Dead Air – Michelle Schusterman

Dead Air CoverSeries: The Kat Sinclair Files, #1
First Published: 1st September, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Penguin Random House

Kat Sinclair’s dad gets a new job presenting a ghost-hunting TV show. Kat goes with him and starts a behind-the-scenes blog, but there’s more going on than she ever imagined.

Kat is dealing with family issues. Her mother has left. This gives Kat the freedom to find her own style, such as finally being able to cut her hair and wear horror t-shirts. She also gets on a lot better with her dad and grandmother (from her mother’s side). But at the same time, she’s angry her mother left. The children Kat meets on the set also have their own family issues to face. The parents here aren’t shown as one-sided evil people or as always getting it right. They’re realistic families trying to figure things out.

The internet features prominently. Each chapter opens with things like emails, blog posts and forum comments. Kat writes her blog as well as staying in touch with friends and family. It covers the positive things, like people being able to share their interests. It also covers the darker sides, of death threats and obsessive fans. I liked that it handled those issues without making it sound like the internet was the start of them. Kat’s own grandmother had a stalker when she was younger. The tools change, but there will always be people who take it too far.

There is a dash of the supernatural here, but the heart of the story is really the people, rather than the ghosts. Kat has to deal with Oscar, who is about her age. They’re both being homeschooled by the show’s intern Mi Jin. And there’s the whole issue of why the show has such a high turnover of hosts. The mystery unfolds at a reasonable pace. It was obvious to me long before it was to Kat, but that does mean it’s something the reader can figure out.

One of the crew, Lidia, has a congenital heart condition. She has a pacemaker, takes medicine, and has seizures. I did have concerns that this might be written off as having a supernatural cause. Seizures often get shown as something mystical rather than actual seizures. That doesn’t happen here. Some things might aggravate her symptoms, but it isn’t suggested that her heart condition was due to anything other than natural causes. However, I wasn’t fond of the plot requiring the triggering of seizures, as in reality, there’s never a good reason to do this.

Kat is biracial, with a white mother and black father. Her father is the one who appears the most in the story. Mi Jin is presumably Korean American based on her name, though it isn’t stated. There’s a gay supporting character. Generally, these things are handled with a light touch. The plot isn’t focused on them, but they aren’t missable.

This is a fun ghostly adventure, with references to classic horror films, and some new creepy tales of its own. There is some discussion of death (the ghosts tend to have died in bad circumstances), death threats and related violence. It’s handled at an age-appropriate level.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Skeleton Man – Joseph Bruchac

Skeleton Man CoverSeries: Skeleton Man, #1
First Published: 1st August, 2001
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

When Molly’s parents disappear, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never seen before. He reminds her of the story of the Skeleton Man, but will anyone believe her?

The story starts after Molly’s parents have vanished, but it flashes back to previous events such as her parents not coming home and meeting her uncle. Her uncle reminds her of the old Mohawk story of the Skeleton Man. This is about a man who likes the taste of human flesh, so eats all of his own until he’s only a skeleton. Then he starts eating his family. Her uncle is pale, thin, and she’s never seen him eat. But more importantly, she’s sure he doesn’t have good intentions towards her, whatever those might be.

I liked the theme of using stories to understand the world. Thinking about the Skeleton Man gives Molly a framework for dealing with what’s happening around her. The stories in her dreams help her decide what she’s going to do. This is also reinforced with modern stories, as Molly feels comforted by the songs from musicals sung by her teacher, Ms. Shabbas.

Though what’s happening at her uncle’s house is creepy, there’s also horror in what happens outside. Molly has her concerns dismissed by the adults who should be protecting her. Her only ally is her teacher. Ms. Shabbas believes something is wrong, without expecting Molly to be use exactly the right words. It’s clear Molly is frightened and that’s enough. But the people with the real power to act are reluctant to listen. This will be relatable for many children, who’ve tried to go to adults only to have their concerns brushed aside.

Ms. Shabbas has her own obstacles when it comes to being heard. Her concerns about Molly are not taken particularly seriously, even though she’d know the children in her class and would be in the good position to realise something isn’t right. No one outright says she’s being too imaginative, as happens to Molly, but there is that polite attempt to not listen to what she’s saying if at all possible. This is subtle, as the only indicator given is that Ms. Shabbas has an afro, but I certainly took that as being a black woman making it harder to be heard.

Race and culture is touched on in other ways. One reason Molly is sure she won’t be believed is the Skeleton Man isn’t a shared story with the adults she’s approaching. Molly takes her own dreams very seriously, but is aware that talking about them won’t go down well. She’s also very critical of her own appearance, such as finding her dark hair ugly and wanting to dye it blonde. It reminded me of wanting to straighten my hair when I was a child, because I’d already picked up on my hair not being deemed acceptable. Children shouldn’t face these pressures telling them non-white features are ugly, but they do, so Molly’s criticism of herself was unfortunately very plausible.

There is a reference to the idea of being crazy as a potential cause of the uncle’s behaviour. The adults involved make a specific link between people who are non-neurotypical and survivors of trauma as being likely to act this way. Molly pushes this aside as unlikely. But the link is still being made between evil acts and craziness, in a way that some readers will take away as being the probable cause.

Outside of my concerns on the evil and crazy link, I enjoyed the story. It creates that unsettling feel right from the start. As well as the potential supernatural angles, it also touches on some rather more everyday (if not any less horrifying) issues.

The reading difficulty of the book is aimed at lower middle grade. It’s a very short novel with relatively easy words. The edition I read had pictures by Sally Wern Comport to break up the text. Note that it does have horror themes and cannibalism references.

Camp Midnight – Steven T. Seagle (writer), Jason Adam Katzenstein (artist)

Camp Midnight CoverFirst Published: 3rd May, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Graphic Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Skye doesn’t want to spend the summer with her dad and step-mother. It turns out they don’t want her around either, and send her to summer camp. A confusion means she ends up at Camp Midnight, where everyone is a monster. Except for Skye and possibly her new friend Mia.

This is a fun graphic novel, dealing with some difficult issues in an accessible way. Skye has been hurt by her parent’s divorce. She reacts by lashing out at everyone, without considering how her rudeness and sarcastic responses might hurt people. Something she has to face at the camp is how throw-away comments can end up hurting people, no matter what the intent.

The story runs through the whole time at the camp, from getting her choice of bunk on arrival to taking part in special events. The main focus is her friendship with Mia, though she also has to deal with the popular girls and a crush on a cute boy. The latter two aspects are nothing new, but the friendship with Mia is great. I was rooting for them both to find their place at the camp and beyond.

I liked the handling of consent issues. Mia doesn’t like being touched. Though she might sometimes be okay with it, sometimes she doesn’t want to. Skye accepts this and finds a touchless alternative to shaking hands. It’s nice to see a clear statement that if someone says no to something, you respect that, no matter how snarky you are.

I’m rather lukewarm on depictions of witches as fantasy monsters, but I don’t have any specific criticism here. The witch in charge of the camp is shown as a person and obviously cares about the campers. It’s not bad as such depictions go.

Each page has a limited colour palette, apart from an occasional frame intended to stand out. For example, one page may be greens and blues, and another page may be in oranges. This adds to the spooky atmosphere. The composition hints at monsters, with backgrounds forming faces and monstrous shadows. It’s well spaced, with a few panels on each page, and writing at a comfortable reading size. The art is a perfect match for the story.

This book is on the borderline between upper middle grade and lower young adult. The main themes are friendship and dealing with family issues, but there is some early teen stuff like her crush. It’s ideal for readers in that middling area.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Wildwitch: Wildfire – Lene Kaaberbøl (author), Charlotte Barslund (translator), Rohan Eason (illustrator)

Wildfire CoverSeries: Wildwitch, #1
First Published: 7th January, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Clara is attacked by a large black cat on the way to school. When she gets sick from the wounds, her mother takes her to visit Aunt Isa for the first time. Isa is a wildwitch, and it looks like Clara might be too. The cat is only the start though. There’s something else going on, and it’s soon apparent that Clara needs training in order to defend herself.

The book looked as though it was inspired by traditional European witches. This is of particular interest to me, given my family connections. I wasn’t disappointed. The wildwitches are clearly based on that, down to having familiars (wildfriends), the nature focus of the magic, and a matriarchal system.

Much of the story is about Clara adjusting to what’s going on. She has to settle into staying with Aunt Isa, learn to get along with fellow apprentice Kahla, and figure out how to be a wildwitch. At the same time, all this means missing her mother and school friends. I liked that other concerns don’t magically disappear for the witches. Clara’s school has to be told she’s sick, to cover for her absence. Isa creates art to make money. The rest of the world doesn’t just fade away because there’s magic in it.

It also touches on systematic issues. The wildwitches aren’t right in every way. Their laws and traditions are subject to change, such as no longer making the ruling council blind themselves, and allowing some men in. Being close to nature doesn’t make an organisation infallible.

The way Clara’s training is handled is realistic. Clara has the raw ability and power, but she doesn’t have precision or control. A few weeks of training doesn’t suddenly make her a master. She’s a sledgehammer compared to Kahla. Wildwitches have to train for a long time. Clara doesn’t get around this because she’s the protagonist.

There were a few things that caught my attention in less positive ways. Kahla is non-white, and her skin is described as cinnamon. I’ll give the book its due that it doesn’t linger on that or keep repeating it, but food descriptions for skin are exotifying. I’m also a little undecided on the statement that blind people tend to be drawn to the council. It’s somewhat implied that it’s because they gain sight through their animals. I can see it might be true for some individuals (especially someone who wasn’t blind from birth), and it’s not stated that blind people are more magical or all drawn this way. But there’s still that implication that not having sight is something that needs patching up. I’d feel more comfortable if there had been blind people in other roles as well, who’d made other choices.

I enjoyed the story. There was a good balance of the more domestic scenes, where Clara is learning and figuring out where she stands, and the action scenes leading to the finale. I look forward to seeing how Clara’s abilities develop, and finding out more about the world of wildwitches.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn – Tania Unsworth

Daisy Fitzjohn CoverAlternate Titles: Brightwood
First Published: 10th March, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Daisy has never left her home in Brightwood Hall. She lives a comfortable life with her mother, surrounded by the history of her family. Until her mother disappears, and a man appears at the house.

The fact that Daisy has never left Brightwood Hall already hints that something odd is going on. That something is her mother experiencing a trauma as a child. She hoards supplies and other items, to the point of filling up the rooms in the manor house with storage shelves. She only leaves to get supplies, and doesn’t want Daisy going out at all. That fear of losing things has been enabled by the family’s wealth. She’s never really had to face her trauma, because it’s very easy to shut the world out living in a manor house. It’s easy to hoard when you have so much space.

I liked that the story did address these things. Daisy comes to realise how much her mum’s life has been influenced by those past events. And how this has trickled down to Daisy’s life.

Daisy is a fun protagonist. She holds conversations with the animals and artwork. This includes statues, topiary bushes and portraits of her ancestors. Whether this is entirely imaginary is up for debate. They certainly help her come to a decision about what to do when the man arrives.

I enjoyed the writing style and pacing of the book. There are elements of mystery, about who the man is and why he’s there. There’s some action, as Daisy acts out her plans. I wish I could end the review there, because there are a lot of things about the book I really like. I was promised an adventure set in a manor house, and it delivered on that.

The problem was The Crazy. Daisy has been told that The Crazy runs in the family. It means a person is vile and has most likely murdered people. This made me wince the first time it was introduced, but I gave some benefit of the doubt that it would be addressed later. It wasn’t. The best Daisy gets to is maybe people would call her mum crazy, but she’s not properly crazy as she’s not violent. Daisy doesn’t realise, at any level, that The Crazy is upper class entitlement, rather than a health condition. If you feel you’re better than anyone else and entitled to things, you’re not going to care who you hurt to get it… those other people aren’t really people, after all. This is an entirely sane, if unpleasant, response to privilege. What really struck me is it was a small part of the story, which could have been changed in ten minutes of editing. A few reworded sentences and a new name for The Crazy would have made all the difference. All it would have taken was considering how it might impact a non-neurotypical reader.

The result was though I generally enjoyed the book, I was cringing at those moments when The Crazy came up. They pulled me out of the story. Crazy often looks more like Daisy’s mum. Crazy often looks more like me. It doesn’t make someone a murderer.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]