Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This YA book was not what I was expecting! At least not when it started. I’d seen it on shelves for years, but I think I was expecting a haunted orphanage, third-person sort of fairy tale. When I began reading, I wasn’t prepared for as lovably flawed of a narrator as Jacob Portman, a wealthy Florida teenager who’s trying to get fired from his job. The writing was excellent and the book was, to steal a word from author Aimee Easterling, unputdownable. I was addicted to the story about the strange photographs of creepy children Jake’s grandfather kept, and how Jake witnesses his grandpa’s grisly and mysterious death, and especially his therapy sessions with Dr. Golan, after which Jake and his dad agree to visit the Welsh island of Cairnholm where Jake’s grandfather had once lived as a WWII child refugee.

Riggs’s writing is some of the best I’ve read. The book is enhanced by dozens of strange photographs procured by the author, which help the story unfold and come to life. In the second act, things take a turn for the wackier when Jake discovers a time loop in a cairn and is transported back to September 3, 1940. There, he meets Miss Peregrine -a Minerva McGonagall type of headmistress – and the same peculiar children, all with superhuman powers, from his grandpa’s photographs. This includes the feisty Emma, who was once his grandpa’s sweetheart, but who now has eyes for Jake. The witty dialogue, old-fashioned figures of speech, and U.K. slang really stood out among the new cast of characters, to the point where I felt I could really hear the kids speaking in their accents, each in his or her own unique voice.

I was fairly obsessed with the majority of the novel, until I came to the third act, and it began to play out more like an average YA fantasy novel. I had been more intrigued when Jake was straddling his real, present world and the time-loop world; but once we plunged into the full-fledged peculiarverse, I was ready for a resolution. I don’t plan on finishing this series soon, but I can see why this book is so acclaimed. Ransom Riggs writes with phenomenal skill!

Memorable Quotes

“‘They may love you,’ she whispered, ‘but they’ll never understand.'” – p. 263

“Stars, too, were time travelers. How many of those ancient points of light were the last echoes of suns now dead? How many had been born but their light not yet come this far? If all the suns but ours collapsed tonight, how many lifetimes would it take us to realize that we were alone? I had always known the sky was full of mysteries – but not until now had I realized how full of them earth was.” – p. 338

Book Review: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

molokaiSpirited little Rachel Kalama’s life changes for the worst when, in 1890s Hawai’i, she is discovered to have leprosy. The disease breaks up the Kalama family as it makes them anathema, which no one in their community wants to touch. Young Rachel is deported to the secluded island of Moloka’i, never to be permitted to touch her family or loved ones again.

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert is the heartbreaking and beautifully triumphant story of Rachel’s life on the island, her friendships and romances, her failures and victories, and her unbreakable spirit. It’s also a fascinating read of life in a leper colony. Also prominent in this book are the nuns and priests – including the real-life saint Father Damien of Moloka’i – who dedicated themselves to caring for the lepers on the island, when the rest of the world wouldn’t go near them. In this way, Brennert paints a refreshingly sympathetic depiction of Catholic history.

This book will make you laugh out loud, and also cry. And forget about being able to put it down until the very last page! Moloka’i is one of my hands-down favorite books. It has everything a novel should have: a full life story, three-dimensional and unforgettable characters with realistic dialogue, just enough sorrow to make your heart ache, but enough joy to keep you fully invested and rooting for the characters. Moloka’i is historically, culturally, and geographically descriptive and educational, full of depth and spirit, well-written, and exceptionally well-researched! I recommend this book!

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

guernseyWhen author Mary Ann Shaffer passed away, her niece, Annie Barrows, took up the mantle of completing the novel her aunt had been researching and writing. The resulting product of their joint efforts is this delightful little story, entitled The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. We meet a variety of characters, including our lovable and humorous main narrator, Juliet, through letters, journals and correspondences.

This is a beautiful story about the English people recovering from the Blitz in the 1940s, and a group of friends who form a special book club. A light yet uplifting and charming read, this book is a sort of modern revival of Jane Austen. You can read it in one evening, and forever maintain an affection for it. Highly recommended to women and book-lovers alike!

Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

geishaMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is one of my all-time favorite novels. It is the story of a young, poor Japanese girl who is sold into a geisha district, and grows to become one of the topmost successful geisha. Beginning in the Great Depression, this is a work of historical fiction spanning across the World War II and post-World War II eras.

An exceptionally-written, character-driven, epic love story… a tale of rivalry and betrayal, full of history and culture, this novel has everything. Especially the character interactions and dialogue were exemplary: they were natural and realistic, advancing the plot and developing the characters, which— alongside the detailed cultural descriptions of Japanese history, customs and society in that era— made the experience of reading this novel feel real and remarkably researched. I strongly recommend this book!

Book Review: Dear America: The Fences Between Us, The Diary of Piper Davis (Seattle, Washington 1941) by Kirby Larson

0-545-22418-7This is one of my favorite DA reading experiences. Piper lives with her father, a preacher, and her brother and sister. There are many Japanese Americans in her neighborhood and school, and her church is mostly Japanese. But after Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, life begins to change for Piper, as now she is considered suspicious and a traitor for associating with her Japanese friends and her father’s congregation, even though they are American citizens. And then, to her horror, her beloved Japanese American friends and neighbors are unjustly forced from their homes into internment facilities.

Meanwhile, Piper’s brother joins the military and each day she worries for him and waits for a letter from him. Her older sister, a grown woman engaged to be married and busy with pharmaceutical school, soon falls out of the picture as Piper relocates with her father to live near the place where their Japanese friends have been relocated, so that her father can continue to minister to them, bring them food and goods, and to do what he knew to be right even in the face of adversity. One memorably frightening scene includes a man in their new neighborhood who knows they are ministering to the confined Japanese, and who stalks them and threatens them for a time, believing them to be traitors.

This book contains much dramatic character development, more than in most DA books. Piper starts out as a schoolgirl with a crush on a boy, resenting being a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid), and absorbed in school dances and the like… but she eventually abandons her childishness, realizes what is really important– helping her Japanese friends and doing what is right, despite what others think–, and she learns to respect and appreciate her father’s noble actions and character, despite what it cost her socially, materially, and emotionally. Also evident in this book are other subplots, such as Piper’s love for photography. I was saddened only slightly by the epilogue, because she did not marry whom I would have preferred her to, but above all, this is a wonderful new addition to the DA series.

Book Review: Dear America: Early Sunday Morning, The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows (Hawaii, 1941) by Barry Denenberg

earlysundayIt is 1941, and just as Amber Billows and her family are beginning to adjust to their new life in Washington, D.C. (after having moved between multiple other cities), Amber’s father, a quirky Harvard-educated reporter, announces that they are moving yet again, this time to the virtually unheard of U.S. territory of Hawaii. Amber is quick to be upset, but is also quick to adjust to her new life in fair-weathered, lovely Hawaii, especially as she makes friends with pretty and popular Kame, a Japanese-American girl from school. Life is quite ordinary, until the fateful morning when Amber is awoken by a deafening, high-pitched droning sound and her panicked mother calling her out of bed. From that moment on, everything changes in Hawaii, from citizens having to build bomb shelters and carry around gas masks, to waiting in hours-long lines for groceries, medical treatment, and gasoline. Worse, however, are the tragic deaths and wounded sufferings of the soldiers who were stationed at Pearl Harbor, as Amber learns while assisting her mother, a nurse, in treating these men at the hospital.

This is a very short book, and like all of Barry Denenberg’s books in this series, seems to end right in the middle of the story, and even the epilogue doesn’t tie up many of the loose ends. However, this is the best book by Denenberg that I have read so far. I enjoyed Amber’s uniquely flawed personality, the original personalities and relationship of her parents, and even the brief interactions between Amber, Kame, and Kame’s aunt. I did find it odd that Amber was so notoriously bad at writing and responding to her friends’ letters and found all sorts of ways to avoid it, yet wrote extremely detailed and long-winded diary entries. (Though perhaps this was Denenberg’s way of demonstrating Amber’s reluctance of closeness with others, as was frequently demonstrated in this narrative.) A surprisingly enjoyable book, and the December 7 entry is powerful and terrifying. The Historical Note is also extremely well-put and I actually learned more about why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor than I previously understood.

Book Review: Dear America: My Secret War, The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck (Long Island, New York 1942) by Mary Pope Osborne

secretwarMaddie Beck and her mother live in a boarding house on Long Island, New York, while her father, a naval officer, is stationed overseas in the Pacific. Out of devotion to her father, Maddie makes friends in her new town and, with her new beau Johnny, starts a group for young people to help with the war effort. Everything seems to be going grand, and Maddie is flat-out enjoying the busyness and romanticism of the war, until near-tragedy strikes her own family, and she realizes that war is devastation, not fun and games. This book was a delight to read and is a great addition to the series.

Book Review: Dear America: One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping, The Diary of Julie Weiss (Vienna, Austria to New York, 1938) by Barry Denenberg

oneyeThis book is most unlike the other books in the series. As it begins, Julie is a privileged, well-to-do Jewish girl in Vienna, the daughter of a successful doctor, when Hitler annexes Austria and her world is turned upside-down. After witnessing the heinous atrocities committed by the Nazis upon their Jewish neighbors, Julie’s father sends her overseas for her safety, to live with her estranged aunt and uncle in New York City. While Julie starts out as a rather snobbish girl, boasting of her own intelligence and concerned about trivial matters, the reader, knowing where history is headed, expects a major transformation once the girl loses her luxurious lifestyle and witnesses the terrors of the Nazis. But the expected transformation does not exactly occur; instead, Julie goes from being snobby, verbose and unlikable, to completely depressed and withdrawn.

What pained me about this story most were its many blunt adult references that I found to be most uncharacteristic of the DA series, including Julie watching her maid take a bath and remarking upon her large “bosoms” floating, a boy looking up Julie’s skirt, swear words, the suicide of a main character, teen pregnancies, and babies out of wedlock, Julie’s blunt denial of belief in God and ceasing to capitalize the word ‘God’, and learning the American term “make whoopee.” While this is relatively light stuff to most adults, it was off-putting to find in a DA book, especially since these references were unnecessary for recounting the history or advancing the plot. As well, we never do find out the answers to so many mysteries the author had set up, nor even do we find out why the book is called “One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping,” as the phrase is never mentioned anywhere. I was also disappointed that this book recycled a theme from Dreams in the Golden Country, where the narrator – ironically, also a Jewish immigrant in New York City – takes to the stage and finds her passion in acting.

To say something good about this book, it was very readable and still difficult to set down. Perhaps on its own, outside of the DA series, it’s a solid YA WWII read.