Cat for scale
Last year I wrote a rundown of the books I had read, which ended up spurring me on to giving a continual update to what I have called #2016inBooks.
I started off without any concrete goal in mind because I honestly wasn’t sure how much I would be able to read. But after I started churning out a few books, and got a better idea of my reading capacity, I started narrowing in on a goal of 40 books for this year. A goal which I am happy to say I achieved (just).
But first of all, life is about learning, so what did I learn from this exercise?
I learnt that I buy far too many books.
This year I think I bought around 60 books; I don’t know exactly as it was difficult to track, what with all the eBooks and so forth swirling around my cloud. But surely the fact that I don’t even know what I have bought this year is a sign that I have a problem.
Hello everyone my name is Mathew, and I am a book-o-holic.
And while I would like to defend this glut of books by pointing out that there is a $6 bookshop near my work, or that a lot of them are Kindle books that Amazon keep sending me ruthless sale emails describing; the fact of the matter is that even at an average of $10 a book this is $600 a year that I am spending, and only getting $400 worth of value from.
Sure, I will get around to reading them all someday (at least that is what I tell myself). But unless I can get my annual number of books read higher than my annual number of books purchased, this magical day of book-readiness will only arrive once I am broke, or in a nursing home.
So this has led me to one of my goals for 2017. It is going to be hard, it is going to require discipline, and sacrifice. But next year my goal is to read more books than I buy.
Who doesnt love graphs?
Now, before I get into the nitty gritty, here are some quick stats of my 2016 reads:
Last year was pretty much 50/50 for digital versus physical books, this year I have slightly more additional tomes on my shelf than I do ones and zeros in my Kindle. Given the lack of space on my bookshelf, this might be something I have to attune in 2017.
I try and keep a good split between fiction and non-fiction each year, and did pretty well this year. I find that non-fiction books take a lot out of me, but also give a lot more of a permanent benefit as well. Fiction books are also great, and I love churning through a story to help unwind; but for me, I see a large part of my reading goals being advancing my knowledge and understanding of the world (and the people in it), rather than purely recreational.
I was pretty happy with this trend overall. Sure I had some fizzle months, but they usually coincided with busy time, be it renovations or busy holidays. All in all averaging around three and a half books a month seems a good effort. Let’s see if I can keep it up in 2017!
Now, onto the books themselves.
When I mentioned to people my goal of book reading for this year (and mention it to people I invariably did), I often got asked what books I would recommend. So I figured here I would pick my top five books, the books that I think people would most get a kick out of. Then after the fold, I have written a bunch of ten-word synopses of the rest of the books for those who don’t want to read much more, and followed that by my somewhat more detailed thoughts on each book.
My top five:
These top five are the books I recommend most from this years reading. Paradoxically they might not all be what I consider the best books, but they are the ones that left the biggest mark on my year of reading.
The Genius of Birds
Every now and then you read a book that challenges a perception you have, and allows you to see something in a new, and one would hope more accurate, light. This year this was that book.
There is a common misconception about bird intelligence. Think for instance of the term ‘bird-brained’ and you aren’t likely to imagine that this points to someone’s markedly higher intelligence. And yet after reading this book, I can’t help but wish that it did.
Early natural philosophers looked at birds as nature’s ultimate economisers. In their pursuit of the ability to fly birds had hollowed their bones, shortened their arms, developed light-weight beaks, and these early thinkers even assumed that this trend extended to their brains, which were said to have been miniaturised in order to shed dead weight. That’s right early scientists actually thought that birds had sacrificed the size of their brains with a view to becoming lighter in order to fly.
We now know that this isn’t the case. Indeed bird brains appear to be highly efficient, and many even share similar structures to that found in human brains, and believed vital for higher thought functioning.
I think one reason why this book was so transformative for my everyday thinking is due to the pervasiveness of birds in our modern life. You can go days without seeing any wild marsupials going about their quotidian routines. If people cross paths with a reptile on any regular day, it is usually regarded as a thing of note (particularly if it slithers). But think of how often you spot a bird on an average day. Usually it’s a magpie foraging in the urban landscape, perhaps a crow on a rooftop, some pigeons begging in the street, or resourceful little sparrows fluttering about your daily walk. Indeed I would challenge you to spend a day in an urban environment and not see a bird.
Birds are a visible, and vital, part of our urban menagerie.
So while I was reading this book I had constant material around me to keep me thinking. I would watch as sparrows navigated their way into the restaurants I was eating at. I would see crows peering down pipes looking for hidden morsels. I would imagine the thoughts of a magpie as it stared back at me with an intensity that surely must denote consciousness.
I swear to you, read this book, and you will have a new appreciation for our avian friends. You will marvel at the stories of birds learning the alarm call of different species, so they can cause them to flee a non-existent attacker, leaving their food free for pillaging. You will be amazed to learn that pigeons have been trained to be able to differentiate between different art styles, whether it be post-modern, or cubism. Learning about how Japanese crows utilise passing cars and pedestrian crossings to crack nuts will blow your mind, as will the fact that at least one bird (the excellent grey parrot Alex) has even asked an existential question (“What colour am I?”).
What’s more, it will give you a greater understanding and appreciation of what exactly it is we mean when we talk about intelligence, particularly in the face of growing evidence that things like consciousness are not binary states, but rather a continuum that wind find ourselves arrayed along. And the whole point of this book is to show that as far as the continuum goes, birds are not that far apart from us.
The Vital Question
This book was another essential read, thought also a definite struggle if you aren’t a scientist (which I am not). So you might wonder why it is in my top five if it is questionably accessible for the average person. Well, the reason it is included here is because if what much of this book theorises ends up being proven accurate sometime in the future, then this is the kind of book that will help people understand a truly momentous groundwork in the nature of the universe.
Reading this book gave me a lot better understanding of not only what life is, but how life could have potentially originated.
That life can come from non-life is something that I think a lot of people take for granted. After all, we have enough evidence to show that it happened, and it is easy to picture in your head the idea of a primordial soup that is often bandied around as the crucible that life emerged from. But beyond this basic understanding, I had never put much thought into it. Science will get there one day, I figured, and so left it at that.
But what I failed to take into account is that science is currently on its way ‘there’, so I don’t need to wait until the end of the journey to start looking at the scenery along the way.
I had a similar awakening when I read my first Richard Dawkins evolution book and realised that even though I understood evolution in principal, I never really actually understood the mechanisms of it in any great detail. So where his works opened my eyes to the way evolution actually operates in the real world, Nick Lanes The Vital Question has done a similar thing in showing me the way life functions as it does, and some genuine pathways for this to emerge from a set of common physical conditions.
The book not only offers a plausible explanation for how the first forms of life could have appeared on our planet (hint: deep sea hydrothermal vents seem promising), but it also provides in-depth and detailed arguments as to why life would take the form it does today. Why would there be cells, why would these cells end up creating multicellular life, why are there two sexes, and why do we have mitochondria? These are all questions that this book seeks to answer, and it provides compelling (if not difficult to understand) reasons for why life, as we know it here on earth, might not be too different from life elsewhere in the universe.
If you are in any way interested in this kind of thing, in the origin of life, or the possibility of life on other planets, I highly recommend giving this book a read. Yes much of it will go over your head, and yes you might not be able to fully digest that which hits you around brain height. But you will gain a better understanding and appreciation of the nature of the problem and the possible ways that science will be able to address this beguiling mystery of our origins.
The Old Man and the Sea
Reading a good Hemmingway book is like going to a museum to see something famous. It has enough cultural gravitas that even if you don’t exactly agree with its prominence or importance, you at least know you are experiencing something significant to history and society. That being said, I really did enjoy this book, both for its intrinsic worth, but also for the thrill of finally reading a Hemmingway tale.
The main reason I am adding this book to the list is for the sheer accessibility of it. As far as critically acclaimed Nobel Prize in Literature writers go, Hemmingway seems very approachable. And at a mere ## pages long, you can easily finish this story in one sitting, then stand up and say proudly, “I have read a Hemingway, and I understood it!”.
This is in part the approachability I mean. Sure you can go out there are read Gatsby, and then analyse the themes and motifs. But what I loved about Hemingway’s story of a man and his battle with a big marlin, is the simplicity of it.
I always disliked English at school, even though I was ostensibly quite successful at the subject, I could write a persuasive piece quite well (I got an A+ for our final essay in year 12, the subject of which was why impressive facial hair is a must for any dictator), and reading was something I have always loved. But I think the thing about English class that really irked me was the forced meaning that was jammed into every little thing. What’s more, that these interpretations were more often than not a subjective opinion plastered onto the story with questionable veracity.
How do you now that is what the author meant, I would often say (or something in that vein) before being kicked out of class.
Then, after finishing the book and deciding to do some research on it online, I was amused to find that amongst all the theorising about the inner meanings of Hemmingway’s story (the old man is Christ, the fish represents communism, the sea is a stand in for mortality, etcetera, etcetera) that there were some telling quotes by the author himself:
“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in …. I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.” – Ernest Hemingway in 1954
“There isn’t any symbolism,” Hemmingway wrote to critic Bernard Berenson. “The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man … The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”
So get out there and read this book for what it is!
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?
I love it when I find a book on some weird little part of our lives that ends up being explaining how it is actually some vast and fascinating facet of the world we live in. Take this read for instance; I loved telling people I was reading a book about the role chickens played in human civilisation.
What appears to be one of the most mundane of animals has a truly amazing part to play in our history. As this book goes on to argue, no other animal had arguably played a more important role in human history, bar the human animal itself. Chickens have served many purposes; ritual sacrifices, providers of meat, eggs, entertainment, symbolism; everything is covered in this book.
But why, of all the books I read, is this in the top five? Because it gives you a greater appreciation of something in the world that would most often be overlooked. Chickens are a part of the background of our society. A cliché farm animal. We buy their meat in nondescript packaging, we cook the best chocolate cakes with their eggs. Our cultural sound of waking up is a beeping alarm clock, but we also all recognise a rooster crowing as the same thing.
Chickens are boring, you might think. But they are only considered boring because they are ubiquitous with human civilisation, and that speaks to their true importance. No other animal has pervaded human cultures as much as the humble chicken, and this book explains why this bird, domesticated from a jungle fowl in a small area of south-east Asian, was able to take such a prominent role in the development of our modern species.
Therefore I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand their feathered friends a little better. Or to those who find random little facts like the following interesting: The cock is ironically one of the minority of birds that has no penis.
The Three Body Problem
Of all the books on my top five list, this one is perhaps the least life changing of all. It didn’t furnish me with any new knowledge, or outlook on life. I don’t really have a greater understanding or appreciation for anything in particular having read it, but that isn’t what all books are about. Sometimes books are just about being entertained.
But then again, perhaps I am not thinking deep enough here. This was another one of those ‘I have to see what all the fuss is about’ books. Reviewers have been raving about Liu Cixin’s work for ages, and when an English translation was on the cards the hype grew more and more. Even Obama was caught reading the thing!
So this book was interesting for me because it was one of the first major Chinese books I remember hearing a lot about in western media, the other being The Fat Years, which I read in 2014. I found that to be a fascinating read, as these aren’t books that just happen to be written by a Chinese person, but are books that take this Chinese identity and weave it into their stories (as I imagine western authors do in theirs, though I can’t see this from my internal frame of reference).
I loved the experience of reading this novel. Of stepping out of the usual western science fiction authors that I am used to, and seeing how such speculative fiction is handled from a background that is different to my own. And as a friend of mine recently said; “books teach us about the years we didn’t/will never live“. So maybe I was too quick to dismiss this book as not giving me any new outlooks or appreciations. It certainly allowed me to step into a new frame of reference and gave me a greater understanding of elements of Chinese history and culture.
But beyond all that, the story is a truly compelling read. It balances mystery with character development as we slowly tease out what is happening to the main characters, and what the underlying conspiracy is. What’s more is sets us up for the next instalments, without leaving you completely wanting. It isn’t just the beginning of a story, and the fact that the main characters in this series are generally only present for one instalment is I think a refreshing way of separating out the different themes in each novel.
I won’t bother going into what the story is about as I think this book is best approached like the matrix; you can’t be told what it is, you have to see it for yourself. Come at the story with an open mind and enjoy the ride!
Ten Word Synopses
||10 Word Synopsis
||Moon explodes, people escape to space, five-thousand years later; recolonise
||The Water Knife
||Massive drought in the future, people carve up water supplies
||My Beloved Brontosaurus
||Learn about all the new scientific discoveries about amazing dinosaurs
||Old Mans War
||Old people given superhuman bodies, sent to fight intergalactic wars
||An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth
||Astronaut gives tips for how to live a happy life
||In the Heart of the Sea
||Whale sinks whaleship, people survive on sea, eat each other
||Trains hunt massive moles on a sea of rails; adventure!
||First Grave on Mars
||Early settlers on Mars have to solve their first murder
||The Three-Body Problem
||Chinese sci-fi about contacting aliens using our sun; interesting consequences
||People uncover a conspiracy about global warming, and China too!
||The Rosie Project
||Genius with possible Asperger’s decide to find a wife; hilarious
||Philosopher explains the likely consequences of developing an artificial superintelligence
||The Rosie Effect
||Same genius tries to deal with marriage and impending fatherhood
||The Dark Forest
||Humanity tries to deal with a coming alien invasion; awesome
||A Calculated Life
||Artificial human tries to understand her place in the world
||The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
||The title of this book is already over ten words!
||Drunk Tank Pink
||Explains a bunch of different ways our brain tricks us
||Generation ship sent to a star finally arrives; problems ensue
||Heartland of Manga: Tokyo and San Francisco
||A collection of stories from an expat living in Japan
||An analysis of how Hitler’s youth shaped his future self
||The Genius of Birds
||An in-depth look at the deep intelligence of birds
||A Kight of the Seven Kingdoms
||Short stories set in Westeros long before Game of Thrones
||The Happiest Refugee
||Memoir of Ahn Do’s journey from refugee to comedy star
||Collection of quirky studies surrounding the human mind and behaviours
||An attempt to explain spirituality as distinct from religious experience
||Race for an ancient artefact pits heroes against modern Nazis
||The Vital Question
||Scientist explains how modern science believes life could have arisen
||Executed woman comes back to life with superpowers; seeks revenge
||Money: The Unauthorised Biography
||Explains the history of the concept of money and humanity
||Why Did the Chicken Cross the World
||Interesting analysis of the part chickens played in human civilisation
||Humans struggle with aliens for the solar system’s ultimate fate
||Race to a secret plane that crashed in the Amazon
||Bunch of essays about random things; lots of French criticism
||The Four Legendary Kingdoms
||Hero drugged and awakens to a fight to the death
||Spies uncover terrorist plot they must foil. Presidential campaign too.
||Play At Work
||Discusses the important parts games can play in our work
||An analysis of how humanity’s future may come to pass
||Girl discovers giant hand underground. Become scientist to study it
||The Old Man and the Sea
||Old man goes out to sea; catches a large fish.
||1913: The Eve of War
||Seeks to explain how 1913 lead to World War One
2016 in Books: The Whole 40 Reads
And finally, my thoughts on each of these books:
My first introduction to Neal Stephenson, and my first read of the year. Would recommend if anyone finds the concept of the moon randomly exploding as intriguing as I did. Also, the title is a palindrome, and a mild spoiler, so I don’t mind giving a quick rundown of the major arcs below.
The story consists of three major sections; First where the moon breaks apart and humanity has to prepare for the coming destruction of the surface of the Earth, Second where those who managed to flee struggle to try and find a way to survive in space, and then Third where the descendants of the survivors start to recolonise the earth’s surface.
This was a great read, even if the third act seems somewhat disjointed from the first two. I love a good hard science fiction book, and this delivers in spades.
5 out of 5 bolides.
The Water Knife
I had seen this book on so many lists of what to read in 2015 that I was keen to get it read early in 2016. But I have to say, thinking back, it doesn’t seem all that memorable of a read. Sure, I liked the premise (a future of water scarcity in the United States pits the haves against the have-nots), but the delivery wasn’t quite what I was expecting. This may be more a failing on my part than on the books however.
3 out of 5 arcologies
My Beloved Brontosaurus
Dinosaurs are awesome! That is something that filled my head for years as a child, and it was great to re-immerse myself in the world of Mesozoic marvels once again. But what was perhaps more fulfilling about this read was the exhilaration at learning new and exciting dinosaur news. Who would have thought that even after 66 million years since the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, that there would still be more to learn!
Add to this the fact that I am raising a son who is equally dinosaur crazy, I found this was a great way to share an experience with him. Ever since he started learning about some of the newly discovered giant carnivorous theropods he would always ask me “Why is T-Rex so famous when Spinosaurus is longer, and Charcharidontosaurus is bigger?”. When I explained this was mainly due to an accident of history where T-Rex was found first, and just became more famous, he set it upon himself to not be a fan of T-Rex because everyone else is. That’s right he is a jaded dinosaur connoisseur; only the best and newest animals for him.
Highly recommend this book for those who love dinosaurs as the fascinating animals that they were, and not just Hollywood monsters. Or for those of you who want to be able to keep up with the cool, hip new dinosaur lingo.
5 out of 5 pregnant t-rex’s
Old Mans War
This novel starts with the memorable line: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
To me this is what speculative fiction is all about. Get hooked instantly with a premise that makes your mind wonder at the possibilities; who wouldn’t want to know more? But what more would you expect from the writer of the amazing Redshirts (a must read for any Star Trek fan)?
John Scalzi is a sci-fi superstar at the moment, so getting to read his early work was a great experience. This story follows the titular old man, who signs up for the army near the end of his life. In this future, however, joining the army means being given a genetically enhanced super body, and sent across the galaxy to fight in humanities’ colonisation wars, against a plethora of weird and engaging alien species.
Throw in a bit of intrigue regarding a mysterious special forces group, and a bunch of genuinely funny moments, and you have a thoroughly entertaining book. Would recommend to anyone who is a fan of military science fiction.
4.5 out of 5 genetically enhanced super bodies
An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth
This book had sat on my shelf for almost a year before I managed to get it finished.
But I am glad I finally got back into it. Space exploration was a big interest for me early in the year, what with SpaceX doing all its awesome things, and the exploration of Pluto still fresh in my mind. So it was great to read about the current state of space exploration from an eyewitness point of view.
But perhaps the best part about reading this book were the lessons that Chris Hadfield sought to impart about life in general. About how to approach challenges, or generally how to approach life. One of the stories he told has even had a marked effect on my son, who often says “What would a palaeontologist do” when considering his actions, much as Chris said that his desire to be an astronaut motivated much of his early thinking. Having that goal early, even if it isn’t something that he was 100% going to achieve, helped give him direction, and it is exciting to see Harrison taking that initiative. Even if it is only being employed to find motivation to do homework!
Worth a read if you enjoy people’s memoirs, books that help give you a toolset for living a better life, or just if you plain like space stuff.
5 out of 5 Space Missions
In the Heart of the Sea
Who would have thought that reading a book about some guys stuck in a boat would be so enthralling!
I had heard about the tale of the Essex in the past, about how it inspired the novel Moby Dick, and then about how it was to be turned into a movie, so I was keen to read this book before I watched the film. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was a non-fiction book, rather than a historical novel. So where I had been expecting a narrative, instead I found an in-depth analysis not only of what happened, but of things like the effects of starvation on the human body, analyses of the whaling trade, and discussions of the economy of the island of Nantucket.
But surprisingly, I was hooked. It was truly a fascinating read, to be able to throw your mind back to a different time, to understand the workings and drive of a whaling ship, then witness as their intended prey fought back, scuttling the ship, and sending the men within on a journey of despair across a deserted ocean.
Even though I was initially disappointed that the book wasn’t a novel, after seeing the film I think it was the better of the two experiences. Reading about how the men suffered aboard their wayward whale-boats really made me appreciate the story a lot more, especially their slow and painful resorting to cannibalism (a fact which seems to happen all too quickly in the movie…).
4 out of 5 cannibalised crewmen
What a strange book. Set in a world where the seas are great wastelands covered in rails (no water), and people ride around in trains harpooning massive moles. You would think that knowing this was the basis of the book would have prepared me for the weirdness. It did not.
My wife is currently reading this to my son, and they are constantly highlighting for me the bizarre nature of the book, whether it be the constant use of ampersands, the convoluted and intricate structuring of sentences, or simple the bizarre monikers employed by Meiville.
That being said, I actually enjoyed the tale of Sham Yes ap Soorap (an example of the weird names), and his adventures hunting moles on the railsea. I like the strange concept of captains of moletrains chasing their ‘philosophies’ (in the form of some symbolic prey) in order to give their lives meaning. So interesting to have a character’s motivation laid out so clearly, yet still somehow still vague given the alien nature of the world they live in.
I had heard much praise for China Meiville’s work, which was my initial reason for purchasing a book of his. But the reason it was Railsea, as opposed to another one of his novels, was simply because it was the only one available at the $5 bargain book shop! So I feel I need to perhaps aim to read one of his more popular books, in order to get a better understanding of what all the fuss is about.
3.5 out of 5 Gigantic Moldyworps
First Grave on Mars
A quick, cheap Kindle read that I found somehow and read over two nights. My penchant for all things Mars drew me to its title no doubt.
It is a nice little whodunit set on the planet Mars (hence the title). We follow a group of three who are sent to Mars as part of a crowd-funded ‘Mars One’ style reality show experiment. There are people already stationed on the red planet, but when our heroes arrive, no one is there to greet them. They soon find the original colonists are fractured and divided, with one of them discovered dead.
Who was responsible? I guess you have to read it to find out. Or actually, no you don’t, as you don’t even discover the murderer in this short tale!
I was a bit disappointed with the brevity of this read, but as it got me hooked, I can’t complain too much, provided the sequel comes out this year!
3.5 out of 5 murdered Martians (conditional on how the rest of the story pans out)
The Three-Body Problem
This novel at first seemed like an intriguing conspiracy tale; a mystery set amid the world of climate science. But slowly evolved into something much worse.
And I am sorry, but I am going to post a spoiler here, because I feel like the whole plot of this book was based on a premise that is at best ridiculous, and at worst recklessly misleading. So read no further if you don’t want to know the ending of this story.
This is a book about how climate change is a hoax.
Or more accurately, it is a story about how climate change is real, but it was created by a nefarious group in order to melt Antarctica and access its oil reserves. Yep, that’s right. And they way that climate change happens in the book? They get the Chinese to build the Three Gorges Dam and a bunch of cities in order to pile up a bunch of weight in China, and change the balance of the earth thus tilting it (ehh, get the title now) and warming up the Antarctic.
Now, part of me is sorry to spoil this, as the novel is clearly written for this to be a mystery slowly solved, but I don’t want people falling into this read and being disappointed at being misled, as I was.
That all being said, I initially liked a lot of the story. The thriller portions of it were well done, the characters interesting enough. The writing was good (though perhaps too much talk of boners for my liking). I just didn’t like the whole reveal in the end, and the fact that all of this story was built on a foundation of bullshit ruined it for me. End though I know it is just fiction and I should take it for what it is worth, when the underlying premise of a story isn’t convincing or compelling for me, the whole thing falls down like a house of cards.
But hey, at least Trump has some late night reading he can enjoy.
2 out of 5 global warming conspiracy theories
The Rosie Project
This is a stand out read for me this year for two main reasons.
Number 1: Because I really liked it.
Number 2: Because I didn’t expect to read any romantic comedies.
Yes that’s right, a romantic comedy. A rom-com; that’s how I would describe this book. And while that category isn’t really the kind of thing I usually read, I find that for any section of culture or society that I am generally not a fan of, there are always exceptions where if the job is done right, it can be appreciated even if it isn’t your usual cup of tea.
The story follows a genetics expert who decides it is time to get a wife, so he approaches the problem with the same scientific rigour that he applied to his work life, and to the rest of his life. Imagine Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory, if he were a bit more well-adjusted, and more of an eligible bachelor (read this as good looking and fit), and you will have an idea how things progress.
Then in the sequel (The Rosie Effect), the addition of an impending baby causes the main character to again devise a project plan for this life changing event.
Like I said, I really enjoyed this book and its sequel. I had seen it in bookshops for ages, but never really considered it a potential read until it appeared on Bill Gates blog as a recommended read. I have become somewhat of a Bill Gates fan of late; his optimistic attitude regarding the world’s problems is refreshing given the tendency for doom and gloom to dominate the news. So I was intrigued as to why this book would feature so prominently on his must-read lists.
Being the nerd that I am, I enjoyed the rational way that the main character approached so much of his life. I laughed out loud many times as I could see some semblance of me in the mind of the main character. Well worth the dive into uncharted waters.
5 out of 5 immaculately prepared cocktails.
Dense. That is what I think of when I recall this read; dense. Such a hard book for me to get into, not because it is boring, or a difficult read exactly, just because it is such an in-depth ‘thinky’ book. You can’t really grab it for a few minutes catch up lest you will forget the multitude of alien concepts that have been introduced for your cogitation.
But the main reason I wanted to read this book was because of the lofty and importance of what it is tackling. Well, ok, the real reason is because I heard Elon Musk thinks it is important, and thus I wanted to see what the big deal was about. At any rate, with AI playing a bigger part in our lives as each year goes on, eventually humanity may have to deal with the possibility of a superintelligence being developed. And if that day ever comes, we will be glad that Nick Bostrom wrote this deep analysis of the consequences and possible strategies, for dealing with such a thing.
4 out of 5 hegemon superintelligences
The Rosie Effect
The Dark Forest
After delving into the first book of this trilogy by Chinese author #####, I was keen to pick up the next instalment and see how our characters would face the challenges thrown up at the end of the previous story.
The concept of nothing but the human mind being put under surveillance by our alien nemeses was intriguing, as was the game theoretical nature of a lot of the back and forth between those working for humanity, and those seeking to destroy/supplant it. In my mind, this was the strongest instalment of the trilogy.
5 out of 5 Wallfacers
A Calculated Life
I have to say, this book really slipped through the cracks when it comes to leaving an impression on me for the year. I believe I bought it in a drunken Kindle binge and read it rather quickly, but as for the effects of the book, I can’t recall.
The story follows a never quite adequately explained artificial human who works at a firm where she uses her advanced brain to analyse data and come up with trends/predictions for her human co-workers to capitalise upon. Much of the book deals with how these non-humans live their lives, and how they fit into society.
It was an engaging read in a sense, but it never seemed to pick up the pace, or take the story down any of the intriguing paths that I could see posed by this fictional world.
3 out of 5 potentially interesting sequels?
The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
Yet another book that slipped its way into my Kindle due to a deviously targeted eBook sale email from Amazon. But I am glad my impulse buy resulted in a somewhat revealing read.
This book is a collection of writing surrounding the history of the human race, whether it be first of all explaining how we came to be, or then going on to analyse how the idea of a family tree works. It then delved into the more pressing issues of our time when it comes to our personal history; our genetic identities, and how things like cheaper genetic sequencing will soon change the way many of us not only view ourselves, but also live our lives.
But one thing that truly stuck with me from this book was its discussions about race. In particular, how much race is a construct of society, and culture. Sure people may be quick to point ou the glaring physicality of race in many ways (skin colour being very prominent). But at the end of the day, the author makes a good case that race is really only something made up in our minds, and really the more important this is our own personal histories, and how they make us the people we are today.
4 out of 5 sequences genomes
Drunk Tank Pink
I was fascinated by the titular Drunk Tank Pink of this book; a colour that studies showed had a pacifying effect on people. Put a drunk in a cell painted with this particular shade of pink, and their aggression would noticeably decrease.
I bought the book looking for more interesting things like this, for a kind of Freakonomics experience where they show you the little hidden mechanisms that drive our world in unexpected directions. And while I did get a lot of interesting examples of stuff like this, the book seemed to veer more into marketing tricks and psychological hypothesis than it did the actual unveiling of simple rational rules governing our world. I go the feeling that a bunch of these things are studies that don’t always produce the same results as often as you would like, and that there was a lot of assertions going on that didn’t quite make a convincing enough argument. So interesting ideas, but ones that made me feel like I had to do more reading in order to understand them.
2.5 out of 5 tenuous causal links
My only re-read for the year, but one I am glad I undertook. Kim Stanley Robinson is not only my favourite author, but as I re-read more of his work I am beginning to see that he is also, in part, the author of many of my own personally held views. Back in 2014 I read the Mars Trilogy all over again, and it really opened my eyes as to how much these books influenced me in my formative years. I have blogged about as much in the past.
But, now that I am apparently formed, it is still great to open up a KSR book, and really delve deep into some stellar hard science fiction.
This particular story deals with a generation ship travelling to the nearby star Tau Ceti. Generations have passed on the ship, and it is years away from arriving. Like all KSR books, it delves into the daily lives of those on board and approaches things from a realistic, hard science fiction point of view. There are no simple plot lines here, no good guys and bad guys; his stories read more like history than fiction.
So whereas other authors might have alien monsters as obstacles, Aurora deals with the slow decay of systems, the complexity of the structures used to keep humans alive, and the possible moral consequences of confining future generations to an unchosen life aboard an interstellar vessel.
As with all of his books, I highly recommend it.
5 out of 5 reversions to the mean
Heartland of Manga: Tokyo and San Francisco
I blogged about this book over here, but basically it is a collection of vignettes (this is a new word for me, so hopefully I am using it correctly) from an ex-pat Australian living in Japan. I actually know the author, which is kind of cool, and enjoyed the read as this was yet another step into unfamiliar reading styles for this year.
4 out of 5 refreshingly different reads
A fascinating Kindle Short read that examines the early life of Adolf Hitler, the world he lived in, and how his youth, and the environment around him, shaped the man who would go on to shape the Second World War.
One of the main things I took away from this book was the importance of not treating Hitler like he was some evil freak of history. Sure we like to look at Hitler, and many of the Nazi’s as aberrations in history; rare examples of truly evil humans. But the problem with this is that it does the opposite of normalisation. It abnormalises them. It makes them seem less like real things, a real part of humanities past. The problem with this, of course, being that by treating Hitler as some strange form of evil incarnate, we miss out on the mundane, regular, human drives that produced such a man from early 20th century Germany.
This seems all the more pressing thing to realise right now, when there is this wave of nationalism apparently spreading across the globe, and with misinformation and racial tensions being stoked everywhere, it is all the more vital that we remember that humans are simply that; humans. We can learn from the mistakes of the past, but we can’t afford to forget that they are the result of humans themselves, and not some evil form beyond our control.
5 out of 5
The Genius of Birds
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms
Three tales of Dunk and Egg, the Titular Knight, and his squire.
As with many things G. R. R. Martin, not everything is as it appears in these tales (including Egg). But unlike the Song of Ice and Fire novels, I found these to be a much more easy-going read. They tell the tale of a newly formed knight and his companion travelling across a Westeros that seems more real than the Game of Thrones world simply because it is going about things in a quotidian way. There is no overarching storyline in the background driving everything to some ultimate climax. But there are also threads linking them all together., Hints at larger things going on I the background, and how the forces of history are still at work, somewhere.
A must read for anyone having Game of Thrones withdrawals.
4.5 out of 5 Quarrelsome Targaryen’s
The Happiest Refugee
This book sat on my shelf for two years before I got to it, and then I finished it in one sitting! It was fascinating to read about the life of Ahn Do as it was so different, yet so similar, whilst also being so mundane, and at the same time surprisingly relevant. To read about a family’s arrival in Australia as refugees, and then follow them as they create a life for themselves is something I think many Australians need to hear these days.
Ahn’s story is one of perseverance, of hard work, and of family. It is also predictably funny where it counts, and I challenge anyone to not read these pages with Ahn’s voice narrating in your head.
4.5 out of 5 Australian stories
This book showed up enough on one of my favourite YouTube channels (VSauce) that I just had to grab my own copy.
Quirkology refers to the multitude of scientific studies conducted by professional scientists into the strange little idiosyncrasies of life; the quirks. Things like why people’s name often reflect their occupation, or how people in dangerous situations will be more likely to find people sexually attractive. Or even how people are more likely to do well in a game of trivial pursuit if they are told beforehand to think about a professor (or conversely will do worse if they think about a football hooligan).
Worth a read if you are interested in the weird and fascinating way that our world works.
4 out of 5 cases of nominative determinism
I read this book by Sam Harris as I have been hearing more and more about the benefits of things like meditation in your daily life, and wanted to get a secular point of view about this.
This was however somewhat of a mistake on my part. The subtitle of this book explains that it is about “Searching for Spirituality Without Religion”, and while I was fascinated to try and understand what exactly is meant by spirituality (especially when it is offered by one of the Four Horsemen), ultimately it didn’t scratch the initial itch that has spurred its purchase.
I am all for the concept of meditation, the idea that such a practise can be good for your mental health makes intuitive sense to me. And I am keen to try and harness this tool for myself at some point in the future (unfortunately I haven’t been able to convince myself that 20 minutes a day of meditation is time better spent that say, 20 minutes of Xbox, reading, playing with my son, or relaxing with my wife; but I am sure I will get there!). But where this book lost me was its focus on a concept of spirituality that was never quite elucidated enough for me, not to mention its extolling of psychedelic drug use as a path to self-enlightenment.
I did, however, gain insight from this book, and at the end of the day that is always a good thing. I have a close friend who has gone down the path of spirituality recently, and it was valuable to have this book as a sort of a roadmap to his experiences, and to understand some of the things he discusses with me. While I don’t think that spirituality without religion is something I need (nor spirituality with religion I might add), I am glad I read this book.
So for now, I am happy sticking with my regular explanation for how I face and explain existence, without having to resort to using the word spirituality to describe any of it, as this still seems to me to be some failure of vocabulary, like when people speak of the soul, rather than their own mind/body.
3.5 out of 5 illusions of the self
I think Matthew Reilly has established his style to such a degree now that instead of pointing out that this read was a fast-paced actions extravaganza, I can just point out that this story was very Reillyesque. I get exactly what I want from every Matthew Reilly book I read, and this was no exception.
A mysterious idol deep in the South American jungle. Opposing forces struggling to control a mighty power. Thrilling chase scenes. Kick arse characters. Modern day Nazi’s. Historical intrigue. This book has it all!
4.5 out of 5 against the odds feats of derring-do.
The Vital Question
I love the fact that my Amazon Kindle gives me access to a bunch of aspiring and new writers. So when I heard the story premise for this little read I was hooked: a woman is framed for the murder of her husband and sentenced to death, but awakens on the execution table with superhuman strength, near invulnerability, and a taste for revenge!
Add into the mix a secret government lab, an elite team of special forces, and some mech-suits, and you are onto a winner.
4 out of 5 bulletproof superladies.
Money: The Unauthorised Biography
Money is just something I have never understood easily. While it seems simple enough on the outside (“Money can be exchanged for goods and services” – economic theorist Home Simpson), it took many explanations by my PhD having wife for me to understand the basic concept of depreciation (how exactly again can it be that I can depreciate things?).
So I was keen to get this book and learn as much as I can about the history of money, from Sumerian all the way up to Bitcoin. And while I have achieved part of that goal, I also struggled a bit with this read. The writing tries to straddle the line between a finance textbook, and an entertaining non-fiction read, but more often than not falls on the side of academic theory.
Which hey, is fine and good if that is what you are looking for. I am sure than many more financially minded people would read this book and find it the perfect blend of history and theory. But for me personally, I need a bit more hand-holding to get me through this kind of thing.
All in all, an interesting read, and I learned a lot from it. But I think I need to find a book that helps build the trunk of my financial knowledge a bit more before I can understand a lot of the minutia thrown about in texts such as this.
3.5 out of 5 financial crises
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?
What a mind-bending read! Almost literally in some instances.
When you are reading a book where some characters explore into the fourth dimension, you know you are going to be in for an interesting read. But then to also find out that part of this book includes things being ‘two-dimensiontalised’, and that you are going to have to try and understand how to visualise such things. Now suddenly my brain starts to hurt.
Yet hurt in a good way. Why not be challenged if you are going to delve into the world of science fiction, why not hope and look forward to being confronted with these interesting speculative storylines.
As the final installation of the Remembrance of Earths Past trilogy, I was pleased to see that this story not only brought an end to the saga (amongst other things), but also that it was refreshingly different from each other installation. Sure there were some familiar characters, but as with The Dark Forest, our main character was someone new, and the overall theme of the book was again positioned elsewhere.
I highly recommend delving into this fascinating tale of alien contact/invasion/cooperation/etcetera.
5 out of 5 dimensions of weirdness
I was intrigued to read Bear Grylls first foray into adult fiction. I have long been a fan of his show Man vs. Wild, so when I read the blurb about a mission into the jungle, I knew I would be in for a good time.
Grylls writing reminds me a bit of Matthew Reilly’s. Indeed this is the second book that I have read this year that involves a rush to some historical thing in the South American jungle, where competing forces battle to get there first, and one of the sides might just be Nazi’s.
The story was compelling from cover to cover, the characters interesting enough for me to want to get the sequel right now (but I am on a book buying diet).
4 out of 5 mysterious crashed planes of possible Nazi origins
I did not like this book.
That isn’t to say that it was a bad book exactly. I just didn’t get the point of it. I bought it hoping for an analysis of how myths pervade modern society; instead, I got a bunch of random disjointed essays that spoke of subjective things as if they were objective. I don’t think I need to read an essay about Judge Judy, and an analysis of why socialites like carrying small dogs really doesn’t pique my interest.
I just kind of hate read the last portion of the book because I didn’t like it wasting my time, but felt committed to making my target of 40 books.
(But again I shall point out that a lot of these books get low scores, not as an objective judgement of the books intrinsic worth, but more so because I have made a wrong choice in the book I have decided to read.)
1 out of 5 regretful book purchases
The Four Legendary Kingdoms
I won’t spoil the surprise in the book, but I will point out that I totally nailed it ages ago. And it was pretty much exactly what I wanted, but I hope the same thing happens next book.
But without further tapdancing around the secret, I think I explained earlier than Matthew Reilly is a very consistent author, and that by the mere mention of his name, you should know that adrenalin will soon be pumping once you turn that first page. This book was no exception.
Our hero(es?) awaken in a cell, and have to fight a mysterious stranger to the death, and this is jus the introductory challenge, with many more nail-biting chapters awaiting. I love that Reilly is sticking with his Jack West Jr. character as it is refreshing to have Australian characters to follow on their world wrapping adventures. And yes while this one mostly takes place in a mysterious city under the ground, there is enough action (and setting up of future action) to keep you satisfied as you burn through the adventure.
5 out of 5 fights to the death
I had read a bunch of Tom Clancy books years ago, and always enjoyed the action and intrigue, but for ages I couldn’t find the book that was next in line for the Jack Ryan Jr. series. But, being that I have the most awesome wife of all time, I was gifted the missing tome late last year.
I don’t want to make it sounds bland or predictable when an author is true to form, but for me, Tom Clancy is a bit like Matthew Reilly in that you always get what you pay for. This particular tale follows the exploits of the off-the-book intelligence/assassination organisation known as The Campus as they face yet another imminent terrorist threat. It also includes the presidential campaign of Jack Ryan as he seeks to get re-elected, and watching this amidst what was happening in the U.S. at the time was a bizarre experience (I read this book as Drumpf was being elected, and it made me long for a president who could speak in cogent sentences).
4 out of 5 convoluted terrorist plots
Play at Work
As someone who has consistently aged at the same rate as the average age of a gamer, I was keen to pick up this book and see how some of the principles of gaming can be applied to the workplace.
Given the exponential rise of information technology in the workplace, it is no surprise that people are interested in accessing the power of games, whether it be through the power of gamification, the implementation of leaderboards and competition, or simply the collaborative and creative nature of humans which is so efficiently harnessed through games like Minecraft.
But while there are many great stories to tell about how games are changing our workplace, I think a lot of what is covered in this book is more than just an explanation of how games help us work, but rather an acknowledgement of how technology is helping us work. Though perhaps what I should have taken from this book is the fact that technology and games are converging in such a way that the two things are blending ore and more each day.
I don’t know, I honestly just like reading about tech, and this book served that purpose well.
3.5 out of 5 arbitrary game points
This is the spiritual successor to one of last year’s best read: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. And whereas the previous book was an overarching history of homo sapiens from their evolution right up till today, this new book is a sort of history of our species in the future…
I know what you are thinking; a history book about the future? But trust me it is an interesting read. As unpredictable as the future may be, it is fascinating to witness as a historian seeks to identify the patterns of history, and apply this thinking to how thing might pan out in the not too distant future.
This leads to some intriguing ideas, like the abandonment of the self due to AI being better at understanding who we are, or the dissolution of work when automation takes over much of humanities wants and desires.
Well worth a read, but if you haven’t read Sapiens, I suggest you start there.
4 out of 5 post-humans
Very engaging read with an initial hook that keeps you glued to the page. A young girl falls down a hole in the woods and lands on a giant metal hand. Years later she is the scientists charged with learning more about the mysterious artefact, and tracking down similar pieces across the world.
I was surprised by the format of the novel, where every chapter is essentially some written record or transcript of an interview. But I have to say it worked out very well, both as a way to give info dumps about the science fiction portion of the story, but also to elicit the thoughts and introspections of the main characters.
I look forward to the sequel.
4 out of 5 giant robotic body parts
The Old Man and the Sea
1913: The Eve of War
My last read for the year, and just barely had the time. You may have noticed the odd sneaky short read on here, a couple of Kindle singles and a novel that is more of a short story; but I think the worth of a read is not dictated solely by the length, and this little pre-World War 1 primer was exactly what I was looking for.
Do I understand fully now the causes of World War 1? No, I do not. But it has given me a greater understanding and appreciation of the complex nature of the conflict, and how history is rarely a simple affair.
In Crash Course World History (a series of YouTube videos by John Green that I highly recommend everyone watch at least twice), John states that historians like wars because they have a simple start and end date. Yet as with most things history, this turns out to not be as simple as people would like. World War 1 is a perfect example of this. Not only are the borders of a wars timeline fuzzy, but as this book shows even the borders surrounding the accepted reasons for a war taking place can move and shift over time.
World War 1 still fascinates and confuses me, but at least now I have a better understanding of the length and depth of my ignorance, rather than just blindly accepting the stock standard stories that go along with it.
5 out of 5 geopolitical powder kegs.
Note: something else I have learnt from this 2016 in Books: it takes ages to write up your thoughts on 40 books, especially when you read them over the span of a year. So as 2017 makes its way around the sun, I think I might do a mini review after each book, and then do my ten-word summaries or something else next January.