I’m going to fire this off now and count anything else I read for the next two weeks in my 2011 list. I do this every year – a short review of the things I’ve read over the year – so that I can keep track of what I read and hopefully share some of the better stuff with folks of similar tastes.
This year was a sharp upward spike in reading thanks to: 1) a daily hour and a half ride in a subway from January to August and 2) the purchase of a Kindle. While I was skeptical of e-readers at first, it markedly increased my reading consumption. As you will see, some of my choices are out of mainstream and being able to sample and instantly download something rather than ordering it on Amazon, buying something else to get the free shipping and waiting a week and a half for it to arrive makes my particular reading tastes satiable. I add anything to the list that one would consider a book, including comics collections if they are substantiative or long rulebooks that I read cover to cover. That may be cheating, but it’s my list, so shaddup.
Also, since there was so much this year I loved, I’ve highlighted my absolute favorites in BLUE.
In 2008, I read 31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day
In 2009, I read 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
In 2010, I read 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (416)
You know what is ironically vogue? Steampunk. You know what else sells now after nerds crooning for it for the past ten years plus? Zombies. Put that chocolate in that peanut butter and you get Boneshaker, which is as far as I can tell the first acclaimed wide-release steampunk zombie novel. The story is about a young man’s trip to find himself by breaking into a walled off city full of zombies in the hopes of finding out about his dad, the great inventor and the cause of the zombie infestation. His mother, destitute and resolute goes in after him. It’s a standard rescue story with a very interesting setting that Smith is continuing in later novels.
The Devil’s Alphabet by Daryl Gregory (400)
Some of my favorite stories are mundane except for one very unusual circumstance. That’s a good way of describing The Devil’s Alphabet. Paxton comes back to his childhood town of Switchcreek. It is like any other southern rural town with the exception of a genetic mutation that triggered ten years back that turned some of the residents into giants, some into asexually reproducing alien women and some into massively obese strongmen. Say what? Paxton comes back for his best friend’s funeral but soon gets caught up in the intrigue surrounding her death. What do the mutated clans of the town have to do with it? I picked up the book simply because I didn’t know what to read next and I was triggered by its Hugo nomination and interesting blurb. Any other year this would have been in my Top 3, but I read so many good books this year.
Dreadnought by Cherie Priest (400)
A sort-of sequel to the above-mentioned Boneshaker, Dreadnought fleshes out Priest’s “Clockwork Century” universe a bit more. This time, we follow a southern nurse on the Union war machine Dreadnought as she rides across the West to visit her dying estranged father in Washington.
When I read fantasy, I generally want the story to be undupliacatable in another genre – the fantasy elements need to be front and center. Here is where Dreadnought lacks for me. With a few exceptions at the start, the first two-thirds of the book could easily have been an alternate history. It picks up steam by the end, pun intended, but it is missing the hooks of her earlier book in the series. Recommended only if you were totally for Boneshaker.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer (352)
After buying Boneshaker, I kept getting recommendations for this book, probably because people who buy one steampunk book buy them all. This was a debut novel and it has problems – the protagonist is unlikable, some scenes are too clever by half, some scenes nothing happens at all, the characters do not change, too many dream sequences. The book isn’t bad, but I’ve read so many good books this year that it comes off a bit sour. As an example: There’s a scene towards the end where the main character runs into a character from earlier in the book who gets cut off getting a parking space by an old lady. He then keys her car, shoots her dog and then throws a vial of acid on her face. A vial of acid! It is explained in the story later why he has that, but come on! Scenes like this seem to be trying too hard to establish a spectacle without actually adding to the plot or character development. The scene is throwaway. Nothing happens to the main character, the acid wielder doesn’t show up again. It is worthless.
The book actually gets legs in the final quarter where you meet some interesting characters but they only live for a scene or two. It could have been a compelling novella if reworked. I’d pass unless you really dig a soup of steampunk, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Tempest.
Dune by Frank Herbert (544)
I’d actually never read Dune before this year. The world building contained within makes me so depressed that I’ll never create something as compelling. I hear mixed reviews of other books in the series, so I may just leave it at that. My one complaint is that Paul just isn’t an interesting protagonist. The story that is memorable is the political story, not Paul’s. He’s a messiah and hence also pretty flawless which is boring. Otherwise, I liked this a great deal.
Fishyfleshed by Carlton Mellick (220)
It is easy to slip into hyberbole, so I try my best not to. But I can say without equivocation that this is the worst book I’ve read in at least the last five years. The first twenty pages are gibberish. The book is littered with scribbles and the rest is double-spaced 14pt font like a kid trying to cheat at a school essay.
The book was written, as it says in the forward, as a stream of consciousness. It shows. There is little subtlety and the imagery has nothing behind it. The form is dreadful. There are little flashes of interesting topics, only to be brushed aside and forgotten.
It is just a stupid work. I’ve seen him do better, but maybe it was just a fluke. I cannot recommend this to anyone.
Flatlander by Larry Niven (360)
This was given to me as a Christmas gift and I let it sit on the shelf collecting dust for far too long. I came onto this in my pre-Kindle part of the year when I was looking for a small paperback to cram into the subway with me. This is a collection of short stories about Gil “the Arm” Anderson, a future detective with a psychic third arm. Quite hard-boiled in its own way and Niven is one of the masters of science fiction. Hard sci-fi normally isn’t my genre, but he keeps the mysteries so fluid and dynamic that none of the stories in the collection is a dud, which I find to be a rare occurrence.
Hespira by Matthew Hughes (220)
Disclaimer: I’m a big Matthew Hughes fan. I’ve read all of his Archonate work of which this is the final volume of the Hengis Hapthorne saga which has spanned three books and a collection of short stories. Some find him to be a bit too droll but I find it suits his main character, a futuristic interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, to a T. This was sort of a whimper to go out on. Hespira isn’t the strongest of Hapthrone novels, although it is quite entertaining, and while most of his previous Hapthorne stories end with some major shift in the character’s circumstances. Hespira ends in a milquetoast manner. If you’ve read Majestrum and Spiral Labyrinth, by all means pick this up. Otherwise,Template or his upcoming Hell and Back series would be better recommendations.
Kraken by China Mieville (528)
I was a bit split coming into this. I absolutely loved Perdido Street Station and The Scar(the latter being my favorite fiction book tied with House of Leaves). Iron Council left me a little wanting, but was still good. I found his non-Bas Lag stuff I had read a bit trodding. And unfortunately Kraken starts slow. It has to because it is a normal-man-finds-there-is-a-second-world-of-magic story so the author needs to provide some contrast. I almost gave up. Luckily I didn’t. Once one pair of the many antagonists in the story, Goss and Subby, unfold themselves (literally) from a delivered package then the book really picks up. Mieville’s strong suit is his use of weirdness that somehow fits his worlds. Once he creates his ur-London full of talking tattoos, sentient seas and so forth, he really hits his stride. Kraken’s a page-turner, but not Mieville’s best. However, Mieville’s second-tier is better than most author’s first tiers.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (320)
Scalzi has a popular blog and all the social connections that matter in being a geek, so I’ve heard a lot of praise for Old Man’s War. It has a compelling premise: 75-year-old humans are recruited to fight in a war that the recruitees know nothing about and powered by technology that does not exist on the home planet. The book slides along thanks in part to Scalzi’s witty dialogue and punctual prose. The plot owes much toStarship Troopers and Scalzi admits as much in the acknowledgements. I probably won’t be reading the later entries in the series. For one, the premise doesn’t really tie in to the action or the climax. There’s really no reason the recruits need to be old men and women isolated from the technological future brought to the present by the CDF except for that it makes for a good introduction to the universe for the reader. I was a little disappointed by that. The action was fast paced, but I don’t feel there is much change in the world by the end. I can see why others like it. The story just wasn’t my bag.
The Passage by Justin Cronin (762)
As you will see from the page numbers on this list, I generally like my books to be in the <400 page range. I find longer books to be very out of focus (hi, Stephen King) or full of filler (hi, Tolkien) and that their characters wear out their welcomes. Maybe most authors just don’t have deep enough plots or characters to keep something going that long so they either drag (hi, Children’s Hospital!) or repeat. This is why, despite glowing reviews, I kept The Passage on the shelf for as long as I did. What a shame that I did as this was the most page turning fiction book I read all year. I want to shy away from spoilers but here is the book in a nutshell: there is a government conspiracy (yawn) to make super-soldiers (yawn) but the failed test subjects escape (yea, so) and start the Apocalypse. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The “virals” are crosses between vampires and zombies, and luckily you won’t see any Meyer sparkling here. And despite their brutality, there is still a shred of the souls they once had.Cliche cliche cliche, right? But where the book shines is the characters and world building. The world as it settles after the virus is startlingly consistent and progressively more and more intriguing as you shy away from the Colony. If there were any critiques I could levy against it is would be that 1) it is not clear from the cover that this is the first in a series, 2) early in the book is a bit melodramatic as it seems that everything that can possibly go wrong in a person’s history goes wrong to every character in the book and 3) the climax ends up involving some minor characters and so you end up feeling a bit misled. I’d recommend this to anyone that loves a page-turning horror book. Five imaginary, now visible stars. This would make an incredible TV miniseries.
Template by Matthew Hughes (245*)
As I note above, I’m a big big Hughes fan. He had mentioned on his website of this story Template and how it was being published in Canada, but not the US. So I emailed him asking how I could get a hold of it here in the states and he thanked me for my interest and emailed me the entire manuscript! Awesome! This was two years ago and it sat in my email box since because reading a novel on my PC screen just hasn’t been ergonomic. But now that I have a Kindle, it is perfect. I downloaded that over to the device and went to town.
Template is Hughes’ best work. Conn Labro is an indentured fighter on a planet that essentially is a very libertarian Las Vegas where everything is a transaction, a contract and has a price. Many authors would provide some sort of scoffing social commentary here, but instead Hughes sets it up and let’s it play by its own rules instead of thrusting his politics into the story. Conn’s boss and only friend are killed which sets off a story where he must find who wants him dead and why. He is contrasted with Jenore, a woman from an Old Earth sect that is just the opposite of Labro’s “transactionalism” – her society frowns entirely on using money. But her people are not communists – their society is based on family and respect.
Hughes’ dialogue is always very matter-of-fact and many find it overly droll and stiff. I enjoy his unique tone. The story was compelling to the very end and dovetails nicely with his other Archonate stories.
In the two years since, Template has found a publisher, so it can be bought without wheedling with the author. Yay! His upcoming series strays from the Archonate universe, so this is a great sending-off.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (443)
This was another Christmas gift which explains the out of genre selection. Chabon is an excellent writer though and he doesn’t need to be genre to be compelling, although with this book he enters a realm of Alternate History which sort of tickles that itch. Instead of Israel, Jews settled in a province of Alaska called Sitka and instead of anti-Semitism boiling off, it raged on. Sitka is set to expire and be given back to the US and all the Jews must go somewhere else. This isn’t the plot, but only a backdrop element which serves to lend a sort of apocalyptic tone to the story. What it is at its heart is a detective story, with rabbi mafioso and loose cannon cops. Thanks to a heaping helping of conjured Yiddish-Alaskan patois the book gives off a very unique sheen. I dug it.
The Black Swan (2nd Edition) by Nicholas Taleb (480)
I don’t tend to re-read books. They stick with me pretty well, so I get bored on second readings. However, The Black Swan was both so important and so dense with information that I plan on giving it another read through before too long. Taleb’s main premise is Socratic in nature: we are overconfident in what we know. We base our predictions of the future on the past which is horribly irrelevant in the case of events that have never happened before. He rails against academics in quite a pompous way that would have turned me off if he didn’t seem to be so damn correct. The titular Black Swan is an event which is an outlier with extreme impact that we humans tend to give explanation to post facto as if it were predictable beforehand. He spends a lot of time defining the difference between “Mediocristan” variables – things that can be modeled by bell curves and standard operating procedure and “Extremistan” variables that are Mandlebrotian and in the realm of the Black Swan. I could try to further summarize here, but the book is too full of interesting arguments and too layered in its approach for me to do justice to it. Instead, I encourage you to pick it up. It has radical consequences for anyone who does business, makes predictions or votes. It is my Book of the Year.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (320)
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (309)
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (301)
Yeah, I hit up the whole trilogy this year after starting and quitting Tipping Point in 2004. His books are formulaic and scientifically suspect, but are generally entertaining and interesting. So if you manage your expectations thoroughly (throw rigor to the curb), you will likely enjoy them a bunch as well.
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (304)
Running and me aren’t friends. I get shin splints and have more or less chronic ankle pain from repeated injuries. I discovered Vibram Fivefingers shoes a year ago and fell in love with them as they helped alleviate some of that aforementioned pain. When I was doing research on the shoes (they are expensive for what they are), I kept seeing references to this book. McDougall takes a thoroughly uninteresting subject (running) and explores its odd side (ultras) with enough crazy characters that I don’t know why this isn’t a movie yet but Blind Side is. I recommend this both as a story and as something providing some fundamental insight to an activity that we all do from time to time.
The Cult of the President by Gene Healy (312)
A year might as well be a century in the world of books about current politics. This one was released into the wild as a free e-book by the publisher and I picked it up on a whim. It is a refreshingly well-researched book on the ascension of executive-branch power from the founding to 2008. Unlike most I’ve sampled, it isn’t left vs. right – pretty much every modern president is skewered by history. If you are concerned with a Presidency that can wage war or shut down the internet on a whim, maybe you could download it and give it a read, too?
Drive by Daniel Pink (256)
I may add this to my essential game designer’s library. While it isn’t scientifically conclusive, it provides enormous consequences for everything from how a game designer creates motivational cues for players to how studios organize to actually finish a project. The impetus for reading this came from Chris Hecker’s GDC talk. We haven’t heard the last of this topic. Be familiar with it or ignore it at your own peril.
Extra Lives by Tom Bissell (240)
I already gave my impressions on this one here.
Foundation Game Design with Flash by Rex van der Spuy (586)
This is my third attempt at learning actionscript. I tried around 2000 and it was a gross mess. I tried around 2006 when it was Actionscript 2.0 and I still couldn’t make sense of the stage, library, etc. what with code running in objects and on frames and when does x do y? Actionscript 3.0 seems to be the answer because with this book I’m finally starting to get it. I actually read this cover to cover and while some of the sections were pretty noob, it didn’t spend three chapters on “a variable is like a box” like many other books do. The tone was a little juvenile at times, but it did just the right amount of hand holding for me to get started again and move on to a more substantiative tome.
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner (352)
This was the first book I downloaded to my Kindle. It had been on my wish list for so long that it was turning bituminous. After reading it, I find it hard to remember any of the central tenets. It was interesting as I went for cool psychological/economic experiments, but it was mostly throwaway and the style is done better by Gladwell.
The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo (256)
If you haven’t read Presentation Zen, slide:ology and/or Brain Rules, then maybe you will find some interesting bits in this book. I can’t complain about the messages in this book – everyone needs to learn how to be a better presenter. But like many business books, the twelve rules here could have been done in a long article instead of a short book. Then at least the author could have embedded video. There’s a lot of fluff or irrelevant content (pictures of Jobs, tables of talk transcripts) that do little but pad the book. I’m a big Apple fan, but large parts of this book reads more like a Jobs love-fest than a presentation how-to.
Steve has a luxury most don’t: he controls everything about his presentations and has the resources to present in the manner he finds will best get his message across. The vast majority of us do not have those luxuries. While there are a lot of great rules in the book, unless you are presenting something that is highly visual and have the artistic resources to procure vivid imagery, a lot of the particulars of the keynote’s will be irrelevant.
There are simply better books on this topic elsewhere.
Yes! 50 Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini (272)
I loved the format of this book. It is presented as fifty short magazine style pieces each summarizing a piece of research from the realms of psychology or decision science. Carnegie Mellon was/is a bit of a decision science research hub, but I was still surprised to read of one study where participants watched either a sad or control video, had to write about it and then were offered to take a small amount of money or a nice set of highlighters for their time. This study was designed to evaluate whether people will spend more money for the highlighters when sad. But what stuck with me from it was that I was a test subject in that study. In my intro to psych class, we were required to participate in a number of studies for credit and I distinctly remember that experience. I don’t remember if I chose the highlighters or the money, but I do remember watching the sad clip. I never knew what they were measuring until I read this almost a decade later. Back to the book – it doesn’t delve deep (it doesn’t try to) but the skimming overview would be very interesting for anyone interested in the subject and the book offers takeaways for each principle.
Gamma World Rules (160)
Haven’t played D&D since 2nd edition, but I picked up Gamma World on a lark via the Penny Arcade recommendation and blazed through the rules. It’s a very interesting gateway D&D. If only I had the people to play with, it might be a regular thing.
Fantasy & Science Fiction 10-11/2009 (260)
Fantasy & Science Fiction 12/2009 (260)
Fantasy & Science Fiction 1-2/2010 (260)
Fantasy & Science Fiction 3-4/2010 (260)
Fantasy & Science Fiction 5-6/2010 (260)
Fantasy & Science Fiction 7-8/2010 (260)
Fantasy & Science Fiction 9-10/2010 (260)
Clearly, I subscribe. It is the best bimonthly collection of speculative fiction out there, though I do find they rely way too heavily on certain authors. There is so much new good stuff out there, there is no need to have Reynolds or Reed (or both!) in every damn issue.
Mostly Illustrated But Most Having A Good Deal of Text As Well
Dapper Caps and Pedal-Copters by David Malki (96)
The Halls Below by Holkins and Krahulik (136)
The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade by Holkins and Krahulik (164)
These are all webcomics collections. I try to support my favorites by buying their collections since they give me joy every week for free. The Splendid Magic Penny Arcade book is more of a behind-the-scenes at the wild success of all the PA guys’ ventures. I got it signed when they came into town. We had a very brief chat where I thanked them as a developer for not speaking bullshit like the rest of the press. When Jerry asked me what I worked on and I told him a Facebook game, I watched his interest fade out of his eyes as if I told him I was a tax accountant. Sigh.