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.

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

I’ve just finished reading an excellent biography of Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who received no credit (at least, not during her lifetime) for her work on the structure of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick appropriated her data without her knowledge or consent, and used it to construct their double helix model of DNA. When they published their work in Nature in 1953, they mentioned the DNA research being carried out at her lab in King’s College, but falsely claimed that they “were not aware of the details of the results presented there when we revised our structure”. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, but neglected to mention Rosalind Franklin’s name in their speeches, and Watson’s 1968 book, The Double Helix, portrayed her as a dowdy shrew who couldn’t understand her own data.

'Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA' by Brenda MaddoxHowever, Rosalind Franklin was far more than “the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology, the woman whose gifts were sacrificed to the greater glory of the male”. Brenda Maddox paints a vivid portrait of the woman who

“achieved an international reputation in three different fields of scientific research while at the same time nourishing a passion for travel, a gift for friendship, a love of clothes and good food, and a strong political conscience [and who] never flagged in her duties to the distinguished Anglo-Jewish family of which she was a loyal, if combative, member.”

Rosalind was an “alarmingly clever” girl, the eldest daughter in a family of philanthropists that had made a fortune from banking and publishing. Her father was politically conservative, but there were a number of left-wing rebels in the family1. The book contains wonderful descriptions, often from Rosalind’s own letters, of her childhood in Notting Hill and of her time at St Paul’s Girls’ School, which was then one of the few schools that prepared girls for a career. She went up to Cambridge in 1938, as bomb shelters were being dug in Hyde Park and her family were taking in Jewish refugees from Austria. By the end of the war, she had a PhD in physical chemistry and was working on war-related research about coal. After a few years in Paris, she returned (reluctantly) to London, where the focus of her research changed to the structure of DNA, and then the structure of viruses.

Don’t be put off, thinking this book is filled with Difficult Science. I’m hardly an expert in X-Ray crystallography, but I was able to follow the progress of Rosalind’s research quite easily, thanks to Maddox’s clear descriptions and diagrams. It probably helps to have some interest in DNA, but you can skim the scientific descriptions if you must. What is really fascinating (and infuriating) is Maddox’s account of the experiences of women scientists in the 1940s and 1950s – how they were refused admission to the Royal Society until 19452, missed out on nominations for awards and research positions, were paid less than men for equal work, and were refused admission to university common rooms and research facilities3. Rosalind, who was a perfectionist and was widely regarded as ‘prickly’, often antagonised senior male researchers. For example, Norman Pirie, a specialist in plant viruses, wrote her a patronising letter in 1954, criticising her data that showed tobacco mosaic virus rods were all the same length. As it turned out, she was right and he was wrong. But he was also friends with the head of the council that was funding her research, which subsequently refused to provide any more money, even though her work had the potential to lead to a cure for a range of viral diseases, including polio.

Despite her constant battles at work, Rosalind comes across as a woman who embraced life. She was wonderful with children, she loved to cook elaborate dinners for her friends, and her greatest joy was hiking trips into the mountains. She made two journeys across the United States in the 1950s, and her letters about her travels are affectionate and amusing. She died tragically young, at the age of only thirty-seven, of ovarian cancer. The head of her research facility, J.D. Bernal, wrote that it was “a great loss to science”. He praised her “single-minded devotion to scientific research”, noting that

“As a scientist Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-Ray photographs of any substance ever taken.”

Despite James Watson’s4 many attempts to belittle Rosalind’s intelligence and personality after her death, the world eventually came to recognise the value of her work. Buildings at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Newnham College and King’s College are now named after her, and her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London – below those of Watson and Crick, of course.

Highly recommended if you’re interested in science, or feminism, or simply want to read the story of a fascinating, forthright young woman.


  1. One uncle was “a pro-suffragist who in 1910 had accosted the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill on a train and attempted to strike him with a dogwhip because of Churchill’s opposition to women’s suffrage. (Churchill was unharmed by the attack and continued on to the dining car.)” One aunt was a “socialist with cropped hair and pinstriped clothes” (and a girlfriend), while another aunt was a trade unionist who married a diplomat and caused a scandal by “driving her own car”.
  2. In 1902, Hertha Ayrton, engineer and physicist, was refused admittance to this “citadel of Britain’s scientific elite … on the ground that as a married woman, she was not a legal person”.
  3. This wasn’t just in Britain. Women were not allowed to set foot inside the physics building at Princeton in the 1950s, and were banned from working as physics instructors at Harvard until the 1970s.
  4. Apart from his misogyny, Watson also refuses to hire “fat people” and thinks Africans are less intelligent than white people. What a charming man.