Tag: non-fiction

Review – Making the Monster

Posted October 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Making the Monster by Kathryn HarkupMaking the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Kathryn Harkup

I really enjoyed Harkup’s book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons in her plots — I wasn’t a Christie fan, but the book gave me a whole new appreciation for her work — so I jumped on this the minute I saw it. It begins largely as a biography of Mary Shelley, to be quite frank; there’s very little science for at least half the book, and there’s rather too much re-describing the plot. I get that the actual book isn’t familiar to everyone, but this is billed as pop-sci, not Sparknotes.

Nonetheless, when she does eventually get down to it, it’s fascinating to hear about the science of the day and what Shelley may have been aware of. Calling it the first science fiction book sounds a bit odd, because it’s not really the aesthetic you think of — but Shelley did research and was careful to reflect the science of the day. Maybe it’s not hard SF, and there’s much that seems unlikely now, but it’s still based on the understanding of science that she could possibly have been aware of.

Still a bit too biographical, overall: I believe seeing books in their context is important, but Mary Shelley’s parentage and miscarriages were less than necessary to the overall narrative.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Lost Languages

Posted September 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Lost Languages by Andrew RobinsonLost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts, Andrew Robinson

This is a bit of a whistlestop tour of, well, the world’s undeciphered scripts. It starts off by exploring some scripts which have been deciphered — Mayan, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Linear B — and discussing how those decipherments were accomplished, and what if anything might be relevant in the study of other languages. After that, it introduces a few different undeciphered languages, including Linear A, Rongorongo and the Phaistos disc, discussing what we know and what we don’t, giving a little of the context, and figuring out to what extent any claimed modern decipherments are real.

It’s an interesting read, and reproduces a lot of photographs, sketches and diagrams showing these scripts and ways of deciphering them. Those images are probably really useful if you think in a very visual way, but they were somewhat limited for someone like me with no visual memory or imagination! It got a bit technical at times, but if that’s your interest then I’ve no doubt it’s useful and quite probably inspiring (in the sense of making you want to dig into these mysteries yourself).

I think Robinson’s attitude toward claimed decipherments is fairly cautious and conservative, but he takes the time to explain what his reservations are and what the field as a whole thinks of the ideas. It’s not always a riveting read, but it was overall pretty interesting and easy to absorb information from. Probably even better if you are, like I said, a visual sort of thinker/learner.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Civilisations: First Contact / The Cult of Progress

Posted September 27, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of First Contact / The Cult of Progress by David OlusogaCivilisations: First Contact / The Cult of Progress, David Olusoga

There’s a lot going on in this book: it sweeps past swathes of history, touching on some of the important questions and critiques of colonialism and empire, dwelling on how they were represented by artists and how art of different cultures met and mingled. It doesn’t linger, speeding past the Benin Bronzes and cramming in the Eiffel Tower as well, and I found it a little vague and unfocused. It was unclear what the argument was meant to be until the afterword, where he mentions the idea that all human art comes from “the same imagination”.

Hmm. A little insipid, really; that’s my final conclusion on this. It’s nice to have a quick guide to some of the art and its context, but it really is the most glancing look at most of it. It’s nice to have a degree of breadth, but then I wouldn’t say it has that much by way of breadth — it’s all so lightly touched on. There are some artworks I didn’t know about, and interesting facts, like the portraits painted by Lindauer of Maori people (and the fact that they would choose to be painted in a combination of Western and traditional clothing, to show they knew how to move in both worlds).

I feel like there are several books here and this is just a not very focused amalgamation of all of them. It didn’t work for me, though perhaps people who saw the series they accompany will get more out of it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Intersteller Age

Posted September 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Interstellar Age by Jim BellThe Intersteller Age, Jim Bell

This was a pretty entertaining read about the Voyager missions, with the usual kind of autobiographical detail (extra odd Bell was more a fan of the project than a part of it, though he worked on things that were tangentially related at times) and some biographical detail. Lots of fanboying about Carl Sagan, which is sweet, but not always to the point. It’s a good overview of what the Voyager program did, and there were lots of little titbits I didn’t know.

I think the favourite part for me was discussing the Golden Record, though; I think I’ll have to look up the book he mentioned which goes into it in detail. I love the idea of the Golden Record (I did write a story about it a while ago, after all!), and I especially love the fact that we filled it with “our hopes, not our fears”. It makes it very clear that few people on the project thought there was much chance of it being found, but it was considered so important anyway: a moment for humanity to reflect on itself, and send out something of ourselves into the universe… the good parts, at least.

In terms of the engineering of the Voyager crafts, there’s relatively little, and though the math and physics of figuring out how to send them on their way is mentioned, it’s not explained. It’s more of a cultural history with explanations of what the Voyagers found than a science book, though there are interesting factoids about the various planets and moons of the Solar System which we wouldn’t have known (until later) without Voyager. Likewise, it discusses some of the problems that the Voyagers had — like the seizing of the camera platform — but not nearly all.

Entertaining, and probably as deep as some folks want to go!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The King in the North

Posted September 17, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The King in the North by Max AdamsThe King in the North, Max Adams

Having recently read Joanna Arman’s The Warrior Queen, I was a bit worried about plunging into another medieval period biography — that one was so disappointing in prose style, baseless assertions and general slenderness. The King in the North was rather more satisfying; Adams writes well, and though I’m not always a fan of history books that spend too much time prosing about the landscape, his set-pieces on that subject do capture something useful about the locations he writes about.

This isn’t an area of expertise for me, but I’m reassured by the footnotes and endnotes that he is making reference to real findings drawn from a range of sources. When something is his imagination or opinion, that’s clear in the text, which is also important. Generally, I think this is likely to be a pretty solid pop-history source on Oswald of Northumbria, and his life and times.

Like most of these biographies of medieval personages, there’s a lot of preamble with setting up the context and then analysing the aftermath: as ever, very little of it focuses on Oswald’s life and his deeds while alive. Still, I found all of it interesting and relevant. I’ll happily read more of Adams’ work.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Piltdown Forgery

Posted September 13, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Piltdown Forgery, J.S. Weiner

The Piltdown Forgery is a rather old book, reissued after fifty years, which examines the known evidence in an attempt to figure out who exactly forged the famous Piltdown Man. To be more precise, the forger created a collection of remains and artefacts which supposedly proved the presence in Britain of a man with an ape-like jaw and a Homo-like cranium, at such an age to suggest itself as a perfect transitional fossil in the ape to human lineage. It was revealed as a clever forgery by 1953, but interest has since focused on figuring out who the forger was and what exactly their motives were.

The book goes into the detail of the “discovery” and how the fake was unmasked, discussing the various techniques of staining and of later dating the fossil, before trying to work out who had the necessary skills, interest and motive. To my mind, the answer is fairly obvious to begin with, and the evidence presented only makes it more so; Weiner actually holds back from that conclusion, though, rather coyly asserting that surely it doesn’t matter now. Indeed, it’s now been confirmed by DNA testing, so I’m afraid there’s no way out for Weiner, despite the liking he betrays for the chief suspect.

(Not to be coy myself, the man who made the original discovery was always the obvious suspect and the recent tests confirm: Charles Dawson was the forger.)

It’s an interesting overview, though cuts surprisingly short when it is about to reach that inevitable conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Aztecs

Posted September 8, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Aztecs, Richard F. Townsend

I read some fairly wide-ranging and eclectic subject matter, and I know a lot of it would bore other people to tears. The Aztecs, however, should be pretty darn interesting in principle: while our sources are fragmentary, there’s still a lot we can know, and there’s so much to be fascinated by in their legends, stories about themselves, and social structure.

Just… not in this book. There are other books in this series that manage to be wonderful, so it’s not the academic-ish introduction or the general goals of the book that constrain it. Something about Townsend’s prose is just stultifyingly dull. I made it halfway through and realised that not only had I failed to absorb most of the information so far, I hadn’t once turned to my wife and said, “Hey, did you know that…”

Well, that’s the kiss of death for me and non-fiction. Somehow it didn’t manage to give me any new information in a way that made it feel interesting. Bye, book! I’m sure you are indeed the “best introduction” to the field (as the back proclaims), for people who either don’t mind being bored or are so fascinated by the field that they can’t look away.

(Lest you be wondering, the things I excitedly tell my wife don’t have to be that interesting to the wider world — the facts can be fairly trivial.)

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The End of Epidemics

Posted September 6, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

The End of Epidemics, Dr Jonathan Quick

Dr Jonathan Quick has a bold claim in the title of this book: the end of epidemics? Does he really think he can stop all epidemics, any epidemics, from ever happening again? The answer, in case you were worried, is no: he’s not quite that full of hubris. Instead, his recommendations are focused on avoiding local outbreaks becoming global pandemics, through improving the way we handle emerging infectious diseases in various ways. His ideas rest on improving leadership, infrastructure, monitoring, education, and response time. For the most part, if you’re interested in infectious diseases then his answers are obvious to you: of course we need a leader who will coordinate resources properly. Of course we need infrastructure to get people and equipment to the right places. Of course we need to monitor exactly what diseases might be currently posing a threat.

There are some interesting dissections of epidemics past and the reasons they did or didn’t explode into pandemics, along with healthy criticism of the WHO. There’s a fair amount of worry about bioterrorism, particularly with the advent of CRISPR; this is a threat we haven’t really seen materialising yet, probably because an infectious disease is so hard to control. You can’t make an epidemic avoid the people you agree with, after all. This makes me somewhat sceptical about the likelihood of someone releasing something like smallpox, apart from possibly as a lunatic ‘destroy everyone’ move.

Anyway, as ever there’s useful ideas in here, but it’s probably not getting into the hands of people who could make a genuine difference anyway. I’m not sure what the purpose of releasing this as a pop-science book was, exactly, though I suppose it serves some purpose in educating people.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Warrior Queen

Posted August 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Warrior Queen by Joanna ArmanThe Warrior Queen, Joanna Arman

Arman’s book promises a lot, offering the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. It comes up rather short, and in part this isn’t the book’s fault: the information on everyone of this era is rather scanty, and women tend to be represented even less than your average big man of the time, even if they turned out to be rulers later in life. Books about these women have to lean heavily on interpreting what the locations of charters and charitable establishments mean, and it doesn’t always make for the most riveting reading.

Nonetheless, most of the book is almost entirely speculative. Æthelflæd may have been taught this, Æthelflæd may have gone here with her father, perhaps Æthelflæd did this… Much of the book is framed by what the women in Æthelflæd’s life were doing (her father, her brother, her husband), right up the point where suddenly she becomes the real protagonist and starts leading men and establishing forts. But I didn’t want a book on Alfred, Æthelstan, Æthelred, etc, etc, etc.

Worse, the book drifts off into pure daydream at times. Mentioning the clasp of a book found in Stafford, the author speculates that it might have belonged to Æthelflæd. There’s no archaeological context given — Arman doesn’t even mention a date given for the clasp! — and it seems that Arman invented this spurious connection out of her own head, just to add spice; I can’t find such an assertion elsewhere. She does have a bibliography, but no detailed footnotes to allow her claims to be followed up, so I’ll give this claim the credence it’s due: none. Now I have to wonder what else Arman has imagined and invented — the coins she mentions, perhaps? The firm dating of forts and towns? To be fair, Arman does make it clear the link is speculative, an ‘I’d like to imagine’, but nonetheless… I have questions.

Finally, the book is atrociously edited. It’s common for entire words to be missing from sentences, sometimes making them nonsensical, and sometimes no doubt just altering the sense of them.

It is a shoddy job, and I cannot recommend it as a source of information, though there are some titbits that you can call entertaining fiction.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Darwin Comes To Town

Posted August 29, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Darwin Comes To Town, Menno Schilthuizen

Darwin Comes to Town examines the action of evolution on urban organisms — the mosquitos of the London Underground, blackbirds worldwide, white-footed mice in LA, bobcats in Hollywood… Is evolution happening because of human cities, and if it is, how does it work? It’s full of examples showing that there is clearly selection at work in the urban environment (a fact nobody should be surprised by), along with an in-depth discussion of one of the classics, Biston betularia, the peppered moth. (If you don’t know that example, basically in areas near industry, a melanic [black] form of the moth began to thrive, and became the dominant form in such areas. Since industry’s impact on the environment has been ameliorated now, things have quickly gone back the other day.)

I found it a fascinating book, though I think it could have been better organised — I have no idea how to find any of the information again, because I can’t recall any clear sections. There’s a lot of good anecdotes, and reference to studies I want to look up, but it is a tad conversational — and prone to falling into reminisence and flavour text about locations.

Rating: 3/5

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