Children's · Fantasy · Fiction · Teen Fiction · Urban Fantasy · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave

the empty grave
by: Jonathan Stroud

The Empty Grave is the fifth and final book in Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series. I had put a hold on it at the library but the bookstore I walk by every day was having a 20% off sale after I’d been waiting for what felt like months, so I gave in and bought it.  (This actually isn’t the cover that I have, but I like it so much better than the UK version.)

If you’re not familiar with Lockwood & Co, it’s a YA series (maybe middle school) set in an alternate reality London, where deadly ghosts have suddenly appeared, called the Problem.  Only children can see the ghosts, so children are employed as agents to combat the Problem.  Throughout the series, we follow Lucy, a teenage ghost hunter, as she works with the Lockwood & Co agency.  In this final edition, Lucy and her coworkers are following clues to figure out what the source of the Problem is, using advice from a ghost that only Lucy can hear, and venturing into some of the most dangerous places in – and out – of London.

So unlike other books in this series, there’s not a big, bad ghost to overcome.  (This actually kept me from locking myself in the bathroom to read the book.*) Instead, Lucy is looking at clues for the Source and who or what is behind the Problem.  Though there is a bad guy, this book is more about answering questions the previous four books have set up.  I really enjoyed this approach – it had enough suspense to keep my heart racing but at this point in the series I wanted my questions answered more than I wanted another epic, hair-raising battle against a Big Bad.  And the questions were answered in a slow manner – not a huge info dump at the end, but enough information for the reader to work out with the characters what’s going on as the story unfolds.

By the way, this book would work as a stand-alone but I would highly discourage it – I think the series as whole works really well and I would encourage any reader to start from the beginning for narrative satisfaction. There’s an incredible amount of world and plot building that is best enjoyed when read in the intended order.

Stroud also does a great job of fulfilling some character issues and mysteries. For example, Lockwood, the owner of Lockwood & Co, is a dashing and romantic hero with a tragic backstory. The entire series is written in first person, from Lucy’s perspective, and it’s in this book that Lucy comes to terms with Lockwood’s unusually strong attraction to, and enjoyment of, danger and what that ultimately says about him.  It’s not overdone, but the reader is forced through the discomforting realizations as Lucy processes a new perspective.

This happens for multiple characters this book and adds a good bit of depth to the series as a whole. (It also happened in the fourth book for a different character, Holly.)  These realizations are mostly driven by a captured ghost that only Lucy can hear, which I appreciate, because it means that we get an age-appropriate reaction to an adult observation.  The children never feel uncannily mature or precociously adult but the reader isn’t forced into a world without any adult perspective. (See: A Series of Unfortunate Events.) This allowed Stroud to explore some character development that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible; yet, the ghost was written so that it (he?) doesn’t come off as the wise old adult.  Rather, he’s a wry, untrustworthy, and mysterious character forced into the role of observer.

Speaking of the ghost, Stroud answers most but not all questions posed by the series.  The questions he leaves unanswered are good ones – he gives the reader plenty to go on in order to develop their own theories.  So on the one hand, I appreciate that.  On the other hand – I want to know!  In general, things are wrapped up nicely; he leaves just enough points dangling that you can’t quite let the series go when you finish it.  Crafty, Stroud.  Crafty.

I absolutely loved this book, both as a standalone and as a completion of an incredibly good series. If you’re not into middle-school/YA, if you like dashing plot-driven adventure books with a satisfying romance, or if you like your horror to be Stephen King-level terrifying, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.  If you’re looking for an excellent mix of character development and plot line, a creepy but fun ghost story, or are looking for a great female-led adventure series, I can’t recommend Lockwood & Co enough.

*but I still stayed up until 3 am to finish it.
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Children's · Uncategorized

Embarrassing Book Confessions

What’s your most embarrassing book confession?

I’ll tell you mine – it’s actually an embarrassing book habit at this point.

Jonathon Stroud is one of my favorite (YA) authors and a few years ago he started writing a series entitled Lockwood & Co.  I bought the first one without reading the blurb (I buy by author name a lot) and really enjoyed it! But I was surprised to find out it was a horror story. I don’t, as a rule, consume anything in the horror genre because I am incredibly easily terrified and find it a deeply unpleasant experience.

But I love Lockwood & Co and want to finish it, so every year, without fail, this happens: I buy/check out the latest book in the series and make a firm resolution not to read any of it after dark.  The first day, I’ll usually only read a page or two and things will be fine.  The second day, though, I’ll have enough time to get really into the plot, usually just as dusk approaches. No worries! I’ll get to a stopping point soon.

Invariably, as night truly falls, I’ll resolve to read just a few more pages or maybe to the end of the chapter, just to get to a good stopping point, get caught up in the story and, without fail, end up locking myself in the bathroom, scared witless, lights blazing, so I can finish the story and calm down enough to go to sleep, somewhere around 2 am. (And that’s usually only after listening to some P.G. Wodehouse after I’ve mustered up the courage to race from bathroom to bedroom and turn the lights off.)

Now, the fifth and final book has come out recently and I’ve put a hold on it in my local library.  Of course, this year, I absolutely will stick to my resolution and not read the book after dark.  Never mind the evidence of the past four years – this is the year I will be a sensible adult about things!

(For those of you wondering, I’m 28 and this book series has a target audience of/is appropriate for 12 year olds.)

Children's · Contemporary Literature · Fantasy · YA

His Dark Materials

his dark materials
by: Phillip Pullman

I know I’m late to the game on this one! As a result, I might be a little more lax about hints than I normally am (though I promise not to reveal any major plot points!)

His Dark Materials, if you haven’t heard of it, is Pullman’s most famous work, a trilogy focused on the coming-of-age story of Lyra and Will, two children from very similar and vastly different worlds.  And I mean worlds literally! Lyra is from an alternative-world Oxford, where every person has a daemon, an animal companion that is part of them, yet separate.  It’s heavily implied to be a physical embodiment of something, though it’s the readers job to figure out what that is.

One of the reasons it took me so long to finish these novels was that I do not like it when you switch worlds in a book.  Maybe I’m inherently lazy but for some reason, I find the work of having to pull myself out of one fantasy world and force myself to learn another in the same book/series to be rather unpleasant.*

So I read The Golden Compass (a/k/a Northern Lights) way back when as a teenager, but the series of events at the end of TGC/beginning of The Subtle Knife made me put the books down.  I’ve been meaning to try and finish the series for ages and with all the buzz about Pullman’s new novel, I finally managed to do it.

The central conflict of the book is humans vs. the Authority, the Authority being God (the Christian God) or something very like it. Lyra and Will unintentionally find themselves in the middle of a battle to determine the fate of the world – of their worlds. They go on a epic adventure, discovering new worlds, fighting battles, making friends, and ultimately must make a decision that could change the universe forever.

This book is aimed at, oh, probably pre-teens and I think Pullman excels at writing for the audience. His children are believable and honest; they say important things in a way that is realistic and grave but never precocious or weirdly mature.  I really enjoyed his dialogue, especially in Lyra, who had a lot of grave epiphanies; they always rang true without becoming soppy.  The trilogy is told in third person limited, switching to various characters’ perspectives as needed but the narrator’s voice is always imbued with a child-like tone which helps add to Lyra and Will’s characterization.  This does mean the adult characters are simplified and not partly multi-dimensional but that works with with the inherent voice of the novels.

Pullman’s plot line and characters are both exceptional and his world-building is creative and fantastic.  There are some truly inventive places that come out in the second and third novels and he manages to connect the different worlds so that no one of them feels too disparate.  The praise and fame this series has achieved is definitely warranted.

However, even Pullman’s work is not without its faults and one of the things I didn’t care for as much was how black and white the conflict ended up being.  Perhaps this is just my reading of it, but I feel like a lot of the story line went: Will and/or Lyra is presented with a decision, they struggle with decision, they make decision, decision turns out to be the right decision.  I like my characters to mess up and struggle with regrets and unintended consequences sometimes! That being said, the continuing escalation of conflict allows for a beautiful path to maturity and it was a really joy to watch Will and Lyra grow as characters.  As a coming of age story, I really couldn’t have asked for more.

But – and this is the biggest reservation I have about this novel – Pullman, in three books about religion, never actually takes on the concept of faith.  He plays a teeny tiny bit with it, with a character who is a former nun, and he touches on the concept of having faith in your friends, allies, and yourself, but, at least in my opinion, he never really takes on the concept of having faith in a power greater than yourself. While he tackles the concepts of souls, death, and the essence of life in way that is most satisfactorily thought-provoking, and he critiques the Catholic church in no subtle manner, I do think that by ignoring faith, whether by questioning its inherent moral value or using the lack of it as a critique itself, he has missed a fundamental truth of being a religious person.  And as such, it’s hard for me to take this book from a fantasy book that plays with the ideas of religion/organized religion to a book that uses fantasy to address and critique fundamental issues within Christianity.

In short, if you’re into fantasy and you’re looking for something compelling, adventurous, and deep, I would absolutely recommend His Dark Materials.  If you’re not into children’s perspectives or if you’re looking for something that gets at the fundamental nature of religion, than, alas, this is probably not the book for you.

Have you read His Dark Materials? What did you think? Leave a comment below!

*This is why I gave up on the Pern series, by Anne McCaffrey. One of her books has a really dramatic world switch and I got a paragraph into the switch, closed the book, returned it to the library, and never looked back.

Children's · Fantasy · Teen Fiction · YA

Ever

ever_scaled

by: Gail Carson Levine

I’m a huge fan of Gail Carson Levine.  Ella Enchanted was the first re-imagined fairy tale that I fell in love with and her Princess Tales series was a favorite of mine growing up.

But I didn’t like Ever.  It was cute and the premise was good – I really wanted to like it!

Ever is the story of Kezi, a girl who lives in an alternate version of Ancient Mesopotamia.  (The cover models are oddly white, considering that.)  Doomed to die young, she falls in love with Olus, the Akkan god of the wind.  To be together, they must go on an epic quest and overcome great odds.  If they survive, they stand a chance of gaining their happily ever after.

Like I said, the premise is good.  Ancient Mesopotamia, powerful gods, a doomed woman, epic quests and dangerous situations.  Levine is a good writer and I generally like her characters – strong, intelligent, relatable – as well as the world she creates.  The setting in this book actually is fairly reminiscent of Ancient Mesopotamia, without losing its ability to relate to the modern-day reader. There a lot of everyday touches that really work to put you in the time period, and the dialogue is a nice mix of modern and old-fashioned so you’ve never jolted by the characters’ speech.  (That is a pet peeve of mine.)  She also uses some of the Sumerian language (I’m assuming here) which is a nice touch.

It’s told in first person perspective, alternating between Olus and Kezi.  It’s not my favorite, but she transitions well and uses it to build tension fairly well.

Like I said, the set-up is for a fairly good novel.  But Levine keeps this novel so simple that it becomes simplistic and looses all depth.  Now, it is a young adult novel and often they’re written on a lower reading level but that doesn’t mean that the novel has to be simplistic.  Simple can include depth.  The characters seem almost stunted.  They’re not very well-developed – I mean, they have an appropriate number of different traits and virtues and flaws, it’s just that everything about them is so straightforward and lacking depth.  They are completely scared, or completely grateful, or – their emotions just seem to lack complexity.

The situations are the same – they should be more exciting but everything is linear that it takes away from the suspense.  I don’t know – on its surface this should be a great book but it just doesn’t work on anything but a surface level.  I wish it did – I really do love Levine’s work.  But this book just doesn’t have anything going on besides the plot and the plot, while not terrible, isn’t enough to make up for its shortcomings.

It’s a quick read, so if you’re interested in Levine’s work or fictional representations of Ancient Mesopotamia there’s no harm in reading the first chapter or so.  The book is pretty consistent throughout, so if you like the first chapter you’ll probably like the rest.  Otherwise, you may want to give this one a pass.

Anyway, I’m interested in seeing what others thought of this book. Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Children's · Teen Fiction · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase

book-jacket2

by: Jonathon Stroud

(gif from his US website)

Jonathon Stroud is one of my favorite children’s authors – the Bartimaeus trilogy is amazing and is the reason I am constantly irrationally excited for, and then immediately disappointed by, footnotes.  Stroud has a lot to answer for.

Stroud’s newest work is the first in a new series – yay! Told in first person point of view, it’s the tale of Lucy Carlyle, a young ghost hunter in an alternate London plagued by an epidemic of ghosts.  After a harrowing experience with her first boss in a small village, she runs off to London and joins Lockwood & Co, London’s smallest ghostbusting* agency.

Lockwood and Co is no ordinary agency.  It’s run entirely by children, with a lack of adult supervisors.  (In this London, adults can’t see ghosts, though they can be hurt by them.)  It has only three members, all of which are uniquely talented.  And they are eager for the cases that nobody else can solve.

First of all, don’t read this book right before bed if you’re a big ‘fraidy-cat like I am.  Stroud is a master of creating a dark, tense atmosphere and I ended up huddled under my covers, rationalizing away my sudden fear of the dark. (However, I am a gigantic ‘fraidy-cat.  I read Pet Sementary at 16 and for months afterwards I was scared to feed our lambs after dark.)

Secondly, it was a really excellent book. This books works both as a stand-alone and as a set-up for a longer series.  The ending wrapped up the big questions while leaving a few smaller details that can neatly lead into an overarching series plotline.  Plotwise, it was very well done.  Tight, suspenseful, well-paced enough that the reader never feels lost but is still on the edge of their seat – just amazing!

Lucy, the main character and narrator was intelligent, observant, and mature, though not eerily so. My favorite part of her was how she was beginning to really note when things were unfair; no fits, just silent, slightly puzzled observation.  Part of growing up is finding out in lots of little ways that the world isn’t fair.  Stroud does a good job of capturing this process.

Of note, Lucy comes with both traditionally feminine and masculine traits, which were treated as both strengths and weaknesses, depending on the situation.  It was nice to see a female character that was strong because of her feminine traits but who was also forced to be realistic about associated weaknesses.

George, the third partner comes off a little underdeveloped, but it works because that’s how Lucy sees him.  I think he’ll develop more as Lucy learns to appreciate him as a team member – we see a little of that, and you get glimpses of George through his actions, but I think in further books he’ll really shine.

Anthony, the leader, is bigger and louder than George, so we see a lot more of him throughout the book.  He’s much more developed, partially because Lucy is more interested in him as a person, and partially because the reader gets to interact with him more.  He’s charming, confident, and a big thinker, whereas George is quiet, flustered, and a details person.

Beyond that, this book does set up a conflict between children and adults, which is not my favorite.  (Now that I think about, that was a theme in the Bartimaeus trilogy as well.)   It does allow the children to exist as the true masters of their stories,  but all adults are portrayed with the same anti-child overtones, which gets boring.

Overall, I really enjoyed this action-adventure supernatural fantasy.  If you like ghosts, alternate yet similar Earths, or suspenseful tales, please give this one a try! (And Do Not let it being a children’s book deter you.  Adults will enjoy this book without feeling infantilized.)  If you shy away from all things scary, or if you truly dislike young teen protagonists, then this, sadly, may not be the book for you.

Did you like this better or worse than Stroud’s other works, especially the Bartimaeus trilogy? Please leave a comment letting me know what you think!

*You just can’t talk about ghosts without referencing “Ghostbusters” somewhere!

Fantasy · Teen Fiction · YA

Spirit’s Princess

 

spiritsprincess

 

by: Ester Friesner

Spirit’s Princess is the story of Himiko, a legendary Japanese empress (Of whom I know nothing; the afterword states that she’s somewhere between myth and fact.)

 

It takes place in the 3rd century, when Japan was not a country but a collection of clans, somewhat isolated. Himiko is the daughter of  chieftain, just starting out in life – I think she’s about 8 or so when the book starts.  The book follows her through up until she’s 16 or so, as she begins to learn what her calling is.

It’s all in first person, so be prepared to deal with a character who is a young child – somewhat whiny, a little bratty, can be annoying.  It never bothered me, because, hey children are like that, but I could see how others would dislike it. Eventually, she grows out of it and becomes more sure of herself and aware of how her actions affect others.  Eventually.

 

 

One of the things I really liked about this is that Himiko’s character development isn’t tied to a romantic interest or storyline, even as she goes through puberty and her younger teen years.  Often, characters this age have stories that are centered around young love (especially female characters).  Himiko, on the other hand, has a small crush and a couple of conversations about marriage with her family without being defined by a significant other.  I definitely feel like this is a teenage experience that is underrepresented in young adult fiction.

 

I can’t speak to the book’s historical authority (there are some reviews on Good Reads that are not afraid to) but I can say, that compared to the mangas and animes I’ve read or watched, it does feel more than a little American.  Or maybe Western in general.   It definitely didn’t feel terribly foreign, though the historical part was more or less convincing.  (Not terribly convincing, but I’ll buy it.)

 

It’s not a great book, overall. It was interesting, and I liked watching Himiko’s character develop but I was never so engrossed that I couldn’t put it down or was dying to know what happened next.  Himiko’s relationship with her older brother was nice, though he was a little too dependent on the nice, older brother stereotype.  There were a lot of side characters and more than a few of them weren’t developed beyond a name and one or two personality traits.

 

 

Her father was supposed to be a complex character: a good leader, a misogynist, someone who fell deeply in love, and someone who keeps his household in fear of his temper.  It doesn’t quite work – he just comes off as a giant asshole whom everyone submits to because he can yell really loud.  (In other words, a bully.)  We’re told all the time that he’s not all that bad but we never see it.

It’s not a great book, but if you like Friesner’s writing or if you’re looking for a female character who never falls in love, I’d say it’s worth reading the first chapter or so in the bookshop.  If you’re at all invested in historical and cultural accuracy or if you’re not a huge fan of magic and shamans, then I would give this book a pass.