The bedside bookstack – May 2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this May.

The Writer Laid Bare by Lee Kofman, Ventura, 2022

Yes, another writing book. No, you can’t have too many of them because they all serve different purposes. This one is practical and personal. It’s warm and honest and generous in its detailing of the various blocks and the emotional evolution she has been on with her writing, which she believes writers need to go through to a certain extent to reach emotional honesty in their writing.

It’s full of her own experiences as well as other writers untangling the knot of art and life – life and art. We’re all just muddling through.

There’s also an excellent bibliography, a 100 Books list and suggestions of more writers on writing to read. My best take-away was the writing teacher who asked about a piece of writing, “What’s it about?” Then, “What’s is really about?” And finally, “What’s it really, really, really about?” Sometimes we need extra digging to excavate our intentions.

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2018

If you’ve been reading the bookstack you’ll know from last year that I went on a bit of a classics binge, particularly retellings like The Song of Achilles, Circe, The Silence of the Girls, and The Mere Wife. I thought it was time to give an original a go, one of the biggies. And thank you to whoever recommended the Emily Wilson translation.

It is beautiful, poetic and of course epic. What surprised me though was how we were washing hands and making up beds as often as we were fighting creatures or enemies. And in Book 6, teenage Nausicaa, gets scolded for leaving her dirty clothes lying around the room and not having anything clean to wear. Ha!

But I’ve had to put this one down for a bit. I get unstuck with the sexual violence, casual misogyny and general oppression of females in the myths. There’s a scene where Aphrodite is humiliated for having Ares as a lover. They get trapped in a spider’s web and held there entwined while all the gods come down to laugh and gawk. As a scene, it was just too similar to ‘the lads’ having a laugh at a sex tape.

But then there’s poetry and wisdom like how to smooth a slight “If something rude was said, let the winds take it. May the gods allow you to reach your home and see your wife again.” And the longing for home and loved ones which is eternal and universal.

Dreyer’s English – An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer, Century, 2019

Obviously as a style guide this is a dip-in-and-out number but he’s so witty that I’ve been in more in than out. Benjamin Dreyer has been Copy Chief at Random House for over 20 years. He’s got plenty so say about punctuation and grammar (OMG, his suggestion for dealing with the clunkiness of past perfect has rocked my world p.110) but it’s what else arrives with it that is just as informative and entertaining like when he copyedited unpublished works by Shirley Jackson. I know, right?

Anyone who’s into language and its intricacies as well as a peep into the sausage making of books and publishing will love this.

Night Blue by Angela O’Keeffe, Transit Lounge, 2021

This one’s got a quiet contemplative feel to it. You get that when it’s narrated by a painting which spends time either in basement storage or on gallery walls. The painting is Jackson Pollack’s Blue Poles. From a technical angle, I wondered how an inanimate object could hold a novel-length narration but as a reader, if you have a narrator with enough consistency and authority, you stop thinking about it.

It is a love letter to art and how it matters in people’s lives moving from America with the artist and his wife Lee Krasner, to the wall of a New York family and then on to Australia where it sits in a basement but feels the reverberations of Whitlam’s dismissal before hanging in the National Gallery where its presence affects both staff and visitors.

all that’s left unsaid by Tracey Lien, HQ, 2022

Ky is called home by her father after her brother is brutally murdered while eating out with friends. Home is Cabramatta in the 90s, known as much for its pho as for its heroin. Ky can’t imagine any world where her straight-A brother could get mixed up in anything that would lead to this. But she moved to Melbourne two years ago to become a reporter, so what would she know about his life.

Intergenerational trauma, family, culture and identity play out on the streets of Cabramatta as Ky tries to piece together what actually happened that night.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, Canongate, 2021

Skip this if you’re looking for a straight narrative because Ruth Ozeki is having a great time playing around with all kinds of stuff in this. Be prepared for a dual narration from the main character Benny Oh as well as books – the book you’re reading as well as books talking to books.

Not long after Benny’s Dad dies, he starts to hear voices, lots of them, everywhere. He can hear objects talking. He hears the contrition of a window that kills a bird, the sadness of the toys children cuddle at the psychologist’s office, the pain of glass being broken. He hears the natural world and made objects as a constant cacophony.

I’ve still got a while to go on this one and the objects are making Benny’s life a mess at the moment but Ruth Ozeki is also a Zen Buddhist priest, so I feel she’s going to get us through in one piece.

If you enjoyed reading this and want to hear about the next bookstack, subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.

How to say good bye to old slippers

I have these sad old slippers. They have holes in them. They’re dirty and their soles are long gone. But my Mum gave me these slippers years ago and I just can’t throw them out.

Once they were upright uggies.* They were clean and warm with a sole thick enough to walk outside in. Like all soles, they eventually cracked and wore through but my mum doesn’t give up on possessions that easily. She’s lived through a world war and rationing and she’s not one to throw out something which is otherwise still functioning if she can find a way to repair it.

So, she took the broken soles off and had a look through her sewing stuff. She found some leather pieces cut and collected from a footstool that had reached the end of its life – obviously it couldn’t be repaired but the leather could still be saved. Then she cut the scraps to match the soles of the slippers and sewed them on by hand with a stitch stronger than any I know.

I’ve been wearing them ever since.

My mum has Alzheimer’s now and all that practicality and resourcefulness has been packed off to a distant part of her brain. In current phone calls and visits, she’s on a very small memory loop and it’s sometimes hard to remember who she was. Throwing these slippers out feels like losing a tangible sample of the way she used to be.

Her spare room still has a sewing cupboard full of material, thread, buttons, bits and pieces. There are even some leather scraps left over from that same old footstool. We hated all the hand-me-downs, the mending and repairs. We wanted new things and used to roll our eyes at it all.

Now I just want to thank her for keeping my feet warm all those extra years.

*Ugg boots

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.

Emotional Excavation or why my anger about a late yoga class isn’t really about standing in a wind tunnel

I love a bit of emotional excavation. Curiosity about events which seem to disproportionately trigger can yield some very interesting results. I feel like I’m an archaeologist on a Stone Age dig. I get out a little brush, because we want to be delicate, right? And then I start working backwards slowly scratching and scraping and asking Why does that annoy me?.  A little something is revealed, so I scratch and scrape and ask it again. Keep scratching and scraping and you arrive at some surprising points of origin.

The doors to my yoga studio are supposed to open 15 minutes before the next class. Then there’s time for a bit of bustle in the foyer. People say quick hellos, stash shoes and put phones on silent before heading in to the studio and setting up.

My yoga teacher, really nice guy, loves a chat. This means that often his classes run over time and the doors to the foyer don’t open until five or ten minutes before the class is supposed to start. The class usually still starts on time-ish but it’s the waiting outside which really gets to me.

We wait in a line along the side of the building. In winter it’s a wind tunnel and absolutely freezing. In summer, there’s no where to hide from the sun. There isn’t much talking either because we all know how the sound travels and that there’s a class currently running.

I get colder and crankier waiting for the doors to open and by the time they do, I can barely smile at our teacher as he opens it up. In the scheme of things, none of this is a big deal. Why so seething over something so small?

Yoga class is a contemplative place and last week while I was lying supine and cranky, I did a little emotional excavation on why waiting for a few minutes was such a trigger for me.

Scratch. Scrape.

Being made to wait feels like you’re not ranked as important enough for the other person to make the effort to be on time.

Scratch. Scrape.

The class before ours is the Advanced Class, so it feels like they are favoured and given more time than those of us waiting outside in a lower class.

Scratch. Scrape.

I’ve been doing yoga on and off now for about six years but I still feel like a beginner. I can’t get to classes more than once a week. Sometimes, because of work and family and life, three weeks or a month passes between classes. When I go again, it feels like I’m back at the beginning and so there’s a general feeling of time passing and me showing up, albeit intermittently, but still being in the same spot.

Scratch. Scrape.

This rather embarrassingly mirrors frustrations in my creative life. Time is passing. I’m showing up, albeit intermittently, things move forward and then things stagnate and it feels like I’m back at the beginning or not moving anywhere.

Scratch. Scrape.

So, when I’m waiting in the wind tunnel for my yoga class, I’m not really annoyed about the advanced class running over time, I’m annoyed about time passing in the real world while my creative life stays in the same place.

Scratch. Scrape.

No, that’s pretty much it. It doesn’t feel great when you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere.

Fair enough.

And wear a warmer jacket for the wind tunnel.  

If you enjoyed reading this and want to hear more about books, writing and life, subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.

The Bedside Bookstack – April 2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this April.

Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie, 2022, Bloomsbury

Maryam and Zahra are best friends. They go to a good Karachi High School. Zahra is bright and ambitious but even with her grades, only a scholarship will get her to a British University. Maryam doesn’t worry too much about any of it. She comes from a wealthy family and is going to inherit and run the family business. But one night and two men change the neat trajectory of those plans.

Fast-forward 20 years and both women are successful professionals living in London. They’re still best friends but their politics pull in different directions. This is a great examination of loyalty, ethics, lifelong friendships and what keeps people together as they grow into very different people.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, 1969, Virago Press

Maya Angelou’s autobiography reads with the rhythm and sound you’d expect from a poet. It covers childhood to late teens as she and her brother live with their grandma and uncle, then move in with her mother, spend time with her father, move back to her grandma and then back again with her mother. She writes of the small girl she was, trying to get on with life as she knew it despite rape, trauma, separation and the endemic racism of growing up as an African American female in the South.

I Can’t Remember The Title But The Cover Is Blue by Elias Greig, Allen & Unwin, 2018

This witty little number is the perfect pick up, put down and leave around the house book. The sub-title, Sketches from the other side of the bookshop counter, cleverly captures its essence as a collection of pictures and encounters from Elias Greig’s time as a book seller in a Sydney book shop.

It’s written as a script and you get to laugh along at how outrageous the general public is until you see yourself standing at the counter too (there’s a definite theme of tired mothers) and are momentarily chastened and reminded of how little it takes to have good retail behaviour and decent manners. I’d say a great gift for booklovers and bookshop champions.

Also check out A Circle Married to a Straight Line, his glorious commuter essay in the Sydney Review of Books, if you want a sample of his style and a reminder of all the things that an essay can be.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, Titan Books, 2020

10 years ago, Lewis and 3 friends shot some elk. As Blackfoot men, they’d all hunted before but this trip was different. Now, strange things are happening and Lewis starts thinking about that day again and it feels like he’s the one being hunted.

This is a visceral and pacy read but all the blurbs talk about Stephen Graham Jones as a horror writer. I’m not great with scary stuff, so I’m reading on because it’s such a good read but I’m going slowly and almost with my hands over my eyes because I want to get out if it gets too scary.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, Penguin Books, 2010

This book is the dual narrative of Ella, an unhappy American housewife, and the 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi and his companion Shams of Tabriz. It’s a tricky balance trying to hold the 21st and 13th Centuries in parallel and it didn’t work for me. Unfortunately, I was interested in reading about Rumi but not Ella, and I was on holiday, so I ended up putting it down and reading about neither.

If you’re curious though, give it a go. I might even have another peek. ‘International Bestseller’ doesn’t usually come from nothing and I’ve enjoyed her other books.

If you enjoyed reading this and want to hear about the next bookstack, subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.

The Bedside Bookstack – March 2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this March.

Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar, Picador, 2019

Kitty Hawke is the last person living on Wolfe Island. Everyone else left when the water started to rise. One day her estranged granddaughter arrives bringing a boyfriend and a brother and sister who are looking for their mother and trying to get north.

This brilliant book is so rich and immerses you completely in Kitty’s natural and internal world. It’s epic and timely, daring to take on the biggies of climate change, migration and borders, family and the idea of home when the one you knew is no longer an option – all don so skilfully.

Unexplained Laughter by Alice Thomas Ellis, Corsair, 2012

I’d never heard of Alice Thomas Ellis until Charlotte Wood mentioned her in The Luminous Solution. So glad she did. This book was such a hoot.

Lydia’s relationship has just ended. Her partner left her for someone else and she’s gone to a cottage in the Welsh countryside for some time out. Her colleague Betty comes with her. They don’t actually know each other very well, which isn’t too awkward for Betty but it rubs at Lydia initially.

Lydia is one of the most unique characters I’ve read. She’s a total original. She’s clever, witty, judgemental, flippant, eccentric but also completely aware of her foibles. It’s her monologues (internal and external) as they meet and get tangled up with the locals and their business that provide the clever humour here.

It got me wondering why literary fiction is usually so un-funny. And I put it out there for suggestions of more books like this one, but haven’t heard any yet. Please pass them on if you have them.

Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper, Illustrated by Anna Waler, Scribner, 2022

Chloe Hooper writes so beautifully. She burst onto the scene back in 2002 with The Child’s Book of True Crime. Since then, she’s written more non-fiction than fiction (The Tall Man, The Arsonist) and incredibly well but seems to fly under the radar a bit.

This is a memoir about her husband, Don Watson (of Weasel Words and Paul-Keating’s-speech-writer fame) getting a rare type of blood cancer. She wonders how to tell her young boys aged seven and four. She tries to find the perfect book to do the job for her and in doing so contemplates children’s stories, the authors who write them and the stories we tell ourselves. This is a sobering and contemplative read about sickness, mortality, love and words. Beautiful. And I can’t wait to see her this weekend at the Newcastle Writer’s Festival!!

The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane, Allen & Unwin, 2022

Another Australian writer who you know you’re in good hands with and who also seems to not get the readership, or is it air-play that her words deserve. Fiona McFarlane also had a big-deal debut with The Night Guest. After that came her beautiful short story collection The High Places and now we have The Sun Walks Down.

Six-year-old Denny Wallace goes missing in a dust storm in 1883. The locals of Fairly, South Australia, (both newly arrived and first nations) are unsettled by the event and their complex relationship with the land. This is a roving POV which moves seamlessly between the immediate family, neighbouring farms, domestic staff, police search party and trackers.

I haven’t finished it yet and am dying to know what has happened to Denny.

If you enjoyed reading this and want to hear about the next bookstack, subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.

The bedside bookstack – February 2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this February.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Windmill Books, 2015

Whoa! I’ve never read any Lauren Groff before. Will need to look up her back catalogue. This is dense and intense and amazing and intricate. It puts Mathilde and Lotto’s marriage under the microscope, exposing the stuff of entwined lives – the dynamics, habits, secrets and lies.

Read this! It’s magnificent – her casual asides during narration, her watertight characters and the care and details she gives the reader. But it tapped back into my fury at reading The Wife by Meg Wolitzer, that ol’ story of a woman facilitating the life of a ‘creative genius’. Lotto doesn’t have to pay a bill or make a meal or clean a bathroom. He has an attic room and is left undisturbed. One day, I’d love to read a book about the man who offers himself up so completely in service to his wife’s creative endeavours. If it’s already been written, please let me know.

Joan by Katherine J. Chen, Hodder & Stoughton, 2022

Somehow, we all know about Joan of Arc but in my case, not much. She fought. She was burnt at the stake but I don’t know the why and when of any of it. I certainly had no idea she died at 19!!

Katherine Chen’s Joan is fascinating. She’s a scrapper and an underdog formed by trauma and grief. The story starts with her as a child then moves on to her adolescence and continues as she leaves home and eventually ends up at court with the Dauphin. Her early family dynamics are as interesting as the court politics and military campaigns. This is a real epic!

Smart Ovens for Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan, Brio, 2020

I’m loving dipping in and out of these short stories and I love how often I just sit there staring into space after a certain sentence has just sliced right to the heart of it. It being us, humans, modern life, consumption, relationships, internal worlds, insecurities, just all of it. And she’s so effortlessly clever about it too. In other writing, the slightly off-centre is the focus. These stories however, are so sure of themselves that the unusual is just an aside for everything else which is at play.

Denizen by Hames McKenzie Watson, Viking, 2022

No one ever said a thriller was going to be a comfortable read but I wasn’t expecting this to be as unnerving as it was. I was completely creeped out reading this at night. You start with a remote location, you add in an act of abject violence, let the guilt simmer, suppress it, ratchet up the paranoia and mix in some hallucinations but wait, maybe they’re not hallucinations….maybe they are. This is the seesaw you get as a reader, unsure who to trust or what you’re seeing. The past never stays put and James McKenzie Watson does a very good job of bringing it all back.

I also recommend his podcast on writing with Ashley Kalagian Blunt James and Ashley stay at home. Not scary at all! And for those of you in and around Newcastle, he’s coming to the Newcastle Writer’s Festival in April.

The Luminous Solution by Charlotte Wood, Allen & Unwin, 2021

This book of essays is about the creative life, inspiration, process and our inner worlds. I’ll never tire of reading about writers’ thoughts on writing. Not every essay resonated for me, but they don’t all have to. There’s plenty to take away when you glimpse someone else’s practice and are open to ideas. Particularly interesting if you enjoyed her novel The Natural Way of Things to read about process, intentions and her experiences of writing it.

Bear Woman by Karolina Ramqvist, Manilla Press, 2021

I so wanted to love this. The cover beckoned with the words Myth. Motherhood. Hidden History. The blurb talked of Marguerite, a French noble-woman who was abandoned, pregnant on a small island in what is now Nova Scotia and the Swedish writer who is wrestling with how to write the story.

I thought there would be interesting parallels and linkages but instead it’s a detailed catalogue of research and its frustrations. I would have put it down by now but I still want to know what happens to Marguerite and all we’ve been given so far is allusions. I think this might be a skim-til-the-end situation.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath, Faber, 1968

Thought it was time I dipped into a bit of Sylvia Plath. I read the Bell Jar in high school and some of her poems then too and always interested to see what I’ll make of reading it as an adult. Well, it’s another one I won’t make it to the end of. I always feels like the failure is mine when I don’t ‘get’ poetry, find a way into it and have a feel for it. So, I’ll do a quiet retreat and won’t open another poetry book until I’ve forgotten all about this and start thinking, ‘I should really read some poetry again’.

If you enjoyed reading this and want to hear about the next bookstack, subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.

The bedside bookstack – Summer 2022/2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this summer.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, Hachette, 2022

Florence. 1560s. Powerful political family. Lucrezia de Medici. Heard of her? Interested? It doesn’t matter because it’s Maggie O’Farrell who’s writing and she can turn any subject into something sublime. This story of marriage, duty, independence and betrayal is just as good as you imagine something by the author of Hamnet to be.

French Braid by Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus, 2022

There are 23 books listed on the inside cover under By the same author and I haven’t read any of them, so I have no knowledge of Anne Tyler’s usual style and content but French Braid is my kinda read.

It starts with Serena Garrett and her boyfriend on the way home from a visit to introduce her to his parents. Each chapter tells the story of a different member of the Garrett family forwards and backwards in time so I read it more as a collection of linked short stories than a novel. It doesn’t matter what you call it, novel or collection, family dynamics are its heart. The loyalties, misunderstandings and distance within and across generations are always going to make interesting literature and that’s just what they do in this book. I loved it.

Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor, Pan Macmillan, 2022

On a hot December afternoon, 12-year-old Esther Bianchi disappears. She waves goodbye to her best friend on their usual walk home from school but never makes it home. Five days later her buried body is found.

Durton is a small country town where everyone knows just enough about everyone else but not enough to know what happened to Esther. 

Getting kids right in fiction is a challenge. Regardless of whether you choose first or third person, it’s hard to get the voice right without it sounding forced – the literary equivalent of adult actors who’ve just put their hair in pig tails and pulled their socks up to their knees. Hayley Scrivenor has done it though. She’s created a book which is as much coming-of-age as it is crime and in another clever coup she adds in chapters narrated by ‘we’. They are the children of Durton. As a collective they narrate and observe like a Greek chorus and create the kind of poetry I wasn’t expecting in a book about the disappearance of a schoolgirl. People who read in this genre will already have this on their radar but those who ‘don’t usually read crime’ should really give it a go.

Heatwave by Victor Jestin, Scribner 2021

(Trigger warning – suicide)

Oscar is dead because I watched him die and did nothing. This is how Leo begins his narration. He is 17 years-old, an outsider and it’s the last day of his summer holiday at a beachside camping ground.

This novella comes in at 100 pages and covers 48 hours in Leo’s life. The prose is unadorned, almost a fact file of impulsiveness, confusion, isolation, longing, anger and indecision. There’s nothing left to be sentimental about for adolescence after this compulsive read.

The Colony by Audrey Magee, Faber, 2022

It’s the late seventies andtwo outsiders spend summer on an isolated island off the coast of Ireland. Mr Lloyd is an English artist, there to paint the cliffs and reclaim his reputation. Mr Masson is a French linguist, recording the slow changes in the Irish language spoken by four generations of the same island family.

Their presence unsettles some of the islanders and opens opportunities for others. The summer passes, punctuated by the increasing death toll from ‘the Troubles’. The disappearance of language and culture and the ongoing effects of colonisation have never had such beautiful prose.

The Lovers by Yumna Kassab, Ultimo Press, 2022

Jamila and Amir are lovers. They come from different worlds and although they can’t see a future together, they still dream of it. This story sits in the in-between like their own dusk to dawn existence. It’s part fable, part dream sequence, part local hearsay and stories. They aren’t attached to a specific place or time and as characters they are more archetype/myth than individual. When you think of ‘lovers’, despite the height of their passion and desire, you’re always waiting for the end and so Jamila and Amir narrate themselves onward and we hope for something better for them. 

Happy go Lucky by David Sedaris, Little Brown, 2022

This was perfect post-Christmas reading. If you don’t know David Sedaris, he writes short very readable essays on his personal life. Though his partner and profession feature, his family are the stars of the show. I think there were 6 Sedaris siblings in total. One sister committed suicide, his mother has died and his dad is dying, so this collection has his musings on COVID, death, father-child relationships, book tours and groceries. He’s getting older, like everyone, and facing mortality, so no surprise that this is the least flippant book of his that I’ve read.

Warning- if you’re under rental or mortgage stress, maybe bypass this one as everyone seems to have multiple properties, some bought just so that noisy neighbours can’t move in to the flat above them.

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary, Quercus, 2022

I know I’m always on about this but really, why don’t they turn books like this into rom-coms?

Siobhan, Miranda and Jane are all stood up on Valentine’s Day. One at breakfast, one at lunch and the other at dinner. Very soon we realise that it’s the same man who stood them all up but he plays very different roles in each one of their lives. This is a fun tangle which is cleverly revealed. Definitely a great summer/beach/holiday read but you will want to know how everything works out, so allow for an afternoon or evening of being anti-social.

Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hutchinson Heinemannn, 2022

Now that you’ve finished watching summer tennis, you can read about it instead. If you’re even slightly interested in tennis, you’ll love the detail of what it takes to get to the top. Carrie Soto holds the record for the greatest number of Grand Slams won by a female tennis player. Six years after she retired it looks like another player will break that record. Not used to losing, she stages a comeback to retain her record. To do so, she re-engages her father as her coach after splitting with him a long time ago.

Carrie isn’t very popular. Her ambition is seen as ruthlessness and she doesn’t have time to make friends with opponents. This is an interesting look at father -daughter relationships, professional sport, strong women and ambition. Great holiday read.

Moon tiger by Penelope Lively, Penguin, 1987

As Claudia Hampton lies dying, she is visited by the significant people in her life; Gordon – the brother she was too close to, Jasper -father of her child, a love and habit of many years, Sylvia – her suffering sister-in-law and Lisa – her distant daughter. Their visits bring back memories and she constructs a history of her life.

She’s not a very likeable character but she has loved and lost and it’s her recollections about Cairo during the second world war that are the real power in this book. This was an interesting read because it was a slow-burn and moved through such different phases, relative to her life. I don’t use this word often for books but it was a ‘satisfying’ read and incidentally, won the 1987 Booker Prize.

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti, Harville Secker, 2022

I gave it 30 pages. I don’t like to abandon a book but if it’s not doing it for you, then why the impulse to slog on? Probably because I feel like the deficit is mine when I don’t enjoy or ’get’ a book that comes laden with praise. Well, the satire or philosophising or whatever it was that happening in these pages just didn’t do it for me. Next.

To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin, 1933

I have a fat volume of Elizabeth Bowen’s collected short stories and I love it. This was my first go at one of her novels and I’d have to say, it’s been difficult. I’m out of practice with early 20th Century prose.

Set in 1920s London, the book follows young widow Cecilia and her sister-in-law Emmeline. Emmeline is independent and sparky but Cecilia is more mercurial and colder. There’s love interests, family obligations, societal expectations and some flitting around both the countryside and the continent. It demanded more concentration than I had before Christmas but I’m giving it another go now.

If you enjoyed reading this and want to hear about the next bookstack, subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.

The bedside bookstack – November 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

The Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, Picador 2022

Ewin St. John St. Andrew, eighteen years old, hauling the weight of his double-sainted name across the Atlantic by steamship.

Now that’s how you start a story!

This book moves in time from 1912 to 2020 then on to 2203 and back again and again. There is time travel, a night city moon colony and a pandemic that mirrors our own but not in this century. And because it’s Emily St John Mandel, it all works. Her gift is that it’s all so familiar to life as we know but just a bit off.

What do you save if you have the chance? What do you go back and change? What really matters in a life? All questions we asked ourselves as life-as-we-knew-it was suspended.

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman, headline review, 2011

Still Life is one of my favourite reads of this year. I still think about those characters and so it was interesting to go back and read Sarah Winman’s first book. She still circles a lot of the same territory, as we all do in our writing. She has families being cobbled together by time, proximity and affection rather than just blood. She has lost years between people who mean something to each other at significant moments in their life. She has multiple generations living together and there is always just so much heart.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley, Scribe, 2018

This is a feminist retelling of Beowulf by an author who has also translated it. I don’t know the original story, so I can’t judge it comparatively but it is more than enough on its own. The story of monsters is age-old, of warriors and war and what is lost because of them. In this tale, living in the suburbs isn’t enough to keep you safe from any of it. And as each side tells their story, there’s also the eternal question of who is the real monster. This is a fierce and fiery read, an epic match for an age-old myth.

Pair your reading with this episode of the Between the Covers podcast, an interview with Maria Dahvana Headley on Feminist translations and classical retellings.

Severance by Ling Ma, Text, 2018

This is the ultimate pandemic fiction written just before the pandemic. What’s uncanny for something which happened before COVID, is how similarly things play out…..until they don’t. Lucky for us, we still get to be surprised and horrified by an end of days scenario.

Candace has just broken up with her boyfriend and is great at a job that she doesn’t really love. This has a nice dual narrative about life leading up to the pandemic and then life when she joins a few remaining survivors as they travel to safely start a new life at ‘the facility’.

The first few chapters have a little too much detail about paper stock and outsourced book production in China (Candace’s job) but stick with it if you’re a post-society plot fan.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Vintage, 2002 (1940)

Well, this is tougher going than my last jaunt with Graham Greene. I read Travels with my Aunt last month and it was a light tale that criss-crossed Britain and the continent. This is set in Mexico. A British dentist has somehow been stuck in a backwater village for 15 years or so. All the priests have been executed or disappeared. There is just the ‘whiskey priest’ who visits those who are brave enough to still believe and hide him.

I haven’t finished it yet. I have to admit, when I pick it up, I always fish around on the bookstack to see if there’s something else to read instead. Definitely stuck with it so far because it’s a classic but not sure I’ll go the distance.

If you enjoyed reading this and want to hear about the next bookstack, subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.

The bedside bookstack – October 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month

Loop Tracks by Sue Orr, Upswell 2021

In 1978 it’s illegal to have an abortion in New Zealand but there’s a clandestine network that will get you to Sydney if you need one. Charlie’s story starts on the tarmac of Auckland airport but ends during COVID in Wellington. Charlie is a great character, aware of her flaws, like most of us are but still in the habit of them. She’s part scratchy, part self-deprecating but definitely good fun.

This book is a brilliant examination of family, loyalty and connection. What is protection and what is stifling, how do you let go and trust that the world will be kind to those that you love and how do you reconcile not loving someone that you’re supposed to? There’s grandmotherhood that looks more like motherhood and motherhood that was skipped.

It was also interesting to read about COVID when it was so recently lived. It already seems like a fiction.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart, Picador, 2022

I was warned that Douglas Stuart’s first book Shuggie Bain was not a happy read. I write about this, his second book with a trigger warning for….everything. Mungo lives in the Glasgow tenements. He’s protestant, dreamy and gentle and slowly realising that he’s gay. His older brother is a gang leader, his alcoholic mum has been missing for three weeks and his older sister is having an affair with her teacher.

And then he meets James who is Catholic, keeps pigeons and likes him back. But the toxic masculinity and sectarian turf wars don’t approve and Mungo is sent away by his mum with two men who are supposed to show him how to be a man.

The betrayals and vulnerability here are heart breaking but Douglas Stuart has written a great book. 

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan, Penguin, 2020

This is my first Donal Ryan and I’m lining up for more. He writes character and place with such understated poetry.

Moll Gladney disappears one morning from her home in rural Ireland. Her parents Kitty and Paddy live on with the heaviness of her loss. Five years later she arrives back. She’s run away from her husband Alexander and baby son, Joshua.

A week later, Alexander finds her and he and Joshua move in with the Gladney’s. It isn’t easy for Alex. His Jamaican heritage and dark skin make him stand out in a place where outsiders are already suspect. This is a quiet contemplative story of the three generations who live in the Gladney cottage. They each have a part in this beautiful narrative about family, place and belonging.

My Heart is a Little Wild Thing by Nigel Featherstone, Ultimo, 2022

Patrick has been looking after his mother for most of his adult life but she’s prickly and difficult and one day he snaps. He throws a clock at her and then flees the scene. He goes to Jimenbuen, a property in the Monaro (Southern NSW) where he and his family used to holiday. When he’s there he meets Lewis.

Patrick has lived a solitary life and has loved men but only from afar. This book, which has wild country as its own character, was a reminder that it’s never too late to mean something to someone or to change the way you’re living.

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene, Vintage Classics, 1969

Henry Pulling is a retired Bank Manager. He’s always lived a routine and quiet bachelor life but at his mother’s funeral he meets his Aunt Augusta. This woman is everything he doesn’t expect in a 70-year-old. She has a lover, is loose around legalities and still has enough energy to travel the world. She also offers him alternative histories of his parents, one where his mother is not actually his birth mother.

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary fiction lately and there was something quite nice about sitting with a 20th Century British voice. It’s a different pace when people are taking trains and boats and sending telegrams and it’s always nice to slow down every now and then.

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hutchinson, 2021

Nina Riva is the mother to her siblings Jay, Hud and Kit, ever since their own mother died. Every year, she holds an end-of-summer party in her Malibu pad. It’s known to be wild but this year is the one that will be remembered for her two brothers fighting, the reappearance of their estranged but famous father, as well as her unfaithful husband and the possibility of another sibling.

It’s endless summer in these pages and the waves hold this family together. I’d say it’s just right as a beach read, although I could’ve done with a little less prose on how lean and toned the women are but, it is Malibu after all.

Red Dirt Talking by Jacqueline Wright, Fremantle Press, 2012

8-year-old Kuj goes missing from Ransom in remote Western Australia. There is plenty of speculation about what happened but not much hard evidence. While Maggot, the local rubbish collector hears everyone’s theories in the present, Annie a city postgrad student is arriving and finding her feet out on country before Kuj goes missing. I’m still reading, so I write this without knowing what happens to her.

Disappearance aside, this is daily life in a remote community – the relationships and racism, the culture, climate and land. I’ve lived in the tropics and when I read about the build-up to the wet, omg, I was there all over again…

“…the air’s pissed off down south, mosquitoes whine in your ear all night and the atmosphere’s cocked and loaded with ninety-nine percent humidity. On the few occasions the wind does crank up it brings more mozzies than relief into town.”

Bone Memories by Sally Piper, UQP, 2022

Billie’s daughter Jessie was murdered. Her grandson Daniel, who was a toddler, witnessed it. He has no memory of the day or his mother but Billie feeds him the latter hoping for the former. She tends the tree under which it happened and feels her daughter through the land.

Angus lost his wife but it’s 16 years since the murder and he’s remarried and has a daughter too. They’ve outgrown the house that he and Jessie originally bought and it’s time to move on. But in the Granny flat out the back, Billie rails against it.

Territory is all over this book from the physical environment and scene-of-the-crime to blended families and blood-ties. It also asks interesting questions about whether holding onto the past is really honouring it and who it benefits if you can’t move on.

The Van Apfel Girls are Gone by Felicity McLean, 4th Estate, 2019

Tikka Molloy goes back home to visit her sick sister. Once there, she can’t stop thinking about the events, 20 years ago that led to the disappearance of the three Van Apfel sisters. The Van Apfels were neighbours and friends but there was enough going on in these girls’ home life to make them want to run away. On reflection, Tikka wonders what happened to the Van Apfel girls and if she could have done anything different.

It isn’t easy to have an adult narrating events from when they were 11 and sometimes it felt undecided who was steering this narrative, the adult or the 11 year old.

Blue Hour by Sarah Schmidt, Hachette, 2022

Kitty is looking for escape. She is a nurse in an army town and before the war, she meets George Turner. Years later, she meets him again, convalescing in one of her wards. He isn’t the same man but they’re still drawn together and marry when she gets pregnant.

Their daughter Eleanor has grown up with the model of her parents’ loveless marriage. George has PTSD, Kitty feels trapped and now Eleanor is in a relationship that cycles through power and abuse.  

I couldn’t finish this. Why do I always pick up these ones when I’m sick in bed and the walls are already closing in on me? Oh, and the rain. The relentless grey wet days. That and the layers of trauma were all a bit much.

If you enjoyed reading this and want to hear about the next bookstack, subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.

The bedside bookstack – September 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, Vintage, 1979

Holy heck what are these stories and how have I never read Angela Carter before? High gothic, these stories are fairy tales without any of the froth or frosting. She takes familiar tales (Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots) as her starting point and then continues with the sex and violence which she believes was originally implied but omitted because of the young audience. This was a specific project, so I’m curious to read what else she has written and see if this is the exception or norm for her.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, Bloomsbury Circus, 2022

Cushla lives in the divided Belfast of the 1970s. She’s a Catholic school teacher but works in her family’s pub in a protestant area. Bombs, checkpoints, an army presence and divided communities are part of her daily life. When she starts having an affair with protestant barrister Michael Agnew, her life and loyalties are split even further.

This was a brilliant read with family, love and politics playing equal starring roles.

The Lessons by John Purcell, Fourth Estate, 2022

It was particularly hard to turn the light off at night or call time on my lunch break when I was reading this one. Starting in the sixties this beautiful book is about sexuality, class, creativity, power and the tangle people make of love.

Full disclosure, I know John from chats on Twitter. His literary knowledge is vast and astute. I love hearing what he’s reading and getting his suggestions. There are nods here to Hardy, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Dickens and he did it so well that he also conquered one of my pet peeves – main characters who are writers. Here it didn’t feel lazy or like a chance to show-off. I loved the literary references and inclusions.

If you’re interested in structure, this it’s a great example of how to do multiple POVs (across time). He has chapters narrated by his main characters Jane, Daisy, Simon and Harry and it doesn’t feel cluttered or make you dizzy as you move from one to the next.

Will now have to get my hands on his first book, The Girl on the Page.

The Employees A workplace novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn, Lolli Editions, 2020

A lot of rave reviews for this one. It was called experimental but I think it’s just scifi that’s being read by a non speculative-fiction audience. The first few pages just throw you right in there with no context. Apparently, I like more orientation from my narrative because I nearly abandoned ship. I’m glad I read on though, because the transcripts and testimonies from the staff aboard the six-thousand ship were quite beautiful despite the sometimes shocking and tragic events they narrated.

The six-thousand ship is crewed by humans and humanoids. After ’objects’ from the planet New Discovery are brought on the ship, things begin to change. The narrative is a series of interviews with employees about their emotional reactions to the objects and the new longings they have for their old planet. Their statements are a reflection on ideas of work, productivity, purpose, connection, memory and meaning.

Cold enough for snow by Jessica Au, Giramondo, 2022

I took a while to settle into the style of this book where all details are catalogued and it’s intensely internal with memories and thoughts. But after a while, it starts to feel meditative. Everything occurs at the same level whether it’s big or small.

A young woman travels through Japan with her mother. The distance between them is unsettling. I wanted it fixed, bridged by their time together. But that intimacy doesn’t match with everything that’s been revealed about both of them and probably says more about my desire for a mother-daughter relationship happy ending.

Fun House – A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, First Mariner Books, 2006

This graphic novel is the precursor to Alison Bechdel’s Are you my mother? Here, she’s looking at her father, their relationship, her discovery that he was gay and his suicide when she was in her early 20s.

In this graphic novel memoir, she openly likens the the events of her father’s life to written narratives perhaps trying to sift through the fictions herself.  He is an English teacher who loves books and her mum is an actress, so there is an element of life playing out fictitiously. Sometimes it feels like you shouldn’t be reading this. It’s so personal and private…but also fascinating.

Beach Read by Emily Henry, Penguin, 2020

January believes in romance and writes women’s fiction. Gus is a cynic with a literary bestseller behind him. These old college classmates wind up living next to each other and set up a challenge to swap genres and hopefully change their current broke and bookless states.

Again, another book with my ol’ pet peeve, the main character as a writer set up. But it works here. There may have been be a few similes on steroids but there was also a fun story which did a very clever take on popular versus literary fiction, more often played out as ‘women’s fiction versus literary fiction’. How are there such ordinary rom-coms around when there are books like this just waiting to be turned into a script? Movie please someone!

In Moonland by Miles Allinson, Scribe, 2021

Joe’s dad drove his car into a tram stop. Joe wants to understand why and thinks that tracing his ashram days in India, in the 70s, might be the key.

This book takes you backwards and forwards in time through Joe, his dad and daughter. These soul-searching journeys sometimes snag me. People are trying to make sense of the past but ignore their family who need them in the present. So the story moves on but I’m I still back thinking about the women who look after the kids while all the soul-searching happens.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Success! You're on the list.