Category Archives: book reviews

Better Posters: Zen Faulkes on ways to rescue the poster session

When I was revising The Scientist’s Guide to Writing for its forthcoming 2nd edition, I had a problem: too many topics I wanted to cover, and not enough space under my word limit to do it. That means my book has gaps. That’s no surprise, of course; every book does. But one gap that irked me is my coverage of poster presentations. Many posters are dreadful, there are few resources for those wanting to do better, and my book disposes of posters in a couple of hundred words. Ugh.

Well, I have good news. The gap in my book is now filled – more than filled – because I can simply cite Zen Faulkes’s new book, Better Posters: Plan, Design, and Present an Academic Poster. Continue reading

No two people see a book the same way (or, Canadians CAN TOO be funny)

No two people ever see a book quite the same way (as many folks noticed during my long, dull #AYearOfBooks post series). If you want a great illustration, consider this:

I know, you’re not supposed to read your reviews.* I can’t help it, and there are rewards. Continue reading

Is “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle” political? Sure, and I’m unrepentant.

They say you shouldn’t read your (book/album/movie) reviews, and I suppose they have a point.*

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, my book about eponymous scientific names and what they reveal about science and society, has been out long enough to have accumulated half a dozen Amazon reviews. (Incidentally, one easy thing you can do that really helps a small-time author out is to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Here are some more easy things you can do.)  I’m happy that overall, people have enjoyed the book (and I think you’d enjoy it to, so stop reading this post and get to your nearest public library or bookstore).  But I’m intrigued by one theme that crops up a few times: the book is “political”.

It really is a theme. Continue reading

The teaching book I’ve always needed

I taught my first undergraduate course in 1992 (I think it was), as a final-year PhD student. I had no idea what I was doing.

28 years later, some days I feel like not much has changed.*

I’m like most university instructors, I think, in three important ways.  First, I’ve never had any formal instruction in how to teach.** Second, while I know there’s an enormous literature on the scholarship of teaching, I’ve read very little of it, and when I try, I usually find it impenetrable. Third, I care about my teaching and want to do it better. (Yes, I’m aware of the apparent tension between the third statement and the first two – but that will have to be a blog post of its own.)

What I needed desperately, 28 years ago, and still need now, is a user-friendly book that could orient me to best practices in teaching. Continue reading

Art and science in “This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart”

Read any good books lately? I have.

CP Snow famously argued, in the 1950s, that science and the arts/humanities were “two cultures”, with a gulf between them that was far too seldom bridged. While there’s been pushback against Snow’s portrayal,* it’s surely true that there’s more separation between the two than there ought to be (just as an example, I’ve commented here on the relative dearth of scientists as characters in novels). After all, if points of contact between science and the arts were commonplace, people (including me) wouldn’t be so fascinated with them when they do occur. Continue reading

A year of books (6): Reading as refuge

Time now for the sixth installment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this.

Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor, 2010). Wow, this book is terrific. I guess I’d call it magical-realism-meets-urban-fantasy, set in (approximately) Sudan in an undefined but near future.  It follows a young sorceress, Onyesonwu, who comes into her power while seeking revenge for her mother’s rape and resolution to a genocidal conflict (content warning, the scenes of rape and genocide can be difficult to read). Onyesonwu is a terrific character, both impressive and relatedly human, and the story is fascinating both for its plot and its setting.  This is one of those books that takes you somewhere absolutely new, and gives you a bit of a shaking along the way. Continue reading

A year of books (5): where did the summer go?

Time now for the fifth instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this. This strange pandemic summer went by in a blur.  Thank goodness for the books along the way. 

Rotherweird (Andrew Caldecott, 2017). What a marvellously indescribable book – urban fantasy, I suppose.  It’s the story of a strange town, in but not part of England, populated by eccentrics both evil and good (it takes a while to figure out which are which).  There’s a portal to another world, a mysterious threat to that world and to the town, and a generous helping of other oddnesses (for instance, a scientist who pole-vaults across the town’s rooftops at night). There’s a strong flavour of Ghormenghast, somehow leavened with a little AnkhMorpork, and… well, I did say indescribable, right?  But hugely enjoyable, and the two sequels are absolutely on my reading list. Continue reading

A year of books (4): Snow into summer

Time now for the fourth instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this. I’ve got eight books (or series) for you this time.  When I started the first, there was snow on the ground; I finished the last on a hot summer day.  And yet – a curiosity of Fredericton’s climate – it’s was only six weeks!

 

The Fionavar Tapestry (Guy Gavriel Kay, 1984-86).  This is actually a trilogy: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road.   I’ve been re-reading old favourites a lot lately and these are very near the top of my list.  They’re epic fantasy, à la Tolkien (Kay helped edit some of Tolkien’s posthumously published material) – but with much more humanity, more adult relationships, more lyrical writing, and many more surprises (revealed connections, along the lines of what made N.K. Jemesin’s Broken Earthso astonishing).  Now, “better than Tolkien” would be fighting words for many fantasy buffs (a fight best undertaken with an elven sword, of course), but if anything qualifies, to me Fionavar is it. Continue reading

Mathematics (and the rest of science) for human flourishing

I read a lot of books, both technical and not.  Some I struggle through; some I enjoy in a forgettable sort of way; and some grab me and promise to stay with me.  I recently finished Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing, and to cut to the chase, you should read this book too.  What’s that? You’re not a mathematician?  Well, neither am I.

Actually, this book is only sort of about mathematics.  First, as Su says in his opening paragraph, Continue reading

A year of books (3): reading into the pandemic

Time now for the third instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this.  Perhaps surprisingly, the pandemic lockdown hasn’t increased my reading rate much – although it has increased my baking rate, my Wii Golf playing rate, and most recently, my cab-view-train-trip-youtube-video-watching-rate.  Anyway, on to the most recent stack of books.

The Word is Murder (Anthony Horowitz, 2017). This is a murder mystery, but a rather light and playful one (those who don’t read murder mysteries may find that a strange idea).  It’s also one with a gimmick: the author is also a character.  I don’t mean just that it’s told in the first person; instead, the author Anthony Horowitz literally appears as the narrating character, with the same name and background, frequent references to his other books, and so on.  The Word is Murder has lots of things I enjoy in a book: a carefully constructed British mystery, details of something I don’t know much about (in this case, acting school), and a connection to books and the world of writing.  But I can’t decide if I liked this book a lot or merely a little.  The gimmick seemed a bit gimmicky, and the carefully constructed mystery sometimes felt a bit, well, constructed.  There’s nothing wrong with a quick, light read; but next time, back to Peter Robinson or P.D. James. Continue reading