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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Angela Marson’s Silent Scream – book review

Angela Marson Silent ScreamThere were a few things I liked about Angela Marsons’ thriller, Silent Scream. One was its setting in the Black Country in the West Midlands in England. It’s not an area I’m familiar with, and the author’s use of dialect had me searching to hear examples of it on Youtube. (I found a video of an elderly couple talking and it was like listening to a foreign language.)

Another aspect I enjoyed was the narrator, D I Kim Stone. Stone has a complex history; she’s short on people skills; and she has an obsessive-compulsive streak that makes her a pain to work with, but gives her an advantage as a detective. She’s tenacious and, although she does her best to hide her emotions, she has a soft streak. I can see her making a good series character.

Set with the task of solving a number of murders, Stone does a pretty good job. So does the author in weaving a tale with multiple layers of childhood trauma, exploitation, self-delusion and greed. While the story kept me engaged, I found the writing in parts too reliant on dialogue; I would’ve liked to experience more of the physicality of the Black Country, through more visual descriptions and a greater appeal to the senses. The plot was reasonable, with a number of surprises, but too often the characters seemed to lack emotional depth. There was one action at the end, in particular, I found totally unlikely given the supposed nature of the character. (Risking a mild spoiler, I’ll just say it had to do with a medical device.)

Having said that, the author gives glimpses of more interesting writing:

One day the names of these three [murdered] girls would be plastered across a Wikipedia page. It would be a link from the main article depicting Black Country history. The triple murder would forever be a blemish on their heritage. Readers would skate past the article describing the achievements of the Netherton chain makers who had forged the anchors and chains for the Titanic and the twenty Shire horses that had pulled the one hundred tonne load through the town. The metalworking trade that dated back to the sixteenth century would be forgotten in the face of such a sensational headline.

Overall Silent Scream is competent, with flashes of something really interesting.

~

Author: Angela Marsons
Title: Silent Scream
Publisher: Bookouture
Date: 2015
Type: ebook
ISBN13: 9781909490918

I own a copy.

Watching You by Michael Robotham

robotham watching youBefore picking up a copy of Watching You with a stack of other books at the library before Christmas, the only story I’d read by Michael Robotham was Bombproof. I remember having enjoyed Bombproof as a fast-paced, witty thriller, and I have intended to read more of Robotham’s work ever since.

It’s a measure of Robotham’s skill as a storyteller that I didn’t immediately pick this story as part of a series. As it turns out it’s Book 7 in the Joe O’Loughlin series. Joe is a clinical psychologist who has a history and faces health challenges, but the story doesn’t really belong to him. It belongs to one of his patients, Marnie, a woman with a traumatic childhood and a missing husband.

Marnie’s husband Daniel wasn’t the best of husbands. An Aussie journalist living in London and a victim of newspaper downsizing, he took up gambling and disappeared leaving a trail of debts. Nevertheless, Marnie refuses to believe he abandoned her. With no joy from the police investigation and growing evidence Daniel was hiding something from her, now she is being hounded by his creditors. Unable to access his bank accounts or life insurance money, she is forced into desperate acts to pay his debts and keep from being evicted from their home. She is also desperate for help for their sick child, four-year-old Elijah.

Marnie’s behaviour doesn’t impress Zoe, her teenaged daughter from her first marriage. Troubled and resentful of her mum, Zoe misses her step-dad; she can’t understand why their TV has been hocked, and why her mother is suddenly dressing up at night and being met by a chauffeur who takes her out. Zoe seeks solace online and, unknown to her mother, sets up  a Facebook page dedicated to trying to find her missing father. That isn’t the only thing she hides from Marnie.

To the world, Marnie is the epitome of the battler struggling against immense odds. To cope, she seeks help from her clinical psychologist, Joe O’Loughlin, but she isn’t entirely truthful to Joe. She doesn’t tell him, for example, that she has had mental health problems before. Nor does she mention that people who cross her have a habit of ended up being harmed. She does hint, however, that she has a feeling she is being watched.

Watching You is an interesting page-turner from a series which features some apparently already well-loved characters. It also reads well as a stand-alone novel. There were times when I felt I was reading more to assess Robotham’s skill as a storyteller, rather than being engaged in the story, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I’m looking forward to reading Robotham’s latest novel, Life or Death, which I’ve heard great things about.

~

So that I don’t entirely lose my focus on supporting books by Australian women this year, I’d like, when I can, to recommend books by Australian women similar to the ones I’m reviewing. My pick of a match for Michael Robotham – based on a very small sample of his work – is Jaye Ford. Ford writes fast-paced action thrillers with a psychological edge. But maybe readers who are more familiar with his work will other ideas?

~

Author: Michael Robotham
Title: Watching You
Publisher: Sphere/Hachette
Year: 2013

I borrowed a copy from the library.

 

This review is the second book I’ll count towards the 2015 Aussie Author challenge.

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.

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.

A Thousand Lies by Laura Wilson

The judge said (I will never forget this), ‘In many ways your life has been a form of punishment.’ Sometimes I wonder what he would have said if I had told the truth.

imageSo Sheila Shand, a woman convicted of the manslaughter of her father, wrote in her journal in 1988, hinting at one of the many lies which Laura Wilson’s crime novel, A Thousand Lies, goes on to uncover and explain.

Sheila’s journals, and the sections from her point of view, are an important element of the novel, but the main story centres around her great-niece, Amy Vaughan. Amy is a journalist whose estranged mother has just died and left her another journal, one belonging to Sheila’s sister Mo, revealing a branch of the family she’d not known existed.

Throughout the novel, Amy struggles to deal with the complicated grief of losing a mother who blamed her for her father’s desertion, a ne’er-do-well father who returns in time to take advantage of her meagre inheritance and possibly endanger her life, and a neighbour who has the potential to become a future lover. At the same time she becomes increasingly caught up in the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of her great-aunt Mo, and the trauma that has kept Sheila and her ailing mother Iris silent for many years.

A Thousand Lies was first published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the inaugural Duncan Lawrie Dagger award. I discovered the author, Laura Wilson, via a Twitter suggestion after I’d followed Julia Crouch whose book Tarnished I reviewed last week.

I can’t say I was as riveted by A Thousand Lies as I was by Tarnished, but I am fascinated with its subject matter – domestic violence and its long-term psychological effects on women, particularly the ‘learned helplessness’ that keeps women trapped in a vicious cycle. Wilson deals with the subject with sympathy, subtlety and insight, and the plot intrigues the reader enough to keep the pages turning.

One shortcoming, for me, was to do with the novel’s structure: the most dramatic events occurred in the distant past, which the journal device and flashbacks bring to life. The effect of this ‘once-remove’ is an emotional distancing. For many crime readers, this distancing might be a good thing, as the events described are horrific. Readers of psychological suspense, however, might find the storyline lacks a desired sense of immediacy and engagement.

As events of the past begin to bleed into the present, however, the novel heads for a thrilling climax. A Thousand Lies is the first I’ve read by this novelist, but it won’t be the last. It is an engaging read.

~

Author: Laura Wilson
Title: A Thousand Lies
Publisher: Orion
Date: 2006

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.

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.

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