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Critics’ Picks — Top summer reads 

There are thousands of new books to browse and read in our Critics’ Picks collection in the Governor Marie Bashir Reading Room. Every book has been reviewed by top critics in publications including Australian Book Review, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books. 

Have you made any surprising discoveries on our shelves? 


If you have escaped into the covers of a good book this year, you are not alone. Reading consumption almost doubled throughout the first stages of lockdown, as people discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) books new and old.

As we finally start looking to the future, it’s time to plan what we’re going to read next. From highly acclaimed 2020 releases to future favourites, our librarians have scoured the shelves for books that we guarantee will grab your attention.

Many of these books you can find right now in our Critics’ Picks collection in the Governor Marie Bashir Reading Room, while some are due to come out over the summer in 2021. Which one will be your favourite?

The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

The Imitator
by Rebecca Starford

Following Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School, Rebecca Starford’s debut novel is set to be released in February 2021. A thriller set in World War II, it follows a young woman hired by MI5 straight out of Oxford who is assigned the dangerous task of infiltrating an underground group of Nazi sympathisers. Thomas Keneally says ‘Starford seems to be the inheritor of the cool, narrative elegance of Graham Green and John le Carré.’ That’s high praise indeed. You may also know Starford as the Publishing Director of Kill Your Darlings.

‘What a rare treat to find a novel that offers both white-knuckled suspense and evocative beautiful prose.’ — Hannah Kent, author Burial Rites

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain
by Douglas Stuart

The winner of the Booker Prize in 2020, Stuart’s book takes place in 1981, in a Glaswegian mining town decimated by Thatcherism. When mother Agnes Bain turns to alcohol, her three children try to provide her with comfort. The titular Shuggie holds out hope the longest as the children start to look for ways of saving themselves.

‘Unflinchingly exact about the minutiae of poverty… Shuggie Bain is a worthy Booker Prize winner.’ — Sydney Morning Herald

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide
by Kate Charlesworth

If you’ve visited the Library’s Coming Out in the 70s exhibition, or explored the stories online, you will get a sense of the LGBTQI+ history of NSW. In cartoonist and illustrator Kate Charlesworth’s excellent graphic novel, she weaves her own coming-out story with a collage of illustrated LGBT history and protest in the UK. It’s a remarkable one-of-a-kind achievement.

‘Peppered with humour, it’s an accessible, gripping account which also celebrates the best of lesbian and gay culture.’ — The Times Literary Supplement

Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos

Lucky’s
by Andrew Pippos

This story of a milk bar/cafe taps into the Greek diaspora across Australia and arrives just in time for a community get-together at the end of an isolating year. The New South Wales Public Library Association has also selected this for their NSW Reads campaign. Readers can join an Instagram read-along via @nswlibraryevents.

‘It’s a saga that encapsulates elements of family drama, true crime and Greek tragedy. Most of all it’s a must-read from a new favoured son of the Eptanisa.’ — The Guardian

What the Colonists Never Knew: A History of Aboriginal Sydney by Dennis Foley and Peter Read

What the Colonists Never Knew: A History of Aboriginal Sydney
by Dennis Foley and Peter Read

Through the eyes of Dennis, the grandson of Clarice Malinda Lougher — the last practising matriarch of the Gai-mariagal clan — we are given insight into what it was like to grow up Aboriginal in Sydney alongside colonists. Taking us through from 1788 to the present, it makes a fascinating bit of further reading for those who have explored the Library’s award-winning Eight Days in Kamay exhibition.

‘I have always loved Foley’s ability to bring a story to life and Read’s measured but uncompromising analysis … I love this bloody book.’ — Bruce Pascoe, author Dark Emu

All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton

All Our Shimmering Skies
by Trent Dalton

It would have been difficult to follow the award-winning Boy Swallows Universe, one of the most talked-about and requested Australian novels of the last year. Yet Trent Dalton has already attracted critical attention for his follow-up. Set in Darwin in 1942, this ‘love letter to Australia’ will be of interest to lovers of local historical fiction.

‘It is storytelling manna, fallen straight from the Territorian skies.’ — The Australian

Grandmothers: Essays by 21st-Century Grandmothers

Grandmothers: Essays by 21st-Century Grandmothers
edited by Helen Elliott

Most people will have a pretty firm notion of what a grandmother is, either from their own experiences or the many nans, grans, and nonnas we see in popular culture. In this collection, twenty-three Australian grandmothers reflect on their experience. From Maggie Beer’s claim that she is a better grandmother than she was a mother, to Ali Cobby Eckermann’s reflections on the pain of being a Stolen Generations grandmother, this is a collection that aims to both connect and educate.

‘The result is not only a satisfying representation of cultural and racial diversity but also an eclectic mix of personal and professional backgrounds.’ — Australian Book Review

Turning Down the Noise by Christine Jackson

Turning Down the Noise
by Christine Jackson

If 2020 has given us one positive thing, it’s a chance to reflect on what’s important. Jackson took a dramatic turn when she stepped back from her executive position in Sydney to reduce the amount of ‘noise’ in her life: the audible kind, exposure to media or the various alerts on her phone. During this journey, she found a way to reduce the amount of stimuli in our everyday lives.

‘[An] eloquent and timely book.’ - Sydney Morning Herald

Born Into This by Adam Thompson

Born Into This
by Adam Thompson

Due out in February 2021, young Tasmanian Aboriginal author delivers a collection of stories that explore identity, racism, and heritage destruction. Tara June Winch (The Yield) has already described it as being ‘drenched in swagger and originality, the blows are head-on, but the comfort is swiftly delivered in the wit and delicacy of Thompson’s phrasing.’

‘A compelling new voice, tough yet tender, from the heart of Aboriginal Tasmania.’ — Melissa Lucashenko, author Too Much Lip

The 2020 Dictionary by Dominic Knight

The 2020 Dictionary
by Dominic Knight

It’s safe to say that our vocabularies have increased in 2020. From ‘megafire’ to ‘murder hornets,’ there are phrases and events that have defined the last year. Writer, radio presenter and Chaser co-founder Dominic Knight tries to make sense of a year by distilling it from ‘Aaargh’ to ‘Zzzzz.’ Take this as either a walk down memory lane or an often-hilarious way of expunging some of the hardships of the last 12 months.

‘It’s serious social commentary on our community in all its foible-ridden glory, regarded with a clever sardonic gaze and an irresistible wry grin.’ — Living Arts Canberra

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life
by Brandon Taylor

One of the highlights of 2020 that’s worth catching up with this summer. From the opening line, it’s immediately evident that there’s something important happening in Taylor’s novel. A meditation on intersectionality and otherness, the book captures the feeling of otherness while maintaining an undercurrent of intimacy. This is the kind of book that wraps you up and holds you in its gaze for the duration and is over far too soon.

‘The book teems with passages of transfixing description, and perhaps its greatest asset is the force of Wallace’s isolation, which Taylor conveys with alien strangeness.’ — The New Yorker

Richard Gray
Coordinator, Information & Access