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.

The Vanishing Point: Val McDermid

imageThe Wire in the Blood series is one of my all-time favourite TV crime shows. I love forensic psychologist Tony Wood’s tetchy relationship with detective Carol Jordan. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of the books in the series, as well as other novels written by the well-known Scottish crime writer, Val McDermid, so I was expecting a similar thrilling read from her stand-alone novel, The Vanishing Point.

But… The Vanishing Point didn’t quite do it for me.

With the words “It’s every parents worst nightmare…” emblazoned on the cover, there is no surprise that this is an abduction story – though it has a characteristic McDermid twist. The opening is as thrilling as it is horrifying. A woman, Stephanie, used to be the ghost writer for Scarlett, a now-deceased reality TV celebrity, and godmother and newly-appointed guardian of Scarlett’s five-year-old son, Jimmy. Stephanie has just arrived in the US with Jimmy, about to start a vacation, when the boy is taken in broad daylight from the airport while Stephanie is being checked through security.

In her effort to run after Jimmy and his abductor, Stephanie attracts the attention of airport security, thus providing the reason for her to be kept in custody for hours telling her story to Vivian, a helpful FBI agent. Stephanie discloses how she came to be the child’s guardian, what happened to the boy’s celebrity parents, and details of her own terrifying experiences with an abusive and controlling ex-boyfriend. Throughout her tale, the reader is invited first to suspect one character and then another of abducting the boy. The ex-boyfriend, the resentful cousin – even possibly Scarlett’s agent – all fall under suspicion.

As a narrative device for telling the story, the FBI interview technique is okay, though it does stretch credulity and I guessed the “mystery” element pretty early on. Guessing a mystery for me is not uncommon, but normally, when that happens, there’s something else that keeps me drawn into the story, concern for the characters’ fate perhaps, or an interest in the world the characters inhabit. In the case of The Vanishing Point, neither of those things happened.

For me, the celebrity world of reality TV, even set against a backdrop of News of the World-type phone tappings and the UK music scene, just isn’t compelling. More importantly, I never quite believed in the friendship between Scarlett and Stephanie – a crucial element in the story – which I’m tempted to put down to a lack of depth in characterisation. I finished the book, could even admire elements of the ending, but didn’t have that “Aha!” satisfied feeling of a really good thriller.

It wasn’t a bad story; but nor was it one I’ll be racing off to recommend to my Facebook book group. For what it’s worth, I’d say time would be better spent downloading and watching the series Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire, which just finished playing on ABC TV. Now that was compelling and thrilling crime drama. I was sorry to see it end.

~

Author: Val McDermid
Title: The Vanishing Point
Publisher: Little Brown
Year: 2012

I borrowed a copy from the library.

Already Dead by Jaye Ford

Ford Already DeadJaye Ford is becoming known for delivering fast, page-turning thrillers in the style of Nicci French. At the centre of her novels are women, often thirty-something, often mums. They come from middle- and working-class backgrounds in regional NSW.

In Ford’s novels, these women are put in jeopardy, sometimes by strangers, other times by those close to them. What differentiates Ford’s characters from many female thriller figures is they don’t rely on a man to rescue them. While there may be a male love interest, her female protagonists are up to the challenge, ready to fight with all their resources, physical, emotional and mental, to survive and triumph.

Already Dead,* Ford’s latest novel, is no exception. As the story opens, the main character, Jax, a widow with a young child, finds herself in the centre of an unfolding drama: a stranger bails her up at a set of lights and jumps in her car just as she is about to get on the freeway heading north from Sydney toward Newcastle. Jax is at a crossroads of her life, literally. Her investigative journalist husband has died; she has walked away from her own journalistic career; she is struggling to find herself as a single mum. Emotionally, she’s at a low ebb, but the events that unfold give her no choice but to step up, to find the inner resources to fight her way out of danger. Before long, she is woven in a web of intrigue, facing more questions than she has answers for. Is her unwelcome passenger a psychotic killer filled with paranoid fantasies? Or is someone really after him – and, by extension, her, once she has spent time with him?

As Jax struggles to differentiate reality from her fears, the reader is taken along a thrilling ride. While she attempts to solve the intrigue that surrounds her mysterious passenger, she has a hard time keeping herself, her daughter and aunt safe. Can she trust the detective, Aiden Hawke, who appears at an opportune time, or is he part of the conspiracy her unwelcome passenger is running from? When the pace accelerates toward an action-packed and thrilling ending, a danger Jax could only imagine becomes real and present, worrying the reader that maybe, this time, guts won’t be enough.

~

Author: Jaye Ford
Title: Already Dead
ISBN: 9781742756851
Published: 01/09/2014
Publisher: Random House Australia
A review copy was kindly supplied by the publisher

~

* Disclaimer: Jaye Ford and I belong to the same a writing group.
This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge.

  • Goodreads

  • Country Secrets – anthology

  • Snowy River Man – rural romance

  • By Her Side – romantic suspense

%d bloggers like this: