Our Favourite Books of 2020

What. A. Year. There isn’t much to say about it other than the fact that we – to various extents – agree collectively that it has been a hell year. As such, discussing favourites during a year like this seems like a strange revelry in privilege. To have had the mental and physical space (not to mention: safety) to enjoy reading and find favourites is something we did not realise could be so difficult to maintain and simultaneously so vital. We feel an enormous gratitude for every writer that produced and shared something this year, but also to the teams behind the publications that dared to launch amid the uncertainties and unmapped territory of social distancing, public health crises, and collective anxieties. Here’s hoping for a better 2021.

Emma Dallamora

This year was a retreat into books. My home-learning, news-scrolling, state-of-disaster addled brain really only wanted to imbibe fiction and the soothing elegance of poetry. And even when the word CRISIS has popped up every second in my publishing and arts-focused feed, 2020 still managed to deliver the goods. Well, I should say, the hard working authors, publishers, and arts industry devotees delivered the goods because let’s face it: 2020 only taketh away.  

My favourite book of the year (big call) was Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People. Tan radically rethinks the everyday, combining speculative fiction at its finest with snappy yet evocative prose. Not a drop of language was wasted in this book and Tan was the captain of every mad journey in this ripper short story collection.
Find out more about Elizabeth in an FWF Q&A.

More fiction to unmiss if you missed it was Donna Mazza’s Fauna, which deftly turned a thriller into something far more poetic, Rebecca Higgie’s The History of Mischief, which was a bittersweet tour through history focusing on the really exciting bits (I eagerly passed it on to my teenager), and for younger readers, The Republic of Birds by Jessica Miller was absolutely delightful, featuring a gritty little girl, Eastern European fairytale, magic, and adventure – whack it in a stocking for sure. 

It’s so hard to choose a favourite Poetry collection for 2020 but, the ones I want to pick up again the most are Labour and Other Poems by Astrid Lorange and A Kinder Sea By Felicity Plunkett. Lorange’s work is laser-focused and heavily political about the body and whose body gets the raw deal (spoiler: it’s women). Plunkett’s work is exquisitely restrained, impressionistic, soothing, and masterfully honed. I would give either of these to someone who ‘doesn’t do poetry’ and snidely wait for their glowing praises. 

Emma Dallamora is an FWF board member. 

Nikki Anderson

There was a heap of fabulous #LoveOzYA this year, much of it with gutsy young women living and leading their lives. Several of my hot picks are: Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird (twin sisters, spirits, race, supernatural and spooky), Davina Bell’s The End of the World is Bigger Than Love (sisters on an island, end of the world vibe, a bear for a boyfriend), Kate O’Donnell’s This One is Ours (art, politics, Paris), and Poppy Nwosu’s Taking Down Evelyn Tait (evil step-sister, sexuality, highschool jealousies).

In non-fiction, Kylie Maslen’s Show Me Where it Hurts and Katerina Bryant’s Hysteria detail chronic illness and disability, and both show a generosity in sharing personal pain and grief, set against pop culture and social history respectively.

In fiction, Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile is moving and wise, hopeful and devastating in its account of small town racism over generations; Vivian Pham’s The Coconut Children details one young woman’s emergence from the shadow of her family’s migrant story. Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss blew me away with its bold intimacy, honesty and hilarity, likewise another dealing with mental illness, Hilde Hinton’s The Loudness of Unsaid Things, was sweet, funny and heart wrenching.
Read Q&As with Nardi Simpson and Hilde Hinton.

Nikki Anderson is director of Feminist Writers Festival.

Cher Tan

The only way I could distract my mind away from the horrors of this year was to read. Luckily, there were plenty of excellent books that served this purpose, and I found myself eagerly sinking into the minds of others to move away from the horrific quiet moments. It is, of course, difficult to make lists or pick favourites, as inclusion sometimes comes at the expense of exclusion. However, these are a few that left a deep impression on me this year, and offer perspectives and styles I find refreshing.

Come: A Memoir by Rita Therese is a tender and intimate look into her life as a sex worker. Written in a conversational prose style that is compulsively readable, it never veers into cliche or self-Othering territory, which in terms of so-called ‘outsider’ stories can be so easy to fall into. Chapters unfold like pages of a diary, no doubt helped by Therese’s skill at crafting her story with an intensity that is simultaneously sensitive and no-fucks-given.
Find out more from Rita in an FWF Q&A.

Revenge: A Murder in Three Parts by SL Lim is another bright red book that’s hard to miss on a shelf. Told in three parts, it is a thriller as well as an inverted Bildungsroman about a middle-aged Malaysian woman on a quest for self-determination, and the heartbreak she endures to find herself. A fiercely feminist novel about a woman’s life put to a standstill by gender bias, sexual repression and the expectations of family, it is also about the weaponisation of familial love and the tragedy of unfulfilled dreams. Lim’s astute renderings of the subtleties inherent in the power dynamics amongst family makes it powerful reading for all.
Read more in an FWF Q&A with SL Lim.

Yet another book that took my breath away for its sheer brilliance and ingenuity was Smart Ovens For Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan. In this collection of short stories, can-openers are obsolete, ASMR is a competitive sport, Bic ballpoint pens are considered antique – and smart ovens are despatched as temporary companions to help people recover from suicide attempts. These stories have an absurdist bent, but it is through this form that the author manages to effectively comment on the many cultural afflictions – such as the search for connection and atomisation – that plague society today. Written in evocative prose interspersed with a certain cheekiness and wry humour, it puts Tan at the forefront of Australian literature. I can hardly wait for her third book already.

Speaking of short stories, I can’t resist a plug. I also edit at Asian-Australian publication LIMINAL, and this year my co-editors and I put together Collisions: Fictions of the Future, an anthology of stories that came out of our Fiction Prize in 2019, which saw entries that not only dazzled us but filled us with hope for the future of Australian fiction. The result is a stunning collection, comprising stories that are both masterfully crafted and relevant to our times. My favourite stories in the anthology include Claire Cao’s ‘See You Tomorrow‘, a story that deftly jumps through time as a Chinese grandmother contemplates a lost past, and Naima Ibrahim’s ‘Auburn Heights’, a lithe tale on the effects of gentrification.

Cher Tan is commissioning editor at Feminist Writers Festival

Meagan Carlaw

As the bushfires raged at the start of the year, I was reading The Glad Shout, Alice Robinson’s compelling book about mothers, daughters, and survival. Set in a climate change-ravaged Melbourne, it’s haunted me all year, but also left me with enough hope to take more action in my own life in the fight against climate change.

Like a lot of white Australian feminists, I read Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson Talkin’ up to the White Woman in its 20th anniversary year. I keep coming back to this; it’s astounding, challenging and rewarding every time. Meghan Delahunt’s chilling The Night-Side of the Country is a #me-too era suspense novel. The tension is built between two stories shared between writer and subject, as the telling
almost inverses in the present, and the past is always getting closer. Song of the Crocodile is Nardi Simpson’s debut novel, but from the first word it’s clear that she is a life-long story teller. This generous, lyrical novel is heartbreaking, but beautiful.

Like a lot of people this year, at times I found it difficult to concentrate long enough to read entire books – the upside of that was reading some incredible journalism and essays. Melissa Lucashenko’s piece on blak Australia surviving through the pandemic was eviscerating, hilarious and powerful. In the same essay series, Jess Hill wrote on privilege, power and the patriarchy, and the precipice our society is standing on right now. Jessica White’s on deafness in a pandemic was a beautiful, moving perspective. Melody Ellis on motherhood, and the language to describe it was both personal and universal, and left me with a catch in my throat.

Finally, FWF published an amazing breadth of work this year. CB Mako’s powerful piece on domestic violence and Parenting in a Pandemic, Eda Gunaydin’s funny, shrewd take on the commodification of feminism in ‘Big Girlboss Energy‘, and the moving reflection in ‘Bound By String‘ by Yen Eriksen were some highlights.

Meagan Carlaw is Comms Coordinator at Feminist Writers Festival

Madeleine Nyst

I started off 2020 by devouring Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach. This beautiful debut reminded me of the fear and excitement that comes alongside moving to new cities and experiencing new things. It made me want to pack my bag and move overseas with my best mates (thanks COVID!).

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville is another favourite from 2020. The untold story of an unruly woman – this book made me rethink and reimagine history in new ways and the final twist made the dance between real and invented all the more fun.
Read our Q&A with Kate Grenville.

An ancient Chinese proverb says that women hold up half the sky. Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide may not have been written in 2020 but it was hands down my favourite book of the year. This book outlines the most appalling ways in which human rights are violated: trafficking and slavery, prostitution, rape and honour killings, and maternal mortality. The authors do not flinch from describing experiences that are horrifying testimony to the deeply rooted gender inequality that persists around the globe. Absorbing the barrage of horrors can feel like an assault of its own, but the poignant portraits of survivors humanise the issues, divulging facts that moral outrage might otherwise eclipse.

Madeleine Nyst is Social Media Coordinator at Feminist Writers Festival

Adele Aria

The twentieth anniversary edition of Dr Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up To The White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism comes with a compelling preface reflecting on the potential this global moment might present for us. She shares in her experience of the first edition launch and, as we witness (and some of us participate in) the Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement that was given an unprecedented global boost later in the year, this text is a timely revisit and gift to the difficult task of examining and reckoning with the furious danger of whiteness as a phenomenon. This edition also includes an article examining some responses to the original publication and it is illuminating to realise that, had I discovered this book twenty years ago, I suspect I could not have read it with anywhere near the capacity to be inspired, challenged, discomforted and intrigued as I do now.

For an exploration of history and the power of words, I could not resist The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. Grounded in the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, it is wistful, sweet, and charming. A highly consumable tale, it winds its way through many social issues while creating a believable and engrossing lens through which to navigate the implications of how we police language, existence, and ourselves.
Find out more about Pip Williams in our FWF Q&A.

Another stand-out favourite has been Living on Stolen Land by Ambelin Kwaymullina which I read three times in the first week of procuring it. It is vibrant, lyrical, haunting and generous. There is a generosity in how elegantly and eloquently it teaches and shares. It’s both a quick and slow read on settler-colonialism, custodianship, Country, and the state of being on these lands.
Read more in a Q&A with Ambelin.

Finally, I add Sweatshop Women: Volume Two. I don’t envy an editor the task of selecting and arranging a collection to build a cohesive experience of prose, poetry, and memoir, and Winnie Dunn has performed this particularly well in creating a celebration of writing by women from Indigenous, migrant, and refugee backgrounds. Each piece stands alone, but as a collection, there is a fierce beauty in each piece that lingers long after reading with imagery evoked and writing that doesn’t perform for expectations and compliance but rather for the cultures and communities to whom and from where it speaks.
Read a Q&A with Winnie Dunn and one of the contributors to Sweatshop Women: Volume Two.

Adele Aria is Development Coordinator at Feminist Writers Festival

You may also be interested in:

FWF Podcasts

FWF Podcasts

Find FWF podcasts from festivals and one-off events over on Spotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

read more