Reading Lists: 2015 In Review

I’m repurposing several years’ worth of reading lists, many of which I kept to answer “What do you read” and “Where do you come up with those crazy ideas” when posed as valid and interested questions. This is the 2015 version, with a bit of 2020 edited [so noted]. I provide author and title only; find these at your favorite bookseller (online or real world) as there are no advertising or commissionable links below. Additional comments and editorial notes are [so noted]. 2015 was a good year for reading in that I finished nearly 50 books, made my way through some long multi-part series, and covered more genres outside of sci-fi than I had in previous years. If you’re looking for themes: The Expanse, KISS, poker, dystopian futures.

46–48. “Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy,” Jeff VanderMeer, sci-fi, finished December 26.

Originally published as 3 paperbacks, VanderMeer’s haunting series was nominated for a 2015 Locus award. I pick up most of my annual reading list from the Hugo, Locus and other award finalist lists, which exposes me to a variety of styles, authors, and genres I wouldn’t normally browse through unaided or unprompted. “Area X” may be the furthest exploration so far; it’s not a fantasy in the wizards-and-magic vein but is fantastical in the nightmarish, mythical beast and out-of-body experience combination that makes for a dense set of stories. The best way to describe it is a mildly quantum mechanical view of a Gaia fantasy in which the Earth gets pissed off and fights back against power, corruption and control. I found the last third (last book) difficult to finish, and even after some time to mentally reprocess this, I’m still not sure I “get it.” It’s powerful writing redolent of Stephen King’s “The Shining” and Neil Gaiman’s back of the neck hair-raising tales.

45. “Face The Music: A Life Exposed,” Paul Stanley, music, finished December 9.

Having read Ace Frehley’s mea culpa memoir, and on the heels of thoroughly enjoying James Campion’s “Shout It Out Loud”, I went down the wisdom of rock crowds path to read Paul Stanley’s biography. While Campion’s is a deep, vertical examination of the context around “Destroyer,” Stanley provides a longitudinal history of the band and its creative process (and at times, lack thereof). With “Alive” and “Destroyer” as the dramatic peak for KISS, the ensuing two decades were a bitter, resentful and somewhat obscure denouement that resolved in their reunion and 30th anniversary tours, albeit with new faces under the makeup. Stanley doesn’t scrimp on his invective versus any of his bandmates, but instead of a KISS-and-tell this comes across as an expiation of sin and fear of being found a fraud. There is no song by song decomposition of their albums, and aside from brief structural histories of a few songs on the first three KISS albums, most of the recording process exists as mile markers in a narrative of trust, mistrust, anger and creative anxiety. As an aging software developer, I found the “Forever” closing section illuminating — how and where do you channel passions as your ability to craft your first art is passed to the next generation? Overlooking some of the Starchild-centric views — Stanley lays claim to discovering Guns-N-Roses guitarist Slash in a scene that could have been lifted from EL Doctorow’s “Ragtime” — “Face the Music” reads more like Phil Lesh’s autobiography of a musician’s life, where you are neither jealous nor disgusted, but happy to have been invited to read the the party every day recap for four decades.

44. “Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future,” Ed Finn (editor), science futurism, finished December 2.

During a hackathon that I sponsored at Merck, CEO Ken Frazier asked me why we would run such an event. My response was excerpted from the introduction to “Hieroglyph”: Science and science fiction have shared a century-plus long symbiotic relationship. Science fiction gives us the tools to imagine the possible; science (and our hackathon, in the coder domain) gives us the mechanics to realize the future. While a dense and sometimes tough read, given the melange of styles, future-created worlds and thematic elements, “Hieroglyph” delivered a much needed respite from what was a spring and summer of apocalyptic futurism. Perhaps the next century will be framed by good, plenty and happiness, rather than economic, ecological and evangelical destruction. If nothing else, this collection of short stories (including some from my favorites list — Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear) forces you to think about creating a better future. On-going research, discussion and backstories to the front and center stories are found at the Project Hieroglyph site.

43. “The Flicker Men,” Ted Kosmatka, sci-fi, finished November 18.

With “The Games” as an intro to Kosmatka’s brand of fast-paced fiction that goes from just-past-here to way-out-there in a hurry, “The Flicker Men” doesn’t disappoint. A broad mix of philosophy and science, this felt like one part Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” and one part quantum theory primer — an odd mix, but a good one.

42. “Shout It Out Loud,” James Campion, music, finished November 12.

KISS’ “Destroyer” album was probably responsible for me venturing away from the straight-up 4/4 rock into various forms of prog and jazz-rock, from Weather Report to Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Pink Floyd. After the sheer sonic assault of “KISS Alive!” their next studio album represented a true album, an exploration of themes and sounds and real production values. At the time, it was mildly weird and unexpected, but those were the same adjectives I used for some of my favorite albums to come later — Yes’s “Drama”, Springsteen’s “Darkness On The Edge of Town,” and Dire Straits’s “Love Over Gold”. What Campion captures is the absolute, rock-bottom need for KISS to produce an album worthy of the label (in every respect), and the difficult of the recording sessions. The description of the writing and recording process is nearly perfect; having experienced modern recording first-hand this glimpse into the mid-70s state of the art was compelling and fascinating. More than that, Campion uncovers the backstory of the session musicians, of Bob Ezra’s thematic take on the band, and on the first subtle glimpse of differences and dynamics that would later turn KISS into a Menudo-like sea of musicians. A well researched, even better written, and perfectly crafted book.

41. “You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost),” Felicia Day, biography, finished November 5th.

I adore Felicia Day, from “The Guild” to her appearances in “Eureka” to her various Internet properties. She’s incredibly funny, self-deprecating, and in so many ways “just another nerd.” This is a fun, laugh out loud biography that doesn’t descend into “I had a weird childhood” as an excuse — instead it’s color commentary for a life defined by being two sigma to the right of funny and normal. And that’s a good thing.

40. “The Games,” Ted Kosmatka, sci-fi/thriller, finished October 28.

Equally possible and creepy, Kosmatka extrapolates genetic engineering, virtual reality and an inconsistent regulatory environment into a sci-fi thriller that is a quick read. I picked this up after a reference to “The Flicker Men” (coming up on the list) and it’s a good introduction to his writing.

39. “Armada,” Ernest Cline, sci-fi, finished October 25.

The (much anticipated?) sophomore effort from “Ready Player One” author Cline follows in the footsteps of…a sophomore slump. I really and truly wanted to love this book as much as I adored the Easter egg laden, Rush-infused, breakneck pace of “Ready Player One,” and instead I’m trying to figure out what exactly Cline wanted to convey in “Armada.” It has the same 80s throwback references to pop culture, video games, and newly evolved big budget sci-fi films, but much of the pacing seems to be built on a series of less clever cultural reference pointers. There were times when it felt like the self-reference to sci-fi tropes was in fact the whole point, and the social commentary on being human was social commentary on how our social commentary is conveyed through media. If Marshall McLuhan doesn’t materialize a la Biggie Smalls (a la South Park) then it’s sufficient to say I enjoyed the book but it’s not a top ten of the year. Random aside: I read seven books in October 2015, averaging one every four and a half days. I should be playing more bass guitar.

38. “Zeroes,” Chuck Wendig, crypto/sci-fi thriller, finished October 22.

This one started out with such promise: disaffected hackers of all ages are summoned in a bizarre Olivia Pope meets Armada (see above) call to crypto-arms, and it’s fun and fast for the first half the book. Then it veered off into Terminator-meets-Coma territory, and the cognitive, computer, crypto and criminal science failed to make a good story. Fast out of the gate, but no stride to the finish.

37. “Angles of Attack,” Marko Kloos, sci fi/space opera, finished October 17.

36. “Lines of Departure,” Marko Kloos, sci fi/space opera, finished October 14.

35. “Terms of Enlistment,” Marko Kloos, sci fi/space opera, finished October 10.

I read more than half of the first book in this trilogy on a trans-Atlantic flight, hence the rapid time to completion. All three books are engaging and fast paced; the cover comparisons to Scalzi are not made lightly. While the science could be more forward thinking (if we have faster than light travel we’ll still use ruggedized iPad equivalents?) the military aspects are written from experience and keep the story moving along. About halfway through I was anticipating some plot twists, or new and complex character introductions, which makes the conclusion feel a bit over-simplified. A nice counterpoint to Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series.

34. “The Mathematician’s Shiva,” Stuart Rojstaczer, fiction, finished October 8.

My wife handed this one to me because it deals with the Navier-Stokes equations. It was an entertaining read, although you could guess some of the resolutions halfway through, and two minor characters’ conflicts never quite get the page count they seemingly deserve. The narrative jumps around in timeframe with only partial clues, requiring a bit of thought to sort reflection, exposition and the main character’s backstory as told through her journal, but overall this reminded me of my days on the research staff at Princeton and seemed timely with the recent deaths of several of my beloved professors.

34. “Searching for the Sound,” Phil Lesh, music, finished October 2

My usual worry with “history of the band” books is that they’re kiss-and-tells, dirty laundry hampers, or vitriolic attempts at catharsis. Lesh’s books is the polar opposite; it’s an exploration of where the Dead got inspiration for their songs, how they worked as a band, and what life was like on the road for thirty years of music, mirth and mayhem. Lesh’s writing lives up to his title; I gained an appreciation for how each album was approached, and why particular tours or live shows appeal more than others. A nice bookend to Kreutzmann’s book, reflecting 2/3 of of the Dead’s rhythm section.

33. “The Martian,” Andy Weir, sci-fi, finished September 23

It’s rare for me to stay up past bed time, finishing a book on the couch with the TV room lights on their lowest dimmer setting. But “The Martian” (yes, the source for the movie that releases this week) was worth it. Recommended to me by a few people as something of an “engineer’s manifesto” this was MacGyver meets Scotty from Star Trek, but without made-up physics, and all of the mechanics (plot, physical, and personal) worked without any deus ex machina excursions. I laughed in at least a dozen places because it felt like parts of this could have been written by some favorite co-workers over the years.

32. “Maddaddam,” Margaret Atwood, sci-fi, finished September 20

31. “Year Of The Flood,” Margaret Atwood, sci-fi, finished September 15

30. “Oryx and Crake,” Margaret Atwood, sci-fi, finished September 10

Another post-apocalyptic trilogy, wonderfully related through multiple characters’ viewpoints, and with interleaving time lines. Over the course of the three books you see how the characters came to be, in their terms and in the hagiographic terms ascribed to them by related characters. This is one part biblical, one part eco/bio terror novel, and one part human survival story. I really do need to stop reading trilogies and getting immersed in “end of the world” stories, but Atwood’s style is a nice change of pace, and you’re left feeling like you mostly understand everyone’s biases and motivations, but without being bludgeoned by the author or the characters. If you’re going to read any of this, read all three, and get the boxed set. [2020 comment: Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is getting much more press with the TV adaptation, but this trilogy is equally terrifying and timely]

29. “World of Trouble,” Ben Winters, mystery with sci-fi tinge, finished September 2.

28. “Countdown City,” Ben Winters, mystery, finished August 28.

27. “Last Policeman,” Ben Winters, mystery, finished August 25.

A very fast paced trilogy of murder mysteries, all set against the backdrop of an apocalypse: There’s an asteroid on an Earth impact trajectory, and all sense of morality, logic, humanity, and legality is warped as the inverse-square of the asteroid’s distance to Earth. Winters’ story telling is tight, with the twists and turns you’d expect in an Agatha Christie or Jodi Picoult novel (I only guessed one perpetrator before the final reveal out of the three books). A nice week of reading.

26. “The End Of All Things,” John Scalzi, sci-fi, finished August 20.

I adore all things Scalzi and revel in his “Old Man’s War” world, which I’ve found alternating heartstring-tugging, hilarious and politically astute. Sometimes all three in parallel. That said, this felt like a transition novel — it’s told in four parts, like “Human Division” with multiple narrators and voices and perspectives, but they are all driving toward a common denouement. Scalzi included an alternate version of the first part of the book, shedding light on his thought process (and possible conclusion ideas) going on, and while I appreciated the secondary backstory it also made me reflect on this comments that he missed deadlines with this one. Point blank, it’s not his best, but a B+ Scalzi is still an “A” rated book on a broader scale. And as usual, it reads so fast and so with such compunction that I finished it in three nights of actual reading.

25. “On The Steel Breeze,” Alastair Reynolds, sci-fi, finished August 15.

A continuation of the post-Earth world of “Blue Remembered Earth” and I liked the sequel better. Reynolds dances around themes of what it means to be human in different time and space scales, and draws his various plot lines together with purpose. Perhaps my favorite of his books (so far).

24. “Collected Fiction,” Hannu Rajaniemi, sci-fi, finished July 22.

I’ve adored Rajaniemi’s “Jean Le Flambeur” trilogy — hard sci-fi with a serious dose of quantum mechanics — and was quite looking forward to this limited print run (2,000 copies) of his short fiction. Rajaniemi delivers in assorted vectors and colors (or chose your favorite quantum mechanical metaphor, it works). The stories have an enormous range of emotion, setting, and style, all with a decidedly Finnish temperament (I kept thinking about the Steven Van Zandt series “Lillehammer” and its portrayal of Nordic life, and I’m now going to enter “Nokia boots” in my vernacular as a catch-all for anything utilitarian).

23. “Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Drugs and Dreaming with the Grateful Dead,” Bill Kreutzmann, music, finished July 19.

Never much of a Dead Head, but intrigued after the Fare Thee Well shows and always up for reading the story behind the music. Kreutzmann delivers with flair; the number of characters who appear in this book rivals anything else I’ve read, fiction or not, and he tells the story of the band, their music, and their tortuous history on the rock and roll tour roads without descending into kiss and tell or gory exposition. I can almost understand people who take acid before Phish shows after reading Kreutzmann’s ode to Bear’s kitchen chemistry.

22. “The Annihilation Score,” Charles Stross, sci-fi, finished July 15.

It’s been on the “must read” pile since the Amazon pre-order went live, and a few chapters in, I’m (a) happy to pick up the cold ending of the last book (b) excited that this one is written from Mo’s perspective and © creepily wary of what comes next. It’s hard to do five or six novels built from the same world without running out of plot devices or characters, but Stross does it with an un(in?)humanely blend of humor and skill.

21. “Slow Bullets,” Alastair Reynolds, sci-fi, finished July 10.

A quick, novella-length space opera that may be my favorite of Reynolds’ oevre. Happy that I read this in temporal proximity (pun intended) to Stephenson’s “Seveneves” as it tackles some of the same dark, epochal topics but in a very different context.

20. “Run Like an Antelope,” Sean Gibbon, music, finished July 8.

Such high (no pun intended) hopes for this one, another “on tour” travelogue that seemed like a good idea while simultaneously mourning the passing of Chris Squire, couch touring the final Grateful Dead concerts and thinking about the foreshortened Phish summer run. Instead, this reads like the worst thematic set intersection of Hunter S. Thompson and someone who posts pictures of their fast food dinners on Facebook. I’m going to ride it to the end because it’s something of a car wreck of a book (and deserves rubber necking) and because it’s 50% of the reading material I brought on this business trip. Between poorly constructed rants about the perceived difficulties of driving between concerts and getting schwasted (sometimes requiring medical care) there are nuggets like the one indicting “pot bellied 50 year olds” for attending Phish shows. Guilty as charged, and some of those 50 year olds eventually fund the trustafarian set chronicled with such mediocrity. If you feel compelled, read something online and donate to the Mockingbird Foundation instead.

19. “Dreams of Earth and Sky,” Freeman Dyson, science, finished July 3.

I adore Freeman Dyson on a half dozen levels. He relates scientific fact as he sees it, unvarnished, unedited, and unexpurgated. I quoted the book at least half a dozen times while reading it. By the time you’re 75% of the way through it, the essays can be tough going, but the end result is worth the journey.

18. “Nemesis Games,” James SA Corey, sci-fi, finished June 21.

I quickly returned to Corey’s “Expanse” hoping that there would be less deus ex machina protomolecule and more straight-up character interaction. What I didn’t count on was an outstanding exploration of 80% of the main characters (those not named “Holden”) in terms of backstory, motivations, and biases. The best space operas draw on the best of historical opera: identity, crisis, deception, treachery and heroics. “Nemesis Games” delivers in fine form, with few arias and even fewer contrivances; it’s just a fast-moving conclusion to the current arc of the Expanse that makes you wonder what’s next for the crew of the Rocinante. There have been moments — good ones — during which I feel like each book of the Expanse series is like a Star Trek movie; a major story that goes deeper than the hour-long TV format could that also leaves the door open for the next installment. [2020 comment: Well, now “The Expanse” is a TV series, and now on Amazon Prime, and the intensity of the books carries right through.]

17. “Seveneves,” Neal Stephenson, sci-fi of future present shock, finished June 7.

Neal Stephenson sits on my shelf of “must read as soon as released” authors with Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, William Gibson and John Scalzi. His books usually check in on the order of pounds and hundreds of pages, and “Seveneves” is no different, but it lacks the long and sometimes exhausting exposition of his previous works. This one moves — and moves in some heartening directions. As an apocalyptic novel (the moon is destroyed, and the resulting space rock cloud plunges the Earth into a fiery demise) it is actually hopeful, and explores how religions are born, how heroes are forged in non-heroic ways, how technology isn’t the savior when everything else is turning to literal fire and brimstone, and that sometimes the good old oral tradition cements millennia. I found it intriguing that the timeframe chosen to revisit the Earth post-disaster — roughly 5,000 years — is about the same time span from the beginning of time as reckoned in the Old Testament to the present day. While the science is all believable — and engaging — the people are almost too familiar, too present-day-future-shock, and therefore all the more alarming. And yet that makes the conclusion more spectacular. In terms of pace, it’s the fastest reading of Stephenson’s last four or five books, and in terms of Scalzi-like conclusive delight, it is top of the heap.

16. “Cibola Burn,” James S A Corey, sci-fi, finished May 21.

After taking a brief hiatus from the “Expanse” series, I picked up the fourth volume (with the fifth on its way later this summer). Plusses: Some of the themes from the first three books were played out nicely, and this one felt much more like a classic space opera of moderately good versus moderately bad/insane actors, although at times you find yourself considering multiple perspectives. All without long expositional arias. Minuses: the dramatic license offered by the protomolecule, this remnant of a billion-year old civilization that seems to leave misery and randomness in its wake, is wearing a bit thin. Hoping that the fifth volume ties up those loose ends. I probably finished this one with the fastest reading rate of any of the books in the Expanse, and it was a nice return.

15. “The Best Of All Possible Worlds,” Karen Lord, sci-fi, finished May 1.

This is not your typical space opera, or even a pseudo steam-punk future-past story set on a carefully crafted world. The world is replete with carefully crafted human variants, and the themes touch on legacy, love, sustainability, culture, tradition and friendship. It’s complex and subtle and simply outstanding — like a good scotch.

14. “Trigger Warning,” Neil Gaiman, scary stuff, finished April 20.

I’ve come to appreciate the depth and downright scary aspects of Gaiman’s writing. Unlike Stephen King, whom you know is going to chase you through your nightmares with an axe, a clown, and nuclear winter, Gaiman succeeds at raising the hairs on the back of your neck with a mix of great story telling, humor, and mental second glances that make you wonder what’s really there. This is a collection of short stories, poems and other sub-novel works, but as a collection it flows very nicely (and with appropriate scariness). His introduction to the book is as “in your face” as he can get, and in this age of pre-apologies for anything that might stimulate thought, debate or conflict, he gets it in one.

13. “The Last President,” John Barnes, sci-fi, finished April 8.

I was wrong. I tried to keep an open mind, ignore the Amazon reviews that panned this triology, and try to appreciate it as a complex narrative. I’m sorry that I did, because the conclusion of the first three “Daybreak” books is just awful. Spoiler alert: This is a depressing work, with a hideous ending. I haven’t read a deus-ex-machina plot device this ugly and heavy handed since Orson Scott Card’s “Children of the Mind.” The characters that actually developed died on the vine (literally or figuratively) and others were just orphaned before the story concluded. Partly this is due to Barnes’ belief that he can pick up a few themes and riff on them — and feels the need to carry every theme to its conclusion however illogical it might be. I wish that I could say that this book redeemed the whole trilogy, and it ended up with some wonderful insight about human nature or redemption or survival, in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” But it just craps the literary bed. And once you see how Barnes explains the entire Daybreak “virus” you start to wonder exactly how the first two books made any sense. I haven’t had this visceral a reaction to a work of fiction since seeing “The Towering Inferno” when I was probably 3 or 4 years too young to absorb it. I should have read the interview Scalzi ran because the smugness would have been a warning klaxon.

12. “Daybreak Zero,” John Barnes, sci-fi, finished April 2.

Part two of the trilogy, and significantly more depressing, creepy and thought provoking than the initial installment. All of the tongue-in-cheek fun that Doctorow and Stross had with “Rapture of the Nerds” becomes Rapture-infused literal (in all senses) post apocalyptic drama. There is enough here to make me finish the series and see how the narratives play out because there is no obvious, neat conclusion (which is what makes reading this fun).

11. “Directive 51,” John Barnes, sci-fi, finished March 28.

A few dozen pages into this I was tempted to call it “Disaffected Hipsters Meet Robin Cook” but in a catchy way. It’s terror drama, science-magnified bio catastrophe, and political thriller, and while it has quite a cast (large, not deep) of characters, there is enough metadata in the chapter headings to keep the parallel storylines straight.

10. “Rise of Hypnodrome,” Matt Fuchs, sci-fi novella, finished March 20.

Disclaimer on the disclaimer: Matt is my cousin (1st cousin once removed, technically) and this is his first novella. There are elements of Greg Bear (Darwin’s Radio), Asimov and Doctorow (I, Robot both times), and some serious drama-within-a-drama imagination redolent of “Inception”. He covers about six ideas at various depths, enough to make me want them each fleshed out into something longer. Quick and thought-provoking read.

9. “On A Red Station, Drifting,” Aliette de Bodard, sci-fi, finished March 19.

Another Hugo nominated work, and one for which I had high hopes, but even at novella length I found myself slogging through this over the course of a week. The ancient filial and royal family imagery applied to space opera may appeal to some, and the usual themes of redemption, betrayal and family loyalty resonate strongly.

8. “Burning Paradise,” Robert Charles Wilson, sci-fi, finished March 12.

It’s been a while since I picked up Wilson’s work (“Spin” and follow-ons). His writing is tight, fast-paced, and his science is tenable through this alternate history. There are parts of this that feel like “Blade Runner” and parts that are just creepy enough to be Orwellian.

7. “Abaddon’s Gate,” James S A Corey, sci-fi, finished March 6.

The third book in the Expanse series, and a nice place to pause (there are two more books in the same world view, one to be released this summer). At some point I think every space opera has to veer into religion, symbolism and the perceptions of legacy. Whether it’s the Bene Gesserit of Dune or Yoda, usually the spiritual is an overtone to the text. In the third leg of the Expanse run, Corey picks up religion and legacy by the collar, and puts them front and center. And yet it works, and works well, as the threads from the first two books are knotted, tied off in conclusions and we are left thinking that maybe most characters are basically good (aside from those who you are happy to see end up in hard vacuum) — and again, that message comes across gently.

6. “Caliban’s War,” James S A Corey, sci-fi, finished February 19.

Part two of what I purchased as a trilogy, and I’m liking the characters and their development even more. The pacing is faster, the conflicts more human and humane, and this was enough to get me to buy the remaining books. And the last five pages are the best possible cliffhanger since the episode of “Cheers” when Sam got an answering machine.

5. “Leviathan Wakes,” James S A Corey, sci-fi, finished February 8.

The first of what is now a five-book series around Corey’s “Expanse” set of worlds — rather convincingly, our worlds set only a few centuries into the future. Rather than strange physics, faster than light travel, and strange xenobiologic alien races, he explores the limits of current physics and biology pushing against the known constants of the universe: revenge, loneliness, slow travel, and the long term and polarizing effects of low gravity. “Leviathan Wakes” takes a few dozen pages to get into, and get used to the multiple overlapping narratives, but once it accelerates it moves. [2020 comment: Usually “the book is better than the movie” except in this case, the adaptation of “The Expanses” to a TV serialization is just as rich, scientifically correct and about as well produced as you would hope and wish]

4. “Alif the Unseen,” G. Willow Wilson, fantasy, finished January 16.

A suggestion from the Locus awards list (2013, I think) that engaged two false starts through a sloggy pair of opening chapters. Where Wilson makes you question your view of reality and “what is seen”, in the way that Neil Gaiman does, this book is great; where she ventures into more science- or technology-driven theory, she loses some credibility. The mix of Hindi and Arabic slang (some in Arabic, most in transliteration) grounds the book and makes you realize that part of the approach is to make you reflect the characters discomfort (you can use Google — search on “define: desi”, for example — to decipher context). The last hundred pages move at a great clip; this book is Cory Doctorow’s “Homeland” cross-faded with an Arab Spring narrative. I believe the author writes herself into a minor character, a conclusion I only reached after reading the interview with her in the appendices, but also a nice reflection of her 2014 accolades as a “kick ass Muslim”. This one grew on me.

3. “Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story,” Victor Bockris, music/biography, finished January 6.

I think I was half a generation too young to truly appreciate Lou Reed timing-wise, and growing up in very middle class central New Jersey, I was definitely too sheltered to full grasp the magnitude of what he and the Velvet Underground did. But with the 50th anniversary of the VU this year we have two generations of rock that have been influenced to some extent by Lou Reed. Bockris’s book was updated in 2014 after Reed’s death, and is a delicately researched and crafted narrative of a very difficult personality. Having seen “The Imitation Game” and read a biography of Paul Dirac, I’m definitely in a groove of the backstories of my unsung college era heroes.

2. “The Biggest Game In Town,” Al Alvarez, sports/poker, finished January 2.

One of the books referenced by James McManus’s “Positively Fifth Street,” this is a bit dated but still a fascinating look at the World Series of Poker as it was on the cusp of going prime time. Reading it after McManus’ book, which chronicles the demise of Ted Binion, was either maudlin or melodramatic, but didn’t detract from the poker commentary.

1. “The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac,” Graham Farmelo, history of science, finished January 1.

Farmelo’s vocabulary would make Michael Chabon blush, but his treatment of an historically narrow topic of nerdly interest (the birth of quantum dynamics and the discovery of anti-matter) makes for a nearly 500 page narrative. I bought this because I have been making Dirac impulse function jokes for nearly 30 years (and now can make them with my son, the mechanical engineering student) — I didn’t know the full story of Dirac’s involvement with so much of modern sub-atomic physics, so I’m teetering on starting the year on an educational note. While the book is dense, and almost documentary like in its pacing, it fairly portrays one of the great scientists and mathematicians of the 20th century.

By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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Hal Stern

By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach