The 10 Best Australian Reads of 2017
Living within walking distance of an excellent library for most of 2017 released some kind of a monster within me.
I read 105 books over the course of twelve months.
I don’t know if that triggers major bragging rights, or if it’s an indicator of a very sad life.
You know what? I’m going to go with bragging rights, because I feel good about this. (Also, feel free to follow me on Goodreads if you like, because I need more friends. It’s like MySpace all over again, although without the stress of having a top 8, thank goodness).
Many of the books that I borrowed out were epically good. Some were terrible, but I still read all of them, bar one – a biography on F. Scott Fitzgerald. It seemed a bit weird to dive into a book about the man’s life when I’m yet to finish reading his own novels (trying to make them last as long as possible).
I had two major reading goals this year. One was to read more books by men. It might seem a bit silly to say so, but I find an overwhelming amount of books I read are written by women and as happy as this makes me, I’d still like to find a bit of balance.
My second goal was to read as many books as possible by Australian authors. My year of backyard travel may not have panned out exactly as I had envisioned, but by immersing myself in stories written by my countrypeople, I experienced a different type of travel.
I read stories that took me up and down the Australian East Coast. I travelled back in time to my home state of NSW during the late 1800s. I travelled forward in time to a dystopian future, set a stone’s throw from where I currently live in Melbourne, now.
It wasn’t just Australia I journeyed through, either. I wandered the halls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I drove across the United States and partied in London. I learnt about Irish folklore and walked a sacred pilgrimage in Japan.
This is what I love about reading and why the fact that many avid travellers are voracious readers never fails to surprise me. With the simple turn of a page, you’re taken on an adventure, to places you’ve never visited before and may never see yourself in your lifetime. You can travel all round the world, all from the comfort of your favourite chair in your living room.
Rather than do a generic “best reads” post of 2017, I decided to narrow down the top ten Australian books that I read over the course of this year. They didn’t necessarily need to be set in the country, they just had to be penned by Aussie authors.
Here are my ten favourites.
I love reading travel memoirs, I adore reading travel memoirs written by women and I am particularly stoked when they don’t feature in-depth detailing of the author’s sex life.
I don’t know what it is with female travel memoirs, but relationships often feature first and foremost in their stories. It’s why I didn’t enjoy reading books like Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents and What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding as much as I thought I would. TMI and not enough adventure.
Lisa Dempster’s Neon Pilgrim is one such memoir that focuses wholly on the author’s own journey. Dempster finds herself in a crisis of sorts – she’s in her late twenties, she’s overweight, depressed, is living with her mother and has no idea of what she wants to do with her life.
So, she does what any rational person would do in a crisis – she packs up her life and flies out from Melbourne, to spend almost three months walking the henro michi, a 1200 kilometre Buddhist pilgrimage through the mountains of Japan. In the middle of summer, with next to no money, having never hiked a day in her life.
Through this journey, Dempster turned her life around, coming home and finding her feet. She not only returned back to Australia to write this book, but now serves as the director of the Melbourne Writers Festival. If there’s a better job to have than that in this city, I’m not currently aware of it.
Her story is uplifting and heartwarming and will make you want to immediately book a flight to Japan to walk this arduous pilgrimage yourself.
Wish You Were Here
Or alternatively, you can read Sheridan Jobbin’s memoir Wish You Were Here and find yourself daydreaming about flying to Los Angeles and attempting to drive across the States.
Having recently split up from the love of her life despite still being solidly in love with him, Jobbins found herself in a crisis of sorts. She conceives of a plan to fly to LA, buy a fancy car and drive across America… and back.
So this is what she does, despite having no money and no real prospects to return to. What she doesn’t factor into what’s supposed to be her fiercely independent trip, is meeting the love of her life along the way.
Jobbins’ book is a must-read for anyone who’s had their heart broken and dreamt of leaving it all behind to go on some wild journey… follow in the footsteps of a woman who did just that.
The Family Law
Growing up in an Asian family in regional Queensland is not the easiest thing to do. Growing up gay in an Asian family in regional Queensland… well, that’s another kettle of fish altogether.
In his book The Family Law, Benjamin Law regales his audience with hilarious anecdotes (much like in the style of David Sedaris, but with an Aussie twist) of his eccentric family. His mother in particular, makes for an amusing figure.
Law was a regular feature in a magazine I was an avid fan of growing up (Frankie, if you’re curious) and I’ve always enjoyed his writing. Devouring a whole book of it was a sheer delight indeed.
Rory Buchanan is good-looking, charming and easy to get along with; he’s what every man wants to be and who every woman would want to be with. The glue of his local community, he enjoys an easy life full of fun, sun, sports and drinks with his wife, children, family and friends.
Then tragedy strikes and those around him are left to get on with their lives, while everything around them – relationships, friendships and family ties, start to unravel.Last Summer is an easy read – the kind of book you’d take with you for a day at the beach. I like stories that provide a simple insight into suburban Australia (think Liane Moriarty’s books which are so North Shore Sydney, it hurts), which made this book a very enjoyable read.
Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry was just about everywhere in 2017.
Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to his hometown in rural Victoria, to attend the funeral of his best childhood friend Luke. The twist? Twenty years ago when Falk was accused of murder, Luke was his alibi and there are people across the town who know that both of the teenagers were lying.
Luke’s death is both tragic and suspicious and as Falk looks further into the series of events, he begins to unravel a decades long mystery in the progress.
Thrillers are my favourite genre and it was fantastic to read one set in regional Australia. The Falk series is ongoing, with Force of Nature released in 2017.
The Museum of Modern Love
The Museum of Modern Love was one of my favourite books of 2017. I was sceptical for the first few pages, then WOW! BANG! It sucked me straight in.
Told from differing P.O.V’s, the prime protagonist Arky Levin is a film composer in New York, adjusting to life without his wife Lydia.
At a loss, he finds himself in MOMA one day, which happens to coincide with real-life performance artist Marina Abramovic’s work The Artist is Present (where she sat completely still each day, inviting viewers to sit across from her and maintain eye contact for however long they wished). The performance continues for 75 days and has an impact on those who watch it unfold, including Levin.
What was most interesting about this novel is the fact that author Heather Rose managed to get permission from both Abramovic and her photographer during the performance, to write chapters from their own perspective. It seems the ultimate in artistic liberty and makes for fascinating reading.
Last Woman Hanged: the Terrible True Story of Louisa Collins
Last Woman Hanged is also a top contender, covering the case and ultimately the hanging of Louisa Collins, the last woman to be sentenced to death in New South Wales, Australia.
Collin’s was a suspect in the murder of her two husbands, who both allegedly died from arsenic poisoning in the late 1800s. She was trialled not one, not two but four times, once for the murder of her first husband Charles Andrews and thrice for that of her second, Michael Collins.
Her case caused a sensation at the time – evidence was flaky at best, Collins’ own ten year old daughter May was used as a key witness and once the first three juries failed to reach a verdict, the Crown stacked the jury against her in the fourth trial, finally obtaining the verdict they desired.
Collins was hanged on the 8 January 1889. The event was botched and her death unnecessarily violent.
Her hanging was pivotal in many ways, least of all becoming one of the events that really kicked off the suffrage movement across Australia. Both women and some men were outraged by the fact that a woman could be trialled and executed like a man, without having the same rights as them in Australian society. Australia went on to become the second nation worldwide to give women the vote in 1902, narrowly beaten by New Zealand.
This collection of short stories has a somewhat misleading title.
I am no fan of Australia’s national holiday and it’s a subject I’ve written about a few times in the past on this blog.
Melanie Cheng’s debut book doesn’t have much to do with the holiday itself – more what it is to be a modern Australian. Not just an Indigenous Australian, or a white Australian – but Australians of all backgrounds, for this is a very multicultural country indeed (one of the factors of Oz that I think makes it both unique and a wonderful place to reside in).
The short stories in Australia Day are essentially vignettes of life in Melbourne, one of the most cosmopolitan pockets of Australia. It’s a quick read (I devoured it in a day), but you’ll find yourself mulling over these characters and their stories for days afterwards.
The Thing About Prague
Here’s another one to add to the list of Australian women who give up their easy lives in Oz to journey to somewhere new (think Almost French and Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure).
The difference between these women and Rachael Weiss, is that although Weiss was following her heart when she up and moved to Prague, it wasn’t for the love of a man – it was for the love of the city itself.The Thing About Prague details the trials and tribulations Weiss encounters as she tries to make a home in the Czech capital – admittedly encountering barriers at almost every turn. I thought British bureaucracy was nuts when I moved to London and I have to say, I’m reevaluating that thought process now and then some.
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists
I spotted Jane Rawson’s novel A Wrong Turn at The Office of Unmade Lists in a bookstore years ago, resolved to read it one day and then promptly forgot about it until I happened upon a note I’d left myself in my phone earlier this year. Luckily my library had it, which led to the reading of one of the funniest and weirdest books I’ve come across in my life.
Rawson’s novel jumps between two stories. In 1997 San Francisco, teenagers Sarah and Simon are on a quest to see every 25-foot square of the United States. Decades in the future, having had her home, cat and husband destroyed in a freak climate change induced accident, Caddy now camps by the Maribyrnong River in Melbourne, living on small change from odd jobs, drunk on vodka and memories. Everything changes when Caddy’s friend Ray happens upon some well-worn maps, which take the two directly to the past, putting them in touch with Sarah and Simon and reshaping the future.
Part magical realism, part dystopian future, this book is unexpectedly funny and heart-warming. I particularly enjoyed all the thinly veiled jabs at the constant ineptitude of Melbourne’s own Metro Trains. It’s true that they can’t be trusted to run on time on any given normal day, let alone during the crisis times of a dystopian future.
So, there you have it. Ten books, of different genres, which all made for jolly good reading. I hope to get into more sensational Australian-authored books in 2018 (like, finally finishing one of Richard Flanagan’s).
What were some of your favourite reads of 2017?
If you’re determined to read a helluva lot more this year, here are some of my tips.
This post contains affiliate links to books I’ve read and therefore recommend.