2014 Book Reviews «

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I’ve appreciated when people take the time to write reviews and highlight connections to other good works. In the hopes of being useful (and converting my consumption to production), I’m going to try writing and posting capsule reviews of all the books I read this year. 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. “Dropped” books were left unfinished.

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 drop 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 dropped it 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, though they always start with Bob’s superiors dispatching him in an unjustifiable state of ignorance. 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.
You Can Be Right (Or You Can Be Married). non-fiction
Anecdote and confabulation.
The Disaster Diaries. Sam Sheridan, non-fiction
A very manly man prepares for wildly improbable disasters. Not a practical guide and not compellingly written.
Understanding the Four Rules of Simple Design. Corey Haines, technical
A lovely read that revels in experimentation and rewards rereading.
* Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby. Sandi Metz, technical
4th read. A very polished and insightful book. When I first read it I constantly thought “Yep, that’s how I’d implement that/make that change” and then Metz constantly pointed out the problems that I would struggle to articulate.
The Memory Palace. Mila Bartok, memoir
Disjointed and sad book about growing up with a schizophrenic parent and recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Dropped in chapter 6.
Logicomix. Various, biography
A very self-satisfied biography of Bertrand Russell… that smugly mentioned it was editing historical facts for a convenient narrative. Dropped there.
Echo. Terry Moore, sci-fi
Apparently a vaguely-nuclear jetpack-flying lightning-throwing cancer-curing deafness-correcting age-reversing form-fitting suit works by repeatedly declothing the woman wearing it. And it gets stupider. I won’t read another book by this author.
Exceptional Ruby. Avdi Grim, technical
Front-half is a minutia-filled look at Ruby’s implementation of exceptions, the second half is a nice exploration of best practices.
Nudge. Richard Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, economics
“Let’s take a horrible libertarian system and make small changes to make it less awful. Isn’t that wonderful?” No.
How Buildings Learn. Stewart Brand, architecture
A wonderful exploration of how buildings change over years, decades, and centuries.
To Save Everything, Click Here. Evgeny Morozov, politics
A contrarian response to simple technological solutions to wicked problems. Nice read, and good companion to Seeing Like a State (below).
Queen and Country. Greg Rucka and various artists, spy thriller
British spies shoot a lot of guns. Heavily based on the excellent TV series The Sandbaggers, which is the life-and-death office politics of British spies. Dropped Q&C when I realized it couldn’t compare to Sandbaggers.
Practical Vim. Drew Neil, technical
A very nice walk through the best text editor. Worth reading one chapter per week so you can form habits without getting overwhelmed.
Alone Together. Sherry Turkle, anthropology
How humans relate to emotional robots, and then how we relate to each other via and in the presence of unemotional machines.
Killing is Harmless. Brendan Keogh, literary criticism
2nd read. An excellent exploration of Spec Ops: The Line, a subversive game about player agency in violent video games (and a rare success at both ambiguous storytelling and breaking the fourth wall). I only wish he’d done original interviews to nail down the many “was this intentional?” questions.
Iron Man volumes 1-4. Various, superhero
I was curious to read Iron Man when the first movie came out, so I picked up the complete run. This entry marks the end of my slow and fitful read. Vol 1: starts pretty cheesy and awful (I skimmed/skipped a lot of these), but around issue #110 it picks up with some solid storytelling and occasionally great art until around #250. This is the core of Iron Man and the only part I’d recommend. Vol 2: unreadable, incoherent garbage. Vol 3: An OK run. Tony fights some villains and is an asshole to his girlfriend, ends poorly with him becoming the Secretary of Defense. Vol 4: generally quite good, though often marred by multi-title crossover arcs. I think the entire purpose of S.H.I.E.L.D is to build trapdoors for writers who have painted themselves into corners, and this volume has Tony becoming the Director (cough).

Mating in Captivity. Esther Perel, sexuality
Explores the often-inverse relationship between intimacy and sexuality in long-term relationships. Very good.
Crucial Conversations, 2nd ed. Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, self-help
How to have difficult conversations well. Excellent if a bit buzzword heavy. Oddly missing any discussion of how to recognize and deal with bad actors.
Ancillary Justice. Ann Leckie, sci-fi
Author tries to disguise poor pacing with nonlinear storytelling and a narrator who never thinks ahead about their goal. It might have a plot about space romans and embodied AIs, but nothing much actually happens. I dropped it in Chapter 12 when it starts introducing a new set of characters and I realized I didn’t care about any of the existing ones. There’s a constantly-referenced never-explained grouping for AIs and starships, four characters whose names begin with S, and the AI narrator uses pronouns haphazardly so none of the rest feel like they have a stable identity.
Confident Ruby. Avdi Grimm, technical
Really nice guide to writing idiomatic, bug-free Ruby. Would make a lovely, slightly lower-level companion to Metz’s POODR. If curious, watch Grimm’s earlier talk.
100 Bullets. Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, thriller
Unlikeable and improbably lethal assassins feud incoherently with a ridiculous globe-dominating conspiracy.
Going Clear. Lawrence Wright, history
Scientology is pretty messed up, let’s study how the trainwreck unfolded.
Seeing Like a State. James C. Scott, history
How governments simplify and organize people and complex systems for their convenience. A stunning, powerful perspective to understand government action.
The Inner Game of Tennis. W. Timothy Gallwey, psychology
How to turn off conscious supervision of physical action for peak performance. Complements Zen and the Art of Archery. Puts words to how I’ve long thought about playing sports.
Microinteractions. Dan Saffer, technical
An exploration of tiny features that make products shine, but poorly organized and overwhelmed by a random selection of examples.
* Trust Me, I’m Lying. Ryan Holiday, culture
A two part book: first an exploration of how blogs make money by churning reader outrage and marketers manipulate them, then a darkly humorous mea culpa with the author whining about this broken system turning against the him, while shedding the requisite crocodile tears for society at large. He’s thoroughly reprehensible (so hit the library rather than buy a copy), but the understanding of how mass media now works is vital.
The Quantum Thief. Hanni Rajaniemi, sci-fi
A transhumanist adventure in the ultimate dictatorship. Hopelessly muddled because it rarely explains the setting or neologisms that allude to Russian literature and French, Japanese, and Hebrew vocabulary. Many of these are vital to the plot, so pass on this book unless you have read ridiculously broadly or keep Google handy.
Guyland. Michael Kimmel, ethnography
Extended adolescence combines with masculinity as a hybrid of the Milgram and Asch conformity experiments.
Incandescence. Greg Egan, sci-fi
Puzzle sci-fi involving a derivation of some principles of general relativity. Nice if you know the physics already, but otherwise a few diagrams short of enjoyable.
It’s Complicated. Danah Boyd, ethnography
Teens have poor mental models of new communications media, and adults have a worse mental model of that.
Shadowrun novels. Various, sci-fi
To feed my sweet tooth for pulp sci-fi I’m reading the novels based on the Shadowrun RPG.

  1. Never Deal With A Dragon: Salaryman Sam falls into mercenary underground and is aided by a surprising number of rogues with hearts of gold
  2. Choose Your Enemies Carefully: Sam survives and disrupts (then forgets about) an evil plot, often thanks to ridiculous coincidence
  3. Find Your Own Truth: Trilogy lurches its way to a Sam’s showdown with entirely different evil forces, again aided by a crew of inexplicably helpful criminals
  4. 2XS: Private dick meets femme fatale and is pulled into a larger conspiracy. Delightfully to genre.
  5. Changeling: Troll kid finds his place in the world. Pretty good.
  6. Never Trust an Elf: Idiot mercenaries trust shady figures, violence ensues, repeat ~8x.
  7. Into the Shadows: Solid anthology.
  8. Streets of Blood: Riff on Jack the Ripper, surprisingly good ending.
  9. Shadowplay: Almost-retired grizzled veteran and naive kid with potential chase McGuffin.
  10. Night’s Pawn: Retired merc does one last job featuring three new sourcebooks now available at finer retailers near you.
  11. Striper Assassin: Were-tiger assassin seeks same for long walks on the beach, murder-for-hire.
The Discovery of France. Graham Robb, history
A fun historical ramble through how incredibly diverse France was until the Great War.
Becoming Functional. Joshua Backfield, technical
A quick, basic intro to functional programming concepts (immutability, recursion, lazy evaluation, etc). The first three chapters are darkly humorous for their depictions of these concepts in Java. Nice little intro if you’re a Java coder, otherwise not too useful.
Swarmwise. Rick Falkvinge, politics
The history of Sweden’s Pirate Party as a how-to manual. Not especially useful, but a fun read.
Secrets of Power Negotiating. Roger Dawson, business
2nd read. Excellent, non-slimy introduction to making deals.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. John M. Gottman, self-help
Current best research into marital dynamics and outcomes, along with personal surveys and tips.
Entrepreneurial DNA: Joe Abraham, business
Fluffy read dividing entrepreneurs into tour personality types. I don’t quite buy it, but there was a bit of food for thought.
Seven Steps to Sales Scripts for B2B Appointment Setting: Scott Channell, business
A useful, experienced guide to cold calling for sales appointments (though it needed an editor for typos and occasional poor phrasing).
Full Dark, No Stars: Stephen King, fiction
Three novellas about gruesome violence and a short story with no point. “A Good Marriage” is the only one worth reading.
Drive: Daniel Pink, science
A nice read about motivation science, though padded for length.
* The Mom Test. Rob Fitzpatrick, business
How to effectively interview potential customers to evaluate a business idea. Must-read for entrepreneurs.
* What If?: Randall Munroe, science
Dryly hilarious answers to ridiculous physical scenarios.
* The Martian: Andy Weir, sci-fi
Astronaut accidentally abandoned alone on Mars struggles for survival. Good humor and good science.
Authority: Nathan Barry, business
How to write and sell an ebook. Nice overview.
Petrograd: Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook, historical fiction
What if the assassination of Rasputin was a plot by English intelligence services? Great comic.
Traction: Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, business
Strategies for marketing young startups. Wonderfully broad. Skip the interview transcripts; the only interesting thing in them is how thoroughly Alexis Ohanion has written Aaron Swartz out of Reddit’s early history.
Superintelligence: Nick Bostrom, science
Painfully dry speculation on the risks AI poses to humanity. Feels a bit like speculating about powered flight before the Wright brothers: it’s clear there’s some big changes in store, but most of the guesses are probably nonsense.
Design For How People Learn: Julie Dirksen, education
How to educate effectively. Reading this was one long series of “Oh, so that’s where I screwed up that class/presentation/email” realizations.
Desert Solitaire: Edward Abbey, memoir
Stories from a rural park ranger. Wonderfully earnest.
The Senior Software Engineer: David Bryan Copeland, programming
How to be a professional developer. I disagree completely with the “don’t respond until you’ve done something” advice, but otherwise it’s solid.
Passages: Gail Sheehy, anthropology
A classic, but hard to relate to given today’s prolonged adolescence and economic recession.
Dataclysm: Christian Runnder, popular science
Datacandy. A few hundred pages of cute trends in OKCupid’s data followed by one chapter on the deep social problems caused by invasive tracking.
Making Learning Whole: David Perkins, education
How to structure education for effective learning.
What Makes Love Last?: John Gottman, Nan Silver, self-help
A little prone to coining jargon, but otherwise a good guide to diagnosing and healing relationship issues.
Quantum Computing Since Democritus: Scott Aaronson, science
I heard this described as teaching quantum computing from the first principle of “what if, instead of the probabilities summing to one, the square root of the sum of the squares was one?” A great idea, but this is not that book, and I don’t have the deep math knowledge to do more than cling on for the first few pages of each chapter.
Ra: Stephen Hughes, sci-fi
Magic as science thoroughly explored. Needs an edit pass, but a good read.
* Anathem: Neal Stephenson, sci-fi
10th read, my favorite sci-fi novel of the last decade. Nerd teens investigate a mystery growing to loom over their sheltered existences.
How Not To Be Wrong: Jordan Ellenberg, pop sci
Really nice exploration of what math means as a practical matter.
This One Summer: Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki, fiction
Coming-of-age story at a summer cottage. Beautiful art and storytelling.
The Profitable Side Project Handbook: Rachel Andrew, business
Only informed by one project. “Start Small, Stay Small” is still a much better read on the same topic.

Final update: 2015-01-04

And now the year is over with a little over 100 books finished, depending on how the deliberately unfinished books and serial works are counted. And that count is indeed interesting to me: when I was a kid with no commitments I used to read 200-300 books per year, mostly light fiction. I knew I was down from that between reading email/blogs and having personal projects, but I had no intuition for how much.

This year I experimented with self-published fiction: Fine Structure, Ra, Worm, and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (likely will be on next year’s list as the final chapters are published). I don’t think I’ll continue to do so. While self-published non-fiction has regularly been some of the best books I’ve ever read, the fiction is generally lower-quality. Not in the “this is just dumb” sense (well, Aurora was head-deskingly bad), in the “this needed an editor and another draft” sense. There’s too much entertainment out there to waste time with low quality. I also continue to dislike waiting on in-progress serial works (Ra, HPMOR, most TV, most comics) because of declining quality and attention lost to the Zeigarnik Effect.

This was also the first year I had an ebook reader on my phone. For a few decades I’ve almost always had a book or ereader with me, which is occasionally inconvenient (mostly in summer, when I have no large jacket pockets). I loaded it with light fiction (like all those cheesy Shadowrun novels) because I thought of it as alternative to serious reading. But I look back and see much more light fiction than I wanted, so I’m going to load it similarly or identically to my ereader (which as a much nicer screen for reading). Except for dense technical works my reading time is very fungible.

Keeping this list has already been useful for me. I’ve referred back to it to find books I wanted to recommend. When I’m reading, there’s been a small part of me reading more critically as it considers how to summarize the book (so I’ve also dropped more books, which I consider very positive). And it makes me happy to turn consumption into production. I’m going to continue keping this list.

In fact, I’m going to expand it. When I reread this list I can see gaps where I got pulled into playing 2048 or Crusader Kings II for endless hours. I’d like to take note games, movies, and TV because I have no intuition for how much of that I’m consuming.

Please post a comment if you’ve gotten anything out of these recommendations or have a list of your own to link to. And here’s 2015 Media Reviews.