Thornhill

by Pam Smy
First sentence: “I knew it was too good to last.”
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Release date: August 29. 2017
Content: It’s creepy and the bullying gets intense. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d be careful giving it to overly sensitive kids.

It’s 1982, and Mary is an orphan at Thornhill, in its final days. The orphans are being sent to other places, or place in foster homes. That is, except Mary — who has a form of selective mutism; she mostly can’t talk because of anxiety — and her nemesis, a girl we only know as “her” (I can’t remember ever reading a name, and as I went to find one, I couldn’t). Mary is bullied by her: psychologially, mostly, but also physically. But because she’s subtle about it, and because Mary is so terrified, she is never caught.

In a page taken from Brian Selznick’s books, Smy also tells a contemporary story, in which Ella and her father move into the house next to Thornhill, which has been closed for 30+ years, ever since a mysterious death of one of the orphans. Ella sees a girl in the window one night, and becomes obsessed with finding out who she is (Mary, of course!) and how she died.

This is a completely creepy book. Seriously. Not just the color palate; done in stark black and white, it adds to the sense of foreboding that is in the text. It’s got ghosts and dolls and psychological elements. It’s pretty intense. Which, if you like that sort of book, is a good thing.

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The Secret Grave

by Lois Ruby
First sentence: “Lots of people don’t realize that some nightshade plants are poisonous.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some scary moments… but it is a ghost story, so that’s pretty par for the course. It’s in the middle gradeĀ (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Hannah is the middle child of a big Irish family, who has just moved into a large, old mansion in northern Georgia. She finally gets her own room. She’s turning 12. And even though her best friends are leaving for camp and London and her older sister is a bit of a bear, she’s determined to have the best summer. And when she meets the mysterious Cady in the forest, she knows it’s bound to be great.

But then Cady gets possessive and controlling. And mysterious things start happening at the house. And Hannah’s brother, Scooter’s asthma gets worse. What, really, is going on here?

You know it’s a ghost story going in (because it’s part of the Hauntings series), which is fine. There’s a couple of ghosts, one which is spelled out, and the other which is obvious (at least to me), but the big reveal is held until later in the book, which annoyed me as an adult reader (though I wonder if more observant kids would mind). The characters grated on me; then again, I’m the oldest and it’s been a long while since I was a kid, so I don’t know how I would have felt, had I been in Hannah’s place. That said, I liked that there was a good family surrounding Hannah (don’t often get that), and that the conflict took place in spite of her parents, not because of them. While I found the ending to be a bit, well, cheesy, I did appreciate that there were consequences and that Hannah and Scooter tried to solve the problem, rather than just letting it be.

Not a bad book, just not for me.

A Curious Tale of the In-Between

by Lauren DeStefano
First sentence: “Pram died just before she was born.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some slight romance and a few scary moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to the older end of that range.

Pram sees ghosts. She has ever since she was a little girl, the theory (of the narrator, anyway) is that it’s because her mother committed suicide when she was 9 months pregnant and the doctors had to revive Pram. But, thankfully, all that’s taken care of in the first chapter of the book, and it’s pretty vague so that it would probably go over most kids heads.

Anyway.

Pram’s best friend is a ghost, Felix. They do everything together because Pram’s aunts have decided that she needs protecting from the world and homeschool her. But then, the State decides that Pram needs to go to school, and so off she goes. Where she meets Clarence, whose mother has just died. (So many dead mothers.) He convinces Pram (much to Felix’s distress) to go searching for a spiritualist in order to contact his mother. It turns out, however, that this spiritualist is not a nice person. Like INCREDIBLY not nice. And so Pram has to figure out how to get out of the clutches of a greedy, evil woman.

This is a weird book. On the one hand, I liked the ghost angle, how Pram could see ghosts and communicate with them and see their memories. Even the creepy weird spiritualist was intriguing and I thought that DeStefano played around with memories and the afterlife was quite original. But the whole relationship with Clarence was a little… odd. It wasn’t quite a romance, but it wasn’t quite just friendship either. I suppose some kids will like it, but I thought it was a bit out of place in a ghost story.

But, aside from that, it was a good book. Not a great one, but a good story.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

The Hollow Boy

by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “I think it was only at the very end of the Lavender Lodge job, when we were fighting for our lives in that unholy guesthouse, that I glimpsed Lockwood & Co. working together perfectly for the first time.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Screaming Staircase, The Whispering Skull
Content: It’s scary, and a bit more angsty than I like my middle grade fiction to be. It, much like the others in the series, are best for the 5th grade crowd, but I’d give it to a precocious 3rd or 4th grader. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I really don’t know if there’s much more I can say about this series except this: why aren’t more people reading it? Seriously. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s got some great storytelling.

The next step for Lockwood & Co is to grow. It’s inevitable really. They’ve gotten a bit more notoriety and the cases are coming in. No longer are they utilizing their talents as a team, they’re spreading out. And their house/office is a complete pig sty. So, Lockwood and George decide that what they really need is an assistant: Someone to take calls, organize their lives, and clean up after them. So, they hire Holly. Which ticks Lucy — our main character — off to no end. And this is where the book gets angsty. Granted, Stroud never goes into full-out love triangle angst mode (yes, there is such a thing) and he lets the talking skull that Lucy carries around in her backpack do most of the snarking on Lucy’s mood but there’s no getting around it: she like-likes Lockwood, and she resents the intrusion of another girl.

There’s more to the plot than that: There’s an outbreak of supernatural activity in Chelsea and lots of agents lives are being put on the line. Lockwood wants in on the action, but he’s not considered skilled enough. So the course of the book is spent getting into the action in Chelsea. Additionally, Lucy wants more free reign to use her talent of communicating directly with the spirits, something which has dire consequences.

It kept me on the edge of my seat, turning pages until the very last cliffhanger (sort-of). And yes, I am sad that I have to wait another year to read the next one, but I don’t think I would put this series off. It’s just that good.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)