2019 in review through books (a non-medical post)

Book list title image

Last year, I started keeping track of the books I was reading, mostly to help prevent me from bringing a handful of books on vacation only to find out that I have already read them all. Reading back through the list was a nice “year in review” exercise for me. When I posted the list last year, a few people seemed to enjoy glancing through it. More importantly (for me), it led to a large number of recommendations that I really enjoyed (at least 1/3 of the books on this year’s list were recommended by people last year). This post is completely non-medical, so feel free to ignore it. I will be back with more medical education next week. Happy New Year!

NOTE: I have included links to all of these books. These are Amazon affiliate links. That means that if you click the link and buy the book, I get a small amount of money. The cost to you is unchanged. You can think of it as a way to support the many costs of running First10EM, if you feel like the site deserves your support. If you are uncomfortable with that, just go to Amazon yourself and search for the book. I am not trying to sell you anything (which should become obvious by the opinions I express about some of these books).

The Books (In the order that I read them)

Doctors in Denial: Why big pharma and the Canadian medical profession are too close for comfort

By Joel Lexchin

An important book that looks at the ties between the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical industry in Canada. Probably too specific for a broader audience outside of Canada, but some important background if you are interested in this stuff. I actually ended up having the honour of recording a podcast with Joel after reading his book.

Arbitrary number score: 70


The Silver Dream (InterWorld book 2)

Eternity’s Wheel (InterWorld book 3)

By Michael Reeves and Neil Gaiman

A science fiction/fantasy trilogy that combines teleportation, multiple dimensions, time travel, and magic. My first thought was that they were a little juvenile (but I think they might have been written as teen fiction). I decided to read books 2 and 3 only to see if they were as predictable as I thought (which they were), but I found myself enjoying the story along the way.

Combined arbitrary number score: 72.5

Fluke: Or, I know why the winged whale sings

By Christopher Moore

This wasn’t nearly as funny as the other Christopher Moore books I have read, but I think the story was a lot better (other than Lamb, which I think is his best book). A team of scientists try to discover why humpback whales sing, with an odd twist.

Arbitrary number score: 81

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

By Theodora Goss

I disliked this one as much as the first. The story, combining multiple historical fiction characters into a new science fiction mystery, should be great. But the writing is just so boring I can’t recommend it to anyone.

Arbitrary number score: 3

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

By David Sedaris

A collection of humorous short stories about animals. Some were great. Others were no so great.

Arbitrary number score: 73 


By Robert J Sawyer

It surprises me how much I like this story. It is a realistic science fiction novel. There really wasn’t much suspense, or even a climax. There were a couple story lines that felt unfinished. But despite all that, I really enjoyed this book. Not sure how all that will change in book 2 of the trilogy, but I have already borrowed it from the library, so I’ll know soon.  

Arbitrary number score: 82 


By Robert J Sawyer

I started reading book 3 as soon as I finished book 2, so that is a good sign. I am not sure why I find this series so gripping, because not much happens, but I love the concept and the writing

Arbitrary number score: 88 


By Robert J Sawyer

I’ve decided that this series is a lot like the movie “Kill Bill”. It should never have been broken up. It tells one continuous story, and there is no point in reading one part without the others. Sure, the book would have been enormously long if published as one volume, but that is how you should read it anyway. And if it is considered as a single long story, it is one of the best books I have read in some time.

Arbitrary number score: 95 

Gray Mountain

By John Grisham

Pretty standard John Grisham. More of a novel length polemic against the coal industry than a true pager turner, and the story ends feeling a little unfinished, but I still enjoyed it.

Arbitrary number score: 77

When Einstein Walked with Godel: Excursions to the edge of thought

By Jim Holt

Not the type of book you want to pick up after a long shift, as this collection of essays dives into a wide range of topics in advanced mathematics and physics. Like many collections, some are great and others bored me to sleep, but overall it was nice to catch up on some topics I haven’t read about deeply since undergrad.

Arbitrary number score: 71 

Behave. The biology of humans at our best and worst

By Robert M Sapolsky

Long enough to verge on being a textbook, but still so packed with information that it might require multiple reads. Overall, its a good book, but will take some effort to get through.

Arbitrary number score:  81

The Whistler

By John Grisham

Another average Grisham novel, this time centered around organized crime and a corrupt judge. OK for killing a few hours, but nothing amazing.

Arbitrary number score: 72 


By Ticht Nhat Hanh

One of those books where everything said appears incredibly obvious, but there is probably a great deal that is profound. I didn’t enjoy it much, but I think that might be because I tried it as an audiobook, which I don’t usually do, and it interfered with my concentration.

Arbitrary number score: 62

Past Tense (Jack Reacher)

By Lee Child

Not my favourite of the Jack Reacher series. It took me a while to get into it, but Lee Child definitely can write a page turner, and there is something likeable about the Reacher character.

Arbitrary number score: 76

The Hod King (Books of Babel book 3)

By Josiah Bancroft

The third in a series of books following a bumpkin school teacher as he gets completely lost in the Tower of Babel. I enjoyed the first 2 a lot. This one took my a while to get in to, and then I was a little disappointed, because for some reason I thought this was a trilogy and was looking for closure which never came. I will probably still read book 4, but I am less excited about it.

Arbitrary number score: 74

Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life

By Todd Kashdan

I love the subject matter of this book. There are definitely some valuable nuggets in here which probably make it worth reading, but I feel like it would have been better if it was half as long. 

Arbitrary number score: 71

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All 

By Tom and David Kelley

This is an excellent book if you have ever said “I’m not creative”, or if you question the value of creativity in your life. I really want to attend the D-school (design school) these authors run at Standford, and am trying to figure out how to make that fit into my life.

Arbitrary number score: 81

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure

By William Goldman

Everyone loves the movie. I don’t think I even knew this was a novel. Like always, the novel is better than the movie – although comedy is one genre where the movie can come close.

Arbitrary number score: 83

A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life

By Brian Grazer

I enjoyed this book. Grazer talks about the “curiosity conversations” he has been having throughout his life – conversations with interesting people simply because he was curious – as a way of highlighting the tremendous value of curiosity in life.

Arbitrary number score: 77

Saturn Run

By John Sandford and Ctein

I really appreciate the effort that goes into realistic scifi. These authors actually spent months running simulations of orbital mechanics to make sure the precise details and dates they describe in the book were true. Overall, I felt the plot was missing something, but the book was definitely worth reading.

Arbitrary number score: 74

The Man in the High Castle

I love the concept: a description of the world if Germany and Japan had won world war 2. This is an interesting book, but I am not sure I really cared about any of the characters.

Arbitrary number score: 71

Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!

By Richard P Feynman

Broke from my usual avoidance of biographies (actually, autobiography in this case), and I am glad I did. Feynman is a fascinating human being, but also incredibly funny. 

Arbitrary number score: 85


By Ernest Cline

This is another Sci Fi book by the author of Ready Player One. In a lot of ways, it is very similar. An easy read, with some very interesting concepts, but also some problems. This isn’t as good as Ready Player One (by a fair margin), but it is definitely worth the time as a fun read.

Arbitrary number score: 83

The Little Book of Loss and Grief You Can Read While You Cry

By Liz Crowe

This is a short, but deep book. As you would expect of anything from Liz Crowe, it is incredibly insightful. I’d like a good stock of hard copies for use in the emergency department.

Arbitrary number score: 96

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

By Daniel Coyle

A good book about what makes great groups function. A lot of the points made seem like common sense. A few were counter intuitive. I will probably have to reread it if I want to practically apply the lessons in my life.

ALIEM just recently reviewed this book.

Arbitrary number score: 87

An American Marriage

By Tayari Jones

I have been reading so much science fiction recently, that I almost forgot how emotionally invested you can get in a really great book. This is a great book. It will make you think and make you feel – exactly what a great novel should do. 

Arbitrary number score: 92

Dark Matter

By Blake Crouch

Back to some mindless, fun science fiction. You have to remain a little mindless in order to ignore the holes in the science side of this science fiction, but I like the concept, and the story was very well executed.

Arbitrary number score: 78


By Andrew Sean Greer

It took me a while to get into this novel, following a man on a trip around the world designed to distract him from his failing love life. It wasn’t one of those novels that kept me up late because I couldn’t put it down, but by the end I found myself really caring about the characters.

Arbitrary number score: 76

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe

By Lauren James

Another fun science fiction book that was a little light on the science. I wouldn’t read it again, but it was a fun read.

Arbitrary number score: 71


By VE Schwab

I enjoyed the “Shades of Magic” trilogy by this author last year. This is another fantasy / magical genre book, with a reasonable page turner feel. I was a little disappointed to see that it is part of a series, because I think it would have stood up better as a single book.

Arbitrary number score: 74

The President is Missing

By Bill Clinton and James Patterson

I didn’t expect to like this book. I felt like Bill Clinton writing a novel was going to be a bit of a gimmick, and the reviews didn’t seem very good, but as a spy/action book goes, I actually found this quite entertaining. 

Arbitrary number score: 75

The Power

By Naomi Alderman

I have mixed feelings about this one. It looks at a world in which, because of a electrical organ, women are suddenly more physically powerful than men. It scratches the surface of some very important political and social issues, especially around male-female power dynamics, and follows a number of potentially interesting storylines, but I never really found myself engaged by the characters. This was one of those books that should have left me outraged at the unfairness in the world, but it never quite got there.

Arbitrary number score: 77

Brief Answers to the Big Questions

By Stephen Hawking

It’s hard to go wrong reading about physics and philosophy from one the the smartest people of the last generation. Hawking has an incredible way of simplifying science (except in the chapter on black holes, which I think was too close to his expertise for simplification) and bringing common sense to big questions. 

Arbitrary number score: 81

Turtles All the Way Down

By John Green

Not sure how this one ended up on my shelf. It’s clearly written for teenagers. That being said, the author offers a fascinating portrayal of anxiety that made the book a worthwhile read.

Arbitrary number score: 68

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

By Hank Green

Loved this book. Gripped me right from the beginning. Decent amount of mystery. Decent amount of science fiction. Decent social commentary. In retrospect, I can’t claim anything was outstanding, but it was one of those books I just didn’t put down until I was done.

Arbitrary number score: 86

The Word is Murder

By Anthony Horowitz

Another good novel. Slightly different take on a detective novel, told first person through the eyes of an author following the detective around, and therefore part of the story. I guess it’s a bit of a nod to the Watson role in Sherlock. Worth a read. 

Arbitrary number score: 79

Deep Work

By Cal Newport

I’ve read this one before. If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth reading. I don’t think he actually says anything surprising in the book, but rereading it definitely motivated me to break some of the bad habits I had developed again. 

Arbitrary number score: 81

My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite

An OK story, but far too thin on psychology. I never got any sense of why the characters in the book were acting the way they were, and so it never felt very real.

Arbitrary number score: 53

The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss

By Max Wirestone

Fine for a quick, somewhat funny mystery novel. I don’t think I’ll read the second in the series.

Arbitrary number score: 66

Brave New World

By Aldous Huxley

I still can’t decide if I like this book. I have probably read it 3 or 4 times since the mandatory introduction in school, and although I love most dystopian science fiction novels, I am just not sure about this one.

Arbitrary number score: 75

Heads You Win

By Jeffrey Archer

I really enjoyed this novel – well maybe until the ending. An interesting look at two possible story lines after a mother and her son escape communist Russia. Did they get on the boat to England or America? 

Arbitrary number score: 82 

George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt

By Lucy and Stephen Hawking

It is a children’s book, but it is written by Stephen Hawking. I was intrigued by the concept. I will probably save the rest of the series until my niece is old enough to understand them, but I really like the concept.

Arbitrary number score: 80

A Brief History of Thought

By Luc Ferry

An interesting reinterpretation of the history and aim of philosophy as salvation. I think the argument falls apart in places, but it was well written and serves as a nice refresher course in some philosophical writing. 

Arbitrary number score: 76

The Last Neanderthal

By Claire Cameron

This was a fun historical fiction following the life of a neanderthal woman as she first contacts humans, and her way of life dies out around her. I enjoyed the story, and it did an excellent job of making me consider a part of history I rarely consider.

Arbitrary number score: 83

Cognitive Errors and Diagnostic Mistakes

By Jonathan Howard

I will admit, I originally grabbed this book because I was told I was quoted in the last chapter. I am fascinated by cognition in medicine, and I think this textbook serves as an excellent overview, while also addressing the many shortcomings of attempting to use the classic dual process theory framework to improve patient outcomes.

Arbitrary number score: 85

Nine Perfect Strangers

By Liane Moriarty

I am surprised I read another Liane Moriarty book after this (but I am glad I did, because I loved Big Little Lies). It was OK – that is the best I can say.

Arbitrary number score: 60


By Louis Sachar

Holes is one of my wife’s favourite movies. I read the book mostly as part of the ongoing debate about whether a movie could ever be as good as the novel. (And, actually, this one might come close. The key is probably that this is a very simple kids story, so the movie doesn’t lose important details, like usually happens.)

Arbitrary number score: 79 

Small Steps

By Louis Sachar

This is the sequel to Holes. I have a weird thing where I often feel compelled to read a whole series once I have started. The story is fine, but I would probably only recommend reading it if you are 14.

Arbitrary number score: 55

The Couple Next Door

By Shari Lapena

A thriller with a few decent twists. Nothing special, but good for a light read (which are very important books to have after coming home from long shifts).

Arbitrary number score: 74

A long way down

By Nick Hornby 

4 strangers meet on top of a building. They are all there to comit suicide. They bond. The story was mildly entertaining, but can’t really say much more than that.

Arbitrary number score: 65


By Rachel Ward

Nothing special. A teenage girl sees numbers whenever she looks at someone – and soon realizes those numbers correlate with the date they will die. And then the story takes a turn so that the power is mostly irrelevant to the story, and it is just a tale of stupid teenagers.

Arbitrary number score: 57

Pirate Latitudes

By Michael Crichton

Perfectly fine for a day on the beach in Bora Bora, but I felt like the story was missing something.

Arbitrary number score: 65

The Kite Runner

By Khaled Hosseini

Can’t really disagree with all the awards it won. A wonderful but very sad story.

Arbitrary number score: 88

My Sister’s Keeper

By Jodi Picoult

I originally read this book while I was working on my thesis looking at informed consent in genetic research. I enjoyed the book at the time, but spent most of my time thinking about it academically. This time I just enjoyed the story, and it’s a great story.

Arbitrary number score: 87

Washington Black

By Esi Edugyan

The story was well written. It started strong and got me intrigued, and kept me reading to the end, but somehow never seemed to build into anything bigger than a simple recounting of a story.

Arbitrary number score: 79

Big Little Lies

By Liane Moriarty

I really liked this book. I am a little surprised I read a second book by Liane Moriarty after Nine Perfect Strangers, but I am glad I did. For a story that just follows the parents of a kindergarten class from the Sydney suburbs, it was surprisingly intriguing, and hit some important topics. All round enjoyable read.

Arbitrary number score: 86

How Not to be Wrong: The power of mathematical thinking

By Jordan Ellenberg

Some of the concepts in this book were very simple. Some very complex. My best summary is that it is somewhat like a mathematics textbook transformed into something fun to read and made applicable to everyday life. There are important concepts in here that everyone should understand. 

Arbitrary number score: 86

Seven Signs of Life

By Aoife Abbey

“Being a doctor feels like feeling everything.” This was a nice journey through the many emotions that come with being a doctor, written by an intensivist from Ireland. 

Arbitrary number score: 80

Dragon Teeth

By Michael Crichton

I liked this book. There wasn’t anything particularly exciting about it, but it paints an interesting picture of the era of early paleontologists. 

Arbitrary number score: 72

Ant Farm

By Simon RIch

A bunch of inane, but rather funny short stories based on bizarre premises. I occasionally laughed out loud, and generally enjoyed the book, but it felt a little too much like I was back in highschool having pointless conversations with my friends.

Arbitrary number score: 81

The House of Broken Angels

By Luis Alberto Urrea

I don’t really have anything bad to say about this novel. It was a wonderfully written saga following the struggles of a multigenerational family of Mexican immigrants trying to make a life in the US. However, I can’t say I really loved it either.

Arbitrary number score: 75

Being Wrong: Adventures in the margin of error

By Kathryn Schulz

A nonfiction with a good goal: trying to make people embrace our errors, as they are completely unavoidable. There are a number of very important topics in here. Many in medicine will already be intimately familiar with the many shortcomings of human perception and cognition, but even knowing those concepts this is probably still a worthwhile read. We all need the occasional reminder that the sensation of being wrong is exactly the same as the sensation of being right. 

Arbitrary number score: 83

Patriot Games

By Tom Clancy

I haven’t rewatched the movie since reading the book, so it’s hard to weigh in on which is better. The writing in this novel isn’t great, but the story was obviously good enough to be turned into a movie, so that’s something.

Arbitrary number score: 73


By Mark Kurlansky

I liked the concept of this book. (A brief world history, told through the lens of the importance of salt). It was well written, and there was a lot of interesting information. I just wasn’t all that interested in the subject matter. I don’t think that was the book’s fault. I just tried to force my way through when I wasn’t in the mood.

Arbitrary number score: 70 – but probably higher if I read at a different time

The art of logic in an illogical world

By Eugenia Cheng

This is a really nice, common sense approach to using basic mathematical logic concepts in the real world. A lot of the content is pretty basic, but there are definitely some techniques in here that are worthwhile to be reminded of. I liked her summary in the final chapter that tries to move beyond just using logic or emotion, into good judgement, which involves using both with purpose.

Arbitrary number score: 72


By Gary Paulsen

This is one of my wife’s favourite books. When she realized I had never read it, there was no question it would be next on my list. It was pretty good for a kid’s book.

Arbitrary number score: 81

A Dangerous Act of Kindness

By LP Fergusson

This was a good story. (German World War 2 pilot crashed in Britain and is hidden on the farm of a single woman.) The writing was beautiful, but I did find it excessively wordy at times.

Arbitrary number score: 77

The Art of Strategy

By Avinash K Dixit and Barry J Nalebuff

Honestly – there were a few times this year when I got busy and didn’t make notes. I can’t really remember much about this book. I think it was good, but the fact that I can’t remember it might hint otherwise.

Arbitrary number score: Can’t remember

The Meaning of Liff

By Douglas Adams and John Lloyd

A fictional dictionary created to name a number of phenomena that don’t don’t have words in English. Mostly for skimming, but anything written by Douglas Adams is bound to make you laugh.

Arbitrary number score: 77

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

By Ocean Vuong

I am still not sure how I feel about this book. There are incredibly beautiful passages – some of the best writing I have encountered. Unfortunately, there were times when that seemed to go too far – where I could no longer understand what was happening, because the novel had abruptly transitioned into a rather abstract poem. The underlying story was certainly powerful, covering a wide variety of emotional topics. Worth a read, but it is not a novel for relaxation – it will require your full attention.

Arbitrary number score: 81

Unlearn: 101 Simple Truths for a Better Life

By Humble the Poet

You could see this book as a lot of words without really saying anything (or maybe just saying the obvious), and to some extent that is true, but it would be missing the point. This is a collection of truths that although obvious are also very easy to forget. They are truths we all need to hear over and over to make them stick. They are truths so simple that they are actually occasionally profound. There is also a lot of stuff that is either way too simplified, or just wrong, but the chapters are nice starting points for deeper thought.

Arbitrary number score: 79

I used to know that: Stuff you forgot from school

By Caroline Taggart

A fun quick book that covers tidbits of information from various subjects that you probably forgot from elementary school. In the days of wikipedia, none of this really needs to be memorized, but this was a nice reminder of just how much I have forgotten in my life.

Arbitrary number score: 70 

Lucky Jim

By Kingsley Amis

I wanted to like this. I really think I should have. I ended up reading it while I was on night shifts, and I think my extreme exhaustion inhibited by enjoyment of the novel.

Arbitrary number score: 65

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

By Douglas Adams

There are times that I think I like the Dirk Gently novels even more than the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Either way, it is well written and will make you laugh out loud.

Arbitrary number score: 95

The Management Style of Supreme Beings

By Tom Holt

This is the first book I’ve read by Tom Holt (thanks to whoever recommended him after last year’s list), and I liked it enough to read 3 more before the end of the year.

Arbitrary number score: 79

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

By Douglas Adams

The sequel to Dirk Gently – maybe not quite as good as the first, but still something I reread every decade or so.

Arbitrary number score: 91

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice or, On the Segregation of the Queen

By Laurie R King

An intelligent teenage girl meets Sherlock Holmes while he is retired to the country side and they develop a friendship and ultimately a crime-solving partnership. An OK novel.

Arbitrary number score: 71 


When It’s a Jar

The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice

By Tom Holt

These are three books in a comedy / fantasy series that follows characters through the multiverse that became available after the CERN collider exploded (and the only way to get out is to look through a doughnut, or some other circular food.)

Arbitrary number score: 82

The Library Book

By Susan Orlean

I really enjoyed this book, but I have to admit, I was confused for most of it. (I thought it was fiction when I got it, and remained confused about that fact for a good chunk of the novel.) For a historical non-fiction examining a library fire, it was actually a pretty gripping read.

Arbitrary number score: 81 

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

By David Brooks

This is an excellent book that explores what the author believes is the key to leading a meaningful life: the transition from individualist motives to a life judged more on the quality of interpersonal relationships. I imagine some people will hate this book (it is somewhat preachy and there is plenty to disagree with), but I think it is a good stepping stone to deep thinking about one’s own life.

Arbitrary number score: 83

Moonwalking with Einstein

By Joshua Foer

If you have never heard of the world memory championships, you might find this book fascinating. Otherwise, it is an average nonfiction exploring memory and deliberate practice from a first person perspective.

Arbitrary number score: 72

Man’s 4th Best Hospital

By Samuel Shem

As a sequel to the classic House of God (and Mount Misery), I was really excited for this novel. I had actually pre-ordered it months in advance. Maybe I expected too much, because I didn’t like it. Maybe it will be more meaningful to people working in a for-profit health care system, but even then, the novel is more depressing than satirical, and I just didn’t care much about the characters. The issues it addresses might be important, but I can’t see myself recommending it to anyone.

Arbitrary number score: 68

Invisible Women

By Caroline Criado Perez

For readers of my blog, I would say this is the “must read” of the year. If you like the surprising insights of evidence based medicine, you are bound to love the way this book shines a light on the many ways seemingly simple policies and decisions profoundly harm women in our society. 

Arbitrary number score: 89


By Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore books are generally over the top, but will definitely make you laugh. This satire of film noir set in post world war 2 San Francisco was exactly what you might expect from him, while still being unexpected.

Arbitrary number score: 82

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