2019 was the year I really tried to double down on the commitment to reading and writing.
I set about trying to read a book a week and write as much as possible and that was a great exercise. I feel like I exposed myself to so many great ideas and articulated so many different things that I’m interested in. I read a book a week — all sorts of things — from non fiction to novels, personal development to crime fiction, history to travel guides — all sorts.
My Top 10 books I hear you ask?
- The world as it is: a memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes
- Kidnap by Anja Shortland
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
- Secret City by Steve Lewis & Chris Uhlmann
- The Panama Papers by Bastian & Frederik Obermaier
- Hamlet, Globe to globe by Dominic Dromgoole
- Never Split the difference by Chris Voss
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- I Wouldn’t Start from Here by Andrew Mueller
- Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
For 2020, I’m doubling down this year to try and read 100 books and write everyday. Let’s see how that goes. For now, here’s my booklist of the 52 books I read in 2019, in the order I read them.
1. The way of the strangers — encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood
A fascinating read, I started the year with this book by Wood as a primer to understand more about the world’s most hated terrorist organisation. In his own words, “from the ideas that motivate it, to the “fatwa factory” that produces its laws, to its very specific plans for the future. By accepting that ISIS truly believes the end is nigh, we can understand its strategy-and predict what it will do next.” This book is a fascinating insight into this.
2. The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma
You could argue this book is part novel, part self help book. Kind of like if Tim Ferriss and Paulo Coelho had a baby. Sharma seeks to ultimately detail all the great benefits of rising earlier than everyone else (say… 5am?) and getting lots of things done early in the day, the benefits of a strong morning routine as well as some good habits (exercise, meditating and a good diet). While this book wasn’t incredible at convincing me — I do now rise early. I’d recommend this book as part of a broader personal development diet.
3. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
I love a good non-fiction book that can detail aspects of life that appear so simple but have a whole world behind them. Gilbert’s book details all these sort of things. He asks all sorts of questions such as “Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they really want? Why do pigeons seem to have such excellent aim? why can’t we remember one song while listening to another? and why does the line at the grocery store always slow down the moment we join it?” It’s a wonderful psychological insight for non-psychologists about what makes us happiest. Not too difficult a read, well worth a look.
4. Bangkok days by Lawrence Osborne
Hmmm. I can’t recommend this book. It’s not that it’s written badly — Obsorne is a good writer but I just didn’t like the book. It essentially chronicles a handful of ‘farangs’ (Foreigner in Thai) and their escapades in Bangkok. I think my problem is that it regales tales of all the things that are wrong (in my view) with expats in south-east Asia. It’s exploitative, crass and desperate. Like I said — well written… just scary that this might actually be reality for some people. As one of the reviews on goodreads put it, “Lonely, middle-aged white man writes about lonely, middle-aged white men in Bangkok. That’s a real perspective, and there’s some good phrasing and a few fun stories, but in the end it’s too limited to be very interesting.”
5. The Panama Papers by Bastian & Frederik Obermaier
This book is in my top 10 for the year. It details investigative journalist Bastian Obermayer as he receives an anonymous message offering him access to secret data, what the world later came to know as ‘The Panama Papers’. It’s a gripping read that could arguably be amazing fiction. What makes it an even better read is that it’s a true story. It details their journey of the discovery, analysis and eventual release of over 2.6 terabytes of information, it dwarfed all previous data breaches ever — it’s about 100 times the size of all documents ever released by Wikileaks. What a coup. Like I said, it’s in the top ten and I whole-heartedly recommend it as a read. For a bit more of a review, check out the review in The Times.
6. Islam : the essentials by Tariq Ramadan
As a westerner, middle class white man, fairly intellectual and living in the Middle East — this is a perfect primer to understand Islam on a deeper than surface level. It does exactly what it says on the tin — it describes and explains all the essentials of Islam in a fairly detailed way. This was a great read as I was bouncing between Dubai and Riyadh and found it a great cultural introduction to the Islamic side of life. Strongly recommend.
7. Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman & Chris Yeh
After listening to the Masters of Scale podcast for a while, I thought it would be a good read. Reid Hoffman is clearly very successful (as the co-founder of Linkedin) and his business advice is always very sage. And look, to be fair — it is all great advice and a sound business book. At the time of reading this, the stage at which my newly minted start-up company was at just couldn’t apply much of the learnings. So it’s a 2 star rating for me given my experience and needs at the time. Who knows — If business kicks off and hits the next level, I’ll likely dust it off and take another read. For anyone who’s looking to massively scale a company very, very fast — it’s a good read.
8. Casino royale by Ian Fleming
I’m a pretty huge James Bond fan and I really enjoy Fleming’s writing. On so many levels, it’s a great read. Reading Fleming’s work is an amazing time capsule of a simply different time (cue: misogyny, sexism, racism etc.) but it’s hard not to be seduced by the cool sophistication of the Bond 007 story arc. First published in 1953, this is the first book of the James Bond series and is an excellent introduction to the literary side of 007 if you’ve never read rather than watched the franchise. I picked up this book because I wanted to put some context behind the Daniel Craig film version. In case you’re diving in straight from the film, Dan Peeke of Screen Rant has put together a great list of differences between book and film.
9. Hamlet, Globe to globe by Dominic Dromgoole
This book is awesome. Well actually, more than that — the trip, the trip is awesome. This book chronicles a Shakespearian theatre troupe taking Hamlet to every country in the world. There is so much I love about this book. The traveller part of me is incredibly envious of this epic adventure all around the world. The theatre maker in me loves the concept of sharing Shakespeare across so many communities, so many cultures. If I’m honest, this book has inspired big parts of where I want my arts career to go. Beyond all of that, it’s still a great read of the highs, lows, trials and tribulations of trying to embark on a massive endeavour all around the world. If you read nothing else on this list, read this!
10. I Wouldn’t Start from Here by Andrew Mueller
What can I say, I really like Andrew Mueller. I’ve long been a listener of his on Monocle24 and find his way of reporting, speaking and writing to be refreshing. It’s intellectual but in a poppy-chopping vein that only an Australian could muster. This book follows Mueller along some of his travels as a reporter across the world through the likes of Afghanistan, Albania, Ireland, Libya and beyond as he navigates plenty of places off the well-trodden path. Not a difficult read, but often thought provoking, funny and refreshing. This was a good read. The only problem is that it’s actually a few years old (2009) so it’s a little difficult to find, depending on your location.
11. The Diamond Smugglers by Ian Fleming
Another Fleming to add to the list. To be honest, if I find an author I like, I tend to try and read everything they write. Ian Fleming is definitely on that list. The Diamond Smugglers is one of Fleming’s few non-007 books. It’s a quasi-fiction/non-fiction read centred on the International Diamond Security Organisation and tells a tale of a colonialist adventuring across Africa deep in the web of the diamond smuggling trade. It’s a pretty easy read and it’s fairly short. Not one of my favourites but a worthy read nevertheless.
12. Bird box by Josh Malerman
I picked this up after watching the film on netflix. I actually really enjoyed the film and I enjoyed the book too. There’s plenty of differences between the book and the film but I think that’s largely due to time constraints and brevity. One of the key differences though is just how dark the book ends as opposed to the film. Like it dark? Read the book. Prefer it Happier? Watch the movie.
13. A hologram for the king by Dave Eggers
I thought this was an ok book but I enjoyed the film more. Originally recommended to me as a way to understand Saudi Arabia by a colleague. I’d spent a lot of time in and out of Saudi so when I read this, there’s a lot I identify with. It tells the story of an American business man on his last legs heading to Saudi Arabia to finalise a deal with the Royal Family. Along the way, he has to navigate the cultural differences that Saudi has, he also finds a bit of romance. While the love story is in the book more for a bit of cheap fiction, it’s a surprisingly good tool to understand the idiosyncrasies of Saudi Arabia. I would however recommend the film over the book.
14. Managing the professional service firm by David Maister
Another book I read to improve my work and my company so not really for the general audience. Put simply, it’s a great handbook to understand how a professional services firm operates. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it that provides such a clear and expert look inside Professional Services versus the more generic, mainstream business advisory books. But beyond that, it’s a great handbook on leading and managing teams and understanding how that works in a multinational corporation. I’ve since procured copies of Maister’s other books so will be taking a look at them in 2020.
15. Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
This book has a lot of buzz around it. In my 2019 bent of inhaling so many variants of advice and development, a lot of podcasts and stories I’ve been reading have been suggesting this as one of the all time greatest reads. I think it was on a Tim Ferriss podcast that finally sealed the deal for me to add it to the list. It’s the memoir of Frankl and his life in the Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. “Man’s Search for Meaning has become one of the most influential books in America” and has something for everyone. It’s a book everyone should read once in their lives — detailing how mankind is actually searching for meaning over happiness.
16. The Monocle Guide to London
Not much to review — it’s a great, refined travel guide. I’ve long been a Monocle reader. I like their take on travel and culture. So on a work trip to London, I took the opportunity to sport their London travel guide and use it to explore some great places to eat, bars to drink at and things to see and do. Can definitely recommend their travel guide collection.
17. Secrecy World by Jake Bernstein
After reading The Panama Papers, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the system that allowed this to happen. Bernstein’s book is a really good look into this. It’s also a good extension to the Panama Papers book as it goes a bit further beyond simply disclosing the cache of release. Why did I rate it only two stars? Honestly, at the time of reading (and writing this review), it was just a bit too dense for me.
18. The Stranger by Albert Camus
I forget how I stumbled onto the work of Albert Camus but I’m glad I did. It’s gritty and raw. It opens “Mother died today Or, maybe, yesterday; I cant be sure.” It’s a crisp, brief and hauntingly raw read. Originally a french novel, translated later to English tells the story of the protagonist who gets unwittingly caught up in a murder on an Algerian beach. It dives all across the philosophical spectrum exploring human connection, existentialism, judgement and ultimately who you are as a human being. Certainly in the Top 5 — I can’t recommend this more.
19. Behave by Robert M Sapolsky
For me, Sapolsky’s behave echoes much of what I wrote about Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. It asks lots of thought provoking questions about actions, behaviours and intentions in our daily lives — ones which we often take fore-granted or assume are rooted in our subconscious. He explores these, gives them meaning and helps the reader understand why and how they happen. While it can be science heavy, I really enjoyed this book to understand all manner of things in daily life.
20. Animal Farm by George Orwell
If you haven’t read this or 1984, get a copy and read it today. Animal Farm is truly one of the all time classics and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read it. An easy read but for a book written in 1945, there’s so many parallels with modern society.
21. Manuscript found in Accra by Paulo Coelho
Coelho’s Manuscript found in Accra is your a-typical Coelho narrative. I’d place it middle of the road on my Coelho spectrum (not as good as Alchemist or Zahir, not as bad as HIppie). Depending on the reader’s spiritual and emotional travels through life, parts of the book will prove to reaffirm and provide insight. If as a reader you don’t identify with parts of it, you’ll likely still see a beautiful narrative.
22. Why nations fail by Daron Acemoglu
I read Why Nations Fail as a way of better understanding geopolitics and geoeconomics, what makes some nations work and others not. Asking key questions like” “Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?” A great read if you’re looking for a fix of geopolitics and global economics.
23. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
I really wanted this to be better. I first heard of Kamila Shamsie on Meet The Writers and I thought this book sounded fantastic. I just couldn’t connect with it. Let me be clear — this is a great book, I think it was just the wrong time for me. Home Fire is loosely based on Antigone which I’ve never studied. The reviews are glorifying — “Shamsie’s characters are richly developed and complex — especially the sisters. The women are strong and intelligent, passionate and dignified. Social tensions and cultural conflicts deepen the reader’s empathy and understanding. This book is a pleasure, in language and imagery, intellectually and emotionally.” As such, I’m going to put this back on the list for 2020 to re-read it but for now, it’s not for me.
24. The Heart’s Invisible Furies. by John Boyne
I’d heard good things about John Boyne and realised that my booklist lacked much from the United Kingdom. It tells the story of a boy growing up in Ireland in the 1940s and his journey through life. Strangely compelling, it’s a heartwarming book that I found I couldn’t put down. I bought it at the airport expecting not a lot and couldn’t put it away for the whole 14 hour flight.
25. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Simply put — one of the most important classic American novels of all time. Read this. I’m really glad I did.
26. The Fifth Mountain by Paulo Coelho
A beautiful read from Coelho that has echos of the Alchemist to it. Fifth Mountain is the story of “the young prophet Elijah, commanded by an angel of God to flee Israel, seeks safety in the land of Zarephath, where he unexpectedly finds true love with a young widow. But this new-found rapture is to be cut short, and Elijah sees all of his hopes and dreams irrevocably erased.” Not one of my favourite Coelho books but still one of his better works.
27. Atomic Habits by James Clear
Atomic Habits is a fairly run of the mill self help book trying to help people make better habits. Put simply — break big tasks into smaller ones and get some progress — do it every day. There you go, Job done, you don’t need to read this book. To be fair, I’m probably being harsh — if you’re totally starved for insight and really need to start from the beginning in your quest for habits then this book is a gold mine. If you’re already some way down the personal development path, this book is a bit too basic for you but it is a really easy, friendly and beginners read.
28. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
Based on a true story, this exceptional book tells the story of a fourteen year old boy brought electricity to his village in Malawi. Filled with curiosity, ingenuity, the importance of education and at times hardship and famine, this book has everything to be not only an amazing story but also something that leaves a long lasting impact. While I haven’t yet seen it, it’s also been made into a film on Netflix.
29. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
I embarked on this as one of the classics. Dostoevsky isn’t writing a novel or a gripping read — he’s writing deep and intense Russian philosophy cloaked in narrative. I’m torn by this review because truth be told, I simply couldn’t finish the book. Many describe it as the greatest book every written? With characters I didn’t like, a plot I found thicker than tar and a narrative to which I simply couldn’t relate, I just couldn’t get into this one. I think there’s a time and a place for books — this simply wasn’t the right time or place for me.
30. 10% Happier by Dan Harris
10% Happier was written by former news anchor Dan Harris who, after having a panic attack on national television, decided to explore his mental health a bit and stumbled upon Meditation. I think it’s an interesting, worthwhile read and has a no-nonsense approach to describing and attempting meditation that’s often lost on most people. It’s not a magic bullet, it’s just a way of helping you be ‘a bit’ better.
31. The Candy Machine by Tom Feiling
Like many non-fiction books and certainly the many on my bookshelf, Feiling’s book tells the story of a very specific and obscure aspect of life. The Candy Machine tells the history and biography of Cocaine. Good research and excellently written, it’s a good book for when you want to go deep down the rabbit hole of the global drug trade and understand a bit more about how cocaine took over the world.
32. Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett
I must admit I struggled to recall this book when putting this review post together. Maybe that’s telling? It’s a story of seemingly normal suburban Australian families and the lives they lead but a dark secret looms? I’ve had this on my to-read list for a while and remember being pleased but not overwhelmed. A worthy addition to your own booklist if you’re a fan of “normal life” fiction or Australian fiction.
33. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
Dense and historical and not necessarily a page turned. But that’s not why you’d read it. Letters from a Stoic are the core messages and letters from Seneca that ultimately form Stoicism. It seems a little strange to rate this at it’s more of a reference book but if you’re so inclined or preoccupied generally with Philosophy as am I, this should be on your list.
34. Never Split the difference by Chris Voss
Yes, it’s non-fiction and yes, you have to be of the right headspace to read it but what a great read. Never Split The Difference is a book all about negotiating. A handbook if you will, from former FBI negotiator Chris Voss. It’s packed with stories and anecdotes but in it’s instruction, it talks about all sorts of amazing (and often simple) psychology that’s useful everyday. One of my top ten because since I’ve read it, I’ve used it just about every day.
35. The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
The Dog is a novel I read because it’s set in the place I currently live — Dubai. It promised intrigue and a good story that was Dubai-centric. It charts the course of an American Expat who was brought to Dubai with the promise of a high paying job, he soon discovers that despite leaving his partner enroute to greener pastures, he may have just traded one catastrophe for another. It’s a good airport fiction and it’s got a decent amount of accuracy for those living in the Gulf.
36. Breaking and entering by Jeremy Smith
Detailing the story of some MIT students turned hackers in the late 90’s, I wanted this to be good but then again, I’m pretty sure I just bought it at the airport. It lived up to it’s purchase location. Okay read, but mostly trashy airport action/thriller. Didn’t finish.
37. Do the work by Steven Pressfield
Super-fast read of quotes and proverbs and ways to think about procrastinating. Not a lot to say about this one — not a handbook to life but it is a fast read and incredibly impactful. The desire is to help you get over yourself, get out of your own way and just do some cool work. Will the book do that all by itself? Probably not. Is it the cherry on the personal development cake? Most Likely.
38. The world as it is : a memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes
I love this book. It chronicles the Obama White House through the eyes of Ben Rhodes, speechwriter and National Security Advisor. I could not get enough of this book. It looks at the entire eight years as well as the journey to the White House and is filled with so much hope and pragmatism. It also dove tails nicely with the Netflix documentary, “The Final Year”. This book is certainly in the top 5.
39. Secret City by Steve Lewis & Chris Uhlmann
Secret City is actually multiple books combined into one volume: The Marmalade Files & The Mandarin Code. Crafted as an Australian ‘House of Cards’, this book by Uhlmann & Lewis is perhaps the finest political thriller of modern Australian times. It’s been produced into a series for Foxtel and available on Netflix. I don’t want to dive too deeply into the plot but if you’re a House of Cards fan, this should be on your reading list.
40. Darkest Web by Eileen Ormsby
I thought this book was pretty compelling. Like anything that delves into the mysterious, more shadowy parts of our existence, the Dark Web is just that. Ormsby dives into a world of drug dealers and hit men, snuff films and terrorists but just when you think the world can’t be saved, a question needs to be asked: do these people exist? Or is it all just folklore. The answer? It depends. I read her first book ‘Silk Road’ years ago as she told the story of the infamous drug marketplace of the dark web. This is an excellent follow up.
41. Kidnap by Anja Shortland
Kidnap for ransom is a lucrative but tricky business. In Shortland’s book, she details the web of stakeholders involved and how the problem of Kidnap for Ransom is often solved. An insightful read, I really enjoyed this book both professionally and personally. Her insight and research is beyond reproach and the depth of insight is unparalleled. Not for everyone and at times, very academic, if K&R is part of your profession or simply an interest, this is a fascinating read.
42. Stealth of Nations by Robert Neuwirth
Neuwirth seems to have written an entertaining travelogue style look at the informal economy around the world. He charts the global informal economy and its power to provide jobs and sustain economies. At times, quite dense and somewhat convoluted. Neuwirth seems conflicted at times with his contention and beliefs. Overall, a great read to understand an often maligned part of global economics, the informal economy as Neuwirth contends is vital in its necessity and value.
43. My Past Is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani
Talkhani charts her experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia amid patriarchal customs as well as her journey to find freedom in India, Germany and the UK.
A fascinating read as she writes from an outside perspective rather than a native born Muslim. Intriguing insights and a compelling narrative make this book a solid read.
44. Hippie by Paulo Coelho
I usually really enjoy Coelho’s works but I couldn’t identify with this. (The Alchemist, The Zahir etc are some of my all time favourite books.) This book, lauded as Coelho’s most ‘autobiographical to date’ explores the stories of a young, skinny Brazilian man with a goatee and long, flowing hair, who dreams of becoming a writer, and Karla, a Dutch woman in her twenties who has been waiting to find a companion to accompany her on the fabled hippie trail to Nepal. Worth a read but not one of his finest.
45. Call me by your name by André Aciman
A love story set in Italy. It’s written in an incredibly floral and textured way but this novel is a beautiful story. Recommended to me by a friend who viewed it as a classic, Aciman’s writing is a beautifully simple story written in a textured and complex yet delicate fashion. Also recently made into a film on Netflix. I think I’d certainly recommend seeing the film first then read the book to add to the tapestry of the story.
46. Dictatorland by Paul Kenyon
Kenyon tells the story of African nations in the making as dictatorships, from the European Scramble to Independence and its contemporary aftermath. It’s a wonderfully rich book with so much history, politics and story that thoroughly explains how countries have evolved and how problems have persisted. He wanders all over the continent detailing the history and dictatorships of Zimbabwe, Congo, Libya, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea. Incredibly well written, impeccably researched — It’s a lot of reading but it’s worth it.
47. Can I see your hands by Gavriel Schneider
This was a read for work as I was helping a client understand their situational awareness and risk management plans. I’d heard about Dr. Schneider’s book from a colleague and though it’s got a very down to earth, easy to understand way of discussing situational awareness in day to day life and how it can be applied by anyone. Probably not a text for everyone unless you’re specifically looking to understand the topic but if you are, it’s a good reference book to have on the shelf.
48. Couchsurfing in Iran by Stephen Orth
This was a good read. It chronicles the travels of the Author as he makes his way around Iran. It’s a really cool peek behind the curtain on a state that’s not known to many and not well understood by the west. While there’s certainly more political or factual texts out there, this book is a great first glimpse if you’ve ever been fascinated by Iran and what day to day life is actually like.
49. Another Fine Mess by Tim Moore
Another Fine Mess is a wonderful look at the United States through the eyes of the citizens. The basic premise is one where Moore takes a Model T Ford (complete with all the bugs and issues you’d expect from a car built at the dawn of the 20th century) and simply embarks on a cross country journey across the United States. Part travelogue, part interview series, part diary — it’s a wonderful and complex finger on the pulse of the United States in 2020.
50. Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff
I’m torn on this book — my left leaning brain loves having read it because it supports the bias I already think. Part of me can’t shake the fact it’s rather gossipy. A pretty easy and compelling read, I jumped on the bandwagon to read it because of the controversy it’s stirred and the hype around it. Certainly rather addictive (even if the Author has a strange affection for Steve Bannon — what the…?) Well worth a read.
51. 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson
I’m not going to necessarily recommend this book as a way to think or understand things but rather as a doorway to understanding the controversy around it’s author. This was also a book I chose to skim rather than read cover to cover. Peterson was shot into fame following a fiery confrontation on Channel 4. Well worth the watch, there’s people on both sides of the fence around Peterson so the book provides an interesting insight regardless of where you sit on the ideological spectrum. As Dorian Lynskey from The Guardian stated, “He wants to be the man who knows everything and can explain everything, without qualification or error. On Channel 4 News, he posed as an impregnable rock of hard evidence and common sense. But his arguments are riddled with conspiracy theories and crude distortions of subjects, including postmodernism, gender identity and Canadian law, that lie outside his field of expertise.”
52. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I jumped on this book to conclude the year on the recommendation of Bill Gates (read here). A really interesting read that walks a line between literary fiction in real places and times — historical fiction if you will. It takes a really interesting spin around 20th century Russian History and even if you’re not a Russophile, I think it can be enjoyed on a whole wealth of levels. As Bill Gates summed up, “There’s fantastical romance, politics, espionage, parenthood, and poetry. The book is technically historical fiction, but you’d be just as accurate calling it a thriller or a love story. Even if Russia isn’t on your must-visit list, I think everyone can enjoy Towles’s trip to Moscow this summer.”