The best Australian novels about bookish girls

Who am I?

A genuine Aussie bookish girl, I’ve been an editor in the Australian publishing industry for 25 years, and I’ve been writing Australian novels for 15 of them. When I’m not reading or writing, I’m reviewing Australian books – can’t get enough of them! I’ve dedicated my heart and mind to exploring and seeking to understand the contradictions and quirks of the country I am privileged to call home, from its bright, boundless skies to the deepest sorrows of bigotry and injustice. Acknowledging the brilliance of those women writers who’ve come before me and shining a light ahead for all those to come is the most wonderful privilege of all. 

I wrote...

Her Last Words

By Kim Kelly,

Book cover of Her Last Words

What is my book about?

Thisbe Chisholm wants to be a writer. It's 2007, a time of digital revolution, but she’s an old-fashioned girl – she doesn't even own a mobile phone. She longs only to tell the stories written on her heart. But just as she completes her first novel, she is brutally killed at the end of her boyfriend’s street. Who murdered Thisbe? What will become of her novel?

From the gritty glamour of Bondi Beach to the cold streets of London, this is a tale of literary betrayal and a great love drowning in guilt-wracked grief. Haunting, whimsical, and sharply observed, Her Last Words lays bare the truth that words have a way of enduring - and exacting a justice all their own.

The books I picked & why

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The Women in Black

By Madeleine St John,

Book cover of The Women in Black

Why this book?

This sweet and sharp coming-of-age tale is set in my hometown, Sydney, in the 1950s. It centres on book-loving young poet, Lisa, who takes a summer job in the fancy frock section of a department store while waiting to find out if she’s made it into university. When I first read this novel, I felt I’d stepped right into Lisa’s shoes, finding my confidence all over again as she does, leaving the suburbs for the city. The Women in Black is a sequin-studded exploration of the importance of stories to us all – and especially for post-war migrants making new homes and new stories. I just adore the idea that a novel about books and frocks and the hearts of young women has become a literary classic. 

The Dictionary of Lost Words

By Pip Williams,

Book cover of The Dictionary of Lost Words

Why this book?

I was always going to love this novel about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, told from the perspective of a clever and curious word nerd, Esme. I’m a book editor in real life and can lose hours down rabbit-holes of meaning and etymology, so I was glued to her every discovery. As a young girl in 1901, while her father works on the endless task of compiling the dictionary, Esme pockets a discarded word, ‘bondmaid’, a woman’s word, and therefore deemed worthless. So begins a life devoted to words, to finding meaning, through war and the fight for female suffrage, through friendship and love and loss. I think The Dictionary of Lost Words is a quiet and beautiful masterpiece. 

After Story

By Larissa Behrendt,

Book cover of After Story

Why this book?

If you’re a lover of women’s literature – Austen, the Brontës, Woolf – you are in for an utterly original treat with this mother-daughter odyssey. Australian Indigenous lawyer, Jasmine, takes her mother, Della, to England, wanting to indulge her passion for literature with a tour of significant dead-white-author sites. But what is really found along the way are the rich veins of ancient stories and the essential power we all possess: listening. This is a moving and intricate portrait of intergenerational, post-colonial trauma that examines whose stories get to be told and whose need to be told. For me, as an Australian and a lover of English literature, After Story is a slice of necessary truth-telling, which I predict will become an Australian classic of the future. 

My Brilliant Career

By Miles Franklin,

Book cover of My Brilliant Career

Why this book?

Every Australian bookish girl knows Sybylla from My Brilliant Career. She is the original feisty heroine, the unashamed young feminist who rejects the isolation and low expectations of the bush and marriage at the turn of the twentieth century, wanting to strike out on her own as a writer. That her yearnings are so irrelevant to those around her and her ambitions unfulfilled act as a dare to all of us, and to me – to have that brilliant career, to tell your truths and have your independence, whether anyone else likes it or not. Equally as vivid, witty, and socially acute as Twain, if you read only one old and dusty novel about Australia, read this one.

The Fragments

By Toni Jordan,

Book cover of The Fragments

Why this book?

Toni Jordan writes stories that defy genre pigeonholing, so she’s a woman after my own heart. The Fragments is a mystery about a missing manuscript and it’s also a complex piecing together of women’s personal histories. In the 1980s, in sleepy, sunny Brisbane, bookseller Caddie attends an exhibition of charred fragments from a famously lost novel of 1930s New York literary sensation, Inga Karlson – and meets an enigmatic stranger there who sparks Caddie’s obsession to uncover the truth of Inga’s life and death. A highly entertaining romp follows, full of mischievous twists, but, best of all, this novel holds another dare for me: that women’s lives and writing can and should sparkle with unpredictability.

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