Autopsy, by Patricia Cornwell*****

Autopsy is number 25 in the Kay Scarpetta series, the first forensic thrillers ever to see print. This series began in 1990, and I have read every single one, but this is the first time I’ve scored a review copy. My thanks go to William Morrow and Net Galley.

When the series began, Scarpetta was the chief medical examiner in Virginia. When last we saw her, she was working in Massachusetts, but now she’s come full circle, brought back to her old position in order to root out corruption and restore the office to the integrity it held when last Scarpetta was in charge. She didn’t expect it to be easy, and it surely isn’t.

There are long running characters that have been so well developed over the years that I almost feel as if I would know them on the street. Her husband, Benton Wesley, holds a sensitive position within the FBI, and the necessary secrecy and sudden need to pack a bag and go somewhere has led to marital tension over the course of the series, but not so much this time. Kay’s niece, Lucy, is more like a daughter; she has been estranged from her mother at times, a high-strung, self-absorbed woman that looks out for number one every minute of every day. The mother—Dorothy—is now married to Pete Marino, with whom Scarpetta has worked closely for the length of the series, and they live nearby.

At this juncture, new or inconstant readers may wonder if there’s any point to jumping into a book this far into the series. I read it with that question in mind, and whereas you won’t have the background and depth of context that faithful fans possess, you can understand everything that happens here; Cornwell doesn’t burden the reader with assumed knowledge.  And if you are a new reader, likely as not, you’ll find yourself headed to the library or bookstore to pick up others from this series. It’s that addictive.

The only background information that might make a difference is that from the outset, Kay’s whole family (except Dorothy, of course) fears for her well-being. A murder occurs in the area, and the victim is a neighbor of Pete and Dorothy’s. Immediately, there’s this sense of urgency, and it’s more than one would ordinarily expect. A neighbor has been killed; the circumstances are weird, and we don’t know whodunit; everyone is edgy about personal security, and again—especially regarding Kay’s safety. So let me help you out, if you’re new: over several of the most recent episodes, someone has attempted to kill Kay, nearly succeeding more than once, and though the occasional thug has been caught, the schemer behind the attempts is still out there somewhere. The narrative makes no specific references to any of this, which I appreciate. It’s obnoxious when a book costs as much as new books do these days, for the author to insert what amount to advertisements to buy her other books. But for those not in the know: If the beginning seems a little overwrought, that’s why.

Add to this that the old guard is still entrenched in Kay’s workplace, with people whispering behind her back, and her secretary clearly plotting against her. She’s just arrived, but she is on the back foot, trying to find out what’s going on and who can be trusted, and trying to establish her own authority without making enemies unnecessarily. As I read, I find myself urging her to assert herself. Because to me, Scarpetta isn’t a fictional character at all. I believe in this character, and I believe in Benton, Lucy, and Marino, too. I’ve known them longer than a lot of people I see in real life, after all.

Those of us that read a lot of mysteries, thrillers, and so forth become accustomed to timeworn plot devices. I have a little list of things I hate to find in books of this genre, and Cornwell avoids them all. There is no alcoholic protagonist that just wants a drink, a drink, a drink. There’s no kidnapping of the protagonist and stuffing her in the trunk (or backseat, or whatever,) nor does this happen to any of her loved ones. Scarpetta is not being framed for a murder she didn’t commit, nor is anyone she loves.

Instead, we get an autopsy in outer space, supervised remotely by Scarpetta. How cool is that?

One other aspect of this book, and this series, that I love, is that there is just enough interesting information included about forensic investigation without the story turning into some tedious science lecture, as I have found in books scribed by Cornwall’s imitators.

The pacing is swift, the dialogue crackles, and a new character, Officer Fruge, is introduced. Hers is the last word in the book, and for some reason, it made me laugh out loud, a first for this series.

Welcome home, Scarpetta.

God Spare the Girls, by Kelsey McKinney*****

Journalist Kelsey McKinney makes her debut as a novelist with God Save the Girls, and I have a hunch we’ll be seeing a lot more of her work. Lucky me, I read it free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and William Morrow for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Caroline and Abigail are the daughters of the charismatic head pastor at a megachurch in Hope, Texas. This opening paragraph had me at hello:

“For that whole brutal year, Caroline Nolan had begged God to make her life interesting. He sent a plague instead: grasshoppers emerged from the earth in late June, crawling across the dry grass, multiplying too quickly, staying long past their welcome. Now they carpeted the land she’d inherited with her sister, vibrated in the sun like a mirage. As Caroline drove the ranch’s half-mile driveway, she rolled over hundreds of them. She threw the car in park, stepped out into the yellowed grass beside the gravel drive, and crushed their leggy, squirming bodies beneath her sensible heels.”

Teenagers are people that are exploring their own identities, and there’s often some rebellion mixed into those years, but for Caroline and Abigail, there’s not a speck of wiggle room. They are constantly reminded that everything they do reflects upon their father. Forget profanity, street drugs, shoplifting, booze. These girls have even the most minute aspect of their appearances proscribed. Is that V-neck deep enough to show even a smidge of cleavage? Cover it up, or go change. How much leg? Why aren’t you wearing makeup? Not just your smile, but what kind of smile? How you sit. How you stand. And if these confines were not enough to drive any teen bonkers, they live in a fishbowl that every adult seems to own a key to. People come in and out of the family home all day and all evening, so showing up to watch television in your robe and fuzzy slippers in the family room is a risky prospect, too.

I’ll tell you right now, I couldn’t have. I really couldn’t.

But these are girls raised to believe that the Almighty is always watching, and always knows your heart, and so they do their best to shed petty resentments, whereas others must be buried deep. Buried, that is, until a shocking revelation is made about their father’s extracurricular activities.

The story is primarily told through Caroline’s point of view; Abby is the most important secondary character, and she’s interesting, but we see her through Caroline’s lens. I admire the way that McKinney develops both of them, but more than anything, I admire her restraint. In recent years, fundamentalist and evangelical Christian preachers have gone from being rather shocking, daring novelists’ subjects to low-hanging fruit. As I read, I waited for the rest of it. Which girl was Daddy molesting? What else has he done? Has he embezzled? Does he have a male lover on the side somewhere–or Lordy, a boy? But McKinney doesn’t go to any of those places. She keeps the story streamlined, and in doing so not only stands out from the crowd, but is able to go deeper into Caroline’s character.

At the end, when Abigail prepares to marry the dull, dependable boy her parents like, the scene is downright menacing; their mother, Ruthie, is helping her into her dress, and she “wielded a hook like a sword,” and as everyone takes their positions, the walkie-talkies “hiss.”

There’s a good deal more I could tell you, but none of it would be as satisfying for you as reading this book yourself. Your decision boils down to text versus audio, and I advocate for the audio, because Catherine Taber is a badass reader, lending a certain breathless quality to key parts of the narrative. But if you’re visually oriented, you can’t go wrong with the printed word here, either.

Highly recommended.

Mother May I, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

Joshilyn Jackson is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted to see that she has another novel coming out this spring. My heartfelt thanks go to Net Galley, Harper Audio, and William Morrow for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

One of the things I love about Jackson is that she recognizes and includes social class as a large factor in the lives of her characters. I am initially sorry to see that her protagonist, Bree Cabbat, is married to a wealthy man, but once the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the story won’t work any other way. Although Bree is rolling in it now, she grew up poor, the child of a single parent that took her back-to-school shopping at a Goodwill two towns over from their tiny Georgia town, carefully making sure that Bree’s classmates not recognize their own castoffs when Bree wore them. Later, theater classes helped Bree refine her accent to make her more employable; acting lessons helped her project the carefree confidence that is common to young adults whose families have money.

Now she is married to Trey, a man “who’d grown up with Scooters and Biffs and Muffys.” As the story progresses, there are frequent subtle reminders of this; Trey has a gun safe; Trey has a bottle of whiskey, a gift, that cost over two thousand dollars; their daughters are in an upscale school with a nice theatre program, and their daughters are enrolled in extracurricular activities like Quiz Bowl and Robotics. Yes, our Bree has come up in the world, alrighty. And so when their baby is kidnapped out from under her very nose, naturally Bree’s assumption is that there will be a ransom, and that she and Trey will pay it.

But this time, she is oh so wrong.

When the call comes, it turns out to be a very elderly woman bent on exacting revenge against Trey’s business partner, who is also his cousin. Bree must do exactly as she says, because if she sees any sign of police, “I’ll break his flimsy neck…I’ll twist his little head right around backward.”

Dear God.

 This story grabbed me by the hair and didn’t let me go till I was done with it. I was initially approved for the audio version, and by the time I was given access to the print version, I had finished the first galley. Ordinarily, when something like this happens, I write my review, submit it to both places, and figure my work is done here. But for Jackson I do due diligence and more, and it’s a pleasure to read her book twice, so I did. And while both versions are excellent, I give a slight edge to the audio version. Print is a desirable medium anytime one is reading any mystery, because sometimes we want to flip back to check a detail or two. But Jackson always records her own audio books, and so I know the interpretation of the reader is always completely consistent with the writer’s intention. And in this case, the key side character—Marshall, an ex-cop that was married to Bree’s best friend, now dead—has a distinctive voice that comes through somewhat in the printed version, but much more plainly in the audio. I love the way she voices him, and although Marshall isn’t the protagonist, his role in this story is critical. The narrative shifts between Bree, who speaks to us from the first person limited, and Marshall, who comes to us in the third person.

The story carries an added social justice component: it’s MeToo on steroids. The things we learn about the men in the story add complexity, and though there’s a trigger or two here, I suspect most female readers will find the denouement deeply satisfying. I do.

The ending would ordinarily be deemed over-the-top, but because I believe the characters and story so completely by the time we get there, I also believe the resolution.

The one thing I would change here, if I wanted to be picky, would be to find a way to inject some of the epic laugh-out-loud humor I have enjoyed in Jackson’s earlier books. But that’s a tall order, given the intensity of this one.

One way or the other, this book is guaranteed to be one of the year’s very best. Don’t let yourself be left out. I strongly recommend this book to you, even at full cover price.

Celebrate Women’s History Month With This Terrific New Release

I reviewed this excellent novel in January, based on a true story of American women that travel to France to help civilians during World War I. If you haven’t checked it out, have a look by clicking the link below the picture.

Band of Sisters, by Lauren Willig*****

Lauren Willig is an established author, but she is new to me. Band of Sisters, her newest release, has made me a fan. I read it free and early, and my thanks go to Net Galley, William Morrow, and Harper Audio for the review copies. It will be available to the public March 2, 2021.

A group of Smith College alumni sail to France on a mission to help civilians suffering extreme deprivation during World War I.  “They carry money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray,” says the promotional blurb, and that’s what happens. It’s hard to make plans when you don’t know which way the battle may turn or where bombs may fall, but these are plucky women, two doctors among them, and several of them are members of wealthy, influential American families as well. The story is based on actual women and events, and the teacher in me wishes I were still in the classroom and able to order sets of this excellent novel to share with honors students, girls especially, who need to see more of themselves in the study of American history.

Our two protagonists are Kate and Emmie, best friends and roommates a decade ago, united in this adventure. Kate is the only woman among the “Smithies” that doesn’t come from money and that doesn’t pay her own way; she is led to believe no one else paid their own way, either, but it isn’t true. And this is a chewy, inviting historical truth that we don’t see often in fiction. Though social class divisions are every bit as present and sharp today, assumptions made by most Americans have become more generous. During the early years of the twentieth century, there was a widely held belief that rich people were better in other ways as well, whether they had earned their fortunes or inherited them. They considered themselves to be God’s own chosen ones, and their wealth was one more sign that the Almighty loved them a bit more than others. Poverty was considered shameful, a thing to be concealed; there were no government funds of any kind to help the poor, and if there had been, women like Kate would have just about died before accepting them. Taking charitable contributions was a sign of personal failure and possibly dishonesty to most people back then. And the truth is, Kate isn’t impoverished, and she surely hasn’t failed at anything, but she has to work to earn her living, a thing most Caucasian women in the U.S. didn’t do in 1917. She is horrified when, midway through our narrative, she learns the truth about her travel expenses, and this creates one of the crises within the story.

Willig is a fine novelist. The pace never flags, and there’s never a moment of revisionism that makes me blink. She is true to the time period and the characters. Emmie’s character is a harder sell, to my way of thinking, because she comes from tremendous wealth, but her family has made her feel unworthy because of her physical appearance, and by the end of the book, I love Emmie as much as I do Kate.

I’ve plucked a sample for you, a scene in which Kate and Emmie are evacuating an area which is being overrun by the Germans:

[Kate] wanted Mrs. Barrett; she wanted Dr. Stringfellow; she wanted anyone who could tell them what to do and where to go. Grecourt looked different already, the anemones churned up by the tread of two hundred soldiers, tents dotted around the lawn, Maybe, if she closed her eyes and wished hard enough, she could make it a week ago; the ground bright with flowers; slipping into story time and holding Zelie on her lap while Nell read to the basse-cour children in French about little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, joking with the unit around the supper table about their amazing ability differentiate between types of guns.

But it wasn’t a week ago. The Big Bad Wolf was here, he was on the march, with his big, big teeth and big, big guns, and maybe she wasn’t the best the Unit could have, but she was what they had right now.

By the time we reach this part of the story, I could not stop reading if I wanted to. It would have been impossible.  

The hardest characters for many writers are the children, and although we have no child protagonists, there are numerous scenes in which children play a part. How does a child act when he is traumatized by war? Willig is in perfect form here as well.

I received both the digital review copy and the audio, and I used them both. At the beginning there are so many women introduced to us at once that I felt lost with just the audio, and so I listened and read along to keep track. The narrator, Julia Whelan, does a superb job with a challenging manuscript, changing her tone and point of view to let us know which woman’s point of view we are hearing. My only concern regarding the audio version—which is much easier to follow once you have learned the most important characters—is that the story begins with a lengthy list of the women that participated, and it’s not great to listen to. I recommend you fast forward the audio to somewhere between five and seven percent, and then dive in.

I requested this galley because a number of Goodreads friends whose opinions I respect recommended it to me, and all of them were absolutely right. This book is a gem, and I highly recommend it.

Never Have I Ever, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

Amy Whey has everything she has ever wanted: a successful marriage, a lovely home in Florida, an adorable baby and a stepdaughter she genuinely loves. Her roots in the neighborhood are deep and secure, and her dearest friend is right there as well. Then all of it—every last bit—is threatened by a newcomer with an agenda all her own.

Jackson has had a string of bestselling novels, most notably Gods in Alabama and Between, Georgia.  She is among my favorite writers, and this is her best book to date. My thanks go to Edelweiss and William Morrow for the review copy; however, this is one novel I would have paid full jacket price for if it had come down to it. This is the finest mystery you’ll see in 2019, and it will be available to the public July 30, 2019.

It’s time for the monthly book club to meet, and although Char is the host, the group has temporarily relocated to Amy’s for logistical reasons. The members have gathered, but then there’s a rap on the door. Who in the world…?  It’s the newcomer, a renter that has taken residence in “the Sprite house,” named for its unfortunate paint color. She hasn’t been invited, but she’s come, just the same:

She was the pretty that’s on television: symmetrical features, matte skin, and the kind of long, slim, yoga body that still made me feel self-conscious about my own. I hadn’t been seriously overweight since I was a teenager, but looking at her I was instantly aware of the little roll of baby weight still clinging to my middle…She didn’t look like my own destruction to me. She looked…the world was ‘cool.’…An odd thing to think. I was forty-two years old…I looked at the loaded gun on my doorstep, and, stupid me, I hoped she had the right house.”

This new neighbor is Roux, and she is a darker, more adult version of The Cat in the Hat. Instantly divisions are sowed, and old established friendships are tested as she manipulates these women into competing for her approval.  She’s done her homework, and she knows everyone’s darkest secrets, especially Amy’s. But Roux hasn’t bargained for the kind of adversary she has chosen. Amy proves to be a bad enemy.

This is a compelling thriller, the sort that takes over my life until it’s done. I finished reading it months ago and have read dozens of other books since, but something in me still stirs when I glimpse the book’s cover. In fact, I wasn’t able to write this review until I had allowed myself to read it a second time.

Part of Jackson’s magic is in addressing real parts of women’s lives that seldom make it into our literature. It is gratifying to see her address emotional overeating as a component of Amy’s story; yet I would love to see her write another novel in which the protagonist is a good person with heart and dignity, and yet is still obese (rather than formerly.) If anyone can do that well, it’s this author.

Run along now; you’ve got a book to order. If you’re stone cold broke, get on the library’s waiting list. Nothing else can take the place of this story.