A slave named Cora escapes from her sadistic master and relies on the help of the underground railroad (an actual train in this novel) to get to freedom.
A luxury hotel that purports itself to be the safest in the world due to extensive and invisible security measures allows two killers into its midst; hotel staff members die bloody deaths, one by one.
Read on for more details!
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, literary fiction, 320 pages
I guess the first thing I should say is that this is one of two Oprah’s Book Club picks for this year. Even before the Oprah mania started, though, this book was getting tons of buzz. I listen to a lot of podcasts about books and publishing, and this was one of the books every single podcast I listen to was talking about. After reading it I totally understand the hype!
The story is an Odyssey-like tale centered around Cora’s escape from a cotton plantation in Georgia. On the plantation, where the story begins, Cora is an outcast within the slave community living there. This is due to both the stigma of her mother–the only successful runaway from the plantation in years (maybe ever?)–and an incident with a few of the slave men. Everyone thinks Cora is crazy except Caesar, who treats her as a good luck charm and asks her to flee the plantation with him. After a particularly horrific incident that takes place during a celebration in the slave quarters Cora consents, and the two leave at dark to meet a man in town who’s part of the underground railroad. The underground railroad in Whitehead’s novel is an actual train and each time Cora marvels at it someone reminds her that, like many other structures in America, slaves built it. I loved Whitehead’s interpretation of the underground railroad because while we often focus on white abolitionists who helped slaves escape, this little bit of magical realism helps us focus on the strength of the black community just as much (if not more).
The rest of the story unfolds at stops along the way to freedom. Cora is pursued by a talented slave catcher named Ridgeway, so she is never able to settle anywhere for very long. At each stop, though, Cora learns more about the world: she learns to read, begins to understand that slavery is not the only way white people are trying to keep black Americans under control (think sterilization), loses friends, and has more than one run-in with Ridgeway (a character both interesting and despicable).
I absolutely loved this book. One other popular novel about the atrocities of slavery that I love (and reread every year with my students) is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Each time I read that one I cry, and I found myself crying during Whitehead’s novel too. I don’t think this should make anyone shy away from the it though, because it’s such an immersive, hopeful book too.
Security by Gina Wohlsdorf, horror, 288 pages
Security is one of the coolest books I’ve read in years. Reading it felt like watching a movie, though it’s not written in script form. Each chapter begins by telling us which cameras we’ll view the characters through and it soon becomes clear that the hotel is filled with security cameras, both visible and invisible, and that we’re reading the story play out through the cameras’ perspectives.
The narrator is pretty mysterious as well. We know he can see everything through the security cameras. He sees the main character Tessa–the hotel manager–going through checks of the hotel. He sees the chef freaking out about the menu and a maid trying to get a small, mysterious bloodstain out of the white carpet. He also sees a killer murdering staff members one by one, cleaning the blood off of his coveralls, and shoving food under the mask he’s wearing.It’s not clear yet what the killers’ purpose is or why our narrator won’t warn anyone about what’s happening, but the reveal toward the end of the story is pretty cool.
In addition to the murderous plot at the forefront of the novel, the characters in it are great. Tessa is an emotionally unavailable, meticulous hotel manager who spends her days making sure everything will be perfect for the grand opening, but when her estranged foster brother shows up at the hotel after years of silence she has to deal with the emotional implications of this reunion (as well as the murderers stalking her employees). As the bodies stack up, the emotional stakes for Tessa and Brian escalate and I found myself almost shouting for these characters to RUN! and HIDE! and STOP OPENING THAT DOOR!
Lastly, Wohlsdorf uses a sort of split screen effect in places so that we’re reading what several characters (including the killer) are doing at the same time. The suspense this creates is insane, and I would love to read more horror novels that use this style choice! I’ll include an example below.
I highly recommend this book for fans of scary movies and cool writing style choices!
My TBR (To Be Read) Pile
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: This is my September Book of the Month Club pick. I’m already a few pages in and I love it so far! It takes place after the Russian Revolution and tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a man who’s been placed under house arrest in a hotel due to his aristocratic status. It’s funny and beautiful so far and I can’t wait to see how Rostov, a man used to seeing the most beautiful places in the world, adjusts to life in a small space.
Lumberjanes (Vol. 1 & 2) by Stevenson, Ellis, Watters, Allen, and Laho: I’m on a mission to keep my graphic novel/comics game strong and I’ve heard so many good things about this comic! Girls + woods + merit badges + supernatural enemies = a good time.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: This book won the Hugo this year (a prize for science fiction) and N.K. Jemison is the first black woman to do so. Super exciting! I immediately reserved it in my local library system’s database and just got the message that it’s in transit. That always makes me so happy!
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner: My friend and school librarian Laura (whose blog you can read here) let me borrow this YA novel. I’m most excited about reading it so I can talk with her about it! She says Zentner’s depiction of the South is really cool, and I’m always looking for great southern YA to add to my arsenal.
Have a good week and happy reading, everyone!