Keeping Up With The Penguins

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Category: Australian

13 Must-Read Books By Australian Authors

As wonderful as it is to travel somewhere new in literature, there’s also something wonderfully comforting reading a home-grown tome. I love reading books by Australian authors, and novels set in Australia. It’s always interesting to see whether they jibe with my lived experience of my home country. Even when they don’t, it’s fun to pick apart the reasons why. Plus, I just really love supporting Australian writers and local publishers; we’ve grown some fantastic literary talent down here at the bottom of the Earth! Here’s a list of 13 must-read books by Australian authors (as composed by an Australian reader – me!).

13 Must-Read Books By Australian Authors - Text Overlaid on Image of Urban Landscape with Australian Flag - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic At Hanging Rock has one of the most compelling premises in all of Australian literature: in 1900, four school girls go for a picnic at (you guessed it!) Hanging Rock. Three of the girls, and their teacher, mysteriously vanish, into thin air. The remaining girl has no memory of what happened, and no one can work out what has become of those who are missing.

Theories abound, (abduction, assault, murder?) but no one, aside from author Joan Lindsay and her editor, knew for sure… until 1987. See, Lindsay wrote a final chapter solving the mystery, but her editor (quite rightly) pointed out that the book was far more powerful and intriguing without it. Lindsay sat on the chapter, tucked it away in her bottom drawer, until her death. Then it was released as The Secret Of Hanging Rock.

This book has a very dreamy quality, one that translated to the film version released in 1975. In these pages, you’ll also find a few laughs, and – of course – beautiful descriptions of the Australian bush.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

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

Miles Franklin is synonymous, in the minds of most Australian readers, with literary accomplishment – not the least because our most prestigious literary award is named in her honour. A second reason, no less impressive, is that she wrote her best-known work, My Brilliant Career, when she was just sixteen years old. With an abundance of admittedly-naive youthful confidence, she sent it to Australian literary giant Henry Lawson, and he fancied it so much that he forwarded it to his own publishers.

Franklin quickly learned a tough lesson: you really need to obfuscate a few more details if you’re going to write autobiographical fiction. My Brilliant Career is the story of Sybylla, a young girl (obviously Franklin’s self-image) growing up in the Australian bush in the early 1900s, with burgeoning feminist ideals and passions. She’s surrounded by parochial chumps who want to keep her from her dreams of a literary career, and force her to settle down into a respectable marriage. Apparently, the real-life inspirations for these characters didn’t take too kindly to Franklin’s depictions of them, and she had to withdraw the book from sale until after her death to end the drama.

Still, we get to read it now, in its full unabashed glory. It has also been made into a film, starring the incomparable Judy Davis, released in 1979. Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap - Christos Tsiolkas - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Slap does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the story of a single slap, one man disciplining a child who is not his own at a suburban barbecue, and the repercussions of that one action that reverberate through the lives of all who were present. There are eight main characters, and you get to see a little of the story from each of their perspectives. Tsiolkas pieces these fragments together to form a beautiful, if gritty, whole.

If you’re more familiar with the Liane Moriarty brand of Australian literature, and you’re looking for a book that deals with similar settings and themes from perhaps a more literary bent, this is the book for you. It’s a really powerful exploration of family, domesticity, and loyalty in European-Australian suburbia.

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There is perhaps no Australian figure more recognisable than the bushranger Ned Kelly. Every Australian child is forced to learn about Kelly ad nauseam over the course of their standard education. So, in this bold re-imagining of a folk hero’s (or should that be anti-hero?) life, Peter Carey gives a new voice to a deeply familiar character. True History Of The Kelly Gang – an ironic, cheeky title – purports to tell Kelly’s story in his own words, beginning with his birth and ending with the infamous shoot-out at Glenrowan and Kelly’s execution.

This book made a big splash on the international stage. It won the 2001 Booker Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize that same year. I personally loved the stylistic choices that Carey made with expression and grammar; he styled it from the Jerilderie letter, the most famous authentic piece of Kelly’s own writing still in existence, and the similarities are uncanny. If you’re interested in books written in dialect, and not too fussy about (ahem) artistic choices in punctuation and language, then look no further. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

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

One of my occasional bugbears with Australian literature is that it too-often shies away from our colonial past (and present!), obscuring the historical realities of the wrongs wrought upon our Indigenous population. The success of The Secret River is a small antidote to that horrible literary tradition. In this historical novel, a transported convict by the name of William Thornhill tries to build a life for himself on the Hawkesbury River, where he finds his world colliding with that of the Aboriginal people already living on that land.

Grenville drew inspiration from the stories of her real-life ancestors, and she has described this book as her own attempt to apologise to the Indigenous people of Australia. She certainly doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of the Europeans, and highlights that darkness can even be found in the hearts of people we think are fundamentally good. The Secret River was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2006, and it resonated for many audiences here and abroad. It’s also worth checking out her follow-up, Searching For The Secret River – an exegesis about the process of writing The Secret River and what she learned along the way.

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington

Of course, it’s absolutely critical that in examining Australia’s colonial past through literature, we push the voices of Indigenous Australians to the front. Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence is Doris Pilkington’s fictional account of a family’s experience as part of the Stolen Generation, including elements from the real lived experience of her own mother. For those of you who are not familiar, the Stolen Generation is the name we use for the forced removal of children from their Aboriginal families in Australia; this happened initially in the early 20th century and, in other ways, continues today.

In this incredible book, three young girls – Molly, Gracie, and Daisy – escape the Moore River Settlement and hike across hundreds of kilometers of desert in the hope of being reunited with their families in Jigalong. They follow the “rabbit proof fence”, a laughably disastrous pest-control effort by the Australian government. The fence stretched over 3,000km (that’s 2,000 miles), and the girls believed it would lead them home. This book was also adapted into a beautiful and devastating film, Rabbit Proof Fence, in 2002.

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

For a more contemporary Indigenous perspective, Blakwork by Alison Whittaker is a must-read. It was released just last year, but I’ve been following Whittaker’s work for a while and I can promise you she’s one of the most powerful voices against Indigenous oppression in this country.

Blakwork is part memoir, part journalism, part fiction, part satire, part legal document, part social commentary, and somehow more than all of those things combined in poetry. She divides the text into fifteen sections, most of which center around the theme of a specific type of work (thus, the collection’s name). She writes with piercing and unflinching honesty, raging at times, about the experience of a queer Gomeroi woman. She challenges the white Australian legacy, covering everything from the Stolen Generation to deaths in custody to hate crime to stereotypes of rural Indigenous communities. She attacks myths and power structures at every turn, and it’s incredible to witness. I challenge you to read this book and not feel overwhelmingly moved.

Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

I was asked recently which book spoke most to my own experience of living in Sydney and Australia, and this is the first one that came to mind. Granted, that’s probably because it’s the one I’ve read and re-read the most; my high-school copy of Looking For Alibrandi is so worn that the spine has all but fallen apart.

It’s a coming-of-age novel, so it covers all the Big Themes of love and loss and belonging, but above and beyond that it has a lot to say about the lives of migrant families and their children, and how racial and ethnic identities intersect with class. If you went to school in Australia, chances are you had to read this one at some point over the course of your secondary education; trust me, it’s worth pulling it up again and taking another look. For international readers, this is a great one to read if you want to get a feel for the experience of urban Australian teens in the ’90s.

No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But The Mountains - Behrouz Boochani - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not sure there has ever been such a controversial choice for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Earlier this year, Behrouz Boochani got the gong for his incredible book No Friend But The Mountains, and the criticism was swift (also completely unjust, and laughably out-of-touch).

If you’re not familiar with Behrouz’s work: he’s a Kurdish journalist who was detained on Manus Island for seeking asylum in Australia, where he remains (I highly recommend following him on Twitter for real-time updates). “He’s not Australian!” the critics cried when his book won a prestigious literary prize for Australian authors. Perhaps they’re right on a technicality, but he has been imprisoned on Manus at the whim of the Australian government for years. In my view, that makes this book perhaps the most important non-fiction Australian story of my generation. He wrote the entire thing via WhatsApp messages, a lyrical firsthand account of his indefinite (and ongoing!) imprisonment, translated by Omid Tofighian. It’s a must-read for all Australians, now and in the future (when, hopefully, our system of detention will be a sad relic of our past ignorance).

I also recommend another poetic account of life in detention by Mohammed Ali Maleki. He wrote his collection, Truth In The Cage, while detained on Manus. It was translated by fellow detainee Mansour Shoushtari, and published by an incredible local team at Verity La.

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

The Hate Race - Maxine Beneba Clarke - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another one of my Twitter favourites, Maxine Beneba Clarke, is perhaps best-known for her wonderful poetry. That said, I personally consider her memoir, The Hate Race, to be essential reading. It’s an account – sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking – about growing up black, the child of black Afro-Caribbean immigrants, in white middle-class suburban Australia. One of the opening chapters, where she describes her parents arriving in their new country and reeling at the overtly racist place and product names (not to mention being directed towards the cask wine in the liquor shop), has stuck with me to this day. I hear this one is often assigned in high schools now, which is fantastic to see!

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna

No More Boats - Felicity Castagna - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I love, love, love the premise of this book! No More Boats is set in 2001, around the time of the Tampa crisis (as we now call it), when 438 refugees were stranded on a boat off the Australian coast. It was a critical moment in Australia’s migrant history, one that continues to impact our policy and public discourse on the subject to this day (though at the time it was quickly overshadowed by the events of September 11).

Unfolding at the same time is the story of Antonio, a migrant man forced into early retirement after a terrible accident on his work site. His life unravels as the Tampa crisis intensifies. It’s a realistic historical fiction story, but history so recent it can’t help but echo in your brain when you think about what’s happening in Australia today. It really highlights our collective cognitive dissonance around refugees, in a way that is as emotive as a gut-punch.

This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is the darling of Australian literature, and if you come across any list of best Australian books that doesn’t include her, you should disregard it because it is woefully incomplete. Really, any of her books could be rightfully included here, but because I’m a true-crime junkie I’ve chosen This House Of Grief.

The process of writing this book eerily mirrors that of Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood. Garner saw a breaking news update that a man had driven his children into a dam on Father’s Day. This led her to attend his seven-week trial, then to years of research, and ultimately to several drafts of a book documenting the entire sad tale. It’s a heart-wrenching account, and Garner has spoken often of how difficult it was for her to write, but I am eternally grateful that she persisted. This House Of Grief is a masterpiece of true crime, and of literary non-fiction more broadly.

The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To round out this list, let’s look at Jane Harper, one of the best-selling Australian novelists of the last few years. In an odd combination of many elements from other Australian books on this list, The Dry is a fictional story set in the bush, where a retired Australian Federal Police officer sets about trying to solve the murder of his childhood friend. The story unfolds against a vivid backdrop of drought and rural hardship, an all-too-familiar setting for many Australians. It’s twisty, it’s turny, it’s gripping, and it’s delightful. Harper has also since released a sequel, and a third (unrelated) book. I’m sure we’ll see much more from her in the years to come.


What are your favourite Australian books? Drop your suggestions in the comments below (or over on the Keeping Up With The Penguins Facebook page), so we can make this a real compendium of awesome Australian literature!

True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

There’s a certain delicious defiance in calling a novel a “true history”, don’t you think? It’s especially so in the case of True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. In “reality” (but who even decides what that is anymore?), this is a fictional story based rather loosely on the life of renowned bush-ranger Ned Kelly and his gang, so there’s no need to get your knickers in a knot about its historical accuracy. I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to the ol’ creative license, especially when a writer has clearly researched their subject so thoroughly. It’s impossible to fault Peter Carey’s attention to detail, whatever else you might say about this book…

… and people have had plenty to say about it, believe me! Let’s start with the good stuff. True History Of The Kelly Gang won the Booker Prize in 2001 (always good to see an Aussie author get an international gong!), and the Commonwealth Writers Prize that same year, along with about a dozen other awards and short-listings. This edition is absolutely gorgeous, I was blown away by the design and layout; clearly, the designers took a lot of time and care with it, and they did a bang-up job. The opening line serves as the blurb on the back, and it’s powerful as all heck:

“I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”

Blurb, True History Of The Kelly Gang

It’s a pretty good example of the tone and style of the book on the whole, which some people hate, and others love – I’m definitely one of the latter. As I recall, True History Of The Kelly Gang is the first book I’ve read written in a uniquely Australian dialect or vernacular (albeit one that is clearly heavily influenced by the Kelly family’s Irish roots). There’s no punctuation for speech, which normally I would find pretentious and annoying (looking at you, Richard Flanagan!), but in this case it didn’t bother me at all. All of the stylistic punctuation and grammar choices felt quite natural – because it was. Carey modelled his style off the most famous surviving piece of Ned Kelly’s own writing, The Jerilderie letter. The National Museum of Australia has the full text available online, but if you can’t be bothered to take a look at it yourself, let me reassure you that the similarity in expression is uncanny. Carey positions True History Of The Kelly Gang as an autobiography, written in Kelly’s own hand, and divided into thirteen sections. He includes a blurb at the beginning of each section describing the fictional manuscript’s condition, as though it were catalogued in a library or museum.



Now, it’s hard to explain the Australian fascination with Ned Kelly to an international audience – especially being, as I am, an Australian who has never known any different. We mythologise this guy to an unbelievable extent. The only comparison I can think to draw is to call him a self-styled Robin Hood, or Jesse James, of the bush. Because no one outside Australia knows (or gives a shit) about Ned Kelly, the American publishers of True History Of The Kelly Gang actually promoted it as a “great American novel”. They justified it saying that Carey had lived in New York for many years, and thematically the book relates an apparently “American” experience, but come on! Frankly, the notion that anyone could try to describe this deeply, unabashedly Australian book about an iconic Australian figure, set entirely in Australia and written in an Australian dialect, as an “American novel” – much less a great one – makes me, an Australian, howl with laughter.

That aside, I always thought our national obsession with Ned Kelly was a bit twisted. It was thrust upon me like some kind of gross colonial birthright, and despite the fact that I had no intrinsic interest in the “legend”, I couldn’t avoid absorbing it, as though by osmosis, through repeated and extended exposure. I wondered from the outset whether this book would help me “see the light”, or put me off the subject for good…



True History Of The Kelly Gang begins with a description of John “Red” Kelly, an Irish man transported to (what was then called by the colonials) Van Diemen’s Land. After several encounters with law enforcement and some time in prison, he dies, when Ned Kelly – our “hero” – was just twelve years old. Ellen Kelly, Ned’s long-suffering mother, tried to support her large family by running a shebeen, a notoriously unstable line of work. I loved Ellen, she was a gloriously layered and complex character, more so than any other woman in True History Of The Kelly Gang. She wasn’t entirely likeable, and she made awful decisions, but she was a very strong influence in this version of Ned’s life, and basically underscored his motivations the whole way through the novel. If Ellen’s pure determination and grit could have paid the bills, the Kellys would have been just fine. As it stood, however, the family struggled: financially, emotionally, politically, and in just about every other way you can imagine.

Ellen sends Ned off to apprentice with a bush-ranger by the name of Harry Power, with whom she’d had an affair of sorts. (Oh, and for those of you outside Australia who aren’t familiar with the term, a “bush-ranger” was an escaped convict or outlaw in that colonial period, who lived in the bush (der) and etched out a living through thievery and hold-ups. Not great guys, on the whole.) That’s where Ned Kelly got his start, and he went on to become the most famous bush-ranger of them all, as we’ll see. Power taught him about the land, where to hide, how to steal, and so forth, setting him up for a “successful” life of crime.

Ned initially rejects Power’s way of life, returning to his family and attempting to work an honest job, but he’s promptly arrested and imprisoned for receiving a stolen horse (which he insisted was a gift from a friend – haven’t we all heard that line before?). There are beautiful turns of phrase throughout the whole book, but passages from this section in particular stuck with me for days:

“I were 17 yr. old when I come out of prison 6ft. 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beechworth Gaol. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that gaol boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tarrow pot.”

Pg. 215

After that experience, Ned only makes half-hearted attempts to return to an honest life, returning – inevitably – to crime and bush-ranging. His brother Dan comes along for the ride, and they hide from the cops in the hills. Later, they’re joined by their friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne. Together, they are “the Kelly gang”. They’re also accompanied by Mary, a (very fictional) love interest of Ned’s, who goes on to bear his child. Actually, she’s the character who convinces him to write down his history for their daughter, so that the child will know the “truth” of who her father was. Mary migrates to America before the end of the book, and waits there for Ned to join them (which, of course, he never does).



In an attempt to lure the gang out of hiding, the cops arrest and imprison Ellen Kelly. It doesn’t work. Ned swears he won’t leave the country until his mother is freed, but he’s equally determined not to give the cops what they want. This culminates in a Kelly Gang ambush at Stringybark Creek, where Ned kills three police officers.

The action doesn’t stop there, though: the gang roams the countryside, robbing banks and giving the proceeds of their crimes to the poor and working classes. It sounds like a fine and Robin Hood-esque thing to do, but they had an ulterior motive: they relied on the people they helped to help them in turn, to shelter them and not dob them in.

It all comes to a head in the town of Glenrowan, where the Kelly gang takes a bunch of hostages. Among them is Thomas Curnow, a local schoolteacher, who bonds with Ned over his memoirs. Curnow ultimately betrays them to the police, and there’s an old-timey-style shoot-out in the streets. In both the book and in real life, this is when the gang donned their now-famous home-made suits of plate steel armour (an illustration of Ned’s helmet is depicted on the cover of my edition). Ned is the only member of the gang to survive the confrontation, but he is seriously wounded.

Obviously, Ned can’t narrate this part himself (given that the book is positioned as hand-written first-person records), so the final section ends with a new voice, identified only as “S.C.”, telling the reader the story of this final showdown, Ned’s trial, and his death by hanging. He dies a “hero” to the poor and the working class, but the rich believe it to be good riddance to bad rubbish, and the debate over Ned Kelly’s role in our national history has been debated ferociously ever since.



If you’re a sympathetic soul, you’ll probably have a hard time reading True History Of The Kelly Gang without your heart breaking – just a little – for the Kelly family. They faced some very shitty circumstances, and in a lot of ways Ned’s life of crime seemed pre-destined, unavoidable for him and his brother. What other choice did they have?

However, as I’ve said previously, I’m not a soft touch. Going in, I had a long-held resentment for being force-fed the so-called patriotic view that this violent thug, thief, murderer was some kind of national icon or misunderstood martyr. I can’t say that this book changed that view very much at all. However, I really enjoyed reading it. I thought it was masterful. I know, I’m a walking contradiction! I contain multitudes!

The only element that really disappointed me was finding that True History Of The Kelly Gang was another very white account of Australia’s colonial past. Ned and his gang only mention encountering a couple of trackers in passing, even though they surely would have met and spoken with many more Indigenous Australians in that part of the world at that time. It was a really huge oversight in my view, and one that slightly soured an otherwise wonderful reading experience for me.

If you’ve come to True History Of The Kelly Gang looking for, well, a true history of the Kelly gang, you’re in the wrong place. While Carey did use many historically accurate events and facts from Kelly’s real life, much of the story is invented, including Kelly’s love interest and his daughter and his inclination to write his own memoirs. Still, it’s a great book to read if you enjoyed The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, or if you’re looking for an interesting take on life for Irish convicts in colonial Australia. It’s not a quick or an easy read, and it’s not without its problems, but I still really enjoyed reading it and I can see why it attracted so many accolades upon its release. A film adaptation premiered at the Toronto film festival a couple months back, and is slated for release in Australia next year.

My favourite Amazon reviews of True History Of The Kelly Gang:

  • “not my type of reading. Not as interesting as the book spoke about. some chapters were not interesting at all.” – Robert L. Griffith
  • “I purchased this book because my book club suggested it. It is a difficult read, due to the poor sentence structure and grammar. Aside from the fact that it is also depressing (which is sometimes realistic) it moves along very slowly and is very predictable.” – Marilyn
  • “It’s one of the best adjectival books I’ve ever read.” – Eileen
  • “I thought this was a fairly interesting read. Very detailed. Well researched. I assume this is the outlaw that inspired Waltzing Matilda – but this was never said. The book is worth reading if you have and interest in Australian history.” – Bruce Louis Dodson
  • “Carey’s actually not a very good author, and this actually isn’t a very good book. If you really feel that you absolutely *MUST* read something about Ned Kelly, then erase those thoughts immediately, because he isn’t worth the two bucks of scrap metal that his stupid helmet was made out of. He’s no hero. He’s just a sauced Irishman with a bad attitude.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Who is this Ned Kelly? What relevance does he have to the people of Australia today? Peter… whatever his name is writes an interesting modern fable for the people of that little island of criminals. It imitates a found diary text (are we trying to be TOO confidently literary!?!) and tells of his adventures in struggling to grow up with an inherited criminality, a transvestite father and (gag) the horrible betrayals of the police. This may be a good book for children (peter partly intended this) but it’s not the most sophisticated read.” – Peter Cameron II

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

It’s been a while since I picked up a contemporary popular fiction book (and even longer since I read one by an Australian woman!), so it’s about time I gave Liane Moriarty’s breakthrough novel a go, don’t you think? The Husband’s Secret came out in 2013, and even though it was her fifth novel, it made one hell of a splash. It sold over 2 million copies worldwide, and Moriarty is now practically a household name. She has the distinction of being the very first Aussie to have a book debut in the number one spot on the New York Times Best Seller List (her best-known book, Big Little Lies). Surely, all of this makes The Husband’s Secret a best seller worth reading – we need to see where the magic began!

Jumping right in, The Husband’s Secret has one HECK of a premise! A woman finds an envelope, written in her husband’s hand, and it says (*ominous music*): “For my wife, only to be opened in the event of my death”. But her husband is still very much alive, and he won’t tell her what’s inside.

I think it goes without saying that, given that this is how the story begins, the opening chapter is an absolute cracker. My brain was whirring, I was dying of curiosity, convinced this book was a winner… but then, in chapters two and three, we almost inexplicably started bouncing around in the lives (and, later, timelines) of a bunch of other characters. None of them seemed particularly three-dimensional, and they all had generic white-people names: Rachel. Tess. Will. Jacob. Lauren. It wasn’t until their storylines began to merge and intersect that things finally started making sense again…

The Husband’s Secret is set in Sydney, where Cecilia – the woman who finds the envelope – is an (otherwise) happily married mother-of-three. Her life looks pretty perfect from the outside, until she finds that envelope-shaped cat among the pigeons. Tess, it turns out, is a career-woman who returns to Sydney with her son after she finds out that her husband and her cousin are “in love” (they’re not even shagging, can you believe it, they just sit her down one night and tell her they love each other – vomit!). She enrols her kid in the same school that Cecilia’s kids attend. And then there’s Rachel, the school secretary; she suspects that the P.E. teacher, Connor (who is, coincidentally, Tess’s ex-boyfriend), is the man responsible for the murder of her daughter thirty-odd years ago.





Do you see why it was confusing at first? I mean, the paths all eventually cross and Moriarty pieces it all together like a jigsaw puzzle, but I wasn’t a huge fan of that initial confusion. I just wanted to get back to the letter, dammit, not hear about the love lives and murders of these other randoms!

So, back to THE LETTER! Reading the opening chapters of The Husband’s Secret triggered an intense debate in my household. I was immediately in my own husband’s ear, asking if he’d open the envelope in those circumstances. Long story (and many hours of argument) short: he wouldn’t, I would. I knew, instantly, reading that first page, that I would. I mean, come on now: it’s a secret letter! This is what makes The Husband’s Secret a really great read for book clubs. Love it or hate it, whatever your tastes, you know it’s going to stimulate some interesting conversations when you all get together.

So, we all know how much I hate spoiler warnings, but I feel obligated to offer one here, because this book is relatively recent and it’s kind of predicated on the “shock twist”. Consider this my warning: if you don’t want to know what’s in the envelope, bugger off and come back once you’ve read it for yourself…





So, no shit, Cecilia opens the letter (like any normal person! *ahem*) and it’s a confession that her husband was the one who killed the school secretary’s daughter, when he was seventeen!



Seriously, I was SHOOK! The longer version of the story is this: he had a baby with Cecilia and suddenly got all sentimental about that girl he killed that one time. So, he wrote this letter, figuring no one would see it until after he was dead. And then he set about implementing all these self-flagellation measures in his life to “punish” himself for his crime, seeing as he was never going to go to jail. He forced himself to go without sex for six months, boo hoo. What a guy, right?!

Anyway, this big reveal comes surprisingly early, before you’re even half-way through the book. Still, Moriarty manages to work in a few more twists down the line, so never fear. She drip-feeds you the story of Jane’s murder, and takes you through the sprawling impact it had (and continues to have) on all of their lives. The epilogue had a real Life After Life feel about. it, actually, because it highlighted all the near-misses and almosts that led the story to its conclusion.

Let me level with you: the premise was fun, the twist was interesting, but the writing didn’t exactly blow me away. This is ultimately a story about toxic masculinity, but Moriarty didn’t really interrogate that theme as much as I’d have liked. Even though the story is focused on the three women, and told almost entirely from their perspectives, they were basically just passive receptacles for the garbage behaviour of the men in their lives. They were reactionary, rather than demonstrating any agency of their own, and they never really explained why they were so damn submissive.





All that said, it’s not like I was so unimpressed that I won’t seek out any more Liane Moriarty books. I’m already eager to read Big Little Lies, and I’ve added it to my next reading list for Keeping Up With The Penguins. I mean, credit where credit is due: Moriarty managed to work in more than one plot twist I didn’t see coming, which I always appreciate (as all readers do), Plus, I really enjoyed reading a story set in my home city. Even when the topic is murder, there’s something really comforting about a familiar setting.

And off the back of the success of the HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies, CBS Films has acquired the rights to The Husband’s Secret. They announced back in 2017 that the film will star Blake Lively. I’m looking forward to checking it out, mostly because I’m curious from an artistic standpoint how the twist will translate to the screen. No word on the release date yet, though…

So, would I recommend this one? Maybe. If you’re looking for a challenging, meaty book to wrap your brain around, you’d best keep looking. But if you want something fun to talk about with your book club, or something to get your mother for Christmas, this one’s right up your alley. Do with that what you will!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Husband’s Secret:

  • “Without a doubt this is the worst book I’ve read this year. There is not a likable character in the entire book, and that includes a 2 year old….” – MSC
  • “I read most of this book because it was the only book I had with me on a rafting trip. I had such hopes, since is the same author as Big Little Lies, hopes bashed.” – maggie t
  • “Story takes too long.” – Sandra Mulrey
  • “I didn’t like the format. I certainly didn’t like the story. Too depressing. Not my cup of tea. I read to slip into fantasy not depression.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I hated this book so much I deleted it off my Kindle immediately so I wouldn’t be reminded of the time I wasted with it.” – LMPV
  • “Such an enjoyable read! If you like books by Liane Moriarty this book is for you.” – Danielle Galanowsky
  • “Too dark for my taste, I was expecting a bit of suspense/mystery and got child death, adultery, murder, and what seemed to be advertising for the show Biggest Loser. The story is supposed to be how these strangers lives become entwined but in reality it’s just jumping around from one person’s point of view to the next, with several flashbacks thrown in to really muck things up. After the first few chapters I started skipping large chunks of pages and would pick up reading again with Cecilia and her family. This author has a way if making me dislike the main character, casting them in such a negative light that I, as a reader, do not care what happens to them. The only redeeming quality of this book is, I borrowed it from the library and can return it immediately!” – lovestoread
  • “Fine book. Epilogue unneeded.” – McAwsm
  • “It is well written, but I thought it was depressing and I didn’t finish it.” – Sandra Baumer
  • “This was a stupid book. General Hospital is better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I find that authors who use profanity in storytelling demonstrate weak writing skills. It is offensive to me for writers to disrespect and dishonor God Almighty. Not one I could recommend.” – Karla Stores
  • “eye roller” – JKADEN
  • “buncha prudes” – Amazon Customer
  • “Okay for a holiday read. Like the Tupperware party the story unfolds around, it has a a predictable feel emblazoned with plastic characters.” – CM


The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do

You’d be forgiven for picking The Happiest Refugee thinking you’re going to get a light-hearty folksy anecdote from one of Australia’s most cheerful comedians. Indeed, there are plenty of chuckles to be had, but Anh Do’s life hasn’t all been smooth sailing (that is the most awful attempt at a joke I’ve ever made, you’ll see why in a minute, but it’s my blog so I’m leaving it in). I grew up watching Do in televised comedy festival galas and on TV shows like Thank God You’re Here, but I had very little idea about his background before I read his book. So, strap in, folks: this is one hell of a story.

The blurb probably sums it up best:

“Anh Do nearly didn’t make it to Australia. His entire family came close to losing their lives as they escaped from war-torn Vietnam in an overcrowded boat. But nothing – not murderous pirates, nor the imminent threat of death by hunger, disease, or dehydration as they drifted for days – could quench their desire to make a better life in the country they had dreamed about.”

The Happiest Refugee (2010)

That’s right: Anh Do is one of those “boat people” our government has been trying to make us fear for the last decade or so. I’ll tell you right now that I want to shove a copy of this book into the hands of everyone who has ever purchased a “Fuck Off, We’re Full” sticker.

Do was born in Vietnam in 1977, and his family fled to Australia in 1980. The blurb neither over- nor under-sells the horror of their journey. They were attacked by two different bands of pirates, who stole their engines, their jewellery, and pretty much everything else worth taking. One oddly benevolent pirate in the second crew threw a gallon of water on board as they were leaving, which was all that saved the family from dehydration. They were eventually rescued by a German merchant ship.

Now, as Do tells it, his father was only twenty-fucking-five when he packed his entire family (his wife, sons, aunts, uncles, and cousins) onto that leaky boat and took them to sea. There were forty of them, all told, on that fishing boat, just nine and a half meters long and two meters wide. Do Senior captained it out to open water, fixing the back-up engine with a rubber thong and basically running the whole operation, all while he was three years younger than I am now – mind blowing!



Because this is real life, Do’s father – brave as he was in his youth – is not perfect, and Do is really frank about their relationship, including periods of (literally) violent antipathy. His honesty impressed me to no end; when it’s your job to make people laugh, it must be especially tough to tell them about the time you grabbed a knife from the kitchen, prepared to stab your drunken father who was threatening your terrified mother. Their rocky relationship, and the steps forwards and backwards across the course of Do’s life and career, is a central part of his story, and as heart-wrenching as it can be, it’s all told with his characteristic and eternal optimism.

Do’s message seems to be this: work your arse off, and smile, and everything will turn out okay. Powered by elbow-grease alone, he made it through school and university (Business/Law at UTS), forged a decent career as a comedian and actor, pivoted into art (he’s been twice-nominated for the Archibald Prize) and writing, and he’s now raising a happy family with his wonderful wife, a million miles away from the life of poverty and peril that surely awaited him in post-war Vietnam. “I’ve always found that if you apply yourself at the right time with the right intensity, you can accomplish just about anything,” he says on page 113.



The Happiest Refugee has won more awards than you can poke a stick at – including the 2011 Australian Book Of The Year. Like The White Mouse, it’s hardly a literary coup (he’s a comedian, not a creative writing grad), but it’s a cracking yarn nonetheless. It’s one to read when you need a little optimism in your life. I feel like I’ve just met Do in a bar, and had an incredible chat about his incredible life over a few beers. And I couldn’t help but notice it doesn’t have a single one-star review on Amazon! You can’t get higher praise than that!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Happiest Refugee:

  • “I don’t want to fill this out. I just want to close out and start my next reading. Very annoying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Never read a better book in my life and I’ve read thousands” – craig reynolds
  • “Good immigrant story” – Reading Granny
  • “Top story, top bloke.” – Tezza41
  • “Really long and absolutely great. It just went on and on but you wanted it to,” – Jesse Crisp

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Another confession from the life of the would-be booklover: I haven’t kept up with the Man Booker prize winners. In fact, The Narrow Road To The Deep North was my very first. The Booker is pretty much the most prestigious international literary award that a book can win, so I had high expectations for Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel…

From the blurb: “August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.” So, we can tell right from the outset that The Narrow Road To The Deep North ticks a bunch of boxes: historical WWII novel, love affair, heavy themes, horrific setting, a sliding doors moment… and, to top it all off, in the Acknowledgements section Flanagan says he was inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese POW, so we can probably tick off “write what you know” as well. These are all the criteria for a Man Booker, right?

OK, I’ll stop being sassy. (Just kidding, I can’t turn it off.)

It’s the story of Dorrigo, a POW doctor who can’t stop obsessing over a few lusty weeks with his aunt-in-law back home. It’s another jumpy timeline, which I didn’t love, especially given that in this one there were no helpful year/place markings at the beginning of any of the chapters; the reader is expected to just bloody well figure it out as they read (even though the chapter might be happening ten years after or thirty years before the one preceding). Flanagan really wanted the reader to work for it. He didn’t even bother with inverted commas around his dialogue; I know it’s “artistic” to do that, but it always strikes me as pretentious and try-hard. Hmph.


Anyway, The Narrow Road To The Deep North spirals out around one particularly horrific day on the Burma Railway in August 1943. Some chapters build up to it through Dorrigo’s pre-war childhood and courtship with his wife, while other chapters focus on the post-war lives of Dorrigo, his fellow prisoners, and his prison guards. So, yeah, it’s kind of sprawling and epic; the timeline runs to about a century all up.

(Oh, and you might think that the title refers to the railway they were building, but actually Flanagan borrowed it from a 17th century haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō, whose book “Oku no Hosomichi” translates roughly to “Narrow Road To The Interior” or “The Narrow Road To The Deep North”.)

From the beginning, the book is kind of a mixed bag. Some passages are really great and poignant and immersive, while others seem really over-wrought and ridiculous. The Romeo and Juliet-esque plot twist was a bit much (both Dorrigo and his aunt-in-law, the one with whom he was having the affair before he went off to war, believe the other to be dead, and this little miscommunication fucks up their entire lives). I’m not a romantic, so their whole tragic love story really didn’t “move” me in the way I think Flanagan intended. All the chapters set in Australia basically amounted to a bunch of bellyaching about how Dorrigo really enjoyed fucking women who weren’t his wife. That just wasn’t fun for me, and – taking off my sassy-pants for a minute – I’m not sure it makes for good literature.


On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the sections focusing on the POWs on the railway. That sounds twisted, I know, but those parts were straightforward, no bullshit, and totally gripping. Flanagan did not sugar-coat the realities of war at all, and for me that’s huge points in his favour. There were no ellipses, no fading to black: he described the full physical horror and indignity suffered by the POWs, not to mention their mental anguish, in complete and gory detail. So, as I’m sure you can guess, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is not one for readers with sensitive stomachs (or souls) – I’m a tough bitch, and even I felt queasy in places.

So, it covers off two major themes: the effects of war, and the nature of love. They’re pretty lofty themes, and a lot to tackle in a single book (which is probably why it seemed that Flanagan did the former so much better than the latter). To be quite frank, I think Flanagan would have been better off just chopping off the entire first third off the book, getting rid of it altogether. The story wouldn’t have lost anything that wasn’t reiterated and reinforced later on anyway. It’d be like cutting off a gangrenous limb (the way Dorrigo had to do on the Burma Railway, incidentally).

It’s a better book than All The Light We Cannot See, I’ll give it that; in fact,  it’s probably one of the better historical WWII fiction books I’ve read in that it highlights quite well the ongoing and intergenerational effects of war (setting it apart from the ones that end on V Day). I suppose I can even (begrudgingly) see why it beat out We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the Man Booker in 2014; it’s a more “literary” book in that snooty, elitist sense… but I know which one I’d rather read, and which one I’d recommend more highly. Can you guess? 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Narrow Road To The Deep North:

  • “I picked 4 because of the start of the book. It tired in well, but took a bit to catch my attention. It was dreary and sad and I enjoyed it.” – Megan Vandewall
  • “Why can’t writers just tell a story, instead of trying to be clever? I’m not sure Flanagan actually has a decent story to tell, but this is a piece of junk.” – ggh
  • “The protagonist is an unappealing narcissist with a sophomoric attitude towards love.” – S. Luke
  • “Had trouble reading and staying interested in it. Too much narrative.” – saunabear
  • “Horrible pictures in my mind! Don’t need any more examples of man’s ability to be cruel and stupid. I’m going to go hug my cats.” – Diane Denham

The White Mouse – Nancy Wake

I’ve been obsessed with the story of Nancy Wake ever since a friend told me about her a couple of years ago. She was one of the most highly decorated women of WWII, and the stories of her exploits in resisting the Gestapo are legendary. That’s why I added this book in particular to The List. Peter FitzSimons wrote a far more popular biography (which I would also like to read some day), but I really wanted to hear the story of this incredible woman in her own words. The White Mouse wasn’t hugely popular upon release, and it didn’t have a massive print-run, so I thought I had sweet fuck-all chance of finding it in a secondhand bookstore. I always checked the biography section just in case, never expecting much… until one day I ducked into my local while I was waiting for a bus, and there it was! To this day, I can’t believe my luck.

OK, it turns out that Nancy Wake was actually born in New Zealand, even though we claim her as an Aussie (we will claim any decent Kiwi as our own without blinking an eye, it never ceases to amaze). In The White Mouse, she only gives us a page or two about her early life, though; she speeds right ahead to the ascendancy of Hitler and the beginning of WWII. She was living in Marseilles with her French husband at the time, and she found increasingly inventive ways to help the French efforts resisting the Germans, helping sneak refugees out of France when the Occupation began. She went on to become a leading figure in the Resistance, using her “native cunning and beauty” to overcome the suspicions of German guards and get through checkpoints. Yep, she literally flirted her way through the war, all the while killing German soldiers with her bare hands. That’s girl power, folks.

The Special Operations Executive training reports say that she was “a very good and fast shot”, noted for “put[ting] men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character”. She also won a lot of drinking contests. By 1943, there was a 5-million franc price on her head. The Gestapo took to calling her “the White Mouse”, referring to her ability to elude capture – thus, the book title.


Her story is incredible, but the editing is shithouse, which is a real shame. There’s more than a few typos, and a lot of repetition; I quickly lost track of the number of times she described something as “extraordinary”. Little things like that could have been easily (and quickly!) fixed, and that would have made for a much more engaging read. We can hardly fault Wake herself for that; she was a bad-ass assassin spy, not a writer. And the level of detail she manages to recall is unbelievable – she must have kept really meticulous journals.

“For weeks now I had been subjected to more than my fair share of drama. I had been forced to flee from home, separated from my beloved husband and my darling [dog] Picon, made six fruitless journeys to the Pyrenees, been thrown in prison and kicked around, jumped out of a moving train, been fired at by a machine gun, sprinted to the top of a mountain, lost my jewellery, walked for five nights, been starved for eight days, and infected with scabies. There was no way I was going to let the little matter of a password deter me…. I crossed the road, went up to the front door and knocked. A man opened it and immediately I said, ‘I am Nancy Fiocca, you are in charge of our guides, I work for O’Leary, so do you, I want to go to Spain, I’ve had enough trouble getting here so don’t give me any crap.’”

So, yeah, as you can tell, Wake had a really matter-of-fact voice, and she talks really nonchalantly about the most terrifying of circumstances. Her affect doesn’t change between describing a dinner party and a major Resistance operation. I get the feeling she was much like that in real life as well.

Unfortunately, after the war, she didn’t exactly get a happily-ever-after. Her first husband, Henri Fiocca, had stayed behind in France after she was forced to flee, and he was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo when he refused to give them her location. Wake, however, was unaware of her husband’s death until after the war ended. Her dog survived, and the story of their reunion in peace-time was one of the most heart-warming anecdotes I have ever heard.

She was also denied a medal by the Australian government for over five decades (shame!), on the grounds that she was “not fighting in any of the Australian services” during the war (double shame!). Indeed, from what I can tell, the Australian government treated her like shit in all other regards as well. When her second husband died in 1997, she was deemed ineligible for any pensions or benefits, and she had no children or family to support her. She ended up having to sell her war medals to support herself in her advancing years. Even so, she hardly seemed bitter; she said “There was no point in keeping them [the medals], I’ll probably go to Hell and they’d melt anyway”. She died in 2011, aged 98, of a chest infection.


Reading The White Mouse, I had to examine my own biases really closely. Why was I so enamoured with Nancy Wake, I kept asking myself, when I was so repulsed by Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper”? In the end, I think it came down to the fact that Nancy seemed far more grounded in reality, and far more self-aware. While she (self-admittedly) “loathed” the Gestapo, she came across as someone who had quite natural biases and constantly re-evaluated the evidence at hand. She watched the Nazis sack a city that she had lived in and loved for most of her life, first hand. Kyle, on the other hand, came across as someone who had been brainwashed into hating brown people and loving guns, and had never thought to question it.

Nancy Wake’s autobiography isn’t a romantic narrative, so if you’ve come here looking for a non-fiction version of The Book Thief or All The Light We Cannot See, you can move right along. The White Mouse is not a work of art, it’s not going to win any literary awards, but it’s deeply – unavoidably! – charming. It’s a story of incredible bravery and hardship, told without any sentimentality or self-effacing bullshit. Imagine if you got your no-nonsense grandma drunk, and found out she’d spent most of her life killing enemy combatants and doing courier runs for an underground resistance movement: that’s what reading The White Mouse is like. I fail to understand our collective obsession with fictionalised WWII narratives when there are books and stories like this out there (and they go out of print due to low sales). I can’t recommend The White Mouse on its artistic merit, but I think that you should read it anyway, and pay your respects to this incredible woman who probably could have won the war single-handedly if she’d needed to.

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

It’s hard to believe that The Rosie Project was Graeme Simsion’s debut novel. Shortly after Text Publishing released it, in 2013, it won both the ABIA Book Of The Year award and their General Fiction Book Of The Year award. International sales have topped 3.5 million copies. A couple of years ago, when I started putting together my reading list for this blog, it was everywhere! It hardly seems fair that a debut novelist has that much success that quickly, eh?

The main character is a genetics professor, Don Tillman. He’s never had much “luck” with women, which will come as no surprise when I tell you that his proposed solution to that problem is to create a questionnaire to assess the suitability of each “potential mate”.

Tillman doesn’t fit in particularly well anywhere, really – there’s a lot of very heavy-handed hints that he has undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. That in and of itself would be fine, but there’s something about his character that makes me feel… well, icky. Simsion pushes the socially-awkward-adult-male-nerd angle very hard, to the point where it started to evoke for me a salivating, entitled, MRA/incel keyboard-hero fucknuckle. Tillman seems to believe that he is an “ideal mate” for any woman, given his intelligence, physical health, financial success, and social status. I mean, doesn’t that sound just a little bit entitled and misogynistic? Plus, he says stuff like this:

“… but I immediately recognised Julie, the convenor, from Gene’s description: ‘blonde with big tits’. In fact, her breasts were probably no more than one and a half standard deviations from the mean size for her body weight, and hardly a remarkable identifying feature…” – page 7

I got used to it after a while. In fact, I even came to appreciate (a little) how Simsion managed to communicate to the reader a more objective perspective on Tillman’s beahviour without the character being consciously aware of it, which is quite tricky to do when the book is narrated in the first-person. But I still couldn’t help but wish his portrayal of Tillman’s symptoms had been written more carefully. Based on that alone, I knew that The Rosie Project could never be one of my favourites, or a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins.

Anyway, this socially-awkward guy meets a fun-loving girl with Daddy issues (Rosie, natch), and she spectacularly fails his questionnaire. Yet (steel yourselves!) he finds himself drawn to her. He winds up helping this “unsuitable” bartender hunt down her biological father. Is Rosie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Well, kinda. I think she gets afforded more depth than MPDGs normally do, with the Daddy issues and all, but her character doesn’t actually “develop” all that much. Her entire presence in The Rosie Project is pretty much predicated on (1) finding her father, and (2) letting Don love her.

The real upside of the story is that it ends up inverting the much-maligned Grease storyline: the man is the one who ends up changing to win the girl, instead of the other way around. That’s something, at least!

I hope I haven’t put you off The Rosie Project completely, because plenty of other people love it and highly recommend it, so maybe you should take my garbage opinion with a grain of salt. Bill Gates included The Rosie Project on his list of “Six Books I’d Recommend”, and it’s hard to argue with one of the world’s most brilliant minds, eh? (And you can check out more surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds here, if you’re curious.)

Simsion pumped out a sequel pretty quickly, with The Rosie Effect being published in 2014. A sequel to the sequel, The Rosie Result, will be released any minute now. And a film adaptation of The Rosie Project is also in the works, but it’s hit a few roadblocks. The script is written, apparently, but Jennifer Lawrence (who was slated to play Rosie) pulled out, and directors have been playing pass-the-parcel with it ever since. I think it would translate particularly well to the big screen, so fingers crossed it finds a home eventually.

The Rosie Project is another book that you can burn through pretty quickly (a la Still Alice or The Book Thief), but I didn’t love it. I seem to be pretty alone in that opinion, though, so the only way to work out whether I’m right or wrong is to give it a go yourself… 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Rosie Project:

  • “Good argument, perfect development!
    This is a good book and I Was Entertainmented by the first person describing his life perceptions.” – elianasantos
  • “Absolutely love these socks. They fit beautifully and stay odor free for a long time.” – Magster
  • “I had the good fortune to discuss this book with someone who actually has Asberger’s. They said it was quite accurate except for where it needed to serve the plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Big Bang Theory wannabe” – Amazon Customer
  • “If your interested in a pregnancy b ook, then this is your book. No interest to me, sadly it went on a bit.” – Melissa
  • “Not again.” – Mark walker
  • “Story interesting and writing poor.” – Seattle Native

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham


I’ve got to be honest: my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list doesn’t feature as many Australian authors as I’d like. If you have a favourite, please do let me know so I can review it in future!! In the meantime, I’ve picked up one of the ones that made it past the keeper: The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.

Believe it or not, The Dressmaker is actually Ham’s debut novel – and yet it’s sold over 100,000 copies since publication in 2000, and it was adapted into a major motion picture (starring Kate Winslet!) in 2015. What’s more, Ham has said that she wrote The Dressmaker by “accident”: it’s the product of participating in an RMIT creative writing course that she had never actually intended to join. She just showed up and started spitting fire, inspired by her mother’s life as a dressmaker in a small country town. Lifelong unpublished struggling writers everywhere are eating their hearts out…

The Dressmaker is set in a (fictional) Australian country town in the 1950s, so everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother – who is more than a little cracked, it must be said. 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. She also has a bit of a flirt now and then with a poor bloke who lives in a caravan up the road.

It takes Ham a couple hundred pages (full of veiled references and allusions) to reveal Tilly’s “dark secret”: the locals blame her for the death of a boy who was bullying her when they were children. That’s pretty heavy, I suppose, but then Ham goes and kills off Tilly’s love interest in the same breath, so it’s a fair wallop for the reader. What’s more, he has the most ridiculous death ever – he jumps into a silo (of all things), believing it to be filled with wheat, when it is actually filled with sorghum. The sorghum can’t support his weight, he sinks and suffocates. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: men are stupid.

Anyway, this second death really sets the locals off, and Tilly is forced to do dressmaking work for people from neighbouring towns. They’re the only ones who don’t care about her small-town scandal(s), and they actually pay her on time, which is very nice of them. This goes on until the community decides to put on a play, and they come to Tilly – hats in hands – asking her to make their costumes. She agrees to do so on the condition that they pay her in full, up-front (fair enough). They pay her using the funds they had saved to insure all the town buildings. Can you see where this is going?

It’s probably a darker ending than you’re imagining (spoiler alert, etc. etc.): Tilly makes the costumes, waits until the whole town has left to perform the play in the next town over… then she burns the whole damn place to the ground. Every single building. All personal effects – even the dresses belonging to her friend the cross-dressing cop – up in flames. Whoosh! The end.

It’s pretty much what we’ve all dreamed of doing (“I’ll show them! I’ll come back when I’m rich and famous, I’ll have my revenge!”), only none of us are crazy enough to actually do it. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a feral version of Sea Change”, which is pretty much spot on. Despite the dark ending, there are quite a few laugh out loud moments. The humour is deeply Australian, though, so I’m not sure how it would translate for an international audience.


Now, when you’re reading The Dressmaker, you can skip over a lot of the seamstress and fashion lingo, if you want. You won’t miss anything as long as you don’t care about being able to picture all her outfits with 100% accuracy. I didn’t bother looking any of it up, and I’m pretty sure I still got the gist. There are a lot of really obvious sewing and clothing similes (“the fog resting around the veranda moved like the frills on a skirt”), but for those an intimate knowledge of dressmaking isn’t required.

Side note: Ham starts to run out of those metaphors and similes about half way through, and has to start using clumsy imagery like this:

“… his toupee had washed off and lay like a discarded scrotum on the grass by his bald head…”

(This was, without parallel, my favourite line from the entire book.)

I took the liberty of watching the film trailer after I’d finished the book. Judging by that alone, the film is a lot more upbeat, and the Tilly character is much more expressive and likeable. Almost every review I’ve read of The Dressmaker says the same thing. So, although it was nice to read a homegrown book for once, I’d probably recommend you give it a pass and check out the movie instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dressmaker:

  • “An absolute steaming pile of rubbish. The author lives up to her surname as she hams it up for the novel. There is a multitude of characters that I didn’t connect with or care about, it might translate well to the big screen but don’t let that tempt you into reading this.” – James Motgomery
  • “I suppose this book is supposed to be humorous, but I found it disgusting. After reading about ninety pages, I was sick of the lurid vignettes of perverts, so I stopped reading. I had expected a story about a young woman who earns her living with her Singer sewing machine. Perhaps that comes further along than I managed to read.” – Linda Appleton
  • “This has to be some kind of satire on life as the characters were totally unbelievable. I give this no stars and think it should be tossed in a fire. Since I have to Star rate it I give it a negative 1.” – Psyched!
  • “No not my type of book. Kept waiting for something nice to happen. Never did.” – diane bradley

My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin


I chose a considerably shorter and more recent local novel for my fourth Keeping Up With The Penguins read (I was gun-shy after the mammoth undertaking that was Vanity Fair). I was sure that My Brilliant Career would be knocked on the head far more easily, and I was right (as always).

Published in 1901, My Brilliant Career was written mostly for the enjoyment of Franklin’s friends – until she took a punt and sent it to Aussie literary giant Henry Lawson. He took such a fancy to the story that he added his own preface and forwarded it on to his publishers. That preface itself is notable in that he famously refused to comment on the “girlishly emotional” parts of the book – I mean, I think the story would have been hella boring without them, but I would think that, being an emotional girl and all… Anyway, Franklin ultimately withdrew it from publication until after her death. Apparently it bore just a little too much resemblance to her real life, and the ignorant bush peasants took offense to being described as such (can’t imagine why).

So, a 16-year-old girl living in the bush writes a story about a 16-year-old girl and the trials and tribulations of living in the bush: shocker. The opening chapters could be summarised as “I have no time for romance, and this book is all about me, so strap in, fuckers!”. Franklin captures the mind of a teenaged girl (Sybylla) perfectly, but that’s really no significant achievement, seeing as she was one at the time of writing.


Teenaged me would have hated this book. I would have found it condescending, and rolled my eyes at the well-meaning adult who handed it over saying they thought it would give me “perspective”. The thing is, angsty teenagers will automatically reject any intrusion on their belief that they are uniquely misunderstood little snowflakes, and Franklin’s book demonstrates pretty clearly that angsty teenagers are all the same and haven’t changed much over the last 100+ years. My Brilliant Career is full of dramatic hand-wringing and tear-soaked pillows and teenage strops. I’m actually kind of surprised I never had to read it in school; it seems right up the alley of an English teacher trying to provide “relatable content” on “teen issues” (à la The Breakfast Club, which we watched approximately four hundred and seventy two times).

Even though My Brilliant Career is determinedly not romantic, there’s a lot of flirting and teenage girl wish-fulfillment. Beecham, the primary love interest, is nice enough to be flattering without being creepy or boring, he doesn’t put up with Sybylla’s shit (but in a flirtatious way, not a mean way), he’s persistent and charming despite falling on hard times, and he wants to marry her even though she’s ugly. Can you imagine? There are no truly dirty bits, but plenty of impassioned exchanges and a random BDSM scene where Sybylla goes all weak in the knees over bruises and horse whips. Never fear, there’s no sentimentality in the ending at all: Sybylla ultimately chooses a “brilliant career” over marriage, and ends up with neither. Franklin reportedly suggested the title as “My Brilliant(?) Career”, which is laughably more apt, but the publishers vetoed it.

“At the time of my departure for Caddagat my father had been negotiating with beer regarding the sale of his manhood; on returning I found that he had completed the bargain, and held a stamped receipt in his miserable appearance and demeanour.”

– Sybylla, My Brilliant Career (oh, snap!)

The main highlights of My Brilliant Career are the language and Franklin’s turn of phrase, which often made me think of my grandmother (makes sense, given the shared time period and geography). On the whole, though, I found writing this review a little tricky, as I didn’t develop a strong feeling about the book one way or another. It’s okay. I probably won’t read it again, but I wouldn’t tell anyone else that they shouldn’t bother. Just avoid giving it to your 16-year-old daughter: she’ll hate you for it and go back to looking at memes on Tumblr.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Career:

  • “… I understand that at 16 we are all fairly self-absorbed although hopefully not quite so nasty. Nevertheless, while I can appreciate the beautiful writing I really got to the point where I was waiting for someone to take Sybylla over their knee and give her a corporal lesson in manners…” – Sharon Wilfong

 

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