YA and Middle Grade Horror Roundup, October 2023
In this latest edition of Young Blood the YA and Middle Grade section of Ginger Nuts of Horror we have a fantastic eleven books. At the moment I am struggling to keep up, so watch out for other bumper issues before the end of the year.
I have been a fan of YA author Rin Chupeco for many years, so I was intrigued to read their Middle grade debut The Tale of the Gravemother (Are You Afraid of the Dark? book 1), which was an enjoyable romp. Frances Hardinge is another top favourite of mine and I loved her Island of Whispers, a gentle exploration into death and responsibility which was beautifully illustrated with a folktale feel to proceedings. The second book in the Teddies Saga by Daniel Kraus recently won the inaugural Middle Grade Bram Stoker Award, so I felt it was high time I investigated the first in the series They Threw Us Away which was a decent read.
We also have two enjoyable anthologies, one which is Middle Grade (edited by Jennifer Killick) and the other YA (edited by Amy McCaw) both of which were entertaining but lacked genuine scares. Both anthologies Read, Scream, Repeat, Thirteen Spine Tingling Tales (Jennifer) and A Taste of Darkness: 13 Chilling Stories to Savour (Amy) feature a who’s who of top Middle Grade and YA authors, in particular the YA book which are predominately (all women) well-known UK writers.
I always enjoy featuring the great Bill Hussey with his latest Broken Hearts and Zombie Parts showing his gentler side with a comedy which is clearly a spin on his relatively recent health problems. There are also some laughs to be had in Ann Dávila Cardinal’s about a teen falling for the wrong boy in Breakup From Hell. We review Cyn Belog for the second time with You Won’t Believe Me, an odd mix of thriller and horror which tested my patience slightly.
Social media is front and centre in Lisa Richardson’s intriguing Channel Fear about three ghosthunters with a largely unsuccessful YouTube channel. We finish with two winners, Laura Steven’s Every Exquisite Thing a dreamy drama set in an exclusive drama college which also highlights many other teen issues beyond the supernatural. Finally, I love reviewing the highly prolific Kate Alice Marshall and her latest ghost story The Narrow, which has great LGBTQIA+ representation, about a teen who gets sucked into a historical mystery which develops into a romance.
Do get in touch if you think you have something me might like. The books are presented alphabetically by author.
Cyn Belog – You Won’t Believe Me
We reviewed Cyn Belog’s sneaky supernatural thriller Alone back in 2018 and recently stumbled upon her latest horror thriller, You Won’t Believe Me. I have a sneaky feeling your ultimate opinion of this slow burner will be shaped by how you rate the ‘twist’ ending, probably one of those which will be loved and hated in equal measures. I was not a huge fan and even though it was outrageous, it did not particularly fit with what went before and was easy to pick holes in or throw the book out the window in frustration about. I enjoyed the vagueness of the story, the reader was never really sure what was going on, who to trust or even what reality was. However, considering most of the 350-pages was set in and around an isolated house with very few characters in the middle sections it got repetitive and I found myself drifting off. YA novels need to be snappier and significantly more direct, whilst too much of You Won’t Believe Me meandered and I became frustrated with the vagueness of the characters and their motives.
The story opens with Willow alone, confined to a bed with restraints. She can’t remember how she got there or how long she’s been held captive and is periodically fed by an old woman who dies early in the story. After she manages to free herself from the bed realises there is somebody else in the house, a boy called Elijah and as things play out Willow realises she is a hostage but it is unclear what Elijah genuinely wants. In the background there has been some type of pandemic (Willow’s father was a scientist) which has killed most people and perhaps turned the survivors into something no longer human. Or so we are supposed to believe. The first hundred pages were great with Willow trying to figure out what was going on, but I found the Elijah character to be flat as a pancake and then there is that ending.
AGE RANGE 13+
Ann Dávila Cardinal – Breakup From Hell
I enjoyed both Five Midnights (2019) and Category Five (2020), Ann Dávila Cardinal’s Puerto Rican set supernatural thrillers and was happy to investigate her supernatural rom com, Breakup from Hell. In this story Cardinal abandons Puerto Rico for a small town in Vermont, where nothing much ever happens. However, the Latinx influence remains strong, with the main character coming from a Latin American family, living with her strict grandmother who keeps a very close eye on the teenager, an important aspect of the plot. Main character Mica Angeles is a horror obsessed teen desperate to escape the clutches of her granny and attend university on the other side of the country. The earlier parts of the novel were non-supernatural and was pitched nicely between comedy and drama with a teen who for the first time finds herself head over heels for a boy and tries to hide the fact from her ever-watchful grandmother.
Breakup from Hell moves up a gear when the bored Mica meets Sam, a boy who is cool, suave, sophisticated and has a great taste in books, especially horror. The couple click very quickly, although I felt there could have been more chemistry in their romance. What follows is a balance of supernatural escalations which counteract the amusing rom com side of the story as the relationship develops, whilst the harbouring secrets granny lurks in the background. It was relatively easy to see where the plot was heading, with both sides of the couple having large skeletons in their respective closets. Along the way and adding to the fun there are Biblical showdowns, fall out with friends, scary sisters, apocalyptic visions and even the occasional sword fight. Easy-to-read but relatively forgettable also.
AGE RANGE 12/13+
Rin Chupeco – The Tale of the Gravemother (Are You Afraid of the Dark? book 1)
Although Rin Chupeco has in recent years been concentrating on fantasy, I am a massive fan of their YA horror, in particular The Girl from the Well (2014) and its sequel The Suffering (2015) and so I was intrigued to read their Middle Grade debut, The Tale of the Gravemother. The book is inspired by the Nickelodeon anthology TV show of the same name which ran from 2019-2022 in which a group of teenagers, The Midnight Club, who gather at midnight to tell each other scary stories. This book is true to its origins and is presented as a ‘story within a story’ even if it reads like a straight novel. Considering Chupeco has written some very dark and scary novels they successfully dial it down a couple of notches in this entertaining read, which is pitched as first in a new series based on the TV show. Set in the small town of Solitude, Zane Kincaid and his family inherit the dilapidated Stilgarth Manor, which is famous because of a local ghost story and the disappearance of three children two hundred years earlier, with the prime suspect being the ghost known as the ‘Gravemother’.
The story initially revolves around Zane trying to settle at school, but he quickly antagonises popular kid Garrett Sevilla over a basketball game, but the two are drawn together as they are both able to see the Gravemother. In the background there is the possibility of the mansion being demolished and the youngsters believe this has led to increased activity from the restless spirit. As Garrett’s parents are the local morticians he is used to being close to death and helps when it looks like the ghost is targeting Zane’s little sister Emma. The Tale of the Gravemother develops into a nice little chiller perfect for the top end of primary to lower secondary, which is not too scary or demanding, but has a nice small town feel to proceedings, family drama and developing friendship storyline. It also had some nice jump scares with the ghost popping up all over the places and clearly has a message the children have to decipher.
AGE RANGE 8-12.
Frances Hardinge – Island of Whispers
Frances Hardinge climbs down to Middle Grade with the gently impressive Island of Whispers, illustrated by Emily Gravett. In recent years Hardinge has been setting the bar incredibly high with her YA fantasy and this latest is more in tune with some of her more junior fiction from earlier in her career. This is one of those books which is aimed at upper primary to kids around thirteen, but ultimately it could be enjoyed by adults. Not a word is wasted in this brief 120-page novella in which the younger of two brothers, Milo inherits the family occupation of Ferryman, responsible for ferrying the dead over to a nearby island where they can be sent on their next stage of their journey. If not handled properly the dead are doomed to wander the island for eternity as lost ghosts. Written in a dreamy, almost melancholic style, when the action begins Milo has always believed that his elder brother Leif would ultimately become the next Ferryman, Island of Whispers concerns how this is not the case and why destiny can be both strange and unpredictable.
I loved the manner in which the dead were presented, dangerous if not controlled, but at the same time deserving to be treated with compassion and respect. Which is partly the job of the Ferryman, who collects the shoes of the dead and then takes them to the Broken Tower with Milo not performing the task in the same way as his recently deceased father might. The moving story revolves around a rich Lord who cannot accept his daughter Gabriella is dead and refuses to give Milo her shoes, whilst Milo is able to see the sad ghost girl, who is also unable to accept that her life is over. The matter of life and death is handled very sensitively and younger pupils should be able to read this without too much distress. Island of Whispers tackles some big themes with some style; destiny, bravery, facing the unknown and how we accept death. A beautifully atmospheric story, which although sad, finishes on a beautiful note of hope and acceptance.
AGE RANGE 10-14
William Hussey – Broken Hearts and Zombie Parts
To be fair, Broken Hearts and Zombie Parts is significantly more of a coming-of-age comedy than it is a horror novel. Apart from the highly amusing horror film references (which come thick and fast) it is not horror in the slightest, but because it is written by William Hussey is definitely worth including. I have been a fan of Hussey for many years, going back to his Witchfinder Trilogy (2010-11), Haunted (2013) and Jekyll’s Mirror (2015). After which his career took an admirable new direction with two excellent LGBTQIA+ themed novels Hideous Beauty (2020) and the terrifying dystopian thriller The Outrage (2021). After a detour into adult crime fiction Bill returns with Broken Hearts and Zombie Parts, a very funny comedy with a convincing LGBTQIA+ storyline and the ‘broken heart’ bit obviously inspired by his own recent health concerns. Broken Hearts may well be his lightest book thus far and he shows a deft touch for comedy, with a teenage boy trying to balance a serious health concern and making a no-budget horror film with a taste of light romance and teen drama along the way.
The action starts with Jessie Sparks a few weeks away from having a very serious heart operation and wanting to shoot his film before this happens just in case something goes horribly wrong. Jessie dreams of going to film school and his light-hearted journey into film making, early steps into romance and the dramas of trying to downplay his illness were all great fun. Hussey has a smart touch for comedy and jokey teen interactions, his range of characters were believable, sympathetic and very well rounded. Considering there was not a zombie in sight (except for in cheap makeup) you will find yourself rooting for Jessie as the big operation approaches.
AGE RANGE 12/13+
Jennifer Killick – Read, Scream, Repeat, Thirteen Spine Tingling Tales
Read, Scream, Repeat has an impressive ‘who’s who’ of Middle Grade authors, although I would only regard editor Jennifer Killick (Dread Wood and Crater Lake), Polly Ho-Yen (Boy in the Tower and How I Saved the World in a Week) and Phil Hickes (Aveline Jones series) with genuine track records as horror names. But there are plenty of others featured who write excellent dark fiction, including Dan Smith (Big Game, Boy X and Below Zero) and Kirsty Applebaum (The Middler and Troofriend) and a host of others who write thrillers, dramas, mysteries and even poetry. I was also interested to see terrific YA horror writer Kat Ellis make an appearance, with a ghost story set in a remote part of Wales.
I would recommend this anthology for the top end of primary as it lacked scares and was very mild. If anything it could have been a touch darker, even if several of the stories end with cliffhangers which imply something nasty lurks around the corner. However, for kids who struggle with long books this is ideal and is even an option for parents who still read allow to their children when bedtime comes around. Included in the mix are zombies coming out of arcade computer games, haunted houses, spooky graveyards, trips away from home, scary attics, robots and dodgy friends. My favourite was probably Sharma Jackson’s Charlie’s Twelfth which perfectly pitched the anxiety of being excluded from a birthday party with something darker. Sharna wrote the excellent High-Rise Mystery duology and clearly has a good eye for horror.
AGE RANGE 8-11
Amy McCaw & Maria Kuzniar – A Taste of Darkness: 13 Chilling Stories to Savour
A Taste of Darkness is a seriously big ‘who’s who’ of current British women YA horror and dark fiction authors. I have reviewed seven of them (some more than once) for Ginger Nuts of Horror and read stuff by three others, there were only a couple I had never read or previously heard of. This was an impressive and very enjoyable collection with few weak inclusions, overall though it lacked genuinely scary stories. YA can stretch the boundaries into darker places than this, but this collection played it relatively safe and would also be suitable for most older Middle Grade readers. One of the quirkiest stories and most original was also my favourite, Melinda Salisbury’s Saint Clover, an odd tale of a teenage girl who picks up the wrong leaflet at a funeral and starts reading about a rather obscure saint and soon regrets it. Editor Amy McCaw also delivered a beauty, as is her style, takes us back to an eighties house-party where host Violet is on the lookout for someone special. However, this someone special is to do with the peculiarities of her house rather than anything romantic.
Elsewhere Katherine Foxfield has creepy dolls in Come Find Me and Cynthia Murphy does the same with a mannequin in a decrepit old shop in ‘Til Death Do Us Part. Mary Watson’s The Midnight Kiss was another sneaky inclusion I enjoyed, with teenagers fooling around with a supposedly haunted secret room in a house without realising something darker and cleverer was at play. Something Wicked was another treat, with Kat Dunn’s teenage witch (maybe) a brilliant unreliable narrator as she begins to test out her witching abilities on her father and unpleasant guardian. Amy McCulloch’s The Chiming Hour had a similar style of subtle narration, set at a summer school for talented artists where the famous tutor is taking much more from them than they realise. Elsewhere, watch out for cool stories from Kat Ellis, Karia Kuzniar, Rosie Talbot and Louie Stowell who all also hit the spot in wide ranging tales. Many of the stories had very dark or twist endings and there were a great range of settings, moods and characters with something for any young teen looking for a trip on the dark side.
AGE RANGE 11/12+
Daniel Kraus – They Threw Us Away (The Teddies Saga book 1)
Book two in the Teddies Saga (They Stole Our Hearts) recently won the inaugural Middle Grade category of the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writer’s Association, with this triumph encouraging me to backtrack to 2020 to check out the original. Daniel Kraus has written some great stuff, with his YA titles Rotters (2011) and Bent Heavens (2020) being two personal favourites. Kraus is also one of a very select band of author equally comfortable at writing Middle Grade, YA and adult fiction. They Threw Us Away was an engaging Middle Grade fantasy, but the references in the advance praise compare it to all-time classic Watership Down (1972) are over the top and it is not of that standard, nearly as complex or threatening.
The story is a very simple one: Buddy the teddy wakes up in the middle of a garbage dump, realising he is no longer in the Store waiting to be bought for a child. Soon he finds other discarded teddies; Horace, Sugar, Sunny, and Reginald, together they decide to try to return to the Store and embark on a dangerous journey across the dump and into the outer world. Along the way they encounter rats, diving gulls, and a world they do not understand to get back to their home in the Store. It was pretty easy to see where the story was heading, but the bears were nice company and before long you will be wanting to take them home with you. The publisher notes this book for the 10-14 age group, I would suggest lowering it significantly to
AGE RANGE 8-12.
Kate Alice Marshall – The Narrow
Over the last few years I have reviewed the majority of Kate Alice Marshall’s books, who effortlessly moves from Middle Grade to YA with the occasional adult novel thrown into the mix. The Narrow continues her fine run of form with what develops into a convincing romantic LGBTQIA+ ghost story set in a boarding school which has a river with a very powerful current on its grounds. Atwood School was a neat setting for a ghost story and when teenager Eden White’s family find themselves in financial difficulties the Dean makes her a strange offer; in order to keep her place at the school she must become the live in companion of another girl (Delphine Fournier) who lives on the school grounds, but because of a medical condition cannot go outside. However, the two girls have a shared history nobody remembers from six years earlier, from when they were roommates.
The Narrow was a slow and brooding book in which the romantic element, when we find out Eden is Queer, takes it time to reveal the more complex element of the plot and the nature of the ghost story. The river lurks in the background and has become an important cultural aspect of the school, with pupils being allowed to jump over it at certain times of the year to honour old traditions, whilst knowing full well that the current is so strong falling in means certain death. However, the story circles back to an incident from six years earlier involving the river which changed Delphine forever. As the two girls reacquaint the story begins to slowly reveal itself and the introverted Eden, who narrates the action, begins to see ghostly figures which she is not certain are threats. The Narrow contains secrets everywhere and is a nice slice of boarding school life as Eden has to come out of her shell and deal with both the supernatural and her own feelings.
AGE RANGE 13+
Lisa Richardson – Channel Fear
Lisa Richardson’s debut Channel Fear was a tasty blend of thriller and horror which cleverly utilised our obsession with social media and stardom, whilst asking how far we are prepared to go to gain a few more ‘likes’ or smiley faces. A convincing toxic friendship lies at the centre of Channel Fear, Iris co-hosts an unsuccessful ghost hunting YouTube channel with Byron and his girlfriend Molly. The reader sees the negative comments (and only a few hundred views) after their latest episode fails to make any impression and early in the action we find out that Byron has become tired of the show and is intending to leave, taking Molly with him. The story is told in the first person by Iris, who is much more intense and obsessed with the show’s success, there is also a strong sense of her being an unreliable narrator, as she tries to convince Byron to stay (for more than one reason).
The main hook of the plot was a very clever one: the three are on the hunt for YouTube ghost hunting stars Zach and Lucas, who had a following of over three million subscribers. Ultimately Iris, Byron and Molly dreamed of their success and in a bid to find new viewers try to uncover what happened to Zach and Lucas via a series of shows. After a few damp squids a lead takes them to the long since abandoned Thornhanger House where most of the novel is set. They believe Zach and Lucas visited this spooky house and soon they find clues, however, the novel revolves as much around the dynamics between Iris, Byron and Molly just as much as whether there is anything supernatural going on. As a blame game starts Lisa Richardson nicely balances bumps in the night, friendship troubles with potential sabotage. There are some nice jump scares, obvious comparisons with The Blair Witch Project, clever use of found footage with a strong social media spin relevant for teenagers of today. Apart from a few F-bombs, there was not much violence, I felt anybody in secondary school could read this.
AGE RANGE 12+
Laura Steven – Every Exquisite Thing
Every Exquisite Thing follows Laura Steven’s critically acclaimed The Society of Soulless Girls (2022) which Ginger Nuts reviewed favourably last year. Although the books are not connected they both have older YA settings, universities or drama colleges where all the characters are eighteen. Having more mature teenagers changes the dynamics of the stories slightly as the girls, even if they deal with the same sort of issues, handle them in slightly more adult ways, or at least attempt to. Every Exquisite Thing is set in an exclusive boarding school outside Edinburgh where narrator Penny Paxton struggles to escape the shadow of her hugely successful actor mother who also attended Dorian Drama Academy. She believes everybody else sees her as a nepo baby and suffers from imposter syndrome as well as an eating disorder. The story is narrated in the first person by Penny, who we realise has wanted for nothing, but struggles to connect with her distant mother whom she longs to please.
Much of the story revolves around Penny’s problems and the feud she ignites with fellow student Davina Burns after she steals the role of Lady MacBeth in a rather underhand way. The clue of where the story lies in the name of the college, ‘Dorian’ and the rumour that there is a painter who if he paints your portrait, it is the portrait which ages rather than the person. As the story revolves around what it means to be beautiful and the psychological trauma many teenage girls go through, it nicely balances a thriller with a mounting body count and a teenager who ultimately is very lonely struggling to cope with life. In many ways this was a very sad book, as Penny had everything and still was not happy whilst the eating disorder weakened her. She started off fairly unlikable but grew on me as the story developed and explored her vulnerabilities moving deeper into the supernatural realms. Every Exquisite Things was an engaging character driven slice of older teen life with supernatural overtones which make it clear that everything comes at a price.
AGE RANGE 13+