Books I've read this year, Edition...THREE

Dec 28 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

So three years ago now, Sci made a New Year's Resolution to read 100 books in a year. That's a book every three days. I was actually doing very well until I started a blog in the May of that year. That kind of tanked that project, though I still managed to read over 60 books.

The year after that, my resolutions were more modest, 30 books. I didn't make it. I read 29. But I still felt pretty solid. That list is here.

And this year, I wanted to continue the tradition. I didn't have many expectations for myself, I DID write a dissertation, after all, but I didn't do as badly as I thought I would. I even passed 30!!

She Wolves, the Notorious Queens of England by Elizabeth Norton. I have to say I can't help but feel this was someone's thesis in book form. It's...basically it's all about how these women were just trying to assert independence in their own time. She continually says how their actions were "understandable". Actually, no, in some cases, they WEREN"T. There is NO making excuses for Catherine Howard, she was a blithering idiot. I suppose you can blame her upbringing, but once she came to the crown, girl shoulda taken a good look around her and BEEN SMART. As in, not slept with other dudes. I hear they behead you for that. Similarly, there is very little excuse for Isabella of France. Also, the author LOVES words like "jubilant" and "understandable", and if I see her use the word "Jubliant" again, I will find her and whack her on the head. Jubilantly.

A Diary from Dixie
by Mary Chesnut.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volumes 1-4 (still working on 5-6), by Edward Gibbon.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. An amazing writer who deserves every accolade she's gotten, and many, many more. This book is stunningly good. Highly recommend.

Vampire Forensics: uncovering the origins of an enduring legend, by Mark Collins Jenkins.

The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing on Blogs, 2009. by various authors including ME!. Edited by...ME! I wish I could count this thing FIVE TIMES because I have read it, looking for errors, organizing, and editing through it, at least that many times. No dice. Please buy one! I'll sign it. πŸ™‚ And if you buy enough copies, they might even PAY me!

Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control your Thoughts and Feelings by Gary Wenk. COMPLETELY AWFUL and I'm very upset that this book is going to be published actually, people might take what's in it at face value and end up grossly misinformed.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach. I wrote a review on it, but the short version is that it's completely AWESOME. SO COOL.

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York
by Deborah Blum. OMG this book IS SO GOOD. Seriously it's GREAT. I learned so much and it's massively entertaining. Fantastic.

Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, by Matt Rossano. One of the things that science writers should REALLY try to do would be to stop making book titles with colons in them. This isn't a powerpoint presentation. It's a book. And everything after the colon always serves to make everything before the colon less punchy. Also, I didn't like the book very much.

Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature
, by Brian Switek. A very good read!

The Old Testament (NIV version).
Things I have learned from the Old Testament:
a. Things that God likes: Blue, purple, and scarlet yarn. No other colors. Just those. LOTS AND LOTS of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn. Other things God likes include gold, silver, and bronze. Also the sweet smoke of sacrifice. And David, who he loved. None of you other Jews, you'll never measure up to David.

b. Things God doesn't like: PROSTITUTION AND ADULTERY. Seriously I think all of Nehemiah was on the subject of how the Jews had PROSTITUTED THEMSELVES BEFORE OTHER GODS. He loved the word "prostituted", did Nehemiah. You can totally see the old, skinny guy dressed in skins, wild dirty hair, and with spittle flying as he tells all about prostitutes and adultery.

There was more, but those were the things that stuck with me. BLUE PURPLE AND SCARLET YARN, and PROSTITUTION. Somehow I doubt these were the things that should have stuck with me, but really if they wanted me to remember something else they shouldn't have kept going on about the yarn and the prostitutes.

The New Testament. I was incredibly amused to find that:
a. Jesus really doesn't like fig trees. This behavior is not explained.

b. That whole bit in Corinthians about "'faith, hope, and love" which is always done at weddings is preceded by a huge section in which Paul basically says "marriage isn't a good idea. If you're about to get married, don't. But if you HAVE to because otherwise you'll just give in to your lust...well I GUESS it's better than sex without marriage. But it's still not a good idea. Celibacy FTW!"

c. I love how all of Paul's letters end with with ancient equivalent of "tell Lydia I said hi, and I hope Mary's doing all right! Props to my homie Tiberius! Whatup John!" I think it actually really adds to the humanity of the letters and makes Paul as a writer more interesting.

d. Anyone who watches "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", and then listens to the Book of Revelations will views the book of Revelations in an ENTIRELY different light.

Good Fiction
Dune by Frank Herbert. So awesome! I can't believe I missed this when I was younger.

The Name of the Wind: Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1
, by Patrick Rothfuss. Freaking awesome, and I felt really annoyed when I got to about 200 pages from the end and realized it had to be a trilogy, and the MORE annoyed when I realized the second two books AREN'T OUT YET. It's really good.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini. I can't help but feel this is dragon fantasy for people who are too young to remember Dragonriders of Pern.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Books 1-3 by Diana Wynne Jones. LOVE her world building. It's wonderfully clever children's fantasy.

Northhanger Abbey
, by Jane Austen

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I know now what all the high school and college male nerds I knew were talking about.

Crappy Fiction
Fortune's Fool (Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, Book 3) by Mercedes Lackey. Sometimes you need something mindless. This was...really mindless. And BAD. It was BAD.

The Wizard of London
(Elemental Masters, Book 4) by Mercedes Lackey. Look, Mercedes (can I call you Mercedes?). For the love I used to bear to you as a not-remotely-feisty little 14 year old, STOP IT. You are famous. The Heralds of Valdemar series was great (well the first good chunk of it, Vanyel, Talia, etc). Oathbound was GREAT. Elvenbane series? Freakin' Sweet. The first Tale of the 500 Kingdoms called "The Fairy Godmother"? Adorable. The Black Swan? Lovely. The Fire Rose? LOVE IT. In the horrid way you love things like Corn Pops that you know you shouldn't. This?! THIS IS CRAP. THAT OTHER ONE UP THERE WAS CRAP. STOP IT. YOU ARE HURTING ME. You do not need to vomit out 6 vapid, nonsensically-plotted pieces of crap per year. HOLD UP. Take a break with you and your hawks and your horses and your cats and whatever you have in your menagerie that you love to think of as sentient. Think of a good, complicated, interesting plot with some interesting, different characters. Then write. I am limiting you to one book every two years from here on out. DO WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER?!?! I cannot spend my aging years recommending you to all my friends' teenaged little girls until you stop making such an ass of yourself. You should be ashamed.

The Decoy Princess by Dawn Cook. Also mindless and crappy but enjoyable if you like that sort of thing.

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner
by Stephanie Meyer. Like everything I ever read in the Twilight series, it was free. Or I wouldn't have bothered.

New Moon, by Stephanie Meyer. I am continually impressed with this series, because I didn't think it was possible to have a series become steadily more and more TERRIBLE. Turns out Bella is even worse than I thought, she relies so much on the validation of boys that when one leaves her, she becomes a black hole of despair until another one lays himself at her feet. Disgusting.

Twilight: Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer. We're having werewolves fall in love with two year olds now?! Imprinting. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Snow Queen, by Mercedes Lackey. I really should have given up on her by now...

Jacob have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson
. I think I would have loved this novel when I 14. I kept expecting the twin to be some sort of sociopath. But she's FINE. In fact, hands down the worst person in that book, the one who is sucking all of their souls, is the grandmother, who was written in what I think is an incredibly well written portrait of some of the worst things that dementia can do to a person. So in the end, it was pretty good.

And that's what I've got for this year. Yes, there was a lot of crappy fiction, but dangit, I DID edit an anthology and write a dissertation!! And next year I'm starting out right with the rest of Decline and Fall.

What all did you all read this year? Any recommendations?

20 responses so far

  • Chris Evo says:

    You should finish off the dune series, but make sure you finish it off in order and without reading any of those abominations by Frank Herbert's son. They're kind of uneven at times, but I remember absolutely loving them as a teen.

    Things I've read this year: Glimpses, available as a PDF here-
    and from amazon here-
    If you have any regard for classic rock this book will be one of your favorites next year, but even if you don't the way his relationship with his father and his childhood idols moves through the story is gripping.

    Rant: an Oral Biography of Buster Casey and Lullaby, both by Chuck Palahniuk. His plots get so much more layered and interesting than fight club.

    A whole bunch of Neil Gaiman, comics and novels both. The man has a magic touch and Death is about as charming as her enormous, unsettling fanclub makes her out to be.

    Other than that, nothing I'd be willing to recommend to the internet at large, but hopefully you'll have a fun starting point for next year's reading between all of that sexy science.

    • Kevin says:

      It's kinda hard to read Dune expecting a series, since it spans thousands of years and requires learning completely new characters in just about every book, but...

      I agree, totally worth reading. I actually think they get better as the Dune universe gets flushed out a bit more. I re-read them all about 2 years ago and they're still amazing.

    • scicurious says:

      Death is ADORABLE in the Gaiman verse. I read all his stuff.

  • Craig says:

    Well, I spent most of this year's fiction allowance burning through the complete works of Patrick O'Brien and Bernard Cornwell. The first is pure genius, the second is enjoyable trash, but both of 'em are probably only of interest to someone with a fetish for Napoleonic war history.

    However, the O'Brien books also do a nice job of portraying a travelling 18th C scientist in the character of Stephen Maturin: if I went in for "what fictional character do you want to be?" type fantasising, Maturin would be it. The O'Brien books are a substantial part of the reason why I'll be spending a fortnight in 2012 sailing a tall ship through the Torres Strait...

    As for more general recommendations:

    Mary Gentle, Ash: a Secret History. Originally released as a single doorstopper, this is probably easier to find in the U.S. in four-book series form. Brilliant 16th C alt-history with touches of SF and general weirdness: as the blurb on the back of the omnibus says, "Mary Gentle is an author who knows her history and isn't afraid to mess with it". Very much not romanticised, however; the battle and siege scenes are rather gruesome in places.

    Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself. Interesting overview of scientific and clinical developments around neuroplasticity; unfortunately contaminated with a bit of neo-Freudian trash at the end, but those parts are easy enough to ignore.

    Michael Corballis, The Lopsided Ape. Entertainingly written speculations on the possible connections between handedness, brain lateralisation and the evolution of language, from a cog psych researcher's POV. The followup From Hand to Mouth is worth a look, too.

    James Hansen, Storms of my Grandchildren. It's the best thing I've seen that manages to realistically assess the climate change emergency while at the same time avoiding falling into despair.

    Ben Goldacre, Bad Science. A fun read even for the already-converted, but also a good book to gift to overly-hippy friends and relatives. Does a solid job of making the case for the importance of scepticism and evidence-based medicine, but also manages to avoid falling into the sort of contemptuous arrogance that can drive away the non-scientist reader (while still maintaining a solid core of justified fury at murderous quackery).

    Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures (AKA Fashionable Nonsense). Viciously funny takedown of postmodernist criticisms of science, from the creator of the infamous Sokal Affair. Hoists the likes of Lacan, Latour and Irigaray by their own petards, and makes a convincing case for the importance of maintaining standards of scholarship and rationality throughout the academy.

  • samantha says:


    Loyal To The Sky: Notes from an Activist by Marisa Handler - great life story of a globe-trotting journalist/activist. Amazingly inspiring.

    Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan - this was a reread, but it was the first book that got me interested in skepticism, back in high school.

    Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace - this was the book that stayed in my bag for bus and streetcar rides - most of the essays were short enough that they could be read fairly quickly. Entertaining. πŸ™‚

    Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan - I've got pet ratties, and it's really a fascinating look at how rats live, and how years of rattie experience has served them well.

    Cosm by Gregory Benford and Rocheworld by Robert Forward - I read both of these for my Science through Science Fiction class. They're both hard-science sci-fi written by real, honest-to-goodness physicists. They weren't bad, especially for the science parts, but the character development left something to be desired. Still, not bad for light reading.

    Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood - dystopian future story, and a follow up to Oryx and Crake. Both are amazing books, if you like the dystopian-future thing; she's my favorite author ever, so really, anything by her is good.

    Just about every issue of The Nation magazine, Mother Earth News, Sociological Perspectives, a huge list of blogs, and textbooks galore.

    I'm sure there were more, but it all becomes a mishmash in my brain with all the studying I've been doing. o_O

  • bsci says:

    I wish I had time to read 30 books this year.

    For what it's worth, I loved "Ender's Game" when I first read it and I'd probably still enjoy reading it, but the following commentary had me look at the book in a completely different light:

    As for the Bible, I'll note that reading just the text is like reading the equivalent of Shakespeare except poorly translated and with all the in-references being several thousand years older. You can understand a good bit of it, but huge chunks are just dense without commentary. If you want to hit parts of it again, there are books like
    , where the commentary focuses on translation and historical research and , which provides context with traditional and modern commentaries on each section. You're probably not going to read it again, but it's sometimes interesting to read some of the more confusing sections in context.

    • scicurious says:

      I did like Ender's Game, and interestingly, that post you linked shows EXACTLY what I thought about it. I do wish, though, that more people looked into the motivations of Peter and Valentine as they move through the book, I feel their stories are in their way even more interesting, esp for someone who has made their way as a pseud blogger. πŸ™‚

  • Scott says:

    I read 73 books this year... I'm definitely going to have to cut back next year, with a much heavier school schedule, lab, and job. I'm resolving to read a few books on Russian history and get a basic grasp on economics, along with the obligatory biology and neurosci books.

    Oh, and if you haven't, read The Dinosaur Heresies. It. Is. Awesome.

  • NatC says:

    Samantha already mentioned Margaret Atwood's "The Year of the Flood", and "Oryx and Crake". I can't recommend these enough. (I also re-read The Handmaid's Tale, which is absolutely as disturbing - possibly more so - the second time around.)

    Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" was awful (in my defense, I was ill and bored and needed something mindless). Terrible. Do Not Read. Although if you're only other option is Twilight series, read this instead. It's marginally still less soul-destroying.

    I loved Rosecrans Baldwin's "You Lost Me There", about how deceptive one's memory can be.

    And for non-fiction: I heartily recommend "Delusions of Gender" by Cornelia Fine. Debunking gender myths without taking herself too seriously. *Love*!

    • scicurious says:

      Been DYING to read Delusions of Gender! I'll get to it as soon as I get a copy...

      • bsci says:

        I flak this book everywhere because I loved it, but if you want to read "Delusions of Gender" check out "Pink Brain, Blue Brain" by Lise Eliot. It covers very similar ground and was published a bit earlier. Eliot is a neuroscientist and the book is dense with information in a very good way. I haven't had a chance to read "Delusions of Gender"

  • Liz Ditz says:

    In fiction, I did a lot of re-reading this year.

    Speculative fiction
    Tamora Pierce, Protector of the Small Quartet takes Keladry of Mindelan from page to knight. It's set in Pierce's Tortall world. One of my pals in the military really admired the last book as a depiction of a young officer assuming command.

    Ursula LeGuin's EarthSea cycle -- the first three, the Wizard of EarthSea trilogy, and the following two novels Tehanu and The Other Wind & the short story collection Tales from Earthsea. The latter two novels in the cycle tell of Tenar and Ged in later life. What happens to a wizard when all power is spent? I can't think of another author who has revisited a world decades afterwards.

    Naomi Novik's Temeraire Cycle -- set in the late 18th-early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars --- only with speaking, sentient dragons as part of the military, both sea-faring & providing air support If you like the Patrick O’Brien novels...

    Terry Pratchett's Nation and I Shall Wear Midnight. The former is the rebuilding of a world after a calamity; the latter has Tiffany Aching maturing as a witch. It's not what you think.

    Straight Fiction
    Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn. I've taken up rereading it over 4th of July each summer. I don't know why. I read a bunch of other obscure novels written for young women in the 1900s for a research project. Can't recommend any of them. I know I read some other fiction, but nothing sticks in the mind.

    Neurocognitive or education-related--all recommended if you are interested
    Ron Aharoni, Arithmetic for Parents (on how to teach elementary arithmetic)
    Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the brain.Latest neuroscience on how the brain learns to read, how reading changes the brain, and the evolution of alphabets.
    James Coplan, Making Sense of Autistic Spectrum Disorders
    Katherine Ellison, Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention Mix of first-person narrative about a mother with ADHD and her son with ADHD & the therapies they try. Also due for a review.
    Howard Margolis and Gary BranniganReading Disabilities: Beating the Odds If you have a child or know a child who struggles with reading, I'd recommend this as the first book to read. Unless you are really academically-minded, in which case I'd start with Dehaene and then read Margolis & Brannigan.

    (Coplan can also be considered anti-woo, as he discusses useless "treatments" for autism)
    (I wish I could list Ellison here, but she just wasn't skeptical enough)
    Paul Offit, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Endangers Us All Came mid-December. I'm going to try to review it this week.
    Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial -- should be on every skeptic's bookshelf.

    Stephen Ambrose Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 I was ambivalent about this-- a lot of fluff, but an OK introduction to building the railroad.

    I read a lot of actual newspapers published in Ogden, Utah between 1871 and 1910....

    And of course blogs and articles and articles and articles...

    I must get better about just NOTING what I'm reading on either of my two blogs. I think, oh, I'll write a serious review but then I don't .

    That's not the complete list but that's what's at the top of my mind.

  • Chris Evo says:

    Two other books I forgot to mention, and they were probably my favorite pieces of the year:

    Machine of Death, a science fiction anthology collected by Ryan North. Download and podcast available on their official website for free, and physical copy available on amazon and in most book stores.
    Concept: A machine that tells people how they're going to die as ironically as possible. Someone might get old age, and then two days later someone with glaucoma plows into them on a sidewalk.

    This is going to sound strange, but the Harry Potter fanfiction Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky of the skeptics community
    It's the story of a Harry Potter who was adopted by a kind, loving science professor and taught calculus and astronomy before going to hogwarts, and is probably better written and better thought out then the actual books with every bit the sense of wonder of any fantasy book or Carl Sagan dialogue.
    PDF available here:

    It's not finished yet, but he's reached a relative break point while he plans the end of the first year.

    Seconding the Earthsea recommendation. Le Guin is one of the greats of 20th century fantasy.

    I haven't read it this year, but the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson is three thousand pages of beauty.

    • HP says:

      Second the vote for Machine of Death. And the story of how it came about is almost as interesting as the book itself. (It started as a punchline in Dinosaur Comics, and would up one of the most consistently well-written new SF anthologies I've read in years.)

      For most pleasure reading, well, a few years back I started to dig into classic 19th c. and Edwardian gothic, horror, and ghost stories (Poe, Bierce, James, Blackwood, etc.), and it turns out that, because of the English tradition of "Ghost Stories for Christmas," there are tons and tons of this stuff, because for decades, every penny dreadful and literary magazine needed to supply new ghost stories for their December issue.

      English ghost stories are like the old joke about pizza and BJs: When they're good, they're great. And when they're bad, they're still pretty good. And it's all PD, and more of more of it scanned and put online every year. It's become a bit of an addiction, and I fear I may never finish.

  • ryandake says:

    oh! oh! definitely for sure 100%, do read The Year of the Flood and Oryx & Crake (not in that order).

    yasure they're dystopian, but they're also funny as hell.

    and Paolo Bacigalupi's book The Windup Girl, which won every award it's possible to win in the SF universe. like, the annual SF awards from betelgeuse, too. and it deserved them all.

    happy reading in 2011!

  • darchole says:

    Only 30? Shit I usually read that many a month. (However I read fast and can get through an average size paperback in about an hour).

    I agree with you about most of Mercedes Lackey's more recent books, however the Collegium Chronicles series (2 so far) and the latest dragon series (Alta/Joust/Aerie/Sanctuary) wasn't so bad.

    Song of Scarabeaus by Sara Creasy was also good (it's sci-fi) as it didn't make my skin crawl as a biologist.

  • Who's Yer Daddy? says:

    Rebecca Skloot's book is Amazon's book of the year!

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