The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

“Lockwood & Co. are hired to investigate Edmund Bickerstaff, a Victorian doctor who reportedly tried to communicate with the dead, while Lucy is distracted by urgent whispers coming from the skull in a ghost jar”–Provided by publisher.

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I’ve only read one book in between The Screaming Staircase (#1) and The Whispering Skull (#2) so this dark and creepy alternate world was easy to be welcomed back into. In this book, we fast forward six months and discover what the teenage ghost hunters of Lockwood and Co. have been up to. I enjoyed the inclusion of the whispering skull (glowing green head trapped in a jar —>) as it kept me guessing whether it was an ally or not. Only Lucy (because of her Talent) can hear the skull, but it taunts and teases Anthony, Lucy and George to no end! This is very amusing for the reader. Obviously, the title of the book hints of the skull’s importance in the book, but you’ll have to read The Whispering Skull to find out just how!

While I did enjoy The Whispering Skull, I wish Stroud would have included more info regarding The Problem. I thought the world building and background was super interesting in book #1, and that we’d learn more in book #2. I also found myself wanting more horror scenes as the first book. This one is more of a mystery/adventure, featuring a competition between ghost-hunting agencies to find stolen powerful and supernatural artefacts. Don’t get me wrong- there is ghost rats, talking skulls and plenty of creepy scenes to scare a brave reader! There is also a HUGE cliff-hanger that will likely unravel some of Lockwood’s past secrets. So, although The Whispering Skull did not engage me as much as The Screaming Staircase, I will likely continue on with book #3 The Hollow Boy.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions. Lucy Carlyle, a talented yo51ap7b3fZGL__AC_UL320_SR210,320_ung agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive.
I must admit, I don’t like reading scary stories (especially those about ghosts) and I’ve never read anything by Jonathan Stroud before. BUT that’s all changed.

In this alternate world, supernatural spirits (aka “visitors”) are so widespread that private agencies made up of children operatives (they have better senses than adults) are formed to battle “the Problem”.   One such agency, Lockwood & Co. struggles to remain afloat after a destructive accident involving the team members, Anthony Lockwood, George Cubbins and Lucy Carlyle. All three of these characters bring their own skill set and personalities, so the group dynamics (especially the banter!) was a highlight for me.

I was surprised how dark, scary and violent some scenes were, but I suppose that’s exactly what some readers are looking for. Although I think all ghosts are scary, in this world, there are two types to look out for: type 1 (harmless) and type 2 (dangerous). To solve these spine tingling murder mysteries, the group arms themselves with magnesium flares, iron rapiers, salt and chain nets- but will it be enough? Don’t worry, if you forget any of these important details, they are all listed in the glossary in the back.

I’m not a fan of reading series, but I’ve already placed Book #2: The Whispering Skull on hold and have recommended it to several colleagues. I’m looking forward to reading more about Lockwood & Co.’s adventures!

Audrey (cow) by Dan Bar-el

Audrey is a cow with poetry in her blood, who yearns for the greener pastures beyond Bittersweet Farms. But when Roy the horse tells this bovine dreamer that she is headed for Abbot’s War, the slaughter house, Audrey knows that she must leave her home and friends sooner than she ever imagined. With the help of a whole crew of animals and humans alike, Audrey attempts to escape the farm she lives on–and certain death. Cleverly written as an oral account, this unique illustrated tale of an animal on the run, told “to camera”, uses over thirty narrative voices, including six humans, four cows, three sheep, two sheep dogs, one pig and a very silly rooster. Full of heart and humor, Audrey (cow) is ultimately a very human story about life and death, friendship, and holding on to one’s dreams–based more or less on a true story.

audrey

Audrey is a sweet middle grade read with a unique narrative style.  The story is told through transcripts of interviews with animals and humans. Adorable black and white illustrations are also included throughout.

When Audrey (cow) learns she is heading to the slaughterhouse, she enlists the help of a variety of farm and woodland animals. I was surprised to learn that Audrey was inspired by a true story of Charlene- a cow in Ohio that escaped the slaughterhouse. One can’t help to rejoice!  However, as a former vegetarian, I quickly found myself thinking (again!) about the treatment of animals for food. As Audrey states, ‘… I think that if I was to choose just one word to describe myself, that word would be alive.” Not only are animals alive, but they have personalities and emotions, and like Audrey, may even enjoy poetry! This book would be a great discussion starter on serious topics like the meat industry, treatment of animals and vegetarianism.

Fortunately, for Audrey, her story is a happy one. With themes of friendship and courage, this book is recommended for all animal lovers.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

The Boundless, the greatest train ever built, is on its maiden voyage across the country, and first-class passenger Will Everett is about to embark on the adventure of his life! When Will ends up in possession of the key to a train car containing priceless treasures, he becomes the target of sinister figures from his past.

In order to survive, Will must join a traveling circus, enlisting the aid of Mr. Dorian, the ringmaster and leader of the troupe, and Maren, a girl his age who is an expert escape artist. With villains fast on their heels, can Will and Maren reach Will’s father and save The Boundless before someone winds up dead?

boundless

I really enjoyed Oppel`s This Dark Endeavor, and heard many positive reviews about The Boundless when it was released in 2014.  It`s a suspenseful middle grade read, featuring avalanches, sasquatches, murders and more!

The majority of the story takes place on a Titanic-inspired train on a journey across Canada, Halifax to Victoria.  I enjoyed how it highlights Canada; from the trans-continental railroad, to the Mountie on board. Oppel didn`t shy away from portraying some of the darker aspects of Canada`s history, including the treatment of aboriginal people.  However, it wasn’t all historical; he also included a sasquatch and a muskeg hag.

Since it is a middle grade book, some may have concern for the age appropriateness of swear words (feck and jaysus), and the violence (a sasquatch tears off a man’s head and puts it on a spike).   Besides this, I think the book has wide appeal for both boys and girls.  So, hop on board The Boundless for a fast paced, wild Canadian, fantasy adventure!

Man Made Boy by Jon Skovron

Love can be a real monster.

Sixteen-year-old Boy’s never left home. When you’re the son of Frankenstein’s monster and the Bride, it’s tough to go out in public, unless you want to draw the attention of a torch-wielding mob. And since Boy and his family live in a secret enclave of monsters hidden under Times Square, it’s important they maintain a low profile.

Boy’s only interactions with the world are through the Internet, where he’s a hacker extraordinaire who can hide his hulking body and stitched-together face behind a layer of code. When conflict erupts at home, Boy runs away and embarks on a cross-country road trip with the granddaughters of Jekyll and Hyde, who introduce him to malls and diners, love and heartbreak. But no matter how far Boy runs, he can’t escape his demons—both literal and figurative—until he faces his family once more.

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Prepare to embark on a journey that crosses all genres.  Fantasy, romance, and humour are all included in this techno-thriller that features various creatures, including the son of Frankenstein’s monster and the Monster’s Bride, Boy. As Boy struggles to find his place in the world, he quickly learns valuable lessons on responsibility and failure.

Initially, I was intrigued by the creative premise of the book.  How cool would it be if magical and mythological creatures were hidden in communes around the world?  While I enjoyed the multitude of characters, I found a lot of them made a quick cameo and didn’t add anything to the story.  I wish these interesting characters (Invisible man, Sphinx, Dragon Lady, Mozart the werewolf) were further explored!

Techies will love the computer coding aspect and the inclusion of VI (a computer virus). I liked the change up of text when Boy navigated cyberspace and participated in instant messaging chat.  However, my knowledge of hacking and coding is limited, and I found myself skipping over some of the lengthier descriptions of code talk.

Although Man Made Boy includes a variety of genres, potential readers should be made aware of the mature language and nonchalant mentioning of sex.   If you enjoy retellings or re-imaginings of classic stories, than perhaps Man Made Boy is for you!

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity . . .

 doll

This spooky adventure story for middle graders is my first Holly Black read. I must say, that I was quite impressed because even as an adult, I still enjoyed this tale.  While the storyline revolved around the quest to rightfully bury a potentially haunted porcelain doll, there was a wonderful message  about growing up. The three amigos are twelve years old, and right on the cusp of adolescence.  The three are encouraged to stop playing with make believe, and ‘grow up’. Zack’s dad even goes as far as throwing out his beloved action figures.

Even without this heartbreaking event, Zack along with Poppy and Alice are beginning to realize on their own that their relationship is undergoing change and perhaps they are getting to old to play. However, they embark on one last quest together that involves some pretty risky moves, including: sneaking out of the house, stealing a boat and bike, and breaking into a library.  I hope impressionable young readers don’t get any ideas from these three adventurers.

I adored this book because I empathized with the characters (especially Zack after his dad tossed his action figures) and could relate to that awkward, sticky transition from childhood to adolescence. Although their hobbies and friend groups are beginning to shift, I’d like to imagine the three of them beating the odds, and remaining friends.

Additionally, I’d like to thank Black for challenging the stereotypical image of a librarian. Miss Katherine rocked pink hair and stylish shoes, and as Zack pointed out, not like any librarian he’d seen before. Not all of us keep our hair in buns and wear penny loafers, thank you very much!

In terms of graphics, the cover is brilliant. Dolls are creepy enough to begin with, but one made with human bones, filled with ashes is creepy x 100.  In their quest to bury ‘The Queen’, a handful of illustrations were a welcome addition to the text.  In the end, whether or not the doll was truly haunted, remains a mystery.  However, believing in the doll’s magic allowed the three friends for one last bonding and memorable journey to become the hero of their own story.

 

Review: The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne

 

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Author, John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) teamed up with illustrator, Oliver Jeffers (The Hueys, Stuck) to bring juvenile readers this absurd, quirky adventurous story. Born with the ability to float, Barnaby embarrasses his ‘normal’ parents that are obsessed with being perceived as ‘normal’ by their friends and neighbours. In turn, his parent’s treat him terrible. Like, ignore him and hang him on a clothes line, terrible.  There is a conversation between Barnaby and his mother that will totally break your heart.  After instructing him to stop floating, she tells him, ‘Then, I’m sorry… But I have to say that I don’t like who you are very much” (p. 37).  At their wit’s end, his parent’s cut his weights and he floats around the world to meet other individuals that were sent away or abandoned by their families for also being ‘different’.

Although the characters in Barnaby’s travels all help in delivering the message that it’s OK to be different and true to oneself to be happy, the message got really repetitive.  When Barnaby was intercepted by the International Space Mission, I got bored and started to skim the text. And yes, it is a bizarre fantasy story to begin with, but I felt the space portion was so over the top and unrealistic.

Looking at my blog, I noticed that I’ve been reading lots of books with boy characters deemed different by society. I think the availability of books about embracing differences is fabulous, especially for growing readers looking for someone to relate to. I found the ending of The Terrible Thing… was perfect in sticking with the overall message of the book.  I wonder where in the world Barnaby’s next adventure awaits!

Review: Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch

Goodreads: Sixteen-year-old Glenn Morgan has lived next to the Rift her entire life and has no idea of what might be on the other side of it. Glenn’s only friend, Kevin, insists the fence holds back a world of monsters and witchcraft, but magic isn’t for Glenn. She has enough problems with reality: Glenn’s mother disappeared when she was six, and soon after, she lost her scientist father to his all-consuming work on the mysterious Project. Glenn buries herself in her studies and dreams about the day she can escape. But when her father’s work leads to his arrest, he gives Glenn a simple metal bracelet that will send Glenn and Kevin on the run—with only one place to go.

Expected Publication- October 1st 2012

With a little bit of action, adventure, fantasy, and dystopian elements, this book has a little bit of something for everyone—except me.  It was an OK read but most of the time, I was utterly confused.   Many bloggers have pointed out the similarities of the book to Lord of the Rings (however, I have no idea if this is true as I’ve never had any interest in LOTR whatsoever!)

At first, I was intrigued by the two differed worlds of the Colloquium and Magisterium (land of magic) and how the main character Glenn was connected to both.  However, the lack of explanations really started to bother me and the questions began to rise.  I also didn’t enjoy the amount of unimportant secondary characters.   They didn’t really play a big role and it was like one minute they were there and the next gone.  In the end, the storyline pacing was just a bunch of really strange things happening really quickly one after another.  It felt like I was reading about Hirsch’s crazy dream or bad drug trip!

The ending was also not in any way satisfying.   I detest that kind of cliff hanger! I would LOVE to hear if you liked this book and why.  I’ve never read anything by Jeff Hirsch before, so maybe I just don’t get him or the story he was trying to tell.

Review: Infinity Ring- Book 1: A Mutiny in Time by James Dashner

Goodreads: Scholastic’s next multi-platform mega-event begins here! History is broken, and three kids must travel back in time to set it right!

When best friends Dak Smyth and Sera Froste stumble upon the secret of time travel — a hand-held device known as the Infinity Ring — they’re swept up in a centuries-long secret war for the fate of mankind. Recruited by the Hystorians, a secret society that dates back to Aristotle, the kids learn that history has gone disastrously off course.Now it’s up to Dak, Sera, and teenage Hystorian-in-training Riq to travel back in time to fix the Great Breaks . . . and to save Dak’s missing parents while they’re at it. First stop: Spain, 1492, where a sailor named Christopher Columbus is about to be thrown overboard in a deadly mutiny!

Historical fiction for the middle school crowd usually isn’t my thing, but there has been so much buzz about this new series that I was excited to receive it as an advanced reading copy from Scholastic.  As the first book in the multi-author collaboration, it served to lay the background story, introducing the characters and explaining the alternate universe and the importance of the infinity ring.  Some explanations and theories were hard to wrap my head around, but I found Sera’s explanation of the breaks the useful.  She explains, ‘Breaks are great big boulders that have been plopped into the time stream. The stream keeps flowing but it has to veer a little bit from it’s natural course’.  As Sera, Dak and Riq attempt to fix these breaks, readers are treated to tons of humour, adventure and action (including multiple explosions!)

Overall, I think middle graders, reluctant readers, boys and girls, and fans of The 39 Clues would LOVE this book.  Don’t forget to extend the reading experience with the online component- http://www.infinityring.com  I tried it out- tons of fun!  ‘A Mutiny in Time’ is available TOMORROW-August 28th 2012. To hold the reader’s interest, the remaining six will be spaced out and released shortly after one another.  Big thumbs up!

Review: Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery, & a Very Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans

 As if being small for his age and also having S. Horten as his name isn’t bad enough, now 10-year-old Stuart is forced to move far away from all his friends. But on his very first day in his new home, Stuart’s swept up in an extraordinary adventure: the quest to find his great-uncle Tony–a famous magician who literally disappeared off the face of the earth–and Tony’s marvelous, long-lost workshop.  Along the way, Stuart reluctantly accepts help from the annoying triplets next door… and encounters trouble from another magician who’s also desperate to get hold of Tony’s treasures. 

Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery, & a Very Strange Adventure

Expected publication: April 3rd, 2012

The strange and wonderful cover art of Horton’s Miraculous Mechanisms immediately caught my eye at OLA 2012.  What a fun, adventurous story for middle graders. The readers follow Stuart on his quest to solve a series of puzzles from his uncle (a magician that has mysteriously disappeared). This story was very fast paced and will keep the attention of the most reluctant of readers. It even sneakily teaches new vocab words through Stuart’s father love of words (he is a crossword puzzle designer).  For those that love Willy Wonka and Lemony Snickett—this book is for you!

Look for the second installment of this series to be released this Fall.

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