Review: “The Dry” by Jane Harper

thedryTitle: “The Dry”
Author: Jane Harper
Genre: Mystery, crime
Publication Date: Jan. 10, 2017 (Macmillan Australia)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Mate, you tell me this was a bloody debut novel, and I’ll tell you to bugger off …. you arse.

Sorry. Hi. I’m infinitely charmed by the Australian lingo in “The Dry,” but even more impressed that this is Harper’s first book. She’s a longtime journalist who wrote the book with no expectation that it would ever be widely read — then won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015. (It seems she learned to write fiction via a literary agency’s online writing course. Must have been one heck of a course!)

I’m tempted to give “The Dry” 5 stars, because writing-wise, it deserves it. It’s beautifully written and captures the atmosphere of drought-ridden Kiewarra, a despairing rural Australian farming town, perfectly. I can picture the town, with its now-dry river and empty, bleak Main Street, vividly. Harper’s words transported me, dropping me into this land and giving me a sense of place and of being there that I don’t experience with many books.

The story centers around Aaron Falk, who was driven out of Kiewarra 20 years ago and is now a federal agent on the money side of things in Melbourne. He goes home — for 18 hours, which is 18 too many — to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend, Luke Hadler, who has apparently killed himself, his wife and his son.

“It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.”

Did Luke really do it, though? Was a desperate time in a ruined town enough to push him over the edge?

And are the murders linked to what happened to Ellie Deacon — Luke and Falk’s friend who was found drowned in the river all those years ago? It’s the reason Falk was run out of town and never came back, and the town still thinks he had something to do with her death.

As a favor to Luke’s grieving parents, Falk joins forces with Sergeant Raco, the local cop and one of the only folks in town who has doubts that Luke killed his family. The telling of their investigation moves slowly, and more than a few times, I wished things would hurry up already. I can finish a book in two or three days, but this one took over a week because it felt so slow at parts. That’s the only reason I dock a star here — there were chapters that were a little too “dry” (sorry) for my taste, and Harper could have shaved a chunk of pages without hurting the story. Still, I appreciate the depth and development they helped create.

There’s a film to come; rights have been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard. And we have Aaron Falk #2 to look forward to; apparently, it’s called “Force of Nature” and will be out Jan. 16, 2018. (Too long! I want it now!) I liked Falk a lot — he’s a good bloke — so I’m looking forward to catching up with him again.

I finished “The Dry” last night, and I woke up still thinking about it this morning. If you require action and excitement on every page, you might not love it. But I’m bloody positive that Harper deserves all the success and buzz she’s seeing worldwide.

Alert Alert: New Harlan Coben in September!

Whoa whoa whoa. I’m just merrily going about my day and then, WHAM, stop everything, news that Harlan is releasing his next book (a stand-alone thriller) on September 16, 2017.

211 days from now.

No details on plot, but it’s called “Don’t Let Go,” and you can help him choose the cover by voting on his Facebook page.


Pre-order here. The man is a machine. All hail Harlan!

Review: “Home” by Harlan Coben


Title: “Home” (Myron Bolitar #11)
Author: Harlan Coben
Genre: Thriller, mystery, suspense
Publication Date: Sept. 20, 2016 (Dutton)

My Rating: ★★★★★

“Der mentsh trakht un got lakht. Translation: Man plans and God laughs.” — Myron Bolitar

Harlan Coben is a genius. He’s brilliant. I’m left in awe every time I read one of his (dozens of) masterpieces — the sharpness! His books are smart, witty, twisty as an Alpine road. They’re fast-paced and near impossible to set down, but too good to speed through because you want to reread and savor those clever sentences.

All this to say, I loved “Home,” and Harlan is all but unrivaled in Thriller World. Probably a surprise after this praise party, but I haven’t read the other 10 books in the Myron Bolitar series, so I put off reading this one until recently. I was worried it wouldn’t work as a stand-alone and I wouldn’t get some of the references, but I never felt confused or behind. I imagine it’s an even greater experience when you already know Myron, Win, Esperanza, Big Cyndi, Mickey and the rest of the crew, but if you’re new to the series, no harm picking this one up.

Which brings us to the plot. A decade ago, Win’s 6-year-old nephew, Rhys, and his buddy Patrick were kidnapped; a ransom was demanded from the very wealthy families, but then the kidnappers went silent, and there’s been no word or sign of the two since. Until now, when Win gets an anonymous email with a tip that one of the boys was spotted under a shady Kings Cross, London, underpass – which leads to my first introduction to Win’s ways (…there are a few less bad guys in the world once Win’s visited the spot). He summons Myron to London, and after a few gritty scenes, they locate who they believe to be Patrick, now a teenage boy. No Rhys — so what can Patrick tell them about his still-missing friend? Where have they been the last 10 years, and who took them? And are they even dealing with the real-deal Patrick? Win and Myron are relentless in their pursuit to uncover what really happened, no matter who or what they tear apart in the process.

“Myron didn’t know what he hoped to find here, but stumbling around blind was a big part of his so-called investigations. You don’t so much painstakingly search for the needle in the haystack as haphazardly leap into various haystacks, barefoot and naked, and then flail wildly and hope that hey, ouch, there’s a needle.”

It’s perhaps ironic, at least unexpected, that a book as dark as this — ripe with murder and violence — is funny, too. Imagine Myron and Win in a high-stakes, high-tension meeting with the flamboyant villain Fat Gandhi, who claims to have been holding the boys. “May I call you Myron?” he asks. “Sure. Should I call you Fat?” Later: “Fat Gandhi was resplendent in what looked to be a yellow zoot suit. ‘The cash is in that bag?’ ‘It isn’t in my underwear,’ Myron said.”

And: “When I wink at him, his eyebrows jump high. ‘We should cut him up,’ Camouflage One says. ‘Cut him into little pieces.’ I feign being startled and turn toward him. ‘Oh my, I didn’t see you there.’ ‘What?’ ‘In those camouflage pants. You really blend in. By the way, they are very fetching on you.’ ‘Are you some kind of wiseguy?’ ‘I’m many kinds of wiseguy.’ All the smiles, including mine, grow.”

In September last year, I saw Harlan speak at the National Book Festival here in Washington, D.C. Right off the bat, I was surprised at how lumbering tall and LOL funny he is. I swear, this guy could do comedy. He had breakfast with Stephen King the morning of the talk, and said they’re both still insecure. Each time he starts a new book, he says, he panics: “Oh my god, I’ve lost it.” He writes every word as though he has a knife against his throat, and if it’s not the absolute best he can possibly write, well, knives against the throat don’t end well. And even when he’s reading, he feels guilty he’s not writing. If you don’t feel like that and you fancy yourself a writer, he says, you’re probably not one.

Harlan is coming off a banner year — he released both “Fool Me Once” (also 5 stars) and “Home” in 2016. No word on what’s next, but in the meantime, I’m here reading 2013’s “Six Years.” Good thing there’s a big, satisfying backlog to get through until Harlan blesses us with something new.

Review: “The Twilight Wife” by A. J. Banner


Title: “The Twilight Wife”
Author: A.J. Banner
Genre: Psychological thriller, domestic suspense
Publication Date: Dec. 27, 2016 (Touchstone)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

I waver between 2 and 3 stars for this one. “The Twilight Wife” has an interesting, relatively unique premise, which is commendable in this thriller heydey, when the same themes tend to be repeated ad nauseam.

In a nutshell: Kyra, a marine biologist, was in a diving accident that virtually destroyed her memory of the past four years. She’s got a charming husband, Jacob, who dotes on her and seems to be the perfect man. Since things are never as they seem, it should come as no surprise that Kyra starts having visions of another man — one she was obviously involved with — and arguments, broken promises, a struggling marriage. Was she cheating on Jacob, she wonders? Was she about to leave him?

Kyra does her best to unravel the past and figure out her relationship and what happened during those lost four years. It’s twisty, relatively enjoyable and fast-paced — you could easily do it in a day if you have some free time. But I never had that clicking moment when I felt truly invested in the characters or their outcome. I didn’t super care about Kyra or Jacob, and when I finished the book, I didn’t spend days thinking back on it and analyzing the conclusion. (And there are books I read months ago that I’m *still* dissecting.) It’s a forgettable read that I recommend only if you’re looking for something quick, easy and not overly meaningful.

However: This book introduced me to the beautiful San Juan Islands in Washington, where Kyra and Jacob live. Check ’em out! Want to get there, with a stack of books. Then I’ll look back with a new sense of fondness on this one.

Review: “The Marriage Lie” by Kimberly Belle


Title: “The Marriage Lie”
Author: Kimberly Belle
Genre: Psychological thriller, domestic suspense
Publication Date: Dec. 27, 2016 (Mira)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

I was counting down the days until I could get my hands on this one — it’s everything I want in a plot. We meet Iris, a 30-something in Atlanta, and her devoted husband Will the morning after their seventh wedding anniversary, as he gives her a too-expensive-for-them Cartier infinity ring — three colors, for her, him and the baby they just started working on creating. (“Give me a little girl who looks just like you.”)

One last romp and Will is off to the airport to catch a flight to too-hot Orlando, where he’s the keynote speaker at a tech conference. (This guy’s good. He thumbs through the Weather app on his phone and whines about the Florida temperatures before heading out.) A few hours later, a plane crashes en route to Seattle from Atlanta. Have you guessed where this is going? Correct: Iris gets the call that Will was aboard the plane to Seattle and is among the crash’s victims.

The new widow’s grief, of course, is compounded by the fact that Will wasn’t going where he said he was going. Some quick digging and she learns that the conference, for which he produced a convincing flyer, never existed, and he told his office the two were off to a Mexican vacation. As Iris slides into deep investigating-while-mourning mode, the lies are revealed fast, knocking her over again and again as she realizes her husband was virtually a stranger.

Iris’ twin brother, Dave, a sassy gay man, lights up the scenes as the two travel to Seattle to find Will’s “something else.” The two have a great dynamic and realistic banter. (He goes home and isn’t a big part of the final section of the book, and I missed him.) Another character highlight: Evan, a well-known defense attorney who lost his wife and baby daughter in the plane crash. Iris turns to Evan for help, and you find yourself rooting for the two to turn into much more than a legal/friend-to-friend connection. (I reached Down With Will-ville much earlier than Iris.)

It’s a compelling, twisty ride, and you won’t want to put it down as Iris uncovers Will’s layers of deception. The ending is satisfying, too; all storylines wrap up nicely. It’s not a book you read for the writing (it’s just fine, but not anything special) — it’s a book you read entirely for the plot. And sometimes, there’s no need for more. Enjoy!

Review: “The Fifth Letter” by Nicola Moriarty


Title: “The Fifth Letter”
Author: Nicola Moriarty
Genre: Women’s fiction
Publication Date: Jan. 24, 2017 (William Morrow)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Ah, to see the “Moriarty” last name stamped on a new novel. I adore author Nicola’s sister Liane (the Queen of All who requires no introduction), which in and of itself was enough to push me into this book’s waiting pages. But I was intrigued by the premise, too. (It’s not a name game only over here!)

Four best friends, who came together in high school and are now in their mid-30s, reunite for their annual girls’ getaway. Joni, the primary narrator, is desperately clinging onto the once ultra-close connection she feels sliding out of her grasp. Because what could go wrong (nothing! nothing ever goes wrong!), the girls reluctantly agree to Joni’s idea of a re-bonding game: They’ll each write an anonymous letter sharing the secrets in their lives, and then they’ll read and dissect one out loud on each remaining night of their trip.

Things get interesting with each letter, but the big-deal plot turning point here is that Joni finds a fifth, extra letter in the fireplace one night. And why would a piece of paper be thrown to the flames? To hide the author’s hateful, even murderous (I want to suffocate you with a pillow) feelings toward one of her “friends,” of course.

Cue the tailspin as Joni scrambles to figure out who wrote the letter and all falls to pieces.

I enjoyed the plot, and the end had some good moments — but it’s a mostly forgettable, quick read. Nicola is trying too hard to be like her sister — the plot, centered around four strong women characters, reads like a second-rate Liane knock-off. It’s exactly a book Liane would write (except she’d do it much better). One of the kids in the book, Ruby, even borrows a name from Liane’s “Truly Madly Guilty.” And there’s an end-of-the-book dramatic scene at the pool that screams every Liane book I’ve ever read.

Still, if you don’t go into it with high expectations, you’ll enjoy it for what it is: some fun, not particularly memorable entertainment.

Review: “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough


Title: “Behind Her Eyes”
Author: Sarah Pinborough
Genre: Thriller, suspense
Publication Date: Jan. 31, 2017 (Flatiron Books)

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Well dang, if I didn’t have a library copy, I’d wing this book across the room. It’s touted as the Thriller of 2017, and I don’t doubt it’ll be a best-seller, albeit a divisive one.

If you asked me what it was about 100 pages in, I’d have struggled to answer. Three-quarters of the way through, I decided I’d give it 5 of 5 stars because it’s certainly well-written and gripping. (Grip-lit, as they say.) But then. But then! That ending. Even if you haven’t read the book, you know it’s twisty because the marketers extraordinaire went with #wtfthatending, and lots of people are turning up on Twitter to use it. The catch-phrase splashed all over: “Read it before someone spoils the ending for you!”

Here’s the thing: I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it because I was reading a really weird but conceivably realistic psychological thriller, and then bam, they go and weave another genre in. They go and make it supernatural. I’m not worried about spoiling it by telling you that, because I promise, you will not predict how it ends.

If you’re like me, you’ll devour “Behind Her Eyes,” because it’s compulsively readable. But the preposterous ending made me feel some shades of cheated, and like I had wasted my time. A head’s up about the supernatural element and fine, I would have known what I was getting into and decided whether to proceed accordingly. But nada, and here I am, wanting to send the book with the “reeling ending” reeling itself.