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Favourite Australian Novels

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published January 23rd 2019
Australian books can be fun to read
Australia Day. Celebrating things Australian is par for the course at this time of the year. Now, I was going to do my favourite Australian songs, but a list of over 100 songs might not go down too well. Australian films could prove problematic as I have not seen a huge number. I did do a list for another website ten years ago about the worst Australian movies I'd see, though, and that was a list of 20.

So I decided instead to look at my favourite Australian works of fiction in the novel/novellas form (and, no, none of my works appear here).

But, first, a small rant.
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And ranting begins in 321

The main Australian publishing houses seem to be stuck in the class divide of a hundred years ago. They obviously feel that only the cultural elite bother to read anything that is not a magazine or newspaper, especially if the author is Australian. And so that is what is published stories that seemed designed to appeal to the artistic elite.

One of the biggest issues is that the works that are published by the major houses seem to be based on theme before story. The themes are more important than anything else. The story needs to have a deep, underlying (or overlying) social message. It seems the stories have to be about hardship and pain and often involve depressing tales with endings that may not be considered happy or even satisfying. And they have to be capital L Literature, written in a prose style that casual readers often find very difficult to get into, ignoring the genre fiction that surrounds us all.

The 'who you are' issue then raises its head when the only new authors who seem to be able to get a book published are those who have achieved a degree of fame in some other field normally by embarrassing themselves on the national stage, be it in sport or on television.

Writing is an art. And, yes, some art is there to confront. But what art sells the most? That which is popular. Now, I am the first to agree popular does not always mean good. I consider the Twilight books poorly written, badly plotted and with appalling plot points, yet they are immensely popular. Many people cannot stand Dan Brown's works, but they are also immensely popular. JK Rowling, Stephen King, Jackie Collins no one is going to claim these authors are Nobel Laureates in waiting, but there is also no denying that they are read and these books sell. A lot.

I feel that in Australia many involved in publishing, and associated fields (book-selling, agents, reviewers, etc) are more interested in making a statement through the Australian content they choose, in making an 'impact' of sorts, than in actually giving the public things that people will want to read. But books and stories are written for people to read. And the majority of people do not want to be preached to they want to read for entertainment. Example: What are the top seven English language fiction books of all time by sales? A Tale of Two Cities; The Lord of the Rings; The Hobbit; And Then There Were None; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; She; and The Da Vinci Code (source: Wikipedia, sorry). They all were written to entertain. Any preaching or teaching is incidental to the main aim entertainment. I have a feeling very few of these would have been looked at by a mainstream Australian publisher if they had been offered to them first.

And so when people talk of their "favourite" Australian books, what do they come up with? From The First Tuesday Book Club's 2012 end of year special "Aussie Books To Read Before You Die"'. Amongst the books they looked at were included too many with depressing endings, where the message overwhelms the writing; where the literary style is more important than the story. Sure, a few good ones snuck in, but out of 20 I can say I enjoyed 4, and one of them was a kids' book. And number one? Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. (A dull book. Lots of extraneous words. Yes, I do find Winton dull in general, but even after reading the book, all I could tell you is it's about two families living together. I think they might share the house with a lot of adjectives.)

I honestly feel people vote for books like this or buy them and leave them in their homes just to look clever, not out of genuine enjoyment. Sure, some people might like them. All the more power to them. But of my friends (and that includes a lot of writers, remember), not so much. But our number one book? What is the best selling Australian fiction book of all time in the world? Either Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, an epic romance, a piece of genre fiction which entertained readers; or PL Travers' Mary Poppins, a book for children that is pure fantasy and has entertained generations. Not Literary fiction that sits in bookshelves so people can say they own it to look more impressive to their friends at the Club. Books that were read and enjoyed.

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And... relax...

So, now that I've got that out of my system and probably completely destroyed any hope I might ever have had of being published in this country, what are my favourite Australian books? Let's have a look, shall we? (Two rules: author identified as Australian, no children's books, with one caveat.) These are all fiction, so books like those excellent Peter FitzSimons books are not included, and no autobiographies either. And novels, so no short story collections. Also, as much as I love his work, and he does spend a lot of time in Australia, Ben Elton is English.

The Resurrected Man by Sean Williams
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I wanted to put a Sean Williams book in here because he is my favourite Australian science-fiction author. More than that, he actually encouraged my speculative fiction writing in a long conversation we had in the late 1990s, early 2000s. But most of his books are parts of series. Then I remembered this one, one that's been sitting in my collection for almost twenty years. It is weird science fiction, about a detective investigating the deaths of a bunch of women who look like her, but the prime suspect is in stasis. However, there are other scientific advances that could make it possible, and it's complex, but well worth it. Incredibly well written and well thought out.

Once by Morris Gleitzman
This book is marketed as a children's book or a book for young adults (my caveat). But when I read it, I found it was so much more than that. The language might bring children in, but the themes are universal, and the story harrowing. It is the tale of a Jewish child in Germany at the time of the World War II Holocaust. By putting the action into the eyes of a child, Gleitzman manages to make the horrors more accessible than many other Holocaust-themed books. This is a book I would recommend adults read, not just kids. I don't think of it as a children's book, but as an everyone book.

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
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One of the better of the Australian proper Literature books, Courtenay is a masterful story-teller, and this is a fine example of his work. The story of a young man in South Africa rising up to overcome the hardships of his life to become a boxer and aim for academic success has become something of a trope in modern story-telling, but none have the ending quite the same, and PK's revenge on the judge in the bar It still has a surprisingly upbeat ending, though, and you can imagine PK going on to greater successes. Look, while it is a good book, it does feel overdone and could have done with a bit of culling at times. Still, for all the people who say it's a good book it actually is a good book.

Three Agendas And One Slim Hope by Brandon Roberts
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One of the funniest books I've read, closest Australia's come to producing its own Douglas Adams, this tale of a man with a reasonable useless form of ESP discovering humankind is doomed and trying to prevent it while dealing with corporate villainy, a human-eating alien, time travel, and all other sorts of oddities. It is so damn strange, and I could not put it down. Simply awesome.

Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams
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What a strange book! But once again, I could not put the damn thing down. Basically, it's about two Melbourne teenagers who find one another. Despite him (Beatle) already having a pretty good girlfriend, his twin sister's best friend. Oh, and Beatle had a stroke. Sounds downbeat, and there are points when it feels like that, but it always has a sense of hope and is so well written that you just hope Destiny and Beatle finally get together, even though it's probably not the right thing. It is really well done.

Half Days And Patched Pants by Max Colwell

There is some debate as to whether this is fiction or not, but if it's not, then I've made a mistake and I'm sorry. This is a story of kids living in Australia in the past that is funny while it tells its tale, made all the more poignant for me by being set where my father's family grew up, in the Port Adelaide area. I first read this book in high school, and much like Wuthering Heights the book is too good for that to actually have ruined it for me. I can imagine my own grandfather knocking about with this group of kids. Really well written, and yet filled with a degree of hope.

The Blue Roses Of Orroroo by Margaret Visciglio
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This black comedy (how black? It touches on incest, the stolen generation, opening coffins with an axe and rape) is the account of a woman's life by the woman herself, who might not be entirely reliable. It does not stop as, following the death of her husband, the narrator, Rose Walsh, starts to discover some unpleasant truths. It sounds bleak, but it is a non-stop book that goes from one situation to the next. But she also describes history as a person, not a historian, and this makes Rose all the more real for it. This is Margaret's debut novel; I've only read one other of hers Over The Edge and that is also a fine piece of work, though probably more young adult. But Blue Roses is a great book and deserves more recognition than it gets.

On The Beach by Nevil Shute
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While it might be a stretch to call Shute an Australian author, when he wrote this book he had emigrated to Australia with his family and had settled into a life in Victoria. Many people prefer A Town Like Alice but I like this one better, as it shows the desperation of hope, even if it all turns out to be for nothing. The bleakness of the post-apocalyptic world he sets out is perfectly constructed, and it is just people not coping no zombies, no mutants, just people waiting for the inevitable. Sad and depressing book, yes, but so well written and with characters the reader cares about that it does not matter.

Guns 'N' Ros by Robert G. Barrett
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I think Robert G. Barrett's tales of Les Norton, a Queensland lad working as a bouncer in Sydney, are amongst the funniest things I have read by an Australian in a long, long time. Most of the books are collections of short stories or a few novellas. But this one is a one story novel, and it is still funny as all hell, with mistaken identity, stupid cops, bikies on the rampage, sex everywhere, lots of alcohol, and strange night-clubs, and with an ending of violence, bullets and explosions. And the treasure this is all for Ha! Barrett's books are always an easy read. And a fun read. I think the longest it took me to read a Barrett book (and I've read at least ten of them now) was three days. They are unputdownable (I thought I'd made that word up, but Word won't underline it in red) and fun, and this is an awesome example of the Les Norton series.

Pig by Kenneth Cook (1980)
I've already talked about this book before and it still holds my favourite Australian book. The story of a giant pig with a nasty white stripe down its face running rampant in Outback Australia is so well written that this book should have done so much better when it was released. Brilliant book, so well realised. Love it.

So, there you have it. My top ten Australian NOVELS. I was contemplating doing my favourite short stories as a secondary to this, but the last column about short stories did not prove popular at all. Anyway, in my opinion, ignore those lists of books that everyone owns but no-one reads and try some of these instead. Guaranteed, you'll be much more entertained.

And, as usual, comments, etc. below!

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Your Comment
I second The Resurrected Man. It's one of my favourites too. There are a couple in your list I haven't read yet, so I'll add them to my giant TBR pile. Thanks.
by Jennifer Muirhead (score: 3|1427) 1585 days ago
Steve I have read only one your list. Thanks for suggesting some new books I can read (and new authors).
by May Cross (score: 3|8394) 1592 days ago
Loving your lists, Steve.
by searl (score: 1|69) 1359 days ago
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