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Readers at CBD gem Kinokuniya
Photograph: Nikki MalavarReaders at CBD gem Kinokuniya

12 of the best books about Sydney

We asked the staff at some of Sydney's best indie bookstores to share their favourite reads about our glorious city

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

At the best of times, reading is one of the greatest ways to feed your head and heart. Now that we're all in lockdown, those transporting page-turners become one of our best lifelines to the world outside.

While we wait to unlock and explore the highlights of Sydney in person once more, we can still see her sights and hear her voices by diving headlong into a good book. To that end, we spoke to the teams at some of our favourite independent bookstores around the city and asked them to share their favourite Sydney-centric reads.

Does your favourite book make the list? If it's missing, let us know, and clue us up why you love it.

RECOMMENDED: The Sydney bookshops that offer delivery.

The best books about Sydney

James Ross, events manager at Glebe favourite Gleebooks rates hot tip Vivian Pham’s The Coconut Children. Set in '90s Cabramatta, it sees dreamer Sonny Vuong struggle to readjust as her childhood best friend Vincent Tran resurfaces after two years banged up in juvie. "It's definitely the hot new Sydney-based novel at the moment, and rightfully so." 

Emma Cooper at Newtown’s Better Read Than Dead said she adored Gerii Pleitez’ On the Sunday She Created God. “Before I read it, I’d been leafing through its pages in the bookstore for weeks, finding all kinds of hilarious, transgressive and gorgeous sentences. It’s partly set in Surry Hills’ notorious artist warehouse Hibernian House, and it’s seething mad, filthy, anarchic and perfect. The story went places I didn’t expect and was fearless and visceral in its content. Even though it’s small (novella-size), every sentence is beautiful, hard-hitting and exactly where it should be.”


Marianne Ramsay and Helene Byfield at CBD highlight Kinokuniya Sydney, which specialises in a huge range of Asian-language titles, loved The Harbour, by Scott Bevan. “It takes us on a meditative journey around Sydney Harbour from cove-to-cove, by kayak, yacht and barge to gather past and present stories from boat builders, ship captains and fishermen, to artists, divers, historians and environmentalists.”

Sheree Strange, a bookseller at Glebe's Sappho Books, says Christina Stead’s 1934 novel Seven Poor Men of Sydney is an Australian fiction classic with good reason. "It was remarkably ambitious in its time, which is perhaps why it has endured. Stead depicted the lives of the seven titular men in a way that no other Australian writer had sought to do before: unabashedly excavating their hopeless aspirations and determined pragmatism, crystallising many of the prominent views and prospects of the time. The throbbing pulse of Sydney’s arterial lines comes to life on the page, and Stead’s work continues to delight each new generation of Australian readers."


Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned co-owner of Avalon Beach bookstore Bookoccino says customers can't get enough of Phosphorescence, the new book from The Drum host Julia Baird, who lives in nearby by Manly. "A memoir of startling beauty about the light to be found in personal or global darkness, only a few days after we got our first copies in it had already sold out."

Literature specialist Jack over at Gleebooks said that he and his colleagues have a soft spot for late crime writer Peter Corris, who wrote about Glebe's well-beaten streets with authority, penning 40+ books about private investigator Cliff Hardy See You at the Toxteth collects several short stories.  “Corris essentially is Sydney crime noir, so his collection of hard-boiled short stories are both genre classics and a time capsule of our suburb.”


Graeme Aitken at LGBTIQ+ fave The Bookshop Darlinghurst picked Fighting for our Lives: The history of a community response to AIDS by Nick Cook. “It tells the story of the HIV/AIDS crisis in NSW mainly from the 1980s to the 2000s and in particular highlights the very important work that ACON (AIDS Council of NSW) accomplished. Although you might think this is the last book you’d want to pick up at this time, it’s an absolutely absorbing read and the author has made a potentially unappealing subject into something extremely moving. It’s a very important history, but also a book for our times.”

Riffing off the immortal Kenneth Slessor poem, Five Bells by Gail Jones shows the reader Sydney in all of its glory and grottiness, says Sheree Strange at Sappho Books. "In the style of Mrs Dalloway, it follows the lives of four characters across a single day. Each of them has their own reasons for being in this city, their own secrets and grievances. All of them end up in Circular Quay, where their worlds collide and their stories unfold in unexpected ways. Five Bells is a must-read for any visitor to our city, as well as any long-time resident wanting to see it through new eyes."


Raymond Bonner at Avalon Beach hero Bookoccino says he's looking forward to The Night of Letters, the new novel from local writer Denise Leith, who lives in nearby Bilgola, but cannot recommend her debut What Remains enough in the meantime. "It's a riveting story about the life of Kate Price, a female war correspondent covering everything from Rwanda to Chechyna," he says. "You don’t have to have been a foreign correspondent, as I was for many years, to appreciate this tour de force, which is also a great love story.’

Local author Denise Leith is a regular at Avalon Beach hotspot Bookoccino and loves internationally-acclaimed author Michael Robotham, who also lives just around the corner. She wrote of his latest offering Good Girl, Bad Girl that it was a,  "brilliantly unnerving psychological thriller," for Bookoccino’s Summer Reading Guide. 


Marianne Ramsay and Helene Byfield, booksellers at CBD stalwart Kinokuniya Sydney, love Mirror Sydney: An Atlas of Reflections by Vanessa Berry. “It charts an alternative view of our city, taking us from hidden tunnels to theme parks old and new, to examples of faded signs and murals. This enigmatic collection of essays and hand-drawn maps takes us across both space and time and is a fantastic way to experience a Sydney you never knew.”

Sheree at Sappho Books also recommends No More Boats, which is set in 2001 during the Tampa crisis that would become a critical moment in Australia’s history and immigration policy. "Antonio is a migrant man living in Parramatta, forced into early retirement after a workplace accident and his life unravels as the Tampa crisis intensifies. This is an eerily realistic work of historical fiction, but 'history' so recent it echoes in the reader’s own memory. It also serves as a searing commentary of our continuing collective cognitive dissonance regarding those who seek refuge on our shores."

Looking for something with a bit more KAPOW!?


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