by Eva Ibbotson
"Why some people become ghosts and others don't is a mystery that no one has ever solved." Ain't that the truth! But from the beginning of this tale, there is no mystery about it: you're in for a weird, funny, spooky adventure full of lighthearted fantasy, dark humor, and a thrilling battle between creepy-crawlies and a true villain.
The Wilkinsons were an average British family-- Mum, Dad, Grandma, and angst-filled teen Eric, and their pet budgie-- until a German bomb came down and turned them all into ghosts. For some unknown reason, Mrs. Wilkinson's sister Trixie, who died along with them, didn't become a ghost. So while the Wilkinsons quietly haunt the ruins of their house, they keep hoping to find out what happened to Trixie. On the other hand, they manage to adopt the ghost of a little girl who has lost not only her way, but her memory. They call her Adopta.
So it seems like more than a coincidence when, after being forced to move to London to haunt a knicker shop, the Wilkinsons discover an agency called Adopt-a-Ghost, a.k.a. Dial-a-Ghost. It's like an employment agency, matching ghosts who need to be relocated with homeowners looking for a good haunting. Two clairvoyant old ladies take it on themselves to help all kinds of homeless revenants, from the nice middle-class Wilkinsons to the horrendous Shriekers.
At about the same time, horrid schoolmaster Fulton Snodde-Brittle has a problem. After one relative after another has died under bizarre circumstances, it finally looks like his turn to inherit the ancestral estate, Helton Hall. But then the lawyers discover another heir in line ahead of him... a dear little orphan boy in fragile health, named Oliver Smith, who is taken out of the orphanage where he is loved and has friends to play with, to the spooky old mansion where he must live alone except for his nasty cousin Fulton and Fulton's wife, Frieda.
Fulton and Frieda bring Oliver to Helton Hall, but they have plans. They decide to scare the little boy to death, which shouldn't be too hard. First they prime him by telling him scary ghost stories at bedtime. Then they leave him alone in the house on Friday the 13th, having hired the most horrible ghosts in the world-- the Shriekers-- from Adopt-a-Ghost.
Little do the Snodde-Brittles know that the little old ladies at Adopt-a-Ghost got their signals crossed. The instructions for the Shriekers somehow got switched with those for the Wilkinsons. And so the kind, middle-class family of ghosts find themselves at Helton Hall, putting frightened little Oliver at ease and making friends with him.
Meanwhile, the nuns of Larchford Abbey, who were expecting a nice quiet family of ghosts, end up with a family of terrifying spectres who would like nothing better than to harm a child. The mismatch is obvious from both sides' point of view: the ghosts don't want "all that awful gooey goodness" clogging their pores, and the nuns of course are mortified by the havoc the Shriekers wreak.
The Snodde-Brittles are disappointed that Oliver hasn't been frightened to death, but they soon demand that the Shriekers be sent to Helton after all. This seems to be the ghastly old schoolmaster's last hope to do away with Oliver... but the Wilkinsons have ideas of their own. What remains of the story is a confrontation between good and bad ghosts, and payoff for good and bad living people-- for the Snodde-Brittles, who get the scare they truly deserve, and for Oliver, who finally has a family of his own.
Oliver is an adorable child, in the tradition of orphan heroes that stretches from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter. And this is an adorable story, full of quirky humor, silly spooks, and fractured magic. Ibbotson spins a wickedly weird tale, yet with compassion toward all her characters. And the idea of a ghost employment agency is as fun to think about as the little thing-- the very little thing-- that starts everything going wrong.
Recommended Age: 10+
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