Review: Cultish by Amanda Montell


Rating: ☆☆☆☆
Title: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
Author: Amanda Montell
Genre: Non-Fiction
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Ann Marie Gideon
Length: 8 hours (310 pages)
Publisher: Harper Wave; HarperAudio
Release Date: June 15, 2021
Source: Library
Recommended for fans of: cult documentaries
Content Warnings: suicide, gaslighting, emotional abuse, death, murder


The author of the widely praised Wordslut analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power.

What makes “cults” so intriguing and frightening? What makes them powerful? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join—and more importantly, stay in—extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has . . .

Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing.” But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.

Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish,” revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of “cultish” everywhere.


This was a fascinating exploration of the linguistics surrounding cults and “cultish” groups. While the term cult has negative connotations due to infamous groups like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, belonging is such a central ideal in American society that cultish groups thrive here, from fad fitness studios to multi-level marketing schemes.

This books examines the language cultish groups use to attract and maintain members, create a perception of insiders versus outsiders, and fill the need for community. It does not vilify all cultish groups; instead, it provides readers with the tools to critically evaluate groups they encounter and determine whether those groups are using cultish language to truly empower or manipulate members.

I certainly have belonged to groups Montell would describe as cultish, but not every such group is harmful. Bookstagram would surely meet Montell’s definition of a cultish group! It did get to the point where it seemed like ANY group could be described as a cult, but it certainly gives me a lot of new things to think about when assessing the world around me.

Review: The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green


Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Title: The Anthropocene Reviewed
Author: John Green
Genre: Nonfiction/Essays
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: John Green
Length: 10 hours (293 pages)
Publisher: Dutton; Penguin Random House Audio
Release Date: May 17, 2021
Source: influencer ALC
Content Warnings: mental illness, death, grief, medical content, chronic illness, suicidal thoughts, pandemic


A deeply moving and mind-expanding collection of personal essays in the first ever work of non-fiction from #1 internationally bestselling author John Green

The Anthropocene is the current geological age, in which human activity has profoundly shaped the planet and its biodiversity. In this remarkable symphony of essays adapted and expanded from his ground-breaking, critically acclaimed podcast, John Green reviews different facets of the human-centered planet – from the QWERTY keyboard and Halley’s Comet to Penguins of Madagascar – on a five-star scale.

Complex and rich with detail, the Anthropocene’s reviews have been praised as ‘observations that double as exercises in memoiristic empathy’, with over 10 million lifetime downloads. John Green’s gift for storytelling shines throughout this artfully curated collection about the shared human experience; it includes beloved essays along with six all-new pieces exclusive to the book.


Who knew a series of essays by John Green about seemingly random topics including everything and nothing was exactly what I needed?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this book is so effective. It’s about humanity, human nature, human experiences, and our impact on the planet and each other. It’s about history, pop culture, science, ecology, family, and so much more. It’s an artifact of its time, from reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic to the use of the star rating system. It’s about John Green and things that are important to him or have affected him. But it’s also about all of us and our collective experience as humans on this planet right now.

All I know is that multiple essays brought me to tears, and anyone who ever feels unsure of themselves or our world and their place in it should read this book. Or better, listen to the audiobook narrated by John Green himself.

I give The Anthropocene Reviewed five stars.

Thank you to the publisher and for the gifted ALC.

Review: Chasing Ghosts by Marc Hartzman


Rating: ☆☆☆☆
Title: Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination with Spirits and the Supernatural
Author: Marc Hartzman
Genre: Nonfiction/Paranormal
Audience: Adult/All Ages
Format: Paperback
Length: 272 pages
Publisher: Quirk Books
Release Date: September 28, 2021
Source: Publisher
Recommended for fans of: ghost stories and paranormal podcasts


Take a spirited tour through the supernatural history of America, from its haunted sites to its famous ghosts to its ghost-obsessed pop culture.

Ghosts are everywhere—whether you believe in them or not. Every town has its local legends, and countless books, movies, and TV shows are haunted by their presence. But our obsession with ghosts runs deeper than we know—and is embedded in the very fabric of American history.

Writer and historian Marc Hartzman dons the mantle of tour guide, taking readers on a fascinating journey through supernatural history, including:

• The Fox Sisters and the rise of Spiritualism
• The supernatural obsessions of famous figures like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
• Famous haunted sites like the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and the LaLaurie House in New Orleans
• Famous ghosts like the Bell Witch of Tennessee and the Greenbrier Ghost of West Virginia
• Paranormal investigators like Ed and Lorraine Warren

Deeply researched and highly entertaining, with archival images and black and white illustrations, Chasing Ghosts will satisfy believers and skeptics alike.


This is a really fun book for anyone interested in ghosts, real or fictional. It includes full-color photographs, illustrations, newspaper clippings, and other artifacts. It is divided into four sections: ancient & historical beliefs, Spiritualism, famous hauntings, and modern ghost investigations.

I was most fascinated by the first section, comparing different cultural beliefs about ghosts. The Spiritualism section definitely dragged, and I wish some of those pages had been devoted to other sections. I had already heard all the famous hauntings included on various paranormal podcasts, but this has a nice collection of tales all in one place. The last section about the science and technology of paranormal investigations was truly fascinating, showing how different natural phenomena can explain some paranormal encounters, but there is no one size fits all explanation.

This is the kind of book you can easily skip around and just read the parts that interest you.

Thank you to the publisher for the gifted finished copy.

Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah


Rating: ☆☆☆☆
Title: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Author: Trevor Noah
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Trevor Noah
Length: 9 hours (289 pages)
Publisher: Audible Studios
Release Date: November 15, 2016
Source: Audible subscription
Content Warnings: domestic abuse, racism, gun violence, alcoholism, animal cruelty and death


The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.

Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.


I knew this would not be a typical celebrity memoir, but WOW. I did not expect to feel so utterly horrified, yet hilariously entertained, and ultimately learn so much. Trevor Noah describes his experiences growing up in South Africa during and after apartheid. Noah faced unique challenges as a mixed-race kid raised by a Black family because he did not neatly fit into the racially divided society. His mother was a strong, complicated, ahead-of-her-time woman.

I need to read more books like this, that help me understand cultures, societies, and family dynamics that are so different from my own experiences. My only complaint is that the timeline jumped around a lot, so I’m quite clear on the overall sequence of events in Trevor Noah’s life. I also would’ve liked to know more about how he got into a comedy career (it was barely touched upon).

Highly recommend the audiobook if you have Audible!

Review: Mindhunter by John E. Douglas


Rating: ☆☆☆
Title: Mindhuter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit
Author: John E. Douglas & Mark Olshaker
Series: Mindhunter #1
Genre: Nonfiction/True Crime
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrators: Richard M. Davidson
Length: 15 hours (397 pages)
Publisher: Pocket Books; Simon & Schuster Audio
Release Date: October 31, 1995
Source: Library
Recommended for fans of: true crime, Criminal Minds
Content Warnings: death, murder, rape, violence, torture, kidnapping, pedophilia, etc.


He has hunted some of the most notorious and sadistic criminals of our time: The Trailside Killer in San Francisco, the Atlanta Child murderer. He has confronted, interviewed and researched dozens of serial killers and assassins, including Charles Manson, Richard Speck, John Wayne Gacy, and James Earl Ray – for a landmark study to understand their motives. To get inside their minds. He is Special Agent John Douglas, the model for law enforcement legend Jack Crawford in Thomas Harris’s thrillers Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, and the man who ushered in a new age in behavorial science and criminal profiling. Recently retired after twenty-five years of service, John Douglas can finally tell his unique and compelling story.


Fascinating and insightful, a must-read for true crime aficionados. However, I found John Douglas to be very unlikable. The descriptions of the crimes got a bit repetitive by the end, and I think this could have been organized better. I know these profiling techniques were groundbreaking at the time, but the impact was lessened for me as a reader since I’ve watched so much Criminal Minds.

Review: The Babysitter by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan


Rating: ☆☆☆
Title: The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer
Author: Liza Rodman, Jennifer Jordan
Genre: True Crime
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrators: Andi Arndt, Aida Reluzco
Length: 9 hours (352 pages)
Publisher: Atria Books; Simon & Schuster Audio
Release Date: March 2, 2021
Source: Library
Recommended for fans of: true crime books & podcasts
Content Warnings: murder, sexual assault, toxic relationships


Growing up on Cape Cod in the 1960s, Liza Rodman was a lonely little girl. During the summers, while her mother worked days in a local motel and danced most nights in the Provincetown bars, her babysitter—the kind, handsome handyman at the motel where her mother worked—took her and her sister on adventures in his truck.

But there was one thing she didn’t know; their babysitter was a serial killer.

Some of his victims were buried—in pieces—right there, in his garden in the woods. Though Tony Costa’s gruesome case made screaming headlines in 1969 and beyond, Liza never made the connection between her friendly babysitter and the infamous killer of numerous women, including four in Massachusetts, until decades later.

Haunted by nightmares and horrified by what she learned, Liza became obsessed with the case. Now, she and cowriter Jennifer Jordan reveal the chilling and unforgettable true story of a charming but brutal psychopath through the eyes of a young girl who once called him her friend.


This book is part true crime, part memoir as Liza recounts her childhood and experiences with her sometimes babysitter Tony Costa, who turned out to be the serial killer known as “The Cape Cod Vampire.” Chapters alternate between traditional true crime explanations of Costa’s background and crimes and Liza’s reflections on her upbringing and toxic relationship with her mother.

While both storylines were interesting, the book felt a bit disjointed. Liza shared some memories of time she spent with Costa that are chilling in hindsight, but overall there was not as much overlap between the two narratives as I expected.

Review: The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule


Rating: ☆☆☆☆
Title: The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy: The Shocking Inside Story
Author: Ann Rule
Genre: True Crime
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Lorelei King
Length: 18 hours (548 pages)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Release Date: August 1, 1980
Source: Library
Content Warnings: graphic descriptions of crimes against women


From #1 New York Times bestselling author Ann Rule, “America’s best true-crime writer” (Kirkus Reviews), her unforgettable classic account of the horrifying murders in the Pacific Northwest and her shock when she discovered her friend—Ted Bundy—was not only a suspect but also one of the most prolific serial killers in American history.

Meeting in 1971 at a Seattle crisis clinic, Ann Rule and Ted Bundy developed a friendship and correspondence that would span the rest of his life. Rule had no idea that when they went their separate ways, their paths would cross again under shocking circumstances.

The Stranger Beside Me is Rule’s compelling firsthand account of not just her relationship with Bundy, but also his life—from his complicated childhood to the media circus of his trials. Astonishing in its intimacy and with Rule’s clear-eyed prose, you can’t help but share in her growing horror at discovering that her friend was one of the most notorious American serial killers.

An unforgettable and haunting work of research, journalism, and personal memories, The Stranger Beside Me is “as dramatic and chilling as a bedroom window shattering at midnight” (TheNew York Times).


Ted Bundy is the serial killer who sparked my interest in true crime. The case is horrific, tragic, and fascinating. It is hard to understand the charismatic effect he had on people.

This book is interesting because it is written by a crime writer who also happened to be a close personal friend of Ted Bundy. The coincidences that made this book possible are wild.

I learned a lot of new details about the case that I didn’t get from documentaries and podcasts I’ve previously explored, but all those details made the book a bit long, especially with the never-ending updates about the case after the first edition of the book was published. The audio definitely helped me get through this bulky story. I haven’t read a lot of true crime books, but this made me want to pick up more, and maybe even check out some of Ann Rule’s other books.

Review: Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett


Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Title: Hollywood Park
Author: Mikel Jollett
Genre: Memoir
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrators: Mikel Jollet
Length: 12 hours (384 pages)
Publisher: Celadon Books; Macmillan Audio
Release Date: May 26, 2020
Source: Library
Content Warnings: cults, physical and emotional abuse, addiction


HOLLYWOOD PARK is a remarkable memoir of a tumultuous life. Mikel Jollett was born into one of the country’s most infamous cults, and subjected to a childhood filled with poverty, addiction, and emotional abuse. Yet, ultimately, his is a story of fierce love and family loyalty told in a raw, poetic voice that signals the emergence of a uniquely gifted writer.

We were never young. We were just too afraid of ourselves. No one told us who we were or what we were or where all our parents went. They would arrive like ghosts, visiting us for a morning, an afternoon. They would sit with us or walk around the grounds, to laugh or cry or toss us in the air while we screamed. Then they’d disappear again, for weeks, for months, for years, leaving us alone with our memories and dreams, our questions and confusion. …

So begins Hollywood Park, Mikel Jollett’s remarkable memoir. His story opens in an experimental commune in California, which later morphed into the Church of Synanon, one of the country’s most infamous and dangerous cults. Per the leader’s mandate, all children, including Jollett and his older brother, were separated from their parents when they were six months old, and handed over to the cult’s “School.” After spending years in what was essentially an orphanage, Mikel escaped the cult one morning with his mother and older brother. But in many ways, life outside Synanon was even harder and more erratic.

In his raw, poetic and powerful voice, Jollett portrays a childhood filled with abject poverty, trauma, emotional abuse, delinquency and the lure of drugs and alcohol. Raised by a clinically depressed mother, tormented by his angry older brother, subjected to the unpredictability of troubled step-fathers and longing for contact with his father, a former heroin addict and ex-con, Jollett slowly, often painfully, builds a life that leads him to Stanford University and, eventually, to finding his voice as a writer and musician.

Hollywood Park is told at first through the limited perspective of a child, and then broadens as Jollett begins to understand the world around him. Although Mikel Jollett’s story is filled with heartbreak, it is ultimately an unforgettable portrayal of love at its fiercest and most loyal.


This incredible memoir is a tale of generational trauma that plagues a family with abuse, addiction, mental illness, and cult membership. Mikel’s relationship with his mom was especially toxic.

The writing was incredible. I love how the narrative matured with the age of the author–he captured a childlike voice for his 5-year-old self (for example, word choice and syntax reflected a child’s use and understanding), but the voice became more eloquent as the narrative progressed.

The audiobook is where it’s at. I love the trend of author’s reading their own memoirs, but Mikel Jollett takes it to the next level by adding music from his band The Airborne Toxic Event. At first I wasn’t sure how to feel about the musical interludes throughout the story, but I loved them by the end of the book.

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara


Rating: ☆☆☆
Title: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
Author: Michelle McNamara
Genre: True Crime
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrators: Gabra Zackman, Gillian Flynn, Patton Oswalt
Length: 10 hours (352 Pages)
Publisher: Harper; HarperAudio
Release Date: February 27, 2018
Source: Library (Libby)


A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by Michelle’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.


The Golden State Killer case is fascinating and tragic. It’s also a tragedy that Michelle McNamara died before finishing this book; her research and writing were impressive, but the pieced-together sections were a bit disjointed and repetitive.

Additionally, this book did not translate well to audio, which I found especially odd considering the success of true crime podcasts. I recommend reading a physical copy so you can fully absorb the details of the case and follow the nonlinear sections of the book.

Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore


Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Title: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women
Author: Kate Moore
Genre: Nonfiction
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Length: 16 hours (479 pages)
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Release Date: May 2, 2017
Source: Library (Libby)
Recommended for fans of: women in science
Content: graphic medical details, gaslighting


The incredible true story of the women who fought America’s Undark danger

The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.

Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive — until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.

But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women’s cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America’s early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights that will echo for centuries to come.

Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives…


This is such an important story. It is horrifying, infuriating, and heartbreaking. I am shocked that I had never previously heard about these women since their experiences significantly impacted the development of workers’ rights, workplace safety, and even nuclear safety protocols.

The Radium Girls tells the story of women working at radium-dial factories producing luminous watches for soldiers during World War I. There were absolutely NO safety precautions in place as these women painted watch faces with radium paint, and the women were even encouraged to put the radium-coated paint brushes in their mouths to reshape the bristles. At first, these gross oversights in safety seemed like a result of ignorance–radium was heralded as a “miracle drug” with far-reaching health benefits upon its discover. However, as scientists discovered the dangers of radium, these radium companies hid truth from their workers, lied to female employees who expressed concerns, and did nothing to improve safety in their factories.

Many women who were dial painters eventually developed alarming symptoms: rotting teeth, necrosis, cancerous tumors, sepsis, fragile bones, aches and pains all over the body, and death. The book goes into horrifying detail about their symptoms, their medical journeys, and eventual legal battles for workers’ compensation. The companies’ responses absolutely outraged me.

The story did get a bit repetitive since so many women experienced similar symptoms, but I appreciate how Kate Moore told the individual stories of as many of these women as possible. These women deserve to be remembered, and Moore does a fantastic job of not only detailing a health and legal crisis, but also connecting it to human experience. The Radium Girls gives a voice to these forgotten women and delivers justice for so many wrongs these women and their families faced.

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