Book Review Of 2020

As is fitting for the end of year blog posts, this one will cover some notable books I have read in 2020. This year I barely read fifteen books, compared to 23 in 2019. The primary reason for this number being low is the COVID confinement. To make it more enjoyable, than just a list of book names, I’ll chop the list into three groups: books I learned the most from this year, books I most enjoyed this year, and whatever is left - will get an honorable mention. Most of the book titles have affiliate links to, in case you would want to support independent booksellers. For convenience you can open the list of all these books in one page.

Books I Learnt The Most From

Atomic Habits - Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear.

It is one of those books with a simple premise, but profound impact. The premise and arguments are very enticing. I have made a lot of notes but must admit - have not built any new habits myself. I was fascinated by two things. First, how it can be applied at a group level - which I did at least on one occasion. Second, how many parallels I found with the way I build software. My posts about Bottom-Up Problem Solving Part I and Part II share the same spirit used for habit building.

Software Engineering at Google: Lessons Learned from Programming Over Time by Titum Winter, Hyrum Wright, and Tom Manshrek.

This is by far my favourite Software Engineering book of 2020. At first, I was very reluctant to read it - Google has virtually unlimited resources to do, or at least try, optimal development practices. And there was the mandatory “but it is for Google (scale)” thought. However, at least some parts are undeniably universal for an engineering organization of any size. I introduced aspects of knowledge sharing, culture, and leadership chapters in a startup team. The book also demonstrated to me why Kubernetes is a good thing - at Google scale, but (trigger warning) I remain unconvinced that it’s anything beyond a hype train for a team of 5 engineers in a room building a product that has 5 clients. But that’s a story for another blog post.

Speed Up Your Django Tests by Adam Johnson

This is my favourite book on a specific technical topic, and so far - the only one I reviewed on this blog. I won’t repeat the review, but the book has a diverse set of practicable improvements someone can do not only to make the tests run faster but improve the project health generally - from database configuration to CI/CD setup. It’s well worth the price. I recommend following Adam on Twitter as he does sizeable discounts.

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

I saw this book recommendation back in March, but avoided reading it, lest it will cause me to worry about how a real pandemic may look like. Having survived so far, grateful that I did, and with the courage to understand the current situation, I opened this book in early December. Highly. Recommend it. I learned two important things. First, 1918 flu must have been orders of magnitude more harrowing to live through. Second, it did not start as a killing machine and has been largely ignored as mild influenza in early 1918. It evolved to become an efficient killer by going through the population. The more people the virus infects - the more chances it has to mutate into a more efficient killer. Reading the very well narrated story and documented experiences of people from 1918, and putting it into the present context, causes chills to go through the back.

Books I Most Enjoyed

Velocity Weapon and Chaos Vector by Megan E. O’Keefe

It has been a while since I read and enjoyed a sci-fi story. I don’t know how I found the first book - Velocity Weapon - in the Protectorate trilogy, but I am happy that I did because I was hooked. The second book was published this July and it ended with a massive cliff-hanger. The third comes out next year. I am giddy and can’t wait to get my hands on it. I hope someone makes it into a graphic novel - it would augment the already brilliant story with an excellent cyberpunk/sci-fi noir visual feast. I also had my first fanboy moment tweeting the author to complain about how good the cliff-hanger was.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

My review won’t do justice here. You just have to read it, and that’s that. I bought it as a present twice. It is a collection of life lessons everyone should know, told in a very empathetic way, with few words and many unique illustrations. Every page hits with powerful emotion, and I admit - I cried. But I also felt good about it. The experience is comparable to a teary and powerful movie ending, but whereas the movie ends and no one remembers what they cried for, this book is very personal and hits home hard. Just get it, alright!?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany

I don’t think this needs an introduction. Having read through all of the other HP books in 2019, this script was a wonderful closure to the original story. When West End reopens I sure will try to see the actual play.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I had very mixed feelings about this one. Found it difficult to follow the story in the first 50 pages, but afterward, it started to make sense, and I mostly enjoyed the time-traveling aspect of the story. However, considering how high, and for what, this book is regarded - it was an intriguing story, but it did not turn me into a total pacifist - and because of that, I feel like I missed out on something important.

Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone by Greg Shaw, Jill Tracie Nichols, and Satya Nadella

I think Satya Nadella is the reason Microsoft turned into a cool company after 20-30 years of having a corporate / enterprise vibe. This book describes his humble beginnings and a vision for the future of technology, but for me - the most interesting part was the story of how Satya transformed Microsoft culture. Building a company culture successfully requires a conscious effort. Once established - the culture is virtually impossible to change, without damage. Therefore it is an extraordinary feat to redefine the culture of a company that has 150K employees around the world.

Grow Your Own Vegetables in Pots and Containers by Paul Peacock

Something non-technical, for a change. When work from home began in March I craved to do something different, as a hobby. This year I lived in a top floor apartment with a spacious balcony, and so I used this as an opportunity to grow some vegetables. This book was an excellent guide throughout the process. It is priced very generously, and the writing style is sometimes really amusing - so it is not a boring read. I started with cherry tomatoes (Tiny Tim variety) but quickly branched out. By the end of the summer, the yield was about 1l of cherry tomatoes per day for about two weeks, 30 carrots grown in ten 4-pint plastic milk containers, and a few radishes. I have already started thinking about next year’s plants.

Honorable Mentions

The Harvard Business Review Manager’s Handbook

A collection of 17 different chapters and 17 different aspects of managerial activities. Quite dense on actionable steps, but readable and easily applicable.

Giving Effective Feedback by Harvard Business Review

A very short walkthrough of when and how to give feedback, what to do in difficult situations, and how to build an environment receptive to feedback.

A Philosophy of Software Design by John Ousterhout

Being a big fan of “The Psychology of Computer Programming” book, I thought this might be a philosophical take at building software systems. However, what I found was a list of good software engineering practices and a very dry read. The content itself is not wrong in any way, it is I just found it difficult to continue reading past 1/3rd of the book and skimmed through the rest.

Machine Learning Engineering by Andriy Burkov

This is an excellent addition to the “The Hundred-Page Machine Learning Book” by the same author. I use both as quick reference books to remind good practices, how various ML algorithms work, common problems, and ways to approach them.

The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter

The book starts with a murder solved using statistical methods. And most of it is written in a way any person should understand with only basic math knowledge. There are no formulas. It explains how statistics can be manipulated and why we should all be wary of anyone who claims to be making decisions “following the data.” Data does not make decisions - decisions are made by the interpreters. Humans.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

A booklet explaining seven fascinating aspects of modern physics. Honestly, do not recall much about what they are.

No Man’s Land by David Baldacci

This is the last book in the John Puller series. John Puller is a military investigator, and in the good old Angela Lansbury style, he runs into various murders or mysteries to solve. The book (and all of them in the series) has a good hook, starts slow, but keeps increasing the pace as you go with the story. Eventually, it causes the curiosity to peak so much, that it becomes very hard to put the book down. Recommend it.

The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim

This is a follow-up book to “The Phoenix Project.” The Phoenix project felt like a fantastic representation of a company’s internal struggles with effective IT operations and was very educational. The Unicorn project was just a complete opposite. A miserable read, full of deus-ex machina that caused the story to drag on and on, just to prove a point. Even though it was acknowledged in the book, but it was abused too much. Whatever educational points this book was making got lost, between “oh… get over it already!” and “please, just end this misery.”

The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom

My first introduction to Mitch Albom was in “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which I read in my twenties and it brought me to The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. Both had a big influence on me. However, I cannot say, that “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” made a big influence now. Maybe it is because I am now older and more cynical or I read the other ones first, that this one did not influence me. However, it was a nice and relaxing read.

Peter’s Empress by Kristina Sabaliauskaite

Written by a Lithuanian art historian and novelist, Kristina Sabaliauskaite, who is regarded well around the Baltics for her previous historical fiction. This book follows a woman called Marta Skawronska, an orphan, who became Empress Catherine I of Russia. It starts with an objectionable gimmick, but I got over it and found the book pleasantly entertaining. Sabaliauskaite is notorious (at least in Lithuania) for recreating very realistic 16-18th century environments and characters in her writing. I read it in Lithuanian, but I see there is an English available in the Kindle store. Assuming the translation is good, it should be a pleasant read for a historical fiction enthusiast.

Recent articles