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: Mycroft & Sherlock

Mycroft Holmes and his younger brother, Sherlock, become entangled in an insidious case of ritual murders. Their investigations pull them deep into the shadowy world of the London opium trade in this first-rate Holmesian pastiche.

Mycroft & Sherlock – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, 2018.  Rating: 4.5/5

For those not quite as steeped in the Sherlock Holmes canon as some of us uberfans, Mycroft is seven years older than Sherlock, enjoys a mysterious position in the British government, and is reputed to have even greater powers of deduction than his famous brother. Mycroft plays a role in only four of Conan Doyle’s sixty (4 novels, 56 short stories) original Sherlock Holmes tales.

Abdul-Jabbar, a Sherlock enthusiast since 1969, brings Mycroft into the limelight in his new crime series. Mycroft is recovering from the betrayal and loss of his fiancé and a traumatic adventure in Trinidad (Mycroft Holmes, 2017). Now, his good friend Douglas, the successful African American owner of a high-end tobacco and spirits shop, needs his help. Douglas runs Nickolus house, a home for orphaned boys. When one of the boys dies from a suspicious drug overdose, Douglas and Mycroft suspect something even more nefarious is at play. Sherlock thinks so also. To Mycroft’s irritation, the nineteen-year-old runs his own clandestine investigation, and Mycroft can’t keep him out of danger.

In Mycroft & Sherlock, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse hit all the notes a Sherlockian desires: a twisty mystery, lots of brilliant deduction, realistic period detail (you can almost feel that choking yellow London fog) and above all, excellent characterization. Mycroft emerges as an intriguing, well-rounded character in his own right. He struggles to find direction in his own life, while trying to guide his precocious, acerbic younger brother. We empathize with Mycroft’s frustration and increasing isolation as he devotes himself to the War Office and service to the Queen. There are some genuinely poignant moments as the two brothers struggle with emotions they refuse to reveal to each other. Douglas is a strong investigative partner and Mycroft’s best (and one of his only) friends. Although independent, intelligent, and savvy, Douglas nonetheless is a victim of the racism of the era. He must employ an elderly white couple to pretend to be his shop owners and poses as the forward face of a fictional white owner of his orphanage.  While never losing the thrust of the mystery, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse delicately explore the marginalization of African Americans, Chinese immigrants, and women.

Mycroft & Sherlock is a terrific addition to the body of Holmes literature. Fans of Conan Doyle will approve, and if even you’re not familiar with his work, Mycroft & Sherlock stands very successfully on its own merits. I look forward to reading next in the series: Mycroft & Sherlock: The Empty Birdcage (2019).

rating system four 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: Murder in Thrall

Murder in Thrall – Anne Cleeland, 2013.  3/5

Brilliant Chief Inspector Lord Acton takes young newbie Detective Constable Kathleen Doyle under his wing to help solve a string of murders in this first of Cleeland’s New Scotland Yard Mysteries.

Cooly intelligent, handsome, unfailingly polite, educated, and disgustingly wealthy, Acton raises Doyle above the other lowly DCs—to their great envy and confusion—because he is aware of her special gift.

Doyle couldn’t be more different from Acton. She’s proudly Irish and Catholic, she’s not exactly swimming in cash, she’s a terrible driver, and her efforts to improve her vocabulary are sweetly pathetic. But—she can tell when people are lying and read the truth of their emotions. So far, his expertise and her intuition have solved several high profile-cases.

When a trainer at a local racetrack and the witness’s girlfriend, are killed point blank, and Kathleen’s own estranged father is murdered, Acton and Doyle must find the connection and stop the murderer.

The real story, however, is Acton and Doyle’s relationship. The title is perfectly indicative of the hold the main characters have on each other, and the motivation of the killer.

Acton is a Section Seven—a felony stalker— who’s had his eye on Kathleen for a while and it’s gone waaaay beyond the point of some binoculars and a few photos. He’s monitoring her computer. Buying her clothes. Planning their wedding.

And Doyle’s reaction is…positive. She’s flattered. Her Scooby Sense tells her that Acton genuinely loves her.

The killer keeps killing, and Acton predictably is overwhelmingly protective towards Doyle. He takes her off field work on the murder cases. And she knows that he knows something he’s not telling her. There is no shortage of suspects both internal and external, from Russian gun runners, to other DCs, to the lecherous head of Forensics. As the danger grows, Doyle ultimately must take care of herself.

Cleeland writes well. The dialogue is snappy, the pacing is great, and I very much enjoyed the police procedural aspects of this view into Scotland Yard. Likewise, supporting characters—especially Doyle’s supervisor Habib, and her nemesis the pretty, ambitious DC Munoz—add realism and depth to the story. The mystery itself does read a little thin, which I know because I pegged the killer early on. If I, truly among the most dupable of readers, can do that…well, it’s a little thin.

My big problem, however, is with Doyle and Acton’s relationship, which is just downright creepy and disturbing. He manipulates, directs, and basically takes over her life, and she’s happy to let him. When she’s frustrated at being put on desk work, or made to appear as if she’s in Acton’s bad graces, or has any qualms about the future, she just drinks the delicious latte he sends her and tells herself how stupid she is to be so sensitive.  After all, she knows he loves her, plus she’s having great sex. And she knows she’s good for him. She just needs to learn work with—or around—his possessiveness.

So, this is a tough one. I can’t relate well to Doyle quickly and contentedly abandoning her autonomy. I’m on the fence about reading the next book in the series. I probably will, just to see if Doyle and Acton’s relationship can evolve beyond obsession and self-subjugation.

rating system three crows


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Review: A Shattered Lens

A Shattered Lens – Layton Green, 2019.  4/5

There aren’t a lot of murders in small Creekville, North Carolina, so when star high-school football player and all-around good kid David Stratton is found shot to death in the woods, the case goes to Detective Joe “Preach” Everson.

We first met Preach in Written in Blood. Once a hometown boy, Preach spent years working homicides in Atlanta. Now he’s returned to Creekville, despite knowing intrinsically that you can’t go home again.

Life experiences have changed him: he’s not a complete outsider, but he’s no longer a local. His mindset sets him apart from the other small-town cops. An introspective, intelligent, sensitive badass, Preach is secure in his identity. At least, until this case. The murdered boy’s mother, Claire, is an old high-school flame, and she sparks a new desire. She’s beautiful, alluring, and a prime suspect. She also triggers an emotional rift between Preach and his county-prosecutor girlfriend, Ari.

As Preach digs into the case, interviewing David’s friends and family, memories from his youth threaten to overwhelm him. He, and others, question his objectivity. Complicating things further is a tenuous and connection between David’s murder and Ari’s case involving a ruthlessly brilliant drug lord.

But someone else was in those woods on the night of the murder: Blue, a teenager from the trailer park on the wrong side of town. With big dreams and a stolen camera, she was out filming her breakthrough opus. Now, Blue holds the key to the case, and the murderer knows it.

A Shattered Lens is a crackerjack mystery. We’ve got compelling suspects in Claire’s rich boyfriend, David’s disturbingly sensual teacher, and others. We’re successfully misdirected by some clever red herrings. Thanks to the narrative perspective switching between Preach and Ari and Blue, our tension levels stay pegged. Across the board, the characters come into their own more completely in this book. Even the bad guys have souls, winning a whisper of our empathy.

But A Shattered Lens succeeds as more than a tightly plotted detective novel. Woven beautifully and uncompromisingly into the mystery is a poignant reflection on the nature of relationships. The underlying message is bittersweet: embrace those relationships while you can. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. As Preach observes, only love combats the “transcendental sadness” that resides deep within us all.

A Shattered Lens is an absorbing read that will content your inner detective and leave your inner philosopher solemnly self-reflective. In a good way. I look forward to Preach’s next case.

Full disclosure, here: I received a publisher’s copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

rating system four crows


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Review: Closer than You Think

Closer than You Think: A Broken Minds Thriller—Lee Maguire, 2018. 3.5/5

In Maguire’s suspenseful thriller, a vindictive stalker isn’t just out to ruin Bryce Davison’s life: they’re out to end it.

Sensitive psychologist Dr. Bryce Davison is struggling to adjust to separation from his wife of fifteen years. Vicki has had enough of Davison’s recurrent depression and seems anxious to move on – without him. Feeling hopeless and adrift, Davison throws himself into his work as a consulting psychotherapist at a combined outpatient and residential treatment center for adolescent youth.

But when Davison scents a familiar perfume on his pillow and receives an ominous e-mail, “Closer than you think,” his staid life begins to spiral out of control.

Intrusive and violent incidents swiftly escalate, taking a toll on Davison physically and mentally. His anxiety increases. Coworkers seem to be treating him differently. Suspects abound, from Marge the receptionist to Dr. Jones the medical director; Wendy, the young therapist, Scooch the townhome maintenance man, even Vicki herself. Could she be gaslighting him? Or is it all in his mind?

A newly-admitted patient, 16-year old Maegan Mitchell, may have the key to everything—if she’s willing to undergo hypnosis to remember.

With Davison, Maguire has created a relatable, likeable protagonist. It is hard not to care about someone who takes custody-sharing of his beloved basset hound so seriously! Although the book launches into the stalking element almost before we feel like we know Davison well enough to empathize, Maguire remedies that quickly. Davison’s character is deepened through flashbacks to a traumatic childhood memory and memories of what he feels was a past professional failure. These events contribute to the story’s mounting suspense and to our understanding of Davison. Supporting characters don’t have Davison’s depth, but play their roles satisfactorily.

Closer than You Think shines brightest in scenes at the mental health facility and in Davison’s therapeutic interactions with his adolescent patients. Maguire’s knowledge of psychotherapy and mental health adds a unique and fascinating aspect to the novel. The dramatic ending sets us up nicely for a sequel. Closer than You Think is a solid read, and I look forward to seeing more of Dr. Davison.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. The author’s and publisher’s media links are included below.

rating system three and a half crows

Closer than You Think / Lee Maguire’s Facebook / TCK Publishing / TCK Facebook


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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