2018 Book of the Year. Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Book of the Year.  Thinking in Bets: making smarter decisions when you don’t have all the facts by Annie Duke.  If you’ve never played or watched poker, you might not know who Annie Duke is, but don’t let that stop you from reading her terrific book using concepts learned from her career as a professional player to improve your strategic planning.  She seamlessly blends examples from her life, sports and business with ideas from game theory, cognitive psychology and behavioral economics in a very readable way with the goal of showing how poker players think while competing, how it differs from how normal people make decisions and how we can incrementally do better.

She begins by explaining how we are too focused on the outcome of a decision (resulting) and not enough on how we made the decision in the first place.  She continues with the idea of luck vs. skill, uncertainty, how our beliefs lead to confirmation bias, echo chambers and motivated reasoning.  All of these mental issues lead us to make decisions without an accurate evaluation of the current situation.  She then looks at how we can change our habits to improve our learning loop and gradually get better.  She recommends forming truthseeking groups, which can introduce more accountability, diversity of viewpoints, and organized skepticism.  All of these lead to deeper situational analyses before decisions are made, more certainty of possible outcomes and better post-decision interpretations so that mistakes can be corrected and not repeated.  Finally, she looks at mental time travel, both looking into the future and working backward from positive (backcasting) and negative (premortems) futures.

She doesn’t just rely on her experience as a professional gambler or her own work in psychology, but frequently references the academic research in this field without overdoing it and her real-life examples are well-chosen to appeal to a broad range of readers.  She does get a bit repetitive at times, but that is a minor point.  Perhaps I am guilty of some confirmation bias of my own in this evaluation as her recommendations for further reading is full of books I’ve enjoyed in the past, including previous Books of the Year winners: The Half-life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date by Samuel Arbesman, The Power of Habit: why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


2018 Runner-up, Non-fiction. Finding the Game by Gwendolyn Oxenham

Runner-up, Non-fiction.  Finding the Game: three years, twenty-five countries, and the search for pickup soccer by Gwendolyn Oxenham.  The best books are those that you don’t want to put down, can’t wait to find out what happens at the end, and then when you’re finished, wish were even longer.  I’m only two-thirds through Oxenham’s recounting of her worldwide journey with her boyfriend and two other filmmakers as they searched for games across the globe, but I can’t wait to write about it.  Like “Rejection Proof” by Jia Jiang, this was another find through my university’s alumni magazine in which she wrote a compelling essay about her fear of the future after her varsity soccer career ended, about how she and her friends eventually made the documentary (entitled Pelada) and the accompanying book, and about how she has made peace with being scared through her new profession as a writer.  Having played pickup games of several kinds across this country, I felt an immediate kinship with Oxenham’s story and thought this was going to be a worthwhile read and, thankfully, it was.

The book is a travelogue of adventures in South America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East with the common thread of pickup soccer, not the football of the Champions League or the MLS or even the organized youth leagues found every weekend across the U.S.  These are games “organized” by friends calling friends or fortuitous meetings in parks or on beaches in Brazil or by tracking down rumors, like the games on the rooftop of a Japanese department store.  Sometimes games were arranged, like at the prison in Bolivia, or they joined competitions, like the four-village championship in Ghana, but a lot of time was spent just hoping to find a field or hear the raised voices of players arguing about whether a shot was inside or outside the goal post.

A less prominent, but still interesting, sub-plot is the travails of getting the project completed.  Putting together the team of twenty-somethings: Luke, the boyfriend and former player at Notre Dame; Ryan, a former camera partner in the undergraduate documentary studies department, and Rebekah, a former teammate and another documentary filmmaker.  Getting the funding, planning the trips, navigating the cities, back roads, and border crossings, and then pulling everything together.

Oxenham sparingly describes the individual games, though she does point out the different national styles of play, but devotes most of the book to the people they meet along the way: the old men who can’t give up the game, the young ones who work all day looking forward to playing all night, and the kids eager to learn new tricks and hoping to use the sport as a way to better their lives.  As she discovers, that last hope is inevitable, whether one advances through organized leagues to national teams or whether one just plays “kick about” and “take a sweat.”

And if you prefer golf to soccer, then you should try “Around the World in 80 Rounds” by David Wood instead in which he plays courses in twenty-two countries in twelve months.  Or “18 in America: A Young Golfer’s Epic Journey to Find the Essence of the Game” by Dylan Dethier, an account of one teenager’s solo trek to play golf in each of the lower forty-eight states.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2018 Honorable Mention, Non-fiction. Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

Honorable Mention, Non-fiction.  Hit Makers: the science of popularity in an age of distraction by Derek Thompson.  The best non-fiction books aren’t full of dry academic prose, but use great storytelling to introduce scientific concepts.  Fortunately for Thompson, his experience at The Atlantic magazine makes this one of his strengths.  Each chapter begins with the origin and development story for a phenomenal entertainment hit: Johannes Brahms’ “Goodnight” lullaby, George Lucas’ Star Wars, E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” series.  He then transitions to the science, both the psychology of why people like things and the economics of how products can reach a mass audience.  These concepts: familiarity, repetition, speech and music rhythms, the MAYA rule (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable), global cascades, chaos, the myth of “viral” distributions, homophily, neophobics and neophilics help explain the stories behind the unusual success of these endeavors.   It’s true that the first half of the book focusing on “Popularity and the Mind” is stronger than the second, “Popularity and the Market,” and Thompson does not do as well looking forward as he does looking back, but overall this is a very good effort to explain what is very hard to explain: why do some songs, books, movies, artists, or creators become famous when millions of others don’t.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2018 Best Entertainment Book. The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten. the tweets of Steve Martin

Best Entertainment Book.  The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People.  Make That Ten.  the tweets of Steve Martin.  I don’t tweet, or Instagram, or snapchat.  I don’t care how many followers a celebrity has or what they’re doing, eating or thinking.  But I do think that Steve Martin is an incredibly quick-witted, smart guy and I still think his autobiography, Born Standing Up, is the best entertainment-related book I’ve read in years.  So when I saw this book about his early tweets from 2010-12 on the shelf, I picked it up.  His musings on dieting, Oscars Holy Week, jury duty, alternative Christmas song lyrics and a variety of other topics are as funny as you might expect.  You might conclude that his brain works in some strange, unique way, but based on the responses to his tweets also included here, there are lots of others who think the same way.  And they are just as funny, if not more so.  This slim, 100-page volume is worth an hour or two of your time.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2018 Best Historical Mystery. The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch

Best Historical Mystery.  The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch.  I can’t believe it’s taken me ten years and eleven books before I’ve selected one of the Charles Lenox series for inclusion here.  Perhaps it’s because there is nothing unusual about the setting: early Victorian London or about the main protagonist: the second son of a baronet who chooses to make his way not in the military or the church, but by becoming an amateur private detective.  What does set these books apart is how well-written they are and their pacing.  These are definitely “Just one more chapter” no matter what time of night it is type of books.  Normally, I would recommend readers begin a series with the first book, in this case A Beautiful Blue Death.  However, as Finch described it at a recent author talk at my local library, his editor suggested that a prequel to the series might work. So in The Woman in the Water the backstories for Lenox, his brother Edmund, his valet Graham and the other characters inhabiting Lenox’s world are not as critical.  Finch’s self-critique is that this is a “much better book” than Beautiful Blue Death.  “It can stand on its own, but there are several Easter Eggs for readers who have been through the series.”  The story begins with a killer who writes a letter to a local newspaper claiming to have committed the perfect murder and promising to soon double his tally of victims.  And we’re off with a plot that contains several excellent twists, though unfortunately does not have a completely satisfactory conclusion, perhaps because as Finch hinted, he is planning to continue this younger, more uncertain Lenox for a few more books.  For those looking for the grit and grime of mid-19th century London, then this isn’t for you.  Although there is a corpse found along the Thames, it’s mostly Scotland Yard, upper class balls, country estates and lots and lots of tea.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2018 Historical Mystery, Runner-up. Deeds of Darkness by Mel Starr

Historical Mystery, Runner-up.  Deeds of Darkness by Mel Starr.  I have long enjoyed the chronicles of Hugh de Singleton, surgeon and bailiff in 14th century Bampton, a small town outside Oxford.  So in all fairness, including this title on my list of best books is more an accumulative award for quality rather than a reflection of the merits of this particular story, in which Hugh searches for the town’s missing coroner and finds a crime spree stretching for miles throughout the surrounding countryside.  I would highly recommend beginning with Hugh’s introduction in “The Unquiet Bones” as it really gives the backstory for how he came to be bailiff to Lord Gilbert Talbot and introduces all the supporting cast, including his beloved Kate and others in the local area.  These mysteries are not terribly complicated: basic murder or theft usually, but Starr excels in two important areas.  First, he takes us inside the head of his protagonist, who also serves as narrator, allowing us to see how Hugh interprets each clue, both the critical ones and the red herrings, but Starr does this without becoming long-winded about it, a trap many other authors fall into.  Hugh is a religious man, who studied under John Wycliffe before turning to medicine, so there are numerous references to Bible passages and teachings scattered throughout each story as Hugh ponders the good and especially the evil of his fellow man.  Second, he captures the atmosphere of a rural English town: one large enough to have a lord’s castle, but small enough that the lone surgeon has to double as the lord’s bailiff.  But again, his descriptions are crisply told, which keeps the pacing of each tale going.  The books are a bit shorter than typical, but provide a pleasant escape for a few days of reading and I look forward to each new chapter in the series.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2017 Book of the Year. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

Book of the Year.  A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee.  This debut historical mystery featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee in post-WWI Calcutta is a wonderfully complex tale.  Its central character and narrator is the recently-arrived detective, formerly of Scotland Yard and with a small opium problem, who gives readers a first-hand account of his struggles to adapt to the world that is India at the time.  There is the stifling bureaucracy filled with corruption, the money-hungry English capitalists, the violently paranoid military intelligence organization trying to keep the Raj in power and the developing native nationalist groups trying to bring it all down.  The death of a high-ranking official in a Black Town alleyway brings Wyndham and his Cambridge-educated Indian sergeant in contact with all these elements as well as the normal unsavory denizens of the city’s underworld.  This core mystery is elaborate and Mukherjee also does a fine job of developing secondary characters from each of the complimentary groups.  Not since the early books in the Joe Sandilands series by Barbara Cleverly has there been such a good mystery set in the Jewel in the Crown.

This year I also read Arjun Raj Gaind’s debut mystery, “A Very Pukka Murder,” set in 1909 India.  Although I liked the protagonist, Maharajah Sikander Singh, and there is potential in the supporting cast, I found the plotting unimaginative and formulaic and the “reveal” was tediously long.  I will not be reading this series any further.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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