What I’ve Been Reading Recently

'Restoration' by Rose TremainI absolutely loved Restoration by Rose Tremain, about a medical student in Restoration-era England who attracts the patronage of King Charles II after (accidentally) saving the life of the King’s spaniel. Robert Merivel is a most endearing character, despite his many faults, which include laziness, gluttony and a complete inability to resist temptation. He has a good heart and a robust sense of humour, and he humbly accepts his punishment when he does the unforgivable and falls in love with the King’s mistress. All the other characters are equally vivid and interesting, but my favourite is Merivel’s best friend, Pearce, who works at a remote Quaker-run lunatic asylum. The author does a wonderful job of recreating the era in a manner that is accessible without feeling too ‘modern’. It’s true that Merivel’s beliefs about medicine are sometimes extremely progressive for his time (for example, he questions bloodletting as a cure and refers to the spread of the “plague germ”), but then, he is meant to be a rationalist in a rapidly changing world. I actually read this book because the sequel, Merivel, was recently published and sounded very interesting, but Restoration is so perfect and complete in itself (ending in exactly the right place) that I wonder why it needed a sequel. However, I can certainly understand why the author would want to spend more time with Robert Merivel, so I’ll probably read Merivel, too – just not right now.

'The Women in Black' by Madeleine St JohnI also enjoyed The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, a charming story about a group of women working at a grand Sydney department store in the 1950s. I loved the descriptions of familiar Sydney experiences: eating lunch by the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park; catching the train from Wynyard Station; strolling through Martin Place and giving in to the temptation “to walk along the GPO colonnade”. (The only unfamiliar bits were the trams and eating ice-creams at Cahill’s, both before my time.) The author, an Australian who moved to England in 1968 and never moved back, was clearly glad to escape a narrow-minded society that provided her with very limited options. Marriage was then the only acceptable goal for women, although Australian men aren’t exactly portrayed as prizes in this book. For example, Patty’s husband is described as a “drongo . . . neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate”, while Fay’s two previous lovers have dumped her without marrying her. Meanwhile, young Lisa longs to accept the university scholarship she’s been offered, but her father refuses to sign the permission form (“I can’t see what you want with exams and first-class honours and universities and all that when you’re a girl”). Luckily, Lisa and Fay are taken under the wing of Magda, the ‘Continental’ refugee who happens to have a lot of suave, cultured male friends, and even Patty manages to put aside her bitterness and reach for happiness. The plot of this book is utterly predictable, but that doesn’t matter – read this for the gorgeous, detailed descriptions, the spot-on dialogue and the sympathetic portrayal of female friendship.

'The Oopsatoreum' by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse MuseumFinally, I’ve been chortling my way through The Oopsatoreum, by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse Museum. This is an entertaining look at the life of Henry Archibald Mintox (1880–1967), one of Australia’s “most fearless inventors”, whose “sheer diversity of his legacy is matched only by its great lack of practical relevance”. Mr Mintox produced “a startling range of prototype inventions from his back shed in Burrumbuttock, New South Wales, and came to be known as the ‘Edison of Australia’, although only within his own family and at his own insistence.” Among his useless inventions were a ‘lesson trap’ (a giant cage baited with a cupcake for luring in schoolchildren; after being trapped, they’d receive “a stern lecture on the perils of tooth decay”); an automated ‘dog walker’ that reeled in the dog after thirty minutes; and a ‘handshake gauge’ for testing the trustworthiness of job applicants. The book consists of photographs of the inventions with short explanations of their history, along with some illustrations in the form of Mr Mintox’s ‘plans’. Mr Mintox is, of course, a figment of Shaun Tan’s imagination, but the ‘inventions’ are actual objects from the Powerhouse Museum (the ‘handshake gauge’, for instance, is “an artificial hand for use with a resuscitation mannequin in first-aid training”). This is a very funny book, let down only by some design flaws (for example, the designer has chosen to place a lot of the illustrations over two adjacent pages, causing details to become invisible where the pages meet the book’s spine; also, the publishers forgot to employ a proofreader). But I’m sure less persnickety readers will overlook this, and it’s certainly a book that Shaun Tan’s many fans will enjoy – and, according to his website, there’s an accompanying exhibition planned for 2013 at the Powerhouse Museum.

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.