Peter Carey, widely recognized as one of the most engaging historical novelists alive, surpasses himself in this novel about the Australian version of Jesse James. Here the author becomes historical impersonator: the chapters are 13 packets of narrative written by Ned Kelly to his baby daughter at a time when he knew his violent life was coming to its end, to give her his version of himself and his family and friends, who were seen by 19th-century Australians as thugs and killers. The voice, untutored, ungrammatical and often comically colloquial, becomes intoxicating, poetic and sinuous enough to reflect the highly idiosyncratic conversations of others without ever losing its own character. That alone would make this novel perhaps the most compelling reading on this list. But there is a kind of defiant bravery in Carey's attitude toward Ned. Kelly is a disarmingly candid young man driven to lawlessness by the corruption of the ruling establishment. In his own view he is almost always innocent, and his actions reveal what one can only call a native nobility; next to him Robin Hood looks frivolous. It is as if Carey were daring the reader to desert him as a romantic and a sentimentalist. He wins. The domestic scenes and the appalling education in crime of the boy Ned and his siblings are searing explorations of poverty, fear and ignorance; the one romance in Ned's life is wholly convincing; and the breathless chase at the end, as the vengeful constabulary closes in, is as heart-stopping a story as you can find.