Dark Waters by Katherine Arden

Information

Goodreads: Dark Waters
Series: Small Spaces #3
Source:
Library
Published:
2021

Official Summary

Having met and outsmarted the smiling man in Dead Voices but fearful of when he’ll come again, Ollie, Brian, and Coco are anxiously searching for a way to defeat him once and for all. By staying together and avoiding remote places, they’ve steered clear of him so far but their constant worry and stress is taking a toll on their lives and friendship. So when Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom plan a “fun” boat trip on Lake Champlain, the three are apprehensive to say the least. They haven’t had the best of luck on their recent trips and even worse their frenemy Phil is on the boat as well. But when a lake monster destroys their boat, they end up shipwrecked on a deserted island. This isn’t just any island though. It’s hidden from the outside world in a fog and unless everyone works together to find a way to escape, they won’t survive long.

Star Divider

Review

Dark Waters is rather a low point for the Small Spaces quartet. Under 200 pages in length, the book seems written mainly to fill up the “spring” slot in the series and to bridge the gap until the thrilling conclusion (sold to readers through a cliffhanger). The plot, which features a massive water snake, is simply not as compelling as the plots of the first two books, and it lacks heart. Fans of the series will read it because they are already invested, but Dark Waters proves a mostly forgettable read.

Regrettably, this series seems to have hit its high point with book one. Small Spaces was a pleasantly creepy, if not wholly surprising, read for the middle grade crowd. Dead Voices laid on the spook factor, even if the plot was confusing and convoluted. But Dark Waters feels like it has just given up. Although ostensibly Brian’s story, the book fails to meaningfully convey Brian’s inner life. And the premise–being stuck on a deserted island with a huge monster–just never feels scary. The children are too quick to solve problems and the actual problem–the monster–comes across as more cheesy than threatening. And the Smiling Man? Nowhere to be found.

Really, however, the book seems to exist mainly to set up the final cliffhanger. This seems to be indicated in part by just how short the story is. Probably the last 50 pages of the book are actually chapters from Small Spaces and Dead Voices. Most books put a preview of the upcoming installment, not excerpts from previous books. What can a person conclude but that these excerpts were appended to the ending so that the book looks longer than it truly is? Without these excerpts, it becomes clear that readers are buying a story that is not equal in length to the previous books. A story that is only around 180 pages. A story that barely begins before it ends.

The Small Spaces quartet began with much promise, but the books have been declining in quality as the series progresses. I will still be reading the final book, since I made it this far, but I admit that my hopes are not high.

2 star review

Ghost Girl by Ally Malinenko (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Ghost Girl
Series: None
Source: Goodreads Giveaway
Publication Date: August 10, 2021

Official Summary

Perfect for fans of Small Spaces and Nightbooks, Ally Malinenko’s middle-grade debut is an empowering and triumphant ghost story—with spooky twists sure to give readers a few good goosebumps!

Zee Puckett loves ghost stories. She just never expected to be living one.

It all starts with a dark and stormy night. When the skies clear, everything is different. People are missing. There’s a creepy new principal who seems to know everyone’s darkest dreams. And Zee is seeing frightening things: large, scary dogs that talk and maybe even . . . a ghost.

When she tells her classmates, only her best friend, Elijah, believes her. Worse, mean girl Nellie gives Zee a cruel nickname: Ghost Girl.

But whatever the storm washed up isn’t going away. Everyone’s most selfish wishes start coming true in creepy ways.

To fight for what’s right, Zee will have to embrace what makes her different and what makes her Ghost Girl. And all three of them—Zee, Elijah, and Nellie—will have to work together if they want to give their ghost story a happy ending.

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Review

Ghost Girl is a creepy middle-grade novel that will appeal to fans of Small Spaces. When a new principal comes to town and promises everyone their deepest desires, only Zoe seems immune to his charms. But she has seen the supernatural dogs roaming the graveyard, and she knows that the people and the things the principal is conjuring cannot be real. However, the lure of having what one wants most can be stronger even than the truth. Ghost Girl does not particularly stand out from similar spooky middle-grade titles, but may appeal to tween readers who enjoy thrills and chills.

The premise of having a trickster-like character who promises one thing but delivers another is, of course, a very old one. As such, it does potentially have instant appeal–the character has been around so long for a reason. However, the familiarity of the concept can also make it difficult to make it feel new. In the case of Ghost Girl, the plot is a pretty standard one: the trickster comes to town, is recognized for what he is by a child, and then defeated by the rules of his own game. The signature sparks that make the tale feel original? Unfortunately, they are mostly lacking.

Great characters could have made this book really come alive. However, Zee also feels a bit standard as a protagonist. She is the odd girl at school, the one who prefers spooky stories and the world of the imagination to the horrible feeling of reality–her dead mom, her missing dad, her classmate bullies. Her main trait of originality is that she can actually be rather mean and dishonest, despite her complaints about the way others act. This mean streak, however, sometimes work against Zee, making it difficult to root for her. Her friend Elijah and her nemesis Nellie add a bit more of interest to the story, but their sudden romantic interest in each other feels forced, arguably ruining what could have been a fine tale of budding friendships.

The writing style also worked against the story for me. While it can be difficult at times to pinpoint exactly what about a writing style is grating, merely the fact that I noticed the writing style, instead of seamlessly falling into the story, is not a good sign. If I had not felt compelled to finish the book in order to write a review, I likely would have stopped several pages in, from the writing alone.

Despite my reading experience, however, I recognize that the tween audience for which the book is intended might not be as concerned about originality as I am, and that many might even enjoy seeing another outsider character. Middle school, after all, can be rough, and many young people often feel that they do not belong, either. They may enjoy the book as something new, when I cannot, since I have read many similar titles. And they might relate to Zee in a way I do not, again having seen too many similar characters. Ultimately, the reading experience was solid enough, if not extraordinary.

3 Stars

Bridge of Souls by Victoria Schwab

Bridge of Souls

Information

Goodreads: Bridge of Souls
Series: Cassidy Blake #3
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Where there are ghosts, Cassidy Blake follows … unless it’s the other way around?

Cass thinks she might have this ghost-hunting thing down. After all, she and her ghost best friend, Jacob, have survived two haunted cities while travelling for her parents’ TV show.

But nothing can prepare Cass for New Orleans, which wears all of its hauntings on its sleeve. In a city of ghost tours and tombs, raucous music and all kinds of magic, Cass could get lost in all the colourful, grisly local legends. And the city’s biggest surprise is a foe Cass never expected to face: a servant of Death itself.

Cass takes on her most dangerous challenge yet…

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Review

I started the Cassidy Blake series with high hopes. A travel series with a supernatural twist? Sign me up! Unfortunately, however, I have found all three books to be perfectly capable, but also perfectly mediocre. Victoria Schwab does not really deliver anything new here, nor are the stories particularly creepy or even particularly evocative as travel narratives. They possess all the right ingredients, but somehow those ingredients never combine to make something memorable. Bridge of Souls suffers from the same issues apparent in the first two books–a standard plot combined with lackluster characterization–and ultimately fails to justify all the buildup given it by the previous installments in the series.

As the (presumably) final book in the trilogy, Bridge of Souls probably should also be the scariest. Despite the threat of Death itself, however, the book fails to deliver a plot that feels significantly sinister. Rather, the Emissary of Death appears to pop up at very convenient times. He is then evaded each time fairly easily by a young girl who does not know anything about what she is doing. One expects more from a being allegedly never before defeated by humans. The climax of the book does not really solve this problem. Rather, readers get a pretty confusing scene where the Emissary is evidently defeated by, well, (spoiler alert) falling into a river. Why this works is unclear, but the protagonists seem convince this is enough, so I guess readers are meant to be convinced, as well.

The other main plot point should have involved Jacob’s growing solidity, which as been hinted at several times throughout the series so far. However, even though readers might have expected a heart-wrenching scene in which Cass has to decide between keeping her best friend or unleashing unspecified but terrible effects upon the natural world, this does not happen. My best guess is that Schwab is leaving the series open for an expansion, so she did not want to deal with this problem in this book. However, as it is, the book simply ends with what can only be called a reset of the status quo, with nothing addressed and nothing resolved. This feels extremely unsatisfying, especially as Cass and Jacob’s relationship as so far been the strongest point of the series. Evading the necessary hard choices feels like a cop out.

The travel aspect of the series has had the potential to make the books stand out a little more than other similar titles. However, thus far Schwab has failed to engage meaningfully with this aspect. The scene setting often feels like a list of street names and tourist attractions, with a signature cultural dish thrown in for good measure. The books never really make me feel like I have been to the places described, or that I have a good sense of the people or culture. Perhaps it does not help that Cass spends most of her travel time chasing ghosts rather than interacting with the towns and their people, but I think a book that wants to be a travel narrative should evoke the feeling of a particular destination more than these books do.

Altogether, this series has been pretty lackluster. I have kept on reading with the hope that the books might improve, but the supernatural worldbuilding remains only semi-developed, while the characters failed to grow in this book, largely due to the authorial decision to avoid addressing the issue of Jacob’s growing solidity. Nothing about the series really stands out. Should a book four ever be released, I doubt I will be reading it. There are more gripping supernatural middle grade books out there.

2 star review

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?

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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.

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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

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces

Information

Goodreads: Small Spaces
Series: Small Spaces #1
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

When Ollie finds a woman trying to throw a book into the local swimming hole, she can’t help herself–she grabs the book and runs. It tells the story of a farm where, long ago, a woman’s husband disappeared, taken by the smiling man. Then Ollie finds herself on the same farm for a school field trip–and something is not right. The bus driver gives an eerie warning, leading Ollie to flee the bus. Can she survive through the night? Or will the smiling man come for her, too?

Star Divider

Review

Small Spaces is a deliciously creepy middle grade tale about a man who grants one’s heart’s desire, but always for a price. When Ollie’s sixth grade class goes on a field trip to the smiling man’s roaming grounds, she fears that her classmates and herself may be trapped in a bargain gone wrong. Desperate, she sets off through the woods, hoping she can find a way to stay alive until morning. Thus begins a thrilling story full of mystery, danger, and suspense.

Small Spaces hits all the right notes for a middle grade horror story, introducing readers to a terrifying villain and his unnatural servants, but never becoming so scary it is overwhelming. The villain, you see, has his limitations and, if Ollie and her friends can figure them out, they will have a sporting chance at winning his game. This lends a bit of hope to the story, even when the darkness threatens to become too much.

What makes the story really enchanting, however, is the feeling that it is rooted in a bit of folklore. The demonic figure who offers bargains too good to be true is a recurring type, and Katherine Arden uses it here to great effect. The audience knows that the smiling man can never be trusted–but will Ollie and her friends be able to resist? How does one outwit a master bargainer, without getting the short end of the deal?

Readers looking for a creepy middle grade read in the vein of Victoria Scwab’s City of Ghosts will delight in finding a new series full of supernatural thrills. Small Spaces is only the first book of what is projected to be a four-book series, so there are plenty chilling adventures to come!

3 Stars

The Secret of Danger Point by Kim Dwinell

The Secret of Danger Point by Kim Dwinell Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Secret of Danger Point
Series: Surfside Girls #1
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Sam and Jade’s friendship has felt a little off lately. Jade keeps giggling over boys, which annoys Sam. And now Sam can see ghosts–and Jade thinks she might be losing it. The ghosts want Sam to help save their home. But what can one girl do?

Star Divider

Review

The Secret of Danger Point begins the adventures of Sam and Jade, two friends who solve supernatural mysteries at their home on the beach. The book feels like an instant classic, reminiscent of serial mysteries like the Nancy Drew stories, but updated for a modern audience. The cheerful illustrations will appeal to tween readers of graphic novels, as will all the adventure–and romance! Anyone who has ever dreamed of solving mysteries like the Boxcar Children or the Hardy Boys will love the Surfside Girls books.

Admittedly, The Secret of Danger Point feels very much like the first book in the series. Readers have to spend time getting to know Sam and Jade, their likes and dislikes, and the ups and downs of their friendship. Sam likes to surf and swim, while Jade prefers to kayak and visit the library. Sam is not very interested in boys right now, but Jade is beginning to act silly whenever they see someone of the opposite sex. Sam has been chosen to be the guardian of Danger Point, but Jade can’t see the ghosts–and she is not convinced Sam is seeing them, either. All this exposition takes some time that takes away from the mystery. However, I think it is worth it to get to know Sam and Jade and their home.

The book is very charming, and I think the illustration-style will appeal to the intended tween audience. The artwork is done in bright, beachy colors that make Danger Point and its inhabitants come alive; readers may close the book wondering when they can schedule their own visit to the seaside. It is also not remotely scary. The ghosts are depicted as friendly people who just want to keep their home, and who become friends with Sam. I loved the concept of Sam and Jade helping spirits, but in a fun way!

Readers looking for a delightful summer read, a new mystery series, or the perfect graphic novel series to keep themselves (or their tween readers) engrossed will love the Surfside Girls. So far, there are two books in the series. But I hope there are many more!

4 stars

The Mystery at the Old Rancho by Kim Dwinell

Information

Goodreads: The Mystery at the Old Rancho
Series: Surfside Girls #2
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Sam and Jade are back to solve another mystery! When Maria, one of the ghosts at Danger Point, starts to think she is seeing her long-dead father, Sam and Jade start investigating. What really happened to Maria’s father? And who is the man she saw on the beach?

Star Divider

Review

The Mystery at the Old Rancho is the second installment of the Surfside Girls series, but readers do not have to be familiar with the first adventure to solve this one. The basic premise is that protagonists Jade and Sam can see ghosts, and they help those ghosts solve mysteries. It’s sort of like an updated Nancy Drew series, with a supernatural twist. I was totally engrossed.

Sam and Jade are likable protagonists, not drawn in any detail, but likable mainly because they are young, they are friends, and they are eager to help. Their kind of vague characterization is an asset, much like Nancy Drew’s–who they are does not matter as much as their ability to solve mysteries. They are stand-ins for the readers, who live vicariously through their adventures.

And what a great adventure they have in this installment! In their attempts to help Maria, a ghost who believes she is seeing her deceased father, they visit a museum, travel to consult some archives, and end up finding a secret passageway. The story thus has some semblance of realism in its depiction of how to track down historical details, but also that hint of escapist fun.

The Mystery at the Old Rancho is a perfect summer read. Set on the beach, it has surfing, cute boys, and a beautiful natural setting–as well as mystery and adventure. Fans of serial mystery stories like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys will enjoy this series, as well graphic novel fans looking for their next engrossing read.

5 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

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