A giant, grinning clown head with razor-sharp teeth floats down the middle of a street in a parade as smaller clowns walk towards the crowd.

About the Book

Title: Empty Smiles (Small Spaces #4)
Published: 2022

Cover Story: Your Coulrophobia Is Getting Stronger
BFF Charm: Make It Rain
Talky Talk: Really Fun, But…
Bonus Factor: Carnivals, Tasty Business
Anti-Bonus Factor: Clowns
Relationship Status: ‘Til The End

Careful, Sweetie: spoilers! This is the final book in the Small Spaces series, so if you haven’t read the previous three, you should probably hop back in the TARDIS and go curl up by the pool in the library with the first book before continuing.

Cover Story: Your Coulrophobia Is Getting Stronger

While I feel like there was a bit of missed opportunity to set this AT the creepy carnival, there IS a parade and roaming clowns and a giant evil clown all present in the novel, so points for being relevant and keeping in line with the rest of the covers. Just like the spooky cornfield, we all know clowns are ALWAYS EFFING SCARY.

The Deal:

It’s been three months since Ollie sacrificed herself to the smiling man in exchange for her dad’s life, and everyone is on edge. Everyone except Coco, Brian, and Phil believe Ollie is dead (*sob* poor Mr. Adler), and all the parents are worried about their remaining kiddos. And for good reason—poor things have ONE chance to play the smiling man’s game and save Ollie, but when? How? WHERE?

Turns out Ollie has been with the smiling man’s traveling carnival, but instead of going home with feeling a little sick and dizzy from too many spinny rides and too much popcorn, well, at this carnival…sometimes you don’t go home at all.

BFF Charm: Make It Rain

BFF charm holding an umbrella

Y’all let Phil in your group—surely there is room for someone like me who didn’t pick their nose during class back in the first book??

Everyone gets their chance to shine in this final book, from Ollie’s bravery over being kidnapped and forced to play daily chess with the smiling man to Coco’s realization that sometimes you can’t keep secrets this big to yourself. I love the way conflict arises and they talk things out, like when Brian disagrees with Coco’s actions but understands and forgives her anyway. Even booger-eater Phil has his heroic moment that helped save the day. I love these precious nuggets and I hope they stay BFFs forever.

Swoonworthy Scale: 0

Arden finishes off the series platonically, which I appreciate because there needs to be more female/male platonic friendships in YA.

Talky Talk: Really Fun, But…

I was eagerly turning page after page to see how our intrepid heroes would cleverly foil the smiling man’s plans and then whoops, there it went! I’m not sure what happened, but the ending felt like it was missing a few chapters. I know this is Middle Grade, but kids aren’t dumb. It felt like Arden ran into a hard deadline or out of steam or something, because the first 90% of the book was great! There were stakes, an interesting setting with the traveling carnival and a train that turns into a haunted house, and even the parents were getting in on the action for once. Arden knows how to set the stage with enough details to have you feeling the sticky humidity at the back of your neck without weighing you down in unnecessary descriptions. I wouldn’t say that the too neatly wrapped ending ruined the overall series for me at ALL, but I don’t know if this will be anyone’s absolute favorite stand-alone in the series.

Bonus Factor: Carnivals

Fair/carnival lights at night and a spinning swing ride

Obviously THIS carnival is kind of effed up with yellow-teethed clowns slinking about trying to kidnap you, but Arden has clearly been to a county fair a time or two because she perfectly captured the lights and smells and chaos of a night spent in a formerly empty field where questionably-maintained rides loom above you.

Bonus Factor: Tasty Business

Signs at a carnival or fair for Lemonade, Cotton Candy and more.

What is it about the lemonade at a carnival?! I’m glad I’m not the only one with this obsession, because multiple people in the book mention the sugary-tart goodness of the over-priced shaken lemonade stands. It is a requisite purchase if you go. Also I now want some popcorn and funnel cakes and corn dogs and…

Anti-Bonus Factor: Clowns

Cam from Modern Family dressed up like a clown

These mofos are CREEPY, y’all. And they are not limited to the carnival, no no—they are standing outside your house like a stalker and crawling out from under your bed. Like, thanks, Katherine, for the next few sleepless nights!

Relationship Status: ‘Til The End

Thanks for being suitable for little eyes that delight in the creepy-crawlies, Book. You were fun for the whole family and as delightful as a trip around the Ferris wheel. I wish we had more time together in the end, but I know I will look back on all of our adventures fondly.

Literary Matchmaking

Small Spaces (Small Spaces #1)

Go back to where it all began…especially if you read this entire review and haven’t picked up the first book of this MG series!

Clown in a Cornfield

Written like a bad teen slasher film, you know I wasn’t able to resist the cheese of Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare.

FTC Full Disclosure: I borrowed a copy of this book from the library. I received neither money nor peanut butter cups in exchange for this review. Empty Smiles is available now.

Stephanie (she/her) is an avid reader who moonlights at a college and calls Orlando home. Stephanie loves watching television, reading DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.