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

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Movie Review: When Marnie Was There (2014)

movie review stars

When Marnie Was ThereINFORMATION

DirectorHiromasa Yonebayashi
WritersJoan G. Robinson (novel), Keiko Niwa (screenplay)
Release: 2015

SUMMARY

After an asthma attack, Anna’s foster parents send her to the seaside, hoping both that her health will improve and that she will become less withdrawn.  There Anna continues to isolate herself,until she sees a mysterious light in an old house on the marsh and meets Marnie, the girl who lives there.  But is Marnie even real?

REVIEW

When Marnie Was There is potentially Studio Ghibli’s final film and thus of special interest to fans, not only because it might be the last offering from a great studio but also because it points to what future world could look like, should Studio Ghibli continue.  Even without Hayao Miyazaki, this film is beautifully rendered and has something of that touch of the magical with which he imbued his work.

Here we have many of the typical elements of a Ghibli film–the gorgeous landscapes; the slow interludes showing the passage of a train or something equally, seemingly mundane; the young girl protagonist.  Anne is not quite the believer in magic who often populates these films.  Instead, she is a self-pitying loner with a tendency to reject love and sabotage her relationships.  She is endearing nonetheless.  And she is about to embark on an adventure that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

This adventure, I admit, did not play out exactly how I might have wished it to.  Perhaps this is due to the way the novel was written–I don’t really know.  But there are glimpses of moments that might have been expanded, such as Anna’s spat with some local girls, or the quick looks at Marnie’s home life.  And, finally, there is the ending.

[Spoilers for the end of the film in this paragraph.]  The story sets Anna and Marnie’s friendship up as a budding romance (despite the presence of a boy in Marnie’s life–a boy Anna is clearly jealous of.)  Then the plot unravels.  It soon becomes clear that Marnie and Anna must be related.  One might argue that this makes the lesbian romance less objectionable to audiences (Joan G. Robinson published the novel in 1967 so she was probably concerned about that), but the choice has perhaps unintended repercussions.  Firstly, the story no longer makes sense.  It was written as a romance and then the writer essentially says “Haha!  Just kidding!” and pretends the declarations of love and longing stares never happened.  It destroys the integrity of the story.  Secondly, it just makes things awkward.  How are audiences supposed to feel about Anna crushing on the ghost of her grandmother?

The ending really marred this work for me. I recognize that it’s a beautiful film, that it has compelling characters, that it captures the magic Studio Ghibli is known for.  But when I think about the plot is finally undermined, it’s difficult for me to envision myself watching this movie again.

4 starsKrysta 64

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

The Whispering SkullInformation

Goodreads: The Whispering Skull
Series: Lockwood & Co. #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

In Lucy Carlyle’s world ,the dead stopped staying dead fifty years ago.  The phenomenon is known as the “Problem” and an industry of child warriors has sprung up to fight and contain the ghosts that can drive people mad or even kill them.  Lucy is an agent with the somewhat famous, somewhat disreputable Lockwood & Co., the only agency not supervised by adults (who have no ability to see or hear the dead).  Famous since their success with the notorious Screaming Staircase.  Disreputable because of their lack of adult leaders.  Even so, things are looking up for the agency until Lockwood makes a bet with their rivals in the Fittes agency–the next time the two groups share a case, the one who does not solve it first has to advertise their inferiority in the newspaper.  Soon enough the two agencies are both on the hunt for a dangerous supernatural artifact, but will Lockwood & Co. be able to find it before the whispering skull in their possession turns them against one another?

Review

The Whispering Skull delivers all the fast-paced excitement and mystery one would expect after having read the first installment, but offers a story uniquely its own.  Rather than provide a repeat of the first book, another investigation of a local haunting, The Whispering Skull delves even deeper into Stroud’s alternative world, beginning to probe the origins of the “Problem” and the sometimes strange responses to it, such as the cults that sprang up to worship relics that bring them visitors from the other side, visitors who could, in theory, solve the riddle of death.  Philosophical questions about the nature of knowledge and the extent to which humanity should dare to probe the unknown combine with a gripping race to save London from imminent destruction to create a story that stands out as one of the more original and exciting middle grade reads this year.

Lucy Carlyle returns as our perceptive narrator, one who can immediately draw sympathy from the reader through her determination, sense of humor, and sound common sense.  Though she fights life-threatening entities on a regular basis, she seems so ordinary, like the type of girl with whom you could have gone to school.  Perhaps it is her refreshing ability to sift out what matters from what does not that makes her so compelling.  Other protagonists would have succumbed to the types of mind games that turn heroes against one another.  Lucy holds her friends too dear to fall for any of that nonsense.  She’s the type of character you’ve always wanted in your horror stories.  She doesn’t find adventure because she’s stupid but despite the fact that she tries so hard to do everything right.

Unfortunately, despite hints of an attraction between Lucy and Lockwood (well, at least we know Lucy’s definitely crushing on her boss), Lockwood receives little character development in this installment, other than some vague references to the secrets he keeps.  Instead the focus turns to George Cubbins, the type of character other stories tend to forget: overweight, myopic, not very clean, and incredibly excited about doing research.  He could have been a caricature, but Stroud treats him with sympathy and respect, allowing readers to catch a bit of his enthusiasm for history and to begin to understand what makes him tick.  Previously George seemed just like your ordinary weird roommate, but The Whispering Statue lets him shine.  How wonderful to see him taken seriously.

The characters really drive the story for me, though, of course, Stroud also creates a highly original and compelling world, one that offers seemingly endless fascinations and mysteries.  The race to recover a dangerous supernatural artifact is only one factor that makes this story so gripping.  Entwined with the main plot are the beginnings (presumably) of the next book’s story–the cults who trade in relics of the dead in hopes of discovering the afterlife.  Clearly everything the agencies thought they knew about confronting the Problem is about to come tumbling down, but I, for one, am ready.  Our heroes so far have shown an incredible devotion to doing the right thing despite enormous temptation and it is always a pleasure to be able to get behind a protagonist unconflicted about morality.

The Whispering Skull is an impressive addition to the Lockwood & Co. series, expertly managing to avoid the infamous sequel slump while simultaneously laying the groundwork for what promises to be another exciting adventure.  The next book cannot be released too soon.

Krysta 64

Jackaby by William Ritter

JackabyInformation

Goodreads: Jackaby
Series: Jackaby #1
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

It’s 1892 and Abigail Rook is newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England after having run away from home in search of adventure.  First, however, she needs a job.  After scouring the city with little luck, Abigail answers an advertisement for an investigative assistant, the specialty of the service being the unexplained.  Enter R. F. Jackaby, a detective of sorts who claims that he can see magical creatures no one else can.  When the police cannot solve a crime, Jackaby follows the supernatural evidence to find the real culprit (even if the police don’t believe him).  Abigail is skeptical at first, too, but her first day on the job finds her on the scene of a serial murderer, the villain whom Jackaby says isn’t human.  Can the pair solve the mystery before the killer strikes again?  Or will they be the next ones to lose their lives?

Review

The cover jacket bills Jackaby as a cross between the BBC’s Sherlock and Doctor Who, but, as with most such allusions, I find the comparison a stretch.  Yes, Jackaby is a bit of an eccentric and a tad unfeeling towards others and, yes,  he investigates unexplained mysteries, but aside from that, the similarities are few.  After all, I would expect a Sherlock-like book to include more convoluted clues and perhaps some fancy use of technology, and I would expect something inspired by Doctor Who to include, if not time travel and aliens, at least some of the joy the show used to have.  I actually think it’s a bit of a shame the cover blurb would create such high expectations, for the story is solid on its own, but falters a little under the weight of the comparisons.

“Solid,” of course, is not a flashy description or one that usually has readers pulling a book off the shelves, but since this a debut book, I use the term in what I mean to be a complimentary way.  It manages, in a reasonable amount of space (as in, it’s not one of those books that’s 400 pages just so it can feel like it’s Harry Potter), to create a fascinating and original world full of magic and mystery, to introduce a cast of likable and often amusing characters, and to provide a plot that, if it admittedly lacks complexity and surprise, at least holds the interest of the reader all the way through.  It’s not my favorite book of the year, but I would still like to read the sequel.

Some parts of the book admittedly still reveal the story as a debut.  Abigail Rook, for instance, reads very much like one of those cliche and anachronistic women who flout all the social conventions of their time for no apparent reason other than that readers are evidently supposed to be unable to connect with a female from the late nineteenth century if she could plausibly have lived at that time.  Furthermore, most of Abigail’s character description comes from forced speeches she makes about how she longs for adventure and read more books than her father’s graduate students.  I would not have known any of this, however, from Abigail’s actual actions.

I also regret that the romance proves sort of vague (though I applaud the complete absence of a love triangle.  Jackaby is not a suitable romantic interest at this time, thanks to his inability to connect with people, and the author knows it).  I like that the romance is not sudden and fast, that’s it’s being allowed to develop naturally.  However, at this point the two romantic interests barely know each other, so it seems rather odd that they’re treating their romance as something more than interest or a crush, when it really is still at that level.  I wish their status had been more defined in this first installment, just so it isn’t so weird and awkward.

These slight criticisms aside, Jackaby is a fun, original novel that will have readers engrossed in its magical world and clamoring for the sequel.  I am sure that, as William Ritter hones his skill, the results will be incredible.