Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Animalium, Katie Scott & Jenny Broom

Animalium, Jenny Broom & Katie ScottAnimalium by Katie Scott (Illustrator) and Jenny Broom 

First Published: 2014

Pages: 112 (hardback)
Subjects: Non-Fiction, Children’s Non-Fiction, Natural History, Zoology, Reference
Series: Welcome to the Museum

Rating:3.5/53.5/53.5/53.5/53.5/5

Welcome to Animalium.

This museum is open all hours.

It houses an astonishing collection of more than 160 animals for visitors of all ages.

Learn how animals have evolved, see inside the dissection laboratory and discover the great variety of habitats on Earth.

Enter here to explore the animal kingdom in all its glory.

A christmas present from my best friend on my Museum Studies course (where I did my specialist module on curating Natural History collections), this oversized coffee-table book purporting to be a ‘museum…between two covers’ is utterly gorgeous to look at. It is beautifully illustrated and beautifully laid out and my friend is very lucky I didn’t spot it first otherwise I would have almost certainly brought it for myself. It was only on researching it a bit more to write the review that I saw that it is aimed at the 8-12 age group, the wonderful illustrations and simple straightforward but unpatronising prose that accompanies them are, however, an appropriate introduction or overview of animal taxonomy for someone of any age. But the target market does go a long way to explaining a few of the things I was disappointed in – mainly wanting more explanation for the interesting facts dropped about certain animals.

Tree of Life (bigpicturepress.net)

Tree of Life (bigpicturepress.net)

Laid out in ‘galleries’ rather than chapters, the museum metaphor is rather heavily laboured. It mimics the tradition Natural History Museum layout though by dividing the contents by taxonomic classification (mammals, birds, fish, et.) rather than continents or countries – which is how I remember most of my childhood wildlife reference books were laid out. What comes out of this, is a book that is more scientific in focus, explicitly about how and why certain creatures are grouped together by similar traits rather than just a more general ‘isn’t wildlife cool’ message. It also means that creatures like Porifera (sea sponges) are given as much attention and explanation as Birds of Prey. While it’s not a complete encyclopedia of  animal life (with only 160+ featured animals it was never going to be) it provides a good overview of the larger animal groupings, alongside some interesting chosen examples from each major family on the tree of life. Continue reading

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Goddesses, Whores, Wives, & Slaves, Sarah B. Pomeroy

Goddeses, Whores, Wives, & Slaves, Sarah B. PomeroyGoddesses, Whores, Wives, & Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah B. Pomeroy

First Published: 1975
Pages: 
265 including notes & index (paperback)
Form: Non-Fiction, History, Ancient History, Women’s History

Rating: 4/54/54/54/54/5

What did women do in ancient Greece and Rome? Did Socrates’ wife Xanithippe ever hear his dialogues on beauty and truth? How many women actually read the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides? When pagan goddesses were as powerful as the gods, why was the status symbol of women generally so low? Why, in traditional histories, is half the population effectively invisible?

This unique and important book spans a period of 1500 years – from the fall of Troy to the death of Constantine. It examines all the available evidence – literary and archaeological – and reconstructs the lives of women from all classes of society.

My last couple of forays into non-fiction historical writing have been kind of disappointing, three-star affairs. This book, however – whether it’s the more academic tone or simply the subject matter – I really enjoyed. First published in the 70’s it probably contains some disputed or out-of-date ideas and evidence by now, but it was one of (if not ‘the’) first academic texts to thoroughly examine women’s roles in Ancient Greece and Rome. So, as a woman who is interested in Ancient Greek and Rome, and who gets irritated with 50% of the worlds population being treated as unimportant – and sometimes completely forgotten –  by history textbooks*, I had to read. Continue reading

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Pirates of Barbary, Adrian Tinniswood

Pirates of Barbary, Adrian TinniswoodPirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood

First Published: 2010
Pages:
352 including notes & index (paperback)
Form: Non-Fiction, History

Rating: 3/5 = I liked it3/5 = I liked it3/5 = I liked it3/5 = I liked it3/5 = I liked it

From the coast of Southern Europe to Morocco and the Ottoman states of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, Christian and Muslim seafarers met in bustling ports to swap religions, to battle and to trade goods and slaves – raiding as far as Ireland and Iceland in search of their human currency. Studying the origins of these men, their culture and practices, Adrian Tinniswood expertly recreates the twilight world of the corsairs and uncovers a truly remarkable clash of civilisations.

Drawing on a wealth of material. from furious royal proclamations to the private letters of pirates and their victims, as well as recent Islamic accounts, Pirates of Barabary provides a new perspective on the corsairs and a fascinating insight into what it meant to sacrifice all you have for a life so violent. so uncertain and so alien that it sets you apart from the rest of mankind.

The US and other editions of this book are subtitled ‘Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th-Century Mediterranean’ and that probably gives a more accurate impression of the contents because, for a book titled ‘Pirates of Barbary‘, I really didn’t think there was much of a focus on the actual pirates.

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Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith Schalansky

Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith SchalanskyAtlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will by Judith Schalansky
Translated by Christine Lo

First Published: 2009
Translation Published:
2010
Pages:
143 (Hardback)
Form: Non-Fiction, Geography, Maps

Rating:

Winner of the German Arts Foundation prize for the most beautiful book of the year.

Born on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, the only way Judith Schalansky ould travel as a child was through the pages of an atlas. Now she has created her own, which takes us across the oceans of the world to fifty remote islands – from Iwo Jima to Tristan da Cunha and from Easter Island to Disappointment Island. On one page are her perfect maps, on the other unfold cryptic stories from the islands. Rare animals and strange people abound: marooned slaves and lonely scientists, lost explorers and confused lighthouse keepers, mutinous sailors and forgotten castaways. Armchair explorers who undertake these journeys will find themselves in places that exist in reality, but only come to life in the imagination.

So first thing’s first: this is a beautiful, wonderful book and the three stars up there reflect my experience reading it much more than they do the quality of the book itself. It’s a gorgeous, quirky, little book. Fifty islands from around the world: on one page a detailed map, on the opposite page a few basic facts and a little vignette about an event in the island’s history. I loved, loved, loved the idea when I first picked it up and flicked through it in the bookshop, and there’s nothing wrong with the execution either – it’s precisely what I expected. But three stars simply because I realised that I didn’t love the idea as much as I thought I had. Continue reading

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The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar HendersonThe Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary by Caspar Henderson
Illustrated by Golbanou Moghaddas

First Published: 2012
Pages:
427 (Hardback)
Form: Non-Fiction, Science, Natural History, Zoology, Bestiary

Rating:

From the Axolotl to the Zebrafish, our planet contains a host of barely imagined beings: real creatures that are often more astonishing than anything dreamt in the pages of a medieval bestiary. Ranging from the depths of the ocean to the most arid corners of the land, Caspar Henderson captures the beauty and bizarreness of the many living forms we thought we knew and some we could never have contemplated, inviting us to better imagine the precarious world we inhabit.

A witty, vivid blend of cutting edge natural history and meditative reflection, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is infectiously celebratory about the sheer ingenuity and variety of life.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is subtitled ‘A 21st Century Bestiary’ and that’s what it is; not a natural history book, not an encyclopedia of animals, a bestiary – an odd fusion of science and navel-gazing. While in a medieval bestiary real and mythological animals were used as symbols for human virtues or vices, in this book real animals are used as starting points to examine wider issues about how human’s relate to both the world and each other. So the Axolotl entry looks at the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Gonodactylus examines the scientific evolution of the eye, and so on. It’s a unique and very interesting approach, but one that doesn’t quite hit the mark in every entry. In the spirit of mimicking of medieval bestiaries the book has also been gorgeously designed; there’s gilding on the cover, a full-page illustration and illuminated capital letter for each animal that incorporates the major themes of the entry, and (best of all) marginalia. It is, quite simply, a beautiful book. And not only beautiful on the outside but unique on the inside. Continue reading

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Kraken, Wendy Williams

Kraken, Wendy Williams Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, And Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams

Publisher: Abrams Image
Pages:
223 (Hardback)
Form: Non-Fiction, Science, Natural History, Marine Biology

Rating: 4/54/54/54/54/5

The word kraken conjures up visions of gigantic, tentacled, and deadly sea monsters, but it’s an image born more of legend than reality. The oceans, however, do remain one of the last sources of profound mystery on earth, and they have been slow to give up the secrets of the creatures that sailors have mythologized and demonized for thousands of years.

In Kraken, author Wendy Williams reveals the truths behind the squid, one of the most charismatic, enigmatic, and curious inhabitants of the sea, unfurling a wild narrative ride through the world of squid science and adventure. In addition to squid, both giant and otherwise, Kraken examines other equally enthralling cephalopods, including the octopus and cuttlefish.

Along the way, Williams examines

  • the riddle of just what constitutes intelligence via the octopus, an animal whose brain is wrapped around its throat;
  • the use of kaleidoscopic skin cells that allow cephalopods to instantly assume a range of colours, from neutrals to neon, for camouflage and communication;
  • the ways that squid have greatly helped scientists understand the inner workings of the human brain despite their seemingly alien biology;
  • the squid’s ability to survive the five major mass extinctions over the past half billion years.

Accessible and entertaining, Kraken is the first substantial volume on the subject of squid in more than a decade, offering up the stories of the scientists who pursue these extraordinary creatures as well as the latest research and information about these fascinating and mysterious animals.

Kraken is one of those beautiful natural history hardbacks that I normally gaze longingly at for several minutes in the bookshop before reminding myself that a) it’s probably far too expensive for me b) I don’t read non-fiction that often and have a whole bookshelf of it already that I haven’t managed to read yet, and c) I’m not as much of a sciencey person as I would like to be and probably won’t understand it anyway. However, this winter I managed to get myself a temporary Christmas job in Waterstone’s entitling me to 40% (40%!) discount for the month of December. So naturally I not only bought absolutely all of my Christmas presents there, I treated myself to some as well by ignoring all the paperback fiction I normally pick up and going straight for the stuff I always talk myself out of buying. Continue reading

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A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor

A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregorA History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

Publisher: Penguin
Pages:
614 plus introduction (Paperback)
Form: Non-Fiction, History

Rating: 5/55/55/55/55/5

A golden galleon, a stone-age tool, a credit card … every object tells a story.

This acclaimed history tells the story of the world, and our place in it, in an entirely new way, through 100 things we have either admired and preserved, or used, broken and thrown away. It will take you on a journey back in time and across the globe, to see how we humans have shaped our world, and been shaped by it, over the past two million years.

A History of the World in 100 objects started life as a radio programme by the BBC (podcasts still available to download for free here) in which the director of the British Museum used 100 very varied objects from the museum’s collections to emphasise key points and ideas throughout human history. Although I didn’t listen to it at the time (I have now dowloaded the podcasts), as a history student with an interest in archaeology and museum’s I was aware of it, so a few years later when I saw this beautiful blue copy of the book sitting on the ‘buy one get one half-price’ table in Waterstone’s it was impossible to resist. I had intended, like several people I know through my museum volunteering, to read one entry a day, but instantly found myself enjoying it so much that I was devouring whole blocks of the book at a time and having to force myself to stop and save some for later.

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