Category Archives: books

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

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

Join me for a reading from “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”!

The book launch and reading for my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  (Yes, I completely agree that that’s one of the least important of the pandemic’s consequences.)  I was disappointed, because the book is full of stories that are lots of fun to tell.  But I’m doing a reading after all – and because it’s online, you can join it from anywhere.

Interested?  You can join my reading live, or if you prefer, after it happens. I’ll be livestreaming (via Facebook Live) on Sunday, May 3rd at 6 p.m Eastern time (GMT-4); and the video will be available indefinitely, afterward.  You can find it on my own Facebook page, here; or you can find it (with a little more searching) as part of the #CanadaPerforms program of Canada’s National Arts Centre, here.  Or, if you don’t have Facebook, here it is on Vimeo.

By the way: #CanadaPerforms is a national program, to bring you performances and readings from musicians, authors, and more whose  events were disrupted by the pandemic. It’s a fabulous program (and thanks to the NAC and sponsors Facebook Canada, Sirius XM Radio, RBC, Slaight Music, and the Bennett Family Foundation). If you haven’t dipped into #CanadaPerforms, have a look around.  There are hundreds of performances and readings to enjoy.

© Stephen Heard  April 30, 2020

Six easy ways to make an author happy

I’ve written and published two books now – The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider – and wow, have I learned a lot.  I’ve learned about scientific writing and about Latin names, yes; but I’ve also learned a lot about the process of writing and publishing books.  It’s a lot of fun – but it’s also a lot of work that doesn’t make you rich (well, unless you’re Dan Brown or Stephen King or Barbara Cartland).

I was naively surprised to learn that writing a book and having it published is really just the beginning.  A book needs to find its way to its readers, and it’s not easy to get the word out. Continue reading

Watch my talk about “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”!

Last week, I gave a talk “at” University College Dublin, as part of their Earth Institute’s series for Earth Week 2020.  I talked about my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider (of course), and you can watch the talk here.

It’s about 31 minutes, and I apologize for a sound glitch at about the 8 minute mark.  The audio drops out for about 20 seconds – consider it your chance to get up to refresh your coffee, your beer, or your whatever.

And while you’re here – I have another, upcoming event: Sunday, May 3rd at 6 p.m. Eastern time, I’ll be doing a Facebook Live reading/talk as part of the #CanadaPerforms series from Canada’s National Arts Centre.  You’ll be able to watch that one, live or after the fact, either on my Facebook page or on the NAC’s Facebook page.

© Stephen Heard  April 27, 2020

A Year of Books (2): duds and diamonds

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

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (David Sedaris, 2010). Wow, this is a peculiar little book.  It’s a set of 16 very short stories, each one a parable featuring some human quirk (usually, a detestable one) bestowed on a heavily anthropomorphized animal that gets an extremely unpleasant comeuppance.  (I did say it was peculiar).  It took me the first third of the book to decide that this was more than just sophomoric, but once I did I was amused – albeit in a sort of stiffly disapproving way.  I’m not sure if the parables got progressively more clever, or if I just adapted to see more cleverness in them.  By the last, I was chortling.  That last parable, by the way, features a greased-up gerbil sent by an owl to evict leeches from the rectum of a hippopotamus. (I did say it was peculiar.) Continue reading

My new book, “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”, is out today!

It’s today!  It’s real!  It’s here!  My new book, I mean.

If that sounds like I’m a bit excited, it’s because I am.  I’ve been working on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider for about four years, and finally I can share it with all of you.  Continue reading

A year of books: a beginning

This year, I promised to log, and share with anyone who’s interested, the non-academic books I read. Wondering why I’d do such a thing?  Click here for an explanation.

I’ve been tweeting these books as I finish them using the hashtag #AYearOfBooks, but tweets are constrained to be very short and are inconveniently impermanent.  So, I’ll collect them here, with slightly less “mini” minireviews, as occasional blog posts.  This is the beginning: seven books in January and early February.*  Continue reading

A year of books – and why

This year, I’ve decided to log, and share with anyone who’s interested, the books I read.  I’ll tweet them using the hashtag #AYearOfBooks, and periodically collect them here.  Now, I’ll forgive you if you don’t care (in which case, you’ve probably already clicked away).  Actually, I expect most folks won’t care.  But for those who are still here: why?

A goodly few of my colleagues on Twitter track paper reading, often with the rather ambitious #365papers hashtag. Continue reading

Close calls in fiction, and the value of advice

Image: “A Close Call for Six Citizens of Calais”.* Public Domain.

Spoiler alert: “Outlander” plot spoilers.  Except they aren’t really, which as you’ll see is the whole point of the post.

I occasionally offer advice here on Scientist Sees Squirrel.  I’m here today to give you some meta-advice: be wary of my advice (but not too wary). Here’s why.

I recently read (and greatly enjoyed) Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel-historical-romance-adventure novel Outlander.** Several times through the book, one of the two protagonists has a close brush with death.  Each time, the skillful storytelling had me on the edge of my seat, but whether it’s Claire Beauchamp or Jamie Fraser, the imperiled one is rescued or recovers.  In the most extreme incident, Jamie has received last rites and his skin shows the greenish pallor of the deathbed, and I found myself wanting to read late into the night so I’d know whether he survives.  But then I realized: of course he does.  There are eight more books in the series!

More generally, protagonists in fiction almost always have close calls (with death or with other unpleasant, if less final, outcomes) – and they almost always survive them.***  After all, the storyline in which the protagonist doesn’t survive their close call is an unsatisfying one,  unlikely to be written, or to be published if it is.  You can think of this as the Anthropic Principle of Fiction, if you like, but I found myself thinking of it instead as a form of survivorship bias.  We only hear the stories of survivors, simply because those make the best stories.

And that brings me to advice. Continue reading