Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian (page 1 of 7)

13+ Australian True Crime Books

I know Australia has a bit of a reputation, being full of snakes and spiders and other dangerous critters… but it’s not just the animals that want to kill you Down Under. Here’s a selection of Australian true crime books that might put you off visiting my home country forever (if the crocodiles and box jellyfish haven’t done that already).

13+ Australian True Crime Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

The Arsonist - Chloe Hooper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every Australian was impacted, in some way, by the Black Saturday bushfires. It seemed to be a natural disaster on an unprecedented scale, the deadliest wildfires of Australia’s recorded history (180 people killed, hundreds more injured, and thousands of homes destroyed). Imagine, then, the stomach-dropping realisation that some of the fires were deliberately set. In The Arsonist, Chloe Hooper explores what might’ve led Brendan Sokaluk to light a fire in the LaTrobe Valley on a scorching hot day in February 2009. It sheds completely new light on what we all think we know and remember about that weekend, and the way we understand and investigate acts of arson. Read my full review of The Arsonist here.

Bonus: Hooper is probably better known for another Australian true crime book, The Tall Man, in which she investigates the death of Cameron Doomadgee in police custody.

Trace by Rachael Brown

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The unsolved murder of Maria James is a case that hits home particularly hard for Australian booklovers. The Melbourne mother of two was brutally stabbed in the flat behind her bookshop in 1980, and to this day no one has been charged with the crime. Rachel Brown initially investigated the case for a podcast, before putting together everything she had learned for a book by the same name, Trace. She very deliberately steers away from the “entertainment” aspect of the true crime genre, and spends a lot of time interrogating the ethics of what she’s doing. Ultimately, she decides that it’s the best – and maybe the only – way to generate public interest in the case, and with public interest comes jogged memories and heavy consciences that might just see the crime solved. Read my full review of Trace here.

The Teacher’s Pet by Hedley Thomas

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Speaking of Australian true crime books that began as podcasts: even international listeners and readers will be familiar with The Teacher’s Pet, Hedley Thomas’s investigation into the disappearance (likely murder) of Lynette Dawson. The podcast was downloaded over 30 million times and made front-page news every time a new episode dropped, and now the whole story is laid out in this comprehensive book. It took forty years for Lynette’s murderer to be brought to justice, and it might never have happened if not for Thomas’s investigative journalism and incredible determination. Read my full review of The Teacher’s Pet here.

Carnage by Mark Dapin

When Australians re-watch or quote the viral arrest video for the thousandth time – “this is democracy manifest!”, “what is the charge? eating a meal? a succulent Chinese meal?” – they often forget the strange conflation of circumstances that saw Jack Karlson apprehended outside of a Fortitude Valley restaurant. Mark Dapin has, at long last, pieced it all together in Carnage. It’s an unusual Australian true crime book, in that it doesn’t center on the perpetrator of one terrible crime, but on a shadowy figure lurking in the background of many. As well as being the ripping yarn of one theatrical outlaw, it’s a de-facto history of organised crime in Australia from the 1960s to today.

Fake by Stephanie Wood

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To be catfished is a uniquely modern phenomenon, enabled by the proliferation of dating apps and new levels of technological literacy that allow fake identities to be forged and verified online. At the same time, investigative journalists have never been more empowered to investigate the catfishers, and get to the heart of their motivations. Stephanie Wood fell in love with a former architect turned farmer, and the relationship only soured when he frequently cancelled their meet-ups and found flimsy excuses for her rightful concerns. In Fake, she discovers that the man she loved never actually existed, and she effectively exposes the dark underbelly of contemporary dating.

Larrimah by Kylie Stevenson & Caroline Graham

Larrimah - Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re looking for contemporary Australian true crime books that have classic Australiana vibes, look no further than Larrimah. It has all the elements: “a missing man, an eyeless croc and an outback town of 11 people who mostly hate each other”. The titular town is a remote outback settlement with nothing to see or do, and only the occasional journalist or filmmaker dropping by to try and solve one of the most bizarre missing persons cases in Australia’s living memory. Kylie Stevenson and Caroline Graham have given it the best go they can, and ultimately they’ve written a love letter to this town, one full of dark humour and a deeply Australian sensibility.

This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

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Helen Garner has written some of the most iconic Australian true crime books of the past century, and This House Of Grief is arguably the best. Robert Farquharson’s crimes horrified the nation; in 2005, he drove off a Victorian road and into a dam, causing his three sons in the car with him to drown. It took seven years for the tragic case to make it through the court system, and Garner dutifully attended each hearing and motion, taking copious notes and leaning forward when most Australians chose to look away. The resulting true crime book is one of the most haunting and incredible narratives you’ll ever read, in any genre.

Bonus: Joe Cinque’s Consolation is another of Garner’s iconic Australian true crime books, covering the murder of a young man in Canberra by his girlfriend, and the culpability of one of their friends.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

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Here’s one of the most intense and insightful Australian true crime books of the decade: Eggshell Skull. Bri Lee brings a unique perspective to the experience of sexual violence survivors in this country. She is a survivor herself, and also worked as a judge’s associate for over a year, sitting in on trial after trial on the regional court circuit, watching the wheels of justice turn over endless cases that mirrored her own. It’s one of the few true crime books that sits in the middle of the Venn diagram between the victim and the “justice” system, and it will forever change the way you think about how both perpetrators and victims are treated. Read my full review of Eggshell Skull here.

Shark Arm by Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher

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The first line of Shark Arm sets it up beautifully: “On 25 April 1935, a 4.4 metre tiger shark – caught one week earlier off the coast of New South Wales – horrified onlookers at a Sydney aquarium when it vomited up a human arm.” The “shark arm”, as it obviously became known, led police down a rabbit hole of smuggling, insurance fraud, and – not one, but two – grisly murders. This is one of the most bizarre and unlikely Australian true crime books, one that turns every stone in an attempt to get to the truth of the decades-old cold case. Read my full review of Shark Arm here.

Reasonable Doubt by Xanthe Mallett

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Of all the Australian true crime books out there, very few focus on wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice. Dr Xanthé Mallet, internationally-renowned forensic scientist and criminologist, sets out to restore the balance and shine a spotlight on this neglected issue in Reasonable Doubt. She uses a series of Australian case studies to explore the systemic failures of our criminal justice system, with a focus on the factors of a case that increase the likelihood of a wrongful conviction. By examining how and why miscarriages of justice occur, Mallett reveals opportunities for us to avoid them, and highlights the importance of making adequate restitution where they do occur. Read my full review of Reasonable Doubt here.

CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie

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Have you ever heard about a true crime case and thought “why don’t the police just…?” or “if I were on the jury, I would…?”. You might’ve fallen victim to the CSI Effect, the unrealistic expectations the general public have of forensic pathology based on that TV show and others like it. In CSI Told You Lies, Meshel Laurie offers the facts to try and counteract those false perceptions. Her approach makes this book a de-facto collection of Australian true crime stories told from a different perspective, that of the forensic pathologists who make it possible to identify and prosecute perpetrators of violent crime. Read my full review of CSI Told You Lies here.

Missing, Presumed Dead by Mark Tedeschi

Missing, Presumed Dead - Mark Tedeschi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dorothy Davis and Kerry Whelan came from opposite sides of Sydney. They were both (very) comfortably middle class, but other than that they had little in common. They ran in different circles, they had different hobbies, they never met. So, how did they both vanish without a trace, never to be seen again? Mark Tedeschi’s Missing, Presumed Dead unspools this tangled web. Tedeschi was the Crown Prosecutor in both cases, so he’s able to provide a lot of insight into the cases and, in so doing, he dispels a lot of damaging myths – like the assumption that a solid case can’t be built on circumstantial evidence, or that the absence of a body means a perpetrator can’t be convicted of homicide. Read my full review of Missing, Presumed Dead here.

Whiteley On Trial by Gabriella Coslovich

Whiteley On Trial - Gabriella Coslovich - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When you think of Australian true crime books, you’d be forgiven for thinking mostly of grisly murders and mysterious disappearances. Whiteley On Trial looks at a major crime of a different type altogether, but one no less fascinating: the biggest case of alleged art fraud to ever come before the Australian criminal justice system. Two men were found guilty of faking artworks by gifted Australian artist Brett Whiteley, only to be acquitted a year later by the appeal bench. The artworks were returned to their owners, with a giant question mark hanging over them – are they fakes, or are they the real deal?

The Natural Way Of Things – Charlotte Wood

The Weekend is one of my all-time favourite books, but even I can acknowledge that The Natural Way Of Things is the book for which Charlotte Wood is better known. It was released in 2015 to massive popular and critical acclaim here in Australia, and it won the Stella Prize the following year.

The Natural Way Of Things - Charlotte Wood - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Natural Way Of Things is told in three parts, across nine months (Summer, Autumn, and Winter). It begins with Yolanda waking up “in the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere”. She doesn’t realise, at first, that nine other women are in the exact same situation. They’re disoriented, drugged, and shuffled between holding cells. When their gaolers emerge, they shave the women’s heads and dress them in scratchy parochial outfits, complete with perspective-limiting bonnets.

If you’re catching a whiff of The Handmaid’s Tale there, you’re not the only one. I suspect it’s a deliberate homage, as The Natural Way Of Things tackles a lot of the same themes and ideas as Margaret Atwood’s iconic feminist dystopia. It’s different, though, in the sense that Wood doesn’t require us to imagine any kind of societal collapse or fertility crisis to make her scenario a reality. What happens to Yolanda and Verla and co. could be happening in our world, right now (some might argue a version of it is).

These women have been abducted, imprisoned, and abandoned because they were all involved in some kind of sexual scandal. Wood offers just enough to give us the “gist” (the political staffer who had an affair with her boss, the footballer’s girlfriend who was sexually assaulted by his friends, the church girl who was abused by a priest), without any gory exposition of the incidents. They’re almost beside the point: any woman could be these women, their stories are all too familiar. They are being punished for the sin of womanhood.

In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

The Natural Way Of Things (Page 69)

As if that isn’t horrifying enough, The Natural Way Of Things is set in a remote and derelict sheep-shearing station, somewhere in the Australian outback. They are completely cut off from the world (no internet, no phones, not even an operational fax machine). They’re kept within the boundary by a giant electrified fence. This is enough to strike fear in the heart of any city rat – I know it made me shudder.

And so, a lot of the punishments these women face are natural ones: the heat, the isolation, the wear and tear of bush life. There are also cruel twists of fate; the one that really fucked me up was the box of tampons that was only discovered in a storage shed after the women had been bleeding through their skirts for months.

At first, the women – and their guards, come to that – hold onto hope that this is a temporary situation. Either they will be “rescued” by their families or their lovers, or they will serve their time and be released, free to return to their “normal” lives. As the months pass, and supplies dwindle, the reality of their dire situation starts to hit home – for the reader, too.

Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.

The Natural Way Of Things (Page 223)

In many respects, The Natural Way Of Things is a level-up on feminist dystopia or psychological thriller – it tips the scales into outright horror. There are scenes and realisations that literally made me recoil as I read them. I found it really hard to “shake” this one, for days after I turned the final page. If there was ever a book that required a palate cleanser right after, this is it.

I couldn’t help but think back to a news story I read years ago, about 5,000 copies of The Natural Way Of Things being distributed to every student and staff member at the University Of Canberra. They call it the “UC Book Of The Year” and it is required reading for every single undergrad. Having read it now, I kind of feel for those students – I can see why the university would want to put the ramifications of sexual violence front of mind, but it feels like a bit of a baptism of fire.

Wood is a masterful writer, at the top of her game in this one, so The Natural Way Of Things is a fantastic read – but it’s also traumatic and difficult and fascinating and provoking and nuanced and scary and gut-wrenching. Make of that what you will!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Natural Way Of Things:

  • “This has to be, without doubt, one of the worst books I have had the misfortune to read in a very long time. I read to the end in the vain hope that it might improve – it didn’t – and felt soiled. There is no plot or characterization, only a series of defilements that leave one astonished at the cesspool of a mind that vomited out such a succession of ugly scenes, with no connection to one another. One star only because a star rating required to submit the review. Avoid this one like the plague.” – Anne Greiner
  • “This has to be the single worst book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s 12:30am right now, but I felt the need to open up my computer and write this before I went to bed. I just finished this book and it was awful. No plot, horrible character development, and 300+ pages of nothing happening. Am I supposed to believe that it’s a moral struggle to eat rabbit when you’re starving? This book went absolutely nowhere and served no purpose. I would recommend any other book over this. Seriously, a dictionary would be a better choice.” – SMITH
  • “Sickeningly believable premise, which I think must lead to the negative reviews.” – S.E. Vhay
  • “Miss Wood can write and win awards but I don’t watch horror films and this was one. Why take the reader into such hideous bestiality? Could she not make her point without a broken jaw causing starvation and suppurating lesions? At that scene I flipped to the back page only to discover that our protagonist escaped on that same last page and may not survive even then. I closed the book. It will not find space on my shelf. I do not willingly jump into the cesspool” – Amazon Customer

Eggshell Skull – Bri Lee

The title of Bri Lee’s debut memoir, Eggshell Skull, is taken from an old legal doctrine. It’s the principle that a defendant cannot use a victim’s unknown weakness as a defence in a criminal trial. If you punch a guy, you can’t use the fact that you had no way of knowing his skull was made of eggshell as an excuse for killing him. The phrase takes on new meaning over the course of Lee’s story, as the man who abused her has to reckon with her unknown strength.

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Eggshell Skull begins with Lee as a law graduate, commencing a highly-coveted position as a judge’s associate in the District Court of Queensland. She knows it’s going to be a tough gig, with overwhelming responsibility for keeping the cogs of justice turning. What she doesn’t know – but finds out very soon – is that the cases her judge will hear are almost exclusively those that involve sexual violence, harassment, and abuse of women and children.

Day after day, all around the state, Lee sits in court and listens to women and children testify about the horrific trauma they have experienced, and – most of the time – watches the (aLlEdGeD) perpetrator walk free. Of course it’s difficult for her, as it would be for anyone, but especially so because it evokes memories of the abuse that Lee herself experienced as a child.

If people didn’t believe these women, why would they believe me?

Eggshell Skull (page 29)

The details of the abuse are revealed gradually, as Lee herself comes to terms with the emotional impact of recovering feelings and memories she has long repressed. She’s faced with a barrage of others’ emotional trauma at work, and then her own demons at home. She’s “lucky”, as she herself acknowledges, as a victim in that she has a strong support system (in the form of her long-term boyfriend and her loving family) and the relative privilege of being white, educated, and articulate. That’s not enough to shield her, though, from the mental and emotional fall-out of both her work and her past (CW: suicidality, substance abuse, self-harm, disordered eating).

The crux of Eggshell Skull comes two years into Lee’s job, when she decides to bring forward her own case against Samuel, the family friend who abused her. That’s the point where the memoir truly shines, as Lee transitions from observer to warrior doing battle in the system herself. The retraumatisation of her experience seeking justice – even with her legal education and career, even with her father being a cop – is heart-wrenching and eye-opening.

Lee’s radical vulnerability in sharing her story is, I think, the reason it’s been so well received and widely acclaimed. She’s won multiple awards for Eggshell Skull (the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards, the Davitt Award, and the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime), in a just-barely post-MeToo society where we still turn away from many victim’s stories and feel uncomfortable shining light on awful truths.

I will say, though, that this is one of the rare times when the quality of the writing (very, very high) makes the book difficult to read. I had visceral, physical reactions to reading it. At various points, my stomach churned and my heart rate skyrocketed. In the final chapters of Eggshell Skull, I unwittingly gave myself a headache because I didn’t realise I’d been clenching my teeth.

It’s not just the abuse that Lee experienced, or that she saw on the job, that’s so distressing (though, of course, both are awful). It’s the frustration of the failure of our “justice” system to support and protect victims in the most intensely vulnerable moments of their lives.

The more I learned of the huge, ‘blind’ justice system, the more I learned that it was just as human and fallible as everything and everyone that created and preceded it.

Eggshell Skull (page 33)

So, Eggshell Skull falls into the category of an incredibly good book that it’s incredibly difficult to recommend to anyone – I’d certainly say to take great care reading it, even if you think that you’re unlikely to feel triggered. It will be a five-star read for anyone who enjoyed Roxane Gay’s Hunger. It will be a rude shock for anyone who’s ever asked why a victim would “wait so long” to come forward.

10 Books Set In The Australian Outback

As an Australian, I have a strange relationship with “the outback”. I’m definitely more of a city rat than a country mouse, and yet anyone I speak to from overseas seems to expect me to be wearing an Akubra hat and R.M. Williams boots while I traipse around the dry paddocks. As an Australian reader, my relationship with “the outback” in fiction is even stranger. I have a strong bullshit detector, and as soon as writers who have never spent any actual time in “the outback” try to write about it, my eyes start to roll. Even worse, the internet is littered with lists of books set in the Australian outback, put together by people who have no idea what constitutes “the outback” and have never visited beyond the pages of a book (note: Perth, as far away from the Eastern metropolitan centers as it may be, is not “the outback” and books set there definitely don’t count). So, here’s my bonafide list of books set in the Australian outback, written by actual Australians, that actually reflect in some measure rural Australian life.

10 Books Set In The Australian Outback - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Secret River by Kate Grenville

The Secret River - Kate Grenville - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If historical fiction readers are looking for books set in the Australian outback, they must start with The Secret River. It’s an iconic Australian novel, for better or worse, and one of the most popular fictional accounts of the colonial experience in 19th century New South Wales. A thief and his wife are deported to the penal colony, where they expect to build a permanent home and work the land to survive. Doing so, however, means forcibly taking the land from its custodians, the Darug people. The politics and controversies of this novel have been debated endlessly, but what’s unquestioned is its beautifully immersive depiction of the natural landscape around the Hawkesbury River.

The Dry by Jane Harper

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Jane Harper’s novels pretty much all follow a theme: crime thriller books set in the Australian outback. She’s best known for her first, The Dry, which introduced the world to her hardened detective Aaron Falk. Falk is drawn back to his (fictional) hometown of Kiewarra in the middle of an El Niño summer. His childhood friend appears to have shot his wife and son in cold blood before turning the gun on himself, a situation that is sadly becoming increasingly frequent in real rural communities struck by drought. In Harper’s fictional version, however, Falk comes to suspect that a different course of events lead to the deaths of the Hadler family. Read my full review of The Dry here.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Career is one of the classic books set in the Australian outback – we love it so much, we honour author Miles Franklin each year with the Miles Franklin Award for Australian fiction. It has the ring of authenticity because Franklin based its characters and outback setting mostly on her own life. The story follows sixteen-year-old Sybylla as she comes of age, and struggles to figure out what exactly it is that she wants – as opposed to what everyone around her believes she should want. Franklin actually withdrew the book from publication until after her death, because the characters she lampooned in fiction recognised themselves IRL. Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington

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One of the most extraordinary books set in the Australian outback is undoubtedly Doris Pilkington’s Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence (also adapted into a truly excellent and haunting film). It’s a short but powerful story about three Indigenous girls who were taken from their families at Jigalong and taken to the Moore River settlement. They escaped, and followed a rabbit-proof fence over a grueling 1,300km trek to make their way home. The three girls in question were Pilkington’s mother, aunt, and cousin. It’s essential reading, as it makes personal and tangible the horrors of the Stolen Generation.

The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood

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It might not seem like there’s a lot of cross-over between #MeToo literature and books set in the Australian outback, but The Natural Way Of Things falls smack-bang in the middle of that Venn diagram. This dystopian novel begins in a remote facility, deep in the outback, where women are being held in stark rooms, starved and sedated. It takes them a while to figure out what connects them and why they are there: painful events from their past that have rendered them “safer” out of sight (and out of mind). Read my full review of The Natural Way Of Things here.

Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman

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I’m surprised that there aren’t more sci-fi or speculative fiction books set in the Australian outback – maybe everyone’s worried about Mad Max comparisons? Claire G Coleman didn’t let that stop her, though. Terra Nullius initially presents as a historical fiction epistolary novel about the colonial invasion of Australia and conflict with the “Natives”. Then, around Chapter 10, it’s revealed to the reader that this is actually a dystopian future, with humans – black and white – are subject to the invasion of an alien species (the “Settlers”). The Australian outback remains real and hauntingly familiar though, with many hurdles for the characters arising from the arid landscape. Read my full review of Terra Nullius here.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

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The Dressmaker is maybe better known is a delightful film starring Kate Winslet – but that was based on a slightly-less delightful slightly-more gothic novel by Australian author Rosalie Ham. The story is set in a (fictional) 1950s Australian town, where everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to take care of her ailing mother. The locals shun her, but Tilly finds one friend in the local cop who likes wearing dresses (of course!). He’s the one who spots her talent for dressmaking. It’s a dark but rich story about cliques, cruelty, and revenge in outback towns. Read my full review of The Dressmaker here.

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

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Ned Kelly, rightly or wrongly, has an inalienable iconic status in Australian history and folklore. As a bushranger, he spent much of his life on the run, pursued by authorities through outback towns. Despite all the theiving and murdering, he became somewhat of a hero to the working classes, an Australian Robin Hood figure who stood his ground against the English colonists. True History Of The Kelly Gang is a reimagining of his life from his own perspective, styled as archived documents and written in Kelly’s idiosyncratic Australian-Irish dialect. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.

The Lost Flowers Of Alice Hart by Holly Ringwald

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The Australian outback might look like a barren wasteland to outsiders, but people connected to the land know it to be rich and fertile for the right flora. The Lost Flowers Of Alice Hart uses native flowers as a recurring motif, punctuating the story of a young girl who suffers tragic loss and finds herself adrift. She is raised on her grandmother’s native flower farm, and learns to use flowers to say the things that remain unsaid. As a young adult, after a shocking betrayal, Alice flees to the central Australian desert, where she discovers her story is only just beginning. This is one of the books set in the Australian outback that’s had a bit of a boost lately, thanks to a popular streaming series adaptation.

Taboo by Kim Scott

Taboo - Kim Scott - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Australian novelist Kim Scott is a descendant of the Noongar people, an Aboriginal cultural bloc that originated in the south-west corner of Western Australia (from Geraldton on the west coast to Esperance on the south coast). Taboo is a poetic and moving exploration of Scott’s heritage and connection to clan and Country. The story follows a group of Noongar people in the present day, as they are invited to revisit the site of a massacre, a taboo place. The current owner of the land where the blood was shed hopes to cleanse its moral stain, but the sins of the past are not so easily expunged.

The Dry – Jane Harper

I was feeling increasingly ridiculous being an Australian reader who had not read a single Jane Harper novel. She’s one of our biggest authorial exports of recent years, up there with Liane Moriarty. Her novels are crime thrillers set in regional areas – real “small town with a dark secret” stuff – and they’ve won more awards than you can poke a stick at. I decided to start with The Dry, her debut novel first published back in 2016, which went on to sell over a million copies.

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a fictional town five hours’ drive from Melbourne. It’s an El Niño summer (like the one we’re predicted to have later this year), and severe drought has hit the town hard. A farmer, Luke Hadler, shot his wife and son in cold blood, before turning the gun on himself – or so it seems. Most of the townspeople are happy to assume that it was the last desperate act of a depressed man driven to the brink, but Luke’s parents think something more sinister might be afoot. After all, why would Luke leave his 13-month-old daughter unscathed?

They call in Aaron Falk, Luke’s childhood friend, who now works as a financial crimes cop in the big smoke. Falk’s not overjoyed to be returning to his hometown, after he left amid scandal as a teenager. He thinks he’s just going to attend the Hadler family funeral, shake a few hands, and be on his way. Of course, they reel him back in, and he finds himself working with the local cop to find out the truth of the Hadler deaths.

All of this suggests that The Dry is a quintessentially Australian story. There have, after all, been several tragic murder-suicides along these lines in regional communities over recent years, and anyone who’s spent more than a minute in a drought-affected area can tell you that it’s thoroughly believable.

You can understand, then, why I was a bit put off by Harper referring to a Hill’s hoist as a “rotary line” in the Prologue. I have never, in my whole life, heard an Australian call it anything other than a Hill’s hoist. What the fuck is she playing at? There were also flies eating the freshly-shot corpses of the Hadley family, but honestly I found that less disturbing than the patois fail.

Aside from a few qualms like that one, The Dry is remarkably well written. The prose is taut and evocative, a step above Liane Moriarty in my view (though it would certainly appeal to readers who like her books). Take, for instance, the way that Falk is lured back to Kiewarra – he receives a note from Luke’s father that reads “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” In context, it struck just the right ominous note, compelling you to read on without over-egging the pudding (as first-time thriller writers are wont to do).

I will concede, though, that most of the plot twists were very predictable. At one point, I literally shook my copy of The Dry and said – out loud – “ISN’T IT OBVIOUS?! HE’S GAY!” as the obtuse characters stumbled around, stymied by their own terrible gaydar. Given that Harper has nailed the “voice” for her thrillers, I’d imagine she’ll come around to better plotting with time.

(Because this is My Thing now, I will give a trigger warning for a dog death: it’s just a mention, a sad one, but very brief and the dog doesn’t actually feature as a character.)

I can totally see why they cast Eric Bana as the lead in the film adaptation of The Dry. He’s the perfect Aaron Falk, exactly as you’d picture him. I’ll definitely be watching it, as soon as I get a chance, now that I’ve read the book. When it was finally released (after COVID-19 delays) in 2021, it broke box office records, becoming one of the highest-grossing Australian film opening weekends ever. If I’m honest, I’m more excited for movie night than I am seeking out any more of Harper’s books. The Dry was good, mostly, but not so good that I simply must read more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dry:

  • “I do not like to read about the shooting of rabbits and all kinds of cruelty to other animals. I know the people in the town it takes place in do it to survive and feed their families but I still don’t want to read about it. The villain was no surprise either. I guessed it was him by about the second time his character was introduced. No, I am not that smart. It was just obvious.” – Sabrina
  • “Found this dry all around. Main character dry. Supporting characters dry. The weather was dry…but I only felt it when it was directly mentioned.” – thom coco edwards
  • “It was a laborious read and I forced myself to get to the end. The mist “gratifying” part of the book was deleting it from my kindle.” – An Avid Reader
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