Here’s a puzzle. How did a book formerly owned by Cumbria Council Libraries end up in a charity shop in Birmingham? However, I’m glad that it made this journey (presumably aided) as it’s given me the opportunity to read and review it.
This is the first novel by Ransom Riggs and I think it would fit in the ‘Young Adult and above’ category, if such a thing existed. It’s a book that contains a number of quirky monochrome prints of odd looking children doing strange things or people seen in silhouette. Riggs is a fan of vintage prints and has taken examples from the collections of many of his friends plus his own collection to illustrate this book. Do the photos illustrate characters already created by Riggs or did the photos give him the ideas for characters? It’s a question I will ask him if the opportunity arises one day.
The story revolves around Florida teenager Jake and his Grandfather, Grandpa Portman. Grandpa Portman has told Jake bizarre tales of his early life in a Welsh children’s home during World War II and the friends he had there with special powers or gifts, hence ‘Peculiar Children’. Jake loved the storries when he was young but as he gets older he, quite reasonably, begins to believe that his Grandpa made up the stories to entertain him as a child.
One day, Jake finds Grandpa severely wounded. Grandpa gives Jake a cryptic message about going to the island on which the children’s home stood. Not surprisingly, Jake is given psychiatric care due to this trauma.
The book captures well the awkwardness of teenage years and deals compassionately with mental health issues. It is also quite funny. Jake’s observations of family life are deadpan and very amusing. At a family get together he describes his Uncle Bobby
“pulling people into corners for conspiratorial chats, as if plotting a mob hit rather than complimenting his hostess on her guacamole,”
Another of my favourite remarks of Jake is a description of his rather snobby mother;
“I did love her, of course, but mostly just because loving your mom is mandatory, not because she was someone I think I’d like very much if I met her walking down the street. Which she wouldn’t be, anyway; walking is for poor people.”
Jake makes it to thee Welsh island on which his Granpa spent time during the War and the there follows some peculiar twists concerning time-travel and the rift between the ‘peculiars’ that see their gift as the next stage of human evolution (like Magneto and his follower in the X-Men movies) and the remainder who hope to live a peaceful life with the non-gifted.
Whilst reading the book, I did the very strange thing of accepting the overall premise of the story but questioning specific parts that may be seen as inconsequential in the general scheme of things. We are told that Miss Peregrine’s home for Peculiar Children was bombed by the Germans during the war. I wondered why the Germans would go to the trouble of flying across the industrial heartlands of Britain to bomb a small Welsh island on which there were few people and scant infrastructure or industry. Jake meets some Welsh lads who, in response to a comment Jake makes that he things is insincere, says “I thought you were taking a piss mate.” The correct expression would be ‘taking the piss’, meaning ‘to make fun of’. Riggs uses the incorrect expression twice but gets it right on the third attempt.
The relationship between Jake and his well meaning but essentially aimless father is juxtaposed nicely with Jakes relationship with Grandpa Portman, whom he loves dearly despite, or because of, his idiosyncracies and his ability to endure.
After a slowish build-up, the pace of the book becomes faster towards the end and the threads are woven together at the end in a way that will allow a sequel to follow without much difficulty. I sometimes wish that writers would concentrate on a book that feels like a whole story on its own rather than the first part of a longer series but perhaps I should just get real.
This is a reasonably entertaining book and a promising first novel.