The Wanderers: book review


The word ‘planet’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘wanderer’. Greek astronomers thought the planets were inexplicable celestial bodies wandering through space against a background of fixed-point stars. Their movements did not conform to the astronomers’ mathematical predictions. Equations could not describe them. They were unknowable.In Meg Howrey’s novel, a crew of world-class astronauts — Helen, Yoshi and Sergei — is on a simulated training mission in the Utah desert. Prime Space, a private aerospace exploration company, is preparing them for the first crewed mission to Mars. The elite, hand-picked crew are the wanderers, gazed upon from afar by Mission Control, the public and their families.

The astronauts are highly experienced, having served on previous missions and on board the International Space Station. And while their careers are mostly spent in training, it is the seduction of space travel that motivates them. The moment of leaving the Earth behind is their calling, their addiction:

Microgravity is the heroin, the God, the unrequited love, of astronauts. Nothing feels as good or does more damage.

Helen Kane is one of NASA’s finest, a recently retired astronaut and a choice pick for the Prime Space Eidolon mission. At 53 years old, this is her last shot at space travel. Should the crew be successful in this mission, they will journey to Mars and become the first humans to visit the red planet. For Helen it would be the pinnacle of an already decorated space career:

It is not anyone’s fault, or responsibility, that the best of her exists in space, that she knows she’s at the height of her powers, that if she doesn’t go back up, then she has run out of road before she has run out of breath. And how many years left on Earth for her? Consigned to a lesser version of herself on a planet that had also seen better days. Cast out from heaven into a melting Eden.

Joining Helen is Sergei, a Russian cosmonaut recently divorced from his wife, and Yoshi, a married but childless Japanese astronaut. Prime Space has selected this crew for their individual skills and strengths, as well as their compatibility as a team. During their 17 months in the Utah desert the simulation puts Helen, Yoshi and Sergei through their paces to determine if they are resilient enough to send on a real mission to Mars. Life on a Mars mission, even a simulated one, is full of challenges. The crew face compromises around their personal space, exercise, food and hygiene. The astronauts are being prepared and tested:

Who are these people that can withstand such a trip, the danger, the risk, the isolation, the pressure? What can these people teach us?

Aside from the physical constraints they are bound by, the crew also endures the extended psychological and emotional toll of being away from their families and from Earth. An infinite loneliness stretches out across this novel. Howrey asks if we are alone in the universe. In a space novel, you might expect that question to focus on the possibilities for carbon-based life on another planet. But it is a deeper question that concerns Howrey. In the vast, winding space of the human condition, are our connections to each other elliptical?

While the novel is marketed as science fiction, it is science-lite, and is more comfortably characterised as literary fiction. This is no space blockbuster. It is an introspective, character-driven novel. At the heart of the book lie not aliens and spacecraft, but Howrey’s exploration of the relationships of the crew to each other as well as their relationship to their families. There is a great distance between the crew and their family members, exacerbated by their months away in the training program. Howrey explores this distance and juxtaposes the restraint and control of the Mars simulation against the chaos happening in the lives of the families back on Earth.

The astronauts are heroes; feted and celebrated pioneers who overshadow their family members. Helen, Yoshi and Sergei’s relatives languish in their glittering wake, struggling to define their own identities. Yoshi’s wife Madoka is experimenting with assuming different personas. Sergei’s teenage son, Dmitri, lies and deceives while coming to terms with his homosexuality. Helen’s daughter Mireille takes on chameleon-like turns by acting in video games. They are each simulating their lives on Earth, while the crew simulates their lives on Mars/Utah.

Helen speculates that one of the reasons she has been chosen as the sole female member of the crew is because her age puts her beyond sexual desirability. She assumes a maternal role and acts as a barometer for the moods of Yoshi and Sergei. Helen watches for signals of disquiet. She reads the subtext that hangs heavy in the manufactured air between them:

They are all in extreme close-up; one notices the appearance of a new eyebrow hair. And yet they must communicate as if they are not noticing this. They must protect themselves, from Prime, from one another, from whatever parts of themselves they are grasping in the dark.

Helen’s role as mother figure juxtaposes her actual maternal relationship with her daughter Mireille (Meeps). The relationship between Helen and Mireille is Howrey’s central study. Helen loves space travel and she loves her daughter and this conflict pulls at her:

I wanted to go to space more than I wanted to be your mother. That’s true. If you had ever been to space, you’d understand. It’s not true. They are different things. Nothing is comparable to another thing.

In many ways, Helen’s choices are not that different from the choices any mother makes between her children and other competing priorities, but her work means many months away and the lingering shadow of death:

Awareness of imminent possible death is not without beneficial properties. Risk of annihilation can be a key ingredient, like baking soda. A teaspoon or so is sufficient to make all the other components rise up in glory, but without it? No cake. For some, the edge of death is the only place to find love of life.

The environment is fabricated and governed by rules, precision and machines. Mission Control watches over and records every aspect of the astronauts’ lives, listens in on their conversations, simulates disasters and analyses their reactions. The crew are all engineers because things will break and need to be fixed. Helen, Sergei and Yoshi are all studies in emotional restraint; personalities that are controlled and clinical. Howrey’s economy of language is as restrained as the astronauts’ emotions. But an undertow of anxiety pulls at them and paranoia lurks quietly in the background. For it is not only machinery that can break, but also people. 

Throughout the novel Howrey builds the expectation that the astronauts will crack, and delicately anchors their relationship to reality. They are vulnerable and she dares them to drift:

There is too much time, too much space. They must remember their names, their countries, their languages, their sexes, their bodies. They must remember where they are, where they came from, where they are going.

Howrey challenges us to question what is real and what is unreal, and whether the distinction matters. There is a deep lament within these pages: for love, for Earth and for the great distances between us, best summed up by Helen:

Helen has a flash, a memory, of holding her infant daughter against her bare chest, of Meeps’s skin, which she once knew so well.  It is appalling to think of the distance between her body and her daughter’s body. And how they will never know each other’s bodies again. Helen is filled with an animal urge to feel her daughter’s skin again, and for her daughter to touch her as if she is a thing that is known, as if she is a body that is loved.

Perhaps like the planets, we are all essentially unknowable. In this subtle and finely measured novel, Howrey casts us into the infinite reaches of the universe to ponder our aloneness.

Meg Howrey The Wanderers Simon and Schuster 2017 PB 384pp $32.99

This review was originally published in Newtown Review of Books.

Review: Rubik by Elizabeth Tan


Experimental fiction can be a risky gamble for the reader, but when it is beautifully executed, as in the case of Elizabeth Tan’s debut, Rubik, the dividends are sweet. Rubik is a looping narrative, a filmic novel told in short stories, where time bends and reality blurs ‘as if truth is no solid thing’. Each story opens up like a new browser window, seemingly unrelated to the last. Tan dares the reader to float untethered until the hyperlinks start to emerge: ‘everything is just an alt-tab away’. This is a novel that demands trust from the reader.

The book kick-starts with the death of Elena Rubik, run down by a car outside a petrol station, where she has just bought a pie. Elena shape-shifts. She reappears in various forms throughout the novel: as a set of transplanted corneas; as a member of an online community. She won’t stay dead.

Through Elena we meet: her best friend Jules Valentine; aspiring investigative journalist April Kuan; bereft schoolboy Peter Pushkin; his missing music teacher Kish Amar; artist Ursula Rodriguez, and a cast of others, including an anthropomorphised octopus named Tako. Tan moves seamlessly among these points of view and as the book unfolds, portals between the stories open to reveal the connections between them.

We follow this improbable cast around Perth, both an unlikely and completely obvious setting for the novel, a city that has reached peak hipster with its designer lattes and unisex clothes stores:

At the moment you can find me in the brochure for the Ampersand Spring/Summer collection. In each photo, which is printed on matte paper with an Instagram wash, I am posing next to this year’s male Ampersand ambassador, who is wearing the same outfit as me with minor modifications. We manage to finesse vague, casual expressions, as if it’s only natural that we would be wearing identical outfits while socialising in a sun-lit sharehouse full of sensible bookshelves and creamy stationery.

Tan’s characters are apathetic. Their society is vacuous, defined by conspicuous consumption, technology and brands: Samsung, Panasonic, Coca-Cola, IKEA, Google. While hyper-connected, they are also alienated. They are slouching towards a digital dystopia where lolcats and memes are currency, where real birds, frogs and silkworms have been replaced by corporate-sponsored replicants, and where children work grocery production lines to keep blue-rinsed pensioners well fed.

Looming over the human and human-like characters are omnipresent corporations, including technology company Seed, whose products dominate billboards and consciousness with a sinister edge. And weaving through the stories is Ulysses, a mysterious black cat with a red collar:

… cats can slip in and out of a parallel dimension, a realm which permits them to move invisibly, to reappear without sound. To swap places, even. Certainly, looking into Ulysses’s eyes, those blurry hexagons, Tim knows that Ulysses is acquainted with a separate, softer world.

It is this separate, softer world of parallel dimensions, ghosts and shadows that Tan invites the reader into, tearing a rip in the fabric of the mundane lives of her characters and pushing past the noise of Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and Facebook. Tan’s commentary on our relationship with technology is not a cheap shot at an easy target. It is nuanced and clever, deftly mixing witty satire with speculative fiction to create a novel that is at once both cutting social commentary and a heady adventure.

A number of the stories in the novel have deservedly been published as stand-alone pieces of short fiction. Read together, the novel’s structure is daring and genius. There are moments when you simply need to stand back to admire Tan’s breath-taking architecture, an architecture scored with repeating sequences and reinvented scenes. Like Ouroboros, the serpent caught in a cycle of eating its own tail, Rubik destroys and recreates itself.

A recurring motif in the novel is ‘falling girl’, a girl from a scene in an indie film that becomes a viral meme that becomes a falling cat meme that becomes a T-shirt. We witness falling girl defy physics over and again throughout the novel:

Jules double-clicks. And re-watches that part of her day, looping over and over. Each fall is different but she always returns, like a typewriter sliding back into position, or a teleportation device malfunctioning relentlessly, blinking her backwards and backwards. She’s already forgotten the chosen take. The loops are becoming indistinguishable. Backwards, backwards. Like a thought you just can’t get over. Rocketing through that starry sky in reverse.

In Rubik, Tan forces us back again and again to re-examine the puzzle from different angles. Just when you feel you have a grasp on the story, she leaves you unmoored once more. It is a book that requires full attention. Look away, the network will dissolve and you become lost in ‘a glitch in the matrix’. On finishing, you emerge from Rubik blinking into the light, wondering if it was all a dream. This richly layered novel begs to be read more than once to fully appreciate its complexities and connections.

Rubik is a wonderful experiment in fiction. Tan has created a vast landscape to explore within the contained borders of a novel. Jump in with your eyes and mind open and be prepared to hand control over to the author. She is an expert guide who will steer you elegantly to the conclusion of this wild ride: ‘you have everything necessary to begin.’

Elizabeth Tan Rubik Brio 2017 PB 336pp $29.99

This review was originally published in Newtown Review of Books

Between a Wolf and a Dog: review


The terrible story behind this book is well known. Georgia Blain writes a novel about a character with brain cancer, and then gets diagnosed with brain cancer herself. She finished the book knowing her diagnosis. The reviews of Blain’s book led me into the Readings store at the State Library one lunchtime to buy it. I took it home on the tram, wrapped in its crinkly brown paper bag, holding it with the anticipation of reading. 

That evening my mother rang me to tell me she had been diagnosed with cancer. I tucked the book still in its paper bag onto my bookshelf. The book sat ticking like a time bomb on the shelf while I did my best to ignore it. I did not read it.

The terrible story behind this book is well known. Blain died of brain cancer in December 2016. Her mother, Anne Deveson, died just days later. I took the book down from the shelf and unwrapped it. Maybe reading it now would somehow honour Blain’s and Deveson’s memories. I decided to face it.

The novel winds through a day in the life of a dysfunctional family (what family isn’t dysfunctional?) as the family members struggle through their individual and collective turmoils, some ordinary, some monumental. The most monumental being the family’s matriarch coming to terms with her diagnosis of cancer, alone. 

The narrative is drenched in a Sydney deluge that falls in sheets against the windows, floods through the gutters and gardens, and courses along the streets. Will the spring rain drown everything or is it cleansing and a promise of new growth?

Blain’s writing is poetic and lucid. Her characters are flawed, caught in conflicts of pain and joy. She treats them sympathetically but not sentimentally. This is a tender novel and full of beauty. It is much more about living than it is about dying. 

The terrible story behind this book is well known. I am grateful that Blain wrote it in the face of her diagnosis. I am glad to have honoured her by reading it. My mother continues her cancer treatment.

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

The Hate Race


With a population of close to 2 million, Greater Western Sydney is a key influencer of election outcomes, yet the voices of people living there are rarely represented in Australian literature. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, is the voice of growing up black in the white suburbs of western Sydney in the 1980’s. As Beneba Clarke states on her Twitter profile ‘I try to write beautifully, about ugly things’. Her story is dark but her voice sings with West Indian lyricism.

In her memoir, Beneba Clarke relates episodes of cruel bullying and racism directed at her throughout her school years. These range from name-calling, nasty notes, and exclusion to physical abuse. Perhaps more disturbing are the tales of inadvertent racism delivered obliviously by children and adults. They are not meaning to be cruel but their racism is ingrained and seeps out through their pores.

Beneba Clarke is resolute. She learns to direct her anger from these experiences into being better than her tormentors. I’m sure others who have had similar experiences have instead directed their anger inwards and carried this burden through their lives.

The memoir is not all bleak. There are moments of real joy and humour shining through the cracks, lighting Beneba Clarke’s path.

I also grew up in western Sydney, a few years ahead of Maxine. It was not a place that embraced difference, despite the growing multicultural diversity of its population. Neither was it a place that celebrated academic achievement or ambition. Given that context, it would be simple to dismiss Beneba Clarke’s bullying experience as typical of schoolyards of the time and place. Certainly, that’s what her teachers do. She is an easy target because of the colour of her skin. But racism doesn’t stop at the school gates, it is insidious and stretches into every experience of her childhood, and reaches beyond childhood into her adult life in suburban Melbourne.

I escaped the western suburbs of Sydney as soon as I had the chance. I have not returned for over 20 years. It is a mythical place to me now, a dreamscape. Beneba Clarke’s memoir brought that dreamscape back into focus for me, flickering memories of the ugly things I experienced. It also reminded me that as a white girl, I got off lightly.

This review is part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

The books I loved in 2016 published in other years

I shared my favourite newly released books of 2016 in an earlier post. This year, I also read some crackers published in other years. I had a little excursion into Canadian Literature thanks to a visit to Canadian public libraries and the excellent recommendations of their librarians. I also met a super helpful sales assistant at the John Fleuvog store in Gastown, Vancouver. You have to love a city where you can get good shoes and great CanLit recommendations in one place.

As a result, three of the six books I have chosen are by Canadian authors. Two others are memoir, and one is an Australian crime fiction classic.


A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews

I adored A Complicated Kindness. This CanLit classic came up as a recommendation from everyone I asked in Canadian libraries, as well as being a winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award. It is a coming of age story set in a cloistered Mennonite community in the US. Funny, dark and heart-breaking. Do yourself a favour and read this one.


February, Lisa Moore

Another CanLit recommendation, February, is a story of grief and loss set on the Newfoundland coast in the wake of a catastrophe. Playing with time and switching between the present day and flashbacks, chronology in this novel is less important than the emotional trajectory. It is beautiful and poetic. 


Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese

I asked for some First Nations CanLit recommendations and Indian Horse was suggested by several people. This story of cultural alienation, separation from traditional land, and the reality of life as a First Nations aspiring hockey player is full of sorrow and hope. Beautifully set against the the Canadian wilderness, it draws on myth and magic. A great introduction to First Nations literature.


Wild, Cheryl Strayed

I read Wild while travelling through Canada. Some of my journey took me close to the Pacific Crest Trail where Strayed heals her grief through an onerous and sometimes joyful thousand-mile solo trek. I spotted the mountain tops of the Cascades as I traveled by train through British Columbia. Seeing the landscape while reading the novel made me appreciate the scale of the task she had set herself without any training or support. I enjoyed Strayed’s humour and self-deprecating writing. A great travel read.


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of my all-time favourite writers. I don’t love all of her books equally. I have my favourite children, so to speak, but this one is an absolute stand-out. This memoir is the auto-biographical version of her novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and is the story of her growing up in a strictly religious family with a domineering and clearly mad mother. It is the story of her searching for her biological mother. Most importantly, it is the story of her finding a way to love herself and others. Every sentence in this book is perfect and devastating. The best memoir I have read? Possibly.


The Broken Shore, Peter Temple

2016, the year I finally got around to reading The Broken Shore. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction so I can’t claim much knowledge about the genre beyond a dedicated love of Raymond Chandler, however, I think I can say this would have to be the quintessential Australian crime fiction novel. I loved the men of few words, the Australian landscapes, both rural and urban, and Temple’s writing style. There’s even a scene in the State Library Victoria! I have Jane Harper’s The Dry on my summer reading list so I can expand my adventures into Australian crime writing.

My favourite books of 2016

This year I tried to carve out more time to read. I abandoned television. I limited my time on social media.  I traded movies on long-haul flights for novels. I snuck to my bedroom when the inlaws were visiting to read (okay that isn’t a new strategy). 

In 2016 I also started tracking my reading on Goodreads. I set myself a target of 100 books, which I failed to reach, but I definitely read more this year than the past few years. Hoorah!

These are my top picks for 2016, followed by my favourite 2016 ‘best books’ listicles, and a quick look at my TBR (to be read) pile for summer.


Autumn by Ali Smith

Easily my favourite author at the moment. Autumn is Smith’s post-Brexit novel and the first in her planned quartet of novels, each named for a season of the year. Smith’s writing is electric, and this reads like one long poem. Whenever I finish a Smith novel I immediately want to start re-reading it again. Her books are so richly layered I feel like I have only scratched the surface.


Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look is a collection of essays, observations and diary entries by one of the greatest non-fiction writers. Sharp, honest, precise. When I read Garner I wonder why anyone else even bothers writing. If I could rub a magic lamp and have any wish granted it would be to write like Helen Garner.


The North Water by Ian McGuire

A rollicking, brutal and rancid tale of life on a 19th century whaling ship headed for the Arctic. Murder, violence and extreme weather create the perfect setting for a heady thriller. It’s hard to beat the 1800’s for savagery. I loved being cast into the rank world of The North Water.


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton was my first dip into reading Strout and now I’m wondering why I haven’t read anything of hers before. This was a quiet book that crept up on me. I read it straight after Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, which may have been an overdose of back-to-back dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, but I enjoyed this more than Levy. I know that will get me into trouble with everyone who loved Hot Milk, but there, I said it!


The Many by Wyl Menmuir

I would not have discovered this gem of a novel had it not been on the Booker long list. I reserved a bunch of long list titles from my local library and this was one of the first that was available. A beautiful and subtle story set in a parochial English coastal village. The village is haunted and the protagonist who arrives from out of town is haunted. At only 143 pages, The Many can be inhaled in one sitting.


His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

More 19th century murder and mayhem. His Bloody Project was another Booker long list discovery. The narrative is crafted through a set of (fictional) primary source documents including court transcripts and medical reports and presented as if it is a true crime tale. I consumed this book and carried the story around in my head for some time afterwards.


Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

A woman runs off to Alaska with her two kids in a campervan without telling anyone where she is headed. Not your typical road trip story. I read this while travelling through Canada so the landscape resonated with me. Some reviews have called Heroes of the Frontier a dark comedy, but I don’t think that label is quite right. It is dark, and it is funny, but it is also tender. The small family moving through the vast landscape captured me from the outset. I was cheering them on all the way.


Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy 

Serious Sweet is a day in the life of two anti-heroes negotiating through their lives in London. I have been a fan of A.L. Kennedy since I first read her short stories. Reviewers call her tricksy and her novels do take some work, but I think they pay back the effort. The narrative switches in and out of the characters’ rambling inner voices but once you get into the rhythm you really feel like you are inhabiting the minds of Jon and Meg. Whether you want to be caught there is another question.


The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder was a final trip back to the 19th century, which seemed to be familiar territory for me to visit in my reading this year. I wasn’t immediately sold on this novel, but before I knew it, it had carried me away. I won’t give away any spoilers with the story line but I was captivated by this tale of life in a small Irish village where everything isn’t quite what it first seems on the surface.

Those are my picks for 2016, keeping in mind I still have a huge TBR pile of 2016 books to catch up on over summer.

Here are my favourite books I read in 2016 that were not new releases.

If you would like to check out other people’s 2016 favourites, here is my master list of listicles. You can also catch me on Radio National talking about some of these.

And my summer reading plans? Here are the 2016 books currently on my TBR pile. I’m sure I will add to it once I have another look through the listicles over the summer break.