Saturday, September 6, 2014

Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud mini review

The Screaming Staircase Lockwood & Co. Book 1 
by Jonathan Stroud

Format: paperback (finally!) 
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion (Reprint edition August 26, 2014)
Copyright: 2013
Pages: 416

Genre: middle grade fantasy-horror-mystery

Source: purchased  

Summary from the back of the paperback:
A sinister Problem has occurred in London: all nature of ghosts, haunts, spirits, and specters are appearing throughout the city, and they aren't exactly friendly. Only young people have the psychic abilities required to see-and eradicate-these supernatural foes. 

In The Screaming Staircase, the plucky [I hate the way they use this word!] and talented Lucy Carlyle teams up with Anthony Lockwood, the charismatic leader of Lockwood & Co, a psychic detection agency that handles the dangerous work. After an assignment leads to both a grisly discovery and a disastrous end, Lucy, Anthony, and their sarcastic colleague, George, are forced to take part in the perilous investigation of one of the most haunted houses in England. Will Lockwood & Co. survive the Hall's legendary Screaming Staircase and Red Room to see another day?

I have been waiting impatiently for this book to come out in paperback ever since I saw the hardback in the bookstore. Now that it has - squee! - I devoured it in just a couple of days. I would have read it faster but silly things like work and feeding the kids interfered. I believe that I can even go so far as to call it a rollicking good read - the pages just flew past. Since The Screaming Staircase won the 2013 Cybil Award for Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, I am sure that lots of people are already aware of it, but just in case you are not - if you have any interest in the book based on the description get it !  What fun!

The main characters are distinctive and realistic feeling - as long as you accept the premise that has been laid out to explain why children/teenagers would have to be acting as the front line here the story holds together very neatly (as long as you don't start thinking too deeply about it). The book is written so well that it is pretty easy to suspend your disbelief and start adventuring.

The plot uses several common tropes - for example the authorities being against our heroes and not as good (the classic Sherlock Holmes - Lestrade dynamic) - but uses them well enough to skirt becoming trite. For a middle school reader, this is a good introduction to the gas-light horror/mystery genre. Adult readers of mysteries will probably know where things are going but will still enjoy the ride. It does have ghosts, murder, and some scary descriptions but it is handled well so that the horror doesn't overwhelm the story and shouldn't put off an interested middle school reader.  (My son is not interested in horror books at all, so at the moment I won't be trying to get him to read it. I will try in a couple of years.)

The worldbuilding was for the most part really, really evocative. In fact, it worked so well in conjuring up the classic foggy streets of Sherlock Holmes' London that references to modern items were sometimes quite jarring. This is the one thing that was off kilter for me - I wasn't able to quite pin down the 'when' of the story. You have donuts and electricity along with gaslight and fireplaces. I get the idea that the Problem slowed down human advancements, but it was still all somewhat willy-nilly.

I also don't understand why Lucy wore skirts so often. Given the job description the disconnect between her 'work clothing' which included a parka and the references to times she was wearing a skirt started to really get on my nerves. In fact the whole girls are more sensitive, less threatening and normally wear skirts subtext felt totally archaic given the rest of the story. This was one of the reasons the time period felt more like the 1800's than the more modern world. The fact that Lucy was pretty fearless, competent and effective helped make up for these anacronistic attitudes but they were still annoying. It would helped if there more female characters (ghosts don't count) but there really weren't. They exist - there are important women mentioned - but other than eyeballing the Fitt's girl we don't meet any.

I really liked that one of the stray thoughts I had while reading - something like "if those things work against ghosts, why don't they try ..." - and then the book took me up on it and introduced something like what I was thinking about towards the end. Cool! Sorry to be vague but otherwise it would be a spoiler.

I loved it so much that I have already pre-ordered the next book - yes, sigh, in hardback. The first book doesn't end in a cliff hanger per say, but with a shoe that drops with a resounding thud.  I need that next shoe!  So I will be waiting impatiently until the 16th, when the next book comes out. 

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