Category: Reviews


Review – The Trouble With Physics

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

Cover of The Trouble with Physics by Lee SmolinThe Trouble With Physics, Lee Smolin

I came out of reading this book with a pleasing illusion that I understood something of the state of modern physics. Smolin’s style worked for me in explaining things well enough that, for once, I wasn’t left boggling and having to reread pages over and over again to cram the concepts into my head. Perhaps it helps that he’s not an inveterate supporter of string theory, and can explain where it doesn’t work as an explanation for our universe and why — sometimes, it helps to know where concepts break down as much as it helps to know where they succeed.

Part of the book isn’t just about physics at all, though: it’s about the progress of science in general, and how science progresses. I’m not sure Smolin really gets at anything profound here, but when it comes to the specifics of critiquing why physics has come to a standstill, he genuinely cares and genuinely wants to solve the issue. The way he presents it, it’s clear that it’s time for people to re-evaluate string theory and accept that quite possibly it will never yield the answers we’re looking for.

Some days after reading it, being me, I can no longer explain string theory to anyone else, but I can explain why it doesn’t work, so I got something out of this! And I more or less enjoyed letting it turn my brain inside out, too.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Leviathan Wakes

Posted 29 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 10 Comments

Cover of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. CoreyLeviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes starts out weird and intriguing, with an opening that wouldn’t disgrace a horror story. After that, for a long time it becomes mostly space opera, with some political manoeuvring and a noir-ish detective story alternating chapters. There’s some clumsy world building in the first 100-200 pages, which often takes the form of infodumps. That made me hesitate about carrying on with the series, but after about the 200 page point, I found myself getting sucked in.

I gradually started to be interested in the characters — though Miller is never quite likeable, only piteable, to my mind — and what exactly was going on. Miller’s obsession with Julie Mao was weird, maybe even a little creepy, but his interactions with Holden and his crew were interesting. The way he wants to be accepted, but at the same time is willing to compromise that by doing whatever he thinks is right — even if idealistic Holden won’t like it.

I do think the book could definitely use more female characters. The society itself seems to be pretty equal opportunity, but the main female characters are Naomi and Julie. Julie’s mostly just an idea, and while Naomi is capable, a lot of her importance lies in her relationship with Holden and how that works out.

About halfway through, the weird stuff kicks back in, and then I was definitely hooked. When I got to the end, I decided I’d have to get Caliban’s War to find out what exactly happens next…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – 15 Million Degrees

Posted 28 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of 15 Million Degrees by Lucie Green15 Million Degrees, Professor Lucie Green

If you want to know all the things we know or guess about the sun, this is definitely the book for you. Lucie Green isn’t just a science communicator — she’s actually doing the research, so she knows what the current questions are, what the latest research is, and all the history of how we came to know what we know. Her enthusiasm is plain throughout, and she does a good job of describing both the actual physical events of the sun, and the sensation of observing and understanding them.

If you’re not hugely into physics, you might find that a few chapters do start to drag. But for the most part, it’s a fascinating book — and there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Crack in Creation

Posted 27 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Crack in Creation by Jennifer DoudnaA Crack in Creation, Jennifer Doudna, Samuel Sternberg

If you haven’t heard of CRISPR before, chances are you’ll be hearing of it again pretty soon. It’s starting to be used in clinical trials to edit the genes of human embryos, and it’s already being used in countless research projects. It’s an amazing tool which could completely revolutionise gene editing, allowing very precise changes to be made with very little unintended impact. Doudna is one of the people who has been involved in developing CRISPR and recognising its potential, and her book covers exactly how it works and the potential it has — and some of the philosophical questions around how we’re going to use it.

The explanations of how CRISPR works are perfect: clear and precise, along with diagrams which help elucidate the processes described. Even if you already know a little about CRISPR, this account will probably help you understand just how it works and why it’s so revolutionary.

As far as the ethics/philosophy goes, Doudna says nothing particularly revolutionary. (It’s very much framed as her book, despite Sternberg’s involvement.) What struck me especially was her conviction that this is a decision that has to be made by people in general, not just scientists — it’s something I agree with very much, and why I have a science blog of my own.

An important read, I think — even if you’re not hugely into science/gene editing.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Buffalo Soldier

Posted 26 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Buffalo Soldier by Maurice BroaddusBuffalo Soldier, Maurice Broaddus

I think my enjoyment of this book would be greatly enhanced if I knew my US history a bit better. As it is, it’s an alternate history, and yet I can’t judge the cleverness of it and what it’s trying to show. I feel like I might’ve got into it more at novel length, even without more history knowledge; events might have come upon me a little less abruptly, then.

It’s definitely readable and pacy; that’s not the issue at all. There’s some great lines, including some bitterly funny ones (“We call them engineers. It’s from the Navajo meaning… engineers”). The world building is intriguing, but I just didn’t know enough — either about the world being built, or about the world it is building on. There’s great action scenes, but.

After the whole concept of his King Arthur retelling totally failed for me, though, it’s good to have tried some more of Broaddus’ work. I think I’ll pick up something else by him if I get the chance.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Pocketful of Crows

Posted 25 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne HarrisA Pocketful of Crows, Joanne M. Harris

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 19th October 2017

A Pocketful of Crows is based on one of the Child ballads — specifically, ‘The Brown Girl‘. I have to say, I was pleased to see a retelling that isn’t based on one of the most well known stories or songs. The Child ballads are a huge resource of stories, some of which totally need retelling to make proper sense of them, but people often go for retelling the same stories over and over again. I haven’t seen anyone play with ‘The Brown Girl’ before, and it’s refreshing.

Joanne Harris’ writing has a lovely clarity to it; this book is just a dream to read, with a strong narrative voice. The things that frustrated me are things that frustrate me about the ballad as well — how does the girl not realise her lover’s insincere? Harris manages to make me believe it at times, but I still find it frustrating that she’s so naive. Mind you, it also makes sense, given the extra narrative Harris draws in: the story of Mother, Maiden, Crone. I love the way she weaves the ballad into that shape and makes it more than it is on the surface.

Definitely enjoyable, and I have a feeling the physical copy is going to be gorgeous.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Fire’s Stone

Posted 24 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Fire's Stone by Tanya HuffThe Fire’s Stone, Tanya Huff

It’s been ages since I first read this, but I’ve been meaning to get round to rereading it for ages, and I’m glad I finally did. The world itself isn’t particularly distinctive: wandering peoples, oppressive clans, magic which requires detachment from the world, royalty and court intrigue… but the characters are what make it shine for me. Chandra, Aaron and Darvish each have their faults, but together they make up a surprisingly strong team, compensating for each other’s faults — and not just easily or naturally, but by working at it and learning to rely on one another. Each has their own sadnesses and goals, and gradually they learn to come together and deal with it.

The relationship between Chandra and the other two is as important as their romantic relationship with each other; she’s not just a woman in the way of the guys getting together, as some people seem prone to viewing women in queer stories. Chandra is just as integral to their strength as either of the men.

I think the process of dealing with Darvish’s alcoholism is also well done. The reasons he drinks, and the reasons he stops; the way he tries to resist it and where he fails. All of it is sensitively done, to my mind, and felt real. Aaron’s struggle with his sexuality is one that is also, unfortunately, real; there’s plenty of people who’ll force themselves to stay in the closet because of fear of what society or particularly their families would say. And Chandra’s determination to remain independent, because attachment might blunt her powers — well, that feels real, too. (Think of the people who complain that a woman will be ‘distracted’ by having a partner and family…)

I enjoyed the book a lot, and it’s also nice that it’s a stand-alone. Not that I wouldn’t mind more of the trio’s adventures, but I feel that it’s unnecessary. The story is complete as a one and done. That’s kind of refreshing in a world of so. many. trilogies.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Babylon

Posted 23 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Babylon by Paul KriwaczekBabylon, Paul Kriwaczek

Not that long ago, I abandoned Gwendolyn Leick’s book Mesopotamia because of the overwrought sentences and the weird, unsourced assertions, like this:

“Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memory of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.”

And yet, I pick this up, and in the second chapter…:

“Remembered too was the Apsu, the sacred lake from which [a god] emerged, referenced by a basin of fresh water installed in every later Mesopotamian temple — and perhaps also, long after, still remember in the Wudu, or washing, pool of the Islamic mosque and maybe even in the baptismal font of the Christian church.”

There’s no source in the further reading for this. I know that much of what we think we know about Mesopotamia must be speculative, but this repeated assertion leaves me with so many questions. It’s not my area, really, but I can’t help but want to point out that fresh water is easy to conceptualise as sacred because it’s so necessary to human life. By this point in the book, maybe two solid archaeological finds have been referenced, along with a handful of later texts. In the same way, Krizwaczek links the Virgin Mary to the goddess Inanna via Inanna’s symbol of the cow shed:

“The Queen of Heaven of the Christian church would one day give birth to her baby saviour in a distant but direct descendant of the mother-goddess’s cow-byre.”

This feels more like imaginative recreation than history. It’s all very pretty to read, but I’m wary of these links. English literature makes such claims of links between literature which the authors never thought of themselves; sometimes the link is elegant and pretty and makes sense, and yet means absolutely nothing, because it wasn’t actually really made in the author’s mind. So too, perhaps, with religion. I’d at least like to see some solid references; even popular history has room for sources and referencing, even if in a supplementary chapter 90% of readers don’t look at.

The book is pleasant enough to read, but marred by the fact that I don’t know how much credence to give to any of it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Mapping the Interior

Posted 22 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Mapping the InteriorMapping the Interior, Stephen Graham Jones

I don’t know what to say about Mapping the Interior. It’s weird and creepy and it got under my skin. It does involve one character who is disabled being treated fairly badly, including by family, so if you’d prefer to avoid that, then it’s important to know going in. The narrative isn’t exactly okay with it or promoting it, but… I don’t know, in a way it does. The ending, mostly, is what made me feel iffy about it.

It’s also an interesting exploration of Native American community and identity, on which I don’t even know how to begin to comment.

It’s powerful and, yes, that word visceral that gets thrown around. And I’m finding myself otherwise at a loss to describe it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Just Six Numbers

Posted 21 August, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Just Six Numbers by Martin ReesJust Six Numbers, Martin Rees

This is a little out of date now, and some of the predictions are almost adorably wrong at this point — that we would understand dark matter and dark energy, and that we’d have a unified Theory of Everything explaining how all the forces we know of are tied together. But this book is still useful in explaining, in clear and simple terms, why exactly people say the universe has been “fine-tuned”. It’s not the most in-depth treatment out there, but I think it’d be very good for getting to grips with the basics.

In summary: there are several numbers underlying the universe which are constant, and they are very precisely definable down to multiple decimal places… and if you change them in any way, you make our existence as we know it impossible. There are problems with this, of course; life doesn’t have to look exactly like us to be viable, and of course we’re in a world that is perfectly tuned for us to exist. That doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything. I know people often use it to support the idea of multiple universes, all varying slightly — but something can be made just once and be utterly unique and turn out to be perfect for something, even if you don’t make multiples.

This is, honestly, why I find physics so frightening. It’s all so terribly unlikely, and we don’t understand it, and against all this it becomes very apparent, to my mind, how small and alone and temporary each human being is.

It’s also fascinating, even for those who prefer biology as a science, like one you could probably name…

Rating: 3/5

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