20 Australian books to read in your 20s

Here are 20 Australian books to read in your 20s, everything from classic novels to sexy memoirs, from stories of share house misadventures to the IRL adventures of our most famous outlaw.

Our list isn’t definitive – we strongly encourage you to read many more books than just the ones listed here – but these are stories and characters that resonate with this particular time of life. Increasingly seen as a kind of ‘adult adolescence’, your 20s are a time of change and turmoil: shifting careers you were once sure of, or ending relationships you thought would last forever. It’s also usually a time when you come to understand your parents better than you might have imagined, and teenagers less than ever – you might even become a parent yourself. This list captures all this and more …


1. The Boat by Nam Le

Published before he was 30, Nam Le’s début short-story collection The Boat busts open the stereotype of the ‘boat refugee’ – Le himself came to Australia as a boat refugee from Vietnam with his parents when he was less than a year old. His stories looking at this experience are heartbreaking and nuanced, while his other stories offer us a wide scope of reflection outside the typical ‘immigrant experience’, taking us from a tourist in Tehran to a teenage hit man in Colombia; from an aging New York artist to a boy coming of age in a small Victorian fishing town.


2. A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

Most of his life, Jasper Dean couldn’t decide whether to pity, hate, love or murder his certifiably paranoid father, Martin. But now that Martin is dead, Jasper can fully reflect on the crackpot who raised him. From the New South Wales bush to bohemian Paris, from sports fields to strip clubs, from the jungles of Thailand to a leaky boat in the Pacific, Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole follows the Deans on their freewheeling, scathingly funny and finally deeply moving quest to leave their mark on the world. This is a read for anyone who’s afraid of turning into the lunatics who raised them.


3. Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas

Ari is nineteen, unemployed and a poofter who doesn’t want to be gay. He is looking for something – anything – to take him away from his aimless existence in suburban Melbourne. He doesn’t believe in anyone or anything, except the power of music. All he wants to do is dance, take drugs, have sex and change the world. While the drugs and clubs have changed over the years, the essence of Tsiolkas' starkly uncompromising novel remains as relevant as ever as Ari struggles to find his place somewhere between the traditional Greek world of his parents and friends, and the alluring world of chemicals and anonymous sex.


4. Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch

Another book on identity, and being caught between two worlds, is Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, the story of a young Aboriginal girl, May. After losing her mother, May and her brother are taken in by an Aunt. Unable to reconcile with her new life, May goes on a journey to first find her white father and then, to rediscover her home country on Wiradjuri land. Winch’s language is extraordinarily beautiful and you can’t help but feel intimately for May as she traverses the landscape of this novel.


5. The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

Set during the 1950s in a Sydney department store called Goode’s (that could well be David Jones), The Women in Black traces the lives of the women who work in the Ladies’ Frock Department. With the Christmas rush and the summer sales that follow, the women in black are run off their feet. With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St John conjures a vanished summer of innocence.


6. Affection: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Intimacy by Krissy Kneen

Krissy Kneen was raised by a very protective, quite eccentric family who avoided any mention of sexuality: perhaps it was no coincidence that she became obsessed by the very idea of sex. After leaving home she plunged into a world of voracious exploration, revelling in any variation of sex play she could find. Affection is the story of a life shaped by overwhelming appetite, and of a woman coming to know how it works.


7. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Indentured by his bootlegger mother to a famous horse thief, Ned saw his first prison cell at 15 and by the age of 26 had become the most wanted man in the wild colony of Victoria. In True History of the Kelly Gang, the legendary outlaw speaks for himself, scribbling his narrative on errant scraps of paper in semi-literate but magically descriptive prose as he flees from the police. While the times may be different, the sentiment of Kelly’s words is as powerful as ever – evoking a desire to escape that many will find familiar.


8. The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter

Dorothy Porter holds you in her grip from the very first line to the final haunting pages of this crime thriller/erotic mystery in verse where PI Jill Fitzpatrick gets a little too personally involved in a missing person’s case. Porter was a striking figure in the Australian literary scene, much-loved for both her addictive, fast-paced verse and her generosity toward other poets, especially young and emerging ones. If you’re new to reading poetry for pleasure, this is a great title to get you started.


9. Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung

At 20-something, Alice is eager for the milestones of adulthood: leaving home, choosing a career, and finding friendship and love on her own terms. But with each step she takes she feels the sharp tug of invisible threads: the love and worry of her parents, who want more than anything to keep her from harm. When she digs further into her father’s story, Alice embarks on a journey of painful discovery. This moving and tender memoir reveals a daughter discovering her father as though for the first time.


10. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

This book is for anyone who’s been in a passionate, painful relationship, or who’s interested in the tension between desire and family, between anarchy and social order. Helen Garner’s evocation of inner-suburban Melbourne in the 1970s reveals a world of communal living, drugs, music and love. Nora falls in love with Javo the junkie, and together they try to make sense of their lives and the choices they have made. But caught in an increasingly ambiguous relationship, they are unable to let go – the harder they pull away from each other, the tighter the monkey grip.


11. A Lifetime on Clouds by Gerald Murnane

Adrian Sherd is a teenage boy in Melbourne of the 1950s – the last years before television and the family car changed suburbia forever. Earnest and isolated, tormented by his hormones and his religious devotion, Adrian dreams of elaborate orgies with American film stars, and of marrying his sweetheart and fathering 11 children by her. A Lifetime on Clouds is a fun and nostalgic read from one of Australia’s most important writers.


12. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

Another important Australian writer, and another excellent book about family life, The Man Who Loved Children is set in Washington during the 1930s. Sam and Henny Pollit are a warring husband and wife and their tempestuous marriage lies at the centre of Christina Stead’s satirical and brilliantly observed novel about the relations between husbands and wives, and parents and children. Within this psychological battleground, our 14-year old heroine, Louisa, must attempt to make a life of her own.


13. Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

Fleeing from her small-town family and her stifling marriage, Nora Porteous arrives in London where she creates a new life for herself as a successful dressmaker. Many years later she returns to Queensland, now an elderly woman, intending to settle into her childhood home. But Nora has been away a long time, and the people and events of her past are not at all like she remembered them. This novel proves the adage: ‘You can never go home again’.


14. Night Games by Anna Krien

Sitting effortlessly beside other great works of contemporary first-person narrative journalism, Anna Krien’s Night Games follows the rape trial of a young footballer in Melbourne, unpacking issues of sex, power and consent prevalent in our culture. A thrillingly addictive read and a deeply important book to read as a young person, Krien puts into words the questions we need to be asking ourselves.


15. Candy by Luke Davies

Candy is a love story. From the heady narcissism of the narrator’s first days with his new lover, Candy, and the relative innocence of their shared habit, Luke Davies’s novel charts their decline. This is not just another junkie novel – Davies is a very fine writer and his prose is confronting, painful and, at times, darkly hilarious.


16. The Family Law by Benjamin Law

Meet the Law family – eccentric, endearing and hard to resist. Your guide: Benjamin, the third of five children and a born humorist. Join him as he tries to answer some puzzling questions: why won’t his Chinese dad wear made-in-China underpants? Why was most of his extended family deported in the 1980s? Will his childhood dreams of Home and Away stardom come to nothing? Very, very funny, Law’s stories will prompt you to remember your own awkward childhood which thankfully, you never have to relive.


17. Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett

On the verge of her fourteenth birthday, Plum knows her life will change. But she has no idea how. Over the coming weeks, her beautiful neighbour Maureen will show her how she might fly. Her adored older brothers will court catastrophe in worlds that she barely knows exist. And her friends – her worst enemies – will tease and test, smelling weakness. One of the best books – we believe – ever written about the adolescent experience and bullying.


18. It’s Raining in Mango by Thea Astley

Wresting his family from the easy living of nineteenth-century Sydney, Cornelius Laffey takes them to northern Queensland where thousands of hopefuls are digging for gold in the mud. Here, they confront the horror of Aboriginal dispossession, and Cornelius is sacked for reporting the slaughter. One of our booksellers wrote on this title for our ‘What I Loved’ column – you can read her thoughts here.


19. He Died with a Felafel in His Hand by John Birmingham

John Birmingham has lived with 89 people and kept notes on all of them. This is their story. This definitive account of share house living in the 90s, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand is outrageous and hilarious – and will probably make you thankful for your own house mates whose most annoying habits now seem meagre.


20. The Turning by Tim Winton

Set in the brooding small-town world of coastal Western Australia, these 17 overlapping stories explore sentimentality, regret, companionship and drugs. In this collection, Tim Winton’s characters shift through time; sometimes we see them as teenagers living their stories first-hand, and other times we meet them again at a later juncture, looking back at these same experiences. The format makes for compelling reading.

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Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport

Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport

Anna Krien

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