I am very passionate about young adult literature. I am literally the YA expert at my Barnes and Noble. I read YA constantly, think about it obsessively, and blog about it compulsively. So I am very qualified to say that YA is not a genre. It’s an age category, and a wide one at that. Some middle schoolers read YA. Lots of twenty- and thirty-year-olds do as well.
If someone says they like “fiction,” they’re not necessarily saying that they read and enjoy everything from James Joyce to Ashley and JacQuavis to Madeline Miller to Colleen Hoover. They might, but that’s not assumed. For that same reason, it’s irritating to me that so many people like to boil YA down to “sparkly vampire romances.” There are a few of those, but they’re far from the majority in YA and their appeal will vary from YA reader to YA reader. Some of us love vampire romances. Some of us despise them. Some of us enjoy one every once in a while but don’t read them regularly. There’s a lot going on in YA, and it is very hard to categorize it.
Generally speaking, a book is YA if the main character is a teenager or, possibly, in their early twenties. It therefore follows that they are often about change and transition. YA characters are usually figuring out who they are, finding their place in the world, or experiencing something big for the first time. That’s something that can happen across a lot of different genres, which is why there is such diversity amongst YA. Every once in a while, one of those YA subgenres gets a boost, usually on the heels of a massive bestseller. Harry Potter was the reason we have so many magical boarding schools. Twilight gave us the aforementioned paranormal romance moment. The Hunger Games launched the dystopian frenzy. There’s always a lot going on in YA, but right now YA mystery/thrillers are having a moment.
I only read mysteries occasionally, but I figured that—since there are so few of them that get significant attention and since we’re coming up on Halloween—I’d read all the big ones and compile a list. So here they are: YA mysteries and thrillers, what you should know, and which ones are worth the hype. My full reviews are linked to the titles.
One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
The hype: This book is trending everywhere, and if I were forced to name the book that got mystery/thrillers going, this would be the one. It is on #booktok, will be adapted into a TV series on Peacock, and even has a couple of sequels. At the time I’m writing this, it has a 4.04 on Goodreads.
What is it? It’s basically The Breakfast Club with murder. Five teens are sent to detention. One of them dies, leaving the remaining four as suspects. Because Simon, the victim, ran a vicious rumor blog and his fellow detentioners all had secrets they wanted kept, any one of them would’ve had a reason to kill him.
Worth it? Yes, but not as a mystery. The actual killer is very easy to predict. People who never read mysteries might be surprised, but anyone who knows anything about the genre will see the reveal coming a mile away. That being said, this book is a great teen drama. The four suspects are all really interesting, fully developed characters. They start from base stereotypes and blossom into a lot more. There’s a good smattering of romance, empowerment, and drama. While I wouldn’t necessarily hand this to someone looking for a twisty, suspenseful plot-driven story, it is absolutely a great choice for those inclined towards teen drama.
Sadie by Courtney Summers
The hype: This was everywhere a year or so ago. The buzz for it has died down, but it seemed like it was *the* book for a while there. Goodreads has it sitting at a 4.09.
What is it? In this thriller, a young woman decides to chase after her sister’s murderer and a popular radio host follows her trail for his true crime podcast.
Worth it? For my money, not really. This one benefits from the limited number of thrillers for the age group. It’s okay, but it’s a bit repetitive. The concept is really cool, but rather than having the two sides of the story come at the central mystery from different sides, the secondary POV–West, the radio guy–is always a few steps behind the titular Sadie, uncovering secrets that the reader has already uncovered with Sadie a few pages previously. It’s decent, but it’s not one you’re likely to hear me recommend.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
The hype: This is one of the darlings of #booktok. Surprisingly, it has a slightly lower goodreads score at 3.80, but that’s likely because of its wider readership. It’s been a steady bestseller for at least a year, and every time we think its popularity had died down, it resurrects.
What is it? Two years ago, something horrible happened to Cady. She has horrific headaches and gaps in her memory, but since no one will tell her what happened that summer on her grandfather’s private island she has to depend on her own fractured mind to find out.
Worth it? This book is a masterclass in unreliable narrators. You can’t ever trust anything Cady thinks or sees, both because she is so damaged and because people are actively keeping secrets from her. Every action has at least one level of hidden meaning, and the twists at the end are shocking (and potentially divisive, thus the lower goodreads score). It’s absolutely worth the read.
Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart
The hype: I cheated a little to put this on the list, because it doesn’t really have much hype. It is the same author as We Were Liars, though. 3.29 on goodreads for this one.
What is it? This is the story of a runaway, but you don’t really know who she is or why she’s running away because it begins at the end.
Worth it? Yes. I found this novel fascinating. There were a few gaps, and I wish some things had been fleshed out a little more, but the formatting is absolutely brilliant. We’re used to reading mysteries and wanting to know what happens next. I’ve never read one that moves the opposite direction. You wouldn’t think it possible to have just as many surprises going that way, but if you think that, you’ve clearly never read Genuine Fraud.