What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

Best of 2019

 - Friday, October 18, 2019
Jonathon: My first pick of 2019 is The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. I really enjoyed the difference in style between Atwood’s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale and this year’s sequel. The first book is the closely knit, inner monologue of Offred/June, whereas this sequel draws in more voices to create a broader, more tactile picture of Gilead. Atwood’s characters really highlight just how bizarre and threatening both the physical and psychological worlds of Gilead were, and give an unexpected twist to the theocracy’s power centre. You’ll devour this quickly! My second pick is the unmissable The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. It’s a stunning re-evaluation of capitalism in the digital age. Zuboff argues that we are not so much the products of ‘free’ social media apps, but the raw materials of a distinct mode of production. Zuboff traces the invention of a world without privacy or personal sovereignty, where social media platforms turn our inner lives into grist for their data product mills. Scary, but also hopeful for push back. Zuboff writes beautifully to boot.


Hannah: Fans of Silvia Federici have been spoiled of late; her Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism & the Politics of the Commons and the incisive, brilliant and seemingly feverishly written volume Witches, Witch-hunting & Women were a real treat. She has a lot to say and not enough time to say it! Luckily, her fans are able to savour not only her work, but also critiques of her work, and in June we were blessed with Commoning with George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici—a collection of essays honouring & exploring Federici and her colleague George Caffentzis’ contributions to anti-capitalism, primitive accumulation and the commons, feminism, reproductive labour, and Marx’s value theory. I cannot recommend this highly enough either as a guidebook for the beginner or as a pleasurable read for the most seasoned of comrades.


Victoria: I have three favourite books that I read this year. Number one is the one that stayed with me the longest which was The Overstory by Richard Powers. Beautifully and cleverly written,it starts with nine short stories about a person or family and a tree and then bringing all those stories together to create something so very important to us all. After reading it, I wanted to walk where there are trees and give every child born, a seedling. The other two books I want to recommend are The Friend by Sigrid Nunez  and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.


Janice: My favourite book of the year is Faber & Faber The Untold Story by Toby Faber, the Grandson of  Geoffrey Faber, founder of the publishing house. I have been a bookseller for many years, and have seen publishers come and go, but  Faber & Faber have always been there, publishing great books, from authors such as T. S .Eliot, W. H. Auden and William Golding, whose first reader’s report  on The  Lord of the Flies is a joy to read. I still have the first copies of  Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Ariel and The Colossus, that I bought so long ago, along with my treasured copy of Archy & Mehitabel. This book is a delight from beginning to end. It is a collection of letters, diaries and memos, from the Faber archives, and it would take far to long to mention all the wonderful stories of once obscure but now famous authors, novelists, poets and playwrights published by this company. Geoffrey Faber was an eccentric, clever man, publisher, poet & academic, but with little head for business—for example he told Auden: ‘You’re very obscure you know, but I am glad to have The Waste Land, although I wonder if I am especially stupid’. The company has thrived, despite shaky beginnings, to become the publisher so respected and loved today. You need not be a bookseller or publisher to enjoy this book, it is such an entertaining and colourful and revealing look behind the scenes of one of the truly great publishing houses of the twentieth century.


Tim: My book of the year was Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. I was captivated by it’s very clever re-imagining of 20th century history, and by the intriguing portrayal of the protagonists devolving relationship with a sentient, charismatic robot. The whole book seemed entirely plausible and was beautifully written. 


Ingrid: Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read. A phone call disrupts the languid evening, and the lives of the all the characters are irrevocably changed. I couldn’t put this book down. Another very different book, Adrian McKinty’s latest crime thriller, The Chain, will also keep you reading all night. Although part way through you may stop to frantically check your privacy settings on Facebook. The Chain is an insidious dark web ring forcing parents to pay a ransom and then kidnap a child before their own child is released. For more classic crime, read Maigret’s Pickpocket. It was first published in 1967, and newly translated this year as part of Penguin’s ambitious program to publish new translations of all Georges Simenon’s work. It has all the twists and turns, and atmosphere of a time without mobile phones and internet. ($30)


Sally: My favorite book of the year would have to be Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s an ambitious book with a number of fascinating characters whose paths finally cross through their shared passion for trees. Poetic, philosophical and topical , its an enthralling yarn. Another standout for me was Pachinko  by Lee Min Jin—a family saga about Korean migrants in 20th c Japan. The female characters especially are strong and resilient as they try and support their families and remain true to their culture in a profoundly racist society. Good to read something that gives an insight into a little known community. 


Sonia: My favourite for the year is Underland by Robert Macfarlane, but David Brooks’ The Grass Library (see my column this month) is right up there too and I am LOVING Catherine Schine’s The Grammarians. PS I’d have said Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth for best book but I am such a wimp about violence. However the subject matter— the ‘dispersal’ of Indigenous Australians in protection of settler rights in 1880s QLD—makes it an important book despite/because of the horror.


Jack:  Lots to admire this year (Lanny by Max Porter, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Go Ahead in the Rain by Hanif Abdurraqib and Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells to name a few. However, the worn-out binding on my copy of Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers (edited by Kit de Waal) is evidence of the time it’s spent in my hands—and on my mind. ‘Low esteem wants to party’, says one contributor and it does between the pages of this exhilarating collection of essays, memoirs and short stories.


John: Time again for selecting our Book of the Year—so soon, and so many wonderful possibilities. For me: Tom Holland’s 
Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind—a book that manages to tread the line between scholarly and accessible. For crime lovers I can recommend Beyond Reasonable Doubt by Gary Bell—a Rumpolesque romp down the Old Bailey, beware ... Elliot Rook QC is not the man he purports to be. But my pick of the year is Kate McClymont’s Dead Man Walking—the extraordinary story of the murder of Michael McGurk and a look at Sydney’s underbelly this century. If you thought the world of ‘colourful racing identities’ and ‘well known Sydney business men’ belonged in those ancient, corrupt days of the 20th C, this book will change your mind.


David G: Underland by Robert MacFarlane beautiful book about landscape, the earth and man’s relationship with it. Lyrical and personal, urgent and impassioned:  ‘time is profoundly out of joint, and so is place’. He’s a great writer about the natural world and this is his best, and most important, book.


Scott D: My favorite read this year was also the shortest—Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli. Set during the Russian Civil War in 1919 as Spring signals the resumption of hostilities on the Romanian front line, four young soldiers idle away their last days of freedom. Deceptively simple and profoundly moving Mingarelli’s novella was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker prize and described by past winner Hilary Mantel as ‘A small miracle of a book, perfectly imagined and perfectly achieved’.


Louise: Laura Cumming’s evocative memoir of her beloved mother’s childhood, On Chapel Sands, is evocative and thought provoking, and resonates with the author’s thoughtful way of looking at the world. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, was my favourite fiction book; a dark fairytale that travels back and forth in time with a family whose destiny is inextricably entwined with the extraordinary house they live in, and are cast out of. Finally, I’d also really like to recommend Miss Buncle’s Book by D E Stevenson, is a book about a book, and its most unlikely author, Miss Barbara Buncle. Written in 1932, it is a most ingenious, amusing story about life in an archetypal English village. Now published (beautifully, and alas, expensively) by Persephone Books, there’s more to this cosy book than meets the eye.


Tatjana: If I say The Overstory by Richard Powers is about trees it sounds boring, but this ecological epic has changed the way I look at trees. It turns out trees live lives similar to ours & they exhibit social behaviours, communicating with each other through a vast network of root systems.This of course happens slowly over centuries and has been scientifically proven (see the brilliant The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben). But it’s the way Richard Powers uses structure, narrative and his disparate characters to draw the reader into a perspective of a vast primordial history, of longer lived lives that are more subtly developed than our own that gets under your skin. He manages to both celebrate the world’s grandest life forms—trees—and warn about the greatest crisis of our time, that of climate change & biodiversity collapse.


Scott V: This Storm by James Ellroy—set in Los Angeles in 1942 after Pearl Harbour, this is the second installment in Ellroy’s new L.A. Quartet. Along with the usual diet of violence, murders, corrupt cops, celebrities and debauchery, you can now throw in a gold heist, fifth columnist activity, Nazis and massive thunderstorms. (Ellroy is not for the faint-hearted.) His short punchy no-nonsense writing style is an acquired taste, but once you acquire it, you’re hooked. God bless his dark unscrupulous heart.


Viki: I am surprised to be saying Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. The judges may not have favoured Ellman with a half (or a third) of a Man/Booker this year, but despite my general disinterest in experimental/stream of consciousness writing I have found Ducks to be an addictive, irritating and calming (at the same time) immersion in this tidal wave of anxieties, plans, lists, opinions, the fact is the fact is the fact is factoids running through a distracted 21st century multi-multi-tasking mind. PS—the US edition may be a couple of dollars more, but the cover is so much better than the UK edition. A bright gouache of a duck bobbing—for more factoids, or perhaps cooling its head in a blue rippling pond of forgetfulness—whatever, it offers a salve on closing the book to the cacophony of words inside.


Andrew: Novels of decidedly poetic prose more often than not fall way short of the mark for me, but this year On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong excelled where so many others have flailed. The last chapter was as devastating a conclusion to a novel as any I have read. A shout out, too, to The Wall by John Lanchester. Not perfect but a captivating and melancholy page-turner nevertheless. The Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published late last year, is a consummate novella that gained a little traction this year, but deserves far greater recognition. And finally in non-fiction, The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour filled me with horror and fascination at every turn; rich in cultural and psychological theory, it’s an erudite, horrifying exposition of what social media is doing to our brains and our society, and as such proved a game-changer for me.


Morgan: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert—Gilbert said she wanted to write a book that, in these troubled (Trumpian) times, would ‘go down like a glass of champagne’. In this she has brilliantly succeeded. A great holiday read. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak—A beautifully written story about a group of friends living in the margins of modern Istanbul, with the gorgeous prostitute Leila, at its centre. Evocative and tender, this is a book not to be missed. Shortlisted for the Booker this year.


Stephen: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold—British social historian and novelist Rubenhold investigates the lives of five women—Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly—the ‘canonical’ five, killed by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel, London between August and November 1888. Their murderer is completely absent from this story. Through researching parish registers, rate books, newspaper articles, coroner’s inquests—although three of these are missing—workhouse archives and birth, marriage and death certificates, Rubenhold brings them back to life and takes us through every aspect of their life – from the moment they are born to the moment they are killed. We see their hopes and their dreams as well as their struggles. We are also taken down the dark path that led them to their circumstances —alone and destitute in Whitechapel.


Judy: Two standout reads this year for me—each one affording that sense of delighted surprise: Emilie Pine’s Notes To Self—essays of memoir fresh, bold and most beautifully structured to reveal a self I felt most drawn to. And Anna Burns’ Milkman written in wonderful, immersive Irish prose that takes you into a divided neighbourhood in Northern Ireland in the 70s. Our narrator introduces us to a craziness that is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. The novel is funny, frightening and so disquieting.


David M: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee—Smack in the zone for the surge of exploration and learning that characterized the European Renaissance, the bastard son of Christopher Columbus, Hernando, sets out, amongst other things, to create the ultimate library. An extraordinary tale of the mind and spirit, wonderfully told. Right up my street.