It is no wonder The Dry by Jane Harper has won a multitude of awards

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I have spent the past few days secluded in my house because of “the wet”. The rain in Illinois is relentless, keeping me from swimming at Centennial Beach, or riding my Cannondale down the prairie path next to the river. It is understandable how the weather can drive people to distraction; the drought in The Dry, set in fictional Kiewarra in Australia, presents as a character itself. You can feel the heat pressing down on you from every page, as well as the despair which accompanies it.

Luke lied. You lied.

These two lines repeat throughout the book, drawing me in, as I want to know what Luke and his friend, Aaron Falk, lied about. Luke can never tell, because he has been found killed, along with his wife and young son, in the very first pages. It is assumed, at first, that Luke took his life after killing his wife and son. But, why would he leave baby Charlotte crying in her crib? Why were the cartridges Remington, and not Winchester as Luke’s gun used?  Too many things point to the possibility that Luke did not, after all, commit the murders everyone in the town believes he has.

Aaron has come to the funeral in his former town at the insistence of Luke’s father, and he stays to uncover the murders of Luke and his family. It seems that each person in Keiwarra has a heavy load. For one thing, there is no money. The drought is killing the crops, killing the income, killing the hope and incentive in an already small and struggling town. Some of the people have turned to alcohol, or gambling; others are simply existing. But, most of them aren’t without suspicion. For there is another murder, of teenaged Luke, Aaron, and Gretchen’s friend, which is also shrouded in blame.

Aaron and his father left Keiwarra twenty years ago, unable to bear the accusations that they had a hand in Ellie Deacon’s, drowning. Ellie lived with her abusive father, Mal Deacon, and her cousin, Grant, under increasing strain which her mother left for her to endure alone. But, when her body was pulled sodden from the dark water, the reasons for her death were never clear. We only know that neither Luke, nor Aaron, would turn from the alibi that they were together on the day she died.

Jane Harper took me through the town, the people, the murders, with such carefully crafted details that I never once felt manipulated. I never once questioned a loose thread; they weren’t to be found. Nor, did I suspect the turns the story would take near its conclusion. It is no wonder, then, that her book has the following recognition and awards:

2018 BRITISH BOOK AWARDS
Crime and Thriller
Book of the Year

2018 BARRY AWARDS
Best First Mystery

2017 UK CRIME WRITERS’
ASSOCIATION AWARDS

Gold Dagger for
Crime Novel of the Year

2017 SUNDAY TIMES
Crime Book of the Year

2017 PRIX COGNAC
AWARD (France)

2017 ABIA AWARDS
Book of the Year

Fiction Book of the Year

2017 INDIE AWARDS
Book of the Year
Debut Fiction
Book of the Year

2017 AMAZON
Best Mystery and
Thriller Novel

2017 GOODREADS
CHOICE AWARDS

Best Mystery Thriller
Best Debut

2017 NED KELLY AWARDS
Best First Fiction

2017 DAVITT AWARDS
Best Adult Crime Novel
Readers’ Choice

(Thank you to my friend, Lesley, who brought it to my attention a few years ago.)

Some of the best reading I’ve done all year: Daphne DuMaurier Reading Week

I am most familiar with Rebecca, but I love My Cousin Rachel for creating an equally menacing woman with a duplicitous spirit. Questioning her selfish intent kept me guessing until the end.

Jamaica Inn was a dirty, nasty place filled with a mean, nasty man. I did not like him, nor reading of his thieving ways, but I liked how his niece was rescued by the one she loved. Not, by the way, the Vicar as one might have suspected.

And Frenchman’s Creek, which I have finished just now, has perhaps the best ending of all. After the adventure, and the trysts, and all the romance of loving a pirate, Dona must return to her husband and children. There is no other choice for a mother, after all.

None of the novels have contrived, easily manipulated conclusions like today’s authors are so adept at creating. They have neither the skill, nor the imagination, of Daphne DuMaurier. My month would have been strangely empty had I not indulged in three of her books at Heaven Ali‘s prompting. And for that I thank her.

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

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It is a guilty pleasure of mine to read thrillers, in between the novels of translated literature which I so adore. But, sometimes I long for something effortless to read. Something distracting. Something which is both an engaging plot and uncontrived.

Perhaps you’ve seen my scorn for Gone Girl. Or, The Girl on The Train. Things got a little better with The Woman in The Window. But, Then She Was Gone turned out to be pleasant surprise.

I began it this week while walking on the treadmill at the health club. I searched my phone for something distracting, something plot driven, and I downloaded this as an audio book. It was narrated, in a lovely British voice, by Helen Duff. And it told a story which I quickly had to read in text rather than listen to in audio, as I am a much better reader than listener.

When Ellie Mack, a brilliant student and lovely daughter, disappears from home no one finds her until her bones are discovered much, much later in a ditch. This is told fairly early on; I am not spoiling any surprises. The novel goes on to explain her story, which is a rather intricate plot involving her maths tutor, specifically, while simultaneously revealing the tender heart of her mother. I found it quite compelling, and I ended it just now oddly satiated at the outcome of a rather distressing story since it was told so compassionately and effectively.

This is one thriller that did not disappoint me. (And now I am off to read We and Me by Saskia de Coster for Boekenweek, which is March 23-31.)

The Reckoning by John Grisham

When I pick up a Grisham novel, I don’t expect fully one third of it to be a history lesson about the horrors the Japanese committed in Word War II. But halfway through this novel, when I was sufficiently intrigued as to why Peter Banning shot Reverend Dexter Bell in his church office and admitted to doing so without once saying why, I had to keep reading.

Unfortunately, I was suddenly thrust into the atrocities of war in Japan, and the Philippines, which went on relentlessly. It was a gruesome part of the book, portraying events so horrible it seemed unlikely that Lieutenant Peter Banning could have possibly lived through them.

But, of course he does, so that the last third of the book can reveal the reason he had to murder Dexter Bell, a reason I am unwilling to relate as it spoils the entire reason for reading this book. Suffice it to say the reason rests mightily on misunderstanding and regret.

At times I wondered if I was reading a book by Grisham at all. Other than the quite wonderfully written parts of the legal trial, the courtroom, the questioning, the motives of the lawyers, I felt the rest of the novel to be contrived. It didn’t ring true of what I know his writing to be, and for this, many people have praised The Reckoning. However, for me A Time to Kill will always be his best work.

The Master Key by Masako Togawa (Japanese Literature Challenge 12)

The novel begins with a woman wearing a red scarf being struck by a car and killed. Only, she is not a woman, but a man, as was later discovered by the medical examiner.

Suddenly the story shifts to an earlier time, where this man has carried a Gladstone bag which is apparently quite heavy (for within it is the body of a child), into a building. He and a woman bury it in the floor of a bath house which has long been in disuse.

Leaving all that behind, the story continues with the people who live in an apartment building solely for women. There is a strange assortment of characters, from the receptionist who sneaks naps while at her desk, to the concert violinist whose middle finger became paralyzed in her thirties, to the woman who steals fish heads and bones to build up her calcium, to a retired teacher. (Like me.) Who relieves her loneliness by writing to all her former students one by one, thereby bringing the mystery to its conclusion.

I liked this novel, but I did not love it. The mystery was clever enough, yet I found the translation irritating in many places. Not that I can read Japanese; the English simply sounded forced.

While spending the month here in Florida, I plan to indulge myself in translated literature. I have begun the rightfully praised trilogy of Miklós Bánffy, They Were Counted, and then I shall pick up Ruth Ozeki’s Tales for The Time Being.

In the meantime, it thrills my heart that so many bloggers have joined The Japanese Literature Challenge 12, and are reading such exciting books. I will publish a post of links soon.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

 

Who are you? Why are you? What do you want? The problem is this—heading straight toward the miniaturist seems to make her disappear. And yet, she is so often there, watching and waiting. Nella wonders which one of them is hunter, which one of them is prey. (p. 190)

This novel caught my eye when it was first published in 2014, but it wasn’t until I saw that PBS is going to air a mini-series on it this Sunday that I decided to read it.

The Miniaturist is an interesting story, which reminded me a teensy bit of Rebecca in that it contains a young wife and lots of mysterious goings-on in her new household. The novel is set in Amsterdam, in the 1680s, and tells the story of Petronella Oortman who has left Asselfeldt to come marry Johannes Brandt. He presents her with a cabinet of nine rooms, much like a dollhouse of sorts, as he is a loving man albeit with his own limitations.

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Petronella hires a miniaturist to fill the cabinet, whose creations uncannily mimic what comes to fruition within Petronella’s household. We read to discover the identity of the miniaturist, we read to find out specifics of life in Amsterdam during the fifteenth century. It is not the kind of life lived so freely today, where almost any type of behavior is accepted and upheld, as we have no burgomasters passing judgement on every action we make.

Each character is carefully drawn, from Johannes (her husband), to Marin (her sister-in-law), Cornelia (the maid), Otto (the man-servant from Africa) and Jack, a handsome young man from England who betrays them all. There is an interesting concept of  “sugar loaves”, the sale upon which their lives depend, and I found myself fully immersed in this story which Jessica Burton so expertly told.

It will be interesting to see what PBS does with this novel come Sunday, September 9, at 9/8 Central. (You can see the minute and a half trailer here.)

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

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As he’s speaking, a sharp, loud sound carries through the woods. Two cracks, then several more. Pops, like balloons bursting. Or fireworks. She tries to imagine what anyone could be doing in a zoo that would sound like small explosions…

There is another bang. Another and another. It sounds too loud to be balloons, too infrequent to be a jackhammer.

The birds are silent, but the leaves keep skittering down.

The tension is real from the very first chapter. It is the kind of tension I key right into. What was that sound? What if I arrive at the gate too late, and the park is closed locking me within? Worse, what if something endangers my son?

The quiet man and the loud man are in the zoo,  hunting. People have fallen in various positions all around the entrance, and more are in hiding, particularly Joan and her four year old son, Lincoln.

She has her cell phone, from which she has informed her husband that  she is hiding with their son in the empty porcupine cage. She is behind a huge rock, telling her son to be quiet while she holds him tightly against herself, and the tension is palatable. I feel that I am her, hiding, hoping desperately that I will not be found.

I am her, holding my son, who when he was four asked the same kind of existential questions Lincoln asks. “What do strangers look like?” my son once asked me. “How can bad people be happy?” Lincoln asks his mother when he hears the men with guns laugh.

When Joan leaves her hiding place with her four year old, because he is hungry and she wants to find him something to eat, I want to scream, “Don’t leave! You have been safe where you are.” But they venture forth, finding a living colobus monkey standing over a fallen one, a dead elephant which at first appears to be an “ink-stain shape on the ground.”

This novel is mesmerizing and terrifying on several counts. For once, it’s not the gone girl, or the disappearing woman, or a girl on a train.  It’s a mother, in a situation which feels entirely possible in today’s world. It’s a mother and a son and evil, twisted men that are scarier than a clown holding some balloons could ever be.

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio (Most definitely not the next The Secret History)

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“…Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some fanatic religion where anything could be excused so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses. Ritual madness, ecstasy, human sacrifice. Were we bewitched? brainwashed? Perhaps.

I’ve missed it, desperately.”

If the setting of a small college housing artistic students who vibrate with a barely hidden malice seems familiar, perhaps it is because you are thinking of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But while Tartt’s characters were studying Greek, and Latin, and holding secret seances in a farmer’s field at night, M. L. Rio’s characters are quoting Shakespeare and swimming in a lake as the autumnal season deepens. Yet there is an aura of fear here, too, the knowledge that something has gone terribly wrong, for from the very first chapter one of the men is being released from prison. He has a story to tell.

Oliver’s story is compelling. He tells of his fellow theater students: Wren, Filippa, Meredith, James, Alexander and Richard. For reasons which were never fully explained, Richard is filled with wrath. It is a consuming wrath, exhibited in bullying: teasing, shouting, taunting and hitting. It is no wonder he is found floating in the lake one morning before dawn. His face has been bashed in, he is covered with blood, and it surely looks as if he is dead. But when he calls weakly for help, this group of students who call themselves friends, decide to do nothing. They decide to let him die, in the water, and tell the authorities that they all get along just fine.

It doesn’t ring true to me. From where does Richard’s rage stem? Why agree to tell the police that everyone has been getting along well when clearly they have been tormented? (Surely they must already suspect one another.)  There are blatant disconnects that not only irritate me, they keep this novel from approaching anything near the power of The Secret History.

So while I enjoyed the Shakespeare dramas, the lines from his plays cleverly interwoven into the narrative, and the collegiate setting in which a small band of friends unite; while I think the ending is fairly clever in a Tale Of Two Cities sort of way, this novel ended up being a disappointing read.

Which doesn’t bode well for my opinion of Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, who said that it is “A rare and extraordinary novel.”

If only that were so.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

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I’m always surprised when the Naperville Public Library not only has something I want to read, but I’m not the 863d hold on one of three copies. And so it is that I have been able to settle down with an aching jaw, an ample supply of Motrin, a pot of tea, and Earthly Remains, Donna Leon’s latest mystery with Commissario Guido Brunetti.

What a pleasure it is to spend the evening with him, this old “friend” from previous novels. In the beginning of this book, he has just been diagnosed with the need for rest and relaxation from work and is preparing to leave his office for Sant’Erasmo in the south. How I long to accompany him and partake in his plans of rowing, or reading in bed with a fresh cup of coffee should it rain.

He is staying at a villa his wife’s aunt owns, and there he befriends Signor Davide Casati, a man whom Brunetti discovers once rowed with his own father. The skill with which this older man is able to guide the boat is compared to the old peasant in Anna Karenina with whom Levin scythes, barely able to keep up. Such a beautiful comparison, in my literary mind’s eye.

But after a terrible storm, neither Casati nor his boat are able to be found. Where could he be? Checking on his bees in their various hives all around Venice? Talking with his deceased wife at the cemetery? Brunetti calls in reinforcements to help investigate his friend’s disappearance, which, of course, is ultimately a death.

“While he waited, Brunetti went and looked out the window and allowed anomalous information to move around in his mind: a few dead bees in a plastic vial, the Aral Sea, two thousand Euros a week, dark mud in another vial. If they were pieces on a board, would he be able to move them round so that they formed a picture?”

Of course Commissario Brunetti carefully puts together the pieces, moving them around so that an answer emerges, and in the course of his detective work reminds us of the honor, and dishonor, within each of us. Although surely some, who have grown accustomed to luxurious comfort, are able to excuse their dishonorable side which can lead to murder.

While this novel is carefully executed, each piece of the mystery ringing true to current crises, my favorite part of Donna Leon’s writing is how she is able to make me dwell in Venice. Even if only for a night.

The Trespasser by Tana French

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It starts slowly, and continues that way, almost painfully so. But then, as only Tana French knows how to do, you are suddenly caught up into dialogue and characterization that is so compelling you must continue to the end.

Is beautiful, Barbie-like Aislinn killed by a random stalker? By her date, Rory, for whom she is preparing dinner? Or, by a detective from within the police force itself? What matters, perhaps, is not who committed the murder as much as how we get there.

I am caught up in the thought process of Antoinette Conway and Steve Moran, sweating it out in the interrogation room, feeling Antoinette’s isolation and insecurity not quite covered up by the bravado with which she likes to cloak herself.  I search my life for the likes of Steve, her trusted partner and dependable colleague, and find that I, too, am not entirely alone even when I feel that way acutely.

I like the power of Tana French’s novels; they are never contrived, or trite, but look beyond the mystery to the core of each character. Who seem so very real to me.