Nail Biters

Nail-Biters: Teen Psychological Thrillers


They’re thrilling, chilling and should not be started after dark. Otherwise, you’ll be up all night with these mysterious, murderous nail biters! There’s no monsters here, except the manipulative human kind. Even so, you may want to enjoy the stories below with the light on!

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer


“Reeve was the most special thing that every happened to me. Now I’m just an apathetic, long-haired girl who doesn’t care about anything but my own grief.” Jam Gallahue loved a boy named Reeve. Now he’s gone and Jam can’t figure out how to live her life without him. So her parents have sent her to the Wooden Barn in Vermont, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers,” in hopes that a new environment will shake Jam out of her depression. But Jam isn’t very optimistic. “…supposedly a combination of the Vermont air, maple syrup, no psychiatric medication, and no Internet will cure me. But I’m not curable.” Then Jam attends her first Special Topics in English class, an exclusive elective with only five members taught by the mysterious Mrs. Quenell. She learns they are going to study Sylvia Plath, another long haired girl who suffered from depression and wrote a now classic book about her experience called The Bell Jar. She learns that each student is required to keep a special journal that the must turn in to Mrs. Q by the end of the semester. The last thing Jam wants to do is record her misery. But when she opens the pages and begins to write, she finds the process to be transformative…in more ways than one. She discovers her classmates are having the same experience, that the journals have become portals to another world where they can fix the issue that brought them to the Wooden Barn and in that moment, forget their current problems. But one by one, they each painfully come to understand that it is impossible to live in the past if they ever want to move forward. Jam is the last one to learn this lesson, and when she finally faces her fear and loss, the results are both devastating and enlightening. Critically acclaimed adult author Meg Wolitizer has penned a strong, spare, magically real YA novel about the power words and books can have over despair that will no doubt inspire a wave of new interest in the prose and poetry of Sylvia Plath.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll


Three sisters left alone for three days in a wintery cabin, each visited by a mysterious stranger who lures them into the snow. A beautiful young bride who makes a grisly discovery in the walls of her new husband’s grand house. A jealous man who commits murder in the dark of the forest and then is visited by the victim of his crime. These are a few of the deliciously creepy, folklore-gone-wrong stories written and illustrated by the incredibly talented Emily Carroll.  Mostly inked in red, black and a chilly cobalt blue, these graphic vignettes about love, death and revenge ooze with tension until they quietly detonate, usually in a silent moment of terrifying realization or a shocking splatter of crimson blood. Though I have read through the collection over half a dozen times by now, I just can’t stop poring over the gorgeously gory pages in fear and fascination. This assemblage of gothic-themed dread is a boon to my YA horror peeps who are always looking for a good literary scare, and to any nervous reader who’s ever been convinced that they just missed being snatched on the way back to bed by the something that lives under it. Because as the fanged shadow warns Red Riding Hood at the end of her journey through the forest, “You must travel through these woods again & again…and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…but the wolf only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.” Here’s hoping that the wolf never gets lucky and you relish these darkly delightful tales as much as I did. Want a taste of Emily Carroll’s disturbing visions? Read this interactive horror story and try not to shiver uncontrollably at the end.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart


You know when sometimes you discover that amazing book that is ALL THE THINGS? Mystery? Check. Romance? Check. Family DRA-mah? Check. Unexpectedly awesome, never-saw-it-coming ending? Check, check! I wish I could tell you more about this book about a girl, her two cousins and the love of her life. But to say too much about this story of a family slowly rotting from the inside out because of greed and fear would be a great disservice. You should get the chance to savor this delicious narrative of privilege, love and madness on a private island for yourself. Suffice it to say that it contains shades of King Lear, Wuthering Heights and The Virgin Suicides. That the small, perfect characterizations: “Bounce, effort, and snark.” “Sugar, curiosity, and rain.” “Ambition and strong coffee” will have you pulling out your own writer’s notebook to follow the pattern. That not only people but HOUSES in this story have their own personalities and strange little quirks. That the plot rug is pulled out from under you the minute you think you understand what is going on. And try not to scream when I tell you this terrific little tension filled package is coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you May 2014.

The Girl in the Park by Mariah Fredericks


Rain has no problem hanging at the back of the crowd in her posh Manhattan private school. Though she has had extensive speech therapy to overcome the cleft palate she was born with, she’s still insecure about her “mushmouthed and nasal” sounding voice.  But when her former best friend and notorious party girl Wendy is found strangled to death in Central Park, Rain finds herself coming forward to defend the needy girl who hid her pain behind her boisterous personality. She wants justice for Wendy, who the newspapers have reduced to the dead girl, “The girl  in Central Park.” So Rain forces herself to leave the audience and step into the spotlight. She starts questioning people about Wendy’s death: namely bad boy Nico Phelps, who Wendy stalked on Facebook, and his cold, classy girlfriend Sasha Meloni. She must also deal with the police’s questions about her own lapsed relationship with her ex-bestie, and confront a nosy reporter who seems bent on trashing Wendy’s already damaged reputation. As she circles closer and closer to the terrible truth about what really happened in the park that night, Rain discovers that in speaking up for someone else, she has finally found her true voice. But will she solve the case only to endanger herself? Partially inspired by the Central Park Preppy Murder, this unusual crime mystery with an unlikely and admirable sleuth at its center is a tight thriller that stands out from the rest of the pink-dust-jacketed pack.

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick


Rebecca’s summer is sucking–hard. She and her police officer dad have rented a vacation house in an attempt to escape the crowds of London and her father’s work troubles. Except the gloomy little village of Winterfold is full of suspicious locals and is itself in danger of disappearing as more and more of it falls into the sea that is slowly washing it away. Bored, Rebecca spends most of her time reading the same shabby paperbacks over and over or dialing her ex-boyfriend and hanging up. Then one day she meets reckless goth girl Ferelith who introduces Rebecca to all of  Winterfold’s dark secrets–including the strange chair with manacled armrests in the basement of abandoned Winterfold Hall. Who knows what horrors occurred there? The title, which refers to a quote by psychologist and philosopher William James about the possibility of an after life, gives some clue: “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.”  No one has ever returned from the dead to tell us if there is an afterlife or not, so logic says there probably isn’t. But what if there was one soul, one “white crow” that could prove that logic wrong? Rebecca’s about to find out–because Ferelith has some dark secrets of her own. Told in three distinct voices (Rebecca’s, Ferelith’s and that of a shady church rector who witnessed the basement atrocities back in 1798) this gruesome page turner will keep you up way past your bedtime. I read it all on one gulp one rainy afternoon and had a case of creepies all evening.

Death Cloud by Andrew Lane


Death Cloud

There have been so many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes lately, you knew it was just a matter of time before we met up with Sherlock Holmes, age fourteen. The year is 1868, and Young Master Holmes has just been informed that due to his army officer father’s deployment to India, his mother’s illness and his big brother Mylock’s busy lawyer schedule, he won’t be going home for the summer holidays from school. Instead, he’ll be staying with a little known aunt and uncle in the English countryside, far from civilization and anything remotely interesting. Fortunately, his boredom is quickly eased by his new acquaintances: brash and brilliant American Amyus Crowe, who will be his summer tutor, Amyus’s beautiful red-headed daughter Virginia, and scrappy river rat Matty Arnett, an orphan boy the same age as Sherlock who lives off his wits and what he can steal. The four of them form an unlikely detective team when a body is discovered on Sherlock’s uncles’s property. The corpse is lumpy and swollen, and rumors of plague soon blanket the countryside, throwing everyone into a state of panic. But by using the powers of deduction that Amyus Crowe is teaching him, Sherlock soon realizes that while the stranger’s death was caused by something carried on the air, it wasn’t germs or disease. Another body was discovered in the nearby village in the same condition, and Matty claimed to have seen a mysterious black cloud hovering over the house where it was found. Could the two deaths be linked? If so, what was the black cloud and how did it cause two different people to drop dead miles from each other? As he digs deeper into the mystery, Sherlock discovers from a series of mostly innocuous clues a diabolical plan created by an evil genius mastermind to strike at the very foundations of the British Empire. Sherlock’s first foray into investigation becomes a terrifying adventure that threatens to end his life on more than one occasion. But he must prevail, or his entire country could be lost. Great period detail, loads of interesting scientific facts from the time, and the methodical, logical plotting that we expect from a traditional Sherlock Holmes novel are all here, plus some pretty heart-pounding fight scenes. My only issue is the odd cover–since when does Sherlock Holmes have Justin Bieber hair? A fun read nevertheless, and who knows? Maybe they’ll tap the Biebs to play Sherlock in the teen movie version. Stay tuned for the sequel, Rebel Fire, coming out November 2011.

The Julian Game by Adele Griffin


julian game
Raye Archer is a lowly scholarship girl at swank private school Fulton. Her only friend is Star Trek geek Natalya, and Raye’s getting a little tired of spending Saturday nights at Nat’s house watching marathons of Next Generation on the Syfy channel while consuming copious amounts of Duncan Hines instant brownies. So when Ella Parker, one of the ruling members of the uber popular Group, offers Raye a shot at high school stardom by allowing Raye to become her Mandarin tutor, Raye jumps at the chance. But soon she starts losing Ella’s attention, so to keep the Queen Bee interested, Raye offers to help her get back at Julian Kilgarry, the hottest dude in school. Apparently, Julian had the gall to diss Ella at a party, and now Ella wants revenge. Julian’s comeuppance appears in the form of a blue-haired girl named Elizabeth, Raye’s online Facebook creation. Raye and Ella use Elizabeth to gain Julian’s trust in order to lure him places where he’s bound to run into trouble. But Raye’s conscience won’t let her keep up the ruse, so she ends up confessing to Julian, who is not only unexpectedly grateful, but ends up asking Raye out. Raye can’t believe her good luck. But just how long does she have before ruthless Ella discovers that she and Julian are more than just friends and her luck runs out? Ella will stop at nothing to show Raye who’s boss, even if it means using the Internet to cyberbully Raye into submission. What can you do when your frenemy is as elusive as a nasty email that can’t be deleted or website that won’t disappear? In terms of just really good writing, this mean girl thriller is heads and shoulders over those tired old Gossip Girls. Adele Griffin sums up so well how it feels to be drawn into the orbit of a dangerous girl who could kill your rep with a lift of her little finger: “I’d never had a bona fide girl crush, but something about Ella’s physical beauty and the way she was standing so close to me made me understand, with sharp and aching clarity, how you could fall wildly in love with a girl like Ella. She looked perfect as a daffodil. What did it matter if she was rotten at the root, if you could somehow get her to love you back?” Seriously, I’m rolling out “perfect as a daffodil” as my new catch phrase. Love it! Just like you will love this down and dirty story of best friends gone wrong and dudes done over. (And head over here for more information on the dangers of cyberbullying and how to stop it. Online harassment is no joke, be a part of the solution, NOT the problem!)

YOU by Charles Benoit


Fifteen-year-old Kyle Chase knows the score. Just like you, he can almost recite his parents’ and teachers’ lectures as they’re saying them, because he’s heard them so many times before. “Is that all you’re going to do all day, sit in front of that computer?” “Why don’t you wear some clothes that fit for a change?” “Stop mumbling and speak up.” “Because I said so.” It’s funny how it never changes. Funny in a sad way. Kyle can’t find much to laugh about these days. His friends are idiots obsessed with partying, his teachers are robots, his parents don’t listen and the girl he’s secretly in love with doesn’t take him seriously. And he’s starting to suspect that it’s mostly his fault that his life is like this, his fault for letting important decisions slide by until the choices were made for him. Now there’s no going back. Kyle’s just floating through his days—until he meets Zack McDade. Zach is off-the-hook weird, with his strange airs, million dollar vocab and bright colored sports coats.  Kyle doesn’t like Zach, but his particular brand of smooth sarcasm and utter confidence does make school a little more interesting, a little more alive. Until he turns his massive powers of manipulation on Kyle. What happens next may be inevitable given what has come before, but Benoit’s explosive ending is not one that YOU will forget anytime soon.

What’s so fantastic about this book isn’t the topic, which will be sadly familiar to many of you. It’s the way Benoit, a former high school English teacher and adult mystery author, tells Kyle’s story, from back to front (like Gail Gile’s amazing Shattering Glass) and in a rarely used second person voice that draws you uncomfortably close to Kyle’s troubled psyche. You may want to pull away from Kyle, or deny what’s happening to him. But you won’t be able to. Because Kyle’s not that different from you. Or one of your friends. Or that quiet guy who sits slumped in the back of your Algebra class. Though this book reminds me of several other outstanding titles, Benoit has also crafted something here that is so original and raw that I couldn’t put down until I finished the entire thing. The bad news: YOU isn’t coming to a library or bookstore near you until September 2010. The good news: YOU have a really amazing read to look forward to this fall.

Reality Check by Peter Abrahams


reality check
Seventeen-year-old football quarterback Cody Laredo never considered himself a good student. He maintained grades just high enough to keep his butt off the bench, hoping that a college football scholarship would be his ticket to the NFL. But now that he’s blown out his knee, lost his gorgeous upper-crust girlfriend Clea to boarding school and missed so many classes that he has no idea what is going on, he’s decided to drop out. Which is why he’s free to skip town and head east when he hears on the local news that Clea’s gone missing. When her beloved horse Bud comes back rider-less, the local authorities assume Clea was thrown in the woods and a search party is quickly assembled. Cody quietly joins their ranks, initially concealing his identity from the townies. But when Clea isn’t found in a few days, the search is called off and Cody begins to conduct his own investigation, based on little more than commonsense and intuition. As he begins to collect clues about Clea’s disappearance, Cody struggles with who to suspect and who to trust. Among the possible perpetrators are: Ike, the crabby old stable hand at Clea’s fancy school who seems to know more than he’s letting on; Sergeant Orton, the local fuzz who appears to be playing Cody just as much as Cody is playing him; and finally Townes, the rich boy who stole Clea’s heart—and maybe more. One of these men know what happened to his best girl. And it’s up to Cody to find out who before it’s too late. Reality Check is a solid, satisfying mystery with an earnest, blue-collar teen sleuth at it’s center. I love how Cody, who readily admits he’s not the biggest intellectual in the world, operates from the heart and realistically struggles with putting the pieces of the puzzle together, instead of snapping his fingers and solving it all in one fell swoop. This is the first book I’ve read by mystery author Peter Abrahams, but you can bet it won’t be the last!


Jen Hubert Swan
Librarian, Book Reviewer,
Reading Addict