While I spend inordinate amounts of time staring at computer screens and TV screens, I read quite a bit too. This is typically split between listening to audio books while driving, ebooks on my iPad Mini and physical books, though this year I’ve eschewed the Kindle and Apple iBooks route in preference to printed, physical copies. Most come from my public library, which has a great hold and pickup system, but I buy lots of books throughout the year too. More importantly, I track everything I read through the Goodreads site.
If you’re also a reader and you aren’t following me there, well, time to fix that: Dave Taylor on Goodreads.
Since I’ve written dozens of books myself – techie stuff – I can also check in when someone reviews one of my books too!
This year I thought I’d try something different and cull all my five-star reviewed books, consolidating my reviews so you can quickly see what I really enjoyed as this pandemic year dragged on. In situations where my review is brief, I add a bit more info from the publisher about that particular title too. They’re definitely not all published in 2020 and some are fairly obscure. I have eclectic tastes in books, though generally speaking I enjoy hard sci-fi, mysteries and history. Without further ado, let’s do this, in no particular order!
“V2: A Novel of World War II” by Robert Harris
Harris is a splendid storyteller and is comfortable with the setting and dynamics of WWII, and it shines through this novel. V2 is a fictionalized joint telling of the Germans in occupied Belgium who were launching the hated V2 rockets into London on a daily basis and the British WAAF team of women who were just a few hundred kilometers away in British controlled portion of Belgium. Their inspiration was that if they could use radar to identify the initial portion of the V2’s launch trajectory and pinpoint the landing spot of the rocket in England, they could calculate the launch point. Twenty minutes later the RAF could then bomb the launch sites and end the V2 launches entirely.
But this book’s just as much about the people behind these efforts, both on the German side – the engineers who emigrated to the United States after the war and became a key part of the early NASA program – and on the English side, the groups of women who found they had a talent for mathematics and became critical to the war effort.
A terrific book, I wish it would have been longer. Definitely recommended.
“Mycroft Holmes” by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Publisher description: “Fresh out of Cambridge University, the young Mycroft Holmes is already making a name for himself in government, working for the Secretary of State for War. Yet this most British of civil servants has strong ties to the faraway island of Trinidad, the birthplace of his best friend, Cyrus Douglas, a man of African descent, and where his fiancée Georgiana Sutton was raised.”
Really enjoyed this one, though I was a bit surprised at the Mycroft story arc: In the original Doyle books he’s rather just a minor character. Still, props to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for an excellent read and a fun addition to the Sherlock Holmes universe. I’ll look for another in the series to add to my list!
And yes, it’s the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was a pro basketball player.
“To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” by Christopher Paolini
An epic space opera that harkens back to classic sci-fi, Paolini demonstrates he is just as skilled and imaginative writing about science fiction, space and alien life forms as he is writing a classic fantasy about dragons, elves and proto-humans. “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” revolves around a woman who stumbles across a xenomorph, an alien life form that literally encases her and gradually empowers her to be more than just a human, even as the galaxy explodes into war. This is a long book, so it’ll take some dedication to make it through the almost 800 pages, but it’s time well spent. Very enjoyable.
(though you can probably skip the addenda, as with so many modern works of fiction. You’ll know when this book ends. And well ended it is too)
“The Warehouse” by Rob Hart
From the publisher: “Cloud isn’t just a place to work. It’s a place to live. And when you’re here, you’ll never want to leave. Paxton never thought he’d be working for Cloud, the giant tech company that’s eaten much of the American economy. Much less that he’d be moving into one of the company’s sprawling live-work facilities.”
Really enjoyable sci-fi near future thriller about two new employees to The Cloud, a company clearly modeled after Amazon.com, each of which has their own agenda for joining the firm and moving into the company housing city. Hart shines at plausible descriptions, from bars to restaurants, the tedium of work, and how a citizenry can be managed through perception and beliefs. The ending felt a bit weak, but still, one of my favorite books so far in 2020. And it makes me glad I don’t work in the warehouse at Amazon too!
“The Dinosaur Heresies” by Robert T. Bakker
Wow! Total gamechanger that will completely challenge everything you know about – or think you know about – dinosaurs and history. From cold bloodedness to favorite ecosystems to the entire family tree and evolutionary position of dinosaurs, Bakker rejects everything and rethinks the entire conception of the earliest inhabitants of Earth. So, yes, dinosaurs were actually warm blooded, they likely had gizzards to help efficiently digest food far beyond the capacity of their mouths, they moved faster – and were likely smarter – than we’ve ever given the credit for and they died out over millions of years, not a dramatic weekend when a meteor hit and destroyed the world ecosystem.
I admit I didn’t get all of the nuances, this not being my field of study, but this is a book that could affect the path of a younger reader, inspiring them to take up the study of paleontology. It’s that good. Unfortunately, it’s also rather full of author Robert Bakker’s neverending self-aggrandizing ego strokes about he challenge the orthodoxy in grad school again and again, but that’s worth breezing over to get to the meat of his argument. It’s pretty darn solid.
Note: This was a tough book to track down!
“The War of the Worlds” by H. G. Wells
A great re-read after all these years, Wells really did write a superb and alarming novel that proves to be tightly written and interspersed with some smart philosophical commentary. It’s also fun to go back to the book after all the radio dramas, movies, TV series, etc. to get the original story with the mysterious black smoke, red weed, and much more.
My only additional comment is that there are points in the story where he talks about specific cities and how they’re connected that was a bit confusing: My knowledge of the English countryside isn’t what it should be. I probably should have just pulled out a map!
Highly recommend every sci-fi fan reading “The War of the Worlds”. It’s one of the first — and best! — science fiction books ever written.
“The Devil and the Dark Water” by Stuart Turton
Is the devil in the form of “Old Tom” haunting the 15th century Indiaman sailing vessel as they travel towards Amsterdam? It’s up to crack detective Sammy and his mountain of a sidekick Arent to figure things out before everyone’s dead. Except Sammy’s locked up in the hold on the orders of the Governor General, who’s also on board and endlessly glaring and criticizing everyone, particularly his downtrodden but sparkling wife Sara.
There’s lots to like about this fun and entertaining read, and this is absolutely a book that can and should turn into a series on Netflix, AMC, or similar, perhaps as the next installment of the terrific “The Terror” franchise. In any case, highly recommended if you enjoy thrillers and not too horrific though there are some aspects of a classic horror book within too. And the ending! You’ll flip.
“Axiom’s End (Noumena #1)” by Lindsay Ellis
Really fun and interesting approach to the classic sci-fi story of first contact. It’s set just a bit in the future and revolves around a young woman, Cora, who finds that she is able to communicate with one of a group of extraterrestrials. Meanwhile, her father is a famous anti-establishment figure and pop culture hero, known for sharing government materials that otherwise would be kept secret. Did he stumble onto the alien arrival? Is she going to connect with her father to finesse the story after she gains the confidence of the alien creatures? Am I offering up storylines that might not be part of the book so you can still have a sense of discovery as you read? Maayyyybbeee. 🙂
In any case, Axiom’s End is a really enjoyable read that’s sure to please hard sci-fi fans as well as those who enjoy stories about younger folk taking on The Man and the system so that they can follow their own moral compass. Recommended.
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
Surprisingly, this story has almost nothing at all to do with the movie “Blade Runner”. The novella by Philip K. Dick turns out to be a fascinating story of a married Android hunter named Rick Decker in a post-nuclear San Francisco. He’s married but finds Nexus 6 prototype Rachel most intriguing after trying out the Voigt-Kampff test on her. Until he doesn’t, as he realizes that having to terminate a rogue group of Nexus 6 might prove to be problematic. There are layers of religious zealotry, a deep exploration of humans versus androids, some smart ideas about the inevitably importance of post-fallout animals and, yes, electric sheep.
Really excellent, strongly recommended, whether you’re a “Blade Runner” fan like me or not. Just find a copy and read it.
“The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
From the publisher: “In 3016, the 2nd Empire of Man spans hundreds of star systems, thanks to faster-than-light Alderson Drive. Intelligent beings are finally found from the Mote, an isolated star in a thick dust cloud. The bottled-up ancient civilization, at least one million years old, are welcoming, kind, yet evasive, with a dark problem they have not solved in over a million years.”
Still great sci-fi from its era, but I couldn’t help wonder if it couldn’t have been better split into two books. But then again, the “Moties” saga continues thru two more books (that I haven’t read). A very interesting exploration of truth, trust and the complexity of meeting an alien race that might just have something really important to hide…
“The Chrysalids” by John Wyndham
Great post-apocalypse book by Wyndham. Posits a world hundreds of years after what is presumably a nuclear war or disaster and the schisms that have grown as some communities obsess over weeding out the genetic anomalies in their population while others welcome beneficial changes and variants.
The protagonists are a group of children who can communicate purely through thought (shades of Village of the Damned, but less creepy) and are eventually discovered by their puritanical town leaders. Very on point, engaging, exciting and relevant if you read it as the journey of refugees seeking not just safety but a community that will embrace them for who they are, not who they could become.
“Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Red Dwarf #1)” by Grant Naylor
From the publisher: “The first lesson Lister learned about space travel was you should never try it. But Lister didn’t have a choice. All he remembered was going on a birthday celebration pub crawl through London. When he came to his senses again, with nothing in his pockets but a passport in the name of Emily Berkenstein.”
Bloody marvelous. Who knew that an audio book — yes, I listened to this and Naylor’s terrific and spot-on voices for the various TV series characters — could be so extraordinarily amusing. It is. In fact, I’m sure that the people who saw me driving while listening to this must have thought I was completely bonkers as I continually laughed out loud and even sniggered at the antics of Lister, Rimmer, Crichton, Holly and Cat. Highly recommended and happy to get suggestions for other books with a similar oh-so-British sense of wry humor!
“Have Space Suit- Will Travel” by Robert A. Heinlein
From the publisher: “Kip from midwest Centerville USA works the summer before college as a pharmacy soda jerk, and wins an authentic stripped-down spacesuit in a soap contest. He answers a distress radio call from Peewee, scrawny rag doll-clutching genius aged 11. With the comforting cop Mother Thing, three-eyed tripod Wormfaces kidnap them to the Moon and Pluto.”
A little bit dated, but a really fun 50’s era sci-fi novel from Heinlein when he was still a great and imaginative writer. If you like retro stories, there’s lots of fun in this big, sweeping and somewhat goofy novel. I really enjoyed it!
“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
From the publisher: “Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time, Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.”
Really interesting story about a man who travels fluidly through time, bouncing between his childhood, his experiences in the US infantry and later as a prisoner of war in WWII, the bombing at Dresden, and his post-war life. It’s a rather wild ride and occasionally confusing, but somewhat the literary equivalent of Momento. Definitely a fascinating read and a book worthy of its high reputation. And so it goes…
“PLUTO: Band 001” by Naoki Urasawa
From the publisher: “In a distant future where sentient humanoid robots pass for human, someone or some thing is out to destroy the seven great robots of the world. Europol’s top detective Gesicht is assigned to investigate these mysterious robot serial murders; the only catch is that he himself is one of the seven targets.”
Set an a world where robots are an integral part of society this [Japanese manga graphic novel] series pits a robot detective against an unknown antagonist who seems to have quite a grudge against the most sophisticated of the human like robots. Very sophisticated storytelling and a very engaging tale.
“I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov
From the publisher: “I, Robot launches readers on an adventure into a not-so-distant future where man and machine, struggle to redefine life, love, and consciousness—and where the stakes are nothing less than survival. Filled with unforgettable characters, mind-bending speculation, and nonstop action, I, Robot is a powerful reading experience from one of the master storytellers of our time.”
A fun read and remarkably prescient about some of our contemporary dilemmas with AI and self driving cars, Internet of Things, smart homes, etc. Also told with a fun narrative style that’s intriguingly self referential. Definitely a great piece of classic science fiction.
An interesting pastiche of genres, eras, and topics in the final assessment. I hope you found this interesting reading and don’t forget that I have reviewed dozens of other books I read this year too – and yes, bailed on three along the way as being just plain awful – so do check my lists on Goodreads.
Now, what did YOU read this year that you’d give an enthusiastic 5/5 rating?