Author: Nicky

Review – Everybody Lies

Posted January 26, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-DavidowitzEverybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies is an enthusiastic defence of the premise that “big data” — such as aggregate data from the kind of things people search in Google — might tell us things about humans that we wouldn’t admit even on an anonymous survey, and which things like implicit association tests hope to dig out. My main feeling going in was that I’d expect such a dataset to have its own drawbacks, and that I’d be very sceptical if the author pretended that it did not.

Well, though the author writes enthusiastically and persuasively about the subject, he does mention some cautionary tales and drawbacks, and he makes very good points about things like sexuality. Someone in the closet in a homophobic country doesn’t have much incentive to admit to being gay to an anonymous survey, but they might still search for gay porn (and indeed searches for gay porn match reasonably well across the world, showing that there’s a background rate of people who are at least interested in it in principle.

(His data actually just shows where men are interested in men having sex with men, not where men are gay, which is something he doesn’t really notice. Bisexual men don’t exist for the purposes of his discussion here, even though he’d be much better to just talk about same-sex attraction and include the possibility of both homosexuality and bisexuality.)

The book is full of interesting examples and applications, and a sprinkling of the author’s personality (as many pop-sci type books do). He’s excited about his work, but not too credulous, and it’s a reasonable introduction to the concept that has me… okay, not convinced that data science is actually necessarily going to produce the next great specialist in every subject (as he suggests), but hopeful that data from Google searches and other similar bodies of data can indeed teach us things about ourselves.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Hexbreaker

Posted January 24, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Hexbreaker by Jordan L. HawkHexbreaker, Jordan L. Hawk

Tom is a copper, a decent one who doesn’t take bribes and keeps his neighbourhood safe. He’s hiding a past of violence and betrayal, something he walked away from for everyone’s safety. Cicero is a familiar, a shapeshifter, who works with the local magical police for protection, but hasn’t yet agreed to bond with a witch. They’re thrown together to solve two murders — which stir up horrifying echoes for both of them, of pasts they’ve tried to put behind them — and at first it seems like they’re oil and water. Cicero constantly makes assumptions about Tom based on his job and appearance, but slowly, of course, sparks start to fly.

There is of course a wrenching part of the romance (as so often) where the secrets Tom is keeping come back to haunt him, leaving Cicero feeling lied to and abandoned. Obviously there were so many opportunities to do better and to communicate with Cicero — but at least it seems to make sense that he doesn’t. He doesn’t realise his past is relevant to the case, and he’s committed to a better future, one with Cicero in it; the smart thing would be to ‘fess up, of course, but… that’s difficult, and didn’t seem important. It makes sense.

A lot of people mention not loving this book as much as the Widdershins books, but I disagree. That’s partly down to my pet peeves: Whyborne’s obsessive lack of self-esteem over the course of several books drives me nuts, and the lack of communication between him and Griffin comes back again and again and again. For that reason, this clicked better for me (which is not to say that I find nothing to enjoy in the Widdershins books).

There are some gruesome bits of this story, just as a warning. There’s also some period typical homophobia, though not amongst the main characters or anyone who matters. I’m looking forward to glimpsing Cicero and Tom in the stories of the others…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Buried

Posted January 22, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Buried by Alice RobertsBuried: An Alternative History of the First Millennium in Britain, Alice Roberts

Buried is a natural follow-up to Ancestors; I enjoyed the latter, but I enjoyed this one even more. Here it really is focused on burials in the UK, using mostly other burials in the UK as points of comparison, and Roberts chose some really fascinating sites to discuss.

My favourite chapter was one that I think some readers would find very difficult, discussing a cemetery of child burials — feotuses, neonates, and very young children, all buried together near the site of a villa, even some of them in a well-shaft. Roberts discusses why that may be with sympathy, pointing out that people of the period probably did care about their children; a lack of formal mourning in society does not, clearly, preclude the possibility of private grief. Burying children near the villa, instead of the cemeteries adults were interred in, may also be a sign of care — keeping the children close to the home, where children belonged, rather than sending them off alone to a place created for adults.

She also discusses cut marks on the bones of some of the tiny bodies. Often cut marks on bones are taken to mean cannibalism (usually on older bones than these, of course), but here she suggests it represents obstetric surgery, intended to help save a mother when a child was born in the breach position and nothing else could be done.

As in Ancestors, she also discusses the sexing of bodies, though I found it a bit hilarious that she talked about DNA evidence disagreeing with the physical examinations and then DNA evidence had to be brought into line with famously inaccurate — as she acknowledges — sexing based on things like the shape of the pelvis. I don’t quite understand how she can acknowledge that it’s hard to sex a skeleton, particularly a fragmentary skeleton, and then in the very same book talk about refining DNA evidence to ensure it 100% matches that. Surely the better course (and hopefully what really happened) was to look at cases where the two disagreed and re-test and look for clues about why they diverged, check for contamination, etc. The goal should not be — as stated — to have aDNA match a metric that’s famously inaccurate (and sometimes laughably self-serving).

The final chapter attempts to tackle a weighty subject, with mixed success: how much of changing trends through history was down to population replacement? She suggests a middle ground, which is fairly safe to say (extremes like “no population replacement” and “full population replacement” are easy to disprove) and didn’t, to my mind, offer up much to cut through the rhetoric.

Broadly speaking, though, I found this fascinating and absorbing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The First Ghosts

Posted January 19, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The First Ghosts by Irving FinkelThe First Ghosts, Irving Finkel

This book is an incredibly detailed look at the written sources for some of the most ancient recorded beliefs about ghosts from Sumeria, Babylon and Assyria. It’s a little dense and difficult to read because it excerpts big translated portions (gaps in the text and all) before then explaining them at length — the context is needed to understand things fully, of course, but it feels pretty dry and academic, and (at the same time) it’s difficult to enter into his excitement about his theories because you have to rely on his word about the translations and the comparisons that can be drawn. Scholars in the field must have opinions on it, but the layperson can’t evaluate it — we’re only shown the evidence that supports Finkel’s conclusions.

A major quibble I have is with the author’s conclusion that if you don’t believe in ghosts, you clearly believe that either people who report ghost sightings are lying or mistaken about their own experiences, while the consistency of such reports and the frequency of them suggests that there must be something real there. I think he steps beyond his sources into personal speculation here, while leaning on all his amassed evidence as if it provides proof.

Try this explanation instead: something in the human brain pre-disposes us to have experiences which we interpret in this way. We can stimulate the human brain with electrical currents and magnets, creating sensations which aren’t there — and we know our own brains can produce waves of electrical currents in epilepsy and migraine. So there’s a potential mechanism for you: perhaps sometimes people see “ghosts” because particular experiences and physical states generate an electrical current in a certain part of the brain, producing sensations of things that aren’t really there. They’re then experienced as real and convincing (“I saw it with my own eyes!”), but aren’t.

We know migraine and epilepsy are not uncommon in the population, and we also know that they’re a matter of degree: they’re not on and off, but a spectrum of stimulation leading to a spectrum of presentations. So a large proportion of humanity could have some propensity toward that kind of thing (without having symptomatic epilepsy or migraine or restrict the group who can have these experiences to only people with clinical symptoms).

There. I’ve produced a potential explanation of why ghosts could be regularly reported which tallies with our knowledge of the human brain, which is more testable than Finkel’s hypothesis, and would explain the phenomenon. (It’s not perfect, it’s a little hand-wavy and I’m not actually a neurologist, it’s just an example of a line of investigation that could be taken up based on what we know about the human brain. And like I said, it’s testable.) I’m not saying it’s the truth; what I’m saying is that there are other hypotheses that don’t mean “everyone was lying or didn’t really have the experience they thought they had”. There are, in other words, possible explanations that mean they were all telling the truth and they did really have these convincing experiences that they could not tell apart from reality — they just misattributed the cause.

It feels ridiculous to have this big a pet peeve about it, but it’s very annoying to read a well-evidenced book, get to the end, and then the conclusion is “obviously, ghosts exist because people have always said so, there’s no other possible explanation!”.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Dark Between The Trees

Posted January 17, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Dark Between the Trees by Fiona BarnettThe Dark Between the Trees, Fiona Barnett

I found The Dark Between the Trees very absorbing, but in the end a little disappointing. Not because of the rather open end, or because the mysteries weren’t explained, but because I felt that I was pitched a story where some kind of genuine investigation would be done — at least some semblance of a rigorous, academic approach to this strangeness.

Unfortunately, the character who seemed set up to do that turned out to be driven mostly by compulsion, and when she reached the heart of the strangeness, she… stopped. It makes it a mildly interesting study of the character of someone inexplicably driven, wrapped up in the mystery before they even came into contact with it directly, but I found it a little disappointing that her academia was nothing but a veneer.

The interweaving of the two stories, the modern team and the ragged band of Parliamentarians, is done quite well and used to good affect: each story reflects and mirrors the other.

I felt like the descriptions of the forest and the way it directed people inwards, to the heart of the forest, had much borrowed from Tolkien’s Old Forest. The concept of the two forests existing simultaneously, no, but the general mood, the evil at the heart, the rising fear and tension… and the ways the forest is creepy, the seeming movement of the trees, the root deliberately popped up to trip, the bracken and undergrowth through which you can fight only one way… I wouldn’t have been entirely shocked had the story suddenly involved Old Man Willow, somehow. That section of The Lord of the Rings is one I always found rather fascinating, even if I could do without Bombadil, so this isn’t a complaint, merely a note on the tone and similarity!

I did start to notice a number of editing issues in the latter half of the book: words missing, mostly, and in some cases (and I wasn’t entirely sure if it was deliberate or not), a line break where it didn’t feel there ought to be one. The author didn’t use these elsewhere and they didn’t feel very impactful to me, so I think they were just outright errors.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Blind Tiger

Posted January 15, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Blind Tiger by Jordan L. HawkBlind Tiger, Jordan L. Hawk

Mild, naive Sam comes from a repressive family in the country. Hardened, hermit-like Alistair is hiding away from life after being very badly hurt by his time as a soldier and its aftermath. They’re brought together because Sam’s cousin — who took him in when he fled his family — has been murdered, and Sam needs help in navigating the gangs and other dangers of Prohibition Chicago.

Plus, Alistair is a familiar, a shapeshifter, and he’s realised that Sam is his witch, the one person in the world whose magic best works with Alistair’s — but he has his own reasons for refusing to bond.

Sam is a lovely character, well-meaning and brave, despite the emotional damage from his family who belittled him constantly. He’s naive, but not as judgemental as he could be: he accepts the Gattis and what they do, even as he steers his own path (not drinking, for example, and not being terribly willing to work with a gang boss). He seems a dangerous big cat shifter and thinks, “Hey, can I pet him?”

He’s the ideal person to bring Alistair back out of his shell, and we see that happening in and amongst the actual action of the book. The pace of their relationship worked quite well for me, and it was really sweet… though I’m sure they have a ways to go to a proper happy ending.

I haven’t actually read the other books in this world, but that was okay; this worked well for me as an introduction, it was very clear what the basics were. I’m sure there’s more to understand in the other books — and I’m eager to read those too — but it works perfectly well on its own.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Dinner in Rome

Posted January 12, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Dinner in Rome by Andreas ViestadDinner in Rome: A History of the World in One Meal, Andreas Viestad

For a history of the world, this falls a little short. The world looks very much like the Roman Empire here, except a couple of brief nods to prehistoric humans and what they ate. There are whole chapters that mention nothing but the lands previously included in the Roman Empire. I don’t necessarily blame the author for this — it’s his choice, of course, to pick a cuisine he knows, and to pick the particular dish he ate, but it’s quite possibly the publisher’s choice to give it a misleading title. “A history of Europe” might’ve been more accurate.

Which is not to say I disliked the book as a whole: I enjoy the idea of taking an ordinary, everyday thing — like a good meal in a restaurant in Rome — and digging into every aspect of it to find its history. Food is, as Viestad points out, absolutely essential to it, and many people and nationalities build identities around it. (Even erroneously, as he discusses in the case of pasta carbonara, which is not an ancestral Italian dish, but quite possibly a fusion of Mediterranean-style diets with the wants of American soldiers during World War II.) It’s an enjoyable endeavour, and I found reading it very soothing and enjoyable. I do like a good carbonara myself, and Viestad describes his beautifully.

I didn’t even find his autobiographical allusions annoying, because it is useful to see his experience of lemons in the context of his having farmed them and his nostalgia about the lemons on his little, commercially non-viable farm. It’s useful to get the flavour of the restaurant in general, the people, the way Italian diners behave — all of this is part of the picture he’s trying to build up, demonstrating the way food and how we treat food gets ingrained in us.

His sources are not explicitly referenced with numbered footnotes, but he does have a nice sources section (the temptation to call it “Sauces” passed him by) and in general I found it enjoyable: a relaxed history about everyday things.

Just… not a history of the world.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Splitting: The Inside Story on Headaches

Posted January 10, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Headaches by Amanda EllisonSplitting: The Inside Story on Headaches, Amanda Ellison

This is very much a book for a layperson, and I sometimes worry about the author being overly glib or just not thinking things through. At one point, for example, it states that antibiotics are “not very effective” against viruses. The substances commonly thought of as antibiotics — penicillin, streptomycin, etc — are of course actually antibacterials, and are not at all effective against viruses, and it’s irresponsible to suggest that they are at all effective in that situation, given that they’re completely pointless.

If you’re going to refer to antivirals as “antibiotics” (which some people might do, arguing that “anti-biotic” means “anti-life” — assuming you believe that viruses are alive), then it’s irresponsible in the other direction to suggest that they’re not very effective. It might lead to someone not taking antivirals when they should. I know this sounds like an extremely minor point in a book unrelated to infectious disease, but it’s really important, and a good scientist should not cut this kind of corner, even (or perhaps especially) when communicating to laypeople.

When it comes to discussing neurotransmitters and so on, the author is fairly precise… so far as I can tell, being more interested in infectious disease than human biology for the sake of human biology. Given her carelessness about other things, though, it does leave me with doubts.

I did appreciate the chapter on tension headaches, which I’m prone to. There’s even an interesting point about the fact that stomach ulcers generating histamine, which — given a stomach ulcer is one of the potential causes of some of my health issues, and given my high levels of stress — is worth exploring. But, by and large, I’m not impressed with this book. Writing for laypeople should not mean being cavalier about facts.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Murder at the Theatre Royale

Posted January 7, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Murder at the Theatre Royale, by Ada MoncrieffMurder at the Theatre Royale, Ada Moncrieff

Murder at the Theatre Royale was just as much fun as I’d hoped after reading Murder Most Festive. It’s not related to the first book at all, except in that it’s set at Christmas, and the narrative positively flies by — even more so than Murder Most Festive, I’d say. I’m a little disappointed there’s nothing else by Ada Moncrieff for me to inhale, because I had a lot of fun.

The main character of this one is more appealing than Murder Most Festive, through her determined industry at an actual paying job (rather than living off an estate) and her enthusiasm for her work. Daphne King is an agony aunt for a newspaper, but she wants to branch out and do more, her appetite whetted by a little mystery she solved involving a kidnapped person writing in to her column in code. Given the opportunity to do a little work for the culture section, she jumps at it, and finds herself embroiled in the mystery of the murder of an aging actor.

Veronica, who over time becomes Daphne’s Watson, is pretty cool too — not as sharp as Daphne, but a working woman trying hard to make her way, and a good companion for a little mystery-solving adventure…

I didn’t, in this case, figure out the culprit or the true motive for a while; I had my eye on a different character, because they seemed so unlikely at first (and the unlikely answer is often true). I should’ve thought more about the information I was being given about another character!

All in all, really enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Headed for a Hearse

Posted January 4, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Headed for a Hearse by Jonathan LattimerHeaded for a Hearse, Jonathan Latimer

A solid not-for-me, here. It shows its age in the attitudes to women and people of colour, and in the open portrayal of the police as being unashamedly violent, arbitrary, and prone to going around the law to get a conviction.

I feel weird about the one-star rating, given I finished it and found it absorbing enough… but would I have picked it up at all if I hadn’t already owned it, from an “advent calendar” of Golden Age crime fiction books? No, probably not. As usual, I’m rating based on my enjoyment, not the literary merit I think the book has — though that’s small enough in this case, too.

One thing that was portrayed well was the attitudes of the men on Death Row. Their reactions and interactions were interesting, their fear well-drawn, even as they themselves were still unpleasant. The horror of their situation is clear, even if their actions were reprehensible.

Rating: 1/5

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