books 3 and 4 were, it's no wonder!
I took advantage of the month long sale at the CP website to get my e-book copy for $2. So to be clear, I'm reviewing this as an ordinary reader, not a requested reviewer.
First off, I'm going to say that the last third of the book was very, very good. I was nearly falling asleep by the time I hit 80% complete on my Kindle version, but couldn't turn the light off until I'd finished. And like books 3 and 4, it ended leaving me desperately wanting more.
The problem with this particular installment, is that I wasn't really gripped by the story until I got past the halfway mark. In fact, if this were the first book in the series and if I didn't have a personal tie to the company, I probably would have given up after the first quarter. It's only because of how much I enjoyed books 3 and 4 that I kept reading. I'm certainly glad I did, but it's a shame that the first half of the book didn't live up to the second.
(mild spoilers to follow, but no big ones)
I think the issue is the POV characters. J.P. is nicely realized, but we don't really get into his head and care about him until about the midpoint of the story. Liz is better developed... but not tremendously enjoyable to share headspace with. She's whiny, abrasive and selfish and I found myself spending most of my time sympathizing with her mom, rather than her. Which was a pity because, as the last third of the book showed, she was an interesting character and the right POV choice for that part - but for the first two thirds of the book I just found myself getting fed up with her and wishing I could get out of her head and into someone elses - maybe not Allie or Celia, but Jacinta or Isabel.
It is interesting because despite being a primarily male authorship (it is a multi-author series), they do a good job with the female characters for the most part. Still, I feel like Liz could have been a more sympathetic character in the hands of a female author, perhaps one who was a tomboy herself. It seemed more like they were writing a caricature of a brash tomboy than actually understanding her. I'd be interested in hearing from actual tomboys whether they identified with Liz, or if they would have changed some of how she was written.
That said, I really enjoyed how James was developed in this installment. It was touching to see him begin to connect with the other students, to get a peek into his home life, and the tutoring sessions were HILARIOUS.
The other high point was seeing J.P. connect with the football team, which was funny, heartwarming, and of course plot-advancing...
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
Speaking of plot advancing, the series continues to dangle the identity of the shooter just out of our reach. Although arrested, and although having a lot of evidence stacked against him, it still doesn't ring quite true that James is the actual shooter. I do wish we knew which installment was going to wrap up that storyline, because I want to know how much longer I'm going to have to wait to find out!
All in all, fans of the series should enjoy this installment, but be prepared that it might take a bit to get into the story. Also, there is no recap of the previous four books, so I would recommend rereading at least book 4 before picking this one up. I was certainly a bit confused in the beginning, since it's been two and a half years since I read book 4.