Category Archives: Adult Fiction

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

One of the projects in my high school creative writing class was a photo journalism assignment with a twist:  after taking pictures of an event, we sifted through the images and selected one or two to serve as the inspiration for a short story.  The only caveat was that the story had to be completely removed from the actual event in the photo.

Reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, I kept thinking of that creative writing assignment and wondering if Riggs went through a similar process to come up with the plot and characters for this novel.   From authentic, vintage photographs culled from the personal archives of several special collectors comes an unexpected, well-plotted and highly unusual story peopled with fascinating characters.   This imaginative cross-over novel begs for a sequel.

When he was a child, Jacob believed the bizarre stories his Grandpa Portman told him about horrific monsters and he was enthralled with the strange photographs he shared of the levitating, invisible, and freakishly strong children with whom he’d once lived.  As time passes however, Jacob loses interest in fantastic tales and his family grows stronger in their opinion that Grandpa is losing his mind.  Then a shocking family tragedy occurs that sets Jacob on a path to visit the remote island where his grandfather once lived and uncover the secrets of the children’s home where the stories and photos originated.  Jacob’s discoveries will leave him doubting all he ever knew about his family history and believing in things he never dreamed possible.

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At ALA Annual last weekend, I met Ellen Hopkins(!!) when she was signing for Simon and Schuster.  I first discovered Hopkins’ work in 2010, around the time of the incident in Humble, Texas when Hopkins’ invitation to speak at a literature festival was rescinded after a complaint about the content of her books.  I am not one to gush, but Ellen Hopkins is an Amazing writer.  Her novels in verse are unflinchingly honest, tackling important contemporary issues.  No, her books aren’t for everyone.  They’re gritty and raw and offer hopeful, not happy, endings, but anyone who works with teens or is parenting a teen should be aware of her work.  Standouts are Crank and Perfect, though all of her YA books are great.

I did not know that last year Hopkins published an adult novel, Triangles (newly available in paperback).  I just finished reading it and was blown away.  Did I say already that Hopkins is an Amazing writer?  I don’t make recommendations often and I know that many people prefer light reading.  Triangles is intense but perhaps the style—poetic verse, as all of Hopkins’ books are written—prevents the novel from feeling too heavy.  Some of my friends have been discussing 50 Shades of Grey recently (a book that doesn’t interest me in the least) and they may enjoy Triangles.


The story opens at the beginning of a desert summer in a Nevada suburb.  Holly, bored mom of three, decides she wants to write erotica and justifies extramarital sex as “research.”  Andrea, Holly’s best friend, is a devoted single mom searching for a meaningful relationship with a man.  Marissa, Andrea’s sister, copes with both her daughter’s and her marriage’s terminal illness.  While the plot and characters may be a bit Desperate Housewives and perhaps less entertaining , the poetry of Triangles shows Hopkins at her best—beautiful language that gracefully handles sensitive issues without judgment.  Let me know if you read it; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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What is ‘Normal?’ (with a review of next to normal)

World Marriage Day will be celebrated in my Church this weekend so Tricia and Peter have been on my mind a lot.  A very special couple in my life, they had a marriage that my husband and I deeply admire, not the least because their relationship endured in spite of (because of?) heart-wrenching tragedies.

Tricia and Peter’s first child—a baby girl named Kate—was whisked away from Tricia immediately after she was born.  The doctors said Kate had a heart condition that required close monitoring.  Tricia was sent home from the hospital but the baby was not released.  Kate died five days later.  Tricia never got to hold her and only saw her through the nursery room glass.  Kate was born on a Tuesday and for weeks after, every Tuesday Tricia stayed in bed and cried.

Their second child, a boy named after his father, was born with an intestinal obstruction.   During the corrective surgery, tiny newborn Peter lost oxygen and sustained severe brain damage.  Though he survived, hope for a normal life did not.

Tina, Tricia & Peter’s third child, became their pride and joy and she carried on her shoulders the dreams the family had for all their children.

This is the story of my aunt, uncle and cousins though I’ve changed their names for the sake of privacy.  I am more than a decade younger than Tina and grew up on the opposite coast from her family but over the years I learned their story and marveled at the love and quiet strength of my aunt and uncle.  What I remember most about my summer visits to their home is the way that it rang with laughter.

Several weeks ago I saw next to normal, the Pulitzer Prize winning drama starring Tony Award winner Alice Ripley.  The musical bears some startling similarities to my aunt and uncle’s story but with one glaring difference:  my aunt didn’t go crazy.

So I found myself wondering, when it comes to love and loss, at what point does grief turn from a healthy healing process to something abnormal?  What prevents a person from crossing that line?

My uncle didn’t love my aunt any more or less than the husband in the play.  He wouldn’t have pushed her to undergo ECT, but neither would my aunt have taken all the pills prescribed by the psychopharmacologist.  My cousin Tina probably did feel a lot like the invisible girl though.

With allusions to Flowers for Algernon and Frances Farmer and a searing contemporary score, next to normal is simply phenomenal for the way that it addresses the issue of mental illness and the lengths to which a family might go to achieve normalcy–whatever that is.  Click on the image for a clip from the 2009 Tony Awards.

next to normal

Music by Tom Kitt

Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey

Classification:  Musical

Genre:  Drama

Age Level:  Adult/Mature teens

SubjectsFamily, grief, mental illness, controversial psychiatric treatment

“A serious, substantial, dignified and musically sophisticated new American work.”  – Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

“The rarest of Broadway species:  a thoughtful, emotional musical for grown-ups.”  – Adam Feldman, TimeOut New York

Characters:  Diana, delusional bipolar depressive

Dan, her faithful husband

Gabe, her charismatic son

Natalie, her perfectionistic daughter

Henry, a musician and stoner, Natalie’s boyfriend

Dr. Madden, Diana’s psychologist with the personality of a rock star

Summary:  The story opens on “Just Another Day” with mother Diana reflecting on her “perfect loving family” but when Diana finds herself spreading bread slices across the floor as she manically makes sandwiches it’s clear that in this house “normal” means occasional emergency trips to the psychopharmacologist.  (Diana was diagnosed bipolar sixteen years ago.)  While he waits for his wife in the car, Dan wonders, “Who’s crazy—the one who can’t cope / Or maybe the one who’ll still hope?”

Meanwhile, Diana’s daughter Natalie, an accomplished pianist, finds her escape in classical music.  When Natalie meets Henry, another musician, she tries to hide her family’s secrets from him but then he introduces her to another, more dangerous way to ease her pain.  As mother and daughter spiral out of control, the men who love them desperately struggle to “get [them] back to normal…back to good.”  However, one secret continues to loom over the family.  It is alive; it is “more than memory,…[a] mystery” and until it’s confronted even a life that’s next to normal will be too far away.

Controversial content:  mature language


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Blindness by Jose Saramago

Classification:  Fiction
Genre:  Fiction/Literature
Subjects:  Epidemic, human nature, loss of sight, civilization and savagery
Content to be aware of:  graphic violence

“You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner of the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives…” from Blindness

Summary:  Beginning with one random motorist and spreading rapidly throughout an unnamed country, an epidemic of blindness deprives a nation of sight.  Only one is spared and thus forced to witness the descent of a people from civilization into savagery.  In an attempt at containment, the government quarantines the afflicted.  During their internment, a small group of protagonists forms, including an ophthalmologist (ironically) and his wife, a young woman, a boy, an old man, and another husband and wife.  The group bands together in a fight to survive even when all hope seems lost.

Notes:  Though I highly recommend this novel, it is not an enjoyable story to read.  Gritty and harrowing, it reminded me of the similarly disturbing work of William Golding in Lord of the Flies for its theme of the fragility of civilization.  What tethers humanity to civilization?  Truly could we so easily transform into beasts?  The author employs reader-response technique, writing with minimal punctuation and depriving the reader of conventional descriptions and characterizations (such as names and additional identifying features), which can make for slower reading, but is effective for simulating the confusion and unknown experienced by the characters.  Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
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Blindness (Miramax, 2008)
Director:  Fernando Meirelles
Main Cast:  Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover
Rating: R

Synopsis:  “White sickness” sweeps through a metropolis, blinding an entire population.  Initially the sightless are interned in an unused asylum, and conditions degenerate as more and more people are crammed into the facility.  Among the interned is the only woman whose sight has been spared.  She attempts to care for and protect her husband and the small group of people with whom they have banded together.  When another group of internees seizes control of the food supply and demands payment in exchange for food, a horrifying war ensues as the interned struggle to survive.

Review:  A project requiring the adaptation of a story about blindness to a medium wholly dependent upon visual effects cannot be anything but doomed from the outset. (Click the movie poster image to link to the Rotten Tomatoes page for Blindness.)
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Book or Movie? Book.  Blindness is about people in general, rather than individual characters.  In the novel, the plot propels the reader forward, not an attachment to the characters.  The characters are “Everymen,” but this characterization technique is not successful in the film.  Without a dynamic, charismatic personality with which to identify, the audience fails to develop any emotional investment in the story.

Why I chose this book and filmBlindness is my husband’s book.  He is Portuguese and I imagine he wanted to read Saramago solely for that reason.  Indeed, Saramago is the only Portuguese writer I can name.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself prowling around our book room in search of something to read and decided to give Blindness a go.

I was surprised at how quickly I was absorbed in the story.  This is not an easy book to read, firstly for the lack of punctuation and paragraphs, secondly for the dark, gruesome imagery.

I was also surprised to discover the controversy that surrounded the theatrical release of Blindness in 2008.  In this press release, the President of the National Federation of the Blind expresses his anger at the portrayal of blind people as “incompetent, filthy, vicious, and depraved.”  He goes on to claim that “to portray the blind in this manner, even as alleged allegory or so-called social commentary, is outrageous and reprehensible–and it is a lie.”

With all due respect to the President of NFB, I have to question whether he read and understood Saramago’s novel.  Blindness is not a story about blind people.  It is a story about a nation of people who suffer a tremendous catastrophe and the ensuing chaos.  It reflects on the dark side of humanity and is an important social commentary in a world whose people are increasingly dependent on this one of five senses.  In response to the objections of the blind community to the movie, Saramago was quoted as saying, “Stupidity doesn’t choose between the blind and the non-blind.”

For Jose Saramago’s autobiography, click here.  For Saramago’s 1998 Nobel Lecture, click here.

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The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (Book & Film Adaptation)

Classification: Fiction
Genre:  Fiction/Literature
Subjects:  Cultural identity, Maori, whales, sexism

Ages 12+

 “[The whale] is a reminder of the oneness the world once had.  It is the birth cord joining past and present, reality and fantasy.  It is both.  It is both…and if we have forgotten the communion then we have ceased to be Maori.” ~ from The Whale Rider

Summary:  Deep in the ocean, an ancient bull whale guides his herd through increasingly treacherous waters.  He grows sick with nostalgia for his master Paikea, the whale rider, with whom the old whale shared a special communion.  But generations ago, Paikea left the sea to people the land of Whangara on the east coast of New Zealand.  Depressed and confused, the whale begins to lead his herd toward the beach where he last saw Paikea.  Meanwhile, Paikea’s descendants are in turmoil for they are in need of a new leader.  Koro Apirana, the aging patriarch of the Maori tribe, is determined to school the young men of his community in the old ways.  Koro’s wife Nanny Flowers and his grandson Rawiri look on as Koro continually ignores his small great-granddaughter Kahu, whose given name is the same as Paikea’s traditional tribal name:  Kahutia Te Rangi.  Though only a child, Kahu demonstrates all the wisdom and skills Koro seeks in the tribe’s next leader, but Koro insists a girl is not meant to fill the role.  When the whale herd’s destiny collides with that of the tribe’s and little Kahu is caught in the middle, Koro Apirana is forced to choose between the old ways and a new future.

Notes:  Told alternately from Rawiri’s and the bull whale’s point of view with Maori verse woven in at key points, this story resonates through land and sea with the haunting quality of a whale’s cry in the deep.  When Koro tells a tale to his gathered people, he asks if his story “belongs in the real world or the unreal world?”  “Both,” he insists.  This novel too straddles legend and truth, fact and fiction, in the way of great literature.
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Whale Rider (South Pacific Films, 2002)
Director: Niki Caro
Main Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Rating: PG-13

Viewer’s Annotation:  A young Maori girl, Pai Apirana is committed to helping her community preserve the ways of their ancestors even though her grandfather, the tribe’s chief, refuses to teach Pai because she is a girl.

Synopsis:  Koro Apirana’s visible and devastating disappointment that his grandchild is a girl causes 12-year-old Pai to struggle to hold her head up around the stern man.  Though Koro has two sons, he will be the last chief of his tribe unless a new leader emerges.  Determined to find such a leader, Koro trains all of the tribe’s boys in the ways of their people, the descendants of Paikea the Whale Rider.  Banished from Koro’s school, Pai still learns the chants and skills, surpassing the boys in every area and winning a regional speech contest with an essay about her Maori culture.  Unmoved, Koro continues to ignore Pai.  When a pod of whales beach themselves, the whole community despairs, for the hopelessness of the whales seems to mirror the tribe’s situation.  Only Pai is able to pull everyone, even the whales, through the tragedy.

Review:  With incredible acting from the entire cast, this film is deeply moving, depicting the tension between tradition and change for a community whose very identity is threatened by modern culture. 
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Book or Movie?  Either.  One of the rare instances when each is outstanding.  What I do love about the book that is not translated to film is the bull whale’s development as a character.  On the other hand, the film brings to life the Maori community, from the eager young boys Koro trains, to Nanny’s card-playing, covert-smoking friends.

Why I chose this book and film:  I suppose I was drawn back to this story after hearing about the Sea World whale trainer who lost her life a couple weeks ago, but the story is an excellent read for Women’s History Month for its themes of sexism, self-discovery and leadership. 

I fell in love with the movie when I saw it in a theater years ago, and I read the book within days of viewing the film.  I saw the movie with my dad, who is Filipino, born and raised in Hawaii.  I never knew my dad’s father who passed away when my dad was a teenager, but from the stories I’ve heard he was not unlike Koro Apirana. 

I know a bit of Maori culture–brief history, a few songs, dances, and poi ball tricks–from the days when I was a hula and Polynesian dancer, but this story is familiar for more than the chanting and the musical swish of rapaki.  It is the sad story of indigenous people the world over, whether they are islanders or not, and their struggle to retain a sense of themselves in a global community that trivializes all they hold dear. 

For more about Witi Ihimaera and Maori culture, click here and here.


Filed under Adult Fiction, Books & Their Films, YA Literature

Romance Novels by Judith McNaught

My daughter’s enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day has me thinking about love and love stories, so for the next couple weeks I’ll be reflecting on love and reading. 

In my teens and early 20s I read and reread Judith McNaught’s historical romances.  My favorites were Almost Heaven and Something Wonderful.  These stories had a “happily ever after” quality to them, so maybe they were my YA version of fairy tales.  I loved the descriptions of sensational gowns and glittering ballrooms.  I could hear the rustle of satin as the heroine descended the staircase, and smell the cigars and brandy in the drawing room.  The heroines were all in their late teens, in need of a husband, and making their debuts in London.  Their lives, so far removed from mine, were compelling and fantastic.  For a long time, there was always a McNaught novel on my nightstand—my go-to bedtime read. 

 But now I’ve outgrown them.  In fact I relegated my battered copies to the hidden row on my overcrowded paperback shelf.  I can’t bring myself to get rid of them but neither can I bring myself to read them.  Once a favorite escape, the stories now seem silly to me.  I am certainly at a different place in my life than when I was ten years ago.  Maybe I need something different from pleasure reading. 

I’d enjoy a good love story though, so I’d be happy to look into your recommendations.  I’ll be back soon with more Valentine-themed thoughts.

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