The bedside bookstack – April 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan, Faber, 2020

I’m still turning this one over. Whenever I walk past and see the cover, I think about the rich journey I went on when reading it, how it’s left a residue behind and that I’d like to read it again, soon. And probably again after that.

I haven’t read a lot of books by male authors recently and certainly none that capture male friendship the way this one does. Tully and James grow up in a small Scottish town. In 1986 they make a legendary trip to Manchester with some friends to see their music idols. This is the soundtrack to all of their lives in some ways and where it all started.

Years later, Tully is terminally ill and mortality asks a lot of friendships. This book just didn’t skip a beat for me. Everything he wrote about, politics, relationships, family dynamics and the feel of an era just got it all right. A beautiful and poignant book about life, death, friendship and music.

Learning Curves, Griffith Review 75, 2022

There’s always so much to soak up in a Griffith Review. If you’re not familiar, it’s a quarterly journal with some of Australia’s best writing, Each issue has essays, memoir, fiction, poetry and reportage based around a different theme.

This one is about education in Australia. Anyone who has taught, is teaching or gives a rats about education will probably burn with fury over some of these pieces, find comfort in others as well as insight into the unknown.

You can’t go wrong in the hands of Tegan Bennett Daylight, Gabbie Stroud and Cath Keenan, who are just some of the great contributors in this issue. The question is, how do you get this into the hands of the people who really should be reading it? The people making and changing and remaking our education policies?

Oppositions – Selected Essays by Mary Gaitskill, Serpents Tail 2021

After reading The Mare back in February, I went on a Mary Gaitskill rampage and reserved everything the library had from her. It didn’t work out how I hoped with her acclaimed short story collection but these essays balanced it out.

The pieces are collected from the last 30 years and are arranged in three sections; Living, Watching & Listening and Reading. She covers the bible, affairs, a trip to St Petersburg, date rape, Chekhov and plenty in between. Particularly interesting for me were ‘Learning to Ride’ which was about learning to ride horses and also about how she got the idea to write The Mare and ‘It Would Not be Wonderful to Meet a Megalosaurus’ an essay on Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which if you read on, seemed quite timely.

Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill, Penguin Random House, 1988

As mentioned above after reading The Mare back in February, I wanted to find more Mary Gaitskill. Bad Behaviour is a collection of short stories set in 1980s New York and was a bit of a sensation at the time. There’s sex and relationships and beautiful writing but it was all too mean for me to finish. I couldn’t read another story about how cruel we can be to each other. Things are enough as they are. I need a little more redemption and hope on my pages at the mo.

Little fires everywhere by Celeste Ng, Abacus, 2017

Mia and Pearl move around a lot. When they arrive in Shaker Heights, Mia promises her daughter that this time they’ll stay. Thinking it’s long term, Pearl relaxes and makes friends with the Robertson family.

This ‘perfect’ family is living her dream life with a big house, four kids and ‘regular’ parents. As Pearl gets closer to the kids, Mia gets a job as their housekeeper and each of them finds out there are secrets in this family too. At the same time, a local court case about the custody of an abandoned baby splits everyone’s loyalties and Mrs Robertson uncovers why Mia never stays in one place for long.

As I was reading it, I could see how well it would work on film and then found out Reese Witherspoon made it into a series (streaming in Prime now if you’re in Australia). This ticks along just nicely. Pack it for your weekend away, maybe not your commute (unless it’s long distance) because the putting down might be annoying.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, Penguin Random House, 2020

If you’re not familiar with the premise of this book, it’s an imagining of what might have happened if Hilary Rodham had not accepted Bill Clinton’s marriage proposal.

This was the first of the two books I put down this month. Not sure if that says something about the month I was having or the books I chose. Curtis Sittenfeld is great at her job. No questions there. Just go and check out Prep or You think it, I’ll say it but with Rodham her talents and the story weren’t a match for my desire to not read about politics in my spare time.

For anyone not in Australia, we’re currently in the run-up to an election and before that we were in the run-up to the announcement of an election, so at night, for the 30 odd minutes I can keep my eyes open, I can’t be reading about candidates and campaign trails. I just can’t.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Penguin Classics 1996

A month ago, I decided it was time to embark on a personal Dickens education. I’ve only ever read one of his books, A Tale of Two Cities back in high school. I asked people on Twitter where I should start and the general consensus was Great Expectations andthen Bleak House.

So here I am, reading and hoping to learn a little something from the Master. He certainly does a good opening and set up, with Pip’s voice already so clear within 2 paragraphs.

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Reading Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’

On the road with a poodle and a writer

I’m in awe of John Steinbeck as a writer. East of Eden is one of my favourite novels and Journal of a Novel is such a generous gift, exposing his process and doubts. So, it was interesting to read him as himself in Travels with Charley, not as a narrator or a writer immersed in fiction project.

It’s 1960 and Steinbeck feels like it’s been too long since he’s travelled and been with ’the people’. He feels like the success of his career has created a distance between him and them, so he kits out a truck as a motorhome (which he calls Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse) and takes his poodle Charley with him on a road trip around the country. Travels with Charley are the recollections of that trip.

It’s Steinbeck, so his meditations are eloquent and intelligent but he’s also growing older and things have changed. It’s a different America to his youth. Like most generations, he wishes things were more the way he remembers them. He finds a sameness he wasn’t expecting in accents and interiors and food.

What I wasn’t expecting and didn’t like was his romanticism towards some aspects of masculinity and his bemoaning the disappearance of the hard drinking, brawling man. There’s an aggression and machismo to Steinbeck that I wouldn’t have guessed from reading his fiction. It’s always interesting (and sometimes disappointing) when the writer you read is revealed and you don’t love everything about them.

On his trip, he meets men. Apart from the odd roadside waitress, the strangers who cameo in these pages are men he’s met by the side of the road or in towns. Women just can’t do that. I remember, more than 15 years ago, backpacking around South East Asia and getting furious about the boys we’d meet. They’d be on their own or in pairs, riding motorbikes through the golden triangle, narrating their remote encounters and adventures. And they just didn’t get it when we said that it couldn’t be like that for us, that we couldn’t just jump on bikes and ride through the dusk or accept invitations back to strange men’s houses. 

But his language, as ever, takes you in and his meditations follow. He contemplates the racial tension he sees in the south, the politics of the Cold War and the rise of consumerism. The book is as much a narration of his journey through the nation as it is him philosophising on various topics, for example, ideas about the impossibility of objectivity and how the America he sees and interprets with the same cities and stops is completely different to someone else, or even to himself at a different time of day.

“Our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

He mentioned that he doesn’t take notes as he goes. He lets it all sit for a year and then writes it down. I don’t know how he can write with such detail and richness about something which happened at least a year or more in the past. I would forget the details, the conversations, the finer parts of such a big journey.

Some of my favourite parts were the ‘uh-huh, that’s how it is for me as well’ moments.

How an intensely bad night can just disappear without a trace:

The sun was up when I awakened and the world was remade and shining. There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days and as an opal changes its colours and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I.”

How he too has books that he’s never going to read:

“I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn’t got around to reading – and of course those are the books one isn’t ever going to get around to reading.”

As a Steinbeck fan, I was happy just to hear his voice again, even though I didn’t like everything he had to say.

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Newcastle for Writers Festival Visitors

What to eat, drink and do while you’re here

Merewether Baths

Coming to Newy for the Newcastle Writers Festival? Here are my 5 favourites for where to go and what to do if you’re between sessions or have a little time to spare.

Well, that sounds lovely but I need suggestions for things REALLY close to the festival.

Of course, you’re here for the festival and have back-to-back sessions. You don’t have time for my weekender tips. It would be a shame to leave without seeing any of the beaches….but I understand. What you want is a coffee, somewhere to eat and maybe have a nice drink. See the list under my 5 favourites.

  1. Have a swim

It doesn’t matter where. If you’re in town and don’t have transport then Newcastle Beach and Nobby’s Beach or breakwater are easy options – take the tram straight there. If you have a car, then get thineself to Merewether Baths or Bar Beach. Busy day you say? Back-to-back sessions you say? An early morning swim at the Baths is one of the greatest ways to start a day. That’s all I’m saying.

2. Do a coastal walk

Perhaps ‘the’ coastal walk? The Bather’s Way, takes you along the cliffs from Newcastle Beach all the way down to Merewether. Anything from Newcastle Beach in the other direction to Nobby’s Beach or the breakwater or looping back along the harbour is also gorgeous.

3. Visit East Newcastle

Catch the tram to the end of the line and keep going one more block (the same as going to Newcastle Beach). You’ll find the best fish n’ chips in Newy at Scotties (36 Scott St). Order takeaway and sit on the grass with one their rugs or walk the one block to eat at Newcastle Beach. This little part of East Newcastle is so cute and if you keep walking you’ll reach the gorgeous deco Newcastle Baths. Unfortunately, they’re closed for an upgrade at the moment but you can go left and walk along the coast to Nobby’s Beach, lighthouse and breakwater or head right and have a swim at Newcastle Beach. While you’re down this end of town, you can check out The Falcon (10 Pacific St), The Great Northern (83-89 Scott St), The Basement (2/2 Market St) , Neighbours (2 Market St) and Saints Bar (31 King St) for a drink (or bite to eat).

4. Poke around a book shop

Macleans is the official festival bookshop. If you want to check out their storefront, they’re at 69 Beaumont St. There are also plenty of secondhand bookshops to poke around. My favourite is Cooks Hill Books (72 Darby St, v close to the festival venues). There are also Rice’s Bookshop (96 Beaumont St), Q’s Books (115 Beaumont St) and the Book Buff (100 Belford St).

5. Hang in Hamilton

Who says you need a festival gala to buy something nice to wear? Julie from I am Billie Boots (133A Beaumont St) knows exactly what will work for your shape and what she has in curated vintage and contemporary fashions that will match it. There are also another 2 vintage clothing shops and a Vinnies on her block. If you need coffee or a snack down this end of town then go to Mockingbird (131 Beaumont St) or Lords (148B Beaumont St). If your thirst is more likely to be slaked at a pub, head to my local, the Bennett (146 Denison St), one block across. They also do great food.

Head down Beaumont in the direction of the station and you’ll pass the Red Cross (63B Beaumont St) and Samaritans (19 Beaumont St) op shops. Keep going up Beaumont St and turn left into Hudson St just before the station for a huge Salvos (3/24 Hudson St) or continue on to the intersection of Beaumont St and Maitland Rd. You’re in Islington now and this nook has vintage and pre-loved aplenty. Check out the Vinnies (125 Maitland Rd), The Conscious Exchange (86 Maitland Rd), Stoned Saint Moon and Planet Islington (80 Maitland Rd).

While you’re there, get a coffee or a bag of my favourite beans, Peaberry’s (81 Maitland Rd). If they’re closed (close at 1pm on Sat & not open Sunday) sorry, but Suspension Espresso (3 Beaumont St) also comes recommended.

OK, I promised suggestions close to the Civic precinct. Here they are:

  • Crystalbrook Kingsley (282 King St) Five-star hotel with unrivalled views. Try Romberg’s on level 9 for drinks and bar bites, or Roundhouse on the rooftop for the restaurant experience.
  • Rascal Burgers (1/266 King St) Fully stacked burgers, diner style.
  • Goldbergs (137 Darby St) A Newcastle favourite for over 25 years. Great coffee and a cosy café hang out, also wine and dinners.
  • Autumn Rooms (127 Darby St) Coffee, high tea and café food.
  • Light Years (7 Darby Street) A chic new diner with modern Asian cuisine.
  • MEET (9 Darby Street) Brazilian fare. Began as a humble food truck and now hosts a beautiful bar with a share plate menu, and a restaurant serving Churrasco.
  • Napoli Centrale (173 King St) Authentic, delicious, simple Neapolitan pizzas. Say. No. More.
  • Foghorn Brewery (218 King St) Famous local brew house with diner style eating.
  • Clarendon Hotel (347 Hunter St) Art Deco style bar, with solid pub dining.
  • Coal & Cedar (380 Hunter Street) Cocktails and share plates.
  • The Press Coffee and Book House (462 Hunter St) Practically across the road. Perfect daytime destination for books and coffee.
  • Banh Mi 233 (233 Hunter St) all the deliciousness you expect from this Vietnamese favourite.
  • The Signal Box (155 Wharf Rd) Historic Newcastle building with upmarket bistro style dining and modern Australian cuisine. Breakfast through to dinner.

And finally, not near the festival but close to the beach there’s Modus (20 Merewether St) a slick new brewery and Merewether Surfhouse (5 Henderson Pde) which covers all budgets and inclinations with a café, bar, restaurant, pizza and take away. Yes, this one is right on the beach.

Just one more thing, the Olive Tree Markets will also be on in Civic Park, about 5 minutes away from most festival venues.

OK, as you were, enjoy your sessions and your weekend up here. Maybe I’ll see you round.

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Images: Brendan Wallis

The Bedside Bookstack – March 2022

What’s teetering on the bookstack this month.

The Keepers by Al Campbell, UQP 2022

Jay is a full-time carer to her two high needs teenage sons who are in the bureaucratic and medical too-hard basket. She has a husband who lives upstairs but not in their life and an aged mother whose loveless legacy, she’s trying to undo.

This book is clever, funny and full of heart. It shows us at our best and absolute worst. Just read it. Read it. Read it.

the namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2003

Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli leave Calcutta for America. They name their first child Gogol, after the famous Russian writer. He is a favourite of Ashoke’s father and the book saves Ashoke’s own life in a train accident.

This is a beautiful story of family, belonging and identity. We follow the Gangulis for 40 years and witness as each of them feels the push and pull of being in one place with influences and expectations from somewhere else.

Travels with Charley in search of America by John Steinbeck, Heinemann, 1962

It’s 1960 and John Steinbeck feels like he’s lost touch with his country and the people in it. Kitting out a truck as a mobile home, he takes a road trip around the country with his poodle Charley. By this time, he’s a well-known author, so this trip is a chance to be anonymous and move at his own pace. As he goes, he mediates on modern America, what is familiar to him, what’s been lost and what he doesn’t understand.

It’s Steinbeck. It’s always going to be well written and a pleasure to read but it was interesting to read him as a person and not a narrator and find that there’s a romanticising of ‘old’ masculinity (drinkin’ and brawlin’) that doesn’t sit well with me at all.

It was a good read though and gave me plenty to think about.

The Breaking by Irma Gold, Midnight Sun, 2021

Hannah is away from home for the first time. She’s backpacking in Thailand and loving the thrill of freedom. She meets Deven in her hostel and joins her to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary. But Deven needs to do more for the animals and wherever she goes, Hannah will follow.

This book offered the same nostalgia and familiarity for backpacking through Asia as Love & Virtue did for being at uni. She recreates the intense bond you can have with strangers when travelling and the familiarity you can find in a foreign culture. There is also the murky territory of trying to ‘save’ a situation you don’t fully understand and thinking you’re a ‘traveller’ when really, we’re all tourists because we’re not from there.

The Furies by Mandy Beaumont, Hachette, 2022

There is anger, silence, violence and fury in this book from women past and present who were told they didn’t belong, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, who were feared and misunderstood, told to keep quiet, stay still and taught to feel shame.

Cynthia inherits this legacy like so many girls before her. It comes with loss and isolation but when she hears the muffled voices of wronged women rise around her, it gives her strength that she didn’t know she had.

Night boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry, Canongate, 2019

Maurice and Charlie are ageing Irish gangsters. They pace the Algeciras Port waiting for the Night Boat from Tangier to come in. They hold posters of Dilly Hearne, Maurice’s daughter and ask if anyone has seen her. They haven’t seen her in 3 years and there are whispers that she’s expected tonight.

Kevin Barry is a master! Just let yourself go and the poetry of his prose will catch you. The narrative is almost a hallucination as Maurice and Charlie recall their past in Spain, Ireland and Morocco and the love and loss of Dilly’s mum Cynthia, for both men.

The language is sublime and there’s something Brechtian in Maurice and Charlie’s restless wait and recollections as if Dilly is their Godot who may never show.

All Hands By Megan McGrath, Spineless Wonders 2019

This collection is a wee A5 pocket size. It was put out as part for Spineless Wonders’ 10th Anniversary and I’m always a lover of lovers of short fiction.

This is a coastal collection. Salt water and a briney breeze infuses the stories. The water offers redemption, distraction, protection, temptation and always familiarity. These characters wash in and out leaving and returning like the tide. The stories aren’t linked but I read it all in one sitting because of that familiar ocean thread that pulls through all of them and now I feel like I have traces of salt, crusted on my skin.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, Text, 2019

 I’ve only just started this one and actually thought I was reading one of his short story collections, which come highly recommended. I have no idea where it’s going but that’s a good thing, I think. The back cover certainly declares his ‘New York Times best-seller’ status.

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5 ways to find your way back to the page

Sometimes you need to hit pause on your writing relationship

Last year was a low point for me and my writing. The dynamic was starting to feel like a bad marriage. It isn’t romantic or cathartic or necessary to feel huge amounts of pain in exchange for words on a page. So, I had a trial separation. Here’s how we got back together. #writingcommunity #writerslife

At the end of last year, my relationship with writing felt like a bad marriage. Life was stalling in other ways, care of the pandemic and my tally of unsuccessful submissions, applications and pitches was getting depressing.

I wasn’t writing and I hated that I wasn’t writing but I just couldn’t seem to do it. There was no excitement. No chasing the unknown or following curiosity. No lightness or joy to it. Something that had been a life force for me had turned rotten.

It was feeding all my worst core beliefs. When I thought about writing the associations were dark and heavy; sadness and unworthiness, invisibility, despondence. It isn’t romantic or cathartic or necessary to feel huge amounts of pain in exchange for words on a page.

How can you write with those shadows at your hand? You can’t. Like all relationships, if it’s bringing you more sadness than joy, it’s worth examining if it it’s time to get out and for me it was. The idea was to have a trial separation, get some distance, have a think about it all and see if I could rekindle what we once had.

Here’s how I made it back to the page.

  1. Read if you can’t write

Someone once said that if you’re a writer who isn’t writing, then you should be reading and vice versa. Reading is sustenance, joy and escape. It’s immersion and fascination and the repeated exposure to text is also instructive. There’s a kind of osmosis occurring as you take it all in. There are styles you’ve never read before, structures you hadn’t imagined, impossibly gorgeous language and clever plotting. So, if you can’t do nothing but are finding it impossible to do something, reading is a good way to start the journey home.

2. Ban yourself from writing…or not

If the writing (or inability to do so) is causing the pain, then step away. Don’t write. Just put a ban on it for an amount of time that lets you off the hook. This isn’t wheedling yourself out of your regular writing practice or habit. This is an intervention to get you back there. You can’t make it better without a bit of distance and reflection.

And if not-writing is a not-option then….

3. Make it mean nothing

My writing had all become so loaded with the expectation of outcome. I needed to make it mean nothing so I could love it again. You can’t just turn off your desire to be published or your hopes that what you write will be ‘good’ but you can write things that aren’t meant to go beyond what they are.

Keep writing in your journal. Excavate the emotions that are setting it all off until you get a little nugget of something. Go old school and write letters to friends, birthday cards longer than they need to be, post-its with too much detail. Write notes apropos of nothing in particular, stories or poems that you don’t have any future plans for beyond the action of simply writing them. Or see number five for writing exercises that offer writing practice minus a loaded expectation of the outcome.

4. Don’t let it steal your other joys as well

Writing is a big part of my identity, so the rot I felt there started to spread through to other aspects of my life. Try and isolate it to stop the spread. Champion the healthy relationships you do have and the aspects of your life which are bringing you joy. Give them more time and attention. It’s the same advice for anyone going through any other negative thought cycle. Do some exercise. Spend time with the people you love. Do things that relax you and make you happy. Try to stay present and avoid the constant mental replay and fast-forward.

5. Learn something

This is a great time to admit humility and allow that there’s always more to learn. Read a book by a writing teacher (Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists Way by Julia Cameron, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas). Read a book by a writer talking about their process and advice (On Writing by Stephen King, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck).

This is a chance to try new things and think about process rather than the outcome. Writing exercises are exactly that, exercise. They’re a great way to write without expectation and for this writer, it was the way back to the page. It was a reminder of what I love about writing, what I get out of it and why, for me, it’s a relationship worth sticking with.

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The bedside bookstack – February 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this February.

Once there were wolves by Charlotte McConaghy, Hamish Hamilton, 2021

Inti Flynn is the lead biologist on a rewilding project introducing wolves back in to the Scottish Highlands and the locals aren’t happy about it. She’s trying not to get too attached to the wolves, or people, but she has a condition that makes it impossible. She feels the sensations that she sees in others.

I couldn’t put this book down. The wild landscapes and animals endangered by our own wild sense of how we should live offer a climate narrative without the didactic overtones that are often hard to avoid with such an urgent topic. I think the secret is sublime language for landscape and the natural world and a cracking story that keeps you guessing.

On a technical and grammatical note, this is a great example of a narrative which has a lot of backstory that have been effortlessly incorporated. She’s made it so clear – use present simple tense for the main narration and then past simple tense for any flashbacks. What a way to simplify something that can get really clunky when you have a past simple narration and start getting into past perfect territory.

Devotion by Hannah Kent, Picador 2022

Hanne and her family are from a small Prussian village. They aren’t welcome to practice their Old Lutheran religion anymore and so they and other families put their hope in moving to the colony of South Australia.

Hanne lives for the outdoors and can hear the song in animals and plants. She feels different to the other girls her age and spends most of her time alone or with her twin brother. When Thea and her family move to the village, Hanne finds someone who understands her and a love she only understands with distance.

You’re always in good historical hands with Hannah Kent. Her research is watertight but never obscures the story. This is a tale of love, migration, settlement and environment. There is something sacred and hallowed to the language which fits the elegy of the narrative.

Beautiful world, where are you by Sally Rooney, faber, 2021

I had to give this one at least 50 pages before I warmed into it. One of my pet peeves is the writer as narrator. My complaint is, really? A writer? How many writers are even just writers? It just feels a bit lazy and hard to believe. In this, not only is one of the main characters a writer but a ridiculously successful one. Not so hard to believe given that it’s Sally Rooney who is writing. Then I thought, oh no, is this another famous person telling us how hard it is to be rich and famous?

The answer is yes. But it’s OK. It actually works, because after an opening with crazily wooden and forensic detailing of people’s location and movements, things get moving and we’re back in Rooney’s best territory, relationships where people move slowly forwards and backwards again in and out of each other’s orbits. There is a lot of musing on the state of politics, the environment and culture, a feeling of demise but amidst the big picture her characters admit, “Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing.”

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, Serpent’s Tail, 2015

Ginger, in her 40s and childless, wants to know if she should foster a child. Through a summer program, she and her husband host Velvet, a young city girl, at their house. There are stables next door and Velvet gets riding lessons and forms a special bond with a feisty mare that she calls Fiery Girl.

There are interesting questions here about motivation and if we’re doing things for the right reasons. Ginger needs Velvet to feel like a mother. Velvet needs Ginger to access her horse.

There are also interesting questions about what we decide we mean to people or animals. Can Velvet understand Fiery Girl because she understands being broken? What can Ginger give Velvet when she already has a mother?

Finally, how has Mary Gaitskill, in her sixties, written this? It has all the energy and preoccupation of teenage desire and all the uncertainty of a midlife stock take.

Love & Virtue by Diana Reid, Ultimo Press, 2021

Michaela gets a scholarship to a college at Sydney University. She’s from Canberra and didn’t go to private school, so she sits outside the usual demographic but is befriended by the charismatic Eve.

Eve likes pushing against her surroundings, Michaela just wants to fit in but they’re both cynics who love to intellectually spar. Michaela is still navigating who she’s going to be in a new independent landscape and there’s a rivalry that ticks in the background of their intense relationship but it’s only after revelations regarding a drunken.

This is a clever book and a great read about the personal and the political, power, consent, entitlement and institutional culture. Reading it, I had as much nostalgia for uni days and staying out all night as I had cringe for being a young woman at that age and seeing how little has changed for them in terms of power dynamics.

When things are alive they hum by Hannah Bent, Ultimo Press, 2021

Marlowe and Harper are sisters. Harper was born with a congenital heart disease and needs a heart and lung transplant but she isn’t allowed on a transplant list because she has Downs Syndrome.

Marlowe is studying in London but goes back to Hong Kong when she hears how sick her sister is. Marlowe has been more like a mum since their own mother died when they were young. She’s so focussed on fixing the situation that she doesn’t listen to what Harper actually wants or consider the ethics of trying to save her by any means possible.

Hang him when he is not there by Nicholas John Turner, Zerogram Press, 2021

This doesn’t call itself a collection and it’s numbered like chapters but some of the cover comments say it is short stories. I’m only three chapters in. It’s definitely not linear narrative and the coming together of threads certainly hasn’t happened yet. Thus, I’m not sure how to describe it. Intellectual, philosophical, experimental? Pretty dense for a bedtime read. Maybe more for a morning commute, when you’re fresh.

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The bedside bookstack – January 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this January.

no one is talking about this by Patricia Lockwood, Bloomsbury Circus, 2021

Hear ye! Hear ye!

That’s me ringing the bell in the town square while I hold up this book for the villagers to see.

Behold something new!!

Patricia Lockwood (of Priestdaddy fame) has created something completely unique in this book. Equal parts profound and profane it slips from satire into something heartbreakingly earnest.

The narrator is increasingly living her life through ‘the portal’. She went viral asking “Can a dog be twins?” and appears around the world discussing everything portal-related. Our online lives squirm under the scrutiny and she’s writing in a connected/disconnected stream-of-consciousness that mirrors the online rabbit holes you can fall down.

The second half of the book changes tack, with the sickness of the narrator’s niece. Life is lived offline and measured out in hospital halls and hushed tones instead. This book is quite a ride, very clever and something I’m still thinking about.

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor, Daunt Books Originals, 2021

I have a particular weakness for collections of linked short stories but these tales get my love for more than their connection and continuation of a narrative. He is a master of the form.

Oh, he’s just done that has he? He’s just perfectly captured intimate moments of vulnerability or repeated habits of pain or the cruel spar between hurt partners? Why, yes. Yes, he has and he’s done it seamlessly across gender and race and sexuality.

The cruel machismo between brothers, friends and lovers sometimes scared me because it was hard to disbelieve in its perfect delivery. And I ached at the sense of acceptance and exile these characters felt from themselves and the people who were supposed to love them.

Signs and Wonders by Delia Falconer,Scribner, 2021

The sub-heading on the cover of this book of essays is perfect – Dispatches from a time of beauty and loss.

I’ve loved Delia Falconer ever since my first year of university when we studied her essay Colombus’ Blindness. Look it up if you can. It’s more than 20 years old now, but even back then, her writing mixed poetic eloquence with intelligent observation and meticulous research.

I’ve only just started reading the essays in Signs and Wonders but thus far they have that same beauty and elegance combined with a curiosity that stretches from literature to archaeology, geology, ornithology and beyond.

And if you think these are a gorgeous (and yes, sobering) read, then try her exquisite fiction The service of the clouds and The lost thoughts of soldiers.

Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout, Viking, 2021

Have you ever read Elizabeth Strout? She’s built a career writing beautifully about ordinary people in vignettes or interlinked short stories that combine to form much more than the sum of their parts. Writers are warned against this – both the short stories and the quiet lives. They’re told no one will publish or read them.

I have to admit that I’m only talking about Oh William!, My name is Lucy Barton, Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again.  I haven’t read her other books but what I love about these two sets is that they’re also interlinked (and you know I love em’ linked). She writes the literary version of a spin-off series.

But I digress. Oh William! comes after My name is Lucy Barton. William is Lucy Barton’s ex-husband and as usual, the recollection of someone else’s life always tells us more about the character reminiscing than they’d like to think.

The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson, Hachette, 2021

Rachel is a glass artist who has chosen isolation. She lives remote and off the grid, just the way she likes it. Outside world necessities are only delivered through her sister Monique or friend Mia. The same week that Mia doesn’t turn up, a young woman and her sick baby arrive on Rachel’s doorstep with news of a shadowy menace.

They are a charged presence that feed on fear and have killed off the population. First it was only happening far away but now they are here and Rachel needs to leave her sanctuary to find her sister get help for the woman and baby.

Perhaps we can only process climate destruction as a story but the burning fires, vast destruction and consumptive lifestyles of this novel are real. A prescient read about art, the environment, pandemics and our internal fears.

The Safe Place by Anna Downes, Affirm Press, 2020

Emily is an aspiring actor but her auditions aren’t leading to any work and she’s just been fired from her temp job. When she’s offered an au-pair-ish role by her ex-boss on a coastal property in France, it seems like the life line she needs.

The days are sunny, the landscape is gorgeous and the work is satisfying but some things feel a bit off. The husband is absent and cagey, the wife is friendly but unpredictable and the silent daughter’s unspecific health issues just don’t add up. This is the perfect summer page-turner.

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny, 4th Estate, 2021

Jane is in love with Duncan and Duncan is ‘with’ Jane but in the extra decade and a half he has on her, he was also ‘with’ most of Boyne City.

Having Duncan in your life also means you have his ex-wife Aggie and his co-worker Jimmy. One night, an accident changes everything and the disparate sum of these people equals a new kind of family.

Written with her usual talent for getting human interaction just right, this doesn’t play for laughs as much as her earlier book Standard Deviation (which I love, love, loved) but the wit is still there and I think this one has more heart.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley, Granta, 2017

After reading and love, love loving Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, I rushed to read something else by her. At first, I thought I’d picked up the same book. Here was the same bully of a father, the narcissistic mother, the narrator, Neve, trying to distance herself from a traumatic childhood in Northern England. But in place of a supportive and stable long-term partner for our narrator there is a totally toxic and abusive husband. His emotional and verbal blows are relentless and it’s lucky Riley writes short novels because it would be difficult to read much more of Neve absorbing and accommodating his tirades.

the family next door by Sally Hepworth, Pan Macmillan, 2018

This was a slow burn for me. Initially, the set-up of three neighbouring mums with their own secret felt a bit too staged but as other characters were added, the narrative found its way. There’s a lot about the tiredness and chaos of having young kids. I can certainly attest to the truth of it but this is just a warning, in case that’s not what you feel like picking up in your down time.

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2021

Marco Carrera is ‘the Hummingbird’. He is an ophthalmologist in Florence. This is the story of his life as told through letters, phone conversations with therapists, emails, conversations and good old-fashioned prose narrative.

There are a lot of accolades on the cover of this one, so my expectations were sky high. Alas, as a reader, it wasn’t for me. I gave it a good go but the lists, digressions and detail about mid-century furniture and Italian architecture in the 70s weren’t for me. I wonder what it would’ve read like in the original Italian and if it lost anything in translation.

As a writer though, it was an interesting example of non-linear narrative using multiple forms.

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Thursday thank-you note

Acknowledgement for life’s quiet joys

I feel like last year, I gave a lot more air-play to what I didn’t have. It wasn’t just in my writing life but in my life life as well.

So, one of my new year’s resolutions that I’m going to make good on right now is to regularly think about things I love, big and small and say thanks.

Life is full of little loveliness that often gets overlooked and overshadowed by the bigger picture. I’d like to offer acknowledgement and thanks for books, authors, people, places, feelings, smells, rituals – anything and everything really.

I’m going to keep myself accountable by posting a Thursday thank-you note (who doesn’t love a bit of alliteration motivation) on Twitter and if it’s a big thank you it might spill over into a blog.

So, here’s to a new habit, may it change the setting on my dial to pick up and acknowledge all those small joys that usually only get a silent appreciation.

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The bedside bookstack – December 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this December.

When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi, The Bodley Head London, 2016

As I waited in hospital recently, I was told an oncologist joke – that one of the risk factors for getting cancer is being a nice person. In this case, Dr Paul Kalanithi wasn’t just nice. He was at the top of his field as a neurosurgeon, the recipient of awards, a favourite among colleagues and patients. At 36 he was diagnosed with cancer. At 37 he died.

Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death.

This is the irony or more the tragedy of Paul Kalanithi’s illness. He was a seeker from the outset, using literature and philosophy to answer some of life’s biggest questions for himself, even as a young student. His search led him to pursue neurosurgery and the process and responsibility of his position was something he was always aware of.

Doctors in highly charged fields meet patients at inflected moments, the most authentic moments where life and identity were under threat; their duty included learning what made that particular patient’s life worth living and planning to save those things if possible – or to allow the peace of death if not.

This memoir is a gift. It’s a reflection on life and death and living with death. It’s one I’ve tagged and underlined, will read over and push into people’s hands I think.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley, Granta, 2021

I don’t know what she’s done or how she has done it but this book is close to perfect.

As a reader, I hated putting it down and finished it in two sittings. As a writer, I’m trying to analyse what it was that had such an effect on me. It’s more vignettes than linear plotline. The prose isn’t elevated or attempting any high-wire tricks but there is something close to perfection in it. I was so emotionally drawn in by the characters from the first paragraph and that was all she needed to do. The interactions are of a strained mother-daughter relationship as well as memories of a father and awkward contact with a sister.

A question of craft is to ask what your characters internal and external motivations are. Someone needs to not get what they want to move things along. No one is getting what they want from life or from their family relationships in this book. They’ve all apparently given up but still keep meeting and going through the motions and this is where the meat is. People being people.

One of the reads of the year. It’s under my skin and chasing around and around and around. And when it all settles, I think I’ll have to pick it up again.

Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom, Fourth estate, 2021

Another fraught mother-daughter relationship, except this time you can’t console yourself that it’s fiction. It’s hard to believe that such a beautifully written memoir could be about such traumatic things.

How to sum up the damage and volatility of Michelle Tom’s early family life? A violent father, a manipulative and narcissistic mother, and three children left to absorb the trauma and impact of all those years.

Split with the narration of childhood, there is the adult experience of the Christchurch earthquake(s) and the fissures that opened up for her own family. I loved this and found it fascinating. I just wish she didn’t have to live through such trauma to write such a stunning book.

Repentance by Alison Gibbs, Scribe, 2021

It’s 1976 and as the rest of the country slows down for the Christmas holidays things are charged and accelerating in Repentance. Usually, a small cattle and timber community, the town has new residents. Old farms are being turned into Hippie communes and the newcomers are worried about the fate of the rainforest nearby.

Joanne Parmenter’s mum has just died of cancer. Her dad is a big man around town. He’s pro logging and anti the new hippie arrivals living up in the hills. Joanne’s sister works at the sawmill but Joanne goes to school with Melanie whose Mum is helping to organise protests. On both sides of a fight there are people with families, histories and loyalties that dictate their direction.

The heat, the beauty of the rainforest and the hum of insects beat throughout this story.

and all around the metallic screaming of cicadas, a tremulous curtain of sound rising and dissolving through the trees.

The Rabbits by Sophie Overett, Penguin Vintage, 2021

This book set in the middle of a sticky Queensland summer felt like the right thing to be reading during a mini heatwave. You can feel the sweaty limbs and relentless heat, although, to be honest, that’s the least of the Rabbit’s problems. When 16-year-old Charlie Rabbit goes missing, the dysfunction that the family has been getting along with gets blown sky-high. Older sister, Olive Rabbit is fuming, younger brother Charlie Rabbit is lost and mum Delia, whose own sister went missing as a teenager, is caught in a present which seems a lot like her past.

When things took a magic realism turn a third of the way through, it felt a bit bumpy and I wasn’t sure it would work, but I was so invested in the Rabbits that I had to keep going. I’m glad I did because, it worked when it was absorbed into the rest of the story.

Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down, Text Publishing, 2021

Before I’d read any of them, I used to get Jennifer’s mixed up – Jennifer Down, Jennifer Mills, Jennifer Egan. This is my first Jennifer Down and I’ve only just started it but she’s distinct now. I’ve already sobbed at the early trauma of Maggie’s life. But Maggie isn’t Maggie anymore. She’s put time and distance between herself and that identity. I need to keep on reading to know the whys and whens and you better believe that I will.

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The bedside bookstack – November 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this November.

The Magician by Colm Toibin, Simon & Schuster, 2021

Ah Colm, it just all turns to gold in his hands, doesn’t it? This one’s a biggie, epic in proportions (a real door-stopper) but also in the dimensions it covers. Writing about Thomas Mann’s life he manages to cover culture, history and politics at a macro level, while getting down to the fine detail of relationships, parenthood, families, repressed sexuality, writing and a creative life.

This book spans world wars, years in exile and pivotal moments in 20th Century history and yet often, I was stuck on the space and time he had to write. I was so distracted by his bookshelves and study, rebuilt in about four different houses, and by the way that children and visitors were shooed from his door and shushed, so he could write in peace. I wrote some thoughts about this and his right to write in my previous blog.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny, 4th Estate, 2017

How do we not all know who Katherine Heiny is? Why aren’t we all reading her for book club and recommending her to each other? I only found out about this book by reading a column in the Gleebooks newsletter. Always trust a bookseller, right?

Audra, who is the narrator’s second wife, is one of the best characters I’ve ever read. She’s an unfiltered extrovert with a good heart. The narrative is almost an aside to her stream-of-consciousness interactions with anyone and everyone she comes into contact with. This could be overplayed to get laughs. But it isn’t.

Read it. Read it. Read it.

I already have her latest book, Early morning riser on order.

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller, UQP, 2020

Stacey and Laney are twins. Laney’s the tear-away who sneaks out at night while Stacey is doing her homework. One night Laney doesn’t come home and Stacey’s dreams tell her that she’s in trouble.

There are things the Elders won’t tell Stacey and places no one is supposed to visit. Her mob isn’t supposed to talk to the Millers either but old May Miller knows what she’s been dreaming about without being told. This is a great YA read about culture, family and race.

Good Indian daughter by Ruhi Lee, Affirm Press, 2021

When Ruhi Lee finds out she’s pregnant with a girl, she freaks out. She thought she had the rest of her life to resolve issues around family, identity and her role as a ‘good Indian daughter’ but with a daughter on the way, she realises it’s time to resolve past traumas if she wants to break the cycle of gendered expectations.

This memoir is an honest journey into the difficult territory of loyalty, love and damage within the immediate family. Family is such a fundamental part of her life that her relationship with her parents is worth fighting for but redesigning the dynamics meets a lot of resistance.

Other people’s houses by Kelli Hawkins, Harper Collins, 2021

Kate is still grieving the death of her 5-year-old son. 10 years have passed. She’s taken up drinking and visiting open houses in expensive suburbs. When she visits the Harding House, she becomes obsessed with both the family and the residence.

I spent a lot of this book thinking ‘No Kate! That’s not a good idea. Please stop snooping!’. I get nervous about people being in places they shouldn’t be. I really wanted her to just stay at home and watch some TV but if she did, then we wouldn’t have a psychological thriller on our hands, would we?

Poly by Paul Dalgarno, Ventura Press, 2020

Chris hasn’t had sex with his wife for a loooong time. His solution is for their marriage to be polyamorous. The hope is that by having sex with other guys, she’ll want to sleep with him again. The reality is two people not being honest with each other and drawing other people into their vortex.  

Between his new girlfriend and his home life, seems more exhausting than erotic. He’s constantly telling his kids how much he loves them and himself that they’re the most important thing in the world to him. On their behalf, I was waiting for him to show it by making them a priority and stop palming off looking after them to everyone else.

Nancy Business by R.W.R McDonald, Allen& Unwin, 2021

I haven’t finished this one yet, but anyone who has missed Tippy and the gang, need not worry. They’re back together again trying to solve mysteries they’ve been told to stay away from. This time it’s an explosion at the local Town Hall.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, this is the sequel to The Nancys. 11-year-old Tippy Chan is a Nancy Drew fan. She lives in regional New Zealand and solves crime in her local town with the help of her uncle and his boyfriend. Good fun had by all, especially if you are or were a Nancy Drew fan.

For a Little While (new and selected stories) by Rick Bass, Pushkin Press, 2017

My husband found this on a list of recommended nature writing. As an Australian reader, it’s almost embarrassing that the American landscape evoked in this collection, is as familiar to me as an Australian one. It feels reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, in the space and pace. The stories I’ve read so far are full of mountains, flat lands, cattle, small rural towns and the quiet lives therein.

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