Posts Tagged ‘Young Adult’

BOOK: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (2011)

February 6, 2012

This YA novel has an interesting origin — author Ransom Riggs (a pseudonym, I’m guessing?) had been long intrigued by old black and white family photos he kept finding in thrift shops and consignment stores, especially ones in which a trick of the light or the lens had made the subject appear to be or be doing something strange — floating, for example, or two-headed.  After years of collecting photos like that, particularly of children, he came up with an idea for a novel based on the images: a novel about a magical school caught in a time loop that housed a bunch of children with equally magical abilities.

The result was this book, which you probably guessed.  And while I found it entertaining, I confess I wasn’t at all surprised to learn in the postscript this tale of its origins.  Because it reads just like you might think it would — like a story focused way too much on a bunch of photographs that aren’t truly connected in any way.  More on that in a moment, though.

The book opens with a 16 year-old kid named Jacob who has just witnessed the vicious murder of his grandfather by some kind of creature in the woods.  When nobody believes his story about the ghoulish figure, his parents start sending him to a psychologist to get help for what they believe is clearly some kind of PTSD-triggered psychosis.  Jacob can’t stop thinking about the murder, though, or about his grandfather’s cryptic last words, and he begins to try to investigate his grandfather’s past.  The puzzle of those last words ultimately lead him to a letter written to his grandfather decades ago that reference a woman who was clearly madly in love with him and is signed “Miss Peregrine.”

Determined to find out what got his grandfather killed, Jacob tracks Miss Peregrine down to a small private school off the coast of Wales where his grandfather had lived for several years as a young man.  He talks his father into taking him there, but is surprised to discover when he arrives that the school was destroyed in a bombing during WWII (apparently, it didn’t occur to him to call first?).  All the students and teachers were killed, the townsfolk tell him.  But if that’s the case, Jacob wonders, how is it possible this Miss Peregrine wrote to his grandfather years later?

Jacob begins exploring the ruins of the school and suddenly finds himself surrounded by a group of children who appear seemingly out of nowhere.  Eventually he learns they are the original students — the ones supposedly killed during the war — and they’re still alive, living in a time loop that has kept them stuck in the day of the bombing all the decades since.  The students are all “peculiar” — that is, they all have magical abilities of some sort or another.  One is invisible, one can levitate, one can make little robots come alive, etc.  Miss Peregrine too is in the time loop, and she recognizes Jacob immediately, his resemblance to his grandfather is so strong.

As Jacob spends more time with the group, he begins to learn they are in danger.  The evil creature that had killed his grandfather is part of a race of nasty magicals that is after Miss Peregrine as well, wanting to use her and others like her in some kind of spell that would make their kind tremendously powerful.  He also learns something about himself — and his grandfather — that throws into question his desire to remain in his own present time.

The end of the novel leaves us wide open for a sequel, so I’m sure the plan here is a series.  But while I enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to the next one, I have to confess it’s more than a bit clumsy.  For one thing, a good chunk of the plot is a ridiculous rip-off of the second X-Men movie, in which the magical beings are forced to hide from regular humans due to persecution, and some of them are so angry about this they strive to become even more powerful and then wage a war.  You could argue that’s kind of an age-old tale, but the parallels here are just too tight for it to be mere motif.

The larger problem, though, is that a plot wholly inspired by a stack of photos, as creative a gimmick as that might be, is going to be difficult to keep from feeling just that way:  gimmicky.  It was clear Riggs was very, very eager to share as many of the photos with us as he could (each of the children, and some of the other characters too, are based on an actual photo he found in real life, and those photos are presented in the book in between each chapter).  The photos are wonderful, and it was a delight to be able to see them, but the focus on trying to create as many characters as he could based on the pictures made for a forced feel at times.  Oh, THAT’S why he threw in this extra little bit — he had a photo he wanted to show us.  Oh, THIS is why he tossed in that little tangent — another image he wanted to share. As fun as the photographs are, his reliance on them as a tool for creation here felt  extremely clunky at times.  I think he would’ve done better to use them as inspiration in a more general way instead of trying to work each one into the story.

Riggs is also not the world’s greatest writer, and a lot of the character interactions and dialogue were bland and cliché at times as well.

I’m hoping that now he’s got the characters put together and the story established, he won’t feel the need to rely on the gimmick quite so much in the next book.  I’m looking forward to reading it when it comes out, and I could see this series inspiring another set of films that kids and adults alike would really enjoy.  As flawed as the book is, the story is definitely engaging, and I left eager for more.  Definitely one worth checking out, and it would be a book kids aged 12 or so and up would probably really dig as well.  Recommended with caveats!

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BOOKS: The Hunger Games trilogy: Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)

October 11, 2010

Friends had been recommending this young adult sci-fi trilogy to me for a year before I finally picked up the first book in the series.  Why the hesitation?  I suppose because I’m not typically a big reader of YA novels.  But I also confess the plot didn’t appeal to me all that much at first:  a bunch of teenagers thrown into the woods and forced to kill each other as part of an annual, state-run, nationally televised reality show called “The Hunger Games.”   I feel like I’ve seen that story dozens of times told in as many variants:  Lord of the Flies meets The Running Man meets Battle Royale meets that really bad flick starring Ray Liotta.  Eh, *shrug*.

All I can say now, though, is that I am a fool.  I mean, yes, this series is as predictable overall as I suspected it would be.  The thing is, though I kept turning each page and thinking, “Okay, well, it’s fun and all, but it’s not exactly brilliant or anything,” not only did I end up reading the first book in a day (The Hunger Games), but I bought the other two an hour later, devouring each of them nearly as quickly (Catching Fire, Mockingjay).  That,  my friends, says a lot.

I think I’m not going to bother trying to describe the plot of a three-book series here — I can’t think of a good way to encapsulate the whole thing.  Suffice it to say this series encompassed much more than I expected, including some truly intriguing inventions.  It’s got love and hate, age and youth, war and revolution, spies and mystery, politicos and hippies, good and evil, and a whole heck of a lot of shockingly graphic violence.  So much violence, in fact, I was surprised the series was considered YA.  And yet, had I read these books at age 13, I would’ve been absolutely captivated by them.  Utterly consumed.  They would’ve completely blown my mind.

At age 36, though, while I still enjoyed the bejesus out of the whole shebang, my more critical eye did get in my way from time to time.  For one thing, though the writing is surprisingly solid, the pacing could’ve used some work.  I felt like the third book in particular would’ve benefitted from tighter editing and a little more focus.  Also, a lot of the love/relationship elements struck me as fairly weak.  Childish, really, which was a striking contrast to the very adult violence it sat alongside.  It’s possible that was done for effect:  to help us remember our heroes were, in fact, mere children.  But even thinking about it that way didn’t rescue those sections for me.  The love story(ies) felt almost like afterthoughts at times, tacked on later to help the series better compete with the swoony likes of the Twilight books.

Nevertheless:  riveting!  Reading all three back to back was an absolute blast, however unpolished things felt to me at times.  It’s still a series adults will get a lot out of, which is good because I think if you’re planning on letting your kids give them a shot, you probably ought to read them first yourself to gauge the appropriateness of the violence.

Looking forward to the movie version, which I sincerely hope will not suck.  And before you ask, I’m Team Peeta all the way.  How could I not be?  Damn cute li’l unrequited love underdog!  Diggity.

These would be a great choice for anybody about to get on a long airplane ride.  You’ll be in Australia before you know it.  Recommended!

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BOOK: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

September 22, 2008

This wonderful young adult novel is about a teenage boy named Arnold Spirit, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, Washington. Arnold was born with “water on the brain,” and is a bit on the underdeveloped side, so he’s been the target of bullies most of his life. His way of coping? Drawing comics (many of which are “taped” into this diary) and playing basketball. And so far, life on the reservation has been fairly tolerable. He loves his family, troubled though it may be, he has a best friend who sticks up for him (aptly named Rowdy), and he’s managing.

But then he starts high school, only to find that the rez school is giving him the same textbooks they gave HIS parents. Twenty year-old math textbooks? Suddenly, the unfairness of it all overwhelms him, and Arnold makes the decision to quit going to school on the “poor-ass” reservation and start traveling 20 miles away to a mostly-white public school instead.

By leaving the rez, Arnold becomes an outcast in his own community, as well as an outcast in the all-white school he has started to attend. But it’s not long before he makes a few friends, and when his classmates see what he can do on the basketball court — and get a taste of Arnold’s personality — it’s not long before he goes from outcast to hero. Eventually, Arnold comes to terms with the two sides of himself — his white side, and his Indian side — learning how to balance the two and thrive in both worlds.

This coming-of-age novel is hilarious, powerful, and packed with stories of typical teenage problems (falling in love, losing a friend) as well as intense tales of reservation life (poverty, alcoholism). Arnold is irresistible, and it’s pure pleasure to get to take this peek into his “absolutely true diary.” Highly, HIGHLY recommended for teenagers and adults alike!

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BOOK: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

August 26, 2008

I’m not quite sure what to say about this one. When I first started reading it, I got really into it and, in fact, was really excited about the potentially fascinating story it was about to tell me. But then I got about halfway through and realized the plot wasn’t actually going anywhere near where I thought it was headed. Man, I hate it when that happens!

The story focuses on a 16 year-old girl in 1906 named Mattie Gokey who has finally managed to break free of her domineering father and taken a job at a local hotel, a job she hopes will earn her the money she needs to go to college. While at the hotel, she has a conversation one hot afternoon with a guest — a young woman named Grace Brown. Grace gives Mattie a packet of letters and asks Mattie to destroy them for her. The next day, Grace is found dead in the river, supposedly the victim of a boating accident.

The description of the plot on the book’s cover had made it sound like this mystery was going to be the main thread of the novel. Additionally, Grace Brown’s story is based on a true story, one Theodore Dreiser first novelized in his book An American Tragedy. Having seen that in the description, I went into this novel expecting it to A) be a crime story, and B) be written in a somewhat “literary” style. But by that aforementioned halfway mark, I could see it just wasn’t going in either direction. Instead, the plot primarily stays focused on Mattie herself — Mattie complaining about how her Dad never lets her do anything, Mattie whining about how much she wants to go to school and be a grown-up, Mattie expressing her desperation for independence and the chance to start over. Etc. etc. etc.

At first, this made no sense to me — what the heck is going on in this book? You have the idea to tell a somewhat-famous true crime story from the perspective of a teenage girl and you waste it like this? It wasn’t until I finished it that I realized I’d missed something very important on the cover. As it turns out, this is a YOUNG ADULT novel. It’s not going likely to be a gritty, intense crime tale, nor is it going to be, say, at all Theodore Dreiser-ish. It’s going to be what it is, which is essentially Little House on the Prairie, except set in a bigger town and lightly scented with a moderately scandalous murder, the implications of which primarily pass all the main characters right by.

I might’ve really enjoyed this book had I known it was a YA novel when I started reading it. Instead, I was just so confused and puzzled by what seemed like the author’s wasting of a perfectly good idea that it mostly just made me feel peevish. So, my plan at this point is to give it a few more years and then try it again. I just can’t tell if the 13 year-old me would’ve liked this novel if only the 34 year-old me hadn’t gotten in her way (the 13 year-old me is still in there, you know — she just has to be alerted when she’s needed). If you’ve read this novel, I’d love to hear what you thought about it, especially if you read a lot of YA books and found this one to be a standout, good or bad.


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