Tag: non-fiction

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 – 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 – 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 – 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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Review – Touch

Posted 15 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Touch by David J. LindenTouch: The Science of The Hand, Heart, and Mind, David J. Linden

Touch is a pretty fascinating book, delving into the importance of the sense of touch for us and what it would mean to lose that sense. It’s not just losing the sensation of your skin touching something, after all: touch receptors also play a part in interpreting pain, heat, etc. In a way, the book as a whole tells you about more than just touch, since it also gives a solid background in the nervous system and the brain.

It’s also pretty focused on stuff like orgasms and sensual touching, sometimes with fairly explicit (and somewhat unnecessary) examples, e.g. a description of a couple having sex. You may or may not find that helps your understanding; I found it intrusive to be told to imagine these things in which I have no interest! Particularly as some of these descriptions are addressed to you, the reader.

I felt that it got a bit scatterbrained at times — sometimes I felt that it wandered away from touch onto other aspects of our sensory experiences, though that’s almost to be expected. We divvy up our senses into some rather artificial boxes at times; just think of how linked scent and taste are. But mostly I found it interesting and easy to read.

Rating: 3/5

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 13 April, 2017 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

Ssh. It’s not Thursday yet. I’m in a magical bubble of time dilation, or something.

Cover of The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel KayWhat have you recently finished reading?

Juuuust finished my reread of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. My heart is broken, of course; he writes brilliantly, and the ending is so tragic and bittersweet. And ugh, I wish Rodrigo and Ammar could just… walk away, and not fight each other. It’s inevitable that they do, and that’s part of the heartbreak, but. Gah.

Cover of New Scientist: Where the Universe Came FromWhat are you currently reading?

With the usual caveat that I’m technically currently reading a lot of things, the top of my pile right now is The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. I had an ARC, but I saw a published copy in the local bookshop and grabbed it. Couldn’t resist. And now I’ve finally started it!

What will you read next?

I’m fairly confident, for some reason, that on Thursday morning I will start reading New Scientist’s Instant Expert: Where the Universe Came From. Because I haven’t been bending my brain with relativity enough already. Possibly this has something to do with how I can time travel so I’m still in Wednesday as I write this…

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Review – On the Origin of Species

Posted 13 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 11 Comments

Cover of On the Origin of Species by Charles DarwinOn the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

I’m doing a biology degree, and I’ve always been an admirer of (and a believer in) the theory of evolution through natural selection, so it seemed high time I finally went to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Not that Darwin came up with the idea out of nothing, of course; it was “in the air” at the time, and other scientists were thinking along similar lines — Lamarck and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, to name just two. Not to mention, of course, Alfred Wallace, who could’ve beaten Darwin to publication.

But Charles Darwin was the first to publish a theory which really made sense, which hung together and was testable. He may not have known about genetics or had a clear idea of how heritability occurs, yet it’s startling to read this and realise how close he was to right at times. He may not always have backed the right theories, but he considered everything he could imagine, and carefully related it to his own theory. It’s remarkable just how willing he was to consider where his theory might be wrong, and discuss those weaknesses. It’s also remarkable how often he tested what he could, whether it be the germination of seeds soaked in sea water or how pollination works; he may not have had the equipment that we have now, but his attitude is surely a lesson that every aspiring scientist should take to heart.

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can read this and come away without understanding Darwin’s theory. He’s painstakingly clear, at length, with examples. If you’re reading this and coming to the conclusion that he didn’t support the idea of one species evolving into another, “macroevolution”, your reading comprehension is at fault. He makes it quite clear that “microevolution”, small changes in existing species, can and will lead to new species.

Darwin was not right about everything, but he was right in many key ways — and he would be the first to admit that he could be wrong. He gave us a working, testable theory, one which has ample proof both in his work and in the world around us. Creationists have far too much to explain, by comparison.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Britain AD

Posted 9 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Britain AD by Francis PryorBritain AD, Francis Pryor

From my perspective, speaking as an English Lit postgrad who concentrated heavily on Arthurian and medieval literature, Britain AD has two main weaknesses. The first is the fact that Pryor doesn’t understand or attempt to engage with the shift in language to form English. He suggests there is no reason to suspect mass migration of Angles and Saxons into the UK, regardless of accepted work by people like Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza into the way population genetics tends to show that language, identity and genetics move together.

Secondly, he doesn’t know the subjects he’s talking about nearly well enough. I’d be happy to defer to him on the archaeology of King Arthur, but when it comes to the textual history, I know my stuff — and Pryor has enormous gaps. For example, he speaks of Sir Thomas Malory introducing the ‘Holy Blood’ aspect of the Grail legends… heedless of the fact that Robert de Boron pre-empted Malory by two centuries. (And possibly the Vulgate cycle did too — I don’t have my copies handy to check and I don’t trust online sources to steer me right!) He also utterly ignores the existence of the Saint’s Lives that mention Arthur and the Welsh folk tales.

These might not be important to the way Pryor views Arthur, but I think it’s always been clear that the Arthurian legends are more fiction than fact — so if you’re going to talk about them, you really need to understand the fictional aspects and how the legends developed. Pryor simply does not, and that puts all the rest of the book on shaky footing for me.

The same applies when it comes to understanding whether or not there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion or settlement or anything of the kind. He never manages to account for the rise of the Anglo-Saxon language. He talks about the spread of ideas instead, yet if that were the case, we’d expect to see much more influence from the Celtic languages on English in names for basic, everyday things. Why do we say “bread”, then, from Germanic brood, instead of bara? Why is it a “church”, from cirice, and not eglwys?

I’m not an expert on linguistics, but Pryor’s theories don’t accommodate the way languages work at all — and to be convincing, they must.

Then there’s the fact that he picks which genetic study he proves because, and I quote, “It also supports my own theories — which is an enormous point in its favour.” This may be intended as flippant, but still, that is not the way to critique studies, especially ones which are outside your area of expertise. You can’t pick which theories you like based on which one agrees with your own theory, or it becomes horrifyingly circular.

Where he speaks about archaeology, I don’t have the tools to criticise — and he is well known and well thought of, so I’m sure he’s at least along the right lines. But where it crosses things I do understand — genetics, linguistics, and most of all literature — I find Pryor’s grounding very shaky. I enjoy his writing, but can’t give him more stars than this because his thesis is just too questionable. And it really makes me question whether Britain BC was all that, although it was more deeply grounded in archaeology.

Rating: 2/5

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