Review: Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

Margot McGovern reviews Simmone Howell’s smart ‘n’ sassy YA novel, Girl Defective

Girl Defective is the story of the search for the holy grail of vinyl records. ‘It’s also the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything. And it’s about life and death and grief and romance. All the good stuff.’

Ambitious as hell, but Simmone Howell’s got the gumption and goods to pull it off.

Summer is coming and the winds of change are blowing hard through St. Kilda. Fifteen-year-old Skylark Martin can ‘feel it in her waters’. A poster appears across the road from her dad’s record shop: ‘a stencil of a girl’s face, three feet high below a concrete sky … Three black tears trailed down her cheek.’ A week later a brick comes through the shop window, thrown by unknown assailants in a white jeep—a bumper sticker reading ‘Love Live Local’ the only clue to the assailants’ identity. Meanwhile, The Paradise music hall is coming down, making way for new developments. Skylark’s only friend, party-girl Nancy, has plans to trip the light fantastic out of town and a sad boy with a sketch book has taken up residence at the marina, looking for clues about his dead sister.

Skylark is sure all these things are connected, she just can’t figure out how. Fortunately, her kid brother, Agent Seagull ‘Gully’ Martin, is on the case and she’s designated babysitter. His investigation takes the Martins deep into the St. Kilda underbelly: shady stakeouts, red light street corners, underground gigs.

Meanwhile, there’s trouble at home. Years earlier Sky’s mum ‘changed her name to Galaxy and moved to Japan’ on a mission to ‘follow her art’, and her dad’s been drinking ever since—home brew ‘nicknamed Old Dunlops because it tasted like tires’. Now the record shop is struggling and developers are sniffing at the door. With her dad drinking himself into denial, it’s up to Sky to find a way to keep the music alive.

Girl Defective is a hard boiled coming-of-age story with all the sass and swagger of Raymond Chandler, a killer soundtrack and a distinct Aussie accent.

I’m a long-time fan of Howell’s fiction. Her earlier novels, Notes From the Teenage Underground (2006) and Everything Beautiful (2008) are pithy, punchy reads and Howell has a particular talent for snappy dialogue and rebel protagonists with spiky shells and soft centres. However, it’s in Girl Defective that she really hits her stride. The plot is rich with detail, yet tightly controlled and her characters spark with colour and originality: tough talking, hippie bombshell Nancy; hyper-focused Gully who can’t read faces and hides his own mug beneath a pig snout mask he never takes off; shy guy, Luke, who’s crossed state lines seeking answers about his dead sister; and Skylark—confused and overwhelmed by the adult world, at times snarky and sullen, at others mature, but always defiantly herself.

But perhaps the real star of this book is St. Kilda, Melbourne’s salty dog suburb steeped in history:

Once upon a time in old St. Kilda, Victorian ladies would promenade and no one made disparaging remarks about their arses from the open window of an unregistered Ford Falcon. Then came wars and sailors and tramlines and the riffraff bleeding in: working class, immigrants, refugees. Then it was all punks and junkies and prostitutes, and then Money moved in. These days the red light still glowed but only faintly. I could live without the tourists, but there were things I loved—like the palm trees and poppy-seed kugelhoph; like the monster goldfish at the botanical gardens and the sad song of the marina boats. The wind played their masts like a bow on strings, and the sound was eerie and lovely and more lonesome than anything I could imagine.

Where else could boy sleuths, vinyl tragics, dead girls and rock stars gather to party? Howell captures St. Kilda with all it’s grit and glitter: cramped art deco apartments furnished with hard rubbish finds, skimpily-clad girls on street corners waiting to turn a trick, sweaty tourists scavenging through the Sunday market stalls, records wailing from open windows in the summer heat, the gaudy lights of Luna Park, trams dinging down Acland Street, salt and sand stuck in the cracks, wearing down the edges. Girl Defective made me heartsick for my old matchbox apartment in nearby Elwood, for Pure Pop Records, Acland Street cake crawls, picnics in the park and Sunday sessions by the sea, and I suspect even the uninitiated will find themselves enchanted by St. Kilda’s faded glamour and the whiff of danger hanging heavy on the air.

When it comes to shady dealings, Howell doesn’t hold back. True to its setting, Girl Defective is peopled with lost souls and carries a seedy undercurrent of drinking, drugs, sex and violence. In keeping with the coming-of-age form, Girl Defective is ultimately a tale of lessons learned, but in a time when, let’s be frank, a lot of YA feels somewhat sanitised and cautious, this is a story with moxie. Dear writers and publishers: more like this please.

Girl Defective is a smart, sassy story of unlikely friendships, love, loss, finding your groove and having the courage to march to your own beat.

A huge thank you to Simmone Howell for sending me a copy of Girl Defective in exchange for an honest review. 

Girl Defective

Girl Defective is available through Amazon (Kindle), Book Depository and Kobo.

If you enjoyed Girl Defective, these titles might also tickle your fancy:

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Risk  by Fleur Ferris, available:

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The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockheart, available:

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