Books of 2021

Fiction

Daniel Suarez, “Change Agent” – I loved Daemon and had high hopes for this book, but from the ludicrous premise to the unlikable protagonist, this book is a rollercoaster of increasingly farfetched set-pieces whose lack of verisimilitude is matched only by their ability to induce increasing levels of boredom.

Max Gladstone, “Three Parts Dead” – A highly interesting premise, good writing, and yet? The strange way this story blended modern language and ideas with fantastical situations and setting was incongruous, like the modern interstitial music used in Peaky Blinders. It jars the reader and makes suspension of disbelief difficult.

Tim Holroyd, “The Zombie War: Battle of Britain” – In the same style as Brooks’ World War Z with a British focus, both geographically and philosophically. Not as sophisticated as Brooks’ work, but entertaining and fun nonetheless.

Umberto Eco, “The Name of the Rose”– although I’ve been a fan of Eco for many years (one of the greatest feelings in the world is to get one of his complex, esoteric jokes) and having seen the Connery/Slater movie version many times, it occurred to me that I’d never actually read the damn book. So I read it, and it was excellent, pure Eco: wildly inventive, steeped in history, absolutely delightful.

Steven Erickson, “Gardens of the Moon” – Erickson’s work has a reputation for density and complexity and this reputation is certainly justified. This is a sprawling story, with dozens of characters with opaque motives and little exposition. I enjoyed it, but it’s a book that does not suffer fools or dilettantes gladly.

J. L. Bourne, “Day By Day Armageddon” – I’d gotten this a a reco from a lot of fellow zombie aficionados, and it did not disappoint. Simply written while remaining bleak and unyielding, the linear structure and realistic portrayal of the descent of society through one man’s eyes captured my interest and kept me reading.

Paul McAuley, “Austral” – An interesting start, positing an all-too-realistic Antarctica a generation or two post climate change extrapolation, but ultimately devolving into a series of weirdly introspective ruminations on being an “other” interspersed with increasing fantastical chase scenes. An odd book, not unpleasant, but with a lot of unfulfilled promise.

M. R. Carrey, “The Boy On The Bridge” – the sequel to “The Girl With All The Gifts,” this book is both more introspective and more intellectually thorny than GWATG. The characters are flawed and often unlikeable, the sense of privation and doom is palpable and claustrophobic, and overall the 10-year-post apocalypse UK feels lived in and real. Good book.

Annalee Newitz, “Autonomous” – The second book of Newitz’s I read (the other in history), I had been saving this in anticipation, but while it was well written and had a lot of great cyberpunky elements, it felt like a bit of a letdown, especially after the other book. Maybe, considering the last couple years, I’ve lost a bit of my taste for dystopian near-term SF.

History

David MacDonald, “Lives of Fort de Chartres: Commandants, Soldiers and Civilians in French Illinois 1720-1770” – Excellent little book of scholarship, telling a local history through thumbnail biographies that are at turns fascinating, sordid, amusing and very real.

Ruth Goodman, “How To Behave Badly in Elizabethan England” – Goodman is an absolute gem, whom I found via her work with other historians for the BBC in such programs as Victorian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm and Life Of The Castle. She’s charming, extremely knowledgeable and brings a vivacity to her histories that you can’t help but share. Goodman’s book talks about all the sorts of bad behavior that pervaded Elizabethan society, and does so with ill-concealed glee. Save for Barbara Tuchman, Goodman is my favorite historian.

Robert P. Howard, “Illinois: A History of the Prairie State” – textbook from 1975 that I picked up somewhere. Uneven as all textbooks, it did however have an excellent section on the early colonization of the Illinois territory via the French south, alongside some in-depth discussions of French and Native interactions.

Annalee Newitz, “Four Lost Cities” – Delightful little book that discusses four cities that were depopulated and lost, including Cahokia, a favorite of mine (I live about 10 miles from the site and have visited it numerous times). Absolutely splendid and informative.

Bruce Maccabee, “The Legacy of 1952: Year of the UFO” – Admittedly, I went into this one expecting Maccabee to be among the thousands of cranks who have written unsourced, speculative and in general breathlessly fanciful books about UFOs. This is not one of those books. Focusing on the year in which the most UFO sightings were reported in the US, Maccabee does his homework, with lots of Air Force de-commissioned and FOI documents to back up his uncommonly cautious speculation.

Peter Jefferson, “And Now The Shipping Forecast” – Years ago there was a website called permanent bedtime that used to playing the BBC’s shipping forecast, a smooth-as-syrup stream of unintelligible weather and sea condition info for sailors in the waters around the UK. Interspersed with with the BBC called “light orchestral,” it was the equivalent of taking two Quaaludes for a man who found it difficult to sleep while travelling. I found myself curious about it after the website went offline, and then found this book. The tone is a bit breezier than expected, and the first-person “I saw it all first-hand” voice is more than a little indulgently chirpy, but overall a great book about a odd corner of broadcasting.

Robert E. Hartley, “Paul Simon: The Political Journey Of An American Original” – nice little enumeration of Simon’s political history, especially his rise to the Illinois Senatorship. Highly interesting, somewhat wistful look at ta time in American history when an honest midwestern progressive could succeed in politics.

Business

Tim Hwang, “Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet” – A hard take-down of the programmatic advertising industry by a knowledgeable insider. Brutally matter-of-fact, and accessible to a layman. TLDR: programmatic is rife with fraud and scams. Less than 50% of your advertising dollars get to the publisher, everything else is siphoned off. But no on wants to make the first move to stop buying it.

Dan Charnas, “Everything In Its Place: The Power Of Mise-en-place To Organize Your Life, Work And Mind” – I had such high hopes for this book, as the premise is so intriguing: by emulating the organizational skills and presence of mind trained into top chefs, the principles applied can benefit one in almost any area of endeavor. An excellent premise, and one that bears fruit. But this book is a pamphlet stretched out to booklength, like stretching a meatloaf with breadcrumbs.

Rereads

Amor Towles, “A Gentleman of Moscow” – one of my annuals, I never seem to get tired of it and I always get something out of this book that I hadn’t before. I initially read this on my first trip college-visiting with Feyd-Rautha, sitting in a hotel bar, sipping whiskey and simply enjoying the quiet sense of personal and familial transition alongside these elegant words. Every re-read takes me back to that moment.

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