Pretty Little Liars Book 1 by Sara Shepard

As someone who watches the TV series Pretty Little Liars, I was somewhat hopeful for this book. Sure, the actresses are not very good and everything is over-dramatic, but there is something about this show that pulls you in and makes you want to keep watching. The number of people I know who have said this is their guilty pleasure show is ridiculous. But the book itself does not come off nearly as suspenseful as its small screen counterpart.

The show follows Aria, Spencer, Hannah, and Emily, four girls who would be losers at school if not for the fact that Allison, the most popular girl in school, has decided to be friends with them. Allison is the girl that everyone wants to be friends with but she is also the girl who knows all of their secrets. But when Allison disappears, the girls grow apart, only to be brought back together by mysterious text messages by someone named “A.” Because “A” knows all their secrets, just like Allison did and will stop at nothing to torment them with it.

Whereas a single episode of Pretty Little Liars feels jam-packed with excitement, the book felt like it didn’t cover enough ground. Maybe it is just that watching the show I know everyone’s secrets and so nothing is a surprise, but it felt like I was learning very little about each girl. And where the show makes the girls likable despite their secrets, the book makes them feel mostly shallow and dull. Aria is a teen looking for her identity and having an affair with her teacher, Hannah is thin and popular but at the expense of shoplifting and her health, Emily has a boyfriend and a crush on the new girl, and Spencer, ever-competing with her sister, starts sleeping with her older sister’s boyfriend.

I don’t often recommend this, but I would say skip the book version in favor of the TV show. It’s not that is it so terrible, it is just that with so many great young adult books out there, there are others worth reading first.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I am normally bothered by major southern accents when reading a book. Even when they make sense for the story, they don’t help immerse me in the story but keep me from fully enjoying it. Usually, anyway. The Help has such a powerful story that for the first time in a long time, it didn’t bother me at all. It just felt right, as did so much of this book. The voices were so captivating and strong that it worked. Sure, I couldn’t help but imagine Emma Stone speaking whenever I read a line spoken by Skeeter, but as a fan of Emma Stone (I saw the movie first) this didn’t bother me.

The plot: There is no more complex and bizarre relationship than that of women in the south in the sixties, where black women raise white babies while working as the help in wealthy white homes and yet are treated as second class, disease-ridden citizens at the same time. Skeeter is an aspiring journalist and college grad who returns home to find that the black maid who raised her is gone without explanation. This helps set her on a dangerous journey, where she recruits Aibeleen, Minny, and other black maids to tell their stories as the invisible help in white homes.

Though Skeeter is the mode through which their stories are able to be told, Aibeleen and Minny stand on their own as main characters with inspirational journeys. Some may think Skeeter’s role diminishes Aibeleen and Minny’s accomplishments and daring (because a white woman played a major role in helping them do it and have the courage), but I think she simply showed them that it is possible for a white woman to think differently and therefore trying to reveal the truth might be worth it. Basically, I think she gave them perspective. To say that this is Skeeter’s story would be a mistake. It is Minny’s story and Aibeleen’s story as much as Skeeter’s and the book shows them all evenly.

The movie itself is pretty fantastic, but what it couldn’t capture the way the book did, was the intense isolation experienced by Skeeter as she went through her journey. Whether or not you see the movie, I recommend you read this book. I have mostly been reading Young Adult books lately, but this book was well worth the deviation.

Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares

After Sweet Valley Confidential was published, the immediate thought was what other great kids’ series would we like to see a Ten Years Later book from? I found myself thinking about the Babysitter’s Club or maybe Nancy Drew. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants did not top my list. Forever in Blue had felt like a satisfying conclusion to the series and it was such a recent series, but I am definitely not disappointed.

The book picks up just under ten years after we last saw them, and despite the happy ending of book four, their lives have taken a somewhat unexpected turn:

  • Carmen is a successful actress engaged to a self-centered jerk
  • Bridget is living with Eric but has a fear of commitment
  • Lena has isolated herself from the world
  • Tibby has moved to Australia with Brian and been MIA for a while

Though the girls have grown apart, a mysterious letter containing plane tickets to Greece sent by Tibby brings them back together again. What follows is a shocking, heartrending, and ultimately uplifting look at four girls who grew up best friends and have learned to contend with life together even when worlds apart.

If you haven’t read the other books, this one probably won’t make all that much sense to you. So much of the events are determined by the past four books. but if you did read and love the series, you will likely love this one. However, don’t expect it to be the same sunny, carefree books the others were. (Sure, they dealt with tough issues, but this is the book that truly tests the girls and confronts them with the harsh realities of life.) Sisterhood Everlasting is much darker, but therefore much more powerful.

Lena and Carmen remain my least favorite characters–their characters seem to have grown the least despite their past experiences–and Bridget continues to be my favorite–I have always been able to relate to her most. Luckily for me, Bridget has a particularly strong and dominant story.

The book was good enough to make me cry (even if not everything is completely realistic). It reminded me why the original books drew me in and left me hoping to get even more from the Sisterhood. It reminded me of Toy Story 3, all the nastalgia but with the heart to back it up.

Everyone’s a Critic (a Drama novel) by Paul Ruditis

It’s big news for the drama geeks at Orion University when Hartley Blackstone, a major Broadway producer and the creator of a major acting school in NY, plans to audition the students for two spots in his program. one boy and one girl will win. Bryan Stark, along with his two best friends Hope and Sam, are dying to get the spot, but they have to contend with the other talent in the school as well as some personal drama of their own. But when the Blackstone gives Bryan a scathing critique of his acting skills, Bryan is forced to wonder if the one thing he has spent all his time doing–acting–was a waste of time.

Whereas The Four Dorothys story was a mystery where Bryan mostly took a backseat, this book has Bryan front and center. This fact makes the story comparatively stronger. It has less exposition and allows us to really connect to the characters more closely.

There is still the issue of Bryan’s closeted gayness, which again mostly gets skirted over, but at least he deals with some other issues. Mainly, the fact that his best friends have been in relationships with the soccer kids he doesn’t like. Particularly his former best friend Drew, who was Hope’s boyfriend for years before they suddenly, inexplicably break up.

Everyone’s a Critic was by far the superior book, but the resolution felt lacking at the end of the book. It isn’t bad and would probably connect well to people who have had their dreams shattered, but there are stronger teen novels out there.

The Four Dorothys (a Drama novel) by Paul Ruditis

Bryan Stark attends Orion Academy where all the students are talent-filled and ego-ridden. When the school puts on only one theatrical performance per year and is jam-packed with skilled kids (or at least, powerful parents), how do you make sure every kid shines? Naturally, you have multiple kids play each part. Orion is putting on the Wizard of Oz, with two Glinda’s, two Scarecrows, and most importantly, four Dorothys. But when the girls playing Dorothy start being sabotaged, Bryan has to figure out who is sabotaging the Dorothys before his friend Sam becomes the next victim.

When I first saw this book, all I could think was, Glee? My friend and I joked about how it must be the same story until I became curious enough to actually find out. Glee turned out to be superior. There is more heart behind the stories of Glee than there are here. These are sort of fun, mindless stories that are good to kill a bit of time.

Bryan is a closeted gay teen, but the story is hardly about this. In fact, he is mostly a bystander in this entire book, which is a little irritating. His gay storyline could be interesting but since it is a non-player in the book it ultimately doesn’t do much. (I’m fine with there being no drama surrounding the fact that he is gay, but he has kept this fact a secret which means there is, at least in his mind, some issues with it which go unaddressed.)

My biggest complaint is that there was no real twist. It became clear who the culprit was very early on and we were never surprised to find that the person we (and Bryan) expected was innocent. Sure, the lesson you can take from that is that some people are exactly as evil as they seem, but it doesn’t make for a great story.

Ultimately, it isn’t a book that I would recommend but I’ve read worse.

The 39 Clues: Vespers Rising (Book 11) by Rick Riordan, peter Lerangis, Gordon Korman, and Jude Watson

The mystery of the 39 clues has concluded: Amy and Dan have won the Clue Hunt in all the ways that matter and they can finally go home to take a well deserved rest. Or can they?

Taking a slightly different approach to the multi-author series, this book sets up the next leg of Amy and Dan’s story by starting way back in the past and following four different generations of Cahills to show us how things became the way they did:

  • First we start with Rick Riordan’s story about the original Cahill family, showing us how the Cahill formula was discovered, how the family shattered, and how the family’s biggest rival came to be. (It is appropriate for Riordan to write this first part, since the 39 clues series were his idea.)
  • Next we follow Madeleine, the fifth child in the Cahill family as she attempts to reunite the siblings she never met.
  • For our third segment, we skip ahead some centuries to Grace Cahill as she finds herself mixed up in the clue hunt and family rivals as a young girl.
  • Finally, we come back to the present when the siblings are drawn back into the fighting before they have had time to settle back into their lives at home. Are they ready for a rival stronger and more vicious than the other branches of the Cahill family ever were?

The major downside to getting a book split into four separate stories (even if they all play a part in the bigger picture of our story) is that we don’t get much time to really get to know the different characters involved. The characters, for the most part, come off as a bit one dimensional until we come to Grace (because we have learned so much about her already) and Amy and Dan (who we’ve been following all along). In particular, most of what we learn about the original Cahill siblings is told to us rather than shown to us, simply because there isn’t time to spend on each of them. I would not have been upset if they had instead written us three prequels that went into the stories in depth. That being said, it was still an interesting and exciting book.

The best part of the story is easily once we get back to Amy and Dan. Immediately the question of how the Cahill siblings would adjust to normal life after such crazy adventures is answered. They have a hard time doing it. Everywhere they look they see danger and assassination attempts. And to be fair, it isn’t all in their heads. They are quickly drawn into another world-hopping adventure, but this time they are fleeing for their lives.

My biggest complaint in this book is that I miss the other members of the Cahill family that we have come to know over the course of the series. Now that they have friends in all of the branches, I wanted to see those friendships utilized in one way or another. (To be fair, there wasn’t a lot of time considering they had only a quarter of a book to finish their adventure.)

I like that Amy and Dan have finally decided to become a bit more proactive and can’t wait to see where things go.

The 39 Clues: Into the Gauntlet (Book 10) by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Amy and Dan have found out the truth about their branch of the Cahill family–the Madrigals–and along with this revelation is a new assignment: to reunite the branches of the family. But can Dan and Amy put all the backstabbing and murder attempts of their family behind them?

We have finally hit what is sort of the end of the story, but really just the start of something bigger. Amy and Dan are racing to the finish line in a clue hunt that has taken them around the world and back to the place where it all began and they are not sure if they can put the past behind them.

A lot happens in this book: We are surprised with the addition of another set of siblings in the Cahill clan (I wish we had met them a few books earlier to really get a sense of them and to really connect with their own struggles). Isabelle Kabra becomes crazier and more imbalanced than we have seen her thus far. All of the branches are forced together to discover the truth of their past and what is coming in their future. And a dangerous new enemy is revealed–an enemy that can only be fended off with the help of a united family.

We are left guessing until the very end who will win in the clue hunt that has been going on for centuries. Amy and Dan finally come into their own and step up in a way that they never could have done before the series began.

This book is longer than those that preceded it, but it doesn’t feel dragged out or too long. The story moves quickly and stays exciting the whole way through.

The book doesn’t shy away from the tough issues that Amy and Dan face, which is the best element of the story. Our characters (not only Dan and Amy) are complex and interesting in a way that few books manage with such a large group.

I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here.

The 39 Clues: Storm Warning (Book 9) by Linda Sue Park

The mystery of the 39 clues is approaching its end and you can feel the mystery winding down as big secrets are revealed and our characters change. Amy and Dan know what branch of the family they are from, but they are not sure if it is a branch they want to be a part of. But there is still a good deal that they don’t know about the Cahill family and that information could change their clue hunt forever.

Our favorite siblings know that their babysitter/nanny/au pair Nellie has been keeping secrets from them. But her secret may be the most shocking thing they discover on their crazy search around the world. And if they can’t trust her, who can they trust?

As always, the series manages to combine interesting historical facts with surprise, mystery, and scary moments. Amy and Dan have really grown over the first eight books and we are finally seeing what the toll of this difficult hunt has had on them. They have become paranoid and untrusting (which no one can blame them for) but they have also learned to depend on each other, use their brains, and be confident.

My favorite element of these books is that no matter what you think you know, there is always something to surprise you. Book 9 is no exception, as we join Dan and Amy when they discover the truth about the mysterious man in black who has been following them and the truth behind Nellie’s secrets.

Girl in the Arena by Lisa Haines

Gladiator culture becomes part of US culture, first through an attempt to find peace without war, then as a high stakes game of life and death. As the culture evolves and the organization in charge changes the rules to ever increase the profit, the life of those within its system become ever more complicated. Lyn has had seven gladiator fathers, her mother is the epitome of a gladiator’s wife, and Lyn is expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Lyn isn’t sure this lifestyle is for her, but when the fighter who kills her seventh father picks up her dowry bracelet, the rules state she must marry him. Otherwise, her family may lose everything.

This book is one of the most fascinating books I have read in a while (perhaps since the Hunger Games). Haines manages to create a very real and frighteningly possible world where money and media surpass ethics and morality. Gladiator’s lives are nothing if not used for entertainment.

Lyn’s journey–from questioning child of seven gladiators to grieving daughter to fiance to a warrior in her own right–is so touchingly real. you cannot help but root for her, even without knowing how you want things to turn out. Should she marry her father’s killer? The answer seems obvious, but Haines manages to make you wonder if maybe you do want the pair to end up together.

Some of the characters are complicated and strange. You can’t help but want to yell at some and to step in to protect others. Which exactly the balance you want in a good book.

Here we have an excellent social commentary without becoming too bogged down in political climate. I thought this book was great and I only hope Haines intends to write more Young Adult.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

This is something of a departure from most of the books I have been reading lately, but I recently started watching all of Big Love and the entire idea of polygamist families is so bizarrely fascinating that I had to buy this book when I saw it.

Ebershoff has two stories going. The “A” story is about Jordan Scott who was kicked off the polygamist compound where he grew up because he was caught holding his half-sister’s hand. (Ironically enough, it was not for being gay, which is a much bigger insult.) He has put his life as a First Latter Day Saint behind him until he finds out that his mother has been arrested for the murder of his father. He returns home to try proving her innocence and finds himself sucked back into the politics and chaos that he had thought he was done with forever. The “B” story is the life of the Prophet (spiritual leader for the community) Brigham Young’s 19th wife (19 in the loosest definition of the word), Ann Eliza, and how she became an outspoken anti-polygamist in the 19th century.

For me, it felt like the two stories, though technically related (Jordan meets the person researching Ann Eliza’s life, this is the past of the place he grew up in, etc), feel disjointed. In fact, Ann Eliza’s story almost feels like an unnecessary, redundant story. Sure, her experiences are extremely different from Jordan’s but both serve the same purpose of giving an insight into life on the compound. I would have preferred sticking to Jordan’s story which is a bit more active and unique than reading about Ann Eliza’s which often felt drawn out and slow.

Jordan’s story is told in the first person and even though there were times when I would have like to get inside his head more (which is usually the opposite problem I have in a first person narrative), it felt like we really got to know him and were able to connect to his story. Ann Eliza’s story, on the other hand, was told through various documents, letters, books, articles, etc. It often felt too passive and reflective and I found it difficult to connect to most parts of her story and most of the people involved. (For example, we get a couple letters from her son where he goes off on tangents about dolphins and the weather and while I understand that this shows us what kind of person he was, it just felt like a waste of time).

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book because the “A” story was compelling and surprising. There were so many unexpected twists and turns and the truth is, we rarely get the polygamy perspective from the boy’s side. It is usually the women/wives whose stories are told (admittedly their stories are often more horrific). The “B” story was a distraction with a few interesting facts thrown in. I could have done without, but am content to read it for the sake of the rest. I’m not running out to buy another Ebershoff book any time soon, but I have no regrets about reading this one.