Tag: non-fiction

Review – The Normans

Posted March 29, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Normans: From Raiders to Kings by Lars Brownworth The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, Lars Brownworth

I thought I knew a decent among about the Normans. I mean, I’ve read a couple of books focusing on Normandy’s rulers, and obviously I don’t think a British schoolchild gets all the way through education without getting the date 1066 hammered into them and at least a vague idea about William the Conqueror and the Domesday Book.

But! This actually goes a bit further and looks at other Norman rulers, who pushed into Italy and Sicily — something that I wasn’t really aware of as stemming from Norman origins. I’ve read bits about this before, but never from this perspective. I knew nothing about the descent of the family or the web of feuds between them, Byzantium, various popes, and the German kingdom/s of the time.

All in all, pretty interesting, and well-written. I’m not sure about “witty”, which another review mentions, but it isn’t a chore to read. It does seem to have a reasonable number of sources and footnotes, which is another thing that makes me wary when it comes to popular histories. All in all, glad I won this from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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Review – Marketing the Moon

Posted March 28, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Marketing the Moon by David Meerman Scott, Richard Jurek, Eugene A. CernanMarketing the Moon, David Meerman Scott, Richard Jurek, Eugene A. Cernan

Lots of photos and so on in here! I imagine it’d be a big glossy book to own, although I just had it from Netgalley. It’s more about marketing the space program, as you’d expect, than about the actual space aspect itself, though there’s plenty of snippets of information, and it does look at the astronauts themselves as part of that marketing effort.

If you’re an Apollo enthusiast, it’s worth picking up, I’d say. It’s certainly accessible and informative.

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Review – Dry Store Room No. 1

Posted March 27, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard ForteyDry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, Richard Fortey

A lot of reviews comment on how dry they found this book, but I rather enjoyed it. I like Richard Fortey’s style of writing, despite his tendency to ramble and get distracted. It’s more of a biography or history of the Natural History Museum than a chronicle of the science that goes on there, but there’s some of that, too.

I liked the sense of exploring a wonderland — Fortey plainly finds everything in the Natural History Museum a delight and a revelation, and I shared in that. He got in some apt comparisons, too, like comparing the museum’s storage to Gormenghast.

I was vaguely aware of most of the broader details here about trends in collecting and displaying, but most of the details about the actual scientists and curators were completely new to me. This book has a distinctly gossip-like feeling, which I didn’t mind at all.

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Review – The Biggest Bangs

Posted March 25, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Biggest Bangs by Jonathan KatzThe Biggest Bangs, Jonathan I. Katz

This is supposed to be written for a layman, or so the introduction says, but it pretty much made my eyes cross with the technical stuff. I mean, I can follow the explanation of how gamma rays free electrons which then cause damage to neighbouring atoms, and then the energy of all this and the ‘healing’ atoms makes the other element glow with heat, but I have a limited amount of tolerance for pages on pages explaining the difficulty in getting a direction for the gamma ray bursts from that.

Just, generally, too much information for me. I suspect that someone more interested in astrophysics would enjoy it more, but mine is a casual interest. I’m most interested in gamma rays when Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are studying them to locate an object of immense power in the hands of most emphatically the wrong person.

(Or if there was a description of the effect of gamma rays on DNA. That too would’ve got my attention as surely as a giant green ragemonster.)

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Review – An Introduction to English Poetry

Posted March 24, 2014 by Nikki in Academic, Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of An Introduction to English Poetry by James FentonAn Introduction to English Poetry, James Fenton

This is a very clear introduction to the formal aspects of poetry, but it also serves as a reintroduction for someone who has an English Lit degree but never got very interested in the technical aspects of poetry.

We disagree on quite a few things — his characterisation of Anglo-Saxon poetry as “not English” (because of course, it is quintessentially English: the Anglo-Saxons became the English), for example, and his doubtfulness about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (there are dialect words in Sir Gawain which survive still: just because Chaucer’s Middle English is closer to what became universal doesn’t mean Sir Gawain is irrelevant). Also his relative dismissiveness of tight forms like the villanelle: he rightly praises one of the most famous, Dylan Thomas’, but is otherwise fairly unimpressed by it. I love villanelles, and I think more people have “done them right” than he suggests.

Still, with short, easy-to-digest chapters, clear explanations, and a helpful glossary, not to mention the addition of his thoughts as a practitioner of the craft, this is an interesting and informative introduction to a cross-section of English poetry.

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Review – Survivors

Posted March 23, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Survivors by Richard ForteySurvivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind,
Richard Fortey

I enjoyed this enough that I’ve reserved the other books by Richard Fortey that my local library has. He has a somewhat rambling style, though, which might not be to your taste. I enjoyed the ride, in general; in terms of the science, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, concept-wise, but some of the animals and habitats Fortey described were new to me.

It was quite personal to him, in a way, covering stuff he’s particularly interested in and documenting his travels to find these creatures (to the extent of talking about sipping gin and tonic from a plastic cup while sat on the balcony of the inn at Yellowstone). That might be less than interesting to some, but I did quite like knowing about the wider habitats surrounding these creatures, and the human context that they’re so often really close to, maybe even endangered by.

The inserts with colour photos are nice: words generally work better for me than pictures, so I wasn’t that interested, but it does give you a glance at some of the stranger, more anciently derived creatures of our planet.

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted March 20, 2014 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

What did you recently finish reading?
Fiction-wise, it was Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge, which I loved to bits. If I had to come up with an immediate comparison, I guess Franny Billingsley’s Chime comes to mind — some similar ways of dealing with human/Other interaction, plus flawed families that feel real.

Non-fiction-wise, it was How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom, which, well, I love my science so his very clear, very accessible, very basic style disappointed me a little.

What are you currently reading?
Many things, as usual. Two ARCs have reached the top of my not terribly orderly pile: The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke, and Natasha Mostert’s The Midnight Side. Because of the very nature of the twists I’ve been promised in the latter, I think I’ve figured out the story and I’m not desperately impressed, but will finish it. Don’t know if I’ll review the other two books I was approved for by her, though. The Wizard’s Promise is so far fun, though I think I like the protagonists of The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish better.

Next down on the pile (if you think of it in terms of archaeology, with strata, you wouldn’t be far wrong) is Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. I’m not head over heels in love with it, but I recognise Cath’s fannishness and also her social awkwardness, and I think I might end up liking it. Although one review I read pointed out the chronic boundary pushing going on around Cath, and now I can’t stop seeing it. It’s really setting my teeth on edge.

Still reading Tam Lin, The Thirteenth Tale, Retribution Falls, etc, etc.

What do you think you’ll read next?
It’s been pretty well established that I don’t have a clue. But I’m looking thoughtfully at the book I got from the library on zoonotic diseases, and I’m thinking of finally getting to Maus and Persepolis, to prove that I r serious graphic novels reader, as well as a fan of superhero comics.

Although I did also get a Marvel Now Journey into Mystery: Featuring Sif TPB, so there’s plenty of the latter due to go on, too. I should finish reading Dark Reign: Young Avengers, too.

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Review – How Pleasure Works: Why We Like What We Like

Posted March 18, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of How Pleasure Works by Paul BloomHow Pleasure Works, Paul Bloom

How Pleasure Works is an accessibly written book which mentions some theories and interesting experiments, without really delivering on the promise of “science” that explains “why we like what we like”. Mostly, what Bloom has to offer are theories and interpretations: well presented and interesting, but judging from various reviews, not conclusive enough for people who want hard and fast answers. Luckily, I wasn’t really expecting any, although I was hoping for a bit more science. I’m still left thinking the answer to “why do we like what we like” is “because we’re bloody minded and irrational”.

I took Paul Bloom’s Coursera course, Moralities of Everyday Life, and recommend both that and this book as a relatively mild introduction to the psychology surrounding these topics.

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Review – Conquistadors

Posted March 12, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Conquistadors by Michael WoodConquistadors, Michael Wood

I’m pretty willing to pick up any of the books Michael Wood has written. They’re obviously more popular history than anything, pitched at BBC documentary level, but that is the level of knowledge I have for a lot of historical subjects. Conquistadors is in the usual format familiar from Wood’s book on Alexander: he retraces the steps of the conquistadors, in some cases clarifying their routes where they weren’t completely known before.

This is a period of history that’s not entirely new to me, but pretty nearly — we were taught a bit about the Aztecs and Cortes back in primary school, but that was about the extent of it. Wood evokes all this pretty clearly, though some colour photographs may have helped — my edition only has a small section of black and white ones. He uses sources from both sides of the conflict, and I think he kept a balance reasonably well. He obviously admired some of the conquistadors, but he kept in mind that even those of a more exploratory bent still thought and acted as conquistadors, save perhaps Cabeza de Vaca.

I think it interesting that one review complains of a completely one-sided view of the conquistadors “ethnically cleansing” the lands they conquered, while another complains about the British self-loathing. I think actually, there’s a pretty good balance between the two: Wood rightfully points out the excesses of the Spanish, but he also explains some of their reactions and doesn’t gloss over the issues of human sacrifice, etc.

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Review – Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes

Posted March 3, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Identically Different by Tim SpectorIdentically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes, Tim Spector

I wasn’t sure how this would turn out, since it mentions the widely ridiculed Lamarckian theory of inheritance, and the subtitle “Why You Can Change Your Genes” might sound a tad self-helpy. Luckily, it is actually a sound examination of current epigenetic theory, based on MZ and DZ twin studies looking at heritability. It makes an excellent follow-up to James Watson’s DNA, in that it moves on from the gene-centric view of biology to the more nuanced ideas we have now.

I’ve always been fascinated by epigenetics. The whole idea is what made me interested in potentially becoming a geneticist: the idea that Lamarck wasn’t entirely wrong, that events within a person’s life can be passed on to their children and grandchildren. (The famous giraffe neck example was unequivocally wrong, however.) The example given then, and raised in this book, is that of potential epigenetic changes caused by IVF treatments, and the general lower health of children conceived via IVF.

What really fascinates me now is that maybe my anxiety issues are related to the methylation of some of my DNA, preventing transcription of some proteins. And that would probably be a self-feeding process, with stress causing the original methylation and then decreased availability of a particular neurotransmitter causes more anxiety (less ability to regulate emotion) and more stress. If I could only remove those methyl groups from my brain cells, I could stop taking my medication and get on with my life. If I could magically go into research right now, that is undoubtedly where I’d go.

The book covers a lot of different topics — sexuality, gender identity, athletic ability, talent, religious belief — and manages to do so without stepping on too many toes, to my mind. It presents a much less deterministic version of genetics and the epigenome than Watson’s DNA does, which people may find more palatable.

It was basically the sort of book where I spent a lot of time texting people saying “did you know…?” I found it an easy read, and it has copious amounts of footnotes and opportunities to do further reading. Another one I heartily recommend!

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