March Reading 2023: Richard Fidler and baggage. Observation notes 115-116 and Reading Note 62

Being in the thick of Autumn Semester plummeted my recreational reading to a dismally low seven books (though during lockdown years, this would have been quite the achievement) across the month of March. This thick of it includes making time today to write this post despite having nearly 200 assessment submissions waiting for me to mark. So I will be quick!

Observation note 115: Moral to the story is “do not read books when you are overwhelmingly busy”. Of the seven books, I rated none of them above a 3.5/5 stars. At best, I was only partially engaged, and at worst, I was bored and annoyed. So why did I even bother to read the books? Well…they were all library reservations which I had waited for months upon months for them to arrive. They had all been on my TBR for a long time, and some of them I had deferred from borrowing several times, so I gave up and just borrowed them at a bad time instead. I realise this is due to my own reading baggage*. Despite knowing I was strapped for time, I persisted where I probably should not have. I think that I did most of the books a disservice. I hope to post about some of them in the next week or so (after marking has been completed). I have drafted notes for the other books I read in March but I will only discuss one in this post.

Reading Note 62: Richard Fidler’s The Book of Roads and Kingdoms.

Cover: A mosaic like design in orange, blues and greens.

The blurb: A lost imperial city, full of wonder and marvels. An empire that was the largest the world had ever seen, established with astonishing speed. A people obsessed with travel, knowledge and adventure.

When Richard Fidler came across the account of Ibn Fadlan – a tenth-century Arab diplomat who travelled all the way from Baghdad to the cold riverlands of modern-day Russia – he was struck by how modern his voice was, like that of a twenty-first century time-traveller dropped into a medieval wilderness. On further investigation, Fidler discovered this was just one of countless reports from Arab and Persian travellers of their adventures in medieval China, India, Africa and Byzantium. Put together, he saw these stories formed a crazy quilt picture of a lost world.

The Book of Roads & Kingdoms is the story of the medieval wanderers who travelled out to the edges of the known world during Islam’s fabled Golden Age; an era when the caliphs of Baghdad presided over a dominion greater than the Roman Empire at its peak, stretching from North Africa to India. Imperial Baghdad, founded as the ‘City of Peace’, quickly became the biggest and richest metropolis in the world. Standing atop one of the city’s four gates, its founder proclaimed: Here is the Tigris River, and nothing stands between it and China.

In a flourishing culture of science, literature and philosophy, the citizens of Baghdad were fascinated by the world and everything in it. Inspired by their Prophet’s commandment to seek knowledge all over the world, these traders, diplomats, soldiers and scientists left behind the cosmopolitan pleasures of Baghdad to venture by camel, horse and boat into the unknown. Those who returned from these distant foreign lands wrote accounts of their adventures, both realistic and fantastical – tales of wonder and horror and delight.

Fidler expertly weaves together these beautiful and thrilling pictures of a dazzling lost world with the story of an empire’s rise and utterly devastating fall.

Way back in the Before Times, I named Fidler’s Ghost Empire (Reading Note 10) not only as my favourite book of 2019 but in my Top 10 books of all time. Richard Fidler is a radio presenter on the Australian public broadcaster ABC where he conducts these sublime hour-long interviews with relatively unknown but incredible people (on the rare occasion he will interview someone famous but only if they are amazing like his interview with Angela Lansbury). A few weeks earlier, a friend of mine asked me who would I invite to my ideal dinner party and Fidler was on my very short list. So when I heard that he would be the first author at my local (and reknowned) bowling club’s new monthly book group (interview with an author), I grabbed my friend Monica and I was there with bells on!

Continue reading

Allyn from Bookgroup is Sharing the Shallows

In only the way that the temporal ground-rush that is Christmas can do, I have missed posting my friend Allyn’s shallows twice! So though belated, I introduce to you another of my fabulous bookgroup members. Allyn is always seen with a well-thumbed, doorstopper of a book in hand, wherever he goes. Even though we don’t see him anywhere near as often as we used to, we still enjoy his occasional attendances and his messages back to the group through his proxies. And I have to say that every library staff member across the world would also attest to the same “saddest task”. It slays us and it is something that no-one ever prepares you for in library school. It slays me even more that Allyn had to do this to romance novels *sob*

A room full of books with the side of Allyn's face in the corner of the photographAllyn

Can you describe yourself?

Forty-something who wants to stay thirty something. Grew up with a mother and a grandmother who were voracious readers.

IT consultant/contractor, currently stay-at-home father of two very energetic children.

What is your main reading medium (books, blogs, games, news, etc) and how much time do you spend reading a week?

A tie between news and blogs, and books. Somewhere between one and two hours a day, so about 10 hours a week, mainly because I fall asleep before I get a chance to read to much at night ..our children like dinner around 5 in the evening, and by the time they are asleep, I can barely manage to brush my teeth, let alone get lost in a book. Continue reading

Kit only from Bookgroup is Sharing the Shallows

It is the second Saturday of the month, and once again, a member of my bookgroup is sharing today’s shallows. I met Kit when our bookgroup started over 16 years ago. Always funny, always foodie and always insightful. Like me she is the only other bookgroup member who would bring her son along to our meetings from a young age. Our bookgroup topic today was “crafty” and Kit won the most-tenuous-link-to-the-topic award with her book on the gut. A-ha. That’s the way she rolls.


I am a mother, a carer and sometime banker, originally from Melbourne, but diehard inner westie (Sydney). I live a very vanilla life with lots of irregular influences.

What is your main reading medium (books, blogs, games, news, etc) and how much time do you spend reading a week?

I’m ashamed to say facebook but with links to loads of good news sites and a really interesting friends group who post articles and thoughts I would never see otherwise. I also have several books next to my bed that get read sporadically.

What or who is your joyful reading (guilty or otherwise) pleasureKerry Greenwood's Devil's Food

Kerry Greenwood – Corinna not that 20s bird or Kurt Vonnegut

Do you have a favourite storyline or plot? And do you have one you will not read?

Unhappy endings or not the way you think its going to go. Pretty much happy to read anything but am using the patented Vassiliki method of reading the first chapter and if it hasn’t grabbed me, give up. I do struggle with “the classics” but keep revisiting them in case I’ve got grown up enough to enjoy them.

Why do you/don’t you use a public library?

We used to go when Ben was little but I think I was trying to be a “good” mum. Once I went back to work that pretty much went by the wayside. I think we were fortunate to be able to buy loads of books so did that instead.

Do you RUI*. If so, what?

Not really, my only vice really is alcohol and then my eyes get too fuzzy.

Do you have a favourite reading spot?

My new wiz bang office chair with all the levers or bed, occasional weekend magazine in the bath slightly soused (the magazine not me, keep up people!)

Toilet reading: 

Yep, but usually only magazines or Sudoku, occasionally phone. I don’t really see why this is an issue, long got over the bodily functions hysteria.

Romance fiction of the Happily Ever After (not the love tragedy) kind – are you a Lover or a Hater and why?

Sorry Vassiliki but ew, I guess I was lucky enough to have this IRL so made me want to puke in books, also couldn’t stand the predictability – will they, won’t they, well of course they will.

What would you give up reading for**?

Oh geez, daughter of a book editor and publisher, don’t think I could – new ideas, hilarious jokes, bits of the world you would never see, how could you give that up. Even if I was blind I’d get talky books.

Gene Kelly dancing wearing white socks and black shoes


Can a romance/crime/super/etc hero be the driver of a hatchback?

Sure as long as they don’t wear white socks with dark pants

*Reading Under the Influence

**I like stranded prepositions


Fiona from Bookgroup is Sharing the Shallows

As it is the second Saturday of the month, a member of my bookgroup is sharing today’s shallows. Fiona and I met at bookgroup, and at first, that was our only contact – she was this lovely woman who would talk about women in politics in her reading choices. This kinda intimidated me as she seemed so über intelligent to me as politics is not my forté but I also learnt that she did English Folk dancing, with all those flowers and bells so at the same time, I was not intimidated but just thrilled that someone I knew personally could do the steps I read about in E.J. Oxenham’s Abbey books. Then, several years into knowing each other, Fiona invited me to join her to see a show at the Sydney Opera House. This was the first time we did anything at all together outside of bookgroup. I don’t remember what or who we went to see – but I do recall our dinner conversation beforehand and I always think that it cemented our friendship. Our theme for today’s bookgroup was Friends and I love that Fiona brought a friend along, rather than a bringing along a book that she had read. An excellent contribution!

Fifiramous lying on her side with her bookcase in the backgroup piled horizontally and vertically

Fiona from Bookgroup

Tweets @fifiramous

Can you describe yourself?

Fiona is a bit of a wannabe girly swot, who has a healthy capacity to be distracted by conversation (doesn’t need to be deep, but meaningful is good), food and singing – all improved with good company.

She works in higher ed management, and has a study addiction that she is hoping to kick in the next 12/18 months.

She is pictured here with one of her bookshelves at home. When she was a librarian at school, she managed to keep shelves more tidy. Continue reading

Kevin is Sharing the Shallows

Kevin from my bookgroup is sharing the shallows today. Kevin has been in my bookgroup for the best part of the past two decades. Kevin keeps track of all our topics, he emails us to remind us that our second Saturday is upon us and in general, is our most organised member. Kevin also is our music guy. Occasionally, if one of our topics really inspires him, Kevin will bring along his guitar and he sings music that he has either written or that he thinks suits the bookgroup vibe.

A photograph of Kevin smilingKevin

Can you describe yourself:

A Canadian who has lived in Sydney for over 25 years, I’m a former marketing executive/consultant but now retired with music as a serious hobby which leaves some time to hang out with friends at my local cafe. I have always loved reading – my parents and my siblings have all been avid readers. Most of my friends read. My partner reads. It’s in the genes I think.

What is your main reading medium (books, blogs, games, news, etc) and how much time do you spend reading a week?

I’d say the weekend papers (SMH and AFR), some online news sites, emails and books. I used to read quite a few magazines but when the pile of unread magazines became fortress like, I had to stop the subscriptions. I probably spend 10-15 hours a week reading, maybe more. I think we need “readbit” glasses that capture how often we read and what we read – imagine getting graphs at the end of the week!

Life by Keith RichardsWhat or who is your joyful reading (guilty or otherwise) pleasure? 

I have a growing collection of music related books and magazines: biographies/autobiographies/memoirs, essays and analysis, lyrics and music, a rhyming dictionary and music magazines (ranging from fan like to music production). But definitely not guilty. Currently reading Life by Keith Richards. I managed, in our theme based book club, to have music as part of my contribution each month over one year and still usually weave it in quite regularly. It’s in the blood.

Do you have a favourite storyline or plot? And do you have one you will not read?

In fiction, I like quirky (think Italo Calvino) and great use of language. Not so big on romance. But when I look at my various book shelves (and I have a few), my books cover quite a range of fiction and non fiction such as art and photographic books, cookbooks, Canadian, literary fiction, Australian, mysteries, almost a full shelf of humour (including The Far Side), philosophy, personal development, a shelf of financial/investment/trading and much more – I like variety.

Far SideWhy do you/don’t you use a public library?

Used to but not so much now. I have also slowed down in buying books so I can get through those that I have. But I do love books shops.

Do you RUI*. If so, what?

Don’t think so. Never woke up with a headache and a book in hand. Though Charles Bukowski has some great poems about drinking and writing poetry.

Do you have a favourite reading spot?

Newspapers at the kitchen table and books in bed.

Toilet reading:

Never have, never will!

Romance fiction of the Happily Ever After (not the love tragedy) kind – are you a Lover or a Hater and why?

Well, I have read some – I was helping to sell them when I worked in marketing for Harlequin Mills and Boon. I never really got into them though I have read some that Vassiliki has passed on and I did enjoy them.

What would you give up reading for**?

I can’t imagine giving up reading unless my eyesight gave way…and then I would take up audio books.

Can a romance/crime/super/etc hero be the driver of a hatchback?

I’m not sure the new super hero series, Hatchbackman, is going to really take off but sure, detectives, romance or other heroes can drive them – why not?

Note: The irony of  post is that neither Kevin nor I are attending Bookgroup today. This will do in absentia 🙂


Stormy Sunday is Sharing the Shallows

Stormy Sunday/Kiriaki/Kiri and I are κουμπαρες, fellow bookgroup buddies, loud-mouthed plotters and schemers, I am her daughter’s godmother and we are long-time friends who argue and laugh and sup at each others’ tables. I can’t remember when I first met her. She hovered on the fringes of my primary school life, my Greek school classes, occasional apperances at Sunday School, and in and around our beloved ‘burb – she was there, lurker and talker (she would say that she was too shy to talk but I remember talking, dammit). We went to different high schools and did not see each other again until our late teens when I saw her at one of my best-friend’s homes. That is when we really started talking and talking and talking and talking. We went to church youth group together and the two of us would constantly challenge the priest’s lessons. Aahhhh – poor Father Leslie was like deer caught in the headlights with us. One day he asked us to simplify whatever it was that the two of us were arguing for. We stated that complex ideas needed to be understood in their entirity and that we would not simplify our thoughts. That was the last time we went to youth group but I think it was the moment that cemented our friendship that has been going for over thirty years. When Stormy Sunday opened her first cafe in Sydney, my husband and I bought our home in the same suburb just to be close by. I would see Kiri everyday when I would go walking with my young son. Her laughter rings out wherever she is. She is happy and chatty and always welcoming. Her cafe iterations always are successful due to her deep understanding of people’s need for connection. (her current cafe is no longer near my home, but it is an easy walk from my work). One day, two months after I had my second son, I made a visit to the cafe where Kiri greeted me and announced that I needed at least one night out a month and that she was starting a book group and that I needed to be there at the inaugural meeting. I went to the meeting and people were arguing about which high-falutin literature they would go for their first choice. I was horrified. I couldn’t bear the thought of reading the books they were suggesting. I looked across at Kiri and I think she could sense my fear. I called out that we should have a theme instead of a single book since there was such indecision. Some people grumbled, a whole lot concurred and as it was Kiri’s cafe, she made the call that it was going to be a themed bookgroup. Today, those of us that concurred (plus some more) are meeting up for our 16 year bookgroup anniversary at Stormy Sunday/Kiri and her husband’s Cafe Guilia. It is only right that Kiri gets to Share My Shallows on this rather important day. Continue reading

Elbowlass is Sharing the Shallows

I first met @Elbowlass in Kindergarten. Well our sons’ kindie to be exact. Ours was one of those slow growing friendships. One that starts as parents standing around the school playground being bored. We discovered we both love reading, we go to bookgroup together, we gripe about our sons’ (now former) school, we swap academia stories, I cry on her shoulder, she swats me and says “get a grip” and then, in her ever-so-British ways, offers me a cup of tea and somehow I fortuitously ended up with an absolutely excellent and dear-to-me friend.

Elbowlass eating fish and chips

Can you describe yourself?

I am currently employed in various jobs in the academic world. I am from Manchester in the UK originally and although I have been in Sydney for over twenty five years  I still feel like I am a stranger here in so many ways.

I am @Elbowlass because Elbow the band, are from Manchester and so am I. It’s also a crap name which I like.

Vassiliki and I have such different tastes in reading, music, films and television shows it’s brilliant and amazing that we are still friends. We have a love of cutting through bullshit and a passion for social justice and good shoes.

What is your main reading medium (books, blogs, games, news, etc) and how much time do you spend reading a week?

LumberjanesI read most nights before I go to sleep and still occasionally curl up during the day for hours if I have an unputdownable book. I read all sorts of books, graphic novels,  blogs, cartoon books, poetry, gardening books whatever takes my eye. At the weekend I  indulge in the luxury of reading The UK Guardian online which takes me ages. I also have to read everyday as part of my job. Not sure I can add up how much reading I do but it’s a lot.

Ben Aaronovitch's The Rivers of LondonWhat or who is your joyful reading (guilty or otherwise) pleasure? 

I love all kinds of books but especially  those where the author has a sense of humour or sense of fun in the way they write so Terry Pratchett, Janet Evanovich, Ben Aaronovitch. I really like fantasy/crime fiction books including steam punk novels. [My son] introduced me to the Lumber Jane series which I think is fab but sadly there are no more. I have no guilts about reading.


Janet Evanovich's One for the moneyDo you have a favourite storyline or plot? And do you have one you will not read?

No favourite story line or plot, just books that make me want to read on because of the beauty of the language, great characterisation, humour or the intrigue. Not a fan of books with gratuitous graphic violence or those hard core sci fi genre books full of ‘I know more than you do’ facts. I have never made it past the first few pages of Catch 22 couldn’t relate to it at all.

Why do you/don’t you use a public library?
I do use the public library, but did even more so when the kids were little. The new library at Dulwich Hill is lovely but doesn’t seem to have many books in it! I buy lots of secondhand books and use kindle too, especially when I am travelling.

Do you RUI*. If so, what?

Nope I don’t RUI because I would fall asleep too soon  and wouldn’t remember what I had read the next day. I enjoy the whole process of engaging in reading too much to not be fully present.

Do you have a favourite reading spot?

I love reading in bed, and on the big sofa in our lounge. In winter I adore reading in the bath with a strategically placed towel by the bath for drying my hands on before turning over a page. Never kindled in the bath though and wouldn’t recommend it.

Toilet reading: 
I don’t take reading material into the toilet when I am making use of the facilities, although I did when I was a kid. It was a sanctuary where I could be alone and wouldn’t get pestered to go out and play with the other kids. I do remember having a ring around my bum when I’d got lost in a novel. Thinking back on it I was such a twit for actually pretending I was going to the toilet and sitting there bare cheeked, I didn’t really need to do the method acting bit.

Romance fiction of the Happily Ever After (not the love tragedy) kind – are you a Lover or a Hater and why?

I have no idea how to answer this, romance maybe in the books I read but I don’t necessarily choose Romance books. Having said that I don’t  really mind what the outcome of a relationship is as long as it’s well written and convincing.

What would you give up reading for**?

Sorry I definitely can’t answer this because  I can’t imagine a life without reading. If I had no books I’d read the back of a toilet duck.

Can a romance/crime/super/etc hero be the driver of a hatchback?

Of course they can, they can have roller skates, a bicycle and wear bicycle clips or catch the bus – I am not one to judge.

Pennyfarthing illustration

*Reading Under the Influence

**I like stranded prepositions

Iwona is Sharing the Shallows

Most people who know me also know that I adore my reading group (to call us a book group would really be a stretch). We have been going for 16 years, we are a theme based group so as to cater to everyone’s reading proclivities and we all have a genuine affection for each other and all our different reading quirks. Iwona is the first of the reading group to share my shallows. Of all our group, I think Iwona and I are possibly the most diametrically opposite in our reading choices . But as with all of us, these differences fade into obscurity as the main thing is, that as bookish friends, we meet for the opportunity to talk about our reading…and our lives…and to break bread….

Iwona Chrzaszcz Iwona 


Applied Sciences

Can You Describe Yourself? 

50+ Inner West resident

Easter European background

Liberal in believes (not Liberal the party!!!!!!!) and no religion

Post graduate education in applied sciences

1 son


What is your main reading medium (books, blogs, games, news, etc) and how much time do you spend reading a week?

Ebooks – 10hrs per week, blogs/online news etc – 4hrs per week

What or who is your joyful reading (guilty or otherwise) pleasure?

Ambitious, intelligent fiction

Do you have a favourite storyline or plot?


And do you have one you will not read?  

Romance/sci fi/ violent sex

Why do you/don’t you use a public library?

Don’t need it for my needs. Everything is online or on my phone.

Do you RUI*. If so, what?


Do you have a favourite reading spot?

Lounge room

Toilet reading:

A) never do it

Romance fiction of the Happily Ever After (not the love tragedy) kind – are you a Lover or a Hater and why?

The truest of haters. Plots predictable. Bent to create ‘sexy’ stereotypes of smart/irresistible/heart larger than life/ gorgeous women and macho heros, maybe misguided but fixed right by the heroine. Hate stupidity with which heroines fall into a heap at a sight of some macho man

What would you give up reading for**?

For an instance? Many things like going to the movies, out to eat, to catch up with friends… For good? Nothing

Can a romance/crime/super/etc hero be the driver of a hatchback?

Only a crime hero…

14 years of bookgroup and Dorothy Must Die

My bookgroup was mentioned briefly in my last post. I’ve written about my group before but I will give you a quick rundown on how we operate: We are a hotch-potch group that meets up monthly. We read widely. So much so that we never ever read the same book. Setting a specific title would makes us feel too much like we were about to sit for an exam. It would be an examination as to who had more insight, and if there is something we all proudly enjoy, it is the ability to read without the need for insight (not that insight doesn’t occur – it just is not a prerequisite). Instead, we read on themes. Just in the past year we have read on superheroes, dangerous ideas, birthright, flexing muscle, wink wink nudge nudge, Jesus and the list goes on. I don’t know of too many bookgroups that are structured the way that our group is structured. Which is a pity as I have been exposed to so many different authors and writing styles over the years due to this format. I know that some teen bookgroups run on this sort of premise, and there is the Rugby League Bookclub (this is all kinds of cool – more organised sports should do this!).

Gorgeous artwork by Onnie Cleary in the loo at Cafe Guilia

Similar to the burger menu item at Cafe Guilia (our current venue for bookgroup) which is simply described as “Burger – is good” so too does our bookgroup have an ethos of “Reading – is good” and we gather monthly to hear the adventures of each of our reading choices. We cheer those who find a strong link to the theme and we give a monthly award for the reader with the most tenuous link to the topic. Over the years, we have been known to have waitstaff join us, people at the table next to us throw in their suggestions as well as having a number of guest appearances from partners, children, friends and hanger-on-ers. Continue reading

Blogging in haste

For the first time in nearly a month, I am between tasks so I thought I would take a super quick moment to write a blog post. Earlier this year I accidentally agreed to take on more teaching and staff training than I should have. The past semester has resulted in my own studies being left far behind (I was already behind the point that I wanted to be) and my own reading for pleasure is barely happening. But, as experience has shown me, if I don’t read for pleasure, I lose my drive for both working and studying so I juggle my time around and between late nights and commuting to work I have managed to read a couple of novels and a handful of picture books.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 11.56.55 pmSarah MacLean’s No Good Duke Goes Unpunished

“He is the Killer Duke, accused of murdering Mara Lowe on the eve of her wedding. With no memory of that fateful night, Temple has reigned over the darkest of London’s corners for twelve years, wealthy and powerful, but beyond redemption. Until one night, Mara resurfaces, offering the one thing he’s dreamed of . . . absolution.”

I liked the premise of this book. The prologue is quite thrilling, starting out joyfully and then having Temple wake up covered in what he thought was Mara’s blood with a household of people staring at him. This feeling occasionally returns throughout the book but, though the plot was mostly sound, the writing style drove me batty. It constantly used the 3 repeats device eg “She felt it. She knew it. She mourned it” (made up example: not in the book). I actually like this device when it is used sparingly but unfortunately it wasn’t. Continue reading