Small Spaces: A delicious autumn read

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsSmall Spaces by Katherine Arden science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsSmall Spaces by Katherine Arden

I fell in love with Small Spaces (2018) from the first paragraph. Before I even realized this was the same Katherine Arden whose adult fiction I’ve been meaning to read for years, and before I got caught up in the richly drawn characters and the spooky plot, I was smitten by this:

October in East Evansburg, and the last warm sun of the year slanted red through the sugar maples. Olivia Adler sat nearest the big window in Mr. Easton’s math class, trying, catlike, to fit her entire body into a patch of light. She wished she were on the other side of the glass. You don’t waste October sunshine. Soon the old autumn sun would bed down in cloud blankets, and there would be weeks of gray rain before it finally decided to snow. But Mr. Easton was teaching fractions and had no sympathy for Olivia’s fidgets. 

I had the feeling I’d found something special, and I was right. Small Spaces is fantastic, and I recommend it to all readers from middle grade to 102.

Olivia, who would rather you called her Ollie, is an eleven-year-old girl dealing with the death of her mother. One afternoon she runs away to her favorite hiding place by the swimming hole, only to find a grown-up there, a woman, who is trying to throw a book into the river. Appalled, Ollie steals the book and rescues it from a watery doom. Taking it home, she’s captivated by the book’s tragic tale of two long-ago brothers and the woman they both loved.

The next day, her class takes a field trip to a farm on the outskirts of town. Ollie realizes the farm is situated on the same land described in the mysterious book, and that something is horribly wrong there. When the bus breaks down and strands the class, it’s up to Ollie and two classmates to save everyone and get them home.

All three of the main characters are well-developed. Ollie is prickly and acts out sometimes, but at the same time, we understand the pain behind it. Brian is the class jock, and Coco is the new girl from the city, who looks like a fairy princess. They each have hidden depths and strengths, which I won’t reveal here because it’s more fun to learn about them as Ollie does. All three kids’ abilities are needed to escape the evil force that haunts the farm. Also wonderful is Ollie’s dad, who expresses love through food. The descriptions of his baked goods reminded me of some of the lovely moments of food-related homeyness in Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, another favorite of mine.

The prose, as I mentioned above, is beautiful, and never talks down to its young audience. It’s terrifically evocative. You can taste the apples and smell the autumn air, and then when the horror elements show up, they’re painted with the same eye for detail, which makes them scary as heck. This is a horror story with enough suspense and atmosphere to unnerve adult readers, but in keeping with its middle grade designation, it’s without gore.

Arden also incorporates modern technology into the tale in the form of Ollie’s watch. I won’t spoil everything about this element, but it’s great. There’s an early moment involving it that made me say “Oh, CRAP” aloud. It also plays a role, though, in some of the most heartwarming scenes of the book.

So … just go read Small Spaces already. It’s a delicious autumn read. I started it in the evening, finished it the next morning, and immediately bought the sequel, Dead Voices.

Published in 2018. Bestselling adult author of The Bear and the Nightingale makes her middle grade debut with a creepy, spellbinding ghost story destined to become a classic. After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think–she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price. Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN. Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver’s warning. As the trio head out into the woods–bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them–the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.” And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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  1. Jana Nyman /

    I simply love Arden’s descriptive prose — it’s poetic, but not in a overwhelmingly purple way, if you know what I mean.

    • Kelly Lasiter /

      Yes, exactly!

      This one had been a Kindle deal, I think to promote the sequel that just came out, and the cover caught my eye, and as soon as I read the first page in the preview I was sold. I just wanted to curl up in it.

  2. This sounds wonderful. I didn’t know she had written these!

    • Kelly Lasiter /

      They’re a lot of fun, and I really love her writing–I need to check out her other books soon.

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