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 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


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Review: Baby Teeth

Baby Teeth  Zoje Stage, 2018. Rating 4/5

A picture-perfect family reveals evil at its core: an icily intelligent seven-year-old who wants her mother gone. One way or another.

The Jensens live an upscale life in urban Pittsburgh. Alex is a highly sought-after architect, and his wife Suzette, is a talented artist and interior designer. Their young daughter, Hanna, seems perfect too, except that she has chosen not to speak, and no amount of testing reveals why. She communicates nonverbally, using sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. Hanna and her father are a mutual adoration society of two. In Alex’s eyes, Hanna can do no wrong. In Hanna’s eyes, only Suzette stands between her and a perfect life with Alex, whom she intends to marry when she gets older. Suzette is a “bad mommy.”

Suzette has been homeschooling Hanna because certain…incidents…resulted in her explusion from other schools. Suzette is at the end of her rope. Before Hanna, Alex and Suzette were the stars in each other’s worlds. Now, Suzette misses her freedom, her creativity-—and Alex. She laments that she doesn’t seem to have Hanna’s love, or really any bond with her daughter. Suzette’s own dysfunctional relationship with her mother may have something to do with her emotional distance from Hanna. Or, it could just be the fact that Hanna is a murderous psychopath.

Hanna plots to make Suzette go away. She gaslights her mother, speaking—only to Suzette—in the persona of a French witch who was burned at the stake. (Hanna, unbeknownst to her parents, has mad Internet skills). Alex begins to doubt Suzette’s stability when she tells him of some of Hanna’s malicious exploits. Suzette’s stance is further compromised by her low self-esteem and her ever-present fear of her Crohn’s disease. When Hanna (mostly) fails to drive a wedge between Suzette and Alex, Hanna ramps up her efforts and plots to make Suzette go away permanently.

Baby Teeth is a thoughtful, slow-burn novel. Alternating perspectives between Hanna and Suzette works to build tension. But, while I enjoyed hearing from both adversarial females, Hanna’s point of view is much more engaging, in an deliciously evil way. Hanna is an imaginative, creative, manipulative little terror. I was intrigued to see how her vicious machinations would unfold. Unfortunately, the book bogs down a bit with Suzette’s repetitive complaints and guilty self-recriminations. It takes a lot for Suzette to realize the threat her daughter poses and to react. Frankly, I wanted more of an edge. More psychological terror. That said, Baby Teeth did leave me thinking about it for a long time after I finished reading: the sign of a good read.

rating system four crows


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Bacon Jalapeno Poppers

Need an appetizer for Thanksgiving? A great snack for the big game? Try these poppers – you won’t be disappointed!

My pepper plants went above and beyond this year: we’re talking pounds of peppers. Many, many pounds of peppers.

2019-07-18 14.39.36

So, okay, maybe I over-compensated from years of unsuccessful harvests and I planted a few (a lot) too many plants: Anaheim, Poblano, Serrano, and Jalapeno. I have roasted and frozen them. Pickled them. Made jalapeno jelly. Added them to endless salsas (aided by our equally-prolific tomatoes). I’ve eaten them on everything from eggs to tacos. Stuffed them. Made spicy peanut brittle. I even tried to give them away—free!—at a little table at the end of our country driveway. But, we’re in Ohio. Peppers, apparently, aren’t quite so popular here as our old home state of Colorado. Oh well! More for me.

Here’s an easy recipe we’ve made…three times this season?  Four times? That even my not-too-big-a-fan-of-spicy-things husband really enjoys. I think we adapted it from a Pioneer Woman recipe long ago. Non pepper-lovers, don’t be afraid: all the heat comes out of the pepper when you scrape out the inner white membrane and the seeds and the peppers have a mild, almost fruity flavor. Want more heat? Leave in the membrane, or some seeds. These poppers are fabulous right when you make them and they also warm up fine the next day. If you have any left. (You won’t!)

Ingredients

8oz package cream cheese

10 slices regular bacon, cut in half

10 fresh jalapenos

20 toothpicks

2019-07-31 14.55.34

How to Make Them

Preheat your oven to 300F. You’re going to cook these low and slow. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and place a wire rack over it.

Cut the peppers in half lengthwise and use a spoon to scrape out the white membrane and the seeds—unless you want your poppers really hot!

 

Spread about a tablespoon of cream cheese into each pepper half.

Wrap a half-slice of bacon around each jalapeno. Stick a toothpick horizontally through the center of the pepper to hold everything together. Set each pepper on the wire rack.

 

Bake for 35-40 minutes at 300F. Keep an eye on them: They may need a little more or a little less time for the bacon to get brown and delicious.

2019-08-02 18.58.32

Eat them. Be happy.


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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