Skip to content

Books and Review List – 2020

READ STUFF!

One of my hobbies is reading and listening to audiobooks. To add some variety to the site I list the books I read each year and provide mini reviews. This is an exercise for to help me remember more of what I read, to suck less at writing, and evaluate my thoughts on each book, instead of passively absorbing them.

I’ll update this post throughout the year as I continue reading. I’d love to get some books recommended by anyone reading this or to discuss your thoughts on any of the books listed. So, please comment if you want! Here are links for past book posts; last year managed to get 48, let’s see how many come through this year!

New books will show up after this line. The newest books will be on the top so if you have seen this article before, whatever is on top is most recent! SPOILERS BELOW


May

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
By Gordan Marino | Philosophy | 2018

In college I took some classes on existentialism and found the topic to be engaging and which, by engaging with the readings, led to asking important questions about yourself, your beliefs, and some of the ‘whys’ of life. When Gordan Marino — a professor I was fortunate to have for some of those philosophy classes — released this book I was excited to pick it up and read it.

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide is broken in to a few sections – Anxiety, Death, Despair, Love, etc – which dive in to some of the pivotal “gists” from the writings of the giants in the field. It focuses a bit more on Kierkegaard than others like Sartre but in no way does it feel married to any of the thinkers behind the ideas which are discussed. In conjunction with the writer-agnostic approach to digesting the ideas Marino puts in what appears to be very candid and honest bits about the lows and challenges in his life and does a great job informing those experiences with the ideas discussed by the existentialists.

Reading through this book during the COVID pandemic and the protests/demonstrations going on in response to George Floyd’s death was challenging and brought forward a lot of thoughts about what it means to live and how our life and experience are and aren’t tied to what we do, how we think, and how we see things through our relationships.

There was a part of his writing which stuck with me, I think he was summarizing a section of Kierekgaard’s writing where he discussed how we ‘talk ourselves out’ of doing the right thing and do so by convincing ourselves that our new course of action is actually the correct one. I believe the example he used was when people say that they have “lost their faith” or similar statements. He argues that it seems we don’t suddenly ‘lose our faith’ – whether it’s in “God” or just about the morality of some action – but that we gradually rationalize away that ‘feeling’ – be it faith or morality – and through prolonged rationalizations think we lost something we used to have/believe.

Each chapter brought me new things to think about and lead to that kind of introspection which may not yield any answers but seems to be “good for the soul” and lead to you being more honest with yourself. I’d highly recommend for anyone looking for a book which might inspire some soul-searching or provocative thoughts about what it means to be human, live morally, and how to think about that ultimate end we all share – Death.

Age of Empyre
By Michael J. Sullivan | Fantasy | 2020

This is the final book of the Legends of the First Empire series by Sullivan and is a major step up from his prior installment. Age of Empyre is an homage to classical myth and takes inspiration from stories like Hercules as well other influential stories such as Dante’s Inferno. The novel wraps up a huge amount of the threads which were laid out over the past few books and does a good job with the majority of them, it also does a good job expanding on and referencing other parts of the world Michael has put together in his universe.

My biggest criticism has to do with the Malcolm character and how he’s walking the line of an ‘omnipotent god’, a trickster/savage king, a man seeking redemption, and a person with good intentions but lacking power to right things. While I appreciate the nuance one of the things which can quickly take me out of a story when there is a character like Malcolm is that when things go wrong, they go very wrong, and to have a combination of extremely nuanced position of “I set the dominoes in this precise configuration over thousands of years so that the event during this 5-minute period would happen this way”, and “oh I didn’t see this other thing which led to some of my pivotal planning going bad at the exact same time” is a hard pill to swallow. That being said I greatly enjoyed the series and look forward to reading more of Michale’s books in the future.

While at the end of the day this series may not have been my favorite there are a few ‘favorites’ I have about this series. The first is the introduction, I felt the first and second books in this collection did things I’ve not seen in other fantasy writing I’ve read and did some of the stuff you would expect in a new way — introducing the birth of writing and of technology the way he did was fascinating and, in my mind, very compelling. I also really liked that you weren’t always sure who the main character(s) were and that at the end of the day it was someone I don’t think most people would have guessed after reading the first two, or even four books.

Overall, if you’re a lover of fantasy I would recommend you try out Legends of the First Empyre!

And Then There Were None
By Agatha Christie | Mystery/Thriller | 1939

This was a fun mystery book which tells the story of 10 people lured to a remote island under the pretext of a socialite soirĂ©e. Shortly after arriving, a unexplained apparent suicide happens during the moments the group realizes no one actually knows the hosts they are waiting to see. A chilling recording is played which describes murders it alleges each of the members in the house committed which results in statements denying the veracity of the claims. At this turning point we see the group splinter in to smaller pairings each with views of who might have committed a murder — if it was one — and whether or not the recording might have been telling the truth about some of the attendees.

As the story goes on and they realize a boat won’t be arriving to take them back from the island they endeavor to thwart the killer as their numbers steadily diminish. Suspicions of each other continue to mount until the very end of the story. Without revealing too much of the nuance of the plot I will say that I did not suspect the conclusion and I was happy with both how it was arrived at and how it changed the story when looking back in restrospect.

By far my favorite part of this story is the way the characters are developed. Agatha introduces each character with brief statements about how each traveled to reach Soldier Island and in the brief introduction creates an accurate and individual identity. Given that there are so many characters in such a short story there is not a lot of room for development but by the middle of the book you feel you know how each character is thinking and perceiving the situation which is an impressive feat.

In addition to the characters, I felt that mystery and suspense were really well done and the reveal in the epilogue was compelling and a great twist I did not see coming!

April

The Testament

The Plague
By Albert Camus | Existentialism | Novel | 1947

The first time I read this book was in college for an existentialism class and I remember thinking the writing was nice but not being overly impacted by the book. Given the craziness with COVID-19 these days I decided it would be interesting to re-read it while a plague of our own was happening. I’m extremely glad I did.

The novel tells the story of the city of Oran through the eyes of a few of its residents. The story casually notes how an increasing number of rats are seen dead throughout the town and a doctor’s observation of a new type of sickness that starts infecting some of the residents. As the story progresses it becomes more and more evident it is not a normal sickness and that the town is beginning to face a plague. The city officials are slow to call it what it is and the ramifications are lightly touched upon until the town shuts itself in and prepares to weather the storm.

During the long months of plague the town goes through various phases – from overreaction to fear, from unified solidarity against an invisible enemy to the communal powerlessness to do anything about their situation. As the months go on we see the insidiousness of the plague and how it has isolated families, friends, and casts a pall on everything else, the town loses things to hope for, loses the ‘excitement’ of the different, and settles in to a monotony of new deaths, sickness, and separation.

There are many themes throughout the book – the most evident and striking of them being the allusions of the plague to Nazism during WW2 where Camus was a writer in the French Resistance. The writing is superb and dialogue outstanding, bringing to life even small casual conversation between friends and simply but effectively eliciting powerful imagery of the town, the people, and the mood.

I’d highly recommend anyone read this book on the merit of its writing alone, the added relatibility of living through our own kind of plague brings a lot of otherwise smaller elements to life — how people react to isolation and the monotony of their new, uneventful lives. Please give this book a shot!

The Order of Time
By Carlo Rovelli | Time & Space | Non-fiction | 2017

This short book was recommended to me by a friend and is one of my favorite recent reads. The book takes a short but deep look at what ‘time’ is from the viewpoint of a preeminent researcher who literally studies time. Carlo beautifully expresses complex or technical ideas in almost poetic language and enriches the book by the use of poetic or literary quotes throughout. He also brings in the ‘human’ perspective as he slowly deconstructs the traditional conception of time and makes it in to something far weirder and more profound that I had ever imagined.

I won’t attempt to summarize as I’m sure I would miss a lot of nuance but I really recommend this for both the writing and the incredible ideas contained within. The author also does a remarkable job of clarifying what is ‘hard science’ and pretty universals versus what is on less solid ground and what are simply just promising theories. Very impressed by this book.


March

Neuromancer
By William Gibson | Cyberpunk | Sci-fi Novel | 1984

While looking for new sci-fi books to read I came across many recommendations of Neuromancer. On the whole I found it an enjoyable read but I had trouble getting in to it at times. The novel follows the life of Henry Case who is a ‘hacker’ who fell to petty crimes after having been caught stealing from his employer and now lived doing business with drug lords as he continues a self-destructive spiral. Eventually, he is plucked from obscurity by a seemingly powerful man and assassin who works for him. They go on to recruit another few people and ultimately realize they are, essentially, pieces in a chess game being played by an AI of an old and super-wealthy family.

The writing is very evocative and while the depictions of certain things occasionally were jarring and took me out of the world the overall story was interesting and the writing felt very new and exploratory. It’s easy to see how this, being really a first in the genre, spawned a cult-type following and its imagery and ethos still holds a place in art, media, and culture today.


February

Age of Death
By Michael J. Sullivan | Fantasy | Novel — Book 4 of 5 | 2020

Age of Death is the 4th book in the “Age of Legends” series by Michael Sullivan. I was pretty disappointed from the last installment in the series – ‘Age of Legend’. However, this latest installment won me back and I can’t wait for the final book which is coming out in May!

Without delving in to specifics/spoilers, this installment had a lot more “real” development of the characters. Some of the mysteries introduced are starting to make sense and it ends on an outstanding cliffhanger with pretty much every character in a precarious position. The previous book felt like it was world-building with ‘filler’ character development which was setting up a bigger event. Some of that event has started here — which is great — but I can’t wait for the final book to wrap up the suspense.

Overall, I really liked this book and think the “Legends of the First Empire” is a strong fantasy series and worth investigating. It’s good for both novices to fantasy and I think holds up for connoisseurs of the genre as well.

Something Wicked This Way Comes
By Ray Bradbury | Fantasy Horror | Novel | 1962

I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before. If I had to summarize it I would describe it as a “Halloween book” which is not surprising given the title. I knew little of this book apart from recognizing the title here and there (I think it came from Shakespeare?). The novel follows events in a small Midwestern town as an unusual carnival arrives in late October. It focuses on two boys who become the focal points of the plot and deals with a lot of very deep themes while coming across very subtly.

Jim Nighshade and Will Halloway (and later Will’s dad) are the “Protagonists” but it’s not quite so clear as that. They are boys around the age of 13 who run off at night and see a mysterious carnival setting up in town. As the story unfolds small unsettling, unexpected, or creepy moments add up until you realize that the carnival appears to be more malevolent than the town expected.

Nothing “bad” which happened was so blatant or crude as to really be noticed but it generates internal struggles in Jim, Will, and others who perceive it – from the ability to get older (what Jim wants, to be more independent) or to get younger (what Will’s father wants because he feels too old to enjoy raising and relating with his son). The way the carnival inspires those particular fears and desires which fundamentally shakes people who attend and fall in to the ‘trap’, as it were, leads to a really interesting exploration of ‘Good and Evil’, and to what degree redemption is possible.

The story is very suspenseful and a pleasure to read, the world feels ‘real’ and not like some fantasy world, the dialogue and setting also feel real; there are very few moments when you are inclined to think “yeah, but that would never happen”.

I wish I had read this as a kid and know that it would have been spooky and been a favorite for me. As an adult I think some of the parts which would appeal to a kid’s sense of exploration, adventure, and independence are not appreciated as much but the prose, the relationships, the characters, and the mystery were all enjoyable to experience.

After finishing this, it being far different than I expected, I read a little bit about this book and saw a lot of writing about how this book influenced writers like Neil Gaiman and Steven King. Gaiman’s American Gods is something like a more adult version of this with themes like how a regular person is essentially impotent to deal with any sort of supernatural ‘evil’ and must simply try to deal with events as they happen). I definitely enjoyed this book and think anyone in to Fantasy or Horror (light horror?) would also find this book worth reading.

Frankenstein
By Mary Shelly | Classic / Gothic | Novel | 1818

This was probably the most surprising book I have read this year. My expectations prior to reading the book were primarily based on TV/Movie references and colloquial usage of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. The book proved to be a lot more than a ‘horror’ novel with a monster running rampant across Europe. The book is essentially Dr. Frankenstein retelling the past past few years of his life and how his creation has caused such misfortune.

Frankenstein’s attempts to create life were driven from a hybrid of ‘scientific’ yearning mixed with the dark ‘knowledge’ of the occult. Upon his success he was repulsed by his creation and immediately regretted it. He was in shock and almost considered it a hallucination until a mysterious death happens. I expected that the monster would go on a rampage at this point but was surprised — happily so — to find out that there was actually a much deeper psychological struggle at work. Frankenstein’s monster was, by his nature, abhorrent to humanity and even repulsive to his creator/god. As he reveals to Dr. Frankenstein during a tense dialog he sincerely tried to befriend people around him and was always met with disgust and scorn despite seeking only friendship/understanding.

Only after he has been rejected and beaten multiple times does he resort to murder and sees that he enjoys it. However, not yet fully a monster he doesn’t indulge that impulse and restrains himself seeking Frankenstein. The monster implores him to create another so that he is not alone in the world and wishes Frankenstein to view him with sympathy. Frankenstein is persuaded by his words and consents to create another. However, he puts this off as long as possible and after a brief encounter with Frankenstein in the future, he is repulsed by his consent and realization that two of them could breed and threaten humanity, destroys the second monster he was going to create.

This drives his first creation in to a despairing rage and leads to the death of several of Dr. Frankenstein’s relatives and culminates in the death of his wife on their wedding night. Frankenstein resolves at this point to do all in his power to destroy his creation and chases him towards the north pole over many weeks at which point he ultimately falls ill from exhaustion and dies. Frankenstein’s monster goes off north where he too will expire alone as he ever was in life.

On the whole this exceeded my expectations and was a pleasure to read.


January

Wild Seed
By Octavia E. Butler | Fantasy / Sci-fi | Novel | 1980

Last year I read a book, Kindred, by Octavia Butler for the first time and enjoyed it quite a lot. A friend encouraged me to try out of her better known books, Wild Seed. It takes place starting in the 1700s and follows the life of Anyanwu, an African woman over 300 years old. She eventually is tracked down by Doro, another “mutant” who collects and breeds gifted people – like Anyanwu.

We go on to find out that Doro has lived even longer than Anyanwu ~3500 years – and through his life has lost most of his humanity by seeing generations of people live and die before him. His long life also comes at a cost – his “host” body dies and he inhabits the nearest human at the time his body expires; furthering his inhumanity. He appears to have devoted the majority of his long life to collecting people with powers, putting them in communities, having them breed together, and trying to produce more powerful and stable people with powers.

Anyanwu is the most gifted and stable person he ever found but she is “wild” (others, who grow up in his communities grown to fear and worship him). He married her to one of his other gifted “slaves” have several offspring from her, and then kill her to prevent her disrupting his plans. However, after she marries one of his most “gifted” sons Doro eventually starts to have doubts about killing her; after some years of pursuit and tense moment over the next two hundred years. Doro comes to appreciate that Anyanwu is the only thing in his life which isn’t temporary. The book ends as Doro comes to tears while Anyanwu prepares to end her life, the only permanence Doro ever experienced.

There are two things I really like about this book. The first is the way she highlights racial issues throughout the story; they are nuanced and subtle but, in my opinion, impactful. I also really liked the development of Doro and Anyanwu throughout the story. Overall, this was a really interesting book and between this and Kindred, I will likely read more in the future.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
By Mark Twain | Novel / Historical Setting / Children’s | Novel | 1876

This was a daily deal on Audible which I had picked up a long time ago but never read. I recall reading at least parts of it in grade school or something like that but couldn’t have described the story at all. Now that I read it the story definitely doesn’t have much to it; a childlike adventure story with some funny moments. What I did enjoy though was the style of Twain’s writing. I’m planning to check out some other writing by Twain less targeted at a younger audience.

Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed
By Ben Rich and Leo Janos | Personal & Company Biography | Non-Fiction| 1996

Skunk Works is a book I picked up after a recommendation from Smarter Every Day’s channel on YouTube. As a kid, I always liked looking at the cool planes in aerospace museums so I thought it might be interesting learn how they are made. This book is my favorite one I’ve read this year because of it’s light, digestible style and intimate portrayal of what was once extremely classified work. There are funny moments, tense moments, and funny discussions of bureaucratic failures. The book flows from project to project and manages a compelling message across the decades. More impressively it is not a series of ‘tasks’ they did over the years. The work is a cohesive mission everyone participates in.

The two parts most enjoyable parts for me were hearing the first-hand accounts of how some of the events happened and then the description of how Lockheed managed to run such a successful autonomous part of their company. Ben Rich details interesting personalities, ambitious projects, and shady government processes in a fun and easy to read way. I’d recommend this book for anyone with an interest in planes, history or engineering. It is a good read. I think most people will enjoy it regardless of their interests.

Good to Great
By Jim Collins | Company Management / Development | Non-Fiction | 2001

I picked up this book after reading Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing about Hard Things and it was a very different kind of book. Ben’s book is very direct, blunt, and almost entirely from his direct experience. Jim Collins put together a more ‘data-driven’ management book which attempts to describe what it takes from being “good enough” to “great”.

While I don’t know that I agree with the gist that all conclusions are the clear derivations from the data (although the data is consistent and appears uniform), I do think the conclusions all make sense. This book is probably a worthwhile read for anyone in a leadership position or trying to align their team effectively.

An interesting and likely valuable read but not something which I will hold on to. I don’t think the ‘whole’ will sink in as much as a few of the ideas.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *