While it’s the middle of the summer for most of us, the Book Voyage reading challenge is whisking us Down Under where it’s currently winter. But despite the opposite seasons, the books set in Australia that we’ll be reading this month will still be filled with plenty of sunshine as we explore from the beaches to the Outback.
Australia is often referred to as an island continent because it is the only continent that is also a country and is surrounded by water on all four sides. Whether or not it’s too large to technically be considered an island is a matter of debate among geographers. Australia’s population of roughly 25.5 million is tiny compared to the more than 300 million people living in the United States, so it can be easy to forget that its landmass is nearly as large as the continental US. In fact, Australia is the sixth-largest country in the world. And with that size comes incredible diversity – both in its landscape and its people.
Australia is part of the region referred to more broadly as Oceania, which also includes New Zealand and 12 other island nations in the South Pacific. We focused our armchair travels on island books last month, but we saved books set in New Zealand for this month’s list.
PS: You can read all about the Book Voyage challenge, find new book lists each month, and download your free printable map book tracker, with a color-coded map of each region here.
Book Girl Angela spent six months in college living in and traveling around Australia and New Zealand, so she’s very excited to introduce everyone to the beauty of these two countries! Many people tend to lump Australia and New Zealand together (much to the dismay of the Aussies and the Kiwis that live there). While the two countries share some similarities, they are also quite unique, as the books on our list will help you discover.
Australia is a country of contrasts. The east coast of Australia features coral reefs and subtropical rainforests to the north and popular surfing beaches along the central Pacific Coast. The majority of the country’s population is centered around the three largest cities, which are all located along the east coast – Sydney, Melbourne (pronounced Mel-bin by the locals), and Brisbane (pronounced Bris-bin). The west coast of Australia, in contrast, is very sparsely populated with only one major city – Perth – and a dry, sunny climate.
The dry, red desert of the Australian Outback covers more than 70 percent of the continent. Visitors to the center of the country usually arrive by way of the town of Alice Springs. It is from this base that you can travel another four and half hours by car to reach two of Australia’s most recognizable landmarks – Uluru (Ayres Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). These sandstone rock formations – which are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are sacred to the indigenous Aboriginal people – both feature springs, rock caves, and ancient paintings.
New Zealand is comprised of many islands – but the two largest, where most of the population lives, are referred to as the North Island and the South Island. The North Island of NZ is home to the biggest city, Auckland, with white sandy beaches and vast areas of farmland. While the North Island is beautiful, the South Island is widely considered the more breathtaking of the two. The largest city on the South Island is Christchurch. Much of the island is covered in the rugged Southern Alps with its glaciers and fjords.
As always, you are welcome to choose any book set in Australia or New Zealand that you’d like, but to get you started, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best books that will transport you to these two countries. The list includes great fiction reads, historical fiction about their penal colony pasts, humorous travelogues, and eye-opening memoirs, including one about the ongoing racial divide.
While Australia and New Zealand are high on many people’s travel bucket lists, there’s a lot to learn beyond the popular tourist destinations. In compiling this reading list, we found an abundance of great books written by authors from both countries that provide authenticity to help us dig deeper in our understanding of this region.
Books Set in Australia & New Zealand
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Set in a seaside town, Silver Bay is about a family of women at a small inn. The draw of Silver Bay is the sea life. One of the family members, Liza, even takes tourists on whale and dolphin watching boat tours.
When Mike, a real estate developer from London, is sent to scope out the town for a giant hotel complex, he brings visions of water sports that would disrupt the natural habitat. But, as he learns more about the impacts of his plans, he falls in love with more than just the location.
The Book Girls Say...Like the lifestyle in the book, reviews say the plot can also feel slow at the beginning despite the multiple points of view. However, they also praise the descriptions of what it's like to live in a sleepy coastal Australian village, including vivid descriptions of the lives of dolphins and whales. If you're looking for a light, pleasant romance book for Australia with Hallmark movie vibes, this is a great choice!
After years fighting on the Western Front in WWI, Tom Sherbourne returns home and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island, a half a day's journey from the west coast of Australia where supply boats only come once a season. During their years on the island, Tom and his wife, Isabel, suffer two miscarriages and a stillbirth.
Then, a boat washes up onshore carrying a dead man and crying baby. Against Tom's judgment, the couple claims the baby as their own and raise her on the island. Two years later, when they return to mainland Australia, they must face the reality of their choice.
The Book Girls say... Angela read this novel a few years ago and was completely drawn in by the beautiful writing, the compelling characters, and the moral complexities of good people making bad decisions with the best of intentions.
Bill Bryson's humorous travel memoirs never disappoint, and this one is the perfect combination of laugh-out-loud funny and an in-depth look at just what makes the land down under so unique. Although Australia is home to more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else on Earth, Bryson adores the place, and after you read his travelogue, you'll understand why! He takes readers far beyond the beaten tourist path, where he meets friendly locals at every turn and shares hilarious stories of his adventures.
The Book Girls Say… Angela read this book right after she arrived in Australia for her study abroad experience back in 2000, and she has re-read it twice since then (as the perfect way to armchair travel back to one of her favorite places on Earth). Whether you've been fortunate enough to visit Australia, or just want to feel like you have, this book is entertaining and informative from beginning to end! If you enjoy audiobooks, Bill Bryson narrates this one himself and his dry, sarcastic tone adds even more humor to his writing.
Interested in a similarly humorous travel memoir for New Zealand? Check out Squashed Possums by Jonathan Tindale. This NZ travelogue gets mixed reviews, but Bill Bryson calls it "terrific" – which makes it worth a look in our book.
When funding for her research lab in Boston is suddenly reduced, 49-year-old Anna Fergusson is at a crossroads. On impulse, she decides to rent a cabin on an island along Australia's Great Barrier Reef for a year.
Her time on Turtle Island, however, turns out not simply the retreat she expected. While she falls in love with islanders and with Tom, the laid-back turtle whisperer, her time there is also filled with pain and challenges.
Book Girls Say... The author is herself a scientist and a neuro-psychologist, and through this novel she shares a great deal of scientific knowledge both about marine turtle conservation and about the main character's area of research specialty, Huntington's Disease.
Setting: VAN DIEMEN'S LAND (penal colony on modern Tasmania, Australia)
From the author of Orphan Train, The Exiles again takes us back in history, this time to the British settlement of Austalia in the 1800s. While the land had been inhabited for tens of thousands of years by Aboriginal people, the British government decided to forcible relocate many tribes and create a new nation where they would exile British citizens who violated laws on their other territories.
The book follows three women and their intertwining lives - Evageline, a young governess imprisoned after becoming pregnant, Hazel, a young girl sentenced to 7 years after being accused of stealing a spoon, and Mathinna, an orphaned Aboriginal who was adopted by the governor of the new land. The Exiles tells the originals of Australia from new perspectives, with themes of friendship, perseverance, and freedom.
Following a WWII air raid, an injured woman is found wandering the streets of London. She has lost her memory, but has the strong feeling that something very precious to her is missing.
Her son sits in an orphanage, hoping that his mother will return for him, but before she remembers, he is put on a ship bound for Australia with the promise of a wonderful new life. When he arrives in Perth, on Australia's west coast, he is taken in by a lonely wife.
When his new caretaker discovers the truth about his past, she must decide whether to tell the truth and risk losing him, or keep quiet and hide the secret.
The Book Girls Say… This historical fiction is based on a true story, and is specifically recommended for fans of Lisa Wingate's Before We Were Yours and Martha Hall Kelly's Lilac Girls.
Someone is dead - but what happened? A murder...A tragic accident...Or just parents behaving badly?
Madeline is funny, biting, and passionate; she remembers everything and forgives no one. Celeste is beautiful, but the illusion of perfection comes at a price. Single mom Jane is new to town and has a mysterious past. She's so young that other moms mistake her for a nanny.
The three women at the heart of this story are very different, but they will all wind up in the same shocking place.
The Book Girls Say: With the publication of Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty became the first Australian author to have a novel debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
This book takes place in the fictional Pirriwee Penninsula, but Moriarty explains that the physical features of the peninsula were inspired by the beaches north of Sydney, where she once lived. She has stated in interviews that the Australian settings play an important part in her work. She encourages readers to keep the setting in mind while reading, rather than just reading from an American lens. When the book was turned into a TV series, it was reset in Monterey, California. If you read the book and then watch the series, it's interesting to note the differences and how the show has been Americanized.
As you read, don't forget that Australia is set in the southern hemisphere, so the seasons are reversed. Reviewers often try to point out mistakes in Moriarty's books that are actually not mistakes at all – it's just that holidays fall during opposite seasons in Australia (Christmas is in the summer, Easter is in the fall, etc.).
Don Tillman is a charming, but awkward, genetics professor at a university in Melbourne, on the southeast coast of Australia. He is trying to find love, and true to his academic roots, he approaches the challenge scientifically. He creates a 16-page survey designed to find his perfect match called "The Wife Project." Will anyone be his perfect match?
The Chicago Tribune sums this book up perfectly: "Filled with humor and plenty of heart, The Rosie Project is a delightful reminder that all of us, no matter how we're wired, just want to fit in."
The Book Girls Say… Throughout this charming book, the Australian author describes iconic Melbourne locations such as Lygon Street and the popular bar, Jimmy Watson's – both locations that Angela recognized from her time visiting the city.
The author stated in an interview with ABC Melbourne, "When I wrote the book I could have set it anywhere, but I know Melbourne and I chose to showcase my home town. The book has sold a couple million copies, so I guess there's a couple million people who have a picture of Melbourne now." This bestseller is the first in the Don Tillman trilogy. The other two books in the trilogy are The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result. We can't wait to read these as well!
Cemetery Lake is the first in a series of four books by a local NZ author, Paul Cleave, who is one of the most well-known authors in the emerging New Zealand Crime Fiction genre. Set in Christchurch, the author creates a setting that you WON'T want to visit. The main character in the series is Private Detective Theodore Tate, who was previously a cop.
While overseeing the exhuming of a body, his routine job takes a turn as the body in the coffin may not be who it was supposed to be. Technically, he should let his former co-workers handle the case at that point, but Theodore Tate is the quintessential flawed hero. His past secrets are also coming back to haunt him as he searches for a violent killer.
Danielle Hawkins is a NZ author who is known for perfectly capturing rural New Zealand in her light and humorous novels, which are said to be perfect for fans of Doc Martin. However,
Lia and Anna are friends who opened a cafe near a seaside town. They're spending all their free time working, planning Anna's wedding, and trying to get Lia's ex-boyfriend to understand that it's over. Then, one night, a gorgeous stranger appears at Lia's window in the middle of the night. Is it worth fitting a new relationship into her already hectic life?
When It All Went to Custard is another great option from this author, full of humor and a rollercoaster of emotions as Jenny tries to save her family farm.
The Book Girls Say...Keep in mind that reviewers say The Pretty Delicious Cafe does still have some serious and darker topics interwoven into the book.
The Brennan family is trying to adjust to daily life after a huge move from chilly Tasmania to subtropical New South Wales when tragedy strikes. The father, Finn, is thrust into the spotlight even though the family and police are both unsure what happened or who is to blame. The mom, Bridget, is outraged and begins searching for answers on her own. Jarrah, the teenage son, has his own overwhelming emotions of blame, grief, and loss in this suspenseful family drama.
The Book Girls Say...The author of this book is Australian Jesse Blackadder, who wrote Chasing the Light from our Antarctica list.
Set on the Bright family's adjourning cattle farms in outback Queensland, The Lost Man is a mystery thriller. Nathan discovers his well-like brother Cameron dead near an isolated headstone of an unknown cowboy. The grave is famous in local legends and ghost stories, but what was Cameron doing there, miles from his car?
You'll be transported to the dry, remote Outback as you try to piece together the mystery along with the Nathan.
Set in 1983 and inspired by the author's life, this coming of age tale blends historical, crime, and literary fiction into one hard-to-put-down novel. Twelve-year-old Eli is determined to grow up and become a good person, which is a bit of a stretch goal considering his mom and step-dad are drug dealers, his babysitter is a notorious criminal, his dad is MIA, and his brother stopped speaking after a traumatic event.
Eli shows unconditional love for his flawed family and navigates his difficult surroundings to march toward his dream of being a journalist.
Reviews warn that this book contains violence and adult language, but both are surrounded by the beautiful writing, leading to a satisfying ending.
For the short-story lovers in the group, you might enjoy this anthology from 51 aboriginal Australians spanning a wide range of ages, locations, and life experiences. While many of the stories share heartbreaking injustice, there are also themes of hope and encouragement. It's a great way to learn about this important culture.
Eva's parents are non-traditional artists living a bohemian lifestyle. She and her younger sisters, Bea and Heloise, are surrounded by parties and mostly left to fend for themselves. When a new girl, Lily, arrives at school, she quickly becomes friends with Eve and enamored with her home. However, as the girls get older, Lily realizes that the environment she found magical isn't so perfect.
Kakadu National Park in Northern Australia is breathtaking...and desolate - not ideal for a plane crash with two survivors. Fans of adventure shows like Survivor and Lost might enjoy this tale of a spoiled socialite and a younger man recovering from the loss of his partner. Together, they must try to escape the region alive, while addressing their pasts along the way. The book is a lighter read, and was the winner of the Romantic Book of the Year in 2014.
The Book Girls Say... Reviewers warn that Abigail, the socialite, is pretty insufferable at first, but she does develop throughout the book.
This book is currently included with Kindle Unlimited.
At the age of 27, Terri Raines took a vacation from her wildlife rescue work in Oregon and traveled to Australia. There, at a small wildlife park in Queensland, she met a conservationist named Steve Irwin. Less than a year later, the two were married in Oregon, and then she moved with Steve to Australia, where they continued his conservation work together. The footage filmed of their crocodile-trapping honeymoon would ultimately become the first episode of "The Crocodile Hunter."
In this memoir, Terri shares the unforgettable adventures that she shared with Steve. While Steve was world-famous for his daring and enthusiasm, in this book Terri provides a more intimate view of a devoted family man and dedicated environmentalist.
The Book Girls Say... Despite Steve being known worldwide as the "Crocodile Hunter," his life-long work involved rescuing and protecting wildlife from poachers, not "hunting" them as the name might imply.
Fun Fact: Angela was fortunate enough to visit Steve and Terri's beautiful Australia Zoo in 2000, and to meet their daughter, Bindi, who was just a toddler at the time.
This non-fiction option tells the story of Western Australia's little-known role in the 1969 moon landing as the broadcast some of the most-watched images in history as Neil Armstrong took an unforgettable small step.
The book is part history and part biography of Tom Reid, the director of Honeysuckle Creek, the satellite tracking station in Canberra, Australia. While Tom Reid's name is not wildly known, partially because of his extreme humbleness, you'll be fascinated by his life and contribution to science.
An Australian movie called The Dish also covers the broadcast that Angela highly recommends if you ever get a chance to see it.
This YA fiction uses a popular New Zealand myth to create a magical realism/fantasy adventure. The main character is 8-year old Kahu, a descendant of the legendary Whale Rider and a member of the Maori tribe.
Her great-grandpa is desperately looking for a successor to become chief, which is a role reserved for male heirs. However, Kahu is his only great-grandchild. While others see how special she is, the chief is blind to her greatness and continues searching for a male to take his place.
One day, hundreds of whales are beached and threaten the future of the tribe, Kahu will attempt the impossible to save them. Can this young girl be the leader the tribe needs?
The Book Girls Say...This is a short book at 140 pages - perfect if you have a busy month!
This historical fiction novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century. In the vast and unforgiving desert of Western Australia, a little girl is abandoned in the sand. She is taken back to the town of Leonora, and she is named after it. Here, she is raised in an orphanage and slowly bonds with another orphan named James.
Eventually, Leonora is sent away to live with a wealthy family in America, and James is taken in by relatives who have emigrated from Ireland. Years later, Leonora has the opportunity to return to Australia and there she comes face to face with James - the only person who knows the real her.
In this travel memoir, Robyn Davidson, an Australian native, tells the story of her mostly-solo, perilous journey across 1,700 miles of Australia Outback, from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. It was the late 1970s and Robyn was just 25 years old when she set out.
Driven by a love of the Australian landscape, she braved sweltering heat, poisonous snakes, and every other challenge that crossed her path. Along the way, Robyn often went weeks without interacting with another human - it was just her, four camels, and her dog. She did have an Aboriginal guide for a few days of her trek, and she also received a commission from National Geographic and allowed one of their photographers to accompany her for short stretches.
WARNING: Some reviewers express concern with Robyn's use and treatment of the camels on her journey.
This two-part non-fiction book starts with the story of sailors in the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race. In 1998, the amateur crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler was faced with an unexpected and unprecedented violent storm during the 630 nautical mile race. With 80 ft waves towering over the sails, the crew of the Rambler made a choice to head directly into the storm, demonstrating the unstoppable potential of true teamwork and excellent leadership.
The Book Girls Say...Keep in mind that the first part of the book tells the story of the journey, while the 2nd part pulls out the business lessons. If you're interested in teamwork and leadership business books, you'll find value in the whole book, but otherwise, feel free to stop after part one.
This book is currently included with Kindle Unlimited.
Barry Crump wrote this fictionalized memoir about his time as a deer culler in the 1950s. It was wildly popular in the 1960s, and he became one of New Zealand's most popular authors with humorous and moving tales of his life as a rugged outdoorsman.
The book isn't widely available in print, but the audiobook is available at no charge if your library uses Hoopla. The audio can also be purchased on Google Play.
Warning: Because the book is about Crump's government position maintaining a balance in the wild deer, goat, and pig populations, the book would not be a good choice for those opposed to hunting.
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