My Favourite Books of 2020

I didn’t read many new books this year. This was a year of re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves, partly because I was craving familiar, comforting reads, but mostly because my beloved local library was closed for most of the year. I did acquire Clara, which allowed me to read ebooks, but I’ve decided I prefer paper books, given a choice.

Favourite Novels for Adults

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossI began the year engrossed in Tana French’s The Wych Elm, an inventive thriller about privilege and identity. I also enjoyed The Secret Place, by the same author, a cleverly constructed murder mystery set in a posh Dublin boarding school, and I liked Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, a typically compassionate and thoughtful depiction of a flawed man. However, the most memorable fiction I read this year was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a tense, affecting novella about men using their dubious versions of history to strengthen their hold on power.

Favourite Non-Fiction

I liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle and the Years That Defined Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, about the actual history behind the TV series, even though I gave up on watching The Crown after the first series. I didn’t seem to read many non-fiction books this year, which is unusual for me. I think it was due to the lack of access to my library, but also because I was reading so much depressing pandemic-related non-fiction online.

Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

'Liar and Spy' by Rebecca SteadI enjoyed Kate Constable’s new middle-grade novel, The January Stars, as well as an older novel of hers, Winter of Grace, about a contemplative teenage girl who explores spirituality and religion in a way that isn’t often seen in Australian Young Adult literature. I also liked Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, about a middle-grade boy who bravely faces up to unpleasant reality and devises a clever plan to defeat some school bullies. As always, I enjoyed her depiction of children’s lives in Brooklyn – I have no idea how accurate it is, but she makes New York seem so appealing. I was also entertained (and often confused) by Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, which is full of plot twists and surprises. I’m not sure it is truly a children’s book and it lacks the warmth of Howl’s Moving Castle, but it was very clever and intriguing. 'Dragonfly Song' by Wendy OrrHowever, my favourite children’s read was, unexpectedly, a novel told partly in verse about a girl living in a Bronze Age Mediterranean culture ruled by superstition. Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr was an engrossing story about a lifestyle completely unfamiliar to me, told in simple but descriptive language. It has deservedly won a number of literary awards and there’s a good interview with the author about the book here.

Favourite Read That Was Not A Book

When life felt really dismal this year, I escaped to Hedgehog Moss Farm, a small farm in the south of France, owned by a young woman who works as a translator and lives with her Eeyore-ish donkey Pirlouit; her llamas, well-behaved Pampelune and escape-artist Pampérigouste; some photogenic cats and chickens; and a gentle giant guard dog called Pandolf. She describes interactions with her animals and her neighbours in such a droll manner that each blog post is a delight. There are beautiful photos and videos of rural life, interspersed with artwork and literary quotes. Her writing style reminds me a little of Gerald Durrell – if she ever decides to write a book, I would happily buy it.

I don’t know what I’m reading these holidays, but I am planning a chapter-by-chapter discussion of Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term, with the first post up this week (probably). I hope all you Memoranda readers manage to have a relaxing, enjoyable holiday season, after a year we’d all like to forget, and that 2021 brings better news for the world.

What I’ve Been Reading: Novels by Women

'The Gathering' by Anne Enright

The Gathering by Anne Enright was an engrossing novel about a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family and specifically, about the terrible consequences of covering up abusive behaviour. It was often frustrating to read because the narrator was so unreliable – how can we hope for justice when we can’t be sure of the truth? – but this is entirely consistent with how a child’s memory of trauma works. The back-and-forth timeline was effective, if occasionally confusing, and the prose was visceral and vivid. It gave me nightmares, but I’m glad I read it and I think it was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.

'Winter' by Ali Smith

Winter by Ali Smith was even more confusing, but provided a more pleasant reading experience. It’s a meandering, whimsical piece of writing about an elderly woman who is being followed around her Cornish mansion by a disembodied head. Sophia and Head then find themselves hosting some unwelcome family guests at Christmas. It’s not a conventional narrative, but it’s often very funny and the author has a lot of thoughtful things to say about politics, art, feminism, climate change, family relationships, social media and much, much more. I was struck by how contemporary this book was – it was published last year and contains references not just to Brexit, but Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts, the Grenfell Tower fire and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

'Clock Dance' by Anne Tyler

I don’t think Clock Dance by Anne Tyler is her best novel, but it’s enjoyable and thoughtful and ultimately satisfying in a way I didn’t expect. Much like Ladder of Years, it’s the story of a middle-aged woman with a horrible husband and unappreciative offspring, who travels to a new community where she makes friends and is valued for her kindness and home-making abilities. It has a few too many self-consciously quirky Baltimore characters and is a little too willing to avoid some dark topics, but I liked it very much.

'Bluebottle' by Belinda Castles

Finally, Bluebottle by Belinda Castles was an intriguing read. It’s another dysfunctional-family-forced-to-confront-past-trauma story (Are there any happy families in novels? Would there be any point in writing about them?), but this one is set in the northern beach suburbs of Sydney and contains some beautifully vivid descriptions of the sea and beach. The cover suggests it’s a thriller, but while there is tension in the narrative, it builds slowly and the Big Revelation is not exactly a surprise. I was more interested in the skillful depiction of some believably flawed characters doing their best to cope with a terrible situation. (Although I do think the author let Tricia off too lightly. I despised Tricia.)

What I’ve Been Reading

There are times – for instance, when the world appears to be heading to hell in a handbasket – when even the most politically engaged, newspaper-addicted reader needs to escape into some frothy fiction. And fortunately for me, two of my favourite writers happened to have new novels out.

'The Hanging Tree' by Ben AaronovitchThe Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch was a very satisfying new installment of the Rivers of London series. It was good to see Peter back in London where he belongs, solving crimes, making new enemies and nearly getting killed in various dramatic and supernatural ways. He’s assisted by all the old crowd – Stephanopoulos, Guleed the Somali Muslim Ninja, the Rivers, Dr Walid, Kimberley the FBI agent – and it’s nice to see the subtle development of his relationship with his boss, Nightingale (who is actually observed smiling, and at one point, even winking, at Peter in this book). There’s also not one, but two new groups of magicians introduced, who may or may not be Peter’s allies, and there are important revelations about the Faceless Man and Lesley. With the author juggling so many characters and subplots, it’s not surprising that he occasionally drops one, kicks it under the sofa and pretends it never existed. What, for example, has happened to Abigail? But Peter’s narration is so entertaining and the action is so exciting that I honestly didn’t mind the odd plot hole – and in fairness to the author, he does tend to address these sorts of issues eventually, even if it does take a few books before you find out who, exactly, that strange fox-obsessed guy is, or what’s happened to the Quiet People. I also really enjoy the bits where the author goes off on tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with the story – for example, there’s a hilarious scene where he pokes fun at the sort of pompous old white men who keep getting short-listed for the Booker Prize, which makes me wonder whether Ben Aaronovitch ever had an unpleasant encounter with, say, Martin Amis at the BBC one day (although really, the fictional novelist could be based on any number of British male writers). Anyway, The Hanging Tree was well worth the wait and I think I might need to check out the Rivers of London graphic novels while I’m waiting for the next book.

'Vinegar Girl' by Anne TylerAnne Tyler also has a new book out, this one a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s part of a series commissioned by The Hogarth Press, with Jeanette Winterson doing The Winter’s Tale, Margaret Atwood The Tempest, Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice and so on. Now, I really, really hate The Taming of the Shrew, but I figured if anyone could find some charm and humour in the story, it would be Anne Tyler and indeed, I did enjoy a number of scenes, particularly the ones in which Kate, in this version a preschool assistant, interacts with her four-year-old students. The problem is trying to make modern-day Kate’s situation plausible, while staying true to the events of the play. Tyler decides to make Kate the intelligent, strong-minded 29-year-old daughter of an eccentric Baltimore scientist, Dr Battista. His brilliant Russian assistant’s visa is about to expire, so Dr Battista starts a “touchingly ludicrous” campaign for Kate to marry the young man, enabling Pyotr to qualify for a Green Card. This makes no sense whatsoever. If Kate is so smart and stubborn and independent, why is she still living at home acting as an unpaid servant for her selfish father and younger sister, and working in a dead-end child-care job she dislikes? Why does she have no friends and why has she never had a boyfriend (or girlfriend)? She’s not even particularly shrewish, just a bit tactless. If she wants to improve her life, which she does, there are dozens of ways to accomplish this without having to marry a man she barely knows, and who rapidly reveals himself to be a sexist jerk with no social skills. All the characters are paper-thin, but I kept reading, mildly engaged with the story, until the climactic scene in which Kate gives a speech that nearly made me throw the book across the room. Hey, did you know that it’s totally fine for men to be verbally and physically abusive, because “it’s hard being a man”? They just get frustrated because they have to be in charge of everything and have all the power and success in society! They just don’t get enough practice expressing their feelings and their “interpersonal whatchamacallit”! Then Kate and Pyotr live happily ever after, the end. So if you haven’t read any Anne Tyler before, please don’t start with this book. I don’t know what she was thinking. Unless she thought a vile misogynist was about to become President of her country…

My Favourite Books of 2015

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2015 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I finished reading 81 books this year, which doesn’t include the two terrible books I didn’t finish, the novel I’m currently halfway through, or the small pile of books I brought home from the library for the holidays.

Types of books read in 2015

I read lots of non-fiction books this year, because I was researching 1960s England for a series I’m planning to write. This would also explain the following information:

Writer nationality 2015

Gender of writer for books read in 2015

Women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower and A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I also became hooked on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

I found myself engrossed in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of T.H. White, Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason, and Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I also liked Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia, edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren, a collection of autobiographical stories by twelve Australian Muslims. And for sheer entertainment value, I can’t leave out The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, edited by Noel Streatfeild.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart was an exciting middle-grade novel in which four gifted children foil the plans of an Evil Genius. It reminded me of the early Harry Potter novels, except it was science fiction rather than fantasy and had fewer jokes (although it did contain lots of fun puzzles, codes and riddles). I also enjoyed Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead and Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

'The Arrival' by Shaun TanShaun Tan’s The Arrival was a beautiful wordless story about a refugee starting a new life in a strange, confusing country, with a message particularly relevant to the world right now. On a lighter note, I enjoyed Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony, about a young warrior princess who hopes to receive a noble steed for her birthday but instead finds herself stuck with a small, round pony with some unfortunate traits.

Thanks for being part of Memoranda in 2015. I hope you all had a good reading year and that 2016 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is excellent at writing family sagas and A Spool of Blue Thread is a wonderful example of her craft, even if many of the themes and plot lines will be familiar to her fans. Her twentieth novel is about three generations of Whitshanks, who live in a beautiful house that was built in a well-to-do Baltimore suburb by Junior, the ambitious Whitshank patriarch. The Whitshanks endlessly retell stories about themselves (and their house) to convince themselves of how special they are, but inconvenient historical truths and the harsh realities of ageing and death threaten the family’s complacency.

'A Spool of Blue Thread' by Anne TylerEchoes of her previous novels did occasionally distract me from the story. For instance, at one point, Abby Whitshank muses, “The trouble with dying … is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending,” just as Pearl in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant told herself that “dying, you don’t get to see how it all turns out.” Abby’s daughter, clearing out the house after a sudden death in the family, wonders “why we bother accumulating, accumulating, when we know from earliest childhood how it’s all going to end”, just as Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet, cleaning out Mrs Alford’s house, said, “I suddenly understood that you really, truly can’t take it with you.” Abby’s determination to look on the bright side of life, wilfully ignoring the facts, is reminiscent of Maggie in Breathing Lessons; Abby’s wayward son is a current-day version of Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet; even the Whitshank house, with its wide front porch and porch swing, brings to mind the Bedloe house in Saint Maybe. And, just as in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, characters who initially seem unlikeable, even despicable, are gradually revealed to have complex reasons for their behaviour, which provides some excuse and attracts some sympathy (not for Junior, though, who remained despicable to me).

If you aren’t familiar with Anne Tyler’s work, you won’t notice the reworking of previous themes, and if you do love her work, you probably won’t mind it too much. I really did enjoy the humour in this book (there were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments for me) and the clever observations, delivered in her characteristically sharp prose (for instance, when a family member attempts to make polite conversation with a visitor determined to be offended, the visitor “slammed each question to the ground and let it lie there like a dead shuttlecock”). The only reasons this book doesn’t make it into my Top Five Anne Tyler Novels list are that: a) it doesn’t contain any characters as vivid and lovable as Agatha in Saint Maybe or Maryam in Digging To America, and b) the meandering non-conclusion, while consistent with this novel’s themes, isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the conclusion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or A Patchwork Planet or The Accidental Tourist. I still think this is a great read and I highly recommend it. There’s also a terrific interview with the author here at The Guardian, in which she discusses, among other things, her friendship with John Waters (“I don’t go to biker bars with him. Once a year, he comes to mine for dinner and once a year I go to his. He’s a very sweet man”).

You might also be interested in reading:

Anne Tyler and Her Novels