My Favourite Books of 2019

This year, I was in a reading slump and a writing slump (and a general dealing-with-life slump), so I finished reading only 31 new books. I did a lot of comfort reading of old favourites and I spent many hours online reading newspapers and journal articles and blog posts, trying to make some sense of the chaotic world we live in. I also got sucked into the toxic garbage fire that is Twitter. There are some good things about Twitter, but I’m not finding it very educational, entertaining or conducive to good mental health at the moment, especially since the recent ‘improvements’ that cause strangers’ tweets to keep appearing randomly in my Twitter feed. I might delete my Twitter account or I might work out a more constructive way of using it in 2020. But here are my favourite books from this year:

Adult Fiction

'Normal People' by Sally RooneyThis year, I failed to finish reading a number of novels that had received a great deal of hype. It is possible there’s something wrong with my literary tastes, but I feel life is just too short to waste a lot of time ploughing through pretentious waffle about uninteresting characters and situations. I did enjoy the latest Rivers of London novel from Ben Aaronovitch, Lies Sleeping, but I was underwhelmed by his new novella, The October Man. One book that did live up to the hype was Sally Rooney’s Normal People, although I do understand the criticisms of it and I think I am now done with novels about writers. Writers do not tend to live fascinating lives. Please, novelists, from now on, write about characters who do something else for a living.

Non-Fiction

I read a lot of 1960s non-fiction as research for the book I am currently trying (and failing) to write, but I can’t count any of them as 2019 favourites because they were re-reads. I did enjoy A Good School: Life at a Girls’ Grammar School in the 1950s by Mary Evans, which included some amusing commentary on the ridiculousness of school regulations and the ingenuity of school girls in getting around these rules. I am not sure I can truly call Growing Up Queer in Australia, edited by Benjamin Law, a favourite book, but I found it to be far more interesting and wide-ranging than I expected. I have issues with the term ‘queer’ and I was bothered by the apparent misogyny and ignorance of a few of the contributors, but I finished the book feeling that I had a much greater understanding of and empathy with younger Australians who identify themselves as living under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. And surely that’s why we read non-fiction – to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while.

Graphic Novels

'Skim' by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian TamakiI really liked Skim, a graphic novel set in Canada in 1993, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. I presume it’s at least a bit autobiographical, because it feels so authentic. Teenage Kim is having a fairly bad year. She breaks her arm after tripping over her own home-made Wiccan altar; she falls disastrously in love with a female teacher with boundary issues; she sneers at her racist Mean Girl classmates; she observes her parents’ unhappy relationship with dismay; she grows apart from her best friend and makes a new unexpected friend. Despite the depressing themes, it’s often very funny and the art works very well with the story.

Children’s Books

'El Deafo' by Cece BellI read some great books aimed at middle graders. El Deafo by Cece Bell was an entertaining, endearing graphic memoir about a girl with acquired hearing loss growing up in 1970s America. Cece has problems that most children will relate to (finding and keeping friends, dealing with mean teachers and bullying classmates, having a crush on a boy in her neighbourhood) but she’s also the only child in her school who uses a Phonic Ear — which turns out to give her super powers. The author includes a helpful note at the end, explaining the different forms of communication used by people who have hearing impairments or are Deaf and explaining that she now views her deafness not as a disability but “an occasional nuisance, and oddly enough, as a gift: I can turn off the sound of the world any time I want.”

I also enjoyed The Terrible Two Get Worse by Mac Barnett, Jory John and Kevin Cornell, sequel to The Terrible Two. This time, the pranksters plot to oust their terrible school principal, but find his replacement is even worse. There are plenty of jokes, an inventive plot and fabulous illustrations, alongside some surprisingly sophisticated references (to Occam’s razor and Chekhov’s gun, among others).

'Catch a Falling Star' by Meg McKinlayCatch a Falling Star by Meg McKinlay was a warm-hearted, gentle exploration of grief, set in rural Western Australia in 1979. Twelve-year-old Frankie is busy looking after her eccentric little brother Newt while her widowed mother works overtime as a nurse. Frankie’s father died in a plane crash several years before, just as Skylab was launched into the atmosphere. Now Skylab is about to plummet back to Earth and Newt is acting very strangely — and Frankie is the only one able to figure out what’s going on. The child characters are realistic and endearing and the historical research is thoughtfully incorporated into the story. And yes, books set in 1979 are now regarded as historical fiction. I feel so old.

'Wed Wabbit' by Lissa EvansFinally, I absolutely loved Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans. Ten-year-old Fidge finds herself stuck in a surreal world that bears a twisted resemblance to her little sister’s favourite book, ‘The Land of the Wimbley Woos’. With the dubious assistance of a plastic carrot on wheels that dispenses psychological advice, a giant purple elephant with a passion for community theatre, and her awful cousin Graham, Fidge must solve a series of clues to rescue the Wimbley Woos from an evil dictator and return to the real world. There’s plenty of fast-paced adventure, hilarious jokes and a great deal of heart, with an emotionally satisfying conclusion. As with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz books, some of the satire may be more amusing to adults than to child readers; on the other hand, there’s a recurring joke involving the word ‘fart’ that made me laugh like a drain every time, so I’m probably not the best person to discuss levels of sophistication in text-based humour. My only issue was that the map in the front of the book didn’t seem to bear much resemblance to Fidge’s travels in Wimbley Land so was rather confusing, although that could be part of the joke.

I am hoping next year will be a more successful year for me in terms of reading and writing books. Here is the pile of books I brought home from the library for holiday reading:

Holiday Reading 2019

I’ve also noted that Girls Gone By are publishing another of Antonia Forest’s Marlow books early next year, although they’ve decided to skip Book Seven, The Ready-Made Family and go straight to Book Eight, The Cricket Term. WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE, GIRLS GONE BY? I’M TRYING TO READ THEM IN THE CORRECT SEQUENCE. Although of course, I’ve ordered The Cricket Term.

Thank you to everyone who visited Memoranda this year. Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating it and happy end-of-December to everyone else!

8 thoughts on “My Favourite Books of 2019”

  1. Two of the books I’ve enjoyed most in the last year are Lissa Evans ‘Old Baggage’ and ‘Crooked Heart’ which were near perfect and I highly recommend if you haven’t come across them yet.

  2. I’m always interested in finding out what you’re reading, Michelle. Some of these I’ve read and some I’ve never heard of!

    I loved Normal People and Conversations with Friends but I think I can wait a while for the next one. Rivers of London just keeps getting more and more complicated and I’m not sure if he’s going to be able to tie everything up!

    Annoyed about GGB skipping Ready Made Family for your sake, even though I didn’t get hold of it until I was an adult. It means there is a chapter at the beginning of Cricket Term that features a whole lot of people you won’t know (mind you, I read it in a happy fog as a teen and it didn’t impair my enjoyment of Cricket Term, which is GORGEOUS, such a sunny, satisfying book).

    I hope 2020 is a brighter year for you, and I hope (selfishly) that we hear from you more often.

    1. Thank you, Kate. I always enjoy reading your blog posts, although unfortunately Blogger hates me and eats all my comments so I’ve given up on trying to post anything on your blog.

      I’m looking forward to the next Rivers of London novel, due in February, but think I’ll skip all the associated comics and novellas from now on. There’s Cricket Term coming out in March (a school book, hooray) and a new Anne Tyler novel in April and I believe YOU have a new book coming out soon! Can’t wait to read that one!

      Apparently I can be on Twitter OR I can blog on a regular basis, but not both. I think that means giving up on Twitter. Blogging is more enjoyable for me because it allows me to ramble on and the people who join the discussions here are a lot more thoughtful than those on Twitter.

      Happy new year to you, Kate, and thanks for all your contributions here. I will always be grateful to you for introducing me to Antonia Forest!

  3. Hi Michelle-
    Thank you as always for your blog and book recommendations. I will read Wed Wabbit soon – but I would like to read more of your books and I hope your slump ends.
    2019 was a good reading year for me, mostly because I put off doing other things. Here are a few that you might like.
    Adult fiction
    Kathleen Rooney’s Lilian Boxfish takes a walk. An old woman walks almost the length of Manhattan on New Year’s Eve and has some surprising encounters.
    Mick Herron’s series, starting with Slow Horses, about spies who have messed up- or were set up. I love Jackson Lamb as a character but would not like to meet him in real life.
    YA
    What really stood out for me this year was Deb Caletti’s The heart in the body in the world. Annabelle undergoes a horrific loss and some people blame her for it. So she runs away- from Seattle Washington to Washington DC .
    Picture book-
    Armin Greder’s Island. Heartbreaking- do not give this to a young child
    NonFiction
    Julie Summers books on home life in England during WWII
    Nella Last’s Journals
    Pete Dunne’s Birds of Prey- of no use to Australians as the author is American and the continents have only one bird of prey in common, the Peregrine Falcon- but still he is a fantastic writer on nature.

    1. Hi, Megan. I’m glad you had a good reading year and thanks for the book recommendations. I loved Slow Horses when I read it a couple of years ago – such an interesting take on British spies, the exact opposite of the glamour and thrills of James Bond! I must read more of that series. Birds of Prey sounds good, too, even if I won’t be familiar with most of the birds. Hope you have a happy 2020, full of more good reading.

  4. I’m quite a fan of Lissa Evans and have a particular fondness for THEIR FINEST (or whatever it’s officially called since the film came out). I had no idea she’d written children’s fiction so thanks for mentioning Wed Wabbit!

    Twitter is such a crap heap of vitriol that I’m considering parting ways myself. I hope you spend more time on WP in 2020!

    1. Happy new year, Sonia!

      I didn’t realise Lissa Evans had written the novel of Their Finest – I haven’t seen the movie, but it’s been on my To See list for a while. I suspect Wed Wabbit is quite different to her adult historical novels. It’s extremely silly and surreal, but it was exactly what I needed to read at the time. She’s written two other children’s books, so I must check them out.

      Yes, Twitter is awful. The vitriol that rained down on J. K. Rowling for her recent tweet was the final straw for me. I’ve done a lot of unfollowing and muting lately, but haven’t yet decided whether to delete my account. I’m not on Facebook, Instagram or any other social media platform, so it is handy having a Twitter account for contacting people.

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