Claiming Noah: debut psychological suspense by Amanda Ortlepp

Catriona and James are desperate for children, so embark on an IVF program. Four embryos are created, and by the third treatment Catriona is pregnant. They decide to adopt out the fourth embryo anonymously. (from publisher’s blurb)

Claiming Noah by Amanda OrtleppI must admit, when a copy of Amanda Ortlepp’s debut novel, Claiming Noah, arrived in the post, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. My reluctance wasn’t due to the subject matter. I devoured both of Dawn Barker’s books, Fractured and Let Her Go, which deal with similar difficult subjects, including post-natal psychosis and issues relating to a child’s true (or legal) parentage. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to traverse similar territory in another novel.

Nevertheless, amid all the excitement of releasing my own debut novel this week,* I persisted, and I’m happy to report Claiming Noah is worth the read.

In Claiming Noah, Ortlepp creates a very Solomon-esque story in a contemporary setting, and teases it out to a tense and satisfying conclusion. Her point-of-view characters are Catriona, the donor mum, and Diana, who adopts Catriona’s embryo; both are sympathetic characters who go through a very rough time and deserve better. They have problems with husbands, newborns and adjusting to dramatic changes in their life circumstances; both suffer tragedy and deception which cause them heartache and take them to the brink.

At times when reading I found myself pulled out of the story thinking, She wouldn’t do that. Why doesn’t she…? But it’s a credit to Ortlepp that she is able to bring her characters to life so well that I began think I knew them!

Claiming Noah is billed as a thriller, but I think it’s more mainstream than that: I wouldn’t put the “thrills” at much more than you’d find in suspense (which is fine by me). There’s nothing externally life-threatening in this story; the life challenges, when they come, stem from the characters’ inner worlds, and the impact of external events on their psychological and mental health, which is only ever really severely tested for Catriona.

I read the novel over a few days and it kept me engaged – rather than “hooked” – for that time. (Considering I also had a lot going on with my own release, that’s no mean feat.) The moral dilemmas the novel presents are interesting, even if the references to the Catholic church’s influence seem a little dated. The ethical issues the story raises deserve to be explored. And what better way to explore them than in entertaining fiction?

Fans of Dawn Barker’s work won’t be disappointed.

~

Author: Amanda Ortlepp
Title: Claiming Noah
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: March 2015
ISBN: 9781925030600

A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

This review forms part of my contribution to both the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge 2015.

 

* You can read about my debut romance, Snowy River Man, and enter a giveaway to win an ebook copy here.

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

imageOn the back cover of my copy of Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home is a quote from Stephen King: “Picoult writes with unassuming brilliance.” High praise from a master storyteller. Judging from the two books of hers I’ve read so far, I’d have to agree.

Both The Tenth Circle and Sing You Home deal with domestic dramas and ethical issues. Both are lucidly written, with flashes of fine figurative language. Both use interesting structural scaffolding to support the story.

Whereas in The Tenth Circle, Picoult counterpoints the narrative with a graphic novel version of Dante’s Inferno, in Sing You Home she uses music. Each section of the novel is a musical “track” relating to alternating characters’ points of view: Max, a recovering alcoholic who compares himself unfavourably to his rich, born-again Christian brother; Zoe, a music therapist, and Max’s wife of nine years, with whom he has struggled unsuccessfully to have a baby; and Vanessa, a school counsellor and acquaintance of Zoe, who invites Zoe to her school to work with a suicidal teenager.

Part way through Sing You Home, the “music track” motif fades and segues into a courtroom drama. Zoe and Max battle it out over who has the right to a number of frozen embryos leftover from IVF treatment. Before the issue is resolved, Picoult touches on the question of the separation of the Church and State, and Christian dogma regarding homosexuality. In a tight, intelligent plot, Picoult conveys sympathy for – and insight into – characters of diverse opinion, behaviour and belief. There are twists and turns, and the climax is emotionally wrenching. It’s a very good read.

PS: Picoult’s publishers do her no favours with the girly cover. It barely relates to the story and screams “women’s fiction” or “book for women”. The issues the novel deals with deserve a wider audience.

~

Author: Jodi Picoult
Title: Sing You Home
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: 2011

Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell

imageIt’s probably not fair to an author to start a book in the week leading up to Christmas, especially when you’re in the middle of moving house. That may explain why Lisa Jewell’s novel, Before I Met You, took me a few days to get into. Once I had a stretch of a few good reading hours, however, I became absorbed.

Before I Met You begins with the story of Betty who, as a child, goes with her mother and step-father to the Channel Island of Guernsey to live with her ageing step-grandmother, Arlette. Arlette lives as a near recluse, occupying a suite of rooms in a crumbling old house perched on a cliff facing the sea. Although she appears to dislike almost everyone, she takes a shine to Betty. She introduces her step-granddaughter to “glamour” and fashion, even though, by all accounts, she has never left Guernsey.

Reaching adulthood in the 1990s, Betty has grown fond of Arlette, even though the old woman is increasingly frail and suffers from dementia. After taking it upon herself to stay on the island to look after Arlette until her death, Betty is rewarded with a small legacy and a mystery: she must look for a girl by the name of “Miss Clara Pickle”, to whom Arlette has left part of her fortune. If Clara cannot be found within a year, the inheritance will be Betty’s. Her last known address is in London’s infamous red light district, Soho.

Eager for adventure and wanting to solve the mystery of the bequest, Betty travels to London and settles in Soho, using almost all of her legacy to rent a tiny studio. Before she can look into the mystery, she must first find a job, and this proves difficult. Eventually, she progresses from flipping burgers at Wendy’s to being the nanny for an estranged celebrity couple. In her spare time, she befriends a DJ who helps her follow clues Arlette has left as to Clara Pickle’s identity. Along the way, Betty discovers that her grandmother, far from being a recluse – albeit with a taste for finery and red satin shoes – once led a totally different life, one of excitement, fashion and glamour.

Running parallel to Betty’s story is the story of Arlette’s youth which is dramatised in interleaving flashbacks. Having come of age in the years following World War One, Arlette, a great beauty, travels from Guernsey to London to live with the family of an old friend of her mother. There, at the beginning of the jazz age of the 1920s, she meets Gideon Worsley, a Bohemian artist from a well-to-do family who insists on painting her portrait. Gideon introduces her to one of the great jazz musicians of the age, a black clarinet player from the Caribbean, whose stage name is “Sandy Beach”. Alongside Gideon and “Sandy”, Arlette – a shop girl, by day – frequents the fashionable night clubs of the era, mingling with the famous people who make up the fashionable pre-Bloomsbury set.

As the novel progresses, the two narrative threads converge and the mystery surrounding Arlette’s will is explained. In a dual climax, Betty and Arlette, their lives separated by a gap of seventy-five years, individually face difficult choices which will set the course for their futures.

Before I met You gives us a glimpse of post-World War One London when women were experiencing new freedoms, both in terms of economic opportunity and of social mobility; it also conveys the constraints facing women of that time. The lasting impression of the story for me, however, is one of sadness, with the realisation of how quickly and easily the lives of one generation may be forgotten by subsequent generations. It makes me wish my father’s mother, a contemporary of Arlette, had recorded her life story. It would fill in so many gaps.

~

Author: Lisa Jewell
Title: Before I Met You
Publisher: Century, Random House Group
Date: 2012

I borrowed a copy from the library.

 

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

golden boys hartnettThere are some books I know, if I don’t attempt to review them straightaway, I won’t end up reviewing them at all. It’s because the impact is so powerful, the language so beautiful, I grow afraid I won’t do them justice. Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett is one of those books.

I picked up this novel not knowing what audience it was written for – the only other book by Hartnett I’ve read is a children’s picture book. But this novel is no more suitable for children than Lord of the Flies. (Though I did read that when I was twelve.)

Golden Boys isn’t nearly as graphic and violent as Lord of the Flies, but its themes – including family violence, grooming, loneliness, isolation and dislocation – are pretty adult. So is the language. It’s rich, poetic, dense. And the pace is slow. Nothing much happens – and yet, everything happens; everything that is painfully ordinary, quotidian, that conveys the angsts and traumas of growing up and learning where one fits in the world.

The protagonists of Golden Boys are a group of kids in a working-class Australian suburb in the not-so-distant past. It is a time before the internet and Facebook, when children were allowed to roam the streets unsupervised, the era of the author’s own childhood, perhaps. It is also an era, seemingly, pre-multiculturalism and pre-contraception. Several of the children, Declan, Freya and Syd, belong to one household, a working class home with a drunken father, a harried mother, and too many younger siblings. Hartnett is precise in her description of the chaos that is the Kileys’ family life, with “the mess which finds its way through the house like the ratty hem of a juvenile junkyard”. When working-class Syd Kiley meets the neighbourhood newcomer and private-school educated Bastian Jensen, Hartnett deftly conveys their differences:

Syd and Bastian look at each other, and it’s like a Jack Russell being introduced to a budgerigar: in theory they could be friends, but in practice sooner or later there will be bright feathers on the floor.

But the conflict between the two families, the Kileys and the Jensens, isn’t due to class. The Jensens have moved into the neighbourhood to escape something, as Bastian’s older brother Colt becomes dimly aware. That “something”, barely acknowledged but frightening, provides one of the core tensions of the novel, and has to do with Colt’s father, Rex, a dentist. Rex has filled their new home with toys, bikes, skateboards, racing tracks; and their backyard will soon have a pool that all the neighbourhood children are invited to use. As Colt reflects:

His father spends money not merely on making his sons envied but in making them – and the world seems to tip the floor – enticing. His father buys bait.

It is how Colt responds to this growing awareness that leads to the climax and denouement on the novel. The ending is dramatic, though not externally earth-shattering, and conveys a sense of truth about the complexity of family loyalties and the burden of carried shame.

I was wondering, as I read the novel, whether it might be useful for HSC English teachers teaching the new “discovery” module. It deals with the theme of discovery in a number of ways: a new neighbourhood, how different classes live, as well as the discovery of growing up and taking responsibility. It’s also packed with language forms and features which students could explore. I read an ebook copy and kept interrupting my reading to highlight Hartnett’s skillful use of rhetorical devices, similes and metaphors. (A whole post could be devoted to such an analysis.)

Apart from its promise as an educational text, it is a worthwhile and moving book to read.

This is my first review for both the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge.

~

Author: Sonya Hartnett
Title: Golden Boys
Publisher: Penguin
Date: August 2014
ISBN: 9781926428611

Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley.

The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult

imageI don’t know how I’ve missed reading a book by Jodi Picoult till now. She has been on my radar ever since I read her comments some years ago about the US literary establishment’s treatment of popular fiction written by women. Yet it took one of the members of my Facebook book group to highly recommend her latest novel, Leaving Time, for me to track down her books on the library shelves. The Tenth Circle, published in 2006, was the one I came home with.

Reading The Tenth Circle gave me the same pleasure that I used to derive from the best of Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Immediately, I felt myself to be in the hands of a gifted storyteller who combines readability, powerful emotion and a fascination with the nature of evil.

The Tenth Circle is all about evil – or, to put it differently, it dramatises the clash between an individual’s wants and needs and those of others; and the limits to which ordinary people might go to save face, to hide from the truth, or to protect themselves or those they love. It uses the trope of a comic book artist who brings to life in a graphic novel a modern-day version of Dante’s trip to the nine circles of hell. Aspects of the artist’s life are reflected in each of the circles. These include what happens to his fourteen-year-old daughter after she tries to get back together with her ex-boyfriend at a friend’s party; the artist’s rocky relationship with his unhappy English-professor wife (who teaches Dante); and the secrets of his troubled childhood growing up as the only white boy in a Yup’ik village in Alaska.

The setting shifts from small-town Maine where everyone knows everyone else’s business, to an even smaller town in Alaska, a desolate but beautiful place which promises escape, tragedy or redemption. The Tenth Circle is a murder mystery, a coming-of-age story and a domestic drama. It’s also about metamorphosis, it brings myth to life and questions what it is that makes us human.

The story is gripping, the characters believable and sympathetic. Picoult’s prose is lucid and sometimes displays flashes of poetry than had me wishing I were reading an ebook so I could highlight lines for future reference. It’s the very best kind of popular fiction.

No wonder her books are New York Times best sellers.

The Winter House by Judith Lennox

imageI’m continuing my binge of books by authors recommended by members of my Facebook group for fans of Nicci French. The group’s readers are an eclectic lot – the recommended authors don’t all write psychological suspense.

This week’s new (for me) author is Judith Lennox whose historical fiction saga, The Winter House, was published in 1996. I haven’t read a historical saga for years. I don’t know why. I used to love them.

The story opens with three friends, Robin, Helen and Maia, who, at the end of the First World War and on the verge of adulthood, vow to celebrate the great milestones of their lives: their first jobs, travelling abroad, losing their virginity. Robin is a pacifist from a progressive family whose two brothers fought in the war, one never returning, the other coming home with shell shock. Helen is the only child and dutiful daughter of the widowed local rector, a man who believes himself a cut above the rural labourers and artisans who inhabit the run-down cottages of their marsh-surrounded village. Maia is the beauty of the trio, a girl brought up to expect the finer things in life only to be abandoned by her profligate father in the worst possible way.

Each girl has a dream. Robin dreams of escaping the academic fate her father has planned for her and moving to London to become involved in activist politics, to do something that makes a difference in the world. Helen dreams of having a home and family. Maia wants the security of wealth that she knew as a child, and is prepared to do what it takes to get it.

As the girls become women and pursue their dreams, each has to make choices and compromises, face hardships which test their endurance – and their friendship. The adolescent vow of celebrating milestones isn’t forgotten, but it becomes representative of the naivety – if not always innocence – of their youthful hopes, as well as the differences in their personalities, upbringing and values.

The story covers the period of the aftermath of the First World War, through the twenties and into the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War, and ends with Europe on the brink of another war. These great events aren’t just a backdrop to the story; they play a significant part in Robin’s and Maia’s lives, while Helen’s eventual questioning of her faith is indicative of a broader wave of secularism that reflects the changing values of this time.

The Winter House is an interesting and engrossing story, easy to read and, in parts, moving. It makes me wonder why I don’t read more historical sagas.

~

Author: Judith Lennox
Title: The Winter House
Publisher: Severn House
Date: 1996
576 pages

I borrowed a copy from the library

The Watcher by Charlotte Link

imageSince I finished my latest novel and sent it in to the publisher, I’ve been on a thriller-suspense reading binge. Most of the authors have been recommended to me by my “fans of Nicci French” Facebook group, but I can’t always find their novels at the library, so I’ve taken a few chances, too. Some have paid off; others, not.

A book cover that shows a solitary figure walking through a wintry forest has some appeal when you’re sweltering through the hot, humid days of early summer in Sydney. So does “16 million books sold”. Charlotte Link’s The Watcher must have something going for it, right?

Maybe it’s the translation from the German; maybe it’s the time-lag between when it was written and when it became available in English; maybe it’s the fact that a German writer has chosen an English setting for her story; whatever it is, Link’s book struck me as a little old-fashioned. And it never really grabbed me. There are dead women. There are women in danger. There are strangely fixated men and men with shady pasts. There are issues: domestic violence, marital discord, loneliness, isolation, paedophilia. The novel examines the question of envy in a way that I should have found more interesting.

Maybe I’ve just been spoilt by having read a few really engaging and structurally more challenging books lately.

The Watcher is absorbing enough for me to have read over a couple of days, but I have a sense it won’t stay in my imagination for long.

~

Author: Charlotte Link
Title: The Watcher
Publisher: Orion/Hachette
Date: 2013

I borrowed a copy from the library.

Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah

Some secrets are so dark you keep them even from yourself.

imageOn the surface, Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah is a book I should have loved right from the start. I’ll admit, though, it took me a while to get into. First I had to orient myself to the different first-person narratives, and the time shifts in point of view. The change of fonts should have given me a clue that I was dealing with more than one person, but initially I couldn’t “hear” the difference in voice. Looking back, it should have been obvious.

In retrospect, too, I can admire the structure that had me wondering, right from the start, what “mystery” I was being presented with. This isn’t your usual crime/detective story; nor is it straight psychological suspense/thriller. Rather, it blends the two genres while interrogating the nature of memory, what constitutes subjectivity and mental illness, as well as the intricacies of troubled human relationships and what keeps us from being entirely honest with ourselves and others.

The main character is Amber Hewerdine, a woman whose best friend was killed in an arson attack and who became the guardian of the friend’s two young daughters. She goes to see a hypnotist to help overcome her insomnia, a visit which leads her to become embroiled in a police investigation of another, unrelated woman. This forms the “murder mystery” aspect of the story.

The best thing about Amber is she’s cranky and her sleeplessness enables the reader to forgive her for it. She doesn’t suffer fools, behaves badly and speaks her mind; her one redeeming quality is her fierce love of her friend’s daughters. There’s an energy about this character that I found endearing and strangely liberating; it made me think of Sue Austin’s argument in her book, Women’s Aggressive Fantasies: A Post-Jungian Exploration of Self-Hatred, Love and Agency, that a woman’s acknowledgement of her aggressive thoughts can be healing (and a disavowal of them can be psychologically harmful).

Kind of Cruel is a clever novel, conceptually, structurally and plot-wise. There’s also something psychologically and emotionally satisfying about it, even though the story it generates is bleak. I’m grateful to members of my Facebook group for psychological suspense fans for recommending it to me.

~

Author: Sophie Hanna
Title: Kind of Cruel
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Date: 2012

I borrowed a copy from the library.

A Thousand Lies by Laura Wilson

The judge said (I will never forget this), ‘In many ways your life has been a form of punishment.’ Sometimes I wonder what he would have said if I had told the truth.

imageSo Sheila Shand, a woman convicted of the manslaughter of her father, wrote in her journal in 1988, hinting at one of the many lies which Laura Wilson’s crime novel, A Thousand Lies, goes on to uncover and explain.

Sheila’s journals, and the sections from her point of view, are an important element of the novel, but the main story centres around her great-niece, Amy Vaughan. Amy is a journalist whose estranged mother has just died and left her another journal, one belonging to Sheila’s sister Mo, revealing a branch of the family she’d not known existed.

Throughout the novel, Amy struggles to deal with the complicated grief of losing a mother who blamed her for her father’s desertion, a ne’er-do-well father who returns in time to take advantage of her meagre inheritance and possibly endanger her life, and a neighbour who has the potential to become a future lover. At the same time she becomes increasingly caught up in the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of her great-aunt Mo, and the trauma that has kept Sheila and her ailing mother Iris silent for many years.

A Thousand Lies was first published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the inaugural Duncan Lawrie Dagger award. I discovered the author, Laura Wilson, via a Twitter suggestion after I’d followed Julia Crouch whose book Tarnished I reviewed last week.

I can’t say I was as riveted by A Thousand Lies as I was by Tarnished, but I am fascinated with its subject matter – domestic violence and its long-term psychological effects on women, particularly the ‘learned helplessness’ that keeps women trapped in a vicious cycle. Wilson deals with the subject with sympathy, subtlety and insight, and the plot intrigues the reader enough to keep the pages turning.

One shortcoming, for me, was to do with the novel’s structure: the most dramatic events occurred in the distant past, which the journal device and flashbacks bring to life. The effect of this ‘once-remove’ is an emotional distancing. For many crime readers, this distancing might be a good thing, as the events described are horrific. Readers of psychological suspense, however, might find the storyline lacks a desired sense of immediacy and engagement.

As events of the past begin to bleed into the present, however, the novel heads for a thrilling climax. A Thousand Lies is the first I’ve read by this novelist, but it won’t be the last. It is an engaging read.

~

Author: Laura Wilson
Title: A Thousand Lies
Publisher: Orion
Date: 2006

I borrowed a copy from the library.

Tarnished by Julia Crouch: Worth losing sleep for

Sometimes the past should be left well alone…

imageJulia Crouch’s novel Tarnished starts off like a murder mystery. There’s a body; there’s an innocent bystander who gets swept up in a discovery which sends his life reeling out of control. Then it starts again, this time with the real story, the one of a child who grows up knowing, but not remembering, strange events that surround her eccentric, potentially sinister, family.

It’s no coincidence that the dedication of this novel is “To my family (no relation)”. This is an engrossing, sometimes blackly comic portrait of a group of related adults who are enmeshed by the past, by secrets and their own needs.

There’s the protagonist Peg who, despite having attained straight As at an exclusive girls’ high school is happy – or resigned – to shuffle books as a library assistant. There are gaps in Peg’s memory which her girlfriend Loz encourages her to fill. Memories about Doll, her grandmother, who raised her since the age of six when Peg’s mother died and her father mysteriously disappeared, and who now has become increasingly fragile with dementia. And Jean, Peg’s bedridden aunt whom Doll has cared for over many years, who is so huge she is now unable to get out of bed and hasn’t left home for a decade.

The novel starts off slowly and reels you in. It shows a dark side of a London underclass, seen through the eyes of a troubled young adult who has been educated beyond her class but who is incapacitated, almost crippled, by things she doesn’t understand. The setting, a tidal estuary on the river Thames is almost a character of the book, its tidal mud flats throwing up the stink and gruesome evidence of sins committed long ago – and hiding them again.

I stayed up reading this novel until 11.30 last night, woke again at 4.30am and just had to pick the book back up and finish it. It was worth losing sleep for.

~

Author: Julia Crouch
Title: Tarnished
Publisher: Headline
Date: 2013

I borrowed a copy from the library.

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