Again with the annual list of books read and listened to. I’m not sure if it makes sense to differentiate between what I’m reading on my digital screens or on paper – it’s still reading, right? The feeling might be different but I’m not sure if it matters enough for a list such as this, so let’s skip it this time.
The post is started January 2021. It’s the last week of the Trump presidency, Sweden is hitting record mortality to Covid-19 and I’m working from home most of the time. Here are the books I’ve read, listened to or abandoned in 2021, as well as a comment or two.
Michael Lewis: Flash boys. It’s a hard sell evoking sympathy for Wall Street, but Lewis does his best when he’s writing about the plucky team behind a new stock exchange [IEX] which is trying to combat predatory skullduggery perpetrated by banks, brokers and especially high frequency traders. I’ve read about HFT and flash crashes before, but just had no idea of all the different ways brokers had found to fuck each other – and everyone else – out of billions of dollars. The book is well written, but I could have done without the personal portraits – there are only so many ways you can come up with non-negative ways of “moneygrubber,” and I really don’t care for descriptions which call leaving a $600k job for a $200k job “brave.”
Steve Burns, Nicolas Darvas: How I made $2000000 in the Stock Market. I’ve come across Darvas Box as a technical analysis tool for doing swing trading, so thought I’d read his book. The book was originally published 1960 and is worth reading – he’s candid about his shortcomings and the pitfalls of arrogance, and the descriptions of how he worries and overinterprets markets is genuinly fun to read. This edition has comments by Burns at the end of each chapter where he restates what Darvas has written – it seems more of a cheap moneygrab rather than adding anything of value to the original.
Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias Buckell: The Tangled Lands. In a world where magic use has the unwanted side effect of creating a bramble which chokes everything else, and on top of it has nettles which cause a eternal cinderella sleep, we get four intertwined stories of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. The parallell between the magic/bramble and civilization/anthropocene is a bit on the nose sometimes, but it’s a well written book and worth reading – just like about everything by Bacigalupi I’ve read (Water knives, Windup girl, Pump 6).
Oyinkan Braithwaite: My Sister, the Serial Killer. A short novel about a two sisters; one a conscientious nurse who can’t do good enough in her mothers eyes, the other a beautiful aloof narcissist who is most likely a serial killer of men who fall for her. Well written and the frustrations of the good daughter Korede are never written for laughs, even if the story is morbidly humouros.
Frederik Pohl: The Gateway Trip. A colletion of vignettes from the Heechee universe, recommended by way of a thread I started in ask.metafilter. I think I’ve read this before, but Pohl has clever enough ideas that he’s worth a revisit. I like reading a story which is just a bit more clever than I am – that way I’m surprised, but can still see the reasoning. It’s a good fit.
Paolo Bacigalupi: Tool of War. A YA version of the world presented in Windup Girl. People and animals are genetically modified and created for the purposes of global corporations and fiefdoms. The creations are conditioned to total obedience and loyalty, but through an experiment-gone-wrong scenario the chickens come home to roost, etc. A romp but some nice world building.
Sayaka Murata: Convenience Store Woman. A fantastic short story about a woman trying to fit in between social expectations and her own free will. Great read, not a word wasted.
Sarah Pinsker: We Are Satellites. In a near future where there’s pressure on kids and adults alike to get a brain implant which allows functional multitasking, a few holdouts suspect that all is not as it should be. Nothing wrong with the premise, but the ideas are thin on the ground and there’s enough for a ten page story, not a novel. (the colophon mentions that some chapters have been published as short stories) There’s a parallell between the anti-implant folks in the book and our current anti-wax movement, and reading them as the good guys is an interesting take.
Jan Chipchase: Hidden in Plain Sight. A guide/handbook for how to analyse your surroundings when doing design research. I heard an interview with Chipchase on the podcast On Margin and his job and life seems enviable – not that I would be able to do what he does, but the way he describes being so aware of his surroundings, travelling the world trying to understand people, sound fantastic. It’s like a career in targeted mindfulness or something. I’m going to reread this book in a years time or so; it’s a very practical book and I’d need to have something practical to apply it to.
Jo Walton: The Just City. The Greek pantheon is real, and Pallas Athene gathers people from different moments in time – our past, present and future – to enact Platons ideal city – the just city. We follow the recruitment and/or kidnapping of the people who will become the masters, as well as the first children of the city, and the story is told from multiple perspectives. I haven’t read Platos Republic, nor many of the other references the book makes, but it’s Walton doesn’t let the references get in the way of telling the story. The novel peters out after a while, and ends with a literal godly intervention – but it’s still worth a read.
Brandon Sanderson: The Mistborn Trilogy. A coming-of-age rags-to-riches story about Vin, a gutter-kid who is found to have rare powers, gets involved in overthrowing the government and discovers Power of Friendship™️ along the way. The main idea of some people being able to use metals to temporarily gain superpowers is interesting, but not enough to carry the story which has to drip-feed epistolary exposition to keep going.
Adrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Ruin. Followup on the interesting Children of Time, but this time it’s squids evolving instead of spiders. Still an interesting story, and interspecies communication is interesting and well done.
Mike Monteiro: Ruined by Design. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it” is a quote from Upton Sinclair which appears multiple times in this collection of essays on the role end responsibility of designers. The author is pounding his morally indignant chest a bit too hard at times, but there are valid points made mixed in with the hyperbole and repetitions. The blurbs present it as a contemporary version of Victor Papaneks books, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Papaneks clarity of though – although perhaps the sense of urgency.
James S.A. Corey: Leviathan Falls. The ninth and concluding book in the Expanse series. I had looked forward to see how they would wrap up the Chtuluisch corner they’d written themselves into, and the result is a serviceable book which sees the main characters play out the consequences of their personalities.
Louise Penny: Still Life. The first in a long series of detective novels, and came highly recommended by Sara. Not much of a whodunnit, but the jumping between perspectives – going from third person to second person omniscient in the same paragraph – is interesting. It’s either a good technique for showing the mulitplicity of social life, or used to gloss over where the writing falters, but regardless I can imagine picking the series up again.
Arkady Martine: A mamory called empire. Mehit, a new ambassador to the galaxy spanning empire Teixcalaan, is immediately embroiled in court intrigue while trying to solve the murder or her predecessor (with a mind-copy of him implanted in her own brain). A story about indetifying with your conqueror, and finding your own place as an other.
Books listened to
Kameron Hurley: The Light Brigade. As many reviews point out, the book is a revisiting of Heinleins Starship Troopers as many of the arguments made in the original appear here – albeit handled differently and with more nuance. Well paced story but occasionally hard to follow – time travel makes it tough to keep track of characters, and I had a hard time understanding why protagonist Dietz cared for some people more than others; their names just hadn’t registered. Fun all around thought!
Max Brooks: Devolution. It’s a zombie book by a zombie author but instead of zombies it’s Bigfoot. An epistoraly novel with few likable characters, even fewer interesting ones, and some sort of point being made about humans getting their comeuppance? Written as if for a movie, boring as all hell. Listened to it mostly to practice slow jog on the threadmill without having to be paced by music.
Andy Weir: Project Hail Mary. Following on his success with The Martian, here’s an even more engineery story about a clever guy solving stuff in space. It reads like a science teachers attempt at making physics interesting, and I’m only barely interested in the story – the stakes are high but I don’t really care. Some interesting ideas, but otherwise meh. Well produced solution with an alien who speaks in tones though – the audiobook format really lends itself to that kind of stuff.
C.J. Box – The Disappeared. Murder, corruption, an old lady who’s a concentration camp survivor witnesses a murder? Abandoned 20 pages in.
Peter F. Hamilton: Salvation. There are only so many grizzled Russians talking to musclebound mexican mercenaries in the company of a dandy Scot I can take. Abandoned the audiobook an hour or two in.