I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of stepping backwards, so to speak, and reviewing fiction that’s more than a year or two old. Typically, if a book is older than that it’s either been reviewed to death or it’s never found it’s audience.
When I was contacted by Aussie author Graeme Aitken about reviewing some of his work, he asked to send me a new short he’d written, Top Mark, that’s recently become available on Amazon. So I could get more familiar with his work, he also offered to send me one of his novels. I looked him up and I was intrigued by what reviews I could find of his work, so I agreed.
Graeme sent me his first novel, originally published in 1995 (and republished in 2005), 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous. The book was made into a movie that was released to DVD in 2007. I haven’t seen the movie. I’d be curious to see how true it is to the book. I’ll explain…
The book is set in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand in the early 1970s. The lead character is Billy or, as he prefers to be known, Judy, the 12 year old only son of a sheep farmer. He has a little sister “Babe” and a cousin and best friend “Lou” who is a tomboy through and through. Together the three of them wander through a year in Billy’s life as he learns about himself and tries to figure out who is his.
Billy is confused. He knows he’s a boy but he really wants to be Judy Robinson from the mid to late 1960s television show “Lost In Space” and he fantasizes about singer and early 1970s “Partridge Family” actor David Cassidy. Do those things date the book? Not really. Sure, a teenager reading this wouldn’t get some of the references but they aren’t the crux of the story.
The story is about growing up, coming of age and discovering your true identity. Oh this has humor – Billy determines things differently like, cottage cheese, which he’s never heard of, must cheese that’s made at home and he experiences a long interlude of trying to figure out what “acting the poof” means – but it’s also fraught with angst (weight and peer pressure) and peril. Bullies existed in the early 70s and so did homophobia. This is a realistic read that will have you alternately nodding and shaking your head.
It’s a book for any age, adult or teen. We’ll all identify with some part of it. I do have to say that I was uncomfortable reading about 12 year old boys having sex but, quite frankly, it’s not pornographic and it’s integral to Billy’s story. Maybe 12 year olds – especially New Zealand farm kids not exposed to a 1960s American hippie culture – weren’t that forward in 1970, but today they seem to be so the story has a lot of current relevance. Graeme must have had a lot of foresight as he was penning this in the early 90′s…
Now, let’s talk about Aitken’s short for just a minute. Top Mark is the story of two Marks, once a couple, now…well, not anymore. The short doesn’t end happily but the ride to get there is an interesting one. Like with the coming of age story above, there’s something here for everyone. This time it’s a story that anyone who’s ever been in a relationship gone bad can identify with. Cheating? Got that. Trying too hard? Got that. Meddling family? Got that. It’s all here. For a short, it’s got it all.