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: 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.