CategoryThe Reading List

This reading list is a contribution to the sharing of books. All sorts of books make their way to my bedside table. Some are sent, some recommended, some given as gifts or lent by someone who has enjoyed reading them.

Others (let’s be frank – many) I see on a bookstore shelf, find irresistible and bring home. A few of these become family members who may not leave my bookshelf, but can be read by guests who stay. Some wander on to other homes and hearts.

If you have books you’d like to talk about contact me via the web contact form.

Rick Held – Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem

Hachette, Australia, 2020

Perhaps it is a sense that we must not lose the stories of the survivors of the Holocaust that has prompted writers and publishers to bring out a new wave of WW 11 novels in 2020. Indeed, the generation of our elders who lived from the time of the first world war and through the twentieth century are dying and many of them have already taken their stories with them.

There are some readers who ask what else there is to tell about this horrific history of Nazism in the 20th century – I am not one of these. I believe all of these stories need to be heard, respected and received as a salutary lesson – genocide and racial hatred, the power of privilege to cause pain and suffering,  the capacity of those in political power to make unworthy and disastrous decisions, do not seem in short supply, as we make our way through the twenty first century. 

Barbie speaks with Rick Held about Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem
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Lauren Chater – Gulliver’s Wife

Simon & Schuster, Australia, 2020

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With this, her second novel, Lauren Chater cements her reputation, so deservedly won with The Lace Weaver, as a fine storyteller and a mistress of atmospherics.

The notion of a fiction arising from a fiction is an interesting one. Lauren Chater has crafted her story with inspiration from Jonathan Swift’s 18th century  tale, Gulliver’s Travels, first published as a prose satire: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon , and then a Captain of Several Ships.

Barbie talks to Lauren Chater about Gulliver’s Wife
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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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Mick Elliott – Squidge Dibley Destroys Everything

A Lothian book published by Hachette, Australia and NZ, 2020

This is a graphic novel for children which speaks with a loud clear voice about the importance of embracing, nay revelling in, difference.  It also celebrates the capacity of children to problem solve and to work co-operatively and creatively to do so.

Such a work could be po-faced, but this glorious fantastical story will delight children and adults with its clever humour and zany evil-fighting plot.

Mick Elliott talks about Squidge Dibley Destroys Everything
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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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Shamini Flint – Inspector Singh investigates A Curious Indian Cadaver

Piatkus, Great Britain, 2012
Book 5 in the Inspector Singh Investigates series

Inspector Singh is on medical leave after an incident at the end of the Cambodian investigation, on which I will not elaborate to avoid spoiling your read if you haven’t yet got to it. It is probably due to the boredom of staying at home that he relents and allows Mrs Singh to cajole him into attending a family wedding in Mumbai.

Predictably the social event turns into a disappearance and murder investigation, making it much more fun for the canny inspector. As in all of the books in this series, while we are engrossed in the crime solving, there are many more issues to consider.

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Suzanne Barton and Shannon Horsfall – My Unicorn farts Glitter

Hachette, Australia and NZ, 2020

This rather charming little picture book is just what we need right now. Whilst it may seem at first to be just another jump onto the unicorn bandwagon, this book actually comes with an endearing and important message about the importance of sibling love.

There is just enough icky in it to satisfy young readers/listeners. The artwork is simple and colourful – good for reading to a group and in these days of social distancing probably will come up quite well via Zoom or Skype or other such group online meeting places.

After all, we all need someone in our lives who will share the last bite of his or her icecream cone – post-COVID-19 of course.

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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Sulari Gentill – A Testament of Character

Pantera Press, Australia, 2020

Sulari Gentill’s work is often reviewed as an easy read. Indeed the Rowland Sinclair series are highly readable, compelling works – we can hardly read fast enough to take in the words.

This facility is not easy to achieve. It is a mark of Sulari’s literary prowess that she can spin us through the intricacies of her plots, engage our emotions with her now almost familial main characters and their supporting casts, and subtly instruct us in the fascinating details of the period of history in which the stories sit.

Barbie speaks with Sulari Gentill about A Testament of Character
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