The best YA books set in Australia – but not quite as we know it

Who am I?

I’m Australian and there’s a big place in my heart for Australian-set stories. I read mostly for escapism, but there’s a deeper connection with tales from my own backyard. I’ve also always loved speculative fiction – everything from epic and paranormal fantasy to space opera and dystopian thrillers – and I’m excited when my favourite genres and setting come together. My day job is in local government. I’ve seen how government decisions can impact the trajectory of a society, and I’m particularly drawn to stories that explore that theme. I’m the author of five speculative fiction novels with Australian settings: the four novels in The Rephaim series (supernatural fantasy) and The Undercurrent (slightly futuristic/pre-apocalyptic). 

I wrote...

The Undercurrent

By Paula Weston,

Book cover of The Undercurrent

What is my book about?

It’s a fast-paced thriller set in a near-future Australia shaped by nuclear energy, genetically-modified crops, privatised military units, and corporate greed.

The action centres around Julianne De Marchi, who can shock with her bare hands. Jules can use the electrical current that stings and surges beneath her skin to spark a fire, maybe even end a life, but she doesn’t understand what it is. And she can barely control it, especially when she’s anxious. Then she meets Ryan Walsh. She doesn’t know he’s a soldier working for a secret unit that has her under surveillance. He doesn’t know why she’s a person of interest. And neither of them knows who caused the explosion that has them trapped in an elevator together.

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The books I picked & why

This Is Shyness

By Leanne Hall,

Book cover of This Is Shyness

Why did I love this book?

This is still one of the coolest books I’ve ever read. It has wonderfully left-of-centre characters, original plot, and world building, a hint of darkness, and sharp dialogue. I love its Australian flavour (just enough to feel familiar). The setting is also off-kilter enough to be dystopian, but not so much so that it feels alien.

Best of all, at the novel's heart is an engaging, offbeat romance. There are also well-handled themes of alienation, grief, identity, and self-discovery.

(It was part of a gift pack of novels my Australian publisher sent me when I signed my first book deal back in 2011, and I instantly fell in love with it.)

By Leanne Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Is Shyness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A captivating novel told from the points of view of two unforgettable characters. In the suburb of Shyness, the sun doesn't rise. Wolfboy meets a stranger called Wildgirl, who dares him to be her guide through the endless night. There are things that can only be said in the dark.This is Shyness was shortlisted for a number of major Australian literary awards and named a Children's Book Council of Australia Notable Book.

Leanne Hall won the 2009 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children's Writing for this spellbinding debut for readers fourteen and up.

The Sky So Heavy

By Claire Zorn,

Book cover of The Sky So Heavy

Why did I love this book?

This book equally moved and unnerved me because its premise is all too possible. It’s a brilliantly written end-of-the-world story with an understated sense of menace and an unmistakable Australian flavour. 

The novel offers an intimate and fascinating first-person view of what happens to a ‘normal’ neighbourhood when life as we know it irrevocably changes – in this case through a nuclear winter. Often, apocalyptic/dystopian stories skim over the transition from order to chaos/social breakdown, and Claire handles it in a way that’s unsettling by its understatement.

I cared deeply about these characters. And while this novel is gritty, it’s also a story of hope and what it means to survive. 

By Claire Zorn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sky So Heavy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This haunting dystopian novel thrillingly and realistically looks at a nuclear winter from an Australian perspective.

For Fin it’s just like any other day—racing for the school bus, bluffing his way through class, and trying to remain cool in front of the most sophisticated girl in his universe. Only it’s not like any other day because, on the other side of the world, nuclear missiles are being detonated. When Fin wakes up the next morning, it’s dark, bitterly cold, and snow is falling. There’s no internet, no phone, no TV, no power, and no parents. Nothing Fin’s learned in school…

The Road to Winter

By Mark Smith,

Book cover of The Road to Winter

Why did I love this book?

It’s a dystopian YA novel where the Australian landscape is beautifully rendered in all its glory and danger. It’s also a tightly written and intense page turner, when even quiet moments are infused with a sense of menace.

It has echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, although this book is unmistakably Australian - right down to speculation around where our nation’s attitude to asylum seeks may lead us. It’s not as bleak as The Road (a book I admire), but Mark reminds us how easily our veneer of society could slip away in the wake of a catastrophic, world-changing event.

I did worry for Finn’s dog as much as for Finn himself. (I’m still scarred by The Knife of Never Letting Go. This has parallels to that nail-biting novel, too.)

By Mark Smith,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Road to Winter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since a deadly virus and the violence that followed wiped out his parents and most of his community, Finn has lived alone on the rugged coast with only his dog Rowdy for company.

He has stayed alive for two winters—hunting and fishing and trading food, and keeping out of sight of the Wilders, an armed and dangerous gang that controls the north, led by a ruthless man named Ramage.

But Finn’s isolation is shattered when a girl runs onto the beach. Rose is a Siley—an asylum seeker—and she has escaped from Ramage, who had enslaved her and her younger sister,…

Book cover of A Town Called Dust: The Territory 1

Why did I love this book?

I knew from the blurb this was going to be my kind of book. I really loved the post-apocalyptic Australian setting and the way the desert wasteland society is structured. The concept of dirt farmers is particularly genius.

As well as the excellent world building, there’s page-turning action, an epic zombie battle, and a clever setup for the next installment. This is the first in The Territory trilogy, which follows the increasingly important role of Squid and Lyn, two teenagers caught up in a battle against ghouls and who learn secrets about themselves and their society as they trek across the Outback.

By Justin Woolley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Town Called Dust as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Stranded in the desert, the last of mankind is kept safe by a large border fence ... Until the fence falls.

Squid is a young orphan living under the oppressive rule of his uncle in the outskirts of the Territory. Lynn is a headstrong girl with an influential father who has spent her entire life within the walled city of Alice.

When the border fence is breached, the Territory is invaded by the largest horde of undead ghouls seen in two hundred years. Squid is soon conscripted into the Diggers-the armed forces of the Territory. And after Lynn finds herself…

The Bridge

By Jane Higgins,

Book cover of The Bridge

Why did I love this book?

I cried at the end of this brilliantly crafted novel about the futility of war.

It shows how an unnamed society might respond to ongoing conflict. Both sides have de-humanised the other; both are committed to revenge and retribution for the daily tragedies; and groups on both sides believe there can’t be peace without the total subjugation of the other.

I really appreciate how Nik’s worldview is shaken – and ultimately widened – when he crosses into enemy territory to find a captured friend. This story is a lesson in how peace can never come without justice, or empathy, told through great characters, gripping plot, and nail-biting tension.

(I imagine the unspecified city as being in Australia/New Zealand – the author is from NZ.)

By Jane Higgins,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Bridge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The City is divided. The bridges gated. In Southside, the hostiles live in squalor and desperation, waiting for a chance to overrun the residents of Cityside.
Nik is still in high school but is destined for a great career with the Internal Security and Intelligence Services, the brains behind the war. But when ISIS comes recruiting, everyone is shocked when he isn't chosen. There must be an explanation, but no one will talk about it. Then the school is bombed and the hostiles take the bridges. Buildings are burning, kids are dead, and the hostiles have kidnapped Sol. Now ISIS…

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