Waiting on Wednesday: The Dreamers // Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age

Wednesday, 14 November 2018


Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly prompt hosted by Breaking the Spine where the participants tell their readers about an upcoming release they are looking forward to. This week I've got two anticipated releases lined up: The Dreamers by Karen Thonpson Walker and some non-fiction with the latest edition of the Quarterly Essay. 

A mesmerizing novel about a college town transformed by a strange illness that locks victims in a perpetual sleep and triggers life-altering dreams—by the bestselling author of The Age of Miracles, for fans of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. 

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital.

Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned. Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate.

Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps.

A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.

At the moment with Christmas shopping looming for this year's bookish haul, looking at books released in 2019 may seem far away! Nonetheless, I can't wait to read this release from Karen Thompson Walker - her debut The Age of Miracles is a firm favourite of mine, and she writes fiction in a way which captures human nature at its most fragile, on the cusp of something extraordinary. Stay tuned, I'll definitely be posting more about this one once I get my hands on a copy!

Releasing February 2019 from Simon and Schuster




What is the inner life? And is it vanishing in the digital age? Throughout history, artists and philosophers have cultivated the deep self, and seen value in solitude and reflection. But today, through social media, wall-to-wall marketing, reality television and the agitation of modern life, everything feels illuminated, made transparent.

We feel bereft without our phones and their cameras and the feeling of instant connectivity. It gets hard to pick up a book, harder still to stay with it. In this eloquent and profound essay, renowned critic Sebastian Smee brings to the surface the idea of inner life - the awareness one may feel in front of a great painting or while listening to extraordinary music by a window at dusk or in a forest at night. No nostalgic lament, this essay evokes what is valuable and worth cultivating - a connection to our true selves, and a feeling of agency in the mystery of our own lives.

At the same time, such contemplation puts us in an intensely charged relationship with things, people or works of art that are outside us. If we lose this power, Smee asks, what do we lose of ourselves? 

Expanding my reading habits into non-fiction has been both refreshing and eye-opening this year, and the latest edition of the quarterly essay seems right on point in an age where there is little time left to stop and be comfortable in our own thoughts; or simply appreciate life outside the screens we have become so attached to. I've got Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and Upstream by Mary Oliver on my list as well which cover some similar ground, so I'll be looking forward to reading them all over the holidays!

Releasing 26th November 2018 from Black Inc.

Review: The Tournament by Matthew Reilly - Chivalry, Challenges, Checkmate.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

The Tournament by Matthew Reilly
Released: 1st June 2014 (AU)
Published by: Pan Macmillan
Genre: Historical Thriller
Source: Library
Pages: 410
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Even a pawn can become a queen. 

 The year is 1546. Suleiman the Magnificent, the powerful and feared Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, issues an invitation to every king in Europe:

 YOU ARE INVITED TO SEND YOUR FINEST PLAYER TO COMPETE IN A CHESS TOURNAMENT TO DETERMINE THE CHAMPION OF THE KNOWN WORLD.

 The English delegation - led by esteemed scholar Roger Ascham - journeys to the glittering city of Constantinople. Accompanying Ascham is his pupil, Bess, who is about to bear witness to events she never thought possible. For on the first night of the tournament, a powerful guest of the Sultan is murdered, and against the backdrop of the historic event, Ascham is tasked with finding the killer. Barbaric deaths, unimaginable depravity and diplomatic treachery unfold before Bess's eyes, indelibly shaping her character and determining how she will perform her future role...as Queen Elizabeth I.
Like Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly is one of those prolific authors I've always thought to try, but didn't know where to start! After The Tournament came recommended, and seeing it was historical fiction, there was no question that I had to give it a chance. This thrilling tale hones in on the life of a teenage Elizabeth I, where she is exposed to political intrigue and a series of ghastly murders during the chess tournament in 1546 set at the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

The object of chess is to checkmate the king. But curiously, while the king is the crux of the game, he is the most impotent piece on the board. Even pawns can become queens and every other piece can move more than one square. And so the king in chess is like a king in life: his continued reign depends upon keeping his castles intact and his subjects onside. He is hostage to his people's continued happiness. 

It's no wonder that Reilly has become known as one of the greats when it comes to writing solid action, and here he's balanced it with a well-researched foundation to make the plot realistic. Of course, there is always some creative license involved, but it was useful to read in the interview at the end of the book with the author what inspired him to tell this story. From the explanations of the architecture and opulence of the palace, to how the games of chess play out in the grand setting of Hagia Sophia, Reilly's ability to create a sense of place makes its mark here. While the writing style is often pragmatic, in a story like this there's no time for the flowery prose I've come to appreciate in other historical fiction from Kate Forsyth for example. That being said, for a book like this, which doesn't shy away from graphically exploring the sexual politics at play in the Sultan's inner circle, or the gruesome murders of both Cardinals and nobles, there is never a dull moment.

I had often wondered what had caused this profound change in my friend and now I knew. Sometimes we must go away to discover things about ourselves. Sometimes we go away with the wrong people. Sometimes we go away with the right teachers. 

Behind the drama in Constantinople is a novel exploring the coming of age of a future queen. The extracts of the rules of chess and the different roles of the pieces were a wise move to include between the chapters. Serving more as a mere reference point for those not familiar with the game, they offered a clever parallel to the politics of power in real life at the time. The bond between the chivalrous Robert Ascham and Elizabeth brought some warmth to the novel where a murderer on the loose and corrupt practices were rife. Seeing how she brought her own sense of curiosity, bravery and loyalty to her mentor and friend Elsie showcased Reilly's ability to balance both plot progression and character development to make the best of both.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This year has so far been one for stepping outside my usual reading habits, and I'm glad I've continued that and picked up The Tournament. Though I didn't have any preconceptions of Matthew Reilly's writing, it's easy to see why he's reached such acclaim. If any of you have any recommendations on where to go next with his books from here, let me know!

Review: Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott - The science behind survival of the fittest

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Released: 31st July 2018
Published by: Picador
Genre: Adult thriller
Source: Publisher
Pages: 339
My Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Kit Owens harbored only modest ambitions for herself when the mysterious Diane Fleming appeared in her high school chemistry class. But Diane's academic brilliance lit a fire in Kit, and the two developed an unlikely friendship. Until Diane shared a secret that changed everything between them.

More than a decade later, Kit thinks she's put Diane behind her forever and she's begun to fulfill the scientific dreams Diane awakened in her. But the past comes roaring back when she discovers that Diane is her competition for a position both women covet, taking part in groundbreaking new research led by their idol.

Soon enough, the two former friends find themselves locked in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse that threatens to destroy them both.
Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Megan Abbott's latest psychological thriller firmly cements her position as a master of writing dark, addictive stories about the boundaries of friendships and what it takes to succeed. From Dare Me, The Fever, The End of Everything and You Will Know Me, I became enthralled by her intelligent, whip-smart prose and ability to capture the malignant undercurrents behind even the closest relationships. In Give Me Your Hand she has once again lifted the bar, this time bringing the drama into the scientific world, among the labs, burners and microscopes which hone in on what remains unseen with the naked eye. 

Sometimes it feels like life's about understanding how much opposites meet. Kill to cure, poison to immunize, sacrifice to save. 

Competition can be both a propellant to greatness, or lead to an all-consuming quest to be nothing but the best. It's always fascinating to see how Abbott brings in these elements of human nature, and pushes her characters to their limits. Kit and Diana had been best friends for years, driving each other in high school to always be at the top of their game, and reach the heights of the careers they had dreamed of. But Diana had always been an enigma at heart, the type of person one could admire until they saw that there was something ominous behind her pragmatic facade. There is some primal instinct that linked the main characters and their work, a force that was both brilliant and dangerous. As the novel switches between then and now, the contest to be on the research team reached unexpected twists that went further than I could have anticipated. I was totally gripped by the secrets revealed about not just these two, but everyone else working in lab G-21. In a Megan Abbott novel the suspense is always cleverly framed by the characters' vices and deepest flaws, revealed in elegant prose that pulses with tension and leaves you wanting more. 

When you're in the sciences, when you know about things like neuronal biochemistry and the complex interplay between, say, hormones and emotion, you might imagine you have a deep understanding of the mind. Explain to me why I feel this way, think this way, dream this way, am this way. But consider it: Would you really want to know? 

A good piece of writing can also require some solid research to back it up, and it's clear that Abbott has done the groundwork in this case. I may not know much about the sciences or PMDD, though I may have learnt a thing or two after reading this. The sterile setting of a science lab contrasting with the messy web of secrets, back-stabbing and cover-ups made for a winning combination. Far from the sports field, small-town gossip or world of elite gymnastics of her previous books, Give Me Your Hand feels more mature in this professional workplace context. Notably, she never loses sight of the people that these women were before they reached the pinnacle of their careers and how the experiences in their teens shaped who they would become. It is this depth of character development which is always a stand-out, and part of what makes Give Me Your Hand so compulsively readable.

But to understand, you need to see so much more. Because everything affects everything else. One small speck in one narrow recess and everything else is dark with its shadow. And working with Dr Severin, I know I'll see it all. And I'll be a part of the grander seeing, the illumination of darkness. The hand outstretched to all those women in the shadows. Come with me, come, come. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Give Me Your Hand is not a psychological thriller for the faint-hearted, but it's the most addictive one I've read in a long time. Smart, dark, and subtle in its revelations of the truth, as always I can't wait to see what Megan Abbott will write next.

Review: Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner - A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner
Released: 1st August 2004
Published by: Macmillan
Genre: True Crime
Source: Library
Pages: 328
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
In October 1997 a clever young law student at ANU made a bizarre plan to murder her devoted boyfriend after a dinner party at their house. Some of the dinner guests-most of them university students-had heard rumours of the plan. Nobody warned Joe Cinque. He died one Sunday, in his own bed, of a massive dose of rohypnol and heroin.


His girlfriend and her best friend were charged with murder. Helen Garner followed the trials in the ACT Supreme Court. Compassionate but unflinching, this is a book about how and why Joe Cinque died.

It probes the gap between ethics and the law; examines the helplessness of the courts in the face of what we think of as 'evil'; and explores conscience, culpability, and the battered ideal of duty of care. It is a masterwork from one of Australia's greatest writers.
Why wasn’t she down on her knees, grovelling for forgiveness? From the Cinques? From the whole human race? Begging for pardon, and with no sense that she was entitled to it, no expectation of ever receiving it? 

True crime isn't a genre I'd usually choose to read from, but when the opportunity arose to read this book for university, and knowing Helen Garner was a brilliant writer, my curiosity got the better of me. Joe Cinque's Consolation is by all accounts a harrowing read, and yet Garner has provided an insight into the trials of Anu Singh and Madhavi Rao over his death with a sensitivity that makes you feel all the anguish over what could have been...'if only'. It calls into question the morality of the justice system, the quest to make sense of a series of events which it seems could have been prevented on so many occasions, and the pain inflicted on the parents who will always carry the grief over the child they lost so devastatingly.

The fatigue after a long day in court was also a kind of gratitude, I had been granted the inestimable privilege of looking into other people’s lives. What I had found there had absorbed my intellectual and emotional attention for many hours. Unlike the Cinques, unlike the Singhs, I could walk away. 

One of the things I appreciated most about this work was how balanced Garner was in describing both the technicalities of the arguments brought forward by the Crown and the defence, alongside her own subjective views. Through her writing with observations into the legal processes, psychiatric analyses and gaps between hearings and sentencing, there is also an undercurrent of disillusionment and shock as to how the final verdict came to be. Even Justice Crispin's Freudian slip when he first mistakenly stated 'murder' instead of 'manslaughter' arguably indicates a sense of innate injustice. I too felt Garner's utter disbelief, though she also recognised that every element of the judgement was grounded in reason. But how does intellectual reasoning stand against the wrongful taking of a life? This is the anguish that plagues those left behind, and arguably is where the gaping chasm lies between morality and the law. 

She unfolded a tissue and held it to her mouth. She struggled to compose herself. I wanted to cry out with horror, and pity.

It's interesting how the law attempts to categorise social wrongs within neat parameters, with thresholds and rules that dictate the punishment to fit the crime. As Joe Cinque's Consolation proves however, the end result can appear manifestly inadequate. I suppose it's an ethical issue at heart, and one which the judges in positions of power do not take lightly. 'Duty of care' and 'diminished responsibility' are more than just pieces legalistic jargon; here their human impact is felt with full force. Helen Garner's journalistic merit cannot be underestimated on this point, as she looked at the effects of the trials on both the Cinque and Singh families, though she formed a closer relationship with the former. Of course, the most important voice in all of this always remains silent; that of the victim. But through Garner's recounts into the time spent with his family, we have a glimpse into the man Joe Cinque was and the profound suffering that his loved ones have endured. 

If memory is not to be trusted, what can courts rely on? How can they establish what ‘really happened’? How can things from the past, even the relatively recent past, be proved?

FINAL THOUGHTS

Joe Cinque's Consolation may be the first of Helen Garner's works I've read, but it certainly won't be the last. This book raises an array of important issues surrounding justice, the bounds of 'simple wickedness' and the continual struggle to vanquish an unfathomable tragedy. The message that came through which gives the most cause for reflection is that what is ‘just’ and what seems ‘fair’ are often two very different things.

Review: The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan - Life is too short for 'what could have been'

Thursday, 26 July 2018

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Released: 1st August 2015
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Genre: Short Stories/Essays
Source: Bought
Pages: 208
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Marina Keegan's star was on the rise when she graduated from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker.

Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash. As her family, friends and classmates, deep in grief, joined to create a memorial service for Marina, her unforgettable last essay for the Yale Daily News, The Opposite of Loneliness, went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. She had struck a chord.

Even though she was just 22 when she died, Marina left behind a rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty and possibility of her generation. The Opposite of Loneliness is an assemblage of Marina's essays and stories that articulates the universal struggle we all face as we work out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world. 
Of course, there are things we wish we’d done: our readings, that boy across the hall. We’re our own hardest critics and it’s easy to let ourselves down. Sleeping too late. Procrastinating. Cutting corners. More than once I’ve looked back on my high school self and thought: how did I do that? How did I work so hard? Our private insecurities follow us and will always follow us.

The Opposite of Loneliness speaks to our generation of twenty-somethings who are trying to find their place in the world. Published in the wake of a tragedy, it's of course devastating to see a young life full of promise end far too soon. But there is some solace to be found in the fact that Marina's essays and stories live on, a testament to her writing which displayed an understanding of life well beyond her years.

But the thing is, we’re all like that…we have these impossibly high standards and we’ll probably never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves. But I feel like that’s okay. We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.

In reading this collection, I remember thinking to myself how true this is. Marina Keegan's words in the first essay capture exactly how it feels to be on the cusp of 'adult' life; restlessness, uncertainty, and a sense of urgency to do more. Be better. Thrive. As her mentor and professor at Yale Anne Fadiman wrote in the introduction, when deciding what the focus of her work would be, Marina "understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful.” Yet aside from the non-fiction, there is so much versatility in her writing, and her short stories also hold some memorable themes. In 'Cold Pastoralism' for example, the opening lines describe the awkward fragility of a relationship when the emotional investment is becoming all too real:

We were in the stage where we couldn’t make serious eye contact for fear of implying we were too invested. We used euphemisms like “I miss you” and “I like you” and smiled every time our noses got too close.

I can imagine that her personality shines in every sentence that she wrote, and where there is heartache in her stories there is also warmth and keen observations into what makes people tick. It is so relatable to come across a writer who was at the same crossroads in their lives, with a perfectionist streak alongside youthful idealism and vitality - though also so aware of their mortality. There's a sad irony in some sections of this book, reading about how the author had already envisioned some elements of her future, talking of the children she would have, and the successful career she was already on the path to attaining. In spite of it all, I think if you read The Opposite of Loneliness you'll find some comfort in its pages, and turn to look at the world with gratitude for the opportunities that will arise if you go to seek them. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Sometimes I'll pick up a book and know I've found it at just the right time in my life, especially when it contains the words that I need to hear. It's a well-worn aphorism, but life really is too short for 'what if', and 'what I could have done'. The Opposite of Loneliness brought this idea home for me, through the lens of a young writer who, had things been different, I'm sure would have gone to achieve even greater milestones.

We may not know exactly what our lives will look like a few years down the line, but who says we have to have all the answers right now? We are young. And there is hope that eventually, with some faith, resilience, a strong work ethic and positive attitude - we will get to where we want to be.