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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Best Books of 2019

O.k., folks! I’m back after a brief hiatus and kicking off the New Year (albeit a little late) with my top five recommendations from all the books I reviewed for 2019. And yes, this time I actually kept it to five. Wonders never cease. All of these are great reads: inspiring, scary, funny, thrilling, oddly beautiful…they run the emotional gamut. Enjoy.

Text links go to my full reviews, cover images link to Amazon.

Afterlife

FBI agent Will Brody is dead: killed pursuing a shooter. But Brody quickly learns that there are bad guys in the afterlife, too, and they’re threating the living—including Brody’s soulmate, Claire. Non-stop thriller action meets a thoughtful, deeply touching exploration of death, and love.

Discount Armageddon

Cryptozoologist, parkour queen, and almost-professional ballroom dancer, Verity Price carries on the family business of protecting the monster communities in New York City from the humans. And vice versa. If that’s not challenging enough, things get complicated when Verity and a handsome enemy must work together to save disappearing cryptid virgins. Fast-paced and filled with fun characters and great monsters.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

A suspenseful, whimsical, stunningly beautiful Victorian mystery about a musical telegraph operator who is befriended by a Japanese watchmaker. There are secrets. Bombs. Clockworks. Gilbert and Sullivan. And magic. Exquisite.

The Line Between

Violence and panic erupt as a pandemic sweeps through the US. Only Wynter Roth, who has lived most of her life in a doomsday cult, has the key to a vaccine. As society rapidly deteriorates, Wynter must cope with present-day lawlessness and past traumatic memories of the cult while she rushes the precious medical samples across the country. Gripping read.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

Down-on-her-luck Hal is barely scraping by as a tarot reader when she learns she’s listed as a beneficiary in her recently deceased grandmother’s will. Impossible, since her grandparents died long ago. Despite pangs of conscience, Hal decides to scam her way into the inheritance. Gathered with the family in the lonely country house, Hal uncovers family secrets and finds herself in deadly danger. Engaging, classic mystery with well-drawn characters and a touch of almost-supernatural.


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Review: Afraid

Afraid – Jack Kilborn, 2008. Rating:  3.5/5

A helicopter crash in a remote Wisconsin town releases five highly trained, psychopathic terrorists who lay waste to the hapless citizenry as they single-mindedly pursue their mission.

These “red-ops” soldiers were “recruited” from death rows and psych wards. Each has been behaviorally modified and is controlled by a microchip implanted in their brain. The five are programmed to torture, kill, rape, and instill fear in civilian populations—and they enjoy it. Several even boast signature methods of inflicting pain: Taylor has an…oral fixation…and giggling Bernie has a fondness for fire.

The ironically named town of Safe Haven doesn’t stand much of a chance against them. Their peace officer, Sheriff Streng, is an aging Vietnam veteran on the verge of retiring. Young firefighters, Josh and Erwin have yet to fight a fire. The U.S. government sends in Dr. Ralph Stubin, brain surgeon and expert in behavior modification, along with some military troops to recapture the red-ops team. Stubin is accompanied by his genius—thanks to another microchip—capuchin monkey, Mathison.

Needless to say, the military doesn’t quite arrive safely. At all. It is up to Streng, Josh, Erwin, single-mom Fran, and a handful of determined townspeople to either stop the red-ops team or successfully escape them. Both are impossible. And, the more Streng learns about the team’s mission, the more he realizes there is a connection to his estranged brother, Warren. Things are not quite what they seem.

Full disclosure: I almost quit reading after the first fifteen pages. Torture flicks and books are just not my thing, and this one opens with a very unsettling scene. Plus, there’s a kid and two loyal animals involved. I don’t do well with stories that hurt kids and animals. I was worried.

That said, I’m glad I persevered. Although there is a ridiculously high body count, disturbing mutilations, bear traps (!), and lots of dirty fighting, there’s actually a warm heart to this book. I’m serious. I’m also trying to resist gory jokes about warm hearts. The book rubbed off, a little.

The characters (though subject to a low survival rate) carry the story. We root for Sheriff Streng, who turns out to be one tough old lawman. We’re cheering for Fran who goes all Sarah Connor when her bright, caring son Duncan and his beagle, Woof, are threatened. There are some poignant moments of self-sacrifice near the end that truly choked me up. Afraid does have heart: a living, beating one.

Afraid is a highly suspenseful read. You’ll fly through the book. It has a couple of crafty twists, lots of bloody battles, and just enough family love and a whisper of romance to humanize it.

*Minor spoiler alert ahead for sensitive souls who are waffling on this title*

The animals and the kid make it through safely. You can read it.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Line Between

The Line Between – Tosca Lee, 2019. 4.5/5

An apocalyptic pandemic. A religious doomsday cult. A naïve heroine with the key to earth’s salvation. Lee hits all the right buttons in this breakneck page-turner.

Wynter Roth is seven years old when her mom, fleeing her abusive husband, brings Wynter and her sister Jackie to the isolated New Earth compound. The cult is led by the handsome, charismatic, and shady ex-entrepreneur, Magnus Theisen. Despite being the New Adam to his flock and preaching of end times, he maintains his worldly business influences and illicit desires.

Initially, Wynter and her family find safety and acceptance in the community—at the expense of their freedom of thought and individuality. Things deteriorate when Magnus takes Jackie as his new wife and plans to add Wynter as a second. Wynter is disgusted with Magnus’ hypocrisy and loses faith in his divine vision. At twenty-two, Wynter is cast out and taken in by an old friend of her mom’s.

The world is hard to navigate. Information is overwhelming, and Magnus’s dire prophecies and condemnation echo in Wynter’s head.

But it’s more than that. People are going crazy. Forgetting things. Killing themselves and others in graphic, violent ways. The CDC calls it early onset dementia—and it’s contagious and spreading like wildfire. The U.S. descends into chaos. Gas and supplies run out. Power grids go down.

Wynter is the only hope. Jackie escapes New Earth, bringing Wynter a case of medical samples acquired by Magnus that may hold the key for a vaccine—but not a cure. Wynter must race the specimens across the ravaged Midwest and deliver them to a researcher in Colorado.

The Line Between keeps tensions high, alternating between Wynter’s gripping memories of emotional abuse in the cult, and the mounting present-day horrors as society disintegrates around her. Everything is distressingly, immediately believable: from the nature of the disease laying waste to humanity, to the country’s nosedive into anarchy.

The thriller aspect alone makes this a standout novel, but Lee elevates the story further with layered, convincing characters, both good and bad. Wynter is beautifully drawn: she wrestles with self-doubt and her ignorance of the modern world but nurses a spark of independence and determination that even Magnus can’t destroy. On her quest, Wynter experiences tragedy and cruelty and selfishness, but also kindness, generosity, and…potential romance. The ending resolves major plot threads and sets us up nicely for a sequel. Which I want immediately, please.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: Discount Armageddon

Discount Armageddon –Seanan McGuire, 2012.  4.5/5

Braving your bogeyman of a boss—literally—and dealing with dragons under Manhattan are all in a day’s work for cryptozoologist Verity Price in this first installment of McGuire’s InCryptid series.

Verity shares her shoebox of an apartment, (a semi legal sublet from a Sasquatch) with a colony of fervently celebratory talking mice. She gets by waitressing at a strip club and dreaming of a professional ballroom dancing career. That’s the normal side of Verity’s life.

The…abnormal…side of her life? She’s the local protector of cryptids: supporting and protecting monster and human communities from each other.

Not only is Verity a mad-skilled free runner, and a serious weapons specialist, but she can kill a man—or monster—six ways from Sunday. It runs in the family. Once a part of the fanatical, hidebound Covenant, which believes the only good cryptid is a dead one, the Price family went rogue generations ago when they realized cryptids had as much right to be in the world as any human.

Now, Covenant member Dominic De Luca is in town for his first solo mission. Verity and Dominic’s explosive mutual animosity is complicated by equally fiery mutual attraction. But the two face a bigger problem: cryptid virgins are disappearing at an alarming rate, weird lizard men are prowling the sewers, and there are rumors of a dragon sleeping beneath the city.

Discount Armageddon is great fun. McGuire skillfully builds a rich, urban cryptid world, tucking it seamlessly alongside the mundane city-life of ignorant humans. Excitingly unique monsters good, bad, and indifferent abound. A back matter “Field Guide” to NYC cryptids offers tongue-in-cheek details (in case you need help identifying a ghoul at your local bar). The characters—human and otherwise—are great, too, brought to life with breezy dialogue and a touch of surreal humor. Verity herself is skilled and sassy, with a tender heart under all that armament. The plot races along to a highly satisfying conclusion. Yes! At last! I can’t wait to get ahold of the next book.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: Under a Graveyard Sky

Under a Graveyard Sky—John Ringo, 2013. 3/5

When a zombie apocalypse destroys civilization, a family of extremely well-prepped survivalists takes to the seas in this first installment of Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series.

Steven John Smith, former Aussie para turned high school teacher, is ready for action when his brother Tom texts him a coded message indicating a bona-fide, world-ending emergency. Yep, zombies. Steven, his wife Stacey, and his daughters, fifteen-year old Sophia and thirteen-year-old Faith, load up their trailer with enough supplies to embarrass Costco and enough armament to invade Cuba. They stock their boat and set sail to avoid the crumbling infrastructure. Oh, and avoid exposure to the man-made pathogen that’s turning people into naked, ravening monsters. Once at sea, Steven makes it his personal mission to track down all the ships that are emitting emergency signals, clear off the zombies, save any survivors, salvage supplies, and add the ship to his growing flotilla of rescued and rescuers.

I loved the first third of this book: the CDC and international health organizations tracking and reverse-engineering the double-virus, the FBI searching for the villain who painstakingly released the disease, the inevitable breakdown of society. Ringo did a great job imagining the end of the world. I did need to suspend a lot of disbelief with the Smith family, however. For instance, high-school student Sophia is enlisted by Tom to assist a high-powered scientist in creating the first zombie vaccine. Because…she’s good at science?? While middle-schooler Faith is tougher, better trained, better armed, and more skilled than most military weapons instructors. Still, the first part of the book moves along, has lots of action, and maintains a sense of humor.

It’s when the family takes to sea that the story falls apart and I started wondering if the whole book wasn’t just a tongue-in-cheek romp. The zombies stop being scary, or even a real threat. Characters drop off the radar: Tom, corporate security head for the Banks of Americas disappears—in theory to his own safe retreat—and we lose a strong, interesting character. Ditto with Steven’s wife and Sophia, who remain in the background piloting various ships. It’s as if once in a while Ringo suddenly remembers, ‘oh yeah, the rest of the family,’ and resurrects them for a short scene. What we do have, is endless boarding and clearing of zombie-infested (but not really dangerous thanks to Faith) ships.

Now, I love survival horror. Action-adventure and all its subgenres: military action, military horror, thriller, and yes, girls with guns and swords. But the last couple hundred pages of Under a Graveyard Sky just get repetitive and annoying. Faith boards ships. Faith talks guns. Faith trains newbies. Faith blows zombies to smithereens—well, she does add variety by hacking many of them to smithereens—over and over. Assorted older males tell her if she were old enough, they’d propose. She could be a pin-up girl for Soldier of Fortune magazine. Um. At thirteen. And while I appreciate the detailed descriptions of ship boarding and the seamanship involved, as well as the challenges of avoiding ricochets while shooting monsters, a little goes a long way. What happened to the storyline?

So, I’m torn with this one. I was excited about the first third. Gleeful, really, that I’d landed on a great series. The latter half of the book ticked me off. No doubt there is action, but there’s not a lot of forward motion. If the next book is more ship clearing, and as Faith-foremost, I’m going to give it a pass.

rating system three crows


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Review: Closer than You Think

Closer than You Think: A Broken Minds Thriller—Lee Maguire, 2018. 3.5/5

In Maguire’s suspenseful thriller, a vindictive stalker isn’t just out to ruin Bryce Davison’s life: they’re out to end it.

Sensitive psychologist Dr. Bryce Davison is struggling to adjust to separation from his wife of fifteen years. Vicki has had enough of Davison’s recurrent depression and seems anxious to move on – without him. Feeling hopeless and adrift, Davison throws himself into his work as a consulting psychotherapist at a combined outpatient and residential treatment center for adolescent youth.

But when Davison scents a familiar perfume on his pillow and receives an ominous e-mail, “Closer than you think,” his staid life begins to spiral out of control.

Intrusive and violent incidents swiftly escalate, taking a toll on Davison physically and mentally. His anxiety increases. Coworkers seem to be treating him differently. Suspects abound, from Marge the receptionist to Dr. Jones the medical director; Wendy, the young therapist, Scooch the townhome maintenance man, even Vicki herself. Could she be gaslighting him? Or is it all in his mind?

A newly-admitted patient, 16-year old Maegan Mitchell, may have the key to everything—if she’s willing to undergo hypnosis to remember.

With Davison, Maguire has created a relatable, likeable protagonist. It is hard not to care about someone who takes custody-sharing of his beloved basset hound so seriously! Although the book launches into the stalking element almost before we feel like we know Davison well enough to empathize, Maguire remedies that quickly. Davison’s character is deepened through flashbacks to a traumatic childhood memory and memories of what he feels was a past professional failure. These events contribute to the story’s mounting suspense and to our understanding of Davison. Supporting characters don’t have Davison’s depth, but play their roles satisfactorily.

Closer than You Think shines brightest in scenes at the mental health facility and in Davison’s therapeutic interactions with his adolescent patients. Maguire’s knowledge of psychotherapy and mental health adds a unique and fascinating aspect to the novel. The dramatic ending sets us up nicely for a sequel. Closer than You Think is a solid read, and I look forward to seeing more of Dr. Davison.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. The author’s and publisher’s media links are included below.

rating system three and a half crows

Closer than You Think / Lee Maguire’s Facebook / TCK Publishing / TCK Facebook


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Review: Suicide Forest

Suicide Forest – Jeremy Bates, 2014.  3/5

Aokigahara forest, Japan’s infamous “Sea of Trees,” is the setting for Suicide Forest, Bates’ first installment in his World’s Scariest Places series.

English teachers Ethan and his girlfriend Mel have weekend plans to climb Mt. Fuji. They’ve brought along fellow teacher, Neil, their friend Tomo, and Mel’s former high school friend and macho military guy, John Scott. But when the weather turns dicey, they’re left searching for other ways to spend the night. Two other would-be climbers, Ben and Nina, suggest camping in nearby Aokigahara, then starting up Fuji the next day. Japan is notorious for its high suicide rate, and Aokigahara is notorious as the place where many people go to kill themselves.

Although Ethan has reservations about overnighting in the “perfect place to die,” he goes along with the crowd, the majority of whom are morbidly excited at the possibility of seeing a body or a ghost. Berated by local hikers as being disrespectful thrill seekers (which they are) the group promptly ignores warning signs and leaves the main trail, following paths marked by colored ribbons.

Things go to hell quickly. They get lost. Ben vanishes, only to be discovered hanging from a tree, dead. Nina believes ghosts are the culprit. The group’s cell phones go missing. Neil contracts food poisoning and is down for the count. They begin to see movements in the trees. Hear screams in the night. Something – or someone is in the forest with them. Make that someones.

Okay. First off, Suicide Forest is better-written than Helltown. Although the action takes a while to get going, Bates does a respectable job building suspense. He succeeds in making us feel as if we were trapped in the oppressive, still silence of the strange forest. The characters have a bit more going for them in this book as well, in that I didn’t out-right hate most of them. But I did tire of the head-butting between Ethan and John Scott over Mel. Guys, grow up. That said, I also didn’t get what Ethan sees in Mel, who seems even more jealous than Ethan.

I think what troubles me with Suicide Forest is the way the issue of suicide is handled. I do believe Bates is trying to be respectful and empathetic about the subject through the dialogue and thoughts of the most sensitive character, Ethan. But Ethan’s a minority. The others show an indifference to suffering: to Neil, for example, who is in dire straits, and to those who have committed suicide or would consider committing suicide. There’s a lack of understanding. But then again, this is a horror/thriller novel, and Ethan is the voice of reason, so maybe this level of compassion is okay.

*Spoilers ahead*

The next wildly problematic parts involve ‘capturing-and raping-the-women,’ and ‘a-raped-woman’s-violent revenge.’ Um. Lots of gender stereotypes and issues to unpack around this. In a profoundly frustrating short epilogue, Ethan also declares that Mel has unexpectedly “fallen pregnant.” What? Wait! By…whom, exactly? And, really? “Fallen pregnant?” (!) The book crashes to an abrupt, heavy end with another suicide and narrowly averted suicide attempt.Sigh.

Pros: The setting is nicely realized, the plot is suspenseful and intriguing, and the baddies in the forest are definitely unique. Cons: The treatment of suicide and rape lacks sensitivity.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 800 273 8255
rating system three crows