I need to explain my feelings on Chris Columbus before I get to the review proper. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, he directed the first two Harry Potter movies (and Percy Jackson, and Home Alone and Rent. I have many feelings about that last one). I also personally consider the first two Potters as being the worst of the films; they’re relatively faithful adaptations but boring movies. IMO, Columbus doesn’t bring a great visionary style and lacks the ‘magic’ touch, if you will. So, why did I read a book cowritten by him? I like Ned Vizzini; I have all of his books and I think he’s really good. If it weren’t for that fact, I would have skipped this book completely.What the plot lacked in uniqueness, the varying details that make up the story sounded really interesting. Unfortunately, this is not that book. There are some really good passages in here that actually grabbed me, but they’re buried between pages of bad writing. For the good potential that’s in here, it’s bogged down with lazy characterization and cultural references. It’s not ‘chuck the book against the wall a few times’ awful, but I cringed way too many times while reading this. The biggest sin on the writing here is Rule Number One: Show Don’t Tell. For example, there’s a scene toward the climax where the oldest sibling, Cordelia, is seduced by the power of the Dark Side. And we’re told that all the good memories that she has with her siblings have suddenly vanished and replaced by the Wind Witch’s hatred! No, really, that’s exactly how it’s put in the book. I haven’t read any of Columbus’s writing (only watched Goonies), but Vizzini should have known better than to do this. And if it had happened a few times, I would have been fine—it would have still bugged me, but I’d give it a pass. But once the Wind Witch casts the Walkers into the alternate universe, it feels like either Columbus or Vizzini gave up on doing any actual writing and the editor similarly threw their hands up as well. Going along with the above, because this made me angry: pop culture references. Allow me to use Meg Cabot as an example: she gets criticism for using numerous pop culture references. In fairness, at times her use of them makes sense depending on the book. In comparison to this, she barely uses any references whatsoever. This book clocks in about two or more references every other page. There is at least a page and a half about a minor character’s resemblance to Mick Jagger, with the main characters commenting on said resemblance. What makes me angry about the reference-dropping is that not only is it completely unnecessary to the story overall, but it talks down to the audience by assuming that “Well, you can’t understand what we’re referring to, so have a reference to something that might have been thrown at you on TV!” There’s no good reason for them to be here. Again, had it been restrained to a couple of references (the Lovecraft one was perfectly fine and made sense!), I would have been fine. Massive problem number three: there is too much just going on in general. You’ve got this long-standing history between the Walker family and the Kristoffs (which never gets explained or expanded on after a hundred pages because it’s a series! Of course it is.); you’ve got the Wind Witch/Dahlia’s backstory and plot to get the Book of Doom and Desire; there are three separate plotlines going on in the world these kids have been tossed into. I’m used to books with multiple storylines, but at least those subplots relate back to the main plot, and not just “Oh, that sounds cool, throw it in.” The only plotline that doesn’t have much an effect on the overall plot is Will Draper, and that’s because it’s more focused on his character rather than what was happening in his ‘book.’ (More on this below.) After the set-up of the Walkers and the Kristoffs’ shared history, the kids are thrown into a mashed-together world taken from Denver Kristoff’s books. Again, there are some cool things here, and actually if this is to be a series, I would have actually taken the entirety of this book and chopped it up into an opening trilogy. I think it would have flowed a little better if there were individual books focusing on say, encountering the pirates, then the savage band, etc.I’d like to say that the characters are the strongest part, but there’s massive problems with them, too. I will say this, though—the Walkers do at least act like siblings. They bicker and argue about what’s the right thing for them to do, but they do at least overcome their issues and stand up for each other. And promptly go back to the bickering. I did like that aspect, it’s one of the few things that felt right. However, as individual characters they all fall into assigned roles that they’re never really allowed to grow out of. Cordelia’s the oldest and the smart one, Brendan is the smart-ass, and Nell is only around to be cute and mispronounce words. Brendan never gets any characterization aside from being a loudmouth who frequently does stupid things (like setting off a grenade just to see what blows up). Cordelia is allegedly fifteen years old, but sounds more like a pompous, over-educated twelve year old. Which is especially frustrating since a large plot of her subplot is her developing a crush on Will Draper, but completely negates any maturity Cordelia might have had. Nell is the only one who actually felt like she had any character traits. Sure, she’s the youngest child and feels like she’s there to be cute, but there’s at least a reason to her misunderstanding words and just wanting to go home. Which is why I don’t mind Nell making a deus ex machina wish at the end—not only does it feel like something a kid her age would make, but it’s one of the few things that’s built up over the course of the book.The other characters have barely any characterization. The most developed we get are Will and Dahlia. Dahlia chiefly monologues about her childhood and discovering her father’s magic; there’s a few attempts to connect her character with Cordelia’s personal frustrations, but said attempts never play out completely so…why? Will has this whole “OMG I’m a fictional character?!” that only exists to be a one-off joke and doesn’t do much for the rest of the book. (Also, he’s British. He’d like a spot of tea, old chap, because he’s British, you know.) Everyone else in this book does not get any characterization whatsoever; again, if this book had been chopped up, I don’t think it would have been as much of a problem. There’s a good book in here somewhere. It’s not quite the blueprints of a good book, but rather, a couple of scribbled notes in the margins of the blueprints of this book. As I mentioned, there are one or two good things overall about the story and the characters, as well as some good parts with the writing. But it’s all buried underneath the lazy writing and plotting. A lot of this book suffers from the plain fact that—and this is my assumption—because this is a children’s book, it means that the writing needs to be simplified to the point of talking down to the readers. It’s a tactic that I find frankly insulting to the audience, especially with the over-reliance on cultural references to explain things. And I’m really disappointed overall because I’m familiar with one of the authors, and I know he can write better than this. There’s better series with similar concepts, and House of Secrets is just not what it could have been.