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In times of high moral outrage at the barbarism of others, it is salutary to be reminded of the state-sanctioned viciousness of Australia’s past. Simon Barnard’s AZ of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land does this brilliantly. Australian convict history is a crowded field, but Barnard’s detailed and vivid illustrations breathe fresh life into it. In addition to the many architectural cutaway drawings (hospitals, jails, female factories, commissariats, coalmines, shipyards, treadmills), there is a wealth of social detail: the bell-pull system for solitary confinement cells, a water canteen, cell graffiti, named dogs of the Colony, the tattoos of Francis Fitzmaurice. Indeed, it is the rupture of the human dimension into the totalising aspects of the system that surrounded convict transportation that give this book real intellectual heft. The effect is achieved through image and text, drawing on the stories of many lesser-known personalities of the period from a rich range of primary source material.

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Authentically owning a character’s experience is one of the great challenges faced by fiction writers, especially when it is something as intensely felt as living with terminal illness. It is testimony to A.J. Betts’s talent that she does so in Zac & Mia without lapsing into melodrama, rather, maintaining a voice that is youthful, contemporary, ...

When Mark Twain arrived in Watsons Bay in 1895, he called out from his ship that he was going to write a book about Australia. ‘I think I ought to start now. You know so much more of a country when you haven’t seen it than when you have. Besides, you don’t get your mind strengthened by contact with ...

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In April 1934 sisters Mary and Elizabeth Durack joined their eldest brother, Reg, at Argyle Downs Station in the Kimberley. Mary was twenty-one, her sister eighteen. Educated at Loreto Convent in Perth, they had been reared on a diet of stories about life in the north told by their father, Michael Patrick Durack (known as ‘MPD’), when he returned from the family’s pastoral holdings every wet season to spend time with his wife and six children. Both girls had spent time up north with their parents, and loved the place. This time, however, they were on their own. At Argyle, ‘they were paid union wages for helping in the kitchen, where they learned to make bread for the homestead and for the twenty or more Aborigines on the station’, and later they took up duties at another Durack company station, Ivanhoe. They stayed up north for eighteen months, saving up for a trip to Europe, for even the Durack family fortunes had been hit by the Great Depression.

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This is the modest memoir of a remarkable man. At the age of eighty, geologist Tony Taylor travels from Sydney to Vancouver Island to meet his eight-year-old grandson Ned and take him fishing on the Cowichan River. Half a lifetime earlier, in 1968, Taylor had spent a formative two years in that wilderness. He is eager now to give his grandson the same education.

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Few writers, it could be argued, have ever cannibalised life for their art as ruthlessly and consistently as did Martin Boyd; and few are born into situations which lend themselves so readily to art. Boyd’s working life – indeed, much of his entire existence – was spent trying to unite the past with the present, the old world with the new, himself with the man he might have been; and in committing his efforts to paper. To this end, he never shirked from using friends and relatives as material for his novels, as well as the real-life experiences of himself and of others. If he paid a price for this – which he occasionally did, for people often hanker to be preserved in print, only to resent the style of preservation – the consequences gave him little pause. By the time he wrote A Difficult Young Man, focusing the cool spotlight of his attention on his brother Merric as well as more sharply on himself, Boyd had form as a writer whose true gift lay not in the power of his imagination, but in the brilliance of his ancestral inheritance.

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Romy Ash’s début novel, Floundering, sits comfortably in the realm of Australian realism. It depicts the travails of a dysfunctional and impoverished family as they make their way across the country during a scorching Australian summer. Tom and Jordy, young brothers, live with their grandparents following their abandonment by their mother, Loretta. Twelve months later Loretta returns, just as peremptorily as she left. She removes the children and heads west to a place where she hopes they will be able to live happily together.

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For some sixty years Donald Friend kept a diary, making his final entry just days before his death in 1989 at the age of seventy-four. The National Library of Australia published them in four massive volumes between 2001 and 2006. They were intractable. You needed an axe to cut through the stream of consciousness which flowed from an uncensoring pen ...

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Lloyd Jones’s Booker-shortlisted ‘breakthrough’ novel Mister Pip (2006) began life as a collection of random memories and myths written on a wall...

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The reception of SBS’s documentary Go Back to Where You Came From held out the promise that Australians’ antagonism towards asylum seekers was softening. But old certainties shift in unpredictable ways. In an essay in the September 2010 issue of The Monthly, Robert Manne, a long-standing critic of the Howard government’s asylum seeker policy, asked some uncomfortable questions of the left: Didn’t Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’ actually work? What if the Australians who are hostile to asylum seekers can’t be dismissed as a racist redneck minority, but are instead the ‘overwhelming majority of the Australian mainstream’? What, then, of the mythical Australian values of mateship, equality, and the fair go? Arnold Zable’s latest book, Violin Lessons, situates itself within this, the most disturbing moral debate Australia has engaged in since 1992, when the Keating government introduced mandatory immigration detention.

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