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Oranges smell like oranges at the grocery store. I brought a few home and la la la they actually taste like oranges, too. Same for grapefruits. When not feasting on citrus, I’ve been watching my little nieces here and there while my sister and her hubby go house hunting. Or I should say they’ve been watching me. Funny, I don’t remember calling the shots at age 4 or 7. They want pumpkin chocolate bread for dinner, we have pumpkin chocolate bread for dinner. They want to watch Freddy Versus Jason, AGAIN, we turn off all the lights and sort of enjoy the mashup until a real horror catches my eye.

During the movie, I found a baby snake around a door hinge – maybe 6 inches long and fast. Pretty sure it wasn’t poisonous, but not positive, I had to catch it and my squealing audience concurred. No bravery here. This was me scrambling and falling after what was probably a completely harmless little baby snake. Finally it’s in a plastic bag so I gathered up the girls and together we took a late night stroll to the creek to release it. The adrenaline from our little adventure kept them up and juuust when they were finally quieting down, a giant black spider comes hopping out from under the couch. These are harmless, I think, but they’re huge and they jump straight up, making them really hard to catch. Plus the girls name spiders on site so killing, however accidental, is frowned upon. I’m just glad there weren’t any bats this time.

There once was a time when babysitting duty equaled lots of reading time for me. That was when kids slept and now they don’t do that. The train ride back remains a favorite reading place. Katie Alender’s Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall was a perfect train choice, a ghost story that moves along at its own pace. It’s a ya book so fairly tame, but I liked it.

dead girls

The beginning reads like a movie we’ve all seen before: After inheriting her great aunt’s home, 16-year-old Delia and her family head off to spend the summer fixing the place up so they can sell it. Cell phone service disappears as they get closer. A clerk at the convenience store in town refers to the house as Hysteria Hall and hints that the mysterious aunt died under strange circumstances. The reader settles in for a haunting tale.

Not many 16 year olds are given their own house let alone a sprawling former institute for treating the mentally ill, as in troubled girls. The plan is to stay in the aunt’s apartment, roll up their sleeves and get to work. But then Delia dies so plans change and the story is freed from many ghost story conventions.

What I liked most about this book is Delia’s perspective as a ghost. There’s no chance she can be saved or brought back. The plot, usually delivered as a stack of bricks, liquefies. We experience Delia’s afterlife and meet the many other ghosts, all girls, many considered “troubled” because they refused to marry as their families wanted them to.

Time is fluid for the dead. It slows – a minute for the living progresses in slow motion over hours for Delia – and it speeds – Delia naps for six months and wakes up in snow. The nice thing about this device is that we readers get to fast forward through the dull parts easily filled in with the imagination – police investigation, boredom of being dead.

Like all of the other dead girls, Delia is trapped on the property. Unlike them, she can at least leave the house and roam the grounds. On one hand, getting out of the house was a nice change of scenery. On the other, I think it would’ve been more powerful if the reader felt the claustrophobia of being trapped in a house, potentially for eternity, with girls far more troubled in death than they were in life.

Naturally Delia wants out so she can go to her family, but she’s got to learn the ropes if she’s going to figure a way out. Some of the girls teach Delia cool tricks like moving objects, disappearing and stepping through walls. They advise her to keep away from certain areas as there’s a darkness even the ghosts fear. She’s making progress when her mom and little sister show up four years after her death. They’re in danger and the only way Delia can protect them is to scare them away for good.

One pet peeve: YA books have a number of overused constructs long past retirement. The worst offenders, or at least the ones I notice, are in the paranormal department – “panic pulsed through me” “dread coursed through my body” “fear ran up my spine”. After the third iteration here I got a little twitchy. Out, damned construct! out, I say!

There are many things to like about this book. It’s not a scary story, but in the ghost’s shoes you can appreciate the full horror of being left behind, trapped in one place, while everyone she loves withers and dies. There a few quiet pauses in which we get a rest from the story and spend a few moments ice skating with a boy from another time. The stakes remain high even once Delia’s dead – she still has her soul to lose and then her family returns and she is either going to save them or they’re going to die, too.

Overall, this book is very well crafted and fun to read.