Reading list 2020

2020-12-31 | updated 2021-02-19

These are the fiction, non-fiction, and programming books I read in 2020.

= audiobook
= recommended

Fiction

  1. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

    Okay so it’s a murder mystery, set in a dilapidated palace, during a competition between noble houses from different planets, each of which is represented by a necromancer and a knight, and the two women from the ninth house (our protagonists) can’t stand each other. The characters are great; the sword & sorcery battles are fun; and the dialogue is hilarious.

  2. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

    Weird, quite disturbing, and very engaging, with a kickass main character — I guess you’d call it “urban fantasy,” although it’s set in the American suburbs (or a semi-parallel reality thereof).

  3. Dune by Frank Herbert ★★

    I think this was my seventh or eighth time reading this, since I first came across it in the school library in 1997. One of those books where there are more things to notice and think about each time you read it. This time I found myself focusing more on the characters’ motivations and how they all relate to their peers, rulers, and culture in subtly different ways. But yeah, it’s also got economics, biology, politics, religion, philosophy; not to mention all the adventure, romance, intrigue, cool tech, dramatic battles, etc. that you’d expect from a scifi classic.

  4. Overtime by Charles Stross

    I like Stross’s writing, but I guess horror just isn’t my thing, even in short form. Rule 34 is rad, though!

  5. Pile of Bones by Michael J. Sullivan

    Intended for a younger audience, I think, but a fun short story about a witch’s daughter who accidentally awakens an ancient evil. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.

  6. Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

    A melodramatic and somewhat homophobic classic from the Victorian era, but if you like sexy vampires and have an hour or two to kill, the Audible production is well done.

  7. Carnival Row: Tangle in the Dark by Stephanie K. Smith

    The worldbuilding was quite good! But the plot and characters: it felt like I was listening to a CW show.

  8. Thin Air by Richard Morgan

    Reminded me of the more cynical parts of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars, minus the science cheerleading and likable characters…. But honestly it’s just a rehash of Black Man and Woken Furies. Read those instead — they’re great.

  9. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

    An alternative history of Siddharta of the Shakyas, in which he doesn’t become the Buddha but ends up going a different way. (Gautama Buddha is a separate character he meets early on.) The story functions as an individualistic meditation on human existence (akin to the works of Alan Watts, Robert Pirsig, and Jack Kérouac). It is beautifully written and I can see why it was so influential; the kind of book that changes how you experience the world.

  10. Spellmonger by Terry Mancour

    I have to commend this novel for managing to stay somewhat interesting despite being in the stalest of genres. Okay it’s partly just that it is epic fantasy that refuses to take itself seriously, which I can’t help but appreciate. (Though if I have to hear one more semi-self-deprecating story about “lusty milkmaids” or whatever …) But the protag keeps seesawing between empathising with the enemy goblins in one scene, then being casually racist about them in the next. (And they are deliberately more humanised than any of the “evil invading races” in Tolkien etc.) I suspect the author is setting him up for some character growth. But it’s like he’s raising questions, then evading them, whether for fear of dragging down the unserious tone or so that he can stretch the story out over several books. Sorry but I won’t be sticking around to find out.

  11. Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

  12. Japanese Short Stories by Sunagawa Minoru (ed.)

    This edition is not for fluent readers of Japanese; it is more for study than leisure reading. But it contains works from a variety of authors, genres, and time periods, which makes for enjoyable reading practice, as well as a decent introduction to Japanese literature.

  13. And Shall Machines Surrender by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

    Quite cool and lots of interesting ideas. But maybe trying to do too much for a novella. I like short stories to have a tight focus, and for longer novels to take the time to explore their ideas/worlds/characters. This one was kinda overstuffed, yet underdeveloped. I’ll definitely be checking out her other work, though.

  14. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

    Horror and superhero comics are two genres that hold very little interest for me, so I guess it’s not surprising that I didn’t care for the Arkham escapee and serial killer convention arcs. But I enjoyed the Shakespeare story, the scenes in Hell, and any time Death showed up. The weakest part of the audio production was probably the narration by Neil Gaiman himself: his constantly amused tone of voice seemed pretty inappropriate at times, though it was fine in the self-consciously tongue-in-cheek Midsummer Night’s Dream arc. MacAvoy was great as Morpheus, though, as was Kat Denning as the bratty teenaged Death. Note: content warnings aplenty for this one.

  15. Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson ★★

    I’m slowly rereading the Malazan series and just finished this one again. My previous memories (sic) of this book were only of the awfulness of the Pannions, the hopelessness of the Grey Swords’ defence of the city, and how sad that fight right before the last battle was. But actually much of it is also a lot of fun — the humans messing with the gods’ plans, the banter (so much banter!), the hilariously dour T’lan Imass…. This series is just the best.

Non-fiction

  1. Isn’t This Fun? by Michael Foley

    It seems kind of random that this book was even written, and I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t enjoyed his The Age of Absurdity so much. But I’m glad I did. Fun-loving type people might be utterly bemused by this intellectual attempt to understand the phenomenon of fun. But he ends up touching on almost every aspect of culture, going into topics as diverse as: Roman, mediæval, and modern festivals; comedy; dance and music; travel / tourism; religious rituals and neopaganism; sports; BDSM; and environmental activism.

  2. Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein

  3. Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking by Christian Rudder

  4. The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederström & André Spicer

  5. The One Minute To-Do List by Michael Linenberger

  6. Getting Things Done by David Allen

  7. Stand Firm by Svend Brinkmann

    Curmudgeonly self-help / social criticism in a Cynical / Stoic vein. Good fun, and practicable, but probably best not taken too literally.

  8. How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell ★★

  9. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

  10. The Silence of Animals by John Gray ★★

  11. Emotional First Aid by Guy Winch

  12. Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber ★★

  13. The Complete Software Developer’s Career Guide by John Sonmez

    Presumably a distillation of his advice posts and videos, it includes the kind of self-aggrandisement to be expected from someone who blogs about his passive income streams for a living. Nevertheless, I found several sections useful, whether for the content itself or the questions they caused me to think about.

  14. Atomic Habits by James Clear

    I’m unsure whether Clear’s ideas are useful, obvious, or nonsense. I guess if you’re looking to improve your habits, this is a good handbook to prompt self-reflection and experimentation.

  15. The Coder’s Path to Wealth and Independence by Mark Beckner

    If you can get past the title (or if you don’t find it offputting), this is well written, wide-ranging, and practical advice on the business of freelancing and consulting, particularly for software developers, and particularly in the US.

  16. Being Taoist by Eva Wong

    Interesting from a cultural history perspective but also quite practically useful in places (aside from the occasionally tedious list of prescriptions for every season of the year etc.).

  17. The Happiness Fantasy by Carl Cederström

    IIRC this ended up being largely about the psychology fashions of the early postmodern (aka hippy) era. And while I’m all for takedowns of positive psychology, I didn’t find this book particularly interesting.

    Recommended alternatives:

    • The Wellness Syndrome, his book with André Spicer
    • Stand Firm by Svend Brinkmann
    • The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman
    • anything by John Gray
    • for a positive take on happiness: Will Schoder’s recent series on YouTube
  18. What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 by Tina Seelig

    Unbearably self-satisfied. Boils down to: “You should go to Stanford, take my business development course, get VC funding from one of my many important friends.”

  19. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

  20. How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

  21. Bit Tyrants by Rob Larsen

  22. Food: A Cultural Culinary History by Ken Albala

  23. Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts

Technical

  1. Head First Go by Jay McGavren
  2. Forge Your Future with Open Source by VM Brasseur
  3. Genomics in the Cloud by Geraldine Van der Auwera & Brian O’Connor
  4. Learning Java by Marc Loy and Patrick Niemeyer and Daniel Leuck
  5. Go Web Programming by Sau Sheong Chang
  6. Nim in Action by Dominik Pecheta