Turtle Reef is Jennifer Scoullar's fifth novel, and her fourth engaging contemporary regional romance.
City girl Zoe King is thrilled when she lands her dream job at a marine park and research center in Kiawa, a small town in northern Queensland, looking forward to working with the Reef Center's impressively credentialed director, Bridget Macalister. Though the job proves more demanding than she expected, Zoe quickly learns to embrace its challenges, impressed by Bridget's dedication to the center and delighted by the aquarium's residents, including their six rescue dolphins. Its the findings from Zoe's first research project, monitoring the local dugong population and mapping seagrass meadows, that alerts her to a problem not only with the reef, but also the operation of the marine center.
Conservation management and environmental protection is a major theme of this novel. Set in a small sugar cane community on the Queensland coast, Scoullar writes of the risks outdated cane farming practices poses to the coastal environment, the general threats to our fragile marine ecosystem as well as the desirability of rehabilitating wild creatures for return to their natural environment.
The intrigue in the novel is a touch slow to develop but I enjoyed the measured unraveling of secrets. The suspense is fairly low key for most of the novel but the danger Zoe faces when she comes too close to working out exactly what is going on came as a surprise, raising the tension considerably.
There is an unconventional romance for Zoe in Turtle Reef. Quinn Cooper is a fifth generation local cane farmer and a caring guardian of his brain injured younger brother, Josh. Zoe is attracted to his good looks and down to earth charm from their first meeting, but as Bridget's long term boyfriend, Quinn is strictly off limits. I have to be honest, I found the relationship a little odd, though the chemistry is there, the circumstances are awkward.
The Reef Center is home to a half dozen rescue dolphins, given delightful personalities by Scoullar. I was charmed by Josh's interactions with them and saddened by the way in which they were betrayed. I was surprised to learn how intelligent octopuses can be, and fell in love with Einstein.
Scoullar's descriptions of the beauty of the reef and the ocean are highlights of the novel. "All around them lay a tapestry....Brightly coloured parrot fish abounded and were utterly fearless. Zoe could hear the soft chomping of their beaks as the grazed on the branching coral gardens. Blue-spotted lagoon rays scooted past,... and a shovelnose shark, with its strange triangular snout."
Turtle Reef is a lovely novel from a storyteller whose fiction evokes the romance of the Australian landscape, and the heart.
I thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer Scoullar's latest story. Her characters were multi dimensional and I enjoyed watching the growth of Zoe, Quinn and Josh. The setting was fabulous and I learned so much about marine creatures as I read the story. Jennifer's descriptions of the Bundaberg coast and the surrounding seascapes, both above and under water were very authentic and made the reader a part of the landscape. More than a romance.....an enlightening story.