YOUNG ADULT FICTION:
ASECTION of suburban Melbourne is in lockdown in Cry Blue Murder by Kim Kane and Marion Roberts (UQP, 224pp, $19.95). Hallie Knight and Adeline Taranto have disappeared in similar circumstances to two schoolgirls whose bodies were found in woven cocoons a couple of years earlier.
Families start to panic as the police make no headway and close ranks to protect their daughters. Updates are shown through newspaper articles, witness statements and even an autopsy report, but the situation is given immediacy and a personal voice through the online conversations of two friends, Celia and Alice.
The girls are able to comfort each other and share warnings and theories about the stalker, as well as the usual girl talk about the angsty details of their lives. Alice reveals her guilt about her little brother’s drowning and Celia writes poems about being the new girl at a private school: ‘‘ She walks in newly minted socks . . . She’s an imposter, a Trojan horse in an Ashbourne bridle. / Under her grey kilt she wears beige knickers / A tiny flag of her true colours.’’
Celia also uses poetry to explore the investigators’ speculations that the killer may be using Nabokov’s butterfly as his signature: ‘‘ A cocoon . . . Knitted together, tight like a secret. / Inside / a grub, / Butterfly blue, / Begins to unfurl her wings.’’
Nabokov used butterfly motifs in his novels and was a noted lepidopterist. He discovered the evolution of the Polyommatus blues, also referred to as Nabokov’s butterfly. This butterfly may have the shortest life span of any species and it becomes a chilling metaphor for the blue bodies of the dead girls, who are also killed by cyanide in this novel. The two authors have created a timely cautionary tale, notable for its daring plotting and impeccable pacing.
Dysfunctional younger siblings acting as sleuths are a source of foreboding and fear in both Cry Blue Murder and Simmone Howell’s Girl Defective (Pan Macmillan, 300pp, $16.99). In the first book, Celia’s little sister Cleo is mildly autistic and an elective mute. She photographs possible clues and car number plates to help in the search for the missing girls. In Girl Defective, stencil posters of a crying girl, Mia, change the visual landscape and intersect with young Gully’s latest ‘‘ detective’’ investigation.
Gully (Seagull) wears a pig snout mask because he has become emotionally and socially damaged since his mother walked out. His older sister, 15-year-old Sky (Skylark), is like the spindle hole in the centre of a record. She holds the family together and works at the Wishing Well, their retro record store in Melbourne’s St Kilda. She doesn’t fit in at school and is inexperienced but ‘‘ ripe’’; her ‘‘ teenage call to wildness’’ cultivated by an older girl, Nancy, in preparation for the party world of drinking and drugs.
In spite of her experimentations, Sky is an innocent around boys and her tentative interest in Luke, who starts working at the record store, is natural and endearing. Luke sketches and is responsible for the posters of, Mia but why is he at the Wishing Well?
Howell has a reputation as an edgy, hip author and her writing is the literary equivalent of the polished concrete and steel of urban design, splinted with the warmth of timber. Her imagery flirts with nature, particularly birds, but is mainly formed here from the reverberations of vinyl and the retro brooding of Luna Park. St Kilda’s face and facade change alongside Sky’s compassion and confidence.
Sky is a ‘‘ girl defective’’ —‘‘We were like inverse superheroes, marked by our defects’’ — and she believes her alcoholic father prefers Gully. But she is only one of many imperfect girls here and, clearly, the least faulty. The title is also a clever allusion to the detective genre and Sky’s role in seeking the truth about Mia and her black tears.
Girl Defective is for older teens but The Mimosa Tree, the debut novel of Antonella Preto (Fremantle Press, 372pp, $19.99) is best described as ‘‘ new adult’’, the recently coined marketing category aimed at postschool young adults, which often deals with even grittier issues and experiences than most YA fare.
Mira has just shrugged off her Catholic school years, sawed off her long hair and started university. She lives with her mother, who seems to be in remission from cancer. They have the benefits (and downfalls) of a strong Italian heritage, particularly vocal aunt Via and perceptive aunt Siena; and plenty of home-cooked food.
Mira is adamant her new friendships won’t be formed because of random seating in uni tutorials, although perhaps her best friend is the one found for her by her aunt. Felicia seems to be a sycophantic princess but she sees the authenticity of ‘‘ cynical, introverted underachiever’’ Mira, who wants to find her own way.
But, as always, Mira destroys what is good in her life. She moves into a squat with her aptly named stoner boyfriend, Harm. A storm cloud becomes a nuclear mushroom during a fraught acid trip. The mimosa tree, which is used throughout the novel to symbolise Mira’s life and emotions, subsumes the shape of the mushroom explosion in a strange, hallucinatory climax. Set in 1987 during the Cold War, the young adults of The Mimosa Tree believe they represent the ‘‘ first generation to grow up believing that we don’t have a future, and that’s why we are all a bunch of underachieving, drug-taking misfits’’.
Perhaps the author’s most accomplished, although understated, literary achievement is to connect the devastation of the nuclear bomb with the ravages caused by cancer radiation treatment. This raises questions about both.
Set much further into the past is Julius & the Watchmaker (Text, 352pp, $19.99), by Melbourne writer Tim Hehir. This debut novelist is not constrained by conventions and plays with unpredictable plot lines, just right for a time-travel story set in an alternative reality.
After stealing a diary from his grandfather’s bookshop, Julius is caught between dastardly Jack Springheel and his offsider Clements, who want to control London and the world; and Professor Fox and a champion boxer, Mr Flynn, who hope to ‘‘ save London from an evil time-criminal with designs on making incursions into a parallel realm with sharp-toothed denizens’’.
The diary is in fact an instruction manual for building a time machine but other devices, such as the pocket watch that belonged to the poet Shelley, are already making time jumps possible. Julius lands in Tibet in a time loop to reorganise events in his future and, later, through a vortex into an alternative futuristic London populated by sharp-toothed Grackacks and gyroflyers. The ideas about time and time travel are intricate and quite technical. They have been created, sorted and ingeniously assembled, like the machines themselves. The structure is also like a time machine, with dips into the past and leaps into the future.
Characters from history (Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and John Dee) and literature (Bill Sykes and Dodger from Oliver Twist) contribute to the atmosphere. Teen readers will also particularly enjoy the fight scenes, sly ironic humour and steampunked flights of fantasy.