Sara Shepard is the New York Times bestselling author of the Pretty Little Liars series which went on to become a popular television show. After sixteen books in the series, she’s set to debut a new mystery series based on a group of young cyber-sleuths who get together to solve notorious crimes. The Amateurs is scheduled to be released on November 1st of this year and can be pre-ordered through Amazon now. Disney-Hyperion | Hardcover | November, 2016 | 320 pp
Seneca Frazier is a college drop-out with demons, but one way she fights those demons is to log on to the message boards of Case Not Closed, an online community of internet detectives dedicated to researching open cases of disappearances and murders. When she sees an open thread of a girl begging for help in a case Seneca knew very well, it was the perfect opportunity for her to meet her best online friend (made in the same community) and look into an old murder.
Helena Kelly disappeared five years ago while building a snowman with her younger sister Aerin. The daughter of a wealthy family in the ‘burbs who goes missing always makes national headlines. And when her body was found a year after her disappearance with no clues, the case was even more alluring. It was Aerin who had made the post in Case Not Closed. The younger sister who’s now a messed up teen with ice in her veins broke down one evening, begging for help. She never really expected to receive it.
Seneca travels to meet up with her best online friend Maddy who happens to live one town over from the Kellys. After months of talking online, intimate conversations, and debates about ongoing investigations, Seneca knew everything there was to know about Maddy – except for one small detail. This was the first time they would be meeting in person, and Seneca had no idea that Maddy is a guy. At first, Seneca felt betrayed while Maddy (which stands for Maddox) can’t understand why his best friend seems so different in person than she does online. And after a disastrous first stop at the infamous Kelly house to meet Aerin, Seneca calls it quits and decides to head home.
Fate intervenes, and the young detectives put aside differences and get to work. The trio is joined by Brett – another member of Case Not Closed, and Maddy’s step-sister Madison.
The group begins to surreptitiously interview people in the glamorous town of Dexby, a suburb dotted with mcmansions, sprawling lawns, country clubs, and people who only seems to care about appearances. Crashing parties and getting drunk is all a part of their guise – not really. But it works for them. As they get closer to uncovering clues, they get warnings from a mysterious person dressed in black. They are getting close, and someone knows it.
Encircling the main story is a mishmash of teen drama unfolding within the group: Maddy is falling hard for his best friend Seneca but has a psycho semi-girlfriend who is threatening him, Seneca is nursing wounds from another murder that happened years prior, Aerin can’t/won’t get close to anyone and drinks to oblivion, and Brett has a strange past no one expected.
Admittedly, this is my first Sara Shepard book and I’m not familiar with her story lines and plot sequences. I’ve never read the Pretty Little Liars series and I couldn’t tell you if the format is the same or not. But I can tell you that I didn’t expect the ending. Completely blindsided. This is a Scooby-Doo type of mystery and I had my theories – my potential bad guys were shortlisted. The case is solved by the readers, but not by the characters and the end sets it up for a second in the series and I have to admit – I’m hooked after that end – I really am. And I didn’t think I would be for much of the read.
I had a difficult time relating to the teens in this story. Living the high life, partying – sex, drugs, rock-n-roll – with no consequences simply because they were rich and spoiled – I wanted to slap half of them. It’s a generational read with maturity issues – I get that. Seneca and Maddy are not in this group of high rollers but these two were also as infuriating, especially Seneca’s inability to read between the lines and show a bit of empathy. Character flaws are expected, but so many of them prevented me from connecting.
So, while my eyes were rolling through half of the fluff, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself closing the book and thinking – oh, I have GOT to know what happens next. Didn’t see that coming.
The Amateurs is a provocative teen read that doesn’t attempt to delude readers with righteous personalities and semblances of perfection. Although not recommended to younger teens, this is a hearty YA mystery with a down-to-earth voice that keeps it real with the younger generation. Watch out for that end – it’ll nab you.
by Sara Shepard