Smart and sassy steal the show

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Four new young adult nov­els delve into theft and its un­likely bed­fel­lows of con­science and com­pas­sion. Th­ese books fea­ture clever, hard­work­ing girls and boys with di­verse, of­ten shady, skills. The girls can also hold their own in the heist stakes.

The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex (Allen & Un­win, 256pp, $17.99) by book­seller Gabrielle Wil­liams is set at­mo­spher­i­cally in Mel­bourne, with scenes coloured by its quin­tes­sen­tial roads, restau­rants and work­ers’ cot­tages. The novel is clev­erly struc­tured, fol­low­ing the four voices sil­hou­et­ted in the ti­tle. Time moves for­wards and back­wards. The pace slows and quick­ens like the Yarra River it­self to cre­ate ten­sion, sus­pense and re­lease.

Guy lacks mar­ketable tal­ent although he is good at kick­ing a hacky sack. He’s fail­ing school, has doc­tored his Year 11 re­port and is fac­ing the con­se­quences of his par­ents find­ing out. He holds a party, which in­evitably gets out of con­trol, but his lucky break may be accidentally el­bow­ing an un­known, gor­geous girl in the nose. He is so in­ter­ested he drives her home even though he doesn’t yet have his li­cence. Guy’s trou­bles spi­ral ex­po­nen­tially on his re­turn trip.

Rafi’s Columbian mother is ob­sessed by La Llorona, South Amer­ica’s leg­endary horse­headed woman. She be­lieves this crea­ture drowned her baby boy. Since his death, Rafi has been dili­gent and re­spon­si­ble, keep­ing “the lines straight, the colours coded”, but she makes a ter­ri­ble mis­take while babysit­ting for her neigh­bour.

The other two ma­jor char­ac­ters are in their 20s. Luke is a young, suc­cess­ful artist. He gets his ex, Penny, a cool rock chick, preg­nant and avoids re­spon­si­bil­ity for his baby son. All th­ese char­ac­ters’ lives be­come en­twined.

The plot is loosely based on the true theft of Pi­casso’s by the so-called Aus­tralian Cul­tural Ter­ror­ists in 1986. Luke, his mate Dip­per and the iron­i­cally named “Real” steal the paint­ing, and Luke paints a forgery.

Julep, in Amer­i­can au­thor Mary El­iz­a­beth Sum­mer’s de­but novel Trust Me, I’m Ly­ing (Ran­dom House, 336pp, $19.99), also be­comes a forger. Af­ter spend­ing her youth mas­ter­ing dis­guises and scams, she needs to make more money to pay her rent and school fees, so she starts a suc­cess­ful side­line forg­ing IDs.

Life is com­pli­cated by the dis­ap­pear­ance of her fa­ther. Julep fears he has been taken by the mob. She finds the first of a trail of clues in the rub­bish bin of their trashed apart­ment. In a padded en­ve­lope are a gun and a cryptic note, “Be­ware the field of mir­a­cles”. This sets her off on a scav­enger hunt, in­clud­ing a Chauce­rian set piece where she wears an or­ange wig and over­alls that cover a waiter’s suit, to a pri­vate club to lo­cate a locker. The dis­guises and de­coys es­ca­late as she es­capes.

Sam, son of the wealth­i­est African-Amer­i­can in Chicago and a technophile who is ca­pa­ble of hack­ing into the FBI, helps Julep. He is one of two love in­ter­ests. Mi­nor char­ac­ters, par­tic­u­larly those who Julep’s scams or “fixes”, are in­ter­est­ing. Mur­phy wants to take Bryn to the for­mal and, once trans­formed with a geek-chic makeover, strikes “while the irony’s hot” and later be­comes a use­ful ally.

The au­thor ex­pertly jos­tles hu­mour, anger, fear and com­pas­sion to build the plot as well as the char­ac­ters. Julep is an un­usual grifter. Even though she has a smart voice, isn’t demon­stra­tive and needs per­sonal space, she wants to be “real” and cares for oth­ers more than her­self. De­spite be­ing a liar, Julep is a girl to be trusted.

Ch­ester in Mel­bourne au­thor Skye Melk­iWeg­ner’s first stand-alone novel, The Hush (Ran­dom House, 448pp, $19.99), is re­luc­tant to trust the gang who saves him from be­head­ing in the town of Hamelin. He is on a mission to find his miss­ing fa­ther and chafes at be­ing sec­onded as an un­li­censed Song­shaper to help them pull off a heist.

They are also un­sure of him even with­out know­ing he is in­ad­ver­tently con­nect­ing to the “Song” when he plays his fid­dle or flute. This is blas­phemy in a place where the Song is the heart­beat of the world and holds it to­gether.

When the story be­gins, Ch­ester sees the world as a tre­ble clef. “A hill curved high on the hori­zon. A swirl of ink. A sym­bol on a song sheet.” Dot, whose fe­male lover has also van­ished, is a Song­shaper-me­chanic in the Night­fall Gang, a no­to­ri­ous band that steals from the rich to feed the poor. The gang trav­els in an echo­ship, a steam­punk boat with masts and flap­ping sails, which hov­ers above the ground. It is jump-started by the mu­sic of trains. When the en­gine dan­ger­ously runs a semi­tone off-key, the group re­sets it by play­ing from a man­ual of sheet mu­sic. Mu­sic is the essence of this world, the core of its orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion and ac­com­pa­ni­ments.

Ath­letic, red-haired bur­glar Su­san­nah is the cap­tain of the gang. She is a fugi­tive from the Con­ser­va­to­rium of Mu­sic and needs Ch­ester to com­plete her team for their most au­da­cious theft yet, steal­ing from the Con­ser­va­to­rium. They travel through the par­al­lel world of the Hush to evade cap­ture. The Hush is a se­cret place. It is dark and foggy, with rain that falls as shadow rather than wa­ter. Its air is mu­si­cally con­tam­i­nated and it con­ceals danger­ous, tainted crea­tures called Echoes.

An­other imag­ined world where song is piv­otal is Mag­o­nia, cre­ated by Maria Dah­vana Headley (HarperCollins, 320pp, $19.99), who has co-edited an an­thol­ogy with Neil Gaiman. The story is es­tab­lished se­curely in the real world where Aza’s “his­tory is hos­pi­tals” be­cause she has a rare lung dis­ease. There’s a ru­mour at school that she re­sem­bles “a hun­gry, mur­dery girl ghost from a Ja­panese hor­ror movie” be­cause of her pale face and blue lips but she’s ac­tu­ally mat­ter-of-fact and sar­donic. Her best friend, and dual nar­ra­tor, is ge­nius Ja­son, who has sud­denly be­come hot even though he wears mis­matched clothes and py­jama tops and deals with his anx­i­ety through phi­los­o­phy, pills and recit­ing pi.

They share an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of EE Cum­mings’s po­etry, which in­spires them to write im­por­tant mes­sages with brack­ets and paren­the­ses, “(I { } you more than [[[{{{ }}}]]].)”. They also draw lines through words they need to use but that have too much bag­gage, such as love.

When Aza dies but wakes in an air­ship in the sky-coun­try of Mag­o­nia, the feather in her lung be­comes a yel­low bird that passes through a door in her chest. Aza is the saviour of Mag­o­nia who was “born to sing the el­e­ments into sub­mis­sion” and steal Earth’s food crops with her lungsinger bird and hand­some, ar­ro­gant first mate, Dai. Mag­o­nia seems to be a glo­ri­ous place with squall­whales, which make cam­ou­flage storms, and bat­sails, sails of gi­ant teth­ered bats, but there are also stormsharks, pi­rates, food short­ages and im­pend­ing war with Earth.

Both spec­u­la­tive and re­al­ist lit­er­a­ture can help young read­ers deal with dif­fi­cult is­sues such as living with loss and death in com­pelling and rel­e­vant ways. Th­ese books have char­ac­ters who are try­ing to im­prove their worlds. As Ja­son tells Aza: “Even peo­ple who’ve never seen the light, peo­ple who’ve been kept in the dark … peo­ple who’ve never seen a mir­a­cle can be­lieve in mir­a­cles.”

May 16-17, 2015

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