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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

'Girl Defective' by Simmone Howell

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

We, the Martin family, were like inverse superheroes, marked by our defects. Dad was addicted to beer and bootlegs. Gully had "social difficulties" that manifested in his wearing a pig snout mask 24-7. I was surface clean but underneath a weird hormonal stew was simmering...

It's summer in St Kilda. Fifteen-year-old Sky is looking forward to great records and nefarious activities with Nancy, her older, wilder friend. Her brother – Super Agent Gully – is on a mission to unmask the degenerate who bricked the shop window. Bill the Patriarch seems content to drink while the shop slides into bankruptcy. A poster of a mysterious girl and her connection to Luke, the tragi-hot new employee sends Sky on an exploration into the dark heart of the suburb. What begins as a toe-dip into wilder waters will end up changing the frames of Sky's existence. Love is strange. Family Rules. In between there are teenage messes, rock star spawn, violent fangirls, creepy old guys and accidents waiting to happen. If the world truly is going to hell in a hand-basket then at least the soundtrack is kicking. Sky Martin is Girl Defective: funny, real and dark at the edges.

Mia Casey’s graffiti face with blackened tears watches over Bill's Wishing Well record shop. Mia was a real girl who died a few months ago, found face-down in the river and thought to be a ‘party-girl’ – no investigations are underway.

Skylark ‘Sky’ Martin thinks about Mia, even dreams about her. But Sky has enough to worry about without deluding herself into thinking she knew a dead girl . . . 

For one thing, her dad is the Bill who owns Bill's Wishing Well record shop. Her dad can polish off a whole slab in a single sitting and long ago accepted his alcoholism as a permanent character flaw. Then there’s Sky’s little brother, Gully, who never takes off the pig-snout mask their mum sent him for his last birthday. And speaking of Sky’s mum – what’s the point? She changed her name to Galaxy and breezed off to perform installation art in Japan, and now she’s just a voice on the end of the phone.

But life isn’t all bad for soon-to-be-sixteen Sky. There’s Nancy; their failed cleaner turned only best friend Sky has ever known. Nancy is older and wilder; she’s a dream of a girl who can pull of wearing the vintage clothes Sky’s mum left behind and causes eyes to bug out of people’s heads. 

Home is Blessington Street in St. Kilda – where tourists outnumber locals and nobody but Sky and Gully are born and bred St. Kildans. Locals are a colourful bunch and frequent the record shop – there’s the Weird Sisters and The Fugg (a poet), Steve Sharp (once famous, now sober) and Mystery Train.

It’s Mia Casey’s graffiti face that ignites everything – or so it seems. She’s plastered on the wall and suddenly bricks are flying, mysterious white vans are peeling away and a pretty newbie called Luke is hired at Wishing Well. Suddenly Sky’s life becomes full and messy – and glorious. 

‘Girl Defective’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author Simmone Howell. 

It has been too long since we’ve had a Simmone Howell novel. ‘Everything Beautiful’ was her last, and that was 2008. The moment I started reading ‘Girl Defective’ and Howell’s cracking voice rang out from the page – that was when I knew something (or, rather, someone) had been sadly missed on the Aussie YA scene. Howell writes such sharp characters and dark edges with a wry humour that’s wholly unique and breathtaking. Reading her latest offering is like gulping air you didn’t know was cut off – and I hope we never have to go so long between instalments from Ms Howell. 

The novel is set in St. Kilda, Howell’s stomping ground. For those who don’t know, St. Kilda is a suburb of Melbourne and is one of the city’s more colourful areas. It has quite a past – back in the 1880’s the area experienced a land boom and because St. Kilda is overlooking Port Philip Bay, it became a seaside destination. But the depression bought a sharp decline to the area, and for many years it was a place for crooks, prostitutes and general low-lives. It was only in the 1990s that the area experienced a gentrification, and as ‘Girl Defective’ is set in the present, Sky observes that: “These days the red light still glowed but only faintly.” So St. Kilda is a real dichotomy – some areas are still imprints of the suburb’s seedy past, but there are oak-lined streets that are beyond posh and full of million-dollar properties. 

I love the St. Kilda setting; for one thing it becomes a distinct character within Sky’s story, and for another it seems to be a reflection of the Martin family and associates. Father Bill is definitely living in the past (encapsulated in his record shop’s motto – “nothing after 1995”) while Sky’s best friend, Nancy, is determined to look forward and keep her eyes off the rear-view mirror. And as for Sky . . .  well, she seems to be caught between the vibrancy of those around her. With a post-punk father and mother called Galaxy, a brother who is a detective-in-training and constantly snouted, not to mention Nancy’s silver magnetism – Sky constantly feels like the odd one out. She’s mostly friendless at school, prefers masculine clothing and is quietly observant. It’s no wonder that amidst so many fiery characters and temperaments, Sky doesn’t quite know where she fits in, what her ‘thing’ is or who 'her people' are. I love her. Quiet she may be, but Sky is wicked smart and eloquent. She’s such a wonderfully relatable character; constantly feeling like the sidekick or back-up singer is something many, many people can relate to. And Howell has given Sky quite a voice – I adore how she describes her tinging jealousy of Nancy’s shine; 

I don’t know why it had to hurt, the way she dialled the world with her little finger.
Howell’s writing is magnificent – and my copy of ‘Girl Defective’ is peppered with markers to remember all the fine lines that caught me unawares. Howell’s similes alone made my knees weak;  
My heart beating like a bird in a box
Not to mention;
Pheromones fizzing like fireflies around us.
This is, ultimately, a book about relationships. There’s a focus on family – of the parents who vamoose and those who stick around. Little brothers we want to cradle and protect, and the sisters we let slip away. The flimsy friendships we hope to blossom into permanency, and the tentative lust that catches us unawares. And then there’s the relationship we have to music – what Sky calls her ‘valve’ on life. Music is an outlet, a private ceremony and those in the book feel a deep connection to the soundtrack of their lives; 
‘Put something on. Whatever you like.’ 
To some eyes this could look like a test. The first track a newbie played might set the tone for his employment. Luke was right to look uncertain. He wandered around the aisles for ages, coming back with Simon & Garfunkel. 
I snorted. Even Gully shook his head. 
‘What?’ Luke asked. 
‘That record doesn’t tell me anything about your inner emotional landscape,’ I told him. 
Luke stayed poker-faced. ‘Don’t have one of those.’ 
‘Sky – don’t psychoanalyse the new guy.’ Dad turned to Luke. ‘Gully reads faces, Sky reads records. We, the Martins, have superpowers.’

Simmone Howell slays me, every damn time. I didn’t want this book to end, and now that it’s over I just want to climb back into Howell’s world and re-read her words all over again. ‘Girl Defective’ is a book about the moment when everything changes, when you lose some and get some and the world falls into place (if, a little crookedly). Everyone has to read this, it’s good for the soul.



  1. Oh good lord, that cover. The tear! *snorts*

    I'd never heard of this, but I'm convinced I have to read it. The "inverse superheroes" tagline snagged me, and your comments on a focus on family convinced me. Also, an MC who picks out Simon & Garfunkel? Good in my book.

    1. Yes, this is one of those 'must read' books of 2013, for sure!

  2. I'd love to include this review in my AWW round up for Mar/April - would you mind linking it up?


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