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Fiona Harris and Mike McLeish – The Drop-off

Echo Publishing (an imprint of Bonnier), Australia, 2020

One of the great things about this book is its relatability. Almost everyone who reads this book will find something that will make them say,’Yep, that’s me.’ Who hasn’t, for example, in a period of respite from work taken to cleaning out the bathroom cupboards, finding boxes of long out of date bum creams?

The Drop-off centres on the separate and entangled lives of three people who find one another at the school drop off, united by their non-involvement with the in-groups at school and their desire to remain so.

Barbie speaks to Fiona Harris about The Drop-off
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Suzanne Leal – The Deceptions

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2020 

This is Suzanne Leal’s third novel. Like her earlier work, Border Street, it is inspired by her long and dear friendship with Fred and Eva Perger, both Czech Jews, both Holocaust survivors.

While Border Street takes its cues from Fred’s story, The Deceptions draws on Eva’s experiences from 1943 Prague in the Theresienstadt Ghetto to the April 1945 British liberation of Bergen-Belsen, via Auschwitz, Kurzbach and Gross-Rosen, as the Nazi forces retreated and transported train loads of Jews in horrific conditions to hellish camps. And this story is indeed horrific because it is true, inexplicably true in our memory and the stories we have from our parents and grandparents.

Barbie talks to Suzanne Leal about The Deceptions
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Erica Bauermeister – House Lessons/Renovating a Life

Sasquatch Books, Seattle, USA, 2020
Illustrations by Elizabeth Person

I will not for a moment pretend to be an impartial reviewer of Erica Bauermeister’s work. Since reading her first novel, The School of Essential Ingredients (Harper Collins, 2009), I have been a rusted-on fan, eagerly awaiting the next story as soon as I have finished the current.

House Lessons is a memoir, slightly fictionalised – the story of the finding, purchase and renovation of a run-down house in Port Townsend, that was eventually to become home for Erica Bauermeister. The house renovation, as indicated by the sub-title, is a metaphor for the more personal renovation of her life, the one by one epiphanies about relationships, self and place.

It is exquisite.

Barbie talks to Erica Bauermeister about House Lessons
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Katherine Kovacic – The Shifting Landscape

Echo Publishing, Australia, 2020

In this, the third in the Alex Clayton art mystery series, Katherine Kovacic brings us a tale of dispossession, a weighty national theme that underpins and is mirrored in the crime story of this book.

It is a story of power and greed. It is this gravitas of the story of connection to land on a macro scale that makes the book particularly wonderful, elevating it to much, much more than a contemporary rural crime novel. The theme is then powerfully repeated in its underlayers.

Barbie speaks with Katherine Kovacic about The Shifting Landscape
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First-time authors in running for youth literary awards

Children’s Book Council of Australia 2020 shortlist announced

The Children’s Book Council of Australia is a not-for-profit, volunteer-run organisation whose mission is to promote and advocate for the sharing of quality literature for young people across Australia. It showcases Australian creators and collaborates widely to foster a love of reading.

Barbie speaks with Professor Margot Hillel OAM about the awards
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Valerie Albrecht – Thirty Days

Self-published, 2020

I have taken a different approach to writing about Valerie Albrecht’s beautiful book about grieving. The launch of this book came just before the cancellations and closures of many things due to the COIVD-19 pandemic.

It was to be launched by natural death advocate and artist Vickie Hingston-Jones. Vickie is also President of the Artists Society of Canberra. Sadly, Vickie was unwell on the occasion of the launch, but she has kindly consented to the reproduction of her opening address.

Valerie Albrecht talks to Barbie about Thirty Days
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Natasha Lester – The Paris Secret

Hachette, Australia, 2020

In some ways this book concerns itself with the same central issue as The French Photographer – the efforts of women to be recognised in traditionally male preserves in the mid-20th century.

Natasha Lester also continues her interest in the second World War, its victories and atrocities, writing with intensely sensitive touch on the horrors of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, the work of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and the French Resistance.

Natasha Lester talks to Barbie about The Paris Secret
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Shamini Flint – Inspector Singh investigates A Calamitous Chinese Killing

Piatkus, Great Britain, 2013
Book 6 in the Inspector Singh Investigates series

This brings me to the end of the Inspector Singh series, as I started at the most recent (A Frightfully English Execution) before acquiring the rest of the books and then reading in order.

The story begins with reference to the ethnic divide in Singapore (Chinese, Malay, Indian). As is her wont, Mrs Singh has a view and is not backward at expressing it, condemning cheap Chinese goods and China Girls (‘Up to no good until proven otherwise!’) with equal vehemence. We pass quickly into the ‘dark matter’ of the imprisonment of Chinese intellectuals, the suppression of dissenting views, the disappearance of the discontented and rebellious.

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Felicity Volk – Desire Lines

Hachette, Australia, 2020

This exquisitely crafted work is Felicity Volk’s second novel. At its simplest level it is the story of a long love between two people so necessary to one another that time does not diminish its potency.

However, there is nothing simple about this deeply metaphorical novel which explores, at both a macro and a universal level, truth and lies, justice and injustice, the national conscience, love and loss, shared and divided histories and the matter of place and displacement. Hanging weightily over it all is the question of the survival of the world and its plant species – present in the act of Evie’s delivery of seeds to the international seed vault in Norway.

Barbie speaks to Felicity Volk about Desire Lines
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Pamela Watson – Gibbous Moon over Lagos

Hardie Grant, Australia, 2020  

Pamela Watson’s thirst for adventure was first documented in her account of her solo bicycle trip across Africa in the nineties. In Gibbous Moon over Lagos she writes of her experiences as an entrepreneur setting up both a social enterprise (Ekologika paper making company) and a for-profit business Strategyworks in Lagos, Nigeria, living and working there from 2004 to 2009.

While to some this may seem a foolhardy venture, it is Pamela Watson’s optimism and pluck that shine out of this interesting account of the vicissitudes of working in a fast-growing economy in a huge African city (21.32 million in 2015).

Pamela Watson talks to Barbie about Gibbous Moon Over Lagos

With humour and self-deprecation the author  shares her various successes and challenges – corruption at all levels, staff issues, the difficulties of a long distance  personal relationship, lack of political leadership, lack of interest at diplomatic level from Australia, personal safety, reliability of fuel and power and  navigating cross-cultural attitudinal differences.

This is a detailed account but one which whips along at the pace of life Pamela Watson so enjoyed in Lagos. There are constant problems to be solved and a large cast of characters (names changed and usually a mélange of people from the real world) to get our heads around. We do feel very present in this work as Pamela speaks honestly and openly about her ‘mistakes’. She see the whole experience as an opportunity for learning and growth and as readers we are very much plumping for her as she faces one catastrophe after another whilst maintaining her ethics and faith in the human beings she is working with – even in the face of damning evidence.

It is a philosophical Pamela Watson we see at story’s end. We are conscious too that it is a continuing story for her. Her connection with and love for Africa and the possibilities it holds for the disadvantaged in the population are unscathed by her experiences of disappointment and betrayal. She continues to see people as ‘just people’, everywhere facing the same demons, everywhere showing the same capacity for camaraderie or for duplicity.

The African proverbs with which she starts each chapter are startlingly apposite at a time when her own book tour was cancelled due to COVID-19. I like this one:

However long the night, the dawn will break. (page 151)

And equally in her case:

Where a woman rules, streams run uphill. (page 163)

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Dervla McTiernan – The Rúin

Harper Collins Publishers, Australia, 2018

This is the first of now three Cormac Reilly crime novels, the latest having just been released in March 2020 and currently being toured nationally by its. I have come late to Dervla’s work it seems but am immediately a fan. The other two await in my book basket.

The Rúin is a story that spans two decades, and it can aptly be described by the much over-used word ‘gripping’. A murky tale of child abuse and its long tendrils runs as the underplot to the 2013 murder/suicide story, connected by Jack and Maude, with whom Cormac comes into contact in 1993 when he is a junior cop in Mayo.

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Genevieve Gannon – The Mothers

Allen & Unwin, 2020

Ostensibly the story of an IVF mix-up, The Mothers is the story of three women in search of family and identity. The expectations and demands of a society based on family units affects them all and to some extent leads to some aberrant and essentially out of character behaviour.

Grace and her husband Dan have had six unsuccessful attempts at IVF and their lives are totally enveloped in the desire for a pregnancy and live birth. Priya and her husband Nick are attending the same fertility clinic and are also struggling to achieve a successful outcome. At the same time, they have problems with their marriage which come to a head, causing them to separate. Ashley Li is a young doctor at the fertility clinic, deeply committed to her patients, living without having known her father and now  in a relationship with her (older) boss.

Barbie speaks with Genevieve Gannon about The Mothers
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Kerri Turner – The Daughter of Victory Lights

HQ Fiction Australia, 2020 (an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers Australia)

This is Kerri Turner’s second historical fiction novel. It is set between 1942 and 1963 in Britain and is very much the story of the restrictions and freedoms society placed, and to some extent continues to place, on women.

The impacts of war and other forms of violence are explored at a macro level – we interest ourselves in the personal stories of the men and women in this novel and the wounds they carry from what they have seen, done and had done to them, as well as their capacity for re-invention and courage.

Barbie speaks with Kerri Turner about The Daughter of Victory Lights
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Shamini Flint – Inspector Singh investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree

The fourth of the Inspector Singh investigates stories
Piatkus 2011

One of the great strengths of Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series is her capacity to take us to very dark places in society and history whilst at the same time engaging us in a work of contemporary crime fiction with her delicious humour and lithe story-telling prowess.

Who would think that the killing fields of Cambodia would allow this? And yet this book delivers both an exploration of this hideous history and a story of the personal impacts and long tendrils of this history, wrapped in the highly readable and absorbing tale of Singh’s murder investigation – again he goes off-road from his original assignment to be an observer at an international war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh.

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2020 Australian Plants as Bonsai Exhibition

Crosbie Morrison Building, Australian National Botanic Gardens
9:30am – 4:30pm on Saturday 29 February 2020
9:30am – 4:00pm Sunday 1 March 2020

Coinciding with the ANBG’s 50th Anniversary in 2020, the exhibition will be a display of over 50 bonsai, suiseki and related items created by Canberra and visiting interstate artists.

Barbie spoke to Jennifer Motlee about the 2020 Australian Plants as Bonsai exhibition
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