The Hanging Hill is the sequel to Chris Grabenstein's The Crossroads (reviewed here). Although The Hanging Hill is a sequel, following shortly after the events of The Crossroads, the two books are quite self-contained as stories. It's not strictly necessary to have read the Crossroads to enjoy The Hanging Hill, although reading the books in order does provide a bit of extra background.
Zack Jennings can see and talk with ghosts. The Hanging Hill finds Zack traveling with his stepmother, famous children's author Judy Magruder Jennings, to the Hanging Hill Playhouse in Connecticut. Famous director Reginald Grimes is planning to put on a play based on one of Judy's books. Unfortunately for Zack, Grimes has a bigger and much more sinister plot afoot. A plot that involves releasing demons into the world, and a serious threat to the play's two child stars, Meghan and Derek.
This book has a setting brimming with kid-appeal - summer at the creepy old playhouse, complete with nice and not-so-nice ghosts, old theater props, and a crusty caretaker. There's a delightful cameo by a local librarian, and a small-town flavor to the book. Zack is a likeable hero, brave and resourceful, but carrying his own emotional baggage, too. He's accompanied by his trusty dog, and has a refreshingly close relationship with his stepmother. I also enjoyed the other two kids in the book. Meghan is confident and unspoiled by her own success - a perfect sidekick for Zack. Derek is insecure, allergy-prone, and mother-dominated. But this gives him plenty of room to grow over the course of the book.
The Hanging Hill is a fast-paced read, helped by extremely short chapters, and a high rate of action. The entire story takes place over just a couple of days. I think that it will appeal to reluctant readers, boys and girls. There are some viewpoint shifts, providing additional background about Grimes' plans. These shifts make the first part of the book a little bit choppy, but don't pose a major problem. Some of the content is rather dark (kids being chased by a demon with an axe, plans for child sacrifice, etc.), so I would only recommend this title for kids who enjoy being scared.
Although I liked the setting, I think that what I appreciated most about this book was Grabenstein's voice. While keeping the plot moving (and despite being perhaps a tad too fond of exclamation points), he manages to slip in regular dashes of wry humor. It's not surprising to me that he also writes mysteries for adults. He includes occasional references that will appeal more to the adults reading along than to their kids (although I don't think that there's enough of this to alienate younger readers in any way). Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Grabenstein's writing:
"Some called being a Ghost Seer a gift. Well, if it was, Zack figured it was like getting a paisley-and-plaid sweater for Christmas when what you really wanted was an iPod. Seven weeks after learning he could see spirits, Zack was already tired of being special.
Being special could wear a guy out." (Page 1-2)
"A blond woman with a drum-tight face stepped out of the limo. She had an orangish, Oompa-Loompa tan." (Page 61)
"Tunisia?" said Grimes. "You people imported scenery we're not even going to use--all the way from Tunisia?"
"Yes," said Hakeen.
"Actually, we prefer the term 'devout.'" " (Page 81)
All in all, The Hanging Hill is a fun mystery/thriller/ghost story for middle grade and middle school readers. I'd try it on fans of Mary Downing Hahn's books, for sure, though Grabenstein's tone is a bit more over-the-top. Although my timing isn't the greatest for this review, I think that The Hanging Hill would make an excellent summer read.
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Publication Date: August 11, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: On My Bookshelf...
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