Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude and Liz Get A Life

Edit: My arm has been twisted — twisted, I say! — into signing up for the AWW 2014 Challenge!  I promise to do better than last year.

I’ve signed up to read at least four books by Australian women and review at least three.  I guess this ties neatly into my vague plan of reading all the non-fiction nominated for the Stella Prize!

Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life

I didn’t read much YA as a teen.  Once I realised my dad’s Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov books were aimed at adult audiences, I figured that reading anything aimed at a younger age group would be a regression.  Had the young adult market been flooded with fantasy and SF as it is today, it might be been a different story.

Nevertheless, there were exceptions.  Maureen McCarthy’s Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life was one of them.  It was published in 1995, when I was thirteen, and I fell instantly in love with its characters and situations.

It’s hard to describe Queen Kat without making it sound cliched.  Three girls, all from the same country town — but from different schools — wind up sharing a house in Fitzroy as they take their first steps in the adult world.  Carmel is shy and fat.  Jude is a bolshy political activist.  Katerina is spoilt, rich and beautiful.

This was the cover of the first edition. Can you imagine anything more perfectly ’90s?

It is full of cliches.  Carmel develops self-confidence.  Katerina gets in over her head in the drug scene.  But they’re executed so well, it’s easy to forget we’ve seen these stories before.

And in between Carmel and Katerina’s stories is Jude, the one that defies cliche.  Jude’s father was a Chilean revolutionary, and she discovers that the man who ordered his execution is living a happy, comfortable life in Melbourne.  Jude’s story is heavy stuff, covering the torture of her parents and the US-sanctioned human rights violations in South America in the ’70s.  Pretty harrowing stuff for a book that was marketed to young teen girls.  

Not that the other two protagonists have it much easier.  Carmel’s chapters vividly encapsulate her self-loathing and body-hatred.  Her family, cash-strapped farmers, are vividly drawn, from her mother — a sharp woman who can’t stop herself from striking at Carmel’s vulnerable points — to her charismatic and charming oldest brother.  They feel like real people.

Katerina’s story runs the risk of feeling like an after school special.  Wealthy and beautiful, she falls in with a dangerous crowd who flatter and exploit her.  Katerina winds up posing for a semi-consensual softcore photoshoot that ends with her rape.  Later she attends a rave which is raided by the police, and is caught with a large quantity of pills.

It all sounds very melodramatic, and it’s without doubt the plot that stretches credibility furthest.  (I can totally buy that she dabbles in modelling, but the front cover of Australian Vogue?)  But it’s well-executed, not least because hints are dropped throughout the book that something is very wrong in Katerina-land.

The current edition, the one I own, has a shot from the TV adaptation on the cover. I appreciate that Carmel actually looks like a fat girl here.

Now, I’m quite finicky about POV in my reading material, and I strongly dislike multiple first person narrators.  (Even though I’ve written it myself in fic — but that’s okay, because fan fiction is amateur!)  So I was rather surprised to realise that this, one of my very favourite novels, has not only three first person narrators — a third of each book is devoted to one of the girls — but it opens with three passages written in third person.

I need to reconsider everything I’ve ever thought about POV, because this totally worked.  The third person narratives introduced the girls and their backgrounds without letting us get too close — and then we’re immersed in each characters’ head for a significant chunk of the story.

The other thing that I loved: the setting.  Now, I first read this many, many years before I moved to Melbourne, but I strongly suspect it shaped my whole idea of the place.  I mean, it’s a book about a bunch of wine-drinking young women living in Melbourne’s inner north, and now I am a wine-drinking young woman living in Melbourne’s north.  Thanks, book!

Having said that, it all feels much richer now that I know Melbourne.  I’ve walked and cycled down Canning Street, where the girls live.  I’ve caught the trams they catch.

At the same time, though, a lot of their Melbourne is gone.  The department stores where Carmel tries on clothes she can’t afford have closed.  The Chilean cafes in Collingwood and Fitzroy serve Tex Mex now.  These girls were the first wave of a gentrification that has dramatically changed the inner north.

Sadly, the mini-series is no longer in print, or whatever you call it when DVDs are available.

In fact, the book is so very much a product of the mid-90s that I’m curious to see how the 1999 TV adaptation works.  Jude’s family history means you can’t place the story anywhere but in the mid-90s.  The DVD is no longer available in stores, but there is a copy waiting for me at my library as we speak.  STAY TUNED.

Books read in February 2013

Firstly, I have a confession to make:

Despite my best intentions, I’m having serious time management issues at the moment, not to mention some other stresses like my cat needing part of his tail amputated this week, so I’m not going to worry too much about doing more individual AWW2013 reviews until after June.

Yes, you may judge me.

February’s books!

Persuasion Jane Austen Classic
The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television Tiffany Potter and C W Marshall (eds) Non fiction (television)
My Life as a Book Janet Tajishan Middle school
The Daughters of Juarez: A true story of serial murder south of the border Teresa Rodrigues, Diana Montane with Lisa Pulitzer True crime
Scattered: The inside story of ice in Australia Malcolm Knox True crime Australian
Frantic Katherine Howell Crime Australian, AWW2013
First Family: Abigail and John Adams Joseph J Ellis History
The Darkest Hour Katherine Howell Crime Australian, AWW2013
Cold Justice Katherine Howell Crime Australian, AWW2013
Violent Exposure Katherine Howell Crime Australian, AWW2013
Stealing Parker Miranda Keneally YA
Mistress of the Art of Death Ariana Franklin Crime

Good news, everyone!  It only took me, like, 45 minutes to figure out how to get my table to paste!  I wish I could remember how I did it last month.  I think I just went ctrl+v and it appeared.

WordPress, I am side-eyeing you so hard.

Anyway, highlights!  Actually, this is almost a whole month of highlights!

  • Obviously, after For Darkness Shows the Stars last month, I had to read Persuasion.  It was an odd experience, because the first time I read it, I swallowed without question the widespread belief among Austen fans that Captain Wentworth is her greatest non-Darcy hero.  This time, I kept feeling like he was a bit of a jerk, spending a lot of the book being deliberately cruel to Anne, and really only taking notice of her when she becomes appealing to other men.  
  • The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television was a highly frustrating book of essays about, yes, The Wire.  And urban decay.  And American television.  Frustrating because these are proper academic essays, yet they repeatedly failed at feminism and intersectionality.Like the essay on The Wire‘s depictions of African-American motherhood, which didn’t mention Kima and Cheryl, or the essay that acknowledges that Zenobia is a girl (and a very feminine girl, too, I note, whose delinquency is marked by using her comb as a weapon), but for the purposes of this essay she’s a boy?  It was weirdly tone deaf, especially when there’s a lot of academic writing about the erasure of black femininity.  The book also describes Rhonda Pearlman in sexist clichés (married to her job!), and barely mentions Kima at all.  Some poor editing there, imho.
  • My Life as a Book is a middle-grade novel about a high spirited kid — verging on having behavioural problems — and the summer he spends attending learning camp, befriending the teacher’s pet and uncovering a mystery in his own past.It was very charming, but also frustrating, in that I just wanted more of everything.  In some ways, brevity is the natural condition of an MG novel, but this was also explicitly aimed at non-readers — the margins are full of cartoons illustrating the meaning of the more difficult words — so it was especially pronounced.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and got quite teary at the end.
  • I’ve been interested in learning more about the Juarez murders for years, so I finally ordered The Daughters of Juarez from BookDepository in January.  I chose it because it was the only English book on the subject written by a Latina, which I hoped would make it less exploitative than some of the other titles seemed.  And certainly I’ve seen worse writing about violent murders of women, but even with three female authors, there was a lot of emphasis on the slim bodies and full lips of the victims, even the ones in their early teens.That aside, it was a good, clear look at the murders, the investigations and the politics that enabled one and impeded the other.  And, although the author is herself American, she doesn’t let the USA or capitalism off the hook, highlighting the role played by free trade agreements and US companies in creating conditions ripe for the economic and sexual exploitation of women.
  • Scattered: the story of ice in Australia — more true crime!  Sometimes I have a hankering.  It’s a bit shameful, yes.  Anyway, this is a look at methamphetamine from a number of points of view — casual users, addicts, victims of ice-related crime, police, cooks.  The only point of view not represented is that of the kingpins responsible for overseeing the manufacture and sale of large quantities, and I’m guessing they weren’t much for talking.  It’s an interesting book that argues that, while users of other drugs generally commit crimes only when in need of money for another fix, there seems to be a particular link between meth use and violence.
  • First Family: Abigail and John Adams was a fairly light biography of the only Founding Father I can name, and his marriage.  (Okay, there was also Jefferson … and Washington … Lincoln wasn’t a Founding Father, was he?  He was a few generations later.  Um … Benjamin Franklin?)As you can see, I’m a relative novice when it comes to the US revolution — I had appendicitis the week we covered it at school — but this was easy to follow, and a good overall introduction to some interesting people.  I’m pretty sure I bought the Kindle when I was in Boston last year, and reading it made me desperately want to go back.
  • Stealing Parker was a recommendation from Amie Kaufman at our writers’ retreat last weekend.    It’s a short (but not light!) story of a nice southern Christian girl whose life falls apart when her mother moves out … with another woman.  Ostracised by her friends and church, Parker sets out to prove her heterosexuality beyond a doubt — until she falls for the new assistant baseball coach.  Who is also a teacher.I found Parker a likeable character, full of flaws — a product of her time, ie, now, she truly believes that boys have no feelings about sex except desire, and they can’t be hurt by her unintentional cruelty — but charming as she fumbles her way towards adulthood.  The novel is primarily concerned with sex, religion and friendship, and I liked that, although Parker’s church is depicted as being thoroughly homophobic and unpleasant, she attends another one which is welcoming and open.Sometimes I take a look at Amazon reviews to see if people are Being Wrong about a book, and how.  Here, I was expecting one-star reviews from Christians who objected to the sex, swearing and gayness.  Instead, there were a bunch of five-stars from Christians praising it, and a heap of one-star reviews complaining that the heroine was Christian and talked too much about God.
  • Mistress of the Art of Death is a medieval mystery about a cheerfully anachronistic female doctor who is sent, along with her Jewish and Muslim colleagues, to investigate a serial killer in 12th century Cambridge.  I really enjoyed Adelia’s adventures, the critical eye she casts over Henry II’s England, and her general competence.I was less keen on the love interest, who is, IMO, a pig.  It rather annoyed me that a character who has dedicated her life to chastity and intellect even needed a love interest, but the story was quite interesting when she found her chastity being challenged by gasp attraction.  But by the time it was revealed that sex with the love interest can heal psychological trauma, I was pretty eyerolly.However, the rest of the book was good, and the series is quite short, the author having died a couple of years ago, so I’ve ordered the next two books from Brotherhood Books.

Finally, I read a whole lot of Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, and enjoyed them quite a bit, even though I found myself increasingly frustrated by certain niggles.  Said niggles:

  • Marconi’s Sydney is still very white, straight and middle class.  I was quite shocked when two gay couples turned up in the fourth book, and working class people tend to be red herrings and criminals.  With the exception of Marconi herself, the vast proportion of characters are Anglo-Saxons.  We’ve had one Asian character in four books. 
  • Marconi has a boyfriend!  Only he doesn’t like the time she dedicates to work!  Even though he himself is a police detective!  So he gets really passive-aggressive!  WE’VE SEEN THIS STORY SO MANY TIMES AND IT DOESN’T GET ANY LESS ANNOYING!
  • I’m beginning to have serious doubts about the New South Wales ambulance service in general, and those paramedics stationed at The Rocks in particular.  Staff attrition rates due to arrest and prosecution for minor crimes must be massive.
  • There’s a character in the second book whose entire purpose is to be unpleasant to the paramedic protagonist.  To the point where, if this was real life, she’d be sacked for unprofessional behaviour and bullying.  (The protagonist is in love with this character’s fiance.  Who is himself a player of mindgames, and undeserving of the protagonist’s love, but they wind up married in a future book, so.)  The fiancee is materialistic, manipulative, selfish and generally cruel.  When this type turns up in Asian dramas, my BFF calls them “Robot Girlfriends”, and that’s what this character is — she’s a robot programmed to make the heroine look good.  It’s a cheap trick.
  • A character in the fourth book does something so stupid, unethical and wrong that I spent the entire book waiting for him to face the consequences … and he didn’t.

With all these complaints, why did I keep reading?  And why am I planning to keep going with the rest of the series?  Basically, Howell constructs a really good mystery.  Her endings are a bit rushed and whiplashy, but the plots themselves are great.

If my list of whinges has put you off, I will still recommend Cold Justice, the third book in the series, just for being a really nice, multi-layered mystery.  It has the annoying love interest for Marconi, and really needed another chapter where everyone lines up to kick a particular antagonist in the balls over and over again, but it was a good read, and for once, the involvement of the paramedics didn’t seem contrived.

A tale of two Sydneys: P M Newton and Katherine Howell

But first!  A digression!

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Hashtag: AWW2013 The Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge is an attempt to support the work of Australia’s female authors, and to redress the gender imbalance in reviewing.

I originally wasn’t going to do it, because I figured I was flat-out just reading an acceptable number of Australian authors of any gender in 2013.  Last year, 19 out of 140 books were written by Australians, a piddling 13.57%.  Shameful.

But my good friend Mel at Subversive Reader has been pursuing the challenge with great dedication, so I got curious and started reading the hash tag.  And then I started reading the reviews.  And then I thought, what the hell, this project has given me lots of ideas for what to read next — I might as well throw my hat in the ring.

(Yes, and if Mel jumped off a cliff often enough, I might start thinking there was something in that, too.)

Time constraints mean that I don’t review many individual books any more, but I’m going to make more of an effort.  Therefore, I present two Sydney-based crime novels by Australian women!

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Okay, I’m cheating here.  I read The Old School in November 2012, while I was travelling in America.  I had grabbed a paperback to read while planes were taking off and landing, figuring that if I didn’t like it, I could leave it behind for some passenger or flight attendant who might enjoy it more.

Not only did I like The Old School, but it’s still on my mind three months later.  It had a vivid sense of time and place, and a really fantastic heroine in Detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly.

Time and place: Sydney, 1992.  Bill Clinton is in the White House.  The High Court has just overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius with the Mabo ruling, establishing precedent for Aborigianal land rights.

The heroine: Ned is the daughter of an Irish-Australian and a Vietnamese woman he met while serving in the war.  Her parents were murdered when she was young, and she and her sister were raised by their eccentric paternal aunt, who doesn’t make a secret of the fact she wishes her nieces were just a little more, you know, white.  As an adult, Ned is career-minded, ambitious and somewhat resentful of senior officers’ expectation that she be their token minority (a role that falls by the wayside when she reveals she speaks no Vietnamese).  (So good was the portrayal of the pressures and micro-aggressions Ned faces that I was really shocked to learn that the author is in fact white.)

This is the status quo when the bodies of two women are discovered in the foundation of a building that Ned’s father constructed in the late ’70s.  One was an Aboriginal activist whose inability to swallow bullshit and play nice with the patriarchy earned her a lot of enemies.  The other was a Vietnamese refugee who may have had links with the Viet Cong.

Probably the weakest link in the novel is that Ned wasn’t transferred to other duties right away, but it does make sense that she would want to prove herself, and that her mentor would give her the chance.

Despite that, it’s a fantastic, intricate mystery that covers espionage and war crimes in Vietnam, police abuse of Aborigines in Sydney, and the way past sins can still damage families.  And the culture, the awkward fumbling steps towards inclusivity that in my family we called political correctness, is portrayed vividly.  Late in the book, events take place with Paul Keating’s famous Redfern speech as the backdrop, assimilating all the themes beautifully.  I was really excited to learn that there’s going to be a second book about Ned.

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It was Mel who put me onto Howell with her review of the third novel in the series, Cold Justice.  I used to be able to read series out of order, but somehow I just can’t do it any more … but luckily (from every perspective except that of my bank account) Amazon has the first book in the series in Kindle format for $5.32.  And having finished it, I’m now sternly telling myself that buying book 2 for $12.88 is stupid, when I can get the next two books from the library.  I just have to brave the heat … and the wrath of Terry Deary.  Yeah, that’ll keep me up at night.  (Here, have a rebuttal as a palate cleanser.)

Anyway, I totally am going to brave the heat as soon as I’ve finished my lunch, so obviously I enjoyed Frantic.  Like The Old School, it’s a police procedural set in Sydney with predominantly female protagonists.  After that, they diverge.

For one thing, Frantic occupies a Sydney which is much whiter and more middle class than The Old School.  The detective, Ella Marconi, is presumably of Italian descent, but everyone else appears to be of Anglo-Saxon background.  It’s almost jarring, especially as Frantic was written and set in 2007. 

Additionally, it has two heroines.  The narrative is divided between Ella Marconi, a police detective whose inability to play politics stands between her and promotion, and Sophie Phillips, a paramedic.  Sophie is a competent, clever person, unable to understand why her husband, a police officer, has become uncommunicative, even hostile.  In the space of a few days, a series of bank robberies are linked to the police,  husband is shot and her ten-month-old son is kidnapped.

Splitting the narrative gives us Sophie’s highly emotional, increasingly irrational response, and also Ella’s more distant perspective.  I came out feeling like I didn’t know Ella as well as I knew Sophie, but I understand the series features a different set of paramedics in each book, but Ella is a constant.  I’m hoping this means that Ella’s character will unfold over time.

I like the conceit of involving paramedics in the story, because it meant even the routine moments of Sophie’s life and job were fraught with tension.  Howell is a former paramedic herself, and while I can’t judge as to accuracy, it certainly felt realistic.  (At the same time, I think Howell was right to avoid anything was clichéd as a crime-fighting ambo.)  We got to see crime scenes from several perspectives, while the two women’s different and sometimes conflicting agendas meant we got to have fun with unreliable narrators.

I have to confess that, even though it was a fantastic, pacy read, Frantic is not as layered or thoughtful as The Old School.  But if you enjoy a solid procedural, and I do, it’s an entertaining way to spend a few train journeys.

Books read in January 2013

You know, I really don’t think it was necessary for WordPress to become more like Tumblr.

Anyway, I am aiming to blog more frequently this year, while also meeting my various other commitments.  It’s totally doable.  Really.

Accordingly, my monthly list of books will be going here instead of on Dreamwidth.  That way we’re guaranteed at least one post a month, and I swear I’ll get back to the Malory Towers posts as soon as real life stops making demands of me.  Why, I just spent the last half hour staring at my cat as he slept under a bench in the backyard!  YOU HAVE NO IDEA OF THE PRESSURES THAT I’M UNDER!

The books I read last month:

Title  Author  Genre Aussie?
Love and Romanpunk Tansy Rayner Roberts Fantasy Australian
The Sacred Art of Stealing Christopher Brookmyre Crime
Captain Marvel – Volume 1: In Pursuit of Flight Kelly Sue Deconnick Comic
Thief of Lives Lucy Sussex Fantasy Australian
Losers in Space John Barnes YA SF
Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times Susan Quinn History
For the Thrill of it: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder that Shocked America Simon Baatz True crime
One Con Glory Sarah Kuhn Romance
For Darkness Shows the Stars Diana Peterfreund YA SF
Among the Unnamed Stars Diana Peterfreund

…Okay, I did not expect it to past like that! But hey, look how organised it all is!  I wonder why it didn’t get the genre of the last book?

Anyway, this was a pretty good month! Two Australian authors! A nice range of genres!  Some really good books!

Particular recommendations:

  • I already blogged about Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts; 
  • The Sacred Art of Stealing was the selection for my RL book club, and it was amazing.  Scottish crime/farce/social commentary/comedy that rewards close attention — I had to go back and read the first few chapters when I was finished — and was generally fun to read.  And it came in the middle of a series!  Well, it’s the middle book in a trilogy that forms part of a loose series.  I didn’t even hate the phonetic dialogue, which is usually a major turn-off for me.
  • Captain Marvel vol 1: In Pursuit of Flight – lots of people have been talking the new Captain Marvel series up since it started, and it turned out I’d read a lot of this via Tumblr posts.  I know nothing at all about the previous Captain Marvel mythos, or about Carol Danvers, the character who takes on the title at the beginning of the story, but I really enjoyed this.  It kept returning to the role of female soldiers and aviators in the 20th century, with a neat twist and a forgivable villain, and loads and loads of different kinds of women in different kinds of roles.
  • I enjoy theatrical history, social history and books about the Depression, so Furious Improvisation was pretty much a winner for me.  (It makes me a bit sad that most of the popular histories of the Depression are American, but that’s the way it goes, y’know?)  It’s a well-written look at the period of the New Deal, and the unpopular choice to direct government funds towards live theater.  Because actors, stagehands, directors, they all need to eat too, y’know?  And along the way, some terrible theatre is produced, as well as some groundbreaking, game-changing stuff like Orson Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth, the first professional production of Shakespeare with an all-black cast.  (Things which should also be the subject of a book in their own right!)
  • For Darkness Shows the Stars is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion as YA science fiction.  Set in New Zealand, no less, although I didn’t pick that up until I read the prequel novella, Among the Unnamed Stars, even though I did notice that the heroine is a woman of colour.  I thought the transplant worked remarkably well, taking the basic situation of Persuasion — a young woman in a position of privilege turns down a chance to make a new life with a man from a lower class, and instead takes on the duties her feckless relatives ignore, and putting it in a post-dystopic environment.  (I say post-dystopic because it’s a major theme that the issues faced by earlier generations are falling away, and a new industrial revolution is taking place.)  I appreciated the many riffs on Austen, but I also liked the book in its own right.

Less to my taste:

  • Thief of Lives is a slightly disjointed short story collection.  I liked the stories individually, but they didn’t work for me together.  I was amused to realise that Lucy Sussex is also the editor of She’s Fantastical!, an anthology of feminist SF that I read in my early teens.  I distinctly remember finishing that book and thinking, “Wow, this feminism business is complicated, and also really weird.”  I should go back and give it another look sometime.
  • For the Thrill of It was a good overview of the Leopold and Loeb murders, but it committed an unforgivable crime against non-fiction: it put thoughts and feelings into the heads of historical figures.  The extensive footnotes and citations make me think most of it had a basis in fact, but it’s a style that I really hate in non-fiction.
  • One Con Glory is an indie novel about a cranky fangirl having a close encounter with the leading man in a TV series based on her favourite Marvel comic.  It had its moments, but didn’t really work for me, mostly because it’s full of fannish types that I know and detest.  I avoid those people like the plague in real life; I don’t enjoy having them play major roles in the fiction I read!  Most disappointing of all, I found myself actively disliking the heroine, and not just because she dissed Kathryn Janeway.  I usually like a bit of crankiness in my fictional ladies, but here I felt it was frequently unjustified, and not balanced out by any other moods.  And the other female characters were pretty one-dimensional.
  • I needed a whole blog post to process Losers in Space.

So that was January!  February is … well, it’s happening.  I’m reading books.  Books are being read.  And someone needs to come and forcibly detach my Amazon account from my credit card, because I seriously need to stop buying Kindle books.

Books read in September

Justice Hall – Laurie R King
The Game – Laurie R King
Locked Rooms – Laurie R King
Ba(nd) Romance – Sarah Billington (short story)
The Language of Bees – Laurie R King
God of the Hive – Laurie R King
The Pirate King – Laurie R King
Garment of Shadows – Laurie R King
Beekeeping for Beginners – Laurie R King (novella)
A Spy in the House – Y S Lee
Point of Honour – Madeleine E Robins
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling

A bit of a light month, what with all the re-reads. Other than the Russell novels, the standout was obviously JKR’s The Casual Vacancy. I wasn’t totally blown away — I found the realism jarred against the satire, and the ending didn’t thrill me, but it was a good read, and I’m eager to see what she writes next.