The Nothing Man – Catherine Ryan Howard

When Eve Black was just twelve, someone broke into her family home in Cork, Ireland and killed her parents and seven-year-old sister, Anna. Nearly twenty years later, she has written a book about the event and its connection to several other unsolved crimes in the hopes that perhaps the perpetrator will finally be caught. That book is The Nothing Man.

Catherine Ryan Howard uses the book within a book format to unspool the story of this “nothing man”, who torments his victims with menacing phone calls before showing up to their houses in the middle of the night. Eve’s true crime account reads exactly like that: a survivor’s story fleshed out with information painstakingly gathered from police reports, and information provided by people closest to the case.

And then there’s Jim Doyle, a just-past-middle-aged security guard who stumbles across the book at the big box grocery store where he works. The book’s existence throws Jim into a tailspin.

Once he knew the book existed, Jim could think of nothing else. It was a ring of fire around him, drawing nearer with each passing moment, threatening to torch every layer of him one by one. His clothes. His skin. His life. If it reached him it would leave nothing but ash and all his secrets, totally exposed.

The biggest secret of all is that he is The Nothing Man. (Not a spoiler.) As he reads the book – or, I should say, as we read the book, Jim becomes more and more unsettled. His crimes stopped after the Black family, but Eve’s book has awakened something in him and it’s an itch Jim has to scratch, but first he needs to know what Eve knows.

The Nothing Man is clever and fun to read, even while it makes the point that our fascination with true crime neglects the impact these events have on the victims and their families. We all know the names of the famous serial killers, but do we remember the names of any of the people whose lives they took?

Although Howard’s book isn’t really a thriller (because we know whodunnit from the beginning), it’s still a page-turner and watching Eve and Jim play their cat-and-mouse game makes for an entertaining read.

Reader, Come Home – Maryanne Wolf

There’s lots of Maryanne Wolf’s book Reader, Come Home, that I did not understand. Y’know, science-y stuff. I read this book, written as a series of letters addressed to readers, with my highlighter in hand and I found it extremely compelling. Wolf is a scientist with a particular interest in how the human brain learns to read and how digital media is impacting our reading lives, in particular, the lives of young readers. As a person who spends a fair amount of time on line, but does the bulk of my reading the old fashioned way, I found her research and observations fascinating. And, of course, as a teacher who is very committed to getting my students to read for pleasure, I found her insights alarming.

Instead of ‘reviewing’ this book, I will just share a few of the many things Wolf offered that either reinforced my own feelings or provided food for thought. Although I didn’t understand a lot of the brain science stuff, Reader, Come Home was accessible and easy to read and I think should be required reading for literacy teachers and anyone else who is at all concerned by the way people consume digital media. That said, Wolf isn’t anti-digital. I think we can all agree that there’s no turning back the clock on the way digital media has taken over our lives. She offers a thoughtful compromise that takes into account our dependence on our smart phones and tablets, and while she isn’t an alarmist necessarily, her research definitely reveals some alarming insights.

Here are just a handful of things Wolf says that gave me pause:

There would be many things that would be lost if we slowly lose the cognitive patience to immerse ourselves in the worlds created by books and the lives and feelings of the “friends” who inhabit them.


Without sufficient background knowledge, the rest of the deep-reading proccesses will be deployed less often, leading to a situation in which many people will never move outside the boundaries of what they already know.


…the average person consumes about 34 gigabytes across varied devices each day. Basically, that’s the equivalent of close to 100, 000 words a day.


…”skimming” is the new normal in our digital reading.


…consider the increasing unease of many English professors in universities and in high schools that growing numbers of their students no longer have the “patience” to read literature from the nineteenth century and early half of the twentieth century.


I have begun to question the cognitive loss of not being willing, or perhaps in the future, even able to navigate the demands of the complex concepts in denser prose.


…student writing is deteriorating [and] we must ask whether current students’ diminishing familiarity with conceptually demanding prose and the daily truncating of their writing on social media is affecting their writing in more negative ways than in the past.


In a 2015 RAND report, the average amount of time spent by three-to five-year-old children on digital devices was four hours a day. […] These issues become more intensified for older children, as the hours spent in front of screens double and triple to twelve-plus hours a day among many adolescents.

If you are even remotely interested in the impact of reading in the digital age, Reader, Come Home offers much food for thought. As a reader, I found it both horrifying and reassuring.

Alone Time – Stephanie Rosenbloom

As I contemplate my retirement, I am also thinking about the places I would like to visit – not a bucket list, per se, but a wish list. (Bucket list always sounds so ‘end of days’ to me.) The last time I traveled was pre- pandemic when I went to Italy with three of my best friends. At the end of our time together, I tacked on a week of solo travel, just to see if I would like it. Could I navigate unfamiliar places and enjoy my own company? I wondered.

My selfie game is not strong, I realize. 🙂

Stephanie Rosenbloom’s book Alone Time seeks to answer the very question I was trying to figure out back in 2018. Can I go it alone? Turns out, I could and it was kind of amazing. After two of our party of four headed back to Canada, my friend Sheila and I went from Amalfi to Verona, a city I had always wanted to visit. Then, after she left to return home, I went to Bologna, another Italian city I hadn’t yet been to. After a few days there, I made a pit stop in Paris, a place I had never visited but thought, since my flight was routed through there, I should at least stop off and see the highlights. I fell in love with the city of lights and can’t wait to return.

Rosenbloom had an epiphany about solo travel while on assignment (she’s a journalist) for the Travel section of the New York Times. She was in Paris to write a story called “Solo in Paris.” She could write whatever she wanted.

Each morning I left my hotel in the 9th arrondissement, just east of the apartment where Proust wrote much of Remembrance of Things Past, and didn’t return until I had gone some twenty miles in whichever direction whim and croissants (and olive fougasse and pistachio financiers) took me.

Without having to consider anyone else’s agenda, Rosenbloom was able to see “le merveilleux quotidien” (roughly translated to ‘the marvelous everyday life’). It was this experience that encouraged her to consider more solo travel, and it’s these adventures that she shares in Alone Time.

Over the course of the book, Rosenbloom shares her experiences in Paris (another visit), Istanbul, Florence, and New York. (She’s a New Yorker, but as someone who has played the game of tourist in my own city, I appreciated her home town’s inclusion in the exercise.) Alone Time isn’t just a travel memoir, though. Rosenbloom talks a lot about the benefits of being alone, and of slowing life down to savour the minutiae of everyday life. Without an itinerary, she’s able to go where she pleases and stop when she wants, and that is something that definitely appeals to me.

Alone Time also encourages one to follow their passions. When you travel alone you only have to please yourself. For me, that would probably include visiting all the bookish places and I know that probably isn’t all that exciting to other people. I know that when we were in Amalfi, there was a handmade paper-making museum not too far from where we were staying. It wasn’t interesting to anyone but me, so I went by myself.

I very much enjoyed Alone Time. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that I am introverted at heart. I love people and as a teacher I have no problem standing in front of a class, but I really enjoy quiet time. The older I get, the more I crave time alone with my books and a cup of tea. Rosenbloom’s book appealed to that part of me who, after a lifetime of pleasing others, just wants to please herself. Solo travel is definitely a way to do that.

Rosenbloom calls her book “a love letter to loners, to witches and shamans, to those who cherish their friends, spouses, and partners, yet also want alone time to think, create, have an adventure, learn a skill, or solve a problem.” It’s all that, and more.

Highly recommended.

Searching for John Hughes – Jason Diamond

People of a certain age will likely understand what I mean when I say that John Hughes’s movies were a touchstone for adolescents. I know that 16 Candles is definitely problematic now – I mean hunky Jake Ryan hands over his drunken girlfriend to the Geek – but back in 1984 it spoke our language.

Jason Diamond grew up in the Chicago suburbs made famous in many of Hughes’s films (Home Alone, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful to name but a few). His memoir Searching For John Hughes traces his childhood with deeply unhappy parents who eventually divorce and then, by the time he is a teenager, all but abandon him. (Just as well: they sound awful.) He literally couch surfs his way through high school until a kind teacher offers him a more permanent place to stay.

Diamond is an outlier for most of his adolescence. He’s not smart enough or athletic enough or good-looking enough; he doesn’t fit in anywhere or have any particular talents. He does love John Hughes movies, though. Molly Ringwald is the first girl Diamond ever loves “before [he] even liked girls, when they were still “gross” to [him].”

…watching Pretty in Pink made me feel good. It made me happy…and we’re led to believe everybody will live happily ever after.

Although I was familiar with the concept, this idea that you could one day be happy and have what you wanted, it seemed so foreign. It was usually the kind of thing I’d read about in fairy tales, something about some prince or princess, people I couldn’t really relate to; they were cartoons or made up stories. But here, right before my eyes, were these kids only a few years older than me, things turning out right for them after all, and they seemed real to me. As if I could be them some day.

After high school, Diamond moves to NYC. The only thing he wants to do, the only thing he’s good at, is writing. He decides that he’s going to write the definitive biography of his idol, John Hughes. It’s not that easy, of course, and the book we eventually get is less biography and more memoir about how Diamond muddles through his 20s, making lattes or waiting tables and selling the odd music review to pay the bills. I actually lived in New York when I was in my 20s, so in some respects I could relate to Diamond’s angst, but I have to say that his recollections of this time are relentlessly grim.

Although Hughes does play a role in the book – after all, Diamond tells everyone he is writing it – this is more a book about someone who is desperately lost trying to figure it out. That’s likely a story many people can relate to. The nods to Hughes and his movies will be meaningless to people who aren’t fans — that was the reason I bought the book — but even if you don’t even know who Hughes is, it’s likely you’ll find something to relate to in Diamond’s quest to grow up and make something of his life.

The Bed I Made – Lucie Whitehouse

The Bed I Made is my third outing with British writer Lucie Whitehouse (The House at Midnight, Before We Met). Like Before We Met, this novel concerns a love affair gone wrong.

Kate works as a translator in London. One night, out with her friend Helen, she meets Richard.

He was watching me intently but didn’t speak. It was strange: it should have unnerved me but instead I found myself responding to the intensity, It was like suddenly finding myself in a spotlight.

Kate is generally practical and reserved, but her attraction to Richard is immediate and intense and soon they are in a full-fledged relationship. Richard is handsome, charming and successful – quite unlike anyone Kate has ever dated before. And if you’re thinking he sounds too good to be true, you’d be correct. Eighteen months after they first kiss, Kate sublets her apartment and flees to the Isle of Wight, a place that has personal significance to her, but where she is a stranger in the community.

The problem is that Richard isn’t about to let her go so easily. He might not know where she is, but he can still text her (until she changes her number) and email her (she can’t seem to stop herself from reading his messages and when she finally tells him that they are never, ever, ever getting back together, he starts making unpleasant threats.)

I guess you could say that The Bed I Made is a relatively straightforward domestic thriller. The Isle of Wight is supposed to offer Kate sanctuary, but soon after she arrives, a local woman goes missing and she becomes fascinated with her disappearance. Then she meets the woman’s husband, Pete, and things start to get even more complicated.

I found this book kind of slow, actually. Not slow in that I didn’t want to read it or find out what was going to happen – even though I had a pretty good idea. Whitehouse captures Kate’s sense of loneliness and isolation and claustrophobia really well, and she was a likeable – if often times naïve – character. By the time we get to the novel’s dénouement, I sort of felt as though I was reading a completely different book. There was a lot of time when nothing much was happening – Kate was wandering around the town, or she and Pete were sailing – and then bam. Thriller mode.

Still, Whitehouse has been a dependable author for me and I will definitely continue to read her.

The Missing Years – Lexie Elliott

If only the first 300 pages had been as riveting as the last 86; that’s my review of Scottish writer Lexie Elliott’s novel The Missing Years in a nutshell.

Ailsa Calder inherits her childhood home after the death of her mother. She and her mother weren’t particularly close; in fact, after her father disappeared, her mother had married another man, Pete, and had another daughter, Ailsa’s half-sister, Carrie. Now these siblings have moved out to this manor house in the Scottish Highlands, Carrie in an effort to save her per diem from her latest acting gig, and Ailsa with a view to sprucing the place up and selling it.

The Manse is not the place of Ailsa’s childhood memories, though. Ailsa feels that “The Manse has been waiting a long time for me – a quarter of a century, give or take”.

It’s strange, isolated building and things start to go wrong almost immediately. Dead animals turn up on her doorstep, doors thud, and one night Ailsa finds a strange man standing on the landing. His name is Jamie and he claims to be looking for his sister, Fi, who sometimes comes into the house. That’s creepy, right?

So are the inhabitants of the nearby village, some of whom remember Ailsa as a child or knew her parents. There’s Ben, the handsome man who works at the local hotel and who might be interested in buying the Manse; there’s his friend, Ali, whose family was ruined when Ailsa’s father disappeared with absconded with their property; there’s Fi herself, who has a hard time keeping track of time. The only person who isn’t weird is Callum, Fi’s seven-year-old son, who says that the animals won’t come onto Manse property because they sense something is not quite right, including the fact that time folds there.

All of these things should make for an interesting story…and they did, in the last 86 pages – before that, not so much. The story was slow-moving, the relationship between Carrie and Ailsa was awkward and shrill and sometimes the conversations between people was cringe-y and I just felt like everyone was shrieking.

Too bad, because I loved Elliott’s novel The French Girl.