The young adult mystery continues to thrive, along with plenty of YA horror thrillers, and this year was distinguished by quality storytelling, careful constructions, and social justice elements placed front and center. Whether you want to defeat the monsters or be the monster, solve the murder or get your own deadly vengeance, 2023 has an offering for you.
Nick Brooks, Promise Boys
Nick Brooks’ Promise Boys is an excellent critique of the kind of broken windows-style policing environment established by many a charter school aimed at “uplifting” youth in a way that plays more into the schools-to-prisons pipeline. When the seemingly popular, but very strict, principal of a private school featuring harsh punishments for minor infractions is found murdered, four students are singled out for blame, and they must work together to find the real culprit before society’s scapegoating tendencies can fully come to fruition. Brooks tells the store in four alternating perspectives at a breakneck pace for a book that propels itself at full speed towards a shocking conclusion.
Jamison Shea, I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast Is Me
In this ballet horror novel, a young ballerina is given a chance at power after a star of the company takes her under her wing. But all power comes at a cost, and this power derives from an ancient source with its own agenda. I’m not sure what it is about dance that lends itself so well to horror—think Black Swan or Suspiria—but add this one to the list of stories that take the bloody feet and brutal precision of the dance world and turn them into visceral horror.
Adam Sass, Your Lonely Nights Are Over
(Viking Young Readers)
In this delightful YA homage to the slasher, a serial killer is targeting a school’s queer club, and two besties find themselves ostracized from the club after suspicion falls on them for the murders. They must clear their names, in between going to drive-in movies, settling scores, and occasionally hooking up. Will they solve the murders? Will they end up together? Do I even care who the murderer is when I’m desperate for these two to smash? Anyway, file this one under, Very Fun and Not at All Scary (at least, compared to other slashers).
Trang Thanh Tran, She Is a Haunting
So many good haunted houses out this year. This one has a fantastic setup: in She Is a Haunting, a young woman goes to live at her father’s home in Vietnam before college, only to find her family being devoured by the colonialism still hidden in the decaying estate’s walls. She Is a Haunting reads like Mexican Gothic meets Margurite Duras, for a haunting literary horror novel fully situated in its historical milieu. Also, in case the cover design didn’t warn you, there are bugs. Lots of bugs.
Kim Johnson, Invisible Son
In this powerful sophomore effort from Kim Johnson, set during the early days of the pandemic, Andre Johnson has just been released from juvie for a crime he didn’t commit. He wants to know who framed him, but he’s got to stay out of trouble under the terms of his probation, making it complicated for him to find answers, but the questions keep piling up, including the biggest one of all: where has his neighbor’s adopted son vanished to, and what did it have to do with Andre’s incarceration? The pain and loss of the early pandemic and the soaring fight for justice during the summer of 2020 are viscerally brought to life in Kim Johnson’s deftly crafted sentences, and Invisible Son grounds itself well in the particularisms of its Portland scenery. I can’t recommend this book enough, for readers of all ages.
The only nonfiction title on this list, Accountable seeks to answer uncomfortable questions about a disturbing incident in the Bay Area town of Albany, desperate to protect its reputation of tolerance without doing the work to create a genuine culture of restorative justice. When a racist instagram account run by several students becomes public knowledge, students targeted by the account are furious—and they become ever more so, as their demands for consequences are redirected into limited measures aimed at optics. Slater is deeply empathetic in her approach, but still maintains a strong moral thread of condemnation and commitment toward a clear path of advocacy.
Lauren Muñoz, Suddenly, A Murder
One of several recent YA novels to feature murder at a special event, Muñoz’s ode to the traditional locked-room mystery distinguishes itself in its playful details and careful construction. A group of friends heads to a manor house for a 1920s-themed graduation bash, complete with period outfits and pea soup, but their gathering is quickly disrupted by a murder. Who did it? Everyone has a motive, and it’s up to Muñoz’s narrator to put the pieces together. The twists keep coming, and the last few are truly surprising.
Kayla Cottingham, This Delicious Death
Years after a virus known as the Hollowing turns a subsection of the population into cannibals, the invention of synthetic organs have stabilized the survivors and allowed them to reintegrate into society. Four “Hollow” girls from SoCal are ready to party the summer before college and headed to a music festival in the desert, but once they arrive, they soon find out they’re not welcome, and may even be framed for murder. So yeah. Queer zombies at Burning Man. Otherwise known as the perfect set-up for a novel, or my future Halloween costume.
Linda Cheng, Gorgeous Gruesome Faces
(Roaring Brook Press)
In this high-concept horror, Cheng’s narrator Sunny is a disgraced former member of a manufactured girl group that was meant for K-pop stardom—at least, until one of the members killed herself, and the other cuts off all contact with Sunny. When Sunny finds a chance to reconnect with her bandmate, and finally understand what went wrong, she leaps in without hesitation: there’s a new contest to become the next big pop idol, and she’ll stay in the program until she discovers the truth, no matter how dangerous.
Olivia Worley, People to Follow
10 influencers head to a remote location for three weeks turned off from their phones, convinced they’re the stars of a new reality show—but not long after they arrive, influencers start dropping like follower counts, as their darkest secrets are revealed to their legions of fans. I’m really enjoying this trend of “books where annoying people who are internet famous kill each other.”