“In an isolated country town ravaged by drought, a charismatic young priest opens fire on his congregation, killing five men before being shot dead himself.
A year later, journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals don’t fit with the accepted version of events.
Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking discovery rocks the town. The bodies of two backpackers – missing since the time of the massacre – are found in the scrublands. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is the one in the spotlight.
Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to uncover a truth that becomes more complex with every twist. But there are powerful forces determined to stop him, and he has no idea how far they will go to make sure the town’s secrets stay buried.”
Welcome to the blog today and to my review of my first #15BooksofSummer read for 2019 – Scrublands by Chris Hammer. Scrublands was published by Wildfire Books in January 2019 and is the author’s debut.
As soon as I saw this book I knew I had to read it. Scrublands called out to me. Probably because the blurb and the cover ooze that small town isolation I love so much in my novels. What I didn’t consider was the setting and I should have (particularly with a book called Scrublands). I’ve read a number of Australian crime fiction novels in the past and the vast, unrelenting Australian landscape always plays a part. How can it not? It’s something us Brits just can’t comprehend in some respects. It’s a character in its own right. The scrublands surrounding the small town of Riversend are as much a part of this story as Martin, our main character, is.
Journalist, Martin Scarsden, is sent by his editor to Riversend. A dying Australian country town suffering from a prolonged drought whilst trying to recover after a devastating shooting a year ago. The perpetrator of the attack was the local priest who, without explanation, callously took the lives of a number of local men. No one claims to know why the priest opened fire. Martin has been tasked with getting to know the townsfolk and find out how Riversend is coping one year on from the tragedy. What becomes perfectly clear to Martin is that some of the residents may know more than they’re letting on. When a second tragedy strikes and the bodies of two backpackers are found, fingers start pointing back to the priest and his unexplained act of violence one year ago. Once again Riversend and Martin are thrown into the media spotlight. But someone is determined to keep the town’s secrets. No matter what…
This is a slow burn of a novel and I have to be completely honest and confess that at times I was desperate for the story to move on a little faster. Saying that the slow pace did feel appropriate to the setting. I don’t think I could move particularly fast in scorching heat without a drop of water either! This is a complex story with many threads running off in different directions but I found it fairly easy to follow what was going on.
Martin Scarsden is an interesting character and one I didn’t warm to (I’m not sure the reader is supposed to like him though). His suffering of PTSD which is discussed at several points throughout the book made him a lot more ‘human’ in my eyes. He suffers from a recurring nightmare where he relives a traumatic incident which spanned a number of days. Yet beats himself up emotionally for being so ‘weak’ when others have suffered a great deal more. At other times his desire for a story overrode every interaction and relationship, so I appreciated these more introspective moments.
The writing is beautiful and I was able to picture the scenes Hammer describes quite clearly in my mind. There is one scene in particular where a fire starts in the scrubland near a small number of houses, destroying everything in its path. The claustrophobic and disorientating black smoke, the fierce heat of the flames and the terror described by the author are of a cinematic quality.
Would I recommend this book? I would, yes. A close-knit community with secrets they want to keep hidden. A prying journalist in their midst ready to expose the truth no matter what the ramifications and an unsolved mystery at the very heart of it all. Recommended.
Scrublands by Chris Hammer was published in the UK by Wildfire Books on 11th July 2019 and is available in hardcover, paperback, audio and ebook formats (please note, some of the following links are affiliate links which mean I receive a small percentage of the purchase price at no extra cost to you): | amazon.co.uk | amazon.com | Waterstones | BookDepository | Goodreads |
Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV’s flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than 30 countries on six continents. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, current affairs correspondent for SBS TV and a senior political journalist for The Age.
His first book, The River, published in 2010 to critical acclaim, was the recipient of the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Manning Clark House National Cultural Award.
Chris has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master’s degree in international relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra with his wife, Dr Tomoko Akami. The couple have two children.
Author Links: | Facebook |