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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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.

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?

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.

~

Author: Sophie Hanna
Title: Kind of Cruel
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Date: 2012

I borrowed a copy from the library.

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.

~

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

Whatever happened to Nicci French? Review of Waiting for Wednesday

waiting-for-wednesday-a-frieda-klein-novelAs avid fans of Nicci French novels will already know, ‘Nicci French’ is the pen-name of best-selling writing couple Nicci Gerrard and Simon French. What I didn’t know until I read it on their Goodreads page is that both Gerrard and French graduated with First Class Honours in English Literature from Oxford University.

It doesn’t surprise me.

I’ve been a fan of their psychological suspense novels for years, so much so that I set up a Facebook page to seek out other fans. I wanted to know who gravitated toward their work and why. Instinctively I thought they would be people like me, people who might enjoy what I liked to read and write. My own future readers, perhaps… if only I could learn to write as well as the Nicci French team.

So what is it about their novels I find so compelling?

One clue may lie in Nicci Gerrard’s professional background. Her first job was working with emotionally disturbed children in Sheffield, and an interest in mental health underpins much of the couple’s writing. In fact, I told a friend once that they seemed to create their characters by making their way through the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders. It was a joke, but it may not be so far from the truth. Each book, variously, has dealt with mental health issues, particularly the questionable human behaviour that results from severe trauma and abuse.

From the start, Nicci French stories have had multiple layers. Sometimes the books are ‘murder mysteries’; other times they are portrayals of characters, usually women in their thirties, who are pushed to extreme limits; often they are a combination of the two. In the early novels, point-of-view characters are likely to be victims of some kind – victims of life, of their own behaviours and mental states, as well as victims of crime – and these experiences test their grip on reality. Avid readers of these books identify with the main characters’ fear of losing control, their journeys in stepping across the line between sanity and insanity. The books enact and exploit that journey, and also play on one’s fear of other people’s reactions to such a loss of control. In Losing You, the seeming ‘madness’ of the main character stems from her grief over the disappearance of her daughter. In Catch Me When I Fall, the main character is progressively depicted as an almost text book example of someone with Bipolar Disorder. Even in the more ‘crime’ oriented books, mental health issues are paramount. The perpetrators who victimise the protagonists often exhibit classic personality disorders. In Secret Smile there is a sociopath who targets and traumatises a woman who rejected him. In Killing Me Softly is a chilling and memorable portrait of a psychopath, one who displays the compelling ‘Dark Triad’ of Narcissism, Antisocial Personality Disorder and Machiavellianism.

For people like me, there is a vicarious thrill in reading such stories. The interesting question to ask is why.

Recently Professor Richard Landy, Professor of Educational Theatre and Applied Psychology at New York University, featured on an ABC All In The Mind program, discussing ‘drama therapy’ and the therapeutic effects of art. According to Landy, it’s all about ‘mirror neurons’. When we see something on stage (or, for the purpose of this discussion, read about it in a book), our brains behave as if we are the person engaged in the behaviour we’re watching/reading. We literally become excited, recognising in the characters portrayed something ‘human’ and ‘true’, and we experience this as therapeutic.

But how could it be therapeutic to read about mental illness and violent crime, as we do in the Nicci French novels, conditions and events that would be deeply traumatising if experienced in real life?

Landy’s discussion of the ‘framing’ of the drama/story, I believe, is pertinent here. In real life, circumstances only too often are out of our control: we can be struck randomly by illness, by events, by crime. There’s no come back, no cathartic sense of justice or happy ending. In a book or play, it’s different. By engaging with the fictional world, according to Landy, we enter into an implied contract with the playwright/author. In psychological suspense novels like those the Nicci French team writes, I’d suggest, the contract implies that we’ll be taken through our journey safely and both ‘sanity’ and ‘justice’ will be restored in the end. This is the pay-off for the reader: the illusion of control. For many readers – perhaps especially those of us who have experienced trauma or an intense sense of loss of control in our own lives – that illusion is very comforting. It’s like, in a way, we get to re-play being traumatised, but to experience an alternative, more empowering, less victimising outcome. Yet, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Not all of the Nicci French point-of-view characters survive being victims – and this uncertainty appears to be part of the suspense or thrill. The sense of risk, of the danger that this time things may not work out, would seem to be central to the pleasure the books create.

The Nicci French team has been able successfully to exploit this desire for the illusion of control in their standalone psychological thrillers/suspense novels over a period of many years. In 2011, they changed tack, publishing Blue Monday, the first in a series which features a London-based psychotherapist, Frieda Klein, who teams up with detectives Malcolm Karlsson and Yvette Long to solve a crime. Since then, they have published two more in the series, Tuesday’s Gone and, most recently, Waiting For Wednesday. In starting this series, the couple has taken a risk. Instead of the creating a protagonist who embodies a victim suffering the vertigo of losing control, in Frieda Klein they have created a character far more cerebral.

Klein’s world view is one fans would be familiar with:

She believes that the world is a messy, uncontrollable place, but what we can control is what is inside our heads. This attitude is reflected in her own life, which is an austere one of refuge, personal integrity, and order. (Source: Goodreads series page)

As this quote suggests, the emphasis of the series would seem to be more on understanding and articulating this world view, rather than dramatising it. Consequently, it would seem the reader has been robbed of the pleasure of a vicarious sense of loss of control. In its place is something far less visceral, less exciting.

For the small group of dedicated fans who belong to my Facebook page, the reaction has been one of disappointment. As recently as yesterday, one fan who is looking forward to hearing the couple at the upcoming Edinburgh International Book Festival, expressed her preference for the earlier books and said she hopes to be able to ask the authors whether they planned to write any more standalone thrillers. A chorus of responses followed: these fans, it seems, prefer those earlier books.

But what of Waiting for Wednesday, the most recent book in the series?

This hook is from the publisher’s website:

Ruth Lennox, beloved mother of three, is found by her daughter in a pool of her own blood. Who would want to murder an ordinary housewife? And why? (source: Penguin Australia)

The  book starts out like a detective story, even police procedural. But the difference is that this mystery is woven in with Frieda Klein’s story, a story which has more resemblances to the earlier novels than the first two in the series. In this novel, Frieda Klein, a woman who loves order above all things, inhabits a chaotic, messy world, a world partly created by her semi-out-of-control friends and family, partly by her own actions. Once again she is a sleuth, but this time she is without the sanction of the police force. While her obsession to solve a crime appears to be a kind of self-therapy, or possibly merely a diversion as she fails to deal with the trauma she experienced in the previous novel, her sleuthing is seen by others as dangerous, even borderline psychotic. She has become, like the protagonists of earlier Nicci French novels, a woman living on the edge.

Whether, for this story, the authors have changed tack in response to feedback from disappointed fans, or whether this was always going to be their trajectory for Klein is unclear. The result is that Klein’s world once again traverses familiar territory: loss of control, risk-taking, the appearance of madness, with justice and order – of a kind – triumphing in the end.

The strategy may or may not be enough to convince dedicated fans, but the book certainly hasn’t disappointed other readers who have reviewed it so far (including two Aussie book bloggers, Shelleyrae and Bree).

For me?

Reading Waiting For Wednesday I barricaded myself in against wet, winter weather, resenting interruptions and staying up late, marveling at the couple’s virtuosity in keeping my attention gripped. I recognised the ‘truth’ of various characters’ behaviour, including their fascination with drama:

She had that excited calm that some people get in an emergency. Karlsson had seen it before. Disasters attracted people. Relatives, friends, neighbours gathered to help or give sympathy or just to be part of it in some way, to warm themselves in the terrible glow. (2% through ebook [no page numbers given])

I found the insights into mental health issues fascinating:

When they reached Tottenham Court Road, they stood for a moment and watched the buses and cars careering past them. ‘You know,’ said Frieda, ‘that if you move from the countryside to a big city like London, you increase your chance of developing schizophrenia by five or six times.’ (85%)

And I enjoyed the patches of poetry that the writing team – all-too-rarely, for me – occasionally indulge in:

The path broadened out into a wide track. The river was slow and brown. If she lay down here, would she ever get up? …would she cry at last? Or sleep? To sleep was to let go. Let go of the dead, let go of the ghosts, let go of the self.

Cranes. Great thistles. A deserted allotment with crazy little sheds toppling at the edge of the river. A fox, mangy, with a thin, grubby tail. Swift as a shadow into the shadows. (98%)

Whatever happened to Nicci French? They tried something different and it works, for me.

~

Author: Nicci French
Title: Waiting for Wednesday
ISBN: 9780718156978
Genre: Thriller/suspense

Ebook review copy kindly supplied through Netgalley by the publisher.

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