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: 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: 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: Devil’s Call

Devil’s Call—J. Danielle Dorn, 2017. 4/5

Witches roam the wild west in this beguiling tale of magic, vengeance, and one tough-as-nails enchantress.

A wild child in her youth, Li Lian grew up sheltered by her extended family of female witches.

Along comes a gentle Mexican War veteran who unexpectedly steals her heart and together they wind up in Nebraska Territory, where Li Lian is pregnant with their first child.

When her husband is killed by a trio of travelers, Li Lian and an unexpected ally pursue them from New Orleans to the badlands of South Dakota and beyond. But dark portents along their trail suggest that the leader of the bad guys may be more than a match for Li Lian’s powers.

Devil’s Call takes a simple storyline—the typical revenge western—and neatly and believably weaves it together with a story of practicing Scottish witches. Instead of seeming forced, this works. It makes the western theme feel fresh and adds an unexpected layer of depth. Readers are treated to the best of multiple genres: ancient magic worked by powerful female characters, and good, old-fashioned western shoot-outs.

The story’s success rests in its narrator. Li Lian chronicles the tale herself, recording details past and present for her unborn child. Her voice rings true in best tradition of oral storytellers. We root for her. She’s a fierce heroine. We empathize with her love, her loss, and her avenging spirit. We hear her regrets in the things says—and doesn’t say. We get tantalizing glimpses of her magical heritage that leave us wanting to know more about her world.

Devil’s Call is an unusual, effective mashup: a whip-quick, exciting read that will resonate even after you put it down.

rating system four crows