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: Half-Off Ragnarok

Half-Off Ragnarok – Seanan McGuire, 2014. Rating:  4/5

Geeky Alexander Price is a herpetologist at the West Columbus Zoo. It’s the perfect cover for his work with cryptids like basilisks, cockatrices, gorgons, wadjets, and lindworms. But when zoo employees start turning to stone, Alex needs to find the culprit fast before his secret life, his famous cryptozoologist family, and his beloved cryptids are exposed.

Alex lives with his grandmother, a cuckoo (telepathic humanoid hunter), his grandfather, a revenant (made of reanimated body parts), and his psychically damaged cuckoo cousin, Sarah. Unlike his ballroom dancer and parkour pro sister, Verity, whose focus is on protecting urban cryptids, Alex specializes in the reptilian variety, like small feathered frogs called frickens.

Alex finds an unexpected ally in Shelby, his beautiful Australian coworker/girlfriend. Turns out Shelby is part of the Thirty-Six Society, protecting Australia’s cryptids from the evil, single-minded Covenant. Together they discover that whoever is petrifying zookeepers has a grudge against the Price family.

Half-Off Ragnarok is flat-out fun. Admittedly, I was initially skeptical: I enjoyed the first two books in the series, which are narrated from Verity’s point of view, and I wasn’t super-sold on a reptilian and amphibian focus, but I was hooked after the first couple of pages. McGuire brings the same engaging mix of tongue-in-cheek humor and monster action to Half-Off Ragnarok that she does to the rest of the series.

There is also a sweetness to these stories. They highlight the “humanity” of different creatures and our ability to live alongside them. The concept of family takes on a welcomingly broad definition. In this world, cobra-wadjet families coexist with cuckoos and revenants and humans and a thriving gorgon colony. Don’t worry: the Aeslin mice make an appearance too, since Alex has a subcolony! If this is your first InCryptid book, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve read the first two and are worried about missing Verity, don’t be: Half-Off Ragnarok is a rewarding read.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Lying Game

The Lying Game—Ruth Ware, 2017.  3.5/5

The lies four friends told seventeen years ago return to haunt them when a set of skeletal remains turns up on the beach.

“I need you.” Kate’s terse text sends her three best friends in the world hurrying to her side. Kate, Isa, Thea, and Fatima have been besties since they spent a year together in boarding school. There at Salten House, they play the “lying game” on their credulous classmates, earning points by telling shocking lies. Their game and cliquish attitude isolate them from the rest of the school but solidifies their friendship. Most weekends they spend at Kate’s dilapidated house on the coast, drinking, smoking, hanging with her handsome French “stepbrother,” Luc, and swimming in the waters of the Reach. Kate’s permissive, artist father, Ambrose, draws them incessantly, clothed and dishabille. One day, Ambrose turns up dead: Suicide. Maybe. The girls secretly bury Ambrose on the beach. Now grown, the women live with the guilt of hiding the body and the lies they told over a decade ago. But someone (or someones) knows their secret and the truth could ruin their lives.

The Lying Game is a page-turner that ticks all the boxes on the psychological thriller checklist. We have a completely unreliable first-person narrator with a fragile emotional state. An ominous, gothic setting: The decrepit old Tide Mill that is Kate’s home, and to an extent, her prison, is literally being washed away. Natural elements like water and light and wind take on threatening qualities. The flashbacks to the fifteen-year old girls’ life in boarding school are among the best parts of the book, and significantly add to the novel’s tense, slow burn. There are red herrings. Secrets. Blackmail. A remote, creepy village literally (and symbolically) covered in nets. A gaunt, hostile postmistress with a grudge. The list goes on. These elements shine.

The novel stumbles, for me, in two places. First, the narrator, Isa. Her borderline over-obsession with her tiresome (mostly screaming) six-month infant, and her willingness to lie to (and forsake in a heartbeat) her significant other are off-putting. I didn’t like her. Consequently, I was not rooting for her, and did not care if her lies were exposed. Unfortunately, Ware spends most of the time crafting Isa’s character, and so Fatima and Thea read a little flat. Second, the women’s big secret, the one that has driven them to extreme coping mechanisms, haunted them for seventeen years, riddled them with guilt, etc…wasn’t really that big a secret. Lois Duncan’s excellent YA book, I Know What You Did Last Summer—which The Lying Game pays homage toharbors a more serious secret.

That said, I flew through The Lying Game. Ware is undisputedly skilled at building tension and keeping interest. I do, however, recommend The Death of Mrs. Westaway and In a Dark, Dark Wood over The Lying Game.

rating system three and a half crows


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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: A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches —Deborah Harkness, 2011. Rating 4/5

Repressed witch and historian, Dr. Diana Bishop, recalls a lost manuscript from the Bodleian Library, falls in love with a vampire, and sets off a war between supernatural species in A Discovery of Witches.

Diana has rejected her witchy family heritage. She fears her own magical powers after her parents—both powerful witches—were killed for their abilities. She’s making her way through the scholarly world like a lowly human: on her own merits. She is a tenured Yale professor and respected author specializing ancient chemistry, or alchemy. Diana is the first person to find Ashmole 782, the bespelled manuscript, in over a century. Diana is suddenly approached by evil witches (who inform Diana they killed her parents); spacey, creative daemons; and Matthew Clairmont, a devastatingly handsome vampire. Matthew is a geneticist, scholar, wine connoisseur, and yoga maven. All of these creatures want Ashmole 782, or at least want Diana, who seems to be the key to the book.

Matthew and Diana fall in love immediately, share dinners, lots of wine, and yoga classes, and when threats of violence ramp up against Diana, Matthew takes her to his exquisite ancestral château in France. There she rides horses, channels the goddess Diana, and navigates chilly conversations with Matthew’s elegant mother, Ysabeau. Diana has the most magical potential Matthew has ever encountered. She still refuses to use her magic, but it begins to bubble out anyway. Diana pays for her helplessness when she’s kidnapped by bad witches and vampires. Matthew insists they visit Diana’s feisty Aunt Sarah in New York, so she can teach Diana how to use her powers. Along the way, Diana and Matthew learn that Ashmole 782 potentially explains the origins and evolutionary future of witches, vampires, and daemons.

O.k. A Discovery of Witches rocketed to fame and inspired a British TV series and countless fan sites. I am not in the rabid fan category. I read the book when it was first released, liked it well enough, and had occasion to read it again recently for a project. I like it less, now. Here are my thoughts. Overall, I enjoyed the book. I liked the fantasy world-view Harkness creates: the uniqueness of the three different magical species, at odds with each other and governed by an outdated covenant. I enjoyed the wine, food, and travel, and I appreciate a tall, dark, handsome vampire as much as the next person. I loved the detailed descriptions of Oxford and Sept-Tours. I relished the literary and historical allusions. Who knew that Ashmole 782 is real manuscript from the collection of Elias Ashmole that truly is missing from the Bodleian? I appreciated the occasional wry bits of humor.

I was deeply frustrated with Diana’s character and what I view as her hypocrisy. Matthew straight-up tells Diana that vampires are protective and possessive. Diana knows this. Yet she spends the bulk of the (very, very long) book complaining about his controlling, protective behavior. She declares she can take care of herself, thank you very much—but she clearly cannot and needs Matthew to protect her…over and over. Plus, Diana likes being protected and cosseted and tucked into bed and deposited in the bath. She keeps touting her independence yet does everything Matthew tells her to and accepts the fact that now that they’re married (with a kiss) she will just have to follow his alpha dog orders. Diana has only known the guy for 40 days, and she has essentially tossed away the career she spent her life building. Hmmpf. So, those are some big issues. That, and the large fact that nothing much actually happens in book. Oh, and that you’re left with an ending like The Empire Strikes Back (but without the dramatic, breath-catching cliffhanger aspect). Here you’re left more with a feeling of grumpy irresolution, and the sense that you’ve been suckered into reading the second book.

It worked. I was irritated enough by the ending of A Discovery of Witches to read the second in the series, Shadow of Night.

A pause while I consider how to continue honestly but tactfully.

Keeping in mind that I love fantasy, supernatural, and historical fiction, book two was still a slog. It is also nearly 600 pages in which very little happens—again—and it frustrated me enough that while I have the final series title, The Book of Life, I haven’t read it. Someday, maybe. I’ll reign myself in here: In short, A Discovery of Witches is a generally enjoyable read that almost falls into the cozy-category. Ignore the heroine’s self-esteem issues, if possible, and you’ll be entertained with some interesting history, an engaging concept, and a pleasant light romance.

rating system four crows


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Review: Haunted

Haunted – James Herbert, 1988. Rating 4.5

Paranormal investigator David Ash anticipates another mundane batch of drafts and creaky floorboards masquerading as ghosts when he’s called to evaluate a down-at-heel old country house. Instead, what he experiences threatens his worldview—and his life.

David Ash is the resident skeptic at the British-based Psychical Research Institute. He’s skilled at debunking paranormal phenomena, from hoax hauntings to fake mediums. David firmly believes that everything has a rational explanation, and if it doesn’t, well, it’s simply the “irregular normal.” But never the supernatural. There are no such things as ghosts in David’s mindset. His conscious mindset, that is. David has a terrifying secret he’s been hiding since he was a child.

The Mariell family specifically requests David to come and explain the phenomena they’ve witnessed: the ghost of a young woman haunting the house and grounds of Edbrook. The adult family consists of weirdly immature siblings Robert, Simon, and Christina, and their closed-mouthed elderly nanny, Tess. David sets up his scientific equipment and doesn’t have long to wait before the inexplicable occurs. As David struggles to assign logical reasons for the mounting phenomena—which are violently directed towards him—he starts to believe the family is playing a sick game with him.

Edith, a gentle psychic medium who also works for the Institute, is convinced David has latent psychic ability that he’s been repressing for reasons of his own. When Edith receives disturbing images David in danger, she knows she must help, despite the risk to herself.

Haunted is truly one of the scariest ghost stories I’ve read in years, and that is saying a lot. To take a classic haunted house story and give it this kind of punch takes mad skill. Haunted is spare and fast-moving, dragging us into its insidious current. We suspect things at Edbrook are terribly wrong long before David admits it to himself. This dramatic irony adds to the building suspense, creating an ominous sense of unease. The tension is augmented by Herbert’s skill at creating vivid sensory images. Herbert not only revitalizes old tropes, he elevates them. For instance, Haunted contains, bar none, the most harrowing séance scene I’ve ever read—or seen.

Herbert’s character-building is equally lean yet evocative. Ash’s backstory unspools in memories of previous investigations shared by Edith and Kate, the Institute’s director. There is a poignancy to Ash’s character. He has a drinking problem. Trouble maintaining deep relationships. As the scientific tools and approaches he’s always relied on prove useless, he opens up to Christina, and we realize Ash is a scared little boy beneath the walls of rationalism he’s erected.

Haunted is already a contender for my Best Reads list next January, it is that good. I have also discovered that Ash appears in two more of Herbert’s stories: The Ghosts of Sleath, and Ash, Herbert’s final novel before his 2013 death. No guesses what’s moved to the front of my to-read list!

rating system four and a half 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: Ghost of the Bamboo Road

Ghost of the Bamboo Road—Susan Spann, 2019. Rating 4/5

A murderer stalks an isolated Japanese village. Is the culprit a vengeful spirit or an all-too-human killer? It is up to Master ninja Hiro Hattori, and his companion, the Jesuit priest Father Mateo, to find the truth in Spann’s latest historical mystery.

Wintertime finds Hattori traveling to Edo, warning other ninja along his way that that their hidden identities may have been compromised. One kunoichi, or female ninja, is stationed at a village tea house on the mountainous travel road. Closed by a landslide for many months, the reopened road is almost deserted, as people prefer the less challenging detour. Hattori, along with Mateo, his housekeeper, Ana, and their cat, Gato, brave the cold and difficult journey only to find the village almost abandoned.

Things get off to an ominous start at the ryokan when the proprietor’s wife fearfully warns them not to stay the night. The inn’s owner, Noboru, urges them to stay; a decision they soon regret. The kunoichi Hattori seeks is nowhere to be found, Ana is accused of theft, and Noboru’s mother, Ishiko, is murdered—posed to look like a yūrei, an angry ghost. The villagers believe the spirit of Noboru’s dead sister is the yūrei, responsible for murdering those who wronged her during her life.

As Hattori and Mateo work to clear Ana’s name, find the kunoichi, and uncover the truth behind Ishiko’s death, they find themselves untangling a mesh of lies, jealousies, and old grievances involving everyone from the village samurai, to a half-mad mountain ascetic, down to the teahouse entertainers.

Ghost of the Bamboo Road is a unique spin on a closed-circle mystery. The snowbound village, a finite group of suspects, and just a tease of the supernatural makes this a satisfying fireside read for a winter’s night. Spann brings the largely unfamiliar but fascinating world of 16th century Japan to life with rich cultural and historical detail. Hattori, with his cool logic and refined warrior skills, nicely complements Mateo, with his faith and warm nature. The two make for an unusual, but successful detective duo. Ghost of the Bamboo Road is the seventh in Spann’s Shinobi Mystery series. After Ghost of the Bamboo Road, I look forward to starting the series at the beginning, with Claws of the Cat. Full disclosure: I received a publisher’s copy of the book for my honest review.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Invited

The Invited—Jennifer McMahon, 2019. Rating: 4/5

Adding a little history to a brand-new house also introduces some restless spirits in this well-plotted supernatural mystery.

When Helen’s father dies and leaves her a sizeable inheritance, she and her husband, Nate, follow their dreams and move to the Vermont countryside. They are drawn to a large tract of rural land next to a fertile bog. Surprisingly, they get the acreage for a song, and begin construction. But Helen, a former history teacher who loves historical research, worries that a freshly built home will lack a connection to the past.

Helen begins researching the local good witch, Hattie Breckenridge, who lived—and died—on their land generations ago: hanged by a mob in 1924. Helen feels a strange connection to Hattie and starts incorporating physical pieces of Hattie’s family history into their new home: a wooden beam from a burned-down school, bricks from an old mill, and other things. Unfortunately, these items represent the tragic deaths of Hattie and her descendants, who begin to make themselves known. Helen believes the spirits have a task for her.

The folks in the small town are suspicious of Helen’s sudden interest in the occult, and Nate heartily disapproves. As the house gets nearer completion, Nate begins to change, spending hours pursuing an elusive white doe in the treacherous bog. Helen’s quest to trace Hattie’s lineage is connected to the story of Olive, a teenage girl on the neighboring property who is searching for Hattie’s lost treasure. Olive is certain that if she finds it, her runaway mother will return…until Olive begins to suspect that perhaps her mother never left town after all.

McMahon is a fine storyteller: she seamlessly weaves together the histories of generations of Breckinridge women with a modern-day disappearance—making both characters old and contemporary spring vividly to life. McMahon has a great eye for natural detail and one can easily imagine themselves out in the remote Vermont backwoods. The only slightly off-note in the story is Nate. He comes across as a foil character for Helen as she avidly pursues her obsession with Hattie and her new life.

For those of you looking for a nail-biting, scary haunted house story with lots of terrifying imagery, this is not that. The Invited is undeniably suspenseful. There are some clever red herrings and a few spooky moments—most notably in the crumbling old hotel where the spirit circle meets—but ultimately this is a story about family, history, and the continuation of the past into the present, wrapped around a solid mystery and aided by some ghostly guides.

rating system four crows