The Unicorn Club #1: Save the Unicorns!

The Unicorn Club 1: Save the Unicorns
The Unicorn Club 1: Save the Unicorns

Title: Save the Unicorns!

Tagline: Unicorn Makeover…

Summary: We’d finally made it to seventh grade and it looked like the Unicorn Club was history. When a dare war between Jessica Wakefield and Lila Fowler went wrong we all got sentenced to working thirty hours in a day-care center with ten screaming little brats.

That was when the Unicorn Club started to change in ways you’d never expect. Life isn’t all makeovers and gossip and boys, y’know. But just when we’d finally changed our ways, Mr. Clark, the principal, handed down the final punishment – the Unicorn Club was dissolved for good.

I guess Mr. Clark didn’t know that Unicorns never give up!

Mandy Miller

Initial Thoughts:

I know Raven was supposed to recap this, but I read it and wanted to recap it – and he was kind of busy, so glad to get something off his desk. So Raven’s picking up my recap in two weeks’ time instead. Now, on with the show.

Well. First person is a bold choice, isn’t it? We’ve had around 150 books solidly in third person, but I remember first person being a huge trend around the end of the 90s/early 00s, so maybe they were hopping on that.

The problem is, if you hate the narrator, you’re stuck there. It’s why I don’t really like Hunger Games or Twilight, but quite enjoy the movies. Yes, I quite enjoy the Twilight movies. Sue me. The books are still drek.

Also, the Unicorns have been bitchy little harpies of late, with no redeeming features. Lila and Jessica were particularly useless in No Escape!, and the writing was bloody terrible in the Team Sweet Valley books. However, the Unicorn Club was actually released before them, even though it’s set in seventh grade, so who knows how this will go.

Well, at least they picked Mandy Miller for the first narrator, and honestly, I think she’d be my number one pick. She’s a nice person and she’s funny. Ellen can be hit or miss on characterisation. Lila’s generally consistent, but as a POV character in the hands of the wrong writer, she could be terrible too. Mary, meh, either of the twins, FUCK NO, and… well, everyone else in the club is just a mass of glad-handing yes-men to Janet Howell.

[Raven: I had no idea about this sub-series’s narrative conceits, and when I heard I rolled my eyes a little. But Mandy is cool, I guess, and it IS a fresh slant on a tired format. After 130+ books, things could use a shakeup.]

[Wing: I hate, hate, HATE first person narration in books because I almost never want to spend that much time in one character’s head (there are rare exceptions, including the Baby-Sitters Club at times, but a lot of that series is nostalgia, let’s be honest); I was surprised by this conceit, and I am deeply displeased. I’m going into this primed to dislike it, so that’s an awesome start to this series.]

Recap:

We open with Mandy ruminating on the state of things in the Land of Unicorns. Janet has moved on to Sweet Valley High, and the club is currently operating without a president. [Raven: This reflects badly on the Unicorns. Literally.] Lila and Jessica have both put themselves forward to take her place, but no decisions have been made.

Also, Mandy’s feeling a bit out of sorts. Previously, being in the youngest grade of middle school, there was no pressure, but now she’s feeling obligated to know more and be more. It’s not as bad as eighth grade, sure, but there’s pressure.

She is attending a Unicorn meeting at the Wakefield Compound, and – jeez, I don’t know how to process this – she is describing their living room. We have had 143 books so far and do you know how many have described the Wakefield Compound? Zero. “Spanish tiled kitchen” doesn’t count. Neither does “split level ranch house”, which is, according to my good friend JC, impossible, because a ranch house is one level, and a split level is… well, split.

For those that are wondering:

The living room is large and sunny, and all the furniture is done in different tones of green and yellow. There’s a sliding glass door that separates the room from the backyard, where red and yellow flowers are planted in the beds on the other side of the swimming pool. Being in the Wakefield living room is like sitting in a garden. It has that designer touch, if you know what I mean. I guess it’s because Mrs. Wakefield is a designer.

It sounds fucking foul, but then again, what do I know. My entire house is magnolia. In my last house, we got permission to paint the bathroom which I did in pink and grey, and when I told a colleague about it, she said, “Well done, Dove. You decorated your bathroom in work’s official palette.” So I know nothing. [Raven: The curse of the perennial renters, doomed to be beige until those six numbers come up.]

Oooh, you know what first person brings to the table? A lack of that annoying same-but-different paragraph. Mandy still explains the twins are identical but have different styles, but it’s nice to not read the same paragraph we’ve read 143 times already.

The style, by the way, is that Mandy is talking to you, the reader, rather than it being a strict first person experience. [Wing: While I like a fourth-wall break far more than I like first person in general, this is still too much first person and too little me liking it enough to want to keep reading.]

Mandy notes that Elizabeth had the opportunity to join the Horned Harpies last year but turned them down, and that actually, the group does do a lot of gossiping and swooning over boys. Mandy adds that her interests are starting to change, she’d rather read something that watch TV and she has an interest in current events. She still loves talking about clothes and boys, but she doesn’t think it’s the be-all and end-all. She sees Elizabeth outside with Maria and thinks that she’d like to talk to them as well as the Unicorns.

Also, the Unicorn herd has been thinned significantly, so here’s the list of who’s gone:

  • Janet Howell – Sweet Valley High
  • Tamara Chase – Sweet Valley High [Raven: FUCK YOU, TAMARA CHASE.]
  • Grace Oliver – Sweet Valley High, apparently she’s a great student and has skipped eighth grade. Which is weird because she was a very average student who was in the sixth grade with the twins, being demonstrably present in the twins’ classes. So she must have grown a brain and skipped two grades.
  • Kimberley Haver – moved to Atlanta.
  • Belinda Layton – now goes to the private school, Lovett Academy. No reason on why. Also, why is a working class girl going to private school, but not the ultra-rich Lila or Bruce? [Wing: Sports scholarship is my theory.]

The remaining members of the Unicorn Club are:

  • Jessica Wakefield
  • Lila Fowler
  • Mary Wallace
  • Ellen Riteman (thank god, I worried that they were cleaning house to be more in line with Sweet Valley High canon); and
  • Mandy Miller

What about Betsy Gordon? Everyone forgot about her, I guess. Well, I guess she’s easily mixed up with Betsy Martin, who is an irredeemable whore. [Raven: I forgot about Betsey Gordon.]

Lila makes a play for leadership by offering to host every meeting at her house, she thinks her father will let her redecorate the pool house in purple and have it as their official club house. This doesn’t go down well with the rest, who enjoy hosting the meetings… and so do their families.

*blinks*

I know I’m not the normal family setup, but when I was in trouble, my mum would yell at me for having friends over who ate her out of house and home. Then again, I suppose everyone here is quite wealthy and that’s not a problem for all these financially comfortable families. Even so, does Steven usually mock the Unicorn meetings and cause a bit of a ruckus? [Raven: I’m guessing this is processed through a Mandy-Filter. “Yeah Mandy, we looooove having your friends over for the Unicorn meetings.” Although I suppose it’s nice seeing your offspring have actual friends, so maybe I’m being mean.] [Wing: My house was one of the houses where people spent a great deal of time during junior high and high school, and my mother loved having them around. We weren’t all that financially comfortable, but she kept cheap food on hand for everyone. While I don’t believe every single family is glad to have them around, I do believe that some families would. Mine would have. We had an open-door policy, really. Ostrich has one, too, especially around holidays.]

Mary says that her mom would think they were taking advantage of the Fowlers if she hosted all of the meetings. Oh, it’s a pride thing. Ok then.

Failing that, Lila tries to take the title of president because she’s Janet’s cousin. They quickly point out it’s not a monarchy. Mandy suggests an election, but Mary has a better idea. Or a “better” idea. The president will be chosen the same way they were initiated, by dares.

Lila and Jessica each write a dare for the other to complete. The first to fail at their dare loses.

Lila has to use the boys’ bathroom and mousse up her hair. Jessica has to hide Mr Swenson’s chalk.

I don’t think they’re particularly balanced, and neither does Lila, but never mind that, because:

IT. IS. ON.
IT. IS. ON.

We cut to after the meeting, where Mandy is talking to Elizabeth and Maria. They bond over feeling out of place in seventh grade. Elizabeth is at a loose end because her whole life was The Sixers, but now she’s on 7 & 8 Gazette, but the older students have the best roles, so she’s got more free time. Mandy privately thinks that Elizabeth is also missing her BFF, Amy, who has been yeeted off to Connecticut, in order to play into the Sweet Valley High canon.

And I, for one, am deeply grateful. Aside from Elizabeth Solves it All, where Amy was actually interesting, and one line in No Escape!, Amy is a nothing character. She has nothing going on. She is beige paint. So long, personification of tedium! You will not be missed! [Raven: I’ll miss Amy. Largely because I now have to retire the phrase “Lank-Haired Spunkwaffle”.] [Dove: Don’t worry, you will see her again. Not least of all because I bet she’s in Goodbye Middle School and/or Next Stop Jr High, just to mess with the continuity because they were written out of order.] [Wing: I don’t dislike Amy as much as Dove does, but I don’t mourn her loss.]

Mandy then describes Maria as having “skin the color of milky coffee“, which was totally normal at the time, but totally not cool now. Don’t do this. She mentions Maria’s Hollywood background and she wishes she could be a costume designer, and that’s a really cool thing for Mandy to want. It works perfectly with her interest in performing and her love of putting together looks that really work – even without a Fowler-sized budget. [Wing: One thing I do love about this book is how much insight we get into Mandy as the narrator. I hope we’ll get that from other characters, too, and I’m looking forward to that. It’s nice to not be so tightly tied to the Wakefield twins.]

Maria suggests that Mandy join the drama club, and she says she might. She then asks Jessica whether she’ll join. Maybe not after her awful performance in The Slime that Ate Sweet Valley. Jessica says she won’t have time, because she’ll be president of the Unicorn Club. Elizabeth congratulates her on her win, and then Jessica has to explain the dare war. Elizabeth is not impressed and tells her to grow up.

In a show of her newfound maturity, Jessica stomps off and slams the door.

The next day, Lila has to perform her dare. She goes in, despite her nerves, and Randy Mason, Peter DeHaven and Rick Hunter come running out of the bathroom, furious and unnerved. Rick tells the Unicorns off, saying that if the boys had gone into the girls’ bathroom, they’d be furious about the invasion of privacy… and that’s actually a surprisingly enlightened point from a series that so far has lauded terrible parenting, lying, terrible life choices, and generally spread a message of toxicity so intense that it borders on radioactive. [Raven: Yeah, this came from left field. Approved.] [Wing: I both can’t believe it is included in this series and was from Rick Hunter, but it’s a very good point.]

This point hits home with Mandy, but it’s unclear whether it does with the other girls. Mary is suppressing a laugh. Mandy realises that sometimes when she’s with the Unicorns, she can get caught up in some pretty terrible behaviour, but it doesn’t seem terrible at the time.

When Rick threatens to tell the principal, Mr Clark, Jessica turns on the charm (pretty sure she doesn’t think they did anything wrong), and explains that it wasn’t about embarrassing the boys, it was just a dare to pick the new president.

He says fine, in a very grudging way, and moves on.

Lila then comes out of the bathroom with SUPER BIG HAIR, moussed to gigantic proportions, which is a nice touch. She and Jessica high-five, and I have to say, this book is really fixing all of the issues we’ve had with the Unicorn Club. They’re assholes, but they like each other and can give each other props for a job well done. In an SVT book, Jessica would have dreamed of beating Lila to death for having the audacity to not fuck up. [Raven: It’s nice to see the toxicity levels have dropped amongst the girls, now Janet Howell has exited stage left. Or maybe the catalyst for improvement is the loss of Tamara “FUCK YOU, TAMARA CHASE” Chase.] [Dove: Looking back, what was the point of Janet? Imagine how fun the entire SVT run would’ve been if the Unicorns were just a normal friend group who were really into makeup, boys and purple, instead of the harpies they were under Janet’s bizarre rule.] [Wing: They’re still pretty harpy-esque though. Mostly to other people but also sometimes to each other.]

We cut to science class, where Jessica has to steal the chalk. She plans to do it when the class breaks into groups, which is usually how class unfolds. However, Mr Swenson has been talking so long, it looks like that won’t happen today. Mandy decides to create a diversion. She gets to her feet and “trips” over her stool and crashes to the ground.

And this is where the writer changes Jessica for the better. Instead of running immediately to the chalk, her first instinct is to make sure that Mandy is ok, to the point where Mandy has to make nodding gestures to give Jessica the ok to steal the chalk. Which she does with ease.

And then we’re back to square one, so more dares have to be given out. Obviously things escalate.

Mary cleared her throat. “Lila hereby officially dares Jessica Wakefield to paint a purple stripe along the bank of lockers in the South Hall.”

Everybody gasped.

“And Jessica Wakefield hereby officially dares Lila Fowler to steal Mrs. Arnette’s hairnet and wear it to Casey’s ice cream parlor.”

Whoa!

Mandy thinks to herself that things are getting out of hand. She hopes that at least one of them will back down, but nobody does. [Raven: To be fair, that’s nice escalation there. At this rate, in another couple of rounds, Jessica will be dared to kill Ken Matthews.] [Dove: Fatality doesn’t last with Ken. Am I right, SVH-ers? 😉]

The next day the non-Unicorn students are not happy. Caroline Pearce, Randy Mason, Lois Waller (hi, sweet girl, let’s hope you get some characterisation soon), Peter DeHaven and Rick Hunter have all got purple paint on their clothes. Huh. So Jessica used paint-paint, rather than spray paint, which would have dried quicker? [Raven: Also, no offence to Team Peripheral here, but how fucking stupid are they to see their lockers are daubed with a MASSIVE PURPLE STRIPE but ignore it sufficiently to lean on the fucker? I’ve no sympathy, to be honest.]

Mandy had hoped that Jessica would oversleep and miss her chance to paint the lockers, but Jessica says that she stayed up all night so she wouldn’t oversleep. Been there. My poor American friends, particularly JC, are sick to death of me announcing when the sun comes up, because I can’t sleep and I like to keep a running commentary of my lack of sleep.

Randy says that he knows Jessica is behind the “prank” and he wishes they would just pick a new president already, because the school is getting bored of this nonsense. As the non-Unicorns walk away in disgust, Mr Clark appears. He tells the Unicorns that they’re on thin ice, and while he has no proof at the moment, he has very solid suspicions as to who is behind the paint prank. So behave. [Wing: Tech-wise, this would not really be possible anymore. Cameras everywhere in open spaces (though not classrooms because of union rules). Even Ostrich’s small school has a large number of cameras.]

As he walks away, Mary notes that for popular kids, they sure are disliked at the moment. [Raven: I’m pleasantly surprised that this is finally being addressed. Their “cool kid” monicker was always an informed attribute.]

After school, Mandy has to see Mrs Arnette about her book report and notes that she’s wearing her hairnet. From this she assumes that Lila must have failed her prank, and that means it’s all over. Thank god for that.

She walks into Casey’s, and once again we get description of the ice cream place that the kids have been visiting for over a hundred books. (Old fashioned, pictures from the 1890s on the walls, 50 different toppings and a jukebox.)

Lila is wearing a hairnet. It appears that she broke into the staff room and stole it from Mrs Arnette’s locker. Everyone is a bit shocked by this, since no student has ever been in the staff room before. Mandy thinks things have really gone too far.

But still no-one has won the dare war, so this time Mary suggests that they come up with a dare for Jessica and Lila, and the first person to pull it off wins.

Ellen then says she has the perfect dare. Mr Clark wears a toupee, and he works out on a rowing machine in his office every morning before school. When he changes into his workout gear, he hangs his toupee on the coatrack. Their dare is to steal it and hang it on the cafeteria door. (She learned this from Caroline Pearce.) [Raven: There’s a part of me that wants Caroline’s gossip to be completely untrue, and to see Jessica win the presidency after litery scalping the hirsuite Mr Clark with a butter knife.] [Wing: I laughed out loud.]

This is Mandy’s breaking point. She tells them all that she’s out, they can do what they want, but she doesn’t want to know. Jessica chases after her and demands to know why Mandy is acting like such a goody-goody. Mandy says if Mr Clark wears a toupee, that’s his business and walks away, furious that Jessica doesn’t get it. When Mandy had cancer, she had to wear a wig, and she would have been devastated if someone messed with it.

*standing ovation*

I know in most book series that kind of continuity would be par for the course, but this is Sweet Valley, where a character can rise from the dead if their kid needs picking up from the Dairi Burger. So, big fat kudos.

[Wing: Continuity is amazing but even moreso, I love the empathy Mandy shows. It makes a lot of sense that she can get caught up with her friends but she also has these deep feelings about this particular dare. It is personal for her in a way that allows her to see beyond how it feels to get caught up in the rush of the dare and the mob mentality.]

Mandy goes home and thinks about her friends and their behaviour.

That afternoon, I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to figure out what made the Unicorns act so thoughtless and mean when they were all together. None of us as individuals were mean. And we weren’t mostly very snobby, either.

Mary Wallace was really nice. She liked everybody and could always find something nice to say to people. Even people who were fat and unpopular, like Lois Waller. Mary was the kind of person who would always partner up with the unpopular kids in lab classes when nobody else would.

Jessica had a wonderful side, too. In fact, it had been Jessica who had first been my friend and gotten me into the Unicorn Club.

Lila seemed mean a lot of the time, but she wasn’t. Not really. She was just spoiled. Spoiled rotten, according to most people. But when you got right down to it, Lila was an incredibly loyal friend. She could be competitive, but if you really needed her, she was there.

Ellen?

Yeah. I had to admit Ellen could be mean and snobby. But that was because she was a follower. If the rest of us were acting mean and snobby, then Ellen acted mean and snobby. But if the rest of us were to shave our heads and take up yodeling, Ellen would be a bald yodeler.

Which brought me back to my original question:

What made the Unicorns act so mean and snobby? Was it because we were a club?

I pretty much agree with these character assessments. Although I’ve not actually seen evidence of Mary being friends with the unpopular and – *gasp* – fat people, only that she’s friends with both Unicorns and Elizabeth, which actually isn’t the same thing at all. [Raven: Gotta say, not too impressed with the line “Even people who were fat and unpopular, like Lois Waller.” It’s attributed to Mandy as a legitimate thought. Just nix the word “fat” and we’re golden.]

And I think this writer has absolutely nailed Ellen’s character.

While we’re talking about the author, she’s named as Alice Nicole Johansson, and I’m going to assume that’s still a pen name for a fleet of ghosties, because a quick google only shows her as the author of the Unicorn Club series. Does anyone know why this name was picked, or if any writers we know and love have written under her name? Basically, Alice, who the fuck is Alice?

Not sure if we’ve ever covered this but Jamie Suzanne got her name because Francine Pascal’s daughters were called Jamie and Suzanne. I have no idea why they picked Kate William as the name for Sweet Valley High, maybe she has two more kids?

Anyway, back to the story. Mandy asks her mom whether being in a club is bad. I have to say, this isn’t a great scene. I got a bit muddled about who was talking, and what they were trying to say, but the short version is: clubs make the world a bit smaller and therefore more manageable, and keeping people out of clubs isn’t necessarily bad, because if everyone was invited, you’d lose track of who’s who. A club is good if it brings out the best in people, and bad if it brings out the worst. [Wing: A simplistic but, I think, fair point.]

Also mentioned here is a delightful bit where Mandy remembers how they didn’t have much money after her medical bills, so they thrifted the kitchen furniture and were going to paint and stencil it. It turned out to be a huge job and while the Miller family were working on it, some Unicorns showed up. One phone call later and the entire club is happily working on making the kitchen beautiful. And damn, do I wish I’d seen that scene in the main series. I wish Elizabeth had too.

That night Mandy comes to a decision. This shit needs to stop. The Unicorns are capable of great things – like their kindness to her when she was sick – but they’re also capable of bad things, and that is where they need to draw a line. A dare war is a stupid way to run things.

Would we elect a class president because he or she was willing to play a mean practical joke?

No.

Would we elect a United States president because he or she was willing to go into the wrong bathroom?

No.

Um… let me fix that for you, Mandy.

Would we elect a class president because he or she was willing to play a mean practical joke?

No. Absolutely. And if he makes fun of the disabled, that’s even funner!

Would we elect a United States president because he or she was willing to go into the wrong bathroom?

No. Good god no. In fact, definitely vote for one that decides that the biological sex determined at birth is the only thing that matters when it comes to using a public bathroom.

[Raven: *polite applause*]

[Wing: Hard agree.]

Mandy is filled with plans to share her insight with her friends. Except because of her schedule and coursework, she doesn’t get to see them until lunchtime.

Which is way too late. Jessica and Lila have teamed up and successfully stolen Mr Clark’s toupee.

The Unicorns are delighted, sans Mandy, obv. She sees Elizabeth and Maria looking disappointed and embarrassed by the situation and Mandy thinks to herself that she feels exactly the same. She’s just about to lay into the Unicorns when Mr Clark shows up. Bald. (Side note: she thinks he actually looks better bald, but reads the room and knows not to say anything.) [Wing: Most people do! Embrace the bald/balding.]

They are frog-marched to the office for a telling-off.

We cut to Mandy at home being told off, firmly but gently, by her mom, who expressed deep disappointment in playing such a “mean-spirited, thoughtless prank”. She doesn’t shout or rage, her disappointment conveys everything she needs to say, and Mandy feels even worse than she already did. Mandy doesn’t even point out that she wasn’t in on the actual prank itself, because she knew about it and could have stopped it, but didn’t, therefore, by inaction, she is responsible. Just wow.

This is the first time I’m going to say this without sarcasm, but A+ parenting, Mrs Miller.

The next day they have a teacher/parent meeting with Mr Clark. All five Unicorns and their parents are present. Yes, including the never-present Mr Fowler, who flew home from New York last night. Jeez. This was written by someone who actually doesn’t hand-wave the important bits away. I’m fucking here for it. [Raven: It’s new and exciting!]

Mr Clark opens the meeting by checking everyone is up to speed, and then saying he would be within his rights to suspend them. Instead, he’s sentencing them to 30 hours community service.

“Is that thirty hours per person or thirty hours collectively?” Lila asked.

“Lila!” Mr. Fowler said sharply.

No, that’s a fair question given that Jessica Wakefield is in the room. Most of the time, no matter what shit she pulls, her parents just smile indulgently and say, “Well, the stress of lying to all those people is probably punishment enough…”

(It’s per person, to answer Lila’s question.)

They will be working at the Sweet Valley Community Services Organisation, specifically the Child Care Centre. Which is totally brand new to them. It is not the Sweet Valley Homeless Shelter, neither is it the Health Trailer that also inexplicably looks after kids, or the Women’s Shelter, where there are also kids. It’s the Child Care Centre. OK? It provides child care for low-income families. [Raven: This was my first disconnect. They’ve been here and bought the t-shirt.]

Alice pipes up that she’s done a lot of fund-raising on their behalf. So it’s clear where Jessica gets both her attention-seeking and pathological abhorrence from the truth from, because were with the Wakefields every step of the way for all 137 months of sixth grade and she fund-raised absolutely fuck all for any charity, much less the Child Care Centre. And school has only just begun, so she can’t have done it in the interim.

Still not blaming the author. I do actually think Alice is a terrible human being who would probably say shit like this to try and smooth over a situation that her idiot child had got into. I think that Alice is a total Karen. It’s not her fault Jessica turned out bad, and the choices Jessica makes aren’t Jessica’s fault either. It’s everyone else that’s causing problems.

Mrs Wallace then jumps up, all “job done, let’s go” because she has meetings to go to, and is told to sit the fuck down by Mr Clark. 1) Rude, your kid acted like an arse. Do not skip out halfway through a meeting about her terrible behaviour; 2) WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU? YOU WEREN’T THIS BUSY EXEC IN ANY OF THE OTHER BOOKS ABOUT YOU. Give us back the real Mrs Wallace, who I think might have been a homemaker.

Finally, Mr Clark says, the Unicorns must pay for the damage to his toupee (he uses the word “property”), and as a club they are on probation. One more shenanigan from then and the club is disbanded. [Raven: Double Secret Probation!]

Mrs Riteman – the one parent who has historically made good choices – is the one to dispute this, saying that’s a bit severe, but Mr Clark is resolute. He’s had loads of complaints about the club, and only now is he willing to act on them. I mean, the fact that they bullied Lois Waller non-stop about her weight, they made her eat shaving foam, they created a school Booster club and tried to keep non-Unicorns out using humiliation tactics, they scared multiple new kids to near suicide (Lois Waller (again), Nora Mercandy, Brooke Dennis, Ginny-Lu Culpepper, Lucy Benson, Dylan McKay, Sophia Rizzo…), but THIS is where he draws the line. Not when it affects his students’ mental health, but when it affects his vanity*.

* Yes, I know Mandy made valid points about wearing a wig, and I stand by them. I’m just saying that Mr Clark had plenty of time to bring down the boot, and it makes him look incredibly shallow/petty that this is the thing that makes him act. When he is the one humiliated by them. [Raven: All good points, but here’s a counterpoint article on male baldness and its psychological impact.] [Dove: Fair, but I want to point out that Lois Waller missed a week of school after the Unicorns bullied her into eating shaving foam. Sure, it probably disagreed with her insides, but I’d say most of that week off was for humiliation and fear of her bullies.] [Wing: Meta-level, I’m both intrigued and annoyed that only now do we get to see other students en masse complain about the shit the Unicorns pull. In some ways, it’s similar to Mr Clark waiting until it impacts him, though obviously their peers have much less power over them than the adult who is supposed to be in charge of this damn school.]

As they all file out, Mandy thinks that she might be embarrassed by the Unicorn Club, but she doesn’t want it disbanded. She wants to be part of something she’s proud of.

The next day, the Unicorns head to the Centre for their first day of community service. From the outside it’s grim, ugly building, weedy yard and a sagging chain link fence. And it’s even worse inside.

They meet Mrs Willard, who runs the shelter. From her vibe, they are pretty sure that Mr Clark outline what utter harpies they are, and she treats them accordingly, which leads to them referring to themselves as the chain gang.

Mrs Willard explains that due to upcoming vacation time, they will need all five of them to show up every day to maintain the legal adult to child ratio. *headtilt* Mrs Willard, you do realise that these thirteen year olds aren’t legal adults, right? In fact, what they will do is increase your children pot by five, stretching your adults thinner, if we’re talking about maths. And I think we are, because maths is my jam. [Raven: Yep, this caused me to pause. Maybe if Mandy sits on Mary’s shoulders underneath a raincoat, they can pass for one adult.] [Wing: All the author needed to say was that they needed to maintain the caretaker to child ratio, because thirteen-year-old baby-sitters is legitimately a thing, at least around the time of publication.]

Well, let’s breeze past that because overall this author’s been doing a lot right, and I’m willing to forgive this.

… No, seriously. I am. This is a really good book so far.

The centre is pandemonium. The kids are hellions, one has thrown up and somewhere a diaper needs changing.

The Unicorns start cleaning and mediating, and after an unspecified time (I’m betting less than five minutes), Lila decides she’s going to call her father because she doesn’t deserve that. She takes Mandy with her because she’s a voice of reason.

They go to the payphone where a woman is pleading for an interview, and saying that she’s a hard worker, but no, she doesn’t have a college degree. The answer is obviously no, and the lady apologises to Lila and Mandy for keeping them waiting, which makes me wonder if she’s British. Oh, you two stood uncomfortably close while I literally begged for an interview. I’m so sorry. My bad. [Raven: Straight out of the opening scenes of Erin Brockovich.]

The lady is Linda McMillan, and her daughter is called Ellie. She gives them a big smile and says she has two interviews this afternoon, so fingers crossed. She has to go, can she leave Ellie with them?

Mandy says sure and wishes her luck. Lila just ignores her and makes her call. She barely gets two whining sentences out, asking him to hire someone to take her place, before her dad tells her no, woman up. Then he hangs up on her.

*blinks*

Blimey. George Fowler has just stepped into the parenting ring. And he’s crushing it. [Wing: We get real parenting in this book. HOW? H O W? I’m pleased.]

Lila rants at Mandy about how unfair it is, while Ellie tugs at her elbow. Eventually Lila deigns to notice her and snaps, “What?”

Ellie tells her, “You’re pretty.”

And that’s that. Lila is now a deeply devoted child carer. [Raven: Lovely scene.] [Wing: This is a nice bit of continuity. Lila is sharp-edged until she gets kind attention and then she absolutely melts. Poor lonely girl. And despite my happiness over the parenting, it does say a lot that Mr Fowler only shows up now that she’s in trouble and not for, you know, the good times.]

We cut to Jessica and Mandy in the kitchen making snacks for the kids, and Elizabeth has just arrived. Jessica bets Mandy she can make Elizabeth prepare the snacks by using the picket fence trick from Tom Sawyer. For those who haven’t read it (basically: anyone not American), Tom pretends that it’s a big honour to paint the fence, and by telling everyone else they can’t, they want to, and it culminates in him doing bugger all while all his friends eagerly paint the fence for him. [Raven:… Class… Trip… Flashbacks… *nnnnnnnnnng*]

She tries much the same with Elizabeth, implying that Elizabeth might drop the milk, or get the crackers wrong. And it works for about a hot minute before Elizabeth catches on and tells Jessica that she’s doing such a great job that she probably doesn’t need Elizabeth, so she’ll just go do something else. As in, something other than volunteering.

It’s nice to see a Elizabeth that can stand up to Jessica and is wise to her bullshit. It would be nice if this was her character for the entire run, instead of the doormat she usually is, but I’ll take it. I’m a big fan of barely-there-but-clever Elizabeth.

On the other hand, she did just run out on the needy. *headtilt* Now I’m conflicted. Overall, I still think this is an improvement.

A small boy points out all the ways Jessica got it wrong. She is not happy about this.

Cut to half an hour later, and Mandy is not having fun. She gives us a quick rundown on who’s at the centre: The Wild Bunch (comprising Arthur, Sandy, Allison, Yuky, and Oliver – the latter is the boy who was critical of Jessica); two toddlers, a baby and Ellie.

The only two people in the room who seemed to be having no problems at all were Ellie and Lila. Lila sat in a rocker in the corner with Ellie on her lap, and the two of them spent the whole afternoon happily admiring each other. I’d never seen anything like it.

Ok, that’s both snarky and adorable. I approve.

Jessica notices that Oliver has adult scissors and is cutting up a picture book. Her attempt to get them from him basically provokes a riot, with the kids throwing food, and knocking stuff over. Obviously this is the moment when Mrs Willard walks in.

She is furious with them and tells them that they’ve got to start taking things seriously.

I’ve gotta say, I would have at least left an adult with them for the first day. They are five thirteen year old girls who are there as a punishment, and these little ‘uns have a tonne of energy. (Then perhaps she’d notice that they were taking it seriously, they just didn’t have the knowledge and experience to anticipate the nonsense.)

If I was a parent who left my kid there, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with a system that left my baby in the care of some kids that not only had I never met, but the person running the centre never met, and if I later found out that these kids were sent there as a punishment, and not because they were moved to help the needy, I’d definitely feel alarmed for the safety and wellbeing of my imaginary child. I’d want to know that some systems were in place to see that the teens knew what they were doing, and that they were supervised until management was happy they knew what they were doing. At the very least.

Of course, if I was using this centre, I’d be utterly beholden to whatever help I could get, and knowing that it’s basically a choice between “use shoddy daycare and desperately scrape to get a job – any job – to change our situation” or “don’t use daycare and lose everything”, it’s a bloody terrible choice. And by the same token, it’s very clear that the centre doesn’t get much funding, despite Alice Wakefield’s saintly “fund-raising”, so they don’t have the manpower either.

Also, no shade on doing community service – I’m sure this book will be a great example of it being a good thing and doing what it is supposed to. However, it’s the key factor of teens being forced to do something against their will as punishment. Especially if that thing is looking after my imaginary baby unsupervised.

All that said, having been thirteen and endlessly told off for things that were absolutely not my fault, or happened on my watch due to inexperience, this feels real. So I’m ok with it. And also, as I said before, I’m certain the centre is woefully underfunded. [Raven: Excellent points, all. *mwah*]

The next day, Lila and Mandy are walking to the centre when an old car pulls over. Lila exhibits what might be stranger danger or might be snobbery, it’s hard to tell. But they realise that Mrs McMillan is driving, and Ellie is in the passenger seat. She offers them a ride to the centre, and Ellie brags about her new doll, a late birthday present. She called it Lila, which delights our Lila.

Mrs McMillan says they’ve spent the day at the park, trying to spend quality time together before she gets a job. Still nothing on that front, but here’s hoping. Also, the doll is new to Ellie, but not brand new. Until she gets a new job, that’s all she can afford. Lila looks thoughtful.

When they get inside, Jessica updates them. Mrs Willard says if they don’t do better today, she’s telling Mr Clark.

Today they each try and find a child an activity. Mary finds Arthur something to throw that isn’t food or paint; Ellen grabs the warring sisters, Allison and Sandy, and makes it her life’s mission to keep them from fighting; Mandy hunts down Yuky, who never says anything. Mandy feels her watching all afternoon, but she doesn’t talk. Mandy speaks to her a few times, and decides to keep on trying.

Lila has a lovely afternoon with Ellie, obv.

Jessica plays Go Fish with Oliver and some others. She accuses him of cheating and pulls out a card stashed up his sleeve. He responds by pulling a card she had stashed in her pocket. Harsh words are exchanged. [Raven: I mean, Jess, really? Cheating at Go Fish with a toddler? That’s weaksauce.] [Dove: In the Sims, sims (of all ages) with the “evil” trait will literally steal candy from a baby, leaving the baby bawling. I always think of Jessica when this happens.]

Jessica rages to Mandy while she dishes out snacks, oblivious to the growing audience she has. Her voice raises and the kids listen as she snaps that she hates it here, she hates the way it looks and smells and she hates being surrounded by the kids. They’re monsters and she can’t wait to go and never come back. [Wing: Fucking hell, Jessica.]

All the kids look genuinely hurt by this, particularly Oliver, who grabs Peppermint, the cat who lives at the centre, and cries into her fur.

Thankfully, the moment is broken by a delivery of toys from an anonymous Lila Fowler. She called the local toy shop, gave a list of names and ages and asked them to pick the most suitable toys, then she threw money at them to get them to deliver immediately.

Mandy is genuinely surprised and moved by Lila’s action.

As they walk to Lila’s house, she explains that she wanted Ellie to have something brand new and totally hers, but she couldn’t just give Ellie a present, so she got them all something. [Wing: This is legitimately great.]

Mandy thinks there’s a lot more to Lila than most people know. Lila then adds that she’s worried because Mrs McMillan said that she might have to put Ellie in foster care if she can’t find a job.

When they arrive at Fowler Crest, Lila notices her dad’s car and says she has a brilliant idea. Two actually. 1) foster Ellie; 2) hire Mrs McMillan. It’s a no on both counts. He’s not around enough to take care of a small child, and Lila doesn’t have the time either. They are not foisting her off on Mrs Pervis, she is the housekeeper, not a nanny. And he can’t hire Mrs McMillan because there are hiring freezes on all California offices. He’ll see if there’s anything suitable, but that’s as far as he can go. [Raven: It’s nice seeing a more rounded Mr Fowler. He was even a wet sponge in The Unicorns Go Hawaiian, and we enjoyed that.]

Lila is disappointed but she accepts it, and Mandy thinks to herself that Lila’s growing up and maybe she would make a good president of the Unicorns.

Oh, and we get this lovely bit of description of Lila’s house.

We went out into the great big hallway and sat on the lowest step of the big curved marble staircase. I love that staircase. In fact, I love the Fowler mansion… It’s huge. It’s bigger than the public library. And it has a ballroom, which I think is the ultimate in cool. If I had a ballroom, I’d have a ball once a week and tell everybody to wear long dresses with big fluffy skirts.

I mean, yes, Mandy. If you have a ballroom, absolutely do that. I love the ostentatiousness of the Fowlers having a ballroom. *chef’s kiss*

At lunch the next day, Jessica is resolute about never going back again, for all of three sentences before they point out that if one of them doesn’t show up, they all get in trouble.

The following scene is my favourite bit in the book, so if I don’t do it justice, blame me, not the book. Yes, you read this right. I have enjoyed the hell out of this, and recommend it to any Sweet Valley fan.

That afternoon is a comedy of errors at first. The weather is terrible, torrential downpours that I can only assume have flooded Dead Man’s Cave, possibly even uphill. Mandy and Lila are late because they get stuck in a traffic jam. The kids are playing merry hell, but thankfully there are no babies there today. The storm agitates the kids, with Oliver proudly proclaiming he’s not scared of anything, Allison and Sandy saying they are scared of the storm, and Yuky hiding in the playhouse.

Mrs Willard says that her assistant is stuck on Elm and Grove with car trouble, so she’s going to have to drive out and fetch her. That leaves them alone so they must behave. The basement door has been propped open with a brick in case the cat is in the basement, but don’t go down there because it floods and the pump isn’t working. It’ll be fine. Just follow the rules and she’ll be back soon.

Two and a half hours later and she’s still not back. The phones are down. And then the power goes out. They’ll need candles and/or torches. Oliver says he knows where to find those things: in the basement.

The Unicorns have a quick confab saying they can’t go in the basement, they’re forbidden and if Mrs Willard finds out and tells Mr Clark, they’ll be in big trouble. Jessica says they can’t just have the kids terrified of the storm and the dark, and in the next half an hour it won’t just be storm dark, it’ll be dark-dark. So, decision made.

And Mandy thinks this is the best of Jessica. The person who makes things happen. And that’s true. This writer is doing a great job.

I was going to apologise for fawning over this book so much, but then I remembered how much shite I’ve waded through to get here, and my utterly over-it and hateful tone in my Team Sweet Valley recap. THIS IS GODDAMNED DELIGHTFUL, AND YOU WILL PARTICIPATE IN MY GLEE, OK.

Mandy and Jessica appraise the basement. The water isn’t too deep and Jessica says she’ll roll up her pants legs. I for one would not walk barefoot in my basement. Then again, my basement’s haunted. I say that as someone who both does not believe in ghosts and absolutely believes my basement is haunted.

At this point – and again, this is a bit clumsily written – someone says “Boo!” and both Mandy and Jessica jump, Mandy bumps Oliver, which knocks him down the stairs, into Jessica, who also crashes downstairs. When I say it’s clumsily written, the Boo is not attributed, and it does not say whether Oliver was there or not before the Boo. It took a couple of readings before I decided that it probably meant that Oliver hadn’t been there at the start of the scene, he was the Boo guy, Mandy jumped and knocked the other two downstairs, but for awhile I wondered if all the kids had followed them and Oliver was just the kid at the front. [Raven: This confused me too. I’m attributing it to Yuky.]

A few tweaks would really clean this bit up. Ditto the earlier conversation Mandy had with her mum about clubs. Otherwise, good writing throughout.

Jessica immediately holds Oliver out of the water and asks what he’s playing at. He says they’re not allowed in the basement, so he’s telling on her. Maybe that makes kid sense. He told them where they could find the mcguffins, but assumed they would not get them, but since they have, he’s telling on them? I don’t have kids. I don’t hang out with kids. I really don’t know.

Mandy runs off to get a blanket from the playroom to use as a towel for them, and the door shuts behind her. She immediately tries to open it again, but it won’t open, not from her side, not from Jessica’s. And the water was rising fast in the basement.

Mandy grabs the rest of the Unicorns into a huddle and updates them on the situation. They can’t call the fire department because the phones are down, they can’t knock the door down because it’s steel, so they’ll have to find another way into the basement.

Arthur says he knows a way in, he’ll show them Peppermint’s way in (that’s the cat, in case you forgot, there’s a lot going on in this one). I love the way they keep having these private huddles that a kid easily becomes a part of. [Raven: I also enjoy the focus on the cat, but I’m predictable that way.]

Arthur leads them outside (Ellen says he can’t go outside, but they have to – so sensible moment for Ellen), behind a potting shed where he shows them a small window into the basement. They can’t open it, and when they call to Jessica, she can’t either it’s about eight feet up. And the water’s up to her knees. I bet her feet are freezing.

Arthur runs off, and while the Unicorns panic, Arthur reappears with: Yuky, Sandy and Allison, a brick and a skipping rope. These kids are amazing.

They smash open the window and Mandy can see that Jessica had put Oliver on a shelf to keep him dry, and stuff on the lower shelves is floating off – nappies, plastic bottles, supplies. I really thought this would come back at a later point, that because of the storm damage, they don’t have what they need, but that doesn’t come up. Possibly a missed opportunity, but at the same time there’s a lot going on in this book. This feels like the exciting climax of the book, right? Well, nope, we have a good five or six chapters after this.

Anyway, Team Outside pull Team Basement to safety one at a time, and it’s pretty awesome. Especially because Oliver helps pull Jessica to safety after he’s been hauled up.

And we’re still not done with the excitement.

A bolt of lightning hits the power line, and the live wire is dancing around near them. The Unicorns grab the kids and start running to safety. Just as they reach the building, Oliver sees Peppermint and shakes free of Jessica in an attempt to save the cat. [Raven: Good on ya, kid.]

Jessica runs after him, grabs him and throws him at the others before she goes off and catches the cat.

I mean, I’ve never seen a frightened cat that tolerated a human running up to it and grabbing it without an epic fight (unless the cat is in shock and has frozen up), but screw reality. Jessica saved a child and a cat. Let’s just be happy about that, ok? [Raven: The passage says she grabbed a cowering Peppermint by the back of the neck and yanked her to safety, so I think it checks out. The back of a cat’s neck is very much its Achilles Heel.]

[Wing: I was already not feeling this book much but this scene actually killed it for me. This is over-the-top in a most ridiculous action movie kind of way, and I don’t buy it here. It killed much of my already limited engagement with this story.]

Inside, everyone does their best to dry off with blankets and paper towels, and it’s all very jolly and exciting until Mrs Willard returns and is fucking furious with them for letting the kids outside in the storm. She doesn’t wait for anyone to explain, she just gets to the yelling.

Jessica steps forward and says it was all her fault. Mrs Willard says she’ll be calling Mr Clark to say that an idiot like Jessica is not welcome here.

Then Oliver steps forward and says it’s his fault.

One by one, all the kids declare, “I am Spartacus,” (Yuky does hers non-verbally, but still, she’s there) and it’s beautiful.

At this point the parents come running in and the kids start jabbering about the adventures, which cuts off Mrs Willard’s angry rant.

The power lines are fixed shortly after [Raven: That’d take at least a week in anywhere other than Sweet Valley] [Wing: Eh, they’ve been fixed around here that fast. Surprisingly believable sometimes.], and by the time every parent has picked up their kid, everything is back to normal. Mrs Willard gets on the phone and doesn’t bother to say goodbye to them as they leave.

Mandy gets home and tells her family about her day. Then the weekend passes normally, with the centre closed so the basement can be pumped out. Mandy doesn’t see the Unicorns much and uses the time to catch up on school work. They finally catch up at the end of Monday, where they wonder if they should go to the centre. They decide that if they were banned, Mr Clark would have shouted at them by now, so off they go.

When they get there, Mrs Willard greets them cheerfully and apologises to Jessica. Apparently Elizabeth came by at lunch (um, are thirteen year old allowed off campus for lunch? [Raven: Thirteen-year-old Wakefields? Yes.]) to explain everything. She’s very proud of Jessica, but please don’t risk your life for a cat.

(Unless it’s mine. Risk literally everything to save my cats. Or, actually, now I think about it, any cat. Yep, I would sacrifice a Wakefield for any cat on the planet.)

After that, things go quite easily at the shelter. One day Ellie is missing and Mrs Willard explains that she and her mother have gone for an interview at Foster Care Services – not sure if this is something she should be sharing with the Unicorns, but ok. Mrs Willard tries to reassure them that it might not be the worst thing ever. Mrs McMillan plans to go to another city, get a job, get settled, then move Ellie in with her. And it might not come to that.

All the same, Mandy and Lila are worried.

At the end of their second week, they all say their goodbyes and that they’ll see Mrs Willard next week. She says no she won’t, they’ve done 32 hours each. They’re done.

The mood is despondent as everyone thanks Mrs Willard and pretends they’re delighted to be free.

Once outside, they decide to have a “yay, we’re free” party. And Lila says she has an idea. Everyone immediately shouts, “Let’s invite the kids!”

They go straight to Lila’s to start planning, listing games to play and sorting out coupons to make sure they get the best deals on food – and I love couponing Unicorns, there’s something we’ve never seen before.

Mandy suggests that the kids wear bathing suits, they can play with the hose is they get too hot. Lila is appalled. She has an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Would kids really prefer the hose? Probably, says Mandy, who has a younger brother. Also, they probably need a lifeguard if the pool’s going to be used.

They leave Lila with the coupons and money, and she says she’ll ask Mrs Pervis to order the food for them.

Cut to the party itself.

And if you think Lila was placated by a hose and coupon chips, you’re wrong. If you think she rented a petting zoo, water slide, clowns, jugglers and entertainers… there’s even a fucking baby elephant giving rides. I mean, I think that’s probably not ok now, but it’s still a show of how much Lila wants the kids to have fun. Still, don’t ride baby elephants. [Wing: Riding adult elephants is pretty great though.]

Lila also hired caterers. There’s a kid or adult menu. The kids food is the stuff they like, but cut into stars, and there’s a punch bowl centrepiece serving ice cream floats. This is epic.

Mandy tries the adult menu and decides that paté isn’t the worst thing she’s ever tasted, caviar is. She immediately goes back to the kids menu. [Raven: Gotta say, this is one party which I can see the Fowler Millions… others in the series just seems “nice”, but this one seems “lavish”.] [Dove: Same, now that you’ve mentioned it. Previous Fowler parties have taken place around the pool or in the basement. I’m sure they’re lavish, but the Wakefields can throw pool or basement parties. The one exception is in The Carnival Ghost, when Lila rents a big wheel, and turns the pool house into a haunted house and rents bumper boats for use in the pool.] [Wing: This party is both ridiculous and delightful and very in-character for Lila.]

Mandy hunts down Yuky and finds her hiding under a table. Mandy asks if she wants to ride the elephant and after a bit of thought, Yuky crawls out.

Later she sees Mr Fowler with Ellie, and apparently the Fowler/Ellie worship transcends generations. Mr Fowler thinks she looks just like Lila did at that age. He says he’s very proud of everything they’ve done. Mandy modestly says that Lila upscaled their party, but Mr Fowler means that over the past two weeks they’ve really changed for the better.

After the party, Lila and Mandy escort the kids back to the centre where they’ll be picked up by their parents. Ellie’s mum is late, which upsets Ellie. She was at a job interview, but she isn’t sure she’ll get it, and the job is working retail, so open seven days a week, so she’s not sure what she’ll do with Ellie. Lila and Mandy offer to babysit, but Mrs McMillan isn’t sure she’ll get it as she doesn’t have the necessary experience.

We cut to a Unicorn meeting at the Wakefield Compound, where there is still no president. Ellen jokes maybe it should be decided with a dare war, but Mandy suggests they do it by election.

I cleared my throat and stood. “I propose we get our president the old-fashioned way—by election. We have two good candidates. Jessica, whose quick thinking, bravery and heroism have proven her to be a capable leader. And Lila, whose generosity, selfless philanthropy, and creative talents make her not only an asset to her friends and her school but to the community as a whole.”

“Speech! Speech!” Ellen hooted.

Jessica stood up. “Lila’s a great friend. A great Unicorn. And a great party giver. She’d be a great president. But vote for me anyway.”

Then Lila stood up. “Jessica’s just about the coolest person I know. But I still want to be president.”

Never change, you sweet weirdos.

Also, Lila doesn’t give up the floor after her speech because she thinks maybe they should take the kids to the zoo. There’s a kids day where kids get in free. They’d just have to pay for refreshments.

Mandy says she only has one concern. On a kids day, the zoo is going to be packed with kids, what is they lose one of them.

Mary says she once stayed in a foster home with lots of kids, and if the foster mother took them somewhere, she wore a bright red blouse with yellow sleeves, and told the kids to look for that.

(Note: I believe the terms foster mother and father were phased out some time ago, using guardian instead, so as not to replace the child’s biological parents. However, I’ll continue to use the phrase that’s in the book for the sake of continuity.) [Wing: I just checked, and Missouri still uses foster parent. Now I’m curious as to how many states do. Not curious enough to do that research only a few hours before this is due to be published, but curious.]

This idea quickly evolves into club jackets – the satin baseball style ones in purple with a sequinned Unicorn on the back. About bloody time, ladies. You’d have thought they’d have ripped off the Pink Ladies from Grease by now, since they feel like such a homage to them. Also, this is awesome. [Raven: Agreed. Unicorn Uniforms!]

Mandy volunteers to research how to source them and the costings, which is something she loves. And she’s probably the most sensible one with a budget, along with Mary Wallace.

As Mandy walks home, she realises that they still don’t have a president. However, does it really matter? She’s part of a club that she’s proud of.

At lunchtime on Monday, the Unicorns chat about how weird it is not to have to go to the centre after school. Ellen wonders if they should start the Booster Club again, now they have more free time, and I like the continuity.

Mandy says there’s a new thrift store she wants to check out, does anyone want to come with her, but everyone says they’re busy. She decides that since everyone’s got other plans, she might as well go to the centre.

Can you tell where this is going?

The high point? Out all five Unicorns present, only one attempts to lie. Jessica pretends to be Elizabeth, but nobody believes her. It’s kind of adorable.

Mrs Willard is happy to see them and says she’ll be drafting a letter to Mr Clark explaining just how wrong he was when he warned her of the “spoiled, smart-alecky girls who wouldn’t be of much help” that were heading his way. You go, Mrs Willard.

At this point we notice that Ellie is not there. Mrs Willard explains that she’s in foster care and Mrs McMillan has gone to LA to look for work.

Lila does not take it well.

Cut to the next day at school, and I’ll just let this one explain itself.

“That’s a great sweater,” Lois Waller said to Lila the next morning when we were standing around our lockers before homeroom. “It’s exactly the kind of thing I need to go with my new skirt. Where did you get it?”

Lila’s lip lifted in a sneer, and I felt my stomach tighten up. I hadn’t seen that look on Lila’s face in a long time. Not since last year, when she was doing her constant Janet Howell imitation. “Gee, Lois,” Lila said in a really sarcastic voice. “I don’t think it comes in size gigantic. And even if it did, I doubt if you could afford a sweater like this.”

First of all, we all love a great-looking sweater. Second of all, I don’t care how much pain you’re in, Lila, there’s no need to be spiteful to Lois.

Mandy and Mary admonish Lila for her spite, and apologise to Lois for her. Lois says that she was giving Lila the benefit of the doubt, that she’d heard the Unicorns were changing for the better, but they’re still the stuck up bitches they’ve always been. Well, not those exact words, but I promise you that was her intent.

Lila doesn’t care. She says “it’s beneath the dignity of any Unicorn to care what the school fat girl thinks.

Wow. Also, well done, Alison (it’s weird calling the new writer Alison after so many years of swearing at Jamies), this is one of maybe four Sweet Valley books that paints fat-shaming as a negative and spiteful behaviour.

Several periods later in the day, and it seems there’s a bit of a divide in the Unicorns. Mary and Lila aren’t talking – they were in Jessica’s class earlier but ignored each other. Again, weird, Mary’s a year older than them, but maybe this is that weird American thing where anyone can have a class with anyone, regardless of age. [Wing: Not in middle school usually.]

Ellen is on Lila’s side, saying Lois was acting self-important by trying to talk to Lila. Um… we’re back at an Ellen I don’t like. I don’t like it when she follows the wrong people. [Raven: Definitely in character for the Ellen of this book, mind.] [Wing: Very true. They really do bring out the worst in each other.]

Mandy defends Mary, saying of course she stuck up for Lois, Lila was wrong. Jessica says they’re a club and should stick together no matter what. Even if someone’s wrong. Loyalty matters.

Mandy ponders what this means. Is loyalty sticking by someone, even when you know they’re wrong, because it’s really easy to stick by someone who’s right.

At lunch, she’s sent to Mr Clark’s office. She turns up to find the rest of the Unicorns. Mr Clark was walking past the lockers today, and Jessica left hers open while chatting to Ellen.

He drops a purple paint can on the desk. That is what he found.

Uh, is that legal? I know this is endlessly brought up on TV shows, but is that right? I mean, the locker is on school property, and the kids are minors, so perhaps it’s not the massive invasion of privacy it would be if you unlocked an employee’s personal locker. Still, seems skeevy. Wing, any thoughts on this – from you or Ostrich? [Wing: Students have limited privacy rights and in general school administration can search lockers as long as they have reasonable grounds. Not to mention, he didn’t even have to search it if Jessica left the damn thing open in the first place. Idiot. She’s also an idiot for leaving the paint in there this long in the first place. Also, I’m pretty sure employers here can usually search employee lockers as long as they have provided notice that there may be searches.] [Dove: While Mr Clark didn’t have to search to find the paint can, he did open her locker without her present to get it out in order to present the proof to her. That was my main thing. Also, at my school, when I got my coat confiscated (don’t ask), when it came back to me, the pockets had been emptied and the only thing I got back was my bus pass. They took my cigarettes, lighter, money, and a few notes from my best friend. And then I was told off for owning cigs and the contents of my notes. All this crap had been zipped up in inner pockets and had to be actively searched for, rather than it all fell out by chance, so I have no doubt that he could and would do that, I was just wondering about the ethics of it.]

“From here on in, you are disbanded. You may no longer hold meetings, either on school property or off of it. For the next several weeks you may not congregate in groups of more than two. And you may not wear colors, jackets, hats, or any other insignia that might suggest official organization. Notes will go home to parents this afternoon asking for their cooperation.”

Um, I don’t see how you can enforce this rule outside of school premises. If, for example, Lila Fowler wants to invite over her four BFFs for a slumber party, I really don’t see how that’s any of the school’s business. As for businesses, I guess, sure, you could maybe tell the people who work at Casey’s that you believe these five shouldn’t be friends, but again, it would be up to them if they let the Unicorns hang out together. And they probably will, because they’re a fucking business and five people spend more than two. Likewise any shop in Sweet Valley.

Basically, you have the authority to make them switch seats so they’re not sitting together in class. And I suppose you could waste your teachers’ valuable time policing the halls to make sure they’re not talking, but really, what are you going to do about the rest? Cut their phone lines? Put up posters around town saying that as decreed by you, these five can’t hang out?

Strongly do one, you pathetic little man.

I mean, sure, punish the girls – or at least Jessica, who is clearly to blame – for the vandalism of the lockers. You’ve got her bang to rights there, but preventing them from socialising outside of school? Get to fuck, you sad, petty asshole.

[Raven: One other thing, as a point of order. Mr Clark put them on probation after The Toupee Debacle, and said, quote: “If they do one more rotten thing, the club will be forcibly abolished.” I’m sorry, but The Purple Locker Fracas happened before The Toupee Debacle, so the Unicorns HAVE NOT done “one more rotten thing”. They’ve been rumbled as the perpetrators behind a rotten thing that happened before Mr Clark’s probation started. That’s unfair, as they may not have done this had abolition been on the table at the time. I’d say get Ned Wakefield involved here, but that wouldn’t achieve much of actual use.]

[Wing: I disagree. Painting school lockers is obviously something they should not have done with or without abolition on the table and dismantling a club is an appropriate punishment of that whether or not they’ve received a prior warning. Though this seems like a good time to point out that the Unicorn Club being a school club is weird anyway. We’ve seen them meet outside school hours, off campus, without school oversight. How is this a school club? And if it’s not, while they can be separated in classes and in school activities, they can’t actually abolish a club that is not a school club.]

That afternoon, Mandy overhears people talking about the situation. Any named character who isn’t a Unicorn/Team Boring (Randy, Peter, Rick, Lois, Caroline, etc.) is delighted with the outcome. Caroline excitedly tells people that Mr Clark sent a letter to the parents, asking them to enforce the ban, and there’s a teacher meeting about it this afternoon. [Wing: Caroline’s gossip is suddenly on fire. She must have done a lot of practicing over the summer.]

I’m not sure any parent would particularly get behind their child having no friends, especially when for the past two weeks, their child has been a fucking saint (comparatively to previous behaviour), working at the community centre, and so forth. I’m pretty sure that Raven’s sister and her husband – who are the benchmark to which I judge all parents – would be bloody furious if they heard the whole tale, and would actively tell their kids to continue to hang out with their friends. Of course, if they were raising any of the Unicorns, they wouldn’t have pulled all the shit in the first few chapters. We do not mess with these two. They’re parenting badasses. [Raven: So true.]

As Mandy listens to them talk, she thinks about how the Unicorns visited her when she was sick, but nobody else did. Why? Because they were her people. And her people are capable of greatness.

She figures out that loyalty isn’t about saying something’s right when it’s wrong, it’s about sticking around, telling that person they’re wrong, and seeing them do it right next time.

On her way home from school, she sees Elizabeth and Maria. She assumes they’re here to gloat, but they say that actually, they’ve changed their minds about the Unicorns recently. They’re pretty awesome, if the kids at the centre are anything to go by. And between them, they’re going to come up with a way to save the club.

When Mandy gets home, she talks to her mum, who amazingly supports Mr Clark. She deems their actions as “Vandalism. Rudeness. Pack behavior” and then grounds Mandy indefinitely. Which begs the question, why didn’t she get grounded for stealing the toupee? That was also vandalism, rudeness and pack behaviour.

One week later, the Unicorns are chatting, while the ostensibly wait in line for the water fountain. Lila hasn’t had the nerve to cancel the zoo trip. She just doesn’t want to face facts. And seriously? Mr Clark is going to deprive kids of a trip to the zoo because of his zealous need to control their friendships? Fuck him.

Mr Bowman walks past and tells them they need to break it up and this his orders come from the top. I take it back, he’s not a time lord. A time lord would have walked by covering his eyes so he couldn’t see them all together and couldn’t be blamed for not breaking it up. Or he would have forgotten their names. Or he would have just told Mr Clark he was being an asshole.

Hey, Mr Bowman, you dress like a tit for no reason and everyone hates you. [Raven: Total heel turn from Bowman there. Maybe he’s been channeling Elizabeth for the series, and secretly calls the Unicorns The Snob Squad?]

Before they disband, Lila says they should all meet on the centre on Saturday. Fuck the rules. Nobody will tell on them, surely. You go, girl!

On Saturday, everyone shows up at the centre. Lila is last to arrive and she’s delighted. Her dad has found a job perfect for Mrs McMillan, so where’s Ellie and her mum?

Foster care and LA respectively.

As people wonder what to do – the best plan currently being, “Yell ‘Ellie’ while knocking on every door in Sweet Valley” – Yuky tugs on Mandy’s sleeve. She knows where Ellie is, she heard Mrs McMillan talking on the phone. She’s on South Elm Street. Yuky has saved her words for something really important. [Raven: Boom. Payoff.]

The Unicorns gather up and thunder outside as Mrs Willard wanders out and feebly tries to point out that they’re not allowed to hang out together… oh, never mind, they’ve already gone.

After a lengthy search up and down the road, they spot a playground and what do you know, Ellie’s there. She’s delighted to see them and they all scoop her up for hugs. Along comes another lady, who must have been momentarily alarmed that her latest charge was being abducted by five huggers.

They explain the situation and they are invited back to the foster mother’s house. They call Mrs McMillan and all is well. She’s going to come back to Sweet Valley and she’ll be with Ellie again.

Ok, so we only have one outstanding plotline. If you’ve got ending fatigue here, so have I, but I didn’t while reading the book. The book moves quickly without being too shallow. However, when you’re recapping (and you’re me) you need a lot of words. So this is on me.

Mandy comes up with a great idea: a petition. She calls Elizabeth, and she agrees that it’s a good plan. She’ll draft something tonight and go to the centre for signatures tomorrow.

On Monday after school there is not just a petition, but a full-on demonstration. Elizabeth has rallied the kids and staff of the centre to chant “Save the Unicorns!” When all eyes are on them, Mrs Willard tells everyone present about what badasses the Unicorns have been of late, daring rescues, wonderful parties, elephant rides and job finding.

This leads the entire student body to start chanting “Save the Unicorns!” and Mr Clark has to lift the ban. [Raven: Lois leads this chant. I’m unsure how I feel about this.] [Dove: Same, to be honest. I really hope this writer comes back and we see something good happen to Lois.] [Wing: Fuck having Lois lead this chant. Fuck having all the students forgive them for the terrible things they’ve done just because they’ve done good things elsewhere. They’ve really changed very little at school itself.]

On Friday night, there’s a club meeting at the Wakefield Compound and the topic of president comes up. They decide that while they like being pretty and popular, they’ve enjoyed being responsible too.

Mandy says that maybe now Janet’s gone, they can make the club how they want it, and Mandy wants to be in a club that brings out the best, not the worst, in its members.

Everyone agrees. Then Jessica nominates Mandy for president, and Lila seconds it quickly. It’s unanimous. It’s kind of been leading there since page one, but I’m glad, she’s a good person to have as president. [Raven: Agreed.]

Mandy’s first action as president is to suggest two new members: Elizabeth and Maria, without their help, there wouldn’t be a club.

We cut to the final scene, which is everyone having fun at the zoo, including the two newest members, Maria and Elizabeth. [Raven: WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? Game changer.]

Also, they’re now broke, so they’re going to have to come up with a plan to repay Mr Clark and cover the damage to the lockers. Elizabeth suggests they paint the lockers themselves to save a bit of the costs. Also, there’s a new thrift store opening soon, maybe they need help.

And that’s the lead in to the next book, which is called Maria’s Movie Comeback, so I’m baffled. Given that the lead-ins used to be “What will Jessica cook up for the school carnival? Find out in Sweet Valley Twins #1327484 Jessica Makes Some Cookies!”, I’m thrown by this lack of obvious thread. And interested. But that’s Wing’s problem.

Final Thoughts:

Ok, so if you dozed off during my 11k word recap, I don’t blame you, but to summarise: I FUCKING LOVED THIS BOOK. This book really made me feel enthusiastic about the series again. I hated writing such grumpy recaps recently, but they were such drek.

This feels like a reboot, like the difference between the 1980s She-Ra and the more recent one. Ok, maybe not that amazing, but this did so much to fix the issues. It thinned the herd of excess names – early on in the recapping, Raven used to hate the name soup these books are. Having seven main characters (two of which weren’t really in this book) is going to tighten the focus.

Making those characters actually show that they like and support each other? OMG, so here for it. It’s like someone’s finally explained how this group stayed together so long (or they were all terrified of Janet Howell).

Everything about this was fun. I liked everyone involved (except the teachers, and even there I kind of agreed with them at some points before it went too far).

This is a genuine step up in quality, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming books.

[Raven: This was a fabulous book. Mandy Miller is the inspired choice for both initial narrator and club president. It had pace, it had action, it had depth, it had warmth. It did a fine job of resetting the page for the Seventh Grade, it cut away a lot of the excess (FUCK YOU, TAMARA CHASE), meaning that we’ll hopefully see each member front-and-centre at some point, and it rebranded the Unicorns into a club that promises to be somehing more that it has previously been. I mean, Elizabeth and Maria are in the Unicorns? Mind. Blown.

I’ve always thought that the Unicorns were the best aspect of this series, so this sub-strand looks amazing.]

[Wing: I don’t hate this book, but I’m not nearly as pleased with it as Dove and Raven. It read too much like the Baby-Sitters Club in tone, especially the first quarter, and all that did was make me wish I was reading that instead of this. I still don’t like the first-person narrator, and that ridiculous scene with the literal loose wire was too much. 

I did love the friendships, particularly how we get to see the actual complicated nature of it, and I quite liked Mandy working through her feelings about the club, their actions, their friendships, and seventh grade as a whole. I loved seeing more of her personality, and I’m looking forward to more of that from future narrators.

I have hope that I will come to enjoy the series more than I currently do. And I certainly like it more than much of SVT, particularly the later books.]