Our summer reading guide

It’s impossible, impolite even, for writers’ festival programmers to play favourites and attempt to whittle down the hundreds of books we’ve collectively read this year into a concise summer reading list. The joy of this job is its limitless potential: in a normal year (remember those?), we have the opportunity to celebrate the work of hundreds of writers. For a team of voracious bookworms, there’s no greater privilege than the pleasant blurring of work and leisure and committing ourselves to reading, debating and championing every conceivable kind of book. From big splashy international fiction to long-anticipated debuts by the local talent we’ve been closely following for years; zeitgeisty, non-fiction deep dives into formerly unknown pockets of history, culture and politics; prose and poetry that elides genres; and translated works which are finally being given their due—we happily devour it all.

So how to properly reflect and condense another extraordinary, joyful year of reading into one convenient shopping list of summer reads? In the end, and with our discerning gaze firmly focused on the authors who may be appearing at next year’s Festival, we decided to prioritise the newest summer releases that will be on the front tables of all good bookstores. Artistic Director Michaela McGuire, Associate Director Gene Smith and Program Manager Sonia Nair have helped shape your summer reading guide, and we hope you’ll enjoy reading about their selections as much as we enjoy talking about books with them all day long.

Michaela, Artistic Director

Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto

Written in glorious technicolour, Emily Bitto’s follow-up to her Stella Prize-winning debut The Strays opens in New York as the Occupy Wall Street protests grip the city. 22-year-old Will has fled Melbourne after a breakup to stay with an old family friend Paul, who generously invites Will to share in the excesses of his new life: cocktails, cocaine, champagne brunches and hedonistic parties attended by New York’s art world elite. After a week of indulgence, Will recklessly jeopardises his friendship with Paul, finding that his attempt to leave all his small-town insecurities, self-centredness and uncertainties has failed miserably. Almost broke, and worried about returning home early and without having had a grand adventure to boast to his friends about, he hires a car and hits the road, ending up in Littleproud, Ohio. Again taking advantage of the hospitality of a friend from home, Will meets Wayne, an eccentric Vietnam veteran, and agrees to spend a month helping him care for fifty or so exotic animals that he’s collected and houses in a private, legal zoo. The two lonely men strike up an unusual friendship, softened by the terrible beauty and affection of Wayne’s tame menagerie of tiger and lion cubs. Bitto’s writing is lush and accomplished, and her brilliant, shining prose casts the themes of greed, power, family, isolation and love into sharp, devastating relief. The suspenseful, devastating conclusion absolutely wrung me out, but I’ll continue to recommend this book to everyone.

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

As the world grappled with the first outbreak of coronavirus last year, sales of Emily St John Mandel’s eerie, prescient 2014 pandemic novel Station Eleven suddenly rose as people sought either grim confirmation or schadenfreude-tinged escapism by reading about a fictional flu that wiped out 99 per cent of humanity almost instantaneously. This summer, for those inclined, there’s a brilliant new pandemic novel by debut Japanese-American author Sequoia Nagamatsu that is reminiscent of Station Eleven, David Mitchell’s dizzying, interlinked masterpiece Cloud Atlas and, closer to home, Laura Jean McKay’s multi-award-winning The Animals In That Country. Sequoia’s pandemic is unwittingly unleashed on the world when a researcher travels to the Arctic Circle to continue his deceased daughter’s work and discovers a virus in the melting permafrost. The interlinked stories unfurl from here. A former comedian finds work in a euthanasia theme park for infected children; a scientist genetically engineers pigs with human hearts to meet organ transplant demands and encounters a further anomaly in a pig that can talk; and cryogenically frozen passengers travel thousands of light years away in search of a new home. Spanning centuries and generations as humanity uses all of its creativity, inventiveness and compassion to resist the virus’ destruction, these stories are beautifully, stubbornly hopeful.

Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego

People love to dunk on literary Twitter for being a nepotistic microcosm, for having too many like-minded people in conversation with one another, but for me, there’s no greater thrill than the couple of times a year when every writer I admire is simultaneously reading and celebrating the same book. By the time I bought Professor Chelsea Watego’s essay collection I’d seen so many photos of underlined passages and lines that I’d probably already read a quarter of it. The title of this book is also a hashtag that Watego and other First Nations peoples use on Twitter to describe colonial violence—‘not just of the physical kind, but the emotional, spiritual, economic, intellectual and cultural kind’—that they are subjected to every day, to this day. Written and located firmly in 2020, Watego writes about and from her own experiences as a health care worker and academic, in the courts and the media, telling and sharing stories and strategies for living in the colony. Blending memoir and philosophy, using critical race theory and Indigenous race theory, this is a furious and exacting call to arms. In the penultimate chapter, ‘Fuck Hope’, Watego quotes Paul Beatty’s idea of ‘Unmitigated Blackness’ as ‘a nihilism that makes life worth living’ and concludes that this concept is ‘the closest thing to an embodied sovereignty that I have heard articulated.’ These intimate essays clearly and vividly expose the compliance, silence and secrecy that continue to allow racism to flourish in this country, making this debut a confronting and essential read.

Gene, Associate Director

Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser

Described by Max Porter as ‘a radically brilliant diptych-novel, in complex conversation with itself and with the world we live in … a beautifully troubling book’, Michelle de Kretser’s Scary Monsters playfully puts onus on the reader to decide how to begin. The book is split into two novellas, each distinct yet thematically connected, and there’s no wrong answer when choosing which one to read first. One novella—the story of Lili—is set in France during the early 1980s, and concerns itself with her relationship with her friends and the ever present threat of violence, whether perpetrated by strange men, or the state, or by people nearest and dearest. The second novella—the darkly satirical story of Lyle—throws us into a near future in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Lyle and his wife want only what’s best for their family, but what exactly does that mean in a post-pandemic Australia ravaged by the climate crisis and ruled over by the sinister and authoritarian Department?

Though I believe there’s no folly in deciding how to begin, I do recommend setting aside the few hours required to read either part in its entirety. These are the types of stories that benefit from starting and finishing in one sitting, and then allowing a night’s rest before tackling the story left over. Perfect for those listless summery days between Christmas and New Year.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

I’d be surprised to find a single person who couldn’t love Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle. Where to begin? Perhaps with planes. It’s a book about planes. There’s also family, courage, adventure, legacy, and freedom, themes all masterfully seeded in the early chapters and nourished to maturity over almost 600 pages. But planes are what propel the story forward. We open with Marian Graves, one of the book’s two unforgettable protagonists, rescued as a baby from the flames of a sinking ship in an event foreshadowing the immense drama and danger that come to characterise her life. As a child, then teenager, and into all the years of her adulthood, we understand that no amount of early 20th century misogyny or gangster affiliations or heartbreak or war can ever stifle the need for her to fly, to defy gravity and everything it keeps grounded. Her adventuring comes to an end in 1950 when she disappears on the final leg of what would have been her history-making around-the-world flight (this is no spoiler, as you learn about it in the first few pages of the novel).

Our other protagonist is modern-day movie star Hadley Baxter, who has her own complicated history with planes, and is cast to play Marian in a movie about her life. The two narratives are deftly woven together, revealing parallels between the experiences of these two women separated by over half a century, all nestled within a beautifully written world so rich with character and tragedy that I didn’t want the story to ever end.

7 ½ by Christos Tsiolkas

Give the gift of discord to your fellow book clubbers this holiday season by nominating that they read Christos Tsiolkas’s latest novel 7 ½. It comes wrapped in the usual promises for which his work is celebrated—intriguing premise, gorgeous writing, a passionate interrogation of the zeitgeist. Tear away the wrapping and you’ll find that discord comes in two parts. The first is to do with structure—this is a book split into three components. One is about a present-day auto-fictitious Christos, another is about a younger Christos, a likely less auto-fictitious and perhaps more autobiographical account of his earlier years. The final component is an embedded narrative: a book which the auto-fictitious Christos begins to write, chapters of which appear throughout 7 ½. There are a lot of narrative threads to pull at for one novel which may not be to everyone’s liking, but I couldn’t imagine it differently.

The second part is a challenge that Tsiolkas the real-life author sets for himself and his auto-fictitious counterpart in their writing: to prioritise and honour Beauty in their literature and eschew—vehemently so—Everything Else (Everything Else referring to Sexuality, Gender, Morality, Politics, Religion, Class, and History, capitalised here as they’re capitalised in the book). It’s a fascinating about-face for a writer whose chief concerns in his previous works centred on these themes, and it offers a provocation that ought to generate some fiery discussion over spritzes and charcuterie boards: Is the appreciation of Beauty mutually exclusive to the investment required in paying attention to Everything Else? Regardless of your answer, this is an incredible read brimming with intimacy, love, Beauty, and the guarantee of polarising opinions these summer months.

Sonia, Program Manager

Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados

Transpiring in the steamy, sun-infused months between May and September—making it an even more apt summer read—Marlowe Granados’ debut novel Happy Hour follows the travails of 21-year-old Filipina Salvadorean woman Isa Epley and her best friend Gala Novak who find themselves in New York for the summer of 2013. Bouncing around between a sharehouse where they’re being mercilessly ripped off, odd jobs worked to earn pitiful amounts of cash, and parties where they don’t spend much, if anything, to have a good time, Happy Hour delves into the intoxicating nature of being young, broke without being poor, and in demand—although using charm as currency is no ballast against their precarity of being undocumented migrants. Happy Hour is narrated through the eyes of the funny, acerbic Isa in journal-like entries and her social commentary is biting and self-aware. Being exoticised as a young woman of colour is a phenomenon Isa both abhors and uses to her benefit—‘I don’t exist for other people’s curiosity but sometimes it does feel that way. One can be seen and then unseen just as quickly.’—and her pillorying of intellectuals (namely writers, it must be said) had me guffawing. Happy Hour unfolds in the same languorous way summer days seem to stretch on forever as Isa and Gala branch out into a semblance of adulthood, doing, in Gala’s words, ‘absolutely nothing’. It’s about girlhood, friendship, desire and grief—ripe with possibility and fun.

Today A Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket by Hilma Wolitzer

I’ve always been a fan of short stories and the way tension, structure and pacing is contained within such a tight form, but this predilection has only increased with my arrested attention span this year. I adored this short story collection by Hilma Wolitzer—mother of Meg Wolitzer, no less—which contains 12 stories written across the 60s, 70s and 80s and one penned only last year, inevitably drawing on the pandemic. Wolitzer is an expert at sketching the mundanity of domestic life with exquisite detail and a scathing quality—the collection is funny, sardonic and caustic, with the trappings of family life and routine assuming an absurd, fantastical feel in Wolitzer’s retellings. Eight interconnected stories conjure recurring couple Howard and Paulie as they endure childbirth, the challenges of married life, and ageing while others centre on perspectives we don’t often see explored—a pregnant woman who witnesses a mother’s psychotic break in the supermarket, the wife of a man who flashes himself in public, a woman who dies in childbirth. The stories are vivid and fresh despite most of them being published decades ago—there are quirks in language, like use of the word ‘pocketbook’ to denote a handbag, that ground this collection firmly in the yesteryears—but Wolitzer’s portrayals of the vagaries of motherhood, love, depression, boredom, grief, ageing and death are as sharp today as when they were first published.

Permafrost by SJ Norman

SJ Norman’s Permafrost is another short story collection I can’t recommend enough, and one of the best things I’ve read this year—I raced through the visceral, discomfiting seven stories in a few quick hours. In Norman’s queer, eerie stories, which jump from Canberra to an unnamed ‘mildew patch of a town’ to a squid-fishing town in Hokkaido to the frozen tundra of wintertime Berlin, a memorable cast of characters find themselves face-to-face with a slowly creeping sense of discombobulation and unease brought on by spectral presences. Some of the horrors evoked are well-documented, like the Holocaust, while others are more abstract and unknown. Similar to Hilma Wolitzer’s stories in a way that was immediately obvious because I finished one book after the other, minute details take on a magical quality—a vinyl seat cover on a bus is ‘cold with a suggestion of moisture, as though a wet umbrella might have been left sitting on it’, an empty street is marked by a ‘solitary, bruised turnip, lolling on the ground’, and a severed doorbell has ‘writing hanging from its concrete socket like a severed bundle of nerves’. Permafrost reminds me most of Carmen Maria Machado—a comparison that’s already been made because of the parallels between the dark, unsettling and erotic stories as well as the depiction of things like violence in queer relationships—and Maria Tumarkin, because of how these stories fixate on human imprints in places we have occupied, places forever reshaped by tragedy and loss.

To purchase the books above, visit a Readings store near you or browse online