Books 2020

Growing up, I loved to read, and would gladly spend hours demolishing stacks of books of all kinds from the library. As the years went by and the afflictions of adulthood responsibility mounted, I found that I was giving over less and less time to reading, and that twenty minutes before I fell asleep just wasn’t cutting it.

Last year I decided to make a concerted effort to dedicate a good chunk of time to recapture some of what I used to love, and in 2019 managed to get through a respectable total of 23 books. I wasn’t sure if I would top that this year. However, after discovering that my colleague Andrew Spittle had read 72 (!), I doubled down, even upgrading my old Kindle to a fancy new one with a warm backlight that has been much easier on my ageing eyeballs.

Below is a list of all the books that I’ve finished in the year gone by. Not included are those that I started but discarded through lack of interest, or any kind of academic-only reading, as that falls into something of a different category. The last time I did this, some folks asked for more specifics on what books I liked best, so for this year I’ve added some notes at the end, which might be rough as I jotted them down as I went. Click through for those.

I was aiming to read 50 books this year, but only managed to complete 40 in the end. While that is 8 more than last year (you can find the 2019 list here), I’m pretty sure I could have managed 50 if I had pushed for it. That said, I did take up learning Japanese, and re-discovered both music and film photography in force during lockdown, which probably accounts for the gradual slowdown over the year. If you’re on Goodreads, you’ll find me as clickysteve.

  1. Severance – Ling Ma (2018)
  2. Golden State – Ben H. Winters (2019)
  3. The Paper Menagerie – Ken Liu (2016)
  4. Welcome to the Heady Heights – David F. Ross (2019)
  5. Skin – Liam Brown (2019)
  6. OddJobs – Heide Goody (2016)
  7. Tune in Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries – Tim Anderson (2010)
  8. For Fukui’s Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan – Sam Baldwin (2011)
  9. Range: The Key to Success, Performance and Education – David Epstein (2019)
  10. A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy – Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum (2019)
  11. Photographing People – A Guide for Shy Photographers – Kevin Landwer-Johan (2020)
  12. Dark Matter – Blake Crouch (2016)
  13. Recursion – Blake Crouch (2019)
  14. Mohammed Maguire – Colin Bateman (2002)
  15. The Wall – John Lanchester (2019)
  16. The Photographer’s Playbook – J. Fulford (2014)
  17. PRACTICE LESS, PLAY MORE: The simple, three-step system to play songs you love on your guitar from day 1 –  Steve Mastroianni (2019)
  18. Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers – Dennis DeSantis (2015)
  19. Recording Unhinged – Sylvia Massy (2016)
  20. Unlocking Japanese – Cure Dolly (2016)
  21. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
  22. Revenge – Yoko Ogawa (2013)
  23. One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking – D Trott (2015)
  24. Three Japanese Short Stories (Penguin Modern) – K. Uno et al (2018)
  25. Striptease – Carl Hiaasen (1993)
  26. The Guest List – Lucy Foley (2020)
  27. The Parade – Dave Eggers (2019)
  28. Not the end of the World – Christopher Brookmyre (1998)
  29. Hardcore Self Help: Fk Anxiety – Robert Duff (2014)**
  30. Photographers on Photography: How the Masters See, Think & Shoot – Gerry Carroll (2018)
  31. Double Whammy – Carl Hiaasen (2005)
  32. The Alcohol Experiment: A 30-Day, Alcohol-Free Challenge to Interrupt Your Habits and Help You Take Control – Annie Grace (2018)
  33. Native Tongue – Carl Hiaasen (2005)
  34. In Your Defence – Sarah Langford (2020)
  35. Exit – Laura Waddell (2020)
  36. The Courage to be Disliked – Ichiro Kishimi (2019)
  37. Cult of the Dead Cow – Joseph Menn (2019)
  38. How to Ikigai – Tim Tamashiro (2019)
  39. Lockdown – Peter May (2020)
  40. Love Means Love: Same-sex Relationships and the Bible – David Runcorn (2020)
  1. Severance – Ling Ma (2018) – This is the author’s debut novel, and is written from the perspective of a Chinese-American immigrant who finds herself to be one of the only survivors of a deadly virus. I spotted this online, and then again in a bookshop in Washington D.C. and wanted to check it out as it seemed right up my street. Infused with a quiet melancholy, it uses a bleak post-apocalyptic world mostly as a backdrop, with more of a reflective focus on what it means to live in a globalised, capitalist world. I enjoyed it enough to complete in under a day, though it wasn’t quite what I expected. I wish certain parts of the narrative had been developed a bit more deeply, as the ideas were interesting, and the main character likeable. I suspect that if I went back to read it a second time with fresh perspective it would open up more. Finished January 2020.
  2. Golden State – Ben H. Winters (2019) – A detective style drama set in a dystopian future where lies are outlawed and truth is sought by a shadowy section of law enforcement with special abilities. After spotting it in the same DC bookshop, I found myself immediately engaging with the text, and finished it in under a day. However, similar to Severance above, it wasn’t quite what I expected, and the bulk of it read more like a murder mystery than would usually be my taste – though I did find the world that was imagined intriguing, especially nearer the end. The book has (perhaps predictably) been compared to 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale, which strikes me as fairly lazy and inaccurate. Not every dystopian book needs to be linked to Orwell or Atwood to be good in their own right. Finished January 2020.
  3. The Paper Menagerie – Ken Liu (2016) – A collection of short stories which are often rooted somehow in Chinese mythology. Some of these are whimsical, while others are more serious and historical in nature. I enjoyed many of them, but got bogged down in some of those that were more detailed and felt overly descriptive. As a result, it took me longer than it usually would to complete. Finished January 2020.
  4. Welcome to the Heady Heights – David F. Ross (2019) – I initially bought this back in December 2019, but struggled to get into it after just a few chapters for whatever reason – losing track of who the characters were and what their role was pretty easily. I gave it a second shot though, and am glad I did. Set in 1970s Glasgow, this ’tartan-noir’ novel involves gangsters, celebrity sex rings, and chancers looking to blackmail them for a shot at stardom. It is filled with references to Glaswegian culture, along with our trademark irreverent humour. It was perhaps a bit slow to start, but once the story got going it sucked me in. I’ll be keeping an eye out for future books by the author. Finished January 2020.
  5. Skin – Liam Brown (2019) – Another dystopian novel for me, this one set in the near-ish future where a virus has forced the surviving humans to isolate themselves from any kind of human touch. I found myself immediately pulled into the story, with the author giving just the right amount of information about both the characters and the state of the world to pique your interest and get you invested. I also find Brown’s writing style pleasant and easy to read, finishing the book in just under a day. Even though I liked it, by the end it felt like nothing much had really happened, and all of the characters except the lead were under-developed and caricature like at times. I get why this may be, but it left me unable to relate to them much at all – especially the son Charlie. Finished January 2020.
  6. OddJobs – Heide Goody (2016) – I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I liked the story, and there were some really clever and interesting parts… but on the other hand, the narrative style was dense and confusing. Often, I found myself lost, and it wasn’t especially easy to just dive back in and enjoy the good bits. There was a lot of witty dialogue, but a lot of it seemed unnecessary, and not always necessarily funny. I give this a 3.5, as I enjoyed it, but the complexity put me off. I might still read some more in the series as the overall plot was creative… though it won’t be for a while. Finished February 2020.
  7. Tune in Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries – Tim Anderson (2010) – This book is a collection of stories and memories from Tim, an American (and self proclaimed ‘big gay white man’) in Japan. At first I thought the writing style was going to put me off, as every sentence seemed to be overly descriptive and verbose. However, after a few pages I realised that it helped me to hear the author’s intent and voice much better… The delivery of the witty observations at the oddities of Japanese culture to Westerners made me laugh out loud in a few places, which is no mean feat. If you have been to Tokyo before, so much of this will ring true. I really enjoyed it. Finished February 2020.
  8. For Fukui’s Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan – Sam Baldwin (2011) – This book is essentially the author’s memoirs about the time they spent in Japan. At first it was easy to read, with a fairly gentle (but also witty) style, and a number of interesting observations about a side of Japan that most people never get to see. As the chapters went on though, they increasingly seemed to become a set of disjointed memories… and it wasn’t clear quite what the point of them was. While the author is understandably fond of these recollections, they don’t necessarily make for a particularly interesting read, and by the time I hit 60% I was more than ready for the book to be over. Finished February 2020.
  9. Range: The Key to Success, Performance and Education – David Epstein (2019) – This book argues against the received wisdom that to be successful you must always specialise in one thing, do so deeply, and begin as early as possible. It is not an argument against specialisation, but rather one that presents the benefits of having those with more general experience – even within specialisation. It is packed with interesting examples, and is well researched. It took me a bit longer to read than other books as of late due to the density of the info, but it is written in an easily accessible way, and made me think. Finished February 2020.
  10. A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy – Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum (2019) – A bit of a change of pace here – the book looks at the rise in conspiracism in the US and the impact that has on Democracy and political discourse. Fairly interesting, but also very much an in-depth, academic book. I took a lot longer to read this, and realised that it’s not the kind of book I am looking to read at the moment. Finished March 2020.
  11. Photographing People – A Guide for Shy Photographers – Kevin Landwer-Johan (2020) – This was fine. Some tips from a press photographer about taking photos of people. The writing style wasn’t especially great. Finished March 2020.
  12. Dark Matter – Blake Crouch (2016) – This was more like it. I loved this book. Without going into spoilers, it cleverly explores questions about life, curiosity and regret through a story based on alternative universes or dimensions. Despite introducing some fairly complicated theories, it does so in a clear and engaging way – and made me think. Would recommend. Finished March 2020.
  13. Recursion – Blake Crouch (2019) – I liked Dark Matter so much that I immediately read this right after, and completed it in just over a day. Another tale involving concepts of time ‘travel’ which was both thought provoking, but also easy to ready. Enjoyed it a lot. Finished March 2020.
  14. Mohammed Maguire – Colin Bateman (2002) – This is a relatively short story from Colin Bateman that tells a tale of a young boy who is the son of some infamous Irish terrorists. I enjoyed it, largely because I like Bateman’s writing style and dark humour. However, it wasn’t as good as his other, lengthier works; a bit disjointed in places, and lacking in some deeper substance than usual. Finished March 2020.
  15. The Wall – John Lanchester (2019) – The Wall envisions a not-too-distant future where a catastrophic event known as ‘the Change’ has meant that the sea levels have risen, and now the UK has to continually protect its borders (presumably just the mainland…) by a constantly manned wall. The narrative follows one young person as they fulfil their military duty as a ‘defender’. The book itself was fairly enjoyable with a decent concept, but I found it hard to become all that deeply interested with the world or the characters themselves. Part of this is almost certainly down to the purposefully bleak nature of the dystopian world being presented, but ultimately that left me feeling disengaged, rather than horrified. Finished March 2020.
  16. The Photographer’s Playbook – J. Fulford (2014) – This is a book of short prompts for photographers, intended to stimulate creativity. Rather than rattle off a list of the same old tired practical ‘challenges’ such as ‘look for shadows’ or ‘use symmetry’, this takes a more philosophical approach – with a wide variety of contributions from different photographers, teachers, and students. It’s great. Finished April 2020
  17. PRACTICE LESS, PLAY MORE: The simple, three-step system to play songs you love on your guitar from day 1 –  Steve Mastroianni (2019) – Another functional book. This time focussing on techniques for playing guitar and structuring practices better. I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing style, with the broken up paragraphs etc. However, there were some good practical tips that I’ll put into use. Finished April 2020.
  18. Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers – Dennis DeSantis (2015) This book is filled with practical tips and observations for approaching music production. Each one is short, and so easily digestible, but also contains useful information and ideas. Once to come back to. Finished May 2020.
  19. Recording Unhinged – Sylvia Massy (2016) This is a book written by legendary music producer Sylvia Massy, detailing all kinds of creative ways to reconsider the recording and music production process. It is kind of like a magazine in its layout, but was inspirational and interesting. Finished May 2020.
  20. Unlocking Japanese – Cure Dolly (2016) This book is a short explanation of how to approach certain grammatical topics when learning Japanese which help make things make much more sense. It cleared up some troublesome issues for me – but is one I’ll need to go back to a few times as my studying progresses. Finished May 2020.
  21. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014) Reading a book about a deadly flu pandemic during a deadly flu pandemic… why not?! Unfortunately, despite really wanting to enjoy this book, and hearing a lot of praise for it – it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I really enjoyed some of the post-apocalyptic details, such as the folks living in the airport. However, there are a lot of different characters, with the narrative jumping between them a fair bit. Their lives are interlinked, which could be smart – but it also left me wondering what the ultimate point was. Overall, I enjoyed this but didn’t love it. Finished May 2020.
  22. Revenge – Yoko Ogawa (2013) This is a collection of strange tales with a twist. At first I thought they were fine on their own, but the really clever and interesting part is when you realise that they all start to feed into each other in more than just a surface-level, referential fashion. An enjoyable read. Finished June 2020.
  23. One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking – D Trott (2015) A collection of anecdotes and illustrations designed to show the benefit of seeking out a different perspective for various challenges. At first I thought it seemed a bit trite, but by the end I had gained inspiration for a few different situations, and you can’t really argue with that. Finished June 2020.
  24. Three Japanese Short Stories (Penguin Modern) – K. Uno et al (2018) A set of three short stories from Japanese authors. This was pretty short, and a fine read – but I didn’t take too much away from it. Finished June 2020.
  25. Striptease – Carl Hiaasen (1993) This is the second book by Carl Hiaasen I’ve read, and I liked it a lot. The storyline in both has always been slightly bonkers, but not too surreal to become unreadable. The real strength though is in the characters… and the depth of writing. I’ll be reading more. Finished June 2020.
  26. The Guest List – Lucy Foley (2020) I picked this up after reading The Hunting party by the same author, and enjoying it. This book follows a similar formula: A group of 30 somethings come together with various folks from their youth in an isolated place, and grapple with their feelings of discontent with adult life and different relationships… punctuated with a murder mystery. From the outset, the writing style was familiar, easily accessible, and enjoyable. Unfortunately I felt like some of the characters were pretty one dimensional, lacking much development – and making decisions that didn’t seem believable. However, the story made up for this with more than a couple of twists that I didn’t expect – bringing this up to 4 stars. Good book. I’d read more murder mysteries by Lucy, though the foundation of the setting could probably do with a shakeup to keep things fresh. Finished July 2020.
  27. The Parade – Dave Eggers (2019) The story here is straightforward – two very different contractors have to complete the construction of a road in a war-ravaged part of the world in time for a celebratory parade. The depth runs far deeper than that though, and in a short time examines different attitudes to work, travel, progress, necessity, hospitality, power, and charity. The book doesn’t delve into any of these in any great detail, but it makes you think. An easy read which sets cogs turning. Finished July 2020.
  28. Not the end of the World – Christopher Brookmyre (1998) Another great read from Christopher Brookmyre, filled with colourful characters and dangerous situations. This time, the scale is bigger than ever, tackling religious terrorists in the US. I gave this a 4.5 out of 5 instead of a full 5 as while I loved the story, it took a bit longer to get into than some of his other books, and the references to Celtic/Rangers etc are beginning to feel a tad samey for me. I need to find the others that I haven’t read now… Finished July 2020.
  29. Hardcore Self Help: Fk Anxiety – Robert Duff (2014)** This book was about ways of coping with stress etc. Some useful bits and pieces, but very short. Expected more. Finished August 2020.
  30. Photographers on Photography: How the Masters See, Think & Shoot – Gerry Carroll (2018) This was alright. There were some interesting bits, but the content was so fractured and lacked enough context or explanation that the features didn’t really make much sense. Some photographers had just a single page and a single photo with vague lofty words which came across as pretentious – whereas others had a few pages worth of questions (a lot of text), but no real explanation of who they were, why they were interesting, or anything beyond a very specific set of thoughts. Unfortunately it came across as pretentious at times, without the depth to back it up. I was disappointed as I really wanted this to be good! – Finished August 2020.
  31. Double Whammy – Carl Hiaasen (2005) I’ve read a few Hiaasen books now, and love them. The madcap characters and bizarre plotlines are endlessly interesting. Because of that, I went back to read this book. I still liked it, but didn’t find it as engaging as his later works. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why, and it could just be that the characters weren’t quite as developed as they are… or that the foundation of the plot was less coherent. Either way, I enjoyed it, but would recommend folks check out his later books first. Finished August 2020.
  32. The Alcohol Experiment: A 30-Day, Alcohol-Free Challenge to Interrupt Your Habits and Help You Take Control – Annie Grace (2018) Rather than tell you all the bad things about alcohol, this book gets you to question why you drink, what you actually want from it, and other reflective thoughts which gradually help change your attitude towards drinking. It was a fairly practical and useful read which helped change some of my perspectives and habits. – Finished September 2020.
  33. Native Tongue – Carl Hiaasen (2005) – I have read a fair few Hiaasen books at this point, and I like the odd-ball humour, bizarre characters, and plot twists a lot. This one has probably been one of my least favourites though. It took a while to get through, and while the story was colourful, it wasn’t as much of a page-turner as the others. I’m not sure why exactly… perhaps the number of extra characters and embellishments to the story (I’m not sure the Elves needed quite as many pages as they got). Either way, a good read but not one of my personal Hiaasen favs. Finished October 2020.
  34. In Your Defence – Sarah Langford (2020) – A really well written and engaging book telling the stories of different folks going through the legal system – interspersed with educational yet interesting and accessible explanations and commentary on what it is to be part of things. Realy enjoyed it. Finished October 2020.
  35. Exit – Laura Waddell (2020) – A collection of thoughts and ponderances on the meaning, relevance, and symbology of exits. This book is part of a collection of similar works reflecting on everyday objects or things which we take for granted, but which hold deeper meaning. This one in particular is well written and engaging. Now I want to read more of them. Finished October 2020.
  36. The Courage to be Disliked – Ichiro Kishimi (2019) – This book serves as an introduction to Adlerian philosophy, told via a Socratic questioning method. It was a pretty interesting intro, and I’d be curious to find out more in greater detail as a result. Finished November 2020.
  37. Cult of the Dead Cow – Joseph Menn (2019) – I remember Cult of the Dead cow as a mysterious hacker group from when I was a kid growing up in the 90s. I was always curious to know more about them, and so had to read this book. It charts their existence and individual career/personal developments over the years, linking the group in with current technological and political challenges. It is very well researched and filled with detail that tells the story of the members, but in the end I found it to be perhaps a tad too… descriptive, as at times it felt like simply reading a set of facts, as opposed to capturing the real drama and intrigue of that world. I’m not quite sure what I would have expected though. Finished November 2020.
  38. How to Ikigai – Tim Tamashiro (2019) – This book didn’t quite live up to the description. While there were interesting examples and stories, there wasn’t really any deeper explanation of what ‘Ikigai’ actually meant beyond the surface of ‘finding stuff that give your life purpose’. I have a lot of time for the ideas expressed, but the substance didn’t really resonate with me. Part of that could be because a lot of the suggestions and ways to find purpose would only really work for those who are privileged enough to be able to make them happen (saving up 25K USD to take a full year off work, really?), or didn’t engage enough with the questions about what to do if the thing you love and are good at never gets any recognition or has any impact on the world. There were good questions in there which weren’t really answered or tackled, and that was disappointing. Finished November 2020.
  39. Lockdown – Peter May (2020) – Another pandemic related book. This time, the story of how the novel came into being was what drove me in. Written in 2005, it was deemed to be ‘too unrealistic’ for publishers to take on. Now, as a detective-led mystery thriller set in an apocalyptic London which isn’t too far from our current reality, it was too tempting not to read. While the story was pretty straightforward, it actually did a better job than many other dystopian novels at describing the world and setting the scene. I enjoyed it, and finished it quicker than any other book I’ve had for a few months because of that. Finished December 2020.
  40. Love Means Love: Same-sex Relationships and the Bible – David Runcorn (2020) – Having grown up in the church and thoroughly rejected the way I’ve seen people be treated for their sexuality by people who claim to be welcoming and to ‘love’, I wanted to have a better grasp of what the actual Biblical context of the passages which are often quoted is. This book examines the church’s position historically, and lays out a theological position which explains (or supports) how many people feel but are unable to necessarily articulate in the face of so-called ‘traditionalist’ views. Finished December 2020.

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