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Review: The Devil’s Mixtape by Mary Borsellino

Disclaimers front and foremost: the author of The Devil’s Mixtape is a friend of mine. I’m a huge fan of Mary Borsellino’s work, and of Mary herself. She has a habit of introducing me to new ways of looking at the world which are like a bucket of ice water to the face. Frequently unexpected, but ultimately refreshing and, by god, it makes you wake up and look at things. As I’m a fond of saying, just because I’m biased, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Mary wrote the five-book The Wolf House vampire series, which I love. It’s full of horror, cruelty, compassion, love, art and rock music. The Devil’s Mixtape is her newest book, and it has all the power, passion, razorblade insights and ice-water dousing of her vampire novel, condensed into a single volume. Mary Borsellino does not choose safe, easy subjects – or protagonists – but she grabs everything in two fists and propels you to places you never saw coming. The other writer who most recently made me feel like this was Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games trilogy

The Devil’s Mixtape has three interwoven stories, all about fierce women who do not even pretend to play nice. The very first chapter throws you right into the deep end with letters from a girl named Ella Vrenna. Ella once led a shooting spree at an American high school, and died at the end of it. She’s in Hell, writing letters to her little sister, now a grown woman and a rock star.

The second thread of stories follows Sally, a part aboriginal teenager, travelling across Australia with Amy, who isn’t really a girl. The third thread is told in excerpts from a book, in which rock journalist Charlotte interviews the band HUSH on the road. The members of the band are all linked, in some way, to the Ella, Sally and Amy.

Those are the bare bones of it, but the layers of storytelling and theme are so rich, deep and varied that I can’t begin to cover them all. But I’m going to give it a shot.

There’s a lot in here about identity. Ella is no longer her whole self but reduced to ‘ellavrenna’, her full name always spoken in a breath, made a monster by a monstrous act and losing the rest of who she was in the process. Even in the way she signs her letters, Ella is always confined, but always changing.

Identity features in lots of other ways too. The sainted Stacey, one of the school shooting victims, the other side of Ella’s coin, is also remembered more as an icon than as a person.

People you know by one name in one thread are actually going by different names in other parts of the story. Where some people are building an image or identity for themselves with careful iconography, others, like Cherry from HUSH, are using Twitter to break down the icon, communicate with the fans and become more real than the rock idol. Sometimes having more than one name is a way of showing that there is more than one truth about who you are. Even Charlotte turns out to have a secret identity.

The Devil’s Mixtape is full of families and siblings torn apart by sickness, violence and death; and full of people forging new families for themselves in the aftermath. The characters are frayed, sometimes broken. They are all terribly flawed and tragically human – even (or especially) the monsters.

God and the Devil are mentioned a lot in this book. Hell, too, since that is where Ella resides, along with a lot of other people who haven’t done things half so evil as she has. But I don’t see God here really as a religious God. This god seems a personification of a conformist society, intolerant of difference: if you’re queer and won’t pretend not to be; if you’re a girl and won’t be sweet and pliable; if you fail to conform (and if you’re angry that everyone wants you to) then this God will send you to hell.

A key element of this notion is the story of the wolf and the dog, told in the early parts of the book, ending with the moral “It is better to be hungry and tired and free than to be fat and sleek and at a master’s mercy’. God will put a collar on you, so perhaps it is better to be damned but free. But being damned is not the same as being without compassion or love. The book is full of people who choose damnation selflessly, protecting others.

The Devil’s Mixtape is about refusing to conform by hiding who you are; but also about trying to find a place to belong, where you can be accepted as your whole self. It’s passionate, defiant and fierce. It’s also full of stories, parables and fables about wolves and fierce women and love. It’s full of people who are strong and vocal. They’re not always nice, but they are always, like the wolf, free.

Themes aside, the writing itself is superb. It switches from voice to voice cleanly. Ella’s letters to Tash differ in tone and style from Sally’s present-tense narrative, which contrasts with Amy’s past-tense narration even though they share a timeline. Charlotte’s use of reporting alongside verbatim interviews with the band give another tone again. This technique keeps the large cast of characters airborne and distinct and provides texture and momentum.

Then there are the turns of phrase, the unexpected observations and the sudden insights that make Mary one of my favourite writers. On this second read-through (I read one of the later drafts a few months ago) I kept finding more interlinking themes, phrases and ideas that weave the three threads together. It’s an intricate, tightly woven story that is as rewarding in rereads as the first gripping time.

The Devil’s Mixtape is part horror story, part declaration of love for non-conformists, especially those who embrace being outside the norm. It’s passionate, smart, powerful and at times incredibly beautiful.

Get The Devil’s Mixtape e-book, published by Omnium Gatherum, from Amazon.com. It’s only $3.99 and it may be one of the most disturbing and compassionate books you read. It’s like a bucket of ice water to the face; and that’s not at all a bad thing.

NEW: Just released on Amazon! The Devil’s Mixtape paperback

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.

Review: A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs by Mark Butler

In September, I said that self-published books did not have to be bad books. With a good writer who pays attention to detail, there is no reason a self-published book can’t be excellent.

Mark Butler’s A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs is a great example of this. The author, Mark Butler, is better known (by me at any rate) as a stand up comedian. He has a cheeky, smart, quick wit. Several of his shows have been language-related. In his most recent show, he delighted word nerds and grammar nazis with Grammar Doesn’t Matter on a First Date.

A man who is passionate about grammar was always going to at least produce a correctly punctuated and grammatically lovely text. (Barring a few typos, which escape even the best editors and proofreraders, and even in professionally published books).

But is it a good story? Are all those excellent word skills wasted on a poorly plotted, cliched idea full of ill-conceived and badly executed characters?

Hell, no. Butler constructs stage shows with pace and rhythm, and he brings those skills to his book as well. He’s also a published travel writer, so he has form.

A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs sees Red Thomas, a drifter and rogue, a heavy drinker with a gambling habit, returning to England after a failed attempt to rip off a cruise ship casino. He cons his way into a job at a prestigious secondary boys’ school. There, he teaches smart alec kids about probability, chaos theory and the dangers of taking calculated risks. And dinosaurs. Perhaps he even means to take the job seriously as a chance to start over.

Red should not be as likeable as he is, with his vast set of vices and faults, but there’s a vulnerability behind the inappropriate behaviour—even when he becomes attracted to a final year student from the neighbouring girls’ school. His troubled background unfolds slowly and you realise that in his erratic and inappropriate way, sometimes he’s actually trying to make things all right for other people.

Still, he’s heading for trouble, between the maths club in which he’s teaching boys about probabilities through games of chance and his relationship with Lucy. Red, however, is not the only person heading for an uncertain future. There’s a former pupil, now Sports Master, trying to get back to rowing glory; his student Robert, Lucy’s boyfriend and son of a prominent politician; some old friends of Red’s; and of course Lucy herself.

The book isn’t just tracking the slow collapse of Red’s newly constructed world: the plot is interwoven with those mathematical concepts of probability, statistics and chaos theory. The beat of the proverbial butterfly wings carry on past the end of Red’s individual adventures to a few weeks after the end of the school year.

It’s an interesting ride that avoids stereotypes and cliche. The characters have complexity and depth, and are as contradictory as real people. Lucy is no Lolita; she’s neither a corrupted innocent nor a sassy teen seducer, but rather an intelligent, indpendent young woman. Red is a rogue, but his instincts seem basically kind and fair, and his relationship with Lucy is complicated. His relationship with the boys he teaches can also be more complex than you’d think. Red does a lot of things he shouldn’t, but avoids being a terrible person even while he’s doing them.

The writing style is vivid and flows well. There are a few passages which flash back to characters’ history mid-action which can be a little muddy, but the flow picks up again quickly. Something of old British public school stories of old loiter around the text, as they should, but the eccentricity of such stories is distrupted by Red. There are some particularly witty descriptions and wordplay. For instance, there’s the delightful line on Red’s first day of teaching at St Johns: “A new chapter of his life was about to unravel.”  This is before he’s even taken his first class. Every now and then a turn of phrase is perhaps a little too much, disturbing the rhythm for a phrase too good to miss, maybe, but generally I loved these creative word pictures.

On the whole, A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs is a well paced and entertaining story about maths, dinosaurs and the unimagined consequences of a person’s actions, even when they seem to be getting away with it.

A Playground for Disobedient Dinosaurs is available from Mark Butler’s website   or from Lulu.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.