The best books about Melbourne

2 authors have picked their favorite books about Melbourne and why they recommend each book.

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A Spanner in the Works

By Loretta Smith,

Book cover of A Spanner in the Works

I really enjoyed reading this tale about Australia’s first female-owned and all-female garage in Melbourne in the 1920s. I was given the book twice, once as a gift and once as I presented with the author, so knew that I just HAD to read it. I was astounded to find that the subject of my book (with Les Parsons) The Red Devil - pioneer aviator Harry Butler – had a garage (Butler and Nicholson) which had sponsored Alice Anderson’s (garage owner’s) adventurous trip from Melbourne to Alice Springs after his death.


Who am I?

Dr. Samantha Battams is an Associate Professor and has been a university lecturer, researcher, policy professional, community development worker, advocate, health service administrator, and management consultant. Samantha resides in Adelaide, South Australia, is widely travelled, and has lived and worked in Switzerland in global health. She has published academic articles and book chapters in the fields of public health and global health, social policy, and sociology. She has a passion for history and writing and has written a self-published family history and three non-fiction books.


I wrote...

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner

By Samantha Battams,

Book cover of The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner

What is my book about?

How did a serial killer from the 19th century almost get away with murder? At the end of the 19th century, Martha Needle became known as ‘The Black Widow’ after secretly poisoning her husband and children. The Black Widow was a media sensation in her day, as infamous as Ned Kelly (even sharing the same lawyer). After poisoning her husband and two of her children, Needle became obsessed with the kind-hearted son of a Danish immigrant and began picking off his brothers one by one. Reported as far afield as the New York Times, Martha’s story was front-page news in Australia, edging out many stories of the day that remain in the public consciousness today. And yet very few remember Martha Needle’s name.

Stranger still a generation later Martha Needle’s nephew Alexander Lee seemed to follow in his aunt’s footsteps when he poisoned his wife and three of his children. What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives connected through family to commit virtually the same crime? 

Dinner with the Schnabels

By Toni Jordan,

Book cover of Dinner with the Schnabels

The main protagonist Simon Larsen reminds me a little of my character, Oliver Clock, where for a while things had been going pretty well for him, until they very definitely don’t. When Simon’s world collapses around him – his business fails and he loses the family home he can’t seem to find the best way out, let alone get off the couch. This is a funny, warm, and brilliantly observed novel about the chaos of marriage and families – especially those whom you’ve married into. As a writer, I admire the author’s clever way with words and as a reader, I laughed out loud in parts. 


Who am I?

I like to read and write novels that are uplifting and life-affirming where the main character, who's often quirky and upbeat, must find their way out of the drama and chaos life has dealt them. Growing up in a family where humor – often black – reigned supreme, with a father who penned silly limericks, I’m drawn to seeing the funny side of things. Showing the light and dark of life in a comedic yet poignant way not only makes for entertaining reading but is enlightening and inspiring. I believe novels should reflect us and our failings while offering hope that it’ll all be alright in the end. 


I wrote...

The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock

By Jane Riley,

Book cover of The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock

What is my book about?

Oliver Clock has everything arranged just so. A steady job running the family funeral home. A fridge stocked with ready meals. A drawer full of colour-coded socks. A plan (of sorts) to stay trim enough for a standard-sized coffin. And in florist Marie, he’s found the love of his life – not that she’s aware of it.

When a tragedy takes Marie out of his life, he discovers too late that she secretly loved him. Now faced with an empty love life, a family funeral business in trouble, a fast-approaching fortieth birthday, and a notebook of resolutions he’s never achieved, Oliver resolves to open himself up to life and love—and all the mess that comes with it.

Daughter of the Murray

By Darry Fraser,

Book cover of Daughter of the Murray

This book is the perfect read for a rainy day and I quickly fell in love with the main female protagonist, Georgina. Spirited, brave, and a bit foolhardy, she fulfills all the hopes you might have for a heroine in a historical romance, yet she will surprise you too. The river settings in Australia’s southeastern river belt in the 1890s are pure escapism and leave plenty of scope for adventure. Highly recommended.


Who am I?

Ever since I was a young girl, I have fallen deeply into the pages of novels that feature strong female characters, with Anne of Green Gables and Little Women capturing my imagination early. As an Australian, I’ve also always enjoyed books set here but anywhere where I can walk in a relatable character's shoes is fine by me. The magical experience of being immersed in ‘her’ world, feeling what she feels, relating to her, being frustrated with her, celebrating with her, loving with her…what are books if not gifting us such experiences? Every book I have penned has been based on this ideal, an intimate experience, a close relationship. A BFF.


I wrote...

Sisters of Freedom

By Mary-Anne O'Connor,

Book cover of Sisters of Freedom

What is my book about?

Sydney, Christmas, 1901. Federation has been achieved but Australian women are yet to gain the right to vote. Bolshy, boisterous Frankie Merriweather is a fervent advocate for women's rights, determined to dedicate herself to the cause and never marry. She can't understand her artistic sister Ivy wanting a life of ease and beauty with law student Patrick Earle. Meanwhile, their married sister Aggie volunteers in an orphanage, longing to hold a baby in her arms.

When an accident takes Ivy, wounded and ill, into the violent and lawless zone of the Hawkesbury River, a year of change begins. Ivy's burgeoning friendship with her saviour Riley Logan, a smuggler, and his sister, the poverty-stricken but valiant Fiona, will alter the lives of all three women forever.

Down Under

By Trevor Conomy,

Book cover of Down Under

Sometimes a book comes completely out of nowhere. Such was the case with Trevor Conomy’s Down Under. Conomy was not an author with a pedigree in music journalism or anything like that, but when Down Under came out, in 2015, it spoke for itself. The life story of a song – Melbourne pub band Men At Work’s “Down Under” – what makes the book compelling is not so much the story of its fluky success, when in 1982 it become a huge hit all round the world, but rather the aftermath: How more than a quarter-century later the song went to court against a copyright infringement claim. That it lost the case was a travesty and a human tragedy, and Conomy’s short, punchy little book reveals why in all its gory detail.


Who am I?

I am an art school dropout and recovering rock critic who, since 1981, has published a dozen books on Australian music and popular culture, plus worked extensively in television and as a freelance journalist. I'm too old to be called an enfant terrible, but with the way I still seem to be able to court controversy, I must remain some sort of loose cannon! Sydney’s Sun-Herald has called me "our best chronicler of Australian grass-roots culture," and that’s a tag I’m flattered by but which does get at what I’ve always been interested in. I consider myself a historian who finds resonances where most don’t even bother to look, in our own backyard, yesterday, and the fact that so much of my backlist including Inner City Sound, Highway to Hell, Buried Country, Golden Miles, History is Made at Night, and Stranded are still in print, I take as vindication I’m on the right track…


I wrote...

Stranded

By Clinton Walker,

Book cover of Stranded

What is my book about?

Stranded is a cultural history of the Australian independent music scene that was spawned by the DIY punk movement in the late 70s and grew even despite resistance in the 1980s, up to a belated breakthrough in the early 90s thanks to the grunge realignment of the aesthetics of rock. It’s a blend of reportage, oral history, memoir, and criticism. When it was first published in 1996, it was considered somewhat contentious for its non-populist vision. What it was was prescient, putting its money on acts like Nick Cave, the Go-Betweens, and the Triffids who were so spurned in Australia in the 80s that they were forced into exile in Europe – and are now considered, worldwide, among the most enduring products of the period. After two decades out of print during which time the book’s legend only grew, it has just been re-released in 2021 in a new, expanded edition by the Visible Spectrum. 

Cocaine Blues

By Kerry Greenwood,

Book cover of Cocaine Blues: A Phryne Fisher Mystery

Phryne Fisher’s 21 mysteries take place in Australia, which means they lack the extra criminal/cultural dimension that Prohibition gave the US in the 1920s. However, while Australia did not prohibit alcohol consumption, there was still plenty of crime, gangsters, jazz, and flapper fashion to spice up every murder investigation. Miss Fisher, who through accident has inherited both title and fortune, stylishly sleuths her way through Melbourne’s underworld. Her adventures are relatively short and a fast read, but if you tire of reading, you can watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on television. I enjoy comparing books to movies—which is better? For me it’s usually the book, but still fun seeing the film version.  


Who am I?

Historical fiction, specifically historical mysteries, is my favorite category whether I’m reading for pleasure or writing my own stories, and the decade of the Roaring Twenties is certainly the most colorful era in American history. As a historian, I want to learn; as a writer, I want to teach. But—and this is a big “but”—it’s critical that historical novels are both accurate and subtle. If I find the author has misrepresented the history or larded the story, I’m done. Which is why I can recommend the following five Roaring Twenties series. All feature characters that grow as the series progresses so it’s best to begin at the beginning and proceed mostly in order.


I wrote...

The Mystic's Accomplice

By Mary Miley,

Book cover of The Mystic's Accomplice

What is my book about?

It's 1924, and Maddie Pastore has it made. A nice house, a loving husband with a steady job - even if it is connected to Chicago's violent Torrio-Capone gang - and a baby on the way. But then Tommy is shot dead, and she learns her husband had a secret.

Penniless and grieving, Maddie is only sure of two things: that she will survive for the sake of her baby, and that she'll never turn to the mob for help. So when she's invited to assist a well-meaning but fraudulent medium, she seizes the chance. When Maddie unearths potential evidence of a dark crime she faces a terrible dilemma: keep quiet and let a murderer go unpunished, or follow the trail and put herself and her baby in danger . . .

Ruddy Gore

By Kerry Greenwood,

Book cover of Ruddy Gore: A Phryne Fisher Mystery

The entire Miss Fisher series is a delight but Ruddy Gore is a stand-out. In this book, the reader sees the Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher at her absolute best. In 1920s Melbourne, the lady detective is investigating the strange on-stage death of an actor during a performance of  Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Ruddigore.’ I like this book because it is here readers are introduced to Phryne’s only long-term lover, the charming and handsome Lin Chung. Phryne is a gutsy heroine and the 1920s setting and fashions are marvellous. A dashing tale to keep readers on the edge of their seats!  


Who am I?

I’m an Australian crime writer and I love reading crime with a real sense of place and/or time. Growing up in Australia, most of the time I read international authors, so finding fabulous books by local authors was a thrill every time, and that excitement has never left me. This list crosses the genre from cosy to hard-boiled crime, which hopefully means something for everyone. If nothing here grabs you, there’s a lot more fantastic Australian crime fiction to discover (did you know Australian author Charlotte Jay won the first ever Edgar Award in 1954?) and I can passion-talk about it anytime!


I wrote...

The Shifting Landscape

By Katherine Kovacic,

Book cover of The Shifting Landscape

What is my book about?

Art dealer Alex Clayton travels to Victoria's Western District to value the McMillan family's collection. At their historic sheep station, she finds an important and previously unknown colonial painting - and a family fraught with tension. There are arguments about the future of the property and its place in an ancient and highly significant indigenous landscape.

When the family patriarch dies under mysterious circumstances and the painting is stolen, Alex decides to leave; then a toddler disappears and Alex's faithful dog Hogarth goes missing. With fears rising for the safety of both child and hound, Alex joins searchers scouring the countryside. But her attempts to unravel the McMillan family secrets have put Alex in danger, and she's not the only one. Winner of the 2021 Sisters in Crime Australia Readers’ Choice Award.

Explore Australia

By Celia Pollock, Sue Donovan,

Book cover of Explore Australia: The Complete Touring Companion

Back in the early ‘90s in Melbourne, I talked my way into a temporary job typesetting Explore Australia, a mammoth full-colour guidebook. I ended up staying several years, undertaking desk-based research, managing the photo library, and editing text and maps. I spent my days poring over cartographic proofs, sifting through glorious photos of rust-red mountain ranges, cobalt-blue skies, and dense tropical rainforest abutting white-sand beaches. I spoke to those manning the tourist information offices around the country: at Coral Bay, where the Ningaloo Reef is just a metre from the beach, at Healesville, when the cackle of a kookaburra interrupted my call, and at Cossack, a gold-rush-era ghost town with a population of one man and one dog. Some years later I sold my home, bought a 4x4, and set off to see all those places that I had visited vicariously…


Who are Bradt Guides?

Founded in 1974, Bradt Guides is now the largest independently-owned guidebook publisher in both the US and UK. We have over 200 titles in print, with a particular focus on lesser-known places overlooked by other travel publishers. We also publish a series of Slow Travel guides to UK regions and a list of travel narratives. There are 15 people in the Bradt team, based (when Covid allows) in an office above a coffee shop in Chesham, Bucks. The following books are very different but all connected to travel in fun ways. The books were selected by Simon Willmore, Claire Strange, Iona Brokenshire, Deborah Gerrard, and Hugh Brune. 


Bradt Travel Guides

The world’s leading independent travel publisher

Bradt Guides will soon be launching new editions of acclaimed guides to Iraq, Iceland, Mauritius, and Barbados. Something for every travel taste! There are also two new travel narratives: Galapagos Crusoes by June Wilson, an account of a year spent watching birds on a remote island in the 1960s, and My Family and Other Enemies by Mary Novakovich, a part-travelogue, part-memoir that dives into the hinterland of Croatia.

For serious travellers, we’ll continue to develop our Travel Club, offering a monthly magazine with travel tips and features, monthly online talks, discounts from a range of travel partners, and all Bradt guides at half price. (Or even free at the higher membership tiers!)

Canzone di Guerra

By Daša Drndić,

Book cover of Canzone di Guerra

I just love the way she is so contemptuous of people telling false “stories”. Her writing falls between every genre imaginable, a collage of well-researched facts and the indelible list of the horrors of war. She makes lists as monuments to dead victims; she names names; she calls out nationalism and racism. Wry and ironic, she has composed a battle-hymn against the barbarity of the Yugoslav wars between 1991 and 2001. To my lasting regret, I missed meeting her in Melbourne not long before she died. 


Who am I?

I am an aficionado of lost objects, lost time, afterlives; of writing which never “fitted” its era. Examples would be that of John Aubrey, Herman Melville, Fernando Pessoa, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Hardwick, Ralph Ellison… the list goes on. I look for writing that has stood the test of time, not celebrated for the fame and bling of the moment. I look for the futile products of those who possessed genius, but who never earned enough readers until decades or centuries later, once they were released from the prison-house of genre. I look for the posthumous brilliance of language; the phosphoric glow of its offerings and of the buried treasures found therein.


I wrote...

The Garden Book

By Brian Castro,

Book cover of The Garden Book

What is my book about?

The Garden Book is the “biography” of Swan, a Chinese woman living in regional Australia during the 1930s in a climate of racism, depression and impending war. She writes enigmatic, calligraphic poems on leaves, never intending that they would last. Struggling through an unhappy marriage, she meets an American who has intentions of publishing her work. Will this happen without compromise, or will she fall through the cracks into the everlasting unknown?

I lived for 12 years in a mountainous rainforest full of tree ferns and giant ash trees. One day I stumbled upon an old schoolhouse that someone had turned into a museum. The first teacher there in the 1920s was Chinese.

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