Last year the First Tuesday Book club conducted a survey to discover Australia’s favourite all-time books. These were the top ten Aussie books to read before you die:
1. Cloudstreet – Tim Winton
2. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
3. A Fortunate Life – A.B. Facey
4. The Harp in the South – Ruth Park
5. The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay
6. Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey
7. The Magic Pudding – Norman Lindsay
8. The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas
9. The Secret River – Kate Grenville
10. Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay
These books were vigorously debated by the panel on the show and like many readers I question a couple of the inclusions, but I am more astounded at some of the omissions: books by Peter Carey, Geraldine Brooks and Nobel Prize winning Patrick White.
Since the announcement of these top ten Australian books I have been pondering my own favourites and have come up with my Top 10 Australian books. My choices are based on the memories these books evoke (something I wrote about here) and the pure joy they have elicited. So, after much deliberation and angst, here are my Top 10 Australian books:
1. A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute.
I have long been intrigued by all history regarding the Second World War. Perhaps this is because growing up I heard many stories from family members relating to that era. For me, the World War Two era is history within touching distance – only one or two generations removed from my reality. I remember reading A Town Like Alice as a teenager and I simply adored it. I loved the history, the scenery, the romance and most of all the characters. Joe Harman is the quintessential Aussie digger and Jean Paget remains one of my all-time heroes, featuring in my list of Top 10 heroes from literature, where I wrote “As a teenage girl I was mesmerised by Jean in A Town Like Alice. She spent three years as a POW being marched around Malaysia, surviving the brutalities of war. Later when she finds out Joe Harman is still alive, she travels half way around the world to a very foreign country to find him. She endures the harshness of outback Australia with dignity and humour, and shows entrepreneurial skill in an era when women garnered little co-operation or respect in doing so. She is one tough lady”.
2. On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.
This features in my Top 10 favourite books of all time, where I wrote: “Whilst she is better known for her other works such as Looking for Alibrandi, for me Jellicoe Road is Marchetta’s best work. The plot is original and the narrative structure is perfect. When I first read this book I was so moved and excited by it that I wanted to share it. I gave it to an English teacher at my school, who returned it unread. I promptly gave it back to her, insisting “you must read this book”.
She returned the book to me with tears in her eyes saying “thank you for making me read this book”. Years later she met Melina Marchetta and told her the story. Marchetta signed a copy of the book for me with the inscription “I’m glad you thought it was worth the journey”. It was and I treasure that signed copy”.
3. The Women in Black by Madeleine St John.
Published in 1993, I only discovered this book a couple of years ago. I love it for the magic and romance it evokes. Set in a Sydney department store in the 1950’s The Women in Black provides a snapshot of a more innocent city, with brilliant observations of the human spirit, underscored by St John’s superb wit.
4. Grand Days (The Edith Trilogy) by Frank Moorhouse.
I read this book within the last year (you can read why here). Set in the 1920’s amid the establishment of the League of Nations in Geneva, the story centres around an ambitious young Australian woman named Edith Campbell Berry. She is quite simply one of the most entertaining and engaging characters I’ve ever read.
5. For Love Alone by Christina Stead.
This was one of my English texts during my final year of school. As a teenager, I found the protagonist quite intriguing: Teresa Hawkins, a strong-willed young woman willing to defy societal norms to follow her heart to London. Though her passion may have been misguided, the book for me was about the ability of a woman to reject expectations in order to discover her own fulfilment. Way ahead of its time (first published in 1945), I probably didn’t fully appreciate the strength of Teresa as a young girl, but this book always brings back memories of my before school English classes with my brilliant English teacher Mrs Wade.
6. A Fortunate Life by A. B Facey.
I read this book as a teenager and I believe it captured my imagination due to my own grandfather’s story. Whilst I have written about my grandfather’s rich reading history here, I failed to mention his days as a young man in the Depression traipsing around the countryside looking for work. Much of A Fortunate Life made me think of my own Pop and as a teenager living a comfortable life, reading about the hardships of others is a humbling experience (which is why I believe so many teens have embraced Ahn Do’s The Happiest Refugee). At one stage the sum total of my grandfather’s possessions was his bicycle and swag, and he had to rely on the generosity of strangers or the luck of his rabbit trap for a meal. Yet like Mr Facey, my grandfather believed he lived a fortunate life.
7. The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville.
This is another inclusion in my Top 10 favourite books of all time. Set in a small Australian town Harley and Douglas have some serious self-worth issues and both are full of their own inadequacies. I think I love this book because there is something really affirming about thoroughly decent yet less-than-perfect characters.
8. For the Term of his Natural Life by Marcus Clarke.
Published in the 1870’s this is a remarkable story of convict life in early Australia. Following the life of wrongly convicted Rufus Dawes, the book provides a rich history of convict life in the early years of settlement which, as a teenager when I first read this book, I found utterly intriguing.
9. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.
This was another hotly contested book by the panel of the First Tuesday Book Club, specifically as it has been referred to as Australia’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I believe this reference does not do justice to the richness of Silvey’s work. Yes the novel explores racism and bigotry, but there is so much more to Jasper Jones than the division of a town. One of the joys of Silvey’s work for me is the beautifully crafted friendship between Charlie and Jeffrey, and the wonderful humour injected by Silvey into this partnership. And I love protagonists who are well-read like Charlie.
10. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.
Published in 1901 and set during the same era, this book about the headstrong and entertaining heroine Sybylla Melvyn and her rural upbringing thoroughly captivated me as a young teenager. I was also intrigued that Miles Franklin was herself a teenager when she wrote this semi-autobiographical novel and that it was published with the help of Henry Lawson.