Jackie Tang, Readings, Melbourne
Smart Ovens for Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan
Full of small insurgent surprises that sneak up on you with their emotional power, this visionary short-story collection won the 2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Tan’s imaginative leaps explore the strange ways we mediate our humanity through technology: karaoke as a form of grief; smart ovens as a form of therapy (see: our mass sourdough obsession). After all, who among us hasn’t turned to games/streaming/the internet to deal with unruly feelings of loneliness, mourning and heartbreak this year? Tender and funny, Tan’s magic will linger in your imagination and colour how you see the world around you.
The F Team by Rawah Arja
I’ve seen Ted Lasso on several Best of 2020 TV lists, and to me, this gloriously funny and full-hearted Young Adult novel is its literary equivalent, balancing humour, sweetness and a keen understanding of human nature in equal measure. The F Team is your classic underdog sports story (a group of Western Sydney high-school boys are forced to enter a rugby competition to save the reputation of their beloved but beleaguered school), but with a voice so strong and alive, it jumps out at you from page one. Pick this one up if you love dialogue, misfits banding together against the world, and rowdy but loving big-family dynamics.
Savannah Indigo, Avenue Bookstore, Melbourne
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)
At first glance, The Memory Police is yet another dystopian tale with Orwellian undertones that reminds us of the terror of living under watchful eyes. But Ogawa offers a reminder of the wonder we can always find within the pages of books. As objects begin to disappear and lost items are hunted by the Memory Police, Ogawa asks readers to question where we would be without the language to share stories and process loss.
Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles
A book to dog-ear, write all over, bookmark, re-read and remember. Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons blends memoir, history, text and visual culture in an unparalleled and compelling analysis of violence. Through the true stories of a conscientious objector during World War II and a former prison guard at Abu Ghraib, she examines how art can provide solace to those living in the shadow of violence and war – and how it might change the future. Draw Your Weapons offered something unlike anything I’d ever read before, forever changing my interactions with image, language and the world.
Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne
Shifting between Melbourne and Toronto, Cherry Beach is a story of first love and new adventures. Its power lies in the intimate moments between lifelong friends Ness and Hetty – in the comfort and pain of Hetty’s hand sliding into Ness’s, silence on walks along a garden path, and renditions of Hey Jude sung side-by-side¬¬. Readers feel the full force of the relationship between these two women: an inescapable bond coloured by unrequited desire.
Nina Kenwood, Readings, Melbourne
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
“I seem to find it more difficult to be alive than other people,” says Martha, the protagonist of Mason’s extraordinary third book, Sorrow and Bliss. Martha’s marriage is falling apart, and the novel journeys back through her early life and relationship with her family to reveal how she got to this point. Intensely sad at times, this book is also laugh-out-loud funny, and full of keen observations and lines you’ll want to underline and read aloud to everyone around you.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Bennett’s second novel spans 40 years, from 1950s to the ’90s. It tells the story of identical twin sisters from a small Black community in the South whose lives diverge when one decides to secretly pass as white. Voted one of the best books of the year by Readings staff, this is a must-read of 2020. (Bennett’s 2016 debut, The Mothers, is also breathtakingly good.)
Smart Ovens for Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan
This collection of short stories is deeply funny, incredibly clever and wonderfully weird. It’s perfect for fans of Carmen Maria Machado, Margo Lanagan, Kelly Link and Shaun Tan, and likely to be some of most exciting and inventive writing you’ll read this year.
Krissy Kneen, Avid Reader, Brisbane
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
This debut novel has just been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, so if you haven’t read it, now’s the perfect time. I read The Animals in That Country earlier this year but I can’t stop thinking about it. A virus called Zoo Flu is sweeping through Australia, and those that get it can hear the “voices” of animals. Sounds straightforward, but this is anything but. The language of animals is strange and not necessarily benign. This book changed the way I look at the relationship between humans and animals, and it has one of the most wonderful dingo protagonists in Sue.
The Silence by Don DeLillo
Every time I read a book by DeLillo I go down a spiral-shaped hole, and I’m now hooked into a DeLillo tailspin because I read The Silence and my mind was blown. A couple is on a plane that makes a crash landing. When they find their way to their friends’ apartment, the world is a different place. All technology has failed. No TV, no Internet, no cars. This slim volume is almost a verse novel. So very unnerving and full of ideas.
Throat by Ellen van Neerven
This poetry collection does not pull its punches. It explores the relationship between Black and white Australia, and the experience of being queer and non-binary. It’s a powerful and unsettling book – sometimes it’s tender, sometimes it’s a well-placed punch.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
Set in the gold rush era, this page-turner looks at Australia’s history through the lens of two Chinese siblings. A fabulous escapist book and perfect for the summer holidays.
Jane Turner, Getrude & Alice Bookstore, Sydney
Betty by Tiffany McDaniel
A beautifully written tale inspired by the life of her own mother, Tiffany McDaniel’s Betty is absorbing, harrowing and utterly unputdownable. The novel follows Betty Carpenter and her family as they move from place to place until they finally settle in Breathed, Ohio on the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Prose-rich, lyrical and as beautiful as it is brutal.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
An absolute brick of a book, A Promised Land is essential reading for anyone with an interest in politics, history, faith or hope. While at 768 pages it’s no easy feat, Obama weaves a tight narrative. The memoir is an insightful, intimate and deeply personal look at the triumphs and turmoils of presidency from one of history’s most-loved political figures.
Lucy Pearson, host of The Bondi Literary Salon at Gertrude & Alice, Sydney
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet tells the story of Shakespeare’s son, and is a riveting and fascinating read from start to finish. Pacy and plot-driven with a rich cast of characters, it will grip you until the very last scene and leave you reeling long after the final page has been turned.
Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World by Cole Brown
This smart collection of essays (and Brown’s debut book) explores what it means to be a Black person who runs in predominantly white circles. Brown – who is now based in Sydney – was born to an Ethiopian mother and African-American father, and raised and educated in mostly white neighbourhoods and schools in Philadelphia. A nuanced exploration of race, class and privilege, Greyboy is a stunning collection of vignettes that offers a different perspective on the Black American experience.