Tag: non-fiction


Review – One Plus One Equals One

Posted 5 February, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of One Plus One Equals One by John ArchibaldOne Plus One Equals One, John Archibald

The origin of complex life is endlessly fascinating, and various evolutionary innovations made it possible. This book covers an extraordinarily important moment: symbiosis between existing cells which produced the organelles on which most cells rely. We wouldn’t get far without mitochondria producing ATP for us. And yet it’s been clear to me for a long time that mitochondria had a separate origin. Some of the DNA in our cells exists solely within our mitochondria. That DNA doesn’t even obey the same rules as the rest of our DNA when it comes to producing gametes.

For me, then, this book took something incredibly obvious and broke it down into more steps than I needed. It works to convince you that symbiosis could have occurred. But to me, that’s immediately apparent from the fact that some of our organelles have clear extra-cellular origins. So that aspect of the book was quite slow for me. It’s interesting to read about the research and the people who proposed the theory anyway, though. If you’re into biology and you don’t already know/accept that mitochondria were once free-living bacteria, this is interesting and illuminating!

On a related note (not addressed within the book), it makes me wonder… How do people who don’t believe in evolution handle the existence of mitochondria? They pretty clearly show evolution and co-evolution occurred in the genesis of complex life. If mitochondria weren’t free-living bacteria that adapted to living within simple cells, why do they have their own genetic material? Did God leave it in by accident?

Don’t answer that.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A History of the World in Twelve Maps

Posted 4 February, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A History of the World in 12 MapsA History of the World in Twelve Maps, Jerry Brotton

I was fascinated by the idea of this: of course maps are a huge part of how we understand our world, and the way we format our maps is a big giveaway to the way we feel about the world. A map covered in clearly-marked borders marks separations and national boundaries; different maps with disputed borders show areas of conflict. Maps can reveal belonging and isolation and the limits of the human imagination.

Unfortunately, Brotton’s writing is really dry, from my perspective, and I wasn’t always convinced about his choice of maps. Or rather, he would pick maps and then talk about almost everything but the map: the context the map came from, yes, the politics of those that made it, yes. But the map itself, less so. Now, context is a great thing — hello, I was pretty much exclusively a new historicist as a literature postgrad — but I wanted more about the maps. More images would probably have helped, too.

If you’re more interested in the history of cartography and geography than I am, this is probably a great book. It just didn’t quite take the angle I was looking for.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Gutenberg’s Fingerprint

Posted 2 February, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Gutenberg's FingerprintGutenberg’s Fingerprint: A Book Lover Bridges the Digital Divide, Merilyn Simonds

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 11th April 2017

This is more of a personal memoir than I expected, somehow; with a title that references the digital divide (a common term for the social problems arising from the rich having computer access and the poorer being denied opportunities because they don’t) and Gutenberg, I expected something else. Instead I got something meditative, which deals with book creation and paper-making from a very personal perspective. And, it turns out, Simonds isn’t talking about the same digital divide I was thinking about — it just means the gap between print and digital, and digital books being here to stay now.

So not the book I was hoping for, but it’s not a bad meditation on books and paper and making things. The prose is evocative and the musing interesting, just… much more personally focused than I expected from a book with this in the blurb: “Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?”

Oh, and if you’re interested in the history of the book, Keith Houston’s The Book might be more what you’re looking for.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Sense of Style

Posted 1 February, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Sense of Style by Steven PinkerThe Sense of Style, Steven Pinker

Perhaps a book on how to write by a scientist who studies neurology and linguistics and how they interact seems odd, but it’s right up Pinker’s street. He loves to think about language and the way it evolved, and what is natural for our brains when it comes to language. While he does go into the rules of grammar and the parts of speech and all of that, he tempers it with an understanding of why we make the kinds of mistakes we do, and when it might be time to let go and surrender to the fact that we just don’t think the way grammar prescriptivists would like.

His style is, fortunately, readable and engaging, though I did begin to tune out when it got very technical, or when there were a lot of tables presenting all kinds of information. I’ve never learnt to diagram a sentence, being part of that denigrated lot who didn’t get taught grammar in school. Instead, I rely on… well, a sense of style. A gut feeling that something is right or wrong. It usually doesn’t steer me wrong; where it might trip me up is in more formal writing, and cases that don’t often come up — like remembering how exactly to apply who vs. whom.

I enjoyed the parts of this which touched specifically on academic writing, and the kind of nonsense academics can sometimes produce in their attempts to elevate their subject of study and get funding. It’s why a lot of literary theory is utterly impenetrable to me, for example. On the other hand, I can see that if I applied some of Pinker’s ideas to the style of my undergrad science essays, I’d get very low marks. Sometimes you just have to bow to the academicese.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Weird Dinosaurs

Posted 30 January, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Weird DinosaursWeird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew, John Pickrell

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 7th March 2017

Weird Dinosaurs is a fun and reasonably accessible look at some of the more unusual dinosaurs discovered (or sometimes rediscovered) in recent years. Perhaps they’re not that unusual if you follow dinosaur news — I certainly wasn’t that surprised by some of these — but it is an interesting summary of some of the latest in dinosaur news. Despite what you might think, there are still loads of dinosaurs being discovered, and this book really emphasises the possibilities out there. It’s quite likely we’ve barely scratched the surface. The dinosaurs we’ve found are most likely the really common ones, which would be more likely to be preserved long enough to fossilise. So there’s all kinds of weird wonders out there.

If you’re interested in dinosaurs, I think this is a worthwhile read. It covers dinosaurs with feathers and what kinds of dinosaurs we might expect to find with feathers; habitats where we haven’t always believed dinosaurs could survive, like the Arctic; dinosaurs with unusual morphology which we can’t quite figure out. It’s a good survey for the layperson, though sometimes I felt it got a little bit dry and wandering as it went into background details.

Favourite thing about this book: probably the history of the Transylvanian gay spy baron who nearly became king of Albania. Let’s not forget Franz Nopcsa.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Book

Posted 21 January, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Book by Keith HoustonThe Book, Keith Houston

This is a really beautiful object. If you read the colophon, it has all sorts of details about the book’s binding and printing processes. The pages feel lovely, and though I’m not a fan of the cover — it’s just so… cardboardy, and gets easily scuffed — it looks good. The page design is really fun: when a new element like a title, bullet or indent shows up, there’s a label on it. Also for gutters, margins, etc. The photos and images included are in colour, too. All in all, it’s a great gift item, something to give to someone who loves books. It’s less readable for being such an object in its own right; I sort of want to keep it pristine rather than read it. Particularly given that it’s not cheap (though there is an ebook).

But, read it I did, and it’s a fascinating book. It’s split into a couple of different parts, following the development of the book: paper, writing, ink, the invention of the codex as the physical format. It’s clear and, as far as I can tell, accurate. I enjoyed reading it: the prose is clear and to the point, without being dry.

If you’re fascinated by books, not just for stories but for their scent and feel as well, this is probably well worth picking up. It’d definitely make a good-looking gift for someone so inclined. I found it both enjoyable and informative.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Where Am I Now?

Posted 10 January, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Where Am I Now? by Mara WilsonWhere Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, Mara Wilson

Of course I loved Matilda — both the book and the film. I was that kind of child. I probably strained my eyes squinting and trying to do Matilda’s ‘Whammy’ on various objects. (Mostly books I wanted to come closer…) So as an adult, perhaps it’s not surprising that I looked up Mara Wilson and ended up following her twitter, despite her complex relationship with Matilda (covered, for example, in one of the chapters in this book, which is a letter to Matilda).

I did feel that while it was easy to read, it felt a bit scattered: it’s not chronological, so she discusses the death of her mother, then recounts events which happened before that, leaving me briefly confused. I feel like it lacked an overall structure somehow; without chronology, it needed something else unifying. But it was still compelling, especially reading about her fears and anxieties, the development of her OCD. (Our disorders’ acronyms might only share one letter, but GAD has a fair amount in common with OCD, and I definitely have tendencies of the latter too.) Her relationships with the people around her during filming and after were sweet too — her attachment to Danny DeVito, her reaction to Robin Williams’ death, and her mother’s close involvement with the early years of her career.

I read it all in one go, appreciating the frank and honest person I met here. Mara Wilson is fairly clear about portions of her life where she was pretentious, unpleasant, unwontedly angsty, etc. Her tone both accepts it as normal and gently scolds her younger self for that behaviour. I feel like I would quite like to sit down and have a quiet drink and a bun in a bookshop coffee area with her.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How To Clone a Mammoth

Posted 8 January, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of How To Clone a Mammoth by Beth ShapiroHow To Clone A Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, Beth Shapiro

For a title which sounds like a how-to book, this book spends an awful amount of time pointing out the ways in which cloning a mammoth is not possible. A lot of science is stuff I was well aware of, but it’s presented engagingly and clearly, so it was still an enjoyable read. It’s not purely about mammoths, although they are one of the main species considered: after all, they’re thought to have played a significant part in the sustainability of the tundra they inhabited. A lot of the book concerns cases like that: cases where reintroducing an animal to an ecosystem might bring it back into balance.

Despite science fiction’s hopes, cloning an extinct animal is still pretty far off — but it does depend on the methods you use. Shapiro uses a fairly broad definition of cloning, discussing back breeding as well: the process by which a current species is selectively bred to restore features of an ancestral or related species.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, including an explanation of why you can’t clone birds in the same way as Dolly the sheep was cloned. Fascinating stuff, and well presented. And if it’s a bit of a killjoy to know that mammoths aren’t so easily cloned, I think the interest of the science and discussed ethical issues still makes it worth it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Spectacles

Posted 4 January, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Spectacles, by Sue PerkinsSpectacles, Sue Perkins

Spectacles was kind of fun to read in bits, but it felt like it lost direction and momentum rather. The bits where Perkins discusses her father are very touching; there are some pithy quotes about looking back on the past and why we like to romanticise it; there’s some funny bits… but ultimately, I felt rather underwhelmed. I feel like it might’ve been more fun if delivered by Sue Perkins aloud, with her own intonation and style and sense of timing flavouring the words. As it is, it begins to feel rather flat, because the tone is all perky and funny in the same sort of way, all the way through.

This is not to say there weren’t bits which were worth it. There definitely are, like the discussions of her father, the section where she has to keep coming out to her grandmother, and the death of her dog. But the bits about roadtrips for BBC documentaries weren’t so fun, and the Bake Off parts weren’t as prevalent as I imagine people would hope. (I’m more devoted to the Sewing Bee, possibly because I know more about sewing than I do about baking.)

But overall, underwhelmed is the term.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Lost City of the Monkey God

Posted 3 January, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas PrestonThe Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston

Received to review via Netgalley

The problem with books like this is that they can come across as way too sensational, and like they’re stirring up a story about a non-event. I was a little hesitant to read this because of that, plus a lot of issues which the book actually discusses, like colonialism and looting, etc. In the end, it’s a well-written and reasonably unsensational account of an admittedly fairly sensational discovery: a city in Mosquitia abandoned without visible signs of strife sometime after the Spanish invaded South America.

It’s a city hidden in thick jungle, and the book highlights the methods used to find it. Lidar, and boots on the ground. Despite the precautions they’re told to take, the team still struggle with the unique dangers of the jungle: extremely venomous snakes, biting ants, parasites… and even, perhaps, a hunting jaguar. About half of the team come down with leishmaniasis, a parasitical disease which, in the worst cases, can eat away at skin and even bone — this months after they all leave the jungle and escape, as they think, scot free. They have to be treated with cures that are almost as bad as the disease, and some of them may never quite be the same again.

But they find a city — two, in fact. They find a cache of buried objects which seem to be ritually destroyed, in a way seen in cultures across the world for items accompanying burials and rituals. And Preston suggests a theory for why the city was abandoned, which may someday find support from those very parasites half the team struggled with. He covers not just the archaeology, but also the skills the team utilise, the challenges of the site, and even a lot of detail on leishmaniasis. Warning: do not google pictures.

It’s an interesting narrative, and from my limited knowledge of archaeology, Preston describes a rigorous and careful expedition. I’d love to see the actual scientists, archaeologists and locals commenting on this, though, rather than a writer. Or as well as a writer! The more the merrier.

Rating: 4/5

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