jml's notebook

Reading update

Reading update

I had meant to do one post per book, but that was six books ago. It’s surprisingly hard to find time alone at my laptop that I shouldn’t be spending doing things like replying to emails or arranging life insurance or other similarly dull adulting.

The October Man, Ben Aaronovitch

It’s like Rivers of London but set in the Rhine Valley.

Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber

Super disappointing. The essay is excellent and Debt shows that the man is capable of deep insight into important topics.

The book is mostly built around a couple of surveys he did, and it ends up feeling a bit like the sort of long read journalism that the New Yorker and the Atlantic excel at, except done by an amateur. The anthropology bits are great though.

What I wanted was a framework for understanding the phenomenon of bullshit jobs. What I got was a bunch of isolated observations.

Orphans of Raspay, Lois McMaster Bujold

She can do no wrong. This came along at a time when I really needed it.

Minor Mage, T. Kingfisher

Perhaps her best book yet? Very enjoyable novella that might be young adult fiction, but who cares.

I guess I care, because I think my 11 year old niece might like it, but I don’t want my brother to beat me up.

Making Money, Terry Pratchett

2019 was a pretty rough year for me. I turned to reading the Discworld books I hadn’t already as a source of comfort. They work admirably, and I found I was much more ready to forgive Pterry for reusing his old jokes.

Minor annoying detail about this book. It relies on Moist using his super charisma powers to persuade people to use paper money. However, since the whole project was being sponsored by Vetinari anyway, that was unnecessary. Vetinari could have simply decreed that paper money was good for paying tax.

See? I learned that from Graeber’s Debt. I learned nothing equivalent from Bullshit Jobs.

Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett

Mercifully not entirely about football, but instead mostly about something else.

Snuff, Terry Pratchett

I keep forgetting how much I like police procedurals.

Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett

Probably the most forgettable Discworld book in this post.

Made somewhat more real to me by my frequent visits to the Science Museum, where they have a massive working steam engine.

Making Work Visible, Dominica DeGrandis

Probably skippable. There are some really good ideas for diagrams in here, and the core message of “make work visible” is definitely worth repeating. It can be incredibly easy to let your day job (or your life, sigh) pile up with heaps of work that isn’t obvious.

Designing Data-Intensive Applications, Martin Kleppmann

Probably the best technical book I read in the last decade.

This book is hands down excellent and has become something that I compel younger colleagues to read. It has literally everything you could possibly want to know to build modern backend applications.

The “data-intensive” part of the title is a bit misleading. It made me think it was a book for doing things like analysing the human genome, or building recommendation engines. It’s actually a book that’s relevant to anyone who has an application that uses a database more complicated than sqlite.

The Anarchy, William Dalrymple

Fascinating history of the fall of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the East India Company. The book’s thesis is “see what happens when you let a company run a subcontinent?” but it’s not actually very preachy.

Quotes a tonne of primary sources from all sides, all of which made for super interesting reading. I shouldn’t still be surprised at how “modern sounding” people can be.

It’s not an exercise in self-flagellation (“Look at how bad we were, naughty us”) but doesn’t try to excuse the awful things done by the Company (or the Mughals, for that matter. Man, did they like their torture).

Brought home to me how little I know about India, and also how skewed my view of history is. The Mughal Empire produced 25% of the world’s GDP while England was a backwater producing 1%.

I found the battles a little dull, but I suspect other who are more into that sort of thing would not.

Dominion, Tom Holland

I probably talked about this for a week straight after reading it.

Dominion is about the effect Christianity has had on the Western worldview. It’s not at all on evangelistic tract, but it is trying to convince the reader that they massively underestimate how “Christian” their thinking is.

After reading The Anarchy, with its meticulous referencing and abundance of primary sources, the history seemed a bit sloppy (where are the sources?), and there are times where I felt he did himself a disservice (what’s your actual basis for believing that Ephesians was not written by Paul?), but these are details. It’s a highly readable, eye-opening book that will change the way you think about your own culture.

A Minor Adjustment, Andy Merriman

The story of how a London family adapted to their second child being born with Down’s Syndrome.

Knife Children, Lois McMaster Bujold

The Sharing Knife series is probably my least favourite of Bujold’s work, but that still means it’s pretty good.

I enjoyed Knife Children more than the original quadrilogy, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t have to cope with someone named “Dag” being taken seriously.

New Game Minus series, Sarah Lin

This is the first and only LitRPG I’ve read. I was looking for something mindlessly entertaining and page-turney and this fit the bill perfectly.

After researching, I found that most LitRPG stories are male power fantasies. That makes this series an interesting comment on the genre as a whole.

It turns out that I am not entirely immune to the male power fantasy of being strong enough to lead, nurture, and protect a group of interesting, independent women. I guess that makes me patriarchal in the most literal sense. Oh well.

Radical Candor, Kim Scott

Historically, I’ve done poorly at telling my reports that they need to do better. I’m trying to get better at this. Scott’s book is probably the best thing I’ve come across on the subject.

The main thing I like about the book is that it gives me a way to think about providing feedback (or guidance, as I think she prefers to call it) without being an arsehole. It also paints a clear picture of why it sucks to not give that feedback.

I really need to put systems in place for actually practicing this and improving upon it.

The Seventh Bride, T. Kingfisher

Fun little novella. Almost a fairy tale. Enjoyed, but not as much as Minor Mage or Clockwork Boys.

Atomic Habits, James Clear

Super useful book about building and establishing useful habits. You probably won’t find much in hear that you haven’t heard already from, say, Peak or Duhigg’s book on habits, but you’ve also probably never had all of the details of habits and the practicalities of establish (or breaking) them put in one place so clearly and in such a helpful manner.

So compelling is this book that 2020 is going to be my year of habits. Let’s see how that works out with a kid on the way.

All Systems Red, Martha Wells

The first Murderbot book. I picked this up because Ann Leckie raves about it on her blog. It’s really good, although I don’t think it’s rave worthy. I did immediately want to purchase the sequels, but they’re really expensive for novellas.

Will still probably check them out in a weak moment.

Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Comparisons with Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky are inevitable, I guess.

This is very much an ideas-driven SF book, like Deepness, and I do like that kind of thing from time to time. I don’t think I’m going to reach out to buy the others just yet.

Quiet, Susan Cain

One of my Christmas gifts. It looks at introversion and what it means and why it’s underrated.

I’m still figuring out what I think about the book.

Hope you have a great 2020.