review: perfect

Note: If you watch Pretty Little Liars, the television series on ABC Family, I should say that I have only watched about 2/3 of the first season and that based upon what I have seen, the series diverges from the books.  So I have no idea if I will be spoiling the TV show with my review.  Fair warning!

Perfect by Sara Shepard (2007)

Do you know what I love? When an author is unafraid to make the worst possible thing happen to her characters and send them into full-crisis mode.  That is exactly what Sara Shepard has done in Perfect, book three of her Pretty Little Liars series.  A lot of the secrets that the main characters have been keeping explode in Perfect.  If you haven’t read the first two books in the series–Pretty Little Liars and Flawless–then you should look away now.  Here be spoilers.

I think some background and context would be helpful. This series follows the stories of four main characters–Hanna, Spencer, Aria, and Emily.  They are juniors at Rosewood Day prep school in Rosewood, Pennsylvania. The four girls were best friends when they were in seventh grade, pulled together by Alison (Ali) DiLaurentis, the queen bee.  Ali disappeared the summer before their eighth grade year, and in the first novel, her body is discovered.  Part of the mystery that drives the series (at least so far) is finding out who killed Ali.  But the other thing that drives the series is that Ali knew all of the girls’ secrets and tormented them before her disappearance–Hanna struggles with bulimia, Spencer has a habit of stealing her sister’s boyfriends and is obsessed with being the perfect student, Aria has kept the secret of her father’s infidelity from her mother and lusts after her English teacher, and Emily is a lesbian but is terrified of what will happen if she acts on her feelings.  At the start of the series, the girls have drifted apart and are no longer friends, but they are all tormented by texts and e-mails from “A” who knows all of their secrets and manipulates them into doing what he or she wants in exchange for keeping their secrets.  The girls have no idea who “A” is, and that’s also part of the mystery.  Caught up?

Perfect has a wonderful epigraph: “Look and you will find it–what is unsought will go undetected” — Sophocles.  It sets the stage for the whole novel, which revolves around the puzzle of a video that Aria took of the five girls one night before Ali’s disappearance.  “A” taunts all of the girls, telling them that Ali’s killer is right there in front of them, all they have to do is look, and by the end of the novel, the girls think they know the identity of Ali’s killer and “A”.  But for a while, this is just a subplot because, well, these girls do have lives to live.  Hanna’s friendship with her best friend, Mona, is on shaky ground.  It’s Mona’s birthday, and a series of events leads to the fateful night of the party, where Hanna is brought to an emotional crisis and comforted by a new male character (Lucas) that I hope will be sticking around for a while.  Meanwhile, Spencer’s parents have decided that perhaps it would be good for her to see a therapist.  During one of the sessions, the doctor hypnotizes Spencer, and she realizes that she has blocked out parts of the night that Ali disappeared.  These memories begin to come back to her as the novel unfolds until she, too, reaches a moment of climax where she fears that she may have played some part in Ali’s disappearance.  And, remember that essay of Melissa’s Spencer stole and turned in as her own in Flawless?  Well, her economics teacher nominated the essay for a national award, bringing Spencer all kinds of unwanted attention and fresh anxiety about her plagiarism being exposed.  Like Hanna, Spencer wants to appear flawless and perfect, but she’s anything but.  While that’s happening, Emily keeps going back and forth about her relationship with Maya.  Then, just when it seems like she has accepted her attraction to Maya and wants to be with her, “A” outs Emily’s relationship to everyone at a swim meet, including Emily’s parents, who threaten to send Emily to live in Iowa if she doesn’t go through a program that is intended to “rehab” her back into heterosexuality.  Finally, things have gotten bad for Aria in this novel.  Her mother throws her out of the house and so she goes to live with her new boyfriend Sean’s family, but then Ezra decides he wants to try again, only that doesn’t really end well either. There’s a moment where Aria has nowhere to go, not even home.  Throughout and in more ways than one, Shepard plays with the plot of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which Aria’s AP English class is reading, and it’s kind of brilliant.

I try to keep these reviews to 1000 words and I’m almost out of space, but if you’re at all interested in what you’ve read here, pick up the first book in this series and give it a read.  I feel like I’m consuming these books and I’m totally okay with that.  The next book, Unbelievable, is already on my bookshelf. What I love about this series is that the characters are well-developed and there are so many social issues in play–sexuality, family dynamics, the pressures on young adults to succeed academically and in sports, the secrets we keep and why we keep them, the meaning of friendship, eating disorders, the social dynamics of high school, and even the behavior of “A” can be read as bullying.   Plus they are just fun to read and because the point-of-view of each chapter switches so that we get the story from a different girl’s point-of-view, I’m totally pulled into the lives of all four characters and can’t wait to see what will happen next.

review: fallen

Fallen by Lauren Kate (2009)

I don’t exactly know what has made me gravitate toward young adult novels this summer, but for whatever reason, I keep finding myself in that section of the bookstore.  That’s my only excuse for picking up Fallen by Lauren Kate.  The synopsis on the back cover sounded interesting and unlike every other paranormal YA series, so I decided to give it a try.

Yes, this is another first book in a series.  Our protagonist is Lucinda “Luce” Price, a seventeen-year-old girl who has been ordered to attend Sword & Cross Reform School by the court after being involved in the death of a young boy at Dover Prep, Trevor.  Luce isn’t really clear on what exactly happened the night that Trevor died, but the police and the court think that she is somehow responsible, and for the public good decree she should be sent to a reform school.  What Luce is clear on is that she has seen “shadows” since she was five years old and she suspects that these shadows had something to do with Trevor’s death (note: in my opinion, these shadows aren’t really satisfactorily explained by the end of the novel).  Luce’s parents are shown as loving and fearing her at the same time and go along with the court’s orders.  When Luce arrives at Sword & Cross a month after the school year has begun, she learns that cell phones are not allowed and that the school has installed a significant amount of surveillance cameras (called “reds”) to watch each student’s every move.  The students dress in all black and Luce has the typical struggle of trying to fit in while keeping the real reason that she’s at Sword & Cross a secret.

Early in the story, we are introduced to the primary cast of characters.  First there is Arriane, a girl who is rough around the edges, nosy, but interested in being Luce’s friend. Then there is Penn, who becomes Luce’s closest friend at the school.  Penn’s father used to be the groundskeeper at Sword & Cross but he died two years earlier, and Penn has remained at the school since then.  In this way, she, too, doesn’t seem to fit in at the school, and perhaps that’s why the two become friends so quickly.  Penn is also Luce’s partner in crime, helping her to research the mystery plot that drives the story forward.  In addition to Arriane and Penn, there are Molly and Gabbe who are clearly there to be sources of conflict and antagonism for Luce.  The two main male characters are Cam and Daniel.  Luce is instantly drawn and attracted to Daniel, but he ignores her and is kind of cruel and mean to her, but Luce is not deterred.  She has the feeling that they have met before, and she is driven to unravel the mystery that is Daniel, all while (inexplicably) falling for him.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is Cam who is nice to Luce, pays attention to and shows concern for her, and wants to date her.  Thus, Luce is caught for much of the story in the age-old dilemma—good boy vs. bad boy.

It seems to me that one of the conventions of paranormal YA fiction is to give us a protagonist that is somehow different from what is considered “normal” and isolate her in a setting where she comes to understand why she is different.  I understand why this convention is necessary—it separates the protagonist from her family and forces her to navigate this new environment.  It’s the classic first stage of a coming-of-age bildungsroman.  I also understand Luce’s drive to unravel the mystery that surrounds Daniel—because in doing so, she’ll also start to unravel the mystery of her difference and the meaning of the shadows she has seen for most of her life.  I even understand the love triangle between Luce, Cam, and Daniel because this book is marketed as a teen paranormal romance novel.

I don’t have a problem with the use of the conventions.  The problem is that they aren’t put to use in an interesting way.  I was really bored for most of the book because it all felt so predictable and derivative.  And while there is conflict between Luce and just about every supporting character, the corresponding tension needed for me to feel like something important was at stake was missing.  I also don’t have a problem with the romance.  In fact, I love a good romance, but again, this romance was just boring and stale.  I didn’t care about whether or not Luce obtained the object of her affection because the love story felt superficial and more like a plot device than a story of two people falling in love.  I suspect this may have something to do with the way in which the author keeps Daniel distant from Luce and the reader.  I know she does this because it stretches out the mystery, but it just didn’t work for me.  Finally, I wasn’t impressed with the protagonist.  Look, I know it’s been said many times but it’s still true for me as a reader, particularly when it comes to YA fiction—give the reader a strong female protagonist.  Please, please, please, can she be interested in more than just her teenage crush on the mysterious hottie?  Can she make decisions and want things from life that don’t solely revolve around the love of her life? Can she be multi-dimensional and multi-faceted?  I think about young women reading this book and I just want them to know that being in a loving relationship is not the only thing waiting for them and it’s not the sole reason for their existence.

I didn’t like this book, but I made myself finish it and I won’t be reading any more books in this series.  My advice—skip it when you come across it in the bookstore.




review: the sea of monsters

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan (2006)

The Sea of Monsters is the second book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (following The Lightning Thief).  I think this series belongs to the “middle grade” genre of children’s literature, but don’t let that put you off.  Adult readers will enjoy this book, too, and if you are a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden files, I think you will really like this series.

Because this is the second book in a series, some background is necessary.  Percy Jackson learns that he is half-god, half-human (a demigod, a half-blood, a hero).  In The Lightning Thief, a satyr named Grover finds Percy and takes him to Camp Half-Blood and Chiron, the centaur who is effectively the Camp Director.  The camp has twelve cabins, one for the children of each Greek god on Olympus.  Children who have been claimed by their parents live in their assigned cabin with their half-siblings, while children who haven’t been claimed live in Hermes’ cabin until their parentage becomes known.  When Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood, his parent is unknown, but eventually he is claimed by Poseidon.  This is good, but it also complicates matters for Percy and results in another layer of isolation—Poseidon is one of the “Big Three” gods (along with Zeus and Hades) and together they made a pact after World War II not to sire any more children.  Percy’s existence demonstrates that Poseidon broke the pact, but further still, Percy is the only child of Poseidon at camp.  This means that he lives in the Poseidon cabin all alone, and he has to learn what special abilities he has on his own.  Percy’s other best friend is Annabeth, a daughter of Athena.  She is smart and knowledgeable, and she has also been appointed by Chiron as a kind of protector for Percy, who could possibly be the child named in a prophecy that has yet to be revealed to us as readers.

The story opens on Percy’s last day of seventh grade.  He has made it through the entire school year without getting expelled or into any serious trouble, and he’s looking forward to rejoining his friends at Camp Half-Blood on the following day, and spending the summer there.  At breakfast, though, his mother hints that all things are not right at camp, and that maybe it isn’t safe there for Percy.  While in gym class near the end of the day, Percy is attacked by giants.  Through the help of his new friend Tyson and the well-timed arrival of Annabeth, Percy manages to survive and escape with his life.  As the trio flees Percy’s school and travels to Camp Half-Blood, Annabeth fills Percy in on what has been happening at camp in his absence.  Thalia’s tree, which holds the spirit of Thalia, a daughter of Zeus, has been poisoned; consequently, the borders of the camp that prevent mortals and monsters from entering camp are eroding.  When the three arrive at Camp Half-Blood, they find Clarisse leading the campers against the latest monster threat—brass bulls.  The bulls are defeated and Percy learns what else has changed at Camp Half-Blood: Chiron has been fired because of suspicions that he was the one who poisoned the tree, and Tantalus, the new activities director, shows little interest in the campers’ welfare.  Another surprise for Percy is learning that Tyson—the homeless boy he grudgingly befriended during the school year—is in fact a Cyclops. Annabeth reveals to Percy that Cyclopes are the children of one god in particular—Poseidon—thus making Tyson Percy’s half-brother.  Percy is upset by this news because Cyclopes are looked upon with disgust by the half-bloods, and his friendship and now family tie to Tyson makes Percy the outsider once again.  He’s conflicted throughout the story because he wants to defend Tyson, who has saved his life on more than one occasion, but he also wants to deny that they are related and put as much distance between them as possible.  As Percy says himself, he’s not only embarrassed by Tyson, but ashamed of him, too.  This inner conflict is one that he struggles with until the end of the story.  Finally, there’s Grover, who left on a quest at the end of The Lightning Thief.  At the beginning of The Sea of Monsters, he establishes a mental link with Percy so that they can communicate in Percy’s dreams.  Grover has been captured by Polythemus (a Cyclops) and is being held on an island in the Sea of Monsters.  Grover also reveals that the Golden Fleece is on the island.  These three story lines—the peril of Camp Half- Blood, the need to rescue Grover, and the revelation of the location of the Golden Fleece—set up the adventure that Percy, Annabeth, Tyson, and Clarisse (daughter of Ares) will follow for the rest of the book. 

This is one of my recommended books.  This book weaves together the quest story, the adventure story, and the coming of age story, and while doing that it gives us the inner conflicts of a thirteen-year-old kid and wonderful character development.  The first-person narrative style lets us identify with Percy while also seeing the errors in his ways so that we are thrilled when he grows from his experiences. Yes, the novel relies upon the conventions of the genre—isolated hero, intelligent female friend, the old and wise mentor, the shadowy villain in the background and the one that does his bidding—but it’s not predictable, even when we are familiar with the myths that are retold and reworked within the story. The book is successful because it tells a story that readers of all ages can connect with, and isn’t that what makes a good book? The series is successful because it makes me want to read the next installment.  Give this series a try and then give it to a child to read. I think you’ll be glad that you did.