Shades of London, Books 1-3 by Maureen Johnson

The actual title of this post should be “Books 1-3 plus that novella that came out in 2014,” but that was rather inelegant.

name-of-the-starThe Name of the Star
When Louisiana native Rory Deveaux’s professorial parents take a sabbatical in the UK, Rory jumps at the chance to attend boarding school in London. The early chapters of The Name of the Star depict her acclimation to life at Wexford, befriending her new roommate (Jazza) and developing a flirtation with one of the male prefects (Jerome). Because the phrase “boarding school in London” is totally my cup of tea (har har) and because Rory is amusingly snarky, I was already loving the book at this point, and that’s before I even got to the part with Jack the Ripper and ghosts!

A copycat of the notorious killer is on the loose, and since Wexford is located in Whitechapel, many of the crime scenes are nearby. After a near-death experience by choking grants Rory the ability to see ghosts, she actually witnesses the perpetrator (who has mysteriously failed to show up on any CCTV recordings of the murders) which brings her to the notice of a special secret police squad tasked with controlling any unruly members of the spectral population.

Several more fun characters are then introduced, and here I must compliment the narrator of the unabridged audiobook, Nicola Barber, whose facility in accents made me feel like I was listening to a BBC show. (I especially liked that Callum, a former football hopeful now dispatching meddlesome ghosts on the Underground, sounded rather like Lister from Red Dwarf!) In fact, I think this would make a pretty great BBC show, with its mildly diverse cast and the fact that the heroine is not merely brave (she eventually assists the squad in their ghosthunt), but funny, too. Admittedly, there were a couple of moments where Rory did some dumb things, but one could argue she didn’t really have better alternatives.

I haven’t loved a book this much in quite a long time, and I am both happy and bummed that there are two more (only two more!) in the series currently.

madness_underneathThe Madness Underneath
It is with true regret that I must report that The Madness Underneath suffers from an unfortunate case of Middle Book Syndrome. A crack created at the end of the first book seems to be providing a way for the buried dead of Bedlam to make it to the surface, and Rory’s newfound skills as a human “terminus” are effective in dispatching one murderous ghost, but this plotline fizzles out partway through. (Sidebar: it’s a crazy coincidence that this article comes out the very day I finish this book!) Then Rory falls in with a cult whose philosophy and goals don’t make a lot of sense, and shortly after her costly rescue, there’s suddenly a cliffhanger ending. If I had to wait for book three, I would probably be peeved that that’s all there was.

That is not to suggest that nothing of merit happens, however. I actually really liked how Rory’s return to Wexford was handled—how she was just simply incapable of caring about things she used to care about. So far behind in schoolwork that it’s overwhelming, she can’t muster the desire to try, and yet is blindsided when it is suggested that perhaps she ought to withdraw prior to exams. So caught up in the ghosthunting gig, boyfriend Jerome’s suspicions (and then guilt over same) become just another nagging problem, so she ends their relationship. I liked that Callum feels more antagonistically towards ghosts than the others do, and yet everyone seems to respect each other’s point of view. I liked the Marc Bolan reference. And, of course, before the more serious stuff starts to happen, there are at least a dozen lines of dialogue that made me laugh. (There’s also a dream featuring ham lunchmeat that I think might be an homage to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Restless.”)

Even though this particular installment was kind of disappointing, I continue to look forward to subsequent books just as much as before.

boy_in_smokeThe Boy in the Smoke
This short novella visits four defining moments in the life of Stephen Dene, leader of the ghost police, offering insight into the thoughts and background of a notably reticent character. Some of these incidents have been referred to in previous books, but not in this much detail.

“The Forgotten Boy” recounts a time when Stephen’s parents forget to fetch him from school at the end of term. (They’ve gone to Barbados instead.) His sister Regina comes to his rescue, determined to save him from a life doing what their parents expect, but she’s erratic and Stephen soon figures out that she’s using drugs. In “The Break in the Chain,” Stephen is attending Eton when he gets word of Regina’s death by overdose. (His parents “worked out their grief at a resort in Switzerland.”) He manages to carry on for several years, determined to fulfill his duty of succeeding at Eton and carrying on to Cambridge, until a visit from his unfeeling family leads him to commit suicide (in a scene that is absolutely riveting).

“The Specialist” find Stephen recovering at a psychiatric hospital and being recruited by Thorpe to lead the reformed team. And in “The Boy in the Smoke,” Stephen has finally achieved his dream of becoming a police officer. Practically the first thing he does is search for Regina’s ghost, only to find she did not return. Lastly, he fulfills his promise to come back to visit the ghost who saved his life and this slim little book comes to an end that left me rather verklempt.

Is this book essential to understanding the Shades of London series? No, but I’d say it’s essential to understanding Stephen, and very definitely worth the time.

shadcabThe Shadow Cabinet
What do you get when you take a series that first beguiled me with London, boarding school, Jack the Ripper and ghosts, and then remove half of those things? A book that is reasonably good but which I just cannot love with anything approaching the ardor I originally felt.

The Shadow Cabinet offers a lot more information about the cult and their goals, introduces the concept of powerful stones that prevent London from being overrun by spirits as well as a secret society tasked with protecting them, and unleashes creepy, evil siblings Sid and Sadie upon the world. More attention, though, is devoted to Rory’s personal plight. Now in hiding from family and friends after running away from Wexford, she and the team are searching everywhere for one of their own who they believe has become a ghost.

The resolution to book two’s cliffhanger is pretty satisfying, I must admit, and I found that I did care a lot about whether certain characters made it out of Sid and Sadie’s proximity unscathed. I also really liked getting to know more about Thorpe, the group’s MI-5 overseer, and that Rory apparently receives permission to tell her two closest friends from Wexford what’s really been going on. And then there’s also the part where Stephen asks the bad guys, “Do you want to test that theory?” which surely must be another Buffy reference, right?

I’m still looking forward to the fourth book, which I believe is going to be the last in the series, but I must admit that my expectations are lower now than they once were.

Uninvited by Sophie Jordan

uninvitedbook description:
When Davy tests positive for Homicidal Tendency Syndrome, aka “the kill gene,” she loses everything. Once the perfect high school senior, she is uninvited from her prep school and abandoned by her friends and boyfriend. Even her parents are now afraid of her—although she’s never hurt a fly. Davy doesn’t feel any differently, but genes don’t lie. One day she will kill someone.

Without any say in the matter, Davy is thrown into a special class for HTS carriers. She has no doubt the predictions are right about them, especially Sean, who already bears the “H” tattoo as proof of his violence. Yet when the world turns on the carriers, Sean is the only one she can trust. Maybe he’s not as dangerous as he seems. Or maybe Davy is just as deadly.

We meet Davina (Davy) Hamilton in March 2021, when she is about to graduate from her prestigious prep school and proceed on to Juilliard. Davy is a special snowflake musical prodigy who is also gorgeous, with a studly boyfriend many other girls covet. She’s also not shy about congratulating herself for these things.

Her privileged existence comes to an end when routine screening reveals that she carries the gene for HTS—Homicidal Tendency Syndrome. She is promptly uninvited from her swanky school and sent to a class for “carriers” at the local public school, where some of the kids are obviously creeps but others seem as normal and harmless as Davy insists she is. Carriers are treated poorly by society, and when an angry group of them perpetrates a mass shooting, all carriers are rounded up and sent to detention camps. Davy and a couple of classmates, however, are diverted into a program where they train to kill on government command.

While there were a few things I liked about Uninvited, I must admit that it was not especially good. Original-flavor Davy is not a sympathetic character, but she does eventually realize that she used to be a pretty crappy person and that her friends and boyfriend never truly cared about her. I also found the repeated references to music in her head puzzling—as a musician myself, it’s true that I usually have a song (or at least unformed noodling) in my head, but I thought this was normal for everyone, and not a sign of genius as we are evidently supposed to believe here.

Too, the writing is sometimes weirdly choppy, and I’m not sure what the point of that was. Is it simply bad writing or is it an attempt to convey how grim the situation is? If that’s the case, why use it during a scene where Davy’s boyfriend seems to accept her, kill gene and all?

“I need this. So much. His arms. His love.”

That’s just one example. I confess that I eventually started internally reading these in a flat robot voice to amuse myself. Jordan sometimes seems to mix up musical terms, too, like when Davy refers to the “pitch” of an aria, or that her body sways to the “harmony.” Plus, there were two instances of “y’all” being spelled “ya’ll.” Can you become an editor without understanding how contractions are formed? Apparently, at Harper Teen you can!

So, irritating main character, bizarre writing style… what is there to like? Well, the concept itself is kind of interesting, and because I didn’t particularly care about anyone, their misfortunes didn’t cause me any anxiety. The portion of the novel set in the training program is the strongest, with Davy becoming determined not only to become strong in her own right, but buying into the claim that if she does well enough, the government will have the neck tattoo proclaiming her as a violet carrier removed.

In the end, I find myself interested enough to read the sequel, Unleashed, though I am very grateful that this series is not a trilogy.

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

ketchup_cloudsFrom the front flap:
Zoe has an unconventional pen pal—Mr. Stuart Harris, a Texas Death Row inmate and convicted murderer. But then again, Zoe has an unconventional story to tell. A story about how she fell for two boys, betrayed one of them, and killed the other.

Hidden away in her backyard shed in the middle of the night with a jam sandwich in one hand and a pen in the other, Zoe gives a voice to her heart and her fears after months of silence. Mr. Harris may never respond to Zoe’s letters, but at least somebody will know her story—somebody who knows what it’s like to kill a person you love. Only through her unusual confession can Zoe hope to atone for her mistakes that have torn lives apart, and work to put her own life back together again.

When a complicated love triangle results in the death of one of the parties involved, British teenager “Zoe” is wracked with guilt, especially since no one realizes the part she played in all of it. Unable to keep it in anymore, Zoe ends up writing anonymously to Stuart Harris, an inmate on death row in Texas for killing his wife, figuring he will understand how she feels. As her letters, written at night in the backyard shed, proceed chronologically through the events leading to the fateful night, Harris’ execution inexorably nears.

The whole concept of this novel put me in mind of John Marsden (a compliment). Initially, I thought of Letters from the Inside, though really the similarities are few between those works. More, this resembles something like So Much to Tell You or Winter, in which a teenage heroine attempts to get over a tragedy in her past that is gradually revealed to the audience.

Pitcher does a good job maintaining the suspense, and at varying times I desperately wanted either to peek or not to peek at the ending. Better still, and like Marsden, the true focus here is on forgiveness and healing. I found Zoe a very appealing character, the funny and creative sort I would’ve liked to be friends with in high school. (Bonus points for owning a fountain pen!) True, she makes mistakes, but never does anything outright dumb. And I liked her family, too, particularly the bond between the sisters and the way in which Zoe realizes she’s got someone closer to home who can relate to what she’s going through.

Another thing I really appreciated was how Zoe behaved around the two boys in her life, brothers Max and Aaron. She was never not herself, never downplayed her own interests and enthusiasms, and it was shown to be this quality that made her most attractive. The love triangle also didn’t resolve quite in the way I was expecting to, and while I mostly really like the ending, I will always be annoyed when a guy makes a decision on a girl’s behalf.

Ultimately, I liked Ketchup Clouds a lot. This was Pitcher’s second novel, and at some point I intend to check out her first, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece.

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Book description:
When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong—horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured—including their families and all their friends.

Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: they can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

It’s been several weeks now since I finished Tomorrow, When the War Began. Normally, I write a book’s review as soon as I finish reading it, but I feel like I’m still processing this one to some extent, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

This is due in part to the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the other books by John Marsden that I have read, and so built this series up in my mind as something that was going to be jaw-droppingly amazing. And when it turned out not to be so, even though it’s still quite good in general and genuinely riveting in parts, I was a kind of disappointed.

This is the story of seven Australian teenagers (later eight) living in the rural town of Wirrawee who go camping while their parents and most of the people in town are attending a fair. The kids return to find that a mysterious military force has invaded Australia and has imprisoned most of the townspeople at the fairgrounds, including their families. They must decide what, if anything, they’re going to do to help. Ellie Linton has been tasked with chronicling their story.

Large portions of the tale are pretty fascinating. The teens are resourceful and rise to the occasion, especially Ellie’s clown/daredevil childhood friend, Homer, who emerges as the group’s leader, and Fiona, a ladylike rich girl who proves to have unexpected reserves of courage. While Homer is the tactician of the group, Ellie seems to find herself trusted with the most dangerous missions, which require some quick, inventive thinking on her part in difficult situations involving things like exploding lawn mowers, demolition derby bulldozers, and exploding gas tankers.

I even liked the parts of the story where the characters talk about what they’re going to do—are we going to hide out here in our camping spot, or are we going to try to engage the enemy somehow?—and the various supplies they’re going to need from town, whether to keep chickens, etc. Where the story really bogs down, however, is with the introduction of romance.

Ellie has never considered Homer in a romantic way before, but begins to see him in a new light given his metamorphosis. Meanwhile, she’s also intrigued by Lee, the inscrutable Asian musician, and Homer has fallen for Fiona. Ellie dwells a lot on her confusion before ultimately deciding upon Lee, and then telling readers about all the making out their doing and how she has learned the things that make him groan, etc. I kept thinking how embarrassing all of this will be for Lee whenever he/anyone reads this official chronicle!

Anyway, it’s not that I am anti-romance or anything, but it’s just that these scenes really slow down the pace of the story. And maybe that is the point. Even if something as dramatic as an invasion has occurred, there will still be a lot of downtime if you’re hiding out in the woods, and a lot of time for more mundane things to be going on.

I guess what it boils down to is that my perception of the book has been hampered by my expectations. I am certainly going to read the rest of the series, and hopefully I will like it better now that I’ve reconciled myself to what it actually is rather than what I thought it was.

Additional reviews of Tomorrow, When the War Began can be found at Triple Take.

Pretty Little Secrets by Sara Shepard

From the back cover:
Rewind to junior year in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, to a winter break no one has ever heard about.

Fat snowflakes fall onto manicured lawns, quilted stockings hang over marble fireplaces, and everyone is at peace, especially Hanna, Emily, Aria, and Spencer. Now that Alison’s murderer is in jail and A is dead, they can finally relax. Little do they know there’s a new A in town…

What happens on holiday break stays on holiday break—right? But guess what. I saw. And now I’m telling.


This will probably be the last full-length review I write of a Pretty Little Liars novel. Mostly that’s because I’ve run out of ways to say “it isn’t very good, but I still enjoy it,” but also… egads, this one was pretty bad.

Although published earlier this year, Pretty Little Secrets is actually set between books four and five of the series, so I opted to go ahead and read it now. The premise is that this is the winter break between those books and the new A in town is observing the four girls before beginning to seriously harass them. It feels a lot like a media tie-in novel, to be honest, shoehorned in between more pivotal events with decidedly lame plots that are designed not to contradict anything that comes afterwards. (Although, I’ve actually heard that are some discrepancies.)

In “Hanna’s Little Secret,” Hanna is despondent when her boyfriend, Lucas, goes on vacation with a hot chick, so she binge eats a while, then joins a fitness boot camp, where she competes with another girl to win the affections of their instructor. In “Emily’s Little Secret,” Mrs. Fields is upset over the theft of her precious ceramic baby Jesus (yes, really) from a church nativity scene, and enlists Emily to infiltrate the clique of girls presumed to be responsible. In “Aria’s Little Secret,” Aria’s old Icelandic flame shows up randomly and they decide to get married (yes, really). And in “Spencer’s Little Secret,” Spencer and her sister compete for the affections of a tennis player while their parents are having some angst related to the DiLaurentis family. There are small things connecting the stories, mainly the references to a vile-tasting vitamin water called AminoSpa.

I thought the Hanna and Spencer stories were structurally pretty similar, as both involved bitchy sisters/step-sisters as well as the protagonist getting duped by another girl who was actually after the same guy who turned out to be a player who used the same lines on them both. Though it’s really just as dumb as the others, the Emily story is probably the best because it contains a few snickerworthy lines.

All in all, please feel free to skip this collection. You’re not missing much of anything.

The Lying Game, Books 2-3 by Sara Shepard

In which I catch up on The Lying Game and circumvent the fact that I don’t have much to say about these frothy books by offering two short reviews in one post.

Never Have I Ever
Former foster child Emma Paxton has assumed the life of her privileged (and murdered) twin sister, Sutton Mercer. The only person who knows her true identity is hunky loner, Ethan Landry.

In this, the second book of the series, Emma fairly promptly crosses her sister’s friends off the suspect list (after being convinced of their guilt in the first book) and sets her suspicions upon the so-called Twitter Twins, two girls who want retribution for a particularly cruel prank Sutton played on them. While Emma sleuths and gets into peril, Sutton’s ghost hangs around and occasionally informs the reader about the small flashes of memory she conveniently experiences.

It’s hard to know what to say about a book like this. It’s teen suspense by the author of Pretty Little Liars, which means that there will be a fair amount of bad decision-making and ridiculous drama that somehow ends up being addictive anyway. I mean, it’s inconceivable that the twins are really Sutton’s killers—this is book two out of four, after all—and none of these girls is particularly likeable, but have I acquired the third book from Audible* and loaded it onto my .mp3 player with the intention of starting it as soon as I finish this review? You bet I have!

* Dear audiobook narrator,
Please learn to pronounce the letter T. Shirts don’t have buh-ins, windows don’t have cur-ins, and Facebook posts aren’t wrih-in.

Two Truths and a Lie
Usually, these books are pretty fun to read, even if they are silly, but Two Truths and a Lie sucked the enjoyment out of the experience by relying on one of my most disliked YA plots: there is angst, and the heroine could do something simple and obvious to fix it, but she is convinced for some inexplicable reason that she cannot do this thing to fix it, so things just get worse and worse until she finally does the simple and obvious thing, at which point the angst is dispelled.

In this particular instace, Sutton’s sister Laurel has discovered that Emma (in the guise of Sutton) has a secret relationship with Ethan. So, Laurel proposes that Sutton’s friends play a nasty prank on him, ‘cos that is apparently what they do. It takes Emma ages to realize that she could easily a) warn Ethan or b) tell her friends that she likes him. I also get the feeling Sara Shepard was under some Meg Cabot-like time constraint with regards to getting this book ready for publication, so she resorted to Meg Cabot-like tactics for fleshing out one’s word count, like reiterating obvious things like, “Wait, so he was at the hospital the night Sutton died? Then he couldn’t have killed her!” Uh, yes, I got that.

Like the other books in the series, this one focuses on one main suspect for Sutton’s murder who is ultimately cleared in the end. Again, there was no chance of the killer being identified before the series conclusion, and therefore no real suspense. I also do not believe that the suspect suggested at the very end of the book will wind up to be the actual perpetrator, ‘cos that leaves no room for surprise twists.

I gripe, and yet I am first in the library queue for Hide and Seek, the fourth and ostensibly final volume, which is due in July.

Conspiracy 365: January – March by Gabrielle Lord

For 2012, the three of us at Triple Take have decided to focus on YA fiction from Australia and New Zealand. First up is the first volume (January) of Gabrielle Lord’s Conspiracy 365 series, in which a teenage boy named Cal must survive attacks on his life for the next 365 days whilst investigating his father’s mysterious death. The publishing schedule was pretty nifty for this series, with the first twelve books (named after the months of the year) coming out throughout 2010 during the month reflected in their title. The thirteenth book in the series, Revenge, was published in Australia in October 2011, but hasn’t made it to the US yet.

Because I couldn’t read just one, please enjoy the first three books in the series, with more to follow!

Conspiracy 365: January
Fifteen-year-old Callum Ormond thought his father’s death six months ago was due to illness, but when a crazy-seeming figure (in requisite billowing black cloak) accosts him on New Year’s Eve and tells him his father was killed over something called “the Ormond Singularity,” he begins to wonder. Initially downplaying the warning that he himself should hide out for the next year, he is soon plagued by perils including: nearly drowning in a storm at sea, sharks, a sneaky uncle, foreclosure, fire bombs, kidnappers, criminals, and life as a fugitive. Aided by his friend Boges (no clue how to pronounce that), he tracks down some drawings his father made in his final days (which are reproduced in the book) and attempts to decipher their meaning, all while hiding out from the bad guys, the authorities, and his family.

It’s hard to really know what to say about January, since it’s almost entirely action. “Fast-paced but really kind of… empty” is a phrase from my notes that seems to sum it up best. That’s not to say I disliked it, because it was pretty entertaining. Okay, yes, already the repeated kidnappings are wearing thin, but it really does feel a bit like a 24 for teens, with Boges filling the role of Chloe to Cal’s Jack Bauer. This is aided by the way the story is written, noting the date and time for each first-person entry (though sometimes these occur during moments when one generally wouldn’t pause to describe what’s happening, like when trapped in the trunk of a car) and counting down the days until safety. The pages are numbered backwards, as well, which is a neat touch.

In addition, Cal seems like a pretty good kid. (You know you’re old when, instead of being fully swept away by the adventure, you’re thinking, “Aw, he’s thinking about how worried his mom must be. What a nice boy.”) I genuinely have no idea how he’s going to get out of the situation he finds himself in at the conclusion of this installment, but that’s okay because I have February right here!

Conspiracy 365: February
The basic plot of the February installment of Conspiracy 365 can be summed up as: Cal hides a lot, and also runs a lot. Perils faced by the teen fugitive include nearly drowning in a storm drain, nefarious people circulating recent pictures of him, and a freakin’ lion, which I thought was going to be the most eyeroll-inducing part of the book until the final pages saw him trapped on the tracks while the driver of an oncoming subway train frantically applies the brakes.

A teensy bit of progress is made toward solving the Ormond Riddle, as it appears that one of the drawings Cal’s dad made references the statue of an ancestor who died in the first World War. But that’s it. There’s no real change in Cal’s situation or his goals, unless you count the introduction of Winter Frey, ward of one of the guys out to get Cal. She proves useful, but may not be trustworthy.

Like January, this is a fast-paced and decently enjoyable read, eyerolling aside, but it’s difficult to find much of anything to say about it beyond that. I predict this will be the case for the next handful of volumes until some answers are actually forthcoming. I further predict that the answers will be rather lame, but I still intend to persevere.

Conspiracy 365: March
At first, I thought I was going to need the next batch of three installments immediately after finishing these, but now I’m ready for a break. It’s not that this series is bad, because it isn’t. But it is very repetitive, and the format enforces some implausible behavior on to the characters.

In support of the “repetitive” claim:
• In volume one, Callum has a wildlife encounter with a shark. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

• In volume two, Callum is rescued by a stranger, who becomes somewhat of an ally. Callum has a wildlife encounter with a lion. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

• In volume three, Callum is rescued by a stranger, who becomes somewhat of an ally. Callum has a wildlife encounter with a venomous snake. He ends the volume in mortal peril.

It’s probably not a good thing when your readers burst out laughing when the protagonist is bitten by a death adder! This makes me wonder what creatures will appear in later volumes. I am thinking there will be a bear. Are there bears in Australia? And there’s gotta be a dingo!

Regarding the implausible behavior… back in volume one, Callum discovered a slip of paper with two words on it, possibly the names of places in Ireland, where his dad discovered the details of this big family secret. Since that time, he’s been in internet cafés a number of times but only now, two months later, does it occur to him that he ought to look them up online. He also tries a couple of times to contact a former coworker of his father’s by calling the office, only to find the guy is out on sick leave. Why doesn’t he, say, find a phone book and try looking up the guy’s home number? Maybe we’ll have to wait until May for him to think of that.

More reviews of this series will follow eventually. In the meantime, feel free to make predictions for future wildlife encounters in the comments.

Additional reviews of Conspiracy 365: January can be found at Triple Take.

Unbelievable by Sara Shepard

From the front flap:
Behind Rosewood’s grand façades, where the air smells like apples and Chanel No. 5 and infinity pools sparkle in landscaped backyards, nothing is as it seems. It was here, back in seventh grade, that five best friends shared everything—Seven jeans, MAC makeup, and their deepest, darkest secrets.

Now someone named A has turned their charmed lives into a living nightmare. Emily has been shipped off to her hyper-conservative cousins in Iowa. Aria is stuck living with her dad and his home-wrecker girlfriend. And Spencer fears she had something to do with Alison’s murder. But Hanna’s fate is worse than all of that—she’s clinging to life in the hospital because she knew too much.

With A’s threats turning dangerous and Ali’s killer still on the loose, the girls must uncover the truth—about A, about Ali, and about what happened to Hanna—before they become A’s next victims. But as they unravel Rosewood’s mysteries and secrets, will it bring an end to the horror… or is this just the beginning?

I find it hard to know where to start in reviewing Unbelievable without it becoming simply a reiteration of all the plot craziness that ensues. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum, at least.

We begin with all four girls in unfamiliar environments. Emily has been shipped off to Iowa to live with uber-strict relatives on account of continued gayness, Aria is living with her father and his girlfriend after having exhausted all other options, Spencer been been whisked off to New Jersey by her parents in an attempt to repair her relationship with her sister, and Hanna is in a coma in the hospital, after being hit by a car. Plus, “A” is still sending them creepy messages and Ali’s killer remains on the loose.

I believe this was originally planned as the end of the series, but I’m not sure, since the last few pages suggest that a new “A” will come to town and there were also some unresolved hints about weird issues in Ali’s home life. Anyway, we do conclusively learn who A is (sadly, I had spoiled myself on this point) and are lead to believe that we learn who killed Ali, though that is not nearly as certain. Various repressed memories return in dramatic fashion. In addition, issues plaguing the various girls in their home lives get resolved—and I do appreciate how much of their drama this time is familial rather than romantic—and they sometimes even do reasonable things! (Though mostly they continue to do stupid things.)

I can’t really in good conscience recommend this series to others, but I will say that I have fun with it. This time, I checked out the unabridged audio edition narrated by Cassandra Morris. My first reaction was “This narrator sounds about nine!” but I did eventually get used to the pitch of her voice. What I never could accustom myself to, however, was her inability to pronounce the letter “t” when it appears in the middle of a word. Windows are hung with “cur-ans,” characters are suddenly “fry-end”… It’s very annoying!

In any case, I am totally going to keep reading. The fifth book in the series is called Wicked—and I have just boggled at its blurb, which mentions Emily having a boyfriend—but I am first going to read the newly released Pretty Little Secrets, which is set in the winter break between books four and five. I hope it’s not as insubstantial as the interstitial Princess Diaries books proved to be, but we shall see!

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

From the back cover:
You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret… is to press play.

Clay Jensen doesn’t want anything to do with the tapes Hannah Baker made. Hannah is dead, he reasons. Her secrets should be buried with her.

Then Hannah’s voice tells Clay that his name is on her tapes—and that he is, in some way, responsible for her death.

All through the night, Clay keeps listening. He follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his small town…

… and what he discovers changes his life forever.

I finished Thirteen Reasons Why yesterday and I’m still not sure what I think of it. Oh, I was certainly captivated by it, but was that because it’s well written or was it because it deals dramatically with hot-button issues? Maybe it’s a little bit of both.

Hannah Baker is a girl tormented by a reputation founded on rumor. And this reputation is the first block upon which many successively crappy incidents build until Hannah is seriously contemplating suicide. First, though, she records a series of tapes elucidating the thirteen reasons why she is planning to kill herself and sends it to the first person on the list. Each recipient is to forward the tapes on to the next person featured, with the threat that a second set of tapes will be made public if Hannah’s wishes aren’t followed. When nice guy Clay Jensen gets the tapes, he’s baffled: what did he ever do to Hannah?

As I listed to Hannah’s story, I was torn between finding the momentous quantity of suck in her life unbelievable (not to mention occasionally self-inflicted) and feeling sympathy for someone who just seemed cursed. But maybe this is the point. Maybe we are supposed to feel simultaneously irritated and sympathetic towards her. Circumstances that are overwhelming for one person won’t necessarily appear that way to someone else, and so maybe it’s natural to think “why didn’t she do this or that?” and forget that she’s just a traumatized kid.

One thing that bugged me about Hannah is actually a sign of decent characterization, and that’s her tendency to say one thing but expect others to know that she didn’t mean it and to push for more honesty from her. She wanted a sign that people cared enough not to just accept her assurances that she was fine. And, yes, that’s manipulative, but this is a suicidal teenager we’re talking about here. As for Clay… this isn’t really his story. He reacts to Hannah’s story throughout, and is motivated by it to no longer ignore signs that people may be hurting, but he’s sort of along for the ride with the reader.

In the end, I liked the book enough to seek out more by Jay Asher. I also want to commend the narrators of the unabridged audio edition—Joel Johnstone and Debra Wiseman—for a job well done. Wiseman as Hannah initially came across as a little too snarky, calm, and strong for the part, but I liked her quite a lot by the end. In fact, audio is a great way to “read” this book, given that most of it is Clay listening to the cassettes. I do have to wonder how much of the target audience even know what those are…

I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

From the back cover:
John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. He’s spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.

He’s obsessed with serial killers but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.

Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t demand or expect the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there’s something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat—and to appreciate what that difference means.

Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.

It’s hard to resist a book with a title like I Am Not a Serial Killer, at least for me, and when I picked this up I figured I was in for something akin to “Dexter: The Early Years.” But that was before Wells pulled a genre switcheroo.

Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver is a markedly self-aware sociopath, in that he is fully cognizant of his lack of empathy and bizzare compulsions and narrates about them in an articulate manner that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn is uncommon in others of his kind. He’s seeing a therapist and trying to keep “the monster” at bay by following a series of strict, self-imposed rules (a what-to-avoid list gleaned from intensive serial killer research) designed to keep him from going down a dangerous path. When mutilated bodies start showing up in his small town, John is excited and fascinated, but the more he learns about the crimes and the fact that the killer never intends to stop, the more he comes to realize that he may be the only person who can prevent the deaths of more innocents by letting “the monster” out to kill the perpetrator.

Soon it becomes clear that John is dealing with something supernatural. Ordinarily, it would bug me when a “real world” mystery suddenly veers into the supernatural for its resolution, but it actually kind of works for me here. John is such a broken person that he can’t understand why the culprit is doing certain things, and eventually realizes that even a demon is more capable of genuine human emotion than he is. This ties in some with the depiction of John’s family life—an absentee father who never follows through with promises and a mother who loves with desperate urgency to try to make up for her ex-husband’s shortcomings—since one of the most important moments of the book occurs when John is finally able to achieve a bit of real understanding with his mom instead of just faking it.

I guess the book is somewhat gross. None of the descriptions of the crimes bothered me, but the mortuary scenes—John’s mom and aunt run a funeral home and allow him to assist sometimes—are clinical and grim. They made me think of my late grandmother and made me want to call my parents. That said, I appreciate how familiarity with the mortuary layout and equipment pays off later in the story.

Ultimately, I Am Not a Serial Killer is pretty interesting. Though I’m not sure I buy the extent of John’s self-knowledge, he’s still an intriguing protagonist, and I thought Wells did a decent job of making him simultaneously sympathetic and abnormal. When I picked up the book I didn’t realize it was the first of a trilogy, but it was a pleasant surprise. Look for a review of book two, Mr. Monster, in the near future.