3 stars. Middle Grade Audience. Published 1/19/21. Thanks to Crown Books for Young Readers and Netgalley for providing a digital ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Sometimes the twists life throws at you make you stronger. They teach you who you truly are and what (who) is most important to you. And sometimes they also makes you really good at hunting ghosts. Karma Moon is a 12-year-old compulsive worrier and believer in all things “woo woo”. She lives in the West Village with her dad and helps him with his documentary company when she’s not hanging out with her best friend Mags. She also regularly sees her therapist, because ever since her mom left, Karma’s worries have been debilitating. But when her dad gets a call from Netflix about filming a ghost hunting documentary at a famous hotel in Colorado, she just knows everything is going to change for the better!
With Mag by her side, Karma tries to help her dad with this life-changing opportunity. They only problem? The ghosts don’t seem to want to cooperate. Can Karma, Mags, and their new (super cute) friend Nyx uncover the mysteries of the haunted hotel, save Karma’s dad from bankruptcy, and even maybe get Karma’s mom to come home finally? Karma soon learns that having the right people in your life means everything, and the ones who are gone are gone for a reason. And you know what? That’s ok.
This book is fun and cute, but it’s also very emotional. It tackles the pain and confusion of parental separation and abandonment, but also illustrates the power of family (both biological and chosen). The ghost story, which is genuinely creepy at times, is a fun mystery with several twists. But the main meat of Karma Moon: Ghost Hunter is Karma’s relationships with the people around her and herself. She experiences growth, grief, and joy, and her by the end of the book she is a different girl.
This book is perfect for young readers who enjoy Harriet the Spy, Scooby-Doo, and the idea of watching classic horror movies they’re still a bit too young for!
The Babysitters Coven series is so full of humor and adventure! I always have a good time when I’m reading them, and For Better or Cursed helped me cope with a fairly serious reading slump. Lighthearted and fun, For Better or Cursed follows Esme and Cassandra on to the next chapter of their Sitter experience. Sitters are like babysitters, but instead of babysitting children and keeping them safe, they’re babysitting the world and keeping it safe from demons. And instead of being CPR qualified, they have specialized magic powers. In the first installment of the series, Esme and Cassandra learned the truth about their birthright and their family legacies. In For Better or Cursed, they are summoned to a Sitters’ Summit, but corruption and conspiracy threaten not only the Sitterhood and Esme and Cassandra’s families, but also the entire world.
I love the characters in these books. I love that they feel like real teenagers with strong personalities and have to deal with real-life issues (like poverty and broken families) along with cosmic and paranormal threats. Kate Williams’ writing has great pacing that made me excited to pick this book up despite struggling to read anything at the moment. The pop culture references were very fun, and Esme and her best friend Janis really remind me of Andie from Pretty in Pink (one of my all-time favs still to this day). In fact, this series gets compared to The Babysitters Club and Buffy often, but I also think there is a strong comparison to the John Hughes universe. I know there is a lot to criticize and examine concerning those films, but there is a warmth to them that I have always enjoyed, and I feel that warmth here. Not everyone will feel that, however.
While I greatly enjoyed this book, it, unfortunately, suffers from middle child syndrome (in the bookish world). I felt that the external conflict was an afterthought, and the more interesting dynamics were the interpersonal relationships. I think Williams felt that as well because the external conflict seemed rushed and a bit lacking in emotional weight. Unfortunately, the plot was constructed in a way that also pushed the interpersonal and familial relationships aside. I think Williams started exploring some interesting emotional journeys for her well-crafted characters, but those seemed to drop off as the external conflict picked up. This resulted in a slightly unsatisfactory conclusion to this installment. Luckily we have another book coming, and I hope these lingering threads will be tied up.
What I did appreciate was the continuing expansion of the diversity of the characters. Williams’ strength truly is her character work (which is why I would like to see her focus in that direction). Her characters grew and developed in fascinating ways in For Better or Cursed (trying to avoid spoilers here), and I hope to see that continue into future books.
Overall, this was a delightfully fun read, and (surprise) it takes place during the winter holidays so it gave me a lot of Christmas vibes at just the right time of year! If you are struggling to finish a book right now (which is understandable) and are having a hard time feeling holly jolly during a difficult holiday season (also understandable), For Better or Cursed might be just the thing to cheer you up!
Book published 12/15/20. Thank you to Netgalley, Delacorte Press, and Random House Children’s for providing a digital ARC for review.
5 Stars. Triggers for sexual assault, murder, violence.
I love Libba Bray. It took me far too long to read her work, but now I find myself in the horrible position of running out of Bray books to consume! Despite really enjoying all of Bray’s writing, and despite having purchased the first book when it came out years ago, and despite my mother and multiple friends telling me I needed to finally start reading it, I only just picked up The Diviners. I don’t regret it, though, because I’m currently suffering a pretty brutal pandemic-induced reading slump, and The Diviners turned out to be exactly what I needed. And what is even better is that I have three more books in the series to get me through what is sure to be a bleak and lonely winter.
The Diviners seems to have everything…at least everything I love. It’s set in 1920s New York City, a time in history I absolutely love to explore. It centers on a group of misfit teens who happen to have extraordinary supernatural abilities and are called upon to use those gifts (or curses) to protect the world from dangerous paranormal beings. It’s light, exciting, full of adventure, has a dash of romance, and is also genuinely terrifying at times! The Diviners is a scary-ass book!
Evie has outgrown her town in Ohio, and when she missteps at a party–using her supernatural ability to reveal an ugly truth about the town’s golden boy–she’s sent away to live with her oddball Uncle Will in Manhattan. She accepts this punishment, gladly. Once in New York City, she resolves to make the most of it. She enjoys shopping, attending glamorous variety shows, and visiting speakeasies about town! She blossoms into her true flapper self. But she can’t seem to stay out of trouble, which puts her uncle in a tough spot. His Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult isn’t exactly the hottest ticket in town, and Evie isn’t making his life any easier. But luckily, she finds a way to make herself useful to Will.
Not long into her stay in the city, Naughty John, a brutal serial killer, starts making his presence known. Will is called to consult on the case, and Evie can’t help but get involved. What they don’t know, at least at first, is that this case will put them in the middle of dangerous occult dealings. Evie, her uncle, and her unique set of rag-tag friends have to put the pieces together to stop Naughty John’s rise to power (and subsequent end of the world as we know it).
Bray’s writing is always sharp, smart, and witty. It shouldn’t have surprised me that The Diviners ended up being very political and historically detailed, having read her other work, but Bray went above and beyond with this one. I really appreciated how politically aware it was! Classism and racism are addressed head on, with generational clashes causing tensions along the way. I’m sure this will continue with the rest of the series.
Each character is well developed and a pleasure to spend time with. It’s also nice to have a relatively diverse crew. We’re still getting to know them in this first book, but I see the seeds of a deeply connected squad growing. I love found family stories, especially if there is an element of Scooby gang mixed in!
While Bray writes for a teen audience, there is nothing simplified or glossed over about The Diviners. This series is just as appropriate for someone firmly in their adult years as it is for someone in their mid-teens. I guarantee you’ll learn a little something about history as well, no matter how old you are! This book not only kept my attention during a particularly difficult and distracting time, but it also fully delighted and entertained me. Reading usually gives me a break from the world, but lately it’s been hard to escape into a book even for a few minutes. The Diviners gave that back to me, and I appreciate it. Looking forward to picking up book two: Lairs of Dreams.
One of the most beloved horror tropes is the coming-of-age story. Admit it. You love the Losers Club, Stand By Me, Monster Squad, The Lost Boys…anything that reminds you of that last summer before high school when you were biking (or in my case, rollerblading) around town with your best buds, sneaking into movie theaters, staying up all night in your forts or around campfires, and learning new and potentially upsetting truths about the world. Horror pairs so well with this kind of story because many times our real life coming-of-age anecdotes are horrific in one way or another. At the very least it was a significant transition, and those can be tough. Horror stories can act as a catharsis, a way to feel control, or a fun way to play out nostalgia and revisit some important and potentially fond memories with your best friends before the world made you an adult.
Lucky for us, this fall is seeing a handful of books that could plug that nostalgia hole in your heart! I want to highlight five today. They range from middle-grade to adult and hit on a wide range of subjects.
Night of the Mannequinsby Stephen Graham Jones (9/1, Tor.com): As always, Stephen Graham Jones delivers an inventive and mind-blowing story that both completely disturbs and delights. Sawyer and his best friends are growing up. The end of high school is looming, and they’ve long since stopped playing games like they did as kids. But when they decide to prank one of their own at her job in a movie theater using an old mannequin they used to play with, Sawyer feels like they’re kids all over again. But then the mannequin stands up and walks away by itself, and only Sawyer sees it happen. Shortly after, people start dying. This novella has quite a few twists and a campy B horror vibe, but overall it’s a tight plot with a heartbreaking end. Night of the Mannequins is a delusional and demented coming-of-age story with Jones’ distinct tone (lighthearted and fucked up, pleasantly mixed together). Adult audience. Trigger warnings for mental illness, violence/murder, death of a close friend.
The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry (9/8, Berkley Books): Holding on to her dark fantasy roots, Christina Henry delivers a brutal dose of nostalgia with her 1980s throw-back small town horror novel The Ghost Tree. Lauren is about to turn 15, and her life has been difficult lately. Her mom has been on her case about every little thing, her best friend Miranda is more interested in boys than hanging out at the Ghost Tree in the woods like they used to, and, oh yeah, Lauren’s dad was brutally murdered in those same woods a year ago. But her life is about to get a whole lot harder when the dark curse that has a tight hold on their small town of Smith’s Hollow starts to go off the rails and things get even more dangerous and terrifying than they already were. The Ghost Tree felt a bit like Stephen King’s IT in that Lauren is faced with the dark events of her childhood and her coming of age. And the way that hate works as an infection and a tool of dark supernatural forces throughout the town feels a lot like Pennywise to me (in the best way). And I feel I must mention that fans of Stranger Things will surely enjoy this book. This was my first Christina Henry read, and I cannot wait to dig into her other series! Adult audience. Trigger warnings for death of a loved one, racial violence, murder and gore, inappropriate relationships between an adult and a minor.
The Last Halloweenby Abby Howard (10/06, Iron Circus Comics): This horror comedy comic is technically YA, but adults will find lots to love here. Mona is a ten-year-old left to her own devices on Halloween night when she’s attacked by…a monster? Fleeing to find help, she runs into a motley crew of…entities? And is taken back to their…mad scientist guardian? While with her new friends, Mona learns about how there is one monster for every human, and the only thing usually keeping the monsters at bay is a human who seems to have been killed. So now the monsters are free to roam and murder to their hearts’ content. Well, you know what this means. It’s now up to Mona and her new friends to try to save humankind and the world as they know it! But Mona, who is wise and sassy beyond her years, is really annoyed that she’s stuck with the job. Why couldn’t they get ahold of Kurt Russell? The Last Halloween is funny, gruesome (definitely for older teens and above), action-packed, and full of heart and found family vibes. Young Adult and up audience. Trigger warning for gore.
For Better or Cursedby Kate M. Williams (12/15, Random House Children’s, Delacorte Press): Originally slated to come out September 15th, it looks like the publication date has been bumped to December 15th, but I’m still gonna talk about it. This is the second installment in the Babysitter’s Coven series, which follows Esme Pearl and Cassandra Heaven during their adventures as Sitters: monster fighting, dimension defending, supernaturally skilled badasses who also sometimes babysit. The first book was an absolute delight and definitely deliver that coming-of-age vibe with a side of teen drama and a large helping of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In this next installment, Esme is finally getting used to her new reality, but something is off with Cassandra and she can’t quite figure it out. Even more stressful…they have been called to a once-in-a-generation conference (for lack of a better descriptor) by the Sitter’s governing body to basically train up and meet others in the organization. But despite this opportunity, Emse can’t stop feeling like something is wrong. Young adult and up audience.
Don’t Turn Out the Lights: A Tribute to Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Darkedited by Jonathan Maberry (9/1, HarperCollins Children’s Books): This is less about coming of age and more for readers who might be experiencing their own coming of age right now. This middle-grade horror and dark fantasy anthology is jam-packed full of amazing stories by some of the hottest names in horror fiction, including Tananarive Due, Josh Malerman, R.L. Stine, and more. This collection, as it says in the subtitle, is a tribute to the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series that many of us loved growing up and had a profound effect on who we are now as adults. It even includes creepy illustrations. That seems worth a shout out in a coming-of-age round up to me! If you have any spooky kids in your life, this would make a great Halloween gift. Middle-grade audience.
Full reviews of some of these books are on the way and will be published when the books are. Which are you most excited to get your hands on? And what are your favorite nostalgic horror reads? Let us know in the comments, and happy reading!
Thank you to Netgalley and all listed publishers for providing ARCs for review.