The Dollhouse Murders


The Dollhouse Murders
Betty Ren Wright
Re-published by Holiday House, 2012 (the edition I read)
Originally published by Scholastic, 1985

There’s always a certain amount of danger when reading a book that you are nostalgic about. Is it worth that risk that it might not live up your memories? And if it doesn’t, can you in good conscience continue to promote it as a personal favorite, one that others should read? The Dollhouse Murders is one of those books that I have very distinct memories of reading and being terrified and thrilled by it. It and Babysitters Club book #2 Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls pretty much made me the horror/suspense fan I am today. So when I was asked to give the name of my favorite children’s or YA horror book and this choice would be made very public, I decided to reread The Dollhouse Murders to see if it held up to my memories and if I were willing to declare it my favorite, as I definitely would have at age 8 or so.

In The Dollhouse Murders, after her developmentally delayed sister ruins an afternoon at the mall, Amy runs away to her aunt’s house and ends up striking a deal to stay with Aunt Clare in the house where Amy’s great grandparents lived and raised Aunt Clare and Amy’s father. Amy discovers a dollhouse in the attic that is an exact replica of the house, complete with two adult dolls and a boy and a girl doll to represent the family. Amy is delighted at first but when she notices that the dolls are moving by themselves, the lights in the dollhouse are turning themselves on and off, she becomes scared, naturally. It becomes even more terrifying when she learns that her great grandparents were murdered in the house and the dolls seem to be recreating the crime scene. The murderer was never caught. Could the dollhouse be trying to tell Amy something? Sharing some information to solve the mystery of the murder? Yep, pretty much.

This book is a perfect example of how middle-grade horror should be. It has a few suspenseful scenes, a high creep factor with the old house, the attic, and the dolls, but the characters are never in any real danger. While it talks about murder, there is no gore or violence; that all happens in the past and is only hinted at. And while the murders seem like the main story, The Dollhouse Murders is much more about family relationships, the secrets we keep, and the uncertainties of making and keeping friends as a tween. I was surprised by how much I still liked it, despite a pretty safe, anti-climactic ending.

One last thing about Amy’s sister LouAnn. She is developmentally delayed, and aside from the use of the word “retarded” one time in the book (it was written in the ’80s after all, though they should have fixed it in the 2012 edition), LouAnn is written with great respect by the author, I felt. She is key in solving the mystery and her relationship with Amy, while strained, grows throughout the story. A fully abled little sister would have sufficed but Wright chose to write her as disabled but not helpless. While diverse writing has come a long way since 1985, I really appreciated the inclusiveness of LouAnn’s character.

I didn’t end up naming The Dollhouse Murders as my favorite children’s horror book. Instead I opted for The Witches by Roald Dahl, which is pretty much my all-time favorite children’s book that also just happens to be horror.

Fun fact: there was a made-for-TV movie based on The Dollhouse Murders in 1992.

Read alikes/some other middle grade horror-mystery-suspense I read as a ’90s kid

The Face on the Milk Carton by Lois Duncan
Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
All the old Nancy Drew books with the yellow covers by Carolyn Keene
The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine


The Inn Between


The Inn Between
Marina Cohen
Roaring Brook Press
March 2016
Advanced Reader Copy courtesy of NetGalley

Quinn and Kara are best friends who have been through a lot together but now Kara’s family is moving a thousand miles away. Quinn is making the drive with Kara and Kara’s parents and brother from Colorado to California as a kind of extended goodbye when they stop for the night in an off-the-beaten-path hotel, the Inn Between. The hotel is a beautiful old Victorian mansion that seems bigger on the inside and has an overly cheerful staff and no phone line to the outside. After their first night at the Inn Between strange things start to happen – Kara’s parents disappear, Quinn thinks she hears and sees her little sister, Quinn nearly drowns in the hotel swimming pool, and on and on. Things get downright scary when Quinn and Kara accidentally take the elevator to the basement. What is really going on at the Inn Between? This young middle grade book has just enough creeps and suspense to satisfy young mystery fans but at its heart is a story about friendship and knowing when to let go. Pitch-perfect pacing, tight storytelling, and a few twists and turns make The Inn Between an addicting, cover-to-cover-in-one-afternoon kind of read.

Read Alikes

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire LeGrand

Lore Podcast

I love Halloween, but this year I am living abroad and completely missed out on the holiday. I spent the night of October 31st on a 4-hour bus ride through rural Israel suffering from debilitating motion sickness with nothing but pitch black out the windows. The only thing that saved my Halloween and my sanity on that bus was the Lore podcast that I had loaded on my iPod a few days before. Lore – produced, researched, recorded, basically everything by writer Aaron Mahnke – explores the true stories behind the urban legends, creepy stories, myths, and the unexplained. Each episode is 20-30 minutes long. I easily breezed through 6 or 7 of them that night and finished catching up on the rest the following week. I am totally hooked.

Lore has 21 episodes out right now – available on iTunes or the Lore website. The storytelling is superb and the topics so far offer a good variety of topics. Some of the episodes may be things you already know about; for example, if you’ve read Devil in the White City, you can probably skip episode 8, “The Castle.” Other episodes are pretty obscure, like episode 4, “Dinner at the Afterglow.” The one that stuck with me the most was episode 7, “In the Woods,” both because it takes place in Massachusetts where I live most of the time (Aaron lives there too so several of the episodes are based in the Northeast) and because there is one creepy story about a guy and his dog getting beckoned into the woods by some kind of creature and it just really got to me. The episode about the doll – “Unboxed” – was also quite good, and I’ve seen the story of Robert the doll show up on other websites recently after listening to the episode.

Aaron has a form on the Lore website where you can suggest topics for future shows. If any of you horror buffs out there want to find out what is behind your favorite legends, drop him a line.

Read alikes:

Weird U.S. series by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman (they also have a website)
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz, terrifyingly illustrated by Stephen Gammell

NaNoReadMo: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls


The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls
Claire LeGrand
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
August 2012

Victoria is perfect and particular, which has lead her to have only one friend in the whole world, Lawrence. When, like a handful of other kids in the neighborhood, Lawrence suddenly goes missing, Victoria must get to the bottom of it. She becomes suspicious of the Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, an ominous and mysterious school nearby and takes it upon herself to investigate. The horrors she finds there are beyond what she could have dreamed up and she finds that she’ll not only have to save her friend but also herself.

I have a serious love of children’s horror novels, and Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is near the top of that list. As far as horror goes, this is one of the most messed up children’s books I have had the pleasure to read. The things that happen in that school, while still being totally middle-grade appropriate, are gross, disturbing, and actually scary. Even as an adult, this book took me back to how I felt when I read The Dollhouse Murders as a kid, which is the litmus test against which I hold every other children’s horror book. Claire LeGrand also hits on so many good horror tropes – creepy houses, confined spaces, killer plants, mystery meat, insects! I could go on but I’ve already said too much.

The illustrations and book design rock to boot.

Read alikes:

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

forest of hands and teeth

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Carrie Ryan
Delacorte Books for Young Readers
March 2009

Mary and her neighbors live a simple, quiet life in a fenced-in village, not by choice but because of the zombie hoard – known as the Unconsecrated – that constantly attempt to bring down the walls and infect or eat the villagers. The village is guided and protected by the Sisterhood, a group of cruel, nun-like religious leaders, and the Guardians, men who repair and defend the fence. When Mary is passed over for marriage, she is forced to join the Sisterhood and discovers a dark secret. Before she can expose them or investigate more, the Unconsecrated breech the village walls, causing Mary, her two competing love interests, her best friend, her brother, her sister-in-law, a random kid, and a dog go on the run in a series of mysterious trails leading out of the village. Based on stories passed down through Mary’s family, she has always hoped for a life outside of the village, specifically to visit the ocean, which she isn’t even sure exists. This is the perfect chance to chase her dreams of the ocean, but what will she find outside the village walls? And can she and her posse outrun the Unconsecrated or will they become one of them?

This books was so disappointing, especially since it has taken me years to get around to reading it. It starts out so strong with the intrigue of the Sisterhood, the tension of Mary’s divided love between to two brothers, her own brother’s wavering loyalty to her. I could have read an entire book about the evil (or are they?) Sisterhood and been happy. However, the zombies invade before much of anything can be resolved or even brought to its greatest tension and the rest of the book – about 2/3 of the book – is this weird limbo of Mary and, conveniently, all her remaining friends and family on the run, trying to figure out what Roman numerals are. Seriously, that’s the big mystery – Roman numerals.

Mary is the most unlikable character I’ve read in a long time. She’s self-centered and whiny with bursts of bravery that only seem to get other people killed. She also conveniently is prevented from being infected more times than can be believed. And her reaction to what happens at the end of the book – which I won’t tell you in case you actually still want to read this book after this review – is so completely unbelievable, so utterly anticlimactic, that I wanted my 2 days of reading time back.

Part of me wants to read the sequels just because there has to be some explanation for why this book is the way it is. Maybe I should trust the author enough to have a grand plan that will have a huge payoff later on. But then again, there are way too many good books in the world. I’m moving on.

If you want to save some time, they are making a Forest of Hands and Teeth movie. I hope it doesn’t mostly consist of Maisie Williams, who has been cast as Mary, running, staring at Roman numerals, and pining over boys.

If you want to read a better zombie book:

Ashes by Ilsa Bick



Ronald L. Smith
Clarion Books
September 2015

Orphan Hoodoo Hatcher is named after the folk magic that everyone in his family can do except for him, but he had better figure out how to conjure quickly when a dark character called the Stranger comes to town looking for him. While the Stranger starts out as a sinister guy hanging around town, it comes to light that he has connections to Hoodoo’s dead father and wants Hoodoo to fulfill a debt his father left unpaid. Hoodoo gets help and support from a varied cast of characters – from the grandmother who raised him to a carnival mystic to his best friend and crush Bunny. It all culminates in a very creepy showdown that leaves Hoodoo the master of his own fate. Narrated in the first person by Hoodoo, his sayings and asides (“…if you don’t know”) are endearing but get to be repetitive in some instances. Hoodoo and nearly every character in the book are black and live in Jim Crow South, so the book addresses some of the segregation they experience. The religious and occult references and the dark and swampy setting create an atmosphere that you can almost feel as you read. This Southern Gothic is guaranteed to give you the creeps.

I love a good, scary children’s book and Hoodoo delivers. The Stranger reminded me of many other horror villains; that old man from the movie Poltergeist 2 and the devil personified in one of my favorite Stephen King stories “The Man in the Black Suit,” found in the collection Everything’s Eventual. It may be really scary stuff for more sensitive kids, but it is solidly middle grade in writing and even in creep factor. Hoodoo’s voice, with his know-it-all asides and Southern sensibilities, brings to mind Mo’s voice in Three Times Lucky. Despite all the parallels I draw between the characters in Hoodoo and other books, I haven’t read any other book for kids quite like Hoodoo. Southern Gothic children’s books are few and far between, and this is a good one.

Hoodoo read-alikes:
The Night Gardner by Jonathan Auxier
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage