To: The Society of Totally Awesome Books
Subject: For your consideration – Jaclyn Moriarty’s books
Dear Society of Totally Awesome Books,
It is with the utmost delight that I write to you today. I have found a new-to-me author and I would like to bring Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury/Brookfield books before this esteemed society to ask that these books are officially granted “Totally Awesome Books” status. Below I give a SPOILER FREE overview of the series and try to explain why I think these books should be granted the aforementioned status.
But first, a bit of background: Jaclyn Moriarty is an Australian writer of (mostly) YA novels. The books I am submitting for your consideration are known as the “Ashbury/Brookfield” series that consists of four standalone novels but which are linked by setting, narrative and a few recurring characters. The series revolve around students who attend two schools: the private, exclusive Ashbury High and the comprehensive, public Brookfield High. All fours novels are epistolary novels , i.e. written in the form of or carried on by letters, emails, journal entries and other types of writing (including essays for school).
The Ashbury/Brookfield series of novels are, in order of publication (please note the different titles and covers depending on where the novels have been published):
1- Feeling Sorry For Celia
2- Finding Cassie Crazy (AUS/UK title) or The Year of Secret Assignments (US title)
3- The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie (AUS title) or Becoming Bindy Mackenzie (UK title), or The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie (US title)
4- Dreaming of Amelia (AUS/UK title) or The Ghosts of Ashbury High (US title)
I have come to this series very late (the first book was published a good ten years ago!) and started with the latest book, Dreaming of Amelia / The Ghosts of Ashbury High :
I will have to admit that the book took me completely by surprise, and I loved it so completely, it is now one of my top 3 reads of 2010. I have written a review which I submit along with this correspondence as Attachment #1.
I LOVE epistolary novels, dear Society of Totally Awesome Books and it is a fact that one of the reasons why I loved that book so much is Jaclyn Moriarty’s complete mastery of the narrative form. When I learnt that all of her novels were in that format I went on a binge, bought all three previous novels and read them straight away and loved them all.
Take for example, Feeling Sorry for Celia:
which is a book from this girl’s, Elizabeth Clarry, perspective. Elizabeth attends Ashbury High and her new English teacher (a recurrent character throughout the series) decides that students of Ashbury and students of Brookfield must start a pen pal project, a twofold mission to rekindle the “joy of the envelope” as well as an attempt to cease hostility between the two neighbouring schools. Elizabeth’s pen pal is a girl named Christina and it is via their exchanges that we learn about both girls: how Christina’s best friends are her dog Lochie and her friend since childhood Celia, someone who keeps pulling disappearing act (the latest: she has joined a circus) and whose well-being is always at the back of Elizabeth’s mind. We also learn that Elizabeth is responsible, sporty (she loves to run), as well as being self-conscious and troubled by the fact that she might not be a typical teenager. Her narrative is interspersed by (obviously her own unconscious) communications from for example the Association of Teenagers or the Cold Hard Truth Association. We also learn that Christina is having problems with her boyfriend after they decide to have sex and that Elizabeth and her mother communicate solely by notes stuck on the refrigerator.
Feeling Sorry for Celia can be seen as a coming of age story as Elizabeth considers her relationships, the old ones with her family and her friend Celia and the new ones with Christina and a potential suitor and little by little gains self-confidence until the last letter she exchanges with the Association of Teenagers which made me jump up and down.
Hereby I present Evidence #1 for granting this series a “TAB” status:
Dear Society of Totally Awesome Books, it is a fact of life that a book that makes you literally jump and down is a totally awesome book.
But that is not all. The second book in the series is Finding Cassie Crazy or The Year of Secret Assingments (don’t you prefer the original title? I know I do….) :
Which is a book that depicts the second year of the pen pal “experiment” and it is from the perspective of three girls, best friends since forever: Emily, Lydia and Cassie (all three from Ashbury) and their correspondence with three guys from Brookfield, Charlie, Seb and Mathew.
This is a book where Moriarty explores not only the difference between the two schools but also the stereotypes that surround both. I loved how all the first letters to each other, the kids are exploring, teasing, trying to establish limits at the same time that they try to go beyond them. The girls especially are awesome at calling the guys out on their sexism and on the stereotyping but above all the girls are awesome, period. They are extremely loyal to one another and that loyalty comes into play when Cassie’s correspondence with Charlie goes awry (they don’t even know if he exists, at first) and their dedication to one another is incredible to behold and how Emily and Lydia (by the way, Emily and Lydia are two of the main protagonists of Ghosts of Ashbury High) want to protect Cassie and how Cassie is broken for several reasons. The book is also very romantic, probably the most romantic of the bunch (but without being extra-sugary).
And then there are the secret assignments, the fight for privacy rights, the fact that the girls are strong yet vulnerable and how it all warmed my heart so much, I hugged the book.
Thus, I present Evidence #2 for granting this series a “TAB” status:
Dear Society of Totally Awesome Books, when a book warms your heart so much you have to HUG it, then you know that you are reading something special and totally awesome.
And just when I thought Jaclyn Moriarty could not possibly be any more good, she gave me Bindy Mackenzie……
The third book in the series and the last one I read is: The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie, AKA Becoming Bindy Mackenzie in the UK, AKA The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie in the US (are you confused yet? Can we please agree that there is NO REASON whatsoever for three different titles for the same book?) :
Society of Totally Awesome Books, you have no IDEA how much I love Bindy Mackenzie, the character. And do you know what is the best thing about it? That Bindy Mackenzie is very possibly, the least likeable of Moriarty’s characters. The book opens as Bindy learns what some of her fellow students – from a new class called: Friendship And Development – really think about her and the opinions are not really that positive.
Cue to Bindy’s dismay. Because she truly thinks she is the best person around, the most positive, the most helpful student that ever walked Ashbury High’s corridors but through her own narrative we see that she is as a matter of fact: arrogant, judgemental, stuck up. She does honestly believe she is being kind when she is being condescending. Her next step is to stop being nice to her colleagues and to tell the truth of what she thinks about them. THEN, to realise that maybe they do have a point and THEN to start a process of deconstruction and eventual reconstruction of her own personality.
Bindy is an extremely intelligent girl, with best grades at everything, very precocious too and perhaps even a bit of a child prodigy: she wrote at the age of ten: “I’ve been struggling a bit with Ulysses by James Joyce”. She thinks that she is NOT a teenager because she can’t be bothered with regular teenage stuff. She also had a role to play in the Cassie-Charlie mystery in the previous novel and in here we see it from her point of view.
The fact that I came to care to deeply for Bindy is a testament to this writer’s insane writing skills. That this is transmitted via stuff like BOXES to keep words like REVERIE from expanding or stationary headings like: “The Philosophical Musings of Bindy Mackenzie”, “Night Time Musings of Bindy Mackenzie” that once you learn why exactly these even exist half way through the book, I guarantee heartbreak ensue. And then dears sirs, Moriarty writes the most heartbreaking scene of them all when Bindy has a talk with her mother and I think I need a new copy of my book because this one has been irreparably lost to tears.
In this manner, I present Evidence #3 for granting this series a “TAB” status:
Dear Society of Totally Awesome Books, when a book breaks your heart into tiny million pieces and you find yourself sobbing so much for a character that you didn’t even think you would like, that you nearly drowns in your own tears, only to then have the heart put back together by the incredible author then you know that you are reading a totally awesome book.
I hope I have made my case with the examples above but just to reiterate why I love these books so much:
We are taking about a series that have the most excellent female characters as its protagonists: female characters that are strong (without being kick-ass), diverse (although perhaps, one criticism I have is that they might not be as diverse as they could have been in terms of race or sexuality) and extremely complex. They are all flawed yet sympathetic in different ways, when they make serious mistakes they work to fix them; they are not afraid to say they are sorry nor are they afraid to fight when they know they are right. These girls are intelligent (although not necessarily book-smart) , they have friends whom they are loyal to and hobbies they love. When there is a romantic interest they do not become shadows of themselves. The romance works become it is part of their lives, adding to it, not by making them separate.
There is no character major or minor that is not described with great empathy by the author.
In terms of narrative, I already said how much I adore epistolary novels and how much the author is great at it. This is also because she is a master of the random that is not really random; each book has different types of correspondence and it never becomes old or repetitive because there is variety.
Epistolary novels are about perspective as well as the possibility of unreliable narrators and it needs to be taken into consideration that these characters are building letters, and depending on who is writing and whom they are addressed to, and who is going to read it, there might be not a lot of truth there. For example: an essay is going to be read by a teacher. How much truth can a student actually write when a figure of authority is going to read what they are writing? It requires a rapport from the reader and the need to read between the lines.
The books are also about revealing stereotypes and prejudice and getting past them.
These are all a bit of mystery novels too: in book 1 there is a secret about a father and a secret admirer; in book 2, is Cassie really crazy? book 3: is someone trying to kill Bindy? In book 4, are there ghosts in Ashbury High?
The books are often funny:
“I’m only writing it because of Mr Botherit. He’s our new English teacher and he seems really upset that the Art of Letter Writing is lost to the Internet generation, so he’s going to rekindle the joy of the ENVELOPE. Next he’s going to bring in a club and a sabre tooth tiger and rekindle the joy of the STONE AGE.
But also sad, with subtle ways of conveying hurt:
“The last few days I’ve been feeling like I can hear people crying everywhere. Behind the shower water I could hear a sound like someone just sobbing and sobbing.”
A series where small, random things have huge significance: like the reason for painting one’s bedroom wall, for breaking a mirror, for putting your hand in the air, for stationary paper, for words inside boxes to prevent their expansion; when one has an asthma attack; how name calling and choosing one’s name can change things, double meanings and the excessive use of exclamation points!
You will remember that the last time I contacted you was back in 2009 to forward Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen Thief’s series for “TAB” consideration and I am very grateful for your reply letting me know that they had already been granted “Totally Awesome” status ages ago. Therefore, I do appreciate the fact that I might be, once again, way late on the uptake and that you might have already granted these books “TAB” status. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised. In which case please do disregard this missive. I shall proceed now to forward a copy to your sister organisations: the Society of Author Crushes, The Society of Lovers of Epistolary Novels as well as the Association for the Appreciation of Awesome Female Characters.
You will hopefully hear from me again in the future, and I remain as always, your loyal member.
With my best regards,