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Article  •  30 April 2020


Staff picks: favourite books of the year so far

Reading recommendations from us to you.

At Penguin Books Australia we’re surrounded by books all day, every day – talk about spoilt! So when we asked our colleagues, ‘what’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?’ they had lot to choose from. Take a look at what we’ve been reading and loving in the first few months of 2020.


Falastin by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley
I never knew much about Palestine, but what I do know is that it’s arguably the origin of most of the Middle Eastern cuisine that the world has come to know and love. Falastin (which is Arabic for Palestine) has been co-authored by two incredible chefs – Sami Tamimi who is Palestinian, and Tara Wigley who has travelled (and eaten) there extensively. The incredible recipes include all the classics you’d expect: hummus, shakshuka and tabbouleh to name a few, as well as an array of incredible Palestinian dishes I’d never heard of: chicken musakhan (a delicious national dish), shatta (move over sriracha, I’ve got a new favourite condiment) and this INCREDIBLE labneh cheesecake (treat yourself to an afternoon in the kitchen and make this for your next show-stopping dessert).

There’s an element of travelogue about Falastin too – with features on the different regions, their history and the produce they’re famous for, as well as profiles on farmers and producers. The photography is stunning, and it looks entirely delightful on my bookshelf next to its sister title, Jerusalem. – Em, Marketing


Untamed by Glennon Doyle
I read Untamed by Glennon Doyle in one sitting, which was practically impossible given I had two small children climbing over me. But I could not put it down. I also (shockingly) considered getting out a highlighter pen to mark out the multiple passages that struck a chord with me. I folded the corners over instead, which I admit is also a serious crime against books. This book, read during isolation, was an antidote to the chaos I felt swirling around me. It grounded me. It made me stop. It helped me listen to myself. And, as an annoying people pleaser who strives for perfection, it inspired me to approach life’s challenges with a little less desire for approval, and a little more appetite for chaos.  'I see your fear, and it's big. I also see your courage, and it's bigger. We can do hard things.' Hell yeah, Glennon, we can.

Also, a special shout out to Bluey whose infinite wisdom keeps me and my four old son entertained over and over again with Bluey: Fruit Bat and Bluey: The Beach. I mean, seriously, how great is she? – Alysha, Marketing


Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony
Imagine if episodes of House of Cards and Veep were mashed together and directed by Wes Anderson. Weave through two parallel timelines – one set in contemporary USA and the other set in Victorian England – and that would go part of the way to capture how refreshingly vibrant and absurdly ludicrous Enter the Aardvark is.

Mordantly funny and endlessly entertaining, this novel has got to be one of the debut highlights of American fiction for 2020. – Matt, Sales


Goodnight Glow Worms by Aura Parker
‘Goodnight, Glow Worms shining bright,
Time to dim your Glow Worm light.
Glow Worms gleaming, beaming round,
Can’t switch off and can’t wind down.

Will those Glow Worms ever get to sleep?’

Every parent knows it well (apart from, maybe, those irritating parents whose little angels sleep like logs), the term ‘sleeping like a baby’ is one hell of a case of flagrant false advertising. Every baby (and toddler, and preschooler) I’ve known up close sleeps mostly pretty terribly. But, if you pick your books right, bedtime story routines can help get them calm enough to help with the falling asleep part (even if the staying asleep part is still a problem).

Goodnight Glow Worms is one of those books that helps with the wind down. Set to a beautiful, almost mantra-like, rhythm, the little Glow Worms go through all the usual tricks to try to stay up – lost blankie, need another goodnight kiss etc – until they’re soundly snoring their little Glow Worm lungs out. For fans of books like Alison Lester’s nothing-short-of-hypnotic Kissed by the Moon, Goodnight Glow Worms is pure sleeping potion. Just try not to be captured by its slumber-y spell, or you’ll wake up at 3am disoriented on your kid’s bedroom floor. – Samson, Marketing


Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Everyone loves a sliding doors moment and Rodham explores what might have happened if Hillary Rodham hadn’t married Bill Clinton; a scintillating premise given the history we all know. Whether or not you have any interest in the Clintons or American politics, this clever blend of fact and fiction makes for a riveting read. Sittenfeld paints a beautifully flawed Hillary – whip-smart and determined, but no stranger to bad decisions and desire. As we follow her career it lays plain the struggle for women to succeed in a typically male-dominated sphere. Rodham intimately charts the life of one woman – the good, the bad and everything in between – and will move you to ponder what might have been. Also, well worth a read just for the Trump cameo! – Holly, Partnerships and Audio


The Tell by Martin Chatterton
I actually LOVED The Tell by Martin Chatterton. While I didn’t think I, as a 25-year-old woman, would love a novel about a 14-year-old boy who is into graffiti… it totally knocked my socks off. There’s crime, drama, action, mystery, vandalism and a sweet little bit of romance too.

The Tell is about Raze Tanic, the son of Australia’s most wanted criminal, who decides he might not want to follow the dangerous ‘career’ path his father has laid out for him. Right as Raze tries to broach this sensitive topic with his dad, a huge gang war erupts and it takes every bit of Raze’s Tanic-training to save his family, friends, the innocent citizens of Sydney and especially himself as he realises he’s made enemies on every side of the war. – Laura, Young Readers Marketing


Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler, once again, gives you a glimpse of the mundane and makes it beautiful. This is a story of a man stubborn to change and unable to clearly see what’s right in front of him. The reader watches Anne’s protagonist, Micah, misread the moments around him. There are moments of humour and quirky characters along the way. It’s a brief glimpse into the ordinary but I wish it had been longer. A book that is short but powerful, relatable but complex. It moves slowly but I couldn’t put it down. – Rebekah, Marketing


Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan
Kevin Kwan’s upcoming new novel, Sex and Vanity, is the perfect dose of escapism and people-watching that we’re all craving right now.

Beginning on the enchanting island of Capri and moving to the glamorous penthouses of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Sex and Vanity is a modern love story like no other. It’s part homage to E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, part coming-of-age tale of a young woman caught between two cultures and part comedy of manners set amongst the world’s summer playgrounds of privilege. There’s extravagant fashion, decadent food and a million-dollar fish in a koi pond. And, of course, the entire book is peppered with Kwan’s witty footnotes. This novel is the type of old-fashioned romance and delicious satire that only Kevin Kwan could conjure up! – Bec, Product


The Black Art of Killing by Matthew Hall
The Black Art of Killing is, by a country mile, the best book I’ve read this year. It’s the story of an Oxford graduate and now ex-SAS soldier, Leo Black, who finally leaves the regiment and returns to the university as a lecturer.

His lecturing career is going from strength to strength and he looks to be heading for tenure, but the dean and the rest of the governing body of Oxford have some serious reservations regarding his suitability to be a tenured professor at their university.

Leo is trying to finish his master’s degree, as well as stay on the right side of some very traditional tenured professors, plus flirt with a brilliant biologist, who is also a lecturer at Oxford, while dealing with the emotional side of himself, something that he has spent a lifetime suppressing from the rest of the world. 

If that isn’t enough, an ex-comrade and friend is killed doing personal security for a leading British scientist at a convention in Paris, France. Leo is asked by his friend’s wife to find out how and why her husband was killed and he must undertake this on his own initially, in a foreign country without any assistance from the British government or his regiment.

Then, just as things look insurmountable, his old company commander pops back into his life and offers to help while outlining a somewhat tenuous connection to the current British Government.

This is a great story and thoroughly engaging; about powerful people, governments and corporations and the things they are prepared to do for their own benefit. What made it an exceptional read, in my mind, was the ethical questions this story raised. Does the human race know everything we need to know to play God with the planet? Are we engineering solutions in science that we really don’t know will be beneficial, or are we causing bigger calamities by interfering with nature?

This is a book you definitely can’t judge by its cover. – David, IT


Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh
I read the Man Booker-longlisted novel The Water Cure in 2018 when it was one of those books everyone seemed to be talking about. It was an interesting read, but Blue Ticket is even better. The novel follows the story of Calla, when she comes of age she takes a ticket in the lottery just like her female peers. A white ticket means children, while a blue ticket grants you freedom. Calla draws a blue ticket but rebels against the path she is required to follow with terrible consequences. The mood is eerie and Mackintosh brilliantly explores themes of motherhood, free will, friendship and animal instincts. I highly recommend this book, particularly for fans of Margaret Atwood and dystopian fiction. – Emily, Marketing


The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham
This incredible debut novel from Vivian is by far my favourite of 2020.

The Coconut Children follows Sonny and Vince, two Vietnamese Australian teens living in 1990s Cabramatta. Against the backdrop of gang violence, drugs, socio-economic struggles, The Coconut Children is complex and big-hearted as each page feels like a love letter to Cabramatta, to Vietnamese diaspora, and to family.

As a Vietnamese-Australian myself, this book moved me to my core. At such a young age Vivian’s writing is incredible. She captures the essence of every moment, every feeling between Sonny and Vince, to the point it feels almost too much. This is bound to become an Australian classic, I cannot recommend this enough! – Sofia, Publicity

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