Book Reviews

2016 Edition

I spent a fair amount of time reading in 2016. Okay, “fair” may be an understatement, depending on your perspective. I read way more (voluntarily) than any year since at least middle school. Luckily, I recorded it all on Goodreads!

Goodreads rating caveat

2 out of 5 stars on Goodreads is the minimum for “I liked it,” so the ratings come out kind of weird. I’ll try to write up a little blurb on each book, to the best of my memory. Boy, I wish I had written down my thoughts upon finishing each book, but here goes nothing!

Without further ado, the 2016 list, in order of Goodreads’ “Date Read” column.

The List

A Game of Thrones

George R.R. Martin (5 stars | Jan 3)

Why did I give this 5 stars? I didn’t think I gave anything 5 stars. It was a great book though.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

Very inspiring. Reader be warned - may cause urges to pursue a career in the SEALs.

Ambition: How We Manage Success and Failure Throughout Our Lives

Gilbert Brim (2 stars | Feb 18)

Don’t remember much about this one.

The Tiger Rising

Kate DiCamillo (4 stars | Mar 13)

Children’s book. Don’t remember much, but apparently I thought it was well-written at the time.

Toad Rage

Morris Gleitzman (2 stars | Mar 25)

Children’s book. I actually remember this one. Classic children’s book theme - it’s about a toad trying to find what makes him unique/special in the world. Generally meh. Written by an Australian and consequently uses a lot of fun Aussie-specific words, if you’re into something like that. Provides a glossary of terms so you don’t get confused.

Keep It Pithy: Useful Observations in a Tough World

Bill O’Reilly (1 star | Mar 26)

My super-conservative grandfather gave me this book to read. I love him to death, so I read it. It made me generally pretty angry, but I still read it. Turns out Bill O’Reilly and I don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues.

Rails 4 Test Prescriptions: Build a Healthy Codebase

Noel Rappin (3 stars | Mar 30)

Really good book on writing tests for rails apps. Unfortunately, I don’t spend much time writing rails apps these days, so this is less useful to me now. I find it interesting that this is the first true programming-specific book to appear on the list.

The Winner’s Mind: A Competitor’s Guide to Sports and Business Success

Allen Fox (3 stars | Mar 30)

Fantastic book written by a former top-ranked tennis player turned coach. Easier to relate to if know tennis, but applies to competition in general regardless.

Dawnthief

James Barclay (4 stars | Apr 10)

Page-turner of a fantasy novel. Warning: uses explicit language. :P

I’m not even sure why I’m calling that out. It’s not the only book on this list that uses “adult” language. It does happen to be the first, I think.

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader

Brent Schlender (3 stars | Apr 13)

This book offered an interesting perspective on the man. I ended up pretty much where I started, though. I think he’s an ass, but at the same time, I can’t help admiring him.

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler (4 stars | Apr 30)

So good! So many plot twists. So relatable. It reads more like the plot of a Netflix original drama than a novel written in the ’30s.

I’m glad I’m revisiting this, because there are apparently other books in a Phillip Marlowe (the protagonist) series. I must read them all!

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future

Ashlee Vance (2 stars | May 7)

Another biography of a modern tech “genius.” Lots of similarities between the two legends. Elon seems more likeable than Jobs, though, perhaps because he didn’t berate employees as much. Or, at least the biography didn’t show that as much with Musk as with Jobs.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Stephen R. Covey (2 stars | May 29)

So many people recommend this book in their blogs and on podcasts and the like. Someone lent me a copy, so I felt obligated to read it. Generally, it was a pretty good self-help book. It definitely got a little “woo-woo” at times, but I think I got a lot out of it.

Divergent

Veronica Roth (4 stars | May 31)

Lent to me by my younger brother (currently a freshman in high school). Incredible dystopian fiction.

After reading this, I watched the movie. I have to say I was disappointed with the adaptation. The book does a far better job capturing the struggles and emotions going on with Tris. Obviously, having a first-person narration helps with that.

I couldn’t wait to continue the series after completing Divergent, and I borrowed them from my brother (who owned the entire series) in quick succession.

Insurgent

Veronica Roth (3 stars | Jun 6)

Good follow-up to Divergent. Not quite as good as its predecessor, but still a good work of sci-fi. Definitely worth reading. I watched the movie after I read it, but I don’t remember what I thought of it.

Allegiant

Veronica Roth (2 stars | Jun 8)

Disappointing end to a promising series. The plot continued to feel more and more silly as the book went on. The general internet seems to agree with me, given that it has the lowest average rating of the three. I have not yet watched the movie adaptation, and I’m not sure if I will.

Four: A Divergent Story Collection

Veronica Roth (3 stars | Jun 9)

A nice addendum to the series. It was interesting to revisit some scenes from the series from alternative (Four’s) point of view. If you’ve invested enough to get through the first three books, you might as well finish this one off as well, but maybe that’s some sunk-cost fallacy talking.

8 Weeks to SEALFIT

Mark Divine (3 stars | Jun 22)

I bought this on a whim. If you haven’t realized this yet from some of my other posts, I’m really into health and fitness. I was really excited to get to hear a former SEAL’s perspective on the matter.

It had a lot of good routines, plus it was good to brush up on form and technique, even if it is a bit hard to do from just pictures. Also, it contained some stories and other blurbs that functioned as “motivational.” These were awesome - nothing makes you want to go pick up heavy things more.

As a small aside, this is the first book I read on a kindle. Skimmed is really the more appropriate term here.

Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future

Newt Gingrich (3 stars | Jun 25)

This one was another gift from my conservative grandpa. After Keep it Pithy (see above), I did not have high hopes for the book.

However, I was pleasantly surprised. Gingrich presents a much more tempered view than O’Reilly which feels far more centered and far less dogmatic. Whether this has anything to do with Gingrich’s years of experience as a politician, or that O’Reilly’s success is directly tied to his ability to attract attention I’m not sure. Regardless, Gingrich has some good ideas that are worth at least listening to.

A.D. 30

Ted Dekker (4 stars | Jun 26)

Another gift, though from a different person. This was an even more bizarre gift. While my grandpa is always trying to “convert” me to his views, I am not in the least bit religious (much to the chagrin of my Catholic relatives). Regardless (apparently, this was the time period best described as “Andrew broadens his mind and considers alternative worldviews”), I gave it a shot.

Once again, I was surprised! A compelling story that told the events of Jesus’ life (if you didn’t figure that out from the title), but through the eyes (and mind) of a Bedouin clanswomen from Egypt. Dekker invents a set of incredibly relatable characters, whom you root for throughout the narrative. As a result of the protagonist’s background, the more spiritual events of the plot are viewed more with a sense of wonder and magic than a blind acceptance of divine intervention, which I liked.

A.D. 33

Ted Dekker (3 stars | Jun 29)

Along with A.D. 30, I received the sequel (I think my family may be worried about me). Seriously, even though almost all of the books gifted to me aren’t exactly “up my alley,” I love getting books. I feel weird saying this on my blog, but if you ever have the occasion to get me a gift, books are a great option. You really can’t go wrong.

Not quite as good as the first book, perhaps I noticed because I read them in such quick succession. It had all the same good qualities as A.D. 30, but some parts felt repetitive to me. Again, see my point about reading them without pause. Also, Dekker offered fewer “rational” plot devices, employing much more deus ex machina this time around.

Doctor Who: The Legends of Ashildr

Justin Richards (3 stars | Jul 7)

Lent from my younger brother.

Disclaimers:

  1. He is a huge Doctor Who fan and consumes as much related material as he can.
  2. I am not.

I found it interesting, but boring at times. One of the stories (I think there were four?) captured my interest much more than the others. I was also in the midst of slogging through Arabian Nights at the time, and this particular story was based on exactly the part of Arabian Nights I was reading, which I thought was cool. The rest of the stories (which mostly bored me) were your typical middle-grade fiction. Maybe I would have liked them more were I a Doctor Who fan. Please don’t judge me.

American Gods

Neil Gaiman (4 stars | Jul 17)

Oh man. My first novel on a kindle. My first Neil Gaiman. So many firsts!

I loved this book. I couldn’t stop turning the page. Well, I couldn’t stop swiping. I was worried that reading on the screen would detract from the experience, but I gleefully tore through this one just like any other work of fiction that engrosses me. Also, this put Gaiman on my list of authors to “read everything they wrote.”

A Clash of Kings

George R.R. Martin (4 stars | Jul 30)

I finally caved and bought myself the second A Song of Ice and Fire book (not because I was putting off reading it, but because I’m a cheap bastard). It was just as good as the first. But by now, my ratings appear to have scaled more appropriately. Books have to fight harder for that coveted fifth star.

Principle-Centered Leadership

Stephen R. Covey (2 stars | Aug 9)

Even more woo-woo than 7 Habits. I’d recommend just reading his first book and stopping.

Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift (3 stars | Aug 16)

As a work of fiction, great! The story grabs you, and so on and so forth. As a political allegory and satire, well… if I lived during the period it satirizes, I probably would think it was funnier.

The Arabian Nights

Anonymous (3 stars | Aug 25)

A beast of a book. Over a thousand pages, and the writing style is quite old. I really had to slog through this at times, but I think it was worth it.

The Silmarillion

J.R.R. Tolkien (3 stars | Sep 7)

The creation story of Eä, the universe which contains Middle Earth. Much different from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series, but still great. It’s Tolkien, after all.

There were a lot of interesting - and, frankly, modern - ideas in this one, particularly surrounding gender. I wrote up a brief post with my thoughts on the matter, which you can find here.

Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace (4 stars | Oct 12)

I got this from the bookstore near Yelp’s office.

For me, this book had so much hype surrounding it that I had no idea what to expect. Several blogs I read highly recommended it. Others poked fun at the snobby, hipster, “push-up-the-brim-of-your-glasses” attitude that people adopt after reading it. Also, it was massive, and I still have battle scars from Arabian Nights.

I liked it! Wallace is hilarious. Also, the plot’s focus on a tennis academy hit a soft spot for me. I started playing at four and have continued to play all my life. Later, I learned that Wallace also played competitively, which explains the exceedingly detailed descriptions of various tennis scenes. In my opinion, the only people that write accurate tennis scenes spent years playing the sport themselves. I mean, have you seen Wimbledon? Gag me.

Plus, if you’re looking for more to read after you finish the novel, there’s always the hundred or so pages of footnotes.

A Storm of Swords

George R.R. Martin (4 stars | Oct 27)

I found an independent used bookstore much closer to where I lived, where I picked up this one (along with many of the remaining books in this list). As an aside, I love this place! I stop in almost every weekend to check it out. Plus they buy books and do trades, which means I don’t end up with a massive pile of books that I’ve already read.

I’m not sure how to talk about this one without spoiling the plot. The writing and storytelling is quality, as you would expect from Martin. Also … holy shit, like everyone dies. Well, not everyone, but a lot of people. Like, way more than either of the first two books. Why, George, why?

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman (4 stars | Oct 29)

I did not know that Gaiman wrote children’s books until I read this one (surprise: it’s a children’s book). I bought it the week before Halloween for (hopefully) obvious reasons and was surprised to find it much more (how shall I say this?) innocent than American Gods.

To be clear, I’m not holding that against it or anything. The book was amazing; I pretty much didn’t put it down until I had finished it. I even made a mental note to look out for more of Gaiman’s children’s work. Yes, Coraline is on my “To-Read” list. Don’t worry.

Ecotopia

Ernest Callenbach (3 stars | Nov 3)

Ha. Haha. Hahahaha.

The true story of what would happen if California seceded from the United States.

Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson (4 stars | Nov 17)

So good! If you like computers, you will love this book. However, let me quickly disclaim that this is a sufficient, but not necessary condition for loving the book.

It’s a beastly work of fiction (nearing one thousand pages; I don’t remember the exact count). The plot spans multiple generations of characters, whose stories intersect and interact in all kinds of interesting ways. It’s truly a remarkable book.

Plus, it focuses heavily on cryptography (degree in mathematics not required), which I find super-interesting. And because part of the story occurs during World War II, we also get some cameos of none other than Alan Turing. Love it!

Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking

Poornima Vijayashanker (2 stars | Nov 20)

Not that great of a book. I didn’t get a whole lot out of it, personally. At least it was short, so I was able to crank through it quickly.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

Tim Wu (2 stars | Nov 22)

The author came to give a talk at Yelp and brought along free copies of his book. I didn’t go to the talk, but I did grab a copy.

I thought it was interesting. I knew a bit about the topic - I took a class in my sophomore year on spin and PR, plus I watched Mad Men. Seeing how the trends established by the advertising industry are being adapted and applied in the Information Age was eye-opening.

The Compound

S.A. Bodeen (3 stars | Nov 23)

Picked this one up from my little brother. Dystopian sci-fi at its finest. Holy shit does Bodeen have an imagination, and as a result produced quite the page-turner.

The Fallout

S.A. Bodeen (1 star | Nov 26)

Sequel to The Compound. Not anywhere near as good as its predecessor. The plot felt forced in many places, sort of like when you still need two pages to hit the page minimum on your research paper, but you’re completely out of things to say.

I Am the Cheese

Robert Cormier (3 stars | Nov 28)

Another bizarre novel lent from my brother (I did a lot of reading while I was visiting over the Thanksgiving holiday). I spent about the first half thinking what the hell is even happening?, followed by wait, what? for most of the latter half. Even if I don’t fully understand what happened, I still got a lot of enjoyment out of reading it, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

Imitation

Heather Hildenbrand (2 stars | Nov 30)

Another kindle novel. A bit of a strange dystopian novel. Apparently young adult dystopians with female protagonists are in vogue (Hunger Games, Divergent, …).

Not bad. The premise is incredibly creepy, but also completely plausible. Which, let’s be honest, is the best kind of sci-fi.

Fortune’s Rising

Sara King (3 stars | Dec 3)

More kindle, more dystopian sci-fi.

I liked this one more, though. It follows many characters in parallel, so there’s not one strict protagonist, and their various plots intersect and influence each other in unexpected ways.

The tech is often poorly-explained though, but perhaps that contributes to the feeling of authenticity of the story. We don’t need the technology explained to us because - duh - of course we understand all the technology. It’s just the way the world is. But what do I know?

Snow Crash

Neal Stephenson (3 stars | Dec 7)

Another Stephenson focused on computing; this time the implications of a potential virtual reality craze. To me, Cryptonomicon was better, but this one was still good.

Some parts felt a little absurd to me (the protagonist is named Hiro Protagonist, for example), but how should I know how the future will turn out? Isn’t that the whole point of speculative fiction? Worth reading if you like tech.

Ready Player One

Ernest Cline (4 stars | Dec 10)

Amazing!! So much nerdiness in one book. It hooked me after just one chapter.

Think The Westing Game meets video game pop culture. Some of the bits at the end felt forced to me, too much like Cline standing on his personal soapbox. Granted, I agree with most of his points, but this book just didn’t feel like the right place for them.

Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus (2 stars | Dec 11)

Short drama about Prometheus, his punishment, and the prophecies that resulted. If you like Greek mythology, or classical literature in general, give it a read.

The Three-Body Problem

Liu Cixin (3 stars | Dec 16)

This Chinese author has a fantastic imagination. I call out the fact he is Chinese only because the book (I read) is a translation of his original work.

It’s a work of science fiction, without giving away too much of the plot, covering topics like fundamental particle physics, SETI, the Chinese Cultural Revolution (bam, how about some history with your sci-fi?). Some real crazy shit happens, and it really makes you think about some deep fundamental issues about humanity, morality, etc.

I’ve had this book recommended to me by a couple of people now. At least one of them has read the full series (there are three books in total), and apparently the last book gets real weird. I’m not sure if I have the courage to get there, given how bizarre I found some of the parts of this book. Time will tell.

The Prince

Niccolò Machiavelli (1 star | Dec 16)

This book is “important,” so I felt I had to read it. Ya know, one of those “push your glasses up with your index finger” type of books. But, boy, was it slow-going. I just could never get into it. The ideas were great (it’s better to be feared than loved, etc.), but the writing style just never really grabbed me.

Note that I started reading this book on Sep 8. I would read ten or twenty pages, then put it down for months at a time while I read other, more interesting (to me) works. Rinse and repeat. Finally, I sat myself down and said dammit you are going to finish this. Don’t do that. Enjoy the books you read.

Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman (4 stars | Dec 20)

Fantastic! Gaiman has an incredible imagination. It started off very bizarre and confusing, but stick with it, because it gets really good really fast. The ending was so sad though, to me. I think of this like some weird intersection of Harry Potter and The Matrix.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

J.K. Rowling (3 stars | Dec 26)

I’ve been waiting to get my hands on a copy for ages (really no more than 5 months, since it was published at the end of July). Like most readers my age, I have a special place in my heart for the Harry Potter series. Hopefully, though, my reading of this adapted play remained unclouded by nostalgia.

The story was compelling; the plot twists kept me on my toes. I failed to see most of them coming. It also has the advantage of being a quick read (took me a day), so it’s not as heavy of a time investment as the other novels.

The True Meaning of Smekday

Adam Rex (3 stars | Dec 27)

Hilarious middle-grade fiction. Also, this had a really interesting plot structure. I’m not sure if that’s the correct term for it, but consider that the story is divided into three parts, A, B and then C. Instead of getting the story linearly, we get the story in the following: B, then A, and finally C.

Life of Pi

Yann Martel (3 stars | Dec 30)

So beautifully written. This one definitely falls more into the category of “literary fiction” than most of the other books on this list.

Take Moby Dick. Remove all the humans except Owen Chase. Except make him a child. Add a tiger and some serious spirituality, and you get Life of Pi.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but after reading the book I can’t wait. I’m especially curious to see how they make the story compelling, since the most interesting bits (in my opinion) all took place in Pi’s head.

Conclusion

Best Books

I broke the ties manually.

  1. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  3. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  4. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  5. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
  6. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  7. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  8. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  9. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  10. Dawnthief by James Barclay

One thing I learned about myself this year: clearly, I love Neil Gaiman.

Books That Are Worth It Anyway

Here are the books that I think are still worth the read, even if you have to slog through them at times. Unlike “Best Books,” I present these in no particular order.

Some Stats

Courtesy of Goodreads.

Grand Totals

Pages

Bandwagons and Hipsters

Ratings

Until Next Year

Go read! It’s good for you!

Written on 31 December 2016