Category: Reviews

Review – Ancestral Journies

Posted 25 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Ancestral Journeys by Jean MancoAncestral Journeys, Jean Manco

This is a multidisciplinary synthesis of all kinds of information about the populations of Europe and how they got here. There have been trends in understanding the movement of peoples that anyone dipping into the topic will know about, largely the great argument over migration and whether it’s ever really occurred or not. I think Manco’s book shows that, in the end, it’s the middle road that’s the answer: sometimes there has been movement, sometimes not; usually, there’s been some movement, whether of traders or invaders.

The book presents tons and tons of evidence, drawing from genetic analysis, written records, archaeological remains and linguistic traces. No doubt some of the details are wrong here and there, but I strongly suspect that the overall sweep of it is a good picture of how Europe was populated, and how populations interacted and lived together. It’s quite attractively presented, too: it’s printed in colour throughout, with colours used to good effect to produce heatmaps and all sorts illustrating the density of certain genetic markers or linguistic groups.

It’s also, to my mind, a pretty easy read. I did get a little lost at times when it fell to listing the markers that characterise this or that population, but for the most part Manco remembers to keep all the evidence in mind, and not simply regurgitate strings of haplogroup identifications. She also explains how the genetic analysis techniques used work, which helps — not in enormous detail, so nothing new to me, but enough to contextualise the work she’s presenting.

Interesting stuff, and while I wouldn’t call it a pageturner as such, I read it in two days.

Rating: 4/5

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Weekly roundup

Posted 25 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Well hey, guys! It’s been an eventful week here, but as of right now the bunnies are in Britain and my wife has a job in the UK, and I turned 29 safely. And instead of buying books (well, mostly) I bought us a mattress.

Normally I wouldn’t post a pic of the bunnies when I’m actually in the same place as them, but I thought you all might want to admire their new two-storey condo, with spacious living area and a nice and private bedroom. Welcome to Rose Cottage!

And also, shoutout to my wife for being totally badass and getting a job offer within like… three hours of the interview.

In the meantime, here’s some books that I bought or received sometime in the last couple of months but haven’t featured yet!

Received to review:

Cover of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker Cover of War Cry by Brian McClellan

Both of these sound fascinating, so hopefully I’ll get chance to dig in soon in between all the moving stuff!

New non-fiction:

Cover of Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. Ceram Cover of Seeds of Science by Mark Lynas

Gods, Graves and Scholars looks like exactly the kind of general book on archaeology I like to just soak up and relax with, so I’m looking forward to this, even if it’s not the most up to date resource!

New fiction:

Cover of The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White Cover of Austral by Paul McAuley Cover of Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre Cover of At the Table of Wolves by Kay Kenyon

I’ve been meaning to pick up all of these except Austral, and Austral tempted me in a buy-one-get-one-half-price deal in Waterstones. Oops?

Books read this week:

Cover of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers Cover of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North Cover of Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs Cover of Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene Cover of A History of Ancient Egypt Volume 2 by John Romer

Reviews posted this week:

Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. I wasn’t totally won over by his opinions on the political divides in the world (the US, mostly), but he does write well about how to understand an argument and put one together. 3/5 stars
Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine. A fascinating read, though not (of course) free of bias in its own direction. 4/5 stars
A Study in Honor, by Claire O’Dell. It’s a retelling of Sherlock Holmes with two black women in the lead roles — two queer black women. There’s something awesome about that, no matter what. Actually, in many ways I think this is more a homage than a retelling. Either way, I found it enjoyable but maybe not quite there. 3/5 stars
The Z Murders, by J. Jefferson Farjeon. Not my favourite of his sets of characters, but fun and an early serial killer novel, so interesting on that front too. 4/5 stars
Circe, by Madeline Miller. I enjoyed this a lot, especially because it made me sympathise with Odysseus while not making him some paragon of virtue. 4/5 stars
Rosemary & Rue, by Seanan McGuire. Hindsight is difficult — as a reread, Toby’s (lack of) judgement about people drove me nuts, but it’s still a fascinating world and I muuust read more. 4/5 stars
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, by Gil North. Just… skip this one. Unless you’re titillated by repeated descriptions of sullen women’s breasts — yes, mostly just descriptions of their breasts, including the nipples of a corpse. Gross, thanks. 1/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Half Stars. About how I rate books!
WWW Wednesday. The mid-week update on what I’ve been reading and what I’m going to read. Usually about as accurate as the 10-day weather forecast.

Out and about:

Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘Opportunity Only Knocks Once (Cats, However…)’. A silly and hopefully funny short story. And yes, it includes a cat.
NEAT science: Human interbreeding. Scientists have analysed the DNA of some ancient human remains to find that the girl was actually the daughter of two different human subspecies, something that scientists have usually thought unlikely to occur. I explain a bit more about what this means in the post!

So how’re you guys? Anything big and exciting going on for you?

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Review – Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm

Posted 24 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil NorthSergeant Cluff Stands Firm, Gil North

This book is just… kind of gross. If there’s a woman on the page, North is bound to describe her breasts. If she’s anything less than a perfect housewife from the 1800s, she’s a whore and the narrative — and main character — treat her as such. Even the murder victim is described in somewhat less than sympathetic ways: that kind of desperate-for-a-man stereotype for a stalwart police officer to pity when she inevitably comes to grief.

I don’t understand Martin Edwards’ praise for this book in the introduction. The writing style is probably a matter of taste, but it felt clumsy to me, and way too reliant on staccato narration: “This happened. Then that happened. The man was afraid. The woman laughed.” That kind of style. It creates a certain kind of tension at times, but doing it that way for the whole book is just actually kind of boring.

Skip Gil North’s writing, even if you’re collecting the British Library Crime Classics. Ugh.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Rosemary & Rue

Posted 23 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rosemary & Rue by Seanan McGuireRosemary & Rue, Seanan McGuire

I’ve been meaning to reread this for a while, but after persuading my wife to read it and watching her tear through the series, I was ready to jump back in. It’s definitely a fascinating world, weaving together all sorts of fairy lore, and while Toby is stubborn and pigheaded — and ugh, how did she ever trust and sleep with that one particular person? All the warning signs are there in freakin’ neon — she’s also someone who cares, has her own sense of honour and duty, and is willing to do whatever necessary to abide by her promises and obligations.

It’s also interesting seeing the little hints here at the beginning for things revealed in later books: there’s a lot about Toby that just isn’t revealed here, even though when you look at retrospect, there were clues.

I’d forgotten some aspects of the books — like the Luideag’s rather unexpected appearance and attitude — so the refresher was definitely needed. I think An Artificial Night is a better book (I think that’s the third?), but I wouldn’t recommend skipping this one. If you’re not into the style of this one, you probably won’t want to try the other books anyway, as Toby’s voice is much the same (albeit she rolls with the changes in some ways and updates her viewpoints).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Circe

Posted 22 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Circe by Madeline MillerCirce, Madeline Miller

I know The Odyssey pretty well, by necessity: I did Classical Studies for both a GCSE and an A Level. In fact, I got a little sick of Odysseus. Circe obviously isn’t all about Odysseus, and brings in a lot of other sources as well, but I do have to pause to note that it does wonderful things with Odysseus. It manages to give us both the good and the bad in Odysseus, the things that make him an attractive person and the things which mar him, and it really works. I was both invested in his relationship with Circe and in his safety, and yet still horrified at the bad sides of his character. The book also does a great job with Telemachus, making him more than just a chip off the old block: the descriptions of him are lovely, even as you know it’s Circe’s feelings tinting the whole narrative.

The story as a whole does a great job of synthesising the different sources and giving Circe a voice. It reminds me of someone else’s writing, and I can’t quite put my finger on what, but I suspect it’s actually Ursula Le Guin. In fact, the descriptions of Telemachus and the way Circe’s story ends clinch it: something about this book very much reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s work, and that’s a pretty towering compliment.

I’m usually stingy with my five stars, but when I try to think about anything that would make me dock a star with this book, I couldn’t put my finger on anything. It’s not one of my favourites ever that you can pry from my cold dead hands someday, but it’s good and I think Miller’s done an astounding job. I found it engaging and felt like she gave Circe a voice that worked, and I would recommend it to others.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Z Murders

Posted 21 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Z Murders by J. Jefferson FarjeonThe Z Murders, J. Jefferson Farjeon

J. Jefferson Farjeon has a way with setting the atmosphere of a book that I can’t help but love. The first page of each of his books got me right away — and not in the same way, either. There’s something in the way he can describe a scene, and his mysteries quickly take over, clever and strange. The only thing I’d say I don’t fall in love with is the romance: you can see it coming a mile off, and it’s the obvious two people, and you know it’s going to end with marriage.

That aside, The Z Murders works really well at the suspense throughout. Sometimes the main character is just so stupid it makes me want to bash him over the head (sure, let’s not tell the police everything when there’s an indiscriminate killer on the loose!), but it kind of works, and the plot would be a bit stuck without it. This is, I believe, one of the earliest serial killer novels — although it’s not quite the stereotypical mentally ill killer who does it on a whim. The antagonist does have a reason and an end in mind… although that reason does still seem unhinged.

Overall, Farjeon’s books are a pleasure, and I’m sorry I’ve only got Mystery in White left to read of the British Library reissues. The Ben the Tramp books don’t seem quite my thing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Study in Honor

Posted 20 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Study in Honor by Claire O'DellA Study in Honor, Claire O’Dell

Oh man, what to make of this? I love so many things about it: the casually queer main character, the fact that it’s a Sherlock Holmes retelling/homage with female Holmes and Watson, the fact that they’re also black, all the references to the books they’re reading (Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Martha Wells — all names I know, treated as classics). I enjoyed the characterisation of Janet, her sense of duty and honour, her dedication to finding the truth, her unwillingness to be jerked around.

At other times, though, I felt like I didn’t quite know what was happening. A little too much was held back from the reader, so I didn’t follow the leaps to understand exactly what Sara was up to. Janet’s a heck of a smart cookie too, and she left me behind in her understanding of Sara, who is just — man, I’d just want to kick her all the time for being insufferable, and I can’t quite understand the closeness that grows up between the two. Mind you, that goes for the original Sherlock and Watson too, in many ways.

In terms of being a Sherlock Holmes retelling, it isn’t quite. There’s a lot else going on, and a lot more focus on the war-time issues that are affecting their society. It’s more inspired by and referencing Conan Doyle than really using his characters or situations. Janet isn’t John; Sara isn’t Sherlock. They’re their own people, and very much so.

I wasn’t always convinced by the political background. It references recent events like Trump becoming president, and then talks about them being quite a ways in the past and things having been better again… only to describe a situation that sounds very much like current politics, only with more technology (but not quite enough technology to make me believe that it had been a long time). It was very relevant and topical, but I couldn’t fit it all together in my head.

That might very well be a case of it being me and not the book, and even with my quibbles above, I tore through the book and enjoyed it. Janet’s a good person, struggling with various issues but trying to do her best — not only for her own sake, but to do her best ethically, which makes her exactly the kind of character that attracts me. I’d read more of Janet and Sara’s adventures, for sure. My rating feels a little unfair, if it was a case of it’s-me-not-you, but this is another of those rare cases where I kind of wish I used half-stars, just to denote my on-the-fence-ness. I enjoyed the book a lot, but I’m not sure how it’ll stick with me and whether it’ll improve or fall apart as I turn it over in my brain.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Delusions of Gender

Posted 19 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Delusions of Gender by Cordelia FineDelusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

The main takeaway from this book is never to trust what people think studies say. Always read the study and look at the data yourself if you really want your opinion to be based on fact. Once you dig into it, you’ll find people making the weirdest assumptions or failing to account for their own bias. Fine mentions study after study that have been overinterpreted and misinterpreted due to faulty premises in the whole experimental set-up. I wouldn’t suggest that you take Fine’s word for it: even though she points out some fallacies, no doubt she falls into some of her own. That’s the nature of humans, and that’s why peer-reviewed and replicated science is so important.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff discussed and she makes her points clearly. It mostly accords with what I understand about differences between sexes, and overall I found myself nodding a lot (probably a sign you should also treat anything I say about gender difference with caution — I have strong pre-formed opinions that are already fairly in line with Fine’s). I found her entertaining, as well as clear, which is always a plus in a pop-science book as long as it doesn’t go too far.

If nothing else, if you want to dig into the topic this book is good for context, and has a wealth of notes and sources you can follow up. If you do believe that there’s an in-built difference between the sexes for biological reasons, you might find Fine a bit too stringently against the evidence on your side, which she spends a lot of time dismantling. That might be a bit infuriating for you, so if you’re just looking for the facts, go straight to the source.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Think Again

Posted 18 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Think Again: How To Reason And Argue by Walter Sinnott-ArmstrongThink Again: How To Reason and Argue, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

I always meant to take the Coursera class this is based on, but I never quite got round to it, so when I saw it’d been made into a book, well, that seemed likely to be a format that would work for me (and wait for me to get round to it, though as it happened, it didn’t have to wait long). I think it does have some good suggestions and some good analysis of ways to argue, but there are a couple of things I find difficult.

One is the claim that the world is increasingly polarised and things were better, people were more polite, in ye olde days of yore. Sure, it’s very clear that the discourse has changed, and Sinnott-Armstrong does have the receipts to show that we are more polarised in terms of our political view. On the other hand, I have a hard job seeing that as just a symbol of our current times: countries have been split by civil war before. People haven’t always been more polite or known how to argue or how to disagree civilly, and maybe the less-polarised times he’s holding up as a better time had their own problems (like people feeling unable to express their opinions, perhaps even feeling unsafe to do so, in the cases of a lot of minorities).

The other thing is the way Sinnott-Armstrong pushes always being civil, always giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. On the one hand, it feels like the right thing — I would love more civility in debates. But there are some views which are legitimised by being engaged with, and there are some things that are indefensible. Now it’s true that he does say that it’s not always the time to argue, but it really wasn’t clear to me that he understood the position his insistence on civility and hearing both sides would put some people in: debating with someone who believes that it’s simply a fact that they and everyone like them should be cleansed from the world, and asking them why, charitably reframing their argument… Ew. No. It comes across as very “good people on both sides”, and it’s not true.

Perhaps it’s a fault of it being a rather short book and limited space, but given he’s constantly framing the issue in terms of the political divide in the US, I wonder. I don’t feel that he quite gets out of it by simply stating that sometimes it isn’t the right time to argue. Maybe it’s just a matter of saying that you just can’t argue productively with some people/views, and he’s automatically discounting those right away. It didn’t feel like it, though, with some of his examples.

The book did make me want to try debating more instead of constantly either passing arguments by or dismissing people as too biased to bother. I do think it could be pretty useful when both parties are willing to argue in good faith. I doubt it’ll be an antidote to political polarisation right now, though, for most people — I think for many people, the other side (whichever that is) just isn’t willing to talk anymore. There’s too much at stake, and it’s too exhausting.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Think Like An Anthropologist

Posted 17 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Think Like An Anthropologist by Matthew EngelkeThink Like An Anthropologist, Matthew Engelke

This book is less “how to think like an anthropologist” and more “how do some anthropologists think, and what do other anthropologists think about that”, and so on. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it goes into the history of anthropology and various examples and at times it just seems to get lost a bit. If the primary aim is to give a bit of context around anthropology and suggest how it’s relevant to everyday life, I think it succeeds in some ways, but it’s not always clear what exactly it is trying to do. At times it seems like it’s going to avoid anecdotes like “x culture thinks y” and what anthropology thinks about those, and the next it delves right in.

It’s not without interest, but I couldn’t keep my mind on following the thread at times. Possibly that means something’s wrong with my mind (or at least the way I in particular think), but history shows I’m generally pretty good at following a well put-together argument through a book, so maybe it’s the book. Regardless, while I had fun with some aspects of it, I don’t think it’s a great book.

Rating: 3/5 

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