Reviews

Keep Calm and Creep On: The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle

Fox, Janet S. The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. Viking, 2016. 388 pages. Hardcover $14.59, ISBN 978-0-451-47633-3; PLB $13.86, ISBN 978-1-51818-650-9; TR $7.69, ISBN 978-0-14-751713-5

TL;DR: Do I recommend this book? Yes … ish

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction, Steampunk (?)

Part of a series? Not at this time.

Plot Summary:

London is in the grips of the Blitz — it is World War II, and children are being sent away from London in order to remain safe from constant bombings. Safety is the foremost concern for the Bateson family; Mr. Bateson is a spy on a mission for MI6 — but before leaving, he secures three places at Rookskill Castle in Scotland for his children. There, the Lady Eleanor has opened an academy for children displaced by the bombings. Kat, the eldest Bateson, feels responsible for her younger siblings and does her best to remind them to “Keep Calm and Carry On” as they must leave their mother and Great-Aunt Margaret behind in London. Before seeing the children off, once-sharp Great-Aunt Margaret passes a family heirloom on to Kat. She gives the girl a châtelaine and explains that it is an extremely magical item that will help keep her safe. Kat, a lover of math, logic, and puzzles, is disturbed by this explanation, particularly since it just goes to show that Great-Aunt Margaret really is losing her marbles. 

Rookskill Castle is creepy from go, and Kat finds herself facing mystery and weirdness galore. Why is there a shortwave radio hidden in a secret room? What is Lady Eleanor trying to hide? And — most disturbing of all — why are so many secrets in the castle unexplainable by logic and common sense? Is there a spy at Rookskill Castle … or is there something much worse at hand?

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

This book had a lot of potential. Historical fiction plus fantasy? SOLD! The premise was amazing. World War II plus creepy age-old magic sounds delicious. Unfortunately, the execution of the novel was a tiny bit disappointing. (This caught me by surprise given the starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly.) The start of the novel is very strong, but not long after the Batesons arrive at Rookskill Castle, the story begins to meander. Quixotic episodes repeat with little impact on the plot, and major problems are set up that either fall by the wayside or are resolved in the blink of an eye. Every few pages we are reminded about how logical Kat is … to the point that you start to wonder when it will crop up again (hardly a mysterious thing can happen without the reader being reminded of Kat’s logic). Anachronisms also crop up throughout the text as well as dialectical issues that just don’t sound right. 

That said, however, the book does deliver on tone, so I would still recommend it to my readers looking for something creepy and set in a castle/past period. I also have to think that perhaps the book just didn’t speak to what I wanted from it, especially given its reception by major reviewing outlets.

Curriculum Ties/Library Use:

I would hand this book to anyone looking for a readalike for Coraline, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, or Elizabeth and Zenobia.

Grade Level: 5-8

Awards and Starred Reviews:

Booklist starred 01/01/16

Kirkus Reviews starred 12/15/15

Publishers Weekly starred 01/04/16

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Reviews

ARC Alert! Elizabeth and Zenobia

Miller, Jessica. Elizabeth and Zenobia. Amulet Books. 208 pages, 2017. Hardcover $14.60, ISBN 978-1-41972-724-5

Elizabeth and ZenobiaTL;DR: Do I recommend this? Yes

Anticipated Publication: September 2017

Genre: Horror

Part of a series? No

Plot Summary:

When her father decides it is time to move back to his childhood home, Elizabeth and her friend Zenobia have no other choice but to go along. (Father isn’t so pleased that Zenobia is coming along since she is, after all, imaginary — well, maybe not quite imaginary, but not quite real, either.) Elizabeth is afraid of everything — ghosts, the dark, gloves without hands in them — and Zenobia loves EVERYTHING creepy or disturbing. Poisons? Check. Ghosts — oh, excuse me, Spirit Presences? Check. Edgar Allan Poe? Check. Something is … off in Witheringe House, and to Zenobia’s delight, the conditions are PERFECT for a haunting. Add to that the fact that the East Wing of the house is forbidden to the girls, the eeriness increases the longer the girls are there. As more secrets are revealed, more seances are performed, and more bizarre midnight happenings occur, it becomes clear that something is truly and deeply wrong at Witheringe House. Will Elizabeth be brave enough to uncover the truth, and will she be strong enough to vanquish the evil that lurks in the house?

Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:

The book’s description refers to it as “middle grade gothic horror,” and that is a perfect description. That creeping weirdness so critical in a good gothic novel is here in full force. Plants that seem a little too alive, a house with many secrets, silent and seemingly ubiquitous housekeepers, and a governess contending with mysterious forces all feature here. The book moves quickly, but it’s a page-turner, meaning that readers are going to enjoy this scary story enough not to want to put it down.

It’s a great read-alike for fans of Coraline, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. (Doll Bones is also similar with regards to creepy ghost factors!) Edgar Allan Poe is mentioned several times as he has the honor of being Zenobia’s favorite author. The book also draws upon gothic classics; Witheringe House of course reminds us of the title of Wuthering Heights; the governess plot smacks of Jane Eyre; the nursery’s walls are reminiscent of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” and the whole “don’t go in the East Wing” situation is VERY Bluebeard. There’s something here for every gothic fan!

 

Grade Level: 4-8

 

Reviews

Creepy-Crawlies, Kids, and Cavendish: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire LeGrand

LeGrand, Claire. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012. 352 pages. Hardcover $15.54 ISBN 978-1442442917

img_0141This creepy book is an excellent read for fans of Coraline. Victoria’s dearest ambition is to be the best; nothing short of perfection will do. In her quest for perfection, she has decided to live life without friends … until, of course, Lawrence “the Skunk” (so called for his stripe of gray hair) strikes her as so pathetic, so utterly unable to take care of himself, that she makes him her Special Project and hangs out with him in order to be a good influence. As Victoria struggles with her B in music — impossible! A B?! And here’s Lawrence, a veritable music prodigy! — she misses the fact that Lawrence looks very anxious, and his parents are acting very oddly. In fact, once Lawrence disappears mysteriously, Victoria notices everyone acting very oddly. The answer to all this weirdness lies in the Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, run by the too-perfect Ms. Cavendish and her assistant, the unsettling gardener, Mr. Alice. As Victoria hunts for the truth, she finds herself sucked into the Home and learning far too much about why her town runs like a well-oiled machine.

This book has a definite gross-out factor — creepy creatures, slime, mystery meat, beetles, and cockroaches fill the pages. This book is also terrifying — much like how Coraline’s scary button-eyed Other People are too good to be true, so is Ms. Cavendish and her orphans’ home. This book is perfect for the student who wants to be scared, one who looks for disturbing stories where kids have to battle some pretty evil big bads. This would be a great Halloween book club book or display item, and it has definitely earned a spot in a Coraline book talk.

Readalike: Coraline by Neil Gaiman.