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 subject matter of domestic abuse being very close to home, 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 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

 

Le Déserteur by Hélène Kaziende

Text of Le Deserteur against blue sky

a nutshell: in a letter addressed to Africa from Samzi Dikinfa of Erquifa, this short yet immensely powerful piece of prose shares an insight into the complexities around why someone might leave a homeland – not necessarily by choice

a line: I’m leaving, tired of aborted promises and murdered suns” (“je m’en vais, lassé des promesses avortées et des soleils assassinés”)

an image: I found myself moved by the portrayal of being surrounded by ‘professional’ drunks, while the self-described deserter thirsts not for alcohol but rather for a bit of justice and freedom

a thought: I wondered whether there was any significance to the date of the letter, 15 August 1990, and discovered through the internet that it was on this day that at least 150 people were killed in clashes between the African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party, South Africa

a fact: this story won a prize in a competition by radio station Africa No. 1 and features in the 1992 collection Kilomètre 30, which I managed to get a copy of through Better World Books – its arrival was quite poignant, as it was the very final book to arrive for my entire project

want to read Kaziende’s writing? visit here

Le Journal de Maya by Coralie Frei

cat on cover of kindle, black and white

[note: I read this in the original French as it is not yet available in translation]

a nutshell: at times hilariously melodramatic and perfectly ‘feline’, this diary of a five-year-old Siamese cat will have many familiar scenes for cat lovers such as myself

a line: “this is my philosophy: Patience, virtue of cats”

an image: Frei renders even the simplest of acts beautifully, such as when joy gives Maya the wings to jump and land heavily on the sink

a thought: I thoroughly enjoyed reading these observations from a cat’s perspective – particularly the comment on how humans possess the art of complicating their lives (if only we took a leaf out of our cat’s book!)

a fact: Frei is the first Comorian woman to have written a novel, and has also written poetry

want to read Le Journal de Maya? visit here

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

cover of magic doll with young girl illustrated and doll and chickens

a nutshell: narrated from the perspective of Adjoa, a young child, this exquisite book shares a deeply loving story of her mother’s journey towards pregnancy and birth through the support of a Akua’ba fertility doll

a line: “Words do not have legs, but sometimes they can run fast!”

an image: one of my favourite parts was when the mother goes to the market to buy rice, millet, yams (see a glimpse below)

a thought: without a shadow of a doubt, this is the most beautiful book of all those I’ve read during my project – on its arrival I couldn’t stop turning each page to study the drawings and I loved how the story gently portrayed a struggle which many women face globally, often in silence

a fact: Yabouza closes with some fascinating insights into the geography and history behind the story – including her relationship with an Akua’ba doll that she came across in Bangui, the capital of her home country the Central African Republic, during childhood

want to read The Magic Doll? visit here

illustrations of women in a marketplace with many fruits and stunning patterns

Moments of Nil by Flora Tavu

a nutshell: gathering poetry & short stories side-by-side, this is an accumulation of thoughts from Brunei-raised writer Flora Tavu

a line: “leave us cold with the coldness of lost hopes and dreams raining down our sanity” – ‘Unthink’

an image: a disturbing reference to a chopping board recurs throughout the pages – the first time it appears is in ‘Lullaby’, a disconcertingly gentle title for a poem that includes blood-spattered walls

a thought: on the inside flap, Tavu expresses her hope that after reading this, a reader would be able to know the person that she is – a vulnerable statement of self-exposure given the subject matter that follows

a fact: the contents of this book were written over the span of a decade and half, 1998 – 2012; at times Tavu’s mind would go blank – from three days to three months, even a year – then at other times the writing would rush out like a hurricane, she shares

want to read Moments of Nil? 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

That Other Me by Maha Gargash

book cover with eye watching, next to cat on lap

a nutshell: set in ’90s Dubai and Cairo, this gripping novel follows two young women as they try to lead their own lives – in the shadow of an extremely authoritarian patriarch

a line: “They call us weak, but how can that be when we are able to bear so much.”

an image: I particularly liked the image of thoughts clambering over one another in Majed’s head like tiny red ants scurrying, seeking to build something out of chaos – the pain inflicted by red ants felt like exactly the right image for this abusive man’s mindset

a thought: the characters’ Khaleeji identity was an ongoing focus, with the author noting it was evident in the way that Mariam’s shayla was styled, in the herbs used to stuff baby goats for a special meal, and so on

a fact: as a documentary maker, Gargash’s research & scriptwriting delved into traditional Arab societies which fed into into her novels

want to read That Other Me? 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

Man Wortet Sich die Orte Selbst by Iren Nigg (tr. Marissa Grünes)

a nutshell: not yet published in English, this book (Wording the Places Oneself) consists of prose – from short vignettes to novellas – in which Liechenstein author Nigg explores the creative writing proces

a line: “To flirt with misfortune, allow one’s thoughts to circle it: this would never occur to children. The form of the circle isn’t meant for that… Sometimes life is winter. Nature! lets it happen. Fare well – a beautiful wish, lovely! like my cat.”

an image: I loved the description of the snow having been bejeweled by the sun

a thought: at one point the narrator poses a riddle: what is greater than God & more evil than the devil? The poor have it. The happy need it. And when you eat it, you die. (I didn’t get it)

a fact: this is Nigg’s second book and was among the 2011 winners of the European Union Prize for Literature which recognises the best new or emerging authors in the EU – I read a translated excerpt through the website

want to read Man Wortet Sich die Orte Selbst? visit here