Random Reads 2/18/21

Are You in the House Alone? by Richard Peck
Are You in the House Alone? came out in 1976 and though I totally could’ve read it when I was a teen—and thus still a member of its target audience—I never did.

Gail Osburne is a sixteen-year-old high school junior and native New Yorker who’s not at home in the quaint Connecticut village her family relocated to several years back. I knew that the plot involved Gail receiving menacing anonymous notes and phone calls, and I was expecting these events to get started quickly and the suspense to remain high throughout. But that doesn’t happen.

Instead, the story is told retroactively, so we know Gail survives. Also, obvious culprit is obvious. (I hope the reveal wasn’t intended to be a surprise, but perhaps readers were less savvy about such things in 1976.) Initially, much more of the focus is on Gail’s relationships with her parents, boyfriend, and best friend, and in particular how the latter two are in the slow process of dissolution. Eventually she receives some threatening notes and creepy phone calls, gets scared, is let down by people in positions of authority, and comes face-to-face with said obvious culprit. That happens halfway through this slim novel. The rest of the book is about Gail’s recovery from her ordeal.

I thought Are You in the House Alone? was going to be fun, suspenseful fluff, but it turned out to be fairly serious and occasionally (intentionally) infuriating. I really appreciated how Peck was able to weave in a couple of threads that seemed very random at first and make them integral to the denouement, too. Ultimately, I didn’t love the book, but I kind of… respect it, if that makes sense. It didn’t go the cheap route.

automaticThe Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
Mack Megaton is a hulking robot who was created to destroy. He developed self-determination, however, and went against his programming. Now, he’s a probationary citizen of Empire City, where mutagens and pollution have created a very diverse population. While some “biologicals” are still “norms,” others have been physically transformed (like rat-like Detective Alfredo Sanchez) and others have been changed in not-so-visible ways (like Mack’s friend, Jung, a talking gorilla with refined literary taste). Mack works as a cab driver and is trying to keep a low profile, but when his neighbors are abducted, he can’t help but try to rescue them. This gets him into all sorts of trouble, of course.

Despite its name, The Automatic Detective isn’t really much of a mystery. I suppose it’s more… sci-fi noir. Mack meets various thugs, beats some of them up, gets beat up himself, etc. Slowly, he makes progress on uncovering a huge conspiracy. At times, I felt like Martinez was a little too enamored of the gimmick he created, and places in the middle dragged a bit as a result, but the ending is pretty satisfying and overall the book was enjoyable enough, even though it’s quite far from the sort of thing I usually read.

As a final note: I really liked that Martinez limited himself when it came time to invent universe-specific profanity. Instead of the text being liberally sprinkled with words like “frell” or “frak,” the phrase “Oh, flurb” appears but once (during a moment where the meaning is 100% apparent) and made me laugh out loud.

I don’t know if I’m necessarily eager to read more by Martinez, but I’m glad I read this one.

jeeves2The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
When I read My Man Jeeves back in 2010, I was somewhat disappointed because so much of it was repetitive. While there are some common elements that recur within the eleven stories that comprise The Inimitable Jeeves, it is still so very much superior that I’d now say… forget about that first book. Start here. Go back and read My Man Jeeves for completist purposes, if that’s your inclination, but start here for the best introduction to these characters and Wodehouse’s uniquely charming and amusing writing.

First published in 1923, The Inimitable Jeeves contains a linked set of stories that typically involve affable Bertie Wooster being imposed upon by either his eternally lovesick friend Bingo Little (who is “always waylaying one and decanting his anguished soul”) or his mischief-making younger cousins, Claude and Eustace. One plot thread involves convincing Bingo’s uncle (who provides him with an allowance) to agree to Bingo marrying a waitress. Jeeves comes up with the idea to ply the uncle with romance novels featuring class differences to soften his heart, and it ends up that Bertie is compelled to go visit the old fellow and claim to be the author. In addition to containing the most elegant description of sweat I’ve ever seen—“The good old persp was bedewing my forehead by this time in a pretty lavish manner.”—this situation is referenced a few times in subsequent stories until Bingo succeeds in getting married to a different waitress who really is the author of those romance novels.

So, even though you’ve got episodic happenings, it’s rather a satisfactory conclusion. Bertie is endearing, Jeeves is competent, the writing is excellent, and it made me laugh. (I especially liked when a character was described as resembling “a sheep with a secret sorrow.”) I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on the series after the first book; now I feel as though I finally see what the fuss is all about. I’d also like to give credit to the fabulous narration by Jonathan Cecil. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but I hear echoes of Fry and Laurie in his performance, and I heartily approve. I will certainly seek out more unabridged versions read by him.

The Murders of Richard III by Elizabeth Peters
This is the second in the Jacqueline Kirby series of mysteries. I haven’t read the first, and wouldn’t normally begin with the second, but the book promised an English country mansion plus “fanatic devotees of King Richard III” so my usual routine flew right out the window.

Even before university lecturer Thomas Carter likened himself unto Watson, I’d noticed the similarities between how this tale is told and the Sherlock Holmes stories. We are never permitted inside Jacqueline’s head. Instead, we see her how Thomas, hopeful of one day securing her romantic affections, views her. It’s fairly interesting, actually, because Thomas’ opinion of her fluctuates, sometimes peevishly. “You drive me crazy with your arrogance and your sarcasm and your know-it-all airs,” he says at one point. And though he soon after claims “I’m no male chauvinist; I don’t mind you showing off,” the fact is that earlier he was grumbling inwardly about her feigning “girlish ignorance” to reel in mansplainers and then walloping the “unwitting victim” with a cartload of knowledge. It’s true that Jacqueline isn’t especially likeable sometimes, but for remorselessly trouncing the sexist louts she encounters throughout the book, I must commend her!

The mystery itself is somewhat bland, unfortunately. The leader of a Ricardian society has received a letter purportedly written by Elizabeth of York, which would exonerate Richard of the deaths of her brothers, the “princes in the tower.” He calls a meeting of the society, with each attendee costumed as one of the historical personages involved, and summons the press, planning to unveil his find with much fanfare. But someone begins playing practical jokes on the Ricardians reminiscent of the fates of the people they are pretending to be. The book isn’t a long one, and soon the pranks start coming right on the heels of one another. Because of the swift pace—and some shallow characterization—the solution is rather anti-climactic.

Still, while I’m not sure I’ll seek out any more Jacqueline Kirby mysteries, this was overall a decent read.

A Perfect Match by Jill McGown
The series of books featuring Detective Inspector Lloyd (whose first name is a secret for now) and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill begins with a short yet enjoyable mystery in which a wealthy young widow is found dead in a small English town on property she’d just inherited from her recently deceased husband. Unlike some mysteries of which I am fond, there’s no preamble where readers get to know the victim or the circumstances of their life. Instead, immediately there’s a policeman discovering the body and then Lloyd turns up to question the victim’s next of kin. This same lack of character development hampers the romantic tension between Lloyd and Hill, leaving me with no idea what motivated Hill to finally decide to act on her feelings for him, betraying her marriage vows in the process.

The mystery itself is interesting enough, however, involving long-married Helen and Donald Mitchell who have ties to both the victim, Julia—her late husband was Donald’s older brother and Helen thinks they were having an affair—and chief suspect, Chris, originally a friend of Donald’s who has fallen in love with Helen. I can’t claim to have mustered anything more than a mild curiosity as to what the outcome would be, but neither did I guess the specifics, so that was good. I liked the interrogation scenes, too.

McGown’s writing had some fun moments. I loved the super-evocative imagery of Lloyd telling Hill that her new perm makes her look like Kevin Keegan. I also really appreciated a recurring bit where each chapter ends with the point of view of wildlife. When Chris is eventually brought in by the police, his arrest is depicted from a bird’s perspective, for example. There are also ducks, a moth, a fly, a cat… I don’t know if this device recurs in later books in the series, but I look forward to finding out.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
This is the second mystery/thriller I’ve read in which a single mom who is a lawyer with a cold and unfeeling mother of her own attempts to work out the mystery of what happened to a family member (the other being Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw). Is that some kind of trend these days?

Kate Baron has a demanding job at a swanky firm, but she’s trying her best to be a good mom to her fifteen-year-old bookworm daughter, Amelia. She’s shocked to get a call from Grace Hall, the prestigious private school Amelia attends, saying that her daughter has been accused of cheating, and by the time she makes her way to the school, Amelia has evidently jumped to her death from the school roof. The police are only too happy to classify her death as a suicide, but when Kate gets a text that says “Amelia didn’t jump,” she starts trying to put together the pieces of what happened.

Reconstructing Amelia has quite a few problems. Despite her better judgment (and a promise to her best friend), Amelia joins a clique of bitchy girls at school who end up publicly humiliating her and trying to get her expelled when she falls in love with someone deemed off-limits. It’s hard to muster sympathy for what she ends up going through when one remembers the cruel prank she was willing to pull on someone else as part of the initiation process (largely kept off-camera to keep us from disliking her too much, I guess). We’re repeatedly told about the great relationship Amelia and her mom share, but never shown it. The subplot about Amelia’s dad is the literary equivalent of wilted lettuce. And the fact that the new detective who gets assigned to the case allows Kate to question suspects is absolutely ludicrous.

And yet, I couldn’t hate the book, largely because of Amelia’s friend, Sylvia. For much of the book she comes across as shallow and self-absorbed, but when Amelia really needs her, she’s there. She gives Amelia this tour of “great moments at Grace Hall” to cheer up her impressive pal, right before breaking down about her own legitimate pain. I never would’ve thought at the outset that I would have such immense sympathy for Sylvia, but I do. I find myself hoping that she’ll be okay.

shutterislandShutter Island by Dennis Lehane
It sure is nice going into a book unspoiled, particularly one as twisty as Shutter Island. I was quite happy with the book as it began, with U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule taking the ferry to Shutter Island to track down a patient missing from Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s late summer 1954, and these guys are manly but accessible, and surprisingly funny. Consider this relatiely early exchange that cracked me up:

Pretentious Doctor: *makes remarks on the lives of violence the marshals must lead*
Chuck: Wasn’t raised to run, Doc.
Pretentious Doctor: Ah, yes. Raised. And who did raise you?
Teddy: Bears.

For a while, all seems straightforward. Then Teddy confides to Chuck that he’s actually come there looking for a patient named Andrew Laediss, who was responsible for setting the fire that killed Teddy’s wife two years before. Gradually, one starts to doubt everything (and there was a point where all of the uncertainty got to be a little much for me) but the ultimate conclusion is a very satisfactory one.

Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Set in Iceland, Why Did You Lie? starts out with three different storylines taking place a few days apart. The first involves a photographer on a helicopter journey to take pictures of a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the second is about a policewoman whose journalist husband has recently attempted suicide, and the third is about a family who returns from a house swap with an American couple to find some of their stuff missing and weird footage on the security camera. Of course, as the book progresses, these storylines converge, and it’s pretty neat when the police activity the helicopter flew over in chapter one turns out to be almost the culmination of the policewoman’s plot thread.

For some reason, I can’t help wondering how Ruth Rendell might’ve written this book. I think Rendell would’ve done a lot more with characterization, for one thing. There’s certainly some here, especially for the anxious husband who struggles to make his wife admit something really has gone wrong with their houseguests, but the primary concern seems to be getting on with the suspenseful action. Quickly, each plot features some kind of creepy lurker and then ominous notes (variations on the “why did you lie?” theme) figure in to all three, as well. Nina, the policewoman, digs around and talks to people and works out that everything connects to a supposed suicide from thirty years ago.

The result is certainly an entertaining book, but not one I could really love. One major issue I had is being able to predict something very significant. The number of characters who could’ve been angry enough about the 30-year-old lies in question to terrorize people in the present is very small. And once the existence of a certain person is oh-so-casually mentioned two-thirds through the book, I thought, “Oh, well, it’s them, then.” And then a little later, I figured out which of the characters it must be and I was right. This made for an anticlimactic ending that was clearly meant to be a shocking one. Also, I would’ve liked to have cared more that one character ends the novel poised to move on with life but, in reality, still in jeopardy.

I still would read more by this author, though.

Random Reads 3/29/17

All hail the debut of a new recurring column of sorts, collecting reasonably short reviews of disparate books.

banquetA Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
While A Banquet of Consequences is not the best Lynley and Havers mystery I have read, it’s still great heaping loads better than the last one (Just One Evil Act). In fact, in my review of the latter, I wrote “I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer.” And that’s pretty much what we did get this time around.

When Claire Abbott, respected feminist author, is found dead in a hotel room while on a book tour, her death is first ruled a heart attack. After her persistent friend and editor insists on a second opinion, a more thorough toxicology screening reveals the presence of poison. Having met the author and her truly odious personal assistant (and chief suspect), Caroline Goldacre, Havers begs Lynley to pull strings for her so that she can investigate, which doesn’t go over very well with Superintendent Ardery. Happily, Havers does do a competent job, though this doesn’t go very far in improving Ardery’s opinion of her.

Mystery-wise, there were elements that I guessed, but I did still enjoy the element of ambiguity that remained at the end. Too, I liked that in the next volume, the Italian detective from Just One Evil Act (probably the best thing about that dreadful book) is going to be visiting England. He was quite sweet on Havers, as I recall! My one real complaint is that Lynley had hardly anything to do, except intercede on Havers’ behalf, contemplate his relationship with Dairdre, and look after an admittedly adorable dog.

Still, it’s good to have my faith in this series somewhat restored!

endofeverythingThe End of Everything by Megan Abbott
Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver are thirteen years old and have been BFFs and next-door neighbors for as long as they can remember. Lately, though, Lizzie has begun to realize that Evie is no longer the open book she once was. (“I know her so well that I know when I no longer know everything.”) When Evie goes missing, Lizzie does all that she can to help bring her home, while being forced to acknowledge that maybe there had always been a darkness hidden within her dearest friend that she had never noticed.

In addition to the mystery of what’s happened to Evie, this book deals a lot with Lizzie’s burgeoning sexual feelings. Though she has some contact with boys near her age, she’s really smitten with Evie’s gregarious father. She longs to be close to him, to provide clues that give him hope, to take his mind off what’s happening. She exults in her ability to affect him. In the process, she somewhat usurps the place that his eldest daughter, Dusty, has filled. What I actually liked best about the book is that Abbott leaves it up to the reader to decide—is Mr. Verver’s relationship with these girls crossing a line? Perhaps his intentions are utterly pure (and, indeed, it seems like he might be crushed to hear someone thought otherwise), but there are some things he does and says that just seem so inappropriate.

Ultimately, I liked this book quite a lot (though I feel I should warn others that some parts are disturbing). Abbott offers several intriguing parallels between relationships to consider, and I think it’s a story I will ruminate over for a long time to come.

ex_burkeThe Ex by Alafair Burke
Twenty years ago, Olivia Randall sabotaged her relationship with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Now he’s the chief suspect in a triple homicide and Olivia, a defense attorney, is hired by his teenage daughter to represent him. Initially, Olivia has absolute faith in Jack’s innocence (and feels like she owes him because of how she treated him) but mounting evidence eventually makes her doubt whether she ever really knew him at all.

In synopsis form, The Ex sounds pretty interesting, but the reality is something different. Olivia herself is not particularly likeable. Setting aside how she treated Jack in the past, in the present she drinks too much and is having a casual relationship with a married man. I think we’re supposed to come away believing that this whole experience enables her to grow past some parental issues inhibiting her ability to find real love, but it’s glossed over in just about the most cursory way imaginable. And because the narration is in the first person, other characters who might have been interesting—namely a couple of other employees of the defense firm helping with the case—are exceedingly undeveloped.

The mystery plot itself is average. The final twist wasn’t something I predicted from the outset, but once a certain piece of evidence was revealed, it turned out to be very similar to another mystery I’d just read so it was a bit of a slow slog to the inevitable conclusion. The writing is also repetitive, with the significance of various clues being reiterated over and over. One genuinely unique aspect of the book is that because Olivia is a defense attorney and not law enforcement, she wasn’t overly concerned with actually solving the case, so much as finding plausible alternate suspects to establish reasonable doubt. Perhaps that is why some things the culprit did were left unexplained and some evidence unaccounted for, though it could have just been sloppy writing.

I don’t think I shall be reading anything else by this author.

girldarkGirl in the Dark by Marion Pauw
Set in The Netherlands, Girl in the Dark is told in alternating first-person chapters between Ray, a man with autism who has spent eight years in jail for the murders of his neighbor and her daughter, and Iris, a lawyer and single mother who discovers by chance that Ray is the elder brother she never knew she had. She is convinced of his innocence, despite evidence that he is capable of destructive rage, and begins investigating the case and pursuing an appeal, while trying to get her icy mother to talk about her past.

Although the book is advertised as a thriller, most of the time I was more infuriated than thrilled. Leaving aside the question of Ray’s guilt or innocence, the way he was/is treated by others—including Rosita, the opportunistic neighbor who used and then rejected him, as well as one of the employees of the institution he’s been transferred to, who seemingly frames Ray for smuggling drugs into the facility (there’s no resolution to this minor plot point)—generates a great deal of empathy. In particular, there is an especially cruel scene near the end of the book that made me literally exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” Although he occasionally exhibits frustrated fury, Ray is also shown to be sweet and thoughtful, at one time a skilled baker (thriving in an environment that prioritized both routine and precision) and obsessed with the welfare of his tropical fish (currently in his mother’s care).

I didn’t come away with as vivid a sense of Iris as I did Ray. The scenes involving her job and clients were, in a way, mental palate cleansers from the stress of Ray’s situation, largely bland and unmemorable. When she finally gets her hands on Ray’s case files, her end of the story improves, but there are aspects of the final resolution that are kind of ridiculous. That said, I thought the ultimate ending was satisfying and I doubt I’ll forget the book any time soon.

kiss_and_tellMr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Mr. Kiss and Tell came out in January 2015. I had pre-ordered it the previous May, but when it arrived I just couldn’t get into it, despite a few attempts. A couple of months later, iZombie debuted. It had all the hallmarks of a Rob Thomas show and, lo, I love it. So much so, in fact, that I started to feel like I’d be okay without further adventures in Veronica’s world. Mr. Kiss and Tell spent the next two years occupying various spots in my living room. Then, finally, I read it. And I remembered how deeply I love these characters and now I am totally sad that there aren’t any more books beyond this one. Yet.

I was somewhat disappointed that the first Veronica book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, did not follow up on the movie storyline about police corruption in Neptune. Happily, that plotline gets some attention in this book. Weevil is acquitted of the charges against him, but his reputation and business has taken a hit, so he agrees to a civil suit against the county. Keith works to find others who’ll testify about evidence-planting, and meanwhile a candidate enters the race against Lamb, who’d been running for reelection unopposed. There’s some closure on this by the end of the book, but still plenty of room for more going forward.

Veronica, meanwhile, is hired by the Neptune Grand to investigate a rape that took place in their hotel. The case has quite a few twists and turns, although it surprised me some by not twisting as much as I expected. (So is that, therefore, a twist?) By far, however, the best parts of the book are the conversations between the characters. Veronica and Logan, Veronica and Keith, Veronica and Weevil… I could vividly imagine each being performed by the cast, which is almost as good as not having to imagine. I especially liked that things still aren’t 100% perfect in Veronica’s world, and Logan is only home for a few months before the accidental death of one of his friends means that his shipmates are a man down. Veronica struggles to understand why he feels so strongly that he must return early, leading to my favorite scene, in which Logan reveals what his life was like in the years she was gone, and how he ended up in Officer Candidate School. It’s a bit implausible that they hadn’t had this conversation before, but it’s riveting nonetheless.

In fact, my only quibble is a bit of timeline fluffery near the beginning. On the whole, this was immensely satisfying and I will continue to hope for more books in the future. After all, never giving up hope has worked out for Veronica Mars fans in the past!

stylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
This was a reread for me, but one I hadn’t yet reviewed, since I read it shortly before creating this blog. (I did review Christie’s second and third books before getting sidetracked. This time I shall persevere and read them all!)

A soldier named Hastings, invalided home from the front, runs into John Cavendish, an acquaintance who invites him to recuperate at Styles Court, where Hastings had often visited as a boy. It is Hastings who narrates the story of what happens there. In brief, instead of John inheriting Styles Court upon the death of his father, the property was bequeathed to his stepmother, Emily, upon whom he is presently dependent for funds. When Emily is poisoned, suspicion initially turns to her strange (and substantially younger) new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, and then ultimately onto John himself. The cast of suspects is rounded out by siblings, spouses, friends, and servants. Hastings suggests bringing his old friend Hercule Poirot in to investigate.

I did remember “whodunit,” along with the explanation for one perplexing aspect of the case, but otherwise, most of this felt new to me. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Oh, I still find Hastings annoying, but Christie’s depiction of Poirot’s appearance and mannerisms struck me as especially vivid this time around, and I was left with a more distinct impression of him than I’d held previously. (I had somehow acquired a mental picture of Poirot that had him looking like Alfred Hitchcock!) Although some of the clues are a bit convoluted and/or improbable, the overall solution is satisfying and makes sense. What’s more, my enthusiasm for tackling the rest of Christie’s oeuvre has been rekindled!

outpostThe Outpost by Mike Resnick
In an effort to broaden my horizons and read more science fiction, I went looking for books that might appeal to fans of Firefly. In the course of that search, I came across The Outpost. The notion of a bunch of space-faring outlaw types gathering at a bar on the edge of the galaxy, swapping stories, then banding together to fight off some aliens sounded appealing. Don’t be fooled like I was.

While it is indeed true that a bunch of space-facing outlaw types do gather to swap their stories, these recitations are actually highly embellished tall tales, and they seem to go on for an interminable amount of time. Finally, during a brief middle section of the book, the bar’s patrons go off and fight some aliens, and getting a glimpse of reality, including several pointless and unheroic deaths, was the best part of the novel. All too soon, they’re back at the Outpost, telling their war adventures with varying degrees of embellishment. It’s at this point that several very boring arguments on the ethics of “improving” history ensue.

It’s true that sometimes, I did smile or laugh at something, but on the whole this book just riled me up. None of the characters has any depth whatsoever, and several are positively odious. Many of the stories told by the guys involve busty and lusty women, and it’s fine if the characters themselves are sexist (to be fair, one of the female characters does call them out on this eventually), but most of the female characters created by Resnick are also vampy vixens whose stories are sex-oriented and whose bodily proportions are repeatedly emphasized.

I listened to the unabridged audio version read by Bob Dunsworth, and I cannot recommend it. He frequently misreads and mispronounces words, so that at one point someone is wearing “flowering” robes instead of “flowing” ones, “defenestrating” loses a syllable, “etiquette” gets a “kw” sound, et cetera. Making it through the book was a tremendous slog, and more than once I cursed my completist nature.

theseviciousmasksThese Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
I can’t for the life of me remember how I heard about this book. I immediately put in a materials request with my library, but when it arrived I didn’t remember it at all. It does have hallmarks of something that would appeal to me, though: a setting of England in 1882, superpowers, romance, one of the authors mentioning Buffy in the dedication… It boded well.

I found it a bit disappointing at first, however, despite an independent and snarky heroine (Evelyn Wyndham, and is that a Buffy/Angel reference?) and dialogue that made me snicker right from the start. It just seemed so like “Pride and Prejudice with superpowers” that I began to wonder who was meant to be who. (“That charming fellow Mr. Kent, set up as a romantic rival to surly and brooding Sebastian Braddock, must be the Wickham surrogate!”) Too, the constant bickering between Evelyn and Sebastian, as they work together to rescue her sister the healer from a scientist who wants to experiment on her, did grate after a while.

However, in the end the book surprised me. Not just by deviating from the Pride and Prejudice mold or by imbuing people with unsuspected powers, but by taking the plot in a direction that absolutely made sense and which I absolutely did not see coming. A sequel (These Ruthless Deeds) has just been released and verily, I shall read it.

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.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone-girl-book-cover-medDescription:
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

Review:
I am one of those people who hears about a new movie generating some buzz and, instead of going to see it, thinks, “I should read the book that is based on.” And so it was that I came to read Gone Girl without actually knowing much about it. To sum up: Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years. They were happy at first, but things have not been going well recently. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears and suspicion quickly settles on Nick.

For the first half of the book, narration alternates between Nick in the present and Amy in the past (courtesy of her diary). While Nick deals with the police investigation, a steady stream of unsavory discoveries about him ensues. He has also seemingly inherited his father’s misogynist rage, even if he is better at not speaking those thoughts out loud. Amy, meanwhile, recounts how they met and the early, halcyon days of their relationship before recent entries depict her as afraid that her husband might do her harm. This segment of the novel is perhaps the strongest, as it forces readers to question whether they ought to have sympathy for Nick or not. Dislikable though he may be, some apparently damning incidents are really just due to (occasionally excruciating) ineptitude.

And then there is a big twist, which I shan’t spoil. Alas, rather than making things more interesting, it ushers in a period of boring interludes and exposes even more character flaws, of the “crass and profane” or “snivelly and petulant” varieties. Granted, no one enjoys reading about perfect people, but I usually prefer there to be at least one character to legitimately care about. Still, I carried on, but was beginning to look forward to the book simply being over already. And yet it seemingly refused to end. Something would happen and you’d think, “Okay, that’s the revelation that wraps everything up.” But then it wouldn’t be! It would just keep going.

True, the final twist was something that, although the clues were there, I failed to see coming. So kudos for that. And yet, I find I can’t really recommend the book. I suspect that the movie is much better, because the story is condensed into 149 minutes, and presumably omits Nick’s often odious inner thoughts, but I doubt I’ll ever feel the urge to watch it. I must, however, award some points for the reference to the classic Pace Picante Sauce commercial, as my involuntary reaction to anyone mentioning New York City is to think “New York City?!?!”

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 there 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 instance, 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?

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 has 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!

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.

Review:
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.

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!