Elentarri's Book Blog

Book reviews and other interesting goodies.

NURK by Ursula Vernon

Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew - Ursula Vernon

From the blurb:

Nurk is a quiet homebody of a shrew. But when a mysterious plea for help arrives in the mail, he invokes the spirit of his fearless warrior-shrew grandmother, Surka, and sets off to find the sender. It seems the prince of the dragonflies has been kidnapped, and Nurk is his last hope for rescue. Such a mission would be daunting for even the biggest, baddest, and bravest of shrews, and Nurk is neither big nor bad, and only a little brave. But he does his very best--and hopes his grandmother would be proud.   Nurk is a warm, wonderful, and hilarious illustrated adventure about courage, family legacies, and friendships of a most unusual nature.


Nurk is an amusing and entertaining book for adults to read to their little children and perhaps for small children to read on their own, though there are a few "big words" they may need help with.  The occasional illustrations are adorable and the story beautifully written.



The Iron Jackal by Chris Wooding

Iron Jackal - Chris Wooding

Another fine action packed, fantasy-steampunk addition to the Tales of the Ketty Jay.  The beginning of the book was a bit long-winded, but the pace picked up somewhere near the 1/4 mark.  The characters are amusing and their escapades entertaining.

Rat by Jerry Langton

Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top - Jerry Langton

TITLE:  Rat:  How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top


AUTHOR:  Jerry Langton


DATE PUBLISHED:  2006 (ebook edition 2014)


FORMAT:  ebook


ISBN-13:  9781466872028




In Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top, journalist Jerry Langton superficially explores the history, myth, physiology, habits, psyche and future of the rat. This is a short, super-lite, popular science book in the style of Mary Roach without all the silly jokes and excessive fashion commentary. 


In the author's words:

"The rat may be small and ugly. It may not inspire awe as it nibbles and gnaws and skulks its way through life. But it can do something remarkable. It can compete with us as a wild animal and win. It hasn't become our friend like the dog or our captive like cattle, but instead lives alongside us, as constant companion, irritant, and sworn enemy. While human mistakes and negligence have led many species to extinction and thousands to the brink of annihilation, gargantuan, concerted efforts to rid ourselves of rats have failed miserably. There are more now than ever before and their population continues to boom. Truly it is the animal we can't get rid of, the only one capable of challenging human hegemony of the planet, that deserves to be called King of Beasts.  You've read a hundred stories about humanity driving some beautiful or terrifying animal to the brink of extinction, or beyond. This is the story about what happens when we try, but cannot."

 The author takes a look at anything to do with rats, including their involvement in the plague, their role as pets, their role in religion, extermination issues, their global spread and commensal relationship with humans etc in a fun, superficial manner and conveniently leaves out any references so you have no idea if the author is sucking "facts" out of his thumb or is reporting actual observable data or scientific studies.  The book has many interesting observations and anecdotes that involves rats, but is a rather lacking in substance (and references).







Exiles of the Rynth by Carole Nelson Douglas

Exiles of the Rynth - Carole Nelson Douglas

This is a fun, light-hearted story that continues the adventures of Irissa and Kendric started in Six of Swords.  The characters of interesting, and the world building and magic system unique.

Six of Swords by Carole Nelson Douglas

Six of Swords - Carole Nelson Douglas

A beautifully written, light, quest-type, portal fantasy novel with unusual characters and original world building. 

BookBurners Season 2

Bookburners: The Complete Season 2: The Complete Season 2 (Bookburners Season 2) - Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Brian Francis Slattery, Andrea Phillips, Mur Lafferty, Amal El-Mohtar

An entertaining, serialised, urban fantasy adventure.  Not as good as "Season 1", but something light to read.



Life: An Unauthorised Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Thousand Million Years of Life on Earth - Richard Fortey

TITLE:  Life:  An Unauthorised Biography

             [A Natural History of the First

             4 000 000 000 Years of Life on Earth]


AUTHOR:  Richard Fortey




FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  978-0-00-638420-5



Professor Fortey takes the reader on a chronological tour of the the biological history of Earth.  However, his story is not a boring slog through the strata, but an eclectic stroll among fascinating organisms.  Fortey includes many asides in his narrative, including important aspects of geology, portraits of eccentric paleontologists and personal anecdotes about fossil hunting is unusual locations.  This book manages to summarise paleontological controversies in a fair manner without bogging down the story.  I found the author's descriptive writing style to be rich and lyrical.  This book is well written and interesting, with numerous black and white photographs. 


Fortey believes that "a review of the history of life should provoke awe, above all else."  I believe in this case, he has achieved his goal.


More specific comments on this book can be found on progress updates:

Chapter 1-4

Chapter 5-8

Chapter 9-13










Progress Update: LIFE by Richard Fortey

Life: An Unauthorised Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Thousand Million Years of Life on Earth - Richard Fortey






Chapter 9 covers the Age of the Dinosaurs, Flying Reptiles and Marine Reptiles.  The author very nicely summarizes the history of dinosaur discovery, interpretation, revisions, revolutions, reconstruction, mechanics, their hot or cold-bloodedness and supposed life habits.  The evolution of feathers and the relationship between dinosaurs and birds is also covered, as well as the origin of chalk and the co-evolution of insects and flowering plants.  An interesting aspect of the marine reptiles is that they descended form terrestrial ancestors, breathed air and at least the ichthyosaurs gave birth to live young.


"The dinosaurs did not survive beyond the Cretaceous - save those that were transmuted into birds.  Their end was apparently sudden.  Nor did they die alone."  In Chapter 10, Fortey investigates the mystery of the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs approximately 65 million years ago.  The author does a decent job outlining the most prominent hypotheses, as well as their corresponding evidence or lack thereof.


Chapter 11 is titled "Suckling Success" and covers the rise and evolution of mammals.  The author takes us on a brief, but interesting, tour of all the strange mammals (carnivorous kangaroos and walking whales!) that evolved on the various continents.  The evolution of mammals continues onto the evolution of humans and other hominid species in Chapter 12.  Since the book was published in 1998, the chapter on human evolution is somewhat outdated, especially in light of recent fossil and genetic discoveries.


Chapter 13 concludes the book with an examination of chance and the effects of genetic mutations on life's creatures.  Fortey compares life to Maurice Ravel's Bolero, "which starts slowly, uneventfully, a long series of slight variations upon a recurrent theme, gradually gathering pace, shifting from one instrument to another, while an underlying pulse goes on and on.  From time to time there are shifts in key, then more instruments join in, and the pace and excitement build, until, at the end, it is a scurrying, swirling mass of interwoven instrumental activity."




- When Life Nearly Died:  The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time by Michael J. Benton


- Feathers:  The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson


- T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez


- Spirals in time:  The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales


- Domesticated:  Evolution in a Man-Made World by Richard C. Francis


- Restless Creatures:  The Story of Life in Ten Movements by Matt Wilkinson


- Lost Civilisations Of The Stone Age by Richard Rudgley

-  The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes: How a Stone-Age Comet Changed the Course of World Culture by Richard Firestone

-  Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth by Chris Stringer

-  The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy William


- Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins by John Reader




Progress Update: LIFE by Richard Fortey

Life: An Unauthorised Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Thousand Million Years of Life on Earth - Richard Fortey






In Chapter 5, Fortey discusses the new ecological roles and niches that occurred after the Cambrian explosion (photosynthesizing producers, grazers, hunters, predators, prey, parasites, viruses etc); the development and nature of marine reefs; the appearance of the first sea urchins, starfish, crustaceans, fish and predators such as nautiloids and sea scorpions; the graptolite chronometers of the Ordovician and Silurian periods; and the mystery of the conodont identify is finally solved.  This chapter had a particularly amusing diversion when the author describes his pursuit of trilobite fossils all over the world, usually to the least likely tourist destinations, and his trip to Thailand.


Chapter 6, in which the greening of the world is discussed; from algal mats, to the first plants with waxy cuticles (liverworts) and stomata, the perculiar reproduction of ferns, to reproduction via spores.  Fortey has an interesting perspective on plants, describing them as "a photosynthetic factory with problems of distribution and supply like any manufacturer".  the author also discusses the first freshwater fish, the first land insects and the first land vertebrates.  There is an interesting section on tetrapods, the number of toes of ancient tetrapods and whether they evolved from lobe-fined fish or lungfish


Chapter 7 focuses on the Carboniferous coal forests of 330 million years ago.  The development of leaves, the engineering marvel of trunks, and the development of seeds all play a role in the proliferation of trees.  This chapter also deals with the all important question of which came first - the chicken or the egg.  Fortey discusses the different types of eggs (amphibian and reptile) and how large, amniotic eggs protected from desiccation by a tough membrane allowed animals to depend less on on the presence of water for reproduction.  It was also in these Carboniferous forests that flying insects evolved.


Chapter 7 does not neglect the Carboniferous oceans which were the heyday of brachiopods and consisted of forest of sea lilies and coral reefs.  "The seas thronged with life".  Another interesting section in this chapter discusses the continuity of sharks from the Carboniferous period to modern times.


Chapter 8 covers the concept of continental drift, along with the formation and breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea, and the development of something which could be called a food chain.  Fortey takes us on a tour around Permian age Pangaea:  the glaciers, the desserts, rainforests in the tropics and the shallow seas around the continent.  An interesting consequence of the evaporation of the shallow seas is the mineral deposits, which were useful to the Industrial Revolution millions of years after the event. The mass extinctions related to Pangaea are also mentioned.  The end Permian mass extinction would result in the loss of approximately 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species, including all the calcite coral reefs and trilobites.  "There was never again a time when the world was so available to the wondering tetrapod - at least until the invention of the boat".


Richard Fortey has a knack with words and descriptions that make the reader feel they were there witnessing events.





-Planet of the Bugs;  Evolution and the Rise of Insects by Scott Richard Shaw

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

-Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

-The Worst of Times:  How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions by Paul B. Wignall

-When Life Nearly Died:  The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time by Michael J. Benton





Progress Update: LIFE by Richard Fortey

Life: An Unauthorised Biography: A Natural History of the First Four Thousand Million Years of Life on Earth - Richard Fortey






Reading this book is like listening to a conversation by your favourite eccentric professor or grandfather - some random, rambly digressions stuffed between loads of beautifully and richly written natural science.  The author's enthusiasm for his subject shines through, making the digressions charming rather than annoying.


Chapter 1 rambles a bit about the author's undergraduate field trip to the Arctic (this guy has far too much fun while freezing his toes off in the middle of nowhere!), but he does explain the vastness of geological time, how geological time is measured/determined, how much information is missing from the fossil record due to the nature of the fossilization process - delicate, squishy, or land-dwelling organisms are less likely to be fossilized than heavier-boned or marine creatures, and a great deal of the fossil record is either buried too deep to be accessible or has been destroyed by subduction or volcanism.


Chapter 2 briefly describes the creation of the Earth, then moves on to discuss early life on the planet, starting with organic chemistry, continuing on to single celled bacteria and  then cooperative bacterial mats such as stromatolites, to chemolithoautotrophic hyperthermophiles, archaea, photosynthesis and the Great Oxygenation Event. 


I especially enjoyed his information on stromatolites and the visual picture he paints in describing the oxygenation of the Earth with each bacterial "cell exhaling the merest puff of oxygen, such as would fill a balloon smaller than a pin head.  Then imagine a world thick with such cells, billions of them, dividing and dividing again, and each time the divide another minute puff of oxygen is given to the air.  Then this process continues through generations that can only be reckoned as numerous as the stars in the Universe,  And for every generation a thousand billion tiny balloons of oxygen released..."


Chapter 3 briefly covers the development of cells, tissues and bodies.  Fortey makes is abundantly clear that the division between plant and animal isn't always clear cut and that their are several great divisions of life.  He uses fungi (which are closer to animals than plants) and slime-mould as examples of this.  This chapter also focuses on the earliest know complex multicellular organisms found in the Precambian seas,  the Ediacaran fauna (e.g. jellyfish, frond-shaped Charnia, amoeba, stromatolites), the organelle capture hypotheses which allowed for complex cells to be created, and the invention of sex which allows for an exchange of genetic material.



Chapter 4 discusses the Cambrian explosion (its fossils and life forms) and the secretion of skeletons and shells.  In this era, animals with skeletons appeared for the first time; such creatures as the first diminutive molluscs, earliest brachiopods, trilobites and other arthropods.  These were not primitive organism as they had fully developed nervous systems, a brain, eyes (trilobites had crystal eyes!), limbs, gills and antennae.  Fortey spends some time showing us that the importance of the Cambrian fossils is "not as a potpourri of zoological strangeness but rather as a key to understanding the state of the animal world close it its birth". The Cambrian evolutionary explosion is the threshold where leisureliness disappeared from the story of life.  The animals that evolved in the Cambrian would have crawled, mated, evaded predators, hunted, scavenged, grazed and vied with one other:  "competition was introduced into ecology."



So far, I have found this book an enjoyable and informative reading experience with lovely, rich language one can savour.













The Planet in a Pebble - Jan Zalasiewicz

The Goldilocks Planet - Jan Zalasiewicz

Oxygen - Nick Lane

Power, Sex, Suicide - Nick Lane

Trilobite - Richard Fortey

Tales from the Underground - David W. Wolfe

Life's Engines - Paul G. Falkowski

I Contain Multitudes - Ed Yong

Amoeba in the Room - Nicholas P Money





Bugged by David MacNeal

Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them - David MacNeal

TITLE:  Bugged:  The Insects Who Ruled the World and the People Obsessed with Them


AUTHOR:  David MacNeal




FORMAT:  E-book


ISBN-13:  9781250095510




I have mixed feelings about this book. Some of the information was interesting and informative (if superficial), some less so. However, the writing style was overly chatty and erratic, with various anecdotes jumping around all over the place and no real flow to the book. It reminded me a lot of a Mary Roach book, with the forced humour, over chattiness, disjointed subject matter and too much interview details in comparison with actual information. This is especially problematic with the first 3 chapters which tend to read like a collection of random facts. Later chapters are an improvement but could still use some work and less forced humour. I found the final chapter on bees and apiculture to be very interesting. This book also contains a vast number of, usually irrelevant, footnotes.


MacNeal focuses more on the "people obsessed with bugs" than the actual bugs, so if you are looking for information on insects specifically you aren't really going to find it in this book. If you are looking for information on humans and their strange interactions with bugs, then this book may be for you. The author covers such topics as genetically modified mosquitoes, cyborg cockroaches, assisted spider sex, insect taxidermists, insect farming and processing for human consumption, insect smuggling, bedbug extermination, dung and corpse "removal" services of bugs, and medicinal uses of bugs.


So, in conclusion, the book is interesting but could really use an editor, better structuring and focus, and less chattiness.


Warning Note:  The F-bomb is dropped several times.  Once in chapter 1 and several times in the chapter on cyborg-cockroaches.




George's Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

George's Marvellous Medicine - Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl

George's Marvellous Medicine is a very short children's book that is enhanced by Quentin Blake's quirky illustrations. George's grandmother isn't very nice so he decides to make her a new medicine with the hopes of improving her temperament. However, things don't go as planned and George manages to concoct several medicines with unusual properties. This is a funny story that little children will probably enjoy - their grandmother's, not so much.


The Seventh Gate by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

The Seventh Gate - Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman

I somewhat confusing, fast-paced, action-packed conclusion (with plot holes) to the adventures of Haplo, Alfred and Dog.  The Seventh Gate is the final book in the series and won't make much sense unless you have read the previous 6 books.


The DeathGate Cycle has numerous issues with plot, continuity and erratic characterisation, but the world building is original and some of the characters are wonderfully written.  This series is fun to read provided you don't think about things too much.


Into the Labyrinth by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

Into the Labyrinth - Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman

This is the 6th novel in the Death Gate Cycle and won't make much sense unless you have read the previous 5 books.  Into the Labyrinth continues the action packed story of Haplo, Alfred, and Dog, who have been stranded in the deadly Labyrinth; and of Xar who is hell-bent on conquering the world via zombie apocalypse.


Hand of Chaos by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

The Hand of Chaos - Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman

This is book 5 of the Death Gate Cycle and won't make any sense unless you have read the previous 4.  This book has many failings in terms of plot continuity and repetitiveness, but it does continue the action packed adventures of Haplo, Jarre, Dog, Bane and the Serpents on Arianus, the realm of Air. 

Serpent Mage by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

Serpent Mage - Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman


This is the fourth book in the Death Gate Cycle, set on Chelestra, Realm of Sea, the last of the four worlds created by the Sartan during the Sundering of the Old World in their battle against the Patryns. 


The narrative is interwoven with the personal diary of Grundle (who is just awesome!), daughter and heir to the leaders of Chelestra's Dwarven population.  Grundle tells us her account of how the Human, Dwarven and Elven inhabitants of Chelestra are in danger of freezing as their seasun moves away from the seamoon on which they live.  How the Dwarves were commissioned to build vessels to migrate to another seamoon which were destroyed and how Grundle and her friends encounter Haplo on their adventures.


Meanwhile, Alfred, the last remaining Sartan, also ends up on Chelestra and is reunited with others of his kind, including Samah, who initiated the Sundering and has been in suspended animation since. 


With this book, the characters of Haplo and Alfred become more complex.  Dog also makes a reappearance and we learn more about Xar.  This book is entertaining, action packed and gut-wrenching with original world building and nuanced secondary characters.