Little Eve Review

Book: Little Eve
Author: Catriona Ward
Publisher: Nightfire
Year: 2022
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “On the wind-battered isle of Altnaharra, off the wildest coast of Scotland, a clan prepares to bring about the end of the world and its imminent rebirth. The Adder is coming, and one of their number will inherit its powers. They all want the honor, but young Eve is willing to do anything for the distinction. A reckoning beyond Eve’s imagination begins when Chief Inspector Black arrives to investigate a brutal murder, and their sacred ceremony goes terribly wrong. And soon, all the secrets of Altnaharra will be uncovered.”

Review: Wow, can you believe it? A 5 star review for an uncorrected advanced reader copy? It seems almost too good to be true! I kid, of course, but you know how I’ve felt about a lot of the ARCs I’ve received – particularly suspenseful fiction, even more so with a female narrator. I did happen to read an ARC from Catriona Ward last year, Sundial, but never got around to reviewing it. In fairness, Sundial was so strange and creepy I wasn’t entirely sure how to review it, but it would have also certainly garnered at least 3 stars (it’s been a little while since I read it, so I can’t say for sure what I would have rated it but I can tell you it was very good, especially for the genre).

Little Eve bounces around between, mainly, two narrators. It jumps back and forth in time, ranging from 1917 to 1945, telling a twisting tale both as it unfolds in real time and as a series of letters written to the aforementioned Chief Inspector Black. This book is filled with turns, not everyone is who we think them to be and even as details are revealed we have to keep in mind that the narration is coming from characters who are nearly as in the dark as we are as readers. Little Eve tells the tale of a man, “Uncle”, who possesses a unique gift called The Eye. Uncle, with his powers of understanding and persuasion, convinces two women to move to his inherited home on the isle of Altnaharra – for all intents and purposes, a castle on the edge of the sea, behind which is a ring of towering stones Uncle and his family use for ritual-esque purposes. The three then adopt four children, three girls and a boy, who grow up and live on the isle with their somewhat cobbled together family.

The book begins with a retelling of the events that unfold on the cold morning of January 2 1921, when the local butcher, Jamie MacRaith, makes his way to the Castle of Altnaharra to deliver a slab of beef for Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve). Jamie is a few days late because of a wicked winter storm, and when he arrives at Altnaharra to deliver the beef, instead of a locked gate at the entrance to the lone isle, he finds the gate ajar and blood on the ground. Jamie is the first to discover the five bodies of those in residence at Altnaharra; each with a single eye removed, dead or nearly so, arranged in a circle within the stones behind the castle. The rest of the book tells the story of the previous four years and what exactly transpired to bring Uncle, the two women, and the four children who lived on the isle with him to their ultimate demise. (And yes, I correctly said five bodies and not seven, all is revealed in time.)

Little Eve weaves a web of cult-like behavior, made up religious beliefs, possible magical powers, and confusion through it’s story-line. Unlike other books I’ve read that have attempted to spin a yarn so complex and failed in a jumble of convoluted nonsense and confusion, Ward has managed to weave a web of complexity that unfolds in a pleasing way. Nothing is as it seems. Nothing plays out the way you expect it to, even if you’re like me and prefer to guess incessantly as the book reveals its secrets, it holds those secrets closely guarded until it’s ready to reveal them and astonish you. I referred to this book twice now as a woven web, and I would generally not repeat a phrase like that but it’s the only way I can think to explain the inner workings of what Ward has managed to achieve. Little Eve is complex in the best ways: you can’t ever quite rule anything out no matter how much your mind might want you to, all options are on the table until the last chapter, and even then there are still secrets being revealed right up until the end.

I was so surprisingly satisfied with how this book played out that I couldn’t help but give it 5 stars. Not only was it well constructed, it was a compelling story, and the best part? It was well written. And not just well written for an Arc, it was well written. I have not a single complaint or wish for this book and if you’ve been here for a bit, you know that’s no small feat. Little Eve left me stewing over how it might play out for several days when I accidentally left the book at home when I went on vacation – I couldn’t wait to get back to the plot, to see where it was going to take me! That’s the mark of a great book in my opinion. I can only hope to read more from Catriona Ward in the future, she has exceeded every expectation.

Advice: If you like a good suspenseful novel, a dark mystery, a cult story, or an ending you cannot predict then boy do I have the book for you. If you love a good twist (or four, or five), I think you’ll love Little Eve. If, however, you’re looking for something light and fluffy, or prefer a narrative that doesn’t jump around between characters, this is probably not quite the book for you. All in all, I found this to be an enjoyable, complex, engaging, and dark read.

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.

Things We Do in the Dark Review

Book: Things We Do in the Dark
Author: Jennifer Hillier
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Year: 2022
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “In the dark, monsters are real. When Paris Peralta is arrested in her own bathroom – covered in blood, holding a straight razor, her celebrity husband dead in the bathtub – she knows she’s in serious trouble.
In the dark, it never happened. But as bad as it looks, the arrest is not what worries her the most. With the unwanted media attention now surrounding her, it’s only a matter of time before someone from her old life recognizes her and destroys everything she’s worked so hard to build.
In the dark, she could be anyone. Because Paris has a dark past. And she’ll do anything to keep it hidden.”

Review: Things We Do in the Dark has a promising synopsis, it sounds intriguing and dark, mysterious and interesting. To say it falls flat is an understatement. To be completely honest, I found myself bored reading this book. There was a tiny section where I grew more interested somewhere around 3/4 of the way through, but it was short lived and the book returned to it’s dull story-telling for it’s finale. Hillier skirts the more graphic details of Paris’ previous life, stopping short of telling you what’s really going on, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. I personally think if you’re going to tell a story that requires some content warnings, and this does, you might as well go all in and embrace what you’re telling rather than apologize for it by simply not describing or naming the thing. So let’s talk about the content warnings: Things We Do in the Dark contains implications of pedopohelia, assault, domestic violence, and PTSD. It references harm to a minor, incest, and contains racist language. While all of the above sounds fairly graphic, this book would likely receive a PG-13 rating as a movie, do with that what you will.

Though this book has little to nothing to do with music, each chapter begins with a quote from a popular song. The song lyrics rarely, if ever, tie into the chapter, and the effect is meaningless. It adds to my distaste for how this book was put together, giving the impression that perhaps there are places in the book that should have been highlighted in order to tie in with the chapter lyrics. Why go through the trouble of choosing lyrics for each chapter of a book that has nothing to do with music? I believe it’s referenced one, maybe two times through the entire 397 page book. This is the least of my issues, however. While the writing was fine and I found almost no grammatical errors that seem to be common in ARCs, it lacked that thing that makes you want to keep turning pages. It took me much longer to read this book than the past few ARCs simply because I didn’t care what happened. Not only did I figure out what was going on long before it was revealed because it was glaringly obvious, the “twists” were revealed much too early to give the reader any incentive to keep going. I’ve said it many times before, you don’t have to be a good writer to write a compelling story. I’ve read many books that were poorly executed but I kept turning the pages because I needed to know what was going to happen. What We Do in the Dark is simply not that book.

Hillier doesn’t stay true to her character, Paris, toward the end stating “[she] had been trained not to cry.” But by this point, we’ve seen the main character cry several times. This might seem small, but this sentence was 301 pages into the book and by this time the main character has cried no less than five times that we know of. Hillier tells Paris’ story by jumping back and forth between Paris’ point of view in the present, her point of view in the past, and the point of view of her former best friend / roommate, Drew. Paris has lived a hard life full of oppression, abuse, and trauma, yet when she reconnects with Drew, supposedly the best person in her life, potentially the love of her life, he is condescending, offensive, and patronizing. While she stands up for herself, she doesn’t demand apology or change from Drew, she simply allows him to continue to be the bully he has always been. I’m not sure why he’s painted to be a savior figure here, but he becomes someone she relies upon once again as her perspective jumps back to the future (she relied on him a great deal in her younger years, before she had the wherewithal to stand up for herself), and I found myself feeling completely disgusted as I read.

Things We Do in the Dark, lastly, is entitled far too closely to the hit TV show What We Do in the Shadows and contains names of characters that share names of characters in other TV shows. While none are related, and I suspect are just coincidence, I couldn’t read through the book without making the connections and I have to wonder why an editor wouldn’t suggest some name changes. Least of all, the title of the book should be at least slightly more different, as What We Do in the Shadows is a current, and wildly popular show that has absolutely nothing in common with this book. These are semantics, I suppose, but added to my pile of issues with reading through this book, end up being more than small irritants I could look past.

Advice: Skip this book. There are no surprises, there are no twists that you won’t see coming a mile away, there’s nothing interesting here. While it may be sort of unique in plot, it’s not wholly unique and could be supplemented with several other suspense novels, including any of the past suspense novels I’ve read and criticized for being cookie cutter versions of each other. This one is not worth the read.

The Honeys Review

Book: The Honeys
Author: Ryan La Sala
Publisher: Push
Year: 2022
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Mars has always been the lesser twin, the shadow to his sister Caroline’s radiance. But when Caroline dies under horrific circumstances, Mars is propelled to learn all he can about his once-inseparable sister, who’d grown tragically distant.
Mars’ gender fluidity means he’s often excluded from the traditions – and expectations – of his politically connected family, including attendance at the prestigious Aspen Conservancy Summer Academy, where his sister poured so much of her time. But with his grief still fresh, he insists on attending in her place.
What Mars finds is a bucolic fairytale. Folksy charm and rigid gender roles combine with toxic preparatory rigor into a pristine, sun-drenched package. Mars seeks out his sister’s old friends: a group of girls dubbed the Honeys, named for the beehives they maintain behind their cabin. They are beautiful and terrifying – and Mars is certain they’re connected to Caroline’s death.
But the longer he stays in Aspen, the more the sweet mountain breezes give way to hints of decay. Mars’ memories begin to falter, bleached beneath the relentless summer sun. Something is hunting him in broad daylight, tying with his mind. If Mars can’t find it soon, it will eat him alive.”

Review: In the front of my review copy of The Honeys, La Sala has left a note for the reader. In it he writes: “As I write you this letter, another fear has found me. My first two books have shown up on a list concocted by a Texas lawmaker, to be investigated for their potentially discomforting themes around queerness, equity, and justice…This man fears me and my art. And I wish – like Mars – his reaction to fear was to learn. As an author, I do think of my works as edifying. I want The Honeys to shock and scare you, but after the buzzing fades, there is much to learn in these pages.”

As you may know from past reviews, I have read several YA books over the last few years and come away feeling frustrated and disappointed. I kept saying “YA can be better!” La Sala has proved me right with The Honeys. A quick-witted and sharp story, The Honeys is also a successful horror / suspense novel, and for that I find myself eternally grateful. I have spent so many hours reading essentially the same book over and over and over within the horror / suspense genre that I’ve grown bored and annoyed, at best. Finally. Finally! A YA novel, a horror / suspense novel at that, that breaks all the norms and blazes its own path forward. The Honeys unfolds slowly and you spend a majority of the book getting to know Mars and Aspen, learning what the camp looks like, discovering all the ways Mars has to fight for their very existence, and learning hints here and there about what may or may not have happened to his sister Caroline while attending the camp. I can appreciate a slow-to-unfold horror story, particularly when it begins it’s descent before there are 10 pages left. La Sala does not disappoint in this regard, as the book begins to gain momentum and work toward a conclusion with a good several chapters to go. In this way, the construction of the book is excellent, something I don’t find very often in both YA and horror novels.

I was a bit torn over whether to give The Honeys 4 or 5 stars when I got to the end – in full transparency, as I read I was convinced it was 5 out of 5 for the majority of the book. It was only when I got to the end that I started to question that rating. I came up against my own mind, thinking “but this is a queer novel” and wondering why there wasn’t some poignant sociologial meaning to draw everything together at the end. What I finally came to realize is that this is a young adult horror novel told from a queer narrator, not a queer novel with horror themes thrown in. While it does answer the brief and delve into Mars’ point of view and the way in which they interact with and are confronted by the world, it doesn’t to come to the end and force the reader to learn something profound – that happens slowly, as you get to know Mars through the bulk of the book. At the end of the day, this is a horror novel told from the point of view of a narrator with a different perspective than the majority of horror or suspense novels I’ve seen out there.

The writing is excellent, especially for a review copy. You have probably read by now, if you’ve been following my reviews for any length of time, that I often get review copies merely weeks before they’re published and still manage to find a plethora of grammatical errors and general mistakes throughout. In The Honeys I found two: one was a repeated word and one was a word left out. The Honeys doesn’t come out for mass reading until August of 2022, so La Sala is way ahead of the game as far as review copies go. I was so overwhelmingly surprised and pleased with the way this book was put together, the quality of the writing, and the overall storytelling, I finished the book and immediately looked up his other two books. YA isn’t a genre I tend to read on my own for fun, but I would gladly read another book from La Sala if his other two are anything like this one.

I can’t speak highly enough about The Honeys. It confronts themes I feel are important, and I think are becoming more important to young readers: the gender binary, traditional gender roles, and the danger that women and trans people feel in the presence of the “boys will be boys” mentality. I’ve read other queer review copies, and particularly within the YA genre it often feels as though the authors are trying too hard to fit these characters into their narrative. The Honeys didn’t feel forced, it didn’t feel over the top, or utterly absurd; it felt natural, it flowed in a way that felt organic, and it left me feeling as though the topic of gender fluidity wasn’t merely thrown in as a token to the audience. Perhaps it’s because La Sala is gender fluid whereas other YA books with queer characters that I’ve read to review have been written by authors who aren’t, or perhaps it speaks to La Sala’s talent as a writer, or maybe (most likely) it’s both. Either way, I came away both absolutely thrilled and disappointed that I’d read through it so quickly.

Advice: I don’t think you have to be a fan of YA books to read and enjoy The Honeys. I think if you enjoy suspenseful novels, beautiful imagery, and a good mystery then The Honeys is going to tick all the boxes for you. If you enjoy quality writing and a mystery that you can’t really solve on your own way ahead of the ending, you’ll love this book. If you’re interested in reading more gender fluid or queer character points of view, this book hits the mark. If you’re a fan of summer camp suspense, again, it checks all the boxes. I think this is a book for a wide and diverse range of audiences and I can’t recommend it enough.

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 Retreat Review

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

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

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

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

The 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!

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.

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.