From fiction to non-fiction, colonial history to modern day, from novels set in the Australian outback to a tale of a city or country town, there is no doubt that the landscape of Australia offers vast opportunities for the backdrop of epic tales. Or even to be such a fundamental part of the story and its influence on the characters, that is really a character in itself.
Whether you’re looking for some new reading inspirations, or just interested in gaining a different insight or perspective on the amazing and mysterious country of Australia, check out some of the best books that feature Australia as an integral part of the story!
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Down Under (Published in the US as In a Sunburned Country)
Author: Bill Bryson
Recommended by: Steve from The Trip Goes On
Down Under is the 2004 travelogue which details best-selling author Bill Bryson’s journey across Australia. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the “land down under” and is packed full of interesting facts as Bryson tries to unpick a continent that is often neglected by the world’s media (Neighbours notwithstanding).
The author takes us on a journey across Australia’s towns and cities, the vast outback, tropics and more. His interactions with the locals (including the wildlife) are insightful and often hilarious! From Adelaide to Aboriginal Art, Darwin to drowned prime ministers and Ned Kelly to the Nullarbor, Bryson paints a fascinating picture of this vast and untamed continent.
Down Under is one of Bryson’s best travel memoirs and contains his usual dry wit and acerbic observations. The book leaves no stone unturned while exploring the history of the nation and its people. Truly one of the most entertaining and informative books about Australia!
Published in 2016, this was a book that took me by surprise, having bought it because the film starring Eric Bana had recently been released and I thought it looked good. I didn’t expect it would be a page turner that I would not put down until it was finished, nearly 6 hours later. This is one of those books that will have you staying up well past your bedtime.
Harper is masterful at building the mystery while at the same time exorcising the demons of the past in the drought stricken town of Kiewarra, where Federal Police officer Aaron Falk returns to attend the funeral of a childhood friend not seen in years. Having left , or rather run out of, the town under a cloud of suspicion for a murdered girl, Falk has not returned since and is met by mixed sentiments and far too many memories. Asked to stay on by the parents of his friend and look into the finances of his farm, he begins to see that there is far more to the death of his friend than first appears.
With the drought almost a character in itself that shapes the lives and death of the towns residents, this book will keep you intrigued and guessing until the very end as both mysteries work towards their conclusions.
South African born Bryce Courtenay emigrated to Australia in the 1950’s and is widely regarded as one of Australia’s most popular authors. While many of his books are set in Australia, a personal favourite of mine was always Four Fires, published in 2001.
Set in a fictional small town in the state of Victoria, Four Fires is focused on the Maloney family. Descended from Irish convicts they are a tight family unit that is well down the social ladder. Courtenay’s exceptional character development and descriptive settings are at their impeccable best here, and the reader is drawn into the story of this dysfunctional family with a patriarch broken by war at times more interested in roaming the bush and fighting fires and a tough-talking matriarch who gets down to business and keeps the family afloat.
Courtenay uses the Four Fires as a metaphor to represent passion, religion, warfare and fire itself, seeing these as key in the shaping of the Australian people and their spirit. It is the novel that he felt most close to after his debut and I vividly remember the depiction of a bushfire bearing down on the family as they fought to survive and protect each other.
Having grown up in a bushfire region, perhaps this is why it resonated with me.
David Malouf’s Johnno is a cult-classic novel among Brisbanites. Published in 1975, it was crowned joint-winner of the ‘One Book One Brisbane’ competition in 2004 as the book that best represents the River City.
Johnno is a work of fiction that draws heavily on the author’s early years growing up in Brisbane in the 1940s and 50s. The story focuses on protagonist, Dante, and his blossoming friendship with schoolmate, Johnno, and follows the pair as they navigate through adolescence.
This book beautifully captures the city of Brisbane at a time when it played third-fiddle to Sydney and Melbourne. Evocative descriptions of the Botanical Gardens and the CBD still ring true today, and you can visit many of the bars and all of the landmarks mentioned in the book.
Johnno offers a very personal, barebones window onto life in Australia as a young person, highlighting elements of local culture that aren’t often deemed worthy of including on the pages of a novel. It’s a classic coming of age tale that in many ways is an emblem for the city of Brisbane itself, which has undergone huge transformation since Malouf’s debut novel was published.
My Brilliant Career
My Brilliant Career is a romantic novel written by Miles Franklin, in 1901. It is the story of Sybylla, a headstrong teenage girl who dreams of becoming a writer. Growing up in rural Australia in the early 1900s, Sybylla had to overcome many obstacles including gender inequality and poverty in pursuing her dream.
For a romantic novel of its time, My Brilliant Career has quite an unconventional plot. Miles Franklin did an excellent job of taking us through Sybylla’s romantic journey, but the story does not end with her marriage. There isn’t even any hint of her living a happy life or having a “brilliant career” as a writer. The novel clearly shows that life was far from perfect (especially for women) in Australia at the time, something that the author had experienced first hand.
Although My Brilliant Career was written over a hundred years ago, the issues of poverty, gender inequality, as well as toxic family dynamics are still very much relevant in today’s world. Even though we have come a long way in improving many aspects of life, there is still work to be done.
Pearl Sister is a must-read for anyone who loves to learn about Australian colonial history through an easy-to-read historical novel.
It’s the fourth book in the series The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley. And though it would make sense to start at the first book, they are written in such a way that you will still understand the story if you start with, let’s say, The Pearl Sister.
In short, the Seven Sisters is about six sisters (not by blood) who have all been adopted from different parts of the world by Pa Salt. When he passed away, he leaves all his daughters clues about their past, which they all trace back to find out more about their roots.
Pearl Sister covers the story of CeCe D’Aplièse who finds out her roots go back to Australia. As she travels to Australia, the story switches between the present day and the stories of her great, great grandmother, Kitty McBride around 1900.
The combination of Australian history and culture from the past that’s covered in the book, with the mystery as to, why CeCe was adopted in the end, make you want to finish the book in one day.
Pearl Sister touches on some of Australia’s darkest parts of history, such as the dangerous pearl industry and the colonists’ treatment of the aboriginal people. Additionally, through CeCe readers will learn more about current aboriginal art and culture.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
First published in 1967, Picnic at Hanging Rock is about the vanishing of 3 school girls and their teacher during a school picnic at Hanging Rock. The author’s skillful style of mystery and intrigue has made this one of Australia’s most well-known books. A reputation for strange magnetic activity at the site, the remains of an extinct volcano in Victoria, only adds to the mystery
It’s a classic Australian must read, not only because it highlights the beautiful but dangerous nature of the Australian bush, but because it has captured the curiosity of the world since it was written. 50 years after its release, readers are still asking if the book is based on fact and what really happened at Hanging Rock? Author Joan Lindsay wrote a final chapter, but publishers refused to print it, in order to preserve the mystery (which had made the book so popular). However, after Lindsay’s death in 1987, the publishers released the final chapter, titled ‘The secret of hanging rock’ to answer the enduring curiosity.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is such a popular Australian novel that it has was made into a feature film in the 70s, and recently made into a mini series starring Natalie Dormer of Hunger Games and Game of Thrones fame.
Stolen by Lucy Christopher is a captivating and unusual read. It follows the story of Gemma who is kidnapped from an airport while she is with her family. She is taken to the Australian Outback and held there by a young kidnapper. There is no civilisation anywhere close to where she is being held so life begins to feel normal very soon after she arrives. She is held for months and slowly adjusts to the new life in the Outback. Against all odds, she actually becomes very close to her captor Ty and begins to understand him and his story. The two eventually have a romantic relationship and the book takes a major turn. Stolen is not what you might expect. It sheds a different light on a story that could have ended very differently. It’s a real page-turner and easy to read. You’ll be left wanting to hear more about Gemma’s story.
The Light Between Oceans
Author: M L Stedman
Recommended by: Holly from Globeblogging
While definitely not a novel that will be everyone’s cup of tea, this is a sweeping tale of love, loss and deception.
Set against the backdrop of a recently concluded World War 1 and a coastal Western Australian small town depleted of its men, returned soldier Tom Sherbourne arrives to take up the position of lightkeeper on Janus island, a fictional island which lies hundreds of kilometres from the coast between two oceans. It is a solitary life that suits him after the noise and brutality of war.
Naturally this would be a fairly quiet story if it were just him on an island, but a chance encounter with a local girl upon his arrival changes the course of Tom’s future.
The story is a little slow moving at first, but as it reaches its second part it accelerates rapidly. This may leave you wondering what you would do if you were placed in their situation, and how your choices would be shaped by grief, love and isolation in a time before modern technology and convenience.
This debut novel was made into a film in 2016 starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz, which was filmed in Tasmania.
Tomorrow When the War Began
Recommended by: Bec from Travels in Gippsland
If you are looking for a thrilling, can’t put it down read the Tomorrow, When the War Began series of books is for you.
Aimed at young adults this book manages to bridge the generation gap and even adults will still enjoy it. Set in rural Australia the book is based on the character Ellie and her friends. They go camping out in the remote Aussie bush and while they are away Australia is invaded by a foreign nation and their country town is colonised.
Tomorrow, when the war began goes through their stages of shock, realisation and their evolution from adolescence into guerilla warriors against the invaders.
This John Marsden book was so popular that it spawned the Tomorrow series where we follow Ellie and her friends through another 6 books;
The Dead of Night
The Third Day The Frost
Darkness Be My Friend
Burning for Revenge
The Night is for Hunting
The Other Side of Dawn
In 2010, there was also a movie starring Caitlin Stacey based on the first book, and in 2003 the Ellie Chronicles were released.
Robyn Davidson’s Tracks is a memoir about her solo journey across the Australian outback. It’s one of the most influential travel books about Australia I have ever read.
It tells the story of Robyn who in 1977 decided to leave behind her life and set off on a 1,700-mile trek from Alice Springs to Sydney with only four camels and two dogs for company. Her goal was to explore an unknown part of Australia that few outsiders had ever seen – let alone crossed by foot. She encountered some incredible challenges along the way, including extreme heat, thirst, hunger and loneliness, but she pushed through them all until she reached her destination. The book captures what it feels like to be utterly lost in unfamiliar territory without any maps or directions – yet still determined to reach a goal.
What started as an adventure of self-discovery turned into one of survival. This book tells her story and provides insights into how she was able to make it through this harsh environment with few supplies. If you are looking for a true life journey that will inspire your soul, then this is the book for you!