It’s not surprising that as an obsessive traveller, I am also a compulsive reader. As a child, I used to get grounded from reading when I mouthed off (was also a very opinionated child) and mum would take away my book as punishment. I can recall so many nights staying up long after I said goodnight and turning pages, frantic to finish my book, crouched under my blanket so mum wouldn’t see the light from my headlamp (the modern child’s version of the flashlight-under-the-covers). It was often that exact situation that led to the grounding in the first place, actually..
I still read with the same intensity, but maybe not as frequently as I did when I was younger. It’s harder to find time. When I travel, I go through a book a day sometimes, but when I’m home and swamped with work/study, it’s more like one or two a month. I want to set a quantitative goal to encourage myself to make time for the things I love even when there isn’t much time to go around; not just reading when I’m on a 30-hour bus ride across borders or laying in a hammock in the Amazon, but reading when I come home from my office or when I’m riding shotgun in the car.
Here are the specifics of my resolution:
- I’m aiming for one book a week and I’ll update this list as I work my way through 2017.
- I’ll limit myself to one brief comment, positive or negative, about each book.
- I’ll rate each book out of 5 stars based on how likely I am to re-read it & recommend it to someone else, and I’m going to be really stingy with my 5-star ratings– only the best of the best.
- I want to include a minimum of 5 books from Time’s 100 Best Novels in an effort to incorporate some classics into my literary repertoire and branch out from my normal picks. I’ll mark these with a clock 🕰 (get it?).
One book a week for 2017.
1. The Girl on the Train// Paula Hawkins ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I love this book because it reminds me of Gone Girl, full of twists and turns that are revealed slowly through an unreliable perspective, but also because there is no hero swooping in to save the day in some cliché mystery-novel way—the main character is a hot mess.
2. Night// Elie Wiesel ⭐⭐⭐⭐
A re-read from years ago, this book is amazing because it’s a true account of a boy’s survival from Auschwitz, all the more pertinent because I just visited the camp at the end of last year and cried heaps, but also learned a lot of very important history.
3. The Light Between Oceans// M L Stedman ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I especially love this book because it is set in Australia, but also because of its very unique plot about a lighthouse keeper and his wife finding a baby and choosing to raise it. I really like the moral dilemmas that this book presents and I was obsessing over them long after I finished reading.
4. The History of Love// Nicole Krauss ⭐⭐⭐⭐
The best part of this book is the writing style, which I loved so much that it totally overshadowed the plot line itself, but I think that was kind of the point. The writer gives the characters the most authentic voice, so vivid and real and unique, and I really rate the train-of-thought, inner-monologue, self-narration sort of style.
5. Perfect Days// Raphael Montes ⭐⭐⭐⭐
This book was a random find, but also really interesting in that it’s told from the perspective of a sociopath who truly believes that kidnapping a girl he’s obsessed with is both rational and in her best interest. It’s unique and surprisingly light-hearted for being about a kidnapping, but it fits with the tone of the main character and it just all works.
6. A Thousand Splendid Suns// Khaled Hosseini ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Potentially the most heart-breaking (yet eye-opening) book I’ve ever read, it’s about two women growing up in turbulent Afghanistan and the hardships that they endure in their remarkably horrifying lives. Every woman (and man, actually) should read this, it’s such an incredible story that made me appreciate so much the freedoms I have as a woman in the western world. Best read of the year so far and one of my new all-time favourites!
7. The Bluest Eye// Toni Morrison ⭐⭐⭐
Told with remarkable voices that make the characters feel hauntingly authentic, a little black girl longs for blue eyes. Some other stuff happens, but it’s not really a story with a plot, more of just a giant metaphor and examination of racism in America told through many different characters’ life stories.
8. Atonement// Ian McEwan ⭐⭐⭐ 🕰
This is a great book with captivating insight into the characters’ minds and incredible detail, to the point where it’s almost a bit annoying and drags out too long, particularly in the middle. But still a very powerful story about the repercussions of lies and the power of perspective.
9. All the Light We Cannot See// Anthony Doerr ⭐⭐⭐⭐
A fascinating WWII story told through the very unique eyes of a blind French girl and a young orphan recruited by the Hitler Youth who briefly cross paths in life. The writing is very poetic, sometimes too artsy, but the story is absolutely beautiful and the characters are so alive.
10. Leaving Time// Jodi Picoult ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I sat down and read this all in one day becuase it was so interesting and had so many great twists I honestly couldn’t stop. It’s not really the typical Jodi Picoult ethical conundrum, it’s about a girl searching for her missing mother, who was a postdoc researching elephant grief. The amazing detail about elephants is hands down the most impressive part of the whole book.
11. The Lost Girls// Heather Young ⭐⭐⭐
An interesting book about a woman who inherits a house from her great aunt, moves there spontaneously with her children, and uncovers details from her family’s past. The story is told alternatingly by the great aunt’s diary of a summer 70 years ago and her descendent living in the house now, which is what lends the story such great flow.
12. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings// Maya Angelou ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I started reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because it’s a classic and I felt a bit obligated to at least be able to say I’ve read it, but I wasn’t at all expecting the incredible read it would turn out to be. This is a memoir of Maya’s early childhood, growing up in the south with her incredibly religious grandmother and then moving to San Francisco to live with her charismatic mother; her story is heartbreakingly beautiful, amazingly well-written, and is an unbelievably profound insight into racial prejudice in mid-20th century America. When I finished the book, I read a bit more about the author on google and was amazed to learn about her role in the Civil Rights Movement and her own involvement in global activism in Africa, so I was delighted to find that she actually continued her memoirs in another 6 books, each picking up where the last left off. So naturally, I decided to read them all. I can’t recommend her work highly enough– she has led the most extraordinary life and has overcome amazing obstacles that only make her talents more impressive. One of the most inspirational women who has ever lived, without a doubt.
13. Gather Together in My Name// Maya Angelou ⭐⭐⭐⭐
The second instalment of Maya’s memoirs, this book picks up right after the birth of her first child, whom she manages to carry in secret for about 8 months so that her mother won’t make her drop out of school before she gets her diploma. It’s another great read, onto memoir part 3 after just one day!
14. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas// Maya Angelou ⭐⭐⭐⭐
This book in the memoir series was particularly interesting, as Maya jets off to Europe and northern Africa with a theatre company, performing as a singer and dancer in Porgy & Bess.
15. The Heart of a Woman// Maya Angelou ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Angelou is back in New York and involved centrally in much of the important African American movements happening at the time, most significantly the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by MLK. Amazingly, she also finds herself romantically entangled with a South African freedom fighter and moves to Egypt as he continues his political struggle against apartheid.
16. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes// Maya Angelou ⭐⭐⭐
Following the tumultuous end of her relationship, Maya and her son move to Ghana for a new beginning, where she continues her writing and her passionate activism with a group of fellow expatriates.
17. A Song Flung Up to Heaven// Maya Angelou ⭐⭐⭐
This penultimate book in the memoir series sees Maya travel back to the US to work with Malcolm X, who is assassinated shortly after she arrives by angry African Americans, which she simply cannot understand. Just when she resolves to work with MLK on a new project of his, she also receives news of his assassination, and completed retreats into herself. The book ends with Maya reluctantly agreeing to write her memoirs– the book that will eventually become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
18. Mom & Me & Mom// Maya Angelou ⭐⭐⭐
Just finished the 7th, and final, book of Angelou’s memoirs, which was focused on her relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter. It retold many stories from earlier books, but described more vividly her mother’s role in her life. I absolutely loved the photos of Vivian interspersed throughout.
19. Burial Rites// Hannah Kent ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Based on extensive research of the last execution in Iceland, this fictionalised but true account of a woman condemned to die for the murder of two men is amazing. The story is great, the characters are surprisingly relatable, and the setting (far north Iceland) is perfectly desolate for the subject.
20. Middlesex// Jeffrey Eugenides ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
This lengthy book traces back through three generations of a slightly inbred Greek family to detail all the small moments that led to a mutated gene being passed to Callie/Cal. It is then an amazing coming-of-age story, as Callie struggles with awkward teen years where she feels markedly different to her peers, and also an interesting commentary on the role of environment vs. biology in gender identity. When a doctor finally identifies that Callie is a genetical male with XY chromosomes and both sets of reproductive organs, the 14-year-old refuses hormone treatments and plastic surgery, and instead reinvents herself as Cal, who we meet again decades later as he struggles with intimacy issues. I stayed up past 2am several nights in a row reading this book because it was just too interesting to put down. Not only is the subject matter quite interesting, but the book was incredibly well written even as it closely followed dozens of different characters. 10/10 would recommend!
21. Everything You Want Me to Be// Mindy Mejia ⭐⭐⭐⭐
This was a great page-turner of a book that I read in a day because I just couldn’t put it down. It skips around in time and is narrated by several characters as the events surrounding a young girl’s murder are revealed, although it doesn’t really provide anything that new or exciting in terms of plot.
22. This Side of Paradise// F Scott Fitzgerald ⭐⭐⭐⭐
The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books of all time, so I really can’t believe it took me so long to finally read F Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel. This Side of Paradise earned him much more critical acclaim at the time than The Great Gatsby (obviously that has changed in more recent decades), and while I’ll never understand the poor reception of Gatsby, I can definitely see why Paradise brought Scott such incredible fame in the first place. After reading Z about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, I appreciated this book even more for the autobiographical work that it really is.
23. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald// Therese Anne Fowler ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Especially after setting my head and heart firmly in the Jazz Age with This Side of Paradise, I absolutely loved this historical/fictional autobiography of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life as the notoriously wild flapper wife of the “next great American novelist”, Scott Fitzgerald. From their courtship when Zelda was just a young Southern debutante, to their early days together in New York, riding off the seemingly instant fame from Scott’s first novel, to Zelda’s struggle to create something in her own right while Scott slipped deeper into alcoholism and struggles to follow the success of his early work, this book is a very well-researched glimpse into the lives of one of the most famous couples of the early 20th century. It doesn’t gloss over their myriad of marital problems, both of their struggles with mental health, and the eventual downfall of this legendary couple, either. I can’t wait to watch the show that has just come out about Zelda― there’s just something totally magical about this era that no one captures quite like the Fitzgeralds.
24. Big Little Lies// Liane Moriarty ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I read this after watching the HBO series by the same name, and I can really say that the book is leaps and bounds better― for starters, it’s set in Sydney! There’s plenty of character drama unfolding and, even though it isn’t a totally brilliant mystery/crime novel like Gone Girl, I still finished it in a day because it was thoroughly entertaining.
25. Lion: A Long Way Home// Saroo Brierley ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Young Saroo, growing up extremely poor in India, falls asleep on a train and ends up on the complete opposite side of the country, unable to find his family, unable to speak the language, unable to even tell authorities his last name or the name of his home town. After surviving on the streets for several months and bouncing between detention centres and orphanages, 6-year-old Saroo is adopted by an Australian family and moves to Tasmania, where he grows up extremely happy, but constantly wonders about the family he left behind. In his early 20’s, Saroo begins systematically scouring satellite images of India on the relatively new Google Earth and years of searching finally lead him to his village. When he finally returns to visit his former home, it is as an outsider ― a grown Australian man who speaks no Hindi ― but the emotional reunion with his family is enough to absolutely send you over the edge. I was very excited to read this book after watching the film, the entirety of which I aggressively sobbed through (in the cinema, no less), and just what an absolutely unbelievable story. In fact, I don’t think I’d even like the story if it was fictional, because I would find it too far-fetched! I may not have bawled my eyes out like I did during the movie, but there were many, many tears shed, and most of them happy tears.
26. How to Support a Champion: The Art of Applying Science to the Elite Athlete// Steve Ingham ⭐⭐⭐
I had to read this book for a movement science conference I went to in Brisbane recently on the relationship between sports scientists and athletic staff, and how we as scientists can approach the often difficult task of offering performance recommendations to athletes. At times, I found the personal anecdotes entertaining and the advice to be quite good, but the book could certainly have been written as a short article and I would have taken the same amount of information away.
27 – 33. Harry Potter books 1 – 7// JK Rowling ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
In honour of the 20 year anniversary of the greatest book series ever written, I made time (or basically neglected all other responsibilities for a month) to reread all seven Harry Potter books, and it really took me back. These books were hugely significant to my childhood after I read the first book at 6 and became totally obsessed. Mum would pre-order the books for me as they came out and we would wait in massive lines at Costco to get a copy so I could go home and start reading immediately; I easily read all the books a dozen times each, if not more; I even asked for the books on tape for Christmas so I could enjoy Harry Potter on my portable cassette player (ah, the early 2000’s). Rereading these books again now just takes me right back to being 10 years old and reading under the covers with a flashlight at 2am because I literally couldn’t put the book down. Only difference is I have a kindle now and no one comes in to yell at me for staying up past my bedtime, but the feelings of being unable to tear myself away are exactly the same. These books will always be pure magic to me.
34. The Princess Bride// William Goldman ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The Princess Bride was my absolute favourite movie as a child (I got a sword for Christmas when I was 8 so I could pretend to be Inigo Montoya), yet somehow I never realised it was a book. I mean, of course it was a book, bloody everything was a book, but I stumbled across it on a friend’s bookshelf one day, was totally shocked and excited, and then absolutely devoured it in a number of hours. It was everything I ever wanted (except for maybe the bit about Buttercup’s Baby, but everything else: amazing). The writing is every bit as witty and hilarious as the cult classic film, and it just made me want to pop in my old VHS and relive my childhood obsession with R.O.U.S’s, the Cliffs of Insanity, and the quest for the six fingered man.
35. The Virgin Suicides// Jeffrey Eugenides ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Despite its incredibly gloomy subject material (it’s exactly what it sounds like), I really loved this book about the captivating and enigmatic Lisbon sisters, as told through the eyes of the neighbour boys who were, and remain long into adulthood, thoroughly infatuated with the girls. More so than the suicides of the 5 young sisters, though, this book is about the lasting imprint that their deaths have left on the boys who narrate the story. As always, I was swept up in the incredible writing style as much as the story line— I’d definitely list Jeffrey Eugenides as one of my new favourite authors.
36. The Marriage Plot// Jeffrey Eugenides ⭐⭐⭐⭐
And therefore it’s no surprise that my next read was another of Jeffrey Eugenides’, although admittedly quite different from the other two books of his that I read this year. The plot itself wasn’t very interesting to me, so it’s really only his writing style that kept me turning pages. Basically a guy is in love with a girl who is in love with another guy; of course, it’s slightly more complicated than that, as the first guy takes off to travel the world and study theology through first hand experience in church and various religious organisations, but never really forgets his obsession with the girl, who is meanwhile following her deeply depressed and mentally unstable boyfriend/husband around and struggling to hold together their relationship. All in all, it’s not at the top of this year’s list, but still an enjoyable read.
37. 13 Reasons Why// Jay Asher ⭐⭐⭐
Before her death, Hannah recorded 13 tapes, each discussing a person and how they contributed to her eventual suicide, which are then passed to each of the people involved so they can hear how their actions affected her, which may be slightly unrealistic and hokey, but is a great catalyst for much-needed discussion around teen suicide. I wanted to read this book after watching the absolutely amazing show of the same name, but was sadly disappointed to find that the book lacked the plot and character depth that made the show so powerful in the first place— I won’t often say this about a book, but the show was better (seriously 10/10, go watch it right now). Even then, this story is one that every kid should read (or watch) in school. Many of the reasons Hannah gives for her suicide leave you thinking “she is totally overreacting” or “she took that way out of context”, but that’s often the point: a million things, and sometimes seemingly insignificant things, contributed to her desire to end her own life. We can’t always know how someone will interpret our words or actions and the impact they will have, or even what else is going on in someone’s life, but everything we do matters.
38. Born a Crime// Trevor Noah ⭐⭐⭐
Since I am going to South Africa in a few weeks (woo!), I thought I’d read this autobiographical account of growing up in post-apartheid SA by the television host Trevor Noah, but although it was interesting to understand the continued struggle of the lower class even after the advent of democracy, Noah is not really a writer and it shows. The effect is a book that could have been written by a 15 year old, with a jumbled series of anecdotes that jump around in no particular order. Still, the content itself is worthwhile, and there’s no denying that he has had a difficult life. I think this is often the case with stars who write memoirs, though: we aren’t hear for prize-winning literary skill, we are just here for the story, in which case it was an interesting read.
39. The Alchemist// Paulo Coelho ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
On a surface level, the book is about a young shepherd who sells his flock and goes in search of treasure in Egypt, but it is really about his quest to fulfil his own “personal legend”. In many ways, this book is the embodiment of my own personal philosophy: we all have a destiny, and though the universe may conspire to help us and drive us towards that ultimate goal, we alone have the power to achieve it or to ignore it in favour of what is easy. Although we may experience setbacks and challenges that threaten to drive us off course, there’s absolutely no point in having regrets, as those apparent mistakes and obstacles contribute in their own way to the pursuit of our dreams and the development of our best selves. There are occasional religious undertones to the book, but it is the overwhelming power of the universe rather than an actual “God” that really resonates with me. One of the simplest and yet most powerful books, I always return to The Alchemist for re-reads and discover something new each time.
40. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine// Gail Honeyman ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Eleanor Oliphant, a socially inept 30-something loner who is often completely oblivious to her own awkwardness, is convinced that her life of solitude and routine is exactly what she wants. Through a series of random events, however, she begins to develop her first real friendship and finds that perhaps she was not completely fine, after all. This book is incredible. Not only is the writing style and voice of the character hilarious, but this is a much deeper book than it initially appears and speaks to the importance of human connection and shared experience. It’s funny and heartbreaking and uplifting and relatable (and thankfully not romantic) all at once, and I simply cannot wait for the movie to come out (yes, it was officially announced!).
41. The Glass Castle// Jeannette Walls ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Jeannette Walls was raised in an unconventional family; her parents favoured the nomadic lifestyle, never holding consistent jobs, moving the family around to different houses or shacks or relatives’ homes, often not providing any food for weeks on end to their 4 children, and not always behaving like parents should. Despite all the awful stories (pulling food out of the bins at school because she hadn’t eaten in days at home, her father stealing the money she saved from babysitting just to go to the local pub and drink it all away, her uncle sexually assaulting her and her mother dismissing it as innocent..), there’s still a lot of love for her parents, which is what makes this story so amazing. No matter how much she accomplishes, she will never change her upbringing or her parents. Finally, a memoir written by an actual author, whose experiences and voice contribute equally to this incredible book.
42. The Handmaid’s Tale// Margaret Atwood ⭐⭐⭐⭐
This book has become all the rage recently, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. The story is set in a future society where women have lost all of their freedoms and power, and are now the property of men (obviously not an entirely new idea..). Coupled with this, infertility rates are at an all-time high, so the future of society depends upon the birth of healthy babies, leading to institutionalised sex slavery by women who are fertile to couples unable to conceive. The story follows Offred, one such enslaved woman, as she struggles to accept her place in this new world and move forward from the devastating loss of her own daughter. There’s a lot more complexity than I can quickly sum up, but it’s an interesting plotline (that is sure to enflame any woman) and a great read. The totally binge-worthy tv series adaptation, in one of those rare instances, is actually even better than the book.
43. Alias Grace// Margaret Atwood ⭐⭐⭐⭐
44. Never Let Me Go// Kazuo Ishiguro ⭐⭐⭐⭐
45. We Need to Talk About Kevin// Lionel Shriver ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
46. Into the Water// Paula Hawkins ⭐⭐⭐⭐
47. Nineteen Minutes// Jodi Picoult ⭐⭐⭐⭐
48. About a Boy// Nick Hornby ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
49. Funny Girl// Nick Hornby ⭐⭐⭐