My Favourite Books of 2012

Here are the books I read this year that I loved the most.

But first, some statistics!

I read 72 books this year, plus approximately 7,853 articles in scientific journals (this last number may be a slight exaggeration). I’m sure you really, really want to see some pie charts about the books I read, so here you go:

Books I read in 2012 by genre

I read lots more children’s books this year than I usually do.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' nationality

Hmm, that is not very diverse, is it? I only read three books that had been translated into English, too.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' gender

That’s probably typical of my reading habits. It’s not that I deliberately try to read more women writers than men, it simply works out that way most years.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s books

'The Word Spy' by Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby RiddleI absolutely loved Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay, which I have previously written about here. I also liked Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp by Odo Hirsch, a sweet, charming story about a girl who is inspired to write stories by a mysterious brass lamp she finds in her house. This has many of the usual elements of an Odo Hirsch book (eccentric but benevolent parents, a carefully multicultural cast of characters, a vaguely European setting), but I found Amelia especially endearing and the lessons she learned (that it takes courage to share your thoughts with others; that other people often have complex motivations for their actions; that unchecked anger harms yourself, not just others) were exactly what I needed to think about at the time.
Other books I enjoyed included The Word Spy, an entertaining non-fiction book about the history of the English language, written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Tohby Riddle, and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko, about a boy whose father is a guard at Alcatraz Prison in 1935.

My favourite Young Adult novel

This year I read quite a few YA books that had received plenty of acclaim, but I ended up feeling underwhelmed by a lot of them. I could certainly understand why the books had been praised, but they just weren’t my cup of tea. Sometimes they had beautiful sentence-level writing, but the voice seemed implausible for the teenager who was supposed to be narrating the story. Sometimes they had a great narrator and fascinating premise, but the structure of the novel didn’t work for me. One book I’d seen described as ‘feminist’ was . . . really, really not feminist at all. Maybe my expectations had been raised too high by the hype. Anyway, my favourite YA book of 2012 turned out to be a book first published in 1910, long before the concept of ‘Young Adult literature’ existed. The book was The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson, which I’ve previously written about here.

My favourite novels for adults

'At Last' by Edward St AubynI found At Last by Edward St Aubyn quite as harrowing as I’d expected, but also hopeful and consoling and unexpectedly funny. It’s the fifth in a series of novels about Patrick Melrose, who was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family and was then subjected to appalling childhood abuse and neglect by his parents. In this book, Patrick has finally overcome his drug and alcohol addictions and is trying to cope with his marriage breakdown, when his mother dies. The novel is elegantly structured around her funeral, allowing a lot of thoughtful commentary on the nature of death, forgiveness and free will, but also some hilarious descriptions of the idle rich. Patrick’s awful relatives and family friends are mostly ‘old money’ who’ve never worked a day in their lives, but complain constantly about how difficult their existence is. I know this all sounds very grim and this book certainly isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was fascinating and beautifully written.

I also enjoyed Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley and The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, which I’ve previously written about here. I’m currently halfway through Restoration by Rose Tremain and loving it, so I suspect this book will make it onto my 2012 favourites list, too.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

I read some terrific biographies this year, including A. A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite and Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. I wrote about both books here. I also enjoyed Alex and Me, by Irene M. Pepperberg, about a very smart parrot.

I will not bore you with my To Read list for 2013, especially as it contains approximately 2,147 scientific articles1 that I didn’t get around to reading this year (this number may be a slight exaggeration).

Hope you all have a happy and peaceful holiday season, and that 2013 brings you lots of great reading.

More favourite books:

1. Favourite Books of 2010
2. Favourite Books of 2011


  1. Yes, it’s research for my next book. The book that was supposed to need far less research than my last book. Ha ha ha.

Book Banned, Author Bemused

I’ve previously written about my books being edited so that the vocabulary, punctuation and spelling make sense to overseas readers. However, I didn’t mention another issue, which is that different countries often have very different cultural values. Contrast, for example, attitudes (and legislation) in Australia and the United States regarding gun ownership, capital punishment and universal healthcare. And also, book banning.

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American editionEarlier this year, I was interviewed by Magpies (an Australian journal about literature for children and teenagers) and was asked about the reaction of US readers to the epilogue of The FitzOsbornes at War. As the book hadn’t yet been released in the US, I talked about reactions to the previous two books. I said I’d always expected some US reviewers and readers would object to my gay and bisexual characters, but that I’d been surprised by some of the things they’d also deemed ‘controversial’ – for example, that some of my characters were atheists or socialists, that not all of the married couples were happily married, and that there was a brief discussion of contraception. One US reviewer of The FitzOsbornes in Exile complained at length about the “sketchy moral questions that permeate the book” and hoped that there’d be some signs of moral improvement in Book Three. Um . . . well, not really.

But I suppose it depends on how you define ‘moral’. I think The FitzOsbornes at War is all about morality, but I quite understand that some readers won’t approve of some of the characters’ actions. It’s a novel full of conflict and drama and people in extreme circumstances making difficult (and occasionally stupid) decisions. But reading about characters doing things that you regard as against your own personal moral code is not the same as doing those things yourself. For instance, teenagers reading about a gay character will not suddenly turn gay (unless they already are gay, in which case what they read will make no difference to who they are, but might possibly make them feel less alone). Will reading about such ‘immoral’ behaviour make the behaviours seem more ‘normal’, more ‘acceptable’? Well, maybe. The US librarian who’s pulled The FitzOsbornes at War off her library shelves certainly seems to think so.

Note: Sorry, I’m going to have to include plot spoilers for The FitzOsbornes at War here. If you haven’t read the book but are planning to read it, you might want to skip the next seven paragraphs of this post.

I’m not going to link to the librarian’s review, because I don’t want anyone to go over there and hassle her. (Not that you would – I know the people who regularly visit this blog are always respectful and courteous, even when they disagree with a post – but just in case someone else does.) Still, I found the librarian’s reasons for removing the book really interesting, so I would like to quote from her review, which awarded the book one star out of five:

“Does it not bother anyone that this novel seems to have characters that are entirely amoral? I was wondering whether to overlook the PG13 content and language because of the educational aspects of this well researched historical fiction World War II novel, but really–I just have to wonder about everyone being okay with the gay king living with his wife and his wife’s lover and their children in happy wedded bliss (This was a recommended book in the Parent’s Choice awards!)…Sorry this one is not staying at our library.”

Firstly, as far as I know, the book isn’t recommended in the Parents’ Choice awards. A Brief History of Montmaray was, several years ago, but The FitzOsbornes at War hasn’t been.

Secondly, is it just me or does it read as though it’s okay to have a gay character in a book, but only if he’s utterly miserable? Heaven forbid that gay people and their children could ever live in “happy wedded bliss”, either in books or in real life. Oh, wait, some people’s version of heaven does forbid it . . .

Thirdly, if the “content and language” is regarded by the librarian as PG13, doesn’t that mean that this book should be okay to shelve in the Young Adult fiction section? Shouldn’t it be suitable for readers over thirteen, with some parental guidance if necessary? Can’t teenage readers and their parents decide for themselves whether they want to read this book?

Fourthly, does this librarian truly believe the characters in The FitzOsbornes at War are “entirely amoral”? The word ‘amoral’ doesn’t mean ‘disagrees with my own moral values’. It refers to someone who has no understanding of morality, no sense of right and wrong. I’m assuming the librarian is referring to Toby, Julia and Simon, given the reference to the “gay king” and his family (although, who knows, perhaps Veronica and Sophie are included in the condemnation, for having had sexual experiences outside marriage). Really, these characters are “amoral”? In a novel that also contains Hitler, Stalin and Franco? So, should all books with amoral characters be banned from libraries? I’m guessing that particular library doesn’t have a copy of Richard III or Macbeth, either. (Not that I’m for one moment suggesting that my novels approach the literary quality of the works of William Shakespeare. But it seems ‘literary quality’ isn’t a factor in determining which books are stocked at this library, anyway.)

(Fifthly, and quite irrelevantly, did the librarian really describe Simon as the “wife’s lover”? Poor Toby! You’d think he’d have more of a claim as Simon’s lover than Julia, after all those years.)

This is where the cultural difference thing comes in, because I am trying, and failing, to imagine a librarian in an Australian public library taking The FitzOsbornes at War off her library’s shelves – not because a library patron had complained, but because the librarian herself thought the book ‘amoral’. Australia has a long history of banning books, but it would be very unusual for a book in an Australian public library to be challenged or banned nowadays, particularly if the only objection to the book was that it contained a gay character who was happy.

Still, I’m in pretty good company. Here are some of the books that were most frequently banned or challenged in US libraries between 2000 and 2009:

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451? Seriously, a novel about books being outlawed in America is on the US banned books list? I can only shake my head and turn to John Stuart Mill, who’s quoted on the American Library Association’s website:

“. . . But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Vintage Classics Book Giveaway Winners

'A Brief History of Montmaray' Vintage Classic editionThank you so much to everyone who let us know their favourite film and TV adaptations of beloved books. Game of Thrones was very popular, although there were also many fans of various adaptations of the works of Elizabeth Gaskell, L. M. Montgomery and Jane Austen. I have never actually read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s books, so I’ve added her name to the front of my book journal, along with Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, even though I suspect that book’s going to make me cry. Valerie also asked about a Montmaray mini-series, which I think would be an excellent idea. However, although there’s been some interest, no-one has actually bought the film and TV rights yet, so we can keep producing our own versions in our heads, casting our own personal favourite actors and actresses.

There were so many entries in the book giveaway that I’ve decided to choose five winners, rather than three. Congratulations to Jill, Karen K, Margaret Mayfield, Tara N and Kitty, who have each won a copy of the Vintage Classics edition of A Brief History of Montmaray. The book went on sale in Australia today, alongside lovely new editions of Little Women, I Capture the Castle, The Secret Garden, Swallows and Amazons, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and fourteen other classic children’s novels. Random House Australia is offering Australian readers a chance to win an entire library of Vintage Children’s Classics and is giving away, for a limited time, special gift packs to those who buy three Vintage Children’s Classics. Sorry, all that exciting stuff is for Australians only – but everyone else, keep an eye on this blog for an announcement about another Montmaray giveaway.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

'Drei neugierige Katzen' by Arthur Heyer (1931)
Fluffy indicates the time of the crime, while his assistants, Muffin and Smokey, examine the evidence carefully for further clues
I think I’m writing the wrong sort of books. Apparently, cat mysteries, a “subgenre of detective novels in which crimes are solved either by cats or through feline assistance” are selling “millions upon millions of copies”. I tend to agree with the author of the article, who suggests cats are “more likely to commit crimes than to detect them”. (To appease any cat fanciers who may be reading this, here’s a cat comic.)

Those who regularly use Wikipedia may be interested in this article, which points out that only nine percent of Wikipedia editors are women and that male editors frequently try to delete articles seen as not culturally “significant” enough (that is, too “girly”). This leads, for example, to an article on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress being flagged for deletion for being a “trivial” topic – although somehow, Wikipedia manages to find the space to include more than a hundred articles on Linux.

I love What Was That Book?, a community on LiveJournal in which readers write in to ask for help finding books they’ve read so long ago that they’ve forgotten the titles and authors. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly the community is able to identify a book, based on very vague clues. For example:

“The last radish in the world (galaxy? universe?) goes up for auction. The person who wins the radish is underwhelmed by the experience of eating the legendary vegetable. It might be a science fiction short story or a scene in a novel.”

And, within twenty-four hours, a reader had let us know that the book was Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper.

Kill Your Darlings is hosting a YA Championship, in which their “ten favourite YA fanatics – authors, buyers, publishers, readers, writers – [will] champion their favourite Australian YA book from the last 30 years”. The public will then vote on the selected shortlist, although there’s also a People’s Choice category allowing the public to nominate their own favourite books, with book packs as prizes.

– And my own Vintage Classics book giveaway is still on, with entries closing on Wednesday.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

The National Year of Reading Read This! prize winners have been announced, after attracting lots of fabulously creative entries from young readers. I think my favourite entry was the knitted Wizard of Oz characters by twelve-year-old Lexi, although the papier-mâché model of James and the Giant Peach by Michelle, also twelve years old, was wonderful, too. (Also, I just discovered that ‘papier mâché’ is French for ‘chewed paper’. Thanks so much for telling me that, Oxford Dictionary.)

Entries in the 2012 John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers are now open, with “young writers under the age of 25 [. . .] urged to enter the competition to share in $5,500 in prize money and have the opportunity to be published online and in the December issue of Voiceworks, Express Media’s literary quarterly.” You have until September to enter your short story or poem, with more information here.

Speaking of young readers and writers, there’s a great new(ish) online magazine for teenage girls called Rookie. I wish magazines like that had existed when I was a teenager. (Sadly, the internet hadn’t even been invented when I was a teenager.)

There’s an interesting article here by Anthony Horowitz about how book covers end up plastered with glowing endorsements from other writers. I’m currently reading a YA novel by an established US author, and the Cassandra Clare endorsement (“A gorgeously written, chilling atmospheric thriller.” CASSANDRA CLARE, bestselling author of THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS SERIES) takes up more space on the front cover than the name of the book’s author. But do book buyers actually pay any attention to these quotes? As the first commenter on the article says, “Probably the only people who would truly benefit from an author’s endorsement are new or little-read authors – exactly the kind of people who (for completely understandable and rational reasons) are least likely to get them.”

I recently read two fascinating articles about successful novelists who decided to stop writing (and, presumably, to stop endorsing other authors’ books). “There’s just too much stress on authors,” said Steph Swainston, author of the Castle series. She was unhappy with the pressure from fans and publishers to produce a book a year, and disliked the modern need for authors to be ‘celebrities’ and engage with social media (“The internet is poison to authors”). The other author, Elizabeth Harrower, was less forthcoming about why she stopped writing in 1966:

“It’s not as though she ran out of things to say – ‘there were probably too many things to say’. It’s not as though her work was poorly received – her second novel, The Long Prospect, was described as ranking ‘second only to Voss as a postwar work of Australian literature’. It’s not as though she was busy raising children – she never married and is childless.”

In the end, she simply says, “[I] realised I just can’t be bothered any more.”

To end on a more positive note, this year The Famous Five celebrate the seventieth anniversary of their first adventure, Five on a Treasure Island. Naturally, the celebratory feast will feature ham sandwiches on crusty bread, hard-boiled eggs, currant buns and lashings of ginger beer.

Inside a Dog Index

I’ve just finished a month of blog posts at Inside a Dog, the website of the Centre for Youth Literature, so I thought I’d post the links to each post here, for my own reference and for the benefit of anyone else who might be interested.


How To Write a Historical Novel in Seven Easy Steps

1. Think up a good idea for a story
2. Do lots of research
3. Get organised
4. Write lots of words
5. Edit, edit, edit
6. Gaze upon the efforts of the designer and typesetter
7. Admire your finished book

More About Writing a Historical Novel

'Sitting Rough Collie', frontispiece in 'His Dog' (1922) by Albert Payson TerhunePlanning vs Not Planning
Real People in Historical Fiction
Same Book, But Different (editing for an international readership)

Life in Wartime

Keep Calm and Carry On
Looking Good in Wartime, Part One
Looking Good in Wartime, Part Two
Eating Well in Wartime
Animals at War

An End and a Beginning

I promise my next blog post will not mention the FitzOsbornes. Or the Second World War.

Attention Aspiring Authors

If you’re an aspiring author of children’s or YA books and you live in New South Wales, you might like to check out the Children’s Book Council’s Frustrated Writers’ Mentoring Program, which awards mentorships with a professional editor or published author. There are separate categories for writers who are Juniors (under 15 years), Young Adults (15-20 years old) and Seniors (anyone over 20 years), with entries closing on the 1st of June. Some of the successful Australian authors who’ve entered the program include J.C. Burke, Jacqueline Harvey, Kirsty Eagar, Oliver Phommavanh, Aleesah Darlison, Nathan Luff, Jenny Blackman and er, me. I won a CBCA mentorship in 2003 with Alyssa Brugman, and not only did Alyssa give me a lot of useful advice for improving my manuscript, she also helped me find a publisher and an agent for my first novel. So I think this program is pretty good.

The CBCA and the State Library of NSW are also getting together this year to offer four days of creative writing workshops for teenage writers, led by Anthony Eaton, Michael Pryor, Ursula Dubosarsky, Tony Thompson and the Bell Shakespeare Company. The first Master Class is on the 29th of March and you can find all the details here.

Same Book, But Different

There’s an interesting post at The Readventurer about the significant differences between the North American and Australian editions of Cath Crowley’s YA novel, Graffiti Moon*. The reviewer, who has read both editions, concludes that the American version “felt a bit…sanitized, which I didn’t like.”

Interesting. Especially as there didn’t seem to be anything particularly edgy or controversial in the Australian edition of Graffiti Moon, as I recall.

American publishers do tend to change spelling and punctuation when they publish Australian YA books, and they also change any vocabulary that might prove confusing to American teenage readers. I remember reading the American editions of some YA novels by Barry Jonsberg and Melina Marchetta, in which the settings were clearly Darwin or the inner western suburbs of Sydney – yet the characters talked about ‘dimes’ and ‘sidewalks’. Even J.K. Rowling’s first book was subjected to Americanisation, with her American publishers making more than eighty changes to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, including the title. (And some of the changes seem pretty silly to me – surely American readers could work out that ‘multi-storey car park’ means the same as ‘multilevel parking garage’.)

For the record, the North American edition of A Brief History of Montmaray is very different to the Australian edition. Apart from a much-needed structural edit (for example, I completely re-wrote the final chapter), I spent a lot of time wrangling with my American copy-editor over words such as ‘biscuit’ and ‘jersey’. This was complicated by the fact that my narrator spoke a posh 1930s British version of English. But The FitzOsbornes in Exile and The FitzOsbornes at War are pretty much the same (apart from the spelling), wherever you buy a copy in the world. Maybe my American editors figured that readers who’d made it through the first book in the series would be able to cope with the characters eating ‘biscuits’ rather than ‘cookies’, and using ‘torches’ rather than ‘flashlights’, and so on. Or maybe my editors just got tired of arguing with me.

*Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link to the Graffiti Moon discussion.

My Favourite Books of 2011

Okay, it’s not the official end of the year just yet, but here’s my list so far. It was a bit easier to compile than last year’s list, because I now keep a book journal, which allows me to report the following statistics:

Number of books read so far this year: Fifty-seven (not including the two novels I disliked so much that I couldn’t finish them)

Number of books read that I’d previously read: Seven (actually, there were more than seven, but I stopped noting them down in my journal, so most of them aren’t included in this book tally)

Number of Young Adult books read: Fifteen

Number of children’s books read: Eight

Number of memoirs read: Three

Number of other non-fiction books read: Nineteen

Number of graphic novels read: Three

Number of anthologies read: Two

Number of books by Australian writers: Fourteen

Number of books by British writers: Twenty-seven

Number of books by North American writers: Fourteen

Number of books by Scandinavian writers, translated into English: Two

Number of journals subscribed to this year: Two (Viewpoint on Books for Young Adults and Australian Author)

And now, here are the books I read this year that I loved the most. Note that none of them were actually published in 2011 (I’m still trying to catch up with reading from the nineteenth century).

Favourite Novel About Terrifying Creatures with Supernatural Powers

'Let The Right One In' by John Ajvide LindqvistI don’t read many horror novels – if I want horror, I can just read the newspapers. However, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist received a lot of favourable publicity when the two film versions were released, so I decided to give it a try and it was amazing. It’s incredibly gruesome, but the author does such a terrific job of narrating events though each character (even a squirrel, at one point – truly) that I could not put the book down. I must say, it doesn’t paint a very pretty portrait of late twentieth-century Sweden. Practically every character is desperately lonely, an alcoholic, a drug addict, mentally ill and/or a violent criminal, and yet all the modern-day villains (and there are many of them) have plausible reasons for their vile actions. Ultimately, it’s a hopeful story about two outsiders helping one another. I should also note that this is one of the few translated novels I’ve ever read where the prose was completely seamless, as though it was originally written in English – the translator of the edition I read (whose name I forgot to write down) did a wonderful job.

Favourite Novel About Victorian Clergymen

'Barchester Towers' by Anthony TrollopeBarchester Towers by Anthony Trollope is a clever and very entertaining satire of church politics and middle-class English society – think Jane Austen with added snarkiness, or Charles Dickens without the sentimentality. I’m not sure who is my favourite villain – Mrs Proudie, self-appointed Bishop of Barchester, or the oleaginous Reverend Mr Slope, the chaplain who rapidly falls from grace after he gets tangled up in a few too many love affairs. There’s also a good BBC television series based on this book and its prequel, The Warden, with Alan Rickman as Mr Slope.

Favourite Short Story

‘Different for Boys’ by Patrick Ness (in Keith Gray’s YA anthology, Losing It) is one of the best short stories I’ve read in years. Vibrant teenage characters, a school that felt completely authentic, real sex and real heartbreak, lots of jokes, all in forty-four pages.

Favourite Graphic Novel

'Tamara Drewe' by Posy SimmondsAdmittedly, I only read three graphic novels this year, but Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds would probably have been my favourite even if I’d read fifty of them. It’s a loose modern adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, set mostly in a writers’ retreat in rural England. There’s lots of biting satire about self-indulgent writers, academics, celebrities, middle-aged philanderers and ‘liberated’ young women, but the story is engrossing and includes a sad but realistic portrayal of disenfranchised rural teenagers. The art is great too, expressive without being too fussy (and is it just me, or does Glen, the American writer who’s moved to England, look exactly like Bill Bryson?).

Favourite Book About Punctuation

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which I have previously discussed here.

Favourite Children’s Book

'Millions' by Frank Cottrell BoyceMillions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is the very best sort of children’s story – funny, exciting and moving. A bag containing thousands of pounds lands in young Damian’s lap, and he and his brother Anthony have only a couple of weeks to spend it before it loses all its value. They trigger hyper-inflation in the school yard, realise that material goods don’t buy happiness, and discover that trying to do good in the world is harder than it seems (for example, when they give a large donation to the Mormon missionaries down the street, the men spend it on a dishwasher and foot spa). Damian’s family are beautifully portrayed, but so are all the secondary characters – Damian’s long-suffering teacher, the local policeman, a lady who visits their school to explain about the introduction of the Euro dollar, the various saints who appear as visions to Damian, even the robber trying to retrieve his stolen money. Highly recommended!

I must also mention two other children’s books I enjoyed: The Secret Language of Girls by Frances O’Roark Dowell, about two best friends gradually growing apart during sixth grade, and Cicada Summer by Kate Constable, an intriguing time-slip story set in a drought-stricken Australian country town. (I also re-read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, which is still awesome.)

Favourite Book About Germs

I read quite a few ‘popular science’ books this year, some written by journalists, others by scientists, and I decided I much preferred the ones written by people who actually understood the science they were writing about. Anyway. Killer Germs: Microbes And Diseases That Threaten Humanity by Barry E. Zimmerman and David J. Zimmerman was a very clear, interesting account of the history of microbiology, with technical but accessible descriptions of how germs cause diseases. It did have an overwrought ‘We’re all doomed!’ chapter about bioterrorism and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and so on, and the edition I read was out of date (published in 2003), but overall, it’s very good. Also, it was written by science teachers who are identical twins (I’m not sure why the book pointed that out, but I couldn’t help imagining them as looking like the Winkelvoss twins).

An honourable mention in the ‘popular science’ category (although this book is not specifically about germs) goes to Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All by Rose Shapiro, which examines a variety of ‘alternative medicines’ popular in the UK, ranging from chiropractic to homeopathy. The author points out that there is no scientific evidence to support most of these treatments, and she laments the money and time that the UK government devotes to ‘quack remedies’ that can be very dangerous (for example, chiropractic neck manipulations can cause strokes, and some herbal medicines contain toxic levels of lead and mercury).

Favourite Novel About Teenagers

'Will Grayson, Will Grayson' by John Green and David LevithanI really enjoyed Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, a book about friendships between teenage boys – some gay, some straight, but all of them interesting, realistic characters. There was lots of humour and the story moved along at a perfect pace, but most importantly, it was emotionally resonant. I cried at the end, but I didn’t feel manipulated into it by some sentimental epiphany on the part of the characters, because their emotional journeys seemed real. I also liked that while being gay wasn’t ‘normal’ in this book, it wasn’t the cause of unending angst, either. Maybe the girl characters could have been nicer or had more depth, but overall, I thought this was a great YA novel.

So . . . I don’t seem to have read many new books this year – perhaps because I was so busy writing. I was reading online newspapers, magazines and blogs, but not that many books made out of paper (even though I don’t own an e-reader, iPad or laptop, and my only internet connection is extremely slow dial-up). I do have a list of To Read books for 2012, but it’s too long to type out, and I still haven’t read a couple of books from my 2011 To Read list.

I hope that you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2012 brings you many entertaining and intriguing books!

More Favourite Books of the Year:

1. Favourite Books of 2010

I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

Australian author Charlotte Wood recently wrote* about how she is troubled by readers who “seem to base the worth of a novel on whether or not they might be able to make friends with the characters in real life”. She felt it was a sign of “laziness and immaturity” for readers to care about whether characters were “likeable”, because the really important thing was “that the characters behaved convincingly, rather than pleasantly”.

Ms Wood was talking about fiction for adults (for example, she refers to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Jamaica by Malcolm Knox – both novels full of loathsome characters). However, I’ve also noticed a lot of bloggers reviewing Young Adult novels in terms of whether the main character is ‘relatable’. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware that ‘relatable’ was a word, and I’m still not entirely sure what it means in this context. Does it mean: ‘I want to be friends with this character’? Or does it mean: ‘I recognise something of myself in this character, even though the familiar characteristics may be flaws’?

'Lesendes Madchen' by Franz EyblWhen I read fiction, I like to read about characters who are interesting. If I don’t care about them, why should I keep reading to find out what happens to them? Sometimes I find characters interesting because they’re likeable, but other characters are interesting because they’re absolute monsters. For example, I love Mrs Proudie in Barchester Towers and Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate – their very awfulness provides most of the comedy in those novels. My favourite example of an unlikeable narrator is Barbara in Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. There is no way I’d ever want to be Barbara’s friend, or even work in the same place as her, but her shrewd observations and general misanthropy make her wickedly perfect for her role in that novel.

On the other hand, many of the novels I’ve loved reading have included likeable characters, and I don’t think this is a sign that I am lazy or immature (although, of course, I can be both of these, at times). I’d much rather read Pride and Prejudice than Mansfield Park, for instance, because Lizzie is fun and smart and lively, whereas I just want to push Fanny Price off a cliff. Of course, ‘likeable’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ – it simply means that I find the character’s flaws natural, forgivable or amusing, rather than irritating.

This leads to the issue of whether authors ought to make their characters more likeable (or relatable), in order to attract more readers. I confess: when I started writing the Montmaray books, I deliberately tried to make my narrator likeable. I wanted her to be intelligent, good-hearted and have a sense of humour, and to learn from her mistakes. But one difficulty, especially with a series, is that if a character is perfectly likeable from the start, there is nowhere for her to go. How can she change and grow over time, if she starts off being wonderful? The other obvious problem is that just because an author thinks a character is likeable, doesn’t mean that readers will agree. Some readers hated Sophie in A Brief History of Montmaray, describing her as stupid, childish and weak-willed. Just as we all have different reactions to real-life people, so we all like or dislike fictional characters to varying degrees. Perhaps, as Charlotte Wood suggests, all that authors can do is try to create characters who convey the messy truth of real life.

*Link to The Likeability Problem by Charlotte Wood (downloadable pdf) was found at this blog post in The Australian.