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.

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A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart. But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” And then there’s Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity’s never seen before, words that make Felicity’s heart beat a little faster. Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.

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A Snicker of Magic had been sitting on my ‘to read’ shelf for a while.   As a librarian, and lover of words, I immediately fell for this charming middle grade read. Set in the magical town of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, readers are introduced to a variety of quirky characters.  I found it hard to keep track of the cast of characters, as they were mostly introduced with a long back story.   Besides the excess characters, one very special little lady stood out; the narrator, 12 year-old Felicity Pickle.  I could relate to her love of words and social anxiety. She explains, “… I like words; I collect them. I like poems, songs, stories…everything. But words never sound right when I try to string them together and say them out load. They’re just for me to keep (p.38)”. Felicity sees words, and they appear in a variety of different ways. My favourite was for ‘believe’- “The letters were made of melted sunshine. They dropped down the window glass, warm and tingly against our faces (pg.8)”.Although I enjoyed her visions of hovering words, I got irritated with the overuse of her word ‘spindiddly’ (better than awesome).

Overall, it’s a positive, uplifting tale of the magic of words and stories.  I loved the hopeful and satisfying epilogue in which Felicity asserts, “

“…I’m convinced Midnight Gulch can’t be the only magical town in the world. I bet there’s a snicker of magic on every street, in every old building, every broken heart, every word of a story. Maybe it’s hidden away and you need to look harder for it. Or maybe the magic is right there, right in front of you, and all you have to do is believe (p.309)”

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.

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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).

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret—a dark and terrible secret that she can’t confess to anyone she knows. But then one day she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, locked up on death row in Texas. Like Zoe, Stuart is no stranger to secrets. Or lies. Or murder.

Full of heartache yet humour, Zoe tells her story in the only way she can—in letters to the man in prison in America. Armed with a pen, Zoe takes a deep breath, eats a jam sandwich, and begins her tale of love and betrayal.

 

ketchup clouds

A guilty conscience pushes fifteen year old Zoe to seek a pen pal that understands her situation.  In her mind, Stuart Harris (an inmate on death row), is the perfect choice because they are both responsible for the death of a loved one.  The entire story is told in letter form, but since ‘Zoe’ uses a fake name and address, we never see Stuart’s replies.  One has to wonder if he even received the letters, and if so, what his response would be.  We watch as Zoe starts off formally, addressing him with ‘Dear Mr. S. Harris’, and as the letter progresses, ‘Hey there, Stu’.  She writes these letters from a shed where her only company is a lone spider.

The author did a brilliant job at keeping the reader guessing Zoe’s terrible secret.  There are clues throughout; hinting at the tragic death of one of the two brothers Zoe has feelings for.  It’s a sad ending for all involved.

My biggest critique is the title. Although Ketchup Clouds is a catchy title, I’m not sure what it has to do with the story (besides Zoe’s sister drawing clouds in ketchup).  Maybe there was some deeper meaning that I missed?  Thoughts?

Overall, Ketchup Clouds is a sad story about love, family, murder and secrets.  Due to some explicit sexual content, I would recommend this book to older YA readers.

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

In an extraordinary debut novel, an escaped fugitive upends everything two siblings think they know about their family, their past, and themselves.

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Zebra Forest is a short, beautifully written story about family, secrets, love and forgiveness for mature middle grade readers.  Eleven year old Annie, and her nine year old brother Rew live with their depressed grandmother in a cluttered house among the birches and oaks of the ‘Zebra Forest’.  Although Annie was expecting a dull, unadventurous summer, her life was turned upside down when an escaped prisoner from the nearby prison holds them hostage.

This book is for readers that love character driven stories. Early on, it becomes evident that Annie and Rew are extremely resilient kids forced to grow up and take care of themselves as their grandma becomes less and less stable and reliable.  Throw in heavy family issues and a surprise they never saw coming, it is no wonder they turned to literature (specifically Treasure Island) as a means of comfort and escape.  Obviously, as a librarian, I loved this connection to the power of reading and storytelling.

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