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.

Alex and Me by Irene M. Pepperberg

'Alex and Me' by Irene M. PepperbergI love birds, and science, and books, so how could I not love a book about a talking bird, written by the scientist who raised him? Alex and Me is a touching, funny account of a scientist who trained an African Grey parrot to talk, in order to gather information about bird cognition and language. Alex learned how to label colours, materials and objects, knew ‘same’ versus ‘different’, was able to construct original phrases from words he’d been taught, could count to six and possibly add numbers, and even taught himself to segment words into phonemes, after being taught how to link English speech sounds to plastic letters. He played jokes on his trainers, loved to dance and be tickled, and said ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Calm down’ during tense situations after watching people in the lab use these phrases. The book is full of entertaining Alex anecdotes – for example, he once ordered a toy parrot, ‘You tickle!’ and then, when the toy failed to respond, said, ‘You turkey!’ and stalked off in a huff. When recuperating at the vet’s after an operation, he wanted to talk to everyone he saw, including the accountant who was working late one night:

“‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
‘No, Alex.’
He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally Alex became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”

I must admit that Dr Pepperberg is not the world’s greatest writer, and this book would have benefitted from further editing. I really didn’t need to know the details of the author’s childhood or her early studies, for example, and I would have liked more information about how Alex produced human-like sounds when he didn’t have lips or teeth. I’d also have loved some photos of Alex (although I later found a film clip of him in action). Another issue, barely alluded to in the book, is how captivity affected Alex’s life. His beak, claws and wings were clipped when he was young, and he never had the chance to fly, to sit in a tree or to mate with another parrot. Dr Pepperberg had difficulties securing permanent research funding, and the constant moves around the country made Alex so stressed that at times, he pulled his own feathers out. I’d like to think that a similar research project nowadays would show greater concern for the bird’s welfare, although it’s clear from the book that Dr Pepperberg and Alex had a strong, affectionate bond and that she was devastated by his relatively early death at the age of thirty-one.

One thing that surprised me was how resistant many scientists were to Dr Pepperberg’s theories (and evidence) about animal cognition and language, with many refusing to accept that animals could actually use ‘language’. Some continue to believe that Alex was merely repeating the sounds he heard without any understanding of their meaning, and that his intelligent behaviour was simply a ‘Clever Hans’ effect, with Alex responding to cues from his handlers during testing. This seems highly unlikely to me – the research was carefully planned to control for the ‘Clever Hans’ effect by using multiple trainers and testers. Anyway, Alex repeatedly demonstrated complex, novel, situation-specific behaviours that could not have been prompted by his handlers. But perhaps some scientists feel threatened by the notion that animals other than themselves are capable of intelligent behaviour, of using language – of even, perhaps, experiencing human-like emotions.

I’ve never met an African Grey parrot, but I’ve spent the past decade watching the wild rainbow lorikeets that hang out on my apartment balcony and they use language. Rainbow lorikeets don’t imitate human sounds, but are capable of ‘almost continuous screeching and chattering’, as Jim Flegg’s Birds of Australia says. They make happy, murmuring sounds when they’re feeding or grooming each other; enquiring calls if their mate is out of sight, rising in intensity if the other bird doesn’t respond immediately; sharp, angry sounds when another bird muscles in on their territory; and inquisitive, chirruping sounds at me if I’m watering my balcony plants or appear to be eating something they might like. When baby rainbow lorikeets want their parents’ attention (which is pretty much all the time), they make a noise like bits of styrofoam rubbing against each other, and the harassed parents respond as quickly as they can. Isn’t that ‘using language’? But I think they go even further in human-like behaviours than simply using language.

One morning last year, I was awakened by the sound of some rainbow lorikeets screeching with distress outside my window. I went out to investigate, assuming they were being harassed by currawongs, and found a dead adult lorikeet lying on my balcony. It showed no obvious signs of injury or disease – the poor thing had simply died. Two lorikeets were sitting on the balcony railing, looking down at the dead bird and screeching, but they fell silent when they saw me and climbed down the railings to have a closer look. One of them started grooming the feathers around the dead bird’s face; the other took hold of the dead bird’s claw and gave it a couple of tugs, as if to urge it to wake up. The two birds climbed back up onto the railings to watch while I took the body away, and then flew to a nearby tree branch, where they sat for twenty minutes gazing at the spot where the dead bird had been. Did they feel sad? Or confused? It’s impossible to tell, but they were certainly unsettled by what they’d seen – and this was an adult bird that had died, not their baby.

As I don’t have any photos of Alex, here are some photos of rainbow lorikeets. First, a rainbow lorikeet eating a grape:

Rainbow lorikeet

And a group of rainbow lorikeets hanging out on my balcony:

Lorikeets on balcony

And finally, rainbow lorikeets take flight:

Rainbow lorikeets take flight