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.

skull

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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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 Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza (Joey Pigza #5) by Jack Gantos

The fifth and final book in the groundbreaking Joey Pigza series brings the beloved chronicle of this wired, wacky, and wonderful boy to a crescendo of chaos and craziness, as everything goes topsy-turvy for Joey just as he starts to get his feet on the ground. With his dad MIA in the wake of appearance-altering plastic surgery, Joey must give up school to look after his new baby brother and fill in for his mom, who hospitalizes herself to deal with a bad case of postpartum blues. As his challenges mount, Joey discovers a key that could unlock the secrets to his father’s whereabouts, a mystery that must be solved before Joey can even hope that his broken family might somehow come back together—if only it doesn’t pull him apart first.

joey

I picked up this character driven, middle grade book after continually reading about its starred reviews.  I hadn’t read the previous four titles in the series, so I didn’t have that long term connection with Joey.  I found the book really dark and depressing.   There is family dysfunction, mental illness, poverty, child abandonment, and a depressed blind girlfriend who needs Joey to buy her panties.  I’m astonished that Joey could have such a “paw-si-tive” outlook surrounded by such drama.   The ending could be interpreted two ways.  Some may see the ending as optimistic, but sadly, I find it hard to believe that things will be OK.  There are too many unresolved issues for his family to deal with on their own.  The Pigza family is in need of serious help.  Although Joey does have a distinct voice, this book was a little too depressing for me.

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by L.Pichon

Tom Gates is the master of excuses for late homework: dog attacks, spilt water, lightening … Tom’s exercise book is full of his doodles, cartoons and thoughts, as well as comments from his long-suffering teacher, Mr Fullerton. After gaining five merits for his ‘Camping Sucks’ holiday story, Tom’s work starts to go downhill, which is a pity, as he’s desperate to impress Amy Porter, who sits next to him …

tom gates

We are always looking for Diary of a Wimpy Kid read-alikes, and The Brilliant World of Tom Gates does not disappoint.  Winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, this book is also written in diary format and includes illustrations, drawings, and different typesetting and fonts.   Although some children may not understand some of the British terms used, Pichon includes a handy glossary to explain words like biscuits, bonkers and dodgy.

Rather than focus on his ‘merits’, Tom spends much of his time thinking about his band and doodling.  To cover this up, he comes up with clever and creative excuses for why his homework isn’t done, like a leaking pen or dog drool.   I can practically hear young readers cracking up!  Personally, I had to laugh at Tom’s reference to his grandparents as ‘the fossils’ and his grandma’s very strange food combinations like a banana on a pizza!

The one issue I had was with Tom’s treatment of Marcus. I’m not sure what Marcus ever did to deserve being constantly teased. Tom writes ‘I’m an idiot’ on Marcus’ self-portrait and embarrasses him in front of the whole school.  Tom even puts temporary tattoos on Marcus’s face when he’s sleeping.  I felt bad for Marcus, and think Pichon didn’t have to include this form of bullying to obtain laughs.

Overall, a great funny and quick read for 7-12 year olds, especially reluctant readers.  The ‘Tom Gates’ series continues with Excellent Excuses (and other good stuff).

When We Wake by Karen Healey

Sixteen-year-old Tegan is just like every other girl living in 2027—she’s happiest when playing the guitar, she’s falling in love for the first time, and she’s joining her friends to protest the wrongs of the world: environmental collapse, social discrimination, and political injustice.

But on what should have been the best day of Tegan’s life, she dies—and wakes up a hundred years later, locked in a government facility with no idea what happened.

The future isn’t all she had hoped it would be, and when appalling secrets come to light, Tegan must make a choice: Does she keep her head down and survive, or fight for a better world?

 

when we wake

I found When We Wake to be an interesting socio-political, dystopian YA read. The world building was fantastic, and Healey’s vision of the future 100 years from now felt very plausible. Some aspects of society had improved (acceptance of gender/sexual orientation), but others were worrisome (environment, displaced refugees).  Although thought provoking, at times it did get a bit preachy.

The plot itself had some twists and turns. As soon as the action ramped up, the book became a very quick read.  The pace picked up after Tegan finds out she is part of ‘Operation New Beginning’ and refuses to be the government’s guinea pig.  She fights for some resemblance of a normal life. In this ‘normal’ life, the Beatles are of great importance to Tegan.  They provide hope and comfort. I liked the many Beatles references and immediately picked up on the Beatles song titles as chapter headings.

If the fantastic cover hasn’t already swayed you, pick up this book if you want to explore a futuristic world with an action packed plot.  For those that enjoy series, there is a second book entitled, While We Run in the works (to be released May 2014).

If I Stay by Gayle Forman (If I Stay #1)

In a single moment, everything changes. Seventeen-year-old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall riding along the snow-wet Oregon road with her family. Then, in a blink, she finds herself watching as her own damaged body is taken from the wreck…

A sophisticated, layered, and heart-achingly beautiful story about the power of family and friends, the choices we all make, and the ultimate choice Mia commands.

if i stay

Seven years ago, I lost a friend to injuries sustained in a car accident. She too, was in a coma and fought her hardest to stay with us. Ultimately, she lost the battle two weeks later. Clearly, this was an emotional read for me.

As the sole survivor in a car accident that killed her parents and brother, Mia now lies in a coma.  In first person narrative, she chronicles her life with retellings of important events  (first recital, meeting her boyfriend, etc.).  She continuously switches between past and present in deciding whether to live or die. In the present, she exists as an invisible observer; a spirit that watches over her body and observes the impact of the accident on her family and friends. There is an extremely heartbreaking scene with Mia and her grandpa where he recognizes her pain and tells her that he understands why it would be okay if she chose to pass on.  I couldn’t imagine being in Mia’s situation and as a reader, I wasn’t sure what her final decision would be.  You have to read the book yourself to find out!

Music has an overwhelming influence on Mia’s life and plays an integral part of the story. Music is the constant thread that ties aspects of Mia’s life together.  Although I don’t play an instrument seriously (I pick up my guitar every now and again), it was interesting to hear how she perceived situations with her musical lens, especially the very intimate scene in which Mia and her boyfriend pretend their bodies are instruments to play.

Overall, If I Stay is a quick, intense and moving book.  There are no chapter headings; instead the story is organized by time.  Mia’s grim diagnosis fluctuates constantly so every second truly counts.   I will definitely be continuing this emotional read with book #2, Where She Went. 

The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd

 

In the darkest places, even love is deadly.

Sixteen-year-old Juliet Moreau has built a life for herself in London—working as a maid, attending church on Sundays, and trying not to think about the scandal that ruined her life. After all, no one ever proved the rumors about her father’s gruesome experiments. But when she learns he is alive and continuing his work on a remote tropical island, she is determined to find out if the accusations are true.

Accompanied by her father’s handsome young assistant, Montgomery, and an enigmatic castaway, Edward—both of whom she is deeply drawn to—Juliet travels to the island, only to discover the depths of her father’s madness: He has experimented on animals so that they resemble, speak, and behave as humans. And worse, one of the creatures has turned violent and is killing the island’s inhabitants. Torn between horror and scientific curiosity, Juliet knows she must end her father’s dangerous experiments and escape her jungle prison before it’s too late. Yet as the island falls into chaos, she discovers the extent of her father’s genius—and madness—in her own blood.

 

mad

Although I’ve never read H.G Wells’ The Island of Dr.Moreau, the book jacket synopsis of a Gothic thriller appealed to me. With elements of suspense, action, mystery and romance, I was immediately immersed in the story. The atmosphere and setting of a remote jungle island only added to the creep factor. Juliet’s father, the mad scientist, Dr.Moreau, makes for a perfect villain. I found it super easy to hate him (especially for his misogynistic views). His disturbing creature creations were so vividly described, that I fear I will come across them again in nightmares.

In terms of pacing, the plot does have some slower periods in the middle, which consists of walking/running through the forest, but for the most part, it held my attention. However, I could have done without Juliet’s love triangle, and her back and forth indecisive thoughts between Montgomery and Edward. Shepherd included a couple of predictable twists, but the last one caught me completely off guard. The action ramped up in the end…. eventually leading to the ultimate betrayal.  Personally, I don’t see the need for a sequel, but there is one in the works (expected publication January 2014). Recommended to those that like dark, twisted, Gothic reads.

The Evolution of Mara Dyer (Mara Dyer #2) by Michelle Hodkin

Mara Dyer once believed she could run from her past.
She can’t. She used to think her problems were all in her head.
They aren’t.
She couldn’t imagine that after everything she’s been through, the  boy she loves would still be keeping secrets.
She’s wrong.
 
In this gripping sequel to The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, the truth
evolves and choices prove deadly. What will become of Mara Dyer next?

evolution

After the cliff hanger of an ending in ‘The Unbecoming of Mara  Dyer’, I immediately put the sequel on hold.   This action is extremely rare for me, as I prefer stand-alone titles and try to avoid committing to series.  I’m so glad this book did not disappoint.  It picks up right where the previous book left off and takes readers on one crazy, thrill ride.  Fans that enjoyed the creepiness in book one have plenty to look forward to, including: one freaky handmade doll, dead crows, and a mental hospital.   I must admit that I didn’t fully ‘get’ what was happening at all times (including the flashbacks to India), yet I was still completely engrossed in this psychological tale.  Hodkin had my attention from page one as I attempted to formulate theories on Mara’s situation.  Just when I thought I had it all figured out… BAM.  Major twists (or shall I say allies) I never saw coming!

In comparison of the two books, I’m glad that Hodkin downplayed the romance element.  I didn’t completely hate Noah in this one.  Yet, I still think he was way over protective and Mara relied on him too much.  I also wish their abilities were tested just a tad more. At this point, they are still unsure of what and who they are.

I did find some parts a little drawn out and lengthy (the book is over 500 pages!), which makes me question whether a third book in the series was truly necessary.  I guess there is only one way to find out…. The Retribution of Mara Dyer will be released Fall 2013.

Review: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

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I simply cannot begin this review without mentioning the beautiful cover.  It is one of my recent favourites. While I try not to choose my books by beautiful covers, I find myself visually swayed every time.  After the cover, I immediately read the synopsis. In this case, the synopsis didn’t give too much away (see below). However, I think it was just enough dark and creepy to persuade me to pick it up.

Synopsis:

Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there.
It can.
She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed.
There is.
She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love.
She’s wrong.

Oooohh creepy! It gets even more fantastic with the handwritten note by ‘Mara’ in which she refers to murders and the use of a pseudonym for protection.   The eerie darkness is continued throughout storyline and plot. The plot itself had A LOT going on, including kidnapping, murder(s), alligators, hallucinations, and a dog rescue.  I really enjoyed piecing the puzzle together along with Mara.  However, one aspect I didn’t enjoy was the romance piece.  I’m sure many readers were swooning over the bad boy Noah, but I just couldn’t like someone accused of ‘using and discarding girls like condoms’.   Yuck.

The ending had me as confused as Mara.  HUH? HOW?  This allowed Hodkin to end with a very huge cliff hanger moment and clearly readers will want to pick up book two ‘The Evolution of Mara Dyer ‘immediately.

 

Review: Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

In this twist on Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic short story, a wealthy teenaged girl who can afford a special mask to protect her from the plague that decimated humanity in the mid-1800s, falls in love, becomes caught up in a conspiracy to overthrow an oppressive government, and faces the threat of a new plague. –From Novelist

“….The book’s characters are not the only ones manipulated here. Readers will twist and turn, puzzling out hero from villain, only to be left dangling and anticipating the sequel”— Booklist

I’ve never read Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, but the premise of a book based on the dark gothic short story really appealed to me.  I’m not really sure why I’ve been reading so many books on death and disease lately, but I just keep picking them up. The beautiful cover didn’t hurt either!

Writing this review is difficult. There were some aspects I didn’t enjoy: the shallow self-medicating characters, the slow moving beginning, and the love triangle. On the flip side, I liked the steampunk elements, storyline surprises, and vivid descriptions. I really thought the concept of the masks was the best part as it adds a unique level of creepiness to this world overrun with plague and death.  However, for some reason I kept picturing the V for Vendetta mask.  How did you imagine the masks?

The difference between the human experience for the wealthy and those living in poverty was unsettling.  I couldn’t imagine living in the crumbling dying lower city, while watching careless, glamorous, fashionable teens, behave scandalously. Since the poor cannot afford the masks, the masks come to symbolize the divide between the wealthy and poor. The underlying theme of science vs. religion also played an important part too.

With the amount of drugs, sexual content, violence and horrific death scenes, I would recommend this book to an older YA crowd.  Check out this book if you’re into: dystopia, steampunk, and death & disease (like me apparently).

Look for Dance of the Red Death (book #2) to be released Spring 2013.

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