The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

Three young teenagers sent to spend the night in an extremely haunted house that no one’s survived, a house with a room that bleeds and a screaming (obviously) staircase. What could possibly go wrong?

Fifty years ago, ghosts came back. Well, they’d always been around, sort of, but now they’re back in massive numbers, and they’re dangerous–they kill people. No one’s sure why they’re back, but exorcism is big business–so big, in fact, that there are agencies specially set up specifically to deal with The Problem. Oh, but there’s one slight catch: only kids can see ghosts. Once they age out, they’re useless, so they start training young.

Enter Lockwood & Co., London’s smallest ghost investigation agency. It’s made up of Anthony Lockwood, the leader; George Cubbins, the obnoxious, slappable know-it-all; and Lucy Carlyle, the newest recruit. Lockwood and Lucy are investigating an ordinary (or is it?) house haunting when things to terribly wrong. The house burns down, Lockwood gets taken off in an ambulance, and the homeowners are demanding reparations: £60,000 in four weeks, or their agency is getting shut down. They don’t have that kind of money; and to make things worse, after the whole fire debacle no one’s hiring them.

Then fortune smiles upon them: an extremely wealthy man asks them to investigate his manor, Combe Carey Hall. It’s the most haunted house in Britain, and no one’s survived the night in the west wing of the house. One of the rooms bleeds, there’s a staircase that screams, it’s dangerous and mysterious and just what they need–Fairfax is willing to pay them enough to save the agency.  They’re desperate for the money, but can they survive the night in a house that wants them dead?

I don’t know about you, but I love children in peril stories, and this book is so much fun. It’s a supernatural thriller with a good story, better characters, and a great mythology. Over a dozen types of ghosts populate the pages, all of them familiar but with a new, more sinister edge. Oh, and just a FYI: it’s classified as a kids book, but don’t let that throw you off. Johnny TremainThe Wizard of Oz, and Treasure Island are all technically kid’s books as well. It’s well-written and engaging, and if you’re looking for a ghost story, a thrill, or just something highly entertaining, give The Screaming Staircase a try.

Favorite Line:

“Oh, he’d sue us, all right,” Lockwood agreed. “But who cares?”

Don’t read if: you can’t stand rapiers, salt bombs, skulls in jars, lockets, or that one guy who always eats all the donuts.

 

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Soulless, by Gail Carriger

Alexia Tarabotti has a bit of a problem: she’s just killed a vampire. And that, gentle reader, just isn’t proper.

In alternate-reality Victorian Britain, vampires, werewolves, and ghosts are all part of life: socially accepted and included. Alexia, not so much. Despite her best efforts, society is not as welcoming of her as one would wish; her father, after all, was Italian. She’s also soulless, but that’s an entirely different thing.

Ah, yes. Soulless. Her lack of a soul means (among other things) that not only is she impervious to other supernaturals, but her touch renders them mortal for the full duration of the contact. Most of the supernatural community is aware of her and her abilities, so they usually give her a wide berth.

Which is why she’s so shocked that a vampire would attack her at a private ball. All vampires are born (so to speak) into hives where they are educated on the proper behavior befitting their station. Yet this one clearly had no idea about manners or deportment. And he’s not the only problem: other equally ill-mannered vampires are appearing all over London, while other, more prominent ones are disappearing. And Alexia is looking more and more like the most likely suspect. Enter Lord Conall Maccon, trained investigator and alpha of the most powerful werewolf pack in Britain.

As Alexia clashes with the Queen’s investigator, sinister figures close in. Can she and her unlikely ally restore proper order before it’s too late?

This book is a steampunk novel, but not of the usual type: despite the existence of mechanized transport, airships, and the like, it’s also very light and fluffy. It’s not dark or gritty, but rather almost a comedy of manners wrapped up in an alt-universe mystery story. It’s breezy and fun, and Alexia is formidable, bound by strict propriety and possessed of a formidable will. If you’re looking for something lighthearted and engaging and maybe even just a little silly, give Soulless a try.

Favorite Line:

No one ever explained about the octopuses.

Don’t read if: you disdain treacle tart, parasols, good manners, foppish vampires, or absurd hats.

Libriomancer, by Jim C Hines

Libriomancy: a book-lover’s dream come true. Also: greatest superpower ever.

Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer. What’s a libriomancer? I’m so very glad you asked. Libriomancers are people with the ability to reach into a book–any book–and pull objects from it. Reading The Once and Future King? Grab Excalibur! Reading The Iliad? Have a golden apple! Reading The Lord of the Rings? Have a…oh, wait, no. Not that one.

Because there are rules, you see. Certain books are locked, because they contain items far too dangerous to ever allow into the human world. Other rules: you have to put it back (Yes, I know you like it. You still can’t keep it.) as soon as possible. It has to be able to fit through the dimensions of the pages of the book you’re pulling it from (so no World Devastators from the Star Wars extended universe. Sorry.) And never, under any circumstances, are you to pull out something living. But back to Isaac.

Isaac is a libriomancer, working as a librarian in rural Michigan cataloguing possible items for libriomancer use found within fantasy and science fiction books. And except for the direst emergencies, Isaac is no longer allowed to use magic.

But then three vampires break into the library, a motorcycle-riding dryad hot on their heels. Isaac knows the dryad in question–her name is Lena, and she’s not someone to mess with. Which is why the two of them team up to find out just why on earth vampires would show up in a tiny town in the U.P. Turns out, there’s a hell of a lot more going on (and going wrong) than a few random undead roaming northern Michigan: other libriomancers are being attacked, and the body count is rising. Can Isaac and Lena figure out who (or what) is behind the attacks before more people (possibly themselves) get killed?

This book, the first in an ongoing series by Hines, is, for all intents and purposes, a love letter to reading and the magic it brings. He fills each page with such deep affection and respect for books of all kinds (especially SF/F) and it spills over into the reading experience itself. So if you like to read, even only a little, you should absolutely, definitely, for sure pick this one up.

Favorite Line:

“Which reminds me. There’s a vampire hand in your freezer’s ice maker.” Seeing my aghast expression, she added, “Don’t worry. I double-bagged it.”

Don’t read if: you take umbrage at fictional things from other words being used in this one, enchanted convertibles, Johannes Gutenberg, or fire-spiders.

Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin

It’s 1171, Cambridge, England. Children are disappearing, and the townsfolk blame the Jews. To prevent a wholesale slaughter, the sheriff has moved every Jew in the area to his castle for their protection. But the locals are angry, and it’s only a matter of time before they act. Meanwhile, the children are turning up–dead. Tempers flare, and the populace is howling for justice, retribution, blood.

Enter Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. Sent by the king of Sicily, she’s a Salerno-taught physician who specializes in postmortem studies–she’s a doctor to the dead. She, her companion Mansur, and the Sicilian king’s fixer Simon are tasked with solving the murders and restoring peace to the Cambridge fens.

But England is not Salerno–anti-Semitism runs rampant, doctors are mostly quack-medicine peddlers frowned upon by the all-powerful Church (suffering is sent from God, they reason, so only God can relieve it. Looking elsewhere for a cure suggests a lack of faith–or worse), and women doctors are even worse: at best ostracized, more likely to be branded witches and dealt with accordingly.

Adelia and her companions have to tread carefully–let no one know what she really is, or why they’re really there. But she finds a few unlikely allies along the way–and one incredibly likely suspect, a tax collector named Rowley Picot. As her suspicions mount and tensions rise, can she find the killer before they strike again, before the villagers storm the castle, before the Church brands her a witch and a heretic?

This book is wonderful; I love it. It’s a great mystery with an equally great protagonist, set in a much under-used era. This history is pretty accurate, which (for the most part) adds a wonderful aspect to the story. It’s accuracy, however, can make some parts uncomfortable, especially because at that time in history anti-Semitism was everywhere and it’s upsetting to read about how acceptable and prevalent it was, even in England where they weren’t actively persecuted.

But I do highly, highly encourage you to read this book: for the history, for the place, and to discover just why Adelia merits the title of Mistress of the Art of Death.

Favorite Line:

And however vile the creature it was laid for, a trap was always a trap.

Don’t read if:  you take issue with determined career women, 12th century England, Crusaders, relics, or incredibly smelly dogs.

The Alienist, by Caleb Carr

As a crime reporter for the New York Times, John Moore has seen the darkest side of humanity–or so he thought until one night in March 1896, when a frenzied pounding at his door summoned him to a murder scene worse than anything he could imagine: a boy, a child prostitute, bound and horribly mutilated atop the Williamsburg Bridge. The worst part? This is the third such body so far this year.

The police commissioner is appalled. So much so that he decides to appoint a handpicked group to investigate the murders; a group separate from the notoriously corrupt Division of Detectives–a group that actually cares about the deaths of ignored, desperate children working a job most of society refuses to acknowledge could ever exist.

So John, a pair of Jewish brothers, and the NYPD’s first female secretary team up under the leadership of one of New York’s most controversial figures: Dr. Laszlo Kreizler.

Kreizler is an alienist–what we would nowadays call a psychiatrist (back then people with mental illnesses were considered “alienated” from themselves, and so the doctors who treated them were known as alienists.). A strong advocate of nurture over nature, Kreizler believes the group can come to understand the motivations of the killer by examining the dead and working backwards to establish patterns, and then using those patterns to find the killer’s identity.

John believes they stand a good chance of solving the murders, but powerful people are standing in their way–witnesses are bribed, beaten, threatened into silence. But who is silencing the witnesses? And why? The deeper the team digs, the stronger the pushback becomes, until they themselves are at risk.

I first read this book about twelve years ago, when a friend loaned it to me, telling me I’d love it. He was right. A dark, sometimes graphic, engrossing mystery, it’s got so much historical detail you feel like you’re actually there. Real-life people from history populate the pages of the book; rather than seeming out-of-place or overshadowing the fictional characters, they instead breathe even more life into the setting. Carr does a wonderful job painting a portrait of desperation standing alongside unimaginable wealth; of an hypocritical society determined to ignore its own darker side.

Can Kreizler and Co. find the murderer before another child dies? Before the city’s poor begin to riot? Before one of their own becomes the next victim? The Alienist is a thrilling chase through Gilded Age Manhattan that will leave you breathless.

Favorite Line:

If I’m the danger then I shall remove myself. Let this man keep killing. It’s what they want…without such creatures they’ve no scapegoats for their own wretched brutality!

Don’t read if: you recoil at Teddy Roosevelt, reformed criminal children named Stevie, long meals at Delmonico’s, or nervous grandmothers.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce is an ordinary 11-year-old girl–she pesters her older sisters (who pester her in return), takes bike rides through the countryside, worships at the altar of chemistry–wait, what?

Let’s try this again.

It’s 1950 in rural England. Flavia de Luce lives near the village of Bishop’s Lacey with her father and two older sisters, in an old, rambling house called Buckshaw. For the most part, life at Buckshaw is uneventful–sure, her sisters lock her in a closet sometimes, but that’s only to be expected from older sisters.

One day, a dead bird turns up on the kitchen doorstep with a penny stamp skewered on its beak. It’s weird, but Flavia dismisses it–until early the next morning, when she discovers a corpse in the cucumber patch. What’s more, she’s reasonably sure the body belongs to the man she overheard arguing with her father late the night before. The police are duly summoned; Flavia, fascinated, tries to observe the proceedings but is sent away. So, of course, she decides to launch her own investigation into the death of the mysterious stranger. And a good thing, too, because her father is soon arrested and charged with the murder.

The clues lead Flavia down the path of history, to a mysterious suicide (or was it?) at a nearby school some 30 years before, over the loss of an incredibly rare stamp.

When it first came out, this book won all the awards, and it deserves every one of them. It’s an engaging mystery, brilliantly realized.

Flavia is one of the most original and engaging heroines in fiction today. She’s smart, she’s clever, she’s not always likeable–just like any other 11-year-old (except for the aforementioned obsession with chemistry, that is). But that brings me to another point. Despite the youth of the protagonist, this book isn’t YA. I don’t mean that it’s full of adult content or anything like that, but it’s not a kid’s book–it just happens to feature one.

Can Flavia follow the trail of clues and exonerate her father? What really happened at the school 30 years ago? Will she get revenge on her sisters? Pick up this book, dig deep, and see if you can find the Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Favorite Line:

Was I now inducted, and would I be expected to take part in unspeakably bloody midnight rituals in the hedgerows? It seemed like an interesting possibility.

Don’t read if: you have any sort of problem with stamps, pie, overly inquisitive 11-year-olds, chemistry, or bicycles with names.