The best books about penal colonies

5 authors have picked their favorite books about penal colonies and why they recommend each book.

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Sakhalin Island

By Anton Chekhov,

Book cover of Sakhalin Island

The writer’s account of a journey across Siberia and into the Russian Far East to investigate prison conditions on an island in the Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan. A book of investigative journalism and a finely worked travel narrative conjuring spongy mud, ‘smoky, dreamy mountains’ and ‘lithe’ rivers while the author dreams of turbot, asparagus and kasha.

Who am I?

Sara Wheeler is a prize-winning non-fiction author. Sara is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Contributing Editor of The Literary Review, a Trustee of The London Library, and former chair of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award. She contributes to a wide range of publications in the UK and US and broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio. Her five-part series, ‘To Strive, To Seek’,  went out on Radio 4, and her book Cherry was made into a television film. 

I wrote...

Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

By Sara Wheeler,

Book cover of Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

What is my book about?

With the writers of the Golden Age as her guides – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev, among others – Wheeler travels across eight time zones, from rinsed north-western beetroot fields and far-eastern Arctic tundra to the cauldron of ethnic soup that is the Caucasus. She follows nineteenth-century footsteps to make connections between then and now: between the places where flashing-epauletted Lermontov died in the aromatic air of Pyatigorsk, and sheaves of corn still stand like soldiers on a blazing afternoon, just like in Gogol’s stories. On the Trans-Siberian railway in winter she crunches across snowy platforms to buy dried fish from babushki, and in summer she sails the Black Sea where dolphins leapt in front of violet Abkhazian peaks. She also spends months in fourth-floor 1950s apartments, watching television with her hosts, her new friends bent over devices and moaning about Ukraine.

The Fatal Shore

By Robert Hughes,

Book cover of The Fatal Shore

I thought I’d finish my list with something a little different. Everyone else in the books I’ve chosen made some kind of personal decision to take their life in a different direction, but the people in this last book didn’t. The Fatal Shore is about the earliest convicts, banished to Australia to start new lives in unfamiliar, hostile territory. The first chapter alone is fascinating, documenting peoples from a ‘civilised’ part of the world struggling for survival while aboriginal ‘savages’ thrived. It’s more than just a story of survival in a new world, but also a fantastic example of where we went wrong, turning our backs and our noses up to indigenous knowledge in the assumption that we know best. This book is a brilliant example of where Western civilisation went wrong, and how dangerous assumptions can be. 

Who am I?

From a young age, I was not only curious but obsessively driven to find some sort of purpose in life. I was also incredibly sensitive, and always felt I was put on the earth for a reason. My search took me across the world, taking many turns as I grabbed at every opportunity. Thanks to a motorbike accident in Nigeria, scattered pieces of my past suddenly began to fall into place. Finding our own purpose is exploration in its purest form, and I’ve long been fascinated by other curious minds – those that either struggle to find it, and those that find it and live it, or those that turn their back on convention. 

I wrote...

The Pursuit of Purpose: Part Memoir, Part Study - A Book About Finding Your Way in the World

By Ken Banks,

Book cover of The Pursuit of Purpose: Part Memoir, Part Study - A Book About Finding Your Way in the World

What is my book about?

How far would you go to find your purpose in life? Come on the unlikeliest of journeys as we follow one man's relentless search for purpose. Join him as he seeks answers in the African bush, the forests of Finland, and everywhere in between, surviving pirate attacks, near-drownings, and close encounters with lions along the way. Discover how a late-night motorcycle accident in Nigeria led to the creation of a text messaging system that would go on to benefit tens of millions of people around the world, and how a global pandemic helped uncover an incredible family history, and with it the answers to a life purpose that had laid hidden in plain sight all along.

The Commonwealth of Thieves

By Thomas Keneally,

Book cover of The Commonwealth of Thieves

Tom is an old mate, and a magician with words. He is also a prodigious researcher. Books: yes. The bibliography in The Commonwealth of Thieves runs to seven tight-packed pages, divided between primary sources (three pages) and secondary sources. The bibliography is underpinned by no fewer than 27 pages of notes. The Australian history I was taught at school was hogwash. Tom has set it straight in this brilliantly researched and off-the-wall history of our early days.

Who am I?

I’ve now written four books, of which three are Australian history. My first two books were World War 2 military history. My publishers persist in calling each book a best-seller, and who am I to disagree? I live in France and my third book A Good Place To Hide is about a French community that rescued Jews from the Nazis. My fourth book Ten Rogues took me back to Australian history, telling the story of a bunch of ten convicts who in 1834 nicked a brig and sailed it from Tasmania to Chile without a map or a compass.

I wrote...

Ten Rogues: The unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen's Land to Chile

By Peter Grose,

Book cover of Ten Rogues: The unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen's Land to Chile

What is my book about?

The unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen's Land to Chile. From the grim docks of nineteenth-century London to the even grimmer shores of the brutal penal colony of Norfolk Island, this is a roller-coaster tale. It has everything: defiance of authority, treachery, piracy and mutiny, escape from the hangman's noose and even love. Peopled with good men, buffoons, incompetents and larrikin convicts of the highest order, Ten Rogues is an unexpected and wickedly entertaining story from the great annals of Australia's colonial history.

In the Camps

By Darren Byler,

Book cover of In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony

Byler’s concise book is a vital read because it foregrounds the experiences of people detained in the camps, stories that overlap and cohere into a raw portrait of systematic brutality and dehumanising routines. Into these are woven an account of the digital surveillance technologies that underpin the network of detention, many of which are not unique to China, the difference between its use of them and many Western countries’ being only a matter of scale. The book also offers an important section on the increasing role of forced labour in Xinjiang, emphasising the need for greater scrutiny and accountability of supply chains that potentially rely on goods and labour from the region.

Who am I?

I was living in Xinjiang on 9/11 and got to witness the swiftness with which the state imposed strict regulations that harmed the Uyghur community. For me, this was an indelible lesson in the abuses of power and authority on people who just wanted to work, raise families, and enjoy their lives. Since then I’ve tried to raise awareness, first in my memoir, The Tree That Bleeds, then in my journalism. I hope my work helps people think about how to respond as both politically engaged citizens and consumers to one of the worst human rights violations of the 21st century.

I wrote...

China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

By Nick Holdstock,

Book cover of China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

What is my book about?

My book is an introduction to the politics, history, and culture of Xinjiang, which I wrote as a corrective to the then-prevailing notion of the region as a turbulent, volatile place beset by Islamist terrorism. It argues that since 9/11 the Chinese government has been promoting an alarmist narrative for which there’s little support, an idea it has used as an excuse to inflict draconian policies on the Muslim peoples of the region.

It was also important to me to give a sense of Xinjiang as a place, and to present some of the ways in which Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples have tried to find ways to adapt to discrimination against their language, religion, culture, and right to work. Ultimately, the book’s main message is that the current policies of the Chinese government – mass internment, indoctrination, and intimidation – demonstrate that they regard the existence of Uyghur identity as an existential threat.


By David Hill,

Book cover of 1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet: The Biggest Single Overseas Migration the World Had Ever Seen

David Hill’s research is incredible and results in a mind-blowing account of how not only convicts, but their guards and sailors, would colonise Australia, enduring the most brutal hardships. The transportation is described, and it is a miracle that anyone ever reached the destination in the leaky, unseaworthy ships. The enterprise was poorly-planned and underfunded, resulting in appalling suffering.

With such a shocking start, it is a wonder that Australia ever developed into the wonderful, successful country that it is now.

Who am I?

I’m Victoria Twead, the New York Times bestselling author of Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools and the Old Fools series. However, after living in a remote mountain village in Spain for eleven years, and owning probably the most dangerous cockerel in Europe, we migrated to Australia to watch our new granddaughters thrive amongst kangaroos and koalas. We love Australia, it is our home now. Another joyous life-chapter has begun.

I wrote...

Dear Fran, Love Dulcie: Life and Death in the Hills and Hollows of Bygone Australia

By Victoria Twead,

Book cover of Dear Fran, Love Dulcie: Life and Death in the Hills and Hollows of Bygone Australia

What is my book about?

Imagine a true story that unfolds in the harshness of Australia’s outback, beginning in 1957 and spanning decades. Imagine Dulcie’s battle to keep her family and animals alive in spite of bushfires, floods, cyclones, droughts, dingo attacks and terrible accidents.

The story of Dulcie Clarke, a simple pineapple farmer’s wife, has so many twists and turns that it will leave you gasping.

Bitch Planet Volume 1

By Kelly Sue DeConnick,

Book cover of Bitch Planet Volume 1: Extraordinary Machine

That title. That. Title. It's also a pretty killer idea, with some razor-sharp social commentary. Women that society views as difficult are quite literally shipped off to a prison planet. Only someone like Kelly Sue DeConnick could pull this off, and her tag team with the artist Valentine De Landro makes this a must-read. It's funny, emotional, and has the added benefit of making you think.

Who am I?

Jackson Ford is the author of The Frost Files series, including The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind and Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air. He may or may not be the alter ego of author Rob Boffard, a South African author based in Vancouver, but he is definitely 100% a jackass.

I wrote...

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind

By Jackson Ford,

Book cover of The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind

What is my book about?

Teagan Frost is having a hard time keeping it together. Sure, she's got telekinetic powers - a skill that the government is all too happy to make use of, sending her on secret break-in missions that no ordinary human could carry out. But all she really wants to do is kick back, have a beer, and pretend she's normal for once.

But then a body turns up at the site of her last job -- murdered in a way that only someone like Teagan could have pulled off. She's got 24 hours to clear her name. If she can't unravel the conspiracy in time, her hometown of Los Angeles will be in the crosshairs of an underground battle that's on the brink of exploding.

Stolen Lives

By Michele Fitoussi, Malika Oufkir,

Book cover of Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail

This book haunts me in a way that almost no other published work does. It’s like one of those movies we all have on a secret list – that we adore but can’t bear to ever watch again (like the Killing Fields or Fight Club). A memoir of almost unparalleled beauty and horror, it tells the true-life tale of the daughter of General Oufkir, who was put to death for attempted regicide. Malika and her five siblings were imprisoned for fifteen years in a penal colony, from where they mounted a daring escape.

Who am I?

Tahir Shah has spent his professional life searching for the hidden underbelly of lands through which he travels. In doing so he often uncovers layers of life that most other writers hardly even realise exist. With a world-wide following, Tahir’s work has been translated into more than thirty languages, in hundreds of editions. His documentaries have been screened on National Geographic TV, The History Channel, Channel 4, and in cinemas the world over. The son of the writer and thinker Idries Shah, Tahir was born into a prominent Anglo-Afghan family, and seeks to bridge East with West through his work.

I wrote...

Travels with Nasrudin

By Tahir Shah,

Book cover of Travels with Nasrudin

What is my book about?

The wise fool of Oriental folklore, Nasrudin is known across a vast swathe of the globe – from Morocco in the west, to Indonesia in the east. Appearing under different names and in all manner of guises, he’s universally admired for his back-to-front brand of genius – so much so that at least a dozen countries insist he was one of them. Tahir Shah explores this figure while examining his life, his travel, and his thoughts.


By Henri Charriere,

Book cover of Papillon

This is such a compelling book because you are rooting for the protagonist so much. His situation is so tragic and unfair that you’re in a constant state of anticipation. Will he succeed? Will things get better? He’s facing tremendous odds, and his chances of success are miniscule and everyone loves a good underdog story.

Who am I?

I worked in television for 25 years so when I wrote my novel, Death Warrant, about a reality TV show that kills people, I had a wealth of experience to draw from (not the killing part, but the TV part). And one of my experiences in TV was promoting reality TV programs on the stations I worked for. What did I come away with from that? That I really hate reality TV. Why? Because there is virtually nothing real about it. The shows are produced to within an inch of their lives. So, anything I could do that takes a swipe at reality TV, that satirizes it a bit, I was all in.

I wrote...

Death Warrant

By Bryan Johnston,

Book cover of Death Warrant

What is my book about?

Frankie Percival is cashing in her chips. To save her brother from financial ruin, Frankie, a stage performer who never made it big, agrees to be assassinated on the most popular television show on the planet: Death Warrant. But once she signs her life away, her memory is wiped clean of the agreement, leaving her with no idea she will soon be killed in spectacular fashion for global entertainment. After years of working in low-rent theaters, Frankie prepares for the biggest performance of her life that could catapult her to the top, if only she lives that long.

The Secret River

By Kate Grenville,

Book cover of The Secret River

This book was my introduction to Australian literature. I loved its eloquent evocation of a world totally new and mysterious to its characters. Although I was vaguely familiar with Australia’s penal colony past and with the destruction wrought on Aboriginal lives and culture, this book brought it home. I deeply appreciated the way it took me into the minds of men and women, most of them well-meaning but ignorant, and showed me how they missed the point of where they were and how to thrive there. The tragedy of that ignorance resonates with me, since I see it all around the world. 

Who am I?

I’ve loved fairytales, myths, and history since childhood. After graduating with honors in Russian and Chinese history, I’ve been researching and writing for decades. My work ranges from educational materials to award-winning nonfiction books for children on the theme of heroism. I’ve traveled the world, partly for research, but mostly out of a passion for discovery. My last nonfiction work was a book about women writers. I also penned a historical trilogy that started out as one book, plotted out when I was eighteen. It grew. And, returning full circle to my first loves, my most recent book for children is a traditional Buddhist tale from ancient India.

I wrote...

The Grip of God: Book One of The Tiger And The Dove

By Rebecca Hazell,

Book cover of The Grip of God: Book One of The Tiger And The Dove

What is my book about?

The Grip of God is the first in an epic historical trilogy set in the thirteenth century. Princess Sofia of Kievan Rus is captured by a young captain in the invading Mongol armies. Her life is shattered and put at the mercy of a mysterious prophecy; pursued by her master’s bitter rival, his half-brother; and haunted by the attentions of Mongol prince Batu Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson. 

How will Sofia survive in a world of total war, much less rediscover the love she once took for granted? Always longing to escape and stalked by outer enemies and inner turmoil, where can she find a haven even if she can break free? Clear-eyed, kind, and courageous, she will find her own way.

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