The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher

Emily’s dad is accused of murdering a teenage girl. Emily is sure he is innocent, but what happened that night in the woods behind their house where she used to play as a child? Determined to find out, she seeks out Damon Hillary the enigmatic boyfriend of the murdered girl. He also knows these woods. Maybe they could help each other. But he’s got secrets of his own about games that are played in the dark.

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The Killing Woods was my second Lucy Christopher read.  Honestly, I struggled to finish Stolen because of the long detailed passages of the Australian Outback and the unsatisfying ending.  In The Killing Woods, the majority of the story takes place in the woods. Obviously, the setting plays a big role in Christopher’s work and completely adds to the overall feel of the book.  While I skimmed over the outback descriptions, I enjoyed reading about the mysterious woods.

It is within these woods that the murder of Ashlee Parker occurred.  The novel opens dramatically with Emily’s dad, a war veteran suffering from PTSD, carrying in her body. Despite fingers being pointed at her father, Emily believes he is innocent.  However, no one is certain who was responsible for Ashlee’s death.  Throughout the book, alternating perspectives of Emily and Damon (Ashlee’s boyfriend) lead us to believe different theories.  I liked that it was unpredictable, and I was constantly changing my mind on who could be trusted.  Yet, I did find it awfully convenient for the answer to be found on Ashlee’s cell phone. I wish my cell phone had that kind of battery power!  And if it was left on, police definitely would have traced it.

In middle school, I observed some classmates ‘playing’ the choking game. It terrified me, and I’m glad this serious topic is being brought to light.  In addition to this dangerous game, the book also explores topics like sex, drug abuse, under-age drinking, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you enjoy dark mystery stories, paired with danger and a twist, then perhaps The Killing Woods is for you.   Published January 1, 2014.

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret—a dark and terrible secret that she can’t confess to anyone she knows. But then one day she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, locked up on death row in Texas. Like Zoe, Stuart is no stranger to secrets. Or lies. Or murder.

Full of heartache yet humour, Zoe tells her story in the only way she can—in letters to the man in prison in America. Armed with a pen, Zoe takes a deep breath, eats a jam sandwich, and begins her tale of love and betrayal.

 

ketchup clouds

A guilty conscience pushes fifteen year old Zoe to seek a pen pal that understands her situation.  In her mind, Stuart Harris (an inmate on death row), is the perfect choice because they are both responsible for the death of a loved one.  The entire story is told in letter form, but since ‘Zoe’ uses a fake name and address, we never see Stuart’s replies.  One has to wonder if he even received the letters, and if so, what his response would be.  We watch as Zoe starts off formally, addressing him with ‘Dear Mr. S. Harris’, and as the letter progresses, ‘Hey there, Stu’.  She writes these letters from a shed where her only company is a lone spider.

The author did a brilliant job at keeping the reader guessing Zoe’s terrible secret.  There are clues throughout; hinting at the tragic death of one of the two brothers Zoe has feelings for.  It’s a sad ending for all involved.

My biggest critique is the title. Although Ketchup Clouds is a catchy title, I’m not sure what it has to do with the story (besides Zoe’s sister drawing clouds in ketchup).  Maybe there was some deeper meaning that I missed?  Thoughts?

Overall, Ketchup Clouds is a sad story about love, family, murder and secrets.  Due to some explicit sexual content, I would recommend this book to older YA readers.

The Ghost of Graylock by Dan Poblocki

Does an abandoned asylum hold the key to a frightful haunting?

Everyone’s heard the stories about Graylock Hall.

It was meant to be a place of healing – a hospital where children and teenagers with mental disorders would be cared for and perhaps even cured. But something went wrong. Several young patients died under mysterious circumstances. Eventually, the hospital was shut down, the building abandoned and left to rot deep in the woods.

As the new kid in town, Neil Cady wants to see Graylock for himself. Especially since rumor has it that the building is haunted. He’s got fresh batteries in his flashlight, a camera to document the adventure, and a new best friend watching his back.

Neil might think he’s prepared for what he’ll find in the dark and decrepit asylum. But he’s certainly not prepared for what follows him home. . . .

 

ghost
The Ghost of Graylock
is a must read for young horror fans that have graduated from books like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series and looking for a more frightening read. But beware! Detailed descriptions of abandoned asylums, ghosts, and a shocking murder could potentially be nightmare inducing, especially for a middle schooler.  The plot surrounds the legend of Graylock Hall and the result of four kids breaking into the abandoned asylum.  I still have visions of Eric and Wesley hiding in the closet and Rebecca’s (the ghost) shadowy figure peeking in…terrifying!  However, I liked the ‘bread crumb’ aspect of Rebecca’s clues and how she helped Neil and Bree ultimately solve the mystery of her own tragic death.  Overall, short chapters (64 to be exact) and a fast paced story will take even the most reluctant readers on a thrilling adventure, filled with twists and turns!  You may just want to sleep with a nightlight…

Other recently reviewed MG spooky titles:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Doll Bones by Holly Black

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family . . .

grave

I don’t understand where all the hype and praise for The Graveyard Book is coming from.  How can a confusing book that lacks plot explanations win the Newbery Medal?  Did I miss something? Although the first chapter immediately grabbed my attention, it slowly started going downhill for me. Characters are introduced and frequently disappear. Each chapter read like a short story, which made plot events difficult and confusing to connect.  Readers watch Bod grow from a baby to a teenager, yet so many gaps were left open and unexplored.

I wish Gaiman provided more detailed explanations, especially the motivation behind the murder of Bod’s family. After waiting so long to find out, I was so disappointed in the brief reasoning!  Also, am I the only one that had trouble piecing together Silas and Miss Lupescu’s world? It took me forever to figure out what they were and what they did.  I would have liked to read more about their world, variations of the dead, and the Honor Guards.   Same goes for the Jacks of All Trades. I have so many questions…

Lastly, in my opinion it is not suitable for the target age group (middle graders).  In the first chapter, a family is slaughtered. Scary black and white imagery, hell, ghosts, vampires, and murders all add to the dark tone throughout.  Nightmare inducing for sure!  Therefore, although the book had an interesting premise, it won’t  be my first recommendation to middle school patrons.

 

The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd

 

In the darkest places, even love is deadly.

Sixteen-year-old Juliet Moreau has built a life for herself in London—working as a maid, attending church on Sundays, and trying not to think about the scandal that ruined her life. After all, no one ever proved the rumors about her father’s gruesome experiments. But when she learns he is alive and continuing his work on a remote tropical island, she is determined to find out if the accusations are true.

Accompanied by her father’s handsome young assistant, Montgomery, and an enigmatic castaway, Edward—both of whom she is deeply drawn to—Juliet travels to the island, only to discover the depths of her father’s madness: He has experimented on animals so that they resemble, speak, and behave as humans. And worse, one of the creatures has turned violent and is killing the island’s inhabitants. Torn between horror and scientific curiosity, Juliet knows she must end her father’s dangerous experiments and escape her jungle prison before it’s too late. Yet as the island falls into chaos, she discovers the extent of her father’s genius—and madness—in her own blood.

 

mad

Although I’ve never read H.G Wells’ The Island of Dr.Moreau, the book jacket synopsis of a Gothic thriller appealed to me. With elements of suspense, action, mystery and romance, I was immediately immersed in the story. The atmosphere and setting of a remote jungle island only added to the creep factor. Juliet’s father, the mad scientist, Dr.Moreau, makes for a perfect villain. I found it super easy to hate him (especially for his misogynistic views). His disturbing creature creations were so vividly described, that I fear I will come across them again in nightmares.

In terms of pacing, the plot does have some slower periods in the middle, which consists of walking/running through the forest, but for the most part, it held my attention. However, I could have done without Juliet’s love triangle, and her back and forth indecisive thoughts between Montgomery and Edward. Shepherd included a couple of predictable twists, but the last one caught me completely off guard. The action ramped up in the end…. eventually leading to the ultimate betrayal.  Personally, I don’t see the need for a sequel, but there is one in the works (expected publication January 2014). Recommended to those that like dark, twisted, Gothic reads.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

From Goodreads:

Today is Leonard Peacock’s birthday. It is also the day he hides a gun in his backpack. Because today is the day he will kill his former best friend, and then himself, with his grandfather’s P-38 pistol.

But first he must say good-bye to the four people who matter most to him: his Humphrey Bogart-obsessed next-door neighbor, Walt; his classmate Baback, a violin virtuoso; Lauren, the Christian homeschooler he has a crush on; and Herr Silverman, who teaches the high school’s class on the Holocaust. Speaking to each in turn, Leonard slowly reveals his secrets as the hours tick by and the moment of truth approaches.

forgive me

I picked up this advanced reading copy (to be released August 2013) at OLA this past January.  At first, I noticed the interesting cover, and then I recognized the author, Matthew Quick (author of Silver Linings Playbook).

I found the book to be an honest, yet difficult read. The storyline boils down to a day and half of Leonard planning a murder/suicide. Immediately, I found Leonard to be a very unlikable pessimistic character until we finally learn why he has such hatred toward his classmate, Asher.  Leonard demonstrates all the warning signs of suicide (change in appearance, giving away possessions) and only his teacher Herr Silvermann and elderly neighbour Walt seem to notice.  His family situation saddened me.

His teacher recommended that Leonard write letters from the future to help him imagine his future and serve as a reminder that his life can get better. Although I think the idea behind it makes sense, I didn’t enjoy the inclusion of his sci-fi letters. I found them so out there and I’m not even sure how that could even help him as it won’t even come close to resembling his true future. Also, the letters were never explained until after the first one, so I was very confused when I first came across it.   I also didn’t enjoy the over use and length of the footnotes. I have never seen such lengthy footnotes; some take up the majority of the page.

Overall, I think a lot of reluctant readers (especially teen boys) would enjoy this book.  It is a contemporary read that includes: curse words, a WW11 Nazi handgun, threat of violence, a mysterious Holocaust teacher, and the questioning of religion and adult happiness.  I found the ending very fitting and true to the story and characters, even if it wasn’t the happiest.

Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

The city of Ludlow is gripped by the hottest July on record. The asphalt is melting, the birds are dying, petty crime is on the rise, and someone in Hannah Wagnor’s peaceful suburban community is killing girls.

For Hannah, the summer is a complicated one. Her best friend Lillian died six months ago, and Hannah just wants her life to go back to normal. But how can things be normal when Lillian’s ghost is haunting her bedroom, pushing her to investigate the mysterious string of murders? Hannah’s just trying to understand why her friend self-destructed, and where she fits now that Lillian isn’t there to save her a place among the social elite. And she must stop thinking about Finny Boone, the big, enigmatic delinquent whose main hobbies seem to include petty larceny and surprising acts of kindness.

With the entire city in a panic, Hannah soon finds herself drawn into a world of ghost girls and horrifying secrets. She realizes that only by confronting the Valentine Killer will she be able move on with her life—and it’s up to her to put together the pieces before he strikes again.

paper valentine

Yovanoff’s book covers always grab my attention. Paper Valentine is no exception.

A while back I read The Replacement, which is set around Halloween. By complete coincidence, I read Paper Valentine over Valentine’s Day. I found both books to have some similarities:

-Sibling relationships (Ariel is a big part of the story—Hannah is very protective of her younger sister)

-Underlying message— No one is perfect. We have to learn to be happy in our own skin and not care what others think.

-Stand alone title. Not a series!

-Genre-hard to classify. It includes a mix of different elements: romance, paranormal, mystery, thriller.

While the storyline centres on the murders, it is also a book about a girl coping with her best friend’s death. Although never referred to as ‘anorexia’, it is clear that Lillian died from the eating disorder. How Hannah describes the appearance of Lillian’s ghost and the smell of her breath is truly disturbing. Hannah’s guilt is prominent throughout, and only in the end can she finally let go.

I thought Hannah made an interesting main protagonist. She loves putting her own spin on her clothes and aims to stand out from the rest of the crowd.  Although she feels guilty for her role (or lack thereof) in Lillian’s death, she puts on a smile and pretends she’s happy. I liked how her love interest, Finny challenges her to be real and accept those emotions.

Although I didn’t see the end twist coming, I figured by the number of pages left that something was around the corner. However, I had big questions surrounding the killer’s motive. Why kill young girls? To demonstrate power? For a thrill? It’s a HUGE leap from shoplifting to murder. I didn’t get it. I also didn’t quite grasp the reason for all the dead birds and the constant mentioning of heat. I definitely thought it was so sort of eerie foreshadowing.

Overall, I think Yovanoff did a great job at weaving together an interesting murder mystery. The book tackled plenty of issues to keep readers hooked and guessing. The Ouija boards and séances really upped the creepy factor.

 

 

Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City–and she is pos-i-toot-ly thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult–also known as “The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.” When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer–if he doesn’t catch her first.

diviners

If you’re looking for a completely original young adult book, look no further- The Diviners delivers.  At first, I was reluctant to pick up the book because of its intimidating length (578 pages!), but I’m glad I did. Despite sore wrists, I thoroughly enjoyed the mix of mystery, suspense and horror! The 20’s setting and inclusion of real events in history (eugenics movement, Chinese exclusion act, etc.) were a welcome bonus as well.

Over the course of the novel, tons of characters were introduced. I don’t have the best memory, so I found it sometimes hard to keep track of who was who.  One shining individual that proved impossible to forget was the main character, Evie. When trying to describe her, so many words come to mind: young, witty, humorous, sassy, brave and at times, self-centred.  You can bet-ski her actions and dialogue are always entertaining to read.  However, I think that Bray came on really strong with the 20’s lingo in the beginning (cat’s pajamas, bee’s knees) yet it kind of sauntered off in the end. Or maybe I just became accustomed to it?

In the end, it became clear that the well-researched, creepy, yet intriguing story of The Diviners would be continued. There were plenty of unanswered questions left for Evie and readers alike.  I would really like to have Evie’s (and others) diviner powers further explored. Although I’m not a fan of series, I will likely pick the next instalment up.  By the time the next one is released, I’m hoping I’ll have the gruesome ritual killings and Naughty John song out of my head. Pos-i-toot-ly terrifying!

 

Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Just your average boy-meets-girl, girl-kills-people story…

Cas Lowood has inherited an unusual vocation: He kills the dead.

So did his father before him, until his gruesome murder by a ghost he sought to kill. Now, armed with his father’s mysterious and deadly athame, Cas travels the country with his kitchen-witch mother and their spirit-sniffing cat. Together they follow legends and local lore, trying to keep up with the murderous dead—keeping pesky things like the future and friends at bay.

When they arrive in a new town in search of a ghost the locals call Anna Dressed in Blood, Cas doesn’t expect anything outside of the ordinary: move, hunt, kill. What he finds instead is a girl entangled in curses and rage, a ghost like he’s never faced before. She still wears the dress she wore on the day of her brutal murder in 1958: once white, but now stained red and dripping blood. Since her death, Anna has killed any and every person who has dared to step into the deserted Victorian she used to call home. But she, for whatever reason, spares his life.

                      

Published August 30th 2011

I am absolutely scared of ghosts, so I should have known not to read this book late at night before drifting off to sleep.  I woke up several nights with nightmares of Anna’s bloody dress dripping on the floor. Terrifying.  I also wasn’t prepared for the vividly gruesome scenes to commence early in the book. Here is a sample:

“…I strike, drawing the blade across the throat, opening a yawning black line. The hitchhiker’s fingers come up to his neck. They try to press the skin back together, but something as dark and thick as oil floods out of the wound and covers him, bleeding not only down over his vintage-era jacket but also up over his face and eyes, into his hair. The hitchhiker doesn’t scream as he shrivels, but maybe he can’t: his throat was cut and the black fluid has worked its way into his mouth (pg.13).”

The Good:

-As a Canadian, I loved that it was based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In Blake’s acknowledgements we learn that she actually stayed in Thunder Bay and clearly her research shows in the writing. I have many friends from Thunder Bay and from what they’ve told me, the description of the city sounds very accurate.  Apparently, even the restaurants and waterfalls described in the book actually exist!

-Quick read—chalk full of: black/white witches, Voodoo, ghost hunting and murder!  Great for reluctant readers!

-Vivid imagery (especially when describing Anna and the dress she was murdered in).

-The complexity of Anna’s character. One minute I saw her as a ruthless killer and the next as an innocent girl. I loved the way the story of her past was presented and I enjoyed trying to figure her out. Anna is a force to be reckoned with and always kept the reader guessing.

-Scary. Since it is categorized in the ‘horror’ genre, I felt it did a great job at inducing feelings of terror in the reader. It was both scary and entertaining and I just could not put it down! Maybe I’m just a sissy, but I was legit scared reading this book before bed.  I also loved how the text was printed in a strange red colour that gave off the appearance of dried blood.

 

The Bad

-Weird paranormal romance. I didn’t understand the love element between Cas and Anna. The romance was minor, and I only knew they were ‘in love’ because readers were told so. It’s a strange tragic paranormal love, and I really wish Blake omitted this addition.

-There is no way that teens could possibly have so little empathy for their murdered friends. If you witnessed a brutal murder of your friend or were the first to come across their murdered bodies I would expect that you would be devastatingly traumatized. However, these teens spent more time discussing their alibis than their murdered classmates and friends.

 

Overall, Anna Dressed in Blood is an original, gory, heartbreaking story. Indeed, the book has been recognized as one of Kirkus’ Best Teen Books of the Year (2011) and an ALA 2012 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers.  The sequel, Girl of Nightmares (Anna #2) will be published in August 2012 and I’m definitely looking forward to that one!

*Warning-Since the book is told from Cas’ teenage perspective, there are quite a bit of f-bombs!

Review: Crush. Candy.Corpse. by Sylvia McNicoll

I received this ARC from McNicoll’s publisher Lorimer at OLA last month. The book follows high school student Sonja (Sunny) Ehret and she stands trial for manslaughter. Every chapter alternates between last year (Sunny serving volunteers hours on an Alzheimer’s ward), and this year (Sunny’s manslaughter trial). So just how are the two connected? Well you have to pick up this uh-mazing book to find out! I actually read this book in less than a day as I could just not put it down.

Since McNicoll is a Canadian author, I really appreciated the Canadiana infused throughout the book. From the Canadian justice system, to everyone’s favourite-Timmies doughnuts! I especially related to the high school graduation requirement of 40 hours of volunteer work. Rather than having a choice of placement, Sunny is reluctantly sited at an elder care facility called ‘Paradise Manor’. In comparison, I really enjoyed completing my forty hours of volunteer work and hope it remains a requirement for years to come.  However, I think it is crucial that students pick their own placements rather than be forced to be somewhere they don’t want to be.  I chose to volunteer at a wide spread of organizations-including an elderly home!  Due to this experience, I could definitely sympathize with some of the sights and smells Sunny complained about. I wish I thought of making a coffee bean necklace…

I loved how the elderly residents really started to change the way Sunny felt about volunteering at Paradise Manor. Each individual had a unique personality and made me laugh. My favourite was Jeanette with her love of lipstick and how she complimented Sunny on her non-existent fashions. Despite the lighter moments, this book definitely deals with heavy, mature content. I liked how McNicoll was able to describe the devastating disease of Alzheimer’s through Sunny’s class presentation so readers are aware of all that it entails without it feeling too medical or pushed. The book also skims the surface of the euthanasia debate and whether a suffering person with a terminal illness has the right to die on their own terms. It truly is a legitimate concern since the Alzheimer’s rate is likely to skyrocket as baby boomers in Canada age. Hopefully, a treatment or cure can be realized so Alzheimer’s won’t become the defining disease of the Baby Boom Generation.

Look for Crush.Candy.Corpse. at bookstores and libraries March 12, 2012.

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