Cassie, Emily and Lydia could be Siamese triplets, if there were such a thing. Friends forever, they look out for each other as they weave their ways through high school life. In The Year of Secret Assignments, their English teacher, Mr. Botherit, proposes a pen pal project between their school, Ashbury High, and Brookfield High, the scary school across town. The girls are skeptical but eager to dash off letters, wondering about the possibilities of a workable project between the "Ashbury snobs" and the "lowlife Brooker kids."

As it turns out, their new pen pals are boys Sebastian, Charlie and Matthew. Moriarty uses the difference in tone in the early exchanges between the girls and boys to establish character and set up events to come. Told through notes, letters, diary entries and e-mails, the novel moves along briskly, and the variety of formats is effective in delineating characters. Em's first letter is a four-page missive all about herself and her interests. Lydia's is an off-the-wall explanation of family history and an offer to do a bit of drug trafficking. And Cassie tells all about her counseling. In response, Lydia gets a rude letter with some sexual innuendo, and Cassie receives an offensive one-liner from the decidedly unusual Matthew Dunlop.

Readers who accept the premise and format will find much fun and humor in the madcap series of events that ensues, including the spraying of graffiti on walls, the spreading of computer viruses and other pranks and missions. Some occasional lewd comments and swear words make The Year of Secret Assignments a work for older readers, eighth grade and up. The tone of the story is spirited and upbeat, and the enthusiasm and self-absorption of the three female protagonists is always amusing. "Like I can change things, punish people, fall in love, and find myself, all by writing the right words," Lydia says. Through this onslaught of words, presented in various forms, Moriarty's characters find themselves and define themselves. The novel is a story of self-discovery, of girls and boys who come out from behind their words and realize they have been transformed.

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