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.

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!