Books

The first rule of YFG’s book club is you don’t talk about book club. The second rule of book club is that people might think you’re weird for talking about book club.

I love reading and I’m always carrying a book (or two with me). I’m often asked what books I read.

When I went to the FI drinks event in June, some lovely people were asking me for book recommendations and asking me what I was reading at the time. They then asked if I ever wrote reviews about the books I read (I said I didn’t). And finally, if I was using the Amazon affiliates thing to link to (and make money off of) the books I read. I told them that, despite being a young chap, I’m not very tech savvy. No fear they said, it’s a piece of cake!

So this page is an attempt to knock off three birds with one stone:

  1. To show what I’ve read.
  2. To start writing some reviews (and properly take some notes) of the books I’ve read.
  3. To have a go at this Amazon affiliates lark.

That being said, if you can get the books from the library I’d encourage you to do so! It’s free and a great public service.

Buying books is one of the few things I like to splurge on. I enjoy the physical feel of a book and being able to dip in and out as I please. It also makes me feel much smarter than I am when I peer over at my overflowing bookshelves. I almost exclusively read non-fiction and try to mix it up a bit. So hopefully this reading list is a little bit different to the usual ones.

If there’s interest, I can have a go at writing book reviews – with a focus on lessons for personal finance and FI. For now, I’ll leave my recommendations. I use four levels: (1) recommended to everyone; (2) recommended to people interested in the topic; (3) recommended only to people really interested in the topic; (4) don’t bother.

April 2019

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy – Serhii Plokhy recommended to people interested in the topic – Cracking book this detailing the tragedy of the Chernobyl disaster, including a detailed second by second account of the moments to meltdown. But the story, rightly, focusses on the system that made this disaster happen. You’ll find few accounts that highlight the monstrosity of the Soviet system. The blame game. The attempts to bury the bad news – metaphorically and physically. Contrasted with the heroism of the many workers and military personnel charged with clearing up and unclearable mess. Could have done with a list of ‘players’ though – no word of a lie, there are probably over 50 different people who feature in the text!

Liar’s Poker – Michael Lewis – recommended to people interested in the topic – A classic that I have somehow managed to never get around to reading. It almost feels like a history book now of the wild days of Wall Street.

The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data – Sir David Spiegelhalter – recommended to everyone – Oh how I wish my statistics textbooks were this good. Sir David is the president of Royal Statistical Society. But more than that, one of worlds’ best at communicating stats. He brings a classic dry British humour to the often unappetising universe of statistics. This book is hugely ambitious. A guide-come-textbook on the art of statistics. Aimed at the general public through to professional statisticians. And those ambitions are more than met. Progressively the chapters become more detailed, but never too much. You’ll learn a great deal from this and it’ll be good fun whilst you are at it.

March 2019

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou – recommended to everyone – Technically I finished this book at 4am on the April 1st. That should tell you all you need to know about this book. I was hooked in a way I haven’t been for some time. The author chronicles the story of Theranos a blood-testing tech unicorn that wasn’t. What started as a lofty goal by Stanford drop out Elizabeth Holmes – a tiny patch that would simultaneously test your blood and deliver drugs (Theranos is a portmanteau of Therapy and Diagnosis) – turned into something quite malign. Over time the engineering couldn’t reach those ambitions. The patch became an at home blood tester, which became a mini lab machine and ultimately the company relying on other companies’ machine to do most of its blood tests. But the promises kept rising – the classic ‘fake it till you make it’ of Silicon Valley start-ups. Eventually, the author’s exposé in the Wall Street Journal brought the company crashing down. As of writing, Ms Holmes and number 2 at Theranos (and lover), hot-headed “Sunny” Ramesh face a massive criminal fraud trial. Investors nurse losses of almost $1 billion. The book is painstaking in recreating events. The prose is lucid and engaging. Mr Carreyou’s interviews of key individuals are clearly excellent. Creating a compelling story. My only criticism is that Ms Holmes and Mr Ramesh come across rather like one-dimensional caricatures. That said, given their obsession to secrecy (and highly litigious nature) it’s hard to know their true character. A truly fabulous book.

The Machine That Changed the World – Womack, Jones and Roos – recommended to people interested in the topic – This book is now nearly 30 years old, though you’d be hard pressed to notice it. The Machine That Changed the World summarised the research of the authors and others on Lean Production in the auto manufacturing industry. Lean Production is a manufacturing process of reducing waste as much as possible without sacrificing efficiency. The concepts are based on the famous Toyota Production System which led Japanese car makers to conquer the globe at the expense of their mass-production based American rivals. The Machine That Changed the World changed the world itself – leading to the widespread adoption of lean processes in all manner of manufacturing and services (an example is ‘Just-In-Time’). However, what is conspicuous is the absence of the rise of ex mass-produced rivals, in particular, Volkswagen and Hyundai (incidentally, at one point, led in America by one of the lead researchers). Since publication (1990) Volkswagen has leapfrogged Toyota to become the #1 car maker in the world and Hyundai rising from almost nowhere to #3 (Toyota is #2). You’ll be hard pressed to find out how they managed it in the book – sadly minimally updated since 1990. All said and done, this remains, almost 30 years after publication, the tome on Lean Production and it’s easy to see why.

The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through a World of Numbers – Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland – recommended to people interested in the topic – This book is a primer in statistics. Or more accurately, a primer of when statistics aren’t. It’s written by the creators of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less (the only podcast I’ve listened to for over ten years). The authors have done a great job to cut through the jargon and talk statistics in plain English. That said, the style does come across a bit stuffy. Which makes the more light-hearted How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff an easier read. However, The Tiger That Isn’t (inspired by Mr Huff’s work) is, in my opinion, the best follow-up to that famous book.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change – Charles Duhigg – recommended to people interested in the topic – I enjoyed this book. It even inspired me to write a post on the blog. Mr Duhigg sets out how habits work. They have four steps. A ‘cue’ or trigger. A behaviour and then a reward. The final, all important step is a craving. Formed by pre-empting the reward. This habit loop explains things from brushing our teeth through to why smoking is so hard to quit. The book talks about the science and research of habits in an easily accessible way. Two-thirds of the way through, I thought this a really excellent book. However, the last two chapters are, in my view, a massive overreach. The author tries to impose ‘habits’ onto the civil rights movement and in the justice system. It just doesn’t work and I think it significantly detracts from his case. That means this ends up being one of those books that really could have been an essay or feature article – which I’m sure it was. So it’s probably worth checking that out first, and if you are still curious, then the book.

February 2019

The Signs Were There: The clues for investors that a company is heading for a fall – Tim Steer – recommended to people interested in the topic – A cracking book this. Mr Steer runs through a collection of UK company blow-ups highlighting the signs in the accounts that all was not well. Tim does a fantastic job of getting the level just about right. You won’t get bogged down in minutiae (even if, as a forensic accountant I was sometimes begging for it). This book is approachable to all who have an interest in investing, business or finance. Collectively, Mr Steer’s ‘signs’ make a good list of what nasties to look out for in a set of accounts and he provides the tips for those new to it all (including the classic, start at the back of the accounts). I’ve been on the lookout for a book that can serve as an introduction into scrutinising accounts and this fits the bill. For those wanting to take a further step in detail, I’d recommend following-up with Financial Shenanigans by Howard Schilit.

What Should I Do With My Life – Po Bronson – don’t bother -This book came with some very positive recommendations. So I have to say I’m left very disappointed. A collection of 50 or so short stories about people who’ve tried to work out what they want in life. For the most part successfully. Some of the stories, particularly the early ones were interesting and inspiring. But this book dragged. It’s far too long (over 400 pages). By story 20 I started to lose interest in the people being interviewed. Most people were high income/high net worth individuals (dare I say it…. people of privilege). I barely recognise the world most of these people inhabit. This book has aged very badly post-financial crisis (it was written in the early 00s). Despite Mr Bronsons’ great listening and writing skills I just couldn’t get engaged with many of the interviewees. Whilst the author tries to draw a thread through stories into key themes it just doesn’t come out enough. I’m really struggling to come up with any meaningful insights to take away. Perhaps, making some changes in your life can be beneficial. You don’t need to read 50 stories and 400 pages to work that out. If you are looking for guidance through the stories of others avoid this. Read 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans instead. It’s excellent.

January 2019

In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law – Sarah Langford – recommended to everyone – This is a cracking book. Ms Langford, a barrister, tells the story of 11 criminal and family law cases. She brings each story to life with their colourful characters, twists and turns (albeit with a little bit too flowery language for my taste, barristers eh?). The stories bring out some of the inner workings of our justice system. The law is like sausages, it’s sometimes not particularly pleasant to see how the sausage is made. Several of the stories very much feel like: ‘but for the grace of God’. The weakest stories are the family law ones – I think that’s because these are amalgamations of several cases, unlike the criminal ones. But overall this is a fantastic book. Pair with The Secret Barrister – my favourite book from last year.

Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager – Keith Gessen – recommended to people interested in the topic – Mr Gessen interviewed an anonymous hedge fund manager just as the financial crisis was brewing up. The hedge fund manager’s erudite explanation of what was going on led to a series of interviews collated in this book. Both interesting from an insider perspective and to see the personal toll of the crisis on somebody in the market at the time. A similarly very good book is by Lars Kroijer in Money Mavericks, where he chronicles his ups and downs as a hedge fund manager.

The Devil’s Financial Dictionary – Jason Zweig – recommended to people interested in the topic – Neat little book which runs through financial terms in a sardonic and satirical manner. It’s a dictionary, so not a sit in one go book.

Goalless Draws: Illuminating the Genius of Modern Football – David Squires – Something lighthearted. I love football and I love David Squires’ football comics in the Guardian. So much so that Tuesday is Squiresday for my friends and I who share the comics with one another when they are published. This a collection of Mr Squires’ comics over the years.

December 2018

Why we Sleep – Matthew Walker – recommended to everyone – Incredible book. I highly recommend reading it! You can find out a bit more in my top books of 2018 post.

November 2018

RESET: How to Restart Your Life and Get F.U. Money – David Swayer – recommended to people interested in the topic – David was very kind to send me a signed copy of his book RESET. RESET is about overhauling your life and getting on the Financial Independence journey. This is an ambitious book covering everything from finding purpose in life through to the nuts and bolts of personal finance and investing. In a way, this book is like condensing several years of FIRE blog posts into a single book. For my money, David successfully meets those lofty ambitions. As you’d expect from an experienced PR expert this book is easy to read and engaging. But David still keeps things ‘actionable’. Each part of the book is wrapped-up with steps you can take to RESET. Those well-versed with FIRE may find themselves already familiar with a lot of the content in the book. And, wearing my financial planner’s hat, I’d caution blindly following David’s guidance on investing and personal finance. Whilst what is written on investing is sound and serves as a good starting point, you’ll need to go away and read more around the topic (something that I think David would have done well to emphasise more). That said, this is the best UK book on Financial Independence that I’ve read. It serves as an excellent intro for those looking to learn about the subject. Finally, this book is worth it alone for the excellent bibliography and notes. David clearly did an enormous amount of research and it really shines through in the book.

October 2018

The Qur’an – To my shameful ignorance, despite being a lover of history, I knew little about the genesis of the religion. I also wanted to understand aspects of the religion itself. I read the translation (or interpretation) by Rodwell.

Financial Shenanigans – Howard Schilit and Jeremy Perler  – partial re-read (to brush up on a few things in light of Patisserie Valerie) – In some quarters considered the bible on Accounting Fraud. This book is a guide in spotting accounting shenanigans. Packed full of real-world examples and written in an approachable style, it is a great first port of call for those who want to learn about how accounting depictions work. I have the 3rd edition. There is now a fourth, 25th anniversary, edition with updates. It appears to have just as good reviews as my third edition. My only fault with the book is that it is US-focused, so technical mileage is minorly curtailed for international readers. As far as I’m aware there’s no equivalent book (yet) in the UK. Apparently, a book by Tim Steer, a UK Hedge Fund manager is due to be released end of November. It’s called The Signs Were There

September 2018

The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn the Perfect English Phrase – Mark Forsyth – recommended to everyone – This is a delightful book. A fun, interesting and breezy read. I have few regrets in life, but one is that I paid no attention in my English classes. Since then, I’ve spent a great deal of my ‘life catching up’. This book is about the classical rhetoric devices hidden in our language that turn the unmemorable into the memorable. Some of these we instinctive grasp, such as alliteration. Some are hidden, like the isocolon. Some are obvious, like anaphora. As somebody always looking to improve my writing and speaking this is a helpful and enjoyable book. I heartily recommend. I would also recommend another of Mr Forsyth’s books: The Etymologicon.

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory – David Graeber – recommended only to people really interested in the topic – this book grew out of an essay by the author in a magazine called Strike! (link). Unusually, my most common criticism of books – that really they should have just been an essay and the book is padding – doesn’t apply here. This book brings a lot more to the table on the phenomena of Bullshit Jobs, defined as: “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” The dive into what is a Bullshit job, what types are there, why do these cause people to be so unhappy and why do these jobs exist is enlightening, and as far as I’m aware novel. If only the author rounded it off there and finished by exploring what we can do about it this would be a brilliant book. Unfortunately, intentionally or not, the author subtly changes the question half, instead of writing about “Bullshit Jobs” he writes about “Pointless Employment”. The difference being, the former is about the workers’ view of their job, the later about how the author feels about certain professions. The author pins their flag to the mast early on, acknowledging that social value is entirely subjective but then quoting ‘research’ that (without any sense of irony) says that researchers are the only high-paid profession that provides significant positive social value (the others all hovering around nil or negative). I sympathise with a lot of Prof Graeber’s viewpoints (especially around Unconditional Basic Income) but I didn’t buy the book to read pontification on the ills of the financial industry or professions that the left-leaning don’t like (if only because those views are ubiquitous). I bought the book to understand more about Bullshit Jobs. In that sense, this book is a success as I learnt a lot. But it is immensely frustrating to get 60% of the discussion and then get cut-off at the business end. Maybe the two topics go hand in hand, but then I’d really have appreciated a balanced viewpoint, which Prof Graeber isn’t offering here. So if you’re interested do check it out, but go in managing your expectations.

August 2018

Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy – Bill Browder – recommended to everyone – this book is gripping, compelling and excellently written. This book tells the story of Mr Browder, a hedge fund manager turned activist. Browder was the founder of Hermitage Capital, a hedge fund that invested in Russia. Eventually, his activities attracted the ire of the Russian state and he got kicked out, his hedge fund stolen and one of his lawyers was murdered. The first half of the book runs quickly through Mr Browder’s life and the set up of the hedge fund. The second half focuses on Browder’s attempts to seek justice for his murdered friend. Many might find the first half of the book testing. In this half, Mr Browder doesn’t come across as a particularly nice person. Those with left-leaning sensibilities will be disturbed about the brazen way his hedge fund made hundreds of millions buying up cheap privatised companies alongside the Oligarchs. Bizarrely, whilst profiteering from such governmental corruption, he seems to be both blissfully naive of the malfeasance in Russia whilst slamming ‘thieving Oligarchs’. The book finds its stride and purpose in the second half when the malfeasance turns on Mr Browder and sadly, fatally for Sergei Magnitsky. It chronicles his fight against the Russian state and corrupt public officials. The story is a “page-turner”. In some ways, it’s too well written by the ghostwriter – it’s hard to actually feel any of Mr Browder’s personality come out in the words. A similar book, less well written, but of a similar theme is Exposure by Michael Woodford – I highly recommend that book too.

July 2018

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity – Steven Pinker – Don’t bother – I gave up about 60% of the way through. Maybe I was late to the party but the book’s message was pretty old hat. This book is far too long, over 1,000 pages. This book is one of those that really is an extended essay. It should have been a series of articles rather than a book. Mr Pinker also engages in some very questionable statistics – despite expressly talking about the problem with the stats before he dives in. But most of all, this book is just boring. I know I’m in the minority on this book. But not all books are for everyone.

From Zero to Financial Independence in less than 10 Years: Tools and techniques to escape the rat race quickly – “Robert I. Tracey” – recommended to people interested in the topic – this is a book (or really a booklet) by the author of the Retirement Investing Today blog – which I’ve been meaning to buy and read for ages. This is a short book of around 70 pages which is more of a manual about how he achieved FI. If you’ve followed RIT for a while, there isn’t loads of new stuff in here. That said, I still think this is a handy booklet that I will dip into now and again to ‘refresh’ on various FI concepts. I think this would be a great guide for beginners to FI with one caveat: RIT uses language which financial newbies might find tough. In that sense, an extra 20 pages and a ruthless editor would make this great book into an excellent book.

June 2018

Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism – Yanis Varoufakis – recommended only to people really interested in the topic – Famous for being the motorbiking finance minister of Greece, Mr Varoufakis is an engaging and poetic writer. This book is, in some ways, a look at economics through a mystic lens. Written as a treatise to his daughter, it worms through the history of economics and many basic economic concepts. Whilst enjoyable, there are better introductions to economics. My favourite is Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist. A more unorthodox and irreverent book is Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. I’d recommend either of those before Mr Varoufakis’s effort, but this is still a good book coming from an interesting point of view

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor – Adam Kay – recommended to everyone – A funny, but kind of sad, insight into the life of an NHS Junior Doctor. Mr Kay shares his ‘medical diary’ with us as he bundles his way through the NHS. There are several poignant moments (particularly at the end) as well as some riotous laughs. That said, do take some of what’s written with a pinch of salt – Mr Kay is now a comedian after all…

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: And Other Tough-Love Truths to Make You a Better Writer – Steven Pressfield – recommended to people interested in the topic – I found this book on writing very helpful and it gave me much to think about; wish I had read it sooner before starting the blog (I’ve had the book for over a year, but my guinea pig pissed on it so it smelt terrible and put me off)

May 2018

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken – The Secret Barrister – recommended to everyone – This is a very important book on the UK legal system written by the blogger of the same name. The state of our legal system is wholly inadequate, this metaphorical plasters and sticky tape holding things together (and perhaps, actually, physically as well). There are some very startling things that ‘SB’ explains to the reader: the drastic effects of the Government’s LASPO reforms; the ‘Innocence Tax’; and the downright malevolent cap on compensation to victims of miscarriages of justice. Please read this book!

Living Off Your Money: The Modern Mechanics of Investing During Retirement with Stocks and Bonds – Michael H McClung – recommended only to people really interested in the topic – it’s a very good book, but detail heavy, only worth it for people really wanting to get into the nuts and bolts of Safe Withdrawal Rates

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund – recommended to everyone – The late Hans Rosling was one of my heroes. This is a lovely, easy to read, book that summarises much of what he had been teaching over the past decades. Hidden within Hans’s instantly recognisable candid and folksy style is an important message: the world is becoming a better place. Our perceptions of the world are overly negative and misguided. We’ve been subconsciously led to believe the worst, when things are much better than we think. You’ll find this book uplifting and mind-blowing in equal measures.

April 2018

30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans – Karl Pillemer – recommended to everyone – I really enjoyed this book, written in an engaging and homely way, gave me a lot to ponder. Dr Pillemar interviewed 1,000s of Americans to gain their insights into living a happy and meaningful life. Some lessons are obvious (always be honest), some are surprising (it’s normal to have favourite kids, but don’t show it). I learnt a lot reading this book, and it was very pleasant to read.

Chancing It: The Laws of Chance and How They Can Work For You – Robert Matthews (re-read) – recommended to people interested in the topic – this is a great book on probability and chance. It’s basically like Fooled by Randomness by Taleb, but written in plain English and by someone who isn’t massively arrogant (note: I like Taleb)

March 2018

The Everything Store – Brad Stone – recommended only to people really interested in the topic – it’s an interesting story (about Amazon) but found it difficult to read due to writing structure

The Wright Brothers – David McCullough – recommended to people interested in the topic – fascinating insight into the Wright Brothers, ends rather abruptly, however, but a great look into a world on the verge of massive change

February 2018

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Second Edition – Marc Levinson – recommended to people interested in the topic – a compelling story about our modern economy

Turn The Ship Around!: A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules – L. David Marquet – recommended to people interested in the topic – one of the better books on management, no fluff talk, easy to read, practical

January 2018

Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy – Tim Harford – recommended to everyone – interesting and easy to read, pair with the BBC4 podcast that inspired the book

Nonviolent Communication – A Language of Life – Marshall B. Rosenberg (re-read) – recommended to everyone – the book that’s had the most impact in my life