Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Quirk Books (2011)
ISBN-13: 978-1594744761
Buy This Book on Amazon

I'd like to preface this review by saying that about two weeks ago I read a snippet about this new book that had me itching to get to the bookstore to pick it up and read it as quickly as possible. And based on the article I read, I assumed this was a book for adults---(which intrigued me as I am NEVER attracted to books intended for adults). But when I made my way into one of my favorite book shops in Providence I spotted the cover instantly---in the Young Adult section! (It figures.) As it turns out, though it's not really specific to any age group, the protagonist is a 16-year-old boy so it is attributed to the YA fantasy genre. Which means now I get to write about it!
16 year-old Jacob doesn’t have many friends, doesn't have a particularly deep relationship with his parents, works at a crappy job at his family's company, and is sadly watching his grandfather lose his mind. The same man who he used to adore--the grandfather who told him fantastical tales about his childhood growing up on an island during the war in a home for peculiar orphaned children.  A girl who levitates, an invisible boy, a boy filled with bees, a Bird who smokes a pipe, and terrifying monsters chasing after him. As a child Jacob gets swept away by the stories, but over time he comes to see them only as tall tales from an imaginative man's mind--they couldn't possibly be true.

Only after witnessing the violent death of his grandfather (seemingly at the hands of a mysterious creature) does Jacob begin to wonder just how unbelievable his grandfather’s stories really were. So he sets out to find the little island in Wales home to the peculiar children and uncover the answers for himself. What he discovers is fascinating and frightening and every bit as strange as the stories he was told.

Essentially, this book is as much an exercise in literary construction as it is a fantasy novel. What sets this book apart is how it came to be written: strange but REAL vintage photographs collected by the author were used as the direct inspiration for every peculiar character in the story. This concept of using photographs to jump start the imagination and inform the story instantly intrigued me.  But would it really work as a storytelling device? Would it rise above just being a gimmick? In my opinion, is does achieve a bit of both.

On one hand, I'm fairly certain that there is a genius idea happening here. And on the other I'm fairly certain that if I did not know the back story for this book, I would likely be thinking this the most oddly random story I've ever encountered--and not necessarily a great one. While the photos definitely inform the plot and characters, one can't help but wonder what the story would have become if they were used only for abstract inspiration rather than literal information. At times it seems the story was written to fit the images rather than the images made to fit the story. For all intents and purposes, the story is still fascinating and entertaining and unpredictable and certainly not one I have read before. I enjoyed the oddness of it all and chose to embrace it along with its imperfections because I can appreciate the bigger creative picture. It may not be perfect, but it is fun and engaging.

I'm not going to spend too much time picking apart the writing, because it wasn't the style of the writing or the voice that made me like this book. In fact, as far as writing goes, I have one significant  gripe: This book does not feel like it was written from the mind of a 16 year old boy. The language usage is at times too insightful, the vocabulary too forced, to feel believable. Had there been more of an initial set up that alluded to the fact that this is an older Jacob recounting his tale, I might not feel so critical. But so much of the book does feel like it's happening in Jacob's present that it's difficult to imagine this being told by Jacob in retrospect. Other than that issue, the writing is pretty straightforward with little poetic embellishment or literary grace. Not a problem, but nothing special either.

First, let me just say, I love the photos. I love the idea of incorporating the photos. And it was the idea of the photos that drew me to read this in the first place. But after having read it, I must be truthful:

As much as I like the inclusion of the photos because it is such an original an idea, they may have limited my experience of the novel a tiny bit. Here's why: With conventional illustrations, there is still a fair amount left to your imagination in terms of exactly what the characters look like. As traditional illustrations are only ONE artist's idea, they give you just enough information to go on but leave plenty of room for your own interpretation. Whereas when photos are used in place of illustrations, there are real, concrete, immutable faces staring back at you. It is far more difficult to change them to appear as they may in your imagination. And strange/quirky and occasionally vague as these particular photos are, even they pale in comparison to what your mind is capable of imagining when given the chance.

But all that being said, it is what it is. And I'm GLAD it is this way. It sets it apart from all the other novels I have read and makes it something worth experiencing. To me, it's almost an art piece about the power of the human imagination and its ability to formulate a story out of inspiration found in real life. Stories are out there, but it's people like Ransom Riggs who form them from the ether. He saw a story hidden in bits of peculiarities and set it to words for others to enjoy. And for that I am grateful and left wanting more.

Everything about this book called out to me from the front cover. The fonts, the image, the tone, the black and whiteness, the beautiful spine, the evident bizarreness. Inside, it has gloriously beautiful touches throughout--pretty end papers and chapter dividers, and a lovely sepia colored bottom rule on every page which gives it a nice flourish. The vintage photos are fantastic and are given a great deal of presence laid on top of the dark brown background of the page. The type is nicely set in terms of font and size (though the margins are atrocious---not enough room for your fingers and far too close to the gutter). The pages are smooth as satin and feel wonderful in your hand. Impressive quality from a press I've never heard of before now (Quirk Books).

True, these are all unnecessary attributes required for reading a book, but they serve to remind me why I love experiencing the printed thing itself and will thus never be satisfied the same way by eBooks.

This book is fun, imaginative, exciting, inspiring, creative, engaging, BIZARRE, random, and by all accounts, peculiar. I loved every minute of it. Maybe you will, maybe you won't. But I think you'll be hard pressed not to recognize its ingenuity.


Mary Walker said...

That's all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something that's eye opening and important. You clearly know so much about the subject, you've covered so many bases. Good stuff from this part of the internet.

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