The Shadows, by Jacqueline West, (Dial, 2010, middle grade, 235 pages).
Olive's new home is huge and old and neglected, filled to the brim with all the furniture, clothes, paintings, and miscellany of its previous owner. Her mathematician parents, living in their own world of number-fill fun, thinks its a perfect place (the library the size of a small ballroom was a definite selling point). But as eleven-year old Olive begins to explore, she finds that it is a house with secrets--dark ones--painted into the many pictures that are fixed immovably onto its walls. A house that came with remarkable cats who serve an agenda of their own--one they aren't telling Olive. A house with gravestones built into its basement walls.
When she realizes that the old glasses she found tucked away into a drawer actually let her enter the paintings, and met the painted people within them, Olive finds herself in the midst of a mystery that defies logic. Step by step she begins to unravel the dark secrets behind the paintings...but the cats aren't being as helpful as they might be (are they even on Olive's side?) and as Olive's understanding of her new home's secrets grows, so to does her understanding that she is in terrible danger from an evil force that she may unwittingly be bringing back from the dead.
This is an absolutely lovely read for the connoisseur of fantasy for the young. There's the wonderful setting--I'm a sucker for an old house stuffed chock full of Stuff. There's Olive, who's an ordinary child. Not a scrap of magical ability. Smart and self-reliant and very likable, but not so as to be Special. Not a Chosen One--just a kid stumbling into magic, and trying to figure it out--giving the sense that this story could happen to any of us. And Olive doesn't meet a boy whose older and smarter and braver, with whom romance in the future is a possibility. Instead she meets a boy who's younger and needier and not immediately appealing. Another ordinary (well, in character, at least) kid.
Then there's the story itself, with all the mysteries of the paintings for the reader to explore along with Olive. West's writing carries things along just swimmingly, with enough description to make things come alive in vivid detail without hindering the build-up of tension. I enjoyed it tremendously, and recommend it highly, and eagerly anticpate the next book (although, for those tired of series-es (serii?) this ends nicely and is self-contained). In essence, it's Return to Goneaway, by Elizabeth Enright (a great favorite of mine), with a fascinating dark fantasy element.
Age range: It's scary, but not graphically violent. No "YA" content. So just fine for fourth graders on up, including other grown-up lovers of mg fantasy.
Note on animals: although the cats are front and center (which pleases me, as I am on Team Cat, there is also a dog, who, if you like dogs, is a very nicely dog-like one).
Here's an interview with West at Daily Pie, and another blog review at Kids Lit.
(disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher at ALA Midwinter)