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.

Reading Roundup

I’ve read some really good novels lately, which is fortunate for me, because the non-fiction I’ve been reading (as research for my next book) has been very heavy (in both the literal and figurative senses). Here are some of the novels I’ve enjoyed:

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

'The Beginner's Goodbye' by Anne TylerI’d feared this might be merely a reprise of The Accidental Tourist, and it’s true the protagonists of these novels have many similarities – they are both introverted, socially-awkward men who write guidebooks, and they have both just lost a beloved family member in shocking circumstances. However, this book feels quite different in a lot of ways. It’s shorter, for one thing, and lighter in tone. In The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron’s wife has died in a freak accident, and there is nobody he can blame – not even God, because Aaron is an atheist. He copes with the loss of Dorothy by moving out of the house where she died and throwing himself into his work at the family publishing firm. He tells everyone he’s doing fine and he even believes it, until he suddenly begins to ‘see’ Dorothy. At first, she is a silent presence in his life, but eventually they begin to talk, and to argue, with more honesty than they ever did when she was alive. Aaron’s growing self-awareness feels true, his well-meaning friends and relatives are interesting and funny, and I loved the customary glimpse of a character from a previous Anne Tyler novel (in this case, it’s Luke from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, now grown up and yes, running a restaurant – perhaps he inherited it from his uncle Ezra). My only criticism would be that the final chapter wrapped things up a little too neatly (Luke even provides the moral of the story, as if we couldn’t work it out for ourselves), but by that stage, I was so fond of the characters that I was happy to see that they were happy. This is highly recommended for Anne Tyler fans, even if it’s not her best novel. There’s a good review of the book here and you can read my previous post about Anne Tyler here.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I had read this before, but that was so long ago I couldn’t remember anything about it, except that I’d liked it. This is a wonderfully honest story of a precocious, headstrong country girl sent to a snobby boarding school in 1890s Melbourne. Poor Laura gets into one scrape after another as she attempts to ingratiate herself with her classmates, but her gaudy, home-made frocks, outspoken manners, and lack of interest in boys means she’s doomed to failure. Fortunately, she manages to make it out of school with her self-esteem intact, and the final chapter implies she goes out into the world and achieves great things (unlike her classmates), because “even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found”. The edition I read also included a hilarious review quote from a 1910 journal, which sternly declaimed:

“The book is calculated to impress very unfavourably those who do not know that the Australian girl is a much cleaner, wholesomer and straighter person than any of the characters portrayed. It is a book we should strongly recommend adults to keep out of the hands of girls.”

So, you’ve been warned.

Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley

'Insignificant Others' by Stephen McCauleyThis felt a lot like a grown-up version of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, as both narrators were droll, articulate and perceptive when observing the failings of others, but were quite unable to acknowledge or fix their own problems. And the narrator of Insignificant Others, Richard, has plenty of problems. He has a distant relationship with his live-in boyfriend, who is probably cheating on him; he has an affectionate but futile attachment to a married man; he has become obsessed with exercising at the gym, to the detriment of his health; and he’s frustrated by his job at a software company. I’m not sure I’d usually care about any of these problems, but Richard’s narration makes the whole thing into a very entertaining satire of modern American life. For example, here’s Richard contemplating his homophobic, religious-fanatic secretary:

“The degree to which one is obliged, for the sake of tolerance, to be tolerant of the intolerant has never been clear to me.”

And, when arguing with his cheating partner:

“I hate when truthfulness is offered up as a sign of love and friendship, especially when it’s truthfulness about betrayal.”

And, after being berated, yet again, by his sister for not having children:

“The world of parents was divided between those like Benjamin who, worries about Tyler notwithstanding, had unqualified love for their kids and saw childlessness as a disability, and those like my sister Beth, who had ambivalent feelings about their offspring and therefore labelled childlessness as unmitigated selfishness.”

Recommended, unless you’re a fan of George W. Bush (Richard’s hilarious rants about Bush’s inadequacies feature throughout the novel). If you’d like to know more, there’s a review and excerpt here.