Title: Small Spaces |Author: Katherine Arden |Publisher: Puffin Books | Series: Small Spaces #1 | 218 pages
The second book I read with my book club! I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun spitballing about the plot of a book than with this one.
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.”
Small Spaces is a spooky Middlegrade book that surprised me in many ways. First of all – and be prepared for me to mention that a lot in this review – I marvel at the fact how atmospheric this book is. Be it the whole air of fall, the droning in the classroom setting, the gripping setting of the book “Small Spaces”, the farm, the woods – everything seemed so real and to practically seep off the pages. It was glorious.
The story is told from the perspective of Ollie, a eleven-year-old that lives in a small town in Vermont. She just suffered a loss which made her stubborn and lonely and angry. In a way I still cannot tell if I actually liked Ollie or not. It is clear that she is still griefing and that the tragedy has shaken her in her core. But she also sometimes acts like a brat and is mean to other people and it’s okay, because she just suffered a tremendous loss. I understood and could relate to her so much but still I wished she would try a little harder. So I was glad that she finally made some friends and thawed up a little. (At this part, I think it was the grown-ups that let me down the most. I definitely think that Ollie should have benefitted from some counselling but it seems like everybody was threading on eggshells around her and let her have her way – understandible in a way, sure – but I don’t think that helped her much.)
Her new friends, Coco and Brian, were interesting characters. I just wish we knew more about them. It’s one of the reasons why I really look forward to the next installments of this series because I’m just so curious about those two. In a way, while Ollie was brave and saved the day in the end, I still feel like Coco, clumsy, a little annoying Coco, was the one who made the most difference in the story. Without them they definitely would have been lost.
Brian stayed a little bland. There was definitely too little info about him, not that much that he did do. I hope his role will be expanded in the future.
The plot in itself was interesting and creepy. I liked the thrill of it all, the urgency, the mystery. It was great fun to discuss what might happen in the bookclub chat and to ponder about hidden symbolism. (Most of my theories didn’t come true, unfortunately, but it was still fun.) I liked how it all played out, the book, the farm, the woods. I cannot tell too much of it because of spoilers but I liked where the plot led me.
Sometimes there were bits that made me question some things or that I would have wish would have been more elaborated. There were times I felt like I was looking at a picture where parts had been erased out which left me with a weird feeling. It wasn’t something you needed to follow the story, just bits and pieces that made me wonder.
All in all, I felt Small Spaces was engaging and gripping and thrilling. I loved the spookiness and eerieness of it all. The plot was creepy too and I have to highlight the wonderful atmosphere of this book again. I was positively delighted when I found out that there will be four books – one for every season – in this series and for me the other books cannot be released fast enough.