11-year old Oz Chambers lives in a haunted house (Penwurt). His mother wants to move, but Oz would rather do double algebra (yuck) every day for twelve months than leave. Where others see spooky, Oz sees wonder and mystery and aching reminders of his deceased dad. When he and his friends hear ghostly footsteps in the boarded-up dorm at Halloween, it leads to an exploration of the old place's eerie reputation. In his Dad's locked study, Oz finds a parcel addressed to him and posted the day before his father died. Inside is the obsidian pebble, the link to all of Penwurt's astonishing secrets. Suddenly Oz begins to change; he goes from maths dunce to A student overnight and has to deal with suspicious teachers and jealous pupils. But the footsteps in the locked rooms don't go away and slowly, Oz begins to knit together the strands of lies and mystery that tie the obsidian pebble, his father and him together. What Oz hasn't bargained for is that he's not alone in that search for understanding and that solving Penwurt's puzzles lead to other, much darker secrets that will test his loyalty and his bravery to the limit.
While reading this, I had flashbacks of Harry Potter. If Harry Potter weren't a wizard, Hogwarts were a slightly creepy house and it were set in Wales not London. Meet Oz, Ellie and Ruff, the trio and each of them have their own thing they bring to the group in order to make them a strong little team. Not too much unlike *drum roll* Harry Potter. And in replacement of magic and beasts, there are cyphers, ghosts, mysterious artifacts and above all Welsh jargon! Less on the Harry Potter spectrum, there's also a nice element of history which also weaves into the use hieroglyphics, cyphers and artifacts from Egypt. Creeptastic!
But this book isn't all magic, there issues that normal kids go through too, like Oz dealing with the death of his father and the fact that his mother wants to do nothing more than rid Oz's home of all the dangerous things his father loved. It also happens to be all of the things Oz loved about his dad. Tough conflict. We've also got hard times at school. Crabby teachers, bully classmates, football (soccer) games that are worth the world and slightly creepy neighbor girls who watch you through a telescope. Just the average life of a 11 year old boy!
It's this blend of magical mystery and totally mundane things that makes this book so unique and good for fans of both fantasy and contemporary Middle Grade books. And will only get more adventurous with the later books in the series.
Similar recommendations: The Dragon's Tooth by N. D. Wilson and The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voight.