Review: Notes from Ghost Town – by Kate Ellison ~ more than a murder mystery

A murder mystery with a lot of gray areas – like, LITERALLY

Good story – Let’s hack it and make it great

Verdict: An atmospheric YA mystery with ambiguous supernatural elements and a bit of a love triangle (sorta). It was pretty good! I am reviewing an ARC so there are some aspects of the story that may change before the book is published. (the book’s cover is not even official – I had to take a pic with my phone). As far as the story goes,  I have some suggestions! (of course)

Perfect for: Contemporary and mystery YA fans will both find something to like. It’s cool that I can’t think of anything to compare this book to. Read the summary and tell me if you can think of any books with a similar premise. kthx!

Summary: While Liv is away at an out-of-state high school art academy, her best friend and was-almost-boyfriend Stern is murdered, and all evidence points to Liv’s schizophrenic mother. The bulk of the book happens months after the murder, just weeks before Liv’s mother will go on trial. So much has changed in those months: Liv has a new house and a new step-mom and step-sister; she is back at her old public school and all her peers look at her funny; she is forced to go to rich people’s parties and mix with snobby rich teens because her dad is in business with a wealthy real estate developer; she is reckless with drinking and hookups; and, oh yeah, she’s completely lost the ability to see colors other than black, white, or gray. And one more thing….she thinks (but she is not sure) that she may be able to communicate with Stern from beyond the grave. And Stern wants her to know that his murder is not what it looks like.

Sensory Details

Sometimes the setting of a story can almost become a character in itself, and the thick, muggy, hot environs of Liv’s coastal Florida town is an example of setting being so prominent in a story. I really admire how Ellison was able to create such strong sensory details, particularly for the smells and atmosphere around Liv.  Ellison also (mostly) effectively reinforces the fact that Liv is only able to see shades of gray throughout the novel, although as the story enters its most climactic plot points there are far fewer reminders of this.

 Characters

In general, Ellison has created unique, believable characters. Many of the characters are types we’ve all seen before: the angry teen girl dealing with a loss; the distracted father; the loyal sassy ethnic best friend; and of course the suave d-baggy rich boy – but all of these characters seem like their own unique selves. They are specific people, not just types. In particular, I really liked the best friend, Raina, who tries her best to support Liv through her grief and erratic behavior, but is no doormat when Liv misplaces her anger onto Raina. I also thought that Ellison adeptly evolved rich boy Austin from a character you would never trust to a character that is worth liking, and even better a character you could believe would like Liv and vice versa. Liv was sometimes difficult to like because she often makes bad decisions and lashes out at others, but she was sympathetic and a good balance between grieving, feisty, confused, and perseverant.

 Gray Areas

The story is both literally and figuratively full of gray areas. Liv’s vision goes gray for reasons that are never explained – like, at all. It is also never made clear whether Liv really sees the ghost of Stern or whether, as she fears, she is showing the same signs of schizophrenia that her mother has. Some readers might find the lack of explanations frustrating, but I thought that having these psychological mysteries enriched the more traditional mystery plot.

Cheesy Ghost Rip-Off Scene

If you were a movie-goer in 1990 you probably saw or at least know about the Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze movie Ghost in which the Patrick Swayze character is killed but reappears as a ghost to his lover Demi. The most memorable, and mockable, scene is one in which Demi’s character is at her potter’s wheel when the ghostly form of Patrick’s character guides her hands from behind. Let’s just say there is a comparable scene in this book between Stern and Liv (although it is not at all romantic). I laughed out loud when I got to this part, but those who aren’t familiar with Ghost might not want to hack this scene out of the book.

 Bits n Pieces – I Mean, Hey, It’s an ARC

Here’s the run-down of things that I think could use a little hacking. The list looks long, but since the book isn’t published yet, I think all of these things are easily fixed.

-After Liv gets in a big fight with her best friend Raina that character pretty much disappears from the story. In some ways that makes sense, but I got the feeling that the author was juggling too many balls in the air to do that character justice.

-Liv’s BFF and almost love-interest Stern is murdered towards the very beginning of the book, which gets the plot rolling. He reappears as this confused ghost (if that’s what he is?) but because he is both incorporeal and his memory is impaired you don’t really get a sense about who he is and why Liv loved him so much. He appears alive in the intro to the book but not enough to have made me care that much about him, so it was hard to care when he reappeared (if that’s what happened?) to Liv later on.

-Similarly, Liv’s imprisoned schizophrenic mom also is mostly invisible throughout the story. Yes, she is locked away and not around the other characters, but I never really got a sense of who she was as a person. She’s almost as much as a ghostly enigma as Stern is.

-Finally, the least believable aspect of the book wasn’t the ghosty stuff. It was the fact that despite her mom being arrested for almost a year, Liv only finds out about the impending trial about a week before! This makes sense from a plot standpoint because it compresses the action into a short amount of time and ratchets up the suspense of whether Liv will be able to find the evidence needed to exonerate her mom or not. Yes, I buy that Liv is in a fog of grief and that her dad isn’t overly involved in her life, but it just seems unbelievable that Liv wouldn’t know about the trial date until so soon before the trial.  I think this could be hacked by a better explanation about Liv’s obliviousness, or a better explanation about why this information was kept from her.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Notes from Ghost Town – by Kate Ellison ~ more than a murder mystery

  1. Books that might be like this book: I can’t be too sure because I didn’t read it, but I was thinking maybe Please Ignore Vera Dietz (for the dead best friend-ness) or Imaginary Girls (for the hard-to-describe mysticism) or even Kate Ellison’s other book The Butterfly Clues (where the narrator’s OCD and her surrounding environment come into huge play, and it’s a mystery involving the death of the narrator’s brother). Anyways. Both the book’s premise and your review of it leave me kind of on the fence as to whether I want to put it in my hideously large to-read pile. The stuff in list of bits ‘n pieces to fix at the end really did seem fixable, though, for the most part. But I don’t know how much they change ARCs.

    • Eh. I wouldn’t add it to your pile. It is NOWHERE in the league of PIVD or Imaginary Girls but you are totally on the right track with your comparison. Btw author of Imaginary Girls has a new one coming soon as does AS King!

  2. I looked them up. Then I spent a lot of time reading about books on the internet. So…I’m never going to finish writing my paper now.

    17 & Gone, the one by author Imaginary Girls, doesn’t sound that interesting to me. Like, I’m sure that it COULD be written as an interesting book and I think it’s fully possible that the author has the chops to pull it off. But I’m going to say no to that one unless it gets really great reviews.

    Ask the Passengers sounds good, though. If it didn’t have A.S. King’s name on the cover, I’d be a lot more skeptical because the premise makes it sound like it could be really, really cliche and trying-too-hard. But A.S. King is good at not doing either of those things, so I am excite. But I still need to read Everybody Sees the Ants.

    • AND THEN. And then. While I was procrastinating more, I found out that there are sequels to Finnikin of the Rock! Maybe this isn’t news to you, but it is to me. It’s a trilogy, and the last book came out this week or something.

      • I waited to reply to this so I wouldn’t get you in trouble, but not only did I order the next Finnikin book (Froi of the Exiles) but I also ordered:

        The Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling (2 copies)

        Crown of Embers – Rae Carson

        Diviners – Libba Bray (2 copies)

        Dodger – Terry Pratchett

        Every Day – David Levithan

        Girl of NIghtmares (Anna Dressed in Blood #2) – Kendare Blake

        Home – Toni Morrison

        Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

        Team Human – Justine Larbarstier

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