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This post was revised and updated on 2/16/16 to include a review ofA Ghoul's Guide to Love and Murder,the tenth—and FINAL—novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of books 5 through 9.
NOVEL 10: A Ghoul's Guide to Love and Murder
M.J., Heath, and Gilley,
are back home in Boston, where their new film is sure to be a monster hit!
To promote the film, the studio is sponsoring a special exhibit of supernatural
artifacts at a local museum. Unfortunately, Gilley—whose mind is engaged with
wedding plans—gets talked into donating to the exhibit the very dagger that
keeps the dangerous ghost Oruç and his pet demon locked down in the lower
realms. Before M.J. can recover the bewitched blade, there’s a murder and a
heist at the museum, and the dagger is stolen. Now Oruç is coming for
M.J. and her crew, and he's bringing with him some fiendish friends from M.J.’s
haunted past. She, Gilley, and Heath are certain to be in for a devil of a
time. M.J. may even need to recruit a certain skeptical Boston detective to
help stop the paranormal party crashers from turning Gilley’s wedding bells to
funeral knells. MY REVIEW: After receiving huge amounts of money for their TV series and their soon-to-be-released movie, M.J. and her gang believe that they have retired from the ghost-busting business to live peaceful, ghoul-free lives. Wrong! While M.J. and Heath are off on vacation, Gilley takes a payoff (to cover the ever-growing expense of his upcoming, extravagant wedding) in exchange for loaning the local museum the infamous dagger containing the portal and the evil spirit of the demon Oruc, which has been hidden for years in a highly magnetized container in M.J.'s safe. Wouldn't you know that Gilley—once again—is the cause of the conflict. I have always disliked his character for his stereotypically offensive uber-gay traits and his total selfishness, and those characteristics are on full display throughout this book. Almost immediately, someone steals the dagger, murdering a museum staff member in the process, and M.J. and Heath are the prime suspects. After they convince a detective that they are innocent and that dangerous ghosts really exist, the story plays out just like all the rest of M.J.'s adventures. The team tries to figure out who stole the dagger as one demonic ghoul after another—all from past adventures—attacks them with murderous intent. As usual, the story has a few continuity errors and plot bumps, but generally, the suspense builds quite nicely. Laurie does a good job concealing the villain's identity until the big reveal-scene. I certainly didn't figure it out—always a plus in a mystery. Unfortunately, Laurie had to resort to a deus ex machina technique to save the day in the final showdown scene, which put a damper on the ending.
Lady Mary with one of her flapper outfits
Predictably, Laurie makes sure that M.J. and Heath achieve the stereotypical HEA ending that is subscribed to by authors who believe that young women require a mate and a family in order to achieve fulfillment in their lives. Gilley's wedding is also predictable—as well as being preposterously ludicrous. His role model for the wedding is Lady Mary Crawley of Downton Abbey, so his wedding outfit is "a beaded off-white silk flapper dress, complete with matching gloves, waist-length pearls, and a long black cigarette holder…green eye shadow, and rose-colored lipstick." In her introductory notes, Laurie announces that this is the final book in the series. She says, "I promise you that while this may be the end of hearing about M.J. and Heath, it's not the end of my storytelling. There will be more from me. Much more." Let's hope that her next series maintains the quality of the mysteries, but excludes offensive stereotypes. Click HERE to read an excerpt from A Ghoul's Guide to Love and Murder on the book's Amazon.com page where you can click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon. WORLD-BUILDING
In this series, Mary Jane (M. J.) Holliday and her gay partner Gilley Gillespie are ghost busters. M. J. is a medium who can see and speak to ghosts, and Gilley is a computer-savvy tech guy. In the first four books, Dr. Steven Sable, a rich and handsome surgeon, starts out as a client and ends up as an investor and a boyfriend for M. J. By book 4, a new love interest shows up: Heath Whitefeather, a Native American medium. Plots revolve around M. J.’s ghost-busting cases. As the series progresses, she and Heath star in a ghost-busting TV show, with most episodes being filmed in the British Isles. The story lines are sometimes interesting, but these books always make me feel like I'm reading a 1955 Nancy Drew mystery or watching an old Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie. The plots have more violence than the Nancy/Doris, stories, but the characters have the same blushingly chaste quality, the same one-dimensional feeling, and the same flatness of emotions. Gilley comes across as the worst sort of gay stereotype with his obnoxious, self-centered, drama-queen personality, and neither of the two love interests have much charisma or individuality. M.J.'s personality is hard to read because she never really shows any emotions except fear of some of the more violent ghostly apparitions that appear in each book. Although she calls Steven and Heath "sweetie" and "sweetheart" from time to time, she doesn't really show any emotional attachment for either one of them. Her relationship with Gilley is sibling-like; they have been close friends since childhood. M.J.'s attitude towards sex is Victorian (or at least 1950s), and she has absolutely no chemistry with either of her love interests. In the early books, she and Steven are "together" but stay in separate rooms when they travel and never show any romantic connection at all. The same is true of her new relationship with Heath, although they do at least have some infrequent moments of spontaneous affection and a few off-the-page bedroom scenes. This woman is in her thirties (surprisingly, six years older than Heath), and she acts like a shy teenager—with way too many bashful blushes. I'm not advocating the inclusion of graphic sex scenes, but I am suggesting that there should be more intimacy and overt emotional connection in a supposedly romantic relationship between two mature adults. Laurie has also written another paranormal chick lit series: the PSYCHIC EYE series. This one stars Abby Cooper, a Detroit-area psychic, who investigates ghostly mysteries.
NOVEL 5: Ghouls, Ghouls, Ghouls
In the fifth book, M. J. and her production crew head for a desolate haunted castle on an island in Ireland to film a show for their ghost-busters TV series, Ghoul Getters. To reach the castle, they must walk across a rocky causeway that is flooded by tides twice a day. The team soon learns that the castle is guarded by a vicious phantom who gets rid of visitors by tossing them to their deaths over sea-side cliffs. Early on, one of the team members disappears while in the castle, and the team spends the remainder of the book trying to find him and trying to escape from the phantom. The story also involves a hidden treasure—a cache of gold bullion. Throughout the story, the characters do a number of really stupid things (for example, taking a nighttime hike out to the castle on the very night they arrive—after traveling all day, being totally unfamiliar with the area, and knowing that they only have a brief time until the tide floods the causeway). In addition, the plot has several inconsistencies and a convoluted ending.
This is the weakest book in the series so far. In the early books, the "girl-friend" relationship between M. J. and Gilley—friends since childhood—was entertaining, but in Ghouls, Ghouls, Ghouls, that relationship just isn't funny any more. In this story, Gil, who was always an entertaining, if stereotypical, character, has turned into a ridiculously exaggerated and clichéd "gay drama queen" character who almost single-handedly destroys much of the team's electronic equipment and several of their clues through his selfish and narcissistic behavior. At one point, he has a huge panic attack because he sees talking animals on a TV show. C'mon! This is a grown man! To sum it up: Gil doesn't provide any laughs in this book—just feelings of irritation, annoyance, and disbelief. Click HERE to go to this book's amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art at top left. NOVEL 6: Ghoul Interrupted As the sixth book opens, M.J. and her production team are ready to leave for Scotland to film an episode of their TV show when their plans are interrupted by the death of Heath's beloved Uncle Milton at the family pueblo in Santa Fe. Heath, M.J., and Gilley are soon on the scene, but the family has closed ranks against outsiders and they're not very happy to see Heath either. As it turns out, the Whitefeather family is deeply divided. Years ago, when Heath's mother took Heath and left her abusive husband behind, her family basically disowned her. When Heath's father committed suicide soon thereafter, the banishment became set in stone. Now, with Milton's death, soon followed by that of his wife, all of the buried feelings are resurfacing. When M.J. senses an evil spirit and sees three-pronged slash marks at the scenes of the recent deaths, she is certain that they are dealing with a powerful and ancient demon. As the demon steps up its attacks on M.J. and on Heath's family members, Heath's late grandfather, Sam, keeps coming to M.J. in dreams to help her figure out what to do next. The plot follows the intrepid trio as they pack up their ghost-fighting equipment and set out to solve the mystery of who called up the demon and how to get rid of it once and for all. The human villain is not hard to spot, but the climactic scene in which he is caught has the requisite demonic danger.
As for characterization, Gilley is still the hysterical gay stereotype, Heath is an emotionless pretty boy, and M.J. herself is either screaming with fear, weeping in pain, or desperately trying to come up with solutions in the nick of time without serious planning. As in previous books, this plot has some inconsistencies. For example, on page 113, Heath "had never heard the legend" of the white hawk and the black hawk. But on page 149, Heath says, "I heard the legend as a kid." And just one more gripe: Can we do away with Doc, the parrot? I realize that Victoria Laurie herself has a pet parrot named Doc, but does M.J. have to have one, too? Larding the stories with Doc's not-so-funny antics doesn't add to the humor; it's just annoying. Plus, can you imagine that your best friend would transport your pet parrot from the East Coast to Santa Fe because the two of you miss each other so much? I can't. ClickHEREto go to this book's amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art at top left. NOVEL 7: What a Ghoul Wants
M.J., Heath, and their production crew are back in Great Britain—specifically northern Wales—for this ghostly adventure. As the story opens, they are making their way to Kidwellah Castle, which is rumored to have some interesting resident spirits. Unfortunately, the castle also has a serial killer, who may or may not be a ghost. This fictional castle is based on a real Welch castle: Kidwelly Castle.
Almost as soon as they arrive, M.J. is attacked by the Grim Widow, a demonic ghost who has been confined to the south wing of the castle for centuries. The Widow is in league with a demon, and she's determined to kill anyone who dares trespass into her part of the castle. She has also imprisoned some unfortunate ghosts somewhere near her portal, binding them with metaphysical chains so that they cannot escape to the afterlife. Early in the story, the Widow grabs Heath and nearly drowns him in the moat, and M.J. almost loses her life as she swims to his aid.
Gilley is his usual annoying self until he meets up with a new boyfriend and calms down considerably—thank goodness! The grouchiest person in this book is Gopher, M.J.'s producer, who is under the gun to either complete some outstanding film footage or lose his job—and everyone else's as well.
The plot follows M.J. as she tries to figure out how to film the Widow without getting herself and her crew injured or killed and how to solve the mysteries surrounding the murder victims who keep showing up in the moat (three of them in all). The Widow is the most evil and vicious ghost that M.J. has ever faced, but she is determined to free the trapped ghosts and send the Widow through her portal into the underworld. The most shocking two paragraphs in the whole book—the whole series, really—occur on page 180:
"Heath and I got back to the castle fairly early for a date out with each other. This had less to do with hormones and more to do with the fact that the Welsh are a rather proper lot, with a relatively low tolerance for those foreigners playing a little nooky under the table.
After being kicked out of not one but two restaurants, we decided to bring the nooky out from under the table and move it to the bedroom."
Although this passage wouldn't be at all shocking in some paranormal series, it's shocking here because through seven books, this series has been primly restrained when it comes to sex. In fact, M.J. blushes if anyone so much as mentions anything remotely intimate or erotic. So...what's with the "nooky"? Are we to believe that straitlaced M.J. and Heath attempted to perform under-the-table sexual acts in these restaurants? Because that's exactly what "nooky" means (and I checked a number of dictionaries to be absolutely sure that I had the definition right). Given the total absence of sex in this series, I would have expected "necking" or "canoodling" or "fooling around" or even "spooning"—but NEVER "nooky." The picture painted in this passage is such a departure from the virtuous morality of the series that I don't really know how to react to it—other than with jaw-dropping astonishment. The plot is typical for this series with its scary spirits, human villains, and a moment or two of humorous dialogue between M.J. and Gilley. It's not the strongest book in the series, but not the weakest either. The identity of the villains and their motive for the murders are both completely improbable, as is M.J.'s too-quick cracking of the case. She is clueless throughout most of the book, but then pulls everything together with only a handful of clues that Gilley googles on the Internet. Still, if you are a fan of the series, this book fits right in with its predecessors. ClickHEREto go to this book's amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art at top left. The next book brings the return of M.J.'s ex-boyfriend, Dr. Steven Sable, when he hires M.J. and Heath to exorcise a demon that is possessing his new fiancée's brother. So...on top of the demon possession, M.J. and Heath will both be dealing with some relationship issues, which should be interesting. NOVEL 8: The Ghoul Next Door
M.J., Heath, and Gilley are back home in Boston after having spent the past few months hunting down ghosts in the British Isles. M.J. is looking forward to some relaxation, but her hopes are dashed by a plea for help from her ex-boyfriend, Dr. Steven Sable. Steven fears that his fiancée's brother, Luke, is being haunted by a dark spirit.
This adventure is shocking for M.J. on several levels. First, she is astonished, and a bit hurt, that Steven is engaged—even though she and Heath have been together ever since she and Steven broke up several months ago. Making the situation even more painful is the fact that Steven's fiancée, Courtney, is a beautiful, talented, wealthy surgeon with impeccable taste in both clothing and home decorating. Another shock comes when M.J. and Heath realize that based on Luke's description, he has definitely caught the attention of a dangerously evil spirit that may be trying to possess him. Things come to a head one night when M.J. and her team set up cameras so that they can watch what happens when Luke spends the night alone in his sister's house. First, Luke has a nightmare—thrashing around and kicking his legs in his sleep. But then he calms down, gets dressed, and runs out the front door before they can stop him. Before long, police sirens start screaming in the distance and Luke runs back into the house covered with blood that is not his own. When the police arrive, they arrest Luke for the murder of a young woman in the neighborhood and drag M.J. and Heath in for questioning. Luckily, Gilley has all of the evening's activities on tape, which helps M.J. and Heath, but not Luke. M.J.'s investigation eventually expands to include a series of murders of young girls in the same neighborhood and a spooky house that served as the residence at various times for several different convicted or suspected slasher murderers. M.J. and Heath are sure that an evil spirit is loose in Boston, and their worst fears are confirmed when that spirit sets his eyes on M.J. as his next victim. About three-quarters of the way through the book, I thought that I had figured out the solution to the mystery, but I was wrong. M.J. doesn't uncover the most crucial evidence until almost the end—at a point when she and the slasher killer meet face to face. This book has some of the same strengths and weaknesses as the other books in the series. M.J. is constantly breaking the number one TSTL rule by going off alone to investigate various clues. Heath's role in the series is to be kind of a sidekick to M.J.: supporting her, romancing her, and generally being a nice guy—all of which is fine, but it doesn't make him a very interesting character. In this book, Heath spends much of his time doing his daily running exercise around the neighborhood, while M.J. gets on with the case. Gilley—thank heavens!—has calmed down quite a bit although he still has too many idiotic, drama-queen moments for my taste. If you are a series regular, you know what you're getting here: a dark, puzzling mystery filled with danger, a few red herrings, and a heroine who veers sharply from sensible to stupid and from self-confidant to self-doubting—sometimes on the very same page. Even if you haven't been reading the series, you can definitely read The Ghoul Next Door as a stand-alone. ClickHEREto go to the book's amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art or the "Listen" icon at top left. The next book will take the team back to M.J.'s hometown for the wedding of her estranged father, whose fiancée is renovating a haunted house. NOVEL 9: No Ghouls Allowed
M.J., Heath, and Gilley are visiting M.J.'s hometown in small-town Georgia for the wedding of her estranged father, Montgomery. His fiancée, Christine, is in the process of renovating a run-down mansion that was once owned by the town's richest and most reclusive family. The paranormal mystery part of the story revolves around the house, which turns out to be haunted by two evil spirits. Woven into the mystery are flashbacks to M.J.'s earlier life before her mother's death from cancer two decades ago. After Mom died, M.J.'s father drowned his grief in alcohol and let others raise M.J. Ever since that time, their relationship has been distant and not very friendly.
As soon as M.J. and her friends arrive in town, they learn that three different contractors have quit working on the mansion because of ongoing problems: equipment that repeatedly breaks down, scaffolding that collapses for no reason, batteries that won't hold their charges, experienced workers sustaining injuries in freak accidents, and so forth. Christine immediately asks M.J. and Heath to look into the situation, and they reluctantly agree, only to be attacked by an invisible entity as soon as they enter the house. Then one of the contractors is murdered in the house and two deputy sheriffs are possessed by evil spirits. The mystery, as usual, has a fairly large cast of characters and a number of red herrings. There are more than the usual number of villains in this book, and you'll be guessing at their identities all the way to the end. The story line drags a bit as M.J. and company team up with a local deputy sheriff to figure out what is going on. The mystery deepens when M.J. has an out-of-body experience and discovers that her mother was involved in a murder that occurred in the house back in 1971. Mostly, the story segues between various attacks by the evil spirits and M.J.'s emotional flashbacks and her fears about her mother's part in the murder. If you are a regular reader of this series, you know what you're getting: a malevolent spirit who violently attacks M.J. and her allies, townspeople with dark secrets, and lots of plot twists. Gilley's character once again goes a bit over the drama-queen line (particularly with his constant quest for ice cream and other junk food), but he's not nearly as overblown as he was in the earlier books. This book can easily be read as a stand-alone. Click HERE to go to this book's amazon.com page where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.