Category Archives: Australian Author

Wimmera by Mark Brandi

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Wimmera is the debut novel of Australian author Mark Brandi, who won the 2016 Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger Award for this novel.

To begin with, for non-Australian readers, the Wimmera is a district in the north-west of Victoria. It is mostly flat, except for the Grampians mountain range, with a handful of remote small towns. Summers in the Wimmera are harsh and these days the towns are dying as they become less viable in their farming communities.

Wimmera is the story of two primary school-aged boys, Ben and Fab, who were friends growing up during the late 1980s in Stawell, one of the larger towns in the Wimmera district.

There is a strong sense of unease around the normality in this town. A girl from Ben’s street suicides by hanging herself on the clothesline in the backyard, and very soon after a creepy bloke who likes Ben a bit too much moves in to her old house. Fab is bullied at school, and although Ben is able to protect him at school, he is unable to help Fab at home when his father belts him and his mother.

I’m not all that familiar with teenage boys, and it is a long time since I was a teenage girl who thought teenage boys were great, but I found the portrayal of Ben’s growing sexuality to be sordid and confused, and the shadow over him left me feeling unhappy and disturbed.

Ben and Fab grow up and go their separate ways, but when a body is found years later their paths cross again. There are two time-lines in this story, the first of the boys as children and the second of Fab as an adult, trapped in Stawell but dreaming of a better life.

The story brought back a lot of memories for me from the 1980s, from watching The Wonder Years on television to the prestige which came from owning certain types of sneakers, although these happier memories didn’t make up for the terrible things that some of the adult characters did to the children. While the violence and cruelty is not explicit, Wimmera is not a story for those who cannot stomach cruelty done to children by evil men.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Mark Brandi’s works in the future, but would prefer him to write a more palatable class of crime.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian author Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book.*

Secondly, don’t be put off because most of the story takes place during World War 2. I avoid war novels and wouldn’t have read The Narrow Road to the Deep North had I realised what the setting was before starting, but as it turned out, I read most of this emotionally draining, gruelling story with a huge lump in my throat. There were times I had to stop reading because I was feeling too much to continue. I can list other books which have made me feel this way with just the fingers on one hand.

“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare, and as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, on more Ithaca for which he was forever bound.”

And lastly, don’t be put off by the beginning of the book which doesn’t do justice to the rest of the story. It also took me a while to get used to quotation marks not being used to differentiate dialogue within the text.

He was your cobber?

Like all immigrants, he seemed to have an erring instinct for the oldest, truest words in his new language.

The story follows the life of a Tasmanian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who for most of the book is a Japanese prisoner of war on the Burmese Railway. The story is interspersed with the story of Dorrigo’s love affair with his uncle’s wife, Amy, who for Dorrigo, no other woman ever lived up to. Later, the story switches to Dorrigo’s life after the war.

The stories of the Australian POWs while building what became known as the Death Railway in The Narrow Road to the Deep North are harrowing, but the story does not treat the characters with pity. Instead, I realised that the POWs themselves had no room in their quest for their own survival for pity, either for themselves or for anyone else, although that didn’t mean that they didn’t show kindness to each other, generosity and a spirit which made me feel overwhelmingly patriotic at times (for an Australian society which no longer exists).

“Darky Gardiner loathed Tiny, thought him a fool and would do anything to keep him alive. Because courage, survival, love–all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.”

The way the Japanese soldiers are portrayed is interesting, in that their cruelty to the POWs is shown to be the only way they can behave and still be Japanese.

“Humans are only one of many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.”

I’m taking a break from reading for a few days because I’m not ready for another story yet, as The Narrow Road to the Deep North still has too strong a hold of my heart and imagination. And yes, I’ll be working my way through other books by Richard Flanagan soon.

*My reading tastes can be quite low-brow, I often enjoy books that critics bag out, and dislike books they praise.

Happy Australia Day, everyone.

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Watching You by Michael Robotham

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Watching You is another fast and enjoyable read by Michael Robotham, although I wasn’t as tempted to stay up all night reading this as I have been with some of his other books.

The story follows a single mother of two, Marnie Logan, whose husband Daniel mysteriously disappeared a year ago. Marnie is working as an escort to pay off a gambling debt incurred by Daniel before his disappearance. When a gangster who pimps for Marnie dies, she is investigated by the police.

Marnie is a heroine who we like and feel sorry for, and as the story unfolds, become concerned for her wellbeing. She is under the care of a clinical psychologist, Doctor Joe O’Loughlin for depression, but Joe is also interested in learning more about Marnie’s complicated past. Historically, people who have done the wrong thing by Marnie have been punished in extraordinarily vindictive ways although it is unclear if Marnie is the perpetrator, or if someone else is acting on her behalf.

The plot is complicated with plenty of twists. During the first few chapters I suspected someone and something and felt very clever until I realised that the author had been playing me! It turns out that I believed what the author wanted me to all along! When I figured out exactly who to be worried about – once the author was ready for me to know, I then had the worry of watching if everyone would be okay…

Most of Michael Robotham’s earlier books feature Joe and another character, Vincent Ruiz, but I’ve been reading them out of order. Watching You worked as a stand-alone, but I intend to read the rest of the series in order.

 

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Bay of Martyrs by Tony Black and Matt Neal

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I have been hanging out to read Bay of Martyrs by Tony Black and Matt Neal, who set their crime-thriller in my old stamping grounds of Warrnambool, Peterborough and Port Fairy, on the south-west coast of Victoria, Australia.

Part of the danger in reading a novel set in a familiar location is that the reader will pick up on inaccuracies or poetic licence to do with the place which might detract from their enjoyment. I struggled with this initially but then settled in and enjoyed the story, deciding that a reader who doesn’t know this part of the world wouldn’t care about the parts which annoyed me.

The story is fast-paced and believable, apart from the crime-rate in Warrnambool. There were heaps of dead people by the end of this story, and even though locals always turn to the death notices in The Standard first to see who they know, it is rare for anyone in town to die of anything other than natural causes.

The story starts with the body of a young woman found dead at the Bay of Martyrs, a Peterborough beach. Local police write off her death as misadventure and fail to investigate further. A stereotypical hard-drinking, smoking, drug-using journalist, Clayton Moloney, thinks there is more going on and starts poking around. Luckily Clay is mates with a cop or two, knows plenty of drug-dealers and regularly shags someone who is able to provide him with a copy of the dead woman’s autopsy report.

Clay teams up with an Irish photographer who is new to town and together they follow a number of stories, including the expansion of the airport (although as locals point out, they would prefer money to be spent on better roads) and a few human-interest stories such as people turning 100, although things become more interesting when another woman dies in mysterious circumstances.

When Clay is beaten up by a couple of thugs in The Warrnambool Hotel, Clay realises he is closer to finding out what supposedly doesn’t exist and of course, being beaten up makes him keener than ever to find out what is going on so he can get the story onto the front page of the paper.

The story resolved satisfactorily although there were no big surprises about who the bad guys were or how the story unfolded.

I haven’t read many co-authored books but didn’t notice differences in style. I believe Matt Neal is a journo at The Standard and Tony Black has written a number of well-received crime novels. The characters are worthy of a series but in reality, not that much happens in Warrnambool…

 

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The photo below is of the Bay of Islands from the top of the track which leads down to the Bay of Martyrs beach. Not dark and gloomy enough to go on the cover of a crime novel, but in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places on earth.

 

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Each time I tried to buy Bay of Martyrs in Warrnambool the book was sold out and book-sellers were waiting on more stock, so clearly I’m not the only one who enjoyed reading a story set in a familiar location.

 

 

 

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The Flywheel by Erin Gough

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The Flywheel by Erin Gough came to my attention via the Readings Summer Reading Guide a few years ago. I have a ‘No Junk Mail’ sticker on my letterbox, but go out of my way to make sure I get this catalogue every year, then spend hours happily poring over the book reviews and recommendations.

Ordinarily, I would not have read The Flywheel. For starters, it is Youth Fiction. Secondly, it is teen romance. But Readings recommended the book, so I read it.

The heroine, Delilah, is 17 and lives in Sydney. Her mother ran off with another man last year and her father is off seeing the world, leaving Del home alone, running the family cafe, The Flywheel, with the help of a manager.

Things get complicated when the cafe’s manager gets picked up for a traffic infringement and is deported. Del hires a new manager, but then catches him with his fingers in the till and gives him the sack. Del decides on a whim to leave school and manage the café herself.

Del’s decision to leave school was also made because she was being bullied. Del is openly gay and the mean girls have it in for her.

Del has loads of adventures with her friends, a few false starts to romance and in the meantime almost runs the café into the ground. Things come right in the end though.

I liked that the characters sometimes made bad decisions, but eventually worked out better ways to do things, and I also liked that the characters felt strongly about community issues, such as saving local libraries. Del is a likeable heroine who is resilient and has a strong character. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to read another Youth Fiction book by this author, I would recommend The Flywheel to teenage readers.

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Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

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Everywhere I Look is a collection of memories, essays and true stories by respected Australian author Helen Garner.

I attempted to read Monkey Grip by Helen Garner a few years ago and while I enjoyed the author’s actual style, the idiocy of the characters annoyed me so much that I didn’t finish the novel. My notes from that review were; “I just couldn’t like them (the characters) enough to keep reading. I didn’t need to finish this to take the lesson – don’t fall in love or get involved with drug addicts, you will regret it.”

Everywhere I Look was broken up into loosely put together sections which occasionally offer life lessons. The first section, White Paint and Calico, are the author’s personal stories about home and moving house. The messages I took from this section is that home is where the ukulele is, that there is no such thing as a perfect table, and that moving house is up there with the strain of a death in the family, a new job or a divorce. I particularly enjoyed Suburbia, where the author shared the joys of living in a suburb, compared to previous experiences of having lived in ‘hipper’ places, such as a share-house in the inner-city.

There are so many stories of friendships with well-known and respected Australian authors that I got the feeling that Helen Garner knows and corresponds with everyone who counts, but my favourite was Eight Views of Tim Winton, who is a great Australian writer. I would love to know if Tim Winton really said, “Thanks, Mate,” to a priest instead of “Amen,” when taking communion at church, but even if this didn’t happen, it is a good story. I expect the gist of ‘Amen’ and ‘Thanks, Mate’ are much the same.

I found From Frogmore, Victoria to be the most heart-rending story. Helen Garner wrote about her visit with Raimond Gaita, who wrote the tragic memoir, Romulus, My Father. During the visit, Helen and Raimond visited many of the places where the events he had written about occurred, leaving me feeling flattened by the end of the story. For example; this is the shovel we buried the dog with, this is the tower someone jumped off when they suicided, and so on. I’m not being flippant here, Raimond Gaita’s family experienced terrible tragedies and the entire tour around Frogmore was punctuated by sad memories.

The true stories which featured in On Darkness would be familiar to most Australians. Punishing Karen was difficult to read. This was the true story of a schoolgirl who gave birth at home after hiding her pregnancy from her parents and also from herself, mentally and emotionally. Also difficult to read was The Singular Rosie, which tells of Helen Garner interviewing Rosie Batty about how she had coped since her son Luke was tragically and shockingly killed by his father. Another story tells of Robert Farquharson, who killed his three sons to get revenge on his former wife. Helen Garner says she was strongly criticised while writing a book about this tragedy for expressing sympathy for men in the position of being unable to cope emotionally when their wives leave them.

I actually liked reading the funny little stories about what Helen Garner’s grand-children said and did. Funny, because when I get bailed up by someone who wants to tell me stories about their kid, or grandchildren or even their dog, I, like most people, would prefer to throw myself under a bus rather than indulge the proud story-teller for longer than ten minutes. I think Helen Garner’s stories were bearable because they were short and to the point.

Helen Garner’s crowning glory though, for me, was her opinion about the indignities of old age. Being patronised by anyone is irritating at any age, but when Helen Garner can run circles around most people intellectually, I’m sure that being patronised by someone who looks as if they should still be in nappies is particularly frustrating. I loved that in The Insults of Age, she says she now saunters “about the world in overalls,” tears strips off idiots and confronts people who are doing the wrong thing without fear. I also like that she is honest about wanting to punch people’s lights out when they are stupid… because thinking about punching people’s lights out might not be socially acceptable, but is not a sin either (in my opinion, anyway).

Helen Garner’s style is straightforward and honest. Her voice is so strong that reading her stories make me believe that I am having an actual face-to-face conversation with her. Even though I am not speaking in this conversation, she still manages to tell me what I would want to know if I were participating.

I don’t think I will try Monkey Grip again, but will instead continue with Helen Garner’s non-fiction. She has written several books about defining Australian events, which I think will suit my reading tastes better.

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Six Degrees by Honey Brown

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So, for those who don’t already know, I read on my hour-long train trip to and from work. This morning, I started Six Degrees by Australian author Honey Brown and was blushing before the train had left my station. I’m more than a little prudish, so I considered sliding the book into my backpack and looking out the window for the next hour. What if someone I knew saw me reading about threesomes and the like? But intrigued, I read a little more, with the book tilted into the carriage wall so that no one could see what was on the page, holding my coat underneath the book so no one would see the cover and realise that I was not reading a crime novel.

And don’t tell me no one cares about what other people are reading. All of the readers on my train try to see what other people are reading. Sometimes we even hold our books up to show each other. Just last week I tried all the way home to see what the bloke across from me was reading, only to find out his book was about Quantum Mechanics. Big disappointment…

Six Degrees is a collection of six short erotic stories, all set in Australia with loosely-linked characters. I read three and a half of the stories. The stories are quite well written, but I didn’t finish the book because it wasn’t to my taste. This is a reflection on me rather than the author because like I said, I’m a prude. I am going to find other books by this author and read them as soon as possible, as I believe she usually writes horror/thriller novels.

Earlier this week when I was reading a book which I was not embarrassed to show anyone, I sat next to a woman on the train whose husband was sitting across from her. (At least I presume he was her husband, because they both wore wedding rings and they kissed goodbye when he disembarked at North Melbourne). Throughout the journey he continually tried to get her attention by patting her on the leg, but she was having none of it and kept swatting him away, in order to keep reading her book. My suggestion to him would be to employ some of the tactics the characters in Six Degrees used so that he might enjoy more of his wife’s attention…

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Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Jasper

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is an Australian coming of age novel. I thought this book was a ripper, which for non-Australians, translates as extremely high praise. The story was made into a movie earlier this year, and starred Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving. I am yet to see the movie but am excited to see how the story translates on film.

The title character, Jasper Jones, is a teenage boy who lives in a small fictional town in Western Australia in the mid-1960’s. Jasper is an underdog, a mixed-race Aboriginal boy whose mother is dead and whose father is a good-for-nothing drunk. One night, Jasper knocks at the window of Charlie Bucktin for help.

Charlie is the story’s narrator, and he is one of the most likeable characters I have ever come across in Australian contemporary fiction. Charlie is an only child whose father, an English teacher, encourages him to read good literature. Charlie daydreams of becoming a famous writer and being feted by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. Charlie’s mother, like most married Australian women of the time, is a housewife. Her unhappiness with her situation is extreme.

Charlie doesn’t hesitate to go with Jasper when he knocks at his window, even though Jasper is the boy who everyone’s parents warn their children about. Jasper takes Charlie to a secret spot near the river, where they find Jasper’s young girlfriend dead, hanging from a tree in her nightie. Jasper says the girl has been murdered and that if the police come they will blame him for the crime. Charlie is certain that Jasper has not murdered the girl and together, they cut her down from the tree, weigh her body down with stones and throw her into the river.

This takes place in the first chapter of the book. The story isn’t a murder-mystery, although it is satisfying to learn the truth about the girl’s death before the story finishes. The story is about what happens afterwards, as Charlie learns of small-town secrets, family violence, racism and poverty, the value of friendship, experiences first love and learns resilience.

Charlie’s best friend is Jeffrey Lu, who with his parents came to Australia from Vietnam as refugees. From my memory of growing up in a small community a little later than when this book is set, the degree of racism that the Lu family experience from the town’s people is not over-exaggerated.

Jeffrey is a gorgeous character who is mad about cricket. The author’s use of cricket and Jeffrey’s hero-worship of Australian cricketing legend Dougie Walters really set the time and the scene for me, as I read about the boys listening to Test Matches on the radio. This made me remember my own childhood when the cricket was on the wireless and it was considered safe to let the sun beat down on bare shoulders. Children ran wild without anyone’s parents knowing or caring where they were, so long as they turned up for meals.

I loved reading about Charlie and Jeffrey’s arguments about which super-hero was the best, and about Charlie’s fear of insects. Their in-jokes were hilarious. Jeffrey swearing in front of his mother because she didn’t understand enough English to clip him over the ears brought me to tears of laughter, and I howled again at the way Jeffrey’s mother eventually caught on to his crime and gave him the punishment he deserved.

The story reads like Youth Fiction, but with enough literary references and big themes to be satisfying for adult readers. Just ignore the blurb on the front cover which says that The Monthly reviewer likens Jasper Jones to “an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird.” I always think that comparing books to other books is unfair and that this practice often sets a good book up to fail in a reader’s expectations.

I think Craig Silvey is a writer whose work will get better and better, and I can’t wait to read whatever he writes next.

 

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The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

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I would have passed over The Women in Black by Australian author Madeleine St John had not Orange Pekoe Reviews called this book “a perfect novel” in her recent review.

https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/8378494/posts/997638178

Who would have thought that hiding behind this cover is a novel by a nearly forgotten author which deserves to be shelved with the very best of Australian literature? Not me.

The Women in Black is set in Sydney in the 1950s and tells the stories of four women who work together at Goode’s, Sydney’s most prestigious department store. Goode’s is fictional, and is most likely based on David Jones, which would have been the place to shop in Sydney during this time if you were a woman with discretionary money to spend. The women working in DJ’s also wear black and are frighteningly elegant.

Patty has been married for Frank for over ten years without any sign of a baby coming along to put an end to her employment with Goode’s, but a black lace nightie may change that. Her husband Frank is described as “a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel not violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.” Sounds to me like the definition of most Australian man from any era. Personally, I quite like them.

Fay has been swept off her feet by unsuitable men too many times to count. She “never seemed to meet the sort of man she dreamed of: someone who would respect her as well as desiring her; someone who would love her and wish to marry her.” An invitation to a New Year’s Eve party from a workmate opens Faye’s eyes to possibilities other than the usual men she meets.

Young Lisa is on the cusp of becoming a woman, and dreams of becoming a poet, while Magda, who runs the ‘Model Gowns’ section in Goode’s is an elegant ‘New Australian’. Together, the four women work in the Ladies Frocks Department, providing the women of Sydney with beautiful dresses during the lead up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The story is told by an all-seeing narrator who tells the story as it unfolds, and who is not above giving the reader a wink from time to time.

The story is deceptively simple, touching and funny. The characters’ voices are as Australian as all get-out, and the phrases used are things which adults used to say when I was a child. Australia’s population has changed so much that these voices have mostly been lost and reading The Women in Black made me nostalgic to hear them again.

I loved this book so much that I went to my favourite bookshop, Hill of Content in Melbourne, and bought my own copy. I would love to find Madeleine St John’s other books too but was told they are now out of print, so I will be scrounging around second-hand bookshops and op-shops until I can get my hands on them. Australian director Bruce Beresford optioned this book to make into a movie and I wish he would hurry up and make the movie.

 

 

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The Dry by Jane Harper

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The Dry by Australian author Jane Harper came to my attention via a review by Fiction Fan, who often bears the responsibility for adding to my list of ‘want to reads,’ but over the past months I’ve seen this book everywhere; people are reading it on the train, there are displays in bookshops and interviews with the author in the newspapers. Most excitingly, when I picked up the Dymocks Top 101 booklist for 2017, I spotted the title at #17.

https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/the-dry-aaron-falk-1-by-jane-harper/

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a fictional Victorian farming community. My guess is that Kiewarra is based on a Mallee district, maybe Kerang, or Ouyen, where the bakery is famous for their Vanilla Slice. Families up that way have owned their land for generations and they do it tough during droughts. In this story, the whole community is struggling financially and emotionally because of drought.

The Dry starts with the tragic death of three people in a family. On the surface, it appears that Luke Hadler shot his wife and primary school aged son before shooting himself because he couldn’t cope with the prospect of losing of the family farm. Luke’s baby daughter was spared and later found in the house, howling her little head off.

Aaron Falk was Luke’s friend when they were growing up and he returns to Kiewarra from Melbourne for the funeral. Falk is now an investigator with the Australian Federal Police, but as a teenager, he and his father were forced to leave town after the death of a girl whom he and Luke had been friends with.

When Falk is asked by Luke’s parents to investigate the murder-suicide he agrees reluctantly. Most of the people of Kiewarra remember him and the circumstances of him leaving town, and he is harassed and threatened by many of the townspeople, including the girl’s father and cousin.

Despite the harassment, Falk sticks around and teams up with the local copper, Sergeant Raco, who has also been poking about on the Hadler farm. Raco is a good bloke, happily married with a baby on the way and he is smart enough to have noticed irregularities in the case. Raco is also an outsider in Kiewarra but he knows enough about the dynamics of small towns to make the locals toe the line.

As Falk and Raco investigate the deaths, further mysteries arise about the death of the girl all of those years ago, particularly about Luke’s possible involvement.

The language in this book is spot-on, although Australians swear a lot more than this book would suggest. The evocative details which gave the story an Australian feel were also beautifully done, although I could have done without the image of the huntsman crawling around Falk’s hotel room; as an arachnophobe, I would have killed the spider with my shoe on its first appearance.

The country-town atmosphere also felt rang true. Everyone in Kiewarra knew most of their neighbours’ business and were quick to judge each other. They ignored issues which should have been addressed when they were afraid of their own livelihoods being harmed, but they also rallied around each other in ways which doesn’t happen in the city, where a person or family can be as anonymous as they want to be.

I have to admit that I had a feeling about how this story would end and was very excited when I was proved right. This did not spoil my enjoyment of the story in any way and I strongly recommend The Dry to others.

Force of Nature is the next book by this author featuring Aaron Falk and I cannot wait to read it.

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