Every year, I pick the top ten books out of the hundred or so that I end up reading. Here’s what I reckon are the best Australian books of 2019. Read on to find out more.
Welcome to my now yearly post, celebrating the increasingly diverse and always interesting literature scene in Australia!
I love to read. I’m the kinda gal who brings a book everywhere, just in case I get bored.
I used to average about 70 books a year, but since joining my local library, my reading has sort of got out of hand. I read over 100 books a year now, and save a heck-ton of money. Libraries are the best.
One thing I do try to do now is read books published by Australian authors. We have a fantastic literary scene, particularly in Melbourne.
It’s not hard to pull a diverse (in gender, background and culture) list of Australian reads together at the end of each year. The most difficult thing is whittling them down to ten.
I’ve done my best.
Once again, I’m serving up what I reckon were the ten best Australian books of this year.
The best Australian books of 2019
Born-Again Blakfella – Jack Charles
Jack Charles – Aboriginal Elder, film and stage actor, potter, Indigenous activist and former cat burglar – has had some life.
Born in 1943, Uncle Jack is part of what is known in Australia as the ‘Stolen Generation’. For those reading outside of Australia, Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their parents and local communities by the state, and sent to live with foster parents, in local missionaries or boarding schools.
There was no reasoning behind this, besides the white community believing they knew better. In many, many cases, these family members never saw each other again.
This occurred over a period of around 70 years and is a horrific aspect of Australia’s modern history, with the ramifications still very much felt today.
Charles was put into the notorious Box Hill Home, where he, among many other kids, were abused. He’s suffered racial vilification, battled with drugs and has been incarcerated over twenty times, mostly due to his habit of prowling around the houses of the rich in Kew and taking what he liked, during his burglary days.
However, he’s an incredible actor, activist, musician and potter. A truly exceptional and treasured member of the Australian public.
Uncle Jack is a born story-teller and his book reads just like this – someone telling you the story of their life, over a beer at the pub, or a long and lazy dinner. I read this book in one sitting on a Sunday morning and enjoyed it immensely.
This is What a Feminist Looks Like – Emily Maguire
Feminism is surprisingly simple – it can be defined as any person taking action against the accepted misogyny in our society.
So commonplace is this misogyny, that it’s taken for granted, despite the myriad of ways in which it hurts and restricts our lives – no matter what gender we identify as.
Part history book, part feminist text, this book details the rise (and rise) of feminism in Australia. It covers five sections, dictating the challenges women face in politics, at work, home, within their own bodies and in the public space.
What I like most about this text, is the job it does of laying out exactly how far we’ve come. It’s refreshing to be reminded of the wins.
It is too, aggravating to read of the many ways women have been restricted throughout the decades.
I had no idea for example, that no public toilets were made available for women until the 1920s (Men had toilets erected in the 1880s and of course, can freely piss in the streets, if they so desire).
However, it is encouraging to read about how much has changed, along with where we must continue to go to make our communities more accessible for all.
The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory – Corey White
This was a hard book to read and reminded me strongly of one of last year’s favourites – Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt.
White had an utterly harrowing childhood. With a father in jail and a mother suffering from addiction, he is separated from his sisters, and moved in and out of foster homes. Here he is abused, bullied and treated with complete and utter indifference.
The ramifications of these childhood experiences echo throughout his adult life. He too battles with drug addiction and deals with suicidal thoughts.
This is a very brave book and ultimately, a story of survival. Corey is a comedian and his humour carries this memoir through – he can make you laugh and cry within the space of a single paragraph.
His is a hard story to sit through, but it’s important that stories like this get told, without sugar-coating. Plenty of people do it tough in Australia, leading tragic lives. They deserve to have a space to be heard.
Gravity is the Thing – Jaclyn Moriarty
Jaclyn is one of the trio of Moriarty sisters, who are all authors. The most well-known of which is Liane, author of Big Little Lies.
Traditionally an author of children’s books, this wonderfully whimsical tale is Jaclyn’s first book for adults.
Abigail Sorenson begins receiving chapters in the mail of a self-help manual, known as The Guidebook. This quite simply, is an instruction manual on how to make one’s life soar, up to heights that few others achieve.
Shortly after, her beloved brother Robert disappears, right before her sixteenth birthday. He’s never seen again.
Twenty years later, Abi is invited to an all-expenses paid weekend retreat, where she will learn the truth about this Guidebook. She jumps at the chance, desperate to connect the dots and discover what happened to her lost brother somewhere along the way.
This is an ultimately uplifting book, in language as well as story.
There is of course, no Guidebook to life – it just happens and you often don’t get much say in where the journey takes you.
How to Be Second Best – Jessica Dettmann
Another easy and enjoyable read.
Out of the blue, Emma’s husband Troy admits to fathering another child around the same time as their daughter Freya.
The revelations continue as he admits he is in love with this other woman, and leaves to live with Helen and daughter Lola, in a house three doors down from Emma.
Some time later, Emma finds herself in a position few would envy. She spends much of her time looking after Lola, along with her own children Freya and Tim.
Helen and Troy (lol) treat her much like the doormat she has unwittingly become, dumping their child on her without a moment’s notice.
Emma is doing her best to be the best at everything life asks of her – a great mother, ex-wife, sister and daughter – but things aren’t working out much as she hopes. Emma decides to fight back, with interesting and amusing results.
It’s the characterisation that really lifted this book above and beyond for me. Emma is both a likeable and frustrating character. You feel rightly devastated for her at the beginning of the book, but the way Helen and Troy treat her is appalling and her willingness to accept their bad behaviour, cringeworthy.
The villain of the piece, Troy, is an asshat. I spent most of the book longing for him to get his comeuppance. Helen isn’t much better – a self-absorbed, ‘modern’ parent with many teeth-gritting moments of her own.
All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read, set in the mean streets of suburban Sydney, and a fantastic debut novel to boot.
The Land Before Avocado – Richard Glover
It’s not uncommon to hear people in Australia, usually from the older generations, wistfully long for things to be as they were “in the olden days”.
When housing was affordable, as was life within this country. Children played on the street, without fear of being abducted. Australia was far more ‘fun’ – not the cowering, nanny-state we recognise it as today.
However, is this really the case? Were the 60’s and 70’s truly the golden age of Australia? Or has the distance of time marred our memories of the past, as we look back on it with slightly smudged rose-coloured glasses?
Glover takes us on an amusing and often self-deprecating journey back to the Australia of yesteryear – a time before avocados, when Australian food was less than palatable (think your standard meat and two veg, with 70’s dinner parties sounding like an utter, inedible horror show).
Children may have been freely able to run around the neighbourhood, but did things tough, being routinely smacked and abused at both home and school.
We’ve come along way in terms of basic human rights – for women, for LGBTQIA groups (homosexuality was only decriminalised in NSW in 1984) and Indigenous rights, although we do still have a long way to go.
And yes, housing was more affordable… but what about those hefty interest rates!
Australia has evolved greatly in the last fifty years and although there are a lot of aspects of the country that need much and in some cases urgent improvement, we should be proud.
We are far more multicultural and accepting of each other and our differences.
And I for one, am grateful avocado is now freely available for breakfast.
The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire – Chloe Hooper
Every Australian is familiar with Black Saturday.
On the 7th of February 2009, temperatures hit record highs and Victoria burned. 180 people ultimately lost their lives and there were as many as 400 separate fires recorded in the state.
The Arsonist focuses on just one part of Victoria, the La Trobe Valley, where a man lit two fires and sat on his roof to watch them burn.
With Hooper, we hunt for this man and see firsthand, the repercussions of deadly bushfires on the greater community. The hardest part to read was the beginning of the book, a series of vignettes of various people who lost their lives during this terrible event.
One that has particularly haunted me, was the story of a 21 year old boy who had dropped into a party, then stayed behind to help the family try to protect their home.
As the fire rushed through, his father’s phone pinged with a message. My heart stopped and shattered into a thousand pieces upon reading the last words he’d ever text to his Dad.
As I write this, bushfires are ranging across four states of my country, with New South Wales having declared a state of emergency (yet bizarrely, at this point, the Sydney fireworks are still scheduled to go ahead for New Year’s Eve, expelling even more smoke into the sky with them).
Hundreds of homes have burnt to the ground and lives, both human and animal, have been lost. Outside, smoke lingers in the air, casting an eery, yellow glow across the land.
Fire has always been a part of the Australian story, a tale as old as time in this sunburnt country. It is a tool that can and must be managed, as it can too cause untold destruction, when it falls into the wrong hands, as it so often does.
The World Was Whole – Fiona Wright
Fiona Wright has fast become one of my favourite Australian memoirists.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, to the point where I COULDN’T finish it in one sitting.
I had to have a few breaks while reading, give myself time to reflect and think about each essay before I could come back and continue on with the next.
Wright writes about a vast array of topics – mental health, chronic illness, the woes and frustrations of the Sydney rental market, travel and dog ownership/companionship, to name a few.
I particularly enjoyed her essays on life in Newtown, Sydney. Having spent a few years living in Sydney’s inner west, it’s nice to trace well-known paths, walk down King Street with her, through an area of Sydney that each time I visit, I find to be both familiar and alien, all at once.
Such is the transience of big cities, I suppose. Through Wright’s words, it somehow felt like the home it once was and will never physically be again.
Witches: What Women Do Together – Sam George-Allen
Part memoir and partly a comment on modern society and culture, George-Allen explores the sort of magic that can occur when women work together.
Women are often raised to be wary of each other, to form rivalries. We are taught that there’s only so much room at the top (those few inches carved out for us, that are not occupied by white men) and we must fight each other for a foothold in this shared space.
Instead of tearing down each other, this book demonstrates what can happen when we collectively work together. In farming, to the nursing industry, the AFLW and online beauty communities, it’s amazing what we can achieve and it is a kinda magic.
Reading it left me feeling hopeful and optimistic – which is not necessarily a feeling one gets after finishing a feminist text.
Salt: Selected Essays and Stories – Bruce Pascoe
Despite being published a few years ago, Pascoe’s non-fiction book Dark Emu (which explores the true history of Aboriginal agricultural practices and their relationship with the land) has been everywhere this year.
I gleefully devoured it (read it, it’s super interesting), then moved on to this collection of non-fiction essays and short stories, written by Pascoe over the course of his long writing career.
This essay collection explores culture, connection to the land, environment, race, racism, invasion, ignorance, death, place, politics and hard truths (for some maybe) about the true history of Australia.
Pascoe is a fantastic writer and his existence alone seems to incite the ire of right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt, which I find delightful. Bolt has dedicated a staggering amount of time to attempting to tear down Pascoe’s Aboriginal heritage (Pascoe is of Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin descent).
He clearly has too much time on his hands and could do with developing healthier hobbies.
So there you have it – the best books of 2019. Have you read any of these? Are you going to?
Note: If you’re interested in picking up any of these titles yourself, I highly recommend either borrowing them from your local library, or buying them from an independent bookstore.