November 17, 2017

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7 Nightmarish Reads | Adult Books 4 Teens

Just in time for Halloween, this column features seven eerie, supernatural, and bizarre novels that will linger with readers. First, we have a work of atmospheric historical fiction, Eve Chase’s The Wildling Sisters, which centers on Applecote Manor, a strange, stately locale that ties the 1950s disappearance of a young girl to a modern-day teenager. Fans of the author’s debut novel, last year’s Black Rabbit Hall, which also involved a gloomy estate, won’t be disappointed.

There are no ghosts in Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, but reality is scary enough. Impoverished Tennessee children Rill and her siblings are stolen from their parents, split up, and sold to wealthy adoptive parents. Years later, the truth comes out. Sure to be a hit with book clubs and readers of all ages, this enthralling book lasted only two days by my side—I was up late finishing it.

Beth Underdown’s debut, The Witchfinder’s Sister, is also rooted in history. The book is based on witch hunts in 17th-century England, led by Matthew Hopkins, and follows his (fictitious) sister, a widow who is persecuted for being different. As our reviewer notes, novels about witch trials are usually popular, and this title is a welcome addition.

Witches are also central to Oscar de Muriel’s A Fever of the Blood. This odd couple detective story focuses on a devious psychopath, a coven’s curse, and an insane asylum in late 19th-century Edinburgh. The first book of the series, The Strings of Murder, was published last year, but readers don’t need to be familiar with it to enjoy this new installment.

Neil Jordan, the author of the masterly Carnivalesque, is also the film director of Interview with the Vampire and The Crying Game. In his latest book, young Andy strides into a carnival’s mirror and his doppelganger steps out. Magical realism is ever present here, as well as in Jess Kidd’s debut, Himself. In the Irish author’s darkly humorous novel, an orphaned twentysomething investigates his mother’s murder in a small town.

We end with a lighthearted and laugh-out-loud novel, Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders. The Telemachus family created a traveling show with their psychic powers, but the magic has mostly died out. However, some of the children have inherited supernatural abilities, and what ensues is a hilarious adventure. This is a quirky, character-driven novel, reminiscent of Lisa Lutz’s Alex Award winner The Spellman Files.

CHASE, Eve. The Wildling Sisters. 336p. Putnam. Jul. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9780399174131.

“Houses are never just houses,” says Margot Wilde. In this gripping modern gothic novel that takes place in two different time periods, a house becomes practically a character. In 1959, 15-year-old Margot and her three sisters visit their aunt and uncle’s country house, Applecote Manor, for the first time since their cousin Audrey disappeared five years earlier. In the present day, Jessie and her husband, Will, buy Applecote to escape from crowded, crime-ridden London. In Margot’s story, told in the first person, Margot is drawn to Audrey’s bedroom, which Audrey’s mother keeps in pristine condition, waiting for the lost girl’s return. Meanwhile, Margot and her sisters’ loyalties are divided for the first time when they meet two handsome young neighbors. In Jessie’s story, told in the third person, Applecote is meant to be a clean slate for her family, but her husband is constantly being pulled back to London, and her teenage stepdaughter, Bella, is fixated on her dead mother and the 50-year-old mystery of the missing Audrey. The two narratives converge as the house reveals its secrets. VERDICT Fans of Kate Morton will love this eerie, multilayered tale of young love, jealousy, and mystery.–Sarah Flowers, formerly at Santa Clara County Library, CA

DE MURIEL, Oscar. A Fever of the Blood. 432p. (Frey and McGray: Bk. 2). Pegasus Crime. Apr. 2017. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781681773452.

Inspectors Ian Frey and “Nine Nails” McGray are called to the local asylum in the middle of the night in this second installment of the historical detective series set in late 19th-century Edinburgh, Scotland. One of the nurses is dying of strychnine poisoning, though many believe that she was cursed by witches. McGray is a bitter alcoholic in charge of the two-man police department (referred to as “The Elucidation of Unsolved Cases Presumably Related to the Odd and Ghostly”) and haunted by his sister’s madness and incarceration at the asylum. Frey, a sharply dressed Londoner in exile, attempts to forget that his fiancée left him to marry his brother. The men are a mismatched duo, and teens will appreciate their darkly amusing verbal give-and-take, which drives much of the plot. As McGray and Frey investigate the poisoning, they learn of an ancient curse by a coven of witches, all of whom may still be alive. This chilling foray into insanity, vengeance, and the power of suggestion is full of nonstop action, with plenty of plot twists to keep readers guessing. VERDICT Give this volume to teens who enjoy a soupçon of madness with their mysteries. Fans of Justine Larbalestier’s My Sister Rosa or Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” tales will appreciate this one.–Gretchen Crowley, formerly at Alexandria City Public Library, VA

GREGORY, Daryl. Spoonbenders. 416p. Knopf. Jun. 2017. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781524731823.

Behold the Amazing Telemachus family: mother, father, and three children (Frankie, Irene, and Buddy) and their varied powers make up a phenomenal traveling show. Alas, the Telemachuses’ fame fades into oblivion after they are discredited on live television. Patriarch Teddy, a talented con man, pretends to be a soothsayer to take on anyone he can squeeze money out of—including the Chicago Mafia. Beautiful Maureen, an honest-to-goodness psychic with a heart of gold, worked for the CIA during the Cold War. After her death, the children, now motherless, inherit strange but powerful abilities—and their genetically inherited talents continue down the line to Irene’s son, Matt. All of the characters, gifted in some way, are also cursed by their powers. Multiple members of the lovably flawed Telemachus family narrate this complex but highly relatable tale, which spans several decades. Gregory takes his time developing the story, but readers are rewarded when everything coalesces beautifully at the end. VERDICT This raucous, mind-bending, time-jumping tale is hilarious and occasionally touching and will appeal to teens who appreciate quirky family characters like those in Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest.–Tara Kehoe, formerly at the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, Trenton

JORDAN, Neil. Carnivalesque. 320p. Bloomsbury. Jun. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9781632868145.

Andy enters Burleigh’s Amazing Hall of Mirrors as a young boy, puzzled by his parents’ failing marriage and intrigued by the carnival attraction. Once inside, he becomes trapped behind the mirrors as his doppelganger walks out. As Andy is taken under the wing of an aerialist named Mona, the reflection who replaces him lives with Andy’s parents, confounding his mother as he matures. The carnival is an evocatively drawn, colorful backdrop for an immersive coming-of-age story, and the Irish setting is effectively rendered. While teens will relate more to the chapters centering on Andy than those from his mother’s perspective, her musings on the muddy waters the fake Andy is navigating speak to universal truths. Infused with magical realism, this page-turner will enthrall teens. VERDICT A bewitching bildungsroman, perfect for fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.–Erinn Black Salge, Morristown-Beard School, Morristown, NJ

KIDD, Jess. Himself. 384p. Atria. Mar. 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9781501145179.

Mahony spent most of his life believing that his mother abandoned him at an orphanage. In his mid-20s, he learns that she was murdered, so he returns to the town of his birth to uncover the truth. Aided by the wealthy and wily Mrs. Cauley, her sidekick Bridget Doosey, and his ability to see ghosts, Mahony shakes things up and slowly unravels the dark secrets of a small Irish town. Set mostly in the 1970s, the novel also moves to the 1940s and 1950s to focus on the events of the protagonist’s birth and his mother’s murder. Superstition and magical realism permeate the book, and nature lends a hand in hiding and revealing secrets. Rich in characterization, setting, and salty dialogue, this mystery and journey of self-discovery features some sex and violence but nothing too extreme. Teens will find the quaint town of Mulderrig and its inhabitants fascinating and fearsome. VERDICT A charming addition for strong readers who enjoy well-drawn characters and stories with a hint of magic.–Tamara Saarinen, Gig Harbor Library, WA

UNDERDOWN, Beth. The Witchfinder’s Sister. 336p. Ballantine. Apr. 2017. Tr $28. ISBN 9780399179143.

What teen isn’t fascinated by tales of witch trials? They’re like Halloween horror stories, encompassing elements of the spiritual and unexplained and capturing a time when religion and magic existed side by side, albeit uneasily. They’re a welcome diversion from dry history lessons but far removed from today’s world. Or are they? Loosely based on the sparse historical accounts of witch hunter Matthew Hopkins and bolstered by excerpts from historical records and materials, this is a disturbingly realistic account of two years in rural England that would be repeated soon after in Salem, MA. Told from the viewpoint of Hopkins’s fictional widowed sister, Alice, the novel highlights the victimization and powerlessness of women caught up in the frenzy of witch hunts. Teens may find it hard to understand Alice’s lack of gumption at first, but it becomes evident that any deviation from the expected subservient role could mark a woman as an instrument of the devil. Underdown explores the psychology behind this dark time in our history, cleverly revealing how history can, and does, repeat itself. Readers will draw parallels between the narrative and the present-day persecution of women. VERDICT For fans of historical fiction.–Cary Frostick, formerly at Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA

WINGATE, Lisa. Before We Were Yours. 352p. Ballantine. Jun. 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9780425284681.

Based upon the infamous Tennessee Children’s Home Society child trafficking racket, this is a heartrending tale of two girls, two generations, and the power of family love. Twelve-year-old Rill is snatched from her riverboat home and forced into the institution, along with her four siblings, in 1939. Collusion between orphanage officials and the police in Memphis, from 1920 to 1950, enabled the forcible taking of poor children, who were adopted by wealthy families. Avery Stafford, born two generations later to a powerful South Carolina family, with a U.S. senator for a father, is a successful lawyer and her father’s presumptive heir to the Senate. When an elderly woman in Avery’s grandmother’s nursing home mistakes her for someone else, her curiosity is aroused. Avery explores the older woman’s history only to find that her family may harbor a shameful secret. Teens will identify with Rill’s powerlessness in a cruel, abusive, adult world and cheer her desperate yet doomed efforts to keep her siblings safe. Avery is a sympathetic character as she grapples with often suffocating family expectations and an emerging attraction for a man who is not her fiancé. The narrative moves between characters and eras, heightening emotions and suspense and leading to a satisfying redemption. VERDICT A poignant work that will appeal to fans of fact-based historical fiction, such as Anne Blankman’s Prisoner of Night and Fog by or Philip Kerr’s The Winter Horses, and lovers of classic orphan stories.–Gretchen Crowley, formerly at Alexandria City Public Library, VA

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Sarah Hill About Sarah Hill

Sarah Hill is SLJ's Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and an information services librarian at Lake Land College in Mattoon, IL.

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