Review: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

(“A nonfiction book” from the Reading Challenge)

I am switching my non-fiction book because I read this one more recently and feel that I can write a decent review. (I did read My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek, which was my original choice, and I definitely liked it a lot and would recommend it! But I didn’t get to writing a review as soon as I should have, so I’ll do this one instead.)

This book was a Christmas present from a family member, who rightly guessed that I would enjoy it. It was very good!

The author is a paleontologist and professor of anatomy, and he has a clear, engaging writing style that was very easy to read. The book is (as you might guess from the title) talking about evolution as it relates to the biology and anatomy of the human body.

I really loved the way he talks about science! He talks about his lab (which is half fossils and half genetics/DNA, apparently), and he talked about looking for fossils in ways that I hadn’t thought about before. He points out that while yes, there is a certain amount of luck involved in actually finding the fossils you’re looking for, you have to start by doing the right prep work identifying where your chances will be greatest.

He uses the example of wanting to find an intermediate stage between finned fish and amphibians with true limbs, a transition which happened between 385 and 365 million years ago. So, he had to identify rocks in that age range, of the right type to preserve fossils at all (meaning, sedimentary rocks), and that were somewhere exposed/accessible to people. In this case, Ellesmere Island in Canada, north of the Arctic Circle, turned out to be the best place, and so that is where he and his team have gone summer after summer. And, after many seasons, they did in fact find the kind of fossil they were looking for; Tiktaalik was a fish that had fins…but they were fins with bones in them, and bones in the same basic number/arrangement that we see in all limbed animals today.

He does a really good job of working the reader through a somewhat abstract idea (that we can trace our bodies/body parts/body construction back in time through evolution, as evidenced by both fossils and genetics), by providing several concrete examples that show this, and going through the process each time. Looking at our bodies this way helps to make sense of some things about us that seem confusing when you think about them by themselves. Hiccups, for example. Why do we get hiccups? Well, probably because our bodies are descended from amphibious creatures that needed to be able to switch back and forth between breathing with lungs in air and breathing with gills in water. The muscle/nerve combination that causes hiccups originally worked as a pausing mechanism that allowed for that switch…only we don’t need it anymore, so for us it’s just a leftover thing our bodies do that can be a nuisance.

All of his examples are really interesting like that. Going back to limbs, he points out that every vertebrate creature that has limbs has limb bones in the exact same combination: one upper bone, two lower bones, blobby bones in the “wrist,” and then rod-like bones that radiate from those (fingers/toes, for us). The exact shapes, lengths and configurations of these bones are very different in an alligator, a bat, and a human, but the same basic combination is there in all three animals. In another example, he talks about nerves in the human head, some of which are very complex and kind of confusing, because they do lots of different-seeming things. But when you look at them from a developmental view, they make perfect sense, because one nerve is connected to all the various parts of the head that form from one “gill arch” on the human embryo, and another nerve is connected to all the parts that form from another “gill arch,” and so on. (Those “gill arches” are so called because, in fish like sharks, they do actually form into gills. In humans, they are present when we are an embryo, but then develop into various parts of our face, jaw, neck, and throat.)

So it was a very interesting book! It falls into the category of “I sort of knew the basics of this (evolution and how it works),” but this book lays it out so much more specifically and with such fantastic examples that it just becomes much, much clearer in my head. Books like that are the best ones, for me. I definitely recommend this one to anyone interested in paleontology, science, evolution, or the history of life on earth. A fantastic read!

Review: The Martian

(“A book a friend recommended” from the Reading Challenge)

I put this on my Reading Challenge list on the recommendation of a friend, and then ended up reading it for a book club that I’m part of with a few other friends – we definitely did not regret it. I’m probably a little late to the party on this particular book, but in case you haven’t heard about it or given it a try yet, The Martian is excellent. (Spoilers below.)

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Review: Princess Retribution by Elaine Tipping

(“A graphic novel” from the Reading Challenge)

I have enjoyed Elaine Tipping’s art and comics for quite some time, and her latest graphic novel, Princess Retribution, was a very welcome addition! As usual, the art was great, and I especially enjoy her character and clothing designs. Add to that the fact that there is a fun story to go with it, and I’m very glad I was able to contribute to her Kickstarter to support this book! (I’ll cut for minor spoilers.)

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Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

(“A book published this year” from the Reading Challenge)

So, this is technically a review of Shadow Scale, but out of necessity it will also talk about the preceding book Seraphina. Expect spoilers for both books!

I loved both Seraphina and Shadow Scale! Seraphina was one of my “grabbed it randomly off the library shelf because it looked interesting” finds that worked out well – I was hooked about ten pages in. They are set in a fantasy world in which two sentient species – humans and dragons – are struggling to coexist. The first book is set entirely in the country of Goredd, where forty years of uneasy peace between the humans and the dragons is teetering. Seraphina herself is a musician in Goredd’s court…and secretly a half-dragon. Continue reading

Review: Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson

(“A book with bad reviews” from the Reading Challenge)

[Technically, this book has more good reviews than bad on Goodreads, but the list doesn’t specify “only” bad reviews, so I’m going to go with a couple of bad reviews + I didn’t care for it = good enough to meet this particular criterion.]

[Some spoilers under the cut.]

I wanted to like this book. It was one of my “picked it up randomly whilst browsing at the library” books, and the blurb made it sound interesting. The world that the author creates is very interesting, with a society that has spent centuries recovering from an ancient cataclysm currently on the cusp of a technological revolution. Continue reading

2015-2017 Reading Challenge

(Because it’s highly unlikely that I’ll get through all of these this year.[ETA:Or in two years, apparently. >.>]) Here’s my list of books to read for the Reading Challenge. Almost all books that I haven’t read before, with a mix of some that were already on my “to read” list and some that I had never heard of before I looked them up. Will cross them off as I finish them, and I’ll also try and write up a bit of a review for each one.

A book with more than 500 pages: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty

A classic romance: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A book that became a movie: Shogun by James Clavell

A book published this year: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman (Review here)

A book with a number in the title: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A book written by someone under 30: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A book with nonhuman characters: The Orc of Many Questions by Shane Michael Murray

A funny book: Next of Kin by Eric Frank Russell (Going to cheat a little bit on this one because I really want to reread it.)

A book by a female author: Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst

A mystery or thriller: Living Proof by Kira Peikoff

A book with a one-word title: Runemarks by Joanne Harris

A book of short stories: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

A book set in a different country: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

A nonfiction book: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (Review here)

A popular author’s first book: Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston

A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet: League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

A book a friend recommended: The Martian by Andy Weir (Review here)

A Pulitzer Prize-winning book: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

A book based on a true story: Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah

A book at the bottom of your to-read list: Prudence by Gail Carriger

A book your mom loves: Hard Magic by Larry Correia

A book that scares you: — (Hard to know ahead of time.)

A book more than 100 years old: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

A book based entirely on its cover: The Archived by Victoria Schwab

A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

A memoir: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

A book you can finish in a day: Viscountess by Taversia

A book with antonyms in the title: Bittersweet by Nevada Barr

A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit: The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

A book that came out the year you were born: The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

A book with bad reviews: Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson (Review here)

A trilogy: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

A book from your childhood: Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Also cheating a little on this one, because it’s high time I reread these.)

A book with a love triangle: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

A book set in the future: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

A book set in high school: The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

A book with a color in the title: The Last Kashmiri Rose by Barbara Cleverly

A book that made you cry: A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40 by William R. Trotter

A book with magic: The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

A graphic novel: Princess Retribution by Elaine Tipping (Review here)

A book by an author you’ve never read before: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

A book you own but have never read: Emma by Jane Austen

A book that takes place in your hometown: Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson

A book that was originally written in a different language: The Kalevala

A book set during Christmas: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

A book written by an author with your same initials: Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do by E. B. White and James Thurber

A play: Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee

A banned book: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

A book based on or turned into a TV show: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

A book you started but never finished: We the Living by Ayn Rand

2015 Reading Challenge – Recommendations

So, I ran across the 2015 Reading Challenge which is going around the internet, and was intrigued by the list. I got a little ways into it and realized that I was mostly putting down things that I’ve already read, so here is a list of my recommendations based on the Challenge list! (With commentary, because I can.) I’ve tried to list a mix of things, with some stuff that is hopefully new to anyone who’s looking to do the Challenge. With a few necessary exceptions, the following books are ones that I, a) have read, and b) do actually recommend (I’ve stated if that’s not the case).

I plan to make a separate version of the list as a challenge for myself, with things that I haven’t read yet, but I doubt I’ll worry about trying to finish them all this year.

Enjoy!

  • A book with more than 500 pages: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

This is one of my all-time favorites, and I definitely recommend that everyone read it for themselves. Whatever you think of Rand’s philosophy, there’s a lot of encouragement in her works for you to take a look at your own life and what you’d really like to get out of it, which I’ve always found very uplifting.

  • A classic romance: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

When I started this, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it or not, but I ended up loving it. Good story of two people overcoming initial bad impressions and misunderstandings and discovering that they are actually quite compatible. I like that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are honest enough to let their opinions change as they learn more about each other.

  • A book that became a movie: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the book very well (as compared to the movie), but I have no strong memory of disliking it.

  • A book published this year: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

This is the sequel to Hartman’s first book, Seraphina, which I really enjoyed; one of those books where I was hooked ten pages in. Interesting take on a world where humans and dragons are in conflict with each other. I just requested this one from the library and will hopefully be able to read it shortly.

  • A book with a number in the title: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

A classic, and definitely worth reading, though unfortunately one of those that I read once years ago and don’t remember too well now.

  • A book written by someone under 30: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I haven’t ever gotten to the rest of the series, but I definitely enjoyed this one.

  • A book with nonhuman characters: Raptor Red by Robert Bakker

If you have the slightest interest in dinosaurs, you should read this book. Part of me would say that you should read this book even if you have no interest in dinosaurs. More seriously, it’s a dinosaur book set in the Cretaceous Period, written by a paleontologist who knows his stuff. Not only does he make the character of Raptor Red sympathetic and believable, but he paints a rich, fascinating picture of the life and environment that she would have lived in. Another of my all-time favorites.

  • A funny book: Next of Kin by Eric Frank Russell

This is one of those books that made me cry because I was laughing so hard. I recommend pretty much all of Russell’s work, but this one is top-notch. If you’re looking for humor and sci-fi, this is a good one. Continue reading