Thinking .·. Computationally thoughts, musings, and ramblings

Book Reviews 2017


“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” - Brandon Sanderson

This year was definitely a Brandon Sanderson kind of year, with some other fantasy and nonfiction sprinkled in. Also my most prolific year yet: 21 books and counting! Let’s get to the reviews!

Before I do that, I yet again highly recommend the Kindle Paperwhite as my e-reader of choice. The Wirecutter agrees.


Life before death. Strength before weakness. Journey before destination

The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

At the top of my list is the Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson, with the 3rd book, Oathbringer, released late this year. You may know me as a big fan of Tolkien and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, so many folks were surprised to find out that I had not yet read much of Brandon Sanderson’s work outside of Wheel of Time, much less his fantasy masterpiece Stormlight Archive. I’ll be honest and say - it does not disappoint! The setting is wonderfully unique and well crafted, the characters are (for the most part) charming, interesting, and captivating, and the story is unlike anything else. While it may take a decade or more for Sanderson to finish the series, along with the rest of his Cosmere universe, I think it is definitely worth the wait and should be a fun read.

While you are reading Sanderson’s Cosmere books, you should definitely grab a copy of Arcanum Unbounded, featuring Edgedancer, a short novella from the Stormlight Archive series featuring one of my favorite characters, Lift, in her own starring role. She is awesome in more ways than one.

Recommended for: lovers of Tolkien, Robert Jordan, or any other large-scale fantasy. This is not a light read, but a great one!


Back into the mists

The Alloy of Law, The Bands of Mourning, Shadows of Self (The Wax and Wayne Series, Mistborn Era 2) by Brandon Sanderson

Last year, Mistborn was one of my favorite reads, so of course I had to check out the second part of the series. Brandon Sanderson brings us back into the world of Mistborn, but several years after the end of the previous series. In this world, many things resemble the last era of the wild west and the beginning of industrialization, and it is fascinating to see how he seamlessly weaves that time together with his magic system already established in the world. We follow Wax, a renegade lawman, and Wayne, a “wild and free spirit,” as they try to unravel a series of mysteries and kidnappings. Along they way you are introduced to a variety of characters, including a couple of my favorite female characters Sanderson has ever produced (sorry, Vin).

According to Sanderson’s website, the 4th and final book in this era, The Lost Metal, is slated for a 2018 or 2019 release.

Recommended for: fans of Mistborn, Louis L’Amour westerns, and interesting characters and dialog.


If you know how to catch a ride, you can go places

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Along with Brandon Sanderson, I took my wife’s advice and read some of the foundational books in cyberpunk this year, starting with Snow Crash. Snow Crash is an exciting romp around a future world full of conglomerated corporations, technological terrors, and strange happenstances that all work together to make a compelling story. The use of language is what really captivated me in this book. The characters converse using slang in a way that feels natural, almost predictive of where our society has already gone since this book was published. The ending is a bit crazy and hard to follow, but I can’t say it defies belief, since the whole book seems to fit that description.

I’d love to see this made into a movie, and I think we are just now getting to the point where it could be done in a believable way. I see it more as a bright colors with dingy undertones world, like the new Ghost in the Shell movie, rather than a dreary post-apocalyptic landscape as shown in Judge Dredd. If nothing else, read this book prepared for a wild ride, just like when you ‘poon the “deliverator” when he’s in a hurry, if you know what I mean.

Recommended for: anime fans, especially Ghost in the Shell, and folks looking for an exciting cyberpunk adventure!


Emigrate or degenerate

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick

Moving on in the world of cyberpunk, Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep is often cited as one of the classic examples of that genre. Of course, the movie Blade Runner probably has something to do with its popularity as well. I still can’t read this book without seeing the main character as Harrison Ford, and I’ve never even seen the movie.

This book is reasonably short, but definitely makes you think deeply about topics such as humanity, religion, and justice. I think it is an interesting look into one possible near future, as robots and androids become more commonplace in our society. While I can’t say I enjoyed reading this book as much as I did the previous ones, I don’t really think this book is meant to be enjoyed like that either.

The setting is the real star here, almost more than the characters. Phillip K. Dick does a great job of describing a world that feels utterly feasible, with characters acting exactly as you’d expect people in those situations to react. If you want to understand a bit more about cyberpunk in general, this is another must-read.

Recommended for: Blade Runner fans (obviously), but folks who like to think and be challenged about their views toward technology and the future


History is full of awesome

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

If I could add just one more book to my list of required reading for CIS 115: Introduction to Computer Science, it would be this book. I’m actually really disappointed that I didn’t read it earlier, because so much of what I was teaching in the class is directly reflected in this book.

The big question: how did we go from basic electronic circuits to ARPANET in just a few decades? What sort of environment and people are required to make that happen? That’s what this book is all about. It makes the case that innovation is 50% having the right people and 50% having them in the right environment so they can succeed. It really does a good job of giving the inside story of so many of these advancements while keeping it interesting and exciting, something I’ve heard that the author, Walter Isaacson, is a master of. I’m hoping to take some time and read a few of his other historical biographies next year.

Recommended for: computer science majors, technology fanatics, and anyone wanting to learn how our technology-driven world got started.


History is full of drama

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple

I heard about this book through a great NPR interview with the author, Chris Whipple. After the turbulent 2016 elections, and the fact that Reince Priebus was currently chief of staff at the time, made me wonder what sort of an impact he would have on the nascent Trump presidency. (Not much, as it turns out, since he was fired a short time later.) At the same time, I was curious to see what sort an impact the person occupying that office had in previous administrations. As this book points out, it can be quite a bit!

This book posits the idea that a chief of staff and a president serve complementary roles - if either one of them doesn’t quite fit the needed role, the whole system can fall apart. Or, more bluntly, a bad chief of staff can doom a presidency as much as a good one can make it great.

I thoroughly loved this book’s inside look at the office of chief of staff, as well as its overall review of American presidencies since the 1950s, when the office first rose to prominence. For folks in my generation, it also helps us remember that it isn’t just the name on the ballot that matters, but the people she or he will surround themselves with if put into power.

Recommended for: history and politics buffs, and anyone looking for an inside look at how a political administration functions.


Quickies

Some quick reviews of other notable reads from 2017:

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens was in the news quite a bit the past few years as a really interesting take on human history, and I found it to be just that. It poses some interesting questions: Did agriculture make human’s lives worse? (probably…) Is capitalism a religion? (maybe…) Read this book with an open mind and compare what it says critically with what you’ve learned and believe. I didn’t agree with everything it said, but I did find myself constantly thinking about some of the profound statements the author makes.

See below for my no-so-impressed review of the sequel.

Everybody Lies: Big data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Big data is here, and it is becoming a prime area of research in a variety of fields. Big data can tell us what people truly watch, feel, think, believe, and prefer, regardless of what they would say when given a survey. It is already providing some unique insights into our culture, and is exposing some truths that we might find to be uncomfortable. This book skims the surface of that research and what’s out there currently, but really pushes the idea that this is just the beginning. I tend to agree.

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni & Rob Goodman

Claude Shannon is an intriguing figure in computer science history. He immediately started a revolution with his master’s thesis, which some have called the most important master’s thesis of the 20th century. Then, years later, he basically created the entire research area of information theory, creating an abstraction of our world filled with beauty, simplicity, and math. Our modern, digital society owes some level of gratitude to his work, but he as a man is largely unknown. This book takes a journey into the life and mind of a man who learned juggling on a whim and had graduate students making pilgrimages to his house into his golden years.

The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne

This was one of the September Kindle First reads, so I was able to snag it at release for practically nothing. A computational biologist finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, and ends up using his unique brand of smarts, wit, and determination to track the killer, all the while becoming a target himself. This book was a fun read, but had a few moments of deus ex machina science that seemed a little bit far fetched if you look too closely at it. Still, I enjoyed it for what it was, and did have trouble putting it down, so it delivers on its promise.

Storm Front (The Dresden Files, Book 1) by Jim Butcher

My brother suggested that I check out the Dresden files books, so I grabbed Storm Front and started reading. Dresden is the worlds only “consulting wizard,” with a unique past and dim view of the world. In this book, a seemingly mundane case becomes integral to his search for a murderer who uses magic to kill, all while he himself is being accused of the crimes on several fronts. While it isn’t the best fantasy novel I’ve read this year (Sorry Jim, but Brandon has you beat there), it was still a great start to what seems to be an interesting longer story. I haven’t picked up the sequel yet, but it is on my list of books to catch up on in 2018.

Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

A short novella by Brandon Sanderson, Snapshot envisions a world where everything can be replayed over and over again. Two detectives are working to solve a crime by venturing into a simulation of the world at that time, but find themselves looking for the truth behind it all. It was a fascinating story, which my wife and I enjoyed as a short audiobook during an afternoon drive. As with all of Sanderson’s books, the story is tight, the characters are great, and the story is one that will keep you guessing.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Of course, I had to get in at least one Pratchett book this year. The god Om has found himself trapped as a turtle, and must rely on a monk named Brutha, his only true remaining believer, to regain his power and help prevent an oncoming war and the usurpation of power by a tyrant. Small Gods delves deep into what it means to be a religion, a believer, and what lengths people will go to to defend those beliefs (surely the world is round, correct?). It is also rife with the signature humor and wit that everyone looks for in a Pratchett book, and I was constantly laughing aloud as I read.

Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger

Toward the end of the year, I quickly found myself on an aerospace kick, reading 2 books back to back in quick succession. The first is a recent release, recounting the story of how the Apollo 8 astronauts found themselves circling the moon as part of the first manned mission to enter lunar orbit. While the focus is mainly on Apollo 8, it recounts some of the earlier missions as well. Apollos 11 and 13 get most of the recognition and storytelling, but Apollo 8 is unique in its own right, and this book does a great job bringing it to life.

Thirteen: The Apollo Flight That Failed by Henry S. F. Cooper

Riding high from the previous book, I grabbed this short one describing the Apollo 13 mission in excruciating detail. It meticulously pores over the mission details, transcripts, and interviews from all the people involved, making you feel like you are a part of mission control trying to bring the three astronauts home. If you are a fan of the movie, or space flight in general, you’ll definitely enjoy this technical analysis of what happened, how it happened, and how a group of brilliant and talented minds worked together to save the day.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories behind how Video Games are Made by Jason Schreier

This book is a quick look at video game development, covering the inside stories of 10 different video games and how they were made. I frequently read Kotaku, the site where Schreier usually writes, and this book is really more of the same. It doesn’t tell you much that you don’t already know if you are a fan of videogames, but the personal details and stories from folks involved in those games really hasn’t been covered much before this book. Not a bad book, but not really a huge page-turner either. If you love video games and video game development and want to see more of the inside story this is a unique look, but otherwise it’ll probably be a bit boring.

The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr

Ok, truth time - I’ve recommended this book for quite a while in my classes, but I haven’t actually read it all the way through, at least until recently. This book was first published in 2008, and chronicles how the spread of electricity across the country, from small generators in workshops and factories to gigantic power plants and transmission lines, is being mirrored by the spread of cloud computing. In essence, much like factories realized it was better to buy electricity from a utility instead of producing their own, new companies are buying their computing power from Amazon and Google instead of building their own servers. This book is a great read for folks who want to learn more about the basics of cloud computing from a business perspective, but at this point many of the technical details are quite outdated. Interestingly, a number of times the book looks to the future and guesses what would happen, and I found myself nodding my head and thinking “yup, you got that one right,” so it is a pretty prescient book for its time. Again, not a huge page-turner, but I’m glad I got that one off my “to read” list so I can recommend it fully.


Don’t Bothers

For the first time this year, I came across a couple of books that I actually didn’t care for, but figured I’d include them here for completeness anyway. Here’s what I thought of them:

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

After reading Sapiens, I had high hopes for the sequel, as did many. Unfortunately, I found that the first two sections of this book simply rehashed a great deal of the previous book, while the last section of speculation was not very interesting or insightful to someone already well-versed in technology. A great review on Amazon states it best: “The problem is that Mr. Harari is an anthropologist and social scientist, not an engineer, computer scientist or biologist, and many of the questions of AI are firmly grounded in engineering and software algorithms.” (Source) I whole-heartedly agree. If you want a great review of history to this point, the first book is amazing. If you want an authoritative look at where the future might be going, another author can probably provide a better one. (If nothing else, read _Everybody Lies.)

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I had just read the two prime examples of cyberpunk reviewed above, and wanted to finish with the one that brought so much attention to the genre. Sadly, I just found it so difficult to follow, and this is coming from someone who loves huge fantasy novels. The story jumped from place to place, the characters would speak in choppy, dense sentences that were hard to follow, and I genuinely lost interest in the plot after just a few chapters. This book might have been revolutionary in 1984, but it just doesn’t seem to hold up as well as the others. I might give it another go in the future, but this one is relegated to my shelf for a while.


2017 was a great year for me (in many ways), and I hope you enjoy reading a few of these yourself. In summary, my year felt a bit like this interaction from the Mistborn series:

Elend: “I kind of lost track of time”
Breeze: “For two hours?”
Elend: “There were books involved.” - Brandon Sanderson

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