It’s that time of the year when we reflect on our “top things” for the past twelve months. Unsurprisingly, three months of COVID lockdown is not on my list. But when ABC Book Clubbers started posting their six favourite books for 2021, I joined in with my top six paper-based, e- and audiobooks.
As recounted in other blog posts, I’ve been consistent in my annual books tally over the past three years. I read sixteen books in 2018, the same total in 2019 and again in 2020. The only difference in the three years is that I included an e-book and an audiobook on my 2020 list.
Incredibly, I read another sixteen paper-based and e-books in 2021. (After six months of deliberations, buying a Kindle in August boosted my e-book reading.) But I also listened to twenty audiobooks! So as with 2018 to 2020, I thought I’d share my books for 2021, listed alphabetically. And following these, I’ve selected my Top Six for 2021.
My paper-based books for 2021
According to Skull by Kerry O’Keeffe: Lives up to its cover blurb, “An entertaining stroll through the life of (cricketer and commentator) Kerry O’Keeffe.”
Adventures in Correspondentland by Nick Bryant: “Part memoir, part travelogue and part polemic”, former BBC foreign correspondent Bryant’s observations on Afghanistan and the Taliban proved prescient.
Born Into This by Adam Thompson: I discovered and enjoyed Thompson’s debut collection of short stories with Indigenous themes after hearing him on the ABC Book Show.
Chapelli by Ian Chappell: One of my cricketing heroes, it was easy to imagine Chappell’s voice in his stories on life, larrikins and cricket.
Fire Country by Victor Steffensen: Captain Cook described the east coast of Australia as “a continent of smoke”. And Indigenous land management expert Steffensen argues a return to Indigenous fire management is needed to save and restore Australia.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo: This 1938 anti-war novel introduced me to the American novelist. And then I watched the Trumbo movie, a stirring portrayal of his talent, persecution and persistence.
Pathfinders by Micael Bennett: The history of Aboriginal trackers in NSW and one of my Top Six Books for 2021 (see below).
Olive, Mabel & Me by Andrew Cotter: Sports commentator Cotter’s engaging tales of “two very good dogs” and another of my Top Six Books (see below).
Remembering Bob by Sue Pieters-Hawke: A collection of stories and memories about the late Labor PM Bob Hawke by friends, colleagues, old political foes, and ordinary people.
Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman: A clever debut novel that helps non-Indigenous Australians consider colonisation from an Indigenous perspective. The book placed seventh in my Top Six for the year, and I shared a review of it on the Tall And True writers’ website.
The Missing Man by Peter Rees: The biography of Len Waters, the RAAF’s only WWII Aboriginal fighter pilot. I attended an online author talk (during lockdown) and bought two copies of the book for Father’s Day. For my dad, and for my son to give to me.
My e-books for 2021
Dark as Last Night by Tony Birch: I won a place in an online short story writing workshop with Birch during ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books. Each winner got to ask one question. Unfortunately, I didn’t read Birch’s collection of short stories until after the workshop. Otherwise, I would have asked, “How can I write as good as you?”
Empires by Nick Earls: An interconnected five-part novella and another of my Top Six Books (see below).
GERMLINE by Julia Miller: It’s post-pandemic 2074, and the world is recovering from a virus that’s killed millions. There are quarantine precincts, “Health Hubs” and infection hospitals, and the fear of further viral outbreaks. Sound familiar? And yet, Miller wrote GERMLINE before COVID-19!
Reading like an Australian writer by Belinda Castles: I heard an ABC RN Bookshelf podcast episode on reading like a writer. And I recognised the editor and contributor to this collection of essays, Belinda Castles, whose novel Bluebottle I’d reviewed for Writing NSW and shared on Tall And True. So I bought the book and wrote a blog post about it.
Twelve Furious Months by Robert Fairhead: Shameless self-promotion of a collection of short stories I wrote for the Furious Fiction competition from April 2020 to March 2021. But hey, I published this e-book in April 2021, so, of course, I read it!
My audiobooks for 2021
1984 by George Orwell: The dystopian classic, narrated to perfection by Stephen Fry. But hearing Orwell’s words (rather than reading them on the page) had the chilling effect of making our current news sound even more Orwellian!
488 Rules For Life by Kitty Flanagan: A hoot, well written and narrated by Flanagan, who had me laughing out loud and nodding my head in agreement with 447 of her 488 rules.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders: A short story masterclass by Saunders, and another of my Top Six Books (see below).
Always Greener by Kate Grenville: The portrait of Grenville’s “complex, conflicted grandmother, who she feared as a child and only in adulthood came to understand”, narrated with appropriate simplicity by the author.
Animal Farm by George Orwell: Another classic Stephen Fry narration of “A Fairy Story” I first read in my early thirties.
Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin: A chance to get reacquainted with a much-loved BBC travel documentary from the late-1980s, narrated with humour and humanity by Palin.
Can’t Buy Me Love by Jonathan Gould: What’s not to love about 29 hours and 52 minutes on the history of The Beatles? Yeah, yeah!
Erebus: The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin: Palin’s passion for the story of the Antarctic and Arctic adventures of the ill-fated HMS Erebus and its crew is infectious.
Girt by David Hunt: A satirical exploration of Australia’s real history, fittingly in the vein of the British children’s TV series, Horrible Histories.
John Lennon 1980 – The Last Days in the Life by Kenneth Womack: I shared a blog post on Tall And True in 2018 about how my favourite Beatle for many years was Paul. And then John was murdered in 1980, and everything changed.
Monkey Grip by Helen Garner: Thirty-plus years after reading the book and watching the movie, I listened to Garner narrating Monkey Grip. And once again, it left me wanting to shout: “For goodness sake, Nora, Javo’s never going to stop using you!”
On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin: Recommended to me by a friend from the ABC Book Club and another of my Top Six Books (see below).
Pole to Pole by Michael Palin: Like Around the World in 80 Days, a much-loved BBC travel documentary from the early 1990s. And the inspiration for my north-south overland adventure in 1995.
Solid State by Kenneth Womack: A “definitive account of the writing, recording, mixing, and reception of The Beatles Abbey Road”. And this Beatles fan loved it!
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri: I shed tears listening to the first chapter of another of my Top Six Books for 2021 (see below).
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams: This was one of my two favourite paper-based books of 2020. And I loved listening to the audiobook version this year because it brought my favourite characters back to life.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: I’ve made two or three attempts to read the paper-based version of Narrow Road, but I keep setting it aside. However, Flanagan’s narration finally drew me into his book.
The Storyteller by Dave Grohl: If I’d selected my Top Eight Books, I would have included Grohl’s “collection of memories of a life lived loud”. And although I’m a Nirvana and Foo Fighters fan, what struck me most listening to Grohl narrate his audiobook memoir, is how he’s a family man who loves being a father.
The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester: Pip Williams credits Winchester’s book as the inspiration to write The Dictionary of Lost Words. Narrated by the author, it’s the story of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of its most prolific and disturbed contributors William Chester Minor, imprisoned for murder in Broadmoor, near Crowthorne in Berkshire.
Tunnel 29 by Helena Merriman: I heard Merriman on an ABC Radio Nightlife episode marking the 60th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. Afterwards, I bought the audiobook version of Merriman’s tale of the escape tunnels under the Wall, narrated by the author. And it inspired me to write a travel piece on Tall And True about my two visits to Berlin in 1987 and 1995.
My top six books for 2021
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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
Empires by Nick Earls
Olive, Mabel & Me by Andrew Cotter
A thoughtful birthday gift from my son. (Though, being a labrador lover and a fan of Olive and Mabel on YouTube, I may have dropped a heavy hint or two!) And Cotter’s tales of “two very good dogs” was one of the books I happily binge-read for a 59 Chapter Challenge to mark my 59th birthday in March. And I wrote a blog post of my favourite quotes from the book.
On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
My ABC Book Club friend recommended this after I’d mentioned reading Chatwin’s other works, like The Songlines. And then I found the book on Audible. I’m a late-comer to audiobooks. But of the twenty I listened to this year, On the Black Hill narrated by Steffan Rohdri sits in my top three.
Pathfinders by Michael Bennett
Another thoughtful gift from my son for Xmas 2020. I enjoyed learning about the history of Aboriginal trackers in NSW over a slow six-month (dipping in and out) read. And I wrote a blog post after meeting Bennett at an author talk at my local library in June (just before the second Sydney lockdown), where he signed my book, thanking my son for giving it to me.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
A slow reader
In my 2019 books post, I confessed I’m a slow bedtime reader and often doze off with a book on my nose. And this probably explains my consistency in reading another sixteen paper-based and e-books this year.
As for my twenty audiobooks, I’ve been an avid podcast fan for many years. I love losing myself in episodes when I’m home doing chores or out and about shopping or walking my dog. And this year, I’ve found the same enjoyment listening to audiobooks.
And as I commented to my ABC Book Club friend, I’m less likely to doze off listening to a book while walking my dog than when reading in bed.
© 2021 Robert Fairhead
N.B. In another act of shameless self-promotion, you might like a blog post on the background to my e-book, Twelve Furious Months.
Note: This post originally appeared on the Tall And True writers’ website.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead. A writer-editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in various print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.