Friday, October 28, 2016

Horror Fiction: The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison

For the weekend of Halloween, I figured it seemed appropriate to cover a horror story, whether it be about ghosts and goblins, vampires and werewolves, or even ordinary humans doing horrific things, making themselves proper monsters in their own right. Dot Hutchison's The Butterfly Garden falls into that last category, as a story unfolds regarding a serial killer with a peculiar obsession.

The Situation: Maya has just been rescued from a place she had only known as the Garden. Years ago, she was kidnapped and woke up in a strange and bare room. The Garden belonged to a wealthy man, known to Maya only as the Gardener, who had a habit of collecting butterflies. Unfortunately, the butterflies he was interested in weren't the kind that change from caterpillars and fly around. The Gardener's butterflies are young women, ages 16-21, that he was holding captive near his home. And they become butterflies when he has tattooed wings on their backs and renamed them, making them his own. But now that officials have found the Garden and rescued the girls, Maya is the butterfly they most wish to speak with since she seems to be their leader, and the other butterflies don't want to talk to anyone until they talk to her first. And her name is not Maya, it's Inara.  

The Problem: For the most part, Inara is a straightforward person...until she isn't. She begins to tell her story to investigators Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison, starting with her less than stellar upbringing, and her early days in the Garden. It is obvious that Inara is holding back something, and she takes her time telling the story, letting out important details as she feels comfortable. For the most part, Victor is willing to be patient, only prodding when necessary. Plus, he isn't in that big of a rush to hear about the many horrors of the Garden, including other ways the Gardener demonstrated his ownership; the visits from his sadistic and cruel oldest son; and why none of the girls ever reached past the age of 21. While the Gardener may have been captured and the survivors are now safe, the investigators are still racing against the clock as parents and family, some of which are incredibly powerful, are demanding answers only Inara can provide. Also, her name isn't Inara.

Genre, Themes, History: I decided to place this fiction novel under the heading of horror, but it could also go under thriller, or mystery, or even crime fiction. The story Inara tells about her childhood is sad and tragic. And then she's kidnapped, and the story goes from tragic to a living nightmare. At the very least, the Gardener is a serial killer as well as a serial rapist. But that isn't all of it. He is also delusional, as he seems to believe, at least on some level, that he has rescued these girls from something and is keeping them safe. He is manipulative as he justifies to himself, his captives, and his sons that what he does is for the best. He is obsessive, as everything he does has a certain order and process to it, and he runs the Garden on a tight schedule and oversees almost every detail. But ultimately, he is a sad and weak man with money and means to project that onto unwilling victims.

My Verdict: As hard as this book can be to read (and there are moments when it is really hard), there is an almost constant desire to keep turning the page, if only to see how it all ends. And given that the reader knows from the beginning that the Garden has been found and the survivors have been rescued, it is certainly a triumph that Hutchison still manages to hold the reader's attention, even though the outcome is already known. Also, the book isn't hard to read because of any fault or failure in the writing style or voice, but instead because of the horrors the butterflies have to endure. Sure, there are moments when it feels like Inara could tell the story a little faster and be more forthcoming with crucial information. And there was a point near the middle of the book where I wished I could have heard from one of the other survivors. But once everything comes together in the end, it is clear the every detail and delay served a purpose. It is a fascinating, original, and horrifying premise. But given how many women are discovered these days after years of captivity, and no one knew, it actually isn't all that far fetched. And maybe that is why it is so scary.

Favorite Moment: When Desmond, the youngest son, must confront his own role in all of the horror.

Favorite Character: Bliss (not her real name) may be one of the smaller women kept in the Garden, but she is certainly one of the toughest. She isn't afraid to call someone out or give them a piece of her mind, and in incredibly colorful language at that. 

Recommended Reading: Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn is about a cult leader and the writer who becomes obsessed with telling his story, even going so far as to move across the country and live in the house the cult used to inhabit.      

Friday, October 21, 2016

Historical Fiction: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad first came to my attention when it was picked for Oprah's Book Club, and I imagine the same is true for a lot of people. I read Whitehead's Zone One, another take on the zombie apocalypse scenario, back in 2012 and had fairly mediocre feelings towards it. But I decided to give Whitehead another chance, especially seeing as the premise of this book could not be more different from Zone One.

The Situation: Cora was born a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, escaped years before, making Cora a "stray," and her stubbornness and strong will make her an outcast, even among the other slaves. For the most part she does her work and keeps to herself, never really entertaining the idea of escape, at least not seriously, until Caesar comes along and asks her to join him on his attempt. Her initial "no" eventually turns into a "yes" when Cora is severely punished for attempting to protect another slave. Both Cora and Caesar know it won't be easy, and if caught, the punishment will be creative and hellish, ultimately leading to death. But the pair head to the Underground Railroad anyway, hoping for the freedom that so many dreamed of but failed to achieve.

The Problem: Cora and Caesar may know that escape won't be easy, but they don't quite realize how hard it will be, or all of the different obstacles that can stand in their way. After taking on an extra passenger that ends up slowing them down, their trip is almost over before they even reach the Underground Railroad when a group of hunters find them. And after Cora kills a white boy out of self-defense, the hunters are no longer looking for just a runaway slave, but a murderer as well. Her dream of no longer being someone's property takes her through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana. The racial climate is different in each location, but no matter how accepting the area may be, Cora must always be on the watch. If she lets down her guard even the slightest bit, she is in danger of being captured and returned to her vengeful master.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in pre-Civil War America. In this book, the Underground Railroad becomes more than a metaphor for the system of pathways, routes, and the people who helped run it, that allowed many slaves to escape to freedom. Whitehead has the Underground Railroad take on a much more literal meaning and role as it becomes a system of actual train tracks that are run underground, with small train cars run by conductors. Many of the stops that Cora comes across are managed by white abolitionists who are risking their own lives and reputations by helping fugitive slaves. And because Cora travels to many different states, never able to settle in just one for too long, the reader is able to see how the different states each deal with slavery and racial tension. In Georgia, Cora is a slave and is treated as such. In South Carolina, things appear to be a bit more hopeful, only for Cora to discover that there are many ways to oppress an entire race of people, even under the guise of helping them. And then there is Indiana, where an entire community of black people, some former slaves and some born free, live together out in the open, almost completely free from outside oppression...almost. Cora's journey takes us through different parts of the US during one of the country's darkest points in history, showing us that slavery in American was not a one size fits all situation.

My Verdict: Yes, it is about slavery. Yes, it contains brutality. And yes, at times it was very hard to read. With that being said, I can see why Oprah picked it. Unflinching honesty is almost always what you want in a book that deals with such a hard subject. But Whitehead isn't brutally honest and graphic just for the sake of being brutally honest and graphic. And Cora isn't the type of heroine who sits and waits for someone else to rescue her, though she does have to depend on people from time to time in order to get away unnoticed. Another great thing about her is that she doesn't despair much, or at least she isn't dramatic about it. When she does lose hope, or when things do look bad, Whitehead gives her emotions, but I got the sense that Cora didn't dwell on them much, or let them overtake her, making her journey a lot easier to follow.  

Favorite Moment: When Cora covers the body of a fellow slave being beaten, at great detriment to her own physical well-being.

Favorite Character: Sam is a white man sympathetic to slaves and assists fugitives and run-aways. He runs one of the stops along the Underground Railroad at risk to his own life and property.   

Recommended Reading: I highly recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This book reaches further back into the slave trade process, starting in Africa, and follows two branches of the same family tree as one family line ends up in America, while the other stays in Africa and must deal with the effects of the slave trade there.    

Friday, October 14, 2016

Nonfiction: The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth

My interest in The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer by Skip Hollandsworth comes mostly from the book's setting of my hometown, Austin, Texas. In the late 1800s, the capital of the Lone Star State was the city where several mysterious and brutal killings took place, and Hollandsworth takes an in-depth look at something few people, including many residents of Texas, know much about. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction/true crime book that covers an extremely terrifying time in Austin, Texas. In December of 1884, Austin is not quite the beacon of live music, arts, culture, business, and technology that it is today. In fact, it recently became the capital of the then largest state in the union, after the title was moved from Houston. In the 1880s, Austin was still a small town boasting only 17,000 residents when a young man by the name of Tom Chalmers was awakened by the frantic knocking of Walter Spencer. Spencer, an African American brick yard laborer in his late twenties, claimed that someone has tried to kill him, and has taken his girlfriend, Mollie Smith. As Chalmers was not at all willing to go out into the cold to look for Spencer's girlfriend, he ushered the frantic man out of his house and went back to bed. In the morning, Smith would be found with terrible axe wounds. Hollandsworth describes the body as looking as if Smith had been "ripped open like a calf at the slaughterhouse." For the next year or so, Austin would be seized in terror has six more people will end up murdered in similar ways. Another murder will take place in San Antonio, and yet two more in Gainesville. At first it appears that only black servant women are targeted, but then two of Austin's well-respected white women are also axed down, leading to a different kind of fear, as well as some secrets about both women, and their families, being exposed to the Austin public. And much like the early targets were black, so were most of the suspects, as most of Austin white citizens refused to believe that it could be anyone other than a black man who could do such a thing. Hollandsworth points out how the inherent racism of the time led white officials to routinely round up black suspects and "interrogate" them, though none ever confessed and there was never enough evidence to hold them. In fact, there was never enough evidence to hold anyone, since DNA testing and checking for finger prints weren't really a thing in the 19th century. The city would go through cycles of being gripped by terror, then feeling more comfortable as time passed without incident, only to be gripped by terror again after letting their guard down. Eventually the murders would stop, and Austin would move forward again.

My Verdict: I don't read much true crime, although I do enjoy it, and The Midnight Assassin is no exception. And having it set in my hometown naturally makes the whole thing even more interesting. Seeing old photos of the now bustling city is indeed fascinating, but seeing the photos next to descriptions of how a serial killer attacked his victims and seemed to vanish into the night makes for a different experience altogether. Some of the descriptions are gory in their details, and there are times when reading about the investigations and even the criminal trials are frustrating, especially knowing all that we know today about forensics and crime scene analysis. Something else that proved interesting is reading how elected officials that many Texans learned about in school handled the murders, especially when it became election time and the issue couldn't be ignored. Hollandsworth gives just enough detail without bogging down the narrative, but doesn't hold anything back. And the pacing of the book works well to keep the reader interested, even during the stretches of time between the killings.

Favorite Moment: When the then mayor of Austin, John Robertson, mistakenly hires men from the wrong detective agency, and must cover up his mistake of spending taxpayer money on the wrong people.

Recommended Reading: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is commonly referred to as the book that started the whole true crime genre. It may not deal with a serial killer, but the murders are still gruesome and take place in small quiet town hat had never encountered anything like it before.        

Friday, October 7, 2016

Historical Fiction: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I have been waiting for the better part of 2016 for Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing to become available. Ever on a quest to read more books by black authors, I immediately put it on my list and gave it a spot on this blog when I discovered its synopsis on Goodreads. I know there are others out there who desire to read more books by writers of color, and I am glad to aid in the search and discovery.

The Situation: In 18th century Ghana, two half-sisters are growing up to lead very different lives, and for the most part are ignorant of each other. Effia will end up leaving her village to be married to a British slaver. Because the woman she knows as her mother is incredibly envious of her beauty, she plots to be rid of her forever. This plot may ultimately land her in a castle, but the building has a sinister purpose, and what happens underneath it has a terrible effect on many of Effia's own people. Her half-sister Esi will end up being one of them. Starting with them, Homegoing tells the story of both sides, switching back and forth between Effia's line and Esi's. One will remain in Ghana, and the other will end up in America.

The Problem: While Effia's line may not be forced to endure the slavery that we as Americans are familiar with, they still have to endure the presence of the British, even after England has stopped trading slaves. The British still desire the land, and they stand to benefit from the different tribes fighting and killing each other. And if that weren't enough, the women in Effia's line must deal with the expectations of marriage and child-bearing, while the men must prove themselves to be strong and work hard so as to not shame their family. It will take several generations for Esi's family to finally escape slavery in America, only to have to endure segregation and Jim Crow. And even after that, the troubles just don't immediately end. Both sides have to fight both for and against where they came from, and where they seem to be going.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that begins in 18th century Ghana and ends up more or less in modern day America, while ultimately going back to Africa as well. Two different stories are told using several different narrators. Effia and Esi both have the same mother, from whom the reader hears very little. Form there, the book travels through six generations before ending up in the present day, switching between the two family lines as it moves forward. Many of them have brothers and sisters, but the story remains focused on one specifically before moving on to one of their children. On Effia's side is an inherent fear of fire, a fear that proves to be validated in one particular story. On Esi's side there is the fear of water, which is also validated, but more because of the long journey slaves had to take on boat from Africa to America. By having the two different stories, Gyasi explores both sides of the potential story: what could have happened by remaining in Africa, and what could have happened by being forced into slavery in a foreign land. None of the stories, on either side, are completely ideal, but many of the people that are focused on do end up happy, while others remain miserable for one reason or another. 

My Verdict: What amazes me most about this book is that it barely hits the 300 pages mark, and yet there is so much in it. With fourteen total stories, each one incredibly rich in its own way, there is a lot in these pages, and perhaps what makes it so unbelievably short is that Gyasi doesn't waste words or use any filler. Every paragraph and piece of dialogue has a point and adds to the story. And yet, somehow, this book is still an easy read, despite being so rich. Another thing that amazes me is that even while dealing with the difficult subjects of the slave trade, segregation, Jim Crow, and institutionalized racism, the book was never hard or difficult to read. I was never anxious about picking it up again, or got bored because I felt like I had read about this stuff before. Somehow, Gyasi took a subject almost all of us are all too familiar with and didn't make it boring or repetitive.

Favorite Moment: When Marcus, the last story in Esi's line, looks at a piece of artwork and admits to doing the requisite pondering head-tilt whenever another viewer comes near.

Favorite Character: A muscular man known only as H from Esi's line, is 13 years-old when the slaves are emancipated, but ends up a victim of the convict leasing system. A big and scary man with the strength to do some damage, he ultimately ends up a family man and head of his worker's union. For me he represented somewhat of a turning point in Esi's line.

Recommended Reading: There are other books written by black authors that tell the story from the points of view of different family members, but Homegoing is the first one I have read that does it moving from generation to generation. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis tells the story of different siblings all from the same family, as does The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.