Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

13 Must-Read Books By Australian Authors

As wonderful as it is to travel somewhere new in literature, it’s also wonderfully comforting to read 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
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Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Joan Lindsay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picnic At Hanging Rock has one of the most compelling conceits 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. 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. It’s 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. 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. 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. 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.

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington

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

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

Blakwork - Alison Whittaker - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For a more contemporary Indigenous perspective, Blakwork by Alison Whittaker is a must-read. It’s 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. Whittaker 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

Looking For Alibrandi - Melina Marchetta - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. 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). Boochani is 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.

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 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

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.

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. 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.

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 authors 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 an 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. Harper has also since released a sequel, and a third (unrelated) book, and a film adaptation went gangbusters in cinemas. I’m sure we’ll see much more from her in the years to come. Read my full review of The Dry here.

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6 Comments

  1. What a great collection of reads Sheree. So much Aussie author goodness here. My favourite Australian fiction reads include Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, The Lost Man by Jane Harper and Crimson Lake by Candice Fox. But there are plenty of others.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      November 8, 2019 at 4:14 PM

      We really are a lucky country literature-wise, aren’t we?? Quite a few from your own list there on my own TBR, reviews forthcoming… 😉

  2. Alyson Woodhouse

    November 8, 2019 at 11:13 PM

    I’ll need to see how many of these have been published in the UK, as I’m tempted by quite a few of them.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      November 9, 2019 at 7:24 PM

      Oooh fantastic, Alyson – you’ll have to let me know which ones you find, and what you think of them! ❤️

  3. What a mixed bunch of great Aussie books. There’s absolutely something for everyone here. I haven’t read them all by a long shot, but will hold onto the list for future ideas. It’s great to see such quality Australian writing shine forth in a world where it hasn’t always been given a decent spotlight.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      November 19, 2019 at 12:04 PM

      Cheers Paula – we’ve got such a diverse literary tradition, I wanted to get as much of it in the mix as I could! Would love to hear what you think of any of the ones you get to! 😉

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