Category Archives: Book Reviews

On Being Dead and a fictional ecology

Two very different books about fictional entomologists

I am ashamed to say, that until last summer, I had never heard of Jim Crace, let alone read anything by him.  Then my oldest friend (50 years since we first met at Ripon Grammar School) persuaded me that he was worth reading.   He was right, and I became hooked on Crace’s very distinctive style and diverse range of topics, ranging from the prehistoric to a dystopian future.  Then I came across Being Dead, which I at first thought was a murder mystery, but no, it turned out to be something completely different.  It is, in fact, a novel of many parts.  It is a retrospective view of the life of two entomologists who became matrimonially enjoined after they meet on a student expedition.  It is a love story with a difference. It is a commentary on bereavement and loneliness.  It is a story of life and death. I am however, not going to dwell on the plot, a fair bit of which describes the decomposition of the two bodies 🙂 Don’t be put off though, it is definitely a book worth reading.

Early on we are introduced to the study organisms of the two Doctors of Zoology, which is how Crace describes his two main characters*.  Celice works on the Oceanic Bladder Fly and Joseph on the Spray Hopper, Pseudogryllidus pelagicus. Crace’s description of the latter beast, a small (1 cm long) grey predatory beetle resembling a cricket, feeding on sea nits and sand lice at the ocean’s edge, was so cool, that, having never heard of this insect before, I was prompted to turn to the Great God Wikipedia, where, to my surprise, I found no mention of this fabulous beast!  Nor could I find it in Web of Science or Google Scholar.  I was forced to admit that I had been totally fooled and that the spray hopper was a figment, albeit very realistic, of Crace’s fertile imagination.   I am used to coming across ‘realistic’ fictional ecology in well-crafted science but have not often come across it in literary mainstream fiction so this was a bit of a surprise.

The Spray Hopper, Pseudogryllidus pelagicus, as imagined and very badly drawn by me

Being the nerd that I am, I went back to the start of the book and started reading it again, this time noting down every biological reference, checking these with Google, Google Scholar and Web of Science.  Luckily the spray hoper is mentioned fairly early on.

In addition to the already mentioned salt nits and sand lice, some other fictional insects appear, some with tantalising snippets of life cycle and habits.  These include the Polar cricket and Blind cave hoppers, which I assume are Orthopterans, three more beetle species, the Dune beetle, the Furnace beetle and Claudatus maximi a specialist herbivore, feeding on lissom grass. Three flies get a mention, Celice’s study organism, the Oceanic bladder fly which feeds on inshore wrack, the interestingly named Swag Fly, which seem to have a penchant for blood, and finally, the Sugar Flies, which as they are associated with fruit rind, I assume may be Drosophilids. There is a fleeting mention to the Squadron ant and an intriguing hemipteran, a flightless cicada, the Grease monkey, that feeds and breeds in diesel and is dispersed in the fuel tanks and engine blocks of trucks and lorries.

A number of birds are mentioned, but without much in the way of their biology, the only clues being in their names, Wood crow, Rock owls, Skin-eyed hawks  Sea jacks, Skimmers, Pickerling, and the  Hispid buzzard.   Crace almost slipped up with the latter, there is a Hispid hare, Caprolagus hipidus, also known as the Assam rabbit, which is native to south Asia.

Crace doesn’t just invent animals, he does plants as well.  Central to the decay theme and with several mentions is Festuca mollis or lissom grass.  Crace also gives us several alternative common names for this grass, angel bed, pintongue, sand hair, repose.  The adjectives he uses when talking about lissom grass are all indicative of its role in both the choice of location for the  act of sexual congress that unwittingly makes the entomological couple murder victims;  bed, mattress, irresistible, velvety, sensuous.  Again this is a totally made up species, although there is a Bromus mollis that depending on your source is either a synonym or a sub-species.

Then there are the wonderfully evocatively named plants, Flute bush, Sea thorn, the Tinder trees (described as being very dry), the Sea pine, also known as Slumber tree or Death’s Ladder, Vomitoria that grows in thickets, an imaginary relative of walnut,  Juglans suca that yields sapnuts, Stove weed with green bells, Pyrosia described as having high bracts, firesel, cordony and finally, the staple crop of the area, manac beans.

Three real plants get a mention, Spartina, red stem, Ammannia spp., which grows in water, and wet soil, and are used in aquariums and finally broom sedge Andropogon virginicus, native of the USA but a weed in Australia where it is known as whiskey grass as it was used as packaging for bottles of USA whiskey, which is a bit of trivia I didn’t know.

And finally, the one made up mammal, the Sea bat which given how few mammals there are, is entirely proper 🙂

All in all, reading Being Dead was a rewarding, if not entirely enjoyable experience, although I guess it depends on how you define enjoyable.  I do however, recommend it to you as good read, if only for the thrill of meeting the Spray hopper!

Coincidentally the next book I read was The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams, which is also a murder story with an entomological connection, but unlike Being Dead, the entomology is hard core and totally real – I know, I checked J  Like Being Dead, it is also worth reading, although again, there are definitely metaphysical under- and overtones so ones enjoyment is tempered by having to think hard about what you are reading.

Read them back to back for the full experience and relax in the knowledge that you don’t need to keep fact checking as I have done it for you already 🙂

 

p* Strangely I was slightly irritated by this despite it reflecting that zoology, as I have always said, is mainly entomology 🙂

 

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Will Lucretia Cutter reign supreme? Beetle Queen – the latest sensation from M G Leonard

beetle-queen

https://www.chickenhousebooks.com/books/beetle-queen/

Laughter, tears, joy, horror and shock; what an emotional roller-coaster of a book.  From the gurgling stomach of a much-loved uncle to the charred rim of a once beetle-inhabited cup, Maya Leonard’s latest installment* of beetle-inspired fiction will grip and hold you spell-bound from the moment you start reading.  This is a book you won’t be able to put down, it will get in the way of everyday life, and will, depending on when you begin to read it, obscure your dinner plate or breakfast bowl.  Be warned, those of you who are moved to tears easily will definitely need a box of tissues or a large handkerchief close by.

It is very hard to write a review of this enthralling and fast-moving book without giving away too many spoilers, so I am going to limit myself to unstinting praise and a very brief synopsis of the plot to give you a flavour of what to expect 🙂

Metamorphosis is the name of the game. Lucretia Cutter has a devious plan, but Darkus, Bertolt and Virginia are on the case. Novak thinks that Darkus is dead, Bartholomew Cuttle is acting very strangely, Uncle Max is a tower of strength and Mrs Bloom reveals hidden depths. We learn more about the early days of Darkus’s parents and their interactions with the then Lucy Johnstone and meet some other entomologists.  Yellow ladybirds act as spies and assassins for Lucretia Cutter, and we travel to the film Awards in Los Angeles via Greenland with our resourceful trio, Uncle Max and Mrs Bloom.  Lurking in the background, the evil cousins Humphrey and Pickering provide comic, albeit distasteful relief.  All this leads us to the dramatic finale, where much is revealed including some parts which will especially amuse all the boys (old and young) 🙂

The shootout at the Film Awards ceremony where the evil Lucretia spectacularly reveals her hidden attributes, Novak performs gravity-defying feats, and giant motorised pooters come into their own to help our intrepid trio and their grown-up allies overcome the evil hordes, makes me think that one day we will be seeing Darkus and his friends on the silver screen.  There are of course great supporting roles by Baxter, Marvin, Newton and Hepburn, and do remember to brush up on your Morse code 🙂

This installment of the story ends at Christmas and the presents our heroes receive tell us that our next stop is the Amazon!

This book, like the first will definitely help bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience.  Maya Leonard continues to be a worthy ambassador for our discipline, and I am extremely grateful that she has opted to use her undoubted talents to publicise insects and entomology so well.  Thank you Maya.

ento16-fantastic-finish

*If you haven’t read the first installment in this thrilling trilogy I can thoroughly recommend it.

 

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It’s never too early to get it right – children’s books can be accurate as well as fun

Making insects more appealing to children, (and adults), by making them look cute, cuddly and more like humans, is not a bad thing in itself, there is however, a line that should not be crossed.

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These two books for children written almost a century apart, are exact opposites. In Sibylle von Olfers’ Etwas von den Wurzelkindern published in 1906, we see the most incredibly detailed and accurate biological drawings.  The insects are pretty much recognizable to

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The Wurzelkindern getting the beetles spruced up for spring

species as are the flowering plants; the grasses are so accurately portrayed that the following conversation occurred on Twitter.

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Two plant scientists are able to discuss the grasses, so accurately are they drawn.

Contrast this with Birgitta Nicolas’ 2009 Der kleine Marienkäfer und seine Freunde.

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Here the insects have four legs*, humanised faces and hands and feet, although to be fair, the bumblebee does have pollen collectors (or is perhaps wearing leg warmers). The plants are heavily stylised and although one can guess at their families, I could not for example decide if the member of the Rosaceae pictured was Prunus, Malus or Pyrus, although being pink. it is most likely meant to be a Prunus.  The language used, despite the Gothic characters in von Olfer’s book, is at the same level, so meant to be read aloud by a parent or puzzled through by a beginner, yet the treatment of the wildlife is so different.  Von Olfers’ charming and accurate illustrations provide a visual treat of exploration and learning, while Nicolas’ heavily stylised daubs rely on the texturing present, i.e. fake fur for the squirrel, fuzzy felt for the bumble bee etc.  What harm would it have done to have at least given the insects the right number of legs and in the right place, all on the thorax.  The bee might also have liked to have had the right number of wings**, I might then have been able to forgive her the humanised faces, it is a story after all 🙂

As Aristotle said “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” Early habits die hard and if you learn that insects have four legs as a young child, confusion must ensue and make it harder to learn and retain the truth later on. First perceptions and impressions have a habit of sticking with us in later life, best to get the facts right at the beginning.

So if looking for an insect or natural history themed book for a young relative, I would recommend that you buy Sibylle von Olfer’s book and if your German or Google Translate is not up the job, you can get it in English https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tale-Root-Children-Etwas-Wurzelkindern/dp/3946190146/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1462291724&sr=8-7&keywords=etwas+von+den+wurzelkindern

Post script

Whilst clearing the attic in our new house*** in the Languedoc area of France, I came across this edition of Pinocchio published in 1959,

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which as well as bringing back nostalgic memories, I had the same edition as a child, but in English, is a great example of getting the insects right. The keen-eyed of you will notice it has a cricket on the front cover, but unlike the Walt Disney version in which Jiminy is definitely not a cricket, Libico Maraja, the illustrator, had obviously looked at crickets closely and carefully before putting pen to paper.

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Pinocchio meets the talking cricket – he does not have a name in the original version of the story.

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Even when anthropomorphised he still retains essential features such as legs joined to the thorax and complete with tarsi.

*although if you look closely, this insect, which I think is meant to be an aphid, does seem to have six legs 🙂

Etwas8

 

**at least the ladybird has elytra and wings 

***our retirement dream house and where I hope to write all the books that I have planned to write over the last twenty-odd years and never got round to doing 

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Baxter Saves the Day – Beetle Boy – a tour de force by M G Leonard

Beetle Boy front

Beetle Boy, Chicken House Books, Paperback  ISBN: 9781910002704  £6.99

 “The sad fact is, that the number of insect is in decline. As we destroy their habitats, so we destroy their species, but we desperately need them. If all the mammals on the planet were to die out, the planet would flourish – but if all the insects disappeared, everything would very soon be dead.”

Not that I am biased, but any book that has the above in it gets my vote. Joking aside, this is a real gem of a book.  Although aimed at a younger audience than me, I found this a fascinating book.  I read it in one sitting, on the coach returning from a visit to the entomologists at the Natural History Museum, in company with the MSc Entomology students from Harper Adams University; a very appropriate setting.

Darkus, whose father, Dr Bartholomew Cuttle, a closet entomologist and the Director of Science at the Natural History Museum in London, has disappeared in mysterious circumstances, is one of a pair of unlikely heroes who help make this story the tour de force it is. The authorities believe that Dr Cuttle suffered some sort of breakdown and has walked away from his responsibilities.  Newspaper headlines ensue and the distraught Darkus, who remains convinced that his father has been spirited away or worse, now regarded as an orphan by social services, as his mother died four years earlier, is sent to an orphanage where he receives an unfortunate hair-cut.  Fortuitously, three weeks later, his eccentric Uncle Max, a somewhat unconventional archaeologist, returns from Egypt and Darkus is allowed to move in with his Uncle, who houses him in his attic, where he unknowingly meets his best friend to be, Baxter, and the adventure begins.  You will have to excuse this breathless introduction, but all this happens in the first sixteen pages!  What a roller-coaster of a read.

Next he is sent to a new school, (the worst nightmare for those of us of a nerdish persuasion) where he is befriended by two odd-balls, the lanky Virginia and the small, pale, bespectacled Bertholt.  We have school bullies, beetles with more than a dash of humanity mixed in, an evil businesswoman with a dark past and even darker secrets, a beautiful heiress thrown in for good measure, very odd neighbours, a secret den, evil henchmen, poison gas, death, destruction, entomology, successes, setbacks, laughter and sadness but a happy ending.  This is a story with something for everyone.  This is what my father, if he were still alive, would have called a rattling good yarn and I would agree with him wholeheartedly.

This is a hard book to describe without introducing spoilers so I am not going to give away any more of the plot than I already have. Imagine a mix of Swallows & Amazons, Stalky & Co*, the Famous Five, Five Find-Outers and Dog**, Artemis Fowl and any other of your favourite young detectives/adventurers that you can think of, and you will get somewhere close to imagining what a gripping read Maya Leonard has produced.   Beetle Boy owes nothing to any of these books, I only use them to illustrate, that in my opinion, this book is destined to join the classics.

It is of course the beetles that really make this book stand out from the crowd, and in more than one way, the fore edge of the book is decorated with beetles; beetles inside and out, what more can an entomologist ask for?

Beetle boy fore edge

Maya Leonard is a superb ambassador for beetles; they form an integral part of the story working in partnership with the human protagonists. She also subtly introduces the wonderful diversity of the beetle world to the non-initiated.  How many books can mention tiger beetles, powder post beetles, blister beetles, bombardier beetles, rhinoceros beetles, titans, stags, harlequins,  Goliath beetles and dung beetles and keep the plot moving along at a breath-taking pace.  Outside an entomology text book I don’t think I have ever come across so many beetle references.   Not only has Maya Leonard mentioned the beetles by name, she has managed to endow them with believable personalities but in a very unsentimental way, although that said, there is a very tragic scene near the end of the book.   I have been a professional entomologist for almost forty years and, yes some of what happens in this book might not be entomologically feasible, but the story carried me along on waves of excitement and totally enthralled and enchanted me and that is what matters.  I liked this book very much.  In fact, I was so excited about this book that I couldn’t wait for an appropriate grandson’s birthday so sent it to their mother, my daughter in Australia, for her birthday, and suggested that she could make it a family readathon 🙂

Maya Leonard, on the behalf of entomologists everywhere, I salute you. Roll on the sequel.

Dung beetles ZSL

The wonderful dung beetle sculpture at London Zoo.

Postscript and notes

Did I say that I really liked this book 🙂

*Rudyard Kipling’s fictionalised account of his school days at the United Services College – coincidentally, the character based on Kipling, is nicknamed Beetle! Well worth a read and in my opinion, possibly the inspiration for Frank Richard’s Billy Bunter books.

**Less well-known than the Famous Five, but I actually liked them better 🙂 http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/five-find-outers.php

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Butterflies Galore – visual treats from two very different books

BG1

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.

  1. Would I buy it?
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it?
  3. Would I recommend it to students as worth buying?
  4. Would I ask the library to buy it?
  5. 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 🙂

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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.).

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http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/2011/homolka_kail/reproduction.htm   ttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urtica_dioica.JPG

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it? Probably not for the same reason as above.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

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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:

  1. Would I buy it? – Yes I would, very nicely priced, well-written and enough science to keep me happy and interested.
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it? Yes, even a non-entomological colleague would be likely to find it worth the money.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

References

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

 

Postscript

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/

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Not all books about aphids are for grown-ups!

A couple of weeks ago I was preparing a new lecture on the endocrine control of alary polymorphism in aphids. As is my wont when I want to get myself in the right frame of mind for aphid lecture writing, I went across to my book shelf to get down my copy of Tony Dixon’s excellent little book The Biology of Aphids (it might be old but it has some of the simplest and clearest explanations of complex aphid biology that I know of).

Anna aphid1

To my horror (and shock) it wasn’t here.  I had obviously lent it to a student and not instilled the fear of death into them 🙂  Once I got over my shock I turned to the internet (Amazon to be exact), and searched for an acceptable copy, which I successfully found*.  Whilst browsing the virtual shelves however, my eye was caught by a book with the intriguing title Anna Aphid.    I was stunned and amused, and as it cost less than a fiver including postage, I added it to my virtual basket.

A few days later it arrive and I was the proud owner of Anna Aphid  by Christine Goppel.

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Anna Aphid http://www.christinegoppel.de/flashseite.html

I instantly sat down and read it cover to cover (it isn’t very long). I don’t usually post book reviews, but having read it and pedantically groaned at the aphidological errors, I thought I might as well as share my thoughts with you all.  Anna Aphid was published by North-South Books in September  2005, and if they had any in stock you could buy it new for £9.99, (or $8.45 in the USA); don’t worry, there are plenty of used copies available, and mine was in very good condition.

The blurb for states “A tiny aphid named Anna lives on a big green leaf with her family. But Anna is different from the other aphids. She is curious to discover what lies beyond their green world. So Anna sets off to explore. In an entertaining visual guessing game, we see things from Anna’s point of view”

This is a fairly accurate statement of the content, although it gives things away a bit by saying that she lives on a leaf, as in the book Anna thinks she is living on a planet (remove the letter e and you get the pun).  The book which is very well-written, details the adventures of Anna from her beginnings as an apterous (non-winged) aphid, living with her family, including her father, (yes, a big aphidological blooper).  She expresses a wish to see the rest of the universe, and despite everything I had just read about endocrine control of alary polymorphism 🙂 suddenly sprouts wings, although given that her living conditions as shown in the illustrations seem quite crowded, this would be acceptable if she had just moulted to adulthood.  As an aphid pedant, I couldn’t help noticing that she only had one pair of wings instead of the normal two that I would expect.  The cephalo-thorax-abdomen body structure was also hard to ignore, as was the fact that poor Anna seemed to have mislaid a pair of legs somewhere.

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Anna takes flight (she looks more like a frog with wings than an aphid)

Having taken flight and set off into the unknown vastness of space (from an aphid’s point of view), Anna has a series of adventures and near escapes from death.  She flies too near to the sun, narrowly escaping being burnt to a cinder, then lands on the moon where she attempts

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Anna landing on the moon and giving us an interesting view of aphid feet!

to eat the strange vegetation she finds there , in the course of which she reveals that instead of having piercing and sucking mouthparts, she appears to be equipped with chewing ones.

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Anna exhibiting non-standard mouth parts as she eats moon fodder.

Anna then hitches a lift on a comet, and lands on a shaggy red planet, which turns out to be yet another dangerous place as she is almost sucked into a black hole. Luckily, an exploding planet hurls Anna into a bubbling sea where she only just escapes drowning by climbing onto a small island.

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The bubbling sea

 Safe from drowning, a gentle warm breeze helps her recover her strength enabling her to fly back to her home planet, and an excited

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A warm breeze sending Anna safely on her way home

welcome from her whole family. She reports back to her father “I didn’t meet any other forms of intelligent life, but the universe is so big! Who knows what is out there”  Taken as an analogy for the huge number of insects that remain to be discovered, classified and researched, I can only agree with her sentiments.

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The universe revealed! Can you guess which objects were which planetary features?

Actually, pedantic aphidological quibbles aside, I quite enjoyed the book.  It was a very pleasant surprise to find aphids featuring in such a positive and amusing way in fiction.  It would have been nice if the biology, especially the mouth parts, eyes, and other anatomical features were a bit more true to life, but it is just possible that I am slightly jealous that it had never occurred to me to write a story about an aphid 🙂  If you have children, grand-children, nieces or nephews of a suitable age I would certainly recommend it as a very suitable present and hopefully having read it, or had it read to them, they will learn to love aphids as much as I do.

 

References

Dixon, A.F.G. (1973) The Biology of Aphids, Edward Arnold, London

 

Post script

*I actually bought two copies of The Biology of Aphids, one which was in less good condition.  The sale details included the phrase “having owner’s name on inside front cover”, so I had to buy it just to check that it wasn’t my original copy that had been sold on by whichever student had ‘borrowed’ it.  As I should have expected it wasn’t mine 🙂 but still, it is always handy to have a spare copy in case one goes walkabout like my original did.

 

Post post script

In one of my emails to my daughter who lives in Australia, I mentioned that I had bought Anna Aphid and to my surprise received the following reply “I bought that book! The boys know about aphids, especially Toby; “ladybugs eat them” “so I was behind the curve yet again!

 

 

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