12+ The downside of bedtime reading is dozing off midway through a chapter, paragraph or sentence. And when combined with my habit of juggling several books at once, it takes me a long time to read a book. But I love reading. And although it wasn't a favourite year, I thought I'd share my favourite books of 2020.
As I posted in My Year of Books(December 2018) and My Bedside Books(January 2020), I read sixteen books in 2018 and the same number in 2019. And proving my consistency, I also read sixteen books in 2020.
Please note: I'm still "juggling" my way through a couple of the books listed below, one I started last year (the keen-eyed reader will spot it in my 2019 blog post), and another was an Audible audiobook. And please click on a cover photo to learn more about a book or buy it on Amazon.com.au — doing so helps support the Tall And True writers' website.
A Couple of Things Before the End by Sean O'Beirne
I reviewed Sean O'Beirne's debut collection of short stories for Writing NSW in June 2020 — also shared on Tall And True in July. In a slimmish, 201-page volume, O'Beirne gifts the reader with eighteen windows into other worlds, minds and dreams, set in the past, present and future, and all painted on an Australian canvas. O'Beirne also experiments with form. In addition to traditional narrative and dialogue structures, he presents the stories as diary entries, letters, interviews, phone calls, texts, speeches, reports, social media posts and emails.
Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
Quoting first-hand accounts from early explorers and colonial settlers, Bruce Pascoe offers compelling evidence Indigenous Australians were not just hunter-gathers but also performed agricultural practices. Conservative commentators and politicians have sought to discredit Dark Emu's claims and even Pascoe's Indigenous heritage. And yet, one commentator leading the charge, Andrew Bolt, admitted he hadn't read the book, which has a fifteen-page bibliography of sources. Perhaps Bolt et al. find Dark Emu's revelations about Indigenous Australians an inconvenient truth — like "terra nullius"?
Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths
Deep Time Dreaming was a gift from my son for Father's Day 2019. I commented on social media at the time, "My teenage son may have stopped being a regular reader, but he still knows his dad loves books." It's a book I enjoyed dipping in and out of in 2019 and 2020. And one that sets out to shift our view of the past, as signalled in Billy Griffiths' introduction: Australia's human history began over 60,000 years ago. The continent was discovered by a group of voyagers who travelled across a vast passage of water to a land where no hominid had roamed before.
Five Go Absolutely Nowhere by Bruno Vincent
My son also gave me this "Enid Blyton" spoof for Father's Day 2020. He knew I'd written a short story inspired by The Famous Five for a writing competition in May, Five Go On Zoom, and narrated it as my launch episode for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. And the book brought back fond boyhood memories of reading Blyton's Famous Five. But, as the spoof-Five also meet on Zoom while going absolutely nowhere during COVID lockdown, I was glad I hadn't read it before writing and narrating my Zoom short story!
Five Go Downunder by Sophie Hamley
I bought another "Enid Blyton" spoof for an English friend and his family for Xmas 2020. And I read the book and made chapter notes and this general comment before mailing it to them: "I hope you enjoy the book. There are a few laughs, and it does touch on some stereotypical Aussie-Sydney themes. But, IMHO, the Five could have done with an adventure. Perhaps they could have solved the mystery of our PM who went missing swimming off a beach back in 1967, Harold Holt?"
The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely by Mungo MacCallum
The political journalist, commentator and writer Mungo MacCallum passed away in December 2020. I bought his history of Australian prime ministers in June, and it proved perfect for my bedtime habit of dipping in and out of books. It's also perfectly summed up by this back cover quote: "Since 1901, thirty different leaders have run the national show. Whether their term was eight days or eighteen years, each prime minister has a story worth sharing." And the first sentence of MacCallum's introduction: "Australians aren't very fond of their politicians, alive or dead; we have raised no great monuments to our former leaders."
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
My first exposure to Hitchhiker's Guide was as a twenty-year-old in the early 1980s, watching the BBC TV series with mates at a share house in my hometown, Perth, WA. My memories are of lots of drinking and laughing. I tried to read the books in my mid-twenties when I lived in England, but I couldn't get the TV series out of my head. Now middle-aged, I enjoyed Stephen Fry's Audible narration of Hitchhiker's Guide. However, I admit to visualising the old BBC TV series as he narrated favourite scenes from the book.
How to be Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
I lived overseas from 1987 to 1996, and viewing Australia from afar gave me a perspective on my country that I wouldn't have gained had I not travelled. Similarly, Canadian-expat Ashley Kalagian Blunt's memoir of moving to and falling in love with Australia rewards the reader with a unique perspective on "how to be Australian". The book is peppered with memorable Ockerisms, such as this headline from the NT News, "Why I Stuck A Cracker Up My Clacker". The headline stumped expat Ashley, who had never heard of a "clacker". And whatever it was, she reasonably asked, why would anyone stick a cracker up it!?
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
A Long Petal of the Sea is the story of Roser and Victor, forced to flee Spain after Franco's Fascists' victory in the bloody Spanish Civil War. They are initially interned in a French concentration camp before embarking on the SS Winnipeg with two thousand other refugees for a second chance in Chile. Roser and Victor lead happy and productive lives in their adopted country. But history repeats itself with General Pinochet's military coup. And once again, they are forced into exile. I spotted A Long Petal of the Sea in my local library the day after hearing an interview with Isabel Allende on The Book Show. And I wrote a blog post about the serendipitous experience when I finished the book.
The Sea by John Banville
An author friend loaned me John Banville's Man Booker Prize winner — he thought the writing might help inspire mine. It is the story of Max, a retired art historian, who returns to the setting of his childhood summer holidays to reconcile himself with the deaths of those he loved as a child and as an adult. Written as a "reflective journal" (Wikipedia), the storyline jumps about with Max's memories of his childhood, his wife's recent passing, and his present-day stay at the holiday house. I enjoyed reading The Sea and afterwards quoted Banville in a memoir piece I shared on Tall And True: "Memory is imagination, and imagination is memory. I don't think we remember the past, we imagine it." My friend was right: Banville did inspire me!
The Spill by Imbi Neeme
I bought Imbi Neeme's debut novel after doing a short story workshop with her via Zoom during lockdown. I've blogged about the #bookcovers and #firstsentences homage series I post to Instagram (as @tallandtrueweb). In my opinion, The Spill scores highly for both and sets the scene for an enjoyable read: The two girls waited for their mother on the verandah of the Bruce Rock pub, which offered shade but little relief from the heat of the late afternoon. They swung their legs while they waited, slowly stirring the hot air and red dust, while the dogs around their feet lay panting, waiting patiently for their owners inside.
Taboo by Kim Scott
Kim Scott is a two-time Miles Franklin Award winner, and Taboo was a 2018 Miles Franklin finalist. But I struggled with the book. I couldn't keep track of the large cast of characters, and there were one too many Gerrys (twins Gerald and Gerrard). And I was worried throughout for the welfare of the schoolgirl Tilly. I persevered with Taboo, however, because I wanted to see the character who abused Tilly get his comeuppance. And in the end ... well, you'll have to read the book. You might feel differently about it, like reviewer Barb Sampson on ABC Perth Radio (August 2017): "Kim Scott is a beautiful writer. He often leaves a lot unsaid; he's not hitting you over the head with anything. It's quietly strong."
We Can't Say We Didn't Know by Sophie McNeill
I heard a Late Night Live interview in March 2020 with former Middle East correspondent, Sophie McNeill, talking about her new book on Syria. McNeill was passionate in her despair at the world's muted response to atrocities committed in Syria and elsewhere, lamenting we seem to be living in an age of impunity for those who wage war. My wife and I spent ten days in Syria on a backpacking adventure in 1995. McNeill's interview inspired me to read her book. And write a blog post about it and my experiences travelling in Syria.
With The Beatles by Alistair Taylor
As I commented about The Beatles 1962-1969 From Liverpool to Abbey Road by Ernesto Assante in my Bedside Books blog post, you can never have too many Beatles books. Alistair Taylor's memoir provides unique insights for fans of the Fab Four from the man who witnessed their signatures on the Brian Epstein contracts at the start of their stellar careers. And who Allen Klein sacked at the end. Another perfect book to dip in and out of while I juggled other books.
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Did I have a favourite book for 2020? Well, among the sixteen I juggled, dipped in and out of, and read from cover to cover in 2020, two were my standout favourite books.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
I knew I'd enjoy reading Pip Williams' debut novel after hearing an interview with her on The Book Show in April 2020. It follows the life of Esme, a curious and intelligent girl raised by her widowed father. And the history of the first Oxford English Dictionary, compiled by her father and fellow lexicographers in a backyard Scriptorium at the turn of the twentieth century. As a child, Esme sits under the sorting table in the Scriptorium and one day finds a slip containing the word "bondmaid". Esme collects other lost and discarded words. And as she grows into adulthood and meets suffragettes, Esme realises definitions relating to women's experiences have gone unrecorded in the male-biased dictionary. I've blogged about books that made me cry, and The Dictionary of Lost Words is one to add to my list. It's so much more than the story of the Oxford Dictionary. I didn't want to reach the end, and when I did, I wanted to know how the lives of her characters had played out beyond the book.
Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
Another thoughtful gift from my son, Archie Roach's memoir is an emotional tale of discrimination, redemption and love, by one of Australia's most respected and beloved Indigenous musicians. Archie's story is typical of the Stolen Generation, forcibly removed from his parents and community and fostered separately from his siblings as a four-year-old. Archie grew up thinking he was Archie Cox. And then, one day at high school, Archibald William Roach was summoned to the principal's office to receive a letter from the sister he didn't know he had with news the mother he couldn't remember had passed away. Drink and drugs almost ruined Archie's life, but family and music saved him. Archie's could be a bitter tale. However, he recounts it matter-of-factly and with love. Tell My Why was one book I did not juggle and which I looked forward to reading every night.
As I commented last year, books bring so much joy to my life. I love giving them as gifts, I love receiving them, and I love reading them. Unfortunately, 2020 wasn't a good year for the wider world. But I read sixteen good books and was gifted a fine selection of new ones in my Santa sack and under the Xmas tree.
Perhaps it's time to make that long-promised New Year's resolution to go to bed earlier at night and read more books!
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story, and in 2021 Twelve Furious Months, twelve short stories written for the Australian Writers' Centre's Furious Fiction writing competition.
Outside of writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.