Summer Reading List
People often ask whether working in writers’ festivals kills the magic of reading for you: whether having to have one eye on the possibility of events, constantly second-guessing what you read for which audiences it might appeal to, means that the pure pleasure of disappearing into a good book is somehow compromised by utilitarian need.
But the opposite is actually true. As an obsessive reader and life-long book lover, you get to immerse yourself in the sheer range of talent that’s out there. We still get to read for pleasure, but we also get to read for discovery; we get to read for ourselves, but we also get to read with others in mind. We read outside our preferred genres, away from just our favourite authors, and into new worlds and perspectives, mindsets and experiences. It’s hard not to feel utterly spoilt.
And part of that sense of privilege is working with a team of equally obsessive readers. As a new part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival office, one of my favourite discoveries is how wonderful it is to talk books with my new colleagues; as deeply literate, eclectic, curious and smart a bookish bunch as you could hope for.
Sharing our literary finds and treats from the past few months with you is an exercise in curation and excision. Of hundreds of books read this year, where to steer you in your summer reading journey? How to select which of them should make the cut? Can we get a balance between page-turning novels and world-expanding non-fiction, between self-indulgent favourites and beloved blockbusters? But the thing that makes it such a satisfying task — beyond the cutting and the selection — is that it’s a conversation. Our Program Manager Lydia Tasker and our Head of Children’s and YA Programs Amelia Lush have championed some of their favourites here too, and I can’t think of a better group of readers to guide you on your summer book-shopping path.
And as ever, beyond the recommendations below, go to our website and podcast channel to see some of the other terrific books and authors we’ve been keen to share with you this year. So much gold there. If you haven’t done so already, please mark our 2021 Festival dates of 26 April to 2 May in your calendars. We launch our program on 12 March, and we’re thrilled with how it’s all coming together.
From the entire team here at Sydney Writers’ Festival, thanks for your support and have a safe and happy time bidding this very strange 2020 farewell. We’ll see you next year.
Michael Williams' Picks
Leah Jing McIntosh
Collisions: Fictions of the Future
Over several years Liminal, the online magazine devoted to showcasing Asian-Australian talent, has centred writers and artists too often left out or left to the side of our overwhelmingly white publishing and media industries. Through smart, sensitive publishing and the introduction in 2019 of a new literary prize for Australian writers of colour, they have again and again made a powerful statement about the rich literary talent that is out there. The quality of the prize’s longlist, collected in this anthology by Leah Jing McIntosh, Cher Tan, Adalya Nash Hussein and Hassan Abul, reaffirmed the value of the prize, providing a reminder that homogenous publishing doesn’t just marginalise and diminish communities of writers, it creates homogenous literary output. These are writers taking risks, who are bold and playful with form, and redefine what we might expect to see from new short fiction.
Born Into This
In my last role at the Wheeler Centre, we ran a national scheme for supporting new voices to break into the publishing scene. Watching the talented writers who participated in The Next Chapter take the next steps of that publishing journey is exhilarating. The first of them to have a book out in the world is Tasmanian author Adam Thompson, whose debut is out in February. Even if you can’t lay your hands on a copy just yet, consider this a recommendation to put it on your list for the new year. Thompson is brilliant and his collection of short stories on identity, racism and heritage destruction has already attracted fans like Tara June Winch, Tony Birch and Melissa Lucashenko. Funny, tender, thoughtful and original, Thompson is one to watch out for.
When She Was Good
Michael Robotham is one of our finest crime writers. If you haven’t read him before, there’s a backlist of 15 titles now, not a dud amongst them. Frequently awarded (the only Australian to win the UK's prestigious Gold Dagger Award twice), and regularly-bestselling (in more than 25 languages around the world), the Sydney-based master weaves page-turning, psychologically acute thrillers with aplomb, and long-time fans will be pleased that two novels in, his new hero Cyrus Haven is showing every sign of being as compelling a protagonist as Robotham’s previous detectives. Make sure if you read When She Was Good on a beach towel face down that someone else is responsible for topping up the sunscreen: once you begin you’ll be consumed by it until the last page.
Fire, Flood, Plague: Australian Writers Respond to 2020
You might reasonably be forgiven for not wanting to look back on 2020 at all as you turn the corner into summer reading. Living it once through might be enough; who needs to relive it in book form. But when an anthology features such a rogue’s gallery of Australia’s finest writers – including but not limited to Lenore Taylor, Nyadol Nyuon, Christos Tsiolkas, Melissa Lucashenko, Kim Scott, Brenda Walker, Omar Sakr, Tim Flannery, Rebecca Giggs, George Megalogenis and others – you can be guaranteed something more meaningful and worthwhile than a mere recap of events. Taking in the very state of the planet and our likely future at one turn, then the nature of individual loss at the next, with fire, flood and plague as its theme, this essential collection edited by Sophie Cunningham is as insightful as it is urgent.
Lydia Tasker's Picks
Tracing across three generations of Irish-Australian immigrants, Gail Jones’ Our Shadows delves into the murky shadows of the past, both of personal family histories and the broader loom of cultural legacy. Sisters Nell and Frances are brought up by their grandparents in the dry glare of inland Western Australian next to the churning depths of the Kalgoorlie Super Pit and together they dream of “the balm of the ocean” beyond, cherishing a print hung in their shared childhood bedroom of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa. As adults Nell and Frances both live by the sea in Sydney and have drifted far from the closeness of their childhood. As they begin to unspool the tangled threads of the past they must confront the unspoken and troublesome shadows that emerge.
Song of the Crocodile
Winner of the 2018 black&write! fellowship, Yuwaalaraay writer Nardi Simpson is also a founding member of the folk music duo Stiff Gins. Her powerful debut novel, Song of the Crocodile, examines fraught relationships between Indigenous and settler communities around the fictional town of Darnmoor. Following three generations of the Billymil family, living in the Campgrounds just outside Darnmoor, and their ancestors who guide them throughout, the story uncovers the brutal effects of deception, abuse of power, and violence on the Billymil family and the wider community. Simpson’s vibrant prose is exquisitely crafted and has something of a lilting musicality to its rhythm, especially in its richly detailed description of the landscape of Darnmoor and its characters’ relationships with Country.
Andrew Pippos’ highly acclaimed debut novel Lucky’s follows the story of Vasilis ‘Lucky’ Mallios, founder of the since defunct Lucky’s restaurant franchise, and journalist Emily Main, who travels from London to Sydney to profile Lucky for The New Yorker. Pippos’ prose is fresh, his characters are nuanced and compelling, and the Inner Western Sydney setting is expertly rendered on the page. Emily’s investigation into Lucky’s story uncovers much more than just a failed restaurant chain, revealing complex family ties, tragic events, and deceit. Spanning a number of generations and across the world from Greece to London to Chicago to Sydney, Lucky’s is a sweeping modern epic filled with some of the best characters I’ve ever met on the page.
Sorrow and Bliss
One of the buzziest Australian releases of 2020, Sorrow and Bliss weaves together the everyday with moments of profound sadness, all with razor-sharp wit and a canny dark sense of humour. Circling the breakdown of Martha and Patrick’s marriage, this sharp yet tender novel follows Martha’s retracing of the past to manage a path through her depression. Mason examines the connections between family and selfhood, and her cast of characters are all filled with flaws, contradictions and incredible depth. Acutely perceptive and full of tenderness, Sorrow and Bliss is being compared to Fleabag, Sally Rooney and Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and similarly explores sensitive topics with a brilliantly droll tone which will have you chuckling as you turn the pages.
Amelia Lush's Picks for Young Readers
These Violent Delights
Young adult fiction
This book was responsible for breaking my pandemic reading slump, and I am thrilled it is now out in the world ready to work its magic on you all! A loose reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in 1926 Shanghai – a city at the centre of a war between the rival gangs the Chinese Scarlet Gang and the Russian White Flowers – this story is so rich with character, language and humanity that I am still thinking about it months after reading it. Chloe Gong, a young New Zealander, is an extraordinary new talent and her skill at weaving together vivid history, political intrigue and an utterly engrossing mystery is showcased perfectly in this novel. If you’re looking to get a teen back into reading over summer, this is the book.
The Grandest Bookshop in the World
Middle fiction, ages 10+
To live in a bookshop is a dream shared by many young bookworms, but few could imagine a place as mysterious and full of wonder as the real-life Coles Book Arcade in Melbourne. The year is 1923, and our young protagonists Pearl and Vally Cole live in this house of literature and whimsy filled with more books than you could read in a lifetime that sits alongside lolly shops and toy stores. Upon discovering that their Pa (the owner of the Arcade) has risked everything in a terrible agreement with a sinister man, they are pulled into a series of challenges they must overcome. Reminiscent of some of my favourite books from childhood – including From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler and The Westing Game – this is a glorious read that is perfect for kids aged ten and up or for the whole family to read aloud.
Maxine Beneba Clarke
When We Say Black Lives Matter
Junior fiction, ages 6+
I adore every book that Maxine has ever written, from her poetry to short stories to memoir, but my favourites are her picture books. Picture books are such a wonderful and special way to have big conversations in homes, classrooms and libraries. Maxine’s new book on the Black Lives Matter movement – its history, significance and meaning – is beautiful, loving, and poetic, and is accompanied by Maxine’s exquisite artwork. This book should be in every Australian home.
Anemone is not the Enemy
Picture book, ages 3+
Anemone is sad that no-one can get close enough for fear of getting stung, but when Anemone meets Clownfish they realise that maybe there is a friend for them after all. I am always drawn to picture books that explain simple scientific concepts through fun and engaging stories, and Anemone is not the Enemy does a beautiful job of showcasing the wonder of symbiotic relationships. Anna McGregor has spun a beautiful and charming story of friendship and belonging around this small scientific wonder and the wider world of the rock pool.
Sydney Writers' Festival encourages readers to visit their local or preferred independent bookseller when purchasing books over the holiday period. The Festival is proud to be partnered with Gleebooks who stock most of the books in our Summer Reading List.