Hutchison’s well-landscaped ‘Butterfly Garden’ is nothing short of ugly

The Butterfly GardenThe Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The unimaginable happened. I found myself dining alone without anything to read. I considered shoving in ear buds to listen to an audiobook as I dined, although that seemed inappropriate for a number of reasons. First, I’d draped a white linen napkin across my lap and the bartender was wearing a black bow tie. Second, a writer worth her keyboard wouldn’t tune out the surrounding world when so many juicy stories are waiting to be overheard.

My mother, an avid reader who makes me appear illiterate, recommended “The Butterfly Garden” by Dot Hutchison, calling it an “interesting story with interesting characters.” When I questioned her lack of the word “good,” she said, “It’s well-written. Read it.”

Intrigued, I dropped a few of dollars on the fast-paced eBook about a man who collects butterflies for his garden. By collects, I mean he kidnaps them. By butterflies, I mean attractive, young women he tattoos with large, intricate wings. There is nothing the kidnapper, called the Gardener, won’t do for his beloved butterflies, including feeding and clothing them, providing literature for their reading pleasure, and honoring their requests for entertainment. Of course, the Gardner’s most notable “gift” is a stunningly landscaped garden in which his butterflies can frolic, yet never escape. He also sexually abuses them at will. Assisting the Gardner is his son, a stereotypical sadist who nonetheless is alarming.

Maya, a butterfly who takes her time doling out the details of her life before and during captivity, begins the tale in a FBI interrogation room. While the agents in charge of the case attempt to pry details from her faster than she’s willing to reveal them, the novel is anything but slow. It’s a page turner. Despite its gruesome storyline, I needed to know how Maya escaped the Gardner’s elaborate prison or if she was complicit in his terrifying enterprise.

In short, there’s nothing good about Hutchison’s vicious and heartbreaking “The Butterfly Garden.” Yet there’s no doubt the author cultivated a masterful plot fans of the genre will appreciate.

View all my reviews

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. What is wit, wisdom and when finishing a novel makes you cry?

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” is not on my bookshelves. The novel sits on the table beside my favorite spot on the sofa alongside magazines, eyeglass cleaner, a pen and a pad of paper. In other words, the novel is close at hand, just in case. Unlike most of my books, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is not unmarred. At first careful not to break the spine, I considered underlining just one passage: “But imagining what might happen if one’s circumstance were different was the only sure route to madness.” Soon though, I found myself arrowing, circling, starring, and exclamation-pointing my way through Towles’ 30 plus-year account of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s life as an un-person.

However, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is much more than an epic the reader gets to “witness.” It is a guidebook revealing how we can learn to live without and within. Living without the comforts to which we are accustomed drives some to desperation or deep depression. For some, living within means remaining in a perpetual state of meditation where few complications arise or developing a shield that prevents others from beholding their humanity and vulnerability. It means selfishness. Yet, the Count is neither selfish, desperate nor depressed, at least not for long. Instead, he is resilience.

When Count Alexander—who refuses with great wit to repent from his crime of aristocracy—is sentenced to house arrest in a hotel across the street from the Kremlin or be shot, he discovers abundance in his limitations. He is at once profoundly touched by the complicated and sweetly simple lives of those around him and touching, with his thoughtful practicality and gentlemanly considerations.

Towles has with keen intelligence and humor crafted a character study of wisdom, courage and kindness. I’ve never been sadder to finish a novel, but I look forward to reading it again, and again.

View all my reviews

Familiarity dominates Petersheim’s 'Alliance'

The AllianceThe Alliance by Jolina Petersheim
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Numerous movies, television shows and novels have explored scenarios where the United States loses power and Americans are forced to rely on their cunning or innate ingenuity to survive. Emily St. John Mandel was successful in her execution of “Station Eleven,” which avoided the preachiness of so many dystopian tales and effectively wrapped the story in a neat little bow without leaving the bitterness of writer’s convenience.

While author Jolina Petersheim’s “The Alliance” also relays a world where electricity ceases, because of war or other means, she conveys her story in an intriguing setting. The story of Leora Ebersole, her family, neighbors, stranded Englischers, and newcomer Moses Hughes takes place in a Mennonite community where modern conveniences already, for the most part, are shunned. The question here isn’t how to survive without electricity, but how to outlast the many people the outsiders suggest may want to enter and steal their hard-wrought supplies. Should this pacifist community take up arms? Should they welcome the sick and the hungry?

Unfortunately, a familiar love triangle overshadows Jolina Petersheim’s story as do the pervading doubtfulness that takes hold of the novel’s primary character and the novel’s unsatisfying cliffhanger ending.

Still, something is to be said for the fact that I want to know what happened to the characters. Perhaps I’ll find out in a made-for-TV movie.

View all my reviews

Alternate reality, alternate identity? Blake Crouch talks "Dark Matter"

Jason Dessen, the protagonist in the new Blake Crouch novel “Dark Matter”, is content. He has a gorgeous wife, a talented son and his career as a physics professor, though not what heDark Matter by Blake Crouch book cover originally pursued, provides a different nature of satisfaction. Perhaps it’s Jason’s ease that another man finds so appealing, or maybe it’s just his wife.

When Jason finds himself being kidnapped at gunpoint and transported to a world much like and altogether unlike his own, he begins questioning both his sanity and their veracity. Is he still the same man in this other realm? Or any other realm?

Having read “Dark Matter” in just two days, I was fascinated by his vivid settings and the depth of his characters. Indeed, Crouch, in a seemingly simple approach, explores our multidimensional nature, sense of belonging, and foundations in his fast-paced read.

The author, known for the “Wayward Pines” trilogy, talks with NPR about how his latest science-fiction novel.

Read the NPR story here.

Listen here:

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/487083575/487237302

Read an excerpt of Dark Matter at Penguinrandomhouse.com.

Journey to the Center for Fiction

Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 11.04.55 PMI’ve been traveling a lot recently, back in time to World War II via “All the Light I Cannot See,” “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” and “The Nightingale.” Yet, some of the most enlightening and inspiring trips I’ve taken in recent months have been to New York’s Center for Fiction by way of the web.

No, The Center for Fiction is not a figment of this writer’s imagination. It is an actual brick-and-mortar facility providing dream-like resources to its members.

“The Center for Fiction is the only nonprofit literary organization in the U.S. solely dedicated to celebrating fiction, and we work every day to connect readers and writers… We also feature workspace, grants, and classes to support emerging writers, reading groups on classic and contemporary authors, and programs to help get kids reading. …”

For those who cannot afford the membership fee or haven’t the time or financial wherewithal to drop in on the New York-based facility, The Center for Fiction offers considerable online resources to readers and writers.

Personally, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time on The Center’s “Writers on Writing” page, where Patricia Park shares how a writing class helped her (and now me) learn about perspective (one of my favorite topics) and Teddy Wayne writes about dialogue.

Experts on “The Book Business” offer sage advice and “Essential Books for Writers” helped me find new books for my toolkit.

Overall, a fiction writer and reader can spend hours on the website; unlike social media, though, it’s time well spent.