Book Nerd: The Under-Appreciated Authors Club

If you’ve missed Jaclyn Moriarty’s books, you’re certainly not the only one—but you should remedy this readerly omission as soon as possible.

Suzanne is having One of Those Weeks, so instead of Library Chicken, here’s a flashback to an author who made her TBR list totally explode in 2016.

In my last column, I highlighted the work of Chris Riddell, the award-winning British author and illustrator. (Late breaking update: A new Ottoline book, Ottoline and the Purple Fox, is coming out in September of this year. I’ve preordered my copy.) I hadn’t intended to make a habit of focusing on non-American authors who I think are criminally under-appreciated in the States, but Jaclyn Moriarty has a new book out and I just can’t help myself.

If you’re at all familiar with the name Moriarty (aside, of course, from the Napoleon of Crime), you may be thinking of Liane Moriarty, Australian author of the best-sellers Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret, among others. Jaclyn Moriarty is Liane’s sister and a YA author. While at times it’s been difficult to find her books here, all of the ones I’ll mention are currently in print or available as an ebook.

I first encountered Jaclyn Moriarty when I checked out a copy of The Year of Secret Assignments from my local library and liked it so much that I hunted up a used copy to add to my personal collection. In Secret Assignments, three best friends—Lydia, Emily, and Cassie—from a fancy private high school take part in a pen-pal assignment with three boys from the nearby non-fancy non-private high school and begin to suspect that at least one of the boys may not be who he seems. It’s an epistolary novel, made up of (as the title page explains) ‘Diary Entries, Rude Graffiti, Hate Mail, Love Letters, Revenge Plots, Date Plans, Notes Between Friends, and Famous Last Words.’ (Some of my favorite entries are the notes from parent to child. Emily’s father, a lawyer, begins one with: “I write to keep you informed of the progress of your parents, and to provide you with advice for your weekend. Your mother is currently: (a) blow-drying her hair; (b) shouting something inaudible down the stairs; and (c) cranky (because I lost the plane tickets).”) As the story progresses, we see romance, betrayal, and how far friends will go to look out for each other.

The Year of Secret Assignments is actually the second installment in the four-book Ashbury/Brookfield sequence, named for the rival high schools that appear in each book. Fortunately for me, since I hate to read a series out of order, the books focus on different characters each time and aren’t true sequels, though characters from one may appear in the background of another. Feeling Sorry for Celia, the first book, is also an epistolary novel centering around Ashbury-Brookfield pen-pals, but is more of a coming-of-age story, as the protagonist, Elizabeth, deals with first love and major changes in her relationship with her longtime best friend. Book three, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, focuses on Bindy, the smartest and perhaps most obnoxious student at Ashbury High as her life slowly starts to fall apart. And in The Ghosts of Ashbury High, book four, two mysterious students transfer from Brookfield to Ashbury, setting the school abuzz with speculation which we get to read about in the form of assignments completed for a college entrance exam on gothic fiction.

Ghosts aside, the Ashbury/Brookfield series is set in the real world, but the pen-pals in Jaclyn Moriarty’s new trilogy, The Colors of Madeleine, exchange notes (via a crack in an unusual parking meter) between two very different worlds. Madeleine lives with her mother in Cambridge, England and, having run away from her previous jet-setting life with her wealthy father, is homeschooled along with two new Cambridge friends. Elliot, however, is from the town of Bonfire in the Kingdom of Cello, where magic and technology coexist, along with wandering seasons and rampaging Colors (Elliot’s father is missing and presumed dead after a vicious Purple attack). Madeleine and Elliot accidentally discover each other’s existence in the first book, A Corner of White. Cello is a charming and unique place–I especially enjoyed the inhabitants of Olde Quainte, who are legally required to use meaningless similes several times during each and every conversation (“as a peacock to a snow shovel”) but it’s in deep trouble, and Madeleine, with an assist from Isaac Newton (whom she becomes fascinated by after a homeschool assignment), is determined to help. Her mission becomes even more important in book two, The Cracks in the Kingdom, and book three, A Tangle of Gold. I loved this series—I loved that it kept me guessing and that some of what I had originally thought of as writing flaws in the first book turn out to be set-up for unexpected revelations at the end. I also loved its depiction of homeschooling as no big deal, along with an interesting description of someone adjusting to traditional education later on in the series. I did not love the cover, so if you have the misfortune to pick up one of the early editions with a manically cheerful girl and her orange umbrella, the one that looks like the cover to a generic 1980s copy of a Madeleine L’Engle teen romance (no disrespect to Ms. L’Engle), please know that the inside is a lot more interesting than the outside would lead you to believe.

I can’t wait to see what Jaclyn Moriarty will write next and if you know of an under-appreciated author who I should be reading, please let me know! Happy reading!