Review: Dreaming of Amelia/ The Ghosts of Ashbury High

Dreaming of Amelia by Jaclyn Moriarty. Pan Macmillan Australia. 2009. In the United States, released as The Ghosts of Ashbury High, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, 2010. Reviewed from Australian edition; gift.

The Plot: Amelia Damaski. Riley T. Smith. Two new students at Ashbury High.

How curious, the other students think, to start a new school in the final year. How mysterious, no one knows anything about Amelia or Riley. How romantic, the two are clearly a couple. How cool, they muse, how anything Amelia and Riley touch seems to be that much more important.

Perhaps what people should be thinking is “how dangerous.”

Lydia, Emily, and Cassie and their friends spend their final year of school wondering about Riley and Amelia and figuring out their own lives and loves, with a ghost or two thrown in for good measure.

The Good: It’s Jaclyn Moriarty. ‘Nuff said. I’m a but surprised that while I’ve read (and own) all of Moriarty’s Ashbury High books (Feeling Sorry for Celia, The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie), I’ve only reviewed one of them, Bindy Mackenzie. I’m not going to keep you in suspense, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010. The entire post is all my reasons why.

Moriarty’s books are about the students at wealthy Ashbury. The tone, spirit, and themes of each book differs; characters shift from main to supporting to absent from book to book; Ashbury remains the same. What also remains the same is the fresh, constantly changing ways to tell the story, using letters, emails, post-its, journal entries, school reports. Because each book is unique and stands alone, you don’t have to read all the other books. Also? Moriarty’s books are FUNNY. It’s a combination of the characters being funny, in their observations and thoughts and what they say, and how Moriarty tells the story.

While funny, Moriarty’s stories are about serious subjects. The Ghosts of Ashbury High (while I read Dreaming of Amelia, I’ll use the US title to be less confusing) addresses an issue that lurked in the background of all the Ashbury books: the socioeconomic differences between the “haves” of Ashbury and the “have nots” of everyone else and the impact of privilege and wealth on the lives and choices of the teens.

The Ghosts of Ashbury High is told in a mix of school exams and reports from the perspectives of various students and teachers. The reader sees how Lydia, Emily, and Cassie see Riley and Amelia, and how Riley and Amelia see the rich, spoiled teens of Ashbury High. Is someone silly or spoiled? Dangerous or wise? What is the truth? It varies from person to person.

Remember how this is told via exams? This adds another layer — all that is learned is told through a lens, a specific lens of the exam. And not just any exam! The instructions: “write a personal memoir….draw on your knowledge of gothic fiction.” “write the story as a ghost story.” If a story is part of an exam, and not just any exam, but a Gothic fiction exam, how does that change how the story is told? Personally, I adore this method of story-telling, the way it’s a puzzle with shifting perspectives, the way the story changes and alters depending on the teller. Yes, for the first fifty or so pages I kept a list of characters because it is a huge cast, but it’s like any group of friends. I quickly got to know them well enough not to need my list.

So, that is one story — how two teens from the “wrong side” of town adjust to Ashbury High and how they impact those around them.

Another story is of a tight group of friends who have been friends forever figuring out how to include two new faces.

Another story is of teenagers on the edge of adulthood, running to and away from their futures.

And, of course, there is the ghost story. Ghosts real and imagined; ghosts created out of want and need. The ghosts of students past.

And there is the history. Tobias’s history project involves researching local history and discovering things about the Irish convicts sent to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Are they the ghosts that haunt the story? Or is that simply the way he tells the story? I love history, so this unexpected bonus — IRISH CONVICTS, yay! — was awesome. I did wonder, a bit, how American teens would react to this bit of history. I read the Australian version which includes a historical note about Castle Hill and the transported Irish convicts. I haven’t read the US version, so I’m not sure what (if anything) was added under the assumption that “oh, Americans won’t know or understand that.”

In looking to see how bloggers wrote about the Australian history aspect of this book, I found this spot-on perfect review at The Book Smugglers, told in pure Moriarty style. If you’ve read Moriarty’s books, you’ll enjoy it; if you haven’t, its the perfect sampler to decide whether it’s your flavor.

Review: Efrain’s Secret

Efrain’s Secret by Sofia Quintero. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2010.

The Plot: It’s not a secret that high school senior Efrain Rodriguez takes his future seriously. He has a plan: Harvard. Maybe Yale. Ivy League, not New York City. The problem is he’s at a Bronx high school where Ivy League is considered an unrealistic dream. Efrain may be on track for valedictorian and may have the highest SAT score in the history of the school, but neither is good enough to get into a school like Harvard. Efrain cannot afford the SAT classes that will help his score. His parents cannot help. His father is with his new girlfriend and new baby. His mother works long hours just to pay the bills. Neither graduated college; neither really understands what he is going through. His mother supports his college dreams, but she has no idea how to help him get where he needs to go. And even if he does get in, what about the tuition?

Efrain’s a good kid. He has a plan for getting the money to pay for his SAT courses, college application fees, tuition, and even have some left over to help his mother and younger sister. If you’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, is it still wrong? If you’re selling drugs to people who already want them, who would be buying them from someone else if it wasn’t you on the street corner, is it still a crime?

The Good: I started this book a bit reluctant because I was afraid. Afraid of liking Efrain, afraid of getting angry as he took the wrong path, afraid of what would happen because these things never end well. I was right to be afraid; I liked Efrain, rooted for him, understand (but disagreed) with his choices, and was so caught up in his family and friendships that as Efrain’s Secret worked its way to the end, I was hesitant to read the final pages. One of the teen readers I know likes books that make her cry. I’ve found the perfect book to hand to her.

Each chapter begins with a SAT word. It emphasizes Efrain’s continuing efforts to increase his SAT scores, it connects to what happens in the chapter, and it brings the reader into Efrain’s world.  The frequent inclusion of Spanish and slang also create Efrain’s Bronx for the reader. Quintero does not explain what “Nuyorican” or “slinging” means; translations aren’t provided for the Spanish sentences. While those more familiar with Efrain’s world will understand references more than I do, my lack of  a deeper knowledge of slang, language, and pop culture did not negatively impact my reading experience. For example, I didn’t realize that the nickname (Chingy) of one of Efrain’s friend’s came from a real person, but I understood that it was from a famous person.

Efrain’s parents don’t know what to do to help Efrain achieve his goals. His mother explains, “your father and I were both raised to either save money for the things we wanted or just accept that we couldn’t afford them and learn to live without them. But we were wrong, Efrain.” Moms picks up a stack of blank forms and sifts through them. “Learn from our mistakes, honey, and set the right example for your sister. . . . Your education and your home are investments in your future. They’re the only things you’ll ever own and are worth going into a reasonable amount of debt to have.” This was so familiar. The refrain I heard growing up  was “your education is the only thing they cannot take away from you.” Later, Efrain learns that his college advisor/guidance counselor isn’t good for much beyond the basic needs of the typical student. His desires and goals are way beyond her skill set and knowledge. I found Efrain’s struggles both sympathetic and sadly realistic.

Quintero does not make the drug dealers the bad guys. Yes, there are some drug dealers who are bad guys. She doesn’t glamorize it but she also doesn’t demonize it. Nestor, Efrain’s friend, dropped out of school to deal drugs to take care of his mother and siblings. The friendship between Efrain and Nestor is both touching and fun. I laughed out loud at some of their exchanges. Many of the other young men dealing drugs are equally likable.Nestor is not a bad guy. Efrain approaches Nestor. Nestor does not make Efrain do anything. Nestor is dealing at the start of the book, and one of the great things about Efrain’s Secrets is that Nestor, Efrain, and Chingy, used to be best friends. Chingy is driven to do good and go to college, much like Efrain, except Chingy wants to go to a HBCU (Historically Black College). Chingy explains why he refuses to have anything to do with is former best friend. “But when Nes quit school and started slinging, Chingy wasn’t having it and cut him off. Me, I don’t like what Nes is doing either, but we all grew up together. I just couldn’t drop him like that.” I liked Nestor, but in this equation, I am more a Chingy than an Efrain. Efrain accuses Chingy of being righteous and judgmental, and I cheered as Chingy shot back: “You’re right, E. I am righteous. I am judgmental. I’m lots of things, some of which ain’t cool.” Quintero uses three teenager to show the three attitudes towards drug dealing: Nestor, charming and fully into the life; Chingy, who keeps himself removed from any temptation; and Efrain, tempted both by the money and the friendships. Yes, no, maybe.

Efrain’s girlfriend, Candace, is from New Orleans and survived Hurricane Katrina. Instead of the Katrina’s references overloading the story, Candace offers balance. Efrain seeks to escape his family to succeed, Candace wants to return to her roots. Efrain thinks he has to break the law to get by, and Candace is quick to point out the looting for food after the Hurricane was true survival. Going to an Ivy League school is hardly the same as starving people desperate for food. This is Efrain’s story, told by him, and the main focus is on Efrain, Nestor, and Chingy. The female supporting characters are just as fully drawn, to the point where I want books just about Gigi (a girl from Efrain’s school) and Efrain’s mother.

It cannot end well for Efrain. What I like about Efrain’s Secret, what I am thankful for,  is just how Quintero resolves Efrain’s dilemma without being melodramatic. It rings true, it is satisfying, and it breaks your heart. I was right to be afraid — but I was wrong to let that stop me from reading this book.