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

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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.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Screaming StaircaseInformation

Goodreads: The Screaming Staircase
Series: Lockwood & Co. #1
Source: Library
Published: 2013

Summary

Fifty years ago, the dead stopped staying dead.  An entire industry has sprung up with the purpose of eradicating the ghosts that can not only drive people mad but also kill them.  Only children, however, have the ability to see and hear the specters and only one agency works without any adult supervision—Lockwood & Co.  As a result, the company has a poor reputation, but when a rich patron offers Lockwood one of the biggest cases in the nation, their future seems assured.  That is, if they can survive the ghosts of the infamous Screaming Staircase.

Review

The media seems a little oversaturated with the supernatural right now and I admit I wondered when I picked up The Screaming Staircase whether anyone really needed yet another story about professional ghost hunters.  Jonathan Stroud’s name reassured me, however, and I went ahead and took the plunge.  Now I’m only upset because I have to wait until next year for the sequel.

The Screaming Staircase is one of the most engrossing middle-grade books I have read in a long time.  The story grabs readers from the start, introducing them to a modern-day Britain both familiar and strange.  Strange, of course, because of the normality of ghosts walking about the living, but also because modern conveniences such as cell phones do not seem to exist.  The blend reminds me a little of Harry Potter—readers can situate themselves in a world they recognize as their own, but increased danger arises from the lack of immediate access to information and to other people.

Lucy Carlyle, the narrator of the story, will no doubt charm readers, too.  She is spunky and bold, but not deficient of common sense.  She acts when she needs to, but also retreats when she needs to.  Seeing someone make smart decisions in books can sometimes seem rare (especially when the supernatural is involved), so watching events unfold through her eyes proves a real treat.  Her character is also a testament to Stroud’s skill—he does not need to rely on nonsensical choices to drive his plot.

Lucy also provides the perfect counterpart to the more dashing and reckless Anthony Lockwood.  Rich and slightly mysterious, he might seem like a character readers have met before.  Stroud, however, makes Lockwood his own man.  He proves likable and funny, a good person to have at your side while fighting ghosts, but also a good friend.  I cannot be the only reader hoping for a future romance in this direction.

Rounding out Lockwood & Co. is the slightly overlooked George Cubbins.  He does not normally fight ghosts, instead doing research for the group, so the book cover skims a little over his existence.  The book, however, would not be the same without him.  Slightly weird and slightly unkempt, George grounds the trio in real normalcy.  He insists that the group share baked goods equally, provides the catalyst for everyday squabbles over things like the state of the bathroom, and yells at Lockwood when he makes stupid decisions.  If anything makes the world of Lockwood & Co. seem real, it is George.  He’s like that old roommate you’ve heard tell of.

Some readers, of course, might be hesitant to pick up a book focused on ghosts, especially one that posits their existence in the same world in which readers live.  I admit that ghost stories scare me and I usually shy away from anything that looks like it will keep me up all night.  However, I actually read The Screaming Staircase alone in my room with the main light off sometime after midnight.  The difference for me between this book and something like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is the nature of the ghosts.  They can drive people mad, but their main threat is physical, meaning that not only can you fight them and contain them but also that you can run from them.

The Screaming Staircase is a thrilling start to a new series sure to delight fans not only of Jonathan Stroud and but also of middle-grade fantasy and urban fantasy.  Fast-paced and full of action, it draws readers into its richly-drawn world so tightly that they may not want to leave.

Krysta 64

Touching Darkness by Scott Westerfeld

Goodreads: Touching Darkness
Series: Midnighters #2

Summary:  In the town of Bixby, five special teenagers called Midnighters discover they have one extra hour of the day, one hour starting exactly at midnight when every other human freezes in his or her tracks.  The only problem: darklings also walk at this hour, and they like to eat humans.  The Midnighters have developed ways to fight the darklings using metal and their special skills, but it seems as if the darklings have found human allies—and they can hunt at all the other hours of the day.

Review: As a beginning disclaimer, I read this book without having read the first book in the series.  I was, in fact, oblivious that Midnighters is a series at all.  Nothing on Touching Darkness says “Book 2,” and there are not even any review quotes that say something to the effect of “a stunning sequel!”  Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Midnighters title is much larger and more noticeable than the Touching Darkness, which I only saw after having been suddenly enlightened to the fact that this book belongs to a trilogy.

One conclusion we can gain from this story is that I have my moments of being singularly unobservant.  But it also reveals that Touching Darkness is great as a standalone.  I was halfway through the book before I meandered over to Goodreads and discovered I had been missing the first part of the story all along.  There are a few vague references to the fact that Jessica had previously fought the darklings and now they are all deeply afraid of her, but I was able to shrug this off as an eccentric back story.  Otherwise, the book is full of enough background information that I had no difficulty understanding what Midnighters are, who all the characters are, or what types of things they do to fight the darklings.

Interestingly, this does lead one to question whether there is too much background for readers who choose, quite sensibly, to read the stories in order.  Perhaps it could all come across as old news to anyone who reads straight through the trilogy, but it is doubtless a helpful reminder to anyone who puts a bit of space in between reading the first and second books.

Touching Darkness, as a standalone, is a very creative, creepy, and suspenseful work.  Images of evil crawling things and humans that will hunt others down for money stand out on the pagers and will bring horrible visions to those reads this book late at night—even if the space in which darklings are able to materialize seems to be fairly localized.  Westerfeld, as always, manages to create a unique, fascinating, and still believable world.  In fact, a lot of focus is put onto how numbers and math can explain Bixby’s oddities.

The characters in Touching Darkness are also skillfully drawn.  The focus is on the five Midnighters, all of who have distinct personalities to match their personal Midnighter talents.  Together they have an intriguing and complex dynamic that readers will enjoy watching develop.  Whether they are actually likeable, however, will be up to personal taste, as even they become testy with and annoyed by each other.  I personally did not really relate to any of them, although I could see each of their merits.  My favorite character may actually have been Jessica’s younger sister, whom I hope will have a larger role in the next book.

Touching Darkness was a fun, eerie adventure with a lot of action.  It does not have the same urgency as Uglies, however, and even though there are a few loose ends, the third book does not even have to be read for it to feel like a complete story.  A very solid book, but not mind-blowing.

Published: March 1, 2005

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