What I read in 2020 – the year of lockdowns
At the start of 2020 I told myself that I would not buy any new books and start reading the massive to-be-read (TBR) collection on the bookcase. I failed once, but admittedly I purchased the book for my partner who never read it, so surely that doesn’t count?!?
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This commitment to not buy new and to read more had several benefits.
- I saved money since the cost of books adds up quickly, even if purchasing on sale. If I hadn’t made this commitment, I really do think I would have purchased soooo many books online for something to do during lockdowns!
- Books that I kept delaying such as The Tattooist of Auschwitz were finally devoured.
- My library use increased. Borrowing from the library is wonderful, but I sometimes don’t get the book finished before they are due back. But during Covid-19 lockdowns our local library did deliveries (which was awesome!) so I borrowed more and forced myself to read the books before they were due back.
- Surprise! Whilst some books in the TBR collection came from recommendations, others were cheap books from charity shops with no predetermined expectations. Some I enjoyed, others I didn’t.
- Reading vs TV. Personally, I feel that if I hadn’t been focused on reading more in 2020 I would have ended up watching more TV due to the lockdowns.
Here is what I read in chronological order, hopefully you find something that sparks your interest! Books I really loved at flagged with Personal Recommendation.
Backyard to Backpack – Evie Farrell
Non-Fiction, released 2019
Evie decides to ditch her busy corporate lifestyle that left limited family time with her daughter, for an overseas travel adventure in 2016. Life in Sydney was swapped for backpacking SE Asia with the occasional fancy hotel or resort.
Evie is beautifully honest and doesn’t portray a glossy version of life travelling with a child. Like the time Evie didn’t realise that the travel insurance had lapsed, or the struggles faced when trying to school her daughter.
Have they “settled-down” yet? Nope! Their adventures can be followed at Mum Pack Travel website and social channels.
The Dry – Jane Harper
Fiction, released 2016, Personal Recommendation
If you have never been to Australia, or to the Australian outback then read this book to get a beautiful feeling of the harsh landscape and life in rural farming communities.
The Dry follows the story of Aaron Falk who had to leave his childhood home 20 years prior due to harsh judgment of the small community. Later in life he returns as a Federal Police investigator to attend the funeral of childhood friend who has been murdered. Aaron is drawn into the investigation and his past starts to resurface.
The writing is beautiful and the book was so well received it was made into a movie in 2020 – which I am yet to see.
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Fiction, released 2009, Personal Recommendation
Seriously, this is one fun book by Jonas Jonasson! Whilst not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, the subtle humour is so beautifully conveyed, and intertwined in the characters, that I fell in love with every character and wanted to be friends with them all. How I wish I could be part of their adventure!
Essentially, Allan is turning 100 years old but decides to escape the nursing home to live his days another way. One chance encounter with a suitcase full of money sets off a series of events that make for great reading. But I won’t give the shenanigans away!
What I loved about this book was how fun it was, without trying too hard to be funny, or without ridiculous storylines. Even the elephant in the story seems totally plausible and believable!
The book has been made into a movie which is also really enjoyable.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris
Historical Fiction, released 2018, Personal Recommendation
Admittedly I delayed reading this book. The spine stared at me from the bookcase for over a year saying “read me, you know I will be good” but my brain and hear saying “I’m scared, I don’t know if I can handle it emotionally”. I become emotionally invested in books and I was worried this would be too heavy for bedtime reading. But, I also felt guilty because people had to actually LIVE this, and I am whinging about READING it. We should never force ourselves to read anything that we don’t want to, but I had seen great reviews on this book. OK, emotional rant over, onto the book.
Whilst this book is classified as Historical Fiction, it is based on the true life of Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov and other survivors. I can’t imagine the pain those people went through during this awful war, and then to retell those stories and open those wounds again, my gosh, brutal.
The story focuses on Lale who obtains a position tattooing the identification numbers on incoming prisoners. But the focus is really on the human spirit, and how hard people try to support each other and find love in the most difficult circumstances. Yes there were sections that made my stomach turn, but I feel like this book should be read to move past the larger scale of war, and enter the minds of the individual and the daily struggles that people faced.
One of the best books I have ever read.
The Beach – Alex Garland
Fiction, released 1996, Personal Recommendation
I feel like this is a book that was overshadowed by the movie, but when you are competing with a topless Leonardo DiCaprio then your odds for popularity are low!
But yes, the book came first and whilst I often avoid reading books after seeing the movie, I wanted to give this a go. Why don’t I like reading books after the move? Well, I can’t stop visualising the actors, or waiting for plot lines to unfold which means I don’t appreciate the book for what it is.
However, The Beach stands alone as a book, and whilst the general storyline is the same, the characters are portrayed differently and events are modified. What the book does better is the grittiness, the underlying feeling of disaster looming, the unpleasant underbelly of a seemingly perfect island lifestyle.
Read the book if you feel an affinity for backpacking and strange adventures. Watch the movie if you just want to chill out and be entertained.
In the Distance – Hernan Diaz
Fiction, released 2017, Personal Recommendation
OK, so this book was so good it has gone back on the bookcase to read again one day – even though I probably won’t because the list of books I want to read is forever growing.
Whilst the storyline is linear and follows only one character, it is captivating. Descriptions of people and landscapes are perfectly balanced with a delicate level of detail but also allowing the reader to form their own images. Landscapes are beautifully described in what I can only describe as meditative.
The story follows Hakan who leaves rural Sweden with his brother who he ends up separated from. Hakan finds himself alone and unsure but is determined to find his brother. While travelling, one unfortunate event gives Hakan a reputation he can’t escape and he spends his life trying to survive with this reputation holding him back.
Doesn’t sound like much of a storyline, but the writing is so beautiful this book will stay with you.
The last days of the Romanov Dancers – Kerri Turner
Fiction, released 2019
A mix of lighter and heavier themes with likable characters make this an enjoyable read. The book follows dancers in the Romanovs’ Imperial Russian Ballet but it isn’t a ballet obsessed book. Rather it explores the divide between poverty and wealth and social divide.
Whilst this book won’t be counted as a favourite, I did enjoy reading it and think it would be a great holiday read. Or to read before or after a “heavy” read, like I did, reading this before The Zookeepers Wife.
The Zookeepers Wife – Dianne Ackerman
Non-Fiction, released 2007
So firstly, I need to acknowledge that I don’t think the brutality of history should really be enjoyable. Or entertaining and critiqued. But I do think that the difference between well written historical books can make a huge difference to the readers understanding and compassion. So, whilst I didn’t get drawn into the book like other historical books, it still portrayed the difficulties of the time and resilience of the people.
The Zookeepers Wife chronicles the daring acts of Jan and Antonia Zabinski to allow Jewish people to stay at their Zoo in Warsaw Poland during the Nazi invasion. Information is based on the memoirs of Antonia along with many other sources. The level of detail in the book is testament to the research that Dianne Ackerman undertook to tell this story.
The Idiot – Elif Batuman
Fiction, released 2017
I wanted to love this book since the cover was cool and the title was interesting. But to be honest it was a bit boring. At one point I actually hoped something horrible would happen just to spice it up.
A coming-of-age story that was a bit confusing but did have some lovely written sections and insights into a younger mind space. There was just nothing captivating about this book. But I can’t write for shit so who I am to judge!!
The Lost Man – Jane Harper
Fiction, released 2018
My second Jane Harper read for the year and I think it was too soon. The book is great but it is again set in a rural farming region and I found some of the character personalities too similar to The Dry.
But, this is a great book, full of suspense and each chapter ending on a cliff hanger, or a piece of new information to help solve the mystery. Honestly the end grossed me out a bit (but I won’t spoil that) but overall, it’s a great read.
The Lost Man would be great to read while travelling since it is engaging and not too long.
Great Australian Railway Stories – Bill “Swampy” Marsh
Non-Fiction, released 2005
This was the book that broke my commitment to not buy new, but as I said above, I thought my partner would like it. But he never read it. And it was only $10. We’ve all been there, right!?
The book is exactly as titled – a collection of stories from people who worked, or had a life that relied on the Australian railways. These stories are mostly from back in the steam train days when many small communities relied on the trains for everything they needed.
I read most of the stories with today’s standard for safety and was just amazed and what people got away with! Some stories are funny, others are simply factual, some were a tad too detail orientated for me. But they all convey a feeling for what it was like to live in Australia in those days and be part of the railway family.
The Zahir – Paulo Coelho
Fiction, released 2011
An excitable op-shop find since I loved The Alchemist by the same author. Not such an excitable read though.
I started this book years ago but stopped reading it as I found it tedious and uninteresting. However, there are some absolutely beautiful pieces of writing in the book, and it is sitting on the bookcase dog eared (I know, I’m naughty!) so I can read the quotes again when I feel the desire.
What’s the storyline? Wife leaves man, man wants wife back, can’t get her back as it’s not the right time for the universe…yada yada yada…goes on a journey…will he meet wife again? Read it to find out!
Boy Swallows Universe – Trent Dalton
Fiction, released 2018
People seem to really love this book, or be disappointed with it. I sit somewhere in between. Whilst the book was written well and the main characters held my interest, the storyline became really jumbled and I was left with lots of questions. But not questions from a position of suspense or intrigue, more confusion.
Definitely an enjoyable book and worth the read, but not an all-time favourite – would love to know your review!
Vagabonding – Rolf Potts
Non-Fiction, released 2003
Vagabonding kept popping up on must-read-travel-book lists, and whilst I didn’t really understand what the book was about, I was intrigued read it.
If you already enjoy travel and have some experience and confidence, I don’t think you will get much from this book. On the flip side, if you are planning long term travel and are feeling apprehensive this book will definitely convince you that you are heading in the right direction.
I can see it being a comfort to read if you are a long-term traveller and other people make you feel “weird” or wonder why you won’t “settle down”. Would be nice to read a book that had familiar feelings and know you are not alone in your travel lifestyle.
There are some lovely quotes in the book, and some great advice.
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
Fiction, released 2018, Personal Recommendation
Arthur Less is a writer looking to escape attending the wedding of this ex-boyfriend. This escape comes in the form of accepting lots of invitations to literary events around the world. That way, he has a reason to say “No” to the wedding invite.
What was it about this book that I loved? Definitely the beautifully crafted characters and quirky situations that Arthur finds himself in. I was intrigued to find out where Arthur would end up next, and how the book would end. I wish I had read this book slower to really soak it up!
A deserving winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
Non-Fiction, released 2011, Personal Recommendation
The focus on this book is the ethical questions raised over the cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951 and used for research without permission. These cells made other people very rich with no compensation to the Lacks family.
But the themes of the book extend past the original use of the cells. Themes of medical experimentation, unethical treatment of psychological disorders, blood and cell harvesting and the poor medical care provided to people of colour are all explored.
Whilst everything in the book was considered “normal” for those times it is still an appalling part of human history. This book left me shocked and unsure what to do next!
Becoming – Michelle Obama
Non-Fiction, released 2018, Personal Recommendation
This book has received incredibly positive reviews, and I can see why. Michelle could easily have pushed the narrative of coming from a low socioeconomic area and focused on being a victim. Instead, Michelle just tells it how it was and focuses on her wonderful parents and the sacrifices they made for their children.
I really admire people who can bare their souls and openly speak about the challenges of study, work and life like Michelle does. Michelle really shows that women can be strong but fragile, self-sufficient but ask for help, be independent but enjoy married life – be everything and anything!
No surprise that Michelle meets Obama and they move into the political space. Thankfully the book isn’t heavy on the politics (not an area of interest for me) but does provide enough detail to understand how exhausting the campaign trail is and the dedication required.
The Vale Girl – Nelika McDonald
Fiction, released 2013
A murder mystery set in a small Australian town centred around the daughter of the town prostitute. Life for “the Vale girl” is not easy, full of judgement because of the home life and harassment from the boys at school.
As with any good mystery there are plot twists and the lives of many characters become intertwined. I enjoyed The Vale Girl and was happy to finish the year with this book!
Have a book suggestion? Leave me a comment so I can add to my ever growing to-be-read list.
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