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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


October

Tap Code
By Carlyle S. Harris & Sara W. Berry | Biography/Memoir | 2019

Tap Code is a Memoir by “Smitty” (Carlyle Harris) who was an Airforce pilot during the Vietnam war who was taken prisoner after his plane was shot down. It covers the story of his 8 years in prisoner of war camps, including the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ and other camps in North Vietnam.

The story goes between his point of view and the point of view of his wife, Louise Harris, and how they struggled and coped through the years of uncertainty. The writing highlights two themes throughout, the way that ‘faith’ helped them to deal with the pain, doubt, and hardship and how, for Smitty, trying to keep his integrity is what let him keep his mind and strength throughout the years of torture, manipulation, and isolation.

I wasn’t very familiar with how POWs of the Vietnam were treated but, much as you might expect, it was not great. They classified most of the detained Americans as “Criminals” and in doing so circumvented many of the protections of the Geneva convention. The POWs were treated increasingly poorly until just before their release in the early 70s. Starvation, isolation, torture, and various other techniques were used to try to break the will of the captured.

Overall, this was an alright read, I found the descriptions and story to be well told with a bit of a strong emphasis on the ‘faith’ aspects. However, having not read much about this time or any first-hand accounts of the event I did find it informative and an interesting take I don’t thin I normally would have picked up.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
By Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths | Self Help/Life Optimization | 2016

This was a pretty cool book. The authors Brian and Tom find several examples of computer science algorithms which can also help inform and improve your day to day life. Examples include finding the balance between how long to look for the right thing while minimizing the chances of overlooking the best thing. Some optimal strategies for organizing your room/house, your office, and things like that.

I feel like some of the connections felt like a bit of a stretch — some of the applications of game theory or when you should look to apply randomness in your life in particular – but overall it gave me a lot of things to think about. I know it has led me to reorganize a few things and I think it will help when making larger decisions in the future to reduce a bit of the stress. On the whole I’d give it an 8/10 or so and think it offers some pretty good seeming tips.

Heaven’s River
By Dennis E. Taylor | Sci-Fi | 2020

This is the 4th book in the ‘Bobiverse’ that started with the book We are Bob. As mentioned in past reviews, I found this series refreshing and light-hearted with a good mix of humor, homages to the genre, clever writing, but also with some really excellent topics and circumstances which challenge the reader. Heaven’s River brings back one of the themes from the original book – to what degree a species should interact with another species, especially one less advanced – and adds some very clever differences making it feel fresh and not something rehashed. There was also a great bit of world-building where the perception of the ‘Bobs’ changes across the known worlds and how there are increasing changes across the Bob replicants and what that means for the society as a whole.

I found this book to be a bit slower than the past few books and more cerebral but still really enjoyable and I think it did a great job setting up the next book. Recommend it if you liked the last few books in the series and I recommend the series…to pretty much anyone!


September

Heroes
By Stephen Fry | Novel/Myth | 2018

This is the second book by Steven Fry in a series retelling/covering a large portion of Greek mythology. In this volume he covers many of the stories of the Greek “Heroes”. I enjoyed this book more than Mythos and feel it did a fantastic job of bringing the classic stories of Jason, Atalanta, Hercules and others to life.

The descriptions of the trials of Hercules and feats of others were done in a way which makes the characters seem more real than other tellings which may not elaborate on the background or refresh the reader on the past or roles of the characters involved. The book read really easy and enjoyably and I really hope he does a 3rd version covering the Trojan war as it feels like he’s covered a huge part of the standard myths up until that point.

The Night Circus
By Erin Morgenstern | Fantasy | 2011

This book was selected by a book club I am in and is not a book I would normally have picked up. It tells the story of two people who were selected at a young age by magicians in the late 1800s to learn magic and ‘duel’ against eachother. The students both appear to be extremely adept and capable of learning and innovating their skills while they go along with the often secluded and strict lives their teachers force them through.

Eventually the contestants challenge begins – competing to out-do each other in a ‘circus’ where their skills are used to create marvels and wonders which onlookers assume are elegant illusions and marvelous tricks. The challenges escalate and eventually the contestants realize that the ‘winner’ of their challenge — which has gone on for ~12 years at this point — will be determined when one of them dies from the exertion of keeping all of the magic and illusions together.

The writing is very well done and extremely evocative. The novel also does a great job conveying an ominous/dark mood throughout which leaves the reader wondering where the story will go. It was very hard to predict and was, in some ways, compelling because of it. However, I felt that the ending was moderately anticlimactic and the story itself had some weak points. Overall, it was a nice read and a fun book which I normally wouldn’t have picked up.

The Cheese Monkeys
By Chip Kidd | Fiction Novel | 2001

Chip Kidd is, apparently, a well known graphic designer who specializes in book covers. The novel was a bit of a let down for me — it was an accidental purchase in Audible so I didn’t have high hopes. The book is from a nameless character’s perspective as they star college in the 60s. The character is pursuing an art degree and the book describes some of the classes in fun detail. I feel like there were, legitimately, a good number of stories/examples which get you thinking about graphic design. However, the story itself seemed pretty poor. The characters didn’t make a lot of sense, there was a lot of good ‘witty’ dialogue but not really much substance. And then the last half seemed to completely fall apart.

Would not recommend reading.

The Stranger Beside Me
By Ann Rule | Biography | 1980

Ann Rule was a volunteer at a crisis hotline who worked with Ted/Theodore Bundy back when he was going to college in the Pacific Northwest. She was a detective prior to that and had close connections with several police departments which led her to writing related to crime & other events in the area. The book is a well researched and filled with a lot of first-person accounts.

While generally not too graphic the descriptions do sometimes get pretty intense and it might be a bit intense for some readers. The novel does a decent job showing possible motivations and de-mythologizing the mass murderer/serial killer Ted Bundy.

If you’re interested in the life/story of Ted Bundy or in understanding the impact of his horrific acts, this is probably a great read for you. Not my normal reading preference but it did force me to look at some of the darker parts of humanity and face some of the harsher realities of the worst of us.

Children of Dune
By Frank Herbert | Sci-fi/Fantasy | 1976

The 3rd book of the original Dune trilogy is focused on Muad’Dib’s children and how his empire/legacy will continue. I have mixed feelings on this book. In a lot of ways, it brings back the spirit/pathos of the original through the characters of his two children. However, the nested plots, political intrigue and confusing mix of prescience and prediction dampened the enjoyment of the book. There is also a huge commitment made towards the end which seemed far less than satisfying.

Not my favorite of the trilogy but definitely an interesting read, it took some unpredictable twists and turns. I think I really enjoyed the mythology of Arrakis, the various involved political parties and actors, and some of the characters but the overall story just seemed to hinge so much on some mystical experiences and implausible calculations. Not the worst, not the best but worth it to finish the original trilogy.


July

Dune
By Frank Herbert | Science Fiction/Fantastic | 1965

I first “read” Dune as an audiobook while I drove from the Midwest to California when I was taking a new job and completely relocating my life. It filled a huge chunk of the 24 hours of driving over two days and captured my imagination. I think there is a lot wrong with Dune, plot devices which appear right when they’re needed to enable the protagonist to move forward, trope-y (at least to the modern reader) hero development and all over-the-place world building. Additionally, some of the dialogue — especially Paul/Muad’Dib and his sister– sounded stuffy and exceptionally unrealistic.

For all that, however, I still really enjoyed the book. Sure, reading it today it’s hard not to read it as symbolic of rebelling against some sort of western excess of comfort and gluttony or stereotyping middle-eastern culture and using token Arabic phrases. I’m not sure the authors intent but I read it as a story of being at the pinnacle of a change – of being able to steer generations in to a slow stagnation and devolution or to try to navigate a future which seems to show a great war at all angles. I read it as fighting against our own ignorance of the future and showing that even with the ability to predict the future and the greatest intentions you can still fail and potentially make things worse.

I also really enjoyed the depictions of the world. I have found in a lot of my reading lately – perhaps due to being trapped at home in quarantine – that I am increasingly appreciative of good visually descriptive writing about places and things. Frank Herbert does this exceptionally throughout the book and managed to have some great scenes.

If you like Scifi/Fantasy I think this is a must read but be prepared for how dated some of it may seem today and try to focus on what made this writing novel and new at the time, I can’t imagine how this must have transported people to a new world when they read it in the 60s.

Dune Messiah
By Frank Herbert | Science Fiction/Fantastic | 1969

Dune Messiah was, in my opinion, a big step down from the original Dune. It tells the story of Paul/Muad’Dib after he comes in to power and wages a jihad against the rest of the worlds to establish the new order with Dune as the center of power. It largely skips over what that jihad looks like and instead tries to describe a hard-to-follow sort of psychological struggle with Paul vs his prescience, awareness of conspiracies but not enough detail to act on them, a weird ‘resurrection’ of a close family friend and endless intrigue from all of the political entities.

I don’t think it was a ‘bad’ story by any means it just feels very out of step with the first Dune book and lost some of the energy. Herbert does continue world-building but in ways that are sometimes hard to follow — shapeshifters, cloning, religion, the pseudo ‘god’ figure of Paul and plenty more. If you are a big fan of Sci-Fi I feel like this again bring ‘new’ things to the genre (considering when it was written) but prepare to reread more passages and have to plod through more philosophical or moral dilemmas than action-packed scenes and easier to follow machinations.

The Soloist
By Steve Lopez | Biography | 2008

The Soloist tells the story of Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless schizophrenic Julliard drop-out, who the author – Steve Lopez – met one day on a street corner. The book documents their encounters over a period of years and details the changes in the lives of both Nathan and the author.

The story shines a light on the problems of mass homelessness as well as the challenges which come from mental illness in the poor and homeless. Nathan comes from a family where he seemed normal and got in to music through highschool. He eventually excelled and thrived at bass and earned admittance to Julliard. At some point through his time there started experiencing a mental break which led to being medicated, institutionalized and eventually a break from his family – not willing to stay with them but also not being able to be fully committed to a facility.

When the author encounters Nathan and hears a piece of his story he follows up and writes some stories over time to document his story. This leads to some large coverage and eventually a movie about his life and struggle. To me this was a really good yet challenging read. Some of the things were really had to read and I can’t imagine the struggle for the family and how Nathan’s world must have collapsed. The book covers both the macro changes from a detached point of view – the series of facts of his life – and the harder parts of the book – the hate, fear, violence, and anger of Nathan’s life.

I rate this book really extremely highly and think it should appeal to a broad audience, especially anyone with an interest in either social justice or classical music.


June

The Room Where it Happened
By John Bolton | ‘Tell-All’/Mini Biography | 2020

This was an unusual read for me, I tend to steer clear of politics and books about contemporary events. I ended up going with this because unlike a lot of political things it was a critique or expose of Trump from someone in his own party. The content was entertaining and seemed broadly believable — essentially Trump’s primary concern through his entire first term was trying to maximize his chances for re-election. Another prominent theme is that John Bolton reallly doesn’t trust anyone and seems to truly believe military pressure is the best solution to hold countries accountable and drive cooperation.

Overall, I wasn’t really in to the book, it was passingly interesting but I don’t really like political books at the end of the day.

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
By Albert Camus | Philosophy | 1942

I will need to read this again. I did an audiobook of this set of essays and can say that I did not give it the attention it deserved. No comments for now apart from a note that it was very interesting but in many ways referencing literature I haven’t read or haven’t read anytime recently. Overall good though.

Mythos
By Stephen Fry | Novel/Myth | 2017

Greek Mythology has always been an interest of mine, as a kid I read Bulfinch’s Mythology and it absolutely captivated me. This is a modern retelling of many of early ancient Greek myths and I found it to be extremely compelling. Fry brings to life myths which have often been reproduced based entirely on ancient writings which, while I still enjoy those, sometimes comes off as ‘dry’ and loses the aspect of ‘Storytelling’ the myths were told with, the ‘around the campfire’ type of telling. Fry is able to modernize the language while keeping to the ‘spirit’, as it were, of the myriad mythical figures. He also turns around the traditional origin tales describing where ‘lightning’ or other phenomenon come from and often ends instead with a description of where some word or phrase came from or how the figure in the story’s name lives on as various elements, materials, locations, or phrases.

The retelling also does a great job connecting and attempting to sequence, as much as possible, the various stories and manages to brings to life some lesser known ones as well. Overall, if you enjoy myth or fantasy I think you will enjoy this book!

A Little History of Economics
By Niall Kishtainy | Non-fiction / History | 2017

This book is exactly what it says it is. Niall covers a huge swath of economic theories, roughly in a chronological order, and presents some consistent metrics to measure their strengths and weaknesses with. I feel like it would be a great read for people interested in economic theory and wanting to be able to discuss the ins and outs of many systems at a high level.

As the title says it is a ‘little’ history so while I think it covers the best and worst parts of the system and introduces many of the foundational figures I think it would be of limited use for people who really want to dig deeper and know more nuance about each system.


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.

The Atlantis Gene
By A.G. Riddle | Sci-fi Thriller | 2013

This is the first book I have read by Riddle and I found it to be a really good story. The Atlantis Gene is part of a trilogy where an secret organization – one ultimately behind the 9/11 attacks and other events in this world – is seeking to find ancient Atlantian structures. There are many factions well laid out throughout the books — those who want to dramatically reduce the human population to leave an enhanced ‘super-race’ behind, those who want to understand what the structures are and do, those who want to find who the Atlantians were and if they still exist.

The book takes you through a varied landscapes of scenes ranging from action-packed infiltration of secret bases to a crashed submarine in Antarctica and everywhere in between. I really enjoyed the way the story flowed between a few primary characters and the way the stories intertwined, I was also a big fan of the story of the book itself; it was a fun new way to look at ‘Atlantis’ and it provided some interesting and novel ways in which the Atlantians influenced humanity in their world.

My biggest critique of the book was that I didn’t feel the characters were extremely well written, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with any of them but I didn’t find them extremely compelling. That being said, if you’re looking for a fun trilogy with the Atlantis mystery as the center I would definitely recommend this book!

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
By John Grisham | Legal Thriller | 1999

Not a ton to say about this book, it’s a pretty typical feeling John Grisham book which, if you like those, you’ll probably like this; if you don’t, probably avoid it. I enjoy Grisham from time to time and for the most part liked this book. The most interesting thing for me was the picture of the Pantanal part of Brazil he describes in detail. It was a place/biome I didn’t even know existed. I really enjoyed the way things ended with the exception of the sudden inspiration/lifestyle change one of the protagonists goes through; not that it’s totally unbelievable just that it felt very convenient to the story and a light way of dealing with a more serious set of topics.

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.

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