June 20, 2017

SVT #94, Don’t Talk to Brian: This Is Really Taking Victim-Blaming Too Far

Posted in books tagged , at 4:56 pm by Jenn

This looks nothing like how I pictured Brian. Also, I don’t think he’d eat anything pink

Summary: Brian Boyd is still causing trouble at SVMS, only things have gotten worse as he’s now disrupting classes and generally being a tiresome jerk. He comes to school with a black eye and says he got in a fight with some other kid, a story no one doubts because that’s exactly the sort of thing that would happen to him. Mr. Bowman tells the twins’ English class that they’ll be studying families, and everyone will need to write an essay about parenting. The person with the best essay gets to read it at a reception for everyone’s parents. Brian finds this assignment ridiculous and heckles everyone throughout the class. He lands in detention for his behavior.

When Brian gets home, we learn why his attitude is so bad: His mother is an alcoholic and his father is abusive. Elizabeth hears him crying after his father hits him – apparently the Wakefields’ and the Boyds’ houses share an alley – and Liz tries to show Brian some compassion. He brushes her off, so she decides he got in another fight and doesn’t deserve her sympathy.

Mr. Bowman picks Liz, Brian, and Maria to do some role-playing in class; Liz is Brian and Maria’s daughter, and she’s just been caught sneaking in after curfew. Brian laughs off the assignment, then gives Liz a harsh punishment. Mr. Bowman should probably just not call on Brian anymore. On the way home from school, Elizabeth sees police cars outside Brian’s house and guesses that he’s finally gotten in trouble for fighting. Later, she reads an article in the local paper about a 12-year-old boy being removed from his home by Child Protective Services while they investigate possible abuse. She realizes it’s Brian and accidentally alerts Jessica to what’s going on with him.

Jess, of course, can’t keep her mouth shut, and she tells Lila and Janet that Brian has had to move out of his house (though she doesn’t tell them about the abuse). By Monday morning, the news is all over SVMS. Everyone thinks Brian got kicked out for fighting, and Maria, among others, has no sympathy. (I can’t really blame her, considering how he treated her in It Can’t Happen Here.) Some kids, however, try to be nicer to Brian – Ken, Todd, and Aaron invite him to play video games with them. When Todd says that everyone knows what’s happening with Brian, Brian takes off, accidentally flipping over a table Real Housewives-style. This lands him on Principal Clark’s radar.

The news about Brian spreads to people’s parents, and Elizabeth overhears some of them complaining to Mr. Clark about their kids having to attend school with a bully. We learn that Brian’s family life was fine until just the past few years, when Mr. Boyd’s problems at work made him mean and violent. His mother dealt with it by drinking and didn’t bother trying to protect her son. Brian’s staying in a group home until a foster family is found, but he doesn’t think anyone will want him. He also thinks Mr. Bowman knew he was being abused and did nothing, which is a whole other issue that never gets addressed.)

Brian’s situation starts to really affect Liz, who has a nightmare about being the next target of abuse. She and Maria attend a PTA meeting as student representatives, and learn that a number of parents want Brian to leave Sweet Valley. Apparently a kid who comes from an unstable home is too much for their delicate angels to handle. They have no sympathy for Brian and want to see him punished when he’s done nothing wrong. Liz is shocked that Maria agrees – she hates Brian and wants him out of the school.

Mr. Clark tells everyone that Brian will be placed with a foster family in Big Mesa, but since he’s going through so much upheaval, they’d like to keep him at SVMS. He has a petition for parents to sign to allow Brian to stay. The parents are completely divided, and to Elizabeth’s surprise (and dismay), Ned and Alice want him to go. She wonders who will look out for Brian if so many adults are going to just turn their backs on him.

SVMS has a special assembly addressing child abuse and how the victim is never to blame. The students learn that Brian is being sent to Big Mesa Middle School, and Maria still doesn’t care. Mr. Bowman reads Brian’s family essay in class; it’s about how his life started out great and then slowly fell apart, and he didn’t know how to stop it. He started to lose hope that his life would ever get better. Jessica feels horrible because she’s spent the whole book complaining about her parents and how they won’t increase her allowance or let her go to a sleepover on a school night. She’d much rather have love and security than money and popularity.

Liz wants to fight to let Brian stay at SVMS, so she takes a page out of Mr. Clark’s book and writes a petition. She reads it at the family reception and asks the parents to help Brian instead of letting him be sent away for someone else to deal with his problems. She emphasizes the fact that Brian isn’t to blame for the abuse, so he shouldn’t be punished. The parents change their minds and help Brian find a foster family in Sweet Valley. Brian is grateful, and suddenly a much more pleasant person. Even Maria makes an effort to be friendly to him. Yay, all his problems are solved! Sweet Valley is such a magical place that he probably won’t suffer any psychological damage or have any problems in the future!

Thoughts: Brian’s family is supposed to be rich, but considering their house is next to an alley that’s also next to the Wakefields’ house, I don’t know.

Fun fact: In the Sweet Valley-verse, there’s a TV show called Snob Hill 90214.

I assume Brian has a 180-degree personality change after this, because if he’s ever mean again, someone can just say, “Remember when we didn’t get you kicked out of our school? We can undo that.”

June 13, 2017

SVT Super Edition #6, The Twins Take Paris: What’s French for “These Girls Are Idiots”?

Posted in books tagged , , , , , at 5:13 pm by Jenn

Ick

Summary: In what’s supposed to be their first trip to France (of many throughout all the Sweet Valley books), the twins have been chosen to spend their spring break in Paris. By the way, they speak, like, ten words of French. They’re annoyed that their phrasebooks don’t include anything helpful. Oh, come on, girls, you don’t think you’ll ever have the opportunity to say “hail to the never-dying ancestors of long ago” or “we are not dead yet”? I mean, I do nothing BUT wish I knew the French for that. Jessica thinks she should write her own phrasebook.

At the last minute, the twins’ host family has to back out, and they’re told they’ll be staying with an older women named Madame du Noir. The host family says a bunch of stuff in their explanatory letter about what Madame du Noir is like, but their English is pretty bad, and the girls aren’t sure what they’re trying to say. They both get an ominous feeling about the change in plans. But whatever, do you want to go to France or not? You do? Then you’re staying with the possibly weird lady.

On the plane, Jessica reads a magazine article about some American girls who went missing in Paris. Before one of them disappeared, she was seen with an older woman who was wearing a polka-dotted scarf. Both twins have dreams about an old woman (Liz’s inspired by the villain in a mystery novel). When they land in Paris and go to meet Madame du Noir, they recognize her black and white polka-dotted scarf. Their host is a murderer!

The girls make one of the dumbest decisions of their lives (and that’s saying a lot) – they get in a cab and flee. While Madame du Noir calls the Wakefields back in Sweet Valley to tell them their foolish daughters have run off alone in Paris, the twins eat pastries and wonder if their host is really a murderer. After all, she may have said threatening things about them in French, but she may not have – Elizabeth can’t be sure. They decide to go to her place to make sure, but they run into her and hear her saying something about cooking the girls for dinner and putting them under glass. They dodge her and run away again.

Ned and Alice book a flight to Paris to find their daughters, dragging Steven along instead of leaving him behind with a family friend or something. Steven couldn’t care less that his sisters are on their own in a strange city; he’d much rather try to sell a bunch of his college T-shirts, which he’s heard are really popular in France. How did he get 86 college shirts in the first place? Those things are expensive! Steven happens to run into a flight attendant from the twins’ flight, and she tells him that they may believe that Madame du Noir is behind the disappearance of all the American girls.

The twins come across a baker whose assistant just quit, leaving him with no help in preparing for a big wedding. The girls offer to help out in exchange for being allowed to sleep in the backroom. The baker soon learns that two 12-year-old girls aren’t the best people to rely on for help with a big project that requires attention to detail and meticulous measurements. While they’re working, the Wakefields meet up with Madame du Noir, who takes them to…the same bakery. Sure. The girls hear her say something about their mother, and they think she’s lying to the baker about being their mom. They run off without realizing that their family is with her.

The twins go to the Louvre, because a) what else do you do in Paris, b) it’s basically the law that you have to go to the Louvre when you’re there, and c) they probably don’t know where else to go. They try calling home but just get the answering machine. Steven goes off alone, thinking he sees the twins, and learns from a Parisian that college shirts aren’t popular anymore. Sacre bleu! A little later, when the Wakefields go looking for the twins at the Louvre, Steven almost gets arrested for saying “j’ai sorry” (“I have sorry” instead of “I am sorry”) to a guard, who thinks he stole a sari from an exhibit. Thanks for tagging along on this trip, Steven.

Apparently security at the Louvre is pretty lax, other than when a 14-year-old boy may have stolen a piece of clothing, so the twins are able to hide under a bed until everyone leaves. When they leave the next day, they encounter an older woman named Madame Renault who has a scarf similar to Madame du Noir’s, only hers is blue with pink dots. The woman invites the twins to her apartment for tea and cookies, telling them how lonely she is. Jess is like, “You have a mustache but I’m hungry, so let’s go.”

Ned and Alice get separated from Steven and Madame du Noir, who run into the baker again. He offers to drive them around and help look for the twins. They happen to pass Madame Renault’s apartment, and Steven happens to see the twins through the window, even though the book makes a big deal out of how fast the baker drives. The three head to the apartment, but again, the twins hear Madame du Noir’s voice and run away. Madame du Noir senses that something weird is going on and calls the police, who suspect that Madame Renault is the serial kidnapper/killer. But Madame Renault escapes and follows the twins to the Eiffel Tower.

While running from Madame du Noir and the cops, the twins realize that Madame Renault is wearing a wig and carrying a knife. Also, she’s not Madame Renault – she’s Monsieur Renault. I guess dressing up as a harmless little old lady was a good way to get young American girls to trust him. Or maybe this is a Norman Bates situation. Either way, the twins realize that they were wrong not to trust Madame du Noir. Plus, they only thought the killer had a black-and-white scarf because the picture they saw of her was in black and white. Okay, I buy Jessica making that mistake but not Elizabeth.

There’s a lot of running around in the tower, which Steven gets stuck on top of, but eventually everything gets worked out and Monsieur Renault is captured. Ned and Alice cancel the rest of the twins’ trip and will have to occupy themselves for the rest of spring break by working in the garden and clearing out the attic. The twins don’t seem to get how serious the situation was, but then again, it’s not like their parents bar them from ever traveling alone again, so maybe no one learned a lesson here.

Thoughts: “She tossed aside From Wimp to Hunk Quarterly, reminding herself to buy Steven a copy for his birthday.” Hee hee.

“They have electricity in France, don’t they?” How did Jessica make it to the sixth grade?

I hope no kids try to read this book to learn about France. All I learned is that it has a lot of traffic and pastries.

If I were Ned and Alice, I would abandon the kids in Paris and go home without them.

June 6, 2017

SVT #93, The Incredible Madame Jessica: Uh-Oh, Jessica’s Cosplaying as Miss Cleo

Posted in books tagged , , at 5:11 pm by Jenn

Please close your mouths, everyone. She’s 12 years old. She’s not going to predict lottery numbers

Summary: Jessica has recently become interested in psychic phenomena again, and she tries out her supposed psychic powers on her family. She predicts that Steven will eat nine pancakes at breakfast, which is a lot even for him. This prediction turns out to be accurate, though Steven grabs a tenth pancake just to tick Jessica off. I don’t know, I’d still count it – she said nine, not nine and no more.

There’s a fair coming up at SVMS, taking place over three consecutive weekends, and the proceeds will be going to the school library. Despite the dorky cause, the Unicorns want to have a booth. Jessica wants to tell fortunes, but the other girls think that’s dumb. Instead, they’ll do a twist on a dunking booth, filling it with grape Jell-O instead of water. That’s actually pretty creative. Elizabeth will be running a table where people can turn in overdue library books without having to pay a fine. (More on that later.)

Jessica tries to shows off her abilities again at a party at Bruce’s house, but no one’s interested in hearing their futures. She finally convinces Patrick Morris to get his fortune told, but he’s disappointed when she predicts that he and Sophia Rizzo, his sort-of girlfriend, will fight and break up. Jessica also foresees Liz failing a test, which everyone finds ridiculous, since perfect Liz would never fail anything. But then Sophia and Patrick get in a fight because he forgot her birthday, and suddenly one of Jess’ predictions has come true. Then Elizabeth fails a history test because she didn’t see the final page of questions.

Now everyone thinks Jessica really is psychic, so they start asking her to tell them their futures. She uses this as publicity for her booth at the fair. She wants to charge $5 per customer, but the librarian, Ms. Luster, makes her charge 50 cents instead. Except there’s a huge line of customers waiting, and if they were willing to pay $5 each, why ask for less? This is why Ms. Luster is a librarian and not a businesswoman.

Among Jessica’s predictions:

  • Aaron will be suspended from the basketball team
  • Bruce will sprain his ankle
  • Sarah Thomas will get her braces tightened (that one’s kind of a gimme, though)
  • Anna Reynolds will lose her new jacket

On Monday morning, Bruce shows up to school on crutches, having torn ligaments in his ankle. Anna misplaces her jacket, fulfilling another of Jessica’s predictions. She thinks this could win her a Nobel Peace Prize. Sure thing, Jess. Aaron then gets suspended from the basketball team for poor grades, so Jess is 3 for 3. Unfortunately, since she’s only been predicting bad things, no one wants to have their fortunes told anymore – in fact, no one wants to talk to Jessica at all.

Jess decides to only tell good fortunes, predicting that Cammi Adams will win a prize and Randy Mason will get to leave class early. This backfires, as Randy leaves early because he has an asthma attack, and Cammi makes a fool of herself in gym class, prompting Belinda Layton to say that she should get a booby prize. Janet thinks that instead of telling fortunes, Jessica’s cursing people.

At the second fair weekend, Jessica has no customers. She’s inspired by a fortune cookie to start giving people vague advice, which doesn’t go over well. Meanwhile, the Unicorns, who got off to a rough start the first weekend, now have a very popular booth, as teachers are volunteering to get dunked. (The Jell-O never quite sets, so they’re getting dropping into purpleish water, but the dunkers don’t care.)

While all of this has been going on, Elizabeth has slowly been making herself more and more unlikable. She’s become obsessed with people turning in overdue library books, and making sure people know that keeping them past the due date is, like a mortal sin or something. Her booth at the fair offers a free pizza to the person who turns in a book that’s the most overdue, and it’s made her disgusted with people who keep books for years without realizing it. Aaron’s grandmother is the worst offender, returning a book she checked out in 1962.

In what’s known as an ironic twist, Elizabeth finds a copy of Black Beauty that fell behind her dresser four years ago. Doesn’t the library send out late notices? She tries to return the book to her own booth without anyone noticing, but Ms. Luster is always around, so Liz can’t sneak it in with the others.

The twins’ plotlines start coming together when Elizabeth thinks that she can help reverse one of Jessica’s “curses” by helping Sophia and Patrick get back together. Her sage advice is for Patrick to apologize to Sophia and give her something nice, like flowers. Wow, look at Ann Landers over here! Spoiler alert: It works.

Steven notices that the twins are cranky and casually suggests that they switch problems. Jessica decides that she’ll pose as Liz to turn in her overdue book while Liz poses as her, makes predictions that don’t come true (since she’s not really psychic), and pretends she’s lost her psychic powers. Elizabeth isn’t thrilled to have to be a phony psychic at the third fair weekend, but she’ll do it to get out of facing the shame of turning in an overdue book.

The twins switch, and Jess’ part of the deal is over quickly: Ms. Luster couldn’t care less that Elizabeth had an overdue book. While Liz gets ready to play the Incredible Madame Jessica, Janet hides in her booth, not wanting to take a turn in the Unicorns’ dunk tank. Mr. Clark, the principal, volunteered to be dunked, but he never shows up, so the Unicorns are forced to take turns. Janet is wearing a brand-new white blouse and is determined to keep it clean. “Jessica” predicts that she’ll get a stain on it.

The real Jess learns of her sister’s prediction and freaks out – if Janet’s shirt gets stained, people will still see her as cursing them. The twins stalk Janet, trying to keep her from getting dirty, and barely avoid a disaster with some paint. Janet’s shirt comes out spotless, and everyone decides that Jessica’s cursed predictions are done. Also, Anna found her jacket and Sophia and Patrick got back together, so two more predictions were reversed. (Except…Anna DID lose her jacket, and Sophia and Patrick DID break up, so those should still be accurate. Jess never said the jacket would stay lost forever or that Sophia and Patrick would never get back together. Eh, whatever.)

Janet can’t avoid getting dunked, so everyone gets some satisfaction out of watching that. The Unicorns’ dunking booth raises a ton of money, Jessica’s booth raises the second highest amount, and Aaron’s grandmother wins the pizza. Not shown: Mr. Fowler having an aneurysm after checking his credit card bill and seeing how much Jell-O the Unicorns bought.

Thoughts: Luster is a weird name.

“When you check out a library book, you have a moral obligation to return it on time. I think we need to think of ways to get people to live up to their responsibilities.” Elizabeth, you’re a child. Please chill out.

“I mean, who cares whether you’ve had a book since second grade? Nobody’s going to stop talking to you over it.” Maybe we should. Everyone, stop talking to Elizabeth right now.

May 30, 2017

SVT #92, Escape from Terror Island: Yeah, Yeah, We All Read “Lord of the Flies”

Posted in books tagged , , , , at 4:51 pm by Jenn

That’s Todd. He looks like a doofus, doesn’t he?

Summary: While Elizabeth was drowning at the end of the last book, the boat was somehow breaking up, so we’re in an official shipwreck situation. Somehow, everyone ends up on an island, alive and unharmed. The unpopular kids are all stranded on the same side of the island together, while the popular kids are on the other side; neither group knows the other group is there. Whenever they hear noises made by the other group, they think they’re sharing the island with cannibals or pirates.

Elizabeth almost drowns again, this time in a waterfall, but it leads to her discovering a cave. Mandy falls into a pit that also leads to the cave, and the two groups meet up there. (Also, Lila and Janet are all, “Mandy’s just trying to get attention,” which is really weird.) The twins are thrilled to see each other, but the others aren’t especially happy to be stuck with each other again. Bruce takes charge, and the unpopular kids are immediately sick of hearing him talk.

Bruce thinks their first priority is building a fire and hunting something to eat (other than the melons they’ve been finding all over the island.) Elizabeth and the unpopular kids think they should build a shelter and make an SOS in the sand. Bruce argues that they can just sleep in the cave they’ve already found. The popular kids all side with him, but Jessica takes some convincing. The two groups split up again.

In the morning, Liz and Maria discover the briefcase of money the hijackers stole from a bank before taking their boat. They decide to hide it in the cave. Bruce’s crew thinks they should build a raft so they can leave the island, but Liz thinks their chances of doing it well enough to get themselves to safety are pretty low. Bruce and his group disagree: He’s a Boy Scout, which I guess gives him a natural ability to build a seaworthy raft. But the kids all build one anyway, planning to head out on it the next day.

That night, Jessica dreams that two people are wandering around the kids’ camp. Anyone who’s ever read a book can figure out that the hijackers have also wound up on the island. In the morning, the kids get on the raft, which is somehow big enough to hold everyone. I’m not sure if all the kids who were on the boat are on the island, since I was under the impression that a lot more kids went on the field trip, but I guess the other kids get rescued, because this book doesn’t end with a mass funeral for a bunch of minor characters.

Anyway, the raft doesn’t stay together, and Elizabeth almost drowns AGAIN. How did she ever qualify as a lifeguard in the SVU books? And Janet and Lila are all, “Attention-seeking!” again. I don’t get them at all. Bruce accuses Liz of sabotaging the raft to show that he was inept. Because she would want to sabotage her one way off the island? Whatever, Bruce. Jessica brings up her dream and wonders if there really were two people at their camp who might have sabotaged the raft. While everyone’s fighting, they spot a plane flying over the island and realize that if they’d made an SOS, as Liz and Maria suggested, they could have been rescued.

More sabotages occur: The popular kids’ fruit stash disappears, and Bruce suspects Elizabeth stole it. He’s ready to vote her off the island. Sorry, Bruce, but Jeff Probst won’t approve of this. Jessica remembers all the supposedly horrible things her sister has done to her in the past and decides that Bruce is right. Over at the unpopular kids’ camp, they realize that all their shoes are gone and their shelter has been moved. They, of course, suspect the popular kids. Of course, the truth is that the hijackers are on the island and have been messing with both groups of kids. Once they’ve found their money, they plan to kill all the kids.

The two groups meet up and fight, but they get distracted when they see a message written for them in the sand: “$ or you are dead.” They realize the hijackers are on the island with them, and they need to work together to protect themselves. They decide to keep the money hidden – they can’t trust that the hijackers will really let them live if they hand it over. Liz thinks they should tell the hijackers that only one of them knows where the money is, so the hijackers can’t kill any of them. The popular kids don’t like this idea, and there’s another fight and another separation of the two groups.

Jessica thinks the popular kids should hide on the beach, since it’ll be easier for them to see the hijackers coming. They hope the tide will wipe out their footprints so the hijackers can’t follow them. The unpopular kids find a dinghy, figuring it’s how the hijackers made it to the island. Instead of piling in and leaving the popular kids behind to fend for themselves, they head off to find the rest of the kids so they can all escape together.

But the hijackers find the popular kids first, tying them to each other with vines and marching them through the jungle or forest or whatever’s on this island. At first the kids pretend they haven’t seen the briefcase with all the money, but Lila’s an idiot and says they did. Jessica tries out Elizabeth’s plan, telling the hijackers that only one kid knows where the money is, so they can’t kill anyone yet. This backfires, and the hijackers decide to torture the information out of the kids by withholding food and water until someone cracks.

The unpopular kids arrive and are too dumb to listen when Jessica warns them to run away. Now everyone’s tied up together, and the hijackers are ready to get their money and get off the island. They announce that they’ll kill someone every hour until they find out where the money is. It’s not long before Bruce announces that he knows where it is and will take them to it. The other kids are horrified that he’s sacrificing them to save himself. Bruce pretends to be sorry, telling the others that the hijackers “exerted undue pressure on me.” As he heads off with them, he yells “Not!” back at the others.

Bruce is, amazingly, actually being heroic. He takes the hijackers (who are too dumb to split up and have one stay behind to keep an eye on their hostages) to the waterfall, then torches the money and runs away. Back in the forest/jungle/wherever, Elizabeth realizes that Bruce’s final words were instructions to undo the knots in the vines tying them all together. They do so and free themselves, then meet up with Bruce and head for the dinghy.

A fishing boat comes across the kids and rescues them. They learn that the captain and crew member who were set adrift in the lifeboat in the last book were also rescued and are fine. The kids are all proud of themselves for finally working together, and for saving themselves. Somehow, everyone makes it home in one piece. I assume the hijackers were later found by the proper authorities and taken to prison, or they burned in a forest/jungle/whatever fire, along with their precious money. In which case, Bruce is technically a murderer, which sounds about right.

Thoughts: I can’t believe there isn’t at least one kid crying the entire time they’re on the island. I’m sure it would have been Tamara, who cried her way through the last book, but she’s never mentioned in this one.

“‘I didn’t mean to sound bossy,’ she said, wondering if she had sounded that way.” Because when you’re stranded on an island with bank robbers and a bunch of preteen morons, your tone is what’s important. Get a backbone, Liz.

So if Bruce hadn’t said anything, the kids wouldn’t have thought to untie themselves? Like I said, they’re morons.

May 23, 2017

SVT #91, Deadly Voyage: It’s Like “Home Alone,” But on a Boat

Posted in books tagged , , , , , , at 5:11 pm by Jenn

This dude looks like a deranged monk with jaundice

Summary: The twins are about to head out on a day-long Saturday field trip with a bunch of other middle-schoolers. They’ll be exploring Santa Maria Island and observing wildlife for extra credit in science. Everyone’s excited to hang out on an island all day, and some of the students figure this will just be an easy extra-credit grab while they work on their tans. For once, Alice is getting involved in her kids’ lives, as she’s going along as a chaperone.

The kids are on a strict schedule, since a storm is coming that afternoon, and they need to be back before it hits. While the kids board the boat, the adults – teacher Mr. Siegel and chaperones Alice and Mr. Slater – stay on the dock, dealing with Kimberly, who doesn’t have a permission slip. Bruce gets all “I’m on boats all the time because my father has one, but it’s much better than this one.” He thinks he could run the boat, called the Island Dreamer, by himself. Nerd Donald Zwerdling disagrees, since the boat is old and probably doesn’t have the kind of technology Bruce is used to.

A man on the boat tells Aaron they’re ready to cast off, so Aaron undoes the rope tying the boat to the dock. After a couple minutes, the boat starts moving. The kids realize that the adults are all still on the dock (and Kimberly, but no one cares about her). Elizabeth and her smart friends (namely Amy, Maria, and Todd) panic about the lack of adult supervision, while the cool kids like the Unicorns think this means they get to hang out all day without doing schoolwork. They get annoyed when Liz says she’s going to tell the captain he needs to go back to the dock.

The captain isn’t as concerned as Elizabeth, telling her that the chaperones will join them on the island from another boat. He won’t open the door very wide or come out to talk to the kids, which Liz finds strange. The cool kids tell her to calm down. Janet even blasts her for always trying to run things, which is pretty rich coming from the bossy president of the Unicorns. Liz tries to relax and have fun with all the other kids, who are all enjoying themselves, except Donald. He brought a bunch of equipment with him for the island, and it’s telling him that they’re not going toward Santa Maria Island.

The kids foreshadow the next book by talking about getting shipwrecked on an island. The girls think it could be romantic. Bruce brings up Lord of the Flies, and suddenly the idea isn’t so appealing anymore. Then Jessica and Lila hear a banging noise from a supply closet and go to investigate. They’re shocked to find the real captain and a crewman tied up inside. They explain that the boat was hijacked, and two men knocked them out to use the boat as a getaway vehicle. The captain thinks they may be going to Mexico to get out of the country. This is a bigger problem than it seems: The trip to Mexico will take ten hours, so they won’t be able to dock before that big storm hits. The captain tells the kids to use a CB radio in his room to call for help.

Despite the fact that Janet was just mocking Elizabeth for always wanting to be in charge, this is the sort of situation where Liz shines. She quickly shifts into leader mode, assigning some kids to get the radio while the others pretend they don’t know anything’s up, in case the hijackers are watching them. Bruce tries to keep quiet about how he said before that he could handle the boat on his own.

While Liz, Amy, Maria, and Winston go find the CB, Jessica and Lila listen to a regular radio and hear that two men robbed a bank in Sweet Valley that morning. The police suspect that they’re on a boat. Good job, police! You’re so effective in this book! The other kids find the radio and Winston makes a mayday call, but the hijackers hear and get rid of the radio. They take the kids back to the rest of the group and tie everyone to the guardrail. Bruce and Jerry try to fight back with some karate moves, but they just embarrass themselves in front of everyone. This feels realistic – 13-year-old boys would probably think they can take on criminals, but would just end up looking ridiculous.

Back on shore, the chaperones have contacted authorities and are told that Winston made a mayday call. The adults start to realize that something really bad is going on. On the boat, the hijackers – who are dumb enough to use their real names, Jack and Gary – eat the kids’ lunches in front of them (just for funsies, I guess), then put the captain and crewman on a lifeboat and set them adrift in the water. Now the kids are completely on their own against the two hijackers.

Some of the kids start getting emotional, including Tamara Chase, one of the seldom-mentioned Unicorns. Janet’s like, “There’s no crying in Unicorns! Suck it up!” Ken thinks he sees dolphins, but they’re really sharks. So much for that sliver of happiness. Back on shore, the parents have all gathered and are told that the storm will make a rescue effort impossible. They’ll have to wait until it passes before they go looking for the kids.

As time passes on the boat, where everyone remains tied up, it soon becomes clear that the hijackers aren’t very bright. For one thing, they didn’t search the boat to make sure they’d secured all the hostages. Cammi Adams and Donald were able to hide during all the typing-up, and they use Winston’s pocketknife to start cutting kids free. Cammi proves her intelligence by deciding that they should only free a couple of people, to make it less likely that the hijackers will notice.

The freed kids, including Elizabeth, run off to hide. Lila and Bruce start fighting about which of their fathers will be first to offer up a reward for their return. Everyone is a little reassured that Elizabeth, Sweet Valley’s patron saint of good ideas, will come up with a plan to save everyone. Fortunately, they’re right. Liz uses Winston’s Walkman to make the hijackers think she’s found another CB. When they emerge to confront her, she scalds them with hot water and tries to flee through a porthole. She loses a shoe, but it’s a worthy sacrifice. The other kids then trap the men in a room, using brooms to keep the doors closed.

The good news is that now all the kids are untied. The bad news is that the storm is approaching. While the kids are trying to figure out how to get the boat to shore, the hijackers escape and recapture Elizabeth. Gary starts to push her overboard, but Jess channels her inner Liz and uses suntan oil to make Gary slip, then knocks him out with Bruce’s boogie board. One hijacker down, one to go. Elizabeth throws Gary’s gun overboard, wanting to decrease the odds of violence on the boat. I guess the ghostwriter didn’t want the book to end with one of the kids murdering someone.

Lila suddenly remembers that she has a cell phone with her (it’s 1995, so everyone calls it a cellular phone), so she starts to call her dad. Bruce is there to tell her she’s an idiot and call 911 instead. While they’re fighting with each other and trying to convince the 911 operator that they’re not pulling a prank, the phone goes flying into the water.

The kids move on to capturing Jack, which they pull off by having Winston drop a life preserver on him, then pulling it down to keep his arms immobilized. They knock him out with the boogie board and stash him with Gary. But before they can even celebrate the fact that they’ve now outsmarted two adults, they learn that Donald can’t figure out where they are, and the boat’s radio is broken. They’re lost at sea with a storm coming, and no way to call for help. Oh, and then the boat starts leaking.

Tamara loses it. This is seriously the only thing she contributes to the whole series – a meltdown. She goes out on deck, ranting about wanting to go home, and Liz has to go out in the middle of the storm to try to calm her down. It works, but a huge wave knocks Elizabeth overboard. The book ends with Liz just moments away from drowning. To be continued!

Thoughts: Re: Cammi: “She was a sixth-grader, and she looked it, Bruce thought dryly. Straight up and down.” Which I guess means he’s not going to try to rape her.

Jessica asks Elizabeth what she would pick if she could eat anything right now, and Liz chooses a salad. Girl, what’s wrong with you?

Lila, finding her cell phone: “I forgot that Daddy lent this to me this morning. He does that every now and then, you know. In case of an emergency.” Bruce: “Well, as soon as an emergency comes up, we’ll let you know! Then maybe you can use it!” Hee!

May 16, 2017

SVT Super Chiller #9, Evil Elizabeth: Can’t Fight the Moonlight

Posted in books tagged , , , at 4:56 pm by Jenn

So no one finds it weird that Elizabeth is just walking around with this on her face all the time? Really?

Summary: Elizabeth is really excited about Halloween, and wants to do a paired costume with her twin. Jessica thinks that’s immature, when everyone knows Halloween is the chance to dress up fancy and be really sophisticated. Whatever you say, Jess. Fortunately for Liz, Amy and Maria are up for figuring out a three-part costume. Jessica decides to go as a figure skater but has to reconsider when Lila announces that as her costume – and she’s even going to wear an outfit worn by an actual famous skater.

On the way to the Wakefields’ for a big sleepover, the twins and some of their friends pass a rundown house everyone calls the “Luna place.” Jess makes up a story about a witch who lives there, which annoys Liz. She sees a full moon over the house and points it out to her friends, but Amy and Maria don’t see it as full.

The girls have a séance at their sleepover, and Mandy seems to channel someone who speaks through her. The channeled voice warns the “sisters” (and Liz and Jess are the only sisters present) to “watch the rising of the moon, and watch your sister.” If they’re not careful, someone tragic will happen. Jessica sees the shape of a full moon in a candle flame, but no one else notices it.

Liz learns that “luna” means moon, and that there will be a full moon on Halloween. Those two things combined with the full moon she thought she saw make her a little creeped out. She comes across a black dog with an orange face carrying a grotesque mask in its mouth. When Liz takes the mask, she sees another moon. She puts on the mask and starts taunting Jessica. Jess tries to brush off her nastiness, thinking Elizabeth is just messing with her.

Elizabeth starts wearing the mask more and more often, acting meaner and meaner every time, both to Jessica and to Amy and Maria. When she’s not wearing the mask, she claims not to have any idea that she acted out of character. Jess is worried that the warning from the séance is the real deal, and that something horrible is happening. When she and Steven both see the moon turn red one night, Jess gets even more spooked.

Jessica tries to get Elizabeth interested in sisterly bonding by carving pumpkins together. Liz is back in the mask, though, and thinks carving pumpkins is immature. Later, maskless, Elizabeth is really hurt that Jess carved a pumpkin without her. Jess realizes that the mask is causing Liz’s strange behavior, so she steals it, but Liz easily finds it again and puts it back on.

Jess runs into the dog Liz got the mask from and follows it to the Luna place. There, she meets Corinna Black, the alleged witch who lives there. Jess tells her about the mask, which Corinna says was buried for decades. I guess the dog dug it up? She warns that the mask will make Elizabeth worse the more she wears it, and eventually Liz will be a horrible person even without it. Jess needs to make sure Liz doesn’t wear it when the moon rises, or the process will speed up.

Jessica tries to steal the mask again, but Elizabeth is obsessed with it and won’t let it go. She has a nightmare about feeling like everything is changing. Is this all just a metaphor for puberty? I guess it’s possible. Liz’s behavior keeps getting worse, and she’s reached the point where she doesn’t have to wear the mask to be awful. She starts hanging out with the SVH series’ reformed bad girl Betsy Martin, and everyone at school wonders why she’s suddenly changed so much.

When Jess tries to go back to the Luna place to talk to Corinna, there’s no door to the house. Jess doesn’t seem as freaked out by this as she should be. Elizabeth and Betsy get ready for Halloween mischief by egging houses, including the Luna place. Ned and Alice are their usual clueless selves about Elizabeth’s sudden shift – they think she’s just moody, and they don’t see anything wrong with her hanging out with different people.

Steven asks his astronomy teacher if the moon could appear red, but she says no. Again, mass hallucinations should be freaking these people out. Jess finally reconnects with Corinna, who insists that she make Elizabeth destroy the mask during the lunar eclipse that is conveniently happening on Halloween. Corinna reveals that the last person who wore the mask burned down her house, killing her entire family…except Corinna. So…maybe she should have done a better job of getting rid of the mask, eh?

Once Jess has filled Steven in on everything going on, the two of them come up with a plan. They know they need to stick close to Elizabeth on Halloween, but they also know she’s not going to let them. So Jessica dresses as Liz and tells Betsy that they should crash a Halloween party on Courage Mountain. She leaves Liz a note about the party, pretending it’s from Betsy. They plan to meet up with Liz on the mountain and force her to destroy the mask.

Jess goes out trick-or-treating with the Unicorns (she ran out of time to come up with a costume, so she goes with the classic sheet-ghost look) while Elizabeth and Betsy terrorize little kids by stealing their candy. An hour before midnight, Jessica pretends to go to bed while Steven tells their parents he’s going to a party. Jess sneaks out and the two ride their bikes up Courage Mountain. Jessica has a vision of the moon on fire, dropping flames onto the Wakefields’ house.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth and Betsy aren’t on their way up the mountain – they’re at the Wakefields’, where Betsy wants Liz to smash the pumpkin Jessica carved. Liz hesitates, because even in her possessed state, she doesn’t want to hurt Jess. But she gives in to peer pressure and chucks the pumpkin on the ground, accidentally lighting some leaves on fire with the candle inside.

As the eclipse begins, Jessica has a bad feeling and tells Steven she needs to go back home. Elizabeth is unable to break her trance as she watches the leaves catch fire, putting the house at risk. Jess arrives pretty quickly and starts to put on the fire before anyone even notices it. Liz throws the mask in, finally destroying it. The twins are extremely grateful to Corinna for helping them out, though Jess can’t help but wonder if Corinna was an innocent victim when someone else was cursed by the mask, or if she was the one who burned down her own house and killed her family. That’s…messed up for a book for preteens.

Thoughts: Clearly, the ghostwriter saw The Mask and wanted to adapt it for middle-schoolers.

I actually feel bad for Jessica in this book. No one wants a mean sibling.

Looks like Jess learned nothing from the Nora situation about not assuming people are witches. Why am I not surprised?

Ned, parent of the year, re: Elizabeth’s behavioral changes and horrible new friends: “She’s just going through a phase. It’s nothing to worry about.” Again, why am I not surprised?

What DOES surprise me is that Janet and Lila don’t consider themselves too told to go trick-or-treating.

May 9, 2017

SVT #90, The Cousin War: Blockin’ Robin

Posted in books tagged , , , , , at 5:11 pm by Jenn

No one wears her hair like that

Summary: Cousin Robin is coming to visit for two weeks while her parents are on a trip for their anniversary. (No mention of Robin’s younger sister Stacey, so I guess she’s Home Alone-ing it.) Jessica’s top priority while Robin is in town is to find her cousin a “vacation boyfriend.” There’s a Sadie Hawkins dance coming, and she wants to get Robin hooked up with someone. Jessica herself is interested in a guy named Juan, an exchange student from Argentina. She has no problem ditching Aaron…even though, awkwardly, Aaron’s family is Juan’s host family.

A bunch of sixth-graders go bowling together one afternoon, though Elizabeth has to skip the fun to work on a special issue of The Sixers. She asks Todd to be nice to Robin, since she doesn’t know anyone except Jessica. Robin and Todd hit it off, while Jessica tries to get to know Juan better. Robin quickly falls in luv with Todd, telling Elizabeth all about her new crush without mentioning his name. Liz has no idea that her cousin is interested in her sort-of boyfriend. And Jessica has no idea that her new crush, Juan, is interested in Robin.

Robin gets a note and some candy from a secret admirer and figures that Todd is trying to express his interest. Jessica thinks Robin is interested in Juan, so she wants to make a move before her cousin does. When she learns that Robin actually likes Todd, she decides to use this to her advantage – she’ll send Robin after Todd to keep her away from Juan. She doesn’t care that this might hurt Liz. She just wants Juan all to herself.

When Robin gets another secret-admirer note, Jessica eggs her on to go ask Todd to the dance already. But when Robin goes to Casey’s to talk to him, she sees him with Elizabeth. Robin is immediately furious with her cousin, thinking Liz is trying to steal her man. Because she’s 12, she doesn’t stop to think about how Elizabeth and Todd might have already had something going, or that Elizabeth couldn’t steal Todd from Robin when she didn’t know Robin liked him, or that you can’t steal a guy from someone he’s not actually dating. All Robin knows is that her cousin betrayed her.

Jessica sees this is a great time to ask Juan to the dance, but first she needs to make sure Robin doesn’t find out that Liz and Todd are together. She pretends to be Elizabeth and asks Todd to accept when Robin inevitably asks him to the dance. Liz won’t be attending herself since she’s so busy with the Sixers issue. Robin asks Todd to the dance, and he says yes, so he’s really surprised when the real Elizabeth is upset with him for agreeing to go on a date with another girl.

Jess asks Juan to the dance, and he admits that he was hoping Robin would ask him. She tells him Robin’s going with someone else, so Juan accepts her invitation. Meanwhile, Todd feels bad about accidentally hurting Elizabeth, so he backs out of the date with Robin. Robin is stunned to learn that Todd and Liz are sort of dating. Also, now she knows that Juan is her secret admirer, not Todd, and she’s lost her chance to go to the dance with him. To her credit, she feels bad about the way she treated Liz.

To make amends, Robin invites Todd over the night of the dance so she can smooth things over with Liz. The three of them figure out that Jess masqueraded as her twin to get Todd to accept the date with Robin. As retaliation, Elizabeth pretends to be Jessica and tells Juan that Robin wants to be with him. Then Liz gets to go to the dance with Todd, while Robin gets to hang out with her secret admirer, and Jess is alone. Well, at least until she learns that Aaron was helping Juan win over Robin, in part because he didn’t want Juan to be with Jessica. Jess thinks jealousy is hot, so she’s back to liking Aaron. Ick.

Thoughts: Robin knows her way around Sweet Valley pretty well for someone who’s only visited a few times.

“What was the big deal about Robin, anyway?” So Jessica throws over Elizabeth and helps Robin steal Todd, and then wonders what’s so great about her. JESSICA, YOU ARE A HORRIBLE PERSON.

“Then it hit her. The only reason Elizabeth would dress just like Jessica was if she wanted everyone to think she was Jessica.” Check out the big brain on Jess!

May 2, 2017

SVT #89, Jessica’s Cookie Disaster: Sweet Misery

Posted in books tagged , , at 5:02 pm by Jenn

If that blonde is supposed to be Jessica, the artist drew her wrong

Summary: Thanks to a recent unexpected A on a test, Jessica is close to making the honor roll. She suddenly starts caring about her grades and being smart. She gets the chance to earn some extra credit in home ec, which will give her a needed boost – all she has to do is make the best cookies in the class. But a fight with Elizabeth leaves Jess baking on her own, and she barely has enough time to finish her cookies (and make them properly). She basically throws a bunch of stuff together and hopes for the best. She fights with Liz again and, distracted, spills some flavors into her batter, making Jess think she’s sunk. She adds some purple food coloring to try to salvage the day.

Surprisingly, the cookies turn out terrific, and Jessica easily gets the extra-credit points. Her teacher, Mrs. Gerhart, knows someone who works on a cooking show, and she wants to send her Jessica’s cookies to see if she’ll get booked as a guest. Jess is ecstatic because the show, Lifestyles of the French and Famous, is her new obsession, and a few simple minutes of work could land her in the spotlight. The twins make up, but when Ned and Alice reward Jessica for her good grades, Liz starts to get a little jealous.

Mrs. Gerhart’s friend books Jessica on Lifestyles of the French and Famous, asking her to bring 400 cookies for the audience. Jess enlists the Unicorns to help her bake, agreeing to call the treats Unicookies, even though this will take away some of her spotlight. The girls seem to think that having a signature cookie will make them even more popular.

The problem is that Jessica doesn’t remember all the ingredients that went into her batter. She makes herself out to be a genius in a Sixers interview with Liz, though she secretly had nothing to do with how well the cookies turned out. The Unicorns keep asking for her “secret ingredient,” and Jessica keeps playing up the “secret” angle, like she doesn’t want to share what made the first batch such a success.

Eventually, she has to confess, so the Unicorns decide to try a bunch of different things to figure out the secret ingredient. When this goes poorly, Lila comes up with the idea to hypnotize Jessica into remembering her baking process from class. This also fails, though Tamara accidentally gets hypnotized instead of Jess. It’s the most interesting thing Tamara has ever done or will ever do in this series.

In one last attempt at replicating the cookies, the Unicorns use the home-ec room in hopes that being in the same location as her triumph will help Jessica recreate it. This soon devolves into a big food fight, and the girls all get in trouble. They have to clean up the room and each write a two-page essay explaining why their behavior was inappropriate. The best essay will be published in the Sixers as an example to the rest of the school (and to embarrass the writer).

The Unicorns are done baking cookies and won’t be putting their name on Jessica’s failures anymore. She’s on her own to come up with 400 cookies for the show. Lila secretly orders some cookies from a Swiss bakery, hoping to swoop in and save the day, plus steal the spotlight from Jessica. I can’t wait until Mr. Fowler gets that credit card bill and wonders why his daughter placed a rush order for 400 cookies.

Elizabeth has been working overtime to try to make the principal’s list (the honor roll for straight-A-plus students, AKA super-nerds), wanting to regain some of the glory she feels she’s lost to Jess. She eventually puts her brains to good use, setting up the Wakefields’ kitchen with the same supplies and circumstances as the setting of Jessica’s success. She even picks a fight to make Jess mad so she’ll spill her flavors again. Of course, this works perfectly, and the girls determine that the secret ingredients are almond powder, almond extract, and extra vanilla.

With one problem solved, the girls face a much more daunting one: They still have to bake 400 cookies for the show. Fortunately, Ned, Alice, and a reluctant Steven are available to help. The family stays up half the night working together to produce 400 delicious cookies (which none of them wants to taste, since they’re sick of baking). Jessica dubs them JEM cookies; the J and E are for the twins, and the M is because Jess thought JEM sounded good. (Maybe it’s for her musical alter-ego. Also, if she’d called them JEW cookies for Jessica-Elizabeth-Wakefield, Brian couldn’t eat them.)

Since the Unicorns abandoned her at her time of need, Jessica lets them think she’s going to make a fool of herself by showing up to Lifestyles of the French and Famous without any cookies. Lila believes she’s still going to be the one to save the day. Instead, the twins make a splash on the show, while Lila drops all of her boxes of expensive Swiss cookies on the way to the studio and ruins her outfit. Womp womp. Sadly, despite making the best cookies people have ever tasted, Jessica gets a D+ on another home-ec assignment and loses her shot at the honor roll. Double womp womp.

Thoughts: This book is basically that Friends episode where Monica tries to recreate Phoebe’s grandmother’s cookie recipe, only that episode had a punchline.

I find it hard to believe that out of all the people who tried the cookies, not one person recognized the almond flavor.

Jessica combines pineapple and licorice flavors. The thought of that makes me feel like I need to lie down.

The punishment of possibly having your essay on your bad behavior published for everyone to read is clever, but what’s to stop you from just writing bad essay to avoid having yours chosen?

Elizabeth: “Just an A. Not an A+. Dang.” Urge to kill, rising…

April 25, 2017

SVT #88, Steven Gets Even: Pranks a Lot

Posted in books tagged , , , , , , , , at 4:53 pm by Jenn

I’m so glad I don’t have to live next door to these people

Summary: Even though it’s not Halloween, Mr. Bowman wants his class to study scary books, starting with Frankenstein. Each student also has to pick a scary story that’s at least 20 years old and write a report about it. All the kids think this will be a piece of cake – nothing more than 20 years old is going to scare them. These kids are the reason slasher movies have gotten so grotesque. Mr. Bowman suggests that Elizabeth read The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is dumb – it’s not a horror story.

The kids slowly realize that the stories Mr. Bowman wants them to read are scarier than they expected. Jessica gets spooked when he reads Dracula in class, and afterward, none of the girls wants to go to the bathroom alone. I’d make fun of them but I’ve been watching The Vampire Diaries, and there’s definitely safety in numbers where vampires are concerned. Some spooky stuff happens in the bathroom, and Jessica hears glass breaking and sees a hand turning off the lights. It turns out Bruce, Aaron, Brian, and Charlie Cashman were just pulling a prank. Now Jess wants revenge.

Inspired by a trick Steven pulls with a knife, pretending he cut off his finger (and he probably shouldn’t pull that with his parents around, because Ned practically has a heart attack), Jessica pulls the old gross-finger-in-the-candy-box prank on Charlie while Mr. Bowman is reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the class. Elizabeth finds a Barbie hanging in her locker, dripping with fake blood, and the kids officially kick off a “scare war,” boys vs. girls. It’s mainly the twins, Lila, Janet, Amy, Maria, and Mandy against the four boys.

Since the girls are unsure what will actually scare the boys, they decide to use Steven to test out some pranks. Steven is a lot more gullible and prankable than you’d expect, considering he’s the one who’s usually pulling tricks. The girls become savvier and less scareable, to the boys’ dismay. However, they’re also getting spooked by Edgar Allan Poe stories and other stuff they said wouldn’t frighten them.

By the end of the week, Steven is scared to be in his own house because his sisters have been pulling so many pranks on him. They’re having a sleepover on Friday, and Ned and Alice will be out for a while, so he figures this is a good time to get revenge. The four boys show up to scare the girls, who quickly come up with a plan to spook them back, using glow-in-the-dark paint and sleeping bags to fool them into thinking there are weird floating faces outside the house. When Elizabeth realizes Charlie is dressed as a mummy, she drenches him with the hose. The boys admit defeat in the scare war, so the girls make them cluck like chickens and call the girls “Your Awesomeness” for a week.

Steven gets his revenge by making scary noises in the basement, where he’s been hiding the whole night, having made the girls think he was out somewhere. Jessica hides in the pantry, thinking there’s some sort of monster in the basement. The other girls have to face off with the “monster,” but Steven can’t keep from laughing, so he gets busted pretty easily. He tells the younger kids that they’re all wimps, so the girls’ win in the scare war doesn’t really mean anything. Then Ned and Alice scare everyone with masks. I don’t know. This book was probably fun to read when I was younger, but now it’s pretty weak.

Thoughts: “Kids today are too sophisticated to be frightened by a story like Frankenstein.” Are you sure, Amy? Are you sure you’re sophisticated? (I hope Mr. Bowman heard about all the scaring afterward and teased the kids about thinking they were unscareable.)

Why is Aaron still hanging out with Brian?

Here it is, the greatest sentence to appear in any Sweet Valley book: “‘I want to go home!’ Bruce sobbed.”

April 18, 2017

SVT Super Chiller #8, The Secret of the Magic Pen: Ghostwriter

Posted in books tagged , , at 5:11 pm by Jenn

Oh, come on, this didn’t happen

Summary: You’d think that after so many summers, the twins would have found a number of ways to entertain themselves, but no, they’re already bored. Fortunately, their parents don’t want to have to put up with them, so they’re being sent to Camp Faraway for two weeks. Come on, Ned and Alice, shell out for the whole summer! Imagine how quiet the house will be! Elizabeth has decided that this is the summer she’ll write a novel, and she thinks that Faraway, which offers writing classes, will be the perfect setting. Someone needs to talk to Liz about her writing process, though, since she wants to write a mystery but has no actual plot in mind and no idea what she’s doing.

Other than Mandy Miller, the twins don’t know anyone at camp. Of course, since they’re such wonderful people, they immediately make friends. Jessica hits it off with a girl named Miranda, who’ also an actress, and Liz connects with Starr, who is obsessed with Shakespeare and gets on my nerves within two pages of her introduction. There’s also an annoying girl named Priscilla who I think is supposed to be a southern belle, but she’s a southern belle as written by a ghostwriter who doesn’t know anyone about southern belles. I guess she’s the antagonist of the book, but she’s not very good at it.

The camp owner, Gunnie (…what is that even a nickname for?), tells everyone that some famous people were campers there as kids. One is Roland Barge, who gained fame writing thrillers before he disappeared. Also, there were murders on the property decades ago. Raise your hand if you would send your daughter to camp at a place where people were once murdered. Now go sit in the corner and think about your parenting decisions, you monsters.

The girls’ awesome counselor, Heather, takes them to Hangman’s Cave for a little expedition. Yes, sign me right up for a trip to Hangman’s Cave on the property of Camp Murder. Elizabeth finds a glowing pen stuck near the wall and decides to use it to write her book. I’m sure one pen – which is very old, so the ink has probably dried up – is all she’ll need for an entire manuscript. She figures she’ll get some inspiration from the research she does while writing an article about Barge.

While Jessica gets into her acting classes (and dreads having to go up against Priscilla in an audition for a play called The Royal Switch), Elizabeth starts working on her article. Only she finds herself writing a story, unclear on where the idea or words came from. Her handwriting even looks different. The story is about a servant named Amelia Champlain who works at a manor 70 years ago. She wants to be a writer, but a fellow servant named Richard Bittle thinks she should keep that to herself, since servants aren’t allowed to have dreams or aspirations. Amelia writes a story, but after she has Richard read it, she sees the title page in the fireplace. She figures the wind blew the whole manuscript into the fire. There goes Amelia’s dream!

Jessica gets her script for The Royal Switch, but when she gets up from the table where she’s reading, it disappears. She finds the title page in the fireplace, just like Amelia did in Elizabeth’s story. This combined with Elizabeth’s story that came out of nowhere make Liz think something eerie is going on. Jessica thinks she’s nuts for believing there could be something supernatural going on with the pen. Strange, since Liz is usually the skeptic, while Jess once thought she was psychic and could predict earthquakes.

Elizabeth does more research on Barge, learning that his earlier novels were well-liked, but his last one was a critical disaster. Meanwhile, Jessica lands the lead in the play, of course. Priscilla gives a horrible audition and then basically disappears from the story. Even with the dumbness of the main plot (I mean, a supernatural pen?), it’s still more interesting than Priscilla, the weakest “villain” this series has ever produced.

Liz’s article gets pushed aside when more of the story comes to her. Richard asks Amelia to meet him on the lake, but when she goes out in a boat, it sinks and she almost drowns. The fisherman who saves her tells her that someone stabbed holes in the boat to make it sink. In the present, Jessica goes out on the lake in a boat and also almost drowns. Elizabeth saves her and freaks out about Jess’s life paralleling Amelia’s.

Gunnie provides some information on Barge, whose real name was…drumroll…Richard Bittle. He was in love with a servant named Amelia, who disappeared one day, leaving behind a note saying she’d run off with another man. Elizabeth finds this suspicious, though not as suspicious as the fact that she’s been writing about things that actually happened. For once in her life, Elizabeth makes a smart decision: She tells Jess they need to call their parents and get the frick away from Camp Murder. Jessica refuses, because she needs to have her big stage debut. The show must go on, even if your life is in danger.

Elizabeth backs down and goes back to her article on Barge. She reads his first novel, Death of a Hangman, which takes place in Hangman’s Cave and involves a murderer being killed by the ghosts of his victims. She continues writing her story, which features Richard luring Amelia to Hangman’s Cave and strangling her. Scared that Jessica will face the same fate, Elizabeth grabs Gunnie and takes her to the cave, where they find Jess about to be strangled by…a ghost, I guess.

Elizabeth writes the rest of the story on the wall of the cave, and it’s now clear that Amelia has been telling her story through the pen and Liz. Richard strangled Amelia and drowned her in a pool in the cave so he could steal all the books she somehow had time to write. The one she had him read wasn’t burned after all; Richard just got rid of the title page to fool her. They find the rest of Amelia’s manuscripts under the stables, along with Richard’s last novel. He wrote that one himself because he had no more of Amelia’s to publish under his own name.

Gunnie and the twins then find Richard’s journal, in which he confesses his crimes. He regrets murdering the woman he loved just so he could get a little fame. Everyone wondered where he disappeared to after his disastrous last novel was published, but the journal gives the explanation: He killed himself. How cheery in a book for preteens.

Elizabeth writes a big article about Barge, which gets published both in the camp newspaper and in a local paper. Everyone thinks it’s quality work and Liz has a great career ahead of her. Jessica also gets rave reviews for the play. I’m so sure a paper is reviewing a camp performance. Liz’s story being published outside of the camp paper at least makes sense, since Barge was a famous writer. But I wonder if she included the part about the magic pen channeling a woman who’s been dead for 70 years.

Thoughts: “There’s nothing else to do this summer. I might as well accomplish something.” That’s probably not as funny as I thought it was.

Jessica’s “always dreamed about going away to camp,” so I guess The Big Camp Secret never happened.

The Unicorns have really screwed with Jessica. When Miranda gives her a compliment after an acting exercise, Jess is “a little surprised. Whenever she competed with Lila or the other Unicorns, they never admitted that she’d done a good job. Is it because Miranda’s super confident?” Oh, sweetie, no. It’s because she’s a nice person, unlike your so-called friends.

Miranda calls Jessica’s purple walking shorts “dramatic.” Okay, Miranda.

Starr: “‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ That’s from Hamlet.” Me: “Shut up, Starr. That’s from me.”

Next page