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Tobsha Learner 

Tobsha Learner

S EX AND SASSINESS SELL. And it doesn't hurt if the product has artfully saucy packaging, the marketing is sophisticated, the timing astute, and the producer is a photogenic thirtysomething with a good line in acerbic asides. All of which helped rocket Tobsha Learner's Quiver on to bestseller lists in  late '96. Erotica with capital E explicitness, this debut collection of  short stories - episodic fantasies with a sardonic edge, empowered  female protagonists and purplish prose - found a market already  receptively titillated by Linda Jaivin's raunchy Eat Me and Peta Spear's  Sex Crimes.

The question is, does Learner have more than one arrow in her literary quiver? Or has she - like other shock-gloss debutantes of recent times - shot her only bolt? The British-born, 16-year Australian-resident and now US-based author has just released her first novel, Madonna Mars (Viking, rrp $19.95). It's billed as an erotic thriller (an adroit cross-genre appeal) and unlike Quiver, which was "hobby" writing that found an accidental niche as modern "pillow book", this is a serious entry in the literary lists. Albeit with a satiric edge. (Homage quotes from Lewis Carroll, Stephen Hawking and Friedrich Nietzsche set the scene revealingly.)

Sarah Kavish is a sexually literate, alluringly attractive, anarchically-minded, LA-based Nasa scientist with training in nuclear physics. A key player in a project to transform the face of Mars, she has inherited the best genes of her aristocratic Indian physicist father and wild-child Irish seer mother. Add in unscrupulous corporate henchmen, urgent environmentalism (Gaia with attitude), cyclic coincidence, Hollywood hunks and goons, Nasa nefariousness. Plus FBI-diocy, and a gift for psychic linking that can only be activated by orgasm. (Potential prophets sign up here.) Oh, and murder most frequent.

Now 38, the Adelaide Writers Week-bound Learner has been a multimedia butterfly. Trained as a sculptor at the Victorian College of the Arts, she moved into performance art, the fringe theatre and then mainstream playwriting, where sexuality and emotional/idealistic confrontation featured strongly in her plays (Glass Mermaid, Wolf, SNAG). Then came literature, scriptwriting in LA, a gig as a columnist for The Australian Magazine ...

Her novel reflects this eclecticism. She is sharp-eyed, literate, socially aware, brave, sardonic and unabashed. Nevertheless, Madonna Mars is definitely a first novel. It's breathlessly overburdened with issues, ideals and pointmaking. It's probably been reworked one too many times, without eliminating the odd disconcerting naivity. Occasionally the writing clunks with jarring clumsiness, the plot creaks with colour-by-numbers rigidity, and the explicit sex scenes annoy more than arouse. In a peculiar way, they distract from what is a classily racy thriller, verging on Kama Sutra-primed, politically correct set pieces. Yet, for all that, there's a lot to like - it may not have Nietzschean significance (thank god) and the L-plates may be showing, but it also rumbles along pleasingly: the humour is knowing, the observations acute, the ideas involving. On the page-turning test, it rates well. Which ultimately is what counts most.

This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1998

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