The books that made us laugh, made us cry, gave us pause to think and lit a fire in us this year.
Marieke Hardy, Artistic Director
MARIA TUMARKIN’S AXIOMATIC IS A MASTERPIECE. Utterly unlike anything I have ever read. It’s a complex and challenging (and beautifully written!) book about trauma, so be careful reading it and also be mindful of who you may gift it to. Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is so magic I read it twice in three months. Sally Rooney’s Normal People is emotionally dark and great; Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is as good as everybody says it is. Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip is about family violence and still has moments of startling humour, Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? takes personal essays to new soaring genius, and Patrick deWitt’s French Exit is like bubbles of champagne in my heart.
Shona Barrett, Chief Executive Officer
I spent a big part of this year reading about nature, and wild empty places, in both fiction and nonfiction. This excellent reading journey started with Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life Death (bought during MWF17), followed by Sylvain Tesson’s memoir of solitude in Siberia, The Consolations of the Forest, followed by what was probably my favourite novel of the year, Malachy Tallack’s disarmingly simple Shaetlan tale of crofting life The Valley at the Centre of the World.
Gene Smith, Program Manager
Both Andrew Sean Greer’s Less and Patrick deWitt’s French Exit are witty and light and brimming with charm. I thoroughly enjoyed both, and both are on my re-read list. In contrast: Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic, a heavy and powerful collection of essays dissecting grief, trauma, and other titbits of the human experience.
If adventure is more your style, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan is a harkening to so many young adult adventure novels I read when I was a teenager. It’s full of twists and turns, science and scenery, love and suspense (and the cover art is my 2018 favourite). If absorbing writing bound by beautiful cover art is your thing, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage and Helen Jukes’s A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings should be on your list. Tayari’s book explores the relationship between three people living through the consequences of unjust circumstances, and Helen’s book is both memoir and a history on bees. BEES. Need I say more?
I’ve most recently finished Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, which is a collection of utterly compelling short stories on racism, consumerism and Americanism. Nana’s writing is crafted with wild vision and unrelenting brutality, and needs to be in your hands right now. And finally, another short story collection: Florida by Lauren Groff. Her lyrical writing is full of gripping undercurrent that doesn’t let go.
Tania Owen, Head of Marketing & Development
My 2018 best reads includes See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, a story of the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in the late 1800s in Massachusetts – one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time – recounted by four different voices. Schmidt offers such attention to detail you can almost smell and see life as it may have been lived at the time.
Also written in a curious but completely engaging format (tip: push through the first few chapters as you get used to the format), Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders weaves together historical journal and news items to create a completely compelling view of the death of Willie Lincoln, 11-year-old son of the American civil war president. Fact and fiction intertwine to demonstrate what might be a complex ‘actual’ view of the times, and Saunders’s fictional examination of the president’s grief.
Kate Holden’s In My Skin was a book I picked up after a compelling reading by Holden at closing night of MWF18. I was intrigued by the slippery path into heroin addition, ultimately leading to theft and sex work, after her first hit as a ‘one-time adventure’ with friends.
Tamsien West, Development Executive
I’m completely unbiased when I say that the line-up for MWF18 produced four of my favourite books of the year. They couldn’t be more different, but all were equally excellent. The Mere Wife by Maria Davana Headley is a modern feminist retelling of Beowulf, which is all you need to know. Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young is a vivid, bold essay collection. Clean by Juno Dawson is a brilliant young adult read, and Staying: A Memoir by Jessie Cole is a powerfully told memoir of grief, loss and life.
Someone in the office has to represent the best of genre fiction and I am more than happy to oblige. Madeline Miller’s Greek mythology retelling Circe was a triumph; Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient was the very best kind of diverse, feminist romance, and a debut novel to boot. The latest instalments in two of my favourite sci-fi series didn’t fail to deliver, with Iron Gold by Pierce Brown and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers making my geeky heart gleefully happy.
Finally there was a quiet novel about grief, loss, family secrets, and rage of injustice that has haunted a little corner of my heart since I finished it. Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang was published by Brow Books this year, though it was first published in 2016 and won the Lambda Literary Award for transgender fiction in 2017.
Irene Kalpakas, Marketing Coordinator
Some of my favourites this year came to me courtesy of MWF18. Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull, Jessie Cole’s Staying: A Memoir and Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? all tore me up in different ways, but seeing these writers at the Festival helped put me back together as we celebrated survival and resilience. I enjoyed the sharp wit of Miles Franklin Award winner The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser, and the sensory experiences of Mirandi Riwoe’s novella The Fish Girl, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize.
I was a little late to these two (they came out towards the end of last year), but Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang were two gut-wrenching explorations of family and belonging. I also loved Roxane Gay’s Ayiti – originally published by a small press, the 2018 edition brings her debut collection to the world and showcases the author’s stirring and powerful short stories.
Nicole McKenzie, Festival Administrator
I absolutely loved Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (if it is possible to love something that tears you apart and stirs up intense anger towards patriarchal society and the law). I was so excited about this book that I had my partner go to the bookshop on its release date, the day he flew out of Australia, and bring it to me in Sri Lanka; it lived up to all expectations. Lee is a fierce young feminist and she is making a real difference to legislation in Australia. Another favourite that may break your heart is Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales. Sales asks the questions we all want answers to and provides carefully calculated statistics (that will never be sufficient explanations to the atrocities life can throw at us). I cried while reading this on the tram. Normal People by Sally Rooney was another book that lived up to my high expectations. Rooney’s honest prose captures human emotions oh so perfectly.
This last book I picked up by recommendation…and because the cover is stunning. Curry by Naben Ruthnum is a book to have face out on your bookshelf – to admire, spark conversation, and share. A short book, or a long essay, exploring the history of curry and the Indian diaspora, Curry will make you think deeply.