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: The Reincarnationist Papers

Professional arsonist Evan Michaels remembers all of his past lives. Now, he has the chance to enter a rare society of immortals in The Reincarnationist Papers.

The Reincarnationist Papers—D. Eric Maikranz, 2008. Rating: 3/5

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Lonely and isolated, Evan lives out of a seedy motel working as an arsonist-for-hire. He has contemplated suicide, but knows it is pointless because he will just come back to life again: He was a Bulgarian farmer who fought in WWI, and a six-year-old boy in Georgia, where he developed his fascination with fire. Evan thinks he is alone in the world until he meets the beautiful, mysterious Poppy, who has a taste for heroin and creative sexual encounters. Poppy recognizes that Evan is a reincarnationist like herself and offers to be his advocate and help Evan join the Cognomina, a secretive association of reincarnationists. But Evan must first pass an exhaustive interview process to authenticate his past lives. Whisked away to Zurich, Evan meets others like himself and becomes enamored with their lavish, deviant, “epicurean” lifestyle. When the wealthy Samas offers Evan millions to steal a portrait for him, Evan leaps at the chance.

Conceptually, The Reincarnationist Papers shines. Maikranz incorporates a wealth of historical detail into the past life stories of the characters. The reader travels in time from Coronado’s expedition to the New World to the era of Louis XIV and beyond. Maikranz successfully brings less-familiar historical periods to life for the reader. Maikranz also takes a compelling, in-depth look at the cultural beliefs surrounding transmigration. These aspects of the novel are great.

Connecting with the characters, however, is a sticking point. It is hard to feel much for the reincarnationists. Maikranz intimates that we should pity them, trapped in their endless existences, but that is challenging, because they are, overall, rich, selfish, hedonistic snobs. Evan actually rejects the one character who lives a simple life, convinced he is mad for living in such—to Evan—discomfort.

The reincarnationists offer a well-argued case that religion is pointless—simply a big hoax perpetrated on mankind that forces people into living unnaturally restrained lives. The reincarnationists know this because they have experienced nothing after death except rebirth into another body. They would agree with Karl Marx that “religion…is the opiate of the masses,” but they prefer their opium straight up for personal painkilling purposes. This nihilist perspective could be a bit off-putting for some readers.

The Reincarnationist Papers offers a fascinating look at history and a provocative philosophical exploration of reincarnation. Personally, I had difficulty making character connections. Full disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion.


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Review: The Scorpion’s Tail

A cold case turns hot for a newbie FBI agent when she runs afoul of the military while chasing clues to a murder and a long-lost treasure.

The Scorpion’s Tail—Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, 2020. Rating: 3/5


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Corrie Swanson is bitterly sure that her pitiful assignment in nowhere New Mexico is a punishment for her ineptitude on her last case. Now, she is stuck with cowboy Sheriff Watts trying to figure out what a treasure hunter was doing searching the remote High Lonesome ghost town. Corrie calls in a favor from archaeologist Nora Kelly and together they discover a corpse—one that clearly died a gruesome death—and a priceless Spanish gold cross. Corrie, Watts, and Nora follow rumors of a golden fortune and uncover a decades-old military conspiracy at the nearby White Sands Missile Range.

I was poised to be super-enthusiastic about this read because I have enjoyed many (most) of Preston and Childs’ other titles; but the book fell a little flat. Here are the pros: The story is satisfying. It is a slower build, but the pacing is solid, and the tension increases nicely as our heroes get closer to solving the mystery. The authors successfully weave together fascinating historical elements from the atomic era and early Native American history. There are some fun shootouts. The desert southwest landscape is beautifully realized. I have been to several of the locations depicted in the book, and Preston & Child so exquisitely capture the colors and silence and sheer vastness of the high desert that I felt transported back, which was a lovely gift.

Now the cons. Characterization is thin. Corrie is the most well-rounded of the group, but she is so rules-based she is not easy to empathize with. The few flashbacks to Corrie’s abusive childhood do not go far enough to flesh out her character. She and Nora both struggle in typical “male” or “moneyed” professions, respectively, and their ultimate successes are empowering, but do not add the needed depth to their personalities. The rest of the cast is largely one-dimensional. The book is so plot-driven, I felt like I was missing entire scenes that would have helped me care more about these people. Early on, for instance, Watts suggests he and Corrie have lunch. Great! I expected a short sequence in a café to get some character background…Nada.

All that said, devotees of Preston and Child and all of us action, thriller, suspense, and historical fiction fans will have most of our boxes checked. Plus, Agent Pendergast makes a brief, deus-ex-machina cameo: enjoyable, if a little contrived. The Scorpion’s Tail is a quick, solid read, but does not rank among my favorites from the extensive offerings of Preston & Child.


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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