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: The Progeny

Emily Porter had her memory erased in an experimental procedure—and doesn’t know why. When danger shows up on her doorstep, she must flee to Croatia and put together her astonishing past.

The Progeny: A Novel – Tosca Lee, 2016.    3.5/5


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At just twenty-one years old, Emily has started a quiet new life in middle-of-nowhere Maine tying fishing lures. But subconsciously, the life she rejected is trying to tell her something.

A man named Rolan informs her she’s not Emily, her real name is Audra, and she is a descendant of Elizabeth Bathory. (You horror fans know her: The blood countess? The one who supposedly killed all those serving girls, bathed in their blood, and was walled up in a room in her castle for three years before she died? That one.) As Bathory’s descendant, Audra has special powers of persuasion. She is one of “the Progeny.” Rolan informs Audra that she is being hunted by an assassin from the Scions of the Dispossessed whose mission is to eradicate all of Bathory’s kin. Audra is soon on the run with Rolan from another (handsome, younger man) named Luka. But maybe Rolan isn’t so trustworthy. Maybe Luka is. Maybe they both are, or aren’t. Audra must tease out complicated loyalites; navigate the masked underground courts of Nikola, the Prince of Budapest, and Tibor, the Zagreb Prince; discover who killed her mother, a Progeny activist; unmask a conspiracy; save her new/old friends and her new/old beloved; and prove Bathory’s innocence. I think. Most of that, anyway. I lost track.

I went into this novel with great anticipation. I’ve enjoyed other works by Lee, especially her apocalyptic novel, A Line Between (see my review here), and her historical fiction titles like The Legend of Sheba. Good stuff. The Progeny is well-written: the pacing is great, there is plenty of action, the historical mystery is intriguing, and Lee weaves in a sensitive and probably (to other people) touching theme about motherhood. I was captivated by Lee’s dark vision of the fantastical, frenetic Progeny raves.

But I couldn’t get into the plot. The fault is largely mine: I have a strong aversion to amnesia and amnesia-like memory loss stories. I find them frustrating instead of suspenseful. Borderline infuriating, actually. I dislike feeling led by the nose by a plot device. In all stories, the author chooses when and how to dole out bits and pieces of info, but in memory loss stories the mechanics feel too transparent. (I have weird issues with time travel, too, but that’s another story.) Granted, Lee focuses on Audra’s journey in the present, but it still did not engage me. It also didn’t help that I found Audra largely unlikeable. Yes, Audra is stressed, doesn’t know who she is or was, and doesn’t trust anybody—these things would make anyone prickly—but they make her hard to connect with. For the bulk of the novel, she also doesn’t have a lot of empathy for any of the new/old people she’s meeting. Consequentially, I did not care much about the elaborate Progeny conspiracy. As I said, it’s mostly just me. Fans of Lee’s writing in general will not be disappointed (unless they share my bizarre issues with memory loss stories). This is the first in the Descendants of the House of Bathory series and is followed by Firstborn (2017). As much as I hate to leave a series hanging, I’ll be skipping Firstborn.  


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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: 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: Monster Hunter Siege

Owen Pitt is tired of waiting for the end of the world. Now, he and a crew of elite international monster hunters are taking the fight to the chief baddie himself, Asag, the god of chaos, in an effort to preempt humanity’s holocaust.

Monster Hunter Siege – Larry Correia, 2017. Rating: 4.5/5

Once an accountant, Owen Zastava Pitt, or “Z”, is now a top-notch monster hunter and the Chosen One, destined to save the world or die trying. Now, about to be a father, Owen knows he needs to go on the offensive and stop letting ultra-powerful and mysterious entities call the shots. Owen convinces his werewolf boss, Earl, to mount a massive attack on the City of Monsters, located on a remote Russian island where intel suggests there is a portal to the Nightmare Realm—and Asag. While MHI and their allies hold the island against all kinds of creative monstrosities, it is Owen alone who can travel to the Nightmare Realm and not only take the fight to Asag, but bring back seven hunters who have been trapped there for months.

Monster Hunter Siege is exactly what I’ve been needing: a warm-hearted, breakneck shoot-em up with lots of monsters, good and bad, and characters that shine. There is never a dull moment—or even a slightly less exciting moment—as Owen achieves détente between the orcs and elves at a local barbeque (open bar), establishes fraternal relations with a Russian mobster as they battle a child-eating vodyanoy, and goes on to fight sky squids, evil Fey, and legions of Asag’s minions. We’re talking sheer fun and lots of firepower, here.

Correia writes with a droll sense of humor and doesn’t compromise on characterization; two reasons I love the Monster Hunter International series. Owen’s relationships with his father, and with the lost hunter and ex-nemesis, Lococo, are authentically moving. The novel’s poignancy and the dark nature of its conflict are offset with brilliantly sweet and funny scenes like Owen’s meeting with Poly, the one-eyed, comic-book loving cyclops. The series is a treat.

If you’re new to Owen and MHI, you can certainly jump in with this installment, but I recommend starting with the first title, Monster Hunter International: pure enjoyment.


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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 Book of the Dead

Shoggoths are popping out of sinkholes, Cthulhu is clawing its way out of some other dimension, and mankind is on track to be enslaved and devoured unless ancient languages professor and reluctant hero, Matt Kearns, can save the world. Beck pulls out all the stops in this entertaining homage to Lovecraft.

The Book of the Dead – Greig Beck,  2015. Rating: 3.5/5

Matt Kearns is a good-looking professor, a bit of a ladies’ man, who is currently jockeying for a tenured job at Harvard. But the position is contingent on a short, easy trip to Syria to help the military translate some ancient tome. No problem. Except the book is a copy of the original Necronomicon, and a planetary convergence is just days away when a cult of Cthulhu worshippers will open the gate for the Old Ones. Plus, tentacled slimy things are eating people. Matt and a tiny elite team made up of a couple SEALs, two military officers, a young anthropologist, and a formidable one-woman army in the form of an Israeli Mossad agent, must decipher the Necronomicon and stop the madness.

The Book of the Dead does not require a lot of brain power but does demand a lot of suspension of disbelief. One little sinkhole and a Shoggoth quickly ramps up to world-wide earth-falls and a full-out army of slimy monstrosities that is subjugating the population. Salvation comes down to the woefully outnumbered (and rapidly dwindling) little strike team. If you can avoid rigorous logic—actually, any logic—for a while and accept Beck’s wild premise, you’ll get a kick out of the book. Kearns is a likeable hero who doesn’t take himself too seriously (except when dealing with viscid monsters). A good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor balances out the military action. Lovecraft groupies will appreciate the abundance of black goo and floating eyeballs while thriller fans will enjoy the tale’s shoot-outs, knife-outs, and all numbers of battles versus both humans and octopus-like things. In his concluding Author’s Notes, Beck reveals his own love of the Cthulhu Mythos, and explains a few allusions for those of us who aren’t quite as well-versed.

The Book of the Dead rockets along and will make for a fun, escapist beach read. Wait. Make that a porch read, it’s safer. Who knows what might suck you down into that sand?

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Devil Aspect

Everyone has the potential for evil, according to Carl Jung. Psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Kosárek agrees. He has revolutionary plans to expose this Devil Aspect in six of Czechoslovakia’s most notorious serial killers. But will Kosárek’s findings come in time to help the police stop a madman’s bloody spree? Keep a light on: This intelligent, profoundly disturbing thriller will have you physically looking over your shoulder while intellectually pondering the true nature of evil.

The Devil Aspect—Craig Russell, 2018. Rating: 4.5/5

Young Dr. Kosárek is eager to begin his new position at the remote Hrad Orlů Asylum for the Criminally Insane. The asylum, located in a forbidding castle with a dark history, has always attracted evil. Now it houses the Devil’s Six, the most violent madmen—and women—of the modern age. Kosárek ignores the unfriendly attitude of the of local villagers as well as the castle’s ominous legends and begins his narcosynthesis sessions. Kosárek fully intends to restore each criminal’s memories of their evil side, unify their dichotomized selves, and if not cure them, at least ease their “great sadness.”  Kosárek’s quest intersects with that of experienced police detective, Kapitán Lukáš Smolák, who is desperately tracking the infamous Leather Apron–a killer who is literally butchering German women in Prague.

The Devil Aspect is an exceptional read. On one level, the novel is a fast-paced police-procedural crossed with a psychological thriller, but Russell weaves in many other threads that add depth and color (dark, dark color) to the story. The setting is 1935, and Russell integrates the growing tension—fueled by the rise of Hitler—between the Sudeten Germans and the Czechs. Kosárek’s Jewish transcriber, Judita, foresees the coming cataclysm, and fears becoming a victim. Compounding the real unease of the political situation is the growing menace of sinister figures from Slavic folklore which assume terrifying reality as motivators for the Devil’s Six. Both Kosárek and Smolák also struggle with memories of traumatic childhood incidents that now inform their adult lives. What have they—and we—walled off to protect fragile psyches? An electric, unnerving read.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: Intercepts

Intercepts: A Horror Novel—T.J. Payne, 2019. Rating: 4.5/5

Joe Gerhard works for the Company. He’s in charge of painfully forcing vegetative, sensory-deprived human “antennas” to gather intel on international bad guys. But one of the antennas tunes in to Joe’s family, intent on making Joe’s life as hellish as their own.  Payne’s uniquely arresting thriller is unputdownable.

The antennas were once human. Maybe a tiny part of them that isn’t insane is still human. Now, trapped in padded cells in a high-security underground laboratory, breathing gas that takes away all feeling, the antenna exist only to lock onto the Company’s targets. When sensation is briefly, excruciatingly returned to the antennas, they achieve a kind of focused remote viewing. Joe doesn’t know if the shadowy Company is military, government, or private, but they have the funds and the chilling ability to red flag—and disappear—people.

For years, Joe has chosen work over his family, although his work was always for his family: his ex-wife Kate, and his teenage daughter Riley. Joe has become inured to the suffering of the antennas, accepting their condition as a tradeoff for the greater good. Motivated by hatred and vengeance, one antenna, Bishop, has painstakingly fought her mental imprisonment, intercepted Joe’s mind, and found his weaknesses. Bishop drives Kate to kill herself and starts working on Riley. The teen struggles to fight the suicidal suggestions that Bishop plants in her mind. Joe will do anything to save his daughter.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot because Intercepts is exceptional. You must read it and discover it for yourself—trust me, you will never forget it. The story rockets along—the suspense is agonizing because you have a bad, gut feeling of how things must end. (You might be wrong…a little bit.) Payne also doesn’t sacrifice character development for plot. You are emotionally conflicted because you empathize with both the antennas—even the vindictive acts of Bishop—and with good-intentioned dad Joe and his sensitive teen daughter.

Payne hits a contemporary nerve in Intercepts: His shocking vision is all-too possible. Horror, here, is the justification of man’s inhumanity to man…and what happens when the products of ethically immoral science strike back.  Intercepts is the first book this year to earn a place my end-of-the-year top five list.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: White Lies

White Lies – Jeremy Bates, 2012. Rating: 1/5

On a dark and stormy night, high-school English teacher Katrina Burton acts against her better judgment and picks up a hitchhiker. A skeevy, drunken, angry hitchhiker. Katrina lies to get him out of her car, and while the trick works, it spirals into a series of untruths that involve her falling for a sociopath and covering up multiple murders. Don’t get too excited. The book is awful.

Katrina is recovering from the death of her fiancé two years ago and looks forward to her new teaching job in small-town Leavenworth, WA. Unfortunately, she discovers that the creepy hitchhiker she picked up is Zach Marshall, the philosophy teacher at her new school. Zach is equally unpleasant sober. He thinks she lied about having a house on the lake (she did). To catch her out, Zach wants Katrina to throw a teacher party at her home. He decides to “start a vendetta” against Katrina and sneaks around her house, peeping in her bathroom window while she’s bathing.

Meanwhile, Kristin meets tall, broad-shouldered, charismatic, handsome Jack Reeves. Jack is Kristin’s knight in shining armor. Plus, he has a Porsche. They hit it off immediately and fall into bed, despite Jack’s admission that he was a pit fighter with mob connections who killed a guy in the ring (!)

** Major plot spoilers ahead in the next paragraph. But frankly, I hope no one reads this book. So go ahead, read the spoilers. **

Kristin and Jack throw the faculty party at a rental house. Jack savagely kills the elderly landlord. Kristin believes that it was self-defense or an accident—whatever: the point is, Jack’s not to blame—and helps Jack stuff the body into a truck and to make it look like the old man died in a car accident. Except they mess it up and have to go back and set the truck on fire. But a witness already found the truck, so Jack kills him. Zach also witnessed the murder, but he’s falling for Katrina’s sister and doesn’t want to screw up his chances with her by calling the police on Katrina. (What?!) More murders (four, I think) and more intimidation (Jack threatens to have a friend rape Zach’s mother) ensue. Kristin and Zach finally tell the truth, and we learn that Jack is not what he seems. (He’s a homicidal ex-CIA agent. Really.) Despite being charged as accessory to murder and receiving a year of probation – Kristin keeps her job at the school. Excuse me?!

** Spoilers over. **

This book is dreadful.

The characters are shallow, unbelievable, and completely unlikeable. Kristin is bald-faced stupid. She helps Jack because she can’t envision him in jail. He has such zest for life, he’s like a “stallion,” who is “not meant to be caged.” Please. Kristin weakly argues with her conscience that maybe Jack is a murderer and a liar, (Yes!) but more likely, he’s a “decent man doing what anyone would have done.” (No! No!) Even the priest she confesses to urges her to turn Jack in, but she is “blinded by love.” Ugh. I can’t suspend my disbelief (and basic outrage) at such a wuss of a character to enjoy any part of this book. And she’s supposed to be a teacher! Look: I don’t need or want strong female characters in everything I read. I’m not asking for Arya or Hermione, here. But there’s a difference between a well-written vulnerable female character, or a meek character, or even a weak-willed character, and this caricature of a helpless female character. She thinks hardware stores are “men’s places” for gosh sakes. Everyone else is just as disagreeable.

I’m a thriller junkie. But this wasn’t thrilling, it was ridiculous and irritating. I typically don’t review books that I don’t like—I don’t want to waste my time. In this case, I’m doing it to save other people time. Don’t bother with White Lies. Cons: Characters. Plot. All the biggies. Pros: It was over quickly.

rating system one crow