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 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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Review: Daughters of the Lake

Daughters of the Lake—Wendy Webb, 2018. Rating: 3.5/5

When Kate’s father discovers the bodies of a perfectly preserved woman and infant washed up on the lakeshore, Kate is swept into a decades-old mystery in this is a gentle ghost story-cum-family saga.

Kate’s emotional response to the two bodies makes the police suspicious. She travels down the coast to stay with her cousin—partially to regroup from the discovery that her husband has been cheating on her—and handsome detective Nick Stone is called in to investigate her discreetly.

Staying in the old family mansion that’s been newly transformed into a gracious B&B, Kate is troubled by both dreams of the dead woman and a malevolent spirit on the third floor. She begins her own investigation into the woman’s identity and murder. A separate story line follows the life of the dead woman, Addie, from her mysterious fog-shrouded birth, to her marriage to her childhood sweetheart, to her unfortunate end. Her story and her connection to the Spirit of the Lake is inexorably tangled with Kate’s.

Daughters of the Lake is a light, comfortable mystery, almost falling in the cozy category. Characters in both storylines are warm and kind, there is plenty of good food and deep glasses of wine, a light romance, a picturesque locale. Throw in a little creepy atmosphere, a dash of madness, a grumpy spirit, and a dose of fate, and you have a recipe for enjoyable evening’s read. I also appreciate Webb’s sentimentally uplifting view of the afterlife, in which love continues forever after.

Unfortunately, it is this same near-coziness that is also a bit of a downside to Daughters of the Lake. For me, the story lacks a little supernatural edge. And while I’ve enjoyed all of Webb’s lake-inspired ghost stories, this one feels both milder than, and too similar to the others. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve read it before. It didn’t entirely have the depth of characters or great Gothic chills as Webb’s The Vanishing, or The End of Temperance Dare. That said, if you’re in the mood for a tale of family secrets with a light touch of spooky, this fits the bill quite satisfactorily.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: House of Bathory

House of Bathory – Linda Lafferty, 2013. Rating 4/5

In this intriguing historical mystery, an Aspen psychiatrist discovers that the brutal legacy of torture and death begun by the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, remains alive hundreds of years later.

Practicing Jungian psychiatrist Betsy Path is doing her best to keep her spirits up despite her father’s death, her mother’s distant disapproval, and her own divorce.

Betsy makes a strange connection with one of her patients, teen Goth girl Daisy, and suddenly too many occurrences of Jungian synchronicity––meaningful coincidences—start to ring her intuitive warning bells.

When Betsy’s mother disappears in Bratislava oddly close to Countess Bathory’s castle, and to where Betsy’s father died, and to where Goth girls are mysteriously going missing, Betsy and her ex-husband set out to find her.

In a separate but parallel storyline set four hundred years in the past, we follow the arrival of a handsome young horsemaster, Janos, to the tainted Cachtice Castle. He vows to end the Countess’ sick and deadly games with help of the pox-marked ladies’ maid, Zuzana.

There is a lot to unpack in this book. Dark history. Jungian theories. Dreams and coincidences. Magic and superstition. Madness and family legacies. Yet it all works.

The jumps between centuries are not jarring, because the same themes weave through both stories, converging in nail-biting endings. We are quickly caught up in Betsy’s search, but even more so with the macabre events in the Countess’s castle. Lafferty writes with rich—and at times graphic—historical detail, bringing daily life in 1610 vividly into our present.

House of Bathory is a darkly satisfying mystery with just enough supernatural suggestion to keep the pages flying.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Red Hill

The Red Hill – David Penny, 2014. Rating: 3.5/5

The favor of a sultan can be both a blessing and a curse, as English surgeon Thomas Berrington discovers when he’s tasked with finding a killer in this historical murder mystery.

Women of the harem, including one of the sultan’s favored wives, are being slaughtered by what appears to be a scimitar-wielding djinn. Despite his effort to maintain his independence and keep his own battle-haunted memories in the past, Thomas cannot refuse the sultan’s request. Together with the eunuch, Jorge, Thomas picks up where the previous investigation left off—with everyone associated basically missing or dead—and the two are soon plunged into palace intrigue and perilous political plots.

Penny does a neat job capturing the spirit of time and place of late 15th century al-Andalus. It is 1482, and the Muslim empire there is on the verge of crumbling to Spanish rule under Ferdinand and Isabella. This leaves the noble and wealthy jockeying for future positions and provides us with lots of suspects.

The Red Hill is an engaging mystery. Occasionally, the use of blatantly overlooked clues becomes a little frustrating, but the detailed setting and unusual storyline carry us over those slips. Characterization is solid. I did have disconnects a few times, when dialogue seemed at odds with the characters’ emotions, and I felt that explanations of their motivations were at times repetitive. That said, both Thomas and Jorge are unique and intriguing figures. Supporting roles such as Lubna, the sister to a treacherous concubine, and Yusuf, the Sultan’s young son also have great potential. I look forward to seeing the further development of all of Penny’s characters. The Red Hill is the first book in a series, and the second is already on my to-read list.

rating system three and a half crows


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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


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Review: Written in Blood

Written in Blood – Layton Green, 2018.  3.5/5

At last: a bibliophilic serial killer!

Former big-city detective Preach returns to his small North Carolina hometown hoping for a quiet, fresh start.

Instead, he finds himself investigating the town’s first murder in years. Even more baffling, the crime scene is arranged to mirror the murder in the literary classic, Crime and Punishment.

Preach thinks – hopes – he’s up to the job. He’s coming off a brutal case that shattered his confidence and lost him his position in the big city force. In fact, his new job is conditional on passing a psych evaluation.

But he doesn’t have a choice. The small-town police are green. He’s their only hope. And the murders continue.

Preach and his young newbie partner Kirby, turn up clues and connections to drugs, blackmail, old high-school friends, and a local crime boss, but nothing gels. Meanwhile, victims multiply, each murdered like characters in classics by Poe, Christie, and Nabokov.

An interesting departure from Green’s dark, supernatural Dominic Grey series, Written in Blood is an absorbing combo of literary mystery and police procedural. The somber storyline is lifted – and complicated – when Preach finds both romance and a meeting of minds with Ari, a young bookstore employee. Well-plotted misdirections bring us to a surprising and satisfying end.

Fans of Green’s writing appreciate its depth. There is an ever-present philosophical and self-reflective aspect to his books that intensifies the storylines. Written in Blood is no different. The character of Preach is complex: an old, battered soul, an engaging mix of compassion and hardness. We empathize with his self-doubt, struggles with faith, and the sting of the shadows cast on his abilities. Preach exorcises his inner ghosts while wrestling with issues of retribution and man’s inhumanity toward man. To solve this crime, he must resolve within himself how he can overcome despair and still fight the good fight against the darkness in the world.

An intelligent, strong, multi-layered mystery.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: A Magical Match

A Magical Match – Juliet Blackwell, 2018.  Rating 4/5

Doppelgangers and dresses dominate the latest installment of this adorable cozy mystery series.

Lily Ivory runs a successful vintage clothing store in San Francisco’s famous Haight District. She’s also a witch with a lot on her plate.

Just weeks before the handfasting ceremony with her handsome fiancé, Sailor, Lily seems to be losing her magical abilities. Sailor lands in jail on a murder charge. The tour bus carrying her grandmother’s coven and her estranged mother is taking wildly random detours. Her familiar, a pig named Oscar, is acting strangely. To top it all off, Lily is apparently destined for a supernatural showdown, and the fate of all San Francisco depends on her.

Blackwell’s Witchcraft Mysteries series is simply delightful. She lands all the elements that cozy readers expect. Lots of retro fashion. Lots of food. Vibrant and detailed descriptions of the San Francisco community. Warm, inclusive friendships that have grown over the course of the series. Endearing characters. Harmoniously integrated use of the supernatural. A sweet but strong heroine.

A Magical Match is book nine in the series. While I wished for a little more of an edge to the supernatural threat in this episode, Blackwell makes up for it by furthering the development of her characters. Although A Magical Match does stand on its own, I highly recommend starting at the beginning of the series with Secondhand Spirits.

The Witchcraft Mysteries are simply lovely comfy books. Undemanding but emotionally satisfying. (They’re not called cozies for nothing!) Heck, clearly I’m a fan if I’ve followed through book nine…and I’d been anticipating the release of this title for a while.

If you need a warm-hearted, good-humored story with a dash of romance, fashion and witchcraft, look no farther: you’ll find your cozy Nirvana with this series.

rating system four crows