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

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Creeping Shadow
Series: Lockwood & Co. #4
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2016

SUMMARY

Afraid of losing control of her Talents and hurting her friends, Lucy has left Lockwood & Co. to work as a freelancer.  But now Lockwood is at her door asking for help and Lucy feels powerless to refuse.  As the team fights ghosts, however, they also begin to realize that the Problem is far bigger than they imagined.  Who is collecting powerful Sources?  And is it really possible for the living to enter the world of the dead?

Review

Jonathan Stroud has done it again.  Book three got a little tiresome since it was mostly about Holly and Lucy’s arguments.  But now the unnecessary drama is gone and the characters can go back to doing what they do best–fighting ghosts and defying authority.  Lucy may be freelancing for now, but her love for Lockwood is about to draw her back to his side.

Any reader who has made it this far in the series does not need my review to know that the Lockwood & Co. books are gold.  Packed full of action and mystery, each one presents a series of smaller cases to solve, one large and dangerous ghost to defeat at the end, and always a tantalizing glimpse at the structure underlying the entire Problem.  Now the characters seem to be inching closer to the truth of what is raising the dead.  But, of course, there are always more layers to uncover.  Stroud likes to keep readers on their toes.

Add the characters–the dashing and reckless Lockwood, the spunky Lucy, and the cake-loving and intelligent George Cubbins–and you have a series that seems impossible to fail.  I’ve grown to care about each of the characters very much (except maybe Holly, who, since this is told from Lucy’s perspective, doesn’t get much positive attention aside from snide and jealous remarks about her perfect looks).  I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here.

5 stars

The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

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Hollow BoyINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Hollow Boy
Series: Lockwood & Co. #3
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

In London, the streets are filled with restless spirits whose touch can kill a person. Only children can see the entities, however, so they have been formed into agencies to fight the supernatural uprising.  Lucy is part of Lockwood & Co., the only agency not headed by an adult.  She likes it that way–she, Lockwood, and George form the perfect team.  Then Lockwood hires the annoying perfect Holly Munro.  Can Lucy work out her problems with Holly or will it distract her from more important things, like the bloody footprints appearing on someone’s staircase, or the large uprising of ghosts in Chelsea?

Review

Thus far each installment in the Lockwood & Co. series has followed a similar structure.  A book typically begins with a series of smaller cases for the team to solve and then culminates in a final, desperate battle with an unusually powerful ghost.  This book follows a similar pattern but throws in a twist–the real battle here is not with the spirits walking the streets but with Lucy’s own emotions.  Honestly, without the ghosts, this might have been dreadfully dull.

Lucy seems to promise ominous times ahead, beginning with an account of their company’s perfect teamwork, then noting that they didn’t realize how good they were together until it was too late.  Cue ominous music.  Something will tear them apart!  Right?  Right…?  Well, sort of, maybe, depending how you look at it.  What really happens is that Holly Munro arrives and Lucy doesn’t like her because she’s pretty and capable, and thus a threat to her because Lockwood will probably fall in love with someone so pretty and capable.  Lucy responds by being snippy and sarcastic towards Holly and generally making Holly feel unwelcome and everyone else uncomfortable.  Without the ghosts, I might have been reading a high school cat fight.

Fortunately, the ghosts, as always, deliver.  This is an action-packed read full with high stakes, and I enjoyed every minute of it, even when I was shivering alone in the dark.  This may not have been the strongest installment of the series, but it was solid enough that I am looking forward to book four.

Krysta 64

The Pet and the Pendulum by Gordon McAlpine

Halloween ButtonPet and the PendulumInformation

Goodreads: The Pet and the Pendulum
The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe #3
Source: Library
Published: April 2015

Summary

Edgar and Allan Poe, distant relatives of the famous author, have foiled two attempts on their lives.  But will they manage to escape a third?

Review

The first book of the Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe drew me in with its sense of fun, its pseudo-scientific premise, and its quirky characters.  The story never took itself seriously and that proved its strength.  From descriptions of an afterlife where famous authors write fortune cookies to macabre pranks pulled by the protagonist twins, The Tell-Tale Start was simply a good romp, and the second book continued the series in that tradition.

The Pet and the Pendulum, however, lacks the originality and fun of the previous adventures.  It rehashes old ground, bringing Professor Perry back for yet another showdown with the twins, and spends too much time recapping the plots of the first two books.  It tries to tie everything together for the finale, but, in doing so, becomes suddenly very serious and loses the lighthearted ridiculousness that gave the books their charm.  The story, like the characters, feels a little tired–and I was relieved to see that this book concludes the series.

The ending proves the only really memorable part of the book, mainly because [Spoilers follow!] the story unexpectedly features protagonists who feel no compunction at causing the demise of their enemies.  Given a chance to end everything completely, the twins do, making only a token attempt to save the villains before rushing off to save themselves.  They had other options.  They simply chose not to take them.

The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe is a clever, oftentimes funny series, but it is clear that the series has run its course.  I look forward to other stories from the pen of Gordon McAlpine.

Krysta 64