The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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