Category Archives: Young Adult

Snake Bite

Christie Thompson. Snake Bite. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN: 978174343079.

‘What a poser! I bet she’s from Tuggeranong, just like us.’

‘Tuggeranong like us? Are you a Kambah girl now?’

‘Um, let me see. The other week I wore my Ugg boots down to the Village, smoked bongs in three separate backyards, drank my weight in Bundy and Coke and now we’re getting tattooed. Is that Kambah enough for you?’

‘You’ll never be one of us,’ I teased her. ‘No matter how much you want it. See, you just made fun of that girl getting the “ohm” symbol, but every good bogan has at least one eastern religion figure in their house that they bought from the Dollar Shop.’

‘Have you seen my house? Dana and Joan eat that stuff up.’

‘Sorry, but if you pay more than two dollars it doesn’t count.’

Lots of Snake Bite felt familiar to me. I’m not sure if I am reassured or alarmed that being a teenager in the Tuggeranong Valley in the 2000s doesn’t sound all that different to being a teenager in south-western Sydney in the 1980s. Not so much the drugs in my case, not the dysfunctional families, although there was plenty of that going on around me, but the alcohol, the out of control parties, the long aimless summers, the bitchiness between girls, the ties to family tangled up in the yearning to break away, the teenage search for self esteem. Snake Bite felt authentic. It’s what you’d call ‘gritty realism’. If you aren’t up for the worst swear word available in the English language, this book isn’t for you.

Jessica – Jez – is seventeen, and working out who she is in the summer of 2009. The models she has to work with aren’t great. There’s her drug-dealing best friend Lukey, sick of being beaten up by his brother and saving money to head to Melbourne and escape. Her next door neighbour Casey, who has just got a job as a stripper and can’t believe that Jez is affronted by a request for a head job from a guy at a Civic party. Her absent father, away down the coast and always making excuses and half-hearted attempts to make good.

Then there’s her alcoholic mother. Arriving home one night, Jez finds the house open and her mother on the floor:

Frantic, I kneeled at her side. She was fully clothed, belly down on the carpet, arms at her sides. I leaned close to her face. I could hear her breathing. And I could smell the alcohol on her breath. Bundy and Coke…

I cursed myself because this wasn’t a lame soap, it was real life… I went to the fridge in the kitchen and found two West Coast Coolers… Then I went back to where Mum lay and gently unhooked her handbag from her shoulder… I took her packet of Benson and Hedges and forty bucks from her wallet.

Jez knows what she doesn’t want, but she doesn’t seem to know what she does want. She’s tired of her mother and her mother’s friends, of suburbia, of drugs and fights “and this whole scorching claustrophobically hot summer”. She and Lukey don’t want to end up working in Woolies, but a pub would be alright. She feels trapped by her life, but can’t imagine herself anywhere else. She’s torn between a kind of ‘bogan pride’ and a yearning for something different.

Author Christie Thompson evokes that claustrophobically hot Canberra summer well. It falls like a blanket over the aimless days of Jez and her friends, stifling initiative and free will. Their lives are beers in the children’s playground “covered in scrawls of texta and graffiti, under a gum that did nothing to shield us from the sun”. Jez looks down on her world from Mount Taylor, seeing a crowd of houses and ghost grey gums, “a sunken pit of suburbia surrounded by yellow hills.. and [a] shopping mall smack in the centre”. Swimming at Kambah Pool in the Murrumbidgee river may provide a reprieve from the heat, but the lethargy of that summer, and shock realities of the world of the Tuggeranong Valley are never far away.

All Jez is really looking for is a bit of hope. It may be there in the relatively functional family life of her new friend Laura and Laura’s lesbian parents, and in the way they seem to have inspired Jez’s mother. Jez may be trapped in the suburbs, but between the houses and the powerlines she can see the purple Brindabellas.

Eventually summer will end. Canberra is famed for its autumn leaves, but in the newer suburbs like Kambah the street trees are all eucalypts, so “the season’s change creeps up slowly, then bam, it’s colder than a nun’s fanny.” The evolution may be hard to discern, but it’s there.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers, Young Adult

About a Girl

Joanne Horniman. About a Girl. Allen and Unwin, 2010. ISBN: 9781742371443.

Much like Holly, Anna has left Canberra looking for a new life. Unlike Holly, Anna understands that she is who she is, and that a change of scenery won’t change her or her problems, although it may change how she learns to live in her own skin, in her own head.

Anna has known since she was six years old that she “liked” girls, but it has taken until she is nineteen for her to fall in love. And with Flynn she is truly, desperately and all-pervasively in love, as only young, first love can be. Thinking about Flynn occupies Anna’s every waking moment.

In coming to know Flynn, and in negotiating what form their relationship might take, Anna comes also to know what she wants for herself, and from herself. It is not about coming to terms with her sexuality. She did that at age fifteen when she thought “I am this way for ever and ever”. Simply, she is becoming an adult, a woman who knows herself, and mostly understands.

Music is a theme throughout the book. Flynn is a musician, and Anna first sees her at a gig where Flynn calls herself Every Little Thing. Horniman’s prose is musical as well. I found About A Girl a lovely book to read, its language is full of the intensity of Anna’s attraction to Flynn, and beautifully reveals the hurts and confusions that each young woman slowly exposes to the other, and to us.

Then she revealed the portrait she’d done of me. I looked rather odd and quite beautiful, not at all like myself, which was fitting, as that was the way I’d felt ever since running into her that afternoon. Because being with Flynn did make me feel odd and beautiful.

Back in her Canberra childhood, Anna is a gifted, and therefore different, child. Her only real friend is Michael, not only clever but also wise beyond his years. Soon after they meet, at a camp for gifted kids, he says to her “Anyway, everyone’s a bit different in their own little way.” It is a small piece of comfort that Anna keeps with her, along with her friendship with Michael. Anna is doubly different, being not only intelligent but also knowing that “the world was not this way, and I was not the way of the world.”

Canberra is home for Anna and Michael. They roam the streets of Ainslie “territorial as magpies or cats… walking down the middle of streets beneath canopies of red leaves”. They climb Mount Ainslie at night (I wonder if they ever saw Hannah and Alister there?) so they could

sit and watch the constellations of lights marking the roads, the moving patterns of cars, and the softer, intimate glow of houses. There were huge floodlit areas marking the Australian War Memorial and Parliament House and Anzac Parade, all precisely and frighteningly lined up so there was an unimpeded view between them.

Anna’s time north, in Lismore, is a time for her to evaluate herself away from all the comfort and familiarity of home. The question of home is, though, always there in the background. Early on, when Anna tells Flynn she comes from Canberra, she can’t decide if Canberra still feels like home. Later, when she is vulnerable and alone, she thinks of going home, the idea lodging in her mind. As she has come to learn, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there/ They have to take you in.”

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Shortlisted 2011: Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, Young adult fiction

Shortlisted 2011: Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year – Older Readers


Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers, Young Adult

Riding on Air

Maggie Gilbert. Riding on Air. Escape Publishing, 2013. ISBN: 9780857990457

One of those aphorisms that is often wheeled out to writers is to “find your own voice”. Maggie Gilbert has her own voice. It is funny, light, wry, self-deprecating, engaging and real. Reading Riding on Air is just like chatting to Maggie herself. I know this because I have known Maggie since we were about ten years old. I’m not going to tell you how long that is. As long as I have known her, Maggie has been writing and working towards being a published author, so I had a reasonable idea of her excitement when she told me that her first full-length novel was being published at Easter.

Of course, I was also worried about reading it. Or, more to the point, reviewing it. What if it sucked? It’s a young adult novel about teenage girls and horses, published by Escape Publishing, a new ebook imprint from Harlequin. I am not exactly this book’s target demographic. And my last experience of a Harlequin Mills & Boon romance was less than great.

I needn’t have worried. As I said, sitting down with Riding on Air was like settling in with Maggie for a natter. The book is funny, engaging and believable. Light without being vapid. In my opinion, being able to write good, realistic, conversations is perhaps the key sign of a good writer or, perhaps more accurately the real let-down of less good writing. It has never seemed that difficult to me, but some writers do seem to need to turn their characters’ conversations into speeches, making them mouth the things that are required to drive the story forward rather than letting them say what they want to say. I felt that the voices of Riding on Air’s characters were natural and flowing and authentic.

Melissa is 16, and devoted to giving her horse, Jinx, the best chance she can give him to shine at dressage. They’ve come a long way together, but Melissa’s juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is getting worse, and she’s stashing pills for the times her hands become too painful to prepare Jinx for the qualifying event coming up in Goulburn. And she’s worried that this flare-up may not go away. Of course, there’s also a boy.

I should have known he’d be the one to come to my un-rescue on his mechanical charger. I have that kind of luck. God, why didn’t you kill me in that fall?…

A lanky body moved in to block the sun and I blinked my watering eyes at the sudden change in light… I blinked some more, still sun-dazzled. Dazzled, anyway. William’s face came into focus, dark eyebrows frowning above narrowed lake-blue eyes.

The storyline follows Melissa as she pursues her dream of making Jinx the best dressage horse he can be, while she keeps her increasing pain a secret from her family, from William, and from her two best friends Tash and Eleni. A few online reviewers have commented that those not into horses might find all of the technical dressage detail a bit much. I found it interesting to understand a little bit more about what is going on between horse and rider, although there were a couple of moments where it got a bit beyond me and I felt I might have accidentally picked up a horse riding handbook.

We also watch as Melissa overcomes her lack of self confidence to realise that William does care for her, and that his interest is not some kind of cruel trick. Melissa feels all of her emotions in her guts. Fairly literally. The word “stomach” appears 70 times in the book, although it’s rarely clichéd. In fact, it’s amazing the sorts of original gymnastics Melissa’s stomach can do:

 My stomach plummeted and then curled in on itself, as tight and prickly as a startled echidna.

Most of the stomach quivering is, of course, related to William, who I found just a shade too restrained and wise for an eighteen year old boy. Although, my experience with eighteen year old boys is a bit dated.

There is a chapter towards the end of the book where Melissa, too nervous to sleep before her big day in Goulburn, chats in the kitchen with her stepmother Jennie. It’s an important scene where Melissa begins to realise that she may have misunderstood the motives of the people who have hurt her. It’s a lovely moment, and its revelations are pointed without being forced. And there is Maggie’s ever-present wry humour to even out any potentially bumpy bits.

“I stuffed it up,” I choked out.

“Maybe. But I’m sure you could fix it.”

“I’m not. He was really mad at me.”

“I don’t know what you two argued about but I do know this: that boy is totally besotted, Melly, and it wouldn’t take much effort from you, I’m sure.”

“He wants me to do something I can’t,” I said, and almost fell over myself as Jennie’s eyes widened. “No! Not that. He wouldn’t – I wouldn’t, not yet anyway – oh!”

Jennie laughed and shook her head, miming putting her fingers in her ears.

Canberra connections? The Caphs Count is becoming an increasingly vivid example of the importance of sample size when drawing conclusions from statistical data. Melissa and her friends live in Sutton, which literally butts up against the ACT border. Is very much a country town. At about half-an-hour’s drive from Civic, it’s not too far for William and Melissa to go out for a movie and get some Thai for dinner, but the action here is very much in the horse paddocks at home.

Riding on Air is, as the publisher’s blurbs tell us, a story about following your dreams, but it is also about deciding what you are and aren’t prepared to give to achieve them. These are life lessons we all need to learn at some time or other. It is something I think Maggie is pretty clear about too.



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Filed under Romance, Women Writers, Young Adult