Great reads

Looking for your next great read? I read widely across fiction and non-fiction, and love recommending exciting books. I’ll continue to add to this page as I discover more fantastic books and authors.

 


Traumata by Meera AtkinsonTraumata by Atkinson.jpg

Traumata is a sense-making project, or rather the summary of Atkinson’s lifelong effort at sense-making. Interspersing research into trauma, memory and psychology with explorations of her personal traumata – the plural of trauma – she presents an incisive case study of trauma’s effects, how it can compound at an individual level, and how it operates in society. It’s revelatory writing and important reading.

Non-fiction | Australian author


Armenia, Australia & the Great War by Vicken Babkenian and Peter StanleyArmenia, Australia and the Great War by Babkenian and Stanley.jpg

In 1915, just hours before the Anzac soldiers began their attack on Gallipoli, the Ottoman Empire put in motion the world’s first modern genocide. The state began its systematic attack on Armenian communities across what is now modern Turkey, killing as many as a million Armenians and displacing hundreds of thousands of others. In Armenia, Australia and the Great War, Armenian historian Vicken Babkenian and Australian military historian Peter Stanley explore the records of Australian witnesses to and even, at times, Australian heroism in this little-known history. Read the full review on Newtown Review of Books.

Non-fiction | Australian authors


Terra Nullius by Claire G ColemanTerra Nullius by Claire Coleman.jpeg

Claire Coleman offers a captivating twist on the settler invasion of Australia. A Noongar woman, Coleman traces her family’s ancestral country to the south coast of Western Australia. While her debut novel is challenging to discuss without major spoilers, the book has been described as a blend of historical and speculative fiction. The book’s many accolades include winning the Black&Write! Indigenous Writing fellowship in 2016 and being shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2018. Though I’d heard of the novel a few times, I became keen to read it after hearing Coleman speak about the process of writing the book while driving around Australia in a campervan, part of her interview on The First Time podcast. Terra Nullius tells a powerful story with imaginative surprises and deep humanity.*

Fiction | Australian debut


The Helpline by Katherine ColletteThe Helpine by Collette.jpeg

The Helpline is part of an emerging subgenre of women’s fiction that features singular characters navigating an everyday world while learning to overcome personal challenges. What makes these books so compelling is the dissonance between how each of the main character understands the world and how readers know the world to work. The Helpline is a charming exploration of what’s really important in life and the challenges of dealing with the people around us who cause so many unpredictable and sometimes unpleasant feelings. Read the full review on Newtown Review of Books.

Fiction | Australian debut


Adult Fantasy by Briony DoyleAdult Fantasy by Briony Doyle.jpeg

Reading Doyle as a member of her millennial cohort (we’re a month apart in age) feels like an extension of every conversation I’ve had with my friends, my husband, myself. In Adult Fantasy, Doyle connects these ‘intensely personal’ private conversations about adulthood with debates taking place in the media and politics. Doyle successfully frames her search for ‘a meaningful adult existence’ in the context of the major issues faced by individuals in Western society today, and particularly by millennials. Read the full review on Newtown Review of Books.

Non-fiction | Australian author


Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett Don't Sleep There Are Snakes by Everett.jpeg

Everett spent 30 years in the Brazilian jungle, living among the Pirahã tribe. His book recounts his experiences in the jungle, and his efforts to translate the language of this still-isolated tribe. Through his cultural immersion, his life and religious views change dramatically, as does his understanding of foundational concepts of linguistics, and more profoundly, how and if people from diverse cultural contexts can truly understand one another. Inevitably he learns far more from the Pirahãs than they take from him.

The prologue frames his experiences by describing the morning an entire village of Pirahãs woke early to observe a visiting spirit on the beach. They insist the spirit is as present before them as Everett is. ‘Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs’ culture, could see reality so differently,’ Everett writes. ‘I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.’*

Non-fiction


Year of the Orphan by Daniel FindlayYear of the Orphan by Findlay

Sometimes it feels as though the most pressing question of the 21st century is how we can best prepare for the apocalyptic collapse of civilisation that’s surely coming. Futurist authors such as Australian Daniel Findlay hint at what post-collapse society might be like – and remind us of what we should appreciate now. Findlay’s debut novel is set in outback Australia hundreds of years from now, in and around a place called the System, an iron-walled town. Read the full review on Newtown Review of Books.

Fiction | Australian debut


The Red Wake by Kurt JohnsonRed Wake by Kurt Johnson.jpeg

Twenty-five years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Johnson journeys through Russia and many of its former satellite states tracing Soviet legacies like Chernobyl, and how these legacies continue to affect people, including his own family. The Red Wake blends travel and history in Johnson’s own journalistic style. His careful balance gives readers enough context to appreciate the significance of the sites and cities he visits, and enables him to create a portrait of the both the historic USSR and its long shadow. Johnson uses descriptive, inventive language (he compares one building to a ‘giant, repressive cake’) to take readers to places that are more challenging or radioactive than the average traveller might be inclined to visit. In the process he provides a fascinating account of the unsettled fallout of the Soviet social and political experiment. Read the full review on Newtown Review of Books.

Non-fiction | Australian debut


Portable Curiosities by Julie KohPortable Curiosities by Julie Koh

Julie Koh’s short story collection earned her a spot among 2017’s Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year winners. It’s an ambitious book that tackles everything: economics, consumerism, depression, the arts, sexism, racism, androids, exiled Russian orchestras illegally inhabiting the woods, mother-daughter relationships, father-son relationships, sibling rivalry, celebrity chefs, cat cafes, international relations, and the search for a parsimonious theory of life. Read the full review on Newtown Review of Books.

Fiction | Australian author


The Friendship Cure by Kate LeaverFriendship Cure by Kate Leaver.jpeg

Just as loneliness causes us harm, friendship can dramatically affect our physical health, as new research shows. Having a caring social network of close friends may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart problems and high blood pressure, and improve your chances of staying fit. Likewise, having a close friend at work can improve attention span, mood and even productivity. And while friendship can’t cure depression, spending time with friends and cultivating strong friendships can be part of good mental healthcare practices, alongside healthy eating and exercise. Combining scientific research, interviews and memoir, The Friendship Cure explores the many benefits of friendship, along with a few of the perils, through pop-culture references and anecdotes of both successful and failed friendships. Read the full review on Newtown Review of Books.

Non-fiction | Australian debut


Eggshell Skull by Bri LeeEggshell Skull by Bri Lee.jpeg

Lee’s experiences, both professionally and personally, make clear the human fallibility and biases of the justice system, and how it is stacked against women. Women and children are often victims of crime in their own homes, and the perpetrators are people they know. But juries are unlikely to believe any woman who isn’t the ‘perfect victim’, a woman who appears chaste, is not on birth control, and is preferably attacked by a shady-looking stranger in public, not an average-looking bloke she happens to know, even casually. And if a complainant is inconsistent in her reports, if she becomes too emotional, she is less believable, even though these are normal responses to trauma. Read the full review on Newtown Review of Books.

Non-fiction | Australian debut


Vodka & Apple Juice by Jay MartinVodka & Apple Juice by Jay Martin.jpeg

Having left a successful career in Canberra, Martin is both excited and nervous to spend three years in Poland accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting. Her narrative traces her efforts to learn the Polish language and the unwritten rules of Polish life, as well as the challenges of making meaningful friendships and helping her marriage survive the long, grey winters. Her writing is personable, peppered with gentle humour and introspection.*

Non-fiction | Australian debut


Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang Always Another Country Msimang.jpeg

Msimang grew up in exile from South Africa, the daughter of a freedom fighter and follower of Nelson Mandela. Her eloquent memoir of home, belonging and race politics traces her childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her university years in America, and her return to a South Africa that is free but not just. (Review first published in The Big Issue.)

Non-fiction | Australian debut


Genocide: A World History by Norman NaimarkGenocide by Naimark.jpeg

As I’m likely to tell anyone within the first five minutes of meeting them, I’ve long been fascinated by the dark history of genocide. One key realisation I’ve had over seven years of studying the Armenian genocide is that such events can’t be studied in isolation — they form part of an historical continuum. In the recently released Genocide: A World History, Norman Naimark succinctly traces instances of genocide back to biblical times, demonstrating that this crime has been present throughout human history. Considering that history in the context of recent advances in digital capability, and today’s geopolitics, such as the recent events in Charlottesville, should prompt a sense of urgency. I’ve written a full review of this important book for the Sydney Review of Books.*

Non-fiction


Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp.jpeg

Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp

Under the umbrella of contemporary women’s fiction, this novel is part of the emotional thriller genre. Set in Sydney, it centres around two mothers and the realities of IVF and postpartum psychosis. With a quickly paced plot and blurred lines between protagonists and antagonists, it’s an engaging read.*

Fiction | Australian debut


The Promise of Things by Ruth QuibellThe Promise of Things by Ruth Quibell.jpeg

‘We’re struggling to keep on top of the things we’ve bought,’ Quibell writes. ]Beyond blithe indifference or cynical acceptance, how might we do things differently? How can we respond to the failure of materialism’s promise?’ Blending memoir with journalism and her insight as a sociologist, Quibell’s first book is a collection of short essays addressing these questions. This isn’t a call to minimalism or a guide to decluttering, however. Instead, The Promise of Things is a meditation on our relationships with the things that surround us, filled with useful but gentle advice.*

Non-fiction | Australian debut


From the Wreck by Jane Rawson, Australian fictionFrom the Wreck by Jane Rawson

In 1859, George Hills survives the sinking of the steamship Admella thanks to a woman who isn’t a woman, but a telepathic, octopus-like creature from another dimension. The intertwining of their lives in this blend of historical and speculative fiction is beautiful and resonant. Rawson crafts her characters so powerfully, I suspect she may actually be an interdimensional octopus.

Fiction | Australian author


How I Rescued My Brain by David Roland How I Rescued My Brain by David Rowland.jpeg

Roland was a psychologist who developed post-traumatic stress after working with violent offenders in the prison system, as well as traumatised patients. This and other stressors, including financial ruin and the breakdown of his marriage, likely played a role in the stroke that reduced his cognitive capabilities. His gentle narrative explores both the devastating effects of his conditions and the steps he took toward wellbeing, including mindfulness meditation. Having suffered frustrating cognitive limitations myself since the onset of my illness, I appreciated Roland’s direct, clear descriptions of his cognitive symptoms. He separates these into three categories: the general confusion of fog brain; rubber brain, the inability to take things in; and sore brain, the physical hurt that cognitive strain would cause, even for a task as simple as making lunch for his children.*

Non-fiction | Australian author


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo by Luke RyanA Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo by Luke Ryan.jpeg

I’d been avoiding this book because I am, frankly, terrified of cancer. But Ryan’s detailed descriptions of life post-diagnosis are surprisingly readable, and what I should have been afraid of was the explicit reference to Bryan Adams lyrics. Ryan’s memoir is full of genuinely humorous jokes about both his experiences with cancer, first as an 11-year-old and then as an adult, and his experience of putting on a comedy show about having cancer. Spoiler alert: though many funny things happen, none of them are specifically on the way to chemo. Still, I recommend it.*

Non-fiction | Australian debut


East West Street by Philippe SandsEast West Street by Sands.jpeg

The idea that a government shouldn’t have impunity to murder its own citizens because it finds them undesirable or inconvenient might seem like a given today. Yet this notion first arose less than a century ago and was only widely accepted even more recently. Its establishment in law consumed the lives of at least two men, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who came to opposite conclusions about how to protect people from crimes perpetrated by their own governments. Protect the group, Lemkin argued. Protect the individual, Lauterpacht countered. The genesis of these two approaches to international law – and the foundations of international law itself – are at the heart of East West Street. Read the full review on Newtown Review of Books.

Non-fiction


Half Wild by Pip SmithHalf Wild by Pip Smith.jpeg

Pip Smith’s first novel, Half Wild, is inventive and compelling. Blending fiction and non-fiction, the novel tells the many selves of Eugenia Falleni. Born as a woman in Italy, Eugenia arrives in Wellington with her family at a young age. There she begins to identify as a man, to the frustration of her family. As an adult, Eugenia reinvents himself in Australia as Harry Crawford, where he marries a woman named Annie Birkett. But Annie goes missing, and her body later turns up, blackened from a fire. Crawford goes on to remarry before the police catch up with him. At its core, Half Wild is a murky true crime story. Smith makes the most of that murkiness, shifting narrative perspectives throughout to ask who Falleni might have been, and what the legacy of his murder trial reveals about our concept of justice.*

Fiction | Australian author


*First published at On Writing, from Writing NSW