Reading is like breathing to me. That feeling of picking up a book you have been waiting for and cracking it open not knowing where the pages will take you – it’s intoxicating, quite frankly!
And, as every interview on any writing podcast seems to conclude – the first piece of advice for any aspiring writer is to ‘read, read lots, read in your genre, read outside your genre’. It sounds trite and I do roll my eyes a little every time I hear it, but it’s true. Reading is the inhale and writing is the exhale.
Or so the saying goes.
It was hard to narrow it down to ten (and I did have to write a separate list for my top six non-fiction titles), so I focused on books that moved me, had exceptional and memorable characters, an intricate plot, books that gripped me in some way and prompted me to think about them long after I had eased shut the final page.
As a warning, there are books on my list that are quite confronting, but, for me, as long as the story resolved in a hopeful way, that was enough to endure the sometimes horrific elements along the way.
In no particular order (because that would be like choosing a favourite child) here is my list:
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
I picked this book up and put it back before I was brave enough to read it, thinking that perhaps the content would be too grim for me. With the fervent recommendations of those in the Facebook group, Your Own Next Read, however, I gave it a go.
I am beyond thankful that I did.
Eli Bell is the kind of character who will stay with you forever – he is raw, real, flawed and wonderful – his heart beats right out of the book. The story is heartbreaking at times and it moved me to tears. But, somehow, through all the mess, the chaos and brokenness, Dalton has managed to conjure hope.
The writing is sublime – with lines that you will have to put the book down and just drink in for a moment before continuing. With details that bring the story to life in such a way that you feel like you are watching the story unfold before you.
I loved this so much and would give it 6 stars if I could. Incredible.
It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina Kenwood
There is just so much to love about this brilliant debut, right from the very first page. Kenwood has a knack for capturing the little details, the ‘oh-so-relatable’ thoughts that define our coming of age moments and the delights/struggles that come along with a first love experience. I loved Natalie, the main character, and wanted everything to go well for her.
If you haven’t picked this one up yet, do yourself a favour and immediately get onto it! I envy you for still having that experience before you!
The Helpline by Katherine Collette
Time for a bit of humour! I have so much love for The Helpline. It was very humorous (in a dry sort of way) and Germaine, is a fascinating and loveable character. When she is ‘let go’ from her previous position as a mathematician, Germaine struggles to find a job except as a helpline operator at the local council, providing advice to the elderly. As you might suspect, empathy is not her strong-suit and this leads to many humorous situations along the way.
I see this kind of as an Australian ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ but in a not-so-heartbreaking kind of way. Pick this one up if you appreciate books like ‘The Rosie Project’, you appreciate a dry wit and can tolerate it when things go horribly wrong (for a while at least).
Skin by Ilka Tampke
After hearing that Tampke’s second book ‘Songwoman‘ was the most underrated book of 2019, and then reading her witty piece for The Guardian sharing about the dubious experience winning this ‘award’ had been for her, I put both books in the series straight onto my library queue.
Unfortunately, somehow I didn’t get the memo that Skin was book number one and I read a few chapters of Songwoman first, which blew a few plot points for me, but despite this, my enjoyment (of both books) remained undiminished.
I don’t watch Game of Thrones or Outlander, but the way in which this series is written reminds me of these type of shows – filled with earthiness and yearning, rituals and the allure of another time entirely. It has significant elements of paganism woven throughout (in case you dislike that sort of thing), as well as a slightly magical edge which somehow ends up feeling entirely believable. I could totally see the books being turned into a dramatic mini-series or movie one day.
Ailia, the ‘outsider’ main character of the book, is compelling and flawed but her fierce and warrior-like composure is so well done. Through her, we come to understand the sometimes grotesque and strange traditions of her people and ultimately hope for her belonging. Tampke’s writing style is reason enough to pick up these books – simply enchanting – and she weaves a world so filled with colour and aroma and depth and magic.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
It is hard to put into words what this book is like. Poetic and haunting, beautiful and tragic, wild and restrained, heart-aching and heart-warming. Kya is a character like no other I have come across before – innocent and cunning, resilient and withdrawn. When her mother leaves her and her siblings with their abusive father when Kya is six, she has to grow up far too quickly and she eventually finds herself alone in the swampy marshlands, raising herself.
Delia Owens manages to create another world with her lyrical prose, spinning the threads so deftly you might forget you are still contained within your own walls.
A Lifetime of Impossible Days by Tabitha Bird
This is one of those books that will stay with you long after you have read it. Imaginative and profound, Tabitha Bird has woven together a story that is heart warming and full of life.
We follow along with Willa Grace (aged 8, 33 and 93) and her story is unravelled, layer after layer, with a little bit of magical realism along the way.
I loved the recurring motifs in the book – the mango tree, ocean garden, jam jars and jam drops (which I promptly made a batch of when I finished the book). The themes of forgiveness, ageing, abuse and family are heart-breaking at times but there is always a thread of hope.
Six Minutes by Petronella McGovern
How can a child go missing from a room filled with mothers in just six short minutes? This crime-thriller, set in the innocuous world of play-dates and young mothers, was right up my alley and McGovern has a talent for bringing out those peculiar details in motherhood and laying them bare on the page.
McGovern nails every aspect of this gripping tale – from the depth of character for each playgroup mum, to the unfolding backstory of Lexie Parker – the story draws you in from the very first page and doesn’t let go until the end. Similar to Caroline Overington’s ‘The Ones’ You Trust’ and with the searing insight into human nature that Liane Moriarty offers, I definitely recommend this book.
Going Under by Sonia Henry
I don’t think I ever really understood what it was like to be a doctor, but reading this book felt like going undercover as an intern for a bit. Set in a large public hospital in Sydney and told through the eyes of Dr Kitty Holliday, I was almost tempted to put this one on the ‘non-fiction’ list because it reads like a memoir at times. While I’m sure many elements are fictionalised, one can tell that many of these experiences (or ones just like them) really happened.
If you do read this book, you may not ever enter a hospital and view it the same way again. Going Under is a page turner and it sure exposes a dark side to the medical industry and a level of pressure that is just ridiculous for the doctors who have to ‘do their time’. At the same time though, Kitty’s story is funny, well-written, engaging and hopeful.
There is a bit of sex and language for those who try to avoid these elements, but otherwise, I definitely recommend it.
Gravity Is The Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty
This is the kind of book that you will pause after reading a particularly poignant paragraph and just smile. Jaclyn Moriarty is a wizard with words. She has this way of communicating layers upon layers of meaning, with elements of lightness but such depth at the same time. I loved the character of Abigail Sorenson and her oh-so-familiar way of overthinking and justifying everything (I had to add in the words ‘the character’ then because in my mind she is really out there living somewhere).
While there were some exceptionally sad themes in the book, Moriarty handles them with such deftness that you feel capable to tackle them, and inserts such delicate wit and humour in the perfect places to buoy your spirits again. If you have ever read a self-help book, mocked the myriad of confusing ways in which humans attempt to find meaning, or hoped for fate/destiny to come through; this is a book for you. I was simultaneously desperate to finish the book and devastated when it was over. So, so good.
The Single Ladies of the Jacaranda Retirement Village by Joanna Nell
I laughed out loud many times reading this book – mainly at the hilarious malapropisms of the very endearing elderly main character, Peggy Smart. Joanna Nell has created a world of vibrant characters who feel completely real and she brings to life the complicated reality of what it is like to grow old in such a fast-paced world. Funny, clever, engaging and heart-warming, this is a book that you won’t want to end.
It’s so hard to whittle it down! What were your top picks for the year? Have I missed any that you think I should read? Let me know!