The Dry, by Jane Harper
Pan Macmillan (2016), Paperback, 352 pages
This is a seriously good piece of writing from a debut author. Jane Harper takes a very familiar trope – the small town with dark secrets – and makes of it a punchy, raw journey into the dark heart of a a small Australian town suffering under a prolonged drought and a brutal crime. The protagonist in this drama is Aaron Falk, an officer with the Australian Federal Police, who returns to the small town of Kiewarra where he grew up, to attend the funeral of his best friend Luke Hadler, who has apparently murdered his wife and son and then killed himself. Falk has unhappy memories of Kiewarra and plans to depart as soon as the funeral is over, but is waylaid by Luke’s parents, who want him to prove Luke did not commit the crime, and use their knowledge of a lie told by himself and Luke to escape suspicion in the mysterious drowning of one their friends 20 years earlier to blackmail him into doing so. Aaron reluctantly agrees to stay, and strikes up a working relationship with a young policeman as they explore Kiewarra’s darker secrets as the real story of two crimes decades apart start to emerge. However, Aaron finds that the town that drove him out because of the drowning, has neither forgotten nor forgiven him. The real appeal of this book is not in the story, which is by no means startlingly original, but in the way it’s told. Harper captures the oppressiveness of the hot dry landscape perfectly, mirroring the simmering tension in the inhabitants of the town. Everyone is under pressure, and it shows in the sparse, punchy, confrontational dialogue and explosions of violence. Falk’s continuing confrontation with those in the town who want him gone, as well as his developing friendships with others whom he works with to solve the crimes, in particular are really well-handled. the ending is not particularly a surprise, but the ramping up of tension leading to the denouement is exceptional. This is a great Australian suspense novel, up there with classics like Wake in Fright, immensely enjoyable if very confronting. A superb debut by Harper, and I look forward to more like it in the future.
The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945, by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks
Penguin (2016), Paperback, 864 pages
An engaging mixture of detailed technical stuff and boy’s own derring under the sea. Hennessy and Jinks begin with the capture and examination of the last, state of the art German U-boats in 1945, carry through the early years of post-diesel boats utilising the technology pilfered from the Nazis, the first tentative moves towards nuclear boats, the advent of Polaris, then Trident, as the UK moved its nuclear deterrent entirely under the waves, and ends with the uncertain future facing the Submarine Service as boat numbers are slashed, and the very future of submarines are under question. Along the way they enliven the dense technical and political details with captivating accounts of the crews and their Cold War cat & mouse games with the Soviet submarines, along with a real shooting war in the Falklands, where HMS Conqueror became only the second submarine since 1945 to sink a vessel in anger. The description of the sinking of the General Belgrano is arguably the highlight of the book, and the account of the political machinations behind the decision to sink her are fascinating. Also of great interest are the often fraught relations between the British and Americans, who of necessity had to supply much of the technology used to go nuclear, and the authors do an excellent job of conveying the tensions and high-stakes politicking involved. There are some sadder moments, the tragic loss of submarines and crews in accidents, and the retirement of submarines after long years of service. Overall, I really enjoyed this book, in places it can be dry, but it manages to mix up the denser technical material and the thrilling stuff quite well. Anyone who loved the Hunt For Red October is bound to love the real-life thing, anyone else with a penchant for anything naval will also find it captivating.
Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley
HarperCollins (2016), Paperback, 592 pages
Apparently I’m lucky in that I only had to wait a few months for the sequel to the brilliant The Rook, as I came to that glorious book after it had been out for a couple of years. My good fortune. This has certainly been one of the sequels I have most eagerly anticipated in a long time. The Rook was a revelation, a glorious roller-coaster of adult fantasy, Harry Potter for grown-ups as I described it, and the sequel doesn’t disappoint, well not entirely. I have to say, this is not quite as devastatingly good as The Rook, but then that book would be exceedingly hard to top. One slight disappointment is that Myfanwy, the captivating heroine of The Rook, takes somewhat of a back seat here, handing over to younger protagonists, Odette, a fledgling Grafter, and Felicity, a young Pawn of the Checquy, as the two rival organizations, who have been sworn enemies for centuries, struggle to overcome their mutal dislike and form an unlikely alliance. This becomes even more difficult as a mysterious third force, possessed of unearthly powers, makes clear its intention to sabotage the alliance and cause maximum mayhem in the course of doing so. Odette and Felicity are thrust together and must play a key role in defeating the unknown enemy before the budding alliance is sundered forever. The story does move slowly in parts, something that was conspicuously absent in The Rook, so the books lacks that glorious out of control roller-coaster feeling that was irrestible in the first book, However, it builds very well to a really exciting climax, and by the end of the story, Odette and Felicity have become well-developed, enadearing characters. I can’t, in all honesty, say that this book is as good as The Rook, but I doubt that book can be topped, it was a tour-de-force. Suffice it to say Stilletto is a worthy sequel, and one that leaves the reader just as eagerly waiting for further developments in the Checquy story as its predecessor did. First class reading in anyone’s terms.