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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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An Unknown Sky and Other Stories by Susan Midalia: Book Review

Thanks to ANZ LitLovers for this fabulous read.  My review is cross-posted there.

An Unknown Sky is Susan Midalia’s second collection of short stories (her first was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards) and it is clear from the outset that the reader is in sure hands.

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The publicity blurb suggests that all the characters are “‘travellers’ in search of connection and belonging” but my readings elicited a somewhat different vibe centred on relationships and inner causality.

Certainly ‘Underground’ is one of the finest sketches of an Australian abroad that I’ve come across. Petra is a loner who overcomes her claustrophobic fears to tackle the black marble steps down to Lenin’s Tomb, partly to humour her beloved nephew and to elevate her stature in his eyes. 

Travelling also features in the title story. Tom leaves home to spread his wings overseas but it is his mother’s thoughts and actions in his absence that show him gone.  Even before he leaves, his mother understands the going:

How I’d edged through the doorway and asked if he was ready, and he’d turned to me with a shadow on his face.  How he’d shrugged when I’d asked him what was wrong. Nothing that a year in the Andes won’t cure, he’d said, and returned to his packing, leaving both of us stranded, fumbling our way through those last days at home.  A hapless, clumsy pair. (26)

Midalia captures the aching fear of a child suddenly beyond reach.  After a nightmare about a plane with its “flimsy wings and a ripple of flames and then a violent bust of orange filling up the sky” (30), followed by a day of trying “not to picture the thin slice of metal on which my son placed all his weight” (30), the familiar sound of an incoming email sounds like “a tiny fingernail, a baby’s fingernail, struck against a glass’ (30).

Every character is finely drawn, motives and ideals unveiled with subtlety.

‘Sacred’ captures the essence of a teenage boy’s angst. When Carlo’s rage over a schoolroom taunt is so fierce that he “sat up straight and his hand flew out and he punched and punched like mad, like a boxer, like a big machine, feeling good, feeling right” (42), we can’t help but recall an earlier scene when Carlo in his new suit and tie arrived at his grandmother’s party: his Nonna “cried when she saw him in his new jacket and wrapped him up in her floppy arms and called him tesorino, little treasure (40).

Masterful word choices keep the prose tight yet poetic throughout the collection. Crows have a “shiny robustness” (45), “oversized westerners” in Dubai are “waddling lords of the earth in their logo-ed shirts” (1),  a cellist “plays like she has bruises inside her” (81) and middle-aged society women have “bright blonde hair cut into dangerous spikes” (132) and “cheekbones like knives” (142).

‘Hypnogogia’ (an odd title; hypnagogia is the usual spelling I believe) is a poignant study of mental fragility; of the reality of thought and the effect of warped reality on loved ones.  Belle’s lifelong friend is stoic and loyal in the face of her despair.  “As I watched her bent head, her slumped shoulders, I saw she had become the shape of alone” (148) and when he arrives at Belle’s house to find she has almost tipped over the edge, his despair is clear as he looks at the policeman’s pen hovering over a blank page:

I…felt my blood sighing, a red, silent river of mourning.  I could have told him about a crazy, loveable kid, a besotted wife, and then a madly skidding car on a wet winter’s day.  A grieving widow; and years later, an abandoned wife.  I could have said I’d been waiting, waiting for a lifetime…” (152)

Midalia’s flashes of wit are delightful, particularly in her ability to sketch absurdity in the mundane. From ‘Crows’:

Stella’s morning walk was often entertaining.  She saw the muscle-bound runner decked out for a trip to the moon: earphones, water bottle, sweat bands, peaked cap, pedometer, joggers with flashing lights.  Panting, Coming through, coming through, to unsuspecting strollers. (45)

‘The Workshop Facilitator Said’ is laugh out loud funny, particularly for writers.   When the workshop facilitator says that a story can be based entirely on what happens inside a character’s head, a fellow aspiring writer smiles but the narrator “couldn’t tell what he was thinking” (176).  Later, she decides to test the theory that writers should “imply, infer, nudge”, on her husband. “I smell something strange in the room, I said, but he didn’t take the hint.” (176)  Then, after a session at the workshop on point of view: “That night, after dinner, I told my husband that she smelled something strange in the room, and he gave me one of his looks.” (178).

An Unknown Sky is an accessible collection, just perfect for short bursts, which is how many of us like our fiction served these days.

BOOK DETAIL:
Midalia, Susan. An Unknown Sky and other stories, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-74258-427-0

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