Best Reads 2020

Last year I had a photo to illustrate John Dos Passos’ great USA, so this year, belatedly, I have the Spanish Flu, which apparently originated in Kansas, USA not that anyone would ever point fingers (story accompanying photo here).

I’m envious of the (few) new releases I read in 2019, there was nothing like that that caught my attention this year past, though at least I finally got to Too Much Lip (so so) and Pink Mountain on Locust Island (pretty good). My stats say I read 6 books from 2019/20 but none stuck, well except for the idiosyncratic The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan. I have just purchased and made a start on Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People. She is a fine (Western Australian) writer, quirky and funny, and if you haven’t yet read Rubik you really should.

If you care about the latest books, Kate W of Booksaremyfavouriteandbest lists her favourites for 2020 (here) and THE 2020 List of Lists (here). Of course the real best read of 2020 was every newspaper and newsletter (NYT, Palmer Report, HuffPost, Truthout, Guardian) in the days after 3 Nov. It is hard to believe that a man so unselfconsciously stupid was able to win even one election.

But if like me you like your books to season for a while here are the (Australian) Best Reads for half centuries past –


There were 18 novels published, including one Patrick White, and two or three other interesting works –

Jessica Anderson, The Last Man’s Head
Dianne Cilento, The Hybrid
George Johnston ed., The World of Charmian Clift
Geoffrey Dutton, Tamara
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch
Cynthia Nolan, A Bride for St Thomas
Oodgeroo Noonuccal, My People (verse)
Barry Oakley, A Salute to the Great McCarthy (football!)
Sayers ed., James Bonwick, Western Victoria – will review “soon”
Dai Stivens, A Horse of Air (1970 Miles Franklin Award winner)
Patrick White, The Vivesector


A hard year for readers. The number of books published was down 4 or 5 on 1919, none of the novels stands out. Louisa Lawson died and amongst the births were Gwen Harwood, Leo McKern (Rumpole!), Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and Colin Thiele.

JHM Abbott, The Castle Vane
AH Adams, The Australians
Louis Esson, Dead Timber (a collection of plays)
Vance Palmer, The Shanty-keeper’s Daughter
Pyke (?), Coles Picture Book
Conrad Sayce, The Valley of a Thousand Deaths (also designed Winthrop Hall, UWA)
Arthur Wright, A Rough Passage


Nine books (8 last year), including two novels, one famous! Adam Lindsay Gordon died. Mrs Gunn, Henry Handel Richardson and Ethel Turner were born.

Martin Cash, The Adventures of Martin Cash (convict, bushranger)
Marcus Clarke, For the Term of his Natural Life
Adam Lindsay Gordon, Bush Ballads & Galloping Rhymes
John R Houlding, Rural and City Life (by “Old Boomerang”)
Maitland, The Higher Law (English author, English book)


Nothing much to see here. One book. Joseph Banks died, Raffaello Carboni was born (his book on his experience of the Eureka Stockade is excellent and I really must get myself another copy).

John Oxley, Journals of Two Expeditions into the Interior of New South Wales (available free on Proj Gutenberg (here))


Joy Hooton and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian Literature, 2nd Ed., OUP, Melbourne, 1992

27 thoughts on “Best Reads 2020

  1. That photograph is really interesting. I am awed by the number of temporary morgues set up across USA currently. I agree the news of November outshone books but only as it was so incredible to digest. I have Too Much Lip on my TBR shelf. Have heard everything from glowing to mediocre. I look forward to it to see what I think. 🐧🍒🍉


    • I don’t read that part of the NYT but it seems from the headlines that California in particular is overwhelmed. My beef with Too Much Lip was that I didn’t think it was worth a Miles Franklin.


      • Some hospitals in the U.S. are so full that people with other issues — a heart attack, for instance — are dying for lack of care. However, sometimes the news sounds scary but isn’t as terrifying as the headline. For instance, my county has one of those frozen morgue trucks, which scared the pants off me, but then I learned that each local hospital only has space for four deceased bodies. I say “only” like it’s no big deal; I don’t mean that. It’s that I was picturing hundreds of people. This is not a perspective I appreciate, but one I keep in mind so I don’t have a mental break down.

        Your books trend older. Is this due to the generational read-alongs you do, or more about your preferences?


      • Melanie, I think the Covid death statistics from the US are overwhelming, and without leadership it doesn’t appear from this distance that mourning has begun by the nation as a whole (if it still is a whole). I don’t know anything about morgues, but mobile storage – trucks or shipping containers – make sense when you consider bodies could be infectious and need to be certified for cause of death.
        I’m a pushy bastard. I have been trying to record my (changing) experience of the plague, but I don’t mean to imply that it is the only, the worst, or even a particularly bad experience. I would much rather be in my place than in yours or in Liz Dexter’s say. You are both going to have to spend a very long time confined to the one suburb and largely to the one house/apartment and away from your families. All I can say is good luck and say in touch.
        Yes, I read old books (and I persuade like minded people to read along with me).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely to see your post. I also love the different ways in which each of us present and wright about our reading – you chronologically, me sort of thematically, Lisa alphabetically, and so on. Lisa comes up with her top picks, you and I don’t. Hmm, what does this say about us all?


    • How’s life on the banks of the Tumut (flashes to the movie Jindabyne)? I had a sensible answer half written but Milly opened the wine and I had to let it go.
      I would like to say I’d read more than a couple of the books here. I wonder if some English published women were missed from 1920.


      • Oh that film! It’s unforgettable isn’t it?

        I’m glad Milly opened that wine but am sorry you’ve lost that sensible answer!

        I can’t answer you last quest without more research I’m afraid, but it’s possible I’m sure.


  3. A Bride for St Thomas by Cynthia Nolan! I haven’t met anyone else who has read that book apart from one woman I happened to meet who had trained as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital and told me everyone who nursed at St Thomas’ Hospital read it! I’m thrilled, Bill! As a former nurse, it was by far the truest account of what it was like when I was a young thing, to train as a nurse under the Nightingale system.

    She was also a superb writer. I forger the name of her book about travels through Papua New Guinea, but I do remember enjoying it. I have never visited Heidi unfortunately. Can you remember what you thought of the book Bill? I would imagine the main interest would be for those of us who have been nurses? I chat online with an America nurse who trained at St Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago where she also worked. He’s explained why she got a shock at the poverty in London – the hospital in Chicago was only for the well to do apparently. Love seeing this book on a list anywhere! I have a treasured copy at home.


    • Nice to see you here Sue. I wish I could say I’d read these books, but I’m afraid it’s just a survey of what was available. You of course are welcome to write a review for Gen 3 Week and I will be perfectly happy to post it. Not a review but a memoir of why it is special.


      • I misread it sorry Bill – Nolan certainly didn’t fit in there, being the non-conformist that she was. I think you would have liked her. I seem to remember she used to ride around London on the top of a double decker bus and throw things at people when the pomposity at St Thomas’ got too much for her. My kind of gal!

        What’s Gen 3 week, and please excuse my ignorance.

        It might be interesting to review it actually – she mingled very much with the artistic scene over there of course – and it’s a fascinating glimpse into London just prior to WWII from an Australian’s point of view. What do you reckon? As well there’s the connection with Sidney Nolan obviously. She befriended all sorts of undesirables and generally managed to upset Matron rather badly – and of course she much later committed suicide in a London hotel. Quite a story.


      • Each January on this blog we have been looking a Generation of Australian Women Writers. Last we looked at the third generation – Gen 3 – which I posited as encompassing the years from the end of WWI to the end of the fifties. We are going to have another go at Gen 3 this year, during the week 17-23 Jan. Various bloggers will put posts (reviews of Gen 3 books) up on their blogs which I will link to, or will guest post on my blog (will email me a review of say 800-1000 words which I will post over their names).

        I would very much like a post of your personal reaction to Nolan’s book.

        If you are interested, start here
        and that will give you a good idea of what we did last year.


  4. Having looked up some of the books you list, I’m definitely tempted by A Bride for St Thomas – I’m a nurse and very interested in medical/nursing history, and this sounds like a fascinating look at what nurse training was like a generation or two before me! I think the only one of these books that I’d heard of before was The Female Eunuch – the rest are all new to me.


    • Lou, nice to have you here (for other readers this Lou is an English nurse, not my teacher son). I don’t know Cynthia Nolan’s account but I grew up not only with Doctor in the House (surely it’s due for a revival) but also with a book of my mother’s called Come Hither Nurse (Jane Grant?) which was LOL funny and a bit racier than I realised as a young boy.
      Australian books don’t seem to travel very far from home, and this is a fairly dismal lot.


    • Hi Lou,

      I’m not sure what the British reaction to Nolan’s book is like – she has a particularly Australian (I think) attitude towards class structure in the UK at the time, and their formality. It’s of great interest to me because the Australian hospital I trained at in the early 1970s was still run along almost identical lines – and even at my interview as a schoolgirl, Matron told me “We are a very British hospital here, you will obey the rules”. It took some years before I realized that other hospitals in Australia were not so strict and formal. I think I also appreciated her humerous and rather cranky, & certainly very critical, attitude towards it all – not towards her patients however, she cared for them enormously. I recommended it to one English nurse who didn’t appreciate it. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts if you do read it! Cynthia was a difficult woman for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve had a wave of nostalgia seeing mention of The Female Eunuch because I can recall reading it as a young woman and feeling my eyes being opened with every chapter. I know Caitlin Moran is lauded by the yiu g women now who class themselves as second wave feminists but she isn’t a patch on Greer.


  6. 1970: I have of course read The Female Eunuch and The Vivisector, and I managed to ferret out a very rare copy of A Horse of Air via interlibrary loan. And I have the Dutton on the shelves…
    But the rest, apart from Marcus Clarke, are new to me.


  7. That’s unfortunately a suitable photo indeed. In this new year, while chatting with a friend who lives in a mid-sized city in the same province as Toronto, about two hours driving time away, they were implying that it must be so much worse to be in Toronto under these circumstances, as compared to the city they inhabit (where I lived for more than a decade myself). Toronto is viewed by many there as “too big”, “too overwhelming”, “too diverse” etc and currently viewed as “too COVIDy” because of course with a higher population there’s a higher transmission rate. Just a week later, they got their first mobile morgue. On the same day,a hospital in the GreaterTorontoArea (i.e. suburb) got its first field hospital for treatment. Would it be too optimistic to think maybe this will help people understand that we are all inhabiting the same planet, that we can’t pretend we are not all connected? On another note, I wonder if there are similarities between western Cdn authors and western Australian authors? Hmmm. Must investigate…over the next decade or so (with luck).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Australia has taken advantage of its isolation from other countries as well as the relative isolation from each other of its state capitals to aim for zero cases, mostly but not always successfully.


    • My rest break came to an end and I had to get going without finishing my answer to your comment. My impression is that there are no discernable differences between Western Australian writers and the rest, except that they situate their works in the place where I live. And I find that very important. You must report back in 2030 and let us know if ‘western’ authors have common themes of wheat farms, deserts and mining. Distance maybe. Or interactions between whites and First Nations peoples.


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