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: Edinburgh Twilight

Edinburgh Twilight – Carole Lawrence, 2017.

The year is 1881, and Ian Hamilton is the youngest of Edinburgh’s City Police force to earn the rank of Detective Inspector. His first solo case is a doozy: A serial killer is stalking the good – and bad – citizens of Edinburgh. Dubbed the Holyrood Strangler by the local press, the villain quickly racks up a significant body count. Teamed with the good-natured Sergeant Dickerson, Ian struggles to use his wits and modern detective techniques to find the killer.  Unfortunately, the strangler seems to always be a step ahead…

Edinburgh Twilight nicely brings the colorful Scottish city to life in all its aspects: from the grittiness of the slums to glitterati of the theater. Although the pacing lags at times, the story is replete with historical detail, lovingly vitalized for the reader. There are moments of gentle humor throughout that lighten the storyline and bring more depth to the characters.

Ian, however, is a difficult protagonist to like. Personal tragedy – losing both his parents in an arsonist’s fire – has left Ian estranged from his older brother and emotionally isolated from his fellow man. He is aloof, often self-righteous, and obsessively devoted to his work.  While readers understand that Ian’s flaws stem from childhood wounds, and we do get glimpses of a sensitive and empathetic side, it is a bit of work to relate to him.

While the bulk of the book centers on Ian’s brooding role, I would have enjoyed seeing other characters explored more deeply. One is left feeling slightly frustrated, as if doors to intriguing personalities had been opened but not entered.

Edinburgh Twilight is, overall, an enjoyable period mystery, populated with characters who great have potential for future development. This title promises to be the first in a series, and I would happily read a sequel.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Rib From Which I Remake The World

The Rib From Which I Remake The World  Ed Kurtz, 2016.

Black magic, a twisted picture show and a fiendish carnival come to town one hot summer evening, bringing madness and torment to tiny Litchfield – and making for a stunner of a story.

It is the early 1940s.  George – call him Jojo – Walker is an ex-cop and town pariah, getting by as a hotel dick.

A ghastly murder on his watch spurs Jojo to investigate the new folks in town, those unsettling hygiene movie people.  Jojo is right, the film and its servants are much more than they seem. In fact, a special invitation-only midnight showing leaves townsfolks acting…unnatural, to say the least.

Jojo teams up with Theodora, the downtrodden theater manager’s wife, to make sense of the growing lunacy and violence. Their discoveries lead them to question the very nature of reality, the existence of god, and meaning of their own lives.

The Rib From Which I Remake The World is flat-out brilliant.  The story unfolds like petals of an exotic and scandalous black flower – each one gently opening to give the reader a distressing revelation. Picture yourself, big-eyed, mentally saying ooooohhh…and eagerly turning the page. Like that.

Scenes are so thoughtfully written they feel almost effortless. Ironically – you’ll find out why later – you feel as if you could step right into Litchfield, in both time and place. In a very meta way, Kurtz has built a reality about building reality.

The sense of pathos is strong.  Jojo’s personal tragedies, Theodora’s isolation, and other townsfolks’ afflictions are deeply affecting. The characters are dealing with same troubling existential questions everyone faces: the significance of life and the lack of control of one’s destiny. But here, they are also trapped in a surreal, macabre proving ground. Then again, maybe we are too…

The Rib From Which I Remake The World is unforgettable. Powerful ideas, wrapped in a dark mantle of horror.  Stunning.

rating system five crows


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Dark Chocolate Coconut Candies

Looking for a fast, insanely-easy Valentine’s dessert bite?  Try these delectable chocolate coconut candies.  If you are a fan of Mounds bars – or Almond Joys – you will adore these.  They are moist, rich, and incredible and come together in minutes.  Better than those old candy bars, any day! I love these: I think the original recipe came from a long-ago issue of Gourmet. Customize with your own decorations for Valentine’s day.  Enjoy!

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Ingredients:

¾ cup sweetened flaked coconut

¾ cup unsweetened dried coconut

1/3 cup sweetened condensed milk

½ cup bittersweet chocolate chips

Optional tasty/festive garnishes:

Almonds

Sea salt

Red hot cinnamon hearts or other little candies – or try a piece of candied fruit.  Ginger, maybe?

How to Make Them:

Line the bottom and two opposite sides of an 8-inch square metal baking pan with wax paper.  Leave an overhang on both sides.  You’re only using the pan to shape your treats – the wax paper will allow you to pull the whole square out of the pan in one piece.

In a medium bowl, thoroughly mix together the sweetened coconut, the dried coconut and the sweetened condensed milk.  Use a spoon to get everything evenly combined.

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Press the coconut mixture into the pan in a nice, even layer using an offset spatula.  A regular spatula works, too, but the offset is helpful.  I recently got my first offset spatula and it turns out I didn’t know what I’d been missing.  They’re not expensive, either – this one from Amazon was only $5. I put a link down at the bottom for you, if you want.

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Put the coconut mixture, uncovered, into the refrigerator for 5 minutes to chill.

Meanwhile, melt your chocolate until it is smooth. Ideally, use a double-boiler.  A microwave works too. Or a metal bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.

Pull your coconut mixture from the fridge and spread the chocolate mixture evenly over the coconut layer.  Here’s where the offset spatula comes in handy again.*

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* Want to fancy things up?  After you spread the chocolate over the coconut, add a sprinkle of sea salt or stud some almonds across half of the chocolate.  Half, because when you cut your candy, half of that chocolate is going to be on the bottom. Put your beautifully-decorated half on top when you sandwich the two pieces together.

Chill in the refrigerator until firm, 5-10 minutes.

Lift the whole square out of the pan and put it on a cutting board.  Cut the square in half with a sharp knife.  Now you have two rectangles.

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Next, make a sandwich. Flip one half of the candy over so the chocolate is on the bottom and the coconut faces up.  Place the other half of the candy with the coconut side down on top of it.  Both coconut sides are in the middle, and chocolate layers are on the top and bottom. Press down lightly. Get rid of the waxed paper.

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Cut into 1-inch squares.  Make sure your knife is cold and clean between cuts.  Chill, covered, until you are ready to serve.

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These keep in the fridge for a week.

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Enjoy! If you want to modify things further, consider melting more chocolate, cutting the plain coconut layer into little rectangles and using a fork to dip and coat them completely.

Oh! Here is the offset spatula on Amazon:  Ateco 1305 Ultra Offset Spatula with 4.25 by .75-Inch Stainless Steel Blade, Plastic Handle, Dishwasher Safe


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Review: Into the Drowning Deep

Into the Drowning Deep  Mira Grant, 2017.

Mermaids are real, and they’re not cute.  They’re repulsive-looking, highly-advanced killers that would treat Disney’s Ariel as an amuse-bouche.

Marine biologist Tory knows that the mermaids are out there: they killed her sister and every other living thing onboard the Atargatis.  As a part of Imagine Entertainment’s tv special, the ship had blithely sailed off to the Mariana Trench searching for – and not expecting to find – the fishy cryptids.  They did, and they died.

Tory dedicates her life to avenging her sister, and years later, Tory’s research earns her passage on Imagine’s new expedition. The company got a bigger boat, as it were, and assembled a widely varied new crew of scientists, security guards and tv people, including sirenologist Jillian Thorn, two borderline-psycho big game hunters, twin deaf marine researchers, and Tory’s arrogant ex-boyfriend.  They’re all supported by a high-tech safety system.

Needless to say, they encounter mermaids.  Violent, intelligent mermaids.  And the safety system turns out not to work so great.

Now, I am a huge fan of this author’s October Daye urban fantasy series: across the board amazing characters, world-building, storylines…awesome.  Go read them, they’re great. I was primed to wholeheartedly enjoy Into the Drowning Deep.

But with this new book, the components just never gel.  The story has a conflicted identity.  Horror fiction?  Science adventure?

The reader is presented with mermaids as monsters, and the book reads like a horror novel, but this doesn’t quite work.  For one thing, we know what the monsters are like from the very beginning, so any suspenseful reveal is already undercut.

We also are not sure how to feel about the mermaids: many of the characters on board want to kill them for various reasons, other characters raise ethical environmental dilemmas.  If these are sentient beings, they argue, mermaids should be studied, not exterminated.

So, we have crafty predators going about slaughtering crew members in a wholesale shipboard bloodbath, and we’re not sure who to root for.  Awkward.

The book also feels long, explanation-heavy, and at times repetitious. All the story build-up does not work towards creating suspense before the inevitable concentrated attack on the vessel.  What it does, is leave you unsatisfied at the book’s abrupt ending.  We’ve followed all these characters’ storylines and we’re left thinking, “Hey, wait – that’s it?”

There are great elements to the book.  First, scary mermaids: that’s a unique and intriguing concept. Grant also succeeds in sharing a deep love of the ocean and its mysteries, as well as its desperate need for our conservation.  Central to the story is the importance of language and communication, and Grant sensitively highlights the perspectives of the deaf characters and their feelings towards non-signing hearing people. The concept of how we communicate meaning – from vocalization to sign language – is nicely intertwined with the idea of the mermaids’ methods of conversing.

Into the Drowning Deep is a thought-provoking read.  It captured and held my interest to the end but left me with a general feeling of disappointment.  It was o.k. at many levels, but super at none.

rating system three crows 


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On Beloved Books, the Eccentricities of Librarians, and the Soul: Best Reads of 2017

If you ask a librarian what his or her favorite book is, you’ll probably get a bemused and somewhat pitying look. At worst you’ll get a polite brush off – librarians are almost unfailingly polite – a bright smile, and a placating non-answer like “The one I’m reading now!” or “Oh, I just can’t choose.”

The former reply is rarely true. The latter – well, much more likely.

If pressed, your librarian may come up with a single title. Quite possibly, it won’t be one of their favorite books. Quite probably, he or she will give you a title just to get you onto your own journey of discovery for your favorite book(s). Because, even though your question seems innocuous, its answer is deeply, deeply personal.

This is not that librarians don’t enjoy recommending books. Oh, my goodness, yes, they do! They love it. They read widely and have a massive knowledge of fiction and non-fiction that spans many genres: graphic novels to true-life survival literature and everything in between. They will interview you to find out what you like, and make some suggestions from there. This process has a name: readers’ advisory. We’re good at it. Yeah, did I mention I’m a librarian? I am.

But to pick just one book…as the best book ever in the world, across all time…almost impossible.

Now and then, you may find someone who stands adamantly behind one title that is the end-all be-all of their existence. Maybe it was deeply formative in their life. That’s o.k., and it is kind of rare to find.

But chances are, most people will need to give you a handful of favorites.

In my home, I have a lot of full-to-capacity bookcases. It’s an occupational hazard for bibliophiles. (Quick aside here: A friendly warning to other librarians that when moving across the country, as we did recently, your spouse may get irrationally frustrated when the extremely expensive moving truck’s weight is primarily devoted to your books. But hey, he knew he wasn’t marrying a collector of feathers or pressed flowers, right?)

Anyway, one entire bookcase in my home – o.k., two really – is devoted to books I reread regularly.

These books are my favorites. They range wildly from Watership Down, to the Complete Sherlock Holmes, to the Little House on the Prairie series.  The Stand, Hamlet, and The Great Brain. Death in Kenya, All Creatures Great and Small, and Where Eagles Dare.

These titles are my friends. They are books I can reread and feel like I’m where I should be. Every time I visit one again I find something different. A detail I missed. An image that gives me a new idea. Something unique to take back to my real life.

A favorite book speaks to something inside you: it resonates with your soul, it reflects a facet of your personality. These titles keep their relevance throughout changes in your life. You can read them when you are ten or forty-eight. I fully expect to read them still when I am eighty-four. My favorite books, of course, will not be the same favorite books as everyone else, because their importance to me is tied to the specific meanings they have in my life.

That’s why, when you offhandedly ask someone who loves books what their favorite book is, you are asking to see into their soul. Be mindful of this.

I read and reviewed a lot of books for you this year. I truly enjoyed all of them. (Well, except for three. Don’t read those. Really.) To pick the top five titles out of all those I’ve reviewed is a challenge, so I’m going with re-readability as my criteria. Of all those I read this year, here are the top five I would re-read. Links are to my reviews. May you continue to find many, many favorite books of your own.

Did I say top five? Oops.

Best of the Best 2017

Bird Box  Josh Malerman, 2014. Almost unbearably tense. A blindfolded mother and two children journey downriver to escape – something – that will drive them mad if they see it.

Monster Hunter International Larry Correia, 2007. A warm-hearted, shoot-em’ up (there is such a thing!) with fantastic characters and a great sense of humor.

The Elementals  Michael McDowell, 1981. Family secrets and powerful entities on Alabama’s Gulf coast. Exquisitely-written, slow burn, summer southern horror.

Broken Monsters Lauren Beukes, 2014. A cop story. A story about dreams and art. Pink doors in the wasteland that is Detroit. Surreal and brilliant and creepy.

Dogs of War Jonathan Maberry, 2017. Captain Joe Ledger and his team fight nanites and artificial intelligences to save the world from a tech apocalypse. Rip-roaring and well-crafted military sci-fi.

Under the Overtree James A. Moore, 2000. A small town and its folks are tormented by an old evil. Amazing sense of place and detailed character build. And of course, there’s the wonderfully infamous Mr. Crowley.

The Supernaturals David A. Golemon, A classic ghost story on steroids, complete with a tv broadcast, dream walking, psychics, and a possessed professor.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Sweet & Spicy Candied Pecans

It is negative two degrees Fahrenheit outside right now, with a wind chill of negative thirteen. It’s warmed up a bunch since yesterday! With arctic air blowing in the new year, a chilly salad may not sound like the most appealing meal, despite your resolution for healthier eating.

Don’t despair! These candied pecans add a richly satisfying crunch of sweet and spice that will elevate your obligatory bowl of greens.

Granted, these delectable nuts probably aren’t that healthy, and you’ll most likely end up eating them straight out of a bowl as a comfort snack but, hey. All things in moderation.

These nuts are super-easy to make, and your house will smell fabulous while they’re in the oven. They may also remind you of outdoor festivals –  like my winter favorite, the National Western Stock Show – cheerful events where they sell those cinnamon almonds (but these are better).  Happy times!

Sweet & Spicy Candied Pecans

Sweet & Spicy Candied Pecans. Yum.

Ingredients:

1 cup white sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg white

1 Tablespoon water

1 pound of pecan halves*

* I used 8 oz for today’s batch. If you use fewer pecans, which is fine, you don’t have to change the proportions on the sugar mixture. You’ll just have a slightly heavier coating. Which, trust me, is not bad. Similarly, use the whole egg white and the full tablespoon of water.

 

How to Make Them:

Preheat your oven to 250F.

Mix together the sugar, cinnamon, cayenne, and salt in a bowl.

Whisk the egg white and the water together in a separate bowl until frothy. Really frothy.

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Put the pecans in the egg white mixture and toss well to coat.

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Remove the pecans with a slotted spoon, letting the excess egg white drip off, and put the pecans in the bowl with your spice mixture.

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Mix the pecans in until they’re evenly coated in spice.

Spread the pecans in a single layer on a baking sheet.

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Bake at 250F for one hour, stirring every 15 minutes, until they are evenly browned. Meanwhile, accomplish small tasks in those 15 minute blocks between stirring. Taking short, unsatisfying naps? Watering the plants? Starting a load of laundry? Watching almost all of a beloved episode of Hogan’s Heroes?

The image above left shows the pecans half-way through baking.  The photo on the right shows them at the end.

Remove them from the oven and let them cool a little bit.  I transferred them to some parchment paper to cool.

Then, snack away.  Or – save them for your salad!

Happy New Year, Everyone!


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Review: In the Still of the Night

In the Still of the Night David L. Golemon, 2017.

The Supernaturals are back.

This time, we find the ragtag group of paranormal investigators facing prison for their unpopular work debunking haunted house reality shows.

Released by the FBI, Professor Kennedy and the team are tasked with saving the president of the United States.  The unpopular leader is in a coma, tormented by an entity – or entities – far more powerful than even the team’s old nemesis, Summer Place.

To rescue the president before an angry power is released on the world, the team must unravel ties to insidious Nazi experiment and investigate a contaminated California town that died in the 60’s but has been showing…unnatural…signs of life. They must also follow the memories of a young blind girl, whose death long ago is part of the puzzle.

Having just read The Supernaturals – fantastic, see last week’s review – I was thrilled to get this book for the holidays. Unfortunately, it left me a little disappointed.

In the Still of the Night feels rushed: it lacks polish, detail, and depth. It would benefit from a tighter editorial review.

The characters that Golemon built so carefully in The Supernaturals – Leonard, the tech whiz, tough cop Damian, and Jenny, the possessed professor to name a few – all return here, but attain no further development. Golemon relies significantly on what we know of the characters from the previous book, and consequently they feel flat.

We don’t get the same level of nail-biting suspense, either, because In the Still of the Night charges largely down a single path: there aren’t as many diverse story threads coming together for an intense finish.

There are some great bits, however. The plot is uniquely imaginative. Gloria, the blind girl, is a beautifully developed character and the most interesting one in the book. The power of dream walking is expanded in the story – largely for flashbacks – and offers an intriguing shift of perspective. We also get a nostalgic look back at ‘50s and early ‘60s rock music classics, that will leave a few oldies stuck in your head at the end of various chapters.

In the Still of the Night is a good book: fast-paced and entertaining, and I am glad I read it. I enjoyed following Professor Kennedy and his team on this adventure. The Supernaturals is simply better-written. I would very much like a third book featuring these characters. Just, one that’s as masterful as the first.

rating system three crows