Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian (page 1 of 7)

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

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

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.

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

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence - Doris Pilkington - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Natural Way Of Things - Charlotte Wood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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).

Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman

Terra Nullius - Claire G Coleman - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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

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

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart - Holly Ringland - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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
Get The Dry here.
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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

The Visitors – Jane Harrison

The Visitors - Jane Harrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Visitors here
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January 1788 was the most pivotal month in Australia’s long, long history. Several ships appeared on the horizon off the New South Wales coast, and First Nations men gathered to discuss what to do. Should the strangers be welcomed, or run off? Are they approaching as friends or foes? This is the moment at the heart of The Visitors, Jane Harrison’s debut novel based on her award-winning play.

The blurb positions The Visitors as Twelve Angry Men meets Lincoln In The Bardo with an Australian sense of humour – which is pretty spot on (though, I’ll admit, I didn’t laugh out loud really at all – the content was too serious and captivating for that).

Representatives of the clan groups around the harbour (Wangal, Bidjigal, Burramuttagal, Cameragal, Gadigal, Wallumedegal, and Gweagal) gather for the emergency meeting. Some are young, some old, each with their own private inclinations and formal alliances that will dictate how they decide to proceed. They argue and share stories over the course of the day; it’s a fascinating tableau, though the reader can see the inevitable conclusion fast approaching.

Over and above the primary focus of The Visitors, I was particularly taken with how Harrison depicted the close connection between First Nations people and country. The Aboriginal characters can read the land and its rhythms in a remarkably complex and insightful way – in line with Dark Emu and contemporary research into First Nations history and science.

What wrenched my heart, though, was the way the characters didn’t – couldn’t – foresee the most dangerous threat posed by the visitors to their shores. It wasn’t their firesticks or their “barbarous” treatment of the land, but something far more insidious…

The Visitors is a particularly thought-provoking read with the forthcoming Referendum in Australia, and I doubt the timing of its release is an accident. I highly recommend it to all Australian readers – and all international readers who want to know more about our history, come to that.

Timely reminder: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a project undertaken on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation (as featured in The Visitors). I pay my deepest respects to the Elders of this land, and their enduring custodianship.

Buy The Visitors on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

Trace – Rachael Brown

Trace was originally one of my all-time favourite podcasts. I was obsessed by the unsolved case of Maria James, compulsively refreshing the feed for updates, and effusing about it to everyone I know. So, when the story was released in book form, my sister-in-law remembered my fascination and bought me a copy for Christmas. A+ gift giving, right there!

Get Trace here.
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Trace (the book) is billed as “the riveting inside story of a journalist’s cold-case investigation of a shocking murder”. It follows much the same trajectory as the podcast series did, with additional detail and insight into Brown’s experience and state-of-mind. If you listened in, like I did, you already know how it ends (or rather, how it doesn’t), but it’s still a cracking and compelling read.

In Part One (The Police Investigation), we get the lay of the land, the details of the crime that first captured Brown’s attention. It’s one that will get to the heart of any book-lover, and probably any parent, too. Maria James was an independent bookseller and single mother of two boys, Mark and Adam (the latter lives with cerebral palsy and Tourette’s syndrome). In June 1980, she was found dead, stabbed 68 times, in her flat behind the bookshop. To this day, no one has ever been charged with her murder.

For decades now (in fact, longer than Brown has been alive), Mark and Adam have lived in limbo, waiting for a breakthrough, to see their mother’s killer brought to justice.

This is the toll of cold cases: they’re never that temperature for those affected. And this is just one. There are another 1,300 cold cases sitting in boxes around the country.

Trace (Page 67)

That’s where Brown approaches Trace differently than many other true crime journalists. She is genuinely driven by a desire to help Mark and Adam, to resolve the unanswered question that has shaped their lives since childhood. She very deliberately steers away from the “entertainment” aspect of the genre, and spends a lot of time interrogating the ethics of what she’s doing. Ultimately, she decides that Trace is 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. It’s imperative to her that Mark and Adam support what she’s doing, and they do.

Mark sees it as his final shot for an answer. If the podcast doesn’t succeed, his mother’s murder will never be solved.

Trace (Page 83)

At first, as Brown begins researching Trace, every “lead” comes to a dead end. This is a decades-old cold case, after all, and she’s stymied at every turn by witnesses who are deceased, files she can’t access, and evidence that has been destroyed. But then, in Parts Two (The Church) and Three (The Podcast), the story takes a sharp turn away from a straightforward murder investigation into institutional sexual abuse. Then, it shifts up a gear, into violent cults and police conspiracies.

This isn’t overreach, or hyperbole. This is actually what Brown found in her Trace investigation.

Do not pick Trace up if you have any kind of heightened sensitivity to child sexual abuse (or, y’know, murder). It’s not salacious, but Brown is thorough in her descriptions, in the interest of giving victims their voice and uncovering the truth. She doesn’t exclude her own subjectivity from the story, either – she’s very frank about how her stomach turns hearing these stories, and then again in relaying them to us in Trace. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for her, spending literal months of her life transcribing interview after interview about the most traumatic experiences of people she’s come to care for deeply.

Although Brown is mostly glowing in her description of the cops she talks to and the work they’ve done, she doesn’t shy away from the monumental police fuck-up that could see the case remain unsolved forever: the wrong items stored as evidence in the Maria James case file. She’s also highly critical (and rightly so) of their failure to interview Adam until decades after the murder. Had they accommodated his disabilities at the time and asked him crucial questions, they would have learned about the sexual abuse he experienced and told his mother about – the much-needed lead on motive.

So, in the final section (The Wait), Trace comes to an infuriatingly vague conclusion. After two years of work, Brown tracked down suspects, identified new witnesses, revealed institutional cover-ups, and found new evidence – but the murder remains unsolved. Brown acknowledges that this is going to be frustrating for readers who like neat stories with clear conclusions, but that’s not the way real life works.

I’d love to be able to bring you that update. But this is not a show, folks. This is someone’s death. And I can’t invent an ending – it’s real-life nonfiction. I want to scream, ‘Imagine how the James boys feel!’.

Trace (page 265)

But even with the open ending, I loved reading Trace as much as I loved listening to the podcast initially. Sure, it broke my heart and turned my stomach at times, but see above – that’s real life. I live in hope that Brown’s investigation, which is ongoing, brings some answers and closure for the James boys, and everyone else impacted by this horrific crime(s).

(P.S. If you’re wondering, here’s the latest I can find on the case since the publication of Trace – still no answers, but always, always, a few steps closer.)

Monkey Grip – Helen Garner

Helen Garner is an Australian literary icon – but I’m not sure how well she’s known overseas. (If you’re reading from elsewhere in the world, please let me know whether her reputation has made it across the pond!) I’ve read and studied plenty of her non-fiction, but mostly piecemeal, and not her fiction for which she’s equally well-known and respected. So, I decided to start at the beginning with Monkey Grip, her debut novel that came out in 1977.

Monkey Grip - Helen Garner - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Monkey Grip here.
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Monkey Grip is famously based on Garner’s own life experiences and the diaries she kept around that time. She lived in share-houses around Melbourne while raising her young daughter in the ’70s, as her narrator does, and had tumultuous romantic relationships that mirror her characters’ too (more on those in a second). I remember Garner saying in an interview somewhere at some point that she later burned all the diaries she kept during that period, so Monkey Grip is the only real record of it that remains.

The story follows Nora, a single mother who falls in love with a heroin addict – while dealing with all the usual drama that comes with share-house living and young parenthood. You can tell from page one that Monkey Grip is going to be very sex-drugs-rock’n’roll. It’s all very bohemian, and not even in the annoyingly Instagrammable way that so many Melbourne polycules live today. There’s no self-consciousness about the way Nora and her cohort are living; they’re just hoping to find a better way to live than the rigid rules their parents and grandparents lived by, figuring it all out as they stumble along.

The characters are a little hard to follow, mostly because they drift in and out (of the share-houses, and Nora’s life in general) without much to anchor them or make them distinct in the reader’s mind. The only one who really sticks out is Javo, the “junkie” (Garner’s term, not mine) that steals Nora’s heart. Naturally, loving someone who lives with addiction – one they’re in no hurry to kick, by the way – is fraught with peril, especially when you factor children into the mix… not that Nora seems too worried about that.

Yeah, if Monkey Grip were released today, I daresay there’d be a lot of concern for Garner’s own child, given the autobiographical nature of the novel. Gracie, the fictional kid, bounces around a lot of very rough stuff, and seems to always exist on the very edge of neglect. Nothing terrible happens to her, she goes to school and seems well-fed, but it’s not the most stable environment. Surely, in today’s climate, some well-meaning self-righteous wowser would call protective services on Garner, but I guess people were a bit more live-and-let-live fifty years ago (thank goodness).

The narrative is a bit directionless, and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. The main “point” seems to be an account of addiction: to heroin, on Javo’s part, and to romantic entanglement on Nora’s. Both of them recognise that their addictions are destructive, but lack the will or motivation to push back against them.

Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference? They can both kill you.

Monkey Grip (Page 106)

Nora simply narrates the highs and withdrawals – and her dreams. Oh, so many dreams. Recorded always with the same level of care and attention as she narrates real events. That’s when Monkey Grip really feels like a diary, where one might record their dreams from the night before.

So, without any real plot or drive, Monkey Grip didn’t blow me away – but there are many moments of beautiful prose, like little glimpses of Garner’s greatness to come. It might not be the best one of hers to start with if you’re new to her work, but if you’re already hooked and want to see where it all began, give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Monkey Grip:

  • “They say that a woman’s mind is like a bucket of crabs, with one thought rising to the lip of the bucket, only to be pulled back down by the next random thought. That is what this book is like. It goes nowhere, presents nothing, and has no substance.” – Neal Ames
  • “A pointless book about pointless people doing pointless things.” – Sir Readalot
  • “My mother hated this book. More than enough reason to love it.” – Barb
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