Tag Archives: Australia

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Penguin | 2018, Pb 209 (7 March) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nine Little Strangers by Liane MoriartyFrances Weltby remembers when she was a best-selling romantic novelist (who hasn’t read Nathaniel’s Kiss?) but her latest novel has just been rejected by her publisher and she’s also received a damning review that hurts. And then she fell victim to a scam artist, putting her heart at risk of breaking. She needs to recharge her batteries, to ready herself for the next phase of her life, and so she drives for several hours away from Sydney, Australia, to Tranquillum House, a remote health resort run by a charismatic born-again fitness guru.

Frances is joined there by eight other men and women, all of whom are hoping to reemerge as new people at the end of their ten-day treatment. It won’t be easy. They will be taken way outside their comfort zone (no wine or coffee or screens, for starters). But it is all fascinating for Frances, who feels inspired by her companions, each of whom has secrets, sadnesses and quirky foibles. They are like onions, ready to reveal their layers to this hungry observer of life.

And so begins a stay that will transform these nine lives. They’re quite a bunch – a retired sportsman, a bereaved family, a young ridiculously rich couple with a marriage on the verge of tatters, a woman who wants nothing more than to be so thin she’d be invisible, a handsome glitzy divorce lawyer. They each need help. The problem is, it’s not so sure that they’re going to get it and what they do get might not be exactly what anyone would want. It’s certainly going to be memorable…

As soon as I heard about Nine Perfect Strangers, I knew I wanted to read it and I read it as soon as I got my hands on it. The idea of a group of strangers on some kind of retreat or cut off from the outside world in some other way is a popular theme at the moment, especially in psychological thrillers, and I really like it. The idea of a controversial health resort in the middle of nowhere in Australia is also appealing. I can’t say that I fancy this sort of thing myself and having read this novel I can see that I’m right.

What happens in Tranquillum House is for you to discover but the main charm of this novel isn’t the plot (which is sort of a psychological thriller) but the author’s fine observation of her characters and the witty prose. This is a very funny novel in places. Frances, the woman that we’re supposed to identify with the most, gets most of the best lines and she’s a joy to spend time with, although, as with most of the characters, there is also something tragic about her. This is emotional stuff. One minute you’ll be chuckling, and the next you could find yourself crying. Some of these characters have a lot to cry about, whereas others are just so sad. One in particular speaks little. She barely exists. The narrative moves between the ‘patients’ and so we get to know a little about them all but, inevitably, some more than others. There were some I didn’t care much about but there are a few that I cared deeply for.

I did have some issues with the novel and most of those begin at the halfway point. Without giving anything away, the story takes a turn into preposterous and ridiculous country and I don’t think it recovers from this. It really does get daft and one or two people take on almost pantomime characteristics. Nevertheless, Nine Perfect Strangers is such a light and fast read (despite the length) that I stuck with it to the end, wanting to know the fate of the characters I did care about. I liked the mingling of humour and great sadness. I enjoyed the wit and lightness of the writing. If you’re after a fun holiday read, then this might well fit the bill.

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The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Little, Brown | 2019 (7 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Man by Jane HarperIt is Christmas and the outback desert of Queensland, Australia, is baked by the relentless sun. Three brothers, Nathan, Cameron and Bub Bright, own vast ranches, relatively close to the single street that is called Balamara. It’s the closest thing to a town round here. Where the brothers’ properties meet stands a gravestone, marking the spot where a stockman died a century before. A dreadful, lonely, hot place in which to die. And now it’s become a grave again – Cameron is found lying next to it, the sun having done its deadly work. As Nathan and Bub stand over their brother’s body, they can only wonder why Cameron abandoned a car full of water and other supplies to walk to his death. In an environment as hostile as this, death is not uncommon but there’s a mystery here that may tear the Bright family apart.

The Lost Man is the third standalone novel by Jane Harper and, despite the stiff competition offered by its predecessors The Dry and Force of Nature, I think it’s my favourite and confirms why Jane Harper is an author whose books I will always seek out.

Once again, Jane Harper brilliantly visualises the outback as well as those hardy people who have to make a living from it. This landscape, especially to someone who lives in small, green Britain, is vast, dusty, empty and barren. Above all, it is monstrously hot. A short walk could prove the death of a strong man. We see the preparations that people make to survive the unexpected, which surprisingly includes floods. The Lost Man is full of little details about the safeguards people take – the book that everyone must write in when they go out, the cold larders that must be kept stocked, their goods religiously counted, the cool boxes in the vehicles. It’s a way of life that is both fascinating and fearsome. These are people covered with the scars left by skin cancer incisions, their skin is tough and leathered, they don’t waste time on talk. Women face their own issues. This is a man’s world but it wouldn’t exist without the women they rely on. And yet you can can also sense why these people, the Brights, for example, don’t want to leave. There’s something almost noble in their strength of character and resolve.

The Bright family is scrutinised in these pages. They can go months without seeing each other, perhaps without seeing anyone at all, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that so much is left unsaid. The layers are peeled away as we spend time getting to know the generations of the Bright family. Nathan, in particular, is driven to know what happened to Cameron. The more he learns about Cameron, the more we learn about Nathan. It’s a sad, troubling tale but Nathan lies at the heart of The Lost Man. He is perhaps more lost than anyone.

This is stunning writing and it is supported by such insight into the lives of these men, women and children. It’s completely involving, atmospheric and exposed. The novel takes its time. The emphasis here is on character as Nathan in particular reflects on the events that shaped his own and his family’s life. Nathan’s relationship with his teenage son Xander is lovingly explored. I cared for these people. And the ending when it comes is utterly engrossing. But by that time we have been thoroughly immersed in this harsh land.

The heat, dust and merciless cruelty of the outback desert at the height of summer is relentless and superbly depicted in The Lost Man. The mystery is very much character-driven. It is all about families and relationships between a small group of people who live such remote and difficult lives. But there is as much love as there are secrets. It’s an excellent novel, beautifully written. Jane Harper is an irresistible writer.

Other reviews
The Dry
Force of Nature

Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Wildfire | 2019 (8 January; ebook was published 25 July, 2018) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

Scrublands by Chris HammerExactly a year ago, the small rural community of Riversend, a remote town surrounded by scrubland, was devastated by the shocking actions of its priest, Byron Swift. It was a Sunday just like any other with Swift about to carry out the church service at St James’s. But, having chatted with members of the congregation, Swift walked inside the church and came out a few minutes later armed. He shot dead five men before he too was killed by the town’s young constable, Robbie. Rumours followed, hinting that the priest was paedophile, but, when journalist Martin Scarsen arrives in Riversend to write a feature on how the town is doing a year on, he discovers that the priest was a popular, respected man, with at least two women in love with him. Swift’s actions seem inexplicable but Martin, who has his own healing to do, is determined to discover the truth. And for that to happen, he will immerse himself in Riversend and the lives of its people, an experience that will change his life. What he uncovers is extraordinary.

Riversend is a dying town. It is wracked by trauma, heat and drought. The river has dried up, shops have closed down, some people, especially those who scrape a subsistence in the scrublands themselves, are barely surviving. The threat of fire is constant and terrifying. And yet people don’t leave. They are tied to the town and Martin learns why. Nothing binds a community together quite as much as its secrets.

Scrublands is a truly immersive read. Just as Martin becomes almost obsessed by the curious town of Riversend, so we too become caught up in its story. It’s enthralling! Part of the reason is the character of Riversend itself. There’s not much to it but what there is we get to know very well indeed – its Oasis bookshop and coffee bar, the country club (the only place to get a cold beer), the boarded up wine saloon, the motel, the general store, the abandoned pub and the church, a place where people go to remember what happened a year before. And then there’s the surrounding scrubland with its isolated farms and homes. It’s all under attack from heat and drought. Water is a currency. Chris Hammer makes us feel the heat, dust and thirst, as Martin explores the town thoroughly.

And then there’s the people, so many with pleasing names such as Mandalay Blonde, Harley Snouch, and the unforgettable Codger Harris. They are all fully developed by Chris Hammer, each with his or her own distinct personality and story to tell. Martin couldn’t be better placed to get the scoop of his career.

It’s a complex plot and it becomes increasingly so as the book progresses and more and more press, police and special agents descend on the town. Everyone is edgy and it’s not surprising. This town runs on secrets. There are several threads running through the book. It’s Martin’s job, when he’s not falling hard for some of the town’s people, to knit them together and I couldn’t work out how on earth he would do it until the very end.

There is something wonderful atmospheric, oppressive and claustrophobic about Scrublands, just as there is about the town of Riversend. We’re led off in so many directions, all under that fiery relentless sun. This is impressive storytelling and already one of the crime thrillers to beat in 2019.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Little, Brown | 2018 (8 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

When five women head into the rugged and difficult terrain of the Giralang Ranges in the Australian Outback on a company team building exercise, only four will return. They’d taken a wrong turn and had to sleep far from their intended camp. In the morning Alice Russell was gone. The other women, Alice’s boss and colleagues, hoped that she’d made it out of the bush before them but they were wrong. Federal agent and police office Aaron Falk quickly arrives from Melbourne with his partner Carmen Cooper. He has a deep interest in this case. The women, as well as a separate team of five men, are from BaileyTenants, a company that Falk is investigating for money laundering, and Alice Russell was his whistleblower.

The Dry, the first Aaron Falk novel, was a crime fiction highlight of last year and it’s a pleasure to be given the chance to spend more time with this enigmatic and likeable figure. A major element in the appeal of this growing series is its locations. Jane Harper captures perfectly the beauty and danger of Australia’s wild places. In The Dry it was the desert; now we’re taken deep into a hostile yet stunning environment of forests, rivers and waterfalls, rocks and scrub. Isolated and almost impenetrable but, according to the company that runs these team building courses, safe. Apparently.

Force of Nature moves back and forth through this period of a few days in which everything has become chaos. We follow Falk and Carmen on their investigation as they try to get to know this remote place and its inhabitants while other chapters return to those three eventful, stormy and hungry days in the Giralang Ranges when the women lost their way. It’s an enjoyable mix of survival out in the wilds with the order of a police investigation. At times civilisation, and the world of finance crimes and investigations, seems a long way away.

There is something a little unlikeable about each of the five women who are so reluctantly thrown together for the course. Two of them are twin sisters and even they can’t get along. This adds tension and some disharmony to the novel. I welcomed the scenes with Falk and Carmen – for the relief they brought from the madness.

My favourite part of Force of Nature is its atmosphere. Jane Harper skilfully creates a sinister mood of menace and nature gone wild that grows throughout the novel. You can really empathise with the relief that characters feel when they get in their cars to drive the long drive to Melbourne.

While I found Force of Nature a little less original and impactful than its superb predecessor The Dry, it nevertheless takes us on a powerful and moody journey into that side of human nature that is as dangerous and untamed as the Girlang Ranges.

Other review
The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper

Little, Brown | 2016 | 358p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Dry by Jane HarperIt’s been twenty years since teenager Aaron Faulk and his father were driven out of the small rural town of Kiewarra, Australia. Faulk is now a Federal Police Investigator of financial crime based in Melbourne. Now and then he meets up with his old mate Luke whenever Luke is visiting the city from Kiewarra but otherwise Faulk’s ties with his old hometown are cut. Until now. A tragedy calls Faulk back. Luke is dead. He killed himself but not before he shot dead in their home his wife Karen and their small son Billy. A note from Luke’s father insists Faulk must return for the funerals, hinting that he knows something about that other tragedy twenty years before. Luke’s father knows that all those years ago Luke and Faulk lied.

Apprehensive about what he might find, Faulk returns to a community devastated by the three deaths and stricken by a terrible drought. The town’s policeman, a newcomer, is doing his best to find out what drove Luke to do what he did but when Faulk offers his help it is gratefully accepted. But the more Faulk digs, the more the past returns to haunt him. And Faulk’s presence is a reminder to the town of their earlier loss. Tension, grief and anger do their worst, and soon Faulk feels a million miles away from his life in Melbourne and he realises that this town has never left him. It’s time for Kiewarra’s secrets to emerge from the shadows.

The Dry isn’t just a crime novel, it’s a vividly painted portrait of a community brought to the edge of despair and ruin by the brutality of man and the devastation of nature. Kiewarra is a farming community facing the reality of no rain, dried up rivers and poverty. In a sense, people can understand why their fellow farmer Luke should have been brought so low but then they remember his wife and innocent child. People want answers but not everyone wants them from Aaron Faulk. Jane Harper’s descriptions of Kiewarra are superb and it infuses the whole novel with a mood and atmosphere that makes The Dry stand out as one of the best crime novels we’ll see this winter. There’s something about reading a fine novel set in such a dry and hot location while huddled under blankets during the winter cold.

The story is cleverly told. Most of the narrative follows Faulk during his visit to Kiewarra when he tries to help the police investigation while at the same time having to endure the stares and insults of the townspeople. But interspersed throughout are flashbacks, covering both the recent crime and the events of twenty years before. This works brilliantly and takes us into the past, bringing it into the present, in such an effective fashion.

Almost everyone in The Dry is given a past and a story. They are all so fascinating to learn and it brings this small place to life. But I also really enjoyed the crime aspect of the novel. It is such a good mystery. There is a real sadness and hopelessness to some aspects of the story and to some of the characters, as well as a foreboding and threat, but this is offset by the beauty of the language, the vastness of the sky and the stark and vivid isolation of the parched Kiewarra. This is a novel to become engrossed in. I didn’t want to put it down at all and was sorry when it came to its excellent conclusion and I had to.

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Rush Oh! | Shirley Barrett | 2016 | Virago | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Rush Oh! by Shirley BarrettIt is 1908 in a small coastal settlement outside Eden in New South Wales, Australia. A crew of whalers is led by ‘Fearless’ Davidson but success or failure is not down to the team alone. Their hunt is aided by a pod of killer whales, led by Old Tom, who, if one were to think about whales in such a way (and I can’t help it), is proud, strong, mischievous and dominant. It is Tom who announces the arrival of a large whale in the cove by breaching, smashing his body down onto the waves, calling the whalers to their ridiculously small, vulnerable boats. ‘Rush oh!’ the men call as they run to their oars. But 1908 is not a good year for the whalers. After a century of hunting, the whales are seeing fit to avoid the cove. The whalers are barely subsisting. Their reliance on the killer whales is more urgent than ever.

Mary Davidson is Fearless Davidson’s eldest daughter and, in the absence of their long-dead mother, her role is to care for her brothers and sisters while catering for the whalers. As the poor season continues, cooking something from nothing becomes increasingly hard. Mary isn’t particularly close to her siblings – her beautiful sister Louisa’s life seems relatively charmed by comparison while the oldest brother Harry has his own battles to prove aboard the second whaling boat. And so Mary looks for comfort where she can. She finds it in a new whaler, John Beck, a mysterious man who was once, he says, a Methodist minister and who has retained a way with words. Mary also finds comfort in the world around her, both people and animals, and it’s her record of these as well as her life in this remote settlement so dependent on the bounty of the sea that forms the warm, rich heart of Rush Oh!.

Mary Davidson is a wonderful, humorous narrator and it is her charm and resilience that makes Rush Oh such a captivating read. She doesn’t just describe her family and the men aboard the boats, Mary also brings to life the animals with whom they share their lives in this corner of Australia, including a rather tetchy grey kangaroo, a pair of horrendous mating birds and, best of all, their horse that won’t go anywhere without its cow best friend. And when that cow needs an umbrella held over its head, that makes for an awkward expedition. It’s all so beautifully written and the pleasure I derived from it reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s novels, which I adore. Supporting the comparison are the fabulous little drawings which can be found scattered throughout.

I almost didn’t read Rush Oh! because of its whaling theme. But then I remembered that Moby Dick is one of my very favourite novels and realised that this was not a good reason not to read it. It’s a book that richly evokes another time and place and Mary’s handling of the hunts is sensitively done, especially once she’s seen a hunt with her own eyes. There is a strong sense of empathy with the whales, and not just with the extraordinary pod of killer whales that has formed a mutually useful relationship with the whalers and yet they always have a menace about them. The descriptions of the hunts are bloody – and lethal for men and whale – and in every one I was on the side of the whale. I sense that some people in the novel felt the same way. The whales exert a powerful presence, not least because the settlement needs them for its very survival.

Rush Oh! is thoroughly enjoyable. It made me laugh out loud repeatedly. It is a light read – it could have been much, much darker and its ending could have been more deeply explored, as could Mary’s romance. But Rush Oh! is not that kind of novel. Instead it interprets (and alters) this true story with a strong and generous empathy for its people, history and environment. Mary is a delightful companion. There’s a sadness about her, especially when her memories lead her in directions she’d prefer to avoid, but she is such a fine observer of people and nature and she (or Shirley Barrett) conveys it through the most enchanting words and pictures.