Review: The Midnight Assassin

The Midnight Assassin, Skip HollandsworthIn the early 1880s, the city of Austin, Texas was on the rise. The backwater at the edge of the United States was officially a boom town, complete with over 11,000 citizens, an air-cooled ice cream parlor, and an opera house. The town coffers were full, and the new Capitol building (under construction since 1882) was said to rival the White House itself. The city was on its way to being the jewel in the South’s crown.

Until women started dying. On December 30th, 1884, Mollie Smith was murdered in her room. Clara Strand and Christine Martenson were attacked in March 1885, and Eliza Shelly and Irene Cross were killed in May. Clara Dick and Rebecca Ramey were attacked in August — Rebecca’s 11 year-old daughter Mary was killed. Gracie Vance died in September, while Lucinda Boddy and Patsey Gibson were also injured. And finally on December 24th, 1885, Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips were killed.

The killer was brutal, dragging many of the women into their yards before hacking them apart with an axe and stabbing some kind of sharp object or rod into their brains through their ears.

If you think this modus operandi — female, mostly lower-class victims, incredibly savage attacks — sounds familiar, you’re not the only one. Some people believe that the “Midnight Assassin” murders stopped only because the killer had hopped the Pond to England. There he continued his vicious killing spree under a new name: Jack the Ripper.

Seriously, guys?

I love true crime, but it’s not a fun genre.

The Midnight Assassin has all of the things that frustrate me: violent crimes against women, racism, shoddy police work, and no satisfying conclusions.

These murders happened when forensic science was in its infancy: we knew that humans had unique fingerprints, but we hadn’t figured out how to use them in murder investigations. It was a time when people would routinely tromp through a crime scene, destroying what little evidence remained.

The first victims were African-American (or African-Swedish) — less than 20 years removed from the end of slavery, their lives were considered less valuable, and their murders less worthy of intense investigation.

Even after the investigation began in earnest, many of Austin’s leaders took a “head in the sand” approach to the murders. They seemed to think it would all just go away. The police arrested dozens of men on almost zero evidence, hired charlatan “special investigators,” and in general made such a pig’s ear of the whole thing that I’m not surprised the killer got away.

The mind of a killer

The Midnight Assassin was America’s first true serial killer. The country had experienced “maniac” killers before, but this man was something new: a person who targeted a specific type of victim, planned his attacks carefully, escaped unnoticed, and didn’t seem to have a typical motive like jealousy or revenge.

Psychological profilers existed, but weren’t called to help investigate murders they way they are today. Never before had America seen a criminal who killed so violently…for no known reason.

The police and media blamed the murders on “bad blacks,” the mentally ill, and Austin’s criminal element. But these murders were committed by someone clever and quick, someone who could blend in as a normal citizen during the day and slip out at night to bludgeon and dismember women. And that’s what makes this story that much more frightening.

A London connection?

It’s interesting to think about. I don’t think the Ripper woke up one day and just started killing sex workers in England; and I don’t think the Midnight Assassin woke up one day and stopped killing women in the US.

Was the Austin killer the same person who would rise to international fame as Jack the Ripper in London’s West End? I don’t think so. Yes, the Midnight Assassin killed women brutally, and there were some ritualistic elements…but the Ripper was at another level of hatred and precision. The types of violence acted out on these women were just too different — I don’t see a clear path of escalation from one to the other.

We’ll probably never know. Too much time has passed, and we just don’t have enough preserved evidence.

The Midnight Assassin is a marvelously well researched and written book that I’d recommend to Ripperologists and anyone interested in true crime in general. Just don’t expect a satisfying ending.

(I read this book as part of the Off the Shelf Reading Challenge.)

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Quickie Reviews: Nightmares, Anyone?

You know what I, as someone living with generalized anxiety disorder, just love? Books that scare me so bad I can’t sleep.

Ha! But seriously, I’m glad I’m done with these because I literally cannot sleep.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven, Emily St. John MandelThis is the first book I read for my first book club meetup (squee!). It was really good, but post-apocalyptic settings have never been my jam. I keep thinking about a few specific moments in the novel and it’s freaking me the hell out. We’re discussing the book this Saturday; I’m excited to learn about what other people thought.

A Window Opens

A Window Opens, Elisabeth EganAlice lands her dream job at Scroll, a hip startup that’s going to “revolutionize reading.” But between trying to please a demanding boss, keeping her family afloat while her husband starts his own business, and squeezing in doctor’s appointments for her father, Alice is beginning to wonder if she really can have it all. This is a case of reading a well-written book at the wrong time. Not only did this book give me cold sweat-inducing flashbacks to working in the startup world, the main characters deals with some personal things that hit just a little too close to home right now. A month ago I probably would have raved about this book; but now it just makes me feel annoyed and guilty and upset.

The Curse of the Pharaohs

The Curse of the Pharaohs, Elizabeth PetersThis one didn’t scare me, but it did keep me up late reading. It’s the sequel to Crocodile on the Sandbank, and it’s just as marvelous. Lots of great characters — especially Amelia and Emerson — and a wonderful mystery.

What book is keeping you up at night?

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Review: The Martian

The Martian, Andy WeirWhen the Ares 3 crew makes an emergency departure from Mars during a windstorm, they do so without their botanist. Mark Watney is killed on the way to the extraction point.

But after the dust settles on the red planet, Mark is still alive. For now. He has no way to contact his crew or NASA, and it will be over a year before the next manned mission sets down on Mars.

He’s not giving up. In fact, he’s going to do something amazing: survive alone on an inhospitable planet until help arrives.

Holy mackerel

I’m several years late to the worldwide obsession with The Martian, but I’m officially hooked.

This book was fantastic! Mostly because of the main character. Author Andy Weir makes Mark relatable and human from the word go — which is nice, because if he’d started us off with all the science that the book eventually gets into, I wouldn’t have felt so connected.

According to Neil Degrasse Tyson and a bunch of people way smarter than me, the science is pretty damn accurate (except for that one teeny, tiny, no-one-will-ever-notice-it thing). The plausibility of the entire situation makes it that much more exciting and scary.

Ignoring the fact that I’d never be chosen for a mission like this, I definitely wouldn’t survive being stranded alone on a planet. I love that one of Mark’s main weapons is his humor. At several moments it’s the only thing that keeps him from giving up.

The TL;DR is that I loved The Martian. It’s so well-written that even though I’d seen the movie, I was still on pins and needles wondering if the Hermes was going to rescue Mark.

And speaking of that inevitable comparison…

Book vs. movie

I’m usually not happy with book-to-movie adaptations; they have to cut so much that it’s just not a fair comparison.

I watched the movie The Martian sometime last year. I’d heard good things about the book, of course, but I thought it would be a bit of a “talking head” piece — and if I had to muscle through something like that, I’d rather be watching Matt Damon on a screen than picturing him in my head.

It didn’t end up being a talking head piece, and it had far more humor than I was expecting. And it even did some things better than the book. For example, even though Weir’s book had more room to flesh out other characters, the film versions felt more three-dimensional. I could see the physical differences between each of them, whereas in the book there’s not much description of what people look like.

That said, there’s a chilling moment in the book that I really wish had been included in the movie. I won’t spoil it — because it’s just that awesome — but I will say that it prompted an hour-long conversation with some friends about how one would go about field dressing human remains in space.

No matter how you choose to take in the story of The Martian, I encourage you to do so. The science gets a little heavy for laypeople, but not overwhelmingly so. Check it out!

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. March’s challenge was to read a book set in a different dimension, a book in which time travel is involved, or a dystopian or science fiction book where reality looks very different than what we’re used to.)

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The Write Stuff: Stalled, but Learning

Writing Challenge: The Write StuffHoly crap, it’s March! I’m three months into The Write Stuff. Life’s gotten crazy (doesn’t it always?), so it’s a mixed bag this month. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

Goal 1: Finish four short stories in 2017

Breaking out the old spreadsheet, things are looking pretty good.

The Write Stuff

I’ve made progress, but it hasn’t been consistent. I’ll work on a story like a madwoman for a few days, then get distracted by a new cross-stitch pattern or a book…or two seasons of The Great British Baking Show.

Frustratingly, I’ve also had to add another round of edits, mostly for “Beginnings.” I got a ton of fantastic feedback on the second draft, and re-worked big sections of it so much I feel like it needs another round of critiques.

Still no idea for a fourth story. Coming up with ideas is the hardest part. Or maybe it’s coming up with a first line. Or a last line. Damn it.

Goal 2: Do as many of the 642 Tiny Things to Write About as I can

I’ve done several of these, but I’m not sure how I feel about them. I did some very quickly, and others I agonized over for so long that I just gave up.

642 Tiny Things to Write About

I don’t know how seriously I’m supposed to take these exercises. Should I look at the page and just vomit something onto it in five minutes, so should I take more time thinking about it?

Either choice is challenging for me. I’m a perfectionist, so I hardly do anything quickly. I second-guess my writing choices, which slows me down even further.

I wonder if making a smaller goal of doing at least one little exercise every day would help me get into the swing of things?

Goal 3: Join a writing community (and actually share stuff for feedback)

I still think joining Scribophile is one of my best decisions of the year. Members seem genuinely interested in helping each other improve their writing, and I’ve learned so much already (more info under Goal 4 below).

I’ve got a third draft of “Beginnings” ready to go, but word count limits on Scribophile mean that I need to post it in two parts. I have to critique a lot of other people’s writing to save up the “karma” to post it again.

Goal 4: Document it all on this blog

Get ready for total nerdery.

Some of the lessons I’ve learned from posting to Scribophile are the basics. For example, the Motivation-Reaction Unit. First describe what the character feels, then what they do, then what they say. I might have learned about this concept in high school, but in college I wrote mostly stage or screenplays — and those don’t use MRUs in the traditional sense.

My mind was truly blown when a commenter talked about a newer trend in writing: Deep Point of View (Deep POV). I’m still wrapping my head around it, so I’ll quote from the article to explain:

Deep POV is third-person subjective taken a step farther than the normal. The third-person subjective shows story through the eyes of one or more characters…Deep POV goes beyond that to take readers into the head and heart of a character, allowing the story to be seen and felt through the characters experiences and history and thoughts and feelings.

Instead of using phrases like “She felt” or “He worried” or even “She saw,” you simply describe how the character is feeling, or show how that worry manifests itself.

This probably isn’t earth-shattering stuff to people who have been writing for many years, but for me it’s all a revelation. And it’s incredibly rewarding to see my writing improve.

Onward!

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Review: Unmentionable

Unmentionable, Therese OneillIf you’ve always thought that a clean, simple frock is better than low-rise jeans, that you would enjoy living in the time of Charlotte Bronte, or that the centuries before ours were simpler and better…this book is not for you.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners will disabuse you of the laughable notion that the 19th century would be a fun place to spend any time.

Not only is there arsenic in pretty much anything you put on your face, there’s also no refrigeration, no talking to a man who’s not your husband or father, and definitely no talking about s-e-x. There’s also an astonishing array of crotchless clothing, and fat-shaming is totally a thing.

Therese Oneill’s book is an awesome examination of the horror show that was the 19th century. Let’s check out the revolting details, shall we?

Hello, slattern

I figured any book that starts with these words is probably going to be amazing. And I was right! Unmentionable is a sassy, snarky look at an era many people tend to romanticize.

Oneill starts you off with getting dressed (hide those ankles, ladies), and shares makeup tips (you know what’ll take care of those freckles? Acid!). Then it’s on to discussing periods (no matter how you manage them, it’s not the right way) and how to land a husband (by never speaking to him, apparently).

Next up we’ve got the typical “Your womb is a wandering monstrosity that makes you crazy” garbage, followed by quotes from old white dudes who thought birth control, masturbation, and visiting museums was going to lead to humanity’s downfall.

And it’s all written in the best tone ever. For example, in a section called, “Give Him NOTHING”:

You are a prize to be won. He must work to capture your affections and approval. Only the stupid and slutty trout leap out of the water to gain the fisherman’s attention. The virtuous trout simply allows the sun to gleam briefly on her shining scales and then dives back to the shadowy depths. Only a skilled man with the finest of fake bugs can ream a metal hook through her mouth. You are that trout, and the metal hook you are about to be impaled on is holy matrimony.

Unmentionable had me chortling and reading sections aloud to my husband. He didn’t think it was as funny. Maybe I let a bum fisherman catch me? Oh well. I shall comfort myself by reading this book again and thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t born in the Victorian era!

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