I can’t even begin to tell you how excruciating that last stretch was! (But, we did get to list to the entirety of Ryan Seacrest’s Top 30 Countdown, so I am up on how to “Shake it Off” with Taylor Swift and that Demi Lovato “really doesn’t care” anymore.)

Not wanting to let Friday night’s journey get us down, on Saturday morning we headed into George Town to check out the sights. The sky was cloudy, but the roads were dry, which made it seem like a perfect day to take a walking tour of the area. In retrospect, we should have taken some umbrellas along with us. (They were in the car, but we figured we wouldn’t need them. What were we thinking?!) Before long, Thad was drawn in by the lure of the hawker stalls, because who couldn’t resist steaming bowls of noodles, plates of fried chicken skin or a bit of offal? Luckily, his tummy rumblings coincided perfectly with the start of Saturday’s rain. It rained.

And rained.

And rained.

With our umbrellas safely tucked into the trunk of our car, we were stuck at the hawker stalls for almost two hours! A bowl of noodles and several skewers of chicken gizzards later, we decided the rain had let up enough to make a break for it. The food was good and bountiful- possibly too bountiful. I am not sure Thad will be craving the gizzards anytime soon!

Our hours-long journey and shorter, but still seemingly endless wait at the hawker stalls, was rewarded though with some fantastic street art. Scattered throughout the old city of George Town, visitors can find graffiti/murals on alleyway walls, many incorporating 3D artifacts into the images. My favorite was two young kids playing on a swing, but I was also drawn to the Asian dolls in a pool of purple. With an art map in hand, we searched high and low to find the various installations, Thad getting good shots of nearly all of them. (Most of the photos below, as with most of the photos on this blog, are his doing.) As we wandered, I couldn’t help but think of a few friends at home and one particular former student who is now an artist in Seattle, all of whom would have absolutely loved these narrow city streets and inventive public art.

Penang is definitely an island worth visiting and we’ll be headed back there, after rainy season has passed. I still need to ride the funicular and check out the national park on the tip of the island, none of which were accessible through the sheets of rain and, at times, heavy winds.

Knowing that the traffic back to KL would rival that of Friday night, we headed back in the morning, hoping to beat the rush. And that we did. As it turns out, Penang really is only four hours from Kuala Lumpur!

Holiday or no though, I think next time we’ll be flying.

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A Rainy Reminder

I cannot overstate how much I love these crazy afternoon rainstorms that we’ve been having lately in Kuala Lumpur. If this is how rainy season is going to be, bring it on!

To be fair though, I am in the best position possible to love the sheets of water streaming from the sky, the blinding flashes of lightning that coincide exactly with cracks of thunder that jar even the most solid foundations. I’m lucky enough to be sitting in the office space of my house, which is softly lit by a floor lamp and a candle, cozy as can be, doing some online reading while the rain splatters against my window and the wind rushes through the palm trees in the driveway.

As I wander to the balcony to sit and watch the cars slink by in the onslaught and murky visiblity, I can’t help but think at how devastating this storm could be for those who don’t have the advantages and comforts that I have. All it would take is a slightly leaky roof or less than steady walls and this afternoon’s storm would mean small lakes in a home, coteries of critters seeking refuge and a sleepless night ahead as moisture pools in fabrics and mattresses.

What brings comfort and coziness to one can mean discomfort and disaster for another. As I press forward with my afternoon agenda of lesson plans and a bit of light literary theory reading, this dichotomy rests with me. It is always good to stop and count ones blessings, as the littlest things can make the biggest differences.


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BASE-ically Crazy, If You Ask Me

People travel for different reasons. For some, it is the lure man-made wonders- ancient temples and towering skyscrapers. For others, natural wonders call their names- deep, rainbow colored canyons and breathtaking mountaintops. Those who travel for work are in search of new connections, new deals and higher profits for their companies. Some travelers are looking to find something or someone, escape a situation or try to outrun a memory.

And some travelers are just looking for a new place to jump off the highest point possible.


Those are the folks we went to visit this weekend. Kuala Lumpur was holding its annual KL Tower BASE Jump event, meaning folks from all over the world gathered to hurl themselves off the top of a nearly 1400 foot high radio tower in the center of the city. We had heard rumblings that the jumpers were going to be in town this last weekend, but couldn’t find any specifics about when the jumps would be taking place. As I was driving to school on Friday, I saw a single parachute open mid-sky and was easily convinced we needed to find out more. As it turns out, the participants would be jumping most of the day Saturday and Sunday. (There were evening jumps planned too, but with KL storms, I’m not sure those happened.)

Sunday morning, after a quick shower and bowl of cereal, we headed into town. (I can actually see the KL Tower from my kitchen, but just the top bulb, which is where they jumpers take off, but because of the skyscraper-heavy skyline, we wouldn’t be able to see the rainbow of parachutes open.) We parked along the road, which means we actually parked in the traffic lane, but I figured it was all legit since I paid five ringgit and got a ticket to place in my window. Who cares that it was blocking future traffic; I had the official slip of tissue paper with a number on it. Too legit to quit. As we walked to the top of the hill upon which the KL Tower sits, we had to stop multiple times to watch the BASE jumpers coming off the building. From below, it is hard to see the initial leap, but the snap of an opening parachute draws eyes upward, creating a constant need to stop and stare.

We hadn’t planned on going into the tower itself, but when we got there, we were told we could go to the top and watch them jump from above. On a regular day, I’m not sure the tower entrance fee is worth it, but how often do you get to see people throwing themselves off a building with just a small backpack and a GoPro-sporting helmet? So, we quickly signed away our lives (not their fault if we fall off!) and headed up the elevator, which we shared with a jumper from California. When we told him we were from Idaho, he was excited and said that many of the jumpers loved going to Idaho to jump from the bridge in Twin Falls. He said that on Friday he made the KL jump nineteen times and did twenty-six more on Saturday and he was on number seven for Sunday and he was definitely feeling it in his joints. (I’m not sure what the long-term effects of the sport are, but I am guessing knee-replacements come early for some of these folks!)

Watching these guys (and gals! We saw three female participants) was incredible. I squawk if I even get near the edge of the building, but they would fly off of it on a rope swing with nary a peep. Are you serious? How does one not squeal as they dangle from a rope, suspended 1400 feet above the ground?

And how does one become so accustomed to hurling themselves off buildings that it merely jumping isn’t’ enough, but to up the game you must launch one another off by the feet, go piggy-back style or bail as a group, just to keep in interesting?

Most of the jumpers were young, in their 20s and this is what they do for fun. They travel the world in search of buildings, antennae, span (bridges) and earth (cliffs) from which to jump. (BASE.) I don’t know if these guys have “real” jobs or they just wander the earth, seeking the next thrill, but one young man made me laugh as he awaited his next turn to go over the edge. He was chatting with other jumpers on the platform, saying, “Man, I think I am going to ask my mom for a new helmet for Christmas.” Haha! Really? You jump off buildings for fun, but you are hoping Santa will bring you new equipment to shield your noggin? Cool, dude!

As an acrophobic of highest order, I can’t imagine strapping a self-packed chute to my back, snapping on a bike helmet and then leaning over the side of a building. Heck, I can barely get myself to the edge of the many tourist-trap viewing balconies we’ve visited all over the world. BASE jumpers travel in pursuit of actual, physical high points. I, on the other hand, will happily stick to the quest for cultural peaks and the summits of humanity.


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A Plan Thwarted

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
― Allen Saunders

It’s easy to make plans, but no matter how much work you put into them, sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you had envisioned it. On both big and small levels, this has been the theme of my move to Kuala Lumpur. Coming into our second posting with the Foreign Service, I thought for sure I’d have a job working at the embassy, hopefully in the Public Affairs section, as there were two openings coming available this past summer. I’ve got a strong resume, having worked not only as a teacher for nearly a decade, but as CLO for two solid years in Chengdu, plus I had lined up some fantastic references. But, after two interviews that felt positive and optimistic, and zero calls to my references, I got received two “We regret to inform you…” emails. I guess it is a sign that I should be doing something else. (Blog posts on that “something else” to come soon. Stay tuned!)

But, even on a smaller level, KL seems to thwart plans. After a long week at work (how are the short weeks always the longest?), we had a quiet day around the house on Saturday so that Thad could have a bit of down time, but then decided to venture out of town a day-trip on Sunday. Port Dickson seemed like a good choice for our first road trip in Malaysia, as it is less than two hours away and the closest beach to the capital. I’d done some research online and was excited to visit the ostrich farm they have just outside the town. According to their website, Thad could enjoy a nice ostrich burger for lunch and I could touch an array of animals the attached petting zoo. (Initially I was SUPER excited to go, as the website advertised ostrich rides. I was going to get my Swiss Family Robinson on, but then read a little further and realized that riders had to be under 40 kilograms, which is about 88 pounds. I don’t think I’ve weighed that little since about the 5th grade, so there will be no ostrich riding in my future. Sad!)

With plans for a road trip, some lunch and some animal visiting, plus a stop by the beach, we headed out late Sunday morning. The car had about a quarter of a tank of gas, so we thought we’d get on the road and find a petrol station along the road- they are a dime a dozen around here. (Plus, I knew lots of the ones along the freeways have Dunkin’ Donuts attached, so I may have had an alternative motive in my recommendation to scout one out along the way.)

Through the SMART tunnel we went and we were off. (The SMART tunnel is about three miles long and basically skips all of the downtown traffic, starting from just beyond the US Embassy and popping out at a toll both beyond the masses of the city, all for a mere two ringgit.) Probably fifteen kilometers outside of town, I spotted the coveted gas station/DD, so off we pulled. While I took care of gassing up the car (which really means telling the guy what kind and how much and then going in to pay) Thad went to the ATM to get cash for our little outing. Maybank is the official government bank here, so he opted for that ATM, figuring it would be the safest bet. Wrong! After putting in his card and PIN, the machine spit out a receipt but no cash. The slip of paper informed him that his card was expired (it was not) and that the machine would be keeping it. What?!?

Since Thad has spent the last two years dealing with a variety of fraud as a major portfolio at work, he was instantly on alert. Something was just not right. Within minutes we were back in the car, on the phone with our credit card company, cancelling both his card and mine and making sure that the account was locked down tighter than Fort Knox.

Feeling a bit annoyed with the card situation and lacking much in terms of cash (I had just used a good portion of what we had originally brought to fill up the car), we decided that a road trip out of town may not be the smartest move, so we packed it in and headed back to KL proper.

Big plans. Little plans. You can make them all you want, but in the end, you’ve just got to go with the flow and play it by ear. I may not be spending my days in heels and dress clothes, working to promote the US the way I had hoped I would be here and I definitely did not get to explore the ostrich park this weekend (or even get my coveted Dunkin’ Donuts treat!), but there are bigger and better things on the horizon for my day-to-day schedule and yesterday turned into a lovely afternoon of patio dining and people watching in the city.

In the end, it all works out.



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It Wouldn’t Be an Adventure without a Bit of Insanity

To survive with any kind of sanity intact when living overseas, it is best to learn right away that you can’t stop the craziness from happening, so flexibility and an ability to laugh at the situation, solve it and move on are necessities. (Luckily, none of these things take up any suitcase weight, so they are easy to haul from city to city, post to post, country to country.)

These traits are not ones that come naturally to many folks, myself included. Having been raised in the same house in southern Idaho for my entire life, I had a pretty set outlook on how the world around me should be. My days had a pattern to them that made sense for a middle class family with fifteen llamas and some room to run. Drop me in the middle of the Dominican Republic at the age of eighteen and suddenly, that box that I knew so well didn’t hold the right tools for day to day life. There was no large lawn that needed to be divided and conquered by the kids, no llama stalls to muck or bales of hay to haul to the feeder and no endless piles of books and newspapers to flip through as I lazed away a Sunday afternoon. (Three kids meant splitting major chores three ways, but I got pretty good, as the middle child, at finding ways to make my portion a bit smaller whenever I could. With the lawn, I quickly learned that taking the middle section and offering to mow first had some major advantages. By mowing first, I could accidently forget to take care of the section we loving called the “grasshopper lawn” and then it suddenly became the job of the sibling with the third that also connected to that part. And by making my end line a few yards in on either side, I could save myself a few passes with the mower, leaving them to the others to clean-up. The stalls were a bit harder to divvy up, but multiple breaks to lean on my pitchfork or always being the wheelbarrow pusher and then taking the long route back saved me a few scoops here and there.)

There I was, eighteen years old and living in a land that was vastly different from anything I had known. I was with a school group, but we each lived with a local family, so I was often on my own and flexibility and spur of the moment problem solving were not really a part of my repertoire at that time. Having been in the country only a few days, it was time to start school at the local university. My host family took me in a cab, but I was too overwhelmed to really focus and keep track of our routing. After a morning of orientation, I was expected to return to my host-home for lunch and the afternoon break. While everyone else seemed to scatter as soon as we were released, I quickly realized I had no idea in which direction I lived. None. And I had no idea what to do. Eventually, one of the counselors for our program must have seen the stricken look on my face and quickly consulted his list of addresses for foreign students and put me in a cab back to my residence, at which point I couldn’t even figure out which floor I lived on. (I’d blame jetlag, but it was only a three-hour time difference. It was more being so far out of my comfort zone that at the time, I didn’t even know where to start in processing this new life.) Luckily, Host Mom was standing on the balcony, yelling “Rubia! Rubia!” Figuring I was the only blonde girl in the entire neighborhood, I followed her directions until I made it home. Talk about learning on the fly!

Luckily, by the time we moved to China with Peace Corps, I had nearly an extra decade under my belt, with more foreign travel and general life experience to guide me. I quickly adapted to the 9AM calls on Saturday morning, telling me to be at the gate in twenty minutes for a department outing to the countryside. (Who needs a shower if you are going to the countryside anyway, right? And personal time?? It doesn’t exist if the danwei leader wants an outing. You just go.) Having course schedules change the night before the new term became routine and learning that all exams must only be marked in red ink or they must be remarked were tidbits that I just stocked away for the next round of classes.

Knowing that there is no way to know how a day is going to go, I shouldn’t have been surprised this week when I went to do a bit of grocery shopping and ended up with a barricade behind my car, at yet, I must admit to a minute of sheer wonder. How did that pole grow organically from the asphalt in the twenty minute I was gone?

Here’s the deal. On my way home from volunteering at a local refugee school (blog post on that to come soon!), I decided to stop at a local grocery store to grab a few items. It was just after lunch and the small parking lot was packed! I drove around the side of the building and found a great spot near the end of the spaces available. Pleased with my parking, I headed in to by some crazily overpriced cheese, some pasta-fixings and a few odds and ends snacks.

I wasn’t in the store more than twenty minutes.

As I did a bit of 4-wheeling with my cart across the parking lot that could play backup to Craters of the Moon, my focus was mostly on keeping my cart going in something resembling a straight line. I didn’t actually look at my car until I was nearly behind it, at which point I spotted the newly arrived pole. I stopped, looked around, double checked that this really was my vehicle (our make/model is super popular amount ex-pats in KL) and once I’d confirmed that yes, this was my SUV, I took another minute to ponder. How had I parked there? Where did the pole come from? And more importantly, what was I going to do?

My first thought was to just pull it out myself. Sure, why couldn’t I, wearing a dress and sandals, just yank that metal pole out of the ground? Needless to say, plan A was a bust. After shoving my groceries in the backseat (there was no way the trunk was lifting with that pole inches away), I went in search of a parking lot attendant. While explaining my situation, the guard looked confused, so I just asked him to walk with me to my car. As we got about halfway down the line of vehicles, he started laughing and said, “Oh, that is *your* car.”

Yes, that is my car!

Without another word, he unwound a giant linked chain, did some magical pushing and pulling on the pole and out it came. As he dragged it across the asphalt, he motioned for me to pull my car out and be on my way. No explanation, no apology. This is just the way it is.

All those years ago in the Dominican Republic (I’d rather not date myself by saying just how long ago it was, but suffice to say, I had no email address, as the internet was nearly non-existent, especially in Santiago and calls from home were horribly expensive long distance, once a month), had I been in a similar situation, I’m pretty sure I would have sat down on the curb, tears in my eyes, waiting for someone to make it better. Luckily, a few handfuls of countries and even more ridiculously random events later, Tuesday’s outing didn’t ruffle a feather.

Heck, it was nearly a VIP parking spot! If only the chain were a red velvet rope…


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The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

the fourteenth goldfish

Fun! Fascinating! Captivating! Charming!

I thought about going with fourteen adjectives to describe Jennifer L. Holm’s recent release, The Fourteenth Goldfish, but then decided it is doesn’t need a gimmicky introduction; it stands strongly on its own as a great work of young adult fiction that pushes readers to think more about science, consider the possibilities of reverse aging and wonder just how much age plays into a person’s role within their family. While this book definitely skews to the younger side of young adult fiction, aimed primarily at the sixth/seventh grade levels, it is a fantastic find for science teachers since it introduces some great characters from the history of science and questions the role of scientists in all of our lives.

It was a bit shocking that Ellie’s kindergarten teacher thought it was a good idea to teach young kids about the circle of life by giving them a pet store goldfish with a lifespan of a week so they could learn about death. That seems like a bit of a harsh way to crush the innocence of a child, but Ellie’s miracle fish lives for years, outlasting all of the other kids’ aquatic pets. I giggled when Ellie’s mom fesses up to having used replacement fish for year, sneaking the dead one out of the bowl and plopping a new on in its place before Ellie can discover that her initial goldfish wasn’t special and didn’t outlive those of her classmates.

Soon though, the goldfish-incident is forgotten, when Ellie’s mother brings someone new home to stay. Dressed in a sweater vest, perfectly ironed khakis and black dress socks, Melvin just doesn’t blend in with other kids his age, but Ellie has a strange sense of knowing this odd new addition to her home. But why wouldn’t she? Instead of being another sixth grader debating between the corndog or the pizza for lunch, it turns out Melvin is actually Ellie’s grandfather!

Melvin, a scientist, through the help of some fisherman friends in Australia, has discovered how to reverse the aging process, using himself as the guinea pig in his first human experiment with what can only be described as science-fiction come to life. Since no one knew what he was working on and he now looks like any other pimply kid on the brink of being a teenager, access to his lab is denied, and he can’t drive a car or live on his own without raising suspicions. His daughter (Ellie’s mom) takes him in, but makes him attend middle school as part of his cover, where his multiple graduate degrees make sixth grade science something he could do during a nap and fitting in nearly impossible.

Stuck with Melvin, her grandfather, Ellie begins to realize that she isn’t cut out for the life of an actor like her parents, but rather that she has a keen interest in the experiments her grandfather has worked on and maybe her place in this world is wearing a white coat in a lab rather than an ornate costume on a stage.

I love that this book introduces a variety of historical figures in science, everyone from Galileo and Newton to Salk and Oppenheimer, but in a way that leaves a lot of room for the reader to follow up and discover more about them. There is enough detail to intrigue, but enough left unsaid to encourage a bit of post-reading browsing. But, the scientist themselves aren’t the only draw of the book, as it touches upon bigger questions, like what exactly is the role of a scientist and how far is too far. Jennifer L. Holm’s recent publication, The Fourteenth Goldfish, is lighthearted and a quick read (I downloaded it before bed and didn’t turn off the light until I had turned the last page!) and one that will draw in a variety of middle level readers, earning it:

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