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 Magicians Trilogy Review

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

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

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

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

Where the Crawdads Sing Review

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

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

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

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

The Girls Review

Book: The Girls
Author: Emma Cline
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Year: 2016
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, teenager Evie Boyd sees a group of girls in the park and is immediately struck by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. The group’s sprawling ranch is eerie and run-down, but to Evie it is exotic, thrilling, charged – a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.”

Review: I picked up The Girls because of the hype that had surrounded the book upon it’s release. Cline’s first novel was being read by everyone and being reviewed in publications like the New York Times and NPR; the cover art is simplistic but catchy and inviting, it nearly jumped off the shelf at me. I read the synopsis and against my better judgement decided to give the book a try.
Let me explain.
The year is 2019. We have a white man for president. “Literary geniuses” are more often than not white men. White men dominate the news. In an effort to combat this, I have chosen to read only works from authors who are not white men. I picked up a book by a white woman, Emma Cline, hoping to read a fresh take on an old story. What I was bombarded with, instead, was a stale story about a white man who has been romanticized beyond exhaustion.
How many times have you seen a “new and exciting!” documentary about Charles Manson and the Manson girls? Did you watch John McNamara’s Aquarius when it debuted in 2015? Or perhaps you have noted the movie featured on Netflix “Manson Family Vacation” (again, 2015 release) or the newer documentary “Truth and Lies: The Mason Family” (2018) on Hulu. There is a trend, a fascination, a morbid desire to pick these horrific events apart piece by piece and imagine what could have led people to act the way they did.
Cline writes of a man, Russel, who has a strange hold over the people in his sphere. He speaks of love and a world without race and has seemingly deep and meaningful connections with every girl who lives with and follows him. And as every Manson story goes, if you read just a tiny bit further and delve just a little bit deeper the facade peels away and you’re left with the scum and filth underneath; a sexual predator and young girls who are so lost that they blindly follow the words of their supposed savior.
My hopes for Cline’s novel were less than high, admittedly, but I did wonder if she would perhaps refresh this fascination with Manson and rather than simply retell the story with new names attached would create her own world with new ideas and figures.

My Advice: Perhaps you haven’t seen Charles Manson’s face in the news, a swastika tattooed on his forehead and scraggly hair sprouting from his scalp. Maybe you haven’t watched any of the numerous Manson documentaries, movies, or tv shows that have picked apart the events of the Manson family so such degree that there is nothing left to scavenge. If this is the case, my advise to you is go to your local used book store and pick up a copy for $7.
If, however, this is not the case and you have indeed been privy to this sick obsession with a sexual predator who had no motive beyond his own selfish desires, there are plenty of other books out there that would be better suited for you. And if you still feel like you are missing out, watch Aquarius. It’s the same story.