When placing a recent book order, I decided to catch up with some YA books that have been out for a few years, some so I could move further into the series, others just because I felt they were books I should have read in order to maintain “street cred” as an expert in young adult literature for my class at UCLA. One such book was City of Ghosts, by V. E. (Victoria) Schwab.
I was initially taken aback as I began to read, because all of Victoria’s other YA books are targeted more towards high school students, and
I had expected the same here. City of Ghosts is definitely a middle school offering—in fact, if a kid is a precocious reader, I think this could reach down into the upper levels of grade school—5th grade
for sure. But once I realized what I was reading, I settled in to enjoy this story.
Cassidy Blake died by falling into a river. She was saved from permanent death, however, by a ghost named Jacob, who snapped her out of it and in the process became somehow attached to her. Now he is her faithful invisible sidekick in her world, and because of her NDE (near-death experience), she is a regular guest in his world, which she has nicknamed “the Veil,” because when she enters the world of ghosts, it’s like pulling back a curtain and stepping through a window.
Cassie’s parents are ghost-hunters, of a sort. Nothing so crass as the people on TV who stumble around in dark houses trying to film ghosts as proof they exist—her father is an historian, while her mother enjoys the story aspect and is enthralled by old folk tales of ghosts and specters. Now, however, the two have been invited to host a TV show about the world’s most haunted places. The first filming site is the ancient city of Edinburgh, Scotland, which teems with restless phantoms. Cassie has no idea what she will confront in a city so steeped in haunted history.
The descriptive language, particularly Cassidy’s sensations inside and outside of “the Veil,” lent a lot to the power of the story. I had a bit of a hard time believing that while her parents were “inspecters,” they didn’t believe in Cassidy’s sidekick, or see that there was something going on with her. I know her dad was fixated on the historical and didn’t endorse the supernatural aspect, but it seems like her mother, so involved with the legends, could have been a little more receptive—or perceptive. Maybe that changes in the next books in the series?
The introduction of the ghost hunter Lara and the mysterious Findley added a lot to the story, as did Cassie’s encounters with both personal and historical aspects of “ghosthood.” The “villain” was a convincing choice as an avatar from several cultures, and yielded a satisfyingly scary climax to the story.
Some of the material here is familiar from other writers and other series, particularly the concept of the near-death experience providing a heightened sensitivity to ghosts, and the idea of people sending ghosts trapped in the “in-between” to their final rest by releasing them from their rote repetition of a particular moment in their life/death. The first concept is dealt with in greater depth in Maureen Johnson’s three high school paranormal mysteries, Shades of London, in which a girl first discovers her own ability to see ghosts, and then finds out that there is a coterie of secret ghost-fighting police, called the Shades, who want her to join up with them. The second is covered in the delightful five-book Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud, set in an alternate universe where “the Problem” (ghosts everywhere) is out of control, and only children are able to see and fight them. Schwab’s account is by no means derivative—I only mention these other series because they could be a natural progression as the younger middle schoolers who enjoy City of Ghosts want older fare.
Since Schwab has written three series for older teens (The Archived, Monsters of Verity, and The Near Witch), you might think I would refer young people to those; but honestly, I didn’t enjoy any of them beyond a point. This is odd, because her adult books (the Shades of Magic series, and the Vicious books) are among my all-time favorites—to the point that I have re-read all of them several times. My experience with teenagers from my librarian days is that they feel likewise—they are tepid about her YA books, but madly enthusiastic about the ones she has written with adults in mind. And especially with the Shades of Magic books, she has provided for the attraction of that audience by creating two protagonists young enough to appeal to teens while complex enough to attract adults.
I find it so odd when one writer writes for two audiences with such different results, but I have encountered it numerous times. I love the adult mysteries of Elizabeth George, but practically panned her young adult paranormal series. It’s also interesting when someone writes under two names, and you read both of them as separate authors, come to completely different judgments about their work, and then discover that they are the same person, as happened to me with mystery writer Barbara Vine, who is also Ruth Rendell. While I like Rendell’s books, I find them a little dry, a little cold, and sometimes frankly off-putting, whereas Vine’s books are much more to my taste—softer, more intimate, less clinical.
If you are a young adult, you should certainly not take my word for it that Victoria Schwab’s YA books won’t be to your liking. There are so many YA books that I have loved while teens said “take it or leave it,” and so many others that I couldn’t stand but about which teens gush over how good they are. But I can tell you that my recommendations of her adult books have met with universal approval, and I look forward to the new one arriving this year in October—The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. That is one book for which I will put in an advance order.
There is currently another Cassidy Blake book to be read (Tunnel of Bones), shiveringly set this time in the catacombs of Paris, and a third book in the series is due out in 2021.
I went looking for scary reads to feature here, but although I found some things I liked, I struck out when it came to true horror. My selections turned out to be more suitable for the original pagan festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the growing season and honors the dead.
First, because I was in the mood to read something I already knew I liked, I did a re-read of Charlaine Harris’s four-book series about Harper Connelly. Harper has a strange gift, bestowed upon her when she was struck by lightning and lived: She can find dead people, and she can tell you how they died. Traveling with her step-brother Tolliver as her manager, she roves around the country giving the living (and the dead) closure, and getting paid for it. The problem is, although she can see the circumstances surrounding their death, the murderer, if such there be, is never included in the vision.
I don’t know what it is about this series that sets it apart for me, but I enjoy it more than any of Harris’s other series (which I also like). The combination of what Harper Connelly does and how she does it, combined with the poignant story of her hard life and the partnership with her “brother,” Tolliver, just pulls me in.
I hesitated on where to “store” this series on my “shelves” on Goodreads, however, because despite the fact that it contains paranormal activity and is occasionally pretty spooky, the books read more like mystery stories than anything else; once Harper discovers the cause of death, the next natural step is for the relatives and friends of the deceased (and the police) to want to know how, why, and who, if murder is the answer. So I put the series under paranormal AND mystery, and then decided against horror, even though there is some creep factor. Definitely worth a read, however. The four books are Grave Sight, Grave Surprise, An Ice Cold Grave, and Grave Secret.
The next thing I picked up to connect with Hallowe’en was John Searles’s book, Help for the Haunted. The premise for this one sounded intriguing, and at first I thought it would be a good, spooky tale. The set-up of a couple who “helps” haunted souls was interesting, particularly because the author doesn’t go into much initial detail about exactly how they help, so I was left wanting more. The back-and-forth of the story from before to after the couple’s death, all told from the viewpoint of their youngest daughter, Sylvie, was puzzling, and the device of an unreliable narrator (because she was young and naive) and an unreliable secondary character (Sylvie’s volatile sister Rose, whose actions and viewpoints couldn’t be trusted) kept things suspended in “what if?” for quite a while.
When I first started reading it,
I got a feeling not unlike reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Not to say that this anywhere equals the brilliance of that book, but just that you find yourself inside this family with people who seem normal but aren’t, and people who seem crazy but aren’t, and you keep reading because you want to find out what’s true.
Ultimately, this author left important revelations for way too long, spinning out the story with a few seemingly supernatural events here and there to string the reader along, but ultimately I became bored with all the back-and-forth that led nowhere. Once Sylvie determined that she would figure out who killed her parents, no matter what, and sought out such pivotal characters as her uncle, the man who wrote a not-entirely-flattering biography of her parents, and the man she initially suspected of their murder, things finally began to pick up again…only to mean virtually nothing in the face of a completely implausible, albeit surprising, ending.
This book could have been so much more—the characters of Sylvie and Abigail were particularly intriguing, and there were so many ways the author could have chosen to taken it…but he didn’t. I can’t say I liked it, but I can’t condemn it as wholly bad either. A good effort that ultimately disappointed. And I couldn’t even shelve it in “horror.” More gothic and paranormal than anything, with a small modicum of suspense.
My final choice was Diane Setterfield’s book, Bellman & Black. This book has been on my “to read” list for awhile; I had previously read and greatly enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale by this author, and knew that even if this wasn’t the ultimate in horror, it would at least be intelligent, well written and well plotted. The jacket copy telling us “rooks never forget” sounded ominously Edgar Allan Poe-ish…
I am loving this book…but you couldn’t account it as horror by any stretch (at least not so far), although parts are foreboding, haunting, and mysterious. It has the same old-fashioned fairy-tale-retelling feel as a strange and fanciful book by Tom McNeal called Far, Far Away that I read a few years back with my high school book club.
Because I took so many days to read Help for the Haunted, I wasn’t able to finish Bellman & Black in time to review it for today’s post, so that will wait for a day or two—I still have about half the book to go.
But I feel pretty confident that Setterfield will not disappoint, and that it’s sufficiently ghost-filled to make for satisfying reading on All Hallows Eve.
In the spirit of the holiday and the theme of Bellman & Black, here are a pair of rooks, styled after Odin’s corvids Huginn and Muninn. Happy Hallowe’en, and Blessed Samhain to you!
Another entry for this occasional feature, looking back to favorite reads…
Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites:
The Glass Harmonica has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), and it is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story.
The Terrorists of Irustan is set in the future on another planet, giving it a science fiction classification, but the society on Irustan mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil, and her co-conspirator, Jing-Li, is perpetuating a fraud that could mean death were it discovered. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid’s Tale sort of dystopia.