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Review of The Second-Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street by Cory Putman Oakes

The Second-Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street by Cory Putman Oakes
Genre: Paranormal, Humor
Age category: Middle Grade
Release Date: August 18, 2020

The Second-Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street is a fun book that isn’t afraid to make its characters fight hard for their goals.

At the crux of the story is a competition between two haunted hotels to prove which is better and which is going out of business. Imagine Borders still existed and a huge one just moved in next to your local independent bookstore. Except you can stay overnight in the bookstore and it’s full of ghosts. (I kind of want this in my life right now.)

The story is told from two points of view. First is Willow, a twelve-year-old trying to maintain the historic, independent haunted establishment, Hotel Ivan. Willow’s dad is a widower struggling with depression who doesn’t really notice day-to-day events, leaving Willow to run things solo. Willow’s mother is a ghost as well but one who floats around aimlessly, not seeming to understand where or even who she is. While the emotional toll on Willow is heavy, she’s often so busy pushing forward with the needs of the hotel that she doesn’t stop to process what all this grief and stress is doing to her. For all the lightheartedness of the book, it certainly has its heavier and more serious moments.

The second POV character is Evie, a ghost girl working at a new, upscale, corporate-run hotel called The Hauntery. Corporate has highly specific guidelines for its “non-corporal entities,” and Evie is assigned the role of a creepy little girl, stuck forever wearing poofy dresses and chanting “come play with us” alongside another identically dressed ghost. (Evie later comments that she doesn’t hate dresses in general, just being forced to wear specific ones at specific times. It was a very minor piece of dialogue, but I really appreciated the author taking a swing at the myth that girls can either be strong and independent or like dresses and bows but somehow not both.) Evie dreams of playing the role of a Terrifying Phantasm, a job reserved for the scariest ghosts in the business, and suffice it to say, no one believes she qualifies.

For the first half of the book, both Evie and Willow are struggling to stay afloat in their present circumstances but not really making any progress forward. The misfortunes that pile up on both of them largely have a classic middle-grade humorous bend. (Let’s face it, a little ghost girl getting a lecture about cuteness protocols to achieve the proper level of creepiness is pretty amusing.) I wish the girls would have had some opportunity to improve things for themselves earlier in the book, but once they connect, the plot really picks up, and the moral debate of Evie trying to decide what (or who) is most important to her became a key point driving the plot. Middle grade fiction desperately needs more good characters who still make poor decisions, and Evie and Willow both struggle in this area at some point in the story. It was refreshing and made the girls easy to relate to, especially when their hearts were in the right places, but fear of rejection or failure steered them off-course.

Overall, the book has a catchy premise, superb illustrations that bring the characters to life, and a heartfelt ending that made it well worth the read.

Rating: 4 out of 5

You can find The Second-Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street on Goodreads

You can also buy The Second-Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street on Amazon. (Affiliate link)

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