Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood and Co. #1), by Jonathan Stroud

Title: The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood and Co. #1)
Author: Jonathan Stroud
Format: ebook
Source: NetGalley

From Goodreads: "When the dead come back to haunt the living, Lockwood & Co. step in . . .

For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions.

Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive.

Set in a city stalked by spectres, The Screaming Staircase is the first in a chilling new series full of suspense, humour and truly terrifying ghosts. Your nights will never be the same again . . ."

My Opinion: When I saw this book on NetGalley I thought to myself, "Hey, this sounds like a book my 8 year old son would like: not too scary, entertaining enough to keep him interested; it's a bit long (440 pages) but we could read a little bit every night, so sure, I'll request it." Little did I know that he would find it too scary for bedtime, so instead of reading it to him, I read it to myself (although admittedly, the 20 minutes I would have spent reading with him morphed into about 2 hours a night for me - until I reached the big finale that is, at which time I refused to put my Kindle down until I had finished the book)! This isn't a cute little ghost story with namby pamby Visitors (as they are called) - these ghosts don't just float around looking a little scary until they are smacked with iron and the bones salted. No, these ghosts, depending on what level of haunting it is, are evil, violent, malevolent, vengeful spectres that are capable of causing serious bodily harm, and in some cases death. The scariest part is that because adults can't see the Visitors, kids are hired to take care of them because they are the only ones with the psychic sensitivity to see and hear the apparitions!

I like how the story starts in with the action right away as Lucy Carlyle and Anthony Lockwood are on the job, trying to stop a haunting without all of their gear, which, as Lucy reminds Anthony repeatedly, Anthony forgot to pack. This turns into much more than they were expecting to encounter as they find out the ghost is much stronger and much angrier than they first thought. Mayhem ensues and the night ends with the house burning down around them. I also like how they tell the back story of how Lucy came to work for Anthony at Lockwood and Co., along with George, the resident researcher. Where at first I thought the book just seemed rather long for a middle grade book, by the end I had decided it leaned more towards the YA end of the spectrum because it was just really scary due to the amazing descriptions of some of the evil the kids encounter, thanks to the detailed writing of Mr. Jonathan Stroud. I also didn't realize it was the first book in the Lockwood and Co. series right away since it wasn't listed this way on NetGalley, but after much info dumping, which was actually background info on the supernatural problem, why only kids work the hauntings (although usually under the supervision of an adult), and again, how Lucy came to work with the boys, I checked on Goodreads and lo and behold, it all made sense. I could see how knowing all of this would come in handy when reading future books in the series without having to repeat it again and again, so I decided to just enjoy the info and file it away for future reference.

I loved the characters because they were so very different from each other which meant that they got on each other's nerves just like you would expect real kids their age to do when trying to live together. Besides each having their own distinct and unique personality, they each had a special role to play in the business as well. As I mentioned before, George was their researcher (and damned good at it), checking out the location of each haunting before they actually went there to dispatch with the problem, as well as researching any stories, legends, or hopefully facts he could find associated with the haunting. Anthony Lockwood was the enigmatic, charming leader of their motley crew. Anthony's special talent was his strong spectral vision which allowed him to see the "death glows" and any visual signs of the hauntings before the others. Lucy, who had really hoped to get a job with a bigger more established firm, completed the trio. Her last job had ended in the deaths of everyone she was working with that night, with the exception of herself and her supervisor, so she couldn't get hired anywhere else and decided to give Lockwood and Co. a try. Lucy's gift was that her hearing was very sensitive to any noises associated not only with the hauntings themselves today, but also with the usually violent event that started the haunting in the first place (I'm not sure if that makes sense but if you read the book, it will, and I can't figure out how else to describe it!); she can hear things no one else can, and even when there is complete silence, she can sense if things are going good or bad. She can also pick up a haunted object and glean feelings and info about the owner, which is a very rare gift. They are much stronger together than as individuals, and it doesn't take them long to figure that out and to learn to work together in a way that brings out the best in all of them. 

All of this leads to a job that they are forced to take on when the fire they caused that burned the house down (during the job at the beginning of the book) led to them being sued and losing most of their jobs when news of the fire got out. This job is fishy in many ways: the elderly man who hires them (who is a bit off himself) says it is one of the worst hauntings in recorded history but they can't take their strongest work aids (magnesium flares and Greek fire to be exact) along with them because he doesn't want anything to catch fire, even though that would mean risking their very lives, and he only gives them 2 days to prepare for the job, which gets George all riled up because he usually needs weeks to complete his research. They are being offered a ridiculously large amount of money for the job though, and have no choice but to take it. This is the job which finally brings us to the Screaming Staircase, which, along with other assorted and terrible hauntings and apparitions in the house, are what make the last part of the book so deliciously horrific, and believe me, Jonathan Stroud makes it worth the wait! His descriptions of the awful, violent events that have taken place at this particular country manor over the course of hundreds of years, and what the kids find when they start investigating, had me looking over my shoulders more than once to make sure nothing was trying to creep up on me! 

The book never mentions the time period in which the story takes place, but I think it is a modern day alternate reality kind of setting, in and around London, England, with a distinctly old time feel to it, which is to say it felt like I was reading something in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or the like, which I absolutely adored!

In summary, I loved the characters, including their realism and their growth - not only as investigators who must learn to work together as a team to survive and thrive, but also as individuals who start off keeping their emotions close and not letting the others in, to talking, laughing, and confiding in them as they start to really care about each other. I thought the pacing really worked great, giving us information in small bits so we don't get overloaded and keeping the action very steady throughout - until the end, when everything explodes into sights, sounds, feelings, danger, and fear, and you are on the edge of your seat in anticipation of how it will all end. And lastly is the ending itself, which is so exciting and so scary and so perfect. I recommend this book to lovers of scary (not tame) ghost stories, with likable characters who are flawed but are able to learn and grow throughout the story. I am giving this book a very enthusiastic 5 stars and I look forward to reading the next book in the series when it comes out :D

I received a copy of this book free of charge through NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

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