Review: The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

Published by Penguin Press

5 stars

Synopsis:

Birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. In fact, according to revolutionary new research, some birds rival primates and even humans in their remarkable forms of intelligence.  Like humans, many birds have enormous brains relative to their size. Although small, bird brains are packed with neurons that allow them to punch well above their weight.

In The Genius of Birds, acclaimed author Jennifer Ackerman explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds and how it came about. As she travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research— the distant laboratories of Barbados and New Caledonia, the great tit communities of the United Kingdom and the bowerbird habitats of Australia, the ravaged mid-Atlantic coast after Hurricane Sandy and the warming mountains of central Virginia and the western states—Ackerman not only tells the story of the recently uncovered genius of birds but also delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are revolutionizing our view of what it means to be intelligent.

Consider, as Ackerman does, the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later; the mockingbirds and thrashers, species that can store 200 to 2,000 different songs in a brain a thousand times smaller than ours; the well-known pigeon, which knows where it’s going, even thousands of miles from familiar territory; and the New Caledonian crow, an impressive bird that makes its own tools.

But beyond highlighting how birds use their unique genius in technical ways, Ackerman points out the impressive social smarts of birds. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They alert one another to danger. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. They may even grieve.

This elegant scientific investigation and travelogue weaves personal anecdotes with fascinating science. Ackerman delivers an extraordinary story that will both give readers a new appreciation for the exceptional talents of birds and let them discover what birds can reveal about our changing world. Incredibly informative and beautifully written, The Genius of Birds richly celebrates the triumphs of these surprising and fiercely intelligent creatures.

 


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**Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher and author for a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for an honest review**

Now there’s a synopsis and a half! Also, can you think of a single more delectable publisher for this book than Penguin press? (Not even remotely relevant to the review, it just made me smile)

This book is a perfect blend of science, references and anecdotes. It’s packed full of information about the different aspects of avian intelligence, but it manages to keep it light and entertaining so you don’t feel like you’re reading a science journal (I did my time in University studying Zoology, I appreciate that good science is still good even if it isn’t entertaining but I also really appreciate science being teamed up with a talented author).

Ackerman is really enthusiastic about her subject matter and she gets you caught up in it, birds really are inspirational and beautiful in all the ways they’ve adapted to life in the modern world. The book is quirky and the anecdotes make the scientific content really easy to understand for anyone with even the most casual of interests in birds.

The overall theme of the book is about the intelligence of birds – how it can be measured, how it can be compared between species and how their intelligence has evolved over millennia to get them where they are today.

I haven’t reviewed many non-fiction books so I’m going to go through this chapter by chapter to let you know what you can expect:

Chapter 1.

The first chapter explores how the size of the brain relates to intelligence in birds, there are loads of examples that demonstrate that brain size can be related to different traits in birds, but questions whether or not those traits are ‘intelligent’ or not by definition.

Chapter 2.

My favourite fact in this chapter was the idea of pedomorphosis – essentially that birds are fluffy baby dinosaurs with giant heads. The idea being that the small bodies help them fly and do birdy shit but the big heads give them space for a proportionally large head and eyeballs.

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Chapter 3.

Birds use tools. Like feathery monkeys.
I find this absolutely fascinating, different birds in different spots about the globe have figured out pretty complicated puzzles and how to use tools to help them get what they want. If this isn’t a sign of intelligence as we understand it, I don’t know what is!

Chapter 4.

Do social habits make birds intelligent? Some species teach/coach their young so they have all the skills and knowledge they’ll need to survive into adulthood, the longer the juvenile stage of the bird, the larger the brain of the species, it seems.

Chapter 5.

Birds can learn and remember a huge number of calls and songs, some can even imitate non birdy sounds. Again, some have greater talent in this area than others so this chapter considers whether or not this makes them ‘intelligent’.

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Chapter 6.

Navigation and migration is something that birds are famous for and there are several theories on how they manage it – magnetic field vision, magnetic hearing, scent detection. This chapter explores those theories but at the end of the day we still don’t know exactly how it is that birds migrate to the same place every year across the world and still make it back in time for summer.

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Chapter 7.

Some birds are just cool. They know just how to navigate this crazy world of ours and roll with the punches that humanity aims at them.

What I learnt in this chapter is that sparrows are especially cool: they steal feathers from a pigeon’s arse while it’s still living so that they can line their nests. Some city sparrows also use cigarette butts in their nests because they repel parasites. That nugget of wisdom blew my mind.

It’s a fun and hugely educational read, if you have an interest in wildlife and animal behaviour – please give this book your time!

 

Audio Review: Heir to the North by Steven Poole

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Published by Kristell Ink Books

5 stars

Synopsis:

“Caenthell will stay buried, and the North will not rise again until I freely offer my sword to a true descendant of the High Kings—or until one takes it from my dying hands!”


With this curse, the Warlock Malessar destroyed Caenthell. The bloodline of the High Kings disappeared and the kingdom faded into dark legend until even stories of the deed lost their power. But now there is an Heir to the North.


Cassia hopes to make her reputation as a storyteller by witnessing a hardened soldier and a heroic princeling defeat Malessar and his foul curse. But neither of her companions are exactly as they appear, and the truth lies deep within stories that have been buried for centuries.


As Cassia learns secrets both soldier and warlock have kept hidden since the fall of Caenthell, she discovers she can no longer merely bear witness. Cassia must become part of the story; she must choose a side and join the battle.
The North will rise again.


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**Thank you to the narrator for a complimentary copy of the audiobook edition of this book in exchange for an honest review**

This was an epic fantasy novel that just made me feel all warm inside. It has all of the staple ingredients of the genre, there’s a curse, an heir, some warlocks and old stories.

It also had all of my favourite things; a well built world, an underdog with untold potential, magic and a wee bit of seafaring.

Cassia is a wonderful character to be narrating the story, she’s been dragged from town to town and neglected by her storyteller father all her life, treated as a nuisance and refused an apprenticeship because she’s ‘only a girl’. The ‘only a girl’ thing is a running theme throughout the book so I enjoyed the two fingers up to that sentiment when Cassia continues to exceed even her own expectations as the book goes on.

I felt that this book was a bit of a slow starter and at 15 hours long, I was worried that I wasn’t going to find the momentum to finish the entire audio but I muddled on and finished the last 10 hours over the course of a few days. I think the issue was that the beginning was mostly introductions and world building, very little actually happened in the present to get your attention.

Poore’s writing style is excellent and very measured, he’s built every detail of this world and its history and makes sure that you’re as familiar with it as he is, which I guess is what puts the ‘epic’ in ‘epic fantasy’.

I don’t want to give away much of the plot because it had some really unexpected twists along the way, REALLY unexpected which had me gasping, like a muppet, while I had the audiobook on in the car.

Diana Croft is an absolute genius of a narrator, she covers a huge array of British accents with spot on accuracy and manages to bring life to a pretty impressive array of characters, each one with their own accent and tone.
I’ve heard her work before in the audio of Ashes by Philip Hemplow (haunted house horror, if you’re interested) and was impressed then, but this is in another league entirely with the sheer variety she needs to cover.

If you’re a fan of epic fantasies, arthurian style legends and magic, I can’t recommend this highly enough. You should definitely opt for the audio version as well, Croft brings this story up to a whole new level for me and I’m sure she will for you too.

 

 

Review: Hunter of the Dead by Stephen Kozeniewski

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Published by Sinister Grin Press

5 stars

Synopsis:

Someone has begun targeting vampires.

Vampire leaders of the thirteen Houses attribute the string of recent losses to over-zealous vampire hunters. Only Cicatrice, the most ancient and powerful vampire in the world, suspects that the semi-legendary Hunter of the Dead may be the real culprit.

Carter Price, a vampire hunter who despises the way his profession is becoming centralized and corporatized, begins to suspect the Hunter of the Dead is back, too – and no longer distinguishing between vampires and mortals. Against his better judgment, Price agrees to work with Cicatrice.

The uneasy allies attempt to uncover the truth about the Hunter, while a vampire civil war brews in the background. But perhaps most difficult of all, they must contend with their new apprentices, who seem to be falling in love with each other against every rule of man and monster…


 

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The gloves are off!

Up to now, Kozeniewski’s books have been funny with a side order of gore but this one is just straight up gore with a side order of horror. People get their faces eaten off and children are being fed to ancient demons.

If I had to guess the biggest influence of this novel, I’d probably go with From Dusk Til Dawn. The vampires aren’t glittery and sexy and the hunters aren’t angsty and indestructible and there are Tarantino levels of ick in this book, so it’s a breath of fresh air on that count.

The story progresses at a fast pace, each chapter dedicated to a different character and perspective which is something I really enjoy – especially with immortal characters, you know you’re going to get some great flashbacks to add to the current story-line.

The Hunter of the Dead is an ancient legend come back to cull the undead in Vegas as their numbers have grown too high, the trouble is that he’s not really that picky about who he kills. This leads to a very uneasy truce between the vampires and the hunters before all hell breaks loose.
Could there be anywhere better for a vampire showdown than Las Vegas? I think not.

My favourite character has to be Idi-Han, the precocious baby vampire who’s sick of taking everyone’s shit. She’s finally in a position of power after a lifetime of being a pawn in everyone else’s game and she’s going to use it to make sure no one else can control her fate from now on, which is something I think we’d all do if we could make people’s heads explode with one hand.

What really makes this book stand out  for me has to be the whole new level of gore, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so shamelessly horrifying before and it was AWESOME.
If real horror vamps and gritty vampire hunters are your thing, then you really can’t read this book soon enough.

‘”They really do make you take your brain out and put it in a jar, don’t they?”

“Hey! You were a jarhead, too!”

“I am a jarhead, honey. Once a jarhead, always a jarhead.”‘ ~ I won the game of ‘Find Stephen Kozeniewski’s reference to jars in his latest book’

 

Review: Death of a Washington Madame (Fiona Fitzgerald Mysteries #3) by Warren Adler

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Published by Rosetta Books

4 stars

Synopsis:

Washington D.C’s struggling underclass and the U.S. Capitol’s socially prominent and politically aggressive upper strata collide in a horrifying crime. Homicide Detective Fiona Fitzgerald once again battles prejudice and privilege to uncover the truth, confronting her own demons while sparring with the violet-eyed movie star wife of a powerful politician determined to erase the sinful secrets of the past.

 

 


 

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 **Thank you to the Warren Adler Book Review Rewards Club for a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for an honest review**

Now this is more like it! This is the third book in the Fiona Fitzgerald mysteries series and it’s like the author had heard everything I hadn’t enjoyed about the first two books and tailor made this book just for me.

My issue with the first two books in the series was that Fiona herself was a needy domestic disaster who spent her days sighing over men rather than doing her job, which she professed to be the most important thing in her life… this time, she knuckles down to solve a murder with her new partner and leaves moping more or less to her own time.

This book is a lot more subtle than the others, dealing with issues such as sexism, racism and class…ism (is that a word?) on a more gentle level rather than being smacked in the face with the solid mahogany bat of bigotry. The issues are important and are the underlying thread for the entire series, but I found that they got in the way of the actual story in previous books.

Fiona and Gail, her new partner, are showing a united front to prove that female police officers have an edge when it comes to solving violent crimes with female victims. The one issue that does cause a bone of contention between the two of them is race – it’s hard to remain neutral when a case hits so close to home, a rich white victim and all the prime suspects are black.

The story had twists and turns aplenty and I’m delighted to say that I hadn’t figured out the ending until it was already happening which makes it a rare joy!
What keeps me coming back for more of this series is the evolution of the characters and the political intrigue. Each books seems to be another step in the right direction for me, so bring on the next in the series, I say!

 

Review: Heartborn by Terry Maggert

 

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Synopsis: 

Her guardian angel was pushed.

Keiron was never meant to be anything other than a hero. Born high above in a place of war and deception, he is Heartborn, a being of purity and goodness in a place where violence and deceit are just around every corner.

His disappearance will spark a war he cannot see, for Keiron has pierced the light of days to save a girl he has never met, for reasons he cannot understand. Livvy Foster is seventeen, brave, and broken. With half a heart, she bears the scars of a lifetime of pain and little hope of survival.

Until Keiron arrives.

In the middle of a brewing war and Livvy’s failing heart, Keiron will risk everything for Livvy, because a Heartborn’s life can only end in one way: Sacrifice.

Fall with Livvy and Keiron as they seek the truth about her heart, and his power, and what it means to love someone who will give their very life to save you.


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AmazonDue for release on the 1st of September 2016


** Thank you to the author for an ARC in exchange for an honest review **

YA isn’t usually my area but I was more than happy to make an exception for Terry Maggert – his Halfway Witchy series is a staple on my comfort reading list and I’m pretty sure I could read and enjoy anything he could possibly come up with.

Keiron is an angel, or something very similar. He’s from a city in a different time and place from the world as we know it, inhabited by angels, a corrupt government system and strong political families. When he takes the plunge to the world below, he leaves behind his wings and sets out to change the life of a girl who hasn’t yet lived hers fully.
I think I would have preferred to have read a little more about Keiron’s character and his backstory but I’m keeping everything crossed for a sequel so I may yet get my chance!

Livvy is a lovely, brave girl who is waiting for a heart transplant to bring her a new life but for now she’s struggling through with her every day. When she meets Keiron for the first time, she suddenly makes a connection and feels that maybe there is more out there for her.

The chapters alternate between telling Livvy’s story and that of the Sliver, the world of the angels. The Sliver was an excellent concept, a mixture of classical and magical, with just enough description to let your imagination fill in the gaps.
I particularly enjoyed the battles and politics being waged in the world of the angels while Livvy’s story is unfolding below, the world included a class system and some kickass gladiator style fights between the corrupt government and their opposition.

It definitely is a YA novel though, so bear that in mind when you get stuck in – it does have teen hand holding and your mandatory mean girls! If you’re looking for the new teen fantasy book, this is definitely it – I can only hope that there’ll be more to come from these characters to take us into battle with the angels.

 

 

Review: Little Killers A to Z by Howard Odentz

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Published by Bell Bridge Books

4 stars

Synopsis: 

Bad things come in small packages . . .
EPIC Award finalist Howard Odentz has penned twenty-six disturbingly fascinating horror stories about the youngest predators among us.


From Andy and Boris to Yuri and Zena, this eclectic anthology is filled, A to Z, with psychopaths, monsters, and murderers!
So turn on the lights and huddle under your blankets because murder isn’t just for grown-ups anymore. Come meet our gallery of little killers.
After all, they’re dying to meet you!


 

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**Thank you to Netgalley, the publisher and author for a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review**

 

This book ticked a lot of boxes for me, not least the front cover which is what first drew me in. It’s just such a good image which lets you know what you can expect when you crack over the cover. Yes, we know I’m shallow when it comes to book covers…. let’s move on.

The book is a collection of horror short stories, each one featuring children as the murderers which is always great fun. The author captures each story with a grim sort of humour which makes them all exceptionally easy and enjoyable to read (humour if you’re a fan of sick horror, like me).
What I found impressive is that out of 26 stories (A-Z), there is a huge amount of variety in the content and not a single one read like a filler to just make up the numbers. Each story had its own tone and characters, and I enjoyed each and every one!

The only reason I give the book 4 stars rather than 5 was that although I enjoyed all of the stories, there wasn’t a single one that particularly stuck out for me as horrific which was what I was hoping for when opening this book – clearly knife wielding psychotic children aren’t scary enough for me these days!

The author’s writing style is excellent and oh so very easy to read, I’m not normally a fan of short story collections but due to the combination of the writing style and how well all of the stories tied in together – I found myself cheerfully finishing the book off in a single sitting over the course of about 3 cups of tea.

If you like horror and you find yourself short on a little reading time at the moment, this is the book for you – each story will only take 5 minutes or so to read so you can easily fit it during those spare moments throughout the day.

Review: The Forever Year by Bill Fuller

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Published by Perkinswood Press

5 stars

Synopsis:

The epic love story you never knew…
The Roaring Twenties: Pool rooms, dance halls, speakeasies. A legendary football hero whose devil-may-care charm belies a tortured soul. A beautiful girl who strains at the bonds imposed by a straitlaced father.


Meet George Gipp and Iris Trippeer, whose love burned brighter than a comet in a pitch-black sky, only to be cut short by a tragedy that rocked the nation. Weaving fact and fiction, The Forever Year follows the star-crossed lovers from breathless first meeting to deathbed promise, framed by the perspective of an older, wiser Iris looking back on the love of her life and resolving to put some painful unfinished business to rest at last.

The Forever Year is inspired by the heartbreaking true story of how one headstrong girl claimed the heart of an American icon.


 

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**Thank you to the author for a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review**

Wow.

I don’t think I’ve ever sobbed so much at the end of a book. I’m talking gross, I-need-tissues-and-an-icepack type crying here.

Seeing as the book is based on a true story and the synopsis tells us as much, I don’t mind saying that George dies prematurely and leaves the love of his life behind. Hence the gross sobbing.

I like to think that Fuller has done both Iris and George justice in his portrayal of them, he has made them both vibrant and charming characters who instantly won my heart. They were both fearless and bold individuals who should have been together from the start but as always, circumstance conspired against them.

George Gipp was a Notre Dame football legend, fans still wear ‘One More for the Gipper’ t-shirts to games today. He was a natural talent when it came to sports and his charisma drew people to him but he was a troubled man, it seemed that only the love of the equally charismatic Iris Trippeer could make him walk the straight and narrow but his untimely death meant that they could never spend their best years together (sob).

 

This story fills in some of the gaps in the known history of these two people and creates something utterly beautiful, but it also adds some historical flavour such as the obstacles Iris would have faced as a woman in the 20s – the cultural expectations to marry a man who can provide for her, her role in the home and how to date someone with a reputation of rougishness while keeping her own reputation intact.

Bill Fuller is an exceptional writer, he seamlessly brought together fact and fiction in this book to the point that it came as a surprise to me to discover that is was based on a true story when I came to the end – it didn’t have any of the usual dry fact-dumps that give it away. He brought the characters to life with the utmost respect and has now converted me to the romance genre, something I didn’t think possible.

Just wow.