Archive for September 2023

End of Watch by Stephen King


“End of watch is what they call it, but Hodges himself has found it impossible to give up watching"

I'm an avid reader, so it's not uncommon for a few books to slip through the cracks. In anticipation of Stephen King's latest release, Holly, which came out earlier this month, I had a realization—I had missed reading End of Watch, the final installment in the Bill Hodges Trilogy, and the third book featuring the character Holly Gibney. It's a bit puzzling, considering I had already read the first two books and also enjoyed The Outsider and If It Bleeds. Somehow, I managed to overlook this particular story. Determined to correct this oversight, I promptly borrowed End of Watch from my local library. I can confidently say it provides a satisfying conclusion to the narrative that commenced with Mr. Mercedes.

Brady Hartsfield, the deranged mastermind behind the horrifying Mercedes Massacre, has languished in a vegetative state ever since his nefarious plans to bomb a massive concert were thwarted by the unlikely heroes Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney. Holly, in particular, is the one responsible for delivering blows to his head that left him seemingly devoid of cognitive function. Hodges, with his keen instincts, refuses to be deceived. He recognizes true evil when encountering it and remains convinced that the monster is still lurking "in there" somewhere within Hartsfield. The vacant stares and the wheelchair-bound existence do little to convince him otherwise.

Hodges hasn't quite settled into retirement. The cop in him never truly fades. Even in his new role as a private detective, he finds himself yearning for the thrill of the chase. When his former partner calls upon him and Holly to investigate a suicide victim connected to the original Mercedes case, Hodges is chilled by what he discovers. While the police perceive it as a straightforward, self-inflicted death, Hodges cannot shake the gnawing suspicion that Hartsfield may somehow be linked to this tragedy. Could it be possible that the malevolent presence is orchestrating terror from the confines of his hospital bed?

I've always admired how Stephen King used the first two books in the Bill Hodges series to illustrate that true horror can exist in the real world. Instead of relying on supernatural monsters, these stories centered around an ordinary man determined to unleash evil upon the world. It was a chilling departure from King's usual style and deepened my appreciation for his storytelling skills.

End of Watch takes a slightly different tone from the first two books. While it continues to explore profound themes like the battle between good and evil and the struggle to let go of one's past, King introduces a new element to the narrative. Without giving away too much, a supernatural aspect is woven into the story, adding an eerie new layer to the tale. If I had read this book in its intended sequence within the series, I might have found this shift into the realm of fantasy somewhat unexpected. It arrives without a clear explanation, requiring readers to simply accept it and enjoy the ride. However, when considered within the broader context of this literary world, including the newer books featuring Holly, the introduction of the supernatural element begins to make more sense.

Regardless of the subject matter, End of Watch is a fitting conclusion to the Bill Hodges series. It kept me engrossed in its pages, and I was apprehensive about what terrors would unfold right up to the very end.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 61)

Gone Tonight by Sarah Pekkanen


This year has been brimming with intriguing thriller releases, adding numerous titles to my ever-expanding to-be-read list. One such addition was Sarah Pekkanen's Gone Tonight, which I eagerly included as soon as news of its release surfaced. Having previously enjoyed Pekkanen's collaborative works with Greer Hendricks, the prospect of her new solo venture captured my attention. While it took me a bit of time to finally open the book's pages, I found myself swiftly making my way through its content once I did.

How well do you truly know your parents? We often rely on them to fill in the gaps of their lives that existed before we came into the picture. Even in adulthood, there are still moments of discovery about our parents that surprise us. I find myself regularly uncovering new layers in the stories of my own parents. This sentiment resonates with Catherine Sterling, who believed she had a solid understanding of her mother. Ruth Sterling, a quiet and diligent individual, has been a constant companion and confidante throughout Catherine's lifetime. Together, they've shared cities and experiences, forming an inseparable bond.

Now, Catherine is on the brink of embarking on a new journey—a step into independent adulthood. A fresh job opportunity in a new city beckons, igniting her excitement to embrace this new phase. For Ruth, who has safeguarded Catherine all her life as a single mother, protection has been her priority. Every choice and sacrifice she's made has been for her daughter's safety and well-being. Ruth recognizes that Catherine places unwavering trust in her, a trust she has worked to cultivate. But as Catherine prepares to venture out on her own, Ruth confronts the unsettling reality that her protective measures, necessary though they may be, could drive a wedge between them. Ruth harbors a hidden past, carefully concealed from her daughter. And now, to ensure Catherine's continued safety, Ruth is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent her daughter from leaving.

Sarah Pekkanen's books have gained immense popularity in the thriller genre for good reason. Her knack for crafting intricate narratives centered around family drama makes her novels incredibly engaging. Right from the initial pages of Gone Tonight, I found myself captivated. Pekkanen employs a dual perspective, alternating between the mother and daughter's viewpoints, providing readers with insights that the other character is oblivious to. This narrative technique intensifies the suspense as revelations unfold.

While the overall execution is skillful, there are moments of inconsistency. The middle section, in particular, seemed to become entangled in the complexities it was weaving. Nevertheless, Pekkanen propels the plot forward, enticing readers to delve deeper into the enigmatic mother-daughter relationship. The story culminates in a gripping finale that left me breathless. One's response to this book might be influenced by their familiarity with the thriller genre. While parts of the narrative exhibit similarities to other thrillers, Pekkanen adds her own distinctive touch. As I delved further into the intricacies of the plot, I found myself increasingly willing to immerse in its uniqueness. Gone Tonight stands as a commendable thriller that held my attention through its consistently moving plot and unexpected character revelations.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 60)

Wellness by Nathan Hill


Nathan Hill made a significant impact with his debut novel, The Nix, upon its release in 2016. The book, spanning numerous decades and hundreds of pages, delved into the story of a man determined to uncover his family's hidden secrets in his quest to reclaim his own life. Both critics and readers were captivated by its intricate narrative. Although I missed the chance to read that novel, I promised myself to keep an eye out for whatever Hill would create next. When his publisher offered me a copy of his second work, Wellness, I eagerly seized the opportunity to dive into it. This latest tale, while more intimate than his previous work, retains the sprawling and impactful quality that characterizes his writing.

Do you believe in love at first sight? Jack and Elizabeth certainly did. In the early 90s, Jack, a struggling art student, stood on the verge of greatness after escaping the mundane life of rural middle America for the vibrant art scene of Chicago. With the advent of the internet, his work gained recognition, and Jack embraced his newfound subversive identity. Elizabeth, seeking an escape from her wealthy and regimented upbringing, found everything she desired in Jack – an edgy, adventurous artist deeply in love with her. They married, fully expecting their happily ever after.

Twenty years later, their life is far from what they envisioned. The once-blissful couple has succumbed to the routine of married life. Jack, unable to recapture the brilliance of his early work, churns out repetitive images while working as adjunct faculty at a university. Elizabeth, on the other hand, has achieved professional success, manipulating consumers' perceptions for corporations implementing cost-saving measures. Their relationship has lost its spark. Balancing the challenges of co-parenting a difficult eight-year-old and saving for their dream "forever home" takes a toll on Jack and Elizabeth. The idea of separate bedrooms in their new home, which would have been an outrageous thought just a few years ago,  seems like a practical solution to ensure their new life together functions in a way that suits their evolving needs. To prevent the deterioration of their relationship, Jack and Elizabeth embark on separate journeys of self-discovery, risking the loss of the most precious thing they share – each other.

Nathan Hill's Wellness left me with much to contemplate. It depicts the erosion of a relationship and the extraordinary efforts required to reignite the flame of love. While this remains the central theme of the story, Hill skillfully leads readers into explorations of numerous other subjects. He delves into topics like modern marriage, polyamory, psychology, art, and algorithms, among others, adding depth to his central characters and shedding light on their lives. Simultaneously, the novel serves as a timely commentary on the first part of the 21st century, offering insights into both the intricacies of marriage and the state of the world. Despite its substantial length of over 600 pages, Wellness never feels overly long.  Hill's skillful storytelling draws readers into the narrative, making us think and feel through all the complexities of his tale. It is a nearly flawless American novel and is undoubtedly one of my favorite reads of the year.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 59) 

Friday Flicks: Red, White, & Royal Blue


Representation matters. The presence of diverse and relatable characters in literature and media plays a crucial role in enabling individuals to embrace and accept their true selves. Casey McQuiston's debut novel, Red, White, & Royal Blue, achieved bestselling status, in part due to its significant representation within the LGBTQ+ community. When I initially read the book in 2019, I celebrated its diverse ensemble, the queer love story it portrayed, and its profound impact as a form of representation for LGBTQ+ individuals. When news broke that Amazon had acquired the rights to adapt this beloved story into a film, I greeted the news with a blend of optimism and caution. Could the filmmakers capture the book's magic and do justice to its representation?

The film faithfully adheres to the core plot of the novel. Alex Claremont-Diaz, portrayed by Taylor Zakhar Perez, holds the esteemed position of First Son in the United States. His mother, performed by a Texas-drawled Uma Thurman, is the first woman to occupy the highest office in the nation. The narrative begins with Alex's intense rivalry with Prince Henry, played by Nicholas Galitzine, the younger member of the British royal family. Their disruptive behavior at the wedding of the Prince's elder brother, who is also the future king, threatens to spark a major international incident. They are compelled to fabricate a close friendship and embark on a goodwill visit to the United Kingdom to avert this crisis.

As the two navigate the complexities of this fabricated friendship, their rivalry gradually transforms into a genuine and profound connection, eventually blossoming into a romantic relationship. However, their path is fraught with challenges, especially the imperative to conceal their love amidst the relentless public scrutiny accompanying their high-profile lives. Royal traditions bind Henry, and Alex strives to uphold a carefully cultivated image during his mother's contentious re-election campaign. As their love for each other deepens, they must continue to work diligently to keep it hidden from the public eye.

The film adaptation of Red, White, & Royal Blue is about as good as one might expect from a straight-to-streaming adaptation. While the novel's core plot remains intact, the storyline has noticeable omissions. Some characters are condensed into one, and certain changes alter the story's impact compared to the book. This is understandable, given the time constraints of the film medium, but it does make the narrative feel forced compared to the original. The film includes some wide shots where the actors are clearly in front of green screens, and the backgrounds are obviously computer-generated landscapes. While this choice didn't significantly affect the movie, it gave it a simpler aesthetic reminiscent of productions you might find on the Disney Channel. Each time this occurred, I wished the shots had simply been omitted. 

The film excels in portraying the chemistry and charisma of the two lead actors. The spark between Alex and Henry, present in the book, is brought to life authentically and keeps viewers invested in the film. The supporting cast also delivers fantastic performances, fully committing to their roles. While it may not be the best movie of the year, it effectively represents the themes that resonated with many readers of the novel. Ultimately, this representation strikes a chord with audiences, and the film will likely have a similar impact.

Down the Hill by Susan Hendricks


In recent years, my fascination with crime fiction has evolved into a deep interest in the realm of true crime. The narratives that unfold within these works often feel like they belong to the world of fiction, yet the knowledge that these events actually happened adds a unique layer of intrigue. Last year, I was captivated by a true-crime memoir and retrospective penned by Paul Holes, an investigator whose involvement in numerous high-profile cases over the decades was truly engrossing. Beyond his captivating insights into high-profile cases, it was his introspective exploration of the toll these investigations took on his personal life that resonated the most. They served as a powerful reminder that every headline-worthy story has a profound impact on the lives of real individuals. 

It's this very idea, the resilience of people navigating the aftermath of unthinkable tragedy, that lies at the heart of investigative journalist Susan Hendricks' new book, Down the Hill. When given the chance to receive a copy of this book from her publisher, I eagerly embraced it. Drawing on her extensive background in broadcast journalism and her personal intrigue with the case, Hendricks delves into the narrative of a tragic double homicide that sent shockwaves through the tight-knit community of Delphi, Indiana.

"Their family always said I love you in place of goodbye. Every single time. Just in case something happened."

Tragedy often strikes unexpectedly. While you witness it on the news daily, you never anticipate it happening to someone like you. Especially not in a safe haven like your own neighborhood. Delphi, Indiana embodied this sense of security, a tight-knit community where everyone knew one another. It was the kind of place where families felt at ease raising their children. When Abby Williams and Libby German planned a day of adventure on their day off from school, exploring the well-trodden hiking trails near Monon High Bridge, it seemed like a simple, harmless decision. The concerns were minimal. Libby's grandmother only reminded her to take a coat for the changing weather. As Libby's sister dropped them off at the trailhead, it was just another ordinary day. Little did they know that it would mark the final time they would ever see Abby and Libby alive.

"There are many dates in a lifetime that you're going to remember: The dates your children are born. The date you're married. The date you buy a first house. The date Abby and Libby went missing."

What began as a missing person case, characterized by concern rather than panic, took a tragic turn as the bodies of Abby and Libby were discovered on the north bank of Deer Creek, approximately a mile from where they were last seen. Susan Hendricks, then a reporter for CNN and HLN, was among the media personnel covering the incident. In the initial stages of reporting, Hendricks was struck by the limited information provided by investigators. The primary piece of evidence revolved around the visual and audio fragments of a disturbing interaction the girls had with an unfamiliar individual shortly before their disappearance—a disconcerting encounter that Libby had captured on her cellphone. This sole lead would become the cornerstone of the case for the years to come. The chilling audio of the man instructing the girls to go "down the hill" reverberated in the thoughts of those dedicated to uncovering the truth behind this devastating event.

Down the Hill sees Susan Hendricks take a detailed look into a crime that captured the nation's attention. The profound tragedy that befell such innocent individuals begs the question of how such horror could occur. Hendricks masterfully portrays the moments leading to the crime and the exhaustive pursuit of justice. The narrative spans from early 2017 to today, with a suspect now arrested and awaiting trial. While the ongoing nature of the case prevents a conclusive ending, Hendricks's storytelling is marked by meticulous care. Her personal connection with the victims' families during her investigation adds a distinct dimension to this true crime account. Their resilience, facing each day with courage while ensuring their loved ones are never forgotten, deeply moved me. Amid their tireless efforts to bring awareness and sustain a years-long investigation, they not only honored their daughters' memory but also offered support to other families grappling with similar tragedies. In the face of an incomprehensibly senseless crime of inhumanity, the families maintained their own humanity, ultimately inspiring the world through their unyielding strength.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 58)

In Memoriam by Alice Winn


Many epic war novels echo the sentiment that war is hell. Despite my initial fascination with war-related fiction and nonfiction, I found many of these narratives blending together over time. I'm more discerning now, choosing to engage with titles that offer a unique angle. Alice Winn's debut novel, In Memoriam, which centers on a gay couple during WWI, does just that. The book conveys the grim realities of war while also providing a nuanced character study. Amid navigating external battlefields, its protagonists grapple with the internal turmoil they carry within themselves.

Set in the year 1914, during the tumultuous times of World War I, the story begins within the confines of a small English boarding school. As the violent chaos of war rages on, these young men find themselves immersed in the world of poetry and literature, far removed from the actual horrors of combat. This stark contrast in privilege isn't lost on them, and even as news of the valiant soldiers' deaths reaches their ears, the notion of joining the war becomes a tantalizing idea. It offers the prospect of the kind of honorable heroism they've only encountered within the pages of their schoolbooks.

For Gaunt, a student of mixed German descent, the actual battles unfold within. Struggling with his forbidden affection for his charismatic and intelligent friend Ellwood, Gaunt grapples not only with the societal hostility directed at his heritage but also the complexities of unrequited love in a world that won't accept it. Seeking to protect his family and find solace from his inner turmoil, Gaunt enlists in the army and is met with a shocking revelation. Driven by his own motivations, Ellwood has joined the front lines, too. Soon, the entire class is thrust onto the war's brutal stage, forcing them to confront the grim specter of death and the capriciousness of fate.

In Memoriam offers a stark portrayal of the harrowing reality of death and despair within war. Alice Winn's descriptive prose vividly captures the frontlines, evoking scenes that are sometimes emotionally challenging to read. The novel effectively conveys war's immense devastation and loss, painting a grim tableau rarely encountered in fiction. What sets this book apart, though, is its exploration of an additional, equally compelling turmoil. The journey towards self-acceptance, especially in an era hostile to non-conforming sexualities, becomes an absorbing undercurrent. Winn's characters may appear subdued compared to the vivid war scenes, but their growth, stemming from their reactions to external circumstances rather than mere personal agency, adds to their sophistication. The understated yet profound battle against love and shame propels the story forward. The book's emotional impact comes not only from the horrors of war but also from the poignant challenges these young men face. It underscores the idea that just as war presents its own form of hell, life itself can be an arduous journey. In the midst of such adversity, the complex relationships they build become a source of solace and redemption.

For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2023, 57)

Hello, Transcriber by Hannah Morrissey


At the start of August, my family embarked on a journey from Texas to Wisconsin to commemorate my brother and sister-in-law's achievement of earning their PhDs. The celebration of this significant milestone was truly joyful, and the experience was enhanced by the pleasant summer climate. The temperature was notably cooler than the relentless summer heat we were experiencing back home. Throughout our visit, we relished the outdoors, basking in the mild weather. 

My brother found our fascination with the climate amusing, given that in Wisconsin, the summer months are a time for everyone to embrace the sun. It's a different story during the winter months when the cold becomes relentless. As a Texan, I'm not accustomed to such cold temperatures, at least not in reality. While browsing through books at my local library, I came across Hannah Morrisey's debut novel, Hello, Transcriber. The book's setting in the frigid winter of the fictional town of Black Harbor, Wisconsin, allowed me to experience the cold my brother had described, even if only through the pages of a book.

The story unfolds in the bleak backdrop of Black Harbor, an infamously crime-infested city in Wisconsin. At its center is Hazel Greenlee, a woman who finds herself trapped in a life she didn't quite choose. Her marriage is suffocating, the house she lives in is filled with the remnants of her husband's hunting exploits, and her dreams of becoming a writer remain unfulfilled. Amidst this stagnation, she seizes an opportunity to work as a transcriber on the night shift at the local police department. This role offers a glimmer of hope. It's a chance for her writing aspirations to find an outlet, even if it's in the form of transcribing recordings.

Unexpectedly, Hazel's neighbor confesses to involvement in disposing of a body, sparking a series of events tied to a notorious drug dealer known as Candy Man. This confession intertwines Hazel's life with an ongoing investigation, and she becomes entangled with Detective Nikolai Kole, the lead investigator. Her curiosity and desire for a gripping story lead her to collaborate with Kole, embarking on a journey through the darker underbelly of Black Harbor.

As the investigation progresses, Hazel's pursuit of an absorbing story challenges the bounds of her relationships and personal safety. She navigates a treacherous path, grappling with ethical quandaries, endangering her marriage, and possibly beckoning danger closer. Through her pursuit of the truth, Hazel unwittingly finds herself engulfed in the shadows of the city she yearns to break free from.

Reflecting on my experience with Hello, Transcriber, the first word that comes to mind is "atmosphere." Hannah Morrissey skillfully creates a frigid, dark, and vast sense of place that envelops the reader from the very beginning. Her adept descriptions and attention to detail conjure a deeply immersive setting. Within this environment, the characters thrive. Hazel, in particular, emerges as a complex and conflicted individual. Her struggle between societal obligations as a wife, sister, and employee and her compelling fascination with delving into a perilous investigation add depth to her character. I found myself simultaneously rooting for her to make the right choices and daring her to explore the dark case further.

Morrissey's writing style held me captive throughout, even during moments when I wanted to shield myself from the more distressing aspects of the story. While there were a few instances of conveniently placed plot points and extraneous character revelations, they did little to detract from the overall atmosphere of suspense that Morrissey skillfully imbues on every page. Hello, Transcriber is a thoughtfully crafted debut that introduces a captivating new series. It demonstrates Morrissey's storytelling prowess and sets the stage for an intriguing journey ahead.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 56)

Friday Flicks: The Wonder


After nearly a year, my "Friday Flicks" feature returns to review a movie on the blog. While my trips to the movie theater have become less frequent, I still watch a fair share of films, particularly adaptations of popular novels. While browsing through Netflix, I recently stumbled upon "The Wonder," a 2022 film based on Emma Donoghue's novel of the same title. Having been captivated by the book in 2018, I was intrigued to see how it translated to the screen, especially given that the author was involved as one of the screenwriters. With my curiosity piqued, I decided to dive into the adaptation.

The film commences unconventionally, breaking the fourth wall by introducing us to a modern-day soundstage. An off-camera narrator emphasizes the significance of stories, asserting that "we are nothing without stories." This initial setup aims to establish the narrative we are about to witness. Transitioning from the soundstage to an 1862 setting in post-Great Famine Ireland, the film's camera guides us seamlessly into the historical context, setting the stage for the unfolding story.

In the film, Florence Pugh takes on the role of Lib Wright, an English nurse sent to a remote Irish village. Her mission is to closely monitor Anna O'Donnell, portrayed by Kíla Lord Cassidy, a young girl whom her family claims has not eaten for an astonishing four months, subsisting solely on what they believe to be "manna from heaven." Lib is joined in her task by Sister Michael, a nun, and together, they are entrusted to provide independent reports to a council of local dignitaries. Guided by a firm belief in science and rationality, Lib is determined to uncover the O'Donnells as frauds.

The film's central mystery revolves around Anna, a child who seems steadfast in her convictions. Lib grapples with how Anna, who appears resolute in her claims, could orchestrate such a complex deception. As Lib delves deeper into the enigma surrounding Anna and her family, this inquiry becomes the heart of this story. 

Director Sebastián Lelio's interpretation of "The Wonder" is a visual masterpiece. Each frame is meticulously crafted with the precision of an artist, beautifully capturing the cool Irish atmosphere. Collaborating with the novel's author on the screenplay ensures a faithful representation of the book's text, bringing the words vividly to life on the screen.

The narrative is elevated by the nuanced performances of the entire cast, with Florence Pugh standing out through her subtle portrayal of a woman torn between reason and faith. This collective effort results in a viewing experience that is quietly cerebral. Even as the film builds towards a dramatic climax, everything remains understated, allowing the characters and their story the space to breathe. It may be a slow burn, but it enriches the narrative with captivating subtext. In an era where many films aim to attract audiences through grand spectacles, "The Wonder" captivates with its quiet confidence in portraying the inner turmoil of its characters. This sets it apart as a distinct cinematic experience that is truly fascinating to witness.

Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue


"Who can live on love alone?"

Who are the authors you automatically gravitate towards? I have several favorite writers, ones I consistently delve into primarily due to my familiarity with their writing style. There's a sense of comfort that accompanies this familiarity, making them a reliable choice for my reading. And then there's Emma Donoghue. Ever since I devoured her 2010 novel Room in a single sitting, I've been a devoted reader of her work. However, I can't claim that any of her subsequent books have resembled that groundbreaking novel. In fact, I return to Donoghue's writing precisely because I can never anticipate what to expect. None of her novels share similarities. Despite the certainty that her next book will be entirely distinct from the last, I am confident that her talent for creating vivid settings, engaging plots, and well-developed characters will consistently captivate me. Her latest work, Learned by Heart, adheres to this tradition.

This time, Donoghue embarks on a literary journey to craft a fictionalized narrative centered around the historical figure Anne Lister. Lister is celebrated for her groundbreaking marriage in 1824, which positioned her as one of the earliest openly lesbian women to enter into matrimony.  Beyond her sexual orientation, Lister is celebrated as a prominent diarist, and it's these well-documented writings that Donoghue extensively researched to construct the foundation of her novel. Before her widely known marriage, Lister spent her formative years as a student at a boarding school for young girls in York. It is within this educational institution that Donoghue's novel takes its starting point.

Eliza Raine, born to a prominent Englishman and his Indian lover, finds herself on the periphery at Miss Hargrave's Manor school. Her mixed heritage and orphaned heiress status set her apart from the other girls, making her an outsider in a place where being different is not encouraged. The school's primary mission is to mold its students into proper women of the era, often stifling any hint of creativity or individuality they possess. Eliza appears to have resigned herself to this fate, believing she must conform.

Destiny, however, has other plans in store. Enter Miss Lister, a force of nature who disrupts the established order. Unlike the other girls, she refuses to conform and insists on being called by her last name, akin to how a man would be addressed. She willingly shares the cramped attic room with Eliza, avoiding the company of the other girls. Lister stands as a stark contrast to Eliza, taking pride in her intelligence and her rebellious nature, fearlessly challenging the status quo. Over time, Eliza will be gently drawn out of her shell, forging an unbreakable bond with Lister in the process.

Learned by Heart may be Emma Donoghue's most deeply personal novel to date. In her author's note, she reveals that nearly three decades of research have gone into this work, acknowledging how her fascination with Anne Lister played a pivotal role in launching her professional career. This deep reverence for her characters resonates vividly within her prose. Typical of Donoghue's writing, she skillfully transports readers back in time and space, this time ensconcing them within the cozy confines of an attic bedroom. It's in these scenes of self-discovery within confinement that the narrative truly comes alive. The exploration of forbidden thoughts, transgressing both school rules and societal norms, injects a palpable tension into the storyline. This tension, juxtaposed with the more familiar elements of coming-of-age storytelling, weaves a captivating narrative.

I'll briefly note that outside of these gripping moments, there are instances where the plot seems to lose its momentum. Donoghue's meticulous research is evident, but the monotony of school lessons and games doesn't significantly propel the story forward. Readers may find themselves eagerly awaiting a return to the central love story. Nevertheless, Learned by Heart captivates with its poignant blend of historical fact and exquisitely crafted fiction. It is a brilliant testament to why Emma Donoghue remains one of my all-time favorite authors. I extend my heartfelt thanks to her publisher for providing me with a copy of this remarkable book.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 55)

Trail of the Lost by Andrea Lankford


"On the Trail of the Lost, you may not find what you’re searching for, but you will find more than you seek."

The legendary Pacific Crest Trail stretches across the western US for 2,650 miles, from California's southern tip to Washington's northern edge. This trail, revered by hiking enthusiasts, intentionally avoids civilization, permitting only minor stops in remote areas. Thru-hiking its entirety is daunting, often requiring a lifetime of preparation. With a mere 14% completion rate, the trail poses an elusive and hazardous challenge. Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir Wild catapulted the trail's popularity, yet the trail's true essence harbors a darker reality than that uplifting narrative suggests. In her latest book, Trail of the Lost, Andrea Lankford delves into the enigmatic nature of this renowned path.

Andrea Lankford's expertise in navigating treacherous terrains began during her tenure as a National Parks Ranger. That job saw her leading search and rescue operations in some of America's most stunning yet hazardous locations. After twelve years, frustrations with bureaucratic complexities prompted her departure from the force. Transitioning careers, she dedicated the ensuing two decades to healthcare, working as a nurse. Believing her days of daring rescue missions were over, Lankford's trajectory shifted unexpectedly upon learning of the disappearances of three men along the Pacific Crest Trail. Fueled to provide closure to grieving families, Lankford joined forces with a group of determined freelance investigators, embarking on a seemingly insurmountable search.

"An unsolved case is a loose end that begs us to snip it."

Trail of the Lost sees Andrea Lankford chronicle her unwavering determination to uncover the fate of three men who ventured onto the Pacific Crest Trail. Intrigued by the mystery of their disappearance, I became as resolute as Lankford in seeking answers. Along the journey, we encounter a diverse group of amateur investigators, each more unlikely than the last. United by their shared purpose of bringing hope to grieving families, these characters drive Lankford's narrative. She candidly confronts the challenges of the Pacific Crest Trail, revealing both anticipated dangers and unexpected twists. While answers prove scarce, this mirrors the real frustrations those involved in such investigations face. The immense investment of resources, time, and emotional energy often yields little, yet the glimmer of a single revelation propels their relentless pursuit. Ultimately, this very essence motivated me to keep flipping through the pages of this enlightening book.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 54) 

Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead


Colson Whitehead stands out as a rare and exceptional talent that most authors can only aspire to be. He holds the remarkable distinction of being the sole living writer to have achieved the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in Fiction twice. His acclaimed novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, offer profound and vivid portrayals of America's history of racism.

In a departure from those celebrated works, Whitehead's last novel, Harlem Shuffle, took a different narrative path. Set in the 1960s, it followed the story of Ray Carney, a furniture salesman in the vibrant heart of Harlem. While the exploration of themes related to race and class persisted, the overall tone of the book shifted toward a more playful and ironic sensibility. Despite a few instances of uneven pacing, I was still captivated by the depiction of a man teetering on the edge between ethical righteousness and a life of crime.

As an ardent fan of Whitehead's skillful writing, I was already committed to exploring whatever literary journey he would embark on after Harlem Shuffle. To my pleasant surprise, his latest offering, Crook Manifesto, was released as the second chapter in an anticipated trilogy centered around Ray Carney. True to the essence of the first book, Whitehead once more whisks his readers away to the vibrant streets of Harlem, this time capturing the city during the dynamic political and societal shifts that unfolded in the 1970s.

This second installment is structured into three distinct vignettes, each unfolding within a specific year. The initial narrative segment commences in 1971. Ray Carney has now assumed ownership of the building housing his furniture store. With the passage of time, Carney has matured and gained wisdom, choosing to abandon his shady past and pursue an honest business approach. While he sometimes yearns for the days of illicit gains and effortless wealth, the integrity and honor accompanying his newfound approach bring a sense of security and personal satisfaction that he finds difficult to ignore.

This newfound stability is disrupted when his teenage daughter, Mae, presents an impossible request—tickets to the Jackson 5 concert. This poses a challenge, as Carney lacks a lawful means to fulfill her wish. Determined to navigate this dilemma, Carney contacts his former police connection, Munson, a skillful fixer. Munson, however, has his own demands to make of Carney. Staying on the path of legitimacy becomes increasingly difficult, and the stakes rise to a potentially fatal level.

The subsequent two sections further capture Harlem's ongoing transformation. In 1973, Carney's previous partner in crime, Pepper, grapples with assembling a dependable crew for planned criminal activities. This situation compels Pepper to secure an honest job as security for a Blaxploitation film being shot in the neighborhood. However, Pepper's expectations of glamour are met with an unexpected immersion in a surreal world of Hollywood celebrities, emerging comedians, and celebrity drug dealers.

The final part unfolds in 1975, coinciding with America's bicentennial celebration. As Carney contemplates a July 4th ad that aligns with his moral compass ("Two Hundred Years of Getting Away with It!"), his wife Elizabeth advocates for her childhood friend, former assistant D.A. turned aspiring politician Alexander Oakes. Following a fire that inflicts severe injuries on a tenant, Carney seeks Pepper's assistance in identifying the culprit, plunging the unscrupulous duo into a confrontation with the city's corrupt, violent, and ethically compromised underbelly.

Following the relatively self-contained narrative of Harlem Shuffle, Crook Manifesto faces the challenge of organically expanding the character's journey, a feat deftly achieved by Colson Whitehead. Where the initial book witnessed protagonist Ray Carney grappling with his descent into criminality, this installment depicts the character embracing the inevitability of this path as the changing world demands adaptation. Divided into shorter vignettes, the book offers a collection-of-stories feel, interwoven through the vivid Harlem backdrop, historical events, and the multifaceted main character. With an amplified humor element, Whitehead juxtaposes weighty societal shifts with moments of levity, such as a hilariously entertaining fried chicken heist. However, in line with similar middle installments of trilogies, a sense of closure is lacking, leaving the narrative feeling abrupt and incomplete. Perhaps this impression will evolve with the final book's context, but for now, Crook Manifesto is a darkly humorous exploration of a man's evolution in response to changing times—imperfect yet compelling.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

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