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on 2 March 2015
Very well written. The way Fortey ties his narratives of travelling, descriptions of the habitats and information about the organisms keeps the book fresh from cover to cover. One of the best books I have read in years.
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on 13 September 2011
This is the latest of several titles from Fortey. As with all his books, the standard is high. The text is smooth and concise, sliding from one valid, fascinating point to another. Never have I found the irritating practise of having to 'redo', that is, going through the paragraph and attempting to 'decipher' what the writer was trying to say. I found myself quickly turning over the pages, gorging myself on fascinating information, coming to the end of each chapter, eager to read on. Fortey does an excellent job is presenting the information in a way that can quickly be interpreted, regardless of the individual's academic background.

The emphasis is clearly given, that is, the humbling fact of looking at extremophilic bacteria, a velvet worm or a horseshoe crab and realising that a window to the distant past is made available. Indeed, survivors they are, witnesses to terrible mass extinctions and the pace of evolution around them, whereby, fortuitously, they have found the particular niche and 'remained so'.

If you have an interest in the history of life, you will thoroughly enjoy this book.
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on 8 February 2012
A really great book! Far more information than the TV series (which was good) and excellently written.

In my view Richard Fortey's books (and I have nearly all of them) are a great body of highly accessible work around the subject of paleontology, as well as geology.

I think he is now to be ranked with Stephen Jay Gould, but with a major advantage: he writes full books, instead of mainly essays.
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on 8 April 2012
The renowned palaeontologist writes vividly about his encounters with creatures whose ancient origins are not difficult to discern in the fossil record. It's always a pleasure to spend a few hundred pages in the company of Mr Fortey - entertaining and stylish writer that he is - and I finished his latest book filled with a renewed enthusiasm for palaeontology - with its geological and biological foundations - and with a desire to at last find out something about botany.
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on 14 April 2012
This is the first of Fortey's books I have read however I am aware of his reputation, and usually enjoy books about evolution especially with paleontological or geological backgrounds. Hence it was a no-brainer to give it a go.

First, what is good, in my opinion: Fortey as well as being an expert academic paleontologist (which after all is essential before you even think about authoring such a book) is quite a good communicator. One would expect this, since he is based at the Natural History Museum which has a long reputation for powerfully engaging the minds of the general public with, it must be said, some of the most thought-provoking themes available to popular science. I so enjoyed the first fifth of the book that I felt I wanted to carry on reading the whole thing in one long session.

Second, what is not so good, again purely in my own opinion - so don't shoot me. Stylistically and in terms of the organisation of the book, Fortey and his coterie of editors come across as lazy (or short of time) and unfocussed. It's impossible to say how much of this is down to Fortey and how much to others who work professionally with his raw material to try to create a best-seller, so all I can say is how the end product comes over to me.

The themes seem to wander around, rather like Fortey himself has wandered around the planet, very expensively, to research the material. There is litle organisation evident within each chapter to orient the reader, so sometimes a digression away from his current subject leads to something else of importance and never returns, whereas at other times the digressions are temporary - but you never know in advance as they are not signalled. After a while I found I got anxious when he seemed to be diverging from what I thought was the main topic - has he finished with it or not?

The collected colour photographs are not referenced in the text at all (a simply appalling omission, whatever else you may think of my other criticisms), so you have to remember to go off and check every now and again as to whether there is a relevant image for the section you are reading - infuriating. There are also uncorrected slips in the photo legends which suggest a lack of attention late on in the assembly of the book.

Another thing very subject (or not) to a good editor is the use of characteristic short "semi-joke" sentences which Fortey loves to lob in at the end of a usually good descriptive discussion, in case anyone at the back has not been paying attention. Someone with a genuine talent for pointed humour like Bill Bryson can get away with this and it works well, like the final nail being hammered home. Fortey's efforts raised a smile with me for the first chapter or so, after which I got more and more irritated, to the point where I had to stop reading it for a few days to simmer down. In the end I learnt to ignore these sentences completely, which wasn't too difficult. As they were The Short Ones.

In addition, as I implied earlier, I get a distinct sense of unease at the thought of how much money and fossil fuel has been spent providing Fortey with his first-hand meetings with the "survivors" featured in this book. Naturally I understand that he himself is interested to see the animal, plants or bacteria himself in the flesh (as it were) - after all he is happy to be seen as a naturalist perhaps before he moved into academia - but I cannot for the life of me see that he obtained much of value from these trips - value in terms of the theme of the book, I mean. Certainly it provides narrative travel writing, but I didn't buy the book for that and wasn't interested in it. It made me wonder about the "ecological messages" which occasionally appeared. I would frankly much rather he had collaborated remotely with real experts on each survivor, used their latest published research and a good picture library, and written in it his attic. {Oh yes - I am now aware that this was a TV series which explains a huge amount - but I wasn't when I read the book: in any case, the book could and should stand on its own merits).

Finally I guess my most damning conclusion (the thing that frustrated me most) is that despite the wealth of fascinating information, mostly well-marshalled and treated with a light enough touch not to put off general readers, I felt I had learned almost nothing about WHY the organisms featured were survivors. Some have survived for over 500 million years while over 99% of their known fellow species have disappeared. It is not enough to describe them and their habitats, even at first hand to hold a particularly fascinating jellyfish or toad: these organisms (bacteria, plants and animals) shared their environments with hundreds or thousands of other organism species, none of which have survived. What made the difference? As a biological scientist myself, I want to go beyond the pleasant feeling of awe engendered by the knowledge that these organisms have hung around for 5000 times the life of humans on the planet - I want to know what it takes to be a survivor, not just that they ARE survivors. I'm sure Fortey tried to get this across, but I didn't get it. My fault probably!

But you must make your own mind up. It's certainly a fascinating topic (how could it be otherwise), and a lot of it is good. But to me it feels rushed - it could have been far better, and more satisfying.
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on 11 August 2012
As a confessed fan of Dr Fortey, and having reviewed at least one of two of his books before, it is probably not necessary to leave a positive review of 'Survivors'. It goes without saying that this is a great book which answered many of the questions I had about why some animals (e.g. the horseshoe crab) survive more or less unchanged for countless millions of years, while others either rapidly evolve into something else or vanish altogether.

Yet I nevertheless feel compelled to ask (in relation to the BBC TV series of this book ('Survivors: Nature's Indestructible Creatures'))... Was it actually necessary to EAT the species in question?? It was amusing when it came to the sea cucumbers etc., but slightly less so when marvelling about the precarious survival of some near-extinct mammal, only to be seen chowing down on one a few minutes later. Was this the misguided idea of the director, or of Richard himself? Either way... it struck me as peculiar, to say the least.

[But yay for the book anyway].
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on 28 August 2013
I would argue that Richard Fortey's book about Trilobites is easily one of the best popular science books I have read and "Survivors" has the same witty style of writing that is both informative and amusing. That said, I did find some of the information a bit difficult to follow, especially with regard to the earlier forms of life and whilst I don't think any other writer could have probably put the science in a more readable fashion, I still found it difficult to follow - even though I have an A level in biology!

For me, it is the link back to my time studying classification which makes this book interesting and it is fascinating to see how studies in to DNA have rendered so much about what I learned between 1983-5 as redundant. Some of the animals may have been primitive yet it was interesting to become reacquainted with them again as well as animals such as brachiopods which I can recall from some of my old prehistoric animal books that I had as a child. There is a lot of interesting information here and parts of the book are absolutely fascinating. The chapter on plants is surprisingly good.

Having said that, it is pretty clear that the notion of "survivors" isn't quite correct and , as the author is at pains to explain, evolution is a continuous thing so that you learn that the amphibians that exist today are largely descended from post-Cretaceous ancestors. If there is a weakness, it is perhaps a bias towards invertebrates and maybe a fuller explanation of the flora and fauna during each geological period would have made the story more rounded. Some of the criticisms below about eating the animals made by some reviewers seems unfair although I take on board the fact that to describe some of these animals as "survivors" over simplifies the nature of evolution -something the author is at pains to explain within the covers. Sometimes I think the animals that i would consider more interesting are glossed over. However, at his best, Fortey is an extremely engaging writer and just the kind of person you would want as a guide through some complex yet fascinating biology. Fingers crossed that his next effort charts the ever-changing landscape of the prehistoric world.
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VINE VOICEon 13 January 2013
Starting in Delaware with the horseshoe crab, the author takes us on a journey around the globe to uncover various creatures and plants whose basic design has not changed significantly through vast ages of geological time. The journey takes in, amongst a wholelot more, velvet worms in New Zealand, the stromatolites of Shark Bay in Australia as well, ginko trees in China and the various microflora of Yellowstone national park.

As the author points out, these are not living fossils (a term that he reminds us is both paradoxical and oxymoronic) as such - evolution, after all, continues to act on these creatures at the genomic level. Whilst not exact facsimiles of their fossilised ancestors, these creatures can nonetheless reveal information about that distant past that would otherwise be hidden from us if all we had to go on were fossils - something that Richard Fortey does with his customary literary flourish.

A great piece of natural history writing from a great populariser of natural history.
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on 10 December 2013
I bought this book as there was no DVD of the BBC programme available. I am glad there wasn't because when it was broadcast again I realised how much better the book is.
This book is written to address both people with and without experience in evolution, palaeontology. There are black & white illustrations throughout with two sets of colour plates in the middle of the book. It is an interesting read which opens up interest in locations as well as evolutionary processes.
I would rate this book as interesting, accessible and a good read. It's a good eye-opener for going out into the countryside as well as a natural history museum of your choice...
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on 21 April 2014
I think, that I bought an excellent book, that I expected to be in advance. I bought a lot of books, many of them of different topics,
so I cannot Review all of them within a short time according they deserve it. So I will judge them as excellent and keep this written comment short.
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