Book Club / Culture

Homegrown, honest and heartfelt: 36 Australian books to add to your reading list

Australian books

Too often we find ourselves reaching outward across seas for culture - music, art, books and film - before we've even considered the works here, in Australia. And while, we'll never discourage you from broadening your horizons with perspectives outside your own, when searching for your next book, there's a wealth of Australian stories and authors that we consider essential reading and so should you.

Below, we're rounding up 36 Australian books from the countries' first and original storytellers to the voices, cemented and emerging, as well as those who have suffered under our systems.

1. The Lebs, Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Australian books

Set in Bankstown during the early aughts - a time in Australia that was blackened with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment - The Lebs is a satire of the homogenising paint brush of White Australia. Author Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the director of Sweatshop, a movement that creates creative space for culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Western Sydney.

 

2. Monkey Grip, Helen Garner

At a time when Australian literature was all about Drovers and their wives, Helen Garner stepped in unveiling a lifestyle of communal households, music, drugs and sex - one thought only to exist in the US. Since then, Garner has become somewhat of an Australian literary hero and if you're going to read her, you might as well start at the beginning.

 

3. Nothing But My Body, Tilly Lawless

Australian books

One of the most anticipated Australian novels of 2021. After reading Tilly's words exclusively through extended Instagram captions, it was a delight to hear of her debut novel. In Nothing But My Body Lawless writes candidly about romance, the power of friendship, queerness, Australia's Black Summer, sex work - the story of a young woman who came to Sydney with nothing but her body. Read an interview between Tilly Lawless and RUSSH's Ella Jane, here.

 

4. One Hundred Years of Dirt, Rick Morton

Rick Morton's memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt lays bare the bitter reality of intergenerational trauma and poverty. Instead of seeking out external examples however, he scrapes out the gizzards of his family history, documenting its rise and inevitable clang to the floor, for all to see. But as much as it's a gritty tale about abuse, it sings with his mother's strength and ultimately, survival.

 

5. My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin

Australian books

A fixture of school curriculums across the country and Australia's answer to Little Women and Pride and Prejudice. My Brilliant Career trails Sybylla Melvyn as she makes the painful transition from girlhood to womanhood. Headstrong and fiery, Sybylla is on a mission for culture - for purpose outside of her working class, rural background, marriage, and domestic life. She gets a taste of this lifestyle when she is sent to her grandmothers house, but is once again slapped with the reality of poverty when her mother can no longer provide for the family alone.

 

6. Playing Beatie Bow, Ruth Park

A playground game becomes all too real when Abigail is pulled back in time to 19th century Sydney, namely The Rocks. Living with the actual Beatie Bow and her well-meaning family, Abigail is exposed to a city bustling with working class characters, a history that is being eroded by developers in her 1980s context. Abigail must find her way back to the 20th century, where she is ready to confront her parents and their tumultuous marriage with a fresh perspective.

 

7. Looking for Alibrandi, Melina Marchetta

Australian books

Where Miles Franklin tells the coming-of-age story of a woman navigating class barriers and pushing back on gendered expectations, Looking For Alibrandi refreshes the narrative by throwing the element of ethnicity and culture into the mix. What then ensues is a colourful, warm depiction of life in Sydney's inner suburbs, where Josephine Alibrandi must confront her family history and with it, her place as a third culture kid. A novel I gobbled as a little 'wog' teen.

 

8. Talkin' Up to the White Woman, Aileen Moreton-Robinson

If you only read one book on this list, let it be Talkin' Up To The White Woman. Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson puts White Australian feminists on notice. It's a timeless, searing critique of the way white women are the handmaidens of patriarchal white sovereignty, and a reminder that if your feminism isn't intersectional, it's garbage.

 

9. The Lost Arabs, Omar Sakr

Australian books

Hailing from Western Sydney, Omar Sakr writes of the body as a landscape riddled with landmines; of identities thought to be at odds with each other. His poetry is visceral and resonant, one that will linger with you long after the last line.

 

10. Blakwork, Alison Whittaker

An experimental collection of reportage, poetry, memoir, fiction and satire by Gomeroi poet Alison Whittaker. Whittaker wields her words like a knife, slipping them beneath the feeble stories imposed by White Australia and peeling back the skin to shine light on the voices underneath. This rings true, none more so than in her poem, a love like Dorothea's...

"‘I love a sunburnt country’                 I loved a sunburnt country.

                                                                                      I love white nativity
that digs its roots and ticks to suck the floodplains and the sea –
the love that swept those sweeping plains from Nan, from Mum, from me." 

 

11. Holding the Man, Timothy Conigrave

Australian books

As with most things, it begins with a story of love. Young, queer love that blossoms from inside an all-boys Catholic school in Melbourne. At the centre of this tale is Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo; and it trails their love affair as it spanned fifteen years, weathering disapproval, separation, bigotry, before ultimately being cut short by the AIDS pandemic. Holding the Man is evidence of their bond and a celebration of the lives Conigrave and Caleo shared together. If you weeped endlessly while reading A Little Life, fair warning - you're about to repeat the experience.

 

12. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay

 

The Virgin Suicides was but a twinkle in Jeffrey Eugenides' eye when Joan Lindsay published Picnic At Hanging Rock. Since then the disappearance of three students from Appleyard College for Young Ladies has haunted the Australian imagination; if not for the mystery they left in their wake, then for the 1975 film adaptation which sparked our love of Gunne Sax and the prairie gown.

 

13. No Friend But the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani

Australian books

Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani speaks truth to power, bringing attention to Australia's brutal treatment of refugees in off-shore detention, while imprisoned on Manus Island himself for six years. Do not look away.

 

14. Come in Spinner, Dymphna Cusack and Florence James

Let Dymphna Cusack and Florence James usher you into an Australia under American 'occupation' at the tail end of WWII, with this feminist tome. Working out of a hair salon in a posh hotel while their husbands are away at war, we find Claire, Debs and Guinea as they navigate sex work, abortion and gambling. Of course, it was for these very themes that the novel was originally released as an abridged version in 1951.

Come in Spinner is a rare insight into the social and political existence of women, at a crucial time in Australia's history.

 

15. In My Skin, Kate Holden

Australian books

Kate Holden's frank and compelling memoir reframes mainstream conversations around sex work and addiction; slicing out the salacious clichés and instead circling the intense ordinariness of both positions. In My Skin describes a community of people not on the margins, but hidden in plain sight. A must read.

 

16. Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe

A chronicle that should have a designated spot on every book shelf. Bruce Pascoe argues that the true scope of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural practices have been buried in the history wars and books to justify dispossession. Dark Emu is undeniable evidence of the way First Nations knowledge systems have been disparaged to uphold the white hegemony - something that is always abhorrent, but especially as we confront climate change.

 

17. Eggshell Skull, Bri Lee

Australian books

Bri Lee traces her experience of the Australian legal system from daughter of a policeman and law student to judge associate and ultimately, complainant. Through her work as a judge associate, Lee was enraged by the injustices faced by women in the legal system, and it was their pain that emboldened her to dig up the suffering in her own past, baring it all in court.

 

18. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, Anita Heiss

Anita Heiss herded together high profile and lesser known voices to recount their experiences growing up Aboriginal in Australia. The result? A refreshing feat in a country where all too often First Nations people are spoken over and spoken on behalf of.

 

19. Of A Boy, Sonya Hartnett

Australian books

A quiet and unassuming novel about the loneliness and ceaseless anxieties of nine-year-old Adrian; the ending of which will be torched into your memory from hereafter.

 

20. The Cross, Mandy Sayer

Mandy Sayer pens a fictionalised story of journalist and local activist, Juanita Nielsen, as she spearheaded the movement to stave off developers closing in on Victoria Street, Kings Cross. Naturally, Sayer plunges into Nielsen's mysterious disappearance in 1975, one that has remained unsolved by Police despite being considered an open secret among suburb locals. Born and bred in the Cross, Sayer brings her sharp observations and pragmatism to the history.

 

21. Cloud Street, Tim Winton

Australian books

Two families, the Pickles and the Lambs, are thrust together under one roof on Cloud Street in the outer suburbs of Perth for more than twenty years. Over the course of two decades their lives become enmeshed, for better or for worse. For Winton, this is the book the launched his career.

 

22. Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko

Intergenerational trauma is approached with dark humour but also optimism in Too Much Lip. Protagonist, Kerry Salter reluctantly hightails it south of the border into Bundjalung country - her hometown - on a stolen Harley, setting herself twenty four hours to farewell her sick grandfather. Here, Melissa Lucashenko lays down a path for healing and forgiveness, when others have given up.

 

23. The Messenger, Markus Zusak

Australian books

Although your first run in with Australian author Markus Zusak may have come by way of his Nazi Germany centred novel-cum-film The Book Thief, The Messenger is just as worthy of your attention. Set in an unnamed Australian city, Ed is a nineteen-year-old cab driver coasting along through life with his dog The Doorman and two friends - that is until he derails a bank robbery by accident. From here, he starts receiving anonymous playing cards in the mailbox, with three addresses and a call to action. It's a story about extreme ordinariness and the magnitude of simple acts of kindness.

 

24. Voss, Patrick Wood

If you think long-distance relationships are hard now, read this nineteenth century tale of two pining lovers before the internet existed to soften loves keen sting. Oh, and Patrick White won the inaugural Miles Franklin award for this...

 

25. Sweatshop Women: Volume One, Edited by Winnie Dunn

Australian books

Born out of the literacy movement humming in Western Sydney, Sweatshop Women: Volume One is what happens when wom*n from migrant, Indigenous and refugee backgrounds are granted the space to write their own stories and poetry. Naturally, the collection is brilliant.

 

26. Candy, Luke Davies

Drawn together during a molten Sydney summer, Candy and the unnamed narrator are soon bound by a third party - their insatiable heroin addiction. Underneath the gritty, sometimes frightening descriptions of addiction is Luke Davies' free-flowing and vivid prose. And if all attempts at finishing the novel are thwarted, there's always the equally as compelling film adaptation starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish.

 

27. The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clark

Australian books

Maxine Beneba Clarke's memoir describes in unflinching detail the reality of growing up Black in white, middle-class Australia in the 1980s-90s.

28. The Queen of Bohemia, Dulcie Deamer

While Tilly Devine and razor gangs take centre stage when revisiting Kings Cross in the 1920's, what's often overlooked is the glittering parties and the queen of them all, journalist and playwright, Dulcie Deamer. Here you'll find Deamer's story, as told by the Queen of Bohemia herself.

29. The Well, Elizabeth Jolley

Australian books

Set in the South Australian countryside, The Well delves into the relationship between Hester and her unofficially adopted daughter Katherine. Isolated and lonely, Hester latches on to Katherine, spoiling her with the inheritance from her father which inevitably dries out, forcing them to move to a small cottage with a well. As Katherine grows, Hester is wary of her becoming distant and one night after driving home from party, they run into something - someone. Unsure of what to do, they launch the creature into the well, where not long after Katherine starts to hear a voice echo from... The Well is laden with queer subtext and mystery.

 

30. Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey

Once described as the "Australian To Kill A Mockingbird", thirteen-year-old Charlie is startled in the middle of the night by someone rapping on his window. It's Jasper Jones, a local misfit, and he desperately seeks Charlie's help. What happens next will alter both Jasper and Charlie's lives forever, maybe even yours too.

 

31. The Bodysurfers, Robert Drewe

Australian books

For those whose picture of 'Australiana' centres the beach, Robert Drewe's collection of short stories is a classic. Subverting the trite depiction of the beach as a sunny idyll, Drewe instead draws upon a landscape that reeks with repressed desire and decay. Here you'll find a trail of stories following three generations of the Lang family and their personal woes; be it divorce, death or deception.

 

32. Fight Like A Girl, Clementine Ford

A gateway novel that will lure you into a lifetime of holding your hand over your heart and pledging your allegiance to feminism. Clementine Ford reminds us that planet earth is still a precarious and unfriendly place to be a wom*n, hear her roar.

 

33. Woolloomoolooo, Louis Nowra

Australian books

Cherished playwright and established regular at The Old Fitzroy Pub, Louis Nowra, pens the history of working-class suburb Woolloomooloo. From the unceded lands of the Cadigal people, to its' maligned reputation as a hotspot for brothels, grog and gambling, rounding the chronicle off with the present day threat of developers.

 

34. Throat, Ellen Van Neerven

Throat is Ellen van Neerven's second book of poetry, a leave-no-prisoners interrogation of Australia's fragmented and shameful history. As a Mununjali Yugambeh writer, they explore queerness, culture and country with heart and conviction. It's a manifesto of resistance; and this shines through in Throats experimental form and expansive language.

 

35. Trivial Grievances, Bridie Jabour

Australian books

The UK has Dolly Alderton and here in Australia, we're lucky to have Bridie Jabour. Trivial Grievances examines the unique cultural, social, economic and political landscape millennials have found themselves in; one so very different from our parents, where the earth is heating, religion is in decline, housing is unstable and on top of that, we've experienced a pandemic. Although, it's not all doom and gloom. Jabour approaches the rather bleak topics with her characteristic wit and optimism.

 

36. Summertime, Danielle Celermajer

Danielle Celermajer has not forgotten the Black Summer of 2019-20 and nor should we. The book is a lyrical clarion call to open our eyes to the devastation climate change presents not only to ourselves, but to all creatures, animals, trees and ecologies.

Looking for more book recommendations? Why not plunge into these 30 books before you turn thirty? Passed that milestone? Take these books that we'll treasure forever instead.

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