Tag: book review (Page 1 of 2)

Book Review: Untamed Shore

BY MATT ELLIS

In a genre stuffed to the gills with hard-boiled gumshoes and gangsters, serial killers and behavioral shrinks, narcos and narcs, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has cast aside her acclaimed fantasy bona fides to challenge reader expectations by delivering a crime thriller with literary undercurrents.

In her crime thriller debut, Moreno has taken calculated risks in delivering a literary leaning story with a slow crescendo in a genre crowded by over-the-top chases and traumatic brutality.

Untamed Shore is a coming of age story about an eighteen-year-old underemployed guide named Viridiana, who has managed to learn several foreign languages but is uncapable of escaping her isolated Baja California fishing village of Desengaño, a town literally called disillusionment. Rudderless, she feels the growing pressure to follow the Desengañera –tradition—marry young and become the subservient wife.

Looking at him Viridiana had read her future in his eyes: the house they would share with his mother, the long hours behind the counter while Manuel went to play dominoes, the three children. She was saving to move to Mexico City and Manuel was talking of tying the knot and settling down. Worst of all, Viridiana was well aware that he was proposing because his mother wanted him to – and he was plain horny.

Viridiana’s dreams are dying like her town, a place where fishermen hunt ocean predators out of habit, the promise of prosperity having abandoned Desengaño long ago. “Viridiana thought Manuel represented more desire than affection, and knew enough about nets and sharks to picture herself tangled in a certain placid mediocrity which terrified her.”

At the end of the seventies, in a place that might as well be the end of the earth, Viridiana relies on silver screen classics as her sole vehicle to see what life holds beyond the desert and the waves.

. . . Viridiana spent a lot of time reading a myriad of books, yes, and the books promised more, as did the films. Rita Hayworth kissed Glenn Ford. Montgomery Clift embraced Elizabeth Taylor. I can see you. I can hold you next to me, they declaimed in glorious black and white.

Viridiana sees a glimmer of hope when three Americans rent the lone manor at the ocean cliff’s edge, their secrets in tow. She is hired as a live-in assistant to Ambrose, a wealthy man with aspirations of writing his life story in the peaceful isolation of Desengaño. She is quickly swept away by Ambrose’s glamorous wife Daisy and his brother-in-law Gregory—“If the woman looked like she could be a film star, he looked like he might be a model. His features were chiseled, his mouth generous.”

She daydreams of having a life like Daisy’s and the love of a man like Gregory. When Gregory seduces Viridiana, she releases herself to his promises of what they could be and where they could go, hoping it isn’t just afterglow.

As time passes, Viridiana sees blemishes in the glossy veneer of the foreign couple’s marital bliss. “She guessed it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, a local or a foreigner, there were always men wanting to be all-important, making their wives or girlfriend feel like dirt, slapping them around when they got too mouthy.” As more warning signs threaten her fantasy, Viridiana grapples to assuage her fears—“Virdiana told herself that if a man was ever disparaging to her, she would not forget. She wouldn’t sweep it away. She’d hold it in her heart and notch down his cruelties. She’d bite. Hard.”

Like Martin Solares and other Latinx authors who’ve based their stories in the states around the Gulf of California, Moreno brings an authenticity to the cultural pressures and sociological impact of a small Mexican desert town that has outlived its economic usefulness.

When Ambrose dies under suspicious circumstances, Daisy and Gregory ask Viridiana to bend the truth. To keep her fading dreams alive, she takes the bait and ties her fate to theirs. The consequences of her simple lie escalate as more strangers arrive.

Like Martin Solares and other Latinx authors who’ve based their stories in the states around the Gulf of California, Moreno brings an authenticity to the cultural pressures and sociological impact of a small Mexican desert town that has outlived its economic usefulness.  The eyes of Desengaño are on Viridiana as she struggles to free herself from her misplaced trust and still escape the life she never wanted.

Moreno makes excellent use of the harsh coastal desert and a time devoid of technological conveniences to amplify a sense of desperation and confinement. In an environment full of natural predators, the most dangerous are the foreign interlopers.

Several times she’d compared them to sharks, but thinking it better, she decided scorpions were the better animal. Scorpions killed a lot more people than anything else in Baja California, lots more people than snakes and black widows. They’d sneak up on you, sneak into your camping tent or your bed roll, your shoes, and that would be the end of it. … Sharks were clean killers. Scorpions were not. Scorpions were secretive little monsters.

In her crime thriller debut, Moreno has taken calculated risks in delivering a literary leaning story with a slow crescendo in a genre crowded by over-the-top chases and traumatic brutality. This is a story where social issues and the environment play an important role in the plot, placing Moreno’s novel in an esteemed class with the likes of American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson and Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne.

Though there were points where the ties that entangle Viridiana to the central crisis seemed to stretch thin to the point of her peril being avoidable, I was compelled to follow the journey to completion to see how she emerged on the other side. Nonetheless, she delivers a compelling character-based novel packed with distressing realism. At the end of it all, I feel the riptide of Moreno’s Untamed Shore pulling me toward her other work, and I’m swimming off to devour her whole fantasy catalog.


Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer currently working as an intelligence and security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he has served as a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence special agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He was the story developer and staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media, and his short fiction has been published at Thought Catalog. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.

Book Review: Verge

BY DIANA LOVE

Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch’s aptly-named new collection of short stories, is an exhilarating and disquieting experience. Like the verging border of its title, the collection is peopled by characters who live on the edges—of society, of safety, of sanity. The interests and subject matter of this collection upend normal boundaries and expectations. Outcasts and voiceless figures are placed center-stage. We are able to be a part of their experience, their pain, their rage, and their beauty.

Though Yuknavitch has been writing short stories for most of her literary career, this is her first published book curating a collection of such stories. And they are wonderful stories, clearly in conversation with one another, including that handful which have been published previously. Indeed, readers familiar with Yuknavitch’s other work will recognize themes and topics in this collection which mirror those in her novels and nonfiction—the idea of giving voices to voiceless figures, a concern with war and its collateral damage, a concern with damage and with survival in all forms. Her widely-viewed 2016 TED Talk, On The Beauty of Being a Misfit, and her follow-up book The Misfit’s Manifesto, are celebrations of other voices. She has a vested and specific interest in the people and the places who do not sit at the center of the mainstream in any sense of that term, who live in the borders of things.

The first story in the collection, “The Pull,” serves as a solid manifesto in and of itself toward the nature of the collection which follows, a space I found beautiful and disquieting. This first story features a young girl drawn to swimming and happiest in the water. Beautiful descriptions introduce us to this unnamed main character and her desires: “In the water the swimmer feels weightless. The blue of the pool fills her ears and holds her body and shuts out the world. Swimming is her favorite state of being. On land, the swimmer can barely breathe.” These words promised me a story filled with a certain kind of sensitivity and lyricism, and I was eager to dive in. But this is much more than the story of a girl who loves to swim, more than even the story of a girl drawn more to swimming than to anything else in life. This is the story of a young refugee in a war-torn country, surrounded by danger. One day, the swimmer’s mother forbids her to attend swim practice due to bomb warnings, and:

That afternoon, while her shoulders ache from not swimming, a screeching comes into the sky and then a deafening quiet, and then a bomb obliterates most of the roof and one wall of the swimming pool. Two swimmers who were friends of hers are killed, their bodies limp at the surface of the water, then sinking. They never swim another lap toward their own futures.

Yuknavitch allows the swimmer to tell her story from within the space of her own experience. Those twin elements, the desire to swim and the desire to stay alive, are given equal weight and validity. “Her foreground is cluttered now, with her dead friends and the bombed out training pool, all of it between her and her freedom to swim. She has the same desires as all kids: She wants to swim. Have friends. Go to school. Not to starve. Not to die. She grinds her teeth.” As the story closes, the swimmer and her younger sister are aboard a capsizing raft filled with refugees, shoreline in the distance. The two of them slip into the ocean, each confident that they will be able to cover the distance—but they do not simply swim for shore, instead choosing the seemingly impossible task of pulling the whole raft along with them. Yuknavitch creates a wonderous tension here and then lets it snap back against the reader like a broken guitar string:

With a phenomenal confidence, they swim for it, towing the others behind them. The beautiful bodies of the swimmer and her sister, and the great watery pull underneath, and the pull of the eyes and hearts of the people hoping against hope in the raft, and the pull of the great wrong world raging around them toward –

This story has no ending.

We put children into the ocean.

As that last set of lines snapped back, it hit me hard. And I knew that I was in for quite a collection.

Women and girls make up the bulk of the narrators here, as perhaps fits a collection centered on providing voices to voiceless figures. Five of these stories begin with the words “A Woman”—”A Woman Object (exploding),” “A Woman Signifying,” “A Woman Refusing,” “A Woman Apologizing,” and “A Woman Going Out.” Queer characters take on the lead role in multiple stories. While these voices are distinct and individual, it is nonetheless a collection anchored by certain themes in common. Many of these characters are lonely. Many are trapped in dangerous situations, either by economics or other outside forces. Many feel unheard. This proved to be a collection filled with pain, specific and individual, a place where sex-trafficked teenagers attempt to escape into dreams of Slavic fairytale and where neighbors turn against and cannot help one another. But it is not, for a moment, a dreary or a hopeless place. Nor does it feel exploitative. As in that first story, where the hammer comes down not on the swimmer, but on us, on we who put children into the ocean, judgment is not cast against these narrators as they speak to us.

Indeed, throughout this collection, Yuknavitch honors the truths and perspectives of her narrators by building up worlds in which their individual pains and decisions are given context and sense. A child organ runner, a linchpin in her black market field, approaches her assignments with pride in getting the job done well, knowing the necessity of her excellence toward her own continued survival. A neglected woman deliberately burns herself against the radiator in her apartment, and this act is positioned as a sort of step forward for herself, a triumph over the ache she feels inside. A lonely janitor spends years filling his home with the garbage he collects while cleaning the local planetarium, building with it a sculptural city of found objects which is described as a thing of wonder.

Yuknavitch has an incredible gift for description and a knack for embodying the emotions of her characters. The people of this collection are brave and truthful, even when their truths are frightening. These are misfits celebrated, misfits embraced. Yuknavitch invites us to spend time with them and to dwell with them in their in-between spaces. I invite you to do the same. It is time well spent.


Diana Love is a writer and poet, somewhat working on her first novel. Her work has previously been published in Literary Mama and Kelp Journal. A current MFA student in the low-residency program at UC Riverside, Diana has also spent the last year as the Blog Editor for The Coachella Review. She grew up amidst the inanities, adventures, and mundanities of the greater San Fernando Valley. She lives on the Westside now, where she is a co-lead for the Westside Chapter of Women Who Submit.

Book Review: Cleanness

BY AMY REARDON

In a craft lecture, I once heard Garth Greenwell describe the mission of his writing as: to bring all the resources of literature to the queer body. Having endured so much hatred, who is more deserving of poetry? he asked, passing out a slim handout, three thin white sheets of paper, double-sided, stapled, and aching with words of want from Gustave Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin, Kathy Acker, and Mary McCarthy. Because sex, Greenwell said, is as near to and as far as we go from authenticity.

In his new book Cleanness, a series of stories structured in three tidy parts of three chapters each and so tightly linked one could call it a novel, Greenwell applies the unique pressure of sex on scene and character, as he says, to drive the narrative. The book picks up where Greenwell’s debut 2016 novel What Belongs To You left off, featuring the same unnamed narrator, an American teacher grappling with his desires—the pleasure and the angst of them—in anti-gay Sofia, Bulgaria.

But only sort of. Because whereas in What Belongs to You, the consequences of seeking love are mostly straightforward—relief, ecstasy, yes, but also shame, an STD, a devastating Kentucky-style childhood rejection by a homophobic father—in Cleanness, the consequences of engagement now have become winding and complex.

Sex now also requires the holding of his 21-year-old lover’s own unexamined trauma. “I don’t know, he said, that’s the problem, how can I know what I wanted then, before he did it, how can I know what’s me and what’s what he did to me?” Desire now demands the identification of a line between the teacher’s own sexuality and that of his students. “Maybe he thinks it was an accident … or maybe he was so drunk he would forget it and then the only shame would be a private shame, the shame I was accustomed to, the shame that felt like home.” And—in perhaps the book’s most breathtaking scene—vulnerability now requires the slow, painful unpacking of the teacher’s own, long-buried rage and its inescapable role in his shame: “… I would punish him if it was punishment he wanted. I would tan his hide, I thought, which was another thing my father said when he beat us, I’ll tan your hide; he said it with the voice he used only when he was very angry, the voice of his childhood, his country voice.”

The story is all shared mini-bottles of prosecco, making out in public alleys, high arches of ancient churches, ironic street art, hours and hours of walking through cobblestone streets of European villages, shared treats and murmurs with stray dogs, and achingly, gratefully, the placing of row upon row of kisses upon a lover’s body.

The word “cleanness” appears only once, in the center of the book, offering the key to the book’s title. “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.” Which brings us to the other difference in Greenwell’s new work: love, at last. The central love story mostly takes place in “The Frog King,” a chapter The New Yorker ran last year. Greenwell then described it as an exercise in capturing the joy of a lover’s escape to Bologna and Venice. The story is all shared mini-bottles of prosecco, making out in public alleys, high arches of ancient churches, ironic street art, hours and hours of walking through cobblestone streets of European villages, shared treats and murmurs with stray dogs, and achingly, gratefully, the placing of row upon row of kisses upon a lover’s body. “It was a kind of blazon of him, of his body, I love you, I whispered again and again to him. And then, when I had laid that last line across his forehead—a garland, I thought, I had garlanded him—You are the most beautiful, I said to him, you are my beautiful boy.”

One could read Greenwell for the intimacies alone, the slowing and dissecting of human connection, the tiny cues between lovers, pet names like “Skupi,” shortened to “Skups.” “We parted after a second or two, but not before I heard R. make a sound I had come to love, a little grunt of happiness, a homecoming sound, and all my irritation drained away.” But more important, I think, one goes to Greenwell to remember that we are not all clean, all dirty, all good, or all bad. He compels us to examine that which is monstrous inside us.  Because if we can’t look at what we hate about ourselves, then how will we ever know intimacy? How can we ever hold space for others in their pain, grief, and failure?

In this moment, as a mother, I want to shake him and scream: What are you doing? But as a woman, reading “The Frog King,” I want to whisper: Love me like that.

It is this ambivalence, the holding of opposing emotions together at the same time, that is the book’s greatest achievement. For example, in “The Little Saint” the teacher intends to use a condom with a stranger—one who purposely eschews HIV testing—but then proceeds without it. In this moment, as a mother, I want to shake him and scream: What are you doing? But as a woman, reading “The Frog King,” I want to whisper: Love me like that.

This is, I think, Greenwell’s point. Because don’t we go to fiction to find empathy and compassion?  Cleanness meets us at our most vulnerable, on the floor with a stray dog named Mama, searching for a humble slice of love and warmth. “We’ll sleep, I said again, and she rolled onto her side, her stomach toward me, and placed one of her paws against my chest. It would leave a mark, I knew, I would have to scrub it out in the morning, but what did it matter, I thought as I closed my eyes, what does it matter, why not let it stay.” In a moment when so many of us are at work negotiating our right to take up space in a world that asks us to make ourselves small, Greenwell gives us a story of desire and shame so very specific as to be universal.


Amy Reardon’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Adroit Journal, Glamour, and The Coachella Review. She is an alumna of Stanford’s OWC in Novel Writing and an MFA candidate at UC Riverside. Follow her @ReardonAmy.

Book Review: Brother & Sister

By Mary Fensholt Perera

In her new book Brother & Sister, Diane Keaton describes her brother Randy as living on “the other side of normal.”

“The other side,” a comforting phrase used by those struggling to accept the loss of a loved one, harkens back to the myth of the River Styx. In Brother & Sister, Randy’s mental illness runs like a dark river through both her brother’s life and Keaton’s story. This debilitating illness, culminating now in dementia, is the current that continues to take Randy further and further from those who love him. It is a force they are powerless to understand or to stop.

Diane Keaton and her younger brother, Randy grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs in the 1950s, with parents determined to live the American dream. Their civil engineer father, Jack Hall, worked diligently to support his family. Their homemaker mother, Dorothy Hall, documented their days with her diaries and cameras. The family grew and prospered. Yet Randy failed to thrive emotionally; his childhood was not a happy one, and his inability to cope with the world around him became more and more apparent as the years passed.

While Keaton studied acting, built her movie career, and traveled, her brother struggled to find his feet. By his early twenties he was divorced, drinking heavily, and working sporadically. As Keaton went on to become a fashion icon, Academy Award winner, real estate developer, designer, and author, Randy became a recluse and an alcoholic, reluctantly supported by his father. Eventually, he wrote to Diane relating his fantasies of violence toward women (something, Keaton states clearly, he never acted upon):  “‘You can’t imagine what it’s like to actually start planning how to get a pretty woman and kill her. I did Diane, I had scenarios of doing just that. I figured I would sneak into a room where a woman was sleeping and stab her to death.’”

Keaton dives deeply into the past, seeking an understanding of how siblings could come to take such different paths. She invites the reader into her own family to explore the nature of mental illness and the complexity of its effects on family members.

Randy’s liver failed, but a well-timed donation helped secure a new liver and a life-saving transplant. The surgery, clearly recognized by Randy as a second chance, gave him and his family hope that his life would change for the better. But even as he recuperated from the operation the dark current pulled him in again.

Working with her own memories, her mother’s substantial trove of documents, and Randy’s own journals, poetry, and artwork, Keaton dives deeply into the past, seeking an understanding of how siblings could come to take such different paths. She invites the reader into her own family to explore the nature of mental illness and the complexity of its effects on family members. In a letter the adult Randy wrote to Keaton, he describes his memory of his relationship with their father: “‘I don’t have a pleasant memory of Dad. I was afraid of him the whole time. … He made me feel like I didn’t know anything. … He wanted precision in the world, and, from me, less meaningless talk.’”

But Keaton never resorts to attributing Randy’s problems to his relationship with their father. Remembering an incident in their shared early childhood, she wonders if she could have done something to prevent Randy’s slide:

In the dark, secured by my pillow, my blankie, and the quiet company of my little brother below, I was ready for sleep.

I remember glancing down from my top-bunk apartment in the sky and seeing Randy’s anxious bobbing head, his fear of the dark, and his sweet if hapless face. Why was he such a chicken? Why couldn’t he stop seeing ghosts that weren’t there lurking in shadows?

Brother & Sister is a story of responsibility, for one’s self and for others. It is a story that explores the complexity of family relationships and the ties that bind a family: siblings together, children to parents, and parents to one another. It is permeated with the joy of closeness, the pain of separation, the struggle to understand one another, and the complexity of expectations.

It is a story of places, of Los Angeles and suburbia, of places where increasing opportunities, choices, and financial prosperity fail to prevent isolation and despair, where the perpetual sunshine fails to shed light on the mysteries of mental illness.

Brother & Sister reminds us that mental illness can strike any family. We know that poor and working-class families often suffer its consequences more immediately and more severely than those with money.

But it is also the story of our times. Brother & Sister reminds us that mental illness can strike any family. We know that poor and working-class families often suffer its consequences more immediately and more severely than those with money. Members of Randy’s family provided enormous resources over the years to keep him visible, keep a roof over his head, and provide him with high-quality medical care. In our time, in our cities and towns, we have only to look up and around to see people suffering from mental illness, addiction, and self-destructive actions in the ways that Randy did. The meanest streets in our cities are crowded with those who do not have a family with the resources Randy’s family did.

Brother & Sister shares Keaton’s life with her brother with only the most necessary departures into her other experiences. We follow them from their early closeness, through years where the circumstances of their lives pulled them apart, and into the present, where her brother’s diminished capacity makes a closer relationship possible. As the book closes, Diane writes: “After a lifetime of self-imposed barriers, I finally gave myself permission to be close, quiet, and intimate with my brother.”

Here I think she sells herself short. Brother & Sister makes clear that no matter how close you give yourself permission to be, there are limits to what intervention can accomplish when a loved one is caught in the dark current of mental illness. Brother & Sister is a book steeped in compassion—an effort to diminish the stigma around mental illness. As with her other books, the multi-talented Keaton gives us a thoughtful and insightful story written with clear prose, frankness, and humility.


Mary Fensholt Perera is a business presentation consultant, speaker, and author. Her book, The Polished Presentation, is a Benjamin Franklin Award winner. She is on the faculty of the UCSD extension program Executive Perspectives for Scientists and Engineers, a Vistage speaker, and a member of the Board of Trustees for the California Botanic Garden. She is also a student in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at UC Riverside. She lives in Claremont, California, one-half block from Pomona College. She thinks of the Claremont College campus as a large, well-manicured park full of interesting creatures.

Book Review: American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI

BY MATT ELLIS

With seven Law and Orders, four CSIs, and crime thrillers ranking among the top-selling genres of fiction, it is no mystery that America has an addiction to police procedurals and court drama. Networks and publishers have made an industry out of true crime re-creation and documentaries for those with a more discerning bloodlust that want to know that the murder and mayhem they consume is the real deal. In this environment, it should come as no surprise that Kate Winkler Dawson’s newest book, American Sherlock, with its equal parts biography, true crime facts, forensics science history, and social commentary, is primed to be a shotgun blast of mass appeal into the face of the nonfiction marketplace.

At first blush, American Sherlock is a biography about Edward Oscar Heinrich, a man Dawson identifies in the prologue as “a forensic scientist and criminalist from the first half of the twentieth century, a man who changed how crimes were solved before forensics became the foundation of most criminal cases – America’s Sherlock Holmes.”

Dawson tackles Heinrich’s illustrious career by walking the reader through his most famous cases. The chosen series of vignettes reads like the lead plots of the best crime fiction—a Hollywood mogul accused of sexual assault and manslaughter; a devout husband charged with the murder of his wife; a manhunt after a boy finds a body part; and quite possibly the last great American train robbery. That’s not all, but you get the idea.

With her succinct and vivid prose, Dawson places the reader inside the scene of each crime and inside the minds of the key participants, maximizing the immersive experience and effortlessly delivering complicated details, plot twists and all:

Allene’s blood had been transferred to almost every corner of her small home. The pathologist, the undertaker, officers, and countless neighbors had all shuffled through the scene, along with David Lamson and the real estate agent. There were large pools of blood in the bathroom, splashes in the hallway, red footprints leading to both bedrooms, sprays containing hundreds of droplets on each bathroom wall, and smears wiped on doorknobs. Reconstructing the scene would be arduous, even for more experienced detectives.

Dawson goes beyond gruesome details to provide the relevant historical context necessary to shatter popular misconceptions of the time period and expose external forces that complicated each case. For example, most of the key events occurred during what is widely referred to as the Roaring Twenties, a golden era. Dawson dispels all romantic notions of Gatsby-esque socials and speakeasys full of fast jazz and Charleston-dancing flappers. This was a time period of widespread poverty; crime was up and employment was down. “And it was a tumultuous era – the homicide rate in the 1920s, when Heinrich’s most interesting work began, had increased by as much as almost 80 percent from the decade before, thanks to Prohibition,” Dawson writes. In another section, Dawson  writes: “The conclusion of World War I in 1918 did not revitalize the economy as the government had promised. Soldiers returned home traumatized, angry, and often with little hope of finding jobs.”

In this book, Dawson stays true to her documentary producer and journalist sensibilities by conducting an exhaustive examination of court records, case files, newspaper coverage, personal correspondence, and estate property. Along with Heinrich’s achievements, Dawson lays bare a man who was prone to bouts of self-destructive egotism, depression, and an obsessive-compulsive personality that challenged both his professional and personal lives. Heinrich pioneered many breakthroughs still used today, but he also championed techniques that later proved to be unreliable and destructive. Throughout his career, this celebrated crime fighter carried a heavy burden of doubt about whether his work led to the convictions of innocent people or the release of criminals into society.

Dawson’s work goes beyond standard biography and true-crime fare to unpack social controversies of the era, some with alarming parallels to contemporary issues almost a century later. In every case, sensational and irresponsible journalism impacted the pursuit of justice. Media sources discredited experts, spun communities into a panic, and ruined the lives of suspects in the court of public opinion, regardless of a jury’s decision.

Dawson’s book is also timely in the wake of the Me Too movement—a stark reminder that our society hasn’t evolved as far as we might want to believe.

While women had won full voting rights the year before, sexual assaults in America were vastly underreported; when survivors did respond to the police, many times they were blamed for being culpable. The popularity of adventurous flappers with their sexuality on display left men scared of false accusations, while women and girls continued to be sexualized.

Each criminal case highlights the fragility of the American justice system with observations that still hold true today. Despite best intentions, investigative techniques and evidentiary facts used in the prosecution of a suspect could prove flawed or misleading years later. In the conclusion of American Sherlock, Dawson leaves us with a poignant warning in an age when communities are at odds with law enforcement and political leaders:

Investigations must start with honest, intelligent officers willing to do good detective work in the field. The public should question law enforcement without impeding its progress, and jurors shouldn’t be swayed by an expert’s reputation – they should evaluate if his theory makes sense. … All forensic science is fallible, even DNA testing. Americans can only hope that investigators will doggedly gather reliable evidence, clues that can get to the truth rather than settle on an outcome that will appease the public or free a guilty suspect.


Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer currently working as an intelligence and security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he has served as a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence special agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He was the story developer and staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media, and his short fiction has been published at Thought Catalog. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.

Book Review: Olive Again

By Leni Leanne Phillips

Elizabeth Strout’s third novel, Olive Kitteridge[1], was published in 2008 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. In 2015, the book was adapted into an award-winning miniseries with Frances McDormand playing the title role of Olive, a character who seems to have been written with McDormand in mind. Readers and viewers alike were delighted by the character of Olive. Now, Olive Kitteridge returns in Strout’s seventh and most recent novel, Olive, Again[2]. Imagine my delight to find that this new book is an even more engaging, moving, and meaningful read than the original.

Strout had no trouble letting go of Olive after Olive Kitteridge. In fact, in the ten years since she wrote Olive Kitteridge, Strout had moved on to other things, including writing three more novels. She had no plans to write about Olive again. In a recent interview with Maris Kreizman for The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Strout said: “I never intended to write a sequel, but she just showed up again. She’s Olive and she has to be contended with. A few years ago I had the weekend to myself, and I went to a cafe to sit. All of a sudden I just saw Olive driving into the marina as an older woman, and I thought, ‘Uh oh. Here we go.’”

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Book Review: Year of the Monkey

By Briana Weeger

In the first days and weeks of 2020, the season for past reflections and future resolutions is upon us—if you’re into that sort of thing. In Patti Smith’s newest memoir Year of the Monkey, the writer, photographer, and musician takes a surreal look at her life in 2016, the year of the trickster monkey in Chinese zodiac. But Smith doesn’t seem to be a fan of New Year’s resolutions. Instead, in a tumultuous political and personal landscape, Smith is beautifully open to the lessons, connections, and hidden meanings within dreams that the year offers her. Her writing is a surreal mix of fiction and nonfiction as she contemplates what is real and attempts to absorb the absurd truths of living and dying.

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Book Review: Your House Will Pay

By Collin Mitchell

Ripples from the past resurface in Steph Cha’s new novel, Your House Will Pay.

At the time of the writing of this review, veteran journalist K. Connie Kang had recently died after writing about the Korean community for the the Los Angeles Times. Kang gave voice to the Koreatown community affected by the riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Journalists like Kang are burdened with adhering to the idea of truth, while the creative writer can entreat memory and personal experience in finding a truth that fits within the framework of their own grief. It’s these personal stories, the prejudiced tales told within families, that Steph Cha explores in her new novel, Your House Will Pay. Through the frame of early ‘90s race-tinged LA and our current grapple with race politics and police brutality, Cha ably depicts greater Los Angeles as it is: a melded body of bedroom communities, sun-bleached strip malls, and liquor stores threaded together by a dozen distinct cultures and a violent history. It’s in this context that the book examines the idea of transgressing the familial stories we think define us and finding a part of ourselves that can separate from the past. As one character observes: “This is when shit gets permanent. The choices you make are gonna stick, they’re going to follow you.”

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Book Review: Very Nice

By Leanne Phillips

 

Marcy Dermansky’s new novel, Very Nice, starts out with a simple enough premise. Nineteen-year-old Rachel has a crush on her creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, a one-hit wonder of a novelist who has been skating on the success of his only book for years. When Zahid impulsively confides to Rachel that he’s had a bad day, she impulsively kisses him. But the plot gains in complexity from there. Anyone who’s seen The Wife knows that crushes on creative writing professors don’t end well, and there are red flags that Rachel chooses to ignore. Rachel’s passion for Zahid seems lukewarm at best, and Rachel is a bit taken aback when he calls their kiss “very nice”—during the semester, he had crossed out all of the verys in her short story.

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Book Review: What A Body Remembers

By Laurie Rockenbeck

Karen Stefano’s What A Body Remembers is a timely and moving illustration of how our bodies instinctively tie our senses and memories together. It is a compelling book that reads as much like true crime as it does memoir, while delving into heady topics like trauma, PTSD, and victim blaming. Stefano manages to approach these subjects with a sensitivity that invites the reader to a deeper understanding of the after-effects of trauma while evoking empathy over pity.

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