What I learned from analysing my 2019 reading highlights

Image by bdungeon76 used via CC License

My favourite books of the year all stand out for their exceptional writing, their ability to draw me in to the world they create or explore, the way they haunt me after I read them (that can be in a positive or negative way) and the desire I have to tell everyone I come across about them in detail. They are the books that make me want to pick up another book in the hopes of finding the same magic again. So why, when I read so much in the crime genre, are so few in my favourite reads of the year?

A good crime book can certainly do all of the above, but often they don’t. Often I enjoy them as I’m reading or listening, but once a crime book is finished I may not remember much about it. Does this mean it isn’t good? In my case I’d argue it’s still been worth reading because it serves its purpose. It helps me to unwind and relax. It gives me pleasure as I’m reading. It offers me escapism when my brain isn’t up to anything particularly challenging (a state I find myself in pretty frequently thanks to my ME/CFS).

I read as many books as I do per year because I use different books for different purposes at different times. Some I read in audiobook format to wind down at night, some I read in paperback to take me away from screens, some genres I read to help encourage me out of a reading rut, sometimes I switch to a different genre/format/style to cleanse my palate from the last book I read. I don’t believe in good/bad genres or formats. I think we should read what we want to, whatever serves our purpose at that particular point in time.

The book that bought me the purest joy this year was Red, White and Royal Blue. I texted people insisting they start reading it immediately before I’d even finished it. I laughed out loud and I couldn’t put it down. Some people think adults shouldn’t read YA. Some people would think the very lightness and fun of this book make it less worthy than some of the books I included in my highlights that are considered capital-L-Literature. That’s ridiculous. Sometimes we need lightness and laughter. That’s no less worthy than books that make us question our place in the natural world (which A Constant Hum did for me this year), or educate us on something we haven’t previously known (as Dark Emu did for me this year).

We shouldn’t focus purely on how many books we read per year, or on how many award-winning books we read, or how many were considered High Literature. We should aim to have a varied diet of books. Read widely across genres, authors, countries of origin and perspectives. Use books to meet your needs. And don’t let anyone judge your books by their covers.

2019 Reading Summary

This was a blockbuster year of reading for me. Over 100 books across most genres. But as we all know, it’s not how many you read that matters, it is whether you managed to find books that made your heart sing or kept you up late into the night or left an indelible impression on you. I definitely felt like this was a good year for me in finding some exceptional reads.

Highlights of 2019:

Australian fiction: Rain Birds by Harriet McKnight, A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop, Wintering by Krissy Kneen, Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woolett, The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey.

YA/MG: How to Make a Movie in Twelve Days by Fiona Hardy, Sick Bay by Nova Weetman, Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, Sophia and the Corner Park Clubhouse by Davina Bell, The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman, How to Bee by Bren MacDibble.

Fiction: The Plotters by Kim Un-su, Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Non-fiction: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Only by Caroline Baum.

Notably, of the many, many crime books I read in 2019 I only added one to my highlights of the year (Sarah Bailey). I listen to a crime novel audiobook to fall asleep to nearly every night, but if it is a particularly good book I quickly switch to listening to it during the day so I can give it my full attention (or probably more accurately, so that it doesn’t keep me up at night!). You’d think that, statistically, reading more crime novels would mean it would feature more in my highlights. Does the fact it doesn’t mean I have higher standards for what makes a notable crime novel, or does it indicate I’m losing interest in the genre? A little of the former, probably, but not the latter.

We read different books for different reasons. For me, a good crime book is one that keeps me wanting to turn the pages and find out whodunnit. It also needs engaging characters, a setting that I enjoy and when it comes to audiobooks, a good narrator. I use crime books to unwind before sleep. The predictability of the genre is a big part of its appeal. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all of the books that fit in the genre also fit my criteria for what makes a good book. A good crime book needs to stand out from others in the genre, yes, but it also needs to fulfil my (rather nebulous) criteria for what makes a good book in general. I’m going to write a follow up post about this very thing and what it made me realise.

I’m now working at Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Eltham Library

When I finished up at the Centre for Youth Literature at State Library Victoria I promised myself (and my family) that I’d take six months off to recover from the burnout that came with doing a job where I had put 110% of myself into my work for so long (such is the joy of trying to balance working and managing a disability). The plan was to freelance while working from home, slowing down significantly and refocusing on my health.

I’m giving myself a mental high-five for lasting this long, but the right job at the right time has come up and now I find myself back in regular part-time employment. I’ve joined Yarra Plenty Regional Library working on a diverse range of events presented throughout their nine branches.

I’m chuffed to be working in a library service again as I really enjoy this area of literary programming. There’s a strong focus on delivering what is useful and valuable to the community, and I really enjoy audience-driven programming. The other reason I’m also pleased because this is the library service I grew up utilising. Eltham was my local library, and I spent a lot of time there after school, as well as at various other branches. If I could go back in time and tell my younger self that one day my job would be all about books, writing, reading and ideas younger me would have been thrilled. Let’s face it, older me is still pretty thrilled that this is my life.

The role is a maternity leave fill, so I expect to spend the next year at YPRL and am looking forward to seeing what I will learn in that time.

This is What Raising a Feminist Looks Like: Ellie Marney

A new episode of the podcast is available now via iTunes and all your regular podcast services!

In this episode I speak with award-winning Young Adult author Ellie Marney about her experiences raising four boys in regional Victoria. 

We chat about the isolating experience of motherhood in the western context, the evolution of parenting at different stages of your children’s lives and how teenage boys experiences are being changed by the spread of feminist concepts and much more.

I was so thrilled to be able to talk to Ellie, I’m a huge fan of her books, particularly her Every series, a must for any crime-loving YA reader. Head on over to her website to learn more about her work and keep up to date on her upcoming releases. Ellie somehow manages to write prolifically despite juggling many other balls, as she talks about in this podcast episode, and there is always a new gem just around the corner.

Darebin Mayor’s Writing Awards

It was a pleasure to be asked to return as a judge again this year for the Darebin Mayor’s Writing Prize.

The theme this year was ‘lucky’ and I was struck by how many of the entries had themes of climate change, near misses, appreciating our natural environment and mental health. It’s interesting that many of us are preoccupied with our relationship to the environment, and are instinctively aware that the health of our planet and our own are inextricably linked.

The winner was a unanimous decision with my co-judges, Sian Prior and Susan Johnston. We all felt that Andy Murdoch’s short story thrummed with tension and had that rare ability to tell a much bigger story than the thousand words on the page.

I learn so much from judging writing competitions, not least of which is how deceptively simple a well-written short story can appear. Short story writing is a difficult form to do well because there just isn’t the space to get it wrong. Each sentence must serve its purpose, driving the story but excelling in quality of prose.

I also find myself sparking with ideas after having seen so many interpretations of a one-word theme. It excites me to see how many different ways the same or similar ideas can be explored and reminds me nobody sees the world quite the same way as we do ourselves.

The winners were awarded last week at the Northcote Town Hall and it’s always lovely to see the smiles on the winners faces as their hard work and excellence are acknowledged.

You can read the winning entry and the highly commended pieces in n-Scribe 14.

Hoarders: the TV show to cure your Marie Kondo-inspired guilt

I published this article on SBS this week about trying to understand a disorder at the opposite end of the minimalist spectrum.

Both Marie Kondo and Hoarders ask: how much of the stuff surrounding us do we really need? In an age of consumer culture, fast fashion and single-use plastics, this is a valuable question. We have an attachment to physical items that our planet cannot sustain, whether we obsessively collect them in every inch of our homes for fear of throwing out something potentially useful, or rid ourselves of every item that does not bring us pure joy.

I sometimes find myself squirming as I realise how often I say things the subjects of Hoarders say, such as “I just don’t want this to go to waste, it would be useful to someone” and I was keen to explore how we are often pushed and pulled between minimalism and acquisition of material goods. It was fun to explore some of this as it relates to our fascination with these two shows. Head on over to read the full article.

Kidspot: we need to do more to prevent our kids becoming bullies

I’ve written about the importance of primary school aged children being able to understand and respect personal boundaries.

Being a good person, and a good friend is about more than just not being a bully. If we only focus on teaching young people how not to take part in bullying behaviour, we fail to impart on them how important it is to be a positive member of a community. When children understand everyone has a right to have their personal boundaries respected they are equipped to develop healthy and supportive relationships with their peers.

You can read the full article here.

Finishing up at CYL

It’s bittersweet to be exiting the Centre for Youth Literature a little over a year since I first joined the team. I came on board for a short-term three month contract and as is often the way with contracts, it was extended.

In my time at CYL I’ve worked on the Inky Awards, the relaunch of Inside a Dog, Story Camp, two YA Showcases and more. I have worked with some of the most wonderful people, notably excellent in their professional abilities and also passionate and dedicated to YA literature. I’ve made friends, been blown away at what teenagers will do if you give them the space and opportunity to lead their own projects and read more amazing YA books than I can count.

Having said all of that, I will be relieved to return to freelance work. It’s a difficult balance working in such a demanding role while having a disability. It’s left me feeling very worn out and thinking wistfully of all the other projects I’d love to be working on or writing I would love to be doing.

I’ve made myself and my family a promise: I won’t even look at a new job (as in, permanent employment or one-off producing contracts) for six months. I need that time to rebalance, focus on my own work and my existing projects, and assess where I want to focus my energy for the next while. Hopefully writing it in this post will keep me accountable!

I look forward to a new ordinary in 2019, one where I might have my own creative work to share again. I’ll keep you updated.

This is What Raising a Feminist Looks Like: Erin Farley

A new episode of the podcast is available now via iTunes and all your regular podcast services!

In this episode I talk to Erin Farley about raising her son, four-year-old Jose. Erin has over fifteen years experience working in communications and campaigns with not-for-profits, unions, government and in politics.  

We chat about single parenting, the motherhood penalty on careers, public discourse on mental health, deafness and the gendered nature of English language acquisition and much more.

This is What Raising a Feminist Looks Like is available on iTunes

You can now subscribe to This is What Raising a Feminist Looks like in iTunes or on your preferred podcasting app!

The first episode is a short introduction to what the podcast is all about, and a bit of background on how it came to be.

It’s nerve wracking to have it out there in the world, but I’m very much looking forward to sharing the first interview this month.