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: 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: 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: Burning Girls

Burning Girls – Veronica Schanoes, 2013.   3.5/5

Witches and fairy tales, pogroms and factory fires: dark folklore meets historical fiction this genre-bending novella.

The story begins in Bialystok, Poland, just before the turn of the twentieth century. Deborah is a pious witch, like her bubbe, Hannah. From early childhood, she studies the Torah, the Talmud, and even the Kabbalah to learn Bubbe’s magic. Bubbe uses her powers to help women in the village, assisting in childbirth, offering natural medicines for contraception and abortion, and making amulets and protecting infants from the demons—the lilim—who are out to snatch them.

Not pretty like her younger sister, the talented seamstress Shayna, Deborah vows instead to be powerful. At this time, anti-Semitism is on rise in Europe. When Bubbe is killed by Cossacks, Deborah learns she has made a pact with a lilit: offering Deborah’s mother’s next-born child in return for the family’s safe passage to America.

Deborah must confront the demon to save her new-born brother—but she can’t protect her family against the Russian army. Tragedy drives Deborah and Shayna to immigrate to America but they soon discover that their demons from the Old World have pursued them to the New.

Burning Girls is quick but deep. There’s a lot to unpack, from the fiery symbolism, to the purposeful (if slightly off-note) threading in of the Rumpelstiltskin story, to the story’s historical context—the Bialystok pogrom of 1906, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy of 1911. Schanoes shines in her depiction of female community and its unique networks of support. She explores the differing, but not unequal empowerments of women, from socialist writer to seamstress. The blending of religion and magic, the Old World with the New, is so nicely realized it seems natural and inevitable. Burning Girls is suffused with darkly beautiful imagery.

My greatest problem with Burning Girls is my dislike for Deborah. Schanoes didn’t do enough to convince me that Deborah actually cared about those she helped, and I found myself empathizing more with Shayna. The novella length makes for a fast read, but it also leaves me wanting just a bit more detail to round out the characters—maybe I would have appreciated Deborah more.

Burning Girls is available to read free online at Tor.com.


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Review: Jane-Emily

Jane-Emily – Patricia Clapp, 1969.  5/5

The vengeful spirit of a spiteful little girl torments the living in this deliciously shivery gothic ghost story.

It is 1912 and summertime in Massachusetts. Eighteen-year-old Louisa isn’t thrilled to leave her boyfriend and spend the glorious summer months chaperoning her orphaned niece, Jane, at the austere home of Mrs. Lydia Canfield. But Louisa agrees, knowing it will help Jane to bond with her grandmother, and maybe cheer her up after the untimely death of her parents.

Louisa and Jane bring laughter and light to the gloomy old Canfield house but can’t escape the malevolent memories of Mrs. Canfield’s spoiled daughter Emily. Beautiful and sweet when she got what she wanted, cruel and vindictive when she didn’t, Emily literally died for attention. It seems that Emily’s not done getting what—and whom—she wants. Now, she wants Jane.

As the summer progresses, Louisa meets the handsome young Dr. Adam, and Jane begins to blossom. Everything would be perfect, except for the sinister presence of Emily shadowing the household. Creepy and inexplicable things start to happen. The reflecting ball in garden glows impossibly on moonless nights, and Jane develops an uncanny connection to the dead girl. The frightening incidents escalate as Emily’s power grows in strength, climaxing in a truly chilling, unforgettable scene.

After coming off a couple of “meh” books I needed a palate cleanser. I first read Jane-Emily when I was in elementary school and it terrified me then. Now I re-read it every other summer or so and appreciate its depth, from the intricate period detail to the budding romance: things that child me didn’t notice, and adult me now appreciates. Plus, the ghost story is still legitimately terrifying.

Jane-Emily is pitch perfect. You can feel the sweltering summer heat, smell the dust in the airless old house, envision the beautiful garden, and shiver at the lurking menace of the reflecting ball. The rising tension builds like a coming summer storm: slowly and oppressively, at first just a distant rumbling, then finally rising to a crash of wind and thunder.

Sit on your porch or out in your garden and read this gem of a ghost story and you’ll get chills, no matter how hot it is outside. Really. I’m a gardener and I’m a fan of flowerpots and garden paths and stone statues and ornaments—but I will never have a reflecting ball, thanks to Jane-Emily.

Jane-Emily is still in print and paired with another of Clapp’s novels, Witches’ Children. It is also available to borrow free (hooray!) online at the Internet Digital Archives. Treat yourself to a superb summer scare.

rating system five crows


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Review: The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen

The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen – Tosca Lee, 2014.  4/5

Sparks fly in this passionate match of wits between the beautiful, intelligent Queen of Sheba and the wise and wealthy King Solomon.

The queen is a woman of many name: she begins life as Bilqis, the Daughter of the Moon, heir to her father’s kingdom. She becomes Makeda, Woman of Fire in her teen years, happily removed from court intrigue. She becomes Saba, High Priestess of the Moon and unifier of tribes when she regains her rightful throne. To the Israelites, she becomes the exotic seductress Sheba, queen of the spice lands.

After the tragic death of her lover, Maqar, in the battle to regain Saba, Sheba throws herself into building trade, making pacts of federation, and learning everything about her kingdom, becoming a thoughtful and intelligent ruler. Over the course of several years, Sheba and the distant Israeli king, Solomon, exchange written communication filled with taunts and tantalizing innuendo. One day, however, the trader Tamrin brings news that Solomon is building a merchant navy, and suddenly holds the future of the spice route in his hands. Sheba is alarmed for the future of Saba and makes the dangerous journey to meet Solomon herself. Their chemistry is instant and electric. Sheba uses all her wit and wiles to win a treaty, but comes to love the poetic King who, like her, just wants to be known.

Sheba tells her story in the first person, and the result is a lush, intimate depiction of her life and legendary romance. Rich sensory detail brings the desert palaces vibrantly alive, gleaming in gold and alabaster and purple, tasting of wine. Solomon and Sheba’s courtship is a razor edge dance of repartee and desire as the rulers juggle conflicts with their gods and ambitions, as well as the growing unrest of the Israeli people and their disapproval of Sheba the whore. Lee is a master storyteller, exquisitely building suspense up to a satisfying, if bittersweet denouement. In an informative Afterword and Author’s Note, Lee explains more of Sheba’s historical background, including the fact that she appears in three historic texts: the Bible, the Quran, and the Kebra Nagast, the story of the Solomonic kings of Ethiopia.

Historical fiction and romance fans, rejoice! The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen is a treat.

rating system four crows


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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