Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What I Read: Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children

I got played by a cover, y'all.

Image courtesy Quirk Books
I noticed this one as soon as it came out. Who didn't? Wow, that's different, I thought. But I never got around to picking it up. In the intervening years I started following more book bloggers and saw this weird-looking cover at just the right Goldilocks frequency to convince me that it might be worth reading one day. I finally took the plunge when my Internet book club announced this would be July's book. I was even committed to buying a copy—and I am Team Library, so you know that if I intend to buy a copy, I have expectations (great expectations, if you will)—but fortunately another group member had a link to an ebook version.

AND I AM SO GLAD SHE DID. If I had spent some of my hard-earned money on Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, I would have been pissed. I read it for free and I'm still pissed!

(Aside: among my peers in university was a casual, just-for-shiggles rap duo called Tha Profe$$ionalz, consisting of one guy rapping and another guy beatboxing. They weren't super serious about it, more like a thing where if they were at a party and it went on long enough, they'd have a brief, impromptu performance, and their handful of songs became fairly well-known and well-referenced on campus. One of them was "Pissed Off A Little Bit" and to this day when I talk about being pissed off I can hear echos of random verses: "Too much homework, not enough bone work." I wish I could link you, but the half of the duo in charge of the YouTube account has apparently removed all of the videos.)

I know, I know: we shouldn't judge books by their covers. But we all do it! And a lot of the times, it doesn't steer us wrong: books with crappy cover design usually signal that there were limited resources available to really polish the writing; a cool or unique cover design means that publishers (or whoever) believe that this is a book worth spending time with, to the point where they will hire someone to make something pretty for the cover.

So you look at that cover, and you read a bit about the book, and you learn that ooh the book has creepy vintage photographs. Immediately I began building up an idea of what the book would be like: it would be spooky, subtle, mature. The best way to describe my preconceived notions about it would be that I was expecting some kind of narrative experimentation—like that it would be a story told through "found" documents: not only the photographs, but notes, receipts, newspaper clippings, etc. Or maybe even an old yearbook. That the story would maybe be solving the mystery of what happened to these peculiar children.

Instead, what I got was an obnoxious (really, truly, grossly obnoxious) YA narrator and some standard fantasy tropes: portal time travel, hero has an undiscovered power, is basically The Only One who can do some job or other, stopping the apocalypse, etc. The movie poster is a thousand times more honest and true to tone than the book cover:

Wikipedia tells me that Riggs originally intended to make it a picture book, and that someone at Quirk Books convinced him to make it a more traditional novel instead. WHOEVER THAT WAS AT QUIRK SHOULD LOSE THEIR GODDAMN JOB. A picture book would have been way more interesting and way less grating than what came out: a second-rate "fight the monsters!" fantasy novel with a somewhat cool world built behind it. I guess that's what happens when you take someone who isn't really a writer and make them write about their cool idea rather than photograph or film it.

Also, let us dispense with this myth that "the story is told through a combination of narrative and vernacular photographs." The photographs have zero bearing on the story or the telling of it. They are there for the gee-whiz factor; you can listen to the audiobook without any pictures at all and still know exactly what's going on. Erego, the pictures are not telling any part of the story.

Since the book has been out for five years now, I don't think I need to bother summarizing it. I'm probably the last person on the Internet to read it. I just need to give voice to my disappointment.

So everything that disappointed me about the book:

  • The narrator. Jacob is like a caricature of a teenager rather than an actual teenager. We need to stop with the sarcastic, world-weary (pre)teenage protagonists. Leave that to J. D. Salinger. Additionally, Jacob isn't even much of a teenager. He turns 16 right at the beginning, but if you were going strictly by his narration and inner monologue (rather than incidental things like "16th birthday party!" and "best friend who has a shitty car!"), you could be forgiven for thinking of him as being around 12.
  • The narrative form. I really wanted my experimental found-footage novel, guys. :(
  • The actual story. Oh the scary monsters!! Too obvious.
  • The peculiar children. They have the same problem the kids in Miri do: they're treated like typical little kids instead of grown-ups stuck in a child's body. And I mean you can make the argument that if their body is developmentally 8 years old (or whatever), then their brain and therefore their personality is also affected, but I don't buy it entirely.
  • The side characters. Okay, I know they're only in the story for a few pages, but the chav types Jacob first runs into on the island feel more like a caricature of teenagerdom than actual people. The same goes for Jacob's so-called best friend. They're obnoxious and serve no purpose.
  • The romance. Emma having the hots for her love interest's grandson feels really, really icky. If we're going to point out that 90 (or whatever) year old Edward Cullen creeping on teenage Bella Swan is fucked up, then we have to point out that it's fucked up with the roles reversed.
  • The end. And maybe this ties in with the beginning: Riggs does a lot of telling-not-showing and expects us to believe that Jacob's old life is really that miserable. I get, of course, why a shitty, self-absorbed teenager would decide to run away from his family and travel through time to fight weird hollowgast, but reading this as an adult it's hard for me to be on board with the decision the way that Riggs is on board with it and the way he obviously wants the reader to be on board with it, too. It's like the opposite of Harry Potter: the Dursleys are so heinously, cartoonishly evil that I can understand why Harry would rather chill with the Weasleys instead, even if  I think Rowling's writing and characterization regarding the Dursleys was a total hack job. Here, the telling-not-showing writing isn't great, but it's on the whole more realistic for someone to have loving but clueless parents and a lonely school life than EVIL AUNT AND UNCLE MAKE ME LIVE IN THE CUPBOARD...but that means Jacob wanting to leave it all behind reflects a lot more poorly on Jacob rather than being a logical consequence. Harry has something awful to run from, unbelievable and poorly-written as it may be, and Jacob doesn't.
And you know I'm angry at a book when it loses in a comparison to Harry Potter...!

This review on GoodReads is on point, and also mentions that at 16, Jacob is likely way too young to have a grandparent who fought in World War II. I didn't think about that while I was reading, but after a brief moment of thought, it's like..."duh, of course." I had grandparents who were in the war, but I'm 30.

Abe is 16 in 1940; even if you generously allow him ten years in the outside world to start a family, Jacob would be 16 with parents in their early 60s, give or take. I mean, I guess it happens—my maternal aunt had a daughter at 40, so my cousin is only a few years older than Jacob but has a (deceased) grandfather who fought in WWII and a mother pushing 60—but I don't think it's particularly common. Nor does Riggs comment on it anywhere. It just seems to work out that way so we can have some kind of callback to the Holocaust to make it more ~~serious or whatever?

That said, making Jacob older—a recent college graduate, maybe, instead of a high school student—would not only solve this tiny problem of weird ages; it would also make the ending of the book a lot tidier. It would be much easier for an adult with absentee or even dead parents to run away and fight shadowgast with a bunch of magical 80-year-old children than for a high school student. But then, if Jacob were an adult, he couldn't have an obnoxious attitude or have a romance with his dead grandfather's girlfriend who still looks (and somehow acts)....16? 17? So I guess rather than sacrifice the romance, we'll just ditch logic!

The book is at least an easy read, so I didn't waste too much of my life on it! There's a plus, I guess.

Have you ever been played by a cover? Let me know in the comments.


  1. That's why I was kind of surprised when you were so excited to read this, hahah. I didn't hate it quite as much as you, but it earned a pretty solid "meh." The first half was sooo boring, but later on I thought it picked up. I like the old photos and was interested in how he manages to weave these random creepy photos he finds into his stories (which usually wasn't very well, but I was still interested). I did read the second one, because I was contacted by Quirk to do a review on the set. The second one, IMO, was a lot better. But in your case I still wouldn't recommend it lol.

    1. No one told me that it was a Unbearably Snarky YA Narrator! Everyone was just like OMG THIS BOOK GUYZ!!! I had such expectations...

      I wish Riggs had gone ahead with his picture book idea. I want to know what that would have looked like.