Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Ghost Squad

Information

Goodreads: Ghost Squad
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Luna can see ghosts–the spirits of her ancestors that mostly appear as fireflies in a tree in her yard. But then her ancestors start getting restless, saying something dark is approaching. Can Luna and her friend Syd save Luna’s family by reciting a spell to waken the dead? Or will they only make things worse?

Star Divider

Review

Ghost Squad was one of my most anticipated reads of fall 2020, so I was disappointed to discover that the book is badly in need of editing. From seemingly missing scenes to illogical plot points to numerous internal contradictions, the book just does not make a lot of sense. It may satisfy readers looking for a mindless spooky read, but I think there are better selections out there for fans of scary middle grade.

Initially while reading, I thought I must have missed something or misunderstood something, because I kept reading things that did not make sense. Eventually, however, I realized that the extent of the oddities I was noticing meant it was not just me. Here is a selection of a few of the inconsistencies and illogical plot points I noticed (possible spoilers):

  • Syd mentions that she knows the bridge to her grandmother Babette’s place has been enchanted to look old and unstable. But later on, she and her friend Luna both seem to think that Babette just sells fake stuff for tourists. Towards the end of the book, however, we learn that Syd has been begging to be taught how to be a witch. Does Syd know about Babette’s powers and their true extent or not?
  • Luna can see the spirits of her dead ancestor–they mainly hang out in her tree as fireflies, but can take on human form to do things like eat. They are all eating Luna’s dad’s food, even though her dad is running short on cash and might have to sell the house. He hopes to make extra money on his ghost tour business as Halloween approaches. But, even though he has a family full of real ghosts–and we know that people can see them moving objects even if they can’t see the ghosts–he relies on Luna to hide behind tombstones and play a tape recorder to make tourists think the city is haunted. His dead ancestors seem kind of responsible for his money problems?
  • Luna’s ancestors inform her an unknown evil is approaching. They don’t know what it is. But then Luna receives a vision of her ancestor ghosts fighting a monster and winning. This seems to be the same evil now approaching–but they don’t know what it is anymore? They also inform Luna that her family has a long tradition of being a powerful group that protects the city. But then they tell her they don’t know what to do about the monsters approaching and that she’s on her own. So what were they doing all these years to protect the city if they are actually both clueless and powerless?
  • The ghosts tell Luna an evil is approaching. But then Syd and Luna read a spell that supposedly wakens the dead. They think they’re the reason for the evil threatening the city–even though it was already being threatened? Luna’s ancestor tells Luna the spell is not responsible. Syd’s grandmother Babette tells the Luna and Syd that the spell is responsible and that they have to reverse it by finding the counter-spell. Where did the evil actually come from?
  • (Spoilers for the ending!) Syd’s grandmother says Luna and Syd must read the counter-spell to reverse the original spell and save the city. They can only find the first two lines, however, so they just make up the rest. Why wouldn’t they have made one up in the first place, then?
  • Babette says she’s part of an ancient order of witches and she can call on them and their powers to help protect the city. Why didn’t she do that in the first place? Why did she wait until the last minute when everyone was almost doomed?

These are just a few of the problems I found within the text. It also has a tendency to reference things that I didn’t remember happening or to assume knowledge I somehow didn’t have. For instance, several times, Luna and Syd go on a great ghost hunting expedition with homemade ghost catchers and it’s all a little random since they seem to be fighting both monsters and ghosts, and it’s not clear what the difference is or why they thought a catcher would work in the first place or why they thought they needed one. I still don’t understand fully what was happening in the plot, the role of Luna’s ancestors, how magic works in this world, or anything else.

On a positive note, I thought the familial relationships were strong. I like Luna’s dad and her grandmother, as well as Syd’s grandmother and her no-nonsense attitude. Unfortunately, these bright moments were overshadowed for me by a truly confusing plotline. I think an editor should have made suggestions for revision, but that doesn’t seem to have happened here.

Ghost Squad has a great premise and an endearing cast of characters, but the confusing plot line makes this one a pass for me. I think readers would do better to look for supernatural fare elsewhere.

2 star review

Dead Voices by Katherine Arden

Dead Voices

Information

Goodreads: Dead Voices
Series: Small Spaces #2
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Ollie, Coco, and Brian are headed to the mountains for a week at a ski resort. But when a snowstorm traps them in the lodge, spooky things start to happen. Ollie is having nightmares about a girl looking for her bones. And all three of them are seeing ghosts. The girl warns Ollie not to listen to the voices. But Ollie is determined to contact her dead mother, and she is willing to endanger everyone to get what she wants.

Star Divider

Review

Dead Voices reunites readers with Ollie, Coco, and Brian as they head out of town for a week at a new ski resort. However, they soon learn that the lodge was once an orphanage with a shady reputation–and it is believed to be haunted! Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom do not believe in ghosts. But a mysterious ghost hunter offers to help the children find out the truth. Whom can Coco and her friends trust as they begin to hear different voices? And will they ever find their way out of the lodge alive? This is a thrilling sequel to Small Spaces, perfect for readers looking for a ghostly read as the autumn leaves begin to fall.

Dead Voices works well as a sequel because it brings together a beloved cast of characters for another creepy adventure, but it makes that adventure feel entirely new. The children have left town, of course, so they get to explore a new location, but they are also facing a rather different foe. Instead of the smiling man and his scarecrow allies, they are facing ghosts–ghosts who seem to have control over the ski lodge where they have been trapped by a winter storm. Some seem friendly, but others do not, and the children will have to stake their lives on choosing the right ones to trust.

Though I did not find the story particularly remarkable, it is a solid ghost story for middle grade readers. It contains plenty of action and adventure, along with a hint of mystery, but never becomes too scary to bear. Tween readers will rest content in knowing that the children have the wits to figure out the rules of the game, and that they have a fighting chance to make it out alive.

Dead Voices is the second book in a project four-book series that presumably will cover each season: autumn, winter, spring and summer. Readers who enjoyed this installment have plenty more adventure to look forward to!

3 Stars

Eleanor, Alice, & the Roosevelt Ghosts by Dianne K. Salerni (ARC Review)

Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts

Information

Goodreads: Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts
Series: None
Source: ARC from Edelweiss
Published: September 1, 2020

Summary

There are three types of ghosts that can come back to haunt a house: Friendlies, Unawares, and Vengefuls. When a new ghost erupts in the home of Aunt Bye, the authorities designate it as Friendly. Cousins Alice and Eleanor Roosevelt, however, are not so sure. The ghost is acting strangely, manipulating the people in the household and growing ever more menacing. Can the cousins put aside their differences to uncover the history of the house and destroy the ghost for good?

Star Divider

Review

Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts by Dianne K. Salerni is a chilling supernatural adventure set in an alternate history where spirits routinely haunt houses and no one bats an eye. Cousins Eleanor and Alice Roosevelt are very different–Eleanor is bookish and retiring, while Alice has a reputation for running wild. But, when ghosts start attacking their family, the two must work together to uncover the secrets of their family past and defeat the ghosts for good. This ghostly thriller will appeal both to readers who enjoy a deliciously creepy mystery, and to those who revel in imagining a different type of past.

I always enjoy a good alternative history, and I was immediately drawn to Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts because it focuses on a part of the past not many historical novels cover. Like any great alternate history, the book is based on real historical facts, but it takes those facts and adds an entertaining twist. In this case, the twist is basically Eleanor and Alice Roosevelt: Ghost Hunters. Talk about a fun time! It is a concept perfectly suited to current interest in the occult and ghost hunting shows, but also one that will attract readers who loved books such as Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. In short, it’s a concept that feels sure to succeed.

A book cannot succeed on premise alone, of course, but Salerni delivers a fast-paced and entertaining plotline along with compelling characters. Protagonists Eleanor and Alice are very different from each other. Eleanor is somewhat meek and unsure of herself, while Alice is outgoing but also looking for love and acceptance in her own way. Readers will likely relate to one or the other, but their real strength lies in the way they learn to appreciate each other’s qualities and work as a team. This is a duo I would love to see return in a sequel.

Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts is one of those rare middle grade books that feels almost magical. The premise, the plot line, and the characters all combine to create an engrossing story that is hard to put down. If you love supernatural mysteries, alternate history, or just a good ghost story, you will love Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts.

4 stars

Sheets by Brenna Thummler

Sheets by Brenna Thummler cover

Information

Goodreads: Sheets
Series: Sheets #1
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

Thirteen-year-old Marjorie Glatt’s world fell apart the day her mother died. Now, her father can barely leave his room, and Marjorie is left to run the family laundry business by herself. And the detestable Mr. Saubertuck won’t stop sniffing around, trying to sabotage the business so he can have the property.

Wendell is a ghost who cannot accept his own death. He runs away to the land of the living, trying to find himself. When he meets Marjorie, however, his presence might mean the end of the laundry for good.

Star Divider

Review

I tend to enjoy graphic novels that are brightly-colored and have more of a cartoony style. Think Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl, for example. So initially I was hesitant about Sheets, mainly because of the subdued color palette–a mix of greys and blues– and the sketchier art style. The ugliness of the coloring seemed to mirror the ugliness of Marjorie Glatt’s shrinking world, and I was not sure I was prepared to dive into that. I wanted something upbeat. Still, I gave Sheets a chance, and ended up pleasantly surprised.

Sheets tells the intertwined stories of Marjorie, a teenager running her family’s laundry business while her dad shuts himself in his room after his wife’s death, and Wendell, a ghost going to death counseling because he cannot accept that he is no longer living. When Wendell runs away back to the land of the living, their lives collide. Marjorie initially sees Wendell as just another threat to her business. Wendell, however, sees an opportunity for friendship.

The premise of the book is undoubtedly weird. I admit I was skeptical. Over time, however, I began to feel sympathy for Marjorie and Wendell, both of whom were attempting to navigate major changes with either little or ineffective help. Marjorie still hopes her mom can come back and save her. And Wendell is struggling to find meaning, when all his therapy sessions seem to want to do is make him relive the past. Ultimately, Sheets is a story of love and loss, and moving forward.

Sheets is not your typical ghost story. It does not attempt to scare readers or even build suspense. Really, it’s a story about friendship. And one of those friends happens to be dead. So if you want something just a little out of the ordinary, but still heartwarming, Sheets is a good place to start.

4 stars

Tunnel of Bones by Victoria Schwab

Information

Goodreads: Tunnel of Bones
Series: Cassidy Blake #2
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2019

Summary

Cass and Jacob continue their paranormal adventures as they leave Edinburgh and head off to Paris so Cass’s parents can continue filming their new ghost show.  However, a dark spirit haunts the Catacombs and, if Cass cannot figure out a new way to defeat him, all of Paris will soon be in trouble.

Star Divider

Review

Like City of Ghosts before it, Tunnel of Bones proves a largely uninspired middle-grade paranormal adventure, in which a girl befriends a ghost and then finds out it is her purpose to travel beyond the Veil in order to send restless spirits on.  The concept of ghostly friendships has been a staple of middle-grade contemporaries for awhile, and the idea of ghost hunting is obviously very common, as well.  To set her book apart, Victoria Schwab really needs something special–a new twist, an engrossing world, unbelievable characters.  Schwab, however, does not deliver anything special.  Tunnel of Bones is a pleasant, if unmemorable, middle-grade ghost story.

Part of what makes Tunnel of Bones so unmemorable to me is the lack of strong characterization.  Readers have little sense of who Cass’s parents are, except that her dad is a skeptical historian and her mother is a believer.  They exist mainly to take Cass with them around the globe so she can find new ghosts.  Lara, Cass’s expert on paranormal affairs, comes to life a little more since she has an acerbic personality, but she exists largely to forward the plot, as well–she is literally just on speed dial to help Cass find new leads on ghosts.  Secondary characters prove just as lackluster.  In Tunnel of Bones, readers meet Pauline, a woman who says she does not believe, but who seems to fear ghosts nonetheless.  This ought to have made her an interesting characters, but readers never receive her backstory and so never receive an opportunity to dig deeper into who she is and what makes her tick.

The one redeeming feature of the series so far has been the friendship between Cass and Jacob.  Their dynamic is interesting because Cass says she feels strongly about their friendship, and this does seem to be the case.  At the same time, however, she regularly ignores Jacob’s fears, his wants, and his advice because she believes she knows better and must do anything–even risk death–in order to fulfill her “purpose” and send ghosts on.  (One can understand Jacob’s reluctance to accept such a purpose, since it suggests Cass ought to send him on, as well–something Lara repeatedly reminds Cass.)  It is easy for Cass to ignore Jacob since he is a ghost and no one else can see or hear him.  So it is fascinating to see Jacob’s loyalty to Cass regardless and his protectiveness of her.

I had hoped that the ending of Tunnel of Bones would lead into more of the drama surrounding Cass and Jacob’s friendship, and whether Cass should, indeed, send Jacob on.  Instead, readers receive a rather boring set-up for the next book–boring because so vague that I can not be bothered to feel spooked by it.  My only thought is that Schwab does not want to go too deeply into the Jacob issue yet in case there are more books than three to be written for the series.  So, ho hum.  Tunnel of Bones is a nice middle-grade book, but very standard and very uninspired.  Younger readers not familiar with better books with the same concepts may enjoy it more.

3 Stars

The Little Grey Girl by Celine Kiernan

Information

Goodreads: The Little Grey Girl
Series: The Wild Magic Trilogy #2
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2019

Summary

Mup and her mam have defeated Mup’s grandmother and driven her from her castle.  Now, Mup’s family is moving into Witches Borough.  But not everyone is happy to see them.  Some fear the return of the old queen, and refuse to pledge loyalty.  Others are not impressed by the new ruler’s refusal to admit  her royalty or her willingness to forgive the witches who once terrorized all those who stood against them.  And one lonely grey girl is determined that the wrongs of the past should never, ever be forgotten.

Star Divider

Review

The Little Grey Girl is an odd sort of middle book.  It is not quite a bridge book–a story that merely connects the events of book one and book three in a trilogy.  Nor is it quite a story of its own.  Rather , The Little Grey Girl is a reflection.  A reflection on the events of the previous installment of The Wild Magic Trilogy.  A great evil has been defeated and a new day seems to be dawning.  But who is worthy of forgiveness?  What should the future look like?  And should the past ever be forgotten? These are the questions that trouble the inhabitants of Witches Borough and these are the questions readers are asked to consider in The Little Grey Girl.

One  might have expected a different sort of book in a fantasy trilogy.  Mup’s grandmother, after all, is still out there somewhere, and ready to cause trouble.  Many authors would have focused on her attempts to reclaim the throne, giving readers plenty of fighting and a big battle scene at the end.  The Little Grey Girl still has fighting.  But it asks: at what cost?  Battles here are not glorious, but sad and troubling and wrong.  They are terrible wastes of life.  They are not something present just to create some drama to entertain the readers.

Not often do fantasy novels reflect on the nature of war and the ways in which a nation must struggle to overcome its past.  It is not always very interesting to consider practical questions once all the magic and the swordfighting are done.  It is, however, important, and Celine Kiernan highlights that fact as her work focuses on the question of memory.  How does a nation remember the wrongs of its past? And, if it does remember the pain and the sorrow, how does it move forward?

The Little Grey Girl is not the type of book to appeal to readers who desire nonstop action in their fantasy.  It is, however, the type of book to appeal to readers looking for hidden gems, those books that are just a little bit different and a little bit special. It’s the kind of book that settles in your heart.

3 Stars

City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

Information

Goodreads: City of Ghosts
Series: Cassidy Blake #1
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2018

SummarY

Cassidy Blake’s parents hunt ghosts.  But Cassidy is actually able to see them, ever since the moment she drowned and a ghost named Jacob dragged her back.  Now her parents are off to Edinburgh, Scotland, to film a ghost show.  But an evil spirit haunts the city and she’s determined to steal Cassidy’s life.

Star Divider

Review

City of Ghosts is a pretty standard supernatural middle-grade story.  The characters are not particularly developed and the concept is not particularly original.  Rather, the story seems to rely on the travel aspect, combined with ghosts, to keep readers interested.  Readers new to this type of story will likely enjoy it more than those who have read their fair share of books featuring ghosts as best friends.

The problem with reviewing City of Ghosts is simply that it is not a very memorable story.  The idea of having a protagonist who has a ghostly friend and who fights other, evil ghosts is not exactly novel.  So City of Ghosts  faced the dilemma of making itself stand out from any other number of supernatural books.  However, it largely fails to do this–probably because Cassidy and her friend Jacob are barely fleshed out as characters.  They cannot bring a unique flavor to the tale because they really feel like they could be any character.  Who they are is not important to the story.  What matters seems to be simply that they can go through the motions to make the plot happen.

The plot, however, is really standard.  Cassidy can see ghosts and, while sightseeing, she stumbles upon a particularly nasty one who wants to steal her life force to gain power and do evil ghostly things.   This is the basic premise of a good number of ghost stories.  With no new angles and no interesting characters, it’s really just kind of nice.  A nice way to pass the evening reading.  A nice choice for a spooky fall read.  A nice middle-grade novel.  But it’s not going to end up on many “best of” lists.

If you’re looking for a middle-grade story featuring ghosts, this will suit your needs.  It has the added benefit of not being particularly scary, if that is what you want.  However, it lacks any real “wow” factor, so, if you are choosing between this and another supernatural title, the other title just might be the better bet.

3 Stars

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

A Skinful of Shadows

Information

Goodreads: A Skinful of Shadows
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2017

SummarY

Twelve-year-old Makepeace should have listened to her mother.  She should have known that returning to her father’s family would be a mistake.  Now, her life is at stake.  And the only way to save it may be by claiming her terrible birthright–and allowing a ghost inside her.

Star Divider

Review

Frances Hardinge is one of the best YA fantasy authors writing today.  She avoids the common YA tropes to write highly original stories that typically have just a twist of the supernatural or the creepy.  And her prose is beautiful, effortless, sometimes speaking truths that hit the heart.  A Skinful of Shadows exemplifies all the best qualities of Hardinge’s work, bringing the readers a story that feels breathlessly new.

Hardinge excels at creating unlikely protagonists, ones who are not perfect or pretty or special–but who still capture the sympathy of the readers.  At first glance, Makepeace may seem scarcely likable.  She has a troubled relationship with her mother, makes mistakes with devastating consequences, and quickly learns that her greatest skill is her ability to make herself ugly and invisible.  Makepeace is no charmer; she is a survivalist.  But her story rings true because what she wants is something readers can appreciate–the chance to live freely.  It does not matter if she lacks charisma or beauty. Makepeace is a person.  And that is enough to afford her sympathy and respect.

Hardinge sets Makepeace’s story against an intriguing historical background–the English Civil War.  Sides are being chosen in the fight between Charles I and Parliament and Makepeace is trapped in the middle of it all, historically unimportant as she is.  It is not a setting chosen often for historical fiction (or, in this case, historical fantasy), and that makes it all the more compelling.  But Hardinge goes farther, once again giving her story a novel twist by refraining both from providing historical info dumps and from having Makepeace meet any real historical figures.  The story feels no need to shout that it is historical fantasy.  It simply uses the setting as a background and allows the story to unfold naturally, showing how an everyday person might be affected (or not) by great events.

A Skinful of Shadows is a wonderfully complex, wonderfully original tale focusing a bold and clever heroine and an overlooked historical time period.  Fantasy fans looking for something a little different will enjoy this story.

5 stars

The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

Information

Goodreads: The Empty Grave
Series: Lockwood & Co. #5
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Lockwood & Co. are drawing near to discovering the source of the Problem.  But powerful forces are at work and not everyone wants them to uncover the truth.  Who knew that ghost hunters had more to fear from the living than from the dead?

Star Divider

Review

“Mr Lockwood, you’ve impressed a lot of people over the years. Personally, I expected you to be ghost-touched long ago, but your agency has flourished. Impress me again now… Let them forget about you… Even now, it’s probably not too late.”

The Lockwood & Co. series has been a wild ride, full of horror, suspense, mystery, and danger.  While I eagerly anticipated the grand finale and the revealing of the final mysteries, it is bittersweet to reach the end.  Where else will we get this superb blend of action, heart, and humor?

The Empty Grave lives up to its predecessors in the best possible way.  All the beloved characters are back and they are in fine form.  George reaches new heights as a researcher.  Lockwood charms with his signature devil-may-care attitude.  Holly reassures us with her poise.  And Lucy delights us with her humor.  Even Kipps and the Skull feel like dear old friends.   Never before have they seemed to work together so seamlessly.

The story works up, as always, from some smaller cases to the final, overarching mystery.  This gives us time to enjoy watching our friends in action and to get reacquainted with their methods.  The Belle Dame Sans Merci is an interesting case–a ghost who ensnares the spirit and thus can kill slowly and at a distance.  Still, she can’t hold a candle to the real case, the one we’ve been working towards for five books.  What is the source of the Problem?  And how far will people go to cover up the truth?

The climax is everything readers could hope for.  Jonathan Stroud somehow always manages to up the danger and the drama, far past anything readers could expect.  A new twist is always around the corner, keeping the audience on the edges of their seats.  If you’ve stuck with Lockwood & Co. this far, you won’t want to miss this satisfying conclusion.

5 stars

Ghost Doll and Jasper by Fiona McDonald

Halloween Books 2017


Information

Goodreads: Ghost Doll and Jasper
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Summary

When a drop of stardust touches a doll she comes to life.  Along with her new friend Jasper the alley cat, Ghost Doll will attempt to find a home.  But an evil scientist wants the stardust she possesses.

Review

This illustrated novel seemed to be just the type of charming friendship story I would love.  A doll come to life and a street cat with a heart of gold team up, first to find the doll a home  and then to defeat an army of super-powered rats.  And…when you read the summary like that, it suggests precisely why the book fell flat for me.  The elements do not seem to mix and the prose never convinced me that they should.

The narration of the book does not really flow, but instead reads much like a bullet point list of events that occur.  Oftentimes, the transitions and connections between the bullet points are missing, so it is not quite clear why characters suddenly gained new knowledge or what is motivating the characters.  This makes it difficult to feel invested in the story because the writing threatens to jar readers out of it.  It does not help that two distinct stories seem to be happening: one where a dolly simply wants a home and another one with an evil scientist who somehow communicates with rats offers them super serum in exchange for help finding stardust.  Nothing is explained, either.  Readers must simply accept that the scientist wants stardust for some reason, that he talks to rats, that the rats have a need for an army, and so forth.

Events in the book become increasingly ridiculous.  Yes, an army of super-powered rats is silly, but this is fantasy and, done right, it might actually be very impressive and scary.  However, the smaller moments threaten the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  A few very fortunate coincidences combined with a random rat plot to blow up a bunch of characters not even involved in the action make it feel like the story lacks a clear trajectory.  What exactly are we supposed to be caring about?  What are we supposed to be anticipating?

The illustrations are quite lovely and I wish the story had lived up to them.  However, ultimately I was left regretting that a story about a doll and a cat could not be as wonderful as such a story ought to be.

3 Stars