I stayed bang on track here.
I finished Nick Lane's Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, which I thought was astounding. I particularly enjoyed the way Lane shows us the process of science - the areas where things aren't settled, the places with scientists disagree, the ways that personalities can conflict with credibility. He sketches out both theories and the people who devised them. The last para of my GoodReads review:
With the idiotic debates that continue to be pursued around evolution and 'intelligent design', I think it is crucial that society understands that 'gaps' in the evidence, and disagreements among scientists, do not weaken the case for evolution (which should, really, not have to be made). Lane does an elegant and enjoyable job of laying out the current state of research, focused on topics he cares about and finds intriguing, and even though I'm going to have to read the book again in order to fully understand it, I am truly grateful to him for doing so.
I also read Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's Why Does E=mc2? - large chunks of it on Pakiri beach. Cox and Forshaw are on a mission to make the reader not just recognise but understand the equation:
If Marcus Chown is magical cellulite cream, this is physics bootcamp - no corners cut, no let's-take-it-easy-today-shall-we. Cox and Forshaw don't just want to explain this equation - they want you to understand it, to understand its power (predictive and descriptive) and understand how, despite being just a diminutive collection of letters and symbols, it underpins nearly a century of contemporary science, and captures some of the most fundamental characteristics of the universe.
I feel like the target market for this book - a person who gave up on maths in fourth form, and stumbled through sixth form physics before escaping the next year to classics class, my natural home. Cox and Forshaw are punctilious in their care for the mathematically challenged, to the point where even I wished they'd quit apologising for bringing the maths in to it - because for once, I was following it.
Somewhere between non-fiction and fiction, while at home I picked up a copy of James Herriott's The Lord God Made Them All. I read bajillions of his books when I was a young teenager on a dairy farm, and this was a rather lovely exercise in nostalgia:
Herriot's world is one where every person has a redeeming feature, and every day has a lesson that can be extracted from it. He manages this without preaching though, and his observations are utterly engaging. As an adult, the sameyness of the stories takes some of their shine off, but I also had a new appreciation for the theme of how his profession changed markedly during his career - where all the arcane knowledge drummed into him at university about diseases of the horse and mixing medicines from glass bottles etched with Latin phrases had to be replaced with post-war drugs and the shift of focus to domestic pets. Herriot, thankfully, is one of those people who is intrigued and delighted by change, not threatened and resentful.
My prediction: "A buck three way - the first three books of Anthony Powell's Dance to the music of time in one chubby edition, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-up Girl."
I read the first book of Powell's 12-book series, 230 pages in which minutiae is minutely observed. Give me Evelyn Waugh any day.
Blood Meridian is wrenching - so visceral you almost have to read it through your fingers. If I had of read this first, I would probably never have dared to embark on The Border Trilogy (which I adore). Amazing, but utterly relentless.
I didn't make it to Bacigalupi, because ...
... I went a bit nuts here. I also didn't make it into the final book in Patrick Ness's 'Chaos Walking' trilogy. Instead, I read:
Frances Hardinge's Fly by Night, a dense rich Christmas cake of a book, not original in its coming of age theme, but, as with The Lost Conspiracy, a lovingly constructed setting.
Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's Dash & Lily's Book of Dares - a very professional, pretty engaging, rather irritating teenage-misfits-in-New-York story.
Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead - I blogged Jolisa Gracewood's interview with Healey last year, and was really impressed by this book, in the tradition of Margaret Mahy's supernatural teenage books, and Maurice Gee's halfmen of O.
50% here. I made it through E.B. White's One Man's Meat but not Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs. I put the White anthology down a few times, but it worried away at the edge of my mind and I ended up finishing it. I don't know if this was the right place to start reading White's essays; perhaps his New York essays, rather than his small farm in Maine essays, would have been a better launchpad. But this collection does add up to more than the sum of its parts - deep concerns and steady affections run beneath the small daily happenings.
I was blessed with an iPad for Christmas, and I put it to good use with dozens, if not hundreds, of saved articles using Instapaper from my own and friends' accounts. I'll round up some of the highlights here over the next week.