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.

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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.

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The bedside bookstack – July 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month

Still Life by Sarah Winman, Random House, 2021

I’m going to say it, I think this is a masterpiece. Book of the year, decade, maybe the Century thus far? Art is supposed to move you and I’ll feel the tremors of this book for a long time.

Still Life spans 30 years and moves from London to occupied Italy and France and then back to liberated Florence. During the war, young English soldier Ulysses Temper crosses paths with ageing art historian Evelyn Skinner. It sets off a chain of events that echo through the decades and change both of their lives. At its heart (and this book has just sooo much heart) it’s about love, art, war, family, Florence, food and Forster (E. M. that is).

I’m not doing it any justice. You’ll laugh and cry within a page. Just read it, read it, read it! But not too fast. These characters will stay with you. Savour and enjoy because saying goodbye to people that you love is never easy.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Bloomsbury, 2011

I’ve never read the Odyssey, always intended to but it seemed like hard work. I also get very confused very quickly about all the players both mortal and immortal and apparently I’m not the only one, so Madeline Miller, Classics Professor, has taken the story of Achilles and written this gorgeous version for us in the modern world.

And somehow, I can keep track of the Kings and Goddesses with their eternal feuds and grudges. She fills in the background details seamlessly, not as speech-bubble asides but as an organic part of the narrative.

It’s a tale as old as time, love, war, pride, prophecy. We’re so used to happy endings that the chaos of the gods is sometimes hard to take but we love and lose within these pages as the prophecy always said we would.

Could. Not. Put. Down. Loved it. So glad that I read this 10 years after it came out, it meant I could move straight on to her next book Circe.  

Circe by Madeline Miller, Bloomsbury, 2018

Other attempts to read Greek mythology feel like a listing of lineage and I can’t hold the connections together but Madeline Miller slows it right down and sticks to the story of one player. Thus, all the other knowns, the heroes and immortals wash in and out and you can follow the links and legacies, the unions and betrayals. And for all the gods and their caprice, there is a timelessness to the themes, ideas of home, loyalty, inheritance, purpose, power, pride. It seems the gods share more with us than they think.

I loved that she brought a female goddess to the centre of the story and made the heroes and gods orbit around her journey for a change. Exile, motherhood, power and purpose, family, home, love, sacrifice. Circe lives it all in her eternity. She’s a fascinating character and it’s a pleasure to share her exile with her. And I guess now I just have to wait and hope that Madeline Miller will have something else out soon.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Bloomsbury Circus, 2019

Such a great book! How did she do it? Kiley Reid gives us race relations in contemporary America with the moral ambiguity ratchetted up because race sits at the centre of it all, explosive and undiscussed.

Emira is twenty-something and drifting. She has multiple part-time jobs, one of which is babysitting for a wealthy white family. Things aren’t the same after she’s accused of kidnapping the child that she’s looking after.

This book is whip-smart and has no easy answers. There are parts that are a slow train wreck. You’ll laugh and cringe and have plenty to think about. It’s also not easy to have small children as narratives characters but the relationship between Emira and 3 year-old Briar is just so well done.

Are you my mother? By Alison Bechdel, Jonathon Cape, 2012

You may know the Bechdel test for film and tv? Or not, you can look it up on the link. Anyway, this is that Bechdel. This is the graphic-novel memoir about her relationship with her mother that came out when she was writing a memoir about her father and is really an access all-areas pass to her trying to figure out with her psychoanalyst and some help from Virginia Woolf, Donald Winnicott and Freud, among others, what the relationship is that she has with her. This is dark, visceral and about as honest as it gets. They’re both so fascinating and yet their dance is the familiar one of an unfulfilled parent who was constrained in her own way by society and her family who then can’t give their child what they need. And something about it in the graphic novel format lays it all the more bare. Humans, we’re fascinating, aren’t we?

People from my Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami, Granta, 2020

This is a slim collection of linked short stories from one of Japan’s most popular contemporary novelists. She’s known for her offbeat literary fiction which I wasn’t aware of because I haven’t read her before. I’d agree. If you like your tales short and quirky with a touch of magic realism, then these are for you.

I love linked collections. I like the time-lapse of people and a place over the years. This starts as an old post-war neighbourhood not far from Tokyo.  It’s subject to the usual gentrification that comes with proximity to a big metro city. I like how the ghosts of some of these characters remain (both figuratively and literally) despite all the change.

Machines like me by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 2019

He likes a moral clusterf*#k, doesn’t he, ol’ Ian McEwan? And AI presents plenty of moral and ethical dilemnas that I’ve enjoyed watching in movies like Zoe and ExMachina. This book is an interesting set up with a love-triangle and questions of truth, justice and human unpredictability, contradictions and hypocrisy.

Charlie buys a new model AI called Adam. Adam falls in love with Miranda, Charlie’s girlfriend. Miranda’s lies have put someone in prison but she had her reasons. How does machine learning that is sentient interpret bad things done for a good reason? People doing wrong things for noble reasons and doing the right things for the wrong reasons is interesting territory and that’s where this book as it its best but I did a bit of skimming and skipping in this one. There was a lot of philosophising and background on AI and computer engineering that just took me too far from the narrative.

The Best of me by David Sedaris, Little, Brown, 2020

I love David Sedaris, so was very smug about settling into this tome of a collection. But then I skipped the first piece, the second, the third, read the fourth, skipped another three, read the next one…

I’m not a big skipper but I realised, I usually read his non-fiction. This collection has a lot of fiction that just didn’t hit the right note for me.

I think David Sedaris is at his best when he’s writing about himself and his family, so maybe go for one of his non-fiction collections instead – apart from Squirrel seeks Chipmunk of course, which is fiction and a whole lot of fun.

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The bedside bookstack – May & June 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab, Giramondo, 2019

This is a collection of short stories, some much shorter than others. We’re in and then out of these lives catching parents, friends, a bridal couple, neighbours and relatives in a slice of their lives.

In the middle section, we are introduced to the Youssef family and we stay with them longer. A whole series of stories follow the daughter Mayada, brother Abdullah, mother Sumaya and father Najeeb. We watch the family slowly dissolve until there is no one left.

Next, I’m heading on to her novel Australiana which is described as ‘thematically connected vignettes’. Right up my alley. And she has another novel coming out at the end of the year, The Lovers. Can’t wait.

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, Scribner, 1997

The crazy thing is that this was Elizabeth Strout’s first published book which means she’s only got better since then.

Amy and Isabelle are a tight mother-daughter duo but the hot summer that Amy is 15 their proximity and co-dependence becomes unbearable. The POV hovers between them and then, as with all of Elizabeth Strout’s book it flits around like a butterfly, landing briefly on colleagues, neighbours and people in their town.

Life is enough for Elizabeth Strout. No need for plot twists or cliff-hangers. The intimate and complex dynamics that people share with each other is more than enough for her. Like Helen Garner elevates the quotidian in her non-fiction, Elizabeth Strout does the same with fiction.

The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie, HarperCollins, 2022

This Australian crime debut won the 2020 Banjo Prize and was great COVID isolation reading. Every time I read crime, I think ‘thanks for thinking all of this us for me!’. The detail in the clues and timelines, alibis and relationships and how it all has to fit together seem like a lot of work to me, so I’m glad there are people who do it and do it well.

Detective Sergeant Kate Miles is one week off maternity leave but a recent armed hold-up and an informal review of a closed case make the handover a busy one. I loved the Northern Rivers setting, the inclusion of a home life and this no-nonsense Detective.

Found, Wanting by Natasha Sholl, Ultimo Press, 2022

I do comms for a cardiovascular research organisation and Sudden Cardiac Death is a research priority. We hear the stories but I’ve never read 275 pages of what is left in its wake. This is a book about grieving a young and sudden death. It’s heavy and messy and as relentless as loss. But it’s also honest and generous and full of life. Not easy all-ironed-out-now-cos-the-requisite-time-has-passed life but unpredictable, not always solvable but still sometimes wonderful life. 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins 2021

I’m a big Louise Erdrich fan but I think this landed on the pile at the wrong time for me (during COVID).

Tookie has turned her life around. While she was in jail, she read everything she could find and now that she’s out, she works in a local bookstore specialising in Indigenous writing. She’s Potawatomi. When Flora, one of their customers, dies and starts to haunt the shop, Tookie thinks that by reading Flora’s last book, she’ll be able to see the ghost off.

This book is a series of vignettes with customers and staff. Should be just my thing but I didn’t reach for it and in the end, I stopped trying.

Friends & Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford, Text Publishing, 2021

This book is about youth and grief, together in the case of our narrator. She’s in her share house and at parties and turning up to multiple jobs but she’s skating over the surface of it all. Her dad has just died and her mum has returned to India and she is free floating though it all having clever conversations and going to the right places but clearly lost and looking for something more to anchor her.

A warning if you’re not a fan of Sydney – the city plays a lead role in this one.

Hovering by Rhett Davis, Hachette, 2022

Alice Wren is an artist and activist on the run from herself amongst other things. Her sister Lydia is doing everything apparently right but lives for her hours in an arboreal virtual world where she creates and sustains plants. Her son George has taken a political vow of silence. They live in the city of Fraser where the streets and landmarks change position overnight.

Original, yes. Genre-bending, yes. Unsettling, oh my god yes. Sooo, if you’re already feeling wobbly because of interest rate hikes and unaffordable petrol and lettuce, then leave this one until things feel more stable. The ground is literally and continuously shifting beneath their feet.

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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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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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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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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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