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.

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

‘Goodbye Stranger’ by Rebecca Stead

This is a gentle, thoughtful novel about friendship, love and change by Rebecca Stead, who won the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me. I liked this book very much, but also wondered how many middle-grade readers – the intended audience – would persist with it. But I’ll come back to that thought later. Goodbye Stranger is the story of Bridge, a seventh-grader, and her best friends Tabitha and Emily, who all made a vow back in fourth grade to never, ever fight – which proves difficult when their lives seem to be moving in different directions. Bridge was nearly killed in a traffic accident a few years earlier and when not pondering the purpose of her existence (“You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived,” a nurse told her), she worries whether her friend Sherm “like likes” her, whether her older brother Jamie will ever manage to get rid of his toxic “frenemy” Alex, whether the moon landing was faked, and whether she’ll fail her French class. Meanwhile Tabitha has discovered feminism thanks to her English teacher, Ms Berman (“the Berperson”) and Emily has grown breasts, become the star of the soccer team and is being pursued by older boys.

'Goodbye Stranger' by Rebecca SteadThe plot revolves around a sexting scandal. Why did Emily send a revealing photo of herself to Patrick when she promised Bridge that she wouldn’t? Who sent that photo to all the boys in eighth grade? Does this mean Emily is a “skank”? Should Sherm tell the principal what he knows, even though he’ll be ostracised by the other boys if he does? If Patrick wasn’t responsible, then who is he protecting with his silence? Why does Emily insist on staying loyal to Patrick? And who revenge-posted that revealing photo of Patrick? There’s also a rather confusing subplot set several months into the future, involving an unnamed older teenager responsible for another scandal and narrated in the second person. Other relationships are shown in order to further explore the theme of love – for example, Emily’s parents have divorced but they still go on dates, Sherm’s grandfather has walked out on his wife after fifty years of marriage, and Tab’s mother observes Karva Chauth (when “Good Hindu women fast all day to show their devotion to their husbands”, which Tab thinks is anti-feminist, although her older sister Celeste thinks it’s “romantic”).

There were a lot of things I liked about this novel. The main characters are smart but realistically flawed and the smartest of them does something very, very stupid, yet somehow plausible. They do things they regret, and then they say sorry, face the consequences and learn something from it. The friendship between the three girls is lovely and I really liked that by the end, they’d realised that ‘No Fights’ doesn’t work very well as a friendship policy. Most of the characters are also really NICE, which was a pleasant change after reading so many YA novels filled with snarky, cynical teenagers. The sibling relationships are great – Bridge and her brother Jamie bond over their shared love of a cheesy Christmas movie; Tab and Celeste have very different interests, yet manage to share a bedroom amicably; Emily (and her friends) care about her odd little brother Evan. The parents, grandparents and teachers are also caring and sensible and I especially liked Mr P, the “intense” teacher who oversees Bridge, Sherm and the other members of Tech Crew and runs a book club for kids with divorced parents. Also, the setting was great! I love reading about New York students who walk home from school to their brownstone houses via the local diner, where they sit in booths and order vanilla milkshakes and cinnamon toast to share. (Possibly New York readers get a similar kick out of reading stories about Australian teenagers riding around their farms on quad bikes and bottle-feeding orphaned kangaroos.) Despite the characters in this novel being very privileged, they’re also ethnically diverse – Bridge’s father is Armenian-American, Sherm’s grandparents migrated from Sicily, Tab and Celeste’s parents came from India via France – but none of this is made into an Issue.

However, some things didn’t work so well for me. I didn’t understand why the Mysterious Narrator chapters had to be in the second person, why the timeline had to diverge from the main plot or why the narrator had to be Mysterious. I found these sections confusing and distracting, and I think the novel could have done without them. In fact, my main criticism of this book was that there was just TOO MUCH going on. While the author is highly skilled, this book is nearly three hundred pages long and her efforts to connect every little subplot and character mean that plausibility is stretched to its limits by the end (for those who’ve read the book, the moment when Bridge realises which yellow VW ‘caused’ her accident was the moment I shouted, “ENOUGH!”). It was this that made me wonder whether the book might be too long, complex and slow-moving for a lot of eleven- and twelve-year-old readers (I should note that the ‘sexting’ parts of the book are very mild – I don’t think they’re too confronting for this age group to read). Some reviewers have also raised this concern – for example, this commenter felt the book “reads just like a contemporary literary novel for adults.” A teacher-librarian on Goodreads believed it would not appeal to her own students and a commenter below her review wondered “if children’s writers are writing for the award committees, rather than the kids”. Meanwhile Elizabeth Bird at School Library Journal, who has served on the Newbery award panel, raves about the book and thinks it’s perfect for middle-graders but acknowledges:

“…were it not for the author’s fantastic writing and already existing fan base, it would languish away in that no man’s land between child and teen fiction. Fortunately Stead has a longstanding, strong, and dedicated group of young followers who are willing to dip a toe into the potentially murky world of middle school.”

I agree with most of these points of view – I think Goodbye Stranger will find an audience of thoughtful pre-teen and young teenage readers, but will not appeal to many in this age group. I also agree this has been published internationally and is receiving lots of publicity only because the author is already well-known and critically acclaimed – but hopefully this will encourage more publishers to take a chance with subtle, complex, realistic books for young teenage readers who find the sex and violence in some YA books a bit too much for their tastes.