July 21, 2010

The Ghosts of Ashbury High: Review

So I've been anticipating The Ghosts of Ashbury High for a while now (I am a big Jaclyn Moriarty fan) and while it didn't perhaps live up to all my expectations, I did enjoy delving into the Ashbury-Brookfield world once more with the characters I have grown to love. I'll note here that this is the fourth in a series and really wouldn't work that well as a standalone - better to have read at least The Year of Secret Assignments (and possibly The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie) beforehand.

Moriarty's latest is perhaps the most difficult of all of her books to summarize: in essence, it is a collection of exam essays, blog entries, transcripts, and letters detailing the events of a most interesting year at Ashbury high school. Two new students - Amelia and Riley - have arrived and Ashbury is in an uproar trying to figure out their secrets and befriend the strangers. They don't say much, but when they want, people listen; they don't always show up to class, but when they do, people sit up and take notice. Amelia and Riley have a mysterious aura of charisma the entire school wishes to soak up (with, perhaps, the exception of Lydia). But ironically, they've settled on Lydia as the Ashbury student most useful for their purposes - too bad she's blind to their plans. Add to this telltale signs of a ghost in the Art Room (well, if Emily swears by it, it must be true), Toby's obsession with the memoirs of Irish convict Tom Kincaid, and Amelia's own hints at a most unsettling past and present... and you have the perfect modern Gothic tale.

Moriarty's writing is so vivid, and the individual characters' voices leap off the page. I love how unique each student's voice is, and that she manages to keep them consistent and true to life (although the content, it must be admitted, is often quite fanciful). The one character's personality I couldn't quite believe was Constance Milligan, one of the adults on a trust fund committee; her comments were always so far-fetched (and later in the book we see some letters she writes that almost assure us of her mental instability). At least the other committee members eventually recognize that she is a few cards shy of a full deck, so it isn't all in the reader's head! I also wish we could have gotten more of Amelia's perspective. While her poems are thought-provoking and give the reader a small window into her mind, we never really get the whole picture of her; she is seen only through the eyes of others. As I think this is probably deliberate on Moriarty's part - others' perceptions of both Amelia and Riley go through large transformations throughout the novel, ultimately revealing more about the observers than the observed - I don't really have a problem with it. It did make me less sympathetic to Amelia, though, even after her history has been revealed (and I never ended up liking Riley AT ALL).

This book is the most fanciful of the series, straying into the realm of the fantastical at certain points. (Well, hmmm, perhaps Feeling Sorry for Celia did that quite a lot too, with all those letters Elizabeth "receives" from made-up organizations). Yet for Elizabeth's story, the fantasy element didn't really need to be explained; you could either choose to believe she was indeed receiving these letters, or there's always the option that her imagination was going rather wild. In this one, the connection between Tom and Maggie's story from so many years ago, and Amelia's experience in the Heritage Park, was a bit too much to swallow (not giving details here to avoid spoilers). I think this was partly because the whole book had been written as a mystery, with unreliable narrators and a very blurry line between reality and fiction, and I had been hoping that the mysterious, impossible events discussed would turn out to have perfectly rational explanations, seeing as it was set in a modern day high school with most of the entries coming from exams/projects/actual correspondence. Either that or I had hoped that what actually happened in the Heritage Park would be left to the reader to decide.

Of course, I am quibbling a bit here - by and large I loved the mystery of it. I was totally unable to guess most of the secrets (with the exception of the one of the unknown commenters on Emily's blog, which wasn't very difficult!) The unreliable narrator approach I sometimes like and sometimes dislike; on the one hand, I hate discovering partway through that the narrator has been holding out information or deliberately misleading the reader, but on the other hand, the technique makes the reader question the validity of the story, which heightens the suspense and makes the plot more intriguing. In this case, I think it worked well.

I definitely enjoyed seeing some more of the characters introduced in Moriarty's previous novels and getting to know them better. Despite the fact that I wasn't particularly keen on the Irish convict Tom's story, it was neat to see more of Toby, and he didn't seem nearly as annoying as he had in The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie. His own voice was quite humorous (I really liked his discussion of black holes and his penchant for relating everything back to them) and seeing him take an eager interest in something academic (the historical letters of Tom Kincaid) was great.

However, I was disappointed some of my favorite characters didn't make an appearance (Liz and Charlie are barely mentioned, Christina not at all, and neither is Sergio) as I was hoping to find out some more about how their last year turned out. Even Cassie, who was in this book along with Emily and Lydia, didn't have much of a role to play! Another quality that I missed was the dialogue and interactions between characters; in previous novels we were given more of that through the letters, but this book was mainly made up of lengthy essays from each main character's perspective. Because there wasn't so much back-and-forth between characters, I found myself wanting to skip ahead once I'd read a few pages of one character's version of events, to see how the other characters were involved. This happened particularly during the entries written from Tom Kincaid's perspective, partly because I didn't see what it had to do with the rest of the storyline, and also because it kind of jerked me out of the flow of the plot and I was more interested in the Ashbury happenings.

Ultimately, though, the fact that I was missing some of the previous book's protagonists only emphasizes Moriarty's skill at characterization! I would love another Ashbury-Brookfield book but as far as I know there are no plans for that at present, which is unfortunate indeed.

My overall rating: 4 out of 5 shooting stars.

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