I have written a lot of book reviews over the last thirty years or so; initially for mainstream scientific journals; those were the days when journal editors had never heard of impact factors and space was specifically set aside for such articles. And latterly, for the in-house member’s bulletins of learned societies such as Antenna; the excellent and very glossy publication of the Royal Entomological Society. Book reviews are generally a bit of a chore, especially if the book in question is an edited volume, but busy academics can sometimes be persuaded to take a review on if they think that the book (the only payment you receive is a free copy) will justify the effort. Occasionally one gets the chance, or feels the urge, to use a book review as a means of getting a particular message across to a wider audience. I once managed to have one of my ‘on the importance of entomology’ rants published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Leather, 2008) using this route. Up until now however, unless you count my somewhat tongue-in-cheek review of Anna Aphid, I have not used my blog in this way. This is, however, about to change.
At the end of November last year (2015), I received an email from Caroline Young of Firefly Books who wondered if I would like to review a new entry to their catalogue, Butterflies, by Ronald Orenstein and Thomas Marent. It was such a flattering email that I succumbed to her blandishments, hence this first official book review on my site. To retain some scientific integrity however, I decided that I would do a comparative review. Fortuitously, it just so happened, that I had to hand another book about butterflies; one that I had semi-promised to review for the Royal Entomological Society (Howse, 2014), but until now, had never got around to doing. In one fell swoop I was thus able to salve my conscience and do two favours :-)
When reviewing a book I have a little mental list of questions that I answer as I read it.
- Would I buy it?
- Would I recommend a colleague to buy it?
- Would I recommend it to students as worth buying?
- Would I ask the library to buy it?
- Would I recommend it to anyone to buy it?
All these have the same subsidiary questions attached to them; If not why not, if yes, why?
First, Butterflies, billed by the publisher’s blurb as a “visual feast that showcases the beauty and mystery of butterfly and moth species from around the globe”. A good place to start with a book review is with a summary of the contents and the aim(s) of the author(s). There are eleven named chapters in total, with a thirty page introductory chapter, aptly titled Introducing butterflies. This chapter, which like all the others, is beautifully illustrated with stunning photographs, briefly covers the main features of butterfly biology and ecology, from evolution, taxonomy, flight, mimicry, courtship, oviposition, development, feeding, predation, migration and concludes with climate change and conservation. There is no overall ‘mission statement’ per se, but towards the end of the introduction the authors write “We need to know more and to do better. In many parts of the world, butterflies are disappearing at a rapid rate. We need to understand what is happening to them, and why, if we are to stop or reverse their decline. We need to create space for butterflies.”
From this I take it that the purpose of the book is to inspire adult non-entomologists to take an interest in butterflies in general and to create habitats for them in their gardens. I also think that there other aim is to inspire the younger generation to become involved with butterfly conservation either professionally or as an extra-mural interest. The twelve chapters that follow the introductory piece are first, taxonomically based, e.g. Swallowtails, Skippers, Whites and then to do with their biology and ecology, covering topics such as wings, life history, diet, mimicry etc. The last chapter is about those too-often overlooked Lepidoptera, the moths. Each chapter is dominated by the beautiful photographs, each of which is accompanied by a succinct pen sketch giving a brief description of the species shown and some useful nuggets of information about the distribution, taxonomic position of the species and something about their biology. Some of these nuggets were new to me, perhaps not surprisingly, as I am not primarily a lepidopterist :-)
I was, for example, interested and intrigued by the suggestion that eggs of The Map, Araschnia levana are mimics of the flowers of its larval host plant, nettle (Urtica spp.).
In fact I was so intrigued that I felt the need to test it out by searching for photographs of nettle flowers. These shown are the closest I could find that come close to matching the eggs and so to a certain extent I remain unconvinced. I will however, leave that up to you to decide for yourselves.
In summary, this book is as advertised, “a visual feast that showcases the beauty and mystery of butterfly and moth species from around the globe.” It is not a text-book, nor is it an exhaustive pictorial catalogue, you could not use it as an identification guide. It does however, give a good and accessible overview of some basic butterfly biology and ecology and also great factoids to store away for use at an opportune moment. So the bottom line:
- Would I buy it? – No, in my opinion, it does not contain enough entomological detail for me as a professional to justify the $45 price tag.
- Would I recommend a colleague to buy it? Probably not for the same reason as above.
- Would I recommend it to students as worth buying? Again, probably not, but I might suggest that they put it on their Christmas or birthday lists.
- Would I ask the library to buy it? Yes, I think that it contains enough useful information to make it attractive to a non-specialist student reader interested in an easy to understand book with enough useful essay material in it.
and finally, would I recommend it to anyone else to buy it,? Yes it is a nice book, albeit of the coffee table variety, but in my opinion at the upper end of that market and anything that might spark an interest in entomology amongst the as yet unconverted, can only be a good thing.
And now, Philip Howse’s book, Seeing Butterflies, which is subtitled, New Perspectives on Colour, Patterns and Mimicry. The publisher’s blurb in this instance states “See living butterflies and moths through new eyes through Philip Howse’s fascinating text and superb imagery….This new way of looking at these beautiful and iconic images will inform and inspire nature-lovers, photographers artists and scientists.” Some major claims are being made here, implying that this is a serious book aimed at specialists, yet with the potential to appeal to a much wider readership. Does it live up to these claims?
As with Butterflies, we are presented with twelve beautifully illustrated chapters. Here though, with a chapter entitled, Seeing: Illusion, deceit and survival, we know from the start that this book is about vision, about visibility and invisibility and about optical illusions. Chapter two continues this theme, being about defence and illusion while Chapter three examines the evolution of butterflies and mimicry. The remaining chapters, as with Butterflies, are taxonomically based and examine the very varied visual defence mechanisms exhibited across the various butterfly families. The photographs may not be as professional, as many or as stunning as those in Butterflies, but the science is much stronger, yet still very accessible to the lay reader. There is also much more natural history, although again, this is not a book that would be useful for identification purposes. On the other hand there are some marvellous nuggets and factoids, with which to regale friends, students and anyone else that you can catch. One that sticks in my mind particularly, is that apparently the small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae was once known as the ‘devil butterfly’ in Scotland. Philip speculates that this might be because it “comes out of the darkness of winter and hibernation, marked in red and black”. As with Butterflies there were numerous factoids that intrigued and interested me. In particular Philip’s claims for the eyed hawkmoth, Smerinthus ocellata, that he feels can impersonate a bracket fungus, a pile of dead leaves and a fox-like animal!
The first two I am quite happy about, but the third suggestion seems to need quite a stretch of the imagination :-)
There is more of the author apparent in Seeing Butterflies than in Butterflies; Philip recalls childhood memories, and other personal experiences to illustrate the points that he makes and this gives the book a very user-friendly feel that is, to a certain extent, lacking in Butterflies. I also think that on the whole, the book manages to live up the somewhat over-hyped blurb.
And so the bottom line:
- Would I buy it? – Yes I would, very nicely priced, well-written and enough science to keep me happy and interested.
- Would I recommend a colleague to buy it? Yes, even a non-entomological colleague would be likely to find it worth the money.
- Would I recommend it to students as worth buying? Yes, I would certainly suggest it to my PhD students and MSc Entomology students, but probably not to undergraduates although I would definitely suggest that they put it on their Christmas and/or birthday lists.
- Would I ask the library to buy it? Yes, both as a recommended book for the entomologists and it contains enough useful information to make it attractive to a non-specialist student reader interested in an easy to understand book with useful essay material in it.
and finally, would I recommend it to anyone else to buy it,? Yes it is a nice book and should appeal to anyone who has a genuine interest in the natural world.
So there you have it, my first official ‘blog’ book review. There may be more to come, not necessarily commissioned ones, but just books that take my fancy, but if there are any publishers, or authors out there who think that I might like to review one of their books, feel free to contact me to discuss it.
Howse, P. (2014) Seeing Butterflies, Papdakis Publisher, Winterbourne, UK. Paperback, 176 pp, £16.99 ISBN-13: 978-1-906506-46-9
Leather, S.R. (2008). Conservation entomology in crisis. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 123, 184-185
Orenstein, R. & Marent, T. (2015) Butterflies, Firefly Books, Buffalo, USA. Hardback, 288 pp, $45 ISBN-13: 978-1-77085-580-0; ISBN-10: 1-77085-580-7
For anyone seriously interested in writing academic book reviews I can recommend this site by Dr Perpetua Turner https://peptalkecology.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/writing-an-academic-book-review/