Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

by Ransom Riggs

This book was a refreshing read. It's been a little while since I've dabbled in YA Fiction since I've been on a history and historical fiction kick, but this was a good choice to get back into the genre.

No spoilers, so newbies to this series (yes, it is going to be a series) feel free to read on.

Our protagonist is Jacob Portman, who is a stereotypical teenage American boy. Jacob grew up listening to his grandfather's stories from his youth as a Jewish refugee who escaped the Nazis to live in a home for special (i.e. "peculiar" children) on an island off the coast of Wales. Jacob's grandfather's stories were accompanied with a collection of old photographs of his bizarre housemates: a girl with two mouths, a boy covered in bees and a girl levitating. Once Jacob is in his teen years and knows better, he believes his grandfather's stories were nothing more than cheesy fairy tales. But when Grandpa Portman dies and Jacob believes he sees the culprit, a hideous inhuman and non-animal creature, Jacob shuts down and enters therapy. As he struggles with what he saw, he begins to question his earlier assumptions about his grandfather's stories. 

Jacob, his parents and his therapist decide it would be good for the grieving process if Jacob and his father (Grandpa Portman's son) travel to the Welsh island for closure. Jacob, of course, has the ulterior motive of investigating the home where his grandfather grew up and trying to locate the old head mistress, Miss Peregrine, who used to run it. It would be difficult to continue to summarize the plot from here without giving away some spoilers, but it should be obvious to everyone that Grandpa Portman's wild tales are proved true and Jacob ends up meeting Miss Peregrine's peculiar wards.

This story falls into the vein of the superhero team story arc, which anyone who likes X-Men or the Avengers might enjoy. Any story with a band of superheroes or mutants or "peculiars" is bound to have some similarities. However, there are many different directions an author can go, and I feel Ransom Riggs offers an original and fresh take on what is becoming an overdone concept. What I like about the peculiars and their peculiarities is that they are relatively low-key, and most of them are not what we would identify as a "superhero." Olive, for example, cannot fly but rather she is as light as a feather and would float away if she wasn't weighted down. Her peculiarity can come in handy but it's also a handicap. I think if you liked Heroes or Alphas, you will appreciate this aspect of the book. 

I think the novel's biggest strength is the way the children live in the home. To describe it further would be to give away what I think is one of the book's most clever twists, but I'll simply say I did not expect the book to go in this direction when I picked it up. It offers some very interesting prospects for the next installment. By the same token, the cover and YouTube trailer sell the book like it is a bizarre and creepy paranormal tale and that's pretty disingenuous. I'd say the book is in reality closer to the sci-fi genre than to paranormal or horror.

All in all, the book was imaginative, fun and engaging. I gave it four out of five stars for story, characters and creativity. My holdout to giving it five stars was the writing. It seemed a little bland at times and left me thinking there were more compelling prose the author could have used. But like I mentioned earlier, I did pick this up after reading several historical fiction books so it's important to remember that the target audience for this book is teens and young adults. As a note on formatting, the book includes the creepy black and white photographs from Grandpa Portman's collection and I thought that was an excellent touch. I'd never heard of Ransom Riggs before this, and I think this was his debut work, but I was thoroughly impressed. I'll definitely be reading Book 2.

Stars: 4/5

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