The books I read this year go hand-in-hand with the fact that I took a 5-and-a-half month trip around Asia, especially around the time that I was reading Simon Winchester’s Outposts. This was roughly when my journey started.
There’s also a bit of a North Korea vibe going on, which actually I think hit its real peak after went to the country. There are a few more books on the subject of the DPRK that I’d like to read but I’ll save that for next year.
The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart
Thought-provoking novel masquerading as a biography of a psychiatrist that goes off the rails. It’s a little hard to follow. That’s not because it’s poorly written, but it’s intentionally challenging, and more than just being a challenge to follow the book attempts to challenge widely-held beliefs about psychoanalysis and freedom of choice. You need only have a layman’s understanding of psychoanalysis and wider psychiatry (like me!) to understand it enough to get any enjoyment from it, though. Slightly unsatisfying end, and slow at times, but ultimately I’m glad I read it.
Kingsman by Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons and Matthew Vaughn
A funny but refreshingly old-school take on the British Spy genre, Kingsman made me want to be spy, even more so than my recent obsession with Bond has. It seems more accessible and realistic, yet at the same time completely out there and ridiculous. Really great art, too.
Choose Yourself by James Altucher
While I feel that most “self-help” books tend to be a bit silly and full of lots of contextually-relevant advice and information which the reader generally can’t use, Altucher tends to give more broad advice, usually to do with just nudging one in the direction of honesty, positivity and independence about whatever situation one is in. His style is extremely conversational, so pick this up only if you’re prepared to find some parts slightly irritating to read.
Marvel Civil War by Mark Millar
I bought this after I saw an infographic explaining Disney’s plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and decided it might be an interesting read ahead of the movie(s) currently planned for 2016 as Captain America: Civil War. While I wasn’t familiar with about 50% of the characters in the book (there are lots of them) this was still a hugely entertaining read and very, very gripping. The art, too, is fantastic.
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes
When I told my friends I was reading “a book about Hitler” a silence followed, until I explained that the book is about Hitler waking up in 2013 in Berlin with no memory of the previous 60 odd years. It didn’t take long for them to get on board. While this is most certainly a comedy, it is also informative and introduced me to some of the other people involved in the Third Reich, and suggested some of the more deluded motivations that they all (including Hitler himself) might’ve had. Written by a German but translated most excellently by a Brit, this novel has a fun, accessible style. Great read.
Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
I came across this on Mike Rugnetta’s PBS Idea Channel, and was curious because Ms. Marvel seemed to be somewhat of a departure from some of the characters people are familiar with. This is the story of a young, Muslim, American girl, and her newfound life as a superhero. It’s really funny, very self-aware and isn’t afraid to include as plot devices what some may deem to be touchy subjects. Yet, Ms. Marvel is not a gimmicky story, and would be an interesting and fun tale regardless of whether the protagonist was Muslim or not. Excellent read!
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
Ronson explains the confusing, vague world of psychiatric disorder classification. The reader gets an interesting and entertaining tour of psychopathy and the many people whom, for better or worse, are involved with the disorder.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming
Finally Bond really shows his vulnerable side, exposes himself and gets beaten and bruised in the process, only for it to all fall apart. One of the saddest, so far.
You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming
I’m fairly sure this book is largely responsible for popularising many of the probable myths and stereotypes that most of the western world holds about Japan. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining novel which is lighter on the misogyny than previous stories. It’s the Bond equivalent of a mid-life crisis, clearly written towards the end of Fleming’s career as the author of 007 novels.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
We all know the dark Batman stories of the silver screen, but this Frank Miller take on the Dark Knight takes it to a whole new level. In this story (which provides the basis Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice) we follow an old, bored Bruce Wayne as he takes up the job he retired from years ago. Chilling stuff!
The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming
One of the stranger tales in the series, I shan’t talk about the plot too much because I genuinely came to it with no information and found it thoroughly enjoyable as a result. However, I will say that this isn’t Bond-as-usual. It’s a slight departure from the previous books and in my opinion gives further evidence for Bond’s personality being far deeper than the films tend to suggest.
Octopussy and the Living Daylights by Ian Fleming
Octopussy and the Living Daylights was Fleming’s last published Bond book. It contains four short stories, and was published after the author’s death. For the sake of brevity I won’t go into all of them. Octopussy is strange, another Bond story where Fleming changes the style significantly, and to me feels almost like a description of Fleming in his later years. In that sense it’s a little sad to read.
The Living Daylights was a bit boring and obvious, I thought - but 007 in New York is one of the other stories and I loved it mainly for the food porn.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
I came to this knowing only the general plot of the first part of the story, and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s far more than I expected. It’s not a children’s tale at all, it’s actually quite sardonic, much longer than anticipated and really fun. Good introduction to Swift’s works if you knew nothing about him before.
A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer
Of all the books I’ve read about North Korea this is the one which makes me say, “Really?!” the most. It has a real sense of dramatisation to it, which may be appropriate given the topic. Regardless of the writing style, though, it documents a rare glimpse into the personal life of the Dear Leader.
Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung
A much more serious account of life in mostly Pyongyang by a member of the elite who fled the country after becoming disillusioned, so a bit different from most refugee tales we hear. Thrilling, and at times angering (it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the author at times, who sounded like he had quite a priviliged life compared to those who suffered around him).
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Lovely read! Quite funny and fast paced, typical Pratchett with glimpses of Gaiman. Darkly humorous at times, frequently existential.
Outposts by Simon Winchester
Slightly outdated now, this travel journal written in the 1980s takes Winchester on a trip around the “surviving relics of the British empire”. I felt a mixture of nostalgia for a time I never experienced and relief that we live in a fairer age, and learned about a number of interesting places I’d love to learn more about. Witty, entertaining and informative.
Magic 2.0: Off to be the Wizard by Scott Meyer
An immensely poppy novel, but really good fun. This is a Matrix-esque story with a lot more humour, pop culture references and which appeal very much to my slightly childish side. Easy and exciting read, good for a longish plane journey.
A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr
One Amazon Reviewer slammed it for having the same content as an “A-level in history”, which was great for me because I never took an A-level in History. This much-needed account of post-WW2 Britain really helped me to understand how my country is the way it is, and now I have lots of interesting follow-up subjects to look into.
A Short Introduction to Buddhism by Damien Keown
Following a few months of seeing Buddhist temple after Buddhist temple, trying to wade my way through Wikipedia articles and variously-spelled translations in museums throughout Asia, I found this book to be highly recommended on Amazon as an “academic” look at the religion. While that is certainly true, it does have soul and explains in a little detail the two main sects of Buddhism, touching on others along the way. It includes a brief history, explanation of rules, comparison (there’s little in common) to other religions and discussion of Buddhism in the modern Western world. Really, really helps if you know very little and dispels a few common myths. I’d recommend reading this at the beginning of a long trip around Asia.
Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
In an alternative reality where the Allies were defeated in WW2, Germany & Japan own the world. This is a thrilling and fascinating novel. Trying to understand the potential cultural effects of a different outcome to the second world war makes this such a compelling story. But the conclusion is confusing. I’m left wondering what I’m supposed to take from it. Then, that in itself is a theme of the book. Read it.
Anthropology: A Beginner’s Guide by Jane Urquhart
Not content merely to look at things abroad, I’d like to be able to research and understand other human cultures more deeply - that’s why I read this. Obviously it was never going to turn me into a fully-qualified anthropologist, but it introduced me to a few interesting new concepts and was written in a very intuitive, understandable way. Great introduction to the subject.
North Korea Confidental by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson
This is the first book about North Korea that I’ve read which properly echoes what I was told by the foreign tour guides and mirrors what I observed while I was in the country in October 2015. While acknowledging the backwardness and brutality of the regime, Tudor and Pearson shine a light on the truth about North Korea’s emerging market economy, as well as properly emphasising the individuality and agency of North Korean people, as opposed to the robotic drones they are so often depicted as. While other accounts may be accurate and interesting, this is a look more recent developments in the DPRK which the media often overlooks in favour of sensationalist headlines.
In Order To Live by Park Yeonmi
The most up-to-date defector story I’ve read. I’d never actually heard of Park before I saw her face staring back at me on Amazon’s recommended reading list. Seeing how popular it was, I was afraid that it’d be a little bit “pop” but I was surprised at how much of it was well in line with what I’d knew North Korea Confidential, as well as from the web and the country itself. Extremely sad story, but one which exudes hope and will make you want to help fix the problems that the people of North Korea face.
Magic 2.0: Spell or High Water by Scott Meyer
The sequel to Off to be the Wizard, this time around although I found the novel entertaining, there were many elements I found tiresome. Meyer seems to be trying to depict a women-run society in a way which he thinks is both realistic and respectful, but to me it comes off as a little patronising. The endless mentions of the “obvious joke” about staffs and wands become boring after the first mention in the original book, so the many more references in this one became tedious. The mystery in the story is compelling and fairly well told, and there’s some fun time travel confusion to be had, though. Worth reading if you liked the first one.
I completed my goal of finishing Fleming’s Bond Novels, as well as The Dice Man, which is gratifying. However I failed to even bite into Lila - it’s quite an intimidating read after Zen and the Art, but maybe I’ll give it a go next year.
Favourite of the year is a tough choice. I found A History of Modern Britain thoroughly enlightening and readable, but the quality of In Order to Live was such a surprise to me. I think the latter will have to be my must-read recommendation though, as it presents so well what I believe to be the reality of North Korea.
I’m going to Russia in 2016, so I’d like to read at least one classic Russian novel to get me in the mood. I’m starting with Anna Karenina, fingers crossed I’ll get through it. I’d also really like to get through more of George Orwell’s work, starting with Burmese Days. I’m especially interested in that because Simon Winchester’s work, combined with what I learned while travelling around Asia, has gotten me interested the British Empire and how it affected the countries which it colonised. And of course as always, more books about Korea. I may try reading some Korean novels too - translated into English, of course.
So, plenty to get through. Leave a comment if you have any ideas or have any thoughts on the books I read this year. Happy New Year, and happy reading!
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