Fire Damage by Kate Medina – book review

fire damage kate medinaMore murder mystery than psychological suspense, Fire Damage by Kate Medina follows army psychologist, Jessie Flynn, as she seeks to uncover the truth behind the traumatic experiences of a four-year-old boy. Along the way, Medina exposes us to glimpses of the trauma suffered by several soldiers back from tours of duty in Afghanistan, showing the various destructive impacts of the war on them and their families.

Flynn is a complex, not always likeable heroine, still suffering from a traumatic experience from her childhood which has shaped her life and her relationships. Her tense encounters with Ben Callan, an army cop, never quite blossoms into romance, but there’s an affinity between them that adds an extra layer to the narrative.

For me, one of the highlights is Medina’s sensuous evocation of the cold, dark, English winter and bleak wintry landscapes.

With thanks to HarperCollins for an uncorrected proof copy for review.

~

Author: Kate Medina
Title: Fire Damage
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 978 0 00 813228 6

Advertisements

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 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.

Tarnished by Julia Crouch: Worth losing sleep for

Sometimes the past should be left well alone…

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

I borrowed a copy from the library.

What Came Before by Anna George

‘My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.’

What Came Before Anna GeorgeThis is the dramatic opening of What Came Before, the brilliant psychological thriller debut by Melbourne writer Anna George. The rest of the novel reveals how the murder came to happen.

We see Forrester’s wife, Elle, before her death. She’s working in the film industry, having left a career in law. With one successful film behind her, she is busy directing another. This latest is about “limerance”, the early stages of romantic love.

Elle encounters Forrester, a high-powered lawyer she remembers from her legal days. She is immediately attracted. By what? His looks, the interest in art they share. Certainly not his sociability, as he proves indifferent to her friends. As they begin their relationship, she experiences an almost delusional infatuation – the “limerance” of her film’s title – which leads her to ignore warning signs that the relationship isn’t healthy.

Unknown to Elle, Forrester’s marriage has disintegrated, leaving him angry at his ex and missing his young step-daughter. He’s also a frustrated artist, a control freak and a very unhappy man.

Throughout the narrative, point of view switches from Forrester, as he dictates his “witness statement” and consults a retired QC for legal counsel, to Elle, as she lies in death – or the imagined transition that follows death. This dual narration, swapping tenses between past and present, makes for compelling reading as we are led inexorably to the inciting incident, Elle’s death.

One question often asked about women in abusive relationships is, “Why did they stay?” What Came Before answers this question. “Limerance” makes us idolise our partners, letting us see only what we want to see; tells us to forgive their failings, to look only at their good qualities; blinds us to the escalating “cycle of violence”. The longer we stay, the more we believe they are essentially “good”, that their character defects are a result of damage done in childhood, that we are connected to them in some essential way, the more dangerous the relationship becomes.

Anna George has drawn on her own experience* of “emotional abuse” to create the relationship between Forrester and Elle, and her experience shows. For me, though not for all reviewers, she manages to make Elle sympathetic, despite her irrational choices. George also conveys what it’s like to be the man who resorts to violence, his self-justifications, his belief that he was provoked. If I had one criticism of the characterisation of What Came Before, it’s of the moment when Forrester makes a transition from “emotional abuser” to “physical abuser”. For me, the transition appeared too abrupt. Thinking about his behaviour in terms of “narcissistic rage”, however, I can make more sense of it. Far from being egoistic, Narcissists lack the internal resilience that would allow a healthier psyche to take criticism, perceived rejection or opposition. In this light, George gets the psychology for Forrester right; the result is believable and frightening.

The publishers have described this novel as “literary”, and in the vein of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. What Came Before is clever, like Flynn’s novel, but the cleverness isn’t at the expense of its emotional truth. The characters come across as real, their motivations consistent, their delusions understandable. Does this make it “literary”? It’s a well-written psychological thriller which deserves to become a best-seller.

Anna George has been added to my already impressive list of “must read” Australian female crime and suspense authors. I can’t wait for her next book.

* Anna George mentioned this in an interview with Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling blog, here.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley. What Came Before has already been reviewed for the AWW challenge by:

Author: Anna George
Title: What Came Before
Published:25/06/2014
ISBN-13:9780670077731
ISBN-10:0670077739
Publisher:Penguin Aus
Imprint:Viking

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?

~

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.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: