Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review - Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Ransom Riggs
Hardcover: 352 pages
eBook: 361 pages (Portrait view)
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication Date: June 7, 2011
eISBN: 978-1-59474-513-3
ISBN-13: 978-1-59474-476-1
Cover Photograph: Courtesy of Yefim Tovbis


     Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
     Home for Peculiar Children…
     Peculiar Children…
     The title suggests to me that its pages have to be filled with all things gothic, dark, melancholy, and, for lack of a better word, peculiar. The cover image of a girl floating six inches off the ground grabbed my attention adding an air of mystery and implying that something profound and extraordinary was about to happen. All I had to do was open the book to find out what made these particular children so different. So, I wasted no time in doing just that and found myself wholly fascinated and entertained by the story. Ransom Riggs has created a world of imagination filled with mystery, time loops, magic, monsters, and yes, some very uncommon “children.” Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is an exceptional novel and I found myself entranced by Riggs’s voice and captivated by the notion that something ominous was about to happen every time I turned a page. It’s a remarkable story that blends a murder mystery, a quest motif, and a coming-of-age tale with the supernatural to create a masterful piece of lasting fantasy. The story is intelligent and engrossing and filled with old sepia-toned photographs that depict unfamiliar and titillating characters situated in not-quite-natural poses or evocative scenes. My curiosity became piqued the moment I saw them. The photos were strange but somehow made sense. They begged examination. They filled gaps. They complimented the story. And they helped to explain that “peculiar spirits” still walk the Earth.

     Jacob, a 16 year old American, has listened to his grandfather’s tall-tales for years but attributes the chilling stories of cunning monsters and strange characters to his grandfather’s unusual experience as a World War II orphan. (After losing his family to the Nazis Grandpa Abe was shipped off to England where he found himself a ward of Miss Peregrine on the tiny island of Cairnholm off the coast of Wales.) One day Jacob receives a panicked, confused call from his grandfather and rushing off to find out what’s happened he discovers his grandfather bleeding and dying in the woods behind his home. His last words, “September 3rd, 1940…. Emerson… Find the bird in the loop…” are a mystery to Jacob but as his grandfather’s life fades away his flashlight reveals the hideous face of a monster lurking in the woods. Jacob realizes that his grandfather’s stories were not fabrications after all and he knows that his world will never be the same. When he finds a letter written to his grandfather by Miss Peregrine Jacob knows he must find out who, or what, killed him and why. Using the excuse that visiting the island would ease the trauma Jacob convinces his psychiatrist and his family to let him visit the “Home” where his grandfather spent his childhood. Once in Wales, with his dad in tow as chaperone, Jacob stumbles upon a group of very unusual children. He learns that his grandfather’s stories were more truth than fantasy and that he is not as common as he once thought. The world he lived in was never at all what it seemed. Miss Peregrine and the children, hidden in a time loop for the better part of sixty years, are being hunted by monsters and it falls on Jacob’s shoulders to protect them at all cost.

     Recommended for time travel buffs, psychological horror fans, murder mystery aficionados, fantasy lovers, Young Adult fans, or anyone looking for an interesting or “peculiar” read. Also recommended for fans of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human or Zena Henderson’s “People” stories.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Amazon Page

 Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Wiki Page

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children You Tube Book Trailer

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Excerpt (Prologue and 3 chapters)

 L.A. Times Article

Ransom Riggs’s Official Website


A word (or three) about the peculiar photographs –

     Ransom Riggs came up with the idea for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children after stumbling upon a number of “found” vintage photographs. Mixed throughout the book are many of these unusual, sometimes spectral, sepia-toned images. Hoax, “Spirit”, and fake photographs were mass-distributed around the turn of the last century as a means to gain popularity or make money and have been around almost as long as the art of photography. That so many of them survive is a testament to those who collect and preserve them. The images presented in the novel are suggestive of a bizarre nature or contain an illusion-like oddity or uncommon scene and as I continued to read I looked forward to seeing more of them. There was something compelling and altogether eerie about every image and I wanted to meet the characters shown in them and hear their individual stories. Riggs integrated the unrelated images into the novel perfectly fitting them together like the pieces of a puzzle. A woman in period clothes holding a parasol became Miss Peregrine, an old subway tunnel became the entry to a time loop, and so on. As the story unfolded in his imagination Riggs started searching for similar photos. He went to swap meets and flea markets and was allowed access to photographic collections to search for more “peculiar” images to help propel the story forward. The afterward contains a listing of all the images used and the collections they’re from. In an interview, Riggs told fans that he’s compiled a huge backlog of additional images for a sequel. I, for one, can’t wait to see what the next installment brings us.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review - The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick deWitt
Paperback version 336 pages
eBook version: Portrait 368 pages
Publisher: Ecco (Harper Collins)
Publication Date: February 14, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-0062041289


     The best thing about Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers is that it is an inventively unusual and magnificently flowing piece of fiction. (For those of you wishing to pad your reading list for the year this book is an extraordinarily quick read and I found it nearly impossible to put down.) The language is strong, in plot and content, the story compelling, exciting and creative, and the characters, while flawed and slightly comical and buffoonish, are totally believable and empathetic, especially the narrator. It takes a special story to interrupt my customary fare of Science Fiction and Fantasy and The Sisters Brothers is just that. It was so exceptional, in fact, that it wiggled its way into my already-waiting-to-tip-over reading pile. When I started it I didn’t realize that it was a Western, a genre I don’t normally read, but the blurbs and back-cover description gave an “otherworldly” or “sinister” vibe to me which was the deciding factor. Once I began reading, however, I was hooked. Additionally, the cover art and title seemed both unusual and remarkable in their own ways and I wanted to know more about the characters depicted there. (It turns out that sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover.)

     The Sisters Brothers is dark, disturbing, gory, bloody and, above all, great fun to read. It’s packed with home-spun wisdom, wagon-train philosophy, and frontier angst and is a creative and unique blending of a time-worn genre and contemporary thought. What I find interesting is that this atypical, Western-inspired tale does not follow customary themes (i.e. Cowboys versus Indians, The 7th Cavalry arriving in the nick of time, a lone gunman seeking retribution against past wrongs, or an evil cattle baron buying or stealing all the land in the peaceful valley.) It seems that Mr. deWitt is a frontier philosopher of sorts and those values rub off marvelously on his characters. Assassins inclined to discuss their own brand of twisted philosophy prior to heading off into a gunfight? Priceless! There are numerous quests and a few missions and lots of bloodshed and a double-cross or two. There are gunfights and surprises, and animal husbandry and a bit of cruelty, and prospecting for gold, and insanity, and dirty characters, inside and out. There’s arrogance and a price to pay for it in many guises. There’s humility and reward, albeit somewhat unsatisfactory for the character in question. There are attitudes of the frontier and the trail and there’s bloodlust and violence everywhere and the mentality of gunfighters can be found on almost every page. But there are many unique ideas and themes here that you will not find in other Westerns. Most noticeably is a strong, quick, un-squandered language that fits perfectly within the genre yet flows exquisitely. And that language helps make Patrick deWitt’s re-envisioning of the Wild Old West feel more authentic and realistic.

     The two main characters, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are well-known gun slingers in and around Oregon and northern California and the mere mention of their names can bring hard men to their knees and send weak men running for the hills. But the Sisters brothers are psychologically flawed from a young age. Witnesses to the brutal beating of their mother by their father and the subsequent murder of their father by Charlie, the two six-gun-toting brothers couldn’t be more different. Charlie is tortured, arrogant, and tough and Eli is complex, sensitive, and often tender-hearted. And while Charlie kills for the sport and pleasure of it Eli kills to protect his older brother who saved him from a life of abuse. The Sisters Brothers is, in essence a quest story. Charlie and Eli are sent by their boss, The Commodore, to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a supposed thief, and return to Oregon with his secret formula for easily extracting gold from the rivers. But this is not the main quest of the book. The true pursuit is the search for self and the realization that what we do in our younger years molds us into who we are to become as adults. The human drama is laid bare but you have to peek around the gun fights, between the fist fights, the drunken debauchery, the mind-numbing hours on horseback, the dirt coffee, and the mindless prospectors that have been too long in the wilderness to find it. Look hard. It’s there. The exploration is well-worth the price of admission.

     By all accounts this book should have tanked with me (according to my genre choices and reading preferences.) But, here’s the thing, as soon as I started reading it I knew that I wouldn’t be able to put it down. It was that captivating, that unique, and that sublime. Never before have I reviewed a semi-historical Western but, as they say, “things change” and so I am reviewing this romp through the Old West and gladly so. Why? To use the vernacular, it’s a “damn fine” story, that’s why.

4 ½ stars out of 5

The Alternative One
Southeast Wisconsin

     Recommended if you appreciate Westerns, exceptionally plotted narratives, action-packed gun and fist fights, old west debauchery and saloons, unscrupulous men and their corrupt actions, and home-spun comedy combined with a bit of cowboy buffoonery.

Additional Reading:

The Sisters Brothers Wiki Page

The Sisters Brothers Amazon Page

Chapter One Excerpt of The Sisters Brothers

Chapter One Audio of The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers Facebook Page

Patrick deWitt Official Author Page

Friday, October 19, 2012

Book Review - Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
Random House Trade Paperbacks
First Edition - August 17, 2004
ISBN-13: 978-0375507250
528 pages


In many of my past book reviews I’ve discussed the concept of the writer’s voice when describing style, inventiveness, and thought-provoking, imaginative, and inspired literature. In the case of David Mitchell his voice resonates with unquestionable clarity and Cloud Atlas, which to me reads more like poetry than prose, is an outstanding opus for any genre. Indeed, by its nature, it cannot be simply pigeon-holed into any one genre but skirts the neighborhood of many. Masterful story-telling combined with creative plots and twists and turns make Cloud Atlas my favorite book of the year and is, in my opinion, a near-perfect work of fiction and an instant classic. Mr. Mitchell has crafted an interesting and entertaining tale filled with curious themes and remarkable elements that effortlessly tie together in some fashion or another, usually via a common thread (i.e. Movies, books, music, or people.)Themes of reincarnation, attempted murder, pirates and sailing on the high seas, the human drama, Science Fiction, suicide, dystopian society, poetry, succinct language (no one does two and three word sentences better), Fantasy, corporate cover-up, sex, altruism, and survival are all expertly and brilliantly represented in this multi-player and multi-thematic story.

Cloud Atlas is divided into six interrelated story-lines narrated by as many diverse characters and ascends up through history from the mid-19th century into a distant post-apocalyptic future world. The stories are all interlinked expertly using either certain reoccurring (reincarnated?) individuals and/or their associates or by the letters, music, or lives that they’ve touched. Everything is connected and spiked with head-spinning Déjà vu.

In the first vignette, written in the form of diary entries, we learn of Adam Ewing, a writer out to make a name for himself and his fateful trip from New Zealand to O-Hawaii in 1849. (Note: For some this may be the most difficult chapter in the book to read (the style is period) but stick with it - the rewards are entirely worth the work.) The book concludes with the sad story of Mr. Ewing and the hardship he suffers at the hands of a devious scam artist.

The second chapter introduces con-man Robert Frobisher who has been forced to vacate Europe due to a long history of philandering, gambling, cuckolding, and debt (in some cases all four simultaneously.) Frobisher decides to ingratiate himself into the lives of an aging but brilliant music composer and his wife and daughter in an attempt to gain employment and advance. His story is revealed in a number of letters to his friend and sometimes bi-sexual lover Rufus Sixsmith. (Aside: The number six, which is the number of harmony and balance, also recurs many times throughout the story.)

The third novella centers on Luisa Rey, a reporter, who has stumbled onto a huge corporate cover-up that could push the world over the edge of self-destruction. What she learns from scientist Rufus Sixsmith (the same considerably older character mentioned earlier) could change the course of history – if she can survive long enough to tell the story.

The fourth short story is extremely entertaining and could have been written for the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Timothy Cavendish, a book publisher, has recently achieved sudden and immense wealth by publishing the memoirs of a man that committed an unexpected murder. When the man is sentenced to prison Cavendish reaps the benefits of the popularity of the book but must contend with the murderer’s unsavory family. Mr. Cavendish’s unhappy fate is poignant, disturbing, and in some ways predictable.

In the fifth section Somni -451, a fabricant (or clone), has been pulled from her service job waiting tables and serving food at Papa Song’s to be used (and abused) as an experiment by a wealthy college post-grad. Unfortunately, her freedom comes at a very high price.

The sixth chapter, the centerpiece of the book, is my favorite. Written in the colloquialism of the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian (Ha-Way) Islands the language takes some getting used to (I found it easier to read it quickly.) But the story itself is very compelling and filled with unique and creative dystopian tropes that will leave even the most jaded readers in awe of Mitchell’s skill. Technology, for the most part, is gone and the denizens of Hawaii have been living subsistence existences for years, But, when a ship arrives with people who use “old-un” technology things are about to change. And not at all how anyone expects them to…

Cloud Atlas does not end there, however. Each chapter, and subsequent story, folds back onto itself in opposite order to be neatly and comprehensively pieced back together and the preceding loose ends tied up into a climactic ending that is altogether brilliant, inventive, and concise. This is literature at its best combining fragments of Science Fiction, Fantasy, drama, mystery, post-apocalyptic dystopia, and the human condition together into a highly entertaining and spell-binding read. Cloud Atlas is a magnificently crafted and indelible work of fiction. Thank you Mr. Mitchell, it is definitely one of my top ten island reads.

I have never read any of Mr. Mitchell’s work before but I certainly will now… look out here I come, credit card in hand!

Recommended for, well, everyone…

6 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

David Mitchell Amazon Page

Cloud Atlas Amazon Page

Cloud Atlas Extended Movie Trailer

Huffington Post Review of Cloud Atlas

Book Review - A Book of Horrors - Stephen Jones (Editor)

A Book of Horrors (Anthology)
Stephen Jones (Editor)
Trade Paperback
St. Martin's Griffin
September 18, 2012
448 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1250018526


In the anthology A Book of Horrors we are treated to a number of very good genre stories by some of the most talented writers in fiction today. While not every story is satisfyingly scary enough to send us under the covers or give us the cold shivers its refreshing to find that the genre is comprised of more than glowing vampires and six-pack wielding werewolves. On the contrary, the world of horror fiction still thrives beneath the weight of paranormal romance and while I firmly believe there is room for every sub-category of the genre it’s good to see that traditional horror stories are still being written and sold. Though not really a revival, since conventional horror never really died off, I do think it important that works of this nature, in the short form, find their moments in the limelight. I’ve said it many times before, horror has never been my favorite genre but, when done right, and theses stories are done right, they can be as entertaining as any form of fiction on the planet. In fact, most of my very favorite stories have some element of horror in them and that’s not a bad thing at all.

A Book of Horrors is recommended for fans of Stephen King, conventional or traditional horror, paranormal mystery, and spooks that go bump in the night.


Stephen King - "The Little Green God of Agony"
*Caitlin R. Kiernan - "Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint"
Peter Crowther - "Ghosts with Teeth"
*Angela Slatter - "The Coffin's-Maker's Daughter"
Brian Hodge - "Roots and All"
Dennis Etchison - "Tell Me I'll See You Again"
*John Ajvide Lindqvist - "The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer"
*Ramsey Campbell - "Getting it Wrong"
Robert Shearman -"Alice Through the Plastic Sheet"
Lisa Tuttle - "The Man in the Ditch"
Reggie Oliver - "The Child's Problem"
Michael Marshall Smith - "Sad, Dark Thing"

3 ½ stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

* The strongest stories in the collection.

Additional Reading:

Stephen King’s Official Website

Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Official Website

Peter Crowther’s Official Website

Angela Slatter’s Official Website

Brian Hodge’s Official Website

Dennis Etchison’s ISFDB Page

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Official Website

Ramsey Campbell’s Official Website

Robert Shearman’s Official Website

Lisa Tuttle’s Official Website

Reggie Oliver’s ISFDB Page

 Michael Marshall Smith’s Official Website

Book Review - Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems by Ursula K Le Guin

Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems
Ursula K. Le Guin
Trade Paperback
208 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: September 18, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0547858203
Advance Reader’s Copy – Uncorrected Proof


     In her eighty-third year Ursula K. Le Guin may very well be searching for her own elegy but her newest collection of poetry is by no means a swan song. If we define elegy as a funeral song or dirge then perhaps Ms. Le Guin has published Finding My Elegy as a memento for future generations. I think this extremely unlikely, however. In fact, if we define elegy as a composition of poetry (it’s sister meaning) then I believe Ms. Le Guin, as seasoned a writer as she is, simply continues her writing process by searching for her own unique, poetic voice. Only a true poet would carry on the quest for lyrical inspiration well into their eighth decade. The muse is a moving target and as every writer knows that voice, the essence, is always in  motion and must forever be pursued. It can never be accepted as is since it is evolving, ever-changing, and frail to the touch.

     There’s no question that Ursula K. Le Guin is one of our most gifted authors and while I have always appreciated and loved her body of fiction I know that it takes a certain amount of courage, even by an established legend, to write and publish poetry. Those singular glimpses into the personality and soul, however fleeting, is something most writers would rather not expose. I wish other celebrated Science Fiction writers would follow suit. What would the biggest names in the genre today have to say in the short poetic form I wonder? Mieville, Hill, Gaiman, Atwood, Scalzi, Walton, Stephenson, et al. consider that a challenge, if you will. What might we have learned if Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, or Pohl had written poetry from their distinctive perspectives? I for one want to thank you, Ms. Le Guin, for your thought-provoking work, your daring, and for giving us your little book of collected poetry and for providing us a much too-short glimpse into your heart of hearts.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

** Disclaimer – Advance Reader’s Copy – Uncorrected Proof received free from the Amazon Vine Program for review.

Additional Reading:

Ursula K. Le Guin Official Website

Ursula K. Le Guin Wiki Page

Finding My Elegy Amazon Page

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Coming soon....

The following book reviews are scheduled for October (not necessarily in this order):

The Book of Horrors - Stephen Jones (Ed.)
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
Revision 7: DNA - Terry Persun
Death Warmed Over (Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I.) - Kevin J. Anderson
Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems - Ursula K. Le Guin
Containment - Christian Cantrell