Tag Archives: Alice Munro

My Favourite Books of 2014

I know there’s still more than a week until the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2014 (so far) that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I finished reading 84 books this year, which doesn’t include the two awful novels that I refused to keep reading, the memoir I’ve just started or the small pile of 1960s non-fiction I’m hoping to get through before New Year’s Day.

Types of books read in 2014

Author nationality for books read in 2014

Although this doesn’t take into account the author’s ethnic background, simply where they were living when they wrote the book.

After that, I got a bit bored with pie charts.

Author gender for books read in 2014

Another year when women authors dominated my reading list.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s books
'Ramona Quimby, Age 8' by Beverly Cleary
Ramona Quimby! I hadn’t read this series by Beverly Cleary before, and it was such a treat, getting to hang out with Ramona and her family. Ramona tries to be good, but grown-ups are so confusing and unfair and just don’t understand how difficult life is when you’re the youngest . . . and yet, no matter how much Ramona sulked and lost her temper and created havoc, she was always an endearing, sympathetic character. I also enjoyed Totally Joe by James Howe, and Dogsbody and Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones (but loathed Fire and Hemlock – sorry, DWJ fans).

My favourite Young Adult novels

Does A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam count as Young Adult? It was probably my favourite book of the year. I also loved The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden, about the differences that emerge between two sisters, one thirteen and awkward, the other sixteen and beautiful, when they’re left alone to look after their younger siblings on holiday in France. The characters are so real and interesting, and the setting so beautifully described. I didn’t have as much success with contemporary YA reads this year – I must have been choosing the wrong books or maybe I was just in the wrong mood for them.

My favourite fiction for adults

I continued to admire Alice Munro’s books, particularly her collection of short stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and I was highly entertained by E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. I don’t tend to read much crime fiction, but I did enjoy The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson (which, coincidentally, featured a fictional version of Josephine Tey).

My favourite non-fiction and memoirs
'Wesley the Owl' by Stacey O'Brien

I read so many interesting non-fiction books this year. My favourites included Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and two very funny books written by Americans about 1950s England – Smith’s London Journal by H. Allen Smith and Here’s England by Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten. I am such a sucker for Scientist-Adopts-Injured-Wild-Animal books 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?' by Jeanette Wintersonand Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl by Stacey O’Brien was a good one – injured owlet Wesley grows up to regard the author as his ‘mate’, trying to push dead mice into her mouth at dinner time and viciously attacking anything that he sees as a threat to her (including her boyfriend and her own new bouffant hairdo). In the Depressing Lesbian Memoir category, I found myself engrossed in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (which definitely wins the year’s Best Book Title award).

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2015 brings you lots of wonderful books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013

My Favourite Books of 2013

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2013 that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I’ve finished reading 69 books so far this year and I suspect I’ll squash another two or three novels in before New Year’s Eve. This total doesn’t include the two novels I gave up on (one because it was awful, the other because I just wasn’t in the right mood for it) or the novel I’m halfway through right now (Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, which deserves a blog post all of its own). So, what kind of books did I read this year?

Books read in 2013

Authors' nationality for books read in 2013

My reading this year was more culturally diverse than this pie chart would suggest – for example, I read quite a few books by writers who’d migrated from Asian countries to Australia or the UK, and I found those books really interesting. (I also read a couple of books by white writers about Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders, which were less successful.)

Authors' gender for books read in 2013

This was the year of women writers, it seems.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s and picture books
'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio
I really enjoyed Wonder by R. J. Palacio, even though it made me cry. Honourable mentions go to Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis, the first in a fun middle-grade series featuring Maggie Brooklyn, girl detective and dog walker, and Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing, an odd but endearing story about a boy who gets a malevolent talking puppet stuck on his hand. Picture books that entertained me this year included This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs and The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan.

My favourite Young Adult novels

I loved Girl Defective by Simmone Howell and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. I was also impressed with Mary Hooper’s historical novel, Newes from the Dead (subtitled, Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665, which pretty much tells you what it’s about), although I’m not sure it was truly Young Adult, despite being published as such – some of the content seemed horrifyingly Adult to me.

My favourite novels for adults

'Lives of Girls and Women' by Alice MunroI read some great grown-up novels this year. This may have been because I abandoned my usual method of choosing novels from the library (that is, selecting them at random from the shelves based on their blurbs) and started reserving books via my library’s handy online inter-library loan system, basing my choices on reviews, award short-lists and personal recommendations. I was happy to discover the novels of Madeleine St John and I especially liked The Women in Black and A Pure, Clear Light. I also enjoyed The Body of Jonah Boyd by David Leavitt (a very clever piece of writing which included some apt and cynical reflections on the business of creative writing), The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, my favourite novel of the year would have to be Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

Among the memoirs I enjoyed this year were Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain and Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung. I also liked Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. The most interesting science-related books I read were Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry and I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz.

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2014 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012

What I’ve Been Reading

I don’t have to do disclaimers for any of these books, because I don’t know any of the authors.

Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung, was a fascinating collection of memoirs, short stories, essays and poems by a range of Asian-Australian writers, some of them famous (Shaun Tan, Tony Ayres, Cindy Pan, Benjamin Law and Kylie Kwong), some of them less well-known, but nearly all of them with interesting things to say about racism, cross-cultural communication and family life in Australia. As in any anthology, the quality of the writing was variable, but overall, I think the editor did a fine job of balancing powerful (and often depressing) pieces of writing with lighter, more entertaining, tales. I did wonder how ‘Asian’ would be defined and it turned out to mean mostly Australians of Chinese or Vietnamese descent, with a few writers whose families were from Korea or Thailand, which probably reflects the relative proportions of these ethnic groups in the Australian population. There were also a couple of Indians1 and I may have been biased towards them, but my favourite piece in the book was a short memoir by Shalini Akhil, in which she discusses her love of Wonder Woman with her Indian grandmother (“You can fight all the crime in the world, she said, but if you leave the house without putting your skirt on, no one will take you seriously”). They go on to imagine their own Indian version of Wonder Woman who “could wear a lungi over her sparkly pants, and that way if she ever needed seven yards of fabric in an emergency, she could just unwind it from her waist.” The grandmother also explains that rolling perfectly round rotis is a magic power, then cooks super-hero eggs with chilli for her granddaughter’s lunch. It was a very endearing piece of writing and now I need to track down this author’s novels.

'A Few Right Thinking Men' by Sulari GentillA Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill has been on my To Read list for a while because, hey, a novel about 1930s Fascism, set in Sydney? Yes, please! And this turned out to be meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating, so I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. It’s the first in a historical crime series starring Rowland Sinclair, a gentleman artist with some disreputable friends, who sets out to investigate the murder of his beloved uncle and finds himself entangled in the conflict between Communists, Fascists and the authorities. I knew a little bit about the New Guard due to their hijacking of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but had no idea about their rival Fascist organisation, the Old Guard, or about how violent some of the confrontations became. It was also interesting to me to compare the Australian Fascist organisations to their British counterparts (with which I’m more familiar). While both had charismatic, upper-class leaders and were obsessed with nutty schemes, conspiracy theories and ridiculous uniforms, the New Guard forbade any female involvement, whereas women (many of them former suffragettes) were a significant part of Mosley’s British Union. I think that says something about how blokey Australia was (and is). I have to say that the writing in this novel was slightly clunky – a bit too much tell-not-show, a few too many information dumps – and I never quite worked out whether the leisurely pace of the mystery plot and the verbosity of the prose was a homage to early twentieth century literature or simply inadequate editing. However, Rowland and his friends were very appealing characters and the historical background was intriguing enough for me to consider reading more of this series.

'Two Boys Kissing' by David LevithanTwo Boys Kissing by David Levithan was a novel I didn’t expect to love as much as I did. Firstly, it has a stupid premise – two boys try to break the world record of more than thirty-two hours of continuous kissing2. Secondly, it’s a YA novel narrated by a chorus of old dead people in the second person. Thirdly, as much as I admire David Levithan’s prose, none of his books will ever pass the Bechdel test. He writes exclusively about gay, white, middle-class American boys3. Sympathetic girl characters, if they exist at all, are merely support crew (literally, in this particular novel). Despite all these ominous signs, I found myself engrossed in this book and was reduced to tears at several points where the dead men talked about their lives in an earlier, less tolerant society. I’m a bit older than David Levithan, old enough to remember the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when each edition of Sydney’s gay newspaper contained pages of obituaries and every community social function was a meeting about the Quilt Project or a fund-raiser for the HIV/AIDS ward at the local hospital, and this book brought back those days vividly for me. The chorus in Two Boys Kissing is there to explain to the teenage characters how much easier life is in the twenty-first century, and while I wholeheartedly agree (life is easier for most gay teenagers now than it was twenty-five years ago), I did wonder what teenage readers might think about this. So I was interested to read Anna Ryan-Punch’s review of the book in the latest edition of Viewpoint, in which she states:

“The use of their commentary comes off as heavy-handed, mawkish, and often didactic . . . there’s a patronising sense of authority, which is likely to put many readers on the defensive: ‘They are young. They don’t understand.'”

I can see that this book might not work for all readers, but it really had an impact on me. And I do agree with Anna Ryan-Punch that this book’s cover is “a literal and lovely picture of progress”.

Finally, I decided to start reading Lives of Girls and Women the day before the author, Alice Munro, won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is because I am psychic. Not really. She’d been on my To Read list for ages, and now I’m kicking myself for not picking up one of her books sooner because this novel was utterly brilliant and I think it would have changed my life if I’d read it as a teenager. Her writing is so lucid and honest, each sentence beautiful and full of meaning – this is Serious Literature without being pretentious or incomprehensible or self-consciously ‘literary’. I was torn between wanting to linger upon each page to savour her wisdom and racing ahead to the next chapter to find out what would happen to Del, the teenage narrator, who is growing up in rural Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. I especially liked how the author described the limitations placed on women then (often by other women, not men) and how Del could so easily be a girl of today, her sexual desires clashing with what society determines is ‘correct’ for girls. This book was a bit like Anne Tyler combined with Margaret Atwood’s autobiographical short stories and they’re two of my favourite authors, so I think I should now read everything Alice Munro has ever written.

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  1. Although I don’t tend to think of India as being part of Asia – to me, it’s geographically and culturally closer to the Middle East than to places like Japan and Singapore. But I’m aware most journalists, politicians and diplomats have a different viewpoint on this.
  2. I hate the whole idea of world records, but especially when it involves stretching enjoyable activities into ridiculous feats of endurance. Seriously, do something more constructive with your time and energy, people.
  3. It was nice to come across this interview with Malinda Lo, which suggests David Levithan has an awareness of this issue.