Wednesday, August 16, 2017

REVIEW | The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
Publication Year: 2011
Genre: Middle-Grade, Paranormal Mystery (Urban Fantasy?)
Series: Lockwood & Co. #1
Awards: It did not win any but was nominated for a couple
Format: Audio (from Library)
Narrator: Miranda Raison

WHY?:  It's about kids who hunt ghosts.  Who doesn't want to read that?

SYNOPSIS: In an England that has been overtaken by spirits that only children can see, Lockwood & Co. is one of the many agencies that people can hire to rid themselves of ghostly problems.  When one of their cases goes spectacularly wrong, Lockwood, Lucy and George, who make up the agency, must take on an extremely deadly assignment; to quiet the spirits in the most haunted house in England.   


I am fascinated by ghosts but, strangely, I haven't found many books featuring them that I really love.  I'm happy to say that the first book in the middle-grade Lockwood & Co. series is a book about ghosts that really worked for me.  It is exciting, has a multi-layered plot and a distinct take on ghosts and the hunting of them.

The story is told from the perspective of Lucy Carlyle.  In the England the book is set in, something has occurred that has caused spirits to manifest all over the country and these ghosts are not just a spooky nuisance.  If one touches you, you don't just feel a chill, you die.

Children under a certain age (15 or so) are the only people who can actually see the ghosts and some kids are more adept at it than others.  Lucy is one of the more talented ones so she is recruited at a young age to become a ghost hunter.  Ghost hunters usually work in a group supervised by an adult who can't see the ghost but takes feedback from the children and develops the plan of action.  When Lucy's handler loses his nerve and makes a bad call during an assignment, sending all but she to their deaths, Lucy decides to strike out on her own and heads to London to see if she can find a better situation.

She ends up being hired by Lockwood & Co. which is unique in that it employs no adult handlers.  In fact, it is just Lockwood and his confederate George.  Adding Lucy makes them a threesome working out of Lockwood's large house left to him by his parents who are mysteriously missing.  Each of them brings something different to the table.  Lockwood is very smart and bold, a good planner, strategist and leader and is also very good at seeing ghostly phenomena.  George is a science and research dork who spends his time tinkering with ghostly artifacts and doing background research for their cases.  Lucy is very talented at hearing ghostly phenomena and at getting emotional readings and flashbacks from the dead and objects associated with them.  All together they make a good team and they are all glad not to have the supervision of adults.

Normally, that whole idea of kids doing dangerous things and not involving adults, is a barrier when I reader literature aimed at a younger audience.  What for a younger reader is empowering, I find unrealistic and frustrating.  However, there was none of that in this story.  Lucy's experience with her adult mentor at the start of the story and the maturity of Lockwood and all of the gang really convinced me that they are better off taking care of themselves.  It's a fascinating power structure to explore, with kids having a useful and necessary skill that adults don't, and the story does a good job of imagining what this would mean  - it both empowers the kids as well as making them vulnerable for exploitation.

The idea of kids having this "superpower" denied to adults is only one of the very interesting things in the universe Stroud builds.  At first I thought the book was set in a historical setting, likely Victorian, as some of the trappings of the story and setting suggest but actually the book is set contemporarily or even slightly in the future.  There are television sets and other modern things but the phenomenon of the ghosts appearing has scrambled society in many ways.  And that's one layer of the story that will likely be a constant in the series; what happened to "awaken" the ghosts and how can it be stopped once and for all.

The specific plot of the book is also pretty great.  It is a little slow to get started but it builds to a really exciting and pretty scary climax.  Lockwood & Co. are trying to keep the agency open after a disastrous case and partially as a ploy to get positive publicity they are trying to track down who murdered a young socialite who has become a very restless and murderous ghost.  Their involvement in the cold case brings to them the business of an enigmatic millionaire who wishes them to "clean" out his house which is reputed to be the most haunted in a very haunted England.  The night they spend at the house is chilling and exciting!  My only complaint is that Lockwood has information/suspicions that he does not share with his colleagues and there doesn't seem to be any reason for him to do this except to build suspense and conflict in the story, but I'll let it slide because it leads to a great reveal in the end.

Finally, all three of the main characters are great.  George is the least developed of the three but his peculiarities and bickering with Lucy and Lockwood add much of the humor in the book which lightens up what would be a completely dark tale otherwise.  Lucy, as narrator is the one we get to know best and she's a great character, being both traumatised and extremely brave and empathetic.  She's got attitude and her narrative voice is engaging and provides interesting perspective.  Lockwood is charming and immediately likable but he is also a huge mystery and I expect that also to be one of the plot threads that carries throughout the series.

Taken as a whole this was a really good start to a series and I think it would go over really well with all age groups.  It doesn't shy away from the scary parts so if your young reader is on the easily frightened side I might be a little wary.  I listened to the audio and the narrator, who I think is new to me, was great.  She is essentially the voice of Lucy and I think she did a great job bringing her to life.

FINAL VERDICT A nicely creepy, complex and ultimately exciting ghost hunter story aimed at middle-grade readers though it als entertained my middle-aged brain. Will definitely be continuing the series.  4 out of 5 stars. 

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