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My reading group’s top picks for 2018

December 19, 2018

Having enjoyed doing our top picks last year, my reading group decided to repeat the exercise this year. I’m assuming that, in the spirit of end-of-year lists, you might be interested to see the results, particularly as you will all know at least some of these books.

I’ll start, though, by listing what we read in the order we read them (with links to my reviews):

We returned to our fiction roots this year. Last year four of our eleven books were non-fiction, but this year only one was (except that for our Helen Garner night there was, not surprisingly, a mix of fiction and non-fiction.) This re-balancing mirrors my own reading this year.

And now, the winners …

Sofie Laguna, The chokeEleven of our twelve currently active members voted. We had to name our top three picks, which resulted in 31 votes being cast (one member casting just one vote). The results were:

1. The choke, by Sofie Laguna (6 votes)
2. The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (5 votes)
3. The sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen; The merry-go-round in the sea, by Randolph Stow; and Austerlitz, by WG Sebald (4 votes each)

Highly commended: An unnecessary woman, by Rabih Alameddine (3 votes).

In other words, six of our eleven books received 26 of the 31 votes cast, which is similarly decisive to last year’s figures. It’s interesting, given that most books were liked

Of course, this is not a scientific survey. Votes were all given equal weight, even where people indicated an order of preference, and not everyone read every book, which means different people voted from different “pools”. 

Anyhow, a reasonably varied lot. Of the five which shared the top three positions, we had two Aussies, two Americans (albeit one Vietnamese born), two women, one translated fiction, one classic and one non-fiction. No indigenous writer, though we did read one.

Selected comments (accompanying the votes)
  • The choke: Two of the comments focused on the naive narrator, one saying “rivetting read and clever use of naïve narrator”;  and one referred to its emotional impact, saying “harrowing but brilliant and insightful.”
  • The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks: The doctor in our midst said, simply, “every medico should read it”, while another member was more expansive, saying, “What a marvellous account of a scientific breakthrough, within the real challenges of black lives, and this family in particular. A nuanced account of a continuing ethical dilemma.”
  • The sympathizer: Most of us commented on its offering a different, valuable, perspective on The Vietnam (or American) War. One member elaborated: “The bleak humor and cleverness of the writing showed why it won the Pulitzer, but it was the extraordinary character leading through a war and revolution that really made it something new and challenging.”
  • The merry-go-round-in-the-sea: The two commenters said “Sophisticated, layered autobiographical novel; lovely, involving descriptions of rural Australian life;  beautifully developed complex characters; humour” and “So glad to have read this superb Australian author, whose depiction of landscape, and his torn relationship with Australia and his family was truly beautiful.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
  • Austerlitz: Both commenters noted the “dense writing” with one adding that it was “a great feat of imagination” and the other referring to its “amazingly sustained mesmeric tone.”

If you are interested in our schedule for next year, I have already posted that in my most recent My Literary Week post.

And a bonus!

A good friend of mine – we met over 40 years ago in library school – has just told me her reading group’s Top Picks for the year. She’s happy for me to share them – so we’ll start with the books her group read this year:

  • The dry, by Jane Harper (novel, Australian author)
  • The good life by Hugh Mackay (non-fiction, Australian author)
  • The rules of backyard cricket, by Jock Serong (novel, Australian author)
  • And the mountains echoed, by Khaled Hasseini (novel, Afghan-born American author)
  • The rip, by Robert Drewe (short story collection, Australian author)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (novel, American author)
  • The good people, by Hannah Kent (novel, Australian author)
  • The light between the oceans, by M L Stedman (novel, Australian author)
  • Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje (novel, Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer)
  • The shepherd’s hut, by Tim Winton (novel, Australian author)

It’s amazing isn’t it, how two reading groups comprising women of a similar age living in the same region, end up reading completely different books! So many books, I suppose.

Tim Winton, The shepherd's hutAnyhow, their top picks were:

  1. The shepherd’s hut, by Tim Winton
  2. Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje
  3. The rules of backyard cricket, by Jock Serong

So, all fiction, all male, two Aussies, and none read by my group! But, all worthy books for reading groups, and all books I’d very happily read. Just saying – in case your group is looking around for books to read!

If you are in a reading group – face-to-face or online – would you care to share your 2018 highlights?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2018 11:39 am

    I’ve read a few from each list. Terra Nullius the standout IMO, though I liked the Khaled Hasseini and disliked Lincoln in the Bardo. The Choke I should read, and maybe also First Person.

    • December 19, 2018 3:24 pm

      Thanks Bill. I’m afraid only I liked Terra nullius in our group. First person is an interesting read, but The choke is so well sustained. I’ve only read Hosseini’s The kite runner. Should read more.

  2. Meg permalink
    December 19, 2018 2:30 pm

    Hi Sue, the book club I belong to has nine members. We choose mainly Australian novels to read. Our reads for 2018, were A Pale View of Hills by Kazuro Ishiguro; Extinctions by Josephine Wilson; First Person by Richard Flanagan; Tin Man by Sarah Winman; Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar Geshen; Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten; Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout; Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain; Barking Dogs – Rebekkah Clarkson; The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser; The Force of Nature by Jane Harper: and Taboo by Kim Scott. I would say Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout was the overall favourite. The Shepherd’s and The Choke are on our 2019 list.

    • December 19, 2018 3:31 pm

      Thanks Meg…. Your group and mine overlap more this year than my friend’s. We considers the Winton for next year but it didn’t get up. Sounds like it should have. BTW I love those early Ishiguros. Maybe I should put Stout on our list to consider.

  3. ian darling permalink
    December 19, 2018 9:15 pm

    I’m not a one for book groups but I would love to have been a member of a British book group reading Howards End as a choice. It is so strangely relevant to our current Brexit culture wars….

    • December 19, 2018 9:59 pm

      Love it Ian … you could start a Howard’s End bookgroup and meet once a year, recalibrating it against contemporary life. After all, that’s why we read classics isn’t it? Because they somehow don’t date – for one reason or another. (I’m glad I’m not living through your Brexit age, I must say.)

  4. ian darling permalink
    December 20, 2018 12:42 am

    That is an alarmingly pertinent idea! Wish us luck!

    • December 20, 2018 3:27 am

      Haha Ian – I first read that as “impertinent”! But, yes, I’ll wish you luck!

  5. December 20, 2018 4:00 am

    I was only in a reading group last 3 months of year. The overall favourite of the group’s was Gentleman in Moscow by overwhelming margin.

    • December 20, 2018 4:31 am

      Ah good, Pam, as we’re reading that next year. I’m looking forward to it. Thanks.

  6. December 20, 2018 6:43 am

    Oh what fun! So I am curious, what one from your group list did you pick as your favorite?

    • December 20, 2018 7:46 am

      I didn’t,Stefanie. I just asked people for their top three in no particular order. Two of my top three were The choke, and Austerlitz. I’ve forgotten the third and I’m not at my computer to look it up, but I think it was the Stow. I prevaricated forever on it, because it was a great year. I also loved the Skloot and An unnecessary woman.

  7. December 21, 2018 8:39 am

    Do you pick your books at the beginning of the year? And according to particular categories?

    My book group has a haphazard approach, choosing as we go.

    • December 21, 2018 8:58 am

      We are fairly methodical, Kate, though not quite as methodical as another group I know which has a multi-stage process to choose the year’s books in one hit.

      We choose our books twice a year. At the November meeting we choose, by consensus of those at the meeting, books for January to June, and in May we choose those for July to November (leaving December to be a bookless Christmas party). We have no specific categories but I’ve been suggesting that we aim to include at least one indigenous author each year (and we’ve been achieving that in recent years), and at least one translated work. Several of us are keen on “classics” so we usually include a classic (English, Russian, American, Australian, French…) somewhere in the year. And then we keep an eye out for interesting non-fiction – we have those who love biography in the group, those who are particularly interested in science, etc. But, the fundamental question is “does it have something to talk about?”, which means we tend to steer away from bestsellers, from genre books, or from books which might be “issue” books but don’t have something wider to talk about (if that makes sense). So, not haphazard, but not strictly rigorous either. As I said in the post where I listed our next schedule, there’s usually a bit of argy-bargy between the various passions!

      I don’t think I’d like to choose as we go, and my sense is that many in my group like to plan how they access what we read (reserving at the library, etc), so choosing month to month would not suit us I think.

      • December 21, 2018 5:12 pm

        I’m aiming to get a little more structure into my group’s program next year. We usually read some major prize winners and Aus women around Stella time but other than that, it’s a free-for-all!

        • December 21, 2018 5:33 pm

          Well that’s pretty structured! We started back in 1988 doing a high proportion of Australian women writers, but over the years they have become a smaller proportion, but they are always there – because we are Australian women!

  8. December 25, 2018 9:16 am

    Your reading group read some interesting looking books. Both Austerlitz and The Sympathizer are on my radar as things that I want to read. The way that you all voted on this seems fun.

    • December 25, 2018 10:11 pm

      Thanks Brian … I think we do! I guess that’s why I’m in the group. I like to read different books, to those I might have read otherwise, but different books that are interesting to me!! If that makes sense.

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