My 2019 Reading List

For the first time, there has been a total number of zero posts on this blog since I posted my last yearly reading list. Oh well.

One way to realise just how many books you own is to have to move them all so that your apartment can be painted and re-carpeted. Turns out I’ve got a few (this is only some of them):

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But I now have a nice little reading nook set up:

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On to the stats!

This year I read a total of 36 books (and in November, I wrote (the draft of) one – does that count?? Probably not for these purposes). 25 of these were by female authors (though a couple of these authors had male pen names). There were a handful of essays and non-fiction titles, and a couple of classics which had been on my to-read list for a while. Here they are!

1. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered

Book of the year award!

It seems silly for the very first thing I read this year to also be the best thing, but I’ve literally never read a book that was more utterly perfect for the time in which I read it. It aligned with what was happening in my life in a way that was deeply uncanny and yet very cathartic. It’s about what happens when everything crumbles down around you – the roof over your head, the future you thought you’d have, the constants that you relied upon. I literally read it with rain leaking in under the tarpaulin covering the smashed roof of my childhood home.
Everything was in pieces.

I spent 2019 standing in the daylight, looking for blue sky.


2. A Dodo at Oxford: The unreliable account of a student and his pet dodo by Philip Atkins & Michael Johnson

This book was totally silly and I really enjoyed it. A fictitiously ‘found’ piece of literature in the form of an old diary, it was packed with footnotes and illustrations and Oxford trivia.

3. Wrack by James Bradley

Very beautifully written, but falls into the capital-L-Literary category of ‘middle-aged men having affairs’. In hindsight this wasn’t surprising, as I found out that the book was heavily inspired by The English Patient. I’d highly recommend Clade by the same author instead.

4. The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2) by Robert Galbraith

Carrying on from when I started the series late last year. The thing with good crime fiction is that I absolutely tear through it and then could not tell you a single thing about what happened in it. So….. *shrug*

5. Tell The Truth, Shame The Devil by Melina Marchetta

This was technically crime fiction, but still memorable, because Marchetta writes amazing and lovable characters. Of all of her books I’ve read, this one was probably the most different, but still recognisable in the pure love for humans that shines through the story. I thought maybe for the first time in my life I’d get through a Marchetta book without crying, but she got me in the penultimate chapter.

6. Middlemarch by George Eliot

I acquired a biography of George Eliot at a book sale last year and thought I should probably read some of the source material before reading about her life. I came across a lovely hardback boxed set of the two volumes of Middlemarch on my Gran’s shelves, and borrowed these. It took me a month to get through it (at 904 pages long, it is the longest thing I read this year, in my defence), and there were parts that dragged a little, but overall I enjoyed it. It’s amazing how relatable something written a century-and-a-half-ago can be.

7, 8, 9 & 10: All Systems Red, Artifical Condition, Roque Protocol and Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

literary whiplash

After Middlemarch I needed something short, sharp and punchy, and this quartet of novellas hit the spot perfectly. Murderbot is an androgynous, socially awkward and perpetually kind of grumpy security android that has gained free will but would rather watch TV than have to deal with life or other human beings. This character is way too relatable, and the plot is a page-turner (I think I finished each novella within a day, or maybe across two days at the most).

11. The Overstory by Richard Powers

This book opened my eyes and make me look at trees with a whole new appreciation, not just while I was reading it but for lingering months afterwards as well. A large cast of characters whose stories slowly but surely converge over the course of the novel; it’s a story of nature and of conservation, which suggests a slightly bleak answer to the question of “what can one individual do to save the planet?” but (without wanting to spoil anything) doesn’t quite stick to its guns with the ending.

12. The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta

Another Melina Marchetta classic, it desperately made me want to re-read Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son as a lot of characters from that earlier novel re-appear peripherally in this one (in fact, I may read them again over this summer). The Place on Dalhousie was set very close to the area in the inner west where I used to live, and I love reading stories set in familiar places. It makes the characters feel even more real, like I could have walked past them on Glebe Point Road.

13. Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty

Jaclyn Moriarty tweet

This was released the same week as Marchetta’s The Place on Dalhousie, which filled me (and my 15-year-old YA-loving self) with absolute joy – I’m so lucky to have some of my favourite teenage authors still publishing books half of my lifetime later. Gravity is technically Moriarty’s first ‘adult’ book, although it kept all of the lovable whimsicality of her other work, just with more internal monologue about sex (this is pretty much how I’ve aged into adulthood so it seems accurate). It’s about loss and learning to fly.

14. Packinko by Min Jin Lee

A multi-generational saga about a Korean family in Japan, I found this compulsively readable. It’s set in a time and place in history that I knew very little about, so it would have been fascinating anyway, but it was the characters that really made it for me.

15. Storyland by Catherine McKinnonStoryland.jpg

Such a pretty cover. Such a pretty title. I believe that the multiple-related-stories structure of this book was directly inspired by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and what’s not to love about a Cloud Atlas set in Australia?? Nothing, that’s what. I loved all of it.

16. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

This was an acid trip in book form and made me perhaps even more slightly scared of Queenslanders than I was before. I don’t know what else to say about this book, but the previous sentence makes it sound like I disliked it, which was not true at all – it was excellent. But….. it was a trip.

17. Upstream: selected essays by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver tweet

The world lost Mary Oliver early in 2019 and it was a loss I felt keenly, as she’s one of my absolute favourite poets; ‘The Uses of Sorrow’ and ‘The Journey‘ were guiding lights of my 2019 experience. I got the library to order in her book of essays published just a few years ago, and found more of her there in prose format. In one of her essays, she writes: “You must never stop being whimsical.” So I hope she would approve of the name of this blog.

18. Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike #3) by Robert Galbraith

This was the Galbraith book that officially jumped the shark for me (sorry, JK). I can’t remember exactly how the whodunnit part was resolved, but I remember it being very unsatisfactory, and the two main characters finally and utterly exhausted my will-they-won’t-they patience. That kind of romance really irritates me, particularly when it’s not well done. No more Cormoran Strike for me.

19. 1492: The Year Our World Began by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

I picked this up randomly in the library returns room (perhaps I need a new category for this list – Returns Room Reads?) because the cover and the blurb looked interesting. The premise is that the world became recognisably the modern world we know now in and around the year 1492, and the author visits each major civilisation around the globe to see what they were up to at that point in time. I wanted to read this because a) I’ve always felt my historical knowledge has been sorely lacking and it’s kind of a global highlights whirlwind tour and b) I’ve played too much of Sid Meier’s Civilization games.

20. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

This was Kingsolver’s debut novel, and while I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of her later work, it was still remarkable for a first novel. Some people are just so talented it’s rude. It has a very 80s-ish vibe, and the way the main character just kind of accidentally adopts/kidnaps a child was… a bit odd. But I guess the 80s were weirder times.

21. All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki

I had somewhat conflicted feelings about this book – the main character as a young teenager has sex with her school teacher and is kicked out by her parents, then comes back to her hometown when her parents are elderly and… rekindles a relationship with the same teacher? Even though she is well aware that it was totally messed up in the first place and it’s an incredibly stupid thing to do? I dislike it when supposedly smart characters make deeply and obviously stupid decisions. But somehow, I ended up liking this book quite a lot (which means it must have done an excellent job, to overcome my initial misgivings). With its van full of hippy environmental protesters, it reminded me somewhat of The Overstory.

22. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I got this book out of the little local library when I was on holidays in far-north Queensland and read it almost entirely on the beach, which is a nice backdrop for any sort of reading. The books starts at the end – with a burned-down house and a missing (presumed arsonist) daughter, and then goes back to fill in the blanks. It was good, character-driven, though not hugely memorable (though perhaps the details have just trickled out of my brain due to holiday haziness).

23. Circe by Madeline MillerCirce

*Favourite Bookcover Award!*

SO. SHINY.

I’d heard a lot of buzz about this book and always enjoy good re-tellings of myths and legends, especially humanising/feminist ones, especially about witches – and the figure of Circe from Greek myth is one of our foundational witches. The fact that the cover was super-gorgeous just guaranteed that I was going to read it. Not just a shiny cover; the contents as well were excellent, and I now want to get my hands on other tales by this author.

24. The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

This was given to me as a gift and should have been right up my alley, being a short monologue by a fictional librarian all about libraries (and love, theoretically). Unfortunately, the narrator is an old-fashioned member of the stereotypical old guard of librarians, the ones that hate people and think libraries should be silent all the time (and resent the fact that that’s not 100% of a modern library’s purpose any more). If you have a librarian friend, don’t give them this book – unless you want to be subjected to a rant about how out-of-date and irrelevant old library stereotypes are.
At least it was short.

25. Books that Saved My Life: Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure by Michael McGirr

Now this was the kind of writing about books that I could really get behind. There is something Alberto Manguel-y about the way Michael McGirr writes (judging by this book anyway – I haven’t read anything else by him yet); I think he could write about almost anything, and I would find his insights interesting. It’s basically 40 personal essays based around different books. It added a few things to my to-read list (as if that list needed to be any longer).

26. Paradise Lost by John Milton

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Because of Reasons, I wanted to get a tattoo this year. I knew that I wanted it to be ‘Pandemonium’ so I figured if I was going to permanently ink a word from Paradise Lost on my body, I’d better make sure I read the source material before I did so. I’d been meaning to read this 17th Century epic poem forever anyway – ever since I found out that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials was very much inspired by (and the title taken directly from) Satan’s whacky -fun-time adventures being a freedom fighter trying to overthrow God the tyrant. Interpretations of this Biblical story may vary, but everyone knows that Milton accidentally(?) made Satan the hero of the tale.

Better to reign in Hell, etc.

Embrace the pandemonium.

27. Monuments by Will Kostakis

I went to a delightful YA author talk this year at the Kinokuniya bookshop in the city, which was held a day or two after Monuments was released. Will Kostakis said that growing up he always wanted to read about dragons and fantasy beings in Sydney, and as this was something always wanted as well, I thought this new book would be perfect. I think it’s aimed at slightly younger readers than I was expecting, or perhaps just a somewhat less literary style (than The Sidekicks, the other novel by this author that I’ve read), so it didn’t really grab me.

28. Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration edited by Rose Brock

I bought this collection at the same YA author talk as I was particularly in need of hope and inspiration this year. The author of the first essay in the set wrote about attending the Women’s March in the U.S. just after the election of Donald Trump, and how rejuvenating it was (even in terrible times) to be with a massive crowd of like-minded people all standing up for what they believed in, finding joy in that protest. This directly inspired me to attend the Global Climate Strike in September – and I did find joy in it. This would be a great collection of essays for anyone, but particularly for young readers/teenagers growing up in this particular political age.

29. The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

A fantasy story based on a combination of Inuit and Viking mythology, with a really interesting main character. I bought this a bit at random based on reviews, and was very glad I did. It’s very different to your typical fantasy novel, which I really liked.

30. Night Waking by Sarah Moss

Oof, this was a hard read. Which is not at all to say that it wasn’t a good book – but Sarah Moss often writes about the challenges of motherhood and post-natal depression. In this book she adds in miscarriage, sexism and an infuriatingly useless husband into the mix. She writes beautifully but it’s enough to put anyone off having children, ever. I did wonder why the main character put up with so much from all the men around her, from her husband to the police officer who kept calling her ‘Mrs X’ instead of ‘Doctor Her Actual Name’, no matter how many times he was corrected. It made me rage quite a lot.

31. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Another YA I picked up from the author talk mentioned previously, this is a high-school coming out story with a lovable bunch of characters and a high school drama group. It’s interesting to read YA these days and see how authors are including phones and social media as part of the story (I feel like this is something I’d really struggle with if I ever tried to write a YA novel).

32. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood tweet.JPG

Margaret Atwood’s first Booker Prize-winning novel had been sitting on my to-read shelf for a little while, and I coincidentally was about halfway through it when it was announced that she was a joint winner again for The Testaments. The Blind Assassin was one of the best books I read this year. This was a perfect end-of-an-era quote (that also tied back in my mind to Unsheltered):

“So much for the twentieth century, we say, as we make our way upstairs. But there’s a far off roaring, like a tidal wave racing inshore. Here comes the twenty-first century, sweeping overhead like a spaceship filled with ruthless lizard-eyed aliens or a metal pterodactyl. Sooner or later it will sniff us out, it will tear the roofs off our flimsy little burrows with its iron claws, and then we will be just as naked and shivering and starving and diseased and hopeless as the rest. […] But why bother about the end of the world? It’s the end of the world every day, for someone. Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.”


33. The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) 
by Philip PullmanThe Secret Commonwealth.JPG

Okay. You guys. I’m going to struggle with this. But (I’m going to say it, even though it hurts), this book was the disappointment of the year and maybe of my lifetime. I’d been waiting to read about a grown-up Lyra ever since I read the His Dark Materials trilogy as a pre-teen. That series had a massive impact on my formation as a human and the things that I believed about the world.

And you would think with an emphasis on stories and story-telling (like the embossing on the spine of the book), this should have been perfect for me. Instead, in this book Pullman utterly trashes the whole concept of rationalism by absolutely, ludicrously misrepresenting it.

I could go on for many more paragraphs about how upset and annoyed and betrayed I felt by this book and what it did to Lyra’s character, but I won’t. I’m just hoping that Pullman manages to pull off a spectacular reversal in the upcoming final book of the new trilogy (but I’m no longer holding my breath).

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34. No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty

In November 2019, I wrote 50,000 words of a novel draft for Nanowrimo, so I didn’t really have time to read any fiction that month – but I did re-read through the founder’s guide on express-novel-writing, which is hilarious and packed with useful tips such as this one:

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35. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Bec recommended this to me over a year ago (at least), so I figured I’d made her wait long enough and I really should get around to reading it (even though she’s never read my #1 recommendation of Cloud Atlas despite years of encouragement. Boo.) This was the best kind of space opera, with zany characters, alien species, and honestly not that much plot – but it didn’t need it because it was full of humour and heart instead.

36. High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver

I rounded out this year back where I started (… except so, so far from it) with a book of essays by Barbara Kingsolver. This quote is everything:

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.

High tide, my friends. Welcome to the new decade.

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