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Harrison's latest foray into tween lit, the second in a series:

It's dressed up prettily, although in another sense it looks kind of bland.  Inside, however, is an unexpectedly entertaining premise.

Charlie, Allie, and Skye are three fourteen-year-olds with one thing in common: they have all been accepted to Alpha Academy, a prestigious private school for girls run by power-mogul Shira Brazille.  Any girl who wants to get in has to be absolutely exceptional in her field; any girl who wants to come out on top must manage the enormous feat of gaining Shira's respect and confidence.  But all three girls have problems adjusting.  Skye, a skilled dancer, is disappointed to find that she's no longer a big fish in a little pond, and soon decides that her strenuous dance classes aren't worth the effort.  Charlie, a gifted inventor, wants badly to impress Shira with her talent, although that proves difficult as they have a complicated history together (Charlie's mom used to work for the mogul, and said mogul made Charlie break up with her son Darwin to get into Alpha).  Allie's case is the most desperate of all: she isn't even supposed to be at Alpha, having accepted an invitation that was never hers to accept.  And with Shira's hot teen sons hanging around, the girls have plenty of distractions from classes.  When Allie's secret is revealed, she is scorned by her hurt classmates, and must work hard to earn her place at Alpha.
Having had enough experience with Harrison's series The Clique, which was about a bunch of Mean Girls we were supposed to root for, I was pleasantly surprised when it seemed like Alpha has more substantial themes on its mind.  Charlie and Allie are more or less down-to-earth and share a friendship based on personality rather than designer labels.  Charlie is able to remain mature about the fact that Allie pines after her ex.  Skye definitely has more of an attitude, but she has some character depth to her; a choice between the energetic Taz and the soulful Syd (Brazille boys) represents two different sides of herself - her comfort zone vs. the unknown.  Allie's social pariah subplot is touching when she makes an effort to gain back her friends, especially Charlie - she gets to show her sweet side.  Bottom line, the characters are interesting and far from off-putting, and Harrison even finds time to give image-maintaining songwriter AJ a vulnerable moment.
However, it's the setting that is really compelling.  An academy for mostly creative types, Alpha is a school that runs on technology that is innovative and occasionally superfluous.  For example, the lighting in the girls' dorm can be switched from "Flattering" to a "Pore Examination" setting.  All students are issued aPods, which are IDs that can send texts, science students study teleportation, and pressing a button in a bathroom will give you an inspirational quote on the mirror.  This sci-fi element gives the book an edge and kind of an identity, and I appreciate Harrison's imagination.  There is something to be said about fostering competition between girls at a young age, which is a huge part of how Alpha is run, and I wonder if this will ever be discussed in later novels.  
As a story teller, Harrison has improved; her writing style a little less so.  The book is still plagued with phony phonetic spelling - which is "serious-leh" "ahh-nnoying" and makes me wonder what actual teen girls sound like to Harrison's ears.  And there are also copious name-dropping, pop culture-referencing groaners that range from sort of clever to eye-roll-worthy.  But honestly, it's a decent if somewhat broad story about friendships and finding your place.  Plus, Charlie is likable.  Rating: 4 aPods out of 5.