The Red Lamp

The Red LampThe Red Lamp
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: June 18, 2019
Pages: 289
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Penzler Publishing

William Porter has just inherited Twin Hollows, an isolated lakeside estate shrouded in mystery and doom. But William and his wife aren't easily swayed by ghost stories and whispered rumors. Until a shadowy apparition beckons to them from the undying glow of a red lamp. Is a stranger with a deadly purpose trying to frighten them away? Or are they being haunted by a chilling warning from the grave?


I knew this was a ghost story, of sorts, so I started it bright and early yesterday morning, and became so engrossed in the story that I almost, almost, finished it last night. leaving nothing but 3 of the last 4 conclusion chapters for me to read today.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was an excellent writer; that her genius has been so far forgotten today is a tragedy.  The Red Lamp was originally written in 1925, and putting aside the lack of technology and the beautifully elegant writing that today might be considered a tad verbose, the story holds up perfectly; it would take very little to make this story ‘modern’.

The Red Lamp is complex to the point of labyrinthine though.  Like the main character, I stumbled through the story in ignorance.  Some of this was by design, as the mc is meant to be a spectator not an active participant in solving the crimes, but some of it was because there was just so much going on and that beautifully elegant writing of Rinehart’s made for easy camouflage of any clues.

The book is, with the exception of the introductory and final 4 chapters, purely epistemological, with no chapters, just journal entries.  This style doesn’t always lend itself to a submersive experience for the reader, but these journal entries are detailed enough that it makes almost no difference from a first person narrative.

The ghostly part of the story, in spite of the enormous potential for scarring the spit out of me, were subdued enough that they never raised so much as a hair.  This was a wee bit disappointing, I admit, but it didn’t adversely affect the story; they were never the point of the book, it was always about the mysterious killings and there was never doubt that those killings were done by a very corporeal being.

All in all, this was an excellent mystery.  I’d recommend this to anyone curious about Golden Age Mysteries who might be hesitant fearing dry or dated story-telling.  While not perfect, The Red Lamp is most assuredly neither dry nor dated.

I read this for the Gothic square on my Halloween Bingo 2020 card.

Murders and Metaphors

This is one of those series where the premise and the characters are strong, but the writing and editing could be better.  A bookshop with a magically sustained tree growing through the center that communicates through books with its owners; a raven that talks and a cat that understands more than he should; a native American sheriff that plays a strong role in the plots.

The mystery was ok; a little too frantic, but well done and I didn’t guess the murderer.  The motive was weak; plenty of other suspects had much more compelling reasons to kill the victim, which leaves the murderer’s reasons feeling way too shallow.

There’s a lot to like, and it’s not an unenjoyable read, if you’ll excuse the double negatives, it’s just not a great read.  I enjoyed the time I spent reading it enough to keep reading it, but not enough to feel anxious about reading the next one.

I read this for the Black Cat square on my Halloween Bingo 2020 card.

The Sun Down Motel

The Sun Down MotelThe Sun Down Motel
by Simone St. James
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780440000174
Publication Date: February 18, 2020
Pages: 327
Genre: Mystery, Suspense
Publisher: Berkley

Something hasn’t been right at the roadside Sun Down Motel for a very long time, and Carly Kirk is about to find out why in this chilling new novel from the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.

Upstate New York, 1982. Viv Delaney wants to move to New York City, and to help pay for it she takes a job as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel in Fell, New York. But something isnʼt right at the motel, something haunting and scary.

Upstate New York, 2017. Carly Kirk has never been able to let go of the story of her aunt Viv, who mysteriously disappeared from the Sun Down before she was born. She decides to move to Fell and visit the motel, where she quickly learns that nothing has changed since 1982. And she soon finds herself ensnared in the same mysteries that claimed her aunt.


I am not a fan of horror, but I’m a big fan of old-fashioned ghost stories, when read in broad daylight.  I’ve been a big fan of Simone St. James’ ghost stories since I first found The Haunting of Maddy Claire, the first of … five?… historical ghost stories.  She branched off in a new direction with The Broken Girls, going with a dual time-line plot, which I read hesitantly, but enjoyed thoroughly.  The Sun Down Motel is another such book: a dual time-line mystery firmly rooted around a haunted place, this time a hotel that was pretty much doomed before it ever opened its doors.

I’m still a fan of St. James – I think this was a riveting read, and I devoured it in 2 sittings (daylight hours, all of them), but it wasn’t as good as some of her others for two reasons, both purely subjective.  The first was the heavy handedness of the message: that women have always been, and sadly will always be, to some extent, vulnerable and expendable.  This is as unavoidable a fact as it is an inexcusable one, but more subtle writing would have had more powerful an impact.  Instead, there were times – just a few – that I felt like I was the choir and I was being preached at.  This wasn’t a massive issue; it was just enough to pull me out of my head and the story a time or two.

The second reason is almost silly:  the ghosts.  They were almost exactly my right level of scary, but, and it took me some time to figure this out, they didn’t have quite the effect on me as the ghosts in her previous books, because they never really focused on the main characters.  These hauntings were almost the remnant-kind: they were there acting in an endless loop, whether anyone witnessed or not, although there was a trigger.  The main ghost communicated with the historical time-line mc, but only once without being pushed into it by Viv.  The other ghosts communicated with the present day mc, Carly, but benignly.  They were spooky, absolutely, but at a remove, so that they fell just short of spine-tingling.

And I guess, as I write this I was left unsatisfied by Nick’s story; it felt like it should be going somewhere and it didn’t.  I’m also disappointed that there was never an explanation for the present-day entry in the guest book of one James March who registered the day Carly and Nick had their first real experience with the Sun Down Motel.  That was a BIG little thing to leave hanging with no follow up.

But overall, it was a good story; I liked that both Viv and Carly had solid friendships in their timelines; I liked that Nick was her support from pretty much page 1, and I liked the investigatory process of the mystery plot, even if I thought Viv was a reckless idiot.  The story sucked me in, and I remain a solid fan of St. James’ books.

Left to my own devices, I’d have read this book as soon as I got it back in August, but I held off because it was a perfect fit for Halloween Bingo’s Ghost Stories square.

An Inquiry Into Love and Death

An Inquiry into Love and DeathAn Inquiry into Love and Death
by Simone St. James
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780451239259
Publication Date: March 5, 2013
Pages: 355
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical
Publisher: NAL / New American Library

Boy howdy can St. James write a ghost story!  I love this book; I woke up at 6.30 this morning and did nothing until I finished it and then I re-read a few passages just to make it last longer.

In 1920’s England, Oxford student Jillian Leigh’s uncle Toby, a renowned ghost hunter, is killed in a fall off a cliff, and she must drive to the seaside village of Rothewell to pack up his belongings.

Almost immediately, unsettling incidents—a book left in a cold stove, a gate swinging open on its own—escalate into terrifying events that convince Jillian an angry spirit is trying to enter the house. Is it Walking John, the two-hundred-year-old ghost who haunts Blood Moon Bay? Was Toby’s death an accident?

The arrival of handsome Scotland Yard inspector Drew Merriken leaves Jillian with more questions than answers. Even as she suspects someone will do anything to hide the truth, she begins to discover spine-chilling secrets that lie deep within Rothewell… 

If you’re a horror or psychological horror lover, pass this review right on by; this book is a cream puff in comparison to your regular fare, but for the rest of us, this is truly an old-school, spooky ghost story with a mystery and a romance (oh the romance…).  There’s nothing gothic about the story, but I keep thinking of the old gothics anyway, for lack of any better comparison.

I probably should have gone 4.5 stars because Jillian goes through an improbable – neigh, impossible – number of physical calamities to still be standing upright.  Or breathing, really.  But the story was just so good; I was sucked in so thoroughly that I was willing to overlook her superhuman regenerative powers.  Inspector Merriken was incentive enough to spur on a rapid recovery.

Ok, anything else I say beyond this point would just be repetitive gushing.  I loved this book; it gave me exactly the experience I hope for every time I start a new story and I’ll be looking for more of this author’s work.

The Haunting of Maddy Clarie

The Haunting of Maddy ClareThe Haunting of Maddy Clare
by Simone St. James
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780451235688
Publication Date: March 6, 2012
Pages: 330
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: NAL / New American Library

Wow.

I put this book on my ‘maybe’ list well over a year ago and then promptly overlooked it for ages.  I even gave up and removed it from my lists altogether because I figured if I hadn’t bought it yet, I wasn’t really interested.

A recent review here on BL highly rating it brought it back to my attention at the same time I received a coupon from my favorite online bookseller so I just ordered it.

Jeez am I glad I did.  I loved this book.  This book hit all the right buttons for me: it was scary without being terrifying; it had great sexual tension (I am not going to call it ‘romance’ because there wasn’t any romancing going on, but it was intense); it had a great plot and interesting characters and it was well-written.  The writing style reminded me of authors of the past, particularly Phyllis Whitney.

My only complaint is now I’m suffering from a book hangover – right before I leave for a long weekend at the beach.

The Book of Life (All Souls Trilogy, #3)

The Book of LifeThe Book of Life
by Deborah Harkness
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780670025596
Series: All Souls #3
Publication Date: July 15, 2014
Pages: 563
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Viking Books

I have previously proclaimed my irrational love of the first two books in this series, so it will come as no surprise to anyone that this one gets 5 stars from me.

There are few books out there I find myself truly immersed in; the kind that when I’m interrupted, I’ll look up from my book, but I’m not really there.  My eyes might be a bit glassy and I’ll stare blankly at my own DH as though he’s a stranger.  This is such a book.

I’ll admit I was expecting a war; at the very least, a massive battle.  I prepared myself to hate the author for killing off a character, or characters that I had become attached to.  For a few dozen pages, I was certain it was going to be a specific character.  Luckily, the story was not as predictable as all that.

While reading, I picked up on shades of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, as well as more common themes of tolerance, acceptance and fear of that which is not understood.  The twist at the end is only a twist because it is so obvious.  Of all the beliefs  humans cling to throughout history that have proven to be illusory over and over again, the idea that we control anything must surely make the top 5 list.

But what it all boils down to for me is that I just love this whole story: its characters, its plot, its settings – it all just clicks for me.  Some have likened Diana to whatshername in Twilight but I don’t see the Mary Jane – I just saw a character – a very intelligent, strong and independent one – trying to get a grip on a massive amount of change happening in a short amount of time.  I never got the victim vibe from her.  I don’t pretend to understand the all consuming love she and Matthew apparently share, but it’s thankfully not so soppy and mushy I feel the need for insulin.

All the major plot points of the three books are wrapped up at the end of this one, but, vexingly, a lot of characters’ stories are…unfinished.  They aren’t cliff-hangers, and the story could easily end here and Ms. Harkness could disappear back into the history stacks never to be heard from again in fiction.  But she has left a number of openings for a return should she choose to do so.  A lot of secondary characters are left with their stories still ongoing.  At least one of them – Gallowglass – I’d be the first in line to read more about.  I’m more than a little half in love with him.

Whether Ms Harkness every writes another word about these people or not, I’ll at least be able to re-read and ‘see’ them all again.

Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)

Shadow of NightShadow of Night
by Deborah Harkness
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780670023486
Series: All Souls #2
Publication Date: July 12, 2012
Pages: 577
Genre: Fantasy, Historical
Publisher: Viking Books

In a trilogy, I tend not to like the second book – it always seems a bit dull compared to the first and the third. In contrast, I found this book to be excellent – just as good as the first book. Lots of drama, enough action, and the author’s ability to have me completely lost in the story is something I just love. Once again, I felt like I was watching the story in my head as I was reading it on the page.

Shadow of Night takes place primarily in 1591, but the author doesn’t get bogged down in too much historical detail – or at least, the historical detail is woven seamlessly into the story itself. Most of the detail is in passing observations made by Diana, so it’s easy for non-history lovers to take in. I loved the Libri Personæ at the back of the book, detailing the characters, and noting which ones were known to actually exist at the time. I think it makes the fiction that much more fun to read when notable figures in history are interwoven into the story.

There are a couple of plot lines that run through the book, and there were a few times it felt like one or the other might be getting a bit lost. Most of the questions raised in the book are answered by the end, with one or two hanging out there to be answered in the third book. But what I really appreciated was this book felt like it ended – no gigantic cliff-hangers. There are upcoming events and confrontations that you know will appear in the third book; major events that need to be explained, but Shadow of Night, I think, has enough of an ending that early readers like myself won’t get too irritated with having to wait another year/18 months for the final book. I was able to close the book at the end with a sense of satisfaction, not frustration.

NB: I loved the last chapter – it made me smile.

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1)

A Discovery of WitchesA Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: All Souls #1
Publication Date: February 8, 2011
Pages: 581
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Viking Books

This is one of those books I wish I hadn’t discovered until after all three books had been published. I started this book on a Friday and hardly put it down until I finished on the Sunday morning.

The author did a stunning job of making the writing so vivid, I was there in the story watching it unfold like a movie; much more vividly than I normally am able to do. Books about magic are a treat for me and this one was not at all disappointing, with plenty of action and a nice balance, I think, between giving enough information to be vivid, but not enough to be graphic.

It’s going to really suck having to wait until next year for the second book.