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

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenThis book and I have a bit of a history together. I first heard about it before it came out, when John Green (a college friend of Riggs) was spreading massive love for the book around the internets. Then it came out, and there was tons more love all over the place, but I was busy doing who knows what and didn’t get around to reading it. Then I was at my favorite beach book store maybe a year ago, and I was like, I want to buy books from you, what should I buy. This book ended up coming home with me but remained unread until my book club picked it to read. (Technically, my copy is still unread as I started reading the book on my Kindle and never switched over.)

And so maybe it’s the fact that I’ve known about this book and its fans for so long, that perhaps I had built up the awesome in my head too far, that I really didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to, for sure. It’s a book with a precocious kid who essentially finds out that magic is real, and also there’s bad guys and time travel, and really this book seems like a slam dunk. But it just… wasn’t.

If you also haven’t managed to read this book, the plot is thus: precocious kid has a grandfather who told him wild stories about his childhood that turned out to be pretty obviously made up when kid became teen. Grandfather becomes senile, thinks monsters are after him, dies horribly at the hands of what teen sees as, in fact, monsters, kid goes into therapy, therapist recommends a visit to the island grandfather told teen to visit with his last words, teen goes, discovers hidden time pocket where grandfather’s stories are true and grandfather’s childhood friends are still living as teens themselves, bad guys discover same pocket, teen and very old teens work together to defeat the bad guys.

This seems great! In fact, like Scarlett Undercover, my teen self would probably have devoured this book in minutes and loved it.

But cranky adult me sees what Riggs is doing and wishes he had done it better. The driving force behind this book is a set of pictures that Riggs collected that show mostly kids doing weird things — floating, lifting boulders, looking much older than they are, etc. These pictures became the titular peculiar children, and the pictures are actually printed in the book, which is cool but also annoying because you know every time a picture is coming because Riggs says something like, “I remember this girl, there was that picture where she was holding a chicken and there’s a long drawn-out explanation why she had a chicken so let me tell you what that is,” and I just don’t care. I don’t care why this girl is holding a chicken, I care about the fact that chicken girl and everyone else is in a time loop and also in trouble! This plot is interesting, let’s talk more about it!

The writing is also kind of confusing, with conflicting information given about the kids’ powers and the rules of the time loop and whatever, and everyone that’s not the main kid and his crush object get short shrift on character development. The dad is especially a letdown, since you can see where he could have been really integral to the plot but instead he gets left behind to drink all the beer while his kid goes off and has adventures.

Basically I think this book would have been better if it were Hollow Earth, which has weird stuff well explained and lots of characters with actual character. But again, teen me would have loved it anyway, so there’s clearly no accounting for taste.

Recommendation: For readers seeking weirdness that comes with pictures and those who appreciate the “kids with absent parents” part of most children’s books.

Rating: 5/10

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1, by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1I had heard absolutely nothing but love and fangirl-ing over this comic series, so well before it was available to order I bugged my local comic shop to put the first volume on my pull list. Eventually, it was orderable, and eventually, it came in, and then I set everything aside and dove in! Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to devour it in one sitting, and after reading the first two issues I was like, what the junk, I do not understand the love for this series outside of its delightful catchphrases.

So, there’s this camp, right, for Lumberjanes, who are kind of like Girl Scouts but different, I guess, and the series follows the campers of one particular cabin who are wont to leave their counselor behind and wander off on adventuresome adventures and exclaim exclamations like, “What in the Joan Jett are you doing?” But it’s definitely not your normal camp, as we find out on the third page of the first issue when we are suddenly introduced to creepy three-eyed wolves and enigmatic phrases. The second issue is much the same, with a canoe trip cut short by a three-eyed river monster and the discovery of a creepy cave. Goody? Things may also not have been helped by the fact that the issues are bracketed by pages from the Lumberjanes manual, which is made of text and so therefore I read it and hoo boy is there some terrible writing in those pages. I kind of couldn’t even.

After a night away from the book and the campers, I came back with trepidation to at least finish out this book I paid good money for. Strangely, this time around I thought the book was pretty awesome! Possibly this is because of changed expectations and less thorough reading of manual pages, possibly it actually gets significantly better. I think it gets better, because actual explainable (well…) stuff starts happening, like the fact that the cave is booby-trapped and the girls have to work together to get out of it, and then we meet Boy Scouts Scouting Lads who are not quite what they seem and these are storylines I know what to do with. We also get to know the individual girls better over the course of four issues and so I was better able to care about them and their exploits. I’m usually a fan of in medias res, but I could really have used at least one smidgen of knowledge to start this book off right.

On the plus side, now that I’m through with this volume I can see that things are exciting and crazy and I very much want to know what happens next. I’m not sure I could take this in single issues, though, so I’ll just be waiting patiently here for the next collection and working on my Pungeon Master badge.

Recommendation: For ladies who have ever gone to camp and fans of rad girls doing rad things.

Rating: 8/10

Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett UndercoverOh, man. I don’t even know what to do with this book. I wanted to like it, because the description referenced Veronica Mars and I am a fluffy fluffy Marshmallow, but of course nothing is as good as Veronica Mars (even the VM books themselves!) and also this book was just kind of a hot mess.

So, problem one was obviously the Veronica Mars reference point, because this is not really that. There’s a teen detective, sure, but she’s not a scrappy teen following in her dad’s PI footsteps with his grudging permission/acceptance. Scarlett is instead a scrappy teen who graduated early from high school and instead of going to college set up some sort of detective shop with no discernible training nor method of paying rent. Her grudging father figure is an actual detective who investigated her dad’s murder and who apparently encouraged the whole PI career thing but also thinks she shouldn’t do it? I am super unclear on how Scarlett operates.

Problem number two is my problem with so many things, but on a much grander scale. No one uses their goddamn words in this book. I kid you not, the first at least half of the book involves Scarlett asking people questions and them saying “I can’t tell you” or “I won’t tell you” or “You’re not ready to know that” or “You’re asking the wrong question,” including one scene in which Scarlett asks her bff/quasi-boyfriend why he has a tattoo that he has just revealed to her, and his answer is “The better question is where did I get it?” I have finished the book, and I can tell you that the better question is WHY DOES HE HAVE IT. This answer would have saved so much time and frustration and outright danger, so of course no one answers it.

Problem three is the story itself, which starts out with Scarlett taking the case of a nine-year-old (!) girl who wants to know why her brother is acting weird, but as you may guess from the above problems the case turns out to actually be about a huge secret that was kept from Scarlett her entire life and which led to the inordinate amounts of danger she soon finds herself in. Which, I mean, okay, I guess, but seriously, COMMUNICATION, people. Anyway, the scant clues she gets lead her all over town to all these different people who won’t tell her anything but all kind of know her or her family and are all related in the most convenient of ways and everything is super weird the whole time and I just couldn’t even.

Problem four, the fact that Scarlett is black and Muslim, should have been a slam-dunk plus of a cool diverse character, but Scarlett’s religion was played as a teachable moment instead of a character facet, which was super lame. Information about Muslim culture was shoved into the narrative like, hey, Muslims pray five times a day except not always! Some Muslims are less observant than others! Some Muslims wear a hijab! Muslims have a traditional greeting! Muslims have interesting historical tales that you might not have heard before! I know it’s a book for teens and that I can’t expect teens to be interested in looking stuff up (my goodness, do they not want to look stuff up, says my librarian brain), but I would have found the book so much more interesting if the author (editor? publicist? who knows?) didn’t insist on explaining the heck out of every interesting Muslim tidbit.

So… that’s a lot of problems, and they don’t even include the general weirdness of the writing. But strangely, for all the problems I had with the book as I was reading it, and all the problems I still have now, I still think it was worth reading and that younger teens, including probably my twelve-year-old self, would find it a heck of a lot more entertaining than I did. There’s lots of action, there’s a black Muslim protagonist, there’s a love story that involves no triangles, and there’s some neat historical and cultural information for readers to chew on. I wouldn’t read it again, but I know a few of my library teens that would!

Recommendation: For teens who like plucky teen detectives and super weird weirdness.

Rating: 5/10

Weekend Shorts: The Unwritten

Holy crap I’ve made it through all of the single issues of The Unwritten that were clogging up my bookshelf! A victory dance is in order! Now onto the trades!

The Unwritten, #47-49: “Orpheus in the Underworld”, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
The Unwritten #47It’s Mr. Bun! Mr. Bun is back! Mr. Bun is back and badder than ever, as it seems he has usurped the Lord of the Underworld (aka Hades). This… this may be a problem.

The Unwritten #48This three-issue arc brings us back to our old pal Tommy, who is wandering the Underworld without his memories but with a vague sense of having something he needs to do. He’s still travelling with our favorite small dead children, who smartly don’t trust Mr. Bun, and as he wanders Mr. Bun’s castle he starts to remember who he’s looking for and who he’s been trying to avoid. They’re all, of course, hanging out in the Underworld, so we also get to see Lizzie again as well as (spoilers?) Wilson Taylor (!!) and Pullman (!!!), and we also get to find out just how Mr. Bun ended up the sad sack that he is.

The Unwritten #49In the final issue of this arc, Pullman tries to sway Tom to his side, but instead Tom decides to take matters into his own hands, invoke the title story, and try to find out just what’s running the machinery of everyone’s lives, but it seems that before he can he gets nabbed by some characters from Fables just in time for the crossover event. I didn’t particularly like

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary SwordI read Leckie’s Ancillary Justice last summer and loved the heck out of it even though I was absolutely baffled by almost all of it. Person who used to be a spaceship? Difficulties in using gendered language? Political machinations? Awesome and also mind-breaking.

I think Leckie and/or her publishers figured that out, because this novel is differently structured and much easier to read. Our main character, Breq, still used to be a spaceship, but we’re only focused on her present as an individual person so there’s not as much of the switching back and forth between points of view (although there is still some). She’s also primarily hanging out with the single-gender-pronoun people, so everyone’s a she and that’s just how it is, no explanations on every other page. And even the political machinations are simpler, with most of the subterfuge showing up early and the narrative having plenty of time to explain what’s going on. Huzzah!

In this installment, Breq is sent by the leader of the Radch (civilization, more or less) to check out a station for, um, reasons?, and when she gets there she finds herself embroiled in some weirdness from another ship stationed there, some class warfare on the station itself, and more class warfare on the planet below. Breq spends most of her time trying to make things better for all the inhabitants of the area by working to improve their living conditions, trying to talk sense into those who would discriminate for arbitrary reasons, and taking various stands against stupidity.

This book is not nearly as page-turning and exciting and crazypants as the first book, but it does have a nice slow-burning plotline in the weird spaceship at the beginning and there is constant tension between Breq and pretty much everyone else in the story that keeps things interesting. I really love the world that Leckie has created and it was great to spend time in it again.

Recommendation: For fans of the first book, which you probably should read before this one, but also fans of space machinations in general.

Rating: 8/10

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A God in RuinsI loved Life After Life with a fiery burning passion, and when I heard there was a second novel in that universe coming out, I may have done a happy dance. I couldn’t wait to spend more time in Ursula’s strange time-altering world.

So when I realized early on that this book, which is about Ursula’s brother Teddy, that the whole reincarnation-ish aspect of Life After Life was going to be pretty much ignored, I was hugely disappointed. I had thought it would be fascinating to see how Ursula’s lives affected Teddy, but instead there’s just a brief mention near the beginning about how sometimes Teddy felt like he could see his whole life ahead of him and then a straightforward novel. Well, I mean, straightforward compared to Life After Life.

What Atkinson does here instead is jump all around in Teddy’s one life, writing briefly of his childhood and then his war years and then his married years and then his widower years and then back to the war years and then forward to the grandpa years and then some chapters from the point of view of his kid and grandkids and wife thrown in for good measure.

Many of the vignettes of the novel are told more than once from different perspectives (present, past, other characters), and it is fascinating to see how the same event can look completely different. Atkinson does this great thing, too, where she relates the story as if for the very first time, so that the variations in the story don’t get any sort of prominence and you almost have to work to remember that that one character thought something completely different had happened. I almost want to go back and read the book again, to experience the first half or so the right way (I waited a long time for the weird to happen) and to catch all the little bits I know I must have missed.

Setting aside the narrative style, the narrative itself is also a pretty good one. Where Life After Life covered World War II and the London Blitz and the horror of the war in England, this book is more about Teddy as a survivor of that war. There is plenty about his role in the war itself, bombing the heck out of Germany and presuming every flight in his plane would be the last, but there’s even more about how that part of his life is almost completely erased after it’s over. He’s expected to move on, and so he does, sort of, but the war is always in the back of his mind and on the pages of this book. And then there’s this whole other storyline about family and parenthood and what it means to love someone who doesn’t (can’t? won’t?) love you back and what love even is, really, and the whole thing is heartbreaking in a million different ways.

It’s so good, guys. I wanted it to be a different book, but it stubbornly refused to listen to me, and I’m so glad it didn’t. I may never get around to Atkinson’s mysteries (which I do very much want to read), but I will read the heck out of whatever giant historical novel she writes next, and y’all know that’s saying something.

Recommendation: For lovers of Life After Life, but especially for those who wanted to love Life After Life but couldn’t get past the reincarnation. This is your book!

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts: ODY-C and The Bunker

Before we dive in to this week’s comics, I want to remind everyone that tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day! I have like a million things I am doing this weekend but one of the most important to me (like, seriously, I took off work for this) is stopping into my local comic shop and grabbing my allotted free comics as well as whatever they have that I want to pay for. If you have a comic shop within driving distance of you (which you can check at that link above), you have no excuse not to stop in and grab 100 percent absolutely free comics!

Okay, back to the writeups!

ODY-C, #1, by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward
ODY-C #1I bought this issue the day it came out, knowing nothing about it other than that Matt Fraction wrote it and that Matt Fraction is awesome. I then read it shortly thereafter, and only realized that I hadn’t talked about it here as I was packing it up to donate to my library.

Why did I forget to talk about it for five months? Well, I had really bought it for my husband, and almost entirely because the first couple of “pages” are this huge, 8-page fold-out with a giant illustration on one side and a four-page timeline and four-page map on the other. Timelines? Maps? They are squarely in Scott’s wheelhouse. But still I wanted to read it first, to save Scott the trouble of reading it if it was bad and because MATT FRACTION come on.

So I did. And it was… weird. See, ODY-C is a complete rewrite of Greek mythology, specifically The Odyssey (see what they did there?), wherein all the characters are either ladies or an intersex… sex… created for the purposes of procreation. That timeline thing explains it all, I think, if it doesn’t break your brain, which it totally did mine.

As a person with limited knowledge of Greek mythology, I found myself knowing just enough to know that things were oddly different, not enough to know why, and too much to be able to just read the book as a new story and let it do its own thing. I also really couldn’t get past the voice of the story, in which people say things like, “There should come thunderous punishment from we Olympians for their insolence and hubris.” No. My brain is broken already, I cannot read formal language.

But it’s a super pretty book, with wild technicolor illustrations and amazing, intricate detail. If you’re the kind of person who wants to read space-based, gender-swapped version of The Odyssey, I can’t imagine you’ll do anything but love this.

The Bunker, Vol. 1, by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari
The Bunker, Vol. 1This, on the other hand, this book was solidly in my wheelhouse. Five college kids go off into the woods to bury a time capsule, because nerds, but when they find the perfect spot it turns out it’s already taken, by a giant bunker. Even weirder, this bunker has their names on it. Even even weirder, this bunker contains letters to themselves, from their future selves. AWESOME.

It seems that most of the letter writers are doing this as a way to stop the terrible horrible things that are going to happen from happening, but the letter we read first wants none of that. This letter wants its reader to make sure everything happens just as it’s supposed to, which may be a little hard with all of his friends working against him.

As we go through the story we get bits and pieces of the letters, with flashes forward to the horrors of the future world and some flashes back that show how all these guys became friends in the first place and how that’s all about to fall apart. The bunker also has a surprise guest who is going to make things very intriguing in the future.

I love the art in this book as well, which is this interesting sketchy pencilly style that fits with the book’s themes of despair and also the malleability of this timeline. I am super excited to see where this comic goes!

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaThis is kind of a difficult book to talk about, as I and my fellow book clubbers quickly found out when we sat down to talk about it. But it’s the good kind of tough to talk about, where all the stuff you want to talk about is, like, “Look what the author did here! Isn’t that cool?”

Cool thing number one: The core part of the narrative takes place over a five-day span in 2004, telling the story of a young Chechen girl whose dad is disappeared by Russian soldiers and whose neighbor takes it upon himself to find her a safe place to stay before the soldiers come back for her. Havaa, the girl, and Akhmed, the neighbor, make their way to the place Akhmed thinks is most safe — a hospital run by a doctor whose name Akhmed once came across. That doesn’t sound terribly safe to me, but we soon find out that this situation is the least of everyone’s worries.

Cool thing number two: In between pieces of the main narrative, the author jumps back to various points between 1994 and 2004 to talk about the history of the characters, of Chechnya in general, and of the conflict between Chechnya and Russia. He puts in just enough information that you understand why things like the Landfill exist and are so awful, but not so much that it feels like a history lesson. There were a couple of times I found myself reaching to Google to, say, remember where Chechnya is in the first place, but that was more because I was curious and had Google at hand than because of any confusion.

Cool thing number three: The author leaves the narrative at points to remark on things that the characters don’t yet or can’t possibly know, like what their parents felt about certain things or what will happen to them in the future. Sometimes these bits help put events in perspective, and sometimes they help to show how this limited narrative fits into the larger world. Either way, they prevent a terrible horrible epilogue and I am indebted to the author for that.

Other cool things: The characters are all “real” in that none of them are entirely good or entirely bad, even the ones who are really really super bad. Almost all of the characters interact at some point during the novel, but none of these interactions ever seem forced. There is, in my copy at least, a little Q&A with the author that is one of the few actually interesting Q&A’s I’ve seen.

I said when I got to book club that I thought the novel was really good, really well written, but that I wasn’t sure if I could say that I liked it, exactly, what with all the bleakness and desolation. That may still be the case; I’m not ready to go out and buy a copy to foist on anyone. But I do think it’s fantastically written, and I will be talking it up to other book nerds.

Recommendation: For book nerds of the sort who like a well plotted, tightly woven novel. Also people who want some sneak attack history.

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts: Sparks Nevada and Galaxy Quest

Spark Nevada: Marshal on Mars, #1: “The Sad, Sad Song of Widow Johnson, Part One” by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and J. Bone
Sparks Nevada #1Kids, shine your astro-spurs and don your robot fists! It’s time to finally see Sparks Nevada in action! Squee!

I have mentioned before in this space my love of The Thrilling Adventure Hour and especially “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars”. It is amazing and wonderful and hilarious, and as soon as I heard that I could get it in comic form I grabbed it from my local shop, where the counter dude was like, “I don’t even know what this is.” Oh, counter dude, you are missing out.

In this issue we get to see Sparks in action way back before the start of the podcast, when it was just him and Mercury riding the plains of the fourth planet together, protecting this time Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and the ever-paranoid Felton on their trip back from one of Mars’s moons. Everything’s going fine until the Martians show up, deposit Croach with the party, and then skedaddle, with only the explanation that some bad guys are on their way. Sparks thinks he’s got everything covered, but of course he ends up needing Croach’s help and we end in the middle of a fight with a rather large gang of outlaws. Thank goodness it’s not the end of Sparks Nevada!

Also in this issue, an issue 0 depicting the event that brought Croach under onus to Sparks, annoying both of them for all time. Squee again!

I love how faithful this book is to the speaking style of the show’s actors. You’d think pauses and stutters and interruptions would be hard to translate but it’s done perfectly. I had the actors’ voices in my head the whole time and it never sounded odd. I’m not sure how it will read to someone who’s never heard the show before, but really you should be listening to the show so it’s a moot point. Also awesome are the illustrations — I love that Sparks is rocking an Eleventh Doctor haircut and that I finally get to find out what Croach looks like! I cannot wait to see how this series plays with the show’s world. I’ll find out next time!

Galaxy Quest: The Journey Continues #2, by Eric Burnham and Nacho Arranz
Galaxy Quest #2Speaking of things I have previously squeed about

I said last time that if all four issues of this mini-series were as awesome as the first, I’d be quite pleased. Sadly, this second issue is almost not at all awesome. Galaxy Quest what are you doing to me?!

We left off last time with a threat to the cast of our favorite space drama, and we pick up right there, with Jason staring down his lizardman double. But instead of instant action, we get this weird conversation between the two of them recapping the first issue (OF FOUR, I might remind you), and then like three punches and then the cast are roped into coming with the lizardman to help him defeat his enemies? Or something? I don’t know. They get a fancy spaceship and they leave behind a bunch of lizardmen clones to take their places on Earth, so I’m sure there’s going to be a broken spaceship and some interesting new relationships at the end of all this. Issue #3, you’d better step up your game!

Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, by Cecilia Rodriguez Milanés

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell YouBefore we start, I have to admit that I read this book almost entirely because it fits in with my personal diverse books challenge. Usually short story collections “chronicling the lives” of anyone are well outside my wheelhouse, so it’s a double whammy of diversity when you add in the Cuban-American element. So I am probably about to say some stupid things about slice-of-life and immigrant fiction, is what I’m saying.

The collection started off poorly for me because of what I hope is some terrible formatting in my advance copy that led to me being absolutely baffled about whether or not I was continuing one story or starting a new one (verdict: a little of both). A few pages later I was back on track, but then the story turned out to be about a bunch of girls who die under terrible circumstances, and I was like, is the whole book going to be this depressing?

It is not. Thank goodness. The collection covers a lot of different stories across different age groups across different states and countries (mainly Florida, “Nueva Yersi”, and Cuba, with a jaunt to China once), and the stories vary in length from about half a page to tens of pages, so for the most part if a story isn’t great there’ll be a completely different one soon! That’s always a plus in any short story collection.

I really liked the second story in this book, which is about a girl who brings home her black Haitian boyfriend for the first time, at Thanksgiving, without specifying to her family that she is bringing home her black Haitian boyfriend. This interaction goes about as swimmingly as you are currently imagining. Around this, there’s bits about the ingrained racism of the girl’s family and how she feels mistreated by them but also loves them, because family. Also, there’s lots and lots of Spanish thrown around and I was happy to be reading on my Kindle with its translation feature, although I am pretty sure it does not know all the slang these characters do.

Other great stories include the one where a mother breaks her own rule about never visiting other people’s houses and an unexpectedly hilarious one in which a girl gets stuck with a dog she really doesn’t want, both of which could have been in any non-Cuban-American collection of slice-of-life stories in almost the same form. Turns out diversity isn’t that hard after all!

Some of the shorter stories I had trouble with because they’re that kind of story that picks up in the middle of nothing and ends in the middle of nothing, and kind of nothing happens in the middle, and some of them ended on these weird sentences that seemed like they should have great meaning because they ended the story but just… didn’t? I don’t know.

But overall it’s a solid collection of stories and has definitely piqued my interest in Cuba and its emigrants for future reading adventures. Any suggestions?

Recommendation: For people who actually like literary short stories and those interested in Cuban Americans.

Rating: 7/10