Tag: non-fiction

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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Review – Politics: Between the Extremes

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

Cover of Politics: Between the Extremes by Nick CleggPolitics: Between the Extremes, Nick Clegg

Once upon a time, I was a Lib Dem voter — in fact, I was one of the values-driven, idealistic voters who chose a party based on my values instead of on political realities, like how likely they were to be able to beat Labour in my area. (Answer: they weren’t, it would’ve been impossible, and indeed the place where I grew up is still a pretty safe Labour seat.) I suppose to some extent I still am: I’m unlikely to vote for certain parties based on their stated values, even if they somehow came up with a policy I agreed with strongly (like electoral reform, perhaps). So I wanted to see what Nick Clegg had to say for himself and for his party’s time in government.

It’s pretty defensive of the Liberal Democrat position, unsurprisingly; at times slipping into self-pity, I think. Clegg vividly defends the Lib Dem policy of compromise with the Tories, and claims that he was sidelined by the Tories in order for them to present a picture of a Tory-led government. Behind the scenes, says Clegg, the Lib Dems exerted a disproportionate amount of influence. This may well be true, and it makes sense that they did compromise; idealist or not, I know that politics must involve some compromise, especially in a coalition between the left and the right. I just don’t agree with some of the compromises made.

Clegg seems naively surprised by the extent to which the heart rules the head in the public’s political decisions. He expects a liberalism based on cool reason and logic — despite the fact that his own rise was a highly emotive thing, driven by the hopes of young voters. He’s right that he should have taken more control of the political narrative and shaped it, but I don’t know to what extent that would have helped the Lib Dems in the specific situation in which they found themselves.

His personal-level musings aren’t the key feature of this book, but he does show a healthy respect for David Cameron, and a disgust for Michael Gove that warms the heart. Ultimately, of course he tries to justify what the Lib Dems achieved, or didn’t, during the coalition. But he also makes a fairly convincing case that we need more compromise, more coalitions; we need to temper the current tide of conservatism with a revitalised liberalism. I’m sure from his comments on the Labour party that he doesn’t expect to see Corbyn doing it… in fact, it’s not very clear where he does hope for it to rise from.

I suppose the only answer left is: you and me. Writing this review in advance, just days after Trump became the President-elect of the United States, I don’t know what to say. I wonder what the world will look like politically by the time this goes live!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Art of Language Invention

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

Cover of The Art of Language Invention by David J. PetersonThe Art of Language Invention, David J. Peterson

Though this is written by the linguist behind Game of Thrones’ Dothraki, this isn’t a populist cash-in type of book. It goes into the history of conlangs (constructed languages) a little bit, and then delves deep into all the ins and outs of creating a convincing one — from phonology to grammar to script. It’s fascinating, if sometimes a little hard to follow for someone who isn’t interested in building their own invented language, and thus doesn’t have something to apply the ideas to.

The book covers a lot of ground by including some case studies of invented languages as well (Dothraki, unsurprisingly, included). Less usefully for me, it includes phrasebooks for some invented languages.

Ultimately, I think you have to be pretty darn into conlangs to get much value out of this, but it is a fascinating subject.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Posted 29 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 12 Comments

22318578-1The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo

I’m not usually one for self-help books and such, and pretty much only read this because I had a reading challenge prompt of reading something in the genre. That said, at least I picked something useful; to a great extent I agree with Marie Kondo’s ideas about minimalism and only owning objects you really love. The suggestions for how to tackle your space are great, and the reminders about not just shipping it off to a parent’s house and so on are important. (That isn’t tidying, it’s cluttering up someone else’s house.) Some of her suggestions about understanding that an object has already fulfilled its purpose were interesting too — I like the idea that a gift has achieved its purpose as soon as you’ve received it, for example.

Some of it gets a little too… woo, for me. I’m not knocking a view of the world that imbues everything with spirit, but it doesn’t work for me, and it sometimes just stretched my credulity too far. If you’re strongly opposed to the idea of talking to your belongings and thanking them for their service, this might not be a good book for you at all — you’d spend too much time scoffing.

I do like the ideas and methods to a great extent, though, and I’ll be keeping that central question in mind as I clean out my wardrobes and such: “Does this spark joy?”

I did stick my fingers metaphorically in my ears and la-la-la through the bit about throwing books away. There were some reasonable points, actually — no matter how excited I was to receive a book back in 2011, if I haven’t even touched it since then, am I really likely to read it? But. But. Books.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Genome

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

Cover of Genome by Matt RidleyGenome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Matt Ridley

Genome is somewhat out of date by now, published back in 1999. Bearing that in mind, it was a pretty good read; sometimes, the themes Ridley chose for a particular chapter weren’t all that closely tied to the chromosome he chose, and issues like that, but that’s the problem with our chromosomes. The information isn’t distributed neatly across our chromosomes: in fact, those of us with a Y chromosome have one that does almost nothing overall, despite the fact that it affects carriers’ phenotypes so markedly.

It’s mostly informative and tries hard to avoid reinforcing certain misconceptions — like the idea that a gene codes for a disease, or that things are as simple as a single gene coding for a single trait. A lot of the anecdotes are familiar to me from previous reading, but it’s still interesting to see them presented in this way. It’s pretty modern-human-centric: I mean, if you’re going to look at our autobiography of a species, then I think at least a little time needs to be given to the past of our species. People so often want to know how closely we’re related to Neanderthals.

I think Ridley’s tone is a little dry, though; given that and the fact that the book is a little out of date now, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone looking for a quick and up to date whip around of what we know of genetics. If you have a more general, patient interest, though, why not?

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Predictably Irrational

Posted 24 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Predictably Irrational by Dan ArielyPredictably Irrational, Dan Ariely

If the brain is predictably irrational, then the books which warn us we aren’t the rational creatures we hope are also predictable. I don’t think there was a single circumstance in Ariely’s book I wasn’t already aware of from one experiment or another, one summary or another. That said, Predictably Irrational is well written and easy to digest; there’s no technobabble, and everything is presented in a very readable and readily understandable format. It’s not Dan Ariely’s fault that I’ve read all this stuff before.

If you don’t know much about the topic of the way our brains work, and how counter-intuitive it sometimes is, then this is a good place to start. Unfortunately, that means I don’t have much to say about it — it didn’t hold any surprises for me.

Rating: 3/5

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