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

Podcast: The future of publishing

What’s the future for reading and writing in the digital world? What are digital writing communities all about? And why is the State Library Victoria involved?

I had a chat about these questions with Jemma Birrell from Tablo on Radio National’s Books and Arts program, hosted by Michael Cathcart.

You can listen to the podcast here.

If you would like to find out more about the Tablo State Library Victoria community, you can explore the community on Tablo or read this article on FutureBook.

Author in conversation: Kirsty Murray


I spoke to author Kirsty Murray about her award-winning YA novel, India Dark, at M Pavillion on 2 December 2016.

In our conversation, Kirsty shares the scandalous story of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, 29 Australian child performers that worked the Empire circuit from Melbourne to India in 1909, on which her novel India Dark is based. 

We also talk about India, colonialism, writing and Kirsty’s involvement in projects such as Bookwallah

The recording includes a short reading from India dark and Q&A with the audience. 

Listen to our conversation here.

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.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

The Australian Women Writers Challenge encourages participants to read and review books by Australian women. In 2017 the challenge also focuses on classics and diversity. 

This year, I have signed up for the first time. I kicked off my reading year with Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race

Last year I read 13 books by Australian women, all new releases. I didn’t review any. Now I have signed up for the challenge, I plan to read more books by Australian women in 2017, dip into some classics, and write some reviews too.

The challenge, along with the Stella Prize, are fantastic ways to promote Australian Women Writers and their books. Reading more Australian women writers increases books sales and supports authors, bookstores and the local publishing industry.

Your local library also has a strong selection of books by Australian women writers. And here is an insiders tip – if they don’t have the one you want, you can always ask for it to be purchased for their collection.

Happy reading!

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.

Listicles, muesli bars & mansplaining

What do best books listicles, the discovery of a 25-year-old muesli bar and a Swedish hotline for mansplaining have in common? They are the topics I discussed on Radio National Drive’s ‘My Feed’ segment.

I also talked about librarians on social media, book discussions on Twitter and how I use Goodreads to inform my reading.

You can listen to the podcast of the show here.

If you would like to explore some 2016 best books listicles, here are some good ones to start with:

Near the end


Heavy rain came thundering down onto the roof just as Richard Flanagan was about to walk onto the stage. Thick heat had been pressing in on Melbourne all day and now finally relief. Flanagan looked up and noted the thunderous welcome before beginning his lecture. He was speaking on the role of environment in shaping his writing. A sudden deluge seemed a fitting introduction to his coming tide of ideas.
Flanagan took us on a journey pulsing through the rapids and pausing in the quiet places of Tasmania’s Franklin River. He guided us through the primordial temperate rainforests of the Tarkine wilderness of his childhood. Equal parts homage and lament for these places are no longer what they were, gradually stripped away by forestry, mining and tourism. The wildlife disappearing into extinction and receding into myth to be known only through story. The Tasmanian Tiger his parents pulled him from the car to see one late night standing in the rain and searching in the headlights, but it was already gone.

‘Loving Tasmania is like loving a beautiful junkie. You are always disappointed’.

Flanagan dragged us away from the remote West Coast of Tasmania and across the globe to London, metropolis, where he first encountered a large city, the shock of being alone in a heaving mass of humanity. ‘Who would be there for me?’ he asked. Flanagan reflected on what we have lost by being city-dwellers, our connection, our humanity and at what cost?

Of course, he talked about writing too. His searching for a voice when trying to write about cities, which he didn’t understand, and then going back to his muse the river, and finding his voice in the air pocket where he was stuck underwater for hours facing death. This voice did not fit the model of Australian literature he was told, and so he made a new cast and filled it overflowing with the river. He wound the tendrils of death and decay of the rainforest around his words to bind them.

And now, he looks out from his cabin on Bruny Island, observing from the edges as the species around him ever decline and he sees the mirror of nature smashed into a thousand shards that we think we might now like to reassemble but it is too late. And if we look into what remains of that mirror we find the greatest loss is ourselves and we fear our own demise.

And he said other things too, but I did not take notes. I fixed my gaze on the pattern of bluestone behind him. Maybe there was some humour and I hung on for some hope. But all I felt was a sharp arrow pierce my black heart.

We walked out into air washed clean by the rain. Down into the crowd together alone to find a place to eat. And when we sat down and our meal arrived, and we were lifting our food to our mouths and trying to pick apart the noodles and our thoughts, a man died on the floor right next to us. We watched and we looked away and we could not look away as the paramedics pushed down hard on his chest, their equipment scattered all around, our table shoved out of the way, the music switched off and the lights turned up bright. And they kept pushing hard on his chest. And then we said to each other he’s breathing.

Image credit: State Library Victoria @library_vic