My previous post was a top ten books list I put together more than fifteen years ago and I knew that a current list would be very different, so here it is.
One thing I will say is that I feel I may be very much guided by my limited memory. So many of the books on this list now are recent reads – which is not to say I didn’t have very strong reactions to them; I did. But perhaps the very strong reactions I’ve had to other books I read a long time ago have dimmed in my memory, making this a top ten list of books I can remember rather than a genuine “best ever” list. Oh, well. Nothing’s perfect.
Again, this list is in no particular order because, as I said in my previous post, choosing one book over all others is just an impossible task for me.
1. The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss
When this book first came out, I ignored it. Because, as much as it is unfair, it bothers me that Tara Moss is beautiful and smart. I knew that it was a discussion of the portrayal and perceptions of women mixed with an autobiography and I knew it was exactly the kind of book I would be interested in. But I didn’t end up reading it until quite some time after its release. I realised afterwards that I was only punishing myself with the delay.
This is a clever weaving of one woman’s story with some extremely poignant research on how women are viewed and treated (by both men and other women) in society today – not always well. It is maddening and enlightening and, for want of a better word, perfect.
From the 5 star review I wrote (and which Tara Moss herself liked) on Goodreads: “This is one of the most powerful books I have ever read and should be required reading for everyone – women, men, teenagers, school students, people of all ages, Fox News commentators, especially Fox News commentators, everyone… This is the book Tara Moss should be remembered for and the type of book all writers should aspire to creating themselves. In a word (or two) – life changing.”
2. No Way Back by Matthew Klein
When I picked this up off the shelf in the bookstore, I was expecting it to be just another thriller. I had never heard of it or the author, never read any reviews, didn’t know anything about it except for what I read on the front and back covers before buying it. The front cover, by the way, said, “They know everything. They control everyone. Even you.” That alone was enough to reel me in.
As I read this book, it seemed banal. A guy starting a new job. It should have been boring. But it wasn’t. The writing was so controlled that I didn’t even realise how good it was, how addictive, until I couldn’t bring myself to put it down in order to eat and sleep.
From the 5 star review I wrote on Goodreads: “From the first few chapters, which are ostensibly just about a guy at work, I was completely hooked and I finished reading it in only two sittings. No Way Back is really well written, intriguing, insightful and had that one thing I always hope for in a book – an ending that I just did not see coming and was meaningful.”
I can’t emphasise enough how you will never see the end coming and for me, as a writer, I can’t emphasise how jealous I am over the perfectness of the ending on top of the perfectness of this book as a whole.
3. Tokyo (AKA The Devil of Nanking) by Mo Hayder
Mo Hayder is for the most part one of Britain’s top crime writers – they sure know how to breed crime writers in Britain – and while I’ve read most of her books centred on the characters of Jack Caffery and Flea Marley, it is the standalone Tokyo (published in some territories as The Devil of Nanking) that has stayed with me long after I finished reading it. In fact, it was published in 2004 and despite saying this might be a list of great books I can remember from the recent past, I think eleven years is long enough not to fall into that category.
The quotes on the front and back cover and on the first page are a who’s who of other authors lining up to recommend it: Michael Connelly, Minette Walters, Harlan Coben, Val McDermid, Tess Gerritsen, Colin Dexter and Karin Slaughter. I was already reading Mo Hayder when this book was published so the recommendations didn’t factor into my purchasing decision, but they powerfully reinforced what I came to feel about the book.
Tokyo is the story of Grey, an English woman who did something when she was younger that her parents, her doctors and those around her considered evil. It’s a decade later and she’s on a quest to prove that there was nothing evil in what she did. I can’t reveal any more than that without ruining the journey but it’s another of those perfect stories with a perfect ending.
Like I said, I read Tokyo eleven years ago and I have rated it, but not yet reviewed it, on Goodreads. I think I need to read it again and do it justice with a terrific review.
4. Sometimes Gladness: Collected Poems 1954-1878 by Bruce Dawe
This may (or may not) spark a debate – guess it depends on how feisty you are on the subject of who is Australia’s greatest poet – but Bruce Dawe is my nomination. In my Top Ten Books – Then list posted a couple of days ago, I mentioned that Christina Rossetti’s poem “Remember” is one of two I can recite from heart. The other is Bruce Dawe’s “Good Sport”. And I don’t even consider it one of his best because there are simply so many to choose from.
From “Katrina”: We do not know, but fear / The telephone call from a nurse whose distant sympathy / Will be the measure of our helplessness. Your twin brother’s / Two-month-old vigour hurts us…
From “Life-cycle”: And the tides of life will be the tides of the home-team’s fortunes / – the reckless proposal after the one point win, / the wedding and honeymoon after the grand final…
From “A Warning to Young Poets”: Yes, you’ll be forgiven, for your youthfulness, / Everything about you but – success…
From “Prison Alphabet”: X will read his Bible / day by holy day / Y with eyes like torches / will burn the bars away / and Z, poor Z, will think the walls / must end where they begin / and that a man, outside, will be / the same as he went in…
From “Planning a Time-capsule”: As typical of these times I would include: / a dirty needle and a rip-top can, / pebbled glass from a windscreen, some spent cartridges…
5. The Dictionary
I wrote an entire post on how it’s the one book I can’t live without so it goes without saying that it must be included on this list. This is an extract from that post after I posed the question of which book you’d want if you were stranded on a desert island:
“And, oh boy, if I had all twenty volumes of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, I would probably be set for a long, contented and frequently occupied life on that desert island. (To give an even greater perspective on how big the Oxford English Dictionary is, the third edition revisions are taking place over a thirty-seven year period (begun in 2000 and expected to be completed in 2037) at a projected cost of £34 million, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online website.)
A guy at work, upon seeing me with my Macquarie International English Dictionary, engaged me in conversation and asked, “Is that yours? Did you bring it from home?” Within minutes, he regretted ever having started the discussion and called me a word nerd (although only after confessing to being a bit of a word nerd himself – his three contributions to our chat were conflate (the original versus the newer meaning), dendrochronologist (which he used to befuddle his son) and inculcate (which he professed a liking for), all quite nice contributions, I must admit).
But I take that description on willingly with more than a hint of pride. I am a word nerd, I love my dictionary and my desert island is calling.”
6. The Lady and the Chocolate by Edward Monkton
This is a short book – a very short book – and could, in fact, be mistaken for a children’s book because of how short it is and because it is illustrated (although with the black and white stick figures, I doubt children would make that mistake). However, this is very much a book for women. It’s the story of a bar of chocolate trying to convince a woman to eat it, which might sound strange but honestly, isn’t this a story that plays out billions of times all across the world every day?
When the lady refuses to eat the chocolate, worried about the weight it will put onto her thighs, her waist and her bottom, the chocolate begins to cry and tells her being eaten is the only reason for its existence. She is denying it its life fulfilment. The moral of the story is that it’s not ladies who need chocolate, it’s chocolate that needs ladies and in eating they are performing a very great service indeed.
It’s frothy and a little bit silly, but the writing is sensual and absolutely no longer than it needs to be to achieve its level of perfection. It’s a lesson many writers need to learn.
7. Postcards from Planet Earth containing the works of various poets
This book holds a unique place on this list: it’s the only book from the Top Ten Books – Then list to have retained its position.
From “Protest Poem” by Vernon Scannell on being unable to use the word “gay” in its original meaning anymore: A good word once, and I’m disconsolate / And angered by this simple syllable’s fate: / A small innocence gone, a little Fall. / I grieve the loss. I am not gay at all.
From “Star-Gazer” by P.K. Page: The very stars are justified. / The galaxy / italicized. / I have proof-read / and proof-read / the beautiful script. / There are no / errors.
From “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” by Craig Raine: Only the young are allowed to suffer / openly. Adults go to a punishment room / with water but nothing to eat. / They lock the door and suffer the noises / alone. No one is exempt / and everyone’s pain has a different smell. (This is a martian description of humans going to the toilet – I love it!)
This was the poetry book we studied in Year 12 and that, in and of itself, makes it a rare specimen because I think I can safely say that with the exception of Shakespeare (and we didn’t do nearly enough of that) and this book, I hate with a passion every other book we studied.
At the time of constructing the list, I wrote: “This is one of those rare books of poetry that just keeps getting better. Every time I read it I get something different out of it. I’m not sure exactly what I love about it but the variety is extraordinary, the viewpoints fascinating and the beauty is limitless. As soon as one poem from the collection loses its shine, another is there to take its place.”
8. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
This is one of those books that I had to read because of the hype – everyone was talking about it. As I’m sure many people will know, that’s not always a good sign. I read Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and The Slap by Christos Tsolkias because of the hype and I’m sure you’ve noticed they’re not on this list.
I’ve read a couple of Lionel Shriver books now and the common themes are beautiful writing, stories that you wish would never end but when the ending comes, it is perfect and you feel kind of stupid that you didn’t see it coming because there was no other way it could have ended.
Shriver always seems to know how to tap into the big issues of the day (spree killings by teenagers in We Need to Talk About Kevin, obesity in Big Brother) and then surround them with real people, imperfect people, not people you especially love but people you want to read about because you don’t especially hate them either, people worth reading about, people who have figured it out and yet in having done so don’t have perfect lives because there’s no such thing. The realism in her fiction is breathtaking and still manages to be escapist. Nobody would want to read a book about my life (boring!) but I’m not so far removed from the characters she writes about (although I will add a disclaimer: no obesity, no spree killers to the best of my knowledge). That’s a tribute to her abilities with the English language. Read this book and then read all her other books. They could make a top ten list all by themselves.
9. The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Discovery, the Investigation and the Debate by Shirley Harrison
Who doesn’t love a good hoax diary? That’s to say, if it is a hoax. Paper and ink analysis experts say it’s conclusively a hoax and it probably is but that doesn’t make this book any less of a ripper (pun intended) yarn. It may seem a strange addition to a top ten list of books but for the same reason I added the Bible to my Top Ten Books – Then list, if it isn’t true then it’s one of the greatest stories ever created.
Creativity comes in many forms and sometimes that creativity is a little bit sneaky, a little bit underhanded, a little bit malevolent. The story of the Maybrick family was already a fantastic one – patriarch James, a cotton merchant and arsenic addict, his wife Florence, an American (which in those days in England was enough said), his brother Michael, who never liked Florence, Florence’s lover Alfred, a house full of servants and two children who were ultimately left orphans. I don’t think I’m spoiling the surprise if I tell you James died from an arsenic overdose and Florence was convicted of his murder and hanged.
And simply by combining the story of the Maybricks with the story of Jack the Ripper, you get this book, which is a terrific way to spend a week, particularly if you’re a Jack the Ripper conspiracy theory enthusiast (which I am).
10. The Great Flood Mystery by Jane Curry
I first read this book when I was ten after buying it from the Scholastic book catalogue that we used to come home from school with and I read it again in preparation for adding it to this list. Strangely, it didn’t make my Top Ten Books – Then list, perhaps because I was in my twenties and thought adding a children’s book would make me seem nerdy and uncool. I don’t know why I bothered – totally lost that battle (nerds of the world, unite!).
There are so many elements that combine to make this a great book. A mystery to be solved, the hundredth anniversary of a devastating flood, summer holidays, a house with secret entrances and secret rooms, possible treasure, a serial burglar, disguises, surveillance, board game design shenanigans, a family struggling with economic realities and a boy who cries, “Wolf!” Or does he? All of these components sound like overkill but they come together to create a terrific story with a realistic ending.
This book is thirty years old now and it’s indicative of another time when twelve-year-olds could roam the streets of their home towns having adventures on their summer holidays. This book set me on a path of loving similar (although more grown up) books with mysteries and their eventual solutions without inevitable happy endings.
I’ve had this on my shelf for twenty-five years and I intend for it to remain there for fifty more. And while it might not stand up in comparison to some of the other books on this list, it holds a special place in my heart for setting me on a varied and wonderful reading journey.