The Last Anniversary (2005): Liane Moriarty

★★★

In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, two teenage sisters find a baby in an abandoned house on a small Australian island. Connie and Rose explain to reporters how they’d been invited to tea at Alice Munro’s house; how they arrived to find the kettle boiling and a marble cake cooling on the kitchen table, but no sign of Alice or Jack Munro anywhere in the house. Their clothes remained in the wardrobe; their baby daughter lay sleeping in her crib; but all that remained of the Munros was an overturned chair and a few specks on the floor, which might be blood. The Munro Baby Mystery swiftly becomes a famous puzzle, sparking conspiracy theories and the inevitable flood of curious tourists. Connie and Rose, ever entrepreneurial, are waiting for them with cups of tea and slices of cake (at a modest price). Seventy years on, the Munro House on Scribbly Gum Island has become a beloved tourist attraction, and Connie, Rose and (former) baby Engima have become wealthy women. But Connie’s death sets in motion a train of events that will place the Munro Baby Mystery under tighter scrutiny than ever before.

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Nine Perfect Strangers (2018): Liane Moriarty

★★½

This is the third Liane Moriarty book I’ve read (I’m working backwards through my recent reading, so bear with me) and my least favourite so far – which feels rather ironic, given that the receipt of a bad review causes such emotional crisis for one of the characters in this book. The formula is similar to that in Moriarty’s other books: a group of apparently successful, well-adjusted people come together and begin to realise that nothing is quite as glossy and simple as it seems. In the other Moriarty novels I’ve read – Truly Madly Guilty and The Husband’s Secret – the action unfolds in the wealthy Australian suburbs among the chattering classes. The unsettling elements arise organically from the complexities of everyday life. In Nine Perfect Strangers, however, our characters are taken out of their routines and thrown into a more ‘engineered’ situation. They meet at Tranquillum House, an exclusive health resort offering a ten-day cleanse that will lead to personal and spiritual transformation. All they need to do is follow the personalised schedules designed by the resort staff; but little do they know that these schedules have been designed to press them to their limits.

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Tongues of Serpents (2010): Naomi Novik

★★★½

Temeraire: Book VI

Speaking of dragons, it’s been ages since I caught up with Temeraire and his captain Laurence in Naomi Novik’s lovingly-created alternate Napoleonic history. Luckily the library had just the right book at the right time and so I plunged in with gusto. Novik’s novels choose a different part of the world each time, to add variety both to the adventures and to the kinds of creatures we encounter: for this is a world full of dragons, serpents and other strange creatures. And our heroes’ current location is home to some of the strangest creatures even without the blessing of fantasy: as the curtain rises, we find gentleman and dragon newly arrived in Australia, exiled as punishment for their supposed treason. But it’s a sensitive time in the colony and the sudden arrival of two dragons (not to mention three soon-to-hatch eggs) adds a new frisson to the prickly aftermath of the Rum Rebellion.

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The Strays: Emily Bitto

★★★★½

The Strays has enjoyed great success in its native Australia and it’s easy to see why. It brims with the ribald, feverish glamour of bohemian life, seen through the eyes of a narrator who grows to adulthood on the margins of an exotic world so very different from her own humdrum existence. Romantic and poignant, it manages to feel much larger than its slim size would suggest. There are hints of Brideshead Revisited, of The Secret History and The Lessons, of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and, like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, it focuses on an intensely-rendered, many-layered picture of adolescent female friendship. It’s a stunning debut.

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