Ah, the end of the year. A time where my waistline expands as I feast on mountains of holiday sweets and the list of books I want to the read expands just as quickly as everyone shares their favorite reads from 2016.
As always, I enjoyed every book on this list at least a little—I don’t have the patience or desire to get through books that I’m not finding interesting in some way.
If I had to choose, I’d say my three favorite fiction reads of the year were: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, A Monster Calls, and The Book Thief. For non-fiction, they would be The Road of Lost Innocence, Console Wars, and Evicted. Just to warn you, the only book out of those six that you should expect to finish without having lost any tears along the way is Console Wars. Apparently, I was really into emotionally-charged books this year.
- Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education by Ken Robinson
Ken, as you would expect if you’ve read his prior books or watched his fantastic TED talk, is excellent at discussing complex topics in a compelling and memorable way. The book doesn’t go particularly deep in any one area (something Ken makes clear early on), but he does include ample notes and references to books and research if you would like a more detailed look at any one specific point. This book is a starting point for digging into the current issues around education and our test. Digging into something by Diane Ravitch or Peter Gray’s Free to Learn would be a nice way to follow this up.
- Pricing Design by Dan Mall
No one in web design has done more work to help others run a business than Dan Mall. His written post after post and even published a podcast all about how to run your web studio successfully. Pricing feels like a taboo topic to many which makes good information hard to come by. That’s not the case with Dan. In this short book, he dives deep into how he prices projects—providing all the nitty gritty details along the way. I’ll be buying more copies of this one so I can hand it out to friends—such a great resource!
- Written in Fire by Marcus Sakey
A very satisfying conclusion to a very fun trilogy.
- A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
I couldn’t put this one down. It’s not that it’s fast paced, but you quickly become very attached to the characters. It’s a beautiful story about ordinary people fighting for survival in post-war Chechnya. It’s not for the faint of heart—it’s difficult to read some of the horrors these people go through—but please don’t let that stop you. It’s an incredible novel!
- Caliban’s War by James Corey
Solid if not quite as spectacular as Leviathan Wakes.
- Abaddon’s Gate by James Corey
Another solid entry in the series, though Corey continues to follow a similar formula to the first book and it would be nice to see things shaken up a bit in book #4.
- The Index Card by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack
There is a breed of personal finance books that remind me of the bad self-help kind of books—the kind we like to mock for being light on any real substance. I think Index Card kind of falls into that same trap. It reads well—it’s conversational and simple—but there’s not a ton of meat. Probably a decent gift to a student who is just starting to wade into the world of having to manage their own finances, but for anyone who has spent even a little time learning about personal finance, there’s nothing new here.
- Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
The more I think about this quick read, the more I like it. You know how Alice falls down the rabbit hole and is exposed to a whole new world? Or the kids walk through the wardrobe and find themselves in Narnia? This book follows children like that—children who have seen some other world—and are now trying to deal with the sadness of being back in their own. It’s fun, dark and a bit creepy. Looking forward to the next book in the series.
- The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam
I can’t remember a more gut-wrenching, heartbreaking book. Some parts made me cry; others made me overcome by rage—this is not an easy book to get through, and I imagine that many people won’t be able too. It’s simply too intense. This isn’t to say that there’s not hope in here as well. Somaly’s rise from the conditions she was forced into, and her efforts to help others in the same situation, are deeply moving and powerful.
I do have to note that after reading the book, I saw that there was a report that Somaly fabricated much of her story. There are also conflicting reports that are just as compelling. Somaly has maintained that she has told the truth throughout. In some ways, I almost hope she isn’t. I want to be able to believe that we aren’t capable of the cruelties she and the other girls she mentions had to live through.
However, perhaps it is my naivety and desire for her to be genuine, but given the significance of what she is trying to accomplish, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see people trying to discredit her. So, I’m choosing to believe her. If you can stomach it, I highly recommend the book—it’s a powerful reminder of our remarkable ability to overcome even the worst conditions. It’s also a great reminder that we can make an impact:
I don’t feel like I can change the world. I don’t even try. I only want to change this small life that I see standing in front of me, which is suffering. I want to change this small real thing that is the destiny of one little girl. And then another, and another, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself or sleep at night.
- A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
I hate to admit it, but I still occasionally find myself ignoring a novel when I see the “Young Adult” label attached to it. It’s a silly thing to do, as many incredibly gifted authors have pointed out time and time again.
A Monster Calls reminded me just how ridiculous this label is. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking story of a boy with a terminally ill mother, and the monster he calls for. It’s a quick read, but don’t let the brevity fool you into thinking it’s lightweight. The story grips you by the heart. I read the last few chapters while sitting in an airport and that was probably a mistake—I was fighting back a flood of tears by the end. I read the ebook, but have since ordered the hardcover so that I can have all the beautiful illustrations that go with it.
- Chasing Perfection by Andy Glockner
There’s a great book to be written on this topic—the use of advanced data and analytics in the NBA—but this isn’t it. Most of the time he seems to cover the use of analytics in too much brevity, instead spending time on somewhat related tangents. Andy does uncover a few interesting bits, but there’s not enough depth here.
- TED Talks by Chris Anderson
There’s some great advice in here. Sure, it follows a specific type of talk (as you would expect), but there’s a reason these talks have become so popular. Chris provides solid practical advice and gives plenty of examples (all from TED’s world of course) on how to execute.
- The Days of Tao by Wesley Chu
Another fun entry into the world of Tao. I do think Days of Tao is not quite as polished as the other entries in the Tao series—it feels a little less mature in tone which I suppose makes sense given that Cameron is moved front and center while Jill and Roen are barely involved. While not quite as strong as the other books, it’s a fun and quick way to dip back into this universe while we wait for The Rise of Io to be released.
- Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
I think what I like most about Kleon’s books is that they’re inspirational without being pretentious. He doesn’t waste time on fluff; he just gets right to the point he wants to make in a brief and concise format, and always with beautiful graphics. A quick read with plenty of solid advice.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Another example of how the Young Adult label is mostly hogwash. The Book Thief follows a young girl in Germany during World War II, as narrated by Death himself. He frequently alludes to events to come later in the novel, only greater building your anticipation. I like Zusak’s take on Death as well—he’s not some dark entity that takes great pleasure in his work. Instead, he’s sad as he watches the different ways in which people hurt each other. It’s a moving book with a story that will stick with you. Just don’t expect to make it through with dry eyes.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I’m a sucker for a good post-apocalyptic novel, and this one fits the bill pretty well. It feels fairly familiar as far as these sorts of stories go, but with enough novelty to keep it fresh. I keep thinking of it as a cross between some Crash-like story where everyone’s story interconnects in interesting ways and The Road, though less grim.
My only real complaint is that I don’t think enough was done to build up the various characters. Kirsten was awesome, but most of the rest of the troupe all blurred together. There were a few moments that I think were supposed to be emotional heavy hitters that just didn’t seem to land. The one other character who I thought was fascinating, Miranda, was built up early only to let her storyline drop entirely from the second half of the book. Still, in spite of that, I did enjoy the book overall and based on other reviews, suspect this may have just been one of those times where the characters didn’t fully resonate with me for some reason.
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman
I’ll read anything Gaiman writes—he’s consistently excellent. This short read is no exception. It’s a brisk, creepy little story that keeps you glued to the pages. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is that the brevity of the book made it much harder for me to get attached to the characters in the same way I typically do when Gaiman writes. He also dangled some amazing characters—the cat, the button-eyed mother—that leave you wishing you got to know them a bit better. It’s not a fault of the writing, there just isn’t enough time in this short to give these characters the level of detail I was used to from Neil. A good book, just not one of my favorites from him.
- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Character-driven science fiction, perhaps to a fault. It’s mostly a fun ride and each of the primary characters gets some time in the spotlight, so you get to know them all pretty well. But the plot is..well, barely there and very anti-climatic. It felt much more like a series of small build-ups resolved with minor reveals. Think of it more like a TV series, where the connecting thread is the characters but where each conflict is basically played out within a single episode. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just meant I didn’t get as engrossed in the story as I would’ve liked. It was promising enough as a first novel that I’ll read the second book, particularly since the synopsis I’ve read could be very interesting if done well.
- Die Hard, An Oral History by Brian Adams
A fun, if a little too brief and thinly detailed, behind-the-scenes look into the making of one of my favorite films.
- How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff
When I was in HS, I remember my AP Calculus teacher telling us (probably in response to one of us quoting some stat we saw in the news): “Never trust statistics. They’re completely biased. If you know what you’re doing, you can make them say whatever you want.”
That’s basically what this book is about: how people can make statistics say whatever they want. Each chapter focuses on a different “technique” to be aware of with plenty of specific examples. These examples are dated (the book was written in 1954) but for each, I could easily think of similar examples I’ve seen recently.
It’s a statistics book with personality—not exactly a common find. Even if you don’t have a solid understanding of statistics as a starting point, you’ll be able to follow his clear and frequently humorous explanations.
With all the important discussions taking place in news outlets that are far more biased than anyone cares to admit, viewing stats through the critical lens Huff suggests is essential.
- The Manual Issue 5
The Manual continues to be consistently excellent. I certainly hope it returns from its hiatus, and that this issue eventually finds its way to physical form.
- Console Wars by Blake J. Harris
My relationship with both Nintendo and Sega was brief. We didn’t have consoles in our house, so I only played video games when I went over to my friends. We’d take turns playing Mario or Sonic and when you died it was the next players turn. I was always the one whose turn was the shortest.
But I have a fond memory of those games and figured this book might be worth a read. Wow, was it ever! I loved it. Absolutely loved it. There’s definitely a little bit of a SEGA slant here in terms of how much attention each company gets, but I do think you end up with a pretty good picture of both companies—what fueled them, how that influenced their approach to games and consoles, and the mistakes they made along the way.
I’ve seen some negative reviews about the approach Harris took to writing the story. He presents it as a novel: creating dialogue and segues just as you would in a fictionalized telling. To me, that’s why this worked so well. These are based on extensive discussions and interviews with the people discussed in the book, and having dialogue (as well as getting insight into some of the more personal aspects of their lives) moved this beyond the typical business book.
Highly recommend this book, regardless of your interest in video games.
- Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
More of the same from Kleon, in all the best ways. If you enjoyed Steal Like an Artist, you’ll enjoy Show Your Work.
- Evicted by Matthew Desmond
Incredibly thought-provoking and eye-opening book. The author profiles several different landlords and tenants in Milwaukee as they battle eviction for a variety of reasons. Some of the folks are more sympathetic than others, but the author consistently manages to paint a very clear picture of the problem—the odds are stacked against low-income people who find themselves struggling to pay rent from month to month.
My only critique is that I wish the author would’ve let us know up front that he lived with the people in this book to do his research instead of saving that bit for the very end. While reading, there were times I was wondering how he could possibly have that level of insight. Knowing this up front would have made the book even more impactful. Even so, powerful and heartbreaking.
- Cibola Burn by James Corey
Based on the plot alone, this would probably be my favorite since the first book. Unfortunately, some of the new characters are poorly fleshed out. Elvi, in particular, could have used a lot more depth in her arc. In its current form, it sells what should be a fantastic character incredibly short.
- The Gift of Gab by David Crystal
There’s some good content in here, but not enough to consider it to be an essential addition to the growing number of books about public speaking. The first part of the book is very similar to the kinds of information you’ll get from most other books about the topic, but the writing is pretty academic and dry. Where the book does shine is once it gets into rhetoric and when the author starts to analyze different speeches. There’s some great information in there that is not as frequently covered (from what I’ve seen at least) in books about speaking. If you’re a seasoned speaker or you’ve read a few books on the topic, skip to those sections. If you’re a newcomer, you’re better off starting with something by Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte or Lara Hogan’s book below.
- Identity and Data Security for Web Development by Jonathan LeBlanc & Tim Messerschmidt
Pretty solid introduction to the topic.
- The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu
Chu simply has this world down pat. Ella is a lot of fun to root for and rather than follow the same formula of the first three books, an interesting twist gives this one a very fresh take. It’s going to be fun to see where this goes.
- Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan
The perfect starting point for anyone considering public speaking. Lara avoids prescribing any rules, instead focusing on giving you the information you need to feel comfortable giving it a go. I can’t imagine a better way to introduce people to public speaking.
- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
There are some very mixed reviews on this book, which is not at all surprising. It’s frequently presented as fantasy, but it’s not very fantastical. There’s a dragon and a few other elements of fantasy incorporated, but it’s very subdued. Likewise if you’re expecting blistering action, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s not what this is. The story itself is pretty melancholy and the author takes his time telling it. The ending, as seems to be the case with Kazuo’s books, is sad and haunting. But as is also par the course for the author, the book is well-written and the story will linger with you.
- In Times Like These by Nathan Van Coops
- The Chronothon by Nathan Van Coops
- The Day After Never by Nathan Van Coops
Consider this my review of all three books in the series, which I tore through in no time. Sometimes books are just plain fun, and that’s the case with this series. The take on time travel is fresh enough to stand out from other stories, the characters are fun, and each book has its own distinct, fast-moving and often humourous plot. There’s no drop-off either. If anything, the writing gets stronger as the series goes on. Just plain fun.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.
Bleak, haunting and full of beautiful prose. In many hands, a book this overtly political would drag and feel forced. But Atwood is exceptional in her story-telling. The result is powerful, thought-provoking and an essential read.
- Resilient Web Design by Jeremy Keith
Resilient Web Design is part principal, part history. If everyone working on the web read this, the web would be much closer to achieving the bold but worthy goal of universal access.
- The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade
This book is optimistic, for sure. Olopade paints a more “brighter” picture of Africa than what you’ll often read elsewhere. She doesn’t avoid discussing the difficulties faced in Africa, but she always follows that discussion with some examples of people innovating in incredibly creative ways to overcome these challenges. Very well worth the read if for no other reason than to make us reconsider what passes as “innovation” in the west.
- The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu
The Attention Merchants is a comprehensive survey of how the methods companies use to get our attention have evolved and how, in turn, we’ve slowly given more and more of our time and space to them. To me, the book shines in the earlier chapters where Wu walks through the early days of advertising and how it went from taboo to accepted to have advertising presented to us in our homes thanks to radio and TV.
Particularly of interest was how initially radio was deemed too important a medium to allow something as unseemly as advertising to mess it all up, for many of the same reasons we think the internet is too important to allow it to be filled up with advertising. Wu quotes Herbert Hoover here:
It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter.
The later chapters, when Wu turns his attention to these more current affairs (Twitter, Facebook, etc) are less compelling to me. Perhaps because I’m more familiar with these platforms, these chapters seemed a lot less insightful. These chapters also seem more emotionally charged. When Wu talks about advertising breaking into, for example, radio, he provides a critical but reasoned take. When he talks about Facebook and the like, he becomes much more…angry I guess would be the word. The later chapters end up feeling both less complete and more emotionally charged.
All in all, though, it’s an enjoyable book. Seeing how history keeps repeating itself in this industry was fascinating if more than a little discouraging as well.
- Working the Command Line by Remy Sharp
I don’t consider myself an expert at using the command line, not by any stretch, but I’m relatively handy. Even still, I learned several new tricks from Remy’s book. It’s a really gentle introduction to the command line that teaches just enough to be able to help feel a bit more comfortable and confident enough to start working it into your workflow.