Now I list (most of) the books I read on Goodreads, it’s pretty easy to glance back over the books I read in 2012. And I can report the sad fact that I didn’t give a single book a five star rating last year. As the person who gives those scores, I know exactly what a crude measure of quality they are; but still, it suggests that there wasn’t anything which absolutely blew me away, and looking over the list, that seems about right.
Plenty of good stuff, though. At the less literary end, there were two books about public health issues which I found particularly thought-provoking: David Nutt’s Drugs without the Hot Air, which assesses drugs policy in the light of the evidence, and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma, about institutional sources of distortion in drug research.
Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It is a good compilation of interviews with Londoners by Craig Taylor. The other London book I particularly enjoyed this year was Birds in London by W.H. Hudson, from 1898; but that might be sitting at rather a niche intersection of interests to recommend for general readers.
Sporting memoirs are a particularly frustrating genre. You always hope that they will offer some genuine insight into the backstage world, and they turn out to be anodyne pap. Andre Agassi’s Open is unusually honest and unusually good.
The Read The World challenge meant yet more first-person accounts of political upheaval. A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek is immediate, raw, and a bit rough around the edges; From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe is more literary and polished.
More far-flung politics in The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah; Ghana this time, and dense, spiky fiction rather than memoir.
One of the absolute stand-out novels that I read in the past few years was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Gilead couldn’t quite live up to it; but it’s still a very fine novel.
Other novels worth at least a mention: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore; The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst; Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka. None of them are perfect but they’re all worth reading.
And I don’t seem to have read much poetry this year, but I particularly enjoyed Patricia Lockwood’s Balloon Pop Outlaw Black.