Elentarri's Book Blog

Book reviews and other interesting goodies.

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Castle Hangnail - Ursula Vernon

From the blurb:

"When Molly shows up on Castle Hangnail's doorstep to fill the vacancy for a wicked witch, the castle's minions are understandably dubious. After all, she is twelve years old, barely five feet tall, and quite polite. (The minions are used to tall, demanding evil sorceresses with razor-sharp cheekbones.) But the castle desperately needs a master or else the Board of Magic will decommission it, leaving all the minions without the home they love. So when Molly assures them she is quite wicked indeed (So wicked! REALLY wicked!) and begins completing the tasks required by the Board of Magic for approval, everyone feels hopeful. Unfortunately, it turns out that Molly has quite a few secrets, including the biggest one of all: that she isn't who she says she is."

This is an entertaining, charming and amusing children's fantasy novel, with adorable (and original) characters, but also manages to deal with some "grown-up" issues and social issues that may be encountered by any child.  Beautifully written, possibly "educational" without bludgeoning the reader over the head with it, and lovely illustrations by the author.

The Further Adventures of Beowulf: Champion of Middle Earth edited by Brian M. Thomsen

The Further Adventures of Beowulf: Champion of Middle Earth - Brian M. Thomsen, Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb

The Further Adventures of Beowulf does what it says on the cover.  The book starts off with an interesting introduction discussing the legacy of the Beowulf text and Middle-Earth.  This is followed by 'The Deeds of Beowulf' translated into prose by John Earle in 1892.  This prose version is rather old fashioned (i.e. stuffy and stilted) and has a few issues with sentence structure, which could have used cleaning up and clarification by an editor, or better yet, the inclusion of a better prose (or verse) version or even just a summary of the Beowulf story. 


The book then provides 4 fantasy-tales, by 4 different authors, involving the adventures of Beowulf after his run-in with Grendel.  These 4 fantasy adventures are written in a style that reminds me of a typical pulpy Sword & Sorcery/ Forgotten Realms Novel, but each short story is rather interesting, or at least entertaining.  The 4 further adventures of Beowulf are:

-Beowulf and the City of the Dark elves by Jeff Grubb;

-Beowulf and the Titan by Lynn Abbey;

-Beowulf and the Attack of the Trolls by Wolfgang Baur;

-Beowulf and the Wraith by Ed Greenwood 


Each chapter/story is followed by a short (rather pointless and silly) interlude (Beowulf and the master of his Critics) which doesn't fit and could have been left out.  The book also includes a rather useful (especially for scholars of Beowulf) "partial, annotated bibliography of the Beowulf cannon" through to current times.  This is useful if you want to find other Beowulf stories in text or film.

In short, this is an entertaining, but not spectacular, fantasy anthology featuring the further adventures of Beowulf that could have used improvements with some of the other material.


Ace of Skulls (Tales of the Ketty Jay #4) by Chris Wooding

The Ace Of Skulls - Chris Wooding

The Ace of Skulls is a fast-paced, thrilling, fantasy-steampunk adventure story that provides a magnificent conclusion to the tales of crew of the air-ship "The Ketty Jay".


Note:  This is book 4 of 4.  I recommend reading the previous three novels to have a better understanding of what is going on in this novel.

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions - Randall Munroe

TITLE:  What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions


AUTHOR:  Randall Munroe




FORMAT: ebook


ISBN-13:  978-0-544-27264-4




This amusing and interesting book is a collection of answers to hypothetical questions submitted to the author thorough his cartoon website.  The author is a physicist who used to work on robotics for NASA before becoming a cartoonist.  So the science is pretty spot on and the illustrations are amusing.  However, I found most of the questions did not appeal to me.  The few questions that I did find interesting (e.g. what would happen if you drained the ocean) where well written with a sense of humour and informative comic illustrations.  To obtain a good idea of what the book is like, I recommend taking a look at the author's website:  https://what-if.xkcd.com/archive/



The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson

The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History - Thor Hanson

TITLE:  The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History


AUTHOR:  Thor Hanson




FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  978-0-465-09740-1




In this book, Thor Hanson explores "how grains, nuts, kernels, pulses, and pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history".  Topics include the evolution and co-evolution of a variety of plant species seeds, how they function, seed banks, dispersal, spices, and historical tidbits (including assassinations, world empires and voyages of discovery). 


Seeds are a fascinating subject that the author covers in an informal but informative style without overwhelming the reader with science jargon, but also not wasting ink on irrelevant social observations.  The author's enthusiasm for seeds in contagious!  There are also numerous illustrations throughout the book. 


My only quibble is that I wish there was more of the book and more specific details, but that sort of thing would probably require an encyclopedia on the subject.









Food in History by Reay Tannahill


Napoleon's Buttons by Penny Le Conteur & Jay Burreson


The Untold History of the Potato by John Reader


Banana:  The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel


Papyrus by John Gaudet


An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage


Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon (3rd edition)


The Emerald Planet:  How Plants Changed Earth's History by David Beerling


Feathers:  The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson




The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen

The Science Of Discworld - Terry Pratchett, Jack Cohen, Ian Stewart

TITLE:  The Science of Discworld


AUTHOR:  Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen


PUBLICATION DATE:  Revised edition published in 2002


FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  9780091886578



From the blurb:

"When a wizardly experiment goes adrift, the wizards of Unseen University find themselves with a pocket universe on their hands: Roundworld, where neither magic nor common sense seems to stand a chance against logic.  The Universe, of course, is our own.  And Roundworld is Earth.  As the wizards watch their accidental creation grow, we follow the story of our universe from the primal singularity of the Big Bang to the Internet and beyond.  Through this original Terry Pratchett story (with intervening chapters from Cohen and Stewart) we discover how puny and insignificant individual lives are against a cosmic backdrop of creation and disaster.  Yet, paradoxically, we see how the richness of a universe based on rules, has led to a complex world and at least one species that tried to get a grip of what was going on."



This is not a book that tells you how Terry Pratchett's Discworld works.  This is a book that tells you how Earth as we know it was created with an inserted Discworld narrative.


I found this book to be entertaining and the science bits to be accurate (for what is provided) with pithy observations and witty sentences.  However, the science is a rather basic summary in a somewhat erratic order of the creation of the universe and evolution on planet earth.  I started to get a bit bored with the science chapters, though this is possibly due to having read too many books about the universe and evolution to get  excited about a repeat.  The alternate chapters that deal with the Wizards of Unseen University get more amusing as the book progresses, especially after Rincewind, the Luggage and the Librarian (Ook!) make an appearance.  There is nothing like a wizardly outside commentary of Roundworld to show us how crazy life on Earth really is.  


This was a fun read.  I highly recommend this book to fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, especially those who aren't too clued up about general science.  The alternate science and fantasy chapters of this book might even appeal to younger school children and encouraging an interest in reading and science.


NOTE:  This books was read as part of the Rogue Flat Book Society Buddy Read for December 2017


Science and the City by Laurie Winkless

Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis - Laurie Winkless

TITLE:  Science and the City


AUTHOR:  Laurie Winkless




FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  9781472913234




Science and the City is a rather superficial, but interesting look at how cities function. Topics covered include the physics and materials required for building skyscrapers; the generation and transmission of electricity; water purification and transport; sewage systems; roads; bridges; trains and train tracks; cars; and the various means that humans connect to each other (internet, satellites, food distribution, finances, time). A rather useful aspect of the book was the division of each chapter into a "today" section and a "tomorrow" section. The "today" section covering how cities function currently, and the "tomorrow" section covering new research and future technologies. So there are a fair amount of interesting future "goodies" to look up and research further.


The author's enthusiasm and bubbliness make this book an entertaining and informative reading experience provided you aren't expecting too many technical details and don't mind an informal writing style. Thankfully there is no running fashion commentary or excessive interviews!


Ancient Alien Ancestors by Will Hart

Ancient Alien Ancestors: Advanced Technologies That Terraformed Our World - Will Hart

TITLE:  Ancient Alien Ancestors:  Advanced Technologies that Terraformed Our World


AUTHOR:  Will Hart




FORMAT:  e-book


ISBN-13:  978 159 1432548




The objective of the book is to "present the scientific basis for the theory of directed panspermia, which posits that life, via microorganism, was shipped to Earth by an extraterrestrial civilization".  The author also aims to prove his "Genesis Race Theory" that life was seeded on Earth by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization and that they intervened in the evolutionary processes to create humans and to generate civilizations.


Will Hart takes a look at the whole idea of panspermia in general, the possibility of life in the universe; the possible geoengineering of the Earth; various oddities involving the construction of the Great Pyramid, the advanced engineering and town planning of the Harappan/ Indus Valley civilization in India/Pakistan; modern UFO cases and government response to these; DNA; ABO blood group genetics, clones, chimeras, hybrids and the current state of transgenic science; the Cobalamin/ Vitamin B12 enigma, and ancient Sanskrit texts on advanced civilizations.


This is an interesting book that provides a great deal of "food for thought" and new information to research.  Will Hart raises many interesting questions and seems to have hit on a hypothesis that provides an answer to these oddities.  However, the author could have made a tighter conclusion based on the evidence in this book and his previous book (The Genesis Race), but seems to just leave the reader hanging at the end.


Other book by the same author:

The Genesis Race: Our Extraterrestrial DNA and the True Origins of the Species

Father Christmas’s Fake Beard by Terry Pratchett

Father Christmas's Fake Beard - Terry Pratchett, Julian Rhind-tutt

This is a collection of entertaining and sometimes amusing short stories for children based around a Christmas Theme.

The Attacking Ocean by Brian Fagan

The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels - Brian M. Fagan

TITLE:  The Attacking Ocean


AUTHOR:  Brian Fagan




FORMAT:  ebook


ISBN-13:  9781608196951




In this book, Brian Fagan takes a look at the changing sea levels over the entire span of human civilization, from the end of the Ice Age to our current levels.  He also takes a look at the complex relationship between the growing human population and the oceans along which we live.  


Fagan provides a variety of case examples over a variety of ages all over the globe that show how rising ocean levels are as ancient as the Earth and that humans have usually adapted to the changing sea levels.  There is also some discussion on how the Netherlands and a few other countries have dealt with reclaiming or at least keeping the ocean at bay; and how feasible (politically and financially) these options are for poorer countries.   Fagan also briefly discusses the deleterious effect that the destruction of coastal estuaries, mangroves, barrier islands and wetlands, as well as excessive ground water pumping, has on mitigating the effects of storm surges, hurricanes, tsunamis and floods etc.  Fagan also provides a brief explanation why rising sea levels are important, for example: in terms of loss of agricultural land and increased salinity in ground water resulting in less food production;   loss of living land resulting in large migrations to other places that don’t want or can’t afford an excessive influx of people; the destruction of coastal cities/villages; and large financial expenditure to rebuild damaged infrastructure or flood barriers etc.


The book is fairly interesting and well written, but the various examples tend to have a lot of similarities, probably made unavoidable by the nature of the subject.  One interesting feature of this book is the second table of contents which arranges chapters in terms of regions rather than chronologically, providing an alternative reading order.  Maps of the different regions are provided but these don’t show up very well in the ebook.




Spineless by Juli Berwald

Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone - Juli Berwald

TITLE:  Spineless:  The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone


AUTHOR:  Juli Berwald




FORMAT:  ebook


ISBN-13:  9780735211278




"Jellyfish are an enigma. They have no centralized brain, but they see and feel and react to their environment in complex ways. They look simple, yet their propulsion systems are so advanced that engineers are just learning how to mimic them. They produce some of the deadliest toxins on the planet and still remain undeniably alluring. Long ignored by science, they may be a key to ecosystem stability."


This book is more of the author's personal memoir than any type of science book about jellyfish.  Berwald's enthusiasm for jellyfish is obvious and the writing style flows nicely.  She includes some incredibly interesting information about the creatures, but there is simply too much personal "stuff" about her, her kids, her husband, her travel trips and the people she meets to wade through.  After a while the biographical pages became boring and wading through all the irrelevant "stuff" to get to the interesting jellyfish information became annoying.  The book is also disappointing in terms of illustrations, diagrams and/or photographs.


If you are looking for actual science about jellyfish, try the wikipedia entry.  If you like biography with some interesting jellyfish information, then you might like this book.





How to Build a Dinosaur by Jack Horner & James Gorman

How to Build a Dinosaur: The New Science of Reverse Evolution - Jack Horner, James Gorman

TITLE:  How to Build a Dinosaur:  Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever


AUTHOR:  Jack Horner & James Gorman




FORMAT:  ebook


ISBN-13:  978-1-101-02871-1




This is a horribly written book. There is a ridiculous amount of completely irrelevant filler, a few interesting dinosaur bits and pieces that have nothing to do with the book title (and presumably subject) and then a magazine article length section on "how to build a dinosaur" by fiddling with chicken genomes, along with how the general public is going to freak out about it. The author spends the entire first chapter babbling about a town in the middle of nowhere, how to get there, local gossip and a bit of local history i.e. irrelevant filler. Then there is a section on finding evidence of dinosaur blood cells and collagen, with some pointless pot-shots at creationists (they might be crazy but do you really have to include it in the book, especially since it doesn't accomplish anything?), and too much details about the scientists personal life. The sections dealing with the techniques used was interesting, but there was too little substance and far too much filler. The writing is also simplistic but overly verbose, and got boring after a while.


NOTE: The book was published in 2009, so some of the scientific data discussed may well be out of date by now, especially anything related to genetic alterations.





Bog Bodies Uncovered by Miranda Aldhouse-Green

Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe's Ancient Mystery - Miranda Aldhouse-Green

TITLE:  Bog Bodies Uncovered:  Solving Europe's Ancient Mystery


AUTHOR:  Miranda Aldhouse-Green 




FORMAT: e-book


ISBN-13:  978-0-500-05182-5




Miranda Aldhouse-Green takes a look at the mystery of the bog bodies:  how and where they were discovered; the world the bog people lived in; crime scene investigation of the bodies, how bog environments preserve bodies; whether the bog bodies were accident execution or murder victims; the ways they were killed; who might have done the deeds; and why this was done. 


The book is interesting and informative, with a great deal of research/references and many photographs.  However, there is also a great deal of speculation, repetition and no definitive answers.  In short, we don't know much about the bog bodies other than the manner of their deaths, but there is a great deal of speculation, and most certainly no solving of any mystery.  Did I mention all the repetition?  

My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs - Brian Switek

TITLE:  My Beloved Brontosaurus:  On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs


AUTHOR:  Brian Switek




FORMAT:  ebook


ISBN-13:  9781466836761




This book provides an entertaining though broad overview of dinosaur life, including such topics as dinosaur evolution, feathers, society, sounds, parasites and movement.  Brian Switek takes a chatty road trip through North America visiting a variety of Dinosaur Museums, reminiscing about his childhood obsession with dinosaurs.   There isn't anything new in this book for me and the personal musings about dinosaurs I found rather irritating, but this would make a good book for a dinosaur obsessed youngster.  The inclusion of a large number of diagrams and photographs is a bonus.




Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods - Danna Staaf

TITLE:  Squid Empire:  The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods


AUTHOR:  Danna Staaf




FORMAT:  Hardcover


ISBN-13:  978-1-61168-923-5



Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods is a book that does exactly as "described on the tin". This is the fascinating tale of the evolutionary rise and fall (and possible rise again) of Cephalopods - everything from ammonites, nautiloids, squid, octopuses, cuttlefish and the other odd prehistoric creatures that get lumped in the "head-foot" category. 


The author takes an evolutionary approach starting off with the first Cephalopods in the Cambrian, and ties in several threads of anatomy, biology, ecology and other aspects of marine life. She covers such topics are the swimming revolution, the invention of jet propulsion, shell development and abandonment, their co-evolution with fish, development of ink, paleontology, intelligence, how they deal with extinction events, how they deal with the current anthropocentric age, the ecology of these "swimming protein bars", and why modern squid don't fossilize. 



Danna Staaf has a lovely, clear writing style that is fun, while at the same time maintaining the science of the topic. She also includes numerous helpful diagrams, illustrations and photographs.


This is a superbly written, entertaining and informative book about the evolution of certain mobile, tentacled, squishy creatures that live in the ocean.








Other books on Cephalopods include:


~Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams


~Octopus: The Ocean's Intelligent Invertebrate by Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson, James B. Wood





"But without the shell they were vulnerable, so a new defensive tool arose: ink. Never seen in nautiloids or ammonoids, ink is often preserved in coleoid fossils, thanks to the stability of the pigment melanin. In some cases, the ink has been so well preserved that it could be reconstituted and used to illustrate the animal itself."


"However, unquestionably the cephalopod with the most frightening name is Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which means “vampire squid from hell.” he animal’s appearance is also quite spooky.  Its skin is a constant deep red —like many other deep-sea cephalopods, the vampire squid has mostly abandoned its color-changing abilities as useless in this dark environment.  Red is just as good as black if you want to hide in the deep sea, since red light is absorbed most readily by water and is virtually absent below a few meters. And then, vampire squid have blue eyes. You might think these “baby blues” would offset the hellish red, but consider this:  the eyes are completely blue —there’s a pupil, but you can’t see it.  Now add to this the fact that one of the animal’s habits is to turn itself partially inside out, wrapping its arms and the webbing between them around its body.  The underside of the arms bear rows of sharp-looking tendrils. [...] So: it’s a red squid with vacant blue eyes that encases itself in apparent spines.  We can have some sympathy for the scientists who named it."




The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard by David A. Goodman

The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard - David A. Goodman

This is a somewhat bland novel that is supposed to be an autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard, but reads more like a Vulcan student's summary of the life of Captain Picard in which his human school mate wrote the first third dealing with Picard's childhood. Nothing particularly new or exciting to read here.


I recommend the Star Gazer novels by Michael Jan Friedman and Buried Age by Christopher L. Bennett for anyone wanting to know more about Jean-Luc Picard.