We have a WINNER

The winner of our just_a_girl competition is … drumroll … Cassie Neilson.

Kirsten Krauth – the author of this innovative novel – chose the winner herself.  She enjoyed all the entries and feels that Cassie will enjoy the story.  I concur.

(Cassie, you can email me your postal address and I will forward to Kirsten’s publishers, UWA Publishing)

Thank you to all those who took the time to enter and congratulations Cassie!

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Win a copy of just_a_girl

Tomorrow is D-day.  Get your entry in to win a copy of just_a_girl.  The author herself – Kirsten Krauth - has agreed to choose the winner.

Enter 25 words or less in the comments section below or, if it is easier for you, send your entry via email to ‘kt at karenleethompson dot com’ (in the usual format) and I will enter it. Only first names will be posted online.  Get your entries in by Wednesday 12th March 2014.  The winner will be announced soon after and can provide mailing address (Australian only). How easy is that?!

You can see the entries we have already received here.

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Win a copy of just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth

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Here’s your opportunity to win a copy of Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girlAll you need to do is come up with a 25 word (or less) piece (fact or fiction) which includes the words ‘just a girl’ for your chance to win.

Check out my review and, if the book appeals, post your entry into the comments below.  If it is easier for you, send your entry via email to ‘kt at karenleethompson dot com’ (in the usual format) and I will enter it. Only first names will be posted online.  Get your entries in by Wednesday 12th March 2014.  The winner will be announced soon after and can provide mailing address (Australian only). How easy is that?!

REVIEW

Layla is so much more than just_a_girlThe pivotal character in Kirsten Krauth’s debut novel is sassy and outrageous, tough and soft.  At once courageous and timid; worldly and naïve. And I came to care about her deeply. I cared about her mother Margot too.

But let’s talk about the men for a moment.

Layla’s casual boyfriend is quite the piece of work:

Davo says you can never trust anything that bleeds once a month but doesn’t die.  He tells this to his mates and they honk like donkeys. (73)

He proves himself to be as gutless as he is crass.

Layla’s dad – despite being benign – is a little too fond of his boutique beer and red wine to notice the impact of his words upon Layla.

There’s a predator extraordinaire who is charismatic as he is determined.

And then there is Tadashi who is not really in Layla’s world. He merely orbits and, when they do meet, there is little impact.  At first, I questioned the inclusion of this lonely man with his battered suitcase and his love of ritual.  I found him interesting but wondered at his place here – unconnected and insulated.  Should he be in this story at all? Didn’t he warrant a life in his own novel? But, as his layers were peeled back and as his companion and lover Mika was revealed, I understood the subtle depth of Krauth’s symbolism. Mika is most unusual but she is still just_a_girl in an incongruous way.

Now, to the girls…

Layla’s mother, Margot, is – in her own way – just_a_girl.  She is an emotionally challenged, needy woman whose maternal instincts are just below the surface, itching her skin, but still slightly beyond her grasp. Her struggle with depression oozes from her internal monologue:

…and I wake up one day and I can’t keep up, there’s no way I can get out of bed, my body is listless and my brain tries to argue with it but there is no response and I remember wanting to become Sleeping Beauty… (121)

Layla’s granny too is, in some part, just_a_girl, with her youthful stories about trains and the war on ‘permanent loop’ (89).

Even Tadashi’s lover is – at least in his eyes – just_a_girl with her ‘skin the smooth colour of pine nuts’ (50); with her freshness and faithfulness. ‘The thing about Mika was, she was durable.’ (157)

But it is Layla who steals the show.

Krauth has resisted any temptation to pepper the pages with too many LOLs or email banter. There’s minimal text speak, a mere smattering of hellos and likes.  We get just enough facebook and online action to provide the impact for the mysterious ‘guy formally known as youami33’ (1) and to show just how close to the edge Layla teeters.  Krauth nails the random scatter-gun teenage voice perfectly, using bullet points and decapitated sentences to give a unique expression to the main protagonist. Reviewing for The Australian, Jo Case notes that Layla’s voice is ‘written in a lolling teenage dialect, characterised by broken, staccato sentences and a string of verbal tics, such as “f . . kadoodle” and “starvin marvin”. The effect is sometimes awkward but authentically adolescent.’ Here’s my rundown on Layla:

  • Hysterically funny. When Layla’s mother gives a less-than enthusiastic reaction to the earrings Layla stole for her Christmas present:  ‘I’m tempted to knock her out with the Good News Bible.  Before reclaiming the earrings as my own. Born-agains are just so stingy.’ (10)
  • Perceptive. Referring to Christmas: ‘Mum saves up all her darkness for this special day’ (9). Questioning her own motivation: ‘Am I like Long Island Lolita? Do I really just want to get caught? (207)
  • Typical. ‘I’m in my poxy school uniform.’ (1) and ‘My brain goes mashed spud’ (53)
  • Alone in a harsh world. ‘He’s looking at the floor at people’s shoes.  I start to pant on the inside.  Oh god please don’t see me.  Please leave me alone…His long curly hair reaches down his back.  Jesus on speed.  Crucified eyes find me…My fellow cabin-dwellers refuse to see him…’ (88-89)
  • Far too knowing. ‘I sit opposite an older guy. Businessman type. The kind who commutes for a hundred grand a year. I slowly unwrap a Chupa Chup… Oh-so-slowly, lick and twist and suck and turn…’ (91-92).
  • Sometimes cruel. As a girl scorned, she causes online havoc to her ex-boyfriend and it is frightening to see the ease with which she stalks and terrifies a girl with just one email.
  • Often frustrating. I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her.  Layla’s mature intuition surfaces when you wish it wouldn’t and takes a hike when it is most needed.
  • Layla is all of the above.  And yet, she is just_a_girl.

Bravo Kirsten Krauth.

Author Annabel Smith described the novel as ‘gritty and confronting’ (see her review on Goodreads).

Lisa Hill reviewed just_a_girl at ANZ LitLovers and found it to be an ‘impressive debut novel’.

Give us your 25 word or less entry to win a copy of just_a_girl.  You can either post your entry below or email to kt at karenleethompson dot com.

BOOK DETAIL:
Krauth, Kirsten. just_a_girl, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA. 2013.
ISBN: 9781742584959

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Meatloaf in Manhattan by Robert Power: Book Review

The title story in Robert Power’s 2014 collection (Transit Lounge) took out second place in The Age short story award in 2011.  The tale spotlights both the gullibility and the callousness of a young man visiting the Big Apple. What better place than New York to purchase dried onion rings masquerading as weed and to pose as a blind guy as a pickup ruse, only to let it all loose with barely a flicker of guilt after Budweiser and Wild Turkey work their magic. It’s a sad tale in a jaded sort of way but also quite funny.  The hallway in the apartment in which Frank dosses is piled high with newspapers,  ‘A bit like the trenches in the First World War, but drier’ (25) and the mattress sports ‘cigarette burns that look like bullet holes’ leading Frank to picture it as an execution backdrop (26).

Meatloaf

Firenze & Snowball is a bittersweet tale of the lure of alternative lives available in online worlds.  In this case, the online world is ‘Alterlife’ which is, as far as I can ascertain, a fictional account of ‘Second Life’.  Some years ago, I did an anthropological study of ‘Second Life’ and can attest to its ability to provide a completely believable alternative universe (in which one can easily and subconsciously replicate unwanted traits and experiences).

In the case of Power’s story, Snowball (so called because ‘he’s so white on account of being indoors so much with his head in a computer’ (14)) scores a gig for his ‘songwriter Goth’ best friend.  Circumstances cascade until the fictional singer/songwriter ‘Firenze’ hits the big time.  It is a story about money and what it can and cannot buy, and it has something profound to say about friendship and happiness.

In ‘She calls her boy Amazing’, Ny is a young Vietnamese boy adored by his mother despite a ghastly conception at the hands of bedraggled and filthy men with ‘sea-madness in their faces, deep scars on their souls’ (38)’.  When Ny finds himself motherless, Old Man Luc becomes his guardian and mentor.  Luc eventually arranges for Ny to go to school in Ho Chi Minh City. ‘And then, who knows how wide your wings will spread, how far you will fly?’ (45). Luc assures his young charge, who has never stopped hoping for his mother’s return, that he will watch out for her every night. ‘I will go to the platform and tell her of your progress and she will smile and be at peace’ (45).

I will be in Vietnam next month and will quite possibly scour the railroad platform in Danang looking for an ‘Old Man Luc’ to sell me a bouquet of flowers and I will think of a little boy like Ny far away at school.

‘The Visit’ showcases an unusual playing with the narrative mode so that the narrator speaks of his mother thus:  ‘Once, though it feels like an age away now, she was tall and strong and as sharp as a pin’ and then switches (within the same paragraph) to ‘How I loved being with you then’ (48-49). This she/you switch is clever and seems to complement the flow of the narrative beautifully.  Power’s word choices and sentence structures throughout ‘The Visit’ indicate an unhurried and well-edited manner of working.

I sit opposite the woman who is my mother.  Her hair, long whitened by the twist of her mind, is now yellowed by surrender.’ (47)

‘The I Zingari Cap’, ‘Zorro the Chess Master’ and ‘Synge’s Chair’ all touch on father/son relationships and the circle of life, and ‘The Shoe Lovers’ is delightfully clever with the twist it hints at in the opening paragraph and the altogether unexpected one that is delivered on the closing page.

‘Grooming’ is more of a plot-driven piece (where most of the other stories seemed to explore character to a greater extent) and the plot is just a little too contrived. Conversely, ‘Buffalo Bill and the Psychiatrist’, while obscure, is both darkly funny and maddeningly thought-provoking.

One of my favourite shorts in this collection is ‘The Postman Gets a Letter’.  The Postman is a beautifully realised character who has tried to make life easier for his depressed wife by finding her a caravan by the sea where she can nurture her wounded soul.  At the same time and in the absence of romance, excitement and/or children, he has channelled his energies into the all-consuming hobby of chronicling the history of the country town in which he lives.

The Postman’s wife reveals her unhappiness – and eventually the secret she has kept from him – by way of a letter she writes from ‘down on the tip of Port Phillip Bay’ (174) with ‘the waves heaving back and forth, oblivious forever to the fears and joys of those passing by’ (165-166). Her demons are stronger than their love, she writes to her husband.  When she tells him of the back story she has invented of a ‘tall, handsome, teenage son’ (169), it’s time for the tissue box. This mythical son has a name and a sense of humour, and she has a reserve of created ‘memories’.  It is, indeed, heartbreaking.

The Postman has a secret of his own and it is amusing to wonder about the impact of his secret on the lives of so many people.  There could be another set of stories in that.

This collection was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts.  It’s engaging short fiction and I’m sure I’ll be dipping back into it from time to time.

My thanks to Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers where this review is cross-posted.

BOOK DETAIL:
Power, Robert. Meatloaf in Manhattan, Transit Lounge, Melbourne. 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-921924-64-4

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SISTERS OF THE BRUCE by JM Harvey: Book Review

I am thrilled to hold in my hands a copy of the historical novel Sisters of the Bruce by JM Harvey.  The author is a good friend of mine and I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and comment on this, her first novel, in its manuscript form.  It was with some trepidation that I initially took on the task of appraising the manuscript, as 13th century Scotland is outside my standard reading material but it turned out to be quite an entertaining page-turner.  So here then, is my review…

 Sisters

This fictionalized account of the lives of Isa, Kirsty, Mary, Mathilda and Margaret – the sisters of Robert the Bruce – brings Scottish history to life, variously through nail-biting action sequences, breathtaking accounts of deprivation and heartbreak, and through the easier rhythmic epistolary conversations of the sisters which lend immediacy to the narrative.

The juxtaposition of the everyday recounted in the sisters’ letters, with the raging wars of the period affords a glimpse into the past, an experience more profound and enjoyable than any history book could provide.

Readers with an interest in Scotland, Scottish history or history in general will find this an enjoyable read.  However, it would by no means be limited to that demographic.  As a reader, I have no particular interest in history or Scotland and was enticed more by the idea of the strength of these women who I knew nothing about. There is definite appeal to lovers of Literary fiction also, through the epistolary form which allows for domestic intimacy alongside the sweeping catastrophic events of the Scottish Wars of Independence.

With a deft touch, the author introduces the readers to the language of the time and place and keeps them there easily.  Each of the female characters maintains her own distinctive voice through her correspondences.

While much of the lives of the sisters may seem alien to our 21st century sensitivities, other parts traverse time and space.  Isa’s sadness upon her first child being still-born for instance: ‘Little enough chance either to even gaze upon his small, perfect features before his tiny body was ripped from my arms and placed – who knows where?’ (54) and, later, the joy of a dog gifted to her:- ‘When the little mite’s pink tongue licked my hand, the world seemed to come back into focus, alive with colour once more.’ (57)

Mary’s time in the cage is told with such fierce brutality that we can feel her pain and her rage and humiliation, achingly brought forth here:- ‘To drift and fall effortlessly upon demand through time’s lucent barrier was her only path to freedom.’ (266)

The spirit, manners and social conditions of the age are imparted seamlessly in the sisters’ letters and Harvey has a knack for melding the universal with the particular to sketch thoughts and feelings:-

  • ‘…my heart felt as if it would shatter into so many pieces it could never find repair – much like Mhairi’s precious salt urn which Thomas knocked over all those years ago.’ (26)
  • ‘With the passage of time, the bulbs I planted on my dear husband’s grave blossom beautifully, as if fed from beneath by the goodness of his spirit.’ (129)
  • ‘Thankful for the dark, lest his men see the quick, bright tears and think him the weaker for it, Robert quickly cleared his throat…’ (221)

The author showcases an original voice and a considered approach to words and imagery:-

  • ‘As rumour and fact collided and sparked along the darkened corridors of early morn…’ (3)
  • ‘An early blanket of snow fell just last week.  It is very quiet as if the land lies in a deep trance.’ (98)
  • ‘Moss-green ripples foamed white beneath the royal dragon-ship as it strained against the ropes.’ (103)
  • ‘In their bright, beaded eyes, she saw reflected the wild freedom of the skies.’ (226)
  • Memories that ‘were inconsistent and as fragile as a moth’s wing.’ (352)

It is easy to grasp a sense of the enormous strength of the sisters early in the story and the sentiments remain long after the final word.  Here is Mary’s almost unbearable pain as told by Mathilda in her letter to Isa:  ‘At times, you can look into her eyes and see she is lost somewhere in a dark vale of sorrow and regret and unfathomable pain.’ (409)

          Sisters of the Bruce is an exceptional epic novel.  The extensive research involved shines through the narrative and I would highly recommend it not only to those interested in the history of Scotland but to anyone who enjoys reading about the strength and resilience of women.  It will also appeal to people (like me) who enjoy the intimacy of a story told through private fictional letters. It is a sprawling read of intimate domesticity and vast adventure, at once alien and familiar.

BOOK DETAIL
Harvey, J.M. Sisters of the Bruce, Matador, Leicestershire, UK, 2013.
ISBN: 978 1780885 018

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THE DOUBLE by Maria Takolander: Book Review

Despite completing my first read-through of The Double a few weeks back, it has taken me considerable time to bring my thoughts together and I suspect I’ve subconsciously put off tackling this review because of the sheer complexity and cleverness of the themes.

the double

Melbourne born Maria Takolander is a senior lecturer in literary studies and creative writing so it comes as no surprise that she uses allusion to great effect. The stories in this collection carry titles from earlier narratives such as ‘The Obscene Bird of Night’ (a novel by the Chilean writer Jose Donoso), ‘Paradise Lost’ (John Milton’s epic blank verse poem), ‘The War of the Worlds’ (H.G. Wells’ popular sci-fi novel) and those titles provide the link to Takolander’s themes.

I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t enjoy these perfectly crafted stories if you don’t have an intimate knowledge of the earlier literary figures.  In fact, Takolander’s tales carry a momentum and thoughtful contemplation on their own merit.  To do justice to them in a critical review though…well, that’s something else again.  Nevertheless, here I am giving it my best shot.

The doppelgänger motif of the title story comes from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella ‘The Double’ and the schizophrenia and portentousness of Dostoyevsky’s tale is portrayed brilliantly here from the opening mystery of a woman waking confused and dishevelled, on wet grass with her lower half submerged in water to the puddle she returns to seeing “a stranger there in the mirrored surface, her pale face muddied, her body bound in white sheeting.” (78)

The morning after witnessing his parents’ drunken violence, the narrator in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ heads off to a “nine o’clock tutorial on William Carlos Williams”, (12) the modernist poet who penned the poem commonly referred to as ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’.  Takolander seems to be saying something about the search for meaning in life (and perhaps the meaninglessness of it) through the analysis of poetry:

I found the question sheet and sat at my desk.  ‘In poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow”’, I read, ‘William Carlos Williams strips the world bare of meaning. Discuss.’  I looked out of the window above my desk and into the backyard.  The sky was cloudless, and the air was still. (27-28)

Takolander’s imagery and simile unfurl with seductive ease:

“The midnight sun was glowering on the horizon, and mosquitoes bumped against her bedroom window like tiny ghosts.” (64) [The Double]

“The room would become black, and the silence in the receiver would thicken until I felt I was connected to some dark place underground.” (133) [The Interpretation of Dreams]

“There is firmer land somewhere.  Land where cattle stamp the soil with cloven hooves.  Where horse hair is torn against barbed fences.  Where colossal windmills slice the air. But that is not here.” (30) Tatiana has skin that may be beautiful behind her veil or may be “pocked like the creek mud” (32) and Svetlana has “the hems of her black pants hectic around her ankles.” (41)[Three Sisters]

Where Part One of this collection consists of eight distinct short stories, Part Two meanders along a different path.  Takolander won the 2010 ABR short story competition with ‘A Roankin Philosophy of Poetry’ a kind of absurdist look at academia (I think) and she extends the theme here with ‘Roankin and the Judge of the Poetry Competition’, ‘Roankin and the Research Assistant’ and ‘Roankin and the Librarian’. I’m not sure that I fully appreciated this second Part (at least not to the extent of part one) but Takolander does give her humour full rein:

The garden shed abutted a homely chicken coop, and I had been living there comfortably, beneath a picturesque series of power lines, ever since. (203)

—————-

Roankin’s last words outlining the Roankins’ philosophy of poetry sung on the page like a plague of locusts granted only twenty-four hours to copulate before they die. (203-204)

The intriguing cover design by WH Chong perfectly mirrors [pun intended] the book’s contents and, as it sits beside my keyboard now, it seems to be daring me to hunt down a copy of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Double’ and then revisit Takolander’s take on the theme.

BOOK DETAIL
Takolander, Maria. The Double, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2013.
ISBN: 9781922079763

This review is cross posted at ANZ LitLovers.

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THE WHOLE OF MY WORLD by Nicole Hayes: Book Review

I am no expert when it comes to young adult fiction but, as I can own to being young at heart and having a healthy respect for the game of Australian Rules Football (around which much of the action in The Whole of My World revolves), I claim enough confidence to review this entertaining novel by Nicole Hayes.  It’s also no secret that I am a huge fan of Australian voices in fiction and The Whole of my World is distinctly Australian.

the whole of my world

Hayes admits in a Hypable interview with Marama Whyte to mining her own childhood for the background for this novel (and you can detect the similarities between Hayes and the central character, Shelley, who allows herself to be almost swallowed up by the fans and the players and the hype that make up the world of Aussie Rules).

Despite some minor insecurity, Shelly knows herself pretty well:

Somewhere deep down I’m ashamed of my gloating, but it’s pretty deep and easy to ignore. (83)

The game of football and the people surrounding it fill the void left by tragedy on the home front.  As Shelley immerses herself in this other world, she comes close to losing her innocence but is ultimately saved by her own competence and common sense, as much as by the knowledge that, despite circumstances sometimes indicating otherwise, she is loved by her family and friends.

Hayes’ clever way with words is never more evident than when she talks about the game of football and its resonance to the city of Melbourne:

The moment you’re born in this city, or even if you move here, you have to choose a team to barrack for… [sometimes] it’s handed down to you like property or, if you barrack for Carringbush, a hereditary disease. (73)

Sections and chapters are named in true footballing parlance: ‘Pre-season’, ‘One day in September’, ‘Best on Ground’ and the like and Hayes is clearly knowledgeable about the game, its players, and Melbourne – the city that is still the capital as far as AFL is concerned.

But it’s not all about the Sherrin and the big white posts.  Hayes has a knack for painting her characters uniquely. Of her new friend, Shelly thinks:-

Individually, her features could be pretty but, somehow, in the process of constructing a face, the bits don’t quite seem to match. (21)

The story is set in the eighties and so some of the references might prove baffling for the book’s intended audience.  No doubt, there will be a few teenagers asking their parents “Who is Kim Wilde?” or “is The Waltons a television show?”  and “who or what is the Brady Bunch?”

I’m pleased that Hayes provided a fictional cloak for her characters and football teams as it allowed her the freedom to explore motivation more easily and I’m sure she would have felt shackled if Shelley’s team and the named players were real.

One of my favourite aspects of this novel is the innocence (but growing awareness) with which Shelley embroils herself in a friendship with an older, married man. Mick ‘Eddie’ Edwards is clearly a handsome and charismatic guy.  We are never quite sure of his exact motives which I think in a YA book is just as it should be and could provide for some great educational discussion points for teenagers.

Thanks Lisa at ANZ Litlovers for sending this book to me.  Lisa would be part of a minority group  in Victoria – someone who I don’t think has ever been to a game of Australian Rules Football – but she knew I would appreciate the backstory and enjoy reading The Whole of My World for review.

BOOK DETAIL:
Hayes, Nicole.  The Whole of my World, Woolshed Press, Random House, Sydney, 2013.
ISBN: 978 74275 860 2

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