Tag: non-fiction


Review – The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

Posted 22 April, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty by Dan ArielyThe (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely

The reasons why we lie and to what extent we’re willing to lie are pretty fascinating, and if you haven’t read anything else of the sort before, this might be pretty revelatory. Ariely explains the various studies and results pretty clearly, and it’s definitely not aimed at people who have actually dug into the academic publications: it’s accessible to a layperson, definitely, and to my mind pretty much aimed at the layperson. At any rate, I didn’t find any of it surprising, because I’ve read most of this before and know something of the way we’ve discovered our brains work. I’m not 100% positive there was nothing new, but there wasn’t much that didn’t sound familiar.

So, a good read if you’re looking for something on the subject, but probably not much point if you’re already pretty aware of research into dishonesty and why we lie.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Golden Age of Murder

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

Cover of The Golden Age of Murder by Martin EdwardsThe Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards

There’s a lot going on in this novel — it tracks the development of crime fiction and mystery stories, deals with the biographies of various famous Golden Age crime writers (including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, of course) and deals with the development of the Detection Club. There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know, even about Sayers (whose work I adore), and the whole thing left me feeling that my experience of the Golden Age of crime fiction was rather limited. Fortunately, and not coincidentally, Martin Edwards has also been curating the publication of the British Library Crime Classics, so I’ve been able to check out some of the authors that were totally unfamiliar to me (and I have a whole stack more to get to, too).

It’s an enjoyable read, though it does get a little bogged down or distracted at times — I think because it does try to tackle so much. It doesn’t stick purely to a single writer, but nor does it stay firmly focused on the Detection Club as a whole. If you’re interested in the period, though, it’s a gem.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Daphne du Maurier

Posted 12 April, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Daphne du Maurier by Margaret ForsterDaphne du Maurier, Margaret Forster

This is overall a well done and exhaustive biography, pulling out a lot of interesting factors, events and people in Daphne du Maurier’s life and relating them to her work. If you’re interested in Daphne du Maurier it’s definitely worth a read — I’m not a super fan, personally, though I’ve read a couple of her books, and I found it pretty interesting and found myself really wanting to reread her books with some of this in mind (especially Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel).

I didn’t end up actually finishing the book, but that’s a pretty personal thing — Daphne du Maurier is described as being a pretty private person, and hating the very idea of being thought to be a lesbian, and yet this is so frank about her affairs with women. I found it felt too much like prying for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Improbable Destinies

Posted 6 April, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Improbable Destinies by Jonathan LososImprobable Destinies, Jonathan Losos

The question Losos asks, and tries to answer, is this: can we predict evolution? Are certain things inevitable in development — birds, humans, antibiotic resistance, etc, etc? He writes engagingly about field work, experiments, thought experiments, the various theories and people who have supported them… I definitely want to do more reading on this.

Am I convinced? Well, I’m not sure Losos is convinced that evolution can be predicted in detail; he presents some good evidence that suggests that you can predict the sorts of changes in gene function that will be beneficial in a certain environment, but that you can’t predict exactly how those changes will come about. Sometimes one gene might be altered, sometimes another. The phenotype is predictable (unsurprisingly: look for what would benefit the species in breeding successfully) but the genotype is not, unless it’s a fairly simple case of one particular molecular switch needing to be flipped on or off. There is a great deal of contingency in the process of evolution: Gould was (at least to some extent) correct in suggesting that we can’t “rewind the tape of life” and then see things proceed in exactly the same way.

As with determinism in any sense, I generally believe that if all factors were known, we would also know the result. I’m just not sure we can know those factors (and I dislike and squirm away from applying it to human ethics — our actions may be caused by previous events, but we don’t experience the process that way, so it’s irrelevant in how to be moral) — especially given events on a quantum level.

Rating: /5

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Review – The Genius of Birds

Posted 5 April, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Genius of BirdsThe Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman

If you’ve read much about animal intelligence, most of the stuff in this book won’t be all that surprising, though of course since it’s entirely about birds, it includes a lot more anecdotes and bird-focused studies. As a whole, the book definitely makes a case for birds as specialised, well adapted, and very intelligent in their own spheres. We won’t be having philosophical discussions with them any time soon, though, if that’s what you thought ‘genius’ meant. And I think honestly that Ackerman makes less of a case for bower birds’ displays being art than others I’ve read.

It’s an easy read, and good for some ‘huh, cool’ moments, but not the most rigorous or unmissable popular science book out there.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Built on Bones

Posted 29 March, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Built on Bodies by Brenna HassetBuilt on Bones, Brenna Hassett

This is one of the Bloomsbury Sigma titles, so it’s fairly light-hearted, accessibly written, and not too heavy on the scientific footnotes (though there’s a lot of joking ones), but trustworthy enough that I found it fascinating. Hassett discusses mostly bioarchaeology and what it has to say about that great human endeavour: city life. A lot of people are very critical about city living and its suitability for humanity, but Hassett’s mostly pretty positive about it (after the initial transition period, at least).

And surprise! There’s also a lot about disease, making it super relevant to me in my interest in zoonotic diseases especially. A whole section on leprosy and TB! It’s like it was written for me.

A fun and informative read, definitely good popular science/archaeology, if that interests you.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Mummy Congress

Posted 27 March, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Mummy Congress by Heather PringleThe Mummy Congress, Heather Pringle

Mummies are always fascinating to me, at least in non-fiction, and this book was especially so because it covers a lot of ground, from Inca child sacrifices to Stalin to ancient bog bodies. It’s the kind of book I love, with something new (but related) in each chapter, introducing new sites and concepts I wasn’t aware of without going into any one thing exhaustively. I found myself googling for images to match the text.

The only thing I would really criticise is the hyperbolic breathlessness about how some of these mummies “look as if they were alive” or “wouldn’t look out of place on the street”. No, the preservation is amazing, but I have yet to see a mummy that is truly so immaculately preserved that it wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb trying to walk around the streets. The faces are sunken, the jaws and teeth and cheekbones too prominent, etc, etc. They’re obviously dead. I find I have more respect for them while recognising that they’re dead than trying to pretend that they look just as they did when alive. They don’t.

There’s an amazing amount to be learned from some of these bodies, and Pringle does a great job of showing some of the breadth of what’s out there and what questions we need to ask.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Gene

Posted 26 March, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Gene by Siddhartha MukkherjeeThe Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene isn’t quite as great as The Emperor of All Maladies: the fact that this isn’t as much Mukherjee’s forte definitely shows, and there’s a couple of points of fact I’d quibble about. For the most part, though, it’s a really great discussion of genetics and the way they actually affect people, tracing a history of mental illness in Mukherjee’s own family as an example. I know this field pretty darn well by this point, and this is far from the first book I’ve read about genetics, but Mukherjee is a good writer, making it all seem fresh and worth reading even when it’s stuff I know backwards and forwards, and probably inside out too.

If you’re curious about genetics, about what genetics can do for us, and about how exactly things like recessive genes and pleiotropy work, this is a good choice. It’s not for experts, but it’s still a pleasant read even if you do know the topic already.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Terracotta Army

Posted 25 March, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Terracotta Army by John ManThe Terracotta Army, John Man

The Terracotta Army is great popular history: atmospheric, easy to read, almost a travel guide to seeing the Army in the modern world as well as to understanding its context and how it came to be. Man writes engagingly about the politics that informed the creation of the Terracotta Army and how it was seen, and about the politics which informed the revelation of the Army and the way it is now viewed in the world. He makes a lot of smart points, and though I don’t know the history of the period or the area well enough to judge whether he’s right in his analyses, it seemed convincing to me.

I’m definitely thinking of picking up more of Man’s work; this wasn’t unputdownable, but it was definitely easy to just keep reading instead of finishing a chapter, putting it down, and going to sleep. He brings the events and politics to life very clearly. It doesn’t feel greatly in depth, but it’s entertaining and informative.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Experiment Eleven

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

Cover of Experiment Eleven by Peter PringleExperiment Eleven, Peter Pringle

I initially picked this up because of the subtitle, which specifically mentions the discovery of a cure for tuberculosis. In fact, for the most part it isn’t about the science, but more about the intellectual property battle that surrounded the discovery of streptomycin. It’s more about the two main scientists it discusses, and their struggle over who really found streptomycin. The way the book tells it, I think it’s clear that Waksman was wrong to claim all the credit, and knew he was; Schatz should have received much more credit and recognition for what he did.

It’s interesting in the sense of illuminating what goes on to get drugs from the lab bench to actual development, where Waksman really did play a key role. It might be a bit wearing if you’re not that interested in what’s essentially a biography of the two scientists, though.

Rating: 3/5

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