The 10 Best Australian Books of 2018
I’ll admit I approached the writing of this list with some trepidation. I’ve read a lot of great Aussie books this year and narrowing them down to just ten has been a stressful ordeal.
I’ve kept to books that were published in 2018 and have tried to review a range of genres, although I seem to inevitably default to memoirs and crime thrillers as they are my favourites.
In no particular order apart from placing my favourite at the top, here are what I think are the best Australian books of 2018.
Happy Never After – Jill Stark
For me, Jill Stark’s book was the standout of the year – to the point where I’m actually re-reading it in audio book form, immensely enjoying the sound of her dulcet Scotstralian tones.
From a societal perspective, Stark had it all. She’d reached what she thought was the pinnacle of her career, publishing a book (High Sobriety about her year off alcohol, also very good) which became a bestseller. Her job as Health Reporter at Melbourne newspaper The Age brought her satisfaction. She had bought an apartment, which she shared with a doting pet cat called Hamish and was even dating a lithe and well-sculpted young AFL player. She was only in her mid-thirties, but she’d “made it”.
Stark has also suffered from crippling anxiety all her life and shortly after publishing her book, her world came crashing down around her ears, as her mental health spiralled out of control. Unable to work, she struggles to piece herself back together within the Australian mental health system, encountering many barriers along the way (such as a psychologist who ‘breaks up’ with her, what a terrible thing to do to a patient).
In this fantastic book, she examines our obsession with ‘happiness’ – how this often fleeting emotion is marketed to us as the thing we must all aspire to and what it does to our mental state. She seamlessly interweaves fact, case studies and interviews with her own personal experience, creating a text that suggests that perhaps we collectively waste our energies by chasing something we can only ever briefly achieve.
Vodka and Apple Juice – Jay Martin
Jay Martin and her husband Tom give up their comfortable public servant life in Canberra to pack up and move to Warsaw for three years, so Tom can live out his dream of being an Australian diplomat. The hours are long for him, the experience isolating for them both and it puts a strain on their marriage.
However, Jay is the ideal expat. She’s gone from working full-time in a senior role to becoming a ‘diplomat’s wife’. Rather than lamenting her lack of work, she sees the opportunity of this time abroad as a career break and instead throws herself headfirst into her new life – learning the extraordinarily difficult Polish language, making Polish friends, travelling around to spots not often visited by tourists and eventually writing about this new country that becomes her temporary home.
It’s not all sunshine and puppy dogs tails (what life is?) but her ability to pull herself out of the ruts she finds herself in is commendable (although sometimes she assisted with the help of well meaning, yet frank close friends).
Told with good humour, this is a really interesting insight into both the expat experience, the life of a diplomat and Polish culture as a whole.
Trace: Who Killed Maria James? – Rachael Brown
This book is based on a successful ABC podcast of the same name, following the same case. I’ve heard that the book is mostly a rehash of the podcast, but as I hadn’t listened to it, I found the story compelling.
Trace follows journalist Rachael Brown’s investigation into a Melbourne-based cold case – the death of Maria James.
James was a mother and bookstore owner who was found brutally murdered in her home in the 1980s. Almost forty years on, it’s a mystery as to who took her life.
Brown gets quite emotionally involved in the case – she wants to solve it, in order to help find closure for Maria James’ now adult sons. You can’t help but root for her, cheering when things turns a corner and feeling deep despair at the many barriers encountered along the way.
There seems to be hope for many cold cases of the past, with DNA technology assisting in the arrest of perpetrators, decades on. The most recent and well-known example of this is the capture of the Golden State Killer, of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
The investigation reveals bungling of forensic evidence by Victoria Police and hints at some shady cover ups involving the church. I don’t want to give too much away to anyone like me who hasn’t listened to the podcast, but it’s a compelling story and a must-read for any true crime buffs.
Rocky Road: The incredible true story of the fractured family behind the Darrell Lea chocolate empire – Robert Wainwright
Australians of my generation (born in the eighties/early nineties) and older will remember the pure delight of Darrell Lea stores – rooting around the colourful displays to come home with musk, Bo-Peep lollies and Rocklea Road – not to mention the easter eggs. Yum.
I know I was pretty devastated to return home from living overseas to an Australia without Darrell Lea – the company sold on by the Lea family before entering voluntary administration.
What I had no idea about, was the twisted history behind this beloved Australia company, in the form of the emotional abuse of matriarch Valerie Lea upon her adopted children.
Valerie married Monty Lea and ran the business alongside him, his father, brothers and their wives. After successfully relocating from Sydney to Melbourne with Monty, she decided she wanted a large family herself, with lots of children. However, she only ended up giving birth to four kids, so she and Monty adopted another three children.
Valerie could seemingly never bring herself to love her adopted children as much as her biological children and as teenagers, these kids rebelled. The Leas often worked long hours to support their business, with all the children being largely neglected and allowed to run wild. Valerie was a cold and distant mother, in contradiction to the company image, which always put family first.
Darrell Lea are in the process of bringing their stores back into Australian shops and I can only imagine their products will taste bittersweet from here on in.
The Lost Man – Jane Harper
Jane Harper is fast becoming one of my favourite Australian writers. This was her third book, a step away from her previous two, which follow Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk into the depths of regional Victorian life.
The Lost Man is set in outback Australia, where the land, climate and people can be unforgiving.
Cameron Bright is found dead under a local landmark, the grave of a stockman who perished in the desert. His death is a mystery – Cameron has lived on this property all his life. He knows how to survive in the heat of the outback and his car is only a few miles away, stocked with supplies.
The narrator is Nathan, Cameron’s brother who himself is a lost man – cut off from town and his family, bound by financial restraints. Through his eyes, we navigate the depths of this familial drama, as past relationships, actions and misdeeds, once buried deep within the desert itself, are brought into light.
Harper’s characterisation is excellent, but it’s the way she writes about the land in her stories that continually draws me in. Australia is unimaginably vast and it’s hard to imagine what life in the outback would be like from a metropolitan perspective, or just how difficult life can be for those living in these circumstances.
One Hundred Years of Dirt – Rick Morton
This is a late inclusion on the list, as I only read it in the dying days of 2018!
Rick Morton has experienced a type of Australian life that few could relate to.
Growing up dirt poor amid generations of abuse, he must learn to navigate through the harsh conditions of his life, whilst coming to terms with his own sexuality.
Out of his family of five, three come through as clear survivors. We learn early on that Rick and his mother were able to support his younger sister Lauryn as she navigated her way through university.
He himself is clever enough to follow his dreams of being a journalist all the way to Sydney.
His mother has forever been the glue, leaving her adulterous husband and providing for her family on a shoestring budget, supplementing with love when funds are dry.
This book lead comparisons to Tara Westover’s Educated – some of the scenes are so violent, they seem almost unbelievable, although I’m sure they aren’t. Morton’s text shines a light on how Australian society fails those who live below the poverty line and grapple with drug problems to boot, but overall it’s an encouraging story about a young man overcoming all odds to carve out a successful life for himself.
Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back – Bri Lee
This memoir takes us on a journey through not only the problems with the Australian legal system, but of the way our society is geared to treat victims of abuse.
Lee finishes up her law degree and becomes the associate of a judge with the Queensland District Court. Together she and the “Judge” travel throughout regional Queensland, listening to cases – some of them decades old, with no forensic evidence available.
She sees the same scenario play out again and again – a case of “he said, she said” (or “they said” as not all the abuse victims are female), where often it is just the victim’s word against the perpetrator and time after time that proves to not be enough to secure a conviction.
This work strikes a personal cord with Lee, both as a young woman and a victim herself of sexual abuse. She is compelled to bring a case against her own abuser and soon finds herself on the other side of the bench, navigating her way through a legal system that she’s witnessed failing people firsthand, time and time again.
This is a really powerful, brave and harrowing read and definitely one of my favourite memoirs of the year.
The Right Girl – Ellie O’Neill
I would almost call this our generation (Y)’s 1984. Despite being a fictional tale, it was quite a frightening read.
Freya is a young Irish girl, living in a society where everything almost everyone does is dictated by the app ‘BBest’. Freya in particular loves the app, looking to it for advice in everything from clothing choice, to her boyfriend Mason who comes with a 93% approval rating.
Despite following through with everything BBest recommends, Freya still feels as though there’s something missing in her relationship with Mason. He’s handsome, kind and Australian and they look good together, yet he doesn’t make her heart pound in the same way a fellow she meets in her technology-shunning grandfather’s bookstore/library does.
Freya remains torn throughout the text, grappling with a few very modern day issues. Must we surrender our autonomy in order to live the life of our dreams? Is it really healthy or even safe and sensible to rely on an app to make our everyday decisions?
Much of what is in this book is already playing out in our world, with our personal information being monitored and sold on to interested parties by companies like Amazon and Facebook. Our spending habits are tracked through our use of credit cards. Phones are equipped with GPS trackers. Much of our personal information is readily available online.
Lifestyle apps and devices like Fitbits don’t really require you to daydream too much to imagine a world where an app like BBest monitors your every move, from what you eat, to where you work and even who you date.
Freya is a very likeable character and you can’t help but root for her as she begins to open her eyes and ears and question the motives behind BBest. It’s a fun read, which will leave you with a lot of food for thought on how your own personal data is handled in modern society.
Bridge Burning and Other Hobbies – Kitty Flanagan
I admittedly wasn’t sure if Kitty’s comedy was to my taste, having only ever watched her on TV.
After seeing her onstage at the Bendigo Writers Festival, I bought her book, took it to my hostel room and read it in one sitting.
It was much like a continuation of her show. She’s effortlessly quick-witted and I was chuckling with each turn of the page.
Kitty is one of Australia’s most talented comedians (I think Tom Gleeson is another and then ponder on why I don’t like The Weekly so much) and if you’re after a light and funny read, then this will do the job nicely.
Pulse Points – Jennifer Down
Down’s collection of short stories all relate in some way to death. Although they’re not all set in Australia or indeed with even Australian characters, there is a tangible thread beyond the morbid themes which link them together.
They’re small stories with big issues.
Some of these tales are quite full on, dealing with suicide or rape. Others are quieter, but are no less precise in the attention to language and detail.
I love short stories, as they seem precious somehow. They’re a gift, a glimpse of sometimes merely a few pages or paragraphs into a fresh, new world.
Every time I read a collection of shorts, I resolve to seek out more in the future. A goal for 2019, perhaps?
The worst Australian books of 2018…
Not all the books I read in 2018 were pleasing – some inspired a fair bit of exasperated sighing and eye-rolling.
I put a few down and didn’t return to them, but powered few a through with regrettable results. Here are three in particular which stood out.
The Lebs – Michael Mohammed Ahmad
This book is based on the author’s own experience of attending high school as a Muslim, Lebanese student.
It’s supposed to be confronting to read, but I found the book (which was divided into three parts) lacked any kind of plot whatsoever. There was nothing enlightening or interesting about these teenage boys – I didn’t find myself rooting for them in any way. I didn’t even dislike them, I just felt indifferent.
To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have finished this book if I hadn’t been on a plane with nothing else to read. Not a glowing endorsement, I know.
Sunday Girl – Pip Drysdale
This book got such good reviews on Goodreads, but then I suppose Shakespeare averages like a 3.7 and he is arguably the greatest writer of all time.
Taylor Bishop is dumped by her boyfriend Angus and adding fuel to the fire, discovers that he’s uploaded a sex video starring her online.
After consulting Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, she decides to get her revenge and under the guise of getting back with Angus, proceeds to tear his world apart, bit by bit. However, she doesn’t quite know when to pull back and things start to slide out of control.
The book was suspenseful at times, but I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. Rather than being empowered, Taylor just seemed pathetic to me, reliant on the men around her to validate her existence.
Plus the dialogue throughout the book was quite unbelievable (do couples really refer to each other as ‘darling’ that much? I don’t know many who do) and Angus is such a disgusting lech that I failed to see what had attracted her to him in the first place.
It’s a good read for the beach or a plane journey, but it won’t change your life in any way and as far as romantic thrillers go, it’s a bit of a flop.
Baby – Annaleese Jochems
Okay, so this isn’t an Australian book, as it’s written by a young New Zealander. I picked it up in Wellington, drawn in by the cover.
That was as it turns out, all I’d end up liking about this book. Beneath the bright cover was a disturbing and surreal read that made me feel quite uncomfortable.
Cynthia is 21 and flailing through life, with an interest in her fitness instructor Anahera. Anahera leaves her husband and after stealing money from Cynthia’s father, the two buy a boat named ‘Baby’ and journey to the Bay of Islands in NZ’s North.
It’s hard to relate to any of the characters. Cynthia is vapid and self-obsessed, constantly glued to reality TV shows on the screen of her mobile phone. Anahera too is self-serving, looking to others to fulfil her needs. Life in the islands gets a little bit disturbing – there were some extremely violent and I felt unnecessary scenes which were hard to read.
I get that the book was trying to make a point, I suppose that I didn’t enjoy the way it went about it.
Those three aside, I’m pretty pleased with the quality of the books I read this year, particularly by Australian authors. There’s so much talent in our country! I’m looking forward to discovering new Aussie authors next year and once again attempting to read more books by men. Ahem.
If you’re interested… Here are my favourite Australian books of 2017.
What were your favourite reads of the year?
If you like it, you should stick a pin in it.
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