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#AceBookDesk – Best books for readers short on time, as recommended by Jennifer Down, Johann Hari, Tony Birch and more
Do you ever settle in with a book, ready to lose yourself in another world, only to find — just a few pages in — that this world is demanding your immediate return?
Your kids are screaming, your phone is buzzing, and once again reading falls by the wayside of a busy life.
We asked acclaimed writers, critics and book lovers to recommend great reads for those of us who are starved for time — books you can devour quickly, or dip in and out of easily, that still leave you feeling satisfied.
Johann Hari: Return to Uluru by Mark McKenna
In 1934, an Aboriginal man named Yokunnuna was shot near Uluru by Bill McKinnon, a white police officer.
Almost 90 years later, historian Mark McKenna set out to write a history of the centre of Australia, and found himself drawn to the case.
He spoke to the families of both men, and unearthed new evidence about the case, documenting the revelations in Return to Uluru (2021).
“What he discovers is remarkable,” says British author Johann Hari (Stolen Focus; Lost Connections).
“What he uncovers offers a very different story about the history of Australia — one that’s heartbreaking, but also, in a strange way I don’t want to spoil, ultimately hopeful.”
Hari is a fan of McKenna, having found his book From the Edge in a bookshop a few years ago — “in those happy pre-plague days”.
“It blew my mind, so I have been looking out for his next book ever since. He’s a model of a great public intellectual — he writes about serious questions in totally accessible ways,” Hari says.
Return to Uluru is part detective story, part historical narrative, and part political discourse.
“It’s a short book with so much history in it — and it’s extremely compelling. In places it’s like a thriller,” Hari says.
Jennifer Down: Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
Jennifer Down, who won this year’s Miles Franklin Award for her novel Bodies of Light, says it’s hard to go wrong with anything written by Scottish novelist and poet Muriel Spark.
Spark, who was included by The Times Literary Supplement on its 2008 list of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945”, is perhaps best known for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961).
Yet the title that really stands out to Down is Not to Disturb (1971).
The darkly comic story is set in a luxurious mansion in Geneva, where servants sense a murder is about to be committed – yet they must follow their orders and not disturb the lords of the house.
“Not to Disturb is perfect — experimental, a little claustrophobic, and very sharp. It’s also funny,” Down says.
“Set over a single night, it’s a kind of experimental murder mystery that subtly sends up both classic mystery novels and the English master-and-servant narrative.”
At less than 100 pages, it’s great for time-poor readers – and “it’s beautifully executed”, says Down.
“It’s precisely as long as it needs to be, no more; and it whips along at a terrific pace. It reads almost like a play script, with very little introspection or psychological exposition, yet it feels wonderfully complete.”
Tony Birch: Island: Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod
When award-winning Aboriginal author Tony Birch was younger he would sit in bed at night and read, easily getting through 100 pages before falling asleep.
These days, he says, 20 pages would be a stretch — but that’s enough to read many short stories from start to finish.
“You can begin and finish a story while travelling to work on public transport — or even at half-time at the football,” says Birch.
Birch is familiar with the particular art of the short story, having dedicated much of his career to the form. His most recent collection, Dark as Last Night, was awarded the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
“Silence is a means of consideration. It hangs on the wall hook, suspended against meaning, against utility. Silence is the consideration of meaning, the process of meaning, the place where meaning is born.”
“If I was going to read one short story collection, and think about reading a story each night, I couldn’t go past Alistair MacLeod’s magnificent Island: Collected Stories (2002),” he says.
The collection brings together 16 stories from the celebrated Canadian author, who vividly evokes the rugged beauty of Cape Breton Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia.
“They are magnificent; every line of each story,” says Birch, who first discovered the collection around a decade ago and now buys every copy he finds in op shops to pass along to friends.
“MacLeod’s stories are wonderful for time-poor people because real time is suspended from the first paragraph to the last, when you realise that you are actually time-rich.”
Sulari Gentill: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Award-winning author Sulari Gentill, best known for her Rowland Sinclair detective stories and The Woman in the Library (2022), often takes her readers back to the 30s.
Here she takes us back further still, recommending The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925).
Gentill says she can’t remember a time she wasn’t aware of the classic, which captures the dissolution of a society obsessed with wealth and status.
“The Great Gatsby captures the 1920s in all its heady excess as well as its callous cruelty,” Gentill says.
“Part romance, part mystery, part autobiography, it is a story of the American dream told as a bitter tragedy.”
The book follows a war veteran’s interactions with mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, who is obsessed with reuniting with his former lover, socialite Daisy Buchanan.
“The words of Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carraway will resonate with readers observing the elusive machinations of power and status, and the exclusive nature of society in the modern world,” Gentill says.
It’s barely longer than a novella (which are usually between 10,000 and 40,000 words), making it great for time-poor readers – yet it has an “epic sense despite its brevity”.
“Beautifully written, insightful and haunting, it is the kind of novel that lingers beyond the turning of the final page,” Gentill says.
Bram Presser: Class Trip by Emmanuel Carrère
If you’re a fan of a thrilling final twist, author Bram Presser (Voss Literary Prize winner for The Book of Dirt) has the book for you.
“Suffice to say, I have never been so wrong-footed by a book’s twist before,” he says.
The book in question is Class Trip (1995), a novella by bestselling French author Emmanuel Carrère.
“A young boy is driven by his father to meet the rest of his class for a ski trip. After he is dropped off, the father hears on the radio that one of the kids in the class has gone missing. What follows is a masterclass in tense uncertainty and horror,” Presser explains.
“I love the sense of creeping dread that only the best thriller writers are able to conjure.
“In Class Trip, Carrère distils it to the point of crystalline perfection with a story so seemingly quiet and tender but so utterly shocking that it ranks among the best short books I’ve ever read.”
That’s saying something, given the number of short books Presser has read; he has a newsletter dedicated to short reviews of novellas (the title, A Book For Ants, made us smile).
He says Class Trip is “easily devoured in a single sitting, not that you’ll want to put it down”.
“Plus you’ll feel like you’ve been pulled through the emotional wringer and spat out in a state of shock.
“Few books can achieve this, let alone one so short. It’s incredibly satisfying.”
Kate Evans: Slow Horses by Mick Herron
“If people are short on time and want book recommendations, they should be listening to The Bookshelf on ABC RN, because that’s what we do (sorry, had to say it),” jokes Kate Evans, who co-hosts the weekly program.
But given the show’s focus on new fiction and spotlighting Australian authors, she thought she’d offer something different here: English writer Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (2010).
It’s the first in a series of books based on the fictional Slough House, where failed MI5 agents are sent to while away what’s left of their careers.
“There’s plot, poetry, sticky doors and surprising twists,” Evans says.
“It’s a story of failures, stuff-ups, bad behaviour, corruption and betrayal, as we meet a group of spies who’ve all had disastrous career moments, led by a beautifully realised character named Jackson Lamb.”
Don’t expect a heart of gold in Lamb (played by Gary Oldman in the Apple TV+ series of the same name). The leader of the dysfunctional team of rejects is obnoxious, rude, and audaciously outrageous.
“There’s something so compelling about the battered misfits who don’t quite come together in a triumphant hurrah,” Evans says.
At 300-plus pages, Slow Horses may look a little daunting – but don’t let that put you off. It’s a page-turner of the best kind and “totally engrossing,” says Evans.
“I read it in two nights, and have taken every available moment to read the next seven books in the series.”
Michael Mohammed Ahmad: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Miles Franklin-shortlisted author (of the trilogy The Tribe, The Lebs and The Other Half of You) and founding director of Sweatshop Literacy Movement in Western Sydney, asked his seven-year-old son to help him out with this one.
“He gave me a cheeky wink and said, ‘The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran’. He might have been a little biased because we named him Kahlil,” Ahmad says.
Philosophical, spiritual and mystical, The Prophet is one of the most beloved classics of our time. Since its publication in 1923, it has been translated into more than 100 languages and has never been out of print; it has sold more than 9 million copies in the US alone.
“My great-grandfather read it to my grandfather, and my grandfather read it to my father, and my father read it to me,” says Ahmad, who quotes The Prophet throughout his own trilogy.
What makes it so special? Ahmad says you could spend a lifetime trying to form a coherent answer and still come up short, “but you begin reading this book and straight away, you know”.
“The Prophet is written as a collection of spoken word poems. Each verse is a message of peace, wisdom and tenderness, which Al-Mustafa, the chosen and the beloved, shares with his people before returning to the isle of his birth,” he says.
“The verses can be read in chronological order, or you can open the book to any random page and read any random line, and you’ll find yourself humbled and cleansed by its cosmic beauty.”
Rudi Bremer: Hunt the Stars by Jessie Mihalik
“One of the challenges of reading when you’re time-poor is making sure it doesn’t feel like a chore,” says Rudi Bremer, a Gamilaraay woman who presents ABC RN’s Awaye! and ABC Kids listen’s Little Yarns.
“I’ve been a fan of Jessie Mihalik for a few years because she builds worlds that feel full and real, without bogging you down in minutia.”
She recommends Hunt the Stars, the first book in Mihalik’s Starlight’s Shadow series, saying it’s a page-turner that you’ll find the time for.
“Hunt the Stars is a space opera about Octavia (Tavi) Zarola, the captain of a small crew that specialises in bounty hunting,” Bremer explains.
“Against her better judgement Tavi accepts a once-in-a-lifetime job to work with a rival general, Torran Fletcher, and help him recover a family heirloom.”
Mihalik, also the author of the Consortium Rebellion series, typically combines intriguing characters with slow-burn romance and high-stakes adventure.
“This is no exception,” Bremer says of Hunt the Stars.
“Tavi and Torran have great chemistry, and the plot is twisty enough that it’ll keep you guessing – and maybe even making time for the other books in the series.”
Jessie Tu: Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
For the past few years, author and critic Jessie Tu (A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing) has been making an effort to read more books by writers who don’t write in English.
“I’m constantly appalled by how Anglophonic my literary consumption is,” she says.
She discovered Happy Stories, Mostly (2021), a short story collection by Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu (and translated by Tiffany Tsao) while trawling the website of Tilted Axis Press, a non-profit publisher of English translations of works by Asian writers.
Pasaribu’s collection was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2022.
“When I read it, I get that same feeling as when I’m listening to Joni Mitchell,” Tu says.
“The voice of the queer narrator is campy and clever. Each story is eloquent, and painfully well-written.
“You can read one during a lunchbreak, it’s like having a conversation with a very engaging and interesting person.”
Across the 12 stories in the collection, Pasaribu explores what it means to be almost happy — to be on the cusp of grasping it but never quite making it — and how to keep going despite that.
Tu says the stories perfectly embody the idea of transvaluation, which “takes a group of experiences that is generally disparaged and asserts it instead as a blessing or fortune”.
“This idea of turning stigma into style is so transformative for me, and something Pasaribu does so beautifully,” she says.
Virginia Trioli: Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper
“I’m going to take ruthless advantage of the fact that I know the author,” says ABC broadcaster Virginia Trioli as she recommends Bedtime Story(2022), the most recent book by bestselling author Chloe Hooper.
“I watched my friend Chloe and her sons live and breathe this story before she wrote it.”
Hooper was working on her award-winning book The Arsonist (2019) when her partner and the father of her children was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive blood cancer that is considered fatal.
As she searches for a way to tell their two young sons, Hooper turns to children’s books — the ones she reads to her kids, the ones she remembers, and the ones she discovers.
Within their pages, she finds lessons on grief, loss and resilience.
It is, Trioli says, “beautiful and luminous”.
“The themes are eternal, powerful and deeply connecting: we all remember the stories of our childhood and the archetypes that are repeated through history — the hero, the demon, the lost child, the missing father, the battle to be won, the prize to be captured — and many of us at this stage in our lives confront the reality of losing someone we love to an incurable illness,” Trioli says.
“Chloe’s exquisitely written book connects with experiences we have all lived, or are living now, and is remarkably uplifting.”
Bedtime Story is illustrated by New York Times award-winning illustrator Anna Walker.
“It is a book you can come and go from, with lovely ink wash illustrations,” Trioli says.
“It shouldn’t feel like a naughty cheat, but it does, that some of the pictures are two pages wide, so you end up galloping through the book!”
Tim Rogers: The White Label Promo Preservation Society by Sal Maida, Mitchell Cohen and friends
Musician, broadcaster and writer Tim Rogers, best known as the frontman of You Am I, has been reading a lot – perhaps too much – about how to write short fiction.
It’s all written by people he worships, so he spends a lot of his time feeling intimidated.
For relief, he turns to music writing — in particular, a book called The White Label Promo Preservation Society (2021).
“The book is short appreciations of albums that the various authors feel were overlooked,” explains Rogers, who appreciates that the approach is “passionate though not hagiographic”.
Rogers, who hosts a weekly program on Double J, says: “Music writing is often a drag. These pieces are drag races of passion.
“See why I’m reading about writing? What a terrible entreaty!?” he adds.
The White Label Promo Preservation Society covers LPs cut between 1959 and 1981, with essays from Sal Maida (Roxy Music/Sparks), music writer Mitchell Cohen and friends — among them Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group) and Wreckless Eric.
Each record receives a two- or three-page write-up, and while the book includes essays on ‘flop’ albums by well-known artists such as The Who (My Generation), Chuck Berry (Rockit) and Fleetwood Mac (Then Play On), there are also plenty you’ve never heard of.
Aside from offering relief from reading about writing, the book is special to Rogers because it was given to him by his oldest friend.
“His gifts and suggestions are given with the solemnity of tithes, or rites. He also has incredible cheekbones, so the biblical allusions prosper,” Rogers says.
Yumna Kassab: The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
“I often carry with me a book of poetry which acts as an anchor in the turbulence of modern life,” says Yumna Kassab (The House of Youssef; Australiana).
The book she returns to the most is The Dream of a Common Language (1978) by Adrienne Rich, an influential feminist poet, essayist and activist.
“On particularly busy days, I will choose and read a single poem,” Kassab says.
Released shortly after Rich came out as gay, The Dream of a Common Language is a powerful and vulnerable collection that explores gender, sexuality, the place of women in the world, and the need to challenge the status quo.
Kassab came to the book via Cheryl Strayed, who carried it as she hiked alone for three months along 1,770 kilometres of the Pacific Crest Trail, a redemptive journey she documented in the bestselling memoir Wild(2012).
Strayed writes that poems ran through her days and nights: “Certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I’d chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and … my religion.”
Kassab has also become very familiar with the “especially vivid” poems.
“I have read them that many times they are part of my life’s underground,” she says.
“For many years, these poems have restored my faith in humanity and each small reading makes me feel that much more alive.”
Declan Fry: Nganajungu Yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green
The striking cover was what first drew critic, writer and poet Declan Fry, a descendant of the Yorta Yorta, towards Nganajungu Yagu (2019) by poet Charmaine Papertalk Green – but the power of the words inside were what hooked him.
Nganajungu yagu means “my mother” in Wajarri, a language of the Yamaji people of mid-west Western Australia, and the collection revolves around Papertalk Green’s relationship with her mother.
In 1978, Papertalk Green left her family in Mullewa for school in Perth, staying in a boarding house for Aboriginal girls. She and her mother traded letters, and their correspondence provided the inspiration for Nganajungu Yagu.
“It tells the story of the poet’s coming of age – the love of family and language, and the longing Charmaine feels for her mother as she leaves Yamaji country,” Fry says.
“What makes the book so special is that it really captures this feeling of longing, of missing someone. Even at a great distance, Charmaine’s letters and poetry act as a dialogue with the girl she is, the woman she will become, and with her mother.”
Nganajungu Yagu, the winner of the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry, is written in English, Badimaya and Wajarri.
It follows a narrative, but Fry says you can easily dip in and out and always find something rewarding.
For a taste, you can read Walgajunmanha All Time, which was published in the Australian Book Review.
“That poem makes incredible use of the space on the page,” Fry says.
“Its voice is undeniable.”
Leah Jing McIntosh: The Year of Blue Water by Yanyi
When Leah Jing McIntosh – a critic, researcher and the founding editor of anti-racist literary project Liminal – finds herself short on time, she turns to poetry.
“When I am too tired or too busy but need a book to read on the tram or in a waiting room, I usually take some poems,” she says.
“A slim book can fool you — poets know how to distil emotion like nobody else.”
In the midst of lockdown in 2020, she discovered Yanyi’s The Year of Blue Water (2019), which was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 2018.
In the collection, Chinese American poet and critic Yanyi weaves together explorations of identity, belonging, racism, mental health and gender, from a queer and trans-masculine perspective.
“Yanyi slices right through,” says McIntosh, picking up the book and opening it to a page. It reads:
McIntosh says: “Some stolen time with a good poem feels so good, amidst the everyday.
“Yanyi does this, I think.”
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