10 (more) of my favourite novels from Australia

10-booksTo mark Australia Day (26 January), I thought I would put together a list of some of my favourite Australian novels.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this: back in 2005 I published a list entitled 10 of my favourite novels from Australia. But a lot has changed since then: my tastes have broadened, I have better access to books (thanks to the internet) and I’m more aware of new Australian fiction at the time of release (again, thanks to the internet and especially to the Australian bloggers I follow).

Since 2005, I’ve read more than 100 Australian books and these have spanned everything from historical fiction to psychological thrillers, much-loved classics to contemporary literary fiction. Gone are the days when I thought Australian novels only revolved around convicts or pioneers!

This new list features 10 of my favourite reads from the past decade. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. You can click on each book title to read my review in full.

‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins (2013)

The Burial by Courtney Collins

The Burial
 tells the tale of Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger who rustles horses and duffs cattle, in the years after the Great War. Part adventure tale, part romance, part Western (but without the gunslinging), it’s a dramatic story told in a visual, exhilarating — and memorable — way.  Jessie, who is based on a real female bushranger, is wonderful company — feisty, unafraid, daring and brave — and I loved spending time with her.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan (2014)

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I’ve read all of Richard Flanagan’s novels and reviewed most of them, but this book was so profoundly moving I couldn’t find the words to do it justice, so instead of reviewing it on this blog I just went around and told everyone they had to read it! Of course, I could have chosen almost any one of Flanagan’s novels to include here, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, spoke to me in a way few books over the past decade have done so. It’s an unforgettable account of one man’s experience as a doctor in a POW camp and the long-lasting impact of what happened to him and his friends during that time. It’s also a tragic love story between a man and the woman he wasn’t supposed to fall in love with.

‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five Bells is set in Sydney on a single summer’s day in 2008. It tells the stories of four individual characters — Ellie, James, Catherine and Pei Xing — as they criss-cross the city. This is not a plot-driven novel, but one in which the characters’ inner lives take centre stage. I loved Jones’ rich use of language and the ways in which she plays with images and motifs throughout, and the stories stayed with me long after the final page. (As an aside, I could have easily chosen Jones’ Sixty Lights in this slot, which is another evocatively written story, but set in Victorian London, not contemporary Australia.)

‘Utopian Man’ by Lisa Lang (2010)

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

Lisa Lang’s debut novel is a sheer delight from start to finish. The central character is Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a real life legendary eccentric who built a magnificent retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s. This included a fabulous three-storey book arcade, supposedly filled with a million books. The novel charts Coles’ life in two-yearly increments and shows how this extraordinary man, who championed equality and was exceedingly generous to all and sundry, always saw the good in people despite suffering small tragedies and scandals himself. It’s a charming read about a charming man, and I wish more people knew about it.

‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Elliot Perlman (2005)

Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman

I have Eliot Perlman to thank for opening my eyes to a whole new world of Australian fiction for this is the book that made me realise there was more to Australian literature than novels about convicts and pioneers! Set in contemporary Melbourne, it showed me my home town in ways I’d never come across before in contemporary fiction. Admittedly very baggy and overwritten (I would level the same charge against all of Perlman’s novels even though I admire his work), I loved its breadth and scope: it’s a  psychological thriller, a court room drama, a romance, a satire, an insightful commentary on modern-day existence, morals and values, and a kind of literary juggernaut that borrows the title of a well-known non-fiction book by William Empson on literary criticism. Throw in politics, big business and prostitution and pretty much every genre and theme is covered here. What’s not to like?

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland (1955)

The Shiralee by D'Arcy Niland

The Shiralee counts up there as one of my top three Australian books of all time (the other two are George Johnston’s My Brother Jack and Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea). It’s a wonderful tale set during the Great Depression about a swagman (an itinerant worker) who travels rural NSW in search of work accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, Buster, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee”, a slang word for burden. Six months earlier he “kidnapped” Buster from her city-based mother, after he discovered his wife in bed with another man, but this well-meaning act is now taking its toll: Buster talks too much and slows him down and he’s constantly worrying about how to feed and protect her. It’s very much a novel about father-daughter relationships, and provides a fascinating glimpse of a past way of life where friendship and camaraderie between people “on the road” was so vital to their survival.

‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott (1999)

Benang

This book challenged me on many levels but left a deep impression on me. Essentially it is about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people. This deeply poignant and haunting story is narrated by Harvey, who is of aboriginal descent but has been raised to believe he is a white man because all the aboriginal blood has been bred out of him. But in being raised in one culture while forced to ignore another, Harvey feels that something is missing from his life — and this book is an attempt to reconnect with his ancestors and to try to understand why his grandfather was so keen to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in the family line. I came away from this book feeling a mixture of joy and sorrow, anger and regret. I still think about it four years down the line…

‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965)

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

I loved this book so much I read it twice — and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve recommended it to people looking for a quintessential Australian read. Largely semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of Rob Coram, who is just six years old when the book opens, and his relationship with his older cousin, who joins the Army to fight in the Second World War. It’s a beautiful, somewhat nostalgic look at what it was like to grow up in one of the most remote areas on the planet, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian ocean, at a time when the war was raging in Europe, and the Japanese were getting closer and closer to invading Australian soil. It’s very much a coming-of-age story and has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place.

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)

The cover of Christos Tsiolkas' acclaimed novel, The Slap.

Set in suburban Melbourne, The Slap is one of those bold, brash and visceral novels that stays with you long after the final page. The whole story unfurls from one seemingly minor incident at a family barbecue when a man slaps a child who is not his own. This one event has drastic repercussions on all of those people present. It tests friendships, marriages and family relationships, and it divides people into two distinct groups: those that think the child deserved it, and those that think the slap constitutes child abuse. I loved the scope and ambition of this novel (perhaps more than its execution) and raced through it in a matter of days. And the eight-part Australian TV adaptation is possibly the best thing to come out of Australia since Tsiolkas himself.

‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie by Tim Winton

I’ve only read a handful of Tim Winton’s novels, but this one — his latest — is a brilliant look at contemporary Australia, awash with cash from the mining boom yet ethically and morally bankrupt. It tells the story of Tom Keely, a middle-aged spokesman for an environmental campaign group, who has lost his high-flying, highly pressurised job for daring to speak the truth. Now, holed up in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower, he lives like a recluse, until he becomes entwined in his neighbour’s messy life. What ensues is a bumpy — and seedy — ride,  far removed from his middle-class upbringing.  Despite Eyrie tackling some weighty subjects, it’s done with a lightness of touch and plenty of humour. I loved this book so much, I read it twice — in quick succession.

Have you read any of these books? Do you have a favourite Australian novel? Is anything missing from my list?

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45 thoughts on “10 (more) of my favourite novels from Australia

  1. Great list! The Slap would also make my Aussie top ten and I have a soft spot for The Shiralee.
    I have mixed feelings about Tim Winton – there are some that I’ve loved (Cloudstreet) and others that I haven’t (Dirt Music). Haven’t read Eyrie yet.
    Of what I’ve read in the last few years, Burial Rites, Golden Boys, Foal’s Bread, The Natural Way of Things, The Eye of the Sheep and Mateship for Birds are in my favourites.

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    • Oh, Foal’s Bread very nearly made this list, and I feel bad about not including Charlotte Wood on here either: I haven’t read the Natural Way of Things (yet) but I loved Animal People, The Family and The Submerged Cathedral.

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      • I’m sure you’ll find The Natural Way of things very thought-provoking when you get to it – make sure you have someone you can debrief with! I also loved Animal People and her memoir/ essay collection, Love & Hunger.

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  2. Great post, Kim! I’m familiar with several of these authors including the wonderful Gail Jones but very pleased to be introduced to Lisa Lang, D’arcy Niland and Randolph Stow. Have you read David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon? Also Tim Winton’s slim memoir Breath? Two of my own favourite Australian reads.

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    • Yes, read Remembering Babylon at least 20 years ago but despite the name I can’t remember a thing about it! And re: the Winton memoir: is it Land’s Edge you’re thinking of? If so, I read it many years ago… I think it was reprinted in 2012 but I have a copy dating from late 1990s.

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      • You’re right! I think it was published here much later than in Australia. I remember being struck by his use of language. Same with the Malouf which is about Gemmy Fairley who’s spent most of his life in the bush and lands up in a white settlement discombobulating them all.

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  3. This and your previous top ten are very interesting, Kim and you’ve certainly added a couple of titles to my wishlist. Of the Australian fiction I’ve read to date, ‘The Shiralee’ and ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ would definitely be in my top ten too. ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ was exceptionally good and one of my favourite books of 2013.

    There are a few authors on your list who I’ve read other books by: Elliot Perlman’s ‘The Street Sweeper’ I loved (I must get around to ‘Seven Types..’). Likewise Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘Barracuda’. The only Gail Jones I’ve read was ‘Sorry’ and I really didn’t rate it which has rather put me off reading more by her.

    Of Winton’s books I prefer ‘Cloudstreet’ (on your 2005 list)and ‘The Turning’ though I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by him. Also from your 2005 list I completely agree with you about ‘The Great World’, which is easily my favourite of David Malouf’s novels, though I tend to think his greatest work is in the shorter form (‘Dream Stuff’ would be my pick of his books). And I read ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ about 18 months ago when I was suffering with a chest infection – it is already a strange book whose tone veers about wildly, but couple that with a temperature and hardly any sleep and it became like a wild fever dream that I was glad to get to the end of! ‘My Brother Jack’ I liked a lot though I wouldn’t rank it as an all-time favourite.

    What else would I put in my top ten? Definitely Kenneth MacKenzie’s ‘The Young Desire It’. And some Alex Miller, though I’d struggle to pick between ‘Journey to the Stone Country’ and ‘Conditions of Faith’. Christopher Koch’s ‘Highways to a War’ (with his ‘Lost Voices’ a close second). Roger McDonald’s ‘The Ballad of Desmond Kale’ I thought was fantastic (I read ‘1915’ after it and am sorry to say wasn’t so impressed). Andrew McGahan’s ‘The White Earth’ and Matthew Condon’s ‘The Trout Opera’ are also novels that have left a lasting impression.

    Odd: I notice there would be a distinct lack of female writers in my Australian top ten. No conscious reason for that – I’ve rated highly books like Charlotte Wood’s ‘The Submerged Cathedral’, Emily Bitto’s ‘The Strays’, Gillian Mears’ ‘Foal’s Bread’, Kate Grenville’s ‘The Idea of Perfection’, Cate Kennedy’s short stories, but none would make my list of favourites. Mind you, I have still to read authors like Eleanor Dark (I’ve been meaning to read ‘The Timeless Land’ for a while now), Thea Astley, Jessica Anderson, Marion Halligan, Drusilla Modjeska, Dymphna Cusack, Elizabeth Harrower, Glenda Adams…

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    • Thanks for your comment, David! I read the Street Sweeper last year, loved it, but never got around to reviewing it. And I’m with you re: Sorry. I didn’t get on with that book at all. I’m looking forward to reading Kenneth MacKenzie’s ‘The Young Desire It’ later in the year — it’s been in my pile for awhile now.

      Like you, I noticed that both my top 10s lacked female writers, but I suspect it’s because I’ve simply read more Australian male writers than females. I felt bad about not including Charlotte Wood, because I’ve loved her books, and Kate Grenville’s an old favourite, too. I would have liked to have put Sonya Hartnett’s Of a Boy on this list, as well, along with Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread and Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath. Perhaps, at the end of this year, I’ll be able to put forward a top 10 list of favourite Australian books written by women!

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  4. Well , you know how I feel about Narrow Road . I honestly think it’s a masterpiece ….yes it’s harrowing and very moving but never mawkish . A fantastic tribute to a generation. I loved The Slap as well.

    Not read that Perlman but read The Roadsweeper on the recommendation of an ( Aus) Eng teacher at my husbands school . He’s a brilliant writer. Will seek out the others !
    Happy Australia Day !

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  5. I haven’t read any of these but I have Eyrie and The Slap both signed by the authors (and I’ve read oter works of theirs. Winton and Tsiolkas were at our Word Festival in 2014. I felt sorry for Tim (and embarrassed). The woman who interviewed him knew nothing of his work and kept cutting him off – as a volunteer in a packed house filled with fans carrying stacks of books to be signed I was ashamed.

    The Tsiolkas interview by contrast was probably the best I’ve ever seen. A young Canadian female novelist who coaches an LGBT swim team interviewed him (he was promoting Barracuda) and they really clicked. He was very kind and stayed to talk to me about writing after the book signing.

    Someday I will have to get to both books!

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    • Oh, dear, poor Tim Winton (and you!) — sounds like a terrible experience. But pleased to hear Tsiolkas’ interview was much better. I was fortunate enough to meet both authors last year. I interviewed Winton for Shiny New Books and he was rather delightful — after he warmed up. I think he was slightly hungover from a book launch the night before! And I was lucky enough to have dinner with Tsiolkas and about a dozen of his posse when he was over publicising Barracuda. He was such good fun to talk to: he was the editor of my uni newspaper but I think he’d graduated by the time I came along.

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy both books when you get to them!

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  6. That is a great list Kim. I’ve read 6 from your list – The Burial (5 stars), The Narrow Road to the Deep North (4 stars), Five Bells (3 stars), The Shiralee (5 stars), The Slap (4 stars) and Eyrie (5 stars) – definitely my favourite of Winton’s and I’ve read a few. I have 3 from your list on my tbr – Seven Types of Ambiguity, Benang from the Heart and The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. I have never heard of Utopian Man so I’m off to have a look.

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    • Utopian Man is such a lovely book, Sharkell. It didn’t seem to get much exposure at all. I think I first came across it on Lisa’s blog and was rather surprised to find the book available in the UK.

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  7. I’ve read all but two of these, Five Bells and Eyrie, and (with the exception of The Slap which I didn’t like much) I think it’s a great list. So pleased to see you liked Utopian Man – I’m hoping to see more of Lisa Lang’s writing in due course!

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  8. I’ve read, enjoyed a lot of these and noted the ones I haven’t, so thank you. I rated Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth too but haven’t been able to read anything else by him – yet. I loved Robert Drewe’s The Drowner and learnt so much from it. Ditto his other novels, and memoir. Cloudstreet is superb. I hope to read more Tim Winton. I’ve enjoyed Helen Garner’s writing and found Elizabeth Jolly’s writing some of the best I’ve ever read, unique. Sally Morgan’s The Place is very special. I didn’t care so much for ‘The Slap’, have enjoyed Evie Wyld, and Peter Goldsworthy who impresses me because all his novels are very different and he continues to practice as a doctor while writing novels and poetry, or did when I was reading him. Peter Carey’s The Theft was fabulous, felt very Australian, I’d only read (& enjoyed) his Jack Maggs’ before. Lots of treats in Australian literature, I only knew Patrick White before I visited for the first time, then began a concerted exploration, so much more to read!. ,
    There was another one I was knocked out by whose title and author are eluding my aging brain, I gave it to a friend in Sydney. A Melbourne woman grows up in a Jewish family, writes for pop music magazines and goes to New York as the Australian correspondent. She meets and interviews every big name we can recall from the 60’s, Her girlhood was full of, dominated by, her mother’s horrific concentration camp experiences, given in more detail than I’ve ever come across before. Yet she retains an essential innocence, never overawed by the particular celebrity, and with an honest even shrewd take on their various characters. The novel follows her maturing and difficult coming to terms with her family’s poisonous experiences and how they have affected her.
    It’s done with great sensitivity and honesty and is far from a misery memoir – has anyone else read it and can tell me the author??

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    • Thanks for such a great comment! You’ve certainly read some good Aussie fiction 😉

      How could I forget Helen Garner? Though, admittedly, I like her narrative non-fiction better than her fiction. And yes, Jolley is great. I really ought to read more by her. I agree with you re: Peter Carey’s Theft; it’s such a wonderful read. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Carey in the sense that I love some of his books and I hate others 😉

      Not sure I know the book you are talking about but the author sounds very much like real life rock journalist Lillian Roxon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lillian_Roxon

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      • Ah, Kimbofo, I was thinking the author Carols44 was remembering is probably Lily Brett. She’s written many novels BUT your comment suggests that Roxon’s autobiography might be the book she’s thinking of.

        Great list but of course I’d have more women there, particularly Thea Astley (Drylands or perhaps The multiple effects of rainshadow). But, I think you’re brave doing such a list. Too hard, and too difficult for me to not focus on my recent reads.

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        • Hi, Sue, yes, if you scroll down a bit further you’ll see that Jenny Ackland suggested it was Lola Bensky by Lily Brett, and that Carols44 realised that was, indeed, the book! I love how everyone helps each other out via the comments 🙂

          And yes, it wasn’t until I’d published this list that I realised it was a bit light on women writers, but, to be honest, I haven’t read that many Australian women writers, which is part of the reason I’m participating in AWW16 to see if I can redress the balance a little. I actually hope to read Drylands this year; it’s been sitting in my TBR for far too many years!

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          • Oh good, Kim. I didn’t read more of the comments after seeing the Roxon comment because I’d already had Brett in my head. I’m glad it’s been confirmed by someone who’s actually read the book!

            And, of course, I applaud you participation in AWW16! I hope you find it worthwhile. I, of course, think we have some wonderful women writers. Some great men too, but the women clearly do still need a bit of a push up!

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  9. Pingback: My Top 12 Australian Books | Savidge Reads

      • Er… My favourite was Sorry 😊 We must meet in the middle!
        I only discovered Jones over here in London. Much to my surprise the library near where I first lived had her entire back catalogue.
        I am looking forward to her new one but it sounds like it follows the structure of 5 Bells.

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  10. Hi Kim – I agree with a lot of your comments and have read most of the contemporary novels on your list and agree with your assessments. I think I “must” read Benang as I never have but it sounds as if I should. I would add Kate Grenville’s “The Idea of Perfection” and of course “The Secret River” as both being wonderful and I will always, always add “The Trout Opera” by Matthew Condon which is still one of my favourite books. Yes, the Deep Road to the North was probably my best book last year – profoundly moving and brilliant. I’ve seen Richard Flanagan interviewed many times and I would so love to chat to him at a dinner party – he seems so nice! As someone else has commented – Foal’s Bread would also make my list of “bests”.

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    • Thanks, Kate. I’m looking forward to reading The Idea of Perfection some time this year; I really loved The Secret River, too, and should really have squeezed it on to this list! I have had the Trout Opera on my wishlist FOREVER. Indeed, I think it was you who recommended it to me! I will get around to it one day! And yes, I’d love Richard Flanagan as a dinner party guest, or, better still, to have a pint with him in the pub. There was a brilliant documentary about him on BBC4 last year (I hope it gets screened in Australia some time) which revealed how down-to-earth and humble he is… he also likes his beer! 🙂

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  11. Lillian Roxon’s life story has many similarities to the novel I read and I’m sure I’ve read about her before, not sure what led to me to her though. The novel I read (early last year) was recently published (2014?) and I think I read that the writer lived in New York, was married and may have had children. I’ll message and ask my friend though I know she passed it onto another friend.

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  12. Great list. Randolph Stow’s novel killed me. So glad Penguin reissued it in Canada or I would never have known about him. I have never been to Australia, but Australian Lit is some of the best in the world. I read Patrick White’s Tree of Man years ago and have never looked back. Very recently reread Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice and Snake by Kate Jennings. From Murray Bail to Robert Drewe to Helen Garner to Tim Winton. I really must book a holiday to see the land that speaks to me through its books. (A little afraid of the spiders though! My nephew did a gap year in Australia and sent some insane photos of spiders, crazy)!

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    • Hello Heather, how lovely to hear of your love for Australian Lit! You’ve actually named some titles I’ve not heard of before, so Pobby and Dingan, and Snake have promptly gone on to my wish list! I hope you get to visit Australia one day: don’t worry about the spiders, if you close your eyes you won’t see them 😉

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  13. Thanks Kim for a great list – as well as prompting so many great reads from your followers. Last year I read Andrea Goldsmith for the first time – ‘The Memory Trap’ and was blown away. Loved it so much. ‘Cloudstreet’s’ my favourite Tim Winton book, and Merry-Go-Round-By-The-Sea is wonderful. It’s so hard to say favourites – but probably one missing that is in my top 3 books ever is Drusilla Modjeska’s ‘The Orchard’ – a book I re-read ever 2 or 3 years.

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    • Thanks for the Andrea Goldsmith recommendation, she’s not an author I’m familiar with. Oh, and I really ought to read some Drusilla Modjeska, she’s been on my radar for years and years, but she doesn’t seem to be published in the UK and I never find her on the shelves when I go back to Australia…

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  14. It shows the strength of Australian literature that none of the novels that are in your Top 10 would appeaar in mine. We would share three authors: Richard Flanagan, Eliot Perlman, and Tim Winton, but I would pick different novels for them. Of course mine would mostly be made up of writers no longer with us.
    A few of modern writers that would appear in my list are Joan London, Helen Garner, and Les Murray.

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  15. Pingback: It’s Monday and I’m all ready for #ComicsFebruary | Olduvai Reads

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