Archive for April 2022

Unmasked by Paul Holes


I'm a crime fiction junkie. Give me a book that has murder, corruption, or some kind of investigation, and I'm in. It has been an obsession of mine for as long as I can remember. Even as a child I would spend hours rereading my copies of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. Today I read as many popular thrillers as I possibly can. There's an odd sense of comfort that I get from reading these books, a strange juxtaposition to the darkness that the pages typically contain. I first became familiar with Paul Holes from his involvement in hunting the Golden State Killer. He was a pivotal partner to the late author Michelle McNamara whose investigation into the serial killer helped renew the quest in finding him. I was less familiar with his career outside of that single case. When the publisher offered me a copy of Unmasked, a new memoir by Paul Holes, I eagerly accepted the opportunity to learn more about his storied career. 

Who is Paul Holes? Unless you pay close attention to the people who investigate horrendous crimes, you've probably never heard of him. Even I was only tangentially aware of him through the works of other investigators. Though you may have never heard of Paul Holes before reading this review, I can almost guarantee that you've heard of some of the high-profile cases that he's been involved with. Yes, he's credited with helping to identify the Golden State Killer, but he was also involved in other notable cases like the murder of Laci Peterson and the kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard. It is wild to think that one man could have been part of solving so many infamous crimes. 

Holes writes of his beginnings as little more than a glorified lab rat working in the county crime lab. His enthusiasm for science combined with an obsessive desire to solve unsolvable crimes. As he mastered the skills needed to become a CSI during his work hours, Holes would spend his off time sifting through the countless cold case files in the office basement. He was compelled to use the advances of modern science, such as DNA, to bring closure to the decades-old investigations. As his mastery of criminal investigation grew, so did the profile of the crimes he was tasked with solving. Hole writes of the precarious balancing act of juggling horrific crimes, a desire to devote time and resources to older investigations, and trying to be present for his young family. 

The title Unmasked describes this work on multiple levels. Paul Holes dedicated his life to unmasking the worst criminals imaginable. He built a career chasing that revelation for each crime he investigated. As Holes uncovered the evidence, he also began to unmask the victim. The unbridled respect for the humanity of the lives lost in each case shines through every retelling of an investigation. I got the sense that Holes was driven by not only his curiosity but by a need to understand and provide closure to the victims. As he chronicles the highlights of his career through some of the most compelling true crime writing I've ever read, Paul Holes also reveals the deepest part of himself, ultimately unmasking the man behind each of these investigations. He's far from perfect. In fact, his compulsive desire to find the truth saw him face deeply personal hardships. Broken relationships, professional missteps, and an unhealthy dependence on bourbon to ease stress were all side effects of his lifestyle. Unmasked succeeds as a fascinating inside look at the mechanisms of solving a crime, and as a memoir of one man who has dedicated his entire life to seeking justice. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2022, 17)

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig


"Either something was wrong with her watch, or something was wrong with time."

If you had the chance to do it all again, what would you change? Every moment in life is connected to the others that have preceded them. Each decision we make can alter the trajectory of our lives in small and large ways. That's probably why so many of us have spent time wondering to ourselves "what if". What if I never took that job? What if I never moved to that city? What if I wasn't so afraid to express my true feelings to someone else? If we spend too much time dwelling on lost possibilities, we devolve into an endless stream of hypotheticals. Still, the ability to go back and alter even just a single decision can be appealing. It is this connection of decisions and the potential to choose a different path that lies at the center of Matt Haig's hit novel The Midnight Library. 

Nora is ready to end it all. Nothing in her life matters anymore. She's stuck in a routine of working a job that means nothing to her. On the personal front, things are equally grim. Nora has squandered every relationship that ever meant anything to her. Her parents have been divorced for years. Her mother has passed away, and her father seems more intent on cherishing his new family than the one he left behind. There have been romantic prospects, but Nora always seems to screw things up before they get too serious. Her brother, the last person to actually care about her, has stopped speaking to her. Even her cat has been hit by a car. There's really nothing left. The world will be a better place without the existence of Nora, so she resolves to do the deed and end her life once and for all. 

As she emerges on the other side, Nora is surprised at what she sees. Where the pearly gates and fluffy clouds should be stands the imposing facade of a large building flanked by classical stone pillars. She opens the grand doors and is greeted by the smell of thousands of well-worn books. Nora stares at the clock on the wall, eternally frozen at midnight, still uncertain of where exactly she is. Among the book-lined shelves, Nora sees the long-forgotten face of her elementary school librarian, Mrs. Elm. Mrs. Elm explains that Nora finds herself at the Midnight Library, a place somewhere right between life and death. Each book on the shelf represents a single regret in Nora's life. If she opens it, she will be able to live out the life that she would have had if she had never made that one decision. If Nora finds a version of her life that she truly likes, she will be allowed to stay there. The moment she regrets that path, she'll be sent back to the library to choose another book. Her time there is limited. She may only have enough time to try one life, or she may get to experience many of them. One thing is certain. When the clock moves to 12:01, her time is up. 

The idea of turning back time isn't a new one. Countless works of fiction have explored the topic before, though Matt Haig gets major bonus points for centering his time-bending fiction around a library. I think a lot of us would agree that there could be worse ways to spend purgatory than being in a giant library! Haig broaches the topic of depression in a way that is both honest and endearing. The main character Nora serves as the vessel through which the author moves readers through dealing with the affliction. There's no "Groundhog Day" effect here. We aren't simply observing the same day or events over and over. Instead, each book that Nora opens transports her to a different timeline, one in which a single decision drastically altered this version compared to the one that she lived before. It takes some time for the supporting cast to round out, especially as we only meet different versions of them in the various timelines that Nora chooses. By the end, however, we see the importance of each personal relationship within her life. Yes, the ending of this book is predictably inevitable, but to decry the conclusion would be to miss the point of the work entirely. Haig posits that life is but an interconnected web of one decision after another, culminating in a world that is beautiful, tragic, brilliant, messy, and every other conceivable adjective. An existence that is uniquely our own with each experience made more meaningful because of what came before. The Midnight Library perfectly captures the intricacies of life through one of the most simple and creative presentations imaginable. It is absolutely worthy of all the hype that it has received. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2022, 16)

Atonement by Ian McEwan


“How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime.”

I'm always shocked and a bit ashamed at the sheer number of books that I acquire but never read. Even as I set out to write this review, I'm staring at a pile of 9 books that I received in the last couple of weeks. Despite my best intentions, I'll never be able to read them all. There just isn't enough time. Last week we set out for a cruise to celebrate my birthday. I was excited about getting away from work for a week to just relax, but I was even more hopeful that with all the extra time on my hands I would be able to devote hours to reading. As I packed a mix of several different books for the trip, I came to Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. It has been set on my shelf for over a decade, patiently waiting for the day that I would finally remove it and give it the read it deserves. Well my friends, I finally did it. I packed the book in my backpack and read the entire thing. 

Thirteen-year-old Briony is as precocious as she is imaginative. On a hot summer day in 1935, she has set out to present a play that she's written as a welcome home gift to her older brother. She hopes to impress him while encouraging him to eschew the single life in favor of settling down with a wife. Naturally, Briony intends to be a bridesmaid on the blessed day. In her eyes, there is no better way to achieve this goal than through a self-written and directed drama. Her visiting cousins, whom Briony has tasked with performing the great work, are not as keen. It is during yet another break from rehearsals when Briony spots her sister and the servant boy seemingly arguing down in the yard by the fountain. She isn't certain of the details of their apparent entanglement, but this does little to stop Briony from beginning to concoct the plot of her next drama. 

After Robbie and Cecilia have a row by the fountain, he storms off to his room. He's come to the conclusion that he simply can't go on lying to himself about the way he feels about the girl. Yes, they come from different classes, but he loves her. Robbie is determined to express his feeling to her. In a mad fury, he agonizes over pen and paper, writing out numerous drafts of his confession to her. One more colorful iteration of the confession sees the young man write of his lustful desire for Cecilia in a graphically detailed manner. With that out of his system, Robbie finally settles on a letter to her and seals it in an envelope. He tasks young Briony with delivering the note to her sister and breathlessly awaits a response. 

As any good little sister would do, Briony opens the letter before handing it off to Cecilia. She is shocked at the crude and perverse language with which Robbie used to describe his desires (clearly he sent the incorrect draft of his letter). Things come to a head that night as two children in attendance at her brother's return party go missing. Briony knows the kind of monster that is present at the gathering. As a search for the missing ensues, she dashes off to a remote part of the property where she interrupts a rape in progress. The quick and shocking nature of what she finds is made only murkier by the dark night sky. But at this point, Briony is too committed to the narrative in her mind to stick to the facts. She unequivocally tells of how she saw Robbie committing the crime, setting into motion a future built upon the follies of a child unaware of the magnitude of her naive convictions. 

On the surface, the main characters in Atonement can be kind of hard to connect with. In the opening chapters, as the young Briony set into motion a horrific lie that ruined the life of her sister and the man who loved her, I couldn't help but feel like each of them brought their own misery onto themselves. Yes, the girl lied about what actually happened, but the elder characters didn't do themselves any favors. It is in the second half of the book when author Ian McEwan shows the characters dealing with the ramifications of that fateful night that I found true empathy for each of them. We've all done something that has left us racked with guilt. Some people spend their whole lives trying to make up for a single moment. McEwan writes in unassuming prose that invites the reader to feel the emotion of each character. I was surprised at how moving the novel ultimately ends up being. There's a universality to the message of this work that pierced my consciousness, forcing me to reckon with my own shortcomings and mistakes. That such a simple story can have such a profound impact on the reader only further proves McEwan's dazzling ability. I'm certainly thankful to have finally dusted up my copy of Atonement

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2022, 15)

Nine Lives by Peter Swanson


It may only be April, but I've fully shifted into summer reading mode. It probably helps that most of my go-to authors have been releasing thrillers that sound too good to pass up. After being disappointed with author Peter Swanson's last novel, I was eager to see if his latest effort would be a return to form. I decided that Nine Lives would be the perfect book to read as I set sail for a celebratory birthday cruise this week. His publisher was kind enough to send an advanced copy of the novel my way last month, but I knew I wanted to save reading it for the perfect occasion. I should have known better! A couple of days ago I allowed myself to read just the first chapter, and that was it. I couldn't stop reading! 

Nine people, each with vastly different lives, have just received a mysterious envelope. The contents of this envelope are identical. Inside, they find a single sheet of typewritten paper containing their name and the names of eight strangers. There is no context for the list. The recipients recognize their own names but not the names of the others. At first, they mostly ignore the list. Why worry about something so inconsequential? But then the first person from the list is murdered. Shortly thereafter, another name is killed. For the seven remaining strangers, one thing is clear. Any one of them could be the next to die. 

Peter Swanson has devoted his career to writing stand-alone thrillers. His ability to deliver a read that has compelling characters, an original plot and an unputdownable pace has made him one of my favorites. Nine Lives takes its inspiration from Agatha Christie's classic tale And Then There Were None. Swanson adds to the challenge of Christie's locked room mystery by placing his victims at different locations across the world. So intriguing was the setup of this mystery that I couldn't help but read the entire thing in a single sitting. My only complaint was the short length and large cast of the novel made the characters little more than surface-level stereotypes. There wasn't a single person whom I could latch on to. Character depth aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this modern take on a literary classic. The only problem now is that I have to pick a different book to read on my vacation!

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2022, 14)

The Club by Ellery Lloyd


Welcome to Island Home the newest luxury resort from Home Group. Over the years, the properties that comprise Home Group have garnered a reputation for being the pinnacle of opulence and discretion. It should come as no surprise then that the rich and famous flock to spend time at the resorts, willing to pay exuberant membership fees just to get a taste of what Home Group has to offer. It has been a few years since a new location was added to the exclusive collection of locales, but the wait is almost over. Island Home is set to debut in just a few short days. Everyone who's anyone is eager to attend the exclusive, three-day grand opening. 

Behind the scenes, each person working for Home Group is racing against dwindling time and money to make the dream of Island Home a reality. We meet Ned, the CEO of the company whose extravagant taste and cut-throat business practices isolate him from everyone but his closest inner circle. That circle includes his brother/business partner Adam, assistant Nikki, and manager of membership Annie. There's also the perspective of Jess, a newly hired housekeeper who is eager to build a career with the elusive company. As each POV begins to come together, we see that tiny cracks have begun to creep beneath the pristine facade of the company, threatening to bring the entire empire crumbling down. 

In The Club, Ellery Lloyd (pseudonym of co-authors Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos) conjures an intriguing web of corporate affairs, personal affronts, and delectably twisted secrets. The novel opens with a high-speed prologue that instantly drew me in.  That quick pace gives way to a more meticulous crawl as each of the main players is introduced. The use of shifting perspectives amongst those characters allows Lloyd to slowly reveal the intricate plot in a way that is organic and easy to follow. The tradeoff to this tactic is that the first half of the novel takes a bit of effort to get through. By the second act, however, the suspense reaches its peak, allowing for the remainder of the narrative to unwind to a much breezier conclusion. The Club manages to play as both a popcorn thriller and an in-depth commentary on wealth and corruption. Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of the novel to read and review. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2022, 13)

The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart


The older I've gotten, the more I've come to appreciate the value of time. It may be cliche to say, but time really is the one commodity that we can't get more of. As someone who sets a time-based reading goal each year, I always feel the pressure of the weekly clock resetting, urging me to finish my current read, publish my latest review, and move on to the next book for the next week. It can be quite overwhelming. I can't tell you how many times I've wished for just one extra hour to finish a book or polish a review before publishing it. With age comes the realization that there will never be enough time. There will always be a book to read or a review to write and I'm okay with that. But what if we could travel back in time? Would you take the chance to revisit your past, have one extra moment with someone you loved, or even place yourself directly in a historical event? In Rob Hart's latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, he imagines a future where all of that and more is possible. 

Years ago, the science behind time travel was perfected. It was hailed as the kind of innovation that would define generations for years to come, a once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough of social, cultural, and technological clout. The possibilities of time travel seemed endless, but in the hands of the US Government, they quickly did what governments do best. They monetized it. The Paradox Hotel was born, a place where only the wealthiest of tourists could pay to visit different time periods. They each come dressed in the various garb of their destinations, eager to pay whatever price necessary to tour the past. 

January Cole, head of security for the hotel, is no stranger to unusual happenings. They come with the territory. The occasional stowaway from a bygone era or the random blip in the timeline is inevitable. That's just the price you pay when you are in such close proximity to the ever-continuing timeline. Recently though, things have been getting more and more stressful. You see, like all good government services, the Paradox Hotel is running at a deficit. The promise of time travel, even at astronomical prices, isn't what it used to be. Just like space travel years ago, the government is looking to privatize time travel and sell off the hotel. The world's wealthiest citizens each salivate at the idea of taking control of such a powerful resource. 

That's not the only headache ringing through Cole's brain. Before she was head of security, January guided the tours through time, ensuring each of the guests behaved and did nothing to alter the timeline ahead. She was pulled off of this job when she became "unstuck" from the timeline. Now she falls into a kind of limbo, never fully stuck in the past, present, or future. These episodes of involuntary time travel are getting worse, causing her to see things that others can't. Today, January has stumbled upon a corpse in one of the hotel rooms, though she's uncertain of who or when the crime took place. For all she knows, this may be a glimmer of things to come. One thing is certain. January is the only person equipped to solve the case. 

I first became aware of Rob Hart's writing when I read his 2019 novel The Warehouse. That work of speculative fiction was a modern Orwellian tale that perfectly captured the predicaments of our modern times. I enjoyed it so much that I eagerly accepted a copy of The Paradox Hotel when his publisher offered it to me earlier this year. This new book falls more into the science fiction category than what I'd normally read, but I couldn't help but be drawn into the premise. Hart grounds the more fanciful concepts of time travel with character motivations of greed, regret, and grief that are universal to past, present, and future. I found myself having to really focus on the plot to fully understand the complexities of the world more than I was prepared to. Still, I found myself invested enough in the main character to keep the pages turning. The end left me feeling more perplexed by my response to it all than anything else. On one hand, I was glad to be finished with a book that challenged me to grasp the intricacies of the mechanics of the world, especially as the genre was outside of my normal reading habits. On the other hand, I can't help but feel as if spending more time becoming acquainted with the world and the characters would have increased my enjoyment of the story on the whole. I loved the concept and idea behind the novel, but I can't say that I ultimately loved reading it. Your results may vary, but I do believe that Hart's skills as an author make this one worth the effort. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 12)

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