Once again, spooky season is upon us, and that means it’s time for the GeekMom Halloween Reading Roundup. As with last year, this will be split into multiple parts, so keep an eye out next Friday for more Halloween reads, and don’t forget to check out the picture books and middle-grade roundups from the previous two weeks. Today’s roundup is all about YA, so keep reading to see nine spooktacular stories for teens that will also stand up for older readers too. If you can’t wait until next week’s post for more, why not check out our previous roundups? Links are at the bottom of the post. Happy Halloween!
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Eat Your Heart Out by Kelly DeVos
Trigger Warnings: Fatphobia, gun violence, religious bigotry, body shaming, death.
Eat Your Heart Out by Kelly DeVos is a seasonal mishmash of a book given its Halloween-appropriate theme, summer camp vibes, but winter/blizzard setting! Described as Shaun of the Dead meets Dumplin’, this is a surprisingly nuanced YA thriller that contains far more depth than it might seem on the surface.
The book is told across the multiple POVs of a bunch of teens attending Camp Featherlight, along with their group leader, Steve. Camp Featherlight is a luxury weight-loss camp in Arizona being run by a corporation looking to conduct research on the campers. Vivian (Vee) is comfortable with her weight, even if her sports coach step-dad is anything but, then there’s Vee’s former best friend Allie—a horror movie obsessive looking to uncover the camp’s secrets. The rest of the group is rounded out by Paul, the obnoxious and wealthy son of the camp’s director, Rachel, a Christian girl with a big secret, and computer geek Sheldon who has an equally big secret of his own.
Before they even arrive, Vee, Allie, and Steve come across something strange in the woods, and the camp doesn’t seem quite right from the minute they are sealed behind its enormous gates and offered the miracle weight loss bars it claims to be researching. Within days, Camp Featherlight is simultaneously in the thick of Arizona’s worst-ever blizzard and overrun by zombies. Only our intrepid protagonists seem to be left alive, but with each of them playing into the archetypes from Allie’s beloved horror flicks, she knows that not all of them will escape.
Eat Your Heart Out blends together the plots of a zombie summer camp teen horror movie, a tense sci-fi thriller, and a fat-positive buddy comedy, but does so surprisingly well. While none of the characters are the most well fleshed out (pun absolutely intended), they play well into their archetypes while also leaving some doubt as to precisely who is who. The secrets hinted at by some of the characters play out quickly and add new challenges for the group without ever feeling conceited, and as the group explores the dark heart of the camp, everything begins to feel frighteningly believable. Unfortunately, the finale of the book did trail off a little, and I found myself wishing it had ended several chapters sooner. There were also many unresolved questions by the end which were frustrating to have left hanging. That being said, I devoured (again, pun intended) this book in a single day and thoroughly enjoyed every bite even though I’m not much of a zombie fan.
While the zombie/horror movie themes here are great for Halloween, the addition of the blizzard setting will actually make Eat Your Heart Out an ideal winter read for when the nights have fully drawn in and you find yourself listening out for the sounds of unfamiliar feet crunching in the snow…
The Girls Are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh
Trigger Warnings: Death, drowning, child death, animal death.
The Girls Are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh is a modern-day haunted house story starring a group of teenage girls and is ideal for fans of The Haunting of Hill House/Bly Manor.
Seventeen-year-old Dare Chase was one half of a virally successful YouTube channel where she and her partner investigated the paranormal across their hometown of Washington DC, but since the pair split up, she’s branching out on her own for the first time with a podcast all her own. Her new show, Attachments, is how she has ended up spending this July at the Arrington Estate, an old house on the shores of a lake where a fellow teenager named Atheleen Bell drowned thirty years ago. On the surface, Dare is there as part of a team working to renovate the property, but privately, she plans to investigate the rumors that Atheleen’s spirit never left, despite secretly not believing in ghosts at all.
Also at Arrington are Holly, a girl from the nearby town looking for any way out of small-town life, and Quinn, the cute daughter of the woman who just bought Arrington, along with Quinn’s mother Rose, and Cathy, who works for the local historical association. Together, the team begins the process of renovating the old house, but Arrington itself doesn’t seem to want them there. Water runs green from the taps and makes them sick, a snake somehow finds its way into the bath, water drips from seemingly impossible leaks, and the teens discover a mysterious hidden door papered over and sealed behind a wardrobe. Even more mysteriously, the lake where Atheleen drowned seems to be creeping closer and closer to the house each day, as if it wants to consume them.
As Dare investigates more and more of Arrington’s history and slowly finds herself falling for Quinn, she discovers that the estate has a bloodier history than she first realized and that she and her new friends might be in line to become the latest victims, forcing her to reevaluate whether she believes in ghosts or not.
The Girls Are Never Gone was a truly creepy book filled with plenty of classic haunted house tropes that always manage to feel fresh rather than cliched. From flickering lights to scratching on the walls late at night, all the elements you would expect from a haunted house are right there and powerful enough to stoke your imagination (and have me closing the book and taking myself to bed because it was getting a bit too much reading it alone late at night)! I was also pleased to read a modern haunted house book that makes use of technology rather than taking the predictable route of simply cutting off the protagonists from the world through signal loss or other events. Dare regularly updates her podcast, uses cameras to search for evidence, and even hangs out with her new friends streaming their favorite TV shows in the house, but this easy access to communication doesn’t stop Arrington from feeling isolated and cut off from the world, and the girls from feeling alone within its clutches.
While there is an LGBTQ romance side plot blooming right from the get-go, The Girls Are Never Gone is more a story about female friendships and sisterly bonds than a story where romance is key. These connections between the girls extend backward through time as well as through the present day and gave the story a refreshing amount of heart that might otherwise have been lacking. It also upped the tension as Dare quickly comes to care deeply for her new friends whilst coming to understand how much danger they are in.
The Girls Are Never Gone is a perfect Halloween read that will have you double-checking every drop of water you come across for days after you finish reading it.
The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass
Trigger Warnings: School shooting, child abuse, homophobia, racism, sexual assault, rape, animal abuse (insects), gun violence, death, suicide.
In The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass, we meet Jake, a Black teenager at a prestigious high school that he attends with his older brother Benji. Jake is trying to live a normal life but is constantly distracted by death as he can see ghosts endlessly reenacting their death loops wherever he goes. The highways are filled with endlessly crashing cars, neighborhoods with people falling from roofs, and ghouls lurk wherever there is grief to feat upon. Mostly, Jake has learned to tune these things out until he begins to be stalked by Sawyer, the unnaturally sentient ghost of a local teenage school shooter.
As Sawyer harasses Jake more and more, he begins to understand that there is something Sawyer wants from him. Not content with having killed many of his classmates, Sawyer’s ghost is out for even more blood, but he needs strength to fuel his anger, strength Jake has in bucketloads. But Jake is angry too, angry at the systemic racism he faces in his largely white school and angry at having to hide his sexuality from the world. When the two collide, will Jake have the strength to fight back and stop Sawyer or will they end up joining forces to take down those they feel deserve it?
The Taking of Jake Livingston was an incredibly difficult read, as a quick glance at the trigger warnings above should tell you. The book is told largely from Jake’s perspective but also features some chapters told by Sawyer both in diary entries before his murder-suicide at the high school and directly from his ghost. These chapters are written in such a way that they make you feel incredibly sympathetic toward him, and it felt uncomfortable to feel so empathetic toward someone you know is responsible for the violent murder of multiple peers. Jake himself is also a complex character, but I found myself struggling to connect with him as much as I’d hoped.
The copy I read was an advanced version still subject to edits, but I found the whole thing read like a first draft that needed significant changes to help it be more coherent. As it was, I frequently found myself with little idea about what was going on as characters seemed to be in multiple places at once (not helped by Jake’s occasional ability to astrally project himself) and fight scenes became a confusing mess. I suspect part of this was intentional and designed to showcase the blurring between the living and dead worlds that Jake experiences, but it just read as incomprehensible most of the time which was a disappointment.
I’d really hoped to love The Taking of Jake Livingston but found it only at 2.5/5 star read by the end. If you’re looking for a light-hearted, fun ghost story then this is not the book for you, but those wanting a very dark, often horrifying story that includes trauma and revenge will find a lot to sink their teeth into here.
White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson
Trigger Warnings: bedbugs, anxiety disorder, panic attacks, racism, drug addiction, opioids, overdosing, racism, mental illness, fire.
White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson is a book I’ve kept seeing around over the last few months, and with a cover as stunning as this, it’s not really surprising. Described as “The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out“, the book follows seventeen-year-old Marigold, who has just moved to a new house in a run-down part of Cedarville, an area plagued by mass incarceration, gentrification, and a history of violence.
Marigold and her family have been offered their new home rent-free while her mother works on a new book, but when they arrive, the house is the only one livable on a street filled with crumbling, burnt-out wrecks, but the construction workers who have refurbished it all run from the building as soon as the clocks strike five. Soon Marigold learns from her new school friends that her house is reportedly haunted, and as much as she tries to dismiss the legend, unexplainable things keep happening. Lights switch on and off, objects disappear from rooms, and Marigold’s young step-sister starts talking to a new friend she claims lives in their house too.
As Marigold tries to start afresh, the house seems to tighten its grip. Her ongoing fear of bedbugs is constantly heightened and the anxiety she suffers from constantly pushes her to desperate measures in order to procure the weed she feels that she needs in order to cope with the increasing stress. But the more Marigold learns about Cedarville, Maple Street, and her own home, the more she becomes convinced that something even more sinister is going on right under her nose.
White Smoke is a horror novel, but the horror found here appears in two very different layers. First, there’s the surface-level horror—the legend of the Hag who lives in Marigold’s house and the ghostly goings-on that she experiences: doors opening by themselves, the figure of a man lurking in the shadows after dark, and a terrifying hand curling around the shower curtain. But the real horror lies within the history of Maple Street itself—the ongoing gentrification is pushing out the area’s older, poorer, Black residents in favor of new, rich, white faces and the draconian criminalization of marijuana has imprisoned a huge percentage of the local population in a for-profit prison. These are horrors that are horrifying not only in themselves but in the knowledge that they are all-too-real for many small towns just like Cedarville, and the real appeal of the book came in how those layers of horror wove themselves together.
I loved White Smoke and ended up devouring the whole audiobook in under 24 hours. The ending was a complete surprise that I didn’t see coming but which didn’t feel like it came out of nowhere once the reveal happened, and I’m now hoping for a sequel that will shed light on some of the book’s unanswered questions. I would recommend that anyone with a bedbug phobia steers well clear of this one, but others will find a unique and thoroughly modern haunted house story that tackles many current social justice issues at the same time.
Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Christina Henry
Trigger Warnings: child death, gore, transphobia, deadnaming, sexual assault, bullying.
Last October I finally read Washington Irving’s classic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, after having been a fan of the 1999 movie since it came out. Something about the story and its setting has always appealed to me and so I immediately leaped at the chance to listen to Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Christina Henry. While this book isn’t technically a YA story, I chose to include it here given the age of its protagonist.
Rather than being a retelling of the original, Horseman is set around twenty years after the events of Washinton Irving’s novel and follows Ben, the fourteen-year-old grandchild of Katrina van Tassel and Brom Bones who lives with them following the deaths of his parents. Ben hugely admires his grandfather and desperately wants to follow in his footsteps, despite the admonitions of his grandmother. However, even though Brom claims the headless horseman is nothing more than legend cooked up by village gossips, Ben’s favorite game is “Sleepy Hollow boys” where he reenacts the events of the original book with his best friend.
Following the men of the village into the woods one day, Ben sees the body of one of the village boys now missing his head and hands. Soon, he finds himself questioning everything he was ever told by the adults around him—including his beloved grandfather—as more and more sinister events begin to happen around him and a disembodied voice seems to beckon him into the woods. Is the horseman really a myth or is there something even more terrifying living in the woods outside Sleepy Hollow, and what does it all have to do with Ben, his family, and the vanished schoolmaster Ichabod Crane?
This was a fantastic story that puts a wholly new twist on the legend of the headless horseman and the events that took place in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Ben is a sympathetic main character who I connected with right from the beginning, and the people and locations around him are well fleshed out to create an immersive story that transports you right into the Sleepy Hollow of the early 1800s. I was also pleased to find myself reading a historical fiction novel that contained a main character who we would today recognize as transgender.
While the ending was somewhat predictable, the twists and turns that led to it were anything but and touched upon some truly gruesome horror that would definitely make this book suited more to older readers and those with strong stomachs. Anyone who has ever wondered what became of Ichabod Crane and if the legend of the horseman was really true after all will no doubt love this book.
The Coldest Touch by Isabel Sterling
Trigger Warnings: homophobia, violent death, drowning, death of a parent/sibling, abandonment.
I read Isabel Sterling’s debut duology These Witches Don’t Burn and This Coven Won’t Break last October and they ended up being two of my favorite books of 2020, so when I saw that the same author was publishing a sapphic vampire book—The Coldest Touch—-this year, I knew I had to read it. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the brilliance of its predecessors.
Sixteen-year-old Elise is convinced that she has been cursed ever since her birthday five months ago when she suddenly developed the ability to see how people would die whenever their skin came into contact with hers. That night she saw her own brother drown after driving his car off a bridge, but despite racing after him, she wasn’t able to prevent it and Nick’s body was never found. Now she is prepared to do anything to stop herself from being forced to experience the deaths of everyone around her, even turning to magic. The one person whose death Elise can’t see is Claire, the new girl at school, but that’s because Claire happens to already be dead.
A representative from The Veil—a paranormal agency attempting to keep the vampire community in line—Claire has been dispatched to help train the new Death Oracle but didn’t count on developing feelings for the newly paranormal Elise. Complicating matters, a killer is on the loose in town and seems to be taking out those with ties to the new Death Oracle. Claire needs to convince Elise to embrace her new powers and work for the Veil, but she is starting not to trust her own bosses who seem to be keeping secrets of their own. With the feelings between Elise and Claire making everything even more fraught, they will need to figure out who they can believe in, including if that extends to one another.
The Coldest Touch had an amazing premise but never quite fulfilled it. The paranormal world around them was touched upon but always felt flimsy and left too much hanging. This is a world populated by vampires, werewolves, witches, and fae along with occasional humans harboring supernatural powers, yet nothing is ever explained beyond the existence of The Veil which seems to allow two vampires to rule over everything without their power ever being questioned. Elise is being asked to effectively give up her human life to become a part of the paranormal world, but at no point is she told much which leaves us as readers as frustrated as she is.
The romance between Elise and Claire is slow but believable, although it suffered from the usual misunderstanding of intentions issues you see a lot in YA which made it predictably frustrating. I especially found that the final scene between the pair felt tacked on as if the author had intended a different ending but was convinced to add another chapter by the publisher—honestly, I’m not sure which I would have preferred, but as written, the finale feels forced rather than organic. The supporting cast was extremely diverse which was great to see, but no one felt especially fleshed out, and they all felt as if they existed only to help the main protagonists, very different from the supporting characters in the author’s previous books.
The Coldest Touch ended up being a pleasant enough read, but with the peak of the paranormal romance genre seemingly long behind us, I’m not sure how much traction this one will pick up once it publishes in December.
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2018
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2019
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2020: Babies – Grade School, Middle Grade, YA & Adult Part One, YA & Adult Part Two
GeekMom received copies of these books for review purposes.