I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michelle McNamara
Genres: Non-fiction, True Crime
Pub date: Feb. 2018 (read Feb 2019 on Audible)

Don’t you love when you stumble upon a book that you never intended to read and you end of loving it? This is one of those books. I saw I’ll be Gone in the Dark in the Goodreads Choice Awards this year (it ended up winning in its category), but it’s so different from what I normally read that I never really considered picking it up.

Fast forward a few months and I stumbled across it on Audible. I’m extremely picky with my audiobooks and won’t listen to anything with a narrator that I don’t love. I’m even adverse to listening to books I think I’m going to love because I always fear they won’t be quite as good as an audiobook and prefer to read them as paperbacks. I stumbled across this book some way or another and I really liked the narrator because she reminded me of the old true crime tv shows I used to watch on TLC in high school. So I decided to give it a go and ended up being totally absorbed into this mystery!

I’ll be Gone in the Dark isn’t really in my wheelhouse, but I do have a weakness for a good true crime documentary as much as the next person. Gillian Flynn makes a good point in her introduction about how there’s a fine line when it comes to writing about true crime because you’re basically taking entertainment from someone else’s tragedy. McNamara does a wonderful job on this look at the Golden State serial killer because she brings press back to a case that was left unsolved without glorifying the killer.

This is both a look at the crimes of the Golden State serial killer and how he evaded capture for so long, as well as a look at the obsession that can be birthed out of unsolved mysteries such as this one. McNamara examines both the crimes of the killer, as well as her own fascination with unsolved mysteries and how this specific criminal wormed his way into her life and the impact it had on her.

I have to credit McNamara’s writing. She is extremely compelling and methodical about the details, without being gratuitous. I thought more of this book was going to be devoted to following up leads on the identity of the serial killer, but it was more of an in depth look at the crimes of the killer than anything else. Michelle does some posturing with Paul Holes on what the killers profession and history might be based on the way he moves around, but there’s not a lot of time devoted to looking at suspects. I have to give credit to McNamara’s writing for this because looking at suspects sounds way more compelling to me than simply looking at his crimes, yet her writing was super engaging anyways. I think this book was more about bringing this story back to the public eye to re-invigorate law enforcement’s investigation than anything else. And we certainly can’t fault her for that as the killer was finally caught just after the release of this book. No one credits the book as revealing new information that finally led to the capture of a man who evaded the authorities for more than 40 years, but I definitely think she deserves to be credited with shining the spotlight back on this case.

It’s an interesting book because Michelle did pass away before the completion of the book and it was completed by her lead researchers post humorously. It creates an interesting dynamic to the story when you know the writer is no longer here to pursue it and even so, Michelle is just so present throughout it. She invites the reader into both her investigation and her life.

The only thing I didn’t really like about this book was the formatting. The story is not told in chronological order, which made things a little confusing by audiobook (I was constantly consulting the table of contents to see what point of the timeline I was reading about). I’m not sure why this choice was made, the story is certainly compelling enough that it didn’t deter me from reading further, but I thought it was an interesting choice to format things this way.

But all in all, a great read! Audiobooks generally take me 2-4 weeks and I flew through this one in just 4 days!

Advertisements

The Feather Thief

Rating: 
Author: Kirk Wallace Johnson
Genres: Non-fiction
Pub date: Apr. 2018 (read Dec. 2018 on Audible)

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to pick-up The Feather Thief. It’s unlike any of the books I normally read, but I saw it on the Goodreads Choice Awards and was intrigued and then made an impulse buy on Audible. Needless to say, I was very impressed!

This works so well as an audiobook. I’ve said it again and again, but sometimes I struggle with audiobooks and it’s the only time I actually prefer reading non-fiction to fiction because non-fiction reads more like a podcast and it’s easier to digest in audio form. I could definitely picture this as a podcast series and I thought the narrator did a really good job (minus the accents, he is atrociously bad at accents, but it was find of funny).

The Feather Thief is based entirely on a true story and is one of the more bizarre incidents I can think of. Kirk Johnson first heard about the feather thief when he was fly fishing in the American south and his guide mentioned in passing a bizarre story about a young man who had stolen 300 bird specimens from the British Museum in order to use their feathers to make fly-ties for fly fishing. Johnson was totally intrigued by the story and spent the next several years investigating the crime.

It sounds kind of boring, and I could see how it would not be for everyone, but Johnson does a fantastic job recounting this heist that had me totally engaged in the world of fiy-tiers, naturalists, and museum thieves. I sped through this audiobook in just 2 days and was totally enthralled the entire time.

Johnson does a great job presenting the story. There are several components that make this an intriguing tale. First, there’s the naturalists and science. Many of the birds that were stolen from the museum were specimens collected by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in the 1800’s and were used to confirm Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many of the birds are exotic species from South America, such as the Resplendent Quetzal, the Blue Chatterer, and the Red-Ruffed Fruit Crow (aka Indian Crow). Many of the bird species in the museum are now endangered and the birds provide an important historical record to scientists and are often still used in research, such as in studying the effects of climate change. The theft of the birds represented a sad blow to the scientific community.

Second, there is the fly-tying community. This was a totally new concept for me. If you’re familiar with fly fishing, you might be aware that fly-ties, which generally look like insects and bugs, are used to attract fish. However, what you might not be aware of is that making fly-ties is an art form that an entire community has developed around. There are some intense fly-tiers out there and those that get into traditional victorian fly-tying can spend hours and days working on specific ties. Because this hobby was developed in the victorian era, many of the feathers used in the fly-ties were sourced from bright and iridescent birds, such as the resplendent quetzal and the king bird of paradise. These birds are rare and it is expensive to acquire their feathers, yet authentic feathers are considered a requirement in the fly-tying community. Dyed feathers are considered (by the community) as incomparable and many fly-tiers participate in the buying and selling of the rare feathers. This is technically illegal, since most bird species are protected and you can’t just buy their feathers, but it’s a little persecuted crime and the sale of feather and entire birds can be found all over ebay and at fly-tying conventions.

That brings us to the heist. Edwin Rist has been an accomplished fly-tier in the community since he was a boy, but has always struggled to afford the feathers required for many of the traditional victorian fly-ties. He moved to England to pursue his degree in the flute, and at the age of 20, pulled off a pretty epic heist of the British Museum that was not even discovered until months later. He broke into the museum with a suitcase and stole 299 birds before disappearing into the night. He claims he only intended to steal a few birds of each species for his own use, but got carried away in the face of such beauty. He then proceeded to find buyers for the birds and feathers.

The British Museum has some 1500 drawers of birds, so it took them months before they even discovered the theft, and when they did, they were flummoxed about who would possibly be interested in such a small, but specific, subset of birds. Edward Rist was eventually caught (obvious since we’re sitting here talking about him), and was put on trial for the heist. However, even though he had been caught, many of the birds were unaccounted for. A good number were seized from his apartment and he did list some of his buyers, but almost a third of the birds still remained unaccounted for. Where were these birds? Did Edwin stash them away somewhere? Did he have an accomplice? Are they still floating around the seedy underbelly of the fly-tying market? These were the questions Johnson set out to answer. This book recounts the history of the birds, the fly-tying community, and the heist, but it also sets out to track down what happened to the missing birds and whether or not Rist acted alone and was correctly tried.

It really was a fascinating story. Like I said, I can see how this wouldn’t be for everyone, but as someone who is currently engaged to an ornithologist and has heard more than my fair share of interesting facts about birds, I was intrigued. (Plus my partner was thrilled when he walked into the room and heard me listening to this; he was like, “wait… are you listening to a book about Alfred Russel Wallace?!” and then proceeded to get really excited for me) I thought the heist was interesting because it’s mystifying. What could possibly possess a 20 year old flutist with his entire life ahead of him to break into a museum just to steal a bunch of birds? But I think what was most interesting to me was the fly-tying community.

The fly-tying community is not messing around. They are a serious community. I don’t know if Johnson portrayed them accurately in this book or unjustly made them look bad, but to be honest, I think they deserve it. I’m sure there’s a lot of honest fly-tiers out there who get a lot from the community and what to improve it, but overall, I thought the community was pretty shameful. Johnson isn’t that critical of the community, but I think he was rightly frustrated with them. The heist obviously drew a lot of negative attention to fly-tiers as a community, which is unfortunate, but I think this community really needs to be held accountable for their destructive actions.

No one person is every indicative of a community, but the way you react to that person is. The fly-tying community essentially won’t talk about Edwin Rist. They don’t condone what he did, but they also don’t really seem to care that much about what he did. The community openly participates in the buying and selling of rare and endangered birds and they are never held accountable for it. Much of what they’re doing is illegal, they just try and hide it under legal means (like “I got the birds/feathers in an estate sale” or “I inherited them”).

I’m biased and I’m obviously going to side with the scientists, but these fly-ties are never actually used for fly fishing. There’s literally no reason why the community can’t use fake or dyed feathers. It’s a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with taking intense pride in your hobby, but not at the damage to endangered species. Many of the people Johnson interviews openly state that they don’t understand why the museum needs so many birds and believe museums should be selling their birds to fly-tiers. They feel they have a greater entitlement to the birds and are of the mindset that they’re honouring them through art. The most shocking to me was Ruhan Neethling (yes I’m calling you out by name dude because I think you are shameful), who bought two of Rist’s birds and knowingly kept them (many buyers sent them back to the museum when they found out they were stolen) because he felt the museum didn’t deserve them as much as him and that unless the museum could tell him exactly what they’d do with the feathers if he returned them, he’d be keeping them. As if the museum needs any reason for the feathers to be returned, the birds were stolen for them, no reason is needed for their return.

Anyways, I thought many in the community showed a complete ignorance to the scientific importance of the birds and showed no remorse over the birds having been stolen. Johnson indicated that he could see a marked increase in the buying and selling of birds and feathers in the fly-tying community forums and on ebay since the heist and postures that this influx is likely related to the stolen birds. Unfortunately there is no way to prove someone is trading stolen birds. All they had to do was remove the museum tags from the specimen and it could never be proved that it was stolen. This also struck me as sad because even though the museum managed to recover almost 200 of the birds (in the form of full specimens and plucked feathers), the birds without tags were no longer useful for scientific purposes. All in all, I think about a third of the stolen birds were returned still with tags, and therefore could still be used for science.

But I think what makes the fly-tying community so frustrating is their refusal to discuss Edwin Rist or the heist. They are both essentially taboo subjects in the community. Any posts on community forums about either always receive complaints and are immediately removed. To me, this demonstrates a lack of remorse on behalf of the community. They don’t seem to want to be better. They just want to return to the safety of anonymity so that they can continue to not feel bad about trading illegal feathers and continuing to endanger bird species. So that’s my rant about the fly-tying community. Like I said, I don’t want to condemn anyone’s passion or community, but this community obviously has a seedy underbelly and regardless of what Edwin Rist did, I think they need to address it.

Back to the book, I obviously liked it, but my one complaint would be that the ending felt a little anti-climatic. I commend Johnson for his investigative journalism and I understand that sometimes our conclusions and investigations don’t end the way we hope they will, and it was just a little disappointing. The ending felt a little abrupt and not wholly satisfying. But that’s just the way it goes sometimes and I did thoroughly enjoy the journey. I would recommend this book to bird lovers, fly fishers, those who love a good heist, and those who love a good true story. This was definitely weird, but in the best way.

Rust & Stardust

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author:
T. Greenwood
Genres: Historical Fiction, True Crime
Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 2018 (read July 2018)

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I got an ARC of Rust & Stardust a while ago, but I was never really in the mood to read it, so I kept postponing. But I finally started it last week and totally powered through it in 3 days.

As is my style, I knew very little about this book going in, except that it was about the true crime that inspired Nabokov’s classic, Lolita. Disclaimer: I haven’t read Lolita, so I’m not really sure what intrigued me so much about this one, but I’m glad I requested it because it was a really interesting fictional account, based on the true kidnapping of 11 year old Sally Horner.

Rust & Stardust features a series of narrators from Sally’s family and from individuals that crossed paths with Sally during her kidnapping, but it is predominantly narrated by Sally herself. I don’t often like child narrators that much, but I thought Sally’s voice in this book, and Greenwood’s style of writing, we’re perfect for this time setting and plot. Sally reads a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn throughout this story (one of my personal favourite books), and I thought that the writing and narration style were very similar to Betty Smith’s classic and I thought it was such a fitting comparison to have Sally relate to Francie’s experience.

For some context, this story starts when Sally gets caught trying to shoplift a notebook by Mr. Warner, a customer in the store. However, he convinces Sally that he actually works for the FBI and that she is in big trouble for trying to steal. He essentially blackmails her into coming to Atlantic City with him so that she can clear her name before a judge and convinces her she needs to keep this shame secret from her mother and sister.

What follows is 2 years of captivity for Sally at the hands of the perverted Mr. Warner (Frank La Salle in real life). While her family is desperate to find her and slowly starts to fall apart in her absence, Sally is coming of age in extremely horrifying and abusive circumstances. Her kidnapping is pretty horrifying, but I appreciated the author for not being overly graphic in her descriptions. I thought the author totally nailed Sally’s voice. As the reader, you just want to rage at Mr. Warner, but you can also understand Sally’s confusion at the turn of events, her inner guilt and shame at what she’s done and what’s been done to her, and how her thoughts get so turned around by Mr. Warner’s constant gaslighting.

In reality, almost all of this story is fabricated, but the bones of the novel are based on true events. It is mostly unknown what actually happened between Sally and Frank La Salle during the 2 years of her captivity, but Greenwood has appropriately conveyed how evil Frank La Salle is (even if some of the events are fabricated). He was a character that made me so mad, mostly because of how he mentally abuses and gaslights Sally throughout the entirety of the book. He is so manipulative and aside from physically abusing her, he really gets inside her head and makes her question everything about her family and the world. It was so heartbreaking to watch a young girl have to come of age (something that can be traumatizing enough for an 11 year old) without her mother and sister for support.

There’s also a whole side story going on with Sally’s mother, Ella, and her sister and husband, Susan and Al. I didn’t find the side plot as compelling as Sally’s story, but it did add an interesting dimension to the story.

Mostly I just liked that I learned something new from this book, and my enjoyment was greatly aided by Sally’s voice in this novel. I thought the writing fit the time period perfectly. I felt like I had been transported to 1950 and even though I thought the writing was told in a slightly detached kind of way, it conveyed so well Sally’s horror and confusion and how a single event can compound and become unimaginably bad and seemingly insurmountable without proper emotional support.

A good (but upsetting) read, I liked this a lot more than anticipated.