The 10 Best Books of 2020
Every year, I pick the top ten books out of the hundred or so that I end up reading. Here’s what I enjoyed the most in 2020.
Well. Another year over (and what a year it was, geez Louise), another round up of wonderful books.
I finished 181 books in 2020 because, lol, what else was I going to do with all my free time? This isn’t actually my PB – I read 186 in 2018 (I have no idea how this happened) and was a little cheesed off that I didn’t set a new record in 2020.
It would’ve been nice to have had one win last year.
And yes, I’m a massive nerd.
Traditionally I’ve rounded up my favourite Australian books. I’m proud to live in a country with such a strong literary scene, but there are plenty of great books that don’t get a look in beyond our shores.
As such, it’s nice to do even a little something to promote Australian authors, because most criminally do not get paid enough for the work they do.
This year I’m picking my top ten from all the books I read – it seems most are still by Australian authors, which may suggest I need to diversify more, but meh.
Without further ado…
My top 10 books of 2020
Know My Name – Chanel Miller
One of the last events I attended in March 2020 featured a panel of female authors, which included Chanel Miller.
It was this event alone that inspired me to buy and read her book (I went straight from that event to a Pixies concert. What even was life, pre-COVID?).
For those who are unaware, Chanel is the woman who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner on the campus of Stanford University in 2015. Her powerful victim impact statement was published by Buzzfeed the day after Turner was sentenced (to a mere six months).
Chanel later came out as ‘Emily Doe’ and has since published this memoir, detailing her life before, during and after the assault, and the devastating and lingering effects the incident has left on her, her boyfriend and her family.
As with her statement, her memoir is written simply and brilliantly and is a must-read.
Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth
You might have seen the movie version of this book doing the rounds in late 2019, starring Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat.
My advice? Stay away from the film before you read the book.
I did not heed this advice and I seriously regret it.
Animals introduces us to Laura and Tyler – BFFs and party girls of the highest order (‘You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move’).
The tale is told from Laura’s point of view. A struggling writer, she’s balancing her novel with her job in a call centre and late night escapades around Manchester with Tyler.
There’s also her engagement to Jim, a concert pianist whose budding career takes him around the world. Newly sober, he can’t help but cast aspersions on Laura’s wild ways, as he tries to pull her into line and out of Tyler’s grasp.
You can’t help but cringe as these co-dependent trashbags slob around town and their antics are very funny.
At the heart of the story is Laura’s attempt to grow up and sort herself out, as she struggles between Tyler’s neediness and Jim’s emotional blackmail. Can she somehow find herself among this grotesque mess?
The writing is what really sold this book for me, as Unsworth has a deliciously sardonic wit to her prose. I can’t say I was as ‘wild’ in my youth as Laura and Tyler (what am I saying, Laura is 32 in the book!), but I certainly relate to the characters.
At some point, you need to get off the merry-go-round, but it can be hard to deal, when the ride comes to an abrupt end.
Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World – Tyson Yunkaporta
There was a lot of discussion after the horrific bushfires here in Australia, of how the traditional fire management system of Indigenous communities could protect the country from a repeat of late 2019 and early 2020.
Personally, I think yeah – the people who have managed this land for tens of thousands of years could probably do a better job of mitigating environmental threats than the invaders of 230-odd years.
Government however, is seemingly reluctant to relinquish control and hand back the baton, to all of our detriment.
Tyson Yunkaporta’s book takes this thinking a step further, examining how Indigenous Australian culture can heal the world.
Yunkaporta draws deep on First Nations traditions and his own personal insight, to offer up techniques to the reader on how they can best live and learn, as they walk the path of life.
While the writing is accessible, there are many challenging ideas in this, merely because they go against how many of us fundamentally see the world and our place within it.
Truth be told, I am still coming to grips with a lot of what I read in these pages – there’s some sweeping generalisations and deep philosophy that I struggled to get my head around during my first read.
It’s a book I’ll certainly come to again in the near future – plainly told, with plenty of heart and a powerful insight into this land’s deep and ancient culture.
See What You Made Me Do – Jess Hill
Last year’s very worthy winner of the Stella Prize is not an easy read.
Although it is expertly researched and written, it took me days to finish it. I could only read it in thirty minute chunks, having to step away to process what I’d taken in and quite simply, take some time out.
See What You Made Me Do is a deep examination into the culture of domestic abuse in Australia. This is an endemic, one that doesn’t get nearly enough airtime, allocation of financial resources or the governmental assistance it so desperately needs.
The facts are simply, shocking.
We learn one woman a week is killed by an intimate partner in Australia. In a country of 25 million.
A woman will return to a violent abuser seven times before she is able to leave them. Not because they want to, but often because of financial restraints, lack of safe places to escape to and a family law system that often rules in favour of the abuser.
And in every country around the world, the family home is the most dangerous place for women.
There are some extremely difficult and violent stories covered in this book. Nonetheless, Hill expertly interweaves stories, statistics, interviews and personal insights to create an very readable text.
This book gives a voice to those without one. And there is a glimmer of hope, as Hill examines areas where there has been social change and shows what could be achieved if we commit to providing the necessary resources to this particular sector.
Which we’ve shown we can do quickly – just look at the nation’s response to COVID-19.
I can’t say I enjoyed reading this book, but I’m glad that I did. And I implore you to do the same.
The White Girl – Tony Birch
In an attempt to decolonise my bookshelf in recent years, I’ve deliberately sought out books by Indigenous authors. This has clearly been a good decision, as I would now list many of these writers among my favourites and Tony Birch is probably top of this list.
The White Girl introduces us to Odette Brown and her granddaughter Sissy, who Odette is raising in the fictional country town of Deane.
It’s the 1960s in Australia and the Aboriginal Protection Act is in full force. Children are still being forcibly taken from their parents, caregivers and local communities, the shockwaves of which will reverberate throughout future generations.
The problem is, that while Sissy is of First Nations descent, she looks white. Bill Shea, the local policeman, the “protector” of the community, largely leaves Odette and Sissy alone, but he is replaced by Sargeant Lowe, a jobsworth and bigot, who is determined to enact total control over his new jurisdiction.
Lowe is intent on terrorising Odette and Sissy and then, the plot thickens – Odette is sick and needs to journey to the city for treatment. Under law, she requires a ‘travel certificate’ issued by Lowe to leave.
However, she cannot go without Sissy, for fears that Lowe will swoop in and take her, believing he is doing ‘the right thing’ and in doing so, displace yet another indigenous child.
So, Bill Shea and Odette hatch a plan, to sneak Sissy out of the town, leaving Lowe furious in their wake. And the chase begins…
Apart from the exemplary writing and characterisation in this book, what struck me most is the examination of the stolen generation’s impact and legacy, viewed through a lens that I don’t think has been commonly explored.
Many children grew up not knowing where they were from, with no connection to Country and their local communities. White skin is seen as a ‘privilege’ but lighter skinned indigenous kids were more likely to be removed, in line with the thinking that it would be easier for them to assimilate into white society.
What’s left are generations of indigenous peoples who are constantly questioned about their heritage and thanks to this issue of displacement, the answers are not readily available.
Even now, to be formally recognised as First Nations Australian you have to be certified by local community members and this can be incredibly difficult to achieve when you simply just do not know where you have come from.
My friend Hope has written an excellent review of this book, which further examines this facet of Birch’s novel.
The Spill – Imbi Neeme
The story starts with a car crash and the impact is felt for decades.
Nicole and Samantha Cooper were both in the car in 1982, when their mother lost control at the wheel, in rural Western Australia.
There are no life-threatening injuries, but this pivotal event leaves their family fractured. Both sisters have different recollections of the crash and there are long-lasting effects on both of their lives.
Easy-going Nicole has drifted through life, completely directionless, but carefree, until she settles down with the ‘perfect’ man – rich, fun and attentive.
Stress-head Samantha has done life by the books – she’s got married, had a career and a child. She has worked hard to earn everything she has and resents Nicole’s aimless style of living, that’s led her to this seemingly happy ending.
Four decades after the accident, Tina’s death brings the two reluctantly together, as they work through a myriad of problems – trauma, alcoholism, family relations and the dynamic between them, as sisters.
There are flashbacks interwoven between the chapters, sometimes from Nicole’s point of view, other times in Samantha’s.
I particularly enjoyed the way Neeme played with memory – something we as humans tend to cling to as reliable fact, when it’s a tenuous source at best, particularly in recalling significant life events.
It’s certainly interesting to examine how memory can work for two people experiencing the same situation, where those involved can clearly remember events playing out entirely differently – and the discussions or rather arguments that can be triggered as a result of this.
The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
I quite enjoyed Brit Bennett’s first novel The Mothers and was keen to see what she came out with next.
Had I not previously read any of her work, the beautiful cover of The Vanishing Half would have drawn me in regardless. Encased within is a story quite unlike any I’ve read before.
The Vignes are identical twin sisters, growing up in a small, rural black community in the Deep South, in the 1950s.
You won’t find this town on a map – founded by Alphonse Decuir, this is a community for people who are too dark skinned to pass as white, but have banded together, segregating themselves in response to the treatment of Black people living in America during this time.
Descendants of Decuir, Stella and Desiree are light skinned and beautiful, and too reject the life their mother is pushing them towards, where they are expected to leave school at age sixteen, to work for white people.
Stella wants to go to college. Desiree dreams of being an actress. Both are traumatised by a defining event of their childhood.
So, the two flee to New Orleans, living together and pursuing a fresh start in life, until Desiree wakes one morning to discover Stella has vanished.
The novel covers not only the story of Desiree and Stella, but that of their daughters, Jude and Kennedy. Not all of the characters are likeable, but they are fascinating and Bennett’s work is never heavy-handed.
It is an excellent examination of race and unconscious bias, published as the Black Lives Matter protests were dominating news headlines in mid-2020 (gosh, it was a year of many, many life-changing events).
Apparently HBO will be making a series out of the book, after striking a 7-figure deal with Bennett. I can’t wait to watch it.
Ghost Bird – Lisa Fuller
From one set of twins, to another.
Wuilli Wuilli woman Lisa Fuller’s debut book is truly, out of this world.
It’s technically YA, but I’m not entirely sure if I’d have slept through the night, had I read it as a teenager.
This is one dark and twisted book, with multiple layers and depth – there’s mystery, horror, ‘casual’ (and not so casual) racism and a deep examination into Aboriginal culture and spirituality.
Truly a lot happening at once, but somehow it works.
Stacey and Laney Thompson are identical ‘mirror’ twins, sisters and friends.
Set in the nineties, the teenagers are growing up in the small rural town of Eidsvold in Queensland, where there is a clear division between the Indigenous and settler population.
Stacey is sensible and Laney is a bit wild, so Stacey is cheesed off when her twin starts fraternising with local boy Troy.
Then, one night Laney disappears, presumed to have run away and Stacey begins to dream of a young woman, trapped, frightened and hunted.
It is thought that Laney has disobeyed cultural lore and stepped onto forbidden lands, entering dangerous territory.
The police are apathetic regarding the disappearance of a local Indigenous girl and it becomes apparent that Stacey is the only one who can save her sister.
I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to ruin anything but just – woah. My final word of warning is to try to avoid reading this book alone at night.
Untwisted: The Story of My Life – Paul Jennings
I’ve always felt lucky to have been fed a steady diet of Paul Jenning’s whacky stories as a child (not to mention numerous repeats of Round the Twist – series 1 & 2 have got to be one of, if not the greatest Australian children’s TV show ever) and have often wondered about the man behind the words.
Fortunately, in 2020 Jennings published his memoir and it was certainly one of my most anticipated books of that year.
And how wonderful it is to read these words, written by such a lovely person and talented author.
His personal stories (as with his fiction) range from funny to heartfelt to tragic. Here, his writing is raw and honest, laced with humour in between.
This book offers a fantastic opportunity to peel back the curtain on one of Australia’s best loved writers and learn a little about his life.
So, if you were as much of a fanatic about Unreal, Unbelievable, Undone, Singenpoo, etc as myself, this memoir is a must-read.
In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado
Machado is one of those writers where you read one perfectly constructed sentence of their work, and immediately feel compelled to devour everything she’s ever written.
Yes. She is that good.
In the Dream House is a sort-of memoir, in which Machado recollects her experience of being in an abusive same-sex relationship.
She recounts the violence, both emotional and physical, that she suffered at the hands of her blonde, unnamed girlfriend (the ‘woman in the Dream House’) for years.
I say ‘sort-of memoir’ because Machado is here to play. She interweaves fairy tales and folklore, and deals as as she likes with genre and form (a section of book is written entirely as a ‘choose your own adventure’, with mostly devastating consequences).
Besides, well, every aspect of this book, the thing I found most interesting were Machado’s thoughts on abuse in a queer context. In that, it’s not really written, or talked about and there’s the perception that queer relationships (particularly between women) are somehow exempt from domestic violence, which as this memoir demonstrates, is not correct.
It’s the type of book that you can only hope will be widely read, discussed and fall into the hands of those who need it the most.
So that’s it. 2020 was surely an odd and indeed in many ways, tragic year. All I can say is, thank goodness for books. They offer light, hope and happiness in truly dark times.
I sometimes try to set myself goals for each reading year – but this year I’m just keen to break my record, even if it means hitting 187. Wish me luck. Here’s my Goodreads profile, if you fancy following this madness.
What were your favourite books of 2020? Always up for recommendations!
PS. If you are keen to read any of these books, I encourage you to borrow them from your local library, or buy from an independent bookstore.