2014 Book Reviews

I’ve appreciated people who take the time to write reviews and highlight connections to other good works, so I’m going to try writing and posting reviews. I’m posting this live on April 20 but plan to update this post through the year. (I figure if I can make it three months I’ve got good odds for finishing the year.)

Starred items are highly recommended. Unlinked books should be avoided.

The Passage. Justin Cronin; novel
A deeply bad book. Vampire/zombie apocalypse with religious and pro-death themes (the protagonist destroys a cure for aging as part of a “happy” ending). Glacially paced because the author doesn’t know how to worldbuild efficiently (or well — the plot hinges on chemical batteries failing after 100 years, but unprepared gas and bullets always work). I didn’t abandon it because I was sleepless and stupid on a trans-Atlantic flight.
* So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Cal Newport, non-fiction
A criticism of “follow your passion” and path to mastery and meaningful work. A little repetitive (the “tell them three times” style), but engaging, well-researched, and valuable.
In The Land of Invented Languages. Rachel Andrew, non-fiction
A delightful romp through the history and modern experience of conlangs, with Esperanto, Tolkein’s works, and Klingon featured.
The Sports Gene. David Epstein, non-fiction
A thoroughly researched investigation of the nature/nurture debate in sports. Doesn’t bog down in anecdote as it illustrates its points with compelling stories of elite athletes.
Fine Structure. Sam Hughes, fiction
I thought this was a series of short stories until they converged into a non-linear novel. Heavier on ideas than plot or characters, but enjoyable SF. A bit unpolished, but the author addresses loose odds and ends in a follow-up Q&A.
What Technology Wants. Kevin Kelly, non-fiction
Long think piece on the growth of technology and human interaction with it. A few fun ideas.
Metaprogramming Ruby. Paolo Perrotta, technical
A lovely introduction to what makes Ruby special. Useful for beginners and intermediates, but experienced Ruby devs need read only the appendices.
Ruby Under a Microscope. Pat Shaughnessy, technical
Excellent, in-depth tour through the implementation of Ruby.
Tribal Leadership, business
Fluffy book about how much of a culture and purpose a business has.
Aurora: CV-01. Ryk Brown, sci-fi
A poorly-written, thinly-veiled fanfiction mashup of Battlestar Galactica and the various Star Treks. Every scene prompted a “oh, yeah, I remember that episode” memory. And characters angst about an evil empire but fail to notice they have invented a weapon that could break planets in half because it never appeared in Trek.
Ghost in the Wires. Kevin Mitnick, memoir
His account of his hacking career and life as a fugitive. Nice alternative to John Markoff’s NYT and book fictionalizations.
The Accidental Creative. Todd Henry, self help
Nice read about creating a reliable process for creative work.
Die Empty. Todd Henry, self help
Not useful like the previous, except perhaps to someone burning out on creative work.
Radiance. Carter Scholz, fiction
Unhappy people talk past each other for 400 pages.
* Homicide. David Simon, true crime
Stunning, engaging writing shadowing Baltimore’s homicide detectives for a year. See the sausage get made.
* The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Dan Ariely, science
Excellent science writing, similar to his previous book Predictably Irrational. Useful for community planners.
Passages in the Void. Roger Williams, sci-fi
Nice series of stories in a universe where life is rare and fragile, though they are in declining order of quality.
Bitter Seeds; The Coldest War; Necessary Evil. Ian Tregillis, sci-fi
The creepy short story What Doctor Gottleib Saw led me to this trilogy. English warlocks struggle against Nazi superpowers. First two books are a long way to go for the payoff in the third.
Liespotting. Pamela Meyer, science
Exploring how to recognize lies using Ekman’s work and standard law enforcement interrogation technique. Skip chapter 9, it’s a complete non-sequiter about creating mastermind groups.
Kushiel’s Dart. fantasy
A masochistic courtesan-in-training becomes a spy-in-training in a world of tedious intrigue. I stopped reading in the paragraph where fantasy Sherlock explains the fantasy term for safe words.
The Shining; Doctor Sleep. Stephen King, horror
Reread The Shining after I finally watched the Kubrick movie. They’re rather different but both excellently creepy horror. Got curious about the sequel Doctor Sleep: psychic vampire motor homers tepidly chase the far-more-powerful protagonists and nothing unpredictable or interesting happens.
* The Leprechauns of Software Engineering. Laurent Bossavit, science
Excellent investigation of how research becomes common knowledge, and how some big cherished software myths (cone of uncertainty, the origin of waterfall, exponentially increasing cost of bugs/change, 10x developers) are false.
Game Theory at Work. James Miller, economics
Nice explanation of basic game theory, but the complete absence of human biases like loss aversion means this is probably only useful to game designers or aspiring sociopaths.
The Atrocity Archives; The Jennifer Morgue; The Fuller Memorandum; Apocalypse Codex. Charles Stross, horror
Lighthearted IT support/office politics mashed up with serious, horrifying Lovecraft mythos in a surprisingly successful way. Includes some deep cut nerd humor (eg. the protagonist’s middle initials).
tmux. Brian P. Hogan, technical.
Best way to get started with tmux. I used it to move on from GNU Screen.
I Kill Giants. Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Nimura, fiction
A moving story of a girl’s retreat into fantasy. Best read in one sitting
Worm. Wildbow, superhero
A cohesive ~7,000(!) page story that puts DC and Marvel to shame. A high school girl who can control bugs sets out to be a superhero and is mistaken for a villain. Pacing is occasionally a little off, but a great world, arc, and ending as she grows to deal with ever-increasing threats.