Whilst I was bumming around on Good Reads researching some of the forgotten details I needed to write this list, I ended up stumbling upon a few negative reviews about some of my lesser known choices. A frequent complaint was that reviewers often felt a work of fiction about teenagers should be classed as Young Adult rather than books marketed at adults and shelved in General Fiction. From one Good Reads reviewer: “I’m becoming increasingly irritated with book marketing schemes that mislead readers by not tagging a book as a young adult selection.”
As a reader of YA, I’m baffled by this sense of deception (“I bought The Handmaid’s Tale in good faith from General Fiction, but it’s actually SCI FI,” said no one), but I’m also curious to understand it. When should a book be classified as General Fiction and when does it belong in Teen? I’ve been chewing this over all morning, and perhaps the finer points belong in another blog post: for now, that quote was referring to a book that has an adult protagonist looking back at a life changing incident from her teenage years. Most of the books below are like that: coming of age stories focalised through an adult eye, which makes them more reflective in tone compared to most YA, which tends to centre a more immediate teen narration. It’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower versus The Virgin Suicides. That’s not a rule – there are no rules, it’s just a long chain of people making decisions that could go either way – but that’s the best explanation I can give as to why I’ve not listed any straight up YA down below. That’s another list for another day.
The End of Everything by Megan Abbott.
1980s, small-town America. Thirteen year old Evie goes missing, and best friend Lizzie is left behind to pick up the pieces. This is also on my Smokin’ Thriller list.
Dare Me by Megan Abbott.
Contemporary suburban America. A thriller set in the competitive world of high school cheerleading.
The Fever by Megan Abbott.
Contemporary suburban America, third person narration but I couldn’t leave this one off the list. A mysterious fever sweeps through the teenage girls of Dryden High.
Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth.
1990s Northern England. Thriller. Laura’s best friend committed suicide when they were fourteen, around the time a local boy went missing.
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.
1940s-1980s Toronto. Told mostly in first person flashbacks, Elaine has trouble making friends with other girls, until she meets Grace, Carol and Cordelia. A book about bullying and repression of childhood fear and trauma, this is one of the best books on this list.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
1990s suburban Pittsburgh. Epistolary novel from the perspective a naïve, kind and earnest fifteen year old boy. One of the most quotable books ever: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Whilst Googling to remind myself of the setting, I read a plot summary and cried.
The Girls by Emma Cline.
1960s California. Manson family. Beautiful, unique use of language. A bored, lonely fourteen year old is swept away by her admiration for a bohemian cult member. This book was in my top ten of 2016 is also on my Smokin’ Thriller list.
My Summer of Love by Helen Cross.
1980s Yorkshire. Queer. A teenager with a penchant for sneaking booze and playing fruit machines is asked to befriend a posh girl who’s new to the area.
What They Do in the Dark by Amanda Cox.
1980s UK. Genuinely one of the most upsetting, unsettling books I’ve ever read. Proceed with caution. ‘Good girl’ Grace forms an unlikely friendship with troubled ‘bad girl’ Pauline.
Submarine by Joe Dunthorne.
Contemporary UK. A highly intelligent, neurotic teenage boy behaves like a teenage boy. Hilarious.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.
1970s suburban America. Bleak, beautiful. The first novel to be written in the first person plural (“we”). One of my top five books of all time, this is about five sisters and the neighbourhood boys whose love becomes a lifelong obsession after the girls’ tragic mass suicide.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
1960s UK. Merricat lives with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in relative isolation following Constance’s acquittal of murdering the rest of the family.
Beside Myself by Ann Morgan.
Contemporary UK. Twins swap places, and then one refuses to swap back. This is actually so much more emotional and intelligent than I expected from the premise and I think it’s a really special book. One of my top ten from 2016 and also on my Smokin’ Thriller list.
Wetlands by Charlotte Roche.
Contemporary Germany. A teen girl talks frankly about the magical smells, tastes and discharges that her body produces. There’s also a plot but let’s be real.
The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard.
Contemporary London/LA. A nameless seventeen year old narrator steals her father’s credit card to attend her estranged mother’s funeral. One of my top five books of all time.
The Lauras by Sara Taylor.
Contemporary America. Queer. A non-binary teen embarks on a roadtrip with their mother to pay their dues and settle old scores. As they drive, Ma tells Alex about every girl and woman – all of which she calls Laura – she has ever loved, in one way or another. One of my top ten books of 2016.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wassmen.
1990s USA. A pair of teen narrators take it in turns to tell their side of a bloody, murderous story that involves quite a lot of Nirvana. One of my top ten books from 2016. This book is also on my Smokin’ Thrillers list.
Foxlowe by Eleanor Weissberg.
Contemporary UK. Life in a cult, from a child’s point of view, interspersed with her life after breaking free. One of my top ten books from 2016, this is also on my Smokin’ Thrillers list.