EXPATRIATE Geraldine Brooks has won the Australian Book of the Year award for a novel that explores the tortured history of Jews, Christians and Muslims involved in the preservation of a real medieval Jewish book, the Sarajevo Haggadah.
The win by Brooks's People of the Book at the Australian Book Industry Awards in Melbourne last night came as her sister, Darleen Bungey, won the biography prize for Arthur Boyd: a Life.
Publishers and booksellers voted in a crop of winners dominated by memoirs, cross-culture, food and the ever popular fantasy.
Sydney chef Pauline Nguyen was named newcomer of the year for Secrets of the Red Lantern, an emotional memoir of her family's flight from Vietnam and adjusting to life in Sydney's Cabramatta, including the recipes that link them together.
Ms Nguyen owns and runs the Red Lantern restaurant in Sydney's Surry Hills along with her chef-husband, Mark Jensen, and her brother, Luke, who both worked on the recipes.
The awards come as Australia's book industry faces some tough times ahead in the face of weakening retail sales and rising competition from digital media.
But Australian Publishers Association president Juliet Rogers said the Australian industry was in better shape than either that of the US or UK.
"No one would say it is easy, but I think we are weathering things better than some others in the US and UK," she told The Australian.
"We have a broader market and customer base that is really interested in Australian books."
Melbourne-based former Chinese dance star Li Cunxin's illustrated children's book, The Peasant Prince, was voted book of the year for younger children.
The Peasant Prince, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, is a fairy tale version of Li's autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer, which charts his journey from Chinese peasantry to ballet stardom and defection to the US, and eventually to the Australian Ballet.
Brooks, who is based in the US, is a former Middle East bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal and is well known as the author of the 1994 non-fiction book, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women. People of the Book was also named the literary fiction book of the year.
Brooks beat out competition for book of the year from the likes of Don Watson's travel meditation on the US, American Journeys, and Melbourne cartoonist and author Kaz Cooke's guide for young girls, Girl Stuff, which was named general non-fiction book of the year.