If you were anything like me, you read a whole lot more in 2020 than you have in previous years. Bookstores must have made a killing!
I started out with a goal of reading more in 2020. I’d hoped to start with what I *thought* was a lofty goal of 24 books – two books a month – which was more than I’d read in the previous year.
How many did I end up reading? 82!
I’m not entirely sure how that happened… well, I know that it had a lot to do with the bananas year that 2020 was, with no travel, lockdown in Melbourne and not a whole lot else to do. I also know that there were plenty of times when I was reading when I should have been working, oops. But hey, books were my escape in 2020.
Out of those 82 books, I’ve narrowed it down to my 25 favourite reads of the year – hopefully there’s something new in this list that you haven’t read that you can pick up in 2021! I’d also love to know your fave books of the year, drop me a comment at the end of this post.
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My top picks
Favourite non-fiction book: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
This book was such a surprise and I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. In fact, it took me several chapters to really get into it. But once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Written by an Australian journalist, this novel is part fictionalised memoir, part fantasy, part dark comedy and part coming-of-age.
It’s horrifying, hilarious, shocking and touching. There were so many reminders of an Aussie childhood in there. It’s actually so Australian that I thought some American friends I recommended it to wouldn’t enjoy it, but I’ve only got rave reviews back from others. It’s a book that I really can’t wait to read again.
Favourite memoir: Educated by Tara Westover
This bestselling memoir made me gasp with shock many times. Westover grew up in a strictly religious, survivalist family. She never went to school until she began teaching herself as a teenager and then landed a place at a university in Utah (and hit it out of the ballpark, becoming a historian and now author).
This story of violence, the power of education and figuring out your place in the world is a shocking and eye-opening read.
Favourite non-fiction book: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
I have just one word for this book: fascinating. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to know about the history of our species and how we ended up the way we are.
It’s pretty hefty and it took me quite a while to get through it. But even though it tackles a big subject it’s not a dull read at all. It’s informative, humourous and so, so enlightening. I’m looking forward to reading Harari’s book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which looks at the future of our species.
If the 450-page book is a little daunting, there’s also a YouTube series that covers the topics in his book. I believe it’s based on a series of lectures that Harari gave as a professor.
They’re my top picks for those three categories, now here are the rest of my favourite books of 2020!
The best fiction books
The narrator (I’ve just realised as I write this that she’s never actually named in the book) is undertaking an experiment: a year of sleeping. Hopped up on drugs, she sees very few people as she spends her days in a stupor and participates in a bizarre artistic endeavour.
I didn’t know much about this book or the author, but after reading a review I decided on a whim to purchase it during a pandemic-inspired book-shopping spree. It’s depressing but also sardonically witty. The Vogue review on the cover sums it up perfectly: “Savage, funny, frequently on the verge of teetering into lunacy…”
A story about 12 characters whose lives are intertwined in various ways. I really enjoyed this book and most of the different characters – which is unusual, normally there’s someone that I dislike!
It did take me a while to get used to reading it, though; the lack of punctuation throughout is somewhat challenging, but I flew through the book once I got into the flow of it.
It was a toss-up between Boy Swallows Universe and Everything I Never Told You for my favourite fiction book of the year. A very close call, indeed.
Everything I Never Told You revolves around a Chinese-American family in the 70s and what happens when the favourite daughter’s body is discovered in the nearby lake.
It’s beautifully written and utterly heartbreaking. For me, the book demonstrated the power of communication and the terrible things that can happen when we just assume things or misunderstand someone else’s actions and words. I loved it (and also enjoyed Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere).
Olivia is 21 and alone – barely talking to her parents, in a relationship with a narcissist, unsure what her future holds. Waking on a boat, with no recollection of how she got there, changes her life forever.
This book is a hard, heart-rending read but it does have some lovely, light moments in among the trauma, I promise. Sophie’s writing is exquisite, especially her descriptions of how Olivia, who has synesthesia and feels in colour, sees the world around her.
I’m usually apprehensive before reading a book that everyone’s raving about, but this one lived up to the hype and I couldn’t put it down.
The narrator is a Mexican woman whose journalist husband is murdered by the cartel and she flees north with her son. She’s educated, owns a bookstore and someone who never thought she’d ever have to make that desperate journey – indeed, she’s looked down on migrants in the past.
The story was heartbreaking, and oh-so-real for so many people who make the dangerous journey from Central America to the United States every day. This book humanises those people, telling the stories of why people feel so desperate to do so.
The book isn’t without controversy: the author isn’t a Mexican woman, although in her author’s notes she does acknowledge her concerns about writing the book as a non-Mexican.
This book was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and explores life as an Indigenous Australian in the 1960s. The theme that runs through this book is the devastating policy of the Australian government to remove Indigenous children from their homes.
Odette and her granddaughter, Sissy, navigate this harsh world with the support of a bunch of lovable characters – and avoid some nasty ones. I really enjoyed this book – but there were a few unanswered questions about some of the characters at the end.
When I first opened this book, I was puzzled by several reviewers’ references to Tara’s “economy of language”. As soon as I started reading, I understood what they meant. Tara June Winch’s writing is incredible, and she only needs a handful of words to say what might take others paragraphs to convey.
I devoured this book in only a few hours – with more than a few tears shed.
The Yield weaves together the attempts to reclaim an Indigenous language, a shocking history and a modern-day tale of a young woman dealing with trauma.
When August Gondiwindi learns her beloved grandfather has died, she leaves London to return to home to small-town Australia. Here, she deals with a past she’s been trying to leave behind, but discovers that her grandfather has been writing a book, determined to put on paper the language of his people. Could this help save her childhood home from being repossessed by a mining company?
This is a beautiful tale full of heartbreak but also warmth and love.
Yes, that’s right – a third book by Tara June Winch. I only discovered Tara June Winch’s beautiful writings in 2020 and I just couldn’t get enough of her (clearly!).
After the Carnage is a series of fictional short stories. It’s impressive how she was able to get into the heads of so many different characters and tell their stories. Like her other books, the way she chooses words is gripping.
I really enjoyed this dark comedy by Lucashenko, an Aboriginal Australian writer of Goorie and European heritage.
It follows protagonist Kerry, who cruises back into her small, dusty hometown on a stolen Harley as her grandfather is dying. She’s still there long after the funeral, unravelling family secrets, having it out with family over long-standing rifts and saving her family’s land from corrupt local politicians.
This was such a page-turner, as three intertwined characters in India face the consequences of their ambitions.
The story begins with a terrorist attack on a train. A spontaneous post on social media leads to a young Muslim girl called Jivan being accused of the attack. Jivan’s former teacher, PT Sir, has political aspirations that could well spell the death knoll for Jivan. While Lovely, an aspiring actress with her sights set squarely on stardom, could provide the alibi that Jivan needs – but will she give up fame for that?
A sweeping tale from the perspective of three characters during a tumultuous time in Nigeria. I have to be honest, I had never heard of Biafra, a short-lived nation that struggled to gain independence from Nigeria in the 1960s. The struggle for independence resulted in years of violence and civil war, and this book explores the impact of that violence on these three very different but entwined characters.
It’s also a movie, which I’m keen to watch.
The best non-fiction books
I’m always looking to improve my writing, and this book comes highly recommended by other writers.
Author Anne Lamott shares her writing advice, including the need for “shitty first drafts” and how to get over perfectionism. She’s hilarious and I laughed plenty of times while reading. It’s geared toward people writing novels, but I picked up plenty of tips that I can apply to my blog and travel writing.
This short book (it’s only 48 pages) is adapted from a TEDx talk that Chimamanda did some years ago. It highlights the gender socialisation we’ve all just sort of gotten used to – and how everyone can be part of changing that.
Great, quick read that both men and women should take the time to absorb.
Did you know that Indigenous Australians were the first bakers? That they were not the hunter-gatherers that we’ve been led to believe they were?
Reading Dark Emu was my process of unlearning a lot of stuff that I was taught at school, and this is a book that should be mandatory reading for every Australian.
This book began as a blog post and is now one of the go-to resources on structural racism.
Reni is British, so much of the book focuses on British statistics and stories, but the underlying themes and truths can be applied anywhere. A must-read for anyone wanting to understand institutional racism and its impacts.
Stan Grant is one of Australia’s most well-known journalists, with an international career at some of the biggest media brands in the world.
In this searingly honest book that’s also sort of a memoir, he talks to Australians about our treatment of Indigenous Australians and if this is really how we want our country to be. The cover of the book says “The book that every Australian should read” and I 100% agree.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll find any excuse to do something else than the important things you’re supposed to be doing. (I won’t even tell you how many times I attempted to start writing this blog post…)
Indistractable has practical tips and exercises for staying focused – especially in today’s world where we are constantly bombarded with dings and pings and notifications. Highly recommended reading.
Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World by Layla F Saad
Like many others, 2020 was an awakening for me, even though I *thought* I was pretty aware of racism and my white privilege.
Me and White Supremacy isn’t just a book that you can read and then put on the bookshelf to gather dust. It’s a book that shares knowledge and then asks you to unpack your own situation with 28 days of exercises so that you can become a true ally and “a good ancestor”. It’s a book I’ll continue to return to.
I read quite a few finance books in 2020 to expand my knowledge, and this one was one of the most practical.
Canna Campbell is an Australian financial planner who started a “$1,000 project” whereby she’d save “parcels” of $1,000 which she would then invest, with the goal of creating a passive income. Really great tips for saving money, earning more money and investing. Even though she’s Australian, the concepts are applicable globally. I’ve got my own $1000 project planned for 2021!
The best memoirs I read in 2020
From the moment I picked this book up I was an emotional wreck. I cried pretty much for the first half – my husband came into my office to find me sobbing (literally, big, gasping sobs).
The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory is White’s memoir about growing up as a foster kid in Australia. I had no idea how cruel and dysfunctional the foster care system in Australia is. It’s a heartbreaking story that eventually sees White triumphant but scarred.
Written by the lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, this book is shocking and heartbreaking – yet hopeful.
Stevenson has represented people on death row for decades and in this book explores the U.S. criminal justice system through statistics and his own experiences. The book centres around the case of Walter McMillian, a Black man wrongfully accused of murder. Stevenson has had a huge impact on drawing attention to injustices in the criminal system as well as to freeing wrongfully accused people.
I saw the movie but then had to read the book because I wanted to know more about his story. The book goes into a lot more detail than is in the movie.
Other notable books I read in 2020
- Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious by Seth Kugel – Written by the former New York Times Frugal Traveler columnist, this book delves into how we can travel better by letting go of plans, forgetting about TripAdvisor and being more curious
- The Testaments by Margaret Attwood – The follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, we learn more about what happened to June and her children
- The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer – Adapted from a TEDx talk, this short book was quite an apt read for 2020!
- Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed – From the best-selling author of Wild, this book is a compilation of advice columns. If you’ve got any problem, it’s bound to have been covered here in some way with Strayed’s blunt but helpful advice
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi – One of the seminal books on racism, Kendi explains how racism intersects with many other concepts while sharing his own experiences
- Becoming by Michelle Obama – Why oh why can’t the Obamas still be in the White House??
- Bewildered by Laura Waters – An adventure tale of a 40-something Australian who tackles New Zealand’s Te Araroa track, a 3,000-kilometre trail that winds the length of the country
- The Happiest Man on Earth by Eddie Jaku – Heartwarming life lessons from a Holocaust survivor
- The Cherry Picker’s Daughter by Kerry Reed-Gilbert – A memoir about growing up as a young Indigenous Australian in the ‘60s, centred on the amazing woman she had in her life, her mother
- The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett – Twin sisters grow up in a small town that’s populated by light-skinned Black people. The girls run away at 16, but one of the sisters later disappears, and is now passing as white. They both think the past has been buried until their daughters’ lives become entwined
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong – Vuong is a poet and that’s clear throughout the prose in this beautifully written novel
- Rodham: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld – What would have happened if Hillary Clinton hadn’t married Bill?
- The Temporary Bride by Jennifer Klinec – A must-read for foodies, this memoir follows Klinec as she abandons a high-paying corporate job to start a cooking school in her apartment, which then leads to travelling to Iran, where she falls in love with an Iranian man
- The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton – A thought-provoking rumination on the ordinariness of travel, de Botton asks the questions about why we travel, what we expect when we travel, and why we can sometimes be so miserable when travelling
The worst books I read in 2020
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – Okay, so I didn’t hate this book, I just didn’t get what all the hype was about. I really wanted to love this book, but… I just didn’t. I enjoyed the first half, but the second half of the book felt shallow and there were many moments that were very unbelievable for me.
Normal People by Sally Rooney – Another one that didn’t live up to the hype for me. I didn’t connect with the characters at all, and these characters weren’t even developed properly. The people who are seemingly key to the main character’s whole development – her family – are barely mentioned throughout the novel.
The Loudness of Unsaid Things by Hilde Hinton – I had high hopes for this book but it just didn’t cut it for me. The writing was childish (intentionally, I know, but seemed a bit try-hard at times), the intertwining stories didn’t work, and the ending of the story of the protagonist’s teenage years was abrupt.
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh – As I mentioned earlier, I really enjoyed Moshfegh’s previous book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, so I was excited to pick this one up. Unfortunately, that excitement didn’t last long. The protagonist, 70-year-old widow Vest Gul, finds a letter in the forest one day that reveals a murder – but there’s no body. The discovery sets Vesta off on an investigation. I’d love others’ opinions on this, but I found the ending to be very dissatisfying.
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu – There was not one character in this book that I liked. There was no plot and I just couldn’t wait for it to end.
Have More Fun: How to be Remarkable, Stop Feeling Stuck and Start Enjoying Life by Mandy Arioto – Oh my god, what a self-indulgent BORE. I saw this book at the library and – given it was 2020 and there wasn’t a lot of fun being had – I thought it might have some interesting tips. But no, it was just a chance for the author to share stories with little relevance about how awesome she thinks she is.