Charlie Stross is a prolific author of science fiction and fantasy. He has written more than two dozen novels, has won three Hugo awards, and has been nominated for many other awards, including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Japanese Seiun Award.
I’ve never before kept a list of books I read. I read a lot, but I don’t generally want to keep score. I know a lot of people do this on sites like Goodreads, but I’ve never felt it was useful. However, at the beginning of the year, seeing some articles about what people read last year, I decided that, out of curiosity, I would keep a list.
As I said, I read a lot. I’m not a big television or movie watcher; many people have a reflex to watch TV every evening, but in my household, that’s not the case. My partner is also an avid reader, though we read different types of books. We follow a few TV series, watch the occasional movie, but I let my Netflix subscription lapse often because there’s nothing that interests us.
So I guess it’s not surprising that I read more than 130 books last year. I read fairly quickly, and some of them – mostly mysteries and thrillers – were books I read in a single evening, or two at most. Some of the books were fairly short, but others were quite long. And I left a few books in the list that I abandoned after about one quarter of their length, just as notes to remind me that I didn’t finish them; these are indicated by asterisks after titles. Books with asterisks before the titles are books that I started in 2020, and only finished in 2021. I often read multiple books concurrently, so there are a few in the 2021 list that I haven’t finished, but, if I keep a list in 2022, I’ll indicate that. I only started the last book on the list on December 31, so I haven’t gotten for, but I’ll include it anyway.
You’ll notice 16 books in French; I lived in France for nearly three decades, so read in French regularly, but mostly classical literature. Many of these French books are long, and I read a bit less quickly in French than in English. One of my goals for 2022 is to read more in French, notable more Balzac, Dumas, and other 19th century authors that I particularly like.
About half my reads were non-fiction, though I haven’t included cookbooks or some books I’ve read for my work. And this also doesn’t count a few dozen photobooks that “read” or “re-read,” since I don’t really count them as reading. Though perhaps if I keep a list next year, I will include them…
If I’d had more time, I’d include Amazon affiliate links for anyone who wants to contribute to my ongoing book habit. Since I’m not including individual links, if you go to your local Amazon with these links (if you shop from one of these three countries), I’ll get a small percentage: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon FR.
We welcome Peter Robinson, best-selling author of the Alan Banks crime series. Peter has written more than two dozen novels, and discusses his character, how he uses music in his novels, and how Scrivener helps him manage his manuscripts.
It’s that time of year when lots of companies have their biggest sales, and Take Control Books is joining in the virtual festivities. Now through next Wednesday, we’re offering a selection of 17 recently updated books for 50% off. No coupon code or special links required. The one-week sale is now in progress and will end at 11:59 PM Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday, December 2.
Work, school, and even socializing increasingly take place remotely, and Zoom has quickly become one of the most popular tools for videoconferencing—one-on-one or with a group. Take Control of Zoom explains how to use the Zoom service from start to finish. It offers detailed instructions, warnings, and tips from installing and configuring the Zoom software, through setup and participation, and how to host meetings.
Zoom is the most widely used videoconferencing system in the world due to its generous feature set for free users and the ease of joining video chats by people without prior experience. But you can learn to master some of its subtle, hard-to-find, or confusing features and increase your efficiency and enjoyment as a participant and as a host. Take Control of Zoom takes the pain out of learning how to best use this powerful tool. The book covers a broad range of topics, from which Zoom app to use and how to configure your account and app even before your first meeting, to how to work among Zoom views and chat in a meeting, to creating and managing your own meetings.
Here’s what you will find in Take Control of Zoom:
Learn how to install and configure Zoom.
Decide if a web app meets your needs or it’s something to recommend to other meeting participants.
Configure your physical setup and your hardware for best results on video.
Don’t forget that even if you don’t see a stream of yourself, you’re on camera for other people.
Upgrade your audio for better comfort and quality.
Understand Zoom’s past missteps with security and what it promises now.
Master participating in a meeting, including the various methods of “speaking up.”
Get to know Zoom’s many mobile and desktop views for seeing other people and shared screens.
Become a host and start meetings with one other person or 1,000.
Dig into Zoom’s meeting controls to create safe meetings and manage public ones, keeping participants safe and blocking or removing problematic members.
Find out how to preserve your privacy when sharing apps, presentations, or other parts of your screen.
Record a meeting for later playback, presentation, or a podcast.
Decide whether upgrading to a paid Zoom tier offers enough improvement and features for meetings you host.
I’ve been using the Apple Watch since the very first version, and while much of the device is easy to use, there are lots of hidden features that aren’t as simple. Jeff Carlson’s new Take Control of Apple Watch is the most comprehensive book about the Apple Watch since the device was released.
Jeff walks you through getting to know the Apple Watch (including how to pick one out if you haven’t already), along with topics that teach you how to navigate among the watch’s screens with the physical controls, taps on the screen, and Siri. You’ll also find advice on customizing watch faces, taking advantage of the always-on screen in the Apple Watch Series 5, getting the notifications you want, handling text and voice communications, using Apple’s core apps, and monitoring your heart rate, hearing, and monthly cycle to improve your overall health. A final chapter discusses taking care of your Apple Watch, including recharging, restarting, resetting, and restoring.
Among the many topics covered in the book are:
Picking out your own Apple Watch—covers models up through Series 5
Important actions you’ll want to take when first setting up your watch
Making watch face complications work for you
Key settings that most people will want to know about
Using the Control Center and Dock
Understanding how the watch interacts with your iPhone
Staying connected using a cellular-enabled Apple Watch model
Tracking your exercise, even when you leave your iPhone at home
Placing and receiving phone calls on the watch
Using the Walkie-Talkie feature to chat with other Apple Watch owners
Sending default (and customized) text messages
Seeing email from only certain people
Adding items to your reminder lists with Siri
Glancing at what’s next in your daily schedule
Loading your watch with photos and using them to create new watch faces
Triggering the iPhone’s camera remotely using the watch
Paying at contactless terminals using Apple Pay
Putting tickets in your watch
Using health-related features such as the ECG, Cycle Tracking, and Noise apps
Getting navigation directions (and using the new Compass app)
Controlling an Apple TV, or Music or iTunes on a Mac with the Remote app
Unlocking a Mac (and authenticating certain actions in Catalina) with your watch
Adding apps to the watch via your iPhone or the watch’s built-in App Store
Resetting a messed-up Apple Watch and force-quitting an app
I’m in my 25th year of working from home as a freelancer, and over the years I’ve learned how to work productively, and how to avoid wasting (too much) time. A lot of people are suddenly discovering what it’s like to have to work from home temporarily.
Glenn Fleishman, a fellow author of Take Control books, has just released a free book with tips and advice on how to set up a home office, and how to get work done. Like me, Glenn has been working at home for years.
We’re in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. In the middle of a global viral outbreak, you were told or asked to work from home—and you’ve never or rarely had to be productive where you live before. What to do? We’re here to take at some stress out of your life with a new, free book that details how to set up a home office and balance work and home life for those not accustomed to it.
Did I say that the book is free?
In this book, you’ll learn more about how to:
Stake out a physical space, even if it involves setting up a curtain or moving a bookshelf
Pick or adjust a chair if you plan to sit
Figure out the right mic and headphones or speakers for your needs
Add a monitor for efficiency, or use software to turn an iPad or other devices into a second display
Stand while you work without necessarily investing in a new desk
Set working hours to avoid never being off the clock
Put up a sign or otherwise signify when you’re working to those around you
Invest a tiny amount or a lot into noise-canceling headphones or earbuds
Use videoconferencing to replace meetings and casual conversation you miss from an office
Adjust your expectations and that of your employer to how much work you can produce, initially and in the long haul
Take regular breaks to avoid burnout, but if you get in the zone, you can stay there, too
Juggle the simultaneous burdens of full-time home parenting with home working
This weekend, I started reading This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin. He is a neuroscientist who had previously been a professional musician, and the book explores why we enjoy music and how it affects the brain.
It started off interestingly, showing that this was a book by a scientist exploring a topic in which he had personal experience. But then I got to a few areas where he made ridiculous statements, a couple of which were outlandish, and one that was just false. This showed that the book had not been fact checked, and made me wonder about everything else in it: if there were mistakes like this, they cast doubt on everything the author says.
The author was discussing the way information is stored in the brain, comparing it with the way data is stored on computers. He says:
People who work with image files all the time are able to look at the stream of 0s and 1s and tell something about the nature of the photograph—not at the level of whether it is a human or a horse, perhaps, but things like how much red or gray is in the picture, how sharp the edges are, and so forth. They have learned to read the code that represents the picture.
This is simply ridiculous. You cannot tell anything about the contents of any file from “the stream of 0s and 1s.” You could tell something about some types of files if you look at the hexadecimal interpretation of those 0s and 1s, but only if they contain metadata (such as the type of file, the creation date, etc.). There is nothing in a file that gives you any idea of its contents by simply looking at the raw data.
He doubles down shortly after the above statement:
Similarly, audio files are stored in binary format, as sequences of 0s and 1s. The 0s and 1s represent whether or not there is any sound at particular parts of the frequency spectrum. Depending on its position in the file, a certain sequence of 0s and 1s will indicate if a bass drum or a piccolo is playing.
I think the only polite thing that I can say is that this is fantastical. The idea that “a certain sequence of 0s and 1s” in any way suggests which instrument is playing, which note is played, or anything at all is ludicrous. Audio files are sampled 44,100 per second, meaning that in each second of music, there are 44,100 discrete segments, combined in “frames,” of audio data. Each of these frames of data contains an abstraction of the sound, and it is not broken up into sections for which instrument is playing, what note is played, etc. The fact that a scientist can write this, and that a publisher fact checked it, is literally beyond belief.
Finally, there’s this:
The research on the development of the first MRI scanners was performed by the British company EMI, financed in large part from their profits on Beatles records. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” might well have been titled “I Want to Scan Your Brain.
Alas, this is the kind of thing that, perhaps, one may have remembered hearing, but that a fact checker should have corrected. It was the CT scan that EMI developed; the history of the MRI is quite complex and took a long time to become a viable diagnostic tool. It began in the 1950s, and took a couple of decades to become useful.
It is beyond disappointing to read this sort of error. I know about these things, and was able to detect them, but I don’t know much about the other things – such as how the brain works – that the author discusses. So there’s no way of knowing whether he is correct, and I simply cannot read a scientific book with this doubt in my mind.
In early December, I decided that I wanted to spend some time reading a series of books. I’ve been reading mysteries and crime fiction for decades, and this is a genre where there are very long series, such as, for example, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, which ran for 40 volumes, until the death of the author. Unfortunately – and I’ll discuss this more later – his estate decided that it was worth containing novels with that character written by others. One of them was unfinished at his death, and his agent completed it, and there have been eight more since then, writing by Ace Atkins.
So I went back through the series that I enjoy, and decided to re-read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. I had read about a dozen of them, many years ago, but had not gone any further. So I decided to buy all of the books, a few at a time, and read them. I completed the first 23 novels (and one volume of the "complete collected short stories") in about two months, and put off reading the latest (or last) one until a few days ago. I thought that I would perhaps save that one for a time when I wanted to dip back into the character, but decided to complete the series.
What I didn’t know when I began re-reading these books is that the latest novel, Blue Moon, is the last one. Not really, though. It’s only the last one that Lee Child will write. He’s announced his retirement and is passing the series on to his brother, Andrew Grant. (Lee Child is a pen name of James Grant.) I have no real interest in reading books by a surrogate author, so I won’t be reading any more.
The Jack Reacher novels are light reads. They read quickly, and, in some cases, I was able to complete one in an evening. They are well plotted and well paced, but relatively simple in execution. Reacher is an interesting character, a man who roams, almost, as Child has said, like a knight errant. He helps damsels (and dudes) in distress, out of a code of honor that he learned in the military. He has no attachments, and never stays anywhere more than a few days, unless he’s in a novel. This is, of course, somewhat unrealistic, but it is similar to the way in westerns some stranger would come into town, then ride off into the sunset.
He’s a very big man: 6′ 5" tall, or nearly a foot taller than Tom Cruise who played him in two movies, and weighs 250 lbs. Because of this, fans of the series could not accept Cruise’s depiction, and a TV series is on the works for Amazon.
He is also a violent man, with the reptilian part of his brain often taking over. But he also has a propensity for meeting female cops – and sleeping with them – so, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his lack of fine traits, seems to make women swoon easily, even though he is often described as "ugly." But they know he won’t stay long, so his exploits – always tastefully written – are just punctuations to complex stories of crime and punishment.
The books follow Reacher after he leaves the Army, where he was an MP, and there are a couple of books that reach back to when he was still active in the military, including one which leads directly into the first book. His understanding of the military and his experience as an MP gives him a unique outlook on crime, and he is a believable character.
in the first novel, Child writes a lot in an almost Hemingwayesque style. Which he later drops. Though it comes back again at times. While that style may work with the character, it’s a bit frustrating. Another element that I find annoying – and that I skip – is the detailed descriptions of firearms, with an almost erotic discussion of their features, muzzle speeds, and deadly effects. The fight scenes are also too detailed for my taste. Some fights – often fisticuffs, rather than gun battles – run for a few pages, and I just read the first sentence of each paragraph to know what’s happening, because the details aren’t important. I do understand that some people like that stuff though.
Over 23 books, there are a few duds, but for the most part, these are top-shelf crime novels. Child’s plotting is confusing in a couple of the novels, but it’s never the type of Harlan Coben-esque plot where you think you know what’s happening, then something unexpected happens, then something else unexpected happens, and so on. I find this fatiguing; it’s almost as if the author is toying with readers. Reading a Jack Reacher novel, you know what you’re getting: a clear ethical dilemma in which honor wins. His choices are sometimes illegal, but one can understand his reasoning.
Child is very careful to make sure that Reacher’s stern morality is constantly present, but he also constantly underscores some of the character’s weaknesses, such as his total cluelessness with technology. When computers, then mobile phones, come into the story, Reacher is always fat fingered and perplexed about these devices, though eventually manages to figure them out enough to exploit them when needed, as in the final novel, Blue Moon. (It’s a minor plot point, but I won’t include spoilers.) Reacher has many quirks, some of which reflect the author’s lifestyle (he drinks as much coffee as he can) and others which, hopefully, do not (he never washes clothes, but buys new clothes every few days and throws the dirty ones away).
As series go, the Jack Reacher novels are quite strong. There are highs and lows over this many books, and rarely do people read so many in such a short time, as I did. Reading like this allows you to see the similarities that may jar during a binge, but which are reassuring when you read one a year.
If you like this sort of novel, check them out. You won’t be disappointed.