Read some book recommendations from Sydney Writers' Festival staff ahead of Thursday's Australian Reading Hour. You can find out more about Australian Reading Hour, here.

If Beale Street Could Talk
By James Baldwin

I went to see I Am Not Your Negro, documentary filmmaker Raoul Peck’s portrait of writer, civil rights activist and queer icon James Baldwin, at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year. The film set me feverishly back onto Baldwin. He was a prolific writer, and I’d read and loved works of his including Another Country, Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time, but If Beale Street Could Talk has become my favourite. A love story set in Harlem in the 70s, it’s resoundingly optimistic and totally heart-breaking. Barry Jenkins (director of Moonlight) has been working with Baldwin’s estate to turn Beale Street into a film.


For more Reading Hour(s), read:

  • Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
  • The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain– James Baldwin 
  • I Am Not Your Negro is on at the cinema!


Sing, Unburied, Sing
By Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, was one of my favourite books of 2013/14. It was her chronological account of the violent and unexpected deaths of five young men that she loved (including her younger brother), who died over a very short period. Ward has written a lot about about the confluence of history, racism, poverty and economic power, and Sing, Unburied, Sing is the continuation of this tradition. Set in a fictional Mississippi town in the shadow of Katrina, Sing, Unburied, Sing is told from the perspective of JoJo, his (biological) mother Leonie, and the ghost of a young boy, Richie as they head on a road trip to retrieve JoJo’s father from the notorious Parchman Prison.

Ward is also the editor of The Fire This Time, which took Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time and used it as the inspiration for an anthology of essays, memoir and poetry that engages and interrogates the question of race in the United States. There is a currency and urgency to everything that I have read from Ward, and I think she’s one of the most exciting writers around.

For more Reading Hour(s), read:

  • Men We Reaped – Jesmyn Ward
  • Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward
  • The Fire This Time – Jesmyn Ward (editor)


By Oliver Sacks

During the months before his death, neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a series of thoughtful and luminous essays, which went viral when first published in the New York Times. These now form the remarkable volume, Gratitude. The four essays express Sacks' gratefulness for his work, for the people he has shared his life with, for his patients ... for a life fully lived. His musings on gratitude are a lyrical meditation on life and death that is humbling to read  potent, bittersweet and ultimately uplifting. At under 50 pages, these beautiful essays can be read within one hour but will be pondered for a long time after.

For more Reading Hour(s), read:
Awakenings – Oliver Sacks
A Leg to Stand On – Oliver Sacks
Insomniac City – Bill Hayes


Dr Boogaloo and The Girl who Lost Her Laughter
By Lisa Nichol

This soon to be published book is a terrific choice for middle-grade readers. It’s rare to find a book that invites you to think of music as you read it. I felt my auditory sense had been switched on as I turned the pages of Dr Boogaloo and The Girl who Lost Her Laughter.

Dr Boogaloo is sure to invite myriad questions from children fascinated by the different musical genres described. The book, as the title suggests, tells the story of Blue – who has not laughed for 712 days! Blue can't turn to a regular doctor to fix an illness like this, only Dr Boogaloo’s and his wife, Bessie, can help her reconnect to happiness. They use the most powerful medicine known to humankind... Music! It’s the Boogaloo’s ability to mix magical sounds that is both the cure and the gift of this book.

For more Reading Hour(s), read:
The Vampire Knife – Jack Henseleit (middle-grade readers)
The Bolds – Julian Clary (middle-grade readers)
A Skinful of Shadows – Frances Hardinge (older readers)