Wednesday, January 1, 2020

My Favorite Books of 2019

I arbitrarily set 52 books as 2019's goal on Goodreads and ended up reading 50. That's a mix of paper books and ebooks, short stories and novels, fiction and non-fiction. Overall I'm happy with how that all turned out. Here are the books I liked the most, presented in the order in which I read them throughout the year.

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

This third book in Cronin's Passage trilogy closes what ranks as one of my favorite series of novels of all time. Although I would consider the trilogy to be science fiction I think it's officially labelled as fantasy fiction. Whatever. For lack of a better word, it's a post-apocalyptic zombie tale. Did you see the movie World War Z with Brad Pitt? Neither did I. Regardless, that movie was based on a zombie tale of the same name. By way of comparison, World War Z is to The Passage as McDonalds is to fine dining IMO. The World War Z book barely qualifies as notes for a screenplay let alone a novel. They did try to make The Passage into a TV series but it only lasted one season. But enough about movies and TV. 
The three novels in Cronin's trilogy (The Passage, The Twelve, The City of Mirrors) involve surviving in North America after a plague of some sort has wiped out well over 95% of the human population. Fresh in its premise, vivid in its portrayals, deep in its characters. The kind of book that, after you've turned the last page, fills you with both a deep satisfaction for having experienced the story and a bittersweet melancholy because you have to leave the characters behind.
See more info on the author's website

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Scott's book (subtitled Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity) distilled personnel management in the workplace into a simple to understand 2x2 matrix along two axes: your willingness to challenge someone directly and your degree of caring personally.
Of course, radical candor is the sweet spot where you both care and are willing to challenge someone. The other quadrants are labelled ruinous empathy (you care but won't challenge), manipulative insincerity (you neither care nor are willing to challenge), and obnoxious aggression where assholes live (they're very willing to challenge you without caring a bit).
Recommended for everyone who leads other people. See the book's website

High Output Management by Andy Grove

It was Ben Horowitz's mention of this book in his The Hard Thing About Hard Things that made me buy and read it. Glad I'm did and kinda sorry I hadn't read it years ago. Grove covers so many topics that are covered by other books and wraps them into an overall management philosophy.
I couldn't find a website for Grove or the book so here's a link to the book on Amazon.

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I should read more science fiction. In The Cruel Stars Birmingham presents future humanity with a great threat. In a world where humans are thick with cybernetics, an enemy of purists threatens our race with destruction. A group of reluctant and flawed heroes are key to humanity's survival. OK, enough with the dust jacket notes. The novel's setting was completely new and unique to me and the true nature of the threat caught me completely off guard. I'm hoping he turns this into a series. 
For the record, I was introduced to Birmingham year's ago by Parade magazine from the Sunday paper which I habitually read with my Sunday lunch. Back then it was his After America trilogy in which virtually every living being in the continental U.S. was killed by an energy field that arrived and departed inexplicably. How do you think the rest of the world would act based on that void?

Red Metal by Mark Greaney

Reminiscent of Larry Bond's Red Storm Rising (co-authored with Tom Clancy who seems to be given all the author credit these days) and from an author of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan Jr. novels, Red Metal is everything I want in military fiction: the Russians are up to no good, catch the U.S. off-guard and get in some good licks, then we see how the U.S. will respond. Good characters and kick-ass action. Like Clancy when Clancy was at his peak.
Learn more at the author's website.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This post-apocalyptic scenario won't leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
  2. Colonization: Down to Earth by Harry Turtledove. This is part 2 of an alternate history in which aliens arrive at earth in the middle of WWII. (I'm frustrated by the fact that my library doesn't have the first or third novels in this trilogy. Shame on them.)
  3. Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card. This first installment in a trilogy begins the so-called First Formic War, the prequel to Card's Ender's Game. (Again, I choose a novel for which my library lacks the other two. Shame on me.)
  4. The Second Sleep by Robert Harris. From the author of the fantastic alternate history novel Fatherland, a sleepy English village in the 1400s is shaken by a discovery that hints at a prior civilization.

Looking Forward to 2020

Here's my full list of 2019's reading

"Nothing can be said about writing except when it's bad. When it is good, one can only read and be grateful."

My Favorite Music of 2019

It's time for my annual look-back at the music I purchased during the past 12 months and the albums among them that I enjoyed the most. Admittedly, I appear to have gone a bit overboard by acquiring 68 new albums. That's a lot for me.  But a lot of those are me me finally deciding to buy all of Led Zeppelin's albums on CD to replace my LPs. After seeing Phil Collins in concert this year I did the same for his early catalog. Then I did something similar for The Beatles.

With that out of the way, and in no particular order, here are the albums that are my favorites from 2019.

Red Kite's Debut

The instrumental progressive rock on the self-titled debut album from Norwegian quartet Red Kite has an old soul. To my ears there's a late 1960s and early 1970s anthemic ecstasy that could be dropped comfortably into the soundtrack for Apocalypse Now. Balanced between rugged improvisation and careful composition, the albums five tracks left me wanting more. Notable tracks for me are the barely constrained crescendo of 13 Enemas for Good Luck (I appreciate the oxymoronic humor) and the jazz-tinged and soulful You Don't Know, You Don't Know (in which the frustration is almost palpable). Available on Bandcamp from RareNoise Records, I can't wait to hear what these guys do next.

Soundtracks for Winter Departures by ILUITEQ

When it comes to ambient music, I've listened to a lot. Over time I have discovered a lot of ambience that I like. Then there are the ambient albums that I love. Immediately. On the first play. And I can't put into words the reasons why. One of my all-time favorite ambient recordings is Winter Garden by Eraldo Bernocchi, Harold Budd, and Robin Guthrie. Soundtracks for Winter Departures, the debut album from the duo known as ILUITEQ, may be my favorite ambience since Winter Garden. Soundtracks is lush, rhythmically pulsing, richly orchestrated, deep and dynamic. I lack the words to describe the music properly but I can say that I'm happier for the joy this recording has delivered. Available on Bandcamp from TXT Recordings.

Everything by SONAR

This was the year I became a huge fan of Switzerland's SONAR. My fandom was triggered by 2018's album Vortex featuring David Torn, the subsequent live album Live at Moods, and guitarist Stephan Thelen's solo album, Fractal Guitar.  What did these guys offer during 2019? Only the follow-up recording to their work with Torn, Tranceportation Vol. 1. (From which I infer there will be a Vol. 2 during 2020. One can hope.) As the band describes themselves, they eschew individual virtuosity for the group's polyrhythmic, tritonal guitar sound. The result I can only describe as a highly-rhythmic form of ambience. However, with the addition of Torn's slashing lead guitar, the overall effect is heightened by an order of magnitude. Torn's guitar jaggedly weaves through the space created by the band. I'll repeat Sid Smith's words: "Had MC Escher made music instead of drawing impossible and perplexing perspectives, it would sound like Sonar." Available on Bandcamp from RareNoise Records, I really should buy their complete catalog.

What else did the band have to offer in 2019? The Bill Laswell Mix Translations are a dub mix of tracks from Vortex. And Stephan Thelen remixed his solo album into The Fractal Guitar Remixes and Extra Tracks.

Honorable Mentions

I feel bad about including some albums that I love in this section as opposed to giving them full treatment like the ones above, but in the interest of space and time...
I also want to thank the folks at RareNoise Records for their annual "Leap of Faith" offering which allows you to buy in advance all their new releases in the coming year (and not have to pay for shipping). This may be the best thing that's happened to my music listening in the last decade. 2020's LoF should be announced soon.


Even after everything I've written above, I still feel bad about not mentioning other artists and albums from 2019 that I have really enjoyed. So here's the complete list of all my new music from 2019. And as I like to say, "I don't know much about music, but I sure like the sound it makes."