My digital reading in 2019
When I moved to Sweden I discarded the majority of the physical books I’d accumulated over the years. While it was a painful exercise I’m pretty glad to have downsized my shelving requirements. A couple of years later I feel like I made the right decisions on what to discard. So far I haven’t once thought “Oh, I wish I’d kept…” Perhaps that means I could have been even more ruthless, but erring on the side of caution seems to have worked well for me.
Meanwhile I’m mostly buying new books as eBooks on my Kindle, and most of those on Amazon. I used to read a lot of classics downloaded from Project Gutenberg, but I seem to have slacked off a bit there lately; my tastes ebb and flow so I dare say I’ll be back to them later.
An advantage of getting new books on the Kindle is that I can easily review what I’ve read over the last year.
Here they are in their rather lowbrow glory. It’s not quite the end of 2019 but if I load up anything new I’ll sneak it in later. I won’t try to present them in chronological order and I’ve avoided any major spoilers in the fiction descriptions.
Books I read
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar is the only book I read this year that I really loved. I’m so happy I bought it (which I did entirely on the basis of the intriguing title). It’s a rather poetic epistolatory time-travel story. No description will do it justice; read it.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson is good solid work but doesn’t sparkle the way he can at his best. I adored A Short History of Nearly Everything and re-read it often. I doubt I’ll re-read “The Body” but it did keep my interest and I learned a few things.
Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky didn’t punch any real buttons for me. It started well, but ended rather abruptly. I’d read his Children of Time series already so I knew roughly what I was getting into.
Children of Ruin (a sequel to The Children of Time) by Adrian Tchaikovsky was readable but not very memorable. I preferred the first book - but I’m not looking for all that much in these ‘N in a series of M novels’ sorts of work.
Speaking of which The Last Colony and The Ghost Brigades being books 2 & 3 in the “Old Man’s War” series by John Scalzi are much the same sort of fun. Fairly unpretentious but the characterizations are about what you’d expect and it’s definitely not what you’d call ‘Hard Sci Fi’ (that generally being the way I lean).
The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut Book 1) and The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut Book 2) by Mary Robinette Kowal were a bit better. The characterization was a little weak but the story was an enjoyably traditional one. Its social awareness creaked, but better this than the oblivious sexism and racism of the “golden age” SF novels.
Pinion and Sanction (being books 1 & 2 in the “Jacob’s Ladder Sequence”) by Elizabeth Bear were enjoyable. Pinion particularly hid its essential mechanics well; I guessed correctly which is always satisfying, and it’s a more modern imaginative stab at that than other recent attempts. Sanction finished with something of a deus ex ending - which crop up far too often in SF and generally suggest a failure of imagination by the author.
The October Man is another in the “Rivers of London” series by Ben Aaronovitch. This one is a novella (but a little longer than that suggests). A change from the usual central character, we’re taken to Germany instead of the Home Counties. An enjoyable romp as always.
The Fold by Peter Clines started well but went into distinctly deus ex B-movie in the later pages. I was definitely intrigued by the mystery to start with, but in the end the big reveal wasn’t a particularly clever one.
Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds in the “Revenger” trilogy was what I’ve come to expect from him. Competent story writing, characterisation is not the worst in the genre. He hovers around the hard SF end of the scale. This trilogy has more of a YA sort of flavour to it. Alas he’s no Iain Banks, but we have no Iain Banks any more - and to be honest even the sainted Iain was churning out Big Fat Books rather than Slim Interesting Books late in his all-too-short career.
Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics by John Archibald Wheeler is mostly an autobigraphy with only a smattering of pop science to it. As an avid reader of his protegé Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps I hoped for something as snappy but this was more an amiable stroll through Wheeler’s memoirs. He was rather defensive of his role in the creation of fusion weapons but proud of his ability to stay on good terms with those who disagreed with him. Not a great read unless you’re really fascinated by the details of Wheelers' social connections in the world of twentieth century physics.
There’s not much non-fiction there. But then a lot of the non-fiction I get through is professional stuff: books on Ethereum, Rust, WebGL, the ZX Spectrum ULA (!), and Kafka Streams were amongst those added to my shelves this year and I almost always buy paper copies of those for practical reasons. Nor do I really count them as I rarely read them cover-to-cover anyway.
Books I bought to re-read
I re-read books a lot. For example I churned my way through the Harry Potter series again a few weeks back. These are just the books I specifically bought in 2019 in order to re-read rather than ones I had hanging around already.
The Pratchett books that I discarded in paper form are starting to reappear on my Kindle whenever I feel the need for a reliably pleasant feet up on the sofa sort of afternoon. This year I re-acquired and re-read:
Carpe Jugulum, Interesting Times, and The Truth by Terry Pratchett. I’m very sad he’s gone. He was such a reliably interesting writer. Even once his alzheimers' had made them rather more stream of consciousness than meticulously constructed they had that essentially Pterry nature. Unlike Iain Banks they became, for the most part, better and better as he matured. In particular I would guess that Carpe Jugulum, The Truth, Going Postal, and (particularly) Night Watch will hold up well after I too go the way of all things. They are subversively enjoyable good writing and somehow manage to be both vastly popular and much under-rated!
Hanna and I watched the (Dino de Laurentis) film with friends in the cinema, and so Dune by Frank Herbert inevitably ended up on my re-read pile. I think I enjoyed it more than last time I read it; probably that was when I was going through an SF phase as a teenager and preferred the more straight forward Asimov and Clarke clockwork narratives.
Ah yes, The Hydrogen Sonata in the culture series by Iain M. Banks (though I never really saw the point of that ‘M’ to distingish the SF from usually not SF) was on my re-read pile. One of his later works when he went seriously long-form without (in my opinion) much extending the number of ideas that went into the mix. But they were reliably fun to read, I often couldn’t work out the plot wrap-up before the end, and even when diluted a bit these tomes still had more ideas in them than his contemporaries seemed to drum up. Another author whose death came too early for my personal convenience.
The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie is very much a personal favourite. On the re-reading this time he held up a little less well than I expected, but the prose is still witty and the adventure story has a straight forward and enjoyably cynical form. Still recommended.
Finally No Highway by Nevil Shute Norway is, as with most of that author’s works, carefully and competently written. He writes mostly believable characters, the stories are shockingly sentimental and staggeringly sexist by modern standards. But he was writing in the fifties and I suppose a lot of this was depressingly realistic. I don’t suppose I’ll re-read this one again.
Books I bought but didn’t get around to reading
Not yet read for a mix of reasons.
The following books were recommended to me quite recently so I haven’t had time to start them yet:
- A Philosophy of Software Design by John Ousterhout
- How to Build a Time Machine by Paul Davies
- Man’s Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust by Viktor E Frankl
This next one is a book of short stories that I’m saving to fill in between other longer works. I peeked at the first of them and it’s pretty good. I’m not sure if I should or shouldn’t expect that given the famous author:
- Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks
The next one I started to read, but it had an irritating right-wing tone to it so I’m not sure if I’ll pick it up again. I was looking for a brief history of the Swedish people and must have misunderstood the blurb when I bought it!
- The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth
The “books I saw recommended on Hacker News list is unusually short this year:
- Command and Control by Eric Schlosser
There are two books by the next author that are an essential part of my psyche. I must have browsed through The Inventions of Daedalus and The Further Inventions of Daedalus a hundred times as a teenager. But, while I’m interested in what he has to say, I suppose I’m worried that he might have become a crank before writing this book (which was after a stroke), so I’ve been putting off reading it.
- Why Are We Conscious?: A Scientist’s Take on Consciousness and Extrasensory Perception by David E.H. Jones
The sole entry in the “recommended in a newspaper” section, but I’ve read a couple of Maigret novels before so I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.
- The Saint-Fiacre Affair by Georges Simenon
Finally, this one was enjoyed by both of my late parents. We had fairly similar taste in literature. I’m looking forward to it, but saving it for a rainy day.
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
So. What have you been reading?