Category: Reviews


Review – The Human Brain

Posted 28 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Human Brain by New ScientistThe Human Brain, New Scientist

It may not be surprising to learn that this collection, featuring articles and features about the human brain, was absolutely right up my street. If you’re interested in the human brain, but you’re not ready to dive into a full book about it, this makes a great, varied collection, focusing on different things like memory formation, the ageing brain, psychology, sleep…

There’s a lot of stuff in here, but it’s all in bitesize chunks. I do recommend this, and the other New Scientist collections — but if you’ve collected issues religiously, there’s nothing new in here as far as I know.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Mightier than the Sword

Posted 27 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Mightier than the Sword by K.J. ParkerMightier than the Sword, K.J. Parker

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 30th June 2017

I’ve enjoyed a couple of Parker’s novellas, even though I still haven’t got round to the novels I’ve been sitting on for, uh, a while. So I was pleased to be approved for the ARC of this from Subterranean Press. The ebook is a little bit of a mess — or mine was, anyway — but that’s presumably only going to be a problem for the Netgalley version, and it didn’t get in the way of the reading experience.

I’m also a big fan of books which play with manuscripts, and though that’s a minor part of this story, it was still pretty cool. The main character is fun, and the whole tone works really well to make it sound like a romp, even when there’s a certain amount of pillaging and violence going on. I called the twists, but getting there was still a fun ride. I think The Last Witness is still my favourite for sheer smarts, but this was definitely very enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Prince and the Pilgrim

Posted 26 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Prince and the Pilgrim by Mary StewartThe Prince and the Pilgrim, Mary Stewart

Although this fits into the Arthurian world constructed by Stewart in The Crystal Cave and the books that followed it, The Prince and the Pilgrim is really a separate story which has perhaps more in common with her romances. She takes a short incident from Malory and expands on it, and dwells on Morgan and her wicked seductive ways (yawn) into the bargain. It’s not a bad story, and her gift for evoking atmosphere and landscape shines through, but I found it very light. The most intriguing aspect involved the references to the Merovingian kings and the way it wove Alice’s story in with a real historical context.

The ending is more or less inevitable, even if you don’t know the original story, and Stewart’s embellishments are mostly pretty tame. A fun light read, but not really a return to the world of The Crystal Cave in anything but name (and that devotion to Morgan being a sexualised, predatory witch).

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Mind-Expanding Ideas

Posted 25 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Mind-Expanding Ideas by New ScientistMind-Expanding Ideas, New Scientist: The Collection

Possibly necessary for full disclosure: I got four of these as a free gift for subscribing to New Scientist. They contain articles from past issues, generally the ones that stand the test of time, and collect them together by topic. This one is mostly physics, which… is not so much my thing. It’s “the most incredible concepts in science”, can’t we have some more love for biology? Epigenetics is mind-expanding — and probably more personally relevant than quarks and leptons to most readers.

That said, I am into biology and find physics a little frightening. Reading this volume mostly left me a little scared and at least halfway to an existential crisis.

If your interest is in dark energy and quantum theory and special relativity, though, then there’s a good chance it’s perfect for you.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Fairweather Eden

Posted 24 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fairweather Eden by Mike PittsFairweather Eden, Mike Pitts, Mark Roberts

This is a fascinating account of a fascinating site: one of the earliest known sites of human activity in the UK. Eartham Pit, Boxgrove is an internationally significant site and it had a lot to tell us about Palaeolithic humans. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because we don’t know much about the people who made the site it’s going to be a boring read: it’s interspersed with the story of the excavation itself and the scientific analysis that went into discovering what happened there. It’s not just about old animal bones, but about the people who made the site, then and now.

If you want to know about early human occupation of Britain, this site is one of the key pieces of evidence, and this book beautifully unravels the history of the dig, its context and the conclusions we can draw from it. I found it a really easy read, too, with relatively short chapters to keep things moving through the information and story it revealed. Definitely recommended.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Furthest Station

Posted 23 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Furthest Station by Ben AaronovitchThe Furthest Station, Ben Aaronovitch

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 30th June 2017

This novella joins Peter Grant and (some of) the usual suspects for a new investigation. Present: Peter, Abigail, Nightingale, Jaget, and briefly, Beverley. I was a bit thrown by the total absence of any mention at all of Leslie; it feels like it’s set in some weird time bubble where there’s nothing going on with her at all, where she didn’t even exist. I don’t know if it’s set before or after The Hanging Tree, which I haven’t read yet; possibly that’ll resolve my slight confusion.

It’s a fun story, which feels very much like the full-length novels, although it resolves faster (of course) and doesn’t involve any of the larger threads like the Faceless Man — though it does advance Abigail’s story, showing her interest in and aptitude for the work of the Folly, whether Peter thinks she’s ready or not. We get some more ghosts and ghostly phenomena, and Peter’s ongoing attempts at rationalising them.

All in all, I rather enjoyed it, perhaps especially because it’s just Peter and business as usual. No heartwrenching personal storylines for him in this novella, and thank goodness for that.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Britain After Rome

Posted 22 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Britain After RomeBritain After Rome, Robin Fleming

Britain After Rome is a rather exhaustive, not to say exhausting, history of Britain after the Romano-British period. It focuses on material culture like grave goods and excavations, rather than the texts and what we think we know. Sometimes these contradict each other, and sometimes they fit together in illuminating ways; Fleming takes her time unpacking both situations. It results in a broader look at society than we might see elsewhere, including the lives of women and the fashions of clothing, as well as the big questions of politics, commerce and religion. (Not that the role of women is a small question, but it’s one about which we know less.)

I did enjoy reading it, but I had to take it in little parcels rather than sitting down to read right through. Despite the avoidance of extensive footnotes, it feels scholarly, dense, lengthy. There’s a lot of material and some of it is lingered over very lovingly.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Urn Burial

Posted 21 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Urn Burial by Kerry GreenwoodUrn Burial, Kerry Greenwood

A fun reread, again showing Phryne at her most stubbornly permissive, and determined to see others doing the same. A decent portion of this book is dedicated to persuading Lin Chung to sleep with her under his host’s roof, despite said host’s distaste for the Chinese… It’s kind of fun, and I do enjoy Lin Chung as a character. There’s also a sub-plot of a love story between two young men who are hiding their relationship, including a voyeuristic sex scene. Whatever floats your boat… In any case, one of the pair isn’t stereotyped, which is a source of some relief to me after the tendency for the gay men Phryne meets to be rather ineffectual and/or effeminate. And the other of the pair is actually bisexual, which happens rarely enough to be worthy of note. The bond between them, and their acceptance of each other, does feel real.

The actual mystery ends in a rather grotesque fashion, and it takes a bit of chicanery to pull all the plot threads together. There’s two cases of long lost men returning and not being recognised, for example, which might stretch credulity. (But then, it also stretches Phryne’s credulity.)

There’s some great atmospheric bits, but overall, not a favourite of the series.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How Long Is Now

Posted 20 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How Long Is Now?How Long is Now? New Scientist

If you know what New Scientist is like and what these books are like, this is more of the usual. People ask their strange or not-so-strange questions about topics scientific, and other people chip in with what they know. Where one answer didn’t quite cover all the angles, another one is often included. You’ll notice folks like David Muir of Portobello High School answering a lot of questions, while others are answered by people who happen to work in something related or had that curiosity themselves and carried out experiments. Sometimes the questions are interesting, sometimes less so — and sometimes the answers are satisfying, and sometimes they’re not quite enough.

It’s an excellent source of general science knowledge, and a good type of book to dip in and out of casually. I did notice that some of the answers are also included in at least one of the New Scientist collections, which I guess is to be expected.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Vikings

Posted 19 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Vikings by Neil OliverVikings: A History, Neil Oliver

It’s a rather odd experience, reading this soon after reading Francis Pryor’s work. Where Pryor minimises the impact of folk migration, Oliver highlights at least half a dozen occasions where the Norsemen did, in fact, invade or colonise. From apparently the same sources, they argue completely different things. Now, Oliver’s work is a bit more accessible than Pryor’s, I think; for a start, this ties in with a BBC series (though Pryor’s Britain AD had a tv series as well, I think) and is generally pitched at that level, avoiding tedious levels of detail like the exact sequence of archaeology — interesting stuff, as far as I’m concerned, but not always the most riveting reading.

It also features a lot of attempts at imagining the past and bringing to life the past: Neil Oliver’s poignant imaginings about Birka Girl, for example. For me, that has varying success — for example, it’s all very well to note that someone had a lavish burial in a highly visible place, but does that necessarily mean they were loved by the people around them? Maybe it’s guilt, or ritual sacrifice, or political show.

Still, generally Oliver manages to be both informative and entertaining. For myself, I wished he’d spent more time on Icelandic concerns, since he mentioned Iceland few enough times it has a one line entry in the index. One line! And yet Iceland is the place I know the most about in terms of preservation of contemporary evidence, the sagas, etc. And on that note, I could’ve wished for a bit more engagement with the sagas, especially since any lit student knows that they were preserved with high fidelity and not written centuries later — they were written down centuries later, but the stories themselves were far older and were communicated orally well before they were written down.

(Well, unless new research has found otherwise in the four years since my MA, but I haven’t heard or read anything to that effect.)

Enjoyable read, and an antidote to the idea that Vikings were nothing but bloodthirsty raiders.

Rating: 4/5

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