ARC Review: Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Title: Ghost Squad
Author: Claribel A. Ortega
Series: N/A
Pages: 256
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: April 7th 2020
**I received a copy of this book from the publisher, which does not influence my review**

      “Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters in this action-packed supernatural fantasy.
      For Lucely Luna, ghosts are more than just the family business.
      Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.
      With the family dynamics of Coco and action-packed adventure of Ghostbusters, Claribel A. Ortega delivers both a thrillingly spooky and delightfully sweet debut novel.”

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Claribel A. Ortega’s debut novel, Ghost Squad, is a delightful middle grade with lots of heart and a cast of character that is sure to charm readers of every age. Lucely Luna is just like any twelve-year girl, she likes hanging out with her best friend, Syd, and spending time with her family. Only most of her family are ghosts and she’s the only one who can see them. When Lucely discovers that her dad may not have the money to keep their house and something odd begins happening to her ghost family, she’s determined to help on both fronts. But her plans take a frightening turn when Lucely, along with her best friend Syd, stumble upon an evil plan by the mayor himself to take over St. Augustine and steal the townspeople’s souls! Now Lucely and Syd, along with a suspiciously shrewd cat named Chunk, must figure out a way to stop him before it’s too late.

Ghost Squad is a great reminder that middle grade novels are some of the most engaging and heartfelt reads you will ever pick up. The most important thing to Lucely is her family and it is this bond that drives the story. Her father is a single parent who works hard to provide a good home life for her. His ghost tours haven’t had the kind of buzz he was hoping for, but the last thing he wants is for Lucely to worry about their finances. The rest of Lucely’s family is a different kind of special. Inspired by Dominican folklore, family members who’ve passed appear as firelies, called cocuyos, and are tied to the magical willow tree on Lucely’s family property. They also appear as ghosts, but only to Lucely’s young eyes. From her grandmother, Mamá Teresa to her long line of cousins, Lucely’s family is unconventional but fierce and loving. When Lucely discovers that something is amiss and she may lose the connection she has with her family for good, she will stop at nothing to make sure they are safe. She’s brave and little reckless, but her heart is always in the right place. Syd is Lucely’s best friend and I immediately took a liking to her. Not only is she sassy, she is also willing to do anything for her friend. Her vast knowledge of all things paranormal ends up being a big help in their quest to defeat the nefarious spirits who plan to take over their town. It was hard not to love these two girls. I was delighted with their saucy conversations and inability to avoid getting into trouble.

My favorite character by far is Syd’s grandmother, Babette, who steals the show every moment she’s on the page. Owner of an eccentric occult shop, there have always been whispers about whether or not she could be a witch. Though the girls believe they can sneak out and wander cemeteries without any of the adults in their life noticing, Babette is much smarter than either of them realize. I love that she takes the girls under her wing and shows them you should never underestimate a grandmother. And, of course, one must not forget Chunk, one of Babette’s cats, who has some strong opinions even for a cat. She made the best reluctant animal companion.

With playful dialogue and fun characters, Claribel A. Ortega’s Ghost Squad is an unforgettable debut that will thrill and bewitch readers.

★ ★ ★ ★

(4/5)

The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw

Title: The Wicked Deep
Author: Shea Ernshaw
Series: N/A
Pages: 308
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: March 6th 2018

      “Welcome to the cursed town of Sparrow…
      Where, two centuries ago, three sisters were sentenced to death for witchery. Stones were tied to their ankles and they were drowned in the deep waters surrounding the town.
      Now, for a brief time each summer, the sisters return, stealing the bodies of three weak-hearted girls so that they may seek their revenge, luring boys into the harbor and pulling them under.
      Like many locals, seventeen-year-old Penny Talbot has accepted the fate of the town. But this year, on the eve of the sisters’ return, a boy named Bo Carter arrives; unaware of the danger he has just stumbled into.
      Mistrust and lies spread quickly through the salty, rain-soaked streets. The townspeople turn against one another. Penny and Bo suspect each other of hiding secrets. And death comes swiftly to those who cannot resist the call of the sisters.
      But only Penny sees what others cannot. And she will be forced to choose: save Bo, or save herself.”

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“Once a Swan sister has whispered into your ear, promised the touch of her skin, you can’t resist her. She will lure you into the water then pull you under until the life spills out of you.”

When the town of Sparrow drowned the Swan sisters, convinced they were witches, they set upon themselves a curse that has plagued the small town for two centuries. Penny Talbot hasn’t had a normal life since her father disappeared three summers ago, but in a place like Sparrow, it’s hard for anyone to have a normal life. Each year the Swan sisters return, inhabiting the bodies of young women and lure young men to their deaths. Every year the families of Sparrow are devastated by the loss of their sons, but are powerless to stop it. When Bo, an outsider, wanders into Sparrow with no knowledge of the town curse, Penny befriends him despite the warnings in her head. But soon the sisters begin their killing spree and Penny becomes desperate to keep Bo from danger, but secrets from both their pass threaten not only their new bond, but their lives.

Shea Ernshaw’s The Wicked Deep beguiles with its eerie setting, transporting readers to a place where the town’s transgressions are a tourist attraction to outsiders, but an inescapable curse upon generations of inhabitants. The most interesting part of this book is by far the town itself. Not only its history of executing young women suspected of witchcraft, but how it has both embraced and feared the consequences of its actions. The young people of Sparrow throw parties when the summer solstice rolls around perhaps because most of them don’t quite believe in the curse. But it’s enough to keep many of them away from the water where it’s said the sisters claim their host bodies and where their victims are eventually led to drown. It isn’t surprising that this uncertain and deadly time brings about a level of paranoia. Just because the town’s curse hasn’t been broken doesn’t mean it can’t be and for a few desperate individuals hunting down the sisters and killing them before they can do more harm is the only way to stop them. But with no way of knowing who has been possessed, the town becomes the center of a witch hunt and history often repeats itself.

Penny has never quite gotten over how her town treated her father. As an outsider, he was never fully embraced and when he disappeared, Sparrow found little time to care. For the last three years it has been Penny who maintains the lighthouse on the little island just outside of Sparrow. Her mother is no more than a shadow of her old self and with no other occupants on the island, Penny feels both its isolation and comfort at once. Bo, who carries his own losses close to his chest becomes a kind of mirror for Penny. Their connection represents the part of herself that longs to escape Sparrow, but which inevitably knows Sparrow is both her beginning and end. Bo is a tricky character to really get a handle on. Ernshaw relies on belated reveals to shock the reader and while I will say I enjoyed most of her twists, this method made Bo’s character in particular feel inconsistent. What we discover later didn’t mesh well with the Bo we meet at the beginning. I felt little sympathy for him and found myself actively rooting against him at times. The ending as a result of all the plot twists also didn’t sit well with me and kind of left me feeling that Penny really got the short end of the stick in the end.

Shea Ernshaw’s The Wicked Deep is atmospheric and eerie. The mystery of the town’s curse and romance between Penny and Bo will have many readers enthralled. The ending however left a bad aftertaste in my mouth.

3/5

★★★

Mini Reviews: Sadie + A Room Away From the Wolves

MiniIn October, I did my best to pick up as many thrillers/mystery novels as I could. I usually go for more horror-themed novels during this time of year, but I heard such great things about the following two books, I just had to check them out myself. I read Sadie, but after hearing everyone praise the audio book, I kind of regret not listening to it. Maybe sometime in the future, I’ll at least check out the podcasts the publisher made available to readers. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Sadie
Author: Courtney Summers
Series: N/A
Pages: 311
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Release Date: September 4th 2018 

      “Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.
      But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.
      When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.”

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“I live in a place that’s only good for leaving, is all that needs to be said about it, and I don’t let myself look back. Doesn’t matter if I want to, it’s just better that I don’t.”

Courtney Summer’s Sadie cleverly alternates between two timelines. In the first, Sadie Hunter’s little sister Mattie has been murdered and although the police have run out of leads, she hasn’t. She’s determined to find the person responsible and make them pay. A year after Mattie’s death West McCray, radio personality who focuses on small towns, receives a phone call from May Beth Foster, the girls’ surrogate grandmother. Sadie’s been missing for months and she’s hoping that he may be the one person out there who cares enough to look for her. As Sadie moves from one town to another, in search of her sister’s killer, she leaves behind a trail of blood and uncovered secrets. As a reader you’re drawn into Sadie’s story, her traumatic past and the rage that bubbles underneath every decision she makes. She’s never been an open person and Mattie has been her whole life since the day she was born. When their mother left them years ago, it was Sadie who picked up the pieces, but the girls’ relationship hasn’t always been easy, especially when they have such stark views of their mother. For Sadie, Claire Southern has never been the kind of mother she needed her to be. Her alcoholism, drug addiction, and compulsory need to always have a good-for-nothing man in her life, has made it impossible for Sadie to not resent her. But for Mattie, Claire was her mother and whatever flaws she might have had, she never questioned her mother’s love for her. Though Sadie and West’s timelines are separated by months, Summers has a way of writing that makes it feel like West is only two steps behind Sadie. So in the moments where Sadie is in real danger, you can’t help but hope West can be fast enough in his search to help her before it’s too late. Sadie is not a pleasant story, it’s incredibly violent and heartbreaking. It has a lot of triggering content, mostly due to with mentions of sexual abuse of children, but if you can handle the heavy-heartedness of the story, Summer’s has written a compulsory mystery that will leave you contemplating Sadie and her story long after you close the book.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: A Room Away From the Wolves
Author: Nova Ren Suma
Series: N/A
Pages: 315
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release Date: September 4th 2018

      “Bina has never forgotten the time she and her mother ran away from home. Her mother promised they would hitchhike to the city to escape Bina’s cruel father and start over. But before they could even leave town, Bina had a new stepfather and two new stepsisters, and a humming sense of betrayal pulling apart the bond with her mother—a bond Bina thought was unbreakable.
      Eight years later, after too many lies and with trouble on her heels, Bina finds herself on the side of the road again, the city of her dreams calling for her. She has an old suitcase, a fresh black eye, and a room waiting for her at Catherine House, a young women’s residence in Greenwich Village with a tragic history, a vow of confidentiality, and dark, magical secrets. There, Bina is drawn to her enigmatic downstairs neighbor Monet, a girl who is equal parts intriguing and dangerous. As Bina’s lease begins to run out, and nightmare and memory get tangled, she will be forced to face the terrible truth of why she’s come to Catherine House and what it will take for her to leave…”

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“I hear myself cry out and stand to take it, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. The girls have grown countless arms in the dark. The trees themselves have joined in. I can’t fight them off, can’t keep them away”

Nova Ren Suma is one of those authors whose books I go into thinking I’m going to enjoy them more than I actually do. I love how strange and eerie her stories are, but always find them more than a little confusing. A Room Away From the Wolves is beautifully written with an interesting protagonist at its center, but I found myself scratching my head more than once trying to figure out exactly what was going on. When Bina is basically thrown out of her own home, she goes to the only place that makes sense to her: Catherine House, where her mother once sought refuge. But almost immediately upon her arrival, she notices something strange about the place and the other young women who are renting rooms. Part ghost story and part mystery, A Room Away From the Wolves, like its protagonist, keeps its secrets close, revealing only a little at a time. Although I enjoyed the writing in this one, I’m still left with a lot of questions. Bina isn’t the most reliable narrator, but I was still hoping to get a full picture of what her life was like before she leaves her home. There are a few flashbacks, but I often felt that Nova Ren Suma was only giving us a few pieces of a puzzle and we as readers have to accept that we’ll never see the full picture. I did like how atmospheric this one was. There are a few creepy scenes that made me sit up in my seat, but I wanted a more complete understanding of who Bina was and wanted to know more about the mysteries of Catherine House.

Rating: 3/5

★★★

ARC Review: Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson

Title: Undead Girl Gang
Author: Lily Anderson
Series: N/A
Pages: 272
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: May 8th 2018
*I received a free copy of this book through Penguin’s First to Read program which does not influence my review*

      “Mila Flores and her best friend Riley have always been inseparable. There’s not much excitement in their small town of Cross Creek, so Mila and Riley make their own fun, devoting most of their time to Riley’s favorite activity: amateur witchcraft.
      So when Riley and two Fairmont Academy mean girls die under suspicious circumstances, Mila refuses to believe everyone’s explanation that her BFF was involved in a suicide pact. Instead, armed with a tube of lip gloss and an ancient grimoire, Mila does the unthinkable to uncover the truth: she brings the girls back to life.
      Unfortunately, Riley, June, and Dayton have no recollection of their murders, but they do have unfinished business to attend to. Now, with only seven days until the spell wears off and the girls return to their graves, Mila must wrangle the distracted group of undead teens and work fast to discover their murderer…before the killer strikes again.”

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In Undead Girl Gang, Lily Anderson takes four very different female characters and has them challenge one another, coalescing in an unlikely and bittersweet friendship. Mila Flores is used to being the outsider. She’s one of only two practicing Wiccan witches at her school and one of the few POC students in the very small and very white town of Cross Creek. Things couldn’t possibly get anymore isolating, that is until her best friend’s body is found in a creek. Everyone but Mila is convinced Riley died by suicide. Wracked by grief, Mila does the only thing that makes sense to her, she casts a spell to bring her dead best friend back. The spell doesn’t exactly go as planned and Mila suddenly finds herself the caregiver of not one, but three dead girls. When Mila discovers their deaths may all be linked, the four girls set off on a mission to solve their murders while also hiding their resurrection from the rest of town. Easier said than done.

One of my favorite aspects of this novel is how Anderson handles her female character. Mila, Riley, June, and Dayton are deeply flawed characters. Mila has never been the most friendly and she likes it that way. It’s a way to protect herself, but she doesn’t bother to make an effort even with people who could be her friend. Riley is in many ways selfish and needs to know she is more capable than her friend Mila. This becomes apparent when she comes back to life only to discover that Mila managed to work magic when she never could. June and Dayton can only be described as mean girls. They never missed on opportunity to make Mila and Riley feel like outsiders. Though Dayton is more clueless in her cruelty, this doesn’t excuse her. June’s sense of entitlement is without parallel, her wrath like no other. Despite these shortcomings, Anderson still manages to make these characters sympathetic. They are more than their ugly aspects and by the end of the novel, I felt the need to gather them all in my arms and protect them.

Solving these girls’ murders is easier said than done. Riley, June, and Dayton may have risen from their graves, but they aren’t exactly all intact. For one, if they are too far away from Mila, their rotting corpses become impossible to hide. For another, their memories are all a bit fuzzy. None of them remember what led to their deaths. I found myself guessing pretty early on who I believed was responsible and I’m actually happy to say that I was wrong. The reveal ended up being surprising and really impactful to me as a reader.

Undead Girl Gang is just as much a comedy as it is a mystery. Anderson once again shines with her wry humor, her characters feel real even when they’re dead, and the unabashed openness of her protagonist makes you root for Mila from beginning to end.

4/5

★★★★