Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell

"Her anguish and terror came from where no one should have to go, a wrenching hopeless place. It's not true that we are never given more than we can bear. Only it isn't given. It simply happens." 

Another visit with Scarpetta and her gang has come and gone. Like real life visitors, at least enjoyable ones, you wait and wait for the day of their arrival and then, before you know it, they've been and gone.

What happened during this visit? Well, as usual, someone is after Scarpetta. Do they want to fuck up her career? Hurt those close to her? Kill them? Kill her? It's looking like 'yes' to all of the above.

From the publisher: #1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Cornwell delivers the next enthralling thriller in her high-stakes series starring Kay Scarpetta—a complex tale involving a serial sniper who strikes chillingly close to the forensic sleuth herself.

It’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta’s birthday and she’s about to head to Miami for a vacation with her FBI profiler husband Benton Wesley when she notices seven pennies on a wall behind their Cambridge house. Is this a kids’ game? If so, why are all of the coins dated 1981 and so shiny it’s as if they’re newly minted? Then her cellphone rings, and Detective Pete Marino tells her there’s been a homicide five minutes away. A high school music teacher has been shot with shocking precision as he unloaded groceries from his car. No one heard or saw a thing. It’s as if God did it.

In this 22nd Scarpetta novel, the master forensic sleuth finds herself in the middle of a nightmarish pursuit of a serial sniper who seems to leave no evidence except fragments of copper. The shots are so perfect, they cause instant death and seem impossible, and the death scenes aren’t crime scenes because the killer was never within hundreds of yards of the victims. The victims seem to have nothing in common, and there is no pattern that might indicate where the Copperhead will strike next. First New Jersey, then Massachusetts, and then into the murky depths off the coast of South Florida, where Scarpetta dives a shipwreck, looking for answers that only she can discover and analyze. There she must face an unthinkable truth that points in the direction of her techno genius niece, Lucy, Scarpetta’s own flesh and blood.
Scarpetta is worried about her niece Lucy, who appears to be having relationship troubles again in between flying around in her helicopter, driving an uber expensive sport car, and being a computer genius whose gruff, non-communicative demeanor turns on both women and men; husband Benton is intimate and sexy for a few minutes and then off FBI-ing and unreachable until he pops up again; the newish thing is that Marino's loud mouth and temper tantrums don't seem to bother Scarpetta as much as they used to.

Fascinating weapons forensics carry this story. Sniper stuff. Bullet trajectories. Ballistic fingerprints. Have you heard that they're looking for a way to add a unique "stamp" to the firing mechanisms of small arms weapons that will allow investigators to match a spent casing with the weapon that fired it?  "A microstamp is etched on the firing pin or some other component of a gun so it will be transferred to a cartridge case. The point is to have a microscopic code that links a spent case with the gun's serial number." Apparently this is a controversial concept and only being done in California at this time. I'd like to know why this is controversial. Does if effect accuracy? Rub the NRA the wrong way?

On the emotional side of things, Scarpetta digs into herself on a deeper level:
I should get in touch with my fear so I'm not angry
I'm got to find out this is all my fault.
Not it isn't, dammit, and when I peel back anger I find more if it. Under more of it is rage. Beneath rage is a black pit I've never climbed inside. It's the hole in my soul that would take me to the place where I might do something I shouldn't.
I'm hoping her mental health will be explored further in future books, especially that black pit which might lead to some interesting character development.

My only complaint about Scarpetta novels is that these books are over too fast. There's a brief moment of happiness before the paranoia creeps in, a crime scene is investigated, paranoia increases, some factual discoveries are made, theories are bantered about, more clues are found, the theory thickens, Scarpetta can't get a hold of key people, relationships become strained, and then WHAM! the book is over and the pack is frolicking together and/or eating Italian food. This one includes the happy pack ending, but then there's a cliff hanger.

Oh well, at least for me Benjamin Franklin's adage that visitors, like fish, smell after three days doesn't apply to this book.

Hope to see you again next year, Kay Scarpetta.

Goodreads link: Flesh and Blood
Author website: Patrica Cornwell
Publisher: William Morrow, November 11, 2014
Source: bought it on my Kobo
Recommended to: established readers of the Kay Scarpetta series. Readers who have never read Cornwell are better off starting at the beginning of the series.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins



It wasn't planned, but 2014 has turned out to be the year of Wilkie Collins for me. He's the only writer that I read multiple works by this year.

At the beginning of the year I read The Woman in White and his short story "The Frozen Deep" for the Wilkie In Winter read-along hosted by The Estella Society. Last month The Moonstone was the November selection for the new mystery book group I'm in. We wanted to go back to the beginning of the mystery genre and The Moonstone is considered by most to be the first mystery novel written in English.

A huge diamond called the Moonstone is stolen from a Hindu temple during a battle in India. The English solider who thieved the stone murders to get it. Three Hindu Brahmans are charged with getting the sacred stone back. The English "gentleman" returns to England and is shunned by his society. The stone is cursed. He wills the stone to his niece, to be given to her when she turns 18. On the night of her birthday party the stone goes missing. Three Indian men were recently in the vicinity...did they steal it back? The story is told through multiple perspectives in the form of letters various characters write, upon request, to tell what they know about the diamond and who did what when before, during, and/or after the birthday party. As the story is pieced together characters weave in and out of one another's reports.

A Side Note on the Importance of Heat when Conducting a Used Book Sniff Test:
I went to a few library sales hoping to find a copy of The Moonstone, but didn't have any luck. A fellow mystery group member beat me to a copy at one of the sales. I eventually found a nice 1948 hardcover edition by Doubleday & Company at the Book Barn. The book was in their unheated literature building (only the main building has heat, which makes for quick browsing of some genres in colder weather). I did a standard sniff test on the book and it passed. No stinky rotting glue or former chain smoker smells. In retrospect, it turns out that heat is a significant factor to be taken into consideration when performing a thorough sniff test.

Stinky book
When I got the book home I spent some some time looking through the illustrations by William Sharp and then the book went on my TBR pile. It would be a couple weeks before I picked up the book to read it. In that time, the book was sufficiently warmed. When I started reading it, everything was fine for the first dozen pages or so. After that I occasionally noticed a bit of a musty smell when I turned a page. I was enjoying Gabriel Betteredge's story and kept on reading.
By page 25 or so I started developing itchy eyes and the musty smell morphed into a stink. Unlike Betteredge who enjoyed his dirty and dogeared copy of Robinson Crusoe that "exhaled a strong odour of stale tobacco as he turned over the leaves," the stench of my book was nasty. I couldn't go on reading this book. Over the next few days I picked it up a several times and read for a few minutes here and there, but with the book group meeting looming around the corner I knew I'd never finish the book in time under these conditions
Just when I was going to throw in the towel and go buy a brand new edition of the novel, I  remembered I'd downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg back when I read "The Frozen Deep." So I dug out my trusty old Kobo and charged it overnight. The next morning I started flying through the story.
Lesson learned: sniff tests are best conducted when the book under consideration has reached and maintains a temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

Does this diamond make my waist look smaller?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Moonstone and the mystery book group had a great time talking about it as well. It's one of those books that may seem long at first but then gets better as you read on and is over before you know it. I loved the multiple points of view and some of the characters are a hoot! Yes, its a little challenging to get into if you're not used to reading 19th century writing and some may get a bit impatient with the verbiage, but the plot and the delightful characters are so worth any effort it may take. I'd even go so far as to recommend this novel over The Woman in White if a reader had to pick only one Wilkie Collins to read (but ultimately you must read both!).

Hello, Sailor!
The Moonstone contains many elements of the mystery novel that makes it a joyful frolic to read. And read it with the understanding that most of these elements were not yet cliched back when Collins wrote it, although some were used in adventure tales or gothic novels. There's a curse, murder, theft, drugs, addiction, disease, disguises, trap doors, wills, inheritance, stake outs, and red herrings. The suspicion of foreigners as well as racial, gender, and class stereotypes are used and upended. There's a celebrated detective with an incongruous hobby, bumbling local police, religious zealots, posers, a work-a-holic lawyer, and willful women. Its very much a locked room mystery, an English country house robbery that also includes some city scenes. The book has everything, including a crime scene reconstruction and banter about the subjective/objective. There's even quicksand!

In his preface Collins wrote that he wanted to trace the influence of character on circumstances, which I tried to keep in mind while reading. There are some unbelievable aspects of the novel that wouldn't fly by today's standards, but nothing that ruins the reading experience.

There is much in this book that is relevant today. One surprising scene involved memory loss. Dementia and diseases like Alzheimer's are in the news today like they're a new thing. I was touched by a scene where a character who is struggling with memory loss is interviewed. The way Collins portrays this character, with such compassion and understanding, resonated with several of us in the book group who've had loved ones with similar challenges.

Overall, The Moonstone is a great book. There's a reason its a classic. Go read it!

Wilkie Collins
The Moonstone
First published 1868

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What's been going on? Guest posts, for one.


Greetings! How have you been? Wonderful, I hope!

Like you, I've been busy with work and family life. I also took a mystery/thriller writing workshop this fall at the Westport Writers' Workshop that just wrapped up last night. I've also been preoccupied with work projects and whatnot.

I feel like I've neglected my blog a bit, which I believe is a common lament among bloggers if they're not obsessing about their blog. I did, however, write two guest posts for Book Blogger International this month that I hope you'll check out:
  1. The first was about Jazzing Up Your Mystery/Thriller Reading. Here's the link. 
  2. The second was for their Diversity in Books series. I wrote about bridging the military-civilian divide through reading. Here's the link to this post. 
I'd love to hear your thoughts on either or both of these posts, in the comments section here or, preferably, on the Book Bloggers International site. You can also email me if you'd prefer to have a private conversation (chris.wolak at yahoo dot com).
Thanks as always for stopping by. For those of you in the U.S. I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Library stop: North Woodstock Public Library, CT

North Woodstock Library
223 N. Woodstock Rd.
Route 169, just north of Route 197
Woodstock, Connecticut 06281

Woodstock is in the north-east corner of Connecticut, near the Massachusetts border. We took a drive there last month because we used to go to Woodstock, IL to buy our pumpkins when we lived in Chicagoland and thought it would be fun to checkout a town with the same name. 

The library was closed when we happened to be driving around the area, but of course we had to stop to peak in the windows and take some pictures!

According to Library Technology Guides this library has 9,626 volumes, circulates
9,719 items per year, and serves a population of 7,854 residents. There are two more public libraries in Woodstock.

The view from the road.
The building was originally a school.
Built in 1843. The building became a library in 1950, but the North Woodstock Library Association was formed in 1854.
A peek through the front door.
A peek through a side window.
The back of the library.
Love this big field stone stoop.

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