Book Review : Small Spaces

Book Review : Small SpacesSmall Spaces (Small Spaces, #1) by Katherine Arden
on September 25th 2018
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New York Times bestselling adult author of The Bear and the Nightingale makes her middle grade debut with a creepy, spellbinding ghost story destined to become a classic
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."
And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

As it’s October, I really wanted to read some more spooky books, whether they were actually scary or just in the spirit of Halloween. I knew it was going to be hard to follow up to The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, so I figured that Katherine Arden, the author of one of my favorites, The Bear and the Nightingale, would be a safe bet. And despite being for middle grade readers, I was quickly ensnared by the creepy tale being spun in Small Spaces. 


Young Olivia, known as Ollie, lives in a small rural town, where everyone knows everyone. After the death of her mother, Ollie finds comfort and solace in the form of books. An incredibly young girl, she reads during class and still manages to answer the teachers correctly. One day, Ollie manages to take enough interest in her classmates to intervene when someone is being bullied. She throws a rock at the bully’s head and flees the scene on her bike, only to encounter a hysterical woman trying to throw a mysterious book into a creek. Horrified that anyone would try to destroy a precious book, Ollie steals it from the crying woman, and speeds home to devour it. 


“Ollie was nearly within arm’s reach now. The woman smelled sour—frightened. Ollie, completely bewildered, decided to ignore the stranger elements of the conversation. Later, she would wish she hadn’t. ‘If you don’t want that book, I’ll take it,’  said Ollie. ‘I like books.’”


Very early on, Ollie realizes that there is more to this book, titled Small Spaces than meets the eye. In fact, she soon comes to realize that the disappearances and deaths in the book line up with some very real events of town history. And not only that, but that the past is coming back to haunt them all once more, placing her and all of her classmates in the crossfire of the fiendish Smiling Man of the book. 


Small Spaces is a very fast-paced and quick read. Though it’s not scary for an adult reader, it could make younger audiences afraid. I definitely did find it creepy as an adult—author Arden excels at atmospheric story telling and Small Spaces is no exception with its rising fogs and rustling corn fields. I was invested enough to find out what forces were at play to read the book in one sitting. Through the worst of the supernatural happenings, Ollie manages to keep her head on her shoulders, even when confronted with the choice to have what she wants most in the world, which is something I really admire. 


I also loved that Small Spaces shows, and not tells, everything. There is absolutely no information dumping. The tragic events of the past are shown in flashbacks through the book Ollie is reading. And it’s only through the way other people treat Ollie and ask if she needs time to herself or if she is ready to rejoin the chess club, etc., etc., that the audience is able to put together that Ollie’s mother has recently passed. This is truly story-telling and set up at its finest. 


“So yes, there is always a ghost story. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Wherever you go in this big, gorgeous, hideous world, there is a ghost story waiting for you.”


This type of framework makes it really easy to feel sympathy for Ollie, who would rather disappear in her book than talk to the student sitting next to her on the bus. It’s a poignant look at grief as well. And it’s easy to feel a sense of victory when Ollie emerges from the events of Small Spaces unscathed and is able to gain a newfound support system and some confidence in herself without her mother by her side. 


Small Spaces is an eerie and fun read perfect for young readers who like strong female characters and spooky stories. It’s also great for adults who want to read something light and fun in time for the Halloween season. I enjoyed it so much that I picked up the second book in the series to read.


Book Review : Small Spaces - Blogging with Dragons

Posted October 26, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Mystery, Thrillers, and Horror

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