Running Against the Tide by Amanda Ortlepp

Running Against Tide OrtleppI made a false start when I first picked up Amanda Ortlepp’s Running Against the Tide. I’m not sure of the mood I was in, but the idea of a woman running away with her two teenaged sons to a remote part of South Australia to escape an unhappy marriage didn’t instantly appeal to me. Maybe I’d been listening to too much news. When I recently got back to the book, I’m glad I returned to it. It’s worth the read.

Running Against the Tide introduces Erin Travers and her two sons, Mike and Ryan. Nineteen-year-old Mike is the sociable one, willing to yarn with the kindly-and-not-too-nosy neighbours, oyster-farmer Jono and his wife Helen. Ryan is the one you have to worry about: taciturn, possibly anti-social – or a typical fifteen-year-old grieving the absence of his gambler father? Erin herself is struggling to find her feet back in the remote town where she grew up, dating again, but attracted to men who may not have her best interests at heart; struggling to find peace and privacy in a place where everyone knows each other’s business.

Throw into this family mix bullying, intrigue, theft and arson and you have a good, suspenseful read.

For me, the real star of the book is the setting, South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, and the slow pace of life of Jono’s oyster farming.

Sully pulled the punt level with the line and Jono slipped over the side with a satisfied sigh. Mike dropped into the water behind him. The water was so warm today, they didn’t even need their waders. On days like this, waist deep in warm water with the sun on his back, there was nowhere Jono would rather be. Even in winter, when the cold penetrated his waders and rain felt like pinpricks on his face, he knew it was still better than working in a cubicle day after day, dealing with customers and demanding bosses. The lease was his office and unlike people, oysters were easy to deal with: quiet, compliant and predictable. (89-90)

Well, almost. Jono is soon to discover even oyster farming has its trial.

Ortlepp describes the remote coastal region of Mallee Bay with such precision and beauty I was sure the township must exist. I even looked for it on Google maps and congratulated myself when, after following the clue that it’s 500 kilometres from Adelaide, I worked out it must be based on the real-life town of Cowell. I needn’t have gone to the trouble: Ortlepp notes in the Acknowledgements that Cowell was the inspiration, a town where her grandparents lived in the latter part of their lives and which she visited as a child. Now I want to go there, too!

If you like a mix of psychological suspense and intrigue with your family drama, you’ll enjoy Running Against the Tide.

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Country SecretsPS My novel Snowy River Man is now available in print as part of the “3-in-1 Australian Bestsellers” anthology, Country Secrets, published by Harlequin Mira, alongside novels by Mandy Magro and Sarah Barrie. To celebrate, I’m giving away two copies of the anthology to Australian residents, or your choice of either Snowy River Man or By Her Side as ebooks, if you’re outside Australia. You can find details on how to enter on my Lizzy Chandler author blog here. Entries close 31 August.

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Author: Amanda Ortlepp
Title: Running Against the Tide
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2016
ISBN: 9781925030631

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

I borrowed a copy from the library.

The Vanishing Point: Val McDermid

imageThe Wire in the Blood series is one of my all-time favourite TV crime shows. I love forensic psychologist Tony Wood’s tetchy relationship with detective Carol Jordan. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of the books in the series, as well as other novels written by the well-known Scottish crime writer, Val McDermid, so I was expecting a similar thrilling read from her stand-alone novel, The Vanishing Point.

But… The Vanishing Point didn’t quite do it for me.

With the words “It’s every parents worst nightmare…” emblazoned on the cover, there is no surprise that this is an abduction story – though it has a characteristic McDermid twist. The opening is as thrilling as it is horrifying. A woman, Stephanie, used to be the ghost writer for Scarlett, a now-deceased reality TV celebrity, and godmother and newly-appointed guardian of Scarlett’s five-year-old son, Jimmy. Stephanie has just arrived in the US with Jimmy, about to start a vacation, when the boy is taken in broad daylight from the airport while Stephanie is being checked through security.

In her effort to run after Jimmy and his abductor, Stephanie attracts the attention of airport security, thus providing the reason for her to be kept in custody for hours telling her story to Vivian, a helpful FBI agent. Stephanie discloses how she came to be the child’s guardian, what happened to the boy’s celebrity parents, and details of her own terrifying experiences with an abusive and controlling ex-boyfriend. Throughout her tale, the reader is invited first to suspect one character and then another of abducting the boy. The ex-boyfriend, the resentful cousin – even possibly Scarlett’s agent – all fall under suspicion.

As a narrative device for telling the story, the FBI interview technique is okay, though it does stretch credulity and I guessed the “mystery” element pretty early on. Guessing a mystery for me is not uncommon, but normally, when that happens, there’s something else that keeps me drawn into the story, concern for the characters’ fate perhaps, or an interest in the world the characters inhabit. In the case of The Vanishing Point, neither of those things happened.

For me, the celebrity world of reality TV, even set against a backdrop of News of the World-type phone tappings and the UK music scene, just isn’t compelling. More importantly, I never quite believed in the friendship between Scarlett and Stephanie – a crucial element in the story – which I’m tempted to put down to a lack of depth in characterisation. I finished the book, could even admire elements of the ending, but didn’t have that “Aha!” satisfied feeling of a really good thriller.

It wasn’t a bad story; but nor was it one I’ll be racing off to recommend to my Facebook book group. For what it’s worth, I’d say time would be better spent downloading and watching the series Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire, which just finished playing on ABC TV. Now that was compelling and thrilling crime drama. I was sorry to see it end.

~

Author: Val McDermid
Title: The Vanishing Point
Publisher: Little Brown
Year: 2012

I borrowed a copy from the library.

The Lost Girls by Wendy James: ‘Suburban Noir’

Lost Girls Wendy JamesIt’s 1978. A fourteen-year-old girl goes missing from a suburb on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. A few days later, her body is found in bushland in Palm Beach. She’s been strangled with her own scarf and there’s evidence of sexual activity.

Under suspicion are those last to see her alive, including the girl’s cousin Matt and his mates. Suspicion lingers, despite the police being unable to bring a case – until a second girl is found dead at Kings Cross some time later, killed in a near-identical fashion. The murders are attributed to an unknown “serial killer”, dubbed the “Sydney Strangler”, even though no other murdered girls are found.

The two dead girls, local “chick” Angie and country runaway Kelly, aren’t the only “lost girls” in Wendy James’ latest novel, The Lost Girls. There’s Jane, Angie’s younger cousin, and Kelly’s younger sister Kath and her mother. There’s also Angie’s mum Carol and her aunt Barbara. Each is “lost” in some way, coping – or not coping – with the impact of those violent deaths.

The Lost Girls explores this impact thirty years later, when a mysterious journalist, Erin Fury, appears. Ostensibly she’s doing research for a radio program, aiming to explore the impact of such deaths on the families of murdered women. Her first interview is with cousin Jane, now middle-aged and married to childhood sweetheart Rob, with a teenaged daughter. Jane, reassessing what she has done with her life, is eager to revisit the time when her beloved cousin was killed. It’s as if she might answer some pressing personal questions by reviewing that time through adult eyes.

Jane isn’t the only one Erin targets. She also interviews Jane’s brother, one-time suspect Matt; Jane and Matt’s policeman father Doug, now a nursing home resident suffering from dementia; their mother, Barbara; and Jane’s husband, Rob. Each has a take on past events and, as Erin inveigles herself into their lives, long-held, sometimes painful, secrets are revealed.

One aspect of The Lost Girls I particularly admire is its evocation of place and time. I grew up on the Northern Beaches around this time, and many of the specific details James gives – from the local milk bar with its pin-ball machine, to the type of lollies the characters buy – bring back vivid memories. Another aspect is James’ ear for dialogue. So many of the characters sound like people I know or have known. I also admire her skill as a storyteller, her ability to create suspense and her seemingly effortless transitions of time, point of view and tense.

Chiefly I’m interested in the way James uses a sensationalistic premise, that of serial killing, in order to explore facets of human nature. Unlike many contemporary crime and thriller writers, she doesn’t offer violence as entertainment; nor does she place it somewhere “out there”, beyond the experience of the reader. Rather, she shows how individuals respond to such traumatic events, and the effects of the choices they make as a consequence. Along the way, she suggests how such choices shape us as human beings; how we come to terms with suffering, loss, mistakes and betrayal; how we love or try to love, despite disappointment; and the meanings we make of our own and others’ lives.

Crime author Angela Savage has remarked that the reader of James’ novels doesn’t have to suspend disbelief. In general, I’d agree. However, initially while reading The Lost Girls, I found the journalist Erin’s character unconvincing, particularly in terms of motivation. She seemed more of a device than a psychologically realised character. Then I began to see her as one of the “lost girls” of the title and she made more sense to me. And it’s for that reason that I’d disagree with the criticism both Savage and Michelle McLaren make of the Epilogue, that it’s somehow a mis-step or unnecessary. For me it resolves the central motif of the story.

With The Lost Girls, James consolidates her place alongside Honey Brown and newcomer Dawn Barker among Australia’s foremost proponents of an emerging genre of psychological suspense, which some have dubbed “suburban noir”. I’m eager to find other Australian authors who might fit into this category. Do you know of any?

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This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher via Netgalley. The Lost Girls has attracted a lot of attention from AWW reviewers including: Shellyrae at Book’d Out, Carol at Reading Writing and Riesling, Bree at All the Books I Can Read, Jess at The Never Ending Bookshelf, and Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime.

Title: The Lost Girls
Author: Wendy James
Published:
26/02/2014
ISBN-13: 9781921901058; ISBN-10: 1921901055
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Publisher: Penguin Australia.

 

 

Let Her Go by Dawn Barker – powerful contemporary drama

Dawn Barker Let Her GoTwo sisters – step sisters – one, Nadia, is happily married with three children; the other, Zoe, has suffered a debilitating illness and a number of miscarriages, and finds herself infertile. Both have reasons for wanting to have a baby: Zoe, to complete her long-held desire to be a mother; Nadia, ostensibly, to help her deserving sister. After years of counselling and legal advice, they enter into a surrogacy agreement. They are adults. They care for each other. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward seventeen years to a troubled teenager, Louise, who is getting busted for stealing drugs, self-harming, engaging in drunken sex and whose performance at school is deteriorating. She knows her – unnamed – parents are fighting, senses it has something to do with her, but has no idea of the trauma that followed her birth or the bitter custody dispute that tore her extended family apart.

In Let Her Go Dawn Barker – a psychiatrist by training – successfully juggles different points of view as well as jumps forward and backward in time. Throughout the novel, the reader has a sense that something really terrible could happen – or maybe has happened already – but the suspense isn’t gratuitous. It derives organically from the fraught emotional situations she forces her characters to confront. As I approached the novel’s climax, I was struck by the story’s similarity to the Judgement of Solomon, as if Barker had taken elements of this classic dilemma and brought it alive in a modern context. Both women have good claim to the child; how will the child’s best interest be served?

If Barker’s debut novel Fractured grabs the reader and forces her along a terrifying path, Let Her Go is more like a slow burn, but it’s no less powerful for that. For anyone who has yearned for a child and not been able to conceive or carry to term, the narrative is excruciatingly real at times, almost unbearable. Similarly, Barker captures the pressure on a marriage of women coping with hormones, fears and jealousies. Both Zoe and Nadia are portrayed at times in a poor (but very human) light. Zoe comes across occasionally as unreasonably demanding and judgemental towards her husband, a man with secrets who has never seemed as enthusiastic about the surrogacy and who fails to pull his weight. In portraying the deteriorating relationship, Barker uses irony to good effect: the reader is ahead of Zoe in sensing the effect of her behaviour on her husband, and waits in suspense for the explosion we fear will come. Nadia (understandably) seems at times to be selfishly blind to anyone’s needs but her own, and the reader is torn, sympathetic to her suffering, but alarmed at the lengths she is willing to go to get her way.

With both Let Her Go and Fractured, Barker joins a number of women writers in Australia who create compelling psychological suspense out of difficult moral and social issues, including Honey Brown, Wendy James and Caroline Overington. Each of these writers’ novels demonstrates that issues facing contemporary Australian women, in the hands of skilful storytellers, make for powerful drama. I can’t wait to read Barker’s next scenario.

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This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via Netgalley.

It has been reviewed for the AWW challenge by Emily Paul.

Publisher: Hachette Australia
ISBN: 9780733632228
Published: July 2014

Through the Cracks by Honey Brown – don’t read the back cover

If I’ve enjoyed an author’s previous books, through the cracks brownI never read the back covers of their latest. So I knew very little about Honey Brown’s psychological suspense novel, Through the Cracks, before I picked it up. Later, I read through some reviews posted for the Australian Women Writers challenge and saw that several reviewers were dismayed and annoyed that the book’s back cover “blurb” gave away a lot of the story’s suspense. So, fair warning: don’t read the back cover.*

Told from the point of view of Adam Vander, a boy who has been kept locked away from the world by an abusive and controlling father, Through the Cracks traverses difficult territory. Adam has been victimised for so long, he exhibits all the hallmarks of “learned helplessness”: he has become so conditioned to abuse that he appears almost incapable of acting to stop it. Only as he hits puberty, and his father succumbs to health problems, does his sense of agency begin to assert itself. But how can he save himself when he knows nothing about the world, and the few people he encounters, apart from his father, don’t recognise him as someone who desperately needs help?

Brown’s tale of Adam’s escape is both compelling and distressing. Slowly the events that led to his predicament are revealed, and the full horror of what he has endured unfolds. Along the way, Brown touches on issues of race, class, sexuality and, most importantly, identity. Who are you when everything that makes you human has been stripped away?

One of the many elements of this powerful and emotionally wrenching novel that impressed me was its style. The sentences are often short and descriptive; the point of view character indulges in very little introspection and makes few inferences of other characters’ thoughts and feelings. It is as if one of the after effects of abuse is an almost complete lack of interiority. For me, this created an unnerving sense of Adam’s dissociation, his feeling of being utterly separate from the world, both emotionally and psychologically, even as he slowly rejoins it, just as formerly he was isolated physically.

With Through the Cracks, Brown cements her place as one of the foremost writers of psychological suspense in Australia.

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This book was kindly supplied to me by the publishers through Netgalley. It forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. It has already attracted a lot of attention from AWW challenge reviewers, including:

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Title: Through the Cracks
Author: Honey Brown
Published:23/04/2014
ISBN-13:9781921901546; ISBN-10:1921901543
Imprint:Michael Joseph; Publisher:Penguin Australia.
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