REVIEW: MAN DROUGHT BY RACHAEL JOHNS

MAN DROUGHT
Author: Rachael Johns
Harlequin Mira RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Man DroughtI just asked Blue Eyes if I he thought I was a romantic person. He snorted. “Yes,” he said, in the same manner children say “Derr” or “D’oh”. And yet, I’m not a big reader of romance novels – I tend to read books in which romance may or may not be part of the plot, but isn’t the main focus. That’s started to change; I suspect I will be reading more romance in the future after reading Man Drought by Rachael Johns.

Rachael’s name started popping up last year in the Australian book blogging community with lots of positive reviews about her novel, Jilted. Too busy reading other books, I simply added the book to my mental to-be-read list and picked up another book from my towering pile. When I saw the anticipation leading up to the release of Man Drought, I knew it was time to check out Rachael’s books myself. I’m glad I did; Man Drought made me smile, laugh and sigh (sometimes all at once).

Man Drought is set in the small rural town of Gibson’s Find (a fictional town about 300km from Perth); there are few women there so when 30-year-old Imogen Bates moves in and buys the pub, most of the men are pretty pleased to see her. It’s water off her back though; Imogen is still dealing with the painful loss of her husband, Jamie, a few years earlier and a relationship is not on her agenda. As far as she’s concerned, she married for life and no one could measure up to Jamie. The men simply don’t have a chance. All Imogen wants to do is pour her heart into restoring The Majestic Hotel to its former glory. She just didn’t count on meeting Gibson Black, a brooding farmer who makes it clear from the start that he’s not too pleased with her arrival.

Unlike most of his mates, Gibson likes living in a town with very few women. He once dreamed of having the kind of family his grandfather Charlie reminisces about, but badly burnt by his short-lived marriage to Serena, he’s sworn off women. In his eyes, most women can’t handle the bush and they may as well not try; just as he may as well not focus on dreams that have no hope of coming true. What he didn’t count on was the force of his attraction to the red-headed publican.

There’s a lot to love about this book. In pride of place is the smokin’ chemistry between Imogen and Gibson – these two could spark a bush fire with their heated looks (and loins!). What starts as a smouldering fire inevitably builds to a blazing passion … but will their baggage and guilt burn the flame too fast? Johns skilfully develops the tension and the characters to leave readers wondering this very question.

Likewise, there is a strong sense of place in this novel – building on her experiences, Johns has recreated the essence of a small Australian country town, with the requisite watering hole, oddball characters and most of all, the enduring strength of spirit. While the novel is light-hearted in many aspects, underlying the romance is the reminder that rural life is not easy … and it’s not for everyone. This is beautifully highlighted when a bunch of city girls come out to the town for a Man Drought weekend (essentially, to meet hunky farmers) and a planned outing is thwarted by a dangerous thunderstorm. Out in the Wheatbelt, a pout will get you nowhere, but a pair of Blundstones and a helpful attitude is as sexy as it gets.

The supporting cast is just as likeable – in particular Charlie. The ageing barman may forget what someone ordered a second ago, but he has not forgotten what true love feels like. And he doesn’t want a bar of Imogen and Gibson’s claims that love is no longer for them. The novel touches on the complexities of ageing in a rural community through Charlie’s increased forgetfulness and reluctance to leave the home he’s always known. This sub-plot (and the drama surrounding a premature birth) added depth to the story in an authentic way.

I expected light and fun … and fireworks. What I got was a book that surprised me with its emotional depth and realism … oh, and lots of fireworks. Man Drought is a well-written novel that left me warm and satisfied inside, but wanting more … Rachael, when is your next book due?

Available from good bookstores and Harlequin. This copy was courtesy of Harlequin.

Bookish treat: I hear the hamburgers are pretty good at Imogen’s pub, but the Mexican food cooked by her chef has the required spice factor.