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 (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 (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, 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.
Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld, illustrated by Alex Puvilland (9781596439368, Amazon)
Addison lives inside the protected border of the Spill Zone, where an event changed the city of Poughkeepsie. No one is allowed into the spill zone, but Addison has found a way to support herself and her younger sister by taking photographs of the strange things happening inside the city. A certain energy keeps the dead floating in the are with glowing eyes, creates strange wolf-like lightning creatures, makes designs out of objects and flattens others into the ground. Addison has only a couple of rules that keep her alive, like not getting off of her motorcycle and never entering the hospital where her parents died. Soon though, a strange woman who has been collecting Addison’s photographs offers her a huge payout for Addison to take on a dangerous mission and break all of her own safety rules.
Westerfeld excels at creating parallel worlds for readers to explore. This graphic novel is no exception, inviting readers to ride fast alongside Addison into a confusing and neon-bright world with rules all its own. Westerfeld combines horror elements and science fiction in this graphic novel, a combination that is vastly appealing and allows Westerfeld to twist and change the world, filling it with surprises that either delight or dismay. Perhaps the best of these is the doll that Addison’s younger sister has that comes alive thanks to energy in the Spill Zone, a secret that Addison isn’t aware of.
The art of the graphic novel is crucial to bringing Westerfeld’s twisted world to life. The play of normalcy against the dangers and horrors of the Spill Zone makes both of them darker and even stranger. The elements of the Spill Zone splash across the page in a blaze of color and oddities. One both wants to return to that area and also avoid it, thanks to the depiction on the pages.
A very successful first book in a new graphic novel series, this one will be popular with Westerfeld fans and fans of horror and sci fi. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake (InfoSoup)
The author of Anna Dressed in Blood returns with a spectacular series opener. On the isolated and shrouded island of Fennbirn, magic still exists. Separated from the mainland, the island governs itself. Every generation triplets are born to the queen, each one heir to their own type of magic. But only one of them can become queen, the other two are destined to die. Katharine is a poisoner and she should be able to feast on poisons that would kill others, but her magic is weak though that fact is hidden. Arsinoe is a naturalist and should have the ability to grow plants and find an animal familiar, but her familiar has never come. Mirabella is an elemental, able to call down enormous storms and dance with fire. She has more power than any elementalist before her. Behind the three girls exists a web of politics and power willing to lie, steal and kill their queen onto the throne. Let the fight begin.
Blake has created a deep tension in this book that plays across the page beautifully. Everything is balanced on a knife’s edge, from the deception of the two weak queens to the unwillingness of the strong queen to kill her sisters. Readers get to see the mechanization behind the throne, the various factions teaching the queens, pushing them into power and punishing them when they fail. For each queen, there is pain, threats and powerlessness despite their station, each expressed in different ways.
The world building here is exquisite from the mist shrouding the island to the vague mentions of the mainland. It is the politics that frame the book, making the horror of the climb to power so immensely readable. The entire novel is riveting with pacing that is skillfully done, the slower sections allowing for the build of despair or horror, love or lust.
A dark delight of a novel that is a rich mix of fantasy and horror. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
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Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter (InfoSoup)
When the nights in Brooklyn seem to be getting longer and longer, lasting almost entire days, Vassa finds herself looking forward to school just not to be home any longer. Part of it is her stepmother and stepsisters and part is pure boredom. It doesn’t help that Erg, the wooden doll that Vassa’s mother gave her before she died, is stealing things from her stepsisters which are then blamed on Vassa. So when one of her stepsisters basically dares Vassa to head to the dangerous local convenience store, Vassa accepts the challenge. She heads to Babs Yagg’s store, the one that dances on chicken legs and that you have to sing down. She makes sure that Erg is with her, as always, and knows that she is in for an unusual experience. What Vassa doesn’t realize is that she is headed straight into her dangerous destiny and will discover an entire magical world that she never knew existed: one with bleeding swans, a dark motorcyclist, severed hands, and beheaded teens.
Inspired by the Russian folktale, Vassilissa the Beautiful, this novel for teens embraces all of the strange and bizarre in that story and takes it even further. Baba Yaga’s home on chicken feet becomes an amazing convenience store filled with some treats that are tempting and others that seem odd and still others that nauseate. The modern Babs Yagg is still very much a witch, and one that toys with her prey in haunting and excruciating ways. There are impossible tasks, the need for plenty of bravery, and real loss and death threatened at every turn.
This is a mesmerizing book, one that is filled with gorgeous writing that stays out of its own way and then rises beautifully to create new moods. Throughout the book the story turns briefly away and into other perspectives like those of the swans themselves or of the attorneys who are after Babs. The language changes and weaves new patterns, creating completely different worlds and experiences and then gently carrying the reader back to the main story. It’s a powerful magic all its own.
Beautifully written, this twist on a folktale is bizarre, wild and extraordinary. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Tor Teen.
Rules of the House by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matt Myers (InfoSoup)
Ian loves to follow the rules while his sister Jenny breaks all of them. So when they go on a trip with their father to a cabin in the woods, Ian loves that there is a list of rules on the wall. Jenny though, ignores the rules, breaking each one of them. The final rule is not to open the red door, which Jenny does. Nothing happens. Until later that night, when the mud-tracked bear rug, the dirty bathtub and the empty woodstove come into the children’s room. At first, Ian flees while his sister is captured by the monsters. But he returns to try to help her. But it may mean breaking the rules!
This book is a delight. It’s a riff on classic horror movies as well as Bluebeard with the forbidden door in an isolated house. Barnett keeps the tone light at all times, making sure that the book is just frightening enough to give shivers but not too frightening for young readers. The focus on following rules is turned on its head with the culmination of the story and learning that sometimes rules are meant to be broken in the right circumstances.
The art by Myers is dark and atmospheric. It plays up the horror motif with long shadows, a scratched up red door that looks like things have tried to break in, and objects that look like monsters even before they fully emerge as monsters. The long moment after the door is opened is drawn out even farther by the full double page spread, showing the quiet house. Wonderful timing!
A great just-right scary read for Halloween that is just creepy enough to enchant. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox (InfoSoup)
Something horrible is happening at Rookskill Castle, a remote castle in Scotland. When Kat and her two younger siblings are sent there to escape the Blitz in London during World War II, they see odd things. There are children who don’t attend classes with the others but can be seen outside fishing in an empty pool, singing in the old part of the castle or polishing silver down in the basement rooms. The Lady who runs the school is also strange, aloof and beautiful, she has hands that are cold and amazingly strong. Kat believes that there may be a Nazi spy at the school, though she doesn’t believe at all in the magic object that her aunt gave her. But things are odder than Kat could ever have dreamed and soon she has to face that there may be magic at work after all as one child after another disappears.
This tantalizing story is pure dark fun. With a glorious mix of mystery and history, there are also elements of horror that are delightful to encounter. There is real risk here, perhaps worse than death itself and that makes this book all the more impressive. Horror for children is a growing genre and here it is handled particularly well with British flavors, historical information, and plenty of hidden passages and magical relics.
As with any great horror story for children, the children here are left to save themselves. The adults are particularly unhelpful and the story explains why in a clear way. Particularly wonderful is a female protagonist who loves numbers, can solve code algorithms better than her teacher, and who can be prickly but also adores her siblings. She’s complicated and exactly the main character this story needs to really work as Kat doesn’t believe at all in magic.
Smart, intelligently written and gorgeously scary, this historical horror for children is a fantastic read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Viking Books for Young Readers.