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: Bloodless

A spate of exsanguinated corpses spawns whispers of vampires amongst Savannah residents, sending FBI agents Pendergast and Coldmoon on a hunt for the truth behind the killings—be it man or monster.

Bloodless—Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, 2021. Rating 3.5/5

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Aloysius Pendergast, cool, brilliant, uncanny, and occasionally insufferable, along with his de facto partner, Armstrong Coldmoon, are railroaded into clearing up these so-called vampire killings post-haste before they give a Georgia senator any more bad press. Accompanying the agents is Pendergast’s enigmatic ward, the equally brilliant Constance. Pendergast and Coldmoon examine blood-drained bodies and investigate the famous 1971 D.B. Cooper airline hijacking, while Constance stalks the reclusive elderly lady living on the top floor of their hotel—and yes, these disparate puzzles are all connected. A television crew filming a special on paranormal activity and a jealous true-crime writer muddy the waters, but our heroes unflaggingly pursue—and discover—the shocking truth. The result is devastating for both Savannah, and Pendergast.

Agent Pendergast has been around for a while, first appearing as a supporting character in Relic (1995) before becoming a star in his own right in Cabinet of Curiosities (2002). I am a Pendergast fan, especially of the early novels, notably Still Life with Crows, and Brimstone which are dark, intelligent, and thought-provoking. Bloodless falls solidly in the breakneck thriller category. There is minimal character evolution. The writing feels hasty. Bloodless lacks the gravitas and intensity of the early novels. It is the literary equivalent of empty calories. That said, a patently unhealthy donut now and then is a guilty pleasure, and Bloodless is a fun read. Spooky, historic Savannah provides an atmospheric setting, and the oddly improbable mystery is enjoyable.

A warning to purists: The novel takes a bizarre, abrupt jog into full-on sci-fi/horror territory. This is a major departure from other Pendergast novels. Really major. This radical genre change might be off-putting for some readers. Since I was ready to accept bloodless corpses from the get-go, I found the deviation enjoyable, even though implausible and flat-out bizarre. An entertaining addition to your Halloween reads.


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Review: Later

Jamie Conklin can see and talk to ghosts—a dubious talent that endangers his soul in Later, King’s new supernatural crime thriller. 

Later – Stephen King, 2021.  Rating: 4.5/5

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Jamie’s had encounters with the newly dead since he was a young child. By some cosmic rule, spirits are compelled to answer any of his questions. Jamie’s mom, a single, successful literary agent, is worried and unnerved by this uncanny ability. She adopts a don’t ask, don’t tell approach—until she needs his talent to save them from financial ruin. Her girlfriend, jaded cop Liz Dutton, covets Jamie’s skills, too. And an evil spirit haunting Jamie wants the most of all. Little Jamie finds out “later” as he comes of age, how limited his childhood understanding really was.   

It is hard to write a review for a novel by Stephen King, the “genius” and “Master of horror.” All the superlatives—spellbinding, superb, surprising—are stale.

Today, unable come up with fresh, clever compliments, I’ll resort to basic understatements. King is great. He takes everyday life and cants it into the realm of the macabre. Or maybe he makes the macabre a little more normal. Or both. King’s greatest gift is his deep understanding of humankind. He reads our hearts and hopes, our capacity for evil and good. He brings life to life though his writing. King gets people. And he gets scary.

Jamie’s voice pulls us into the story as he looks back on his childhood and adolescence from the grand old age of twenty-two. He’s a regular—mostly—kid, dealing with regular family issues. Aside from the whole talking-to-ghosts issue, Jamie could be your buddy, your boyfriend, your kid—or you at a younger age. His relatability, and our connection to all the characters, makes the horror all the more effective when lurches into the familiar.

Later is a cop story. A coming-of-age story. A ghost story. It reads as smooth and easy as driving on a freshly paved road. It seems straightforward, but it is a journey that you’ll think about unexpectedly weeks later. Later. As Jamie says, “Check it out.”


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Review: Where the Sun Goes to Die

Antisocial monster hunter Jonathan Crowley and his companion, the albino former undertaker Mr. Slate, canvass the Old West, giving what for to werewolves and schooling shapeshifters in Moore’s darkly enjoyable collection of tales.

Where the Sun Goes to Die—James A. Moore, 2019. Rating: 4/5

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Where the Sun Goes to Die follows events in that occur in Boomtown, (see my review here), where Crowley and Slate’s efforts to fend off reanimated corpses, a malevolent wizard, and a group of possessed Native Americans leaves the town of Carson Point, Colorado a bit worse for wear. As in, well, decimated. I.e., bloodbath. Where the Sun Goes to Die stands successfully on its own gruesome feet, so you don’t need to read Boomtown first, but it does give a little more background on Slate and Crowley’s odd relationship.

Mr. Lucas Slate, once a genteel mortician, is becoming…something else. Judging by others’ terrified reactions to his gaunt and growing frame, whatever he’s changing into is the antithesis of his normally soft-spoken self. Slate is travelling with Crowley to discover the nature of his transformation. Crowley is keeping a weather eye on Slate, coolly ready to dispatch his companion if—when—Slate becomes a monster.

On their journey, they encounter a demon train and a parasitic preacher. They get caught in a conflict between soldiers, Apaches, and a Skinwalker who looks remarkably like Mr. Slate. In a story co-authored by Charles R. Rutledge, Crowley, Slate, and a fellow hunter rescue a stagecoach from werewolves.

Where the Sun Goes to Die is flat-out fun. That is, if your idea of fun involves supernatural throwdowns, gunfights, and general carnage. The grimly charismatic Crowley, as always, carries the tales. Crowley is just…cool. He has magical powers and does not appear to age. He is compelled to aid (fellow?) humans if asked for help. He is irascible. Unimposing. He revels a little too much in a fight. And he doesn’t suffer fools—or really anyone—gladly. But every now and then, there’s just the slightest whisper that there may be, or was, an iota of heart under that tough, techy hide. Mr. Slate complements Crowley nicely. The two remind me vaguely of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever with their formal addresses and occasional dry banter. But Mr. Crowley and Mr. Slate are good guys. Mostly. Fans of westerns and the paranormal will appreciate this genre-bending treat.


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Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

Horror meets chick-lit in spectacular fashion when a group of housewives unite to save kids from an old evil in this piquant new novel by the author of Horrorstör.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires—Grady Hendrix, 2020. Rating: 5/5

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In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Patricia Campbell enjoys a comfortable, safe life in a comfortable, safe neighborhood outside Charleston, South Carolina. She spends her days caring for her family: teen daughter Korey, younger son Blue, her psychiatrist husband Carter, and Carter’s cantankerous, senile mother, Miss Mary.

Patricia occasionally misses her pre-housewife career as a capable, respected nurse, but Patricia’s family and comfortable lifestyle make her sacrifice worth it. When Patricia scandalously fails to read her snooty book club’s literary selection of the month, she and a diverse group of women form their own book club—focusing on true crime. Fastidious Grace, outgoing Kitty, the Yankee Maryellen, and Slick Paley (who tells her husband their group is a Bible study) form lasting friendships over Charles Manson and Ted Bundy.

True crime and true horror become real when the charming James Harris moves into the neighborhood. Bizarre attacks and odd deaths—especially of young Black children in a nearby neighborhood—make Patricia suspicious about James Harris, even though she is strangely drawn to him. Together with the help of Ursula Greene, Miss Mary’s caregiver, the friends explore the outwardly impossible idea that James Harris is not what he seems. Their task becomes extra tricky when James Harris hoodwinks their husbands and becomes “one of the boys”.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires rocks. The horror is very real and very visceral. Cringeworthy and darkly humorous moments abound, and the climax is deeply unnerving. Hendrix gives us a unique (and deliciously revolting) take on the vampire legend. It is Hendrix’s characters, however, that make this story a standout. While the friends smilingly make sure the silver is polished, the clothes ironed, the dogs/kids/husbands fed, they have their own hidden troubles, including infidelity, abuse, and financial woes. They are belittled. Taken for granted. Patronized. We empathize with their fears and frustrations, so much so that we experience a different, equally terrible, kind of horror when Carter challenges and exerts control over Patricia’s mental health. Patricia and her friends are pulled out of their comfort zones. They awkwardly confront racial disparity. Their bond is tested by distrust and betrayal. Friendship + self-empowerment + a vile vampire = awesome. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a must-read.


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Review: Dead Things

Necromancer Eric Carter returns to L.A. to avenge his sister’s vicious murder but runs afoul of powerful gangsters—alive and dead—who plan to finish him off for good.

Dead Things – Stephen Blackmoore, 2013. Rating 4/5

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Carter is a talented mage like his deceased (i.e., murdered) parents, but Carter’s specialty is dead things. Conjuring them. Controlling them. Chatting with them. It involves a lot of blood, usually his own. Another not-perk is that Carter sees ghosts everywhere—Haunts, Echoes, you name it—and they see him. Carter uses his unenviable talents to eliminate magic power-abusing bad guys. After a friendly warning from some Haitian death loas to be careful whom he trusts, followed by a call from his old friend Alex, Carter knows something nefarious is up. He’s right: His sister Lucy is dead.

Carter’s quest for revenge is complicated by personal issues (his ex-girlfriend is now Alex’s fiancé); business issues (both the ghost of the mobster who murdered his parents and the baddie’s living successor are out to kill him); and weird supernatural issues (La Muerte, the death goddess, wants to own Carter and make him her enforcer). Plus, the food at his old favorite hangout has gone to hell. Things are stacked against him, and Carter needs to find out who is setting him up before he becomes one of the dead himself.  

This dark urban fantasy has a lot going for it. Blackmoore’s love for L.A. in all its splendor and squalor shines in his detailed snapshots of the City of Angels. Carter is a tough, bad-boy antihero with plenty of emotional baggage and a burning sense of justice. His voice is dryly humorous, self-deprecating, and…reveals a sensitive side buried somewhere in all that cynicism. Seedy motels, cheap bottles of booze, and thick-headed thugs give the whole novel a noir feel. It works. The action sequences are intense, including everything from magical combat to fisticuffs with the aforementioned thugs. A battle with a fire elemental at the Port of Los Angeles is a standout.

My biggest criticism is that there is arguably too much focus on action vs. story—I love the premise and the characters and wanted more of them, while I lost count of how many times poor Carter was knocked unconscious, threatened with a taser, or had his nose rebroken. That said, Dead Things is a fun, fresh take on a…different…branch of magic coupled with an agreeably world-weary hero. Fans of the Dresden Files, you’ll want to check this one out.


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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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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 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!)