Diving Into Sub-Genres: True Crime

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

I will admit, the very idea of encompassing the entire classification of True Crime into the sub-genre box is a little bit of a cheat. One can certainly argue that true crime is a genre in and of itself, as it is a genre within the Non-Fiction Umbrella of books and storytelling. But the reason that I am going to classify it here as a sub genre is because I am the blogger who takes on the entirety of Non-Fiction on this blog, though that is admittedly few and far between. Because of this, I’m going to talk about true crime as a sub-genre on its own, but I am hoping that I will cover a swath of the kinds of stories you can find within that topic, genre or sub-genre or what have you.

True crime has kind of seen a bit of a resurgence as of late, with a sudden explosion of podcasts, docuseries, and yes, books on the topics of serial killers, missing people, and the random and strange acts that happen to fall into a gamut of wrongdoing. I’ve been a huge fan of true crime since I was a grade schooler, when I read my first true crime book (which was a kids oriented book about Jack the Ripper of all things!). While I enjoy picking up a book about true crime, I also find myself struggling with the moral dilemma of using other peoples pain for my own intrigue and, in crasser terms, entertainment. I do think that there is something that can be found in true crime that can be useful, however, even if that’s only to explore some of my own anxieties about these things in a safe and controlled way. So here is a list of some of my favorite true crime books, be they about cases or stories I’ve found interesting, or books that I have found genuinely useful when it comes to mitigating my own fears surrounding the subject.

Book: “The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy: The Shocking Inside Story” by Ann Rule

Honestly there are a whole lot of ‘classic’ true crime books that I truly love, from “Helter Skelter” by Vince Bugliosi to “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, but when picking one for this list I had to go with “The Stranger Beside Me” by Ann Rule. True, there has been a weird obsession with Ted Bundy in the past few years, and I definitely get and agree with the criticism regarding telling his story over and over again (especially when so much focus is on HIM and not the women he brutalized and murdered). But I decided to include “The Stranger Beside Me” because it was the book that propelled Ann Rule to the legendary true crime writer status that she had when she was alive. And it’s the added fact that Rule was friends with Bundy because they worked in the same suicide hotline call center, and that she, too, fell for the ‘well he couldn’t possibly because he’s so upstanding’ fallacy that made him so dangerous. Rule gives context to Bundy’s story, does have some focus on his victims, and also analyzes her own role in all of this, as she was investigating and writing about the murders that her friend Ted was committing while not connecting the dots. It’s a well done look into how a serial killer like Bundy could manipulate those around him, and a very personal story about the blinders that people have when it comes to those they care about, even when there is ample evidence that they are not good people.

Book: “Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland” by James St. James

This is once again a bit of a personalized account of what it’s like to be friends with a murderer, but it definitely has a bit more, shall we say, flamboyance if only because the author is legendary Club Kid James St. James. “Party Monster” (formerly known as “Disco Bloodbath”) is St. James’s true crime book/partial memoir about his friendship with Michael Alig, fellow Club Kid who murdered another Club Kid named Angel Melendez over a drug squabble. But “Party Monster” is also a first hand account of the 1990s club scene in New York City, and the wild, vibrant, idealistic, and sometimes destructive people who lived within it. St. James is a very funny writer who talks about the ups and downs of being a Club Kid (basically professional partiers known for their extravagance in costumes, themes, and attitudes in the club scenes), his battles with addiction, and his fremeny relationship with Alig, who ended up being a psychpathic murderer. St. James never fails to make me laugh, but he also tells a very intriguing story that has a lot of pathos because of what it was like being queer, poor, and somewhat adrift at a young age in a big city.

Book: “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” by Erik Larson

Erik Larson is probably more of a history writer, as his books have the framework of taking a historical event and examining different facets of it, or the unintended consequences of it. “The Devil in the White City” just happens to involve a serial killer named H.H. Holmes. In Chicago in 1893, the World’s Fair (also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition) drew many people to the city from all over the country. It just so happened that H.H. Holmes was taking advantage of this fact, as he set up a hotel for women to live, and then would murder them and profit off of their deaths. “The Devil in the White City” does a deep dive into the history of the Exposition, with the background, the planning, the execution, and the bumps along the way, as well as telling the story of a legitimate American monster. I love how he makes the historical connections between a huge event and the smaller event that was able to happen because of that huge event. And along with the true crime aspect, you get some interesting factoids about the Chicago World’s Fair and the city itself!

Book: “I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks” by Steve McVicker

On the non-violent side of things, we turn to one of the most bizarre true crime books I have ever read that involves fraud, prison breaks, and true love (sort of). “I Love You Phillip Morris” is a bananas stranger than fiction book to be sure. Steve Russell was a family man who had ties to his Church community, a wife and daughter, and promising career in business. He was also a closeted gay man, and after going to prison for a fraud charge he met and fell desperately in love with fellow inmate Phillip Morris. Russell would go on to escape from jail over and over again, usually with outlandish plans and ALWAYS on Friday the 13th, but he would always fall victim to his love for Morris, and his inability to just move on or stop committing fraud/pulling a con would mean he’d be caught again and again. It’s a truly nutty story that is entertaining as all get out, and with a lack of serial killing or other violent themes it’s a good pick for those who are interested in true crime as a whole, but are worried about triggering aspects of it. “I Love You Phillip Morris” is just kinda fun as well as bonkers.

Book: “Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up In a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs” by Elissa Wall and Lisa Pulitzer

“Stolent Innocence” by Elissa Wall was the second book that I had ever read on the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (or FLDS), but it was the first one that was from the perspective of a woman who had escaped the abusive cult that had held her prisoner ever since she was born into it. The FLDS is an extremist offshoot of Mormonism that still practices Polygamy, and more often than not marries of teenage girls (and someones younger) to older men, who then are trapped in an abusive marriage in which they are dehumanized and subjected to sexual assault as well as other abuses (sometimes even at the hands of their sister wives). Elissa Wall’s memoir is such a story, as she talks about growing up in the FLDS, as well as when convicted rapist Warren Jeffs took over and really upped the ante on violence and sexual abuse towards the members. This book is compelling, personal, and in many ways quite upsetting. But it is also a testament to the strength that Elissa had to get herself out of this situation and to find a new life for herself. The FLDS also has it’s fingers in other crime pies, like fraud, harassment, child abandonment, and trafficking, so it really has a full swath of true crime topics.

Book: “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence” by Gavin de Becker

I am ending this list with a book that is less about a specific true crime case, and more about ways to potentially lower chances of becoming victim to something bad (though I want to stress something here: in no way am I saying that victims of crimes are at fault in any way shape or form. This is just a book that I have been able to use in my actual life in some ways and found it helpful). “The Gift of Fear” is written by Gavin de Becker, who specializes in violent behavior, with lots of focus on stalking and abusive behaviors. de Becker talks about different scenarios and cases, from victims of violence to stalking to targeted harassment, and shares tips and techniques on how he advises people to use their instincts and wits to get out of or avoid dangerous situations. I myself had a fairly creepy and aggressive phone stalker for a year or so back when I was right out of college, and this book gave me some good advice on how to proceed, which ended up being effective. It’s definitely not perfect (I think that he misses the mark on his section on domestic violence, and yes, it can come off a little victim blamey at times), but there are definitely good nuggets of info about listening to your gut if a situation doesn’t feel right, and to not worry about how you may be perceived because of it.

What true crime books are must reads for you? Feel free to share in the comments!

Book Club Review: “Big Friendship”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close” by Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, July 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Genre/Format: Self-Help Memoir

Book Description: A close friendship is one of the most influential and important relationships a human life can contain. Anyone will tell you that! But for all the rosy sentiments surrounding friendship, most people don’t talk much about what it really takes to stay close for the long haul.

Now two friends, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, tell the story of their equally messy and life-affirming Big Friendship in this honest and hilarious book that chronicles their first decade in one another’s lives. As the hosts of the hit podcast Call Your Girlfriend, they’ve become known for frank and intimate conversations. In this book, they bring that energy to their own friendship—its joys and its pitfalls.

An inspiring and entertaining testament to the power of society’s most underappreciated relationship, Big Friendship will invite you to think about how your own bonds are formed, challenged, and preserved. It is a call to value your friendships in all of their complexity. Actively choose them. And, sometimes, fight for them.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m not a big nonfiction reader and when I do read in the genre, it’s usually more history-based. But I was intrigued by this book when it was selected for bookclub. You can throw a stone any direction and hit a book talking about the trials and tribulations of romantic and family relationships. What you don’t often find are books that discuss the work involved in maintaining friendships.

The backstory behind this book in particular was interesting. The two authors have co-run a successful blog for many years before deciding to write a book about friendship and the challenges they in particular have faced and overcome in their many years working together and being friends. And, I think, this is a bit where the concept fell off for me. The book was much more focused on the ins and outs of their unique stories and situations. While they confronted issues such as race and the balance of roles in friends who also work together, the story was also very narrowed down to their own experiences. As such, I felt it was only marginally useful as a general topic book about maintaining friendships.

I also wasn’t familiar with their blog. That being the case, I was perhaps even less interested in the details of their situation. To me, it read simply as two random people writing about their friendship, which started to feel a bit strange as I went on. Fans of the podcast are likely going to get much more out of this book, as they would already have an established interest and investment in these two individuals. But for me, I had been hoping for a bit more of a general examination of the unique aspects involved in friendships.

The writing also threw me off. They made the choice to write the book in third person, essentially referring to themselves in third person throughout. I could see glimpses of the humor and style that must be part of what has made their podcast such a success, but I struggled with the process of actually reading this book.

Kate’s Thoughts

Unlike Serena, I do like to dabble in non-fiction a fair amount, though more often than not it’s usually true crime with the occasional memoir, or a history book. I’m really not big into self help, or memoirs that delve into relationship dynamics. So “Big Friendship” was definitely going to be stretching my reading muscles a bit. My experience with the book was pretty similar to Serena; it didn’t really connect with me the way I had hoped it would.

Serena covers a lot of the same qualms that I had with the book (the writing style drove me a bit batty, to be honest). I thought that it was very much based on their own relationship and personality dynamics, and therefore am not sure that I was getting much out of it from a complete ‘this is how you nurture friendships’ angle. Which is too bad, because I really do think that our culture doesn’t value a platonic friendship relationship in the same ways it does familial or romantic ones. I went into this book with no idea as to who these two women are, or what their friendship is like, and therefore didn’t really have any investment into their thoughts on how they’ve maintained it. All of that said, I am pretty certain that were I familiar with their podcast and had I formed that kind of attachment to them as people, this book probably would have connected better.

And that isn’t to say that I got absolutely nothing from it. I really liked how they talked about how different friendships have ‘rituals’ that help maintain it, like perhaps a favorite bar to go to or a certain routine that applies to a get together or meet up. That section definitely had me thinking about the rituals that I have in my own friendships (Chinese food, video games, and LGBTQIA+ movies with my friend David immediately came to mind during this section), and it kind of made me appreciate the routines that we do have that make our friendships unique to us. I also appreciated the honest talk about the extra work and care it takes between friends of different cultural backgrounds and racial lines, and how exhausting it can be for POC when their white friends aren’t being as supportive or empathetic as they think they are being, and how these white friends need to do the work of listening and applying changes to how they act after letting their friend down.

Overall, while there were a couple of things I felt were insightful, “Big Friendship” wasn’t a hit for me. Fans of the podcast will probably find more to love here than I did.

Serena’s Rating 6: Unfortunately not for me, but it has inspired me to seek out other nonfiction books that discuss friendship.

Kate’s Rating 6: While it had a couple bits that I could apply to my own friendships, overall “Big Friendship” wasn’t my literary cup of tea.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think about the progression of these ladies relationships and lives in the book? Did you relate to either of them more than the other?
  2. The authors talk about the concept of ‘low drama mamas’ who don’t thrive on drama within their personal circles. Do you see yourself that way, or have you had times where you do find yourself drawn to drama?
  3. What do you think of their idea of ‘shine theory?’ Do you see yourself trying to apply it in your life and relationships?
  4. Do you think that social media draws us closer, or pulls us apart?
  5. Moving forward, do you think there are any components of this book that have to do with friendships that you think you will try and apply to your relationships?

Reader’s Advisory

“Big Friendship” is included on the Goodreads lists “Better Friendships: Essential Nonfiction on Friendships”, and “Feminism Published in Decades: 2020s”.

Find “Big Friendship” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler

Kate’s Review: “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York”

Book: “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” by Elon Green

Publishing Info: Celadon Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: The gripping true story, told here for the first time, of the Last Call Killer and the gay community of New York City that he preyed upon.

The Townhouse Bar, midtown, July 1992: The piano player seems to know every song ever written, the crowd belts out the lyrics to their favorites, and a man standing nearby is drinking a Scotch and water. The man strikes the piano player as forgettable. He looks bland and inconspicuous. Not at all what you think a serial killer looks like. But that’s what he is, and tonight, he has his sights set on a gray haired man. He will not be his first victim. Nor will he be his last.

The Last Call Killer preyed upon gay men in New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s and had all the hallmarks of the most notorious serial killers. Yet because of the sexuality of his victims, the skyhigh murder rates, and the AIDS epidemic, his murders have been almost entirely forgotten. This gripping true-crime narrative tells the story of the Last Call Killer and the decades-long chase to find him. And at the same time, it paints a portrait of his victims and a vibrant community navigating threat and resilience.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

As someone who has had a deep fascination with psychopaths and serial killers since she was a kid, it sometimes takes some digging for me to be completely caught off guard by a story that I’ve never heard of. But the sad truth is that in the cases I’ve never heard of it, a lot of the time is because of the fact that the victims fall into the ‘less dead’ category (aka marginalized groups, such as POC, drug addicts, sex workers, LGBTQIA, etc) and because of that, it’s not as publicized. This is basically what I ran into when I learned about “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” by Elon Green. My initial though was ‘why haven’t I heard of this?’, and then I realized that if a serial killer was preying on the gay community in 1990s New York City, it was going to get muffled for a myriad of reasons. So I decided I needed to read it.

“Last Call” is about Richard Rogers, aka the Last Call Killer, a man who murdered gay men after interacting with them at a piano bar in New York City in the early 1990s. This time period was tumultuous for the LBGTQIA community, as violence, HIV/AIDS, and prejudice were constant threats to a group whose safety wasn’t really a high priority for law enforcement officials. Green does a really good job of capturing an contextualizing the time period and the place, breathing life into a New York City that has been transformed from that time, though for both better and worse depending on what angles you decide to approach it by. The socio-political context is incredibly important to this story; there was still a lot of fear and stigma around gay men because of misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, as well as their sexuality, so for gay men to be targeted in this way wasn’t exactly focused on or considered a priority. While some detectives were dogged in their investigations, you get the overall sense that there wasn’t much urgency in spite of the fact dismembered bodies with similar M.O.s were being dumped like trash on the outskirts of the city. Green really sets all of this up well, and as he tracks the case as time goes on and explores how things began to change in the city, he shows how it all is connected. Throw in a lot of really helpful notes and research information at the end, and you have a well researched true crime story that’s brimming with historical context! Which I love.

But the other thing about this book that I really liked is that Green is very careful to shine a light on each of the victims that Rogers murdered. Given that true crime does have a problem with exploitation and salacious framing as it strives for ‘entertainment’, Green wants to be sure that each of the people who Rogers murdered has a voice and is depicted as more than a victim, especially given how forgotten this whole thing was. There are sections devoted to each victim’s background, from their childhood, to how they were faced with prejudice and turmoil because they were gay, to the friends that they made and the found families that the crafted while living in New York City. Along with this we see the resilience and determination of a community that is having to contend with so much strife and trauma. As if it wasn’t enough that prejudice and threats of general violence and an epidemic were threats that the LGBTQIA community was having to think about at the time, a serial killer that the police weren’t exactly gunning for was another horrible reality.

And Green is also very dogged in his investigation into Rogers as a person. Though Rogers didn’t cooperate with this book (and whatever, that’s fine, there’s no need to give the guy a platform), Green still does a deep dive into his life and psyche, building a compelling argument that there were undoubtedly more victims that we never heard about, even going further back into his history to reveal that there had been ANOTHER murder he had committed even before the Last Call murders (but the record was sealed due to various circumstances). It’s impressive and thorough journalism.

“Last Call” is bleak and sad, but it gives voice to horrible crimes that deserve to be remembered, for the sake of the victims. It’s a deep dive with a lot of notes, and while it’s a hard and tragic read, I think that true crime fans should make note to read it.

Rating 8: An impactful and haunting book about a forgotten killer and his forgotten victims, “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” shines a light on how some true crime stories are lost due to society’s prejudices.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” is included on the Goodreads list “Can’t Wait Nonfiction of 2021”, and would fit in on “Tales of New York City”.

Find “Last Call” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band”

Book: “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” by Christian Staebler, Sonia Paoloni, and Thibault Balahy (Ill.)

Publishing Info: IDW Publishing, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Experience the riveting, powerful story of the Native American civil rights movement and the resulting struggle for identity told through the high-flying career of west coast rock n’ roll pioneers Redbone.

You’ve heard the hit song “Come and Get Your Love” in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, but the story of the band behind it is one of cultural, political, and social importance.

Brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas were talented Native American rock musicians that took the 1960s Sunset Strip by storm. They influenced The Doors and jammed with Jimmy Hendrix before he was “Jimi,” and the idea of a band made up of all Native Americans soon followed. Determined to control their creative vision and maintain their cultural identity, they eventually signed a deal with Epic Records in 1969. But as the American Indian Movement gained momentum the band took a stand, choosing pride in their ancestry over continued commercial reward.

Created with the cooperation of the Vegas family, authors Christian Staebler and Sonia Paolini with artist Thibault Balahy take painstaking steps to ensure the historical accuracy of this important and often overlooked story of America’s past. Part biography and part research journalism, Redbone provides a voice to a people long neglected in American history.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this graphic novel!

As we all know, I am not really all that versed in Marvel movies, though I did see “Guardians of the Galaxy” once and enjoyed it overall. One of the things that made me realize I was in for a treat was when Star Lord started playing “Come And Get Your Love” on his Walkman as he went to salvage some stuff. I like that song, having first heard it via sample by Cyndi Lauper in her remix of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for “To Wong Foo”. So I liked the song, but had no knowledge of the band Redbone, who sings it. When “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” was brought to my attention, I jumped at the chance to read it. I was expecting a pretty straightforward rock and roll biographic novel, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that it had a bit more to say.

“Redbone” tells two stories, one being a personal recollection and the other being of a growing movement in the United States. The book follows brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas (thought Pat’s eyes), who eventually formed Redbone, the first commercially successful Native rock band. We follow their history on the Sunset Strip in the 1960s, hanging out with famous acts like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and see how they formed their own band that seemed to be on the way to stardom. The other story is of the American Indian Movement (or AIM), a social justice/activist group that focuses on Native rights and formed in Minneapolis in the 1960s. As Pat, Lolly, and the rest of the band began to live the rock and roll lifestyle, the rights of other Native people started being promoted and fought for, which intertwined with their rock careers as they wanted to bring their heritage and own activism into the band.

I liked hearing the backstories of the band itself, and also seeing a broad but informative look into the Residential School system in this country, and AIM and the activism and protests that it brought to the public consciousness. I was fairly familiar with most of the activism and protests that this book covers, and found the explanations to be easy to understand and powerful in both the personal and the communal effects it had. Given that history classes neglect so much non-white history in our schools, I thought that this book would be a great resource for educators to use when wanting to give an introduction to AIM and the social justice issues it tackles both then and now. I also appreciated that this story did address the racism that Redbone had to face in the music industry because of their heritage, and how it’s very clear that their pride in their heritage and want to assert their rights as Native people is what ended their careers when they had SO much talent. I’m pretty damn mad that I didn’t know anything about this band before now, when their most famous song is one that I’ve known and liked for a long time. That’s partially on me, of course. And I’m happy that this book is out there to educate readers on their story, and the broader story of AIM.

I did have a little hard time with the graphic style at first. The images aren’t in a clear linear box design, in that a lot of the time they all bleed together into larger images. Sometimes I had a hard time parsing out which dialogue bits happened where, but I eventually adjusted. And it wasn’t exactly hard to figure it out based on context. Overall I like the unique and nontraditional style.

“Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” is a great introduction to the greater fight for Native Rights in the U.S., and finally puts a spotlight on a band that had success taken from them. If you want to know more about an important part of Rock and Roll history, check this out!

Rating 8: A fascinating history of a long neglected band, as well as an overview of the beginnings and contributions of the American Indian Movement, “Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” is an informative and interesting graphic novel!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Native American Biography (Non-fiction)”, and “Best Books on Rock and Roll”.

Find “Redbone: The True story of a Native American Rock Band” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Book Club Review: “I Will Always Write Back”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent or of that continent’s descent.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives” by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Continent: Africa

Book Description: The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of–so she chose it.
Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one
.

That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends –and better people–through letters. Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Well when we started our “Around the World” Series for Book Club, we thought that it would outlast quarantine and that it would be a fun way to pass that time. The reality is that we’re in an even worse place than we were back when we started once this session ended. But even if we have more COVID times ahead of us where we have to meet virtually, I’m glad that we did our “Around the World” cycle, as we got to read books that I may not have read otherwise. Our last book was “I Will Always Write Back”, a dual memoir by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda, two pen pals whose friendship became so much more.

I went into this book with a very rudimentary knowledge of Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s regime, and with the unease that we may have been starting a ‘white savior’ narrative. But “I Will Always Write Back”, I think, did a good job of walking that line without crossing it, and I think that the main reason for that is because we got both Caitlin’s perspective, that of a teenage white American living in a comfortable economic situation, and Martin’s, who is a Black Zimbabwean who was living in abject poverty. Getting to hear Martin’s side of the story in his own words and getting his perspectives and experiences really helped keep it away from centering Caitlin’s journey in the narrative, which was good. Martin’s chapters were the ones that I most looked forward to, as while Caitlin was relatable (we are the same age, so I was doing and experiencing similar teenage America girl things that she was in this book), I wasn’t as interested in her story. I think that there could have been a little more introspection on her part at times, but then again, she was a teenager and young adult through the crux of it, so maybe throwing that in would have felt out of place. Luckily Martin’s sections gave the reader a lot to think about, and I feel like I got more from this story from him.

I was interested in seeing their friendship grow and change, however, and liked seeing the two of them interact with each other. You can feel the love and care they have for each other within this books pages, and seeing the two of them have each other’s backs was absolutely uplifting. Given that any pen pal situation that I had in grade school completely floundered, the fact that they kept this friendship going and changed each other’s lives so much is a lovely story in and of itself. This is the kind of book that I would recommend to teens who are wanting to start looking at cross cultural themes and issues, as I think it’s a good introduction to the idea of reaching out to others who may not have the exact same life as you, but could have very similar goals and dreams that you have.

Kate’s Rating 7: An undeniably uplifting memoir about friendship and cross cultural connection, “I Will Always Write Back” has heart and earnestness, though not as much introspection as I was hoping for.

Book Club Questions

  1. What were some of your reactions to the comparisons and contrasts when it came to the lives that Caitlin and Martin were living when they started their correspondence?
  2. Were you knowledgable about the history and the cultural and societal situation of Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s rule?
  3. Do you think that teenagers today would relate to the teenage voices of the people in this book who were teens twenty years ago?
  4. As the book goes on, we learn that Caitlin and her family help Martin out in many ways. How do you think this changed and affected their friendship?
  5. Recently there has been criticism of publishers elevating and publishing ‘white savior’ narratives in books and the publishing industry. Do you think that “I Will Always Write Back” could be considered a white savior narrative? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“I Will Always Write Back” is included on the Goodreads lists “Must Read Memoirs”, and “Southern Africa”.

Find “I Will Always Write Back” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Sailor Moon: Eternal Edition Vols. 1 &2

Kate’s Review: “Dragon Hoops”

44280830Book: “Dragon Hoops” by Gene Luen Yang

Publishing Info: First Second, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In his latest graphic novel, New York Times bestselling author Gene Luen Yang turns the spotlight on his life, his family, and the high school where he teaches.

Gene understands stories—comic book stories, in particular. Big action. Bigger thrills. And the hero always wins.

But Gene doesn’t get sports. As a kid, his friends called him “Stick” and every basketball game he played ended in pain. He lost interest in basketball long ago, but at the high school where he now teaches, it’s all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.

Once Gene gets to know these young all-stars, he realizes that their story is just as thrilling as anything he’s seen on a comic book page. He knows he has to follow this epic to its end. What he doesn’t know yet is that this season is not only going to change the Dragons’s lives, but his own life as well. 

Review: Though I’m not really a huge sports fan in general, if you asked me what my least favorite ‘mainstream’ sport to watch was, I’d undoubtedly say basketball. I can’t even tell you why that is, but I’ve never enjoyed it, even when I was playing on the basketball team in sixth grade. But given that Gene Luen Yang is one of my favorite comics writers, I knew that I was going to read his newest book “Dragon Hoops”, even if it was about basketball. Looking into it more, I realized that this wasn’t going to be a book that was just about basketball. And because of that, I was immediately hooked on this story that’s part memoir, part history, and part inspirational sports story.

We follow Yang as he’s following his school’s basketball team in it’s journey to hopefully win State, and he finds a lot of layers and depth and heart to put on display. While he could have had a structure that was purely factual, or perhaps a story that profiles just one player, or even a story that focuses on a coach’s deferred dreams that are possibly going to come true, he manages to take aspects of all these things and balance them into a combination. We get profiles of the various members of the team, from the players themselves and their varied backgrounds, to Coach Lou and his own personal connection as a former player, to Yang himself as he is thinking about his own dreams. I really enjoyed getting the context of the various team members, but I thought that Yang putting his own story in there was a nice touch, as it shows that even those who don’t have a specific sports connection can find commonality with these inspirational, and sometimes difficult, sports stories that we hear about ever so often. He uses devices and symbolism that repeats throughout the story, and it almost always landed. Yang has always been really good at showing the deeper meaning of what he’s trying to say without outright saying it, and it comes through in this non fiction story just as well as it does in his fictional stories. I also really enjoyed Yang’s way of toying with the fourth wall, as he would have have himself in comic form acknowledge things that were being done for story telling purposes, as well as toying with the other characters perceptions of things that were going on or had gone on. While the action of the basketball games still kind of lagged on the page for me, I do acknowledge that Yang really captured the action and the tension of the moments as the Dragons are trying to get to State.

But ironically enough, it was the introductions to each section which focused on different parts of the history of basketball that clicked with me the most. Yang would give us a pretty easy to follow but comprehensive moment of history of the game, and that moment would then provide context or connect with the focus on that chapter, which was usually another member of the team or support system. I’m a history buff to be sure, and the way that Yang grounded his story within the context of this history was really well done. Plus, it all connects to the fact that Coach Lou, after his dreams of basketball success ended prematurely, decided to focus his education on history because he knows that history can inform us in the present. LOVED that, and it’s exactly the kind of theme I would expect from Yang.

And, of course, I love Yang’s style of artwork. It’s definitely a bit cartoony, but that doesn’t make it any less resonant or emotional when it needs to be. There were multiple moments where the emotions being portrayed were so well done both in writing and in imagery that I was moved to tears. Yang’s style is unique and well known at this point, but it always works.

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“Dragon Hoops” is another triumph for Gene Luen Yang! And if you’re hesitant to read it because of the basketball thing, take it from me. It’s absolutely worth it.

Rating 8: A charming graphic novel about basketball dreams, and dreams of doing something great, “Dragon Hoops” is a personal and emotional story from one of my favorite comics writers.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Dragon Hoops” is included on the Goodreads lists “Project LIT”, and “Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Book List”.

Find “Dragon Hoops” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “We Keep The Dead Close”

200

Book: “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” by Becky Cooper

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, November 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: You have to remember, he reminded me, that Harvard is older than the U.S. government. You have to remember because Harvard doesn’t let you forget.

1969: the height of counterculture and the year universities would seek to curb the unruly spectacle of student protest; the winter that Harvard University would begin the tumultuous process of merging with Radcliffe, its all-female sister school; and the year that Jane Britton, an ambitious 23-year-old graduate student in Harvard’s Anthropology Department and daughter of Radcliffe Vice President J. Boyd Britton, would be found bludgeoned to death in her Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment.

Forty years later, Becky Cooper, a curious undergrad, will hear the first whispers of the story. In the first telling the body was nameless. The story was this: a Harvard student had had an affair with her professor, and the professor had murdered her in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology because she’d threatened to talk about the affair. Though the rumor proves false, the story that unfolds, one that Cooper will follow for ten years, is even more complex: a tale of gender inequality in academia, a “cowboy culture” among empowered male elites, the silencing effect of institutions, and our compulsion to rewrite the stories of female victims.

We Keep the Dead Close is a memoir of mirrors, misogyny, and murder. It is at once a rumination on the violence and oppression that rules our revered institutions, a ghost story reflecting one young woman’s past onto another’s present, and a love story for a girl who was lost to history.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

During my college years at the U of MN I didn’t live on campus, so I wasn’t as in tune with the campus myths and rumors of the dorms and the community. I know that there were rumors that one of the dorms was haunted, and that the bridge that connects the campus across the Mississippi River was supposedly haunted as well (clearly I was into the ghost rumors). But nothing struck me as a college campus or community urban legend based in truth. “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” by Becky Cooper examines a Harvard story that sounds like generalized campus lore, but is in fact a true, and until recently, unsolved murder.

“We Keep the Dead Close” is very much a true crime story, involving the murder of Jane Britton, a Harvard student who was found murdered in her apartment in the late 1960s. Over the years this unsolved tale spun into its own campus mythology, with details tweaked and added and the main facts blurred to serve as a cautionary tale for women students. I had never heard of this murder, and I felt that Cooper was very respectful in how she both examined her personal investigation, as well as the investigation and fallout during the time, and the life that Jane led up until her death. Cooper made it so Jane was centered, all sides of her, the student, the woman, the friend, the lover, the difficult but funny person. Cooper ties all of these threads together in a way that made for a compelling narrative that keeps you reading, wanting to know who could have possibly done this as more suspects, scenarios, and possibilities are given. There are former lovers, jealous colleagues, and the main antagonist in the campus lore, the flamboyant professor she supposedly had an affair with. Cooper does her due diligence to explore all angles, and to try and find answers. Cooper also never centers herself, as some of these true crime/memoir books can stumble in. While it also concerns her curiosity and her own insecurities and fears as a woman student in a revered, but still male dominated, institution, this never feels like a ‘this could have been ME’ screed.

But what most fascinated me about “We Keep the Dead Close” was how Cooper so effortlessly examined the toxic undertones of academia, with oppressive forces and misogyny run amok in the 1960s when Britton attended. Not to mention how some of these themes are still quite present in academia today, being exposed by women who have had to live with it. You really get to see how Harvard was such a boys club at the time, and it truly paints a picture of how a professor, whose rumored involvement in the death of a female student, could still not only retain his position at the school, but become a big wig therein. While it’s true that not all is as it seems when it comes to the lore of the case and the actual facts of it, the fact that a potential murderer retains his job in this story and you think ‘oh, yeah, maybe’ instead of ‘preposterous!’ says a lot about the culture there at the time, and into today.

On top of that, Cooper has very insightful gleams into how lore can change and evolve as time goes on, and how Britton’s story has turned into a cautionary tale for students, particularly the women. While it’s true it definitely has a victim blamey feel at its core (don’t sleep with your professor or he will kill you and you just may deserve it! Keep your legs closed, ladies), it feels like the old fairy tales and monster stories that have been used over time to try and keep kids safe. It’s deeply fascinating to me as a true crime enthusiast and someone who loves a good horror story cum morality tale to see that kind of thing happening in the 20th century and into the 21st.

“We Keep the Dead Close” is a must read for true crime fans and those who are interested in the origins of modern myths and lore. I greatly enjoyed it, and it exceeded my expectations.

Rating 9: A well researched, poignant, and disturbing true crime novel about myth, misogyny, and the dark sides of Academia, “We Keep the Dead Close” is a must for true crime fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Keep the Dead Close” is included on the Goodreads lists “Non-Fiction Family Secrets”, and I think it would fit in on “Campus Days”.

Find “We Keep the Dead Close” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Race Against Time”

52754197._sx318_sy475_Book: “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era” by Jerry Mitchell

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: On June 21, 1964, more than twenty Klansmen murdered three civil rights workers. The killings would become known as the “Mississippi Burning” case and even though the killers’ identities, including the sheriff’s deputy, were an open secret, no one was charged with murder in the months and years that followed.

It took forty-one years before the mastermind was brought to trial and finally convicted for the three innocent lives he took. If there is one man who helped pave the way for justice, it is investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell.

In Race Against Time, Mitchell takes readers on the twisting, pulse-racing road that led to the reopening of four of the most infamous killings from the days of the civil rights movement, decades after the fact. His work played a central role in bringing killers to justice for the assassination of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and the Mississippi Burning case. His efforts have put four leading Klansmen behind bars, years after they thought they had gotten away with murder.

Review: Something that the United States hasn’t quite come to terms with is that our country is still a very deeply racist place. Our country was built on the backs of slaves, and the reverberations of that system are still being felt today, even though we don’t want to admit it. In the 1960s during the first Civil Rights Movement in this country, a number of people who were fighting for justice and rights for Black people were murdered for their values and actions, and for many years many of these cases went unsolved. Jerry Mitchell, a investigative journalist, was struck by the cold case of the Mississippi Burning Murders, in which three civil rights workers were murdered by upwards of twenty Klansmen, and were never given justice. That was the start of his career in investigating cold cases around murders during The Civil Rights Era. “Race Against Time” is his memoir about his work around said cases. And frankly, it’s necessary reading for any true crime fans, or anyone interested in justice for those who died for Civil Rights.

As one can imagine, “Race Against Time” is intense, dark, and harrowing. Mitchell pursues leads in a few notorious, recently solved cases of murders of people that Klan members killed to intimidate and silence those who were fighting for racial justice. Mitchell made deep connections to the family members left behind, and as he devotes each section of the book to these cases, you see how he earned the trust of those people, as well as doggedly pursued the probably perpetrators. His writing style is what you’d expect for a seasoned and well respected reporter, and his narrative flows in a very consumable way. Along with that, he really knows how to convey the pain and hope of the family members, and the fear and tension he was feeling when he did meet with suspects and Klansmen, having to keep his cool as they not only say horrifically racist things, but also brag about violence. I really appreciated seeing all of the work that he did, as well as his takes on how the court cases went once they did eventually get to court, decades after the fact. The cases he covers I mostly knew, but seeing this perspective he lays out as opposed to the ones in American History books I had encountered in my past was fresh and insightful. He doesn’t mince words about the evil of white supremacy and how it drives The Klan, and it made for a difficult, but important read.

What struck me the most as I was reading this book is that while this is arguably Jerry Mitchell’s memoir on his work in investigative journalism regarding the murders of Civil Rights figures, it is decidedly centered on the victims and their families as opposed to him. Sure, he talks about the various things he had to do, like putting himself in harms way by interviewing Klansmen and then exposing them. Or talking about the fears that his family had during some of this time. But it always reads as him putting the victims and those they left behind first, and delving into their backgrounds, their stories, and their truths. While I definitely worried about Mitchell on some of his assignments, I was mostly hoping for the best outcomes possible for people like Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, and the Four Little Girls of the 16th Street Church bombing. Mitchell devotes time and pages to all of their stories, and really peels back the way that bigotry and racism hindered justice for so long, as well as exposing the violent racists who almost got away with murder. But it never feels like he’s patting himself on the back or tooting his own horn, and is also quick to point out that there are SO MANY cases that have gone without justice over the years. Mitchell is here to remind us that justice is far from done, and that as a country we still have a long way to go when it comes to righting the wrongs of our racist past and present.

“Race Against Time” is necessary reading when it comes to The Civil Rights Movement, and also a great case study in the importance of investigation journalism. There is still work to do, folks, and people like Mitchell can show us effective ways to do it.

Rating 8: A fascinating and harrowing memoir that centers the victims instead of the author, “Race Against Time” is a must read for those who seek justice against white supremacy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Race Against Time” is included on the Goodreads lists “True Crime on Tap”, and “White Power, Terrorism, White Supremacy, and White Nationalist Movements in the United States (nonfiction)”.

Find “Race Against Time” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Hell in the Heartland”

52218496Book: “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley

Book Description: The stranger-than-fiction cold case from rural Oklahoma that has stumped authorities for two decades, concerning the disappearance of two teenage girls and the much larger mystery of murder, police cover-up, and an unimaginable truth…

On December 30, 1999, in rural Oklahoma, sixteen-year-old Ashley Freeman and her best friend, Lauria Bible, were having a sleepover. The next morning, the Freeman family trailer was in flames and both girls were missing.

While rumors of drug debts, revenge, and police collusion abounded in the years that followed, the case remained unsolved and the girls were never found.

In 2015, crime writer Jax Miller–who had been haunted by the case–decided to travel to Oklahoma to find out what really happened on that winter night in 1999, and why the story was still simmering more than fifteen years later. What she found was more than she could have ever bargained for: jaw-dropping levels of police negligence and corruption, entire communities ravaged by methamphetamine addiction, and a series of interconnected murders with an ominously familiar pattern.

These forgotten towns were wild, lawless, and home to some very dark secrets.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

For someone who enjoys a good true crime podcast and likes to spend time on the Reddit sub “Unresolved Mysteries”, I am always taken in by the story of a cold case, murder, or strange mystery that I have never heard of before. So when I was browsing NetGalley’s list of upcoming true crime books, “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Cse of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller caught my attention. The case has all the components of an “Unsolved Mysteries” episode. You have two missing teenagers in rural Oklahoma, Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible. Lauria was sleeping over at Ashley’s trailer home, but early the next morning it was found burning. First responders and police found the body of Ashley’s mother, and later her father’s body was also found. But there was no sign of Ashley or Lauria, and they haven’t been seen ever since. I thought that it would be a tantalizing and strange story, and it certainly is. But Miller takes it even further, and decides to paint a broader picture than just a tale about two missing teens. We also get a study of police negligence, small town criminality, and the way that a community like this has fallen on hard times, and how that has broad repercussions.

“Hell in the Heartland” is for the most part a true crime mystery, and the case is a head scratcher to be sure. There are two prevailing theories about what may have happened to Ashley and Lauria, and it seems to be split along family lines as to whom those theories appeal to. Miller gives due diligence to both theories, and while I think that probability falls far more on the side of one, I liked that in this book we got pretty strong arguments for both. The first, subscribed to by Ashley’s surviving family members, is that the local enforcement officials were trying to cover up some wrong doing. After all, Ashley’s brother Shane had been shot and killed by an officer not too long before Ashley disappeared and her parents were murdered. The officer claimed that he had drawn a gun, but the Freemans never believed it. The circumstances were suspicious, and the way that the police bungled a few things about the investigation into the Freeman murders and missing girls was absolutely reckless at best, and damning at worst. I have no problem believing that a department feeling sore about unwanted attention because of a grieving family wanting justice would mishandle a case regarding said family, so it’s not really a stretch to think that maybe the police could be capable of something so terrible. The other theory is that local meth kingpins were the ones that committed this crime, as their proximity and potential involvement with the Freeman family would give motive, means, and opportunity. As the book goes on this seems to be a more likely scenario, especially given recent arrests and evidence that ties them to the girls. But all that said, Miller still wants to present all of the evidence and to give a very clear picture of both possibilities, as at the end of the day we still don’t know where Ashley and Lauria are, even if we think we know what happened to them. While there may be an official ‘end’ in terms of how our legal system is seeing it, Miller makes it very clear to the reader that there is no closure and there is no real justice, because Ashley and Lauria never came home in one way or another. And for Lauria’s parents especially, that isn’t justice.

But beyond the case itself, “Hell in the Heartland” paints a very grim and sad picture about the rural community that Ashley and Lauria were living in when they disappeared. From Ashley’s brother Shane dying at the hands of a police officer with no repercussions, to Ashely’s grandparents very clear mental health issues that aren’t being addressed, to poverty in general and how the meth trade takes root within it, we see that Ashley and Lauria’s kidnapping, and the murder of the Freemans, wasn’t within a vacuum. Hell, the fact that one of the big drug lords was a known violent lunatic, with assault, domestic violence, and other horrible things being is M.O., and no one could do anything but stay out of his way, says volumes. Violence and secrets are more common than we may think in small towns like this, and to me that was one of the harder things to swallow about this story.

“Hell in the Heartland” is a story that you may not know about even if you’re a true crime aficionado, but after reading this book you’ll want to know more. Jax Miller has really shined a light on a case that hasn’t really left Oklahoma, and hopefully it will have a wide enough reach that one day Ashley and Lauria will be brought home.

Rating 7: A sad and strange cold case that has no official end, “Hell in the Heartland” takes a look at the story of two missing girls, and some very sad facts and dangers about the community they lived in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hell in the Heartland” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Poverty in the USA”, and “Corruption in High Places”.

Find “Hell in the Heartland” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Cold Vanish”

48717769Book: “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: For readers of Jon Krakauer and Douglas Preston, the critically acclaimed author and journalist Jon Billman’s fascinating, in-depth look at people who vanish in the wilderness without a trace and those eccentric, determined characters who try to find them.

These are the stories that defy conventional logic. The proverbial vanished without a trace incidences, which happen a lot more (and a lot closer to your backyard) than almost anyone thinks. These are the missing whose situations are the hardest on loved ones left behind. The cases that are an embarrassment for park superintendents, rangers and law enforcement charged with Search & Rescue. The ones that baffle the volunteers who comb the mountains, woods and badlands. The stories that should give you pause every time you venture outdoors.

Through Jacob Gray’s disappearance in Olympic National Park, and his father Randy Gray who left his life to search for him, we will learn about what happens when someone goes missing. Braided around the core will be the stories of the characters who fill the vacuum created by a vanished human being. We’ll meet eccentric bloodhound-handler Duff and R.C., his flagship purebred, who began trailing with the family dog after his brother vanished in the San Gabriel Mountains. And there’s Michael Neiger North America’s foremost backcountry Search & Rescue expert and self-described “bushman” obsessed with missing persons. And top researcher of persons missing on public wildlands Ex-San Jose, California detective David Paulides who is also one of the world’s foremost Bigfoot researchers.

It’s a tricky thing to write about missing persons because the story is the absence of someone. A void. The person at the heart of the story is thinner than a smoke ring, invisible as someone else’s memory. The bones you dig up are most often metaphorical. While much of the book will embrace memory and faulty memory — history — The Cold Vanish is at its core a story of now and tomorrow. Someone will vanish in the wild tomorrow. These are the people who will go looking.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I love National Parks. I’m not really an outdoorsy person in the sense that I don’t like camping, but I do love hiking, I do love nature, and I do love epic landscapes. And National Parks give me all of that and more! While it’s hard to pick a favorite, I will say that my most recent National Park trip, Rocky Mountain National Park last summer, was beautiful and breathtaking. But one of the weird/surreal moments during our trip was standing at the top of a trail head and seeing a Missing Person poster for a man who had disappeared in the park earlier in the spring. It was a grim reminder that while the National Parks are treasures and wonderful opportunities for education and exploration, they are not without their dangers. Enter “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman, a book I had been looking forward to ever since I read his Outside Magazine article that inspired it. Missing people in public lands is scary, guys. And Billman does a great job of demonstrating why while personalizing some of the missing, and how in some cases they vanished with nary a trace.

Billman’s main focus is on the disappearance of Jacob Gray, who disappeared after going for a bike ride in Olympic National Park. Jacob had been showing signs of mental illness and depression, but his family members don’t believe that he was suicidal. His bike and stuff was found but he never was. Billman follows the family members, especially father Randy, as they continue the search in the park well beyond the initial date missing. It feels a little voyeuristic, but at the same time I did like that we got to see the fallout for the family members after the searches, or lack thereof (more on that in a moment) stopped and it was left up to family and friends to go on. The search takes Randy and in turn Billman far and away from the park, and they have to parse through conspiracy theories, rumors of serial killers, and even Bigfoot sightings in hopes of finding a lead. It’s emotional and very sad, but also quite compelling to see how these searches can go. There are other stories dropped in as well, such as a woman who went missing while on a run (who may have been killed by her husband… or maybe it was a serial killer who had means and opportunity), another hiker who went missing in Olympic National Park around the same time that Jacob did, and a hiker who disappeared while on a trail in Mesa Verde. It’s strange and distressing, but Billman is sympathetic and respectful in his accounts. On top of that we also get a look into cadaver dogs and how they’re trained, various histories of some of the settings, and some deep dives into Bigfoot theory. So many Bigfoot theories.

For me the most interesting aspect of this book was not so much about the missing person cases themselves (though some are admittedly fascinating as hell), but how the bureaucracy when it comes to doing official searches gets so gunked up when people disappear on public lands like this. Billman talked about this in his article, but it’s no less frustrating when he talks about the issues specifically in Jacob’s case. For example, there was question as to whether he disappeared in the park itself, or if he crossed the river and the disappeared in the Olympic National Forest. Both places wanted to shirk the duty onto the other, and then there was a large delay in getting any official search parties on the ground when time is of the essence. The unclear jurisdiction issues are one of many issues. Another one that confounded me was that there was no database of missing people in various public lands and parks. One would think that you’d want to have records of this, but it seems the government is barely keeping on top of the number of people missing, much less who they are and other pertinent info. It just kind of reiterates how messed up our government can be in some ways, and it doesn’t make me want to do any heavy duty hiking or camping in remote areas any time soon if it’s to be done on public land. I’ll stick to the paved trails, thanks.

Overall, “The Cold Vanish” is fascinating and eerie, and digs a little deeper than a typical ‘missing persons’ themed book.

Rating 8: A look at missing people and the mysteries of so called ‘conquered’ wilderness, “The Cold Vanish” is strange, bittersweet, and compelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cold Vanish” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists as of yet. But if you liked “Into the Wild” or other books about disappearing into the wilderness, this would be for you.

Find “The Cold Vanish” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!