Bad City Review

Book: Bad City
Author: Paul Pringle
Publisher: Celadon Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “On a cool, overcast afternoon in April 2016, a salacious tip arrived at the Los Angeles Times that reporter Paul Pringle thought should have taken, at most, a few weeks to check out: a drug overdose at a fancy hotel involving one of the University of Southern California’s shiniest stars – Dr. Carmen Puliafito, the head of the prestigious medical school. Pringle, who’d long done battle with USC and its almost impenetrable culture of silence, knew reporting the story wouldn’t be a walk in the park. USC is one of the largest private employers in the city of L.A. and it cast a long shadow.
But what he couldn’t have foreseen was that this tip would lead to the unveiling of not one major scandal at USC but two, wrapped in a web of crimes and cover-ups. The rot rooted out by Pringle and his colleagues at the Times would creep closer to home than they could have imagined – spilling into their own newsroom.
Pack with details never before disclosed, Bad City goes behind the scenes to reveal how Pringle and his fellow reporters triumphed over the city’s debased institutions, in a narrative that reads like L.A. noir. This is L.A. at its darkest and investigative journalism at its brightest.”

Review: I have to say, I feel like a bit of a schmuck giving a Pulitzer Prize winning author 4.5 out of 5 stars, but here we are. I want to start by disclosing that I did not finish this book, though I got 232 pages into it’s 270 pages of narrative and perhaps I could have finished it given how far I’d come, but boy did this one weigh on me. Let’s start by identifying the content warnings, because I’m not sure we can delve into a book based solely around drug abuse without first talking about what the book details. Bad City describes, often in detail, the supply and abuse of drugs by a person in power, the supply and abuse of drugs as a means of power and control, prostitution, both with and without drug abuse, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. It’s likely and possible that there are further warnings I should give you, as I stopped reading when we got to a section on blatant sexual abuse, medical misconduct, and USC’s history of enabling such behavior from its staff members.

This is one of those books that makes you want to rip your hair out, or rip pages out, or both maybe, while you scream at the top of your lungs. It is infuriating to read about how people in power work so hard to enable others within their sphere to do detrimental harm to those with less power and resources. It’s infuriating to see the struggle of someone who’s working to uncover the truth, particularly when their work is blocked at every turn. It’s infuriating to read this knowing that this is perhaps indicative of most major news networks through the country, wondering what else we aren’t privy to because people in power are using their seemingly unlimited resources and connections to tamp down any bit of truth. Carmen Puliafito, the former dean of USC’s medical school, behaved in a way that indicated he believed he was above the law. Pringle discovered that Puliafito had allowed himself, and even instigated, to be filmed in the presence of drugs and even using drugs (meth, I believe, but Pringle also uncovered that he was using heroin as well) all while he was not only leading future medical professionals, but continuing to operate, as a world-renown ophthalmologist. The head of USC was alerted to this danger, as were the editors of the Times and not one single person in these positions of power thought it was more important to ensure the safety of everyone involved by removing Puliafito than it was to uphold an image.

I gave this book half a star less than a 5 because it’s one of those books that has so many characters, some of whom share the same first name, most of whom have intricate job titles and functions within the newsroom, that in order for it to remain clear there needs to be a list of individuals and their relation to the story and/or narrator at the beginning of the book. There were times where Pringle would refer to someone exclusively by their last name within the newsroom, but would share email correspondences with them where their first name was used and things got confusing. I gave up on figuring out who some of the players in this story were about halfway through because I wasn’t sure when they’d been introduced in order to flip back and forth to figure out what role they were playing. While the majority of what I read was hard hitting and pointed, the name and occupation confusion definitely muddied the waters.

The synopsis indicates there are previously unreported aspects to this story that are only revealed with the publishing of Bad City and nothing about that was surprising to me as I read through it. This book, in fact, was not an advanced reader copy – the copy I got, while it arrived prior to the official publication date of July 19, is a final corrected version of the story. We were asked to write our reviews prior to the publication date, and I think there’s a lot said in those details alone. Pringle’s own editors were fired by the time all of the details about Puliafito and USC went live, some two years after the initial tip came across Pringle’s desk – their severance was preceded by an internal investigation that spanned a vast majority of senior management within the Times. There were many details Pringle was unable to publish at the time the story broke, due completely to the work of his editors who had close ties to USC.

I found myself fascinated by the inner workings and convoluted network of people who both graduated from USC and work to run the city of L.A. From city officials to the LAPD, the network of deception and rot spreads far and wide. While Pringle’s reporting was able to uncover important aspects of the network, I suspect we will never fully understand just how far reaching its roots run. I will say, there was something vindicating about finding out that the bad guys were sniffed out and got what was coming to them in terms of being fired and, in Puliafito’s case, losing his license to practice. While it’s so satisfying to see the corruption come into the light and the players involved get exactly what they had coming, all the things they thought they were so powerful and wealthy they could avoid, it doesn’t make up for the fact that in reading this book we still had to undergo reading the details.

Advice: If you like a good true crime story that doesn’t involve murder, this is a great read for you. It’s scandalous and corrupt and gives a detailed look behind the scenes of the investigation that uncovers the truth behind USC’s involvement in Carmen Puliafito’s career, resignation, and coverup. The synopsis was correct, this book reads like an L.A. noir and if that’s your jam then you’ll probably love Bad City. If you’re sick of seeing the bad guys get away with everything they think they can get away with then you’ll probably find this book satisfying and vindicating. If, however, you read through the content warning at the beginning of the review and felt like this might be too much, I can all but guarantee that it will be. Tread lightly here if you’re feeling overwhelmed already, this book is dark and heavy and a little too real.

The Kingdoms of Savannah Review

Book: The Kingdoms of Savannah
Author: George Dawes Green
Publisher: Celadon Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Savannah may appear to be ‘some town out of a fable,’ with its vine flowers, turreted mansions, and ghost tours that romanticize the city’s history. But look deeper and you’ll uncover secrets, past and present, that tell a more sinister tale. It’s the story at the heart of George Dawes Green’s chilling new novel, The Kingdoms of Savannah.
It begins quietly on a balmy southern night as some locals gather at Bo Peep’s, one of the town’s favorite watering holes. Within an hour, however, a man will be murdered and his companion will be “disappeared.” An unlikely detective, Morgana Musgrove, doyenne of Savannah society, is called upon to unravel the mystery of these crimes. Morgana is an imperious, demanding, and conniving woman, whose four grown children are weary of her schemes. But one by one she inveigles them into helping with her investigation, and soon the family uncovers some terrifying truths – truths that will rock Savannah’s power structure to its core.
Moving from the homeless encampments that rings the city to the stately homes of Savannah’s elite, Green’s novel brilliantly depicts the underbelly of a city with a dark history and the strangely mesmerizing dysfunction of a complex family.”

Review: When I received this ARC, I was pleasantly surprised to find a little blurb by one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, that called this book “The apotheosis of Southern Gothic Noir.” Of course this made me want to read it all the more, and what perfect timing it was, arriving just as I finished In the Shadow of Lightning, so I cracked it open right away. I found myself confused and disappointed, though, by the way Kingdoms played out and I feel fairly well baffled trying to explain the complexities that went wrong in this book. I think the only place to start is with the disparities between the synopsis and the actual book, so let’s begin there.


The back cover refers to Morgana Musgrove as an unlikely detective, leading one to believe this will unfold as a murder mystery should: with a detective, with clues unraveling, and with a clear and defined story arc. What actually happens is far from what I’ve described. While Morgana plays a central role in the first third of the book, she falls into the background as other members of her family take center stage. Told from several differing points of view, we’re lead to believe based on the foundation of the book that while we’d jump between a few different family members, we would ultimately come back to Morgana, the backbone of the story. What actually happens is we get a base that the book is built upon and rather than return to Morgana, we find ourselves spending the majority of the book with her granddaughter Jaq. And that would be okay, given that Jaq is and interesting character with a great point of view, but Jaq is conducting her own investigation into aspects of the events that aren’t really the same as what Morgana is looking into.

The second issue I have with the book is the way in which Morgana speaks. Granted, she’s married into old Savannah money but she actually comes from a small town in Georgia; however, she behaves and speaks in a manner that gives away none of her upbringing. We’re given a small glimpse into what her thought process was when she moved to Savannah and began to infiltrate upper society, but her background remains largely unknown other than a small section that mentions she never retained her country twang, assimilating smoothly into a more Savannah way of speaking. On page 16 (the first chapter still!) we get a flashback from her son, Ransom, into just what kind of absurd creature Morgana truly is and I can’t think of a better way to describe the outlandishness than by simply letting you see for yourself:
“Then at the front steps he has one more memory. Thirteen years old. Standing out here awaiting the carpool to school and daydreaming, when his mother appeared on the balcony. Although it was a bright sunny morning, she was drunk. Clearly she’d been out partying the night before and hadn’t been to bed yet. She began to disparage him in the third person, one of her favorite pastimes. She said, “While the kid dawdles there like an idiot, gathering wool, concocting his little fantasies about how the world should be, the real world keeps marching on, doesn’t it? Clomp clomp clomp, crushing his little dreams. Does he even notice? No, he’s too stupid. Is he going to be a hobo? Well, yes, that’s certain, unless he gets some ambition and starts kiting checks. Ha ha ha.”
I don’t know about you, but that does not a drunk monologue make.

My third problem with the book are the little tidbits thrown into the plot that seem to surely have somewhere to go but fizzle out without so much as another mention. Some spoiler alerts here, so be warned! As the story progresses, we find that one of the central characters is being held hostage in one of several underground tunnels that were used during prohibition era, tunnels that bootleggers would use to store and transport contraband. The character has been spirited away into the tunnels by a cylindrical tube out in the middle of the woods, but we’re told at a few different places in the story that Morgana’s late husband had relatives who made their money as bootleggers back in the day. This is such an important tidbit of information that Dawes Green spends no less than three different instances describing the ominous door in the basement of the Musgrove home that supposedly leads into these very tunnels – in fact there are other homes with similar doors, though the other home’s doors are rumored to be closed up and filled in. I kept waiting for someone to open the door in the Musgrove basement and find their way down into the tunnels, but after it’s mentioned several times it simply…goes away. We don’t hear of it again and it’s never turned into a distinctive plot point. There are several instances of tidbits of interest dissolving into nothing, leaving me feeling confused as to their purpose and frustrated that they were dangled in front of me for nothing.

The last issue I’m going to mention is the fact that Jaq is Black. There are so few descriptors in this book that when I realized Jaq was a member of the Musgrove family, I found myself flipping back and forth trying to determine if I’d entirely misread every aspect of the Musgroves. Were they actually Black too? Was I misunderstanding that they were a white old money family? It took another one, maybe two, chapters before Jaq’s connection and background were unveiled, which was far too long to go without an understanding of who and what I’m reading. I don’t always need extremely detailed descriptions of characters to feel fulfilled and confident reading a character, but the basics are important especially if you’re going to hinge the entire story on Black history in Savannah – another spoiler, perhaps. I left the book having essentially no idea what any of the characters look like, other than knowing that about halfway through the book it’s mentioned that Ransom, Morgana’s son, has a beard. At that point I was so baffled about what he may or may not look like that the beard fully threw me off and I gave up trying to discern anything about it. Turns out I didn’t need to, as he went the way of Morgana, a central figure in the beginning of the novel who fizzled out about halfway through the book.

There are a lot of twists and turns in Kingdoms, twists and turns we aren’t privy to as readers. When Morgana solves the mystery in the end, it’s a confounding aha moment that ends up being quite the let down. We haven’t seen much of Morgana by the time she reveals how she’s solved the mystery and we’re never really given any specifics as to how she was able to unravel the details. As readers, we’re able to see a lot of what’s going on and make our own deductions, but it’s never made clear how in the world Morgana might have come to the conclusions she makes, and that leaves me disappointed; it takes all the punch out of the ending, to be completely honest. On top of which, we spend the entire book reading whispers of a treasure, a hidden treasure somewhere in Savannah, a treasure so important that people are willing to kill for it. It’s built up and built up and built up in such a way that when it’s revealed and we find it’s not exactly what we’d been expecting or hoping to find, the treasure ends up being quite the let down as well. The fact of the matter is that the treasure reveal should have been the most amazing part of the entire story, the treasure (spoiler alert!!!) is not monetary at all, it’s an archeological finding of an entire free Black colony pre-civil war, living on an island in Savannah. What I love about this treasure story is that it’s actually historically accurate though no one has yet been able to find the archeological remains as the particular island they lived on was a secret and has such been lost to time. It’s likely that with time and money and some high tech ground penetrating radar, the remains could be found, and that’s exactly what happens in Kingdoms. The treasure that everyone is willing to die for is simply the rights to develop crappy condos and apartment buildings on a swampy island in the middle of nowhere. It’s…lacking.

At the end of the book, Dawes Green spends 6 total pages explaining some of the historical facts and significance of some of what he’s written about. Those 6 pages were more interesting to me and, in my opinion, more well written than the entire rest of the book, and I think that’s really something. I love all the details provided in Kingdoms, but at the end of the day in order to tell the story he wanted to tell, I think Kingdoms could have been written completely differently and it would have made a much greater impact. I didn’t leave this book continuing to chew over the details or stew about what did or didn’t go down, I finished it and I put it down, and that’s the mark of a book poorly designed. I have to think, surely there’s no way that Neil Gaiman read this book.

Advice: If you like Southern Gothic Noir fiction, I really don’t think this fits the brief other than it’s set in the old south and includes a murder or two. If you like murder mysteries, this might be something you’d be interested in, but realistically it didn’t satisfy this mystery lover. I think it’s worth the read if it’s given to you for free or if you find it on sale somewhere. Otherwise, pick it up in the bookstore, flip to the back and read the 6 pages that mention the historical accuracies included in it – that should lead you down a rabbit hole of books and topics that would be well worth your time.

In the Shadow of Lightning Review

Book: In the Shadow of Lightning
Author: Brian McClellan
Publisher: Tor
Year: 2022
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Magic is a finite resource – and it’s running out. Demir Grappo is an exile. A failure as a general, as a leader, and as a son. But when his own mother is brutally murdered, he must return to take his seat as the head of the family. Because she was killed for a secret, a secret so large it threatens the social order, the future of the empire, and the fate of the world: The magic is running out and no one knows how to stop it.
A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir is the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it.”

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning is one of those books I finished and immediately regretted. I regretted plowing through it as fast as I did, knowing full well its pub date is June of 2022 and as the first of several, I’ll have to wait a year (at least) to read the next installment. I was a little hesitant to pick this one up at first, after all it’s a 560 page behemoth of a book, and a fantasy novel on top of that. After The Bone Orchard, which left me feeling a little frustrated with fantasy, I wasn’t sure I was ready to dive into another unknown world on a wing and a prayer that the author would paint a picture I could get lost in. McClellan, however, as a seasoned pro with at least six other fantasy books under his belt came through with a fantasy world I saw clearly and understood with ease. It was a joy to read this book.

ITSOL is told from multiple viewpoints, bouncing back and forth between a few different interlocking storylines to unveil a broad, detailed view of all angles of the story – within reason, of course. There are aspects of the story that unfold slowly, only coming to light as we begin to find the book winding down, clearly setting the reader up for the second book, but there’s plenty unraveling throughout the entirety of the book that I wasn’t left feeling frustrated that I was able to figure the plot points and twists out before we even got into the good stuff, but at the same time I wasn’t left feeling like any part of the story was dragging on needlessly. Every plot point and twisting turn seemed to further the story and the development of the characters in a way that felt satisfying and well thought out.

Each character is developed in a way that feels organic and without being told how each person sounds I found myself creating voices for them in my mind as I read, which is not something that happens often for me with books – a truly well written book, yes. Demir is an enjoyable character known as a glass dancer, or someone who can move glass at will with a rare and dangerous telekinetic power, who is fighting to overcome both the perceived personal failings of his youth, and the stigma that comes with being one of a minority of people with a dangerous and, at times, deadly power. In a world where magical glass, godglass, has the power to augment reality, the word glass takes on a deeper meaning. “Glassdamn” takes the place of many a swear word in Demir’s world and the use of the word glass in this way does a great job of emphasizing it’s importance in the lives of the people of this world. It seems to span multiple countries and/or continents (being an ARC, my copy of ITSOL doesn’t have the maps that will be included in the published copy so I’m not sure what the exact geography is), each people group using the godglass for similar purposes. They do make reference to illegal forms of godglass that may be used to torture or perhaps even change the physical appearance of a human, and I’m fascinated to see where that takes us in the next book.

This book, like many fantasy novels, takes place during a period of war. In fact, the entirety of this massive book only takes place over the span of a couple days, a week at most, successfully at that! But, with the mention of war, I did want to touch briefly on the potentially triggering imagery in the book. There are depictions of gruesome deaths and murder, death of animals, and war time fighting. It’s not nearly as graphic as it could have been, though I don’t think it should have been, but it does hang out in these realms of blood and death for a good portion of the book, so that should be noted.

The reason I’ve chosen to give this book 4.5 instead of 5 comes down to a few nit-picky things. It’s written exceptionally well, but McClellan does seem to rely on the use of the word “spat” throughout. I love when a character spits words at someone, it’s such a visceral descriptor that I tend to dwell on it more than other words. Unfortunately, so many characters in this book are constantly spitting their words at others that it begins to grow redundant and annoying by the time you reach the end of the book. I think this is an easy fix, though. My second issue deals with the wording of a handful of sentences that I felt were confusing in their wording. I bookmarked all pages where I found one of these sentences, and the book is simply littered with bookmarked pages from front to back. The storyline is detailed and winding, so I think some of the problem lies in trying to get the point across, but there were several instances where I had to re-read a sentence several times to understand what McClellan was trying to get across. Neither of these are deal breakers for me or even big issues, especially with an ARC, but they were enough in volume to take half a point.

Advice: If you love fantasy that’s done well, that leaves you wanting to know so much more, that brings you into a brand new world and gives you a full view of the intricacies, then this book is for you. If you don’t enjoy depictions of war, this is probably not going to be your cup of tea. If you love a good, slowly unfolding mystery, twists you can’t predict, and the idea of monsters and magic in a foreign land, run to your nearest bookstore this month and grab a copy.

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.

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 Anatomy of Desire Review

Book: The Anatomy of Desire
Author: L.R. Dorn
Publisher: William Morrow
Year: 2021
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis :
Cleo Ray : I taped this quote above my sink: “What does it matter if an influencer gains all the followers in the world only to lose her soul?”
Erin Newcomb, Chief Deputy : We were feeling sick in our hearts. Who leaves the person she’s planning to marry drowned in a lake and takes off?
Alana Belknap, Defense Counsel : When a defendant changes her story – the one she told police her family, her attorneys – it’s a turning point … As in, What else hasn’t she told us?
Sandy Finch : He told me to go with my conscience. So I did. No matter what, I knew I couldn’t sell out Cleo.
Cleo Ray : Alana and Reuben wanted to go with the truth defense. They wanted me to testify and tell my story. That gave me this amazing surge of hope. The ear worm I took into court that day was “the truth shall set me free.” The truth shall set me free.

Review: The Anatomy of Desire reads in it’s entirety as episodes of a docuseries following the arrest and murder trial of fitness influencer Cleo Ray. Told from the perspective of both defense and prosecution, we read the book as a script. Initially I found the format a little hard to get into, but once I got going I really found myself immerse within the trial. We find ourselves following the story of a girl who is accused of murder, who pleads not guilty, and who subsequently loses all that she’s worked for, which amounts to a rising social media career, minor fame, and near celebrity status.
Something I found interesting in the format of this book as a docuseries is that as a reader, not only are we witnessing an actual trial regarding the moral character of Cleo Ray, we as readers are given the opportunity to determine for ourselves if she’s truly innocent or not. This isn’t told from the first person, it’s told in interview style, with Cleo defending her position both in the court room and to the interviewer, Duncan McMillan. We can choose for ourselves if she is truly a reliable narrator or not, (though I should note, she’s not actually the narrator, but she is who we hear from most). Do we believe her story? Or do we listen to the evidence presented by both sides of the aisle and form our own conclusions based on what we read?
Per the authors, The Anatomy of Desire is based on “a true crime drowning of Grace Mae Brown by her lover, Chester Gillette” – a story from 1906 which then went on to inspire a novel called An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, several movies, tv shows, radio shows, plays, musicals, and now another adaptation. While I’m not familiar with An American Tragedy or the true crime story of Grace Mae Brown, I find this to be an interesting modern day adaptation. We truly are living in the era of the social media influencer and from that we find a nuanced story that underscores what celebrity status means. From millions of instagram followers to a media circus that follows her trial, Cleo Ray embodies the polarity of social status. We understand her rise to fame and likewise have witnessed, like her own, many others who have fallen hard in the public eye.
I do appreciate that this book doesn’t necessarily zero in on or highlight the idea of cancel culture, but rather shows the humanity behind a face on a screen. It characterizes the depth of character that we often overlook when we follow strangers on social media platforms – these people are more than just what we see, there is a history, there are traumas, lives lived, and unseen experiences. Nor does this book focus singularly on social media – there’s a lot of talk about the actual crime, about motive, the legal process, details of the case, and the human element. While we find ourselves living within a world of social status and influencers, we’re also afforded the luxury of being able to peer behind the curtain and see what’s going on beneath the surface.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book, like I said I initially found it a little difficult to get into with the format being the way it was, but it ended up flowing really well and following a pace that made sense both as a book and as individual docuseries episodes. I finished the book and ultimately felt that it needs to be immediately turned into a tv show and I would definitely watch it if it ever were to be. My only hitch in this whole thing is the title of the book. The docuseries itself is entitled The Three Lives of Cleo Ray and I’m not sure I see a point in naming the book differently. In fact, I don’t see a direct correlation between the title of the book and the actual story told, but I suppose that’s just a personal opinion and being an advanced reader copy it’s possible that could change, though I doubt it.

Advice: If you’re interested in true crime or a fan of true crime tv shows / docuseries, I think you’ll really enjoy this book. It isn’t graphically violent and in that regard could be much easier to read than many docuseries are to actually watch. I found this to be a quick read and one that kept me thinking after it was over, which I find to be the mark of a good book. I recommend this book if the subject matter sounds interesting to you, it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The Magicians Trilogy Review

Book: The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land
Author: Lev Grossman
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2007 – 2014
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: (from The Magicians) “Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams may have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined….
The Magicians is one of the most daring and inventive works of literary fantasy in years. No one who as escaped into the worlds of Narnia and Harry Potter should miss this breathtaking return to the landscape of imagination.”

Review: To fill you in on a little background, I found The Magicians through a show on the SciFi channel appropriately named The Magicians. It was compelling, I was immediately struck by what a massive budget the show must have had, and I was completely sucked in by the quality effects and overall put-together-ness you often miss with fantasy and sci-fi shows. It wasn’t until this year, though, that I realized the show was originally a book series so without much thought I dove right in.
I’ve struggled to find ways to review this series without also reviewing the show, continuously finding ways to compare what was done in the show to what was written in the book, seeking out plot holes between the two, and being somewhat marveled by the apt characterization of each person in the show vs the book. It’s already a bit of a strange review, attempting to review a series rather than each book individually, but I found the stories blended so seamlessly, I could have been reading from one enormous book.
Despite plowing through this series in under a week, I chose to rate these books with ultimately 50% because I’ve found, particularly in more recently popular fiction, one does not have to be a great writer to turn pages. One only needs to be compelling, and Lev Grossman writes stories that are nothing if not compelling. If we look past the glaringly obvious copy-cat of The Chronicles of Narnia, we’re still confronted with an author who wields the trope of a miserable, privileged teenage boy as if it’s a blazing sword of originality. It isn’t. I remarked recently, in the show you’re presented with Quentin as a miserable, privileged boy in a way that points to the remarkably pathetic nature of his character, in the book, however, we’re supposed to believe wholeheartedly in his “nothing is ever good enough” facade. Was it meant to be written in a way that makes you want to gag slightly over how rough Quentin has it with his genius IQ that allows him access to a magical world he’s been dreaming about his whole life only to continue pining for something more (a something more that included access to every ivy league school he could possible wish for)? I doubt it. I think we’re truly meant to feel sorry for him and that’s not something I can find myself doing. Poor rich boy, with his magic and his smarts and all the doors opening for him – it hits harder when we realize that his best friend, a girl who is likely better at magic and just as smart as him, didn’t gain access to the magic world for reasons that are never fully explained in the book.
Moving on. Grossman is cavalier with his use of mental illness, he relies heavily on fat shaming, and throws around words I wouldn’t dare use as a conversational piece. Looking at the published date of 2007, I’m not entirely surprised by some of the language he uses, but it doesn’t stop Grossman from continuing to make light of horrific sexual trauma and deep depression even as his writing moves further into the 2010s. That alone is enough to knock the rating down at least two points, in my opinion. It neither adds to the story nor furthers any action, it merely serves to show how little Grossman cares for an audience that often seeks fantasy and sci-fi to escape from the realities of life; mental illness, trauma, abuse, and bullying.
Something I found hard to move past in this trilogy is the way in which Grossman sets up magic; it’s unattainable to the average person and unless you have an IQ higher than practically everyone you know, the idea that you could insert yourself into this world he’s created is implausible. He builds a world we are meant to love and wish to escape to and then holds it so high over the heads of his readers to keep them out that we couldn’t reach it if we jumped. It’s impossible to insert yourself as a reader into a world like that, and frankly isn’t that what sci-fi and fantasy are about? How can we, as readers, be expected to escape to a beautiful world of magic if it’s so far beyond our intellectual reach?
Grossman writes in such a way that I thought perhaps he was simply trying to convey how pretentious Quentin and his friends are throughout the series, but the more I progressed through the books the more I realized it isn’t Quentin and his fellow magicians who are pretentious, it’s Grossman. I found myself looking up words I absolutely never hear or read – thrown into books that read at a YA level, words that, again, don’t further the plot or move the action along; they serve merely as yet another tool to keep his readers at arms length.
Finally, as I finished the trilogy, I began to see the book devolve into a tangled mess of “probably”. I didn’t have the time, energy, or heart to go back through the entirety of the third book, but I did sift through a few of the final chapters (26-28) and found the word probably used over fifteen times – often as the start of a sentence, used both in narrative and conversation. What’s the point? I’m really not sure. Did the other two books and maybe even the remainder of the third contain more of the p-word than I realized? Probably.

Advice: These books are compelling, they really are. I found it hard to put them down, wanting to know what was going to happen next, reading quickly because the plot moved quickly. It’s an enjoyable read if you don’t think about it too much, or if you’ve watched the series and found it to be something you liked. It’s not an enjoyable read for a myriad of other reasons and I will likely not be reading anything further from Grossman in the future.

Where the Crawdads Sing Review

Book: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Publisher: Putnam
Year: 2018
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl.
But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life – until the unthinkable happens.
Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject the the beautiful and violent secrets nature keeps.”

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing came highly recommended and it was absolutely without question as to why my book club chose this title to read. It is a New York Times Bestseller, it’s a book in Reese’s book Club, and it’s been highly praised. A quick online search shows it ranks between 4.5 and 5 stars from multiple rating sources. I began reading this book truly uncertain about how I would feel – I waited until the last minute to cram it in before our bookclub meeting and never actually read the synopsis. The story begins in 1952 when Kya, the “Marsh Girl”, is six years old and jumps back and forth between the years leading up to 1969 and 1969 itself. Crawdads is Owens’ debut novel, though it is not her first publication. As a native to North Carolina herself, Owens has a unique perspective of the swampy, marshy areas along the coast, and in fact she has written several books on wildlife (though, notably not about her time in NC). The writing of Crawdads is gorgeous and striking, at no point during the novel are you lost in imagining the marsh and the amazing creatures who call it home. This, at the very least, warrants Crawdads 50% of it’s rating. However, while Owens’ writing skills are clearly well developed, her novel writing skills are not. The conversation is stilted and unbelievable – most townsfolk speaking as Owens writes: in prolific, beautiful language, describing things people would likely think rather than say. She weaves an intricate tale of murder throughout the novel, something that the entirety of the plot relies upon, yet when it comes time to reveal who the murderer really was (gasp! plot twist??) we are left with an incomplete story, a predictable ending, and a story that would absolutely never have happened. And maybe that’s my fault for hoping that a realistic book would have a realistic plot line, but I’d rather read something realistic and deeply moving than something that Nicholas Sparks himself might have written and written better.
The ending leaves the story with gaping holes and I find myself stewing over this days after having finished the book. If what the novel was aiming for was a purely romantic plot line with absolutely no need for reality, it could have and should have been written differently. If, what I suspect Owens was trying to do, the novel was written to be poignant, address prejudices, and introduce the reader to the amazing wildlife and human life that reside within a marsh, it should have absolutely taken about three different turns and concluded in a much different manner. But what I’m left with is disappointment and frustration that I spent $25 on a hardcover copy of what ultimately turned out to be a Nicholas Sparks book in disguise and for that I would have passed it up.

Advice: If you are interested in a slow moving and deeply unrealistic love story, first of all, no judgement. Secondly, this is the book for you. It is a gorgeous book with amazing tales of wildlife and a truly remarkable coming-of-age story that turns on its head and becomes a sappy love story at the end. I can admit that this is not at all my style but is the style of many a summer book reader. If you are not looking to think deeply about the plot or the potential holes in it, definitely pick this book up. Again, I can’t say enough about the gorgeous imagery Crawdads provides, it is striking and compels you to continue reading without putting the book down. It’s a 50/50 for me, some good with a lot of, in my opinion, bad.

Welcome!

Welcome to my little space I’ve carved out here for the discussion and review of books I’m reading. For the sake of new beginnings, rather than jump right into reviewing a book, I’ve provided a list below of my current reading list:

  1. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  2. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  3. Assata by Assata Shakur
  4. Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I’ve chosen the above books from an extensive to-read list of my own based solely on accessibility and time. Becoming is a book I’m reading for a new book club I’ve joined, but other than that the rest of the reads are of my own choosing for the purpose of self education.

Finally, a little information about me. I am a non-traditional college Junior (nearly senior) majoring in English with aspirations towards an MFA in Creative Writing. I dream of copy writing to pay the bills and writing/reviewing on my own time for the fun of it. I’m excited to see what this blog brings during this year!