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.

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.

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.

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.

Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls Review

Book: Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls
Author: Nina Renata Aron
Publisher: Crown
Year: 2020
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “‘The disease he has is addiction,’ Nina Renata Aron writes of her boyfriend, K. “The disease I have is loving him.” Their affair is dramatic, urgent, overwhelming – an intoxicating antidote to the long, lonely days of early motherhood. Soon after they get together, K starts using again, and years of relapses and broken promises follow. Even as his addiction deepens, she stays, confined that she is the one who can help him get sober. As a result of an adolescence marred by tragedy, Aron has always felt responsible for those suffering around her. How can she break this pattern? If she leave K, has she failed him?
Writing in prose at once unflinching and acrobatic, Aron delivers a piercing memoir that cracks open the long-feminized and overlooked phenomenon of codependency. She shifts between visceral, ferocious accounts of her affair with K – as well as her family’s own struggles with addiction – and defining moments in the history of codependency. Good Morning, Destroy of Men’s Souls is a blazing, bighearted book that illuminates and adds nuance to the messy theaters between felinity, enabling, and love.”

Review: Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls is more than a small synopsis on the back of a book, it is more than a tiny review on a website or post on social media. It is an all encompassing work, a memoir and an unfaltering look into the heart of the AA, Al-Anon, codependency, trauma, tragedy, love, and growth. Aron is at times a young Joan Didion, basking in the warmth of the California sun, radiating the innocence only a new, young life in San Fransisco can. She wraps the reader in a golden glow, enveloped in the potential of a bright future yet to be seen as she emerges, newly 18, on the west coast – having traveled from the far side of the east coast, from New York, Philly, punk shows and hometown suburbia, to find something of her own, to cast her flag upon new soil; an explorer of new lands and a conqueror of life at once. We spend ever the briefest of stays in Didion-esque Northern California before Aron returns home, called upon by her family and the addiction that grips her sister and in turn the entirety of her familial home.
Aron discusses the addiction that codependents find themselves drowning within and the difficulties this level of love, attachment, desire, maybe even lust for the ability to fix it, bring. She waxes poetic on the love she has for the possibility, the person she knows the addicts in her life could be. If only, if only, if only. She struggles; we find her neck deep in an intense and toxic relationship with an old flame, K, yet another addict (heroin, among others). This time she isn’t a budding adult, she has children and a career, a home and a car, both physical and intangible belongings which are easily broken beneath the weight of addiction. Admitting her own codependency, she swings between fury and guilt; quoting Lois Wilson, she acknowledges her own brokenness in needing to fix: “Living with me would be such an inspiration, I thought, that he would not need the balm of alcoholic.” and “Alas, for the codependent, empathy springs eternal.” (220, 218) If she were Joan in a cozy, golden California, in the midst of a lifetime of crisis and trauma she is Melissa Febos – wildly educated, wholly sunk into addiction and love, and deeply, deeply vulnerable.
Reaching into the jagged edge of a wound, Aron uses Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls to tear herself open, slashed and flayed onto the page for the reader to soak in. We are privy to her agony, the newness of motherhood, of “babylove”, of the milky smell of a newborn, and in the same breath we feel her guilt and sorrow as she struggles to hold everything together, to keep the people around her from crumbling to pieces even as she realizes they already have. She uses herself, her own story of codependence, of being a widow to a man who has not died, of her own addictions to both love and substance, to take the reader on a trip through the confoundedness of addiction trauma and enabling. Aron has written a story that rages quietly, burning through the pages as she discusses the history of AA amidst the anguish of her own life. It is heart shattering, honest, and raw.

Advice: This is not an easy book to read, as I said, it’s brutally honest as Aron speaks of addiction and love in blunt terms. However, it is an absolute must-read, a book that will change you, move you, bring you to the page to write a review. It is a deeply personal memoir that I found often challenging in reading it – I absolutely recommend this book, I will be chewing on it for days to come.

Daisy Jones & The Six Review

Book: Daisy Jones & the Six
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Year: 2019
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis
“Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock ‘n’ roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.
Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camilla finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.
Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.
The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.

Review: Daisy Jones & The Six received a tremendous amount of fanfare preceding it’s release in March of 2019. It was read, reviewed, and adored long before it was available to buy; nearly every book reviewer I follow read the book and was singing its praises. Naturally, I was excited to pick it up, expecting a wild ride through rock and roll, drugs, and the culture of the seventies. I was sorely mistaken. DJ&TS is a kiddie ride by comparison, though Reid does discuss prolific drug use and there is some mention of sex, the details are left out and what the reader finds is a watered down story you could find on VHS’ Behind the Music. The style of the book is told as an interview, each band member giving their thoughts on the time, looking back from some fifty or sixty years later. While this style of writing is interesting and different, it requires interview subjects who have a strong grasp of the details and events as they unfolded. These former rockers talk about night after night of partying, allude to hard drugs, and mention doing lines before shows – none of which give me the impression that they would be capable of rehashing the minutiae, and yet I have come away from the book with a full and complete story. Somehow.
Reid puts a singular emphasis on foreshadowing throughout the book, leading the reader to an explosive climax, or so it seemed. The build up was hundreds of pages long, being alluded to early on and continuously referenced throughout the interviews, but when the eventual fallout occurred it was quiet, quick, and expected. In this same style, Reid turns the end of the transcript into a second “reveal”, giving the reader the details of who had been performing the interview throughout the story – here’s a spoiler: it adds absolutely nothing to the book or it’s plot.
DJ&TS is finished with a predictable rom-com ending that I saw coming from nearly the first chapter of the book. It is cheesy and it trivializes the deep connection Billy and his wife Camilla had for their entire adult lives. It takes a woman who sacrificed everything for her husband to go on tour and become one of the most famous musicians of the time, and turns her into a backdrop and a consolation prize.

My Advice: If you are looking for a book with any sort of female empowerment or feminist message, this is not the book for you. It is lacking, it is weak, and it is a massive disappointment. If you like the idea of a one note story, pun not intended, and a terribly written rom-com then this is absolutely your book. Reid calls Barbara Streisand her primary influence for Daisy’s style and after looking at pictures of young Babs online, I can say with confidence that not only was she the influence, Daisy’s style was an exact rip off of her look. It’s been done. Don’t waste your money, turn on any band interview and you’ll have the gist.