My Haunted Library

All things spooky. Your source for paranormal and supernatural book and movie reviews, strangeography, Halloween crafts and a little cozy fall baking.


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Review: The Reincarnationist Papers

Professional arsonist Evan Michaels remembers all of his past lives. Now, he has the chance to enter a rare society of immortals in The Reincarnationist Papers.

The Reincarnationist Papers—D. Eric Maikranz, 2008. Rating: 3/5

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Lonely and isolated, Evan lives out of a seedy motel working as an arsonist-for-hire. He has contemplated suicide, but knows it is pointless because he will just come back to life again: He was a Bulgarian farmer who fought in WWI, and a six-year-old boy in Georgia, where he developed his fascination with fire. Evan thinks he is alone in the world until he meets the beautiful, mysterious Poppy, who has a taste for heroin and creative sexual encounters. Poppy recognizes that Evan is a reincarnationist like herself and offers to be his advocate and help Evan join the Cognomina, a secretive association of reincarnationists. But Evan must first pass an exhaustive interview process to authenticate his past lives. Whisked away to Zurich, Evan meets others like himself and becomes enamored with their lavish, deviant, “epicurean” lifestyle. When the wealthy Samas offers Evan millions to steal a portrait for him, Evan leaps at the chance.

Conceptually, The Reincarnationist Papers shines. Maikranz incorporates a wealth of historical detail into the past life stories of the characters. The reader travels in time from Coronado’s expedition to the New World to the era of Louis XIV and beyond. Maikranz successfully brings less-familiar historical periods to life for the reader. Maikranz also takes a compelling, in-depth look at the cultural beliefs surrounding transmigration. These aspects of the novel are great.

Connecting with the characters, however, is a sticking point. It is hard to feel much for the reincarnationists. Maikranz intimates that we should pity them, trapped in their endless existences, but that is challenging, because they are, overall, rich, selfish, hedonistic snobs. Evan actually rejects the one character who lives a simple life, convinced he is mad for living in such—to Evan—discomfort.

The reincarnationists offer a well-argued case that religion is pointless—simply a big hoax perpetrated on mankind that forces people into living unnaturally restrained lives. The reincarnationists know this because they have experienced nothing after death except rebirth into another body. They would agree with Karl Marx that “religion…is the opiate of the masses,” but they prefer their opium straight up for personal painkilling purposes. This nihilist perspective could be a bit off-putting for some readers.

The Reincarnationist Papers offers a fascinating look at history and a provocative philosophical exploration of reincarnation. Personally, I had difficulty making character connections. Full disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion.


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Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares

A series of deadly bombings and sightings of a terrifying, futuristic creature stalking the streets of London have the city on edge. Holmes and Watson must hurry to foil a dastardly plot that could plunge England into anarchy.

Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares—James Lovegrove, 2013.  Rating: 4/5

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With London reeling from the latest bloody terrorist attack on Waterloo Station, Mycroft Holmes entreats his brother, Sherlock, to investigate. Sherlock reluctantly agrees but is more interested in pursuing an apparently unrelated phenomena: Baron Cauchemar, an otherworldly vigilante who is wreaking havoc on London’s criminal enterprise. Thieves and pickpockets live in terror of the figure with its glowing eyes, insectile carapace, and advanced weaponry. When Watson and Holmes encounter the mechanical avenger, Watson also leans towards a supernatural explanation—but Holmes knows better.

As the bombings circle closer to Buckingham Palace, endangering the Queen, Sherlock and Watson add names to their growing list of suspects: malevolent Professor Moriarty; the wealthy French emissary, De Villegrand; and “One-arm” Torrance, former sailor turned human trafficker. Together, Holmes and Watson discover the connection between Baron Cauchemar and the evilly ambitious individual behind the attacks.

I am a die-hard Sherlockian. I am not so much into steampunk. I was hesitant to pick up this book, thinking two would combine about as well as orange juice and toothpaste. Happily, I was wrong! The combination is as satisfactory as bacon and eggs. (I mean that as a good thing. If you’re not into bacon and eggs, substitute your own copacetic combo.)

Lovegrove stays true to tradition while breathing new life into beloved characters. We are treated to Holmes’s brilliant deductions (though a little too fallible in spots for me), disguises, pursuits, pitched battles, Watson’s engaging and drily humorous narration, lovely period detail, and an enjoyable if not particularly twisty mystery. Holmes fans will find all their boxes ticked (and we’re picky fans). The sci-fi element—using Victorian steam technology for then-radical inventions, a la Jules Verne—teeters on the edge of fantastical, especially in grand finale, but adds an imaginative, future-forward layer that meshes with Holmes’ own practices. The Stuff of Nightmares is a fun addition to Sherlock Holmes pastiches. I look forward to reading the second in series, Gods of War.


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Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

A brilliant monster child, a teacher, a doctor, a seasoned soldier, and a green recruit brave packs of zombie-like hungries and lawless Junkers in an attempt to reach safety…if it exists.

The Girl with All the Gifts – M.R. Carey, 2014. Rating 5/5


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Melanie loves attending school: She has a genius IQ and especially enjoys stories from Greek mythology. She is devoted to her favorite teacher, the empathetic Miss Justineau. What Melanie does not understand is why she and the other kids are shackled to their wheelchairs every time they leave their cells, in full head, arm, and leg restrains. It turns out, Melanie is a hungry: one of the fungal-controlled zombies that have destroyed civilization outside of their small military base. Melanie and the other kids are the only hungries who still maintain a human awareness. Or do they?

Dr. Caldwell believes Melanie is inhuman, a mere host to the mind-controlling fungus, but she is also the key to the future. Caldwell cannot wait to dissect Melanie’s brain, find a cure, save the world, and wallow in the accolades that follow. Gruff Sergeant Parks sees Melanie as a monster, pure and simple. Miss Justineau views Melanie as a sensitive, human child. They’re all right, to an extent. And young Private Gallagher, who never knew the world “before,” shares Melanie’s awe as they observe the wrecked marvels of human ingenuity for the first time.

When the base is overrun by a horde of hungries, the five make a dangerous journey across the countryside and through London, seeking shelter in one of the last surviving communities.  

The Girl with All the Gifts is magnificent, and I don’t wax hyperbolic lightly. The novel is simply stunning. I don’t know how I have not read this book until now, but I am richer for finding it. The story hits you hard on two fronts. On one level, it is a consummate post-apocalyptic tale of horror. Fans of this genre will find the story frighteningly plausible and filled with gripping, knuckle-biting scenes. Action-packed. Intense. But The Girl with All the Gifts is also a journey of self-awareness for the characters—and you, the reader. Each character explores and re-evaluates their beliefs, achieving knowledge that both frees and dooms.

The story is deeply affecting. Melanie is sensitive and self-reflective, struggling to reconcile her gentle and intelligent personality with the lurking monster inside herself. Her efforts reflect something each of us must do to in a more abstract way. Carey gives us scenes of stark brutality and great beauty, leaving us to consider, on a visceral level, the future of the human race. The Girl with All the Gifts is a story of endings and beginnings: like life. Read this one.


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Review: The Devil and the Dark Water

An insidious force stalks passengers and crew on a perilous ocean passage in this genrebending gem.

The Devil and the Dark Water—Stuart Turton, 2020. Rating 5/5


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It is 1634 and the abusive and power-hungry Governor General of Batavia, Jan Haan, is making the long voyage to Amsterdam aboard the United East India Company ship, the Saardam. Accompanying him are his wife Sara Wessel, their too-intelligent inventor daughter Lia, and Haan’s mistress Creesjie and her sons. Also aboard are the legendary sparrow and the bear: Sammy Pipps, a dapper English detective facing execution in Amsterdam for reasons unknown, and Sammy’s protector and friend, the massive mercenary with a conscience, Lieutenant Arent Hayes. When a tongueless leper impossibly pronounces that the ship is cursed and then promptly bursts into flame, Hayes and Pipps are rightfully convinced someone is trying to sabotage the voyage. Everyone aboard has secrets: some of which are more Machiavellian than others. Fellow traveler, the Predikant Sander Kers, is convinced that the demon Old Tom is aboard. Soon, Old Tom begins to whisper to the volatile blend of musketeers, sailors, and passengers, offering them infernal bargains. Demonic symbols, unholy miracles, and mysterious deaths plague the ship. It is up to Arent, Sara, and Sammy to uncover the truth.

The Devil and the Dark Water is a treat. It is a seafaring tale, with knife fights and killer storms and desperate conflicts in reeking cargo holds; it is historical fiction, in that it takes place long ago; it is a romance; it is a tale of friendship and family and betrayal; it is a philosophical puzzle about the nature of good and evil and revenge; it is suffused with supernatural suggestion. In short, it’s lit.

As the story rockets along we become helplessly, deliciously caught up in the myriad of mysteries and superstitious paranoia until we are nothing but a twitchy, hand-wringing ball of anxiety. One that tersely—but lovingly!—tells one’s significant other to leave us alone so we can finish this book. Glorious suspense! But as clever and brilliant as the plot is, the characters carry the novel. The diverse cast is nuanced and profoundly human and relatable despite 400 the years separating us.

In a closing author’s note, Turton hints at a keen understanding that makes The Devil and the Dark Water such a successful genre-defying tale. Turton explains, “You see, I believe a book is whatever you decide it is” (454). Everyone reads a story differently, taking away what they need and want. It speaks to Turton’s immense talent that The Devil and the Dark Water is so widely satisfying.


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Review: The Scorpion’s Tail

A cold case turns hot for a newbie FBI agent when she runs afoul of the military while chasing clues to a murder and a long-lost treasure.

The Scorpion’s Tail—Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, 2020. Rating: 3/5


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Corrie Swanson is bitterly sure that her pitiful assignment in nowhere New Mexico is a punishment for her ineptitude on her last case. Now, she is stuck with cowboy Sheriff Watts trying to figure out what a treasure hunter was doing searching the remote High Lonesome ghost town. Corrie calls in a favor from archaeologist Nora Kelly and together they discover a corpse—one that clearly died a gruesome death—and a priceless Spanish gold cross. Corrie, Watts, and Nora follow rumors of a golden fortune and uncover a decades-old military conspiracy at the nearby White Sands Missile Range.

I was poised to be super-enthusiastic about this read because I have enjoyed many (most) of Preston and Childs’ other titles; but the book fell a little flat. Here are the pros: The story is satisfying. It is a slower build, but the pacing is solid, and the tension increases nicely as our heroes get closer to solving the mystery. The authors successfully weave together fascinating historical elements from the atomic era and early Native American history. There are some fun shootouts. The desert southwest landscape is beautifully realized. I have been to several of the locations depicted in the book, and Preston & Child so exquisitely capture the colors and silence and sheer vastness of the high desert that I felt transported back, which was a lovely gift.

Now the cons. Characterization is thin. Corrie is the most well-rounded of the group, but she is so rules-based she is not easy to empathize with. The few flashbacks to Corrie’s abusive childhood do not go far enough to flesh out her character. She and Nora both struggle in typical “male” or “moneyed” professions, respectively, and their ultimate successes are empowering, but do not add the needed depth to their personalities. The rest of the cast is largely one-dimensional. The book is so plot-driven, I felt like I was missing entire scenes that would have helped me care more about these people. Early on, for instance, Watts suggests he and Corrie have lunch. Great! I expected a short sequence in a café to get some character background…Nada.

All that said, devotees of Preston and Child and all of us action, thriller, suspense, and historical fiction fans will have most of our boxes checked. Plus, Agent Pendergast makes a brief, deus-ex-machina cameo: enjoyable, if a little contrived. The Scorpion’s Tail is a quick, solid read, but does not rank among my favorites from the extensive offerings of Preston & Child.


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Review: The Reaping

Tom takes a commission at a remote English country house to paint a young woman’s portrait…but he soon discovers that the family’s ancient matriarch has other unsavory plans for him.

The Reaping—Bernard Taylor, 1980. Rating: 4/5


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Tom has all but given up his dreams of being an artist and settled for a steady career as shopkeeper to best support his young children. His relationship with his globe hopping girlfriend, Ilona, is on the rocks. Life is uninspiring until Tom gets the lucrative opportunity of a lifetime: spend a week at Woolvercombe House painting the beautiful Catherine. He seizes the chance, and he and the shy Catherine warm to each other (“warm” is an understatement). Tom’s love of his craft is reenergized and, inexplicably, so his libido…but Tom gets a creepy vibe about the rest of Woolvercombe’s inhabitants.

The ailing Miss Stewart, whose garish makeup fails to hide the sight and smells of her sour old age; the sly manservant, Carl; the too-efficient secretary, Mrs. Weldon; and the enigmatic Dr. McIntosh all make Tom highly uneasy. Then there are the five mysterious nuns living on the property, who Tom discovers are not exactly models of piety. Tom finishes the portrait and hopes he is done with Woolvercombe House for good…only to find neither he, nor his family have escaped Miss Stewart clutches.

What a fun read! The Reaping is a slow burn. Taylor takes his time letting us get to know Tom and better empathize with his frustrations. The creepy factor builds deliciously, in the best kind of country-house mystery fashion, and you’re not sure exactly what horrors will emerge. While you suspect some of Miss Stewart’s machinations, the ending is a shocker. I’m surprised this hasn’t been made into a film; it would be wildly successful. (The book is in no way related to the less-than-stellar 2007 movie of the same name.) My only quibble with The Reaping is that it does take a while for the supernatural element to slide its way into the story—ah, but when it does! The Reaping is one of Paperbacks from Hell series of horror classics originally published in the 70s 80s. I recently finished The Tribe (my review here), another from the series, and it made my 2020 Best list. The Reaping is another satisfying installment.


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Review: The Progeny

Emily Porter had her memory erased in an experimental procedure—and doesn’t know why. When danger shows up on her doorstep, she must flee to Croatia and put together her astonishing past.

The Progeny: A Novel – Tosca Lee, 2016.    3.5/5


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At just twenty-one years old, Emily has started a quiet new life in middle-of-nowhere Maine tying fishing lures. But subconsciously, the life she rejected is trying to tell her something.

A man named Rolan informs her she’s not Emily, her real name is Audra, and she is a descendant of Elizabeth Bathory. (You horror fans know her: The blood countess? The one who supposedly killed all those serving girls, bathed in their blood, and was walled up in a room in her castle for three years before she died? That one.) As Bathory’s descendant, Audra has special powers of persuasion. She is one of “the Progeny.” Rolan informs Audra that she is being hunted by an assassin from the Scions of the Dispossessed whose mission is to eradicate all of Bathory’s kin. Audra is soon on the run with Rolan from another (handsome, younger man) named Luka. But maybe Rolan isn’t so trustworthy. Maybe Luka is. Maybe they both are, or aren’t. Audra must tease out complicated loyalites; navigate the masked underground courts of Nikola, the Prince of Budapest, and Tibor, the Zagreb Prince; discover who killed her mother, a Progeny activist; unmask a conspiracy; save her new/old friends and her new/old beloved; and prove Bathory’s innocence. I think. Most of that, anyway. I lost track.

I went into this novel with great anticipation. I’ve enjoyed other works by Lee, especially her apocalyptic novel, A Line Between (see my review here), and her historical fiction titles like The Legend of Sheba. Good stuff. The Progeny is well-written: the pacing is great, there is plenty of action, the historical mystery is intriguing, and Lee weaves in a sensitive and probably (to other people) touching theme about motherhood. I was captivated by Lee’s dark vision of the fantastical, frenetic Progeny raves.

But I couldn’t get into the plot. The fault is largely mine: I have a strong aversion to amnesia and amnesia-like memory loss stories. I find them frustrating instead of suspenseful. Borderline infuriating, actually. I dislike feeling led by the nose by a plot device. In all stories, the author chooses when and how to dole out bits and pieces of info, but in memory loss stories the mechanics feel too transparent. (I have weird issues with time travel, too, but that’s another story.) Granted, Lee focuses on Audra’s journey in the present, but it still did not engage me. It also didn’t help that I found Audra largely unlikeable. Yes, Audra is stressed, doesn’t know who she is or was, and doesn’t trust anybody—these things would make anyone prickly—but they make her hard to connect with. For the bulk of the novel, she also doesn’t have a lot of empathy for any of the new/old people she’s meeting. Consequentially, I did not care much about the elaborate Progeny conspiracy. As I said, it’s mostly just me. Fans of Lee’s writing in general will not be disappointed (unless they share my bizarre issues with memory loss stories). This is the first in the Descendants of the House of Bathory series and is followed by Firstborn (2017). As much as I hate to leave a series hanging, I’ll be skipping Firstborn.  


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Best of 2020 (Yes, There Were Some Best Things!)

I’m glad 2020 is in the rear-view mirror. The year was an emotionally challenging one for me, as it was for everyone. But it wasn’t a total wash: I read a lot of great books this year. I’m thankful for the power of fiction which helped me through this time: letting me escape, letting me understand the world—and myself—on a deeper level, letting me empathize more deeply. Thanks, books! Here are some of my favorite reads of 2020. Text links go to my full reviews, image links send you to Amazon.

Intercepts – T.J. Payne, 2019.

With their personalities stripped and their senses deprived, the government-controlled human “antennas” collect sensitive info by intercepting their targets’ minds. When one antenna infiltrates Joe Gerhard, the man in charge of their care—and torture—Joe’s entire family is at risk. A horrific, gripping story of unethical experimentation and revenge.

The Library of the Unwritten – A.J. Hackwith, 2019.

Claire, the librarian of Hell, must leave her unhallowed halls for Seattle, to track down an escaped character from an unwritten novel. Along with the inexperienced demon Leto and failed muse (and library assistant) Beverly, Claire discovers that her task is much more than it appears. Representatives of both Heaven and Hell will do anything to get their…hands (wings? claws?) on the pages in Claire’s possession. My only 5/5 rating of the year. Exquisitely written, deeply thought-provoking, uniquely original.

The Complete Carnacki, The Ghost Finder – William Hope Hodgson, 1913.

Nine fantastic tales about the enigmatic Carnacki, an “unprejudiced skeptic” who investigates hauntings, possessions, and all manner of “ab-natural” things in early 20th century London. What would be deliciously classic ghost stories on their own get an appealing new power from Carnacki’s strange “scientific” inventions. 

Haunted & The Ghosts of Sleath – James Herbert, 1988, 1994.

Paranormal investigator David Ash is a confirmed skeptic and skilled debunker. Gruff and flawed, he’s also in denial about his past. In Haunted, a straight-up scary haunted house story, David is called in by some creepy siblings and their old nanny to investigate a ghostly appearance. Things go very badly. Reeling from his experiences in Haunted, David next travels to the village of Sleath, ostensibly to probe the ghostly return of a drowned boy, only to discover the entire town is the imminent target of dark spirits. Darkly beautiful writing, great characters, and spooky, spooky plots make these must-reads.

Monster Hunter Siege – Larry Correia, 2017.

Owen Pitt, accountant-turned-monster-hunter, goes on the offensive, marshalling monster hunter agencies across the globe to attack the god of chaos, Asag. Owen must enter the Nightmare Realm alone to confront the supernatural bad guy and bring back lost comrades. Monster Hunter Siege is a glorious, whirlwind shoot-em-up with humor and heart.

The Tribe – Bari Wood, 1981.

When a rabbi’s son is murdered, and the murderers are later found gruesomely torn apart and covered in wet clay, police detective Roger Hawkins must investigate his old friend, Rabbi Jacob Levy. Jacob and a group of Jewish men from the same Polish town somehow survived the Belzec extermination camp. Now, in 1980s Brooklyn, Roger wonders if they had some supernatural help. A slow-burn multi-layered look at the nature of good and evil.

The Devil Aspect – Craig Russell, 2018.

In 1935, psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Kosárek is eager to prove his theories about evil through his work with the Devil’s Six—a group of criminally violent madmen (and women) of Prague. While Kosárek delves into the killers’ memories, police detective Kapitán Lukáš Smolák desperately tracks an active serial killer: the infamous Leather Apron. Russell’s use of Slavic folklore and his incorporation of the growing tension preceding the rise of Hitler make this intelligent, unnerving novel a standout.


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Film Review: Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

A guilt-ridden soldier returns to the zombie-infested South Korean peninsula to retrieve a truck full of US dollars. This’ll go well.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula – 2020  Rating: 3/5


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South Korean Marine Corps Captain Jeong-seok (Gang Dong-won) lost his sister and nephew in the initial zombie outbreak featured four years earlier in Train to Busan. Now, guilty and still grieving, he and his basically useless brother in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), accept an assignment from some Chinese mobsters. If they take a team back to the peninsula and recover a truckload of cash, they’ll be richly rewarded. Things, of course, go terribly wrong. Half Jeong-seok’s team is wiped out. He is separated from Chul-min, and quickly discovers that the zombie hordes are the least of his problems. Jeong-seok must face a rogue military unit led by the psychotic Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae) to get the truck and to rescue Chul-min from Hwang’s macabre zombie fight club. Jeong-seok is aided by some allies in the forms of a tough mom, possibly loopy grandpa, and two cute little girls with amazing defensive driving skills.

So.

When I see “Train to Busan Presents” featured prominently in the (ridiculously awkward) title, my expectations skyrocket. Train to Busan is an outstanding film. Outstanding. Seriously. An instant zombie classic: fresh, thrilling, scary, heartwarming…If you have not seen it, go watch it now. I just lent my copy to our neighbor in the firm belief that everyone should watch Train to Busan.

Peninsula is no Train to Busan.

It isn’t for lack of trying: Peninsula is a perfectly solid standalone action film. High production value. Impressive car chase scenes. Gang Dong-won is appealing as the handsome and strong-but-troubled hero. He wears his two expressions—brooding and fiercely brooding—well. If you haven’t seen Train to Busan, you may enjoy Peninsula.

Unfortunately, I wanted another Train to Busan. Peninsula feels like a slick video game and all the Mad Max movies rolled into one. One long car chase meets Thunderdome. The zombies are just part of the landscape in this film: a big seething mass. They lack the terrifying immediacy of the zombies in Train to Busan, and so they aren’t scary, and don’t pose a significant threat. And while the girls are adorable and capable and provide some laughs, they and their family unit are not enough to inject heart into the movie. In comparison to Train to Busan, Peninsula is “meh.” It lacks the horror and soul of its predecessor.


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Review: The Haunting of Brynn Wilder

When a young English professor visits a quaint coastal town to emotionally regroup, she finds that her boardinghouse is haunted and falls for a handsome stranger with a mysterious secret.

The Haunting of Brynn Wilder—Wendy Webb, 2020.  Rating: 4/5


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Brynn Wilder is feeling fragile after a country-song worthy litany of losses (her mom to cancer, her beloved dog, and her twenty-year relationship). She decides to summer in the tourist town of Wharton on upper Lake Superior, where her friend Kate and Kate’s police chief husband (both characters from Webb’s previous novel, Daughters of the Lake, 2018) now live. Brynn loves the historic and luxe boardinghouse, run by quirky LuAnn and her bartender partner Gary. There, Brynn starts to relax and befriend her fellow boarders. She bonds with Jason and his husband Gil, and Jason’s ex-wife from before he came out, Alice, who suffers with early Alzheimer’s. Brynn also forms an instant, electric connection with the devastatingly handsome Dominic. Covered in vivid tattoos that oddly seem to change from day to day, Dominic is a literal “illustrated man.”

Brynn begins to have eerie dreams about past lives, and about the single locked room at the inn, where the body of an elderly lady was discovered. As the summer passes, Brynn begins to heal, she and Dominic fall in love, and the two do their best to support Gil and Jason and Alice as Alice’s symptoms rapidly progress. As Brynn learns more about herself—and Dominic—she begins to think her connection to him transcends time.

The Haunting of Brynn Wilder is a gentle supernatural romance. There are lots of leisurely meals, picnics, happy hours, and conversations with friends—all in a beautifully captured sense of place. You feel as if you are spending the summer with friends at the edge of the glorious—and eerie—Lake Superior. Suspense takes a backseat in The Haunting of Brynn Wilder. The story shines both as a character study, and in its loving treatment of the difficult emotional issues it raises. The story of Alice, transitioning between worlds, offers a poignant look at the devastating effect of Alzheimer’s on patient and loved ones. The novel makes you reflect that family is deeper than blood: connected instead by love, support, and compassion. Webb ultimately offers readers a positive, affirming vision of what happens to us after death.  

Although the ending (no spoilers) borders on being a little over the top for even my generous suspension of disbelief, it provides satisfying, touching closure. A comfortable, and comforting read.