Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Pick of Books Read in 2015

After a lengthy hiatus, I'm going to reboot the B-List with a series of
posts listing some of my personal entertainment highlights of 2015.
First up, books.

1. Fiction

In retrospect, 2015 turned out to be a resurgence of quality
speculative/science fiction for me. Twenty of the 53 novels I read last
year were broadly-speaking sci-fi, and eight of those made it into my
ten favourites.

* "The Three-Body Problem" by Cixin Liu
Lots of interesting ideas: astronomy, mind-bending physics, some
information theory and contact with an alien civilisation. All this
starting with the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a historical prologue.
It's the first book in a trilogy, and after the initial contact produces
an unexpected response, humanity is left with a long and anxious wait
for the arrival of the alien fleet.

* "The Martian" by Andy Weir
When a mission to Mars goes wrong, the crew is ordered to evacuate and
leave behind a critically injured astronaut. He survives and has access
to food and other supplies, but faces a long wait until the next
scheduled mission. There's lots of detailed science-based problem
solving, with dashes of humour as he deals with a hostile environment.

* "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell
Astronomers discover what appears to be evidence of intelligent life on
a planet orbiting a nearby star. With the help of its financial and
scientific supporters, the Jesuits beat the rest of the world in
launching an exploratory mission. When they get there, they struggle to
reconcile their humanity and faith with the realities of the alien
societies they encounter.

* "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" by Mary Wollstonecraft
This is a classic, and arguably the first modern science fiction story.
It holds up well, despite being written almost 200 years ago.

* "Narcissus and Goldmund" by Hermann Hesse
This novel describes contrasting life journeys of two former residents
of a monastery in Medieval Germany. Narcissus is a dedicated and
knowledgable monk who devotes his life to teaching. Goldmund is a former
pupil who abandons monastic life in search of passion and adventure.
Weighty themes are covered, such as true friendship, discipline, and
finding one's life purpose and meaning.

* "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
After successfully increasing the intelligence of a mouse (Algernon),
scientists experiment on a mentally challenged man in an attempt to make
him "normal". Early results are encouraging, and the beneficial effects
of the treatment continue. Soon Charlie's IQ goes beyond genius level.
He also starts remembering and understanding his childhood for the first
time. Old relationships are re-evaluated and new ones develop. But when
Algernon's condition unexpectedly deteriorates, Charlie fears the worst.

* "A Hero of Our Time" by Mikhail Lermontov
A classic from one of the pioneers of Russian Romanticism. The
adventures and stories of a not-so-loveable rogue, recounting abduction,
drunkenness, cheating and duelling in and around the Caucasus during the

* "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie
Following an act of treason destroys a starship, the artificial
intelligence controlling that vessel inhabits one of the soldiers in its
crew (Breq). S/he (gender is neutral in this advanced culture) joins
with other survivors and tries to find those responsible, and uncovers a
plot to overthrow the Radch Empire. First instalment of a trilogy, the
followup wasn't as impressive. Hopefully the concluding book is better.

* "Annihilation" by Jeff VanderMeer
Area X has long been isolated from the rest of civilisation. Many
expeditions have been sent there, but few of participants return. Those
who do return suffer fatal mental or physical problems. The latest
expedition is sent with the names of the members intentionally
suppressed. They refer to each other only by their roles. Will this help
them deal with the psychological challenges of the mission? Also the
start of trilogy, but I didn't find the remaining two books as

* "The Water Knife" by Paolo Bacigalupi
In the near future, access to water in south-western USA becomes a legal
and political minefield, attracting criminals. When various interested
parties get wind of a "game-changing" document in Phoenix, ruthless
types converge on the surrounding area, endangering the lives of its
struggling and unsuspecting inhabitants. Another competent eco-thriller
from the author.

See Goodreads for ratings.

2. Non-fiction

Last year wasn't such a memorable year for non-fiction: of the sixteen
books read, only a few left a lasting impression.

* "Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life"
  by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
This book argues that by doing something challenging yet achievable
given your skills and ability, you can attain a state of mind which
leaves you fully engaged. More than mere happiness, consistently
entering this "flow" state when working, playing and engaged in other
activities provides a sense of fulfillment. The author uses extensive
real-world studies to support his case.

* "Collection of Sand" by Italo Calvino
This is a collection of essays and articles on a wide-range of topics.
Calvino is my favourite Italian author, and he always manages to find
interesting angles and observations on any subject, from Japanese
gardens and temples, to the collection of sand referred to in the title.

* "How to Find Fulfilling Work" by Roman Krznaric

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people hate their job. Since we spend
arguably the best hours of our weekdays at work, you'd think it would be
worth spending a bit of time trying to find a job we actually like
doing. This book aims to help readers do that.

* "Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep"
  by David K. Randall
This book looks at another activity which occupies about a third of our
lives: sleep. It features research studies and anecdotes, covering the
various stages of sleep, historical references, sleep-related
conditions. A couple of controversial findings: "high-quality"
mattresses don't materially improve sleep, and sleeping alone apparently

See Goodreads for ratings.