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My year in books

I recently wrote about my favourite books of 2018 for Ten Daily. However, this isn’t the whole story, as there are plenty of books released before this year that have stunned, entertained, moved and informed me.

My literary highlight of 2018 was The Choke by Sofie Laguna. The story of a young girl called Justine, who lived close to the Murray River, was devastatingly good. At times it was hard to read about Justine’s experience of loneliness and abuse, but the story was told with beauty – in its language and the descriptions of the natural world in which it was set.

The Choke was the best book I have read in a very long time, and stands alongside The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, All That I Am by Anna Funder, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as one of my favourites of all time.

In my article about this year’s best books, I forgot to mention The Fish Girl, by Mirandi Riwoe. This novella was small, perfectly formed, and heartbreaking. It shifts the focus of another classic – The Four Dutchman – to the ‘Malay trollope’. Her story is bleak and weighted with a sense of impending doom, yet it is a captivating read.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski opened my eyes to what a memoir could be. In the past I have steered clear of this form, but Reckoning was honest and illuminating, spanning generations and continents. It also revealed much about a popular Australian comedian, and humanity that can be forgotten in the face of New Idea covers and comedy skits.

Another absolute highlight of my year was reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. These four books, set in Naples and following the lives of two girls and their community, offer an immersion in a different life. The characters become so real that finishing the series left me a little bereft. While it was difficult to like some of the behaviours of the characters, and the place was steeped in poverty and violence, both people and place had become familiar enough that it was hard to say goodbye.

Another book set in Italy was among this year’s favourites  – Chris Harrison’s Head Over Heel. Told with humour, wit and a sharp eye for absurdity, Harrison explores a far sunnier side of Italy from the perspective of an Australian who falls in love with an Italian woman. However, the book isn’t just about Mediterranean charm, but also exposes a darker side of the Italian life, with its corruption and notoriously inefficient and unwieldy bureaucracy.

Two wartime books that stood out for me this year were Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale. Both centred on the experience of complex and courageous women during World War II, highlighting an often overlooked version of the war, at home rather than in the trenches.

Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night was a gentle meditation on age, loneliness and friendship as two elderly neighbours formed a new friendship. Haruf’s final novel was quite different from the many books that I have read this year, which explore the lives of the young, or are set at a time of war, but equally engaging.

Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book was an extraordinary journey through the history of Jewish communities, based on the true story of an ancient Jewish book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, which survived against all odds. The story of the Haggadah, and those who protect it, is fascinating, and in these times, illuminating.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, like many of this author’s books, is subtle and restrained as it explores the human emotion through the small dramas that they face in their everyday lives. It is hard to remember the specific stories, but I do remember the honesty of the stories and the truths of the human condition that Strout exposes in such a deft and understated way.

Along with reading so many wonderful books, this year I have enjoyed listening to writers speak in podcasts including The Garret, ABC’s The Bookshelf and BBC’s Talking Books. Some of the authors who have been interviewed have been Sofie Laguna, Michelle de Krester, Madeline Miller, Alexander McCall Smith, Arundhati Roy and Mirandi Riwoe.

This year, a couple of books that were much-hyped or by writers I have enjoyed before, were disappointing. However, I’ll leave it for you to wonder what they were. All up, it has been another year of reading that has brought me great joy, sadness, and hopefully, a better understanding of the lives of others and the world around me.

How was your year of reading?

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