The first thing I want to state is that I am extremely happy I hadn't read this series before now. The almost similarities to Harry Potter would have infuriated me when I was at the height of Harry Potter my mania. Now, I can take an almost unbiased look.
House Points: 5.5/8
First impressions: Honestly... "This book is a lot like Harry Potter. But not as good." It's really not fair to judge any book by Harry Potter, just like it wouldn't be fair to judge a purse you bought at Target next to the one your rich aunt has from Louis Vuitton. On starting this book, however, I tried to separate Brittishness from Harry Potterness. My conclusions: this book is extremely Brittish (10 points, in my book), and bears some very striking resemblances to Harry Potter. The story jumps around a lot at the beginning, and this continues throughout the book although not quite as badly towards the end (a striking variance from the extreme narrative cohesion of HP). Instead of making the book exciting, it just sort of made me confused.
Plot: The plot is interesting enough to keep you turning the pages overall, although it has its low points. There's not really a strong main plot, just a bunch of subplots: What are Charlie's relatives up to? Where is the missing baby? Will Uncle Peyton stop being so weird and get a girlfriend? Often the story stops dead for one plot and then, once resolved, jumps to another one. Many things are over-explained, although this could be because the book was written to younger children (I'd say 4th-5th grade, since the Brittishness could make this book a bit confusing to an emerging reader reader). I certainly think that the younger crowd would find this book very interesting.
Pacing: As I mentioned, pacing is decidedly odd. To make the book flow much better, especially at the beginning, I would have liked to separate Charlie getting into Bloor's from Charlie getting the mysterious case. Those two lines didn't really need to intermingle and switching back and forth killed the tension. Charlie could have done a lot of things before his grandmother caught on and decided to send him to Bloor's--then he could have been whisked off at a pivitol point. Having the missing baby subplot solved so early really killed the tension as well, and I think they should have held off on that. Also, the battle in the ruins was terribly lame, and the Bloor's, who seemed vaguely terrifying before that point, suddenly seemed weak and not scary at all.
Characterization: Good and also bad. Charlie Bone is a great main character, a touch similar to Harry Potter but different enough to be a character in his own right. Now, the only other interesting characters in this story are Uncle Peyton, Ezekiel Bloor, and Runner Bean, the dog. Every one else seemed vapid and underdeveloped. A huge problem was the gross overabundance of secondary characters. The three aunts? Useless. Grandma Bone could have stood in for them. Charlie's friends? Too many. None of them really get to shine. Manfred Bloor? Creepy enough initially, but although dark deeds are hinted at he never actually does anything bad to any of the characters that we see. This is probably because it is a children's book but unfortunately, it killed the surprise. His father is even lamer--the only thing scary about him is that he has a low voice. All the "endowed" children? Too many, too little known, and then some of them who were barely mentioned rise up and save the day.
Originality: I'm actually going to rate this fairly high, surprisingly. There are tons of similarties with HP, but I'm going to actually attribute them to the fact that they both take place in a British boarding school. The magic, the back story, the characters--they're all pretty different. Of course, the book shares many of the conventions of its genre, but despite that, there are some interesting new ideas here. I still think HP is more interesting, but that's just my bias. One day I'd really love to see a male fantasy MC with a normal, supportive family however. I think Maisy and Amy are nice, but useless (I mean, really, they're too scared of Grandma Bone to protect Charlie), which is its own sort of neglect. Plus they're poor.
Readability and writing quality: This is an easy read for an adult, obviously. The writing is not terribly poetic, but very earnest at times. The writing quality was good enough to make this book stand out above formulaic series, although Jenny Nimmo is no Shannon Hale. :)
Last impressions: The ending was terribly anticlimactic and rushed, and I was pretty annoyed about how many things were left unresolved. (Spoiler) Charlie, we know where your father is, would it kill you to figure it out? As I've mentioned, I came to respect this book in its own right, but the pacing issues never resolved. It's hard not to compare it to the fabulously fast-paced Artemis Fowl. I would continue on in this series however, because I have a suspicion that once Nimmo gets past all the setting up and back stories she writes decent books.
Contribution to the genre: When I think about children reading this book my heart says "Yes!" This is exactly the kind of accessible book that children could read and comprehend but that, (I imagine) due to it's Brittishness, has enough of a literature feel to it that it could really help introduce them into the realm of literature and adult language. I would give it to any child reading on a 4th/5th grade level. If a struggling older reader liked fantasy I would definitely recommend this as well. The short length, too, recommends itself as a kind of stepping stool into longer, more complicated novels.