Tag: non-fiction

Review – The Bone Chests

Posted February 22, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

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 – Soonish

Posted February 18, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

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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Review – Digging Up Britain

Posted February 17, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Digging Up Britain

Digging Up Britain: Ten Discoveries, A Million Years of History

by Mike Pitts

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

Digging Up Britain traces the history of Britain through key discoveries and excavations. With British archaeologist Mike Pitts as a guide, this book covers the most exciting excavations of the past ten years, gathers firsthand stories from the people who dug up the remains, and follows the latest revelations as one twist leads to another.

Britain, a historically crowded place, has been the site of an unprecedented number of discoveries--almost everywhere the ground is broken, archaeologists find evidence that people have been there before. These discoveries illuminate Britain's ever-shifting history that we now know includes an increasingly diverse array of cultures and customs.

Each chapter of the book tells the story of a single excavation or discovery. Some are major digs, conducted by large teams over years, and others are chance finds, leading to revelations out of proportion to the scale of the original project. Every chapter holds extraordinary tales of planning, teamwork, luck, and cutting-edge archaeological science that produces surprising insights into how people lived a thousand to a million years ago.

It took me a while to get through Mike Pitts’ Digging Up Britain, because there’s a lot to take in. Pitts discusses various sites across Britain representing dozens of discoveries each, and tries to analyse what they mean, reimagine their contexts, and also provide the context of the modern excavations, the techniques used, etc

The book is illustrated by maps, black and white images, and two inserts of colour images too — I didn’t always find myself flicking through to look at those, because I was more interested in following the sense of the text, but it does let you get a look at what’s being discussed, and adds a bit more context.

In the end, I wasn’t too surprised by any of the findings discussed: after growing up eagerly awaiting new Time Team episodes, I’ve stayed a little big plugged in to the big archaeological discoveries. That said, sometimes later analysis has discovered fascinating but not newsworthy things, so I learned some new stuff too.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Glitter

Posted February 13, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Glitter

Glitter

by Nicole Seymour

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 184
Series: Object Lessons
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

Glitter reveals the complexity of an object often dismissed as frivolous. Nicole Seymour describes how glitter's consumption and status have shifted across centuries-from ancient cosmetic to queer activist tool, environmental pollutant to biodegradable accessory-along with its composition, which has variously included insects, glass, rocks, salt, sugar, plastic, and cellulose. Through a variety of examples, from glitterbombing to glitter beer, Seymour shows how this substance reflects the entanglements of consumerism, emotion, environmentalism, and gender/sexual identity.

Broadly speaking, I really liked Nicole Seymour’s Glitter. Love it or hate it, glitter is everywhere — and some of the hatred of glitter sometimes seems more like an “ew, I’m not gay!” or a performative “ugh, I’m like those other girls”, “I’m not a child”, etc. Seymour makes this clear, regularly referencing how important glitter is to members of the queer community, for various reasons.

I’d have liked a little more detail on one or two points — there are lots of references to what glitter is made of, the effort to make it biodegradable, etc, but I’d have loved a little more detail on the options, what people are using, etc — but overall I found it pretty good.

It did also make me think. I must admit to not being a great fan of glitter myself, but I couldn’t honestly say why. It’s relatively harmless (Seymour points out that the impact on the environment of the plastic variety is fairly tiny, and of course not all glitter is made from plastic), and a little bit of sparkle does people no harm. I suppose I find it a little bit cringe when people attribute absolutely magical things to it, which at times I think Seymour’s at risk of doing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How To Make A Vaccine

Posted February 10, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Review – How To Make A Vaccine

How To Make a Vaccine

by John Rhodes

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 160
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Distinguished expert in vaccine development John Rhodes tells the story of the first approved COVID-19 vaccines and offers an essential, up-to-the-minute primer on how scientists discover, test, and distribute vaccines.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every corner of the world, changing our relationship to our communities, to our jobs, and to each other, the most pressing question has been—when will it end? Researchers around the globe are urgently trying to answer this question by racing to test and distribute a vaccine that could end the greatest public health threat of our time. In How to Make a Vaccine, an expert who has firsthand experience developing vaccines tells an optimistic story of how three hundred years of vaccine discovery and a century and a half of immunology research have come together at this powerful moment—and will lead to multiple COVID-19 vaccines.

Dr. John Rhodes draws on his experience as an immunologist, including working alongside a young Anthony Fauci, to unravel the mystery of how vaccines are designed, tested, and produced at scale for global deployment. Concise and accessible, this book describes in everyday language how the immune system evolved to combat infection, how viruses responded by evolving ways to evade our defenses, and how vaccines do their work. That history, and the pace of current research developments, make Rhodes hopeful that multiple vaccines will protect us. Today the complex workings of the immune system are well understood. The tools needed by biomedical scientists stand ready to be used, and more than 160 vaccine candidates have already been produced. But defeating COVID-19 won’t be the end of the story: Rhodes describes how discoveries today are also empowering scientists to combat future threats to global health, including a recent breakthrough in the development of genetic vaccines, which have never before been used in humans.

As the world prepares for a vaccine, Rhodes offers a current and informative look at the science and strategies that deliver solutions to the crisis.

For a short book, John Rhodes’ How To Make a Vaccine is surprisingly in-depth. Motivated by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Rhodes discusses how vaccines are manufactured, along with some of the history of vaccination and the cultural reaction to it. While most of this obviously isn’t new to me (as someone studying for my MSc in infectious diseases), his explanations are very clear.

I did find that after a while he got a little too in depth, towards the end of the book, discussing every single possible type of vaccine and adjuvant. For me, it got a little tedious because I know this stuff in slightly more depth… and I worry that for a layperson, it’s actually a bit too much depth. It’s hard for me to judge, though, as I haven’t been a layperson for a while now!

If you’re curious about the topic, and ready for some of the ins and outs of the regulatory proces, different types of vaccine and adjuvant, etc, I think this would be of interest, all the same.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Ice Cream: A Global History

Posted February 8, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 10 Comments

Review – Ice Cream: A Global History

Ice Cream: A Global History

by Laura B. Weiss

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 176
Series: Edible
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Be it soft-serve, gelato, frozen custard, Indian kulfi or Israeli glida, some form of cold, sweet ice cream treat can found throughout the world in restaurants and home freezers. Though ice cream was once considered a food for the elite, it has evolved into one of the most successful mass-market products ever developed.

In Ice Cream, food writer Laura B. Weiss takes the reader on a vibrant trip through the history of ice cream from ancient China to modern-day Tokyo in order to tell the lively story of how this delicious indulgence became a global sensation. Weiss tells of donkeys wooed with ice cream cones, Good Humor-loving World War II-era German diplomats, and sundaes with names such as "Over the Top" and "George Washington." Her account is populated with Chinese emperors, English kings, former slaves, women inventors, shrewd entrepreneurs, Italian immigrant hokey-pokey ice cream vendors, and gourmand American First Ladies. Today American brands dominate the world ice cream market, but vibrant dessert cultures like Italy's continue to thrive, and new ones, like Japan's, flourish through unique variations.

Weiss connects this much-loved food with its place in history, making this a book sure to be enjoyed by all who are beckoned by the siren song of the ice cream truck.

As always with the Edible Series, Laura B. Weiss’ Ice Cream: A Global History has colour illustrations and a few recipes at the back, along with references and a bibliography. It’s a bitesize look at food history through a very specific food. (Yep, you’ve guessed it — ice cream.)

Unlike some of these volumes, it doesn’t get too pedantic about what counts here. It discusses gelato and, though it mostly sticks to milk-based iced treats, it does mention the water-based treats which have gone alongside it (sorbet, popsicles, etc). Though it does touch on most of the world here, it feels like it’s most emphatic about the USA’s part in popularising ice cream, and I don’t actually know if that’s as true as the book makes it sound. It does refer to the development of various well-known ice cream brands from the US, but the discussion of soda fountains and such seems very specifically USian.

Overall, it had the predictable effect: I learned some fascinating new things, and I really want some ice cream right now.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Blue

Posted February 3, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Blue

Blue: The Science and Secrets of Nature's Rarest Colour

by Kai Kupferschmidt

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 224
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Blue is the most widely beloved color—but in nature, it’s the rarest hue of all. True, physics paints the sea and sky blue, but we can’t bottle this trick of the light. And blue pigment requires such complex chemistry that blue creatures, plants, and minerals are few indeed. Artists and kings have treasured blue dye like precious gold since the time of the pharoahs—and who today can help but marvel at a morpho butterfly in the rain forest or a blue jay at the window?

Science journalist Kai Kupferschmidt has been enraptured by blue since childhood. In his quest to understand the mysteries of his favorite color, he takes readers on a vivid journey—from a biotech lab in Japan and a volcanic lake in Oregon to his native Germany, home of the last blue-feathered Spix’s macaws. Deep underground where blue crystals grow, and miles overhead where astronauts gaze at our “blue marble” planet—wherever he finds this alluring color, it always has a story to tell.

Kai Kupferschmidt’s Blue is a book-length meditation on all things, well, you guessed it. It discuss blue as a pigment, blue as a historical and cultural thing, blue in linguistics, blue in plants, blue dye… you name it, it discusses it. Kupferschmidt is fascinated, and he’s sharing the journey, and along the way he explains some complex things very succinctly and clearly.

The book is also beautifully illustrated, all in colour, and has a section with further reading and sources, including image sources. All-in-all, beautifully presented and a joy to read — exactly the kind of curiosity I enjoy, zooming in on one subject and unravelling the things that touch it.

It’s shorter than it looks, given the illustrations and the full pages printed blue; I’d say it’s meant to be an object you enjoy looking at as much as anything else. I sped through it!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A City on Mars

Posted January 30, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – A City on Mars

A City on Mars: Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through?

by Kelly Weinersmith, Zach Weinersmith

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 448
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Earth is not well. The promise of starting life anew somewhere far, far away—no climate change, no war, no Twitter—beckons, and settling the stars finally seems within our grasp. Or is it? Critically acclaimed, bestselling authors Kelly and Zach Weinersmith set out to write the essential guide to a glorious future of space settlements, but after years of research, they aren’t so sure it’s a good idea. Space technologies and space business are progressing fast, but we lack the knowledge needed to have space kids, build space farms, and create space nations in a way that doesn’t spark conflict back home. In a world hurtling toward human expansion into space, A City on Mars investigates whether the dream of new worlds won’t create nightmares, both for settlers and the people they leave behind. In the process, the Weinersmiths answer every question about space you’ve ever wondered about, and many you’ve never considered:

Can you make babies in space? Should corporations govern space settlements? What about space war? Are we headed for a housing crisis on the Moon’s Peaks of Eternal Light—and what happens if you’re left in the Craters of Eternal Darkness? Why do astronauts love taco sauce? Speaking of meals, what’s the legal status of space cannibalism?

With deep expertise, a winning sense of humor, and art from the beloved creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, the Weinersmiths investigate perhaps the biggest questions humanity will ever ask itself—whether and how to become multiplanetary.

Get in, we’re going to Mars.

Zach and Kelly Weinersmith cover a lot of information about the colonisation of Mars in this book, but they do so in a breezy, conversational way that makes it really easy to read. I found the whole thing fascinating, if a bit disheartening: somehow from popular culture you’d think we were really close to putting settlements on Mars, at least within the next decade or something, but the Weinersmiths make it clear we’re not there yet, for a bunch of reasons.

Those reasons can roughly speaking be broken up into categories: the things we don’t know about human bodies and how they’ll react to low or no-gravity situations, the technology we don’t yet have, the stuff we don’t yet know about Mars, and the legal framework that is currently ambiguous/contested/not likely to produce happy, harmonious space settlements.

The whole time I was reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about James S.A. Corey’s Expanse books, which wrestle with the aftermath of these issues in a fictionalised way: Belters are physically different to those born on Earth, the whole political structure (and the implosions thereof), the issue of childbirth, etc, etc.

Anyway, the Weinersmiths have solid reasonings for the things they assert, it all makes sense, it’s wonderfully readable for the layperson, and there are lots of illustrations which make it all a bit more fun along the way.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Script & Scribble

Posted January 28, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Script & Scribble

Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting

by Kitty Burns Florey

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 190
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Steeped in the Palmer Method of Handwriting she learned in Catholic school, Kitty Burns Florey is a self-confessed “penmanship nut” who loves the act of taking pen to paper. So when she discovered that schools today forego handwriting drills in favor of teaching something called keyboarding, it gave her pause: “There is a widespread belief that, in a digital world, forming letters on paper with a pen is pointless and obsolete,” she says, “and anyone who thinks otherwise is right up there with folks who still have fallout shelters in their backyards.”

Florey tackles the importance of writing by hand and its place in our increasingly electronic society in this fascinating exploration of the history of handwriting. Weaving together the evolution of writing implements and scripts, pen-collecting societies, the golden age of American penmanship, the growth in popularity of handwriting analysis, and the many aficionados who still prefer scribbling on paper to tapping on keys, she asks the question: Is writing by hand really no longer necessary in today’s busy world?

Kitty Burns Florey’s Script & Scribble is a short history of handwriting, far from comprehensive, and larded heavily with the author’s own opinions and experiences (which I know would drive some readers wild, since some prefer a more objective, less personal account). It comes with a lot of different illustrations of different types of handwriting, along with some explanations about how exactly they’re formed.

The author is an unabashed fan of handwriting, though not a Luddite (accepting the need for typing skills, enjoying the use of her own computer, etc). I can’t help but feel if she’s not a Postcrossing member, she ought to be — most postcards I receive via Postcrossing are handwritten, and all of the ones I send are.

(Full disclosure: I work for Postcrossing! But I’m also a fan of it and frequently send and receive postcards on my own dime.)

Her elegy for written items seems a little premature to me, though perhaps that’s a peculiarity of my family; we send written letters a fair amount, and corresponded often via letters while I was at university around the time this book came out. That said, our handwriting isn’t brilliant, and I’m sure the handwriting experts she consults would have plenty to say about my rounded, mostly-cursive hand.

It’s an interesting read and quite quick, but doesn’t feel very in-depth. By the time it’s reaching the modern period, it’s focused solely on the North American picture, even specifically the US. I’d have loved something a little more general.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The History of Wales in Twelve Poems

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

Review – The History of Wales in Twelve Poems

The History of Wales in Twelve Poems

by M. Wynn Thomas, Ruth Jên Evans

Genres: Poetry, Non-fiction
Pages: 127
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Down the centuries, poets have provided Wales with a window onto its own distinctive world. This book gives a sense of the view seen through that special window in twelve illustrated poems, each bringing very different periods and aspects of the Welsh past into focus. Together, they give the flavour of a poetic tradition, both ancient and modern, in the Welsh language and in English, that is internationally renowned for its distinction and continuing vibrancy.

M. Wynn Thomas’ history of Wales in twelve poems taps into one of my favourite genres: giving a history of a time or place through objects or similar, using them as a window to look around at their context and what produced them, how they fit into it. It’s a pretty brief volume, presenting each poem alongside its translation (where necessary, since they’re not all in Welsh), and adding in the art of Ruth Jên Evans for illustration.

The art is all black and white, with thick lines — it’s pretty striking. The choice of poems is something I’d find difficult to comment on, but Thomas’ notes on each use them exactly as I’d hope, giving something of their context and trying to unlock what they say about Wales (sometimes intentionally, sometimes as a side-effect of the poet’s main intent).

I enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t view it as a full history or as having a very strong sense of continuity from poem to poem — it’s more like twelve poems were chosen as little windows to illuminate a topic of interest, rather than them showing a consistent line of developing a theme (though they are given in chronological order).

Rating: 4/5

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