Updated: Jan 3
As we come to the close of the year and start to reflect on the months gone by the important questions looms: what were my favourite books of the year? The ones that have stuck with me throughout the year and keep playing out in my mind. As such I present to you my top ten percent of 2019. Thirteen of the books that I loved, full of characters and lessons and expressions I’m unable to let pass without commenting on, without trying to convince others to experience for themselves.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
Boyne is a genius in my eyes. The only way to follow up The Heart’s Invisible Furies was to write a novel that is the polar opposite. Where The Heart’s Invisible Furies was tragic and touching, A Ladder to the Sky was rage inducing and brazen and it blew my mind. Maurice Swift is one of the best (worst?) characters I have encountered, so much so, I threw my book across the room in a fit of rage. A must read for fans of unlikeable characters and once again easy to read and enjoyable in the affable Boyne tone we all know and love.
Buy it here.
Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau
Unless you are an Australian reader, many won’t have heard of this selection from independent publisher Brow Books, which is a damn shame and something to be remedied. Pink Mountain on Locust Island is an experimental novel you will be hard pressed to define. That such a young voice can write something so mesmerising and disparate leaves me astonished and excited for the future of Australian fiction (Marina Lau was twenty one when Pink Mountain was published). Experimental literature is often inaccessible, intellectual and haughty, for only those advanced enough to understand. Pink Mountain on Locust Island takes that notion and blows it apart. Marina Lau writes a compulsive narrative unlike any other. Her protagonist, Monk, is quirky and irrepressible, a joy to inhabit. Not everything within this novel needs to be understood or explicit and, yet, an appreciation is not only attainable but effortless. Thank you for teaching me that unconventional can be approachable.
Buy it here.
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Daisy Jones was the surprise of the year for me that shouldn’t be dismissed as frivolous fiction. Sure the 1970s setting of rock and roll, of sex and drugs and addiction, is not particularly groundbreaking but that is not all that it is. Jenkins Reed gives the reader plenty more to work with. I loved the way she played with form and while I initially disliked the format, once I had read a few more pages I realised it adds much to the storytelling of this novel. The format flirts with the idea that first person narrators are all ultimately unreliable. It is a truth that is central to this novel and that is constantly pushed and prodded to give the reader their story. The reader is also given three strong women as central characters. Each of them are uniquely so. All with their own flaws, some more evident than others, but each powerful in finding their own truths and grasping their own destiny. Honestly, most of the male characters pale in the background, though that’s not to say they aren’t interesting, endearing or frustrating in their own ways. I’m not trying to further hype this or portray it as something that it’s not but I do want to pay my respects to this quietly intelligent novel.
Buy it here.
Freshwater by Awaeke Emezi
Freshwater was compelling and addictive; I found the writing is so otherworldly and unique. The perspectives and turns of phrase make you stop and observe the world in a completely different light. A story of a girl born with a fractured soul, as an ogbanjie, inhabited by spirits which develop distinct selves. Once you learn a little more about Emezi it is clear that some aspects are loosely autobiographical and related to her own experiences, which made the story even more fascinating. This is a distinctly written and layered piece of fiction that left me awestruck and is a story I still mull over whenever it comes to mind. Emezi is one to watch for the future with another novel set for release in the new year.
Buy it here.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
I worship at the altar of Marlon James. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an ambitious beginning to an epic fantasy trilogy imbued with violence, African mythology and queer, diverse characters. In true James style the writing is delicious and meaty, so substantial that gorging on it is impossible, instead one must savour each page and digest it fully before progressing. Not for the faint-hearted this one is complex and meandering and did I say violent? Though violence is rife, it is never voyeuristic, nor feels excessive. Just to further explain the scope and complexity of this writing the two following books are not a chronological continuation, but the same epic adventure from different perspectives of characters we meet within the pages.
Buy it here.
The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright
A collection of essays about home and shelter, whether that be body or bricks, The World Was Whole that taught me an essay is not merely regurgitating rhetoric. To borrow from Wright’s conversation earlier this year with Luke Carman—an essay has no beginning or end. An essay is life, “the everyday occurrences and injuries…the small transfers of energy that shock us, sudden and electric. The hidden things they illuminate.” The World Was Whole shocked me. Feelings and ideas that I could never clearly articulate were written so elegantly, so profoundly. Written in a way that made me feel known, seen and above all, relevant. These pages provide a window into Wright’s soul that I, in turn, feel can be mirrored back by my own, and I have no doubt many others. This collection made me feel connected to the world and those that walk within it.
Buy it here.
Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills
A perfect expression of our pressing environmental woes, Dyschronia deals with the disintegration of a seaside community from their highs and lows with industry and tourism and the havoc they wreak on the environment. This one was presented as speculative fiction, however, I found the speculative aspect in this one subtle, more subtle than I expected and yet it leaves the door open for Dyschronia to make statements about so much more. Australian authors like Jane Harper and Rosalie Ham are renowned for their depictions of small town life and yet Mills takes that understanding much further with her use of a collective perspective. A literary tool I love that captured the pack mentality, the group rule that can happen in small, wary towns where life is harsh and survival paramount. The desperation and optimism in equal measures reminds me of recent history in my hometown, a place that is dependent on industry for survival. So much of this story echos my experiences from home and I’m not sure how much of that is cause for how endearing I find this novel. The writing is captivating and mysterious. The reader has to slowly unravel the truths to understand what is really going on here, whether it is past or present and even at the conclusion you never truly understand all that transpired. This isn’t for everyone but for the right mind it is truly something incredible, for me it was exceptional.
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
The Queen of the Night was the historical fiction I never knew I needed until I was deep within its pages. Who knew opera in Paris was so compelling? I picked this after finding myself drawn to shorter novels that satisfy upon timely completion. I had forgotten the completely different gratification that comes with longer fiction, the epic plots, the slower build, the layering that comes with hundreds and hundreds of pages. I found The Queen of the Night whimsical and melodramatic, indulgent and epic in scope. The perfect novel to lose yourself in.
Buy it here.
Kindred by Kirli Saunders
Kindred is the first collection by First Nations poet Kirli Saunders. At the absolute least of all this collection has a stunning cover that immediately made me want to read it. Most importantly what I found was so much beauty in between the pages. I think it is difficult to review poetry with its unique form and way of touching the readers but I do have to say I immediately connected with the prose within. I found myself falling into these pages, captivated from the moment I picked it up I greedily consumed pages and pages of it at a time and I know I’ll return to it again and again in the future. What I loved about this collection was how accessible it felt for poetry and if you are someone who doesn’t read this form much or know where to start, Kindred should be the top of your list. The depth and beauty of this work deserves every bit of exposure and praise.
Supper Club by Lara Williams
A novel about a secret women’s club who meet at night to eat and drink until they can’t eat anymore in a bacchanalian ceremony designed for women to take up more space. What about that doesn’t sound appealing? Supper Club is another addition to the genre of novels designed to appeal to millenials and in my opinion absolutely nails it. I found myself relating to so many aspects of this novel. One particular passage that stands out months later is simply our protagonist waiting in line to order coffee and rehearsing the most efficient way of asking for what she wants. Williams seems to have a way of making the reader feel known and understood. I would highly recommend picking up this angry little feminist novel about pushing back and making space.
Buy it here.
A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop
As Australia continues to burn, the relevance of A Constant Hum only increases in scope. A debut collection of short stories by Bishop about the Black Saturday bushfires ten years ago, where she lost her family home. Some of these short stories were simply a paragraph and yet each and every one felt like a punch in the gut. These stories were so real and so honest and incredibly moving. I found myself having to put it down between each story just to sit and contemplate and absorb the powerful words and feelings. This is a masterful collection that demonstrates exactly why short stories as a literary form are underrated. I can’t urge you enough to pick up this timely collection.
Buy it here.
Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee by Chloe Hooper
Chloe Hooper is Australia’s queen of creative nonfiction. Her ability to add colour, flavour, and emotion to what can sometimes be thought of as a dry genre is unparallelled. Tall Man is an exploration into the death of an Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee, in police custody on Palm Island, a group of islands used by the Australian Government as an Aboriginal settlement for “trouble makers.” An incredibly powerful and insightful look into the tough and violent lives of Indigenous Australians living under colonial rule, Tall Man had a profound emotional impact on me as I made my way through the exquisite writing. The subject matter is abhorrent and heart-breaking but an important exploration into the abuse of power in a vulnerable population.
Buy it here.