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Review: Girl Defective


Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

Pan Macmillan, 2013

From the blurb:

In the tradition of High Fidelity and Empire Records, this is the literary soundtrack to Skylark Martin’s strange, mysterious, and extraordinary summer.

This is the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything.’

These are the words that came to mind while I was reading this book:

Vibrant, alive, quirky, nostalgic, curious, beautiful, sad, lonely, real.

Skylark (Sky) is a fifteen-year-old girl living above her family’s record shop with her melancholy dad who’s stuck in the past (‘Nothing after 1995’) and her ten-year-old brother Gully who has social difficulties and refuses to take off his pig-snout mask.

It’s mostly about Sky finding a sense of belonging in her ‘defective’ life.

One of my favourite aspects of the book was Sky’s relationship with her older, wilder friend Nancy.

She was nineteen and sharp as knives. I was fifteen and fumbling.

Kid, that was what she called me. Or little sister, or girlfriend, or dollbaby, or monkeyface. Sometimes she even used my name – Skylark, Sky – all in that drawl that felt like fingernails on my back lightly scratching itches I didn’t even know I had.

I had a shock of yearning, of wishing I was Nancy. The feeling was sharp and it carried a shadow. I was always on the edge of something that was never going to happen.

‘Is it a date or an assignation?’ I couldn’t remember the difference.
‘It’s a date.’
I tried to act jaded. I stole her stance, her slang, her style. ‘So go, lam, am-scray.’ My smile was unshakeable even as I was being ditched.

‘Yeah, we’re big dykes. We’re so dykey it’s not funny’. Nancy threw her arm around me and went ‘Mwah’ into my neck. I felt a tiny bomb explode inside.

What if I never saw her again? I felt a lump in my throat. Maybe our friendship had always been hollow. I’d needed someone to admire and Nancy needed to be admired. And now that the framework had changed we were all at sea.

The whole book takes place in St Kilda. The suburb is Sky’s world. The place is an intrinsic part, and character, of the book.

Once upon a time in old St Kilda, Victorian ladies would promenade and no one made disparaging remarks about their arses from the open window of an unregistered Ford Falcon. Then came wars and sailors and tramlines and the riff-raff bleeding in: working class, immigrants, refugees. Then it was all punks and junkies and prostitutes and then Money moved in. These days the red light still glowed but only faintly. I could live without the tourists but there were things I loved – like the palm trees and poppy seed kugelhopf; like the monster goldfish at the botanical gardens and the sad song of the marina boats. The wind played their masts like a bow on strings and the sound was eerie and lovely and more lonesome than anything I could imagine.

The Scenic Railway would have qualified as an old St Kildan. It had been around since 1911. Its white wood lattice lassoed Luna Park and made all the other rides with their Day-Glo and bad murals look crass and eighties. From the highest point I could see St Kilda’s up-down streets, her patches of green, her apartment blocks like computer monitors stacked on top of each other.

Sky is sweet and innocent but wanting more. I liked her quiet rebellions. I liked her anger at her dad for not telling the truth, and her frustration at her brother, and her snarky comments that she posts on her famous mother’s website (who had abandoned the family to follow her art).

Do you ever miss your children?

How does it feel to be such a fake?

How do you sleep?

I think Howell nails the teenage ‘call to wildness’ without sounding like a grown-up trying to be ‘cool’.

However. However.

I felt there were issues with the plot. Spoilers below.

Mainly, the storylines didn’t resolve satisfactorily for me. The dramatic peak of the narrative (the mess, Christmas Eve) didn’t work for me. Something more needed to happen. More than Luke punching Otis and Nancy falling off a ledge. Gully needed to do something more after sneaking in – something that only he could do. Luke needed to get answers from Otis (either here or in the police station after). Sky needed to get her answers from Nancy. The whole set-ups for the mystery about Mia, and the backstories about Ray and Steve Sharp needed resolving. I didn’t buy Sky’s ‘sense of finality’ after this event, because nothing had been resolved except the Bricker and the finding of the snout. For me, it all needed to come together better.

Had Otis told him anything? Did it make a difference? I felt different. When I looked at the picture of Mia I felt sadness but also a sense of finality. I felt lighter. Even when I thought about the shop and the future. Even when I thought about Mum.

Nope. Didn’t accept this. For a whole story based around a mystery of a missing girl, I needed more answers than what was given. And after hating on her mum for so long, what happened to change this?

The music references mainly went over my head too, but I’m sure they’d be an added layer for those that recognise them. But I liked the Almost Famous vibe it gave off – the sense of ‘it’s all happening …’

Here’s a playlist of some of the songs referred to throughout the novel. Excuse me while I go and YouTube them.

Wishing Well by The Millionaires
Spooky by Dusty Springfield
Urge for Going by Tom Rush
Cortez the Killer by Neil Young
She’s Leaving Home by The Beatles
Orange Skies by Love
Gloria by Them
Pocketful of Rainbows by Jan & Dean
The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel


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Review: Night Beach


Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar

Penguin Group Australia, 2012

I borrowed this from the library with zero expectations – or rather, with fairly low expectations – because it looks like the sort of YA paranormal romance that I’d generally turn my nose up at. I picked it up because it had the word ‘beach’ in the title and there’s mention of a surfboard in the first page, and I’m always looking for writing about surfing to inspire my own novel. There’s a lot of bad writing about surfing out there. Like, people getting barrelled on their first lesson. I wish.

But this book – I was hooked. Right from the first page. Kirsty Eagar can clearly write about surfing, and beach life, and oceans.

The sand is crusted over from the rain yesterday and crunches under my feet, and I keep telling myself it’ll be warmer in the water.


A line of surfers is strung out like a necklace, from the point, all the way down to the south bank. The swell is from the east; each wave face held up by the wind for an impossible long time; each crest ripped backwards into long strands of spray.

Yes yes yes.

I quickly flicked to the ‘About the author’ page and saw that she lives on Sydney’s northern beaches and surfs every day, and her first book Raw Blue won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2010. OK, I was looking at the book with new eyes now.

I thought it was brilliant. Not just the surfing scenes (which I loved), but the characterisation, the dialogue, the subplots. I loved the black dog and the kid she babysits. I like that the main character is introverted, obsessed and anxious. The story quite quickly turned dark, and was creepy enough to give me goosebumps in bed and to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck when reading on the train on the way to work. It’s not a paranormal romance at all. It’s a dark and twisted horror – it’s about loneliness, and sexuality, and wanting, and obsessions, and nightmares, and, from the blurb, ‘the dark things that feed the creative process’.

I don’t read horror, at all, (since Goosebumps, at least), but I just went with it. It’s not perfect – it felt a little repetitive sometimes with Abbie looking for Kane, chasing Kane, then running away from Kane, then looking for him again, and I just had to gloss over how many times it seemed Kane would admit to something and then straight after not acknowledge it again (but I guess that was his character). But I have to say I was happy with the *spoiler* fact that she chooses not to hook up with him at the end, and I did like that the surrealist elements weren’t explained away as some sort of stress disorder, like was hinted part way through.

Here are some more beach/surf snippets.

There’s a black dog lying on the [abandoned] couch, guarding a towel and set of keys, staring out at the surf like she’s worried. When she sees me, her tail thumps on the busted vinyl, and she licks her lips and wriggles, but she stays on that couch like she’s been nailed to it.

Give me summer. Give me dry, hot northerlies and green water that’s oily with sunscreen and sweat.

They all look the same to me, hands in pockets, legs astride, hoodies and beanies pulled on, hunkered down for winter. Faarkin’ this and faarkin’ that.

Smash the lip, gash the face, carve, cutback, ripping – it’s all about leaving your mark, being a man, dominating the wave.

And here are the artworks that are referred to throughout.


Brett Whiteley, ‘Henri’s Armchair’


Brett Whiteley, ‘Thebes’ Revenge’


Georgio de Chirico, ‘The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’


Dorothea Tanning, ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’

Dawn after the Wreck c.1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Courtauld Institute Gallery, London

Dawn after the Wreck c.1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Courtauld Institute Gallery, London

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Review: Lockie Leonard Human Torpedo

9780141307305Lockie Leonard Human Torpedo by Tim Winton

Penguin Books Australia, 1990

Yep, it’s summer and I’m on a middle grade/ YA surf reading spree. I actually loved this book. I really appreciated it but I don’t think teenage boys quite would:  it’s a bit… almost literary? A bit old-fashioned. I love the voice — snappy and masculine — but to me it sounds more like Tim Winton’s childhood than a modern day one.

Lockie Leonard, hot surf-rat, is in love. The human torpedo is barely settled into his new school, and already he’s got a girl on his mind. And not just any girl: it has to be Vicki Streeton, the smartest, prettiest, richest girl in the class. What chance have you got when your dad’s a cop, your mum’s a frighteningly understanding parent, your brother wets the bed and the teachers take an instant dislike to you and then you fall in love at twelve-and-three-quarter years old? It can only mean trouble, worry, mega-embarrassment and some wild, wild times.

Sentences I found funny

“The Leonards called Lockie the Human Torpedo because he took so long to get out of bed in the morning. Actually Lockie was slow at almost everything…”

“Lockie’s method of eating Weetbix was truly, awesomely foul. Let me just say that it involved a lot of milk, an overripe banana, and a spud masher.”

“Lockie’s mum was the serious sort. She liked to be involved; she was concerned, conscientious. She’d even been to Parent Effectiveness Training and for a few weeks after that she was just a flaming nuisance.”

“He went to school with a great daggy smile on his face like he’d come half-stoned from the dentist.”

[Trying to get his wetsuit off] “He pulled up from the front and got his arms pinned to his chest. No good. He pulled the vest down again and tried reaching back behind him and he ended up looking like a dumb 13-year-old pashing on with himself inside a bag.”

“I’m nuts,” he told himself. “I am a flamin’ fruitcake.”

Surf stuff:

“Genuine surf rat, grommet extraordinaire.”

“He picks off the second without any trouble. He took the drop loose-kneed and casual, taking out a wide, leaning bottom turn before hammering back up at the lip. As he swung round off the top again, he saw the hairy kid dropping in from the shoulder. You rotten mongrel, he thought.”

“It was a foul day, no argument. Southerly wind, no surf, and school tomorrow.”

“The air was colder than the water and his teeth were doing First Year Typing like they’d never heard of liquid paper.”

“The sun was almost down as he caught his last wave, leaning and cutting across its orange glistening surface as it rolled towards the beach like the twist in a great monster’s tail. His hand trailed in the smooth wall; he tossed his head back and hooted as the pitching funnel of its insides shot him down the line. He wasn’t thinking of anything. He didn’t need to.”

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Review: Blue Water High

blue-water-highBlue Water High by Shelley Birse

Pan Australia, 2008

This was a TV show first, and following its success the screenwriter adapted the episodes to make a novel. Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It’s a bit old for what I’m doing (the characters are 15-16), and I found the narration jumped around a bit, but the stakes were high and the characters were likeable.

For me the best bits were the surfing descriptions, and all descriptions of the beach and water:

“Watching the currents sucking in and out, like some huge water-breathing dragon was snoozing just off the coast.”

“She cruised down the back of the first wave and found herself with front row tickets for the Stacey Jervis show.”

“It didn’t matter how many times Fly did it, this was the moment, this frozen crystal in time, where nature and physics and gravity were in charge. It never failed to make her beam.”

And throwaway metaphors/similes:

“She stared at the computer … until her eyes were red and square and had their own screensaver.”


“She’d packed half-heartedly, almost embarrassed to pretend it might come true.”

“She was a world champion blusher. She could cook up twelve shades of beetroot in under 5 seconds.”

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Review: Floundering

flounderingFloundering by Romy Ash

Text Publishing, 2013

I really wanted to like this book. I heard Romy read some of her writing aloud at an event at the Melbourne Town Hall earlier this year and her story about a river, someone drowning in a river, was haunting and beautiful. If only my memory wasn’t so vague I’d link to it here.

So I was looking forward to reading her debut novel Floundering, especially as it was shortlisted for so many prizes (Miles Franklin Award 2013, Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2013, Commonwealth Book Prize 2013, etc).

‘Tom and Jordy live with their gran. Their mum, Loretta, left them on her doorstep.
Now she wants her boys back.
Tom and Jordy hit the road with Loretta in her beat-up car. They journey across the country, squabbling, bonding, searching and reconnecting.
On the west coast they stop. They take refuge in a beachside caravan park where, at last, the reality of the situation sets in. And now the boys find they have new threats and new fears to face.’

Unfortunately though, the book just didn’t do it for me. And it wasn’t the dark themes or depressing storyline that put me off, but the writing. I didn’t get a clear image of Tom, the point-of-view child character, until much too far into the book. I found he had an inconsistent voice, alternating ‘piss’ and ‘wee’, holding hands with his mum but swearing at his brother, scared of monsters but coming out with literary phrases like ‘he gives me a slippery smile’ and ‘there’s shiny teeth in her grin’. His grammar alternated between ‘Loretta doesn’t ring Gran’ and ‘Loretta don’t let us call her ‘mum’’, while describing characters as ‘slim’ and sunburn as ‘blooming’, which to me doesn’t ring true for a pre-pubescent boy. I had no idea of his age until he described his 11th birthday cake. Perhaps this inconsistency is intentional—Tom is bridging the cusp between childhood innocence and imitating his more worldly 13-year-old brother—but to me it was inauthentic and unclear.

The overwhelmingly descriptive writing style intrigued me at first, pulling me deep into that hot, sticky, smelly, uncomfortable roadtrip across Australia. I felt the Twisties powder on my fingers, tasted the Coke that was as hot as tea, and was disgusted at the service station meat pie that had pastry like flakes of skin. I understand the reason for this writing—the poor kid’s world is reduced to the inside of this car, against his will, so much of the story is told through intense descriptions of his immediate surroundings.

Some of it I loved:

‘The lemonade dries and sticks my legs together and to the seat. Then dirt sticks to the lemonade. I try and shuffle out of the lemonade patch, but my skin’s already sticky and there’s no shuffling out of my skin.’

‘The seat is rough against my cheek. It smells of off orange juice—like a school bag.’

But some of it drove me mad.

‘My school bag is squashed under Jordy’s seat. I pull it out. The zip makes that zip sound.’

Seriously? The zip makes that zip sound? Is that really necessary? I found myself walking around with this sentence rhythm in my head, narrating my every move like Tom would. ‘My tea is cold. I stand up. I stub my toe. It makes a stubbing sound.’ I drove myself mad.

I was hoping by the time they got to their destination, something would start happening. And it sort of did, but not really— all the action was dreamlike (the shark, the run-ins with Nev, the search for Loretta in the dust storm) and a bit unbelievable. The atmosphere remained hot and uncomfortable and boring and for the boys the days went slowly, and for me, unfortunately, the book went slowly.

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Review: Mullumbimby

MullumbimbyMullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko.
UQP, 2013

This is Lucashenko’s fifth novel, but the first of hers I’ve read. It was on the list for the EWF Bookclub night to be discussed by Tony Birch, Ronnie Scott, Anna Heyward and Estelle Tang. I hadn’t quite finished reading it when I went along to the event, but still enjoyed the discussion.

It’s the story of Jo Breen, a light-skinned Goorie woman, who bought a property in the Byron Bay hinterland in order to leave her city life behind and be closer to her ancestral land. The novel explores clashing notions of belonging and ownership, and love and learning to trust again, as well as not judging anyone on face value. On the night, Ronnie Scott summed it up as a “land-rights romcom”.

A subplot revolves around a new relationship with Aboriginal man Twoboy who is caught up in court cases trying to gain a Native Title claim over nearby land, and it is this part which least interested me as I found the dialogue a bit didactic. As discussed in the bookclub, the panel agreed they’re not keen on issues-based fiction that shunts characters to the side as issues come to the front, but that Mullumbimby treads this line carefully.

Jo’s relationships with the land, her family, horses and history were beautiful and delivered in a strong voice. The chapter dealing with the death of a young horse is heartbreaking, and is the chapter in which I most empathised with Jo.

As a protagonist, she’s strong but not all that likeable. As Estelle commented on the night, “Unlikeable characters are all the vogue.” Jo’s selfish, pushes people away from her (including her teenage daughter), prickly, and cynical (towards people of all skin colours). She’s angry a lot of the time. The point of view is third person, but from inside Jo’s head, so the descriptions of things and narration come in her words. Occasionally though, it does offer some interiority into a few other character’s heads, like Twoboy and Ellen. Despite—or because of—these flaws, the character of Jo is realistic and impossible to side against, especially when we see how far she’s willing to go to protect her daughter.

Lucashenko seamlessly wove  Aboriginal English into the dialogue, giving the story a very strong and authentic voice.

sacred site

no pucken business


Who disfla?


 She also introduced a lot of indigenous language, trusting the reader to deduce meaning from the context. I learnt words like dugai for white people, yarraman for horse, and warrigal for dog. I grew up near a Warrigal Road, and never had any idea it was an Aboriginal word.

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Review: Burial Rites


Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Picador, 2013

I’d been waiting to read this since I saw Hannah Kent in conversation with Estelle Tang last year at the Wheeler Centre. Kent is a beacon of hope for debut novelists, having had an international bidding war over her first book resulting in an alleged seven-figure deal. For a first book! In this publishing climate!

I bought the novel at Readings, an honour usually only bestowed on books that I have read and decided that I need to physically own. But I knew I’d want to keep it, even if I didn’t like the story or the writing, as a reminder of optimism and faith.

Physically, the book is beautiful. The front cover is matte and sort of shimmery with an embossed title. If my eyes aren’t deceiving me, the internal pages also glitter with a subtle sparkle in the paper stock. The serifs on the font slant upwards on the small capital A’s, giving the English language a foreign feel as they almost imitate accents.


accents on A’s

Kent used a narrative technique of splitting scenes between Agnes Magnusdotttir’s first person point of view, and then third person point of view from others  (Toti, family members at Kornsa). In this way the reader witnesses a scene through Agnes’ eyes, then slips out and watches it play on from someone else’s shoulder. Or vice versa. Sometimes the points of view overlapped for a short period of time, so I’d experience the same action repeated, from two different points of view.

The landscape was an integral character in the novel and I shivered in bed imagining being shut out naked in the snow, seeing dead bodies stored frozen in the wood shed, hearing howling snowstorms and waking up with ice on my blankets. But it’s not just the cold that gives the book its heartache; it’s the country’s isolation, both externally from the rest of the world (as shown through painfully slow correspondence with Copenhagen) and internally, with the small farm communities completely cut off from one another in bad weather, and the psychological effects of loneliness which played out at Illugastadir.

From having no idea about 18th century Iceland, I felt fully immersed.

At moments I kept feeling hope: that everything would be explained and Agnes’ name would be cleared, but then I remembered the description of the book so excitedly thrown around for months before it was published: the story of the last woman executed in Iceland. And yes it made me cry.

It’s lyrically written, and at times I felt almost too many images were being crammed into a sentence so I had to re-read it a few times. But most of the time it was sparse, beautiful and nuanced. And what a killer story.


gasping sounds

Note: There’s a pronunciation guide in the start of the book, but I think a little like Hermione in Harry Potter (Hermi-on to me), there are going to be lots of personal pronunciations going on in people’s heads as they read.

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