Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering

Neither as “epic” nor as “profound” as the blurb promises, and definitely higher on the “popular” than on the “science” part of “popular science writing”.  Based on his style of writing, I can very well imagine Berman as a personable guide at his local observatory or as a host of popular radio science programs; the problem is that what sounds approachable in dialogue and oral explanation just comes across as chatty in writing.  (This gets better once the book has left the opening chapters behind, but it never goes away entirely, and arguably the Big Bang — which is the subject of the first single-topic chapter, i.e., chapter two — should be the last subject you want to approach with that much of a casual attitude.  For purposes of the audio version, it definitely also does not help that the casualness factor is virtually automatically enhanced in oral performance — which isn’t necessarily down to the narrator; it’s just in the nature of the beast.)

In fairness, astronomy, nuclear and astrophysics will never be my strongest subjects, so as far as the actual depth of topical penetration went, it may have been a blessing in disguise that the book didn’t do much more than give an overview of the various types of cataclysms and in so doing, rarely did more than scratch the surface.  (Then again, I tend to acquire both a quicker and a more profound grasp of any topic presented to me both at greater length and in greater depth than here.)  Eitiher way, this was enjoyable for what it was or turned out to be, but IMHO it’s seriously being oversold in the blurb — the author himself also seems to be quite the efficient self-promoter — and I think it’s at least also fair to wonder what medical and man-made events such as the medieval plague epidemics and WWII are doing in a book explicitly setting out to deal with astrophysical and earth-bound types of physical cataclysms.

Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters

Like a fine wine …

… the kind of book that only gets better the more often you return to it.

I’ve revisited Wyrd Sisters three times in the last two years alone, and every single time I’m savoring every single minute of the experience.  Definitely one of my favorite Discworld novels — next to its sequel, Witches Abroad, and of course the inimitable Hogfather.

Just gotta love the three witches … and Verence, too.



Original post:

Discworld: Here is your bimonthly belated reminder …

Wyrd Sisters  - Terry Pratchett

… that the next group read is upon us and has (umm, theoretically) already started, on August 1, to be precise.


(I swear I was going to post about this earlier this time around, but oh well …)


The book is Wyrd Sisters, the second of the Witches subseries — and the first book in which the full coven appears: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat.  In appropriate pre-Halloween Bingo mood, it also features a ghost.  In fact, it’s a pretty great book all around.


And now all that remains is for me to leave you with one of the best beginnings in the entire Discworld series (so far as I’ve read it, at least):

   “The wind howled.  Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin.   Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills.

   The night was as black as the inside of a cat.  It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate.  In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye.  It illuminated three hunched figures.  As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?’

   There was a pause.

   Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday.'”


Original post:

Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams: Skeletons — The Frame of Life

Less Than What It Could Have Been

OK, so I admit I didn’t check on the authors’ scholarly credentials before picking this up — if I had, I might not have been so disappointed to find that this is not, after all (not even in part) a book dealing with the way in which skeletons help the creatures populating today‘s world live their lives the way they do.  (The authors are paleobiologists.)  So that one is probably down to me alone, but it still made for more than a bit of a deflating discovery.

(Not that I don’t like paleobiology.  It just wasn’t what the book’s title primarily suggested to me; and even less so, the subtitle.)

That aspect aside, though, as Elentarri already noted, this is chiefly an overview of the different types of skeletons that have ever existed on Earth; and here’s where I really expected more — more depth, that is, decidedly not more breadth.  Chapters 2 and 3 in particular (the book’s two longest individual chapters) are essentially a run-down of every major type of skeleton-equipped creature in existence, all the way back to the Cambrian explosion and forward again from there, which only resulted in making my head spin.  Rather than going on, in the subsequent chapters, to extend the definition of “skeleton” to things not typically associated with that term (pretty much everything from trees to medieval iron-plated armour and space exploration rovers like Curiosity) and trying to prove the validity of that broad definition, I would really have appreciated it more if the authors had (1) limited themselves to a few meaningful examples showing the development of exoskeletons (chapter 2) and endoskeletons (chapter 3) over time, and (2) used more of the available page space explaining how their respective skeletons worked for these animals in particular, and how they evolved to adapt to the changing conditions of their environment.  By the time we got to chapter 7 (“Flying Skeletons”) especially, I was hoping for just this type of contents, as for once the chapter title sounded specific enough to suggest just this, but again, unfortunately, the same approach as before prevailed.  Equally disappointing — though perhaps tell-tale as to the authors’ approach — was the fact that they kept trotting out that generalizing “birds are dinosaurs” line without any sort of explanation or qualification whatsoever.

That said, there is no question that this is a book written by two scientists who not only know but truly care about their stuff, and who can write about it without resorting to rhetorical fireworks all the time — which made for a very nice change compared to some of our recent Flat Book Society reads.  In fact, my disappointment with the superficiality of the contents stems precisely from the fact that these are authors who very well could have provided more depth if they had chosen to; and they could have done so without wasting half the available page space on hyperbole.

So in summary, if you’re just looking for an overview of all the types of skeletons and skeleton-equipped creatures that have ever existed, plus a bit of (sketchy but factual) biographical information on some of the past heroes (and heroines) of paleobiology and geology, this is your book.  Just don’t expect much of the information being provided to be extended to the creatures populating todays world, and none of it to focus on how the skeletons of today’s creatures equip them for their respective lifestyles — let alone, how precisely the human skeleton evolved to its present makeup and what (other than well-known factors such as our brains, erect gait and opposable thumbs) has allowed us to gain such preeminence that we’ve pushed pretty much every other mammal to the sidelines worldwide and are in a fair way of achieving the same even with creatures that have so far always vastly outnumbered us (such as insects).

Three final takeaways:

* Note to self: If you want to know about present-day life on earth, don’t read a book written by paleobiologists.

* After all these millions and millions of years, it still all comes down to plankton.  Kill off the plankton in our oceans, and we’re doomed.  (Not the planet as such.  Just us, and pretty much any and all other currently-existing creatures, too; regardless whether landlubbers or oceanic.)

* Scientists love science fiction movies, because they love to point out where the “science” in those movies fails.  It’s still a good thing, though, that they’re neither in charge of movie making nor of public safety, at least not in any scenario even remotely like those typically portrayed in science fiction movies.  Because I really don’t believe it would go down well — either in a movie or in real life — if in the face of an attack by swarms of giant spiders, or similar exoskeleton-clad monsters, public safety officials were to tell people, “Relax, we just need to wait until they’re going to moult … then we’ll get them.  Until then, it’s probably a good idea if you don’t leave your houses (ever), because yeah, these are man-eaters and they’re bigger than us and they’re out there to get you.  And no, we don’t think they’re all going to moult at the same time, either.  But hey, it can only be a matter of time until they do, right??”



Original post:

Terry Pratchett: Sourcery

Ooooh, I like this one.

It’s got a “knife to a gun fight” reference (only involving porcupines) and a [literally] kick-ass heroine, takes digs at Aladdin and The Lord of the Rings — especially The Two Towers –, the Four Horsepersons of the Apothe…ca…thingamagig make an appearance, and the Librarian is taking a stand — an important one.  (It would be important.)

Also, it’s safe to say that by book 5, Pratchett had found his Discworld legs once and for all.



Original post:

Discworld – Remaining 2019 Group Reads. NEXT ONE (SOURCERY) STARTS JUNE 1

Sourcery - Terry Pratchett Wyrd Sisters  - Terry Pratchett Pyramids - Terry Pratchett Guards! Guards!  - Terry Pratchett

For those who are planning to participate in the next Discworld group reads, these are, for the rest of this year:

* Sourcery (Rincewind #3) — beginning June 1 (tomorrow)
* Wyrd Sisters (Witches #2) — beginning August 1
* Pyramids (Ancient Civilizations #1) – beginning October 1
   — Coinciding with Halloween Bingo.  Maybe we’ll find a way to work it in? —
* Guards! Guards! (City Watch #1) — beginning December 1
   — Potentially coinciding with Festive Tasks (if hosted this year). —

Original post:

Terry Pratchett: Mort

Wizard’s, um, Death’s Apprentice

Hmm.  I suspect like other early Discworld books (particularly Equal Rites), I’m going to come to like this one considerably better upon a reread.  Going by first impressions, it begins with a hefty shower of sparkle, and both dialogue and plot hit high points whenever either of the two female leads (Death’s adopted daughter Ysabell and Princess Keli, heiress to the throne of Sto-Lat) or, of course, Death himself appear — I mean, just the mere notion of Death attending a party or ditching his day job to work as a chef is sheer genius in and of itself.

Somehow, though, it’s definitely still on the light side of Pratchett, and the main wizard’s Death’s apprentice plotline doesn’t quite work for me — maybe because Pratchett already did similar things in the first two books (what but a bumbling wizard’s apprentice is Rincewind?), only with a pointed spoof of 1980s fantasy conventions added into the mix.  I also have to say that the ending didn’t quite work for me.

Obviously, the idea of a “swashbuckler meets Star Wars meets Pratchett” cloak and dagger sword light saber scythe duel involving Death as such is yet another brilliantly inspired choice.  BUT Death is (as we are explicitly assured over and over again in this book, too) the ultimate impartial arbiter, devoid of any emotions.  (He famously has no sense of humour, and he expressly tells Mort that notions of “right” and “wrong” or “fair” and “unfair” are not for him, or anybody in his line of work, to consider: “You cannot interfere with fate. Who are you to judge who should live and who should die?”)  Therefore it felt seriously off to me to see Death displaying not merely anger but outright fury when he learns what Mort has done — and duelimg Mort not for sport (which would have been in character) but to vent his fury and in order teach him a ((near-)fatal) lesson.

Then again, Pratchett sure does love to meddle with the bloodlines of nobility, doesn’t he?  Is there a single royal family on the whole of Discworld that doesn’t have the bearers of its ancient blood replaced, either openly or on the sly, by a commoner at some point?  Not counting the odd witch, of course …

Well, at least now I know part of the back story of Hogfather, though.  And I’m still vastly enjoying this journey through the Discworld universe from the very beginning!  After thoroughly having enjoyed several of the later books, it still feels only right to finally catch up with how it all started.


Original post:

The April Buddy Reads

Reblogged from: Moonlight Reader

All right, everyone, open thread for April buddy reads/readalongs/etc.


What I know so far:


April 1:


Mort - Terry Pratchett 


Discworld is reading the 4th Discworld book, Mort, which is also the first in the “Death” subseries. The buddy read starts on April 1, and continues through the end of April, so you can jump in any time!


April 1:


The Floating Admiral - G.K. Chesterton,G.D.H. Cole,Dorothy L. Sayers,Ronald Knox,Edgar Jepson,Freeman Wills Crofts,Victor L. Whitechurch,Detection Club,Anthony Berkeley,John Rhode,Clemence Dane,Henry Wade,Margaret Cole,Milward Kennedy,Agatha Christie,Helen Simpson 


BrokenTune, Lillelara and I are planning a buddy read of this collaborative novel by various authors of The Detection Club.


April 19:



The Agathytes are reading Crooked House


Other possibilities:


Chris’ Fish Place, Tigus & I are discussing a Maigret-along, although we haven’t identified a book or a date.


Themis & I are going to continue with reading Agatha’s plays, planning on Murder on the Nile, although I don’t recall if we set a date. Sometime in April is my recollection – Themis, did we actually pick a date?


There’s also been a lot of talk about the RITAs and how authors of color aren’t nominated/don’t win in a way that suggests a hostility of romancelandia towards those authors. I have been interested in reading something by Beverly Jenkins for a while, and would love to buddy read with other readers. When I asked Ms. Bev which of her books she would recommend a new reader, she suggested Indigo, so I’d love to start with that one!


If you are hosting a buddy read that you want me to add to the post, put it in the comments. If you are interested in getting one going, put it in the comments and we’ll see what develops!

Original post:

Hear ye, hear ye — there have been two monstrous Discworld occurrences here on BookLikes! Find out all about it!

Equal Rites  - Terry Pratchett

And they’re both the fault of your host — i.e., yours truly.


First of all, I totally missed the start date of our present group read — Equal Rites — which was on February 1.  I’m not sure how many of us will want to (re)read this one as it’s not a general favourite, but anyway … there we are.  The discussion thread is HERE


… which swiftly takes us to snafu no. 2, which is the decidedly bigger one:


Somehow, when creating the Discworld group last year, I totally missed the fact that you only get both a book club and a discussion group linked with it (i.e., the combination of both the club and group features) if you create the club first — which will then have a discussion group auto-attached to it.  If, as I did, you create the the group first, it will not have a club (with its handy reading schedule feature) attached to it … nor can you combine it with a club if you create one later. 


I discovered all this — you guessed it — when creating a Discworld book club AFTER we had already gotten the Discworld discussion group up and running.  At first I thought oh well, let’s just forget about the club feature (also, RL seriously got in the way in the interim), but as some of the Discworld group members have since found the club and have already signed up for membership, I hereby officially give you


The BookLikes Discworld Book Club


with its very own attendant and brand new


Discworld Discussion Group.


(For purposes of clarity: This is the NEW group auto-created by the system when I created the book club page.)


As it’s really very handy to have the combined book club and discussion group features, I suggest we continue using the new discussion group henceforth — I’ll post a message corresponding with this one in the old group, too.


So, if you are / were a member of the old Discworld discussion group but haven’t signed up for membership with the new Discworld Book Club yet, you may want to do so now.


Also: Once I’ve posted the message in the old Discworld group, I’ll start transferring our old posts and discussions from that group to the new group.  So if you’re already a member of the new club (+ group) and see lots of notifications for me having posted something in the new group, please disregard — this is just me replicating the discussions we already had.  (I may not do all of them, but I at least want to copy the essentials across.)


Ahem.  As you were …


Original post:

Sam Kean: The Disappearing Spoon

DNF @ Chapter 4

I think it’s fair to say that if I prefer doing office admin chores and listening to a(n albeit truly fascinating) memoir about growing up in and getting out of North Korea to reading this book, that’s a pretty good indication I won’t be getting back to this.

Chapter 4 started readable, but within 2 pages we had the next bit of arrogant nose-snubbing, at the scientist authors of one of the most groundbreaking papers in all of 20th century science writing no less, with a casual misinterpretation of two lines by Shakespeare tagged on in another asterisked footnote — and I decided I just couldn’t take it any longer.

Writerly tone aside: if I find that I can’t trust an author’s pronouncements on the bits of his book that I can instantly verify based on my own knowledge, experience and interests (e.g., European history and Shakespeare’s writing) … how can I possibly trust him on the bits that I cannot verify quite as easily and quickly?

So Huggins must regretfully record that I’m outta here as well.  I think we may seriously need to review our Flat Book Society book selection procedure …

Original post:


Prior Status Updates

31 Pages:

Well, let’s just say Mr. Kean clearly isn’t Helen Czerski (and that is not a good thing).

He either has no clear conception of who his target audience is, or he doesn’t know how to talk to his audience.  Someone with an average to advanced training in science obviously wouldn’t need any explanations as to the structure of the periodic table, to begin with.  The rest of us might need one — but (and it speaks volumes that I even have to emphasize this) a clearly structured one, please, not an assortment of anecdotes that blows any explanatory structure clean out of the window.  Also, if you’re writing a book subtitled (in part) “…Tales of … the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements“, wouldn’t it be a good idea to give your readers an idea when and how the periodic table itself made its first appearance in the history of the world?  Just a paragraph or so, for reference in conjunction with its basic structure, so we know where we are, both in chemical terms and the history of science?  (Ms. Czerski did just that.  But as I said … Mr. Kean clearly isn’t Helen Czerski.)

So far, he’s managed the feat that only one of my school teachers ever managed, and that was my physics teacher, who, like Sam Kean, presented his material full of enthusiasm as to the magic of it all, or the big joke associated with a given scientific fact / discovery, or some other reaction clearly warranted in his eyes, while completely failing to transport to the rest of us — and hence, leaving us entirely mystified — what all all of this had to do with any of us and why it was actually important (other than in a way that only the initiated would be able to appreciate).  I used to actually like chemistry in school (unlike physics), and I believed I had a fairly good grip on the subject — an impression my teachers seemed to share, judging by my grades.   A major reason for this was the fact that (unlike in physics class) I never had a moment’s doubt as to why what I was learning mattered, and how it all fitted together in the grand scheme of things.  But if I didn’t at least have this distant reservoir to rely on, I’m pretty sure I’d be entirely baffled already.  And I can only hope that this state of affairs is going to improve, because otherwise I’m either going to throw in the towel or it’s going to take me eons to finish this book (and it won’t earn a particularly high rating, either).

Original post:


63 Pages:

The fact that I actually finished chapter 3 the day before yesterday and it took BT’s first status update for me to remember to also comment on my own progress probably tells you all you need to know about the priority this book has in my reading.

Well, the good news, I guess, is that chapters 2 and 3 are actually readable.  I don’t think I’ll retain from them much more than I already knew (and chapter 2 is another example of Kean getting stuck on two elements, amplified on by way of numerous details, after setting out to make a more general point), but at least he held my attention for the duration of those two chapters, and chapter 3 also contains a historical positioning of the periodic table.  Since this is the final chapter of the introductory section of the book, I’ll retract my criticism that he didn’t give any sort of historical introduction at all.  Which however doesn’t excuse the amount of condescension and outright innuendo going on in the description of the key biographical details of the scientists whose works he is describing in chapters 2 and 3.

That said, two days have gone by and I still haven’t been able to bring myself to move on to chapter 4.  As I mentioned in my comments on BT’s status update, somehow the combination of atoms as a topic and this author’s fractured approach to narrative and explanations doesn’t portend much encouragement.  Nor does his approach to the presentation of scientific theories (psst, Mr. Kean — that’s where footnotes just might be put to good use) … or his dealings with the biographies of several eminent scientists of the past, who can actually count genuine, important discoveries among their achievements.  I’ll be on a full-day trip tomorrow, and although it will include some train travel, I don’t see myself actually taking this book.  I also don’t think I’ll be in much of a mood to touch it tomorrow night when I get back.  I guess what I’m saying is I’m still on the fence whether or not to finish this.

Original post: