Saturday, July 5, 2014

Dial-a-Ghost by Eva Ibbotson - mini review

by Eva Ibbotson

Publisher:  Dutton Children's Boks 

Format: Hardback  
Copyright: 1996
Pages: 195

Genre: Children's fantasy - slightly horror
Source: library book

From the cover:
The Dial-a-Ghost Agency finds good homes for ghosts. Bloodstained brides, headless warriors, bloblike ghouls—ghosts of every sort are matched with living families. There are two doors to the agency's office: one marked GHOSTS, the other marked PEOPLE. Through the first door come the Wilkinsons, a nice family of spooks who are fed up with haunting a knicker shop (the lacy slips and rudely named tights are not good for ghost children to be around!). Through the second door comes Fulton Snodde-Brittle, who wants the wickedest ghosts available for his grand home, Helton Hall. 

Luckily the agency ladies, Miss Pringle and Mrs. Mannering, have just the right match for each customer. They send the Wilkinsons off to a tranquil old abbey and promise Fulton Snodde-Brittle a pair of appalling spooks, the Shriekers, who wear rotten meat as jewelry and like to strangle children in their sleep. What the kindly ladies don't know is that the Fulton has an evil scheme to frighten his young cousin, the heir to Helton Hall, to death. Poor Oliver doesn't stand a chance against the Shriekers, but maybe the agency isn't as well organized as it seems. 

This delicious ghost story by the author of The Secret of Platform 13 and Which Witch? is filled with funny and frightening moments. It is sure to satisfy Eva Ibbotson's many fans, as well as those discovering her wonderful books for the first time. 
- * - * -

Still on an Ibbotson kick I grabbed this book when I returned The Star of Kazan. This time out we have a sweet orphan named Oliver, some nice ghosts, some extremely nasty ghosts and ownership of Helton Hall at stake. The good guys and the bad guys are clear right from the start of the story, as is at least one of the twists. As with The Secret of Platform 13, the reader knows pretty much everything that is going on (with a couple of exceptions to keep things interesting) so most of the tension in the story lies in waiting for the characters to figure out what is going on. This makes for a somewhat comforting read for a younger reader, except the subject matter - death, ghosts, hatred - is a little heavy. Overall, the story is pretty fun, the characters interesting and the setting vivid. I read it in an afternoon and liked it.

I am a little puzzled as to audience here though. The descriptions of the Shriekers - both appearance and behavior - are pretty graphic and nasty. I know that neither of my children would like this book right now, as neither of them are interested in spooky stories. This book is definitely for kids who are into creepy stuff - it isn't out and out horror, but nasty enough that younger children probably won't like it, nor kids who are sensitive to that sort of thing. However the plot and writing style are clearly geared to younger rather than older kids - the plot just isn't sophisticated enough for middle school kids. So, the book seems to be targeting the slightly bloodthirsty segment of upper elementary school students? 

And my complaint with about lack of pay off in the last couple of books? This book overdoes it. The last bit of the story was really unnecessary and a bit too over the top with trying to achieve 'poetic justice.'  So I am sticking to my hypothesis that Ibbotson has trouble with balancing her endings. Either they are too abrupt or are like beating a dead horse. For example, The Star of Kazan had two (?) extra chapters after the ending of the story - if you read the story their is a chapter that in name and action clearly brings the story full circle and you have resolution. Then for some reason the book goes on past that with information that you either already knew about or stuff that could have been incorporated earlier. This doesn't have to be a deal breaker, as long as the ending doesn't damage or destroy your enjoyment of the book though. The ending of Dial-a-Ghost didn't wreck the story for me but it did make me say - ick! I didn't need that.

So standing alone, Dial-a-Ghost is a three and a half claw book for me.

However, now that I have read several of Ibbotson's children's books a pattern has started to emerge that really bugs me (with The Star of Kazan being the only partial exemption) the good guys are always 'normal' and at least nice-looking, if not beautiful, while the bad guys are always ugly, fat, ultra thin, imperfect and/or repulsive in some way. You can sort her characters into good guys and bad guys just by looks. This is not a good take-away message for kids. Pretty =/= virtuous and 'ugly' =/= evil.  It wasn't bad when I had only read a couple of the stories but now that I have read several of them, it is starting to really, really annoy me. Dial-a-Ghost in particular really hammers this home not only with the humans but also the ghosts. This realization is making me re-think my enjoyment of her books unfortunately.

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