It’s really comforting to know that, even in these uncertain times, there are certain things that a book lover can rely on, like the release of the Dymocks Top 101. Every year, thousands of Australian readers vote on their most beloved books, and those fine booksellers publish the results. I love leafing through this list each year, and seeing where the trends and loyalties have shifted – much more fun than plain-old same-old lists of best selling books and professional critic round-ups. This is bookish democracy at its finest! Plus, this year, there was a world first: a tie for first place! Here’s my take on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020…
1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Two former number ones, both alike in dignity… turns out, Australia just couldn’t decide between them! It was a dead heat for the number one spot, so Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Book Thief tied for first. Eleanor Oliphant got the gong in the 2019 list, and The Book Thief has been lingering around the top 10 ever since it was first released thirteen years ago. Impressive, on both fronts! Zusak maybe has a slight edge, given that his recent follow-up, Bridge Of Clay, also made the list (number 47). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.
3. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
And here’s one that would come as no surprise to anyone at all. You couldn’t swing a bookmark in Australia these past twelve months without hitting a copy of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. Billed as equally heartbreaking and uplifting, this is a coming of age story that appeals to readers right across the spectrum. It’s got a bit of everything: romance, crime, adventure, humour, and family ties.
4. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Here’s another former number one (but fourth place is still very respectable!): All The Light We Cannot See. It’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII historical fiction that won hearts and minds across the world. In it, a German orphan and a blind French girl are destined to cross paths as they both try to play the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. Oh, and there’s a precious jewel and a Nazi treasure hunter… Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.
5. The Dry by Jane Harper
Jane Harper is one of the most formidable crime writing talents to come out of Australia in the past decade. Her debut, The Dry, came in at number five, and her two follow ups – The Lost Man and Force Of Nature – also made the list, at 11 and 92 respectively. This is the book that introduced Aaron Falk, hard-boiled Australian Federal Police investigator. He reluctantly returns to his hometown to mourn the passing of a childhood friend, and (of course) finds himself drawn into a mystery, in the midst of the worst drought of the century… A feature film, starring Eric Bana, is slated for release later this year (corona-willing).
6. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Okay, maybe it’s cheating to put an entire series in, but at least it frees up a few extra slots for other great reads in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020. I think we can safely say that Harry Potter is officially a classic now – and not one of those contemporary classics that we’ll all forget about eventually, but a classic-classic that we’ll be reading and enjoying for generations to come. I actually kind of look forward to the day that we see these books shelved alongside Dickens and Austen…
9. Becoming by Michelle Obama
It’s almost a cliche, by this point, for anyone who has ever stepped foot in the White House to write a memoir (especially if they intend to return). Michelle Obama, however, managed to break the mold. Becoming is no whistle-blowing take-down of the upper echelons, nor is it a simpering testament to the magic of democracy. It’s a refreshing and compelling account of the experiences that shaped America’s first black First Lady. I almost held off picking up this one (it’s the contrarian nature in me), but the consistent, long-term hype wore me down.
13. Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
Look, I can’t deny that I’m overjoyed to see Dark Emu on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020… but I also can’t deny that I’m disappointed to see that it didn’t rank higher. In my view, Pascoe’s account of the true Indigenous agricultural history of this nation should be required reading for all Australians and all who come here. It was voted as the inaugural Parliamentary Book Club read, where constituents chose it as the book they most wanted their elected representatives to read, and shot back to the top of the best-seller list over Christmas as book lovers came out in droves to buy it for their loved ones.
14. The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do
Here’s another one I’m really happy to see made the cut (again): The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. In fact, it seems to climb higher and higher in the Dymocks Top 101 list each year. This is a disarmingly honest account of one of Australia’s most beloved comedians and artists, and his family’s journey to reach our shores from Vietnam. It’s one of my favourites to recommend to anyone who expresses an opinion about “boat people” (ugh). Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.
15. The Rosie Trilogy by Graeme Simsion
The Rosie books have really captured the hearts and minds of a lot of Australians. It all started with The Rosie Project, where a neurodivergent man finds love with the titular Rosie. She’s nothing like he would have expected he’d find alluring – in fact, she’s a bit of a wreck, but those crazy kids make it work. I give Simsion props for kicking the rom-com cliches to the curb; not only did he invert the much-maligned Grease storyline, he didn’t settle for the “and then they lived happily ever after” ending either. The subsequent novels, The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result, follow Don and Rosie as they travel around the world, settle into wedded bliss, and raise a child. Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.
17. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Ever since the HBO adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t just surged in popularity; it’s become emblematic of the struggle to resist conservative governments around the world. Women have shown up wearing red Handmaid robes to protest the passage of legislation that would limit their right to access to health-care. But it’s not just the show: people are returning to the book again and again, and I think it’s safe to say we could now hold it on par with other dystopian classics like Nineteen Eighty Four. Plus, there was the sequel released last year, The Testaments, which came in on the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 at number 32. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.
26. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
I used to roll my eyes whenever I saw Pride And Prejudice in a best-of books list. I mean, what a cliche, right? Well, I’m a convert now – it’s a cliche for a reason, people! I had no fewer than half a dozen aborted attempts to read this classic of English literature, but I got there in the end and I’m SO glad I persisted. For the skeptics out there, let me reassure you that it’s not all gowns and marriage prospects and fluffing about. There’s serious social and political commentary here, and dashing men making foolish decisions and having the women in their lives dress them down for it. Oh, and there’s tea. Can’t have too much tea. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.
28. A Song Of Ice And Fire series by George R.R. Martin
I called it last year, folks: the A Song Of Ice And Fire series is going to be hanging around in the Dymocks Top 101 books for a long, long time, thanks to the unparalleled popularity of the HBO series (that finally concluded last year). Fantasy, particularly High Fantasy(TM), is not usually my thing – I get too lost and confused with all the made up place names and people names and languages and whatnot, even if there’s a helpful guide in the front. But, having watched the adaptation, I actually found A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series, quite easy to follow. I even (gasp) enjoyed it. Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.
31. Educated by Tara Westover
Tara Westover’s story is so incredible that her memoir, Educated, basically sells itself. She was born to a survivalist family, so isolated from society that there was no one around to ensure that she received any kind of proper schooling. She didn’t step foot into a classroom until she was seventeen years old. In this book, she recounts how she pursued her love of learning – all the way to Cambridge University, where she earned a PhD! – and reckoned with the “real” world, so different from that in which she was raised.
34. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I’m actually kind of shocked that Big Little Lies didn’t rank higher in the Dymocks Top 101 books for this year, but given the strength of the contenders, coming in the mid-thirties is still very respectable. That goes double when you take into account that this book was published six(!) years ago, and one of Liane Moriarty’s other best sellers, The Husband’s Secret, also made the cut (at number 89). I worried for a long time that I was going to be the last person left alive who hadn’t read this perennially popular domestic thriller, but I finally got around to it this year (and just in time to avoid spoilers from the TV show adaptation!). Read my full review of Big Little Lies here, and my full review of The Husband’s Secret here.
36. Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
Australia has seen a whole slew of brilliant life-writing from women in the #MeToo era, bravely disclosing the details of various assaults and harassment that they have suffered in silence over many years. Eggshell Skull is one of the best, because Bri Lee offers a particularly interesting and unique perspective on the experiences of women who come forward. She trained as a lawyer, and worked as a judge’s associate on a regional court circuit for a year. That meant that she saw the system from the “inside”, how the trial and prosecution of people charged with sexual assaults actually works (or doesn’t), and the “outside”, as she herself comes forth as a victim. Hopefully, the inclusion of books such as hers on the Dymocks Top 101 represents a major shift in cultural attitudes towards believing women and paving the way for past injustices to be addressed.
38. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This book is the little-engine-that-could of international best-sellers. On the face of it, A Little Life doesn’t have many points in its favour. It’s long (SUPER long, could-use-it-as-a-doorstop long). It’s depressing (most editions have a cover that features a close up of a man crying hysterically). Hanya Yanagihara is a woman of colour, a group embarrassingly under-represented in the upper echelons of publishing. And yet, here we are, five years after the release of this juggernaut, still singing its praises! That’s what you love to see…
39. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson
It would seem that no matter how few fucks you give, you could always give fewer. The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck is well on its way to becoming a classic of the self-help genre – it spawned at least a dozen knock-offs, and sparked a trend in obscenity in book titles (which I, for one, wholeheartedly support). Of course, Manson has gone on to write a follow up, which also did well, but it’s the original that Dymocks booklovers voted into the Top 101 books for 2020.
40. Normal People by Sally Rooney
I think, in a few decades or so, we’ll look back at Normal People as one of the defining Millennial(TM) novels. From what I’ve read, I don’t think Rooney would be particularly pleased to hear it described that way, but them’s the breaks – you can’t just go and be the voice of a generation and then let it get up your nose. This story of an extraordinarily complex emotional entanglement between two young adults has resonated with a lot of folks, and a BBC adaptation is coming later this month. Read my full review of Normal People here.
42. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Here’s another trend-setter: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn can surely be credited with the renewed interest in dark psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators. We’re positively drowning in them, now! I think this one was particularly popular because it came right on the cusp of the moment where we saw a serious shift, a new wave of critical attention to the power differential between men and women. Plus, it brought suspense and intrigue and violence into the hetero marriage, a normally-comfortable setting. Or, maybe this is all overreach – maybe it’s just a really pacy page-turner. Either way!
43. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
If you’re surprised to see this modern classic in the Dymocks Top 101 books of 2020, you shouldn’t be. To Kill A Mockingbird has been in every Dymocks Top 101 that I can remember. I think the key is its wide appeal – everyone, from young teens to old crones, can enjoy it – and its timeless message regarding social justice. We’re probably a little more sensitive now to some of the harmful tropes employed by Lee to get her message across (the “white saviour” being the most prominent), but I don’t think that diminishes the comfort and inspiration we can take from her only (true) novel. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.
48. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
It’s a shame that Scandinavian writers get so much attention for their crime noir thrillers when they’re pumping out heart-warming up-lifting books like A Man Called Ove. Fredrik Backman was a humble Swedish blogger who burst onto the literary scene, and into our hearts, when this book was translated into English back in 2013. It’s the story of a crotchety old man (called Ove, naturally) who’s fed up with just about everything, a condition only exacerbated by the arrival of his noisy, nosy new neighbours. Backman has been making us cry – happy tears, and sad ones – for years now, and will likely go on doing so for years yet. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.
49. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
Gone Girl might have jockeyed ahead in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but The Girl On The Train is holding on strong! This domestic thriller follows the interweaving lives of three very different women: Rachel (the alcoholic with the history of fertility issues), Anna (the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, and stay-at-home mum to the infant Rachel might’ve had), and Megan (who lives a few doors down from Anna). Rachel sees no harm in peering into Anna and Megan’s lives from the window of her train as she passes every day, but then she witnesses something that might be a clue to what could be a crime… Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.
50. The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan
I don’t mean to be rude, but I am truly baffled by the continuing popularity of The Narrow Road To The Deep North. (Maybe I’m just bitter because it beat out my favourite to win the Booker Prize, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, back in 2014.) Sure, I can appreciate Flanagan’s skill in depicting the harsh realities of war, specifically life for prisoners working on the Burma railway, but the whole “love story” was just so overwrought and unnecessary… But, clearly, I’ve been outvoted, Aussie book lovers are still enchanted by it. Read my full review of The Narrow Road To The Deep North here.
53. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
Every time I talk on the internet about The Fault In Our Stars, I live in fear of enraged teens hunting me down with buckets full of rotting tomatoes. But I can’t lie: it’s just not good. Reading it, I felt like John Green just made a list of every single thing that might pull on our heartstrings (star cross’d lovers, teen cancer, disappointing role models) and ticked them off one by one. That said, I’d still recommend that everyone reads it; there’s going to be a whole bunch of future doctors and nurses that came to their profession because they read this book, and we want to have something to talk to them about while they’re caring for us in our old age, don’t we? Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.
54. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I know I’m a big ol’ skeptic, and when I read The Alchemist I was a little snarky about it, but even I can’t begrudge Aussie book lovers for turning to an allegorical tale of faith and destiny in trying times. Plus, this is an easy read, not too tough to digest, and it might give you a little glimmer of hope when the news has filled you full of existential dread. It’s your standard hero’s journey, complete with buried treasure and a saccharine ending that tells us, once again, that sometimes even our biggest dreams lead us right back home. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.
56. Mythos by Stephen Fry
I’ve got to admit, I’ve always felt particularly stupid (for many reasons, but one in particular is relevant here) for how little I know about the Greeks and Greek mythology. That’s why I feel particularly lucky – as do a lot of Dymocks readers, it would seem – that Stephen Fry put together this marvelously accessible re-telling of a selection of myths in Mythos. It’s funny, it’s readable, and it’ll at least give you some frame of reference next time someone starts talking Ovid at a party (also, you might want to start going to better parties).
61. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are certainly not over! There are several featured in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020, but my personal pick is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Over the course of three books, it charts the complex and fascinating history of Korea’s relationship with Japan, through the story of one Korean family who (eventually) migrates to Japan, and then across the world to America. It deconstructs their experiences of racism and power and, as the title would suggest, the symbolic power of the pachinko machines.
63. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Non-fiction doesn’t tend to feature as prominently in the Dymocks lists, but the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 had some strong contenders, including this one: Sapiens. It is a detailed survey of the history of human evolution, from the Stone Age right up to the 21st century. Setting aside some searing criticisms from academics in the field (what would those boffins know?), this book has been extremely popular, and it has introduced a slew of readers to the field of evolutionary biology, an area in which they might not otherwise have had any interest at all. A fascinating read, if nothing else!
65. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Ah, Jane Eyre – an oldie, but a goodie! Alongside other classics, like Pride And Prejudice, this seems to be a book that never goes out of style. Naturally, a lot of the more troubling elements have been roundly criticised of late (Mr Rochester is the very definition of a problematic fave – hello, Creole wife locked in the attic and gross exploitation of young female employees!), but that doesn’t negate the nostalgic attachment many readers feel for what is perhaps the coziest and most comforting of the Brontë books. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.
67. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
We are truly living in the golden age of young adult literature! No longer is it solely the domain of patronising and/or sentimental guff. In fact, it’s probably where some of the most exciting, diverse, and challenging writing is being done – case in point, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Despite being quite specific to the situation of racial injustice in policing in the United States (don’t get me wrong, we’ve got our own problems here, too!), it’s found a wide readership in Australia. I think that’s because, at its heart, it’s about the symbiotic relationship between fear and oppression, and the bravery it takes to smash down barriers.
72. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams
You know, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was always a great comfort read (which is why we see it in the Dymocks Top 101 books pretty much every year), but perhaps it’s got a new resonance this year because it’s chock-full of advice on how to survive the end of the world. Step one: DON’T PANIC! Step two: check on the dolphins. Step three: always pack a towel. If you’re not lucky enough to have befriended a nearby alien with a getaway-spaceship handy, at least you can make the most of the rest of Adams’ oddly prescient advice. Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.
74. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Erin Morgenstern burst onto the scene back in 2011 with her incredibly-popular debut novel, The Night Circus… and then she disappeared for years. Finally, she’s back, with The Starless Sea and fans have been frothing at the mouth for it (so no surprise to see it made the cut for the Dymocks Top 101). It’s dreamy, light-fantasy story, with underground cities and libraries and keys and honey and bees… oh my! Read my full review of The Starless Sea (for Primer) here.
78. The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover
I’d long suspected that the misty-eyed nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” in Australia was a complete crock. Thankfully, Richard Glover has confirmed by theory in The Land Before Avocado – and its popularity proves to me that I’m not alone! He deconstructs all of the myths around the “simpler times” and the “lazy, hazy days”, and reminds us of what it was actually like growing up in the Australia of his childhood in his typically hilarious style. Would you REALLY want to return to the days where you couldn’t get smashed avo on toast at the local cafe? I didn’t think so!
88. The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Look, if I had it my way, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared would be in the top 10 of every Dymocks list from now until the end of time. It is my ultimate cheer-up read, my go-to gift for loved ones who need a laugh. Just these past couple of weeks, I’ve thrust it into many, many hands. It’s a delightful romp across the world, following a centenarian who – as the title suggests – jumps out the window of his nursing home to avoid a tedious birthday party, and goes on an adventure. I cannot fathom what kind of humourless nincompoop wouldn’t get a few decent belly laughs out of this charming tale. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.
90. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Personally, I wavered on reading Ann Patchett for years, mostly because I simply could not figure out where to start. Many trusted readers recommended I try Commonwealth to begin, while others said Bel Canto is her best, while still others insisted I read State Of Wonder. The release of The Dutch House last year seems to have changed all that, though – it’s unequivocally, democratically(!), now the most popular of all her books among Australian readers. So, that settled that!
93. The Martian by Andy Weir
Whenever someone tells me that they “don’t read sci-fi” (especially if they wrinkle their nose as they say it), The Martian is the book that I put in their hands. It’s THAT good. Set in a not-too-distant future, it imagines the story of an astronaut left stranded alone on Mars, hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from help or even a simple “hello”. It sounds depressing as all heck, but the narrator, Mark Watney, is one of the funniest characters I’ve ever read in fiction. This one manages to be a science lesson, a page turner, and great fun, all at once! Read my full review of The Martian here.
95. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Who could resist a delightfully satirical romantic comedy that sees Singapore’s most eligible bachelor married off to a fashion icon in the high-stakes “wedding of the year”? What I like most about Crazy Rich Asians is that, even though much has (rightfully) been made of its success in diversity and representation in a sadly whitewashed contemporary genre, it’s delightful and endearing and entertaining in its own right. This book is not a “diversity pick” or a box to check, it’s just a sparkling, witty, glorious read.
99. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
Often, a true story is so incredible, you wouldn’t believe it if it were fiction. That’s what I think every time I see The Trauma Cleaner. Crime-scene and trauma clean-up is a fascinating and bizarre job in and of itself, but the life journey of the trauma cleaner in question, Sandra Pankhurst, takes this book to a whole new level. I don’t think I can say it better than the blurb: “Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…” I mean, come on! If that doesn’t pique your interest, seek help.
100. Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch
I first encountered Clare Bowditch in her recurring guest role on the beloved and much-missed Aussie TV show, Offspring. I figured she had some kind of musical background, given that her character was a singer and often performed. It turns out, there was a whoooole lot more that I didn’t know, and she revealed it all in Your Own Kind Of Girl. This is the kind of memoir that will have your jaw drop, purely for the incredible bravery it takes to be THAT honest about your life, your anxieties, and the monsters that hide under your bed. My hat goes off to Clare Bowditch for sharing her story, and I’m glad to see it here in the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2020 – hopefully, that means it’s reached scores of other girls of their own kind, too.
101. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Well, this Dymocks Top 101 list sure did save the biggest surprise for last! But, if I’m honest, I’m not sure what’s more surprising. Is it that Little Women wasn’t ranked higher, given the success of the most recent film adaptation? Or is it that Little Women ranked at all, given that SO many people (very, very wrongly) look down on this “sentimental” classic? Whatever the case, I’m happy to see it made the cut. I stand by my conviction that Little Women is actually a deeply subversive and feminist book, and that Louisa May Alcott doesn’t get NEARLY enough adulation, and it would seem that at least a handful of other Aussie book lovers are willing to back me up on it. Read my full review of Little Women here.
General Comments on the Dymocks Top 101 Books for 2020
Last year, Kate Maynor from Dymocks predicted a surge in the popularity of “uplit”, books that leave you feeling uplifted and energised. I think we’ve seen that play out here, with the inclusion of Eleanor Oliphant, Becoming, A Man Called Ove, and so on. I think it makes sense now, more than ever, that people are looking to “escape” the dreariness of the “real” world by diving into books that make them smile (and I’m especially glad that we might finally shake this elitist nonsense about looking down on “escapist” books once and for all!).
Notable exclusions: I’m really surprised that we didn’t see any Andre Aciman in this year’s list (Call Me By Your Name, or his recently-released sequel Find Me). I am freaking OVERJOYED, however, that we finally kicked The Great Gatsby off its stupid perch. And I would have loved to see one of my personal favourites from last year, The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, make the cut. Ah well, there’s always next year!
All told, 37 of this year’s 101 books were written by Aussie authors – not bad, but I think we could do better! Reading local is the best way to keep our literary scene thriving, especially with the headwinds authors and publishers and booksellers are going to face over the next few months (even years). 64 of the books were written by women, which is an (awesome!) uptick on last year, and much better reflects the contribution that women are making to literature and the arts.