For everyone Our summer reading guide

  • 15 Dec 2021

More than ever, AEU members deserve a long and relaxing summer break accompanied by a stack of excellent books. Here are our recommendations for an enlightening and entertaining read.


Lies, Damned Lies Claire G. Coleman (Ultimo Press)

Acclaimed author of novel Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman has switched to non-fiction with this eviscerating look at the impact of colonisation and its long-term effects on individuals. Coleman writes from personal experience about her own family history, issues of belonging and identity, and the ‘Hidden Generation’ forced to conceal their Noongar culture. She reminds us that colonisation is not something that happened once, a long time ago, but is a long-running devastation that continues today, with far-reaching repercussions. In this incredibly moving book, Claire writes with urgency of stolen land and stolen culture, loss of heritage, and the immense damage incurred. “Words are weapons,” Coleman says – and, in her eloquent hands, they sure are.
Also try: Tracker, Alexis Wright


Bodies of Light Jennifer Down (Text) 

Many years after changing her name and transforming her life, Holly is discovered on Facebook by a seemingly well-meaning acquaintance from her past. As the story unfolds, we look back on her life to date, from the time when she was put into residential care as a child in the 1970s. We learn about the adults who looked after her, and those who betrayed her. This is a finely wrought and perceptive novel that looks at the ongoing ramifications of social disadvantage across a person’s life. Institutionalisation exposes vulnerabilities, and Down is never afraid to reveal the shocking details. “Most people would do the selfish thing if it meant surviving,” Holly says, with hard-earned wisdom. Down writes empathically of someone whose life has been full of sorrow and bad luck, and the resulting story of survival.
Also try: Infinite Splendours, Sofie Laguna


Harlem Nights: The secret history of Australia’s jazz age Deirdre O’Connell (MUP)

It seems hopeful to contemplate the heady days of the 1920s from the distance of a hundred years and a global pandemic; perhaps, on the horizon, a more carefree, exuberant life beckons again. Historian Deirdre O’Connell tells the story of the Australian tour of Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea, an American jazz troupe who, in 1928, toured a narrow-minded and suspicious Australia. “Not since the Great War had so many Black American men landed in Sydney at one time,” O’Connell writes, and to white authorities the band was seen as a threat. This social history, which includes some brilliant photos from the trip, is a colourful depiction of Sonny Clay’s life and a somewhat ill-fated tour, and is easy reading for all music fans, especially lovers of jazz.
Also try: Roots: How Melbourne became the live music capital of the world, Craig Horne


Recovery: How we can create a better, brighter future after a crisis Andrew Wear (Black Inc)

Senior public servant Andrew Wear has a lot to say about the lessons we can learn from times of crisis. In Recovery, he posits that it is not just about economic development; we need to invest in many other areas, particularly health and education. Wear looks back through history at the way countries responded to the Great Depression, how Taiwan improved its readiness after the 2003 Sars epidemic, post-tsunami recovery in Aceh, South Korea’s economic recovery after the devastation of the Korean War, Christchurch City Council’s swift response to the 2011 earthquake, and much more – as well as examining Australia’s political and economic landscape – to offer a roadmap for recovery that allows plenty of room for optimism.
Also try: Notes from an Apocalypse, Mark O’Connell


In Moonland Miles Allinson (Scribe)

In March 1996, a few months before he drove into a tram stop, my father bought an old Ford Torino with the money he’d won on a horse called Holy Moly. This, the opening line in the second novel from Melbourne writer Miles Allinson, sets the tone for a novel that is humming with visceral and emotional intensity. In Moonland is a portrait of three generations, each navigating the tension between family loyalties and a deeper search for meaning. In present-day Melbourne, becoming a father propels Joe on an obsessive quest to understand what led to his late father Vincent’s accident. But Vincent’s friends – once committed to utopian visions and artistic experimentation – prove evasive, one declaring: “All that stuff was finished now. It was just smoke in the head.” In 1970s India, Vincent finds himself drawn into the ashram of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, where the promise of transcendence is accompanied by the constant threat of something going horribly wrong. In a climate-ravaged near future, Joe’s daughter Sylvie is pondering a major life decision as she makes a hazardous trip towards her estranged father. Like his award-winning debut The Fever of Animals, this is an ambitious novel written with dark humour, tenderness and a gritty honesty that feels both uniquely Australian and wholly original.
Also try: The Man Who Saw Everything, Deborah Levy


Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin)

It’s hard to believe it has been over 25 years since celebrated Melbourne author Christos Tsiolkas shook the local publishing scene with his incendiary debut, Loaded. Its key themes of queer and immigrant identity; the boundaries of social class; sex; politics; and the moral prying of religious influence, echo through the many works that followed. But his latest novel is something quite different, offering loyal readers the clearest peek yet into his writing process. Or does it? This is not a biography, or at least not in any conventional sense, despite the protagonist being a man not unlike Tsiolkas, and who shares his name. Retreating to an isolated beach house to write a new novel (or a play, or a film) on beauty, he insists he will avoid those hot topics. Of course, he doesn’t. As we step into the story within the story of a father and former porn star talked into one last rendezvous, Tsiolkas is at his mischievous best. As ever, there are passages primed to push buttons. Would we expect anything less? is a mercurial, shape-shifting and truly fascinating beast.
Also try: The Pillars, Peter Polites


28 Brandon Jack (Allen & Unwin)

The intriguing title of this book refers to the number of senior games Brandon played for his (and his more famous brother Kieren’s) team, the Sydney Swans. But this heartsore memoir is about a great deal more than his fractious relationship with the game. At one stage saying he should have played one less game, that number takes you to his current age, and alludes to living beyond the age of the infamous ‘27 club’: the age of death for so many artistic luminaries, including Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. It’s also tied to Brandon’s own musical aspirations and his struggles with alcohol. He wears a lot on his sleeve, but there’s more kept stuffed up there, too. We learn about the pain of his self-imposed estrangement from his family than we do about the why of it. While there’s probably a touch too much on the nitty gritty of his training regime, it goes to his struggles with the nature of the beast. A different sort of footy story, this is an admirable insight into what it takes to become not quite a god, then figure out what comes next.
Also try: Faith, Football and Family, Bachar Houli & Waleed Aly


Wild Abandon Emily Bitto (Allen & Unwin)

Following on from her Stella Prize-winning novel The Strays, Emily Bitto has written a contemporary novel set in 2011, tracking the travels of 22-year-old Will, nursing a broken heart and a fair amount of self-pity as he leaves Melbourne to pursue a new life in the US. There, Will finds himself at the centre of New York’s hedonistic art world after crashing on the couch of his brother’s friend, Paul, a rising star. For a while, he believes he’s discovered the ‘real America’. But after an incident prompts the still-fragile Will to hit the road, he ends up in Ohio, where he takes a job in a private zoo run by an unhinged Vietnam veteran. This novel takes us on a wild ride into the heart of all that’s good and bad about contemporary America, and into the human capacity for growth. While some readers will find Bitto’s style too flamboyant or overwritten, those who stick with it will be rewarded with a story that, by the end, proves deeply moving.
Also try: Americana, Don Delillo


Devotion Hannah Kent (Picador)

Fans of Hannah Kent’s work will be delighted by her latest, set in South Australia in the 1830s, and based on the migration of the Old Lutherans from Hamburg. Teenage narrator Hanne, a consummate delight, has a kind of synaesthesia that allows her to loudly hear the many small and large sounds of nature – not just the birds but the rivers and the trees. At the centre of this story is the romantic love that develops between Hanne and her best friend and kindred spirit, Thea. When their families are given a chance to emigrate, they pack up their meagre possessions and take off on what becomes an extreme trial of endurance. During the long sea voyage, the young women start to wrestle with the implications of their feelings, the novel taking an unexpected turn that will affect both Hanne and Thea’s future in the new colony. Kent describes the way those fleeing persecution turn into colonisers in their new land. As is her speciality, she flawlessly recreates the era through an historic lens, using the language of the past and vivid descriptions of the smells and sights so evocative that readers are instantly transported.
Also try: the complete works of Seamus Heaney


Twelve Summers Adam Zwar (Hachette)

Actor and writer Adam Zwar has structured his cricket memoir around the retelling of some outstanding performances from the Australian men’s team that took place during Zwar’s formative years. He recalls precisely where he was at each of these important moments in the sport, providing room for the funny anecdotes that are Zwar’s stock in trade. For the Australia vs India match of 2001, he was stuck in a hotel with AC/DC (of course he was)! Zwar, who first came to our attention as the co-creator of television series Wilfred, is a comedy writer who specialises in finding the humour in life’s small moments. Although it expresses the particular pain and disappointment of being a hardcore cricket fan, those who follow any sporting code with a passion will relate to the trials and tribulations Zwar describes.
Also try: A Thoroughly Unhelpful History of Australian Sport, Titus O’Reily


The Secrets My Father Kept Rachel Givney (Penguin)

After a sure-fire page turner with a twist? This captivating historical novel is just the ticket. Set in Krakow in 1939, we follow spirited if somewhat naive 17-year-old Marie and her father Dominik, respected surgeon and a man of many secrets. Marie’s mother disappeared when she was a toddler and Dominik refuses to reveal what happened. With rumours of war and potential invasion swirling,  he wants to see his daughter married into a wealthy, influential family in the hope they will keep her safe. But Marie has other plans. All she wants is her childhood friend, Ben, a Jew who has just returned home from university. Rachel Givney honed her skills as a writer on acclaimed TV shows from McLeod’s Daughters to Offspring.  In this follow-up from her popular debut novel, Jane in Love, Givney has written a haunting story of courage, resilience and family secrets that will keep you guessing till the very end.


The Golden Book Kate Ryan (Scribe)

Ali is a teacher and mother who has taken time away from work to write a novel when she finds out that her best friend from childhood, Jessie, has died. As the story moves back and forth in time, we gain a picture of a very complex friendship between two girls on the cusp of adolescence, growing up in a country town in the 1980s. At school, Ali is super smart, while Jessie struggles. But Jessie crackles with life, and Ali is drawn to her anarchic energy and wildness – and her bohemian family. The title of the novel refers to a secret, handwritten journal that Ali and Jessie keep, where they plot and record their increasingly daring physical quests. As Jessie is dyslexic, Ali is responsible for maintaining their “golden book” – but as time goes on, she feels caught between these childish adventures and her desire to grow up, until a tragedy occurs that changes everything. A nostalgic, mysterious and deeply resonant book about the way a small, reckless act made in our youth can reverberate through the rest of our life.


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