Unmasked Review

Book: Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases
Author: Paul Holes with Robin Gaby Fisher
Publisher: Celadon Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Most people know Paul Holes as the gifted cold-case detective with a big hear and charming smile, who finally caught the Golden State Killer. But until now, no one has known the man behind it all, the person beneath the flashy cases and brilliant investigations.
In Unmasked, Holes takes us through his memories of a storied career and provides an insider account of some of the most notorious cases in contemporary American history, including the hunt for the Golden State Killer, Laci Peterson’s murder, and Jaycee Dugald’s kidnapping. This is also a revelatory profile of a complex man and what makes him tick: the drive to find closure for victims and their loved ones, the inability to walk away from a challenge – even at the expense of his own happiness.”

Review: Unmasked does not come with any content warnings (and it should), so let me begin this review by providing a few. Unmasked contains graphic depictions of violent crimes including murder, kidnapping, criminal confinement, sexual assault, battery, domestic violence, robberies, and more. It describes PTSD, anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and both alcohol and drug abuse as coping mechanisms. That aside, if you are a true crime junky or have followed any of the above mentioned cases as they unfolded, Unmasked offers a rare insight into the forensic processes that led to the demise of many North American serial killers. If you’re taken with the true crime craze as much of the world seems to be, you have likely read some of the books written by former detectives who have solved high-profile crimes. They’re often interesting, though generally a bit dry, and may not offer the kind of skilled writing you’d get from a professional author – and I think that’s to be expected. There’s something familiar about the way a former detective writes a book, it’s often just the facts, ma’am, straightforward and to the point; outlining the details, the clues, and the methods they followed to get to a place where their subject was found and arrested (for the most part). But just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean it’s compelling. I find these books tend toward a historical retelling that can be boring and lacking narrative that I crave from a compelling work of non-fiction.
Perhaps it’s because Holes had Robin Gaby Fisher, a NYT best selling author and two time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, or perhaps it’s the particularly unique perspective Holes offers, but Unmasked reads like it’s written by an author, not a former crime scene investigator. And that’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the work of former detectives, but it can’t easily be said that they’re natural born writers (of course, this is a generalization). Holes weaves his own narrative throughout the book, taking us through the steps that led him to become a forensic investigator, that brought him down the path of working and, in many cases, solving cold cases largely on his own time. He speaks at length about his own psyche, discussing the obsession that drives him to solve murders, similar to his mother’s obsession that led her to have an eating disorder, and his brother’s obsession that was later diagnosed as OCD. He has woven himself into this book in such a delicate manner that the book has no choice but to reflect a strong narrative. I suspect that Gaby Fisher played a large part in the finessing of Unmasked and I can appreciate that effort – though, in the end it’s Gaby Fisher’s involvement that led me to give this book 4 rather than 5 stars. Despite their best efforts, Unmasked still retains some bit of dry, too-complex-for-layman details about forensics that, I assume, have likely been dumbed down a bit for the average reader to understand. I found myself skipping over these parts, though I’m sure Holes felt they were crucial to explaining his process as he used forensic technology to solve these crimes, they read as complicated and long-winded and if I skipped over them, surely they could have been pared down even further. I’m a bit torn over his long-winded descriptions of forensics and DNA technology, though, because he doesn’t treat the reader as if we’re too uneducated to understand, but at the same time, in fact I am too uneducated in the realm of forensic science to understand.
With the help of Gaby Fisher, there are aspects of the book that I wish had been stronger or more well put together. Holes jumps from one crime to another before returning to the original crime, and in the case of the Golden State Killer, or EAR as he’s initial referred to, so many of his crimes and victims resemble one another that it becomes a bit convoluted and hard to follow at times. I do like a narrative that can bounce around from one thing to the next in a seamless way, but I found myself wondering if I hadn’t just read the account a chapter earlier multiple times, so I think there’s still some clarity missing from this narrative. With the help of Gaby Fisher, I would hope there wouldn’t be so many of these instances, but it’s impossible to know where the book began in order to get to where it is now. Either way, there was still some work left to be done, but given that I received this review copy a mere month before it was published, I suspect that the book was altogether finished at that point.
I found this to be an excellent counterpart to Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Having read McNamara’s book when it came out a few years ago, right as the Golden State Killer was caught, I had already heard of Paul Holes and was familiar at least on a small level with what his work entailed. Having read about the detailed search for the GSK that spanned decades from McNamara’s side of things as a journalist and amateur internet sleuth, getting the bulk of Hole’s work from his perspective was genuinely an excellent counterpart. I appreciated, as well, that Holes addressed his working relationship with McNamara and also spoke about her death, something I was hoping for as I read through, and glad to see put into words. McNamara devoted much of her life leading up to her death by accidental overdose to the GSK search – in fact it was McNamara herself who gave him the formal name ‘Golden State Killer’.
Overall, I found Unmasked to be thorough, decently well written, and full of details that drove a complete and satisfying narrative.

Advice: If you struggle with true crime stories, this is absolutely not going to be the book for you. If, on the other hand, you live for true crime podcasts, books, and tv shows, you will probably love Unmasked. It ticks all the true crime boxes and leaves you feeling satisfied with the retelling. If you read and enjoyed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, I think Unmasked is a logical next read for you.

Carolina Moonset Review

Book: Carolina Moonset
Author: Matt Goldman
Publisher: Forge Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “A family must race to discover the truth before one man’s memory fades forever. Joey Gren has returned to Beaufort, South Carolina, to look after his ailing father, who is succumbing to dementia. Marshall Green’s sort-term memory has all but evaporated, but, as if in compensation, his oldest memories are more vivid than ever.
At first this seems like a blessing of sorts, with the past providing a refuge from a shrinking future, but Joey grows increasingly anxious as his father’s memories begin to hint at deadly secrets, scandals, and suspicions long buried and forgotten that still have the power to shatter lives – and change everything Joey thought he knew.
Especially when a new murder brings the police to his door…”

Review: I was thrilled to receive a book set in my home state of South Carolina. I love to read books based in the Carolinas, no matter the author, they tend to wax poetic about all the aspects I love: palmetto trees, marshlands, water birds, thick summer nights, and sweet tea. I couldn’t seem to find if Goldman has actually spent any time in South Carolina, but I can tell you the book read as if he hadn’t. Anyone who’s from the palmetto state knows that the “palm trees” you find in South Carolina are in fact palmetto trees – they aren’t the palm trees you find in California or Florida. They’re short, stumpy, and don’t have coconuts. Goldman mentions the trees, but refers to them as palm trees and for this I was immediately baffled. There were small discrepancies like that through the book, aspects of the south that could have easily been googled or even found on a research trip, but didn’t ring quite true as a native. Maybe I’m being nitpicky here. Anyone who isn’t from South Carolina would likely not have cared a lick.
Carolina Moonset was an interesting murder mystery, I’ll give it that. The plot felt unique and not over-done in the way that a lot of suspense / mysteries can be, though it was told from a male perspective and most of my issue with the suspense / mystery genre these days comes from female based narratives. The biggest problems I found were glaring, though. While I had small bits to nitpick, the bulk of my problem with the book lay with the bulk of the book. Goldman’s bio proudly talks about his work as a television screenwriter for shows such as Seinfeld and Ellen among others. Carolina Moonset read like a television show – a fairly unrealistic television show, at that. The dialogue felt unrealistic in a flourishing kind of way, characters speaking and thinking in ways that felt like narrative rather than conversation. The interactions between characters felt forced and fake, perhaps best suited for a TV show I don’t have to put much thought into, and shouldn’t put much thought into because if I did I would probably have to turn the show off.
The plot was okay, it really was. The idea for the book is promising: a father, recently diagnosed with Lewey Body Dementia, begins to recall experiences from his past with great clarity. He begins telling stories he’s never told before, stories his family are shocked to hear, he even begins having hallucinations, seeing old friends and having upsetting conversations with people who aren’t there. His family, rightfully so, becomes worried. When a member of a prominent, wealthy local family is murdered, a family the father has recently spoken of vehemently, his son Joey fears the worst. After all, there’s a family gun that his mother somehow has no idea exists, though it’s been in the family since Joey was a child and has lived in his father’s tackle box, out in the open, happily aging in their shed. Though we’re told in detail how frail and ill Joey’s father is, somehow he becomes the prime suspect in the police’s murder investigation. Joey’s father, Marshall, not only grew up in Beaufort, but ran a no/low cost medical clinic for decades often putting in seventy hours of work a week for the community. He is not only an upstanding member of society, but his (somehow) 90-something year old brother who is (again, somehow) still practicing law is a pillar in the community with direct ties to the wealthiest families in Beaufort. That the police would zero in on a 75 year old man with dementia and virtually no body strength as the murderer feels…absurd. At best.
So much of the book is spent the the police hounding this family, hounding Marshall who cannot even remember that he’s spoken to the police twenty minutes ago, and hounding Joey that it feels almost not worth reading at points. In fact, when the book is all said and done and everything has been wrapped up, once the police find the murder weapon and arrest the murderer, they still find the time and the audacity to interrogate Joey and his brand new, as of 6 days ago, girlfriend over something completely unrelated to the crime just because they “don’t like loose ends”. It’s implausible. It’s outrageous. It’s unrealistic. Joey and his new girlfriend, suspecting this would happen, get married so they won’t have to testify against each other if a grand jury is, for some unspecified reason, called. Even though they had nothing to do with the case, even though the murderer confessed, even though everything is tied up in a nice little bow. And not only do Joey and his girlfriend suspect a grand jury, they’re threatened with it by the police in the last few pages of the book. Frankly, I don’t even know how to address the ridiculousness of this plot point, so I won’t.
The murder confession is equally ridiculous, bringing up aspects of a character we’ve seen and heard nothing about until they start spewing their confession at the end of the book. There are ties they make to Joey that make no sense given the interactions they’ve had and the entire confession feels incredibly forced, as if written by someone who knew they had to present a murderer but just couldn’t quite get their plot into a space where it would happen in a believable way. The entirety of the book is unrealistic, but the confession truly takes the cake. I was able to guess who committed the murder before I was halfway through the book, though the motive was complicated and again, you guessed it, unrealistic.
There are tidbits of information strewn throughout the book as if Goldman got to the end and realized he needed to tie things together, so rather than rewrite he simply added a few details here and there in a haphazard way, thinking that would placate his readers. And honestly, maybe it did – I haven’t read any other reviews of Carolina Moonset to say one way or the other, but for this reader they did not.

Advice: If you’re looking for a book about the Carolinas that leaves you feeling mesmerized, you’d be better off reading Where the Crawdads Sing and you know how I feel about that book (and if you don’t, the rating I gave it was equal to this book). If you’re looking for a murder mystery where you can zone out and not give it much thought, again, I don’t think this is the book for you. Though the book itself requires you to not participate with your analytical thought processes, it’s a genuinely sad story of a man losing his ability to interact with the world in any kind of meaningful way and in that regard I wouldn’t even recommend it as light reading. You’re better off trying a different book.

Omens Bite Review

Book: Omens Bite
Author: PC Cast and Kristin Cast
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis:Something wicked this way comes…
Twin sisters, Mercy and Hunter are witches, descendants of the Goode family of witches. After the murder of their mother at the hands of a foul demon, they have become the protectors of the Gates to different underworlds — ancient portals between their world and realms where mythology rules and the darkest of creatures exist.
The problem is that the Goode sisters have split from each other. Grief and anger have torn them apart, driving Mercy to save the cursed Gates on her own and Hunter in the arms of a dangerous goddess. And when Mercy shifts her focus to the Egyptian Gate and Khenti, the guardian of its Underworld, little does she know that her connection to him will land her in the kind of trouble that only Hunter can save her from.
When it comes to breaking the curse, Mercy and Hunter’s bonds are put to the ultimate test.”

Review: You may remember when, back in April 2021, I reviewed the first book in this trilogy “Spells Trouble”. I gave the first book in the series a 2 out of 5 stars and felt certain that after my fairly scathing review I would not be granted the opportunity to read the second book, but I have been proven wrong. As you may have noticed, I gave the second book a slightly higher review and despite the glaring grammar choices in the title of the book, I do think it deserves the 1/2 point boost. The first book left us with a cliffhanger that genuinely did make me curious about the second book – as a good cliffhanger should do! The second book has done the same to set up the third and in that regard, the Cast family does a good job of priming their readers for their upcoming creations. The writing was less disjointed this time around, as well, which was a pleasant surprise. Where the first book felt like a rough first draft, the second feels a bit more polished and thought out. They’ve begun to flesh out the characters in a way that’s working for the story and there’s more depth this time around.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fluffy piece of YA fiction that doesn’t challenge the reader on any level, but I think it’s worth noting that the writing has indeed improved from the first to the second book and one can only hope that trend will continue with the third.
I was in the bookstore the other day, browsing the YA section to see which of my ARCs have been published, when I stumbled upon what I can only refer to as a trove of books written by PC and Kristin Cast. This is not their first rodeo. Imagine my surprise! They have been in the writing game for quite a number of years, and frankly you would never know it. The storytelling is weak, at best, throughout much of the book as it was in the first, and while it’s compelling (and I think at this point I’ve established that I think a book can be compelling without being well written), it’s not well written. Need I say more than to point out the lack of apostrophe in the title? Omen’s Bite. Omens Bite. One has to wonder where the publisher is in all of this.

Advice: The fact that you have to read the first book in order to understand the second is a big deterrent in my advice here, because I stand by my first review: the first book is not worth the read. Despite the writing taking a turn for the better with the second, I still recommend that you pass this one up in favor of better writing and more interesting storylines. I, however, am a sucker for a cliffhanger and will be curious to see if next year I get the opportunity to review the third book. I will obviously keep you posted.

The Grimrose Girls Review

Book: The Grimrose Girls
Author: Laura Pohl
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Year: 2021
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “After the mysterious death of their best friend, Ella, Yuki, and Rory are the talk of their elite school, Primrose Academie. The police ruled Ariane’s death as a suicide, but the trio are determined to find out what really happened.
When Nana Estes arrives as their newest roommate, it sets into motion a series of events that no one could have predicted. As the girls retrace their friend’s final days, they discover a dark secret about Grimrose – Ariane wasn’t the first dead girl.
They soon learn that all the past murders are connected to ancient fairy-tale curses…and that their own fates are tied to the stories, dooming the girls to brutal and gruesome endings unless they can break the cycle for good.”

Review: This book left me frustrated. The cover is compelling and interesting and the synopsis sounds like this will be an enjoyable YA read, but frankly it was none of the above. Covering themes that are played out and tired in a way that is not fresh or new feels like a waste of time. How many times can we reread or re-watch Cinderella before we find that we no longer need to engage in the latest adaptation? The fact is, we already know how that story goes. Pohl crafted a story that revolved around fairytale stories, which could be interesting especially knowing that the fairytale stories she’s referencing in the book are the original versions and not the Disneyfied ‘happily ever after’ versions. But, sadly, we meet yet another character named Ella who lives with an evil step mother and two terrible stepsister. She’s literally covered in ash at one point, and spends her weekends cleaning the house – to the extent that her hands are covered in scars. There’s nothing new to this retelling other than the fact that the remainder of the characters barely resemble the fairytales they’re based on and there’s no continuity between them.
I’m not sure where Pohl was going with this book and I’m not sure we’ll know until the second (of how many?) book comes out. There’s a slow buildup followed by a quick and confusing falling action at the end, leaving me googling whether or not there would be a second book because honestly, it’s not clear. Pohl ties up enough of the loose ends to assume the end could truly be the end, but leaves just a few strings untied – instead of feeling like a cliffhanger that I need to see resolved, it feels like the mark of poor writing to leave just a few pieces untouched while the rest finds itself resolved. In fact, yes, there will be a second book to tie up the few remaining loose ends and, I assume, create new ones. I’m frustrated with how disappointing this book turned out to be, and I’m tempted to say “even for a YA read” but the fact of the matter is, a YA read does not have to be disappointing or poorly written. A fantasy YA read, for that matter, doesn’t need to be disappointing or poorly written! Where’s the precedent for a higher standard of book? Nowhere to be found in The Grimrose Girls, sadly, though the opportunity did exist. The challenge was simply not risen to, and I find myself yet again let down by poor writing.

Advice: The phrasing throughout this book was off, the pacing was slow, and the characters were shallow and lackluster. This book seemed like it had the potential to be engaging and interesting and it fell flat. There are better YA fantasy books out there. If you’re looking for something light where you won’t have to think much, if at all, this is going to do the trick. If you’re looking for compelling, interesting, and/or challenging, this is not it.

The Bone Orchard Review

Book: The Bone Orchard
Author: Sara A. Mueller
Publisher: Tor
Year: 2022
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Welcome to Orchard House – where the wealthy and influential men of Borenguard come to dine, drink, play cards, and talk politics. It’s where they come to visit with Mistress Charm and those birthed from the fruit of an orchard of bone trees, grown in vats, made to sere her and the needs of her guests.
But Mistress Charm herself is bound, a mind lock planted in her skull to harness her power and ensure her obedience. Now, the very emperor who destroyed her people and bound her to his will promises her freedom. If she can solve a murder – his own. Lying on his deathbed, he gives her one last command – discover which of his sons betrayed him and plotted his death.
Charm has lived a life of illusions, lies she told herself, lies she told others. The biggest lie of all was that she had choices in her life. But now, free to act at last, the fate of an empire rests in her hands.”

Review: I suppose fantasy is not one of my favorite genres when it isn’t done as seamlessly as I’m hoping for. We’re entering a world we know nothing about and relying upon the author to be given the gift of sight in this new dimension. We don’t know what this realm looks or sounds or smells like, we don’t know the intricacies of the inhabitants, there’s a need to an author to paint a picture in a fantasy book and I’m not entirely sure that Mueller did that as I was hoping or needing. I’ve been torn over how to review this book, quite frankly. There’s a disjointedness to The Bone Orchard that feels frustrating as you read, but I wonder if this was perhaps on purpose to give the reader a taste of what it’s like to live with a mindlock as so many of the characters in the book do. Unable to leave the compound, our main character(s) Charm only knows what she hears from her patrons and from what her bone ghosts tell her – one of whom does leave the compound regularly. The bone ghosts are literal representations of different aspects of Charm’s character, each named to show us which aspect they represent: Pride, Shame, Pain, Justice, and the like.
The book seems to jump back and forth between the complexities of the political system in this world, systems that include multiple sons of the emperor each with their own great failings, and the inner world of Charm. I found myself thinking at multiple points during the course of the book that this is a story that would benefit from a list of characters and their traits at the beginning of the book. Perhaps even a map of the country and surrounding countries. There’s a lot going on, a lot to wrap your mind around, and a lot of characters to keep straight – not helped in the least by the fact that half the main characters are all aspects of the same person. All the while, told as if being viewed through a small lens – no peripheral vision included. Is this a strategic literary tool used to give the reader the understanding of how little the main character(s) are aware of? Or a lack of detail missed by the author, the one person who truly understands and sees this world as we will never be able to? I finished the book and remained unclear.

I did enjoy this book, though there were several heart-breaking and graphic descriptions of war-time traumas and tragedies including assault, death of a child, and murder. It is however, in many instances, not for the faint of heart.

Advice: The pacing felt off, the complexities of the political system in this world were exhausting, and the story-telling felt disjointed. It did not strike me as the best execution of a fantasy novel. However, the underlying story was interesting, the characters had depth, and I was compelled to finish the book to find out who the murderer was. Overall, it’s okay. If you love fantasy, it might be worth your time. It fantasy is only a passing fancy, it’s probably best to skip this one.

The Orphan Witch Review

Book: The Orphan Witch
Author: Paige Crutcher
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Year: 2021
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Abandoned as an infant, Persephone May has been alone her entire life. Uneqxplainable things happen when she’s around – changes in weather, inanimate objects taking flight – and those who seek to bring her into their family quickly cast her out. To cope, she never gets attached, never makes friends, never dates, and is always leaving one town for another.
Persephone things perhaps she was made…wrong. Maybe she’s cursed.
Invited by the one friend she’s managed to keep, Persephone finds herself on the elusive Isle of Wile – a place that may hold the very things she’s been searching for her entire life: family, sisterhood, and a sense of belonging. But will a 100-year-old curse force her to sacrifice her life for the ones she now calls home or will her lineage remain lost forever? Magic always exacts its price.”

Review: I’m not going to lie, after my last somewhat witchy ARC, I was a little hesitant to get my hopes up for The Orphan Witch, in fairness I’ve had a lot of not-so-great advanced copies this year and my hopes have been rather crushed. I’m happy to say, though, that Crutcher has restored my faith in ARCs with her beautiful debut novel. The Orphan Witch is dripping with imagery in all the right ways, it feels like drinking a cup of hot tea with honey: warm and refreshing and decadent.
That’s not to say there aren’t some rough patches that I expect with an ARC – places where a word has been left out or the story doesn’t quite add up but it’s nothing that a final revision won’t take care of and I have no worries that the finalized copy will be anything less than magical.
Crutcher weaves a beautiful story of family and friendship, interwoven with fantasy and stunning mystical realms that makes you want to find your way to Wile Isle as quickly as possible so you can see the thick fog rolling in through the trees, plant your bare feet in the greener than green grass, and maybe buy some baked goods from the locals who are cursed to remain on the Isle for half of the year. I’m ready to pack my bags and go! Persephone is a relatable character, despite clearly having magical powers and isolation issues. Her new-found friends turned family are welcoming characters to read and you immediately begin to picture exactly who they are, what they look like, how they interact with each other without being explicitly told any of those points – which in my estimation is what makes a good book great.
Crutcher, in her bio, mentions that she’s a yoga lover and it’s easy to pick that up throughout the book as she throws little yoga philosophies in here and there almost with a wink and a nod to the yoga-loving reader. She mentions crystals and actually gets their meanings and colors correct, as I’ve found are often misconstrued in fiction, and has her characters drinking hot tea on a regular basis which served to make me want to drink hot tea as I read through the book. The Orphan Witch is well crafted, well researched, well written, and well edited which feels like a feat sometimes, to be frank. The pacing flows well, the conversations feel real, and the overall feel of the book is warm and inviting. I can’t wait to read what she comes out with next!

Advice: Mark this one on your calendar, you’re going to want to pick up a copy as soon as it comes out September of 2021. Reading this one felt like watching Practical Magic – there’s something comforting about it that you turn to when you’re not feeling well or just need a boost of happiness and enchantment. I highly recommend this one!

True Raiders Review

Book: True Raiders
Author: Brad Ricca
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Year: 2021
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “True Raiders is The Lost City of Z meets The Da Vinci Code. This books tells the untold true story of Many Parker, a British rogue nobleman who, after being dared to do so by Ava Astor, the so-called “most beautiful woman in the world,” headed to a secret 1909 expedition to find the fabled Ark of the Covenant. Like a real-life version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, this incredible story of adventure and mystery has almost been completely forgotten today.
in 1908, Monty is approached by a strange Finnish scholar named Valter Juvelius who claims to have discovered a secret code in the Bible that reveals the location of the Ark. Many assembles a ragtag group of blue blood adventurers, a renowned psychic, and a Franciscan father, to engage in a secret excavation just outside the city walls of Jerusalem.
Using recently uncovered records from the original expedition and several newly translated sources, Raiders is the first retelling of this group’s adventures – in the space between fact and faith, science and romance.”

Review: You really don’t have to twist my arm very hard to get me to read a book about a real life expedition to uncover the Ark of the Covenant. I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark enough as a kid to have a genuine fascination in the adventurer-archeologist who sets off for undiscovered locations in historic lands. I had, as you can guess, high hopes for True Raiders, most of which were dashed upon the rocks of the poorly described Palestinian desert as I began to read.
I’m not sure what Ricca’s aversion to pronouns is, but the majority of the book spoke without them. Ricca uses each character’s name over and over and over ad nauseam, which was particularly glaring as I read this book aloud to my husband and found myself necessarily changing names to he or him or his constantly. The conversations were written in such a halting and stilted manor that it made reading them out loud nearly impossible, which seems to miss the point of a conversation – it should be capable of being read aloud. Each chapter followed a different character, which I quite enjoyed as we got a well-rounded telling of the story, clearly each being told from, mostly, real-time written accounts. There was a great deal of repetitive storytelling, however, in some cases entire passages were copy and pasted from one section to another, and spoke to the poor writing of this book.
I know that ARCs are often unfinished, unpolished writings, but never have I ever received such a clearly unfinished book in my life as True Raiders. Words were repeated, misspelled, or completely omitted, littering the book with typos and errors that at times made entire sections of the book nearly unreadable. I’m not sure why you would send out an advanced copy so early in the game unless perhaps it had yet to be edited, and again…why would you send that out?
The story itself was fascinating, though read like a textbook more often than not and felt as though it lacked any soul. The cypher used by Dr. Juvelius was incredibly interesting and I wish, truly, that we’d spent more time with him and his theories than with nearly any other character from the book. As a reader, we learn a great deal about the biblical history of the land they’re searching and I found that that be the best part of the entire excavation story – the idea that Moses’ grave may contain yet additional treasure, or that the Ark may be literally suspended within an underground cave system designed by Hezekiah, or that any number of unknown biblical and historical treasures may exist still in undiscovered places draws me in and makes me want to know so much more.
We learn near the end of the book that a family member of Monty Parker lends previously unseen written accounts of this expedition to Ricca and I couldn’t help but feel terribly sorry for the Parker family at how butchered this story ended up being. What a disappointment it must be to have a family story told so poorly. I wanted so badly to love this book, to feel satisfied with the writing style and quality, but I can’t pretend that I do. It’s disappointing through and through.

Advice: I hesitate to tell you not to read this book if the idea of a real-life search for the Ark of the Covenant sparks your interest, but I have to warn you that this book does not conclude with any kind of resolution and it’s written in such a way that you may never find your way to the end. I want to tell you it’s going to be exciting and pull you along for the journey, but that was not how I found it. Perhaps you should do your own research on this expedition or maybe you should just rewatch Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Retreat Review

Book: The Retreat
Author: Elisabeth De Mariaff
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Year: 2021
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Maeve arrives at the High Water Center for the Arts determined to do one thing: begin her own dance company. A retired performer and mother of two, time is running out for her to find her feet again after the collapse of a disastrous – and violent – marriage. And initially, there’s a thrill to being on her own for the first time in years, isolated int he beauty of a snowy mountain lodge. But when an avalanche traps the guests inside, tensions begin to run high. Help is coming, so the just have to hold on – right?
But as the days pass, strange deaths befall the others one by one. Soon Maeve must face how little she knows about anyone there…and how useless a locked door is if the darkness is already inside.”

Review: I was pleasantly surprised to find in my hands a thriller that didn’t fall into the same old drunk female narrator / unreliable female narrator trope. For once. De Mariaff successfully creates a story that genuinely thrilled me, kept me guessing, and found me on the edge of my seat which seems like a feat these days in the realm of thrillers. We find Maeve, the narrator, high in the Rocky Mountains at a nearly empty ski lodge as a blizzard moves in and blankets the entire town, effectively cutting the lodge off from the rest of the world. Phone lines are down, the electricity goes out, save for a generator at the lodge, and the threat of grizzly bears in the wilderness reigns supreme.
We get just enough background information on Maeve to know that she’s resilient, strong, and fierce – a protectress of anything she holds dear. Her fellow occupants of the lodge are mostly unknown, though they do eventually end up spending a bit of time together as the heat slowly escapes from their rooms and the occupants are forced to spend days and nights together in the main room of the lodge. We begin to realize all is not as it seems with her fellow artists and strange happenings start to occur. While the end doesn’t exactly present itself as a plot twist, we do spend much of the book wondering and guessing who the killer could be, and in my opinion that’s exactly how a thriller should be. There is little to know actual investigating that happens, though, the book is primarily comprised of survival, including the end.
The finale of the book left a bit to be desired, as it wrapped up with mere pages left. A trend I’ve noticed in the world of thrillers is a long and slow buildup to the climax and a brief conclusion that leaves you wondering why you just read 300-something pages for a single page ending. The Retreat was no different. We find ourselves at the end of the book with perhaps two pages left as Maeve finds the killer and wraps up the climax action and the books ends with essentially no conclusion. It’s up to the reader to decide whether Maeve truly survives in the end or not and personally, I don’t love that in a book. I can appreciate certain details being left hanging for a reader to wrap up in their own way, but I just did all the work of watching Maeve fight for survival, I’d at least like an epilogue that let’s me know she actually did get out after all.

Advice: This book should come with some content warnings as it does deal heavily with domestic violence and birth trauma, so if those themes are sensitive for you to read, this is likely not going to be the right book for you. If you love a thriller, a locked room riddle, or a good-old-fashioned ski lodge mystery, I think you’ll enjoy The Retreat.

The Maidens Review

Book: The Maidens
Author: Alex Michaelides
Publisher: Celadon Books
Year: 2021
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike – particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens.
Mariana Andros is a brilliant but troubled group therapist who becomes fixated on The Maidens when one member, a friend of Mariana’s niece Zoe, is found murdered in Cambridge.
Mariana, who was once herself a student at the university, quickly suspects that behind the idyllic beauty of the spires and turrets, and beneath the ancient traditions, lies something sinister. And she becomes convinced that, despite his alibi, Edward Fosca is guilty of the murder. But why would the professor target one of his students? And why does he keep returning to the rites of Persephone, the maiden, and her journey to the underworld?
When another body is found, Mariana’s obsession with proving Fosca’s guilt spirals out of control, threatening to destroy her credibility as well as her closest relationships. But Mariana is determined to stop this killer, even if it costs here everything – including her own life.”

Review: I was so excited to start reading The Maidens when I received their marketing material in the mail. They really hit the nail on the head with their promotions leading up to the release – I received a postcard in the mail with cryptic lettering and a website listed, no further information. Then, upon signing up for the ARC, I received the book and another postcard, again with similar cryptic lettering and an invitation to a Zoom meetup with the author. Following completion of the book, I turned down the group meeting.

The Maidens is billed as a dark academia thriller, and I suspect The Secret History by Donna Tartt played at least some role in the creation of this book. It follows Mariana, the narrator, as she bucks the police and spearheads her own investigation into the double murder of Cambridge students, both of whom belonged to a so-called secret society called The Maidens. This is about as good as the book gets before it delves into the strange, poorly written, and poorly executed book that it became. We’re given a bit of backstory to Mariana’s work as a group therapist and find her crossing boundary lines with patients who are unstable and should have no part in her work as a therapist once they begin to stalk her and threaten her. Perhaps this should be our first red flag that Mariana is not, as the back of the book describes, brilliant, but is rather an unreliable narrator.

We follow Mariana to Cambridge to pursue the investigation into the deaths, the two students who were friends of her niece, nee adopted daughter, Zoe. Mariana, all the while, spends her time not chasing the killer reminiscing on her own time spent at the university where she met her late husband. She waxes poetic about how magical their first encounter was, finding spots all over campus where they’d sat and talked or had this encounter or that. Clearly showing the reader she’s yet to recover from the tragic death of her husband, though there doesn’t seem to be much more to this plot point than that. We proceed through the book knowing there will be a plot twist, as Michaelides sets it up to be quite clearly not a straightforward story. My frustrations begin here, with the understanding that there will be a plot twist: we catch glimpses into who the murderer is through small snippets of what appears to be a letter he is writing, known only to the reader. Based on these small sections of writings, we begin to piece together the back story of the killer and would you believe it, every male character Mariana encounters somehow has the exact same back story?

It’s impossible to follow, given every male character has, somehow, grown up on a farm with volatile parents. Not to mention, they all act quite strangely towards Mariana through the story, each giving off serious murderer vibes as written. When it does finally come time to reveal the actual plot twist, a mere ten pages before the end of the book, it turns out to be someone we didn’t see coming at all. None of these men we’ve met who are set up to be the murderer end up being the murderer (spoilers!) and the actual murderer is a much more convoluted and ridiculous reveal. There’s zero believability to the end of the book.

For the title and all the build up, the time spent on the actual secret society is slim to none. There’s no real creation of the society within this written world, and I left the book feeling deeply disappointed. The pacing was truly strange, the world was bizarre at best, and no part of the book felt like a dark academia thriller. It felt like a thriller on it’s first legs, one who needs multiple revisions to get to a place where I could confidently call it dark academia.

Advice: If you like thrillers, at the very least this book doesn’t follow the standard outline, however it does rely heavily on the unreliable female narrator trope that factors heavily into recent thriller narratives and becomes boring quickly. There are many other true dark academia thrillers out there, of which this does not qualify. Find a different book.

Spells Trouble Review

Book: Spells Trouble
Author: PC Cast and Kristin Cast
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Year: 2021
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis : “Hunter and Mercy Goode are twin witches, direct descendants of the founder of their town of Goodeville. As their ancestors have done before them, it is now time for the twins to learn what it means to be Gatekeepers – the protectors of the Gates to different underworlds, ancient portals between their world and realms where mythology rules and nightmares come to life.
When their mother becomes the first victim in a string of murders, the devastated sisters vow to avenge her death. But it will take more than magic to rein in the ancient mythological monsters who’ve infected their peaceful town.
Now Hunter and Mercy must come together and accept their destiny or risk being separated for good.

Review: Spells Trouble is, in a word, disappointing. I was so excited to get an ARC that came as a package – it delivered with a notebook, candles, a crystal, a map of the town of Goodeville, and the book. How cute is that? That was likely the best part of the entire experience reading this book. I can appreciate the thought that went into the ARC package, especially when most ARCs come alone and I feel lucky to get a piece of paper with a few more details in the envelope when I receive them. But, if you’re going to put this much thought and effort into the ARC package, surely there was room for more thought and effort in the execution of the book. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read through, how this ever got past an editor. There were plot holes, to say the least, the character development was flat and stale, the conversation was laughable, and there were so many instances where it felt impossible to follow what was happening that it’s almost a wonder I managed to finish the book at all.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept is compelling especially in the realm of YA fiction, but this should have been a first draft. It would have made for an awesome first draft! The execution is poor. There’s an instance where a character’s outfit changes mid chapter, mid scene – after having made a point of mentioning their dress just paragraphs earlier, suddenly we find this character wiping her hands on her jeans. The writing feels…off. There’s mention of someone’s jean skirt but it’s written multiple times as a ‘jeans skirt’. My partner suggested that this could be a regional thing, but Spells Trouble is set in Illinois and I’ve lived in that part of the country, it’s not regional. It’s poor writing. I can only assume we learn Hunter’s best friend, Jax, has the last name of Ashley at the beginning of the book (I don’t remember reading that, it’s entirely possible I did and it didn’t stick), because somewhere around 3/4 of the way through the book he’s referred to as Ashley with zero explanation and it’s never mentioned again. Poor writing.

I also want to talk about how overdone and tired the Salem witch trial genealogy trope is. Surely we can come up with better examples? The witch trials of Salem were such a small part of American history, let alone world wide history. Witch trials happened all over the world and yet we almost exclusively find fiction related to Salem. A teensy bit more research could have made this a more compelling read. I’m so sick of seeing books, tv shows, and movies that focus completely on Salem and disregard other places in which hundreds of people were accused, convicted, and killed for witchcraft. For a city who convicted 20 people of witchcraft, it’s hard to see why it continues to hold the spotlight during a portion of history in which some 12,000 people were convicted. And yet, here we are again.

There are a few steamier scenes for a YA novel, so I would put this more in the arena of a high school read, but the writing reflects more of a middle school / elementary school read. There are graphic scenes of violence that I would not recommend for anyone under high school age or anyone who might be sensitive to things of that nature as well, but again, the writing reflects a much younger audience. Like I said, poor writing, and I’ll add poor editing to boot. There are so many things about this book that frustrate me. My frustration largely resides with the potential this book had. It could have been so good, it could have been done so much better, it should have been edited so much better, but it’s mediocre at best. I struggled between giving this a 2 and a 2.5 but ultimately I landed on a 2 because It wasn’t good enough to hit a 50% in my book. I can’t say it enough, it felt like a first draft. I know ARCs are often incomplete, still lacking a final touch of editing, but this goes so far beyond a final touch. This book requires several more rounds of writing, editing, and rewriting. Sigh.

Advice: Steer clear of this one. It’s genuinely not worth it and that’s about all I have to say on that.