Our favourite books of 2020 (so far)

Our staff share the best books they’ve read so far this year, including new releases and older titles just discovered.

I’ve read a fair bit this year, all things considered, but I have two clear fiction favourites: Weather by Jenny Offill, and The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay. Both are brilliant and subversive, and star real women dealing with the effects of the ground shifting underneath their feet. I also loved The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey, a beautifully mournful meditation on insomnia.“

Alison Huber, head book buyer

"I have been devouring books during lockdown like they are contraband chocolate (which I’ve also eaten constantly). A few standout books by talented local authors have been unforgettable during this time.

First, the picture book Your Birthday Was the BEST! by Maggie Hutchings, illustrated by Felicita Sala is absolutely hilarious. It’s the story of cockroach who believes he is a welcome guest at a birthday party. Oblivious to the terror at his presence, he is a joyful participant in the festivities until he gets sucked up by the vacuum cleaner and falls into an even more amazing adventure. Who knew cockroaches could be so cute and have so much personality?

I’m a big fan of graphic novels and Castlemaine artist Trace Balla has lovingly drawn her latest book, Landing With Wings. It is a story of moving house and finding your feet and friends in a new place. Filled with incredible details of native Australian amphibians, birds and mammals, and respectful to First Nations people and customs, this graphic novel will encourage children to get outside and explore the flora and fauna in their own backyard.

A beautiful story for readers aged 11-14 is The Year the Maps Changed, the debut novel by Danielle Binks. It’s the story of a young girl at a moment of rapid transformation in her family dynamics and in the world around her. Set on the Mornington Peninsula in 1999, when Australia accepted many Kosovo refugees, this is a sensitive coming of age story about accepting family and learning about social justice. I absolutely adored the main character, Fred.

I was utterly entranced by publisher and author Davina Bell’s debut young adult novel, The End of the World Is Bigger than Love. Set on an isolated island after a pandemic has wiped out much of the world’s population, twins Winter and Summer are taking turns to unreliably narrate their story. They are running down their gourmet supplies and re-reading the classics, when a young man (or is it a bear?) comes out of the woods and upturns their lives. Funny, beautifully written and a little bit surreal, this unique book stayed in my head long after I put it down.”

Angela Crocombe, manager at Readings Kids

“2020 is the year that I finally started making some headway on my TBR pile and cracked the spines on a couple of the must-read books sitting on my crowded shelves. I particularly loved Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Less. A slim volume about a middle-aged writer who goes on a world tour to escape the indignity of having to attend his ex-lover’s wedding, Less is an absolutely charming examination of ageing, love, joy, and recognising the absurdities of life. It’s the perfect road trip book for people who prefer hotels to peyote-fuelled hallucinations, and it left me with a joyous little glow right in the centre of my chest.”

Lian Hingee, digital marketing manager

“My reading year began with a bang then sputtered into a whimper in more recent months as my mind has been occupied by the increasingly challenging state of our world. But even while I’ve fallen short of so many of the admittedly ridiculous reading goals I set myself back in January, I’ve still opened the pages of quite a few impressive books.

Foremost among these is Jenny Offill’s taut and excellent novel Weather. For me, it’s a perfect sketch of the uncertainty of living when it feels like the world is ending. Without intending to, Offill has written the defining novel of our chaotic, uncertain age.

Other novels by women, new and old, have also impressed me. In Anne Enright’s Actress not much really happens, but every insight into human behaviour and character is acutely nuanced and perceptive. Enright writes like she knows things other writers don’t. And I believe her.

I’ve listened to many of my colleagues enthuse wildly about Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall so I finally made time for this slim brutal novel. If I had to write a one-word review of this one, it would simply say WOW. Amina Cain’s Indelicacy is a similarly svelte tome – small on words, but high on impact. I was impressed by Cain’s ability to repeatedly defy my expectations right until the final page. After sitting near my bed for nearly ten years, I finally read Barbara Pym’s 1952 comedy of manners, Excellent Women. It has a refined postwar British humour that Pym roots in the most exquisite, and often sad, observations of the world her self-deprecating spinster heroine inhabits. Naturally, I loved it.

I also adored Tomasz Jedrowski’s debut novel, Swimming in the Dark, which details a summer romance between two young Polish men in 1980. It pulses with both desire and political fervor. At times, Jedrowski’s writing is so delicate and beautiful it brought me close to tears.

I don’t read enough non-fiction, and I haven’t done much to remedy this yet in 2020, but Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting has set me off in search of more. It feels like a book written just for me: a group biography of five exceptional women, including Virginia Woolf, living, working, and loving on the outskirts of London’s Bloomsbury between the wars. This is a significant book, impeccably researched and constructed, but even more importantly for me, it’s a very moving one.”

Joanna Di Mattia, bookseller at Readings Carlton

“I began the year falling in love with two books: Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson and In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. Wilson’s Nothing To See Here was a breath of fresh air. It’s funny and unexpected and sad and heartwarming all at once. Machado’s In The Dream House is a memoir like no other, and it is both a fascinating study of an abusive relationship and also a masterclass in writing style and form.

In YA, I have loved How To Grow A Family Tree by Eliza Henry Jones, who continues to be one of my favourite Australian authors, and I highly recommend Kay Kerr’s insightful and moving Please Don’t Hug Me. I also immensely enjoyed Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi, a YA novel I have been meaning to read for more than a year now and finally got to during lockdown.

Finally, two of my recent favourites are books that aren’t out yet but are coming later this year: Loner by Georgina Young and The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall. Loner felt like Daria meets Simmone Howell with a sprinkling of Sally Rooney and I adored it, and The Mother Fault is the book I’m going to be recommending everyone at Christmas time when they’re looking for a smart page turner that they can’t put down (it’s also perfect for bookclubs).”

Nina Kenwood, marketing manager

“This book may have only come out in the past month, but I don’t think it’s just recency bias that’s keeping Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People stuck in my head. Each of the stories feels like a distorted reflection of our technologically mired, hyper-consumerist world, but Tan grounds that sharp commentary with compassion and a playful sense of fun. One minute you’re in the middle of a global ASMR conspiracy, the next, a sleepover of girlfriends who love underwear (and Kit Harrington) maybe just a bit too much. Reading this book feels like watching a Black Mirror episode that’s scored by a tender, wistful Mazzy Star song. If that analogy feels unhelpful, I’ve also likened it to the works of Carmen Maria Machado, Margo Lanagan, Kelly Link and even Shaun Tan (her writing reads like how his illustrations feel), so maybe all I’m proving with my flailing attempts to find the right comparison is that Tan is a writer with a voice and imagination uniquely and utterly her own.

It’s amazing to me that we’re only halfway through the year given everything that’s happened. Books I read at the start of 2020 feel like they were from a year ago or more. I almost forgot Sarah M. Broom’s extraordinary memoir The Yellow House, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, was a 2020 release. What Robert MacFarlane does for nature writing, Broom does here for the genealogy of her family and the suburbs of New Orleans East where she grew up in a family of 12 children – an area that’s a far cry from the jazzy romanticised picture of the Big Easy we see in pop culture. It’s symphonic how Broom juggles the microcosm of personal detail with the macro contexts of urban planning, racist policy, internalised shame and of course the impact of Hurricane Katrina. There is something so poignant about this house and its central place in Broom’s life; in its deterioration, we see a reflection of the rot of social inequality, in its halted DIY projects, the way histories and filial ties can be cut off by trauma. What moved me the most though is how Broom has, in this memoir, rebuilt the house out of its post-Katrina ruins. With her words, she has recreated the structure – what it stood for, the love it witnessed, the lives and histories it contained – and shared that gift with all of us.

Finally, because I’m running too long already, I also loved Ellen van Neerven’s poetry collection Throat for its warmth and light (‘Chermy’ will make you feel everything The Yellow House does in the space of six pages) and New Zealand writer Rose Lu’s All Who Live on Islands for its effortless blend of fierce love, deadpan wit and food porn.”

Jackie Tang, digital marketing manager

“Here are four of my favourite picks of 2020, so far…

I fell in love with Susi Schaefe’s Cat Ladies as soon as I saw the puffy majestic self-satisfied cat posing on the front cover. Princess the cat has four ladies. Some people say that’s too many ladies but Princess has jobs for them all and their little family works very well – until the day Princess finds a stray little girl in HER spot. Worse, the ladies start including the stray on their daily activities… This picture book is a funny and entertaining twist on the crazy cat lady trope! For ages 3+.

Philip Bunting’s Who Am I? is for anyone who’s ever pondered that particular question. Am I my name? My skin colour? My bones? My thoughts? My feelings? Featuring Bunting’s trademark bold illustrations, this appealing philosophical book could have easily tipped into whimsy. Instead Who Am I? offers a surprisingly straightforward answer to this enormous question, before ending on the lovely suggestion that who you will be is a much more exciting question to consider. The answer to that one is: it’s up to you. For ages 5+.

Landing With Wings, the latest graphic novel from Trace Bella is somehow even more beautiful, thoughtful and fascinating to look through than her previous books. This new work tells the story of a little girl, Bloss, and her mum who’ve moved to a small country town in Victoria. It becomes immediately apparent that his new community has enormous respect for each other, for the earth, and for the country they live on, including its traditional owners. The book is chock-full of detailed illustrations, and everything is neatly labeled (in English and in local language) so that the narrative doubles as a botany book or a bird spotter’s guide. Landing With Wings is a really special book, it felt like such a privilege to read and I intend to share that privilege with as many people as possible. For ages 7+.

Azaria: A True History is a beautiful picture book that recounts the Azaria Chamberlain story. What I loved so much about this book is how clearly it shows an examples of witch hunts and mob thinking. It shows how people can make snap judgements, how the media can become an echo chamber for these opinions and how the truth becomes less important than a satisfying ending to the created narrative. Its illustrations are both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Azaria: A True History examines an important part of Australian history and it teaches an important lesson – a lesson Australia should not forget. For ages 8+.”

Dani Solomon, assistant manager at Readings Kids

‘Two books top my list for the year so far: Weather by Jenny Offill and A Couple of Things Before the End by Sean O'Beirne.

Reading Weather was like walking with a clear head. Imagine a lifetime of thought contained in one paragraph. Consider memories that create a mist over musings. Reflect on the power of one sentence that can show you who someone is. This is the skill that Offill has with language. Her novel is a paradox between world events and despair and her loved family. There are moments caught that illustrate the tightrope we all walk; the micro with the macro, the infinite feeling of fear that comes with love and the resilience of us all when faced with too many options.

A Couple of Things Before the End is a brilliant collection of short stories that holds a mirror up to who we are, why we are and where we came from. Some of his stories, like ‘A Night with the Fellas’ perfectly catches an Australian irony with a humour that is thoughtful. The collection tackles masculinity, despair, loss and our pragmatic spirit that is as questionable as it is dependable. I laughed out loud at times, and others times I could have wept for poignancy of it all. O'Beirne has captured crossroads with perfect timing and skill.’

Chris Gordon, programming & events manager

‘I’ve read some terrific books this year already, including two exciting and inventive works of non-fiction that turned me inside out: Ellena Savage’s collection of experimental non-fiction, Blueberries, and Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir of an abusive relationship, In the Dream House. These are both books to engage with, the kind you will think about for a long time after finishing.

In fiction, Jenny Offill’s Weather gave me a panic attack (in a good way), Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half expanded my mind and heart, and I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing during Lisa Fuller’s supernatural YA thriller Ghost Bird. I was impressed and unsettled by two slim, strange novels that explored feminism in clever, unexpected ways (Amina Cain’s Indelicacy and Cho Nam-Joo Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982) and I was utterly hooked by a couple of deliciously addictive crime novels (He Started It by Samantha Downing and The Better Liar by Tanen Jones). About one million people recommended I read Will and Testament from Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth, and wow. A meditation on trauma and survival, a gripping family drama, a revenge novel – this book is seriously good. I’m also a long-time fan of Ellen van Neerven’s writing and we’re lucky to have a new poetry collection from them this year: Throat is an assured and deeply moving work. Finally, Ronnie Scott’s The Adversary was a breath of fresh air. Set over a single transformative summer in Melbourne, this debut novel is smart, funny, endearing, and one I’ve recommended far and wide.

Three new picture books to round off my list: Your Birthday Was the BEST! is perfectly hilarious, Backyard Birds is a bright and refreshing pick for babies, and the wonderfully weird I Can Be Anything is further proof that Shinsuke Yoshitake is a master picture book creator.’

Bronte Coates, digital content manager

 Read review


Jenny Offill

$27.99Buy now

Finding stock availability...