This is a tough year for me to list my top three non-fiction and fiction books because there were a lot of really good ones—particularly in fiction. The fact that there were so many great books probably contributes to why I was able to reverse the downward trend in my book count the past few years.
That being said, for fiction I’d have probably have to rank Lexicon, Dust and Ocean at the End of the Lane as my top three. For non-fiction: The Reading Promise, Jim Henson: The Biography and Designing and Engineering Time. For web-specific titles: Content Everywhere, Responsive Design Workflow and The Mobile Book.
Each year that I post the list I hear from someone who wanted a little more information about the books. So part way through the year I started jotting down short reviews of each one. The reviews are nothing earth-shattering, but hopefully they provide at least a little extra glimpse into why I enjoyed a book.
As is always the case, if a book is on the list then I enjoyed it on some level. The lowest rating I’ve ever given to a book is three stars out of five—if it was headed toward 2 or 1 star territory, I don’t finish it. Some people are strong enough to grit their teeth and finish books they don’t like. I’m not one of those people.
- Work for Money, Design for Love by David Airey
- Content Everywhere by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- Shift: Omnibus Edition by Hugh Howey
- Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff
- The Reading Promise by Alice Orzman
I confess—as a dad who loves to read to his daughters, I’m very biased towards this topic. It’s a book written by the daughter of an avid reader. He read to her every single night for 3,218 consecutive nights. I loved hearing about the streak, what it meant for Alice and the efforts they went to in order to keep it alive. This is my favorite non-fiction read of the year.
- Money, Real Quick by Tonny Omwansa and Nicholas Sullivan
- To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
- A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink
Responsive Design Workflow by Stephen Hay
I wrote up a full review of this one earlier this year. If you’d prefer I just cut to the chase: whenever anyone is asking about a workflow for responsive design, I hand them this book.
Building Touch Interfaces with HTML5 by Stephen Woods
Lots of interesting insights and I love all the focus on performance! There were a few topics that I thought he zoomed through a bit too quickly without really digging into, even for the intermediate to advanced audience that he was targeting. But that’s a relatively minor quibble considering all the good information he does discuss.
- The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
I don’t re-read many books, but I’ve now read this one 3 or 4 times.
- Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is so consistently good. The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels right at home with his past work and, like American Gods and Anansi Boys, explores the intersection of immortals and regular everyday folk. It’s a short, brisk read that sucks you in almost immediately. While not a “dense” book in any way, shape, or form, I did find myself highlight many sentences that were both funny and insightful. Great stuff!
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Enjoyed it and blew right through it, but it’s not quite on the same level as American Gods, Neverwhere or Ocean at the End of the Lane. For most authors, probably 5 stars but Gaiman has set the bar so high for himself.
- HBR Guide to Creating Persuasive Presentations by Nancy Duarte
Great little book! Concise, to the point, and full of actionable advise for how to give a great presentation: from the earliest stages of planning through to on stage advice and everything in between. I would happily hand this to anyone getting started in public speaking as a fantastic place to begin.
If, on the other hand, you’ve read Resonate or Garr Reynold’s books—you probably don’t need to rush out and grab this one. The information is very solid, but you’ll have heard a lot of it before.
- Designing and Engineering Time by Steve Seow
Discussions of performance quickly turn into a discussion of stats and metrics. What really matters, though, is how users perceive the performance of your application/program/website. This book focuses on that: improving the perceived performance of your project. It’s a quick read, but each chapter offers up a wealth of handy references for digging deeper into a specific topic discussed.
An excellent introduction to time perception for any engineer, developer, or designer.
- Brilliance by Markus Sakey
I was concerned at first from the synopsis that I was basically going to be reading an X-Men clone, but while there are similarities, that ended up not being the case. Brilliance does focus on norms and “abnorms”, but their abnorms are much more grounded in reality—people with exceptional analytical abilities, or the ability to read how people are going to act based on facial expressions/posture/muscle movement, etc. This meant that this alternate version of modern day still felt real.
It’s not a deep, meaningful read—he touches on some interesting social topics, but doesn’t really explore them in much depth—but its a darn fun one. Even though a couple of the plot points were fairly predictable, the way Sakey tells the story kept me enthralled from page one. A hard book to put down.
- Lexicon by Max Barry
Incredibly fast-paced, smart, engaging characters, and enough twists to keep you guessing a bit. Thoroughly enjoyed it!
- Dust by Hugh Howey
Wool was fantastic. Shift was very, very good (though perhaps not quite as excellent, still a very fun read). Dust? Might be my favorite of the trilogy.
Quick-paced with lots of answers to questions that had come up throughout the first two books, and a satisfying conclusion. If you liked the other two books, picking this up is a no-brainer.
- The Great Indian Phone Book by Assa Doron & Robin Jeffrey
An incredibly thorough look at the mobile technology industry, and its impact, in India. Loads of fascinating examples of how mobile, even the most mundane capabilities of the technology, is significantly altering life throughout India. The research is exhaustive in detail, though at times a little repetitive.
Recommended for anyone interested in seeing how sometimes the simplest technologies can have the most profound impact on society.
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
It was loads of fun—quickly paced, funny and enthralling. Sort of a Willy Wonka meets sci-fi sort of thing.
The only reason I won’t quite give it 5 stars is because while I enjoyed the references to 80’s music, games and film, it did get a little excessive at one point early in. One of the early chapters seemed to be an excuse to just list all of the authors favorites in one place. For the most part, the references were fun—but this chapter was a little gratuitous.
Minor complaint, though. After that chapter the author settled into a nice rhythm and I was hooked.
- Just Enough Research by Erika Hall
In typical A Book Apart fashion, Just Enough Research is one you’ll want to keep nearby so that you can go back to it frequently. Erika manages to pack a ton of information into a small package (154 pages!) without making it a chore to read.
This book should be on the shelf of anyone involved in building websites.
- The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
The book’s title very aptly describes the begging of the story—the interesting bit of course is what happens after that. The chapters bounce back and forth between telling us about the main characters current adventures on the run from both the police and a notorious criminal gang and telling us about his life up to that point—a rich story in itself that weaves together major historical figures such as Churchill, Stalin, Truman, Nixon and more.
Quirky and fun!
- Sass for Web Designers by Dan Cederholm
This is now at the top of my list for resources for people just starting with Sass.
If you’ve been using it for awhile, you might pick up a few tricks, but you’d mostly likely be better off picking up something else. If, however, you’re just starting to dip your toes into it (or are skeptical) this is pretty much perfect. Short, to the point, and very clearly explained.
- Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Ray Jones
Henson’s creations were so imaginative and timeless—it’s fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look at how he brought them to life. Jones weaves a great story pulling in bits from Henson’s journal and anecdotes from his family and coworkers along the way.
It’s not all praise. Jones does (respectfully) mention several flaws and mistakes—both professional and personal. The result is a well-rounded and thoroughly enjoyable look at a creative genius.
- Remote by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
How much you’ll get out of this book depends on your current situation.
If you’re already working remotely and are hoping that the book will give you new insights to do it better, then this book is just ok. You’ll probably get more validation than you will takeaways.
However, if you are A) someone trying to decide whether to institute remote work at your company or B) someone trying to convince your boss to let you work remotely, then this is the ideal book for you. The case against remote work is carefully dismantled, piece by piece.
- Front-End Styleguides by Anna Debenham
A brisk 60 pages or so of excellent information for anyone curious about styleguides. Kind of a no-brainer, particularly given the ridiculously low cost.
- Nexus by Ramez Naam
Scientists have been experimenting with using the human mind to perform actions: everything from moving a mouse cursor to moving the tail of a rat. Ramez pushes this idea to the limit: what if humans could link their brains together. What if you could share thoughts and emotions with other humans? What if you could “enhance” this functionality with packages (such as one that steadies your nerves)? And what if you could actually control other people using this same technology?
Nexus hits the ground running on the first few pages and then never lets up. The concept is fantastic and the science seems pretty spot on (unsurprisingly given Ramez has also written a book about biological enhancement). There is a lot of good discussion about the ethical implications of a technology that powerful, though it’s not very subtle and can get a little heavy-handed at times. But that’s a relatively minor complaint for an otherwise great read.
- 14 by Peter Clines
‘14’ is a bit of a departure from my standard reading material. It’s a part mystery and part horror with humor mixed in throughout and just a shade of science-fiction.
The first part of the book, as the characters try to figure things out, was pretty gripping. Each chapter provided a few clues and left me eager to find out what was going to happen next—I had a hard time putting the book down. Unfortunately, the ending didn’t do the rest of the book justice. It may be just personal taste, but from the moment where you find out what’s in room 14 on, it seemed to shift quickly from a taut mystery to a messy pile of whatever bizarre elements the author decided to toss into the story next.
- The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
This book was just plain old fun. An overweight, under-achieving IT tech gets inhabited by a member of an alien species who must now turn his new host into an agent capable of engaging in the age-old, secret war that has been taking place. Action, top-secret spy stuff, snarky humor and even a few brief philosophical discussions ensue. Reading the sequel next.