‘The Lost Man’

Jane Harper (author of “The Dry”) has done it again, with a masterpiece of a mystery set in the harsh heat of Australia’s Outback.

In “The Lost Man,” one of three brothers is found dead from heatstroke at a mysterious and forlorn local landmark — the stockman’s grave. An old and wind-scoured headstone marks the spot where an unknown cattleman was buried, and now Cameron Bright lies in what little shade the marker throws as his brothers Nathan and Bub try to figure out why their brother is dead.

Cameron’s truck, loaded with water and other supplies, is parked in the vicinity, but far enough away that he could not have gotten to it without perishing. Why was it there instead of parked nearby? Suicide or death by misadventure seem the only explanations, but there is a lot more at play as Nathan and his family discover as they try to determine what happened.

“The Lost Man” is a character-driven narrative, where the landscape itself becomes a powerful character, and the past threatens to overwhelm the present as old sorrows and abuses rise up to tear Nathan’s family to pieces.

Beautifully well-written, memorable, and suspenseful, “The Lost Man” is a great book with which to begin the summer reading season — while you’re trapped indoors by the rain. Try “The Dry,” too. (No rhyme intended.)

‘Exhalation: Stories’

“Mind-blowing” is a common, not to say, overused, adjective in our world, describing everything from a Facebook meme to a Steph Curry 3-pointer. But when I read short stories by the science fiction writer Ted Chiang, I am convinced I can actually feel bits of gray matter dripping and dropping out of my ears.

Chiang has published two volumes of short stories in the last 17 years — he thinks about what he is going to write for a long time before he writes it. His most recent book, “Exhalation: Stories,” contains a kind of steampunk story about a line of automaton nannies developed to raise Victorian-era children in a more rational and less abusive way than human women. Things do not turn out as planned.

In the title story, “Exhalation,” a self-perpetuating species of AI beings comes to understand the doom that awaits them when one of them dissects his own brain. In my favorite story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a citizen of ancient Baghdad finds in a merchant’s shop a time-traveling device. He may use the machine to travel to the future or to the past of his own life, but then what?

If you are looking for Star Wars-like sci-fi adventure, Ted Chiang is not your man. But if you want to see the cosmos in entirely un-looked for ways, he is.