Time for my annual look back at what I read in the past year. Keeping in the same format as last year, each book has a rating (on a simple 5-star scale) as well as a very short review to give you (and me when I look back at this in a year or so) some idea of why I enjoyed each book.
My top three choices for fiction are: The Martian, Ancillary Justice and Genesis. For non-fiction: Chuck Amuck, Stuff Matters and The Noble Approach. For web-specific titles: Responsible Responsive Design, Designing for Performance and The Manual (I’m just going to cheat and say read all the issues).
I saw a tweet the other day from Austin Kleon where he shared that he had read 70 books this past year. He also shared a brief “How to read more” list. I only hit 39 books this year so I’m not as qualified as he is to provide advice on this, but my advice would be very similar. In particular tip #4 is important:
If you aren’t enjoying a book or learning from it, stop reading it immediately. (Flinging it across the room helps give closure.)
I mention this each year, but if I’m not enjoying a book on some level I don’t finish it. That’s why I have yet to give a book a review of less than three stars out of five. I don’t want to review books I haven’t finished and I don’t want to finish books I’m not enjoying. I currently have nearly 300 books on my “to-read” list according to Goodreads. There’s no time to waste on books that aren’t interesting to me.
Onto the list (in order the books were read):
- Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu
Fantastic sequel in what is shaping up to be a very, very fun series to read. It’s definitely darker and grittier than its predecessor, but there’s still plenty of the same sort of snarky commentary taking place between the main characters. Thoroughly enjoyed it and eagerly awaiting book three!
- Genesis by Bernard Beckett
Genesis is the very best sort of science fiction. It manages to explore topics such as defining consciousness, the nature of the soul and what it means to be human without ever once getting bogged down by these discussions. It grips you from the very start, and when you think you know where everything is headed it takes a sharp turn. Absolutely loved it!
- Getting Naked by Patrick Lencioni
I’m not a big fan of the business fable/parable thing but this was a gift from a friend so I decided to give it a read. As far as business fables go this is a decent one. But, as can be expected from this type of book, it’s very light on meat and lofty on ideals and straw men.
- The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely
The Upside of Irrationality is an interesting (and surprisingly intimate) continuation of the discussion started in Predictably Irrational. Ariely’s style of writing and storytelling moves the book along at a brisk pace. I think a few of the conclusions he came to probably would’ve benefited from a few additional experiments to verify them, but for the most part they’re well thought out. Worth a read.
- Sand by Hugh Howey
Howey is edging his way into must-read territory for me. Another great dystopian novel from him.
- Crux by Ramez Naam
Crux picked up where Nexus left off, letting us see the impact of a post-human technology being used by the masses. It’s a stronger novel than the first book. Though I enjoyed Nexus, it could get a little preachy at times—pushing the underlying ideas a little too heavily. Crux seems more mature. It still explores some really interesting concepts, but it feels better integrated into the story this time.
I also really appreciate how the ideas in the book are backed by current technological advancements. In both this and Nexus, Naam follows the last chapter up with a section describing how similar technologies are being used in real-life today.
Really looking forward to book #3.
- The Flight of the Silvers by Daniel Price
The Flight of the Silvers has a little bit of everything—time travel, parallel universes and X-Men style rules of nature. At first I wondered if it would all be a little too scattered, but Price weaves it all together to create a super fast-paced book that was incredibly difficult to put down and lots of fun to read. Looking forward to the rest of the series and hoping they follow soon: lots of questions left to answer.
- A Web for Everyone by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery
This is the first book on the topic that I’ve read that I felt did a good job of presenting accessibility not as a list of bulletpoints to check off, but as a way of thinking about how you build your site. Whenever anyone is looking to get started in accessibility, this is where I’m going to point them.
- The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
The book hits the ground running on the first page, but as a results it took me a while to care about the characters in Locke Lamora. Once I did (probably about a quarter or so through the book), I enjoyed the story quite a bit. Good anti-hero novel.
- Falling off the Edge by Alex Perry
Perry walks you through a bunch of first-hand accounts of his experiences in areas where the impacts of globalization has been anything but encouraging. It’s not incredibly in depth, and a few of the stories seem a little more loosely tied to globalization than others, but altogether an interesting look at the “other” side of globalization.
- Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss
Moss takes a look at the big three (salt, sugar and fat) not through a scientific lens, but a business one. Based on numerous meetings and interviews, Moss dissects the food industry’s reliance on them—from their impact on taste to how manufacturers market them in a way that can often confuse even the smartest of shoppers.
It’s a really interesting read, but unfortunately it can be a little repetitive. Some of the chapters seemed to retell parts of the same story told in other chapters, as well as reintroduce people we were already introduced too. It doesn’t completely detract from the points the author is making, but it is occurs frequently enough to make the book feel more disjointed than it should have.
- The Humans by Matt Haig
The Humans is about an alien who comes to earth to kill a few humans who know too much, learns to love humanity, and so on. There are certainly things to like: there are indeed a few thought provoking sentences as well as a good amount of humorous insights (like the aliens perception of magazines, for example). Overall though, it was just a little too heavy-handed. Some books can explore the topic of humanity in a way where ti sort of reveals itself throughout the story—this isn’t one of those books. The plot is thinly constructed and exists pretty much entirely to let the author share his thoughts on the topic. It’s not a bad book—just not that great either.
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
In a similar vein to Replay (one of my all-time favorite books), The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August revolves around a character who lives his life over and over again. The world is ending, sooner than it used to, and it’s up to him to figure out why. While it does tend to linger on a few details longer than necessary, overall it’s a smart and well-written book that is equal parts drama, thriller and science-fiction.
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Fantastic! Watching Charlie’s mental progression, and subsequent regression, was both fascinating and heartbreaking. But what really puts the book over the top for me is Keyes' focus on the emotional baggage that comes along with a sudden burst in intelligence: the bad memories, the sudden realization that folks are not as nice as they had seemed, and the struggle that comes with trying to find a way to match his new found mental maturity with his still stunted emotional maturity. Definitely a book that keeps you thinking long after the final sentence.
- The Martian by Andy Weir
Fantastic! The Martian is a realistic, thrilling and often humorous story of one man’s attempt at survival on Mars. Gripping from the very start of the book through to the very last sentence. Can’t recommend this book highly enough. Read it.
- A Better World by Marcus Sakey
I really enjoyed Brilliance, so when the sequel came out I grabbed it right away and had pretty high hopes. Sakey did not disappoint.
When I wrote my review about the first book, I said he touched on some social topics but didn’t really explore them in much depth. A Better World starts to flesh that out a bit more by adding more dimension to the characters and more meaning to the over-arching plot. The result is a book that is a bit more though-provoking than the first, and just as fun and fast-paced.
- Financial Intelligence by Karen Berman, John Case and Joe Knight
I was looking for a book to help me brush up on some of the things I had forgotten from college and high school, as well as give me a little better understanding of what to pay attention to when it comes to the financial health of my company. Financial Intelligence fits the bill very nicely. It’s a pretty nice refresher for those who learned some of this stuff in the past and gentle enough for people completely new to the concepts as well. Good starting point.
- The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
Well this was a surprisingly enjoyable read! I’m not a huge fan of the whole horror genre. Movies, books—there’s precious few of either that I’ve enjoyed. This one definitely breaks the mold. It feels fresh and has significantly more depth to it. The relationship between the main characters is fascinating, as is the way those relationships alter—and even seem to come full circle in some cases—by the end of the book. Thoroughly enjoyed.
- Daily Rituals by Mason Currey
Daily Rituals provides overviews of 150+ people’s day—what they did to be productive, to relax, when they worked, when the rested, etc. Each profile is short and stands alone, so it’s an easy pick it up/set it down read. Some of the profiles are more detailed and interesting than others, but what I enjoyed most was seeing the patterns emerge (for example, you can almost do a 50/50 split of people who claimed long walks and exercise were the key to their success, versus people who turned to some sort of drugs or medicine to keep themselves going).
- Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer
Just plain old fun. Heavy on the comedy and full of geeky references.
- Spell or High Water by Scott Meyer
Not quite as funny as book 1, but still plenty to like. Really looking forward to round 3.
- The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination (or Tiger, Tiger) seems to come up all the time in the discussion of great sci-fi classics. Having finally read it, it’s fairly easy to see why and to see the influence the book has had on cyberpunk and sci-fi in general. While it never quite reached the same level of quality as Bester’s The Demolished Man, that’s more a testament to how good that book is than it is a detriment to this one. The plot moves forward at a blistering pace and despite the fact that the main character is very unlikeable, you still can’t pry yourself away from finding out what happens next.
- The Mobile Web Handbook by Peter-Paul Koch
You can always trust PPK’s writing to be extremely well-researched and thorough. There is no shortage of books about the mobile web but he managed to find plenty of new and interesting tidbits regardless. I especially enjoyed the chapters on the mobile market and browsers.
- Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik
So, so good. The book starts with a picture of the author and each chapter explores the “stuff” in that picture: glass, concrete, dark chocolate, etc. He discusses how the stuff gets made, what it’s good for, and it’s evolution over time. In some hands, this could be dry stuff but the author is incredibly passionate about materials and it’s contagious. You feel his enthusiasm throughout each chapter and can’t help but start looking at the everyday materials around you in a new light. One of my favorite reads of the year!
- Designing for Performance by Lara Hogan
Designing for Performance is the book to hand to anyone—designer or developer—who wants to get started making faster sites. Lara carefully and clearly explains not just how you can create better performing sites, but how you can champion performance within your organization ensuring it remains a priority long after launch. Consider this the starting point in your web performance journey.
- Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones
Chuck Amuck is more memoir than autobiography, which makes it all the more fascinating. Chuck talks about the very intense process of cartoon animation, the team that was in place at WB (along with some fairly harsh assessments of “management”) and how iconic characters like Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and Daffy Duck evolved and developed their own personalities over time. As a bonus, the book sprinkles sketches and storyboards of the Looney Tunes animations throughout.
- On Web Typography by Jason Santa Maria
Fantastic primer on web typography. Loads of useful information and advice all very clearly explained. If you’ve been interested in typography but have had a hard time making sense of it all, this is the ideal place to start.
- The Manual, Issue 1
Finally got around to purchasing the first three issues of the Manual and I’m wondering what took me so long. Issue 1 was fantastic. A combination of great writing and careful editing resulted in a really enjoyable book with every section providing food for thought. I particularly enjoyed the sections from Simon Collison, Dan Rubin, and Frank Chimero. I also was really impressed by the quality of the book itself: looks great and lovely attention to detail.
- Lock In by John Scalzi
A blend of mystery and science-fiction (leaning more heavily towards mystery), Scalzi’s latest is a good one. Some of the issues discussed in the book are fairly thinly veiled allusions to current situations but they never feel forced in anyway (as happens when an author pushes too hard). Instead, the story moves quickly with plenty of tension, humor and thought-provoking dialogue along the way.
- The Manual, Issue 2
Proving that issue 1 wasn’t a fluke, the second installment is just as excellent. Really tough to choose, but I’d say the sections from Karen McGrane, Cennydd Bowles and Trent Walton were probably my favorites.
- The Noble Approach by Tod Polson
A wonderful blend of biographical details and animation design principles that leaves you with a whole new appreciation for cartoon design. After reading the book, watching the cartoons becomes an even more enjoyable experience as you realize just how beautifully crafted they are. Really enjoyed this one!
- Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
I purchased Ancillary Justice almost immediately after talking to a friend earlier this year and hearing her rave about it, but it had remained untouched in my pile of books to eventually since then. I like sci-fi, but I’m not a huge space opera kinda guy so I hesitated. I shouldn’t have.
Ancillary Justice is a great book—well deserving of the awards it won. It’s smart, beautifully written and gripped me from early on. Ann does an incredible job of building tension throughout without a ton of superfluous battles and forced action. A tight plot and smart dialogue is all she needs to put you on the edge of your seat and keep you there until the final page.
- Responsible Responsive Design by Scott Jehl
I’ve already written up a full review, but here’s the short version: this is a fantastic book firmly rooted in real-world knowledge. It should be on the shelves of web developers everywhere.
- The Manual, Issue 3
In typical Manual form, the book was high quality from start to finish. In particular the entries from Duane King, Jeremy Keith and Ethan Marcotte stood out.
- Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
A worthy follow-up to Ancillary Justice that only slightly falls short of matching Ancillary Justice’s excellence. Still thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was paced a bit slower and only picked things up about 2/3 of the way through. The same smart, high-quality writing is there. It just felt a little more like a setup for the final book in the trilogy (which should be very eventful).
- Timing for Animation by John Halas
A solid introduction to the topic. A lot of good ideas and principles here—not just for cartoon animation, but for other timing in other interactive mediums as well.
- That’s All Folks! by Steve Schneider
While you’ll find more detailed information elsewhere, the author does a pretty good job of providing some context and historical insight into the evolution of the Looney Tunes, the creation of the major characters, and the personalities behind the scenes. Where this book really shines, though, is in the many beautiful and hard-to-find sketches and animation artwork prominently on display. It’s a gorgeous book!
- Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
Barrier’s book is an extremely well researched and well written look at American cartoon animation from the 30’s to 50’s. While, understandably, Disney gets the most attention, he does discuss the work produced by places such as Warner Bros, Terrytoons, Hanna-Barbera and UPA. That’s really where the book flourishes. Seeing how ideas and techniques spread from studio to studio and being able to compare and contrast their different approaches is fascinating.
Barrier doesn’t pull punches. Nobody in this book is free from criticism: their miscues are highlighted just as much as their successes. In fact, he’s quite critical of all the studio’s and their work. While I don’t necessarily agree with a few of his critiques of some of the cartoons (his opinion on the impact of Noble & Jones combined work couldn’t be farther from my own), it’s interesting to hear his thoughts on them nonetheless.
- Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer
After a 15 year absence Keizer returns to teaching for one year and, thanks to this book, we get to follow along. The result is an insightful look at modern day teaching that is both humorous at times, and depressing at others.
There you have it. If you have any recommendations for what I should add to my stack of books to read in 2015, feel free to let me know!