Category Archives: books

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

How art met science in “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”

I’ve written a lot here on Scientist Sees Squirrel about my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.  That is, I’ve written a lot about the book’s subject (eponymous Latin names; or, those Latin names that honour people).*  I haven’t written as much about the illustrations. It’s time to rectify that, and I’m thrilled that I can point you to a new online exhibition of Emily Damstra’s wonderful illustrations, and an interview with Emily and me about our experience working together.

I knew from the start that Charles Darwin’s Barnacle needed illustrations. Continue reading

Moby Dick and scientific writing

Call me Ishmael.

It’s one of the most famous opening lines in English-language literature, and it starts one of the most famous books.  Like everyone else, I knew about Moby Dick.  Like a very large fraction of everyone else, I’d never read it.*  I’ve just finished it, and you know how each reader comes at a book in their own way?  I found that Moby Dick made me think about scientific writing.

I know, that’s a little weird, and I’ll admit that scientific writing is something I obsess about a tiny little bit. But as I settled into Moby Dick, and thought about what Melville was doing in the writing, I kept noticing things.  Moby Dick, I claim, has things to teach us about scientific writing – both in the ways that it resembles good scientific writing, and in the ways that it does not. Continue reading

What, if anything, can you conclude from a book’s blurbs?

Book blurbs are weird. Every book – no matter how awful – manages to find blurbers who will sing its praises.  So what, if anything, can you conclude from a book’s blurbs?

I was driven to think about his by the blurbs for my own new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.  As they came in, and I read people waxing poetic about just how awesome the book is, I was thrilled, and embarrassed, and skeptical, and also felt just a little bit dirty.  Had the blurbers actually read my book? Did they really mean those things they said? Would anyone believe them? What if someone did, and bought the book, and didn’t like it? 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

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