The Dry by Jane Harper
To begin with, three people in a small town in southeast Australia are dead. Not an opening that draws me, but this first mystery novel is on several best books of the year list and I felt challenged to give it a try. Aaron Falk is back in drought stricken Kiewarra for the funeral, and is asked to do a little investigating by his friend Luke’s parents. Falk is a federal agent in Melbourne and soon finds that Kiewarra’s new police sergeant, Greg Raco, also questions the obvious solution. In general, Falk is no more welcome in town now than when he and his father left, suspects after a friend’s drowning. Newcomers to town, including Raco and his wife, school principal Scott Whitlam, and bartender McMurdo, are pleasant enough, as is Luke’s old girlfriend, Gretchen. Mal Deacon, his old nemesis, is as nasty as ever, even though he’s getting old. Short flashbacks to other points of view keep the reader one step ahead of Falk and Raco, but this is not at all a predictable book. The Dry is suspenseful and riveting, very cleverly written, and on my own list of best books of the year. Film rights have been sold, and another book featuring Aaron Falk is being published in February.
The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
The gorgeous scenery on the cover is echoed in this beautiful, melancholy novel set in Thirroul, New South Wales, Australia. It’s 1948, and a doctor and a poet are finally home from the war, trying to find their way back to normal life. Anikka Lachlan and her husband Mac are happily raising their 10-year-old daughter, Bella, when railwayman Mac is killed in an accident. Ani and Bella struggle through their grief, helped by neighbors. Ani is given a job at the railway library, where she encounters Ray, the poet with writer’s block, and Frank, the doctor who has little patience for the villagers’ minor health complaints. Mac remains part of the whole book, with scenes from the beginning of their marriage, and as Ani learns new stories about Mac. Thirroul, south of Sydney, is picturesque, with surfers, fishermen, tropical flowers, and dolphins. The author commissioned a poem for the novel, and the novelist and poet both won the Colin Roderick award. Leisurely paced and memorable, a story of loss and love.
The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes
Imagine a ship full of 650 war brides, on board for the six week journey from Sydney, Australia to Plymouth, England. It’s 1946, and the ship is the Victoria, an old aircraft carrier, not the cruise ship the brides expected. The young women are on their way to new lives and families in England, with husbands they met in Australia during the war. Four brides sharing a cabin are featured. Lively teenager Jean, social climber Avice, pregnant farm girl Margaret, who has smuggled her dog on board, and secretive nurse Frances gradually reveal their stories of their lives during the war. Marine Nichol, who guards their cabin at night, and Captain Highfield, on his last navy voyage along with the Victoria, also have their secrets. The women are, by turns, full of anxiety, hope, and excitement. Friendships are formed, but rumors and gossip, from the crew as well as the women, have lasting effects. There’s even a sweet love story. Most of the characters are appealing and I was eager to learn their stories. Not all of the women have happy stories to tell, and some even get the dreaded telegram from England: not wanted, don’t come. I would have liked less drama, but Moyes is a compelling writer and excellent storyteller. This was a part of Australian history I hadn’t heard about, and she made the adventurous voyage, complete with a Miss Victoria contest, come to life.
I enjoy re-reading books occasionally, and sometimes I find books I haven’t read by favorite authors. All of these books were published between 1951 and 1960.
One of my favorite books to re-read is Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute. Keith Stewart is an ordinary man in Ealing, England, who becomes trustee of his young niece along with his wife, and tries to find a way to get to the South Pacific to recover her inheritance. He is an engineer who makes mechanical models, and writes about them for The Miniature Mechanic, along with answering dozens of letters from readers working on the models. These readers later help him get to Tahiti and back home again, via the Pacific Northwest.
I also read The Far Country, by Nevil Shute, set mainly in Australia. Post World War II conditions in England were still bad, with some rationing still in place until 1954. Jennifer Morton gets an unexpected gift from her late grandmother, and visits her cousin’s ranch in Victoria, Australia, where she meets a Czech doctor working as a lumberjack. Beautiful scenery, appealing characters, and a good look at the differences between life in England and in northeast Australia around 1950. Nevil Shute’s novels are known for their excellent storytelling, with mostly appealing characters, usually ordinary people in extraordinary situations or settings. These aren’t necessarily gentle reads, as he is best known for the post-apocalyptic On the Beach, and the World War II novel, A Town Like Alice.
I listened to two Regency romance novels by Georgette Heyer: Venetia, and The Quiet Gentleman. Her books are known for mild romance and witty dialogue, along with some humor. They are also excellent as audiobooks. Since they’re set in the early 1800s, they don’t feel at all dated. The library has a large collection of both authors’ books, as they are frequently reprinted. If you’re looking for a change of pace for your summer reading, browse and enjoy.
Tumbledown Manor by Helen Brown
A very good choice for vacation reading; I was charmed by this first novel about starting over in Australia. A surprise 50th birthday party ends in disaster for Manhattan novelist Lisa Trumperton. She heads home to Melbourne, Australia, where her sister Maxine and her son Ted live, keeping in touch with her elusive daughter Portia through texts. On a whim, Lisa purchases an old house in the country once owned by her great-grandfather. Landscaper Scott is a big help, and three retired handymen help her gradually fix up the house. But if Lisa can’t finish her books about the Brontë sisters, she’ll have to sell the house. A somewhat dysfunctional but caring family, a local book group that discusses Lisa’s book, and a cat that befriends a cockatoo add to the appeal of the book. I enjoyed watching Lisa deal with the challenges of her new life, such as flood, fire, and an unconventional wedding, with courage and humor.
The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie King
The title of the 14th book in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series may have fans rather worried. I’m not going to reveal much of the plot, just reassure readers that Laurie King continues to take this series in new and creative directions, including setting part of this book in Australia. Sherlock’s housekeeper Clara Hudson shares center stage here with Mary Russell, and I quite enjoyed getting to know her better. Very suspenseful, with a little humor; a thoroughly satisfying read.
Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis
A short but stunning memoir of the ultimate real life adventure. Sarah Marquis, a National Geographic explorer, spent two years planning a three-year journey trekking across east Asia and Australia, mostly from north to south. She starts in Mongolia, then China, back up to Siberia, then through Laos and Thailand before taking a cargo ship to Darwin, on the north coast of Australia and walking to the south coast. She hikes alone, often disguised as a man, carrying a 40 pound backpack and pushing a 110 pound cart, carrying two weeks worth of food and water. There is a detour for a medical emergency, but she is returned to the evacuation point. Sarah communicates with her expedition leader occasionally by satellite phone, has a contact in each country, and shops for food in tiny villages. Mongolian horsemen harass her by riding around and around her tent at night, but women in the villages help her even when they have no shared language. The weather extremes are often a challenge. She clearly loves being close to nature, and even relishes her time in the deserts. The Swiss explorer is in demand as a motivational speaker, but clearly prefers to be on the move. Learn more and watch her speak on her website.