The time for whiling away summer nights with a book in hand is upon us, so here’s our picks for just what that book should be. From the fantastical and the poetic, to literary favourites and compulsive reads, we hope you enjoy this selection of books the Melbourne Writers Festival team recommend diving into on a sunny day, with special selections from Artistic Director Michaela McGuire.
The In-Between, Christos Tsiolkas | Read it
I’ve been keeping a Google spreadsheet that tracks all the books I read annually since 2019, and this is ordinarily the point in the year that I’d be combing through it, keeping gender parity in mind for my summer reading recommendations, thinking ‘surely, I read at least one book by a man this year’ but something has shifted in 2023. Almost all the standout books that I want to recommend have been written by men.
The setup of Christos’ new novel is deceptively simple. Two men in their fifties meet on an app and go on a first date.
‘It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a date,’ he says, pocketing his own phone. ‘Please ignore anything I say for at least the first ten minutes.’
Ivan’s laugh is loud, delighted. ‘I know, mate, I’m bloody terrified.’
Perry is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan translator who lives in Preston and has spent long periods in Europe. Ivan, a grandfather who owns his own landscaping business and has been overseas once, to Thailand for his 50th birthday, lives in Bonbeach, a suburb Perry has never heard of, between Frankston and Mordiallic.
Plenty of people are saying that The In-Between is Christos’ best book, and I agree. There’s something so beautifully relaxed about his writing. Yes, of course it’s still Christos as there’s the erotic, graphic descriptions of how sex not only feels but smells and tastes and sounds, but these scenes seem less written for shock value than in his earlier work; here, they read as honest and tender. Shame, despair, anger and lust are all given weight as the emotions that drive relationships as much as love. A long dinner party set piece in the middle of the novel is Christos’ writing at its best: propulsive, political, intelligent and wry. As Christos’ characters grapple with aging and dating, sex and intimacy, fear and hope, it seems that Christos himself is content to be in this stage of his life.
– Michaela McGuire, Artistic Director
Day, Michael Cunningham | Read it
Almost a decade since publishing his last novel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours – one of the greatest novels written in the last century – has returned with Day, a three-act set piece that begins on the morning of April 5, 2019, meanders through the afternoon of April 5, 2020 and concludes on the evening of April 5, 2021. The passage of time through those years is one of the central themes of the novel, as the grown-up characters in a brownstone in Brooklyn contend with their children, their relationships, their professional successes and thwarted ambitions, the steady march of middle-age amidst the endless stretch of pandemic days. One character, Robbie, writes in a letter:
“I’ve never felt like this before, like time itself is the only event and I’m here with it and it doesn’t really make me happy. I don’t mean it doesn’t make me happy, it makes the whole idea of happiness feel sort of sweet and small, like a toy. This is something else, this is a feeling I don’t know the name for and I have the good sense not to try and come up with a name for it.”
There are few writers operating on a sentence-by-sentence level like Cunningham, and I’ve underlined more sentences in this novel than any other this year. It’s worth getting ahead of the fact that yes, this is of course a pandemic novel, but the word ‘virus’ never appears, and is instead the means by which Cunningham’s emotionally complex and distant characters are brought together again in the second and third acts. There’s Robbie, a sixth-grade teacher who regrets not going to medical school, and lives in the attic of his sister Isabel and her husband Dan’s rundown “starter” apartment. Isabel is professionally successful, personally miserable in her marriage, and Dan was a D-list musician in his 20s and can’t ever stop thinking about it. Isabel and Dan are both in love with Robbie. Their children, surly pre-teen Nathan and precocious 5-year-old Violet are struggling with just what you’d think, the same questions their parents are still asking, namely: “Do you think we ever really survive our childhoods?”
Virginia Woolf makes an appearance as well, this time under the Instagram username that Robbie sets up for a fake account for an invented man he would like to be in a relationship with: Wolfe. This is an astonishing achievement, a book to savour and return to.
– Michaela McGuire, Artistic Director
Edenglassie, Melissa Lucashenko | Read it
An epic novel from award-winning Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko, Edenglassie comprises two stories, set two centuries apart. In one, a Yugambeh man and a Ngugi woman’s romance collides with the frontier wars. In the other, an elderly Yagara woman suddenly becomes a celebrity, while her granddaughter and hospital supervisor develop complicated feelings for each other.
The writer of the Miles Franklin–winning Too Much Lip has has called Edenglassie her “big book” and it is clear why; it is a brilliant epic spanning five generations, billed as torching the colonial myths of Queensland. “It is an accumulation of all times – a testimony to the continuation of Aboriginal storytelling…” (Jeanine Leane, Australian Book Review)
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, Shankari Chandran | Read it
If you have not already put the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2023 on your summer reading list, this is your sign. The novel is set in a nursing home in Western Sydney and explores race and racial identity in both Sri Lanka and Australia “through a cast of squabbling, endearing elders,” said the judges. “I wrote it with my gloves off, and with my heart completely open,” said Shankari Chandran. “I wrote it more honestly than anything that I’ve ever written in my life.”
A perfect read for book clubs, enjoy this love letter to the power of stories and an exquisite unfolding of family, memory, community and race.
Our Share of Night, Mariana Enriquez | Read it
For those craving a consuming tale of gothic horror and supernatural spookiness ever since the bestselling Things We Lost in the Fire took over the world, the wait is over. Mariana Enriquez’s latest novel Our Share of Night presents a fantastically macabre tale of mystical ceremonies, haunting sacrifices and bewitching characters – and is her first published in English. Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s violent and trauma-laden history, Enriquez shows how this past echoes into the future as her characters struggle to free themselves from a cult desperate to control the unique gifts they possess. One of TIME’s best books of 2023, Our Share of Night “reveals how sometimes, only fiction can fully illuminate the monstrous, indescribable, and ultimately shattering aspects of our reality” (The Atlantic).
Green Dot, Hera Stephen | Read it
In Green Dot, we meet Hera Stephen as she reluctantly trudges into the workplace after spending her youth avoiding work – an avoidance that was perhaps more a cry for help than a deliberate act of nonconformity. As she begins to slip into the machine (moderating online comments at a newsroom), she falls in love with a colleague – who is married – and the happy and happily unattainable ending he represents. What ensues is a messy love-ish story about deciding who you want to be – and who’s worth being with.
For lovers of workplace affair stories in all their chaotic, pining glory, Green Dot is a brilliant by-the-beach read where you’ll grimace, laugh and look to the skies for help alongside the main protagonist.
Read it before the film comes out (the film rights to Green Dot were secured by a British production company before physical copies had even hit bookstores).
Gunflower, Laura Jean McKay | Read it
From the author of Animals in That Country comes a cohesive collection of dizzying, formally inventive, marvellously unique stories. Set in the near future, Gunflower immerses you in tales of cat farmers, doomed battery hen chickens, and a female-crewed ship turned floating abortion clinic that grapples with the major preoccupying issues of the current day with chilling clarity. Described as one of the brightest of literary talents by Robbie Arnott and part Kelly Link and Ottessa Moshfegh by Sequoia Nagamatsu, Laura Jean McKay’s latest work is a poetic and mesmerising collection for the holidays.
And if you haven’t already read it, pair your reading of Gunflower with Animals in That Country. Interestingly, Laura began writing her Arthur C. Clarke and Victorian Premier’s Literary Award–winning debut novel after being bitten by a mosquito and becoming infected with the chikungunya virus while travelling in Bali in 2013. The pain and delirium she felt early on with the virus inspired the ‘zooflu’ pandemic that swept the world in her novel, allowing humans to hear the thoughts of animals.
– Michaela McGuire, Artistic Director
‘So Late in the Day’, Claire Keegan | Read it
“You know what is at the heart of misogyny? It’s simply about not giving…Whether it’s believing you should not give us the vote or not give help with the dishes.”
From the author of Foster and Small Things Like These, comes another exquisite story told with Keegan’s characteristic spareness. Accompanied only by a bottle of champagne, a man sits at home plagued by thoughts of a woman and the future he could have had with her – if only he had acted differently. Part of a triptych collection, So Late in the Day: Stories of Men and Women, this story will leave you wondering: is it possible to love without sharing?
Innovation: Knowledge and Ingenuity (First Knowledges), Ian J McNiven, Lynette Russell | Read it
“Deeply insightful, sensitive and passionate. An inspiring, meticulous picture of the innovations that have made us the world’s oldest living culture.” – Larissa Behrendt
In this latest instalment in the First Knowledges series, historian and professor Lynette Russell and anthropological archaeologist and professor Ian J McNiven come together to explore the expertise, ingenuity and creative practices of First Nations peoples, the oldest innovators in the world.
Innovation presents the social and religious activities and trading strategies, technology and land-management strategies that are still in place today. This is the first book in Australia to detail Indigenous innovations in this land, from body shaping and cremation to building artificial reefs for oyster farms and economic responses to colonisation.
Big Meg, Tim Flannery and Emma Flannery | Read it
Perhaps don’t pick this one up until you’re far from the coast as this fantastic read will delight and haunt you in equal measure about what lies beneath the sea.
From father and daughter palaeontologists Tim and Emma Flannery, Big Meg tracks the megalodon through 15 million years of evolution from being a super predator of the deep to extinction, with its fossilised remains scattered along the Australian coast.
Whether Jason Statham sparked a serious curiosity about megalodons or you’ve been an aselachimorphaphile since 1975 when Jaws first terrified land-dwellers, this is a fantastic read about a fascinating creature. “If you have little interest in fossils and sharks when you start this book,” warned Erich Mayer (Arts Hub), “you are in danger of becoming an enthusiastic bore on the subject when you have finished it.”
Returning, Kirli Saunders | Read it
Described as a poetic and visual feast, Returning is a stunning pairing of poetry and imagery from proud Gunai Woman, award-winning author and multidisciplinary artist Kirli Saunders. An intricate weaving of themes from decolonisation, justice and First Nations Matriarchy to queerness, love and truth-telling, Returning invites you to accompany Saunders on a journey of connection. Each poem is accompanied by an artwork inspired by it, originally shown at SHAC Gallery, Gundungurra land.
Awarded an Order of Australia Medal for her contribution to the arts, Saunders is an extraordinary talent whose artistic prowess spans across multiple formats, and this work is a wonderful opportunity to engage with the relationship between those formats, from watercolours and ink on hand-dyed silks to the heartfelt poetic explorations of connection to self and Country.
Men I Trust, Tommi Parrish | Read it
Billed by Scribe Publications as one of the most moving and insightful works of fiction in any medium this year, Men I Trust follows 20-something Sasha and 30-something Eliza as they strike up an unlikely friendship and invites you to consider how far you would go to find intimacy. With their bold, distinctive style you may be familiar with from The Lie and How We Told It and Perfect Hair, this work is completely hand-painted, taking over three years to create. “Even the quietest moments have a wildness lurking within them,” said Gabriel Winslow-Yost (The New York Review of Books), “a sense of things being on the verge of going to pieces or bursting into life.”