2020 Bram Stoker Award Winners

The Horror Writers Association has announced the winners of the 2020 Bram Stoker Awards. The awards have one category that is for young adult novels. Here is the winner, followed by the finalist titles:

WINNER

Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare

FINALISTS

Bent Heavens by Daniel Kraus

The Bone Carver by Monique Snyman

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters

The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard

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The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard (9781945820687)

This graphic novel offers a series of strange and tantalizing short stories sure to give readers the shivers. Set in ordinary places like the beach, on a farm, and near a lake, these stories take the mundane and make it strange and horrifying. From a lonely girl who discovers the terrifying truth of what happened on the farm next door to a young girl who meets a boy on the beach who becomes her best friend but who only comes out at night, these stories invite readers to look under the surface to the darkness and weirdness that lurks there. The stories also ask whether monsters are kind or cruel, and how we know what a monster actually is. Some people trust too much, others too little and some find a new path.

I’m a huge fan of Howard’s 2020 graphic novel The Last Halloween: Children. She uses the same gorgeous pen and ink illustrations here, once again creating a world adjacent to our own that is bewildering and yet familiar. Her skill with storytelling is clear as she creates one tale after the other, stringing them together into a beautiful yet horrifying collection that can’t be put down.

She manages to quickly bring us into each story with both her text and her illustrations, showing us at first how normal each scene is and then swiftly ripping that away. It’s a pleasure to experience each reveal, timed just right for maximum impact and then to have the story play out in unexpected and surprising ways.

A great graphic novel for teen horror fans. Best read after dark. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Iron Circus Comics.

The Last Halloween: Children by Abby Howard

Cover image for The Last Halloween: Children

The Last Halloween: Children by Abby Howard (9781945820663)

This marvelously creepy horror graphic novel starts with a man’s death by fire where a strange dog-like demon stays to witness and then reports back to a woman. That same woman has a teenager in the back of her car, hooded and kidnapped. Later at the hospital, it is clear that the man survived after all, but is terribly burned. The doctor helping him is surprised by a strange figure with two heads and a body sewn together who demands her help. With such strange things afoot, the story moves to Mona, a 10-year-old girl who gets caught up as the world turns to chaos around her. After being left home alone on Halloween, Mona discovers a huge horned creature on her couch. Running away, she tries to reach the police station and takes a short cut through the cemetery. It is there that she meets the others who will join her in her Halloween quest: a vampire, a ghoul, and a living doll. Halloween is just getting started!

A warning first of all, this is not a graphic novel for 10-year-olds, even though the protagonist is that young. Save this one for teenagers who will revel in its grotesque creatures and gore. The panels include maiming, death and dismemberment vividly shown, and often done with a sly sense of humor. This book offers a demon horde determined to take over the world with only a handful of teens and children to try to stop them and one rather inept mummy. The plot offers a satisfying adventure and hero’s journey through a landscape of horrors with pacing that adds to the humor as well as the fright.

Drawn in black and white, the illustrations are captivatingly macabre. Even the human characters like Mona have over-large heads, tiny bodies and eyes that look right at readers. Howard leans into the gross factor, creating gore in black ink that you swear is actually blood red. With a diverse cast of characters, including Mona’s parent who uses the pronouns they/them.

Perfect for teens who enjoy blood, gore and demons mixed with lots of humor. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Iron Circus Comics.

The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins

The Sisters of Straygarden Place cover image

The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins (9781536212273)

Mayhap lives with her two sisters in Straygarden Place, a magical mansion that caters to all of their needs. The house feeds them, tucks them into bed at night, and gives them anything they wish for. But the house can’t bring back their parents, who disappeared into the tall silver grass that surrounds the house seven years ago. Now Winnow, the oldest of the sisters, has entered the grass herself. When she returns, she is different: her eyes are turning silver and she is unable to speak. Mayhap in particular seems to upset Winnow, so Pavonine, the youngest cares for her. Meanwhile, Mayhap is determined to figure out how to save her sister. She encounters a mysterious other girl in the house, one who claims to have been there a long time and who is connected with the house. As Mayhap begins to unravel the mystery of the house, she must face the truth about herself and her sisters and what has been stolen from them all.

Chewins has created a delicious mystery here. It’s a marvelously constricted mystery, set in a house that no one dares leave, surrounded by sentient grass, and filled with strange contraptions, rules and delights. It’s the ideal book for a pandemic lockdown, sharing much of the qualities of our lives over the past few months. Chewins has created a truly eerie setting, the grass whispering at the windows and the house revealing spaces that the girls never knew existed. The clues are glimpses into their own past as well as that of the house itself.

The entire book is filled with marvelous details. There are the dogs who climb into the girls’ heads so that they can sleep. There are the carpets that thicken to provide padding or move to carry Mayhap to a new part of the house. There are delightful meals provided by the house, that can be clues as well. And a coffee-scented library that makes one want to linger with the living card catalog. Mayhap herself is a grand heroine, willing to sacrifice herself for her sisters and determined to understand what is actually happening to them all.

A genre-breaking book that is a fantasy-mystery with Victorian delights and horrors that will enter your dreams. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.

Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power

Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power

Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power (9780525645627)

The author of Wilder Girls returns with a novel that is a dangerous mix of fire, family and fate. Margot has always lived with just her mother, struggling to make ends meet. Her mother has strange rules, like always leaving a candle burning. Margot has always wondered about the rest of her family, her father and grandparents. When she discovers a photograph of her grandmother’s home, she finally has the key to find them. She doesn’t expect to enter the town of Phalene and be immediately recognized as a member of their family, and she certainly doesn’t expect her grandmother to be despised, living alone on a ruined farm. When a girl with Margot’s face is found dead, Margot finds herself at the heart of a mystery that she may never escape.

A dynamic combination of horror, mystery and science fiction, this book grabs readers up and doesn’t release them until the final ember dies down. It’s a book that is terrifying but also exceptionally written with a keen sense of pacing, allowing moments of revelation to slow and other moments to race past. Power deeply understands horror, giving readers just enough information to keep them guessing. Her use of a rural setting is marvelous, hearkening back to classics like Children of the Corn.

Margot is a flawed character who is prickly, challenging and demanding. In other words, the perfect heroine for a horror novel. Margot refuses to allow her mother or grandmother to control her, always pushing and questioning what they are doing. It’s what lands her back in Phalene and what gets her into the center of all of the trouble.

Smart, haunting and horrifying, this novel begs to become a horror flick. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Delacorte Press.

 

Review: Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden (9780525515029)

This shivery novel for middle-grade readers will give just the right amount of creepiness for kids reading Goosebumps. Ollie’s mother died in an accident last year, and Ollie found solace in her books, withdrawing from the kids who were her friends and not talking in class. Her father continues to create a warm home for her filled with fresh-baked bread and other treats. When Ollie meets a strange woman about to throw a book into the lake, Ollie rescues the book and runs away. She reads the book, learning about the “smiling man” and the deal that a local man made with him. When she heads out on a field trip with her class, Ollie is surprised to find herself on the farm in the book that has graves for the people in the story. On their way back home, the school bus breaks down and Ollie escapes with two other students from the clutches of the scarecrows and the smiling man himself. Can they avoid capture and find a way back home before nightfall?

There is so much to love about this book. It is so readable for kids, a story that is well-paced and actually frightening, but at just the right level for young readers. The scarecrows are particularly effective as they pivot to watch the children go by and come to life at night. The ghosts are eerie as is the hungry gray bus driver. Young readers will also appreciate Ollie’s growing connection to her mother through her mother’s broken watch, something that tells her what to do and by when. It’s a clever addition to the story, offering a sign of hope and a way out of grief.

Throughout the book, there are characters who will surprise readers by going directly against stereotype. First, there are Ollie’s parents with her domestic father and adventurous mother. Then the two children who accompany Ollie through her adventure are a jock who reads and quotes literature at just the right time and a girl who looks tiny and frail but can climb almost anything and is actually brave and strong. These unexpected little touches add up to a team that is unbeatable as they face real demons.

Written with rich prose that is a delight to read, this eerie tale will be enjoyed by any young reader looking for some spine tingles. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert (9781250147905)

For all of Alice’s seventeen years, she and her mother have been moving from one place to another. Her childhood is a blur of long car rides, the novels she read in different places, and the love of her mother. When Alice tries to ask about people like her grandmother, a reclusive author of a book of fairy tales that has a strong cult following, her mother won’t answer. So when they get news of her grandmother’s death in her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice longs to go. When her mother disappears, Alice and her classmate Finch set out to rescue her from the Hinterland, the setting of her grandmother’s book. Can Alice and Finch survive the dangers of a fairy tale world made real?

As a longtime fan of fairy tales, I loved this book. I particularly appreciated the fanged and bloody approach to these stories, ones that have echoes of traditional tales but are also entirely unique. Albert bridges Alice’s grandmother’s book into the novel cleverly, offering glimpses of the stories but never giving them all to the reader or to Alice. They are tantalizing peeks at the stories that are warnings mixed with welcomes. The entire novel is like this, beckoning readers in but also offering cruelty as a reward.

Alice is an equally fascinating figure who is deliciously flawed, filled with an anger that hovers just under her skin. She sees her mother as the one person she has in life, thanks in large part to their nomad lifestyle, as they flee the dangers that suddenly appear. The writing throughout the book is incredibly beautiful, angry and fiery. Albert weavers new metaphors with an ease that is deceptive, creating magic in the real world before moving on to do it in a fairy tale as well.

A great read, this blend of fairy tale and horror is completely intoxicating. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Netgalley and Flatiron Books.

 

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor (9780670785612)

This is the second book in the Akata Witch series, a book that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. It does not disappoint! The second book continues the story of Sunny, a girl who has become part of the secret Leopard Society. Leopard People like Sunny can work magic, do juju, and cross boundaries into the wilderness, a space that is different from the physical world. As Sunny grows into her powers and learns more skills, she is being haunted by dreams of a burning city that seem to indicate a coming apocalypse. As she works towards her destiny, Sunny realizes that she is once again being hunted by the masquerade Ekwensu. She must journey to the city in her dreams, but the journey is harrowing and the skills she needs hard to come by.

Okorafor combines modern Nigeria with fantasy once again in this second novel. So often second books in series can be disappointing, serving only as a bridge between two stronger novels. This is not the case here. Instead, Okorafor takes readers deeper into Leopard Society, enlarges our understanding of juju and other powers, and shows how real the rules of the society are. The author dances the line between horror and fantasy very effectively, all the while incorporating elements of Nigerian society into the story for a very rich and varied experience.

In this second book, readers will see a more experienced and older Sunny. She still has a lot to learn, not only about her powers but about her family and about the society she has joined. Sunny is a determined and thoughtful heroine whose powers are vital to the story but whose bravery and independence make her the person she needs to be to battle evil. There is no way not to adore her as a protagonist, even as she makes mistakes.

Start with the first in the series, because you don’t want to miss a moment of this intoxicating blend of fantasy, horror and Nigeria. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking Books for Young Readers.

The Song from Somewhere Else by A. F. Harrold

The Song from Somewhere Else by A. F. Harrold.jpg

The Song from Somewhere Else by A. F. Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold (9781681194011, Amazon)

Released July 4, 2017.

This novel for middle grades combines fantasy with a touch of horror. Frank’s best friends are away for most of the summer, so she doesn’t have much to do. Her father is always sending her out of the house to play, unaware that she has been targeted by a group of boys and is being bullied. When they toss her backpack into a patch of nettles, another boy steps in. Nick has always been teased at school and doesn’t have any friends. He’s bigger than the other kids and talks almost like an adult. Frank isn’t sure she wants to be friends with Nick, but when she visits his home she hears strange music that makes her feel stronger and better. Frank snoops enough to find out Nick’s secret, one that is dangerous and puts them both at risk.

Harrold’s writing is exceptional. He writes about bullying with deep perception and understanding. The bullying scenes are intense and underscore the feeling of powerlessness combined with cruelty. Harrold also captures the way that one can think one thing in the gut in another in the head. Frank has a lot of difficult choices to make in the book, ones that put her own well-being before that of others. It’s particularly nice that Frank is not a great heroine. She manages to betray people, think of deserting them, wonder whether she should just walk away, and yet in the end is exactly the heroine that we all need to be. She is often not really likable either, and that makes the book work particularly well somehow.

Pinfold’s illustrations are swirls of darkness and shadow on the page. They menace and threaten, just like the bullies in the neighborhood. There’s an aspect of danger to all of them. They manage to be both intimate and distant, a dance of being the victim or the observer.

A novel that combines horror and fantasy into one dark summer, this book is simply amazing. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Bloomsbury.