Murdoch, ex-journalist and wife of media magnate Rupert, rattles a closetful of skeletons in her first novel about the daughters of Betty Beauchamp--Liz and Josie--who love the same man and struggle to throw off the influence of their profligate mother. Set during a Christmastime family reunion at a New South Wales sheep ranch, the book tries hard to fashion itself in the image of The Thorn Birds, but the story dribbles instead of sweeps, even though it does manage to recreate the desolate beauty of the Outback with some success. Why has Josie returned to the bosom of her family after 12 years in New York? Why do both she and her sister Liz--happily married to the rugged rancher Harry--resist their mother so? What makes Betty Beauchamp (known in these pages as BB) loathe Liz and coddle Josie besides simple meanness of spirit? (BB deserted her daughters and ran off with a journalist, caused the death of a man in a Sydney bar, and arranges to bring her own mother out from England to live with her once she learns the doddering old lady has a tidy bundle ripe for bequeathing.) Finally, who's the father of Josie's son Alex, and how will the boy handle the truth when he finds out? The answers to these and other questions will out at Christmas dinner just as the annual and soddenly symbolic rains come to give new life to the ranchlands of Tiddalike. Josie re-seduces Harry (for Alex is of his begetting), but realizes it's the better part of valor to leave Harry's marriage to Liz intact. BB reveals over turkey and stuffing the truth about who Alex's father is, but Alex is a resilient lad. And last, but not least, BB dies in a fire â€¦ la the Wicked Witch of the West, releasing Josie and Liz from her squalid sway, although Josie thinks, "". . .men have it easier because [they] are able to kill off their fathers and women aren't able to kill off their mothers. Figuratively speaking, that is of course."" It's all family drama of the very familiar and slightly dated sort (""Dallas"" goes to New South Wales), by a capable writer who might well search for fresher material in future fiction.