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.

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Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

In his introduction, Ansary notes that Destiny Disrupted is neither a textbook nor a thesis: “It’s more like what I’d tell you if we met in a coffeehouse and you said ‘What’s all this about a parallel world history?'” Born in Afghanistan, Ansary is a lifelong history scholar who wrote high school history textbooks in America. Here, he crafts the story of Islam, from its origins through today, into a highly enjoyable read. His prose is lively and conversational, his insights valuable, and his love of history contagious. When people ask about my favourite book, this is the one I emphatically recommend.


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

John Cann The Last Snake Man.png

The Last Snake Man by John Cann

John Cann’s autobiography of a snakey’s life charts the evolution of snake shows in Australia, dating back to the early 20th century. There’s nothing brilliant in the writing: it reads like a bloke chatting with you over beers. Put all that aside though, and this is one of the most fantastically entertaining pieces of Australiana I’ve encountered, as I describe in detail here.

Non-fiction | Australian author

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Jooby Cho Nam-joo

South Korean author Cho Nam-joo’s short, punchy novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 at times reads like non-fiction, especially because of the occasional footnotes drawn from news articles, government sources and academic papers. The story follows the life of the fictional Kim Jiyoung, opening in her 30s, when she’s started slipping into the personas of other women. The circumstances of her life, and in particular the restrictions she faces as a woman in a hierarchical and patriarchal culture, are all too real, however. Jiyoung is a woman of the modern era, but as Cho notes, ‘The world has changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and custom had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.’*

Fiction | Translated

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

CouplandMarshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland

Coupland has been an acclaimed novelist since the publication of his first novel, Generation X, in 1991. In this biography of fellow Canadian and media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Coupland charts McLuhan’s rise to celebrity, subsequent fall from fame, and recent “comeback.” The publication of Understanding Media in 1964, which contains his famous McLuhanism “the medium is the message”, turned McLuhan into “the Super-Marshall of the 1960s”. At the height of his celebrity, he was “everywhere. He was hip and cool … Young people loved him. Talk shows were incomplete without him.” He sailed on Greek cruises with millionaires … and [earned] up to $25,000 for corporate speeches and seminars.” Coupland’s perspective as an artist focussed on the way technology changes culture enables him to provide insight into the relevance of McLuhan’s thinking today.

Non-fiction | Canadian author

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 my full review for the 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.’*


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 my full review for the 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 my full review for the Newtown Review of Books.

Non-fiction | Australian debut

Toni Jordan The Fragments cover

The Fragments by Toni Jordan

Weaving together two narratives, one set in 1930s New York, the other in 1980s Brisbane, The Fragments features sharp dialogue, vivid scene-setting and a fast-moving plot. Toni Jordan is a masterful writer, crafting characters that feel like people you once knew. At the centre of the interconnected stories are ‘the fragments’, the few pieces of a much-anticipated manuscript destroyed in the suspicious fire that also resulted in the author’s death. The mystery surrounding the crime continues to fuel speculation decades later.

Fiction | Australian author

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 my full review for the Newtown Review of Books.

Fiction | Australian author

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie memoir cover

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

In a talk about her 2019 Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie stated there’s no point writing memoir if you’re not going to tell the truth, wholly and utterly. This makes her story of rescuing her starving father from her pathological mother that much stranger. Her writing style is spare, much like the Albertan landscape where the story unfolds. It’s also conversational. With dry, understated humour, she guides you through her story as if by the hand, never flinching, not even at her own grief. I was captivated throughout, often wondering, could it really have happened like this? The shoe boxes full of cancelled cheques paid to scammers around the world? The neglected rural-nowhere mansion? The mother’s ploy to get out of a job by claiming to be deceased? Her refusal to acknowledge her own daughter’s existence? And there is Laveau-Harvie, nodding along, as if to say she could barely believe it either. *

Non-Fiction | Australian debut

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 my full review for the 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 my full review for the Newtown Review of Books.

Non-fiction | Australian debut

An Isolated Incident by Emily MaguireMaguire - Isolated Incident.jpg

In the small town of Strathdee, a young woman is murdered. Though Maguire’s latest novel uses the literary thriller genre to explore violence against women and its portrayal in the media, it ultimately breaks away from the genre’s confines. The murder investigation runs through the novel, but the story focuses on the victim’s sister, Chris. In doing so, Maguire offers a deep consideration of how the ongoing epidemic of violence against women impacts individuals and communities.

Fiction | Australian author

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

Mason cover.jpeg

Destination Saigon by Walter Mason

This delightful travel memoir follows Australian Walter Mason as he journeys through Vietnam. Mason’s long relationship with the country, including his fluency in Vietnamese and his Vietnamese partner, all inform his writing. But it’s his ability to capture the subtle divinity of an afternoon in a temple or a conversation with a monk, along with his unique, engaging humour, that makes this one of my all-time favourite memoirs.

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.*


Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Australian authorDark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

In this revelatory survey of early European accounts of Australia, Aboriginal author Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture and architecture truly was, and so urges us to reconsider our understanding of Aboriginal civilisation. As he concludes, ‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.’

Non-fiction | Australian author

JP Pomare In the Clearing, Australian AuthorIn the Clearing by JP Pomare

Pomare’s new psychological thriller is a compelling and startling exploration of family, control and violence. The story takes its inspiration from The Family, an Australian cult led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. In the 1970s and 80s, The Family was accused of imprisoning children and brainwashing them through the use of drugs and physical punishment. The novel’s triumph is its surprising climax, and the way Pomare turns the tables on the reader, raising the question of what any one of us would do to protect our own families – however we define them. Read the full review here.

Fiction | Australian author

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

East West Street by Sands.jpeg

East West Street by Philippe Sands

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.


Sedaris Diaries vol 1

Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume One by David Sedaris

Culled from 156 handwritten volumes, Theft by Finding is high- and lowlights reel of strange and unsettling encounters with people and ideas. Into this, Sedaris weaves his own story, from working odd jobs straight out of high school in his home state of Carolina beginning in the 70s, to art school in Chicago in the 80s, to huge success as an author in New York in the 90s. It’s one of my all-time favourites thanks to Sedaris’s eye for peculiar detail, his willingness to follow people down the street to continue his eavesdropping, and his dark humour.


Nardi Simpson coverSong of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson

This debut novel from Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson is set in the fictional town of Darnmoor, in regional NSW. The story spans four generations of the Billymil family and their effort to sustain their Indigenous culture and community despite the overt and covert racism of the settlers, and the corrosive impact of intergenerational trauma. Filled with ancestral spirits and Yuwaalaraay language, it presents both an insight into an ancient worldview that understands the healing power of the natural world, and a sharp, affecting critique of Australian society.*

Debut | Australian author

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

The Things She Owned by Katherine Tamiko Arguile

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A work of literary fiction from debut novelist Katherine Tamiko Arguile, a Japanese-British-Australian arts journalist and author based in Adelaide, the story weaves together two narratives. Michiko is a young girl growing up in Japan during and after the Pacific War, a victim to her father’s abusive behaviour, which in turn is linked to PTSD stemming from his time in the Japanese military. Meanwhile, Michiko’s adult daughter reflects on her mother’s life from present-day London, where a collection of Michiko’s things – an onigiri basket, a Wedgwood tea set, a knotted ring from Okinawa – mostly collect dust in the corner, along with her ashes. Arguile crafts the English and Japanese settings with vivid detail, and lovingly describes the many Japanese meals over which her characters argue and bond. Through her two female protagonists, she explores the intractability of intergenerational trauma, turning in the final chapters to Indigenous Japanese concepts of healing.*

Fiction | Australian debut

elizabeth-tan-coverSmart Ovens for Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan

Tan’s second short story collection is full of humorous and poignant stories laced with pop-culture references and techno-slang, and set in an uncertain dystopian future or surrealities. Her comedy leaps out from story titles such as ‘Shirt Dresses that Look a Little Too Much Like Shirts so that It Looks Like You Forgot to Put on Pants (Love Will Save the Day)’ and ‘Happy Smiling Underwear Girls Party’. This belies their the stories’ emotional depths, the varieties of loneliness depicted, and the incisive exploration of technology’s ability to isolate us while keeping us evermore connected.

Fiction | Australian author

Educated by Tara WestoverWestover.jpg

Tara Westover has an incredible story to tell. After the Ruby Ridge siege, her father’s religiosity warped into extremism. He pulled his children out of school, refused to send them to the doctor even after car crashes and accidents at his home-run junkyard, and preached a misogynistic gospel. Westover’s story of the education she sought and achieved despite this upbringing is remarkable. But she is also an impressive writer, whose prose elevates her story, deftly carrying the reader through the trauma and upheaval of her father’s worldview.

Non-fiction | debut


The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright

Longlisted for the Stella Prize, her new collection begins with an exploration of our bodies and our homes – both the buildings and the neighbourhoods – as shelters. But for many of us, our bodies and homes can be sources of discomfort, even extreme difficulty. The essays range from Sydney’s western suburbs to the Inner West, to Victoria and Iceland and Shanghai, with each place and its emotional landscape captured through Wright’s eye for vivid detail. She closes the collection optimistically, reflecting on the joy and comfort brought by her new dog, Virginia Woof. Read my full review for Sydney Review of Books.

Non-fiction | Australian author

*First published at On Writing from Writing NSW