Victoria Wright likes everything to be just so. She excels at pretty much everything. Her manners, appearance, her grades - spotless. She doesn't have time for mess, or distractions or nonsense. She doesn't really have time for friends. With the exception of Lawrence, who spends far too much of his time playing the piano. He's slouchy, always has his shirt untucked, there's a strange streak of white in his hair, and Victoria sees it as her duty to try to tidy him up a bit. He's a bit of a project, really.
But one day, Lawrence just disappears. His parents have strange grins on their faces and claim he's gone to see his grandmother. None of the teachers at school seem concerned. Only Victoria is suspicious. It's not just Lawrence who's disappeared in the last few months either, although Victoria's head goes a bit fuzzy when she tries to remember the others. None of the grown-ups will answer her questions, they just grin wolfishly and tell her to mind her own business. All the clues lead towards the Cavendish Home, an orphanage run by the beautiful Mrs. Cavendish and her strange assistant/gardener, Mr. Alice. Everything seems warm and friendly and cozy when Victoria goes to check it out, but she also finds a paper airplane with the words "Help us!"
written on it. Something sinister is clearly afoot, and Victoria is determined to get it sorted out.
[b:The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls|10893214|The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls|Claire Legrand|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1336841328s/10893214.jpg|15809029] is a horror novel aimed at Middle Grade readers. It's without a doubt the creepiest book I've read in years. A lot of the book reminds me of [b:Coraline|17061|Coraline|Neil Gaiman|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327871014s/17061.jpg|2834844], with elements from various [a:Roald Dahl|4273|Roald Dahl|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1311554908p2/4273.jpg] novels, but Victoria is a much less likable heroine than [a:Neil Gaiman|1221698|Neil Gaiman|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1234150163p2/1221698.jpg]'s Coraline. She's really rather unpleasant, to begin with, and you're not really sure why Lawrence is friends with her (although it's quite obvious that he's not exactly got a lot of other people lining up for the position of best friend). She's a perfectionist, bossy and demanding, constantly berating Lawrence for something or other. She's quite self-absorbed, and determined to be top of her class no matter what the cost. I think the book was even more enjoyable because Victoria is such an odious little know-it-all to begin with. Losing her only friend, and having to go through all manner of dangerous and horrible challenges to rescue him, helps her grow into a much better person.
She genuinely cares for Lawrence, of course, although she doesn't realize it until he goes missing, and she sees how empty her life of chasing grades and perfection is. Despite the warnings of all the various grownups of the Stepford-like town of Belleville, she keeps snooping, asking questions and investigating, even after it's quite clear that her search for Lawrence can lead to all sorts of unpleasantness, and does, once she's dragged into the orphanage by Mrs. Cavendish's crawly cockroachy minions. As someone who's not overly fond of insects at the best of time, the amount of creepy crawlies in this book absolutely added to the discomfort factor.
I don't normally read a lot of scary stories, and this book really is wonderfully unnerving. The atmosphere starts with everything in Belleville being just that little bit off, and ramps up the creep factor with cockroaches, missing children, dissenting teachers being possibly devoured and townspeople being brainwashed by mysterious means. Mrs. Cavendish claims to only take the children who don't fit in, who aren't quite right, the degenerates, and if they've improved by the time they turn thirteen, they get to go home. Of course, if she doesn't deem them good enough, they don't leave, and what happens to them is truly gruesome. As someone who really doesn't read a lot of horror, this was just the right amount of scary for me. The illustrations by Sarah Watts are wonderful accompaniments to the story as a whole. Highly recommended.