Do you keep a list of the books you’ve read each year? I started recording my thoughts on my annual reads some years ago, and at the start of every January I give a wrap of books I read in the previous year. Some years the list is extensive; other years embarrassingly short.
2020’s reading list of twenty-two books falls way short of what I would have liked to have read, especially as I spent so many months in Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne. You’d think that would give me all the time in the world to kick back with unlimited books, but it simply wasn’t the case for this iso-bookworm. My reading mojo actually abandoned me for a while (I know, right?!), and I frequently found myself reading a page or two, then simply staring off into space, before re-reading the same page again.
Coronavirus aside, I still managed to do some kick ass reading. Earlier in the year I served on the judging panel for the Rocky Wood Award for Non Fiction and Criticism for the Australian Shadows Awards, and was privileged to read many outstanding essays, articles, and creative non-fiction showcasing horror and dark fiction from the finest writers in the Antipodes. You can view the results of the 2019 Shadows Awards here.
2020’s fiction list is made up of 73% female writers / 27% male (in the case of anthologies I have used the editor/s), with fourteen of the twenty-six penned by Australian authors.
Naturally, some titles gripped me more than others. My standout reads for the year were: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and The Little Wave by Pip Harry. I don’t call myself a reviewer, as I can’t bring myself to say something negative about another’s work in a public domain, whether it is deserved critique or not. Besides, there are plenty more qualified than me to offer balanced reviews, so the following thoughts are merely my indulgent observations.
The Institute by Stephen King
I adore Stephen King. I’ve adored him since my early teens, when I first picked up a copy of Graveyard Shift. Since then I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written. When you spend so long as King’s ‘constant reader’, you get to know his style intimately. I have to say, The Institute felt like a bit of a lazy offering. The layered shades of ‘vintage King’ characterisation were lacking, and we’re asked to cheer and fear for a bunch of kids who…well…just don’t act like kids! That (and plot holes galore) aside, it was still a page turner with an interesting setup, and I’m glad The Institute was the book to kickstart my 2020. (You will never hear me speak ill of The King!)
George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl
My son has severe dyslexia. For him, reading and comprehension of what he’s read is a real chore, so we do it together. Our ‘go to’ guy is Roald Dahl. We laugh at the silly characters, and outlandish plots, and particularly enjoy Quentin Blake’s illustrations. In George’s Marvelous Medicinewe both loved the hilarious Grandma – she is one fabulously nasty pastie!
Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates
Four novellas depicting love gone wrong. Each story presents deeply flawed characters navigating deeply flawed relationships…mostly culminating in terrible consequences. JCO really is masterful when it comes to nailing the ills of contemporary society. These stories reflect her diversity of style, and ability to say so much in so few words. Some carry more of a punch than others, as is the case with collections.
Begin. End. Begin – A #LoveOzYA Anthology
Edited by Danielle Binks, this is a great collection of stories showcasing some of the ‘names’ of contemporary Australian young adult fiction. I was pleasantly surprised the bulk of stories fell under the mantle of speculative fiction—just another reason to love YA, it cheerfully plays well across genre. Some terrific examples of strong voices to be found in Begin. End. Begin. I particularly enjoyed Alice Pung’s In a Heartbeat, and Danielle Binks’ own offering Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory had me smiling with the inclusion of the Tree of Life sculpture, a well-known landmark to anyone who travels the Peninsula Link regularly.
Theodora’s Gift by Ursula Dubosarsky
I love Ursula Dubosarsky’s beautiful prose and storytelling. If you’re a writer of literature for children, put her on your list. Her elegant prose, imagery, and symbolism is a welcome change of pace for kids seeking thoughtful stories underpinned by complex and diverse characters. Theodora’s Gift is a pretty weird offering though, and I was left a little confused as to what happened and why. It’s a sequel to The First Book of Samuel, which I haven’t read, so perhaps that’s what’s lacking for me contextually. Even so, a quick read, worth picking up for Dubosarsky’s beautiful way with words.
Burning Love and Bleeding Hearts – Anthology (Things in the Well Publications, Edited by Louise Zedda-Sampson and Chris Mason)
This robust collection of sixty ‘dark and dangerous tales’ ranges from hard hitting works of flash fiction, through to well-crafted story length works, complemented by a smattering of poetry. With a lineup of authors as diverse as the contents, you’ll find genre heavyweights mixing it up with new and emerging authors, resulting in a pleasing mix of diversity, style, and interpretation of the theme. Editors, Louise Zedda-Sampson and Chris Mason, demonstrate their agility and proficiency in Burning Love and Bleeding Hearts – the anthology was produced as a fundraiser for victims of Australia’s bushfire crisis, and with a tight production schedule, they’ve managed to produce a quality antho that’s raised over $2,000 and counting. (Disclaimer: I have a story Hermit 2.0 included in this anthology).
Drive, She Said by Tracie McBride(IFWG Publishing Australia)
Tracie is one heck of a polished writer, and Drive, She Said showcases her ability to direct that into dark fiction that explores the human condition admirably. This collection of eighteen short stories feature females as protagonists, in every shape and form, and every shade of grey. Among other strengths, what I liked most about this collection is Tracie’s fearless approach to writing about sex and sexuality—how it can weaken or empower—and the impact of desire upon character motivations. Favourites for me were ‘The Changing Tree’ and ‘Father Figure’.
One of Us is lying by Karen McManus(Delacorte Press)
What fun this turned out to be in the middle of coronavirus. I totally binge-read this book! Described as The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars, I was expecting to be underwhelmed – not because of the description, just, well, there’s many ways it could go wrong. McManus takes the reader on a high school thriller, murder mystery, high drama, high stakes romp. The suspects being four high school kids (you know these kids. You’ve got your princess, nerd, junior crim, jock, and misfit), the setting, a detention room (right?), the victim, an unlikeable fellow student. Look, it’s tropey as all get out, I picked two of the plot twists earlier than I would have liked, and a little cutesy-cheesy in the romance stakes, but it’s good contemporary fun with well-rounded character arcs, and a teenage dirtbag or two on top. 😊
In the Clearing by J P Pomare (Hachette)
It’s no secret I love psychological thrillers. And unreliable female protagonists. And dark little corners of regional Australia – both in history and setting. And then there’s my fascination with cults. In the Clearing delivers everything I love in spades! Freya and Amy share a past burdened with secrets that are about to catch up to them, and the reader is along for every page-turning, tightly-written, well-crafted element of the fallout. Don’t pick it up if you’ve got something else to do…take Pomare’s bait on page one, and you’re his – hook, line, and sinker! This is the second book from J P Pomare, and I’m eagerly awaiting his next.
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Corsair)
While I’d heard high praise for this book, along with a smattering of negative reviews (some people really disliked it, yet include some valid points as to why in their reviews), I came to Where The Crawdads Sing with no expectations, and little knowledge of the plot. I believe my reading experience was enriched because of this. I think it’s a book you have to read for yourself and decide whether the style is to your taste. Owens is a nature writer and her descriptions of the refreshingly unique marsh setting are, for some readers, overdrawn. Me, I loved every magic word, and Kya’s surrounds take on a character of their own. I admit I may not have been so enamoured if the setting was somewhere that didn’t hold high fascination for me. Another thing that struck me was the editorial choice to retain a minor amount of head hopping. We are exposed to protag Kya’s POV carrying the weight of the novel, yet we are also privy to what’s going on in the head of several minor characters. While it may be construed as “breaking the rules” of contemporary craft, it didn’t bother me, and I was glad of the insights. All in all – five stars from me. The best way to describe this book, I’m going to throw to the Daily Mail: ‘Part murder-mystery, part coming of-age novel, its evocation of the marshland and its inhabitants is as unforgettable as Kya herself. A story of loneliness, survival, and love that’s as engrossing as it is moving.’
After Australia by Edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Affirm Press)
I loved the concept of this anthology: “After empire, after colony, after white supremacy…twelve diverse writers imagine an alternative Australia” – and the contents certainly didn’t disappoint. Featuring stories from skilled Indigenous writers and writers of colour, the reader is invited into a world of speculation and a journey towards the year 2050. Each writer has approached the central theme through their unique ideas and lens. The result – every story stand solidly on its own, while contributing holistically to the antho’s weight. While many of the stories left (and hit) their mark, if I had to choose a favourite, I’d run with ‘White Flu’ by Omar Sakr – skillful execution indeed! Australia, indeed the world, would benefit from more anthologies that showcase and celebrate diverse voices.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Scribner)
I finally got round to reading Sai King’s sequel to The Shining, and it felt a bit like coming home. Doctor Sleep is a worthy exploration of what happened to Danny Torrance after The Outlook wreaked havoc on his family’s life…and it’s fair to say when we meet up with Torrance as an adult, he’s about as rock bottom as they come, which makes the ensuing arc satisfying. We’re not talking vintage King here – I don’t think those days can be replicated – but we’re talking classic King storytelling, first class character building, and a ripping good yarn. What’s not to like?
I always love King’s Author Notes, and in his comments on the writing process of Doctor Sleep, he states “…nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare, and I mean nothing, especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable.” Damn straight, Mr King! I came – like many horror lovers my age – to Stephen King’s works in my early teens. My mind was blown, and, although I’d been consuming horror for several years, I vividly recall my first real ‘scare’. Doctor Sleep isn’t a scare-fest—I’ll argue that many of King’s greatest works aren’t, but there’s plenty of thrilling moments and signature stomach-clenching humanitarian dilemmas King’s characters find themselves faced to keep you turning pages.
The Wife and The Widow by Christian White (Affirm Press)
Do you ever want to throw a book at a wall (then retrieve it, dust it off, and beg its forgiveness), because you know you’ll never be that clever a writer? This was me reading The Wife and The Widow. One of the fastest rising stars of contemporary Aussie crime thrillers has done it again. While I enjoyed The Nowhere Child, White’s first novel, immensely, The Wife and The Widow has outsmarted, outwitted, and outplayed with its cunning execution and sophisticated twists (one that made me audibly gasp at the craft White displayed to successfully pull it off. For more on this execution, stick around for White’s Author Notes at the end). I binge read The Wife and The Widow…and you will too.
Her Bitch Dress by Eugen Bacon (Picaro Poets/Ginninderra Press)
In her introduction to Eugen Bacon’s collection of literary micro fiction, Dr Dominique Hecq encapsulates the essence of Her Bitch Dress, stating “This strangely compelling collection of prose poetry or microlit shivers on the edges of intuition, where the mysteries of love and the contours of desire intersect with what, out of sheer habit, we call relationships, often shying away from more subtle definitions involving intimacy.” I don’t think I could describe it better myself. What I will say is Her Bitch Dress is an ‘experience’ read. One that, like with all good prose poetry and vignettes, should be dipped in and out of, and read slowly, letting each offering roll around your palate to be savoured for its distinctive taste. You’ll find observations of the comfortable-familiar that contrast starkly with oft-brutal daily realities sharing pages comfortably with dreamlike introspections weighted with imagery. I’ve only come to know Eugen’s writing in the past two years, and I’m glad I did. If you enjoy fresh, fearless, fierce, and thought-provoking voices, you will too. Put Eugen Bacon on your ‘one to read’ list.
The Macabre Modern and Other Morbidities by Kyla Ward (Prea Press)
I adore dark, multifaceted, poetry and prose. In this collection Kyla Lee Ward taps into the full range of her considerable talent to deliver an exploration of the human condition in a collection as intelligent as it is diverse. Showcasing her ability to examine complex themes and subjects carried artfully through a variety of styles: free verse and more traditional poetic forms underpinned by lyrical rhyme, rhythm, and meter, you’ll find each section of the book flows like a journey. A well-researched essay The Danse Macabre, acts as a captivating mid-way ‘breather’. I’d read this non-fiction piece previously as a member of the judging panel for the 2019 Australian Shadows Awards, when it took home The Rocky Wood Award for Non-Fiction and Criticism—it’s a terrific read! Another Shadows-winning work is included: Revenants of the Antipodes, a personal favourite of mine, along with Mourning Rites (if you haven’t seen Kyla’s live performance of Mourning Rites, you’re in for a captivating treat. You can find it here). All in all, a timeless collection for lovers of dark literary verse.
Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic (Echo)
I can’t get enough of Aussie crime at the moment—our ‘new wave’ of genre writers are setting some incredibly high standards. Resurrection Bay, the author’s 2015 debut novel, certainly didn’t disappoint. There’s much to like about this fast-paced mystery thriller. We’re dropped with a blood splat into private investigator Caleb Zelic’s immediate dilemma, shown the backdrop of Melbourne, meet his professional partner, Frankie, and then – hey ho, let’s go! It’s game on as Zelic travels from city to coastal hometown following the trail of the murderous, mysterious Scott, responsible for the execution of his close friend (and various others). It’s soon apparent Zelic is the one being followed though, and tension and stakes are raised further. One thing about our hero: he’s profoundly deaf. This was a refreshingly original character trait and it was pleasing to see this diversity showcased in a main character…a detective at that! I’ll look out for more of Viskic’s work.
Oleanders Are Poisonous by A J Collins (AJC Publishing)
I inhaled this book! It’s a relatively short read, but that doesn’t negate its impact. In fact, I would argue it heightens it. In Oleanders Are Poisonous, Collins tackles some challenging issues and themes, with teen protag Lauren not only navigating the usual universal teenage dilemmas, but also the terrible weight of burdens beyond her years: dementia, distorted family dynamics, grief, abuse, and betrayal. Well-paced, and well-written, and set against the backdrop of small town regional Victoria, Collins’ debut novel demonstrates she understands her readership, and has adeptly portrayed how setting and circumstance influences and shapes characters’ decisions. I also thought it was a great touch including helplines to various support resources at the end of the book. Bravo, AJ – I’m looking forward to the sequel, Magnolias Don’t Die.
The Safe Place by Anna Downes (Affirm Press)
Holiday Read! Ok, so technically not a holiday read, as I’ve been in lockdown since March. I don’t think anyone’s been on holiday in 2020…but if I were to be on holiday, this is exactly the type of book I’d have with me. I love contemporary thrillers, especially those featuring flawed female characters with secrets, secrets, secrets! Take the most amazing setting, introduce Emily Proudman, our ‘hit rock bottom’ protag, and put her in company and a scenario where nothing is quite what it seems. Page turning predicaments (with a little predicatability) ensue! A debut novel I recommend to anyone who loves some twists and turns, and unsettling atmospherics, and wants to escape with a good commercially-driven (fine by me when I’m on holiday, thank you very much) read.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic books)
Korede is a nurse. Her sister, Ayoola is a serial killer. Korede cleans up her sister’s mess and keeps her secret. This simple premise paves the way for a rollicking read. Dark humour bounces off dark realities that provide motivation for the actions of both sisters. This book is short, punchy and original, with a writing style to match. I really enjoyed the Nigerian setting and characters, and the clever way the story delivers layers more complex than its surface appeal initially implies.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Affirm Press)
This book seemed to take me the longest time to read, but it was a welcome journey. Based on true events, it covers the timespan between 1882-1989. With a plot surrounding the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary by a team of lexicographers, it also covers themes of women’s equality and the Suffrage movement. An interesting read not only for its quiet, but captivating, plot, but also for its impressive research and historical importance, especially with regards to suffrage and the power and evolution of language over the years, especially those words deemed irrelevant by gender.
The Little Wave by Pip Harry (UQP)
I inhaled this middle grade verse novel. It’s full of heart, hurdles, and hope. The entwined stories of Noah, Lottie and Jack are told with incredible perception, dealing with issues impacting today’s youth in a contemporary setting. I cried more than once, and the entire Page 66 destroyed my heart! A superb example of middle grade respecting its readership and handling heavy themes sensitively without sugar coating. Highly recommended.
Limerence by Liz Hicklin (MMH Press)
Limerence takes the reader on multiple journeys in an exploration of location, love, loss, and longing all intertwined in the incredible true account of Frenchman Hubert’s lifelong obsession with ‘English Rose’ Audrey, a girl he met and romanced briefly at London’s 1948 Olympic Games. The multi-viewpoint structure serves Limerence well, with readers gleaning an understanding of the impact Hubert’s obsessive love has on those closest to him—ripples that span generations. I am continually fascinated by the human condition, and Hubert’s unwavering pursuit of Audrey, spanning decades and oceans, for a love unreciprocated is both troubled and troubling…yet who could not be moved by those afflicted by the debilitating condition of limerence?
I’ve come to know the author’s style well over the past few years, and what I most enjoy is her ability to seamlessly meld research with recall to deliver narrative steeped in fact without sacrificing story. The details interwoven throughout Limerence bring various eras and locations to life with attention to detail, setting and a sense of place. A highlight for me was the rich description of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games—a real treat, and such historical merit! A most rewarding read, best enjoyed over several sittings with a fine sherry!
So, that’s it for 2020. I was aiming to complete The Year the Maps Changed by Danielle Binks, along with others over the Christmas break, but didn’t quite get there. My 2021 ‘to be read’ pile is already teetering. Heading towards the top of the pile are: Lucid by Muriel cooper, Thirteen and Underwater by Michelle Weitering, White Heart by Heather Rose, Honeybee by Craig Silvey, The Survivors by Jane Harper, Black Moon by Eugen Bacon and Guardian of the Sky Realms by Gerry Huntman.
Happy New Year, everybody! And, of course, happy writing, happy reading, and happy days,