Books I’ve read in 2018

I liked keeping track of my reading last year, so I’ve done the same this year. I’m trying to stick with my ‘no re-reads’ rule – especially since I got some new books at the end of the year for this one!

How to be Human

This was mentioned on the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast, and it sounded like such a great idea (plus whenever people see me reading it I can say “well it’s about time I learnt…”) I put it on my Christmas list. Even better, it wasn’t too far into the book that it referenced Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, which I read last year.

On Tyranny

A surprisingly short book. As I started it, I noticed my confirmation bias as it seemed to be talking about Brexit and Trump. As it went on, it was aimed more and more at ‘the president’ without naming him directly and will either end up being the book everyone should have listened to or a paranoid thrashing, imagining Nazi resurgences everywhere. It’s a 50/50 really.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

A very moving story. I’ve read a few non-fiction books so I needed something made-up to cleanse my palette. I liked how the reveals happened slowly, and drew me in. It all seemed so understandable and relatable, right up to a moment just near the end. But I still recommend the book, it’s very good.

Five Go Parenting

I’ve never read a Famous Five book. I don’t think I’ve even read an Enid Blyton book. This is one of the modern ‘sequels’ to the Famous Five series. It might have been more enjoyable if I had any previous investment in the characters, they all seemed rather thin, like caricatures. Still, it was short and light fun to go after something surprisingly heavy like Harold  Fry.

Moby Dick

It’s a classic, and you’ve got to try the classics. I found some chapters pretty funny, certainly funnier than the whole thing appears. For example, the only time after getting on the boat that Ishmael (the narrator) talks about his own actions is when he falls asleep on watch. Other than that, he describes whales and whaling in excruciating detail, and references his ‘by this time considerable experience’ of whaling. About one year into his first voyage. But I’m yet to be convinced that the story is really about Ahab’s obsession with the White Whale, since that barely surfaces throughout the book until the final confrontation. More, I think it might be about Ishmael’s obsession with whaling. Every opportunity the narrator is talking about whaling in practice, philosophy, history, and how sailors are better than anyone and whalers are the best sailors of all. It was surprisingly easy to read for 19th Century literature.

Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game

This was fun, a nice little analysis on a Star Trek culture that hadn’t really been explored in the series. I picked it up as I love DS9, but I was a bit disappointed that the bulk of the story involved one DS9 character on an adventure somewhere else. The station and the characters weren’t there, and it was more part of a bigger story (the Typhon Pact) that brushes against familiar characters. I think I’d still like to try more Typhon Pact stories, I liked the wider ideas in it, but I will also be looking out for more DS9 stories that actually take place there.

The Long Earth

This scratched my itch for Terry Pratchett stories, and got around the ‘no old books’ requirement I’ve had. It’s an impressive idea, and reminded me very slightly of Sliders from way back when. I wasn’t so sure of the reincarnated-android-airship thing, in some ways it felt like it was throwing all of the sci-fi ideas into a small pot and trying to cram so much in when really a few single ideas could be explored in so much more detail, but that was just coming from my assumption that it would be a classic “here’s an idea, let’s explore it” rather than “here’s an idea, now let’s tell an amazing story in that place”. I did like the exploration of the impact of the Long Earth idea too, there’s definitely a lot to unpack there. And like all my favourite sci-fi, it’s not so much about the story in the book as all the stories it makes possible in your head after reading it. What happens in the frontier towns? What happens with easy spaceflight in the Gap? Is it possible to build a spacecraft in Gap-minus-1, step it into the Gap, fly it into ‘orbit’ and then start stepping back to Datum for free launch? What about the Elves, and Trolls? Are there more hominids? The focus is on the USA and purely going West – what’s happening East? What’s happening in other countries? So many questions! I was very happy to find out that the series it is in is 5 books, rather than just the 3 I saw in the library. Slightly less happy to find out the next one is The Long War, but I’m sure it’ll impress me.

The Long War

Alright, so this one felt incomplete to me. I’m starting to see (from the future!) that these books are more in the style of the old Asimov-era sci-fi, much more about the worlds and ideas than the characters and with long chapters of exposition. Although the characters themselves are wonderful, and real, too.

Part of why it felt incomplete is that there were a few plotlines that didn’t meet. It sets up Roberta Golding well for later in the series, but that doesn’t really intersect with the ‘War’ plot. Another reason is that the War plot didn’t seem to go anywhere until the very end, where it didn’t happen at all. While reading, I was dreading how little was left of the book and how badly the War might be written but I loved the actual ‘execution’. War would be difficult in the Long Earth, if one side chose not to turn up.

Well, I’m signed up for the long haul now.

The Long Mars

Now that I’m used to the style, I’m really enjoying this series. Again, this book had two plots and it feels like the sensationalist plot (Mars!) was actually less important to the series as a whole than the B-plot (The Next). Although The Next could also be a C-plot, that only started when the B-plot (Maggie Kaufmann’s journey) ended. I would have happily read a book entirely about Kauffman’s journey, and the mini-adventures that they had, and checking in on each of the interesting worlds that they’ve found. I love world-building, and world-building an infinite number of worlds that are easy to reach? That’s great.

I could also have gone for a book entirely about stepping on Mars. It seemed more fantastic, but that’s partly because Wallis Linsay is a git who won’t stop and explain or investigate outside of his one fixed goal. Fire-breathing sand-whales on dry Martian oceans? Amazing! But he won’t stop to check. Sapient, intelligent life on Mars? Also amazing! At least he made first contact, even if he was short-sighted and single-minded about it all.

The Long Utopia

This felt like the Long War – a completely disconnected invasion storyline that only really sets up a couple of points for the next book. Some of those points could probably have been done instead with a couple of chapters of more Comber legends. Like the War, the Utopia was the B plot (also like War not being a War, Utopia is not Utopia as we usually imagine it) – and would have been much more interesting if delved into, although it’s a bit harder to make meaningful, characterful story about. It’s more of a world-building thing, over long periods of time, and since the whole series takes place in a single lifetime it would be difficult to fully explore the societal shift of the Utopia properly. It happens in the background, in secondary effects. I think it worked for that.

The Long Cosmos

The finale! At last! This felt more complete and directed than some of the other books, and every couple of chapters was a call-back to something that happened in an earlier book, and now feeds slightly into the final story.

It ends like some of the most interesting parts of the previous books, the explorations and samplings of strange new worlds, but none of these worlds had the interest of the alternate Earths or Mars. Maybe because it’s been done so much already, and so many strange Earths have been discovered, or maybe because the implication that the planet was ‘called’ to join a new Long Galaxy of worlds was only just brushed upon without exploring who called, or how other Earth species (Kobolds, Trolls, Elves) might be exploring the call themselves. Like a lot of times in the series, it invites a lot of potential futures and scenarios for the reader to imagine. In a sense, that’s what the Long Earth is for: to imagine other places, other things, and other strangeness.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This was weird. I don’t think I’ve read a lot of horror like this book. It’s quite introspective and invites introspection. What do you remember of childhood? Would you re-examine it now? What have you forgotten about your childhood? A lot of times I’ve found myself realising something that was everyday has only just come to light again – like eating little apple pies almost every day for over ten years, then noticing that I’d not even thought about them for a very, very long time. People change.

In a completely unrelated, and cold, analytical sense the same can be said about history – things that are too normal aren’t written down and aren’t remembered when they slip out of normalcy. We have no idea what was normal three hundred years ago and chances are the most commonplace things in a society could be completely lost to us – practices and customs don’t leave traces behind, after all.

Every Day is an Atheist Holiday

I’m a big Penn Jillette fan, and I bought this to get it signed when we saw the Penn & Teller show in London last year.

This book is basically a collection of essays, many of which I’ve heard the stories before on the Penn’s Sunday School podcast. Some had a bit more detail, or a bit less, some were completely new. The linking factor is ‘there is joy and wonder in every day, you don’t need religious holidays’. I like the sentiment but I would have preferred a little more discussion around how the Jillette family deals with cultural behemoths like Christmas. That’s not really the point of the book though, just me whining. It’s not to say “here’s how to survive religious festivals as an atheist” but instead “here’s why we don’t need them”.

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