10 Favourite Books in 2020

10. Eve Out of her Ruins by Ananda Devi (tr. Jeffrey Zuckerman) – Mauritius

This novel was among the deliveries from the biiiiig Better World Books order I placed in March just as Melbourne’s earlier phase of restrictions began – and wow, it was a compelling distraction. It’s a short, harrowing story of four teenagers trying to survive the violence of their neighbourhood in Port Louis, Mauritius’s capital. I follow the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman, on Twitter and had high expectations for this book. It surpassed them.

9. Teaote and the Wall by Marita Davies, illustrated by Stacey Bennett – Kiribati

The arrival of this extraordinary book was a rare and much-needed source of excitement deep into Melbourne’s second (ultra intense) lockdown in September. I came across Australian/Kiribati writer Marita Davies’s work while researching writers from the Pacific and was instantly keen to read this story of a child confronting life on the frontlines of the climate crisis. The importance of climate-related books – especially for younger generations – goes without saying, particularly during a week when extreme weather and coastal destruction yet again dominates headlines in Australia.

8. The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (tr. Brian FitzGibbon) – Iceland

It was a wintry evening in May when I read this gentle novel with my first foster cat on my lap (three more would follow across the two lockdowns!). The story very much transported me along the protagonist’s journey from his Icelandic home to a monastery rose garden in need of loving care. Quiet, slow and meditative, it felt like exactly what I needed at that point of this fast-paced and barely fathomable year.

7. Trans by Juliet Jacques – United Kingdom

I ordered this book in Verso’s December sale a year ago and read it as soon as it arrived in January. Juliet’s memoir is an incredibly honest account of the years that led up to her transition, weaving in many insights into the world of gender politics. The media industry comes across terribly and I wish things had progressed since, but I write this in the wake of two very transphobic opinion pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald. [PS: if you’re looking for stunning fiction by a trans writer, I recommend jia qing wilson-yang’s Small Beauty which I borrowed from Yarra Libraries a few weeks before this memoir.]

6. Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero (tr. Frances Riddle) – Ecuador

This story collection came as a highly anticipated gift from Santiago-based translator Natascha Bruce for #WITMonth Book Swap, organised by Meytal Radzinski in August. When the book was first recommended to me I was slightly tentative, given the focus on domestic abuse, but I’m really glad I read it – mainly for how astonishingly powerful a writer Ampuero is. I had been struggling to engage fully with books at the time (14 weeks into Melbourne’s second lockdown) and this collection shook me out of the stupor.

5. The Magic Doll by Adrienne Yabouza, illustrated by Élodie Nouhen (tr. Paul Kelly)Central African Republic

As it was only published in September, this was one of the very last books I read for my project – and it was, without a doubt, the most visually beautiful. It’s one of two children’s books featuring on my 2020 top ten (the other being Teaote and the Wall) and I think there’s something to be said for taking time away from screens/small font just to enjoy wonderful imagery and storytelling in fewer words. Narrated through the eyes of a young girl, the book follows a mother’s process towards getting pregnant and giving birth through the support of a Akua’ba fertility doll. With these important words and expressive images, this book was totally worth the wait.

4. A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (tr. Christina E Kramer)Macedonia

This was among the most immersive books I sank into this year. After hearing only good things, I read Dimkovska’s novel between Melbourne’s two lockdowns while I was on a weekend trip to the Dandenong Ranges and predictably got pretty lost in the pages! The story is told by a conjoined twin raised in Skopje, who is venturing towards personal independence and romantic love – through communist Yugoslavia and further afield. A memorable book that has stayed with me.

3. The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mcleod (tr. Gerald Mettam)Suriname

This book was bound to be in my top three of the year – I was completely addicted to the story back in early March. We were still working in offices at that point, and I was reading it right through my lunchbreaks. In fact, my review reminded me that a colleague even comforted me one break when I was visibly upset by a plot twist! Set in the 18th century, it’s a tale of love and cruelty under the chief sugar colony for the Dutch Empire. I’ve recommended it to friends since and apparently they’ve been 100% absorbed by it too!

2. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia AlvarezDominican Republic

When people ask me about my very favourite books since I began this blog, In The Time of Butterflies always springs to mind. The story reimagines the lives of the four Mirabal sisters (‘The Butterflies’, or ‘Las Mariposas’) who symbolised hope and defiance during their country’s dictatorship from 1938 to 1994. To quote my own review, “my life was essentially put on pause while I was reading it”. It was also a great chance to learn more about the women whose legacy sparked the 16 Days of Activism – a campaign that I focused on promoting in my human rights work.

1. Cantoras by Carolina de RobertisUruguay

There’s no way to put into words quite how much I loved this novel. Set at the time of the Uruguyan dictatorship in the 1970-80s, this is a breathtaking story about five women who together explore the ways we can love one another – from erotic passion to close friendship to unconditional familial love. The book not only made me laugh and cry, but also left me fundamentally wanting to become a better reader and writer. If this sounds hyperbolic, take a look at the book’s Goodreads page – I’m far from the only one who was profoundly affected by Cantoras!

Read my full list of reviews since mid-2018

As Good as Gold by Kathryn Bertine

a nutshell: this memoir follows an athlete’s attempt to make the Olympics via the beautiful dual-island nation of St Kitts and Nevis

a line: “doable, with its amazing ability to promise nothing and everything all at once, still left me in charge, I hung onto that word fiercely, to its calm positivity, its quiet hope, and its spunky little go-getter syllables”

an image: when recalling her first trip to St Kitts and Nevis, Bertine recounts Christopher Columbus’ error in believing the clouds above Nevis’s highest peak were a snowcapped mountain, hence the name from the Spanish ‘nieves’ (‘snows’)

a thought: I was moved by Bertine’s honesty about leaving her ex-fiance, an alcoholic, and her memories of how she gathered what was left of her confidence, courage & energy after realising she couldn’t rewire another person’s ‘happy button’ – I was particularly interested in her reflection about the danger of thinking if physical pain was something she could endure then why not pain of the emotional variety?

a fact: at one point, Bertine visits my home city of Melbourne for the Bloody Big Swim, an 11.3km route through the open sea, which I know *for a fact* that I wouldn’t stand a chance at!

want to read As Good as Gold? visit here

Back to Life by Wendy Coakley Thompson

kindle image of cover with black woman and white man embracing, lavender in background

a nutshell: through the lens of a passionate love story between a black woman and an Italian man, Coakley Thompson reflects on race relations in New York City at the very end of the 1980s

a line: “Damn it, what is it with us and them?”

an image: at one point, the characters discuss an interview with mayoral candidate Dinkins, commenting that he talks about the City as his beautiful mosaic, how all the colours make it beautiful, not about that ‘assimilationist melting pot shit’

a thought: it was interesting to read a romance – a genre I’ve not read for many years – and I learned a lot about a corner of NYC society which I had known little about through the author’s concerted contextualisation of this relationship

a fact: Coakley Thompson was driven to write this book following the murder of a 16-year-old black child in Brooklyn on 23 August, 1989 – here’s an article about it in the NYT

want to read Back to Life? visit here

Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero (tr. Frances Riddle)

cockfight book yellow cover against blanket floral

a nutshell: through 13 stories of extraordinary power, this steely debut from Ecuadorian writer Ampuero spotlights the ruinous & cyclical nature of domestic abuse

a line: “But it was just faith, the most pathetic of feelings. Faith didn’t do a goddamn thing”

an image: Ampuero is astonishingly talented at building tension, such as when one character describes how the presence of her friends’ father means they had to whisper and the air filled with an electric energy, wet, like when a huge storm is coming

a thought: I was bowled over time & time again by these stories, particularly their dagger-like endings, and finished the book within hours (which really is something, given that I’ve struggled to engage fully with books as we approach our 14th week of lockdown no.2 in Melbourne) – one thought that’s stuck in my head is a protagonist’s comment about vacations in these countries being all about contrasts – I have been guilty of this, a desire for contrasts, in my travels

a fact: this interview is a fascinating exploration of the mind behind Cockfight (& I couldn’t agree more with Ampuero that there’s nothing more profound than the harm your family can cause you; as she shares, “You can leave your family, I did it many, many years ago, but your family does not leave you”)

want to read Cockfight? visit here

Les Enfants du Khat by Mouna-Hodan Ahmed

Town beside water on book cover, sat on desk next to coffee, pencil and plant

a nutshell: this unique novel follows the life of an eldest daughter who has to grow up quickly due to her father’s addiction to khat, a hallucinogenic herb, which wreaks havoc across society – with particularly sinister impacts on women

a line: “Pourquoi sommes-nous obligés de retoucher son chef-d’œuvre? Sommes-nous plus savant que lui?” | “Why are we forced to retouch his masterpiece? Are we more knowledgeable than him?” – on female genital mutilation (FGM) and God’s will

an image: throughout this hard-hitting novel, Ahmed is unsparing in her depictions of the violence against women that exists not only within Djibouti but globally – from domestic abuse to sexual coercion to FGM

a thought: the book opens with a quote from Pius Ngandu Nkashama about African youth being at a crossroads, and this seems to be the ongoing theme of Les Enfants du Khat – the potential power of young people to generate change

a fact: I was intrigued by the beautiful image on the book’s cover and discovered it was a photo of Tadjoura, one of Djibouti’s oldest towns & an important port for many centuries; Tadjoura evolved into an early Islamic centre with the arrival of Muslims shortly after the Hijra, and is also known for its whitewashed buildings, nearby beaches, and mosques

want to read Les Enfants du Khat? visit here

Les Humiliées by Koumanthio Zeinab Diallo

Guinean family outdoors in conversation on cover of book, held against plant

a nutshell: set in a village in the Republic of Guinea, this powerful play sets out to combat all forms of violence against women and remove political/legal barriers to women’s full participation in decision-making

a line: “N’est-ce pas comme un objet qu’on achète et dont on se sert pour le jeter ensuite?” | “Isn’t it like an object that we buy and use then throw it away?”

an image: at one point Soro (from the older generation) says his father liked to say a woman is like a goat – if you play with her, she’ll bite you one day, so a husband must always make them fear him and never laugh with them since they are devils

a thought: the playwright highlights the immense pressure on women to give their husbands sons, i.e. heirs, and how this makes them ‘true women’ – Mariama’s attempt to convey that it wasn’t her fault she gave birth to daughters elicits a furious response

a fact: in the introduction Diallo shares that this subject matter was drawn from her own sister’s distress & silencing after being disowned by her husband

want to read Les Humiliées? visit here

Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel

a nutshell: through the traditional Samoan storytelling form of su’ifefiloi, Figiel tells the fascinating story of a teenage girl, Alofa, trying to make sense of the violence & sex she encounters in society

a line: “‘I’ is always ‘we,’ is a part of the ‘aiga [family]… a part of Samoa’ [also, read the book to discover just how extraordinary the first line is]

an image: I loved the moment when the narrator shared how she imagined a daffodil was a dancer that lives in the sky during their school recitals of Wordsworth’s poetry

a thought: among the book’s vignettes is a scene in which an incomer mocks Shirley Girl, who is fa’afafine (someone who dressed as a girl), following which the locals ignore her and her Samoan rugby player partner breaks up with her – I learned more about fa’afafine in Samoan culture here

a fact: this was the first ever novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States – it is striking that Figiel considers herself first & foremost a performance poet

want to read Where We Once Belonged? visit here

Lady in a Boat by Merle Collins

a nutshell: both disquieting & loving, this expressive poetry collection spans family history, the Grenadian revolution and Caribbean life more broadly

a line: “It seems the apocalypse | will be televised”

an image: Collins returns to a haunting image of a friend lying in a stinking drain, with a pig nudging at his body, which gave me the horrifying impression that it is one taken from life

a thought: the poet writes of wandering to wrestle with her furies, and the imporance of knowing the arrogance of wandering and seeking the humility of home – something that particularly struck me, as a person living on the very opposite side of the world to where I grew up

a fact: the poet was deeply involved with the Grenadian Revolution and served as a government coordinator for research on Latin America and the Caribbean

want to read Lady in a Boat? visit here

Flotsam & Jetsam by Jully Makini

a nutshell: this is the third poetry collection from Solomon Islander poet, writer and women’s rights activist Jully Makini

Jully

a line: “Our minds meet in the air” [‘Messages by Moonlight’]

an image: in ‘On the Rocks’, Makini depicts her clothes as heavily waterlogged with custom and culture, pulling her to the rocks of divorce

a thought: the poet has used her writing to convey powerful messages about women’s rights to people in remote areas of Solomon Islands, including issues considered taboo such as violence against women and children

a fact: born in Gizo, Makini began a career in writing after attending the Solomon Island Women Writers’ Workshop in 1980

want to read Flotsam & Jetsam? visit here

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas

the purple violet of Oshaantu cover with purple splodge

a nutshell: set in rural Namibia, this is a story of friendship between two neighbours with very different husbands – one kind, one abusive

a line: “Child, don’t wait until it is too late … I have seen women who have died in this thing called marriage”

an image: I loved the scene of the women’s okakungungu (working festival / group cultivation) where they sang songs of ancestors and called on their great-grandmothers as they ploughed Kauna’s land before the rains, then sat drinking and chatting in a spirit of sisterhood under the marula (wild plum) tree

a thought: though the society is eminently patriarchal, wives are the backbone of the village and several women are seen to stand up to domineering men – such as when an elderly woman publicly shamed Shange, asking what he feels when he beat his wife who could not beat him back

a fact: through the exuberant descriptions of dishes throughout the book, I learned that dried caterpillars are a Namibian delicacy

want to read The Purple Violet of Oshaantu? visit here