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.

Cascade – Craig Davidson

The first Craig Davidson book I ever read was actually a book by his alter ego Nick Cutter. The Troop is the gruesome story (and there are parts of this book that are so gross, I had to read the pages through slitted eyes) of a troop of Boy Scouts who, on their annual overnight camping expedition, come face-to-face with bioengineered evil. It was only after I got my hands on The Saturday Night Ghost Club that I realized Craig Davidson and Nick Cutter were one and the same. Since then I have also read Davidson’s Giller-nominated novel Cataract City and I just finished reading his collection of short stories, Cascade. I guess at this point I am going to have to say that I am a fan.

Short story collections aren’t something I read a lot of, and I am not sure why that is because I do love short stories. They’re like these perfect little miniature worlds. There are six stories in this collection and I enjoyed every single one of them.

Davidson writes about family – both biological and found – and about the places that root us (for him it is Cataract City aka Niagara Falls.) None of these stories is tidy – or even necessarily linear – and even better, none of them have tied-up-with-a-bow endings. Ambiguity is a friend of mine. And apparently Mr. Davidson’s.

In “The Ghost Lights”, a car crash leaves a mother and her infant son stranded in s snow storm. The mother has grappled with the whole idea of subverting her own identity after her son’s birth, but now she is “filled with a mindless need to protect.”

“One Pure Thing” returns an basketball player to the court after a stint in jail. In “The Vanishing Twin”, fraternal twins Charlie and Hen looks out for each other in a Juvenile Custody Facility. A social worker looks after a little boy, while waiting for the birth of her own child in “Friday Night Goon Squad.” Each of these stories scratches at the surface of the choices we make, the sacrifices and compromises. Davidson’s writing is assured and nostalgic and I found myself sinking into each of the worlds created by these stories after only a line or two.

Highly recommended.

Blood Innocents – Thomas H. Cook

Blood Innocents is American crime writer Thomas H. Cook’s first novel. Published in 1980, it tells the story of NYC police detective John Reardon who, returning to work after the death of his wife, is given a strange case involving the slaughter of two deer in the Children’s Zoo in Central Park.

Yep – deer. Not people.

The deer had been gifted to the zoo by one of New York City’s most prominent businessmen, Wallace Van Allen. When Reardon balks at the assignment, his lieutenant, Piccolini tells him

“…this is a big case. One of the biggest. Some real big people are looking in on this one, interested in it, if you know what I mean. I know you’re in homicide, but this is bigger than a homicide right now, and the people downtown want top people on it all the way.”

Reardon has made a reputation for himself by following his instincts and so despite the strangeness of the case, he starts digging. Then, when the bodies of two young women turn up in their apartment with almost identical injuries as the deer, Reardon redoubles his efforts to solve the crimes.

I have been a Thomas H. Cook fan for many years. He’s a prolific writer, with more than 30 books to his credit, and yet many people have never heard of him. The first book I ever read by him is called Breakheart Hill (1995) and it had such an amazing twist that I was keen to read more by him. Except it was almost impossible to find his books anywhere. Over the years I have managed to track down and read Evidence of Blood, Peril, Mortal Memory, The Interrogation, The Fate of Katherine Carr, Master of the Delta, The Cloud of Unknowing, Instruments of the Night, Red Leaves, Places in the Dark, The Chatham School Affair and I have one more book on my tbr shelf, Night Secrets, which I will not read until I track down at least one more.

If Blood Innocents had been the first book I’d ever read, I am not sure I would have become the super fan I am now. It’s not that the book wasn’t any good, it’s just that it lacked the layers I’ve always found in his novels: complicated father/son relationships (although Reardon does have a son, and they are certainly not close), a clever twist (this novel is really just a straight-forward detective story), philosophical underpinnings (although Reardon is certainly at a thoughtful point in his life after the loss of his wife.)

It was definitely cool to go back to the very beginning, but I am glad it’s not where I started.

In Pieces – Danielle Pearl

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS A LOT OF SWEARING. You’ve been warned.

Fucking nineteen-year-old Beth Caplan (also known as ‘kid’, ‘Bits’ and ‘Bea’) and fucking twenty-one-year old David March have known each other their whole motherfucking lives because David is fucking Sammy ‘Cap’ Caplan’s bestie. These fuckers are players, but fucking David has secretly fucking yearned for fucking Beth for fucking-ever. The feeling is fucking mutual. Back in high school when she was dating Brian fucking Falco, David told Cap he was interested in Beth, but that was never going to fucking fly because Cap knew exactly what kind of fucking fucker David was. A fist-fight ensued and that was the fucking end of that. Until it wasn’t. Because now Beth is at the same fucking college and David is tasked with looking out for her fucking ass – and it’s a fine ass, trust me. Beth/kid/Bits/Bea is fragile because of Brian fucking Falco, and when he shows up on some sports scholarship, and some other dude from her Abnormal Psychology class seemingly starts to stalk her, well, fucking David loses his fucking shit and before you can say “hot porn sex” these two are having, well, hot porn sex.

Yeah. That’s annoying, right?

I actually started highlighting how many times the characters in Danielle Pearl’s NA novel In Pieces said the word fuck. (And it’s not NA really because this isn’t about navigating that slippery period between being a teenager and an adult as much as it is about having sex.) It was a lot. I stopped counting at 500. So much swearing that it distracted from everything else that was going on. I read a previous novel by Pearl, In Ruins, and I had the same complaint. Too much swearing. And I say this as someone who enjoys a well-placed f-bomb. It was grating, distracting and it made these characters, particularly David, sound like idiots.

Other things make these characters sound way older than they chronologically are. For example, David says “I’m a single, red-blooded, relatively good-looking guy who’s never been in a relationship. Who’s never even considered one. Relationships are for guys who want marriage and a mortgage and a nine-to-five.” Um, not sure there are many 21-year-old dudes like that out there. Is this supposed to count as character development, a reminder of how Beth is changing him?

These two crazy kids consummate their relationship while intoxicated. Remember, David is supposed to have feelings for Beth. What does he say to her?

“Fuck, you feel amazing,” David rasps, his words resonating in every part of me – even the one place it really shouldn’t – and I silently scold my heart and demand it make itself scarce. “So fucking tight,” he marvels. “So wet. Goddamn, beautiful girl…”

There are no words. Although post coitus, Beth decides that David is the smooth talker of her dreams and that even if he doesn’t have feelings for her, she definitely enjoys seeing him naked because he’s hawt, perhaps they could have a friends with benefits sort of arrangement.

After all sorts of stoopid miscommunications and other contrived plot twists, these star-crossed lovers end up together because of course they do. They’re a match made in fucking heaven.

Yuck.

Everything We Didn’t Say – Nicole Baart

There’s a certain type of book I really like. It’s a dual timeline, family secrets, coming-of-age, angsty hybrid that, if well-written, makes my reading heart happy. Everything We Didn’t Say by Nicole Baart ticked all the boxes for me.

Juniper (June) Baker has returned to Jericho, Iowa after 15 years of exile. She’s come home to help an old friend in the town library, but this is also an opportunity to repair some relationships, particularly with her brother, Jonathan, and her 13-year-old daughter, Willa, who has been living with Juniper’s parents since she was born.

Why are these relationships damaged? Well, that part of the story happened fifteen years ago, when June had just graduated from high school, was flirting with Sullivan, the youngest son of the town’s richest farmer, and Beth and Cal Murphy, a middle-aged couple who live in the farm across the lake from Juniper and her family, are brutally murdered, a crime for which Jonathan is suspected but never convicted.

One of the reasons that Juniper is anxious to return to Jericho is because someone on the WWW is talking about a podcast aimed at proving, after all these years, that Jonathan is, in fact, responsible for the Murphys’ deaths. Juniper aims to prove the opposite, but doing so means revisiting that long-ago summer when everything seemed to change, particularly between her and her brother. Once their sibling bond seemed like “a tangible thing, a thread woven from shared experiences,” but as the summer lengthens, Jonathan becomes secretive and moody.

There’s a lot of moving parts in Baart’s story. Of the two timelines, I liked the one set in the past the best. June is heading off to college at the end of the summer, and she knows she is leaving this life behind. Her best friend, Ashley, is crazy about Sullivan, but June finds herself impossibly attracted to him and it appears the feeling is mutual. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. There are other things happening at home, too, things June doesn’t understand.

All of that seems uncomplicated, though, when compared to the present day. Shortly after she arrives, Jonathan – who seems about to share a long-held secret – is in a life-threatening accident, She bumps into Sullivan, and that’s confusing. And a local cop seems to be digging into the Murphy’s cold case. Oh, and her daughter seems to hate her – which stands to reason since she all but abandoned her.

Everything We Didn’t Say has lots to recommend it and although I did guess one significant plot twist, I enjoyed my time in Jericho, and looked forward to reading this book, which I haven’t said about a book for a while.

Two thumbs up.