From Publishers Weekly
In most ghost stories, a house is haunted, or perhaps an object, the echoes of past tragedies captured in musty rooms or a threadbare doll. In Bell's intense if uneven debut novel, however, the haunting occupies not so much a physical space as the broken bonds between fathers and sons.Thirteen-year-old Michael Kimmel's family is wealthy, but hardly comfortable, and in many senses undernourished. Facing an upcoming ballet recital, his older sister, Julia, is too nervous to eat—fearing that her daughter is anorexic, their mother stops eating in turn. Their overworked father thrives on protein shakes, perfectionism and canceling the family vacations at the last minute. Michael retreats from all this stress into the rule-governed chaos of video games.Then one night Michael's father comes home with cracks in his armor: My dad is someone who is never late, who is never wrong, who is never sad. But just then, he looked like he was maybe all three. Michael's grandfather is dead.The family's reaction is strangely muted. Michael hasn't seen his grandfather for years, since a break between father and son that he's too young to remember. But as in any ghost story, the past isn't dead. Soon the grandfather's spirit is haunting Michael, drawing him into a demimonde of the restless dead, where family history (and family secrets) are revealed.Being haunted is not healthy. Michael returns from these slips shaken and half-frozen. Without meaning to, his grandfather is sucking the life out of him.Ghosts, of course, always want something—the trick is finding out what. Ghost stories are puzzles, games played to uncover a hidden past. So it feels both inventive and logical when Michael approaches his haunting like a new video game.He collects an assortment of allies: his former best friend, his big sister, a bully, a paranormal geek and a professional psychic. He learns the rules of the afterlife, and braves deeper levels of his grandfather's memories. Ultimately, Michael discovers the roots of his unhappy relationship with his own father, and the truth of what the ghost is looking for.Bell's spare prose evokes a tightly wound family, and elegantly renders the world from Michael's gloomy, nescient point of view. But the book's paranormal set pieces often feel muddled—the mechanics and geography of the demimonde don't become clearer as the game is played. (There's a River of the Dead, and tunnels under the river, I think.) But the story succeeds in that its paranormal dynamics echo the real world's. Breaks between father and son, parent and child, do play out in the next generation. Families really are haunted by the past, in a way that houses are not.Scott Westerfeld is the author of the Uglies, Midnighters and Peeps series. His next book is Bogus to Bubbly, an Insider's Guide to the World of Uglies (Simon Pulse, Oct.).
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