Ollie loves to read books, so much so that when she sees someone about to throw one into a nearby creek, she does what she thinks it right and steals it. Reading the book leads Ollie into the world of the Smiling Man and his deals–but can Ollie and her classmates survive?
Why this book?: I heard about it through a booktube channel (Chelseadolling Reads, I think?), and it sounded like something I’d love. I was a bit iffy, because I wasn’t a fan of Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, but I was willing to give her a second chance for some MG spooks.
I really went into this book blind, and I have to admit that I’m happy I did. All I knew about this book was what the cover showed: a scarecrow type person on the cover in the shadows, sneaking a look at a bus. I didn’t immediately see the farm in the background, or all of the scarecrows in the field behind the bus. I figured it would be similar to all the MG spooky books I’ve enjoyed: a malevolent spirit focuses on the protagonist, and the protagonist miraculously is able to beat the spirit out of ingenuity rather than brute force. And while Small Spaces did fall into those stereotypes that I know so well, it was also different.
Ollie’s mother died before the book begins (not a spoiler, it’s talked about nearly right away), and this event influences a lot of her behavior and actions in the book. Arden expertly builds up the relationship that Ollie had with her mother and father (who is still present) with flashbacks and left behind knicknacks that appear in the novel. Understanding these relationships not only helps you better understand the main character, but also a lot of the novel’s plot. You understood why Ollie saw things this way, or reacted this way to events, and I loved the complexity of her character. Despite this, other characters weren’t so well built up. You got to know the other two characters from Ollie’s point of view, of which were mostly negative, so it was hard to bring myself to like them when Arden spent the first three quarters of the book trashing these two kids.
When I think back to the plot, I keep thinking that something was never finished, something was missing, and I still don’t know what it was. It was really frustrating, because events happened but there was really no explanation. There kind of is, at the very end, but it just felt too convenient, too easy. It explained how Ollie got the book that started it all (not a spoiler) but it really didn’t say why Ollie, why her class, why these people thought this was okay to do. There was just the right amount of non-information, that Arden seemed to get away with an underdeveloped ending.
Arden’s writing and world building has definitely calmed down and has been refined since I read The Bear and the Nightingale. I was overwhelmed and bored with Arden’s development in TBATN, and could barely focus on the story because Arden was spending so much time on the background and worldbuilding. In Small Spaces you’re able to focus more on the current events and what’s happening rather than the background and development. Arden’s writing was much less dense, more suited to a MG novel.
Final Rating: ★★★★☆
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Arden’s writing was drastically improved since TBATN. And I got to experience this improvement in a fun and entertaining MG novel with a spooky story to go along with it. Despite my difficulties with some of the characters and the plot, I still enjoyed this book so much to the extent that I want Arden to write more books like these.
Would I Recommend?
Yes! Especially if, like me, you really enjoy MG spooky novels. I don’t know if I would say lovers of Arden’s TBATN, mainly because I really didn’t like it and I really enjoyed this one.
Published: September 25th, 2018
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Page Count: 218
Genre: Middle Grade/Horror/Fantasy
Synopsis: via Goodreads
Bestselling adult author of The Bear and the Nightingale makes her middle grade debut with a creepy, spellbinding ghost story destined to become a classic
After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think–she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both 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.
Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “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, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.
Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver’s warning. 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.
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