I have to say that books and reading have been a big bright spot in an otherwise extremely difficult year. There were times where I did struggle to focus – the pandemic was so distracting and, at times, frightening – but it was such a comfort to come back, time and again, to the joyous escape that reading provides. This year I read 55 books and the vast majority were works of fiction by Australian women writers. There are so many good ones! But, in the interests of providing variety, I’ve come up with a list of favourites that spans the spectrum of authors and genres that I read.
The Dutch House – Ann Patchett
Set over the course of five decades, this is the story of siblings, Danny and Maeve and their connection to the Dutch House – a folly purchased by their father and intended as a surprise for their mother. In fact, the purchase sets off a train of events that will forever change the lives of everyone in the family. This book delivers a masterclass in structure and the art of delivering an emotional gut punch. Absorbing and real.
Becoming – Michelle Obama
I actually listened to this one as an audio book as it’s narrated by Michelle Obama herself. Yes, it’s a long one – but I listened to this during the pandemic, when America was tearing itself apart with the presidential elections and black lives matter protests. Listening to this gave me hope. Obama is warm, wise and candid in this moving memoir – a self-portrait that challenged my notions of what it means to grow up as a woman of colour in the United States.
Sheerwater by Leah Swann
This is another one that I listened to as an audio book and I can highly recommend this version, though I suspect you may want the paperback so that you can pause over the beautiful sentences and imagery. This is a harrowing story of a mother, Ava, on the run from a toxic relationship, with two children in tow – Max and Teddy. En-route to their new life in Sheerwater, Ava renders assistance at a plane crash, then returns to her car to discover both boys are missing. This book is so beautifully written and offers a highly compelling story-line. I was gripped from the first line and left quite winded by the last.
The Little Wave – Pip Harry
I wanted to include a children’s book in my list because I know, as a parent, just how difficult it can be to find quality fiction for children of a certain age. But this book is so beautiful, I have a feeling it could be enjoyed by readers of any age. It’s the story of a Manly school that’s fundraising to help kids from the bush come to the coast. Told from the perspective of Jack, Lottie and Noah this is a really moving tale of love, loss and friendship. It won the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia book of the year for younger readers, and with good reason. It’s written in verse but don’t let that deter you! It works so well and is a gorgeous read.
The Arsonist – by Chloe Hooper
This year, I’ve made a concerted effort to read more non-fiction and it’s proved an extremely rewarding mission. This book is so powerful. I read it in the wake of Australia’s horror bushfire summer and it cast a new and even more difficult light on the terror experienced by those who get caught up in a fire. This is an excellently well-researched and beautifully written account of the Black Saturday fires and the arson investigation that arose in relation to one of the fires started that day. Brought me to tears, made me think, and kept me on the edge of my seat right to the end.
Rodham – by Curtis Sittenfeld
This was one we chose for book club and it proved to be the best choice in terms of provoking discussion. It’s described as speculative fiction – where the reader is asked to imagine what might have happened if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton. Sittenfeld has an extremely intimate writing style and this book poses important questions about the treatment of women in politics. The author absolutely nails the fictional dialogue of her real-life protagonists, which include an hilarious turn by Donald Trump. Sittenfeld creates a completely authentic parallel universe, one that I would happily go and live in. You will be left wondering what’s real and what’s not, and you’ll also marvel at the ambition of the author, to take on this tricky topic.
It Sounded Better in My Head – Nina Kenwood
I had to include a Young Adult title in my list because it’s a genre I, and many other ‘grown-ups’ like to read – probably because we can all relate to the ‘coming-of-age’ narrative. Who among us can claim to be fully evolved? In this particular story, Natalie’s parents are divorcing and she can’t work out why no one’s as upset as they should be but maybe it’s for the best because she has love troubles of her own, including two best friends – Lucy and Zach – who have now coupled up, leaving her very much as the third wheel. I loved Natalie – she’s awkward and funny and reminded me of the awfulness and the euphoria of being that age. If you liked To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, you’ll love this one.
Sorrow and Bliss – Meg Mason
This one gave me Fleabag vibes, and I absolutely adore that show, so naturally, I inhaled this book as well. It’s the story of Martha – a misfit who has spent her life telling everyone, including her husband Patrick, that she has no interest in being a mother. But that’s not quite the full story … Martha’s ‘voice’ in this book is so strong and distinctive. The more unsentimental she becomes, the more emotional I became. One of those books that actually made me gasp out loud from the emotional devastation.
The Banksia Bay Beach Shack – by Sandie Docker
Sandie’s books give you all the feels and this one is no exception – in Banksia Bay, there’s romance, there’s intrigue, there’s the coziness of the seaside community, and a great big emotional gut punch. It might be a sleepy little seaside town, but you know what they say about still waters… For me, this was perfect pandemic reading.
The Mother Fault – by Kate Mildenhall
This was another of those books that seemed to land on the shelves at exactly the right time. It’s set in Australia’s near future where the climate has gone to pot, terrorists are on the rampage, and the government has micro-chipped everyone in the interests of ‘public safety’. Amid the mayhem, Mim’s husband, Ben, has disappeared from an Indonesion gold mine and Mim is compelled to go on a road trip (and a sailing adventure) to find him. Complicating matters are her two children, who she must bring along for the ride. This book ticked all the boxes for me – fabulous writing, pacey plot and a helluva lot to say about womanhood in all its various guises.