The bedside bookstack – May 2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this May.

The Writer Laid Bare by Lee Kofman, Ventura, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bedside Bookstack – April 2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this April.

Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie, 2022, Bloomsbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bedside Bookstack – March 2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this March.

Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar, Picador, 2019

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

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

Unexplained Laughter by Alice Thomas Ellis, Corsair, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The bedside bookstack – February 2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this February.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Windmill Books, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denizen by Hames McKenzie Watson, Viking, 2022

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

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

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

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

Bear Woman by Karolina Ramqvist, Manilla Press, 2021

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

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

Ariel by Sylvia Plath, Faber, 1968

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

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The bedside bookstack – Summer 2022/2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this summer.

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

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

French Braid by Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus, 2022

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

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

Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor, Pan Macmillan, 2022

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

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

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

Heatwave by Victor Jestin, Scribner 2021

(Trigger warning – suicide)

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

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

The Colony by Audrey Magee, Faber, 2022

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

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

The Lovers by Yumna Kassab, Ultimo Press, 2022

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

Happy go Lucky by David Sedaris, Little Brown, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moon tiger by Penelope Lively, Penguin, 1987

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

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

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti, Harville Secker, 2022

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

To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin, 1933

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

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

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The bedside bookstack – November 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

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

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

Now that’s how you start a story!

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

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

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

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

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley, Scribe, 2018

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

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

Severance by Ling Ma, Text, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 – August 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Hamish Hamilton, 2018

I was very sad last month when I finished Song of Achilles and Circe. So I googled ‘What should I read after Song of Achilles and Circe?’ and enough people have been there before me and kindly created lists and suggestions. Thus, I found Pat Barker in Ancient Greece rather than World War II where she usually is.

This is written from the POV of Briseis, Achilles slave girl. She’s a different Briseis to the one in Song of Achilles which is also what I’m enjoying about reading the same stories written by different people. If you can get past the absolute subjugation of women and the fact that they are possessed and repossessed multiple times, then you can enjoy the story at least being told by them and staying with them even when Achilles or Agamemnon leave the room. I choose to hear the voice which would otherwise be a cameo in these myths (another reason why Circe was sooo good.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Canongate Books, 2005

This slim volume is part of a series called The Myths in which international authors rewrite ancient myths. In comparison to Circe, Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls, this felt fleeting. Penelope is mortal for starters and a lot of her life is waiting but what I enjoyed about it, like the others, is the taking of an event which is barely a footnote in Odysseus’ story and fleshing it out. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca after 20 years, there are suitors who have been competing for Penelope as a wife. They are all killed, so are 12 slave girls who were associated with them.

Odysseus is a warrior. His story is synonymous with slaying. He kills, a lot, creatures and humans and as the body count goes higher you do dissociate from the fact that he’s ended a life. This book addresses the silent slaves and gives them the voice of a Greek chorus, so that his past actions can finally talk back to him.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, 2020

Piranesi lives in ‘the House’, a world of halls and statues, hundreds of them. He charts the tides and rain and details what he finds on his explorations. He is the only human apart from the Other, who he meets every week.

This book was a slow burn and I didn’t know what I was reading for a while. The hype didn’t help – Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner and the 2nd book from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. If you’re after something a little different, speculative but quiet and contained, then give this a go. It’s a unique world that she’s created.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Vintage, 1956

I’m paused here for a moment because it’s James Baldwin, so you’re in good hands, better than good. Maybe he’s too good at what he does because I found this book quite difficult and uncomfortable to read.

On the first page we’re told that Giovanni is in prison and will be killed tomorrow, so it’s no secret that what comes next will be a train wreck, eventually. David is an American in Paris. He has spent a lot of energy insisting that it’s only women he loves, even when he has an affair and moves in with Giovanni. This is the 1950s. How can two men have a life together? The squalor they live in seeps into David’s repression, his ideas of filth and shame about his true self. And then his fiancé returns. No happy endings here folks.

The Sorrow Stone by Kari Gislason, UQP, 2022

Viking Iceland circa the 10th Century. Disa is on the run with her son for a crime she has committed. But these are Viking times and crimes are usually are product of earlier crimes – feuds, betrayals, power grabs and honour killings to avenge these.

As she flees to the fjords we learn about what she has lost, both homeland and family, and what led her to this moment. This is a retelling of one of the most famous Icelandic sagas. You’d think that all my recent time with the Ancient Greeks would have prepared me for violence and death but the Vikings are brutal.

My Hundred lovers by Susan Johnson, Allen & Unwin, 2012

This is a life recalled in one hundred chapters through a body’s memory of desire, lust and love. Sometimes erotic. Sometimes abject. Sometimes simply the warm memory of an everyday sensation.

As the narrator remembers encounters in her teens and twenties I was reminded of books like Raven Leilani’s Luster, Ella Baxter’s New Animal and Sally Rooney’s Normal People where young women use their body and sex not for joy but more as an act of punishment. So, more a female thing than a millennial one. I think we can all cringe and relate more than we’d like to.

But the relief of recounting a hundred lovers is that our narrator grows older and wiser.

Some of these vignettes are pure poetry and as a writer and fan of short fiction, I enjoyed how they could each rest individually or stand together as a whole.

The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover, BlackInc., 2017

This novel about George Orwell was a fascinating read bringing together the very particular politics of a time (from the Spanish Civil War to post WW11 Britain), the process of writing and ideas, the personal life of a famous writer and the experiences and influences that combined to create Animal Farm and 1984.

I knew so little of Orwell as a person and had no idea about his tuberculosis, that he fought in the Spanish Civil War and the struggle he had to make a living and write. But what really interested me was his creative life and process. It was a bit like reading Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel and witnessing the forensic assembly of a story being created, what stays, what goes and where it all came from. Probably best followed by a re-read of 1984 to really get the most out of it.

Believe in me by Lucy Neave, UQP, 2021

Bethany tries to make sense of the present by putting together her mother Sarah’s past. Sarah was raped by a pastor, disowned by her family and sent to have her baby on the other side of the world. Once there, her and Bethany move around, always looking for somewhere safe enough to call home.

As soon as she can, Bethany leaves her mum but what are you really leaving when you don’t know where home is. This is a sobering read about the inheritance of trauma, questions of identity and gender and the distance that silence and secrets create within families.

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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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