Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs.
It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.
A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.
The summary above of Ransom Riggs's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children isn't the best. Basically, it is about a young man, Jacob, who has grown up with an eccentric grandfather. The grandfather often showed Jacob photos of very strange children doing things that seemed impossible--levitating, speaking from mouths in the back of their heads, etc. Eventually, Jacob stopped believing the photos were real and his grandfather never mentioned them again.
As Jacob grows up, the grandfather begins to behave strangely. The family believes that he is just getting old, but one day, when Jacob is fifteen, his grandfather calls in a state of panic, saying the monsters are after him. Thinking his grandfather is having a mental breakdown or experiencing dementia, Jacob rushes home. He finds his grandfather nearly dead in the woods (he does die), and becomes confused by his grandfather's last words. As he watches the old man slip from life, he notices something in the bushes--something that looks like a monster.
From this point onward, Jacob struggles to deal with his grandfather's death and finally decides that he must travel to Wales, where his grandfather lived in a children's home during World War II. Once in Wales, Jacob finds the old children's home--completely destroyed by a bomb attack in WWII. Jacob embarks on a journey of discovery--of himself, family secrets, and a whole way of life that he never imagined existed--only to find himself in danger of being killed.
It sounds like a really good book. And, in some ways, it is. The photographs alone prompt most people to buy it. In fact, that was the reason I wanted it. I remember when I first heard about this novel on Amazon, and I waited anxiously for it to come out. When it finally did, I scooped up a copy, but I had to wait a while before reading it. It has been sitting on my shelf for a long time now, but, when my book club decided to let us read anything that was scary or strange for our October meeting, I knew that this was my chance to dive into Riggs's novel.
First, the positives:
There are some really great moments in this book, and I like the mixing of history (though it is not a historical novel) with the present. There is a strange combination of reality and unreality that makes this book seem like a fairy tale at times, something that is amplified by the inclusion of amazing found photography.
The photography helps the mood of the story, and like I said, it is a huge selling point of the book. The novel appeals to the visual, and the strange photos throughout this book (on the book jacket, too) help tell the story of the children featured throughout the story. On the cover, for example, if you look closely, you will see that the little girl is actually levitating. The photos included are real (called "found photography"), and most of them are bizarre, trick photography shots. Some are just plain creepy.
Now for my personal reaction:
Though I enjoyed parts of the story, I don't feel that I connected with enough of the characters. I wanted more from the story. Maybe this will happen in later novels, because I know that this is part of a series. I just never felt that there was a solid enough emotional investment between myself, the characters, and the plot. I would sometimes say to myself, "So what?" Still, this is a first novel, and the next may be great.
I liked the setting--especially the version of the old children's home in ruins. Still, I think more could have been done with this than the author managed.
I don't really know what I was expecting from the interaction between the photos and the story, but I didn't get what I wanted. Instead of the photos playing an active part in the mystery, they only functioned as an illustration of what the author had just described. For example, the character of the grandfather tells his grandson, Jacob (the protagonist of the story), to look closely at the picture I just mentioned that is on the cover. He explains that she is levitating. Yes...I can see that just a quick glance would not be enough to notice everything in the photos, and it can be difficult to see that she is levitating, because you just don't expect it. Once I find that out, however, what do I do with it? Why is that exciting (other than the obvious)? I was hoping for hidden clues in the photos that the reader would have to discover along the way. I guess what I am trying to say is that, even though some of the photography was amazing, the reader didn't have to do anything with it. Each photograph was explained and only functioned to give me an image of the character just described.
Would I read the next book in the series? Yes. I will give it a shot, because there were just enough moments in this one to make me see that the author can do something with the story. I just want more complexity. Just because you are writing a YA novel does not mean that you have to dumb it down or make it less intriguing. Sometimes, I felt like he stuck things in the book to make it more YA...like problems with parents that were never resolved but only glossed over temporarily...like sticking in a mild curse word in the oddest places...etc. None of these moments made me connect with Jacob or the other characters in a better way. They felt forced, as if an editor told him to put them in there. I may be wrong, but that is the impression I got. The best young adult books are the ones that are the most complex. They are the same novels as those written for adults, except the protagonists are teens and there is usually not a lot of sex (though I am starting to see that change slightly...not in this book though).
Anyway, I just wanted more. I wasn't completely disappointed, but I want more in the next one!