Tag Archives: books

Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

June 2011, Quirk Publishing

Young Adult fantasy

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.

In all honesty, to summarize this review before I begin, this is the best book I’ve read all year. I only wish that I’d read it as soon as it came out so that the story could remain with me for the longest possible amount of time. This is an incredibly rich novel–the characters are well-balanced and three-dimensional, the settings are skillfully portrayed, and Riggs has put enough logic behind the magic of this fictional world to make it temporarily believable.

I only had to read the first two or three pages for this story to capture my imagination. I cared about Jacob almost instantly, and I wanted him to have the sort of adventure that he sought as a young child and to become a hero in his own right. The vintage photography sprinkled throughout the novel blends perfectly with the prose and makes the story all the more engrossing. Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a dark and haunting novel that will surely be relished by lovers of the macabre, although its more morbid touches are not overdone, and the book will still prove enjoyable if the reader isn’t particularly fascinated by such things. The characters alone are enough to draw any sort of reader in.

From the narrator himself to the smallest players in the story, every one is at least reasonably well-developed and believable. Their various styles of speaking are easy to distinguish, their traits are balanced, and their personalities certainly match their photographic depictions. The less important side characters almost become part of the setting, contributing to the overall feel of the story scene by scene. The narrative seemed to change slightly along with the scenery as Jacob went from Florida to Wales. Simply put, the settings are remarkably vivid.

The only minor critique I have of this story is that the foreshadowing seemed a bit heavy-handed in places. Earlier plot points were fairly easy to predict, but it didn’t detract from the story as a whole. Later on, Riggs throws in some excellent plot twists, keeping readers on their toes.

This book is a YA must-read that will make you think, make you shiver and, above all, make you keep reading.

Rating: 5 stars

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Review: Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck

Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck

January 2011, Splinter

YA fantasy/romance

The last thing Kelsey Hayes thought she’d be doing this summer was trying to break a 300-year old Indian curse. With a mysterious white tiger named Ren. Halfway around the world.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Face-to-face with dark forces, spellbinding magic, and mystical worlds where nothing is what it seems, Kelsey risks everything to piece together an ancient prophecy that could break the curse forever.
Tiger’s Curse is the exciting first volume in an epic fantasy-romance that will leave you breathless and yearning for more.

I read this book as a quick intermission from Susanna Clark’s formidable volume Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I was hoping for a break from all the small print and extensive footnotes–which I got. Unfortunately, Tiger’s Curse, while a refreshingly easy read, is not one of the better books I’ve read. Colleen Houck has set up an interesting back-story for this novel, but the plot quickly falls into predictable patterns and the characters fail to support the story.

Houck has clearly put in a lot of effort to research the culture and mythology of India for this novel, and I applaud her for that. The novel is full of rich description that really helps to set the scene and draw the reader in. I was fascinated by the abounding references to classical Indian mythology throughout the book–I would say that this is the strongest point of Tiger’s Curse.

However, I found myself predicting plot points early on and was surprised by very little. I was never fully invested in the central characters; in fact, quite the opposite. From Kelsey’s initial introduction, I decided I didn’t like her, and that opinion never changed. The male lead I found to be a sickeningly perfect romantic hero. As for the romantic story-line itself, I was painfully reminded of the Twilight Saga.

Contrary to the blurb’s claim, after finishing this book, I have no desire to move on with the series. Overall, I don’t recommend Tiger’s Curse, but if you’re looking for a quick, fairly generic YA fantasy/romance, this fits the bill.

Rating: 1.5 Stars

On The Use Of Strong Language In YA

Warning: this post contains some cursing to demonstrate my points. Anything that one wouldn’t find in, say, a Harry Potter book is censored, but still, if you’re easily offended by that sort of thing, I wouldn’t recommend reading this post.

I, for one, have never understood the controversy over swearing in books intended for teenagers. It’s nothing they haven’t heard, and likely used, when talking to their friends, or haven’t been exposed to from films and TV. It’s certainly not as if strong language is used gratuitously in most YA literature–I can understand why parents/educators and literary critics alike would be opposed to swearing just for the sake of swearing. When well used, however, it serves a purpose: impact and realism.

Suppose that, as a writer, you wanted to make your readers hate a certain character. You wanted to make them feel angry and defensive. Consider these two options for a bit of dialogue:

He glared at me and insulted me.

Yes, it gets your point across, but it still allows your reader to skim over it with little emotional reaction.

He glared at me. “You little bitch,” he spat.

Not only does this version allow for more description, but it gets that emotional reaction you’re looking for. Think about Mrs. Weasley’s final duel with Bellatrix in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That stopped readers in their tracks. Sometimes, when looking for impact, a choice swear is the only way to go.

Then it comes to realism. Say your main character is a 17-year-old drug addict who dropped out of high school and lives in a rundown apartment with her ailing mother (not to stereotype, but imagine a typical hardened YA character). Do you think this embittered and jaded teen is going to be using elementary-school substitutes for curse words? With this character in mind, which piece of dialogue sounds more realistic?

“This piece of junk isn’t working. Now everything is messed up.”

or

“This piece of s**t isn’t working. Now everything is f**ked up.”

Strong language can be a necessity to develop characters’ personalities and set the scene, and so there’ll be more or less of it depending on what type of story it is. If it’s a fantasy set in the Middle Ages, the cursing might be decidedly more Shakespearean, or perhaps it’ll sound like the French Taunter from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” If it’s a fun story about a bunch of nerdy types, maybe everyone will be cursing each other out in Latin. Strong language is just part of the literary landscape, and authors should be free to use it at their discretion.

Book Fashion

This post is for the Teens Can Write Too! blog chain. The theme for this month is:

“Let’s face it; we all judge books by their covers. What kind of covers grab you? Why? Be sure to use examples of your favorite book covers.”

I’ve always preferred illustrated covers to the stock photo covers that have been particularly common lately. While these photo covers usually look about the same–an attractive girl looking dramatic, tragic, or both, at least in the YA realm–illustrated covers leave lots of room for individuality, and tend to express more about the story.

I’m very partial to books that are intricately designed throughout, such as Tonya Hurley’s Ghostgirl series. If books were people, Ghostgirl would be dark and glamorous, with lyrics displayed on her shirt or scrawled on her arm. I wish I could show you the inside of the book in a high quality manner, because the cover alone doesn’t do it justice. Rest assured that is a truly lovely volume.

I love the stylized, illustrated versions of the covers of the Books of Bayern series by Shannon Hale. They show the the fairy tale inspiration of these stories with their hint of whimsy, and also don’t reveal much about the characters’ appearances, leaving the imagination plenty of room to roam.

Overall, I have quite a weakness for shiny, hardback books with illustrated covers. A book’s outward appearance does certainly affect the way I judge it prior to reading, but usually it’s a book’s summary and what I’ve heard about it that decides whether or not I pick it up.

Want to follow our blog tour? Here are the participating parties, day by day

June 8–http://hazelwrites.wordpress.com–hazelwrites

June 9–http://miriamjoywrites.wordpress.com–A Farewell To Sanity

June 10–http://insideliamsbrain.wordpress.com–This Page Intentionally Left Blank

June 11–http://laughablog.wordpress.com–The Zebra Clan

June 12–http://weirdalocity.wordpress.com–You Didn’t Really Need To Know This…

June 13–http://otherrandomthings.wordpress.com–Dragons, Unicorns, and Other Random Things

June 14–http://correctingpenswelcome.wordpress.com–Comfy Sweaters, Writing, and Fish

June 15–http://kirstenwrites.wordpress.com–Kirsten Writes!

June 16–http://lilyjenness.blogspot.com–Lily’s Notes in the Margins

June 17–http://inklinedwriters.blogspot.com–Inklined

June 18–http://realityisimaginary.blogspot.com–Reality Is Imaginary

June 19–http://planetaryelastic.blogspot.com–Tangential Bemusings

June 20–http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com–Musings From Neville’s Navel

June 21–https://allegradavis.wordpress.com–All I Need Is A Keyboard

June 22–http://incessantdroningofaboredwriter.wordpress.com–The Incessant Droning Of A Bored Writer

June 23–http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com–Teens Can Write Too! (We will be announcing the topic for next month’s chain)

 

Tam Lin by Jane Yolen and Charles Mikolaycak (An Inspiration Post)

Introducing a new series: Inspiration Posts. Essentially, these are simply posts highlighting a book, film, album, or other work that has influenced and inspired me, probably in writing but potentially in other regards. This will probably be a never-ending, sporadic series, so you never know when one might pop up.

In a nutshell, this is a brief, lavishly illustrated retelling of the old Scottish ballad “Tam Lin.” I’ve read a good deal of books like this, but this one has stood out to me in particular over several years. Yolen and Mikolaycak make an undeniably formidable team: Yolen crafts hauntingly beautiful scenes with her words, and Mikolaycak makes them flow across the page in a visual form with his illustrations. Perhaps it’s this that makes me love this book so much, or maybe it’s the story itself. Tam Lin tells the story of Jennet MacKenzie, a freshly-turned-sixteen-year-old who rescues her own true love from the clutches of the Fey intent on sacrificing him on All Hallow’s Eve. It’s a fascinating role reversal in comparison to  familiar fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, in which it is the prince who does the rescuing. In addition, it’s a tale of my favorite type of dark mythology, that of the Seelie and Unseelie courts of fairies and the sacrifices they must make to Hell. Similar stories can be found in modern forms in YA novels including Tithe by Holly Black and City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare.

Tam Lin has stayed with me as a constant reminder and inspiration, and I never tire of rereading it. It helps to cultivate my mental garden of ideas, if you will. It’s helped me in a few obvious ways–the ballad, through this retelling, provided me with the name Jennet for one of my favorite characters in my novel. The landscape, clothing, and overall atmosphere found in the illustrations of this volume really helped me get my world-building on a roll: they provided a basic start which I quickly manipulated and expanded upon until only subtle undertones of this magical version of Scotland remained. The ballad was the first older folk or fairy tale I’d heard of that had a strong female protagonist, and it acted as a kind of proof to myself that these things did exist in the middle ages. (I’ve since discovered a few other tales of this kind, so it does not, in fact, stand alone.)

I remember that a copy of this book had been in my bookshelf for a very long time before I actually read it. It was a constant companion as I grew up, but I didn’t actually crack it open until middle school, just about the time I was getting serious about writing. Because of this, the book’s contents are only half of its significance to me. Tam Lin has become one of the central symbols of my own adolescence and one of the main works that helped the inspiration for my current novel to grow.

 

The Author To Whom I Owe It All

Do you have one favorite author who, in particular, got you into reading, writing, or both? I do. That author is the brilliant Gail Carson Levine.

I was about eight years old when I first read Ella Enchanted, Levine’s Newbery Honor-winning retelling of “Cinderella,” which was, unfortunately, very poorly adapted into a film. I adored that book–I still do. I’ve read it at least four times. Levine had made the story of Cinderella infinitely more appealing by giving the heroine a curse that forces her to obey all direct orders, allowing for Ella to be a proactive character while sticking with the evil-step-family premise. I’m fairly certain that Ella Enchanted was the first book I read that was told in the first person, and the first starring a female exclusively.

Ella Enchanted introduced me to the concept of the fairy tale retelling, which has since become one of my preferred sub-genres. It gives one the ability to take favorite old stories and put a little power into the hands of the girl instead of forcing her to wait for a male to come along and rescue her. Other virtues of the genre include the ability to flesh out characters, explore motivations, and expand on the coming-of-age themes intended by the fairy tales’ original authors, whether they be Hans Christian Anderson, the Grimm Brothers, or some other scribe of old. I tried my own hand at it with a somewhat lengthy short story based on “King Thrushbeard.” It was a somewhat poor retelling, having very few differences from the original, and I’d love to rewrite it someday.

But I digress. Levine’s other works are nearly as good as Ella Enchanted. Her other retellings include Fairest (“Snow White”) and the series of novellas “The Princess Tales” (which are not nearly as imbecilic as they sound). She is also the author of Ever, The Two Princesses of Bamarre (another of my favorites), Dave at Night, and The Wish. I’ve read many of these multiples times, and it was the way I devoured Levine’s novels that originally earned me the title “bookworm.”

By the time I turned thirteen or fourteen, though, I’d stopped reading Levine. Her books retained a treasured place on my shelves, nothing more. She had gotten me into reading, and had been one of my major inspirations to write. It was at this point that she swooped in with a work of non-fiction to save my writing: Writing Magic. 

Don’t let the “Ages 8 and up” label deceive you. Writing Magic is a witty, intelligent, and extremely useful helper for creative writers of all ages. It offers advice on everything from inspiration to publication, and still manages to be an entertaining read. The prompts she provides for writing practices have turned into some of my full-length stories. I can honestly say that reading this book, going through the exercises, and taking its advice seriously improved my writing immensely. Experienced writers might not find it as useful or ground-breaking, but I highly recommend it to creative writers just getting started or in need of a boost.

To me, Gail Carson Levine is one of the patron goddesses of the fairy tale retelling, an ingenious writing teacher, and, all in all, a brilliant author. I owe her nearly everything in the realms of reading and writing both–and beyond. Her heroines were my idols as I grew up; she helped define my essential being. I wouldn’t be who I am without her books.

I would give anything to be an author like that.

“If a body catch a body coming through the rye”

J.D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye offered something to me that had never happened before in the entirety of my reading life. Well, actually, it offered several things along those lines, but one stood out to me particularly. After reading only the first three or four chapters, I decided it was one of my favorite books.

I didn’t care how the plot turned out; I didn’t care how Holden Caulfield’s character developed. I didn’t care whether Holden stayed in New York City or went home or ran off to join the circus. I immediately fell in love with the narrative style, the vivid supporting characters, the vintage-yet-timeless atmosphere of the setting, and above all, Holden himself and all that he symbolizes. The fact that this was a classic I was being forced to read for school completely fell by the wayside. I read it as an extraordinary social commentary–not to mention an enjoyable, if somewhat depressing, story.

What is it about The Catcher in the Rye that appeals to me so much, besides the aforementioned basics? What launches it from simply an excellent book to an absolute favorite? As I’ve said to many, “Holden Caulfield is my spirit animal.” He and I see eye to eye on a lot. Given, we have vastly different outer selves–I doubt Holden would associate himself with such a nerd–but I saw many reflections. I’ll admit that The Catcher in the Rye‘s frequenting of banned books lists caters to my rebellious side. I love the idea that such a controversial book could attain such towering literary status.

Finally, I’m fascinated by the book’s central theme of death and how our society in general views it. I’m interested in the way these views effect those in mourning. What I take away from The Catcher and the Rye, at the heart of all the other commentary, is that the way we try to act as if death does not exist makes it impossible to properly grieve and move on, and that this is essentially what caused Holden’s depression and descent into mental instability. “If a body catch a body coming through the rye”: Holden wants to be able to save all the children from going over the cliff. After the deaths of his brother Allie and his classmate James Castle were swept aside, Holden was unable to move on and accept death for what it is. His is an eternal sort of character: stuck on a worn-down carousel of a life, read over and over again.