Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children,
by Ransom Riggs

Monsters. Children with peculiar powers, who are hiding from the monsters. Time travel. World War II and the Holocaust. Haunting black & white photographs (most of them actual vintage photos). A Peregrine falcon.

Sixteen-year-old Jacob travels to Wales to find out what happened to his grandfather, who suddenly and mysteriously died. His grandpa, Abe, had shared strange and unimaginable stories with Jacob when he was a child, and he doubted his sanity. Jacob soon discovers that Abe was not lying, and he becomes irrevocably connected to the children at the home for peculiar children.

In the beginning, this novel reminded me of "Grimm," Portland's own haunting TV series. Apparently this story has similarities to the X-Men. But what was unique about it was the photos. Ransom Riggs wanted to create a book with the photos alone, but he was convinced to write a novel around the photos instead. At times, this is obvious, as is the fact that this is a first novel. Although only ten children live in the home, the photos capture images of many other children...and it's not clear what happened to those children.

Other readers have criticized the fact that the children seem too American when in fact they are supposed to be British or Welsh. Riggs has never traveled to Wales. Others found the narrator (Jacob) to be unlikable and spoiled, and the parents to be too detached (apparently this is a convention in young adult novels, though, for some reason). The writing is geared toward young adults, although at times Jacob seems to talk as if he's much older. His speech seems older but his actions seem younger.

The ending is not wrapped up in a neat and tidy way, and Riggs is reported to be working on a sequel expected for release in 2013. A film is in the making. I thought this story was highly readable, with an intriguing premise and captivating photos. I will read the sequel to find out what happens next!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ali in Wonderland

Ali in Wonderland and Other Tall Tales, by Ali Wentworth

As I joke in my house, I'm not easily amused. My nine-year-old son rented "The Three Stooges" recently, and I knew that I would not find it funny in the least. Even when watch something I do find funny (like "Downton Abbey" or "Lost in Austen"), Mike is rolling on the floor laughing while I might just smile to myself.

About the only people who regularly make me laugh are Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Ellen Degeneres, and Jane Lynch. When I've read humorous memoirs, I often start out thinking they are light and interesting, and then they grow tiresome.

That's Ali in Wonderland for me. Mike had checked it out of the library for humor research (for his writing). I picked it up because it looked interesting--Wentworth is married to George Stephanopolous. She's exactly my age, so many of her childhood and teenage memories rang true for me (like when her sister who had just had scoliosis surgery and ran away in a full body cast because she was fed up, and Ali had to follow her, but the only thing she cared about was getting home for The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and Love American Style, and her sister said she would only return home if Ali could make her laugh, so Ali took off her clothes and rubbed mud all over herself and did some weird kind of dance, only to be seen by people driving by). Some of the anecotes were indeed funny.

But midway through I started to get bored. I think the last straw was the chapter talking about how her mother believed that the cure for anything was to go to the Four Seasons. Wentworth was raised in privilege and lives in privilege now. Another chapter was about family-friendly resorts and  how inconvenient it can be to slip on a dirty diaper by the poolside. Although I assume she's a good liberal in the Kennedy style, I just couldn't relate to her problems and complaints. She also jumped around tons in her storytelling, so it was hard to keep track of which part of her life she was describing.

I ended up scanning the second half of the book to the end when she talked about meeting and marrying George. The descriptions of her big fat Greek wedding and family were funny...but I found myself ready to move onto something else.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How It All Began

How It All Began, by Penelope Lively

I've never read Penelope Lively before, even though she is an incredibly prolific British writer.

In fact, this must be one of the most English modern novels I've read in some time! When I started reading, I was struck by how many expressions most Americans wouldn't necessarily understand, but I have the advantage of knowing after cohabitating with a Brit for 25 years. For example--these are from scanning just the first few pages:

  • Her hip was giving her stick.
  • Shirty enough if anyone looked like taking liberties.
  • Lord Peters does not provide puffs for other people's books.
  • Occasionally you considered chucking in the job.
  • He'll be tetchy.
  • Breeding will out.
  • You endure, but also observe; you become a beady eye, appreciating the spectacle. (And the constant reference to oneself as third person rather than first person)
  • Day's supply of whatever is their particular tipple...
  • She'll be coming to us for awhile.
  • Rose will fetch her and install her in her room.
  • Nice girl? (the tendency to call women girls until they are well into their 40s)

I liked how this book started out: "The pavement rises up and hits her." The book is about "the butterfly effect," how one minor incident (in this case, the main character, Charlotte, getting mugged on a London street) can affect many people seemingly unconnected from the person directly affected.

Because Charlotte breaks her hip as a result of the mugging, she moves in with her daughter Rose, who must find someone else to accompany her pompous and very English employer Lord Peters to Manchester. That someone is his niece Marion, who sends a text to her lover, Jeremy, which is intercepted by his highly anxious and dramatic wife, Stella, putting their marriage into a tailspin. Before breaking her hip, Charlotte tutored English foreign language students, and one of them, an Eastern European named Anton, begins getting private instruction from her. Rose takes a shine to Anton, although neither act on their attraction to each other.

One of the challenges with this book is that the characters are not particularly likable or relatable for me. Most of the characters seem to be just propelling through life without any effort to be happy or fulfilled. Jeremy, I just wanted to slap upside the head. He's having an affair with Marion yet wants to keep his wife as well. He's a complete narcissist. Lord Peters is amusing but would be incredibly annoying in person. Charlotte is the most sympathetic, but the reserve of the writing and the setting keeps "one" from becoming attached.

Ultimately, it's the kind of novel where no one is truly happy at the end, except perhaps Marion (hard to say). I enjoyed this novel more in the beginning than at the then I was ready to move on.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Naoko, by Keigo Higashino

Naoko is described as "a black comedy of hidden minds and lives" and a "critique of gender relations."  I'm not sure if I would call it either a comedy or a gender critique, but it was an interesting read.
Higashino is a best-selling, award-winning writer in Japan, but he's not very well known in the U.S.

Naoko is the story of a factory worker, Heisuke, and his  wife, Naoko, and young daughter, Monami. Naoko and Monami head up to Nagano on a ski bus to visit family, but tragically the bus drives off a cliff. Heisuke learns this information from the TV news.

Soon after he reaches the hospital, Naoko dies. When Monami wakes up from a coma, she is no longer Heisuke's daughter..Naoko has inhabited Monami's body. Sharing this information with no others (for fear of being not taken seriously or worse, ostracized or institutionalized), Heisuke and Monami/Naoko prepare to live their lives in this father and daughter rather than husband and wife.

Naoko goes to school and begins to realize that she has been given a true opportunity: to live her adolescence and young adulthood all over again. She realizes that she was never truly fulfilled or happy as a housewife, and she decides to get into a top private junior high and high school to begin pursuing her dream of medical school.

Factory worker Heisuke, who has rarely entered a library much less read a book, is stunned and saddened by this turn of events. When Naoko begins attracting the attention of boys her age, he becomes obsessively jealous, nearly destroying the tenuous and strange father-daughter relationship they had been trying to build.
At the end of the book, it's hard to tell exactly what the truth's the mystery. The comedy, however, was harder to find. I found this book to be sad. The story contains a wide variety of extra characters, many related to Heisuke's job or other accident victims. In the end, I'm not really sure why he included all these plot sidelines. Many of them didn't really add much to the story.

What I found most intriguing about the book was the idea of living your young adulthood all over again. If I could do so, I too would have studied harder, been more ambitious, and wasted less time. As far as the "gender critique," it's very soft. This book was truly Japanese, and I imagine better understood by someone who lived in Japan or understands Japanese culture. As the wife/daughter, Naoko was expected to wait on Heisuke hand and foot. She was not expected to have any aspirations of her own. This change in what is expected is what startled Heisuke.

Of course, it makes me wonder...when Naoko (Monami) gets married and has a family of her own, will she share the food preparation, shopping, cleaning, and other household duties with her husband? Doubtful. But at least showing a Japanese woman who is not happy with her lot as a housewife and has dreams beyond those four walls...that's a start!

This novel has also been made into a movie, Himitsu, but it doesn't seem to be easily available in the U.S.