A Year in Books – Readings From the Last Year

A Year in Books

Late last fall a good friend asked if I’d like to swap book recommendations. It’s been a mixed success since our tastes have only modest overlap (no business books for me), but it did get me tracking what I read and being slightly more intentional about it. Intentional or not, my reading falls into three distinct categories. Old favorites that I have read many times. Stuff I get somewhat randomly (like Great Courses and nearly all the modern sci-fi) on Libby or as gifts in either audio or text form and read because it’s what I found or have. And books that I was intentional about wanting to read. That middle category resulted (I find on review) in a lot of mediocre sci-fi and history – something I should try to correct going forward. Here’s my list and notes (loosely in order of reading or at least starting) along with a flag if I’d recommend going out of your way to read if you haven’t. Few of these books are from 2023 because I’m a book lover not a book reviewer.

1Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)I’ve no real fondness for Stoic thought but this one of the great personal works of philosophy ever written.**
2Forever Amber (Kathleen Winsor)Not a book I would normally select, but mostly enjoyable though by the end Amber is very hard to root for and it’s 1/3 too long (which just makes that worse).
3Cloud Cuckoo Land (Anthony Doerr)Very much a book-lover’s book yet aspects of the story disappointed and felt a bit by the numbers. Especially enjoyed the fall of Constantinople though (don’t know why they changed the name).
4On Desperate Ground (Hampton Sides)A terrific history of a much neglected battle from a much neglected war in American history.*
5World War I (Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius)A solid Great Courses entry.
6Jenkin’s Ear  (Odell Shepherd)One of my all-time favorite children’s books I found a used copy and consumed it with relish. Presence of mind, and courage in distress, are better than armies to procure success. They don’t YA fiction like this anymore.**
7Defekt (Nino Cipri)This gets a little out of control.
8Gettysburg (Allen Guelzo)A little too much Gettysburg even for me.
9Paddington at Work (Bond)A gift, and a fine one. I read this when I was a little under the weather and it was great for that, but I could read Paddington anytime and be happy*
10A Prayer for the Crown Shy (Becky Chambers)These books have no plot and almost no real characterization. Yet they are consistently charming and manage to describe a very different and very interesting kind of society*
11Foundation Trilogy (Asimov)A classic for a reason. Sure, Asimov had all of Tom Clancy’s gift for character and his dialog can be painful, this is still one of the most compelling (and intellectually interesting) sci-fi plots ever put on paper. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but I always enjoy it.**
12Day of Infamy  (Walter Lord )One of the best military histories I read in a year where I read a bunch. Detailed but gripping.*
13Lessons from Lucy  (Dave Berry)Pretty much what you’d expect which I’m not complaining about.
14Emissaries of the Dead  (Adam Troy Castro)Solid work and an engrossing world.
15Pachinko (Min Jin Lee)Popular for a reason. A terrific example of the multi-generational novel with only one real flaw – there isn’t much Pachinko.*
16This Time Tomorrow (Straub)A novel very much in the tradition of transformational experience.
17Horizon (Barry Lopez)I wrote this one up…*
18What we Owe the Future (MacAskill)Ditto.
19Before the Coffee Gets Cold (Kawaguchi)Dittoooo*
20The Magicians Land (Grossman)A third or fourth reread. And what’s unusual about that is that this is the third in the series. The first is great, but I love the third installment mostly based on the lovely ending – the creation of a land. If you only watched the TV series, give the books a shot. Highly recommend but you must read the first two first.*
21Capital and Ideology  (Piketty)Awful. The equivalent of being served heavily salted park with nothing to drink. Reading it was like a trip to the Gulag. Dour, humorless, intellectually dishonest, grinding and soul-crushing. Written up but only as a matter of duty.
22Flights (Fantasy Anthology)A little relief from the above book – with some great authors working their short story magic.
23Tales from the Café (Kawaguchi)Dittooooooo
24Mind, Language and Society (Searle)Searle is brilliant, concise, and marvelously clear. Still relevant and still great. A compelling example of analytic philosophy at its best.**
25Station Eternity (Mur Lafferty)I had a hard time with the “murder just follows her around” premise but otherwise not a bad read.
26A Dangerous Business (Jane Smiley)I mostly liked the evocation of 19th century Monterey.
27To be Taught, If Fortunate (Becky Chambers)See above
28Great Utopian and Dystopian Literature (Pamela Bedore)Another Great Courses with more (for me, at least) new stuff than usual. Lots of interesting sections.
29The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (Ken Liu) One of the best books I read all year. Almost every story is remarkable, unusual and special.**
30Grace of Kings (Ken Liu)Sadly, the same can’t be said of the novel.
31Devolution (Max Brooks)I have no idea how I ended up reading this book and I have no idea why anyone would.
32The Lost Fleet (John Henry)Trashy military sci-fi that never quite transcends the genre.
33Song of Achilles (Miller)Trashy Greek retelling that never quite transcends the genre.
34Intelligent Virtue (Annas)Much to agree with. Some to disagree with too. Wrote this one up.*
35Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)Gaiman at his best is awfully damn good. I’d forgotten how compelling this story of London underground really is.**
36Mote in God’s Eye (Niven  & Pournelle)One of their best books and still eminently readable yet it didn’t quite pack the same suspense and punch as I remembered.
37To Love and Be Wise (Tey)Kicked off a manic re-reading of Josephine Tey, but this is my favorite. One of the gentlest murder mysteries you will ever read.*
38A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller)I hadn’t ever heard or read what is, apparently, a classic in the genre. And it has much to recommend it though occasionally a bit heavy handed.
39The Golden Ocean (Patrick O’Brien)After reading Jenkin’s Ear, I couldn’t resist getting a more historical take on Anson’s voyage.
40Franchise Affair (Tey)I’m not sure Tey wrote any books that aren’t worth reading, but this was at the bottom of my list on rereads.
41Brat Farrar (Tey)A great premise with all the usual Tey accessories.
42Sam Adams, Revolutionary (Stacy Schiff)Like going back to grade school and getting all the classic American revolutionary moments. Wrote this one up and enjoyed it very much.*
43The Night Ocean (Paul LaFarge)To me, this never quite came together into a forceful story.
44The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)One of those old friends that cannot disappoint but only grow in richness and depth.**
45The American Civil War (Gary Gallagher)This is the kind of thing Great Courses does very well.
46The Club Dumas (Perez-Reverte) I saw this book in Mexico and couldn’t resist (being a huge Dumas fan). It’s fun, but doesn’t quite tie together with the bang you’d hoped for.
47Nothing to be Frightened of (Julian Barnes)Wrote this one up*
48Emma (Jane Austen) There are those who say Jane Austen is too middle-class. That’s fair. But since we are all middle class, she is our genius.**
49Winter Tale (Mark Halperin)I felt the strain of too much magic.
50Dog of the South (Portis)Watching True Grit got me into a Portis binge which I did not regret. Funky, plotless and yet compelling and, as with all Portis, very funny,*
51Wall of Storms (Ken Liu)I gave the sequel a chance and mostly regretted it.
52Elizabeth Finch (Julian Barnes)Barnes’ work speaks to me in ways that I doubt it does for most people. I like this book a lot yet I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone else.*
53The Night Manager (Le Carre)Late Le Carre that at least isn’t buried under political pretentions. Yet still isn’t all that good.
54Norwood (Portis)I wouldn’t start here, but if you’ve read True Grit and Dog of the South and must have more, Norwood will give you a fix.
55Murder of Quality (Le Carre)Now this is Le Carre writing well. Short, taut, and compelling in every character.*
56Lacquer Screen (Robert van Gulik)If you’ve never read the Judge Dee mysteries (and like mysteries), these are great. Gulik had his twisted side and I’m not sure I’d want to meet him, but as historical mysteries, these are first rate.*
57Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey)God did I hate the ending. A pox on any author who could treat his characters this way.
58How to make a Spaceship (Julian Guthrie)The story of the X-Prize – thoughts here.
59Severance (Ling Ma)Some of the story strands don’t fit together or feel true, some do, creating a mixed experience.
60Chinese Bell Murders (Van Gulik)See above on Lacquer Screen
61Dead Astronauts (Vandermeer)I loved Annihilation and Authority but none of the Borne Series have resonated so well and, of those, this is my least favorite.
62In the Distance (Hernan Diaz)A bit of a disappointment. The opening promises more than the story delivers. “This” is a legend?
63Brooklyn (Colm Toibin)Very enjoyable in so many ways. I questioned some of Eilis returning home experiences but everything until then shimmers.*
64Warlight (Michael Ondantje)Unexpected and unusual in story and character with some beautiful scenes and moving relationships.*
65A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)Somehow missed this book growing up – it is YA fiction at its (not quite Jenkin’s Ear) finest.*
66Have You Eaten Yet (Cheuk Kwan)A culinary tour of Chinese restaurants around the globe that, while perfectly alright, somehow missed the mark.
67Collected Stories (Saul Bellow)Bellow is a better novelist than short story writer but he’s still a better writer than almost anyone else.*
68A Closed and Common Orbit (Becky Chambers)See above
69Thomas Jefferson (Jon Meacham)Our current disenchantment with all things American founders obscures how brilliant, interesting and exceptional many of them were – none more than Jefferson.*
70Undaunted Courage (Stephen Ambrose)There is a special charm in reading the actual notes from the expedition but Ambrose does his usual excellent job of distillation.*
71The Dutch House (Ann Patchett)A strangely compelling account of a singular but not bizarre family history. The brother/sister relationship is exceptionally well done.*
72The Bounty (Caroline Alexander)The true story ought to be more interesting than it is.
73The Story of a Life (Paustovsky)Beautifully wrought. One of those books that feels like the prose is constantly teetering on the edge of luminous poetry. Written up here.**
74Attack Surface (Cory Doctorow)Battled Capital & Ideology for the worst book I read all year. Intellectually and novelistically embarrassing.
75Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (Timothy Snyder)So grim it was a struggle to get through but the tale of the two most murderous regimes in history and their savage collision is necessary reading.*
76Legacies of Great Economists (Timothy Taylor)One of my favorites from the Great Courses with excellent capsules from Smith to Schumpeter.
77Samurai William (Giles Milton)The true story behind Shogun. But reading Shogun is probably a better move.
78Mockingbird   (Walter Tevis)I found parts of this novel quite engaging, parts not so much. The robot story falls just short and the romance falls very short.
79Guardians of the Valley (John Muir and the Friendship that saved Yosemite)Muir is a fascinating man and as a lover of Yosemite I very much appreciated the narrative. It might have been better to focus only on Muir but I’m really just quibbling.*
80City of God (E.L. Doctorow)All the rewards of serious fiction except a story that ultimately comes together. But there are countless enjoyments and fireworks along the way.*
81Titanium Noir  (Nick Harkaway)Solid work in both noir and sci-fi but it never quite gets better than solid.
82Father Brown (GK  Chesterton)These are not great mysteries, but in every story Chesterton will give you several nuggets of human wisdom that far outweigh the usual pleasures of the genre.*
83Wisdom of Father Brown (Chesterton)See above
84The Einstein Intersection (Samuel Delany)Unusual and hard to classify with some striking elements.
85Tom Stoppard A Life (Hermione Lee)As a huge Stoppard fan, I enjoyed Lee’s treatment very much. It’s probably a little tooo long, but I can’t say my interest ever flagged.
86Arcadia (Tom Stoppard)Which got me re-reading my favorite Stoppard play. Few plays reward plain reading, but I’ve seen Arcadia often enough to hear the actors in my head.*
87Crashes and Crises (Connel Fullenkamp)Fullenkamp argues that there is a (depressing) sameness to financial crashes and he certainly makes his point.
88The Man in the Red Coat (Julian Barnes)Is Pozzi the man to tell through which to tell the story of the Belle Epoque? I’m not so sure.
89Huck Finn (Twain)Always worth a re-visit, though the story flags once they are off the river.
90Madly, Deeply (Alan Rickman)Diaries never meant to be read that are somehow both mundane and fascinating. I constantly wished they were different but never stopped enjoying them.
91Daughter of the Samurai (Sugimoto)A lovely account of Japan’s journey into modernity and the beginnings of a hybridization of Japanese and Western culture that continues to bear fruit to this day.**
92Exhalation (Chiang)Another incredible collection of Chiang stories. I hope he never writes another novel.**
93Flaubert’s Parrot (Julian Barnes)Not quite enough novel for my taste, but what’s there is well worth reading. I’d read anything Barnes writes because he always has something interesting to say
94The Ionian Mission (Patrick O’Brian)Gifted another (the 8th) of the Aubrey-Maturin chronicles I was happy enough to read it. All are good but only a couple excel and this isn’t one of them.
95All Creatures Great and Small (Herriot)A classic. My sister’s favorite book growing up and one that contributed to her (and I’m sure many other) veterinary journeys. It is a book of warmth, humor and joy that repays many rereads.**
96Dragonsong (McCaffery)I’m not sure how or why I read this book which is probably perfect for a 12 year old girl.
97Renaissance (McNabb)Too much a history of the entire period, I was expecting a more intellectual history and frankly something a little less by the numbers.
98Nettle & Bone (Kingfisher)Basic but consistently enjoyable. A more enjoyable and consistent protagonist (who doesn’t develop unexpected powers) than is common in this type of book.
99I, Robot (Asimov)One of the most influential sci-fi story collections ever written with all Asimov’s strengths on display.*
100Knowledge and Lotteries (John Hawthorne)Full-on academic philosophy that took real work. It’s written for a professional and I had to constantly re-read despite having some background, but I learned a fair amount.
101Shards of Earth (Adrian Tchaivkovsky)Okay, I have to cut back on the sci-fi. Not because of Shards of Earth which is pretty good, but just because I’m getting tired of it.
102Just and Unjust Wars (Walzer)I didn’t expect to agree (and often to clarify my own thinking) with so much in Walzer’s book. It’s a timely read given Ukraine and Gaza which remind us that thinking about the morality of war is still very much a thing.**

Thanks to everyone who gave me books and to anyone who has suggestions for more!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *