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: Bewitched and Betrothed

Bewitched and Betrothed—Juliet Blackwell, 2019.  4/5

Lily Ivory has her hands full running her vintage clothing store, worrying what her darkly handsome and brooding fiancé, Sailor, is up to, and wrangling her grandmother’s elderly West Texas coven that’s in town for her wedding. Oh, and saving San Francisco from an evil cupcake baker who’s teamed up with a literal demon from Lily’s past. An ordinary week for good-witch Lily, and her gobgoyle familiar, Oscar.

Lily is alarmed when her friend and co-worker, Maya, finds a shirt that may have belonged to a former Alcatraz inmate. The shirt has seriously malevolent vibrations and Lily doesn’t want it in Aunt Cora’s Closet. Moments after they donate the shirt to a pair of Alcatraz National Park Service Rangers—with strict warnings to keep it in a locked display—park ranger Elena is kidnapped, and the shirt with her. Forces of good face off against forces of evil in epic battle on Alcatraz island.

This series (Witchcraft Mysteries) is a guilty pleasure. Well, not really guilty, because the books are well-written, well-plotted, and outright fun. These are cozies with teeth. In Bewitched and Betrothed, there are serious threats here to characters we’ve come to enjoy: murder, violence, demonic sacrifice, and really, really bad guys (and gals). The supernatural mystery zips along, neatly balancing the light tension of Lily’s personal predicaments with her fate-of-city problems.

For our cozy side, there’s heaps of comforting contentment: lots of fashion, girl power, offbeat supporting characters, and smoky romance, all set against the vivid, bustling backdrop of San Francisco. Start with the first title, Secondhand Spirits, and welcome to a gratifyingly curl-uppable series.

rating system four 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: 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: The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls—Simone St. James, 2018. 4/5

Obsessed with investigating the murder of her older sister, journalist Fiona uncovers an unsolved homicide and a malevolent ghost in this supernatural mystery.

Even though her sister’s murderer is in jail, Fiona returns again and again to the grounds of the abandoned girls’ school where her sister’s body was dumped. Now a crumbling ruin, Idlewild was once a school for social embarrassments and undesirables. When a wealthy patron decides to restore and reopen Idlewild, Fiona seizes the chance to explore and write about its history. As she digs deeper into the past, Fiona discovers another murder and an ominous specter that has terrorized students at the school for decades.

The Broken Girls is an interesting departure from St. James’ previous ghostly tales in plot and setting: this book reads as more of a cold case police procedural complemented with a supernatural element. Which is not a bad thing.

St. James’ writing is, as always, suspenseful and atmospheric. She tells a good tale. We eagerly follow two parallel stories–that of four teenage roommates at Idlewild in 1950, and Fiona’s contemporary investigation and her complicated romance with her cop boyfriend—to their ultimate intersection. The book especially shines in St. James’ poignant characterizations of the four close roommates. The drama of boarding school life is rich in both detail and emotion.

As mystery, The Broken Girls works great, but I’m on fence about supernatural element. The ghost of Mary Hand prowling through the story is shivery and dark, but almost superfluous. I wanted more of this spooky legend and kept thinking it must have a greater connection to the murder-mystery. Mary Hand could command a book of her own! That said, all of the threads do come neatly together, and The Broken Girls delivers a gripping read.

rating system four crows 


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Review: The Kingdom

The Kingdom – Amanda Stevens, 2012.  Rating 3.5/5

Only hallowed ground can keep the ghosts away from Amelia Gray, but even that can’t protect her from her past in this spooky sequel to The Restorer.

Glad for the chance to leave Charleston and distance herself from memories of the dark, handsome, and haunted cop she fell hard for, Amelia takes on the job of restoring the Thorngate cemetery.

From the moment of her arrival in all-but deserted Asher Falls, Amelia senses something is wrong. And it’s not just the ghosts that she has the dubious gift of seeing: here she senses pure evil.

As she uncovers and repairs the old cemetery, she also unearths secrets the town has kept buried for a long time–including secrets of Amelia’s own past.

The Kingdom is one of those guilty pleasure reads, kind of like eating a piece of chocolate: quick and tasty. The story flies along, the supernatural elements and truly eerie imagery have a fresh feel to them, and the romance—which borders on hot and heavy—is enjoyable. The graveyard restoration aspect of this series is fascinating. Stevens weaves in old cemetery symbolism, burial traditions, and regional superstitions to make this series unique.

Intrigue, black magic, ghosts, hidden graves, and a handsome heir make The Kingdom a scary-fun read. Amelia is a gutsy heroine and while her interior monologue sometimes feels a bit repetitious, the story moves along to a breakneck climax that will leave you eager for the next installment.

rating system three and a half crows


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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