The Devil's Ladder by Graham Joyce

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The Devil's Ladder by Graham Joyce

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Category: Teens
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Stefan Bachmann
Reviewed by Stefan Bachmann
Summary: A creepy supernatural mystery that feels underdeveloped in several ways. It's still great fun, though, thanks to its realistic teen characters.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Faber Children's Books
ISBN: 978-0571242474

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Sophie and James are not really alike at all. She goes to public school, he goes to a private one. She has friends, he doesn't... But when they both start having ghostly visions, see messages that no one else can see, and are stalked by a shadowy apparition with cat-eyes, they waste no time in getting over their differences. Something is trying to get through to them, but what it is and what it wants neither of them know.

And then there are the real-life consequences: Sophie's circle of friends begin to avoid her for hanging with Geek-boy, and her parents start getting suspicious. It doesn't help that James seems to be harboring his own dark secrets...

Best about The Devil's Ladder are its characters. They're all three-dimensional, realistic people. And when I say 'realistic' I don't mean it the way adults usually mean it when they find something sufficiently awful-sounding. I mean average normal-life realistic. I could completely identify with many of the things that happened to them, and how they reacted. Like having one's cell-phone ring in the middle of class, in a school where cell phones are strictly prohibited. (Oh, the mortification...) Or parents who try to help with Algebra homework and just make everything more complicated.

The second best are the scary moments. Even at first, when all Sophie sees are faint shapes - a grey hand on someone's shoulder, a blue light coming through a door - it's written so well that you can't help but shiver. And then when things really get going, and the main baddie comes into play, as well as an abandoned house and some sinister clues, it's literally edge-of-your-seat. Very freaky stuff.

The book has several problems, though, that keep it from being a square four-star read. Some are purely cosmetic. The cover makes it look like one of those generic haunted-house serials for fourth-graders that you can buy at supermarkets. And the title doesn't make any sense. As far as I could tell, there was absolutely no connection between it and the rest of the book. Proofreading errors abound (such as 'completelyvmad' on p.19) as do some very annoying attention-lapses in the plot. For instance: on two occasions does a seriously creepy door-to-door salesman visit Sophie's house in the middle of the night. The first visit is given the vaguest of excuses for happening at all. The second time there's nothing, no explanation, and it's never mentioned again.

In fact, I think there could have been a bit more explaining going on all the way through. It's a character-driven mystery, after all, not really an action story, so a few more lines of exposition here and there would definitely not have hampered the pacing.

Not that the author is very particular about his pacing anyway; intriguing things are rushed-over, while boring scenes like a recurring judo class are pointlessly dragged out. The climax of the book happened so fast it was surreal. It definitely didn't contain the stunning twist I was hoping for. Actually, I think it brought up more questions than it answered.

So in a nutshell, The Devil's Ladder is a good book, but with a thorough edit most of its problems could have been done away with and it could have been quite an excellent one.

Thanks, Faber, for sending Bookbag a copy!

Further reading suggestion: Ladder reminded me somewhat of the The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan. It's a fairly standard, Twilight-ish teen fantasy, but like Ladder, it has the benefit of strong characters and a genuine sense of humour. And its title doesn't make any sense either.

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