Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
A quirky 6th grade girl named Janie learns that her family is staying at House 13, the infamous Fortune House which was said to have been burned down with many of its inhabitants inside. Some of their bodies were never found, and it is said that they can still be heard hustling and bustling within its wooden walls. What secrets does it hide? What mysteries might the girl uncover?
This is the premise of Fortune House by Jeannie Rivera!
There's something about middle-grade horror stories that we love so much! Or maybe we're just spoiled by great authors of children's horror like Caryn Rivadeneira and Jeannie Rivera.
In 2022 and 2023, Jeannie Rivera continued to wow us with her stories in Dragons of a Different Tail, Tales of Monstrosity, and Frederick Moody and the Secrets of the Six Summit Lake, proving herself to be a highly adept and skillful storyteller.
Frederick Moody stood out to us in particular for the author's ability to take something absurd like Big Foot and marry it with a compelling adventure story involving children. Fred and Cindy remain one of the best and most memorable dynamic duos we've ever seen in a book.
Fortune House arguably has a better premise, and it succeeds at being a very entertaining middle-grade book that will keep you guessing and at the edge of your seat. However, there seemed to be something missing in the third act—an oomph, if you will.
So much of this book has an aura of mystery and suspense. Characters are constantly spooked or surprised. However, near the end of the book when we were expecting a big, huge, climactic moment full of action and suspense—a showdown with a big, scary, malevolent spirit—we were instead greeted by something a lot more somber and emotional, maybe even sad.
This isn't a book about cheap jump scares. This isn't a book that's intended to keep your kids up at night. It's a book about a girl coming into her own. It's a book about a family confronting a new, unfamiliar setting. It's a book about an outsider and a loner trying to find her place in the sun. All the while there are ghosts in here that are trying to do the same—against all hope. When you think about it like that, it's actually quite a powerful story.
What we would've liked to have seen is more direct interactions between Janie and the boy ghost, David. Their dynamic held a lot of potential that we think wasn't explored fully. What we also would've liked to have seen is for the history of the house and of David's family to have been explored more. This book felt a little bit rushed and a bit abrupt, which might just be due to the author respecting the shorter attention spans of children. That's something we both understand and appreciate. However, as adults, we were really hungering for more. We didn't want this story to conclude. We wanted a few more twists and turns. A little more development.
However, what we got was still great.
After three readings, Janie emerged as a much deeper character than we initially realized. Janie is not just a generic little girl character. She's no blank slate. She's actually a lovable weirdo. And how can't she be? Her life has been completely unmoored. She has moved from house to house because it's her family's business to renovate and “turn” them. What impact does that have on a young person who can never establish a stable living situation, never be able to call a place a “home,” or maintain friendships? Janie loves to visit graves, having a fascination for both their beauty and mystery. It actually reminded us a lot of author Joanna Penn.
Death is really something that children and young adults may have a hard time grasping. The finality of it is foreign to many young people. Well, Janie is confronted with the question of what really happens when someone dies yet their course in life remains uncompleted—their purpose unfulfilled. We really wished that Rivera could've dug a little deeper into this, but perhaps it would've been too much for the demographic.
After all, this isn't supposed to be a grim, dark Charlie Nicholas-styled novel about depression, anxiety, and profoundly dark feelings. This is supposed to be a much funner, lighter story, and that tone definitely comes across, even when you have a villain in here who might be as evil as any Charlie Nicholas villain.
However, it doesn't seem like that villain really gets his spotlight (in fact, we forgot his name already), and perhaps that's for the best. Rivera chooses not to glamorize his actions like some slasher film. Instead, we see the profound impact that his evil actions had on innocent victims like David and his mom. That is something we think we can get behind.
Victims of crimes are often not given the attention and spotlight that they deserve, especially when compared to the perpetrators of these crimes.
But let's not dampen the mood. This is surprisingly a very uplifting and positive book. One of the things that's most positive about it is that we get to see Janie break out of her cocoon and actually start reaching out to people, making friends—both living and dead, we suppose.
Before we conclude, we wanted to mention that there's a scene in this book that reminded us of one of our favorite scenes from Frederick Moody and the Secrets of the Six Summit Lake. In Frederick Moody, Cindy twisted her ankle and had to be helped to safety by Fred. Well, in Fortune House, Janie trips in a cemetery and scrapes her leg bad enough to draw blood and actually leave a scab later in the book (which other characters reference). This is significant to us because it makes Janie seem like a real character who actually takes lasting damage, suffers, and struggles through this ordeal. She doesn't have a healing potion or ghost magic to make this wound go away, which is something we appreciated.
So, congratulations to Jeannie Rivera on giving us another exceptional middle-grade book!
Check it out on Amazon!