Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper
Flatiron Books: 1/10/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781250105608

The Dry by Jane Harper is a very highly recommended tense, atmospheric mystery. An incredible debut novel set in Kiewarra, a small Australian town, during a devastating drought.

Melbourne-based Federal Agent Aaron Falk saw the headlines. Luke Hadler, his best childhood friend, was found dead, as were his wife, Karen, and their son, Billy. It appears that Luke killed his wife and son, leaving his baby daughter alive and crying in her crib. Then he drove off and found a place to kill himself. Falk, who left Kiewarra twenty years ago is summoned to attend the funeral by Gerry Hadler, Luke's father. After calling him about the arrangements, Gerry sent Falk a note saying: "Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral."

Twenty years ago Aaron Falk and his father left Kiewarra under a cloud of suspicion that Aaron had something to do with the death of his friend Ellie Deacon. When he was under the scrutiny of the police at the time, he and Luke gave each other bogus alibis for the afternoon, which saved him from any charges being filed. Now as Falk is back, the residents in the small town remember why he left before and many of them are determined to make sure he knows he is not welcome in the town.

In the meantime, even though Falk was planning to go back to Melbourne as soon as possible, he is asked by Gerry to help Sergeant Greg Raco to look into the case. As he and Raco begin to work together, it is clear that despite what seems obvious at first, this may not be a murder/suicide. As the two investigate, the bad blood between Malcolm Deacon, father of Ellie, and his nephew Grant Dow boils to the surface. But there are plenty of hidden secrets and suspicions in the small town.

The Dry is simply an excellent novel that meets all my criteria for a perfect mystery. The quality of Harper's writing is brilliant.  It is an engaging,
extremely well-written, and finely paced novel. 

The setting is perfectly described and sets the tone and atmosphere. It's a small, mean town beaten down by drought and poverty and alcoholism. Many citizens in the town are cliquish, petty, and hold grudges, as well as secrets, from decades past. 


The main characters are well-developed. There are plenty of suspects at the start and even more surface as the investigation continues. Harper keeps the tension increasing at a steady pace as she divulges the backstory alongside the current investigation. 


Falk is an enigma, but appealing main character. He is closed off emotionally, but you know he is intelligent. When he agrees to stay for a short time and assist in the investigation, it is clear how much he would rather go back to Melbourne and shake the dust of Kiewarra off his shoes forever, but he understands his obligation to help Gerry and Barb Hadler find closure.
There are suspects-a-plenty, but Harper surprised me at the end.

No question about it: if you like mysteries read T
he Dry.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Flatiron Books

The Fifth Letter

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty
HarperCollins: 1/24/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062413567

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty is a recommended story set in Australia of four long-time friends and secrets.

Joni Camilleri, Deb Camden, Trina Chan, and Eden Chester have all been friends since they attended high school together in 1993. Joni initially brought the four together because they are all Scorpios with surnames ending in C. Now it is 2016, they are all married and everyone but Joni is a mother. Joni has planned their annual girls' getaway at a rented beach house. Feeling that they are losing their connection to each other, Joni comes up with the idea that they will each write a letter sharing a secret with the group. These letters are read, one at a time, over the following days. As each letter is read, the friends discuss the secret as if none of them wrote it. But there is a fifth letter that was written. The writer tried to burn it in the fireplace, but it survived. Apparently one of the four friends is seething with anger and hates another one.

The Fifth Letter is told in chapters that alternate between the present day get-together and flashbacks to their high school days. Interspersed are scenes of Joni meeting with a priest to give a long confession where she is essentially telling the story of the friends and their secrets, and little excerpts from the fifth letter.

It is an enjoyable, well written book, as far as a light read for escapism goes, but it's not that mysterious, psychologically complex, surprising, or dark. While the characters are different, they are not especially well-developed or complicated. I guess I didn't find the secrets all that shocking or any surprising plot twists either. This is a novel you kick back to read for fun, not heart-pounding suspense or shocking plot reveals. It succeeds on that level.

While the desire to read the four secrets and find out who wrote the fifth makes for a irresistible hook, The Fifth Letter was a bit of a letdown. Of course you don't know what other people, even close friends, are thinking or doing. Of course they have secrets or private parts of their lives. And, given the way life really is, the most serious secrets aren't even in the letters. Additionally, maybe it's just me, but I found it very difficult to take seriously four women friends who still refer to themselves as "girls." They are supposed to be in their late thirties, 38, so they should be beyond that now even if they became friends when they were girls.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Aisles Have Eyes

The Aisles Have Eyes by Joseph Turow
Yale University Press: 1/17/17
eBook review copy; 344 pages
ISBN-13: 9780300212198

The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power by Joseph Turow is very highly recommended.

It should be no surprise to consumers today how our purchases and interests are being tracked. What may surprise you is the extent of that tracking and the potential information the retail stores can and are gathering. Turow explains how retail stores are entering a new, hypercompetitive era with internet sellers. The brick-and-mortar stores will succeed only if they figure out how to trace, quantify, profile, and discriminate among shoppers. Stores now have the ability to track our movements and capture data about us through what we carry - our smart phones, bluetooth devices, fitbits, tablets, etc. If you have the GPS on your smart phone turned on, chances are you are also being tracked. The goal is to track our movements and what we buy, and then score our attractiveness as consumers based on that information. I would imagine almost all of us have noticed the personalized discounts often linked to our store rewards cards.

After providing background information on the history of retail stores, Turow moves into the advances in recent years, such as online stores like Amazon, and the emergence of Wal-Mart, a store with a super-efficient ability to send merchandise to stores for the continuous ability to restock items quickly. Even though these two retail giants can be much abased by some camps, they are the future of retail stores where the goal is now to find your niche or a way to stay competitive, thus profiling customers, collecting data, tracking their movements, and maybe even using facial recognition software to collect information about each individual who shops at your store. Think about this bit of information: "Acxiom executive Phil Mui claimed that 'for every consumer we have more than 5,000 attributes of customer data.'" The ultimate question is how much of this will consumers put up with this invasion of privacy and profiling of each customer before they decide enough is enough.

As Turow provides the background information and the extent that the retail community is using current technology to track us and get us to buy products by personalizing coupons or discounts.  This is a well-written, thoroughly researched, accessible account of the future of shopping and provides startling insights about the prevalence of data collecting on individual consumers. The text includes extensive notes and an index.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Phantom Limb

Phantom Limb by Lucinda Berry
Rise Press: 1/17/17
Ebook review copy: 260 pages
ISBN-13: 9781541034952

Phantom Limb by Lucinda Berry is a very highly recommended psychological thriller, with a focus on the psychological.

Elizabeth has overcome a tragic childhood. Elizabeth and her twin sister Emily were abused, neglected children who were rescued and taken away from their nightmare of an excuse for a mother and adopted by Bob and Dalila Rooth. The psychological damage had already been done, however, and the two girls clung to each other. Now a young adult in college, Elizabeth is becoming worn out caring for her still-wounded and damaged sister Emily. Elizabeth has a boyfriend, Thomas, that she'd like to introduce to her sister, but she is unsure that Emily is well enough to handle the news. Emily struggles with the urge to self-injury, along with giving in to her own internal personal suffering and depression.

Elizabeth decides to talk to her childhood therapist, Lisa, about introducing Thomas to Emily. Although talking to Lisa is a comfortable experience, something seems a bit amiss in their meeting, but Elizabeth plans to have more sessions with her. She is also determined to have Thomas meet Emily, but Emily reacts badly. When Emily seeks out Thomas and warns him to stay away from Elizabeth, the two sisters have a huge fight and Elizabeth sleeps on the coach. When she wakes up, she finds Emily in the bathroom, with pills and blood... That is all Elizabeth remembers when she wakes up a week later in the hospital and is moved to the psychiatric unit. What happened?

This is a gripping, well written thriller that explores the psychology behind what happened to Elizabeth. As a character driven drama, you could almost call it a psychological procedural, as Elizabeth works through what happened and facts are slowly revealed. The actual psychology behind the emerging secrets is a pleasure to see in a work of fiction. There are a couple shocking twists. The first might be guessed by astute readers of psychological dramas. The second twist you won't likely see coming until it is revealed.

I enjoyed Phantom Limb a great deal and was initially going to give it my highest possible rating, but then, suddenly, a fact hit my brain and I had to go down at least 1/2 a star. (I actually consulted with someone about my question to confirm that I was right.) I can't discuss openly any of it or I'll ruin the book, and I'm not giving any spoilers. For most readers my one concern won't matter an iota. This is an engrossing thriller and it will hold your rapt attention from beginning to end. 


Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of Heather Harrison at Rise Press.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Fireman

The Fireman by Joe Hill
HarperCollins: 1/3/17
Trade paperback; 768 pages
trade paperback ISBN-13: 9780062200648

The Fireman by Joe Hill is a very highly recommended apocalyptic novel about a pandemic, cults, and the end of the world.

We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic of spontaneous combustion and there is no cure. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, nicknamed Dragonscale, is a spore that marks its human host with black and gold-flecked marks, like a fine intricate tattoo that spreads. Once infected those with Dragonscale are also quite likely to burst into flames. People and cities are on fire and the highly contagious plague is rapidly spreading. But panic is spreading faster and people can be even more ruthless than Dragonscale.

Harper Grayson is a nurse who loves Mary Poppins. She was at an elementary school, until the school closes after a man wanders onto the playground and bursts into flames. She goes to work at a hospital, wearing full biohazard protective gear, in Concord, NH, until the hospital burns down. At the hospital, she met an enigmatic fireman with a British accent who brought in a child with appendicitis.

Harper and Jakob, her husband, had a pact to take their own lives if either of them became infected. When Harper discovers that she is pregnant and then finds the telltale black and gold-flecked filigreed markings of Dragonscale, she decides she wants to live for the sake of her baby. At the hospital she saw infected mothers deliver healthy babies and she is sure she can survive long enough to do this. Her husband Jakob has other plans. He is losing his tenuous grip on his sanity and is sure she has infected him and that they both must die.

Harper is rescued by The Fireman, aka John Rookwood. He, along with some masked helpers, takes her to Camp Wyndham. It used to be a summer camp, but now it houses a group of 'scale-marked survivors who have found a way to control the Dragonscale, although not to the extent that The Fireman can use it for his purposes. The camp has a cult-like hive-mind atmosphere, as the members sing to the Bright. But there are other cults developing across the land and Jakob joins with the Marlboro Man as part of the Cremation Squads who seek out those infected with Dragonscale and kill them.

All people, left, right, pacifists, militant, any religion, racial group, or sexual orientation, are susceptible to cult-like group-think behavior. All of us. Even as some of us see or acknowledge the behavior, on all sides, that doesn't stop it. Hill has captured this truism with clarity in The Fireman while giving us a rousingly clever, brilliant story that is part science fiction, part horror, and part social commentary. It is a perfectly epic apocalyptic thriller.  At 768 pages, I was surprised at how quickly I read The Fireman. I give credit to the exceptional writing, captivating story, wonderful, fully realized characters, and the astute, chilling realism of people's behavior in an inconceivable situation.

There are a plethora of pop culture and literary references included in The Fireman. I found myself smiling when spotting them, and saying "Nice one, Joe." It'll be fun for other readers to find them while enjoying The Fireman.


Disclosure: My trade paperback copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Night of Fire

Night of Fire by Colin Thubron
HarperCollins: 1/17/17
eBook review copy: 384 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062499745

Night of Fire by Colin Thubron is a recommended story of seven lives.

The old Victorian house that was divided into apartments years ago is on fire. Night of Fire delves into the lives of the tenants who will be dying in the fire on this night. The inhabitants whose life stories are told include a failed priest, a neurosurgeon, a naturalist, a photographer, a school boy, a traveller, and the landlord. The landlord has two chapters, one at the beginning and the end. The rest of the victims and their lives are covered in long chapters devoted to them. The basement tenant is mentioned, but as a victim who died immediately. Thubron uses the musings and recollections of these people to explore life's essential questions, memories and seeking answers to find a deeper meaning in their existence. All of them are either named Steven or some derivative of the name: Stephen, Steve, Stephanie.

While beautifully written, I was left detached and unable to connect with the stories of these people. The setting, in a burning house, where you know these people are all going to die, never coalesced for me into a cohesive whole. The long chapters on the lives of these various tenants are all like short stories until their fate is met. I would concede that perhaps I need to contemplate Night of Fire more to divulge more meaning and connections between characters, but it also left me with no burning desire to do so. The rating is based on the quality of the writing and the fact that I found some of the stories very intriguing and captivating, just not all of them.



Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Fungoid

Fungoid by William Meikle
DarkFuse: 1/17/17
eBook review copy; 177 pages
ISBN-13: 9781940544748

Fungoid by William Meikle is a highly recommended fungal apocalyptic novel set in Canada.
"When the end came, it wasn’t zombies, asteroids, global warming or nuclear winter. It was something that escaped from a lab. Something small, and very hungry.
It starts with deadly rain that delivers death where it falls, but soon the whole planet is under threat as the infection spreads, consuming everything before it."

The action starts quickly in Fungoid. The apocalypse is fungal, but it seemed to be a totally new species that appeared out of nowhere and was likely genetically engineered. This fungus is voracious. The fungus spores are falling in oily rain showers across the world and everywhere they fall, chaos follows as people and the whole environment are immediately infected. The fungus eats everything carbon based and once the spores fall, they take hold, spreading, covering everything, hungry.

Fungoid follows four different characters as they try to survive the fungal attack. Jim is a first response rescuer who is right in the thick of the infestation. Rebecca is a mother to two boys who is trying to survive and keep her kids alive. Shaun, Rebecca's husband, is trying to make it home from his logging job. Dr. Rohit Patel is a mycologist who provides all the science and background information on fungi.

This is a fast paced, very entertaining novel that is a short, quick read. This isn't a character study of how those involved handle the end of the world. It's an action-packed novel with a nice combination of science fiction/horror/suspense that provides an apocalyptic end to the world reminiscent of other biological takeovers (The Day of the Triffids, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) I liked it quite a bit, in spite of a few minor complaints.



Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of DarkFuse.