Tag Archives: Katherine Arden

Making Their Moves: A Review of Empty Smiles

Empty Smiles by Katherine Arden book cover. Image on cover shows a drawing of an evil running clown. Behind him are two children running away from him while carrying two blue balloons each. Title: Empty Smiles (Small Spaces #4)

Author: Katherine Arden

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Publication Date: August 9, 2022

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Mystery, Horror, Contemporary

Length: 256 pages

Source: I borrowed it from the library.

Rating: 3 Stars

Blurb:

New York Times bestselling author Katherine thrills once again in the finale to the critically acclaimed, spook-tacular quartet that began with Small Spaces.

It’s been three months since Ollie made a daring deal with the smiling man to save those she loved, and then vanished without a trace. The smiling man promised Coco, Brian and Phil, that they’d have a chance to save her, but as time goes by, they begin to worry that the smiling man has lied to them and Ollie is gone forever. But finally, a clue surfaces. A boy who went missing at a nearby traveling carnival appears at the town swimming hole, terrified and rambling. He tells anyone who’ll listen about the mysterious man who took him. How the man agreed to let him go on one condition: that he deliver a message. Play if you dare.

Game on! The smiling man has finally made his move. Now it’s Coco, Brian, and Phil’s turn to make theirs. And they know just where to start. The traveling carnival is coming to Evansburg.

Meanwhile, Ollie is trapped in the world behind the mist, learning the horrifying secrets of the smiling man’s carnival, trying everything to help her friends find her. Brian, Coco and Phil will risk everything to rescue Ollie—but they all soon realize this game is much more dangerous than the ones before. This time the smiling man is playing for keeps.

The summer nights are short, and Ollie, Coco, Brian, and Phil have only until sunrise to beat him once and for all—or it’s game over for everyone.

Review:

Content Warning: Scary clowns, kidnapping, a sprained ankle, and a little blood (think the amount that can be staunched by what you’d find in the typical home first aid kit. It wasn’t gory).

Summer carnivals are supposed to be cheerful places, so why is this one so scary?

The character development was handled nicely. Coco and Brian were reluctant to tell the adults in their lives what was really happening during their previous encounters with the smiling man even when they were in terrible danger. I’ll leave it up to other readers to discover all of the details of how they responded, but I was pleased to see how seriously they took their safety this time around. It’s always nice to read stories about people who grow and change as a result of their past experiences. We all make mistakes sometimes, but there is something to be said for folks learning from the past and trying to improve the way they react to scary unexpected things.

One of the biggest unanswered questions in this series has been the smiling man’s motivation for everything he’s done to Coco, Brian, Ollie, and the other people he has interacted with. I started reading with high hopes that he’d explain why he chose these particular people as his victims and what he wanted to accomplish. Without giving away more than the mildest of spoilers, I was disappointed with the vague answer that was provided here. After spending four books getting to know him and coming up with my own theories about why he behaved the way he did, I was really hoping for more closure. If only the author had made her intentions clearer in this area. Was it a reference to how people in real life also do terrible things sometimes without anyone ever figuring out why? Am I expecting too much from something written for kids? Despite this being branded as a quartet, is there secretly a prequel on the way that will explain his origins and desires? I can only hope that prequel idea will really happen!

I have always enjoyed reading about the friendships between these characters. Their bonds were strengthened in this book in all sorts of wonderful ways, some of which included fun callbacks to their earlier adventures. It made me smile to read about characters who genuinely liked each other and would do anything to help their friends. I saw glimpses of the teens and adults they may become someday in the way they behaved at their current ages.

This is the fourth instalment in the Small Spaces quartet. Be sure to read Small SpacesDead Voices, and Dark Waters first as there were many references to those tales that will only make sense to people who are caught up on everything.

Empty Smiles was deliciously spooky.

The Tumultuous Lake: A Review of Dark Waters

Dark Waters by Katherine Arden book cover .Image on cover shows a gigantic fish swimming up to the surface of a lake as boats peacefully float on top of the water. Title: Dark Waters

Author: Katherine Arden

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Publication Date: August 10, 2021

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Mystery, Paranormal, Horror, Contemporary

Length: 256 pages

Source: I borrowed it from my local library.

Rating: 3 Stars

Blurb:

An Indie Bestseller!

Filled with chills and spooks galore, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Arden’s latest installment in the creep-tastic Small Spaces Quartet is sure to haunt.

Until next time. That was chilling promise made to Ollie, Coco and Brian after they outsmarted the smiling man at Mount Hemlock Resort. And as the trio knows, the smiling man always keeps his promises. So when the lights flicker on and off at Brian’s family’s inn and a boom sounds at the door, there’s just one visitor it could be. Only, there’s no one there, just a cryptic note left outside signed simply as —S.

The smiling man loves his games and it seems a new one is afoot. But first, the three friends will have to survive a group trip to Lake Champlain where it’s said Vermont’s very own Loch Ness monster lives. When they’re left shipwrecked on an island haunted by a monster on both land and sea, Brian’s survival instincts kick in and it’s up to him to help everyone work together and find a way to escape.

One thing is for sure, the smiling man is back and he wants a rematch. And this time Brian is ready to play.

Review:

Content Warning: Snakes, shipwreck, snake bite, and death of a parent. I will not be discussing these things in my review.

It was only supposed to be a short boat tour, but anything can happen out on the water.

In my review of the second story in this series, I mentioned yearning to read one of these adventures from Brian’s perspective. It was exciting to crack open this one and realize my wish had been granted. Brian’s parents were more protective of their son in certain ways than could be said for Ollie or Coco, so it was interesting to see how he balanced his parents’ expectations that he would be a studious kid who socialized most often with his family with his own desire to spend so much of his free time with his two best friends. This tension between him and his parents went a long way in explaining some of his personality quirks that I’d noticed earlier in the series. It was wonderful to get to know him better.

The abrupt ending caught me by surprise. It happened exactly when the storyline picked up speed and had reached its most exciting portion. While I think I understand what the author was trying to do here and hope it does pay off in the final instalment, it was jarring as a reader to transition from an adrenaline-surging scene to turning a page and realizing this book had suddenly ended. I was disappointed by the lack of closure for the conflicts that the characters were dealing with.

With that being said, there was a minor conflict involving bullying from Small Spaces that was finally resolved here. It wasn’t something I was expecting to see the characters bring up again, so it was nice to watch them work it out and come to an agreeable conclusion. This did give me hope that the author will do the same thing for the many conflicts that were introduced here but left hanging at the end. I will be reading the fourth and final book with high hopes that it will earn a much higher rating from me than this one did.

This is the third instalment in the Small Spaces Quartet. Be sure to read Small Spaces and Dead Voices first as there were references to those tales here that will only make sense to people who have read this series in order.

Dark Waters was an exciting nautical adventure.

Be Careful: A Review of Dead Voices

Dead Voices by Katherine Arden book cover. Image on cover is a drawing of a car driving up to a ski lodge at night. One large cloud above the lodge looks like the ghostly face of a person. Title: Dead Voices

Author: Katherine Arden

Publisher: Puffin Books

Publication Date: June 30, 2020

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Mystery, Paranormal, Adventure, Horror, Contemporary

Length: 272 pages

Source: I borrowed it from the library.

Rating: 5 Stars

Blurb:

Having survived sinister scarecrows and the malevolent smiling man in Small Spaces, newly minted best friends Ollie, Coco, and Brian are ready to spend a relaxing winter break skiing together with their parents at Mount Hemlock Resort. But when a snowstorm sets in, causing the power to flicker out and the cold to creep closer and closer, the three are forced to settle for hot chocolate and board games by the fire.

Ollie, Coco, and Brian are determined to make the best of being snowed in, but odd things keep happening. Coco is convinced she has seen a ghost, and Ollie is having nightmares about frostbitten girls pleading for help. Then Mr. Voland, a mysterious ghost hunter, arrives in the midst of the storm to investigate the hauntings at Hemlock Lodge. Ollie, Coco, and Brian want to trust him, but Ollie’s watch, which once saved them from the smiling man, has a new cautionary message: BEWARE.

With Mr. Voland’s help, Ollie, Coco, and Brian reach out to the dead voices at Mount Hemlock. Maybe the ghosts need their help–or maybe not all ghosts can or should be trusted.

Dead Voices is a terrifying follow-up to Small Spaces with thrills and chills galore and the captive foreboding of a classic ghost story.

Review:

Content Warning: Orphanages and child abuse. I will be briefly referencing these topics in my review.

Not everyone is trustworthy.

Once again, the author played around with the audience’s expectations about how characters should behave. I can’t go into a lot of detail about this without giving away spoilers, but I was pleasantly surprised by how some of the plot twists revealed themselves once I realized that my assumptions about certain characters was completely off base. Some of them genuinely surprised me, and even the ones I saw coming were still a great deal of fun to observe as they fully unfolded and once again changed the courses of these characters’ lives. This was my second experience reading Ms. Arden’s work, and it was even better than my first. I can’t wait to see what else she’s written!

One of the biggest changes in the second instalment of this series was that both Ollie and Coco narrated it. That wasn’t something I was expecting to see happen, and it was wonderful to get to know Coco a little better. She was an intelligent and brave girl who went above and beyond all of my expectations of what it would be like to see the world from her perspective. Having two narrators was more than enough for this fast-paced adventure, but I’m hoping that Brian will have a chance to be a narrator later on in this series. While I totally understood why there wasn’t space for a third narrator here, he should have a chance to shine like his two best friends already have. My fingers are crossed that this will happen in for them.

I liked the way Ms. Arden approached the backstories of the ghosts these characters encountered, especially when it came to the orphaned girls who had been mistreated when they were alive and the Hemlock Lodge had operated as an orphanage. The plot didn’t dwell on their pasts, but it did share enough details about their lives and deaths to pique my interest. Given how quickly the storyline was moving, it made perfect sense to me for the narrators to learn the basics about the ghosts they were trying to help. Readers can always fill in the blanks for ourselves if we wish by making some educated guesses, although I was content to accept what we were told and move onto the action.

This is the second book in the Small Spaces Quartet. I strongly recommend reading Small Spaces first as the sequel assumes the reader remembers certain facts about the beginning of this series. Some key scenes in Dead Voices will only make sense if you’re already familiar with these characters and the world they live in.

Dead Voices was a delightfully spooky paranormal mystery.

You’d Better Run Faster – A Review of Small Spaces

Book cover for Small Spaces by Katherine Arden. Image on cover shows a silhouette of a scarecrow and a sign that says “Small Spaces” in front of a yellow school bus that’s parked at dusk. Title: Small Spaces

Author: Katherine Arden

Publisher:  Puffin Books

Publication Date: July 9, 2019

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Paranormal, Mystery, Horror, Contemporary

Length: 256 pages

Source: I borrowed it from the library.

Rating: 4 Stars

Blurb:

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie who only finds solace in books discovers a chilling ghost story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man”—a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.
     Captivated by the tale, Ollie begins to wonder if the smiling man might be real when she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about on a school trip to a nearby farm. Then, later, when her school bus breaks down on the ride home, the strange bus driver tells Ollie and her classmates: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.
     Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed these warnings. As the trio head out into the woods—bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them—the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.”
     And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

Review:

Content Warning: Bullying, grief, depression, and death of a parent. I will briefly mention mental health and the death of a parent in my review.

It’s never too late to try again.

One of my favourite things about this tale was how it played around with certain stereotypes about gender roles and race. All of the characters were well-rounded people whose interests were not necessarily constrained by what others assumed someone of their sex or race would be into. Even characters who seemed to fit the mould at first glance were filled with wonderful surprises once I got to know them better. What made this even better was how natural it felt for them and their storylines. They simply were who they were without pretence. That’s exactly the sort of stuff I want to read about!

I would have liked to see more attention paid to the ending. The author was working with so many different plot points that she unfortunately didn’t seem to have quite enough time to wrap everything up satisfactorily for this reader. I know this is the beginning of a series, so I’m hoping that the sequels will dive much more deeply into the sudden death of Ollie’s mother and how Ollie’s mental health has fared since that tragedy. Her grief was explored thoroughly. If everything else had been given the same treatment, I would have gone with a five star rating as I deeply enjoyed it in general.

The storyline was filled with twists and turns that made me smile. I especially appreciated how the author included the horror genre without making anything gory or gross. The mere thought of being chased by scarecrows for reasons still unknown to the audience until much later in the plot was enough to make me shudder! This is the sort of psychological horror I’m irresistibly drawn to,  and it’s a fantastic introduction to the genre for anyone who might not have given it a try before.

Small Spaces was a delightfully spooky book to read on a dark, chilly night.