At the beginning of the year I blithely signed up for a reading challenge at Goodreads - 100 books in a year. I assumed I'd easily read that. But in August I realised there was no way I was going to make it. Rather than write the challenge off, I amended it to 50. So far I've read 48. I am almost finished two books (The Man in the Wooden Hat on audio and Amy Bloom's astonishing short story collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out) so can comfortably say I will achieve this.
Of those 50 books, some are audio, some I read on the Kindle and some I consumed the old fashion way. Some are novels I read aloud to the kids. Anyway, here's a best of:
The Summer Without Men was the first book I read on the Kindle and it cemented my love for it. I think the Kindle is especially well suited to novellas. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a short memoir of illness, in which a bedridden woman becomes absorbed in recording the life of a wild snail who shares her sick room. Another short novel, The Golden Day, is Ursula Dubosarsky's latest, a very absorbing fiction which transcends traditional audience (which means it has been published as YA), an urban Sydney Picnic at Hanging Rock, well matched with The Secret River which I listened to later in the year. I also loved the chilling We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a Penguin modern classic by an author I hadn't heard of before, Shirley Jackson. Castle is one of those books that pre-empts modern YA. Her short story collection The Lottery is also on the Kindle and I've been dipping in and out of it all year.
Speaking of short fiction, I've been reading quite a lot this year as that's what I've been writing. Also on the Kindle I loved Making Babies by Anne Enright, short memoirs about parenthood. I love her as a writer and feel totally bonded to her as a parent. Also after reading a recommendation by Louise Swinn I read Karen Hitchcock's collection Little White Slips. Hitchcock is a doctor and according to the interwebs a triathlete. She writes beautifully and seeringly about people touching on many of the same subjects I am drawn to as a writer, so it was fascinating to read fiction by someone who was "same same but different" (ahem, I am not a triathlete. Have I ever mentioned that? I am not a doctor either.)
Audiobooks are situated somewhere between reading and having a long gossipy conversation with your best friend. Below in my "best of" is actually all the audiobooks I've listened to this year. I attempted others but am more likely to abandon books when listening than reading.
Abide With Me Sprawling, compassionate, heartbreaking.
The Help I've blogged about this before
Old Filth My afterlife consists of a giant library of books about everyone I ever met. Many of my family would be in books by Jane Gardam. Actually my dad knew her as a boy.
The Secret River Bill Wallis narrated Old Filth, so I came across this when searching the audible website by narrator. It was a book I'd always meant to read (having loved Lilian's Story). So it was a done deal. I struggled through the first part set in England which is impeccably researched but burdened with so much detail I couldn't make a picture in my head. But from the moment Wallis spoke the words Part Two I was hooked. Listening is relentless and unforgiving, and there were some difficult scenes I would have skimmed if I'd been reading.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Amazing layered non-fiction book that includes as part of its project a deep and intriguing reflection on the act of writing about people's lives.
The Marriage Plot This is a wonderfully put together book, very much driven by character. I found the material very identifiable, though I am probably 10 years younger than the characters. But it was a world and a collection of experiences I recognised. I had a few issues by the end of the novel particularly regarding Eugenides treatment of his main female protagonist, but it was a fun and absorbing listen and I felt invested in all the characters.
The Man in the Wooden Hat is a gift of a book, a sequel to Old Filth that dwells with his wife Betty.
Superfudge and the Lotta books made the whole family laugh out loud. Martin would finish the dishes and sit in the lounge to listen. I love these books, structured around incident and encounter. A friend described the genre as "the family down the street" and I think it might be one of my favourites, especially for very young children.
The Hundred Dresses is a book that's been recommended on here a few times by American readers and when I came across it last year just before Christmas I decided to buy it for Una who had recently enjoyed The Worst Witch. She struggled to identify with The Hundred Dresses but Fred listened fascinated. And then they both incorporated the book into their imaginative play.
For Una's birthday, I decided to go back to the picture book, but still wanted an extended and engaging reading experience. I came across Millie Starts School at the wonderful Eltham Bookshop and knew this would appeal. It is a picture book in four chapters and conjures up the school experience beautifully. Jane Godwin is brilliant at capturing contemporary Australian childhood and those sorts of experiences to which we can all relate.
Cicada Summer This was almost a bit beyond Fred but she loved the idea of the timeslip, and because she knows Kate well, and has played often with Kate's oldest daughter Alice (who bears a lot of similarities to Anna in Cicada Summer), the book resonated for her, so next we tried
Charlotte Sometimes which was definitely more challenging and actually is structurally very odd. Fred adored it though and we will look out Penelope Farmer's other books about the Summers girls.
Best of the Rest
Gilgamesh I read this after the Meanjin Tournament of Books. It's a strange book, often book people talk about being "in safe hands", feeling the author knows where she is taking the reader. I never felt safe with Gilgamesh and I doubted the author's ability to satisfactorily end the book right up till the last paragraph, but by sleight of hand she did it. That feeling of not being safe actually makes the book an oddly tense read, not entirely comfortable, but I was completely entranced. This is more like a spell than a novel.
The Shattering is great YA. As is This is Shyness. These both might fit into the "supernatural romance" category that most YA seems to be tipping towards these days but both are SO MUCH MORE.
After listening to Abide With Me I read Strout's other two books Olive Kitteridge and Amy and Isabelle. I love the way she writes, the richness of characters interior lives and their interconnectedness, the sprawl of detail and the small town as stage for human drama. These are books you can read page by page, sometimes I would devour a 100 pages in a sitting, then it might take me a week to read ten more. She builds her stories sentence by sentence, each one is its own artwork.
Kinglake-350 is a retelling and examination of the 2009 bushfires but also a study of the Australian male. It got a little *too* blokey for me by the end, but I fully acknowledge that this is a book written to also appeal to people who don't regularly read. And it is extremely compulsive, and more than a little unsettling (as it should be).
In the last months of my pregnancy last year I read the Little Women books so sometime after Avery was born I picked up March. I was disappointed, the connection to Alcott's world to me is the most problematic element of March. But I was inspired to read Year of Wonders and I loved it. I even loved the epilogue that dismayed so many others.
The first book I read this year was The Children by Charlotte Wood, the sequel (or companion or whatever) Animal People came out this year and it's high on my to read list. Charlotte is active on Twitter which is to say she and I spend more time than we should talking about our respective dinners on the computer.
Out of the 50 books I read this year, 13 were by Australian women (well, strictly speaking Karen Healey is a New Zealander but she was living here when she wrote it) plus there were 2 anthologies in which Australian women are well represented. Only 4 books of the total fifty were by men (2 Australian). There is an Australian Women Writer's Reading Challenge for 2012. Considering my "to read" pile currently includes Sophie Cunningham's Melbourne (I'm about a third of the way in and relishing it), Gillian Mears The Foal's Bread, Grenville's Sarah Thornhill, Wood's Animal People and Maureen McCarthy's Careful What You Wish For and my most anticipated books for next year include the conclusion to Michelle Cooper's compelling trilogy The FitzOsborne's at War (rock on April - also the month the new Anne Tyler is being released), the next Shyness novel, Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts and Maureen McCarthy's newie inspired by her family connection to the Abbotsford convent I am almost there. But looking over the year's books I am beginning to think I might benefit from a few more Y chromosomes in my reading pile.