Book Review: Kat Jumps the Shark by Melinda Houston

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Oh, with a title like that, Melinda Houston was just begging for poor book reviews to come rolling in!

For anyone who doesn’t know it (although surely everyone does by now), the Fonz jumped a shark while water-skiing in a latter season of Happy Days and it is considered to be the point at which pretty much everyone realised the show had its best times long behind it.

This book suffers from a pretty common problem – it’s a novel about the television industry written by someone who has worked in the television industry. Just like those novels written by actresses about an actress trying to make it in Hollywood. There’s a common saying to “write what you know” but often these types of books become inside jokes – only the people on the inside get it. And I suspect that’s the case here. Certainly the quote on the front cover from Kat Stewart, the well-known Australian actress, seems to suggest this. She calls it, “An irresistible cocktail of intrigue, egos and insider information.” Take out the word “irresistible” and I might agree.

So for a very small demographic, this might be the most wonderful book they’ve ever read. For the rest of us, that’s just not the case.

Kat is a location scout for a reality television show. It starts out as a social experiment, dropping a bunch of middle-class Australians into the centre of Melbourne and filming them as they attempt to live as homeless people – I think it’s called poverty porn. It somehow morphs into Survivor: CBD with a famous ex-footballer brought in to host and a tribal council set up around a couple of old sofas and a fire drum in the middle for warmth while the contestants huddle under pieces of cardboard.

As the disasters unfold around her, from a first day suicide interrupting filming to laundry settings that aren’t green enough (then are too green), from relationship break-ups to arrogant bosses, from nepotistic staff appointments to contestants pushed so far they resort to crime, Kat’s life spirals out of control. The problem is that the story itself jumps the shark almost straight away. I’m not sure when the best times of this book were but they don’t appear in the book itself.

All the characters are described by their resemblance to real-life actors and television personalities, although not super famous ones, mostly people who are from Melbourne as the author herself is, meaning that even though I read this book only two years after its release, it already felt dated, cemented to a very particular moment and location in time. The characters are then judged worthy or unworthy based on the television shows they like. Miles, Kat’s boyfriend, only rates ABC dramas. Big thumbs down apparently. Wilson, a potential love interest, is a fan of Deadwood. Big tick in Kat’s eyes.

Kat spends an inordinately long amount of time driving around in her car, which isn’t all that interesting (anyone who has ever spent time driving in Melbourne will know it’s a “tear-your-hair-out” sort of activity just being in traffic – why we’d want to read about it is beyond me). And there’s an entire chapter towards the end of the book that she spends contemplating her own suicide, even though she’s reasonably self-absorbed enough for the reader to know she’d never go through with, especially given it’s not that kind of book. I’d call it chick lit if I didn’t think that was doing a disservice to chick lit.

I’ve listened to Melinda Houston on the radio plenty of times talking about television and the industry. That familiarity is really the only reason I picked up the book and bought it. But she’s a better TV critic than she is novelist. At least at this stage of her career.

And according to the inner front page info, the book was written with the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Federal Government’s arts funding and advisory body. Wouldn’t it have been great if this funding had gone to a great book written by an unknown rather than a less than good book written by someone who already had a public profile?

My advice: make the effort to search out the unknown and read that book instead.

2 stars

*First published on Goodreads 10 July 2016

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