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Books & Poetry

Diary of a Bookseller: My top five books of 2020

Books & Poetry

Bookseller Jo Case shares her top five books of the year ­– all of which happen to be Australian ­– and also recommends five other titles she loved almost as much.

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When you read for both a living and a hobby, and you’re a natural enthusiast, it’s very hard to narrow down the best books you’ve read in a year to a manageable top five.

There are different tricks you can employ to help. I like to prioritise Australian books, so my top five are all Australian. But that’s not just due to my trick – it’s because this has been a truly excellent year, in my opinion (or perhaps, for my reading tastes).

So, here’s my top five, in no particular order… plus an extra five I loved almost as much, for good measure. (Disclaimer: this list reveals twin passions for smart, anxious, funny young women and American politics.)

Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing (Allen & Unwin, $29.99) is a spiky, uncompromising and virtuosic debut novel about a former child prodigy violinist who had a breakdown on stage at 15 and, in her early 20s, is slowly rebuilding her career.

Since her breakdown, Jena has thrown herself into sex as she once did her music, as a source of validation as well as pleasure. Tu pulls off the difficult task of casting the former as dangerous and the latter as joyful and unashamed, often colouring the same sexual encounters with both tones.

I especially loved the way this book explores being an artist: the roles of obsession, natural talent and hard work in honing your craft, and shaping the self. It’s not for readers who require their narrator to be “likable”, but recommended for those interested in a deft exploration of the messiness of atypical characters figuring out early adulthood, while exploring issues of desire, race and high achievement. The nod to Frances Ha doesn’t go astray, either.

Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss (Fourth Estate, $32.99) was probably my favourite book of 2020. I couldn’t stop talking about it, and even got into a lengthy mutual appreciation chat on Twitter last week, with former bookshop colleagues in Melbourne.

This sardonic, surprisingly touching novel opens at Martha’s 40th birthday party. She doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t seem to like her (seemingly very nice) husband Patrick, who leaves her in the aftermath of the party. Then we dip back in time, and get the story of Martha’s eccentric bohemian family (Dad’s an unpublished poet, Mum’s a “mildly successful artist”, her sister is her best friend) and her long relationship with Patrick, after a disastrous failed first marriage to a narcissistic socialite. Then, as we circle back to the fateful birthday, there’s a revelation that skews our perspective on it all, and has us questioning everything we’ve read.

Utterly immersive and blackly funny, Sorrow and Bliss is the rare novel that actually earns its comparisons to Sally Rooney.

Show Me Where it Hurts (Text, $34.99), the debut book from Adelaide author Kylie Maslen, was just shortlisted for a major award (the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction) and I couldn’t be more pleased. I devoured these pop-culture rich, bitingly intelligent essays on living with invisible illness, firmly anchored in the social reality of navigating a “normal” that doesn’t accommodate difference or disability.

Maslen writes about how her illnesses affect her life on an everyday level, from work to relationships to future planning, and wrestles with questions like how we can represent pain or disability without fetishising it. But this book is also passionate and intermittently joyful, in its deep dives into pleasures like Beyonce, Spongebob Squarepants and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This is exactly the kind of non-fiction I love to read – blending journalism, reflection, memoir and cultural analysis – beautifully executed.

Another Australian work of creative non-fiction I was blown away by in 2020 was Blueberries by Ellena Savage (Text, $32.99). A bright girl from a bohemian household in a working-class Melbourne suburb that’s now firmly gentrified, Savage reflects on the places, people, books and art that made her – and the realities of committing to life as an artist, with the material sacrifices that entails, including leapfrogging all over the world to live in places cheaper than Australia. She also acknowledges the privilege inherent in being able to make that choice, including living on land founded by violent dispossession.

Savage plays with form like a poet, and excavates the roots of her experience with an impressive generosity and fierce intelligence that mirror the marvellous Maria Tumarkin (who launched the book). A must for fans of the form.

The manuscript of Georgia Young’s Loner (Text, $24.95) won the 2019 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing, but it was published as adult fiction. And honestly, it works equally well as adult and YA, with its setting in those transitional post-high-school years.

This authentically quirky novel follows Lona, an introverted art-school drop-out working in a roller-skating rink and a supermarket, newly moved into a sharehouse (though she longs for the parental home she just vacated) and figuring out who she is and how she wants to be in the world, moving between trying to meet expectations of what adulthood should look like and doing her own thing. There’s a romantic relationship that’s both intoxicating and a little overwhelming, and a lovely slow reckoning with how to be an artist on her own terms.

There are so many perfect sentences in Loner, I took to it with a pencil as I read, underlining them. I would quote something, but I loved this so much, I loaned it to (aka pushed it on) a friend, so I can’t.

And the five books I loved almost as much this year, rounding out my top 10 list, are:

When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present by Nick Bryant (Viking, $34.99): This fascinating, thoughtful and addictively well-written work of reportage traces the roots of Donald Trump’s ascendance to Reagan’s performative presidency and Clinton’s lowering of the bar, scandal-wise. So good, it’s got me back into reading political books (a past penchant, largely abandoned around Trump’s election).

Why Visit America by Matthew Baker (Bloomsbury, $29.99): A superbly written and imagined collection of short stories set in an alternate universe or near future where current hot-button issues have been met with radical solutions. In the title story, a small Texan town fed up with neoliberalism secedes from the USA and renames itself America, out of loyalty to the America that was. Speculative literary fiction with a heavy dose of satire, it’s kind of like Black Mirror on the page.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (Bloomsbury, $29.99): Genuinely terrifying and surprisingly hopeful, this literary psychological thriller eerily captures the perpetual-crisis feeling of 2020. Two couples, strangers, are isolated together in an Air BnB – the wealthy black owners and middle-class white renters – in the wake of a mysterious major disaster that’s shut down New York. With its knife-sharp social observation and perfect build-up of dread, this astute novel is a gripping read.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $32.99): Whip-smart, quick-quipping and – my sweet spot, as you can tell – both funny and oddly moving, this dysfunctional, class-conscious love-triangle novel is about being in your 20s, uncomfortable in your own skin, on the outside of your social circle, and dryly socially observant. Irish expat Ava lives in Hong Kong with Julian, who insists he’s not her boyfriend, though they have sex and he pays for everything. When Julian is out of town, she meets and falls for Ava. Deliciously good.

Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne (Text, $29.99): Laura McPhee-Browne’s exquisitely angsty, atmospheric debut novel opens on a snowy Toronto beach and dives deep into the intense friendship between insecure fringe-dweller Ness and her bewitching best friend (and crush since childhood) Netty, as the Melbourne friends settle into a sharehouse of local creatives. Netty unexpectedly blossoms, while Herry’s downward spiral threatens to take everything down. This gorgeously written, piercingly observed novel reminds me of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep (high praise).

Jo Case is a bookseller at Imprints Booksellers on Hindley Street and an associate publisher at Wakefield Press.

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