Archive for November 2021

Autopsy by Patricia Cornwell

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I've been reading Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series off and on since my aunt first gave me a copy of Body of Evidence when I was in high school.  After devouring the first several books in the series, my reading tastes evolved and my interest in the series waned. Then in 2015 my book-reviewing buddy John Valeri urged me to give the series another chance. Over the next three years, I was thrilled by the story that took place through Flesh and Blood, Depraved Heart, and Chaos. That last book seemed like a pretty good place to let Scarpetta ride off into the sunset. In fact, Cornwell spent the next few years writing a completely new series. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that her latest novel out today would be a return to her famed series. 

Autopsy, the 25th novel in the Kay Scarpetta series sees the character taking on the problems of the present-day while attempting to reclaim some of the glory from her past. Scarpetta has recently returned to her old stomping ground and career as the new chief medical examiner for the state of Virginia, a role she held many years ago. Back then, she was trying to prove herself as a respected professional in a male dominate field. Now, she's more than earned respect in her job, but her challenge is nonetheless daunting. Her predecessor was more concerned with furthering his political aspirations than running a functioning investigative unit. This negligence has left the department in disarray with many loyalists to the former guy working to undermine Kay's attempts at righting the ship. 

Interdepartmental drama aside, Kay's personal life has demanded her attention in a different way. When she took the job in Virginia, her entire family picked up their lives and made the move with her. Any move can take a toll on the family, but a tragic case of COVID has impacted Scarpetta's inner circle in a way no personal or professional obstacle has ever come close to replicating. Just as she is working to settle into things at work and home, Kay is called to the scene of a brutal murder. Her trusty sidekick and investigative partner Marino has made the move with her. The pair are a little worse for the ware, but they settle into an easy rhythm of working the case. Things are far from settled at the scene when Kay is interrupted by a phone call. Her presence has been requested by none other than the President of the United States. It's all in a day's work for the famed Dr. Kay Scarpetta. 

It seems that time has been the best thing for Patricia Cornwell's long-running series. Indeed, the years-long hiatus between novels has allowed the author to hit a kind of reset button within her world. Her characters' relationships and careers have changed since we last read about them, giving Cornwell the license to take her series in a new direction. She has opted to return to her roots, placing Scarpetta back in the job that she held when the series began twenty-five books ago. This gives Autopsy a feeling of familiarity that was very welcome, especially as the more recent books in the series have seemed to have lost some of the things that made the earlier books such a joy to read. It was a welcome change to have Scarpetta take a more hands-on approach with the investigation while also navigating the metaphorical landmine that the present-day political scene has become. I've always said that no one can write a chilling scene like Patrica Cornwell, and this latest book continues to prove my point. I had a few gripes about pacing and an ending that tidied things up a bit too quickly, but these did little to deter me from enjoying the book. With Autopsy it is safe to say that Patrica Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series is back and better than ever. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 48)

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

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 "Is there anything lucky about surviving a tragedy?"

What's a book that has been sitting on your shelf for years? We're all guilty of it. We buy the next must-read book and proceed to not read it. I've lost count of all the hyped books that I've purchased on a whim and subsequently ignored. Noah Hawley's Before the Fall is one such book. I spent a day last week cleaning my bookshelves and piles, sorting through each title that I own. I had simply run out of room to keep them all. As Hawley's book came up, I decided that if I was going to once again keep it, I would need to actually read it. 

Scott Burroughs is a down on his luck painter who is about to stumble into one of the most tragic events of his life. By sheer chance, he's recently befriended the wife of a wealthy media mogul, and she's invited him to travel on a private plane with her family and a few of their affluent friends. The short trip to New York from Martha's Vinyard is nothing out of the ordinary. Scott is thankful to have a way to travel to the city, especially as he has an important meeting with a gallery there the next day. Sixteen minutes into the flight the unthinkable happens. The plane nosedives directly into the ocean, killing everyone but Scott and the young son of the media mogul. 

In the aftermath of the disaster, Scott is hailed as a hero. He found the child floating in the ocean amongst the wreckage, and swam the countless miles, the boy in hand, to shore. The media frenzy begins. It seems as if every reporter and news camera in the world is trying to get Scott's side of the story. For his part, the painter elects to hide away, secluding himself from the hype. But then the questions begin. Why was Scott on the plane in the first place? Why did the plane go down? Is it a mere coincidence that an aircraft carrying so many influential people crashed into the sea?

After finally reading Noah Hawley's Before the Fall, I honestly regret having taken so long to get to it. His masterful novel tells the story of one man dealing with the guilt of surviving a tragedy. Simultaneously, Hawley dissects the lives of each of the other individuals on an ill-fated aircraft, showing the events that brought each character to the plane that day. He meticulously fills in each piece of the narrative puzzle, bringing readers closer and closer to the truth behind the tragedy. The survivor story that takes place after the crash highlights both the mental challenge of living through a tragic event and the way that the media can build up and break down people in the blink of an eye. If I had any complaint it would be that the ending of the novel seemed a bit simple for such a complex build-up. Still, Before the Fall is an intriguing story that manages to entertain while urging the reader into deeper contemplations. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 47)

Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson

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Earlier this year, Rachel Hawkin's thriller The Wife Upstairs capitalized on the idea of secrets between spouses. I mused then that no matter how long two people are together, there will always be things in each other's past that remain a mystery. In the world of literary thrillers, this conceit can be used to drive some pretty crazy stories. Author Peter Swanson is no stranger to that setup. In fact, his 2019 novel Before She Knew Him used secrets and lies between spouses to weave a tangled web of brilliant suspense and deceit. In his latest novel Every Vow You Break, Swanson hopes to once again use the unknowns between a married couple to thrill audiences anew. 

Abigail is living a dream. Her life has become something right out of a fairytale, a modern-day romance that she never saw coming. How could she, a normal girl, capture the attention of a handsome millionaire like Bruce? Her life seems destined to be perfect from here on out, and she's truly met the man of her dreams. Then, on her luxury bachelorette party weekend, Abigail risks everything. Too many drinks and an encounter with a stranger at the bar lead to a single night of lust. Abigail is overcome with regret in the morning, vowing never to speak of the night to anyone, especially not Bruce. 

Secrets have a way of coming back to haunt you. As Abigail celebrates her wedding with Bruce, she can't help but think about the man with no name who nearly brought her marriage to an end. She never dreamed her marriage would begin with a lie, but she also knows that Bruce values honestly and loyalty above all else. Her one night of infidelity could derail their entire life together. Even as the couple celebrates a magical wedding night, Abigail can't help but think of the other man. For a moment, she even thinks she can smell the cigarette that he smoked that night. But that is crazy. Her life is with Bruce now. She never has to think about that night again. Or does she?

As the happy couple arrives for their honeymoon, they are glowing with the kind of bliss that most newlyweds experience. Abigail was a bit hesitant about spending the next week at a luxury resort on a private island, but she's now confident that a week unplugged from everything is the perfect way to begin her marriage. All that goes awry when she spots him. At first, she's certain that she's dreaming. How could the stranger whom she had a one-night stand with be at the private resort that even she didn't know about until arriving? At second glance, though, Abigail knows that it is him. The secret with the potential to end her marriage before it even gets off the ground is here, and she will stop at nothing to keep it buried. 

Peter Swanson has become one of my go-to authors of standalone thrillers. Each year, he reliably releases his latest novel filled with an intriguing setup, quick pace, and plenty of twists and turns. Every Vow You Break continues that tradition but to more middling results. The story of a future wife's infidelity against her seemingly perfect husband and the subsequent effort to hide those actions provides a great setup for the thriller. That being said, I found it tricky to root for her, especially given that her troubles were mostly self-inflicted. Nevertheless, Swanson knows how to keep the pages moving through ever-tightening suspense and enough twists to keep you guessing. The ending of this one was pretty much sealed from the start. There are only so many ways this story could go, and the last few twists felt more forced for shock value than actually advancing the narrative. In the end, this won't be my favorite novel by Swanson, but it also won't be my last. I've already got my eye on his next effort Nine Lives that releases next spring. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 46)

The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison

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"Collectors don't let butterflies fly free. It defeats the purpose."

Welcome to the garden, a massive glass-enclosed piece of land filled with only the most beautiful things. The Gardener has meticulously curated his enclosure. The habitat within contains rolling green space, a waterfall-fed stream, and countless butterflies, each as beautiful as it is unique. In the center of the grand atrium lies a building. From this place, the Gardener houses his collection, carefully tending to each specimen. Even in death, he marvels at their beauty, preserving each butterfly in a resin-filled glass. Despite the pride he takes in his collection, the Gardener knows it must remain a secret. His collection is as macabre as it is beautiful, a living contradiction of splendor and horror. These butterflies, you see, are not insects but captured women, each tattooed by The Gardener with a large detailed recreation of the very animals they are named after. 

Agents Hannoverian and Eddison aren't quite sure what to make of the case that they've been assigned to. The situation that has unfolded in the last several hours would have been inconceivable the day before, but here they are. The fire alerted the authorities to the glass structure, and what they found is nearly indescribable. The women who survived the incident are in various levels of mental and physical ruin, most either unable or unwilling to speak of the horrors that they've endured. The man who perpetrated this evil has kept his mouth shut too. If he survives his injuries, he will face a very long and public trial for his misdeeds. But how will these agents make sense of the unimaginable? The fate of the investigation and lives of those involved lies in an unlikely source. 

Maya was one of the butterflies. For her, life in the garden was sadly similar to her life outside. The abuse and emotional torment she faced before being captured helped to fortify her against some of the most heinous parts of the garden. She is, at the start of the investigation, the only person involved who seems willing to speak about what happened there. Slowly and in her own time, she tells her story. Agents Hannoverian and Eddison are eager to learn every detail of her experience in the garden but are also wary of just how factual her retelling is. Is Maya merely a victim, or is she working for the very monster who kept her captive?

Dot Hutchison's The Butterfly Garden evades nearly every attempt to describe or classify it. She has written a novel that is part thriller, part horror, part psychological suspense, yet even those genres fail to fully capture the essence of what her story is. The subject matter is dark. Hutchison never gets graphic in her descriptions, but the mere hint of what happens to her characters set my imagination ablaze. There is something hauntingly mesmerizing about the novel. At times the events that occurred left me uncomfortable, but I couldn't stop reading. I had to see this story through. Hutchison balances the atrocities that befall the women with quieter moments where they find solace in each other and their memories of a life before. Even in the most inhuman of situations, the connection of humanity shines through. The Butterfly Garden serves as the first book in Hutchishon's The Collector series, though the novel works just fine on its own. That being said, I can't help but be curious about what happens next. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 45)

Say Their Names by Curtis Bunn, Michael H. Cottman, Patrice Gaines, Nick Charles, Keith Harriston

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At the start of this year, I resolved to diversify my reading. 2020 was a historic year for many reasons, but the call to action around the racial inequities that have plagued our country from the very beginning really moved me. I felt called to do more, share more, and learn more. An act as simple as seeking out work by a more diverse set of authors seemed like the least I could do. In the ensuing months, I've read so many incredible works that have challenged me, educated me, and moved me, each providing a perspective that I would not have normally been exposed to. When Grand Central Publishing sent me Say Their Names, a collection of essays chronicling the history and impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, I jumped at the opportunity to read it and share it here. 

The book opens with Curtis Bunn's essay Why Black Lives Matter Matters. Bunn sets straight the misinformation surrounding the movement. You see, for a lot of white Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement began when officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. The horrific abuse of power was filmed and shared across traditional and social media, rousing many Americans to call for justice. Likewise, for many of those same Americans, the entire matter was put to rest with cities and states issuing sweeping memorandums and reforms for their police departments and Chauvin being found guilty for murdering Floyd. If only it was that easy! Bunn traces the origins of BLM back to 2014 when young Travon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. The roots of the movement, though, run deeply intertwined with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. More importantly, the continued injustice in policing, wealth, education, and so much more has continued to plague the Black community far beyond the tragedy with George Floyd. 

I was particularly moved by another essay by Bunn titled Black Women Stand Tall. It highlights the importance that Black women have held in recent developments within the cause, especially considering that the movement has historically been headed by men, specifically religious leaders. Bunn points to women like Stacy Abrams who turned her personal political loss in Georgia, into a stirring resolve to register voters, educate them, and help them to elect leaders who would truly fight for them. All of this, of course, resulted in the state voting in two Democrats in their Senate election, an upset for the status quo that in a large part caused Abrams to be defeated in the first place. With the likes of Kamala Harris elected to the second-highest office in the land, and countless mayors leading their cities to reform long-held, racist policies, Bunn recognized the importance of women helping to lead the cause forward. 

Whether you are just beginning to read more about the Black Lives Matter movement or are looking for a way to expand your knowledge on the subject, Say Their Names is well worth the read. I found the collection to not only contain a ton of history and context but also provide a more rounded perspective from the authors and the people featured in their writing. The authors do a fair job touting the successes of the movement while equalling calling for changes in areas that they see as lacking. For example, by having a movement with no central leader, there is sometimes the need for more transparency in how money is being collected and who is deciding how to fund things. The authors also point out the need for more diversification within the movement itself, particularly the need for more women and LGBTQ+ representation. Say Their Names is a fantastic overview of the history, people, and actions taken and needed within the movement for racial justice. I'm thankful that books like this continue to be published and read, and I hope that we all continue to do our part to make a more equitable world. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2021, 44)

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