Tag: non-fiction


Review – How Your Brain Works

Posted 3 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of New Scientist: How Your Brain WorksHow Your Brain Works, New Scientist

As ever with the New Scientist books, this is a great introduction to a topic — and in this case, it’s a fairly narrow topic: the brain, and how it works. It’s not just a collection of stuff that’s appeared in the other collections, although I think a few of the info boxes and so on did come from other New Scientist publications originally. It’s also based on one of their Instant Expert courses, a great series of events that I do recommend if they cover a topic you’re interested in.

For me, even without my degree, this was a fairly simplistic view of the brain — “instant expert” isn’t quite what you’d become from reading it, I’d feel. “Instantly more informed and able to understand further information with a good foundation,” perhaps.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Where the Universe Came From

Posted 31 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of New Scientist: Where the Universe Came FromInstant Expert: Where the Universe Came From, New Scientist

These books are based on the Instant Expert events that New Scientist hosts on various topics. I’ve been to two of them (one on genetics, one on consciousness), and they’re pretty great: pitched at a level most educated people can understand, but delving a bit deeper into some of the latest events and innovations in whatever area of science they cover. They generally have a panel of experts and, honestly, some pretty good food… Anyway, so I was interested to read this one, even without the good food.

Sadly, it’s more relativity than Big Bang; it’s more worried about how to resolve the issues between quantum physics and relativity than about what we do know. That said, it’s pretty accessible and I did follow most of it, which is more than can be said for most attempts to educate me about relativity. However, it does contain repeated material from New Scientist collections and possibly also previous books; how much, I couldn’t say, since I haven’t read those exhaustively.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Herding Hemingway’s Cats

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

Cover of Herding Hemingway's Cats by Kat ArneyHerding Hemingway’s Cats, Kat Arney

I didn’t expect to get that much out of this, since it explores the subject of genetics — I read a lot about genetics, after all, and have done one or two modules focusing on it. And it’s true that the tone is very light and journalistic, quippy and light and funny, but it also has an extensive section for further reading and covers some fascinating topics I didn’t know about. The section on epigenetics was particularly interesting; I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm for epigenetics, of course, but this was a more measured and conservative interpretation.

It’s the kind of book that left me turning to my wife and saying, “hey, did you know…?” a lot, and looking up things online (like Minoo Rassoulzadegan’s white-gloved mice). There’s a lot of complications and new things coming out about genetics, and this proved to be an excellent survey of that.

The only thing I disliked was the way the interviews were presented — almost like a dialogue in a novel, but without new paragraphs for new speakers. It made it a little difficult to follow, and I’m not all that interested in what kind of shoes the scientist in question was wearing during the interview.

Rating: 4/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 27 May, 2017 by Nikki in General / 26 Comments

Hi everyone! I’m back in the UK for a while, for my exams and the election and so on. I’m missing my bunnies, but I did have a lot of great books waiting for me here!

But here, have a picture of Breakfast meeting Captain America, first…

Right, now I feel better.

Received to review:

Cover of Scourge by Gail Z. Martin

I really need to read something by Gail Z. Martin. I’ve had a couple of her books on my list for a while. Oops.

Fiction books bought:

Cover of City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett Cover of False Hearts by Laura Lam Cover of The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury

Cover of A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas Cover of Caraval by Stephanie Garber Cover of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’ve had my eye on… pretty much all of these for quite a while now. I’m still not sure about The Hate U Give — people love it so much, and recommend it a lot, but I’m not sure if it’s my thing. Still, gonna give it a try.

Non-fiction books bought:

Cover of Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould Cover of Bones of Contention by Paul Chambers Cover of Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonka Cover of How To Find A Habitable Planet by James Kasting

Cover of The Philadelphia Chromosome by Jessica Wapner Cover of One Renegade Cell by Robert Weinberg Cover of Life on the Edge by Joe Al-Khalili and Johnjoe MacFadden Cover of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall

Quite the stack, I know! Some of these I’ve been meaning to read for ages, especially Gould’s book. I loved the exhibit on the Burgess Shale at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, but only just got round to picking up a copy of this book to go with the experience.

So yeah, plenty to keep me busy!

Books finished this week:

Cover of A New History of Life by Peter Ward Cover of The Emerald Planet by David Beerling Cover of How We Live and Why We Die by Lewis Wolpert Cover of The Worm at the Core Cover of Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Cover of River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey Cover of The Deeper Genome by John Parrington Cover of One Renegade Cell by Robert Weinberg Cover of The Ghost Line Cover of Raisins and Almonds by Kerry Greenwood

Sneak peek at ratings:
Five stars: The Emerald Planet and The Worm at the Core.
Four stars: Waking Gods, River of Teeth,  The Deeper Genome, One Renegade Cell,  The Ghost Line and Raisins and Almonds.
Three stars: A New History of Life and How We Live & Why We Die.

Reviews posted this week:

Being Human, by New Scientist. As with the other New Scientist collections, this is good if the topic interests you, and less so if it doesn’t. It does interest me! 4/5 stars
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells. Funny, but with some interesting serious touches too. I want more of the Murderbot. 4/5 stars
Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, by Svante Pääbo. The science is fascinating, but I wasn’t always so sure about the personal details! It’s not so much about Neanderthals at all, really; just the process of extracting their genomes. 4/5 stars
The Builders, by Daniel Polansky. Redwall, but very red in tooth and claw. And other implements of destruction. 3/5 stars
The Vital Question, by Nick Lane. This is a wide-ranging book, almost impossible to summarise, but well worth reading on symbiosis, evolution, the origin of life… 4/5 stars
Sunbolt, by Intisar Khanani. Fun worldbuilding, and I definitely want to read more. ASAP. 4/5 stars
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey. Hippos! A caper! A hero called Hero! I really enjoyed it. 4/5 stars

Other posts:

Top Ten Tuesday: Summer TBR. What it says on the tin.
WWW Wednesday. The usual Wednesday update.

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Review – The Vital Question

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

Cover of The Vital Question by Nick LaneThe Vital Question, Nick Lane

If you have a solid grounding in science already, particularly biology, this is probably going to be accessible for you — but if not, you might struggle a little. It starts off alright, but it gets quite dense in places, and if you’re not super-interested, you’ll probably get bogged down. That said, to me it was fascinating, and generated testable hypotheses about how early life could have functioned.

I still disagree with Nick Lane on some points, like the dismissiveness with which he treats “junk” DNA. But he covers a lot of interesting stuff about endosymbiosis, mitochondria, the way mitochondria work with the host cell, how the differences between bacteria and archaea arose… It’s a wide-ranging book, and it’s hard to summarise everything that he touches on.

He also makes some pretty bold predictions about life elsewhere in the universe — that it will work in pretty much the same way as it does on Earth. I don’t disagree with what he says here.

So all in all, a worthwhile read, but bring your thinking cap if you’re not a biologist.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Neanderthal Man

Posted 22 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Neanderthal Man by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo

This book is less about Neanderthals themselves and more about the biological and technical details of extracting their long-extinct genomes from the preserved bones we’ve found, and also about Svante Pääbo himself — it touches on his bisexuality, his moves between institutions, even his affair with a colleague’s wife. I could’ve done without the personal info; it often felt like it was completely incidental to the extraction and sequencing going on in his teams. There were some interesting bits in the way his team worked together, and his decisions as the leader, but his affair with Linda Vigilant was entirely irrelevant.

Still, it’s a fascinating narrative taken as a whole, tracking the various theories, setbacks and new techniques Svante Pääbo and his team went through in finally extracting and sequencing the Neanderthal genome. There’s some coverage, too, of how it differs from the Homo sapiens genome and that of chimpanzees, and what that means in terms of phylogeny and the relationships in the family tree of human development. It also touches on some of the politics of science: rival groups, jockeying for funding, terminating partnerships which aren’t delivering what you hoped… A reminder that you’re never gonna get away from politics of some sort, I suppose!

I found it deeply interesting and well explained, though I am a little disappointed that it was more of an autobiography of Pääbo’s working life than about Neanderthals and what we know about them because of his work.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Being Human

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

Cover of Being Human by New ScientistBeing Human, New Scientist

There’s perhaps not much to say about this collection: it’s much the same as the other New Scientist collections, in that it brings together a number of articles and features on a theme, using material from past issues. This is a bit more general than The Human Brain, of course, though it covers some of the same ground. If you read New Scientist religiously, none of this will be new to you; if you want to collect it in a more permanent form than the weekly issues, or grab one that’s on a specific topic, these are great for that.

To me, all of this is accessible, well explained and interesting. Your mileage may vary depending on what aspects of science interest you most.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Medical Frontiers

Posted 17 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Medical Frontiers by New ScientistMedical Frontiers, New Scientist

This is a bit different to the other New Scientist collections, in that it’s focused on the practical applications of science in one particular arena: medicine. I found it a fascinating look at medical technologies and theories, and how they might change healthcare. It’s the usual suspects, of course: stem cells, etc — and it touches on some of the past advances in transplantation, antibiotics and other drugs…

So it’s not quite the scale of relativity or dark matter, but to me it’s all the more fascinating for being relatable to everyday life. Like the other New Scientist collections, it’s a good way to catch up to and collect a bunch of articles on the topic.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Pinks

Posted 16 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Pinks by Chris EnssThe Pinks, Chris Enss

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 1st July 2017

I didn’t know much about the Pinkerton agency, other than that they were detectives. I didn’t know they protected President Lincoln and involved themselves in the events of the Civil War — that they worked as spies for the Union. I had no idea about the theatrical and psychological methods they used… and I didn’t know that Pinkerton employed women, before women were regularly employed, and considered them important and indispensable operatives. This book delves into all of that by presenting little case histories of various capers the women were involved in. I say capers because some of them really do seem like that.

It’s a little odd that the blurb mentions Kate Warne, the first woman employed by Pinkerton’s, in the context of an affair with Allan Pinkerton. Unless I somehow skipped a chapter, there’s no such evidence presented in this book. Likewise, it’s a little odd — and sexist — that the men are referred to by their surnames, while women are referred to either by their full names or, more commonly, by their first names. It seems disrespectful to treat them differently than the men.

Otherwise, this is very readable and undoubtedly interesting. I kind of want a whole stack of novels about Kate Warne, now.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Relativity: Einstein’s Mind-Bending Universe

Posted 13 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Relativity; Einstein's Mind-bending Universe by New ScientistRelativity: Einstein’s Mind-Bending Universe, New Scientist

WHOOOOOSHHHH.

That sound? Oh, that was just most of this collection going over my head. It’s still good for the same reasons as the other New Scientist collections: it collects articles and features on a theme into one slightly more durable collection, so you don’t have to keep every issue of the magazine ever that contained stuff that really interests you.

Unfortunately for me, this is physics. A lot of the time I’ll understand perfectly while reading it, but I couldn’t explain it to someone else. Some of the time I won’t understand at all, and I’ll just skim past the words. Despite the assurances of the New Scientist employee who sold me this, I’m squarely in the latter territory for large stretches of this. It’s probably great if you understand physics and are really interested in putting in the time to understand it. I’m… not, really.

It’s an interesting collection, worthy topic, yada yada. I’m glad I had a crack at reading it. But… nope. Not for me.

Rating: 3/5

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