Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children–Ransom Riggs

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I am late to this party.  A colleague of mine recommended this book two years ago.  I put it on my wish list, finally bought it this summer, and just read it when our German exchange student began raving about it.

My nine-year-old, who is a big reader, tried to join us, but the beginning was just too slow.  I have to agree with her.  The novel opens with Jacob Portman’s relationship with his odd grandfather, who tries to convince him there are monsters in the world with very specific stories and photographs, and who dies a traumatic death in the woods, which Jacob witnesses and sends him into therapy.  His parents and therapist explain these odd stories away with the fact that Jacob’s grandfather was a Jewish child in WWII Europe whose family were killed by the Nazis.  The monsters, they reassure Jacob, were the Nazis.  Jacob, however, cannot get over the nightmares that began when his grandfather was murdered and, when he discovers that the school his grandfather talked about is on a Welsh island, he talks his therapist into supporting his trip there and brings along his ne’er-do-well bird-watching father with some enticing rare birds.

Jacob finds a bombed-out dilapidated building that had been a school and a trunk with more pictures like those his grandfather had showed him.  Eventually he stumbles upon a “loop,” a day that repeats over and over, the day the school was bombed by Nazis, and he finds the children and the teacher that featured in his grandfather’s stories.

Once Jacob is on the island, the story moves fairly quickly.  Much of the charm of the story comes from the vintage photographs, which Ransom gathered from collectors and uses to illustrate the story.

This novel did a lot of interesting set up work, but, given the slow start, I am somewhat surprised it became as popular as it did.  The peculiar children have powers, but they are not amazing powers.  In fact, most of the powers on their own create problems for the children rather than empowerment.

I am interested to see how this translates to film this month and to read the later volumes in the series, one of which was just released this week.

Finished 8/2016

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The Ocean at the End of the World–Neil Gaiman

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Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors.  He came into my life through the movie, Coraline, which my daughter watched dozens of times, which meant I watched it dozens of times.  Coraline was one of the few movies she has watched this way that I found myself drawn more deeply into each time we watched.  We went from Coraline to the audiobook of The Graveyard Book and I was hooked. 

When Gaiman’s new book, The Ocean at the End of the World, came out, I ordered it hard copy and audiobook.  I love hearing him read his books and I highly recommend his audiobooks to everyone.  For this book, I read the hard copy first, then listened to the audio and the audio brought out the poetry of certain lines that I had missed in my rush to read the plot of the hard copy.

Gaiman’s plots are objects of beauty.  They get you from point a to point b, but they take some time to meander a bit in the middle to interesting places, like a child’s path from point a to b.  Adults go directly; children meander and explore the interesting.  The Ocean at the End of the World begins with an adult on his way from a funeral to the gathering after, a gathering he does not look forward to attending.  Gaiman never says whose funeral it is, but a parent seems likely as the hero ends up driving past the site of his demolished childhood home and down the lane to the Hempstock farm.  The first lines of the first chapters say much about this character.

“Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.”  “I was not a happy child, although from time to time I was content.” 

The hero has a rush of memories return to him as he sits at the edge of a pond that his friend Lettie called ‘the ocean,’ and he is again seven years old, a bookish child bullied at school, conscious of not satisfying his father, pestered by his younger sister, and aware of his mother’s distraction due to increasing money problems.  These money problems push the family to rent out the hero’s room and he then shares with his pesty sister.  The first lodger we meet is a South African opal miner and here the plot picks up as his taxi runs over the hero’s kitten and then the world spins out of sorts after he commits suicide in the family’s Mini and draws down something dark from somewhere else that begins to cause mischief in the neighborhood.  The Mini was driven onto the neighbor’s farm at the end of the lane and it is here that the hero meets Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother.  Lettie is eleven, but seems much older.  When mischief begins after the suicide, Lettie knows what has happened and she takes the hero with her to “bind” the being that has been called into their world by the opal miner.  The Hempstocks are not ordinary women, their farm not an ordinary farm, and Lettie’s pond truly an ocean.  Just what they are is unclear, but they have been around since before the creation of the moon and have lived on other worlds. There are Hempstock men, but they have left long ago to wander the world and at one point Ginny Hempstock, Lettie’s mother, tells the hero that one only needs men in order to breed other men and that Lettie has no father.  I am probably missing a mythological reference with the Hempstock’s but I was okay with that.  I knew there was an allusion, but it played at the edges of my reading rather than consuming me like a puzzle.

The spirit finds its way back into the hero’s world in the form of a nanny/housekeeper/lodger, Ursula Monkton, and she is all sorts of children’s fears wrapped into one.  A nanny who acts sweet in front of one’s mother and tortures you as soon as she leaves.  A nanny who tortures you and bribes your sister into turning a blind eye.  A nanny who seduces your father and turns him against you.  A nanny who wants to kill you or maybe just torture you until you wish you were dead.  A nanny who steals your family and pushes you out.

As is the case in most Gaiman books, many scenes seem overdetermined–there are layers and layers of meaning going on.  At some points I thought this was a story about sexual abuse, particularly with these lines from Ursula Monkton to our hero:

“I’ve been inside you,’ she said.  ‘So a word to the wise.  If you tell anybody anything, they won’t believe you.  And, because I’ve been inside you, I’ll know.  And I can make it so you never say anything I don’t want you to say to anybody, not ever again.”

At other points I thought it was a story about emotional abuse.  In describing his father, the hero says,

“He never hit me.  He did not believe in hitting.  He would tell us how his father had hit him, how his mother had chased him with a broom, how he was better than that.  When he got angry enough to shout at me he would occasionally remind me that he did not hit me, as if to make me grateful.  In the school stories I read, misbehavior often resulted in a caning, or the slipper, and then was forgiven and done, and I would sometimes envy those fictional children the cleanness of their lives.”

In a horrifying scene, the hero’s father, now under Ursula Monkton’s spell, pushes his son under in a tub of cold water in a scene that for this American brought out group guilt about waterboarding.  Thanks to quick thinking from the hero, he does not die, but Gaiman leaves us wondering if the father would have gone that far. 

And more emotional abuse from Ursula:

“We don’t talk to him,’ she told my sister.  ‘We won’t talk to him again until he’s allowed to rejoin the family.”

At other times I thought the story was just about bullying.

“‘Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of anything.’  ‘Oh, monsters are scared, said Lettie.  ‘That’s why they’re monsters.  And as for grown-ups…’ She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, ‘I’m going to tell you something important.  Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either.  Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing.  Inside, they look just like they always have.  Like they did when they were your age.  The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups.  Not one, in the whole world.”

And then it is a story about sacrifice (which is beautiful became the hero loves the Narnia books).  And home.  And becoming an adult and living a life worthy of the sacrifices that have been made for us. 

Read it.  Listen to it.  Then do it again.

Finished 5/9/14

George Martin–Dance with Dragons (Game of Thrones Series)

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I am a late convert to the GMT series.  In fact, I didn’t begin reading the books until I had watched the first season of the HBO adaptation on DVD.  Now, however, I’m hooked.  I was disappointed, therefore, when I read a poor review of the latest volume, Dance with Dragons.  This particular review mocked the plot as Tyrion floats down a river and whines and people die.  The review was true in that Tyrion does float down a river and people do die.   If I picked up Dance with Dragons as a stand-alone novel, I probably would not persevere, but, as a loyal fan, I thoroughly enjoyed following the various characters, particularly as this volume followed some of my favorite characters, such as Jon Snow and Tyrion, not to mention Danaerys.  

Martin also managed to surprise me as the book came to a close.  People I thought might win the Game of Thrones died suddenly, betrayed.  People I had counted out were given a second chance to resurge.  Little of this book took place in King’s Landing, which suited me.  Much of it took place outside Westeros and I enjoyed envisioning the geography outside the kingdom I have come to know and love.

What Dance with Dragons did best, however, was set up what I hope will be a crazy ride in the next volume.  Players have moved on the board, some have left, and we’re ready for some big action moves.  Game of Thrones on.

Finished 2/1/14

A Song of Fire and Ice (#1-3)–George R. R. Martin

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I am quite late to this George Martin party, but, having seen seasons one and two on HBO, I decided to read the Game of Thrones series.  I knew what to expect for the major plot points of books one and two, but book three was all new and it was here that I started to really think about what Martin was doing.  I’ve read that he was inspired by the War of the Roses, a late medieval English civil war between the Yorks and Lancasters, but, despite the knights and castles and map that looks something like England, GoT has much more to do with our own world than that of the Late Middle Ages.  By book three, the only hero who stays a hero is Ned Stark, who lost his head early in book one and about whom nothing horrible has been revealed.  Yet.  Except that he didn’t tell his bastard son where he came from and let his wife treat him as the proverbial red-headed stepchild.  Jaime Lannister pushes a small boy from a tower window because he witnesses an act of incest, but he finds his heart for the wench, Brienne, whom all others mock.  Cersei is a conniving bitch, but her conniving would be brilliant if she were a man and had not been shaped by that resentment.  No one wins the Game of Thrones.  Not those gaming for the thrones or those who just try to live quiet lives under their rule.  In book three, Storm of Swords, the smallfolk pay the ultimate price.  They are robbed, humiliated, raped, gutted, and left to the elements.  Or worse, left to live on when all around them are gone. The rape is so graphic and relentless in book three that I nearly stopped reading out of a survival instinct.  No one’s word means anything.  Castle walls are treachery, not protection.  The capital city, King’s Landing, is first sensed through the smell of shit and rot, not seen for its sparkling monuments to progress and humanity.  The Hound kills the butcher boy, but saves Sansa from gang rape at the hands of an angry mob.  He cries and asks her for a lullaby when faced with a city of fire, but dies crowing about his massacre of Micah and other innocents.  His brother, the “true” night, is an sight less welcome than one of the horsemen of the apocalypse.  The weirwoods are holy sights, the Seven seem to be reasonable gods, but their septons are corrupt.  The fire lord gets the job done, but demands sacrifices that defy common morality and is served by fanatics.   The Others walk, mammoths and giants exist, wildlings are democratic and undisciplined, and some people truly become their dogs.  

We live in an age that can believe in magic and zombies, but not a godly church; an age that worships the individual as well as discipline.  We have faith in democracy, but not democratic institutions or our representatives in them.  We have faith in individuals, but not people.  Game of Thrones is the fantasy epic for our cynical, distrustful, violent age.  

The little blurbs from reviewers at the beginning of the trade paperback version often cite T.H. White’s Once and Future King.  I read that novel decades ago, but it may bear revisiting just to test this comparison.  My memory of White’s Arthur is much more optimistic than I can imagine GoT ever becoming.  When Mordred kills Arthur we weep for the events that led each man to this place.  When Tyrion kills Tywin in the privy, we simply cheer.  Maybe the sunshine comes out in books 4-7.  Maybe.  Or maybe I just see it all more clearly.  

Finished 7-9-13