28. “This Census Taker,” fiction, China Mieville, finished August 24.
27. “The Last Days of New Paris,” fiction, China Mieville, finished August 21.
Two novella-length books from Mieville, one (New Paris) his latest release, and one from the start of the year, both freaky and haunting and redolent of stories set to Dream Theater albums. “New Paris” is a faint reflection of some themes from the Bas Lag books but set to a completely artistic beat; the coupling of WWII spy vs spy story with intense Surrealism (in every vein) was equally fun and unnerving and intriguing. “Census Taker” had the same impact and force but along different vectors; a study in identity and memory and family relationships. Mieville is moving into the pantheon of “must read on release day” authors for me, and I’m increasingly having trouble calling his work “science fiction” as opposed to straight-up “fiction”. Independent of labels, he crafts worlds and contexts and emotional microclimates like a master.
26. “Chaos Monkeys,” business, Antonio Garcia Martinez, finished August 14.
Palace intrigue inside Twitter and Facebook as well as some Silicon Valley VCs makes a solid foundation for a nerd story. Halfway through, however, I was reminded of Dolly Brunson’s poker maxim (which Martinez even quotes in a footnote): “If you’re at a poker table and don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you.” Reading this all the way through, you’re left feeling like Martinez believes everyone else is an idiot, and therefore in the contra-Brunson logic only he can be the smartest one in the Bay Area. Knowing more than one person name-dropped in the story, I found his contexts for several stories bent facts and time to his narrative advantage. The biggest disappointment for me, though, was the sexist language; while implicitly diminishing the “bro” culture, Martinez writes about women in the workplace like a lax bro with a Chabon-ic command of vocabulary. Word play doesn’t absolve misdirected use of words. It’s a good and worthwhile book to read, even if you only take away the actual workplace mindset faced by women in technology.
25. “Back From The Dead,” sports, Bill Walton, finished August 2.
Wasn’t sure what to expect from Walton’s autobiography, liberally sprinkled with Bob Dylan and Grateful Dead lyrics. I remembered seeing him as a Boston Celtic, winning an NBA title, as I was leaving Bean town, and seeing him again as an NCAA commentator as his own son played – and was struck by his grace, his humor, and his physical presence. His book fills in a huge number of hidden layers – the career shortening physical problems, his chronic back pain, his love of live music and how he became a Dead Head, but most revealing to me was his long and wonderful relationship with John Wooden. It’s not a work of scholarly note, or particularly meaningful sports prose, but it’s powerful in seeing Wooden’s lessons reflected through Walton’s life, and appreciating how hard Walton worked to excel despite his chronic pain and physical defects. A must read for anyone who has suffered chronic back pain, or for anyone caring for someone afflicted with back pain. Not what you’d expect from a sports book, but Bill Walton isn’t what you expect from a Dead Head either.
24. “The Intuitionist,” fiction, Colson Whitehead, finished July 22.
First novels run the gamut from awe-inspiring glimpses into what’s possible in disposing of staid genres (Jodi Picoult) or sometimes play out as one-hit wonders (“Ready Player One”) that dredge up rememberances of songs from the high school cafeteria jukebox or your first car’s FM radio (if you suffered either of those). I had the advantage of approaching Whitehead’s work sidelong, starting with his take on the World Series of Poker, drifting into his fiction and then back to his fiction starting line. While the reviews on “The Intuitionist” are highly mixed, I adored this book. It’s a story about race, and perception, and bias, and it’s best to imagine the setting as a project of Disney’s “Tomorrowland” or “Carousel of Progress” as seen from nearly half a century of perspective, yet eerily modern in context, tone and message. The last twenty pages of this book are among the best — of any book — I’ve read all year.
23. “The Nightmare Stacks,” sci-fi, Charles Stross, finished July 14.
After the last “Laundry Files” book in which hero Bob Howard and his eerie violinist spouse seemed to be going in seemingly random directions, I was already waiting with too much anxiety for the next installment in the series. And Stross delivers another left turn with the first “Laundry” book in which Howard is nothing more than a footnote, and characters from the 2015 “Rhesus Chart” re-appear with renewed vim, vigor and Strossian humor. Once again Stross draws a fast moving story arc, this time with sentient horrors from across the time-space continuum, and the usual mix of British proprietary, contemporary nerd humor and math jokes makes this a winner, seven in the series.
22. “Mash Up,” sci-fi, edited by Gardner Dozois, finished July 2.
A neat anthology of short science fiction stories, all based on the concept of taking the first line from a famous literary work and then riffing on it, sometimes incorporating the relevant source material. The Moby Dick infused story reads like a “Wicked” version of Melville’s book; “The Evening Line” exudes Damon Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls” characters. Contributions from some favorite writers, from Scalzi to Mary Robinette Kowal, Robert Charles Wilson and Elizabeth Bear, combined with the pithy format, make this a fun and fast read.
21. “Zone One,” fiction, Colson Whitehead, finished June 24.
I’ve been on a Colson Whitehead kick since “Noble Hustle” and I really, truly wanted to devour (no pun) this even though the Whitehead-does-zombie-apocalypse theme started me at a mental five down vote disadvantage. In short, this isn’t a zombie or science fiction story, as much as a story about human nature and survival and how dark humor helps us navigate the darkest of moral and mental waterways. It’s more similar to Cormac MacCarthy’s “The Road” than anything else. I found it a bit more difficult to assemble given the multiple timelines and minimal naming schemes for characters and places, but that’s also a way to reflect on the context: how do we assign names when all points of reference are unreliable, including the protagonist’s sense of self? It’s good, and compelling, but not exactly summer beach reading.
20. “Absolution Gap,” sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds, finished June 14.
The conclusion of the “Revelation Space” trilogy, checking in a bit over 700 pages that have the feel of high-energy condensed matter. Reynolds touches on all of the design themes you’d expect: religion, dynastic strength and wealth, shifting allegiances in the face of unknown enemies. There’s a parallel plot line which starts subtly, gains conflict amplified by the “A plot” and is one that you’ll figure out before the exposition, but it doesn’t rely on cheesy mechanics like time travel or deus-ex-machina. It’s as much opera as space, and I agree with the notion that Reynolds has breathed life into the form.
19. “Properties of Light,” fiction, Rebecca Goldstein, finished May 22.
Normally I enjoy Goldstein’s fiction and scientific narratives, but “Properties of Light” mixes romance with parallel plot constructions with some bizarre implications that great science comes from impropriety. Quite simply, I don’t think I picked up on all of the subtlety, and the repetitive language coupled with the typesetting used to imply thought or different timelines was exhausting. While Goldstein may have been aiming for Gothic, she ended up with a literary Hot Topic melange of styles and snippets.
18. “Chains of Command,” sci-fi, Marko Kloos, finished May 13.
The latest installment in the “Frontlines” space opera, Kloos delivers another highly detailed, combat- and strategy-oriented tale that further explores Andrew Grayson’s character. Unfortunately, that’s about all that is revealed; I felt that four or five points of storyline would have benefited from more exposition. While it’s possible to surmise at motivations for major plot devices like “all of the Earth’s leaders bailed with most of the Earth’s arsenal” the underpinnings — and backstory — felt important. Clearly this is an intermediate book meant to move the story along, and much like the intermediate books of “The Expanse” it serves its purpose. A quick, fun read, but not quite on bar with the first two books of the series. I’m hoping that Kloos picks up steam with the series conclusion, because the way he unveils combat scenes feels like a formal military history professor dissecting the action, with color commentary thrown in to make it real time (and yes, that’s a good thing; it’s equivalent to the depth of the sword fighting scenes in the “Mongoliad” trilogy).
17. “Sag Harbor,” fiction, Colson Whitehead, finished May 5.
Colson Whitehead has written the book I’ve always wanted to write about Long Beach Island, growing up in that special extended network of people who went “down the shore.” He captures the essence of a coming of age story with the wonderfully textured memories of our favorite places and the characters that inhabited the routes between them. Our family is rich with stories and history that we share over holiday meals, and here Whitehead has delivered on par with “Noble Hustle” in broadening the audience for the halo we place over our first adult twinges.
16. “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” business, Dan Lyons, finished May 2.
One measure of my love for a book is the page count before I chortle. Another is the audacity to call the ball on a subtle but difficult trend, like ageism or the insane valuations placed on companies without profit models. And the final is use of vernacular I have often taken as uniquely my own (case in point: Lyons uses the phrase “pinch a loach” exquisitely). Dan Lyons, The Writer Formerly Known as Fake Steve Jobs, delivers a hat trick of wonderful prose in this one. Lyons is what he is — he’s an aging newsie who really knows technology and has an acerbic but blindingly bright wit — and he delivers a tour de force of Darth Vader gravitas about the Dark Side of the technology Force. I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially if you’re over 40 and a nerd.
15. “Redemption Ark,” sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds, finished April 26.
Probably the longest read of the year, in terms of elapsed time and page count. The mid-point of a trilogy that grew to a four-corners of space with “Chasm City,” it’s a much deeper treatment of the characters from “Revelation Space.” Less hard science, more politics, psychology and literal redemption round out a very rich story.
14. “Might As Well,” music, Dean Budnick, finished March 26.
Took an intra-book break from the multiple plotlines of Reynolds to pick up the fictional interleaving plot lines of seven characters who take in a Dead show in the Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands. If you’re a Deadhead, a Phan, or have spent any time on tour, you’ll see yourself in at least some of the characters and their interactions with each other and their 20,000 touring buddies. This was a fun read with subtle historical overtones (Budnick claims he took inspiration from the still unsolved death of Adam Katz at an October 1989 Dead show at the Meadowlands). From people who speak in lyrics to obscure TV cultural references to calling the setlist, this book had me reliving the sights, sounds and veritable smells of a summer Phish show – while it’s definitely rooted in Dead culture, song and soul, it conveys in under 300 pages how hundreds of hours of tapes (now downloads), shows and time in less than perfect transportation builds a multi-generational community.
13. “Revelation Space,” sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds, finished April 1.
Part of the series that includes “Chasm City,” I was eager to dive back into the deeply crafted Reynolds-wrapped worlds. This one took a bit more effort, in part due to the difficult typesetting of the paperback edition: there are shifts in narrative stance and timeline within a chapter, and at times abrupt jumps in perspective were evidenced by nothing more than a paragraph break (in most cases the demarcations were quite clear). Either the book is denser than some of his others, or the multiple timelines added to the confusion, but I was nearly at the midway point before this really got going. Not my favorite, but a good story that fills in more of the Glitter Band/Melding Plague/Conjoiner/Ultra universe, and a nice complement to “Chasm City” and “Redemption Ark” (which is currently open on the nightstand).
12. “Steve Jobs,” biography, Walter Issacson, finished March 17.
I resisted reading this for a long time, mostly because I have my own, myopic view of Jobs through the eyeglasses of an engineer (Jobs never build an electronic circuit or wrote a line of code; he was a product designer and visionary and leader). At the same time, I haven’t laid out traces or used a compiler in years either, so some of my reluctance was self-imposed fear of looking in the mirror and seeing an ideal that is multiple standard deviations from where I stand. In reality, the book was a slow read because I stopped to pause and reflect (much as I did going through Springsteen’s biography) — not just on things to do more of, but on the types of interactions that people found toxic and how the relentless drive for design perfection might be tempered with a human drive for positive relationships. It’s a superbly written, very fairly presented view of Jobs, and I took some personal pleasure in the name drops of people with whom I’d worked over the last twenty five years. Finished it, somewhat fittingly, while on a business trip in the Bay Area, and I left it in the nightstand next to the Gideon Bible.
11. “Chasm City,” sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds, finished February 18.
There are any number of themes in Reynolds’ works that could themselves be spines in well-constructed sci-fi worlds. The fact that he drops so many ideas into his work, letting the reader sort out the moral, political and scientific implications, makes you appreciate the richness of his books even more. Loaned to me by a fellow sci-fi fan, “Chasm City” reminded me how much I like Reynolds and sent me back to amazon.com to order the rest of the “Revelation Space” series. While it’s not necessary to read them in sequence (another good mark: each novel stands on its own) I’m increasingly believing it’s necessary to read them in their entirety. [Late edit: the next step in this series wasn’t quite as strong as the first, but I’m still tracking]
10. “The Three Body Problem,” sci-fi, Cixin Liu, finished February 6.
A Hugo award winner, it made my late 2015 list and represented my first foray outside of known authors or subjects in a while. Translated from Chinese, the book is replete with footnotes on various events in Chinese history and their historical or contextual impact on the story. That said, this was a difficult read — both trying to piece together the multiple story lines and trying to understand the underlying messages about science, popular belief, and human nature. I’ll admit I appreciated the book but am not sure I’ll finish the trilogy once translated (and yes, I seem to be drawn back into trilogies).
9. “The City and The City,” sci-fi, China Mieville, finished January 24.
I went through most of the Mieville canon about eighteen months ago, and was appropriately weirded out by his insect-human and body mod-as-punishment world creation. “The City and The City” is a standalone book, set in two fictional cities that could very well be Prague in both pre- and post-Velvet Revolution years. The storytelling is as layered and variegated as an archaeological dig, where you are misdirected time and again looking for clues that set historical context. The undercurrent — what is seen and not seen — reminded me alternatively of the strict British politeness of Downtown Abbey while smacking of the apparatchik of Communist dominated Czechoslovakia. My favorite Mieville book so far. Dense and hard to get into, but so well worth the effort.
8. “Just Kids,” music/art, Patti Smith, finished January 15.
My knowledge of Patti Smith was limited to her Springsteen contribution “Because the Night” and an apocryphal story that she also hailed from Freehold, NJ (she grew up much closer to Jersey Devil and Flyer fan country in actuality). This book reduced my reading pace, both because it filled my first week back from vacation (where I’m fighting sleepiness rather than reading on the beach) and because the prose is rich, nuanced and insightful. A tangential love story of her life with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, “Just Kids” is an artists’ book in a literal literal sense – it makes you uncomfortable at times, and you feel the difficulty and challenges faced by both Smith and Mapplethorpe in finding their creative outlets.
7. “Numero Zero,” fiction, Umberto Eco, finished January 6.
Eco is the pretentious Dan Brown. His stories hint at mysteries and conspiracy, rather than bludgeoning you with head fakes, misdirection and plot twists. You have to think through what’s real, implied, inferred and purely cynical. Checking in under 200 pages, only a bit of Italian vocabulary slows down your reading pace. Wickedly satirical views of the fourth estate (par usual) frame tortuous logic in a book that you can zip through in a single sitting. [Postscript: Eco died just a few weeks after I wrote this]
6. “Elysium,” sci-fi, Jennifer Marie Brissett, finished January 5.
My first “wow” book of the year, and most definitely worth reading in one sitting. It takes a few dozen pages to follow the characters and story points, but once you get a general sense of what’s happening (or what you think is happening) it’s easier to look for clues and hints as to how the characters have gone from context A to context B. I was thinking of Cory Doctorow’s “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town,” Verner Vinge’s “True Names,” and the movie “District 9.” One of my favorite book after-effects is finding thoughts of the plot or characters or particular situations entertaining me — and Brissett leaves a bright after image.
5. “Phish: The Biography,” music, Parke Puterbaugh, finished January 5.
Of the short handful of Phish related books I’ve read in the past three years, this is far and away the best. Puterbaugh delves into the stories behind the albums, the group dynamics, and some of the song histories. I came away with a much greater appreciation for why phans make such (irrelevant, in my opinion) distinctions between the various phases of the band’s history. Unlike other tomes which focus on specific aspects of a show, a jam, or the literal or musical road between segments of each, this is truly a biography — updated after the band’s 2009 reunion and rebirth. Having just started listening to Phish in 2010 (when I left Sun Microsystems and found myself with a summer in which to do nothing more than listen to a lot of music), I was ignorant of much of the history; like many other bands (Yes, Genesis, even Rush) I find myself entering the mainstream of their fan base mid-life. And the sincere hope, after this book, is that this is indeed only a middle point in the great jam arc of the band.
4. “Ancillary Mercy,” sci-fi, Anne Leckie, finished January 3.
3. “Ancillary Sword,” sci-fi, Anne Leckie, finished January 2.
Fitting conclusions to the trilogy, and another departure from the space opera literary devices of blowing up ships, planets and other large man-made objects in favor of solid narrative and character development. Yes, I read them in a day, a task made easier having formed opinions about Leckie’s gender/pronoun phrasing and by the slightly shorter length of the second and third books. The books take place in a nearly linear temporal space; only a few days elapse between the conclusion of one and the start of the next, easing mental continuity. There is a bit more snark from the middle on; and Leckie’s depiction of the alien Presger is as hilarious (and startling) as Scalzi’s “Agent to the Stars.”
2. “Jaco,” music, Bill Milkowski, finished January 1.
I’m trying hard to intersperse music and non-fiction with my usual dose of science fiction. Milkowski’s complete and detailed biography of jazz bassist Jaco Pastorious filled in gaps from my mid-70s jazz education, centered obviously on the success of Weather Report but also delving into Jaco’s earlier dexterity with bass and drums and his struggles with mental illness, poverty and increasingly difficult social behavior that indirectly led to his fatal beating in a Florida nightclub. The conclusion — known to any fans — is sad and frank. Milkowski concludes the updated edition of the book with sixty-three interviews that don’t add much (other than a long chapter) to the other prose, but overall, this is one of the better musician biographies I’ve read, without any of the usual drama that wasn’t at least partially obvious to those who witness Jaco’s public decline.
1. “Ancillary Justice,” sci-fi, Anne Leckie, finished December 31.
The only book to win Hugo, Locus, and Arthur C Clarke awards in the same year, Leckie’s space opera dismisses the hard science, perils of faster than light travel and elaborate alien species construction in favor of much more timely and challenging themes: power, privilege, class demarcations, and identity. Her fluid use of pronouns and gender may be confusing at times (it took me about a book and a half to form some theories about pronoun frameworks) but at the same time it forces you to think about the antecedent of the pronoun, and the context in which a pronoun is substituted — making you consider the views and perceptions that generated the literary choice. A great way to start 2016.