YA and Middle Grade Horror Roundup, November 2023
In our latest roundup for November 2023 we have a strong collection of eleven books, some I loved, more importantly even if I was not knocked out, still have plenty to offer book loving teenagers. Keep your eyes peeled for our ‘Best of 2023’ in mid-December where I select my favourite YA and Middle Grade picks for 2023.
Wendy Parris has the only Middle Grade book in this particular roundup, with Field of Screams, a fun supernatural debut thriller set in rural Iowa where a lonely girl visiting family encounters a ghostly presence. Jumping straight onto YA, I never thought I would be reviewing one of the UKs YA ‘Teen Queens’ for Ginger Nuts, but Holly Bourne makes an interesting sidestep into dystopia with a focus on gender and sexism with You Could Be Pretty. I have come across this type of storyline many times before, but I’m sure teenage girls will find it significantly fresher and engaging than I did. Sarah Naughton puts her popular adult thrillers on the backburner and returns to her YA roots with a fine teen page-turner You Better Watch Out which has a distinct Christmas feel, after reading this the Secret Santa tradition will never quite be the same!
Linda Cheng’s Gorgeous Gruesome Faces was an outstanding and fascinating debut, set in the world of teenage talent bootcamps, with agencies attempt to select teens to star in the next round of manufactured K-Pop bands. With a sneaky narrative which moves backwards and forward, broken friendships, an LGBTQIA+ storyline and a developing supernatural presence with an East Asian flavour, this book was top notch. Katya De Becerra’s When Ghosts Call Us Home was another absolute belter, set in a haunted house where five years earlier a teenager directed her little sister in a home movie which became an international cult hit. If you are a fan of ocean set supernatural dramas then dive into Amy Goldsmith’s Those We Drown, which had its moments but lacked bite.
We have previously reviewed all of the next five authors with Diana Rodriguez Wallach following the superb Small Town Monsters (2021) with Hatchet Girls an entertaining supernatural thriller which draws on the Lizzie Borden murders for inspiration. Irish author Deirdre Sullivan has written some curious stuff and I previously enjoyed Perfectly Preventable Deaths (2019) and she returns with Wise Creatures, which is even stranger and highly unsettling. A beguiling tale of trauma and abuse in which a former child medium believes the ghosts of her past have returned to haunt her and her cousin. Rosie Talbot returns with Twelve Bones, a top-quality sequel to Sixteen Souls and I hope Charlie and Sam return for a third outing.
It is fantastic to see a steady increase of Black American authors releasing outstanding YA horror fiction. Tiffany D Jackson’s The Weight of Blood was one of my favourite novels of 2022 and so I found myself backtracking to 2021 with White Smoke and was not disappointed. An edgy haunted house story with a difference, starring a very unreliable but very engaging narrator, complex family dynamics, a dilapidated neighbourhood loaded with very dark secrets. Finally, Jessica Lewis follows Bad Witch Burning (2021) with the excellent Monstrous, in which a teenager realises she is the next sacrifice for a giant snake monster, until she saves her skin by making a new deal with the snake. This was great and the banter between Latavia and the smooth-talking snake was a hoot.
The books are presented in alphabetical order by author. Do get in touch if you think you have something I might like.
Holly Bourne – You Could Be Pretty
I never thought I would EVER be reviewing Holly Bourne for Ginger Nuts, but never say never! In You Could Be So Pretty Holly abandons her usual brand of addictive teen drama for something significantly darker, with a strong whiff of dystopia. In this novel almost all of the characters live by the rules of the ‘Doctrine’ which has normalised the fact that girls must be beautiful to succeed or get noticed in life and are subservient to men. In fact life is one big beauty contest in which teenage girls are continually ranked and rated via social media leading up to a ceremony where the winner becomes a ‘Pretty.’ I found that much of You Could Be So Pretty reminiscent of other books, with the ranking system also being used in Louise O’Neil’s Only Ever Yours (2014) which was considerably more powerful but was also set in a significantly more extreme dystopia. The term ‘Pretty’ was also used in a vaguely comparable way by Scott Westerfeld in Pretties (2005), his hugely successful sequel to Uglies (2005) which also looked at beauty in a futuristic dystopian environment. The ceremony the whole novel builds up to is the equivalent of a much darker version of becoming Prom Queen or something similar. It does not go into any detail, but if there was a ’Me Too’ movement in this society’s history it has been consigned to the dustbin and girls have to accept abuse akin to praise for being attractive enough to garner attention. For example, being slapped on the backside should be taken as a sign of approval.
Granted I am not the teenage girl this book is clearly aimed at, but the alternative words used to be rather clunky ‘Smut’ (porn, which has been completely normalised), ‘Mask’ (make up) or ‘Body Prayer’ (exercise) being three of the most common. The main character Belle is desperate to be crowned Pretty at the upcoming ceremony, whilst her classmate Joni rejects this and is classed as an ‘Objectionable.’ There were other positions on this weird high school society’s ladder, with some teens clearly more brainwashed than others. It was fairly predictable which direction the book took, with the two girls coming together for the big ceremony and railing against the system. You Could be So Pretty having much to say about today’s obsession with influencers, perfect social media profiles and photo filters, casual sexism, but ultimately this story lacked bite as the message dominated a slightly lacklustre plot. AGE RANGE 13+
Linda Cheng – Gorgeous Gruesome Faces
Quercus Children’s Books
Linda Cheng’s debut Gorgeous Gruesome Faces initially caught my eye because of its connections with the South Korean brand of music, K-Pop (which I know about via my teenage daughter who regularly goes to gigs) wondering how this could be spun into a YA horror novel. However, in reality it does not have much to do with K-Pop itself, as the entire novel is set in America and centres around teenage girls auditioning through boot-camp talent and dance routines in the hope of getting chosen for future TV shows (all are manufactured, so anything will do). This is certainly the manner in which TV and music bigwigs use to select the members of manufactured K-Pop bands or for related TV shows and the book beautifully portrays the manner in which youngsters are brutally dropped when they do not make the cut. Interestingly, the main character Sunny Lee has already had an earlier shot at fame on a reality TV show and squandered it after a scandal with dodgy photos and making a move on a singer who already had a girlfriend (this sort of thing is a big ‘no-no’ in the world of K-Pop). The story jumps between ‘now’ when eighteen-year-old Sunny is in bootcamp for a new show and ‘then’ which jumps back three or four years when her TV show and three-piece girl band were on the cusp of stardom before their downfall, also told in flashback.
There is a lot going on in Gorgeous Gruesome Faces and I thought this was a very clever novel in which takes its delicious time in revealing its supernatural colours. Although brief, it does feature some very gory and shocking sequences. Although South Korea is not featured in the story directly, the supernatural angle most definitely does have a Chinese or East Asian flavour. I enjoyed the way this novel was not rushed, which also features a LGBTQIA+ story which delicately slowly develops. Even before the supernatural narrative arrived this was an unnerving book, main character Sunny Lee was very much alone when the audition bootcamp begins with all the girls desperate for success in a cutthroat industry, which really shone through. The backstory on how everything unravelled in the ‘then’ story was convincing and I loved the manner in which it circled around to the ‘now’ narrative. Sunny Lee was American Taiwanese and the novel also investigated these subcultures of pushy mothers trying to turn their daughters into the next star. Gorgeous Gruesome Faces is guaranteed to get under your skin, even if you do not read much horror, the idea of being on the scrapheap at seventeen or eighteen was incredibly sad, but sensitively explored. AGE RANGE 13+
Katya De Becerra – When Ghosts Call Us Home
When Ghosts Call Us Home was an immersive, atmospheric head scratcher with an engaging but very unreliable and troubled narrator. I loved getting my teeth into this one! Perhaps it was my interpretation of it, but not quite everything made sense (it was intentionally disorientating), but don’t let that put you off and most definitely hang around for the wild ending. Although it contained little graphic material, sex or swearing this was a mature read aimed at older YA readers, indeed, adults could just as easily find themselves lost on ‘the path’ (one of the more perplexing aspects of the novel). Like Kat Ellis’s Harrow Lake the narrative is very cleverly built around a cult film made five years before the action starts. ‘Vermillion’ was an amateur found footage film shot in Cashmore House by seventeen-year-old Layla Galich, starring her twelve-year-old sister Sophia. In much of the film Sophia is scared out of her wits (she is not acting) and is told by her sister the eerie and strange things she sees are special effects. Over the years experts and movie nerds examine the film and are dumbfounded by the quality of the special effects, which look incredibly real and enhance the mythology around the flick. Sophia, who narrates When Ghosts Call Us Home, has very patchy recollection of making the film and due to personal circumstances finds herself returning to Cashmore as a seventeen-year-old to participate in a documentary about the film, where very troubling snatches begin to return.
This is much more than a simple haunted house or possession novel as the aura built around ‘Vermillion’ was top notch, a whole online culture (some might call it a cult) has sprung up around the film where V-Heads (obsessive fans) try to move along the various stages of ‘the path’ guided by an obscure website called ‘Crismon Dread’. There are lots of real films in cinematic history adult readers might be able to connect with ‘Vermillion’ but this will go over the heads off genuine teen readers. I enjoyed the website sequences, even if everything did not connect and the mumbo jumbo occult stuff, try the ‘Book of Ka’schor’ which was lifted straight out of Aleister Crowley’s playbook! The main character Sophia was all over the place as her return to film the documentary was preceded by her sister inexplicably vanishing, which set the internet alight as it was an ongoing police investigation. Also, the documentary is being filmed by one of the top V-Heads and it extremely hard to know who to trust. Although When Ghosts Call Us Home takes its time it develops into a very ambiguous atmospheric supernatural chiller which deserves to be read very closely as there are clues and clever reveals here and there. As I approached the final fifty pages I had no idea what was going to happen (where was Layla, alive, dead or in another supernatural realm?) and was wrong footed by the clever ending. If the film ‘Vermillion’ (most obviously inspired by the successful ad campaign behind Blair Witch) existed I would definitely watch it, but only with the lights on! AGE RANGE 13/14+
Amy Goldsmith – Those We Drown
I am a huge fan of ocean bound horror so I dived into Amy Goldsmith’s debut Those We Drown with great anticipation which I enjoyed in patches and found frustrating in others. However, if I were to put myself into the shoes of a fourteen-year-old fan of mysteries and thrillers there was plenty to hold the attention. The action kicks off when main character Liv lands an all-expenses-paid scholarship opportunity to study aboard the luxury cruise ship The Eos for three months, this is a dream come true whilst she prepares for university the following year. Especially since it will oﬀer her the chance to spend time with Will, her ex-best friend, who’s barely spoken to her since an incident which is revealed slowly in flashback. In Liv’s eyes Will can do no wrong and she is awful at reading the signals that he is just not interested in her beyond friendship. Liv tells the story in the first person; she is anxious and keen to please but ultimately she tested my patience and perhaps the story might have benefitted from having other voices and narratives. Over 400-pages it got very repetitive with Liv neurotically going around in circles and whinging nonstop along the way.
Early in the story (possibly too early) Will disappears, Liv is told he is sick and is being held in some sort of quarantine and cannot see anybody. She receives a few text messages from him but becomes suspicious as it does not sound like him and he does not pick up for voice calls. The whole book revolves around what happened to Will. Liv gets more and more neurotic, suspicious, upsets and annoys lots of other crew members as she investigates this mystery believing certain individuals are hiding something. Liv also discovers that the only reason she was invited to join the trip is because another girl disappeared shortly after enrolling and no one seems to know or care what happened to her. The narrative slowly sails into supernatural territory, Liv has weird dreams and believes everything might be connected to three unfriendly social media mean girl influences on the ship. It was fairly obvious where the story was going and the ending was somewhat of a damp squid rather than a big splash. AGE RANGE 12/13+
Tiffany D Jackson – White Smoke
Katherine Tegen Books
I was a massive fan of Tiffany Jackson’s The Weight of Blood (2022) which was one of my favourite YA horror novels of recent years, so felt it was high time to explore her back catalogue further with White Smoke (2021). This was another fascinating novel and at first glance is presented as a standard haunted house tale but once you dig below the surface the reader realises there is much more going on, involving issues such as gentrification and other social problems. The main character is Black teenager Marigold (race does not come into the story that much as most characters are Black) whose family have relocated from California to a down-at-heel town with many empty buildings and dilapidated properties, the street they are given a free house on is mostly empty. Mari’s mother has remarried (her father lives in Japan) and along with her brother she has a ten-year-old stepsister called Piper whom she constantly clashes with. Long before we get to anything potentially supernatural this is a fascinating family drama about a recently blended family and a teenager who has a host of personal problems around anxiety, not to mention an unhealthy obsession with bedbugs. Mari is spikey, vulnerable and believable as she struggles to settle in her new neighbourhood with the shroud of past problems threatening to catch up with her.
The location was terrific and we realise the family have been given their house for free through some sort of arts project connected to the mother’s new job. Meanwhile, Mari who has a whiff of unreliable narrator surrounding her notices objects in unusual places, doors slam and she is certain there is a presence in the house, which the locals say is haunted. Jackson keeps things very restrained with the potential supernatural entity and focusses more on the friction in the family which is supported by terrific characters in the new friends Mari makes. As things move on the issues from her past are explored more fully and it balances nicely between haunted house story and psychological thriller playing on her anxieties and potentially exaggerating situations. Before long, the stepsister Piper starts mentioning an invisible friend and the two girls clash even more. The blend of horror novel and social commentary was nicely managed without getting too preachy, however, the ending was very reminiscent of an Oscar winning film from a few years ago, to the extent that naming it would be a total spoiler, however, it remained in tune with the rest of the book. AGE RANGE 13/14+
Jessica Lewis – Monstrous
Random House Children’s Books
I enjoyed Jessica Lewis’s YA debut Bad Witch Burning (2021) about a teen who stumbles upon a way in which to bring the dead back to life. In her highly entertaining follow-up Jessica really puts her central character, Black eighteen-year-old Latavia through both the emotional and physical ringer, starting with a bone-crunching broken leg in the opening stages. This is small-town horror (with secrets, REALLY big ones) in which track-star Latavia arrives at her aunt’s for the summer before starting university on a sport scholarship. Little does she know that the town of Sanctum (Alabama), which is dominated by a church, unfriendly and suspicious locals who treat her like an outsider, are after their next sacrifice to a giant killer snake which lives in the local (forbidden) forest, Red Wood. On one level this plot probably sounds really stupid, but within the narrative and the highly engaging first-person narrative, worked perfectly and the banter between the snake and Latavia was genuinely funny with them coming across like a quirky odd couple. However, in between the chattiness Monstrous was very dark with unrepentant revenge killings with a tone which went further than most YA novels of this kind.
The fact that the monster really was not what you expected made Monstrous all the more enjoyable as he used Latavia to try and break free of the supernatural constraints which kept him in the forest. The teenager was originally supposed to be the next sacrifice until her quick wit saved her from being his latest snack. Along the way there is a cute and slowly paced LGBTQIA+ love story with Latavia having a thing for one of the locals, Alison. Latavia herself was loaded with ambiguity, as with her revenge is extremely sweet and she seems to enjoy the killings very much, whilst the snake just takes it in his stride. As characters go, Latavia was incredibly angry as with her broken leg her track scholarship disappeared out the window and she was obviously hurting from the betrayal from her aunt. Things probably got a little bogged down in the middle and even though the snake was a mass murderer he was hard not to like even when he went on a killing spree as the locals were even more unpleasant. AGE RANGE 13+
Sarah Naughton – You Better Watch Out
Scholastic; 1st edition
Sarah Naughton started out writing YA around a decade ago with the excellent The Hanged Man Rises (2013) which was nominated for the Children’s Costa Award and The Blood List (2014) before switching to mainstream adult thrillers. Five thrillers later Sarah has returned to YA, not to write straight horror, but You Better Watch Out, an engaging YA version of her adult thrillers. This was a solid and highly enjoyable dark thriller which is guaranteed to put you off the festive ‘Secret Santa’ gift tradition forever as you never know who you might upset! Obviously, this is the perfect time of year to read this fast-moving page-turner which has an authentic London backdrop of cash strapped families, teenage problems, parents struggling and a group of Year 11 pupils preparing for their GCSEs. Early in the action main character Eleri’s bag is seemingly stolen but returned to her home, after that she begins to receive messages telling her to go to an abandoned block of flats close to where she lives where there are gifts waiting, initially they are insignificant things like a box of Quality Street chocolates. These gifts coincide with the 25 days of the Nativity and begin on December 1st, with the book chapters structured around the countdown towards Christmas. However, quickly the gifts turn from quirky to sinister with Eleri no longer believing the messages are coming from a potential school crush.
Eleri was a complex and believable character, one of the strengths of You Better Watch Out and although a normal teenager does not see herself as particularly popular and has had the same clingy best friend since she was young. The friendships also play an important part in the manner in which the narrative develops, as two of her friends have serious family problems as home which spill over into the plot. Eleri suffers from lingering guilt from an incident from the same time where a teenager who was new to the class, Nina, disappeared. Although quiet and withdrawn Eleri tried to befriend her and feels she could have done more and been more welcoming. Everything connects together nicely with a good balance of drama and suspense, although you will undoubtedly be asking why the police did not play a more active part in proceedings after the gifts start to turn dark. It was great to read a thriller which was not top loaded with rich Americans, with believable financial worries bubbling in the background, and with the hook cleverly circling back to the Secret Santa. There was little violence, limited swearing and no sex, so this is a twisty fast moving contemporary thriller for most secondary aged pupils to enjoy. AGE RANGE 12+
Wendy Parris – Field of Screams
Random House Children’s Books
I enjoyed being absorbed into the rural farmland setting of Field of Screams, the debut of Wendy Parris, but as this is a Middle Grade novel the screams were relatively mild and is pitched at ages eight to eleven or twelve. The action starts with paranormal enthusiast Rebecca Graff heading for Iowa to stay with relatives of her dead father whom she barely knows. There is a realistic feeling of loss throughout the book as Rebecca struggles to accept the death, whilst believing that living on the farm her father once ran around on as a boy somehow brings her closer to him. When Rebecca finds a note hidden in a comic belonging to her late father the connection becomes even stronger, especially when it is revealed that he was also a ghost enthusiast as a boy. Rebecca was an engaging lead character, who was easy to feel sympathy with, initially pushing people away, including Nick, a fellow baseball fan she slowly finds herself softening towards.
The supernatural angle is connected to a neighbouring farm and after Rebecca believes she sees a ghost begins to investigate, whilst at the same time starts to find out a great deal more about her father’s side of the family. Her cousin Kelsie, they initially clash, adds some extra family drama and there is a nice balance of scares, adventure and intrigue into what the ghost actually wants. The fact that the ghost also haunted Rebecca’s father adds extra spice and the manner in which the spirit was connected to a local historical incident that the kids researched was convincing with the ghost getting slightly scarier as things moved along. A nice read for younger kids who like scary stories, but not too scary. AGE RANGE 8-12
Deirdre Sullivan – Wise Creatures
Hot Key Books
I first came across Deirdre Sullivan back in 2019 when we reviewed Perfectly Preventable Deaths, a beguiling novel about witchcraft in rural modern-day Ireland. Wise Creatures is similar in style in that it is also a slow burner which has to be read very carefully and is aimed at older teens. It is also one of those YA novels that adults could read and not initially realise they are not the targeted audience. Unless you follow the subtexts of the plot, the subtle shifts and narrations it is extremely easy to miss what is going on. Fifteen-year-old Daisy is the main character, who lives with her aunt (Susan) and cousin (Nina) their relationships are so close she regards them almost as sister and mother. Her parents are dead and this is revealed via flashbacks and to other traumatic moments from Daisy’s past which are crucial to the story. The past plays a huge part in the present narrative as Daisy believes ghosts (the ‘Wise Creatures’ of the title) from her childhood have returned to haunt her increasingly withdrawn cousin Nina. These are not ghosts in the traditional sense (and this is miles away from a traditional ghost story) and present themselves as unsettling manifestations such as mould on the walls, objects moving or stuff more akin to poltergeists.
Wise Creatures is a dark psychological slow burning horror novel and if you are after a “boo!” jump scare style of book this will not be for you. It is a very Irish study of a teenager who has a lot of problems, she is also bisexual but this LGBTQIA+ storyline does not figure too much in the narrative and it was great to see this being normalised. What I found most fascinating is that Daisy was a child medium (which is clearly abuse of some kind) and the manner in which she has been brought up and reads the signs of what is ailing her cousin is beautifully vague. As is much of the narrative, which drifts in and out of a stream of consciousness with Daisy’s character being the great strength of the narrative with the layers of abuse she suffered being revealed almost in a casual manner at the action moves forward. This was an immersive reading experience with Daisy believing she has to use her long dormant supernatural gifts to help her cousin. But, of course, it might not be about this at all and that is the beauty of this book. Vague, read between the lines and exploring the idea that it is people who are haunted rather than houses. AGE RANGE 14+
Rosie Talbot – Twelve Bones
Scholastic; 1st edition
Rosie Talbot follows the excellent Sixteen Souls, which we raved about last year, with the direct sequel Twelve Bones which continues the story of supernatural Seers Charlie and Sam. As this story flows naturally from the original, set in the very haunted city of York, I would strongly recommend reading Sixteen Souls before this for a significantly more immersive reading experience. Talbot vividly brings this ancient city to life, where Charlie is able to see and feel ghosts, being later joined by Sam and by the end of the first book the two boys are a couple and this highly entertaining sequel also documents their developing relationship along with a new supernatural mystery. As with Sixteen Souls, Charlie narrates the action in the first person and he is a sympathetic lead character, as well as dealing with the uncertainties of his relationship with Sam, copes with a serious disability, wearing a prosthetic as he lost the bottom part of one of his legs due to a virus some years earlier. I really enjoyed revisiting Talbot’s version of York which she cleverly adds fresh layers creating an exhilarating supernatural ecosystem with world building which compliments what was laid out in the opening book. I liked seeing recurring characters (and ghosts) pop up and the insecurities felt by Charlie were very touching, such as the strong likelihood that Sam might head off to university leaving home behind.
As well as answering some of the lingering questions from book one Twelve Bones has a fresh mystery to keep the series jogging on, with a nice balance of supernatural, romantic and funny. The action picks up a couple of months after Sixteen Souls with the pair getting involved in a mystery which centres around ghosts being seemingly able to hurt real people, something they should not be able to do and find themselves going up against a dodgy group of occultists who have their own agenda for the dead. Team Spectre (which includes a quirky range of support characters) find themselves hunting those who are summoning Wraiths, violent spirits that can kill people and devour their souls. Trauma bubbles in the background and because the book never gets truly violent is accessible to most teens and has a great LGBTQIA+ message and believable disability representation also. There were a number of f-bombs dropped, which I did not think were necessarily required and I hope Charlie and Sam return with a third book. AGE RANGE 12+
Diana Rodriguez Wallach – Hatchet Girls
I was a huge fan of Diana Rodriguez Wallach’s Small Town Monsters (2021) and so was happy to dive into Hatchet Girls, which was a modern spin on the legendary true crime story of axe murderer Lizzy Borden. The story opens with Mariella Morse accusing her boyfriend, Vik Gomez, of murdering her wealthy parents with an axe and everybody believes her. It doesn’t help that her boyfriend is caught standing over her parents’ bodies with blood on his hands, seemingly suffering from a strange memory blackout. From the start it looks cut and dried, Vik is guilty as sin and much of the fun of the book comes from the slow reveal of what actually went on. This was one of those books that treaded a fine line of whether anything supernatural was going on not, but there were pretty big reveals in the second half which answered these questions. The ending was solid enough but some readers might find it slightly underwhelming. Personally, I found one of the characters to be a fairly unlikable rich brat, even if she did have baggage, but I was still fully invested in finding out how the ending would play out.
Hatchet Girls has a fairly choppy narrative which jumps all over the place from before the murder, to the night of the deaths and then how things play out afterwards. The voices are split between Mariella and the sister of the suspect Tessa (who has her own baggage), who does not believe her brother is guilty despite the overwhelming evidence and begins to conduct her own investigation, the only problem is the Morse family are super-rich and highly influential in town. I enjoyed the manner in which historical events were wove together with local legends particularly connected to the forest, supernatural elements and complex family secrets that were revealed as the plot moved on. Perhaps the book could have done with more suspects because if Vik were innocent there were not that many other potential killers. Hatchet Girls was a solid thriller with developing supernatural overtones and it was nice that it was very loosely inspired by a true crime incident few teenagers will know much about, but a quick trip to Google will reveal all about the infamous Lizzy Borden.
AGE RANGE 13+