Murder in the Breakfast Club? My Review of One of Us is Lying

Hello again! I hope you have all had a great holiday season. Today I’m reviewing One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus. This review was supposed to come out in November, but I had some trouble getting the book in at the library, so this blog is late. It turned out that One Of Us Is Lying was well worth the six-week wait to get a hold of it. I read this book in two days and had trouble putting it down to do things like eat or pee.

In October, I read The Shining by Stephen King. One of Us Is Lying was meant to by my YA counterpart. For some reason, I had gotten the impression that it was a thriller, but it turned out to be more of a traditional murder mystery. To me, the difference between those genres has to do with the pacing. Thrillers are usually much faster paced than mysteries, and they also tend to have a close link with horror. While it is true that certain characters in One of Us is Lying behave in horrifying ways, the book itself didn’t have a “horror” feel to me. I’m sure this definition can be debated, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m calling One of Us is Lying a mystery, not a thriller.

I’ve had a very mixed experience with YA books in the past. Some of them tell exciting stories but have characters that seem like flat stereotypes. McManus gets four stars for her character development. These characters were real people who just happened to be teenagers. They actually surprised me with their choices and reactions and didn’t just act out familiar tropes. This was especially refreshing given that the premise of the book involves a Breakfast Club-like scenario where a Jock, a Popular Girl, a Criminal, and a Nerd are in detention together. All of the characters prove that they are much more than these labels might suggest.

Plot-wise, this was a fascinating whodunit type mystery. This review is going to be shorter than usual because if I get too detailed, I’ll be risking spoilers. I figured out the whodunit pretty early on in the book. I don’t know if that’s because the book made it easy to figure out or just because I’ve watched WAY too many murder mystery TV shows. (Prior knowledge of The Breakfast Club also helped to point the way. Hint hint.) Figuring out the twist didn’t ruin the story for me at all because the howdunit and whydunnit aspects of the mystery were even more interesting than the whodunnit. Some of those pieces didn’t fall into place for me until they were explicitly explained towards the end of the book.

What I can tell you is that One of Us is Lying starts out with five high school students serving detention. One of them, Simon, runs a popular (or infamous) online gossip column. Simon dies under suspicious circumstances before detention is out, and now the other four students, Bronwyn, Addy, Nate, and Cooper, are the prime suspects. Disturbingly, Simon’s web page doesn’t die with him. Someone is using it to bait the suspects and mislead the police. As the story unfolds, our four suspects find themselves dealing with the outing of their secrets to their classmates and families. The police and the media have their own interpretations of the character’s secrets. This leads the reader to wonder if anyone is not lying.

I think that the best writing lesson from this book had to do with characterization. YA characters can be pretty bland; sometimes, they feel like they are Teenagers ™ instead of well-rounded people. McManus talked about many aspects of the character’s lives beyond just school or romance. She also allowed the characters to learn some good life lessons, and I felt like her female characters were positive examples. She avoided the trope of family conflict stemming from teenage rebellion. The family conflict in these books was much more complex and often had more to do with the adults (and the crappy way they treated their kids) than with the teenage character.

This book was not moralizing in any way, but it did create what I’d call “good examples” with its characters. All of the points of view characters ultimately make healthy decisions about how to deal with their inner and external conflicts. I think this book shows that you can write a realistic, gripping story for teens without glamorizing unhealthy behavior.

Ultimately, I think this book is a great YA read for anyone who likes mysteries or gripping people stories. If you are working on a YA book of your own, I’d recommend picking up One of Us is Lying and learning from all the things it does right.

In January, I will be reading the first non-fiction pick for this blog, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott– a book all about writing. I’m also going to be putting out a special bonus blog that you will want to stay tuned for.

Wishing you all a prosperous New Year, full of new books!

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