Book Reviews 2018

Here’s a few books you might like, but you’ll have to take my word for it.

unsplash-logoEd Robertson

Another year, another long list of books. This past year was definitely a banner year - over 50 books! (Probably why it took me nearly 8 months to finish this post!) Read on to find out what I thought about each of a wide variety of books I read last year.

As I’ve read more and more, I’ve found that I watch less and less TV, and somewhat fewer movies as well. Honestly, if I’m not working, cooking, or playing video games, I’m very likely to be found with my Kindle in hand during my downtime. I’ve found reading to be truly a relaxing and rewarding pastime. So, as always, here’s my book reviews for all of the books I read during 2018. Since I’ve read so many, I figured I’d break them up a bit into arbitrary sections.

Before I do that, I yet again highly recommend the Kindle Paperwhite as my e-reader of choice. The Wirecutter agrees. There is even a new version that is waterproof! It’s on my wishlist!


Book Club Picks


One of the major changes in my life in the past couple of years was joining the All Souls Unitarian Universalist church in Kansas City. (Maybe I’ll take the time to write about that in a future post.) We joined a small book club with other young adults in the church, and read two fantastic books together. The discussions were always fascinating, and I definitely expanded my horizons by adding these two books to my list.

Thug life

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This book was definitely making the rounds this year, and was K-State’s common book for the 2018-2019 school year. Honestly, there’s very little I can say about this book beyond what you’ve probably already heard in the media and online. It is a very provocative and daring story about a young girl caught between the worlds of two different cultures and the issues with police violence against minorities.

It really makes you think about your own views and biases, and is honestly a damn good story. I could hardly put it down while I was reading it, and I think it’ll be a classic from our time for years to come. I have not seen the movie yet, but I’m definitely excited to see how this story fares on the big screen.

This book really encourages you to look past the surface with characters and people you might meet on the street. They are each living their own story, and the parts you see may not be the most important parts to understand in order to understand the person.

Graphic novels can be deep

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

This was our second book club pick, and was also really fascinating to read. It is a graphic novel that follows three different plotlines, all intertwined in very interesting and unique ways. It deals with what it is like to grow up different than your peers, all while dealing with negative stereotypes and a culture that is rich in history that is unknown to others you interact with. I feel that this is a must-read for any younger students wishing to expand their knowledge and grow into helpful citizens of our modern global culture. Even though this book is a graphic novel, the story itself still packs a punch, but it can be read in just a few short hours.

I really enjoyed the time my wife and I spent reading this story together on our TV, doing all the silly voices we could for each character to make it come alive in our minds. The use of different storytelling threads mixed together seemed jarring at first, but it all comes together in the end in a way that makes the whole story better.


Book Series


One of my major themes of 2018 was diving deep into several book series. While I didn’t finish each book in several of these series, I did try to follow them as best I could through the books that interested me. For me, I think this was one of the more rewarding experiences, as it was fun to follow several different storylines through multiple books.

Does John actually die?

This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It by David Wong

What the Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror by David Wong

After enjoying the first book in this series a couple of years ago, I decided to finally go back and finish the series at the beginning of the year. As with the first book, the label “surreal horror comedy” is best used to describe these books. Though, to be totally honest, they’ve somewhat faded in my mind over the course of the year, though I remember being absolutely gripped by each book in the series while I was reading it. I’m not sure if I totally blocked the horrors from my mind, or if I really just couldn’t quite understand the story as a whole as it was unfolding, or maybe a mix of the two…

If you enjoyed the first book, it is definitely worth your time to complete the trilogy. They really are unique in many ways, and you won’t regret reading them (at least, I don’t think you’ll regret it…)

Sometimes lies were more dependable than the truth

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

One of my bucket list books for the year was Ender’s Game. I’ve had so many friends and family recommend that book to me, or tell my how much they identified with that book when they first read it as a child or teen, and honestly, I can totally understand. This book really stands alone in science fiction as one of the classics, and it does such a good job of putting you in the shoes of a young boy who really thinks he is smarter and more well adjusted than everyone around him. Let’s be honest for a second here, most of us feel that way from time to time, so it is a really interesting viewpoint.

Speaker for the Dead continues the story in a very interesting way, dealing with cultural misunderstandings and the difficulty of understanding a culture (or species) totally unlike your own (see Symbiosis below). Both of these books kept me interested for quite a bit, but after the second book I found that I wasn’t quite enthralled enough to keep going in the series for now. It is definitely something on my list to revisit in the future.

Read the books - avoid the movie

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews

The Kremlin’s Candidate by Jason Matthews

The next major series I read this year was the Red Sparrow trilogy. Both my dad and my aunt were reading these books at the time I started, and I figured it’d be a great way to see what other’s were reading and find out if I could relate. The descriptions of spy craft and the development of the characters in these novels was fascinating, especially for someone who spends more time reading sci-fi and fantasy novels. By the end of the first book, I was on the edge of my seat (or, at least, sitting up in bed) wondering what could possibly come next. These books were quite fascinating to read, and definitely expanded my horizons a bit beyond my usual genres.

A quick word about the movie, though: these books are great, and part of what makes them great is the pacing and description of the internal thoughts and actions of the characters as they work through their spy craft to lose tails, disguise their actions, and think about the ramifications of what they are doing. The movie, on the other hand, is missing many of these elements that made the book so unique. Instead, it focuses on the suspense, action, and titillation of the overall story without dealing with these minor details, much to the detriment of the experience. Don’t get me wrong - I love Jennifer Lawrence, but honestly, the movies were not a great reflection of these novels. If you read the books first, prepare to be disappointed in the movie.

A wizard in Chicago

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Another major theme of this year’s reading was constantly returning to the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. I read the first book last year, but moved on from that book to another series without continuing. This year, I tended to return to Dresden Files between series for a quick palette cleanser, and I honestly find them to be great reads by themselves. Each book builds on the previous, with that same unique voice from Dresden that many other books struggle to imitate. He has his own level of swagger, confidence, and pessimism that just reverberates throughout each story, and every book adds a new later to the work and backstory around Dresden, constantly making him a more interesting and integrated part of the larger story that is taking place outside of his influence.

While I won’t say they are perfect, the Dresden Files books are always a dependable read, and I can’t wait to keep moving through this series, as I hear they get better and better.

If Firefly was a book

A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

A Close and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

So, I’ll be honest here - I found this book from one of those online trivia things. You answer a few questions, it recommends a book. I can’t even remember which one. I added it to my Kindle samples list, and eventually it percolated to the top and became my next read. I don’t regret it in the least!

This series builds a unique world where several species and cultures live together in harmony, and it goes out of its way to show what inclusiveness would look like on a truly multi-species scale. Seriously, how do you deal with species that are multi-gendered, or even gender-fluid throughout their lives? What about a species where parenting is a serious profession, requiring experience in psychology, education, and more before you’d even be considered as a parent?

I’ve said a few times that the first book in this series is like Firefly, the novel, and I think it fits. There is a large cast of characters, all stuck together on the same ship for a year. How do they handle it? The second goes even deeper, dealing with existential issues such as the personal rights of a sentient AI, and a character that changes gender in the middle of the book. Never have I seen the pronouns “xy” and “xyr” used more appropriately in a book.

While I’ve yet to finish the third book in the series (it’ll be the first book of 2019 for sure), I think these are an excellent read. If a high school wanted to expand discussions of race and gender (and other issues) into the realm of sci-fi, this would be a great place to start.


Author Spotlight: John Scalzi


Another interesting thing that happened in 2018 was my infatuation with a new (to me) author, John Scalzi. During the year, I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting books, and both The Collapsing Empire and Redshirts were recommended to me several times. I decided to give them a try, and I was not disappointed. In fact, I ended up reading most of the books published by Scalzi throughout the year, and I’m itching for more.

Star Trek is real?

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi

The first major novel of Scalzi’s that I’ll cover here is Redshirts. If you’ve seen any of the early Star Trek series, you know exactly what is going on here. A captain and his crew goes on a mission, and inevitably, at least one redshirt ends up dying at some point. Without giving too much of the plot away, what if all the lowly redshirts on the ship are aware of this fact, and actively go out of their way to avoid going on missions with the select few who always seem to escape unharmed, somehow.

That’s just a small start for how this book goes, but honestly, it was a hoot to read. My wife and I spent the better part of a year watching Star Trek: The Next Generation while we were dating, and this was the perfect way to experience the larger fandom around a series as seminal as that. This book has many twists and turns, and it was definitely difficult to put down towards the end. You’ll never be able to see Star Trek shows the same way again.

I’m too old for this

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The Last Colony by John Scalzi

Next, I dove into the Old Man’s War series. The premise is pretty simple - imagine that you could sign up for the army in your old age, and instead of dying you could find yourself regenerated with a new, young body that has all sorts of new features (neural implants, anyone?). All you have to do is devote some time in service to the ones who provided you with such an offer.

Of course, the war they are fighting is anything but simple, and there are some fantastic plot threads going on. What would you do if one of the soldiers you meet looks exactly like your dearly departed wife? This series kept my rapt attention for quite a while, though I will admit that I lost interest after the first three books. After that, it seems to consist of a serialized set of short stories.

Prophets are great at marketing

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

I feel that this series will be recognized as one of Scalzi’s truly great works once it is finished. The characters are dynamic and engaging, with many powerful women characters that I feel are very well written.

The many planets inhabited by humans are interconnected by “The Flow,” but a few scientists realize it is on the brink of shifting, causing many worlds to be cut off from any human contact. Meanwhile, the new Emperox is nearly killed, and she was never really trained for the job anyway. Can she find a way to stabilize her own rule and bring humanity through the crisis? How will she deal with the lies that help establish the empire in the first place?

Watch for book 3 to be released in 2020! I’ll be reading it soon after.

My head hurts

Lock In: A Novel of the Near Future by John Scalzi

Head On: A Novel of the Near Future by John Scalzi

Finally, I picked up one more of Scalzi’s book series, following the exploits of FBI agent Shane, who suffers from “lock in” due to a disease - the inability to move, with all other mental functions intact. He inhabits a robot body to help solve crimes related to others who suffer the same problem.

While I’m not usually a fan of mysteries and thrillers, my love of Dresden carried over into this world as well - it is a very inventive and intriguing story, and there really is never a dull moment in the action. This is one of those great “bridge” series to help mystery and thriller readers dip into the world of sci-fi. I really hope he chooses to continue this series, as I think there are many ways it could continue to be a hit for years to come.


Audiobooks


Another theme in 2018 was a large number of road trips. My wife and I visited Yellowstone National Park, her parents in Texas, and I’ve been making nearly weekly trips back and forth to K-State. So, I’ve had lots of time to partake in audiobooks while I drive, either alone or with my wife. Here are the ones that we finished in 2018! Shoutout to my brother for recommending the first two series listed below!

Bobiverse: Multiple Personalities in Space

We are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis Taylor

For We are Many by Dennis Taylor

All These Worlds by Dennis Taylor

This series was definitely a trip! Literally - we finished the whole thing during our trip to Yellowstone. It was so hard to stop listening to this story while we drove since it was so engaging and interesting.

Bob is a software developer who one day finds himself dead. Years later, his consciousness is uploaded against his will into a piece of computer hardware, and he finds that he is being trained to serve as a sort of “artificial intelligence” behind a space exploration satellite. From there, it is a nonstop adventure into space, culminating in the realization that Bob won’t be able to do it alone - he’ll need more Bobs! Thus begins a great story with an ensemble cast of one. The action is good, the story is fantastic, the science is thoughtful and realistic, and the world is so vast in this story that it’ll be hard to press pause.

The Singularity Trap by Dennis Taylor

A quick mention of one other novel by the same author. This story is quick and easy to follow, but has the same thoughtful and scientific quality as the other. In my opinion, the story was very unique yet realistically told, and explored a part of space travel that I hadn’t thought of before - how would you set a trap to detect “intelligent life” as it develops in an area?

Magic 2.0: Technology is Indistinguishable from Magic

Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer

Spell or High Water by Scott Meyer

An Unwelcome Quest by Scott Meyer

Fight and Flight by Scott Meyer

Martin is a computer geek who one day discovers a file on a remote server that seems to allow him to manipulate the universe. So, what does he do with it? Travel to medieval England and become a wizard, duh!

This story is a fantastic blending of modern pop culture references and medieval times, with several unique characters and settings to go along with it. The audiobook is particularly fanatically well done - I’ll never be able to hear the name Jimmy without thinking of a used car salesman from New Jersey. I highly recommend this series to anyone looking for something light and humorous to make a long drive seem just a little shorter.

Greatcoats: Swashbuckling Adventure

Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell

There are so many things to tell about this story, but it is really hard to say much of anything without giving away the plot. I’ve described it before as a story where the situation the characters find themselves in goes from bad, to worse, to even worse, to still worse, to much worse, and then they really dig in and start making it even worse.

So, in that world, the characters have to find humor and strength in the hopelessness of their situation, while still keeping their wits and sanity somehow.

I especially like how this book uses flashbacks at various points to relate prior events that come through the minds of our main character, Falcio, as he goes from adventure to adventure. His interactions with the king are especially insightful, as it helps give us a better sense of the world he believes in and is fighting for.

And, of course, the fighting. It is very well written and exciting, with many clever uses of wit and deception to help turn the tide of battle.

I can’t recommend this series enough! The audiobooks are long, and we only just made it through the first one after several months of listening. It may take us a while to finish the series, but I’m looking forward to every long drive just so we can hear another bit of the adventure.


Quickies


Of course, with over 50 books read this year, there are so many that it is hard to write good reviews of each one. So, here are a few short thoughts about the rest of the books I read this year!

Fiction

Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

This book doesn’t so much tell the story of Beren and Lúthien as it does the story of the story of Beren and Lúthien. We are presented several versions of the story throughout its development, including a version where Morgoth’s minion is a cat?! I read the first version pretty closely, but after that I pretty much skimmed the book to find the highlights. While I love the work of Tolkien, this is probably in the same boat as the Silmarillion - nice to know it exists, but probably not for everyone.

Men at Arms: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett

Another Discworld novel! I find myself coming back to this series anytime I need a palette cleanser or a change of pace, and once again this did not disappoint.

Artemis by Andy Weir

Andy Weir’s second novel after The Martian. Not bad, but not as good either. One review I read summarized it best - Weir hasn’t quite mastered the art of dialog. The Martian is good because of the relative lack of character dialogue. Artemis struggles due to the fact that our main character has to interact with people, and she does so in a wholly unrealistic fashion for most recent fiction.

Afterlife by Marcus Sakey

An FBI agent finds himself dead, then realizes that death leaves him in another world. Can he figure out how to affect the real world to save the woman he loves? Honestly, not a bad story all told - makes a good short read.

Afterlife by Sean Costello

A plane crash leaves a man in a cabin with a fugitive running from a drug lord. Had to look up the summary on Amazon to even remember what it was about. Wasn’t bad, but really didn’t stick out over everything else I read this year.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Honestly, this book probably deserves a bigger section above. It’s a Sanderson novel. It’s part of the Cosmere. It’s great. You should read it!

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

I saw the trailer for this movie and knew I had to at least look into it. The first book in the series was interesting, mostly for the world that it created more than the characters that inhabit it. I wasn’t really inspired to read the sequels, nor have I taken the time to watch the movie. The book is worth a read just to see how to write a fantastic world where London is literally on wheels.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Knowing someone with autism really helped me relate to this book. It is a fantastic story told from a unique point of view, and I think it should be required reading and discussion material for anyone.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Hank Green’s first novel! What would happen if you found something unique in the world and became viral overnight because of your video? How would you change? This is a book by an author that really understands what it means to be “online famous” and I think he does a great job giving us an insightful look at how that can affect someone. I can’t wait to see if he writes more.

Semiosis by Sue Burke

This was a recommendation from my aunt, who isn’t typically a sci-fi reader but she found it very interesting. I agree - this book is unique in that one of the main characters is more of a sentient plant than anything. It really gives us a deep look at us as a society and how we regard nature, especially the parts that aren’t exactly “alive” by some definitions of the term. The follow-up is due in 2019!

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is a prolific author, and this is one of those great examples of how he is able to take a story that might be just a distraction from his major work and make it something bigger and better than it has any right to be. I was enthralled by the story and characters from the first page, and could hardly put this one down. The sequel is out in 2019!

Dune by Frank Herbert

Ok, this one has been on my list for years. Another of the books that my dad read in college, I finally got up the nerve to give it a try. It actually took me two tries to really get into this book, but once you get past the slow start it is really engaging. I can’t wait for the movie to come out in 2019!

Non-Fiction

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics in an easy to digest format. A great read for anyone interested in real science and not science fiction.

The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive by Brian Christian

If you had to write a chatbot to convince someone it is a real human, what would you do? Could you convince someone you were human? Both are questions that we must grapple with in our modern technology-driven world, and this book hits them head on. A really interesting look at how to understand consciousness and human interaction through the use of technology.

Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford

Inspired by an interview on NPR, I read this book and was not disappointed. Some of the inventions listed may surprise you, and even more so once you hear the story of how each one impacted our modern world.

Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landing by Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton & Jay Barbree

Another holdover from my interest in space travel from 2017. This tells the story of the Apollo missions directly from two of the people deeply involved in the program. A great read for anyone interested in that era of manned space travel.

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester

How do you create a surface that is perfectly flat and smooth? (Hint: you need three surfaces) This book scratched that engineering itch to understand the world, and really helped me understand how we got to now (and how royally screwed we are if we lose our ability to manufacture parts to a high degree of precision in the future).

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy

Another great history of the unsung heroes of the early days of computing. We’ve all heard of Shannon and Turing - now its time for these women to tell their stories!


Whew! It’s really crazy to think I read that many books in 2018. I don’t think I’ll try to do the same in 2019, but I still want to keep plugging away by reading a little bit each day. Stay tuned here for hopefully more regular updates as I strive to keep a better diary of my pop-culture consumption.

read on!