Summer holidays – those rare weeks when we rediscover the joy of reading for pleasure alone. Whether you’re after drama, romance, history or something for the beach, you’ll find it here.
Sarah Moss, Summerwater (Pan Macmillan)
It has been pouring for days and a group of holidaymakers are cooped up in their cabins on the shore of a remote Scottish loch. No one can get a phone signal and everyone’s reduced to watching their fellow vacationers from their cabin windows. Worse, they’ve all been kept awake at night by loud music and mysterious comings and goings at a hut occupied by a Ukrainian single mother and her young daughter, attracting the scrutiny (and judgement) of the other residents. Sarah Moss (Ghost Wall; The Tidal Zone) again demonstrates her dry wit and astonishing capacity to enter the consciousness of varied characters as the tension builds towards a tragic outcome in this unflinching observation of family and community dynamics in Brexit-era Britain.
Kate Mildenhall, Mother Fault (Simon & Schuster)
In this unsettling vision of the near future, Australia has been altered by climate change in ways both subtle and terrifying. The entire population has been ‘chipped’ as part of a universal surveillance system, while problematic citizens are ‘cared for’ in state-run BestLife estates. Mim, a geologist, has been a stay-at-home mother while her engineer husband does fly-in, fly-out shifts for an offshore wing of ‘The Department’. When told that her husband is missing, Mim sets off to find him with her young children in tow, recruiting a childhood boyfriend along the way in a high-risk escapade across the sea. Spy novel, futuristic thriller and romance in one, this un-put-downable book is grounded by its recognisable characters and familiar situations, making it all too frighteningly plausibile.
Peter O’Brien, Bush School (Allen&Unwin)
Peter was just 20 in 1960 when sent to the tiny town of Weabonga to teach a class of five- to 15-year-olds in a one-room school. With minimal experience, and a disconcerting introduction to his lodgings, Peter fears he doesn’t have what it takes. Worse, he is possibly the school’s last shot at staying open. Having trained at the progressive Balmain Teachers College, Peter is committed to creating self-directed, independent learners. He’s also mastered all manner of craft activities and kids’ games, and could rescue a drowning swimmer. But that hardly equips him for “all the instructional and pedagogical challenges” he faces, let alone the realities of a remote country town. All educators will relate to this charming and engaging memoir about one man’s determination to overcome isolation and become the best teacher he could be.
David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue (Hachette )
The most influential band you’ve never heard of – Utopia Avenue – spent the late 60s hobnobbing with the great and legendary before disappearing. Except they didn’t, being instead a fictional vessel for the author’s rock star fantasies. Despite its psychedelic trappings, this is Mitchell’s straightest work since Black Swan Green, sketching an oddly harmonious portrait of rock ’n’ roll genius with only a soupcon of genre-bending weirdness. As a work of fanboy fantasy, it’s supremely entertaining, even if some of the endless cameos (Bowie, Bolan, Cohen) verge on bad taste. As a music bio, it’s less convincing, missing the usual revelatory gossip and backstabbing bandmates – in other words, all the stuff you really want to know about the bands you love most.
William Dalrymple, The Anarchy (Bloomsbury
The history of the British Empire in India has, as historian William Dalrymple points, become something of a political battleground. Dividing its attention between the conquered and the conquerors, The Anarchy takes a clear-eyed approach, examining the internecine squabbling that made a wealthy nation like India vulnerable to foreign exploitation without downplaying the staggering cruelty and corruption of its invaders. Spanning three centuries, this is a rollicking read that delights in exploding myths by drawing on a wide range of contemporary – and previously untranslated – sources. Its most powerful lesson is not to mistake the story of the East India Company – a small private company that effectively colonised and administered an entire country long before it was nationalised – for ancient history. In our age of multinational corporations and free markets, this tale in which profit excuses the most monstrous of atrocities, and multinational companies are too big to let fail, reads as depressingly timely.
Richard Flanagan, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (Penguin)
In yet another masterwork from one of Australia’s most important writers, Flanagan’s multi-layered novel centres on 87-year-old Francie, dying in a Hobart hospital while her children – failed artist Tommy, architect Anna, and venture capitalist Terzo – use all their powers to avoid letting her go. Also hovering is the grief about their brother Ronnie’s suicide and the backdrop of an unending bushfire decimating the nation. No one seems to notice when people start losing body parts, in a perfectly creepy metaphor for all else being wilfully ignored. Embodying its characters’ inability to connect, the book’s language also starts to collapse in what reads like a fever dream or, in the words of one character, a ‘growing scream’. A novel written for this moment.
Andrew Pippos, Lucky’s (Picador Australia)
Pippos draws on his multicultural family history to spin a deliciously fictional tale. He grew up in rural NSW outpost Brewarrina, where his grandparents ran one of the Greek diners that used to be ubiquitous across the country. Likewise, this sprawling and occasionally surreal novel tells a rambling family saga. It has it all: love, war, big belly laughs and scandalous secrets – plus food, glorious food.
Vivian Pham, The Coconut Children (Vintage Australia)
The sensation this debut created on publishing was all the more pronounced for the fact that author Pham was only 17 when she wrote it: the same age her father was when he fled Vietnam and wound up in a refugee camp. She transposes this story to the ‘90s, with Vincent Tran released from juvie and trying to settle back into the Cabramatta Vietnamese community. Sonny Le, the girl next door who is juggling her own inter-generational traumas, offers hope. As does this perfectly painted novel.
Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk (Text)
While other books have attempted to explain Indigneous philosophies from a Western perspective, this extraordinary tome turns that on its head, applying First Nations wisdom to systems of the West. Yunkaporta poses a series of thought experiments to look at familiar concepts from a fresh standpoint. He challenges the idea that competition is natural or desirable, suggesting society would be far healthier if we instead focused on reciprocity. It’s a holistic approach that extends from how we see ourselves to our world view. The cover suggests Indigenous thinking could save the world. Based on the evidence here, it could be our best chance.
Laura Jean McKay, The Animals in That Country (Scribe)
Deliriously inventive, you may nonetheless require a trigger warning for McKay’s speculative fiction novel. Brace yourself: it involves the spread of a pandemic. No, not COVID-19, but “Zooflu”. Rather than passing from animals to humans, instead it allows cross-species communication. But this is no Dr Dolittle. It turns out the beasts don’t think all that similarly to us, despite what we project onto our pets, and hearing them drives some folks mad. Not that this stops alcoholic grandma and zoo worker Jean setting out on a road trip with a dingo named Sue. A wild and wonderful ride.
Nick Hornby, Just Like You (Penguin)
We live in oppositional times, with people increasingly divided along political, racial and sexual lines. In that context, Nick Hornby’s new rom com sees its two protagonists bust out of their echo-chambers and find true love, despite having nothing in common. Lucy is a white, middle-class 42-year-old teacher, freshly divorced. Joseph is a 20-something working-class black man who dreams of being a DJ but still lives with his mum. They meet when he babysits for Lucy’s two boys and lust soon blooms, although both are deeply worried about their friends and family finding out. Hornby doesn’t shy away from the divisive nature of difference. This unease plays out on a large scale in the background, with Brexit providing another rift between our lovers. But, ultimately, this is a heartwarming book that suggests finding common ground might be easier than we think.
Win a great selection of books
Want to win a selection of the books reviewed? Email [email protected] with ‘summer reading guide’ in the subject line before 28 January 2021 to be in the running.