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?

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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.

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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

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.