Sunday, December 25, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Fans of Harry Potter and X-Men may take to this tale of a school designed specifically for children with magical powers—or “peculiars,” as they are called—even though this school is a far cry from the caliber of Hogwarts or the Xavier Institute. Written by Ransom Riggs and beautifully illustrated with old sideshow photos, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a delightfully eerie and engaging fantasy that will appeal to both teen and adult readers.

The protagonist is Jacob, a teenage outcast struggling to make sense of his grandfather’s mysterious death, and the outlandish stories he left behind; stories of his adventures in World War II, and of living in an orphanage for children with supernatural powers. When Jacob travels to a remote Welsh island to investigate these stories, he falls headlong into a fantastical world populated by shape-shifting demons, where he meets Miss Peregrine, the matriarch of a hidden land that houses a mansion designed to protect the children in her care from the outside world. Jacob inadvertently upsets the balance between Miss Peregrine’s world and ours, setting off a catastrophic chain of events that make him realize his own supernatural abilities.

The discovery of the orphanage introduces a colorful cast of peculiar characters. First we are introduced to Emma, a girl who can conjure fire, and Millard the invisible boy. There’s also Olive the levitating girl; Hugh, who has bees living in his stomach; Bronwyn, the girl with super strength; and Horace, who has prophetic dreams; to name a few. Miss Peregrine herself is a fun character in her own right: part formidable matron, part shape-shifting sorceress.

Jacob is an amusing narrator; his sarcasm and dry humor make the novel funny and compulsively readable. His disgruntlement with his wealthy, frivolous family is often a point of comic relief, and also lends some depth to his internal struggle of whether to remain with his peculiar friends or return to his lackluster existence in a small town in Florida.

Ransom Riggs has earned himself a devoted following with this novel that is sure to expand with the upcoming sequel. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is equal parts funny, spooky and splendidly bizarre, and an absorbing read from start to finish. Both parents and children will have a fun time with this one.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist

After his captivating debut with the vampire novel, Let the Right One In, I was eager to get my hands on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s next novel, despite generally not being drawn to the horror genre—least of all anything involving zombies. Yet Handling the Undead is not a generic zombie story; it’s an emotionally affecting and humanistic look at grief, loss, mortality and the relationships between parents and children.

The story talks place in Stockholm, Sweden, where strange occurrences are taking place. Electrical glitches, a massive heat wave and blinding headaches strike the entire population, and, in morgues and cemeteries, the dead start to reawaken. The first plotline involves stand-up comedian David, whose wife Eva is killed in a car accident and later reawakens in the hospital. The investigative reporter struggling to cover this phenomenon is Gustav Mahler, who has been grieving the loss of his grandson, Elias. The only people in Stockholm who foretold this whole occurrence is a pair of psychics: teenage Flora and her religious grandmother Elvy, who interprets the reawakening of the dead as a sign of the End of Days. Though these characters rarely interact outside their plot threads, their paths intersect in their attempts to survive and make sense of these supernatural circumstances.

The novel focuses not so much on the zombies themselves as on the living characters’ reactions to them, such as David struggling to explain his wife’s condition to his young son; Elvy’s self-appointed mission to spread the word of God as the End of Days draws near; and the government’s initial stalling to take action on the issue. In addition to David’s rapport with his son, the parent-child theme is especially prevalent in Mahler’s strained relationship with his grown daughter, Anna, and how they cope with the undead Elias. The psychic bond between Flora and Elvy also becomes crucial as they realize their purpose to herd the lost souls of the undead to their final resting place.

The marring aspect of this novel is its ending, which comes suddenly and doesn’t provide adequate closure; just a few hints as to how the whole zombie debacle will end, and how the characters will get on will their lives, having bid farewell to their loved ones for the final time. Readers will surely get the impression that their lives will continue after the book is finished, so this ending may be Lindqvist’s way of making the novel all the more memorable.

One could call Handling the Undead as the zombie novel for those who don’t usually read zombie novels. But there’s a chance that it could become a gateway zombie novel that sparks one’s interest in reading Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. In any case, it’s a moving and worthwhile read that further establishes Lindqvist’s status not only as a good horror writer but as a philosopher and humanist and well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jane by April Lindner

As a longtime fan of Charlotte Brontë’s coming-of-age classic Jane Eyre, I was intrigued at the prospect of a modernized version geared towards young adults. Aptly entitled Jane, April Lindner’s enjoyable update on the Gothic Victorian drama retells the class-defying love story to an entertaining degree, and succeeds where it counts, despite lacking the quality and psychological realism of the original.

While the original Jane Eyre worked as a governess for the ward of the mysterious Edward Rochester, Jane Moore takes a job as a nanny of the young daughter of famed rock star Nico Rathburn, a recovering addict and former womanizer seeking redemption through his music. Before long, Jane finds herself attracted to her brooding, charismatic employer, and their courtship is soon threatened by Nico's dangerous secret. Jane soon finds herself torn between her love for Nico and her own sense of morality, and must ask herself whether standing by her principles means giving up on love.

The characterization of Jane remains faithful for the most part to Brontë's original heroine. Coming from an abusive, dysfunctional home life, she is emotionally reserved and quietly dignified; hard-working, studious and artistic; yet her rapport with Nico reveals a deeply passionate side of her nature. Nico Rathburn, like his predecessor, retains the qualities of a Byronic hero: temperamental, emotionally conflicted, self-destructive and struggling with his own integrity. One thing he possesses that Mr. Rochester lacked is sex appeal, which should attract him to the novel's teenage audience.

The deeper themes and nuances of Brontë's original are lacking in Jane, such as gender politics and Jane’s struggles with religious faith. Yet some themes are still present, such as the dichotomy of passion and reason, and the limitations on human rapport enforced by social class. While Jane Eyre was an outspoken woman who clashed with the societal norms of the patriarchal, class-driven 19th century, Jane Moore is a hard-working college girl who clashes with Nico’s rich lifestyle, and the uninhibited world of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

Some fans of the original may balk at this premise; others may embrace the renewal of a beloved classic. In any case, I consider Jane to be worth reading, if only to see how well April Lindner has pulled it off. I say she did it pretty well, and the result is a fun, romantic and satisfying read.