Book Review: all these things i’ve done

all these things i’ve done by Gabrielle Zevin (2011, Young Adult, 368 pages)

Set in a dystopian New York City, “all these things i’ve done” tells the story of Anya Balanchine, the 16 year old daughter of the city’s most famous, deceased mob boss.  In this future world, though, it isn’t booze or drugs that Anya’s Family runs, but another now-illegal commodity:  chocolate.  Anya’s story is part of coming of age, part mystery, part romance, and 100% made of awesome.

What makes the book tick (and work) so very effectively is Zevin’s excellent portrayal of Anya.  From the very first paragraph, this girl literally reaches off the page, grabs you by the lapels, and pulls you into her world.  The story is told in the first person, and Anya’s voice and worldview are fresh, distinctive, and endearing.  I found her an incredibly well-written protagonist – funny, loyal, pragmatic (but not without the occasional flair for the dramatic), and flawed.

Nominally under the guardianship of her ailing grandmother, Anya has been left to care for her younger sister and older brother (who is mentally unfit after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt that killed their mother).  Thus, the stakes in this story feel real and weighty.  The plot kicks into gear when Anya’s ex-boyfriend is poisoned by (you guessed it) chocolate he got from Anya.  Sent away to a chillingly horrid future-New York version of juvie, Anya must prove her innocence and protect her siblings.  All of which means getting drawn back into the Family’s illegal affairs.  Mixed into the intrigue is a budding and forbidden romance with the new DA’s son.

Zevin takes a number of fairly familiar YA elements (dystopia, youth in peril, young love…also in peril) and manages to create something fresh and gripping.  This is partly due to a very authentically realized down-at-the-heels future New York, in which water is a vanishingly scarce resource — and one that is rationed along with most other natural resources (fabric, paper, food, etc.).  The success of “all these things i’ve done”, however, rests most squarely on the shoulders of its delightful heroine and her ferocious desire to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.

Gabrielle Zevin, please give me more.

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!