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.


Leave a comment

Review: The Drowning Guard

The Drowning Guard: A Novel of the Ottoman Empire – Linda Lafferty, 2013. Rating: 4/5

Intrigue and passion run rampant in this sumptuous, dark romance set during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire.

Esma Sultan, the wealthy and indulged sister of Sultan Mahmud II, slakes her desires on infidel lovers– whom she enjoys for one night only, before having them drowned in the Bosporus.

Ivan Postivich—now Ahmed Kadir—a Serb captured by the Ottomans as a child and conscripted into the elite Janissary cavalry, has been demoted to Esma’s drowning guard. His skill and leadership earned him the envy of the Sultan, and now, stripped of his horses, Ivan is tasked with the clandestine executions of Esma’s discarded lovers.

When guilty nightmares begin to torment Esma, her Greek physician recommends she confess her sins to a priest—or to her giant of a guard, the only other one who shares, and can understand her guilt.

As Esma relates the story of her upbringing in the harem, and stories of her friends and father and brothers, the hostile Ivan gradually begins to see her as a person.

Like Ivan, we begin by feeling contempt for Esma, but soon realize she is a complex and relatable character. She is a fierce protector of women and their rights and truly an activist of her age. In her harem, women do not have to wear face coverings—a freedom unheard of for the time—and are treated with respect. Needless to say, Esma doesn’t quite have the same relationship with men.

Truth be told, I was skeptical about the plotline. This book has been sitting in my to-read pile for a while. But I was more than pleasantly surprised. Actually, I was excitedly surprised. The Drowning Guard is a luxurious, intelligent read.

We are expertly embedded into Istanbul in 1826: a melting pot of religious and ethnic diversity, old customs and growing globalism, yet still governed firmly by the long-seated conquerors. It is also time of suspicion and change: the Janissary revolt and its violent suppression figures strongly in the story. Lafferty excels at invoking lush sensory detail—from the wild rush of the cirit games, down to the flavors of the famous sorbets served at the Sultan’s birthday celebration. We experience it all: evil, plotting eunuchs; exotic harem life; glittering Ottoman palaces; all woven smoothly together and grounded in history. The result is a satisfying romance of unusual depth.

I can’t wait to read more by this author.

rating system four crows


Leave a comment

Review: The Hunger

The Hunger – Alma Matsu, 2018. Rating: 4/5

“…never take no cutoffs, and hurry along as fast as you can.”

That’s advice from an actual letter from young Virginia Reed, one of the few surviving members of the Donner Party, the ill-fated group of pioneers who both lingered too long on the trail, and took the difficult, unproved Hastings route to California. The group was snowed in for the winter of 1846-1847 at Truckee Lake, where some desperate individuals resorted to cannibalism to survive.

That quote gives me chills every time I read it.

The real-life drama with its twist of the macabre is endlessly fascinating. The story is intrinsically filled with suspense, illustrating the great range of the human condition: from heroism to depravity. The tale of the Donner Party doesn’t need much to tip it over into a horror story, which is exactly what Matsu does in The Hunger.

Matsu fleshes out the characters from history books and old correspondence and succeeds in bringing them vividly to life for us. Through shifting points of view and flashbacks to the pioneers’ pre-trail lives, we get to know Tamsen Donner, George Donner’s young and controversial wife; Edward Stanton, one of the most eligible bachelors in the group; Lewis Keseberg a sharp-tempered German immigrant, and others. Everyone is traveling to California for a fresh start. But there is no true fresh start: many of the pioneers are carrying a secret—or a sin—in their hearts. The trip becomes a type of penance. To make matters worse (!) they’re being stalked by a supernatural horror along their way.

Matsu beautifully captures the immediacy of place: we feel the vast and eerie isolation of the prairie and the punishing salt desert. We sense the magnitude of the pioneers’ undertaking. We share their ever-present (and valid) fears of the dangers that lurk everywhere. Our paranoia grows alongside theirs.

The Hunger is a slow, satisfying burn, heavy with foreboding and punctuated by sudden, shocking brutalities. By the time the group is snowed in, we readers are on tenterhooks. And we’re kind of left there. The immediate end of the story is satisfying, but it comes almost too soon after such an extensive build up. We’re left with loose ends. Or perhaps, we’re left to our imagination, or to history. It might be because I was enjoying the book so much, I just got greedy for more.

The Hunger will leave you thinking. About taboos. About what is considered unnatural—historically and today. And about the hunger of humanity: the disease and darkness in the human heart.

rating system four crows


Leave a comment

Review: The Man of Legends

The Man of Legends – Kenneth Johnson, 2017. Rating: 3.5/5

People who meet him think he’s an angel. He knows he’s cursed. He has been around for centuries. His mission on earth is electrifying.

Will, the mysterious man of legends, is always on the move, constantly striving to help mankind better itself, one person at a time. He is an empathetic ear, a nudge in right direction, a gift that changes your life. A savior of suicides, and protector of the defenseless. He has studied under the likes of Gandhi. He has influenced authors, inventors, and scientists; sharing ideas that have transformed the world.

The Catholic Church has been pursuing him across time. They must not catch him. And he must not give in to the sympathetic dark-haired man who appears in Will’s rare moments of weakness.

With The Man of Legends, Johnson, a prolific writer-director of both film and tv classics (including the original V miniseries) has created an intriguing genre-bender.

Johnson mashes together the thriller, historical fiction, an age-old legend, and a timeless conflict into a contemporary urban setting. It actually works. The writing moves fast, flipping between multiple points of view. We follow mainly the perspectives of Jillian, a jaded, racist tabloid reporter; Father St. Jacques, Will’s Vatican-empowered pursuer; a lover grown old; and Will himself. The story flashes back often to vividly-imagined turning points in history, then leaps back to the present where the storyline races to its crisis point. We learn Will’s secret, and a secret even more profound.

The Man of Legends is an absorbing read and one that would transfer easily to film—Johnson’s writing is so animated. Although at times the depiction of Will’s good deeds and their grateful recipients feels a little heavy-handed and cliché—edging towards saccharine—Johnson makes up for it with his evocative historical snapshots and the genuine poignancy of Will’s suffering. The Man of Legends delivers a unique, fast-paced tale that leaves you pondering the nature of redemption as well as the nature of evil—and the possibility of its salvation.

rating system three and a half crows


Leave a comment

Review: A Brush with Shadows

A Brush with Shadows – Anna Lee Huber, 2018.  Rating: 5/5

There are no spectral hounds terrorizing the moors in A Brush with Shadows, but mysterious poisonings, a family curse, and treacherous tors more than satisfy in this deliciously atmospheric installment in Huber’s Lady Darby series.

It is the summer of 1831, and newlyweds Lady Kiera Darby and her husband, golden boy and inquiry agent Sebastian Gage, are summoned to Dartmoor by Gage’s failing grandfather. Their task: to find Gage’s missing ne’er-do-well cousin, last seen on the perilous moor. Gage, however, is less than happy to be home.

After an emotionally abusive childhood at the hands of his viperish aunt and vicious cousins, followed by the unnatural death of his mother, Gage left his family home forever.  Returning now to Langstone Manor, he and Kiera find that little has changed: the manor is heavy with lies and animosity and secrets.

Despite deceptions thrown up by the unhelpful family and Gage’s own deep-seated anger towards his cousin, Gage feels honor-bound find him. And Kiera is there to help, both with the inquiry and with helping Gage confront his long-suppressed emotions.

A Brush with Shadows ranks as perhaps my favorite in the series thus far. Huber is beautifully on point in creating a sinister—even slightly spooky—mood. The manor itself is labyrinthian, dark, and filled with secret passages. Whispers of witchcraft, possible pixie encounters, and ominous dreams add delightful shivers.

Huber uses this tantalizing mystery to further deepen her characters. We have watched Kiera’s progression across the series as she worked to transcend her past and the invectives cast at her: transforming from social pariah to self-assured partner and even a quietly strong advocate for women in an age when their rights were limited.

As a new wife, Kiera treads gently but firmly to get to root of Gage’s emotions, intuiting her way through highly relatable marital uncertainties. And the pair’s romantic relationship—yep, satisfying there, too.

I didn’t want this book to end, and I can’t wait for the next one, though Huber will have her work cut out for her to surpass A Brush with Shadows. New to Lady Darby?  You are in for a treat. But start with the first title so you don’t miss anything: The Anatomist’s Wife.

rating system five crows


Leave a comment

Review: The Twelfth Enchantment

The Twelfth Enchantment – David Liss, 2011.

Spells and magic contest with political intrigue in this oddly satisfying historical novel.

Living in the friendless home of a family connection and nearly penniless, about to be married to an odious man she doesn’t love, Lucy Derrick views her future with despair.

Until she unexpectedly frees the great romantic poet, Lord Byron, from a strange curse.

This startling act of magic catapults Lucy into the forefront of a battle for the very future of England as the conflict between the Luddites – angry laborers and textile workers – and proponents of mechanization builds to a crescendo.

Now Lucy must unravel secrets from her own past while racing to reassemble the pages of the most powerful book in the world: the Mutus Liber, a true book of alchemy.

The Twelfth Enchantment is an uncommon mélange of historical fiction, fantasy, lively action, and light romance. In other words, it’s pretty great. The premise is wild, but Liss flawlessly melds magic with, of all things, the Industrial Revolution.

Changelings, cunning women, and revenants comingle with actual historical figures that Liss meticulously brings to life in his pages: among them, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, William Blake, and of course Lord Byron. Intelligent and brave, Lucy herself is an intriguing original character. Frustrated with, but bound by societal constraints, Lucy gradually empowers herself, and we cheer her on.

Maybe all these disparate elements shouldn’t work together. But they do. The Twelfth Enchantment is a singularly memorable – and enjoyable – read.

rating system four crows


Leave a comment

Review: Edinburgh Twilight

Edinburgh Twilight – Carole Lawrence, 2017.

The year is 1881, and Ian Hamilton is the youngest of Edinburgh’s City Police force to earn the rank of Detective Inspector. His first solo case is a doozy: A serial killer is stalking the good – and bad – citizens of Edinburgh. Dubbed the Holyrood Strangler by the local press, the villain quickly racks up a significant body count. Teamed with the good-natured Sergeant Dickerson, Ian struggles to use his wits and modern detective techniques to find the killer.  Unfortunately, the strangler seems to always be a step ahead…

Edinburgh Twilight nicely brings the colorful Scottish city to life in all its aspects: from the grittiness of the slums to glitterati of the theater. Although the pacing lags at times, the story is replete with historical detail, lovingly vitalized for the reader. There are moments of gentle humor throughout that lighten the storyline and bring more depth to the characters.

Ian, however, is a difficult protagonist to like. Personal tragedy – losing both his parents in an arsonist’s fire – has left Ian estranged from his older brother and emotionally isolated from his fellow man. He is aloof, often self-righteous, and obsessively devoted to his work.  While readers understand that Ian’s flaws stem from childhood wounds, and we do get glimpses of a sensitive and empathetic side, it is a bit of work to relate to him.

While the bulk of the book centers on Ian’s brooding role, I would have enjoyed seeing other characters explored more deeply. One is left feeling slightly frustrated, as if doors to intriguing personalities had been opened but not entered.

Edinburgh Twilight is, overall, an enjoyable period mystery, populated with characters who great have potential for future development. This title promises to be the first in a series, and I would happily read a sequel.

rating system three and a half crows