There’s nothing like a good anti-hero, right? Especially when they’re the protagonist, and you’re never quite sure you can trust them. Today on the B&N Teen blog, we welcome Scream All Night author Derek Milman, who’s going even darker with his sophomore novel, Swipe Right For Murder, a thriller about a hook-up gone very, very wrong. Milman swung by to share his favorite YA thriller anti-heroes.
In Swipe Right for Murder, seventeen-year-old Aidan Jamison is the very definition of a troubled teen. While he’s immensely sensitive, hilarious, sharp, thoughtful, and a wild daydreamer, who loves the world maybe a bit too much, he’s had his share of darkness and tragedy in his young life. His broken past partially propels him into the web of intrigue and deceit he finds himself in. Spending the night at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City, his spring break takes a serious detour after a man he hooks up with (via app) winds up dead. Below, are some of my favorite YA books that feature a complex, multi-layered MC with a dark and troubled past.
The Darkest Corners, by Kara Thomas
Tessa Lowell, headstrong, raw, and searingly intelligent, returns to her hometown of Fayette to face a whole lot of past trauma: her dying father (who’s in prison), and the tangled relationship she has with her childhood friend Callie. Their testimony put a serial killer—The Ohio River Monster—on Death Row (his final victim was Tessa’s cousin, Lori), and that testimony may not exactly be squeaky clean, as it turns out. If the unthinkable is true, that means a killer is still out there. And who exactly used Tessa’s name to visit her father before she ever got the chance—was it her half-sister Jocelyn, who abandoned Tessa long ago, along with their mother? The book is about the darkest corners of our memories, the lonely secrets we keep, and what really constitutes the truth. Twisty and haunting, and seeped in beautifully-composed, intricately-detailed atmosphere and location, this book is hard to stop thinking about after you’ve turned the final page.
Sadie, by Courtney Summers
A viscerally upsetting, uncomfortable read, this slow burn revenge tale is about the primal love of two sisters, and how love can evolve, and take different forms—from sisterly to maternal—for the purposes of human survival. The two girls, living in poverty in a trailer park, are neglected by their drug-addicted mother (and her steady stream of boyfriends). Sadie, queer and with a stutter, makes for one hell of a main character. She’s sworn to protect her younger sister Mattie from the monsters of the world, but after Mattie winds up dead, Sadie goes on a mission to find and destroy her sister’s killer. Meanwhile, during the hunt, Sadie herself goes missing, and radio personality Wes McCray serializes a podcast to try and locate both girls. Not much YA these days depicts poverty with such stark realism. The book doesn’t soften the edges of a world that can be unabashedly ugly and harsh, shrugging away desperate children. Bold, heartbreaking, and breathless, you’ll root for Sadie while feeling tragically helpless.
The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks
Perhaps not strictly YA, Wasp veers a bit more toward literary fiction, but the book is told from the first person, and stars a 16-year-old serial killer named Francis Cauldhame who lives on a remote Scottish island with his eccentric father. With shades of British playwright Harold Pinter (and maybe some Joe Orton thrown in there as well), Frank recounts, in detached, bemused fashion, the murders he committed before the age of ten. Meanwhile, we slowly learn a dog mauled and deformed him, his mother abandoned him, and his pyromaniac brother has recently escaped from a psychiatric institution—and is slowly making his way home (stopping every so often to make taunting phone calls to Frank). The novel is darkly funny, deeply depraved, chock full of halting, unforgettable imagery, with a shocking twist you won’t see coming at the end.
All Eyes on Us, by Kit Frick
Carter Shaw is the Golden Boy town Real Estate heir, dating both Amanda Kelly, whose social-climbing parents have pushed her into the relationship for political reasons, and Rosalie Bell, who has a much darker reason for dating him: she’s using him as her beard. She’s in love with her girlfriend Pauline, but her family are dangerous, unpredictable foes. They belong to a Christian fundamentalist religious sect, and Pauline’s past includes forced conversion therapy. Pauline has to continue to cloak who she is for the sake of her own survival. Pauline’s torment is so real on the page, not just in terms of the abuse she’s suffered at the hands of her parents, in the name of their religion, but in her yearning for her younger sister, who she loves dearly, not to get brainwashed and turn against her. The book explores how people can be cornered, by love and desperation, into making morally suspect decisions themselves. It becomes a chain, victims creating more victims. When the mysterious text messages start, from an Unknown Number, blackmailing both girls, everyone’s secrets risk seeing the light of day, and Kit Frick expertly ramps up the tension in this smart, taut thriller.
Two Can Keep a Secret, by Karen M. McManus
Twins Ellery and Ezra move to Echo Ridge, a small picturesque town in Vermont, where they’ve never been, to live with their grandmother, after their mother, Sadie, a self-destructive minor TV actress on a downward spiral, goes into rehab. Their young lives are already in freefall. The secrets this family keep seem to be reflected in Echo Ridge itself, which is awash with them. There have been murders and disappearances, with more to come. One of the victims was the twins’ aunt, and Ellery, try as she might, can’t seem to get any straight answers from her grandmother (or Sadie). Another Echo Ridge girl turned up dead under a ride at an amusement park called Murderland (McManus’ humor is as sharp as box cutters). The body count builds from there. McManus is a master at layering a silky web of mystery, and as Ellery gets involved with the seemingly sweet but troubled Malcolm, things get even more gloriously complicated, particularly as Ellery also navigates the social politics of a group of popular girls who seem to have their own agenda.
The Accidental Bad Girl, by Maxine Kaplan
Veronica Mars meets Go, but with a VERY NOW swizzle stick stirring this dirty neon cocktail together. Spiky, prescient, punk, and fiercely feminist, Kaplan takes a head-on look at slut shaming, and society’s double standards when it comes to sex and gender, by presenting a badass young character who simply made a mistake. Is she bad? Is she good? Or just human? Kendall Evans’ dark past coalesces in the very first chapter as she’s caught In flagrante delicto hooking up with her best friend’s ex in the school gym. Fast forward to the following year, and Kendall’s a school pariah. After a nasty hacking incident, her identity’s in shreds as well; she has to play the part of the bad girl everyone already thinks she is to set things straight. And she’s remarkably good at it! She gets involved with dangerously charming drug dealers, a lonely, smirking, and intriguing young man named Gilly, a few other fascinating (and sympathetic) supporting characters, and Kendall is different with all of them. She shifts her personality seamlessly, like so many kids do. Meanwhile, an aspiring astrophysicist, Kendall just wants her chance to go into space. The central mystery will keep you guessing till the end. With a pulsing neo-noir tint, and a sizzling pace that should be studied by prospective authors of the genre, this was easily one of my favorite debuts of 2018.
Scream All Night, by Derek Milman
Yes, that’s me. It was hard to compile this list without giving a meta-style shout-out to my first MC, seventeen-year-old Dario Heyward, of Scream All Night. This kid’s had quite the childhood. Growing up in a gothic castle called Moldavia that doubled as a famed B-horror movie studio, Dario was physically and emotionally abused by his dad, Lucian Heyward, an icon of the horror underground, after he cast Dario, all of twelve at the time, as the lead in cult classic Zombie Children of the Harvest Sun. Lucian has his own brutal ways of drawing out perfectly monstrous performances out of his actors. After Dario inherits the studio, he must decide whether or not to embrace his dark family legacy (including his lost love, but also his unnervingly eccentric older brother Oren), or a different future for himself, since he’s been legally emancipated from his family for years, and got accepted to Harvard.
Swipe Right for Murder is on shelves now.