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Tracy Darnton on Her Favourite Young Adult Thrillers

Posted on 10th July 2020 by Mark Skinner

Former Waterstones Children's Book Prize nominee Tracy Darnton is one of the finest proponents of Young Adult thrillers out there. Unsurprisingly, Tracy has read widely in the genre and, to celebrate the publication of her latest, gripping novel The Rules, she shares below her very favourite examples of a hugely popular form.

My bookshelf is full of thrillers for teens and young adults. Why? Because I love intricate plots, a dose of psychological drama and suspense, contemporary characters and a story which makes me think. Most of all, as I have the concentration span of a small gnat, I need a pacey plot to keep me turning those pages and the occasional gulp-shock and twist.

Thriller readers like me enjoy the challenge of working out what’s happened, or how this will all end, who to trust and spotting all those subtle hints, and red herrings, that the author has carefully laid. I’m dying to do an escape room one day with my suggested authors because I’m sure they’d relish a good challenge, thinking laterally and solving puzzles – especially against the clock.

But my favourite thrillers must also have characters that I really care about for their high stakes to mean anything. And I need to be asking myself questions: what if that happened to me? What would I do? I want to be both biting my nails and moved by the same book.  Luckily, this is exactly where teen and YA thrillers excel.

So, buckle up, and prepare to stay up late to read my unputdownable selection:

We Were Liars by E Lockhart

We Were Liars is the brilliant book that first got me interested in writing thrillers for this age group. Transport yourself to a languid summer on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Cadence has selective amnesia after a head injury and returns to the island to be reunited with the other liars of the title to piece together what happened one summer. Beautifully written, Lockhart draws clever, complex teens trying to make sense of their world. Family, friendships, loss, love, and privilege are all explored through the classic device of amnesia so that as readers we’re on the same journey of discovery with Cadence. This is one I had to re-read for all the clever little clues I’d missed.

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Gloriously witty, sharp and utterly addictive, We Were Liars explores outwardly perfect lives consumed by secrets, deception and privileges taken too far. Controlled and perfectly-paced, Lockhart’s ingenious novel has a way of handing you one surprise after another, while still leaving you hungry for more.
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Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

Like your thrillers more city-based and real life? I’d recommend Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence. Marlon is doing his best to stick with his studies and avoid the bad decisions his older brother took before him. But after a date at the fair in Hackney ends tragically, he’s sucked into a world of drugs, knives and revenge. I was really rooting for Marlon as events spiral out of his control. Believable teen characters, a cracking pace and the dilemma of what would you do to protect your family are all rolled into a fantastic read. And I loved Marlon’s mum so much. Looking forward to reading Lawrence’s Eight Pieces of Silva, in a deckchair later this summer.

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A former winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Older Readers, Lawrence’s raw yet tender debut examines the vexed moral choices for a Black British teenager who always swore to stick to the right path. Lyrically written with an almost musical rhythm and brimming with compassion and insight, Orangeboy is a wise, engrossing read for both teens and adults alike.
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Dead Popular by Sue Wallman

All those formative years of reading Enid Blyton mean that I can’t resist a good boarding school book. By gathering characters together in a claustrophobic environment, this setting works so well for younger readers as the equivalent of a remote hotel or country house in a closed location adult thriller. Sue Wallman’s novels are reliably twisty, and very readable for teens. In her latest, Dead Popular, Kate is preoccupied with friendship groups and organising the best event, but as secrets are revealed in an art installation and a party ends very badly indeed, questions are asked about a recent expulsion. It all makes me rather relieved that I didn’t get my wish to go to boarding school.

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Another pitch-perfect YA mystery novel from one of the genre’s key practitioners, Dead Popular finds the school Queen Bee the target of a chilling campaign of terror. Layering twist upon twist with unerring skill, Wallman spins a deliciously sinister tale of secrets, revenge and obsession.
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A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

I imagine Holly Jackson’s desk to be surrounded by whiteboards of pictures of suspects and evidence, like all the best TV crime dramas, to keep track of her intricate plotting. In A Good Girls’ Guide to Murder, Pip investigates a supposedly solved murder from five years ago for a school project, with Ravi, the brother of the deceased main suspect. Rather than just straight prose storytelling, there’s a mix of interview transcripts, project or diary notes and documents.  This style of thriller is currently huge in YA, thanks in part to the success of true crime streaming shows and podcasts, and Jackson is expert at it. This book’s ideal if you like twisty plots to keep you guessing – and you can read more of Pip’s investigations in Good Girl, Bad Blood.

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A compelling murder mystery that follows in the footsteps of the genre-busting One of Us is Lying, Jackson’s impressively accomplished debut features a likeable teenage sleuth out to crack a cold case as part of her homework assignment. Twists, shocks and red herrings are liberally strewn about the plot, but the thrills are never allowed to overshadow the novel’s tender central relationship.
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One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

Back to the USA again with One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus. Perfect for the Netflix generation, start with this, her first one, which deservedly drew readers of all ages to YA thrillers. A high school student dies from a peanut allergy in suspicious circumstances, just before he’s going to post the secrets of his fellow students. Multiple narrators keep this novel fresh and interesting as your suspicions and sympathies flit from one of the four suspects to another.

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Karen McManus’s runaway-success debut throws open the doors of Bayview High and dwells deep into the secrets and lies that shape the lives of its teens. Pacey, brilliant and extremely devious, One of Us Is Lying is the perfect high school thriller brimming with tensions, twists and unforgettable characters.
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