Tag Archives: 2018

2018 year in review: the rest of the books

See here for my 2018 top 10 list; this post lists the rest of the books that I read through the 20th. As always, some were worthy of comment and some weren’t. I thought this year I’d organize things a little differently and group books by genre instead of by reading order. As always, the links below point to Amazon; many of these titles are available on Kindle Unlimited, too, for extra reading cheapness.

Thriller, mystery, and crime

  • Crusader One. Implausible but still enjoyable.
  • Code Name: Camelot. Simplistic wish fulfillment. Well written but not very plausible or interesting
  • Point of Impact: after reading G-Man, one of my ten best for the year, I wanted to re-read this and am glad I did. Still one of Hunter’s best books.
  • Forty Thieves: a book about… pink panthers. Absolutely terrific.
  • The Last Man in Tehran. The third of Mark Henshaw’s thrillers, and every bit as good as the first two. I wish he were a little more prolific.
  • Priceless: I really liked Miloszewski’s other books but this one left me flat.
  • Codename Villanelle: interesting premise, and I really liked Eve.
  • Weaponized. Best described as a “wrong-man” thriller, with a ton of (often implausible) plot twists. Get it from the library.
  • Debris Line: 4th in the consistently excellent series from Matthew FitzSimmons, featuring hacker Gibson Vaughn and his compatriots. This one is set against a background of organized crime in… Portugal. Didn’t expect that! Great read.
  • The Blackhouse: murder mystery set on the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland, with a not-very-likeable main character. Quite engaging nonetheless. I will say I wouldn’t want to live on the Isle of Lewis given the weather and all the shenanigans his characters get up to.
  • Heartwood: the second Billy Bob Holland novel from James Lee Burke. I don’t remember much about it other than that I enjoyed it.
  • Hap and Leonard Ride Again and Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade: two short story collections about a hippie Texas redneck and his best friend, who happens to be a gay black Republican, and their various criminal adventures.
  • House of the Rising Sun: So James Lee Burke wrote a book about the quest for the Holy Grail, and I read it and enjoyed it despite the ridiculous premise. Further affiant sayeth naught.
  • Robicheaux: complex but expertly plotted James Lee Burke novel featuring you-know-who.
  • Bandwidth. I didn’t remember this book at all. Once I looked it up on Amazon, I remember why I enjoyed it: tautly plotted and full of ruminations on the nature of power, who holds it, and who maybe shouldn’t.
  • The Ridge
  • Soho Ghosts: enjoyable mystery featuring anti-hero Kenny Gabriel and set throughout London. Cleverly plotted.
  • The Death and Life of Bobby Z: terrific Don Winslow crime novel. Just go read it.
  • King City: lightweight but quite enjoyable honest-cop-in-a-corrupt-world story, well told.
  • Finnegan’s Week: dated crime novel. I bet it was funnier when it first came out.
  • Salvation of a Saint
  • The Deep Dark Descending: only after reading this did I learn it’s the fourth book with the same protagonist, which probably explains why I felt like I was playing catch-up the whole book. Riveting nonetheless.
  • The King Tides: not too shabby. I’m looking forward to the next book with these characters so I can see whether this was the high or low point of the series.
  • The Lock Artist: superb combo of a coming-of-age novel, a crime novel, and a romance novel.
  • The Boardwalk Trust: I have grown away from reading legal thrillers over the last few years, but enjoyed this one enough to finish and recommend it.
  • The Good Samaritan: sadly, not very good.
  • Career of Evil: another JK Rowling crime novel, and probably the best of the lot. The ending was a giant cliffhanger and I am looking forward to reading the next installment.
  • Angels Flight and Trunk Music: There were enough differences between these two books and the past two seasons of Amazon Prime Video’s Bosch series that I didn’t feel like I was retreading old ground.
  • White Tigress: ridiculous on every level.

Science fiction

  • Earthcore. Scott Sigler has done better than this novel of homicidal underground space aliens and the cardboard humans they interact with.
  • The Hunters of Vermin, Deadly Nightshade. Two novellas set in the space-opera universe of Max Robichaux, coonass and fighter pilot. Thoroughly enjoyable if you liked the others.
  • Points of Impact. Marko Kloos = automatic purchase. This has a nice savor of Haldeman’s Forever War about it.
  • The Scorpion Game. Violent and reminiscent of Richard K Morgan’s “Altered Carbon.” Interesting world building with a biotech plot twist.
  • Punishment. Imagine that there’s a machine that can pull memories from the mind of one person and add them to another person. Now imagine this machine used for recreation, for punishment of criminals, and for investigation of serious crimes. The protagonist of this novel is a homicide detective who’s touched by all three uses. Imaginative, well-plotted, with crisp and real dialogue and a hell of a twist to the ending. Very recommended.
  • Empire Games and Dark State. Fascinating extension to Stross’ “Merchant Princes” series. More readable and better-plotted than most of his “Laundry” novels.
  • All Systems Red: how can you not love a book where the protagonist is a killer robot that calls itself Murderbot?
  • Revenger. I really wanted to like this more than I did, as I’m a big Alastair Reynolds fan. Still pretty good: space pirates are a great topic.
  • Forge of God: Greg Bear’s classic, which I was reading for the second time.
  • The Punch Escrow: Meh. I can’t see why this was so praised.
  • Superhuman: various people get superpowers. Some of them are former Marines, some are bikers and other criminals. Like a DC Universe movie, and I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment.
  • Calculating Stars: what if, in the 50s, because reasons, there were female astronauts? I just couldn’t make myself love the main characters because the author kept hitting me over the face that they were female! and black! and laboring under the strain of the heteronormative patriarchy, which oppressed them at every turn! I should’ve just read a biography of Mae Jemison instead (and I would love to but there don’t seem to be any).
  • 14: if you liked Lost (which I didn’t watch), word is you’ll like this. I liked it anyway.
  • The Delirium Brief. The best, so far, of Stross’ “Laundry” novels. As a character, Bob Howard continues to grow in depth and complexity with each book, becoming correspondingly more relatable and interesting, and Stross’ dialogue is always top-notch.
  • Planetside: if you like Marko Kloos (or other military sci-fi), you’ll like this. Excellent debut, and I look forward to seeing more from the author.
  • Way Station: thoughtful book from the “golden age” of SF about aliens, immortality, and what it means to be human.
  • Six Wakes: clumsy characterization. I just couldn’t love it, and I don’t see what all the award excitement was about.
  • Infinity Born. Implausible but still interesting; tackles some big questions around brain uploading.
  • Twelve Days I couldn’t decide if this was more of a thriller or more science-fiction. Highly readable mix of the two.
  • Head On: quick, enjoyable, ultimately forgettable. In its favor, this is one of the only Scalzi books that doesn’t make me want to slap the protagonist for being smarmy.
  • Walkaway: I sometimes have a hard time seeing past Cory Doctorow’s politics, but I’m glad I read this thought-provoking novel about “revolution, love, post-scarcity, and the end of death.”
  • Sea of Rust: I can’t improve on this description from Amazon: “A scavenger robot wanders in the wasteland created by a war that has destroyed humanity in this evocative post-apocalyptic ‘robot western'”
  • An Excess Male: in a dystopian future China, plural marriage is the norm thanks to the One-Child Policy and its resulting shortage of women. Combine that premise with a neatly extrapolated nearly-dystopian future China and you have the makings of a solid book.
  • Exo (Fonda Lee)
  • The Collapsing Empire (audio): gets off to a slow start, and all the characters essentially sound the same. The second book in this story arc is supposed to be better.
  • The Million: boring and juvenile. Would someone please bring Heinlein back from the dead and give him this same story idea?
  • Stiletto: every bit as good as The Rook.
  • New Kings of Tomorrow: don’t believe the reviews on Amazon. Cardboard characters and a bizarrely overengineered plot mean that I won’t be reading the sequel.

Fiction and alternate history

  • Book of the Unnamed Midwife and Book of Etta. Provocative post-apocalyptic series with a lot to say about how terrible men are.
  • The Hangman’s Daughter. Fascinating medieval murder mystery featuring a character based on one of the author’s ancestors, who was a literal village executioner back in the day. There are at least six more books in this series that I haven’t read.
  • Lion’s Blood. Thoroughly interesting, and very well written, alternate history where Africa, not Europe, becomes the world center of gravity. There’s still slavery, but it’s African and Muslim slavers who capture slaves from places like Ireland and resettle them in a very different America. Great characterization.
  • The Country of Ice Cream Star: starts strong and then sort of peters out. The patois used by all the characters can be difficult to understand or laceratingly clear in turn.
  • Julian Comstock: boring
  • Centennial: absolutely marvelous narrative of the American West. I wish I’d read it 20 years ago.
  • Scrapper: powerfully written and atmospheric, but confusing. I’m still not sure I caught everything that happened.
  • Arc Light
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. confusing, perhaps a little chaotic, and yet powerful.
  • I Will Never Leave You: Worst book I read this year. I only started it because it was free, then couldn’t stop because I wanted to see how bad it would get.
  • Wicked Wonders: I was surprisingly engaged in this collection of magical-realism and fantasy stories. Better than I expected.

Aviation and space

Biography

  • Speed Girl: short account of Janet Guthrie, the first woman to finish the Indy 500. Fascinating, and the Kindle version has photos, animation, and other multimedia that really add to the experience.
  • Running Away: A Memoir. Obnoxious narrator who makes a wreck of his life and yet salvages something precious by training for the Boston Marathon. I was rooting against Powell for the first half of the book and cheering for him in the second.
  • Johnny Carson (Bushkin): dishy tell-all from Carson’s attorney. Lots of name-dropping and snark.
  • Masters of Doom: alternately fawning and critical look at John Carmack and John Romero, co-developers of the seminal video games Castle Wolfenstein and Doom.
  • Next Stop Execution: a memoir by Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky. Fascinating personality study featuring an unlikable narrator who nonetheless tells an interesting story.
  • The Perfect Mile: fascinating account of the race (!) to break the 4-minute mile barrier. I learned a lot about the history of distance running from this and enjoyed the back-and-forth battles between the contestants.

Assorted non-fiction

  • The Idea Factory: superb history of Bell Labs, putting in context their inventions (the transistor, the laser, the cell phone, the communications satellite…) with lots of interesting detail I hadn’t seen previously.
  • Chrysler’s Turbine Car: absolutely captivating look at a little-known project from Chrysler: a turbine-powered everyday car. Great read for car lovers. The work done on this car is continuing to resonate today, as one of the key engineers founded the company that makes engines for cruise missiles and many small business jets.
  • Fool’s Mate: you can tell that the primary author was the lead FBI agent in this espionage case, because the book reads like an FBI narrative. Interesting but a little clunky, and ultimately the case it describes was minor compared to (say) Tolkachev’s story in Billion Dollar Spy.
  • Level Zero Heroes
  • Into the Raging Sea: sad and harrowing recap of the sinking of the merchant ship El Faro. I won’t spoil the plot, but it was almost all the captain’s fault.
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2018 year in review: my top 10 books

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, I’m going to post my top 10 books for the year, selected from the 97 I’ve read so far. Closer to the 31st, I’ll post the rest of the year’s list, but for now, here are a few that I thought especially worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  • The Night Trade. I’ve always been a big fan of Barry Eisler’s thrillers, and am happy to say I discovered him just after the publication of his first book. To me, this is probably Eisler’s best novel, with an emotional depth that he has slowly been perfecting over the last few books. Characteristically excellent action scenes and plotting, as I’d expect, but a significantly darker subject (child sex trafficking) than his regular spycraft.
  • Billion Dollar Spy: Absolutely captivating true-life story of Soviet engineer Adolf Tolkachev, who spied for the US in the heart of the Soviet military establishment. Hoffman provides a meaty, well-supported mix of tradecraft, personality profiling, and you-are-there vignettes that make this a compelling read.
  • The Rook: imagine Charlie Stross’ “Laundry” series with a female protagonist and a great deal more polished wit, with fewer geek jokes. I wish there were more books in this series, as the second volume is equally good.
  • Ali: A Life: I have many fond memories of sitting with my dad and watching Ali box. Despite that, I didn’t know much about him as a man. Thanks to this perceptive yet entertaining biography, now I feel like I have a better understanding– and Ali was remarkable, in and out of the ring, in many ways. He was an archetype of the self-promoting pro athlete but at the same time a generous and complex human.
  • The Overstory. It’s about trees. Go read it anyway. You’re welcome.
  • Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Meticulous and deep history of JSOC, an enormously influential and yet largely unknown part of the US military.
  • The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War. I had no idea how much the Ford Motor Company contributed to World War II, nor the depth of racism and anti-Semitism that Henry Ford perpetrated, nor that his son Edsel was ever more than the namesake of an automotive punchline. Remarkable story of how the Ford family– mostly Edsel– conquered a huge number of technical, political, and logistical problems to build the world’s largest air force from literally nothing.
  • Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery. Fascinating memoir from an eminent British brain surgeon. Equal parts thrilling, educational, horrifying, and heartwarming.
  • Norse Mythology. Back in the day, I had Bulfinch’s Mythology to read. Neil Gaiman, whose work I’ve always enjoyed, weighs in with this very approachable take on Norse mythology– funny, engaging, and quite educational.
  • G Man: probably my favorite of all Stephen Hunter’s books. Like Barry Eisler or James Lee Burke, Hunter is able to get a lot of juice out of the same basic plot lines and characters. In this story, Bob Lee Swagger is hunting for the truth about his grandfather, a famous Prohibition-era lawman, so we get both his search but also the grandfather’s adventures. Cleverly plotted with great dialogue.

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