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 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!

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.

Winter by John Marsden

From the back cover:
For twelve years, Winter has been haunted. Her memories will not leave her alone. There are secrets she does not remember—but needs to know.

The time has come for her to go back home.

Every journey starts with a single step. But sometimes if you want to step into the future, you must first step into the past…

After reading Checkers, So Much to Tell You, and Take My Word for It, I realized that John Marsden has a certain… preferred pattern. In each case, something profoundly traumatic has happened to the (Australian) teenaged heroine and the slim book consists of her first-person narrative as she attempts to work past whatever it was, while gradually divulging enough tidbits to enable readers to figure out what happened. In many ways, Winter is very similar, though in this case, the titular heroine begins the book as in the dark as anyone else.

It’s been twelve years since sixteen-year-old Winter De Salis has set foot on the family estate of Warriewood. Both of her parents died when she was four, but she wasn’t told much about them by the relatives with whom she spent the intervening years. Now old enough to leave school and return home, that’s exactly what determined Winter does, and makes short work of dispatching the dishonest caretakers of her property while questioning anyone who might provide some useful information concerning her parents’ deaths. After making friends with a girl around her age, enjoying a bit of romance, and uncovering the family secret, she is eventually able to face her future without obsessing over the past.

Despite the structural similarities to other Marsden books, Winter doesn’t much feel like them. Its setting is more rural, for one thing, so there are sections like the one describing the cathartic process (for Winter) of removing unwanted blackberries from the property, or the depiction of her first attempt to take care of the cattle by herself. Winter is a unique protagonist, and I love how Marsden shows her capacity for being difficult—when you’re underage and you want something strongly, sometimes the only weapon in your arsenal is being stubborn—while simultaneously showing that she really is a good kid. She’s grateful for kindness and not so wounded that she can’t make new friends, and posits at one point that perhaps the early death of her famously strong mother is what has enabled her to become so strong herself. It’s a pretty devastating truth that she learns, but it’s believable that she is able to move on from it and not dwell too long on questions that will never have answers.

My only minor quibble is that the romance feels somewhat superfluous; granted, it plays an important role in demonstrating Winter’s progression from someone fixated on the past to someone anticipating the future, but I would’ve liked the boy (Matt Kennedy) to be a more well-rounded character. I’d almost wish for a sequel—perhaps a story set twenty years later with Winter and Matt as parents to a new protagonist—but I suppose that would require something traumatic to happen to their offspring, and we wouldn’t want that!

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

From the back cover:
In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota—and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or by chance, he discovers an exquisite ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life…

In this powerful novel, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in a vivid and raw, uncertain future.

Ship Breaker won the Printz Award this year, and I must say I think it deserved it! It took a little while to grow on me, but I liked it a lot by the end.

At some unspecified point in the future, a community of people has sprung up on Bright Sands Beach (on the Gulf Coast) where the best work to be found is on crews breaking down giant, rusting wrecks of oil tankers. Everyone toils away to meet their quota, all the while dreaming of the lucky strike—oil or other scarce commodities—that could make them rich. Nailer Lopez is fifteen years old and works on the light crew, where his job is scuttling through pipes to scavenge copper, aluminum, and nickel.

After a near-death experience during which his wits and luck save him from drowning in a pocket of oil, Nailer is christened Lucky Boy by his friends. This moniker seems apt when he and his friend Pima discover a valuable wreck left behind in the wake of a hurricane. They set to work stripping it but are stunned to discover a survivor—a very wealthy girl named Nita Chaudhury, who promises her father will reward them for saving her life. When Nailer’s drunken and dangerous father Richard discovers the wreck, however, he opts to trade Nita to her father’s enemies, which forces Nailer to make a whole bunch of difficult decisions.

When he and Pima find the wreck, she urges Nailer to be smart about it. In her eyes, “smart” seems to involve profiting enough to obtain a position of power on Bright Sands Beach. Nailer is aiming higher, however, and makes Nita promise to take him and Pima away and into a better life. The choices he makes from that point on are partly in pursuit of this goal, but also out of a growing sense of loyalty towards Nita, who proves herself capable and quickly loses her prejudices towards those less cultured than she. There are many times where he could have walked away and abandoned Nita to her fate but doesn’t, and ultimately, his concern for her works out in his own favor.

The story ranges over a few different settings, from the beach to the drowned docks of “Orleans” to a clipper ship crewed by people loyal to Nita’s father. As a big fan of the Hornblower series, I liked the ship the best. I hadn’t realized how much I missed depictions of naval battles until the awesome sequence wherein Nailer’s familiarity with the coastline results in a surprise advantage over a superior foe. In fact, the whole final sequence of the book was quite exciting, and makes me think this would make a good movie.

I also found it interesting that the main villain of the work is Nailer’s father, Richard, because Nailer harbors such conflicted feelings about him. He remembers the man his father used to be before his mother died, and though Richard’s now more likely to be high and abusive than relaxed and kind, Nailer feels obliged to care about him and give him chances to be a better person. After many disappointments, he finally realizes that Pima and her nurturing mother, Sadna, are his true family and is able to muster the strength to stop believing that his father is capable of turning over a new leaf at this point. Essentially, he’s a victim of domestic abuse who finally achieves the strength to say, “I’m not going to let you hurt me anymore.”

Lastly, Ship Breaker is commendable for its effortless portrayal of characters of many ethnicities. None of the lead characters is Caucasian. Their skin color is mentioned as part of their physical description, but doesn’t factor in to their relationships at all. Characters are judged purely based on their individual actions. If anything, the only real prejudice left in the world seems to be between the rich (or “swanks”) and the poor, but Nailer’s actions convince Nita, at least, of the errors of her ways, especially since he proves fully capable of functioning in her world if given half a chance.

Although initially a little frustrating—despite my love for dystopic YA, I still get a little frustrated with crappy situations that just seem to be getting crappier—Ship Breaker turns out to be a well-crafted and riveting tale.

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

From the back cover:
Don’t get me started on the Bruiser. He was voted “Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty” by the entire school. He’s the kid no one knows, no one talks to, and everyone hears disturbing rumors about. So why is my sister, Brontë, dating him? One of these days she’s going to take in the wrong stray dog, and it’s not going to end well.

My brother has no right to talk about Brewster that way—no right to threaten him. There’s a reason why Brewster can’t have friends—why he can’t care about too many people. Because when he cares about you, things start to happen. Impossible things that can’t be explained. I know, because they’re happening to me.

Let me just state upfront that any parents pretentious enough to name their children Tennyson and Brontë need a damn good whacking.

Moving on, Bruiser (from the author of Unwind) is the story of a social outcast named Brewster Rawlins who is perceived as a creepy delinquent by his classmates but is actually harboring a secret that compels him to keep his distance: if he cares about someone, he will absorb their pain, both mental and physical. Alternating between the perspectives of four characters (broody poetry fan Brewster, twins Tennyson and Brontë Sternberger, and Brewster’s daredevil little brother), the novel depicts how Brewster’s gift/curse affects his relationships with others and how, ultimately, being healed of all one’s ills is not necessarily a good thing.

Initially, Tennyson is opposed to his sister dating Brewster and sets out to warn the guy off, but once he catches a glimpse of Brewster’s terribly scarred back, he begins to suspect something awful is going on at the boy’s home. Concern and conscience win out, and he and Brewster begin to become friends, which is when Tennyson first notices that the scabs on his knuckles (a lacrosse injury) have miraculously disappeared in Brew’s presence. It takes a while for the specifics of his ability to come to light, and an interminable time for Tennyson and Brontë to realize that Brew’s ability to take away pain also extends to their feelings.

At first, I thought they did realize that Brew could quell mental anguish, and that that was part of the reason they convinced/manipulated their on-the-verge-of-divorce parents into taking temporary custody of Brew and his brother, Cody, after their guardian, Uncle Hoyt, passes away. Selfish to use Brew in this way, yes, but believably so for desperate teens. Eventually, though, it seems they really did not know, which is why Brontë kept pushing and pushing for Brew to make new friends, never considering that, for him, more people to care about means more potential injury. Uncle Hoyt was an abusive drunken bastard, true, but his ability to hang on to his own anger (instead of passing it off to Brew) and his insistence that Brew keep his distance from the world are seen in a new light by the novel’s end. (And speaking of the end, reports of its cheesiness are not exaggerated. The last few lines made me go “Pfft.”)

Even with the mystery of Brewster’s powers, Bruiser lacks the high-impact concept of Unwind. Instead of an epic dystopia where the whole country is going in a bizarre direction, Tennyson and Brontë’s world is defined by their home life, where they can tell that something very wrong is happening between their parents. Brew’s presence in their home acts as a balm for a while, but eventually they want to own their own pain because it seems so wrong to feel content while their family crumbles. The novel may not be as dramatic as Unwind, but is possessed of its own subtle themes and messages. I’ll definitely be reading more Shusterman in the 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?

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.

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.

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.