The end of January is upon us, the Australian Open is over, the Hottest 100 has been played and “it’s stinking hot today, Christ.” This all means one thing; it’s back to school time! Whether you’re an anxious student, a stressed parent, or a recent university graduate who keeps forgetting they actually graduated (mood), we can all agree that back to school advertising doesn’t discriminate and strikes fear into the hearts of one and all. To celebrate the start of a fresh academic calendar, my ride-or-die Natalie Brown and I are uniting for the collab of the millennium by discussing one of our favourite things – a bloody good read. Follow along to know what we’ve read recently, what our absolute standouts were from 2018, and what titles are on our bedside table To-Read stack.
From: Jessica on Monday 28th Jan 12:39PM
In 2018 I challenged myself to read 12 books in total and I made it to 4 and a half *insert u tried sticker*. I’m still proud though! I scored a home run because every single book I read was sensational (and 50% of them were recommended to me by you, Brown). Looking back now I realise they were mostly books-to-films with big themes around diversity.
I started the year off by reading Love, Simon in February and it was so satisfying to read a LGBT+ rom-com style book all about love in the month of Valentine’s Day. Quick summary: “17-year-old Simon Spier hasn’t told his family or friends that he’s gay, and he doesn’t know the identity of the anonymous classmate that he’s fallen for online.” I read the majority of it on the plane next to you coming back from London and I’ve never read that much in one sitting (I also don’t usually sit on 17 hour cross continental flights, though). I give it a solid 5 out of 5 stars because it’s the kind of story that warms you from the inside out and feels timeless. And I haven’t even seen the friggen film yet! I will possibly weep.
What was a stand out for you in 2018?
From: Natalie on Monday 28th Jan 4:16PM
I can guarantee you in 2016 and ’17 I probably didn’t even read four books, so to do so in just ONE year is a gallant effort considering how hectic 2018 was – you should be proud!
Between all of my semi-mental breakdowns and existential crises, I was somehow overtaken by a voracious appetite for reading – to the point where I swear I got ADHD when I didn’t have a book in my hands – and chewed up no fewer than 17 books. A coping mechanism, perhaps, a means of escape from the hell-hole of life, or maybe just straight procrastination? I’m not sure.
Out of those there were only about two I didn’t feel genuinely changed my life. And surprisingly enough, the ones I most loved were non-fiction, a genre I don’t usually purchase, let alone enjoy.
I’m slightly embarrassed that it took me as long as I did to read Love, Simon, considering I sat beside you on that cross-continental flight and remember the amount of times you turned to me and commented on how brilliant it was. I also watched the film (you must, you must!) first, something I don’t usually do because I’m a fervent believer that the book is always better than the movie – though in this case it only hyped me up more to read it. And when I finally purchased it mid-year, I knocked it over in a night, because boy howdy, it’s such an uplifting and – as you said – timeless story, and felt so relatable to our generation (rare, considering most YA fiction is dystopian and features fight-to-the-death themes).
While we’re on book-to-film adaptations, I don’t think I can wait much longer to discuss the magic that is Crazy Rich Asians. Never have I ever hyped up anything as much as I did this to you, but Kevin Kwan is a genius. I sat in my room unsure of what to do with myself upon completing the trilogy, because my life actually felt empty. They’re just so witty, and opulent, and well-written, and I’ve reread them since and am delighted that each time, you find yourself noticing something new (because the first read kind of takes your breath away, and you’re not sure where to look first).
How did you find reading it, and do you think it’s a book you’ll revisit for years to come?
From: Jessica on Monday 28th Jan 5:32PM
Your incredible effort of having read 17 books in 2018 is both admirable and terrifying and completely understandable as we weathered the storm that was our final year of university. I’m so glad you loved Love, Simon but I also knew there was no way you wouldn’t enjoy it. It feels like a hug.
I WAS GOING TO MENTION NON-FICTION! Before last year the only biography/memoir/non-fiction book I remember reading was a hardcover version of Miley Cyrus’ Miles To Go autobiography I ordered through one of those Scholastic Book Fair catalogues in middle school. Not only did you introduce me to so many new titles (many of which are on my To Read pile) but through those recommendations I now have such a love for non-fiction, one which stands out was Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton (again, highly recommended from you). I felt like I was reading a real life Bridget Jones and she’s so razor-sharp, observant, hilarious and really helped kick-off my love for books that aren’t novels.
Also, incredible point you made about so much YA being ‘fight-to-the-death’. When you’re younger it’s comforting and exciting but when you’re entering your twenties the world is grim enough and you just want wholesome stories. Something happy on my To Read pile is Drag Teen by Jeffery Self which is about exactly what it says on the tin – a teenage drag queen who gains enough confidence to enter his first pageant.
YES we need to discuss Crazy Rich Asians because I’ve never read a novel like that before and I don’t think I will ever again. I felt like I was reading a bible of sorts when I started, partly because it’s super thick with thin pages and a lot of text and footnotes on each one, and partly because you worship it – and now so do I. “Opulent” is the most accurate word to describe the entire story and how Kevin Kwan writes. It’s so sensational, and while the movie was fabulous, it had to cut so much out so it lost part of what makes it so great. It was incredible to read but months have passed since I experienced it and I definitely need to give it another read before I move onto the sequel and then the final third, which I’m not sad about in the slightest.
In the same vein of novels with diverse characters which have become movies, I read The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas last year and adored it. It follows 16-year-old Starr Carter who lives in two worlds; her poor neighbourhood and her posh high school in the suburbs. Everything shatters when she is the only one to witness the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. It was incredible to read because it’s so realistic and common and heartbreaking. Another 5/5 read.
What’s another title that had an impact on you?
From: Natalie on Monday 28th Jan 6:11PM
This is like looking in a mirror – I was the exact same; Miles To Go was all I had to go by after I got it for my 12th birthday. Everything I Know About Love definitely did the same for me — Dolly changed how I feel about biographies, and I think gave me the courage to go and read other people’s. I adore Dolly and everything that she does — I’d probably read a phonebook if she wrote one. Her book glitters with wit and insight and heart and humour, and in spite of its title, it’s an ode to female friendship more than it is a guide to romantic love. It really opened my eyes to the fact that the loves of your life don’t always have to be men — it can be family, it can be friends, but most importantly, it can also just be yourself.
You’re not wrong — as you said, you just want books that feel like a hug, and I often think YA fiction is the stuff that best emanates that sensation. It feels like coming home.
Yes — reading the follow-up novels after a period of time makes you feel like you’re studying for an exam, albeit the best one you’ve ever taken. You need to remind yourself of all the plot’s intricacies — and the fact he ties up all the loose ends by the third book is possibly the most satisfying aspect of all.
I really want to read THUG, especially after your experience with it. How crazy is it that YA fiction has such a stigma around it — as being tacky or mindless — yet novels like THUG or, even, Love, Simon, can have the most impact on people of any age, and also have the power to bring people together because they often revolve around universal issues or feelings.
One of the books that stuck with me the most — non-fiction, shocker — was Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply. The plot picks up from where an essay she wrote for The New Yorker (called Thanksgiving in Mongolia – link includes spoilers) left off, and raises the age-old question about women and whether we can “have it all”. I got into it easily because she’s a journo — so many aspects I found relatable and aspirational, which I’m sure you will as well. Yet I stuck with it — and in turn, it’s stuck with me — because it’s heartbreaking and poetic and haunting and just so fucking human. When you get to the crux of the novel — the subject of the essay I mentioned — it’ll smash your heart to smithereens. I can’t begin to describe how brutal it is. It made me feel almost sick, because it’s just so, so sad.
Speaking of stories that resonate among many women — Liane Moriarty. I owe it to you that I found her — I remember us bonding over both watching Big Little Lies — and while I know you’ve read quite a few of her books, I definitely think both Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret (which you gifted to me, and as a result, my entire family because it was passed through all of our hands) bring to light so many universal feelings and thoughts and struggles, no matter how small, that so many of us have. She makes us feel heard.
Would you agree, and is this part of the reason you enjoy her writing so much?
From: Jessica on Monday 28th Jan 6:53PM
I’m yelling at the fact that we both have Miles to Go (side note: do you remember the first chapter where she describes how she was originally left handed but then learnt to play guitar with her right so she can therefore use both? Because we’re both left handed and I know 12-year-old me felt a deeper connection to Miley because of that.)
I cannot add anything to your part on Dolly because every word is insanely accurate. The fact that you, one of my most cherished female friends, gave me the book to read is the final cherry on top of another amazing read.
All this CRA talk is making me want to put down Michelle Obama’s Becoming and just dive into that series again but I cannot put Michelle down. It’s another wonderful autobiography, but I don’t even need to sell it because it’s MICHELLE OBAMA. It’s really honest and easy to read and when you imagine her voice saying it to you it’s just ugh. It’s very thick so if you smash it out in a day or two I will yell some more.
I just bought The Rules Do Not Apply after you said it changed your life! I bought my own copy because I started yours but knew straight away this would be a story I’d want to keep on my shelf long afterwards. I’ve been slack and haven’t moved passed the first few chapters yet, but the very first chapter made me go ‘okay I need to buckle up… but also I’m scared to continue’. It feels like a rollercoaster and I’m gradually getting to the climax and I’m terrified of the drop.
Don’t get me STARTED on Liane Moriarty (code for: PLEASE DO). Knowing it’s been passed around your beautiful family warms my heart. The Husband’s Secret is amazing but Big Little Lies just elbows it out of the way in the final few metres in the race to number one in my heart. I don’t know why BLL had such an impact on me – I’m not a mother of young children in a posh suburb dealing with heavy themes. But, my god, I feel like I am when I read it. She writes everything in such a way that’s so point-blank and weirdly welcoming, like how Lana Del Rey’s music makes you nostalgic for memories you’ve never experienced. She’s also hands down one of the most observant authors ever. There are so many lines where I put the book down and went “oh that’s SO accurate!!” Like when she wrote about these “mothers with their efficient ponytails.” I would never think to use efficient to describe a ponytail but when she writes it you’re like “OF COURSE! Ponytails are nothing BUT efficient.” So yes, I feel like she opens my eyes to things that are right in front of me, but she does so in such a comforting, non-pretentious way, like she’s holding my hand.
Were there any other non-fiction books that left an impact? Or another fiction story that you burned through?
From: Natalie on Monday 28th Jan 7:29PM
I, too, definitely felt a deeper connection to Miley after that revelation. You’re preaching to the choir.
I am beyond excited to read Becoming, because exactly — Michelle — and her interview with Oprah (as press for it) almost brought me to tears. I cannot wait for your take on it upon completion.
Yes, it really is a rollercoaster of a read — and because I’d heard so much about it before reading it (but didn’t know the big “drop”, so to speak), I just kept waiting to go over the edge, and when I did, it took my breath away. Not quite in the same vein, but also by a journo and of the biographical genre — How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell fascinated me (I know you haven’t finished it yet, and I’ll add that it took me some time to get into it). It fascinated me for a few reasons — the first being, like Ariel, that Cat’s a journalist, and because she worked for magazines (and writes about people that we know of), it reeled me straight in. She sheds a very interesting light on the industry. Aside from that though, I didn’t find the story gripping so much as I found it a train-wreck. It blew my mind completely, and I couldn’t look away (or once I finally got going, couldn’t put it down either). She’s a great storyteller, funny, and maintains an upbeat tone that hardly falters, even when she recounts the most harrowing episodes of her life. For the vast majority of the book, I just wanted to shake her.
Yes, Big Little Lies will forever be my favourite from her. I feel such a loyalty to it, almost so much so that when reading The Husband’s Secret, I subconsciously told myself I couldn’t like it as much as BLL? YES, the Lana comparison is SO bang on (as is everything else you’ve said here) — she really puts you in a situation, even if you’ve never been there.
I know we both loved Gone Girl — one of the best books I’ve ever read — so I think another fiction novel I read that you’d really enjoy is Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. It was really hyped in America (so I kind of doubted it’d be decent), but it’s the definition of a page turner — I could not put it down. A bit like The Rules Do Not Apply or even Gone Girl, as soon as you start reading, you hold your breath because you know something big is coming, and when it comes, it shakes you to the core. I think you’d love it (and would be more than happy to lend you my copy).
Two more non-fiction recommendations before my final one — When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (which I’m re-reading at the moment). I’ll begin with the former — it’s about a 36-year-old on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon when he’s diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Basically one day he’s a doctor treating the dying; the next he’s a patient struggling to live. I’d heard so much about it, and how profound and heartbreaking it was, and yet it took me by surprise when I read it, because it was both of these things, yet still not quite what I expected. More than anything, it just made me ponder life (which sounds so wanky, but it’s so true).
Tiny Beautiful Things is addictively, breathtakingly great — a compilation of Strayed’s time as (the at-the-time anonymous) Sugar, the “agony aunt” on The Rumpus. There’s a lot of compassion and hard-won wisdom here, and a lot of straight talking to people who are trying to convince themselves to do very stupid things. Her writing should be taught in schools and put on little slips of paper and dropped from airplanes, for all to read.
I’m going to end my recommendations with the most important book I read in 2018 — and also the book that everyone else will probably find the least interesting. Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh is non-fiction, but it’s not a memoir — it’s more a really big essay (with recipes intertwined).
It really changed the way I think about food and eating, in the best possible way, because she’s not preaching at you to quit sugar or denounce gluten. She simply believes that taking pleasure in food is an inherently nourishing act; the closest thing to a rule is “eat what you love”. It’s very profound, and as someone who has a bit of a weird relationship with food and eating, I just wanted to tattoo the entire thing on my brain.
What’re some titles you’re hoping to tackle in 2019?
From: Jessica on Monday 28th Jan 10:03PM
I can give you Becoming once I’m finished it! Unless you want a buy a slice of Michelle for yourself. Either way we will have to do a book swap in a months time because every book you mention sounds like such a banger (not sure if books can be bangers but we’re going to act like they can).
How To Murder Your Life is still on my bedside table just JUDGING ME for reading other books in its place. I will get to it at one point and I know I’ll love it (many thanks for letting me hoard it for months).
Oh GONE GIRL takes me right back to 2015 when I did this giant English Extension essay on it. Luckiest Girl Alive sounds incredible so I’m adding it to my giant iPhone Note called ‘Books To Read’.
I’ve heard so much about When Breath Becomes Air so I’m so glad it lived up to its hype! That’s so interesting how it both was and wasn’t what you expected. I’ll borrow that off you and also Tiny Beautiful Things because it sounds different.
I would never pick up Eat Up! in a bookstore if you didn’t recommend it to me, so I’m so happy you did. It sounds like nothing else I’ve ever really heard of, so I’ll no doubt pinch that from your ever growing library of goodness at some point.
As for books for the year ahead, I’ve got many! Becoming, The Rules Do Not Apply, Drag Teen, How To Murder Your Life and so many you’ve mentioned are all on this list but I don’t need to repeat them.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer – I’m so excited to get my hands on this. Less is a satirical comedy which follows Arthur Less, a failed novelist about to turn 50. He gets a wedding invitation from his ex-boyfriend of 9 years. He can’t say yes (too awkward) but he can’t say no (defeat). On his desk are invitations to half-baked literary events around the world, thus kicking off the hilarity of it all while dealing with themes of love, same-sex relationships, ageing and travel. I’ve never read a fiction book with this kind of main character so I’m super intrigued!
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – This is on my list purely because I just want to know what all the fuss is about. I feel like everyone has read it, but when I ask people in real life if it’s good I just get “yeah it’s good!” I think I’m just really used to our reviews.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty – Does this need any introduction? Nine strangers go away on a relaxing retreat, but things are not as they seem. I am READY for more domestic noir perfection from Liane.
Tweak by Nic Sheff – This is the book that Beautiful Boy is based on and we LOVE ourselves some Timothee Chalamet. I haven’t seen the film but this story sounds so interesting so it’s made the list.
Conversations with Friends AND Normal People by Sally Rooney – I added these both to my list because someone recommended them online but I can’t remember who. I haven’t really looked into the actual plot of either, but while they both seem interesting, both seem super polarising. People are either giving these books 4 stars or 2. Will report back!
Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies) by Scarlett Curtis – I’ve read half of this and want to finish it, but I’m in no rush to. Scarlett is a feminists activist whose curated this collection of chapters written by like 50 awesome women, some of which include Dolly Alderton (heyo!), Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Jameela Jamil, Helen Fielding and more. You would burn through it as the chapters are easy to read and quite short, but it’s also a really great book to just pick up and read at any moment? Also this sounds weird but the book is thick but soft which means it literally feels like it’s been physically passed through the hands of so many women before it’s fallen into yours, so I always think of that when I open it up.
Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales – ABC journalist and 7:30 presenter Leigh Sales writes about her own life while interviewing multiple people who have gone through tragedy. It’s all about what happens when the worst day in your life happens, so it’s both heartbreaking and inspiring, and I definitely think it’ll be something which leave a lasting impression.
So that’s sure to keep me busy in the coming months! What’s on your list?
From: Natalie on Monday 28th Jan 10:39PM
Guh, yes please, share with me the gospel of Queen Obama. And books can definitely be bangers, as of right now.
You are welcome — I cannot wait to hear your thoughts when you finally do get to it (and of all the others too, you know you can borrow from the library of Natalie Brown whenever you please and there is no strict return date).
I only came by Eat Up! (personal mantra) as a result of The High Low, which is where I find the vast majority of the books I read (and they’re all spectacular, so God bless Dolly and Pandora), and I credit the podcast and Kevin Kwan to reigniting my love for reading — and especially The High Low for realising how easy it is to make time to read, and how much better you feel for it (as opposed to sitting and scrolling through your phone).
I’m so excited to hear your take on all of these — and also stoked to see Less (I keep seeing the cover and it draws me in, even though I always think the illustrated man is a bit Trump-y), Eleanor Oliphant (I, too, am intrigued to find out what the hype’s for) and Tweak (the movie is SO exceptional) on your list because they are ALSO on mine (an excuse to do this all over again — as if we needed one, yeehaw). I’ve heard mixed reviews about Nine Perfect Strangers, so I’m keen to hear what you’ve got to say, as you are the Moriarty expert — and I’m also keen for your thoughts on Normal People (you can borrow my copy if you’d like), because it’s one of the two books I couldn’t get into (which I kind of hate myself for because I’ve heard nothing but praise about it, except from me). Feminists Don’t Wear Pink I am KEEN to borrow (especially after your comment on the physical FEEL of it), as we love a dive-in-dive-out book (Tiny Beautiful Things is very much the same way). And I do love Leigh Sales, so I’m sure it’ll be phenomenal.
My list is a bit of a heffa because I put myself on a book ban in order to graduate, but now that that’s over…
The Pisces, by Melissa Broder: Profoundly modern, deeply disturbed and darkly comic, The Pisces is about a heartbroken PhD student who over one summer falls in dangerous, ecstatic love with a merman. I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about this book (though I’m worried I’ll find it a tad weird), and do love a love story (and we’re also going into the Pisces month so it seems fitting).
Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff: This is the kind of partner memoir to Tweak, but written from the Dad’s perspective (pretty self-explanatory). I found both sides fascinating in the film, so can’t wait to actually read both books.
The Vanity Fair Diaries, by Tina Brown: We love ourselves a journalist’s biography, and this one I’m sure will be no different (also The High Low was inspired by her, so if that doesn’t sell you I don’t know what will).
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith: I really just want to read all of her books, but this is first on the list (she also comes highly recommended from every living person on the planet). It’s the story of an interracial family living in the university town of Wellington, Massachusetts, whose misadventures in the culture wars – on both sides of the Atlantic – serve to skewer everything from family life to political correctness to the combustive collision between the personal and the political.
Man Repeller: Seeking Love, Finding Overalls, by Leandra Medine: Considering I am her number one disciple, I’m shocked and appalled that I haven’t read this collection of essays by the Man Repeller founder, but endeavour to this year (even though it’s been out since before we started uni), because I feel a loyalty to consume everything she creates.
How Do You Like Me Now? by Holly Bourne: A blisteringly funny and honest exploration of love, friendship and navigating the emotional rollercoaster of your thirties. Obviously we’re not 30 yet, but I’ve heard a lot of good things, so can’t wait to read this one.
A Love Story for Bewildered Girls, by Emma Morgan: I’ve wanted to read this since Pandora recommended it on The High Low MONTHS ago (because she got an advanced copy), and it’s finally available in the first week of Feb. The premise: Grace loves a woman. Annie loves a man. Violet isn’t quite sure. But you’ll love them all… (I already do).
Boys Will Be Boys and Fight Like a Girl, both by Clementine Ford: Both just seem like kick-ass reads by a kick-ass woman.
The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon: Our yearly helping of YA fiction — they’re making it into a film so it’s coming soon I’m sure, about a girl who falls in love with a boy just before her family is about to be deported.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh: I’ll be honest and say I don’t even care what this book is about, I just need to own it for the cover (and the title, because rest and relaxation is what we need to bring to 2019). It’s a shocking, hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation, aided and abetted by one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature. Can’t wait.
From: Jessica on Tuesday 29th Jan 12:40PM
You know that meme that was like “what 6 things would you put in a pentagram to summon me?” A phone with nothing but every episode of The High Low would be something I’d use to summon you because I associate you with it so closely.
I really need to make more time for reading because when I was on holidays it was easy, but being back home means I’m right back into my scrolling until 1am routine (screams).
It’s very satisfying hearing you have Normal People because I TRUST YOUR OPINION. I will definitely borrow it off you because it’s always a risk buying a book, only to abandon it and have it judge you from it’s spot on the shelf.
OH my god I’m such a goose because I had no idea that Tweak isn’t a stand alone thing – DUH. *furiously adds Beautiful Boy to my list* I’m now dying to read The Vanity Fair Diaries for obvious THL reasons and also Leandra’s collection of essays.
Same, I’ve heard so much praise for Zadie Smith and I feel like an uncultured swine having read nothing from her. On Beauty sounds fascinating *adds to list as well.*
A Love Story for Bewildered Girls sounds so good, and Clementine Ford was on every Best of 2018 list I was reading in December/January so I’ll no doubt end up borrowing your copy as well.
I remember everyone recommending Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon but the plot doesn’t pull me in, but The Sun is Also a Star definitely does! Very keen to hear your thoughts on it!
On a final note; YES you need to buy My Year of Rest and Relaxation pronto because that cover is gorgeous.
To close, THANK YOU times a million for sitting down and sharing your thoughts on some stellar reads with me. I trust your opinions so much and you’re a never ending library of interesting and quality recommendations, so, this has been an absolute pleasure.
From: Natalie on Tuesday 29th Jan 1:07PM
That may be the best compliment anyone has ever given me (and it’s oh so accurate).
I do agree with you — reading when you’re away from your real life is definitely easier, because you feel like you’re allowed to sit down and enjoy a book (we need to overcome that feeling in our everyday lives).
YES! Borrow away, so it can stop judging me for a while.
And no, thank YOU for asking me to do this with you. You’re so wise (hoot hoot), and your take on everything has just got me all geared up and ready to read in 2019. It has been the biggest joy, the most fun, and I’m just so tickled to have kicked off the year with this exchange.
From: Jessica on Tuesday 29th Jan 2:03PM
I love us, I love this post, and thank you dear reader, (yeah, you!) for making it to the end of 5,200 words of us discussing our favourite reads, something which brings us so much joy! We hope it brought you the same.