Favourite books I read in 2019
I made a concerted effort to read more in 2019 – and I succeeded, reading a total of 42 books over the year (and this doesn’t even include the many books I read to my toddler).
I’ve chosen a selection of my favourites from the year to highlight in this blog post in the hope that you may enjoy some of them too.
Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon by Kim Zetter
This book covers the fascinating story of the Stuxnet virus which was created to attack nuclear enrichment plants in Iran. It has enough technical details to satisfy me (particularly if you read all the footnotes), but is still accessible to less technical readers. The story is told in a very engaging manner, and the subject matter is absolutely fascinating. My only criticism would be that the last couple of chapters get a bit repetitive – but that’s a minor issue.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson
I saw this book recommended on many other people’s reading lists, and was glad it read it. It was well-written and easy to read from a language point of view, but very hard to read from an emotional point of view. The stories of miscarriages of justice – particularly for black people – are terrifying, and really reinforced my opposition to capital punishment.
The Hut 6 Story by Gordon Welchman
I visited Bletchley Park last year – on a rare child-free weekend with my wife – and saw this book referred to a number of times in the various exhibitions there. I’d read a lot of books about the Bletchley Park codebreakers before but this one is far more technical than most and gives a really detailed description of the method that Gordon worked out for cracking one of the Enigma codes. I must admit that the appendix covering how the ‘diagonal board’ addition to the Bombes worked went a bit over my head – but the rest of it was great.
Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey
I was recommended this book by various people on Twitter who kept quoting bits about how people thought ‘Plutonium fires wouldn’t be a big deal’, alongside other amusing quotes. I thought I knew quite a bit about nuclear accidents – given that I worked for a nuclear power station company, and have quite an interest in accident investigations – but I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot about various accidents that I hadn’t heard of before. It’s very readable – although occasionally a bit repetitive – and a fun read.
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
I can’t remember how I came across this book, but I’m glad that I did – it’s a fascinating look at how geography (primarily physical geography) affects countries and their relationships with each other. Things like the locations of mountain ranges, or places where you can access deep-water ports, have huge geopolitical consequences – and this book explores this for a selection of ten countries/regions. This book really helped me understand a number of world events in their geopolitical context, and I think of it often when listening to the news or reading about current events.
The Matter of the Heart: A History of the Heart in Eleven Operations by Thomas Morris
This is a big book – and fairly heavy-going in places – but it’s worth the effort. It’s a fascinating look at the heart and how humans have learnt to ‘fix’ it in various ways. It’s split into chapters about various different operations – such as implanting pacemakers, replacing valves, or transplanting an entire heart – and each chapter covers the whole historical development of that operation, from first conception to eventual widespread success. There are lot of fascinating stories (did you know that CPR was only really introduced in the 1960s?) and it’s amazing how informally a lot of these operations started – and how many people unfortunately died before the operations became successful.
The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill
I’d enjoyed some of Paul Brickhill’s other books (such as The Great Escape), and yet this book had been sitting on my shelf, unread, for years. I finally got round to reading it, and enjoyed it more than I thought. A lot of the first half of the book is actually about the development of the bomb – I thought it would be all about the actual raid itself – and I found this very enjoyable from a technical perspective. The story of the raid is well-written – but I found the later chapters about some of the other things that the squadron did less interesting.
The Vaccine Race: How Scientists Used Human Cells to Combat Killer Viruses by Meredith Wadman
I’d never really thought about how vaccines were made – but I found this book around the time that I took my son for some of his childhood vaccinations, and found it fascinating. There are a lot of great stories in this book, but the reason it’s at the end of my list is that it is a bit heavy-going at times, and some of the stories are probably a bit gruesome for some people. Still, it’s a good read.
I’ve read far more fiction in the last year than I have for quite a while – but they were mostly books by two authors, so I’ll deal with those two authors separately below.
I read Robert Harris’ book Enigma many years ago and really enjoyed it, but never got round to reading any of his other work. This year I made up for this, reading Conclave – which is about the intrigue surrounding the election of a new Pope, Pompeii – which focuses on an aqueduct engineer noticing changes around Vesuvius before the eruption, and An Officer and a Spy – which tells the true story of a miscarriage of justice in 19th century France. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these – there’s something about the way that Harris sets a scene and really helps you to get the atmosphere of Roman Pompeii or the Sistine Chapel during the vote for a new Pope.
I came across Rosie Lewis through a free book available on the Kindle store and was gripped. Rosie is a foster carer and writes with clarity and feeling about her experiences fostering various children. Her books include Torn, Taken, Broken and Betrayed, and each of them has thoroughly engaged me. As with Just Mercy above, it is an easy, but emotional, read – I cried multiple times while reading these. My favourite was probably Taken, but they were all good.
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
This book is a novelisation of true events around the development of electricity and the electric light bulb, focusing particularly on the patent dispute between Tesla, Westinghouse and Edison over who invented the lightbulb – and also their arguments over the best sort of current to use (AC vs DC). The book has everything: nice technical detail on electrical engineering, and a love story with lots of intrigue along the way.