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: Devoted

When a preternaturally intelligent golden retriever makes a telepathic connection with an autistic boy, their bond presages an evolutionary step forward for man and canine-kind—if they can survive the evil plans of a crazed killer.

 Devoted – Dean Koontz, 2020. Rating: 4/5


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Kipp is a member of the Mysterium: a scattered group of goldens who possess human intelligence but lack the ability for human speech. They communicate telepathically over the ‘wire.’ Some of their humans know their secret, others do not. Kipp’s guardian, Dorothy, is aware of how special he is. When she passes, Kipp is devastated, but is now free to find the one boy—the only human—he’s ever heard on the wire.

Miles away, eleven-year-old Woody Bookman, a genius high-functioning autistic boy who has never spoken, finishes his report on the murder of his father. Unknown to Woody, his investigation unleashes retribution: a wetworks team heads toward Woody’s home to cover up any incriminating evidence—including people. As Kipp races towards Woody, so does Lee Shacket. An executive at a secretive research installation, Shacket escapes the lockdown and destruction of his top-secret lab. Infected with experimental archaea, devolving into a monstrous creature, Shacket becomes violently fixated on finding and dominating the woman who got away from him—Woody’s mom, Megan. Forces of good and evil gather for a showdown.

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for a heartwarming animal story. Koontz, master storyteller, that he is, effectively pulls all the heartstrings in this one. If you’re a dog-lover, you don’t need to read any more of my review. Just get the book.

The story moves like wildfire: There are many anxious and alarming moments, and lots and lots of teary—in a beautiful way—moments.  While some plot points stretch even my completely willing disbelief, and the deus ex machina ending is very convenient, I don’t care. I care about Kipp, Woody, Megan, and the good and helpful strangers who join their fight. Things are hard in the world now. People are isolated and lonely, and all of us wish for truth and magical connection with those we love—dog and human. Devoted offers us that connection, if only in our imagination. Devoted is emotionally affecting: a suspenseful, thoughtful, lovely read.


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Review: The Tribe

A rabbi uses his arcane knowledge of the Kabbalah to protect himself and others during the Holocaust but starts down an ethical slippery slope when he later uses the power for revenge in The Tribe.

The Tribe – Bari Wood, 1981. Rating: 5/5


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A group of Jewish men from the same Polish town miraculously survive internment the Belzec extermination camp. When finally liberated, those in their barracks are the only ones in camp with food, even though the Nazis themselves were starving. Rabbi Jacob Levy keeps the secret of their survival and the “tribe” goes on to flourish in 1980’s Brooklyn, raising families and remaining good friends. But their tight-knit neighborhood is changing. Levy’s son, Adam, is murdered by a gang of teenagers and Black police detective Roger Hawkins vows to bring the culprits to justice. Hawkins is equally devastated by the murder: Adam was his friend, and Jacob is like a surrogate father to him. After Hawkins admits he cannot guarantee an extensive punishment for the teens, the five boys are found gruesomely murdered, the crime scene covered in wet clay. Hawkins suspects Jacob is involved, and their relationship deteriorates. Later, Adam’s wife, Rachel, believes that Jacob and his friends are involved in the brutal killings of a Black family. Together she and Hawkins join forces to uncover the relentless supernatural force that Jacob has hidden from them.

The Tribe is a brilliant, multilayered read. On a philosophical level, it delves deeply into the nature of good and evil. Men who not only survive unspeakable atrocities but transcend them, are simultaneously so deeply scarred that they end up using evil to do what they believe is good: protecting their own threatened identity at the expense of others. On a societal level, Wood explores differing forms of prejudice. Hawkins is discriminated against and feared by most of Levy’s friends, and by other Black officers on the force who are jealous of his position. Rachel comes to realize that her own religion is exclusionary towards women. The lifeblood of the story is Wood’s characters, which simply shine. Complex, flawed, and wonderfully human, filled with joy, humor, and heartbreak, their private lives are as rich as yours or mine. The Tribe invites the reader into the Jewish community, immersing us in cultural detail, but as with Rachel and Hawkins, we are only visiting: we can never fully comprehend what the tribe endured, nor can we ever completely be included in their inner circle. But through Hawkins’ and Rachel’s growing romance, Wood softly urges readers to both honor the old and embrace the new.

The Tribe is relentless: beautiful, dark, and thought-provoking. I just got a copy for my brother for Christmas. (Don’t tell him!)


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Review: The Haunted Forest Tour

Tourists become tasty treats for a myriad of monsters in this gleefully gruesome romp in the woods. And yes, discussing this book absolutely require an abundance of alliteration.

The Haunted Forest Tour—James A. Moore & Jeff Strand, 2007. Rating: 4/5

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When a giant forest violently erupts out of the New Mexico desert—unfortunately impaling most of the townsfolk—the land, along with the werewolves, insect-like things, aliens, mold monsters, demons, ghosts, and other beasties it contains is quickly snapped up by an entrepreneurial individual. In a true capitalistic spirit, H.F. Enterprises turns the deadly demesne into a tourist destination. They hire cryptozoologists to analyze the dangerous denizens and run (perfectly safe!) tram tracks through woods for the ultimate in (safe!) scares. Needless to say, safety protocols are colossally compromised on the Halloween Day Tour, stranding formerly eager monster-aficionados deep in the woods. Monsters rejoice. Tourists die. And they die in lots of creative ways involving copious amounts of blood, goo, and unnamed fluids teeming with wormy things. A handful of survivors escape deeper into the woods: Eddie the tram driver; Barbara, the pretty young guide; soon-to-be-unemployed Chris and his mom; an elderly hoax debunker, Lee; and six-year-old Tommy. Can anyone make it out alive? Can anyone stop the forest from spreading? Don’t look at me: I’m not to spoil it for you.

Moore and Strand obviously had a blast writing this one and their macabre delight is infectious. You read The Haunted Forest Tour with a big grin and a wince of revulsion plastered to your face. There are lots of “eeeew” moments, but they’re lightened by how frankly flat-out funny the story is. Even the characters find a dark humor in their precarious plights.

Now, we’re not talking National Book Award nominee, here. The plot is straightforward: monsters. Though there are some neat little surprises along the way. Still, the characters are fleshed out enough— well, enough that they’ve got plenty of flesh to be removed—but also in that we root for them. I was genuinely (briefly) disappointed when a certain character died on me. That said, The Haunted Forest Tour is all about the monsters. Reading it is like reveling in a big old box of disgusting chocolates (ones filled with different creepy things). You never know what you’re going to bite into—or what’s going to bite you. Bon appétit! (Bonne lecture!)


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Interview with the Author: Jonelle Patrick

Join acclaimed mystery writer and blogger, Jonelle Patrick, for a lively chat about life, Japan, and her new novel, The Last Tea Bowl Thief.

Jonelle Patrick

If you’re a mystery buff and you’re not familiar with Jonelle Patrick’s popular Only in Tokyo mystery series featuring Detective Kenji Nakamura and English interpreter Yumi Hata…you’re missing out! In Nightshade, the first in the series, our heroes join forces to investigate a suspicious set of suicides, but end up discovering the dark side of Tokyo’s underground clubs. Good stuff!

The Last Tea Bowl Thief is Jonelle Patrick’s new standalone mystery just released last week. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to connect with the author and get some behind-the-scenes info about her new book!

MHL- You moved to Tokyo in 2003, and I understand you now live part time in San Francisco and part time in Tokyo. What initially motivated you to move to Japan? What was the transition like for you? If you could pick one, or, ok, maybe two things, what do you love most about Japan?

JP – Ha, that answer has changed soooo many times since the first time I woke up in Tokyo with killer jetlag at 3:00 am, and the only food available for HOURS was weird red bean soup from a vending machine!

But there’s one thing I love about Japan that has never changed: I’m still surprised by something eye-opening, every, single, day. Most of the time, it’s something entertaining, like the werewolf shrine or an exhibit of insanely detailed sculptures made from Japanese snack packages. Occasionally, it’s something squicky, like the plastic-wrapped “Seasonal Special” pack of cod testicles sitting right next to the red snapper at the supermarket. And sometimes it’s downright irritating, like noticing the only two empty seats on the crowded subway car are the ones next to me. Again. But they’re all experiences worth having, because it’s the squicky and irritating bits that make me stop and think. I’m sure it’s no surprise that the American character in The Last Tea Bowl Thief suffers the same indignities and makes many of the same embarrassing mistakes that I have, but I think those are the kind of things that give readers a feeling for what it’s like to see a culture from the inside, instead of just pressing their noses against the glass..

MHL- I had fun exploring your blog, Only in Japan. You give your readers the skinny on everything from modern kimono fashions to discovering how lucky your name is. And you treat us to some great-looking recipes—I’ve added your summer rice bowl dish to my must-try list!  Japanese culture sometimes seems so dissimilar to American culture. What are some of the differences you notice? Or are we more similar that we think?

JP – After living in Japan for so long, I pretty much think that people are people, all over the world, and every country has some people who are polite, some who are rude, some honest, some skeevy. But there’s one huge difference I’ve noticed in Japan, and it happens every February. Allergy season arrives with a vengeance, and suddenly, everyone is wearing masks. Wait, they wear masks for allergy season? Didn’t anyone tell them that allergies aren’t contagious? But saving others from getting sick isn’t why they do it. It’s because making other people worry that you have germs they might catch is just as bad as actually dosing them with your nasties. Annoying or inconveniencing other people is seriously frowned upon in Japan, and the comfort of all is valued much more highly than the freedom of individuals. As you can imagine, this social pressure goes way beyond concealing the sneezies and snifflies, and it’s got a major dark side. One thing I really enjoyed exploring in The Last Tea Bowl Thief is both the shiny and the tarnished sides of that coin, and all the unexpected ways that way of thinking plays out.

MHL- Your first four mystery novels in the Only in Tokyo series feature recurring characters, the English translator Yumi Hata and Detective Kenji Nakamura. The Last Tea Bowl Thief marks a departure from the series. Your new novel is both a mystery and historical journey spanning different eras in Japanese culture. What was the inspiration for the story? Was the writing process different for The Last Tea Bowl Thief than the Only in Tokyo mysteries?

JP – Writing The Last Tea Bowl Thief was really different from the other books, because they all wend their way straight from crime to solution with a few wiggles and side trips along the way. The Last Tea Bowl Thief has two different storylines that not only have to be engaging and page-turny by themselves, they have to intertwine and come together in a way that builds to a satisfying conclusion for both. The crazy thing is, anytime I changed ANYTHING, it rippled out through both of the stories, rearranging all kinds of stuff that I didn’t anticipate. That’s why this book took twice as long to write, but it was totally worth it, because I got to build in something that has always delighted me as a reader: a character who was quite different in real life than he is remembered by history, and the reader gets to enjoy some knowing laughs at the truth.

MHL- What do you hope that your readers take away from The Last Tea Bowl Thief?  

JP – What I really hope is that it will take readers away! Far, far, away from our current reality, if only for a few blessed hours. Right now, I’m devouring historical fiction and international mysteries by the truckload, because my favorite way to escape the doom scrolling is to jump into a book set in a time or place where the worst thing that might happen is a little murder. I’d love it if people feel like they’re living behind the curtain in Japan while they’re reading The Last Tea Bowl Thief, and that it’s a world they can’t wait to get back to.

One tea bowl. Two strangers stuck at dead-end jobs with nothing in common. Except that the mysterious tea bowl may be the key to unlocking both of their futures…

MHL- I know that you’re a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime among other genre associations, so I’m thinking that you read a lot of mysteries? 😊 What else do you enjoy reading for fun? What is your reading “guilty pleasure”?

JP – OMG, I love reading mysteries so much that the walls of my writing cave are lined with more than eight hundred of them (and those are just the ones I might want to re-read AIEEEEE.) But my secret guilty pleasure is…sci-fi. I know you’re a fan of the spooky, and there’s something I think horror and sci-fi share: don’t you love to dive into a beautifully-written reality that resembles ours closely enough to feel at home, but is shockingly different enough to make you think about our own world differently? In my case, truly genius science fiction—like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”—makes me question everything from the nature of art (can those achingly poignant Cornell-like works still be considered art once you know they were made by an AI?) to how utterly entertaining it would be to imagine how biohacking could be used for body-mod fashion on the black market.

MHL- Can you share any secrets from The Last Tea Bowl Thief—that aren’t in the blurb—with our readers?

JP – Ooo, great question! I’m so glad you asked me that, because I do have a great story for you.

Sometimes I set out to research one thing, then something utterly unexpected ends up being the takeaway instead. For example, one time I tarted myself up for an all-night Tokyo steampunk event, convinced it was sure to be God’s gift to novelists. But at 3:00 am, there I was, out in the rain in Shibuya after the trains stopped running. I finally gave up trying to beat all the other stranded revelers to a cab and found a comic book café instead. That’s where I spent the rest of the night, propped in the corner of a booth, admiring how many different kinds of shoes were left politely outside each cubicle, and how many distinct styles of Japanese snoring there are. Guess which experience ended up making it into a book?

But this time, the opposite thing happened. While I was writing The Last Tea Bowl Thief, I discovered something amazing, but I couldn’t put it in the book. I was visiting the convent outside Kyoto that I’d chosen as a setting because it checked all the boxes: old enough to have been well-established in samurai times, within a few days travel from the character’s hometown, and a pilgrimage destination with a famous Jizo figure known for healing. But while I was roaming the grounds and dutifully noting benches for characters to sit on while waiting and settings for fraught conversations, I discovered that it had been the site of a terrible tragedy. The convent had been standing in that same location for 1200 years, but in May of 2000, an arsonist burned it to the ground. Worst of all, the famous centuries-old wooden Jizo figure perished in the fire too. But as the sorrowing nuns sifted through the ashes, they discovered a secret so deep it had been kept even from the convent’s founder—the sculptor who carved the Jizo figure had secretly concealed a metal box inside it. Inside the box were over 3,000 tiny carved Jizo figures, all of which survived the fire. So, out of that dreadful act of destruction came a profound message of rebirth! A faithful replica of the original wooden Jizo figure continues to dispense hope and healing to this day. But alas, as much as I was dying to weave that into The Last Tea Bowl Thief, the convent and its healing saint are part of the samurai era characters’ reality, so I had to regretfully leave that Jizo unburnt and allow it to keep its secret for three hundred more years before being reborn by fire.

MHL- Finally, fans want to know: Will readers see Yumi and Kenji return?

JP – Yumi and Kenji will never disappear for long! I’m not sure what book I’ll be starting next, but just last month they resurfaced in a little novella called “It Was You” that’s not for sale, but can be had for free by Japanagram newsletter subscribers and the lovely readers who host pop-up book clubs for The Last Tea Bowl Thief.

Jonelle, thank you for a great interview!

If you want visit more with Jonelle, connect with her on social media:

Website: JonellePatrick.com
Facebook: /JonellePatrickAuthor
Twitter: @jonellepatrick

Blogs: The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had and Only in Japan

Visit Amazon to pick up a copy of The Last Tea Bowl Thief or to enjoy Jonelle’s Only in Tokyo series – just click the images below.

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Review: Chaos Choreography

Protector of cryptids and ballroom dancer extraordinaire, Verity Price returns in Chaos Choreography. This time a pesky snake cult threatens Verity’s dreams of dance. Tracking down ritual murderers between Argentine Tangos proves surprisingly challenging for our spunky heroine.

Chaos Choreography—Seanan McGuire, 2016. Rating 3.5/5

A member of the infamous Price family of cryptozoologists, Verity keeps her real identity hidden to avoid eradication by the infamous Covenant of St. George which believes that the only good cryptid is a dead cryptid. Now, Verity and her ex-Covenant husband, Dominic, are living (awkwardly) with Verity’s family—until Verity gets an unexpected second chance: to return to her Valerie ballroom dancer persona and appear on a top twenty reunion reality tv show, Dance or Die. Verity leaps at the chance to head to LA and follow her passion, only to discover that eliminated contestants are being… literally eliminated. Ballroom takes a backseat while Verity tracks down the evildoers.

Chaos Choreography is the fifth title in McGuire’s flat-out fun InCryptid series. Verity is feisty, good-hearted, astoundingly athletic, deadly with a knife, and possesses an infectious joie de vivre. Only Verity could hide a dagger in a sparkly ballroom dress the size of a handkerchief. In this installment, we get to go a little deeper into Verity’s character, watching her wrestle with conflicting life choices. Her love of, and talent for, dance wars with her life’s work of defending cryptids everywhere.

Dance or Die is a thinly veiled fictionalization of the FOX tv show, So You Think You Can Dance. If you’re familiar with the show, you’ll recognize individual judges and choreographers in some of McGuire’s characters, which adds to the fun. From Cha Chas to chupacabras, Swing to sharkmen, Chaos Choreography is a bizarre, but weirdly successful blend of the high-pressure world of dance and monsters. The snake cult premise is a little on the weak side, and I found myself enjoying the behind-the-scenes look at the dances and the show more than I cared about who was offing the dancers. But the humor, fast-paced action, light magic, a host of eccentric characters, and a climactic extravaganza make up for a lot. This lively, escapist read will drag you out of the doldrums.

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Review: Peace Talks

Harry Dresden, practicing wizard and dogged detective is back. Now, Harry’s racing to save his vampire brother, rescue Chicago from a formidable foe, and, equally challenging for Harry, exercise tact at the supernatural peace accords.

Oh, Harry—I’ve missed you.

Peace Talks—Jim Butcher, 2020. Rating: 4.5/5

It’s been six years since Skin Game (2014), when we last had the unmitigated pleasure of watching Harry pull off a daring heist of Hades’ bank vault. Peace Talks picks up right where Skin Game left off. Life has quieted down (marginally) for Harry. He and his daughter are living safely with the svartalves. His relationship with his brother Thomas is good. His relationship with Murphy is great. But who needs stability, right? Harry’s grandfather warns him the wizard’s White Council is out to get him. The Wardens think Harry’s humanity has been…compromised…by Queen Mab. Thomas is accused of an assassination attempt. Mab orders Harry to do a favor for the sexy and fearsome vampire leader, Lara Raith. The police are on Harry’s trail for some run-of-the-mill (for Harry) mayhem following the bank heist. Oh, and the dangerous, watery Fomor produce a bona-fide Titan goddess who enthusiastically plans destroy all of humanity. Harry lives in interesting times.

Honestly, I’ve been both longing for and dreading a new Harry adventure. Dread almost won out: what if Butcher lost Harry’s mojo? What if Harry wasn’t, well, Harry? What if the plot got pretentious? Or moribund, like so many series that drag on past their prime? Essentially, what if the book sucked? I refused to read Peace Talks for a few weeks, I was that worried.

Needlessly.

Peace Talks is everything I wanted and, frankly, needed right now: the rush of an amusement park ride, the familiarity of my most comfy chair, and a hero. Butcher got it all right. Harry is still Harry: battered but not broken, hard-nosed and soft-hearted, wry, and a little goofy. And he continues to grow. Harry’s newly developing intimacy with Murphy is tender and shy. Harry’s friends and enemies alike are equally complex. The Chicago Harry knows and loves is gloriously, grittily real. If I visit, I fully expect to run into Harry tooling around the city in his Munstermobile, or exercising on Montrose Beach. Returning to Harry’s world—chaotic, treacherous, violent, loving—is a joy.

Butcher brilliantly keeps a lot of balls in the air, ratcheting the suspense high, our anxiety higher, and the story flying. At 340 pages, the book was still too short, it was that good. The end of Peace Talks does leave the plot hanging off multiple cliffs. I’d be grumpy about this Empire Strikes Back finish, except the sequel is already out. Battle Ground. And I won’t be waiting weeks to read it. Insert sigh of happiness.   

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Review: Death of a Cozy Writer

When the egotistical Sir Adrian gleefully announces his intentions to remarry, he sends his avaricious children into a tizzy—now who will be first in line to inherit? They should worry: Sir Adrian is promptly and violently sent to meet his maker by someone near and dear. It is up to DCI St. Just and Sergeant Fear to ferret out the killer.

Death of a Cozy Writer—G.M. Malliet, 2008. Rating 4/5

Sir Adrian gained his fabulous wealth by penning a series of wildly popular cozy mysteries, although apparently borrowing liberally from the likes of Agatha Christie. The snug, homey nature of Sir Adrian’s stories is especially ironic given own his own vile personality. Sir Adrian summons his grasping brood to his estate to introduce his fiancé. Outraged and nursing grudges from their dreadful childhoods they arrive: Sarah, an overweight author of biblical cookbooks, George, a handsome artist accompanied by his svelte girlfriend Natasha, Albert a bit part actor, and Ruthven, the eldest, a chip off Adrian’s ruthless block.

Because Sir Adrian was universally detested, suspects abound. Was it his new bride, Violet accused of murdering her first husband years ago? The Italian cook and her brooding son?  The irrepressibly energetic American secretary? The bitter ex-wife? One of Adrian’s business associates-slash-sexual flings? Stoical St. Just will have a tough job cutting through sarcasm and secrets.

Death of a Cozy Writer is delightful. A clever, sophisticated twist on the traditional British country house mystery. While the plot has enough red herrings to satisfy genre buffs, it is the characters that make the story a standout. Snarky and unlikeable, they’ll earn your eye-rolling, withering asides, but yet somehow manage to grow on you. Malliet weaves her web with wit and a devilish sense of humor. She caught me. This description alone cracks me up: “Her voice when she spoke, was deep, seductive, whiskey-soaked, like Lauren Bacall doing voiceovers for cat food” (151). Death of a Cozy Writer pays homage to mystery greats but is stylishly original. I can’t wait to read the next in the series.


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Review: The Sun Down Motel

A search for her long-lost aunt leads Carly to a decrepit—and haunted—motel in this atmospheric supernatural mystery.

The Sun Down Motel—Simone St. James, 2020. Rating: 4/5

Viv Delaney left home in 1982 determined to make it in New York City. Instead, she landed in Fell, a small, nowhere town in upstate New York. Working as a night clerk at the Sun Down Motel, she learns two things: first, the hotel is definitely haunted, and second, there are a surprising number of women being murdered around Fell. Viv starts her own investigation—and then vanishes.

Fast forward to 2017. Viv’s niece Carly is obsessed with finding out what really happened to her aunt. After the death of her mother—Viv’s sister—Carly goes to Fell to investigate, taking the same job Viv had at the now even more decrepit Sun Down Motel. Helped by a new roommate equally obsessed with true crime, and a handsome, if testy young man with his own tragedy, Carly works her way doggedly toward the truth.

St. James effectively builds suspense by switching the first-person perspectives back and forth between Viv and Carly, neatly bringing the cold-case story to life. As each woman digs deeper into the local murders decades apart, they both become targets, leading to some nail-biting moments for the reader. Several additional strong female characters who seem helpful—but may just be hiding something—provide effective misdirection. The motel ghosts are satisfyingly creepy, and we’re not certain of their motivations, either, until near the end, which has a neat little twist. A dramatic denouement, involving both human and ghostly bad guys, leads to a satisfying conclusion (though personally, I felt the punishment of one the characters seemed a little severe). A perfect read for these darker, spookier evenings…


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Review: Rage

A mysterious cabal masterminds a bio-weapon attack on a small island off the coast of North Korea, killing the entire population and bringing the US, China, and the Koreas to the brink of war. It is up to Joe Ledger and the newly formed Rogue Team International to take down the baddies before one of the world leaders gets an itchy nuclear trigger finger.

Rage – Jonathan Maberry, 2019.  Rating: 3.5

Joe is an ex-cop, fighting machine, weapons expert, and good-guy at heart—at least until the Killer facet of his three-fold personality takes over. Then he becomes a merciless enforcer of justice. Joe and his team work for the enigmatic and powerful Mr. Church, responding to international incidents and protecting regular folks around the world. This time, Joe must track down two of his arch-nemeses who are behind the horrific attacks driving sane people into (graphically) murderous rages.

Rage left me pensive. I am a big fan of the Joe Ledger books: the characters are old friends, and I love to get reacquainted with them and watch their growth—and hope that they don’t get killed. Rudy, Joe’s friend, and criminal psychiatrist extraordinaire is back, and Junie, too, worrying (rightfully) about Joe’s mental health. The action sequences are breakneck and shudderingly memorable: Maberry knows his weaponry. And the bad guys? Depraved geniuses. This is all good stuff. (Really!)

Rage put me in a brown study, however, because it hits remarkably close to current world politics. Like, nail-on-the-head close. It was somber. Critical. Bleak. Hopefully not prophetic. Definitely not a typical rollicking escapist action-thriller. I feel that we lost a little of the heart of the series—sacrificing character relationships for a platform, albeit an important one. For those of us already feeling disaffected with our government, Rage exacerbates our levels of unease and fear. It is well-written, suspenseful, and absorbing, but grimly true to life.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Rust Maidens

I am back after a long hiatus; dealing with a lot of emotions and worldly minutiae after the death of my father. But life goes on, and so does the blog. The Rust Maidens is an especially apropos read for this memory-crowded time. Like the main character, I was born in Cleveland and grew up in the area during the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

The Rust Maidens—Gwendolyn Kiste, 2018. Rating: 3.5/5

Decades after graduating from high school, Phoebe returns to her tired old Cleveland neighborhood. The nearby steel mill, once a source of both jobs and pollution, is closed and deteriorating. One-by-one, the homes on Phoebe’s block are being razed for condos. The narrative switches between past and present as Phoebe recalls the summer after her graduation, when a handful of her friends, including her cousin and BFF, Jacqueline, began slowly transforming into creatures of glass and metal. How Phoebe was the only one who stood up for them. How angry she was at the gossipy ‘80s stay-at-home moms and hard-working but hidebound steel working dads who unjustly reject the girls. How much Phoebe wanted to shatter stereotypes and go to college.

The girls, now known as the rust maidens, become a freaky phenomenon, drawing the FBI, doctors, and gawkers to their street. Phoebe faces a losing battle to defend the girls from public ostracization and stop their metallic metamorphosis.

The Rust Maidens leaves me conflicted. The gritty, economically-depressed setting resonates with my childhood–the polluted Cuyahoga river infamously caught fire the year I was born. Kiste’s descriptions, especially of the girls’ transformation, are exquisite: poetically capturing both the beauty of decay and poignantly highlighting the girls’ sole—if uncanny—opportunity to buck stifling cultural expectations. It is Phoebe’s self-righteous anger that emotionally misses mark for me. It feels one-note, as do many of the characterizations of neighbors and family members. The storyline is pat in some ways yet leaves readers with dissatisfying holes. I wanted the book to be not longer, but deeper. That said, The Rust Maidens is undeniably original, thought-provoking…and bleak.

rating system three and a half crows