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!

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

The Night Gardener follows two abandoned Irish siblings who travel to work as servants at a creepy, crumbling English manor house. But the house and its family are not quite what they seem. Soon the children are confronted by a mysterious spectre and an ancient curse that threatens their very lives. With Auxier’s exquisite command of language, The Night Gardener is a mesmerizing read and a classic in the making.

night gardener

This mysterious middle grade tale was such a treat inside and out! I loved the visually appealing cover, chapter title decorations and black outer pages. They hinted at the dark, spooky, Victorian ghost story that lurked between the pages.

Divided into three parts Arrivals, Pursuits, and Departures, the story surrounds two orphans that find themselves deep in the middle of a forest, in a strange house with a mysterious tree and night guest. It is a magical, yet creepy tale that reminded me of The Brothers Grimm and Neil Gaiman. Indeed, in the Author’s Note, Auxier acknowledges many influences in his writing.

The atmospheric story also has underlying themes of greed, honesty, loyalty and family. There are consequences and lessons to be learned. The power of storytelling is also explored through the travelling old woman- Hester Kettle. It is Hester that first tells Kip and Molly about the legend of “The Night Gardener”.

This excellent standalone is chalk full of intriguing characters and exciting suspense. However, be warned that there are some darker scenes (including death) and may not be suitable for younger readers.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

A beautiful and distinguished family.

A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. 

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE

 

we were liars

We Were Liars  has received so much hype, including the top May 2014 Library Reads choice.  This contemporary, suspense story was an extremely quick read.  The first few pages include a map of Beechwood Island, and The Sinclair Family Tree, which were much appreciated.  There are lots of privileged family members and houses to keep track of, so at the beginning I referred to those pages quite a bit. The story mostly surrounds ‘the liars’ consisting of Cadence (the narrator), her cousins Johnny, Mirren and love interest, Gat.   Cadence and the cousins are from the wealthy and ‘perfect’ Sinclair family, while Gat refers to himself as the Healthcliff of the family.

Summer fifteen is featured heavily because it is during that summer that Cadence has an accident, leaving her with memory loss and terrible migraines. Her migraines are often the subject of some very dramatic imagery “Migraines left my blood spreading across unfamiliar hotel sheets, dripping on the floors, oozing into carpets, soaking through leftover croissants and Italian lace cookies (p. 35)”.  Broken into five parts, the writing also includes Once Upon A Time fairy tale stories that emulate her family’s bickering over money, inheritance and possessions.  Choppy sentences are also used for dramatics:

There was nowhere

nowhere

nowhere

nowhere now to go

but down (p. 207).

Usually I catch on quickly to the surprise twist, but I was genuinely surprised by the ending. For that reason, I would recommend this quick (and fairly short) contemporary mystery to teens.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. 

She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.

out of the easy

Set in New Orleans in the 1950s, Out of the Easy was recently named one of YALSA’s Top 10 Fiction picks of 2014.  Although historical fiction does not usually appeal to me, I have come across some recent titles that may change my perception of the genre.  Check out The Diviners (1920s), and In the Shadow of Blackbirds (Spanish Influenza-1918).

The protagonist, seventeen year old, Josie opens the book with “my mother’s a prostitute” and I was immediately hooked.  I loved reading about New Orleans’ dodgy underbelly!  Influenced by her abusive gangster boyfriend, neglect and crime qualify Josie’s mother for the worst mother of the year.  Because of her situation, Josie has become one strong willed, determined, independent lady who earns a living by working in a bookstore and cleaning the brothel.  Readers will be rooting for Josie as she works to escape ‘The Big Easy’ to attend college with her new uptown friend. However, Josie’s dreams are slashed when the mob targets her for retribution of her mother’s actions. Fortunately, Josie has some wonderful  supporters to help her along the way.  My favourite being Willie, the brothel madam.  She is terrifying, but always looks out for Josie. Although many scenes are set in the brothel, Septeys keeps it pretty clean.

Framed by a murder mystery, this novel will keep your interest and stay with you for a long time.  A recommended read to fans of historical fiction.

More praise:

* “With a rich and realistic setting, a compelling and entertaining first-person narration, a colorful cast of memorable characters and an intriguing storyline, this is a surefire winner. Immensely satisfying.” —Kirkus, *Starred Review*

* “[A]nother taut and charged historical novel… Sepetys has also built a stellar cast. Readers will find Josie irresistible from the get-go and will devour the sultry mix of mystery, historical detail, and romance.” —Publishers Weekly, *Starred Review*

* “A Dickensian array of characters; the mystique, ambience, and language of the French Quarter; a suspenseful, action-packed story. With dramatic and contextual flair, Sepetys introduces teens to another memorable heroine.” —School Library Journal, *Starred Review*

 

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

Mila has an exceptional talent for reading a room—sensing hidden facts and unspoken emotions from clues that others overlook. So when her father’s best friend, Matthew, goes missing from his upstate New York home, Mila and her beloved father travel from London to find him. She collects information about Matthew from his belongings, from his wife and baby, from the dog he left behind and from the ghosts of his past—slowly piecing together the story everyone else has missed. But just when she’s closest to solving the mystery, a shocking betrayal calls into question her trust in the one person she thought she could read best.

picture
After taking time to get accustomed to the dialogue and lack of quotation marks, Picture Me Gone was an okay read.  Some passages I had to re-read to fully grasp if twelve year old Mila was in conversation or observation.   Her ‘voice’ was also problematic as it read way higher than her age.  Yes, she is inquisitive, smart, and perceptive but I still found her voice off.
Despite her maturity, I’m still not sure why her father, Gil would take Mila to help unravel the mystery of Matthew’s disappearance.  Matthew is an unlikable and depressed adult in a complicated mess.  So why expose a child to that?  Not only does Gil deceive Mila, but he allowed her to believe there was a mystery to be solved.  When the ‘mystery’ is revealed, readers are left hanging. There is no resolution and we are left to wonder what happened to Matthew.
Overall, Picture Me Gone was a quiet, contemporary, sad mystery. Not only was the character of Matthew sad, but I felt sad reading Mila’s childhood innocence slowly disappear as she learns about the mistakes and regrets many adults carry.  I just hope her exposure to such heavy matters don’t affect her future relationships negatively.

Picture Me Gone is a National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2013).

The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher

Emily’s dad is accused of murdering a teenage girl. Emily is sure he is innocent, but what happened that night in the woods behind their house where she used to play as a child? Determined to find out, she seeks out Damon Hillary the enigmatic boyfriend of the murdered girl. He also knows these woods. Maybe they could help each other. But he’s got secrets of his own about games that are played in the dark.

kill

The Killing Woods was my second Lucy Christopher read.  Honestly, I struggled to finish Stolen because of the long detailed passages of the Australian Outback and the unsatisfying ending.  In The Killing Woods, the majority of the story takes place in the woods. Obviously, the setting plays a big role in Christopher’s work and completely adds to the overall feel of the book.  While I skimmed over the outback descriptions, I enjoyed reading about the mysterious woods.

It is within these woods that the murder of Ashlee Parker occurred.  The novel opens dramatically with Emily’s dad, a war veteran suffering from PTSD, carrying in her body. Despite fingers being pointed at her father, Emily believes he is innocent.  However, no one is certain who was responsible for Ashlee’s death.  Throughout the book, alternating perspectives of Emily and Damon (Ashlee’s boyfriend) lead us to believe different theories.  I liked that it was unpredictable, and I was constantly changing my mind on who could be trusted.  Yet, I did find it awfully convenient for the answer to be found on Ashlee’s cell phone. I wish my cell phone had that kind of battery power!  And if it was left on, police definitely would have traced it.

In middle school, I observed some classmates ‘playing’ the choking game. It terrified me, and I’m glad this serious topic is being brought to light.  In addition to this dangerous game, the book also explores topics like sex, drug abuse, under-age drinking, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you enjoy dark mystery stories, paired with danger and a twist, then perhaps The Killing Woods is for you.   Published January 1, 2014.

Shadowlands (Shadowlands #1) by Kate Brian

Rory Miller had one chance to fight back and she took it. Rory survived and the serial killer who attacked her escaped. Now that the infamous Steven Nell is on the loose, Rory must enter the witness protection program. Entering the program alongside her, is her father and sister Darcy. The trio starts a new life and a new beginning leaving their friends and family behind without a goodbye. 

Starting over in a new town with only each other is unimaginable for Rory and Darcy. They were inseparable as children but now they can barely stand each other. As the sisters settle in to Juniper Landing, a picturesque vacation island, it seems like their new home may be just the fresh start they need. They fall in with a group of beautiful, carefree teens and spend their days surfing, partying on the beach, and hiking into endless sunsets. Just as they’re starting to feel safe again, one of their new friends goes missing. Is it a coincidence? Or is the nightmare beginning all over again?

shadow

Shadowlands started off brilliant with an intense, action packed, thrilling scene of a serial killer stalking and attacking the main character, high schooler, Rory Miller. Luckily, she survives, but then things get questionable. Rather than protecting the family, the police make them super vulnerable to another attack. In addition to following other idiotic orders, Rory’s family are instructed to drive themselves to a new isolated town, and to use a different last name (but hey, keep your first names). Rory soon discovers weird happenings in the town (fog, bracelets, disappearing people, etc.) but only makes a half-hearted attempt at getting answers (partying is more important). Flashbacks and lengthy dreams are thrown in to make things more confusing for the reader. The truth is only revealed in the last sentence, and now I feel cheated and left with sooooo many questions. Criticism aside, it was a quick, thrilling, page turner of a book. Unfortunately, the frustrating ending has completely colored my thoughts on Shadowlands. For those interested in continuing Rory’s story, the series continues with Hereafter (published October, 2013). 

The Ghost of Graylock by Dan Poblocki

Does an abandoned asylum hold the key to a frightful haunting?

Everyone’s heard the stories about Graylock Hall.

It was meant to be a place of healing – a hospital where children and teenagers with mental disorders would be cared for and perhaps even cured. But something went wrong. Several young patients died under mysterious circumstances. Eventually, the hospital was shut down, the building abandoned and left to rot deep in the woods.

As the new kid in town, Neil Cady wants to see Graylock for himself. Especially since rumor has it that the building is haunted. He’s got fresh batteries in his flashlight, a camera to document the adventure, and a new best friend watching his back.

Neil might think he’s prepared for what he’ll find in the dark and decrepit asylum. But he’s certainly not prepared for what follows him home. . . .

 

ghost
The Ghost of Graylock
is a must read for young horror fans that have graduated from books like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series and looking for a more frightening read. But beware! Detailed descriptions of abandoned asylums, ghosts, and a shocking murder could potentially be nightmare inducing, especially for a middle schooler.  The plot surrounds the legend of Graylock Hall and the result of four kids breaking into the abandoned asylum.  I still have visions of Eric and Wesley hiding in the closet and Rebecca’s (the ghost) shadowy figure peeking in…terrifying!  However, I liked the ‘bread crumb’ aspect of Rebecca’s clues and how she helped Neil and Bree ultimately solve the mystery of her own tragic death.  Overall, short chapters (64 to be exact) and a fast paced story will take even the most reluctant readers on a thrilling adventure, filled with twists and turns!  You may just want to sleep with a nightlight…

Other recently reviewed MG spooky titles:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Doll Bones by Holly Black

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.

 

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?
shadow

After putting down three YA titles in a row, In the Shadows of Blackbirds rescued me from my reading slump! The cover, beautiful writing, and haunting photographs immediately drew me in and captured my interest. This historical fiction novel is set in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza and narrated by sixteen year old, Mary Shelley Black. Named after Frankenstein’s author, Mary Shelley is one brave, headstrong heroine- not even war or Death himself can stop her.

Throughout the novel, it is clear that Winters had done a fair amount of research into the time period.  The setting is described in detail and events historically accurate. Gauze masks, public health warnings, visible coffins and death in the streets are not overlooked. Not only was this an enjoyable read, but also an educational one.  I didn’t realize the extent of confusion and panic the flu created, and the many uses of onions! The inclusion of black and white pictures sprinkled throughout work as a dreary visual reminder of the damaging effects of war.  I now can understand the desperation of mourners seeking comfort from spirit photographers and séances.

The plot revolves around the haunting mystery of what happened to Mary Shelley’s ‘sweetheart’ Stephen.  Winters had me guessing along with Shelley, and I was surprised by the violent and brutal ending.  Despite this, a great cast of characters, historical details, romance , mystery and tragedy all amount to one fantastic recommended read!

If you liked the mystery and suspense of  In the Shadow of Blackbirds, check out The Diviners by Libba Bray.

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