Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

Australia, Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Garry Disher, Hodder, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘The Divine Wind’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Hodder; 151 pages; 2002.

I will admit that when I purchased The Divine Wind by Garry Disher last year from a secondhand bookstore for the princely sum of $1, I did not realise it was a young adult novel. I associate Disher with adult fiction, usually crime, and because I’d never read him before I jumped on the name and thought it might be a good introduction to his work. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised my mistake…

Except it wasn’t really a mistake, because The Divine Wind turned out to be quite an entertaining read, perfect fodder for an over-tired brain that just wanted some escapism while the outside world went a bit mad.

Against the backdrop of the Second World War, it’s essentially a coming of age story about four teenagers living in the pearling town of Broome, on the far north Western Australia coast, and what happens to them over the course of a few event-filled years.

Looking back

The story is written from the perspective of an adult Hartley Penrose, the son of a pearling master, looking back on his teenage years. He has a younger sister Alice, with whom he is particularly close following their mother’s return to England (she could never quite get used to her isolated, lonely life in Broome), and together they are friends with Mitsy Sennosuke, the daughter of a Japanese diver employed by their father, and Jamie Killan, who has just moved to town with his family. The four of them hang out regularly; they go swimming and sailing or see films at the cinema.

But the carefree nature of their existence changes when a disastrous cyclone hits the coast which results in Mitsy’s father dying at sea and Hartley suffering a serious leg injury from which he never fully recovers. Not long later, the Japanese bomb Broome and soon Mitsy and her mother are viewed with suspicion because of their ethnicity; they are later interned.

Against all this drama, Hartley falls in love with Mitsy, who later becomes a nurse, but his feelings are never fully reciprocated because it seems that she may have given her heart to Jamie…

Love and adventure

As much a love story as it is an adventure story, The Divine Wind is a richly written novel that deals with some very adult themes including love, death, racism and war.

It’s a highly evocative account of a particular time and place, where non-whites, whether Asian or Aboriginal, are treated with prejudice. It’s also an unsettling portrait of a harsh and demanding climate; of a lifestyle that is remote and lonely; and a community that isn’t always forgiving.

It’s wonderfully moving and powerfully told.

This is my 10th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Children/YA, Christoffer Carlsson, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Sweden

‘October is the Coldest Month’ by Christoffer Carlsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 181 pages; 2017. Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

A teenage girl unwittingly caught up in a terrible crime is the focus of Christoffer Carlsson’s young adult novel October is the Coldest Month.

Set in Sweden, it tells the story of 16-year-old Vega Gillberg, who lives with her widowed mother, a nightshift worker, and an older brother, Jakob, in a working-class community in Småland, an area known for its huge forests and bogs.

When the police knock on the door looking for Jakob, Vega knows exactly why they want to question him, but she hasn’t seen him for days and she figures he’s gone into hiding — with good reason.

As the story gently unfolds piece by piece, we come to learn of the crime, but Carlsson holds his cards close to his chest and never fully reveals the motive, nor the culprit, until the final pages. It makes for an intriguing, atmospheric read.

Teenage narrator

Told in the first person from Vega’s perspective, October is the Coldest Month cleverly shows how the world of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood opens up when she discovers that good people can do bad things — and vice versa.

It’s written in cool, detached prose but with an eye to evocative description. Here, for example, is how the place in which Vega lives is described:

If you look at a map of Varvet, the area where I live, you can see there are several hundred metres or even a kilometre between people’s homes — at least the ones that are marked on the map. As if God took a handful of houses, garages, barns, stables, and sheds in his giant hand and let them float down to earth, cold and lonely as snowflakes spread out in a funny pattern. The landscape and the forest are the old kind that make you want to keep to the roads and paths even during the day. The summers always pulsate with heat, and in the autumn and winter the air is damp and raw.

Tough lives

The working-class background, depicting tough lives hardened by tough attitudes and violent tendencies, is reminiscent of the deeply reflective work of Per Petterson, one of my favourite realist writers, while the social context of the crime brings to mind Karin Fossum’s wonderful crime novels.

Admittedly, I did not know this was a young adult novel when I bought it (from a local second-hand book shop), but it deals with very adult themes — Vega, for instance, is sexually active — and demonstrates the complexities of life, the moral codes by which we live and the ways women are often abused by men in domestic settings. What’s more, there’s no redemptive ending, but there’s enough here to make the reader think about the far-reaching consequences of our actions.

October is the Coldest Month is a short, sharp, powerful novel with edgy characters and an edgy setting, a compelling tale if you’re looking for an “easy” read with darker undertones. In 2016 it won the Swedish Crime Writers Academy award for Best Crime Novel of the Year for Young Readers.

Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, New York, Publisher, R.J. Palacio, RHCP Digital, Setting, USA

‘The Julian Chapter’ by R. J. Palacio


Fiction – Kindle edition; RHCP Digital; 88 pages; 2014.

About 18 months ago I did something I don’t normally do: I read a children’s book — R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. It was such a powerful story, with a universal message, that I banged on about it for months afterwards (to anyone who would listen), bought copies for friends and family, and added it to my top 10 reads for 2013.

And then, some time last year, I discovered that the author had written an additional chapter for the book, which could be bought separately in ebook format. About five seconds later I had The Julian Chapter downloaded on to my Kindle… the wonder (no wordplay intended) of modern technology.

The school bully

The original book chronicles 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman’s efforts to fit in and become accepted by his peers at the first mainstream school he’s ever attended. Up until now, Auggie has been home educated because he was born with a serious facial deformity requiring 27 different operations. At Beecher Prep, his fortunes are mixed and one particular student — Julian — bullies him because of the way he looks.

While almost everyone in Wonder —  including Auggie’s parents and siblings, fellow students and even his teacher — gets their turn to narrate a chapter, one voice is missing: the reader never gets to hear Julian’s side of the story. Hence, this new additional chapter, published last year.

What emerges is a sometimes surprising, occasionally infuriating and always compelling narrative told in a distinctive young boy’s voice:

I know it can’t be easy for him to look in the mirror every day, or walk down the street. But that’s not my problem. My problem is that everything’s different since he’s been coming to my school. The kids are different. I’m different. And it sucks big-time.

The author does a lovely and considered job of ensuring that Julian is not simply an evil child intent on wreaking havoc. She makes him rather a complicated 11-year-old who is wrestling with issues of his own — anxiety that leads to “night terrors”. And while Julian’s bad behaviour is never excused, there’s enough insight into his character and his inner-most feelings to explain some of his attitudes and how they came about. (His parents, it would seem, have quite a lot to answer for.)

His relationship with his French grandmother is touchingly drawn, especially when he stays with her, makes his “confession” and learns the concept of remorse.

Overall, the story is heartwarming — and redemptive.

Universal truths

The Julian Chapter is written very much in the same vein as Wonder — it’s quick-paced and easy-to-read. It’s also moralistic in an overly prescriptive, hit-you-on-the-head kind of way, but even so, sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of universal truths, like this one from Julian’s teacher:

“You know,” he said, “one of the things you learn when you get old like me is that sometimes a new situation will come along, and you’ll have no idea what to do. There’s no rule book that tells you how to act in every given situation in life, you know? So what I always say is that it’s always better to err on the side of kindness. That’s the secret. If you don’t know what to do, just be kind.”

Since publication of The Julian Chapter, the author has written another chapter called Pluto. This one looks at Auggie’s story through the eyes of his best and oldest friend, Christopher. I hope to read and review it soonish…

Author, Book review, Children/YA, E. Lockhart, Fiction, Hot Key Books, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘We Were Liars’ by E. Lockhart


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hot Key Books; 242 pages; 2014.

E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars received a lot of favourable publicity, especially on Twitter, over the summer. I was intrigued enough to want to read it, even though young adult novels aren’t normally my kind of thing and I don’t usually fall for hype.

I ended up gulping this book down in a couple of days in late July and as soon as I finished it, I turned back to the start to read it all over again. That’s because this book has a completely unexpected shock ending, one that left me feeling stunned for days afterwards, and I wanted to know how I hadn’t seen it coming. What clues had I missed first time round? How had the author managed to pull the wool over my eyes so well?

A life of privilege

The book is narrated by 17-year-old Cadence Sinclair recalling “summer 15 ” before “the accident”. She lives a rather privileged life as part of the Sinclair clan, which can trace its lineage back to the Mayflower. Each year members of the clan holiday on their own private island near Martha’s Vineyard.

In a plot very much inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, three Sinclair sisters — Penny, Carrie and Bess — vy for the family inheritance. Cadence is the daughter of one of these sisters. She’s an only child and quite ill from an unspecified brain injury caused when she supposedly hit her head on a rock while swimming alone. No one knows why she was swimming alone and Cadence has no memory of it.

The “liars” of the title are Cadence and her cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, a friend of the family, who has been coming to the island since he was eight years old. This teenage gang of four is very close-knit and spend all their time together doing what teenagers do on holiday: gossip, swim, party and, in Cadence’s case, fall head over heels in love.

Teenage friendships

We Were Liars perfectly captures what it is like to be a teenager, of trying to fit in but not wanting to stand out, of the peer pressure you feel and the ways in which friendships, whether sexual or not, take on an all-consuming quality.

The book is written in a very immediate and engaging style, with an emphasis on rhythm so that much of the prose reads like poetry:

I used to be blond, but now my hair is black.
I used to be strong, but now I am weak.
I used to be pretty, but now I look sick.
It is true I suffer migraines since my accident.
It is true I do not suffer fools.
I like a twist of meaning. You see? Suffer migraines. Do not suffer fools. The word means almost the same as it did in the previous sentence, but not quite.

I especially loved Cadence’s voice, which has a cutting edge to it — she’s a moody, bitter, smart and sassy teenager, who doesn’t quite realise how good she’s got it, regardless of the migraines and health issues she suffers. Her mother is overly critical, often telling her to “act normal”, but Cadence is also prone to drama and exaggeration. As an example, when her father announces he’s leaving the family, Cadence says he pulled out a gun and shot her, but it’s only later that you realise she’s talking figuratively, not literally. This is a clever device because everything else that follows casts a degree of doubt in the reader’s mind as to what is real and what is not.

Indeed, there’s a certain kind of fairytale element to the whole story, which is dotted with lots of light, joyful moments underpinned by a dark undercurrent that doesn’t fully merge into focus until you reach that surprise ending. I loved the portrait it painted of young privileged lives, of being relaxed and carefree, but I also liked the way it posited the idea that you should never take anything for granted and that being rich does not necessarily buy happiness.

We Were Liars showcases Lockhart’s storytelling prowess: it’s quirky and compelling, haunting and kind of magical, but it’s also sad and heart-breaking. And that amazing ending makes it a rather unforgettable read, too.

Author, Bodley Head, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Publisher, R.J. Palacio, Setting, USA

‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio


Fiction – Kindle edition; Bodley Head; 320 pages; 2012.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is one of those rare “crossover” books with universal appeal. It is aimed at children and a young adult audience, but it is such a gorgeous story — one that genuinely warms the heart and brings tears to the eyes — that it has quickly rocketed to the top of my favourite reads of the year.

Adjusting to school life

Wonder tells the tale of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a serious facial deformity. He has been home-educated, but now his parents think it is time he attended a mainstream school. The book chronicles his efforts to fit in and become accepted by his peers at Beecher Prep.

My name is August. I won’t describe to you what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

When the book opens, Auggie narrates his experiences in a voice that is engaging, humble and honest. He conveys the fear of meeting new people and seeing their reactions to his face. He knows why people avoid or shun him, and while it hurts, he accepts it as a normal part of his existence.  Despite the fact he’s had 27 operations, “eats like a tortoise” and has cheeks that “look punched in”, there is nary a trace of self pity.

Other characters in the novel — including Auggie’s older sister Via and his friends Will and Summer — take it in turns to narrate the story, so that you get to see Auggie from a range of different perspectives.

A story with a message

Despite Wonder being aimed at a far younger audience than me, I absolutely adored this book. While I did feel emotionally manipulated on occasion (I cried several times and the ending just killed me), I truly didn’t mind. That’s because I think the message behind the story — that you should not judge people on looks alone and that we should all be kind to one another  — is an important and universal one. As an adult, it was nice to be reminded of that.

Yes, the book has some “Americanisms” and yes, I sometimes felt characters adopted a patronising tone with Auggie. But as a book to pull the heart strings, make you think about the world in a slightly different way and get you to appreciate your own good health and fortune, I could not think of a better read. I not only fell in love with Auggie’s lovely nature and bright personality, I also fell in love with his charming, supportive family and his generous, open-minded school principal, Mr Tushman.

Of course, the book isn’t all sweetness and light, because it also features some horrible people, including school bully Julian and his shallow mother, who tries to (unbelievably) Photoshop Auggie out of the official class photograph. But without them, the story would lack the tension and the drama that makes it so emotive and readable.

Essentially, this is the kind of book you just want to rush out and tell everyone to read — I’ve already ordered my eight-year-old niece a copy.

If you’re intrigued by the sound of Wonder and wish to find out more, do visit the author’s official website. Note that an adult edition of the book will be published in the UK by Black Swan on 1 August.

Author, Book review, Children/YA, dystopian, England, Fiction, Louise Lawrence, Publisher, Red Fox, science fiction, Setting

‘Children of the Dust’ by Louise Lawrence


Fiction – paperback; Red Fox; 174 pages; 2002.

When Louise Lawrence’s young adult novel Children of the Dust was first published in 1985 I would have been its target audience. During my teenage years nuclear Armageddon was just around the corner — and even though I grew up in Australia, far from the machinations of the Cold War, we were still mired in the debate over French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

I’m glad I didn’t read Lawrence’s novel at the time though — it would have fed my paranoia and teenage anxiety and upset me greatly.

A tale of the apocalypse

The story is set in England and is about as apocalyptic as they come. It’s divided into three parts — titled Sarah, Ophelia and Simon — and spans three generations over half a century. (Sarah and Ophelia are half-sisters who never meet, and Simon is Ophelia’s grandson.)

When the book opens the world has just erupted into nuclear war and bombs have been dropped on Hamburg and Leningrad. In the UK, Bristol Radio reports that London, Cardiff, Cheltenham and Gloucester have been bombed. Birmingham is next in line.

Sarah, sent home from school, takes cover in the kitchen of her Cotswolds home with her step-mother, Veronica, and her two half-siblings, Catherine and William. Her father, a lecturer at Bristol University, doesn’t have time to drive home, so it’s assumed he never survives the radioactive fallout.

A book of three parts

This first part of the book is hugely distressing as the family shelter in their tightly sealed kitchen, living on canned goods and watching the world outside turn grey and eerie as they await their sure deaths from radiation sickness.

The second part is more upbeat: it’s been 20 years since the war and life has somehow lingered on, albeit in a government bunker in the Bristol-Bath catchment area, where Sarah’s dad, Bill, has been living all this time, unaware of his family’s fate.

And by the third part, another 30 or so years down the line, the human race is mutating into a new species of simian-like albino beings with supernatural powers — they can communicate by telepathy, for instance, and fly planes using psycho-kinetic energy. It is here that Sarah’s grandnephew, Simon, makes contact with some of the creatures, whom he struggles to trust.

Thought-provoking issues

The book is thought-provoking and throws up some interesting issues about society, politics and the ways in which human behaviour and biology dictates who survives and who does not. I’m not sure it’s scientifically correct though — how, for instance, would albinos be better able to cope with a depleted ozone layer than a normal white-skinned person? Surely the lack of pigment in their skin would subject them to terrible sunburn?

That minor quibble aside, I found the book an engaging, albeit gloomy, read. The characters are a bit two-dimensional, but the dilemmas they find themselves in seem believable and anxiety-inducing. There was never a point where I thought, this is ridiculous.

There are some agendas at play, however. There’s a slightly religious undercurrent running throughout the story — which I did my best to ignore — but overall it seems to project a positive message: that if human beings opened their minds, were less prejudiced and less selfish, the world would be a better, more peaceful, place. My 15-year-old self would have loved that.

Alfred A. Knopf, Australia, Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Markus Zusak, Publisher, Setting

‘I Am The Messenger’ by Markus Zusak


Fiction – paperback; Alfred A. Knopf; 357 pages; 2005.

I Am The Messenger is a young adult novel written by Markus Zusak, the Australian author who went on to achieve commercial success and international acclaim with his next book, The Book Thief.

The story is told in first person by 19-year-old Ed Kennedy, who lives with a big smelly brute of a dog in a rundown Sydney suburb. He drives a taxi for a living and has a small circle of friends with whom he plays cards and drinks beer. He is in love with his best friend, Audrey, but doesn’t feel confident enough to tell her of his true feelings. Indeed, Ed’s a bit of a lost cause. His alcoholic father died a year ago, and now he’s being constantly harangued on the phone by his potty-mouthed mother, who favours his more successful siblings over him.

But in the book’s opening pages, Ed accidentally foils a bank robbery and his life takes a different tack. No sooner is he in all the papers, being hailed as a hero, than he receives a playing card in the post. There’s three addresses written on it. When he works up the courage to visit the first address, secretly observing the people who live there, he realises he has been given a mission: he is now a messenger sent to help people less fortunate than himself.

This sets up a bizarre chain of events in which Ed receives more cards, with more cryptic clues. This mission brings him in contact with a vast array of people, including a religious priest, a teenage athlete and a single-mother raising three kids on her own.

It’s quite a page-turning read, because ultimately you want to know who’s behind Ed’s mission. Sadly, the ending is rather manipulative, but I suspect young readers, far less cynical than me, would find it mind-boggingly clever!

If you can forgive the small forays into schmaltz, this is a fast and entertaining read. Zusak deftly lightens tragedy with dark humour and charts a young man’s personal growth without being too obvious. If you like young adult fiction, you’ll find much to enjoy here.

Note that the book was published in Australia under the title The Messenger.

Australia, Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, Publisher, Setting, Sonya Hartnett

‘Butterfly’ by Sonya Hartnett


Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 215 pages; 2009.

Sonya Hartnett is an Australian author who writes largely for the Young Adult audience. Butterfly, her latest novel, falls somewhere between two stools — it feels like a teenage novel, filled with typical teenage angst, but it also deals with subjects, including extra-marital affairs, that are surely a little more adult. Given it has been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, I suspect the judges feel it’s one of those crossover books that deserves some attention. I’m not sure I agree.

Without wishing to damn Butterfly with faint praise, this is a highly readable book and one that I hungrily devoured in a day. And while I very much enjoyed spending time with Plum, a lonely 13-year-old girl with body-image and self-esteem issues, there were elements of this story that irritated me.

For a start, we don’t really get to know the full cast of characters that people this book. Plum has two 50-something parents, whom are mentioned only in passing, and even her brothers, Justin and the preposterously named Cydar, seem thinly veiled sketches. Indeed, it’s not until you are almost a-third of the way through the book that you find out that Justin, whom Plum adores, is 24 years old, and Cydar, 22. This revelation came as somewhat of a shock, because I’d assumed both were teenagers.

Ditto for the time period in which the book is set. It’s not until one of Plum’s school friends mentions that her father has secured tickets to the Moscow Olympics that you realise it’s 1980. Although I suspect I should have picked up on earlier clues, because Plum has a poster of David Bowie on her wall, wishes her bedroom was carpeted in white shag and hankers after a miniature television “set inside a sphere of chrome, with three stumpy legs and a rapier-like aerial”. There’s even a reference to a cricket match in which (Allan) Border is not out for 90, and Imran (Khan) is caught out by (Greg, or maybe Ian?) Chappell for nine. Where’s Wisden when you need it, right?

The first chapter is also riddled with metaphors and similes, to the point of distraction. For instance, Plum’s brother Justin is “as rangy as a tall ship, handsome as ship’s portrait”, Plum’s cheeks “are the pasty yellow of cereal left to float all day in milk” and when Cydar teases her she feels like a “deer in a huntsmen’s forest”. Later she “pounds through the house like a rock down a cliffside, storming up the stairs like a centurion”.

But if you can forgive the trying-too-hard prose there’s quite an interesting story here, one in which Hartnett has perfectly nailed the pain and confusion of being a 13-year-old girl, desperate to be liked and respected. The mood swings, the temper tantrums and the tears are all here in full unadulterated shameless glory, as evidenced by this outburst at the dinner table:

“You always laugh at me! I’m a person, I have feelings, I’m not a joke! Why can’t you all leave me alone?”

Her depiction of the petty bitchiness of school girls and the god-awful aspects of peer pressure are also superbly done. And while Plum is clearly not the angel she first appears to be, you can’t help but empathise with her plight.

But the story just doesn’t revolve around Plum. There’s a second, interwoven narrative strand, in which Maureen Wilks, Plum’s neighbour, plays a significant role. Maureen is a 36-year-old housewife, with a four-year-old son, who befriends Plum. As well as telling Plum things to boost her self-confidence (“You’re exactly the type of girl who could become a fashion model” and “I’m so glad we’re friends. I’ll learn a lot from you”), she convinces Plum to reinvent herself by changing her name to Aria. What you don’t realise is that Maureen has her own secret agenda. It is only when Plum figures out this agenda that the book comes to a head. But, even then, the conclusion feels somehow half-hearted, and not nearly as melodramatic as it could have been.

An interesting, entertaining book, but a Miles Franklin award winner? Probably not.

Author, Book review, Canongate, Children/YA, Fiction, Kelly Link, Publisher, Setting, short stories, USA

‘Pretty Monsters’ by Kelly Link


Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 400 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

That I would give this book a five-star review comes as quite a surprise to me, because this is not the type of book to which I would normally be drawn. First, it’s a collection of short stories and novellas, and I generally have a preference for full-blown novels. Second, its target market is young adults/teenagers. Third, it’s about monsters and ghosts and magic and all kinds of fairytale, fantasy and horror-type subjects. Fourth. Well, need I go on?

This is, quite frankly, not my usual cup-of-tea. And yet when Pretty Monsters arrived unsolicited from Canongate I couldn’t help but be drawn to it. It’s an absolutely gorgeous-looking hardcover that has a real Gothic feel, owing to each page being edged in black. It features striking art-work by Australian-based illustrator Shaun Tan throughout (including the cover) and the weight of the book is perfect to hold in the hand, not too heavy and cumbersome as some hardcovers are wont to be.

But what about the content?

There are nine stories here, some of which have been published elsewhere in the past, and each one presents an intoxicating, hugely original world. “These stories will come alive, put on suits and wrestle you to the ground,” says Alice Sebold on the back cover blurb. “They want you and you will be theirs.” She’s completely right. I’ve never read such a wacky collection of stories that gripped me, held me in their sway and slightly altered my perception of the universe when I came to each stunning conclusion. Where has Kelly Link been hiding all my life? She’s bloody brilliant.

She’s been described as “an alchemical mixture of Borges, Raymond Chandler and Buffy the Vampire Slayer“. But I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that she was the lovechild of Stephen King and JK Rowling. To give you an idea of the breadth of her style and imagination, here’s a brief rundown of each of the stories in this collection.

The Wrong Grave
A black comedy about a teenage boy whose girlfriend dies and is buried with his collection of self-penned poetry. When he suddenly wants his poetry back he accidentally digs up the wrong grave.

The Wizards of Perfil
A magical story about children who are sold to wizards, whom live in very tall towers and are never seen.

Magic for Beginners
A thrilling tale about a cult-TV show called The Library which a group of teenage school friends become slightly obsessed by. This particular story, probably my favourite in the whole collection, received the Nebula, Locus, and British Science Fiction Association Awards and was a finalist for the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, Hugo, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Award.

The Faery Handbag
An odd fantasy about an eccentric grandmother who owns a magical handbag that hides a village full of fairies. This story won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, the 2006 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and the 2005 Locus Award.

The Specialist’s Hat
This is a classic ghost story set in a grand house with eight chimneys. Two ten-year-old twins, Claire and Samantha, are introduced to a magic hat by their babysitter. This one won the 1999 World Fantasy Award. You can read the whole story on Kelly Link’s official website.

A creepy story about a school camping trip that attracts an unexpected campfire guest — a foul-smelling monster.

The Surfer
A science-fiction story about a father and son travelling to Costa Rica to see a surfer who claims to have made contact with aliens. But their trip is waylaid when a flu pandemic hits and they are quarantined in an aircraft hangar.

The Constable of Abal
An almost old-fashioned fairytale about a mother and daughter, who turn out to be transsexual goddesses.

Pretty Monsters
This one involves schoolgirls, werewolves and romance.

These stories are unsettling, dark, disturbing, surreal, wacky, occasionally confusing, often laugh-out-loud funny, but always rewarding, enjoyable and fun. More please.