I will be the first to admit that I am not much of a reader. It is not that I do not like to read — my ideal day is being curled up with a good book. The problem is I never have time to sit down and truly give a book my full attention. So, it should be a clear indication of its quality that “The Bright Lands” was not only a book that kept my attention throughout, but one that I finished in just a few days: I simply could not put it down.
Joel Whitley is a gay man seemingly living his best life in New York City with a successful career and social life. However, there has always been a lingering sense of pain in the back of his mind, and that pain is the trauma he endured in his small hometown of Bentley, Texas. Joel told himself he would never go back, but upon receiving some cryptic texts from his younger brother Dylan, he is on the first plane there. Things seem unchanged at first — until Dylan goes missing a day later. All Joel knows is that Dylan’s disappearance is far more rooted in the town’s many secrets than he initially realized, and all of them center around a strange place known as The Bright Lands.
What truly kept me invested throughout this 470-page mystery is the excellent writing by author John Fram. For his debut novel, Fram perfectly establishes the feeling and setting of a rural community. While the Texas setting plays a part in the overall story, Fram describes the town in a way that many growing up in similar areas can relate to. The word choice used to describe each character and location perfectly paints a picture of the scene, one that I could so vividly see in my head throughout.
When it comes to mysteries, I am usually quite picky, mainly due to few mystery stories genuinely surprising me. However, “The Bright Lands” creates a truly compelling and layered mystery that left me guessing at every turn. Similar to the characters within the story, every time I thought I had the answer I was looking for, another bombshell dropped and changed everything I thought I knew before. The format also allows for the reveals to flow in such a unique way. Instead of having chapters, the story is split up into the different perspectives of the characters, with the passing of another day essentially serving as the end of the “chapter.” Since each character was learning pieces of information before others did, it made me crave reading what comes next waiting to learn something new along with the characters.
I will warn many readers now that this novel tackles some very heavy topics and, toward the latter half of the novel, spares few details on some of these acts. However, the themes of which Fram chooses to explore are very much in service of the overall message of the story as a whole.
The idolization of high school athletes was repeated throughout the story as these being “the best years of our lives.” As a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, the depiction of homophobia is horrifying for simply how real it is. The book truly captures the fear of having to hide who you are because if the news were to break, there is a chance everyone around you would suddenly turn against you.
If I had to file one complaint this overall solid read, it would have to be the inclusion of a supernatural element. Without giving too much away, the story hints throughout that there is a darker and more powerful presence looming beneath the town. With many characters suffering from similar nightmares and visions of mysterious beings, I was hoping that perhaps Fram would pull through and reveal there was nothing supernatural at all. Unfortunately, the story toward the end leads full on into the supernatural element. I cannot say that it was bad, as it did create some truly creepy imagery in my head — a rarity for written media in general — but the story worked perfectly well without this supernatural element, and if removed from the story I feel little would be affected.
Despite this unnecessary addition, “The Bright Lands” still makes for an insanely engaging and entertaining read. Fram truly delves into the many fears and feelings that one growing up in a town like Bentley may have felt or are still feeling today. The books will leave readers on the edge of their seats because just when one mystery is solved, three more take its place, as a good mystery should do. From the vivid imagery to the vast array of memorable characters, to its hauntingly relevant and poignant themes and ideas, “The Bright Lands” is a story I cannot recommend enough.
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