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 Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street—Natasha Pulley, 2015. Rating: 5/5

Historical fiction gets a warm, probably lemon-colored, wash of fantasy in this unforgettably heartwarming Victorian thriller. Yes, that’s an oxymoron, and yes, it applies perfectly.

It is 1883 and Home Office telegraph operator, Nathaniel, is eking out a sterile existence. He’s sacrificed his musical talent and his ability to see sounds as colors in order to support his widowed sister. When an expensive, mysterious watch appears in his room and saves his life during a bombing of Scotland Yard, Thaniel tracks down the watchmaker, Keita Mori. Mori owns a small shop filled with his exquisite clockwork creations that seem to be imbued with a touch of…magic. And Mori has another special talent: he can see possible futures.

Overwhelmed by Mori’s kindness and quirkiness, Thaniel takes the room Mori has available to let. But Thaniel goes from renter to reluctant spy when authorities suspect Mori’s clockwork is tied to the bombs in recent terrorist attacks. Grace, a practical young scientist, also suspects that Mori is a danger to Thaniel’s self-determination and sets out to stop the watchmaker.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is ethereal commingling of suspense and love story. If it were a song, I think it would be in the key of D Major. Pulley’s characters are beautifully drawn: every tiny detail contributes to their depth and plausibility. I want to have a cup of tea with Thaniel and Mori and Katsu, they are that real.

Adding a vibrant layer to the story is the rich history of Londoners’ fascination with all things Japanese. Pulley’s portrayal of the Japan Native Village and the debut of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is fascinating: both deepening our understanding of Mori and offering a unique contrast to English cultural norms.

I had to catch myself as I was reading. I was horribly conflicted because the suspense is hideously stressful, and my desire to scan a couple of pages at the end (just to make sure everything and everyone turns out o.k.) fought hard with my desire to savor every word and whimsical image. (I withstood temptation.) As soon as I set the book down, I wanted to read it again. And I wanted another one.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is suffused with an affecting, quiet joy. A deeply satisfying track- down-the-bomber-historical-thriller that’s also about following your heart.

rating system five crows


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Big Dark Chocolate Caramel Cookie

Oh yes.

Forget jewelry and roses and expensive dinners. Bake this massive, chewy, delectable cookie for your Valentine and they’ll be yours forever. Or, heck, just make it for yourself. Either way will bring happiness.

Back in the day (we’re talking early ’90s, here) we’d go to the original Old Chicago on Pearl Street in Boulder for free glassware night, a good pizza, and their big warm cookie, straight out of the oven. Those were the glory days before Old Chicago became a chain and their food quality tanked. I still remember that cookie with foodie nostalgia.

But this cookie is better. Bigger. More refined for today’s gourmet cookie palates.  Plus, the recipe is ridiculously simple.

We love a slice warmed up just a little bit alongside some good ice cream, or topped with a drizzle of chocolate sauce. Be creative. Enjoy!

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Ingredients:

1 ½ cups flour

¾ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

10 Tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup bittersweet (60% cacao) chocolate chips or dark chocolate chips

½ cup toasted walnuts (or pecans)

12 caramel candies

Flaky sea salt (optional)

 

Special Equipment:

A 10-inch cast iron skillet

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How to Make it:

Heat your oven to 375 F.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and the brown sugar together on a medium-high speed until very light-colored and fluffy, about 4 minutes.

Add in the egg and vanilla and beat until combined.

Drop your mixer speed and add in the flour mixture until just combined.

Stir in the nuts and chocolate chips.

Butter your cast iron skillet so your cookie doesn’t stick. That would be very sad.

Spoon the dough into the skillet and pat it down evenly.

Push the 12 caramel candies into the dough.

Sprinkle the top with sea salt, if you want.

Bake at 375 F for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

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Let it cool. If you can wait that long…

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Review: Earthcore

Earthcore – Scott Sigler, 2017. 4/5

A bloodbath ensues when a mining company drilling in the remote Utah mountains unearths way more than it signed up for.

Connell Kirkland, once a nice guy, now a cutthroat asshole, assembles a high-tech team to bore a record three miles down and extract a mass of pure platinum. The haul will be worth a world-economy-changing amount of money.

But Connell has a lot of problems. He’s saddled with a puerile tech genius and his oversized ego. A psychopathic ex-NSA operative who lives for the wetwork. An aggressively unpleasant anthropologist. Oh, and folks who’ve gone into the mine have historically disappeared or been massacred. Then add in the fact that Connell and a handful of others get trapped at the bottom of that impossible shaft, and Connell’s literally in deep.

This is Sigler’s newly-expanded version of Earthcore. According to the author himself, it boasts 50% more words, more violence, and more character development than the first version, which was originally written in 2002, and first published in 2005.

There is an extensive build up before anyone even enters the mine, which is, frankly, frustrating, but Sigler keeps enough suspense going to hold your interest, and the delayed gratification is worth it. From there, the storyline races ahead with a few surprises along the way. My biggest beef is that there are not many likable or relatable characters, and most of the nice guys may as well be wearing red shirts. Kudos to Sigler for expanding those characters from the first version—and several do have personal epiphanies at the end—but, with a few exceptions, you don’t care much about them.

Sigler gleefully delivers plenty of “blood and nastiness,” and the…creatures…in the mine are creatively unique. But, maybe because I didn’t like the humans in the story that much, I ended up finding the monsters less terrifying, and even felt a little bad for them.

All that said, I flew through Earthcore and I’ll undoubtedly read the promised sequel. Sigler writes well, and this was a fun read. For some top notch sci-fi horror try Sigler’s Infected series.

rating system four crows


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Pure Heaven: The Best Angel Food Cake

Ever since I was little, angel food cake has been my favorite cake of all. Light, fluffy, just sweet enough, it lends itself to all kinds of toppings. Strawberries macerated in Grand Marnier. Butterscotch sauce. Frosting. Lemon glaze. Yum. In fact, my wedding cakes were angel food with a selection of choose-your-own toppings.

It is cold outside. I’m in need of a little happy-memories comfort food. That, and we now have six chickens and an over-abundance of eggs. Clearly, time for angel food cake.

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Apologies for this photo: We ended up eating the whole cake except for this last little raggedy piece before I remembered to take a picture. (It’s that good.)

Ingredients:

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups sugar, divided

1 ½ cups egg whites at room temperature (12-15 eggs, depending on egg size)

1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar

¼ teaspoon salt

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla

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Thanks for the eggs, Babs (blue eggs), Agatha (dark speckled eggs), Jinx, Bubbles, and Fran! And thanks to Roo also, for over-zealous flock protection.

Special Equipment:

10-inch tube pan

Wire whip for your mixer

Cute little chicken egg separator, if you don’t want to get your hands messy. You can find an inexpensive, similar one on Amazon here.

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I usually separate the eggs individually into the small dish before transferring to the measuring cup—just in case I have a yolk break on me. I don’t want to ruin the rest of the whites. And, separate your eggs when they’re cold, then let them stand and come to room temperature for about an hour. They’ll whip better. Those extra egg yolks? Make a pound cake…or hollandaise…or pudding!

How to Make It:

Mix the flour and ½ cup of the sugar in a bowl and set it aside.

Place the egg whites in your mixer bowl. You’re going to use your wire whip attachment to mix, not your regular flat beater.

Gradually turn the mixer to a medium high speed (on my KitchenAid, I go to speed 6) and whip until the egg whites are frothy: not too long, just 30 seconds to a minute.

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Add the cream of tartar, salt, and vanilla. Turn your mixer to high (speed 8 on my mixer) and whip until the egg whites are almost stiff, but not dry. 2-2 ½ minutes, tops.

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Drop to a low speed (speed 2 on my mixer) and gradually add the remaining 1 cup of sugar and mix for 1 minute. Stop and scrape the bowl with a spatula.

Remove the bowl from the mixer. Spoon your flour-sugar mixture ¼ at a time over the egg whites. Fold it in very gently with a spatula, just until blended. Don’t go crazy stirring, here: fold gently. You don’t want to lose your volume.

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Pour the batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan. Take a knife and gently cut through the batter to break up any air pockets.

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Bake at 375 F until the crust is golden brown and cracks are very dry. This takes about 35 minutes. As soon as it is done, remove from oven and invert it onto a bottle. You want to cool it upside down so it doesn’t collapse. Don’t worry! It won’t fall out! (Well, not as long as you didn’t grease the pan.) Cool completely and remove from the pan.

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Eat it plain or go crazy with your toppings! And yes, there’s no photo of me with the whole cake because we ate it before I remembered to photograph it. Next time I make one, which will probably be in a week or so given our crazy egg production, I’ll update with a finished product photo!

 


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Review: The Silent Companions

The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell, 2017. 5/5

Here’s a hackles-raising, creepy little gem of a Victorian gothic that you won’t soon forget. Thank you, The Silent Companions, for getting my 2019 off to a horrific (in a good way) start.

I’m not easily scared. I want to be, badly. My problem is I get too excited about dissecting why and how something is scary. In a haunted house, I’m dancing around the guy with the chainsaw busily admiring how they strung the fishing wire to make it feel like spiderwebs brushing your face. I know. Lame.

I can honestly say, however, The Silent Companions raised actual goosebumps and made me say ooooh out loud. That’s huge. Purcell has crafted an uncommonly disturbing story. It will sneak up on you. And maybe make you put your Dutch paintings in the basement.

I’m going to keep the plot summary brief. I want you to come to The Silent Companions with as clean a slate as possible for maximum impact. In short: It is 1865. Elsie Bainbridge is newly married to and abruptly widowed from the handsome entrepreneur, Rupert. She is now heir to Rupert’s fortune and his crumbling family estate, The Bridge. Pregnant and looked at with some suspicion in London because of her sudden wealth, Elsie travels with Rupert’s mousy cousin, Sarah, to the family seat. The mansion is in disrepair, the servants are inept and contrary, the village is a muddy hovel filled with superstitious and hostile inhabitants. Strange noises, mysterious accidents, and off-the-charts macabre appearances of life-like cut-out paintings are enough to drive one mad.

The Silent Companions is beautifully layered story. With menacing subtlety, Purcell closes a series of traps around the two women: their class, gender, Victorian norms, self-doubt, and past history, each combine to render them more and more powerless against the real evil in the house.

Purcell’s writing is brilliant. Tension builds exquisitely as we readers share Elsie’s confinement in the remote locale and her increasing fear and claustrophobia. Purcell further surprises us by exploding Victorian gentility with rudely shocking events.

The Silent Companions is a deceptively quiet, chilling, stunner of a read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

rating system five crows


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Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

The Death of Mrs. Westaway—Ruth Ware, 2018. 4.5

Superstitions and secrets make for a tense read in this deeply satisfying mystery.

At just twenty-one, Hal is saddled with all the responsibilities—and fears—of adulthood. Working as a tarot reader after the death of her mother, Hal is drowning in bills, soon to be homeless, and threatened by an unsavory lender. She is desperate.

Then she receives a letter that could change her life, naming her as a beneficiary in her grandmother’s will: impossible, since her grandparents died a decade ago. With no other options, Hal decides to scam her way into some inheritance money. This sounds simple in the abstract, but when she is warmly accepted by the family members, Hal is torn. As Hal works herself deeper into an ethical dilemma, she uncovers a passel of ominous family secrets and puts herself in mortal danger.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a modern take on a classic country house mystery. A closed circle of suspects, an isolated location, an old mystery slowly exposed through tantalizing diary entries from the past, all combined with a scrappy heroine who has no one to trust (who no one should trust), are well calculated to make us mystery lovers shiver in delight.

Ware’s careful plotting and lightning pacing work to maximize suspense, making you perfectly o.k. with the fact that very little action takes place until a final, movie-worthy dramatic climax. Ware does a few—good!—things differently with The Death of Mrs. Westaway that make for a surprising and welcome contrast to the feel of her other books. Here, she adds a tantalizing touch of the almost-supernatural: enticing us with the exotically arcane details and symbolism of Hal’s tarot cards and adding a rich layer to the narrative.

There is also a pleasantly unexpected warmth to the characters of this tale. We like Hal, with her helpless façade hiding her inner strength. We root for her as she simultaneously struggles with her deception yet is at the mercy of other deceptions swirling around her.

While the mystery itself is not especially tangled, Ware’s humanizing use of deeper themes make us reflect on both the nature of family and the creation of identity, all the while we’re eagerly flying through the pages to discover who done it. And just what it was. The Death of Mrs. Westaway is my favorite of Ware’s works so far.

rating system four and a half crows


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Best of 2018

There’s a little something for everyone in this year’s top five. Er, six. O.k., maybe seven. (I had to throw in the UFO thriller. And the movie.)

But these are my favorites. We’ve got a western, a Gothic mystery, demonic possession, cryptids, a freakish carnival…Some of these reads are hauntingly, existentially mind-blowing. Some are just great fun. Some will trick you. They’re all magnificent. Text links are to my extended reviews, image links take you to Amazon. Really, all of these books I’d read again, and the movie I’ll definitely watch again. So, yes, I’m glad I own them. You would be too.

Train to BusanFilm directed by Sang-ho Yeon. 2016. You’re in for a bloody and deadly ride on this train when a viral outbreak turns folks into savage, fast zombies. Awesome action sequences and even a little bit of tear-jerking make this South Korean film a gem.

A Head Full of GhostsPaul Tremblay, 2015. An unforgettably disturbing tale of a 1980’s working-class family that deals with the demonic possession of their oldest daughter by letting a reality tv show document the teen’s paranormal behavior and exorcism. But there’s so much, much, more to the story… Multiple narrators, (sort of) make us question the reality of our memories. Profoundly chilling.

Devil’s CallJ. Danielle Dorn, 2017.  Pregnant Li Lian pursues her husband’s killer from New Orleans across the badlands of South Dakota in typical revenge-western style. The difference? She’s a witch. And the killer she’s after isn’t exactly human. Great genre mash-up with a fierce female heroine.

Those Across the RiverChristopher Buehlman, 2011.  A college professor discovers that ending a southern small town’s odd ritual has horrifying results. You can almost feel the slow southern heat and the simmering malevolence of the sinister folks across the river in this sensual, evocative, surprising novel.

A Brush with ShadowsAnna Lee Huber, 2018. It is 1831. Lady Kiera Darby and her inquiry agent husband, Gage, are summoned to the ominous family manor to find Gage’s missing ne’er-do-well cousin, last seen on the perilous moor. A deliciously spooky atmosphere, ominous dreams, and whispers of witchcraft combine with some solid character building to make this Gothic mystery my favorite in the series so far.

The Rib From Which I Remake The WorldEd Kurtz, 2016. Midnight showings from a travelling picture show bring black magic, madness, and murder home to folks in a small 1940’s town. It is up to a hotel detective, Jojo, to unravel the truth. But what he finds makes him question both the very nature of reality and his own existence. Brilliantly written and deeply creepy, this is a stunner of a read.

The OthersJeremy Robinson, 2018. PI Dan Delgado takes on almost every conspiracy theory known to man—UFOs, subterranean bases, polygamous sects, cattle mutilations, the 37th parallel, nanites, empaths—in his quest to find an abducted child. I had to add this to the list just because it is sheer over-the-top, action-packed, good-hearted fun.