Miranda’s Holiday Reading Guide

Well, according to our Corporate Overlords, now that Thanksgiving is over it’s time to begin the Annual Holiday Buying of Things We Can’t Afford.  Perhaps a better approach is to buy things we can afford – such as books!  In support of the myriad joys of the written word, I’ve put together my must-have, must-read list.  Whether given as a gift or devoured yourself during whatever leisure time your holidays provide, here are 9 fabulous books that will (hopefully) keep your holidays merry.

In no particular order, consider:

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel KayUnder Heaven is lyrical, epic fantasy at its best.  Though, really, Under Heaven is best described not as fantasy, but as historical fiction about a world that just happens to be invented.  Guy Gavriel Kay masterfully tells a sweeping, historical tale through the eyes of the individuals caught up in it’s unfolding.  There’s very little magic and no mythical creatures, just beautiful writing, an intricate plot, and fascinating characters that benefit greatly from the author’s detailed research on the Tang Dynasty.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare BlakeAnna Dressed in Blood is that most delightful of combinations:  a horror/love story.  By turns a thrilling, twisty page turner and a chilling Gothic consideration of what it is to become enamored with death, Anna Dressed in Blood pits Cas, a young man who hunts vengeful spirits, against Anna, a murdered girl turned murderous ghost.  But as the plot unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Anna isn’t the ghost Cas should really be afraid of.  Set against the backdrop of a Canadian winter, this story of love against all odds is both scary and endearing.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtryLonesome Dove is a classic tale of the American West and hands-down my favorite book of all time.  If you’ve read it, isn’t it time for a re-read?  And if you haven’t…well, do yourself a favor and rectify that.  Sad, beautiful, and funny, Lonesome Dove also boasts one of the best characters of all time:  the life-loving, philosophical cowboy, Augustus McCrae.

His Good Opinion by Nancy KelleyHis Good Opinion is definitely one for the Jane Austen fans out there.  It tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from Mr. Darcy’s point of view.  Kelley does a great job of staying true to the mood of the Recency period and hews close to the original story.  It’s quite fun to see the tale turned on its head and follow the many misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Darcy from the latter’s point of view.

The Downside Series by Stacia Kane.  Consisting of 3 books (with a 4th out in March 2012), Unholy Ghosts, Unholy Magic, and City of Ghosts, offer the reader a flawed but loyal heroine, Chess Putman.  An agent of the Church of Real Truth, Chess uses her skills as a ghost hunter to try and make the urban underbelly in which she lives a safer (or at least a less haunted) place.  Complications include her struggle with drug addiction, a love triangle with a gang leader and his rival’s enforcer (rather awesomely named Terrible), and Chess’s attempts to reconcile her calling in the Church of Real Truth with her seedy life in Downside.  This series is well-written and different from most Urban Fantasy fare.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom RiggsMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is probably the most inventive, compelling book I’ve read this year.  My only complaint would be the current lack of a published sequel.  Coming of age.  Monsters.  Heroism.  Difficult choices.  A moody setting.  Great writing – and all inspired by the creepiest, coolest set of old-fashioned photographs I’ve ever seen.

The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass.  Of all the “craft of writing” books I’ve read and used, The Breakout Novelist is my favorite.  Maass gives you both the big picture and the small, providing overarching commentary on what makes plot, structure, and characters work while also offering exercises you can apply to your own works in progress.  Practical and useful.

So, those are my suggestions…but what about you?  What books would you recommend for holiday readers and shoppers?  What are your favorites from 2011?  What are your favorites of all time?  Share the love, folks!

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs (2011, Young Adult/Fantasy, 352 pages)

The cover of Ransom Riggs’ new book shows us a young girl with a serious expression and wise eyes.  The photo is arresting in its strangeness.  It is black and white and a bit grainy.  The girl is dressed in a 1920’s style drop-waist dress and Mary Janes, but they look a bit too big, as if she’s playing dress-up, and, though she appears to be standing stiffly as if for a portrait, she is actually floating at least a foot off the ground.

This photo is one of many interspersed throughout the book.  All show rather odd children posed in impossible ways.  Ransom Riggs found these photos and transformed the children in them into characters in his marvelous first novel.  The result is a book as peculiar as the children who populate it, a story about a magical world hidden out of space and time yet still tethered to our own.

The narrative follows Jacob, an alienated teen fascinated with the strange tales told by his Grandpa Portman about an island refuge for special children.  When he witnesses his grandfather’s murder by a creature straight out of a nightmare, Jacob is launched on a journey leading him to a mist-shrouded island off the coast of England where he seeks to discover whether his grandfather’s stories were true.

To reveal much more of the plot would be to give away spoilers aplenty.  Riggs’ story has many twists and turns, each of them well set-up and engineered to keep the pages turning.  The mood of the novel is dark and spooky, but charming as well, and the magical world Jacob discovers is – in the end – much like our own:  full of wonders and horrors in equal measure.

Children (teens, really), take center stage here, and like much YA, they are launched into fraught situations and must confront monsters (both real and those within themselves) from which adults cannot save them.  Since the novel really focuses on facing fears and making difficult decisions, it falls comfortably within the ‘coming of age’ genre.

The packaging that Riggs wraps this coming of age story in, however, is enthralling and unique.  My only disappointment was that the book ends on a rather inconclusive note.  Perhaps Riggs intends to write a sequel, or perhaps he has chosen to conclude his story realistically – the transformation from child to adult is neither neat nor tidy and not an experience easily book-ended.

Personally, though, I’m hoping this delightful book is followed by an equally delightful sequel.  In fact, [UPDATE]: Riggs’ posted this recently on his blog.  Looks like good news!

Have any of you read this book?  If so, what did you think?  Or, do you have others like it to recommend?  Please share!