My reading group’s top picks for 2019

In what is becoming a tradition, my reading group once again voted for our top picks from our 2019 schedule. Given many of us like hearing about what other reading groups do, I’m sharing the results as I did last year.

First, though, here is what we read in the order we read them (with links to my reviews):

  • Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe (my review): debut novel, Australian author
  • Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review): memoir anthology, Indigenous Australian editor
  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (my review): novel, American author
  • Amor Towles, A gentleman in Moscow (my review): novel, American author
  • Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman (my review): translated novel, Japanese author
  • Mary McCarthy, The group (my review): novel, American author
  • Anton Chekhov, The lady and the dog (my review): translated short story, Russian author
  • Enza Gandolfo, The bridge (my review); novel, Australian author
  • Les Murray night: read any book by or about him (I was in Japan, so did not contribute): Australian poet
  • Karen Viggers, The orchardist’s daughter (my review): novel, Australian author
  • Tim Winton, The shepherd’s hut (my review): novel, Australian author

So, five men and six women; six Australian writers and five non-Australian; two translated works; three works written before 2000 (plus much of Les Murray’s work); an anthology of Indigenous Australian writing; nine fiction works plus a poet and a collection of memoirs. A decent mix, I think, given our focus always has been women and Australian writing but not exclusively so.

The winners …

Twelve of our thirteen currently active members voted. We had to name our top three picks, which resulted in 34 votes being cast (one member casting just one vote). The results were:

1. Boy swallows universe, by Trent Dalton (8 votes)
2. A gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, and The shepherd’s hut, by Tim Winton (7 votes, each)
3. Convenience store woman, by Sayaka Murata (6 votes)

So, four of our eleven books received 28 of the 34 votes cast, that is, 80%, which is an interesting concentration, given that none of our reads this year were actively disliked. Despite the overall variety in our reading this year, our top books were not as varied as last year: the top three were books were all by men, with just the fourth being by a woman, and all four are novels.

Highly commended was The bridge, by Enza Gandolfo, but, various members also made special mentions of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Mary McCarthy’s The group, and Karen Viggers’ The orchardist’s daughter.

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, so different people voted from different “pools”.

Selected comments (accompanying the votes)

  • Boy swallows universe: Commenters used words like “brave”, “raw”, “edgy”, “energetic”, “unusual”, with one noting its “generosity for its flawed characters.”
  • A gentleman in Moscow: Two commenters captured the gist of our responses with “Beautifully written, fascinating premise, and thoroughly engaging, while hinting at the dramas around” and “A classy read. Sometimes hilarious whilst also full of dignity and the unexpected.”
  • The shepherd’s hut: Commenters on this in-your-face book used rather different words, like “strong”, “despite the language” and “uncompromisingly”, but the book clearly made an impact on us to share equal second favourite for the year. As one of us said, “what a tale”!
  • Convenience store woman: Our commenters emphasised its quirkiness and its very different voice – though, in fact, most of our top books had rather different voices. However, one commenter nailed what was particular about this one, with “Gives a voice to someone who is normally excluded. Love the relentless logic of the narrator.”

And a bonus!

Bruce Pasco, Dark emuAs last year, a good friend (from my library school days 45 years ago) has agreed for me to share her reading group’s schedule from this year:

  • Circe, by Madeleine Miller (novel, American author)
  • Bridge of clay, by Markus Zusak (novel, Australian author)
  • Dark emu, by Bruce Pascoe (non-fiction, indigenous Australian author)
  • The lover, by Marguerite Duras (novel, French author)
  • Little fires everywhere, by Celeste Ng (novel, American author of Chinese descent)
  • On the Java Ridge, by Jock Serong (novel, Australian author)
  • Anything is possible, by Elizabeth Strout (novel, American author)
  • The Romanov sisters, by Helen Rappaport (novel, British author)
  • The buried giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro (novel, Japanese-English author)
  • Dear Mrs Bird, by AJ Pearce (novel, English author)

My group has read one of the above books – Dark emu – but a few years ago. This wasn’t the case with their list last year, where we had read none.

I don’t think this group did a formal top pick list this year, but my friend’s favourite was Circe, which she described as such “a rewarding read”. Her second choice, she said, would “perhaps” be On the Java Ridge. She said that “although the writing was uneven, we in the group thought the content was significant”. Her least favourite, by far, was Dear Mrs Bird. Many of you, I know will have read and agree with her about Circe. I would like to read it, but I am particularly interested in Jock Serong, because his books keep popping up in Australian readers’ lists.

But wait, there’s more!

This year, some members of my group named other (ie non bookgroup) favourite reads of the year, and I share them with you (with links to my reviews if I have read them, regardless of whether I nominated them for this list!):

  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (my review)
  • Louise Erdrich’s The bingo palace (my review)
  • Robert Galbraith’s (aka J K Rowling) Lethal white
  • Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine
  • Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review)
  • Ian McEwan’s Machines like me
  • Liane Moriarty’s The husband’s secret
  • Liane Moriarty’s Truly madly guilty
  • Liane Moriarty’s Big little lies
  • Michelle Obama’s Becoming 
  • Henry Handel Richardson’s The getting of wisdom
  • Jock Serong’s On the Java Ridge
  • Jock Serong’s Preservation
  • Jock Serong’s Quota
  • Tara Westover’s Educated

If you are in a reading group – face-to-face or online – would you care to share your 2019 highlights?

16 thoughts on “My reading group’s top picks for 2019

  1. I know I should read Boy Swallows Universe, but if were to read just one of your books, based on the reviews I’ve read around the blogosphere, it would be Convenience Store Woman.

  2. One of my group’s reads this year was The land before avocado by Richard Glover, a nostalgic look at the ’60s and ’70s in Australia. So for our annual dinner we set a ’70s theme. The food was a bit pedestrian, but the photos of our attire in the ’70s were hilarious. I didn’t set the quiz this time. It was tough, with only one person scoring more than 50%. Balanced the hilarity nicely.

    • Ha ha, Neil. Sounds great fun. Seventies food wasn’t the best really. Mr Gums read and enjoyed Glover a couple of years ago. what were your favourite group reads of the year.

      BTW, your quiz sounds like some of our Jane Austen meeting quizzes.

      • My favourite group read was Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. None of the others caught my imagination, though often the discussion they generated was lively and interesting (for example, Gone Girl, which I hated). Even my selection, Merry-go-round in the sea, didn’t turn me on, though I am glad I have read it. One member who was born and bred in Geraldton wasn’t happy with some of geographical descriptions!

        But things will be livelier next year. We are starting with my selection, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, and I am wondering what the comments will be from our member who never reads fantasy. And to get the discussion under way, I have warned everyone that I want them to read a passage from the book, a sentence or paragraph that caught their fancy. I like to toss in a curve ball when I am leading discussion.

        • My mum’s group did Eleanor Oliphant last year, and I think most liked it. Merry-go-round in the sea was, if I remember correctly, one of my group’s top picks last year. Stow knew Geraldton didn’t he? What was wrong with his descriptions I wonder.

        • According to Wikipedia, he was born at Geraldton. Apparently a location he suggested was close to the sea wasn’t. But this may have been poetic licence. Or else, since he was writing this in England, he misremembered.

        • Thanks for checking. That sort of detail about real places but in fiction don’t bother me. I figure that it’s unreasonable of me to criticise a factual error in a book about a place I know, but to rave about an equally nicely written but similarly inaccurate book that I don’t pick up because I don’t know the about place. It is fiction after all, not a memoir.

  3. LOL I swore I’d ever join another reading group because I am too undisciplined in my reading, either reading the book way too early and then forgetting all about it unless I take laborious notes, or leaving it to the last minute and scampering through to a deadline, which I hate doing.
    But this year I joined two: an Indonesian one (some members reading in Indonesian and others like me with my rusty Indonesian, a translation) and a French one organised by the French school where I have classes each week (where we all read the book in French).
    The best thing about the Indonesian group is that I’ve finally read three of the four classic books by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and will read the last of the quartet in 2020. So now I feel I can look my Indonesian friends in the eye: for them, not having read this quartet is a bit like not having read Austen or Dickens for us.
    And it was a delight to read Camus’ The Stranger in French. It was difficult, but getting through it has boosted my confidence:)

    • Good book groups are great, Lisa, so I’m glad you’ve found done congenial ones! I’m very disciplined and try to time reading the scheduled book right before the meeting, though sometimes I cut it too fine and am finishing it just an hour or so before with no time to get my thoughts together. Finishing the day before is ideal. I first read L’étranger in French, at school and loved it. Went on to read all of Camus, though the rest in English. Not sure I could do that level of now though!

  4. Your group gets through an impressive number of books. I guess that the women’s group my wife belongs to gets through ten or eleven books a year. The one we belong to together manages five most years lately–not many, but I don’t mind that, for it interferes less with my preferred reading.

    I liked Gilead well enough, but found that by Lila Robinson’s style, which I had thought well of since reading Housekeeping, was ceasing to impress me. As a theologian, Robinson seems to me to wish to have her cake and eat it too. As a novelist, I thought she was still doing well with Gilead.

    I would be interested to know how the Les Murray night went. Our book club has never tried poetry. A member once mentioned the possibility of reading through one of Shakespeare’s plays for a meeting, but she never acted on it. I could about see us deciding on Leaves of Grass for a meeting, but have a hard time imagining what other poet would serve. Marianne Moore? Maybe. Probably not William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens.

    • Thanks George. We meet every month of the year, and only don’t do a book in December when we party instead. Too many book groups can get in the way of one’s preferred reading I know. You do have to balance them, but this group mostly does books I’m very happy to read.

      That’s interesting about Robinson. I’ve only read Gilead, though have always meant to read Housekeeping. After our meeting many of us wanted to read Lila.

      Unfortunately the only meeting I missed this year was the Les Murray one. Ve have done poetry before, two or three times, but they were all a share-your-favourite-poem style, so didn’t result in in-depth discussions. We’re also done a verse novel with the poet, Geoff Page, in attendance. But a verse novel is probably a bit different to poetry because there’s the narrative to fall back on!

  5. I always love hearing about favorite books. Does your book group have their schedule together yet or are you on more of a month-to-month art of plan? The cover of the Dark Emu book is gorgeous. But then I think emus are really amazing birds. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas!

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