Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

A cursory browse of book reviews about the debut novel by Jane Harper, The Dry, indicated that this was a well-written crime novel set in a fictional town in rural Victoria with a strong sense of place and characterisation. It is all this and more.

Aaron Falk, a Federal Police investigator, returns to his home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his best mate from childhood, Luke Hadler. But the funeral service isn’t just for Luke; it is also for his wife and young son. And according to the police, Luke is responsible for their deaths. Falk’s return to the town to attend the funeral is ensured when he receives a cryptic note from Luke’s father, referring to a secret relating to the reason why Falk and his father were forced to leave the town decades before.

This is a book about secrets, big and small, in a town where everyone either knows everyone else’s secrets or has a theory about what they might be. Falk’s reappearance in the town sparks a spate of attacks, directly and otherwise, as the holders of the biggest secrets become increasingly desperate. There are twists and turns and dead ends and the frustrations of running an informal investigation quickly become apparent. And to make it all the more interesting, Falk isn’t your normal type of detective.

The story is set against the backdrop of the worst drought on record. It is so dry that everything crackles, the heat is so intense and there seems no end to it. The climate is a constant presence in the story.

I listened to this book as read by Steve Shanahan and it was addictive. I found myself arranging pockets of time so I could listen in sections, then during the breaks I was thinking about the characters and what had happened and who might be responsible for the various crimes. The questioning of how well you can really know someone, and how the keeping of a seemingly small secret can have major implications, is cleverly demonstrated.

The portrayal of raw emotions following the deaths is deftly portrayed, from the grief of the parents left behind in a small town to bear the scrutiny of their neighbours, to the anger of memories of earlier incidents. Everyone has an opinion and viewpoints are hard to shift; disdain shows through the pretence of hospitality and there is also blatant narrow-mindedness. But there are moments of humour and mateship too.

This book made me ponder more than once on the role of secrets in each of our narratives, whether intentional or otherwise. I highly recommend it as an engrossing read.

Harper’s website is here, including links to the first chapter, book updates and reviews.

Bowenfels Gun Emplacements, Lithgow

Over time I am learning more about Lithgow and its history, and I was vaguely aware that it played an important role in providing guns for Australian troops during both World Wars. Lithgow had been chosen as the preferred site for small arms manufacture in 1909 after much lobbying and extensive consideration of various sites in regional Australia. A combination of cheap coal and an established steel industry in the town helped with the site selection.

In June 1912 the factory was formally opened with its own powerhouse, tool room and forge shop, employing nearly 200 people. This swelled to about 1300 during World War I; following the war the numbers fell steadily during the Great Depression before picking up again during World War II. But along with increased employment demands, there was the growing threat of air attack after Japan entered the war. As the factory was making the rifles and machine guns for the Australian Army, it was considered a potential target. Lithgow was an important location due to its mining, manufacturing and transport industries.

On 10 December 1941, 20 officers and men from the 9th Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery arrived in the town to set up sites for guns in two locations. Scenic Hill, on the approach from Windsor, and South Bowenfels, were the selected locations based on the likelihood of any attack coming from either end of the valley. The gun emplacements were commenced on 22 December 1941 and were operational on Scenic Hill from 2 January 1942, and at Bowenfels shortly after. The sites were manned 24 hours a day. A Lewis Machine Gun detachment was assigned for the close defence of the Lithgow Small Arms Factory with the machine gun installed on the factory roof.

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Emplacement with replica gun

The Bowenfels site had been a farm, and the existing infrastructure was used to provide camouflage. There was a farmhouse, manse, cattle yards, outhouses and pigpens: these were put to use by the soldiers who manned the site. Further modifications included the skeleton construction of a barn and gravel roads to give the impression of a normal farm layout from above. Sections were removed from the barn roof for observation and rangefinder areas, and one gun was located within an orchard. Trees were shaped out of scrap metal and nets used to disguise the guns. Concrete slit trenches surrounded the emplacements to protect against aircraft attack and enemy troops dropped near the guns. There were also dummy emplacements set up as decoys.

As the threat to Australia moved further north, the guns were removed during December 1943 and January 1944. It is thought that the guns and the artillery crews were sent to islands off the northern coast. The ‘hoax farm’ buildings were auctioned off after 1945.

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Replica gun with Lithgow in the background

In recent years, the Bowenfels site has been restored and replica guns installed in three of the emplacements. The site is located near Tom Lesslie Place, off Kirkley Street. It is signposted with access carved out between housing and commercial developments. The emplacements, nestled into the hillside, are surrounded by scrub and a wide scattering of rabbits. It remains as a physical reminder of a time when Lithgow was identified along with Bathurst as a valuable location under threat outside of the Sydney Fortress Area. Fortification of the industrial areas of Sydney, Newcastle and Port Kembla were the priority, but the threat of a land based enemy invasion was real and precautions were taken to prepare the town. There is an article on a re-enactment that was planned for the site here.

Sources: Lithgow Heavy Anti Aircraft Gun Stations and Dummy Station, Office of Environment & Heritage; Lithgow Mercury; Lithgow Tourism; Proud Valley – Lithgow by Ian Kirkwood, 2003; Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum.

 

Micro and Macro Moments

I tend to go through phases where a thought or idea settles upon me like a fine mist; light yet with a perceptible weight. A recent thought has been about the small moments or phrases in writing that can represent much more than a handful of words otherwise might.It is the challenge of reflecting something much bigger in a concise manner.

The example I had in mind came from a short story that I wrote a few years back. It is the story of a man who is down on his luck due to either behaving badly, or spinning enough of a yarn to give the impression that something inappropriate had happened. A line towards the end reads: ‘He could smell her skin, the coarse soap scent of her.’ Reading this line years after writing it, I can still conjure up the image of a woman on an isolated property, surrounded by too much space and sheep and loneliness until the swarm of shearers arrive.

In all likelihood this line has resonance only for me, but it comes at a time when I am interested in detail. Today I went along to a photography exhibit at the Blue Mountains Heritage Centre at Blackheath. It was called Moments in Nature (from the Macro to the Majestic) and it featured the work of three local photographers: Jenny Gill, Sue Wildman and Shelley Oliver. The photos included a wide array of exquisite, close-up shots of insects, plants and a stunning spider web after a storm, as well as magnificent sunsets and sunrises, locally and further afield. Highlights included ‘Taking a Break’ featuring five zebra finches on a branch by Sue Wildman and ‘Held Safe’ by Shelley Oliver, which captured the image of a stone Buddha’s head entwined within the roots of a tree. Jenny Gill’s macro images of star fish fungi and the cavity of a sea urchin provided a different perspective.

It reminded me that there are benefits in both approaches; the broad, overarching perspective as well as the very small, detailed viewpoint. To rebalance myself I headed to the end of the road and lost myself for a while in the wonder of the Govett’s Leap lookout.

Govett's Leap, Blackheath

Govett’s Leap, Blackheath

What do you do to regain a sense of perspective in your creative life?

[Photo: insect up close, spotted in Sydney]

Summer Garden Blues

The talk for weeks in Australia has been about the heat. As we are in late summer that isn’t necessarily a surprise, but swathes of days of above average temperatures have captured the conversation of just about everyone. The heat is being felt even in the usually cooler upper Blue Mountains, with expected highs nearing forty degrees. Sustained hot weather and wind gusts lead to fire bans and warnings of catastrophic fire conditions.

There are signs of heat fatigue in the garden, but a few days of rain mid-week have helped and at present it is awash with purple and blue blooms. There are agapanthus, wisteria and petunias of a particularly deep, lush shade of purple. Hebe blossoms bristle in the breeze, a mix of magenta, bright pink and white flowers. A late blush of hibiscus blooms along the fence are a mixture of soft mauve and crimson. Tucked among dark green foliage, there is the tiny flash of purple and pink lobelia flowers.

Vincas offer up clean white petals, anchored by a deep pink centre. There are white and purple shades of alyssum, one of the favourite plants of my childhood. The odd pansy is still in flower, the self-sown plants lasting the longest. Bright pink and red fuchsia flowers abound with delicate bell-shaped blooms. The vivid green and purple of coleus leaves provide a contrast to the soft pink begonia plants set against brown foliage. The bright red petals of salvia, bookmarked along green spikes, draw the eye.

After the rain bright white daisy flowers appeared overnight. The gracious dark blue petals of an old hydrangea shrub nestle against the fence. Soft pink salmon petals of geranium plants, one of the hardiest plants I’ve had in several gardens in varying climates, endure through most conditions. And, a hidden gem, blue-studded blossoms on a plumbago variant. A constant delight.

What is blossoming in your garden?

[Photo of Chinese plumbago]

A Little Gratitude

In recent years there seems to have been a shift towards the power of gratitude in daily life, of being thankful for what you have rather than the endless pursuit of what you don’t have in your life at this time. It is a deceptively simple idea.

I have read of people using gratitude journals on a daily basis, or at least regularly, to track moments of gratitude in their life. Part of me acknowledged that this could be beneficial in various ways, but still I did nothing about it apart from being a little more mindful about the many good things in my life.

Then about a year ago a friend mentioned that various studies confirmed that one of the best things that you could do for your long-term mental health was to keep a gratitude journal. I made a mental note at the time then moved on to the next thought. It was only during November last year that it floated back up through my mind and I started to keep track of what I was grateful for. Short and sweet, three little things each day. And I’ve kept up the practice.

Off the top of my head, the main sources of gratitude in my life are my family and friends, my dog and my garden. Writing and creativity feature quite a bit too. Sometimes I am surprised at what comes to mind when I pause to think of what has brought me joy during the day. Here is a sample.

  • Watching pelicans paddle past, the almost impossibility of their gravitational pull.
  • The purple blossoms of jacaranda trees.
  • The clever reuse of old buildings as space for creative use (old dairy in Bellingen).
  • For the world having so many books of wonder.
  • For having a heart and feeling, even sad things.
  • Sunset.
  • Arriving home. Instantly better.
  • Watering the garden and finding new flowers.
  • Heavy fog on the way to work – altered perception.
  • Laughing with friends till we cry.
  • Feeling flat but writing anyway.
  • Walking with the start of a story in mind.
  • Smiling at strangers and collecting smiles in return.
  • Hearing kookaburras. Anywhere, anytime.

Do you take stock of little moments of gratitude in your life?

[Photo: a repurposed candle holder in my Mum’s garden]

A Chance Encounter, A Lasting Legacy: Lennox Bridge, Lapstone

I have passed the sign for Lennox Bridge countless times. I knew it was off the Great Western Highway, past the Blaxland McDonald’s, but that was about the sum of my knowledge. I took a detour recently, winding my way down the Old Bathurst Road. The road continues to narrow and bend until the bridge comes into view.

David Lennox, an experienced bridge builder and stonemason, had migrated to Australia from Scotland in 1832 following the death of his wife. He was spotted by Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell as Lennox was working on a stone wall in Sydney. Following the chance encounter, Mitchell noted that”Mr David Lennox, who left his stone wall at my request, and with his sleeves still tucked up” had agreed to plan and construct stone bridges as required using government – convict – labour.

Mitchell placed importance on the design of well-constructed bridges as a sign of civilised society and had been despairing over the lack of skilled tradespeople to carry out the bridgework required in the colony. Mitchell’s mountain road, formed between Cox’s original road and a zig-zag road that had been constructed in 1824 to offer an alternate road in an attempt to ease the mountain crossing, required a significant bridge at Lapstone. The road became known as Mitchell’s Pass.

Lennox Bridge was built between November 1832 and July 1833 as part of Mitchell’s Pass. Lennox had to teach the stonemason’s art to the work crew of 20 convicts. The stone for the bridge was quarried from nearby and the horseshoe shape was chosen for optimum strength. There is an early painting of the bridge by Conrad Martens here. It was the first scientifically constructed stone arch bridge of any magnitude in New South Wales, and is the oldest stone bridge on the mainland. Richmond Bridge in Tasmania, completed in 1825, is the oldest bridge in Australia in continuous use.

Shortly after the bridge was opened, a crack was spotted. Lennox inspected the damage and advised that it wasn’t serious and the bridge continued to carry all traffic westwards until 1926 when a new deviation was built along an abandoned railway line. The bridge was finally closed to traffic in 1964 when a serious crack appeared. Following repairs and restrengthening it was reopened to local traffic in 1982. It had been dismantled and rebuilt, stripped back to its original arch.

Lennox was appointed as Sub Inspector of Bridges in New South Wales a mere seven weeks after his arrival in the colony. His annual salary was £120 ‘but without any forage for a horse’. He went on to build various bridges in New South Wales and Port Phillip, near Melbourne. The legacy that he left still endures today.

There is a short video here showing the bridge from various angles, including from the roadway and the base of the bridge.

[Photo: Lennox Bridge, Lapstone]

My I Spy: something beginning with ‘Z’

All good things must come to an end, including this alphabetical quest. What a delight it has been to pay more attention to what is happening around me as I cast about for things to use in the I Spy game. This is what I have spotted beginning with Z.

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Zebra crossing at Katoomba

Zebra Crossing

Usually known as pedestrian crossings, zebra crossings help to get us safely from one side of the road to the other. Zebra crossings have been in use for over 60 years, and were nicknamed due to the original black and white design. This crossing was spotted in Katoomba.

Zig Zag Railway, Clarence

Zig Zag Railway, Clarence

Zig Zag Railway

This popular tourist attraction was opened in 1975, offering a range of popular train trips. Unfortunately it was devastated in the bushfires of 2013 when damage was incurred to major infrastructure and rolling stock. According to the website, it is hoped that passenger services will resume early this year. The Zig Zag runs along a line that was built in the 1860s to move people and produce from the western plains to Sydney. It is located at Clarence, which is about 10 kilometres east of Lithgow, and is run by volunteers. This photo was taken near the entrance of the station at Clarence, known as Zig Zag Station. There are lots of videos of the railway in better days, and there is a link to a short one here.

Zealous cockatoo snacking on figs

Zealous cockatoo snacking on figs

Zeal

I couldn’t resist this photo of a cockatoo, snacking on the fig tree in my yard with zeal. They are such raucous eaters, nibbling fruit and stripping leaves and branches as they go.

Zodiac scarf

Zodiac scarf

Zodiac Scarf

The origins of this scarf escape me, but I know it has accompanied me through several moves and I always find a use for it, wherever I am.

Zig Zag Brewery

Zig Zag Brewery

Zig Zag Brewery

A final Z reference as I spotted this bottle at a local cafe. A link to the Zig Zag Brewery in Lithgow is here.

My sincere thanks to everyone who has read these posts. It has been a been a joy to find a wide range of objects to include in this quest, and I have had quite the adventure as I have zipped off to track down elusive thoughts and ideas. The comments, suggestions and shared reminiscing in some cases has been a highlight. It has certainly been rewarding to spy with my little eye.

When will there be time to write?

Recently I listened to an interesting TED talk by Laura Vanderkam about gaining control of your free time. As a renowned expert on time management, Vanderkam is sometimes invited to contribute articles on effective time management to various publications, and she provided some examples given by others on how to save time. This included being guided by the minimum timeframe when heating up meals in the microwave – if the range is 7 to 9 minutes, take it out after 7 minutes and potentially save yourself two whole minutes! Whilst I’ve often felt rushed and time-poor, I’m thankful that I haven’t become quite so literal about it. Yet.

My key takeaway from this talk was something simple but powerful. We all have the same about of time. 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week. It is what we do with this time that matters. There was an example of a successful, extremely busy woman who ran a business and had a family and multiple other commitments. During a time management study to help understand how she managed to cope with all of these demands, a water heater flooded creating chaos and mess. It required hours of liaising with tradespeople and cleaning up and getting things back to normal, time that was already earmarked for other things. Time didn’t stop ticking, but there is an elasticity in time in that it will shift to incorporate what is necessary. The water heater had to be fixed, and life and all of its associated commitments had to be flexible enough to be prioritised and slotted in around it.

Like most people I go through periods of time when work, family and the basic requirements of living (grocery shopping, washing, cleaning, sleeping) seem to take every available moment in the day. I catch myself moaning about not having the time to sit down to finish the last draft of the short story I’ve been working on, or tease out an idea that came to me on the cusp of consciousness. But if I’m honest and realistic, I can find the time to spend on something that brings me so much pleasure.

It might mean being less pedantic about certain things, or even something basic like getting up when I’ve had a meal rather than lingering with a sense of weariness. I know if I do get up and keep moving I feel motivated and far more likely to make use of the extra few minutes snatched here and there.

How do you find time for what matters most in your creative life?

[Photo: detail of red typewriter spotted in an op shop]

A Summer Storm

Storms are a fairly common occurrence during summer in the mountains. This summer has been notable for series of days of above average temperatures, pressure and temperatures building until a storm breaks.

The weather forecast included a reference to the chance of an afternoon storm. Early on in the day this seemed optimistic at best – bright blue skies with the odd white cloud. But the heat continued to spiral and the air took on the stinging quality of a hot day.

Low rumbles on the horizon provided the briefest of warnings as birds started to screech and scurry off to more protected locations. Then the storm hit with ferocity – heavy rain that beat with gusto upon the roof, the tin reverberating with the intensity of the drops. Faster and louder, still the rain bucketed down. The gutters poured litres into the rainwater tank until it too overflowed with the heavy influx.

A brief reprieve then it was back, a brittle edge to the rain now. Not quite hail but it was a close call. Thunder continued to rumble around in a panoramic fashion. A spike of lightning offered the briefest warning before the whole house shook with the growl of noise.

Then, just as quickly as it started, it stopped. Trees heavy with moist leaves held still until the next gust of wind released some of the rain in a torrent of drops. The sky still grey and glowering, as if undecided as to whether it was quite done yet. The clouds seemed to drift off as quickly as they had gathered.

The noise of the storm was replaced by the screeching of scores of black cockatoos, wheeling across the sky as they headed for a few tall gum trees. I watched as they flew along, shouting as if to scold the sky, before they settled atop several trees. More calling out and chiacking as they fluffed out feathers, momentarily looking like large feathered fruit before taking to the wing again.

What are summer storms like in your part of the world?

[Photo: yellow-tailed black cockatoos perched high in a gum tree after a storm]

My I Spy: something beginning with ‘Y’

Yes, the end of this alphabetical adventure is just around the corner. It is tempting to write that it only felt like yesterday when I came across the idea on Pip Lincolne’s blog to play a version of I Spy. At the time I thought it was a brilliant idea, a way to make use of some of the many photos that I already have plus keep an eye out for objects in my daily life. When I reached the halfway mark I remember thinking that the alphabet was a lot longer than it seemed – the adventure takes six months from start to finish. But it has been such a treat to keep an eye out for objects, familiar and otherwise. Here is what I’ve spotted beginning with Y.

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Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (Brunfelsia)

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Brunfelsia)

This is one of my favourite plants. The shrub appeared in several spots in my grandparents’ garden on the northern beaches of Sydney. One of my best memories is of walking around the extensive garden in the late afternoon with my Nan, and with endless patience she would tell me the names of plants. They had a wide range of camellias, gorgeous shrubs and trees with a variety of flowers that lit up the garden in the cooler months. The blooms of a brunfelsia bush were modest in comparison, but I loved the mixture of dark purple, lilac and white blooms said to represent yesterday, today and tomorrow.

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Yellow

Yellow

As noted earlier in this quest, my favourite colour is green. In recent years I’ve started to gather red objects around me with yellow also starting to appear. There is something about the vibrancy of a sunflower or a bright yellow pot. This lovely glass bowl looks even lovelier with a small candle flickering within.

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Yellow Tulips, Carrington Hotel

And above are some lovely tulips spotted in the gardens of the Carrington Hotel, Katoomba in early spring.

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Platform Y, Temora

Platform Y

Passing through the central western town of Temora earlier this year, I detoured to take a photo of the old railway station. It was beautiful and ornate, and tucked up the end was Platform Y. I took a photo and continued on, discovering later that this part of the railway station has been repurposed as a youth centre. A brilliant idea and great to see the building have another life.

Have you spotted anything worth yearning for beginning with Y lately? Join me next week for the final instalment of this alphabetical extravaganza as I spy something with my little eye beginning with Z.

[Photo: yellow teapot spied at Bygone Beauties, Leura]