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.

-A

Review:
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 her 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.

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?

Review:
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!

The Lying Game by Sara Shepard

From the front flap:
The worst part of being dead is that there’s nothing left to live for. No more kisses. No more secrets. No more gossip. It’s enough to kill a girl all over again. But I’m about to get something no one else does—an encore performance, thanks to Emma, the long-lost twin sister I never even got to meet.

Now Emma’s desperate to know what happened to me. And the only way to figure it out is to be—to slip into my old life and piece it all together. But can she laugh at inside jokes with my best friends? Convince my boyfriend she’s the girl he fell in love with? Pretend to be a happy, carefree daughter when she hugs my parents good night? And can she keep up the charade, even after she realizes my murderer is watching her every move?

Review:
The Lying Game is the second collaborative effort between Sara Shepard and Alloy Entertainment (the team that brought you Pretty Little Liars) to be made into a TV series for ABC Family. I thought that this time I’d try reading the book before starting the show, so here we are.

Emma Paxton was raised by her unstable mother Becky until the age of five, when Becky skipped town while Emma was at a friend’s house. After Becky could not be located, Emma entered the foster care system, where she developed the ability to hold her tongue and become “whatever type of girl the situation needed [her] to be.” Now two weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday, Emma is hoping to make it through her senior year of high school and even dreams of attending USC and becoming an investigative journalist. Her skeevy foster brother has other plans, however, and Emma is soon accused of theft and told she must go when she turns eighteen.

Skeevy also shows Emma a video of a girl who looks just like her engaging in what looks like asphyxiation-for-kicks. From the video, Emma gleans that the girl is called Sutton and lives in Arizona. Googling leads to a Facebook page, and Emma’s message yields an invite from Sutton, who confirms that she was adopted. Without hesitation, Emma packs her bags and heads to Tucson.

Sutton fails to show for their appointed rendezvous, however, and when Sutton’s friends show up to whisk her off to a party, Emma finds herself using her adaptability skills to assume her sister’s role. Conveniently, Emma’s bag containing her cash and ID are stolen at this point. The next morning, she gets a note informing her that Sutton’s dead and that she’d better play along or she’ll be next. Emma tries various times to tell people what’s going on—Sutton’s parents, the police—but because Sutton was such a notorious prankster (more in a malicious way than a fun way) nobody believes her. Soon, Emma grows to suspect Sutton’s circle of friends may have offed their leader, and by the end of the book she’s learned the truth about the video but isn’t any farther along in discovering who killed her sister.

The Lying Game is definitely a guilty pleasure, and I already have the second volume in the series (Never Have I Ever) checked out from the library. Still, there are a couple of things about it that bugged me. The major issue for me is the choice to have Sutton stick around as an unseen-by-Emma ghostly presence. Conveniently, she has access to Emma’s thoughts, and so takes narrative duties, but in a really strange way. She’ll be narrating along omnisciently, referring to herself as “Sutton” or to things that belonged to her as “Sutton’s,” just like Emma might, and then all of a sudden she’ll switch into first person narration, using “me” and “mine.” It’s pretty distracting.

It’s also highly convenient that Sutton can’t remember many details of her past or see anything if Emma can’t see anything. She is, therefore, little use if Emma is in peril, though her timely recollections of snatches of memory do serve to heighten the dramatic tension when readers know something that Emma doesn’t. Mostly, however, I have the inkling that Sutton is there to react remorsefully when Emma discovers some of the horrible things she has done. Is Ghost!Sutton just a ploy to try to get us to care about her? In life, Sutton was a thoroughly nasty and entitled person, which makes this the second Shepard/Alloy series that focuses on the death of a girl so odious one wonders why she had any friends at all.

And that’s the second problem I had with The Lying Game: it’s too much like Pretty Little Liars. Granted, maybe that’s what fans of PLL want, but as I watched the action build towards a social event (a party, naturally) and watched Emma jump to conclusions I had the distinct feeling that I had been through all this before. There’s somewhat less focus on brand name fashions, at least.

Still, as mentioned, I will keep reading. And I’ll check out the show, too. Shepard is good at injecting twists into the story to hook a reader, and I like that Emma is beginning to have feelings for Ethan (a broody, poetry-reading boy) and seems poised to have an ally in her efforts going forward. Then they can jump to conclusions together, just like the girls in PLL!

Perfect by Sara Shepard

From the front flap:
In a town where gossip thrives like the ivy that clings to its mansions, where mysteries lie behind manicured hedges and skeletons hide in every walk-in closet, four perfect-looking girls aren’t nearly as perfect as they seem.

Spencer, Aria, Emily, Hanna, and the best friend Alison were once the girls at Rosewood Day School. They were the girls everyone loved but secretly hated—especially Alison. So when Alison mysteriously vanished, the girls’ grief was tinged with… relief. And when Alison’s body was later discovered in her own backyard, the girls were forced to unearth some ugly memories of their old friend, too. Could there have been more to Alison’s death than anyone realizes?

Now someone named A, someone who seems to know everything, is pointing the finger at one of them for Alison’s murder. As their secrets get darker and their scandals turn deadly, A is poised to ruin their perfect little lives forever.

Review:
Shit just gets so much worse in this installment of the Pretty Little Liars series that all I can do is shake my head. And still, I continue to read and eagerly await the answers promised in the fourth volume (originally intended to be the end of the series), so make of that what you will.

Anyway, some fairly awful things happen to the titular liars in this book, set three weeks after Flawless, the majority of them courtesy of A. Aria is ousted from her home because her mom can’t stand to look at her since Aria has known about her father’s infidelity for three years without ever mentioning it. Emily is outed at a school swim meet, and her parents threaten to send her to live with puritanical relations in Iowa unless she attends de-gaying therapy. Hanna still hasn’t heard from her father and now her best friend Mona is pissed at her too, culminating in a cringeworthy moment at Mona’s big birthday party followed by Hanna getting hit by a car.

You might think this couldn’t be topped for dramatic potential, but Spencer (who spends most of the book angsting about an essay contest) discovers a personal history of blackouts and gradually begins to recall what happened the night Ali disappeared. Meanwhile, A gives out lots of clues and hints about the murder, though their veracity is suspect.

I think I may be running out of things to say about this series, so perhaps it will suffice to say “the whirlwind of cray-cray continues.” It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Aria’s plight—not so much the getting kicked out of her house thing, but what follows—or Spencer’s, because both are very much “you’ve made your bed, now you’ve got to lie in it” types of situations. Emily seems to have fewer chapters devoted to her this time, which makes me wonder whether Shepard realized the endless on-again, off-again relationship with Maya was getting boring.

As in the TV show, Hanna continues to be my favorite. While it’s absolutely awful reading about her utter humiliation at Mona’s party, it does seem to cause her to question what her quest for perfection has really been about. Maybe she’ll learn to embrace her dorky side and will stick with Lucas, the sweet-but-uncool boy who thinks she’s wonderful just the way she is. But then again, with this series, hoping for a happy ending for anyone is probably futile.

Flawless by Sara Shepard

From the front flap:
In the exclusive town of Rosewood, Pennsylvania, where the sweetest smiles hide the darkest secrets, four pretty little liars—Spencer, Aria, Emily, and Hanna—have been very bad girls…

Spencer stole her sister’s boyfriend, Aria is brokenhearted over her English teacher, Emily likes her new friend Maya… as much more than a friend. And Hanna’s obsession with looking flawless is literally making her sick. But the most horrible secret of all is something so scandalous it could destroy their perfect little lives.

And someone named “A” is threatening to do just that. At first they thought A was Alison, their friend who vanished three years ago… but then Alison turned up dead. One thing’s for certain: A’s got the dirt to bury them all alive, and with every crumpled note, wicked IM, and vindictive text message A sends, the girls get a little closer to losing it all.

Review:
In this, the second book of the Pretty Little Liars series, bad things continue to happen to the pulchritudinous prevaricators, often of their own making but sometimes not. Spencer risks her family’s wrath (and her academic standing) by sneaking off to see Wren, her sister’s ex-boyfriend. Emily tries very hard to not be gay, and ends up taking as a date to the big charity dance a boy who may have killed Alison. Hanna is desperate to earn her father’s love, but A (and a bitchy soon-to-be step-sister) sees to it that he finds out about her various transgressions. And Aria tries to derail her father’s extramarital affair while growing closer to the guy who dumped Hanna, like, eight days ago.

While I could never claim that this series is a shining achievement in literature, it certainly is entertaining (in the most crackalicious way possible). Each book seems to cover about a week in the lives of these four girls and, seriously, if I had this much crazy crap going on in my life, I think I would end up catatonic. As before, chapters alternate between the four girls as they each deal with their own secrets and various threats from A. This time, they’ve decided that A must be Toby, a neighbor who took the blame when one of Alison’s pranks resulted in dire injury to his sister. By the end of the novel, they’ve convinced themselves that Toby also killed Alison for revenge, though the revelation of the existence of an airtight alibi throws that into question.

I can’t help but come at this series from the perspective of someone who’s been watching the TV show. The differences between the two versions of the story are widening, and it’s interesting to me to see how the producers of the show decided to take the story in new directions. On the show, for example, Aria is still (as of the last episode I saw, anyway) hooking up with her English teacher. Here, she seems to have moved on, and with Hanna’s ex, to boot. Spencer never had sex with Wren on the show, nor was it ever mentioned that she used to be a chronic sleepwalker. In the books, the girls have not resumed their friendship as enthusiastically. Most importantly, though, someone dies in this book who is still very much alive on the show!

This makes me happy, because I accidentally spoiled myself on the identity of A in the books. This robs me of some suspense while reading, unfortunately, but at the same time all these changes suggest that A could very well be someone completely different in the TV version, and that I can’t necessarily expect people who are benevolent in one format to be the same in another. That’s pretty neat.

For me, Pretty Little Liars is the epitome of a guilty pleasure.

Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

From the front flap:
Gossip thrives amid the Mercedes-Benzes, mega mansions, and perfectly manicured hedges in the exclusive town of Rosewood, Pennsylvania. Behind their big Gucci sunglasses, beneath their perfectly pressed Polos, everyone has something to hide, especially high school juniors Spencer, Aria, Emily, and Hanna. Spencer covets her sister’s gorgeous new boyfriend. Aria is having an affair with her English teacher. Emily is infatuated with the new girl at school. And Hanna is using some ugly tricks to stay beautiful. Deeper and darker still is a horrible secret the girls have shared since sixth grade—a secret they thought was safe forever.

Review:
Confession: I have become addicted to the ABC Family adaptation of Pretty Little Liars. Now that it has started its second season, I figured it was safe to read the first book in the series. As it turns out, said book only covers the first few episodes of the show, so I needn’t have delayed.

The series was originally developed by Alloy Entertainment—who is behind most of the YA novel series that have recently become TV shows—to be a kind of teen version of Desperate Housewives. (I’d say that description is pretty apt, except that I think Pretty Little Liars is the better show, largely because when your protagonists do really stupid things it’s more forgivable when they’re sixteen than when they’re thirty-something.) Even though Sara Shepard receives sole authorship credits, interviews suggest that it’s really a team effort.

The first novel sets up the series and the secrets that each of its four protagonists carries. Back in sixth and seventh grade, Aria, Hanna, Spencer, and Emily clustered around their dazzling queen bee, Alison, who alternately beguiled and belittled them (and many others). She goaded them into a dangerous act of vandalism that left a fellow student blinded—an incident henceforth referred to as “the Jenna thing”—and then disappeared the summer before eighth grade. Aria’s family moved to Iceland shortly thereafter and the remaining girls—grieving but a little relieved to be free of Alison’s influence—drifted apart.

Now, three years later, Aria is back and so, possibly, is Alison, since each of the four girls begins receiving mysterious messages (text, e-mail, and handwritten) from someone calling themselves only “A.” A seems to know everyone’s secrets, and there are many. Bohemian Aria is having a secret fling with her English teacher, and also knows that her dad was cheating on her mom three years ago; obedient Emily is secretly attracted to girls; overachieving Spencer is not-so-secretly attracted to her sister’s boyfriend; and Hanna—impatient, impulsive, newly popular Hanna—secretly feels desperately unloved, and has a couple scrapes with the law while trying to conquer her bulimia. Chapters alternate between the characters, and it’s only at the end, when they discover that they’ve all been A’s victims, that they seem poised to renew their friendship.

It’s hard for me to say how I would feel about the novel had I not seen the show. There are differences, of course—a different timeline of events, characters who do not resemble the actresses ultimately chosen to portray them, some siblings for Emily, more bad behavior than ABC Family evidently was comfortable with—but nothing major plot-wise. I think the TV series is more effective at humanizing the characters—especially Hanna, who unexpectedly became my favorite—and making them likeable, but reading the book helped me understand the characters better, especially Aria and Emily.

So, why should you check out Pretty Little Liars, in either of its forms? For the cracktastic soapy goodness with protagonists whom you can still like even if they do ridiculous things like steal their boyfriend’s car because he won’t put out and crash it into a tree. Sure, I’m a little embarrassed to be reading/watching it at my advanced age, but it entertains me, and sometimes that’s enough.