My rating: ★★★★
If I chose one thing I dislike about describing things I love, I would have to pick fabulous, phenomenal, fantastic, extraordinary, and so forth. I will do my best not to OD this review in a gaudy (oh-ho) adjective-spree, but this story exhibits a certain unique quality. For a debut novel, Ransom Riggs does indeed present something peculiar. I happened to find it so peculiar smack on page one that this happened before I reached the end:
“You must” — (arms wave mid-air in wild motions toward Riggs’s book) — “read this!” Muscles contort my face into a deranged wide-eyed, ear-to-ear grin expression, which looks like I’m living in great satisfaction of five stimulants too many or I’m a psychopath plotting your demise. I may down enough caffeine equivalent to the Atlantic ocean, but what my creepy face says is, “Too much enthusiasm is swelling inside, and I must share it or explode.” I prefer the first option. Besides, sharing is caring, and I care about sharing great stories.
Meanwhile, everyone shoots a blank, disinterested look and proceeds about their business. (I am surrounded by people who often fail to see the fortune in reading books. “Reading sucks,” said Dad’s Facebook profile. I retort: “I officially disown you as a blood relative. I hope dictionaries smother you for the rest of your every miserable birthday and Christmas. What an embarrassment.” I walk away, solemn, shaking my head.)
I do not think Riggs crafted a 100% original story spouting ideas and creations that cause jaws to drop in reverence. The idea of “peculiar” people (e.g., individuals with inhuman abilities — levitation or invisibility, for example) is repeatedly done time and time again. Just take a nod in the direction of X-Men, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (any superhero chronicle for that matter), or — dare I compare it? — Harry Potter (yes, I do dare). However, Riggs’s talent, storyline, and (most of all) direction separates Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. These ‘peculiars’ are not superheroes, and Jacob is certainly no brooding Harry.
It begins quite promisingly:
I had come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After. Like many of the extraordinary things to come, it involved my grandfather, Abraham Portman.
Jacob, our narrator, describes his grandfather’s stories, which are derived from none other than this mysterious home for peculiar children — “a girl who could fly, a boy who had bees living inside him, a brother and a sister who could lift boulders over their heads,” and invisible monsters with tentacles writhing out from inside their mouths. I will estimate that a good ¼ or so builds suspension about these people and creatures — do they exist or don’t they? Well, clearly they do. This should not alert anyone as a spoiler since it’s evident in the near-beginning, but the surrounding excitement is, I think, a general give-away.
Before I say anything else, I want to defend Riggs’s word choice and narrative. Here’s the thing: my favorite books are almost as precious to me as my cat. They’re like my adopted children, only more endearing because they aren’t germ-spewing factories that shout, cry, and scream. It’s like when someone declares the smallest of a semi-but-not-really-insult about your mother: “Jeez, your mom’s lisp is terr—“ “SHUT. UP.” (My mom is quite articulate and lisp-less, if you are now wondering.)
I read one-star Amazon reviews where the biggest complaint seems to center on Jacob’s narration. It’s either “too obscene” for readers, “too sophisticated” for a teenaged protagonist, or Riggs’s writing lacks a certain elegance. I oppose!
For those who agree some of the language is offensive: read John Green lately? Or better: read any teen books? Most authors don’t withhold cursing and rampantly fluctuating hormones because those are part of a teen’s world. I’m not about to skim through this book and compare the number of profanities, but Riggs, I think, writes appropriately and modestly from a reclusive sixteen-year-old’s view point. To add: this is no Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia. In other words, this book is meant for an older audience to enjoy and not nine year olds. If you want outrageous character behavior to pick at, then I kindly point you in the direction of Stephenie Meyer literature — you don’t want me to get started on that.
As for the sophistication and supposed lack of elegance and imagery: Jacob comes from a wealthy family, so I think it’s likely that his education is well satisfactory. It’s also noted that Jacob tutors is one-and-only friend in English. I have known many teens who possess an abundant vocabulary — they love reading and they love words — so I felt comfortable in respect to Riggs’s word choice. Not to sound condescending (which I probably will), but if one does not know the meaning of misanthropic, there is a dictionary on the shelf if one cares to look…
I’m quite sure that anyone who’s heard of this book knows: pictures play a heavy role as part of the book. Some are calling them “creepy” vintage photographs to which the writing fails to match. The pictures aren’t particularly eerie, though they are interesting and do well as visual aids that embellish the story. But what of Riggs’s writing? I disagree with everyone who says it’s somehow impaired or inadequate.
A vast lunar bog stretched away into the mist from either side of the path, just brown grass and tea-colored water as far as I could see, featureless but for the occasional mound of pile-up stones. It ended abruptly at a forest of skeletal trees, branches spindling up like the tips of wet paint brushes, and for a while the path became so lost beneath the fallen trunks and carpet of ivy that navigating it was a matter of faith.
Given that not every sentence is this lengthy, it is very well descriptive. Riggs succeeds in writing enough indulgent detail to paint fluid scenes balanced by effective dialogue. He could have gone into more vivid detail when making reference to the photographs; however, that would be overkill, as I believe the pictures serve their purpose.
Now, I frown at the average rating (presently 3.70 here on GR), because many reviewers sound disgruntled by the absent air of spookiness. Somewhat off-base, I’m reminded of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. That movie was advertised like an eerie spectacle rich in fright. If you have seen the movie you will know it’s not creepy at all. Interesting, yes, but not haunting.
Similarly, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not a book that will have your spine tingle in fear. The first quarter of the book did well in making me think a fascinating story of thrills, horror, and peril would ensue. In this regard, the story becomes anticlimactic as Jacob travels to Cairnholm in hopes that Miss Peregrine can shed light on Abe’s true past. (But is she alive?) I can’t say if Riggs intended for the uneasy apprehension to last or not (although the jacket does say, “spine-tingling fantasy”…), but this book is affluent in upholding mystery and intrigue.
What may seem like a wimpy, upper-class boy searching for proof that his grandfather wasn’t a paranoid old man with a collection of well-crafted tales is only half the story, I promise you. Suspense makes a final appearance near the end amidst some danger and concludes with a cliff-hanging adventure, which sets the premise for the next book… which is a problem. This books ends on a cliff-hanger that strikes me as more suitable for a TV show’s season finale.
Clearly, Riggs is setting us up for the next Peculiar installment, but this is like ending in the middle of a sentence. I reached the end and said, “Is my copy missing a page? …There are no more pages? What. Excuse me, but what do you mean ‘this is the end’?”
For the sake of an example, I’ll compare the ending to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:
And, grinning broadly at the look of horror on Uncle Vernon’s face, Harry set off toward the station exit, Hedwig rattling along in front of him, for what looked like a much better summer than the last.
The Blaudlaires bunched up together against the cold night air, and kept waving out the back window. The car drove farther and farther away, until Justice Strauss was merely a speck in the darkness, and it seemed to the children that they were moving in an aberrant—the word “aberrant” here meaning “very, very wrong, and causing much grief”—direction.
Both books end with a conclusive feel because there is a final thought, yet they are thoughts that propose an ongoing sense of adventure. Riggs instead left me feeling completely lost at the end, but he made an impressionable mark for his first novel.
And thus concludes my extremely long-winded review! I only expect his writing to produce great things and to continue improving as more peculiarity is published.