Saturday, January 17, 2015

Razorhurst

*Edited for clarity*

In spite of the "g'day mate!" stereotype, I've never really connected with realistic fiction books by Australian authors.  I think Australia is awesome!  However, it's strange that almost every YA author I try feels somehow ...  distant from me.  I've never really connected with the storyline or the characters.  They are removed from me in way that I don't understand.  It's as if I'm watching the book unfold, but I can never get close enough to immerse myself in it, to really understand it.  Obviously, there are many exceptions--John Flanagan, Garth Nix--but those writers do speculative/fantasy/sci-fi fiction.  Perhaps it's just the modern settings that throw me off?  Anyway, Razorhurst is, so far, the least standoffish Aussie novel (let's just put Matt Reilly and his exponentially crazy use of italics in his sci-fi/thriller novels to the side, because Matt Reilly is his own thing) I've read.

Before reading Razorhurst, I knew of Justine Larbalestier, but I'd never read any of her books.  I remember the big kerfuffle over the cover of Liar, which is about a person of color and the publisher originally put a white girl on the cover instead.  I also recently found out that Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld are married, which to me was a mind=blown moment.  I mean, obviously authors can marry whomever they want, but I find it so cool when they marry other authors.  Their homes must be vortices of words and imagination.

Plus, the cover for Razorhurst is just phenomenal.  I had to request it.


RIGHT?

So, this is a historical novel with a paranormal twist.  Kelpie is a street kid in Razorhurst, an orphan raised by ghosts.  Yep, you heard correctly: ghosts.  Most people can't see ghosts--Kelpie is one of the very few.  She might only be the only one.  Some ghosts haunt specific places, and others, certain people, and others drift about.  No one--not even the ghosts--knows the "rules" of ghosting, only that it happens to some people and not to others.  However, this isn't really a ghost story--the ghosts are a fun way for Larbalestier to add in flavor and backstory without total infodumping.  Plus, they're sassy, tormented, confused and very human for being very dead.

Larbalestier excels at creating dimensional, flawed, and powerful female characters.  Kelpie's bound and determined never to fall into the hands of social services.  Heaven knows when she bathed last, and she gets herself mixed up in some serious mobster business because she was starving.  With the temptation of an apple, Kelpie sneaks into a boarding house and finds Dymphna Campbell, Razorhurst's most beautiful and most notorious "girl," standing over the body of her latest boyfriend, Jimmy Palmer.  Oh, and Jimmy's standing there too ... as a ghost.  Neither Dymphna nor Kelpie had anything to do with the razorman's gory demise, but it definitely puts a hole in Dymphna's plan to run Razorhurst in place of the two rival upstanding citizens: Glory Nelson, Madam, and Mr. Davidson, Viper.

The one good thing (for Dymphna, anyway) that comes out of Jimmy's death is that she's finally thrown together with Kelpie.  Dymph has had her eye on Kelpie for a long time--ever since she figured out that Kelpie sees ghosts too (yep, Dymph can see them).  The rest ... well, it isn't so good.  The two girls are on the lam from Mr. Davidson, the coppers, possibly Glory Nelson, and various henchmen.

Larbalestier manages to cram murder, kidnapping, narrow escapes, tram rides, shootings, knifings, parties, and even a decent bath for Kelpie into a twenty-four hour period.  Whew!  It's a wild, unforgiving ride.  The plot never falls into sentimentality or the gee-shucks-feel-good resolution that many readers desire.  Think about it: if you were a whore working the slums of Depression-era Sydney, are you going to come out of this a pretty pretty princess with her pretty pretty prince and ride off into the sunset on a white horse, etc.?  Will the scrappy orphan find a home or rich benefactor to become her new family and sing and tap dance with ineffable cheeriness?

No.

Really, no.

Look, it's not all doom and gloom, but Razorhurst is a dirty place, where no man or woman who wants to live will pull a punch.  Upon further reflection, this honesty is one of the reasons Razorhurst grew on me as a book.  Plot-wise, there really isn't a ton to go on, but atmospherically?  This is a gold mine of down-and-out Aussie culture 80 years ago.  Plus, Dymphna and Kelpie are two fantastic, yet very different, characters that you can't help rooting for.

And if you're a bit worried about the paranormal aspect--don't be.  My interpretation is that the ghosts underline the brutality of the times.  They serve as a visual reminder of the blood spilled in the name of turf wars.  They are witnesses to the razor wars, and they testify, in their own way.

Not everyone will love this book, and I kind of like that.  It means that it will be well-loved by those who appreciate it.  Brava!

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.




3 comments:

  1. I've recently downloaded this in ibooks, just begun reading it. Pity you don't care for Aussie fiction in general. You do like The Ranger's Apprentice, but that's set in a world that's not ours, so it doesn't matter. And this one is set in the past. Yes, Justine Larbalestier is married to Scott Westerfeld; they spend half the year here, half in the U.S., which may be why, for example, the Magic Or Madness trilogy is set in both countries and why she is so comfortable setting a novel like Liar in the US.

    I don't know which Australian writers you've read, apart from Justine L and John Flanagan(and Matthew Reilly, whose books I just can't get into after reading about half of one and throwing it against the wall). But there are so many wonderful ones, I am surprised to hear you say you can't relate. Melina Marchetta. Cath Crowley. Vikki Wakefield. Gabrielle Wang. Steven Herrick(he writes mostly verse novels). Archimede Fusillo. Fiona Wood. Catherine Jinks. Morris Gleitzman(whose Once series I think much better than that Irish novel that was made into a film). Marcus Zusak. Sophie Masson. Kate Forsyth. Carole Wilkinson. Okay, I could go on and on. You're a Youth Services librarian, so you probably know some of these if not all. I'm a secondary school teacher and librarian. I know them all AND Americans and others. If I can make an effort to relate, you can too! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sue,

      Of course I love Marcus Zusak (!!!), and a lot of the authors you mentioned are on my TBR; however, with the biggies (at least in YA) like Melina Marchetta and Cath Crowley, I just couldn't get into them. And I've tried almost all of their books. I kept almost forcing myself to like Marchetta's work, which I know is VERY well received, but I just couldn't. I'm certainly not saying that books by Australian authors are all bad or poorly written or anything like that; however, I, personally, have had difficulty connecting to the ones that I have tried (except for, as you mentioned, Flanagan, who writes fantasy and not realistic fic so it's a bit different). And I've noticed a trend in why I didn't like those books, as I mentioned above--it's this sort of distance that I feel I cannot close with the narrative.

      I do make an effort to relate and try new authors, but I'm never going to like all of them. I find it fascinating that people can speak the same language but be coming from such completely different cultural backgrounds that some things are as utterly foreign as if they were in a totally different language.

      I hope you enjoy Razorhurst!

      Delete
    2. Replying to myself, but...

      You're right; I didn't express myself well in the first version of my review. I've tried to be a little clearer in describing my struggles. I never want to give the impression that I dislike an entire nation's literary oeuvre, and I apologize if it was offensive in any way.

      Delete