Books I read in 2017

Here are the books I read in 2017. It’s not as many as I hoped.

I set myself a constraint this year so that I’d have to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction: no reading two fiction books back-to-back, and no reading two non-fiction books back-to-back. I quite like the balanced book diet that resulted. I think I might keep it going.

Anyway, in order of consumption, here are those books…

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

★★★☆☆

I had already seen—and quite enjoyed—the first series of the television adaption of The Expanse so I figured I’d dive into the books that everyone kept telling me about. The book was fun …but no more than that. I don’t think I’m invested enough to read any of the further books. In some ways, I think this makes for better TV than reading (despite the TV’s shows annoying “slow motion in zero G” trope that somewhat lessens the hard sci-fi credentials).

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

★★★★☆

This was recommended by James Box, and on the whole, I really liked it. There’s a lot of anecdata though. Still, the fundamental premise is a good one, comparing the attitudes towards risk in two different industries; aviation and healthcare. A little bit more trimming down would’ve helped the book—it dragged on just a bit too long.

The Separation by Christopher Priest

★★★★★

I need to read at least one Christopher Priest book a year. They’re in a league of their own, somehow outside the normal rules of criticism. This one is a true stand-out. As ever, it messes with your head and gets weirder as it goes on. If you haven’t read any Christopher Priest, I reckon this would be a great one to start with.

Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George

★★★★☆

Recommended by both Jessica and Danielle, this is a well-crafted look into life on board a cargo ship, as well as an examination of ocean-going logistics. If you liked the Containers podcast, you’ll like this. I found it a little bit episodic—more like a collection of magazine articles sometimes—but still enjoyable.

Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler

A false start. This is a short story, not a novel—I didn’t know that when I downloaded it to my Kindle. It’s an excellent short story though. Still, I felt it didn’t count in my zigzagging between fiction and non-fiction so I followed it with…

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

★★★☆☆

Science fiction from the 1930s. The breadth of imagination is quite staggering, even if the writing is sometimes a bit of a slog. Still, it seems remarkably ahead of its time in many ways.

The Sense Of Style by Steven Pinker

★★★★☆

I spent a portion of 2017 writing a book so I was eager to read Steven Pinker’s take on a style guide, having thoroughly enjoyed The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate. This book starts with a bang—a critique of some examples of great writing. Then there’s some good practical advice, and then there’s a bit of a laundry list of non-rules. Typical of Pinker, the points about unclear writing are illustrated with humorous real-world examples. Overall, a good guide but perhaps a little longer than it needs to be.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

★★★★★

I loved everything about this book.

Writing On The Wall by Tom Standage

★★☆☆☆

I’ve read of all of Tom Standage’s books but none of them have ever matched the brilliance of The Victorian Internet. This one was frustratingly shallow. Every now and then there were glimpses of a better book. There’s a chapter on radio that gets genuinely exciting and intriguing. If Tom Standage wrote a whole book on that, I’d read it in a heartbeat. But in this collection of social media through the ages, it just reminded me of how much better he can be.

Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

★★★☆☆

Recommended by Jessica and Denise, this was my first Sheri S. Tepper book. It took me a while to get into it, but I enjoyed it. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s a solid planetary romance.

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

★★★☆☆

This has been recommended to me by more people than I can recall. I was very glad to finally get to read it (myself and Amber did a book swap: I gave her A Sense Of Style and she gave me this). As a guide to writing, it’s got some solid advice, humorously delivered, but there were also moments where I found the style grating. Still worth reading though.

The Gradual by Christopher Priest

★★★★☆

I just can’t get enough of Christopher Priest. I saw that his latest book was in the local library and I snapped it up. This one is set entirely in the Dream Archipelago. Yet again, the weirdness increases as the book progresses. It’s not up there with The Islanders or The Adjacent, but it’s as unsettling as any of his best books.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

★★★★★

I think this was the best non-fiction book I read this year. It’s divided into two halves. The first half, which I preferred, dealt with the sweep of human history as told through our genes. The second half deals with modern-day stories in the press that begin “Scientists say…” It was mostly Adam Rutherford gritting his teeth in frustration as he points out that “it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Thoroughly enjoyable, well written, and educational.

A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

★★★☆☆

I had read the first book in this series, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and thought it was so-so. It read strangely like fan fiction, and didn’t have much of a though-line. But multiple people said that this second outing was a big improvement. They weren’t wrong. This is definitely a better book. The story is relatively straightforward, and as with all good sci-fi, it’s not really telling us about a future society—it’s telling us about the world we live in. The book isn’t remarkable but it’s solid.

The Dream Machine: J.C.R Licklider And The Revolution That Made Computing Possible by M. Mitchell Waldrop

★★★★☆

This is the kind of book that could have been written just for me. The ARPANET, Turing, Norbert Wiener and Cybernetics, Xerox PARC, the internet, the web …it’s all in here. I enjoyed it, but it was a long slog. I’m not sure if using J.C.R. Licklider as the unifying factor in all these threads really worked. And maybe it was just the length of the book getting to me, but by the time I was two-thirds of the way through, I was getting weary of the dudes. Yes, there were a lot of remarkable men involved in these stories, but my heart sank with every chapter that went by without a single woman being mentioned. I found it ironic that so many intelligent people had the vision to imagine a world of human-computer symbiosis, but lacked the vision to challenge the status quo of the societal structures they were in.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

★★★☆☆

Lauren defies genre-pigeonholing once again. This is sort of a horror, sort of a detective story, and sort of a social commentary. It works well, although I was nervous about the Detroit setting sometimes veering into ruin porn. I don’t think it’s up there with Zoo City or The Shining Girls, but it’s certainly a page-turner.

Accessibility For Everyone by Laura Kalbag

★★★★☆

Because the previous non-fiction book I read was so long, I really fancied something short and to-the-point. A Book Apart to the rescue. You can be guaranteed that any book from that publisher will be worth reading, and this is no exception.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★★☆

There was a lot of buzz around this book, and it came highly recommended by Danielle. It’s thoroughly dizzying in its world-building; you’re plunged right into the thick of things with no word of explanation or exposition. I like that. There were times when I thought that maybe I had missed some important information, because I was having such a hard time following what was going on, but then I’d realise that the sense of disorientation was entirely deliberate. Good stuff …although for some reason I ended up liking it more than loving it.

High Performance Browser Networking by Ilya Grigorik

★★★☆☆

A recommendation from Harry. The whole book is available online for free. That’s how I’ve been reading it—in a browser tab. In fact, I have to confess that I haven’t finished it. I’m dipping in and out. There’s a lot of very detailed information on how networks and browsers work. I’m not sure how much of it is going into my brain, but I very much appreciate having this resource to hand.

A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

I picked up a trade paperback copy of this sci-fi book at The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver when I was there for An Event Apart earlier this month. I had heard it mentioned often and it sounds like my kind of yarn. I’m about halfway through it now and so far, so good.

There you have it.

It’s tough to pick a clear best. In non-fiction, I reckon Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived just about pips Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style. In fiction, Christopher Priest’s The Separation comes close, but Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora remains my favourite.

Like I said, not as many books as I would like. And of those twenty works, only seven were written by women—I need to do better in 2018.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

amberwilson.co.uk

I’ve been wanting to write about psychology for a while now. However, despite having quite a few years of formal education in it, I was unsure where to begin.

My love of psychology is still strong, despite having left the formal study and practice of it behind a couple of years ago. I love to chat about it with people who are as interested as I am in the beauty and mystery of the human mind. I find comfort and growth in doing so. Lucky for me, I have some brilliant friends who I can sit with for hours, reeling off idea after idea, debating, hypothesising and marvelling at what we do and don’t know.

Because of this, I want to finally begin writing about psychology. A friend of mine shared his opinion that writing about this is probably best left to experts. I tried to tell him I think that people should write about whatever they want. He argued that whatever he could write about psychology has probably already been written about a thousand times. I told him that I’m going to be writer number 1001, and I’m going to write something great that nobody has written before.

Recently, I have been feeling quite down and unenthusiastic about life. It’s definitely not the first time that’s happened. I find feelings like that always seem to spring from an ever-lengthening downward spiral of negative thought patterns. Along the journey, my enthusiasm and optimism begin to shut down, I withdraw into myself and begin to do the bare minimum to get by. I begin to feel like a burden to people around me, I never want to bother anyone with my feelings, and nothing seems worth doing.

I have a terrible habit of being consumed by negative thoughts, and letting them dictate how I live my life. It definitely feels easier to do that, to be puppeteered by an unknown but powerful force, than to take your rock-climbing tools, and scale yourself to the top of the dark empty pit you’re in. Maybe this is due in part to laziness, to entitlement or to an inability to see how good taking control of your life can be. It could be none of those things. Who knows? That’s one of the many mysteries of being human that we may never find out.

Anyway, while I am prone to be a puppet in the story of my own life, I am also vividly interested in ways people are able to overcome this unhappy and rather pitiful theatre. Some days, I am able to gather enthusiasm to explore more ways to be happy and in control. One way I’ve been doing this recently is by reading.

Books, writers, libraries, research and anything else to do with writing have been things I have respected for a long time, as long as I can remember. Even so, reading has not always come naturally to me. Over my childhood, I read a few books here and there, but I never read consistently. Throughout my teens I read even less and my 20s didn’t get off to a very rich literary start either. Only in the past month have I picked up and dusted off my Kindle, which I’ve completely ignored for about three years, and begun to read again. And this time I am loving it. I actually look forward to coming home and reading. And, now that I am doing it, I really really wish I’d begun earlier. Everyone should read books. Not only one type, either. Fact and fiction both contain their own unique magic. Inspired by Jeremy Keith, I have decided to read a good balance of both factual books and novels.

So, I am supposed to be writing about psychology - in this case, how to be more in control of your life. I want to talk about one of my favourite things that I’ve discovered from a month of reading books. All authors have their own unique style - this is great! Being exposed to different perspectives and personalities is brilliant. Nearly all writers make use of metaphors to make their writing come alive and to give their readers an alternate angle to look at life from. This is invaluable for those of us that tend to wallow in our own negative and gloomy perspectives, gradually believing more and more that this is how things are meant to be and there’s no point in changing them.

Perspectives other than our own bring a breath of fresh air. They open doors and allow light to flood in. They wrap us in a warm, comforting blanket by letting us know other people go through similar struggles. There is a tonne of writing out there that exists because the author suffered through something. Suffering tends to give you a strong desire to prevent others experiencing similar pain. Writing books is a great way to tell your story of suffering to a wide audience. The book I am reading right now is called ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear’ by Elizabeth Gilbert. Her writing is beautiful and funny and whimsical and amazing. It’s also really down-to-earth. I imagine she is a really fun and interesting person to know. Anyway, amongst many lovely perspectives she shares, is one of my new favourites. One that I’m sure I’ll never forget. While talking about creativity, she says:

…the Greeks and Romans both believed the idea of an external daemon of creativity - a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and who sometimes aided you in your labors. The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius - your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.

Perhaps this passage doesn’t make too much sense when read out of context of the rest of the book, but I wanted to share it because it’s something that made me feel good. It made me feel like it’s okay to not always be producing amazing work, to give myself a break and to not always put myself down (i.e. plummet down a negative spiral) when I feel less motivated and inspired than I did the week before. This small history lesson reminded me that humans aren’t perfect, and that people should never feel under pressure to perform all the time - unless they want to feel terrible about themselves. Sometimes my creative house elf goes off to do its own thing. It’s still there, and it’s still loyal. It simply sometimes needs its own space and time to relax and unwind. And so do I. I think you and your genius can be a good team, always supporting and building each other up, and reminding each other that its okay to take a break once in a while.

I imagine my house elf is a bit like Dobby from Harry Potter. A kind creature who always has something nice to say, and helps keep me positive. I think we all need a positive house elf in our life. What do you think?

# Monday, April 2nd, 2018 at 12:00am

1 Like

# Liked by Tim Kadlec on Thursday, December 28th, 2017 at 4:34pm

Previously on this day

4 years ago I wrote The many formats of Resilient Web Design

EPUB, MOBI, and PDF.

7 years ago I wrote In dependence

This is my website. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

9 years ago I wrote Retreat 4 Geeks 2012

Want to join me on a horse ranch in the Rockies?

15 years ago I wrote Iconographilia

‘Tis indeed the season of goodwill. Yea, verily even amongst competing browser manufacturers.

19 years ago I wrote Sad news from home

I’ve been having a great time here in Arizona, relaxing and enjoying myself.