“The Screaming Staircase” by Jonathan Stroud

screamingstaircaseI was a big fan of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series when I was in (the Indian equivalent of) high school, so I’ve had his new Lockwood & Co. series on my wishlist for a while now. I’ve been reluctant to actually read it, though, because things I liked in school don’t always hold up when I read them now, and I didn’t want to tarnish my memories of Bartimaeus. My friend Sashank recently asked me to read and review the series on my blog, so I decided to take the plunge.

The world of The Screaming Staircase is very much like our own, except that for the past fifty years, dangerous ghosts have been haunting the world at an alarmingly high rate, and only children have the psychic sensitivity needed to sense and combat them effectively. We follow Lucy Carlyle, a fourteen year old Agent from the country that moves to London and joins the small Lockwood & Co. company. After one of their ghost investigations goes horribly wrong, they are forced to take on one of the country’s most haunted homes.

I read this book by flashlight at night during a power outage, and although it was fun in a terrifying kind of way, I don’t recommend it. I wouldn’t call the genre horror exactly – it’s supposed to be middle-grade, and it mostly focuses on the adventure, but there are some nail-bitingly creepy parts that Stroud really brings to life. I thought Lucy was a great protagonist, she’s earnest and vulnerable, she doesn’t take any crap from anyone but she’s not showy about it, either. Lockwood seems to be cut from similar cloth as Nathaniel in the Bartimaeus series, he’s self-possessed and precocious and you forget that he’s young until he does something ridiculous that makes you realize how young he is. I wanted to know more about George, but he seemed to get the short end of the stick (primarily because Lucy and Lockwood thrive on action, and George is the researcher they often ignore.)

I wasn’t that excited by the plot itself. There wasn’t anything notably bad about it, but I just wasn’t drawn into it that much. I was willing to forgive that because it’s clearly setting up a larger world and mysteries to explore. Overall, I’m glad to report that instead of tarnishing my memories of Stroud’s previous works, reading The Screaming Staircase just made me want to reread them.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (Lockwood & Co., #1)
Disney-Hyperion, 2013 | Buy the book

“The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There” by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There coverThe Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There was my one non-Brandon Sanderson pre-order this year. The first book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was one of the best books I read in 2011 (and the second book ever to be reviewed on this blog.)

It has been a little over a year since September’s first visit to Fairyland, where she defeated the evil Marquess and saved the land. She has been waiting for the Green Wind to come fetch her so she can see her friends Saturday and A-through-L and have a fun adventure, but she’s afraid her friends have all forgotten her. When she finally gets to Fairyland, it turns out that the magic is seeping out of the land into Fairyland Below whose Queen is Halloween, September’s shadow. So our intrepid September has to save Fairyland all over again… but now it’s from her shadow self.

Pretty much everything about this book is gorgeous – the cover art, the words, the setting, the story. Valente is one of the most skilled writers I’ve encountered in her ability to play with words and ideas. Her prose is evocative and is full of whimsical but logical similes, allusions and metaphors. I would recommend this series based entirely on her writing, but every other part of the book is perfectly crafted too.

Valente tackles the age old children’s book trope – growing up, but somehow manages to put a fresh face on it. September is a lovely protagonist – she’s practical, but brave, very sure of herself and not afraid to take responsibility for her actions. But now she’s outgrowing her childhood, and that means she’s growing a heart and her feelings war. She’s always seen things the way she wants them to be, and now she sees things as they are, and that’s a hard realisation at any age. This is especially poignant when she encounters the shadow Marquess.

I especially loved the concept of shadows being everything the “real” person keeps hidden. Halloween is so wild because September tries her best to be proper, shadow Saturday is effusive, and shadow A-through-L is bashful. Mirroring was a big theme throughout the book – Fairyland Below is a mirror of Fairyland, and Fairyland itself mirrors wartime America.

I could go on and on, but I wouldn’t leave you any magic to discover for yourself. This series is the new Phantom Tollbooth! It doesn’t matter how old you are (you’ll love the whimsy if you’re young and you’ll appreciate the nuances if you’re older) – read The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. Just make sure you read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making first.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente (Fairyland, #2)
Feiwel & Friends, 2012 | Buy the book

“Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians” by Brandon Sanderson

alcatrazIf you’ve been reading the posts on this blog, you know that I’m a huge Brandon Sanderson fan, and I own pretty much all of his books. However, I’ve been reluctant to read the Alcatraz Smedry series since it’s middle grade, but I figured I would give it a try. I was really obsessed with young adult books in 2010 and early 2011, but have since cooled (the profusion of implausible dystopias featuring a teenage girl changing the face of society while having to choose between the smouldering forbidden bad boy and the sweet but mildly boring good boy – yeah, they’ve really turned me off.)

Anyway, I’m glad I got over it and bought a copy of Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians, because it’s really amazing. Alcatraz Smedry has been bouncing from foster home to foster home throughout his life – sooner or later, everyone gets tired of his propensity to break everything he touches. It’s his thirteenth birthday, and he’s pretty resigned to his fate. But then he receives a mysterious bag of sand as a birthday present which he disregards but then gets promptly stolen. And then an old man shows up claiming to be his grandfather, that Alcatraz’s continuous destruction of things is in fact a superpower, that the librarians of the world are in fact a cult that have been trying to take over the world for millenniums – and most importantly, that they really need to go rescue that bag of sand. Such a crazy tale has to be true, so Alcatraz sets off on an adventure to infiltrate the local library and save the world!

Alcatraz is an extremely funny narrator – he’s sarcastic, meta and extremely genre savvy. He is fully aware of the fact that he’s a narrator (the book is a book that he writes in-world), and he takes pains to be as obnoxious of a one as possible, frequently taking the time to comment on the structure of the story and the narrative devices he’s using to hook you in. It’s certainly not what I was expecting, and it works wonderfully. I had a smirk on my face throughout the book.

The plot and characters are pretty ridiculously silly, but despite that and Alcatraz’s constant sarcasm, the story still has meaningful character development and a solid emotional core. There’s a complex world conspiracy, dinosaurs, myths and misinformation and it all makes a weird kind of sense.

Highly recommended! I’ll be getting Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones pretty soon.

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson (Alcatraz, #1)
Scholastic Press, 2007 | Buy the book

“Savvy” by Ingrid Law

Savvy coverAfter the overwhelming negativity of the last book I read, I figured I needed a bit of light reading. I recently acquired Savvy via Bookmooch; it’s been on my wish list since a couple of years ago, when I was really into young adult and middle grade books.

Savvy features Mibs Beaumont and her family, who have unique abilities called savvies, which they come into on their thirteenth birthday. Mibs’ mother has a savvy for doing things right, her brothers can disrupt electricity and cause hurricanes, and her grandfather can stretch land. It is two days before Mibs’ thirteenth birthday and she can’t wait for her savvy to arrive – but then her father is in a horrible accident, and her previous concerns seem irrelevant.

Law is a good writer with her whimsical turns of phrase and her well drawn characters. Although the book takes place over the span of less than a week, Mibs learns a lot – that people’s outward actions and how they feel inside can be very different, that some people don’t want to be helped, that bad things happen for a good reason sometimes. She also makes friends and bonds with her family even more.

This book is aimed at a middle-grade audience and although it was good, I found it a bit simplistic. I don’t think this this is only because it’s a middle grade – I recently read and loved Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, another kids’ book with a first person perspective about people with strange powers, but that was by Brandon Sanderson and had a very genre savvy protagonist and a clever worldwide conspiracy. Savvy is a gentler, more personal book about a girl starting to grow up.

I would definitely recommend Savvy for young readers, but I won’t be prioritising reading the sequel.

Savvy by Ingrid Law
Penguin Group, 2008 | Buy the book