Category Archives: Book Reviews

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

I didn’t know it was possible. I mean, really, it shouldn’t be physically possible for me to simultaneously love and hate something this much. But Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has done it. And since I intend to enumerate the reasons for both my boundless adoration and my untethered fury you should be aware that spoilers shall follow.

I suppose I should start by saying that this is an amazing book.

How amazing? Let me tell you. I picked up this book in the book section of the Walmart were I work on my lunch break. I cracked open the first page, and the next thing I knew I was sitting cross-legged on a bag of dog food in the pet department wishing I could put off clocking back in for just five more minutes.

The story begins with a boy named Jacob recounting the tales of wonder his grandfather used to spin about the magical place where he spent his childhood, an enchanted estate where the “peculiar children” could go to hide from the “monsters”. Of course as Jacob grows older he comes to realize that the peculiar children his grandfather told him about weren’t really magical, and that the monsters were the human kind.

Or were they?

Really, the magic of this book is contained in those three little words. Or were they. Were the peculiar children nothing more than displaced Jews, and the monsters nothing more than Nazis? Were the pictures Jacob’s grandfather shows him clever fakes or something more magical? Is the monster Jacob see’s just before his grandfather’s death real, or nothing more than the product of a fevered imagination?

For Ransom Riggs it seems the wonder is in the wondering, in following the clues of the mystery to far and distant places to see what the truth might really hold.

The problem is that the search for answers ends halfway through the book. Everything is revealed, nearly all the questions answered. And from that point on, Jacob enters the strange and wonderful world of the peculiar children themselves.

I say, strange and wonderful, because in theory those things should be true. There should be something amazing about a boy with bees inside of him, something unnerving about a child who can remove the heart from an animal and bestow its life into something inanimate.

But somehow Ransom Riggs manages to write these things not with a sense of wonder, but rather with the drudgery of the mundane. The eponymous home for peculiar children holds nothing more than novelties, mere trinkets of awe that do a poor job of taking the place of the all-encompassing mystery that defined the first half of the book.

But that is not the worst. Not by far. For this book to have devolved from something amazing into nothing more than a magical adventure story, it might have been forgiven. But the crime it commits in the end is so heinous, so unthinkable that it has nearly sent me into fits of rage over the last few days just thinking about it.

What is this crime against the laws of literary justice? It can be summed up in a single name: Miss Peregrine.

Miss Peregrine, the titular matron of the home for peculiar children, is the living embodiment of well-meaning evil. Her crime is nothing less than stealing the lives of her peculiar children, keeping them hidden from the world and keeping the world hidden from them. She has created a loop in time, a single day repeating itself over and over, while the rest of the world marches on. In order to keep her charges from wandering out into the rest of the world she has censored their knowledge of the future to include only the worst things. In the face of forces that would like to destroy her and her charges she has done nothing to prepare them for the battle. In short she is the epitome of protective parenting, the embodiment of the philosophy that children should be shielded from any and all adversity without ever being trained to fight the very real battles the world will throw at them.

But somehow Ransom Riggs has gotten it into his head that she is one of the good guys. The obvious monsters, the ones with rotting black skin and ten foot long tentacle tongues, those are of course dispatched with gleeful violence. Never mind that the self-righteous Miss Peregrine is the children’s sole source of information about the monsters, the one who has described them as being literally soulless.

Of course, we all know that it’s perfectly fine to murder people that don’t look like us as long as the powers that be assure us that they have no souls.

Wait WHAT!?

So now you understand my dilemma. There is so much to love about this book. The creepy vintage photographs woven more or less seamlessly into the story, the mounting tension built in the first half of the book, the deft use of language…

But there is also so much to hate.

If you haven’t read the book yet, I can’t tell you whether you should. Perhaps you can be more tolerant of its failures, more forgiving of its mistakes than I. But perhaps you will find yourself as I find myself, pouring back over the story in your mind, sifting through the missed opportunities with mounting outrage.

Only time can tell.

Bizzaro Book Review: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

There is something wrong with me, apart from all the other things wrong with me, which is this: I’m kind of a voice snob.

When I pick up a book I ask myself these questions: Does the author’s voice grab me? Do the words do something more than simply convey information? Do they have a touch of poetry? That little something that reaches past the mind and touches the soul?

The problem with this approach is that great stories can be written in an unexceptional voice. Michael Connelly is a great example of this, an author with a voice so plodding and methodical that I never would have read him if not for the fact that I listened to an audio version of The Closers with my wife on our honeymoon.

But even though I know it’s foolish, when I’m looking for a book to read prose trumps plot most of the time.

And if there was ever a more shining example of prose trumping plot than A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines then I will cheerfully eat my hat.

It isn’t so much that the plot of this book is bad, as it is nonexistent. I’m not even sure how to describe this book to you. At some level it’s a biographical sketch encompassing the lives of Kurt Godel and Alan Turing, but it seems more interested in relating their souls than it does their stories.

Of course the high points are there. Turing creates the Turing Machine, Godel develops his incompleteness theorem, etc. But the facts you’ll find in this book are essentially the same as the ones you could find on the Wikipedia entries for these men’s lives.

But the true aim of this book is not to give us facts. Janna Levin’s goal is far more ambitious. With A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines she intends to poeticize science, to romanticize logic.

She spends long paragraphs pondering the consequences of determinism, working through her own doubts about the nature of fate through the minds of two of the twentieth centuries greatest thinkers.

And if you read between the lines you’ll see that this isn’t really a book about Kurt Godel and Alan Turing. Instead it is a book about Janna Levin, a woman of science trying to weave meaning into a cold and logical universe.

This is the true conflict of the book. Truth against beauty. Logic against love. Fate against choice.

The author is a scientist bound to the material and yet it is her spirit that speaks through these pages, bitterly trying to reconcile itself to the fact that it does not exist. And the conflict is made all the deeper, all the more tragic by the facts of the two men’s lives, with the realization that through all of their accomplishments, all of their staggering contributions to science, they were made no happier, that they ended their lives bitter and alone.

As always with my reviews, I’m certain that this book won’t appeal to everyone. But it spoke to me in ways I did not expect. Levin’s use of words is powerful, and though her paragraphs often stretch on and on, meandering into new heights of introspection with each passing sentence, somehow she never quite sounds overly verbose.

If that sounds like your cup of Earl Grey, then you should do yourself a favour and check this book out.

Bizzaro Book Review: One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

If you’re gonna call your book review the Bizzaro Book Review you’re pretty much obligated to mention the beautiful insanity that is Jasper Fforde at some point. And really, though I’m talking about his most recent book, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, to some extent this post will touch on his body of work as a whole.

Jasper Fforde makes his mark in fiction by being wholly and unashamedly weird. His flagship series, Thursday Next takes place in an alternate universe where people make their own pet dodos from from DNA kits, cheese is trafficked like a drug, and a woman named Thursday Next is able to travel into a world where books and their characters come to life.

It’s this last plot device that really drives the series out into the realm of the completely insane. Inside the Book World everything operates according to book logic. Scents are rare, (because almost no one ever uses scent in their descriptions), plot points such as ‘Just Then, a Shot Rang Out’ are bought and sold, and everything happens for a reason. Add in an ingenious and unflappable heroine and you’ve got a series that’s light years beyond anything else you might happen to be able to name in terms of sheer weirdness.

And though the weirdness of Jasper Fforde’s creations truly does speak to me, I think that occasionally he lets being weird get in the way of telling a great story. This at least was the case with his previous book Thursday Next: First Among Sequels which dragged on so slowly that I finally had to put it down after plowing through nearly eighty percent of the text.

And when the opening of One of Our Thursdays is Missing featured the complete remaking of Fforde’s iconic Book World for no discernible reason other than to be different I was afraid that this would be more of the same. Luckily this book got itself sorted out pretty quickly, and once the clockwork robot butler showed up, it was smooth sailing from then on.

As to the plot, it centers around the fictional Thursday Next, who is the Book World star of a series of books about the real Thursday Next whose exploits have garnered her some level fame. The fictional Thursday learns early on that the real Thursday has gone missing just before she was supposed to settle a nasty border dispute between the regions of Racy Novel and Women’s Lit.

Since the fictional Thursday looks and acts just like the real Thursday, she’s drawn into the search for the woman that inspired her character. And with the deadline looming and the real Thursday still very much in absence, the fictional Thursday begins to wonder if she might be unknowingly the real Thursday, a prospect that seems all the more tantalizing when she makes a trip out of the Book World and interacts with the real Thursday’s family.

You may need to take a break to scrape your brains off the wall at this point.

Bottom line, this book is wonderful, and in spite of all the weirdness in evidence, Jasper Fforde has really gotten back on track with compelling characters and a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat till the very end.

If you haven’t heard of the series before, you may want to go back and read some of the previous books first. I recommend starting with Lost in a Good Book since the first book, The Eyre Affair, was written while Fforde was still honing his style and doesn’t represent the strength of the rest of the series.

But really it doesn’t matter. Dig into Jasper Fforde’s bizarre world, and I promise you’ll never look at “normal” books the same way again.

Bizzaro Book Review: Blindsight by Peter Watts

Okay, before I say anything else about this book, let me get this out of the way:


This book has vampires. And with the recent Twilight-fueled vampire romance craze, I would understand if at first glance you might be put off by that. But let me put your mind at ease.

This is not a romance.

Rather it is a high concept hard scifi journey to the edge of the unknown. There are spaceships and aliens, and people with multiple personalities and people with no personalities, and… You know maybe I should start over.

Because under the thick layers of scifi awesome this story is intensely human. It has aliens, and vampires and all the other stuff I said. But it’s not about that.

Rather, this story is about a man. A man struggling to be human. A man engineered to be a sociopath, a being completely without feelings, who is searching his soul for the spark of what it means to have feelings, to love and hate, what it means to be.

At it’s very heart, beyond all of the scifi window dressing Blindsight is really about a latter-day Pinocchio, a human marionette struggling to find the path to become real.

This is a theme that is repeated over and over throughout the book. The vampires appear human, but their minds are completely alien. And the aliens themselves…well I don’t want to give anything away, because the reveal is awesome.

This book will make you think. It dives into philosophical black holes, and somehow pulls you through with it until you emerge into a universe that looks slightly different from the one you left.

This is not a book to be taken up lightly, but do take it up. It is one of the best scifi epics I have ever read, and if I hadn’t stumbled across it while browsing the odds are good I might never have heard of it. So I’m doing my small part to spread the word.

Do yourself a favor and check it out. Blindsight is available for free, so it won’t cost you anything more than your time.

Bizzaro Book Review: The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

There are some books that are good.  There are books that are bad.  But there are some books that…well, they’re bad too, but you really, really want them to somehow end up being good.  So you read on you keep waiting for the characters to coalesce and hoping the plot will start making sense, because somewhere deep inside your soul you know it has to get better eventually.  But it never does.

The book I’ll be talking about today, Jonathan Barnes’s The Somnambulist, is one of those books.

It starts out well enough.  In fact the opening lines are nothing short of genius.

Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it.

See what I mean?  How could you not pick up a book that starts like that? Except when you read an opening like that, you expect it to be ironic. If you get to the end and find that the book really was a “lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters” you’re going to be a little peeved.

The story revolves around a Victorian era magician/detective named Edward Moon, a man cast vaguely in the mold of Sherlock Holmes. Moon is joined in his adventures by a hulking superhuman freak called the Somnambulist. I’d tell you more about his character, but there isn’t any more.

It’s as if the author said to himself, “I need a strange and bizarre character to make my story more interesting. Maybe he could be like this giant that is impervious to pain.  I could call him the Somnambulist.  That sounds like a cool name right?”

In fact, I think that’s what Jonathan Barnes said to himself about the whole book.  There are a number of completely fascinating characters who could easily have a fascinating story built around them alone that seem to be just thrown in for seasoning.

Meanwhile the plot is painfully thin.  Basically there’s a secret organization that’s trying to take over the world.  That’s all.  Oh, and they also have Zombie Samuel Coleridge on their side.

Actually, let me say that again. Zombie Samuel Coleridge.  This book has Zombie Samuel Coleridge in it.

But even the wonders of Zombie Samuel Coleridge (sorry, I just can’t get over how awesome that is) can’t pull this story out the funk of incomprehensibly that surrounds it like a cloud. On top of which, Moon, our protagonist detective remember) never solves anything.  He simply stumbles across answers when the plot says he needs them.  This is not how mysteries work.  “Mysteries” like this are the reason I stopped reading the Hardy Boys.  Back when I was ten.

And yet, somehow, in spite of all its shortcomings, I kept reading on.  And this is significant.  I am not above putting down a book if the author disappoints me. But there was something bizarrely compelling about the way that Barnes had assembled such a strange and amazing menagerie of characters and put them in a book with a plot whose thickness could be measured in microns.

Of course there’s the old and overused saw about watching a train wreck, but this book goes beyond that.  Reading this book was like watching the Taj Mahal collapse.  Beautiful and terrifying all in one moment.

And in the end, I have to say…I recommend it.  It isn’t a good book, at least not in the conventional sense.  I wouldn’t advise you to spend a lot of money on it, but if you can find it in your library or on the remaindered shelves of your bookstore go ahead and pick it up.  The writing itself isn’t bad, and there is some strange pleasure to be had in its failings.

And again, because I have to type it at least one more time, it has Zombie Samuel Coleridge in it.  That has to be worth something.

Get this book.  Read this book.  You will be disappointed.  And I mean that in a good way.

Bizzaro Book Review: When Graveyards Yawn by G. Well’s Taylor

What do clowns, zombies, detectives, and babies have to do with each other? Answer: in a sane man’s world, absolutely nothing.

Fortunately for weirdophiles like myself, the world portrayed in When Graveyards Yawn by G. Wells Taylor, is not a sane man’s world.  Rather the World of Change is a kind of Alice in Wonderland meets Night of the Living Dead meets Humphrey Bogart dystopian roller-coaster.

Our hero is Wildclown, a hard-drinking, hard living, hard boiled detective, that just so happens to be possessed by the amnesiac spirit of a dead man. Also, he dresses like a clown.

No, this book is not a comedy.

The setting of the World of Change is this: one day everyone stopped dying. All the dead woke up in their graves. And it started to rain.

And yet, in spite of the weirdness, and there is a lot of weirdness, it’s hard to overestimate how much When Graveyards Yawn has to owe to the old hard-boiled detective type of story that was popular when Humphrey Bogart was still on the big screen. This is a man story through and through. And it makes no apologies for it.

The plot simple enough. It starts out with Wildclowne being hired by a zombie to find his killer and subsequently getting into a gun battle with a gang of transgender bikers. I’m sorry, did I say simple? I meant to say insane.

And it only gets better from there. With the help of his zombie sidekick, Wildclown manages to get himself into all manner of scrapes as he gets pulled into the search for the Last Baby on Earth.

Bottom line, When Graveyards Yawn is a fun book. It builds a fantastic and compelling world and then fills it with wonderfully twisted characters, all the while keeping the plot tense and the stakes high.

If you’re still on the fence about this book…well first let me say that I feel deeply and truly sorry for you. But second, would it help if I pointed out that it’s available for free?

Get it. Read it.

And prepare to fall in love with a detective wearing clown makeup.

Bizzaro Book Review: The Psychopath Test by Jon Rohnson

I think we’ve all been there at some point or other. It happens like this: you pick up a book thinking, “Hey this looks like it might be-” and the next thing you know four hours have passed and somehow you’re at the end of that sucker.

But if you’re like me you probably don’t expect to have that happen with a book about then mental health industry. So imagine my surprise when I picked up copy of The Psychopath Test by Jon Rohnson and could not put it down.

Why? Well partly it was because someone had covered the book in superglue [Overused Joke Alert. Automatic Redaction.] But mostly the reasons I loved this book came down to the two basic reasons anyone falls in love with any book. The first is story.

It may seem counter-intuitive to say that all great books have great stories, especially when discussing non-fiction. Is there really a compelling narrative in Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages, or in Steven E. Landsburg’s More Sex is Safer Sex?

Probably the answer is yes, but only if we do some monkeying about with standard notions of story and narrative. But in The Psychopath Test we really are reading a story. To be specific, it’s Jon Rohnson’s story, a narrative that is part mystery, part travel adventure, part self-discovery.

The Psychopath Test doesn’t just give us the facts. It isn’t interested in simply downloading the  details about how our mental health industry came to be what it is. Rather the narrative follows Jon Ronhson himself from a very strange beginning involving the delivery of a mysterious book, through false starts and switchbacks, until, at long last, he reaches a fuller knowledge of the truth.

The second reason The Psychopath Test works so well is character. Because Jon Rohnson is not only the writer of the book, he is also its protagonist. He makes no attempt to shroud his words in the fog of objectivity. Rather he brings it all to the table, his fears and foibles, his missteps and misunderstandings, all of them working together to weave an intensely personal story about one man’s struggle, not only to understand the mental health industry, but to understand himself.

I highly recommend this book. It’s at times funny, serious and intriguing. I has a voice that is both unique and enthralling, and its message is one we could all stand to learn.

In the end this book is for anyone who’s ever looked at themselves in the mirror and asked, “If I was crazy…would I know it?”

Bizzaro Book Review: Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward

In the past I’ve noted the many downsides to being a writer, one of which was this: consuming fiction changes into critiquing fiction. You can’t read a book or watch a movie without thinking, “Oh well, I would have done that differently,” or “Do they really expect us to believe that was her motivation?” and so on.

And that writer’s sense of story, almost wrecked Heads You Lose for me.

Here’s the scoop. Writers know that you need to start your book strong to keep readers interested. Telling someone, “Oh, well the beginning drags a little, but don’t worry it really picks up in the third chapter,” is looked down upon big time.

So when my wife, who read this book ahead of me, said, “It takes a while to get good,” I thought, “Oh brother, why should I even waste my time?”

But here’s the thing. Heads You Loose does take some time to get good. But when it gets good, it really gets good.

The premise of the book is this: two writers decide to collaborate to write a murder mystery novel, after having failed in a similar partnership some years before. The bulk of the novel is the murder mystery itself, interspersed with letters between the two writers chronicling their growing frustration with each other’s plot twists, pacing, characters…the list just goes on.

And this is where the story gets really interesting. Because within the murder mystery our two dueling writers continually take potshots at each others, some subtle, some not. One author’s favourite character is killed off by the other, only to be brought back to life, killed again, then replaced with almost identical relative (with rhyming name no less).

In spite of all of this intranarrative snarking, the murder mystery itself still manages to be fun and intriguing.

And while there are some truly hilarious moments, including one chapter that made me laugh so hard that I fell out of my chair, it seems almost wrong to call this book a comedy.  but there’s something deeper at work here. The meta-fictional aspects of the story really work well together without trying to change the narrative into some over-pompous quasi-intellectual masterpiece.

If you want to you can dig deeper and ponder the fuzzy relationship between the personalities of the writers as they are portrayed in the book and their real life personas. Or you can just sit back and enjoy the fun.

Either way, if you can loose yourself in the twisted storyline, this book will not disappoint.

Give it a shot. And don’t mind the opening. Trust me. It gets better.

Bizzaro Book Review: Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

Guys, you know that thing where you ask your wife, “What’s wrong honey?” and your wife says, “Nothing” but what she really means is, “You are in trouble, but I am not going to tell you why, so there“? This book is about that.

Yes. You heard me right. If you are a married man, this is the most terrifying book you will read. EVER.

Mr. Peanut is about marriage and murder, and the contempt bred by familiarity that bridges the gap between the two. The narrative follows three sets of marriages which are intertwined in such a way as to make them into a literal literary Möbius strip.

If that sounds confusing to you, then trust me, it is. Quentin Tarantino could learn a thing or two about non-linear storytelling from Adam Ross. The strange and twisted tales of three men and their wives overlap in ways that are not immediately apparent.

The story in a nutshell (heh heh) is this: David Peppin is accused of murdering his wife, and two detectives must sort through the dizzying threads of his story to determine whether he is really the killer.

But far from being a straightforward murder mystery, this story delves deep into the dark side of marriage, bringing to light the pain, joy, and ultimate boredom that can arise out of spending so many years of your life with the same person.

The greatest problem that this book faces is that it incredibly clever. This might seem like a strange thing to criticize, especially for the guy who absolutely adores House of Leaves, but the problem here is that the cleverness overtakes the flow of the story. The disjointed non-linear narrative is fine to a point, but when the book drops one narrative thread which had previously been the driving force of the book and jumps into another almost completely unrelated story for the space of more than a hundred pages, it’s somewhat disorienting and discouraging to the reader.  I understand that the jump was necessary to complete the books unique Möbius strip structure, but in my mind the novelty of that structure was not enough to justify the sacrifices made to the story’s forward momentum.

Having said that, this book is still a fantastic read, quite unlike anything else I’ve ever reviewed here before. In spite of its occasional failings it triumphs as a treatise on marriage, infidelity, love and redemption. If you’re looking for a book that will grab your mind and suck you into its twisted world, look no further. Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut has got what you need.

Bizzaro Book Review: The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt

You know that movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Jim Carry has his memory of a bad relationship erased? Only as he travels backward through his memories he realizes that there were some genuinely good times that came before the bad, and that those times were worth enduring the bad for?

Oh you haven’t seen that one yet? Um…spoilers?

Anyway, that’s exactly how reading The Kingdom Beyond the Waves was. In the end it left a bad taste in my mouth, but thinking back over the whole experience there were some genuinely wonderful things to be found.

The book’s strength is in it’s plot and structure. As a writer still grappling with good structure myself, reading this book was something of an education. Each chapter raises the stakes to a new level in such a compelling manner that you find yourself wondering how the author could possibly top it.

The writing is…there. It’s not great, but it’s not bad either. Hunt uses words like a framer uses wood. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to hold the house up. And in a sense his minimalist approach to prose serves the story well. Once you let yourself become enveloped in the plot the words don’t distract from it.

Of course possibly the greatest strength of the book is the sheer force of creativity brought to bear in creating a world with a thousand miriad wonders. This book has dragon things, steam powered self-aware robots, a hive-mind forest, and…well I won’t go on for sake of time, but trust me: there’s more.

The problems arise in the latter parts of the book. After spending more than four hundred pages on one quest, the protaganists goals are completely reversed. Worse yet, one character who’s delightfully ambiguous moral position made him one of my favourites, is turned into a cartoonish villian with the speed of flipping a switch. Because of these issues I was scarely able to enjoy the climactic third act at all, which is a shame, because, as I said before, the vast majority of this book was excellent.

Let this be a lesson to all of you writers out there. Endings matter. A lot.

Craft a compelling story, but tack on an unsatisfying ending and you’re going to end up with disappointed readers.

Ultimately, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves was good. I don’t regret reading it. As a writer I found it held valuable lessons for me, both positive and negative. As a reader I really enjoyed the story and the fantastic world Mr. Hunt created from the spare parts of a hundred other mythologies. But then there’s that ending.

I won’t make any definitive recommendations here. Instead I’ll just say that if this sounds like the kind of book you might enjoy you probably will. If not, then give it a pass.