When I was much, much younger, my mother would take us off to the library and release us to browse with one strict instruction: ‘Choose one non-fiction book’. I would groan inwardly and then promptly trot off towards the cookbook section, the inner rebel in me ever-keen to peek out.

Quietly, of course.

It has taken me a while to see what the fuss was all about, but nowadays I do thoroughly enjoy a good memoir or self-help title. There is something compelling about being able to glimpse life through another’s eyes. Even if only for a moment.

There is no order to this list, just a collection of the top six books that impacted me this year and that I found enjoyable (and perhaps a little uncomfortable) to read.

The Art of Growing Up by John Marsden

I never really grew up reading John Marsden’s books, apart from a brief dabble in the Tomorrow When the War Began series. A year or two ago I became aware of his quirky schools (Alice Miller and Candlebark) that offer an alternative take on education and I became intrigued.

This book is superbly written, captivating in a sort of ‘can’t look away’ horror as he deftly incapacitates so many of the popular approaches to parenting that have sprung up recently. Yet the words seem to spring from a place of real concern for the young people of today, and a deep respect for who they can become (often if we just get out of the way, or involve ourselves again – whichever the relevant end of the pendulum might be).

John Marsden has strong opinions and isn’t afraid to share them and I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I finished the book with a better awareness of myself, the world around me and with a little more knowledge of some particular dangers to avoid levying on my children.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

I’m coming to realise that it isn’t the grand, sweeping decisions that make us (although they do have much merit) but the tiny, repetitive actions that add up to the sum of ourselves over time.

This book is all about habits – how to make and break them, and it comes from a place of deep insight and practicality. Clear is a compelling writer and he communicates exactly what you need to know to make a difference going forward. I loved so many of his key distinctions that became ‘light bulb’ moments for me. This book is a must read for anyone interesting in learning how to do life well.

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

When a non-fiction account of the Black Saturday fires reads like a crime thriller, you know it’s going to be good. Hooper has a remarkable gift of empathy, in entering the minds of so many different characters connected to the tragic fires and the aftermath, but managing to tell their stories with respect and gentleness.

It is impossible to read this book and take sides. You become so involved with the detectives investigating the crime, the alleged arsonist and his family and the barrister representing the accused. You hear from the families who lost so much, the complicated web of relationships and interactions that lead to the moment of horror and why we as a society have a remarkable responsibility to bear for the way we treat each other. The Arsonist is a stunning and challenging read.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

With my background as a lawyer I was intrigued to read about this legal-based experience, albeit different from my own in that Bri Lee became a Judge’s Associate rather than a Trainee.

This book is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination and it forced me to confront a lot – in myself, in our culture, and in the legal system. Lee relates her story as she observes case after case of sexual abuse – predominantly against women and children – the experience bringing up her own difficult past.

Lee writes with unflinching honesty – exposing the underside of justice and the emotional realities of facing evil every day. If you have ever wondered whether women really get a raw deal, this book articulates the challenges eloquently and with a respect that is often absent in the debate. Lee tackles gender bias but also champions three supportive and strong men in her own life (Judge, her father and Vincent), showing that she is not against all men, but the culture that has allowed domestic violence and abuse to flourish.

Educated by Tara Westover

This is memoir at its best – allowing you to feel as if you have almost lived the experience of another. Stunning in its respectful treatment of a family who ended up doing a lot of damage to her, Tara has managed to straddle the gap between worlds and try to bring them into a meaningful dialogue. Tara has an incredible way with words and she paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live on that scrapheap farm in Idaho preparing for the Days of Abomination.

Before reading I had seen a few negative reviews questioning the veracity of some of the details (such as the nature of the abuse and the family’s ability to earn money) but as I read it for myself, I did not share their criticism (or even understand how they came to doubt these points given the level of detail in the telling). I wonder, perhaps if their real criticism of the book was about the way the story was told (in relation to Mormonism or the family personalities).

This is a hard read at times, but definitely worth it. Challenging, inspiring and a triumph.

Stress Less, Accomplish More by Emily Fletcher

This book changed my life in quite significant ways. It was in listening to an interview with Emily Fletcher about her down-to-earth approach to meditation that I came to be convinced that I could actually adopt the practice for myself.

Emily approaches meditation through science and observable results, which was definitely the pathway for me. Since reading the book (and signing up for the free bonuses that were available at the time – such as guided meditations, affirmations and helpful instructional videos) I have been regularly meditating twice a day for around 15 minutes each time. It has helped out with my stress levels, general health, energy levels, sense of calm and overall direction.

This book is great if you are a little sceptical or if you just want to find out more about meditation and its exceptional results.

Well, there you have it. My top six non-fiction books for the year. Feel free to follow along on Goodreads if you want to check out what I’m enjoying. I simply abandon any book that I don’t anticipate giving at least three stars to. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

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