Here’s our list of (mostly) relaxing yet educational books to pack into your suitcase this Christmas break. Happy reading.

Buzz – Thor Hanson

The fate of the common honey bee has been a consistent headline issue, but that’s not the core topic explored in this beautiful, warm and intimate natural history work. Thor Hanson firstly takes us through the relationship between humanity and bees, believed to be the first animal domesticated by humans.

Then he explores the evolution of bees, and the fascinating riddle of exactly how some species of wasps made the evolutionary leap from being carnivorous insects to vegetarian social animals that have a symbiotic relationship with flowering plants.

His style is engaging, personal and at times amusing, as he interweaves the biological science around bees with personal notes from his own formal and informal fieldwork as a biologist.

It is also an entertaining glimpse into the lives and habits of some of the lesser known species of bees such as mason bees and leaf cutter bees, and how they fit within the whole ecological scheme.

Hanson also stresses the importance of not taking the buzz in our gardens for granted.

“Much depends on us – taking notice, taking heed and taking action,” he writes.

Shell – Kristina Olsson

Many of Australia’s cultural ghosts around colonisation and immigration have been rising this past year, making this a very timely novel. Shell explores the artistic, cultural, political and economic tensions around the design and construction of Sydney’s Opera House. It also weaves in the growing social unrest around the Vietnam War, the status of women, the dispossession of Aboriginal people and culture, attitudes towards immigrants, the rise of ASIO surveillance of activists and other issues that dominated the 1960s agenda in Australia.

It takes a literary style that is highly poetic and allegorical, while at the same time leveraging the traditional narrative conventions around families, loss, hope and relationships. It benefits from Olsson’s painstaking background research into the various issues and events, with a level of detail that is almost journalistic in its approach.

The tension between architectural vision and the insights that inform it and the pragmatic goals of those commissioning the architecture is particularly well captured, with the ground-level view of the site a worker’s perception of their own role in relation to the whole illustrating how bold undertakings can inspire some while attracting disdain from others.

Sustainable Pathways for our Cities and Regions – Planning within Planetary Boundaries – Barbara Norman

There has been a huge positive momentum around Barbara Norman’s Sustainable Pathways for our Cities and regions, and rightly so. It is a genuinely remarkable contribution to the canon of sustainable built environment thinking, with its comprehensive and integrated exploration of how we can create liveable, low-carbon, equitable cities and regional communities.

Four key case study cities including Canberra are utilised throughout the text to highlight the principles in practice around active travel, urban greening, renewable energy, social inclusion and climate change resilience.

These fundamentals are explained and built upon within a thoroughly-referenced background of relevant policies, programs, political trends and global goals including the Sustainable Development Goals and UN Habitat agenda.

The level of intellectual rigour is coupled with an accessible and highly readable style, with personal experiences within cities around the world woven into the discussion.

It has often been said we need a more holistic approach to planning and development – Dr Norman here shows us clearly what that looks like and what is required to genuinely step out of the silos and take a systems approach to our built habitat.

Arcadia – Di Morrissey 

One of the most refreshing aspects of Di Morrissey’s recent novels is they combine the guilty pleasure of narrative-driven escapist reading with a fundamental concern for the fate of the environment, respect for Australia’s Indigenous history and
culture and strong, proactive and independent female characters. 

Arcadia is set in Tasmania, and instead of the tension between forest protectors and the logging industry, Morrissey turns her eye to the pressures of development, the growth of sustainable local food production, threats to flora and fauna and the back room deals over intellectual property rights for endemic plants.

The potential of the forests to provide sustenance on both the physical and emotional level is also a key theme, as is the importance of respect for the Indigenous Tasmanian heritage and those who carry it forward in the present day.

All those heavy topics are tackled in a way that does not overwhelm her ability to simply tell a ripping good yarn. The bad guys get what’s coming to them, mysteries are resolved and everyone learns a little something along the way – perfect mental relaxation for the hot summer days.

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