Books Read in 2021: Four-Star YA Horror

I am pretty well ensconced in the January doldrums. We are in a deep freeze, and after the major snow dump on Monday I never catch it snowing, and yet there are a few centimetres on the driveway by every evening. I'm happy with my decision not to take any office shifts for a few weeks - it's incredibly stressful, will only be more so now that people are pissed that we're not supposed to be reporting Covid cases, and I don't even get paid my regular library rate. But it does sort of make the days run together. I try to walk Lucy, but it's so cold she starts dancing around lifting up one paw after the other for me to warm with my mittens. We've tried paw covers but haven't found any that fit. So I walk her around the block and then bring her home and keep walking. It's been cold but not very windy, so walking is quite pleasant (I'm finally not too warm!) 

I am rewatching The Golden Girls, which I don't think I ever watched all the way through before. It's quite soothing, and makes me long for a house with a swinging kitchen door and a ridiculously small round table where I could sit and eat cheesecake all night with Hannah and Nicole (vegan cheesecake for Nicole). I have been agreeably and amusedly surprised by the level of filth at times, and less happily a bit taken aback by the persistent, repeated use of the word 'slut'. I am nearing the end, and I'm finding the references to Dorothy being ugly heavy-handed and annoying. I told myself it's just a show and I shouldn't be oversensitive, and then I read an article that said Bea Arthur was the one who didn't want the show to continue, and one of the reasons was that it wore on her being constantly called big and ugly. 

Right now the episode where Dorothy tries to get on Jeopardy is on and Alex Trebek is in it, which is making me sad. 

Four-Star YA Horror

Horrid by Katrina Leno: Synopsis from Goodreads: From the author of You Must Not Miss comes a haunting contemporary horror novel that explores themes of mental illness, rage, and grief, twisted with spine-chilling elements of Stephen King and Agatha Christie. Following her father's death, Jane North-Robinson and her mom move from sunny California to the dreary, dilapidated old house in Maine where her mother grew up. All they want is a fresh start, but behind North Manor's doors lurks a history that leaves them feeling more alone...and more tormented. As the cold New England autumn arrives, and Jane settles in to her new home, she finds solace in old books and memories of her dad. She steadily begins making new friends, but also faces bullying from the resident "bad seed," struggling to tamp down her own worst nature in response. Jane's mom also seems to be spiraling with the return of her childhood home, but she won't reveal why. Then Jane discovers that the "storage room" her mom has kept locked isn't for storage at all — it's a little girl's bedroom, left untouched for years and not quite as empty of inhabitants as it appears....

Is it grief? Mental illness? Or something more...horrid?

This was some really fabulous storytelling for YA horror. Richly layered themes - grief, female rage, pica, literature. Good relationship between the mother and daughter, excellent friend relationships, passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, and a pretty fresh plotline. I found the ending a tiny bit abrupt, but I respected that it was completely unexpected. Will be looking for more by this writer.

You Must Not Miss by Katrina Leno: Synopsis from Goodreads: Magpie Lewis started writing in her yellow notebook the day her family self-destructed. That was the night Eryn, Magpie's sister, skipped town and left her to fend for herself. That was the night of Brandon Phipp's party. Now, Magpie is called a slut whenever she walks down the hallways of her high school, her former best friend won't speak to her, and she spends her lunch period with a group of misfits who've all been socially exiled like she has. And so, feeling trapped and forgotten, Magpie retreats to her notebook, dreaming up a place called Near. Near is perfect--somewhere where her father never cheated, her mother never drank, and Magpie's own life never derailed so suddenly. She imagines Near so completely, so fully, that she writes it into existence, right in her own backyard. It's a place where she can have anything she wants...even revenge.

This was well-written and there's a lot to like, but once again I think what I admired the most was how it went in a completely different direction than I expected. This is my second book by this author and she does not give platitudes or Hollywood endings. She starts with all the tangled shit that teenagers have to deal with and from there she gives no quarter.

The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson: Synopsis from Goodreads: Stranger Things meets World War Z in this heart-racing conspiracy thriller as a lonely young woman teams up with a group of fellow outcasts to survive the night in a town overcome by a science experiment gone wrong. Turner Falls is a small tourist town nestled in the hills of western Oregon, the kind of town you escape to for a vacation. When an inexplicable outbreak rapidly develops, this idyllic town becomes the epicenter of an epidemic of violence as the teenaged children of several executives from the local biotech firm become ill and aggressively murderous. Suddenly the town is on edge, and Lucy and her friends must do everything it takes just to fight through the night. 

Damn, this was impressive. It was a righteously scary tale with a deft layering in of social commentary on race and class that added to the tension and was not the slightest bit forced. The writing is vividly cinematic - this would make a great movie but doesn't read like a screenplay. There's action, skilled characterization, some genuinely moving moments. Lucy is a total badass and I love her.

The Initial Insult (The Initial Insult #1) by Mindy McGinnis: Synopsis from Goodreads: Welcome to Amontillado, Ohio, where your last name is worth more than money, and secrets can be kept… for a price. Tress Montor knows that her family used to mean something—until she didn’t have a family anymore. When her parents disappeared seven years ago while driving her best friend home, Tress lost everything. She might still be a Montor, but the entire town shuns her now that she lives with her drunken, one-eyed grandfather at what locals refer to as the “White Trash Zoo,” – a wild animal attraction featuring a zebra, a chimpanzee, and a panther, among other things. Felicity Turnado has it all – looks, money, and a secret that she’s kept hidden. She knows that one misstep could send her tumbling from the top of the social ladder, and she’s worked hard to make everyone forget that she was with the Montors the night they disappeared. Felicity has buried what she knows so deeply that she can’t even remember what it is… only that she can’t look at Tress without having a panic attack. But she’ll have to.

Tress has a plan. A Halloween costume party at an abandoned house provides the ideal situation for Tress to pry the truth from Felicity – brick by brick – as she slowly seals her former best friend into a coal chute. With a drunken party above them, and a loose panther on the prowl, Tress will have her answers – or settle for revenge. In the first book of this duology, award-winning author Mindy McGinnis draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe and masterfully delivers a dark, propulsive mystery in alternating points of view that unravels a friendship... forevermore.

Inevitable injustice is going to be done (by me and probably many other readers) to any book of Mindy McGinnis's that isn't The Female of the Species - how, as an author, do you write that book and not just say "kay, I'm done, bye". I know, it doesn't work that way. This is pretty freakin' good still. McGinnis really doesn't pull any punches writing about teenage girls. Someone else said all the Poe allusions got a little much, but I actually loved them - the ones I got, since I'm sure that I missed some. I was irritated by the fact that the "flu" burning through town had everyone puking, because it touches on a pet peeve of mine which is people who don't get that influenza is not the stomach flu. She may have just thrown that in there to up the body horror quotient. The Cat's sections did nothing for me - I didn't get any fresh insights from them and they seemed cheesy. I am pissed at myself for having read, several times, that this is the first in a duology and then going ahead and reading it now anyway, rather than waiting for the next book to come out. I have like three thousand books in my tbr pile and a good ten percent of those right in my goddamned house. I could have waited, is what I'm saying. Sigh. I will absolutely be pouncing on the second one the minute it comes out. 

I Hunt Killers (I Hunt Killers #1) by Barry Lyga: Synopsis from Goodreads: What if the world's worst serial killer...was your dad?
Jasper "Jazz" Dent is a likable teenager. A charmer, one might say.
But he's also the son of the world's most infamous serial killer, and for Dear Old Dad, Take Your Son to Work Day was year-round. Jazz has witnessed crime scenes the way cops wish they could—from the criminal's point of view.
And now bodies are piling up in Lobo's Nod. 
In an effort to clear his name, Jazz joins the police in a hunt for a new serial killer. But Jazz has a secret—could he be more like his father than anyone knows?

It might not have been the wisest course of action to start reading this series and the one below in the same year. Both involve adolescent boys who are worried that they might be serial killers - one because of family history and one because of innate inclinations. One has supernatural overtones, one does not. And yes, I get them confused every single time I try to discuss them.
This one is about Jasper Dent, whose father was a serial killer. He scrutinizes himself daily for the same proclivities, and has a best friend and girlfriend who try to reassure him, and a horrible grandmother who seems bound to drive him to murder that would actually be justified. I actually found it quite affecting how closely and constantly Jazz monitors his behaviour and thought patterns for warning signs. In a way it seems obvious that someone so worried about being a serial killer wouldn't be one, but he's written so that the concern also seems justified. 
This succeeds admirably as a sort of Dexter Junior. The only reason I haven't read further is that the next entries aren't available as ebooks and I would have had to transport my ass to the actual library.

I Am Not a Serial Killer (John Cleaver #1) by Dan Wells: Synopsis from Goodreads: John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it.

He's spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.
He's obsessed with serial killers, but really doesn't want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he's written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.
Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don't demand or expect the empathy he's unable to offer. Perhaps that's what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there's something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat---and to appreciate what that difference means.
Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can't control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.
Dan Wells' debut novel is the first volume of a trilogy that will keep you awake and then haunt your dreams.

Similar to I Hunt Killers, but with .... wait, that might be a spoiler. Anyway, also very well done with a fully realized main character and a skillfully drawn set of moral dilemmas. I watched the movie before I realized this was a book, and the movie was very well done but didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book. Sometimes it's gratifying to read books about characters we can relate too well, and sometimes - like here - it's mentally and emotionally satisfying to engage with someone completely different. My favourite horror is not gory or slasher-y, but about people confronting something, either from within or without, and having to muster mental and emotional resources. This fits the bill.

Mr. Monster (John Clever #2) by Dan Wells: Synopsis from Goodreads: In I Am Not a Serial Killer, John Wayne Cleaver saved his town from a murderer even more appalling than the serial killers he obsessively studies.
But it turns out even demons have friends, and the disappearance of one has brought another to Clayton County. Soon there are new victims for John to work on at the mortuary and a new mystery to solve. But John has tasted death, and the dark nature he used as a weapon---the terrifying persona he calls “Mr. Monster”---might now be using him.
No one in Clayton is safe unless John can vanquish two nightmarish adversaries: the unknown demon he must hunt and the inner demon he can never escape. 
In this sequel to his brilliant debut, Dan Wells ups the ante with a thriller that is just as gripping and even more intense. He apologizes in advance for the nightmares. 

Well, crap, if you read that synopsis then there was a spoiler for the first book. I suspect I don't have a ton of readers that were going to march out looking for these, but if you are one, apologies! Also very good, and with the addition of "Mr. Monster" even more like Dexter - speaking of Dexter, did anyone else both read the books and watch the show? It was one of the rare occasions where I thought the show was actually better. Anyway, a completely satisfying sequel.

I Don't Want to Kill You (John Cleaver #3) by Dan Wells: Synopsis from Goodreads: John Cleaver has called a demon—literally called it, on the phone, and challenged it to a fight. He’s faced two of the monsters already, barely escaping with his life, and now he’s done running; he’s taking the fight to them. But as he wades through his town’s darkest secrets, searching for any sign of who the demon might be, one thing becomes all too clear: in a game of cat and mouse with a supernatural killer, the human is always the mouse. In I Am Not a Serial Killer we watched a budding sociopath break every rule he had to save his town from evil. In Mr. Monster we held our breath as he fought madly with himself, struggling to stay in control. Now John Cleaver has mastered his twisted talents and embraced his role as a killer of killers. I Don’t Want to Kill You brings his story to a thundering climax of suspicion, mayhem, and death. It’s time to punish the guilty. And in a town full of secrets, everyone is guilty of something.

Suspicion, mayhem, death! Sums it up pretty well. The series keeps going, and I am still on board. 

White Smoke by Tiffany Jackson: Synopsis from Goodreads: The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson! Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper. The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone. But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?

As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.

There was a lot here that was good. A solid, sensitive portrayal of mental illness, insight about the dark side of gentrification which often goes hand-in-hand with structural racism, issues with blended families. A lot of it read very realistically. I did have some issues with Piper the bratty stepsister and how the stepfather defends her - some of it crossed the line from understandable to indefensible. The ending was too abrupt for my taste - someone on Goodreads said the author 'chose violence' by ending there with no epilogue and I agree. But I would read more by this author.

Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis: Synopsis from Goodreads:The daughter of a horror film director is not afraid of anything--until she gets to Harrow Lake. Things I know about Harrow Lake: 1.It's where my father shot his most disturbing slasher film. 2.There's something not right about this town. Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker--she thinks nothing can scare her. But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she's quickly packed off to live with a grandmother she's never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father's most iconic horror movie was shot. The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map--and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away. And there's someone--or some thing--stalking her every move. The more Lola discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola's got secrets of her own. And if she can't find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her.

I love horror movies (although not slasher movies) and I find stories about them interesting. This was good on a couple of levels - a scary story in its own right, with echoes of grief, abandonment and trauma. I always find the portrayal of a small town with one chief claim to fame and existence compelling as well. 


Ugh, sorry it's so cold. We are having a reprieve from the cold right now; it's pretty mild around here. Probably we will get blasted in March.

I think that every time I watch Golden Girls, that it will be the three of us in Florida!
StephLove said…
I see how the two serial killer books could be confusing.
Ernie said…
I haven't watched Golden Girls in forever. I do not remember that one of them was portrayed as ugly. Eww. That's awful. My news program put up a clip of the show Felicity from 1998. I had completely forgotten about that show. How I loved it. I might need to look for that. Sorry, off topic.

I am so thrilled to find another person with the same pet peeve, the stomach bug is NOT the same as influenza. Why do people insist on saying they've had the flu after puking all day? Weird.

I'm not typically into this genre, but some of these sound really, really good.

It is so cold here, they almost cancelled school . . . or enough parents asked if they would and the school addressed it in an email, so maybe not the same thing as almost cancelling. It feels like 35 below. I'm happy not to have to go outside in my line of work. I did have the tots play Simon Says, without any trickery and sitting out, and there was much Simon says jump, so we could get some blood pumping. Surprisingly no one said, HOW HIGH?
I’ve watched The Golden Girls all the way through three times. Why do you think they had such a teeny weeny table? Lol. It’s a ridiculous size and makes me laugh. I do think they were too hard on Dorothy, who is basically me, and so I feel extra annoyed by the big, ugly comments. But in the end Dorothy had her happy ending and didn’t have to go live in that failing hotel with Blanche and Rose so maybe she won? (I hope this isn’t a spoiler) If you move to Florida I’ll be sure to pop over for a little visit on the lanai.

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