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: 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


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Review: A Single Light

A Single Light – Tosca Lee, 2020. Rating 4/5

In this fast-paced sequel to The Line Between, Wynter and Chase emerge from their underground bunker to find America in shambles. Somewhere in this lawless wasteland they must find antibiotics to save the life of Wynter’s friend.

Months earlier, Wynter escaped a doomsday cult, met and fell for an ex-Marine named Chase, delivered a suitcase of bio samples which could save the world from the early onset dementia pandemic, and ended up in a time-locked silo with her last remaining loved ones and about 50 other folks for six months. There. You’re caught up.

Now, the silo residents anxiously await Open Day—when they can return to the world. The gentle Doomsday prepper, Noah, gives the group daily video updates from the farm on top, until one day the messages stop. Tensions mount, suspicions grow, and things get violent down below. Wynter and Chase have a falling out. Chase takes a team topside and discovers that the farm has been looted and ransacked and everyone is gone. Unfortunately, the group also finds out that America has not recovered—the opposite in fact. There is no vaccine, the virus is still rampant, and the existing survivors are not the nicest folks. Chase and Wynter go on a dangerous quest for the medicine that will save Julie.

Calling A Single Light “action-packed” would be a bit of an understatement. In fact, the book feels like an extended, breakneck A-Team episode (though a lot grittier). We’ve got a bad boss-man and his henchmen, a car chase, explosions, fires, a helicopter crash, and urban shootouts. Now, I love a good thriller (and the A-Team), but what I miss in this novel is the character development that made Lee’s first title shine and inspired me to put it on my Best of 2019 list. The best parts of A Single Light take place in the silo. Lee skillfully portrays the simmering tensions of the silo occupants, their descent into mistrust, and their readiness to relinquish cultural norms. That is the good stuff.

Don’t get me wrong: The rest of the book flies. It is exciting, suspenseful, and totally engaging. I had a hard time putting it down—but I did have trouble suspending my disbelief. There are moments of sadness with a few character losses, but the book careens along towards a happy ending. Comparatively happy. There is a pandemic on, after all.

rating system four crows


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Review: Infernal

Infernal – F. Paul Wilson, 2005.  Rating:  3/5

After years of separation, a family tragedy brings Jack together with his waster brother, Tom, who wants Jack to help him start a new life, under a new name. Tom is, to put it nicely, an opportunist. A crooked judge, he’s been taking bribes and working the system to benefit himself for a while. Now, the Feds are after him. Tom’s only hope is to recover and sell the Lilitongue, one of the Seven Infernals, which is supposed to grant protection from one’s enemies. It also happens to be a cursed artifact that the Catholic Church tried to dispose of (for good reason) centuries ago. Jack has no love for Tom’s crooked ways, mooching personality, and his crush on Jack’s girl, Gia, but family obligation wins out. The two sail to Bermuda, successfully find the Lilitongue and bring it back to New York. When Vicky, Gia’s young daughter touches the creepy thing, a dark stain appears on her back and she has only hours left in this world—unless someone takes the stain from her. While Jack desperately searches for a cure, he tries to track down the terrorist group responsible for a mass-slaughter at La Guardia that took the life of someone Jack loved.

I’ve been a big fan of the Repairman Jack series since Book 1, The Tomb. The gritty under (and upper) belly of New York City, the supernatural weirdness, and the characters—especially Jack, a seriously tough guy with big heart who loves classic horror films—all click. Everything works. With each book in the series, I look forward to a tight, realistically paranormal (!) thriller with NYC attitude. That’s why it hurts to say that Infernal falls short. While I enjoyed learning more about Tom (kind of) and Jack’s family, the plot lacked its usual tension. Events felt a little too pat, and the end was not a surprise. The trip to Bermuda read long and was a believability stretch even for a series in which some weird stuff happens all the time. The Lilitongue? Not so scary. The vengeance-against-terrorists subplot was another disconnect. That said, Wilson’s writing style is great, as always, and Infernal did inch the overarching storyline along, and best of all, I got my fix of Jack and Abe. Yep. I’m still a big fan. I’m looking forward to the next title, Harbingers, and hope Wilson, and Jack, get back in the groove.

rating system three crows


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Review: The List

The List – J.A. Konrath, 2009. Rating:  3.5

Clones, ostriches, and inflatable butt donuts (yes, you read that correctly) combine to make a fast-paced and successful (you read that right, too) thriller with a surprising bit of heart.

Chicago homicide detective Tom Mankowski is disconcerted to find a murder victim—a gruesomely murdered victim—with a number 7 tattooed on his heel. Tom has a number 5 on his own heel. After being viciously attacked at the crime scene, Tom and his partner, Roy, track down another numbered soul (see what I did there? soul? sole?) at a fishing lure convention. Bert explains that he and Tom are clones: Tom is a replica of Thomas Jefferson, and Bert is Albert Einstein. The trio is attacked again, Roy suffers a butt injury, hence the donut, and they head off to Albuquerque to meet the doctor in charge of their cloning project. He runs an ostrich farm. Well, briefly. Tom, Roy, and Bert learn that evil clones of Atilla the Hun and a couple of other historic baddies are trying to eradicate them all. The ragtag team splits up to rescue Joan (of Arc) and Abe (one guess) and together they rush to stop the mastermind behind a diabolical plot to take over the presidency and start an international war.

Deep inhale. I know. This sounds far-fetched. Goofy. Cliché in spots. Yes, The List is all of those things. But is it fun? Entertaining? You bet. Tom and Joan enjoy a cute opposites-who-share-the-same-values-deep-down romance, plus Joan’s got mean martial arts skills. Roy and Bert share a priceless sibling frenemies vibe. Konrath brings an engaging, puckish sense of humor to a plot that involves impalement and kidney transplants.

The List is one of those guilty-pleasure reads, like eating those Girl Scout Samoas that weigh in at 8 grams of fat/serving, that you know you shouldn’t have and sure as heck don’t want your holier-than-thou health-conscious friends to see you eating. But darn it, they’re tasty. The List is like that: a quick, satisfying bite. Suspend your disbelief, squash your inner critic, and have some fun with this over-the-top thriller.

rating system three and a half crows


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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