07 August 2011
For the time being, life sucks for teenager Jacob Portman. Oh, sure, he comes from a wealthy Florida family and wants for nothing, but he's recently been depressed lately. And who wouldn't be? He found his eccentric grandfather viciously mauled to death by dogs. Problem is, Jacob knows his grandfather didn't die that way. His grandfather was actually killed by monsters, a reflection of the strange childhood the former used to tell Jacob about when he was younger, a childhood that involves a strange school on a secluded Welsh island that housed children who were invisible or capable of levitating. Of course, try telling the true story to anyone, and you get shipped off rather promptly to a shrink, which is exactly what happens to Jacob. Fortunately for his own peace of mind, he is able to connive a visit to the island his grandfather talked about to prove to himself whether or not the older man's stories had any basis in fact. There, he discovers that his grandfather's seemingly fictional tales are very real. . . .
I came across this unique young adult book while working at the library. One of my coworkers was reading about it on Amazon. We both were attracted to the creepy cover, so she ended up reading it. She told me the book wasn't spectacular but was undeniably weird. Naturally, I couldn't resist giving it a try. Ransom Riggs's Miss Peregrine's School For Peculiar Children is an uneven book with its share of flaws, but it is certainly unique and has enough good points that I recommend it.
After discussing this book with two other people who have read it, all three of us concurred that the best adjective for it is, ahem, "peculiar." It's not scary--Don't fear! This book will not give you nightmares--but it is certainly eerie. This haunting gothic atmopshere is exactly why I recommend it. The creepy gothic pictures that accompany the text play a substantial role in creating this atmosphere. In fact, even if this book isn't your cup of tea, I recommend checking it out just to look at the pictures, which range from levitating girls to creepy clown children. They are that good! Apparently, Riggs used actual old photos that he found in various collectors' stashes and then worked the images into the story. Overall, I thought he did a fairly good job of working random pictures into a a fairly cohesive plot. Occasionally, the plot did seem a little contrived--as if there were certain pictures that Riggs wanted to include just because they were so cool; thus, he added a related element in the story. Nevertheless, the effect more than makes up for this problem.
Personally, I had a bit of a hard time liking Jacob. Oh, he's not awful, not by any stretch of the imagination. He's just like every other somewhat sarcastic troubled YA hero I've met lately. I would have liked someone with a little more depth and individuality. The person he reminds me most of is Percy Jackson--more on that in a minute--but I found Percy a little more accessible. Jacob's first person narration is still pretty funny, though, and I don't necessarily have to like the protagonist to enjoy a book.
My only real complaint with the book is that about midway through, the story transitions from a good dark gothic horror/mystery story to a run-of-the-mill fantasy adventure, a la Percy Jackson. I like a good fantasy adventure, such as the aforementioned Percy Jackson series, but I was enjoying the gothic aspects of the story, so I felt a little cheated when the tone switched. To the book's credit, it's action-packed fantasy adventure with its own unique spin on the genre.
The ending leads me to believe that a sequel in the works, but I can't find anything to confirm that on the internet. I'm not sure the story is quite strong enough to generate a YA series, but I'll withhold judgment until I read any sequels. Riggs is certainly a creative writer with an eye for the eccentric, so I don't doubt that any follow-up would be equally as whimsical and strange . . . and feature just as many amazing photos! ^^
If you like gothic horror or are hankering for another fantasy adventure read now that Percy Jackson's series is at an end, I recommend Miss Peregrine's School For Peculiar Children. It's certainly not a book for everyone, but it has its charms, one being that it's a quirky fast-paced read, perfect for summer! At the very least, pick it up and skim the pictures. I kid you not--they are delightfully creepy.
Next Time: I have no idea.
This Week In Literary History: 5 August 1850: French writer Guy de Maupassant is born. Truth is, I've only read one of his stories--"The Necklace"--but it's such a good short story! You should definitely read it if you never have.
30 July 2011
Remember a few months ago when I reviewed Cyrus Keith's Becoming NADIA and promised that a sequel was on the way? Well, here it is! :)
Six months have passed since Nadia realized that her world was nothing at all like what she had imagined. She is not a journalist, as she had supposed. In fact, she is nothing at all what she had supposed, and the reality of what she actually is is almost too much to fathom. The ensuing fallout causes her to take refuge in a remote cabin with Jon Daniels and his ragtag team of vigilantes, who are determined to keep Nadia safe from her pursuers, the menacing and mysterious Pinnacle. Unfortunately for them, the Pinnacle is not pleased with the stubborn defiance they've received from Nadia and her friends. And for that, the Pinnacle is determined to extract vengeance from everyone connected to Nadia. . . .
It is my great pleasure to review the second installment in Cyrus Keith's gripping The Nadia Project trilogy! (Also, a special thanks to Cyrus for being kind enough to send me an ARC! :)) I think one of the hardest books to successfully pull off is the second one in a trilogy. More often than not, the second book is little more than a bridge whose only function is to give the reader the background essential for the finale. I think boring second book syndrome is a form of book abuse, for such texts are unfairly deprived of their own plots or identities. Tis not fair! I have reluctantly slugged through many such a book for the sole purpose of being prepared for the third book. Keith has avoided falling into this trap and, in Unalive, delivered a sequel that is every bit as engaging and suspenseful as the original. And that's no mean feat, for Becoming NADIA is a superb sci fi thriller, in and of itself.
Unalive possesses many of the same attributes that made its predecessor a great read: a fast-paced plot, great complex characters, and deep themes about identity. One thing that I particularly noticed in this book was the skill with which Keith switched between several related but quite different subplots throughout the book. I love these kinds of stories, but I'll be the first to admit they are often confusing. I never found myself perplexed with Unalive because the transitions between the varying plot threads was seamless.
I also enjoyed the villains here. Not only did they become more fleshed-out as characters--especially the intriguing spitfire Jenna Paine--and their nefarious motives somewhat more clear, but they also became even more creepy in the process. I think the most disturbing thing about them is how they feel they're acting for "the greater good." One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes is "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive." I think that quote sums up the members of the Pinnacle rather nicely.
If you're a fan of spine-chilling thrillers or good science fiction or any combo of the two, I highly recommend Unalive. With its readable style and action-packed plot, you'll easily while away these last days of summer.
If you're interested in purchasing Unalive, you'll have to wait--but not too long! Only a few days. Go to MuseItUp Publishing's website for details about purchasing a copy. I will note that this book is a good story independent of its role in the trilogy; nevertheless, as with most sequels, you'll enjoy the book far more and follow the action much better if you've read the first book. Fortunately, that's easily done for the first book is immensely readable and easily acquired. I guarantee you that if you start Becoming NADIA within the next few days, you'll have it finished in time to read Unalive when it is released this Friday (August 5th).
What's Next: Probably Ransom Riggs's Miss Peregrine's School For Peculiar Children. I have three words for you: creepy gothic pictures. ^^
This Week In Literary History: 30 July 1818 On this day, Emily Bronte was born in England. Sadly, Bronte died at the age of thirty and authored only one book, which was roundly panned by then-contemporary critics as immoral. Happily for us, this maligned book is the gothic classic Wuthering Heights. I'm not a huge fan of happily ever after romances, so I suppose it's only natural--but twisted--that I enjoy this tale of Heathcliff and Cathy's tumultuous and dysfunctional relationship set amid the atmospheric Yorkshire moors. Personally, I have always envisioned Heathcliff as looking like Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd. He'd be perfect for the role! Well, either him or Keith Richards, circa early 1970s. Think about it! Erm, on that note, I'm going to run away now. . . .
19 July 2011
Miles Halter is prepared to depart from his home to attend the prestigious Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama. He is a peculiar teen with an obsession concerning the last words of famous people. However, his introverted world comes to a crashing halt once he arrives at Culver Creek and befriends a ragtag group of rebels, including his cocky roommate, the Colonel, and a quirky but troubled girl named Alaska. For the first time in his life, Miles has friends and truly lives life to the fullest. Alas, all of that soon comes to an end when a horrible tragedy strikes the boarding school. . . .
All right, I have something embarrassing to confess. I have had several people recommend John Green's Looking For Alaska to me, and--for whatever reason--I kept confusing this book with the movie Into The Wild, which I have never seen. Thus, I started it fully expecting the characters to eventually go trekking through the wilds of Alaska. I was about halfway through before I realized my mistake and felt like a complete goober. Regardless of my space cadetedness, I love a good coming-of-age story, and I enjoyed Looking For Alaska immensely. (What is about me and boarding school books?)
This story has the requisite number of quirky characters who engage in some crazy good adventures, always a bonus when dealing with a coming of age novel, but I think what sets this book apart from many is its protagonist and Green's witty narration. Miles is probably one of the most normal and non-dysfunctional main characters I've encountered in awhile, which is something I found refreshing. I like a good trainwreck character just as much as the next person, but I think some authors over-rely on tortured characters. Just because a character has issues doesn't mean the character is 3-dimensional. Green did a nice job of making Miles a complex but still believable and infinitely likable young man. The aforementioned narration was also a treat, one that frequently had me chuckling aloud. The random references to famous last words was also an, ahem, interesting touch. (I am now so obsessed with last words of famous people.)
As delightful as the book is, the basic premise is not really anything new. In fact, I sort of see this book as the plot of A Separate Peace narrated by a pre-Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield, before he gets bitter and hates phonies. Not necessarily is any of this bad, though. Green is a talented-enough writer that the book does not descend into triteness. Also, just a friendly FYI: I have read that several parents have complained to schools and libraries about this book because of the profanity and sexual content. Personally, I didn't find either one offensive--none of it was gratuitous, in my opinion--but I can see how some people may feel uncomfortable with it.
If you're looking for a fun read about the highs and lows of friendship or just want to meet some new fictional friends, I recommend Looking For Alaska. Just don't expect any of the characters to visit the state of Alaska. . . . *cough*
Next Time: Erm, not sure yet.
This Week In Literary History: This one is for my dear friend Penguins Quack. On 16 July 1951, J.D. Salinger's coming-of-age tale A Catcher in the Rye is published and becomes an instant classic. This book endlessly fascinates and frustrates me, though each time I read it, I like it more. I guarantee that you won't soon forget Holden.
10 July 2011
As much as I enjoyed Paul and Helen, I had trouble liking Paul's daughter, whose story occurs is intersected with his adventure with Helen. She just struck me as completely devoid of any individuality or distinguishing characteristics. Fortunately, her story was subordinate to Paul's and Helen's, so that subplot, though it formed a sizeable portion of the book, wasn't too distracting for me. My biggest problem with the novel is some of the plotting. I think Kostova did a nice job of maintaining my interest through 640 pages--no small feat--but sometimes she took the easy way out and relied on contrivances and coincidences to advance the story. I'm sorry, but the characters acknowledging that their highly unlikely and fortuitous meeting that garned them lots of wonderful information about Dracula was a coincidence doesn't make the meeting any less of a coincidence that smacks of lazy plotting, especially when that formula is repeated throughout the story. There was also one particular aspect of the ending that bugged me as a bit too far-fetched. (I refuse to reveal it here to avoid spoilers. If you've read The Historian and want to argue or commiserate with me, PM me. I'll force you to hear me whine digitally. ^^)
I have seen discussions of the book where readers have complained that Dracula, in the book, is not scary. I agree with that description of him, but I don't necessarily see it as a flaw. He is creepy and a bit eerie, which is what Kostova intended according to interviews she's given, but he's also a bit more complex than how he's usually portrayed, something that I enjoyed.
I'm hesitate to unequivocally recommend this book, for the reasons I mentioned above, but I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this read. If you can look past some of the flaws, you'll find a nerdy adventure with some creepy overtones and an inventive take on the Dracula story.
Next Time: I have no idea. Consider it a delightful--or not so delightful--surprise.
This Week In Literary History: 9 July 1918: William Faulkner, one of my absolute favorite authors, joins the RAF to fight in WWI, though he didn't finish training in time to see combat. The war shaped literature and society for the next couple of decades, as people tried to cope with the fallout of a modern war, especially the truly horrifying number of casualties. In fact, as evidence of the widespread impact of the war, just the day before Faulkner joined, his future rival Hemingway was wounded severely on the Italian front.
02 July 2011
All right, I am thoroughly ashamed of myself for not having posted for so long. My excuse--that I have been busy--is insufficient. Please forgive me! *pleads for mercy* I would like to try to post book reviews regularly until I go back to school. That's all I'll guarantee for now.
I usually review books with chapters on my book blog--a bit of a no-brainer there, right?--but today I am going to review a comic book instead. Why? Because Art Spiegelman's inventive, disturbing memoir/family history Maus is just that good. I have long wanted to read this Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book, ever since I heard about it in my freshman English Comp 2 class, but I never had a chance to until this past spring semester when my awesome roommate gave me a copy because she knows I like history.
As I have discussed at length on this blog before, World War II is one of my obsessions and, as someone who is part Jewish, the Holocaust is a subject that simultaneously fascinates and repulses me. I've read a lot of great Holocaust memoirs, but I have never read one quite like Maus, in which Spiegelman records his father Vladek's survival during the Holocaust, chronicling his often troubled relationship with his father some thirty years after the war as Art interviews Vladek about his experiences.
Rather than Art, who is a cartoonist, merely drawing his father and the other characters as realistically as possible, Spiegelman opts instead to draw the Jews as mice and the Nazis, as well as other Germans, as cats. The animal theme is carried over even further with the Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs. The result is surreal and unnerving but also a bit more accessible than other Holocaust stories precisely because even though you know you're reading about something that actually happened, you're not faced with seeing human characters in those situations. The fantastical element does nothing to diminish the tragedy. In addition, the plot itself is gripping--I couldn't put the book down, even though I knew I had to be up at 5:30 the next morning for work.
I think what elevates Maus above other comic books, besides the somber subject matter, is the quality of the artwork and the depth of the characters. Even though the characters are all drawn as animals, their mannerisms are all too human and Spiegelman does a great job of portraying that. In addition, if you look closely, there's usually something happening in the background, whether it's funny, quirky, or sad. That attention to detail is exactly one of the reasons why I enjoyed this book so much. My inner English major likes to search for minute detail. . . .
Though Spiegelman makes his father and himself the subject of the Maus, he makes no effort to whitewash either of them. Sometimes his elderly father comes off as cantakerous and petty, though he also proves himself to be kind and clever. Art even draws himself as impatient with his father and unwilling to humor him. As you read Maus, you realize that the book is just as much a form of therapy for Art as it is a tale of his father's survival. It is my humble opinion that many artists and writers who embark on such a project often end up letting their emotions and close personal ties to the story overwhelm the piece and compromise its quality in the process. Not so with Maus. Art's central role in the story only adds to its complexity--and its complexity is exactly what puts this comic book leagues ahead of others like it.
If you're looking for a bit of variety in your reading list, add Maus. This book is one of the best, most inventive, and most haunting I've read in a long time. I think everyone should read Maus once.
Next Time: Probably Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. I make no promises, though.
This Week In Literary History: 30 June 1936: Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic Gone With The Wind is published. All right, confession time. I have actually never read this novel, but I have watched the 1939 Oscar-winning film adaptation, and I enjoyed it. That counts for something, right? RIGHT? Ahem. Anyway, this one is on my to-read list.
26 March 2011
21 January 2011
08 January 2011
12 January 1876: American writer Jack London is born. Most people are familiar with London's gritty, naturalistic survival novels set in Alaska, specifically White Fang--which I am going to reread in one of my American lit classes this semester--and Call of the Wild, but I highly recommend his, ahem, chilling short story "To Build A Fire." I dare you to read it and not feel bone-numbingly cold afterward. :D