Summer Reading List

Here at Sydney Writers’ Festival, our favourite part of the festive season is the Best Books of the Year lists which are shared with fervour by book lovers around the world.

We’ve been eagerly comparing dozens of lists, arguing about perceived injustices and celebrating the inclusions of our 2019 Festival authors.  

We’ve been keeping our own lists, too. Some of us have Good Reads accounts where we meticulously rate and review titles, others read so many books that they have to keep a list in the back of their notebooks, scrawling a new title every other day.

One of the best parts of working at the Festival is the opportunity to experience the best in Australian and world literature as it’s being created. The excitement of discovering a truly remarkable, touching, devastating or joyful book months before they’re available in bookstores is only surpassed by the excitement of knowing we’ll be able to share it with you in our program next year.

Our programming team are all clever, omnivorous and discerning readers, and we’ve decided to share our daily excitable office chatter about our favourite reads with you. Please enjoy the top picks of the year from Associate Director Tam Zimet, Head of Children’s and YA Programs Amelia Lush and Program Coordinator Daniela Baldry, and I hope that their fine taste and expertise will make it a little easier for you to assemble your holiday reading stacks.

If you haven’t done so already, please mark our Festival dates of 29 April to 5 May in your calendars. We launch our program on March 14, and we can’t wait to share it with you. 

On behalf of all of us at Sydney Writers’ Festival, I’d like to wish you a warm, relaxed festive season, with plenty of time to get through those summer reading stacks. 

Michaela McGuire

Artistic Director

Michaela McGuire's Picks

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

This sly, sinister thriller is for everyone who couldn’t get enough of Killing Eve. Korede, a Nigerian nurse, has always been irritated by her older sister, Ayoola: strikingly beautiful, the favourite child, and now she won’t stop killing her boyfriends, leaving Korede to clean up the mess. Korede is secretly in love with a doctor at her hospital, but one day he meets Ayoola and asks for her phone number. Told with deadpan wit, this brief, elegant novel is one of my stand-out reads of the year.

Wintering by Krissy Kneen

Australia’s most inventive, prolific writer returns to classic literary fiction with a chilling thriller set in small-town Tasmania. Of course it’s not quite classic literary fiction, because Krissy Kneen doesn’t do anything predictably. When Jessica’s physically and emotionally abusive partner Matthew disappears into the Tasmanian forest, she is bereft. Police investigations go nowhere and everyone except Jessica assume he’s taken off with another woman, but then a group of widows reach out and share their own stories of their disappeared men, who they claim have been transformed by the wilderness into literal monsters. Coolly and elegantly told, this exquisite novel grapples with themes of domestic violence and grief in a way that manages to be both completely serious and beautifully dream-like.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

I loved Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, Eileen, and her follow-up about a young woman who is doggedly determined to put herself into narcotic hibernation for a year is equally confronting, blackly humorous and original. Soon after graduating from Columbia, our heroine’s parents die and, with the aid of a quack psychiatrist, she decides to spend a good chunk of her inheritance on the only thing that eludes her privileged life: sleep. Set in New York City in the last glimmering days before September 11, this beautiful young woman takes the alienation she feels – from her best friend, her wealth, her job at an art gallery – and raises the stakes considerably.

Tamara Zimet's Picks

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi

Shortlisted for the National Book Award for Translation and winner of the Lire Best Debut Novel and la Porte Dorée Prize, Disoriental is the debut novel from French-Iranian screenwriter and showrunner, Négar Djavadi. This vibrant and brash family story spans decades and continents, yet opens in the sterile confines of a Parisian fertility clinic as our narrator, Kimiâ Sadr waits anxiously and alone. Her solitude is soon washed away by her memories of her ancestors, which return to her in “natural fits and starts” as the lives of generations of Sadrs flood the page. This is not a purely historical novel – Kimiâ’s clear, youthful and queer voice ensures that this story has one foot firmly planted in the present day, as she grapples with relationships, her career, and the politics of life in France. This is a sophisticated and compelling family drama set against the backdrop of key moments in Iranian history, politics and culture, and a story about a woman torn between tradition and loyalty, and forging her own way.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

I loved this cautionary and batshit crazy tale. This book appeared on the best books of 2018 lists for NPR, The New York Times Book Review and The Wall Street Journal for good reason – it’s extraordinary work from two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner John Carreyrou, who first broke the story and stayed with it in the face of threats and legal action. Bad Blood is the chilling inside account of the meteoric rise of Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos, which was once worth $9 billion and was purportedly on track to revolutionise the medical industry with home blood testing kits. Featured on the cover of Forbes and Fortune, and with a personal wealth of more than $4 billion, Holmes was widely touted as the next Steve Jobs and backed by a blindly supportive board that included Henry Kissinger and US Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis. The problem was that the technology never worked and Holmes embarked on a cover-up that made the Theranos scandal one of the most outrageous examples of corporate fraud since Enron. As Kissinger himself wrote in a fawning Time profile, “Elizabeth Holmes’ is a story that could happen only in America”.

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

I think this book is the one that I’ve evangelised the most about this year. I read Axiomatic by cultural historian and writer Maria Tumarkin straight after Sydney Writers’ Festival, when my brain felt like it was going to implode from a heady combination of adrenaline and exhaustion. However, I don’t remember a reading experience as buoying or electrifying as delving into this book. This boundary-shifting work combines storytelling and reportage – Tumarkin turns five axioms (including ‘You Can’t Enter the Same River Twice’ and 'History Repeats Itself') into launching pads for her expansive essays. Axiomatic is her fourth book (and her first with the innovative Brow Books) and was just named as the winner of the Melbourne Prize for Literature. Please read it: I think Tumarkin is a genius, and this book reminded me of how daringly powerful words can be.

Daniela Baldry's Picks

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

A finalist for the National Book Award, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is one of the most impressive epic novels of 2018. The novel follows the lives of a group of friends and lovers during the start of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago. Many in the group are either contracting the virus or living in constant fear that they, or someone they know, eventually will. Alternating chapters cut to present-day Paris where one of the friends from Chicago, who cared for many of her dying family and friends, now finds herself searching for her estranged daughter. In the present-day chapters the reader can’t help but wonder what might have happened, or be about to happen to the characters they’re simultaneously getting to know in Chicago. Michael Cunningham has said in The New York Times that “the question ‘What happens next?’ remains pressing from the first page to the last”. It is very much a novel which encompasses so much of what people often hunger to read about – friendship, love, and loss – but it is also a reminder of how easily we can all find ourselves in the midst of crisis, which will irrevocably alter the direction of our lives.

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

The first sentence of Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir reads, “I did not want to write to you. I wanted to write a lie”. Since that admission, Heavy has gone on to be described as one of the most intimate, searingly honest memoirs ever published. Alexander Chee has called it “an act of truth telling unlike any other I can think of in American literature”. Heavy is directly addressed to Laymon’s mother, and it’s their complex relationship that ends up as the driving force behind the entire memoir. This force ultimately confronts violence in all its manifestations, head on. Laymon addresses the violence he experienced growing up black in Jackson, Mississippi, the violence he inflicts on his own body over time with disordered eating and exercise, and the violence of a nation that can’t seem to reckon with its own history the way he unreservedly does – hence “An American Memoir”.

Amelia Lush's picks

Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina  
Young adult fiction

Navigating the intersections of systemic and institutional racism, colonisation, police corruption and grief, Catching Teller Crow is a sensitive and powerful addition to the Australian young adult fiction landscape. In alternating chapters, both with distinctive voices, Ambelin and Ezekiel deftly weave together the stories of two young Aboriginal women, Isobel Catching and Beth Teller, and the ways in which Isobel’s life and Beth’s untimely death connect to the dark mystery occupying their small town. A tribute to family, truth and survival, this should be essential reading for all teens. This is the first novel from the brother and sister duo, both of whom have had lengthy careers as authors and illustrators, and having now read what their combined talents produce, I hope there is more on the horizon.

Children of the Dragon: The Relic of the Blue Dragon by Rebecca Lim
Middle fiction 10+

When Harley steals a mysterious old vase he finds at the local antique store, he unwittingly releases the spirit of Qing, a Chinese girl at the heart of a centuries old war between two ancient, supernatural families. Set in modern Australia, and rich in Chinese myth, culture and martial arts, this funny and thrilling new series the perfect read for fans of Percy Jackson looking for something closer to home.

Real Pigeons Fight Crime by Andrew McDonald and Ben Wood 
Junior fiction 6+

This brilliant new series documenting the exploits of a squad of crime-fighting pigeons is perfect for young fans of Andy Griffiths and Anh Do. Lead by the charismatic Master-of-Disguise Rock Pigeon, these champions of truth and justice (and snacks) go up against fame-obsessed Mega Bat and diabolical Jungle Crow in a trio of hilarious mysteries. Ben Wood’s lively illustrations and Andrew McDonald’s knack for wordplay make for the perfect reading experience for anyone aged 6+.

All the Ways to be Smart by Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys
Picture book 3+

I’ve been a devotee of Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys since their first glorious picture book The Underwater Fancy–Dress Parade came out four years ago. Their empathetic and gentle explorations of the emotional trials and tribulations of children are second to none. Their new title, All the Ways to be Smart is a remarkable picture book celebrating the many different qualities that make every child unique and special, and is hands-down my picture book of the year.