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 Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

In the months before her arrest, Anne Baxter had many hours to think about her future.

Ligt on Water Olga LorenzoWith this riveting opening, Olga Lorenzo begins a tale of woe, of a woman whose only ambition has been to love and nurture her own children, someone who had survived a harsh upbringing by a mentally unstable mother, whose marriage to a prominent barrister ended because he was unable to give her the emotional support she needed, and whose second child was born with a significant disability. The disappearance of this child, her younger daughter Aida, on an overnight bush walk in a remote coastal area of Victoria is the inciting incident for the novel: the trigger for Anne’s grief, her incarceration, her sense of guilt and the judgement of many among the community and remand centre inmates who mete out ongoing punishment.

On many levels this is a tough book to read. Despite the difficulties of her upbringing and her experience of every mother’s worst nightmare, the awful loss of her child, Anne isn’t the most sympathetic of characters. She displays something which, as I noted in an earlier review, is missing from characters in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things: the learned helplessness of the victim, the utter mind-stultifying and body-disabling passivity of those who have discovered from a very early age that it’s no use fighting; that the opposition, be it an abusive parent, a judgemental waitress, a drunk outside an airport or a fellow prisoner, is more powerful and will prevail; that survival depends on “copping it sweet”.

It’s a psychologically astute portrayal, but it can also make the reader deeply uncomfortable. For survivors of abuse, it can trigger recognition and empathy for the weakest parts of ourselves, but not necessarily compassion. My own reaction was principally one of anger. I found myself wanting to shake Anne, to say, “Wake up to yourself. Do something. Act. Respond. Fight back. Don’t be such an idiot! Think.” That’s not to say Anne is totally passive: the times she does respond had me cheering, such as when she puts her hypocritical neighbour in her place. But for the most part I found her passivity disturbing, as it dramatised, as it were, the parts of myself that fill me with self-loathing.

Counteracting the toughness of this emotional response is the pleasure derived from the novel’s use of language. Lorenzo is a teacher of creative writing and it shows. Running through the text are images drawn from nature: fish, insects, the coastal tides and the weather. At times the beauty of these images counterbalance the horror of Anne’s experiences; at other times, they echo them dispassionately or reinforce them:

Life has picked her up and carried her away on its own tide, lapping her up in its various eddies, disgorging her on these dangerous shores. (155)

Anne’s contemplation of the fish in her home aquarium stimulates reflection on her own passivity:

Is there something in her that demands that she not be comforted and helped? She’s sure there’s a pecking order among human, just as there is among her mollies, who vie for supremacy the minute two are put together in the aquarium. So does she need to have her fins shredded and her eyes picked out to remind her of her rightful place in the scheme of things? (75)

There is also a philosophical thread in the novel, an insistence that, no matter what, suffering can be endured and will be overcome. At times, this lifts the narrative into a paeon to women’s work, the work of mothering, of nurturing and enduring. Anne comes to remember with fondness the bliss of everyday, ordinary activities associated with motherhood and caring for a family:

[S]he had loved washing day, the satisfaction of the clean smells emanating from the laundry, and then the calisthenics of bending and lifting and wrestling everything onto the clothesline. She had loved the breeze catching her family’s sheets and making them billow, as if they were setting off to new lands. She revelled in the sunshine trapped in the clothes when they were brought indoors. She had felt this was a way to love her family – folding their socks and t-shirts and underpants felt akin to stroking each person. (325)

This satisfaction is made all the more remarkable for the fact that women come to the – often thankless – tasks of domestic life and child-rearing unprepared:

No one trains them, explains the countless, simple lessons mothers give their children every day. The patience required. The mind-numbing patience. (262)

There are many more aspects of this book to praise: Lorenzo’s ear for Australian idiom and depiction of class differences; her deft thumbnail sketches of incidental characters that make these people come alive on the page; her use of powerful verbs; her insights into psychology and character; her sometimes sympathetic, sometimes harsh, portrayal of different types of families; as well as her skill in portraying a range of difficult and subtle human emotions:

Looking out over the water, life at that moment seemed sad and sweet and as fleeting as the day.

This was something she felt sometimes as a child – a wistfulness, but also a tentative inkling of future possibility, of life renewed and waiting, and of the transience of her own being. (242)

Despite the toughness of the reading experience, despite the harshness and horror of much of what is portrayed, Lorenzo leaves the reader with a sense that everything will be okay.

~

Author: Olga Lorenzo
Title: The Light on the Water
Publisher and date: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781925266542

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenge. Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a review copy.

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

 

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

imageWhat happens in a family where one child is diagnosed with a disability like autism?

In primary school, I had a best friend who had two brothers and a sister, except the sister didn’t live with them any more. The term “autistic” was mentioned, but I had very little idea what that meant. All I knew was that there had been something wrong with her. She had never grown out of the “terrible twos”: her screaming and tantrums, her inability to communicate wants and needs, wore her (very kind and loving) parents down. She had been sent away to live in an institution, and my friend rarely spoke of her. I have a vague impression that the family visited her, but I can’t be sure. For the rest of us, she had ceased to exist as a person.

This was a time before the government policy of de-institutionalisation, of supporting children with disabilities to live in the community. In those days, the policy for autistic children was “out of sight, out of mind”.

But what would it have been like for my friend and her brothers if their sister had been kept at home? If the parents, in order to cope, had shaped every routine in the house around not triggering tantrums? If the “neuro-typical” – non-autistic – children had been asked to take second place – or not even asked, just relegated to that position? Would they have fantasised about what it would have been like to have grown up in a “normal” family? Maybe even been tempted to act out those fantasies?

This is the scenario explored in Jodi Picoult’s novel, House Rules. In the story, eighteen-year-old Jacob is the “boy” who has Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism which manifests as an inability to recognise and respond to social cues, as well as a lack of empathy and imagination. Jacob’s long-suffering and devoted mother Emma has made every sacrifice for her son, leaving Theo, Jacob’s fifteen-year-old brother, longing for a very different family. The boys’ estranged father, Henry, has long since abandoned them, and, when we finally get to meet him, he too displays some characteristic behaviour of autism.

A common feature of people with Asperger’s is a fixation on a particular area of interest, in Jacob’s case: forensic science. This fixation, in part, is the reason why the two boys find themselves embroiled in a dilemma concerning Jacob’s social skills therapist, Jess, a kind-hearted girl whom Jacob fears is being abused by her boyfriend.

In House Rules, Picoult once again weaves a compelling story, one that had me engaged from the start and wanting to stay up reading long into the night. At the same time, I found the story frustrating. From at least halfway through, I could see that the main conflict could be resolved with one good conversation. Ending the novel, I was wondering whether I’d been cheated as a reader, strung out unnecessarily by an unrealistic narrative; or whether the frustration resulted in part from Picoult’s use of irony. After all, the only reason I knew one good conversation would resolve things was because, as a reader, I was privy to Jacob’s point of view; the other characters – crucially, for the plot – were not. A feature of autism is an inability to communicate simply, just as frustration is one of the dominant emotions felt by those living with autism, as well as the people who interact with them. So maybe leaving the reader frustrated was intended? Or maybe not.

Whatever Picoult’s intention, House Rules is still a very good read.

~

Author: Jodi Picoult
Title: House Rules
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: 2010
ISBN : 978 1 74237 365 2

 

I borrowed a copy from the library.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty’s Husbands Secret MoriartyThe Husband’s Secret is a page-turner featuring believable characters, interesting moral issues and more. I read it over the Australia Day weekend and the timing seemed fitting somehow. It could easily be subtitled, ‘A portrait of suburban Australian lives’.

The characters in this novel are ordinary, everyday people who inhabit Sydney’s north shore. They’re people like me, or my sisters, my friends, our mothers and daughters. Catholic-raised, but not observant; juggling haphazard careers and family responsibilities; coping with the ups and downs of problematic marriages, teenaged children, competitiveness, grandchildren, imperfect husbands, as well as past traumas that rise up in the present with unexpected and unpredictable consequences.

There’s Cecilia, the wife of the husband with a secret. She’s a perfectionist, a candidate for a diagnosis of OCD; impossibly organised, generous and thoughtful; quite possibly unbearable as a friend or family member, but also vulnerable and a loving mother.

There’s Rachel, an administrator at Cecilia’s son’s primary school; an aging grandmother who has never quite got over the death of her teenaged daughter, and finds it hard to show love to her adult son.

Then there’s Tess who, until a week ago, would have described her marriage as happy…

These characters’ lives intersect in a narrative that made me both laugh and cry as I identified with the experiences, thoughts, failings, fantasies and bad behaviour of normal human beings under pressure.

Books like this show me how ordinary lives can be extraordinary and interesting. Moriarty seems to write easy-to-read prose effortlessly, adding a degree of emotional truth that surprises me for popular fiction. No wonder she was recently voted Australia’s second-most popular author in a recent online bookshop poll.

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

Author: Liane Moriarty
Title: The Husband’s Secret
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 2013
ISBN: 978140591665

I borrowed a copy from a friend.

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.

 

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.

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