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Scrublands by Chris Hammer

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Scrublands is a tightly plotted, brutal book that focuses on the aftermath of a mass murder in a small Riverina town near the NSW/Victorian border. 

When burnt-out journalist, Martin Scarsden, arrives in Riversend to write about the tragedy that brought an already struggling town to its knees, little does he suspect that his ethics and what remains of his personal integrity will be compromised. Finding a place still reeling from the multiple deaths as well as the loss of the man who committed the murders, he tries to befriend locals with varying degrees of success. After all, these are people who have been hurt by media attention, used as fodder for sales, entertainment and ratings as opposed to understanding, and are naturally suspicious of Martin and his intentions. 

But when Martin becomes more involved than he ever suspected he could and his career and that of his closest associates is put on the line in an effort to uncover the truth, Martin knows that he has to get the bottom of not only why a priest turned a gun on locals, but the other mysteries that are plaguing the area – no matter what the personal cost might be.

This is a taut, terrific thriller that had me turning the pages well into the night. The descriptions of the town, the landscape with its bleak skies, unrelenting heat and the tangled scrublands and what they conceal, as well as the peculiar inhabitants with their various peccadilloes, was mesmerizing. You could feel the hot air burning lungs, the perspiration drying on skin, as well as the malaise that comes with coping with such high temperatures. The receding river, the desire for rain, for water, for life, haunts the book, as do the various secrets the townspeople keep, the gruesome deaths and their impact. 

Scarsden isn’t always a likeable protagonist, but he’s a self-reflective one that finds more than he ever bargained for in the small, dying town of Riversend with one deadly story to tell and then some. It’s a novel that will grip you by the throat and not release you until the last page. Terrific. 

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