‘Each secret seemed to have a secret of its own, each shadow hid another shadow darker than the first.’ So muses the hero of Chris Priestley’s splendidly eldritch Dead of Winter. When Michael Vyner is orphaned, he is sent to live with the man whose life his father saved, in a crumbling stately home. The house is suppurating with ghosts, and the living inhabitants are also not to be trusted. Priestley assembles his plot and possibly psychotic characters with wicked glee, creating a supernatural tale which is aware that revenge is always open-ended. Genuinely frightening, this will make your ghoulish nephews stay up all night.
From psychos to psychopomps: Ben Harvester is an ordinary boy with two extraordinary talents, drawing and empathy. These bring him to the attention of the titular organisation in Ministry of Pandemonium by Chris Westwood. Its purpose is to guide the newly dead towards the light. Sweetly gimcrack and bureaucratic, they use typewriters, telegraphs and a constantly expanding filing system, while buzzing around London on a space-and-time-defying rickshaw. And, of course, they are up against the forces of darkness, as personified by the Mawbreed, ‘industrial strength vacuum cleaners of doom’. This is a marvellously well-written thriller for older children.
Eschewing the paranormal is Celia Rees’s The Fool’s Girl, an earthy continuation of Twelfth Night that neatly flips authorship on its head by positing that Shakespeare created his play having heard a similar story from Violetta, the daughter of Viola and Orsino. Now on the run and in England, Violetta and Feste earn their living tumbling in the streets. Soon they are embroiled in a plot to rescue a sacred Illyrian relic from Malvolio – who has become a scheming Jesuit – and restore the Duke’s daughter to his realm. I didn’t always agree with Rees’s characterisation, particularly poor Andrew Aguecheek resurfacing as a zealot and henchman of Malvolio, but this is a sparkling, intelligent, well textured novel for younger teenagers of both sexes – and cross-dressing twins, too, should you know any.
For older teens we move slightly forward in time to the court of Marie Antoinette as it teeters on the edge. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly concerns a (modern-day) goth who loves playing Bach on her guitar. Reeling from the death of her brother, she finds an eighteenth-century diary written by a girl who seems spookily similar to her. It tells of the doomed Louis-Charles, the Queen’s son. This innocent mite was walled up in a tower, went mad and died before he was ten. The novel is meaty and brave, witty and clever. ‘There’s no kindly huntsman. No fairy godmother. There’s only the wolf,’ says the Duke of Orléans.
Far from the upheavals of history, but dealing with his own troubles, is Ty, the good-looking, mightily confused teenage witness to a murder whom we first met in When I Was Joe. In Almost True, Keren David picks up his story as Ty’s protection programme is compromised. Haunted by the ghost of a man killed instead of him, Ty must come to terms with both this and his family problems. He is an immensely touching creation, all bravado and awkwardness, imagination and violence, and David’s second novel is as slick and sharp as her first.
Now by Morris Gleitzman is a moving fable about a girl who finds a locket belonging to her namesake, Zelda, a friend of her grandfather’s who died in the Holocaust. Twenty-first-century, Australian Zelda is a kind, sensitive girl who is bullied by the girls at her new school. But when a different kind of terror threatens, as forest fires engulf the bush, she and her grandfather become involved in a race to save the life of an asthmatic young boy – who happens to be the brother of Zelda’s chief tormentor. As a metaphor, the bushfire works perfectly: holocaust means ‘wholly burnt’. Out of the ashes and destruction must spring new life, and the truths that Zelda learns help her towards that.
On the lighter side, but still with undertones of darkness, is Elliott Allagash by Simon Rich. The narrator, Seymour, is a charming loser who doesn’t consider lunchtime a success unless he has ‘consumed at least five cartons of chocolate milk’. The eponymous ‘hero’, an über-rich misfit, begins to make Seymour’s life at school ‘better’ by constructing an elaborate series of lies around him. Elliott manipulates things successfully, but at other people’s expense. Seymour is all set for Harvard, but truth will out. Scabrous, subtle and savvy, this is for trendy adolescents who relish Gossip Girl and Cruel Intentions.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s Pull Out All the Stops! is a delightful fantasy in which Cissy, escaping a diphtheria outbreak (and the accidental destruction of her house), joins up with a theatre that happens to travel by steamship. They go through towns with allegorical names: Salvation, Patience, Doldrums; meanwhile, McCaughrean’s eye for description (someone’s hat is ‘low, as if it had ducked to avoid gunfire’) makes this an eccentric winner.
In the same genial vein is Ghostly Holler-Day by Daren King. Narrated by debonair, pencil-thin-moustachioed Charlie Vapour, a group of frightfully friendly ghosts decide to take a haunted holiday by the sea, ‘in the dead of winter’, naturally. King plays with language as he plays with his readers, undermining expectations and drawing a plot around the hapless ghosts’ attempts to uncover the mystery behind a dastardly caped figure that is looming around Frighten-on-Sea. Of course they’re all too terrified to do very much, and would much rather take a trip on the roller coasters – or watch a magic show.
Also hilarious is The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future by George Beard and Harold Hutchins, a graphic novel for six- to nine-year-olds. Endearingly badly spelled (‘Therefore you must look beyond the surfise to see what is real’) and featuring vomiting baby dinosaurs, this will horrify parents but delight their offspring. Even without the flip-page animations (not for the faint-hearted), a book that’s got giant killer dino robots in it wins my vote. Surprisingly, there’s a touching love story, and a moral.