Audiobook Review: The River by Peter Heller

The River
Peter Heller


Wynn and Jack have been best friends ever since they met during freshman orientation at Dartmouth. They’re from different parts of the country: Wynn from Vermont and Jack from a Colorado ranch. But they bonded over their mutual love and deep respect for the outdoors and have taken many trips together. Now, with time off from college, they embark on a wildnerness canoe trip up the Maskwa River in northern Canada. Months in the planning, they are fit and able, and totally prepared, maybe.

A wildfire in the distance has them worried. Still, they keep paddling through the lakes leading to the river, hoping for the best. Once they enter the river, there will be no turning back. When they hear a man and a woman arguing on a nearby island, they decide to warn the couple about the fire. Strangely, when they land, the couple is nowhere to be found.

Later, a man appears, alone, injured and dazed. Is this the man they heard? Where is the woman? Something isn’t right and their careful plans are no good. The only sure thing now is the approaching fire and the swift river current.

I enjoyed listening to this descriptive and atmospheric thriller, read by Mark Deakins. Deakins has a deep voice that enhances the drama and tension of the story. Heller includes the friends’ important backstories which play well into the plot. Wynn, an art major, has an optimistic and trusting nature. Jack is more suspicious and more quick-tempered. But the two have always complemented each other and assume different roles. Neither is ready for what’s ahead, however, and an interesting dynamic develops between them as the tension builds.

I love stories where nature is a dominant force and The River is a good example of this. Heller’s descriptions make it easy to picture the lakes and river and are at times poetic. That makes sense because Heller is also an award-winning nature writer and author of literary nonfiction. (Read more about Heller here.) That said, I thought that the abundance of description bogged down the story a bit. There’s a lot of discussion of gear and different brands, fly fishing lures, and repeated references to filtered squeeze bottles, gathering berries, and wishing they had thought to bring salt. I enjoyed that part at first, but felt it got in the way later.

I always naively think rivers run south but the river they’re on runs north. That got me wanting to picture their route. A little research led me to this link which explains that the Maskwa River of the novel is actually the Winisk River and that Heller based the Cree village of Wapahk on the village of Peawanuck. You can learn more about this here at

The River is a fast listen, at just seven hours. I listened to it during my walks and was totally engrossed.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Short story review from: The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction – “Wild Horses” by Rick Bass

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone.

“Wild Horses”
Rick Bass

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I found another great story in my Scribner Anthology.  Published in 1999, this collection is full of excellent short fiction by authors in their earlier days of writing.  For many, their careers are about to take off and I have fun taking a look back in time.  Rick Bass has an impressive list of award-winning fiction and nonfiction.  His newest book, published in March of this year, is For a Little While – New and Selected Stories.  (Click here to read a review from The New York Times and see below for additional recent works and a link to his full bibliography.)

In this excellent story, a man dies the night before his wedding and his fiancée Karen and their friend Sydney are left to make sense of what has happened. But it’s impossible to explain Henry’s drowning in the Mississippi.  Why did he go off the bridge?  Was he too drunk to know?  Could Sydney have grabbed him in time?  Karen puts the blame on Sydney.  She believes he could have done something.  It’s the only way she can process her pain.

How can a man who trains cattle and breaks horses for a living know how to cope with his own survivor’s guilt and help Karen too?  Sydney doesn’t think he knows the answer, but an instinct carries him.  Knowing how to tame wild horses is suddenly very useful to him.  Just like the horses, Sydney tries to “break” Karen and her grief.  Taking a beating and never giving up is the sacrifice he must make.  “There was nothing as wild as a horse that had never been broken.  It just got meaner, each day.” Sydney knows this much.  But their relationship is strange, outwardly communicative in only the tiniest of ways and Karen’s behavior is often frightening and alarming.  There is no guarantee that any deeper understanding between them can lead them out, even if Sydney is patient.

Bass has a degree in Geology and Wildlife Management and his respect for nature is obvious.  In addition to the horse-breaking metaphor, I love how he uses animals and nature to parallel his characters’ desperate situations.  In the early days of grief, Bass describes cattle in the fields and how “they would get lost, separated from one another, and would low all through the night.”  He makes it easy to imagine Karen and Sydney lost in their grief.  Bass also shows how animals endure incredible pain.  When Karen gets a job as a vet’s assistant, she helps treat a mule with an infected knee.  As if trying to show Karen how to make it, the mule keeps hauling logs because that is the only way to get through it.

Time moves slowly, their healing is barely measurable and Sydney leads, only inches ahead of Karen.  He knows his own progress is meaningless unless she follows.  And when Karen finally reaches out, he thinks they will make it.

“Wild Horses” leaves me thinking that, in our own human struggles, we can learn a great deal from animals and nature.

For more information about Rick Bass, visit his website at

Here are some of his more recent works.


The Black Rhinos of Namibia—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
The Heart Beneath the Heart—Narrative Press, 2012
In My Home There is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda—McSweeneys, 2012


Nashville Chrome—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
All the Land That Holds Us—Houghton Mifflin Harcourt August 2013

Click here to see a full bibliography.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!