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Off the Shelves: Peculiar Children showcases history and imagination
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‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’

By Ransom Riggs

Four out of five bookmarks

When I read the synopsis for a recently released novel about an enclave of mid-20th century children with paranormal gifts caught in a realm of altered space and time, it whetted the appetite for my science fiction/fantasy sweet tooth.

Having grown up adoring comic book superheroes like The X-men and The Justice League, Ransom Riggs' "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" looked like a less campy, more spine-chilling (dare I say, "peculiar?") spin on the theme of the super-powered collective.

Paranormal plot elements dominate the young adult fiction market these days, so I was anxious to see how Riggs' debut novel would stand out in the literary ocean of wizardry, modern mythology and vampire/werewolf romances.

As a child, Jacob Portman was enchanted by his grandfather's stories of the children's home that he took refuge in during World War II, set on a magical island full of children with supernatural talents — invisibility, super strength and levitation.

Now that Jacob is 16, he realizes how facetious the stories were, even after seeing a collection of photographs from the 1940s of these supposed "peculiar children."

Everyone else in the family believes that Grandpa Portman is suffering from delusions and mental breakdowns in his old age, as he claims that "monsters" are after him.

Jacob cannot believe his grandfather's rants about the monsters — that is until he finds his grandfather dead, brutally murdered in the woods behind his house. Determined to find out the truth about Grandpa's childhood, Jacob travels to the mysterious island to find the children's home and its proprietor, Miss Peregrine.

At first, he discovers nothing but the destroyed ruins of the old home. But an unexpected encounter reveals an astonishing secret, bringing Jacob face-to-face with the "peculiar children" of his grandfather's tales, and uncovering truths that he may not be yet ready to accept, both about the island's residents and himself.

What gives the novel an eerie touch of realism is the inclusion of vintage photographs illustrating the characters and scenes within the story. The reader can see pictures of the children demonstrating their talents, the iconic silhouette of the infamous Miss Peregrine herself, and hints of how the "monsters" hide among us in everyday life.

These pictures were collected by Riggs from various friends, swap meets and flea markets, and while some of the photographs have been digitally altered, Riggs for the most part has kept the photographs untouched.

Unfortunately, the pacing of the novel is a bit inconsistent. The novel takes its time setting up Jacob's relationship to his grandfather, the impact to his psyche upon Grandpa Portman's death, and what leads up to Jacob going to the island to find the children's home.

Some of the character relationships come across as predictable or underdeveloped: None of the fathers understand their sons and vice versa, for which the reasons are not delved into very deeply. There are many child characters in "Miss Peregrine's Home" that are only distinguishable by their particular gift, and even then I had difficulty remembering who was who outside the prominent four.

Jacob himself is not much more than the introverted teen who's biggest problem for the most part, other than his grandfather's monsters, is angst.

But Rigg's novel is unlike most teen fiction I see in mainstream bookstores lately; it is a gripping narrative blending history and imagination into a memorable collage.

With its photographic flair to help accent the mood, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is a dreamlike trip into an alternative past, and having already been selected for movie production, it will be interesting to see how much magic will be retained on the silver screen.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.

 

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