YA and Middle Grade Roundup, April 2023
Welcome to our latest roundup of both YA and Middle Grade horror/dark fiction which includes eight books for you to check out. In the Middle Grade section we have Yvonne Banham’s The Dark and Dangerous Gifts of Delores Mackenzie and the third instalment in Jennifer Killick’s Dread Wood series, Flock Horror. Jim Ody’s Camp Death (Eerie Things Series, book 1) nicely crosses between Middle Grade and YA and could be read by either age group.
Of the other five YA titles very few of them could be classed as traditional horror novels, with most blending into other genres. Chad A Clark makes a cool YA debut with The Curse Of Worthwood Castle (New Horizons) after writing a range of impressive adult fiction, his latest blends science fiction and fantasy into an engaging time-travel romp. Three of the remaining four are thrillers which all have very dark elements, Kayla Cottingham’s This Delicious Death, Kesia Lupo’s Let’s Play Murder and Chelsea Sedoti’s Tell Me What Really Happened. However, if you are after a more traditional horror read then Andrea Hannah’s Where Darkness Blooms ticks many of those boxes in style.
The books are presented alphabetically and do get in touch if you have something we might like.
Yvonne Banham - The Dark and Dangerous Gifts of Delores Mackenzie
Publisher : Firefly Press
Middle Grade fiction is top-heavy with excellent supernatural fiction and The Dark and Dangerous Gifts of Delores Mackenzie, Yvonne’s Banham’s debut is another solid read for the 9-12 age group. Even though the main character Delores Mackenzie is a slightly older teen, her mannerisms and behaviour are fairly young (and there is no romance) so it is definitely pitched at the younger age group. The supernatural element of the story was rather tame and so it fits nicely for the top end of primary or the youngest secondary aged pupils. Delores comes from a family with supernatural ability and has been able to see ghosts since she was young, but as she struggles to control this gift the ghosts, called Bòcan (Gaelic word for spirit) are relentlessly attracted to her. When the novel opens she is staying with her elder sister (her parents disappeared and this is obviously a mystery for a potential sequel) but is soon sent to Edinburgh where she is to be taught in the supernatural arts by the mysterious ‘Uncles.’
What follows is a fairly standard but entertaining supernatural mystery and although the action takes place in Edinburgh I felt the book could have done more to bring this fantastic city to life and although the odd Scottish word is thrown in, the book did not come across as especially ‘Scottish.’ Set predominately in the Tolbooth Book, Store Delores meets the Uncles and a few other kids who have varying supernatural powers and the ways in which they contrasted were nicely portrayed. Delores is a necromancer, able to see the dead, though most of them are merely passing spirits brushing past her some are much, much more dangerous. Gabriel is a diviner, with the ability to read other people and uses tarot cards. Prudence is an illusionist, able to plant suggestions and visions in people's minds, and the way she uses her powers to give Delores a tough time is a key part of the story and developing friendships. Yvonne Banham sets the groundwork for a potential sequel with a well described supernatural world which coexists with ours in which the Scottish First Minister is aware of the existence of the supernatural. Soon Delores is knee deep in a mystery surrounding the disappearance of another girl who was recently taught by the Uncles and uses her gift to investigate further. A fun not too-threatening supernatural thriller with engaging characters.
AGE RANGE 9-12
Chad A Clark - The Curse Of Worthwood Castle (New Horizons)
Publisher : Darker Worlds Publishing
I have been a fan of Chad Clark, who is well established as an adult horror writer, for a few years and have read most of his work. His fiction often blends horror with both science fiction and thriller, and in regard to non-fiction has written a highly regarded primer on the world’s most famous horror writer, Tracing The Trails: A Constant Reader's Reflections on the Work of Stephen King, which ranks amongst the best ever books written about King. So The Curse of Worthwood Castle is Clark’s first foray into the world of Young Adult fiction and on the whole his debut is a fast paced, engrossing mash-up of genres with a nostalgic nod to the famous eighties film Back to the Future, even if Chad’s story is set a few years later (1993). If genuine teen readers don’t appreciate the jokey references to ancient 14.4 speed modems and taking 24 hours to download a film (or even a picture!) I had a good chuckle.
The story is built around three teens Arthur Roberts (the tecky), and siblings Jenny and Hitch Crenshaw who all live in Ohio City and are in their final days of high school. After trying to film a theft at the school lockers they are chased to Worthwood Castle, a huge, abandoned building with a strange history. Whilst avoiding the bullies something in the castle transports them to 2018. The jump takes place after fifty pages of this fast-moving novel and stranded in a future Ohio City they both have to survive and find a way back to 1993. However, they realise something is off about 2018 and it connects to Tower Investments and a former classmate who is now the town mayor in their future. This tall tale was a lot of fun, with nicely drawn sympathetic characters who find themselves being stalked by other beings who do not want them meddling in this version of the future. All of which connects back to Worthwood Castle and the magic gateway. The Curse of Worthwood Castle had a lot of great moments and I loved the messages from across time “to the three adventurers” and is blessed with a terrific ending which promises a sequel.
AGE RANGE 12/13+
Kayla Cottingham - This Delicious Death
Publisher : Sourcebooks Fire
Ginger Nuts reviewed Kayla Cottingham’s debut My Dearest Darkest, an entertaining supernatural thriller set in a posh boarding school, and her follow up This Delicious Death is satisfyingly different from its predecessor. Once again we have a tightknit group of older teenage girls who are in their final days of high school (but they come across as much older) who head out on a road-trip to attend a desert music festival. The dynamics of this part of the novel played out as a blend of teen drama and comedy, with an LGBTQIA+ storyline and a snarky first-person narrative from one of the girls, Zoey. However, the second major plot was significantly more off-beat and one wonders whether it deserved something more substantial than a group of teens fooling around at a musical festival, who get caught up in some trouble.
Partly told through convincing flashback, we find out that three years earlier the melting of the atmosphere, causing a small percentage of people to undergo a transformation that became known as the Hollowing (the word ‘zombie’ is used only twice in the novel). Those impacted slowly became intolerant to normal food and were only able to gain sustenance by consuming the flesh of other human beings. Those who went without flesh quickly became feral, turning on their friends and family. However, scientists were able to create a synthetic version of human meat that would satisfy the hunger of those impacted by the Hollowing. As a result, humanity slowly began to return to normal, albeit with lasting fear and distrust for the people they'd dubbed ghouls. The main characters (Zoey, Celeste, Valeria and Jasmine) are Hollows and have accepted they have to eat SynFlesh to survive. However, things take a turn for the worse when Val goes feral and ends up killing and eating a boy from one of the bands they watched. This Delicious Death was an odd blend of comedy, teen drama, romance, and horror thriller which although the tone misfired on occasion was a quirky imaginative tale that had LGBTQIA+ storylines flowing naturally with the cannibalism!
AGE RANGE 13/14+
Andrea Hannah – Where Darkness Blooms
Publisher : Wednesday Books
Andrea Hannah’s Where Darkness Blooms was a slow (maybe too slow for some readers) blend of supernatural thriller and intense family drama. The setting was outstanding, an isolated Kansas town eerie oozing with secrets (but no answers) where there are frequent weird goings on with very localised storms and sunflowers which seem to be alive. There is something dodgy with the land, a cross-generational web of secrets which seems to impact the women of the town. Even though it took a while for much to happen, the central characters were incredibly well drawn and the town of Bishop was outstanding. The supernatural story simmers in the background and it was interesting to see where it fitted into the main plot of four teenagers trying (and failing) to get over the disappearance of their three mothers two years earlier.
The story picks up two years after the women disappeared and nobody is looking for them, or particularly surprised as they are by no means the first to vanish. Where Darkness Blooms deals with the aftermath and how their daughters deal with this and never give up their search, even if they do it in different ways. We have Delilah, who is dating Bennett, but there are intimacy issues, and the fact that one of the other girls, Jude, had a summer fling with Bennett also. There is a convincingly good LGBT+ storyline with Whitney both trying to recover from the loss of a girlfriend and move on with somebody new. Finally, there is Bo who is desperate for answers and is sure the town locals are hiding something. Even though this was a thoughtful book, all the men and boys in it were painted so negatively it seemed to lack balance and it was relatively obvious where everything was heading with a Children of a Corn vibe, sacrifices and all.
AGE RANGE 13+
Jennifer Killick – Flock Horror (Dread Wood book 3)
Publisher : Farshore
I am a major fan of Jennifer Killick and have reviewed most of her novels, from the excellent Crater Lake duology to Dread Wood and its sequel Fear Ground, which this third entry is set not long after. In both previous books a group of Year Seven (aged 11 or 12) go up against a pair of nasty/mad scientists, with the plots including creepy spiders, dodgy social media and very creep clowns. When I reviewed Fear Ground I mentioned that if there was to be a third book the series needed a new villain as I found the Latchitts (the mad scientists) to be seriously underwhelming, but they are indeed back in Flock Horror and although they do not feature much, they are just as dull as previously and add little to the book. As villains go they are as tired as they come and I already see Killick has book four planned Deadly Deep, it really needs to move beyond the Latchitts before it becomes seriously stale.
In comparison to the best of Middle Grade horror, although Flock Horror is an easy enough fun read if rather pedestrian and adds little character development or anything new to the series. This time out Angelo, Gus, Naira, Hallie and Colette (AKA ‘The Loser Club’) are menaced by aggressive flocks of birds which start attacking people. Thinking the birds are either possessed, genetically modified or are being controlled in some way the evidence soon points to the Latchitts, even if the police think the scary couple are in France. For kids who are in Year 5 and 6 this is a non-threatening fun read, some of the scenes when the Loser Club were attacked at school were great action sequences and the banter between the kids was enjoyable. Even though some of the promotional material connects it to Stranger Things, I thought it was too easy and young for that audience. If you already have book one and two in your library I would still buy this for existing fans of the series, but it is a fairly undemanding book for the Year 7 age group.
AGE RANGE 8-12
Kesia Lupo – Let’s Play Murder
Publisher : Bloomsbury YA; 1st edition
Back in 2019 we reviewed Kesia Lupo’s debut We Are Blood and Thunder, which was an engaging fantasy novel, Let’s Play Murder is Kesia’s third novel and a notable change of direction. In her latest fantasy is nicely blended with both science fiction and murder mystery with five teenagers trapped in a dangerous virtual reality computer game which turns out to be very real and incredibly dangerous. Ultimately Let’s Play Murder is a computer geek version of an old fashioned whodunnit with red herrings, sneaky twists and with the finger being pointed at most of the characters at one time or another. Although it was a solid read, ultimately was not tecky enough for my taste and on numerous occasions I almost forgot that the story was set in a VR environment and everything was just too normal and like the real world. This game world lacked the creative and visual flair of the classic Ready Player One and although it attempted to create an escape room feel I found some of it underwhelming as the characters moved through the rooms in the game house.
The concept behind Let’s Play Murder was clever, Veronica is visiting her little brother in hospital, hears some awful news and wakes up in a snowy wasteland. In quick succession four others find themselves in the same situation, finding themselves in ‘The Game’ a semi-mythical or notorious computer game which lurks on the Dark Web. You cannot choose to play but are automatically transported there through easter eggs in other games. The group soon discover a sprawling mansion and a dead body and are instructed to examine the house for clues and identify the murderer through a succession of levels. The problem is you cannot choose to leave and they realise death in the game means death in the real world. There was a lot of fun to be had, but I found I did not particularly like any of the characters, but I am sure genuine teen readers will have much more fun breaking down the clues and in tune with the teen angst.
AGE RANGE 12+
Jim Ody – Camp Death (Eerie Things Series, book 1)
Publisher : Question Mark Horror
Summer camps with gruesome goings on set in America are a dime-a-dozen, but since Camp Death is set in Devon (south of England) I just had to drop in for a visit! Published back in 2021, with the second Eerie Things title The Brood to be reviewed in my next roundup, it also features a teenage boy as a central character. Boy narratives have sadly all but disappeared from horror/dark fiction, so it was refreshing to spend time with Ritchie, who is a rather shy teenager and when the story opens is painfully regretting asking his best friend out on a date and is dealing with all the anxieties connected to this rejection. On one level Camp Death is reminiscent of the classic Point Horror, other RL Stine fiction or Christopher Pike but has more than enough fresh ideas to turn into a solid page-turner for any young teen. For the most part Jim Ody keeps much of the plot nice shrouded, including some particularly good twists, until close to the end. I was not convinced by the very end, which seemed like one twist too many, but the potential supernatural angle was nicely managed.
The action opens with Ritchie, his eighteen-year-old sister and their parents arriving at ‘Camp Deathe’ where the parents stay in a resort area and the teens are bunked in cabins. Initially dreading it, Ritchie soon finds a group of outsiders like himself and makes friends and finds himself attracted to a girl who seems to like him back. The story nicely captures the awkwardness of teenage hormones and kicks off when one of the camp leaders disappears and there is talk of a creature stalking the encroaching forests or a curse. Ultimately there is a lot more going on than you might initially think, which touch upon some very real subjects which were sensitively overseen. The banter between the teens was convincing and readers will have fun uncovering the secrets of the camp and understand his own problems in order to survive which are much more complicated than being rejected by his best friend at the start of the novel.
AGE RANGE 11-14
Chelsea Sedoti – Tell Me What Really Happened
Publisher : Sourcebooks Fire
Tell Me What Really Happened is Chelsea Sedoti’s fourth novel and the first I have read and is more of a dark thriller than horror novel, but you might have to keep your eyes peeled for Bigfoot (or not!) depending on which of the four contradicting narratives you believe. The novel has a clever premise, with four teenagers being interviewed by the police after the disappearance of a mutual friend on a camping trip. The police officers do not play a part in the story, but at the start ask a question which is then answered in the first person by the four (probably unreliable) teenager narrators. When you get beyond the fact that all the characters are incredibly shallow and self-serving they deliver a very readable page-turner, which keeps the reader guessing, has decent reveals, an LGBTQ+ story, twists and a huge dollop of teen angst. Whilst the big question remains, what actually happened to Maylee and is she alive or dead?
Through the police interviews we are taken back to the woods around Salvation Creek, where other teens had disappeared and there was a myth that Bigfoot wandered the area. The four narratives were hugely different and part of the fun is deciding who or what to believe. Right from page one Nolan is certain Maylee was killed by Bigfoot and tells the police he saw the creature eating her. The other three do not verify this claim and as the interviews continue their stories change and they turn on each other. Petra is the extremely confident best friend of Maylee and daughter of a police officer, with Nolan being obsessed with Cryptozoology, John was her supposed boyfriend and Abigail a friend with history. This was an extremely fast paced story where all four friends come under suspicion, hide lies, whilst the police try to uncover what really happened in the woods. Considering the book was leading up to the big reveal of what actually happened to Maylee I found the ending rather underwhelming, sure it made sense, but was not worth the build-up. But it was still a very solid thriller.
AGE RANGE 13/14+
Over the last few months my reading has significantly outpaced the speed at which I review, so in this latest roundup I am herding together all the books published in 2022 I missed upon initial release or read further down the line.
Of the nine books featured I only consider two to be straight YA, the others are either crossovers with Middle Grade or purely Middle Grade titles, aimed at the age group nine to twelve. The Restless Dark is Erica Waters third novel, I am a massive fan of Erica who always has great LGBTQ+ representation in her fiction, although this was a decent read, it failed to reach the heights of her previous two novels. Monochrome is the highly impressive YA debut from adult crime from Jamie Costello, AKA Laura Wilson, a dystopian tale in which colour is drained from the world. This was very clever, original, and is highly recommended.
The crossover titles include the second book in Jonathan Stroud’s The Notorious Scarlett and Browne series and I preferred this instalment to the original which includes excellent world building and a promise of a third juicy part with big revelations. Stroud is the author behind the smash Netflix hit Lockwood and Co series of books and has a seriously good back catalogue which is worth investigating should you be unfamiliar with his work. I was also greatly impressed by Manon Steffan Ros’s quiet apocalyptic tale The Blue Book of Nebo which has been longlisted for the 2023 Carnegie Medal and was first published in Welsh a few years ago. Angharad Walker follows the excellent Ash House which we reviewed last year with Once Upon a Fever a dark fantasy set in an alternate version of London. Both were very enjoyable reads.
Middle Grade has great representation in this roundup, including Katherine Arden’s Empty Smiles which is the fourth book (but far from the best) entry in the Small Spaces series. I was impressed by Yvette Fielding’s second book in her Ghost Hunter Chronicles series, preferring The Ripper of Whitechapel to the original The House in the Woods which we reviewed in 2021. Book three The Witches of Pendle arrives later this year and I will definitely be reading that. Sequels are always big news in Middle Grade fiction and Kate Alice Marshall closes out her excellent Thirteens Trilogy (the Secrets of Eden Eld series) with the engaging Glassheart. We featured AF Harrold much earlier in his career and his latest The Worlds We Leave Behind is also included on the 2023 Carnegie Medal Long List and it is great to see this highly creative author getting the attention his very original and wildly inventive fiction deserves.
The novels are presented in alphabetical order by author.
Katherine Arden – Empty Smiles
Publisher : G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Empty Smiles is the fourth book in the Small Spaces Quartet which began back in 2018, all four novels feature the same characters, Ollie, CoCo, Brian and Phil and have a recurring supernatural villain, the dastardly ‘Smiling Man’. The books are probably best in correct order as the friendships developed in Small Spaces are strengthened over the sequels, with lonely Ollie overcoming the death of her mother through her new friendships. This series is a great example of small-town Middle Grade horror, they are not too scary and there is no swearing and the teen angst is generally kept just around the corner. Empty Smiles is a direct sequel to Dark Waters where the children battled with the Smiling Man after being shipwrecked on an island on a Vermont lake, with the ripple of the events of book three stretching into the Empty Smiles. If you like creepy clowns and dolls then jump right in.
In this latest book Ollie is trapped inside a weird carnival and is held prisoner by the Smiling Man whilst her friends do their best to help her escape. The problem is they do not know where she is until a boy who went missing at a nearby town reappears and gives them a message and they realise the carnival will soon be coming to their little town. Brian, Coco and Phil will risk everything to rescue Ollie, but they all soon realize this game is much more dangerous than the ones before and they have only until sunrise to beat him once and for all otherwise they will never see Ollie again and she will remain trapped with the Smiling Man. Although Empty Smiles was enjoyable it lacked a strong ending, it was incredibly abrupt, and I felt it missed a trick in revealing more about the villain considering the key role he had across the series. It is probably time to put this series to bed and it is a shame it did not do so with more of a bang.
AGE RANGE 10-13
Jamie Costello - Monochrome