Books have always my go-to place to get away from the horrors and sadness of reality.
Whether it was way back when I was a kid and bullying defined my (almost) every waking hour, or more recently when a pandemic has redefined life to pronouncedly for the worst that the only option wads to open a book and find yourself in a world not your own.
As someone who has a To Be Read aka TBR pile so large it might fall and crush me one day, I set myself the task of upping last year’s total of books read from 103 to as close to 150 as I could manage.
This was not simply a numbers exercise; in fact, it wasn’t that at all.
Rather, it was about wanting to satisfy this intense craving I have had all my life to delve into and experience as many written stories as possible, and setting myself a numerical target seemed as good a way as any to make sure that came close to happening.
As it happens I have landed somewhere in the mid 130s and while it hasn’t made any real dent in the TBR pile – I will keep buying lots of new books, won’t I haha? – my life is all the richer for the amazing stories in which I have been immersed, these twenty in particular, and I can’t wait to see what kinds of tales await in 2021.
- Please note that the books are listed in no particular order and do not reflect a 1 to 20 ranking.
(1) Star-Crossed by Minni Darke
At its heart, Star-crossed is a love letter to the need all of us have to be connected to one another and to find purpose in life, an impelling need that is constantly thwarted by the diabolical difficulties of knowing which sliding door is the one we should step through.
There is likely no perfect answer for many of us though it becomes patently clear that there is, of course, for Nick and Juliet who are asked to follow their hearts and to listen to that inner voice which, more often than not, is right when it comes to those big, towering decision we all have to make at some point or another.
Star-crossed is a supreme delight, arguing that when it comes down to it, scary and profoundly complex though they might seem, decisions aren’t actually all that hard to make, regardless of where you turn to for guidance, if we just listen to our hearts, throw in some decent common sense and yes, maybe just maybe, see what the stars have to say (unless Juliet has written them in which case perhaps tread a little more carefully).
(2) A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian
Told in language that is richly poetic and exquisitely beautiful, A People’s History of Heaven is a sumptuous delight that captures life in the slum in ways that are authentic and affecting, offering up a character study of a micro-society that wants for so much more but understands that getting it (if it ever happens at all) is far from certain.
This is life in modern India – the promise of riches and safety, independence and material wealth juxtaposed with the grinding reality that attitudes and social mores are lagging far behind the shift in overall prosperity, leaving many women and girls with the dream intact but its realisation fractured and broken though not without the prospect of healing and redemption and even possibly fulfillment.
The novel ends without offering a tidy wrap-up to proceedings but it does finish on a note of hope and triumph, saying that despite everything, and there is a lot standing in the way of their dreams and happiness, life is good in the present and might be even better in the future, and that while Heaven might not live up to its namesake, these women and girls (who you will grow to love) are not going to give up reaching for something better without a damn good, inspiringly-grounded fight.
(3) The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham
Add in space pirate with a history and a reluctant but still there heart Sephina L’trel and displaced young royal princess Alessia who has some growing up to do, and does it in quick order, and you have an unlikely bunch of vitally-realised people who Birmingham draws together so effectively and elegantly and with both intensity and fun (yes, there are some humoruous, action-filled elements in this often dark tale of humanity coming close to meeting its invasive maker) that the idea of them and those in their orbit saving the day feels not just possible but highly likely.
The Cruel Stars, surging with ideas and action in equal engrossingly heady measure, is a brilliantly well-told story that admits readily to humanity’s manifest failings while also staking its claim to the idea that the solution to these great gaping holes in the magnificence of our civilisation is not oppressive thought and unblinking ferocity of its implementation but freedom and justice and the capacity, however imperfectly expressed at times, to chart our own course unencumbered by those who think, like they always have, that they know better.
(4) City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Set against the great changes of the twentieth century, Vivian’s journey from innocent abroad to sage and learned older woman with more than a little life experience under her belt, feel palpably real and truthful all the way through even as it takes in a broad sweep of massive changes to the grand story of collective humanity.
The pleasure in reading City of Girls comes too from the richness of the language which is beautiful, poetic, feisty and fun, tortured and painful and yet always nothing less than transcendentally wonderful.
Gilbert’s novel is the perfect marriage of towering story, vivaciously, fully-realised characters, sparkling prose and intelligence, emotion and accessibility, proof that it is possible to write a novel that says a great deal, and in impressive fashion too about who we are, without once losing that connection to the very humanity it champions and celebrates.
(5) Jane in Love by Rachel Givney
You can’t help but love Austen, feel for her dilemma, adore how she connects deeply with Fred and Sofia and they with her, and appreciate how desperately difficult living life can be at times, not only when you are out of the normal time of your own but even when you are in the right place at the right time.
Jane in Love is delightfully, happily and movingly masterful – a novel that pivots on an outlandish idea with such dexterity and heart and good humour that you wish you could stay in the company of Jane Austen and her newfound friends forever, a sentiment shared by all the characters who find great happiness and sadness all in one during the events of the book, realising with great poignancy by the novel’s end that the impossibilities of life can’t always be conquered and that we must make our peace with its many vagaries if we are to find any kind of lasting peace and happiness.
(6) Would Like to Meet by Rachel Winters
The very best rom-com writers, like the fabled and deservedly much-lauded Nora Ephron, knew that to really make your contribution to the genre fly you needed to make it feel grounded and believable in some way.
In other words the situations may be over the top and unrealistic but the people couldn’t be, well at least not entirely, and Winters knows this and delivers it perfectly in a book that is a joy to read and spend time in, a reassuring and exquisitely well-written romantic hug that restores our faith in the very goodness of life, a faith that is being sorely tested right now.
Think of Would Like to Meet then as your antidote to these dark and trying times, a feel-good reminder that wonder and possibility still remain and may be lying in wait right when and where you least expect them.
(7) The Library of Lost Things by Laura Taylor Namey
The Library of Lost Things is a story, an exquisitely well-told story with characters you have come to love so much that ending the book feels like farewelling the closest of companions, that cuts right through to you, not simply because love, true love is a universal thing we all want, but because we have all been Darcy at one time or another, faced with dismantling our protective structures so a more adult life can flourish or staying put and potentially kissing goodbye to a whole new wonderful life.
Nothing about this novel feels glib or slight; in fact, for all its romantic comedy underpinnings, The Library of Lost Things is gritty and honestly heartfelt that captures how scary it is to move onto new things but how necessary it is if we’re going to have any kind of sustainable, meaningful life.
Sure, hiding is attractive, especially when it’s the escapist imaginary world of books we are hiding in where anything is possible and real life doesn’t feel onerous, scary or difficult, but ultimately, it’s usually not what we need, and as we witness Darcy take her first tentative and then determined steps towards writing her own story and not just living someone’s else’s, we sigh with recognition and joy at what awaits when we dare to be brave,
(8) The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle
Fearlessly truthful and winningly honest, The Octopus and I explores emotions and issues that many people might shy away from and which, truth be told, even Lucy, who is braver than most, finds confronting.
That it does so in such a richly human way is just one of the many things to love about a book which features characters you will absolutely fall in love and identify to degrees that may surprise you, Lucy being chief among them, situations which feel grounded and heartfelt in ways that cut to the soul and yet are interspersed with good humour and fulfilling company, and a world which, from the perspective of both its land-based people and it’s oceanic denizens, come with a great deal of pain and fear but also the opportunity for love, connection and life-transforming, deeply moving reinvention.
(9) Bruny by Heather Rose
Central to everything is the figure of Astrid Coleman who for all her talent and dexterity in navigating the often byzantine world of realpolitik and her thoughtfulness as she undertakes on the kinds of tasks that most people would not even be aware need tending to, is the kind of grounded, thoughtful person all of us would want to know.
A compelling and beautifully-realised figure that Rose brings to life with nuanced vivacity, Astrid is the intellectual and heating heart of Bruny, a book which benefits enormously from the author’s clear decision to invest her tale of political twists-and-turns with the kind of raw, meaningful characters most books of the genre simply don’t possess.
The result is a book that carries you giddily and compulsively along with a narrative momentum that is always gathering speed and beguiling intrigue but never at the expense of the place and the people at its heart, people who are far from cardboard cutouts and who give this superlative novel a dazzlingly evocative soul to go along with its brilliantly arresting tale of a world cloaked in dark and shadows.
(10) Mammoth by Chris Flynn
Through the garrulous talkativeness of Mammut, who is tusks-down one of the most lovable, hilariously enjoyable and benignly narcissistic characters you will have spent time with in any book, you will come to appreciate in a wholly new way how much we need the natural world around us and that if we stopped to listen to and heed it far more than we do, might just need us right back.
Stranger things have happened – just ask Mammut (and if you do, make yourself comfortable, you’ll be awhile).
(11) Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos
Pippos succeeds with his immersive storytelling because for all his honesty about the way life can let you down, he is also a believer about its ability to rise from the dead and do something quite remarkable.
That it does so, shouldn’t be a surprise but how it does, and how this subverts the expectations of the main characters in the book, is a joy to read, making Lucky’s a new Australian classic, one of those novels that not only opens your eyes to a culture that may not be your own, but lifts the veil from your perceptions of your own life, blighted or not and to the very real possibility that redemption of a kind is always possible, even if it is a way that defies anything you might have thought possible.
(12) Captain Moxley and the Embers of Empire by Dan Hanks
Life can be brutishly nasty and never more so than when Nazis and those who shield them are on your trail, alluring ancient secrets are dancing around you like spirits sprung from a tomb, and you have only a 50/50 chance of surviving your latest uncalled-for darkness-challenging undertaking.
As we discover again and again in the meaningfully giddy surrounds of Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, being lifted from the banal and boring and into the almost literal realms of time-defying gods might be thrilling, and makes for a cracking good read that will make your pulse race and your heart sing, but best you remember it all comes with a price and you should be prepared to pay it before you get in too deep.
(13) The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier
For all the manic pace and wild premise that underpins The Phlebotomist, a hard science fiction book with heart, which adorns each of its chapters with definitions of blood conditions and medical techniques, it is, at its core, a tale of tenacious humanity, the kind that persists even in the face of most impossible and terrible of things.
Willa, like all of us, could just give up in the face of her fateful discovery but she doesn’t, setting in train a story that will grip you from the start, and again when things really get rolling with a gleeful but impacting intensity, and will leave you with a fresh appreciation for our innate humanity which may not be perfect and may be flawed to the nth degree but which is a damn sight better than any other alternative, especially the sort that underpin dystopian societies of the kind The Phlebotomist so brilliantly evokes.
(14) State Highway One by Sam Coley
State Highway One is a brilliant, deeply-moving and emotionally intimate book, a deep dive into how one person – while Amy is along for the ride (quite literally) it is on prodigal son Alex that the focus rests and around which the storyline ultimately revolves – copes with grief so powerful and consuming it leads him to act quite out of character even as he inadvertently comes to grip with what that character actually is, away from self-lies, distractions and geographical separation.
But it is also a rich and poignant look, brought alive by writing so vivaciously alive and affecting you quietly gasp at times, into the way home eludes many of us, and how easily what there is of it can be blasted into a million unretrievable fragments with little to no notice.
But, laced with searing introspection and some moments of gloriously good humour, State Highway One also offers some small hope in the midst of the messy hellhole of grief that home can eventually be found even if the journey to get there takes you to the very end of yourself (and your home country) in the process.
(15) The Bluffs by Kyle Perry
Interestingly for a novel where questions of morality are one of the central beating hearts of the narrative, Perry’s brilliantly-spun tale doesn’t make grand or ill thought-out judgement calls, choosing instead to let the people and events (all suffused with secrets aplenty) speak for themselves without commentary, hanging themselves, or not, on their own corrupted petard as events play out.
A fascinating mix of action, existential pain and past decisions and loss come home to roost, The Bluffs is mystical and yet grounded in some very flawed humanity, which while it feels very gothic in its atmosphere is nevertheless very everyday in the concerns and pain of people caught up in its utterly compelling circumstances from which there is no easy escape and from which any solutions will be sorely won and tinged with lasting regret.
(16) The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele
Robust hope and grounded love fill every page of this exquisitely well-written novel which relies less on big action set pieces, of which there are few, and more on a rich distillation on humanity’s capacity to not simply hold on but to rebuild anew in the face of the end of all things.
It is a groundedly moving piece of work that celebrates love, hope and community in ways that feel tangible and real, and which, with empathy and insight, advances the idea, in ways quiet and nuanced but immensely, transformatively powerful, that the very best and lightest of things are possible even in the darkest and heaviest of times.
(17) The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey
The Morbids is a brilliantly affirming read not because everything suddenly ends up happily ever after – quite how it ends feels as groundedly pleasing as the rest of the book – but because at every stage of the story, Caitlin’s life feels messy, real, true in ways that are relatable and inspire the kind of authentic hope that can last more than a nanosecond in the cold and cruel surrounds of the real world.
Coming back from life-changing grief and trauma is never, ever easy but it is possible, just not in the way you may expect, and The Morbids documents that in all its rich, broken, human glory, funny, beautiful, sweet and searing in equal measure, a tale for our times where normal has long ceased to have any real meaning and finding your way back from the abyss is more challenging than ever.
(18) The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Rather, this, funny, moving and affectingly imaginative novel looks the darkness in the face, calls it for what it is and deals with it as it actually is, and admits to the fact that life can feel so overwhelming that stepping out of it seems like the only solution.
But, and this is as crucial a “but” as you will ever find in any book, it doesn’t stop the conversation there, taking this openness to the fact that life can be diabolically disappointing and dark and asking how you may deal with that other than killing yourself.
The exploration of this most intensely important of topics is never trite nor simplistic and by placing it in a fantastical context, Haig makes confronting all that loss and pain, not necessarily easy, but perhaps a more approaching and dealable undertaking than it might first appear.
Certainly, your heart is with Nora all the way in The Midnight Library, a story that is vivaciously alive with possibility without once downplaying the idea it might sometimes, distressingly feel like it isn’t, allowing the kind of real, honest, heartfelt discussion that needs to happen if anyone is to face up to the consuming darkness of their life and take life-changing steps towards living through them and coming out the other side rather than surrendering and never taking another meaningful step ever again, something that this most thoughtful and wonderful books understands the lure of but which it gently and with nuance argues passionately against in quietly and memorably transforming ways.
(19) All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton
The transcendent, exquisite joy of All Our Shimmering Skies is that Molly’s faith is rewarded; she goes from a girl with a shovel named Bert for a best friend (this is so endearing and lovely, even more so when Bert acquires a companion near book’s end), a heart-shaped stone and a duffel bag full of food and the collected works of Shakespeare and a vaguely tenacious idea of how to make things better to someone who finds her trust and hope rewarded, though exactly how must, of course, be left to the reading of this life-changing, hope-inspiring, grim reality-countering book.
The world Molly Hook, dear, adorable, you’ll-love-her-forever Molly Hook, inhabits isn’t easy and it’s frequently not kind and all too often not forgiving but it can be enriched, it can be saved and changed, and seeing how this happens, and how life can be turned around in the most magical and wonderful of ways even in the very worst of times will stay with you long after Molly has followed her next road to wherever it may lead.
(20) The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
As whodunnits go, The Devil and the Dark Water is masterful, with revelation and intrigue thick upon the decks, suspicion and self-interest multiplying to life-threatening and raw, spectacularly flawed humanity on display everywhere you turn.
However, there is also proof that while demonic forces may be at work and may in likelihood spell the doom of everyone onboard the ill-fated ship, humanity may yet rise to the challenge and be the salvation of all those onboard, thanks to Hayes, who is full of integrity, compassion and near-unflappable tenacity, and Wessel, who is desperate the escape the abusive strictures of her cruel husband and live a life where she has some say in its form, substance and colour.
You cannot help but be swept utterly and totally into this gigantic sprawling expansive of a novel, which moves ahead at breakneck speed and yet with a capacity for nuance, emotional insight and a thoughtfulness that infuses it with a richness of humanity, in all its forms, elevated and debased, that leaves you reeling with deep, if unnerved, pleasure at our capacity for the very best and very worst of things, and makes you deeply, forever impressed that we have people of such storytelling talent and fierce, compassionate intelligence as Turton to shine a light upon our souls which may be considerably darker than we would like to admit.