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Monday musings on Australian literature: Summer picks 2020

December 14, 2020

For a few years now, I’ve shared ABC book journalists’ top Aussie reads of the year, but this year I’m doing something a little different. I’m sharing picks from three different sources. Most of these include non-Australian books, but I like to share them in a Monday Musings post and focus on the Aussie books among them. So, here goes.

Readings bookshop

Book cover

Readings staff actually shared their favourite Australian books of the year, which is really great of them so they get first billing here. Their list is called “the best Aussie fiction books of 2020” but in fact the text describes the list as their “favourite” books, which puts a different, and better, slant on it I think.

Here’s their list, reorganised into alphabetical order. I don’t know whether their order was by popularity vote, but alphabetical is easier for people to look for their favourites…

  • Steven Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate
  • Kate Grenville’s A room made of leaves
  • Victoria Hannan’s Kokomo
  • Laura Jean McKay’s The animals in that country
  • Kate Mildenhall’s The mother fault
  • Sean O’Beirne’s A couple of things before the end
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile
  • Elizabeth Tan’s Smart ovens for lonely people
  • Jessie Tu A lonely girl is a dangerous thing
  • Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words

I like this selection because, although I’ve not yet read one of them, I have given some as gifts during the year, and I have a couple on my current TBR. Whether I’ll get to them in summer is another thing, but I will get to some …

ABC RN’s Bookshow and The Book Shelf presenters

Book cover

Claire Nichols, Sarah L’Estrange, Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh put together a list they call “The best books of 2020 for your summer reading list”. It includes books from around the world, but, as I explained above, I’m just going to share their Aussie picks, which are but few!

  • Erin Hortle’s The octopus and I
  • Laura Jean McKay’s The animals in that country, which Kate Evans describes as “Surprising and surprisingly-convincing characters, and a well-realised, inventive premise”.
  • Jessica Tu’s A lonely girl is a dangerous thing, of which Claire Nichols says “the passion and the obsession drips off the page”
  • Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words, of which Sarah L’Estrange says, “For lovers of language and the power of words, this story has everything you want”.

Interesting that three of the four here also featured in Readings’ list. Are these the books we are likely to see on awards long and shortlists next year? Interesting too that all are women writers (as were the selectors. I can live with that!)

ANU English Department picks

Book cover

Now this list – on the ANU website, but shared with me by retired University Librarian Colin Steele (thankyou Colin) – is an unusual one, partly because it has very few contemporary (or any other) Australian books. The Aussies are:

  • Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here, her biography of Elizabeth von Arnim, though, weirdly, the description doesn’t mention that at all. It just says “a literary sensation of the early twentieth century weaves a wonderful tale of love, pleasure, gratitude and survival that is written beautifully, perfect for the history buffs and women’s literature lovers among us”. Why not mention the name of the “literary sensation” or that it’s a “biography”? It could sound like a novel?
  • Sarah Hopkins’ The subjects, which is on the Small Press Network’s Book of the Year shortlist, is described as “a gripping read, which follows a gifted teenage delinquent down an uncertain path”
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come, which came out a couple of years ago now, is described as “a wickely [sic] funny novel about the stories we tell and don’t tell ourselves as individuals, as societies and as nations”.

On lists …

When is a list not a list? Regular readers here know that I don’t tend to produce my own annual “best of” or “top reads” lists. I prefer to write a Reading Highlights post (which I will do again in early January for 2020). In this post, I don’t rank books or even talk about best books. Instead, I talk about the books and events that made my reading year worthwhile – and, already, I know I will have some interesting trends to comment on for this year. It is, though, still a list, I suppose! Just a very loose, porous one.

For a thoughtful piece on lists, you might like to check out an article written by one of my 2019 New Territorians, Rosalind Moran. Titled “Against best-of lists” it’s available at Overland Literary Journal. While much of it covers thoughts I’ve had myself, it’s beautifully and clearly expressed – and it did give me some additional points to ponder! (Thanks for Lisa for the heads-up).

What do you think about lists? Are some useful, despite their failings? Or, would you prefer to eschew them altogether?

32 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2020 23:05

    Well, it’s no secret that I love a list! (but I also enjoyed that Overland article). My list-making is really for my own reference – I do like to look back on what I enjoyed over the year and yes, it does date, but I like that.

    • December 15, 2020 03:26

      Fair enough too Kate … I think there’s nothing wrong with a list, as long as we do understand its limitations and its functions for us.

  2. December 14, 2020 23:15

    I haven’t read a single book you’ve mentioned, though I keep saying I intend buying the Elizabeth Tan (of course it’s six months since I’ve been allowed in a bookshop). I have long since despaired of Australian journalists reading let alone recommending Australian fiction and that includes RN from whom I once expected better.

    • December 15, 2020 00:04

      Yes, I find the RN Book Show disappointing for the same reason, and I bet Australian authors find it rather dispiriting.
      All they ever do is talk about the books that have already had heaps of publicity and a lot of reviews. And I know they don’t always read them, because I’ve heard one of them admit that.
      But there is a guest presenter, a wonderful woman with a non-Aussie accent who puts the pair of them to shame. Whip-smart, very well-read and extremely perceptive about books. I can’t remember her name because I so rarely listen to the program…

      • December 15, 2020 03:41

        I haven’t listened much to it this year, Lisa … and I’m sorry about that, because these two RN shows are about all we’ve got (unless we go to the various podcasts around which I expect are have some things to offer but I don’t have the time to listen to them either). I mostly find their discussions interesting, and it sounds to me like they have read the books though I have heard the occasional one admit they haven’t. I guess we should be pleased that they are honest and don’t pretend! I love honesty!

        Also, I have to say that I don’t mind that they do non-Australian books on these shows, because we don’t want to be completely parochial, but I would like them to do an Australian list (they could do another too if they liked!!)

        Notwithstanding all this, you make a good point about their focus tending to be the ones already getting the big publicity. It’s the way of the world, isn’t it, but it would be great if it weren’t. One of the programs at least could do something like a show a month (or a spot a week) on small independent publishers’ outputs. Making them a regular focus would really do something for those publishers and their authors.

        • December 15, 2020 08:32

          That’s a very good idea!

        • December 15, 2020 08:47

          Only adding to your well-made point! Wouldn’t it be good if they were looking around for a new angle for angle for next year and read these comments.

    • December 15, 2020 03:28

      I’m glad I’m not the only one, Bill, though I do actually have some on my TBR, including the Tan. What a great title.

  3. Neil@kallaroo permalink
    December 15, 2020 00:07

    Love them and hate them. Love them because often they contain books I wouldn’t be aware of otherwise (WG, you can’t cover everything!), which expands my reading. Hate them because my TBR keeps growing. Just shows what an undisciplined reader I am. But I jenjoy a good book. LOL. Just today I read a list and thought when I finished it “What a peculiar list”.
    I filter the list. So yes, lists are good, except I spend time reading them when I should be engaging with the current book!

    • December 15, 2020 03:51

      Haha, Neil … you’ve found my weakness. I can’t be the be-all-and-end-all. I thought no-one had noticed!

      Seriously, though, I know what you mean. I have the same reaction to lists.

      One point I thought Rosalind might make is that they can encourage competition about readers too. You know, like” the [name your person or organisation] 100 [all-time, classic, or whatever] books you must read”, with the inevitable responses, “I’ve read 42”, “ah I’ve read 68”, etc etc. I’ve played and lost that game many times (though have never been the wooden-spooner thank goodness. Haha!)

      • Neil@kallaroo permalink
        December 15, 2020 11:25

        Oh, I always play that game, solo. So if I’ve read, say eight out if ten, then I know the compiler of the list is competent, and if only two out of ten, then clearly they don’t know what they are talking about!

  4. December 15, 2020 07:34

    This is a .. a dubious topic for me, ST, inasmuch as my reading is somewhat limited. But I hasten to state that I will happily and gratefully read anything you post, as it comes from thoughtful consideration.
    I rarely have the faintest idea what to do with my new credits when they appear: I kind of forage among the summaries with their excerpts, seeking something that grabs me.
    Because to the audiobook reader the narrator is possibly the most important part, lists can never be more than a starting point; but then, I suppose that’s a fact regarding the visually consumed book, too ..

    • December 15, 2020 08:41

      Yes, I think lists can only ever be a starting point, M-R. And I agree that the reader is critical with audiobooks.

      BTW have you “read” any of the Aussie, Jock Serong?

      • December 15, 2020 12:22

        I have not. I suspect it’s time I did. 🙂
        Thanks muchly !

        • December 15, 2020 14:42

          I’d be interested to hear what you thought, M-R.

        • December 15, 2020 16:42

          It’s agreed: I’ll try one. And I’ll tell ya.

        • December 15, 2020 17:24

          Excellent. I have two friends who have really liked his books.

      • December 20, 2020 21:13

        I bought “Preservation”, and I’m loving it. BUT. I can’t do my mosaic crochet and listen to it at the same time !!!
        The crochet reqquires close attention, you see ..
        So I shan’t be getting through it quickly. Bloody good narrator, too !! (although I know nothing about him)
        Good one, ST !!!

        • December 20, 2020 21:23

          Oh good, I am so so glad M-R, because he’s written a few. I gave Preservation to Mr Gums a couple of years ago and he didn’t like it much, but then – you’ll hate this – he doesn’t like Peter Temple either, and it was a similar reason, the short clipped language.

          I believe The rules of backyard cricket is great. I must read him. I have at least two friends who are big fans.

  5. Meg permalink
    December 15, 2020 08:03

    Hi Sue, I do read lists as they lead me to some great reads. I make a list on my library account, because I put so many books on reserve. I google the books on lists that appeal to me before I decide if it is a read. Smart Ovens for Lonely People has some wonderful stories.

  6. December 15, 2020 08:18

    I like reading lists but don’t follow them. I find that they beccome quite repetitive at times as the same books make the list again and again so I like looking for those that are different. I take them with a grain of salt. 🐧🌷🌷

    • December 15, 2020 08:51

      I take your point Pam. Also there are too many at the end of the year, so I really just read a few from sources that particularly interest me. Most newspaper ones tend to be too long.

  7. Sue permalink
    December 15, 2020 17:25

    I’m not sure about lists – I think I prefer just a review of individual books… I enjoyed many of the stories in Smart Ovens – loathed Dictionary of Lost Words! I think I agree with TravelinPenguin above that I take lists with a grain of salt – but they do sometimes lead to a good find.

    I often simply find a wonderful book by browsing the new books section of the library – I’m rather like a kid in a lolly shop when it comes to the new purchases section!

    • December 15, 2020 17:28

      I don’t go near them, Sue, because I’ve learnt that I’m the same – and I just can’t keep up.

      Your comments on lists, pretty much accord with mine, as you’ve probably gathered. I’m sort of interested but I don’t chase them, and rarely do anything with them in terms of my own reading. But, I do like to see what bloggers, in particular, have read and liked over the year.

  8. Sue permalink
    December 15, 2020 21:17

    That’s a good article from Overland too Sue! Thanks for that link – our library doesn’t have Overland and I miss it.

  9. December 21, 2020 21:16

    We have to do this for work too…& I picked The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. It will be the same on my blog, IF i get around to writing an end of year in review post. Not feeling very inspired right now….but this is our busiest week of the year!

    • December 21, 2020 22:35

      Oh yes, I’m sure bookshops need to do this. I do my year in review posts around 31 December to early January depending on what days they fall. That week is usually a bit quieter. I hope you are very happy with your business this week – but not too tired, either.

      • December 22, 2020 08:16

        We’ve had a tremendous year Sue. Everyone has returned to reading this year & lots of people will be getting books under the tree!

        • December 22, 2020 08:45

          Yes that’s what I’ve heard Brona. It’s wonderful isn’t it. Let’s hope many people keep it up now they’ve rediscovered it.

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