The Dry by Jane Harper (#20BooksofSummer Book 9)

I heard about this Australian mystery novel by way of Fiction Fan’s terrific review back in March of this year.  When she says she can’t find anything to criticize about a book, I take notice!  I have to say that I agree with her assessment:  The Dry is a well-crafted, absorbing, thoughtfully written mystery, and I’m glad to see that there’s another book coming out featuring Federal Agent Aaron Falk!

27824826Set in the drought-stricken small farming town of Kiewarra, the book opens with gruesome descriptions of blowflies not discriminating between a carcass and a corpse. Something truly horrific has happened.  Aaron Falk is reluctantly back in his hometown, a town he and his father were driven away from twenty years earlier.  He is there to attend the funeral of his high school friend Luke.  Everyone thinks that the drought and money problems made Luke snap and kill himself, his wife, and their young son.  Baby Charlotte was the only survivor, because as Falk grimly observes, “thirteen-month-old don’t make good witnesses.”  Luke’s parents, a second family to Aaron when he was younger, want him to quietly look into the investigation, despite Aaron’s protests that he works on the financial side of police work now.  Falk agrees to stay in Kiewarra for a few days and look over their accounts, partly out of a sense of guilt about something that happened when he and Luke were teenagers.

In flashbacks the reader discovers that Aaron’s and Luke’s friend Ellie Deacon supposedly drowned herself in the town’s river (a river that is now bone dry thanks tot he drought.)  Luke and Aaron gave one another alibis, but we learn that many in the town didn’t believe that the boys didn’t have something to do with her death.  Tension is thick all these years later, and Falk is the target of many unpleasant and threatening interactions upon his return to town.  So not only is the reader tracking what really happened to Luke and his family, but we are also trying to solve the mystery of what really happened to Ellie all those years ago.  Harper fills the story with lots of red herrings and good characterization.  I especially liked the new sheriff in town, Raco, who, as a relative newcomer to Kiewarra, develops a nice rapport with Falk and helps him in the unofficial investigation.

When the mystery was solved I wanted to smack myself in the head for not figuring it out sooner.  It all made such perfect sense.  But Harper’s deft sleight of hand obscured the solution for me.  She skillfully portrayed a community on edge and a devastated natural landscape that would test the most emotionally stable person.  Best of all, I’ve found an interesting, even-keeled detective with a lot of potential.  There’s much room for the reader to discover more about Falk and his past.  We know a lot about what happened to Aaron right before he was forced out of town but we know almost nothing of what transpired all the years in between.  I look forward to revisiting him next year when Harper’s new book comes out.

 

 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (#20BooksofSummer Book #2)

I had low expectations going into Paula Hawkins’s second novel, Into the Water.  I liked The Girl on the Train – liked, didn’t love.  I certainly turned the pages fast enough, reading it in less than two days.  But I didn’t think it was worth all the tremendous, overwhelming hype that it got, and I certainly didn’t think it was the best mystery published in 2015.  But I knew that her next book would be one of the most popular of the year, and I was curious enough to give it a go.  I’m very glad that I did, because it was a compelling, layered, twisty mystery with an almost Gothic feel that kept me wanting to return to its pages.

Basic premise:  Single mom Nel Abbott is dead, turning up in The Drowning Pool, a stretch of river in the English town of Beckford that has seen many women taking their lives in its waters.  Or have they been victims of foul play?  Only a couple of months earlier, a high school girl was found in the river, an apparent suicide, with stones in her pockets.  She was the best friend of Nel’s daughter, Lena.  Is there a connection between the two events?  Nel was writing a book about the sordid history of the river and its victims.  Did she come too close to the truth for comfort?

61OLegHQzvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Told from multiple perspectives, including the type-written pages of Nel’s manuscripts, this mystery was layered with secret upon secret.  It seemed every person in the town had a grudge against Nel, even her own estranged sister, Jules. It’s Jules’s perspective that we get the most of, and we see the sisters’ complicated history in flashbacks.  Her grief is overshadowed by something she thinks Nel played a part in  when she was thirteen and Nel was seventeen, something Jules has never recovered from emotionally.

Some of the women you wrote about are buried in that churchyard, some of your troublesome women.  Were all of you troublesome?  Libby was, of course.  At fourteen she seduced a thirty-four-year-old man, enticed him away from his loving wife and infant child. Aided by her aunt, the hag Mary Seeton, and the numerous devils that they conjured, Libby cajoled poor blameless Matthew into any number of unnatural acts.  Troublesome indeed.  Mary Marsh was said to have performed abortions. Anne Ward was a a killer.  But what about you, Nel?  What had you done?  Who were you troubling?  

I liked the feminist tone of the book.  Issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and statutory rape play a part in the town’s sordid past and present.  In fact, now that I think about it, almost much all the men in the story are creeps.  Not that the women are saints – they’re pretty messed up too, only they don’t seem to be holding the power.  I liked Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, an outsider to the town brought in to help local police with the investigation. She injected a bit of humor in an otherwise pretty dark book.  I chuckled at her frustration when I read this bit:

Seriously, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides, and grotesque historical drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.

20-booksWith so many suspects and secrets I admit I didn’t know the identity of the murderer until the very end of the book.  It wasn’t a shock so much as a “Yes!  That makes sense!” feeling.  It was a satisfying ending for me, considering all the plot elements swirling through its pages.  I would say that this book was not about the “big twist” or the surprise ending as so many contemporary thrillers are.  Instead, it’s a book about the complexity and unreliability of memory, and the ways in which “troublesome” women have been dealt with over time.  So my second book for 20 Books of Summer was a hit!  I was pleasantly surprised by how much I like this, and I will definitely be putting Ms. Hawkins’s next book on my TBR.  If you plan to read it, know that it’s pretty different from her first book; for me, that was a good thing.

 

No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

Sometimes you read a book that quietly sneaks up on you, becoming more engrossing and more moving as you turn the pages.  I wasn’t initially sure about Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming To Save Us, but I came to really enjoy being in the company of these flawed, authentic characters.  This is a novel filled with people who are stuck and people who are yearning, and I became totally invested in their lives.  The book jacket and pre-publication buzz may have led you to believe that this is a contemporary African American version of The Great Gatsby, but I took this novel for what it was:  a compelling family saga set in an economically depressed North Carolina town.

51u0JxuMEWL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Pinewood has seen better days – the furniture factories are almost all shuttered and even the town’s beloved greasy diner that’s been there since the 1950’s is about to close for good.  JJ (now Jay) Ferguson, former foster child,  has come back to Pinewood with money, and has built a showcase home on the hill high above town.  It’s obvious to anyone who knows him that he’s returned to win the heart of his high-school love, Ava.  Ava, meanwhile, has a good job at the bank but a sham of a marriage, and has been desperately trying to conceive a child unsuccessfully for years.  Her mother, Sylvia, is the heart of the novel.  She’s contemplating aging, secretly conversing regularly with a young convict named Marcus, and has never moved through the grief of losing her son, Devon, years ago in an accident.

stephanie-powell-watts-1
Stephanie Powell Watts

Watts knows how to write realistic dialogue and knows how to portray flawed characters sympathetically.  She’s a beautiful writer, mixing contemporary feeling conversations with astute observations about life.

Some passages I liked:

“These days when she got a glimpse of a beautiful man, she sized him up like a jeweler. Good cut, good sparkle, nice setting, but not something she herself could afford.”

“She wanted to tell Lana that for years she’d heard whispers that sounded like her son.  She almost confessed that when she found herself alone she spoke into the air until it vibrated with her voice and waited for her son’s voice to echo back.  She wanted to say that in waiting for her son she had almost surely failed her daughter who clearly need her, who probably knew better than to ask for her attention.  She wanted to tell Lana everything that would identify her as total-lost like a wrecked car and the county people could certify her gone in the ways that they do and finally, finally she could experience the peace, the calm of the diagnosis.  Everybody has a disease.”

“But soon and in clearer moments she knew she had made her own choice not to lose him or at least not to lose all of her memories of him.  She wanted the past where they lived and struggled and loved each other.  A past that couldn’t and shouldn’t be erased.  The possibility of the past, if it is a good one, or even if it has good moments, is that it can be alive, if you let it.  All of it alive, not just the terror, but the beauty too.  And the young encompassing and smothering love she’d felt for her lovely man – all that alive too. Otherwise all those years, her years, her life had not meant a thing.” 

There are no easy answers for the inhabitants of Pinewood, no outside saviors, no miracle solutions.  There is only going through, straight through the hard stuff of life – aging, infertility, depression, regrets.  And yet I wasn’t weighed down by this book. I continued to reach for it and looked forward to visiting these characters.  Perhaps the only salvation to be found is in the determined survival of Sylvia, Ava, and the rest of the characters.  Stephanie Powell Watts has written a moving story with a glimmer of hope, and I most definitely recommend it for fans of family sagas.

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

With a full-time job, a husband, and a five year-old, most of my reading gets done on my breaks at work, or maybe in 20 minutes chunks before I fall asleep.  I hardly ever read for more than an hour at one time – either sleep or my short attention span win out.  So it’s a BIG DEAL for me to say that I read most of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (231 pages) in one sitting.  It was a Friday night, and I just felt like devoting my night (after my son fell asleep) to reading.  I did not want to put it down.  I was riveted by the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people falling in love in the midst of an unnamed Middle Eastern city crumbling into sectarian violence.

9780735212176They meet in class when the city had only experienced “some shootings and the odd car bombing.”  They have coffee in the cafeteria, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they talk and get to know one another a bit as any young couple might do.  And then more and more frightening and violent things begin to happen, and then things start to go all to hell, and they are thrown into a much more intimate relationship at a faster pace than they probably would have experienced otherwise.

But then a way out emerges:

Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe…

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I won’t reveal more about the doors. That said, this not a book for everyone.  Lately I’ve read some of those Top Ten Tuesday lists about things that turn people off as readers, and magical realism is a popular turn-off. My tolerance for “weirdness” in books has only increased as I’ve gotten older, so I like magical realism, if it serves the story.  For me, the magical doors to more stable European and American cities worked.  I went with the device as a way to move the narrative along and as an ironic commentary on how often treacherous and deadly real-life migration is.  I ve read that sometimes magical realism makes a reader feel removed from the characters, but I didn’t feel this way at all.  I was fully immersed in Nadia and Saeed’s plight as they tried to find a place to be and tried to navigate complicated emotions in such a new and fragile relationship.

And the writing – my goodness!  It moved me.  There is something essentially human in Mr. Hamid’s writing that touched my heart.  This passage about Saeed’s prayers especially spoke to me:

“…he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other was.  When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we all carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another…”

Because I was moved, because I was transported, I am confident that Exit West will be on my year-end Top Ten list.  I now want to read all of his books with a new sense of urgency.

You can read a great interview with Mr. Hamid (and you should!) from the New York Times here.

Do you have plans to read Exit West?  How do you feel about magical realism or weirdness in books?  What was the last book you read in one (or two) sitting(s)?