Tag Archives: fiction

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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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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