This book is about the importance of sleep: the functions it fulfils for us, how that changes throughout our life cycles, and the consequences of not getting enough. It has a wealth of citations, and most of it was unsurprising to me, suggesting it’s a reasonable synthesis of the current state of our knowledge.
However, and this is a really big but, I lost count of how many times Gregory proclaims something and then admits in the next sentence or a footnote that it was a ‘small study’ and hadn’t been replicated in other studies, especially when she says it hasn’t been replicated in larger studies. The fact that she made it sound like these things were facts, when actually it was that shaky, gave me pause about more or less everything she said.
You can’t make big claims from small, underpowered studies. That’s just not how it works. They can be a testing ground, a starting point, but there’s no way you should be presenting them as fact in a pop-science book where people might actually think these are tried and tested facts, even if you explain the study is small. People just don’t grasp the significance of that (or rather, the fact that it’s probably not significant!).
I’ve also definitely had more engaging pop-science reads lately; Sue Armstrong comes to mind. Sleep can be a fascinating topic, but I found myself nodding off over Nodding Off.
The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, Barbara Burman, Ariane Fennetaux
Focusing on 1660 to 1900 (a very precise time range!), this book uses the tie-on pocket as an ‘in’ to dig into women’s lives via the historical records, including the physical records (pockets which have ended up in collections and museums), writing and court records. It’s a fairly academic book — lots of “meaning resides in the blahblahblah” type language — and also serves as a pretty comprehensive repository for photographs of extant pockets and their details, but it’s accessible enough if you have enough of an interest, and there’s a lot of fascinating detail.
What really surprised me was how long the tie-on pocket lasted, and the wealth of evidence the authors were actually able to show about how they were used, made, obtained, bought, bartered, pawned and gifted. They really do make a good entrée for the history of women’s lives; I thought one of the most interesting parts were the court records, giving us a glimpse into what women carried in their pockets and why.
Not the most riveting read, even for non-fiction, but the photographs are beautifully done and in full colour, and the subject is fascinating enough that I found it well worth the slightly dry and academic approach.
A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Emma Southon
I worried from the title and first few pages that this might prove too flippant and shallow from me, but I was wrong to worry. I quickly settled into it, and it’s obvious that Southon knows her stuff, takes deep joy in it, and knows where she can skimp on explanations a bit in order to get to the meat of things. She gives a lot of context without getting too bogged down in it, while telegraphing that the point is coming; if you really hate comments like “bear with me, we’re getting to the good stuff”, then it won’t work for you… but mostly, I thought she did a really good job.
The idea of a book about murder in Rome gave me a bit of pause, since I didn’t think they really had such a concept… and indeed, I was right, and Southon acknowledges that it’s a very modern way to interrogate these sources, and that in many of the cases described, no one batted an eyelid (the murder of slaves, particularly). As she says, though, the deaths and the attitudes to those deaths still tell us a lot about Roman society and the place of various people within it.
I was intrigued by the topic, but didn’t expect to find it a pageturner; that it was says something about how engaging Southon’s writing was. I found it deeply enjoyable — particularly as it was one of those books that had me turning to my wife to delightedly ask ‘did you know?’ and read bits out or wave my hands excitedly as I connected up bits and shared the fun.
Another book read to review on Postcrossing’s blog eventually! This book delves into the history of addresses: we take them for granted now (especially on Postcrossing, where I spend some time every day verifying people have put their addresses in as a standardised format recognised by the UPU), but they’re a relatively recent innovation — and surprisingly powerful, shaping a number of areas of your life. Access to healthcare, benefits, job opportunities, credit, personhood… and of course, the state’s ability to find you when you’ve done something illegal or discouraged (it’s not all positive!).
Mask digs through examples of the uses of addresses for things like epidemiology (the famous map revealing the cholera outbreak centred on the Broad Street Pump… and the less famous story of the recent cholera outbreaks in Haiti), examples of vanity addresses, and instances where the names of streets reveal our history, biases and politics.
I felt like I learned a lot, when I put this down, but right now it’s hard to summarise, partly because it’s pretty wide-ranging. The recurring theme is identity, though, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things about addresses that I’d never considered in that light.
Wish You Were Here, Rita Mae Brown, Sneaky Pie Brown
Wish You Were Here is another of the books I read to potentially review for the Postcrossing blog someday. It will fit in perfectly there, because the main character Harry is the postmistress of a small Virginian town, and one major clue in the murder investigation she gets wrapped up in is the delivery of a postcard showing a gravestone, with the message “wish you were here”, to each of the victims.
The mystery was okay, but I didn’t get too much into it because the behaviour of the cats and dogs bothered me. I have bunnies; I get the temptation to anthropomorphise them — truly, they make it too darn easy. But that doesn’t mean it works for me written down on the page, and sometimes the cats and dogs felt like an opportunity for the author to grandstand about very human concerns. (Though with what I assume and hope are nods toward canine and feline sensibilities in the repeated theme of the cat and dog thinking that mentally ill people should be killed as children, as they would cull sick kittens/puppies from their own litters. This doesn’t come off, really, and I dearly hope I’m correct in attributing this as an attempt to make their narration sound a bit more like a dog or cat.)
Even putting that aside, I also didn’t think the antics of the animals added much to the story. Not much could be communicated between their side of the investigation and Harry’s, and it didn’t read as believable behaviour when they did communicate.
Also, a relatively small niggle, but at one point the police officer in charge of the case goes to the retired doctor to ask him questions about the mental health of everyone in town, which he readily answers, with detail. I’m fairly sure a retired doctor must still uphold medical confidentiality — and even if it isn’t a law, I wouldn’t trust a doctor or retired doctor who didn’t. As a person, let alone as a doctor.
I had a number of niggles like that, like wondering how Harry’s nickname is Harry, even to her close friends since childhood, when it comes from her ex-husband’s surname (not her own).
All in all, it just didn’t come together for me, partly because one of the central conceits left me cold. Fun as a one-off, but I won’t be continuing the series.
Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire, M.R.C. Kasabian
I liked the sound of Betty Church, a female Inspector in Britain, in 1939. She’s been injured in the line of duty, losing her arm, which her superiors are trying to use to get her out from under their feet… but she doesn’t want to go, so she has a favour called in and gets sent back to Sackwater, the town where she grew up. So far, so good — and in fact I followed her through her first days back in Sackwater, until her constable arrived.
At which point I tuned out, since her constable is a girl smart enough to cheat her way into the police by using starch in her hair (to make herself look a bit taller) and weights in her petticoats (to make herself a bit heavier)… but silly and childish in every other way. It just doesn’t match up, and it immediately grated on me. It grated on me so much that shortly after she’s introduced, I gave up.
I don’t mind a bit of humour, and up to that point it was fine… but ugh! After that, I just didn’t want to spend any more time with that girl.
Patience & Esther: An Edwardian Romance, S.W. Searle
Patience & Esther is a cute graphic novel featuring a lady’s maid and a parlourmaid in an Edwardian house, who become friends, fall in love, and decide to make their way in a world that is beginning to talk about women’s suffrage. Esther is in fact Indian, and the comic is also very positive about Patience’s weight. It’s a sweet story, focusing on the love between them and their will to make their way instead of their setbacks. It’s worth noting that there are several very explicit sex scenes as well.
I feel like the impulse to make it a very positive love story was nice, but it made the whole thing lack bite for me. I quickly realised that in every case they’d figure things out. There’s definitely a place for that, but with only the barest edge of reality in there (when Esther has trouble getting a job) their triumphs felt easily won as well.
Overall, it’s enjoyable and I like the art style, plus the notes at the end about some of the historical details.
A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles, Ned Palmer
This one is exactly what it says on the tin: a history of the British Isles which follows the lot of cheese, cheesemakers, affineurs and cheesemongers. It touches on a surprising amount of history, getting further into things that you might expect. Armies march on their stomachs, which are partly full of cheese, for a start.
It isn’t, of course, just pure history: there’s also a lot of speculation, from what ancient cheeses might have tasted like to who might have made them and why, and I wouldn’t exactly cite it as a source for something because it’s chatty and speculative, using experience to pry into parts of history we just can’t see. For example, he mentions at one point that the monks in a monastery can’t have been the ones to make the cheese, because they couldn’t leave the grounds and the herds would have been elsewhere… and you need to start the process right away. He speculates that they probably acted as affineurs, aging and storing the cheeses once made.
I don’t always love history when it’s speculative, but Palmer’s expertise about cheese is obvious — and he gets onto more solid ground with sources to refer to as well, with the later parts of the book. I love eating cheese, but it’s obvious I need to try more different kinds of cheese… and I had no idea of most of the details of how cheese is made, how different cheeses are ripened and different effects are produced. Palmer’s enthusiasm makes all of that interesting, and his book is riveting.
This is blurbed as The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle… and it’s really not like either of those, to my mind, so I really wouldn’t recommend it as such. There’s a touch of politics, yes, but Thanh isn’t much like Maia and nor is her position very similar except in that they’re both in a precarious position in a court (though Maia’s risks feel quite different to Thanh’s)… though now, a few weeks after reading the story, I suppose I do recognise Maia’s road to taking control of some of his power echoed in Thanh’s story. It might be more alike than it seemed on the surface, now it’s settled.
When it comes to its other big comparison point, for me it lacks the humour of Howl’s Moving Castle. It is also obviously completely devoid of any Welsh influence, and is not aimed at the same age group. It shares one central plot element, sort of. I’m a little confused about these comparisons, to be honest; I always suck at comparing books to one another, but I still don’t see the comparison here.
In any case, it’s a queer story set in a Vietnamese-influenced court. Thanh is a princess, but she’s most definitely a spare: originally sent away as a hostage, now returned and asked to negotiate with those who previously held her hostage. She has two main memories of her time at the other court: her affair with another princess, and a massive fire that overtook the palace and nearly left her stranded.
Both of these things are, obviously, relevant.
I found the way the plot played out fairly obvious; as a novella, it paints in pretty broad strokes. There are some hints of nuance in Thanh’s mother’s characterisation and motivations, which helps, but mostly it’s fairly straight-forward and works out the way I expected. (I’m very surprised by people who don’t recognise the abusive relationship for what it is, though, and think that’s intended to be the romance — so maybe it’s more subtle than I thought and I just trust Aliette de Bodard a bit too much!) For a story of this length, I don’t usually expect to be surprised, though, and I did very much enjoy the queer relationships and the glimpses of a different kind of court life and attitude to that more familiar to me from history and Western-inspired fantasy.
In the end, it didn’t blow me away as much as I’d hoped or expected — which is partly, I think, due to those comparisons to two books that mean a lot to me. It was enjoyable to read, but not like The Goblin Emperor in the ways I hoped for, and even less like Howl’s Moving Castle. We all take different things away from stories, and it’s clear that my version of The Goblin Emperor and Howl’s Moving Castle don’t overlap with the understanding of them taken away by those who made these comparisons. It’s worth keeping that caution in mind when comparison titles make something sound like it’s going to be completely up your alley, I guess!
Honestly, I could’ve picked this up just for the title, which I thought was clever. But of course, carbon is an intensely important element for life, so it ties in very much with my interest in biology — no carbon, no us! — and it didn’t seem like it’d be too far off the random path of my current interests. Which proved to be mostly true: I found it harder going than a book about biology, my preferred science, but Hazen’s enthusiasm for his subject carried me along to a great extent.
Often enthusiasm gives life to writing, but I did find that there were bits of this I got a bit stuck on just through not getting involved enough… and knowing that e.g. Richard Fortey can get me excited about rocks with the way he writes, that I do put down to a certain dryness in the writing. Oddly enough, it was the parts on biology I yawned through; I don’t need the facts to be new to me, but if you’re explaining to me about why carbon is the ideal element for life, I need you to make it more exciting than my textbook. (This may not be fair, as I find certain aspects of my textbooks very exciting. The membrane attack complex is a marvel! No, friends who have been subject to me exclaiming about the MAC — I’m not over it yet! Biology is amazing!)
Anyway, if you’re interested in carbon, in the history of how we understand carbon as well as the current state of the field, it’s not a bad read. It’s lacking in tables and images that can really talk people through the data rather than just explaining like a story, so it’s very pop-science in that sense, so I’m not sure how much of it will stick for me. The symphony conceit got old for me/didn’t always feel like the right way to balance/organise the material, but I learned some new things and cemented some others in my mind, and really, that’s all I ask.