Tag: book reviews

Review – Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

Posted February 27, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

by Philip Matyszak

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 288
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

The ancient world of the Mediterranean and the Near East saw the birth and collapse of great civilizations. While several of these are well known, for all those that have been recorded, many have been unjustly forgotten. Our history is overflowing with different cultures that have all evolved over time, sometimes dissolving or reforming, though ultimately shaping the way we continue to live. But for every culture that has been remembered, what have we forgotten?

This thorough guide explores those civilizations that have faded from the pages of our textbooks but played a significant role in the development of modern society. Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World covers the Hyksos to the Hephthalites and everyone in between, providing a unique overview of humanity's history from approximately 3000 BCE-550 CE. A wide range of illustrated artifacts and artworks, as well as specially drawn maps, help to tell the stories of forty lost peoples and allow readers to take a direct look into the past. Each entry exposes a diverse culture, highlighting their important contributions and committing their achievements to paper.

Philip Matyszak’s Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World is a whistlestop tour of a lot of different nations/ethnic groups/tribes/etc who are known to have existed at some point, but who are less known now. Some of them are fairly well known now, I’d say, like the Hittites and the Hyksos (through their involvement with Egypt — though other stuff about them is less clear), while others are much more obscure.

Each group gets exactly the same number of pages, which I find pretty suspicious — some are undoubtedly padded out to reach the six page requirement, while others are short-changed. It’s beautifully presented, though, with lots of images all in colour, and it’s not a bad selection or bad as a whistlestop tour. One just needs to be aware that that’s very much what it is, and a little contrived at times.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, vol 4

Posted February 26, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, vol 4

The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System, vol 4

by Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiù

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 436
Series: The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System #4
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

What happens after an epic tale ends?

This collection of eleven short stories picks up days after Scum Villain’s finale and follows the cast’s relationships and adventures through their pasts and futures. The first trial? A glimpse into another world, where Luo Binghe was never saved by his beloved teacher — unless he can claim this world’s Shen Qingqiu for himself. Other tales recount the riotous history of Shang Qinghua and Mobei-Jun, the bittersweet romance of Luo Binghe’s parents, and the untold tragedy of the original scum villain himself.

The fourth volume of The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System is actually a collection of extras and shorts, some of which are focused on Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu, and some of which don’t even mention them — expanding instead on Shang Qinghua, Mobei-jun, Shen Jiu, etc.

Some of the stories were more of interest to me than others (Shen Jiu is pretty unredeemable to me, sorry, and I don’t quite get the appeal of Mobei-jun and his relationship with Shang Qinghua), but it was interesting to get a better look at the world and particularly at Binghe’s experiences during the five years that Shen Qingqiu appeared to be dead.

It’s lovely as well to see in some of these stories a sense of ease growing between Binghe and Shen Qingqiu. At times, Shen Qingqiu is still a little too caught up in his own internalised homophobia, but we see him begin to forget where he came from and live fully alongside Binghe, and accept their relationship.

It’s funny sometimes to look at the relationship between the two of them, though. Just reading the words on the page, Shen Qingqiu spends a lot of time protesting — but it seems pretty clear that it’s a case of the maiden protesting too much, putting everything together. Still, I’d have loved another snippet a bit later on, showing him being a bit more comfortable still with the physical side of his relationship with Binghe. And for the love of god, someone give the two of them some sex ed, geez.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The October Faction, vol 1

Posted February 25, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The October Faction, vol 1

The October Faction

by Steve Niles, Damien Worm

Genres: Fantasy, Graphic Novels
Pages: 152
Series: The October Faction #1
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

The October Faction details the adventures of retired monster-hunter Frederick Allan and his family... which include a thrill-killer, a witch, and a warlock. Because sometimes crazy is the glue that binds a family together.

Volume 1 of Steve Niles’ The October Faction was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art style, though it felt like it was all going for a very Addams family aesthetic and was very successful at that. The setup is fairly straightfoward: ghosts and monsters exist, the main guy used to hunt them, now he’s tried to settle down… but his family want to hunt, and monsters are still interested in them.

There was enough here to keep my interest, and I’ll probably read the next volume, but at the same time… I wasn’t entirely impressed either? It felt very introductory, so maybe reading more will help with that — though there was one development at the end that felt naively and over-swiftly done, so my interest also somewhat depends on whether that gets handled in an interesting way, or whether it’s just to be taken at face-value.

So all in all… it was enough to make me a little curious, but I’m not sold on it yet, I guess?

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Lost Boys

Posted February 24, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment

by Gina Perry

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 384
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

The fascinating true story of one of the most controversial psychological experiments of the modern era — a real-life Lord of the Flies.

Competition. Prejudice. Discrimination. Conflict.

In 1954, a group of boys attended a remote summer camp where they were split into two groups, and encouraged to bully, harass, and demonise each other. The results would make history as one of social psychology’s classic — and most controversial — studies: the Robbers Cave experiment.

Conducted at the height of the Cold War, officially the experiment had a happy ending: the boys reconciled, and psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated that while hatred and violence are powerful forces, so too are cooperation and harmony. Today it is proffered as proof that under the right conditions warring groups can make peace. Yet the true story of the experiments is far more complex, and more chilling.

In The Lost Boys, Gina Perry explores the experiment and its consequences, tracing the story of Sherif, a troubled outsider who struggled to craft an experiment that would vanquish his personal demons. Drawing on archival material and new interviews, Perry pieces together a story of drama, mutiny, and intrigue that has never been told before.

I really enjoyed Gina Perry’s book about Stanley Milgram’s most famous experiments, Behind the Shock Machine. It shook up the received wisdom about Milgram, and made it clear that he interfered with the data he was presenting, cherry-picked what he wanted to share in order to make his own interpretation inevitable, etc. It’s a book that’s stuck with me, though it’s been a few years since I read it now.

So I was eager to dig into The Lost Boys, which discusses the experiments on groups of young boys made by Muzafer Sherif, designed to play out his theories about how groups can turn on one another and then be reconciled. The book discusses these theories, and then goes off into trying to understand Sherif himself and where these theories came from.

It never manages to be as surprising and illuminating as Behind the Shock Machine, though I did find it interesting, and I think that’s because Sherif’s conclusions are less well-known. I knew about Stanley Milgram’s work like it was in the air (bearing in mind of course that I’m a particular kind of voracious reader and learner), and his work is so well known in the field, so shaking it up makes a real buzz. In this case, less so, and it’s less shocking to find that an experimenter we’re consistently shown manipulating his subjects to get the results he wants was, well, manipulating his results to get what he wanted. That’s apparent early, so there’s no shock going into the deep-dive. Muzafer Sherif would have liked to believe in his own mythology, but for my money he was no Milgram.

It all comes out as a somewhat uncertain book, leaving Perry ambivalent about how to interpret the impacts of the studies on the lives of the participants. She suggests that it was formative for them, that the studies were unethical, but it all comes out much more muted than her conclusions in Behind the Shock Machine.

I’m glad I read it, but my worldview hasn’t been upended.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Permafrost

Posted February 23, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Permafrost

Permafrost

by Alastair Reynolds

Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 182
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Fix the past. Save the present. Stop the future.

2080: at a remote site on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a group of scientists, engineers and physicians gather to gamble humanity’s future on one last-ditch experiment. Their goal: to make a tiny alteration to the past, averting a global catastrophe while at the same time leaving recorded history intact. To make the experiment work, they just need one last recruit: an ageing schoolteacher whose late mother was the foremost expert on the mathematics of paradox.

2028: a young woman goes into surgery for routine brain surgery. In the days following her operation, she begins to hear another voice in her head... an unwanted presence which seems to have a will, and a purpose, all of its own – one that will disrupt her life entirely. The only choice left to her is a simple one.

Does she resist... or become a collaborator?

Alastair Reynolds’ Permafrost took a while to get going for me: the structure does make sense, in retrospect, but at the same time it felt like quite the barrier to understanding what exactly was happening. A conventional start would’ve been less memorable, of course, but this one definitely doesn’t hold your hand.

That’s pretty much a theme with this one: there’s a complicated plot which involves time travel of a kind, and that can make it difficult to follow. There were one or two points where I was thinking… you’re a time traveller, you know about paradoxes, why are you doing this? Also another where I wondered, hang on, isn’t everything going to be undone in just a moment by you telling him to — ?

I’m not 100% certain, still, whether that actually all made sense to me in the end. It felt like it did, but looking back at it I want to pick gaps into it (as often happens with anything time travel related). It’s an entertaining idea, all the same, a striking hard SF novella, and I enjoyed it while I was reading it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Bone Chests

Posted February 22, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Bone Chests

The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons

by Cat Jarman

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 356
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

In December 1642, during the Civil War, Parliamentarian troops stormed the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, intent on destruction. Reaching the choir, its beating heart, the soldiers searched out ten beautifully decorated wooden chests resting high up on the stone screens.

Those chests contained some of England's most venerated, ancient remains: The bones of eight kings, including William Rufus and Cnut the Great - the only Scandinavian king to rule England and a North Sea Empire; three bishops; and a formidable queen, Emma of Normandy. These were the very people who witnessed and orchestrated the creation of the kingdom of Wessex in the 7th century; who lived through the creation of England as a unified country in response to the Viking threat; and who were part and parcel of the Norman conquest.

On that day, the soldiers smashed several chests to the ground, using the bones as missiles to shatter the cathedral's stained glass windows. Afterwards, the clergy scrambled to collect the scattered remains.

In 2014, the six remaining chests were reopened. A team of forensic archaeologists, using the latest scientific methods, attempted to identify the contents: They discovered an elaborate jumble of bones, including the remains of two forgotten princes. In The Bone Chests, Cat Jarman builds on this evidence to untangle the stories of the people within. It is an extraordinary and sometimes tragic tale, and a story of transformation. Why these bones? Why there? Can we ever really identify them? In a palimpsest narrative that runs through more than a millennium of British history, it tells the story of both the seekers and the sought, of those who protected the bones and those who spurned them; and of the methods used to investigate.

Cat Jarman’s The Bone Chests takes the investigation of the chests of bones held in Winchester Cathedral as a starting point to explore some of the events that began to form what we know now as England. (Blurbs and so on talk about “British” history, but it really isn’t. There’s a handful of references to Scotland and one that I can remember to Wales, and pretty much no reference to Ireland at all.) Jarman discusses the figures that may now lie splintered and scattered in the bone chests, the kings, queens and bishops that shaped what we think of as the Anglo-Saxon period.

I had been hoping, I’ll admit, for a lot more discussion of the analysis of the actual bones. But that’s relegated to little slices in between the overall narrative of “this is how England was formed, through this king and that king and sometimes a queen or two”. That’s something that I’ve read elsewhere — sometimes with slightly different details, it’s true, but in general, a history I was fairly aware of already. But a focus on the bone chests and the process of sorting through them, trying to identify who is there and what we can find out about them — that would’ve been really interesting.

So it was okay for what it was, and it’s certainly very readable, but I was hoping for slightly more focus on the promise of the title.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Impact of Evidence

Posted February 21, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Impact of Evidence

Impact of Evidence

by E.C.R. Lorac, Carol Carnac

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 221
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Near St Brynneys in the Welsh border country, isolated by heavy snow and flooding from the thaw, a calamity has occurred. Old Dr Robinson, a known 'menace o the roads', has met his end in a collision with a jeep at a hazardous junction. But when police arrive at the scene, a burning question hints at something murkier than mere accident: why was there a second body - a man not recognised any locals - in the back of Robinson's car?

As the local inspectors dive into the muddy waters of this strange crime, Chief Inspector Julian Rivers and Inspector Lancing are summoned from Scotland Yard to the windswept wilds, where danger and deceit lie in wait.

Puzzling and atmospheric, this exceedingly rare mystery from one of the masters of crime fiction's Golden Age returns to print for the first time since its publication in 1954.

It’s always exciting when the British Library Crime Classics series bring out another of E.C.R. Lorac’s books, especially the rare and out of print ones. I’m slightly less fond of Lorac’s work under the Carol Carnac pseudonym, perhaps because I’m not as fond of the detective — though Lorac’s McDonald doesn’t show us a lot of his personal life, he does show a constant decency and patience, and that impression has been cumulative through the books in which he’s featured. Lancing and Rivers don’t really compare (and don’t really stand out to me, either, though nor did McDonald at first).

In any case, Impact of Evidence is the latest, a book which is out of print and almost unattainable until now. The setup is intriguing: details are drawn from Lorac’s own experience of Lunesdale, but transplanted to the Welsh borders, and she depicts farm life with her usual care for what’s needed and how those communities worked. As usual, she’s idealised the working farmer a little here, with her usual “salt of the earth” rock-solid decent characters — but having read more of her work, one’s always aware of the tension there, and when those people might do wrong.

I admit I was onto what happened fairly early on just because of certain details that were drawn to the reader’s attention multiple times, but it was still interesting to see how it worked out, and how some things were subverted (like the Derings matter-of-fact behaviour about the accusations of them).

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Heartstopper: Become Human

Posted February 20, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Heartstopper: Become Human

Heartstopper: Become Human

by Alice Oseman

Genres: Graphic Novels, Romance, Science Fiction
Pages: 126
Series: Heartstopper #0
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Alice Oseman reimagines the scenario of Detroit: Become Human with Nick and Charlie, where Charlie is a grumpy detective and Nick is his android police partner.

Heartstopper: Become Human is an alternative universe comic based on the characters of Heartstopper, by Alice Oseman herself. It’s based on the video game Detroit: Become Human, but you don’t need to know the game in order to understand the story — it’s pretty self-evident, though I’d bet there are some lovely touches if you know the game as well. It’s available for free on Alice Oseman’s Tapas page.

It’s Nick and Charlie, but not as we know them. They’re adults, they’re in a much more serious situation, and at first it takes a long time for Charlie to warm up to Nick (who is an android, and thus isn’t supposed to have feelings, warm or otherwise). As ever, their connection is something special, and I really enjoy Oseman’s art style: it’s distinctive but always clear, with unmistakable character in each panel.

I read this in a flash, and had a lot of fun. Some of the same Heartstopper feels, in a tiny AU package.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Where the Drowned Girls Go

Posted February 19, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Where the Drowned Girls Go

Where the Drowned Girls Go

by Seanan McGuire

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 208
Series: Wayward Children #7
Synopsis:

"Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you’ve already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company."

There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again.

It isn't as friendly as Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children.

And it isn't as safe.

When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her "Home for Wayward Children," she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn’t save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster.

She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming...

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Seanan McGuire’s Where the Drowned Girls Go as much as as I did: I haven’t been totally all-in on this series for a few books now, or so it feels, and Cora goes to some pretty dark places in this book. It’s probably important to know going in that there are potential triggers for those with eating disorders, and probably any kind of abuse, especially anything relating to a boarding school.

But all the same, Cora rises above it. She finds the strength to own her experiences, and to finally Be Sure, and that’s a journey I enjoyed. Eleanor West’s school is warm and quirky and endlessly accommodating, but here Cora (and the supporting cast, including Sumi) have a bit more adversity to stand up to, and it’s a stronger book for it. And we get to see Regan, from Across the Green Grass Fields, tying her into the ongoing story of the school and the loose collection of kids that we know from it.

I’ll admit there was one point in the story I didn’t 100% follow, how Cora suddenly realised that the headmaster wasn’t the real one, and how they’d all get out of there. I don’t know if I missed something, or whether it just was meant to be a bolt of intuition… But that didn’t take away the fun of watching Cora come into herself and emerge strong.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Soonish

Posted February 18, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Soonish

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve And/Or Ruin Everything

by Zach Weinersmith, Kelly Weinersmith

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 368
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

What will the world of tomorrow be like? How does progress happen? And why do we not have a lunar colony already? What is the hold-up?

In this smart and funny book, celebrated cartoonist Zach Weinersmith and noted researcher Dr. Kelly Weinersmith give us a snapshot of what's coming next -- from robot swarms to nuclear fusion powered-toasters. By weaving their own research, interviews with the scientists who are making these advances happen, and Zach's trademark comics, the Weinersmiths investigate why these technologies are needed, how they would work, and what is standing in their way.

New technologies are almost never the work of isolated geniuses with a neat idea. A given future technology may need any number of intermediate technologies to develop first, and many of these critical advances may appear to be irrelevant when they are first discovered. The journey to progress is full of strange detours and blind alleys that tell us so much about the human mind and the march of civilization.

To this end, Soonish investigates ten different emerging fields, from programmable matter to augmented reality, from space elevators to robotic construction, to show us the amazing world we will have, you know, soonish.

I didn’t love Kelly and Zach Weinersmith’s Soonish as much as I liked A City on Mars: I think that’s partly because the latter is much more of a deep dive, whereas the chapters here are necessarily a bit shallower, since they’re looking at multiple different technologies, and don’t have the time to get into the nitty gritty as much. There’s also some information (and even jokes) that feels repetitive if you’ve already read A City on Mars already, as well.

That said, they pick an interesting raft of likely technologies and start picking into why we don’t have them yet, why they feel within reach, and what we need to figure out to make them reality. The tone is fairly light, but they explain things pretty well.

After a certain point the humour does start to grate a bit, I must admit; I didn’t find that in A City on Mars, and of course, your mileage may vary.

Rating: 3/5

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