YA – Never Coming Home

Williams, Kate. Never Coming Home. Delacorte Press, 2022. 978-0-593-30486-0. 320 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

A free, invite only trip to a never before seen, exclusive tropical island resort is too good to pass up for ten young influencers. Following an extensive marketing campaign, the resort has a soft opening for its first ten guests. They represent a variety of backgrounds: the gamer, the beauty blogger, the rich girl, the superstar, the junior politician, the environmentalist, the DJ, the CEO, the chef, and the athlete. But pictures can be deceiving, and Unknown Island isn’t all it was promised to be. Cut off from the rest of the world the guests come to realize the island resort is a trap instead of a treat; then things turn deadly. Each influencer keeps their secrets close, beginning to question who else is on the island with them – or if one of them is the person behind the terror. Who will suffer horribly, and who (if anyone) will make it off alive to tell the tale?

THOUGHTS: Recommended for high school libraries, hand this fast-paced thriller to fans of Gretchen McNeil, Karen McManus, and April Henry.

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Thriller

YA – The Weight of Blood

Jackson, Tiffany D. The Weight of Blood. Katherine Tegen Books, 2022. 978-0-063-02914-9. 306 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Madison “Maddy” Washington, who lives with her controlling and abusive father in their small town of Springville, Georgia, has spent her whole life “passing” as white. She straightens her hair, dutifully applies sunscreen, and stays home if there’s any chance of rain. An unexpected spring shower curls her hair and reveals that she is black, closely followed by a racist incident of bullying that is captured on another student’s cell phone. As the students at Springville High attempt damage control to prove to the world that they are not a racist community, they consider ending the tradition of segregated proms for black and white students and holding the school’s first All-Together Prom. One of the popular black students asks Maddy to prom as part of a stunt to keep up appearances, and readers familiar with Stephen King’s Carrie will suspect where things are headed. Author Tiffany D. Jackson mixes Maddy’s point of view with transcripts of a podcast called “Maddy Did It,” press coverage of events in Springville, and the perspectives of several other students. The climactic prom chapters are gleefully, horrifically over the top.

THOUGHTS: Jackson’s second foray into horror (after last year’s White Smoke) is the work of an author at the top of her game. The Weight of Blood is a standout, from the cover image of a blood-soaked prom queen to the foreboding tagline: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the tiara.”

Horror          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD
Mystery

The town of Springville, Georgia still is recovering from a tragedy everyone knows Maddy Washington is responsible for causing. In fact, there’s now a podcast “Maddy Did It.” But before the climactic event that changed the town forever, Maddy Washington is a high school student who keeps to herself and generally is considered a loner. At home Maddy lives in fear of her father, who owns an antique shop and enjoys reruns of favorite classic movies. Maddy, who secretly is biracial, has passed for white her entire life. Under the glare of her father’s watchful eye, she can’t imagine anyone finding out her secret and works hard to hide the truth. Avoiding the sun, wearing long clothes – even in the summer – Maddy stays home on rainy days and has a strict beauty regimen. When Maddy’s gym class gets stuck outside in a sudden rain storm, she is devastated that her secret is out. Her peers are shocked, and Maddy’s father is furious. When racist bullying, played off as a “simple joke,” is caught on camera, Springville is labeled a racist community. Hoping to prove the world is wrong about them, student leaders attempt some damage control. But with a history of segregated proms, this small town seems to be stuck in the 1950s instead of modern day.

THOUGHTS: With masterful skill, Jackson gives an updated take on a Stephen King classic, incorporating racial tensions and teenage drama into a modern day setting. Highly recommended for high schools seeking to add new titles to their mystery/horror genre.

Horror          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD
Mystery

YA – M Is for Monster

Dutton, Talia. M Is for Monster. Abrams ComicArts, 2022. 978-1-4197-5197-4. 224 p. $17.99. Grades 7-10.

Frankenstein’s monster gets a gender-flipped, graphic novel update in Talia Dutton’s M Is for Monster! Innovative scientist Frances Ai lost her younger sister in a laboratory accident six months ago. Frankie cobbled Maura back together and, with the help of a well-timed lightning strike, brought her back to life. However, she isn’t quite … Maura. “M” has no memories from before her resurrection, and she fears that Frankie may take apart and reassemble her over and over again until she gets it right. She finds an unlikely ally in the ghost of Maura, who appears in mirrors and coaches M through interactions with her older sister. This way, M avoids a dismantling and Maura gets to keep living, in a fashion. But the cracks in this arrangement begin to show as M and Maura assert their individuality. Can they both find a path forward, or will Frankie intercept their Cyrano de Bergerac-style ruse? Author and illustrator Talia Dutton uses a green, black, and white color scheme (and plenty of period details) to portray M’s limited but intriguing world. It’s one she desperately wants to continue living in, and readers will feel the same!

THOUGHTS: What first appears to be a straightforward horror novel is also a thought-provoking take on grief and identity.

Graphic Novel          Amy V. Pickett, Ridley SD

YA – Two Truths and a Lie

Henry, April. Two Truths and a Lie. Little, Brown, 2022. 978-0-316-32333-8. 268 p. $17.99. Grades 7-12.

April Henry never disappoints, and Two Truths and a Lie is another sensational mystery from the master of YA suspense. In a pitch perfect homage to Agatha Christie, the story centers around two groups of high school students trapped at a run-down motel during an unexpected blizzard. Nell and her drama club friends Min, Adam, Raven and Jermaine are on their way to a theater competition when the weather forces them off the road. Once at the Travel Inn and Out hotel, the group meets other guests stranded for the night, including a high school robotics team. All the teens congregate in the community room and dive into a game of two truths and a lie. Then Nell pulls out a slip that stops the giggles: “I like to watch people die; my least-favorite food is mushrooms; I have lost track of how many people I’ve killed.”  The next morning, the bodies start accumulating. With over a dozen people staying at the motel, suspects abound. Henry adroitly inserts red herrings galore, and nothing is ever quite what it seems, as the teens desperately try to stay alive and uncover the killer. In this perfect locked room mystery, it seems everyone is telling a lie or two, and you can never trust the truth. The characters cover a spectrum of diversity, including Indian, Black, white, and gay individuals. In addition to the mystery, Henry touches on racism and human trafficking issues as well.  

THOUGHTS: This is a must purchase for middle school and high school libraries. April Henry attracts loyal fans, and her books are perfect picks for reluctant readers as well. Purchase multiple copies. 

Mystery          Nancy Nadig  Penn Manor SD

Nell and her drama club friends are on their way to a theater competition determined to beat the blizzard that is surrounding them when they’re forced to take a detour at the dilapidated Travel Inn and Out hotel. An expansive complex the hotel must have been impressive in its glory days (which seem to have been quite a while ago). There they meet a high school robotics team who also is stranded for the night as well as other travel guests. After checking in and finding their way to their rooms through the maze of hallways, the teems agree to meet back up in the community room and make the best of their situation. Deciding on an innocent game of two truths and a lie to get to know each other, things seem to be going well until Nell pulls a slip that reads “I like to watch people die; my least-favorite food is mushrooms; I have lost track of how many people I’ve killed.” Sufficiently spooked, the game comes to an abrupt halt, and everyone returns to their rooms. As people become unaccounted for and everyone suspects everyone else, the remaining teens race to uncover the mystery of what’s happening at this off the beaten path hotel. Who will make it out alive, or will they all become another victim of this blizzard detour?

THOUGHTS: With eerie similarities to King’s Overlook Hotel from The Shining, Henry will not disappoint fans of her thrillers. A fast-paced, quick read, Two Truths and a Lie is a must have for secondary students!

Mystery          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD

MG – Gallant

Schwab, V.E. Gallant. Greenwillow Books, 2022. 978-0-062-83577-2. 337 p. $18.99. Grades 6-8.

Gallant introduces the reader to Olivia Prior, a girl who lives at Merilance and spends her days reading her mother’s journal, avoiding the other girls who bully her, and catching the attention of the ghosts who are still at Merilance. One day, she is told that someone has written for her and she will be going to a place called Gallant. When she gets there, life is not as wonderful and perfect as she thinks it is. She finds that her cousin, Matthew doesn’t want her there, repeatedly tells her that as well as trying to convince her to leave and tells her that his father wrote her that letter, but he’s now dead. However, now that Olivia has found the house that her mother grew up in, she won’t leave until she figures out what is going on. But Gallant has lots of secrets, and she will have to fight not only her cousin, but the supernatural to figure out what happened to her mother.

THOUGHTS: This is a great spooky, creepy book for the fall season. The main character Olivia is very strong willed and I think she will appeal to a lot of readers. Highly recommend this new V. E. Schwab addition to any middle school collection.

Mystery        Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy
Horror

MG – Dark Waters

Arden, Katherine. Dark Waters. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 978-0-593-10915-1. $16.99. 198 p. Grades 4-7.

Best friends Brian, Ollie and Coco are back in this third book of Katherine Arden’s spooky Small Spaces series. This time, the three friends, Ollie’s dad, Coco’s mom, and school acquaintance Phil are on a quest to find Champ, the legendary monster that supposedly lives in Lake Champlain. The group sets sail on the tour boat Cassandra with Phil’s uncle, Dane Dimmonds, so that Coco’s mom can write an article about Champ for the local paper, but the trip quickly turns deadly when a real lake monster sinks the boat, kills a member of the tour group, and strands the survivors on a remote island on Lake Champlain. Brian recognizes similarities in their plight to a story he read about a smuggler’s ship that disappeared over 200 years ago on the same lake, and he also worries that The Smiling Man that tried to trap the friends during previous adventures is involved in this newest disaster as well. Phil, Ollie, Coco, and Brian must work together with their knowledge of the Smiling Man and his evil tricks if they want to get off the island alive!

THOUGHTS: This book would appeal to a wide range of middle school readers; it combines ghost stories, paranormal activities, adventure, and survival into one thrilling story! The dynamics of this friend group are realistic and engaging, and the chilling presence of The Smiling Man provides a consistent thread throughout this series that will keep readers coming back for many future adventures.

Horror Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

YA – A Dark and Starless Forest

Hollowell, Sarah. A Dark and Starless Forest. Clarion Books, 2021. 978-0358424413. $19.99. 368 p. Grades 9-12.

“The flowers that grow from my magic are usually indistinct little things, but those flowers – I knew those flowers. They were mandrake flowers. In legend, mandrakes grow where the blood falls under a gallows.” Derry and her adopted siblings all have one thing in common: they all have magical abilities. Abandoned by their families, the girls live with their caretaker, Frank. In addition to caring for the girls, he teaches them to use their magic and protects them from the dangers of the outside world. He prefers to call them alchemists rather than witches, and over the years, the girls have bonded and consider themselves a family. When Jane, the oldest, disappears, Derry knows she didn’t run away. Desperate to find her, Derry ventures into the dark forest that surrounds their isolated cabin looking for answers. Each night, she’s drawn to the forest, and while her magic begins to grow, darkness takes root within her and she soon discovers that nothing is what it seems. As more of her sisters go missing, protecting her family becomes her most important priority, and she soon realizes that the forest may not be the dangerous presence lurking in the shadows of her life.

THOUGHTS: This is a fantasy novel unlike any that I’ve read before, and by the end, it felt a bit like a horror movie. One of the book’s best features is the diversity and representation among the main characters including sexual orientation, gender identities, race, mental health, body image, and even deafness. Although the book is fantasy, it covers a lot of real world issues like abuse, neglect, and grooming but leaves romance out of the plot. The mystery of the forest and the disappearance of the girls will keep readers hooked and intrigued until the very end.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

MG – The List of Unspeakable Fears

Kramer, J. Kasper. The List of Unspeakable Fears. Atheneum, 2021. 978-1-534-48074-2. 273 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Essie O’Neill has experienced a lot in her ten years. Life in New York City in 1910 can be hazardous. After the death of her beloved Da, Essie becomes more and more fearful of things both ordinary and extraordinary, to the point where her life is severely curtailed. When her mother suddenly announces that she has remarried and she and Essie will be moving, with her new husband, to North Brother Island, Essie’s fears go into overdrive. North Brother Island is an isolation ward for individuals with incurable diseases, such as smallpox. Once installed on the island, Essie’s night terrors grow worse and she becomes convinced there is a ghostly presence in the house. She fears her new stepfather, a doctor at the quarantine hospital, certain he is responsible for the disappearance of many nurses who work on the island. But maybe Essie has reason to be afraid. Why does her stepfather roam the island in the middle of the night? Who is opening her locked bedroom door? And then there is the island’s most famous resident: Typhoid Mary. This pint-sized gothic tale contains plenty of moments to give young readers delightful shivers, but also weaves in a fascinating historical foundation, including life on North Brother Island, Typhoid Mary’s fight to leave her forced quarantine on the island, and the horrific fire aboard the steamboat General Slocum. Themes of the story touch on dealing with grief and the death of a parent, overcoming traumatic experiences, and the universal childhood frustration of not being taken seriously by adults. Essie’s patient stepfather proves endearingly adept at treating Essie with respect and providing the guidance she needs to find a path to recovery.

THOUGHTS: This just-spooky-enough story, with twists and turns, should captivate readers, who will sympathize with Essie’s fears and frustrations.

Mystery          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Deadman’s Castle

Lawrence, Iain. Deadman’s Castle. Margaret Ferguson Books, 978-0-823-44655-1. 247 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Igor Andrew Watson does not remember his original name because he has had so many. In fact, no one in his family has their original name because every so often, they are assigned new names and a new home by The Protectors, an organization that helps keep Igor’s family safe. All Igor knows is that when he was a child, his father witnessed a horrific crime. When his father testified in court, the criminal was put in jail, and Igor’s dad made an enemy that Igor only knows as “The Lizard Man.” After their next move to escape the Lizard Man and his vengeance, twelve-year-old Igor grows frustrated with having such an odd life. He longs to go to a regular school and have real friends. After much bargaining and begging, his parents finally agree that he can attend the local middle school as long as he does not tell anyone anything about his identity or lifestyle. Igor makes two close friends and starts to live a somewhat normal life. As he explores his new neighborhood with his friends, Igor has flashbacks of memories. He thinks he has lived in this place before… and he starts to doubt that the Lizard Man even exists.

THOUGHTS: This novel’s interesting plot and cliffhanger chapters will be appealing to middle grade readers looking for a suspenseful thriller. I believe this will be a fan favorite in libraries where mysteries/thrillers are often requested.

Mystery          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

YA – All These Bodies

Blake, Kendare. All These Bodies. HarperTeen. 2021. 978-0-062-97716-8. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

It is the summer of 1958 and many gruesome murders have been occurring all along the midwest of the United States. It seems that these murders have been traveling, moving throughout the midwest and heading towards Canada. Michael Jenson is relieved to find that the murders seemed to bypass his small town… until he realizes that the murderer did not. In fact, the entire Carlson Family is murdered. This time, however, someone has been left at the scene. A girl, completely covered in blood. Thought as a victim, until everyone realizes she isn’t covered in her own blood, but rather the Carlson Family blood. Not only is she covered in blood, but she refuses to tell anyone what happened… except for young Michael.

THOUGHTS: A gripping horror/murder/thriller novel. Once you start reading, you won’t be able to stop until you hear the full story of what is going on. This novel will make you question whether this girl is telling the truth or lying and whether we really know what goes bump in the night.

Horror/Mystery                    Rachel Burkhouse, Otto-Eldred SD