About Emma Young

Western Australian journalist with Fairfax Media's WAtoday, and entertainment blogger with a love for all things couch-related. Tea/wine/martinis mandatory. Aspect ratio important. Paper and electronic mediums accepted. Highbrow optional.

Em’s 2020 Reading Roundup: the 52 books read + two-line reviews of my top picks

Want a personalised recommendation? 

Not all of the books could make it on to the ‘top 10’ lists, which reflect overall level of enjoyment and so are a mix of highbrow and commercial (and to narrow it down only titles recently published). But the vast majority were excellent reads. After all, I pick stuff I think I’ll like. Some are linked to separate reviews you can click on, or leave a comment or contact me personally if you have a question about what I thought of one of the titles not reviewed.
* = Australian author
** = WA author

FICTION (36):

Literary
Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
From Here On, Monsters, Elizabeth Bryer*
Wolfe Island, Lucy Treloar*
The Art of Persuasion, Susan Midalia**
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
Purity, Jonathan Franzen
Anne’s House of Dreams, L. M. Montgomery (re-read) 
Anne of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery (re-read)
Rainbow Valley, L. M. Montgomery (re-read) 
Agatha, Anne Cathrine Bomann 
The Good People, Hannah Kent*
The Salt Madonna, Catherine Noske*
The History of Mischief, Rebecca Higgie**
Taboo, Kim Scott**
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 
Bruny, Heather Rose*
The Rosie Effect, Graeme Simsion 
The Rosie Result, Graeme Simsion
The Best of Adam Sharp, Graeme Simsion 
Death Leaves the Station, Alexander Thorpe**
Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips

Crime/Mystery/Thriller
The Good Turn, Dervla McTiernan**
The Ruin, Dervla McTiernan**
The Mystery of Three Quarters, Sophie Hannah 
Haven’t They Grown, Sophie Hannah 
A Game for All the Family, Sophie Hannah 
Over My Dead Body, Dave Warner*
1st Case, James Patterson 
Devoted, Dean Koontz
The Sentinel, Lee and Andrew Child

Sci-fi
The Cruel Stars, John Birmingham* 
Syzygy, Michael G. Coney

Children’s/Young Adult
Oskar and the Ice-Pick, Judy Corbalis (re-read)
So Much To Tell You, John Marsden (re-read)*
Take My Word For It, John Marsden (re-read)*
All in the Blue Unclouded Weather, (re-read)*

FICTION: TOP 10

1. Bruny, Heather Rose* – probably my top read of the year. Contemporary Australian literary fiction that reads like a thriller; smart, insightful and topical.
2. Pachinko, Min Jin Lee – Follows the fortunes of successive generations of a South Korean family exiled to Japan. A sweeping, epic drama; compulsive, fascinating, immersive and accessible.
3. Taboo, Kim Scott** – A motley bunch of Nyoongar elders and young people travel to an old massacre site south of Perth to create a memorial. Astounding magical realism, full of mystery and delicately dry humour, deserving of all the prizes it has won.
4. The Good People, Hannah Kent** – Superstitious Irish folk in a tiny rural community believe a young disabled child’s spirit has been stolen by faerie folk, and turn against his family. A disturbing and beautifully written page-turner.
5. Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips – Two young girls have vanished without a trace from a contemporary Russian city. A huge achievement from a Brooklyn debut author.
6. Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens – An uneducated girl who has grown up alone and half-wild, abandoned in a swamp, is accused of murdering a local white boy. Poetic and readable page-turning literary mystery set in the rural American south.
7. The Rosie Result, Graeme Simsion* – The final and most complex and ambitious instalment in the hugely popular trilogy about an autistic man and his family. Heartwarming, funny and satisfying.
8. Devoted, Dean Koontz – a highly intelligent young autistic boy’s investigation of his father’s suspicious death lands him and his mother in grave danger; but a highly unusual collection of allies is en route to defend them. Extremely well written, well plotted and characterised; possibly the most enjoyable holiday read this year.
9. The Good Turn, Dervla McTiernan** – The third in the Detective Cormac Reilly series and the best yet from this once-Irish now-Perth author, writing police-procedural crime fiction of global appeal and quality.
10. Wolfe Island, Lucy Treloar* – an ageing woman lives alone in a crumbling house island fast being engulfed by the rising seas, having stubbornly outlasted the rest of her community, but her peace is disturbed by the shock appearance of a granddaughter on the run. Sometimes bleak, unavoidable given its post-climate change setting, and not a quick or easy read, but an impressive work of world-creation, with a Children of Men vibe, and a must-read for serious readers of contemporary Australian fiction.

NONFICTION (15):

Lifestyle/self-improvement
Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology, Cal Newport
So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport 
French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Giuliano  (re-read)
French Women For All Seasons, Mireille Giuliano (re-read)

Poetry
Collected Poems, Christina Rossetti
Nothing… Except My Genius: A Celebration of his Wit and Wisdom, Oscar Wilde 

Biography/Memoir/Diary
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, Sei Shonagon 
Father of the Lost Boys, Yuot A. Alaak**
L.M. Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, Mary Henley Rubio
Encore Provence, Peter Mayle
Tojours Provence, Peter Mayle

Pregnancy/Parenting
Up the Duff, Kaz Cooke 
Cribsheet, Emily Oster
Expecting Better, Emily Oster
Baby Love, Robin Barker

NONFICTION TOP 5

1. Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology, Cal Newport – an examination of everything we need to know about why our smartphones rule our lives, and an empowering look at how we can use them as tools, rather than them using us. For people who liked the documentary The Social Dilemma – this is more in-depth and useful.
2. Father of the Lost Boys, Yuot A. Alaak – the amazing story of how Alaak went from a child soldier training camp in Africa to the top of Perth’s BHP tower. A riveting and accessible story that reads like an adventure tale and surely should be made into a film.
3. L.M. Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, Mary Henley Rubio – a massive tome that comprehensively covers decades of research into the tragic life of the globally loved author of Anne of Green Gables. Almost 700 pages long and yet I couldn’t put it down.
4. Expecting Better, Emily Oster – a must-read, must-gift book from an American economist who has reviewed all scientific literature behind the most common assumptions about pregnancy, so families can make properly informed choices. Surprising, myth-busting and extremely empowering.
5. Cribsheet, Emily Oster – another must-read and must-read follow up, this time about what happens after you take the baby home and into the toddler years. To be followed in August 2021 by The Family Firm, which covers the early school years.

Review: Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips

Want a debut novel to smack you in the face with the sheer force of its achievement? Alas, I do not refer to my own!

Disappearing Earth is by Julia Phillips, who lives in Brooklyn but set her tale in modern-day Russia, a physical and cultural setting as central to, and in a way more present in the book than, the people it’s actually about: two young sisters, Sophia and Alyona, who vanish from the major city of the southern Kamchatka peninsula.

Their story unfolds in a series of vignettes, bookended by the first (the sisters at the beach in the final moments before their disappearance) and the penultimate (showing their mother Marina, surviving physically but with the spirit crushed from her by their abduction and year’s absence).

The stories between, one for each month, enter the lives of women across the country, all loosely connected both to each other and to the crime. They explore its impact on them and on their society, a complex one simmering with tensions: between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, originating when the monarchy gave way to Communism; between the country’s urban south and inhospitable north. Tensions that ultimately threaten to derail the investigation.

This much-lauded book has been described as a thriller, unputdownable. But as a person who doesn’t usually enjoy short stories, finding full-length novels more immersive and satisfying, I felt at times this structure that gives only glimpses into characters’ lives then moves on, instead of building thriller-like tension, was frustrating me instead. I wanted a bit more about the mystery, and by the penultimate story had been thinking for a while, “enough now. What about the girls?!!”

But as if the author heard me, then came the breathless visit to Marina, their mother, a truly stunningly-written study of grief and dread; and speedily after, the climax. And while after so long waiting the climax seemed somewhat brief, this doesn’t diminish the achievement of this novel, staggering in its breadth, insight and sensory detail, making contemporary Russia an endlessly fascinating landscape.

Highly recommended, one of my standout reads of 2020 (post to come!)

Review: The Sentinel, Lee Child & Andrew Child

For a series that’s sold more than 100 million books, the question of whether Reacher is still Reacher in the hands of a new author could literally be a multimillion-dollar question.

Will people who’ve been reading Lee Child’s series for 20 years be able to tell the difference as younger brother, established crime novelist Andrew Child, has stepped in as co-author? What about when he eventually takes over entirely?

I confess that it was perhaps this question, beyond just my four-month-old (who turns a two-day read into a two-week read) that distracted me from complete immersion in the new Reacher novel. Knowing Lee is handing the baton to his younger brother starting with this book, I was hypervigilant to tone and nuance and character, looking for telltale signs of interference from this interloper. And though Andrew Child was someone deeply personally invested in the series – Lee Child has said in an interview that he consulted his younger for criticism on the first draft of the first novel – as a die-hard loyal reader I couldn’t help but view the whole thing with extreme suspicion.

The story is set just outside Nashville, where Reacher foils a kidnap attempt on a stranger in the street. Because he’s Reacher. (It’s not even the first time he has interrupted the on-street kidnapping of a stranger, having done this in the second book, 1998’s Die Trying.)

Reacher becomes an ad-hoc bodyguard for the intended victim, a frankly pretty useless IT guy whose computer project has drawn him into the middle of an international espionage standoff.

The good news: I couldn’t for the life of me find a difference in the writing or characterisation of Reacher. The short sentences, bone-dry humour and Reacherisms were all there: prime numbers, mental alarm clocks and all. Were there in fact too many references to Reacher’s quirks packed in? No, surely it’s the hypervigilance talking. The plot was tight and twisty enough, though as I said, between baby brain, the interruptions from the infant himself and being unable to stop myself scanning for differences in the writing I found it strangely difficult to focus on fine plot detail (spy stuff isn’t my thing anyway, it confuses me; I much prefer a nice gory murder).

The bad news: characterisation of everyone but Reacher struck me as rather thin, lacking in colour and detail even for a series in which all other characters are transient and rarely given much depth. Even given Reacher’s compulsion to serve and protect I couldn’t see why he’d spend much energy protecting the guest protagonist, the pathetic IT guy Rusty Rutherford. And the nod to Reacher’s one phobia in the climax (not to give too much away) seemed token and rushed to me, another example of a scenario that was already explored more fully and effectively in one of the earlier novels.

This was nowhere near my favourite Reacher novel, but was a remarkably seamless transition for the series into new hands that seem more than capable of carrying the juggernaut forward. I will keep following along – at least for now.

Review: Devoted, Dean Koontz


It had been years since I read my first and only Koontz, Watchers, but I’ve always remembered how smart, creative and compulsive this was. So I when I saw this new title while cruising the Mill Point Caffe Bookshop for maternity leave reads, I figured it might hit the spot. Boy did it ever, and totally took away the sting of the slight disappointment of my other recent thriller pick from James Patterson.

Devoted follows Woody, his mum Megan, and their struggle to rebuild a life in small-town America, after the untimely accidental death of Woody’s dad. Or was it accidental? Jason Bookman had worked for a mega science and technology company with some very big secrets, and Woody, an ultra-smart 11-year-old with autism, is on the brink of uncovering them. But while there are powerful enemies converging the Bookman family’s rural refuge to silence them, there are equally powerful — and miraculous — allies racing there to help.

This was another smart, creative and compulsive thriller from Koontz. Its strong characterisation of an ensemble cast, all circling a central event, reminded me of Stephen King favourites like Under the Dome and The Stand. The writing, though quite a bit more embellished than King’s, is clean and highly evocative. And its subject matter – I’ve got to say it, and this is too vague to be a spoiler – contains either purposeful homages to 101 Dalmatians (the original Dodie Smith book, not the movie), or it unconsciously echoes some of its elements.

In contrast to my recent criticism of James Patterson I was fine with the extremely short chapters; it’s better justified here, given the frequent switching between characters’ points of view. But I must say I find Koontz’ use of one-line paragraphs a bit too frequent. He doesn’t really need to use this heavy-handed suspense/emphasis building technique. The book’s highly suspenseful already and if anything the choppiness interrupts narrative flow.

He writes like this. In some parts.
It’s not really necessary.
Unless there is a moment of major suspense.
It niggled a bit.
But that’s a very minor quibble.

This is a fantastic thriller from a master of the genre writing at the height of his powers. The kind of thing you’ll knock off in two days (unless you’re caring for a three-month-old baby in which case it’s two weeks!)

Review: Death Leaves the Station, Alexander Thorpe

What do the armchair mystery genre and rural 1920s Western Australia have in common? Nothing, at least previously. That’s why this new fiction release, which takes the first and transposes it into the second, is such a genius idea from debut Perth author Alexander Thorpe – who loved this detective story style so much he decided, as he said at the launch, to steal it.

It’s a tall order to take the arch, mannered style we normally associate with English detectives and country houses, and use it to depict a grumpy Australian policeman investigating a murder in a Mid West dustbowl in the 1920s, but Thorpe has pulled it off. Officer Parkes’ “p” surname and his enormous moustache, a character within its own right are elements, might be a sly nod to Poirot. The plot is vintage to the genre, complete with “slowly cooling” corpse, mistaken identities, and conclusion in which all parties gather in a library for the solution to be revealed. The tone achieves the right combination of droll comedy, and compassion for the characters’ human frailties.

Speaking of which, I’m not certain I entirely grasped the full significance of one of these main characters being a nameless priest with a secret shame, but that could just be how sleep deprived the three-month-old has made me. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone else who reads this!

Altogether an enjoyable read from a promising young local author with a singular voice. Would make a thoughtful gift for anyone who loves Agatha Christie stories. Looking forward to the next novel from Thorpe.

Death Leaves the Station is published by Fremantle Press and is in bookstores now.

Review: 1st Case, James Patterson & Chris Tebbetts

My brain on sleep dep: relies on instant coffee and cheap thrills.

It’s been years since I read a James Patterson novel. I used to read him in the days of the Alex Cross novels that made him famous, like Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. Now he’s the world’s most prolific crime author, and has taken to collaborations in recent years, like this one with Chris Tebbetts. I was curious to see how they measured up and looking forward to a good murder mystery next in my stack of “easy reading for new motherhood” titles. Ready for some nice bloody corpses.

But I ended up disappointed with this story about Angela, an MIT dropout with the IQ of a genius, who gets offered an internship with the FBI thanks to her tech and coding skills – only to get in over her head when she becomes the target of the killer they’re seeking, who both lures and tracks his victims with the use of an insidious chat app.

I can’t fault plot or pace. The tech aspect is convincing, and the story unfolds at a breakneck speed. I inhaled it like a dog with a bowl of kibble. But I am not a fan of thrillers with chapters of only a few pages each. It feels too obvious a suspense-building tactic, like the authors (or more likely publishers) assume that modern readers have zero attention spans and thus aim to capture and hold the attention of the lowest common denominator.

And while plot and pace are vital for crime they are not everything. Without characterisation there is no point, you won’t care if detectives solve crimes or victims escape. People like Val McDermid, for example, or Ian Rankin, even Lee Child who is of comparable paciness, accessibility and fame, manage to write three-dimensional characters, thrilling plots and all the while evoke a powerful sense of place, while still using the formulas of their genres.

This writing, by comparison, lacked nuance and sophistication. Plain is fine, but at (the wrong) times in later chapters it abandoned plainness in favour of wordy overstating of dramatic moments, making me cringe, though to give examples would also give spoilers. Imagine though, that it is already perfectly clear the worst night of a heroine’s life is upon her, and that the climax is there, since a killer’s hands are about her throat, and the author writes, “it was the worst night of her life and the climax was upon her! It was all about to be over within moments!” That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

There was little humour, or atmosphere, or attention paid to psychology. The characterisation seemed token, an afterthought, in both good guys and bad, especially for a writer whose early novels built such complex, disturbing portraits. A few paragraphs in a (three-page) chapter after the climax was deemed sufficient to explain to the reader the killer’s identity and motivations. I’m forced to the unwelcome conclusion that James Patterson might not have all that much to do with his collaboration novels, or at least not much of his abilities concentrated upon them.

Overall this felt like eating a whole bag of party mix lollies. Each chapter a sugar hit, but by the end you’re feeling like you need to go and eat a proper meal. It didn’t satisfy my need for a nice fat, juicy, blood-spattered crime novel. I’ll have to try again…

Reviews: The Rosie Result and The Best of Adam Sharp, Graeme Simsion

These are the latest reads in my stack chosen for max reading ease and fun during this time of sleep deprivation and only being able to read in 10-page snatches (I didn’t envisage not being able to hold a book while breastfeeding a squirmy 9-week-old… why didn’t I create my stack on Kindle?)

First up, The Rosie Result, the final instalment in Simsion’s trilogy of general fiction comedy-romances about “on-the-spectrum” Don Tilman and the love of his life, Rosie. In this part, a decade or so after the events of the second book, Don and Rosie’s son Hunter is on the cusp of adolescence. Also considered – by his teachers at any rate – “on the spectrum”, Hunter’s struggling to fit in at school, so Don quits his professorial job to be a stay-at-home dad for Hunter and help him navigate all the social minefields Don himself faced as a misfit teen.

The first two in the series flirted only subtly with the topic of autism and instead focused mainly on Don’s misadventures in winning, then hanging on to, the beautiful and forthright Rosie. But while sticking with the sit-com plot, this final book really gets to grips with the elephant in the room and zeroes right in on this thorniest of subjects, autism and the choice to seek a diagnosis for it; both for Don and for Hunter. It’s a sensitive, topical and thought-provoking exploration of how autism and the “spectrum” is viewed in society today, as well as the school system’s treatment of kids who are just a bit different, making it relevant for every parent who’s ever shepherded a smart or sensitive child through school. Yet it never makes you feel like you’re being spoonfed or lectured to. The plot is as headlong as ever, the writing as sharp and funny, and the conclusion as satisfying and heartwarming as we’ve come to expect from Simsion. If you haven’t read the Rosie series, I would recommend it to just about anyone – men, women, even young adults. It’s just pure unalloyed reading pleasure, general fiction at its best.

The second read, The Best of Adam Sharp, tells the story of middle-aged software engineer and amateur piano player Adam. He’s a thoroughly ordinary man but he’s been given one sudden, extraordinary chance: to rekindle a decades-lost romance with the beautiful and compelling Angelina, the “one who got away” when they were in their twenties. This is a whisker closer to romance than general fiction, and is somewhat less comedic and compulsive a read than the Rosie novels, probably because of the large amounts of past-tense backstory introduced in the first half. They’re necessary, but they do slow it down a tad. But it’s still highly readable, and there are added layers of complexity and surprise to the plot, as Simsion builds to the climax, that keep you guessing right up until the end. A good holiday read, but if you haven’t tried Simsion before, start with The Rosie Project.

What Perth people want: Deocoding a city’s vibe to plan it a festival

 

“People are genuinely interested in who you are and why you’re here,” she said.
“Perth knows who we are and who we are not: not the east coast, not a big city, and not in a rush.”

Who Perth people are, what they like and what they need has been top of mind for Msimang since she was asked to curate the 2020 Literature and Ideas Festival, the writers festival taking place within Perth Festival.

And she’s noticed that while Perth might be comparatively protected from the world, even this city could not be insulated from the whirlwind that was 2019.

“We are living in a moment when people are really sped up,” she told WAtoday ahead of Thursday night’s program launch.

“If things were already fast, 2019 was really a headspin.”
There were plenty of existing pluses with the Perth festival – including a loyal, engaged audience and a vibrant central hub around the University of WA’s University Club, giving the venues a distinctive vibe.

But having attended numerous such festivals here and around the world, in recent years she had noticed common faults: overwhelming programs, no time to reflect between events, and a pressure to pack as much in as possible.

Thursday night’s program launch at the Octagon Theatre. By Jessica Wyld

Her idea was simple but radical: slow it down. Sessions lasting an hour instead of 45 minutes. Breaks lasting 30 minutes instead of 15. Panels featuring two or three writers instead of 4-5.

The idea is that each session will allow for a deeper conversation, and maybe even questions at the end won’t have to be dropped as they so often are.

Each break will accommodate not a hasty bathroom trip but also give you a chance to grab a coffee or chat to the person next to you about what you saw or are about to see.

Small panels will allow members to have their say, address questions and go down enticing rabbit holes.

The flipside, of course, of any “less is more” approach is that sacrifices are made. The event cannot be spread over more days due to financial constraints, so the overall number of writers appearing is reduced.

But the list of headliners would seem to prove a limitation can also be a strength, with Thursday night’s launch revealing a list stacked with impressive international, national and local names.

One can hardly find a bigger headliner than Neil Gaiman, whose works include The Sandman comics and novels CoralineAmerican Gods (televised by Netflix) and Good Omens (co-authored by Sir Terry Pratchett and televised by Amazon Prime), who will be telling his life stories at Perth Concert Hall.

Bruce Pascoe, whose 2014 book Dark Emu was bought by more than 115,000 Australians in 2019 alone, and is now being adapted by ABC TV, is appearing in an opening event that sold out faster than any other in the wider Perth Festival.

At the launch. By Jessica Wyld

Other names include:

  • Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap and new tome Damascus;
  • Jasper Jones author Craig Silvey;
  • Charlotte Wood, Stella Prize-winning author of The Natural Way of Things, promoting new novel The Weekend;
  • Melissa Lucashenko, Miles Franklin-winning author of Too Much Lip;
  • A.J. Betts, author of YA bestsellers Rogue, Hive and Zac & Mia;
  • The Family Law’s Benjamin Law;
  • The Accidental Feminists author Jane Caro;
  • Look What You Made Me Do author and Walkley award winner Jess Hill;
  • The Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson;
  • Holden Sheppard, whose debut Invisible Boys has won rave reviews and a slew of prizes;
  • Peter Holmes à Court on his memoir Riding With Giants;
  • Crime authors Dervla McTiernan, Sara Foster and David Whish-Wilson;
  • Bruny author Heather Rose

Each was handpicked for how their works speak to the festival’s theme of Land, Money, Power, Sex, and paired carefully with others for events that promise to push the boundaries in exploring those themes, with the result that many remarked to Msimang it was their most personalised, thoughtful festival invitation in years.

Look out for the companion story coming soon, detailing the must-see highlights of this year’s program, but don’t forget: slow down, and take it easy.

The 2020 Literature and Ideas Festival runs February 21-23.

This story originally appeared here on WAtoday

Little Women: How Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation pulls off the impossible

I was so excited about Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that my mate Juji and I went on opening night. Anticipation ran high, yet there was so much doubt: how could you top Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as Amy, Susan Sarandon as Marmee or Christian Bale as Laurie? How could you top that original and wonderful adaptation? How can you bring something new, even if you manage not to just mess it up entirely?

The immediate and obvious pluses were the visual beauty of the cinematography, lighting and costumes and stars really was just as heavy-hitting as the originals, including Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine, Laura Dern as Marmee, EMMA WATSON AS MEG (sorry can’t not yell that), and Saoirse Ronan as Jo.

The original movie stepped routinely through events spanning about seven years. It met the challenge of ageing the youngest, Amy, at first barely older than a sulky child, but who matures to a practical young woman of marriageable age, through the expedient of switching young Kirsten Dunst to an older actress who looked markedly different. Jarring, but seemed necessary and justified at the time, and both actresses played their parts well.

Gerwig made a different approach by casting four women who in reality range between 21-30, and keeping Florence Pugh (24) playing Amy throughout. This requires a different suspension of disbelief, especially since 30-year-old Watson is still very girlish, and visually they all appear around the same age – slightly jarring in itself as their differing levels of maturity are integral to the plot.

My doubts increased to alarm as Gerwig messed with the narrative structure, seesawing back and forth between past and future events in a way I initially felt was for no reason than just to be different.

Half an hour in, however, I saw what she was doing: how cleverly she was layering the narrative to pick out, mirror and magnify the parallel themes and points occurring in events separated by years.

The previously relatively minor roles of Aunt March and Amy receive a new depth and life, and realises the potential for the previously relatively minor plot line of their relationship and interactions to illuminate a feminist narrative.

And the portrayal of Jo, a wilful muse caught between longing for family, certainty, belonging and companionship, and desire for economic, intellectual and emotional independence, further strengthens this feminist aspect in its examination of whether a woman who prizes freedom above all else can still yearn to love and be loved.

This story has always had complex feminist themes. Ostensibly a domestic tale of females fending for themselves set in Civil War-time America as Dad’s off fighting, it discusses the role of marriage as a necessarily economic consideration as opposed to an expression of love and free will; the lack of options for women to make their own livings; the pressures on the one who marries for love to then face the consequence of poverty; and the pressures on the one who must consider doing the opposite, marrying for money and sacrificing love in order to support her family.

Yet Gerwig has achieved the seemingly impossible – examined all this in a way that fully satisfies a modern audience, but is never overt, preachy or belaboured. Instead the film is fun. It’s as breathless and headlong and sparkling as an episode of Gilmore Girls. It is subtle, humorous, playful and cleverly rounded off in a truly satisfying ending. It’s sumptuous, full of the radiant beauty of the all-star cast, its landscapes drenched with the golden light of all the civil War-era paintings that inspired it.

Gerwig has told this story of family and femininity, of the intimacy of sisterhood, of nostalgia for the past and longing for love and purpose, in a way better than I dreamed possible.

I basically wept like a busted tap on and off for the final hour. Go and see it at the cinema. It’ll be wasted on the small screen.

 

Further recommended reading on the artworks that inspired this treatment: How Greta Gerwig Built Her ‘Little Women’ in the New York Times

 

 

Em’s 2019 Reading Roundup: the 48 books read, plus my top recommendations for fiction and non-fiction

Fiction (36)

Literary fiction

Bridge of Clay, Markus Zusak
Road Story, Julienne Van Loon
1988, Andrew McGahan
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert
The Death of Noah Glass, Gail Jones
The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood
Red Can Origami, Madelaine Dickie*
The Testaments, Margaret Atwood
The Weekend, Charlotte Wood
Frankisstein, Jeanette Winterson
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

Crime/Mystery

Wimmera, Mark Brandi
River of Salt, Dave Warner
March Violets, Phillip Kerr (unfinished)
Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
Minotaur, Peter Goldsworthy
True West, David Whish-Wilson*
Blue Moon, Lee Child

Thriller

All That is Lost Between Us, Sara Foster*
I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes
Zero Day Code, John Birmingham

YA/Children’s 

The Wind in the Door, Madeleine L’Engle
Many Waters, Madeleine L’Engle
Emily of New Moon, L. M. Montgomery (re-read)
The Starlight Barking, Dodie Smith
Emily Climbs, L. M. Montgomery (re-read)
Emily’s Quest, L. M. Montgomery (re-read)
The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton (re-read)

Nonfiction (12)

Shallow, Selfish and Self Absorbed: 16 writers on the choice not to have children 
Nora Heysen: a biography, Anne-Louise Willoughby*
Australia Reimagined, Hugh Mackay
In Defence of Food, Michael Pollan
The Pleasures of Leisure, Robert Dessaix
Any Ordinary Day, Leigh Sales
Egyptian Mythology, Simon Goodenough
On Leopard Rock, Wilbur Smith
Egyptology, Emily Sands/Five Mile Press
Egypt, Konemann Press
On Eating Meat, Matthew Evans
The Wooleen Way, David Pollock*
*WA author

Fiction: Top 10

  1. Freedom, Jonathan Franzen – an absorbing American family saga of jawdropping ambition that had me hanging on its every word and lost inside its themes. Not a new book but perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 2010.
  2. Bridge of Clay, Markus Zusak – massive, time consuming book, not easy but had me weeping like a baby by the time it closed. Majestic. Read more by clicking here.
  3. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood – old, but I’d never read it before and by golly it’s stood the test of time. It fairly crackles with intensity. A must-read.
  4. The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion – the story of an autistic man trying to enter the dating world. I am late to the party on this 2013 bestseller but I fell into this book and didn’t look up until two days later when it was finished. Touching, engrossing and funny. I can’t really imagine someone who wouldn’t enjoy this.
  5. Invisible Boys, Holden Sheppard* – YA novel about growing up gay in Gero. Full of youthful desire, longing and suspense. Immersive, raw, defiant, intense. A must-read. Read more here. 
  6. The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead – an American novel of young men who grew up in an abusive juvenile prison for wayward boys. Has that powerful simplicity shared by the great American novels. Destined to become a classic.
  7. I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes – a spy thriller that bounces around the Middle East and absolutely must be made into a movie. Convincing, brutal and compulsive. A cracker of a read.
  8. The Testaments, Margaret Atwood – The long awaited sequel to A Handmaid’s Tale lacks its hypnotic pull and yet is an absolute page-turner, does not waste a single word and satisfies the longing for more from Gilead. Atwood is a master storyteller and I didn’t want it to end.
  9. The Weekend, Charlotte Wood – the story of a group of three ageing women whose friend dies. They are saddled with the grim task of cleaning out her beach house, but realise on the way that this was the friend who glued them together, and without her they struggle to get along. You wouldn’t think that a literary novel with such a ‘quiet’ subject would be a page-turner but I devoured this. Highly recommended.
  10. Frankisstein, Jeanette Winterson – two plot lines, both inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: one an imagining of Shelley’s life at the time of writing, the other a futuristic look at a world of artificial intelligence, cryonics and sexbots, in which humans’ original bodies will be only a jumping-off point to start negotiations. Classic Winterson in its sheer imagination and reach, and in the beauty of its prose, but once again she reaches an original frontier and pushes your intellectual boundaries while at the same time frequently making you laugh.  
Honorable mentions to City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert – a captivating, sweetly humorous and touching tale of exuberant young womanhood in a bygone New York. A fantastic summer read if you’re in the market for one – and The Dry by Jane Harper, crackling murder mystery (click on title in list for review).

Non-fiction: Top 5

Australia Reimagined, Hugh Mackay – click the title and read the review to see why I was so inspired by this book. Should be required reading for all Australians, yet is not preachy by inspiring. A powerful antidote to the despair that can grip any regular watcher of the news.
In Defence of Food, Michael Pollan – not a new book but a fascinating look into why diet and nutrition is a subject that continues to confuse, intimidate and utterly do a disservice to human beings, no matter how intelligent they are.
On Leopard Rock, Wilbur Smith – an autobiography of a writer in the heyday of writing, the story of Africa in the grip of apartheid, a portrait of a remarkable family and full of tales of death-defying encounters from a man who appears to have lived nine adventurous lives. Would make a great gift for a fan, but equally fascinating for me and I have never read a Wilbur Smith (though I now intend to).
On Eating Meat, Matthew Evans – by a former journalist, now farmer. Examines Australia’s intensive meat industries in a way that, far from discouraging anyone from eating meat, shows you how to wield your power as a consumer to encourage better welfare for animals. This book has shown me how to enjoy eating meat again.
The Wooleen Way, David Pollock* – the inspiring life story of a pastoralist in Western Australia’s southern rangelands, a cry for help for a vanishing resource, a rallying call for all Australians to better look after it. I found this book electrifying and I will be writing more about it this year as a drying climate makes the situation facing our rangelands more urgent than ever.

Want a personalised recommendation? 

Not all of the books could make it on to the ‘top’ lists, but the vast majority were excellent reads. Some are linked to separate reviews you can click on or leave a comment if you have a question about whether I think you’d like a particular one of these!