The Whispering Skull

Happy Halloween! I needle-felted radish earrings for myself last night, so I can be Luna Lovegood instead of a random Ravenclaw student. And for more Halloween book geekery, I did my very best to carve the banner of Gondor into my pumpkin, at my son’s suggestion – a bare, uprooted tree with seven stars around it.

The Whispering SkullWhispering Skull. Lockwood & Co. Book 2 by Jonathan Stroud. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.
Back to a world much like our own present day, except that dangerous ghosts are common and only teens are able to fight them off. It’s been seven months since the events of The Screaming Staircase. Even though Lockwood & Co. got a lot of good press for their handling of that case, which has led to some jobs, they’re still on shaky financial grounds. The larger ghost-fighting agencies, those with uniforms and led by adults, still look down on them. The skull in a jar that talked to Lucy in the last book hasn’t talked again, though it makes faces at her from time to time, and George has been doing his utmost to make it uncomfortable enough to talk. They’ve just finished a job where they were overwhelmed by a number of ghosts when they were expecting only one and – most horribly – were rescued by a uniformed team from the rival Fittes agency.

The very morning after this disaster, a pair of men comes to ask them to help with some cemetery excavation work. A potentially harmful grave site has been discovered, and agents are needed on hand to take care of the dangerous items right away. What they find is an iron coffin, cracked open so that it’s no longer containing the malignant spirit of the mummified corpse inside. Edmund Bickerstaff was a Victorian doctor who did experiments trying to communicate with the dead, and Lucy can hear his spirit telling people to follow him. There’s also a shiny object giving off more strong evil vibes. Items identified and removed to a safe place on site until officials can take them to be burned, the team is sent home – only to be called back the next morning with news that the shiny object, a mirror, has been stolen. Now it’s Lockwood & Co. against the Fittes team, vying to see who can solve the case first, with the loser agreeing to publish an advertisement in the paper saying that the other team is better. The search will uncover dark history as well as taking our heroes to the seedier side of London, where dangerous artifacts are sold at high prices on the black market. Then the skull starts talking to Lucy again – and it seems to know more than it should about their current case.

Thanks are owed to the Cybils for making me read these books – The Screaming Staircase won last year’s middle grade speculative fiction award, and this one has been nominated in the same category. I wouldn’t normally seek out ghost stories, particularly stories of vengeful ectoplasm-flinging ghosts, but these books are very fun in spite of that. Though they are definitely too scary for sensitive readers (I admit, that includes myself at bedtime), these books hit that just-right combination of strong main characters and colorful supporting cast, exciting plot, good world-building, and snappy writing. In this book, we learn more about George’s history and interests in particular, making him a more sympathetic character than he was in the first book, and the world is fleshed out more as well, with a visit inside the famous but top-secret library of the Fittes agency. While this story stands just fine on its own, you’ll want to read the first book if you haven’t already, and the book closes with a lead for the next book. I’ll be waiting for it.

Hopefully I can get my son to read the first one by next Halloween, so he’ll know why he should want to dress up as Anthony Lockwood.

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Read Scary: The Night Gardener

Here’s a spooky read perfect for Halloween, written by the author of Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. Also, check out Jennifer Wharton’s Read Scary post, with lists and links to scary books for toddlers to teens at the Jean Little Library.

The Night GardenerThe Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. Amulet Books, 2014.
Irish siblings Molly, aged 14 and Kip, 10, are stranded in England of an undefined pre-automobile era, looking for jobs and a place to live. But prejudice against the Irish means that their only choice is the creepy old manor house on the edge of town where no one else wants to go. The house is surrounded by the sourwoods, though no one will tell the children exactly why the sourwoods are so dreadful. On the way there, they meet a wandering storyteller, Hester Kettle. Hester recognizes in Molly a fellow storyteller, and Molly promises to come back and tell her stories of the house.

The house and the family are undeniably odd – but nothing that seems to warrant the sense of unease both children feel. There is a big black tree growing right up against the house, with roots and branches poking through. All of the family members are pale and sickly looking with lank, dark hair. The youngest child, Penny, is happy to see Molly and Kip, but her mother only reluctantly agrees to let Molly and Kip stay, insisting that she can manage without servants. The house is in shambles and no woman of her station should even be attempting to run a house on her own. Something is clearly wrong, but our heroes are too desperate to leave, even when Constance refuses to let Kip sleep in the house because of his bad leg. Other family members include a bullying older son, Alistair, and the weak-willed, gambling man of the house, Bertrand.

Then night comes. In the night, Molly can hear the sounds of each of the family members crying out in their sleep from the other rooms. And in the morning there are large, crooked muddy footprints on the carpet, even though the doors were all bolted shut. Kip claims to have seen a tall, pale man in dark clothes and carrying a watering can from his sleeping place in the barn loft. Molly discovers a locked room, into which all the family members sneak, each keeping the secret from all the others. Though things are quickly getting less all right, Molly is reluctant to go back to Hester Kettle. She has a secret she’s keeping from Kip, and the secrets of the house might help her. But the secrets come at a price, and Molly and Kip will have to figure things out quickly, before they too are trapped.

This is a dark, atmospheric story. I keep coming back to the word “creepy”. There are some threats of actual violence towards the end, but it’s mostly the horror comes from not knowing exactly what is wrong rather than lots of gore or ectoplasm. Though there is dark magic involved, the worst horror turns out to be what we are willing to do ourselves to get what we want, and the ways wishes can twist and turn against us if we’re not careful. Molly is also forced to confront the fine line between a helpful story and a hurtful lie, and her relationship with her brother grows quite nicely over the course of the book. I’m adding this to my mental list of books starring kids who work for a living, also including last year’s Rose. With a cast of well-rounded characters, an exciting plot, and some worthwhile things to think about after the story is over, this is a perfect book for children and like-minded adults looking for something scary to read.

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Top 10 Tuesday: Characters I’d Dress Up As

Top Ten TuesdayI was firmly planning to stick with catching up on all the books I have to review today… until I saw this week’s Top 10 Tuesday theme pop up in my feed. (Thank you, Maureen!) I might not have mentioned this before, but I love dressing up, and dressing up as a book character is even more fun. Here, roughly in the order I met them, are some characters from youth and teen fantasy books I’d love to dress up as. Check out the page at the Broke and the Bookish for both literary costume ideas and creepy books for Halloween!

Pippi Longstocking from the books by Astrid Lindgren – because Pippi is an early strong girl character, and she has that instant recognition factor.

Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – LOTR was sacred in my house growing up, and Eowyn was my favorite, because she actually did something. (you can tell the books were important because I had them read to me before I was old enough to read A Wrinkle in Time to myself….)

A Wrinkle in TimeMeg from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – I’ve talked enough about why I love this book, I think – but messy hair, a black eye, a plaid skirt, and my regular glasses would make a great Meg costume!

Menolly from the Harper Hall books by Anne McCaffrey – back when I was a lonely music- and book-loving teen, being a Harper on Pern seemed like a lovely career goal. I’m happily more content with my own life now, but it would still be wonderful to wear Harper blue for a night!

Aeryn from The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley – another favorite since forever. And fighting dragons is awesome!

LiraelLuna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series – because I love these books, and I already have the robe. I’d just need to needle-felt some radish earrings for myself…

Lirael of the Clayr from the Abhorsen books by Garth Nix – she’s a magical librarian! Plus her outfit is distinctive and described so clearly in the books that I’ve been wanting to make her outfit for, oh, a decade or so.

A Shadowhunter from the Infernal Devices book by Cassandra Clare. I’m going with the steampunky series, both because I liked it better and because I think Shadowhunter tattoos would look cool against my dark teal Victorian ball gown.

Screaming StaircaseBlue Sargent from The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – I confess, I’m not quite sure how to pull this one off beyond a visit to the thrift store – but that’s not stopping me from thinking about trying.

Lucy Carlyle from the Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud – dark top, leggings, skirt, heavy boots, rapier, silver chain, and assorted small bags to turn me into an agent fit to fight Visitors from beyond the grave sounds both easy and appropriate for Halloween. I think I’m going to convince my son, who wants a costume that will include his rapier, to go as Tony Lockwood himself. (Check out some fan art here:

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The Glass Sentence

The Glass SentenceThe Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove. Viking, 2014
In 1799, the world came apart and then back together quite differently. Since the Great Disruption, times as well as countries are different. Mapmakers who can figure out where things are and what kind of culture exists there are highly in demand. 12-year-old Sophia Tims, whose parents left to go exploring years ago and never returns, lives in Boston with her Uncle Shadrack, the most famous mapmaker in all of New Occident. He’s just begun to teach her about some of the more esoteric forms of mapmaking, maps that can hold memories of weather, places, and people. But as Boston politics cause havoc even there, Sophia comes home one day to find that her uncle has been kidnapped and their secret map room ransacked. She and Theo, a boy from the land to the south, try to follow Shadrack’s instructions to take his most precious glass map to safety in the Baldlands, Theo’s native lands. They are closely followed by the truly creepy bad guys – the Sandmen – and even when they get to the Baldlands, all is not as they hope.

This is a long fantasy book heavy on the world-building. I was captivated by the ideas about juxtaposed times and trying to navigate between different eras. The characters were straightforward – I found Sophia sympathetic enough, loved the pirate queen Calixta, and kept getting annoyed at Theo for being unreliable and then getting upset at Sophia for not trusting him. They just met – why should she trust him? If you’re not the type to get bored by lots of world-building (I wasn’t, but many other people have been), there is a lot of exciting action in interesting places between these scenes. I just ended up with the feeling that the characters were running around for no good reason. Sure, they’re trying to save the world, but neither the peril nor the solution quite made sense to me. This is nominated for the Cybils in the middle grade speculative fiction category, but shelved in teen at my library. There’s no romance and a low body count, but some disturbing torture scenes. This is a great book for people who love maps and detailed fantasy worlds with intriguing ideas behind them, though not one I’d hand to just anyone who came to the library looking for a fantasy book.

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The Magic Thief

This is a series that hadn’t really been on my radar until last year, when I Winterling, also by Prineas. This spring, Charlotte wrote a Waiting on Wednesday post about how, while she liked Fer and Rook just fine, she was really anxiously waiting to find out what would happen to Conn. I thought that if Charlotte – and lots of other people – liked the Magic Thief better than the Winterling books that I had considered quite solid, I’d best get on reading them.

Here’s a series that got slowly pushed to the top of my list by the sheer amount of fellow blogger love for it. I tried to speed through the first three books (as much as it’s possible to speed through audiobooks) so that I could read the fourth one in sequence, as it’s nominated for the Cybils and I’d have to read it anyway. I’ll do the best I can to talk about these books without too many spoilers.

Magic ThiefThe Magic Thief. Book 1. by Sarah Prineas. Narrated by Greg Steinbrunner. Recorded Books, 2008
Connwaer is a pickpocket and lockpick living on the foggy, cobbled streets of Wellmet. One cold evening he picks a wizard’s pocket, and ends up not with coins, but with the wizard’s locus magicalicus, the stone tuned just to him that lets him do magic. Just touching this would kill most people – but as Conn doesn’t die, the wizard, Nevery Flinglas, decides to keep him around. Conn is determined to be Nevery’s apprentice, but the Council of Wizards will only accept him if he can find his own locus magicalicus. The magic in Wellmet is fading, and that means Nevery is too busy to help Conn – even though Conn thinks he has an idea what’s happening. But will anyone believe a former gutter boy? Continue reading

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Today is release day for Blue Lily, Lily Blue. I haven’t read it yet. I know, I could have gotten my hands on a review copy, but I am in love with the audio editions of these books, so I have to wait. On the plus side, I haven’t found any of my Cybils books for download from the library, which means I can listen to this guilt-free while doing my chores at home. So instead of the new-new Maggie Stiefvater, I offer you a review of Sinner, which came out this summer.

SinnerSinner by Maggie Stiefvater. Read by Dan Bittner and Emma Galvin. Scholastic Audio, 2014.
Isabel Culpepper’s once-perfect life has fallen apart, and leaving Mercy Falls didn’t fix things. Her brother is still dead, her parents are separated (not that she wants her father around), she has no friends in Los Angeles. She gets through life by working on not giving a damn about everything, and showing it to the world. She’s no longer in love with Cole St. Clair – life is safer that way, and he’s not around anyway.

And then he comes, making his way to Los Angeles by signing a deal to produce an album on a reality show. The reality show is run by one Baby North, who’s made a reputation for herself by filming stars crashing and burning. He’s determined not to get sucked back into drugs, not to crash on TV – but the wolf is still in his blood, calling him, and Isabel Culpepper is less than thrilled to see her one-time maybe boyfriend show up with a camera crew.

So there are werewolves, and lots and lots of angst. It works, though, because the angst is legitimate. Cole isn’t a safe person, and while both he and Isabel and we the reader know it, we also know that he’s trying, and that he and Isabel both help each other be better people. It’s dark rock-and-roll romance, sexy and dangerous (without being explicit.) There’s also lots going on with the side characters and Isabel and Cole’s work, so that the romance is just part of the characters’ total development, as it should be. Both of the readers sound just right – Bittner with his rough but young-sounding voice and Galvin reading like the ice queen Isabel is. I was seduced by the characters all over again.

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Ninja Librarians and the Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw

The Accidental KeyhandThe Accidental Keyhand. Ninja Librarians Book 1. by Jen Swann Downey. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2014.
Dorrie and Marcus, two stage sword-fighting siblings from Passaic, New Jersey, are chasing their friend’s pet mongoose through the local public library when they find themselves sucked through dimensions to Petrarch’s library. This turns out to be a magical library with doors to many different “wherens” (where and whens), through which trained Lybrarians travel to preserve threatened books and authors. This life sounds like a dream come true to action-and book-loving Dorrie, and teenaged Marcus has fallen in love with a beautiful apprentice and also wants to stay. But they are treated with suspicion because they arrived in highly unorthodox fashion through the roof rather than a door, and there are other things that make it look like they are connected with the enemies of the Library.

I loved the concept of the secret society working to prevent censorship, and Petrarch’s Library is filled with interesting historical characters (indexed in the back), including Hypatia and Cyrano de Bergerac. Dorrie is a character that reminds me pretty strongly of my own tween self. And yet somehow despite having so many elements that I love, this didn’t quite gel into a book that I loved. I found my mind wandering off in the middle and wasn’t entirely satisfied by the ending. The concept is cool enough, though, that I might try the second book to see if it pulls together a little more.

herooutlawHero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy. Walden Pond Press, 2014
This is the third book in the series – I read The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom when it first came out, skipped The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle and then read this one because it’s nominated for the Cybils in my category. In this entry, our friends in the League of Princes have been outlawed in all the kingdoms for the murder of Briar Rose, following Prince Liam and Princess Briar Rose’s divorce. The League will have to clear their own names by finding out the real murders, all while avoiding the bounty hunters on their trail and various other bad guys. Often separated from each other, the women form their own group – the Furious Female Fighters, or ffff for short. It’s more fast action with plenty of slapstick humor as our heroes work against bards and other villains to save all the kingdoms again.

Once again, there are a lot of elements to the story that I liked. It is laugh-out-loud funny, with the humor in action, dialogue and pictures. The combination of action and humor is one that keeps kids, especially boys, riveted. I love fairy tale retellings, and it’s fun to see the characters from different fairy tales interacting like this. This one even has pirates! It’s less fractured than the first book, since we know the characters already and they’re not off having adventures one at a time. In this book, too, the women are every bit as competent as the men, though they don’t all excel at fighting. I really appreciated not having the girls relegated to the sidelines just because it’s a book for boys. But it felt like with so many characters, all deliberately caricatured, they never felt real enough for me to believe in any of them. I’m also frustrated by the length of the books – 516 pages is an intimidating length for average to reluctant readers, even though the books otherwise have lots of appeal for kids like that. Still, if you’re lucky enough to be looking for books for an eager reader who isn’t as concerned with well-rounded characters as I am, this is a fine choice.

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The True Meaning of Smekday

Halfway through reading this book aloud to my son (423 pages, thank you very much), I read on Melissa of Book Nut listed this book as one of her favorite audiobooks… d’oh! We now own it on audio, and my love reports that he’s enjoying it very much. I’d initially brought this book home to read for myself because the Old School Wednesdays review on the Book Smugglers reminded me that I’d wanted to read it for a while, and with the movie coming out next year, I thought I should read it before it got hold lists on it. I should note that it also won the Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy Cybils award when it was first published.

truemeaningofsmekdayThe True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. Hyperion Books, 2007
The story is framed as a school report. Gratuity Tucci – Tip to her friends – is supposed to write an essay on what Smekday means to her. It starts out really short, with her memories of the day the alien Boov first invaded. But as her teacher repeatedly tells her she can do better, her essays get longer and longer, including both her sketches and drawn photographs of the events. Tip watches her mother get sucked up into the Smek ship and sets out in her mother’s car with their crotchety cat to find her – eventually accompanied by one of the invading Boov himself. J. Lo, as he’s decided his English name should be, has gotten in trouble with the rest of the Boov. She consents because J. Lo transforms the car so it can fly, which is necessary since most of the roads have been bombed out. Along the way, they visit the magical Happy Mouse Kingdom and Roswell. Tip is still working on ways to get rid of the Boov when another batch of alien invaders turns up, aliens who make the Boov look sweet and kind for leaving Americans a single state to live in.

There is so much wonderful going on in this book – where to start? There’s Tip herself, a human girl of mixed African and European ancestry, very self-aware and unwilling to let anyone’s ideas about what these things should mean about her get in the way of what doing what she feels needs to be done. There’s J.Lo, who starts out annoying and grows on the reader much as he does on J.Lo. The adventure is absorbing, the details both of the invasion and Boov history and culture well done, and all the while this is going on, we the readers and Tip are uncomfortably aware that the alien invasion and treatment of humans isn’t really much different than any number of things that humans have done to each other. If that starts to sound like it might be too heavy, it’s not, because it’s handled so well and with so much humor that we were laughing out loud every time we read the book together.

Hilarious writing, good action, with real characters and Deep Thoughts. This is what a great children’s book should be. Well done, Adam Rex, and the 2007 Cybils Award committee.

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Guest Post from Cheryl Mahoney: Retelling “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces”

A couple of years ago, my friend Dr. M. and I started reading every retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” that we could get our hands on.  It turns out we weren’t the only ones finding this interesting – my blogging friend Cheryl from Tales of the Marvelous has just published her own retelling, The Storyteller and her Sisters. I’m looking forward to reading it as I very much enjoyed her last book, The Wanderers. (Here’s my interview with her about The Wanderers.) She’s here today to talk about her favorite retellings – including a short story I haven’t read myself!

I’ve always loved fairy tales, in part because they usually don’t make a bit of sense! It makes them so ripe for retellings: stories that can pick apart those pieces that didn’t add up, and spin a new story around them. My latest book, The Storyteller and Her Sisters, is based on a fairly obscure Brothers Grimm story, “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces (or The Twelve Dancing Princesses).” Though most people don’t seem to be familiar with the story, there are quite a few retellings—but I think I have a unique angle on it!

Cheryl MahoneyWhen Katy offered me an opportunity to do a guest post, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite retellings of what has become one of my favorite fairy tales.

The basic story is about twelve princesses who are wearing out their dancing slippers every night, even though they’re locked in their bedroom. Their father the king puts out a call for champions to solve the mystery. We eventually learn that the princesses are secretly leaving their chamber, passing through a magic forest of silver, gold and diamonds, and crossing a lake to a castle where they dance with twelve princes. And from that premise, many variations have arisen!

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier was one of my first retellings, although a very loose one. It’s about five sisters (not princesses) who go dancing at a fairy court that’s not as terrible as in most versions. This is one of my favorites, because it gives us a wonderful heroine in Jena. All five of the girls are fully realized characters, and they’re certainly not waiting around helplessly for a champion to rescue them. It also helps that this features one of my favorite love stories.

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George is a much closer retelling. It does better than most at developing the relationship between the final champion and the oldest princess–and I rather love that the hero is brave and strong and also knows how to knit (soldiers have to get socks from somewhere!) It also has some of the best-depicted princesses. Even though there are twelve of them, George makes it easier than in most retellings to keep them apart. She puts the most attention on just a few, and when others appear, it’s usually clear in the moment who they are. For example, Poppy is the boisterous one, and it was no effort to remember that because she’s always being boisterous whenever we see her.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Meyer and illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft is a very beautiful picture book. It’s a pretty accurate retelling without doing anything too excitingly different—but the illustrations are exquisite. Especially some of the pictures of the princesses in their gowns, and the magical settings.

Troll’s Eye View is a collection of short stories, including “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” by Ellen Kushner. Mostly pretty light and silly, this captured better than any other version how annoying it could actually be to have eleven younger sisters! The princesses are universally devoted to each other in other versions, and it was fun to see an oldest princess who finds her clamoring crowd of sisters overwhelming.

These are my favorite retellings, though I’ve read five others as well. One trend I’ve noticed is that, almost universally, the princesses’ father is well-meaning (or at worst, aloof or unaware) and the princes the girls dance with have ill-intent. But when I read the original Brothers Grimm, I’m not convinced that’s really how the story goes…so my unique angle took rather a different direction. I recommend all of the books above—and of course I recommend mine too!

Cheryl Mahoney is a book blogger at Tales of the Marvelous, and the author of two books based on fairy tales. The Wanderers, published in 2013, follows the journeys of a wandering adventurer, a talking cat and a witch’s daughter. Her new novel, The Storyteller and Her Sisters, retells “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces,” with twelve trapped princesses who decided to take control of their story.

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Greenglass House

Not long after I finished reading the Kate Milford books the Book Smugglers sent me, her latest book came into the library!

Greenglass HouseGreenglass House by Kate Milford. Clarion Books, 2014
Milo has grown up in an old mansion in the smuggling town of Nagspeake that has long since been converted to a small hotel used mostly by smugglers. He’s an introverted type who takes comfort in his routines, so it’s very disturbing to him when their normally peaceful and empty Christmas break is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a whole lot of guests. Curiously, all of the guests seem to be inventing other business, but mostly interested in the house itself. There are so many guests that Milo’s parents call the cook back from her vacation. Meddy, the cook’s daughter, befriends Milo and introduces him to the concept of role-playing games. While they don’t start an official campaign, they make up characters for themselves – Negret and Sirin, blackjack and scholiast – specifically to investigate the mysteries behind the guests and the rash of stolen objects that crop up.

The role-playing with its sets of published books, 30 years or so old in the story when I know they first started being published like that in the 1980s, was the thing that set this story most firmly in about the present time for me, though it wouldn’t for those less geeky. Otherwise, it’s quite nebulous in that there are cars, telephones and electricity, but none of the other technological devices that change so quickly that they could date the story, a nice touch. But the role-playing is very important to the story. Milo himself has Chinese ancestry, though he was born locally and adopted by his parents. Though he loves them, he wonders about his birth parents. As he answers questions about the character Negret for Meddy and himself, he grows more comfortable with his relationship with his adopted father and what he might have inherited from his birth parents. Pretending to be a character who is confident around people winds up, perhaps predictably but very satisfyingly, making him more self-confident in general. It’s worth noting, too, that Milford manages to give Milo two living parents who love him and check in on him to make sure he’s all right, but still give him enough space to go having his adventures with Meddy.

The house is a delightful part of the story – large and complicated, with an attic filled with old and exciting treasures and stained-glass windows with secrets built into them. There is mystery and adventure with an underlying thread of magic and great characters, plus a twist that maybe I should have seen coming, but didn’t. Everything comes together just right, making this one of my favorite books this year.

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