A regularly (but not frequently) updated list of books I’ve enjoyed.

It is unusual for me to read a book in its year of release, so don’t come here looking for timely recommendations. I’ll aim to update this list at the end of every year. I read around 50 books a year; the vast majority are fiction, but there is some non-fiction and popular science. The books listed here were my favourites. All were read in English unless otherwise stated.

2020

Fiction

Axiom’s End (Noumena #1) Lindsay Ellis. I’ve been following Ellis’s videos on literary and media criticism for quite a while, so I was really excited when she announced she’d be publishing a series of (hopefully) five science fiction novels, beginning with this one. This is a first contact story about how friendships can form when communication is hard, as well as a sort of espionage thriller, and an exploration of really super weird alien physiology. For someone of my age (Elder Millennial, I guess?), there is a tonne of nostalgia here alongside the really well written and exciting story – you might get flavours of everything from Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, the Iron Giant, and E.T., and maybe you’ll spot TV quotes and song lyrics from some classic early 2000s properties. Lots of fun, and I can’t wait for the next one!

Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries #5) – Martha Wells. Can Wells maintain the excitement and intensity of the Murderbot novellas in extended form? Hell yes she can! The stakes are suitably high in this full-length novel, both in the action-packed plot involving crazy (maybe evil) ancient aliens and A.I.s, and in the personal/emotional development of our central character, SecUnit, aka Murderbot himself. Our beloved protagonist finds himself for the first time trying to maintain what seems to be an actual friendship, and perhaps even serving as a mentor for other beings like himself. A significant challenge for someone/something who only woke himself up a short while ago, and who has since then been focussed solely on his own survival and concealment. This series shows no sign of losing its charm and I hope for many more instalments.

Lilith’s Brood: The Complete Xenogenesis Trilogy (collecting Xenogenesis series # 1-3: Dawn; Adulthood Rites; Imago) – Octavia E Butler. Absolutely epic science fiction, rightly hailed as a classic and a masterpiece by one of the all-time great practitioners. I read the whole trilogy in one omnibus collection that I devoured in about a fortnight. Lilith is one of countless humans who are plucked from a dying Earth post-nuclear war and kept hidden from each other in a mysterious off-world location. They have been “rescued” by a truly bizarre alien race called the Oankali, who study humans and “optimise” them according to their own designs. Lilith, and presumably many others, is repeatedly tested to see whether she could live alongside the weird and off-putting Oankali, and over many decades of artificially extended life, she begins to learn what they are, how they function, and what they want. When they eventually determine that Lilith is a suitable ambassador to help return a changed human race back to Earth on Oankali terms, she is made to serve as a teacher and then a living example of how humans and aliens may live and even breed together, producing entirely new kinds of life. We follow Lilith and her extended family of humans and not-quite-humans as they face the fact that they must either assimilate or perish. Lilith is a fascinating character as she never entirely acquiesces or comes to terms with her fate – she is pragmatic, and can accept that which she cannot change. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get to be angry about the loss of autonomy her species has faced. Is the price of survival worth paying if it means becoming something your ancestors wouldn’t even recognise?

The TestamentsMargaret Atwood. This sequel to the brilliant and influential The Handmaid’s Tale was a revelation, and showed the skill of a master fiction writer. Atwood makes the reader to feel sympathy, perhaps even admiration, for one of the most reviled characters in the original book, while also introducing new characters who propel the action of the story. It’s hard to review this without spoiling both books in the series, so I’ll stop here.

Creeping Jenny (John Nyquist series # 3) – Jeff Noon. The Nyquist series is getting creepier with each instalment. This one reminded me of the movie Kill List, which I watched under duress at a midnight Hallowe’en screening in Stockholm a few years back. Our private detective is on a very personal case this time, having received clues in the post that his long-mourned father may not be dead after all. Snippets of photographs lead him to the profoundly unsettling village of Hoxley, where every day is dedicated to one particular local saint. The days mandate the behaviour of everyone in the village: yesterday no-one could speak at all, today everyone’s names have changed, tomorrow everyone will be encased in a bubble of fog, and next week there’s a day when no-one will exist at all. Nyquist doesn’t know any of these rules, so he gets in a lot of trouble, especially when he starts asking questions that none of the locals feel like answering. More hallucinatory madness from the unique and inimitable mind of Jeff Noon.

The City We Became (Great Cities series #1) – NK Jemisin. I discovered Jemisin in 2019, and purchased this new book as soon as it was released. Five individuals in New York City discover that NYC is literally coming to life, and that they are the living embodiments of the five boroughs in which they live. They have to find a way to work together to defeat something that is keen on preventing their city from drawing breath. But they know so little, and they learn very slowly, whereas their foe is strong and quick. This is another incredible leap of imagination from Jemisin, and I am locked in for the whole series. Can’t wait to see where we go next. This year I also read her short story collection How Long ’til Black Future Month?, which gets another strong recommendation from me, and which includes tales relating to both the Great Cities and the Broken Earth series.

Wayfarers series, #1-3: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet; A Closed and Common Orbit; Record of a Spaceborn FewBecky Chambers. Three overlapping books following the trials and tribulations of some very different kinds of humans living in the far future, when humanity has spread throughout the galaxy and is navigating life as a junior member of a vast galactic civilisation. In The Long Way…, we follow the crew of the Wayfarer space transport, space labourers who tunnel wormholes through space in order to facilitate travel for everyone else. There are aliens and sentient A.I.s among the crew, and getting to know them and the family dynamic they’ve created is just as fun as the book’s central adventure storyline. Closed and Common… follows two characters from the first book as they build a new life on one particular planet, and we learn why they both have difficulties in defining their own identities. We also learn about the incredible inequities in this galactic civilisation, and how both natural and artificial beings are exploited in plain sight. Finally, …Spaceborn Few follows the residents of the Exodus Fleet, the ships that carried the last humans away from Earth several centuries ago. As the human race spread out among the galaxy, a certain proportion of families remained on the fleet. Now, they trade with ships and planets they pass, but a great deal of the work to be done is centred on simply keeping the fleet alive. This book uses the backdrop of life in space to explore themes like responsibility, duty, and wanderlust, as we meet a generation for whom life on the ships seems to hold no prospects and no future. Familiar to anyone who grew up in a post-industrial small town and had to make a choice between staying close to family and forging a new path of their own design.

Non-fiction

I Contain MultitudesEd Yong. If you are familiar with my academic or research background, it’s a no-brainer that I would read and love this book. Yong tells the story of the microbes in your guts – what they are, what they do, and how we know about them. He interviewed a lot of the scientists whose work I have read and cited many times over the years, and it was fascinating to see my own field of research presented in such a wonderfully human way. Yong is an incredible science writer, able to convey both the majesty and the everydayness of the human-bacterial interactions that keep us alive.

Women in Microbiologyedited by Rachel J Whitaker and Hazel A Barton. I posted a long and waffling review of this back in April 2020. It is a compilation of inspiring short biographies of the women who have shaped and influenced various fields of microbiological research in the past couple of hundred years, including some very recent examples of which I was sadly unaware prior to reading. Still strongly recommended as an eye-opening look at some hopefully-not-forgotten scientific legacies.

2019

Fiction

The Body Library (John Nyquist series # 2) – Jeff Noon. The hallucinogenic second instalment in the Nyquist series is even creepier than the first. There is an infection in our detective’s city, causing reality to blend with fiction, allowing the written word to contaminate what is real. Nyquist is hunting a murderer, trying to uncover the truth of an impossible killing in an impossible place: a living library that won’t let him leave. *shudder*

The Power Naomi Alderman. Another gift from my boyfriend, and another complete revelation! This is unapologetically feminist science fiction: what if suddenly, women everywhere could control and create electricity, becoming able to shoot arcs of electric energy from their fingertips? The gender balance of power could tip immediately, as every ancient wrong would be righted. This is fun and outlandish sci-fi with half the people on Earth gaining mad superpowers, and it is fascinating to watch the women and men in this society change as the new order exerts itself. Not all who wield power can wield it justly.

American Gods Neil Gaiman. I read this just before I watched the TV adaptation, and I’m glad I did. There’s a lot of story detail and character beats that haven’t made it on screen yet, and the book tells a great and complete story. I have always loved books that bring the old Gods back to us, and have them live in modern times. I’m reminded of Douglas Adams‘s ‘Dirk Gently’ book that found Odin the Allfather living in an old people’s home in London, and of ‘Bloodtide’ by Melvin Burgess – a book I was definitely too young to cope with when I read it. Remember, no matter what he tells you, and no matter what you hear, Odin is only ever on the side of Odin.

Broken Earth trilogy, # 1-3: The Fifth Season; The Obelisk Gate; The Stone SkyNK Jemisin. There are four seasons in every year, we all know this. But now and again a fifth season comes. It may last for weeks or decades, and the world will be changed by it. We begin in The Fifth Season as just such a catastrophe unfolds, and follow three women at different phases of life as they navigate a changing world, a world that has literally ripped open around them. In The Obelisk Gate, a woman with the potential to change the world again must decide whether accepting this power is worth the loss of her family and her identity, and we begin to learn the origins of the cycle of calamity. Finally, with The Stone Sky, a decision is made about who has the right to wield world-altering powers, and about whether what is broken always deserves to be fixed. I cannot praise this series highly enough – the scope and scale of the stories told here are phenomenal. Jemisin‘s writing is so evocative and vivid. I have clear visual memories of scenes that I cannot now describe, and I remember squirming in my seat during passages where I felt a character’s discomfort. Some of the strongest fiction I’ve read in a long time.

The Murderbot Diaries # 1-4: All Systems Red; Artificial Condition; Rogue Protocol; Exit Strategy Martha Wells. I LOVE MURDERBOT!!! After discovering the first in this series, I devoured all four of these short novellas one right after the other. Super fun sci-fi about an organic-android construct who becomes self-aware and breaks free from his punishingly restrictive governor module. At first he needs to blend in on missions with other SecUnits, who have no emotions, no free will, and no thoughts of their own. Eventually, shenanigans ensue and he is forced to find a way to exist without being told what to do. He begins to consider what (who?) he truly is, and what his place in the universe might be. There really is a lot of deep examination of what it means to be a human in these stories. But they rip along at an incredible pace! Non-stop sci-fi action, very shooty, very fun, and Murderbot himself is a fantastic and ultimately lovable narrator. I love Murderbot!

Non-fiction

Inferior: The true power of women and the science that shows itAngela Saini. Scientific research has been used to maintain patriarchal dominance for a long time, telling us that men and women are fundamentally different creatures who therefore must fulfil different roles in society. That women are designed and destined to be caregivers, nurturers, home-makers. While men are meant to be the decision-makers, the thinkers, and the builders of society. Research that has supported these claims is bullshit – of course it is, and it always has been – but it’s not always easy to argue against unless you are carrying evidence of your own. Saini lays out everything that is wrong with the notion that we are “less than” and, perhaps more importantly, shows clearly where pernicious and false notions of female inferiority came from. Arm yourself with the knowledge in this book.

2018

This was a weird and bad year. I lost my Dad in January, which is not something I’m ready to write about yet. One result was that I lost the ability to really concentrate or focus on anything, and I couldn’t read books at all until late March. I made two significant literary purchases this year. I bought the Penguin Modern box set of fifty short (40-60 small pages) books from the Penguin Modern Classics imprint, which gathers “avant-garde essays, radical polemics, newly translated poetry and great fiction”. And I bought the first display-worthy box-set of twenty Penguin Vintage Minis, short stories and book excerpts from some of Penguin’s most famous authors. These super-short books were just what I needed in the lowest points of 2018, as I could start and finish one in a day or so, and sort of reset my brain. I can definitely recommend the collections to anyone seeking to expand the roster of authors they read, as the series introduced me to some new voices I will definitely look out for in future. Plus, if you value physical books as display objects for the home, the boxes look beautiful on a bookshelf. Now that there are over forty books in the Vintage Minis series, I am hoping that Penguin will release a second box-set!

Fiction

RadianceCatherynne M Valente. This was a gift from my boyfriend, and a total revelation. I’d never read Valente’s work before, and I’d never read any book that felt like this one. Different chapters are written as movie scripts, letters, diary entries, interviews, and in other styles, so the reading experience is consistently shifting throughout the book. The story is set in an alternate retro-futuristic 1986, where interplanetary travel is easy but it’s hard to make movies (curse you and your patent-hoarding, Edison *shakes fist*. The central character is a movie director, and there’s a lot of old Hollywood glamour in this book, which tells a story that is hard to define but so worth the time spent in reading.

KindredOctavia E Butler. An African American woman is repeatedly dragged to the past by her white slave-owning ancestor. Neither of them understands how or why this keeps happening, but we watch as these frequent journeys into her family history take over Dana’s life in the present, damaging her career, relationship, and sanity. This is science fiction at its absolute best and strongest – it is a gripping, emotional, and exciting story, that also offers tremendous insight into the times in which it was written.

A Man of Shadows (John Nyquist series # 1) – Jeff Noon. Noon is a long-time favourite author of mine, having written the ‘Vurt’ series many years ago, creating a totally unique and vivid cut-up style of new weird psychedelic cyber punk sci-fi something. Most of his books had small print runs and were not easy to find, so I typically have dog-eared second-hand copies tracked down on eBay. So, I was elated when Angry Robot Books announced the new John Nyquist Mysteries series by Noon, as this would mean a new book every year for the foreseeable!! The series is just as weird and unique and vividly drawn and creepy as the old ‘Vurt’ series but now we’re following a private detective named John Nyquist. Nyquist lives in the permanently dark city of Nocturna, and takes on a case that takes him to the permanently bright city of Dayzone, through the dangerous hinterland of Dusk, and into the path of the serial killer Quicksilver. Will he find the girl he’s looking for? And can she answer the questions holding the cities to ransom? This is mind-bending fiction like nothing you’ve read before unless you’re already a fan of Noon, and a great detective thriller to boot. Some GoodReads reviewers seemed to struggle with this blending of genres, but I am here for it.

The Travelling Cat ChroniclesHiro Arikawa. Not since ‘I Am A Cat’ (Natsume Sōseki) have I cried so hard and so long at the end of a book. The loss of someone close to you is only painful because of the love you shared. That love is where this book is set.

Non-fiction

Silent SpringRachel Carson. Published in 1962, this chronicling of the impact of chemical pesticides on the natural world is often credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement. The writing is crisp and well-informed, and the case studies still have lessons for us today, although much of the scientific research mentioned in the book has of course been built upon in the decades since publication. Worth a read to see how much things have – and have not – changed in the ways that we treat the natural world.

So that was 2019.

I started this webpage in September 2019, so this will be my first ‘year in review’ post. Hopefully I can keep doing something similar in the years to come. But how to summarise a year of one’s professional life? And how much personal detail to discuss here, on what is ostensibly a science/work-focussed site? For a number of reasons, the personal and professional are strongly intertwined for me, defining and often directing each other. By all professional metrics – as I will discuss below – 2019 has been a banner year for me. I’ve worked harder than ever, I’ve achieved a lot, and I’m feeling genuinely hopeful for a fantastic year in research ahead. But this year followed the worst year of my life. I want to use this introduction to put my 2019 into context, context that would never be apparent from a simple list of accomplishments.

2018 for me was a wasteland. Let me start from the beginning. The day before Christmas Eve 2017, my paternal grandfather passed away. He was in his late-80s, and had been ill for a long time. He suffered from a range of health problems relating to miner’s lung, including severe asthma and emphysema. He lived at least ten years longer than doctors expected him to. So while it was obviously very sad to lose him – especially at Christmas time – it felt right, like things were happening in their natural order.

My grandfather’s death started a small existential panic for me, as he was my last surviving grandparent. This made my parents the oldest generation in my family. I am an only child, and neither of my parents have siblings either, so the family suddenly felt incredibly small, and I started to realise that within the next few years I would need to think very seriously about moving back to the UK to be closer to them when they were eventually old enough to need my help.

Unbelievably – and I mean that in the literal sense that I still struggle to believe that this really occurred – my Dad died on January 10th 2018. He was 66 years old, and he died three weeks after his 88 year-old father who had been unwell for years. My Dad was healthy, fit, and he took good care of himself. In fact, he was out on one of his weekly 8-mile walks in the wilds of Northumberland when it happened. He had had a routine cardiac check-up a couple of months earlier and was given a clean bill of health. But there was a sneaky clot hiding somewhere close by his heart, undetectable, and causing none of the classic warning symptoms such as dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, etc. One day the clot moved, and that was that.

My father was my everything. My whole world. I am finding the grieving process to be a very slow and heavy thing, and I am certainly not able to write about that yet. I mention this enormous loss here in this post on career achievements only because of the unpredictable effects it has had on my work. Most of 2018 is a blur for me, there are big gaps in my memory of the period, and my CV for that year is pretty thin. I achieved very little of note because I could barely concentrate. I didn’t publish much, I got no new grants, I didn’t supervise any of my own students. I was completely adrift in the world, and felt that nothing I did or said mattered in the slightest. When 2019 began, I can now with hindsight see that there was a marked shift in my behaviour. I didn’t make any conscious decision to change, but I started to work harder than ever before. And the result has been an extraordinary year, that will lead into an even more productive 2020. I’m immensely proud of what I accomplished this past year, but I’d give it all away in a heartbeat, if… .

Photo taken in 1985, the year I was born. My Dad the polymer coatings chemist is 34 years old in this picture, the same age I am as I write this caption. He is the handsome, smiling, dark-haired chap with the moustache and the brown tie, far right in the front row. My Dad worked in the research labs at Courtaulds, which became International Paints, which in turn is now part of the Akzo Nobel chemical empire. Dad developed new paint and coating technologies for ships, and was a key part of the team that developed InterPrime 198, which has sold over 75 million litres around the world.

2019: What have I done?

Popular* science writing

*’Popular’ in this case meaning for the general population, not necessarily meaning well liked.

Ever since university, I have “wanted to write”, whatever that means. As much as I love scientific research, I think my ideal would be to write all day every day. But I never had the guts to really give it a go until 2019, when I suppose I needed new challenges to keep me distracted from the aforementioned personal shit. In spring 2019 I jumped into the world of #scicomm by joining the scientific consortium over at Massive Science, and I am delighted to have now published 4 full-length articles and 4 shorter lab notes with them! It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve written about everything from environmental policy, to science communication tools, advances in medical biotechnology, and new biotech products that are already on the market. My most widely read and shared article for Massive Science was a short biography of the 17th century ecologist Maria Sibylla Merian, who turns out to have a pretty complex legacy. The piece that I found most fun to write was this one about cat arseholes. I never expected to use the phrase ‘anal sac’ in my career, but here we are.

Later in the year, as I felt more confident in my non-academic science writing (Thanks Massive!), I started to pitch ideas to other outlets. I intend to do this a lot more often in 2020, but so far I have published one piece in the Last Retort pages of Chemistry World, a periodical for the Royal Society of Chemistry. The article shows off about how we run our lab at KTH, where we strive to make sure everyone contributes a fair share to general upkeep efforts.

Of course I also started this webpage in 2019. I’m still not sure that I’ll use the blog feature very often, but I am certainly finding it useful to have this easily editable website to collect information about myself. Already a few people have written to me after finding this site to enquire about future collaboration or upcoming recruitment drives.

Academic writing

This year I have written three extensive reviews or book chapters on various subjects, two of which are now published and one that I expect to be submitted in early 2020 (pending contributions from co-authors…..project deadlines are so much easier to meet when I am the only person involved in the frickin project). I’m working on a few research articles that I also hope to submit early 2020, but it’s been nice this year to focus on deep dives into topics I’m passionate about – soil microbes (mostly bacteria), how and why they produce biomass-degrading enzymes, and how we can use those enzymes in industrial biotechnology. My plan is to write a short blog post about each of these reviews in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

As always, if I publish an article in a scientific journal that you don’t have subscription access to, and you’d like to read my article, get in touch via email, Twitter, or ResearchGate, and I’m happy to share.

Teaching and supervision

An area of academic work that I really dove into this year was education. I am currently a lecturer on five master’s level courses at KTH and one at Stockholm University. Lectures at KTH are two-hour sessions where I teach for two 45 minute sessions, with a break in between. It takes me probably 4-5 days to prepare a new lecture from scratch, and I’ve delivered 12 new lectures this year. So you can see how long I’ve spent on teaching and class preparation. This is in addition to having two full-time master’s thesis students with me in the spring, three summer interns, and another master’s thesis student who started in September.

Although it has taken a huge amount of work, I’ve found my teaching this year to be incredibly rewarding. By contributing to a number of different courses on the KTH biotech master’s programmes, I’ve gotten to know a group of 15-20 students pretty well, and in fact 4 of them have asked me to supervise their master’s theses next year. (Actually 6 of them asked me, but I felt that would be too many students to supervise with care.) It is a great feeling to know that these students trust me and like me and my research topic well enough to want to spend half a year working with me!

The large amount of teaching and supervision I completed in 2019 has allowed me to apply for Docentship at KTH, and that application is progressing nicely. I will write a blog post about what Docentship means and how it is acquired in the new year, after I am interviewed by teachers and students about my pedagogic practice – eep!

Scientific research

Check out the page Research Projects for info on my current research interests and goals, and some relevant academic publications. My main focus this year has been bacterial, with members of the group looking at Bacillus and Chitinophaga as plant-protectors and biomass-degraders. Lots of data generated this year, and I can’t wait to share it all with you in 2020! I’m hoping for several research publications and a couple of conference presentations to showcase our work.

Something I’m especially proud of with my current projects and upcoming publications is how student-led my research is. I have had the great fortune of recruiting some truly exceptional research students into my group this year, most notably Anna and Zijia. They are both extremely hard-working young women, keen to learn new techniques, excited by research results, and dedicated to precision and reproducibility in their work. I feel privileged to have been able to supervise two such promising young scientists, and I hope I do their work justice in upcoming publications.

I had a run of great financial news at the end of the year, when I learned I’d been awarded two fairly substantial research grants from national councils in Sweden. This new money, coming in over the next 5 years, will let me work independently on topics I’m passionate about, and I’ll be able to recruit post-docs to get two exciting new projects started. I can’t wait!

What else?

According to GoodReads, I’ve read 54 books this year. According to Criticker, I’ve seen 92 movies. I’ve watched probably 100+ hours of YouTube, and I’ve also re-watched all seasons of Brooklyn 99, Green Wing, and Archer. I’ve tried my hand at pickling a dozen types of vegetable, and I got my hair dyed blonde for the first (and last) time. It’s almost like I’m trying to distract myself from something, who knows. Anyway, see you next year!

Walking by the River Tyne on a Christmas visit home, end of 2019. My Dad used to walk along the river a couple of times a week, and he knew all the best blackberry picking spots. Wow, I miss him.