It’s that time of year again. The time when readers everywhere post their “best books of whatever-year” and “my favorite books of the year” lists making my pile of books to read grow rapidly. As usual, I’m happy to return the favor.
As I did in the past, I’ve included a rating and short review of each book I’ve read to give both you and I some idea of why I enjoyed each book. You’ll notice that no book has a rating below three stars out of five—that’s because if I am not enjoying a book on some level, I discard it. Life is too short to spend reading books that aren’t interesting.
If you forced me to choose, I’d have to say my three favorite fiction books were: All the Light We Cannot See, Crime and Punishment and Leviathan Wakes. My three favorite non-fiction books were: They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, How Music Got Free and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
- The End of Absence by Michael Harris
I found myself nodding my head in agreement quite frequently while reading this meditation on the way technology is slowing but surely filling in anything that vaguely resembles a void in our “busyness”. There was one point early on in the book where I worried the author was about to get a little too over-the-top in his critique and concerns, but as it turns out, he comes to a pragmatic conclusion at the end arguing that while every technology can alienate us from some part of life, it is our job “to notice”.
- Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
I was torn on how to rate this book. There are sections that are very good and laugh-out-loud funny (particularly much of the quick back-and-forth banter between Jeeves and Bertie) but most of the time the book seemed to drag along. Judging by the overwhelmingly positive reviews of this book (and Wodehouse in general), I’m willing to wager that perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood for the story.
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See is a wonderfully written novel following two primary characters—one a young French blind girl named Marie-Laurie and the other a young German boy named Werner—as they struggle through World War II. In particular, the accounts of Werner’s time in Hitler’s Youth were heart-breaking & moving. But don’t let the heart-break turn you away—there is a lot of genuine beauty in this story as well. A wonderful, wonderful book.
- Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism by Judy Wajcman
This is a really interesting take on the topic of technology and its influence on the widespread feeling of not having enough time in the day. While most books on the topic place the blame directly on the technology itself, Wajcman digs much deeper. Early on, she points out that “temporal demands are not inherent to technology. They are built into our devices by all-too-human schemes and desires.” In other words, to really understand how technology is impacting this feeling of busyness, we need to look beyond the technology itself and see what other factors are contributing.
While the writing is certainly quite dry (sort of par-the-course for a lot of University-based publishers), the ideas are fresh, nuanced and well thought out. I do think that referring to studies conducted prior to smartphones to establish how people use mobile phones was a little short-sighted. However, in the end I support the conclusion: “busyness is not a function of gadgetry but of the priorities and parameters we ourselves set.”
- How About Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons by Bob Mankoff
While labeled as a “memoir”, Mankoff’s book is actually quite light on the “memoir” side of things. Which is ok by me. Where the book really flourishes is in the discussion of the cartoon process: how the cartoons are created, how they are chosen, etc. In fact, I would have loved to get a little more detail and depth on that side of things. As it is, How About Never is a quick and humorous look at cartoon creation. Mankoff’s writing is very informal and ripe with the kind of humor you would expect from a cartoon editor. Combined with the plethora of cartoons included, it makes for a very fun book to read.
- They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan by Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng & Judy A. Berstein
Unbelievable. What these three boys went through, the courage they showed—it left me speechless on so many occasions. They battled hunger, thirst, lions, hyenas, war, prejudice—and they had to do it day in and day out, year after year. This is a hard book to read, but an important one.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
It’s easy to see why so many people like this book. It’s well-written and the ideas it is trying to get across are important. I mean, when reading this you can’t help but be inspired by Atticus and the principles that guide his decisions.
The only criticism I really have is that I feel like the story would have benefited from a bit more…friction, I guess. The characters are all pretty shallow: the good people are really good, the bad are really bad. Perhaps that has to do some with the age of the narrating character. But it feels like, given the important topics discussed, there should have been a bit more depth somehow.
That sounds harsh considering the 4 stars, but that’s only because I’m comparing to the high-praise the book is given and the lofty expectations that go with it. The truth is I did enjoy the book quite a bit—I was just hoping for a little more.
- An Unwelcome Quest by Scott Meyer
I loved getting to spend a bit more time with some of the other characters in this one—Martin is in more of complementary role. The story got a little bogged down for a couple chapters in the middle and that’s the only thing stopping me from calling this my favorite in the series. So much fun to read!
- 11/22/63 by Stephen King
I haven’t read a lot of Stephen King books. In fact, prior to this one, I’ve only read the Dark Tower series. So I can’t speak to the quality of his books that lie more firmly in the “horror” category. But from what I’ve seen, while King gets his fair share of criticism, the truth is he’s a gifted writer with the ability to paint a story so vividly that you get lost in it. 11/22/63 is a great example. There’s some unnecessary fat in the middle (the book probably could have been about 100-150 pages shorter), but he builds the suspense and intrigue masterfully throughout. It’s an interesting take on time travel and a true page-turner with an ending that you can’t help but be moved by.
- Memoirs of a Muppets Writer: (You Mean Somebody Actually Writes That Stuff?) by Joseph A. Bailey
There is so much to like about this book. I loved all the behind the scenes stories Bailey tells. The insight into the process of writing for the Muppets, Sesame Street and comedy in general are pure gold.
The only reason this doesn’t get 5 stars is because of the poor quality of the book itself. The text changes sizes for no reason at all throughout the book. I started reading the paperback but ended up buying the Kindle version to avoid the bizarre text issues. Whoever did the editing also did not do a good job—and I say this as someone who usually doesn’t notice those sorts of things. I hope someone republishes this at some point with a little more attention given to it because the actual substance here is wonderful.
- How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
How We Got to Now builds off the ideas from Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and further hammers home the point that good ideas do not come from lightbulb moments but from what Johnson calls the Hummingbird Effect. For each chapter, Johnson focuses on a different innovation (glass, cold, sound, etc) and shows you how it is connected to innovations you hadn’t considered (from printing press to selfies, for example). If you’re familiar with Johnson’s previous writing you won’t be too surprised by the conclusions here—but you’ll enjoy the winding paths you take to get there.
- Mixed Nuts: America’s Love Affair with Comedy Teams from Burns and Allen to Belushi and Aykroyd by Lawrence J. Epstein
Mixed Nuts is itself a bit of a mixed bag. It felt that at times he was overly abstract in those discussions. I also felt like he stretched his own definition of “comedy team” a bit too thin in order to include more contemporary pairings—Cheech & Chong, Belushi & Aykroyd, etc.—that didn’t seem to match the term quite as well. And I do think that the wide breadth of coverage held the book back a bit—he’s at his best detailing the success of acts like Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello and I found myself wishing he didn’t have to move on so quickly. Still, it was interesting to read the progression of the comedic team and how successive acts built upon their predecessors and Epstein provides several sharp insights throughout the book. Flawed, but a decent introduction.
- The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs' book is in sharp contrast to many of the “how to read” books that are out there. The idea of a prescriptive list of books you “should read” appalls Jacobs, and he spends a good amount of time arguing for reading based on your whim instead. Ironically, in arguing against many books that tell you how to read, he sort of ends up doing the same—just from a different perspective. But there’s a lot here that gets you thinking—his disdain of reading lists, his arguments that most of us read too fast. That, and the many interesting anecdotes along the way, make it an enjoyable book.
- Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things by David Rose
Rose’s book is a very clearly organized look at how widespread and cheap computing could impact objects from our everyday lives. Much of his ideas are tied directly back to abilities from science-fiction and fantasy, which does offer an interesting perspective. The book doesn’t quite get into the underlying design principles enough for my taste (it’s aimed at a more general audience I’m guessing) and there are certainly a few gimmicky examples, but overall it does get you thinking about the potential of the “internet of things” in a different light.
- The Manual Issue 4
Another fantastic issue of The Manual with the typical level of high quality writing all in a beautifully put together book.
- The Rebirths of Tao by Wesley Chu
I loved this series so much! As with the first two books, there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments somehow mixing perfectly with tense action. Seeing the dynamics shaken up a bit after the end of book two brought a new level of depth to the characters—in fact, this may be the author’s finest work in terms of character development in the series.
I’ve heard he’s working on another trilogy with new characters but set in the same universe—I cannot wait!
- Free to Learn: Why Unleasing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray
I’ll openly admit I picked up this book looking for evidence for things I already believed. Gray’s book fit the bill very well. He doesn’t just think compulsory schooling—full of worksheets and testing—is ineffective, he builds a case that it is actively harmful and can’t hold a candle to the way we learn naturally: through play.
In the early chapters, he builds the case extremely well. He provides the data, provides a counter point, and then the data to dismiss the counterpoint. Unfortunately a few of the later chapters aren’t quite as thorough and rely a little more on anecdotal evidence. Still, I can’t imagine anyone coming away from this book unconvinced that one of the best things we can do to improve the state of education today is move away from our current model and allow kids more time to play and experiment so that they don’t just learn better, but develop a love of doing so.
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Everyone talks about this book so I figured it was about time I give it a read. True to what I had heard, it’s a fabulous book. I am still not sure how Dostoyevsky made such a cruel main character also somehow sympathetic, but he does just that. As is the case with many of the great novels, Crime and Punishment is a rich book with many pauses in the main narrative for philosophical and historical discussions. Some may not enjoy the slower pace, but I find the side discussions fascinating—they add so much more nuance to our understanding of the characters and how they think. I highly suspect that this is one of those books that you can read over and over, picking up new details each time.
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Beautiful and haunting story that has a lot more to say than you realize at first glance.
- Apex by Ramez Naam
A solid finish for a very solid and thought-provoking trilogy. I think Naam’s writing improved as the series went on, though at times book #3 felt a little too sprawling—like there were too many bit characters in play to keep straight.
Still, as was the case with the first two books, Apex forces you to consider the vast implications of pervasive technology that is not as far off as we may think (which was once again backed by a chapter at the end where Naam discusses the real-life technology influencing the book).
- Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by Jacquie McNish & Sean Silcoff
RIM is one of the most infamous stories in tech: a company that rose to the very top only to get so stuck in their current vision that they couldn’t see the changes happening around them that would lead to their demise. This is a well-written and engaging account of the rise and fall of RIM and makes for a very nice starting point for understanding what mistakes were made and more importantly, why.
- Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron by Jasper Fforde
Shades of Grey takes a little bit to get going. Fforde carefully and meticulously builds up this world and the characters in it. But man, the pay-off is SO worth it. The more you learn about the world, the more you get sucked into it. The writing is great, the story is compelling, the characters are vividly brought to life and the world is completely unique. My only disappointment was in finding that book 2 is not out yet (and it’s been 6 years)! Can’t wait to see how the rest of the story plays out.
- Time Salvager by Wesley Chu
The plot often felt a little too familiar—like I had been through many of these same sorts of scenes and situations before. Yet I still ended up enjoying it a bit. That I did is a testament to Chu who is very good at mixing action and fun. It’s not nearly as strong as his Tao books, but the potential is there for it to take off in the second book.
- Speak by Louisa Hall
Speak starts off strong and the concept has a ton of potential, but it ended up falling a little short. The writing is pretty solid, but I don’t think the various narratives worked together as well as they could have. It felt like there was something important to be said here but the book never quite got around to saying it.
- How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt
Thoroughly enjoyed this! Witt weaves the story of three central figures—the creators of the MP3, one of the most well-known and successful music executives and one of the most prolific “leakers"—together to create a fascinating look at digital music (and piracy) revolutionized the music industry.
- Impro by Keith Johnstone
Impro is not just a solid introduction to improvisation, but an important look at how current educational systems tend to drive away creativity and what we can do to bring it back. The chapter on Masks felt a bit….odd…at times, and parts of the book drag a little, but there’s plenty of food for thought here.
- So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
I admit that there’s some confirmation bias at play here: I’ve increasingly felt like we are so quick to raise our online pitchforks without stopping to consider what the possible outcome might be. In fact, if I had my way, before you signed up for any social media site you would be required to read this book. Ronson’s style of writing makes you feel like you’re taking the journey right alongside of him as he moves from idea to idea, trying to make sense of shaming and it’s merits and risks. I’m not 100% sold on all the conclusions, but his take is always well articulated and gets you thinking more critically about how you interact with others online.
I also appreciated Jon’s ability to look himself in the mirror and acknowledge his own faults, as well as his own privileges that lessen (though not eliminate) the risk of experiencing the same degree of shaming experienced by some in the book.
I’d love to read a follow-up that dovetails off some of the ideas expressed in the final chapter about feedback loops and the echo chambers created by social media, as I feel like that is key to understanding why we interact the way we do on Twitter, Facebook and their kin.
One note: the book gets a little intense and explicit at parts so if that’s not something your comfortable with, you may want to find another take on the topic.
- Mindwise by Nicholas Epley
This was a humbling book to read. Epley walks through all the ways we “think” we understand where others are coming from when in reality we understand very little. The research mentioned is a bit light in parts, but overall Mindwise does a great job of discussing a very important topic.
- The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba & Bryan Mealer
This simply written book provides a fascinating account of not just one boy’s curiousity and drive, but also of what it’s like to grow up in a small African village (which actually is what the majority of the first half of the book is about). Well worth a read.
- Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It by Ian Leslie
Leslie breaks curiosity down into two forms: diversive (shallow; Googling the capital of Australia) and epistemic (deeper; reading books about Australia’s history and economy). His book focuses on epistemic curiosity: why it matters and what we can do better to encourage it. I found Leslie’s analysis to be pretty nuanced and I loved how curiosity wasn’t framed so much as a trait of a person, but instead as a choice. Though I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, especially some of those around education, Curious works as a good overview of the topic of curiosity with plenty of recommendations for where to dig deeper.
- Building a Device Lab by Destiny Montague and Lara Hogan
Full review here. The short version: Lara and Destiny give wrote a wonderful little guide to setting up a device lab that is equally good for companies of all sizes. They walk through everything you could possibly want to know and more.
- Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiamoi, and The Chinese Dream by Clay Shirky
I typically really enjoy Shirky’s writing, but this one was a little subpar. While the topic itself is fascinating, it felt like Shirky kind of threw this one together a little too quickly—the connections between the main topic and his tangents were tenuous. There are a few interesting tidbits scattered throughout, but overall the discussion felt a bit shallow.
- Using WebPageTest by Rick Viscomi, Andy Davies & Marcel Duran
Full review here. The short version: With all the power WebPageTest provides, there was a huge need for a comprehensive guide to getting the most out of it. Now we have one—a very good one at that. No matter how much (or how little) you think you know about WebPageTest, you’ll walk away from this book with a few new tricks up your sleeve.
- Adaptive Web Design, 2nd Edition by Aaron Gustafson
Full review here. The short version: Adaptive Web Design should be one of the first books on the shelf of anyone building for the web. Showing a deep understanding of the web, Aaron manages to cram nearly 20 years of insight into a book that is an absolute pleasure to read. I dare you to try and read this book without a highlighter handy.
- Beacon 23 by Hugh Howey
Another solid book from Hugh Howey, though I do think it falls a little short of the lofty bar set by Wool and Sand. Still, a gripping story of a man battling to maintain sanity while also having to make moral and ethical decisions with very serious consequences.
- Going Responsive by Karen McGrane
Full review here. The short version: Karen’s book isn’t going to get super technical—she’s approaching the topics from a higher level which means the audience of people who would benefit from reading this is pretty broad. Going Responsive needs to be read by anyone planning to build a responsive site—designers, developers and (perhaps especially) management.
- Designing for Touch by Josh Clark
Full review here. The short version: I love how Josh weaves seamlessly back and forth between the why and the how: here’s why this is the case, now here’s a practical way for you to design based on that knowledge. The book ends up being a mini-master class about designing for touch and gestures.
- Responsive Design: Patterns & Principles by Ethan Marcotte
Full review here. The short version: When I grow up, I want to write as well as Ethan does. His style of writing is just so pleasant: conversational, informative and entertaining. He also, as it turns out, knows a little bit about this whole responsive design thing. Ethan’s pulls from a ton of experience to write an extremely useful book.
- Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
A satisfying conclusion to what was a really solid trilogy. The pace picks up here after the slower second book and I found I had a hard time putting the book down. My only critique is that the final conflict felt a tad anti-climatic after such a great build-up. If you like the Ancillary series, you’ll enjoy this finale as well as it has all the same things that have made the other books so good: great dialogue, smart writing, and plenty of tea.
- The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive by Brian Christian
Once a year, a bunch of people get together to judge a bunch of chatterbots on their ability to pass the Turing test. The judges talk a mix of bots and real people and try to figure out who is who. One of the awards handed out is for the “Most Human Human"—the person who was most easily identifiable as a human being based on their chats. Christian sets out to win that prize in 2009, and the result is this thought provoking book about the way we reason, the way we communicate and the complexities of language.
The book is a few years old so some of the bots he praises seem quite poor, but that’s really secondary to the more interesting philosophical discussion to be had here (as well as a nice little anecdote around why those who think philosophy is useless are already philosophizing).
- Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes is one heck of a fun read. Corey avoids most of the faults that frequently bog down long, space-opera novels to create a book that’s a page turner from start to finish. He doesn’t beat you over the head with the science, but instead puts more focus on creating characters you care about. The result is a fast-paced novel that is part science-fiction, part detective story. It’s the first in a long series of books, so if you’re afraid of long-term commitment, you may want to look elsewhere.