The Phantom Isles -- Stephen Alter

The Phantom Isles features a smart, open-minded librarian.  It also features a book burner who believes that people should only read books with happy endings, dresses like a '50s housewife and eventually gets her comeuppance. 

The Phantom IslesAnd it has ghosts.

You'd think I would have liked it more.

One night, Ming, Orion and Courtney break into their local library to take a closer look at a book called The Compleat Necromancer.  (They had to break in because the book doesn't circulate and the spell Ming found two days earlier had to be read at midnight.*)  They chant the spell, but nothing happens... or so they think. 

The next day, the librarian finds a book out of place, opens it, and discovers a ghost trapped within the pages.  The same thing happens to Courtney, but different book, different ghost.  Soon, the kids and the librarian join forces to try and set the ghosts free -- not to mention figure out how they were trapped in the first place.

You aren't going to believe me when I say this, but up until three-quarters of the way through, The Phantom Isles was a snooze.  There were bright spots and clever bits, and the concept is a neat one, but I never felt totally engaged and I never grew attached to any of the characters**.  Also, it felt choppy.

[Much later:  Okay.  You know how on Buffy, the Scooby Gang always did lots of research?  Well, in this book the kids do the research, but you, as the reader, do it along with them.  Complete with footnotes that are not fun.  I don't think it worked, just like it wouldn't have worked on Buffy -- it would have been boring, because the viewer isn't in Mortal Peril.  Giles and Willow aside, none of those characters would have done that research for FUN.  They did it because they HAD to.  Which, to be fair, goes for the characters in The Phantom Isles.

What I, as the viewer, liked in the Buffy scenes was the interaction between characters -- and through the interaction between the characters, I both grew more attached to them AND got the necessary info to follow the story.  But there wasn't all that much interaction between the characters in the book, and like I said before, I never really grew to care about them.  So I felt like the sections on the history of the Isles were just... dry.  I'm not a Giles or a Willow, and there was no reason for me to care, so I didn't.

I'm not explaining this very well.  I'll try later when I'm more awake.]

I did love the illustrations -- there were only a few, but they were very effective.  At crucial points in the story, there are gray-toned illustrations of faces behind the text.  They're pretty creepy.

Might work for some bright, hardcore young readers, especially those interested in history, geography, other cultures (even pretend ones) and science.

*Yes, I also wondered why no one thought to copy the page and then have a sleepover, but whatever.

**My test for this is to imagine something awful happening to one of the characters.  If the idea doesn't bother me, I clearly don't care.