Funny how with the exception of Robbie Arnott, our entire top 10 Australian books list for 2021 is by women authors.
Maybe it says something about how ready we are to devour women’s stories after, strangely, many, many years of reading men’s perspectives and even men writing women’s perspectives….in any case, it wasn’t planned but we’re kinda happy it worked out that way.
We hope you enjoy our selection, there’s something for everyone and if you are like us and already have a towering pile of books on your bed side table, there is always room for more (we say)! Make that pile topple, and enjoy this magnificent bounty!
1. How to Make a Bird by Meg McKinlay – for inspiring us to keep creating!
From award-winning author Meg McKinlay and celebrated artist Matt Ottley comes a moving and visually stunning picture book that celebrates the transformative power of the creative process from inception through recognition to celebration and releasing into the world.
The story shadows the protagonist as she contemplates the blueprint of an idea, collects the things that inspire her from the natural world to shape a bird. And breathes life into her creation before letting it fly free. The book is about how small things, combined with a little imagination and a steady heart, can transform into works of magic.
The extraordinary imagery and rich language are imagination sparkers for children and their grownups. The book just won the CBCA Award 2021 in the picture book category.
How to Make a Bird is a wow picture book. It gives you tingles as you read it. It’s one of those picture books that speaks to people in different ways while exploring the glory and challenges – “the ups and downs” – of creativity. Making things is hard. Making them right is harder, and sometimes it’s hard to know when they are done.
How to Make a Bird is about imagination, hope and never giving up, even when you are unsure of where your journey will take you.
For ages: 3+
Type: Picture Book
2. Devotion by Hannah Kent – for sensing us through time and place
So, we have to admit we read The Good People and Burial Rites (both international best sellers) before we realised Hannah Kent is an Australian writer! What? Her latest book is on our holiday reading pile and we’ve just started our deep dive – she’s such a brilliant writer who utterly transports.
Devotion breathes through Prussia, the Ocean and South Australia during the mid-1800s.
Hanne Nussbaum is a child of nature – she would rather run wild in the forest than conform to the limitations of womanhood. In her village of Kay, Hanne is friendless and considered an oddity...until she meets Thea.
The Nussbaums are Old Lutherans, bound by God’s law and at odds with their King’s order for reform. Forced to flee religious persecution the families of Kay board a crowded, disease-riddled ship bound for the new colony of South Australia. In the face of brutal hardship, the beauty of whale song enters Hanne’s heart, along with the miracle of her love for Thea. Theirs is a bond that nothing can break.
A new start in an old land. God, society and nature itself decree Hanne and Thea cannot be together. But within the impossible...is devotion.
This is Kent’s first novel set in Australia and we can’t wait to devour this new work of fiction by one of our favourite writers.
3. The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott – for remaking our relationship with the natural world.
Robbie Arnott won the 2019 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year Award for his debut novel Flame and this new work was shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin Award and is described as a ‘beguiling, transformative work of fiction confirming this young talent as one of Australia's most exciting new writers’.
The Rain Heron is about Ren who lives alone on the remote frontier of a country devastated by a coup. High on the forested slopes, she survives by hunting and trading – and forgetting.
But when a young soldier comes to the mountains in search of a local myth, Ren is inexorably drawn into her impossible mission.
As their lives entwine, unravel and erupt – as myths merge with reality – both Ren and the soldier are forced to confront what they regret, what they love, and what they fear.
‘Arnott's writing is as refreshing as a wash of rain; no one is producing fiction quite like him...[His] lyrical writing is saturated with mystery and old magic...The Rain Heron reads like a fable, exquisite and melancholy, and Arnott's love of landscape and nature is the most striking aspect of the novel...[It blends] what feels like timeless mythology with a dire warning for our future.' – ArtsHub
The Rain Heron is equal parts horror and wonder, and utterly gripping.
4. Flock: First Nations Stories Then and Now edited by Ellen van Neerven – for connecting us to First Nation voices
If you’re like us and slightly frazzled at the end of a long, complex year, a novel might feel like too much brain exercise, so a short story collection may be just what you need to build back those reading muscles.
This wide-ranging and captivating anthology showcases both the power of First Nations writing and the satisfaction of a good short story. Curated by award-winning author Ellen van Neerven (whose recent novel Drop Bear is also a must read), Flock roams the landscape of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytelling, bringing together voices from across the generations.
Featuring established authors such as Tony Birch, Melissa Lucashenko and Tara June Winch, and rising stars such as Adam Thompson and Mykaela Saunders, Flock confirms the ongoing resonance and originality of First Nations stories and perspectives.
5. The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld – for the strength of her transgenerational sisterhood
Winner of the Miles Franklin Award for her previous novel All the Birds Singing and this year’s winner of the 2021 Stella Prize, Evie Wyld’s dazzling new book does not disappoint examining as it does the lives of three women, weaving together across four centuries.
Born in England, Wyld grew up on her grandparent’s sugar cane farm in NSW (so we think it’s okay to include her on our list as an honorary Aussie).
Surging out of the sea, The Bass Rock has for centuries watched over the lives that pass under its shadow on the Scottish mainland. And across the centuries the fates of three women are linked: to this place, to each other.
In the early 1700s, Sarah, accused of being a witch, flees for her life.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Ruth navigates a new house, a new husband and the strange waters of the local community.
Six decades later, the house stands empty. Viv, mourning the death of her father, catalogues Ruth’s belongings and discovers her place in the past – and perhaps a way forward.
Each woman’s choices are circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men in their lives. But in sisterhood there is the hope of survival and new life. Intricately crafted and compulsively readable, The Bass Rock burns bright with anger and love.
6. The Labrinth by Amanda Lohrey – for writing emotions on a page
Tasmanian writer Lohrey won the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award with this eloquent piece of fiction.
Erica Marsden’s son, an artist, has been imprisoned for homicidal negligence. In a state of grief, Erica cuts off all ties to family and friends, and retreats to a quiet hamlet on the south-east coast near the prison where he is serving his sentence.
There, in a rundown shack, she obsesses over creating a labyrinth by the ocean. To build it – to find a way out of her quandary – Erica will need the help of strangers. And that will require her to trust, and to reckon with her past.
The Labyrinth is a hypnotic story of guilt and denial, of the fraught relationship between parents and children. It is also a meditation on how art can both be ruthlessly destructive and restore sanity.
‘Lohrey's writing ensures we invest in and understand a mother's intense need for forgiveness... I do believe that this novel is her very best. It is perfectly balanced and completely masterful. Fans of Alice Munro and Anne Tyler will rejoice in this kind of Australian story.’– Readings
7. Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down – for the love of layered mystery
Jennifer Down cements her status as a leading light of Australian literary fiction in this heart-rending and intimate saga of one woman’s turbulent life.
So, by the grace of a photograph that had inexplicably gone viral, Tony had found me. Or – he’d found Maggie. I had no way of knowing whether he was nuts or not; whether he might go to the cops. Maybe that sounds paranoid, but I don’t think it’s so ridiculous. People have gone to prison for much lesser things than accusations of child-killing.
A quiet, small-town existence. An unexpected Facebook message, jolting her back to the past. A history she’s reluctant to revisit – dark memories and unspoken trauma, warning knocks on bedroom walls, unfathomable loss. She became a new person a long time ago. What happens when buried stories are dragged into the light?
This epic novel from the two-time Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year is a masterwork of tragedy and heartbreak – the story of a life in full. Sublimely wrought in devastating detail, Bodies of Light confirms Jennifer Down as one of the writers defining her generation.
8. The Ripping Tree by Nikki Gemmell – for being a poem to wild women and an even wilder Australia
Early 1800s. Thomasina Trelora is on her way to the colonies. Her fate: to be married to a clergyman she’s never met. As the Australian coastline comes into view a storm wrecks the ship and leaves her lying on the rocks, near death. She’s saved by an Aboriginal man who carries her to the door of a grand European house, Willowbrae.
Thom is now free to be whoever she wants to be and a whole new life opens up to her. But as she’s drawn deeper into the intriguing life of this grand estate, she discovers that things aren’t quite as they seem. She stumbles across a horrifying secret at the heart of this world of colonial decorum – and realises she may have exchanged one kind of prison for another.
The Ripping Tree is an intense, sharp shiver of a novel, which brings to mind such diverse influences as The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca and the film Get Out as much as it evokes The Secret River. A powerful and gripping tale of survival written in Nikki Gemmell’s signature lyrical and evocative prose, it examines the darkness at the heart of early colonisation. Unsettling, audacious, thrilling and unputdownable.
9. The Beautiful Words by Vanessa McClausand – for showing us the healing to be found in words
Two best friends, one summer night, and twenty years of silence ... what happened at the lighthouse?
This is a stunning, haunting new novel from the author of The Lost Summers of Driftwood.
Sylvie is a lover of words and a collector of stories, only she has lost her own. She has no words for that night at the lighthouse when their lives changed forever. What happened to cleave her apart from her best friend and soulmate, Kase?
Sylvie yearns to rekindle their deep connection, so when Kase invites her to the wild Tasmanian coast to celebrate her 40th birthday, she accepts - despite the ghosts she must face.
As Sylvie struggles to find her feet among old friends, she bonds with local taxi boat driver Holden. But he is hiding from the world, too.
Through an inscription in an old book, Sylvie and Kase discover their mothers have a history, hidden from their daughters. As they unpick what took place before they were born, they're forced to face the cracks in their own friendship, and the question of whether it's ever okay to keep a secret to protect the person you love.
It’s a book about betrayal and forgiveness, the stories we tell, and the healing power of words. We loved!
10. The Luminous Solution by Charlotte Wood – for illuminating the power of creative process
This is an inspiring work about creativity and resilience from the multi-award-winning author of The Weekend and we found this book to be just what we needed after the year that was.
‘A rich inner life is not just the preserve of the arts. The joys, fears and profound self-discoveries of creativity - through making or building anything that wasn't there before, any imaginative exploration or attempt to invent - I believe to be the birthright of every person on this earth. If you live your life with curiosity and intention – or would like to – this book is for you.’ – Charlotte Wood, from the Preface to The Luminous Solution
In this essential, illuminating book, award-winning writer Charlotte Wood shares the insights she has gained over a career paying close attention to her own mind, to the world around her and to the way she and others work.
Drawing on research and decades of observant conversation and immersive reading, Charlotte shares what artists can teach the rest of us about inspiration and hard work, how to pursue truth in art and life, and how to find courage during the difficult times: facing down what we fear and keeping going when things seem hopeless.