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 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.

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 Other Black Girl Review

Book : The Other Black Girl
Author : Zakiya Dalila Harris
Publisher : Atria Books
Year : 2021
Rating : 4.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis : “Nella Rogers is an ambitious young Black woman trying to make her mark at the legendary Wagner Books. Needless to say, she is thrilled when Hazel joins the team and is eager for the friendship she assumes will be just around the corner, easy, and immediate. but when a moment of support goes horribly wrong (in a very public way), Nella retreats and finds herself watching and questioning Hazel’s every move. Urgent, propulsive, brilliant, and hilarious, The Other Black Girl is a psychological masterpiece, where micro aggressions and gaslighting turn a company’s “civilized” atmosphere into a slowly unraveling horror.”

Review : The Other Black Girl was a slow burning, psychologically thrilling, completely haunting novel. I’m torn, generally, between love and hate for a book who jumps between characters; it’s either done well or it’s not, there’s very little middle ground. Harris nearly-perfectly executes this technique (nearly, hence the .5 rating) throughout the entirety of the novel but lost me briefly at the end with a chapter that was not entitled and left me trying to guess who the character was supposed to be – probably the point of the chapter, but ultimately it felt disjointed. Aside from the minor disjointedness from the final chapter, the rest of the book read easily and enjoyably. Finally, a thriller that doesn’t follow the same, old, stale routine. It’s a miracle.
I loved the pacing of this book. It’s not clear it’s even entering into the world of thrillers and horror until you’re well into it, setting the stage for a deeply personal encounter. All of the build up had a point, it all lead to a conclusion that was surprisingly twisty, and I never once felt like there was story just for the sake of filling pages. I’m grateful when I find a book that engages details that further the plot rather than a book I come away from wondering why I read half of what I read.
Harris leaves us wanting more as she wraps the book up and for that I’m both frustrated and glad. I wish there was more! I still have questions and there are characters I was hoping to hear more from, but it doesn’t feel empty or come across as incomplete. It reads like a good book should: realistically (as much as can be expected from a thriller / horror novel). Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t always want a book to tie up a story into a neat little bow, they read as stilted and unlikely. Harris proves that you can have an unlikely story without creating a book that feels unlikely.

Advice : If you like thrillers, psychological movies, or an unexpected ending, you’ll love The Other Black Girl. It is a truly well written novel that will suck you in and keep you coming back for more. I highly recommend this book!