2009: My Year in Reading

Another year has come and gone, and as I have since 2006, I kept track of my reading. Last year I managed to read (or listen to) a total of 60 books, which is a personal record. I think what helped me along was the large amount of traveling I did this year. I went on more than one business trip, flew to Pennsylvania for a friend’s wedding, and drove from Redmond, Washington to Sugar Land, Texas with my brother over the Thanksgiving break. That’s a lot of time spent on planes, in airports, and on the road.

Also, I may have read more books this year, but the total number of pages for 2009, 21,718, Is actually lower than my 2008 total of 23,411. I think my ’08 page count is much higher because I read a few giant books that year – The Count of Monte Cristo, which came in at 1488 pages, Cryptonomicon at 1168, Clash of Kings at 1040, and so on. A lot of the books I picked up in 2009 tended to be quick reads, and were comparatively short as well.

A lot of my reading for the year was pulled from the Hugo nominees for best novel, which was an excellent place to find some good books to read. As you’ll note, a number of the books I thoroughly enjoyed last year were nominees. After the jump, I’ll include the list of my favorite books read in 2009, in the order that I read them.

The Ghost in Love by Jonathan Carroll: This book has it all – talking dogs, men who should have died but didn’t, ghosts that love to cook, time travel, conversations with your past self, and more.Carroll is at his loopy best here, and manages to put together a magical adventure that is surreal, funny, and moving. I even got a little misty-eyed near the end.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein: This is a fascinating story of revolution and politics from one of the grand masters of science fiction. In the future, the moon has been converted into a prison colony, and the descendants of those prisoners have been providing what almost amounts to slave labor for the population of Earth. Over the course of the novel, a revolutionary movement to free the moon builds and builds, largely thanks to one man and his best friend – the nearly omnipotent computer that runs the moon’s facilities, Mike.
Halting State by Charles Stross: As Amazon says, [this] “effortless transformation of today’s technological frustrations into tomorrow’s nightmare realities is all too real for comfort.” This tells the a story of a bank heist performed within an MMO that has real-world consequences. Included within: thrills, suspense, espionage, terrorism, mind-bendingly esoteric technobabble, and a compelling narrative told entirely in rotating second-person perspective. This was one of the Hugo nominees.
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow: Absolutely unputdownable. I basically started and finished this in one day. Highly recommended, thrilling, and definitely frightening. This book portrays a very believable near future in which a second large-scale terrorist attack on US soil puts Homeland Security into overdrive and one 17-year old San Franciscan in the “wrong place at the wrong time” is determined to stop them. This was also a Hugo nominee.
Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston: Hank Thompson is the wrong man in the wrong place when his neighbor goes out of town and asks him to cat-sit. In no time flat, this alcoholic former baseball player is getting beat up by Russians and chased around town by a corrupt cop. The book is full of shocking violence, intense action, and a narrator whose personality leaps right off the page. This was an absolutely all-around gripping read, and started me on a tear through much of Huston’s published work. I ended up reading five books by him this year alone.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon: This is a mystery set in an alternate world where the Jews were given Alaska to live in instead of Israel, and now the fifty year deal is coming to a close and they’re being evicted. The main character is a washed-up detective trying to solve the murder of a junkie who may just have been the messiah returned to earth. Chabon does a good job here of sticking to noir convictions while exploding them with touches of Jewish culture and alternate history. It is also his most focused book by far. This one won the Hugo for best novel in 2008.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco: “The Name of the Rose, which sold 50 million copies worldwide, is an experimental medieval whodunit set in a monastic library. In 1327, Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate heresy among the monks in an Italian abbey; a series of bizarre murders overshadows the mission.” This book managed to be both a thrilling mystery and a fascinating discussion of philosophy and religion. The first 100 pages of the book are fairly dense with theology and philosophy, but once that foundation is laid, the pace of the book picks up and grabs you until the end.
Paper Towns by John Green: “Weeks before graduating from their Orlando-area high school, Quentin Jacobsen’s childhood best friend, Margo, reappears in his life, specifically at his window, commanding him to take her on an all-night, score-settling spree. Quentin has loved Margo from not so afar (she lives next door), years after she ditched him for a cooler crowd. Just as suddenly, she disappears again, and the plot’s considerable tension derives from Quentin’s mission to find out if she’s run away or committed suicide.” I read three books by Green this year, and this, his third, is easily his best, although in a lot of ways it distills down themes he covered in his previous books. This one was surprisingly poetic and melancholy, both better and different from what I was expecting. If you’ve seen the movie Adventureland, I think you’ll enjoy this book as well.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson: “Stephenson conjures a far-future Earth-like planet, Arbre, where scientists, philosophers and mathematicians—a religious order unto themselves—have been cloistered behind concent walls. … Among the monastic scholars is 19-year-old Raz, collected into the concent at age eight … [the adventure begins when] Millennia-old rules are cataclysmically shattered when extraterrestrial catastrophe looms, and Raz and his teenage companions are summoned to save the world.” Once I stopped needing to rely on the glossary to understand what the characters in this book were discussing, I got into the spirit of things and began thoroughly enjoying this book. It is largely composed of complex philosophical discussions on the nature of reality, which took a bit of processing and which I would have a hard time summarizing to anyone who hadn’t read the book. It wasn’t my most favorite Stephenson book – Cryptonomicon still holds that title – but it was an altogether enjoyable and engrossing read. This was also a Hugo nominee.
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins: “Every year in Panem, the dystopic nation that exists where the U.S. used to be, the Capitol holds a televised tournament in which two teen ‘tributes’ from each of the surrounding districts fight a gruesome battle to the death.” This is the second book in a planned trilogy about the dystopian world of Panem. The first book, The Hunger Games, was enjoyable enough that I wanted to keep reading, but the second book knocks it out of the park, and raises the tension and action several notches. I am absolutely breathless with anticipation for part three, which comes out in 2010.
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks: “In the midst of a war between two galactic empires, a shapechanging agent of the Iridans undertakes a clandestine mission to a forbidden planet in search of an intelligent, fugitive machine whose actions could alter the course of the conflict.” I’m a big fan of a videogame called Mass Effect, and this book sounded like it might be somewhat similar, so I picked it up and was not disappointed. It turns out I am a huge fan of “space opera” stories, which is how you might classify the Culture novels by Banks. Consider Phlebas reads like it is crying out for a big budget movie adaption even though it is probably unfilmable. The budgets would be astronomic, and some plot details – such as a shape-changing main character – would make things difficult. Even still, the action setpieces throughout the book are phenomenal, and the tension as the book draws to a close is palpable. I feel certain that I will read a number of Banks books in the coming years.