Let me set the scene: It’s a hot summer night and you’re in bed with a book. The window is open — sometimes a reader needs to hear crickets — and the room is bright enough so you can make out words on the page but not so bright that you can see what’s in the shadows behind the closet door. You’re looking for a little scare, just enough to raise goose bumps on the back of your neck. Three new books fit the bill.
Kate Alice Marshall’s I AM STILL ALIVE (Viking, 336 pp., $17.99; ages 12 and up) may be the grand poobah of this season’s young adult thriller category, giving suspense pros like Lois Duncan and Stephen King a run for their (abundant) money. This tense wire of a novel thrums with suspense, but also unexpectedly poignant moments.
It opens like this: “I’m alone. I don’t have much food. The temperature is dropping. No one is coming for me.” Jess Cooper is writing in a notebook. She’s 16 years old, marooned in a remote corner of Alaska, where she was sent to live with her father after her mother died in a car accident. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Jess hardly knew her father and that she’s still recovering from her own injuries (both psychic and physical) from the wreck that killed her mother.
Yes, this is a lot to absorb, but Marshall metes out the bad news gracefully. One has the sense that she knows her audience well; “I Am Still Alive” is bound to appeal to the same tragedy-thirsty teenagers who made “The Fault in Our Stars” a phenomenon.
Not surprisingly, Jess doesn’t take kindly to her father’s isolated, rugged way of life: Think “Into the Wild” meets “The Call of the Wild.” She makes the best of it, as teenagers in novels do. (If only they were so adaptable in real life.) But then she receives yet another megadose of misfortune when three men arrive at the encampment and kill her dad, torching his cabin and most of his supplies.
This is when the chilly spine of Marshall’s story really becomes visible. And I do mean chilly. Alone, scared, baffled, Jess knows she will have to fight to survive as winter sets in. Her only company in this nightmare is her dad’s dog, Bo, who immediately assumes the lifeline status of Tom Hanks’s volleyball in “Castaway.” (Who can forget that moment when Wilson bobs out to sea?)
Luckily, in the few short weeks Jess spent with her dad, she paid close attention to his tips for navigating the wilderness: “Smart, not strong” and shelter before fire. First, she locates a rock overhang to sleep under. Then she takes stock of her dad’s charred possessions — an ax blade, a few jars, a first-aid kit and a rope — and finds a way to put each to good use.
Little by little, with many setbacks (some of them life-threatening), she builds a life for herself in the land her father loved. There are small triumphs, too — all the sweeter for having been accomplished against the odds: Jess catches her first fish, builds her first fire and weaves a scrim of hardy vines to protect herself from the elements.
From her very first night alone, determination fuels Jess’s recovery efforts: She wants revenge on the men who killed her father. She knows they’ll be back — and so she waits, and strategizes, and cultivates an inner strength that is both remarkable and believable. From the pen of this brave young woman: “To survive you need to learn to hold contradictory things in your head at the same time. I am going to die; I am going to live.” Finding out how she does this and what happens next just might be the highlight of your summer.
Marisha Pessl’s young adult debut, NEVERWORLD WAKE (Delacorte, 324 pp., $18.99; ages 12 and up), takes us to a different kind of scary place. Not the remote tundra but a creepy mansion, the stuff of the ghostliest of ghost stories. Welcome to Wincroft, a hulking red brick and slate mansion on the Rhode Island coast, with “crow gargoyles perched forever on the roof.” This is the hub and gathering spot of a tight-knit group of boarding school friends — or it was until one of them, Jim, died tragically, under mysterious circumstances.
Our tour guide through Pessl’s beautifully creepy world is Beatrice “Bee” Hartley, who is Jim’s grieving girlfriend. We join her as she’s returning to Wincroft for the first time in a year, determined to get answers from her friends about his death. The homecoming is bittersweet — a year might as well be a century when you’re just out of high school, and Bee has a lot of catching up to do. But the reunion festivities are interrupted by a knock on the door: an old man, appearing out of the blue (no car, completely dry despite the rainstorm howling around him). And the man has a strange announcement: “You’re all dead.”
What happens next is a mystery within a mystery — the question mark of Jim wrapped around a sci-fi head-scratcher — with tragic consequences. Fan’s of Pessl’s adult novels (“Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” “Night Film”) will recognize her trademarks: highly stylized dialogue à la “Dawson’s Creek” and long, meandering sentences that may make the middle-aged reader wonder if she has attention-deficit disorder. But no matter. Pessl still weaves an old-fashioned yarn that makes you want to grab a friend’s hand and inch a little bit closer to the campfire.
Finally, for a crowd still getting their feet wet with thrillers, there’s Sarah Jane’s MAIDEN VOYAGE (Scholastic, 256 pp., paper, $9.99; ages 12 and up), a clever, fast-paced retelling of the voyage of the Titanic through the eyes of three girls traveling under vastly different circumstances. (One is a servant, one is a pampered daughter of a wealthy man and the third is somewhere between the two, in addition to being betwixt and between in life.)
Many readers of “Maiden Voyage” will not yet have seen the movie “Titanic.” But even young disaster aficionados who know the fate of the boat will find themselves wrapped up in the stories of Isabella, Lucy and Abby. Each has her own secret and her own heartbreak; two are traveling alone (well, mostly) and all three are somehow alone in the world.
That is, until they learn how the three of them are connected, which is the stuff Disney movies are made of. Bonus for the educationally minded: Jane pulls off the unusual feat of being both suspenseful and informative, gracefully incorporating technical details about the boat into high-drama scenes. As for what happens after the iceberg: We’ll leave that for the kids to find out.