Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs, Quirk Books, 2011.

How I wish I could say this book was as awesome as its cover. Seriously, look at that cover! The creepy levitating child, the desolate background, the crude chalk writing, the nom de plume Ransom Riggs. The plot sounds equally intriguing. A boy named Jacob, in an attempt to solve the mystery surrounding his grandfather's death, travels to a small island off the coast of Wales & encounters an orphanage filled with "peculiar" children stuck in time. The book is infused with vintage photography (well, some vintage, some that just look vintage) of eerie people, places - images that I hoped would be creepy & add a lot to the story.

& the hype? Oh, the hype. People called it "chilling" & "wondrous," the book's website dubs it "unforgettable," & EW desribed it as having an "X-Men: First Class-meets-time-travel story line, David Lynchian imagery, and rich, eerie detail." The film rights have already been sold.

Unfortunately this book is one of those cases where you need to take the stellar reviews with a grain of salt. It was not a bad book. It wasn't poorly written. But it was a disappointment. About a third of the way through I had the thought, "It feels like the plot is mostly done already. What is he going to fill the last two-thirds of the book with?" When I finished the book, I still wasn't sure. There is an excellent setup - the grandfather's death in swampy, sultry Florida, the cryptic message he leaves with Jacob, the puzzle pieces that fall into Jacob's hands & propel him forward - but all of that is finished when he arrives at the island. He still has loose threads to pull, investigations to do, people to question, a father to dodge (he stays pretty absent through the entire book, just bird-watching & steadily becoming a drunk), but the meat of the book is spent running around, & the ending is fairly predictable, which is especially disappointing, considering the book was advertised as being so original.

I spent the whole book waiting to be scared, or at the very least unsettled, but I never was. I thought surely the pictures would unsettle me, but they just felt forced. It was obvious the parts of the story that were written around the photos; they didn't complement the text seamlessly the way they should have. The plot would be moving along, then a short anecdote would come up, then you got a weird photograph, always feeling a little out of place.

The book didn't have enough of anything. If you lack the verbal power to create horrifying scenes with description, you have to rely on a really thrilling story to keep the reader hooked. If you can't create a really thrilling story with your action, you have to rely on your ability to thrill through depiction. Poe was spare in his prose, but crafted unique plots that made his stories indelible. Daphne du Maurier, in Rebecca, unfolded events slowly & quietly, but her setting - also England, the description that rolls in like fog, & the subtly terrifying Mrs. Danvers wielded overwhelming suspenseful power. But Riggs didn't have quite enough of one or the other, no really memorable characters, no really memorable events, no really memorable imagery save for the orphanage. 

& I just have to add, seriously? David-Lynchian imagery? I suffered through Blue Velvet & I adored Twin Peaks & others, but Riggs didn't come close to that level of creepy. David Lynch can put on an R-rated (or at least PG-13, in the case of television) freak show, but Riggs stayed well within the bounds of YA lit and wrote a very tame, slightly Poe- or Lovecraft-inspired story with a couple of tentacled-monster-jumps-out-of-the-shadows-&-says-Boo! moments & a sweet budding romance between Jacob & a peculiar girl with the ability to produce glowing balls of light.

In all, this book, the first official YA effort by Quirk Books is a novelty product, though don't get me wrong - I love Quirk Books & can't wait to see more from them. I just wanted so much more from this one. If you choose to read it, don't expect it to live up to its blurbs - "horrific," "dangerous," "desolate," "thrilling" - rather, expect a safe story with some interesting photos peppered throughout. & I have to consent, I am quite a fan of anything disturbing. The scarier the better. If you say I'm going to be scared, I better be scared. So admittedly, someone less well-versed in the horror genre might be more pleased with this book than I was.

The setting was undoubtedly the best part. I'd spend any number of pages in a seaside, British village filled with grubby fishermen & run-down houses. But as for the events that unfolded there, well, they left a lot to be desired.

Next up, We the Animals by Justin Torres.

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