10 books, Book lists

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?

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Courtney Collins

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is Australian writer Courtney Collins.

Her debut novel, The Burial, which I read and reviewed last month, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and has been optioned for a feature film by Pure Pictures.

Courtney grew up in the Hunter Valley in NSW. She now lives in an old postmaster’s cottage on the Goulburn River in regional Victoria, where she is working on a new novel.

You can follow her on Twitter @cc_writer.

Without further ado, here are Courtney’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:

The-Heart-Is-A-Lonely-HunterA favourite book: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published when Carson McCullers was in her early twenties. It was her first novel. All of her books to follow inhabited that same Southern Gothic world, resonant with William Faulkner, who she has been compared to. As Graham Greene described it: “Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D.H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility. I prefer Miss McCullers to Mr Faulkner because she writes more clearly; I prefer her to D.H. Lawrence because she has no message.” I’m with Greene on that, on all counts.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is tender and gentle. I read it once a year and I doubt I will ever tire of reading it. Somehow, as well as holding onto an ability to describe and reveal a character so their impression is indelible, McCullers also invites you to view them softly, to hold them in compassion. Whether it is the 14-year-old Mick Kelly longing to play the piano or Singer “the thin mute” longing for his friend Antonapoulos, all of the characters seek a particular beauty and consolation in an unbeautiful setting.

As a writer, McCullers has a clear-sighted view. She sees what there is to see and at the same time she sees beyond it. There have been attempts to adapt the novel for film and theatre but neither has held the power of the original novel. It seems to me that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter does what only a novel can do: express the complicated yearnings boiling inside the characters, distilling it into poetry.

 

Don-t-take-your-love-to-townA book that changed my world: Don’t Take Your Love To Town by Ruby Langford Ginibi

Australians live under many comforting myths and one of them is that Australia is not a racist country. At 17, I had never read anything like Ruby Langford Ginibi’s heartbreaking autobiography, Don’t Take Your Love To Town. It’s a story of five generations of an Aboriginal family told “from her side of the fence”. The author has no need for fiction – there’s enough drama and tragedy to tell in her own life. The language is without affectation and free of sentimentality. The pain is raw and real.

The book takes its title from the Kenny Rogers’ song of the same name and you can hear it playing in the background of Ruby’s chaotic life but perhaps not as loudly as Ruby’s own resistant laugh. She’s intent on living, and living means raising nine children in a country where the race divide is palpable even if it is unspoken. There is hardly a chapter in Don’t Take Your Love to Town that does not feature Ruby giving birth. But then the affirmation of life is short-lived, as many of Ruby’s children die young, making real the statistic that infant mortality is two to three times higher for Aboriginal children as it is for non-Aboriginal children in Australia, even now. For me, reading this book was like an elder coming up behind me and whacking me on the back of the head to say, “Wake up child! This lucky country hasn’t been so lucky for some.”


My-hundred-loversA book that deserves a wider audience: My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson

I read My Hundred Lovers last year during a long winter here where book pages and blogs were unduly fascinated by the success of one erotic fiction title and its spin offs.
I wish that title had been My Hundred Lovers. The world might be just a little bit better for it. It wouldn’t be clogged up with sex props or M.O.Us for starters. Because in its telling of the limitless expanse of the sensual life, it is this title (unlike the other which I need not mention) that really is something special.

On the eve of her 50th birthday Deborah reflects on one hundred moments in the life of her physical body. She asks herself: ”What else does the body know? What else does the breathing heart remember?” As the memories unfold, they are not all lovely, not all welcome. Within them are disappointments and despair. But then there is the plain joy of sex, and not just sex but also the pleasure of grass underfoot, a room, language, laughter. There is sweetness and exhilaration.

In the way it balances honesty and lyricism to reveal a fuller expression of the sensual life, My Hundred Lovers reminded me of another favourite book: Jeannette Winterson’s Written on The Body. They seem to share an idea that the body is a map, charting where we have ”lived, loved and suffered”.

Thanks, Courtney, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I, too, love Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and can’t quite believe she was just 23 when she wrote it. I’ve not heard of Ruby Langford Ginibi’s autobiography before, but it sounds like a powerful read. And I’ve been keen to read Susan Johnson’s novel having much enjoyed her last one, which I reviewed back in 2008.

What do you think of Courtney’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Courtney Collins, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Western

‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins

The-burial

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin UK; 310 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Courtney Collins’ The Burial is such an extraordinarily powerful book it’s hard to believe it was written by a first-time novelist. From the opening line — “If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell?” — to the closing sentence, I was held in thrall by the exquisite prose, the luscious descriptions of the bush and a cast of curious well-drawn characters. But most of all I was captivated by the storytelling.

Female bushranger

The Burial tells the tale of Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger who rustles horses and duffs cattle, in the years after the Great War. The book opens in dramatic style: she’s just given birth to a premature baby while on the run and she’s buried it alive.

In a distinctive and unusual twist, it is the dead baby that narrates the story — a literary device that feels more natural and less showy or intrusive than you might initially expect. Indeed, the baby has so much sympathy for her mother, that you immediately warm to Jessie despite her track record as livestock thief, convict and murderer.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn about Jessie’s colourful past, which includes a stint as a circus rider and a two-year stretch in prison.  We also learn how she was apprenticed to Fitzgerald “Fitz” Henry, a fiery red-headed man living in a remote valley, to help him break in horses. She later marries Fitz, even though he treats her appallingly and is violent and abusive from the first day they met — any wonder she decides to do him in.

You might like to think of your own mother knitting blankets expanding outwards in all colours while you were in her womb. Or at worst vomiting into buckets. On the eve of my birth, my mother concertinaed my father while I lay inside her. Six foot, eight inches. She brought him down with the blunt side of an axe.

But this is not just Jessie’s story — the narrative also covers the two men who are on her trail: the opium-addicted Sergeant Barlow and the aboriginal tracker Jack Brown who secretly knows (and loves) Jessie but never lets on.

Adventure and romance with a Western feel

Part adventure tale, part romance, part Western (but without the gunslinging), The Burial has already earned Collins comparisons with Cormac McCarthy. I haven’t read enough of McCarthy’s work to tell whether the praise is justified, but I did find it reminiscent of Paulette Jiles’ civil war novel Enemy Women, which I loved when I read it more than a decade ago.

There’s a beautiful, haunting quality to the writing, which brings to life a diverse range of characters, as well as an Australian landscape of heavily wooded mountains and big open star-filled skies.

And Jessie, who is based on a real female bushranger, is wonderful company: feisty, unafraid, daring and brave.

The Burial is a dazzling book and one that has already garnered critical acclaim and prize nominations aplenty in Australia. It has been optioned for a feature film, which is hardly surprising — Collins writes with an eye for detail without ever losing sense of the bigger picture, which is to tell a dramatic story in a visual and exhilarating way.  It will be published in the UK by Allen and Unwin on May 2.