Jaclyn Moriarty – The Ghosts of Ashbury High

 Author: Jaclyn Moriarty

Title: The Ghosts of Ashbury High (Dreaming of Amelia in Australia)
Published: June 2010
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Length: 480 pages
Genre: YA fiction
Why I picked it up: Love the series
Rating: 4 stars
Challenges: Global | 100+  
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

It is always a rare treat to find a YA novel that I can enjoy and devour. There are a very few YA authors that I love. In fact, there are two: John Green and Jaclyn Moriarty. Green has a very prominent internet presence, whereas Moriarty does not and this is how I did not know she had a new Ashbury novel out until over a year after it was published. I am a bad fan.

I first encountered Moriarty in grade six or seven when I received The Year of Secret Assignments as an Easter present. I adored it, for its writing style, the narratives that build on one another through little clues, distinct characters and increasingly dark plot. The novel was a hit among my friends. A few years later, The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie was published. I did a book report on it in high school. It was with this second Moriarty book that I saw how all her books interconnect – major characters in one novel have minor roles in another, past events may be hinted at, characters you’ve heard about in the past novels finally make proper appearances, etc. Finally, I realized there was another Ashbury book, the first one: Looking for Celia. I read that one as well (though I didn’t think it wasn’t quite as great as The Year of Secret Assignments). Now, five years after I read the last Ashbury book, I have stumbled across a new one and I think this one is the best yet.

All the aspects of The Year of Secret Assignments (writing style, characterization, plot twists, increasingly dark plot, interconnected but distinct narratives) I adored so much come into full play in The Ghosts of Ashbury High. Moriarty has perfected her craft and method. It is lovely to actually be able to see an author’s improvement over a series of novels. Secret Assignments was great, but Ghosts feels like story that contains highly refined elements that are Moriarty’s trademark. The characters were all so well-written with subtleties that made them feel real (I’m not sure if that makes sense but it’s the best way I can think of to describe the character aspects that I loved seeing so much). Also brilliantly written was the subtle intertwining of the character’s narratives. Come to think of it, what I loved was the subtlety of Moriarty’s writing. Everything she does, she did so well in this story in such a subtle, quietly tucked into the story way. the story and the characters build, build, build, so steadily; Moriarty sucks you into the book like a slow moving whirlpool might put suck you down to the ocean floor (It’s exam time, don’t expect good descriptive sentences from me now =.=). 

Finally, I would like to add: Don’t let the ugly cover (or the vague, teenage-y description) fool you! I suppose the cover is meant to capitalize on the trend of the love for all things supernatural? I loved the old American/Canadian cover designs (see The Year of Secret Assignments with the fire alarm, and The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie with the locker). As for the description, if I wasn’t already so familiar with Moriarty’s work I definitely would not have picked up this book. This also happened with Secret Assignments: when I received it as a gift my first thought was ‘Why did parents think I would like this book??’ [Coincedentally I also received American Idiot as an Easter gift, thought the same thing, now Green Day is one of my favourite bands.] I wonder how many other readers are out there like me who could potentially love these books but were put off by the cover or description…

Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

 Author: Sylvia Plath

Title: The Bell Jar
Published: 1963
Publisher: Heinemann
Length: 244 pages
Genre: Semi-autobiographical fiction
Why I picked it up: A ‘classic’, sounded good
Rating: 4 stars
Challenges: 100+  
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

I sometimes wonder if I might ever loose my grounding or go crazy or have a nervous breakdown. I think everyone does. What struck me about this book was how well I could identify with Esther. She is my age and has the same hopes and the same worries and some of the same thought processes. I liked the part where she talks about a warm bath (I completely agree that baths are/should be like a religious rite of purification) and where she describes the imaginary conversation with Buddy where she comes up with the metaphor of cadavers and dust; that’s very much like how I think. I marked the passage where she describes seeing her future branching out like a fig tree:

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

I can identify with that feeling very well. How do you know which path is the best one for you when you can’t try them all? How do you know you’re making the right decision? I just do my best and not let it stress me out too much. This is where I differ from Esther. I can sympathize with her but you’d have to rewind five years for me to be able to empathize with her. 

What struck me was how normal her breakdown seemed. It slowly crept its way into the story and felt like a perfectly natural and understandable thing to happen. I’ve never experienced any sort of mental illness and this book shows how it can really just happen to anyone. I liked the perspective of the novel; it felt like I was reading Esther’s diary and getting a peak inside her/Plath’s mind.

Maybe this isn’t the most well-written novel, though I enjoyed what I found was casual, easy-to-read, conversational prose; it felt to me like Esther was telling the reader the story. I don’t think one reads it for the literary experience, though, I think one reads it to experience the decline of a promising young one. That is an awful sentence. What I mean is, I chose this novel because I wanted to see what it might be like for someone to fall apart in such a sad way. This isn’t something you experience often, hopefully. I expected there to be more obvious signs, more obvious causes that would hint towards a breakdown. But there weren’t. There were difficulties and frustrations that Esther faced and unfortunately depression overtook her. It’s as simple of that. There isn’t really much you can do about it.

This post has probably revealed much of my ignorance towards mental disorders. The main point is I enjoyed this novel and getting to know Esther, even though it was a tragic read.

Eli Pariser – The Filter Bubble

Author: Eli Pariser
Title: The Filter Bubble
Published: May 2011
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length: 243 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I picked it up: Saw his TED talk, interested in topic
Rating: 3 stars
Challenges: 100+  
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

The Filter Bubble book is about personal information gathered online and the invisible filtering algorithms that make use of that information. Facebook uses filters, Google uses filters, advertisers use filters. Who knows who will use and/or take advantage of such filtering systems in the future, Pariser wonders. I first a read a book on this topic sometime ago (maybe two or three years ago?). The book I read was Republic.Com by Cass Sunstein and I felt smugly pleased with myself when Sunstein’s book was hailed and referenced multiple times throughout this book.

Sunstein’s book (I would probably recommended his 2007 book, Republic 2.0 if I had read it…) was one of the first books to discuss the personalize and filtering that was beginning to take place online. Where the internet was once thought to be a marvellous tool that would break down all barriers between people, Sunstein realized that people were using the internet to put up barriers in the name of personalization. Sunstein’s book focused heavily on what this would mean for democracy and was a very interesting read. Pariser’s book served as, for me, a refresher of sorts. He didn’t say anything new or revolutionary, but reading this book forced me to think about the topic (net filtration). As I posted on my Tumblr after watching Pariser’s TED talk leading up to the release of this book, I like to think this is the sort of thing I am aware of. It’s important to think about who is controlling what you see, and why, and how. It’s good to listen to opposing viewpoints in order to further the growth of your opinion, for example. While I have difficulty believing the hypothesis that filtering will reach unreasonable extremes and rise to dictator-like control levels (I suppose anything is possible but I have trouble with theories that resemble science fiction), I agree that it couldn’t hurt for Google and other major corporations to make their filtering algorithms public. Sure, they help me find information I’m looking for quicker (I think…) but I want to be able to see what they’re keeping from me.

That’s my two cents on this topic…if you use the Internet at all (which you do, can’t deny it now!) then I suggest you read this book for a decent introduction or, better yet, check out Sunstein’s writing on the topic. It’s an important subject that will become increasingly important with the blossoming international popularity of the web.

Interesting points made:

  • Algorithms feeding algorithms…if Google thinks you like one thing, it’ll show you more of that one thing, which means you’ll click on more of that one thing, and Google will think you like it more…you get the idea.
  • What image might Facebook show you to get you to go on a photo-browsing binge? Where can politicians strategically place their information to get you on their side? Minor subjects, it may seem, but the information collected through personalization algorithms can be used for a variety of purposes and who can foresee how those purposes will evolve in the future…

Extra Books – September 4 to September 11

  • The Rampage of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa
    • Published: June 2011 (English)
    • Genre: Science fiction
    • Why I picked it up: Reading the series
    • Rating: 3.5 stars
    • Challenges: Global | 100+
    • My Thoughts:
      • Oh look, another Haruhi book…this is the last one currently available in English, so I promise there won’t be anymore for a little while 😛
      • I like that the ‘Haruhi likes Kyon’…thing (I don’t know what to call it XP) is becoming very very obvious. It’s very sweet. I especially liked the part where Haruhi asks Kyon if there is anything going on between him and Yuki. Kyon is such an obvlious boy.
      • While I liked the third story (a novella called ‘Snowy Mountain Syndrome’), I was a bit surprised that Tanigawa never included any explanation for what happened. Usually Nagato knows what’s happening, or Koizumi has a theory, or Mikuru knows how to solve the problem. I hope that this is because the mystery will be explained at a later time…

Extra Books – August 29 to September 3

  • The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa
    •  Published: November 2010 (English)
    • Genre: Science fiction
    • Why I picked it up: Enjoyed the first book in the series
    • Rating: 3.5 stars
    • Challenges: Global | 100+
    • My Thoughts:
      • I blazed through this volume! It had an intriguing premise: alternate universe-type where Haruhi goes to a different school and isn’t really very Haruhi-like. Which sounds dull, but you can count on Tanigawa to think up a crazy and attention-grabbing story.
      • That day three years ago…again, very central. I am excited to read more of this series, to see where it all ends up.
      • While I did enjoy this volume, the ending felt a bit rushed. What I liked best about this one was who turned out to be behind it all. It was very sad and melancholic.
  •  Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
    • Published: June 2011
    • Genre: ?? Mystery with a hint of horror (those words do not do it justice.)
    • Why I picked it up: Aware of Ransom Riggs (he made those early college videos of John Green :P), saw a tweet that he had a YA novel out, the title definitely made it sound like it was for me
    • Rating: 4 stars
    • Challenges: 100+
    •  My Thoughts:
      • I wasn’t overly impressed with the story. It held my attention, but seemed to be lacking something, that spark that makes me fall in love with a story…I did enjoy the writing style (it’s been awhile since I read a book told from the perspective of a teenage boy not knowing anything about the strange situation he finds himself in) and the characters (they were all relatively unique and had their own voices). It’s okay that the storyline is a little weak. The characters and the photos still make this a unique and delightful read.
      • Another aspect of the writing I liked was that it was creepy without being gory, romantic without being mushy, and sounded like a teen without being condescending or generally unrealistic. A nice balance, that is.
      • As I mentioned, I’ve been vaguely aware of Ransom Riggs’ online presence. I remember watching a video back in January where he discusses his hobby of collecting old photographs…
      • This book contains 44 photographs and the majority are (you guessed it) peculiar. I didn’t recall the above video until I was halfway through the book and I thought, ‘Hm, I wonder if these photos are real, from his collection?’ I flipped to the back and there was a list of where all the photographs came from and a paragraph declaring ‘All the pictures in this book are authentic, vintage found photographs, and with the exception of a few that have undergone minimal postprocessing, they are unaltered.’ This is what intrigues me most about the book and why I love it. I love to be inspired by photos and I love that this strange story developed from these wonderfully strange photos. And of course, it makes for a very different read, with the photos being seamlessly integrated into the storytelling. I’ve never read a novel like this one.