Thrillers with Heat – Sunburn and The Dry

Set in Australia, Jane Harper’s The Dry has a dried-up river and bush ready to burn; Laura Lippman’s Sunburn leaves its mark in familiar ground for this reader – Baltimore, Ocean City, and Delaware.  Both are gripping tales of murder with compelling twists and surprise endings – both are page-turners.

shopping-1In The Dry, the brutal murders on a farm bring federal agent Aaron Falk back to the town where he and his father were banished years earlier when Aaron’s friend was found drowned in the river.  When Aaron returns for the funeral of his best friend and his family, he uncovers raw wounds the town has never forgotten, and suspicion that he was responsible for the girl’s death twenty years earlier.  Mysteries around the all murders seem connected, and as he stays to investigate, the story leads him to surprising revelations about the people he thought he knew. The villain is cleverly concealed until the very end, and not one I suspected.

UnknownIn Sunburn, Lippman keeps the reader off balance, acknowledging as the story opens that Polly Costello has killed her abusive husband and abandoned her two girls, one disabled with cerebral palsy.  Nevertheless, Polly seems to be a sympathetic character – her life sentence is pardoned by the governor, and she wins an insurance settlement against the hospital where her disabled daughter was born.  The handsome private detective, hired by a crooked insurance salesman for his share of the money, falls in love with her.  Will he turn her in or run away with her?  Lippman’s clever twists are not that simple, and she maintains the suspense – juggling the good guys and bad guys, and flipping intentions back and forth with another murder in the middle of it all.  It’s fun to read, and the ending is a satisfying surprise I did not predict.


The Secret River

9781841959146_p0_v1_s192x300   Kate Grenville takes the well-known history of Australia as a penal colony for the British in the eighteenth century and humanizes the past with a story about William Thornhill as he tries to create a new life in The Secret River.  Capitalizing on the hard lives and harsh conditions of the displaced prisoners, as well as the treatment of the Aborigines, Grenville’s story has the stark realism of colonial hardship and the cruel misery of Wounded Knee.

After being convicted of robbery and condemned to death, William is granted leniency and his life sentence is to be served in Australia with his wife and boys.  As hard as life has been in England, life in Australia at first seems poor compensation for being saved from hanging.  But Thornhill rallies, works hard, has more babies, and eventually decides to move away from Sydney into the Outback to claim land and begin a better life farming and adding to his thriving riverboat business.

As he connects with others like him, prisoners sent to serve out a sentence, Thornhill stands out as a basically good man among thieves.   Saggity  and Smasher Sullivan, former convicts, are determined to get whatever they can from the land and its first people.  Their attitudes are horrifying.  Smasher keeps an Aboriginal woman chained as his sex slave and participates in the sale of Aboriginal body parts.

Thornhill’s mentor, Blackwood, another river man, helps him establish his new place and tries to advise him how to coexist with the Aborigines.  The relationship  between the Thornhills and the savages is built on fear, but Willam’s son, Dick, born in Australia, plays with their young children and learns from their elders.

The Aborigines, having learned to live off the land, now see it stolen from them.  When they take Thornhill’s corn crop, the shaky truce escalates into a battle and eventually results in a massacre.  As the book ends, however, with Thornhill ten years later looking back on the turning point resulting in his power over the land, his victory seems shallow, and his regrets destroy any real chance of his feeling content.  After taking away the place the Aborigines still call home, as they silently roam the still undeveloped parts of the Outback, Thornhill realizes he now belongs nowhere; he inhabits someone else’s land, unable to return to his poor life in England and merely reconciled with his new life.

An informative story while at the same time providing a gripping commentary on the effects of colonialism, The Secret History deserved its place on the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize in 2006.  Its message has been repeated in a television mini-series in 2015, and a 2013 play, recently revised by the Sydney theater Company in 2016.


Silver Bay by JoJo Moyes

9780143126485_p0_v2_s192x300Although first published in 2006, Silver Bay only recently made it to American shores. I found it sitting on the “new adult fiction” shelf at my library and snatched it up. JoJo Moyes is among my favorite storytellers.

A small coastal town in Australia, reminiscent of those old beach towns before the developers moved in to modernize and attract hordes of tourists, provides the setting for this mix of romance and adventure.  The town survives through its tours of migrating whales, and its inhabitants have all lived there happily – until those developers discover it.

Kathleen, the 76 year old owner of the only hotel in town, has the deserved reputation of being the hard-crusted, soft-hearted matron.  Her niece, Liza, with her eleven year old daughter Hannah, have escaped from London to live with her.  Liza’s secret unravels as she connects with the young handsome Londoner who has come to town to secretly scout the possibilities for a new resort.

In addition to the romance, Moyes provides information on whales – not enough to rival Melville but adding an informative note to the narrative. The story evolved quickly and the book left me as satisfied as watching an old romantic movie on television.

Silver Bay is Moyes’ fourth novel, before The Last Letter from Your Lover (8th) and One Plus One (9th), her more popular books. Here’s a list with my reviews in red, if you’d like to look for more:

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

9780525954682_p0_v2_s260x420Brooke Davis offers a humorous and thoughtful view of death, grief, and growing old in Lost and Found.  Motivated by the sudden death of her mother, the Australian author uses the voice of Millie Bird, an abandoned seven year-old, to examine loss. Millie’s mantra may seem harsh, but it is also reassuring:

You’re all going to die. It’s okay.

The story revolves around three main characters and a mannequin:  Millie Bird, a seven year old with an unusual interest in death  – abandoned by her widowed mother in the ladies underwear department; Karl the Touch Typist, an elderly refugee from assisted living, still mourning the death of his wife; Agatha Pantha, an 82 year old recluse, bitter over the death of her unfaithful husband; and Manny, the life-sized store dummy dressed in an Aloha shirt.

The four fugitives connect and start a road trip in search of Millie’s mother.  Led by the perspicacious Millie, who has dubbed herself superhero Captain Funeral,  the elders discover strength in breaking the rules – they are not dead yet.   As she changes voices, from the wise young heroine to the two adventurous elderly protectors, Davis observes and philosophizes about old age and death – and inserts a variety of irreverent scenes for comic relief.   The ending is hopeful and realistic, but not happy.

Davis includes her journal article “Relearning the World” in the appendix of this short tale (289 pages), offering clear insights into her mindset as she wrote the book. Telling the story as a seven year old gave her permission to be funny and quirky while revealing a thoughtful perspective on a difficult topic.

The Night Guest

Fiona McFarlane’s “The Night Guest” combines the fears of growing old with insights on watching loved ones diminish. With detailed descriptions, McFarlane transports the reader to New South Wales, Australia, as newly widowed Ruth battles her loneliness and oncoming dementia. The storyline turns into a thriller with the introduction of the formidable Frida and the lurking tiger in the house.

As Frida’s stalking of a seemingly helpless elder develops, McFarlane is careful to maintain the drama and the possibility that all will end well. It doesn’t. Her topic is timely as seniors strive to maintain their independence, sometimes fighting off increasing physical and mental decline. Those villains who would pounce on their vulnerability are everywhere. Placing Ruth’s sons in Hong Kong and New Zealand, McFarlane noted in an interview:
” I am interested in the ways in which older people are suffering from different forms of isolation, as families are becoming more geographically spread out.”

“The Night Guest” followed me from the book group in Edinburgh’s Waterstones to a display in a bookstore window in Oxford. When I finished, I was reminded of my mother’s susceptibility in her 93rd year, and wondered about my own in the future. “The Night Guest” is a thoughtful read with the flavor of mystery and a dramatic climax.