Tag: non-fiction


Review – Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt

Posted 17 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Cleopatra by Joyce TyldesleyCleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, Joyce Tyldesley

This book is a solid biography of Cleopatra, appreciating her cleverness and ability as a politician, and examining how the world at the time reacted to her. It’s perhaps a little drier than people would hope — how could you make Cleopatra so academic, when she’s such a colourful figure? Well, I don’t mind that at all, and I enjoyed the way it contextualised her achievements and dissected the myths surrounding her. It delves into the background of her rule and her city, as well, giving a picture of Egypt under the Ptolemies.

I’ve enjoyed other books by Tyldesley before, and though it’s not one of my areas of expertise, I have found her books well-written, referenced and clear. That’s more than I can say for some other Egyptologists who write for the pop-history crowd. Other than that, I don’t have much basis to make a judgement, but I found this one enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Gut

Posted 11 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Gut by Giulia EndersGut: The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, Giulia Enders

Gut is a fun light read; it’s not in-depth or academic at all — it doesn’t even have an index! — but it is fun and informative for a layperson. There’s no technical stuff here that isn’t explained, and there’s a fairly light tone to all of it, sometimes quite irreverent. Sometimes, however, you can’t really say it’s irreverent because it’s full of an enthusiasm and awe for our digestive system and everything it can do.

My main quibble was that it was too casual, too light, too much for the layperson. This wouldn’t be my chosen field even if I wanted to, but with just a couple of other books covering similar topics under my belt, a lot of it was just boring. (For example, for stuff on microbes, go for Missing Microbes by Martin Blaser, instead. Much more informative and in-depth, albeit not so easy a read.)

It’s fun, and it probably works well for the intended audience; I’m just not that audience, really. I did learn some interesting facts, and the diagrams/illustrations are pretty fun.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Gulag Archipelago

Posted 9 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThe Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Flashback Friday review from 13th September, 2010

The Gulag Archipelago is not a book I think you can really read for pleasure. It’s heavy, heavy stuff, and it is — to the best of anyone’s ability — non-fiction. It contains a lot of stark truths about Russia — Stalin’s Russia, and after — and the conditions in the camps. We know plenty about the camps in Germany, and yet even now, decades after this book was published, I knew little about this.

I could as easily shelve it as ‘horror’ as I could ‘non-fiction’ or ‘history’.

Despite that, it’s not unrelenting. There’s hope — the very fact that I read this says there’s hope: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s been heard. And there’s a kind of dark humour, on nearly every page, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of events and of people.

Definitely worth reading, if you can brace yourself for it. I read an abridged translation, but the author worked with the translator/abridger on it, as far as I can gather, so it could be more cohesive and easier to read than the original volumes. Even just dipping in and out of it, a chapter here and there, is better than not reading it at all.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Rare Earth

Posted 30 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rare Earth by Brownlee & WardRare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, Peter D. Ward, Donald Brownlee

Having read David Waltham’s Lucky Planet, there isn’t much in this older book which is new to me, even though he recommended it for further reading. It’s less up to date, of course, but that’s because it’s older — and at least it does acknowledge stuff like the Viking lander biological experiments, which Waltham did not. If you’re interested in the evidence that’s out there for the fact that our planet might be rare indeed in producing complex life, I’d recommend Rare Earth over Lucky Planet. The science is solid and thorough, and well explained.

My problem with all books like this is always going to be: we have a sample size of one. How can we extrapolate anything? Sure, we know that intelligent life like ourselves can’t exist in a solar system that doesn’t have the right kind of habitable zone. And yeah, we think carbon is the best possible atom to base biochemistry on. But we only think or know these things because that’s what we need, that’s what we can use, under the conditions in which we find ourselves observing. (In other words, it’s the weak anthropic principle.) None of the data presented convinces me that we can do more than guessing in the dark on this subject.

That’s not a reason not to be curious, of course, but it’s also not a reason to give up looking. Obviously, we won’t find anything if we don’t look. It doesn’t make Rare Earth less worth reading, but it does mean that I think readers should stay aware that Ward and Brownlee have made up their minds, and are presenting only the evidence supporting their case. I honestly don’t find either side convincing, though you, of course, may differ.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Lone Survivors

Posted 20 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Lone Survivors by Chris StringerLone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Chris Stringer

I’m a little baffled by those who say that this book is for the scientific community, because it so blatantly isn’t — it explains how DNA and various methods of dating work, for example, which definitely wouldn’t be required by someone with even baseline knowledge in the scientific community. (Including me. There was no single technique this book covered which I didn’t comprehend, and only one or two I wasn’t aware of specifically.) I think it can be a little bit dry — especially when it explains things like DNA being in a helix or mtDNA being transmitted only through the female line… And the structure could definitely use some help. While I can see that he’s trying to interrelate his chapters by saying “see chapter x”, it means that sometimes the significance of something isn’t as apparent as he thinks.

Overall, though, I found it pretty readable and unexceptionable: Stringer freely admits that he’s been wrong at times about the course of human development, and that we don’t have all the answers now. He’s respectful of ideas he disagrees with, and covers some of them well, including the evidence which does point in that direction. I’m surprised by how little evidence of hybridisation he sees; I thought hybridisation with Neanderthals and Denisovans was more of a foregone conclusion than it appears from Stringer’s analysis.

It’s slightly more up to date than the Homo Britannicus book by the same author, too. Of course, it covers worldwide human history in general, so it’s less limited, but it also includes stuff I missed in reading that book, like some discussions of the Denisovan caves and the remains discovered there.

All in all, a reasonably good read, though naturally in general drift it supports the author’s hypothesis of a Recent African Origin for H. sapiens.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Creepy Crawly Crochet

Posted 19 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Creepy Crawly Crochet by Megan KreinerCreepy Crawly Crochet, Megan Kreiner

Received to review via Netgalley

To begin with, Creepy Crawly Crochet is a good resource on its own, because it includes clear illustrations and step by step instructions for various stitches and techniques, including the adjustable/magic ring which forms the first part of a lot of amigurumi. It has info on finishing off your toys, too, including stitches to join things, how to make fringes, etc. Throughout the book, the patterns come with plenty of guidance on how to assemble them, and where special care might be needed. There’s a list of abbreviations in the back, too, along with a conversion chart from US sizes to UK sizes.

The designs themselves are also pretty neat; the faces are shaped really well, for example, and it makes great use of stitching to create body shapes and designs, in a more subtle way than I’ve seen in a lot of other designs. It’s little touches that make the designs look great by giving them just that little bit extra realism… right down to the bits of zombie brain.

I think it’s a fun collection and worth getting, especially for a beginner, because it covers a lot of the basics as well as some pretty easy designs.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Celts

Posted 15 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Celts by Nora ChadwickThe Celts, Nora Chadwick

Although this book is undoubtedly out of date, published in 1971, it’s a fascinating survey of what was known and believed about the Celts at the time. Some of the theories are less in vogue now (with more credit given to the spread of ideas than the spread of people for the changes in agriculture, art, etc), but descriptions of the archaeology, art and literature are solid and worth reading. I found Chadwick’s style very pleasant and easy to read: this is serious and somewhat academic in depth, but not boring.

Pretty much my only quibbles, when you lay aside the outdated theories, were the way the literature was described at length. I don’t need a description of Táin Bó Cúailnge — I’ve read it! And my other quibble would be the intense focus on Ireland. It does make sense within the frame Chadwick gives us, where Ireland was more conservative in culture and thus retained purer Celtic culture for longer, but I would still love to have read as detailed a discussion of the Welsh texts surviving, particularly stuff like the Triads.

If you read it knowing that, of course, other theories are in vogue now and some of it has been disproved, it’s a pretty sober and admiring look at Celtic culture. Maybe a touch too much judgement re: civilisation vs barbarism, with the Celts decidedly on the latter end, but there’s still admiration, and no prurient focus on the idea of ritual human sacrifice (which, judging from this, was not considered common then either).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – From Elvish to Klingon

Posted 9 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of From Elvish to Klingon, by Michael AdamsFrom Elvish to Klingon, ed. Michael Adams

This book is along the same lines as Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages, but features multiple authors, and a slightly broader interpretation of invented languages, including Joyce’s linguistic games. Most of the essays are reasonably interesting, but the one on Joyce had me totally lost — I haven’t read Joyce, and didn’t know he was considered particularly linguistically inventive. Lacking the context, that particular essay was just… well, rather boring, for me. (In my defence, my degree didn’t cover much more recent than Shakespeare, except when I did Tolkien or themed courses that dipped into contemporary novels to show the development.) The section on Orwell and Burgess’ use of language to convey their dystopian worlds was more interesting, though a bit obvious for someone who has actually read those books.

I did love the essay on Tolkien’s work; I’ve always admired the sheer amount of work he put into his invented languages, and the way the world he created was made for those languages, and that they had a whole history and evolution within his world. Very few people, if any, have matched that in terms of creating a language for the pleasure of it and creating a way for other people to enjoy it.

The most personally interesting topic for me was about the revival of declining languages like Gaelic, Breton, Hawaiian… Of course, I’ve been trying to learn Welsh (albeit that’s on pause while I learn more Dutch to help communicate while I’m staying with my wife), and I’m very aware that it’s a very artificial way to learn. I don’t have any regular contact with native speakers, and honestly, I think I only know one or two native speakers in my circle. It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a generational gap in many of these languages, and that that raises questions of authenticity, and whether that really counts as connecting with a real Welsh identity. It seems from the coverage here that Welsh is more successful than Breton and such, in that it isn’t discussed in as much detail, except to note that school Welsh is becoming a standard which is swallowing local dialects.

Arika Okrent’s book — which is frequently quoted here — is definitely both more accessible and more in-depth, though that in turn doesn’t do much with Elvish, as I recall, and definitely doesn’t look at revitalising languages like Breton and Gaelic. If the essays I picked out sound appealing, then it’s worth getting, but the other ones weren’t as interesting.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – To Explain the World

Posted 5 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of To Explain the World by Steven WeinbergTo Explain the World, Steven Weinberg

This book is ostensibly about the development of science, and particularly the scientific method: the development, in short, of the understanding that we need both theory and experiment to derive natural laws. It goes into a lot of the history of the development of astronomy and physics, and thus necessarily chemistry to some degree as well (since the makeup of an atom affects chemistry)… but neglects biology almost entirely. Since biology is my interest, I’d hoped for a bit more of it, but instead it was more or less including as an afterthought.

Weinberg’s tone is entertaining enough, and he certainly isn’t constrained by anyone else’s ideas of who truly contributed to science — he dismisses most of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, even within the context of their time, because they didn’t conceive of the scientific method or how to come up with testable theories and follow through. You may or may not find that justified; I was glad, personally, that we didn’t spend too much time on Plato, as I’m not an enormous fan.

There’s a lot of science in here as well, in that Weinberg explains how discoveries were made and proven, or why they weren’t actually consistent with the world and what you can observe. Most of this is very clear, but anything that involves maths is sadly lost on me, and I confess to skipping the back section. There’s a reason my BSc in Natural Sciences is almost all biology — I have neither the head for, nor the interest in, mathematical rules and proofs.

It’s entertaining enough, but it’s narrower than the blurb might lead you to think — the vast majority of it actually deals with astronomy and maths.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Borgias

Posted 2 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Borgias by Christopher HibbertThe Borgias, Christopher Hibbert

I have to confess that my interest in the Borgia family comes from playing the Assassin’s Creed games — I love knowing what has been cleverly included in the games, where things diverge, etc. So I knew both that the Borgias were a pretty colourful family, and that Assassin’s Creed probably emphasised that, and was definitely biased against them (other than in acknowledging Rodrigo Borgia’s cleverness, I can’t think of anything else positive about him or Cesare in the games).

Still, this book made them feel rather dry and lifeless, and not because they were actually any less turbulent and power hungry than the Assassin’s Creed games depict. Instead, it’s Hibbert’s style that kills it: rather than analysis, he presents lists of facts. It’s not even that his prose is boring, because it’s perfectly clear and easy to follow. It’s just that lack of analysis, and even a certain impartiality — I have to confess that when a historian writes a pop-history book about a particular figure or family, I want to feel their bias coming through, their interest in the subject. I know I’m fickle, since I do turn my nose up at some books which do too much guessing about what so-and-so was thinking of feeling, but there it is. I don’t just read for the information: I do also want to be entertained. The Borgias rather failed on that, for me.

Rating: 2/5

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