I receive lots of emails offering me advance reading copies of this book or that (often a book that is completely unrelated to the kinds of books I review here), and I rarely agree to accept any, mainly because I have so many books on my list to read that I know I'm going to enjoy, and I dislike feeling pressure to read something that I might not feel like reading at that moment. Reading is the one area of my life that I have complete control over at this point, and I like to keep it that way, thank you very much!
But when I received an email from Patrick Carman describing his latest book, Skeleton Creek, I was immediately intrigued because of its interesting format. It is a book that is told from the points of view of two teens who are best friends. Ryan is a writer, and the book is his journal - it appears to be hand written on lined notebook paper. Sarah, however, is a filmmaker - and her point of view is interspersed with the text in the form of videos to be viewed on a "secret" website with passwords to access them. It's a book/video hybrid, and it works particularly well because this story is an evocative, suspenseful ghost story.
The book opens with Ryan recovering from an accident. He is stuck at home in his room with a horribly broken leg, and the cause of his accident is at first only hinted at. Their parents blame the accident on Ryan and Sarah's friendship, as it is apparently not the first time they have gotten into trouble, and they have been forbidden to see - or even communicate with - each other. But Ryan and Sarah are best friends and have no intention of complying. What's more, they've stumbled across a mystery that is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to either of them in their boring little town. Ryan has trouble remembering exactly what happened on that fateful night - but when Sarah emails him with a password that allows him to access her website to view the footage she filmed that night, it all comes rushing back.
In a creepy Blair Witch-style video, we see what the friends see as they approach the old dredge in the woods, and we see what the camera recorded after Ryan fell, when Sarah dropped it on the floor to rush to his aid - shocking images that neither of the friends will see until later...
The book alternates between Ryan's journal and Sarah's videos, and the suspense increases with each segment through the final gripping chapter. Many questions are raised throughout the narrative - there are puzzles and clues, codes and symbols. I found myself turning back and rereading sections of the book as new information came clear - and re-watching the videos revealed details I missed the first time around. I love the fact that things are not spelled out - there are intriguing topics that are touched upon, and I imagine that many readers will feel compelled to discover more about Morse code, mining, alchemy and elements, among other things.
The mystery is compelling, and the footage of the old dredge is incredibly spooky. I did wonder a bit at the friends' determination to find out what was going on, however. It seemed rather extreme, given the extent of Ryan's injuries, to be simply the product of boredom, of living in a town where nothing interesting ever happens. Why are the friends - particularly Sarah - so obsessed with the dredge? The passwords for the videos that Sarah gives Ryan may provide some insight - Lucy Westenra, Amontillado, and Peter Quint are among them. Again, I can see readers who are unfamiliar with those names looking for clues there, and perhaps discovering some further spine-tingling reading material. Still, I'd have pegged Sarah for someone who would use more film references than literary ones (but perhaps she was referring to the movies - there was a reference to Poltergeist at one point).
I loved the format of this book, and I think the subject matter is a perfect fit - what better way to really make a ghost story even more compelling than to add a soundtrack and "real" images? The two formats are integral to the work - the text would make no sense without the videos, and vice versa. The alternating viewpoints heightened the tension, making it difficult to put the book down. The novel will certainly appeal to reluctant readers, but also I love the way the format lends itself to making the book a shared experience. A group of friends could read this to each other on a dark and stormy night, then watch the videos together, speculating and sharing thoughts and trying to solve the mystery. My ten-year-old daughter practically tore the book from my hands when I explained how it worked. She loves books and she loves movies, so this was just perfect for her! She couldn't wait to get home from school so she could keep reading - and watching. She did wait for me to watch the final part with her (and she declined to watch it right before bed, which I felt was a wise decision).
This book is due to be released on February 10, 2009. Be aware that there's a brutal cliff-hanger ending, though - but not to worry; the second book will be coming out in September. There are lots of great places to go for further information about this book. Here is a trailer, and here is a fascinating interview with the author, and here is a very cool site that has related videos and discussion.
Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman (Scholastic Press, 2009)
Also reviewed at:
The Book Zombie: "Ghosts, gold, secret societies, conspiracies. The ending of Skeleton Creek left me wordless, and I eagerly await the next installment."
Book-a-Rama: "It was quite an interesting (and I'll bet expensive) concept. Both the author and publisher have taken quite a risk, but it works."