Updated: Dec 17, 2022
If you’re like me, you always have ambitious goals of reading lots of books each year. Every year I set out with a number of books I plan to read. They should also be ‘quality books.’ I want the books to be a gourmet meal, not junk food and fairy floss.
With the risk of being shouted down, some books that have previously appeared on lists of 'must-reads' are just boring. I recall trying to read 'Treasure Island' by R.L. Stevenson several times and found the language dated and turgid. Am I missing something? Many describe it as a classic.
The popularity of some books defies logic. The 'Shades of Grey' books are universally panned by critics yet have been printed in many languages and made E. L. James millions. I have no incentive to read the book, but it does make you think about on what basis the public judge fiction.
So, my goal in 2022 was to read books for enjoyment and learning. These are my top five. They follow several target areas– stories by Indigenous Australians and short stories collections. Stories with a personal connection were bumped up my ranking.
Thus, my five for 2022, in equal order, are:
Three Can Keep a Secret is a collection of Flash and micro fiction. It is the third collection of flash and micro-fiction by Perth-based publishers Night Parrot Press. This instalment was launched at the Australian Short Story Festival in Fremantle in late October.
I've written several short stories this year, and it was great to meet other authors in this category and see some of the great and diverse work they have done. I'd never experienced micro-fiction before, so a taste of this absolute distillate of prose was a revelation.
Three Can Keep a Secret showcases one hundred stories from eighty-one authors. My stand-outs were those by Shannon Meyercort, Ally Millington, Jeimer Ng and Barry Divola. Watch out for these writers – they are destined for great things.
What Fear Was is a short story collection by Tasmanian writer Ben Walter. I experienced Ben reading from his book at the Australian Short Story Festival, which added an extra dimension to his writing. Ben has been described by fellow writer Ryan O'Neill as providing "unforgettable descriptions of the natural world, and the unsettling things that sometimes take place there...no one in Australia writes like Ben Walter".
What Fear Was is a collection that sometimes verges on the surreal (talking fish and a 'pet' that is a fireball phoenix) yet contain poignant messages for all of us. References to the threat of climate change and drying landscapes are interspersed with visions of the bodies of failed mountaineers.
Walters provides a unique voice and is a pleasure to read. I was so impressed I volunteered to be President of the Ben Walters fan club when it gets going – as I'm sure it will!
The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky. (link) was first published in 1846. The premise of this story is intriguing – a man finds that his life is progressively taken over by a person who appears to be his double. At first, the double and the protagonist are friends. They share a sameness, after all. Then they become adversaries as the double takes over the protagonist's life. The book ends with the protagonist's sanity unravelling and him seeing almost everyone as his double.
An added joy of the book was the setting, St Petersburg, Russia, which I visited in 2017. Nevsky Propsect, Anichkov Bridge (and the sculptures by Pyotr Kodt) and the best tearoom in the world (of the many I have sampled so far) on the corner of Malaya Sadovyaya Street are all included.
With the risk of upsetting the literary establishment, I found the 18th-century language in The Double exhausting. Perhaps if I had watched the 2013 movie of the book by Richard Ayoade (of The IT Crowd fame), it might have made reading the novella bearable.
Cartwarra or What? by Noongar Elder and author Alf Taylor (link). Mr Taylor has a natural ability to tell a story with clarity, humility and humour. His latest publication, God the Devil and Me, is a biography of his life as a stolen child in country Western Australia. It is Cartwarra or What? where his inherent cheekiness is rampant. I was lucky to attend the launch of Cartwarra or What at the Centre for Stories in Perth. I was so impressed that I arranged for Mr Taylor to talk about his latest book at my workplace, which was very well received.
Mr Taylor's stories tell of alcoholism, separation from family, community and land, grief and the profound loss of identity in everyday life of his Aboriginal characters with honesty and immense generosity of spirit. That he does this will an unbelievable lack of bitterness is a testament to the strength of his character and the resilience of Aboriginal Peoples, qualities many of us wedjala could learn from.
Taboo by Kim Scott. (link), a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award was the highlight of my reading year. Taboo (published in 2017) has been described as having equal parts brutality and mystery. Taboo takes place in country Western Australia and tells the story of a group of Noongar People who revisit, for the first time in many decades, the site of a massacre that followed the murder of a white man who had stolen a black woman.
Scott's novel has won a truckload of awards (and deservedly so), including Book of the Year 2018 in New South Wales, Queensland and shortlisted in Victoria. It begs the question of why it wasn't Book of the Year in his home state of Western Australia.
In a time where reconciliation should be on everyone's agenda and debate on a voice in federal parliament is occurring, Taboo should be on everyone's recommended reading list.
Scott weaves a story with realism and hope that could pave the way forward to an Australia where truly everyone is given a fair go.
The Sydney Review of Books described Scott as "one of the most exciting and powerful storytellers today, with great courage and formidable narrative prowess." I couldn't agree more.
I feel a sense of clairvoyance. At the same time as I discussed Kim Scott's lack of appropriate recognition in his home state, he was awarded a Western Australian Cultural Treasure Award (December 7). He is truly someone who every Western Australian (and beyond) should know and treasure.