The Delusion by Laura Gallier

Disclaimer: The Delusion, by Laura Gallier, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

By March of Owen Edmonds’s senior year, eleven students at Masonville High School have committed suicide. Amid the media frenzy and chaos, Owen tries to remain levelheaded—until he endures his own near-death experience and wakes to a distressing new reality: the people around him suddenly appear to be shackled and enslaved. Owen frantically seeks a cure for what he thinks are crazed hallucinations, but his delusions become even more sinister. An army of hideous, towering beings, unseen by anyone but Owen, are preying on his girlfriend and classmates, provoking them to self-destruction. Owen eventually arrives at a mind-bending conclusion: he’s not imagining the evil—everyone else is blind to its reality. He must warn and rescue those he loves…but this proves to be no simple mission. Will be h able to convince anyone to believe him before it’s too late?

My rating: 2/5 

I realized something while reading The Delusion. I realized that I really don’t like books that try to get metaphorical about Christian ideas/theology, because a lot of the time the metaphors are wildly inaccurate and/or downright silly.

The Delusion, which is a little bit like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness in its spiritual warfare plot, relies heavily on metaphors as it sets up this world where monstrous gray oozing creatures feed off of people and incite them to do bad things. Besides reminding me of Peretti, the book also reminded me of John Bibee’s Spirit Flyer series, which also has descriptions of people being chained by shackles they can’t see.

I understand the premise of the story, or at least the premise Gallier is going for: there’s more going on in the material world than what we can see. Yet, the way Gallier presents it, with gray monsters and tall golden warriors (angels, I suppose), makes it seem more like some disturbing alternate reality. I’m not going to deny that the supernatural exists, but I find it difficult to believe that it looks anything like what Gallier describes it as.

“But, wait, you’re missing the point,” you might say. “It’s not meant to describe reality. It’s meant to be a metaphor, a way to describe things.” True, and I get that. But I balk at the point Gallier seems to be going for here, which is that evil is caused by possession, not human choice; that people are compelled to do bad things because some gray monster squelched into their body and took over their mind.

Yes, I know it’s a metaphor. Yes, I know Gallier is simply personifying emotion and doesn’t necessarily mean to indicate that humans are forced to do evil by demons, and if it was their choice they wouldn’t do it.

But I think it’s a clumsy metaphor.

Or, I simply don’t like this sort of book and my dislike of the genre is rubbing off on Gallier’s presentation.

In any case, The Delusion is mildly gripping and definitely creepy, which is good for the genre it is. I didn’t like the metaphorical mess that Gallier created, though, and most of the characters were so bland and one-dimensional that I’m struggling to even remember their names. Also, I found some of the scenarios unbelievable, and not the metaphor part, like when Owen gets beaten and then walks away like he had just been punched a couple of times. The Delusion was definitely not my type of book, but I can see it appealing to people who like this sort of supernatural thing.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Christian

You can buy this here:


The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

The Curse of the Blue Figurine, by John Bellairs, was published in 1983 by Dial Books.

Whoever removes these things from the church does so at his own peril….Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the lord. Remigius Baart. Little does Johnny Dixon know when he takes a scroll inscribed with these words—along with a seemingly harmless figurine—from the town church that his life will be changed forever. On a bleak and stormy night his friend Professor Childermass relates the tale of mad Father Baart, whose ghost is said to haunt the church. And when Johnny unthinkingly returns there and accepts a magic ring from a mysterious stranger, he is plunged into a terrifying adventure—realizing too late that the tale of Father Baart is not just a legend, but the horrifying truth.

Rating: 2/5

The first book I ever read by John Bellairs was The House with a Clock in its Walls, which I tried to find at my library but, sadly, they didn’t have. I had to settle for The Curse of the Blue Figurine, which I’d read when I was a child (along with most of Bellairs’ other works). From what I remember about The House, I do think I prefer that book to this one, but I think if I reread The House I might have a similar opinion of it as I do The Curse of the Blue Figurine.

The horror element is done very well; it’s creepy and dark and there’s appropriate sights and smells and all those things that go into a good horror book. Professor Childermass is quite a funny character, and his grumpiness is the comic relief in what would be an otherwise dark novel.

I don’t have many problems with the plot; it’s simple but effective, and it makes for a simple, effective horror story. Some of the things that Johnny does that are probably more on the “why would you ever do that?” side of things are covered very well—like why in the world he carried the book out of the basement at all, or took it home with him.

The main problem I had was the writing (surprise), which I found clumsy and simplistic. I guess I should have been prepared for that, and I do realize that I am most picky on writing style, but different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Also, there is quite a glaring error in the book, where several times the characters say things like, “In the Bible, it says that Moses’s body was carried away by angels.” Not sure if that was a common belief in the 80s or if Bellairs was using some Jewish tradition and conflating it with the Bible, but either way, I laughed when I read it.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Horror elements.

Genre: Supernatural, Horror, Middle Grade

The inside of the book had been hollowed out. Only the outer part of each page was left. And in the hole that had been made were two things: a small rolled-up piece of yellowish paper tied with a faded red ribbon, and a strange little blue ceramic statue. The statue was shaped like an Egyptian mummy case. It had staring eyes and a tiny beaked nose and a smiling mouth and a scrolled goatee. The figure’s arms were crossed over its breast in the Egyptian style. Apparently the mummy was supposed to be the mummy of a pharaoh, because it held in its hands the crook and the flail, the symbols of kingly power in ancient Egypt.

You can buy this here:

The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch by Joseph Delaney

The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch, by Joseph Delaney, was published in 2005 by Greenwillow.

For years, Old Gregory has been the Spook for the county, ridding the local villages of evil. Now his time is coming to an end. But who will take over for him? Twenty-nine apprentices have tried—some floundered, some fled, some failed to stay alive. Only Thomas Ward is left. He’s the last hope; the last apprentice. Can Thomas succeed? Will he learn the difference between a benign witch and a malevolent one? Does the Spooks’ warning against girls with pointy shoes include Alice? And what will happen if Thomas accidentally frees Mother Malkin, the most evil witch in the county…?

Rating: 3/5

Revenge of the Witch was much scarier than I thought it would be, surprisingly, due in part to some truly chilling illustrations and my mistaken impression going in that this book would be light-hearted. It reminded me quite a lot of The Screaming Staircase and the other Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud, since supernatural horror is the main focus.

Thomas is a bit of an annoying protagonist, in that he does so many stupid things that you want to yell at him most of the time for doing them. I’ve also never been fond of the “As I found out later, I should have done this particular thing” type of suspense-building narration, because for me it tends to suck a lot of the suspense out. I don’t want to be told that Thomas shouldn’t have made a deal with Alice—I want to be shown it. But Thomas is, at least, a persevering and brave protagonist in spite of his occasional stupidity and Captain Obvious moments, and I couldn’t help but cheer him on.

While I’m not sure I will continue on with the series, I did enjoy Revenge of the Witch, and the impact of the setting, plot events, and illustrations were all the greater since I wasn’t expecting them. To be honest, I don’t think I would have found it half so scary if it hadn’t been for the pictures. It’s one thing to read about a slouched figured creeping toward you—it’s quite another to see it! It’s probably why I can read horror books, but not see horror movies. Anyway, Revenge of the Witch, though not without flaws, is an endearing middle grade horror novel that has about ten sequels, so it must be pretty popular. I enjoyed reading it, although like I said, nothing about it particularly impelled me to pick up the next book.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Scary scenarios, mentions of blood, supernatural elements, and death.

Genre: Supernatural, Horror, Middle Grade

At that moment the candle guttered and then went out, plunging us into absolute darkness.

“This is it lad,” the Spook said. “There’s just you, me, and the dark. Can you stand it? Are you fit to be my apprentice?”

His voice sounded different, sort of deeper and strange. I imagined him on all fours by now, wolf hair covering his face, his teeth growing larger. I was trembling and couldn’t speak until I’d taken my third deep breath. Only then did I give him my answer. It was something my dad always said when he had to do something unpleasant or difficult.

“Someone has to do it,” I said. “So it might as well be me.”

You can buy this here:

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

The Creeping Shadow, by Jonathan Stroud, was published in 2016 by Hyperion. It is the sequel to The Hollow Boy.

After leaving Lockwood & Co. four months ago, Lucy has become a freelance operative, hiring herself out to psychic investigation agencies that value her ever-improving skills in locating Sources and shutting down Visitors. Her new life of independence, complete with her own studio apartment, would be fine if it weren’t’ for having to work with incompetent agents and answer to meddling supervisors. And it does sometimes get lonely, even though she has the skull in the jar to annoy her with his leers and sarcastic jibes. One day Lucy receives a surprise visit from Lockwood, who tells her he needs a good listener for a tough assignment. Penelope Fittes, the leader of the giant Fittes Agency, wants them—and only them—to locate and remove the Source for the ghost of a legendary cannibal. Throughout this very dangerous undertaking, tensions remain high between Lucy and her former colleagues. What will it take to reunite the team?

Rating: 4/5

I’ve enjoyed each book in the Lockwood & Co. series more and more, and I ate up The Creeping Shadow. Creepy ghosts (seriously, the cannibal one is the creepiest yet), intriguing developments, and cute awkwardness between Lucy and Lockwood led up to an ending that I can say I truly did not see coming—and took the series in a whole new direction for the grand finale fifth book.

I said it in The Hollow Boy and I’ll say it again here: adding Holly to the picture and making Lucy leave Lockwood & Co. was truly a good thing for the series, which felt a little stagnant to me after the second book. I was ambivalent about Lucy in the first two books, grew to like her in the third, and now am vehemently behind her in the fourth. And her camaraderie with the skull (who I’ve found annoying in the past) works, so that her going after it made complete sense character-wise.

The plot revelations in this book were good, too—and reminded me strongly of Stranger Things, as any book with other dimensions will now do—and although I knew who the villain would be based on what happened in the third book, I was not expecting the Big Reveal at the end—and it was a fantastic whammy of an ending, too.

The supernatural/horror genre really is not my cup of tea, so it’s a testament to just how good Stroud is that I’m enjoying Lockwood & Co., in all of its spooky element, so thoroughly. I can’t wait for what the last book will reveal for these characters that I’ve grown to love.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)

He was here! Why was he here? Excitement and incredulity kept smashing together, like waves colliding at a jetty. There was so much noise going on in my mind that the first priority—making small talk—was a bit of a problem.

“How’s business with Lockwood and Co.?” I asked over my shoulder. “I mean, I see you in the papers all the time. Not that I’m looking for you, obviously. I just see stuff. But you seem to be doing okay, as far as I can gather. When I think about it. Which is rare. Do you take sugar now?”

He was staring at the clutter on my floor, blank-eyed, as if lost in thought. “It’s only been a few months, Luce. I haven’t suddenly started taking sugar in my tea…” Then he brightened, nudging the ghost-jar with the side of his shoe. “Hey, how’s our friend here doing?”

“The skull? Oh, it helps me out from time to time. Hardly talk to it, really…” To my annoyance, I noticed a stirring in the substance that filled the jar, implying a sudden awakening of the ghost. That was the last thing I wanted right now.

You can buy this book here:

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, by Janet Fox, was published in 2016 by Viking.

Twelve-year-old Katherine Bateson believes in a logical explanation for everything. But even she can’t make sense of the strange goings-on at Rookskill Castle, the drafty old Scottish castle-turned-school where she and her siblings have been sent to escape the London Blitz. What’s making those mechanical shrieks at night? Why do the castle’s walls seem to have a mind of their own? And who are the silent children who seem to haunt Rookskill’s grounds? Kat believes Lady Eleanor, who rules the castle, is harboring a Nazi spy. But when her classmates begin to vanish, one by one, Kat must face the truth about what the castle actually harbors—and what Lady Eleanor is—before it’s too late.

Rating: 3/5

I heard some good things about The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, so I decided to pick it up even though I don’t usually tend to go for paranormal/supernatural. And while I didn’t think it was blow-me-away-amazing, I did like the subtle tension underlying the novel and the atmosphere of terror created not just by WWII, but also by Lady Eleanor.

Kat was also a good protagonist, although the “you’re the only one left and have to save everyone” mechanic is a little overused, in my opinion—but it does make for good tension. I liked the other characters, too, although I wish the charmed children were more directly involved with the plot. Once they became charmed, they melted into the scenery a little—it would have been nice to see the other characters interact with them a little more.

I wish Lady Eleanor’s character had been developed a little more, and the resolution of the novel got a little hazy in its attempts to explain everything. There were a few things that I thought were simply hand-waved away, and other things didn’t make much sense as to why they happened. I also thought the book would have been better as a whole without the additional MI6 side plot thrown in, although clearly it’s a way for Fox to continue writing books with Kat as the main character.

I enjoyed The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle for its subtle tension and spookiness as well as its use of historical artifacts and philosophy as magic. I thought some of the characters could have been more developed, especially Lady Eleanor, and the resolution of the book could have been a lot neater in its execution, but it’s a fine book for those who enjoy spooky reads.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Supernatural, Middle Grade

The door burst open behind them. “Kat!” Robbie fell into the room, Peter on his heels, Robbie’s eyes like saucers. “Kat! You won’t believe it. We found a secret hiding place. A hidden room. With something—or someone—locked inside that makes terrible shrieky noises.”

Kat looked at Peter, who nodded, then back at Rob.

He was white as the cliffs of Dover. “Sure as sure,” Rob said in a low voice, “sure as sure, it’s a ghost.”

You can buy this book here:

Well Witched by Frances Hardinge

Well Witched, by Frances Hardinge, was published in 2007 by HarperCollins.

Ryan and his friends don’t think twice about stealing some money from a wishing well. After all, who’s really going to miss a few tarnished coins? The well witch does. And she demands payback: Now Ryan, Josh, and Chelle must serve her…and the wishes that lie rotting at the bottom of her well. Each takes on powers they didn’t ask for and don’t want. Ryan grows strange bumps—are they eyes?—between his knuckles; Chelle starts speaking the secrets of strangers, no matter how awful and bloody; and Josh can suddenly—inexplicably—grant even the darkest of wishes, the kind of wishes that should never come true.

Even though the summary hints at things being more serious than at first glance, I still went into this book thinking it would be a fun, cute book in the vein of Half Magic or The Enchanted Castle. And at the beginning it is; the children realize they need to grant people’s wishes and start figuring out how to get a guy a motorcycle, and it’s fun—and then Hardinge takes that Enchanted Castle feel and twists it into something darker.

Suddenly, Ryan and Chelle and Josh start thinking about what wishes are and what they mean and if some wishes aren’t better off not granted, after all. Coupled with some scary imagery, things get pretty intense—especially when, horror-movie style, Ryan peers out his window in the rain and spies Josh standing in the rain and realizes what exactly that means.

So, yes, it’s intense and even scary at some points, but Hardinge communicates some deep ideas through the concept of granting wishes, such as the concept of saying one thing and wanting something deeper than that or beyond that. “Don’t take things at face value” is part of the message of the book, which is a good message to have for a book directed to an age that is starting to learn just that. But more than that, Hardinge shows that sometimes what you want isn’t what you need, and that often what you wish is only a superficial answer to what you really want.

The three kids’ personalities fit exactly with what happens to them, especially Josh, and despite the supernatural aspect, I actually believe that this sort of thing could happen. And Ryan, despite having some deep introspection that belies his age, is a believable eleven-year-old who deeply reflects on things that happen around him. Very well-crafted by Hardinge.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Some scary imagery and scenes.

Genre: Supernatural, Realistic, Middle Grade

“Okay, wishing wells. People come and drop in a coin and make a wish. That’s what they’re for. So…there’s this thing living down the well, a well spirit, and she gets given all these coins with wishes attached, and maybe she’s supposed to grant them in exchange. And then we come along and take the coins….” Ryan gave the others a wince of a smile. “There was this word the well-thing kept saying over and over, but it just sounded like she was sneezing through soup. Only I’m starting to think it might have been ‘wishes.’”

Josh gave a sudden low grown, as if stricken with indigestion and doubled up so that his forehead rested on the grass. Clearly he had guessed what Ryan was about to say.

“I think…” Ryan continued, “I think when the well accepts the coins, that’s like promising to grant the wishes…and I think us taking the coins means…that we have to grant them.”

Overall Review:

Well Witched turned out to be much more intense than what I was expecting, but that’s not a bad thing. Hardinge won me over with her handling of themes and the message, and the representation of the three children. It’s a beautifully crafted novel—although, despite all the good things I’ve said, not an overly fantastic one.

You can buy this here: Well Witched

The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

The Hollow Boy, by Jonathan Stroud, was published in 2015 by Hyperion. It is the sequel to The Whispering Skull.

As a massive outbreak of supernatural Visitors baffles Scotland Yard and causes protests throughout London, team Lockwood & Co. continues to demonstrate its effectiveness in exterminating spirits. Anthony Lockwood is dashing, George insightful, and Lucy dynamic, while the skull in the jar utters sardonic advice from the sidelines. There is a new spirit of openness in the team now that Lockwood has shared some of his childhood secrets, and Lucy is feeling more and more as if her true home is at Portland Row. It comes as a great shock, then, when Lockwood and George introduce her to an annoyingly perky and hyper-efficient new assistant, Holly Munro. Meanwhile, there are reports of many new hauntings, including a house where bloody footprints are appearing and a department store full of strange sounds and shadowy figures. But ghosts seem to be the least of Lockwood & Co.’s concerns when assassins attack during a carnival in the center of the city. Can the team members get past their personal issues to save the day on all fronts, or will bad feelings attract yet more trouble?

I realized something while reading The Hollow Boy. I realized that Jonathan Stroud can write one heck of a good ghost story, and even though I don’t normally like ghost stories or anything horror-related at all, I couldn’t stop reading! The Hollow Boy was everything I’ve wanted out of Lockwood & Co. and more. A new dynamic shakes up the team, Lucy finally gets more dimensionality and acts more like a character and less like a narrator, and spooky, gripping scenes abound. And points for the double meaning of the title!

Things weren’t all perfect, alas. As interesting and spookily good as the book was, I thought there were one too many “ghost hunts.” I wondered almost 2/3rds of the way through the book when the “hollow boy” of the title would show up. Of course, once I realized the double meaning, I realized that he’d been there all along, but still—it felt slightly too drawn out even so.

Also, one of the complaints I had about The Whispering Skull was that I felt that Stroud made the villain too obvious. And in The Hollow Boy, even though there was no villain per se, beyond the ghostly ones, I felt that it was slightly too obvious who Stroud was setting up to be the Big Bad. Or maybe I’ve read too much and know a lot of plot twists. But I think I know who the villain of the next book will be, and that makes me a little sad because some of the surprise will be gone (if I’m right, of course).

Overall, I thought The Hollow Boy was mostly excellent, and definitely improved on some of the things I found stale and/or annoying about the first two books. While it was still fairly formulaic (the book starts in the middle of a ghost hunt, again, and there are several ghost hunt interludes before the big plot wraps up, again), I found the mystery of it intriguing and the ghost sections suitably creepy and spine-tingling. Also, I really want Lucy to become the commander of a ghost army and save London from Villain Guy, even though I know that in Stroud’s world, that would never happen because of how he’s built the world. But I can dream!

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)

“Is it me,” I said slowly, “or is there something lying on that beam?”

It was the crossbeam almost directly overhead. Cobwebs hung down from it, merging with the shadows of the eaves. Above was a funny patch of darkness that might have been part of the beam, or part of an object resting directly on it. You couldn’t really see it from below, except for something poking out on one side that might have been hair.

We regarded it in silence.

“Ladder, George,” said Lockwood.

George went to get the ladder, pulling it upward through the hatch. “Those guys are still down there,” he reported. “Just standing around the chains. Looks like they’re waiting for something.”

We set the ladder against the beam.

You want my advice?” In its jar, the ghost had stirred. “The worst thing you can do is go up and look. Just chuck a magnesium flare and run away.”

You can buy this book here: The Hollow Boy

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, was published in 2014 by Hyperion. It is the sequel to The Screaming Staircase.

In the six months since Anthony, Lucy, and George survived a night in the most haunted house in England, Lockwood & Co. hasn’t made much progress. Quill Kipps and his team of Fittes agents keep swooping in on Lockwood’s investigations, which is creating a bit of tension back home at Portland Row. Things look up when a new client, Mr. Saunders, hires Lockwood & Co. to be present at the exhumation of Edmund Bickerstaff, a doctor who, in Victorian times, purportedly tried to communicate with the dead. Saunders needs the coffin sealed with silver to prevent any supernatural trouble. All goes well—until George’s curiosity attracts a horrible phantom. That isn’t the only chaos that follows the phantom’s release. Inspector Barnes of DEPRAC informs Lockwood and Kipps that Bickerstaff’s coffin has been raided and a strange glass object has been stolen. He believes the relic to be highly dangerous, and he wants it found. Meanwhile, Lucy is distracted by urgent whispers coming from the skull in the ghost jar…

The Whispering Skull has great suspense and creepiness to it; it’s basically a really good ghost story. There’s some more development for the characters, which I liked; I liked that Lockwood & Co.’s relationship was tested and that they had to work out some things. It made them seem less two-dimensional.

I also really enjoyed the writing; there are several moments in the book where Stroud does situational humor through his writing, through his descriptions of things. Like when someone mentions the name of the rumored killer “Jack Carver” and a flock of crows bursts from the trees. There’s also a lot of humorous dialogue, and not all of it comes from George, the designated Wise Cracker. And the book as a whole is really entertaining.

However, I’m still less than impressed by the characters. None of them have really done anything to make them stand out very much. I don’t like the “tantalizing mystery” surrounding Lockwood, George doesn’t do much besides be the comic relief, and as a viewpoint character Lucy is really flat. She gets a little development with her interactions with the skull, but still. I don’t understand her character. Both she and George completely revolve around Lockwood and it’s annoying. What I hope will happen is that Lockwood & Co. gets a new team member (preferably female) in the next book, because right now they really need it. (Note from the future: They totally are! Yes! Thank you, Stroud!)

Four more little things bothered me: 1.) it was too unbelievable that the skull in the jar that George happened to pick up just happened to be connected to the case. 2.) The “villain” was really obvious due to Stroud’s almost over-description of him every time he appeared 3.) The ending was a cliffhanger and I hated it. 4.) I didn’t like how almost every character besides the Main Trio were described in unflattering terms.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Ghosts and ghouls, scary situations and imagery.

Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)

“Can you describe them?”

“One, not so much,” the kid said. “Plump bloke, blond hair, scritty mustache. Young, wears black. Name of Duane Neddles.”

George made a skeptical noise that sounded like gas escaping from a rhino. “Duane Neddles? Oh, he sounds scary. Sure you’re not making this up?”

“And the other?” Lockwood called.

The kid hesitated. “He’s got a reputation. A killer. They say he bumped off a rival during a job last year. Maybe I shouldn’t…”

Lockwood stopped short. “It was a team of two last night that bashed your colleague,” he said. “Let’s say one was Neddles. Who was the other?”

The kid leaned close, spoke softly. “They call him Jack Carver.”

A group of crows rose squalling from the gravestones. Wings cracking, they circled against the sky and flew off over the trees.

Overall Review:

The Whispering Skull was deliciously spooky and wonderfully entertaining—but that’s about all it was. I still think the characters are flat and generic, and Lucy particularly, being a first-person narrator, needs some work. There were a number of other small things in the book that bothered me, to the extent where I enjoyed the book, but was annoyed with it at the same time.

You can buy this here:The Whispering Skull

Conversion by Katherine Howe

Conversion, by Katherine Howe, was published in 2014 by Putnam.

It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ tests: through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t. First it’s the schools’ queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic. Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to lame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago…

So, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this book.

On the one hand, I felt it was a decent supernatural thriller, with the added “was it supernatural or was it not?” vibe that I really like. The tension was suitably drawn out throughout the book and the Salem interludes served as a subtle way to increase that tension. It was also a good way to learn about The Crucible without actually having to read The Crucible, since Howe practically rewrites it for you in the book (and also tells you what it’s about through the author-insertion character Ms. Slater).

On the other hand, I hate how thriller books tend to be driven with cliffhanger chapters, where every chapter ends on some shocking note to entice the reader to read further. And I’m pretty sure that almost every chapter, if not every single one, ended like that. I also thought the Salem interludes were a bit tedious to get through and got more and more irrelevant towards the end. And I really thought more development could have gone into What Really Happened, and the ambiguity at the end was actually a little off putting, at least in my opinion.

Also, this book tries so hard to be a “normal high school story” and failed miserably with the use of old, tired clichés and stock characters. I also don’t like protagonists who think they’re smarter than they are.

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, a student/teacher relationship.

Genre: Supernatural, Realistic, Young Adult

“But isn’t The Crucible, like, about the Salem witch trials?” Leigh asked.

“No,” Ms. Slater said. “Its setting is the Salem witch trials. Different thing entirely.”

“But aren’t all the characters all, like, real people?” Leigh pressed, looking confused.

“Nope,” Ms. Slater said.

Overall Review:

Conversion is a decent supernatural thriller, but its generic characters, overuse of cliffhangers, and the interesting, but increasingly tedious Salem interludes, keep it from being particularly good. The student/teacher relationship was incredibly difficult to read about as all I could think about was how unhealthy it was, and Ms. Slater is basically just a stand-in for the author herself. I liked the “it might not actually be supernatural” undercurrent, but that’s about it.

You can buy this here: Conversion

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, was published in 2013 by Hyperion.

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 young 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 don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed that the fantastic humor of Stroud’s Bartimaeus series was lacking in The Screaming Staircase. There’s a bit of humor thrown in by George, and this book desperately needs humor because of the tension and overall scariness of the atmosphere, but what I was expecting—Bartimaeus-like humor, etc.—was not what I got. I suppose I should be pleased, since it shows that Stroud can write more than one style, but I’m also slightly disappointed–although I know it’s unfair of me to expect every book Stroud writes to be like Bartimaeus.

I really liked the characters, despite the fact that nothing they did particularly stood out to me and they were overall extremely generic. George’s humor, as mentioned above, was much needed, and I liked the dynamic between the three of them (even if it was predictable due to their character types). I think the “Intelligent, Often Closed-Mouth Protagonist With The Mysterious Past” is way overdone, but I couldn’t help but like Lockwood despite of it.

I did really like the mystery, even if, like the characters, it was predictable. I’m glad that Stroud connected the first part of the plot with the second (although I think the killer’s identity is too obvious), and I love both the atmosphere that he sets up (the Red Room was the creepiest thing) and the world overall. Lucy has a spectacular moment at the end when her thoughts and mine completely matched and she did exactly what I wanted her to do and it was awesome. I hope she gets more dimensionality to her in future books, because I can see her completely stealing the show from Lockwood.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Ghosts and ghouls, scary situations and imagery.

Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)

With the nail of my middle finger, I tapped the side of the glass; at once the smoke awoke, rippling outward from the point of impact, becoming thicker, more granular as it did so. As it separated, it revealed the object in the jar: a human skull, brown and stained, clamped to the bottom of the glass.

The ripples of smoke contorted, twisted; they took on the horrid semblance of a face, with blankly rolling eyes and gaping mouth. For a moment the features were superimposed upon the skull beneath. I jerked back from the glass. The face devolved into streamlike ribbons of smoke that swirled about the cylinder and presently became still.

Overall Review:

The Screaming Staircase has characters and a plot that are a little too generic for me to really love it, but despite that I still like the characters and what Stroud did with the plot. I really liked the spooky, ghostly atmosphere, though, and the world that Stroud has created. I wish he had done a little bit more to make the characters stand out, however.

You can buy this here: The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co.)