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 – 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 – 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 – November 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this November.

The Magician by Colm Toibin, Simon & Schuster, 2021

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

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

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny, 4th Estate, 2017

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

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

Read it. Read it. Read it.

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

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller, UQP, 2020

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

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

Good Indian daughter by Ruhi Lee, Affirm Press, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Poly by Paul Dalgarno, Ventura Press, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The bedside bookstack – October 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this October.

Old Goriot by Honore De Balzac, Penguin Classic, 1951

This old Penguin classic has an inscription in looping copperplate on the inside cover; For Bunty, On a Special day, Love from Verna 14.2.75

I started reading this and was loving the greasy old boarding house and its residents but then our local library started to allow Click and Collect reserves and alas poor Balzac didn’t stand a chance. However, once I’ve finished gorging myself on my new library loans, I hope to get back to the gang at Rue Neuve-Saint-Marcel. I’ve been enjoying reading classics so much during lockdown that I think I’ll aim for one a month, thus not completely desert my unread bookshelf books.

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So, Ecco, 2021

I’ll admit, I only read this because of an obituary I read about the author and the hype of its posthumous release. He was American Cambodian, gay and only 28 when he died. His identity and youth inform all of the stories in this collection. They’re about migrant parents, kids sick of hearing about the genocide, growing up in the wrong end of town, escaping but needing your ‘Cambo’ identity and distilling how a queer lifestyle might sit with all of that.

The cover quotes describe it as ‘raw’. The stories definitely crackle and fizz with a restless energy and disdain and of course you wonder, if he hadn’t died, what could’ve come next?

From where you fell by Susan Johnson, Allen & Unwin 2021

Chris and Pamela live on opposite sides of the globe and start a correspondence because of an incorrect email address. I was sceptical about how a whole novel could carry the email structure but I’d never read Susan Johnson before. Actually, the epistolatory format works perfectly because you get the drama of people’s lives delivered via their own analytical take on it. Then you get the other person’s opinion of how it stands and, in this case, Chris doesn’t hold back in telling it how it is.

They joking refer to themselves and Socrates and Plato and their philosophical dialogue on life, love, grief, divorce, being and a parent and being a child got me right in the heart. It and they are going to be with me for a while. 

New Animal by Ella Baxter, Allen & Unwin 2021

Amelia works at her family’s mortuary but when her mum dies suddenly, she can’t be there anymore. She flees to the father she barely grew up with and starts back at the beginning to make sense of how it can all end.

When I started reading this my heart sank a little and I thought it would be another story of a damaged young woman using sex as a punishment. Reader, it is not. There’s definitely sex as distraction, destruction and denial but there is also grief and love and life and an attempt to sit with mortality in the middle of it all. If you’re looking for the obliteration and visceral sucker punch that is unexpected loss, you will find a very real version of it here.

Hold your fire by Chloe Wilson, Scribner, 2021

You know I love my short story collections and this is another one that feels more solid and established somehow, than a debut. Maybe it’s that we move seamlessly from weapons engineers, to divers and entrepreneurs, perfumers and wellness gurus. Each one is a natural fit for the story and each story is a perfect offering of that world, with no trace of the research needed to render it so realistically.

The stories are all first-person and there’s a chill to the tone, of our darker instincts at play, so my suggestion is to read these on slow release, dipping in and out rather than back-to-back.

Luster by Raven Leilani, Picador, 2020

Where to start and what to say about this one? It’s about race, sex and power in modern America and it’s brutal. Edie, whose name is only used maybe twice in the whole book, is alone. Her mum and dad are both dead and no one’s been in her corner for years. Nothing is comfortable or a given in her life and as a reader, you’re never comfortable either. She starts a relationship with an older, married white guy, and you can feel the train wreck coming.

As a narrator, Edie is whip-smart, honest and doesn’t skimp on any of the details, no matter how compromising or abject.

The cover quotes say it’s a funny book. It’s clever and Edie is funny but I initially found it a tough read. I nearly left it a few times. Sex as self-punishment is too heartbreaking for lockdown reading.

But Raven Leilani is so good at what she does and I’m glad I stayed with it though, because the second half covered the more interesting territory for me, her relationship with her lover’s wife and adopted Black daughter. Worth sticking around because this time you have no idea where it’s headed.

If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”

You had me at hello by Mhairi McFarlane, Avon, 2021

This is a tale of Mr Right at the wrong time. Rachel and Rhys were best mates back at uni when she had a boyfriend. Ten years later, they meet by chance. He’s married and she’s just broken off her engagement. There’s unfinished business but the reality of their situation gets in the way…again.

You know what you’re going to get with Mhairi McFarlane; a likeable and funny protagonist who underrates the possibility of things working out for them, good friends, plenty of booze, and just enough complicators to keep things moving at a nice clip. She writes realist romcoms that are a pleasure to read and if you like this one, give Last Night a go.

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, Heinemann London, 1991

You know when you’re supposed to love a book but after reading it, you’re still a little mystified about why. I always feel like I’m at fault, having missed the depths or point perhaps. That’s me and this book. People rave about it. I only know it exists because of an essay which described it as a revelatory reading experience.

The quote on the back ends with ‘reading time four hours, remembering time, as for its author; the rest of one’s life.’ Not for this reader.

This is an OK read. It’s a first-person reminiscence of time spent in a Swiss boarding school and the intense but fleeting friendships that were formed. It’s well written. It takes you into the internal and psychological preoccupations of adolescence but I didn’t experience the epiphany of other readers.

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The bedside bookstack – Winter 2021

What I’m reading on the bedside bookstack this June and July.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Dialogue Books 2020

This one is definitely in my Top 5 books of the year so far! It’s got that Tolstoy feeling of being a ‘big’ book where the personal and political play out over decades. The big is also for race, identity, family, belonging, secrets and the inheritance of trauma that ripples through generations.

Stella and Desiree Vignes grow up with their mother in tiny Louisiana town of Mallard where everyone is the lightest shade of brown. One night, they leave together for New Orleans. A few years later Desiree wakes up to find that Stella has left her.

The narrative is divided between Desiree, Stella and their daughters Jude and Kennedy whose lives overlap but can never quite make the family whole again.

All the murmuring bones by Angela Slatter, Titan Books, 2021

Make sure you’re warm when read this one, it’s an elemental tale where wind howls and waves crash and the forces of nature have magic in them.

Long ago the O’Malleys made a pact with the Mer. Each generation they would give a child in return for calm passage and safe seas. Miren O’Malley decides it’s time to end this promise forged in blood and saltwater but there are those who want the days of old power and prosperity to return.

This is the stuff of old legends and magic, selkies and ruskaly and saltwater creatures with all the good stuff – greed, betrayal, love, loyalty.

I absolutely loved it!     

Some said the O’Malleys had too much saltwater in their veins….

The Believer by Sarah Krasnostein, Text, 2021

When a (mainly) fiction reader loves a non-fiction book, then you know it’s good. And it is. If you’ve read The Trauma Cleaner then that will come as no surprise and if you haven’t, then you should.

Sarah Krasnostein is meticulous in her detail and eloquent in her telling. She manages empathy and curiosity, generosity and honesty.

The thread the publisher promotes is that this book is about the power of belief. I’m not so sure there are neat parallels between the people in this book but it doesn’t matter to me because they are so fascinating.

There are people grappling with death, with religion, with the paranormal and with life turning out totally differently to how they had planned. All written with her casual blend of whip-smart analysis and poetic observation. In this book truth in definitely stranger than fiction.

“I believe we are united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that separate us.”

The Nancys by R. W. R McDonald, Allen & Unwin, 2019

I didn’t know what I was reading when I first picked this up. Massive Nancy Drew fan Tippy Chan is our 11-year-old narrator whose dad has died in a car crash. She lives in regional New Zealand and is minded by her glamourous hairdresser uncle and his fashion designer boyfriend while her mum is on holidays. When her school teacher is murdered, the three of them form the Nancys to solve who did it.

This book is about death and grief but also family and community. It’s a fun read (note – must enjoy an adult sense of humour) and now I understand why everyone is so pumped about the recent launch of the sequel, Nancy Business. I only wish I’d read some Nancy Drew when I was younger to pick up the full vibe of what they were riffing off.

The Little House by Kyoko Nakajima (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), Darf Publishers, 2010

This is narrated by 90-year-old Taki who has been a maid for most of her life. She works for the Hirai family and is close to the Mistress Tokiko. This is part saga, part history and part love story as Taki writes down her memories of the years from 1930 until after World War II.

It’s interesting, as an Australian, to read about domestic, city and cultural life in pre-war and wartime Japan.

I hope that history is different now but we didn’t spend a lot of time on the ‘enemy’ as individuals when I was at school. This is a story of the little people and how life goes on in its own way even when a country is at war.

The Rest is Weight by Jennifer Mills, UQP, 2011

This is Jennifer Mills’ only collection of short stories. They play out around the globe from Central Australia to China and Russia. There’s a residue of dust and distance in these stories. And when you put the book down, you’re left with that feeling of someone being in the room a moment ago.

Singing my sister down and other stories by Margo Lanagan, Allen & Unwin, 2017

The titular story is one my Top 3 short stories. Ever. I read it years ago and it has stayed with me and partially haunted me ever since. Lanagan uses our world and associations and then tilts everything just a little off. She is subtle and nuanced and a master at atmosphere. For me, Singing my Sister down has that same (brilliant) casual terror as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

The man who saw everything by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton2019

I’ve never read a Deborah Levy before but I see a lot of love for her work. To be honest, I took a while to warm up to this one. Reading as a reader, I often just want a straight narrative. Reading as a writer it was more interesting. Pick this one up if you’re looking for layers that circle back and around, over the same territory.

It’s late 1988 and Saul Adler is run over by a car as he crosses Abbey Road. He’s about to head off to East Berlin but not before his girlfriend dumps him. What follows is his time in East Berlin where he meets Walter and his Beatles-fan sister, Luna.

We soon realise that Saul is an unreliable narrator. He recollections are a mash-up of past and present events as he lies in a hospital bed many years later. This is how we learn about the life he has lived, before and after his trip to Berlin.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Viking, 2020

The first page of this book was such a cracker. I was right there with Gifty as she introduced her depressed and bed-bound mother. There again with her when she’s with an aunt in Ghana who is trying to show that the crazy of a man in the market is not the same as her mother.

Her family’s migration from Ghana to America is not the American dream and as an adult Gifty is shaped by the absence of her father, the death of her brother and her mother’s depression.

She goes on to study neuroscience and does research with mice around reward and addiction. There’s a lot about her research and also a lot of bible quotes from her years as a child in the Pentecostal church. Both of these are important elements of the story, the study as a way to grieve her brother and religion as a way to connect with her mother, but they slowed down and diverted from the narrative so much that I didn’t end up finishing this one. This was a good book at the wrong time for me.

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The bedside bookstack – April 2021

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this month.

Lucky ticket by Joey Bui, Text Publishing, 2019

This collection of short stories was one of my favourite picks of the month. I was totally absorbed by the stories and binged on them more than I usually do with an anthology. I often go in and out of anthologies reading a few at a time in between novels. This collection however, made me want to move on to the next one and then the next..

The stories move from Vietnam to Australia to America to Abu Dhabi where we meet Vietnamese locals, migrants and expats as well as a Pakistani-American professional and a Zanzabari guest worker.

Bui writes in first and third person and skips from the distant past to a familiar present. One of my favourites was Mekong Love. Set in a more traditional Vietnam, it proves that lasting love can start in many different ways.

Both ways is the only way I want it by Maile Meloy, Text Publishing 2009

Thanks to @zbradley’s tweet about how long it had taken her to discover Maile Meloy. I wouldn’t have found my way to her either and what a loss that would’ve been.

There are 11 stories in this collection and they’re all achingly beautiful. I use that word deliberately. She’s doing something and I don’t know how she’s doing it. I go into a story as one person and come out slightly changed. I had to sit for a moment after some of these and just savour that feeling before jumping straight into the next one. I also had to reread paragraphs and flip back a page or two to see if I could trace her tricks and trap what it was she did to write such a good story. That in itself is the magic, I guess.

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed, Tinder Press, 2017

God bless Kinokuniya bookshop in Sydney which had a booklet printed around the time of the March for Justice about kickass women’s reads. This was on that list.

If you’re not into island-bound traditions of women forced into submission and condoned abuses of power by the patriarchy, then this may not be for you. However, for every state of slavery there is a seed of revolution and the girls of this island are starting to question just why everything has to be the way it always has been.

Kept on the island by fear of the Wastelands on the horizon, girls adhere first to their father’s will and then their husbands. This is like a Handmaid’s Tale for pre-teens. Sometimes, when adults write kids, the voice is too laboured, but these girls are nothing but themselves and I never doubted their narrations.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, Granta, 2020

Whoa. This one is unlike anything I’ve ever read. “Out of this world” was one of the cover quotes and it’s right on because Natsuki and her cousin believe they are from another planet. They don’t understand the rules adults make for them and earthlings are confusing.

Kids trying to makes sense of adult behaviour and rules isn’t easy. They internalise who adults say they are and make leaps of deduction in doing so. Feeling like aliens because they don’t conform is a fair-enough link for children to make. As adults, life is no less confusing as they grapple with taboos and their place in the world.

The legacy of abuse and societal expectation make for a totally original but pretty heart-breaking read. It’s uncomfortable reading and won’t be for everyone because taboo is taboo and examining them from another angle doesn’t make them any less uncomfortable.

Sayaka Murata is best known for her book Convenience Store Woman which I haven’t read yet.

The Trespassers by Meg Mundell, University of Queensland Press, 2019

How was this book not on every pandemic reading list last year? This is the plague book that came out a year before COVID and its epidemiologic jargon became part of the vernacular.

The worst scenario of a pandemic future is already playing out in this book. The UK is a disaster zone and pandemic hotspot. There are no jobs, no supplies or stability and the death rate is constantly climbing. To get away, people are willing to take a ship to Australia where they are essentially indentured labour but unlikely to get sick.

On board are Billie, a Scottish singer who has experience of the death wards in Glasgow, Cleary, a deaf boy whose mum wants to give them a chance at a better future and Tom, a teacher from a wealthy family who now has no money to his name.

Three weeks into the journey a crewman is found murdered and people start getting sick. There are rumours and dissent and no way off the boat.

This book is a great read and a timely reminder that not every harbour offers safe haven and that it isn’t a crime to seek a better life.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall, Black Inc. Books, 2016

Set in the 1880s on an isolated cape in Australia, this book is about best friends Kate and Harriet. Their fathers are lighthouse keepers and the girls live with their families and workers in a small settlement. Things change for them when a fisherman arrives.

This book is a great read for elemental coastlines, intense female friendships, burgeoning desire, envy and the jumble of growing up.  

There is a foreshadowing from the very first page and as Kate continues her narration, she tells of regret and final moments and times before and after everything changes. As a reader you should get to enjoy all that anticipation and tension, so I’ll say no more.

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey, Text Publishing, 2020

Erica’s son has been given a life-sentence. Locked in her guilt and grief she moves to a small coastal cottage to be closer to his prison. She is a woman alone and doesn’t want company but she does want to build a labyrinth in her backyard and to do that, she needs people.

I liked the pace of this book, the wash of days into each other and the gradual revealing and healing of Erica. I also happened to walk the labyrinth at Cenntenial Park in Sydney a few weeks ago, and now understand the meditative appeal of Erica’s project more.

One of my pet peeves in novels is the description of dreams. This book had way too many. But, all good, I just skimmed forward until we got back to the narrative.

Family Life by Akhil Sharma, Faber, 2014

Ajay moves from India to America with his parents and older brother. It’s the 70s and the Indian community in New York is small. A few months after their arrival, Birju, the older brother has a swimming accident that leaves him with brain damage. He is bedbound, unable to communicate and in need of constant care.

Family Life changes to accommodate this. First, he’s in a nursing home and Ajay and his mum live close while his dad commutes. Later they move to New Jersey and bring Birju home for his care.

For a long time, Ajay feels like life is happening around but not to him. There are family friends who think they can heal Birju, the women who think his mum is a saint and the fact that his dad is drunk all the time. But time passes and as nothing changes with Birju, things slowly do for Ajay and his parents.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

Still in the pile. Still haven’t started it yet. Next month I say.

This tome was my only Christmas book (and it actually arrived in January). Anything over 500 pages seems to sink further down the book stack for sheer stability of the pile.

Billed as a generational family saga about Koreans in Japan, I missed the hype of this book when it came out but put it on my wish list after listening to this interview with Min Jin Lee on Conversations.

Sounds like once I get stuck in, I won’t be coming up for air for a while.

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When in doubt…nature.

Nearly two months into the season, it’s undeniably Autumn. I’ve taken my cue from the tiles being too cold to walk on without socks and I think I may have had my last ocean swim for a while.

The turn of the season still feels fresh. It’s cosy to make soup, wind a scarf around my neck and snuggle between flannelette sheets at night. The tell-tale signs of the season in nature are also gorgeous to witness and a good reset for me personally.

I’ve been distracted lately which leads to a chaotic scatter-gun approach to whatever I’m working on. I’m hurried and impatient with a lot of picking-up and putting-down and not much getting-finished.

But these crisp Autumn days offer some friendly reminders. Nature is good like that. Cyclical. Eternal. Unhurried. Beautiful and so much bigger than us and our immediate quotidian concerns.

Of course, being in nature helps. Everything. Always. It makes me slow down and be subject to wonder again. But if you can’t get a hit of the real natural world then reading about it is a good enough second.

Here are some of my go-to writers for a nature intervention.

Jonathon Driori – his book, Around the World in 80 Trees, would be my desert island pick, the one and only book I would have in the world if I could have no other. He shares his vast arboreal knowledge with intellect and wit and the illustrations by Lucille Clerc are stunning! This book is my antidote to planet woe because nature doing her incredible thing is never going to be a downer. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and am so excited that it now has a companion in the recently released Around the world in 80 plants.

Mary Oliver – feels like she spent most of her life wandering in wonder and capturing nature with eloquence and reverence. Reading her poetry always slows time for me, as I mentioned in a previous Mary Oliver blog, and puts our place in the world back into perspective.

Helen Macdonald – as a poet, historian and falconer she created something completely unique in her book H is for Hawk. It’s another read that restores my faith in everything. It’s about grief and goshawks, about nature and being human and where any and all of those overlap. She has a new book Vesper Flights, which I’m told is just as good but haven’t got to yet.

Reading these writers, I soar to great heights, sink beneath the surface and see what’s around me anew. Clifftops, coastlines and deep roots make me feel the restorative power of nature that people have been writing about for centuries.

I’m sorry to say that I don’ have any local Australian titles or writers to offer, not because they don’t exist but because I just haven’t read much Australian nature writing yet….and I’m looking forward to some suggestions so I can right this wrong.

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The bedside bookstack – March 2021

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this month.

It’s been a bit of a restless and sleepless month. I abandoned three books and I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of my state of mind or a decision to try and stick to my idea that life is too short to read books that just aren’t doing it for you.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Granta, 2018

Silvie’s father is an Ancient Briton enthusiast. He’s brought her and her Mum along on an Iron Age re-enactment with a university professor and his students. She’s named after an ancient Briton goddess and has been walking the moors and learning about her forebears since she was a little girl.

She knows the dark history and shadows of the area too, the ritual sacrifice and the bodies offered up by the bog.

And there are shadows in her own family, power and control and violence that blend with the history they are simulating.

This is a simple tale, very well told.

This slim little volume will linger.

Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery, UQP, 2018

It’s no secret from all my rescue reading lists that I’m a big short story fan. I read them and write them and I love how the form can compress or expand a life on the page.

That’s exactly what Laura Elvery has done in her debut collection. She has taken ordinary lives and held them up for us in all their heartbreak and glory. In her hands, with her words, they’re illuminated and made into something special. A great read and if you enjoy this, check out her collection Ordinary Matter which came out last year.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, Vintage, 2010

This beautiful book is about maths and memory. The housekeeper is our narrator. She goes to work for the professor who is on an 80-minute memory loop. He keeps notes attached to his suit so that he can recognise people in his life and the parts of his day. Her son comes to the house after school and together, the three of them form a special relationship despite the cycle of time and memory. Another simple story, well told and another one that has stayed with me.

The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham, Vintage, 2020

This is a great read about the migrant experience, the inheritance of loss and Cabramatta in the 90s.

Sonny lives life on the sideline. She tries to keep the peace at home where she lives with her volatile mum, her dad, grandma and brother. At high school, she and her best friend sit on the edges where their talk is all theory but not much practice. When Vinnie, an old childhood friend, gets out of juvie, Sonny starts to wonder how she can live both her internal and external lives.

Vivian Pham started this as part of a novella workshop with the Sydney Story Factory. I love their programs and have volunteered with them for years, so reading it was an extra special treat. And who better to write about teen desire and dislocation than someone who isn’t yet 20? Here’s a little taste:

“Why has his history always felt so fucking mythical? Vince felt an absurd and meaningless pain. It was like digging a grave and having nothing to bury.”

what are you going through by Sigrid Nunez, Virago 2020

This is what’s referred to as an ‘interior’ novel. My interpretation is that it feels like a conversational essay with a bit of narrative moving it along. In this case it came as a belated surprise that that was fine by me.

For more details see my post about reading this book, my first Sigrid Nunez, and how I nearly didn’t finish it.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, Penguin, 2018

So, now I’m confused, because this is the Sigrid Nunez book which was the bestseller. It’s written before what are you going through but I read it after and for me it wasn’t the better book.

The narrator is a writer (I’m not a big fan of writer-narrators) whose best friend has just committed suicide. The narrator inherits the friend’s dog and together they grieve for owner and friend.

The rest of the book reads, as above, like a relaxed essay with some narrative on the side. This time it looks at animals, humans, the state of modern literature and grief. There are always interesting authors, books and movies being referenced. She’s great for adding to your scribble list of things to look-up-later.

As a reader, my patience was with the asides and digressions but not with the friend who is being mourned. Here he is again, the American-novelist-professor-womaniser. Why is he always getting so much air play in novels? Why is no one calling him out? In this case, the cultural tide is turning against his behaviour, but not the narrator (it’s up to us to decide if she was in love with him or not). Just like when I read Meg Worlitzer’s The Wife, my annoyance at how much these guys get away with and the fact that they’re still getting so much air-play, is what stays with me.

Before the Coffee gets cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Picador 2019

I totally judged this book by its cover. A big pink Staff Pick sticker under Japanese Bestseller was what made me pick it up.

It’s set in a small basement café in Tokyo where you can go back in time. There are 5 rules; you have to sit in a certain seat, you can only stay in that seat, you can only meet someone else who has been in that café before, meeting won’t change the present and most importantly, you have to come back before the coffee gets cold.

There’s a lot of repetition with each new customer who wants to go back in time which snagged the narrative for me. I got two thirds through and realised I just wasn’t invested. It’s a subtle book that wasn’t right for me this time round.

The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe, Penguin, 2009

Another book with a big Staff Pick sticker. The word iconic and classic are also mentioned in the blurb and I haven’t read any Robert Drewe for ages. I liked the early short stories of the Lang family but I put it down before the end.

The male protagonists had an emotional distance that kept me at bay. They were at their best with their observations as a father or failure as a husband.

It was also hard to read the story written from the point of view of a rapist. Reading it in the current climate (or any climate really), it felt like a voice was being given to the wrong side of the story.

The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan, Picador, 2016

After miscarrying their first baby, Heather and Dave leave the city. Dave gets a job at the local school but Heather is sinking. She’s drowning in the loss of her child and the memories of her mother who she is also gone.

This is well written but with my restlessness and sleeplessness, I just couldn’t stay the course with Heather’s heavy grief and depression. I left her early on to tend to my own mental health.

The Book of Joe by Jonathon Tropper, Delacorte Press, 2004

Joe hasn’t been back to his hometown for 17 years. He did however write a bestseller about it that annoyed almost everyone. When he returns after his father has a stroke, the welcome is about how you’d expect it to be.

The sentences aren’t sublime and it trots around small-town-story territory (high school loves, sibling rivalry, fractured father/son relationships) but it’s very readable!

This reads like a Netflix teen movie and if anyone’s seen my streaming history, you’d know I’m pretty partial to those.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

Still in the pile. Still haven’t started it yet. Next month I say.

This tome was my only Christmas book (and it actually arrived in January). Anything over 500 pages seems to sink further down the book stack for sheer stability of the pile.

Billed as a generational family saga about Koreans in Japan, I missed the hype of this book when it came out but put it on my wish list after listening to this interview with Min Jin Lee on Conversations.

Sounds like once I get stuck in, I won’t be coming up for air for a while.

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The bedside bookstack – Summer 2021

What I’m reading and what was gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this summer.

I moved over Christmas and so it wasn’t a massive book stack this summer. Most of my to-be-reads were still boxed up and after all the unpacking it took me a while to get back into a reading habit.  But here’s what was on the book stack.

The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall, Simon & Schuster, 2020

In an unspecified but uncomfortably familiar future, Australia is a surveillance state with the climactic woe of current predictions.

Mim is quietly panicked. Her husband has gone missing in an offshore mining project and the contact she’s getting from the’ Department’ and underground journalists flag that she’s not being told everything about it.

There is also geopolitical instability and this oppressive loss of control for both Mim and the average citizen permeates the narrative.

But amidst geopolitical and climatic extremes people are still people. Mim looks to what she can do by protecting her children and trying to find her husband. Motherhood still sits with its complexities, old lust dies hard (if it actually dies) and family loyalty is tested.

This was a real page turner.

Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery, University of Queensland Press, 2020

This anthology of short stories by Australian writer Laura Elvery is inspired by the women who have won the Nobel Prize for scientific research. With only twenty female wins (two of them to Marie Curie) and what feels like not a lot of historical fanfare, it seems right to give them another nod.

The women and their discoveries are the starting point, so the stories take you across distance and time. Occasionally, a former winner is reimagined as a younger or older self (Marie Curie on tour with her daughters, Rosalyn Yalow on the eve of the Prize ceremony in Stockhom) but mostly it’s the discoveries and how they have changed lives in big and small ways – something we all participate in with scientific discovery whether we consider it or not.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakamo, Picador, 2020

This wasn’t an easy read, or perhaps I mean a ‘comfortable’ read. Set in modern Japan, it follows a mother, daughter and aunt. These women don’t have many options. The past actions of other people in their life, usually men, mean they are working hard to survive.  

There’s a cataloguing of small details – meals eaten, actions done, that snagged the narrative for me but certainly added to the oppressive and repetitive sense of their days.

It’s offered as a novel but feels more like two novellas (the notes say it’s the extended version of a novella). The second part of the book offers more hope and liberation for the aunt that comes from financial freedom. Her struggle changes to a moral and philosophical one regarding donor sperm and IVF parenthood in Japan.

The Burning Island by Jock Serong, Text Publishing, 2020

This was a real page-turner for me. I’ve never read anything else by Jock Serong but will definitely track down his other titles. I also don’t read a lot of historical fiction crime thrillers – if that’s what this could be defined as.

This story is set in early colonial Australia on a sea voyage from Sydney down to the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait.

A group of disparate characters are onboard; a naval lieutenant disgraced by his drunkenness, convict brothers bound by blood loyalty, the quiet Captain who navigates ever onwards, and the doctor scientist, whose charisma and curiosity pique the tedium for our narrator, Eliza.

A sense of doom pervades the narration from the isolation, the atrocities, and the landscape. It’s a great tale of revenge, grief, loyalty, lust and betrayal. But don’t fear all that heaviness because Jock Serong can turn the body of a drowned man to poetry as silver fish empty from the water in his mouth.

Our Shadows by Gail Jones, Text Publishing, 2020

In her characteristic poetic prose, Gail Jones writes the strata of time and families. There is the Irish immigrant who finds the gold nugget that Kalgoorlie is founded on, the grandfather miner who carries the damage and grief of a world war and a dead daughter, and the orphan granddaughters who split under the weight of their shared past.

The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Harper Perennial, 2009

Surprised, and a little disappointed, that I didn’t get any new books for Christmas, I had to read what was in the garage sale pile at my brother’s house. We moved houses and cities over Christmas and my books were still boxed up well into January.

I think this book was pretty big when it came out. It was also early on in the complete-sentence-as-book-title trend. It’s satirical and clever in its summaries of history and politics which I wasn’t expecting but there was also a touch of the slapstick to it that was just  a bit much for me – kind of a ‘caper’ journey where the old man meets a string of unlikely allies through a series of unlikely adventures.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

This tome was my only Christmas book (and it actually arrived in January). I haven’t started it yet. Anything over 500 pages seems to sink further down the book stack for sheer stability of the pile.

Billed as a generational family saga about Koreans in Japan, I missed the hype of this book when it came out but put it on my wish list after listening to this interview with Min Jin Lee on Conversations.

Sounds like once I get stuck in, I won’t be coming up for air for a while.

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