Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell

After the heart-breaking disappointment of From Potter’s Field (Kay Scarpetta #6) by Patricia Cornwell, I thought I had finally reached that stage in the series when the pop-corn quality of the stories turned unbearable, and unreadable. However, Mr.B&R had given me the two next titles on the series, and I decided to give Cause of Death (Kay Scarpetta #7) a try after a disastrous start of the year that left me needing some autopsies, and some pop-corn reading.

Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell

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Cause of Death takes Doctor Kay Scarpetta to the Southern, Virginia setting where we first met her. I was really glad to see her back to a place where she feels she belongs in, and where she has quite a lot of power. However, despite being Virginia’s chief medical examiner, Cause of Death explores the many ways in which the masculine institutions Scarpetta deals with can, and actually do, discriminate against women. When she first approaches the scene of the crime she is stopped by a young policeman, and she has to prove him she really is who she says. When she finally arrives, she sees herself caught on a jurisdictional war between the Navy and the Chesapeake police department, none of which accept her authority. Later on, she is even sexually harassed by a young policeman who would later claim that desperate, middle-aged Kay actually tried to hit on him. So, if there is a novel in the series that explores gender, age and authority prejudices this is it.

The crime was also very interesting, and I could not glimpse the outcome at any moment. On New Year’s Eve an investigating reporter is found dead at the Inactive Naval Ship Yard in Chesapeake. Scarpetta is there covering for a colleague on leave, when she received a very early call about a fatality, but a later call will prove that no one from the police department had notified her before. So ,who did? Because I do not want to give away anything, I can only say that Cause of Death is quite a political crime novel, where Cornwell’s moderate Republican ideals come through. However, I have to add that she presents them in a very respectful way, and despite my not agreeing to some of these political beliefs, I never felt uncomfortable.

So, yes, I would recommend any reader of the Kay Scarpetta series to keep reading even though From Potter’s Field is not that good. Cause of Death is, and Cornwell brings back the powerful, resolute, and inspiring Kay that we love.

January Reading and Hoping for a Better February

2015 has not been the best of years so far. Not in a it’s-cold-and-I-feel-grumpy way, but more like everything seemed to go wrong for a few weeks in a row, which pretty much led me to quit reading for at least 10 days. It was nothing serious, we are all fine at home, and for that I’m grateful every night. Also, things have gotten better during last week, I’m now planning lots of updates and posts, and I’m back to reading. Actually, I’m finding it really hard to put a book down and sit down to write and do research! For what I’ve read in other blogs, January has not been the best month to many of you either, so here’s to a better February for everyone, full of reading, great books, and lots of reviews. Meanwhile, these are the books that kept me sane last month:

  • I finished The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, which I had started back in December.
  • Because everything was feeling so wrong, I picked up Kay Scarpetta #7, Cause of Death, and I found solace in the autopsy rooms and the morgue.
  • I discovered Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming, a terrific novel on crafting your identity in your 20s.
  • Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon was the first Persephone Book I read and now I can’t wait to lay my hands on another one.

Stay tuned because all the books will be reviewed here in the next 10 days.

So, since it’s Monday, and it’s February, what are you reading? I still haven’t picked up a book after finishing Still Missing because I thought the postwoman would bring some books today. Alas, she hasn’t. But don’t worry, it’s not like I’ve run out of books ;) Meanwhile, we are expecting a snowstorm tomorrow, that will more likely than not keep me home reading and writing until Sunday. I know, lucky me!

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

I was offered a review copy of Rebbeca Scherm’s novel Unbecoming by Annie Harris, from Viking. At first, I spent a few days thinking whether this was the kind of novel that I would like, but Annie always offers me books that I love, plus, the book was to be released on my birthday. So, I accepted, and I got an advanced review copy of one of the best, most complex and more life-changing novels I have ever read.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

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‘Just-be-yourself had its limits. She adapted to his vision. She liked that girl more than she had ever liked herself before anyway, so that was the self she became.’

Unbecoming is a novel about identity and how love shapes it. But it is also a novel about the role we play in the creation of ourselves, because every day, by little acts we construct a self that we eventually label as ‘us’. The same way that feminism teaches women to un-learn patriarchal ways, norms and expectations, Unbecoming deconstructs what made Grace – the main character – the person that she is.

When we first meet Grace she is living in Paris under the name ‘Julie’. We do not know why or how this Tennessee young woman has ended up restoring antiques in a French basement, but that is part of the process of unbecoming: Grace leads us from the complex process of becoming someone – back in her childhood years in Tennessee – challenging and questioning that identity – and how an education plays a key role on this – and, finally playing an active role to be the woman that she wants to be. No matter what that implies, and no matter if it goes against what she had been fighting for all her life. Because, Unbecoming tells us, changing your mind and letting yourself be changed by it, is something we should cherish.

Reading this novel was, as you can imagine, quite a journey. Scherm has created a poetic, inspiring and thought-provoking novel. Postmodern theories on identities claim we are never fully constructed as subjects, we are never complete, we are constantly evolving, changing and, as a consequence, open to new opportunities and new ideas. Out identities, our ‘selves’ are just a fallacy, and by our daily actions, we can change who/what we are. Grace does exactly this by shaping herself into the girl who her middle-school boyfriend and his family want to meet. But, at what cost?

‘Art was there to scratch at people’s brains, to help ideas find traction in metaphor that they could not when made explicit.’

Unbecoming is also a novel about art . When Grace moves to NYC to study History of Art she discovers a whole new world where she feels comfortable in. She can identify and catalogue items so easily, she even scares herself at the infinite possibilities of her talent. And, even though the art business is described as male-dominated, it also offers a space for women to express themselves. However, because Grace is a Southern, young woman, she is seen as a provincial and naïve newbie to the trade, a supposedly subjected position that she manages to take advantage of.

I adored Unbecoming for many reasons, but the main one is that it, as a young woman, Grace’s story made me question why we are like we are in our twenties. How did our childhood and teenage years shape us? Is our present self simply a consequence of past acts, or are we actively constructing ourselves? How does love – and the lack or need for it – shape what we become? Scherm also makes a great job at exploring and describing places, and spaces. The most vivid one is that of Grace’s hometown in Tennessee. There were times when reading Unbecoming felt as sunny and warm as a Southern evening, and the joy, pain, and fear it describes are worthy of a good, old country song. I could not simply ask for more.

And in case you need further proof, the fantastic Kate Atkinson also loved it:

“Rebecca Scherm’s extraordinarily confident voice and style, this novel’s depth of detail—great characters and a terrifically engaging plot—are a sheer delight to read. There is something very fresh and captivating about this book and best of all I had no idea what was going to happen from one page to the next.” —Kate Atkinson

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

I discovered Liane Moriarty last year when I read her latest novel, Little Lies, about to be adapted into a TV show with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. I loved the novel so much – click here to revisit the review – that I asked the publishers if there were review copies left of her previous novel, The Husband’s Secret, and they kindly sent me one of the new editions.

The Husband's Secret

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‘None of us know all the possible courses our lives could have, and maybe, should have taken. It’s probably just as well’.

The Husband’s Secret, like Little Lies, is a choral novel that focuses as much on the community as on the impact that each individual has on it. In this case, Sydney’s suburbia and a primary, Catholic school provide a perfect setting for the development of very different characters: Cecilia is an overachiever mom of three that swiftly moves from PA duties, to her motherly duties, and to her Tupperware representative duties. At her daughters’ school she meets Tess, recently arrived with her son from Melbourne, and Rachel, whose daughter, Janie was murdered decades ago, but who still lives in the area and is active on the school organization.

All the above characters have families, and they are all related to each other. The main characters are, without a doubt, Tess, Cecilia and Rachel, and how they differ on their approaches to motherhood and being a woman with a family. One of Moriarty’s strengths is both celebrating and making critical comments of the many tasks and duties middle-aged women – and especially mothers – are asked to perform on a daily basis. Cecilia struggles with her perfectionism until she no longer can live the lie her perfect life is when she finds a letter from her husband hidden in the attic (where else?!) to be opened on the event of his death. Tess sees her whole world and family questioned when her husband declares their relationship over, so she moves to find comfort and strength at her mother’s home in Sydney. Finally, Rachel has re-discovered her motherly side with her grandson, while she struggles with the unsolved murder of her daughter, Janie.

‘Did one act define who you were forever? ‘

As you can imagine, I loved The Husband’s Secret, mainly because through her characters, Moriarty presents the reader with a reality that feels like real life. Cecilia’s and Tess’ struggles translate perfectly as they question, ponder and make decisions that could very well change their lives forever. Despite focusing on three very different characters – an introvert, and extrovert and a traumatized mother – their voices are unique, and it is easy to sympathize with them. Moreover, the three of them prove that there can be struggles, traumas, and very difficult times, but there is always time, and space, to recover and become a better self. Because if there is something The Husband’s Secret is about, that’s regaining one’s strength, a firm step at a time, always as part of a family, and a community.

‘All the murder victims looked exactly like murder victims: beautiful, innocent and doomed, as if it was preordained.’

As for the crime, Janie’s death is explored not only as a mystery, but as an act that forever changed her family. It is not usual to see the family’s side of a murder in crime fiction, at least not directly, and Moriarty explores Janie’s death through her mother, Rachel. The daily struggle, The Day that is forever marked on her calendar, and her mind constantly wandering to what-ifs, perfectly describes how human beings deal with loss. At times it is frustrating, other times it simply breaks you to read about Rachel’s sleepless nights thinking about her daughter, but above all, the narrative is humane: eventually we all have good days and bad days, no matter what we are going through, but the trick is – like the book says – to keep breathing.

So, I would highly recommend The Husband’s Secret to anyone. It is a complex novel that has it all, but at the same time it reads quickly, because you cannot put the book down. The Sydney community Moriarty describes shows her hopeful take on people, and how we do really help each other.

Exclusive Interview with Paula Hawkins, Author of The Girl On The Train

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins was one of the best novels I read in 2014, you can check my review here. I was lucky enough to get a very advanced review copy thanks to Alison Barrow, and I discovered one great thriller with a very complex and revolutionary female main character. Today, The Girl On The Train is finally being published by Transworld books and to celebrate it, author Paula Hawkins kindly answered some questions for Books & Reviews.

Happy publication day, Paula!

Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl On The Train. Interview.

From David Higham

How did you come up with the idea for The Girl on The Train?

 When I first moved to London and started commuting into the centre, the bits of the journey I loved most were when the train ran close enough to houses so that I could see right into people’s living rooms. I always found it gave me a feeling of connection, most strongly when you actually saw a person in there, making their morning tea or reading the paper. I never saw anything out of the ordinary, but I did start to wonder what would happen if I did: what would I do if I saw something shocking or frightening? That’s where the germ of the idea came about, but it was only much later, when I had the character of Rachel walking around in my head, that I started to think about how someone like her, lonely and damaged as she is, might react if she saw something strange on her daily commute, and I found that a whole world of possibility opened up.

Rachel is an unlikable and unreliable female character, but readers are responding positively to her. Did you have doubts about her reception while writing the novel?

 Yes, I did, and I do think she will be off-putting to some readers. However, I hope that she has enough substance, in terms of her character and her back story, to sustain interest and evoke some understanding if not empathy in most people. To me, Rachel is not a bad person but a deeply damaged one; her drinking is problematic and she makes some terrible decisions, but the fight hasn’t gone out of her – and as the book progresses, we start to see more of the person she was before the depression and drink took hold.

Motherhood plays a key role in the narrative: infertility, the fallacy of the joys of motherhood that forgets sleepless nights and adapting to a new lifestyle, mothers who do not help their children…Tells us something more about your approach to these stories.

 If you are writing about women of a certain age (in this case, late twenties to early thirties) it is difficult to avoid talking about motherhood. Women’s relationships to motherhood remain definitive for women in a way in which I don’t believe that a men’s relationships to fatherhood are. A woman’s choices regarding motherhood – to have children or not, how many children she has, when she chooses to have them and with whom – all these things are viewed as reflections on her character, they are suitable subjects for judgement by the rest of society. Women who cannot bear children are pitiable, women who choose not to are selfish, women who have children with more than one partner are irresponsible and so on.

I think that our society has a contradictory view of motherhood where, on the one hand, being a ‘good mother’ is second only to physical attractiveness in the qualities that deemed most desirable in a woman, and yet however highly we prize good motherhood, we don’t accord it any economic value or real prestige.

girlonthetrainBuy The Girl On The Train at Book Depository

You also inscribe domestic violence in the narrative. However, crime fiction has only recently started dealing with it from the victim’s perspective. Why did you want to write about this?

 The stranger lurking in the dark alleyway or the man who breaks into the house are the stuff of nightmares, but in reality most victims of violence are attacked by someone they know, often in their own home, and that for me holds its own particular terrors, because you are talking about the place in which you are supposed to be safest, and the people in whom you are supposed to place your trust. For example, we are told by politicians and other commentators that ‘stranger rape’ is so much worse for the victim than ‘date rape’, but this ignores the fact that an attack in the home, by someone you know, can be every bit as brutal and terrifying as an attack by a stranger, and it involves a devastating betrayal of trust.

What are other favourite crime fiction novels that you loved or that explored themes that you thought important?

 It’s more than a year since I read So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman and I still wake up in the night thinking about it. It’s a shocking book, uncomfortable to read and wide-ranging in its outlook: it deals with how poverty, environmental damage and the industrialisation of farming are threatening small, rural communities in the United States, but its central subject is the treatment of women, specifically acts of violence against women and the cultural backdrop for that violence. Hoffman talks about the fact that while there may not be an organisational structure behind this violence, there is an ideology: “an invisible ideology hiding in plain sight. In the language, in jokes, on the television, on the sides of buses, in clothes and gestures and wallets and bodies and faces and minds.”

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty was another recent novel which had a powerful effect on me, not just because it is such a beautifully-written and well-crafted book, but because its examination of the life and sexuality of a successful woman in late middle age is an uncommon subject for a crime novel. In the midst of a cracking psychological thriller with elements of a courtroom drama, Doughty poses questions about marriage and infidelity, the nature of criminal responsibility and self-deception.

Ten Ways To Read Better (Or How To Improve Your Reading)

Did you know I haven’t finished a book in a month? Well, almost a month, but it feels like ages. Sometimes life gets in the way, or you just simply can’t find the time or the mood to read, or because 2015 is a #ReadWomen year, you want to read more! No matter the reason, I’ve encountered people who simply wanted to start reading on a daily basis, and people who wished to devote more time to their reading but couldn’t find it. So, after much thinking, here are some tips that always bring me closer to my books:

How to read more

1. Make reading a priority: Promise yourself you will go to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual, and just sit in bed with a good book. It’s time to read, so just read. I know this is hard, because we all have very busy and chaotic lives, but think of reading as nourishing to both your mind and body. You will feel more relaxed and happier after you read.

2. Keep all your devices off: Internet access and TV are evil to reading routines, so keep all your devices off and focus only on the book in your hands. This comes from someone to who binge-watching CSI is a weekly routine, but sometimes you need – you have to – turn everything off and go back to paper. Paper is almost always better.

3. Try it for at least 30 minutes: Research suggests that only after 30 minutes devoted to reading, not only can you start falling back in love with reading, but you can also create a daily habit that you will eventually need.

4. Read what you like: This may sound obvious, but maybe you’re a sci-fi lover, or you prefer YA novels, or comics, it’s totally fine! Make peace with your reading tastes and embrace them. I love newly published crime fiction, and for society it always feels less than other genres – especially so-called ‘The Classics’ – so don’t let society tell you there is right reading and wrong reading. There. is. not.

5. Create a cozy, warm environment: I like reading in my bed, with two lamps on and fairy lights rather than with the main light turned on. Find what relaxes you. Some people like to sip tea while reading, while others prefer eating. I am an advocate for fluffy blankets and cushions because I don’t fall asleep with a book in my hands, but to each her own!

6. Keep track of what you read: Taking notes, or just simply noting down the titles will help you realise that you’re actually doing some reading and – most importantly some thinking.

7. Don’t worry about quantity, worry about quality: If you’re up to a challenge with yourself, that’s fine, but make reading something you can look forward to even after the most stressful and terrible of days instead of just another task to tick off your To-Do list. Make sure your reading time is high quality (and a priority!)

8. Find people who are also interested in books: I never feel like reading as much as when I’m on Twitter and my friends are sharing their love for a book they’re reading or an upcoming release. Human beings are social animals, and even though reading is partly a lonely activity, you can talk and share everything with other people and keep each other inspired.

9. Take a book with you, always: I commute a lot, so you can always find a book in my handbag, ready for the journey. You never know when you’ll find yourself alone during the day, and is there any better company than a book?

10. There is a reason: Remember how it felt to read a book when you were 10, or that summer ages ago you devoured a book in two days. If you are a book collector, like me, you can stick a post-it to your books and write the reasons why you bought it/requested it. You are clever, there must be a reason why that book is taking up space in your bedroom. Just try to remember it.