Category: Review (page 2 of 49)

Review: Hello World by Hannah Fry

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

We rely on the computers and the internet for almost everything these days, it is the backbone of our infrastructure, our first point of social contact for friends and associates all around the world, supplies our film and music choices and is a substantial part of the economy now. As the digital world permeates our life further computers are being used as part of, or in some cases the entire part of the decision process. For all those of you who laughed at the ‘Computer Says No’ sketch in Little Britain, life might not always be so funny now. The question that Fry poses in her book is: Who would you rather decide your future – an algorithm or a human?

In answering this simple question Fry takes us on a tour of the history of the algorithm, where and how they are being used and the possible implications of our dependency on them. We learn of the first algorithms that reached the point where they could beat a grandmaster at chess and how leaving human-like pauses disconcerted him. How sat nav can be a blessing and a curse, how facial recognition can spot the suspect in a crowd and how human error can ensure a decade of misery for an individual passing through passport control.

Every click you make online is saved an analysed by the government and private corporations. The authorities are seeking the ghosts in the machine and to a company, you’re just a product that someone can make money out of. Your future might be decided by a pigeon too as Fry explains in the chapter on health and how pattern recognition is being used to evaluate biopsy’s for cancers and if you have been really bad, you may not stand in front of a judge, but be sentenced by a computer that would not care one bit about extenuating circumstances; frightening stuff. Algorithms have been used successfully to narrow down the search parameters for those who have committed the most serious crimes and are being used to predict where crimes might take place, the first steps towards Minority Report… Even a subject like art is succumbing to the computer code, what you watch or listen to, prompts suggestions of what else to watch or hear.

To say this book was eye-opening would be an understatement. Fry does not go too heavy on the computer and technology in here, rather she relies on the stories that show how we are all affected by algorithms and the way that they are shaping our lives. This thought-provoking writing has a clarity about it that will make this accessible to almost anyone who picks it up. We do need to use algorithms to our advantage; I worry that we’re not at the moment and that we may reach a point where we won’t be able to control them.

Review: The Unexpected Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke

3.5 out of 5 stars

Everything that you thought that knew about cute penguins, adorable pandas and the utterly chilled out sloths, was probably wrong. When you see photos or videos of animals doing human type things we tend to put human personalities and our morals on animals and it really doesn’t work. They have their own tales to tell us and in a lot of cases the truth is much much stranger than the fiction.

Cooke is the founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society and they make an appearance in here as she dispels the myths about them being lazy and explains the crucial part they play in the ecosystems in the forests that they live in. We will learn why vultures crap on their own legs, which animals partake in prostitution and necrophilia. How pandas are not as sex adverse as we think that they are and what happens when they stop being cute. Lots of animals were considered to appear from out of the mud at the bottom of ponds, including frogs and eels and swallows were though to stay at the bottom of ponds over winter and appear each spring. Migration was only properly discovered when a stork turned up with a spear from an African warrior in its neck. If you want to know why an African Hippo is making itself at home in Columbia and what they are actually closely related to and also to find out if moose are actually drunken reprobates then this is a good place to start.

I am not sure that science books are meant to make to laugh out loud and chuckle away to yourself, but this did. Cooke dispels lots of myths and uncovers secrets about her selected animals so of which have been suppressed for almost 100 years. It is an enjoyable popular science book that still has its foundations in serious research in seeking to understand just what makes animals do what they do.

Review: Exactly by Simon Winchester

5 out of 5 stars

Engineers are probably some of the least appreciated people in the UK and yet if you think about it everything is dependent on them. If there were no engineers you would not have items like your phone, your car, bicycles, kitchen gadgets, computers, electricity and even the very infrastructure that means that you can live life in the modern way. Things are much better built now too, compared to even twenty years ago, that extra precision we have got makes for better quality products. But, what is the difference is between accuracy and precision? And how is that making a difference in our modern world.

Beginning with the machines that started the industrial revolution off, steam engines and the rapid improvements that were made in the tolerance and efficiency of them, to the world’s first unpickable lock, and the precision engineering from horologists that made clocks and timepieces more accurate, and people much later than ever before. All of these incremental advances made the things that people were buying a better each time and coupled with new inventions by the likes of  John `Iron-Mad’ Wilkinson and Joseph Whitworth made making things so much easier and made repeatable manufacture possible.

His stories of the way that engineers have made the modern world moves from the open road, where we learn how the Ford Model T was more precisely made than a Rolls-Royce. Each Rolls-Royce was handcrafted and when the men assembling it came across the odd part that didn’t fit they would file and adjust to ensure that it did. Ford did not have the luxury of time to make things fit, each part had to fit, first time, every time. Cars are easy though, compared to aeroplanes, just to get several hundred tonnes of plane, passengers and luggage and off the ground requires another level of engineering expertise. Form the earliest planes that were held together with rivets, modern aircraft are glued together and the jet engines that can lift the great weights into the sky are some of the most powerful machines ever made. The finest engineers have developed turbine blades that can operate in an environment that is actually hotter than the melting temperature of the single crystal titanium alloy that they are made from. Each blade produces more power that an F1 car and they are spinning at around 10,000 rpm. They are reliable too, only very rarely does one of these engines fail, and he describes a flight that had to undertake an emergency landing when one component that was a fraction of a millimetre out self-destructed.

Silicone is immensely important to the modern world. Not only has it been used to fill the gaps in the wall so we can see through them, but its use in lenses have opened up miniature worlds and the wonders of the solar system to us. You are probably carrying around a lot of silicone too; its use in electronics has revolutionised the modern world and the machines that are used to make these ubiquitous microchips that are found in almost everything from coffee machines to watches that can tell you exactly where you are on the planet. These work from the GPS system, a technology that relies on the accurate time as measured using caesium clocks. It is time too that defines our most common measurements like the metre and the kilogramme and rendering the finely made platinum standard items a relic of the museum.

I may have a slight bias in reading and reviewing this as I am an engineer who is qualified in both electronics and mechanical engineering and I have designed things as varied as defence equipment to lighting to speaker cables. I thought that this was a really well-written book about the engineers that have made modern society what it is nowadays. It is well researched and full of interesting and anecdotal tales such as how we can now measure light years to within the width of a human hair that add so much to the story of precision over the years.  I liked the way at the beginning of each chapter the tolerance increases for each change in technology and the precision required to achieve the next level up. Excellent book and can highly recommend.

Review: Liquid by Mark Miodownik

4.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The amount of stuff we consume these days is staggering, but there are some things that we use day in day out that barely get our attention, the water that comes out of the tap that goes into the kettle to make your coffee. The liquid soap that you use to wash your hands, the ink that stays in the pen until you scribble on a notepad, the glass of something cold that helps you relax at the end of a busy week. All of these are liquids and they all lubricate our lives in one way or another.

But, if someone was to place three glasses full of clear liquids in front of you, which could you drink that is essential to life, which would power an aircraft and which would kill you if you knocked it over?

Mark Miodownik is best placed to explain all of these things being a materials engineer and Professor of Materials and Society at UCL and in this highly entertaining journey from London to San Francisco on a plane he describes and enlightens us about all the liquids that we use in the modern world. Beginning as he passes through security, and why we can’t take more than 100ml of fluids on board now, on to the pre-dinner drinks, the oceans that he is flying over and what liquids hold the plane he is on together.

The film he watches after diner allows him to explain liquid crystals and the way that most modern TV’s work before he nods off and wakes up dribbling on the passenger alongside him. From a discussion on body fluids, he moves swiftly onto the delights of coffee and tea and why they don’t taste quite the same over the Atlantic. A wash and brush up and then onto the history of inks, musings about clouds and liquids that sometimes think that they are solids, liquids that can flow uphill and new modern technologies like self-healing roads.

I thought that was a great companion volume to Stuff Matters and another very well written book by Miodownik. He has used a fair amount of artistic license to ensure that the narrative flows and to give him plenty of subjects to discuss as he travels from the UK to the United States. I do like the way that he talks about science in an engaging manner and the whole book is stuffed full of facts and interesting anecdotes, but there is only so much you can do from the viewpoint of an airline seat and he does veer a little off course occasionally. Well worth reading.

Review: The Lord of Slaughter by M.D. Lachlan

4 out of 5 stars

The citizens of Constantinople seem to have reached the end of days. Mysterious things are happening, the sky is darkened, wolves are gathering outside the city and howling. People are terrified so the ruler of the city calls for a Christian scholar to find the evil that is causing this and eradicate it. He arrives with his expectant wife, fleeing from her angry father.

The dark events keep building; the cult of the wolf grows more each day, a boy with a snake-like pupil in his eye has a growing influence over those in power, the Norsemen camped beyond the city walls talk of the legends that tell of a wolf who will kill the gods, and the spirits of the dead are stirring. All these dark elements lead to a cell deep below the city, where a man sits in chains, a man who believes that he is a wolf.

Ragnarok is coming; even for those that don’t believe.

This is the third in the series following on from Wolfsangel and Fenrir and like those, it is filled with lots of pagan and Norse references as well as being set in a historical context. On top of that, Lachlan has layered his own werewolf story that is dark, violent and bloody. Mostly is a very readable fantasy, that has compelling story threads that draw the main characters together for the finale. Occasionally there are scenes that get a little confusing, the one I am thinking of did take place in the dark caves under the Numera, but it added greatly to the drama.

Review: The Devil’s Highway by Greg Norminton

4 out of 5 stars

Andagin is hunting across a heathland in the south of Roman Britain two thousand years ago, but he is about to discover something that threatens him and his communities safety and means that he will have to betray a family member.

Two millennia later, two troubled men have a differing opinion over the same landscape that Andagin and the Roman occupiers once walked. Aitch, haunted by the effects of war wants to use it as he sees fit and Robbie’s father struggling to cope with the fallout from a divorce is passionate about protecting it.

In a future world, a broken world where heathland has become desert. A gang of feral children flee slavery and conflict in a time of war, hiding from those pursuing them, heading to a part of the country where rain is believed to still fall from the sky.

These three stories all have a common trace, The Devil’s Highway. A Roman road constructed across Bagshot Heath, to Sunningdale and to Silchester and beyond. The historical, contemporary and dystopian stories are layered and intrinsically linked by this terrain and the road that traverses it. It is a story that shows how humans over the course of 3000 years irreparably alter a landscape and a planet. We go from a tribe who are in tune with the natural world who have been taken over by invaders who couldn’t care less, to a modern world where almost no one cares, to a bleak place where the planet has stopped caring back. I really liked the Roman and modern-day tales, though I must admit I struggled with the language with the mob of children set in the future though. The way that the stories were draped over the same landscape was really well done too, elements in one would be visible all the way through. I grew up in the vicinity of this area, so places in the book were very real to me. This book made me think a lot a couple of days after reading it and while I thought that mixing the stories up a chapter at a time was good, but I think for me it would have worked better having them as three separate novellas within the same book.

Review: Cornerstones Edited by Mark Smalley

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Standing looking over the rolling fields of part of the UK and it won’t be immediately obvious what bedrock the soils are sitting on. But the clues are there if you know where to look. Soil colour is one clue, but if you ignore the brick that most modern homes are built with now and find the older houses in your local area and you will find the stone that has been hauled out of the ground to build them. These buildings fit really well in the landscape, for example, the warm coloured  Cotswold houses, the cool greys of Portland limestone and the darker grey granites of Aberdeen show the bedrock off in all its glory.

This collection of essays from a wide variety of writers, poets and artists has been adapted from the BBC Radio Three series, Cornerstones. In here you will find Sue Clifford, one of Common Grounds founders, talking about limestone, Fiona Hamilton contemplating the brick, Paul Evans standing in a wood holding a horsetail that made up the coal beneath his feet 300 million years ago. Tim Dee writes about his own personal rock, a rock that nearly killed him and Linda Cracknell is entranced by the sparkle of quartz as people have been for millennia. Peter Randall-Page talks art and Dartmoor granite and Neil Ansell begins in Balcombe in West Sussex where they are starting to frack, before heading to Kimmeridge to see the same oil shales and see the unexpected sight of a metronomic nodding donkey.

The pebble opens the cosmos. And yet, lost in the immensity of understanding, should I not fear this thing

This is just a taste of these captivating essays in here from a great selection of authors and this is another cracker of a compilation from Little Toller, following on from Arboreal a couple of years ago. Even though it is all about rock, the contrasting subjects tackled from a wide variety of views ensure that there is always something to interest you in every essay. Before you venture out in your local area next time, find out what the bedrock is (check here) have a look around at the soils and see how your landscape is shaped. Highly recommended.

The Radio Three essays that inspired this book are still available to listen to here.

Blog Tour: Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton

Welcome to my blog for the next stop on the Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton blog tour


Know your enemy – or be defeated

AD 2204
An alien shipwreck is discovered on a planet at the very limits of human expansion – so Security Director Feriton Kayne selects a team to investigate. The ship’s sinister cargo not only raises bewildering questions, but could also foreshadow humanity’s extinction. It will be up to the team to bring back answers, and the consequences of this voyage will change everything.

Back on Earth, we can now make deserts bloom and extend lifespans indefinitely, so humanity seems invulnerable. We therefore welcomed the Olyix to Earth when they contacted us. They needed fuel for their pilgrimage across the galaxy – and in exchange they helped us advance our technology. But were the Olyix a blessing or a curse?

Many light years from Earth, Dellian and his clan of genetically engineered soldiers are raised with one goal. They must confront and destroy their ancient adversary. The enemy caused mankind to flee across the galaxy and they hunt us still. If they aren’t stopped, we will be wiped out – and we’re running out of time.


About the Author

Peter F. Hamilton was born in Rutland in 1960. He began writing in 1987, and sold his first short story to Fear magazine in 1988. He has written many bestselling novels, including the Greg Mandel series, the Night’s Dawn trilogy, the Commonwealth Saga, the Void trilogy, short-story collections and several standalone novels including Fallen Dragon and Great North Road.



My Review

4.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Callum Hepburn has just married Savi Chaudhri after a whirlwind relationship. They both work for Connexion, he as a team leader for the emergency detoxification squad and she is in the security division. After their all too brief honeymoon they both head back to work, Callum, to dig a government from the mire with an urgent material extraction and Savi heads back undercover. A week later and he hasn’t heard a thing from her, so pings her and does not get a response. Worrying about her he heads off to see her boss, Yuri Alster to see if he knows anything. The thing is, no one does; she has vanished off the face of the planet. It looks like it might be down to him to find her and in his search, he will discover more than he really wants to know about the company he works for.

Connexion Corp, the organisation that they both work for, can really be considered a government in their own right. Their quantum entangled portals is a technology that allows people to live in one part of the world and work in another and literally be there in no time at all. This technology along with most other things on Earth are powered by solarwells, that have been dropped into the sun and have allowed humanity to have unlimited power.

In 2204 and an alien ship has been discovered 90 light years from Earth. That there are aliens is not the surprise, another race, the Olyix have been known to humanity for a while now. What is shocking is the cargo that they are carrying; human beings held in suspended animation. No one knows how they got there. No one knows who took them there. Feriton Kayne, Connexion’s deputy director of security is asked to pick a team to investigate. Two of the people that he picks for this team are Yuri Alster and Callum Hepburn, who have a healthy disregard for each other after their earlier clash over Savi. What they are walking into will change everything.

Entwined in this narrative is the story of Dellian and his friends set thousands of years in the future. They have been born as soldiers and are being trained to combat an enemy who is prepared to stop at absolutely nothing to wipe humanity from the universe…

To say this is fast-paced would be a little bit of an understatement, certain scenes rocket by, in particular, the ones with the Connexion security team. The technology that Hamilton uses in the books, all sounds plausible, the web that they all use is pervasive and all-seeing, however, most people feel free and liberated in the modern society. I loved the portals and the way that they worked with people passing all over the world in the blink of an eye. The scenes with Dellian and his team, set way in the future felt like they were inspired by Enders Game. There are a plethora of characters in here, and it occasionally I had to think who was who, thankfully there is a guide and a timeline included. The only bit that I didn’t like was the way it jumped backwards and forwards between the different times and there were several ambiguities that weren’t cleared up by the ending. That is fine as there are more books to follow and threads opened here leads onto other things, but this was a brilliant start to a new series. Now have a long while to wait for the next!

This book has been published by Pan Macmillian and is available from your local independent bookshop 

Do go and have a look at the other sites hosting the blog tour:

Review: Looking for the Goshawk by Conor Mark Jameson

4 out of 5 stars

Whether it is a kestrel hovering over a verge or a Red Kite hanging in the thermals, a glimpse of a raptor is always a special moment. My closest encounter with a wild raptor was walking through my hometown of Wimborne one Sunday afternoon and seeing a Sparrow Hawk feasting on an unlucky pigeon a few metres in front of me. Managed to get very close just before it flew off. Thankfully raptors have a lot more protection nowadays but they are still subject to persecution in certain parts of the country.

However, there are some of these magnificent creatures that are very elusive; the goshawk is one of those and Conor Mark Jameson has made it his mission to try and find these beautiful birds wherever he can. His travels will take him from a stuffed one in a museum to the city of Berlin where Goshawks are thriving and back and forwards across the country in search of these birds and eventually to America where he seeks out the birds there and discusses the Native American beliefs about these and other raptors. Friends and other bird watchers keep him up to date with local sightings, though most seem to be sparrow hawks when the evidence is evaluated.

His obsession has been inspired by reading the classic book by TH White, The Goshawk. He wants to know more about the man who wrote the book and with a little bit of research, he finds the cottage where he used to live and some relatives who he eventually gets to meet. He considers the politics of birdwatching and wonders about how falconry and the persecution of them have affected their chances. The thing to remember though is even if

I really enjoyed this book, and particularly liked the way he has written it as a diary. His enthusiasm is infectious as he seeks these birds out. They take a lot of finding too, they are not naturally gregarious, preferring to live in copses and woodlands and rarely make themselves visible, so they may be there and you are not going to see them. Now I really want to read TH White’s book on the Goshawk.

Blog Tour: Ladders to Heaven

Welcome to my blog for the next stop on the Ladders to Heaven: The Secret History of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan blog tour

Fig trees have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways: they are wish fulfillers, rainforest royalty, more precious than gold. In Ladders to Heaven tells their incredible story, beautifully peppered with original hand-drawn illustrations

They fed our pre-human ancestors, influenced diverse cultures and played a key role in the birth of civilisation. More recently, they helped restore life after Krakatoa’s catastrophic eruption and proved instrumental in Kenya’s struggle for independence.

Figs now sustain more species of bird and mammal than any other fruit – in a time of falling trees and rising temperatures, they offer hope. Theirs is a story about humanity’s relationship with nature, as relevant to our past as it is to our future.



About the Author

Mike Shanahan is a freelance writer and illustrator with a doctorate in rainforest ecology. He has lived in a national park in Borneo, bred endangered penguins, investigated illegal bear farms and produced award-winning journalism. His writing includes work published by The Economist, Nature, New Scientist, BBC Earth, Scientific American and Newsweek.



My Review

It is thought that the fig was one of the earliest fruits that were eaten by mankind, but they had probably borrowed the idea from watching monkeys and primates race to the trees to get the best fruits each day. This reliance on the sweet fruits seeped into the culture and religion of humans 5000 years ago, hence why the three Abrahamic faiths consider them important fruits, and the Buddha gained enlightenment whilst meditating in the cage of a Strangler Fig.

Ficus religiosais one of 750 different varieties of this plant. They vary from the shiny leafed and normally unloved houseplant to the huge figs whose roots grow down to the ground after they have rooted in the high branches of other trees. Some encase them and kill off their host, others survive in a mutual balance but they are an essential forest plant, supporting up to 1200 other species that reply of then fruits for food.

One thing that they all have in common though is the way that they flower and fruit. The flowers are not visible, contained within the peduncle and have to be pollinated by a tiny wasp around 2mm in length. Each fig has its own specific wasp that crawls in and out of the fruit and if they are not around they there is no pollination. Except the Ancient Egyptians discovered a way of tricking the tree into thinking it had been pollinated.

Until now I had never really given two figs about the fig. Their history, their importance as a food, and the significance that they have had in all sorts of historical events and the way that we intertwine ourselves with figs and the tiny wasps that pollinate them is the untold story of our age. I really enjoyed this fascinating book by Shanahan as it is written from his direct experiences as a biologist seeking out these important trees. If there was tiny flaw though, I felt it was too short, it felt like there were chunks missing from the European history and culture and maybe a little more on the benefits of them as a food stuff. It was a shame because what Shanahan has written in here was really good. One last tip, if you are not sure about them, having suffered fig rolls perhaps, bake them for around 20 minutes and serve with a little mascarpone.

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Thank you to Anne Cater of Random Things Through my Letterbox for organising this.

This book has been published by Unbound and is available from your local independent bookshop 

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