By George Ebey
Jen Conley brings us fresh thrills with a young adult twist in her latest tale, SEVEN WAYS TO GET RID OF HARRY.
Danny Zelko, 13 going on 14, needs to get rid of his mom’s boyfriend, Harry. The guy’s a creep. Drinks too much, locks Danny out of the house, gets in Danny’s face, and calls him Danielle.
Of course everyone blames Danny. It’s his fault he gets into fights at school. It’s his fault he can’t control his anger. It’s his fault Harry is such a jerk.
Danny isn’t such a bad kid—he has his own lawn business, makes his own dinner, even takes out the garbage and closes up the house without being asked. All he wants is for his mom to be like she used to be—a real mother who acted like one.
Because Harry makes her stupid. When she gets around him, she forgets about her kids. Disappears with him, doesn’t stick up for her own son. And the prospect of spending another day with this man makes Danny feel helpless and broken.
So when Danny’s sister, Lisa, reveals that Harry and their mom are getting married, Danny, never one to cower, decides to do something about it. That’s right: one way or another, he will get rid of Harry.
The Big Thrill reached out to Conley, who shared insight into her new novel, what inspired the setting, and a little more about her main character, Danny Zelko.
Writing a trilogy is a massive undertaking for any author, but few can claim the era-spanning commitment Diana Rodriguez Wallach has made to her Anastasia Phoenix series. While the trilogy’s publication history spans just two years—it kicked off in March 2017 with Proof of Lies, continued the following year with Lies that Bind, and concludes this month with END OF THE LIE—Rodriguez Wallach has been hammering away at the story in some form or other since her junior year of high school, when the idea for the YA spy thriller was sparked by the true account of a Boston University professor who was once an Eastern European spy and propagandist.
The series, about a teenage girl who must reevaluate everything she’s ever known about her family when her older sister goes missing, went through countless revisions over the years as Rodriguez Wallach started a family, racked up multiple publishing credits, and began teaching creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her work, which includes the YA contemporaries Amor and Summer Secrets and Amigas and School Scandals, has earned accolades from Paste Magazine and Bustle; in 2018, Proof of Lies was shortlisted for ITW’s Best Young Adult Novel award.
The Big Thrill caught up with Rodriguez Wallach for a spoiler-free chat about Anastasia Phoenix, Nancy Drew, and wrapping up her most ambitious project to date.
When his dad is out of town and his mom gets in a serious accident, 16-year-old Jake’s life comes to a screaming halt. His Uncle Mark, a horror writer, is the only adult nearby to care for him and his little sister, and Jake begrudgingly agrees to spend the night at his uncle’s house to protect her. Across from his uncle’s home is a huge, abandoned toy factory, one that Jake disregards until he sees a creepy doll skulking around on its own. He sees the doll harassing his sister and she chases it to the old building. Jake pursues them inside the factory, accidentally passing through the Amazing Imagination Machine, bringing his greatest nightmare to life. Jake is forced to find a way to stop his own creation and all the monsters spawned from the machine before they can kill him, discovering some dark secrets that have been hidden in his family tree along the way.
Author Bailey Day sat down with The Big Thrill to discuss her debut young adult thriller, THE AMAZING IMAGINATION MACHINE:
By Wendy Tyson
Someone once said that the most important thing a fiction writer can do is to study human psychology. Author Jessica Bayliss has that covered.
With a doctorate in clinical psychology and experience as a psychotherapist, teacher, and researcher, Bayliss uses her understanding of the human psyche to inform her young adult thrillers. Her latest novel, TEN AFTER CLOSING, is a riveting hostage thriller—and a look at the life-altering changes that can come from a traumatic event.
The Big Thrill recently had the chance to sit down with Bayliss to talk about TEN AFTER CLOSING.
Congratulations on the recent release of your young adult novel, TEN AFTER CLOSING. Your novel has an exciting premise: two teens caught in a hostage situation. What can you tell us about the main characters that’s not on the back cover? How have their pasts influenced the people they are when the story opens?
Thank you! I’m so excited and I can’t believe it’s almost time to send it out into the world.
Winny and Scott come from different backgrounds, but both are in a similar situation at the start of the book. Both have really big decisions in front of them, and they’re struggling to feel empowered to make those decisions and act. Winny is stuck in a passive place—she’s let her parents decide much of her path thus far, going with the flow for so long, she isn’t sure how to shift out of that mode. Scott’s been quite active in trying to change his situation, but he’s struggling to see that the way he’s going about it isn’t working. Both are thinking about how others will respond if they put their needs first and are fearful of being assertive. Of course, the life-changing hostage situation at Café Flores impacts how they see things. I really wanted to show them coming to new decisions by the end of TEN AFTER CLOSING, but I can’t say any more without spoilers.
By Dawn Ius
One of the underlying themes in Kit Frick’s young adult debut is about the power of facing our fears—not only for the characters in this haunting coming-of-age thriller, but for the author herself.
As a seasoned freelance editor, an entrepreneur, and a published poet and short story writer, Frick is used to being at the helm of her professional life. That changed when SEE ALL THE STARS was picked up by Simon & Schuster/McElderry.
“The thing that shakes me is the reality that in the world of traditional publishing, the author is just one part of a team, and there are countless aspects of the publication process that are largely out of the author’s control,” she says. “Letting go of that control in order to let the publication engine do its thing has been and will probably continue to be a challenge, and a little bit scary.”
Much like the novel itself.
Part love story, part thriller, SEE ALL THE STARS is a heart-wrenching tale told in alternating timelines—THEN and NOW—from 17-year-old Ellory’s point of view, a somewhat unreliable narrator who goes from having four close friends and a boyfriend, to being alone—and consumed with guilt—after a shocking incident that changes all of their lives forever.
When Wyatt gets framed for a friend’s crime, he thinks his life is over. But then a mysterious stranger visits him in jail with an unusual proposal: spend three months in a secret government camp and have a ten-year prison sentence wiped clean.
Wyatt agrees, and finds himself in a world beyond his wildest dreams, with teenagers like him flying drones, defusing bombs, and jumping out of helicopters. This is no ordinary camp. Camp Valor is a secret training ground for teenage government agents, filled with juvenile offenders—badasses who don’t play by the rules—who desperately need a second chance. If they can prove themselves over their three-month stay and survive Hell Week, they will enter the ranks of the most esteemed soldiers in the United States military.
But some enemies of the United States have gotten wind of Camp Valor, and they will do everything in their power to find out its secrets. Suddenly Wyatt and his friends have to put their training into practice, and find the bravery to protect their country.
New York Times bestselling author Scott McEwen spent some time with The Big Thrill discussing his latest young adult thriller, CAMP VALOR:
Sure, it was an accident. But the blaze killed his mom and set his dad on a path to self-destruction. Everything else about that fateful night is full of gaping holes in Theo’s mind, for good reason. Maybe it’s better that way. As captain of the Ellis Hollow Diving Team, with straight A’s and solid friends, he’s only one semester away from securing a scholarship, and leaving his past behind.
But when a family history project gets assigned at school, new memories come rushing to the surface, memories that make Theo question what he really knows about his family, the night of the fire, and if he can trust anyone—including himself.
Award-winning art director and designer-turned-writer Demetra Brodsky spent some time with The Big Thrill discussing her new release, DIVE SMACK:
Then the bottom falls out. News breaks that the investment fund her mom runs is a scam and her mother is a thief. Now, instead of friends, the FBI is at her door. Grace is damaged goods.
Millions of dollars are unaccounted for, and everyone wants to know where all the money went. Can she find it and clear her mother’s name?
The key to repairing her shattered life seems to lie in a place deep in the wilderness, and Grace sets out, her identity hidden, determined to find it.
But she isn’t alone.
Sam Rivers, a mysterious loner from school, is on her trail and wants to know exactly what secrets she uncovers. As the pair travels into the wilds, Grace realizes she must risk everything on the dark, twisted path to the truth.
Award-winning author Amy Fellner Dominy met up with The Big Thrill to discuss her latest thriller THE FALL OF GRACE:
Fairy tales are just part of Alethea Kontis’ DNA. For much of her career she has retold stories from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Mother Goose, and more. In her YA Nocturne Falls Universe trilogy, the fairy tales she tells are her own.
BESPHINXED, Kontis’ third entry in the Nocturne Falls shared universe series, finds Owen Liddell in big trouble. One hundred years ago, as a poor boy, he was tricked by a descendent of Arachne into staring into the eyes of the Great Sphinx, leaving him bespelled into the form of a cat. Now Arachne’s spider-sisters have found him while his heart is all tangled up with the most popular witch in school. Heather Hayden is a mean girl Gothwitch who has looks, money, and power along with a family who treats her like she’s nothing. As if this weren’t enough, Heather has a history of torturing Owen’s best friend, Kai. Can he possibly escape the evil spider sisters, thwart the spell he’s under, rescue the poor rich girl, and save his friendship with Kai—all before finals and the Zombie Prom?
“Working on the Nocturne Falls Universe IP has been an incredibly unique experience,” Kontis said. “[Author and NFU creator] Kristen Painter handpicked the authors for the NFU books. She not only encouraged us to write series within her existing series, but she also encouraged us to use our books to launch our own worlds.
“My background is in fairy tales—MG/YA is definitely my wheelhouse. What inspired this series, though, was Mummy’s Diner. The original Nocturne Falls series constantly references this diner and its delicious food. My first thought was, ‘Well if it’s that good, it’s obviously run by Greeks!’ I had never before had the opportunity to write a young heroine with my own Greek background, and the thought made me dance with joy. I could finally name characters after people in my family! Everything else just fell into place.”
This led to the first novel in the trilogy, The Truth About Cats and Wolves, which tells the story of Kai Xanthopoulos, whose family owns the diner. The second novel, When Tinker Met Belle, is the story of Kai’s best friend Bellamy, a fairy. The last book was to center on the third friend, Maya, “but readers loved Owen so much that I wrote book three about him instead, tying up his storyline from book one,” Kontis said. In BESPHINXED, Owen finds a home and a surrogate family within the confines of the diner and its employees.
Anna is everything her identical twin is not. Outgoing and athletic, she is the opposite of quiet introvert Jess. The same on the outside, yet so completely different inside–it’s hard to believe the girls are sisters, let alone twins. But they are. And they tell each other everything.
Or so Jess thought.
After Anna falls to her death while sneaking out her bedroom window, Jess’s life begins to unravel. Everyone says it was an accident, but to Jess, that doesn’t add up. Where was Anna going? Who was she meeting? And how long had Anna been lying to her?
Jess is compelled to learn everything she can about the sister she thought she knew. At first it’s a way to stay busy and find closure . . . but Jess soon discovers that her twin kept a lot of secrets. And as she digs deeper, she learns that the answers she’s looking for may be truths that no one wants her to uncover.
Because Anna wasn’t the only one with secrets.
The Big Thrill caught up with Amelia Brunskill and had a chance to discuss her debut novel, THE WINDOW:
There’s a scene in Jaws that kept my kids up at night for at least a week. Jaws was a great, frightening story. Which means that Jessica Bayliss’s new YA paranormal/horror thriller BROKEN CHORDS is in good company. There are at least a dozen scenes that made me sleep with the lights on.
Just the tag line scares the bloomin’ bejesus out of me: “They rip, they tear, they feed, and you never come back again.”
If you love the sickly, quaky, I-can’t-do-this-feeling where you cautiously approach a skyscraper’s safety railing, rest your hips securely against its iron edge, take a deep breath, lean over, look straight down the side of the building, and feel the minute vibrations you know precede climactic failure, then you are in the right place. You push off the railing, too late! The anchor bolts screech as they break loose and you fall headlong to whatever comes next—welcome to BROKEN CHORDS.
How do you sleep at night?
I frequently freak myself out. My husband has this periodic limb movement thing when he sleeps. And I just must, absolutely must, come up with a horror-themed explanation. One night, he’s twitching away, and I decide he’s possessed. That the demon can only take over when he’s sleeping, and the twitching is it attempting to get free.
Yikes. Did something like that provide inspiration for BROKEN CHORDS?
BROKEN CHORDS was born because I had to pee in the middle of the night while camping. Not what you were expecting, right? Camping bathrooms are never conveniently located. To reach it, the fastest route was through a damp, cold, misty playground in the wee hours of the night (no pun intended), and I’m thinking if those swings start moving—I’m so out of here.
The playground scene with the swings in your book is some creepy, creepy stuff. What writers inspire you?
I’m sure this isn’t a big surprise—Stephen King. But also folks like Christopher Moore (I love silly paranormal/horror). I love Holly Black, who does YA and MG, and Maggie Stiefvater, who does YA; both put in just enough lyrical voice while keeping their books very plot-focused and highly character-driven. And Molly Harper (adult UF and romance) because her voice is so funny and snarky. If I could channel all five of them, I’d be the perfect writer.
Complete this sentence. Fans of _____________ will find BROKEN CHORD very appealing.
The Call by Peadar O’Guillin and Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill.
There’s a lot of URST (unresolved sexual tension) in BROKEN CHORDS.
BROKEN CHORDS is essentially a YA and you totally need swoony romance in YA. (Okay, you don’t absolutely need it; I actually wrote two YA thrillers in the recent months with zero romance, but it just goes so well!)
Any other books we should look for? Or forward to?
I love to write and need be working on a project at all times. It’s literally my stress release. My recent books have all been YA, and my last couple have been thrillers. I’m so excited about one my editor has (a thriller with magical realism) and the one I just finished (pure contemporary thriller with a very intense/psychological frenemy story). Fingers crossed I’ll have news to share about them sometime in the future.
Jessica Bayliss is a clinical psychologist and fiction author of BROKEN CHORDS (Leap Books, October, 2017) and Ten Past Closing (Sky Pony Press, spring, 2018). Her agent is Dr. Uwe Stender of Triada US Literary Agency. She is the creator of PsychWRITE, a service that offers consultation and coaching for writers along with craft workshops and webinars. She grew up loving all the scary stories, and now they’re in her blood.
To learn more about Jessica, please visit her website.
By Sonja Stone
This month, RYAN QUINN AND THE LION’S CLAW—the second novel in Ron McGee’s middle grade adventure series—was released to eager fans. His debut, Ryan Quinn and the Rebel’s Escape, introduced readers to hero Ryan Quinn, whose parents covertly work for the Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization that performs perilous rescue missions around the globe.
McGee took time to speak with The Big Thrill about his latest novel, his experience writing for television, and how to introduce global issues in an exciting, youth-friendly way.
I love that your adventure series isn’t fantasy-based. You’ve successfully written fantasy before (Disney Channel’s Halloween hit Girl vs. Monster). Why did you decide to keep the Ryan Quinn novels grounded in reality?
So many of the books available to kids and teens are steeped in fantasy and dystopian worlds. I love those books and devour them myself, but I also love the real-world action and adventure found in adult thrillers. With Ryan Quinn, I hoped to create a hero for younger readers who doesn’t have powers or magic to rely on. Ryan’s pretty exceptional as teens go—he’s been unknowingly trained by his parents to be a spy from a young age—but in the end, he only has his wits, his skills, and his friends to rely on when he’s in trouble. In that way, he’s not that different from any one of us.
By George Ebey
With TRUTHERS, author Geoffrey Girard delves into the 9/11 attack from a Young Adult perspective. Katie Wallace has never given much thought to the tragic event. She was only an infant when terrorists struck American soil. But now her dad has landed in a mental institution after claiming the attacks were part of a government conspiracy and that Katie is living proof: the lone survivor of a massive cover-up.
Hoping to free her dad and understand his bizarre fixation, Katie sets out to learn more and is drawn into the strange and secretive world of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Wading through a dangerous web of fact and fiction, questions and distortion, Katie no longer knows what to believe. But she does know that she’s being followed—and that someone is determined to stop her search for the truth.
The Big Thrill recently reached out to Girard to learn more about this thrilling new tale.
Anastasia Phoenix, a mix of Nancy Drew meets Buffy Summers, is a witty, “butt-kicking teen” hunting for her missing sister in Diana Rodriguez Wallach’s new release PROOF OF LIES. This globe-trotting young adult spy thriller, is a suspense-filled page-turner from start to finish—inspired by a Boston University professor.
“I was attending a college fair in Philadelphia and listening to students talk about Boston University,” Wallach says. “One kid spoke about a very unusual professor, one who was a former communist spy for Czechoslovakia during the Cold War and who now taught budding journalists how to tell if they were being fed false information. I never had the pleasure of taking his course; however, years later when I decided to attempt a YA thriller packed with super spies, that story came back to me. I wanted my world of espionage to be focused on a unique specialty that offered me both creative freedom and a focus that could hold the interest of teen readers; disinformation fit the bill.”
Wallach says she eventually got to meet the spy who inspired her and they “had a fascinating conversation in his home that led to many of the espionage elements in PROOF OF LIES, as well as the name of the CIA agent that appears at the end of the novel, Martin Bittman.”
The inspirations behind Anastasia herself are closer to home. Wallach has combined her best-loved heroines from TV and literature to shape a determined, intelligent lead character that will excite teen readers. Coupled with Marcus, Anastasia’s emotional anchor throughout the novel, the pair cross countries in a tumultuous adventure, and it’s these scenic locations that really bring PROOF IN LIES to life.
Seventeen-year-old Simon Kelleher is the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app. On Friday, he planned to post juicy reveals about four high-profile students. On Thursday, he died in front of them.
When police learn Simon’s death wasn’t an accident, everyone is a suspect. Are they guilty? Or are they the perfect patsies for a killer who’s still on the loose?
The Big Thrill caught up with author Karen M. McManus to discuss her debut young adult thriller, ONE OF US IS LYING:
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
That people aren’t always what they seem on the surface—and this is true for how people see themselves, too. Sometimes it takes a shocking incident to jar you out of complacency and the ease of following a path that’s been set for you. Each of the main characters in ONE OF US IS LYING have a lot to lose when their secrets are revealed, but they also have a chance to grow and become more layered and accepting of themselves and others.
Tori Burns and her family left D.C. for claustrophobic Chaptico, Maryland, after suddenly inheriting a house under mysterious circumstances. That inheritance puts her at odds with the entire town, especially Jesse Slaughter and his family-it’s their generations-old land the Burns have “stolen.” But none of that seems to matter after Tori witnesses a young man claw his way out of a grave under the gnarled oak in her new backyard.
Nathaniel Bishop may not understand what brought him back, but it’s clear to Tori that he hates the Slaughters for what they did to him centuries ago. Wary yet drawn to him by a shared sense of loss, she gives him shelter. But in the wake of his arrival comes a string of troubling events-including the disappearance of Jesse Slaughter’s cousin-that seem to point back to Nathaniel.
As Tori digs for the truth-and slowly begins to fall for Nathaniel-she uncovers something much darker in the tangled branches of the Slaughter family tree. In order to break the curse that binds Nathaniel there and discover the true nature of her inheritance, Tori must unravel the Slaughter family’s oldest and most guarded secrets. But the Slaughters want to keep them buried at any cost.
From award-winning author Elle Cosimano comes a haunting, atmospheric thriller perfect to hand to readers of the Mara Dyer trilogy and Bone Gap.
Benjamin Hackett has come of age, technically. And in the midst of the celebratory hangover, his world is whipped out from under his feet. His parents have finally shared their lifelong secret with him; he’s adopted.
At the age of eighteen, the boy still has some growing up to do, and with the help of J.J., his loquacious consigliere and bodyguard, he embarks on an adventure that’ll put to bed a lifetime of lies.
Over the course of five days, they find themselves caught up in the darker side of Cork. But when they sweep through the misfits blocking their way and finally discover the truth of it… now that’s the greatest shock of all.
THE ORIGINS OF BENJAMIN HACKETT is a tender tale of heartache and displacement told through a wry and courageous voice. Set in Ireland in the summer of 1996, it’s a timely reminder that the world hasn’t moved on just as fast as we fancy. Now, in this emotionally charged story, Gerald O’Connor explores conditioned guilt and its consequences in a country still hiding from the sins of its past.
Lisa had changed, pushing away everyone close to her, even Vanessa. She had quit soccer. Started wearing dark and dismal clothes. She refused every offer to talk and suffered whatever she was going through in silence. Now she’s really gone. Suicide they claim, but Vanessa knows that isn’t right. It can’t be.
Vanessa blames herself for letting Lisa chase her off. She wants answers so that she can put to rest the rumors surrounding Lisa’s death, and so that she can move on, heal. But Lisa left no note and the journal she was always scribbling in—which might tell all—is mysteriously missing.
As Vanessa struggles to come to terms with the loss of her friend and to reconstruct the last months of Lisa’s life, someone calling themselves “Poetic Justice” begins taking revenge against those he or she thinks drove Lisa to suicide. Everyone at school believes Vanessa is this mysterious “Poetic Justice.” It’s easy to blame the former best friend, and Vanessa makes an obvious target.
Struggling with her own guilt, Vanessa is determined to ignore the threats and allegations aimed her way. But as the Poetic Justice’s vengeance takes a darker turn, retaliation against Vanessa begins to escalate, from cyber bullying to violence, putting both her and the little sister she adores in the line of fire. To protect them both, she has to find out who’s behind the attacks before things turn deadly. And hope she can survive the truth.
Lucienne Diver recently took time out of her busy schedule to discuss FAULTLINES with The Big Thrill.
This month at The Big Thrill we’re joined by thriller author Ashley Elston, whose novel THIS IS OUR STORY was released on Nov.15 by Disney-Hyperion. The story is an interesting take on a childhood hunting accident, told in a unique way through the use of transcripts, text messages, interviews, and viewpoint characters.
Please tell us a little about your new book.
In THIS IS OUR STORY, five boys go on an early morning hunt after a late night of partying and drinking, but only four come out alive. Accident or not, the boys know the one who pulled the trigger could face jail time, so they make a pact in the woods—they won’t tell who used the gun that killed their friend. The story is told from the perspective of a girl who works as an intern for a local assistant district attorney and the unknown shooter.
You tell the story through a mix of point of view characters, transcripts, text messages and interviews. What were the challenges of this type of storytelling?
The biggest challenge was finding the right balance. I wanted to tell this story from different perspectives but I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader. The transcripts were a great way to revisit the night before the hunt and see the events that went down through the eyes of different people at the party. My favorite part was writing the unknown shooter’s POV. He’s really creepy and I think his POV adds so much to this book.
Ryan Quinn hopes his traveling days are over. The son of a United Nations worker, he’s grown up in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa—everywhere but home. He’s finally settled at a great school in New York and is making friends when, suddenly, his world is turned upside down.
Ryan is blindsided when his father disappears and his mother is abducted. Left with nothing but questions, he soon discovers his parents have been leading a double life. They actually work with the Emergency Rescue Committee, an underground organization that has performed dangerous rescue missions since World War II, and they’ve been secretly training Ryan to follow in their footsteps.
With his parents’ lives in the balance and more at stake than he knows, Ryan dives into a mission of international intrigue that sends him around the globe.
Ron McGee recently sat down with The Big Thrill to discuss RYAN QUINN AND THE REBEL’S ESCAPE:
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
The Ryan Quinn books are, first and foremost, a fun, action-adventure series that I hope will make kids eager to keep turning pages. But they also have an international scope and are grounded in the historical reality of the Emergency Rescue Committee. Ideally, this will give parents, teachers and librarians a launching point to encourage kids to explore ideas of personal sacrifice and global responsibility in the real world.
By Dawn Ius
Today’s young adult literature isn’t afraid to tackle tough topics. To go deeper. Darker.
Author Michelle Falkoff isn’t afraid to go dark either, but with one important distinction—there must be a balance of humor, a sliver of light. In her debut, Playlist for the Dead, Falkoff wrote about teen suicide. For her new release, PUSHING PERFECT, Falkoff explores a young girl’s dangerous quest for perfection.
Both novels are rich with character, filled with emotion, authentically teen, and infused with a well-crafted lightness that provides much-needed relief from the dark.
“I have trouble with books (and TV, and movies) that are relentlessly dark, because I don’t think that’s what we’re like, how we handle tough situations,” she says. “It’s important to me to write stories that show kids getting through hard things. Maybe not unscathed, and maybe not in a happily-ever-after kind of way every time, but surviving and seeing the possibility of a future for themselves that’s brighter than where they are at the moment.”
At the start of PUSHING PERFECT, Falkoff’s teen protagonist is seemingly perfect—perfect grades, perfect friends, perfect life, perhaps at the pinnacle of “brightness.” But that perfection is an illusion, and with the all-important SATs on the horizon, Kara must find a way to keep her world from crumbling. The answer comes in the form of a new underground drug.
But leaning on this substance leaves Kara open for preadtors,, and she soon finds she is not the only one receiving threatening anonymous texts from a stranger, not the only one striving for perfection—and certainly not the only one in serious danger. In fact, the consequences of her actions could be deadly.
It’s not quite a ripped-from-the-headlines story, but PUSHING PERFECT is certainly inspired by Falkoff’s extensive research into issues facing today’s teens.
Margo Kelly made a striking impression on the young adult thriller scene with her 2014 debut Who R U Really?, about a teenage girl who becomes dangerously involved with an online stalker. Inspired by Kelly’s family’s own harrowing experience with an Internet predator, the book earned praise from reviewers and readers alike for its sobering take on a very real problem.
At first glance, UNLOCKED might seem like a tamer beast. Kelly’s second published novel, out October 1 from Merit Press, is steeped in supernatural horror and gothic suspense tropes—a far cry from the ripped-from-the-headlines realism of her debut. The plot centers on Hannah, a seventeen-year-old girl who experiences bizarre visions after undergoing hypnosis at a state fair. But when the story takes a surprisingly grim and all-too-relatable turn, readers are once again in Kelly’s familiar purview: a dark, paranoid tale of a teenager girl who must navigate the terrifying fallout of a seemingly inconsequential action.
Kelly sat down with The Big Thrill to talk about crafting psychological suspense for young readers, offer pointers on juggling a large cast of supporting characters, and share her thoughts on the legacy of YA suspense queen Lois Duncan.
I understand your first novel, Who R U Really?, was inspired by your family’s own disturbing experience with an online stalker. Do you have any sort of personal connection with UNLOCKED?
When I was in college I attended my first hypnotism show.
In an auditorium along with a couple hundred other students, I watched as fifteen guys and girls went on stage and participated in the show. The audience laughed and clapped and hooted when the hypnotized students did ridiculous things such as quack like ducks or sing like rock stars. It was great. Terrific. Until the end.
While the participants were still completely hypnotized, the hypnotist turned to the audience and spouted his political views. He didn’t even try to hide what he was doing. He spoke clearly and abruptly. The people to my left and to my right sat in shock. My own mouth dropped open in disbelief. The hypnotist went so far as to tell everyone exactly how to vote in the upcoming election. I was dumbfounded. I felt like my trust had been violated, and I wasn’t even on the stage. I was not hypnotized. I was not in any sort of suggestive state. But those students in the show still were. And I bet there were plenty of others sitting in the audience who were impressionable from watching the hypnosis being performed.
Fresh Insight Into Writing Thrillers for Kids
It’s been a little more than a year since Donna Galanti introduced readers to Joshua Cooper, the young hero of her MG fantasy novel Joshua and the Lightning Road. The book was conceived as a standalone, but Galanti’s blend of fast-paced adventure and unbridled imagination struck a chord with publisher Month9Books, and the author found herself with an unexpected series on her hands.
Book one centered on 12-year-old Joshua’s first ordeal with the Lightning Road, an interdimensional pathway that delivers him to a realm where children are kidnapped and enslaved by a sinister entity known as the Child Collector. In the newly released follow-up JOSHUA AND THE ARROW REALM, the boy finds himself back in Nostos and caught between warring factions of the Olympian heirs–a group that includes Galanti’s distinctive spin on figures borrowed from Greek mythology.
In her latest interview with The Big Thrill, Galanti, who also pens adult-oriented paranormal thrillers, discusses the unique rewards and challenges of crafting adventure tales for young readers.
For readers who are just discovering the series, what was the genesis of the Joshua Cooper books?
My biggest inspiration for writing book one in the series, Joshua and the Lightning Road, was my son Joshua Cooper. Years ago, when my son was four, we’d like to sit on the front stoop together at twilight under a tree and watch the stars come out. It became story time too. That’s where I would spin wild and silly tales for my son. It appealed to my desire to create new worlds where we could live out magical and heroic adventures–all led by a hero who came into his own, Joshua. Those summer nights under the stars faded but the idea didn’t. That story eventually became Joshua and the Lightning Road. As my son has grown older (now 13) he continues to inspire me with plot and character ideas when I get stuck in writing the series!
Drive, She Said
Some of us are suckers for a clever heist story like Ocean’s 11. Other people get psyched for a fast muscle car. And others still love a taut, on-the-clock thriller.
What if you’re Dawn Ius and you love all three? You combine them and write OVERDRIVE, a young adult car-heist thriller set in Las Vegas that guns the engine on Page One and never lets up. The novel’s unforgettable main character is Jules, aka Ghost, the teenager struggling in the foster-home system who can steal any car in Vegas, but whose tough exterior masks a protective love for her kid sister and a yearning to dance ballet.
In OVERDRIVE, Jules is bailed out of jail by a shadowy benefactor and given a choice: Lose her kid sister to the system, or steal seven of the rarest, most valuable muscle cars in the world—in seven weeks.
Ius says, “Seriously, I could watch Oceans 11 and Gone in 60 Seconds every day and not get bored. And although there are examples of teen heist books, I’d never read one involving cars. I just couldn’t figure out how to piece my ‘loves’ together. Then I saw a tweet by my awesome agent, Mandy Hubbard, who’d read an article about a 1967 Shelby GT 500 Mustang that once belonged to lead singer of The Doors Jim Morrison, and had been MIA for decades. Now I had my mystery. That car—also known as Eleanor in Gone in 60 Seconds—is my dream car. Like, I Google it at least once a week. With the mystery solidified, OVERDRIVE fast-tracked itself to being the book I had to write.”
Ius, a journalist based in Alberta, Canada, has written short stories in anthologies published by Leap Books and Vine Leaves Press where she’s also the development editor, and 14 educational graphic novels published by the Alberta Canola Producers Commission. Her first novel for Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster) was Anne & Henry, a wicked smart reimaging of the epic 16th century love story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII as a turbulent high school romance between the new in school “bad girl” and the reigning jock prince.
Thrillers, however, are in her blood. “I was young—maybe 14—when I read John Saul’s Creature and I remember closing that book and thinking, ‘I need to write a thriller.’” Ius, deputy editor of The Big Thrill, took classes with authors of New York Times bestsellers. “I learned a lot about chapter endings by working with Gary Braver, for instance, and have always considered ‘pacing’ the one writing craft device I actually understand,” Ius says. “If anything, my first drafts tend to be too pace-y and I have to go back and fill in the other stuff. I loosely outlined OVERDRIVE—far less than I did in Anne & Henry—but the entire book was in my head by the time I finished writing Chapter 1. I literally had to slow myself down from skipping right to the heist scenes, which were incredibly fun to write.”
Nightmares don’t always hide in shadows; sometimes they come for us on a sunlit suburban sidewalk, or lie in wait in the brightest stretch of a cotton-candy summer.
Seventeen-year-old Scarlett Contreras learns this firsthand in Amanda Panitch’s NEVER MISSING, NEVER FOUND. Panitch’s second novel—coming on the heels of her harrowing 2015 debut Damage Done—picks up several years after Scarlett was abducted from her suburban neighborhood on a bright winter afternoon and subjected to years of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at the hands of her captor (easily one of the most chilling villains to stalk YA fiction in recent years) before finally managing to escape.
Four years later, Scarlett has nearly rebuilt her life, or at least some semblance of it. Her family still reels from the fallout of her abduction, but Scarlett is enjoying a new job at a superhero-themed amusement park, where she’s smitten with one of her young coworkers. Her hard-won stability begins to crumble, though, when a young woman goes missing from the park, and another coworker seems to know things about Scarlett’s past that Scarlett has never shared with anyone. Equal parts wistful coming-of-age story and grueling psychological suspense, Panitch’s sophomore effort juggles dual timelines that alternate between Scarlett’s unsettling present and her torturous past, all leading up to an atomic bomb of a plot twist and a masterful resolution.
With only two novels under her belt, Panitch has already announced herself as a formidable new voice in the world of suspense fiction. Here, The Big Thrill picks her brain about managing dual timelines, crafting killer twists, and writing delightfully dangerous girls.
Your first novel, Damage Done, was inspired by an article you read about a suicide bomber. Can you trace NEVER MISSING, NEVER FOUND to a single catalyst?
NEVER MISSING, NEVER FOUND wasn’t inspired by one thing in the same way Damage Done was, but I knew right away that I wanted to write a YA psychological thriller set in an amusement park. Otherwise, the relationship between the two sisters—the protagonist, Scarlett, and her younger sister, Melody—has roots in the relationship my sister and I had as teenagers.
Seventeen-year-old Ryan Poitier Sharpe is a gutsy, outgoing girl who spends her summers hurling herself out of planes at her parents’ skydiving center in the Mojave Desert. Fiercely independent and willing to take risks, she challenges those around her to live life fully. But after a brush with death, Ryan is not the thrill-seeking girl she once was and seems to be teetering on the edge of psychosis. As her life unravels, Ryan must fight the girl she’s become—or lose herself forever—in Tracy Clark’s eerie and atmospheric thriller, MIRAGE.
We spoke with Ms Clark about her latest novel and her writing career.
Brian: Prolific writers tend to have a surplus of story ideas. What about MIRAGE appealed so strongly to you that you picked it over all your other ideas?
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that MIRAGE has a tricky element that I wasn’t sure I had the writing chops to pull off. Since I find it nearly impossible to back off from a challenge, I knew I had to try. I also couldn’t let go of the image of a character thinking she sees someone else in her reflections.
As for choosing which idea to commit to; I have to write what elicits the most “spark” in me. I have to be truly excited by it to sustain my enthusiasm for the long haul.
Ellie: What inspired you to write about this individual?
Ryan is one of those characters who arrived fully-formed. She “landed” in my life as the complicated, badass, rebel skydiver that you see in the book. There are elements to Ryan that come from within and some that come from people I know. But one thing is certain—as with all of us, she’s a true individual and her life and her story are unique to her.
Ellie: Do you ever incorporate your adventures into your stories?
Oh, yes! I was a skydiver in my early twenties and I jumped at a drop zone in the Mojave Desert. The harsh, unforgiving desert setting lent itself well to the book. I’m also a private pilot, and that helped as well. I’ll tell you one tidbit: there’s a scene in which Ryan is on a demo-jump and it’s raining. The plane’s stall warning indicator went off and she was pushed out of the airplane by her boyfriend. That happened to me!
Alpert Makes Science Thrilling for Young Adults
By Sonja Stone
Mark Alpert—astrophysicist-turned-author—sold his first work of fiction, a short story, several decades ago to Playboy magazine. The Big Thrill caught up with Alpert to talk about his research, the writing life, and his second young adult thriller, THE SEIGE, sequel to The Six, which releases this month.
The Six tells the story of six dying teenagers, called the Pioneers, whose lives are “saved” when their minds are downloaded into army robots. In THE SEIGE, the Pioneers discover a new enemy—an artificial-intelligence program named Sigma. And Sigma has an ally: one of the Pioneers is a traitor.
You’re on your second YA novel. What would you say are the key differences between writing adult vs. young adult? What advice would you give other thriller writers who want to write for young adults?
The adolescent brain is different from the adult brain. Adolescent brain cells are more flexible (but less efficient) than adult neurons, and there are more connections among them. So it’s natural that teenagers think differently. Their brains are geared for seeking novelty and thrills, and at the same time they have poor impulse control. They feel everything more intensely, both the good and the bad. (I read somewhere that ice cream will never taste as good as it did when you were a teenager.)
I picked up all these neuroscience tidbits because my young adult novels are about teenagers who transfer the contents of their minds to robots, so I had to learn a little about teenage brains. To write a YA novel, you have to show the extremes that your adolescent characters are going through, the crushing disappointments and the dizzying joys. In other words, you have to remember what it’s like to be a teenager.
By Dawn Ius
From it’s chilling opening scene through to it’s shocking end, Anne Redisch Stampler’s HOW TO DISAPPEAR reads like a textbook of how to pen the ultimate cat and mouse chase for young adults.
The story moves at breakneck speed through the compelling alternating points of view of of a young girl on the run from a murder she may or may not have committed, and the boy who’s sent to kill her.
In this interview with The Big Thrill Stampler talks about her somewhat rocky transition from writing picture books to thrilling young adult suspense, how “dark” she’s willing to go, and the role of humor in the thriller genre.
Prologues can be tricky, but your opening scene is so rich with suspense and atmosphere, it sucks the reader in. What is the key to an effective prologue?
Thank you! Given that the forces of One-Size-Fits-All Writing Advice have it in for prologues, I feel quite protective of the poor things. In my prologues, I try to establish the feel of the book, the voice and tone, in the course of suggesting a terrifying incident that makes the reader go What???? Ideally, awareness of that incident will color the experience of reading the story, and heighten the desire to unearth the story’s truth.
You did a fantastic job of keeping the alternating voices of Jack and Cat distinct, something that is much harder than people often think. Was one character easier to write? How did you navigate the process?
This is hard to explain without sounding crazy or, at very least, more than slightly eccentric, but my writing process involves pretending to be the character from whose perspective I’m narrating. So working with two alternating first person narrators got a little bit tricky. With the first draft, I tended to spend each day as one character or the other—not both—so that I could be fully immersed in that person’s emotions and language. That said, while I like to think the characters’ voices developed organically, entirely as a result of who they are as (imaginary) human beings, I did come up with a mental—and later a written—cheat sheet with the details of each one’s speech.
In terms of which character was easier to write, definitely Cat. Even though in many respects I’m more like Jack than I am like Cat, gender trumped in terms of what I was sure I had right the first time through.
It’s been weeks since the last yard brawl, and every one of us is twitchy, ready to jump out of our skins.
That’s the opening line for Elle Cosimano’s third thriller for young adults, HOLDING SMOKE.
It’s also an apt description for how Cosimano felt before she dropped nearly everything else in her life and became a writer, three books ago. Back then she had it all: a husband and two boys, a 60-hour-a-week job selling real estate, and a big house in the Washington, D.C. suburbs filled with designer touches and a home theatre.
Her misery with her “stuff, stuff and more stuff” lifestyle was brought home when she attended a real estate event with 100 other realtors. A trust exercise required them to tell each other something interesting about themselves.
Cosimano realized that in spite of everything she had, she had nothing interesting to say about herself. So she blurted out, “I’m writing a novel.” Then watched, horrified, as over 100 realtors wrote that down on their Bingo cards.
Now she had to do it. She accepted her mother’s invitation to take the boys to the Mayan Riviera. For a whole summer, while her mother watched the children, Cosimano wrote, delivering her mother a new chapter by the end of every eight-hour day.
“At the start of the summer I didn’t even have an idea, and by the end of the summer I had a 90,000 word draft,” she says.
By Amy Lignor
Reading a Victoria Griffith novel awakens a voracious appetite to…read a whole lot more of them.
As a result of her former career in journalism, Griffith has seen some extraordinary things, and found herself in situations that spanned from unique to dicey. With her new novel, THOSE WE FEAR, fans get yet another story placed in their hands that will have their adrenaline kicked into high gear from the very start.
In this exclusive article for The Big Thrill, you’ll learn more about Griffith and THOSE WE FEAR, a story that weaves facets of three well-loved classics together to form an unforgettable tale.
You have such an amazing background, especially when it comes to travel. Can you tell readers a bit about your time as a journalist? Was there one specific story that stands out in your mind?
I’ve spent time with the Yanomami tribe in Brazil, been threatened by a gun-toting Brazilian politician, and almost crashed into the Amazon jungle in a plane piloted by a shifty character named Amoeba. Those experiences made fun material for my last mystery, Amazon Burning.
For THOSE WE FEAR, I turned my author lens inward to explore the human psyche, which can be just as weird as the most exotic travel destination. THOSE WE FEAR is a twist on a classic Gothic tale, and in writing it I drew on my experiences as a journalist living and working in the UK. Scotland is the perfect setting. Dreary days, stone castles and misty lakes… it’s no coincidence that England was the birthplace of the Gothic thriller genre. When Heathcliff calls out for his Catherine in Wuthering Heights, readers can almost hear the wind howling across the moors.
But it’s not just the landscape. Brits themselves are endlessly interesting. They aren’t as direct as Americans, they’re more subtle. That means things aren’t always what they seem, which is a prerequisite for a good mystery. British society is in constant conflict. They value true love and loyalty. Just look at some of the most romantic Royal marriages, including those of Prince Charles to Camilla, Queen Victoria to Prince Albert and Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip. Brits are also deeply conscious of people’s class and background. Some of the best Gothic thrillers, including Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw explore love that bridges a class divide. People in the UK revere tradition but yearn for modernism. That creates a wonderful tension which is perfect for writers like me.