Tag: non-fiction

Top Ten Tuesday

Posted December 16, 2014 by in General / 12 Comments

This week’s theme from The Broke and the Bookish is “Top Ten Books I Read in 2014”. This one you can probably predict if you follow this blog, but I won’t leave you guessing. Also, links don’t show up on my theme very well, so I’ll just say now that all the titles are links to the reviews I wrote earlier in the year.

Cover of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison Cover of The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany Cover of We Have Always Fought by Kameron Hurley Cover of My Real Children by Jo Walton Cover of The Movement by Gail Simone

  1. The Goblin EmperorKatherine Addison. Yep, you probably predicted this one. I just loved it to bits — I’d have happily gone back to page one and started all over again right away. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but it was pretty perfect for me.
  2. The King of Elf-land’s DaughterLord Dunsany. This is definitely not new to a lot of people, but it was new to me. I think I’d read one of Dunsany’s short story collections before, but not this one. It’s a lovely mythic/fairytale-like world. In style and the like, it’s not like the more typical modern fantasy, but that doesn’t put me off at all.
  3. We Have Always FoughtKameron Hurley. I haven’t read any of Hurley’s fiction yet; she may even be a writer who appeals to me more as a commentator than as a creator, since I did start God’s War at one point and put it down again. But I loved this collection of her essays. She very much deserved her Hugo.
  4. My Real ChildrenJo Walton. Again, probably predictable. I loved the characters in this — the sheer range of them, the ways small circumstances could change them. It was quite upsetting on a personal level because of the mentions of dementia, but the fact that it had the power to upset me only made me like it more.
  5. The Movement: Class WarfareGail Simone. I think this is a pretty timely comic. This sums it up, from my review: “[T]his is a group of young people getting together against injustice. Not supervillains: injustice. Crooked cops who beat poor people and POC because they can. The whole system of privilege and disprivilege. It’s a team of heroes for the Occupy Movement, for the 99%, for the disenfranchised.”
  6. Cuckoo SongFrances Hardinge. Read this all in one go on a train journey and resented every interruption. There’s a great atmosphere to this book.
  7. Behind the Shock MachineGina Perry. I’ve always been fascinated by Stanley Milgram’s experiments, and this was a great way of delving into them — looking at it not from Milgram’s point of view, not looking at the results, but at the people he used in this experiment.
  8. What Makes This Book So GreatJo Walton. This is kinda cheating, in that it’s a book chock full of the books Jo Walton likes. Not limited to a top ten, of course, but I have a feeling it could furnish the whole contents of this list.
  9. SpilloverDavid Quammen. Fascinating stuff, with some very obvious conclusions that apparently still need to be said. We are destroying habitats, forcing animals closer together and closer to us: we’re creating the perfect situation for a pandemic. It’s going to happen again, as it’s happened before, and we’ve just got to hope it isn’t something exotic and deadly. Even the flu is bad enough when it sweeps the world.
  10. The Broken LandIan McDonald. This is the only book in this list I didn’t give five stars. But it’s stayed on my mind the whole time, and the issues it examines aren’t temporary ones that’re about to go away.

Cover of Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge Cover of Behind the Shock Machine by Gina Perry Cover of What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton Cover of Spillover by David Quamnem Cover of The Broken Land by Ian McDonald

This is gonna be a really interesting week to check out other people’s lists; I’m looking forward to this! Make sure you link me to your list if you comment. I’ll always visit and comment back.

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Review – The Language Wars

Posted December 14, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Language Wars by Henry HitchingsThe Language Wars, Henry Hitchings

In theory, this is a subject I’m really fascinated by. The whole idea of ‘proper English’, all the classism and imperialism and prejudice caught up in it, and the way people’s attitudes to language have developed. However, turns out that either the minutiae of who wrote which grammar/dictionary/book about etiquette and when isn’t that interesting, or Henry Hitchings has a really boring prose style. Or, well, both of those things. I felt like there were a lot of facts, but not much analysis to go with it; some chapters felt like they were just lists of who wrote what about grammar and when.

I was hoping for other stuff about proper English, more about the imperialism — there’s lots of scope for that without even leaving the United Kingdom, with the suppression of the Welsh and Irish languages, and there’s hints about the struggle between US and UK English. Overall, though… if that was addressed, the deadened prose style made me miss it.

It’s still an interesting topic, but this particular book had a soporific effect on me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Galápagos

Posted December 8, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Galapagos by Henry NichollsThe Galápagos, Henry Nicholls

This isn’t a very substantial book, really: each chapter is fairly brief, and focused on a fairly broad swathe of the creatures living on the famous islands, often focusing on one or two representative examples when it’s a large family of critters. This works quite well for the layperson, avoiding going too in depth on any one subject that might become boring, while still offering an introduction to the wealth of variety and beauty in the Galápagos islands. A lot of it, of course, is related to Darwin and his theories, which are what have made the Galápagos so iconic for anyone with that kind of interest.

I did like the chapters which focus on the way humans have affected the islands. He seems fairly ambivalent about it, in a way: he hesitates to say that tourism is damaging the islands (probably because he’d be a hypocrite if he did!) but at the same time, he makes the impact quite clear.

Sometimes I do wonder about whether we can or should preserve species that are going extinct. In one sense, it’s often our own fault. We’re as much of a natural disaster as a massive meteorite strike. But maybe there should be a test applied first: if humans back off (after some captive breeding and releasing if necessary), can the population once again support itself? Or has the world just changed too fast for them? We can’t foresee all the ramifications, how and whether a species even can adapt. We could risk making a species that we value for its place in the wild into a species dependent on us, like the animals we’ve bred for food and convenience. If we do that, have we really saved the species after all? I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder; certainly I don’t think it’s unequivocally the right thing to do, and so some of the conservation aspects of this I disagreed with. Not the sentiment, but the practicality.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – If Walls Could Talk

Posted December 2, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of If Walls Could Talk by Lucy WorsleyIf Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley

If Walls Could Talk isn’t exactly an academic, peer reviewed, footnoted piece of work, but it is kinda fun as a light read. Some of her etymological claims seem a bit spurious, some I’m sure I’ve heard debunked elsewhere, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. I think it could’ve been more interesting if she’d gone more into the things she experienced for herself like sleeping on a rope bed, blacking a range, etc, etc. That’s a perspective most of us don’t know anything about, and which she couldn’t have got wrong since it’s down to experience.

At least unlike some other popular non-fiction writers, she doesn’t get too giggly or avoidant about some of the topics that inevitably come up: sex, sanitation, death, childbirth, etc, etc.

Oh, and someone else quite rightly pointed out that she’s really talking about English houses. Not a single mention of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. I believe there were some significant differences…

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Goldilocks Enigma

Posted December 1, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Goldilocks Enigma by Paul DaviesThe Goldilocks Enigma, Paul Davies

I’m not sure that this book is entirely successful in answering, or even trying to address, the question posed on the cover — why is the universe just right for life? It talks a lot about how the universe may have formed, and what the laws of the universe are, and it seems like it does a lot of describing rather than explaining. Now, of course, that’s because we don’t really have an answer, but it does seem a little misleading.

Davies looks at a lot of different theories here, some of them more scientific than others — he includes the philosophical side of things too, including the religious point of view. He’s fairly even handed about this, so it’s hard to tell exactly where he’d put his money most of the time (except that he’s generally sceptical of the religion explanation, because it’s a non-explanation: it just shunts the question up a level). Most of the explanations are clear, though string theory remains utterly baffling to me (or at least, the rationale behind it does).

Oddly enough, I’m left feeling that The Goldilocks Enigma is much more positive about the idea that other intelligent life is out there than The Eerie Silence. I haven’t looked at publication order or anything, but it was a little strange, reading them one after the other.

Regardless, this was written before the Large Hadron Collider swung into action, so no doubt it’s out of date in some ways. Still a good background in the various theories, particularly the more philosophical ones like the anthropic principles that aren’t likely to change. (To his credit, I now understand the anthropic principle a lot better than I did after GCSE/A Level Religious Studies. Sorry, Mr B.)

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Eerie Silence

Posted November 30, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Eerie Silence by Paul DaviesThe Eerie Silence, Paul Davies

Paul Davies does a really good job here of illustrating the issues of SETI’s lack of success, and Fermi’s Paradox. He goes into the science and philosophy of it in depth, explaining all the terms and generally making it crystal clear. What amazes me is that he’s still somewhat optimistic about finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, given all the things he says in this book — I’m now almost completely sure that even if intelligent life has arisen elsewhere (and that’s still a big if) that we’ll have trouble finding it because of the issue of the sheer amount of time and space involved.

Not that I don’t think the search is worth doing. Even if we’ll never manage to communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, we might find signs of it, and understand more about how life begins. There’s so much we can learn along the way, and maybe the idea that we may not be unique will keep us a little bit more humble.

Or not.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – You Are Here

Posted November 27, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of You Are Here by Chris HadfieldYou Are Here, Chris Hadfield

You Are Here is a gorgeous book, a collection of photographs taken by Chris Hadfield during his time on the ISS. He shows us Earth in all its variety: the densely inhabited cities lighting up the night, the marks we’ve left on the landscape, and then also the stretches of empty desert, the glorious geologic features of mountains and volcanoes, the places where meteorites have impacted. It’s much better than looking at the photos on a computer, as he says in the introduction: it seems so much sharper and clearer, the colours truer.

There’s not much by way of editorial content here — some explanations of what you’re looking at, short inset paragraphs with Hadfield’s comments, but mostly the photographs speak for themselves.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – What Matters in Jane Austen?

Posted November 16, 2014 by in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of What Matters In Jane Austen? by John MullenWhat Matters in Jane Austen?, John Mullan

I’m not a big fan of Jane — through I’ve come round somewhat on the subject since I couldn’t resist the urge to fling Pride and Prejudice out of a window — so you might think I was the wrong audience for this book anyway. But I am a big fan of close reading, and I find value in digging into what’s important in an author’s works in a way that I think the author of this would agree with, and I enjoy history, literary history, and all kinds of random facts. So I was hoping that though I’m no obsessive Austen fan, I’d still find this book of interest.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be quite sure where it’s aimed at. As a non-fan, I don’t know the books well enough for all the little details he references without fully contextualising to be exactly revelatory to me; as an MA in literature, I thought it was still a pretty simplistic level of analysis — is anyone really surprised that yes, Austen was saying that Lydia Bennet had sex outside of marriage? — and as a general reader, I didn’t find the stuff that interesting on its own merits either. It startles me more that apparently there was a fuss kicked up about ~Was Jane Austen Gay?~ because of her intimacy with her sister than that sisterly conversation or the lack thereof is centrally important in her work.

Overall, whatever the target audience was meant to be, I’m not it.

Rating: 1/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted November 15, 2014 by in General / 6 Comments

This week, I have been super restrained. No, I really mean it!

Review copies

Cover of Brood by Chase Novak Cover of The Wicked + The Divine by Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen

I didn’t even request Brood — I’m not sure why Bookbridr sent me it, because it sounds like it might be a bit too gory for me. Maybe I clicked something by accident? But I’m glad to have an ARC of The Wicked + The Divine; I actually have a pre-order for the TPB anyway, but now I get to read it sooner.


 Cover of Do No Harm by Henry Marsh Cover of Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

I’m guessing I’m going to see a lot of Foxglove Summer around in the next couple weeks; it just came out on Thursday. I’m excited! And Do No Harm was something I spotted in the bookshop and ended up getting with what I had left of a book token: it’s all about brain surgery, which both icks me out and fascinates me. I can’t see myself as a brain surgeon, but neurology is fascinating…


Captain Marvel #9

Captain Marvel #9! I’m not caught up at the moment, but hey, it’s nice to support the Carol Corps.

What’s everyone else been getting?

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Review – Drunk Tank Pink

Posted November 13, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Drunk Tank Pink by Adam AlterDrunk Tank Pink, Adam Alter

Drunk Tank Pink is one of those pop psychology books that’s fairly slight, doesn’t provide citations in-text, and presents a lot of experimental and theoretical thought as if it’s a fact. Taking it for what it is, it’s an enjoyable little survey of interesting facts, written well enough to keep the interest, and not getting into technical details which might bog down and confuse the interested but uninformed reader.

For me, since I’ve read a fair amount of pop psychology already, some of it rather higher standard, this had some anecdotes I hadn’t heard, but mostly referenced research I already knew about, or had read about in a lot greater depth. (For example, for discussions on colour, skip this and go for Through the Language Glass, by Guy Deutscher, which has a much more thorough approach to the issues of language, labels and how we perceive colour.)

All in all, it was okay, but probably (for me) not worth the admission fee.

Rating: 2/5

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