Tag: non-fiction


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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Review – In The Land of Invented Languages

Posted 1 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika OkrentIn the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent

I’m not much of a linguist in the technical sense, though I do enjoy learning languages (and especially doing translation), so I wasn’t sure if reading a book about invented languages might be too technical. Luckily, it isn’t: In the Land of Invented Languages is actually a really easy read, with a more personal than professional analysis of the languages discussed — although it does go into some details about how each one works, why it’s effective or not, how much it’s used, etc.

Better, Okrent actually participates or participated in some events based around these languages, like Klingon and Esperanto, so she has an insider view (to some extent, anyway). It’s kind of fun reading about how she got hooked on learning Klingon, and her mixed feelings about hanging round with the other Klingon speakers. While she mostly talks about why these invented languages aren’t really successful, she does so with sympathy and an eye to how they create communities and cultures, and also a deep appreciation for the coolness of conlangs and the communities around them. (Even if that coolness is a very geeky, linguistic coolness, obviously.)

It’s an absorbing and entertaining read, which is also pretty informative, and I found myself wanting to share it immediately. For those with a bit more knowledge, I think you might want more detail about the technical workings of some languages, but as a survey of invented languages and their communities, I think it’s pretty awesome.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Dinosaurs Without Bones

Posted 31 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Dinosaurs Without Bones by Anthony MartinDinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony J. Martin

This book takes the rather refreshing view that the most interesting things we know about the dinosaurs are to be gleaned not from their skeletons — impressive as they are, they are mute; we don’t even have whole skeletons in many cases, or even know exactly how the parts that we do have go together. Cue trace fossils: footprints, nests, all the ways the dinosaurs impacted their landscapes and left signs of their passing (not to mention their eating, breeding, and — hold on, sorry, in the spirit of this book I have to do this — their passing of various waste products).

From that parentheses you will have gathered than Martin takes delight in being down to earth about things. He makes no bones (ha) about the fact that a lot of useful information can be gained from traces like coprolites and urolites — and that he hopes that someone will find other traces, like those of dinosaur mating rituals and even the act itself. There’s so much that we don’t know, and which bones can’t tell us, but if we find some kind of fossil trace of dinosaur flatulence, we’ll have support for the idea that they had bacterial microbiomes to help them digest food (since it seems reasonably clear that many of them didn’t have the expected gastroliths).

Despite that, and a healthy enjoyment of jokes and light asides, this is a really informative and fascinating book which gives you an idea of the scope for investigation in trace fossils, even those which don’t preserve more than a tiny fragment of dinosaur life. It also looks at how we can use modern equivalents (e.g. in the same ecological niche, or with similar physiology) to get an idea of what we’re even looking for in the fossil record.

Where I would normally quibble is Martin’s fictional reconstructions, but I think he’s very clear that they are fiction, and that he’s using them to illustrate a point, so I won’t dock him any marks for that.

The mark of really good non-fiction for me is that it makes me want to steer my career in the direction indicated, in this case paleontology. Now, a lot of it sounds like too much work outdoors for me, but all the same, I feel the fascination.

(It’s okay, Mum. I’m sticking with doing-something-with-biology as a vague direction for now. I promise you’ll have me out of your hair bank account one of these days.)

Rating: 5/5

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Review – A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

Posted 28 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian MortimerA Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

Flashback Friday review from 1st April, 2013 (but unfortunately it wasn’t a joke)

As a history book, this is an interesting format and it’s reasonably engaging, though by the end I was starting to get worn down by the sheer level of detail. But what bothered me was that apparently, if you want to time travel, you’d better be male: there’s some lip service paid to actually discussing women’s role in society, with some references to the kind of work women did (mostly: make ale, I gather), and quite a lot of reference to the kind of clothes women wore, and how likely women were to be assaulted and raped, but. We hear about monks and not about nuns, about merchants and not about their wives, about farmers and not their daughters.

And don’t give me the excuse about that not being interesting to read about: nor is intricate detail about what a monk can eat on which days, for most people.

In summary: to time travel, apparently you have to be male. And only men are interesting. Slightly disappointed I paid for this book right now.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Oxygen: The Molecule That Made The World

Posted 27 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World by Nick LaneOxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, Nick Lane

I’ve tried twice to read this in full, and found that though at the beginning it’s engaging and interesting, the sheer level of detail starts to wear on me. This time, I was well served by having the first year of a BSc behind me: it’s easier to understand what the by-products of photosynthesis are when you have a good grasp of how photosynthesis works, and why it generates highly reactive intermediates. Despite Lane’s aim at the general reader, then, perhaps it’s worth noting that at least some knowledge of chemistry is very helpful in understanding what Lane is saying.

The problem with his theories is that he includes so much speculative material, and when I went looking for some corroboration, this review in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine is pretty damning:

These are generalities, and the identification of more specific points of reservations and disagreement in the text will depend on the particular interests and expertise of the individual reader. Various statements that are questionable, perverse or just wrong will be picked up by medical readers.

And indeed, I have to admit that despite my lack of specialist knowledge, on the topic of genetics I could see some flaws. It’s well enough known now, I think, that so-called “junk DNA” is in large part no such thing; damage by radiation to any part of the DNA can be damaging (though “junk” may not be involved in that point in an organism’s lifecycle, may have repetitions which ameliorate the effect of the damage, etc). I know this book is from 2002, and that view of “junk DNA” is relatively new (enough that Nessa Carey’s book on it wasn’t unnecessary!), so perhaps I shouldn’t judge too harshly. But it’s definitely shaky ground, and if I can see that as a layman, I don’t know how much to trust in his expertise in other areas (though it’s worth noting he is a biochemist).

The subject is interesting; Nick Lane’s introduction to it piques the interest. But I don’t think he follows through on his promises, and if you do read it, I would do so with caution.

Rating: 2/5

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