“The Challenge” by Tom Hoyle

After Ben’s best and only friend Will disappears, everyone suspects he’s been murdered. However, no one has found his killer. A year passes by, and Ben is left to grieve his friend alone. Everyone else has moved on, but Ben hasn’t forgotten Will and he isn’t eager to make any new friends. That is, until the twins show up.

Even though the twins are the new kids in town, everyone likes them immediately. And when the twins prevent Ben from being bullied, and allow him into their inner circle, Ben falls under their spell too. With the twins, Ben is finally accepted and when the twins let Ben into an online game, Ben is eager to compete. Even when the challenges become more dangerous than ever.

“The Challenge” is the perfect book for you if you like reading about creepy events in small towns and friendships that are based on coercion. That is to say, this book is a thriller with high stakes. Ben shifts into a character that makes some challenging decisions (get it? challenging decisions?) that will shape him forever. I definitely couldn’t put this book down.

The book leads you towards the ending the entire time, and even still the ending is not what I expected. The ending was unsettling and I’m not sure I fully understood it and agreed with it. However, it wasn’t a let down like some endings. Really made you think.

“I am Princess X” by Cherie Priest (illustrations by Kali Ciesemier)

I love webcomics, like Dumbing of Age, Questionable Content, Yume Dream and Girls with Slingshots. In fact, an afternoon spent discovering a new webcomic and reading every single episode with a friend is my idea of an afternoon well spent. So, a YA novel with a webcomic in it is basically a marriage between two of the best art forms ever. It also helps that Ciesemier’s art is gorgeous in black, white and hot pink.

The two best friends in this novel make comics together. May writes the story, the Libby draws the art. The heroine of the comic – Princess X – beats stuff up with a massive sword. I definitely related to this a lot. (The comics, not the sword welding princess. (Actually, scrap that. I related to the princess too. She was awesome.)

When I was in middle school, I briefly drew and wrote a comic for my friends. I don’t know what the exact plot was – I don’t think there was much of a plot beyond my friends meeting all the cute cartoon boys we loved (like Inuyasha and Kyo from Fruitsbasket and maybe Spader from Pendragon, who isn’t a cartoon shut up) and freaking out because they were cute. Anyway, it was fun. It brought my friends and me together.

So I was feeling for May, when Libby and her mom drove over a cliff one night and died. No more friendship, no more comics. But here’s the creepy thing – many years later, May starts seeing Princess X around the city again. She becomes convinced her friend didn’t die and tries to find her based on a popular webcomic called – you guessed it – Princess X.

Another aspect of “I am Princess X” that really struck me is that it gets a lot done with a surprisingly small cast. Every sentence, every plot point, every character really counts. The writing is gripping and creepy, yet minimalist. Priest’s style works well. The pacing at the end will have you staying up “just a few more minutes” to find out what happens.

The one character I wasn’t completely sold on was May’s ally Patrick. Patrick’s main service to the plot was his made tech skills. Yes, mad tech skills were needed for the plot, but his connection to May wasn’t entirely clear to me. It didn’t seem believable that he would risk so much for a May’s old best friend. Especially since May and he just met.

However, the villain is complex. May’s backstory is realistic and gives the reader empathy. The scientific logic is solid. All in all, “I am Princess X” is a fast-paced read with beautiful illustrations.

“The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” by Holly Black

I’m a huge Holly Black fan ever since I read “White Cat.” She writes urban fantasy with a thriller undercurrent that you just can’t put down. And boy is her work dark! Yikes! (But in a good way.)

“The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” is a vampire story, but not the sexy, sparkly kind. It’s a blood and guts and fear vampire story with a strong science fiction background. A virus infects humans and turns them into vampires after they feed on human blood.

Tana, the heroine, has to make a lot of difficult choices and it is those choices that made me keep reading to the end. Tana is not a character that I really liked, but, paradoxically, I liked her that way. She seemed gritty and abrasive and real. Tana’s decisions belonged to her alone, and I wasn’t living vicariously through her since we didn’t have a lot in common. This was good, because in a dark tale like “Coldtown” you really need some distance.

However, Tana had a lot of redeeming qualities too, like protecting people she loved, keeping her promises, and risking her safety to help others. So, she’s not super unlikable.

I also appreciated how this novel seemed placed in an alternate present. Too often I read post-apocalyptic future books where the message is like “the future sucks peeps and we’re all going to die.”

This book had some of that going on, but the cyberworld and reality TV seemed identical to today’s, so I took it to mean “the present sucks in this alternate world peeps and we’re all going to die.”

I guess I found that comforting, because it didn’t seem as much as a commentary on where we’re headed as a parallel universe where vampires exist. Unless vampires actually exist in this world, in which case don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. 🙂

“The Thickety: A Path Begins” by JA White

This is one of these books that changed my entire approach to writing. (Hi, I’m a writer by the way.) “The Thickety” is just brimming with amazing technique. So, here’s what JA White can do:

1) How he introduces his characters. The sentences containing their description are instantly memorable and contain at least one trait that the reader can pick up on and is carried throughout the book (Grace’s ribbon). However, this isn’t what makes it brilliant. The scene introducing the character demonstrates their qualities immediately. You don’t have to guess that Grace is a massive villain because she shows it to you. She prevents the main character from getting medication for her brother in the first scene. What a jerk.

2) The mood and atmosphere is seriously creepy and is maintained throughout the book. The living forest, the paranoid town, the loneliness of the main character, the nethergrim, the addictiveness of spells. I couldn’t sleep after reading this thing. Which may make some people go: this is middle grade? Yes. This pushes the boundaries of horror in middle grade, but seriously, I think kids can handle it. Do you see what’s on TV these days? And lots of children’s classics are scary. Joan Aiken. I loved Joan Aiken when I was smaller and somehow I don’t think it affected me as much then as it does now.

3) The beginning and the ending have serious symmetry. This is honestly what takes this book to masterpiece level. Too often the ending of a book isn’t well-thought out and kills the entire work. Not here. The ending shocked me, yet made so much sense. The entire book had been pushing for this ending so hard that no other ending would’ve worked. Once you read it, you’re like “Oh my god, what? Oh. Of course.”

4) The writing style is very clear. Enough variation in sentence length keeps things interesting. JA White taught me that a two word sentence is okay after some longer sentences and adds colour to a manuscript.

Anyway, even if you’re not a writer this book is a seriously good read. Read it!

But do yourself a favour and keep the lights on.