Monday, April 11, 2011

The Shadows

There is something about books with mysterious, rambling old houses that hold secrets that has always captured my imagination.  It's amazing how you can start out with a creepy or fantastical old house and end up just about anywhere.  There's the house in  The Old Willis Place by Mary Downing Hahn (which I'm reading right now) - that's a creepy one, with horrible secrets.  And there's the house in The Treasures of Weatherby by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, which she calls her "big, old house story to end all big, old house stories" - which is something, coming from a writer who delights in mysterious, big old houses.  There's The House with the Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs, delightfully spooky and unusual.  There's Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre.  And, of course, the most memorable haunted house ever, a character in its own right, featured in several books by the amazing Nina Kiriki Hoffman, including A Stir of Bones and Red Heart of Memories.  So, when this book opened with eleven-year-old Olive moving into a mysterious old house, one with paintings permanently attached to the walls, paintings that seem to change a little every time she looks at them - I knew it was going to be good.

Olive is a bit of a loner, a definite non-math-whiz whose parents eat and breathe and make totally lame jokes about math, and now she's living in a neighborhood without any other kids in it.  But the paintings in the unusual old house are interesting, even if they're a bit spooky.  When she discovers an old pair of glasses and puts them on, they enable her to pass over the threshold of the paintings and go into the paintings themselves - and in doing so she discovers a malevolent presence with a mysterious dark purpose.  She encounters Horatio, one of three cats who belonged to the old woman who lived in the house before them.  He seems surprisingly intelligent, but even so, Olive is dumbfounded when he opens his mouth and speaks to her.  The adventure is on, and Olive is thrust into a world where nothing is as it appears, and she cannot be sure whom to trust.

This is a fun middle grade read, full of action and peril, secrets and surprises.  I loved that it is Olive (who feels just a bit insecure about herself because of her ineptitude with math, compared to her parents), who uses her intellect and creativity to figure out a way to save the day.  Olive's parents are a bit too conveniently oblivious, perhaps, but of course the fun typically begins when the parents get out of the way.  The illustrations that accompany the text are marvelous, as you can see.  They convey the perfect mix of whimsy and dark mystery that embodies this book.

I brought this book home from the library because the cover was so appealing (yes, I'm superficial that way - aren't we all?), and my ten-year-old daughter picked it up and started reading before I had a chance to get to it.  She enjoyed it so much she kept disappearing with it, so that I had to hunt her down and ruin her fun, making her do her homework instead.  And she urged me to read it, too, and I'm certainly glad I did.  We are both looking forward to the next book in this imaginative series, which is due to be published (in the U.S.) this summer.

What's your favorite story featuring a mysterious big old house? 

The Books of Elsewhere series:
1. The Shadows
2. Spellbound (July 2011 - U.S.) 

The Shadows (#1 in the Books of Elsewhere series) by Jacqueline West; illustrated by Poly Bernatene (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books:  "I was captured by Olive and the big mysterious house almost instantly. The people and worlds in the paintings had me nervous and excited all at the same time. Who was watching? What was all this about?"
One Librarian's Book Reviews:  "The writing was fantastic, with some great metaphors throughout that really brought it to life." 
Sassymonkey Reads:  "There’s fun. There’s mystery. There’s just enough scary bits to hold a younger person’s attention but not enough for it to be too scary. This is one of the few MG series that I think I’ll actually follow."


  1. Sounds interesting. I might read it at some point.

  2. I am so, so, soooo happy you finally picked this one up! I cannot wait for the next book. July seems so far away!

  3. Did enjoy this one and was glad it won the Cybil's science fiction and fantasy award!


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