For everyone Our 2023 summer reading guide

  • By Louise Swinn
  • This article was published more than 7 months ago.
  • 3 Dec 2023


It’s Footscray in 1933 and factory workers at the Angliss Meatworks go on strike when the new machine with all its efficiencies threatens the jobs of the slaughtermen. Strike-breakers are the scabs caught not just between the factory and the rest of the staff, but between hard boots and the even harder ground – and one of those doing the kicking is Jack, whose pregnant Peggy is at home, wary of his fists and shielded by Lil, who doesn’t approve of the strikes or of Jack.

It’s 2020 in an aged care home, where Hilda struggles to retain her memories amidst the worst of the pandemic when there is no staff to be found and residents are left for 12-hour shifts without food, water or assistance.

It’s 2031 in the very near future, and when La takes a job at an Amazon-style warehouse, she and Cat need to talk about what the future might hold for them.

And then it’s 2181 and sisters Onyx and Maz are fending for themselves, coming of age while working out who to trust in this dystopian future.

Cut between all of this, an AI program converses philosophically with a human interviewer about life, the universe and everything.

The Hummingbird Effect is for lovers of historical fiction who are intrigued as to what the future may hold and for speculative fiction fans who like to be reminded of how we got here. For anyone interested in capitalism, unionism, progress, and humanity in all its glory, Melburnian Kate Mildenhall’s latest novel is as intriguing and adventurous as it is hopeful and gentle.

– Louise Swinn

Seventeen-year-old Eva Sidebottom has had three failed attempts to win the Triple J Unearthed High competition and get a foothold in the music industry, but, in her final few weeks of high school, this is her last chance. Eva forms a band, and so kicks off this fast-paced novel set across the weekend where they attempt a last-ditch effort to achieve something of note before finishing school. The band might not know each other but they still have to make award-winning music in just two days.

This is a sweetly funny, poignant contemporary story with a cast of hugely relatable characters. We are always on the hunt for a great young adult novel – strong character development, a great plot, humour, pace, relationships issues, not to mention kids dealing with very real and current issues like anxiety and stress – and this is the perfect summer read for any teens in your life.

– Louise Swinn

Celebrated Polish pianist Witold Walczykiewicz is in Barcelona to give a concert of Chopin’s music, though his controversial interpretations are not for everyone. While there, the 72-year-old is chaperoned by Beatriz, a woman in her late 40s who is stuck in a miserable marriage. The Pole falls hard for the younger woman, and though she shows no interest (apart from vague curiosity about why a man would choose to worship someone who gives nothing in return), he continues to pursue his devotion.

This central narrative sets the tone for the six short stories contained in this new book by Nobel Prize-winning writer J.M. Coetzee, four of which see the return of Elizabeth Costello, the character most often considered a stand-in for Coetzee himself. Costello, who continues her meditations on death, motherhood, and ethics, is characteristic of the moral and emotional quandaries that are the focus of Coetzee’s work – though always with a dose of wry humour. Whether you find his work cool and formal or simple and sincere, his books are always thought-provoking, and on that front The Pole doesn’t disappoint.

– Rachel Power

With all the talk about ‘sad girl’ novels of late, it could be argued that Anne Enright has joined the trend – and the author’s embodiment of her young, melancholy protagonist feels as authentic as anything written by fellow Irish literary star Sally Rooney.

However, here we are taken into the lives of three generations, with 20-something Nell McDaragh the product of two forceful women – her grandmother and mother – each of them grappling with their relationship to Nell’s grandfather, Irish poet Phil McDaragh, notorious scoundrel and womaniser, whose work is nevertheless celebrated for its tenderness. Nell, seeking her own voice as a writer, is trying to reconcile her grandfather’s persona with the way his poems seem to speak directly to her.

Like all of Enright’s novels, this is a book about the bonds and tensions of familial relationships – especially between mothers and daughters. In The Wren, The Wren, her bold voice and surreal wit are in full flight, as is her ability to inhabit characters in a way that makes them, and her story, feel fully alive.

– Rachel Power

Tony Birch’s novels are always characterised by a simplicity and tenderness that leads the reader into dark territory without ever making you feel unsafe or overwhelmed. The result is a quiet profundity that lingers well after reading, and this story is no different.

Set in 1960s Melbourne, Tony Birch’s latest novel centres on 11-year-old Joe Cluny, a mischievous tearaway frequently in trouble with the nuns at his local Catholic school. Meanwhile, Joe’s older sister, Ruby, has won the school’s “best student” award and a free trip to the country. Their mother, Marion, works at the dry cleaner, leaving Joe in the care of his beloved grandfather, Charlie, a former street-sweeper who now collects “the goods that others discarded”.

Life is tough but loving, until Marion’s sister Oona arrives on the doorstep, visibly bruised and distressed, and seeking help. As her situation threatens to shatter the family’s equanimity, Joe is forced to confront the brutality faced by the women in his life – compounded by the fact that the community refuses to see or name it – and grapple with what it means to be a man.

– Rachel Power

Meticulously researched, Marsh offers a compelling insight into the context and motivations behind Rupert Murdoch’s conversion from schoolboy socialist into tabloid media mogul.

In the 1950s, fresh out of Oxford University, politically left-of-centre, and determined to shake up the Adelaide establishment, the “boy publisher” took over his famous father’s stewardship of News Limited – chiefly, then, the Adelaide News. Rupert’s competitive spirit was sparked when rival daily The Advertiser sought to drive News Limited out of business by starting a Sunday newspaper, leading to a drawn-out court battle.

In an early indication of his transformation into the ruthless media magnate we’ve come to know and hate, Rupert unceremoniously sacked his partner in the fight, Adelaide News editor and distinguished journalist Rohan Rivett. A long-time family friend and young Rupert’s mentor, the left-leaning editor – generous with his staff and friend to the unions – was dumped in Murdoch’s headlong rush to expand (and, arguably, cheapen) his empire.

Recalling forgotten events that preoccupied South Australia, Marsh provides a deep dive into the recent history of the state he clearly knows so well, and the role played by Murdoch’s perchance for scandal and intrigue, which went on to influence 20th century politics and shape the multimedia landscape on an even grander scale than even young Rupert might have imagined.

– Rachel Power

Perhaps best known as a solo singer, maybe most specifically for her 1991 smash hit ‘It’s Only the Beginning’, Deborah Conway has been part of Melbourne’s music scene for several decades now. Before that, with band Do-Re-Mi, more recently as director of the Queensland Music Festival, or at the helm of the Broad concerts featuring Conway alongside the likes of Ruby Hunter, Clare Bowditch and Sally Seltmann, when Conway hasn’t been on stage, she’s been working away behind the scenes: writing songs, producing music festivals, organising backyard concerts with husband and music partner Willy Zeigler, not to mention bringing up three musical daughters.

Conway, now in her 60s, has lived a busy, full life, with musician friends and mentors, and in this memoir, she writes all about it with the candour we’ve come to expect. Fans of the Melbourne music scene will appreciate mentions of icon Michael Gudinski, her friendship with Paul Kelly, life with her boyfriend of several years Crowded House drummer Paul Hester, and more.

– Louise Swinn

Featuring stories from local teachers and writers including Tony Birch, Jessie Tu, Rick Morton, Jacqueline Harvey, Amra Pajalic, and many more, Teacher, Teacher is jam-packed with tales of teachers who have inspired these writers, stories of teaching from days gone by, and anecdotes about the challenge and wonder that is teaching.

Why do we remember that one incredible novel we were taught in Year 9 English, even though we’ve read hundreds of books since? Because teachers! Teachers bring things alive, they show us the three-dimensionality of history. These stories, written with love and humour and the insight that comes with distance, are a great reminder of how much of a person’s character is developed in those endless hours spent in classrooms. Why do otherwise sane and clever people do it? Because when things are going well, it’s the best job in the world.

– Louise Swinn

When considering whether we can judge a work of art solely on its aesthetics, or whether we can or should take into consideration the monster who produced it, Claire Dederer approaches her subjects as a consummate fan. Examining the lives and works of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Michael Jackson, Ernest Hemingway, and more, Dederer does not provide answers but instead explores all sides of the question.

Can we even separate the artist from their work, or is the bad taste too bitter to ignore? Dederer supplies no grand theory, but a thorough exploration of the complex subject, which doesn’t warrant simplifying. After all, as fans, we lose out when an artwork is taken away from us and, undeniably, sometimes bad people produce good art.

In acknowledging that the concept of ethical consumption is a sham, and in gracefully refusing to offer a bad faith solution, Dederer’s contribution to this timely subject is a thoughtful, practical resource in the #MeToo movement.

– Louise Swinn

Cheek Media cofounder Hannah Ferguson might be just 25 years old, but she already seems to have things pretty well worked out. With a Bachelor of Laws and a Masters of Publishing, she is perfectly suited to make difficult topics accessible, which is her agenda with Cheek Media and in her new work of non-fiction, subtitled: Feminism, media, politics, and our power to change it all.

In easily digestible chapters, Ferguson examines feminism, men’s role in feminism, the Murdoch media empire, #MeToo, body positivity, girlboss culture, and the failures of white feminism. She interweaves facts, statistics and her point of view. Her voice is clear and personal, her opinions and beliefs deeply held, and underlying her views are core philosophies that sit well with our union values. “I do not see disagreement as a competition to be won or a mind to be changed, but an opportunity to make both participants think,” Ferguson writes. Hear hear!

– Louise Swinn

When David Marr discovered that his forebears served with the brutal Native Police, he was launched into a painful reckoning with the past. This was a police force involved in murdering countless First Nations peoples as part of ruthless land grabs preceding the creation of Australia.

As one of our most accomplished non-fiction writers, Marr brings his dogged research skills and sharp eye for detail to this profoundly personal investigation into our brutal frontier wars. Along the way, he realises that his family’s determined secrecy was representative of the broader concealment and denial baked into the founding of the nation, with reports about the massacres conveniently ignored or destroyed, despite various public inquiries then and since.

As Marcia Langton says: “This book is more than a personal reckoning with Marr’s forebears and their crimes. It is an account of an Australian war fought here in our own country, with names, dates, crimes, body counts and the ghastly, remorseless views of the ‘settlers’.”

Marr’s soul-searching book is an important step in our nation’s necessary confrontation with the truth.

– Rachel Power

The drama in Lioness centres around homewares entrepreneur Therese Thorne, married to a wealthy property developer who has four adult children from a previous marriage. Even though Therese and Trevor have been married for a long while now, his spoilt children are still at arm’s length, slightly antagonistic towards Therese, perhaps wary of any potential claim she might make on their father’s wealth.

When Trevor gets caught up in a scandal around one of the buildings his company developed, Therese, spurred on by new friend and neighbour Claire, looks at her life with fresh eyes. Is she happy, and is this what she wanted her days to look like? Finding herself with the stock conundrums of middle age, often caring for other people’s children (and grandchildren) who don’t appreciate it, cracks start to appear in Therese’s privileged existence.

New Zealander Emily Perkins falls under the radar but her novels are always sharply observed and intelligent, her characters richly intriguing, and this latest does not disappoint.

– Louise Swinn

Anna Funder has combined forensic research, personal reflection, and fictional speculation to build a dynamic picture of George Orwell’s first wife, Eileen, who was a lively literary figure in her own right. Upon finding some of Eileen’s letters to friends, Funder discovered the influence Eileen had on her husband’s work, including the legendary Animal Farm – and yet, she barely rates a mention in existing biographies about the author.

In Wifedom, Funder not only offers an illustration of the way so many women throughout history have fostered and enabled their husband’s output without recognition, but also uncovers the motives behind the way some male biographers might deliberately downplay or ignore a woman’s contributions to the life and work of their eminent husbands.

While reconciling the importance of an artist’s work and their personal reputation is often tricky territory – and Orwell doesn’t come out of this one well – Funder offers a powerful picture of the way: “One person’s time to work is created by another person’s work in time: the more time he has to work, the more she is working to make it for him.”

– Rachel Power

In the latest masterpiece from Miles Franklin Literary Award-winner Melissa Lucashenko, Edenglassie is an epic novel – part history lesson, part love story – set across two timelines in Meanjin/Brisbane: the 1850s (when First Nations people still outnumbered the colonists) and now.

When Mulanyin meets Goorie woman Nita at the cattle station where they work, colonial unrest is on the rise and their plans for an independent life at home on Country clash with the plans of the white ‘settlers’.

Two decades later, Dr Johnny is captivated by Winona, the activist granddaughter of one of his patients, 100-year-old Yagara woman Granny Eddie Blanket. When an opportunistic journalist comes across Granny Eddie, politicians and the media are thrilled by the chance to use ‘Queensland’s Oldest Aboriginal’ as the face of the state’s bicentennial celebrations or, as Winona sees it, “John Oxley’s two centuries of criminal trespass”.

Based on research and conversations with elders and custodians, Edenglassie sparkles with First Nations languages, rituals, and spirituality. Exposing the impact of colonisation and its intergenerational effects, Lucashenko’s masterful interweaving of the past and the present is a story of place and of injustice, and a formidable reflection on the meaning of home.

– Rachel Power

“I retired when I was 28 years old and ran out of money the same afternoon.” That pretty much sums up this wry memoir from humourist, Robert Skinner, about his determination to live as an artist no matter the cost to his comfort, or his dignity.

Moving to the city as a young man, Skinner quickly discovers that writing a book “is a lot harder than reading one”. To get by, he works as a dishwasher, tour guide, bus driver, bookseller, all the while applying for grants and trying to run his literary journal, The Canary Press, out of a dog park. None of this pays the bills, and Skinner invariably ends up sleeping on “couches, lawns and living room floors” – even, as a says, “in what might reasonably be described as a ditch, though I tried not to think of it in those terms for morale reasons”.

But Robert continues to look up at the stars from his place in the gutter, even when mired in bureaucratic roundabouts, hounded for robodebt claims, or the van he calls home is robbed. Characterised by repeated questionable decisions (and the odd inadvisable love affair), for Skinner, the artistic life is as uncomfortable as it is funny. This endearing tale of misadventure, perfectly paired with a summer cocktail, will have you chuckling in your deckchair.

– Rachel Power

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