Why Science Book Titles Are The Best Book Titles

Browsing the science shelves at my local library yesterday, I found the following books:

How to Fossilise Your Hamster and Other Amazing Experiments for the Armchair Scientist

Dunk Your Biscuit Horizontally

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin?

The Velocity of Honey

Lies, Deep Fries and Statistics

The Joy of X

Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?

Ignorance

Actual book titles, people. And How to Fossilise Your Hamster is “The must-have companion to the No. 1 bestsellers, Does Anything Eat Wasps? and Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?

What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).

My Favourite Books of 2013

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2013 that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I’ve finished reading 69 books so far this year and I suspect I’ll squash another two or three novels in before New Year’s Eve. This total doesn’t include the two novels I gave up on (one because it was awful, the other because I just wasn’t in the right mood for it) or the novel I’m halfway through right now (Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, which deserves a blog post all of its own). So, what kind of books did I read this year?

Books read in 2013

Authors' nationality for books read in 2013

My reading this year was more culturally diverse than this pie chart would suggest – for example, I read quite a few books by writers who’d migrated from Asian countries to Australia or the UK, and I found those books really interesting. (I also read a couple of books by white writers about Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders, which were less successful.)

Authors' gender for books read in 2013

This was the year of women writers, it seems.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s and picture books
'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio
I really enjoyed Wonder by R. J. Palacio, even though it made me cry. Honourable mentions go to Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis, the first in a fun middle-grade series featuring Maggie Brooklyn, girl detective and dog walker, and Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing, an odd but endearing story about a boy who gets a malevolent talking puppet stuck on his hand. Picture books that entertained me this year included This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs and The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan.

My favourite Young Adult novels

I loved Girl Defective by Simmone Howell and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. I was also impressed with Mary Hooper’s historical novel, Newes from the Dead (subtitled, Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665, which pretty much tells you what it’s about), although I’m not sure it was truly Young Adult, despite being published as such – some of the content seemed horrifyingly Adult to me.

My favourite novels for adults

'Lives of Girls and Women' by Alice MunroI read some great grown-up novels this year. This may have been because I abandoned my usual method of choosing novels from the library (that is, selecting them at random from the shelves based on their blurbs) and started reserving books via my library’s handy online inter-library loan system, basing my choices on reviews, award short-lists and personal recommendations. I was happy to discover the novels of Madeleine St John and I especially liked The Women in Black and A Pure, Clear Light. I also enjoyed The Body of Jonah Boyd by David Leavitt (a very clever piece of writing which included some apt and cynical reflections on the business of creative writing), The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, my favourite novel of the year would have to be Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

Among the memoirs I enjoyed this year were Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain and Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung. I also liked Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. The most interesting science-related books I read were Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry and I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz.

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2014 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012

Science Reads: ‘Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates’ by Franz H. Messerli

To end Science Reads Week on a lighter note, I’d like to draw your attention to an article1 published in The New England Journal of Medicine last year, which investigates whether eating chocolate makes you smarter. Dr Messerli notes that dietary flavanols, found in dark chocolate, green tea and red wine, have been shown to improve the blood supply to the brain and cause rats to perform better on cognitive tests. He also notes that countries with a high consumption of chocolate, particularly Switzerland, tend to produce a lot of Nobel laureates. When he analyses the data, he finds “a surprisingly strong correlation” between chocolate intake and the number of Nobel Prizes won in a given country. Unfortunately, Sweden messes up his results. But don’t worry, Dr Messerli has an explanation:

“Given its per capita chocolate consumption of 6.4 kg per year, we would predict that Sweden should have produced a total of about 14 Nobel laureates, yet we observe 32. Considering that in this instance the observed number exceeds the expected number by a factor of more than 2, one cannot quite escape the notion that either the Nobel Committee in Stockholm has some inherent patriotic bias when assessing the candidates for these awards or, perhaps, that the Swedes are particularly sensitive to chocolate, and even minuscule amounts greatly enhance their cognition.”

Yes, the article is completely tongue-in-cheek. However, I feel this issue needs further investigation, so I’m off to eat some Lindt 70% Dark Chocolate. Purely in the interests of scientific investigation, you understand. Happy ‘Science Reads Week’ to you all, and may your own scientific investigations be similarly delicious!

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  1. Sorry, this article is now only available to NEJM subscribers.

Science Reads: ‘Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science’ by John Henry

Today’s Science Read is an odd but fascinating book about Francis Bacon, who is often credited with being the founder of ‘Modern Science’, although the truth is far more complex. Now, I have to admit that my knowledge of Francis Bacon was fairly patchy before I picked up this book. My mental card file on him looked something like this:

FRANCIS BACON
– Lived in 1500s? 1600s?
– Wrote some books about philosophy
– Jumped out of his carriage to grab a chicken, kill it and stuff it with snow, in order to see if ice could preserve flesh; consequently died of pneumonia due to exposure
– Not to be confused with the Francis Bacon who painted all those grotesque portraits

In other words, I knew almost nothing about him. However, I can now reliably inform you that Francis Bacon (no relation to the artist) was born in 1561; became Lord Chancellor to King James I; wrote a LOT of books, including one of the first Utopian novels; influenced a range of scientists, from Newton to Darwin, and inspired the establishment of the Royal Society, the oldest and most prestigious scientific institution in Britain; and died in 1626, although his death probably had nothing to do with iced-chicken experiments.

'Knowledge is Power' by John HenryJohn Henry gives a clear description of Bacon’s main themes, which were that society was on the verge of a flowering of knowledge about how the universe worked; that this knowledge should be used for the benefit of humankind; and that science would be best developed within a bureaucratic structure funded by the government but free of political and religious bias, and staffed by a huge army of workers gathering, tabulating and interpreting information. Even Henry acknowledges that important scientific advances have never happened within this type of bureaucratic structure, but he argues convincingly that Bacon’s ideas were very influential, if sometimes misinterpreted, by philosophers and scientists during the Enlightenment and afterwards.

Henry also does an excellent job of describing Bacon’s world, one quite alien to those of us living in twenty-first century secular democracies. For example, in Bacon’s time, it was completely rational to believe in God and whatever the Church currently decreed was a ‘fact’ (regardless of whether it really was true), because otherwise, you’d find yourself convicted of heresy and burnt at the stake. Words such as ‘magic’, ‘science’ and ‘atheist’ had completely different meanings then. ‘Magic’, for example, was not about supernatural powers, but about discovering the ‘correspondences’ between natural substances (for example, between magnets and iron) and ‘natural magic’ was what we might think of as primitive science. While a magician might (unwisely) choose to summon a demon, this would only be to help the magician learn about these natural correspondences more quickly. A demon had knowledge but no supernatural powers and could not do anything miraculous, and the Church frowned upon demonology only because demons were known to exploit humans and could endanger a magician’s immortal soul. Henry also explains how Bacon’s devout Calvinist upbringing and conviction that the End of Days was nigh1 had a significant influence upon his philosophy.

The design of this book was a bit odd, and at first I wondered if it was self-published, but no, it seems it’s part of a series of science-themed books published by Icon Books in the UK and Totem Books in the US. There was a glossary, but no index; there were a few footnotes, but they referred to only four texts; there was some very dense and academic information, but it was presented in a conversational style with lots of droll asides from the author. It’s as though the publishers weren’t exactly sure who the audience for this book would be, but I found it very interesting and readable. Those who know a lot about Francis Bacon probably won’t find much new in this book, but I’d recommend this for those who don’t know much about him but are interested in the history of science.

Tomorrow in Science Reads: Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates by Franz H. Messerli

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  1. While ‘apocalypse’ implies destruction and chaos to us, to Bacon it meant a time when the old, flawed world would be replaced with a glorious new world, full of knowledge and contentment. While it was true that this would mean the destruction of unworthy humans (Catholics, Jews, Muslims, heathens, etc), Bacon knew that he, as an Englishman and the ‘right’ sort of Protestant Christian, would be one of the saved, so he eagerly awaited Judgement Day.

Science Reads: ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ by Richard Dawkins

Today in Science Reads, I’d like to talk about a book that argues that scientific knowledge enhances, rather than destroys, our sense of wonder about the universe. In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins has written a rebuttal to John Keats’s idea that Isaac Newton “destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours”. For the most part, Dawkins does this clearly, effectively and with a sense of humour. There are fascinating discussions about astronomy, sound perception, forensic DNA testing and how genetics can reveal information about the ancestral environment of a particular species. My favourite chapter was about how Uncanny Coincidences (for instance, your horoscope correctly predicting your future, or a TV magician making wristwatches stop or start with the power of his mind) are usually not very uncanny at all, once you use probability mathematics and scientific logic to work out how likely it is that these events will occur.

Dawkins also discusses how scientists can sometimes get a bit carried away with using ‘poetical writing’ to convey their ideas, at the expense of clarity and accuracy. This was the part of the book where I felt Dawkins forgot his central thesis and got a bit carried away himself, on tangents that were not very interesting. Unfortunately, he also devotes a few pages of this book to one of his pet peeves – “feminist bullies” who apparently try to prevent young women from studying science because it’s the “brainchild of white Victorian males”. Now, as a woman who has studied science and worked in a couple of science-related fields, I feel I have a bit more personal experience in this area than Richard Dawkins, and I have to say that all the people who tried to discourage me from science were not feminists, but sexist men, starting with my Year Eleven Physics teacher, who informed us that girls didn’t have the right sort of brains to understand Maths and Physics1. This attitude was shared by male staff teaching Pure Mathematics at the university I subsequently attended.2 In fairness to Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow was first published in 1998, and his more recent books, such as The God Delusion, seem far less anti-feminist. Perhaps his views have matured, or perhaps his publishers pointed out to him that women read books about science, too, and that annoying the people who have bought his book is a bad business strategy.3 Anyway, this is a small part of an interesting, entertaining and often inspirational book, which I recommend with some reservations.

Tomorrow in Science Reads: Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry.

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  1. I would have made a rude gesture at this Physics teacher from the stage of our school assembly hall the following year, when I was awarded the school prizes for Physics and Chemistry, but fortunately for everyone, he’d retired by then.
  2. Although I should point out that the (male) Applied Maths lecturers were so enthusiastic and fun that I briefly considered becoming a statistician. And my (male) Chemistry professor was similarly encouraging.
  3. I don’t think his views have matured very much, given some of the things Dawkins has said in response to women being sexually harassed and assaulted at atheist conferences.

Science Reads: ‘I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity’ by Max Perutz

Our new Prime Minister has just announced his Cabinet, and for the first time since 1931, the Australian government does not have a Minister for Science. (After all, who needs scientists when we have the Pope to decide how the universe works? Just ask Galileo how well that went.) But here at Memoranda, we love science, so we’ve unilaterally declared this week ‘Science Reads Week’. It’s already Tuesday, so it’ll be a fairly short week, but each day for the rest of the week, I’ll be posting about some interesting science reads.

Today, I’d like to recommend I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz, who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out the structure of haemoglobin (which is the molecule in our red blood cells that transports oxygen around our bodies) and myoglobin (which does a similar thing inside muscles). Max Perutz also helped found the European Organisation for Molecular Biology, was an excellent science communicator, and seems to have been a genuinely nice person. John Meurig Thomas, for example, wrote:

“Perutz was a gentle, kindly and tolerant lover of people (particularly the young), passionately committed to social justice and intellectual honesty; and the warmth of his personality radiated a sense of human goodness and decency which induced others to behave sanely, especially because he exuded an inner excitement that stems from a love of knowledge for its own sake.”

In this collection of science-themed essays and book reviews, Perutz writes eloquently about the development of chemical weapons during WWI, atomic weapons during WWII, and biological weapons during the Cold War. He also discusses a number of important twentieth-century scientists, most of whom he knew personally, including Peter Medawar (whose work on immunology led to successful organ transplants), Albert Szent-Györgyi (who isolated Vitamin C), Linus Pauling (who, among other achievements, worked out how molecules were held together by chemical bonds, and identified that amino acids had alpha-helix structures, which helped Watson and Crick figure out that DNA had a double-helix structure), Dorothy Hodgkin (who figured out the structure of cholesterol, insulin and penicillin, and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964) and Lise Meitner (who identified the splitting of the uranium atom and named it ‘fission’, although it was her male colleague who was awarded the Nobel Prize for their work). There are also powerful arguments for human rights, for freedom of expression, and for women to have the right to control their own fertility with contraceptive drugs and safe abortions, as well as a thoughtful exploration of whether an accident at a UK nuclear energy station led to long-term environmental damage and health problems in the local population.

However, my favourite piece was about Perutz’s experiences during WWII. He was born and raised in Vienna, but moved to England to study chemistry at Cambridge in the 1930s. When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, he was unable to return home due to his Jewish ancestry. His parents managed to escape Austria and join him, but after war was declared, Perutz and his father were both interned by the British as ‘enemy aliens’. Even though Perutz was passionately anti-Nazi and had just been awarded a PhD from Cambridge (which you’d think would be pretty useful for the war effort), the British government decided to send him to a prison camp in the wastelands of Canada. After further adventures and with the help of his British scientist friends, he made it back to England, where he spent the war working for a very eccentric civilian named Geoffrey Pyke. Among Pyke’s pet projects was the development of bullet-proof ice, reinforced with wood pulp, called pykrete, although the plan to use it to make sea-borne aircraft carriers sank (literally). Pyke also came up with the bright idea of “the construction of a giant tube from Burma into China – much easier than building a road . . . Through this tube, Allied men, tanks and guns were to be propelled by compressed air.” Not even Churchill supported this ridiculous scheme, and Perutz eventually “returned to Cambridge, sad at first that my eagerness to help in the war against Hitler had not found a more effective outlet, but later relieved to have worked on a project that at least never killed anyone – not even the Chief of the Imperial General Staff [who had been injured when a bullet rebounded off a block of pykrete during one of Pyke’s ill-conceived demonstrations].”

Of the thirty-seven essays in the book, I think only two require readers to have some specific scientific knowledge (one is about haemoglobin’s structure, the other about how X-Ray crystallography developed into a useful tool for analysing biological molecules). For the most part, this is an accessible, engaging and fascinating book about science and its effects, good and bad, on humankind in the twentieth century.

Tomorrow in Science Reads: Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins

Five Books, Five Songs: Through The Large Four-Chambered Heart

I had difficulties coming up with a song for my work-in-progress, so I asked the two main characters, Rosy and Jaz, for their opinions. Rosy immediately nominated Vincent by Don McLean, because Vincent van Gogh is her favourite artist and he makes an appearance in the book.

“It’s a very brief appearance, though, isn’t it?” I said. “I was hoping for a song that’s about the entire book.”

“Oh, right,” Rosy said. “You want something science-y, then. Never fear, I will use my amazing research skills to find a song for you.” She flipped open her laptop. “What about Weird Science by Oingo Boingo? Or She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby? Or Science Friction by XTC? Ooh, here’s a good one – Science Genius Girl by Freezepop! Or how about Biology by Girls Aloud? If only that song was a lot smaller. They could have called it Microbiology …”

I went off to find Jaz, who said she didn’t know anything about music but wanted to see what Rosy had discovered. When we returned, Rosy was still at it.

“Did you know that there’s a band called Placebo? And there’s a song called Bad Medicine. But I think you should go with a song from They Might Be Giants – they have loads of science songs. This one’s my favourite.”

“Is this song funny?” I asked. “Because the last song I chose for Five Books, Five Songs was really sad, so I need something cheerful.”

“It’s funny,” Rosy assured me. “Also, there’s a giant squid on the album cover.”

“But the lyrics say ‘koala bear’,” said Jaz, peering over my shoulder at the computer screen. “Koalas aren’t bears, they’re marsupials.”

“Well, They Might Be Giants aren’t Australian,” said Rosy. “Or scientists. You can’t expect them to know very much. They were probably getting koalas confused with drop bears.”

“At least they understand how the blood circulation system works,” said Jaz.

“William Harvey would love this song,” said Rosy, nodding.

“Right, then,” I said. “It’s decided. Mammal by They Might Be Giants. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Rosy.

“Okay,” said Jaz. “But, Michelle?”

“What?”

“You should stop messing about on the internet and get back to writing our book now.”

So I did.

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More in Five Books, Five Songs:

1. The Rage of SheepHester’s Request
2. A Brief History of MontmarayThe Sea Is Writhing Now
3. The FitzOsbornes in ExileDoing The Lambeth Walk
4. The FitzOsbornes at WarWe’ll Meet Again
5. The Work-in-Progress – Through The Large Four-Chambered Heart

Giant Squid Makes Film Debut

Yes, Memoranda brings you all the important news. Scientists from Japan’s National Science Museum have filmed the giant squid in its natural habitat for the first time, in the dark depths of the Pacific Ocean. Scientist Tsunemi Kubodera described the creature as “shining and so beautiful”, and estimated it would have been eight metres long if it hadn’t been missing its two longest arms.

By an amazing coincidence (well, not all that amazing, considering my interest in giant squid), I was only yesterday reading about Pierre Dénys de Montfort, the French naturalist whose claims about a “colossal octopus” that attacked ships were dismissed by his peers as sensationalist nonsense. Poor Pierre! Well, okay, maybe some of his illustrations were slightly exaggerated . . .

Pierre Denys de Montfort's 'Colossal Octopus' 1810
Pierre Dénys de Montfort’s ‘Colossal Octopus’ attacks a merchant ship, 1810

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

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  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.