Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell

Port Mortuary
Patricia Cornwell
Penguin Putnam, November 30, 2010
512 pages
Source: review copy

Patricia Cornwell is the only writer who has gotten me out of bed during a late night reading frenzy to double check that the doors and windows are locked.

She's also one of the few writers whose release dates I track for new books and I usually buy them on the lay down date.  This time around I was happy to get an early review copy.

I'm also thrilled that she's coming to Chicago!  She'll be at the Borders in Oak Brook, IL on Thursday, 12/3/10, at 7pm.  Please call the store for the latest details: 630-574-0800. [Disclosure: I work there part-time.]

I've been reading Cornwell since the late 1990s when I first started getting into mystery novels and her characters--Kay Scarpetta, Pete Marino, Lucy Farinelli, and Benton Wesely--are like old friends to me.  Her first novel, Postmortem (1991) is still, I believe, the only novel to win the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity Awards as well as the French Prix du Roman d'Adventure in a single year.  She has been credited with starting the whole CSI craze due to her meticulous and engaging incorporation of the latest forensic investigative techniques and technology in her Scarpetta novels.

When I first started reading the Scarpetta novels I lived in Charlotte, NC where Cornwell is considered a bit of a home girl because she was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer and went to college up the road at Davidson. 

Port Mortuary takes Kay Scarpetta in a fresh new direction, but the novel is a bit slow on action.  The book, however, never dragged for me.  I just realized at one point that I was still reading about Scarpetta thinking after X number of pages.  I won't go so far as to say I am disappointed with this novel, but it wasn't the action packed thriller that I was anticipating.  Port Mortuary started strong, but I think it got a little bogged down in Scarpetta's internal musings.  I would've preferred to see Scarpetta engage in more action and to see more interaction between the main characters, but that's not the book Cornwell wrote.  And I know she has her reasons.

I'm looking at this novel as setting up lots of potential thrills going forward.  Scarpetta certainly learns a lot about herself in this story and tensions are set up between the characters and various organizations for future harvesting.  I know Cornwell fans will enjoy the novel and the new direction it is taking Scarpetta.  Actually, the more I write about this novel the more fascinating it seems.  I can't wait to talk with people who've read it to compare notes.

In this entry in the series we learn of Scarpetta's early work with the Air Force to pay off her medical school loans before she started her professional career.  There's also a dark secret that's been haunting her and which she's been hiding since the Reagan years.  Scarpetta has been appointed chief of the new state of the art Cambridge Forensic Center in Massachusetts which is a joint venture between state and national government (including the military), MIT, and Harvard.  However, she's been away at Dover Air Force Base practically since the new facility opened participating in an internship to learn how to conduct virtual autopsies using CT-assisted technology.

The four month internship has dragged on into six months and all is not well back home at the Cambridge Forensic Center where Scarpetta left Jack Fielding in charge.  But Scarpetta doesn't know that all is not well.  She's been cocooned working long hours at Dover.  And no one is really telling her anything these days.  Then, a young man drops dead near Scarpetta's house in Cambridge.  His body is taken to the Cambridge Forensic Center where his body starts to bleed in the cooler overnight.  Anyone whose read Cornwell knows that dead bodies don't bleed, which means the man may have been put in the cooler while he was still alive.  Scarpetta's reputation is on the line.  She may not have been there, but she's in charge and while she's been away standards have slipped and her second in command, Jack Fielding, has disappeared.  Pete Marino and Lucy Farinelli helicopter in to Dover to take Scarpetta home to Cambridge.  General Briggs, Scarpetta's commanding officer at Dover and the only one who knows about her earlier, dark secret, seems to want to interfere with her domain.  All of this, along with a few other things, makes Scarpetta a little paranoid, which sets up her internal musings.  The story takes off from there.

Cornwell delivers more of her trademark incorporation of the latest techniques and technology in crime scene investigation--virtual autopsies and various nano technologies--all the while maintaining a deep sense of respect for the victim's of crime as well as other living creatures.  Excuse me one cryptic remark, but going forward I'll be looking a little closer at flies on the wall after having read this novel.

Diehard Cornwell fans will no doubt pick-up Port Mortuary asap and, as always, it'll be like reconnecting with old friends.

Visit Cornewll's website here.  She's also been very active and entertaining for her fans on Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Very Simple Crime by Grant Jerkins

A Very Simple Crime
Grant Jerkins
Berkley Prime Crime, November 2, 2010
Source: Review copy

I don't always say yes to a publisher when they contact me and ask if I'd be interested in an advance reader copy of a forthcoming book by a new writer.  Sometimes I'm just not interested in the subject matter or other times I have way too many books that I'm chomping at the bit to read and won't be able to read the offered book in a timely manner.

But when the publisher for A Very Simple Crime contacted me to see if I'd be interested in a review copy, I said yes.  I was intrigued.  Here was a first novel that involved mental illness written by a guy whose been an advocate for learning disabled adults for ten years.  I thought there might be some substance to this first novel, perhaps a fresh take on the psychological thriller.

I'm happy to say it was a good read, one that is getting better as it continues to bounce around in my brain.  I'll recommend to readers who like their mystery/thrillers to have a psychological edge and at little legal action.  The writing is deceptively simple.  Take my advice and pay attention to the details as you're reading.  If the beginning is a little slow or hard to get into, stick with it.  It's one of those thrillers that starts with some short chapters that leave you wondering what the heck is going on, but you quickly get drawn into the story and when you think you know what's going on that's when you really don't know what's going on.

A Very Simple Crime is the story of Adam Lee, a man who was orphaned at a young age and, along with his older brother Monty, is sent to live with his mother's sister's family.  Adam is a man who seems to have skimmed along the surface of life, not living very deeply.  His older brother Monty is one of the most successful criminal defense lawyers in the Atlanta area and a handsome womanizer who seems to have it all.  Adam has worshiped Monty since the two brothers were boys.

Adam marries Rachel, a mentally disturbed woman who is the sole heir to her wealthy father's fortunes.  They have a child, Albert, who is mentally handicapped.  Adam gets a job in his father-in-law's firm and is initially a competent, proficient worker.  During his son's childhood, however, he starts to throw himself into his work and is surprised that he becomes successful.  Eventually it becomes obvious that Albert needs to be institutionalized after he hits his mother in the head with an ashtray, hard enough that she is hospitalized.  Life goes one.  At first Adam and Rachel visit Albert regularly, but then Rachel's own mental illness intensifies and the visits dwindle.  Adam seems trapped in his sick marriage . . . and from there the plot takes off.

When Rachel is found dead and obviously murdered, is seems a simple conclusion can be drawn that Albert, the son, did it.  He was home visiting his mother that weekend.  But complications arise.  Enter Leo Hewitt, a junior deputy prosecutor whose once stellar career is now in shambles after being blamed for releasing a suspected child murder who was later caught red-handed.  Leo is prompted to dig into this new crime.  The authorities were going to consider the murder an open and closed case.  But Leo finds some damning evidence.  Dark history between Adam and Monty comes to light.  Did Adam do it?  He's claimed all along that he loved his wife....

A Very Simple Crime is one of those crime novels where you're left pondering characters, scenes, and the entire plot.  You'll find yourself flipping back through parts of the book and realizing that little things mentioned here and there turn out to be significant things later on.

If you're interested, read the book now, because the movie version is in pre-production.  Check out Grant Jerkins's website here.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Published: November 2, 2010
Hardcover, 352 pages
The audio version was simultaneously released and is read by Pat Conroy--what a treat that will be!

Please note that this post is based on a bound manuscript requested from the publisher and not the final published book.  Also beware that I am a huge Pat Conroy fan and think the man can do no wrong.  :-)

Pat Conroy fans will be delighted by and left wanting more after finishing My Reading Life.  This book is also a terrific gift idea for those who love literature and book culture in general.  It is a celebration of books, a memoir of one man's life-long reading of novels and poetry, as well as some literary criticism and literary history. 

Mr. Conroy beings this memoir of his reading life where it all began: with his Mother who was a passionate and voracious reader.  She infused her love of literature into her son at a young age and this love is something that mother and son shared throughout her life.  Chapter Two naturally segues into praise, appreciation, and a discussion of the impact of Gone with the Wind.  Other chapters are dedicated to and revolve around either a particular person, place, or writer.  Along the way Mr. Conroy reveals many details about his life: people he's met along the way (some brief, some developing into life-long friendships), places he's been, as well as how & why his ideas and themes were formed.

I appreciate Mr. Conroy's writing even more after reading this book and have a much greater understanding for his subject matter as well. Here's a look at the book's table of contents to wet your appetite:
  • Chapter One: The Lily--his mother
  • Chapter Two: Gone with the Wind--read it!
  • Chapter Three: The Teacher--about Gene Norris, Conroy's high school English teacher and life-long mentor and friend
  • Chapter Four: Charles Dickens and Daufuskie Island--a short chapter about the community on Daufuskie island and their staging of A Christmas Carol
  • Chapter Five: The Librarian--Miss Hunter, the librarian at Beaufort High School who didn't want students in her library
  • Chapter Six: The Old New York Book Shop--Conroy's relationship with Atlanta bookstore owner Cliff Graubart and the books, people, and fellow writers that walked in and out of the shop
  • Chapter Seven: The Book Rep--Norman Berg teaches Conroy about the book business from a different angle
  • Chapter Eight: My First Writers' Conference--funny chapter about a brief meeting with Alice Walker and missing out on Adrienne Rich's poetry workshop; the complicated early days of the feminist movement
  • Chapter Nine: On Being a Military Brat--the pros and cons of being a military brat and the need for some recognition from military fathers for the sacrifice and service of their children
  • Chapter Ten: A Southerner in Paris--Conroy does more than just finish writing The Lords of Discipline in the City of Light
  • Chapter Eleven: A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe--the spirit of Wolfe blazed into Conroy's consciousness in 1961 and still burns there religious fervor
  • Chapter Twelve: The Count--a tribute to Leo Tolstoy
  • Chapter Thirteen: My Teacher, James Dickey--hero worship at its finest
  • Chapter Fourteen: Why I Write--why he does it and what he wants as a reader
  • Chapter Fifteen: The City--the city in inside, created by a lifetime of reading
If you're a Pat Conroy fan this book will be a treat.  If you haven't read any Pat Conroy but love books about books, add this one to your list.  I now have a list of books recommended by Mr. Conroy and a renewed itch to re-read his novels. 

Mr. Conroy's writing desk

I became a fan of Pat Conroy in the early 1980s.  The 1982 hit movie An Officer and a Gentleman is what led me to discover Pat Conroy via David Keith's performance in the movie adaptation of his novel The Lords of Discipline.  

What?  Let me explain.

I fell in love with An Officer and a Gentleman.  I saw it several times in the theater and talked about it so much that my cousin Daniel made a VHS recording of it for me when it premiered on cable.  I wore that VHS out and my kind friends watched it over and over and over.  That VHS copy moved with me from Illinois to North Carolina to Nebraska to Nevada to North Carolina (again) and finally back to Illinois where it eventually went to VHS heaven.  I knew the movie by heart, to the point that when it aired in Germany once when I was visiting my aunt I could tell--even with my basic grasp of the language--that the translation was horrible.  Richard Gere was okay, but I really liked David Keith.  So when The Lords of Discipline movie, in which Mr. Keith starred, came out in 1983 I went to see it right away.  I was 17.

I didn't know about Pat Conroy before seeing the movie, but when I discovered that the movie was based on a novel, I bought the book as soon as possible.  The Lords of Discipline lead me to The Great Santini both the book and the movie (I joined the Marines anyway in 1983) and I've been a fan ever since.

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Conroy at a house party in Charlotte, NC when I lived there in the late 1990s.  My memory is fuzzy, but I believe he was in town to help with a fundraiser for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system.  He packed one of the town's arenas and had the audience eating out of his hands.  This was probably shortly after Beach Music (1995) came out.  There was either a pre- or post-event party at somebody's house, someone who was a mover and a shaker in the Charlotte literary scene and who had a big enough house to accommodate the eager library supporters who were invited (being a broke graduate student at the time, I was a tag-a-long). 

Even after talking with what seemed like hundreds of people, Mr. Conroy took the time to hear me tell of my love for his stories, particularly for The Great Santini, a book which helped me deal with my own complicated love for my own complicated father.  Mr. Conroy seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and talked with me in a way that seemed decidedly "uncanned" for someone who--let's face it--probably has had the same conversation dozens of times with strangers at such events over the years.  Mr. Conroy's ability to remain present and connected turned him from being a favorite author to a writer-hero for me.

Conroy writes in Chapter One of My Reading Life, "I take it as an article of faith that the novels I've loved will live inside me forever."  I have that faith, too.  I know his novels will live inside me forever.  And just as I grow and change, they've taught me new things when I've revisited them over the years.

Visit Pat Conroy's website here for a list of his books as well as upcoming events.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...