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: Mexican Gothic

Spunky young socialite Noemí discovers that her newly-married cousin’s new family has nefarious—and supernaturally icky—plans for them both in Moreno-Garcia’s shivery spellbinder.

Mexican Gothic—Silvia Moreno-Garcia, 2020. Rating: 5/5

Noemí Taboada bounces from boy to boy, party to party, and dress to dress while searching for her passion. She’s landed on archaeology and wants to go to grad school. Her traditional father finally agrees—if she travels to a remote Mexican mountain town to check on her cousin Catalina, who married into an English family. Catalina’s most recent letter, in which she claims to see ghosts in the walls and insists she is being poisoned, suggests she is having a mental breakdown.

Determined to prove to her father that she is more than a flighty social butterfly, Noemí travels to High Place, the decaying Doyle family seat. Noemí meets the repugnant family patriarch Howard Doyle, ancient, pale, and frighteningly fond of eugenics; Virgil, Catalina’s calculating, sexually magnetic husband; Florence, the domineering head of household; and her son Francis, gentle, shy, and the only one whom Noemí comes to trust—potentially at her peril. Catalina is bedridden, suffering from “tuberculosis” and Noemí has time to explore the mountain village and learn the ominous rumors surrounding the family. When Noemí begins sleepwalking and experiencing terrifying visions, she realizes the horrible danger both she and Catalina face.

* Insert delighted shiver. *

Mexican Gothic delivers on its gothic promise. A dark brooding atmosphere complete with a fogbound cemetery and moldering Victorian manse. Isolated damsels in distress at the whims of a strange, malevolent family. An eerily sentient house. Fungus. Sexual tension. Threats of madness. What’s not to love? While Mexican Gothic lovingly draws on all these elements of classic gothic horror—including nods to Poe, Lovecraft, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—it offers a fresh story from a unique perspective. The setting of 1950s Mexico informs the characters’ thoughts, beliefs, and actions. The underlying menace of eugenics and the Doyle family’s involvement with the local silver mine touch on issues of female oppression and racism. Noemí, though she enjoys her rich-daughter status, is something of a rebel for both the time and place. Following the rules—at home, or at High Place—is not something Noemí is very good at. With a sarcastic mouth and a soft heart, Noemí is a smart, confident (and always well-dressed) heroine. Mexican Gothic is a dark delight.

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Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God

Thriller writer Douglas Preston proves that truth is as exciting as fiction in his gripping memoir of a search for a fabled lost city.

The Lost City of the Monkey God—Douglas Preston, 2017. Rating: 4/5

In 2012, cinematographer Steve Elkins has the unconventional idea of using airborne LiDAR—Light Detection and Ranging—to hopefully pinpoint the location of Cuidad Blanca, the “White City” or “Lost City of the Monkey God” deep in the Honduran rainforest. Elkins’s gamble pays off: the LiDAR reveals evidence of man-made ruins, created by a previously unknown culture. Douglas Preston, in his capacity of journalist, is along for the preliminary LiDAR flights.

After years of battling red tape, in 2015 Elkins secures the blessing (and permits) from the Honduran president to mount a ground expedition. Elkins, along with his film crew, team of archaeologists and specialists, and Preston embark on a rugged trip into the dangerous, largely unexplored Mosquitia region of Honduras. A tough ex-SAS team with decades of jungle training goes along for protection—a necessity in a region where plants, animals, insects, and the weather can all be deadly, and that’s in addition to the human threats posed by drug cartels in neighboring cities. What the group discovers changes adds important new information to humankind’s historical understanding of indigenous peoples in the new world. Their discovery ignites academic controversy and seems to wake an ancient curse: multiple expedition members, including Preston, fall victim to a puzzling disease.

Preston, perhaps best known for collaborative novels with Lincoln Child, is also an acclaimed journalist, having contributed to both National Geographic and the New Yorker. His account of the search for Cuidad Blanca is narrative nonfiction at its best: fast-paced, terrifically exciting, and powerfully thought-provoking. Preston takes a deep dive into the history of the new world and the devastating effect of old world exploration. He explores contemporary technology, epidemiology, and Honduran politics. Readers get a dramatic first-hand account of natural wonders of the rainforest, like a near encounter with the terrifying fer-de-lance, one of the world’s most venomous snakes. Preston seamlessly weaves these many threads into what is both a thrilling adventure and a sobering reflection on the effects of anthropogenic activities worldwide.

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Review: Artemis

Good-hearted smuggler Jazz leaps at the chance to make a million, but discovers that both mobsters and zero gravity are unforgiving in Weir’s light-hearted lunar caper.

Artemis—Andy Weir, 2017. Rating: 4/5

People on Artemis, humankind’s first and only city (so far) on the moon, know that Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is the go-to gal for illegal goods. No drugs, guns, or live plants: Jazz has her standards, and she loves her hometown. According to her estranged father and her few close friends, Jazz is wasting her genius scientific mind. Jazz has always wanted to make it rich quick, but so far that hasn’t happened. She lives in a coffin-sized ‘capsule domicile’ and aspires to join the EVA Guild and be one of the elite few who are sanctioned to leave the city’s domes and lead lucrative moonscape excursions for tourists.

When she fails her EVA test, Jazz takes a job for the wealthy entrepreneur Trond Landvik. It’s a tricky bit of industrial sabotage, but Jazz has the guts and brains to do it. Finally, she’ll be able to get out of her hovel and live in style. Piece of cake…Not. Soon Jazz has the local lunar law and a deadly assassin on her trail. On top of that, she’s run afoul of both the South American mob and Administrator Ngugi, the formidable leader of Artemis. Jazz rallies an eccentric group of specialists including the gay frenemy who stole her boyfriend, the rule-bound head of the EVA guild, a cheerful Ukrainian microelectronic whiz, and her reluctant dad, to help save Artemis—because the future of their world is now at stake.

Artemis is a blast. Weir’s vision of the first extraterrestrial city is both innovative and familiar; a scientific wonder and tourist destination. Artemis is as diverse as its earthly homeland, and at times as fractioned. Varied ethnic groups control different vital industries like glassblowing, smelting, and oxygen production. There is lots of enticing science behind the creative detail of daily moon life that readers will savor—if you can manage not to be swept away by the caper’s breakneck pace. Weir packs a lot of action into the science, or maybe that’s vice versa. I learned a great deal about welding (that’s a positive thing!) while rooting for Jazz and her ragtag crew. Jazz is a sassy, spunky, sympathetic character, with vulnerabilities and flaws that make her easily relatable. Artemis is a great escape: A science-fiction thriller that will energize your imagination and lift you out of those winter doldrums.

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Review: Monster Hunter Guardian

Mama bear instincts scream into overdrive for MHI sharp-shooter Julie Shackleford when her new baby is kidnapped by monsters.

Monster Hunter Guardian – Larry Correia and Sarah A. Hoyt, 2019. Rating: 4/5

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While her husband and legendary monster-hunter hero, Owen Pitt, is off fighting a chaos god with most of MHI (Monster Hunter Siege), Julie Shackleford is stuck minding the shop and watching over baby Ray, aka Little Bubba.

A routine recruitment turns into a trap, and Julie is forced to bargain with an adze, a powerful, sneaky vampire-like creature that possesses regular folks. It wants the ancient artifact she’s been chosen to guard in exchange for baby Ray. Needless to say, the adze does not play fair. In her desperate search for Ray, Julie single-handedly cuts a wide swath through the monsters of Europe. She must also deal with some personal issues when her evil, Master Vampire mother wants Ray for herself.

I am a big Monster Hunters International series fan, but this is not one of my favorites. Julie’s solo, Sarah Connor-like one-woman crusade gets a little tiring. I get that the maternal instinct is strong. I get that she is obsessed with the baby—How can we miss it? She tells us ad nauseum—but her single-minded fervor bogs the story down. (That sounds terrible to say. Nothing meant against protective mothers. Just in this case). Guardian is missing a lot of the humor, devil-may-care monster battles, and quirky characters that make the other books in the series shine.

On the plus side: Thank goodness for the Shoggoth. (!) Mr. Trash Bags is a delight. More, please. We are treated to page-turning action, serious weaponry, a great monster auction scene, and a satisfying knock-down drag-out assault on the bad guys’ hideout: all good stuff.

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Review: Invasive

Myrmecophobic? Invasive is your worst nightmare. Then again, a little exposure therapy may help you overcome that crippling fear of ants…

Invasive—Chuck Wendig, 2016. Rating: 4/5

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The discovery of a body that has been gruesomely skinned by a swarm of new and deadly ants has the FBI calling in futurist consultant, Hannah Stander. Hannah, daughter of paranoid, prepper parents, believes that the future is a door towards which two opposing forces of humanity are rushing: either evolution or ruination will enter first and determine the fate of mankind. With help from an entomologist friend, Hannah tracks this assassination by ants to a genetics research company run by billionaire entrepreneur and save-the-planet crusader, Einar Geirsson. Hannah travels to the lab’s headquarters on a remote Pacific island where elite scientists work at genetically modifying insects to combat global issues of hunger and climate change. Hannah must suppress her own fears and suss out the charming Einar and resentful scientists before the murderer escalates to omnicide. Meanwhile, a powerful storm is approaching. And so are the ants.

Invasive is a dynamite technothriller: a suspenseful, chilling look at the razor’s edge on which humanity balances. One scientific step too far—or one rogue scientist, well-meaning or otherwise—can bring about the end of the world, or its salvation. Possibly both. The mystery is tight and twisty, the science terrifying, and the non-stop action—though it occasionally requires a significant suspension of disbelief—keeps pages flying. Hannah is a complex heroine. Thanks to her survivalist upbringing, Hannah is tougher than the average bear, but her childhood has left her emotionally scarred and vulnerable. Having been raised to fear the future, she suffers from panic attacks. Her relationship with her mother is fraught, and consequently Hannah avoids her parents—an action that has a crushing effect.

Those of you with any kind of insect squeamishness beware: Invasive will push all your buttons. I don’t generally mind ants. These ants are horrifying. Expect some (a lot) of grisly “can’t unsee” scenes. I am glad I read this when there is a foot of snow outside. Fantastic read.

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Review: A Deadly Education

Forget noxious jellybeans and blunt-force Bludgers: at the Scholomance school for wizards, legions of horrifying mals eagerly consume inattentive students. Good luck making it to graduation—or through graduation.

A Deadly Education—Naomi Novik, 2020. Rating:  5/5

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Vigilance, smarts, and force of will (i.e., extreme crabbiness), have propelled Galadriel into her third year at this hazardous school for wizards. “El” also happens to be one of the deadliest students enrolled, but she keeps this on the down low. Being a prophesied destroyer of worlds has drawbacks.

El is the product of two former Scholomance students. Her hippie-like good witch British mum is a powerful healer. Her Indian dad died during his graduation exercises—like scores of other potential grads. El is on her own. She is not part of a powerful Enclave that provides spell-powering mana to its members and ensures security after graduation. El’s chances of surviving the Scholomance, and after, depend only on her. And that’s the way she wants it. El is irritable, unfriendly, standoffish, rude, and generally unpleasant…and hard-working and deep, deep down, good-hearted. She’s also lonely. When Orion Lake, the junior class hero, annoyingly saves her life, El resentfully becomes his frenemy, and maybe even his bona fide friend. The two join forces in a desperate attempt to restore balance to the Scholomance and keep an inordinate number of seniors from being munched at graduation.

A Deadly Education is a flat-out fantastic read. The Scholomance, like the magic in its world, is fluid and enigmatic. It is a combination of gears, oil, and a black void held together only by the common acceptance of its blueprints. The characters are the same way: Mad magical ability meets all too human emotions like loneliness, frustration, jealousy, and friendship. You hate El, empathize with El, and love El all for different reasons. Her experiences—traumatic, triumphant, mortifying—take her on a journey of self-discovery. As she cautiously interacts with others, she learns the value of connection, and starts to emerge from her self-imposed isolation.

Plot: darkly delightful. Characters: compelling and convincing. Magic: wickedly, utterly fun. El is “strict mana” and will not harm anything to gain power for her magic. Other students don’t have that compunction, which makes for a…tense learning environment. And the monsters! The sheer variety of mal great and small, sometimes whimsical, always deadly, that populates the Scholomance is fiendishly satisfying to us dark fantasy and horror nuts. Woe to the poor student who fatally discovers that their chair in shop class is not a chair… 

A brilliant, brilliant novel. A shoo-in for my Best of 2022 List.

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The Best of 2021

Yes, yes, we’re already well into the new year, but now that you’re no longer inundated with ‘best of’ lists, you can take your time and appreciate this one to the fullest. That’s my rationale. Late? Hmpf. Certainly not. Here are some of my favorite reads over the last year. Text links go to my full reviews, image links send you to Amazon.

The Girl with All the Gifts—M.R. Carey, 2014.

A sensitive, intelligent young girl happens to be a hungry—a fungal-controlled zombie—who may just hold the key to saving the human race, or at least its legacy, in this brilliant post-apocalyptic novel. Action-packed horror sequences complement a bittersweet journey of self-discovery.   

Later—Stephen King, 2021.

Jamie Conklin shares the story of his childhood and how his ability to talk with the newly dead leads to a battle for his soul. Cop story, coming of age story, ghost story: Later does it all, with aplomb.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires—Grady Hendrix, 2020.

Patricia Campbell’s book club revels in the true crime genre until a new neighbor moves in, and bizarre attacks and deaths start to multiply. Patricia and her friends must overcome personal, hidden troubles such as sexism, abuse, betrayal, and infidelity to unite against this unique threat.

The Book of Koli—M.R. Carey, 2020.

Teenage Koli discovers that the privileged class in his village is hiding a secret about the old technology that keeps them safe from threats like killer trees and rogue drones that populate the woods beyond. Stunning worldbuilding, thrilling scenes, and characters with heart make this an outstanding read.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London—Garth Nix, 2020.

Merlin St. Jacques, a left-handed bookseller (the fighting kind) helps eighteen-year-old Susan uncover her magical heritage in this enchanting, old-meets-new urban fantasy. 

Here are some standouts that I, regretfully, did not get to write a full review for you. Do check them out: They are all phenomenal.

Wanderers—Chuck Wendig, 2019.

Across the US, an apparently random group of “sleepwalkers” moves inexorably towards the west coast, protected on their march by confused, desperate family members, or “shepherds.” The inexplicable sleepwalkers trigger a wide range of responses across the country—many violent. Wending has his finger on the pulse of contemporary conflicts, beliefs, and partisan divisions, and superbly captures the highs and lows of both humanity—and AI. A deeply thought-provoking, powerful novel.

Ash—James Herbert, 2012.

Brooding paranormal researcher David Ash, battered from previous cases, returns to investigate the very malevolent Comraich Castle, an expensive asylum where the world’s evildoers and inconvenients seek sanctuary. Atmospheric, dark, and genuinely spooky: a great read.

An Easy Death—Charlaine Harris, 2018.

Crack-shot Gunnie Rose hires on to help some Russian wizards track a man into Mexico in this extraordinary western. The altered, magical vision of a fragmented US is compelling, and Gunnie is a savvy, plucky heroine, with secrets of her own.

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Review: The Venue: A Wedding Novel

An elite wedding venue caters to couples with an axe to grind—almost literally—in this darkly humorous and delightfully gruesome tale.

The Venue: A Wedding Novel—T.J. Payne, 2020. Rating: 4/5

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Amy, an aerobic dance instructor with commitment issues, is surprised to get a wedding invitation from her childhood friend, Caleb, since she and Caleb grew apart during middle and high school. Once an awkward kid, Caleb is now filthy rich and marrying Lilith at an exclusive mountain venue somewhere in Europe.

Amy, her ex-partner Mariko, and Amy’s parents, as well as all the other wedding guests, are awed by the stunning site. The free liquor goes a long way to smoothing over any concerns about the venue’s odd rules, unknown location, and the disturbing fact that the loving couple’s wedding vows reveal serious emotional baggage and a passion for revenge. The reception, carefully orchestrated by the venue’s uber-efficient Event Planner, becomes a once-in-a-lifetime event in more ways than one. Guests must do the unthinkable to survive the night.

No more info from me—I don’t want to steal your fun. Because The Venue is a blast. I will just say you’ll never look at a bouquet toss the same way again. Payne takes conventional traditions (either tired or beloved depending on your opinion about weddings) and splatters them with gore and grim humor. The characters are round enough that you care about them when dreadful things happen, and you can even, perhaps, empathize with the emotions fuelling Caleb’s grudge. If you’re a fan of the Netflix series Squid Game, or the film Battle Royale (2000), The Venue will be right up your alley. For a more cerebrally terrifying read, also try Payne’s Intercepts (2019). You can read my review of that gem here.

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Review: The Store

A mysterious store offers tempting high-end bargain goods, but people’s excitement wanes when they realize cost may be their lives.

The Store—Bentley Little, 1996. Rating: 3.5/5

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The small desert town of Juniper, Arizona is thrilled when The Store, a discount chain offering every product imaginable, comes to town. Heck, The Store even has an espresso café and sushi bar. What more could people want? No more long drives to malls at Flagstaff or Phoenix. Work-from home tech writer Bill, however, is wary. He hates The Store’s slash and burn construction approach, and notices in alarm that animals come to die in droves in The Store’s parking lot.

The Store starts exerting…untoward influence. There are disappearances. Sightings of the spectral and terrifying Night Managers. Bill and two of his buddies know they need to do something to stop The Store—especially when Bill’s two teenage daughters get jobs there. But fighting The Store isn’t so easy. A contract is a contract, after all.

The Store is not subtle. It is not woke. It was originally published in 1996. The social commentary hits you like a blunt force object. There are gobs of things to get offended by including some cringeworthy sexually charged scenes; one in particular that breaks a deep-seated taboo. Little doesn’t play by convention. Nothing is sacred, and everyone will find something to be icked out over.

But you know what? The story is a fun ride. Little has a knack for creating everyday, generally likeable characters, and subjecting them to profoundly twisted situations (i.e., pure evil), to see what they’re made of. Everyone is fallible, but some have stronger mettle than others.

The Store will stick with you, which may or may not be a good thing: The next time you drive by a big box store after closing, see if you’re not fearfully scanning for Night Managers behind the darkened windows. And you’ll probably nervously promise to give a little more support to small businesses.

Happy Halloween!

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Review: The Sanatorium

Snowbound in a former sanatorium, now luxe resort, emotionally fragile Elin must rally her rusty detective skills to stop the perpetrator of a series of ghastly murders.

The Sanatorium—Sarah Pearse, 2021. Rating: 3/5

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Elin and her boyfriend Will travel to the Alps to celebrate the engagement of Elin’s brother Isaac and her former childhood friend, Laure. Le Sommet is a gleaming, minimalist architectural achievement. Once a tuberculosis sanatorium, it is now an opulent destination, albeit one that is so remote it quickly gets cut off from civilization by a major avalanche.

Elin, a police detective on leave, is prone to panic attacks after nearly dying while working a case. And after the death of her mother. And after the death of her little brother Sam, for which she blames Isaac. Elin hasn’t told patient, well-adjusted Will that she plans to accuse Isaac of Sam’s murder on this vacation. Complicating their stay, mutilated bodies wearing vintage gas masks keep turning up, and, with the staff and most of the guests evacuated because of the weather, people now depend on Elin, the only quasi-police presence available. The result is a potentially awesome locked room mystery.  

Except that it doesn’t hit the awesome mark. I was primed to love The Sanatorium: I expected (hoped for) a twisty, spooky mystery for cold autumn nights. I felt let down. Here is the good bit: the atmosphere did not disappoint. One can easily visualize the isolated resort, its echoey empty halls, the blizzard raging outside. It calls to mind the classic Overlook Hotel. Props for spectacular mood.

Unfortunately, the characters and the story don’t live up to the spectacular setting. We are supposed to like Elin, empathize with her losses, and understand that this investigation is a journey back to confidence or whatever, but her righteous self-pity is off-putting. Elin’s absurd go-it-alone investigative approach has predictable adverse effects. The rest of the characters walk stiffly through their roles as suspects. We don’t care about much about them, either. Or really, any of the dead people, whom we hardly know. The entire mystery itself strains credulity all the way to the end, with a long-winded windup by the villain and a confusing epilogue that (may?) be a teaser for the next novel.

The Sanatorium is not horrible. The writing is solid, and there are some nicely creepy scenes—by the pool, and other lonely places—that create enjoyable tension. I am just crabby because I had such high expectations, and the book felt like opportunity lost.