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.

~

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.

~

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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Out of the Ice by Ann Turner

imageAnn Turner’s second novel, Out of the Ice, starts with penguins. Don’t be put off. This isn’t a nerdy book. It does have environmental themes and it is set in one of the most fantastic and little-known parts of the globe – Antarctica; but it’s also an exploration of the life of a twice-divorced late-thirties woman who’s happy to set her own agenda. “Fearless”, a friend describes her; “reckless”, I was saying at more than one point in the book – but I didn’t mind that one bit.

Laura Alvarado has a double doctorate, a passion for cetaceans (whales and dolphins, etc.), and a healthy thirst for alcohol and adventure. She is typical of the misfits and mavericks who are attracted to life in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Having spent a long, dark winter as a researcher, she’s a bit “toasty”: a term she and her colleagues use to describe a loosening of one’s grip on reality caused by the harsh conditions. Although teamwork is vital and the base’s activities are designed to stop people from isolating, there’s plenty of time and opportunity for introspection and reflection, and sometimes things aren’t what they seem – or are they?

Laura has had lots to reflect on: two failed marriages, the first under tragic circumstances; being frozen out of her career as an academic after she acted as a whistleblower over dubious research findings of her superiors; and a fractious relationship with her ethnically Spanish mother and absent, fellow-academic father. As spring approaches, she is recruited to go to an old whaling town, Fredelighavn, on South Safety Island. The town was decommissioned decades before and is now in an Exclusion Zone to protect its wildlife, including colonies of Adele penguins. Established by Norwegians, it was a local centre of the brutal whaling industry in the early part of the twentieth century, and still has many of the buildings and facilities from that time. Laura and her partner are supposed to survey the township and environs to see if it should become a museum for tourists but, at the last minute, the partner falls ill, and she must begin the task alone. Her base is to be an all-male British research facility located not far from the town, and her welcome there is little short of hostile. Are the British merely protective of their research, or is there something more at play?

Out of the Ice sweeps the reader into larger-than-life events that span three continents and sees Laura travelling from Antarctica, to Nantucket (where the founders of the Fredelighavn spent the Northern Summer), to Venice; in each location, Turner creates scenes in vivid and loving detail. I read the novel from start to finish in a day, but was intrigued enough by the initial setting to stop and look up South Safety Island on the internet, convinced I’d see photographs of the colourfully-painted houses standing out from the white ice, the hulking wrecks of whaling ships, the rusting fuel containers and “flencing” sheds – where the whale meat is stripped from the bone. (Yes, there is some jargon in the book, but it’s seamlessly explained.) I didn’t find it, and I assume the location is a product of the author’s imagination, but it feels like a real place to me now – that’s how well Turner’s prose brings it to life.

I do have a few quibbles with the story, mostly to do with some lack of plausibility: Laura’s boss, an ex-detective and current Station Leader, suddenly has time to go off investigating; an environmentalist concerned about global warming doesn’t have even a twinge of guilt over taking multiple flights across the globe at a moment’s notice; but, for the most part, the quibbles were very minor (any elaboration would necessitate spoilers). The narrative is so engrossing and the settings so fascinating that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

Out of the Ice is sure to please fans of Ann Turner’s first novel, The Lost Swimmer, and deserves to attract many more readers. It’s an excellent, well-written, fast-paced read.

~

Title: Out of the Ice
Author: Ann Turner
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Australia
Date: June 2016
ISBN: 9781925030891

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenges. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

The Ice Twins by S K Tremayne

The Ice TwinsReading The Ice Twins by S K Tremayne is like going on a carnival ride, a combination of roller coaster and ghost train. By the end of it, I was a wreck, spooked, intrigued, fascinated by its exploration of the depths of human psychology and emotions – with its depiction of shock, grief, betrayal, anger and denial.

Set on a remote island of Skye, the story involves a young couple, Sarah and Angus, and their seven-year-old daughter Kirstie, a surviving twin, her sister Lydia having died in a fall over a year earlier. They are all grieving in their own ways, but Kirstie especially. With survivor guilt and haunted by the horror of her sister’s accident, she begins to imagine her sister hasn’t really left her.

The island where this damaged family retreat to make their new home is Eilean Torran, Gaelic for “Thunder Island”, a place of cold and violent storms, especially in winter. It’s also a place which locals call “thin”, where the spirit world meets the human. Sarah and Angus dismiss such tales, but they can’t dismiss their daughter’s eerie behaviour, or her sudden claim that they have mourned the wrong twin.

I enjoyed The Ice Twins, even as I felt highly manipulated by the many twists and turns of its narrative. One of the highlights for me was Tremayne’s setting, how it is woven into the fabric of the characters’ lives. In Sarah’s point of view, we get glimpses of the place’s history, the unforgiving backdrop to her family’s tragedy:

A lonely snowflake hits my windscreen, and is exterminated by the wipers. I look at the low balding hills. Shaved by winds and deforestation, I think of the people wrenched from this landscape by poverty and the Highland Clearances. Skye used to be populated by twenty-five thousand people. A century later it is half that. I often consider the scenes of that emigration: the crying farmwives, the sheep-dogs quietly killed, the babies screaming as they quit their beautiful, hostile homeland, and sailed west. And now I think of my daughter. (141)

Another pleasure was the author’s gift for thumbnail sketches of minor characters; here a portrait of a child psychiatrist:

Malcolm Kellaway is easily middle-aged, yet wears jeans which make him seem unconvincing. He has annoyingly effete gestures, a silly roll-neck jumper, and rimless spectacles with two perfectly round lenses that say oo. (100)

I was also taken with the author’s deft use of similes, the chilling comparisons that give this story its gothic, suspenseful atmosphere.

The climax coincides with the storm the setting always anticipated and the denouement is eerily satisfying (to say more would necessitate spoilers).

It has taken me a while to pull this novel off my To Be Read shelf, but I’m glad I did.

~

Author: S K Tremayne
Title: The Ice Twins
Publisher & date: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN: 9780007459223

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

imageWhen a review copy of Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner landed in my post office box, I thought, “Great, some new Aussie crime fiction!” Publishers know that I’m dedicated to reviewing works by Australian women and it’s rare they send me anything else.

So when I discovered the book was set in the UK and the author is a former journalist of The Guardian, I was a little taken aback; but the publicist who sent the book had done her homework. Those of you who know I set up a “We Love Books by Nicci French” group on Facebook will know I’m a sucker for dark and moody books that centre around a flawed female protagonist. Missing, Presumed is one of these and it doesn’t disappoint.

The main point of view character in Missing, Presumed is DS Manon Bradshaw, a cop in her late thirties whose biological clock is making ticking noises, sometimes loud, sometimes buried beneath a mountain of work or drowned out by disastrous encounters while internet dating. She drinks too much, doesn’t take care of herself, is scared off by polite, kind, gentlemanly types. She has a good best friend, a seemingly ever-optimistic partner on the job, and a fraught history with her sister.

When she is called on to investigate the disappearance of a young Cambridge grad student, Edith Hind, the daughter of a GP and surgeon to the royal family, she senses the case will be big. For a small regional police force with a chequered history where it comes to missing persons cases, it’s a high risk, high opportunity endeavour: bungling it could mean career death; solving it could establish her career and guarantee promotion.

Manon proves herself up to the task, but only barely. Throughout an extended investigation that sometimes looks and feels like it’s going nowhere, she suffers the ups and downs of affairs of the heart, strained office politics and family estrangement, all the while growing fond of a neglected ten-year-old boy whose elder brother is killed in suspicious circumstances.

While Steiner’s characterisation of Manon is deft, Manon is only one of several point-of-view characters, all of whom are equally well rounded. There’s Miriam, the missing girl’s mother; and there’s Davy, the Detective Constable, who works with Manon. Each has a story to tell and a journey navigating through fraught human relations.

The novel is carefully crafted and beautifully written. I kept wanted to stop and savour some of Steiner’s images – not always what a reader wants from a crime novel; but even if, at times, the language drew attention to itself a little too much, I didn’t mind. As well as the finally honed language, there’s a sensibility in the book that attracts me. This is a book you read not just out of curiosity for “whodunnit?” of “what happens next?”. It’s also a book which portrays both the best and worst of what it means to be human.

When I finished it, I immediately looked up the local library catalogue to see whether it has Steiner’s first novel, Homecoming (it doesn’t). Given that I’ve dozens of books on my To Be Read pile, I’d say this means Steiner is an author to watch.

~

Author: Susie Steiner
Title: Missing, Presumed
Publisher and date: HarperCollins, February 2016
ISBN: 978-0-00-812328-4

 

That Devil’s Madness by Dominique Wilson – a timely read

Devil's Madness WilsonWow! What a timely read.

The structure of That Devil’s Madness by Dominique Wilson is almost a double helix, seeming parallel narratives of France and Algeria from the late 19th century onwards, and Australia and Algeria in the 1960s. It follows the fates of four generations of French-Algerian-Australian immigrants and Algerian Berbers, narratives which come together in a thriller-like denouement.

The main point of view character is a novice photo-journalist, Nicolette de Dercou, who as a child immigrated to Australia from Algeria with her mother and grandfather, and who returns there to re-connect with childhood friends and cover the news of the president’s imminent death. Nicolette gets caught up in turbulent events as Berbers fight for liberation from the oppression they have suffered since Algeria’s independence from France after World War Two, a historical struggle illuminated by the other narrative which follows Nicolette’s great-grandfather from France to Algeria and her grandfather from Algeria to Australia.

This story interests me on numerous levels. It illuminates the complexity of post-colonialism and Christian-Muslim relations in North Africa; it gives a historical context for present-day political unrest, dissatisfaction with injustice and the root causes of terrorism; and it acts as a reminder for Australian readers of the tentativeness of our claims to sovereignty over Indigenous lands, and the historical and cultural blindness that attends our attitudes to “boat people”.

The novel also highlights the technical difficulty of wielding two disparate narratives. The risk is that the reader might temporarily lose interest at the point of changeover – not for lack of engagement, but because of their investment with the narrative thread already underway. Wilson manages to hold the reader’s attention in both stories until they come together in a powerful ending: no mean feat!

~

This is my first review for the 2016 Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

Author: Dominique Wilson
Title: That Devil’s Madness
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Date: February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-921924-98-9

Angela Marson’s Silent Scream – book review

Angela Marson Silent ScreamThere were a few things I liked about Angela Marsons’ thriller, Silent Scream. One was its setting in the Black Country in the West Midlands in England. It’s not an area I’m familiar with, and the author’s use of dialect had me searching to hear examples of it on Youtube. (I found a video of an elderly couple talking and it was like listening to a foreign language.)

Another aspect I enjoyed was the narrator, D I Kim Stone. Stone has a complex history; she’s short on people skills; and she has an obsessive-compulsive streak that makes her a pain to work with, but gives her an advantage as a detective. She’s tenacious and, although she does her best to hide her emotions, she has a soft streak. I can see her making a good series character.

Set with the task of solving a number of murders, Stone does a pretty good job. So does the author in weaving a tale with multiple layers of childhood trauma, exploitation, self-delusion and greed. While the story kept me engaged, I found the writing in parts too reliant on dialogue; I would’ve liked to experience more of the physicality of the Black Country, through more visual descriptions and a greater appeal to the senses. The plot was reasonable, with a number of surprises, but too often the characters seemed to lack emotional depth. There was one action at the end, in particular, I found totally unlikely given the supposed nature of the character. (Risking a mild spoiler, I’ll just say it had to do with a medical device.)

Having said that, the author gives glimpses of more interesting writing:

One day the names of these three [murdered] girls would be plastered across a Wikipedia page. It would be a link from the main article depicting Black Country history. The triple murder would forever be a blemish on their heritage. Readers would skate past the article describing the achievements of the Netherton chain makers who had forged the anchors and chains for the Titanic and the twenty Shire horses that had pulled the one hundred tonne load through the town. The metalworking trade that dated back to the sixteenth century would be forgotten in the face of such a sensational headline.

Overall Silent Scream is competent, with flashes of something really interesting.

~

Author: Angela Marsons
Title: Silent Scream
Publisher: Bookouture
Date: 2015
Type: ebook
ISBN13: 9781909490918

I own a copy.

The Lost Swimmer by Ann Turner: a debut psychological thriller

imageAnn Turner’s debut novel, The Lost Swimmer, is prefaced with a quote from Heraclitus:

Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed. (Heraclitus c. 535-475 BC)

Both the theme of “time” and the image of water pervade the novel.

The first-person narrator, Rebecca Wilding, is a professor of archaeology at the generically-named Coastal University in regional Victoria. She is passionate about ancient artefacts, and the layers of time that make up history. When Rebecca was little, her father drowned at sea, and she has since been wary of water. Despite this, she and her husband Stephen, another academic, have chosen to live close to an ocean beach. Together they travel to Greece and, from there, to Italy, soaking up the past, travelling by boat and holidaying by the sea.

With a first-person narrative, if you’re a thriller reader, you’re primed to suspect an unreliable narrator. Turner does a good job of laying seeds of doubt as we follow Rebecca’s story as she faces more than one mystery that threatens her happiness. These include financial problems that beset her in her role as a less-than-conscientious Head of her department; as well her suspicions about her one-time friend, Priscilla, the attractive Dean, who may or may not be deliberately undermining Rebecca’s job – or, worse, be after her husband. Then there are a plethora of secondary characters whose allegiance to Rebecca may be self-serving, who help and/or hinder her as she attempts to save her family from calamity and discover the truth. And there’s Stephen, the seemingly ideal husband and loving father, who appears to be keeping secrets.

The Lost Swimmer is billed as a “stunning literary thriller” on the front of my review copy. It made me wonder what the publicists think constitutes “literary”. Certainly there are eloquent descriptions and the story is intelligent in its approach, but there is very little in the way of figurative language; the narrative is straightforward linear realism; and there doesn’t appear to me to be layers of ideological or philosophical complexity.

Maybe I’m missing something?

The Lost Swimmer offers a good, solid story and it’s a fine achievement for a debut author who is also, according to the information from the publisher, “an award-winning screenwriter and director”. I can see it as a film.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2015 Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied by the publisher.

The Lost Swimmer
Ann Turner
Simon & Schuster: Cammeray, NSW, 2015
ISBN:9781925030860

Watching You by Michael Robotham

robotham watching youBefore picking up a copy of Watching You with a stack of other books at the library before Christmas, the only story I’d read by Michael Robotham was Bombproof. I remember having enjoyed Bombproof as a fast-paced, witty thriller, and I have intended to read more of Robotham’s work ever since.

It’s a measure of Robotham’s skill as a storyteller that I didn’t immediately pick this story as part of a series. As it turns out it’s Book 7 in the Joe O’Loughlin series. Joe is a clinical psychologist who has a history and faces health challenges, but the story doesn’t really belong to him. It belongs to one of his patients, Marnie, a woman with a traumatic childhood and a missing husband.

Marnie’s husband Daniel wasn’t the best of husbands. An Aussie journalist living in London and a victim of newspaper downsizing, he took up gambling and disappeared leaving a trail of debts. Nevertheless, Marnie refuses to believe he abandoned her. With no joy from the police investigation and growing evidence Daniel was hiding something from her, now she is being hounded by his creditors. Unable to access his bank accounts or life insurance money, she is forced into desperate acts to pay his debts and keep from being evicted from their home. She is also desperate for help for their sick child, four-year-old Elijah.

Marnie’s behaviour doesn’t impress Zoe, her teenaged daughter from her first marriage. Troubled and resentful of her mum, Zoe misses her step-dad; she can’t understand why their TV has been hocked, and why her mother is suddenly dressing up at night and being met by a chauffeur who takes her out. Zoe seeks solace online and, unknown to her mother, sets up  a Facebook page dedicated to trying to find her missing father. That isn’t the only thing she hides from Marnie.

To the world, Marnie is the epitome of the battler struggling against immense odds. To cope, she seeks help from her clinical psychologist, Joe O’Loughlin, but she isn’t entirely truthful to Joe. She doesn’t tell him, for example, that she has had mental health problems before. Nor does she mention that people who cross her have a habit of ended up being harmed. She does hint, however, that she has a feeling she is being watched.

Watching You is an interesting page-turner from a series which features some apparently already well-loved characters. It also reads well as a stand-alone novel. There were times when I felt I was reading more to assess Robotham’s skill as a storyteller, rather than being engaged in the story, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I’m looking forward to reading Robotham’s latest novel, Life or Death, which I’ve heard great things about.

~

So that I don’t entirely lose my focus on supporting books by Australian women this year, I’d like, when I can, to recommend books by Australian women similar to the ones I’m reviewing. My pick of a match for Michael Robotham – based on a very small sample of his work – is Jaye Ford. Ford writes fast-paced action thrillers with a psychological edge. But maybe readers who are more familiar with his work will other ideas?

~

Author: Michael Robotham
Title: Watching You
Publisher: Sphere/Hachette
Year: 2013

I borrowed a copy from the library.

 

This review is the second book I’ll count towards the 2015 Aussie Author challenge.

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.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 Wrap Up: My year of narrow reading

awwbadge_2014They say the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write psychological suspense. While pursuing my goal, I’ve read lots of novels in the genre, with the hope of learning how to create the same magic. Whether it’s called psychological suspense, thriller, or “domestic noir”, the stories are often about a woman in jeopardy, or women who are victimised who fight back. Sometimes they’re about men or women who are stretched to the limits of their endurance – even, at times, of their sanity. They are stories I can relate to.

It shouldn’t be any surprise, therefore, that when I look back over the novels I’ve read and reviewed this year for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I find most of the stories fit that category. I confess, though, I’m shocked at how narrow my reading has been.

1. Robyn Bowles, Rough Justice. (true crime)

2. Candice Fox, Hades. (detective/thriller)

3. Honey Brown, Through the Cracks. (suspense)

4. Dawn Barker, Let Her Go. (suspense)

5. Wendy James, The Lost Girls. (suspense)

6. Julie Proudfoot, The Neighbour. (suspense)

7. Anna George, What Came Before. (suspense)

8. Jaye Ford, Already Dead. (suspense)

9. Caroline Overington, Can You Keep A Secret. (suspense)

10. Gillian Mears, Foal’s Bread. (literary/historical fiction)

11. Kate Belle, Being Jade. (women’s fiction)

12. Johanna Fawkes, Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: the shadow of excellence. (nonfiction)

P M Newton’s excellent crime novel Beams Falling, is another one I read; it’s the sequel to her award-winning debut, The Old School. Instead of writing a review, however, I posted a Q & A with Newton on the AWW blog here.

I didn’t set out to be so narrow in my reading this year; it just happened that those were the books that appealed to me. When I look at my “to be read” pile of books by Australian women, there’s a great variety of genre, from literary fiction to memoir to historical fiction as well as nonfiction. The books in this photograph are only a fraction of the pile.

 

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What will I review for the AWW Challenge in 2015? I’m not sure. Recently, I’ve been borrowing books from the library and reading just for fun, and not all of them have been shelved in the crime/suspense/thriller section. Maybe I’ll start branching out again? (Otherwise, I should really change the name of my blog.)

By the way, for those of you who haven’t heard, my debut novel – a romance with suspense elements, Snowy River Man – will be published by Escape Publishing on 22 February 2015, under my pen-name, Lizzy Chandler. If you’d like a review copy, please let me know. I’d be thrilled if it could be reviewed as part of the AWW challenge for 2015.

Are you planning to join?

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