Category Archives: books

A year in the life of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle

Warning: navel-gazing

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle is a year old! Not the species – that’s probably a few million years old, or at least that’s a guess given the average lifespan of a species. And not the name “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle”, which is 138 years old (the deep-sea barnacle species Regioscalpellum darwini was originally described by Hoek in 1883 as Trianguloscalpellum darwini). It’s my book: my book Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider is a year old.* It’s a little hard to believe.

People often ask me how the book has sold. I don’t really know (because other than Amazon sales rankings, I have no data), although I can tell you that it spent exactly zero weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Continue reading

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing will have a 2nd edition

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers, will soon have its fifth birthday. I’ll probably bake it a cake, because any excuse for cake is a good excuse, right? But I’ll also be looking forward to a bigger cake, about a year from now, to celebrate the launch of its second edition. Just last week, I sent the manuscript off to my editor, to go through that mysterious process that is book production.*

People sometimes grouse about books that have new editions (I know, because I’m one of those people, especially when it’s a textbook.) Sometimes, no doubt, it’s a cynical ploy to sabotage the used-book market and sell more new copies. So I’ll forgive you if you’re a bit skeptical. Why does the world need The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, 2nd Edition? 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

A year of books comes to an end

This is it: the last instalment of #AYearInBooks (in which I’ve been tracking the non-academic reading I do).  Here’s why I decided to do this. After I report on my year’s last few books, I’ll wrap up with a few comments on the experience.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955). There’s a certain feeling of dread when you pick up a book you loved 30 years ago and haven’t opened since. Will it hold up, or will you lose that happy memory? (Rewatching the first few seasons of M*A*S*H had this problem; as much as I loved the show, the early episodes, at least, didn’t age well.) I’m happy to say that The Chrysalids really is that good. It’s post-apocalyptic building-new-society science fiction, with a strong message of tolerance for the different – a message that hasn’t lost any importance in the 65 years since The Chrysalids was written.. I’m encouraged now to re-read Chocky, which was always my favourite of Wyndham’s books. One more thing. Usually I use the current book covers to illustrate – but check out the lurid cover of my Penguin edition! Remember when science-fiction book design boiled down to “paint me something alien, and if it’s totally unrelated to the book, that’s a bonus”? My Penguin edition does. 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

How to make an author happy: Pandemic holiday edition

The Covid-19 pandemic has (you’ve probably noticed) changed everything. Some changes have been seismic; others have been more subtle. Along the more subtle end (and admittedly, along the less important end) of the continuum has been the impact on book publishing. In particular, the pandemic may have boosted reading, but books published this year have had a really hard time finding their way to readers. Launches and readings were cancelled; media attention was elsewhere; libraries were closed; publishers’ warehouses struggled to ship. I don’t know that this affected the John Grishams or the Stephenie Meyers all that much; and Barack Obama’s memoir has set sales records.* But for books from university and other small presses, books from new authors, and books that aren’t thrillers, vampire romances, or biographies of the famous, it’s been rough.

Do you care about this? Continue reading

A year of books (7): Is this the strangest assortment yet?

It’s time for another instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  If you needed any further evidence that my reading habits are all over the map, this one should do it. Here’s why I’m doing this. Continue reading

Some writing books I like

Tomorrow, I’m giving a Member Webinar for the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, called How to Write a Better Thesis Faster: Learning the Craft of Writing. (Want to attend? You can join today and get the link tomorrow. Look, I’ll be honest: I’m not worth the price of membership. But you should join anyway – it’s a fabulous society with a great annual meeting and members who are brilliant, engaged, and kind.*

My talk** is a rather whirlwind compendium of advice for early-career folk wanting to learn to write more easily. One piece of advice – one I wish someone had given me early in my own career – is that it’s worth reading books on writing. Books plural. There are quite a few good ones (and yes, it’s true, also quite a few bad ones). 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