An Inheritance of Ashes
By Leah Bobet
Clarion Books, 400 pages, $21.99
Toronto author Leah Bobet pits humans against mysterious evil forces in her second novel, a quietly creepy fantasy. Hallie and Marthe are sisters, struggling to make ends meet on their farm as they wait for Marthe's husband to return from a great war with an enemy known only as the Evil God Southward – an entity that has the power to release "Twisted Things" into the world that destroy anything they touch. Goosebumps can come at all intensities, but these ones sneak up soft and evil, the crescendo almost unnoticeable, but incredibly unnerving. Considering that several of the Twisted Things fly, drawing a likeness to Hitchcock is entirely appropriate as Hallie wakes every day to find her world a little more consumed by the frightening unknown. A slow burn that builds to a rewarding intensity.
Wolf by Wolf
By Ryan Graudin
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 400 pages, $21.50
As a child, Yael was taken to a concentration camp and endured brutal medical experimentation to drastically lighten her skin, hair and eye colour. An unexpected side effect? She can "skinshift" to look like any person. It is now 1956 and Hitler has been commemorating the Axis victory with annual cross-continent motorcycle races. Yael plans to enter the race, impersonate another driver, win a private audience with Hitler and murder him. It sounds absurd, but it is positively genius. All the elements of alternative history, fantasy, dystopia and thriller fit together in a vicious, unrelenting momentum. Yael is a bloodthirsty heroine readers will feverishly root for and as the race pulses forward, flashbacks into her terrifying childhood justify how hell-bent she is on her crazy plan. This is a heart-stopper dripping in revenge and mania.
By Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen
HarperCollins, 244 pages, $19.99
Childhood is a time of intense vulnerability and helplessness – perhaps the most fertile literary ground for psychological horror. In his best work to date, Kenneth Oppel tells the story of Steve, a perpetually anxious boy with a gravely ill baby brother and persistent dreams of angel-esque creatures. Epic adventure is Oppel's usual wheelhouse, but here his prose is compact, deliberate and raw as Steve struggles to distinguish between reality and the darkness in his own mind. The novel's tone gets an invaluable assist from illustrator Jon Klassen, with vignettes that function as a master class in chiaroscuro and restraint. What Klassen chooses to show readers is icily beautiful in its starkness and minimalism, heightening the novel's propulsion of spiraling unrest and panic. It's a masterpiece, and deeply heartening proof that two of our country's best artists are continuing to take risks and grow artistically, even at the height of their careers.
Heartache and Other Natural Shocks
By Glenda Leznoff
Tundra Books, 384 pages, $21.99
Wishing Judy Blume had written a novel set in 1970 during the peak of the FLQ crisis? This is it. In her first teen book, Glenda Leznoff tells the stories of two teen girls leading very different lives, but linked by their neighbourhood geography and insatiable attraction to a bad-boy classmate named Ian (yes, he drives a motorcycle). Julia is quiet, artsy, contemplative and homesick as her family has just moved from Montreal to escape the political unrest. Carla is bold, sexually open, dramatic and wildly jealous of the attention Ian pays to Julia. The Blume comparison is apt because of the deliciously juicy realism; the simultaneous upheaval of both the country and two teen girls' hormones is addictive and surprising. Leznoff gets teen girls – their conversations, their insecurities and their deep yearning for self-worth.
By Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 192 pages, $24.99
National Book Award finalist and two time Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt is known for binding humour and heartbreak. But his latest novel treads on a new territory of tragedy. Twelve-year-old Jack gets a foster brother named Joseph. At 14, Joseph has a violent past and a baby daughter he has never met. Set in the deepest, darkest, most frigid depths of a Maine winter, this moving and minimalist story of Joseph's loss and Jack's loyalty is utterly gorgeous in its fragility. The prose is sparse – readers could easily finish this in a single sitting – but every word is delicately and masterfully placed. The final dozen pages are sharply painful, but still starkly and profoundly beautiful. Prepare for tears, then awe that such an emotionally penetrative experience can come at such a modest word count.
The Emperor of Any Place
By Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick Press, 336 pages, $21
The "book within a book" narrative is a real challenge. Inevitably, one story always becomes more interesting than the other. But Canadian YA master Tim Wynne-Jones keeps two fires burning equally, and with seeming ease, in his signature taut style. Evan's father suddenly dies while reading a strange Second World War survival tale of a stranded Japanese soldier on a mysterious, ghost-inhabited island. Grief-stricken, Evan decides to read the book himself and quickly becomes immersed in the mystical tale. When Evan's grandfather, a brusque veteran, appears on the scene, both plot lines converge in a quiet, all-consuming thriller. With adult conflict often taking centre stage, this teeters on the border of YA and is the rare teen book that has high crossover appeal for discerning dads.