Summer Reading List
The sharp and discerning readers at the Sydney Writers’ Festival office spent winter reading all the year’s hotly anticipated releases, seeking out advance reading copies of original and groundbreaking titles, and asking publishers at home and abroad to tell us about the writers they’re most excited about. We’ve pored over manuscripts, all the while updating our running Google sheet so we can keep track of the hundreds of books that have been jostling for our attention.
For us, one of the true rewards comes when we get to share our literary finds with you. We hope these recommendations help you curate your perfect summer reading stack.
We’ve put together a roundup of daring and compelling novels and exhilarating non-fiction so you can enjoy them as they’re intended to be read – by the beach or on the couch over the festive season. Our whole team have shared their discoveries and favourites from 2019, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about the books that have been championed by Program Manager Lydia Tasker and Program Coordinator Daniela Baldry.
Our Head of Children’s and YA Programs Amelia Lush has suggestions for all the young readers in your life, and her enthusiasm and expertise should help you out with any last-minute Christmas shopping, as well as buy you some quiet time to make your way through your own summer reads.
If you haven’t done so already, please mark our 2020 Festival dates of 27 April to 3 May in your calendars. We launch our program on 12 March, and we’re already so excited to show you what we’ve been working on.
On behalf of everyone at Sydney Writers’ Festival, I’d like to wish you a safe and relaxed holiday season.
Michaela McGuire's Picks
Kevin Wilson, Nothing to See Here
This paradoxically light, melancholy, tender and bitingly funny novel is one of my standout reads of the year. The immensely satisfying and wholly original narrator is Lillian – a chronically apathetic, lazy and impatient loser who has nothing going on in her life. When she receives an offer from her old boarding school friend Madison to move into her mansion and care for her twin stepkids, Lillian figures she might as well. This offer seems too good to be true because it is: the twins spontaneously burst into flames whenever they get agitated, and it’s up to Lillian to figure out how to help them. Writing in The New York Times, Taffy Brodessker-Akner (the author of another best book of the year) said: “Good Lord, I can’t believe how good this book is… It’s wholly original. It’s also perfect…”
Anna Krien, Act of Grace
For the past decade Anna Krien has been cementing her reputation as one of Australia’s best journalists, and now she’s turned her unsparing, incisive gaze onto the Iraq War and its legacy of trauma. Anna’s first novel concerns three central characters and uses their stories to examine the cost of war and the possibility of reconciliation. There’s Toohey, an Iraq War veteran who has returned to Australia physically and emotionally scarred; Robbie, a young Indigenous woman whose father, a child of the Stolen Generations, is suffering from dementia; and Nasim, an aspiring pianist and Iraqi refugee who fled Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. These are complex and contentious themes that Anna’s explored with real compassion and emotional and intellectual rigor.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, Patsy
A big-hearted slow burn of a novel that tackles the enormous themes of immigration, generational trauma, queerness, identity, poverty, class and race with a delicate touch. Patsy finally gets her US visa and leaves Kingston, Jamaica behind for Brooklyn, New York where she hopes to reconnect with her childhood love, Cicely. She leaves her 5-year-old daughter Tru behind, and the narrative splits brutally. Separately, we follow Patsy as her American dream is all but immediately broken: Cicely has a rich, controlling husband and little interest in her first love. Meanwhile, Tru grows up under the care of her absent father and his resentful wife, grappling with her own sexuality and struggling daily as it becomes clear that her mother has no intention of coming home. This is a stunning, empathetic rendering of a devastating clash between motherhood, selfhood and womanhood.
Lydia Tasker's Picks
Alice Bishop, A Constant Hum
The end of the year has seen most of New South Wales shrouded in a Mars-like orange smoke haze, and the horrific conditions around the state don’t show signs of easing anytime soon. For some of us as inner-city locals it can be difficult to comprehend what this scale of disaster means beyond the blazes themselves and especially the longer-term effects for survivors who have lost everything. Alice Bishop’s incredible debut short story collection, A Constant Hum, set in the aftermath of the Black Saturday fires, gives pause to reflect on how these devastating events leave families, communities and lives in tatters. Alice grew up in Christmas Hills, one of the towns ravaged by the Black Saturday fires a decade ago, and given our current situation, A Constant Hum feels like essential reading over the summer period. The writing is gut-wrenchingly good and this is a collection I will be coming back to again and again for a long time to come.
Tony Birch, The White Girl
Tony Birch’s most recent novel, The White Girl, follows the story of Odette Brown, who, when her daughter Lila disappears, is left as sole carer for her granddaughter, Sissy. Opening in the fictional rural town of Deane in the 1960s, Odette must protect Sissy from the welfare authorities trying to take her away from her family home. The White Girl highlights the horrifically damaging effects of Australia’s colonial history and oppression, and the strong female characters at the heart of this story are so vividly formed that they spring from the page. The gripping plot coupled with Tony's dynamic prose will have you racing through The White Girl, and the novel will leave you considering what Australia’s dark and violent past meant for those affected long after you turn the last page.
Lisa Taddeo, Three Women
There’s a reason Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is cropping up in just about every ‘best books of the year’ list so far – it’s just really that good! A pinpointed examination of female desire as experienced by the three central women – Lina, Maggie and Sloane – Three Women reads as a gripping, page-turning novel even though it's non-fiction. Lisa spent 8 years researching the book, and the thousands of hours she spent in communication with her subjects shows in the incredible level of detail and complexity of emotion written into their stories. Originally conceived as a book about human desire, Lisa expected she’d be drawn to the stories of men, but through her research came to realise that it was women’s stories that revealed much more about “the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments”. For those who haven’t read it yet, Three Women is an excellent way to spend the summer downtime and will prompt some powerful dinner-table conversations over the holiday period.
Daniela Baldry's Picks
Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King
Ethiopian–American author Maaza Mengiste’s latest novel, The Shadow King, is the kind of historical fiction that makes you reset your understanding of your place in the world. Set during the second Italo–Ethiopian War, it might be easy to assume this epic tale is one from centuries long past, yet even my own grandparents grew up in Italy under Mussolini’s dictatorship. The Shadow King tells the story of Hirut, a character somewhere between girlhood and womanhood, who we first meet as an orphaned servant, and later becomes a warrior at war alongside other central characters. Namwali Serpell (The Old Drift) recently described Hirut as “indelible and compelling a hero as any I’ve read in years” in her New York Times book review. Another character, Aster, in the midst of battle exclaims to the women in her contingent, “These aren’t the days to pretend you’re only a wife, or a sister, or a mother, she says. We’re more than this”. Maaza’s novel does more than make such a proclamation – instead, it proves it.
Dani Shapiro, Inheritance
A few years ago, a couple of my family members sent their DNA off to 22andMe for genetic testing. They asked me if I’d like to do the same, but I decided against it. I was probably too engrossed in the book I was reading at the time to give it too much thought. American author, Dani Shapiro might also have absentmindedly opted out when her husband asked the same of her, but instead, they both sent their DNA kits off, assuming nothing would come of it. What happened next led Dani, a writer of not one but four memoirs at this point, to write her latest, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. This most recent memoir reads like a thriller, and I mean that in the best possible way. Jennifer Egan has called it “a gripping genetic detective story,” and Meg Wolitzer has said, “With Inheritance, Dani tells a startling story of origins – their deep reach and their lasting reverberations. This book reads like a beautiful, lived novel, moving and personal and true.” Dani shares the secrets she discovers as if she is processing them in real-time, and she very generously invites you, her readers, to do the same.
Josephine Rowe, Here Until August
Internationally acclaimed Australian author, Josephine Rowe’s new collection of short stories, Here Until August, has already been described as "masterful", "vital", "captivating", and "extraordinary". I read my fair share of book reviews, so I know these descriptors get thrown around a lot, but I’m here to tell you that this collection is every bit as good as the internet would lead us all to believe*. In August we meet characters who, as the blurb puts it, “are travelling beyond the boundaries of their known worlds". I read for essentially the same reason, as I’m sure many of you do, too. Yet, whilst doing so, we obviously read and write through the prism of our own experience – and the two in combination is what keeps us all reading when our attention spans should be dwindling by the year. Josephine’s stories allow us to look both inward and outward, and consider, just for a little while, what it might feel like to consider the lives of others more than we do our own. In one story, “Anything Remarkable,” a character says that her wife “has a certain grace with grief, the grief of others,” and after reading this collection, I can’t help but feel that Josephine has her own grace with writing grief as a subject, and her skilful and delicate rendering of it is incredible to behold.
*I strongly recommend bookmarking Brendon Taylor’s (Real Life) extended Literary Hub interview with Josephine, to read after you've finished the book.
Amelia Lush's pick
Leslie Jamison, Make it Scream, Make it Burn
In my opinion, Leslie Jamison is one of the finest essayists writing today and Make it Scream, Make it Burn was one of my most anticipated releases of this year. Despite my impossible-to-meet expectations, Leslie still managed to surpass them, and this collection of essays exploring human connection, isolation and identity is extraordinary. Like her earlier collection The Empathy Exams, Make it Scream, Make it Burn is a difficult beast to sum up in a sentence or two but in reading it you can sense the author's rage, frustration and deep fascination with the human condition.
Amelia Lush's picks for young readers
Alice Oseman, Heartstopper (Volumes 1 & 2)
Young Adult fiction
I first stumbled across Alice Oseman’s webcomic, Heartstopper, a few years ago, and found myself returning to this gentle and charming love story whenever life felt a little too bleak or overwhelming. Alice has a true gift for turning the complex interior lives of teenagers into a vivid and engaging narrative, and I was over the moon when I heard Hachette would be publishing Heartstopper in multiple volumes. Heartstopper is a beautifully drawn comic that captures the slowly building intimacy of Nick and Charlie, and also brings to the fore their battles with mental health, their loving relationships with their friends, and the microcosm of boarding school life. Perfect for readers aged 12+.
Raina Telgemeier, Guts
Over the last decade, Raina Telgemeier has single-handedly changed the face of graphic novels for children. Her trademark full-colour graphic novels and memoirs dominate the bestseller lists, a fact that is wholly unsurprising once you’ve read the heartfelt and personal stories. Guts, her most recent release, sensitively and humorously depicts Raina’s own struggle with fear and anxiety, and how she learns to navigate her unpredictably and at times embarrassing bodily responses to these feelings. Perfect for both avid and reluctant readers aged 8–12.
Sami Bayly, The Encyclopedia of Ugly Animals
I definitely had a lot in common with Sami Bayly when I was a child, always featuring the weirdest and most unusual looking animals in my school assignments. Sami’s conservation message is simple – all endangered animals are worthy of a champion, especially those that many would not describe as cute and cuddly. In exquisitely painted watercolour portraits, Sami highlights some of her favourite ugly animals – providing readers young and old with facts galore about their lives, biology and habitats. This will be pored over by all readers aged 5+.
Gregg Dreise, Cunning Crow
Gregg Dreise’s vibrant retelling of Dreamtime stories should be in the hands of all Australian children. Cunning Crow, the fourth in his series was inspired by a story he was told growing up about an opal on his grandmother’s country. Waan, a crow jealous of the vibrant colours that his fellow birds are turning, comes up with a cunning plan to steal them for himself. Gregg’s background as an artist and musician comes through in the beautiful paintings and lyrical text, and Cunning Crow may be the best yet of his picture books, making me anticipate the next one even more. Recommended for ages 3+.