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Backlist Books: ‘The Lying Game’ series by Sara Shepard

Credit: HarperTeen

‘Sup readers? Welcome to Fan Fest’s latest venture into the world of literature, Backlist Books. Unlike its sister column, On The Shelf, which reviews brand new books every week, Backlist Books is for people whose TBR (To Be Read) pile is taller than they are. It took me awhile to determine the criteria for this column— the age of the book in question, its genre, its target readership— but that was the easy part. Backlist Books will deal with the following:

1) Books that are at least six months old. Readers are constantly being persuaded to buy the newest, shiniest bestsellers off the shelves, before they can be transformed into a movie or TV show. But once a book reaches six months old, it’s lost some of its shine, pushed aside by other contenders both in and outside of its genre.

2) Much like On The Shelf, Backlist Books won’t be confined to any genre. Nothing is off the table.

3) I’m not sure how regular of a thing this will be. I genuinely want to delve into the past and the best (or worst) it has to offer, but older books (especially older series) can be harder to track down and more expensive than readily-available new releases. Plus, reading an entire series takes more time than reading an individual novel, which brings me to my next point:

4) Unlike On The Shelf, Backlist Books can deal with the entirety of a series rather than a single book. I’m not sure if series will be divided between articles, but we’ll work out the kinks as time goes on. The very first series on Backlist Books’ docket? If you watched MTV in 2011, you’ll be well-versed in Pretty Little Liars, the high-stakes teen drama about a group of girls being tormented by the dead HBIC that used to rule their clique, as well as their school.Thanks to its success, the network turned to Sara Shepard— the writer of the Pretty Little Liars book series— to adapt another one of her series, The Lying Game.

As a TV show, Shepard’s The Lying Game was more of a loose interpretation rather than a faithful adaptation; it only lasted two seasons, ending on a cliffhanger, and had deviated so far from the source material that the only thing it could claim to have in common with the books was the title. So, if you were into The Lying Game TV show, is it worth it to backpedal to the books, especially in 2017?

The short answer is it depends on what you’re looking for. Shepard’s series, published between 2010 and 2013, consists of six novels (The Lying Game, Never Have I Ever, Two Truths And A Lie, Hide And Seek, Cross My Heart, Hope To Die, and Seven Minutes In Heaven) and two prequel novellas (The First Lie and True Lies). The Lying Game is, definitely, conceptually, creepier than Pretty Little Liars, which probably needs its own column at some point.

The Lying Game follows identical twins who were separated at birth— Emma Paxton, who was kept by her biological mother Becky, only to be abandoned and left at the mercy of the foster care system at five years old, and Sutton Mercer, who was given up for adoption as a baby and landed, feet-first, into her very own Charmed Life. Sutton has the loving family that Emma has always wanted, the ostentatious wealth that Emma, a frequent thrift store shopper, is bewildered by, and the popularity that Emma, a “fade-into-the-background” survivalist, goes out of her way to avoid. The twist, aside from their polar opposite personalities?

Emma and Sutton don’t know about each other until after Sutton’s death, when her murderer, posing as Sutton, lures Emma to Arizona, first with empty promises of meeting her sister, then with malicious threats to be a Sutton stand-in— or else she’ll be framed for Sutton’s murder, and sent to prison. Emma is forced to assume Sutton’s life— wear her clothes, sleep in her bed, canoodle with her boyfriend, gossip with her best friends— all the while trying to solve  of her murder. Meanwhile, as a ghost, Sutton has lost her memories. She is trapped between life and death, attached to the sister she never knew, with only one concrete certainty in her head: whoever killed her won’t hesitate to kill her sister, and everyone else Sutton loves, if Emma doesn’t play along.

The Good:

The books in The Lying Game are all bite-sized— under 400 pages— each one examining Sutton’s life as a mean girl, and the vulnerability of her last night on earth. I absolutely recommend this as a binge-read series. It’s fast-paced and addictive, with dramatic twists that don’t require any suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Shepard’s characters are believable and distinctive; throughout the course of the series, despite her death, Sutton grows up and truly understands the consequences of her actions, while Emma, under the watchful eye of an unhinged killer, becomes increasingly jumpy, paranoid, and beaten-down. She never loses her tether to sanity, but the line wobbles precariously at times, particularly in the last few installments. Despite their night-and-day personalities, with Sutton being a former spoiled brat with a mean streak and Emma being the adaptable wallflower with a genuinely kind heart, both are characters you can root for. Both girls were traumatized by their biological mother’s abandonment, and even though Sutton was given the keys to her very own kingdom in the aftermath, she feels inferior and out-of-place, despite the love her adoptive family clearly showers her with. Emma, meanwhile, is just an ordinary girl trying to do the right thing and bring a killer to justice, while mourning the twin sister she would have, ironically, killed for. Sutton is, at first, malicious and vindictive, while Emma has trouble catching onto Sutton’s friends’ catty outlook and the way popularity works. It’s also cool that, as Emma gathers clues, Sutton retrieves her lost memories, putting them both on the same page in the investigation. Shepard navigates all of this so smoothly, it’s a joy to read, and she ups the stakes in each novel, making sure that both the characters and readers know time is running out, for both Emma and Sutton. The eventual resolution is bone-chilling (the background more than the reveal), and the series as a whole benefits from being read in rapid succession; taking too much time away definitely lowers the suspense levels a few notches.

The Bad:

Honestly, The Lying Game didn’t need to be as long as it was. The last book is jammed full of plot, while its predecessors are stretched thin, left feeling almost bare in retrospect. A pattern quickly emerges throughout the series, where the entirety of each book is usually spent suspecting, then clearing, someone who could be Sutton’s killer. I mean, I can’t hate Sara Shepard for wanting to keep cashing in on the series’ success, I’m just glad it didn’t turn into a Pretty Little Liars-esque saga, I don’t think I would have had the patience to go beyond that sixth book. Okay, I probably could have been persuaded to devour a seventh…

But if you’re one of those people who prefers a one-and-done mystery, The Lying Game may frustrate more than enthrall.

Does It Hold Up Now:

As far as older books go, stuff from 2010 hasn’t always aged well in 2017. But I’m glad this was on my backlist, and I can definitely see myself recommending it to people who are into YA suspense, regardless of the year. If you’d like to check out The Lying Game book series, you can check out the first book here.