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My favourite books from the first half of 2020

What a year it has been so far. In my memory there has never been a stranger time, from the panic buying of toilet paper to an Australia-wide lock down. Who would have thought we could be looking at an indefinite shutdown of international travel and nightclubs?

But, through all the change and uncertainty, I have found comfort and stability in books. In fact, stuck at home without much else to do when I haven’t been working or feeding or teaching my children, there hasn’t been much else to do.

Thank goodness for books!

As well as reading some remarkable books, in the past six months I have started listening to audiobooks and I LOVE them. I love listening to the voices of the authors of the books, and of being able to walk/clean/cook and listen to books. If a pandemic offers anything, it is the opportunity to discover new ways of doing things, and for me, audiobooks have been a wonderful discovery.

I’ve also watched some literary adaptations in recent months (streaming services being another godsend during lockdown). These have included Normal People and the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m also hoping to watch the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road before my free Stan trial expires.

The live event of the year for me happened just before the lockdown – Margaret Atwood’s live show in Melbourne. I absolutely loved seeing Atwood, flanked by some of my best bookish friends, in a room full of similarly adoring fans.

Here are my top reads (and listens) for the first half of this strange year.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

This book was a real game changer for me. I felt it was utterly believable, with beautiful language and a story that opened my eyes to Indigenous issues in a way that wasn’t at all preachy.

So far, it’s my favourite of the year.

Harry Potter (books 1-5) by JK Rowling

There might have been a lot wrong with the first six months of 2020, but it has been the year that I’ve had the experience of reading Harry Potter. It makes me excited to be living at the same time as a writer of such genius.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

My first audiobook, this was an ideal way to start listening to books. The stories of boys who were sent to a cruel and violent remand home in the US were heartbreaking, and while this is a work of fiction, it is clear that it was inspired by a dark history.

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner was another book that helped me see the world and a community differently. The story of Sandra, a transsexual trauma cleaner was told sensitively by Sarah Krasnostein, and it was hard not to feel a sense of affection for this flawed survivor.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

This novella was gorgeous in its telling of a day in the life of a maid in post-World War I England. The family Jane Fairchild works for is about to be changed forever, but mostly, the novel is set in the warm, sunny day before tragedy strikes. It is a short, sensual read in which it is easy to get lost.

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau Harvie

I’m not sure if it was Laveau Harvie’s grainy and thin voice reading her story, but somehow, I felt familiar with the family of which she writes. The author recounts her return to her native Canada where her father is dying, held almost as a prisoner by her mother. It is a situation that is fascinating, but recounted with calm and unexpected humour by a daughter who often seems bemused by the behaviour of a distant and cruel mother.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls was great fun. I never read Eat Pray Love, feeling that it would be in some way flimsy. However, I couldn’t resist this romp through pre and post-war New York, and after having read it, I think I probably underestimated Elizabeth Gilbert’s previous work. I loved reading about the exploits of Vivvie when she arrived in a huge and thrilling city, through her banishment, and her return to her true love – New York City.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is a book about race in which racism is subtle and casual. The story begins as a black babysitter is approached by a security guard, concerned that she is out at a grocery store with her white charge. The relationship between the babysitter and the child’s mother highlighted issues not just of race, but also of class, age, and power.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Reading a classic is an excellent reminder of why certain books retain their position in the literary canon, and that is certainly true of Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen seemed to be before her time in writing about the vagaries of love and marriage  – or perhaps she is of all time.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights was definitely not the book I expected it to be, but I think that’s why I liked it so much. Far from being a romance, Bronte’s most famous novel was unrelentingly dark, just like its main character, Heathcliff. I kept expecting a glimmer of light to shine through, and in a way it did in the beautiful landscape where the book is set, but ultimately, there is little relieve from the cruelty. Sometimes, I hated it, but I could never put it down.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The story of the sisters in My Sister, the Serial Killer is told with a light touch that is surprising, given the book’s title. I came to the story knowing little about the plot, and so I enjoyed the way Oyinkan Braithwaite defied expectations in writing about a vain and destructive woman, and her sister who is always called in to pick up the pieces.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I had seen the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and so thought I knew what to expect when I read the book. But Margaret Atwood’s novel was far better than I had expected, even though I loved the series. Her writing about a dystopia in which women were handmaids to powerful but infertile couples was brilliant, and I found myself dogearing many pages with passages I wanted to remember. This is another classic that is rightly beloved of readers.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

This memoir of Bri Lee’s experience as a judge’s associate, and a victim of childhood sexual assault is harrowing, but extremely readable. In Eggshell Skull, Lee details how she felt travelling around the state attending cases in which victims rarely won any kind of justice. She is scathing of a legal system in which few accusations of rape end in convictions, and in which victims are put through the wringer before their case is even heard. Her impressions of the system become acutely personal when she faces her own journey towards justice. I was fascinated by the legal processes Lee wrote about, while also disheartened by the flaws of the system that is ultimately the best we’ve been able to find.

What have been your favourite books of the year so far?

Books mentioned are available at Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (UK and US)


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