Review: Other Minds – Peter Godfrey-Smith

043 - Other Minds

Rating – 4*

I was drawn in to this book by the cover – it wasn’t something I had planned on picking up or reading, yet the octopus on the front drew me in and I read it cover to cover in two sittings.

I have a bit of a history with the octopus – back in my first year of university I wrote an essay about them, and in researching them I became fascinated by the whole family of cephalopods. They are such interesting, inteligent creatures and this book explores the evolution of them compared to us. I was also quite keen on evolutionary biology when at university (although, let’s not talk about that exam) and it’s one of those subjects that I just love reading about for pleasure. This book brought together two aspects of my degree that I loved, and as such I really enjoyed this book.

One of the most incredible sections of this book – one that I read more than once – was the section about how cephalopods like octopus, cuttlefish and squid are able to change colours. Now that in itself isn’t surprising, most people know that they’re able to change colour, what actually made me quite sad was the revalation in this book that they are all likely colourblind so can’t see the beauty themselves. I also found the section on the aging of the animals an interesting read because I was niavely under the impression that they could live for many years but that’s a misconception and they’re lucky if they live past one breeding season (in the case of females).

The author explores the development of the cephalopod brain and compares it to our own. He highlights how the development of mammalian and avian brains differs to that of cephalopods, and how differently we process information. What is established in this book is that cephalopods look at the word in a very different way to us (in spite of the fact that eyes and vision in general is quite similar, though evolved completely independently from each other). The stark differences between mammalian and cephalopod brains and cognition is likely the closest we’ll ever get to exploring the concept of alien intelligence because neural pathways and the brain in cephalopods evolved separately to those same traits in the mammalian world.

Putting it in to perspective, biologically an octopus is more closely related to a snail than humans, yet psychologically and on an intellectual level an octopus is very close to humans.

My only wish is that there was more science in it. I found that there was often tangents and side-notes, and it erred into the realms of philosophy opposed to science which is fine in moderation but I felt it happened all too often. I’d have loved for this book to have been a few pages longer and just rounded off less abruptly. But on the whole, I really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to someone looking for something a little different to read – it’s a very approachable book and the audiobook is absolutely fantastic (but you’ll miss out on the pictures of octopuses and cuttlefish).

Review: The Gene – Siddhartha Mukherjee

020 - The Gene

Rating – 5*

This book is one that had been on my radar for quite some time before I decided to pick it up. I’d been umming and ahhing over it for a while, but it being shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize meant I finally got that kick up the backside and picked it up. How I wish I had picked this up when it was first released!

This may be a stretch, but this is up there at one of my favourite non-fiction books now, definitely top of the ‘popular science’ category! To put it in to perspective as to how much I loved this, I read it as the Kindle edition, also purchased the audiobook (also good, highly recommend) and on my lunch break Thursday – two days after I finished it – I bought the paperback. I just can’t get enough of this book. Seriously.

I love reading about genetics, the history and the future. While this book is a monster (I read the Kindle version which is over 700 pages) it was so engaging, I just whizzed through it. As I said, I love reading about genetics, and as a result I have read a huge number of popular science books on the subject (along with behemoth textbooks) – some are good, some are absolutely mindnumbingly boring. This though, this is possibly the most readable, most approachable, and most engaging one of the lot; not only that it is so in depth – I didn’t feel like anything was missed out from a scientific standpoint. So yes, this book is a non-fiction masterpiece in my eyes.

For a start, I loved the format of this. I don’t know how he did it, but it felt more ‘intimate’ than many other books which focus on the same subject. I think that this came primarily from the brief biographies that were given in the text of the scientist at the centre of particular discoveries; there were histories of Darwin, Mendel, and my personal favourite, Rosalind Franklin.

Going off on a tangent for a moment, I was pleasantly surprised with this book. Not only does it recognise the achievements and contribution (and subsequent overlooking) of female scientists in the history of genetics. It also looks in to the genetics behind sexuality and gender identity. I was on edge when the words “gay gene” were mentioned – but it was handled quite sensitively and I was pleasantly surprised at how open minded the handling of this topic was. Also included, and handled with immense sensitivity, was the subject of eugenics, forced sterilisation, Nazi studies in to genetics – some of that was hard reading!

Back to the book as a whole, I found that the chronology of this really layered up information piece-by-piece. It was so skillfully done, and I really think I would have benefited from reading this book when I was doing my A Levels, and my degree as a supplementary text to refresh the history of the subject, and because the science is there but the ‘popular science’ style of writing makes it more digestible and much less intimidating than a 1000 page textbook on the subject!

Ultimately, this is an incredible book (can you tell I think that?) and I absolutely loved it. I’m glad that the prize actually made me pick it up because I honestly think I’d have missed out on something important had I not read this. I’d urge anyone looking for a good non-fiction book to give this a whirl, yes it’s big, but it’s the best book on the subject I’ve read.

Review: Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

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Rating – 3*

This month I have really been enjoying non-fiction, and as I have previously mentioned I absolutely adore the Ancient Egyptian period; I love the myth and the legend which is what made this book absolutely perfect. This book, while initially very dry and textbook-like, is actually a very rich and engaging read.

It tells Egyptian myth in four sections; Creation, Destruction, The Great Goddesses, and Heroes and Villains. Each of these is broken down further as there are a variety of stories associated with each myth and it is a perfect blend of the myth and the fact. Each story is interwoven with stories about every day life and how the story impacted on society, what it meant for them daily – she ties myth in to the unification of upper and lower Egypt, and makes comments on the legal system. While that may sound dry, to a not-so-closet Egyptology nerd it was awesome. One thing which stuck out to me is the particular attention paid to women in Egyptian myth and history which I wasn’t expecting but was pleasantly surprised by.

The reason I gave this 3* is that it just lacked something for me, I would have liked more of the myths and the stories and less of the fact (while I enjoy the fact, it does get a little dry after a while). I wouldn’t recommend this as a place to necessarily start with Egyptian myth and legend – it’s not a particularly bad place but it’s a book which requires a significant attention span!

Review: Cheer Up Love – Susan Calman

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Rating – 5*

If you don’t know who Susan Calman is, go no further in this review and have a google, find a clip on YouTube – she’s hilarious. She’s appeared on numerous UK TV panel shows including QI, Mock the Week, and (my personal favourite) Have I Got News For You. She’s also does a lot of radio work (Susan Calman is Convicted). When I heard she was writing a book I immediately knew I had to get my hands on it and it did not let me down, in fact it is possibly one of the best books I’ve read all year. I chose to listen to this as an audiobook, and I highly recommend that to everyone, but I loved it so much I immediately went and purchased a physical copy so I could read passages to people.

This book is about depression, but while brutally honest about the experience of living with The Crab of Hate (as Susan so beautifully names it), it is truly one of the most hilarious books I have read. I laughed until I hurt listening to this. It was poignant, uplifting, intensely relatable too. And as for a book to explain depression? I would recommend this over Reasons to Stay Alive – for me, this was immensely more powerful. I’m aware that saying that is very high praise, given how loved Reasons to Stay Alive is. But for me, what that book lacked this book contained in abundance, and it had so much more on top of that.

I feel this is a book which has to be experienced, I have already recommended it to several friends and will be suggesting it to more! It is honestly one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read lately. If you’re unsure as to whether an audiobook is for you, just give the first 5 minutes a go on Audible because I promise you it’s worth it!

Purchase on The Book Depository

Review: Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World – Rachel Swaby

14 - Headstrong 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World

Rating – 5*

I saw this book pop up in a magazine (Royal Society of Chemistry magazine) quite a while ago, since then it was on my radar. I knew it was a book that I wanted to, an needed to, own. Eventually, I decided enough was enough and it was about time to pick it up, I just waited until the right point to read it. A point when I needed motivation, inspiration, I needed to remind myself why I do what I do and this book, oh this book did just that. This book is amazing. These women, all 52 of them, were incredible. They make me proud to be a scientist, to follow the path that they essentially paved for me and my female friends to be able to do what we do! They gave us access. Every single woman featured in this book is a superhero and I wouldn’t be doing what I do without them.

This book was born from the author reading an obituary in the newspaper. Yvonne Brill made a “mean beef stroganoff”, she was a wife, a mother and there was over half a page of column dedicated to her. Why? She was an incredible rocket scientist. A rocket scientist who developed technology still used by NASA today (hydrazine jet propulsion if anyone cares!). And all the New York Times cared about was her “mean beef stroganoff”, that was more important than the work she did for over 50 years. After reading this, Rachel Swaby decided enough was enough and it was about time people heard about the amazing women who have changed science (and coincidentally, the world) but are little heard about, some even forgotten entirely from scientific circles (never mind the general public!).

There are women in medicine, biological sciences, environmental sciences, chemistry, physics, engineering, and mathematics who have been overwritten in history. Some names remain, most people know who Marie Curie was, but her daughter Irene was equally as incredible and also won a Nobel prize to go with her mothers two. Many people have heard of Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale. But there are so many more amazing women out there; Rosalind Franklin identified the signature double helix of DNA. Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. Dorothy Hodgkin discovered the structure of Vitamin B12. Inge Lehmann discovered the inner core of the Earth. Virginia Apgar developed the APGAR test which has saved countless of newborn babies. Helen Taussig revolutionised heart surgery. Alice Ball was a black woman in her twenties who treated leprosy. All of these women are incredible, inspiring too. And while they only get three or four pages each, their intelligence and determination comes across so clearly. I wish, oh I wish, I could have some of these women round for dinner and just thank them, talk to them, have some of their insight because they’re incredible.

These women inspire me. Everyone should know about these women. This book is something special, it has it’s faults, the writing is a bit questionable, and jumbled, at times but the reasoning behind this book and the overall presentation is faultless. I would love more on each of these women, but the idea of reading about one woman a week for a year that is put forward in the introduction I think is great for the non-specialist or the person who just wants to read about an awesome woman once a week! I devoured it in under a week, I read a couple of sections a day (the book is split in to seven scientific disciplines).

This is by no means a book for scientists only. This is a book that, I feel, could benefit anyone. If I had known about these women earlier on in my life it would have probably sparked my interest in science sooner! 

Naturally, this is a book about science and women and it is awesome. It was a 5* book before I opened it, if I’m entirely honest. How could it be anything else?

Review: Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

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Rating – 4*

This book struck a very deep chord with me – I have suffered with depression and I acknowledge that it is something that is deep rooted within me and will always be there. This book is the first that has talked about it and made sense to me. I wish I had had this book when I was at my darkest points because it is brutally honest, it feels real and it doesn’t sugar coat it.

Because it hit me so hard, it’s a very difficult book to review. It’s part memoir, part self help and I felt like it was my story, in a way.

Quite simply, I think this book should be read by anyone. If you have suffered from depression and/or anxiety, or know someone who has, this book is a must read. If you know someone who has someone in their life who is suffering from depression/anxiety, it’s a must read. It is the most accurate written description of the feelings that I, and many others, have felt when going through this dark period and I genuinely feel it could help so many people. I don’t think there is anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book.

Matt Haig writes beautifully. I really want to try his fiction out because, even talking about something so difficult and dark, there were so many passages in this book which were beautiful. There was a ray of light in the darkness of his words and I just really clicked with his style of writing.

Now, I gave this 4* on Goodreads. It’s closer to a 4.5 but there are just some things that knock it down from being perfect for me. While lists are easy to engage with, and something I enjoy working with myself, I found a page filled with a list becoming just a tad annoying, I found it was too brief for me and I wanted more (however, I respect that short and sharp is probably easier to relate to). I loved this book, I have already recommended this book to someone. But it just lacked a little something for me to be able to give this 5*, unfortunately!

Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Mary Wollstonecraft

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Rating – 4*

Published in 1792 this book is worryingly still relevant. Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of the also incredible Mary Shelley, was very much before her time. This is considered to be the classic feminist text and I am so, so glad I finally got around to it.

At it’s core this is a criticism of discussion which was happening in the late 18th century (for much before and after, in all honesty) about what a woman’s place was in the world. Wollstonecraf is clear, concise, and passionate about the equality of the sexes in this book. Her main criticism is that sexism, the division between the sexes at least, begins from a very young age. At the point this was written it was still not common practice to send a daughter to school, instead teach her home crafts so she will make a good marriage material so, in the latter part of the book she puts forward the absolutely scandalous notion of both male and female children being schooled together to a certain level.

One of the biggest arguments put forward by her was that women are groomed to appeal to men; they aren’t allowed their freedom of choice, from a young age all they are expected to do is to become a wife, a good marriage is after all good for her and the best she can hope for in life. Women are expected to be mindless creatures who have the sole purpose of satisfying men, catering to their every need and whim. If a woman does not have looks or money she is not worthy. It’s disturbing that a lot of it is still highly relevant today. Popular culture still perpetrates the idea what women need to be ‘beautiful’ above all else, that being well dressed and sexually appealing to men is the biggest success a woman can hope for. It’s just heartbreaking that, ultimately, this is still an issue nearly 225 years later!

I downloaded this from Audible, narrated by the wonderful Fiona Shaw and it was fantastic; I’d highly recommend the audiobook to anyone who maybe finds a physical non-fiction book a bit too heavy going! Fiona has a great tone and it was actually a really soothing read, however passionate she got!

I happily gave this 4* and it is definitely one I’d like to read again!

Review: Fathomless Riches – Richard Coles

Fathomless Riches

So I’ve wanted to read this book for a long while, and I actually ended up picking this one up as an audiobook. I had some audible credits and I was absolutely sold on it after listening to the taster. Richard reads it himself which, I find, adds a lot more depth to an autobiography

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Reverend Richard Coles has an insanely interesting life; from popstar in 80s group The Communards to a CofE priest turned comedian. As I said, I wanted to read this for a good period of time before I actually picked it up because Richard’s appearances on shows like QI and Have I Got News For You have turned him in to one of my favourite TV personalities. This book was not a disappointment, it made me laugh, it was interesting and also gave me a little spiritual lifting.

This book is brutally honest, but still respectful of the others involved, and I admired that. There is an insane amount of drugs, sex and rock and roll, especially in the first half. There’s the rise and fall of The Communards, his life through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, where he lost of many friends. The years that followed where he drifted and then found himself turning to religion, going to university to study theology and his subsequent path to the pulpit.

It does end quite abruptly, just has he has been ordained, but I have been assured that there is a part 2 to come, as to when that will be I don’t know! I look forward to reading, or listening, to it because I’d quite like to hear about his life after being ordained!

Overall I’m going to give this a 4/5. It was great, I loved it, the audiobook was a brilliant decision (I whizzed through it in two sittings) and it affirmed that this man is as great as I thought he was. Highly recommend it!

Review: Spectacles – Sue Perkins

spectaclesI don’t often read an autobiography/memoir, but when I do it’s because I really like the person who has written them. So, somehow this slipped under my radar until the week it was published and naturally I had to get my hands on it. I’m so glad I did!

Reviewing autobiographies is hard because it’s essentially someone’s life you’re commenting on, or at least how they’ve put their lives across to the world. This book was great. It had me laughing and, at one point in particular, I did cry a little. Reading it, it was one of those books that the authors voice was clear as a bell in my head. It could have definitely been longer for me, I don’t think I could tire of her anecdotes or her turn of phrase and some of it did feel a little truncated; I respect that she wanted to keep some of it quiet and personal but still touch on it, but there were parts I was really getting in to and they just seemed to stop. Maybe that’s just me?

Favourite parts were definitely those about Pickle. I’m a Crazy Dog Lady so reading about other people who love their dogs and their experiences is always going to get me a bit emotional. She did recently release the open letter she wrote to Pickles, and I read that with my own dog at my feet and, like any good dog when I needed comforting he grunted and ran away.

I also loved the more backstage stuff about Maestro, some Supersizers and GBBO, obviously. Then there was her friendship with Mel, her family, it was all great. I loved it on the whole. For me though, there was just a tiny something missing – so it’s a 4*. It’s a great read though, it has to be said!

Review: Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

SapiensSapiens is a book that I’ve had sat on my shelf for a while. I bought it alongside a cup of coffee and a slice of cake in my local Waterstones quite some time ago with the intention to read it after all my exams were over and such as it’s a non-fiction book.

When I picked this up I was expecting something very much more based on human evolution. While there is a large part of this book which is dedicated to the evolution of humans, I would say it is very much more an anthropological study of human history. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it definitely surprised me in a good way! Also, I thought this book was much longer than it actually is. It appears to look a good 600 pages long but the actual book is only 466 – it’s just written on gloriously thick paper!

I felt like this book and I were a good match. It contained all of the bits of human evolution that I have studied at university and interest me alongside the anthropological evidence which corroborates it and biologists often overlook! It’s really accessible, as someone who has experience in evolutionary biology it filled in gaps in my education with information which actually makes it easier to understand than a dry lecture is capable of!

I think there is definitely something for everyone in this book, for me it wasn’t only the evolutionary aspect, which I’m very much interested in academically, but there were segments on how gender roles have been established over time and why some of it just makes no sense. Some of it made me angry, some of it was actually hard reading for me – reading how the gender gap evolved but then there were segments on the comparison of biological sex and cultural gender and how biological sex has not changed whereas how society views and treats women has, quite considerably (although, in many areas, still not enough!) changed which sort of offsets the harsh reality.

I find non-fiction very hard to review as it’s a much more personal taste than fiction as you have to have a passion or an interest in the subject of the book before you pick it up and it’s much harder to ‘lose yourself’ in non fiction. For me this was great though and I’d happily recommend it to my friends, peers and anyone interested in human history, evolution or anthropology! There are a lot of things to like about this book and a lot of people I think could enjoy reading it. So don’t be put off by its size because it’s totally worth the read and it’s not that difficult of a read, either. While it’s not complicated, it’s not patronising either. I’m happily giving this 4*!