The Strangers, by Jacqueline West (Dial, 2013) is the fourth book about a girl named Olive who moved into a big old house that was home to an evil magic user. Among other unpleasant things, he trapped people he didn't like alive in the paintings still hanging on the walls of the house. The first three books saw Olive exploring the magic of the paintings, almost getting trapped in them herself, and trying to foil the scheme of the old man's grand-daughter Annabelle (herself a painted person) to return and reclaim the house and its magic. The line between foiling and failing, though, has proven to a very thin one indeed, and even with the help of the three cat guardians of the house on her side, Olive has made serious, scary mistakes.
And she is about to make more. Only this time, the stakes have been upped even higher--Olive's parents have been taken by the enemy. And the house has secrets (dark and scary ones) that Olive must face to bring them back....while trying to avoid bring Annabelle, or worse, the evil grandfather, back as well.
Here's my review of The Shadows, the first in the series, which won the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Sci fi/fantasy in 2010. I've been reading each new book eagerly--it is lovely to return to a series one knows one enjoys, especially when the books aren't 400 pages or so long (like having a cup of coffee with a friend vs having a friend over for the weekend; both are good, but sometimes one is better). I was confident that The Strangers would take about an hour and a half to read (check), that it would be good to see Olive and the cats again (check) and that there would be mysterious tense-ness, with the added enjoyment of exploring a few more of the magical paintings (check). So that was good.
Something that sets this series apart from most Middle Grade fantasies is that the magic is right there, filling the main character's house. In most domestic fantasies, there's maybe a magical item that grants wishes, or takes the kids on journeys, but here Olive is surrounded by enchantments in her own home, making it both sanctuary and locus of danger, which adds considerably to the tension.
I didn't expect the tense-ness to be so great that I wanted to start skimming, which I do when I get nervous because of bad things happening to characters I am empathizing with. Likewise when antiques get broken and books get burned by bad spirits (I hate reading about such things, and for those who share that mindset--it all gets restored to better than it was). In short, gripping, and the introduction of new characters and new twists that challenged Olive afresh made it interesting.
Jacqueline West has allowed Olive some forward momentum in her battle against evil magic, both externally (one adversary down) and internally (some growing up accomplished), but there is clearly still more to come. I am committed to finding out what happens next, so when Book 5 comes out, I'll take it out for a cup of coffee...