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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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.

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

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.

AWW2012 Wrap-up

When I signed up for the Australian Women Writers challenge, I opted for “Franklin-fantastic” level: read 10 books and review four.

My reading selections weighed heavily in favour of literary works and crime, so I’m more of a “Dabbler” than an “Devoted Eclectic”, despite the name of this review blog, but I did manage to include some other genres, including historical fiction/romance, children’s fiction and contemporary women’s fiction.

The first three books are ones I discussed in depth. With Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, I gave a personal response, rather than a review. The remainder are books I either wrote a (sometimes very brief) review on Good Reads, or didn’t review.

  1. Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones (Literary fiction)
  2. “What’s all the fuss about?” Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing (Historical fiction/romance)
  3. “Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy and the challenge to moral thinking; or Towards a Systems’ Theory view of Subjectivity” (Young Adult/literary fiction):
  4. PM Newton, The Old School (Literary crime fiction; debut author)
  5. Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sea Castle (Children’s fiction)
  6. Angela Savage, The Half-Child (Crime fiction)
  7. Melanie Joosten, Berlin Syndrome (Literary crime fiction; debut author)
  8. Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows (Literary fiction; debut author)
  9. Rosalie Ham, Summer at Mount Hope (Historical fiction)
  10. Lisa Heidke, Stella Makes Good (Contemporary women’s fiction)

For this challenge I went out of my comfort zone. Apart from readings books by friends, it’s years since I read literary fiction, children’s stories, historical romance or contemporary women’s fiction. My preferred genre is psychological suspense.

What surprised me was how much I enjoyed the books for which I’m clearly not the target audience. I could easily become a fan of Lisa Heidke, for example, and I’d like to read some adult fantasy by Tansy Rayner Roberts. One book I was very excited to discover and which has remained with me was PM Newton’s debut novel, The Old School, which blends literary fiction and crime. But the stand out for me was Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy. I’ll let my review/discussion reveal why.

I intend to continue reading books by Australian women writers throughout 2012 and to coordinate the AWW blog, Twitter feed and Facebook page, but for now I plan to take a break and concentrate on my own writing. (This post has been cross-posted with my personal blog.)

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