The most anticipated books of 2020
It must be said: it has been a grim start to the year. I have always imagined 2020 as the year that officially starts ‘the future’ (well, actually, it used to be the year 2000, but somehow that came and went two decades ago). But instead of the flying cars, intergalactic travel, and neural telepathy of my imagination, we are deep in climate emergency. The climate refugees in The Glad Shout, the book that won our 2019 Readings Prize, reckoned with a flooding catastrophe. For us, right now, it’s fire and smoke, and with that, considerable anxiety about what lies ahead for us. In this context, writing and reading Australian stories seems more important than ever. Perhaps the book we need most this year is Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia from Victor Steffensen, an Indigenous practitioner of and consultant on traditional burning (fast-tracked to appear in the second half of February); or perhaps it could be Climate Grief: Harnessing the Rollercoaster of Emotions about the Climate Emergency by Jonica Newby (September). But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I begin writing this piece as I always do: with a sense of … let’s not call it dread … but maybe it’s an emotional cousin of that feeling, in this case unrelated to the events unfolding outside my window. There is just so much to tell you about the books coming out this year, and goodness me, we need some things to look forward to, and while the latent (or is that overactive) perfectionist in me wants to cover it all this is, our editor tells me, totally unrealistic. So, with the usual apologies, I do my best here to bring you some highlights of the 2020 publishing year that might offer themselves as salve for the soul, distraction, inspiration, or other forms of escape. This year, as ever, I will read for sustenance and reflection, to analyse and question, and to imagine different ways of being in the world.
I want to start with our Book of the Month, because it’s a book you need not anticipate for too long: it is in stores for February, and you should go and buy a copy as soon as you can. It is the work of our Readings colleague, Sean O’Beirne, a debut collection of stories called A Couple of Things Before the End. Sean’s book could not have come together at a more appropriate moment. Each story in its own way asks us what it is that we’re doing here, what Australia is trying to be and do, and all the while exposing discourse, words, and modes of communication, as the ways in which we make our reality. It’s brilliantly funny, genuinely provocative, and as dry as can be. Read my full review here. Congratulations, Sean! Your book is so, so good – and truly, I’m not just saying that.
There are some well known Australian authors bringing us their new work in 2020. Kate Grenville publishes A Room Made of Leaves in July, a work of historical imagination in the form of a fictitious memoir of Elizabeth Macarthur. I was very excited to hear that Jock Serong is writing a sequel (due September) to his superb historical novel, Preservation. Tom Keneally, meanwhile, imagines the life of one of Charles Dickens’s sons who was sent to the colonies in The Dickens Boy (April). James Bradley has been writing about climate in his fiction for many years: Ghost Species is his new work (May). Gail Jones, winner of 2019’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award in the Fiction category, has a new work due in November, and we are also promised new work later in the year from Craig Silvey, Amanda Lohrey, Sofie Laguna, Philip Salom, and Alex Miller.
Robbie Arnott’s Flames was a brilliant debut, offering a new kind of writing about the Australian landscape. It was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction in 2018, as well as the 2019 Guardian Not the Booker Prize, and Arnott was named one of 2019’s Best Young Novelists by the Sydney Morning Herald. His second novel, The Rain Heron, is out in June. In the same Readings Prize round, Jamie Marina Lau was shortlisted for her electrifying first novel, Pink Mountain on Locust Island, and I am so keen to read her follow-up novel, Gunk Baby (May), which is set in an ear-cleaning and massage salon at the evocatively named Topic Heights Shopping Complex. Also following up an impressive debut is Trent Dalton, whose blockbusting Boy Swallows Universe has made him something of a household name (it was our second-bestselling book last year, and it came out in 2018!). His new book will be absolutely everywhere in June, and is called All Our Shimmering Skies.
Liam Pieper’s second novel, Sweetness and Light, is being called ‘ Shantaram meets Eat, Pray, Love’ (March). Felicity Volk’s 2013 debut, Lightning, received lots of critical acclaim, and her second novel Desire Lines is out in March. Staff favourite author (and winner of our inaugural Readings Prize) Ceridwen Dovey has written Life After Truth (November), set at a school reunion. Mirandi Riwoe was shortlisted for the Stella Prize for her novella, The Fish Girl, and her new book Stone Sky Gold Mountain is set in a community of Chinese gold prospectors working the fields of Queensland. Many readers enjoyed Kate Mildenhall’s evocative historical novel Skylarking; her new novel, The Mother Fault, moves into speculative fiction territory (September). Patrick Allington was longlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin, and his new book Rise and Shine is out in June, a hopeful take on the chaos we face in the near future. Crime aficionados will be looking for the new books by Dervla McTiernan (March), Garry Disher, Chris Hammer, and Jane Harper (all later in the year).
There are so many debuts to watch out for: here are some names you will come to know well. I was impressed by Laura Jean McKay’s first novel, The Animals in That Country (April), a wild and original roadtrip story about human/nonhuman communication during a public health emergency. Also interested in interspecies storytelling is Erin Hortle: her The Octopus and I is out in April (this reminds me that I am equally intrigued to read a book narrated by an extinct mammoth: Mammoth, the third novel by Chris Flynn, due in May). Founder of The Lifted Brow, one of the most important literary fora in this country, Ronnie Scott, will publish his debut novel in April, a coming-of-age novel called The Adversary. Rebecca Starford made waves with her memoir of boarding school, Bad Behaviour; her novel is set at MI5 during World War II and it’s called Hidden (July). Stephen Pham, a member of the SWEATSHOP collective in Sydney, publishes a collection of short stories set in Cabramatta, Vietnamatta (August). Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing (July) is a story about a child prodigy all washed up and addicted to sex. Andrew Pippos’s Lucky’s (due later in the year), is about family and fortune in a Greek–Australian household. Catherine Noske’s The Salt Madonna (March) explores belief and faith in a closed community. The fabulously-titled, Low Expectations, is a comic novel set in 1970s Western Sydney by Stuart Everly-Wilson (September). Pip Williams’s The Dictionary of Lost Words (April) was hot property at the last Frankfurt Book Fair. Chief correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Martin McKenzie-Murray, publishes his debut novel in May, a satire called The Speechwriter. Sophie Hardcastle, known for her memoir, Running Like China, has written a novel, Below Deck (March). A Room Called Earth (September) is Madeleine Ryan’s debut, a narrative offering a neurodiverse perspective on the human experience. Tobias McCorkell’s debut, Everything in its Right Place, explores growing up in the presence of familial mental illness (July). Vivian Pham is a frighteningly young and talented writer from Sydney: The Coconut Children is out in March. Leah Swann has written short stories and middle grade fiction; Sheerwater is her debut adult novel, promising to be a heart-breaker (April). I can’t wait to read more of Ewa Ramsey’s The Morbids (due later in 2020); hearing Ewa read an extract had me in stitches. Anna Goldsworthy’s debut novel has been long anticipated: Melting Moments at last appears next month. Also technically a debut, but from another writer we already know very well, Alice Pung has written a novel for adults, One Hundred Days (October).
Awards for unpublished manuscripts have brought us many impressive works in recent years (think Jane Harper, for example, who won the VPLA’s Unpublished manuscript prize). This year, we can look forward to Kokomo by Victoria Hannan, also a winner of the VPLA’s award; Shirl by Wayne Marshall, which was shortlisted for that same award (out this month with a review here); The Spill by 2019’s Penguin Literary Prize Winner Imbi Neeme, and; also shortlisted for that award, Kirsten Krauth’s Almost A Mirror, a novel set in part during the heady days of St Kilda’s famed Crystal Ballroom.
If you’re looking for something that might scratch an itch left by Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (recently shortlisted for a National Book Critics Circle Award – yay!) or Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, look out for Ellena Savage’s Blueberries (March), Anwen Crawford’s Kindred (October), Katerina Bryant’s Hysteria (May), Luke Stegemann’s Amnesia Road (June), Kylie Maslen’s Show Me Where it Hurts (September), or Sam van Zweden’s Eating With My Mouth Open (August). I can’t wait to read the inside goss about what happened in the world of bookselling and publishing during the censorship of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint in the late 1960s: Patrick Mullins’s The Trials of Portnoy: How Penguin Brought Down Australia’s Censorship System is out in June. Sarah Krasnostein’s debut, The Trauma Cleaner, was a huge hit, telling the life story of a fascinating person. Krasnostein’s follow up is due in October: a collection of nonfiction pieces called The Believers. Donna Ward’s debut, She I Dare Not Name (March), is a memoir about living a life without a partner or children in a world where possessing or desiring both is the normative path. Richard Fidler writes a personal history of Prague, The Golden Maze (July). Malcolm Turnbull’s tell-all memoir, A Bigger Picture is out in April. Fourteen by Shannon Molloy (April), is a debut described by its publisher as ‘this generation’s Holding the Man’. Carly Findlay will edit Black Inc.’s next anthology, Growing Up Disabled in Australia (June). On the cooking front, get excited about a new Hetty McKinnon book, To Asia, With Love (September); A Year of Simple Family Food from Julia Busuttil Nishimura of Ostro fame (May); a terrific book from a bakery with a cult following, Beatrix Bakes (March); a new book from Shannon Martinez of Smith & Daughters, Vegan on a Budget (October); plus a book from two of Ottolenghi’s collaborators, Falastin (April). Will the man himself have a new book soon, too? The end of the year will bring us the second volume of Helen Garner’s diaries, a book about love by Clementine Ford, and a book by Barry Jones.
An important piece of international publishing comes to us in March by way of France: Thomas Piketty follows up his agenda-setting economic analysis, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, with an 1100pp tome, Capital and Ideology (pre-order instore or online now to secure your copy). In other international news, hold tight for this whirlwind name-check of authors you have been waiting to hear from: Hilary Mantel (attention Tudor nuts: it’s the final instalment of the trilogy begun by Wolf Hall! Can Mantel win a third Booker?), Elena Ferrante (yes Ferrantemaniacs, The Lying Life of Adults is coming in English for June!), Sebastian Barry (with a sequel to Days Without End!), Emily St. John Mandel, Jenny Offill, Colum McCann, Lionel Shriver, Anne Tyler, Aravind Adiga, David Mitchell, Yaa Gyasi, Maggie O’Farrell, Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, William Boyd, Gabriel Byrne, John Irving, Daisy Johnson, Anne Enright, Sarah J. Maas, Paul Kingsnorth, N.K. Jemisin, Ottessa Moshfegh, Emma Jane Unsworth, Phil Klay, Richard Osman (yes, the guy from the TV game show Pointless has written a crime novel!), Emma Glass, Nick Cave, Ali Smith (with the final in her seasons quartet!), Matt Haig, Bill Gates, Donal Ryan, Catherine Lacey, Rutger Bregman, Brit Bennett, Rebecca Solnit, Louis de Bernières, Andrew O’Hagan, Samanta Schweblin, Dolly Alderton, Ken Follett (with a prequel to Pillars of the Earth!), John Cooper Clarke, Emma Straub, Imbolo Mbue, Graham Swift, Hadley Freeman, Hari Kunzru, Ian McGuire, Philippe Sands, Roddy Doyle, Mariana Mazzucato, John Banville, Curtis Sittenfeld, DBC Pierre, Helen Macdonald, Michel Faber, Nick Hornby, Sayaka Murata … plus so many debut authors whose names won’t mean anything to you yet … I could go on, but quite frankly, I’m exhausted! Think of the shelving!
If you are still reading, and are keen of eye, you may wonder what happened to February. Here is a brief review of what you’ll see featured in this Readings Monthly. Our Nonfiction Book of the Month is the much-anticipated memoir from writer Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House, which our reviewer had longed to read: she was not disappointed, and calls it ‘astounding’. We also recommend Anna Wiener’s memoir of working in Silicon Valley, Uncanny Valley, Kate Murphy’s timely plea for meaningful conversation, You’re Not Listening, and Sophy Robert’s travelogue of discovery, The Lost Pianos of Siberia. Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald hopes to restore skills our grandparents took for granted in her instructive Modern Mending.
In fiction, along with Sean’s book, we also have a bunch of other Australian titles to read, including the much-anticipated third novel from Miles Franklin Award-winning author, Evie Wyld, plus notable debuts, including Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach, Donna Mazza’s Fauna, Wayne Marshall’s Shirl, and Mandy Beaumont’s Wild Fearless Chests. Keep an eye out for these buzzworthy international releases: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age; Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel; An Yu’s Braised Pork; Ani Katz’s A Good Man, and; Emma Forrest’s Royals. László Krasznahorkai won the National Book Award for Translated fiction in 2019 for Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, and happily it’s now available locally, as is Michael Christie’s Greenwood which was longlisted for Canada’s 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. New work is out this month too from Isabel Allende, Timur Vermes, Garth Greenwell, Daniel Kehlmann, Bae Suah, and Magda Szabó.
So there you have it, dear Reader, and I’m ready for a lie down (with book, of course). Insofar as books might make a year, 2020 looks a very good one from where I’m at. Here’s hoping it improves on other fronts in the meantime, for our future’s sake.