Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

The Lockwood & Co series of ghost fantasies aren’t for everyone. They’re probably too occult-related for some readers, even though the the protagonists—Lockwood, Lucy, and George—are the good guys as they fight against The Problem of evil ghostly manifestations that have become a common peril in this alternate history future. Also, I caught an instance or two of profanity. And, finally, the humor is biting and sarcastic, not everyone’s cuppa.

But if you can get past or even appreciate those aspects of the novel, The Whispering Skull might be even better than the first book in the series, The Screaming Staircase, winner of last year’s middle grade speculative fiction Cybils award. In episode two of our story, Lucy, George, and Lockwood are in a competition with the Fittes crew to find a very dangerous mirror relic and lay its ghosts to rest.

The eponymous skull is a rather dangerous relic itself in this version of a London in which children use iron chains, silver seals, and salt-bombs to fight off malevolent spirits bent on righting old wrongs and harming the still-living. Lucy, the narrator of the story, has a special connection with the skull, a face in a ghost-jar that sometimes materializes with “expressions of horror and disgust” and even talks to Lucy in a sort of telepathic and sarcastic manner that only she can hear. The skull is just as malevolent and self-centered as all of the other ghosts and spirits that are infesting the country, but it does seem to have a soft spot for Lucy. Will that connection and that special sensitivity be the downfall of Lockwood and Co?

This second book in particular would make a lovely Princess Bride-type movie with lots of witty, sardonic dialog and characters who see each other’s faults but support each other to the death. I’ve never been much on horror films or ghost stories, but if it were done right, I might make an exception for a movie version of this book. There were several scenes in which I wanted to shake (or slap) the characters and tell them that, of course, they shouldn’t let curiosity betray them into doing x or y really dangerous, stupid thing. But that’s par for a ghost horror story, isn’t it? Cue scary music. This decision will not end well. Don’t open that door!

So I recommend this book and the first one in the series for those of us who are not at all interested in the occult as such, but who enjoy a scary, clever story with lots of action, lots of quick-witted humor, and a fair amount of heart. Suave Anthony Lockwood, faithful Lucy Carlyle, and bumbling George Cubbins make a fine team of intrepid ghostbusters, and the ending promises more Lockwood and Co adventures to come.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage

The author of 2013 Newbery Honor winner Three Times Lucky, Sheila Turnage, has a new book set in Tupelo Landing and featuring the world famous Desperado Detective Agency, run by detective Moses (Mo) LoBeau and her sidekick Dale Earnhardt Johnson III.

Mo is a high-powered, rush in where angels fear to tread, dynamo of a sixth grade detective, and her partner Dale, who must be told when not to answer rhetorical questions, “has a flair for the obvious.” Together, they bait a bona-fide ghost girl, search for a still-working still, and talk straight to some very crooked crooks. While Miss Lana and Grandmother Miss Lacy accidentally purchase a haunted and dilapidated inn, Mo and Dale try to interview the ghost for extra credit on their history project. And somehow the new boy in town, Harm Crenshaw, becomes a friend and ally in their interview and detective endeavors.

I’m now anxious to go back and read the first novel featuring Mo and Dale, Three Times Lucky, so I guess that’s as good a recommendation for this one as there could be. The ghost in the novel is a real ghost, so if you don’t believe in ghosts or if you just don’t want them in your children’s books, this one would be a skip. However, I’d recommend swallowing the ghostly visitor, not to mention the ghost cars that I hadn’t mentioned yet, whole, for the sake of the characters and the descriptions.

Here’s a few samples of Mo’s take on life, and love, and detecting, exerpted from the text nearly at random:

“Anna Celeste liked Dale for a few days this summer and then dumped him like a truckload of bad meat. She about broke his heart.”

“‘Rat Face,’ I muttered. I would have said more, but Miss Lana don’t allow cursing. She does allow the creative use of animal names.”

“Friday evening, as I sat in my room contemplating the evils of fractions in general and common denominators in particular, my vintage bedside phone jangled. ‘Mo’s flat, Mo speaking,’ I said. I possess killer telephone skills.”

“When it coms to homework, the only excuse Miss Retzyl takes is Precise Death–death that happens to the Precise Student and not to a relative. If they have known relatives.”

“When the lunch bell finally jangled, I cut Dale from the stampede and edged him toward the hall. I didn’t ask about the test. Dale is to word problems as ship is to the Bermuda Triangle.”

“Usually I have a river of words flowing in me. Now my river ran dry.”

“Before long, we all got good. Lavender looked like a movie star, dancing with Miss Retzyl’s sister, and then with every woman and pre-woman there—including me. ‘You look beautiful, Mo,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘Dance with me?’
Even the stars smiled.”

Like the samples? You’ll like the book. It’s got what Mo would call “voices smooth as butter and moves sweet as Miss Lana’s blackberry jam.” You won’t want to miss it.

QOTD: Do you like ghost stories? What’s your favorite ghost story?