Continuing a tradition I began last year, I’ve kept a list of all of the books I read in 2010. Below is my list, including a brief review/synopsis of each. I actually ended up reading a few less books this year than last, which is disappointing, but due in large part to the fact that I ended up traveling less.
The list by the numbers: I read 25 books. 7 were non-fiction. Mysteries/legal thrillers continue to be my go-to genre, with 10 of the 19 fiction novels. My go-to author was once again Bernard Cornwell, a trend I expect to continue in the coming year. I read 5 of his books, and two each from Stephen White, Randy Wayne White, and John Lescroat. For the first time, I read a book written by a fictional character, Richard Castle. Michael Connelly is either my second-most-read author with 3 books, or he’s the other from whom I read 2. (See “Heat Wave” below for an explanation.)
The best book of the year, by the way, was “Science of Fear: Why We Fear Things We Shouldn’t – and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger” by Daniel Gardner; I’m eternally in debt to my good friend Brian Thomas for not just recommending it, but in fact for loaning me his copy. It is truly a life-changing book, one that I would not just recommend that everyone read but in fact one that I wish everyone would be required to read.
This list only includes those books which I completed. Another reason for the low total this year is the fact that I actually began quite a few books I was unable to get through. In that vein, the big disappointment of the year was Star Wars. Since the publication of “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye” in 1978, I have purchased and read every Star Wars book – over 120 to date. Over the years, they have, like the movies, seen their share of ups and downs, but lately the downs have far outnumbered the ups (again, like the movies). The vast majority of those books have been part of a long, semi-continuous story detailing the lives of Luke, Han, Leia, et al in the years, and eventually decades following The Return of the Jedi. I don’t know if it is simply a well of stories that has simply dried up, or if the current batch of authors is simply sub-par, but try as I might I simply could not make it through the latest novel in the series. I most likely could have read one or even two other novels in the time I wasted slogging through that one, but in the end I finally had to admit two things: first, I was giving up on the book; and second, I was giving up on the series. I do plan to continue to pick up and read the one-off novels they do now and again – I received one for Christmas, in fact – but I’m done with the main series. The other book, by the way, that I wasted a lot of time trying rather desperately to like but had, in the end, to abandon, was Kin Stanley Robinson’s “The Years of Rice and Salt”. Great premise, but unfortunately poor execution.
OK, with further ado, my 2010 reading list:
Thank You For Arguing, Jay Heinrichs: I don’t recall exactly where I read about this, but it was great. It’s basically a book about logic, but it’s fantastically well written. I guarantee it will change not only the way you argue and persuade others, but also the way you look at the world. It certainly did for me.
Cold Zero: Inside the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, Chris Whitcomb: One of the things that has changed for me since becoming an author is that I now read the acknowledgments in other books. Stephen White, in his acknowledgments for his novel “The Seige”, recommended this book, and since it’s title seemed intriguing I figured “what the heck”, and I’m glad I did. Whitcomb details his acceptance into the FBI, his days chasing bank robbers, and eventually his move into the elite FBI HRT squad. As a part of HRT, Whitcomb took part in Ruby Ridge and Waco, and herein you get a first-hand account of what really happened, at least from the perspective of a law enforcement official who was there. Thankfully, Whitcomb is also an excellent writer, so the book is an enjoyable, fast read.
Star Wars: 501st, Karen Traviss: For several years, Traviss has been writing a series of novels about a group of Clone Troopers during the Clone Wars. Here, she continues the series as her team transitions to becoming Imperial Stormtroopers. While at times her stories can get bogged down – she likes Boba Fett’s family far too much – the books tend to be good reads. Certainly far better than anything you’d find in the main SW series of novels.
Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors, James Reston, Jr.: Reston is, without a doubt, my favorite author of histories. This book concludes his trilogy of books about the foundations on the relationship between Christian Europe and the Islamic East. He began with “Warriors of God”, about the Third Crusade and the battle between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin; continued with “Defenders of the Faith”, about the conflict between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Suleyman the Great. In this third book, Islamic powers play no real role. Instead, he looks at the push by Ferdinand and Isabella to retake Spain from the Muslims, and what it cost them, and the world. Herein we see how Ferdinand really began the Inquisition, and why the two monarchs were willing to gamble on a man from Genoa who claimed he could reach China and India by sailing west. If all you know about Columbus is based on the myths you learned in grade school, and all you know about the Inquisition comes from Monty Python, do yourself a favor and read this book.
The Burning Land, Bernard Cornwell: The first of Cornwell’s books this year, “The Burning Land” is the fifth book in Cornwell’s fantastic series about Alfred the Great and the ninth-century conflicts between the Saxons and Norsemen. Like all Cornwell protagonists, the hero of these stories is not someone you’d like to meet in a dark alley, and yet you cannot help but root for him. Obviously, you shouldn’t start with this book, but rather go back and read the first book in the series, “The Last Kingdom”.
Hard Evidence, John Lescroart: I heard an interview with Lescroart (whose last name, by the way, is pronounced “le-craw”) on NPR and he intrigued me enough to go check out his book. While I would end up reading a second novel by him this year, he’s honestly not all that great. I do enjoy that he sets his books in San Francisco, and as a mostly-local (he lives relatively near me in Davis, CA), he’s stories are not quite a gripping as they could be.
Stonehenge, Bernard Cornwell: This one-off novel from Cornwell provides a fictional theory of how and why Stonehenge came to be. The characters are well-constructed, and the story is believable enough.
Tampa Burn, Randy Wayne White: This has to be the book that would earn the record for the one that took me the longest to read. For at least a few years, it sat in the back seat of my car. Before the advent of smart phones, I used to keep a novel in my car to have something to read if I ended up needing to wait in a particularly long line at the drive-through or picking up my wife or picking someone up at the airport. (Now, I just play Angry Birds instead.) “Tampa Burn” was just good enough that it would serve its purpose as my car book, but didn’t really get to that “can’t put it down” place that would have encouraged me to bring it inside and finish it. Finally, I did get to that point, and despite its slow start it did turn out to be quite good in the end.
Dead Time, Stephen White: I’ve been a fan of White’s for some time. Like Lescroart, he sets his novels in a place I know and love; in White’s case, Boulder, CO. His main character, Dr. Alan Gregory, is interesting. Unfortunately, this book felt too much like its title. Not a lot actually happens; instead, it really reads like a set-up for future books – he had a plot device he needed for future stories, and this novel gives a back-story for that device. Honestly, however, he could have done the same with a short introductory chapter in his next book and saved us from slogging through this one.
Hunter’s Moon, Randy Wayne White: At one point last year, I took a trip to San Diego to teach a class. Bad weather in Sacramento mean that my flight ended up leaving long after it had been scheduled to land, which gave me a much more time than I had anticipated to read. I therefore managed to finish both “Tampa Burn” and “Dead Time”, and on the way home I was at the airport looking through the less-than-stellar selection of novels. Given that “Tampa Burn” turned out to be fairly good, I decided to give White another shot. While this novel was entertaining enough, it became disappointingly predictable, leading me to finish the book with the decision to also be finished with the author.
Dead Irish, John Lescroart: My second foray into Lescroart’s world. I read “Hard Evidence” because in the NPR interview, it was the one he said would be a good introduction to him. “Dead Irish”, however, is the first novel in the series about his main character. Like with “Hunter’s Moon”, I enjoyed it well enough to finish the book without regrets, but I think I’m likewise done with Lescroart.
K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, Ed Viesturs:I’m not sure why, but K2 has always fascinated me, so when my mom said how could this book was, I jumped at reading it. It’s a fascinating history of the many who have climbed, and more often than not failed to climb, the world’s second-highest mountain. (It also answered a long-standing question of mine as to where the name came from.) Around this history is the author’s personal account of his conquest of the mountain. For anyone interested in climbing, or anyone interested in true-life adventure stories, I’d highly recommend this book.
9 Dragons, Michael Connelly: Somewhat like Stephen White’s “Dead Time”, “9 Dragons” is Connelly setting up a new plot device for his signature character. (In both cases, the books revolve around the protagonist becoming the guardian of a child.) Connelly manages it a bit better than White, but in both cases I would have been fine with a shorter story as to where the kid came from.
Skeletons on the Zahara, Dean King: Upon completing “9 Dragons”, I found myself in an interesting, and fortunately rare, circumstance where I had nothing interesting on my list of potential books, so I posted a message to Twitter asking for recommendations. My friend Olen Sanders recommended “Skeletons”, so I figured I’d give it a try, and am I ever glad I did. This is the not-often-told story of an American vessel that ran ashore off the coast of Africa in 1815. The crew ended up becoming separated in the unforgiving wasteland of western Africa, and their harrowing tale of starvation, thirst, and being sold into slavery is simply amazing. The original tale, as told by the captain, was an early inspiration of Abraham Lincoln; this retelling is an exciting true-life adventure well worth the read. Thanks, Olen.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, Jon Krakauer: Following the book on K2, I continued reading on mountaineering, this time with what is considered the modern classic in the genre. Krakauer was in the right place at the wrong time, having been hired to tell the story of a team of people climbing Everest, he ended up in the middle of the mountain’s greatest disaster. This book is more focused on the single expedition than Viesturs’, but is no less thrilling. Upon reading these two books, I did come away with the sense that anyone who climbs these peaks is certifiably insane.
Science of Fear: Why We Fear Things We Shouldn’t – and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, Daniel Gardner: As I mentioned above, this is hands-down the best book I’ve read all year. In fact, it’s the best book I’ve read in many years. Gardner explores why we, the safest, healthiest, wealthiest humans on who have ever existed, still manage to live most of our lives in abject fear. He begins by telling the story of the over 1,500 people who died in the year following 9/11 because they chose to drive cars rather than the always-safer option of flying. He then continues with a look at how we react, or rather overreact, to a variety of boogeymen, including child kidnappers and molesters, disease, and of course terrorists. As I mentioned above, this is a book that I would without hesitation recommend to absolutely anyone; I really believe that if we could all take Gardner’s advice and just calm down, the world would be a much happier, and ultimately safer, place. Please read this book.
Without Fail, Lee Child: Child follows the mold of many authors in the thriller genre of presenting a sort of anti-hero. Here, he follows the story of an ex-Special Forces operative who is brought in to track down a threat on the Vice President. He moves the action along well enough to make this a fast read, but provides an ultimately unsatisfactory ending.
Dry Ice, Stephen White: Here, White taunts Gregory with his first villain, a serial killer introduced in White’s debut novel. The plotting and characterization is vintage White. The story moves along quite well, but I would not recommend this as an introduction to the author: you really need to have read that first book to make any sense of what happens in this one.
Tongues of Serpents: A Novel of Temeraire, Naomi Novik: Several years ago, Novik introduced a truly original character and alternate universe in her first novel. Temeraire is a dragon, pressed into service with the British during the Napoleonic wars in a time when dragons are a regular part of our world. The first several books were very good, but here Novik shows she is beginning to run out of steam. “Tongues of Serpents” sends Temeraire and his captain to the penal colony of Australia, and over 288 ponderous pages shows that not much is happening. She tries desperately to concoct a story around stolen dragon eggs and smugglers, but most of the book is a boring-as-hell travelogue as the characters make their way across the continent. Stirring battle scenes, a big part of what made the other novels so good, are rare here, with the only major battle occurring very late and being tragically short-lived. “Tongues” wins the award for biggest disappointment of the year.
Legends of Shannara: Bearers of the Black Staff, Terry Brooks: Brooks is, without question, my favorite author. The only reason you don’t see his name repeatedly on this list is because he only writes one book a year, but it is the book I look forward to the most. He gained fame decades ago with his Shannara books: in my opinion, they are like better-written, more interesting Tolkein. A while ago, he began writing what seemed like a totally unrelated, but even better series about a modern-day battle between good and bad (I still feel that the first novel in that series, “Knight of the Word”, is by far his best). The last few books in that series at last made clear that they were in fact prequels to Shannara, and here, in the first book of a planned trilogy, he at last ties those two worlds together. As is his signature, Brooks introduces a host of characters whom I know I will come to love and miss dearly at the conclusion of the trilogy. A definite must-read for any fans of Brooks.
Sharpe’s Triumph, Bernard Cornwell: I read the first novel in Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series last year, and I’m not exactly sure why it took me so long to return to him, but expect to see a whole lot of these titles on next year’s list. With “Triumph”, Sharpe continues his adventures in India. Cornwell writes battle scenes better than practically anyone, and his research continually shows, as one could easily believe these books to be true accounts rather than historical fiction.
Sharpe’s Fortress, Bernard Cornwell: I moved directly from the second to the third novel in the Sharpe series. I don’t have a lot to say here that I didn’t say above: if you are into historical fiction, check out these books.
Heat Wave, Richard Castle: This is the entry on the list from the fictional author. In case you aren’t aware, Richard Castle is a character played by Nathan Fillion on ABC’s Castle. In the series, he is a crime novelist who, supposedly to do research for his new novel, shadows a New York City police detective. “Heat Wave” is the book that he supposedly wrote during season 1. Obviously, the book wasn’t written by Castle, although the publisher continues to insist that it is: the bio in the book is that of the character, and the author’s picture, both in the book and on Amazon, are Fillion. Most people online agree that the most likely author was Michael Connelly. Regardless, whomever did it did a fantastic job. The book, by itself, is not necessarily great, but fans of the show will recognize immediately that this is the book Castle would have written.
The Reversal, Michael Connelly: This is perhaps Connelly’s best book to date. Here he once again combines his two favorite characters, Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, this time in a courtroom drama in which they must set out to prove that a man who was convicted of a kidnap/murder decades earlier did in fact commit the crime. The book is well-paced, with a twist at the end that I for one never saw coming.
Sharpe’s Trafalgar, Bernard Cornwell: The fourth book in the Richard Sharpe series sees Sharpe returning home to England, but not without a series of adventures on the high seas. As a fan of the Hornblower books, I was a little concerned at how well Cornwell might pull this off, but in the end he does a great job, again thanks in no small part of meticulous research. I’ll admit I was also a bit concerned that he might do as he has done in the prior books and make Sharpe the hero of Trafalgar, but he nicely avoids that trap as well. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing in this series.
So that’s it. My 2011 list will have its first titles posted soon, as I am nearing completion of two books and about half-way through a third, but you’ll need to check back a year from now to see what they are.