Beat in her blood, J.K.Ullrich (Wild Type Press 2022)

Beat in her blood, Heavy metal mysteries Vol.1 (J.K.Ullrich, Wild Type Press 2022) is an astonishing, and prescient novel. Set in Baltimore in the near future, medical science is outrunning regulation and a black market of robotic limbs and implants has developed for HPM – human performance modification – servicing a willing population. So willing, people are ready to chance their luck with shady doctors moonlighting in back-alley operations. Beat in her blood is science fiction but Ullrich reminds us that the medical enhancements it covers exist already. It takes a second on Google to find an array of scholarly articles on HPM. As she says, those chips that monitor our body’s rhythms are just in our smart phone, not under our skin.  

Unfolding within this world is a mystery. From the first page, a brief Prelude, we are introduced to a character who seems to be conducting surgery on herself. It is clearly not a clinical setting, there is blood and self-administered anaesthesia, yet she is assured, in control. Control, and the lack of it, is a theme that drives this action-packed novel. 

Ullrich’s protagonist Petra is a veteran of a recent conflict. She is battle-scarred with titanium bionic hardware throughout her body and a host of traumatic memories. Petra pilots a boat, a ‘screws cruise’ which provides a makeshift theatre outside the territorial regulatory limits. When she finds a surgeon dying in the hold she teams up with a paramedic, Jonathan, to find out what has happened.

Jonathan knows Dr McCormick from the hospital where he works and he acts as a vehicle for the reader as we come to grips with the ethical terrain—his disbelief that his friend, April McCormick, could willingly participate in this medical tourism evolves, as does ours. Jonathan also carries a profound grief about a different medical procedure gone wrong.

Their investigation takes them to the literal cutting edge of biotechnology. Dr McCormick is connected to the development of a new biotech enhancement which uses electrodes inserted under the scalp to redirect a body’s existing currents to target areas of the brain. The Beat, however, is still experimental. It has been developed by research scientsts in a private facility. Jonathan and Petra cross paths with a scientist, Kade, who has his own mysterious connection to the woman in the boat, and who wants to initiate clinical trials for the Beat. 

“What does this Beat cure?” 

“Depends on the brain region you target with the nodes.” Kade indicated a dangling wire for each item as he listed it. “Psychological problems, nervous disorders, endocrine diseases…” 

“…Adrenaline jolts to improve your speed or give you the edge in a fight.” Frost-framed memories clouded Petra’s vision, and she shook her head to melt them away. 

Kade made a face. “Those things are hypothetically possible, but I hadn’t planned to include them in the app.” 

An app. The setup is persuasive enough that it isn’t a stretch to think, Why not? Ullrich’s deft presentation of the context of biomedical research is compelling—a system where research funding and regulation is driven by companies and markets creating artificial scarcity to feed the rapacious desires of powerful lobbies. Ullrich teases out many of the ethical dilemmas—not only who gets treatment, where and how, but why some and not others are legal and what happens when more and more people need or want them in a world where profit reigns supreme.

It is a story familiar to anyone downstream of a tussle between public and private interests. The most vulnerable are left behind. Pertra is one of these vulnerable. She wants more and better treatment for her veteran siblings who are among those forced to buy ‘junk’ through backyard operations. 

Ullrich’s convincing characters are a pleasure to spend time with and she uses dialogue well to carry action. The language is evocative throughout. ‘Humidity’s thick blanket felt almost comforting after the hospital’s sterile chill. Her sneakers pounded across city blocks, puddles splashing her legs.’

In her Afterword, Ullrich describes a condition that afflicts both her and, more seriously, her sister to whom she dedicates this book. After years of unrelated symptoms, its eventual diagnosis was Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It manifests differently in every patient and can vary from a mostly manageable condition to living with chronic, untreatable pain. 

Understanding this, it is hardly a surprise that Ullrich explores a world where we can exchange one faulty body part for another. And Ullrich also reminds us that even in a future where replacement limbs are infinite, the world our bodies must inhabit is not. The imperative of climate change requires us to either reverse that process or adapt. She asks, ‘Is transhumanism the solution?’

Beat in her blood is a complex thriller, its multiple plot strands meriting more than one read and, as the first in the Heavy Metal series, there is much to look forward to from J.K.Ullrich.

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Lay down your guns: how authors and editors navigate ego, ownership and the creative process in publishing fiction

I researched authority in the author–editor relationship: who holds it and how it is exercised by both parties.

I found that prevailing perspectives on this have limited understanding of its role and scope, doing both author and editor a disservice, and failing readers.

The dissertation argues that in an ideal, balanced relationship, forged to create the best book possible, the editor and the author will acknowledge the process and engage with it. Asking who wields more power perpetuates an infantilising culture and a unproductive dichotomy. Instead, we could see the editing process as a partnership, a collaborative opportunity to go further.

Searching for butterflies

‘How can I help you?’

Midnight at Changi Airport and a disembodied face comes to us through the screen. We had pushed ‘i’ and Ritvhik materialised. I guess he can see us too.

‘We’re looking for the butterfly enclosure.’

‘Walk to your left through to Transfer B and you will see signs. But,’ he adds, ‘the butterflies are sleeping.’

We have nearly three hours to kill in Singapore and our mission, guided in its last phase by Ritvhik, continues. My son Hugo and I have been walking for what must be kilometres eschewing the travellators to get the blood flowing again. We pull our carry-ons along sleek tiles to Terminal 3 where he has Googled the location of the butterflies. 

We must be close now, I keep thinking, as we stride through yet another grand sweep of polished tiles, rows of seats and gleaming shopfronts displaying pyramids of duty free whiskey and macadamias. Counters lined with perfume and anti-aging cellular renewal wink at us. We’ve been this way before, haven’t we? I feel frissons of anxiety when we realise we need to take the SkyTrain, taking us further from Gate G27, our portal home, but we push on. 

Why do we travel? The search for an ephemeral experience, it is transitory–contrived–by definition. We are on the hunt for something beautiful. We had just spent a week in Thailand, on the island of Phuket, my south-east Asian roots calling. Our Covid chrysalis saw us emerge blinking, now two out of three children at university with competing schedules and priorities. This might be the last time our family would holiday together and after being cooped up for three years, I craved different vistas, different languages and cultures. Australia’s whiteness, the uniformity of accent from Hobart to Sydney to Cairns to Adelaide and Perth left me wanting difference. I wanted immersion in other; I wanted to dip my toe into new waters.

A ten hour flight later, airport shuffling, boarding calls and stress  at each end and I wondered. I turn to Hugo. ‘The butterflies are sleeping.’ But he’s not dissuaded and, as we have time and will be seated again soon for eight more hours, we follow Ritvhik’s directions, back the way we’ve just come. A long way back. Sometimes travel is about sunk costs.  We are determined.  We had followed the signs from Transfer B and now stand, bewildered, before realising that we have passed it.

We have found the enclosure but it shimmers, mirage-like, its glass walls reflecting the airport lounge and our own flushed faces. ‘It’s a wall of nothingness,’ sighs Hugo. ‘You can’t see anything.’

Is travel the pursuit of the unattainable, an attempt to recreate home comforts, or mythical places as we hurtle through space and time in a steel capsule? I feel my lumbering gracelessness—too large, too white, too wealthy. Reconciling my desire to travel with the colonising of another ecosystem to service my needs feels wrong. 

But the doors are open. Still trundling our bags, we push them ajar and slip through a curtain of weighted beads to the foliage within. Hugo bounds down the stairs to explore but I am content.  

Travel is the pursuit of an experience not found in our everyday. I had missed heat, as I missed crowds, density, tall buildings, the scrabble of trees growing out of cracked pavements and walls. I missed city dirt, and the steady hum of traffic. Now enveloped by steamy air and the steady drone of aircraft noise from the tarmac, I welcome these sensations.

As Hugo and I stand amongst the sleeping butterflies in their recreated forest, this shared moment, this reminder of why I travel is enough for me, for now. 

Mum’s L of a learning curve with teen in the driver’s seat

My youngest child drove herself to work this morning. Her after-school and weekend job is across town in the martial arts school where we have both trained since she was five. We have been driving across Sydney, from the trees and water of the land just north of Parramatta River, the river that cuts through Sydney opening into the Harbour, to the denser, dirtier, livelier inner-south-west for twelve years.

https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/mum-s-l-of-a-learning-curve-with-teen-in-the-driver-s-seat-20221118-p5bzdx.html

Jane Caro, The Mother

My review of Jane Caro’s new novel, published by the Newtown Review of Books

Tags: Australian fictionAustralian women writerscoercive controldomestic violenceJane Caro

Though I knew the gist of the issues raised by The Mother before I began – I’d read the devastating stories of victims of domestic violence, watched the news, and thought I understood the issues – this novel still shocks.

Read it here: https://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au/jane-caro-the-mother-reviewed-by-jessica-stewart/

The Furies, Mandy Beaumont and On Reckoning, Amy Remkeikis

Two books released in this nascent year recount women’s trauma and silencing by men, and their rage. 

In On Reckoning, an essay in Hachette’s ‘On’ series, Guardian journalist Amy Remeikis documents the rising tide of women’s anger that led to thousands marching in last year’s March4Justice. In The Furies,novelist Mandy Beaumont carries that anger in a compelling story of trauma, both inherited and present.

My review of The Furies, Mandy Beaumont and On Reckoning, Amy Remkeikis was published by the Newtown Review of Books.

Overland 6 April 2022

When I moved into a second career in editing and publishing, friends told me that working as an editor might temper my love of books—that a professional eye might spy previously unnoticed flaws. I dismissed this, but they were right. Before, if a book left me restless, dissatisfied, annoyed, I would simply close it and move on. Now, I knowwhat is wrong, why I, the reader, feel short-changed.

Marshmallow, Victoria Hannan

After the success of her debut, Kokomo, in 2020, Victoria Hannan’s second novel is another study of friendship. Its five characters have been friends since university. They are now in their thirties and each is grappling with a pre mid-life but post first-flush weariness. But this weariness is not ennui; through their shifting points of view, Hannan brings us their shared sorrow.

Marshmallow lays out the raw pain of grief and its weight, its pervasiveness, its ‘inconvenience’ and, piercingly, its loneliness. There has been a tragedy that has impacted all five of them, and Hannan brings a rippling tension from the first page. 

Read the full review at Newtown Review of Books.

Why I’m not worried about the kids

Well, at least she didn’t use ‘existential’. Apart from that saving grace, there was little I could relate to in Julie Szago’s piece (‘Slacker generation bowed down by recrimination’). 

Was this all a piece of projection? Bowed down? Recrimination? A wasted twenty years? Speak for yourself. It reeked of a childlike nostalgia for simple answers and couldn’t articulate a vision, or even any element of it, that she says she craves. 

Looking to apportion blame, here or anywhere, is a juvenile nostalgia for a time when we/someone had all the answers. Keating’s giant steps felt good and had a few lasting impacts, but we loved the show most of all. A ‘heaviness’ because we don’t have that once in a generation politician is one I can live with. I loved Keating’s three years and his vision as much as the next person. But if he’d lost, we wouldn’t have had Howard. Growing up means understanding it’s mostly swings and roundabouts and that means there’s hope for the future too. 

Yes, we grew up in the shade of the Cold War. I remember thinking as a teenager that I probably wouldn’t see adulthood.  But, the thing is, we grew out of that. We realised the complexity of life once we looked through an adult lens.

Roe v Wade is now on the ropes. Dark days indeed. Will we be the first generation to withdraw rights, to leave behind a less equal society? I get that fear but thinking that this fight, or any fight, is being played out in worse times than ever before is self-aggrandising.  Many many Americans have seen this coming and been planning for it for decades. There are contingencies. Lobbies. Resources.

Have we really cocked it up more badly than previous generations? It’s a throwing up of hands about doing anything at all. Growing up is accepting that sometimes we might only be able to take small steps. I worked hard for the Australian republic in the 90s.  We lost. It was awful but it wasn’t the end-times. And while I will always vote Yes in any future referendum, I feel now that we need to reconcile with our First Nations people or we replace one colonising institution with another. This is something to work for and we need to. We weren’t always right.

When we got engaged, my partner asked how I felt about the pitter-patter of tiny flatmates. Well, we have three young adults living with us, sometimes four when my elder daughter’s partner stays, and they’re great. I’m not worried about them. I see respect and safety and love. 

I look at their generation and know they have a task in front of them, one we’ve left them, we and our forebears, but I don’t regret having them. I can’t get my head around that thought. I don’t think the kids regret it either. They are self-aware but I don’t see self-loathing. Projection again?  Greta Thunberg has spoken about a cautious optimism now. 

 They embrace their friends, support each other, study, work. They accept—‘You don’t “come out” anymore, you just “are”’ one said recently to their parent. And they are a zillion times better with alcohol consumption that I was at their age. When I tell them to be careful with drinking if they are taking the car, they can’t believe the extent of my wrongheadedness, ‘Nobody does that.’  

Try lifting your head above the parapet, quitting the self-indulgence and see the work going on around you. It gives hope. I recommend it.

ELIZABETH STROUT Oh William! 

Oh William! follows the same ensemble of characters as Elizabeth Strout’s finely honed novel My name is Lucy Barton,and the accompanying collection of stories Anything is Possible (reviewed here),  and I did wonder what more she could bring to this new novel. She had plumbed the aches of sadness, estrangement, poverty and mental illness in her earlier work, and her evocation of living with hurt, with isolation, but also love and beauty, was piercing. What more could she wring from the familiar cast in the small town outside Chicago? I need not have doubted. Oh William! is another extraordinary insight into being human.

When the novel opens, Lucy is mourning her second husband, David, a man who was the love of her life and whom she misses deeply. William is her first husband, whom she had married soon after college, and they were married twenty years with two daughters. His affairs, her thwarted ambition, his absence, all led to the end of the marriage, but they have remained friends. When he invites her to accompany him to Maine to explore an explosive piece of family history he has uncovered, she agrees, albeit reluctantly. She, and his subsequent wives, have always taken care of him and always been under-appreciated; the rewards, in the end, not enough for any of them. 

At times in our marriage I loathed him. I saw, with a kind of dull disc of dread in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his mild expressions, he was unavailable. But worse. Because beneath his height of pleasantness there lurked a juvenile crabbiness, a scowl that flickered across his soul, a pudgy little boy with his lower lip thrust forward who blamed this person and that person—he blamed me, I felt this often. He was blaming me for something that had nothing to do with our present lives…

It is this needling from the past that propels their journey. There is no escape from the past, though the pain is buried deep. The history they explore relates to William’s mother, Catherine, who entered Lucy’s life as her prospective mother-in-law, a woman very different to Lucy’s own withdrawn, sometimes abusive mother. ‘We loved her. Oh, we loved her … She was vibrant; her face was often filled with light.’ Yet Catherine is not all she seems. Early on, a lack of empathy, a controlling presence, jar the reader, and the book turns on the slow reveal about Catherine and her past. Catherine has reimagined her life at a terrible cost. 

Lucy has also recreated herself, more than once. She left her family, who live in desperate poverty, to take up a scholarship, and we understand here that in leaving William she felt she had abandoned her (grown) daughters. 

But William asks her, are we free to choose, or is that an illusion, even an act of egoism? ‘We just do—we just do Lucy …’ Lucy is taken aback: 

It had felt like a choice to me then. But remembering this now, I realised that also during that whole year I made no motion to put myself back inside the marriage. I kept myself separate.

What she understands is that our actions may not be self-indulgent but necessary. Likewise, we see Catherine acting to save herself. The pain she carried and which seeped into William was a consequence, perhaps inevitable.  

Strout’s ability to take us inside a character’s personal journey, to walk with them, is on every page, in everyday banalities—cleaning teeth, filling a car with petrol—and in their memories. Lucy recounts how once she was missing her parents so much she called them from the fancy lobby of the hotel where she and William were staying. Lucy suffered terrible privations in childhood yet the loneliness of new experiences, of feeling out of place, drove her to seek comfort in the familiar, even when it was a source of hurt.  ‘And I said, I just blurted it out, I said, “Daddy, we’re in Puerto Rico with William’s mother and I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do in a place like this!”’ And she is comforted.

We are always in Lucy’s frame of reference. She takes us aside, into her private musings:  ‘Please try to understand this …’,  ‘I should have mentioned earlier …’ or ‘I will tell you just one more thing …’ Strout’s deliberation with words and their placement creates space, slowing us down. She uses few contractions. 

The complexity of women and men is infinite and under Strout’s observant eye, the motives and actions of her characters resonate. Her handling of private trauma is as deft as ever.

Published first in the Newtown Review of Books.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! Penguin HB 256pp $29.99