my favourite reads of 2018

Books should always be accompanied by tea and homemade cake where possible.

Books should always be accompanied by tea and homemade cake where possible.

In true Phil tradition, I wait until it is quite embarrassing to have a blog post with “2018” in the title to divulge my favourite reads of the last year. Also in my usual style, some of the best books were discovered and read in the final days of December, hence the long mulling over. But now I have decided and I hope you will enjoy hearing about my choices and maybe even be inspired to read them yourself. As always, I’d love to hear what your favourite reads of last year were too.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

Full disclosure, Holly is a friend and I had been eagerly anticipating this book for years but I bought my own copy (which is the best way to support a friend who publishes a book! Buy it! Buy two! I speak from experience here) and was under no obligation to say nice things about it in public. But that is neither here nor there because I have nothing but nice things to say about it!

Lost Flowers is a read you won't forget in a hurry. Exquisitely written, this is a compelling story of grief, heartbreak, love, magic, wonder and redemption, with Australia's beautiful landscapes (bush, sea and desert) as the backdrop. Despite very dark subject matter, Holly has crafted a truly beautiful story that reads almost like a fairytale and brings it alive with luscious detail, particularly when it comes to Australia's native flowers, the vehicle through which young Alice Hart learns to communicate again after a violent family tragedy. 

But flowers can only say so much and the book's ultimate, powerful message is that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot run away from grief, from pain and from your past because it will always find you. There are some very dark times for Alice as she ignores danger signals time and time again - which is so unsettling as a reader, because you end up caring so much about her! - but Alice's story is, in the end, a hopeful one as she realises that facing pain and owning your story is the only way to move forward and claim your rightful place in the world. 

Books don't often move me in the way this one did. The storytelling is truly spectacular and the character of Alice Hart is the lost, frightened child seeking love and belonging that I think speaks to that part of all of us. Holly is a magical writer and I'd say this book is destined to become something of an Australian classic.

Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

I mentioned this book in my post about my love affair with Persephone Books which was well and truly rekindled in 2018. Someone At A Distance has probably been my favourite Persephone so far, and that is saying something, because they are yet to publish something I don’t enjoy!

Described as "a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage", I was quite unprepared for how compelling and absorbing this tale would be. It's a novel all about relationships, how they form and also how they fall apart. Sometimes all it can take is 'someone at a distance' for that to happen. The novel follows what happens to this family when the husband/father is unfaithful, and the emotional devastation that has on everyone - there’s no great twist, per se, but the book’s genius and charm lies in how it explores the emotional lives of the characters, and how compassionately Whipple manages to do this. And I think Louise (the other woman) is by far the most repugnant character I’ve ever come across in literature. Dorothy Whipple was an extraordinary writer and I now want to read everything she ever wrote.

The Tuscan Cookbook by Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer

Stephanie’s Journal is one of my favourite books (it’s one of my mate Veggie Mama’s too!) - it is the diary Stephanie Alexander kept in the year 1997, which turned out to be a momentous one for her. She closed her famous restaurant in Melbourne, opened the Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, and held three residential cooking schools in Tuscany with her friend Maggie Beer. I have read the journal countless times - at least once a year since I bought it off the sale table in Fullers Bookshop in 2001 sometime - but I had never read the cookbook that Stephanie and Maggie put out the year after the cooking schools, which naturally were full! Of course, it was published 20 years ago and it wasn’t easy to get a copy in the UK - but an Amazon secondhand seller came to rescue and I managed to get a copy that was signed by Stephanie herself! (I shall have to hope I run into Maggie sometime now that I’m back in Oz so she can sign it too!) It was such a treat to read this book after many years of imagining the cooking school, in the magical Tuscan countryside, and all the mouthwatering food they cooked. It has not only added to my enjoyment of one of my favourite books but it was a sumptuous read in its own right, with so many delicious recipes and ideas. So many recipes for cavolo nero, my favourite vegetable!

Home Cook by Thomasina Miers

I could not leave this book out of my favourites of the year, primarily because I cooked so much from it in 2018. Every recipe from this book that I’ve tried is an absolute winner. My favourite was the marmalade breakfast muffins, which I must have made every week for a couple of months, I just couldn’t get enough! When you’re an experienced cook it’s very rare when a book comes along that gives you new ideas and fresh energy to get into the kitchen and try some different things. Highly recommended!

The entire works of Diana Henry but particularly How To Eat A Peach and Food from Plenty

Diana Henry is fast becoming my favourite food writer. Her words are so evocative and poetic, you can practically smell what she’s cooking. This is a woman who loves food and has lived it. So many of the milestones in her life have a food story linked to it somehow, and I find this so interesting to read. Stories behind food and dishes, when they are told well, add greatly to my enjoyment of a recipe. I made quite a few dishes from How To Eat A Peach (which Tom got me for my birthday) over the long, hot summer we enjoyed in the UK last year and they were all excellent. It’s a lovely summery book, evidenced in the great variety of recipes for ice creams and sorbets (and such inventive combinations!). Perfect to sit with a cold glass of something indulgent and plan a dinner party with. Towards the end of the year, I noticed that nearly all Diana Henry’s books were 99p on Kindle for a few weeks, so I bought all of them (apart from the one entirely devoted to chicken, seeing I don’t eat it!). As with Thomasina Miers, it is rare for me to encounter a food writer that makes me want to actually cook their recipes as opposed to just soak up their exquisite prose.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E Stevenson

Also mentioned in my Persephone post and one of my favourites of theirs. Written in 1934 and hence reflecting the concerns of women at the time, without the financial security of marriage, Miss Barbara Buncle finds herself needing to supplement her already meagre income. She does what many people think will bring certain fame and fortune - write and publish a book! She writes a novel based on her village and all the people who live in it, thinking that changing names and writing it under a pseudonym will be sufficient to hide their true identities. To her huge surprise, her book (or John Smith’s book!) is a huge bestseller and her publisher wants a sequel, but lo and behold, all the villagers have read it, recognise themselves and their village immediately (which says it all, as some of it isn’t flattering!), are outraged and determined to find out who ‘John Smith’ is and make ‘him’ pay. No one suspects the dowdy and quiet Miss Buncle for a second, which is where all the hilarity ensues - but also makes an interesting observation that people often do have hidden lives and assumptions we make about others can so very often be wrong. It’s absorbing, intelligent and very charming.

84 Charing Cross Road / The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

“I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets. I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I'd go looking for the England of English Literature, and he nodded and said: ‘It's there.’” Oh, this glorious book. What a treat. I’d wanted to read it for years - and on one sunny Sunday in September last year I read it, the whole thing (my edition included the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street), and adored it. Do you ever read a book and as you’re reading it you know you’ve found a new favourite you’ll read again and again? That was this book for me. If you love London and books, I highly recommend it. It’s as charming and delightful as everyone says.

The Fortnight in September by R.C Sheriff

Also a Persephone book and an unusual one in that it was written by a man! But this was one of the most accomplished, most finely observed novels I have ever read. The premise is so simple - we follow the Stevens family on their annual two week holiday to the seaside in Bognor Regis. They are a typical middle-class 1930s family and have been going to the same B&B run by the same people for a very long time. Their holiday is as well-planned and thought out as their daily lives in South London, Mr Stevens has thought of everything down to the packing of the suitcases, the timings of the trains and which beach hut to hire for the best perspective. The B&B isn’t quite as comfortable as it used to be - slightly shabby, the landlady a little older and dottier - but the Stevens family do what they’ve always done and make the best of things. It’s an absolutely fascinating novel and so finely and accurately observed. Like I said, such a simple premise but the novel manages to capture all the big concerns of life within it - love, hope, disappointment, home, family, the passing of the years. I also loved how the very feeling of being on holiday is captured in this book - how the arrival at one’s destination is so anticipated and exciting, and then the days begin to roll by faster and faster and before you know it, the holiday is over and it’s time to go back home, to normal life. Wonderful. Simply wonderful.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

I had been meaning to read this book for years and it felt poetic that I read it in November, during my last autumn in London. I seem to be enjoying novels that are more character studies, perhaps reflective of the direction my own writing is taking. In Quartet in Autumn, we meet four people who are colleagues sharing the same office - two men, two women, all of whom are nearing retirement age. The setting is London in the late 1970s and it’s an interesting study of loneliness and friendship, and how people’s inner and outer lives can be poles apart. Pym’s ability to write about the humdrum existences of these people without losing the reader at any point is quite incredible. I am studying her techniques intently! A writer of great tenderness and humour. I loved it.

One Day in December by Josie Silver

Instagram friends raving about this book + 99p on Kindle + 23 hours of flying from London to Melbourne = done deal! I wanted an absorbing, fun read for the London to Singapore leg of our journey home to Australia in December (ha!) and I got that and more with One Day in December. Wow. Good thing I was able to read the entire thing in one sitting because it is such a sweet, compelling and emotional story that I would have found it hard to put down otherwise.  I won't say anything about the plot - all I will say is that is it very, very rare for me to be moved to tears by a book. I cried a few times during the reading, but by the end I was a sobbing mess! Maybe it's because I was sleep deprived and emotional about returning home, who knows! But if you want a romantic and unputdownable holiday read that will really make you think about love, friendship, life and fate, I couldn't recommend this more highly.

The Empress of Australia: A Post War Memoir by Harry Leslie Smith

Harry Leslie Smith sadly passed away just as I was discovering his work late last year. I would highly recommend watching his speech at the Labour Party Conference in 2014. A man who lived through the depression of the 1930s, the Second World War and enormous social change throughout his lifetime, in his eighties and nineties Harry became a passionate political voice, speaking out about NHS cutbacks, benefits policy, political corruption, food poverty, the cost of education – and how the world his generation helped to build out of the rubble of depression, social inequality and the terror of war is slowly eroding. “Don’t let my past be your future,” he warned. This particular memoir was about life in Britain after he was demobbed from service in 1948 and attempted to make a life back in his hometown with his German wife. The attitude towards her was quite shocking (but I was also shocked to realise that it’s not dissimilar to attitudes towards immigrants and foreigners in modern day Britain! Very little has actually changed. Even the scene that takes place at peak hour in Paddington station when Harry and Friede are trying to get home from Gatwick was hauntingly similar to my experiences! But that’s a post for another day) and Harry’s valiant attempts to make a home for her are so noble and heartbreaking, but sadly it all unravels as Friede simply can’t adjust to the culture shock of post-war austerity Britain and Harry’s hopes of making a good life in working class Halifax fade rapidly. Eventually the story has a happy ending as they decide to emigrate to Canada on the ship from which this memoir derives its title. I read this as part of research for my novel, also set in 1948, and will refer to it often. What a brave, extraordinary man he was. I’m so glad he wrote his stories down.

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

One of the first books I borrowed from the library on landing in Hobart! In this book, journalist Leigh Sales interviews several people who have suffered or been involved in high-profile tragedies such as the Thredbo landslide and Port Arthur (I found that one the hardest to read) and how they coped with the trauma and attention that followed. After all, the days that these tragedies took place were just another ordinary day, to begin with. They woke up that morning having no idea by evening their lives would be forever altered. The interviews are powerful and honest. And alongside these very courageous testimonies is Leigh exploring the idea that none of us know when something will happen that changes everything. We have no ability to control these kinds of events happening to us, or our loved ones. We are all vulnerable. And if the worst does happen, what do you do then? Any Ordinary Day is such a compelling book about human capacity for resilience, courage, kindness and endurance. I wouldn’t recommend reading it before bed (!) but any other time you need to feel reminded of the resilience of human beings, the ability of communities to rally round and support each other, or just to feel nothing but unbridled gratitude for your life’s many blessings, this is a great read.

What books did you most enjoy reading in 2018?

PS: As I mention every year, any links to Amazon are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and end up making a purchase, I get a small commission. Many thanks for your support xx

my favourite reads of 2013

According to my Goodreads profile, I read an eye-watering 103 books in 2013. I'm glad that my long commute is being put to good use!

There were so many standout books from my reading list. I've tried to narrow it down to a Top 10 but I just couldn't! 2013 was a stellar year for my reading life. Some books were fresh off the press, others had been around for a while and I discovered them for the first time. I'm so glad I did.

So, without further ado. I thoroughly recommend these great reads. 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Were I the type to get girl crushes, this would be one of those scenarios. Not only is Hannah Kent a very talented young writer but she’s also gorgeous and got a lovely personality as well….don’t you just hate that?! I was lucky enough to interview Hannah for my podcast when she visited London in September last year and you can hear about chat here.

Burial Rites is Hannah’s first novel and has been published to great acclaim. It captures the dark and oppressive yet startlingly beautiful and evocative Icelandic landscape with the impending execution of a possibly innocent woman in the background. It feels strange to call it a beautiful book when the subject matter is so dark…but it touches on so many aspects of human nature, truth, survival and how others perceive us versus who we know ourselves to be that you can’t fail to be moved by it. It has stayed with me ever since turning the final page. Highly recommended.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

In a similar camp to Burial Rites, Evie Wyld’s second novel also focuses on a female character who is very much an outsider. Not your typical heroine, Jake Whyte is a sheep farmer, physically strong, emotionally scarred and has every reason to keep herself hidden from the world. Quiet yet menacing, it challenges you in terms of what roles you expect men and women to fall into – both in fiction and in real life – and the writing is so incredibly beautiful. I loved the way the narrative is structured – there is a present day narrative with details of Jake’s quite deliberately lonely life on an English island, and the other is a rewind through her troubled past in Australia, with everything happening in reverse chronological order. Sounds complicated, but it’s so compelling. Highly recommended, particularly for a dark and stormy night!

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, ever since I discovered Strayed’s wonderful advice column Dear Sugar and the book that resulted. This is Strayed’s own heroes journey, a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother died of cancer and her first marriage broke down when she was only in her early twenties. A painful journey in both the physical and emotional sense as she conquers her demons and lays a few ghosts to rest, the reader is at Strayed’s side every step, barefoot or otherwise (!), of the way as she accepts, embraces and finally lets go of the past and is profoundly changed by the end, ready for her next chapter. A real book for the soul, this one.

Like A House On Fire by Cate Kennedy

I’ve really got into short stories over the past few years and quite a few collections have come out of Australia in that time that have been rather phenomenal. I really loved this collection by Kennedy, the first book of hers that I’ve read. Loss and lack are the key themes here, whether it’s loss of a partner, a job, an old way of life or innocence. Like life, the stories have their ups and downs and don’t always have neat endings. But Kennedy’s writing is perceptive and compelling, with the characters leaping to life from the page, making the reader wince at times with recognition – always the hallmark of a good book for me.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I’ve wanted to read this for years and can’t believe I waited so long for it – but it was worth the wait. Funny, heartbreaking, bittersweet and mouthwatering all at once, Heartburn is the tale of a woman scorned – Rachel is seven months pregnant and discovers that her husband Mark is in love with another woman. In between plotting revenge and trying to win Mark back, Rachel shares her favourite recipes. So it was a mixture of my two favourite genres really!  Ephron, who passed away in 2012, made no secret that Heartburn is based on the breakdown of her second marriage in the same circumstances. “I knew the moment my marriage ended that someday it might make a book – if I could just stop crying,” says Ephron in my edition’s introduction. “One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.” Me too, Nora. Me too. I found this book incredibly relatable on so many levels and if you’re a fan of Ephron’s movies (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Julie and Julia) you’ll love this book.

Cargo by Jessica Au

With sensory and vivid prose, this novel transports you to a seaside Australian town in 1992 and into the lives of three teenagers from various walks of life, each with different demons to battle. But what unites the three stories is not just the fact they overlap (which is done very well) but also the themes of adolescence that each of the protagonists grapple with – love, burgeoning sexuality, independence, freedom and a growing awareness of who they are and their place in the world. It is beautifully written and evoked memories of all the tartan shirts, Frozen Cokes, Doc Martens, swimming at the beach and watching Home and Away every night that typified my own pre-teen existence in Australia circa 1992.

Dearest Rose by Rowan Coleman

My first read of Rowan Coleman and it won’t be my last. I had heard great things about this novel – in fact it won Best Epic Romantic Novel at the 2013 RoNAs – and it didn’t disappoint. The novel opens with Rose and her seven year old daughter arriving at a B&B in the depths of Cumbria in the middle of the night, much to the chagrin of the landlady. The novel unfolds with the tale of what led Rose to that point, interspersed with how she goes about rebuilding her life in the present, with some funny but also heartbreaking moments, culminating in the novel’s truly horrifying climax. Rowan Coleman really doesn’t shy away from revealing the darkest, ugliest parts of abusive relationships and for that she is to be congratulated. It was such a compelling read. Have some tissues handy.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Recently retired and emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his plain, dry, white-bread existence one day with the arrival of a letter from a former colleague who is dying. He responds to the letter and goes out to post it. Instead of putting it in the mailbox, he keeps walking, to the other end of UK, to deliver the letter in person, convinced by doing so he may save his dying friend. As he walks, Harold reflects on the events of his life, all the while having to deal with the reactions of his wife, friends, neighbours and total strangers to his “unlikely pilgrimage”!  The journey forces him to confront painful memories of the past he has kept hidden so he can “keep calm and carry on” as so many people do. A story about the courage to move forward in life, to find your way back to what really matters. Absolutely wonderfully written, I couldn’t put it down.

Limoncello and Linen Water by Tessa Kiros

I don’t think Tessa Kiros is capable of writing a book that isn’t evocative, exquisitely styled and photographed, and sumptuously written. This one is a tribute to the Italian women in Kiros’ life and the life lessons and wisdom she has gleaned from them, some domestic, others more profound. The recipes too are amazing, particularly Marisa’s potatoes with breadcrumbs.

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

This is Lisa Jewell at her radiant, sparkling best. Engrossing, real and heartbreaking stuff - this book is about the Bird family and the fallout of a tragic event that takes place one Easter Sunday and reverberates through their lives for decades. A must for any Lisa Jewell fans and a wonderful introduction to her writing for new readers.

The Secret Lives of Men by Georgia Blain

Another wonderful short story collection by an Australian writer I'd not read before. I really enjoy stories that are slices of life, so to speak, that quietly and thoughtfully evoke daily life and its various struggles. In this collection, Blain skilfully and compellingly draws characters who examine their motivations, their behaviour in the present and the past, their longings and their failures. The stories are deceptively simple, the prose is stark and evocative and the effect is lingering. The minute I finished the book I wanted to read it again. One to keep on a shelf within easy reach.

By the Book: A Reader's Guide To Life by Ramona Koval

Interviewing Ramona Koval while I was in Melbourne last year was one of the highlights of my career to date. She is a warm, funny and generous woman and reading this book is like having her right in front of you, telling you about her favourite books and their effect on her through her life. This book is such a treat for people who love books – you’ll be nodding and smiling in recognition at mutual favourites, scribbling down titles (or checking the handy index at the end) of books to seek out and read, or most likely both.

Honestly: Notes on Life by Nikki Gemmell

I would buy a book about paint drying if it had Nikki Gemmell’s name on the front cover. She never disappoints me. This is a collection of her non-fiction, a series of columns she writes each week for The Weekend Australian about whatever’s on her mind – be it something small like the joy of a handwritten letter or some of the bigger questions in life. Frank, uplifting, reassuring and always beautifully written in her trademark lyrical style, this is one to savour.

Leftovers by Stella Newman

Stella is one of the funniest writers I know and after her very readable debut Pear Shaped, I was so excited about reading this one. Susie Rosen is, according to a magazine article she stumbles upon, a ‘Leftover’ – a post Bridget-Jones 30 something who has neither her dream man, job, nor home. According to her friends, Susie just needs to get over her ex and start online dating. But Susie’s got another plan. She’s holding out for a promotion and bonus at her ghastly job in advertising and once that happens she can finally quit and pursue her dream career in food, then surely everything else will fall into place. But of course, it’s not that simple!  This is a funny, relatable, well-written and heartfelt book about making things happen for yourself, as tempting as it is to wait for “one day”. Not a typical romance at all and a very empowering ending. I loved it!

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I adored this book and became truly enchanted by all the characters, particularly Don Tillman, the quirky protagonist who is an Asperger’s sufferer, a professor of genetics at Melbourne university and a stickler for routine. He decides he’s going to get married but without a suitable contender in the picture as yet, embarks on The Wife Project to find his perfect woman. The Wife Project becomes The Rosie Project when Don pauses his search for a wife and decides to help an acquaintance find her real father instead. It’s absolutely hilarious, heart-warming and a reminder that love will usually find you when you least expect it. Highly recommended.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Seeing the name Kate Morton on a book cover to me says “guaranteed page turner” and this one was no exception. In fact, I think this is my favourite of all her books. I won’t spoil the plot for you (!) – all I will say is that if you like romantic family sagas with a gasp-out-loud-on-the-train twist, you’ll really enjoy this.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman

This was an exquisite book and one I’m still thinking about, a year later. The dust jacket foretells…”this is a story about right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same.” Very true.

After surviving the brutality of the First World War, Tom and his new wife Isabel begin their life together on an isolated island off the coast of Western Australia where Tom has a job as the lighthouse keeper. Isabel suffers some tragic miscarriages and a still birth and sinks deep into grief. One day, she hears a baby crying. She and Tom discover a boat washed ashore on the island, with a dead man and a live baby inside. Tom, whose moral code was only strengthened after witnessing the horrors of war, wants to report this immediately, but Isabel has already taken to the baby and pleads with him to let them keep her and pass her off as their own child. Against Tom’s better judgement, he eventually agrees.

Some years later, they return to the mainland with their daughter and come to realise that their decision to keep the baby and raise her as their own has come at a great cost to someone else in the town. Will they continue to keep the secret?

This is an incredible book, absolutely unforgettable and very moving. Having written this, a year on, I’m going to read it again! I’d recommend having tissues close by for this one as well.

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

This long-awaited graphic memoir from illustrator Katie Green was one of the highlights of my reading year. The emotional effort it must have taken to draw her harrowing story must have been enormous. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is glad she did.

Lighter Than My Shadow is Katie’s story of her struggle with and recovery from anorexia nervosa, with the added trauma of sexual abuse during her recovery. Both taboo subjects, Katie never shies away from the struggles she endured and the story is told beautifully through her charming illustrations. It’s hard to read though, particularly if you’ve been through something even remotely similar. The early part of the book was particularly resonant for me, transporting me back to my teenage years where I was paranoid about putting on weight, hid food in my room and habitually starved myself as punishment for not “fitting in”. Katie’s journey, however, takes a far more sinister turn than mine did. The illustrations are so evocative, capturing the mind of a young girl who is aware her life is spinning out of control and her desperate attempts to control it, battling the “black cloud” that hangs over her in almost every picture.

Not an easy read by any stretch, and you might want some alone time afterwards to digest it. But it is so, so important that stories like this are told not only to expose the dark hearts of these taboo subjects but to give hope of recovery to anyone currently struggling. While there are a lot of shadows in Lighter Than My Shadow, there is light too. It’s such a brave, emotionally honest and beautifully realised book and deserves a very wide audience.  

What were your favourite reads of 2013?