Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co.) – Book Review

Posted November 19, 2015 By JS Daly

The Whispering Skull

The Whispering Skull

Lockwood & Co. (#2)

by Jonathan Stroud
Disney-Hyperion, 2014
464 Pages
Middle Grade (8-12 and up)
4 stars
4 skulls
We rejoin Lucy, George, and Anthony Lockwood with a few more notches in their belt since the Combe Carey Hall incident. They dealt with Mrs. Barrett’s Tomb, a dark specter at the Epping Forest, and a shining boy in a rectory, and they’ve gotten shiny new epees, though an official uniform seems anathema to the only small ghost-hunting agency run by a youth without adult supervisors.

Today the cemeteries were overgrown, the bowers wild and laced with thorns. Few adults ventured there by daylight; at night they were places of terror to be avoided at all costs. While it was true that the vast majority of the dead still slept quietly in their graves, even agents were reluctant to spend much time among them. It was like entering enemy territory. We were not welcome there.

We are finally treated to the story of the Type Three manifestation in Lockwood’s possession, the skull-in-a-jar stolen by George back when he worked for Fittes… before he was asked to leave for insubordination (for asking too many questions, he says). This also gives us a bit of background on George; we already know about Lucy and her mentor Jacobs, and are soon to learn more of Lockwood’s trainer, Gravedigger Sykes. The story reveals that apparently Fittes doesn’t send all their cursed relics and sources directly to the furnaces as they say they do. DEPRAC itself, for that matter, does extensive research on its relics hidden deep within Scotland Yard, yet reveals nothing to the public. And again we encounter that mysterious lyre symbol.
While George’s torturous experiments with the skull are unproductive, Lucy starts talking to it like an old friend. A real type three. No one’s done that since the original ghost hunter Marissa Fittes herself. The skull of course, begins to manipulate Lucy to wonder about the room Lockwood doesn’t ever want opened. The trickster implies that there is a greater danger within than he.
The curtain goes up as the team is hired by a grave clearing company to seal the recently discovered Edmund Bickerstaff grave. Seems easy, but within is discovered a cursed magic mirror. It is in an iron casket buried in a makeshift grave from long before The Problem began. Odd that iron would be used back then. The mirror, of course, is soon stolen and one of the culprits is discovered dead… of fright.
Enter Quill Kipps from the Fittes Agency and his team: The poker-faced Kat Godwin, a psychic Listener like Lucy; their researcher is small-statured Bobby Vernon; and bully-boy Ned Shaw, who are always there like Malfoy to Potter, to rub The Lockwood Agency’s shortcomings in their faces. But they couldn’t beat Lockwood’s team in a fair fight. Not without the resources of the wealthy and influential Fittes juggernaut to overpower the situation. At the height of the tension between them, a wager is made, the dice are cast… the first to solve the riddle of the missing Bone Glass wins, and the loser eats crow in a full-page ad in the newspaper.

She was flintily ambitious and cool-natured and had less capacity for humor than a tortoise… Her gray Fittes jacket, skirt, and leggings always seemed spotless, which made me doubt she’s ever had to climb up inside a chimney to escape a Specter, or battle a Poltergeist in the Bridwell sewers (officially the Worst Job Ever,) as I had. Annoyingly, I always seemed to meet her after precisely that kind of incident.

We are introduced to a charismatic new character, Flo Bones, who sweeps the strand for treasures washed up by the tide, and we learn of the difference between agents and “relic men,” hunters of supernatural trophies not to be burned incinerated at Fittes, but to be sold on the black market to private collectors, a danger to society. But are they really that different from the large agencies that conspicuously display Sources in their banquet halls?
Flo gives them a lead to the mirror thief, but before they can track down one Jack Carver, he appears on their doorstep in classic whodunnit fashion: with a Mogul blade embedded in his back.
The skull begins to talk to Lucy again, and tells her of Bickerstaff’s notes, kept under the floorboards of his mansion. It is a setup? You never can trust an apparition, according to Fittes’ manuals. And just who did that skull belong to, anyway?

Swaying like a drunken man, head lolling, body shifting, writhing with a horrid fluid grace, the figure rose, silhouetted against the moon, Little spreading nets of ice grew and fused on the windowpanes behind it. Still the head was bowed. The body’s contortions –minute but somehow frenzied– redoubled, as if it sought to tear itself to pieces…

After the mirror is discovered at a fence’s secret and well-guarded auction, George disappears! Does the thinking tablecloth leave a clue? Can the help the whispering skull offers be trusted? Melee in the catacombs ensues as underworld enforcers fight against the best of multiple agencies for possession of a mirror that allows its looker to see into the Other Side in the barnstormer of a climax!

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Screaming Staircase – Book Review

Posted November 9, 2015 By JS Daly

Lockwood screaming staircase

The Screaming Staircase

Lockwood & Co. (#1)

by Jonathan Stroud
Disney-Hyperion, 2013
416 Pages
Ages 9-12 and up
4 stars
4 skulls
Lockwood & Co. is a new series from Jonathan Stroud, (author of the Bartimaeus trilogy,) that introduces us to a world where the problem of ghosts has been growing. To be “ghost-touched” means pain or even death. Strong ghost lights flash on at intervals at each corner and running water is used as a barrier to protect the larger government buildings. Visitations have been growing in frequency over the years, and no one knows why in this alternate reality.
Only kids can see spirits, so they have been organized into agencies to find and disarm the sources of Visitations. They are overseen by DEPRAC out of Scotland Yard (The Department of Psychic Research and Control, much like if Hellboy’s B.P.R.D. went public), and the young agents train through leveled qualifications.
The agencies are dominated by the larger organizations that were founded by the first ghost researchers, Fittes and Rottwell, both of which outfit their (sometimes conceited) agents with the best equipment that can be bought (and sometimes even unapproved new tech from their secretive research departments… and say, what is that odd, mysterious harp symbol?)
The book serves as a guide to a new mythos. Like a monstrumologist’s omnibus, a bestiary of ghost types that differentiates Level One manifestations like specters and apparitions from Level Two — (and even the rare Level Threes). It offers new terminology such as ghostlock and malaise, and introduces the use of lavender and magnesium flares to combat spirits as well as fencing with iron swords, and documents the resultant growth of the iron industry.
The series kicks off with a bang that will draw you into this and the following books with drooling anticipation. A decaying skeleton walled up years ago, a locket around its neck, magnesium flares, a fire, jumping out a window…
We learn about how Lucy Carlyle, the narrator, came to work for Lockwood and her unusual interview process. She did well for a time under her former employer, Mister Jacobs. In fact, she should have already taken her 4th grade; she has the skills… but her apprenticeship with Jacobs had ended… well, badly.
Lucy then introduces us to George, who is overweight and wears glasses… and is a bit of a slob, who is the researcher of the group and often does some of the most important ground-laying work on a case. He’s annoying, but soon grows on Lucy.
Then, there is of course Lockwood himself, tall and handsome, one of the few kids to own an agency without adult supervisors (adults –who can’t see spirits, but can certainly avoid any immature decisions being put before safety concerns–). He is impulsive but has a charming smile and the skill to use it. But he has a few secrets, such as the room off the landing that he requests never be opened… yet does not keep locked.

The priests scattered iron on the tracks where the accident occurred; they put silver coins on the corpse’s eyes; they hung an iron charm around its neck to break the connection with his ghost. These precautions did the job fine. He never came back. Even if he had, my mother said, it wouldn’t have caused us any problems. He’d only have haunted the local pub.

Lucy makes another mistake or two, a recklessly thrown magnesium flare ending in Lockwood getting ghost-touched… and this: the homeowners will have the agency shut down if Lockwood doesn’t pay up the 60 thousand quid to repair the damage the ensuing fire did to the upper level of their house.
She feels driven to keep the strong spirit’s locket despite her responsibility to report it and have it incinerated at Fittes’ furnaces, and she doesn’t even tell anyone she has it until a manifestation appears in her bedroom. Lockwood is understandably angry at first… before he realizes it may be their ticket to success: a high profile ghost with a human interest story behind it for the front page.
They are all-too-soon contacted because of the newspaper article, and are hired to take on Combe Carey Hall, one of the most haunted places in town. It used to be an old priory, and three skilled agents from the large Fittes agency already died trying to resolve the visitation. One was never found. The entire investigation has to be undertaken according to the owner’s strict rules, no incendiaries like magnesium flares. Given the danger of a cluster of Type II apparitions, and the lack of time given to properly research, Lockwood & Co. wonder if they are being set up. Does the screaming staircase have any link with the strange inscription found on the locket?
The nightmare begins. The door locks behind them, and the team finds out where the green-walled “Red Room” gets its name. Blood pours from the ceiling, and if the ectoplasm makes contact, they will be ghost touched, possibly killed.

“Forty-six degrees,” he said, “and falling.”
“I’m starting to detect malaise,” I said. “Anyone else pick that up?”
They nodded. Yes, it was starting. That old familiar drooping of the spirits, that leaden weight pressing cruelly on your heart, so that all you wanted to do was curl up in a ball and close your eyes…

Stroud’s writing is skillful, displaying a mastery of foreshadowing as he slowly reveals each character’s’ history in a way that depicts their personalities and makes us deeply care whether they survive the next haunting. The cases are thrilling. I could read an entire book of nothing more than Stroud’s descriptions of different hauntings and their sources. I wonder if he’ll ever devise a five-minute mystery book based in the world of Lockwood & Co.?

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Hopeless Maine: Inheritance

Posted October 29, 2015 By JS Daly


Hopeless, Maine

(Vol.2: Inheritance)

by Tom and Nimue Brown
Archaia, 2013
96 Pages
Young Adult (12 and up)
The second book about the town with tentacles undulating from its windows continues the story of Salamandra O’Stoat, (begun in Volume 1: Personal Demons,) and her friend Owen Davies.
During a conversation with Mrs. Davies, Salamandra discovers her relationship to the cook and inventor who lives in the lighthouse at the edge of town. Balthazar Lemon is her grandfather!
Despite her hatred for her parents, or perhaps because of it, Salamandra attempts to find her parents Durosemi and Melisandra at the cemetery. She leaves empty handed.
The two children are suspicious that the town doctor Willoughby is killing people rather than saving them; foremost among those who have died, Owen’s mother. She grows sicker throughout the story and even Annamarie is helpless to save her. Too many children of Hopeless find themselves orphans.
People do not leave Hopeless. Its almost as if they can’t. The crazy old man relates his observation that there are no ships for his lighthouse. But Salamandra learns that her grandma once left– she promised to return, but has not. She and Owen are desperate to leave, but someone has to stay and focus the magic of the lighthouse. Salamandra agrees to hold the lighthouse, and the boy sails away with Balthazar, also promising to return.

Mr. Davies: “You’ve been writing in blood again, haven’t you?” Salamandra: “Only a little bit, and it is mine. It’s not like I borrowed it.”

Salamandra moves out of the Orphanage and into the lighthouse and Annamarie agrees to help her learn some magic, though they both agree Sal’ is probably not going to become a witch.
In answer to the question of Founder’s Day, (Salamandra: “Why did they stay?” Owen: “I’d have thrown myself into the sea.”) An appendix appears at the end of the book describing the prominent families of Hopeless and their… prominent characteristics. Like those of the Frogs, with their bug-eyes and slithery ways, The Joneses, and the Chevins.
Though Personal Demons is a stand-alone story, this storyline is continued in the third book, Sinners.
All these books contain amazing gatefolds, dark and threatening artistry, and an atmosphere of gothic desperation and angst. You can almost taste how stale the still air is.
If you are a newcomer to the world of Hopeless, the books can be found in their entirety here, but be forewarned, the beauty of this miasma will require you to own the hardcovers for yourself!
Personal Demons (Book One)
Inheritance (Book Two)
Sinners (Book Three)

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Review: Personal Demons
Review: Inheritance
Review: Sinners


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Courtney Crumrin

Posted October 23, 2015 By JS Daly


Courtney Crumrin

by Ted Naifeh
This smartly written series centers around a small town named Hillsborough and the coven of warlocks that inhabits it. It explores the politics of the laws that govern those who use magic and a young witch learning her way in a dangerous, sometimes frightening, new world.
Courtney is a powerful, intelligent young sorceress in pigtails who would rather be an outcast than befriend the spoiled rich kids at her school. In Naifeh’s unique style, Courtney has no nose, her eyes are hollow, and her hands are claws. But she’s just a regular girl. Right?
She shows she can handle herself by manipulating a demon, but she breaks some rules, and by the end of the series, Courtney must answer to the Council of Warlocks. Her Uncle Aloysius, one of the strongest of sorcerers, comes to her rescue when she oversteps her abilities, but too often Courtney learns from her own mistakes.

Courtney-Crumrin_ 1a
Volume 1: Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things


Courtney-Crumrin_ 2b
Volume 2: Courtney Crumrin and the Coven of Mystics


Volume 3: Courtney Crumrin in the Twilight Kingdom


Volume 4: Courtney Crumrin’s Monstrous Holiday


Volume 5: The Witch Next Door


Courtney-Crumrin_ 6
Volume 6: The Final Spell


Volume 7: Tales of a Warlock



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Posted October 16, 2015 By JS Daly



by Melissa Marr
HarperCollins, 2012
324 Pages
Young Adult / Adult

Byron Montgomery and Rebekkah Barrow are two souls drawn together by the duties and abilities they have inherited towards caring for the dead. This slow-burn American gothic is as much Paranormal Romance as it is a ghost story with zombies.
Now, in general, I enjoy the fact that these days everyone has heard of Cthulhu and that zombies have gone mainstream with the advent of The Living Dead, but in the case of this novel, I believe that to be a detriment. This is a classy, atmospheric horror novel, almost a modern Victorian set in the American South, and it contains an element of loved ones rising from the grave. It’s not a blood-fest, there is no zombie contagion, it’s just creepy. And I love it for that alone.
There is truly suspenseful exposition as the reader is shown Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” by way of the Undertaker and what he learns in the Land of the Dead, while the tension builds as we watch the Graveminder approach dangers we clearly recognize, but she does not yet understand… and may kill her.
What has been planned for generations goes into effect when the current Graveminder, Maylene, is killed by Daisha, a girl who has woken up dead.
Her replacement has to quickly learn the ins and outs of the position, one inherited, always by one of the Barrow women. So we enter the familiar partnership of the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper. There are no Ghostbusters here, though– the Undertaker is guardian of the gate to the other world, and the Graveminder tends to souls this side of the soil in Claysville.

“I’m the Graveminder. It’s what I do. The dead come knocking, and I set things right.”
“Put us back.”
“Word, drink and food,” Maylene murmured. “I gave you all three. If you’d been buried here…”

The families of both the Graveminder and the Undertaker have taken pains to protect them from this terrible inheritance for as long as possible. But now it’s too late to teach them properly.
The family trees got really confusing at first. The families are modern, with divorce, adoption, love without marriage; roles are fluid. (Maybe it was because I was listening to this one in AudioBook format, too.) The relationships within each are revealed one step at a time, and there is good reason. It all becomes clear by the end.
The last Undertaker, Byron’s father William, takes them to the other side of the veil to meet Mr D., (he goes by “Charlie”). There is a contract. The folks born in Claysville stay happy and healthy until 80 unless they are the victim of an accident. No disease, no mental illness. The price is, they have to stay there. And their graves must be minded, or they will return, and hungry.

Sleep well, and stay where I put you.

The contract must be kept a secret; that’s where the Graveminder and Undertaker come in. It’s their job to keep it all running smoothly. For an all expenses paid way of life, they bear the responsibility of keeping the dead in their graves, and when an accident happens, the Undertaker acts as a guide through the Land of the Dead for the Graveminder, to whom the un-tended dead are drawn. The Town Council knows only what they need to and get a headache if they hear too much. The rest is explained to them by the journals of Rebekah and Byron’s predecessors and Mr. D.
The Land of the Dead gets kind of weird– the serious paranormal romance suddenly turns very nearly into fantasy, where many time eras converge and overlap, but the characters are consistent and compelling. This Land of the Dead is a sort of halfway place, not really Heaven or Hell or purgatory, with its own set of rules and politics, and the Graveminder can be mortally hurt there. The rules and characters just start to get good, so I’ll be looking for more adventures in this world. (No, thankfully, it doesn’t go Sci-Fi here the way Gormenghast unforgivably did in Titus Alone.)
In the land of the living, the dead can float, and teleport (like The X-men’s Nightcrawler), but they are usually solid. Luckily, their bite may hurt, but is not infectious. (A nice break from the standard motif.)
There is a twist at the end that is quite nice. It’s not just a simple catch-the-bad-guy hunt. In fact, there are a couple satisfying turns in the plot that will keep you guessing. The character of Mr. D is also tenuous. An anti-hero, perhaps? And there is Alicia, a bartender and gun-dealer in the spirit world. I’d love to learn more about her.
In the midst of the insanity of being introduced to this new lifestyle, the partners have to capture Daisha, who has been attacking, sometimes killing townsfolk. Her story is sad, and I was happy… in a disturbing sort of way, to see her get revenge.
All along, Beks wants to leave. She’s born to be a drifter. She’s been avoiding a serious relationship with Byron for years. Then the Claysville curse kicks in and she realizes she truly loves him. Or does she. Seems the Graveminder and Undertaker are destined to fall in love. Is it real, or is it prescribed by the town’s contract? How could they ever tell? Oh the angst. Poor Byron. Love can be cruel.

Do you think you’ll come back different? I’ve wondered what would happen if a Graveminder became one of the hungry dead.  


Marr has released a short story called Guns for the Dead, set in the world of Graveminder that offers a “sneak peek” at another of her books, The Arrivals. There are also rumors of another novella that has -ahem- not yet been released.


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