ANIMAL WEAPONS: THE EVOLUTION OF BATTLE by Douglas J. Emlen

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Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle
By Douglas J. Emlen
Henry Holt and Co. – November 2014
ISBN 9780805094503 – 288 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads First-Reads


This is an engaging pop sci look at the evolution of morphologies and behaviors that influence conflict in animals. Why can animals display such starting traits of aggression? Why do some species have such stunning features like the teeth of sharks, the tusks of an elephant, or the elaborate, varied horns of beatles? These features seem to often defy logic. Sucking an exceptional amount of precious energy from the animal, conflict and the ornamentations associated with it (defensive and offensive) seem to evolve in some species to absurd extremes that shorten an animal’s life span.
Emlen explains how such traits and behaviors evolve, and why. The simple answer for the latter is what drives evolution of any characteristic. Those with the genes to produce the characteristic have better reproductive success – of passing on those genes to the next generation.
Chapter by chapter Emlen describes particular cases observed in animals where evolution of defensive or offensive traits is evident. Tying these to a human metaphor of war and technology, Emlen draws parallels between what is seen in biology and what is seen in human history in terms of weapon and armor development.
In terms of the science I am a little disappointed in the focus on animals alone. The weapon metaphor could certainly extend through all of life, with more interesting and varied examples. Moreover, the evolution of battle long predates animals; he really is only covering a tiny recent set of biological developments in this realm. But Emlen’s expertise is in animals and that is the group of organisms that everyone is most familiar with, so okay.
I did appreciate the basic history of human developments in battle that Emlen used to compare with the biological examples. The battle metaphor begins to stretch a little though with the close of the book which begins to postulate on how the future of human developments in weapons could lead to unavoidable catastrophe. This is certainly true. I am not convinced that biological systems of evolution are good proof of this however. Biological evolution is not the same as the ‘evolution’ of technology. The selection for weapon-like traits or battle-related behaviors in animals is not the same as in human war. While it makes for a catchy close to the book, it isn’t accurate or particularly meaningful, beyond a play on emotions.
Though I feel there are some issues with this book in taking very precise scientific concepts and trying to popularize them to a general audience, for the most part I think Emlen does well and would recommend this to anyone with an interest in biology or nature.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher via the Goodreads First-Reads program in exchange for an honest review.

Small Friends Considered

My latest post on the microbiology blog Small Things Considered, hosted by the American Society for Microbiology, features a trio of brief book reviews that should actually be of interest to a broad audience, not just microbiologists. See the reviews here.

The first two are of children’s picture books that tell fictionalized stories telling the biology of symbiosis in the microbial world. They also include fantastically illustrated appendices explaining the science in more detail:

25022719The Squid, The Vibrio & the Moon
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Aviva Reed)
Scale Free Network – September 2014
ISBN 9780992587208 – 36 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

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Zobi and the Zoox
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Aviva Reed)
Scale Free Network – December 2014
ISBN 9780992587215 – 44 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

The third book reviewed is of a new graphic novel from the publisher that unfolds on two levels: a macro level from the point of view of a Victorian nurse during World War I, and a micro level from the point of view of the resident gut microbes (including the roles of phage) that fight to keep the nurse alive when she contracts dysentery.

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The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Ben Hutchins)
Scale Free Network – August 2016
ISBN 9780992587253 – 88 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

Please check out the post on Small Things Considered to read more about these. Also keep your eyes here for an upcoming link there to reviews I’m now writing on The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David R. Montgomery & Anne Biklé, and of Ed Yong’s new release I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.

WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER by Carla Norton

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What Doesn’t Kill Her
(Reeve LeClaire Series #2)
By Carla Norton
Minotaur Books – June 2015
ISBN 9781250032805 – 313 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Publisher


A sequel to Norton’s debut novel The Edge of Normal, this continuation of Reeve LeClaire’s story can still be picked up and enjoyed by any who haven’t read its predecessor. I reviewed the first novel here last year, and was impressed with how well Norton handled an intense, traumatic subject matter in a responsible way while also keeping the book honest, well paced, and suspenseful. For better or for worse, What Doesn’t Kill Her consistently matches all the notes of that first novel. The writing, plot, and characters are just as engaging as in the first book. What Doesn’t Kill Her continues the storyline of its predecessor, and Reeve LeClaire evolves in significant ways from her past and the events of book one.
However, themes of the first novel reappear in the sequel and the threats that face Reeve are at least partially a rehash of the conflicts in The Edge of Normal. For new readers getting introduced to the character – the scars of her past and the brave steps she takes to move on – this sequel will be approachable and a complete discovery. Fans of the first book will certainly enjoy it, but perhaps find it a bit familiar in terms of what the plot is throwing at its protagonist.
The Edge of Normal introduced Reeve LeClaire, a young woman in her early twenties who a decade prior was the victim of kidnapping and captivity by a sexual predator. Living with memories of this traumatic past, Reeve hesitantly answers a call from her psychiatrist and her own conscience to help a young girl just saved from similar captivity, whose kidnapper remains at large, watching the escaped girl and Reeve from the shadows. In What Doesn’t Kill Her, Flint, the man who abducted Reeve, has managed to escape from prison. With her former tormentor evading capture and targeting her anew, Reeve feels that she must bear the responsibility of stopping Flint.
This plot depends on Reeve believably going after an escaped criminal and killer who she has a personal, horrible, history with. A bit of a stretch, Norton makes it work based on the insights that Reeve has on Flint’s psychology and life, based on what she overheard and experienced during her captivity. The authorities involved in Flint’s capture don’t have this insight, so to force Reeve into action Norton has to make the police somewhat unresponsive to following up on Reeve’s memories and feelings. This does provide a nice impetus for Reeve’s growth as a character, as she begins to have bad memories return and is forced to face and overcome them. It also continues Reeve’s independence, of not being reliant on others, particularly male authority figures, to simply step in and protect/save her.
This plot also returns to putting Reeve in physical danger, kidnapping situations where she is again faced with an evil captor. It ends up feeling like a retread of the climax of the first book, and now the cat-and-mouse game leading up to confrontation doesn’t have that element of the first book where Reeve is primarily acting to protect another young girl. Now it is completely about her, her past, her safety and future. I do look forward to future books in this series, and despite some familiar situations that brought me some disappointment from this novel relative to the first, it overall is still an excellent read.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

DEFYING DOOMSDAY, Edited by Tsana Dolichva & Holly Kench

Freshly posted yesterday, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

defyingdoomsday

 

“People with disability already live in a post-apocalyptic world.” – Robert Hoge

This crowd-funded anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction showcases the theme of disabled or chronically-ill protagonists. Edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, the collection features many Aussie female writers (though not exclusively) and names likely both familiar and new to speculative fiction readers. With all of its diversity in characters, apocalyptic setting, and featured disability/illness, Defying Doomday is remarkably consistent in tone and quality

Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Contents:

And the Rest of Us Wait by Corinne Duyvis
To Take Into the Air My Quiet Breath by Stephanie Gunn
Something in the Rain by Seanan McGuire
Did We Break the End of the World? by Tansy Rayner Roberts
In the Sky with Diamonds by Elinor Caiman Sands
Two Somebodies Go Hunting by Rivqa Rafael
Given Sufficient Desperation by Bogi Takács
Selected Afterimages of the Fading by John Chu
Five Thousand Squares by Maree Kimberley
Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade
Tea Party by Lauren E Mitchell
Giant by Thoraiya Dyer
Spider-Silk, Strong as Steel by Samantha Rich
No Shit by K Evangelista
I Will Remember You by Janet Edwards

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher tin exchange for an honest review.

Eric Nyquist Cover Reveal: CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT by S.C. Flynn

This week’s reviews are still being written amid the Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phage conference, but in the meantime I have some other items to quick post, including the reveal of this excellent cover for a title that I’m looking forward to reading. Look for my upcoming review of it coming toward the end of this month. For now, perhaps the premise interests you too:

Here is the cover created by Californian artist Eric Nyquist for S.C. Flynn’s Australian post-apocalyptic fantasy novel CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT. The novel releases on September 10 in ebook, paperback and audiobook and the ebook version is available now for pre-order on Kindle:(Amazon US), (Amazon UK) or (Amazon Australia).

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Nineteen years ago, a brain disease known as the Great Madness killed most of the world’s population. The survivors all had something different about their minds. Now, at the start of adolescence, their children enter a trance-like state known as the Changeland and emerge either with special mental powers or as cannibalistic Ferals.

In the great forest of South West Western Australia, thirteen-year-old Arika and her twin brother Narrah go through the Changeland. They encounter an enemy known as the Anteater who feeds on human life. He exists both in the Changeland and in the outside world, and he wants the twins dead.

After their Changings, the twins have powers that let them fight their enemy and face their destiny on a long journey to an abandoned American military base on the north-west coast of Australia…if they can reach it before time runs out.

Read more about Flynn’s take on the cover, and find an extract of the novel to read, on his Goodreads blog.

THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, VOLUME SEVEN, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven

Edited by Ellen Datlow
Night Shade Books – August 2015
ISBN 9781597805759 – 400 Pages – eBook
Source: Edelweiss


Contents:
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“Winter Children” by Angela Slater
“A Dweller in Amenty” by Genevieve Valentine
“Outside Heavenly” by Rio Youers
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix
“Allochton” by Livia Llewellyn
“Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones
“This is Not For You” by Gemma Files
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“The Culvert” by Dale Bailey
“Past Reno” by Brian Evenson
“The Coat off His Back” by Keris McDonald
“The Worms Crawl” by Laird Barron
“The Dogs Home” by Alison Littlewood
“Persistence of Vision” by Orrin Grey
“It Flows from the Mouth” by Robert Shearman
“Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor
“Departures” by Carole Johnstone
“Ymir” by John Langan
“Plink” by Kurt Dinan
“Nigredo” by Cody Goodfellow

A week of short story collection reviews, and the second of a horror anthology edited by the hardworking Ellen Datlow. This seventh volume of the Best Horror of the Year series came out last summer; Volume Eight is now available as well, though I haven’t gotten to read it yet. For fans or the curious,  you can currently enter to win a copy of the new volume in a Goodreads’ giveaway courtesy of Night Shade Books (entry deadline of 12th August 2016).
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In the sea of short story anthologies Volume Seven  is excellent, and it represents the variety of horror short fiction well. How you define horror and your expectations of the genre may cloud your appreciation of this. But if you are a regular reader there shouldn’t be any big surprises in the kinds of stories here or the authors included: genre leaders who frequently appear in horror anthologies, certainly those edited by Datlow. Horror is not always synonymous with scary or supernatural, so there is a range of tales in the collection which brush against other labels within the continuum of genre – such as crime, or ‘mainstream lit’.
As always with such variety most readers won’t love everything here, because reading has that personal component and none of us are clones of Datlow. (Or are some of you out there? Hmmm, that would explain her prolific output of quality…) For me there were several stories in Volume Seven that I just didn’t care for. It also features a relatively high number of entries I had read previously, most notably three from the Datlow-edited Fearful Symmetries (reviewed by me here). Those three in question are all excellent, but I know readers may have an issue with such recycling. I didn’t mind too much as I read them far enough apart, but even to me it seemed a bit too high in overlap. Then again if you aren’t a regular reader of this stuff, you won’t mind a bit!
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This volume begins with Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” one of those Fearful Symmetries stories. Mixing the occult, black-market antiques, and a criminal underworld the story is dark and entertaining, in a manner that reminds me, with its bayou setting, of Albert E. Cowdrey’s fantasy/horror often found in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ballingrud’s story is just as entertaining and the prose is even more magical. The aforementioned magazine is the source of another of my favorite stories in this volume, Dale Bailey’s “The Culvert”, which deals with the creepy, dangerous explorations of childhood and the connection between twins. Robert Shearman’s stories are always inventive and creepy (I previously reviewed his collection They Do the Same Things Differently There), and his offering here of “It Flows from the Mouth” is no different. Highly recommended. Langan has a story here, “Ymir” that fits in mythological fantasy more than horror. I didn’t really care though, as it is an entertaining tale.
One thing I was happy to note in this anthology was the inclusion of two stories from John Joseph Adams’ Nightmare magazine, a relatively young sister to the SFF Lightspeed. Each month this outlet puts out a small selection of quality horror fiction, along with some nonfiction such as essays on what ‘horror’ means to various individuals. The two stories included here may not have been my favorite from that year from its electronic pages, but they are quite good. “This is Not for You” by Gemma Files is from their Women Destroy Horror! special issue that I still haven’t managed to read, and I hope the rest of it is as interesting and well done as Files’ story. Valentine’s story “A Dweller in Amenty” is a poignant and powerful one on the concept of ‘Sin-eating’.
The biggest, and most surprising, disappointment in the collection is “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan. I had high expectations as I like Kiernan’s dark fiction, and lots of other readers were calling this a favorite. Its language is utterly melodic and beautiful, but I found it ultimately un-engaging beyond that, the story predictable and flat. On the other end of the spectrum “Plink” by Kurt Dinan impressed me greatly. Psychological horror that touches the sometimes difficult relationship between teacher and student, it perhaps connected with me even more because of my academic profession. Dinan is utterly new to me though he’s appeared in other collections before, such as Paula Guran’s 2010 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. He recently had his debut novel for young adults released (Don’t Get Caught), and that’s now on my  to-read list.
This wasn’t my favorite collection edited by Datlow, but it was still very enjoyable overall and it reinforced some favorite authors in my memory for future reading decisions. Most fans of horror fiction or interested newbies should certainly give it a look, but if you extensively read the genre there will be better anthology options out there of original material of course.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS by Nalo Hopkinson

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Falling in Love with Hominids
By Nalo Hopkinson
Tachyon Publications – August 2015
ISBN 9781616961992 – 240 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“The Easthound”
“Soul Case”
“Message in a Bottle”
“The Smile on the Face”
“Left Foot, Right”
“Old Habits”
“Emily Breakfast”
“Herbal”
“A Young Candy Daughter”
“A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog”
“Shift”
“Delicious Monster”
“Snow Day”
“Flying Lessons”
“Whose Upward Flight I Love”
“Blushing”
“Ours is the Pretties”
“Men Sell Not Such in Any Town”

“I didn’t used to like people much.” So starts Hopkinson in the forward to her third short fiction collection, Falling in Love with Hominids. The title comes from a line by science fiction author Cordwainer Smith, whose “Instrumentality of Mankind” work Hopkinson cites as an important influence on her own writing.
“I loved his imagination, style, the poetry of his writing, his compassion. Loved his sensibility in writing about a racialized, manufactured underclass and telling some of the stories from their context.”
The stories within this collection originate from across roughly a decade span of Hopkinson’s writing career; with varied styles and themes they are absolutely unified only in their author. So then who is Hopkinson?
Born in Jamaica and raised in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada, Hopkinson writes speculative fiction and fantasy that typically includes elements of Caribbean culture and tradition. Many readers appreciate this perspective that her heritage provides the field, and she is equally valued for sincere inclusion of characters who may be any combination of people-of-colo(u)r, female, or queer. Such unique perspective alone shouldn’t define her work though. Above all Hopkinson is talented, attracting the respect of writers such as Junot Díaz and earning accolades such as the 1999 Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
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The uniqueness of her perspective also doesn’t mean that her writing is just for people like her. It’s really important to have books by all kinds of people, not just straight, white men. But that doesn’t mean that a book by a straight, white man can’t speak to a queer, black woman. Or in this case, the reverse. Hopkinson’s writing touches all those qualities that her quote on Cordwainer Smith mentions. She writes universal, core themes of what it is to be human, to deal with despair and to fight it. As her forward to the collection relates, this comes from her own evolution as an individual in society.

“One of the progressions I’ve made is from being a depressed teenager who saw how powerless she was to change all the ills around her to being a mostly cheerful fifty-something who realizes there are all kinds of ways of working together towards positive change… So part of the work of these past few decades of my life has been the process of falling love with hominids.”

The opening story of this collection, “The Easthound”, is an exquisite introduction to the range of Hopkinson’s writing. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where adults become ‘sprouted’ into creatures that kill and feed upon the living, the story uses setting and a minimized plot as backdrop to focus on characters and emotion. This balance – tending towards what typically gets called literary – is typical of Hopkinson’s stories. Also common for her work, here she takes a general premise that should be familiar to science fiction fans and puts on her unique twist. Her writing is not usually ‘light’ reading and some of her stories benefit from multiple reads because nuanced characteristics aren’t at first registered. Yet, “The Easthound” demonstrates that Hopkinson can write taut action sequences amid more quiet moments of deep character introspection. The language can vary from the straight-forward to a more artistic poetry, such as lines in this story that form part of a ‘Loup-de-lou‘ game that children play.
Because of her range as a writer, readers may not enjoy or appreciate all the stories in the collection. Some, like “Flying Lessons” or “Blushing” seem designed to challenge the author and reader alike. “Soul Case” puts a lot of complexity into a relatively small bit of space. (Not unlike, perhaps, fitting a  soul and intelligence into the limitations of a human body, the ‘soul case’ of the title). For some its explorations of politics, history, race, and humanity will work brilliantly. Others may wish its soul had more room to breathe, to develop within the novella length. “Shift” adds a Caribbean twist to The Tempest, another example of a story grounded in something familiar to contrast with stories that have elements more unconventional – and verging on bizarro, like in “Emily Breakfast” or “Snow Day”.
Overall this collection conveys a feeling of reading folklore. Readers particularly drawn to that style of fantasy will probably easily enjoy Falling in Love with Hominids, as Hopkinson uses the style effectively even in the context of a science fiction tale. Some of the stories here have been included elsewhere, including “Best of…” anthologies, pointing to Hopkinson’s success and recognition. If you haven’t yet experienced her writing, there is no better place to get a representative view of it as this.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.