Books in 2012

This is a rough list of the books I read in 2012 with some brief comments – I’ve seen other people do this on their blogs and enjoyed reading their summaries, so thought that I would have a go. (Originally I added a mention of each person who recommended one of these to me, but that turned out to be problematic, both in privacy and completeness terms – let me just say that I’m always grateful for the wonderful recommendations I get from friends and colleagues.)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson

I’ve read it at least twice before – this time I didn’t feel the momentum of the writing bowling me along quite as it did when I first read it, but that’s probably to be expected.

Bury the Chains – Adam Hochschild

An excellent account of the movement in Britain to abolish slavery. It’s still very relevant today if you’re interested in activism and campaigning, and, as the author points out, it’s the story of the first mass movement where a group campaigned for the rights of people other than themselves.

Mort – Terry Pratchett

This is the first time I’d re-read it in many years, although I usually suggest it (as do many people) as the first Terry Pratchett novel to try if you’ve never read any of his Discworld novels before.  I was glad to find still every bit as enjoyable as the first time. (At the end of the previous year I’d finished the Discworld series, after not reading any of them roughly between the ages of 18 and 32.)

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins

I’d listened to the first two of the Hunger Games novels as audiobooks when I still had Emusic‘s “one audiobook a month” deal. It’s worth finishing the trilogy if you’ve read the first two, which I also enjoyed despite finding the character of Katniss terribly frustrating (as is probably intended).  The nature of the resistance movement is interesting, and I found the conclusion satisfying.

Knots and Crosses – Ian Rankin

Hide And Seek – Ian Rankin

Tooth and Nail – Ian Rankin

Strip Jack – Ian Rankin

The Black Book – Ian Rankin

Mortal Causes – Ian Rankin

Let It Bleed – Ian Rankin

Black and Blue – Ian Rankin

The Hanging Garden – Ian Rankin

Dead Souls – Ian Rankin

Set in Darkness – Ian Rankin

The Falls – Ian Rankin

These are the first 12 of Ian Rankin’s Rebus series of detective novels, and I’ll probably read the last few of them in 2013. I found them quick to read, and I loved the portrait of Edinburgh – it’s much more true to my experiences of the city both as a child and an adult than virtually any other books I’ve read that are set there.  I found the character of Rebus compelling as well.  The first two novels (Knots and Crosses and Hide and Seek) have some points where the writing really jarred for me, but from the third onwards they’re consistently well-written.

The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks

I seem to re-read this about once a year – it’s one of my favourite of Iain M. Banks’ novels (along with Consider Phlebas and Excession). I’ve actually stopped reading his new books, the last straw being The Steep Approach to Garbadale, where I spent most of the book thinking “oh, please don’t let the twist be the one that I think is coming, [a disturbing theme from several previous novels]”, and of course it was…

The Open-Focus Brain – Les Fehmi

This was a kind present from a student in Zürich who was concerned about my style of concentration. The idea of the book is that one can switch from a very intense “fight or flight” style of concentration to something the author describes as “open focus” by using various techniques, in particular thinking about volumes of space. It comes with a CD with some example exercises. When I’ve tried this it’s certainly been relaxing – I hadn’t tried any form of meditation before. It’s also interesting that thinking about the space around you is also something that’s used in the Alexander technique and (I’m told) various meditation techniques. Unfortunately, the book is written in a self-help style that makes me rather suspicious of it, particularly the wide-ranging claims for its health benefits sometimes based on single cases or unpublished data.

Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer

A book about memory champions and memory techniques of the “a journalist tries to become really good at something relatively obscure” genre (see also “Word Freak”, “Born To Run”, etc.) It’s a quick read, and if you’re interested in the subject of memory, or building expertise Anders Ericsson-style, worth a look.  In a strange coincidence, 6 months after I read this, my partner started work at a company run by one of the memory champions who appears in the book.

Why Have Kids? – Jessica Valenti

This probably isn’t what it sounds like from the title – it’s an excellent discussion of the absurd pressures on mothers (particularly in US culture) to meet impossible standards. It was written by Jessica Valenti after having her first child.

The Revolution will be Digitised – Heather Brooke

An interesting account of the Wikileaks saga from Heather Brooke, who is a fantastic campaigner on freedom of information issues. The most extraordinary sections deal with Julian Assange’s interactions with her, including his advances wherein he identifies himself with Jesus…

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

An entertaining book about ultra-runners, barefoot-style running and the Tarahumara people, who run huge distances without apparently being susceptible to the injuries that plague runners elsewhere. It’s great in terms of adventure and storytelling, with lovely portraits of the runners the author meets. I wouldn’t read it if you’re looking for rigorous science and anthropology, but it’s excellent fun.

Rocket Surgery Made Easy – Steve Krug

I generally haven’t added work-related books to this list, but since I read this one straight through, it seemed as if it fitted better than then others which I tended to dip into and out-of more. This is by Steve Krug as a follow-up to “Don’t Make Me Think”, and aims to give you step-by-step guidance for running DIY usability testing sessions of websites.  I found the style somewhat irritating (as so often where technical books try for a light touch) but in practice it was very helpful for running some usability testing last year.  I’m hoping I’ll get to do that again next year.

The House of Silk – Anthony Horowitz

A new Sherlock Holmes novel by Anthony Horowitz. It’s a disturbing book, but brilliantly matches the style of the Holmes stories, I thought.

Plan of Attack – Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward’s book about the decisions that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – I found this frankly terrifying.

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

The 2011 Booker prize winner – consummately well-written and an excellent read.

The Narrative of John Smith – Arthur Conan Doyle

The unpublished first novel of Arthur Conan Doyle. I found it tiresome, and not terribly interesting – I wouldn’t recommend it unless, I suppose, you’re a Conan Doyle completist.

Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen – Giles Tremlett

A sympathetic biography of Catherine of Aragon – embarrassingly, I know virtually nothing of Tudor history, so this wasn’t just interesting, but almost entirely novel for me…

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

I’d forgotten how short this story is, in fact, but it’s still hugely enjoyable. It’s tense throughout, and I’d forgotten about the interesting character of the narrator, a quiet man who’s happy sitting in silence by the fire with his old friends.

Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson

I don’t think that I’d ever read the original text of Kidnapped before, just a children’s edition and later a graphic novel version. Anyway, it’s still a great adventure and Balfour’s journey crosses lots of parts of Scotland that I know from past walking holidays.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle –  W. E. Bowman

An excellent comic novel from the 1950s about a group of mountaineers attempting to climb the fictional mountain “Rum Doodle” with the help of thousands of porters and a supply of Champagne for “medicinal purposes”. Very silly, and highly recommended.

Care of Wooden Floors – Will Wiles

This is the first novel by a friend I knew at college. I enjoyed this very much – I’ve been accused of giving away too much when discussing it before, so I’ll just say that it’s hilarious and agonising in equal parts, and definitely worth reading.

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Another Booker prize winner; my ignorance of history probably meant that I missed quite a lot of pleasure in associating the wonderfully drawn characters with their actual stories, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The (much discussed) style of the writing, in particular the use of the pronoun “he”, initially irritated me a great deal, but I got used to it after a hundred pages or so. I really did think that Wolf Hall was good, but I don’t really see why so many people are quite so passionate about it.

The Afterparty – Leo Benedictus

Another novel written by someone that I used to know, and happily another great read. I found this story of a naive journalist caught up in events around a celebrity party completely gripping, and I enjoyed the meta-narrative too – it’s a smart and very well-written novel.

How To Be A Woman – Caitlin Moran

An often hilarious book – there are several sections that had both of us laughing out loud. The subject matter’s also great – I think it’s essentially aimed at younger people who would say that they’re in favour of equal rights for women, but bizarrely would also say that they’re not feminists.

The Blank Wall – Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was an author that Raymond Chandler regarded as “the top suspense writer of them all”, but who is relatively unread. (You can get it from Persephone Books.) This is the story of a housewife during WWII who is trying to protect her family from events that are going out of control, a bit like Brief Encounter crossed with hardboiled detective fiction – I enjoyed it very much.

Quiet – Susan Cain

This is probably the most personally and professionally relevant book I read this year, as someone who’s introverted but works hard to not give that impression.  It’s about the ways in which society increasingly values the qualities we associate with extroversion rather than introversion, and why that might be a mistake. I found it encouraging and thought-provoking – I’d recommend it to anyone who’s quiet, introverted or sensitive (the book deals with several associated personality traits). There’s also a little material towards the end about how these traits can affect relationships which struck quite a few chords with me.

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