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Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine #1)Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A friend loaned me this book, announcing that she knew I would enjoy reading it because it’s weird, strange, and wonderful. She was correct on all counts.

As a writer, lover of the macabre, and a collector of old photographs, I was intrigued by the inspiration for the book. The vintage photos that illustrate it also served as catalysts for the intriguing story spun by Ransom Riggs. (This, by the way, is the best author name. Ever.)

Sixteen year-old Jacob is reeling from a terrible shock which, “…like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After.” Convincing his bird-watching father that it would make for a wonderful expedition, the pair travels to a remote island off the coast of Wales. Father may be in search of rare species, but Jacob is looking for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in an attempt to make sense of the cryptic words and images left behind by his late grandfather. Who were these children and what made them peculiar? Was his grandfather one of the peculiars? Is Jacob, himself, among their ranks?

I found this beautifully written book to be so entrancing I was unable to rest until without learning what happened next. This clearly demonstrates Riggs’ talent and expertise as a storyteller. If this debut novel is any indication of what we can expect from him in the future, sign me up as Ransom Riggs’ #1 Fan.

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The ringing telephone jarred Collette Pearson from a dreamless sleep. The tall, gaunt, forty-something woman bolted upright and grabbed the receiver. She cleared her throat and mumbled a sleepy, “Hello.”

The voice on the other end of the line was sketchy and distant, whispering a nearly inaudible, “This is your blast from the past.” There was a click and the line went dead.

“How corny and clichéd,” she marveled. “Some people just need to get a life.”

Still, something about that voice and those words sent a cold jolt up her spine and caused her chest to tighten. Collette squinted at the digital clock on the nightstand until the numbers came into focus. “It’s 3:33 a.m.,” she noted out loud. “Who makes a prank call at this hour?

Although she tried to shrug it off as some idiot’s bad idea of a joke, the call concerned her. The voice sounded vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. Usually an ardently independent and relentlessly audacious woman, Collette found it abnormal for her mind to conjure these troubling images of some faceless demented stalker. She felt very unsettled.

Since going back to sleep before the sounding of her four o’clock alarm wasn’t going to prove feasible she slipped into her robe and slippers before shuffling to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Feeling her way through the dark hallway, she cinched her house coat tightly and hugged herself against a sudden chill. “This hall is like ice,” she thought. “I hate everything about winter.”

Once her favorite dark roast Sumatra blend was ground and brewing, Collette sat at her scarred oak table and pushed the power button on her laptop. She sat there hollow-eyed, gazing blankly at the flickering screen as the computer came to life. A shiver shook her shoulders and she rubbed her hands on her upper arms, hoping to generate warmth. “Damn! Is the pilot light out on the furnace or something? It’s freezing in here,” Collette thought.

A few clicks on the keyboard popped up a list of unread emails. She grabbed her glasses and perched them on her nose, squinting a little as she opened the first message. “Junk,” she announced to nobody. “Delete.”

Tagging about a dozen emails, she continued trashing the spam. When she stood to pour herself a warming mug of coffee, she couldn’t quite shake a sense of frigid foreboding. If her morning java didn’t clear her head and thaw her frozen bones, what would?

When she returned to the table, a message flagged as urgent caught her eye. The sender’s name, Marie_M, didn’t ring a bell, but the subject block grabbed her attention: Jesse Mason. Now that was a name she recognized!

Jesse had been her lover when they were in college. They probably would have married eventually had it not been for two things: his propensity for drinking and drugging his way through life and her decision to move to another state so she wouldn’t have to watch him self-destruct. Jesse had been a brilliant guy, probably a genius. He had never really understood how to channel his intellect and, as a result, his intensity had consumed him.  It had broken her heart to say goodbye to her one true soul mate, but she had known then as well as she knew now that leaving him was less painful than watching him slowly disintegrate.

Collette smiled, remembering fondly how she had teased her lover, telling him that he should have been named Messy Jason instead of Jesse Mason.  As is sometimes the case with brilliant people, Jesse’s mind raced a million miles in a nanosecond and seldom paused for minutia like getting a haircut or belting his faded, dingy jeans. “Jesse was a mess in more ways than one,” she recalled with a tinge of melancholy. “I wonder what he’s up to now.”

She took another swig of coffee, savoring its rich aroma. Inhaling deeply and bracing herself as if expecting a monster to leap from the screen, she clicked on the message to open it. She scanned the words: Stop trying to contact Jesse.

Collette nearly choked on her coffee. “What? Trying to contact Jesse?  I haven’t even thought about that man for at least twenty years!” she exclaimed.

Her mind raced, searching for some logical explanation for this strange message. Snapping her fingers, she declared, “I bet this is some kind of phishing scam or something. They want me to reply so they can steal my password and spam all my contacts. That’s a big DELETE.”

Having drained her coffee and finished reading her emails, Collette headed toward the bathroom situated between the two small bedrooms in the rear of her tiny bungalow so she could shower and dress for the day. Pausing in the hall she bumped up the thermostat a few degrees.  Listening for the burner to ignite and the fan to kick on, she worried, “God, I hope the furnace isn’t busted.”

After a hot shower, Collette towelled off and dressed in layers. Lingering in the steamy bathroom, she ran a comb through her short, salt-and-pepper hair without even glancing at the mirror. Considering the sauna-like conditions, the room wasn’t particularly warm, yet she dreaded opening the door. An icy blast greeted her when she stepped into the bedroom. “Jesus! It’s colder than a steel slab in here!”  The air was so cold that Collette imagined she saw her breath. Shaking her head in disbelief she told herself, “It can’t be that freezing in this house.”

Hurrying into the kitchen, she poured a fresh cup of coffee before returning her attention to the computer where she saw a new message had arrived with that same subject line: Jesse Mason. “Techno-jerk!” Collette blurted in disgust. “Leave me alone.”

Closing the laptop, she slid it into a black messenger bag, bundled up in her heaviest coat and set off on what she expected to be a routine commute to what she assumed would be another regular day. Instead, weird visions of Jessie kept incomprehensively flashing through her consciousness; sometimes wavy and out of focus, other times as sharp and clear as if he were standing right before her. This version of Jesse was older than she remembered him. His curly black mess of unruly hair was now graying, parted and slicked down. He looked rather conservative and business-like. “Why is my mind aging him?”  She scolded herself for wondering how things might have worked out had she not turned her back on him when he was struggling with his addictions. Was this apparition haunting her the man Jesse had become? Or was it the man she somehow hoped he might be?

Going home later, she cranked up the car’s heater and tried to thaw herself while she grappled with her feelings and attempted to make sense of the high strangeness that seemed to have invaded her normally peaceful existence. Arguing that the day had been relatively uneventful aside from the twenty or so ‘Jesse Mason’ emails she had received and deleted without opening, she tried to put things into perspective. She might have convinced herself had her mind not insisted on replaying an eerie voice mail she had retrieved early in the day – a quasi-familiar male voice that echoed in her head, “I need to see you.”

As if dealing with the ever-growing knot of anxiety in her stomach wasn’t stressful enough, she had been annoyed all day by intermittent frigid blasts that originated from nowhere and left her bone-weary. ‘I must be coming down with the flu,’ Collette worried.

Arriving home, Collette hung her coat and put her other belongings on the kitchen table. At least supper would be simple. There was a big bowl of leftover chicken noodle soup in the fridge from the batch she made Sunday. Grabbing it, she loosened the lid and popped it into the microwave, setting the timer for five minutes. Retreating to the bedroom, she changed into sweatpants and a green thermal Henley. Still aching from the bone-chilling cold, she zipped on a thick hoodie and put on heavy socks, topped by a pair of obnoxiously hot pink leg warmers. Her robe and slippers completed the frumpy ensemble.

Collette made her way back to the kitchen, absently grabbing a knife from the drawer before starting her routine of sorting through the day’s mail; pitching junk into the recycling bin and slicing open the envelopes containing bills. Distracted, Collette nearly jumped out of her skin when the microwave timer sounded. Laughing nervously and shaking off her startled reaction, she retrieved the steaming soup and sat at the table to finish the mail. Not hungry, she threw away far more than she consumed. More out of habit than anything else, Collette rinsed her dishes and stowed them in the dishwasher.

Filling the tea kettle with water, she turned on the gas burner and struck a kitchen match to ignite a flame.  She stared mindlessly, considering the irony in fact that the flickering fire burned an icy blue. Growing gradually from a distant whisper, a whistle interrupted her reverie. “Maybe some hot Earl Grey will chase away the chills.”  Pausing to stir half a spoon of sugar into the hot water she poured over the waiting tea bag, Collette seemed oddly separated from herself. She was not simply lost in her thoughts; she felt hopelessly abandoned there. Not since the horrific months that followed her break up with Jesse had she felt this detached and pensive.

Sitting at the table, she powered on the laptop and navigated to the inbox. First email on the list was another new ‘Jesse Mason’ message. Wavering for an instant between trepidation and curiosity, she clicked it open and read: Don’t even think about Jesse. I am his wife and you need to stop pursuing him and leave us alone.

Collette slammed the laptop closed. Her shaking hands fumbled with the cord as she plugged the computer in to charge. A stabbing flash of realization struck her: Jesse had been the early morning prank caller and it was he who left that creepy voicemail message. Enraged and muttering curse words, she grabbed for her computer and went back to the messages. Infuriated by Jesse’s audacity and insulted by his wife’s accusations, Collette was determined to remove herself from this little marital imbroglio.

She typed a reply to the latest email: I did not contact Jesse. He called me in the middle of the night and hung up. He left me a voice mail saying he needs to see me. I have not been chasing him. If anything, it’s the other way around. You are harassing me with these emails and I want it to stop immediately.  I don’t want any further contact from either of you. A quick click on SEND and her words shot off into cyberspace. Her computer asked if she wanted to add Marie_M to her contacts. “Um, no. I think not.” Collette replied sarcastically, as though the machine could hear her response.

The last thing she needed in her life was Jesse’s drama. “What kind of psycho did he marry?” she wondered to herself. “No doubt somebody as messed up as he is.”

She closed the laptop, doused the light and headed to bed intending to read Leopoldo Gout’s novel Ghost Radio until she could fall asleep. Crawling between the flannel sheets, she pulled the heavy comforter up to her chin. After less than a page her eyes grew heavy and she was about to doze off when she was startled by a throaty moan emanating from the hallway. The sound chilled her anew. She swallowed hard, trying to force her heart out of her throat and back into her chest where it belonged. “I bet that’s the wind whipping across the furnace flue,” echoed unconvincingly through her mind. “This is crazy. I need to get a grip.”

Switching off the light, she closed her eyes against her fear and pretended to fall asleep.

* * * * * *

There was no point waiting for the alarm to sound. By 2:00 a.m. Collette could no longer bear faking slumber, so she arose to make some coffee. As she was filling the carafe, she caught her reflection in the dark glass of the window above the sink and the image shocked her. Her face was cadaverous, her skin colorless, and her expression blank and lifeless. Dark circles obscured her green eyes. The countenance staring back at her looked old, tired, drawn and haggard. Clearly the strain of recent events had taken their toll on her health. “I look like death warmed over.”

She ran her hands through her hair, smoothing away the sleep tangles, and then lifted her chin to briefly consider her eerie likeness in the glass pane before diverting her eyes from the distorted, nightmarish reflection. She cajoled herself, “Time to stop daydreaming and get on with my normal routine.”

Unplugging the laptop and stowing the cables in her bag before pressing the power button, Collette then turned to pour a mug of coffee while the computer was waking up. The furnace flue made that weird noise again, but this time it sounded considerably closer to her – feeling almost like a breath against her ear. ‘That was just incredibly freaky!’

If it wasn’t some trick of the wind, then she did not want to imagine what it might be. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled. Turning her attention to her email, she was not surprised to see a new ‘Jesse Mason’ message: This is Jesse. My wife is freaking out. Don’t reply to the emails. I’ll find another way to contact you.

“The hell you will!” she said a little too loudly to be talking to an empty house. She blocked the email address then grabbed her phone and searched her Caller ID for an entry from the previous morning. Jotting down the number and slipping the note in her wallet, she was armed to contact the phone company and block incoming calls from Jesse and his lunatic wife. Although she had lived alone most of her adult life, her little house now felt ominous instead of comfortable. Afraid to be by herself, Collette dressed quickly, deciding she would rather leave early than remain terrified in the arctic-cold bungalow.

* * * * * *

Although she arrived well before dawn, Collette lingered at her work late into the evening. There had been no more ‘Jesse Mason’ emails or cryptic voice messages, yet fleeting, shadowy images of the man continued to be-devil her. Sometimes appearing as her youthful lover, next morphing into some weird age-progressed rendering thereof, Jesse’s semblance repeatedly manifested and dissolved, leaving Collette to wonder if she had lost all touch with reality.

Grasping for some fragment of normalcy, Collette stopped at a gourmet bakery on her way home. She thought buying something chocolate and decadent would sooth her soul and might take her mind off of the taunting apparitions of Jesse. “Nothing better than a hazelnut torte dripping with chocolate ganache to chase away the ghosts of old boyfriends,” she observed silently.

While her indulgence was being boxed up, Collette caught motion in her peripheral vision. Quickly glancing up, she saw a tall, handsome man with wild, curly black hair approaching. There was something oddly familiar about the way he walked – leaning forward a bit and bouncing on the balls of his feet. He had a too-wide, toothy smile and steely indigo eyes that hovered well above dimples that were as deep as the Grand Canyon. It took an instant for her to realize he bore a disturbingly uncanny resemblance to the Jesse she had loved two decades ago. He even carried himself with that strutting rock star gait! She briefly considered asking him if he was a relative; a son, maybe? “No, don’t embarrass yourself like that. You just have a raging case of Jesse-on-the-brain,” she lectured internally.

Still, there was an inexplicable energy in the air. She wasn’t sure if it was chemical or electrical, but it made goose bumps rise on her arms as the young man continued toward her. His gaze was fixed on her and Collette stared back in detached amazement as he passed right through her and vanished. Terrified and trembling, Collette somehow managed to transport herself to her home, although she later had no recollection of doing so.

Entering the bungalow, she barely noticed the frigid blast assaulting her. Everything was surreal. The phone was ringing and she mindlessly answered it, fully expecting to hear some distant, spectral version of Jesse’s voice. Instead, she found herself straining to make out the broken words of Kathy Barnes, her best friend and sorority sister. The tone was urgent, distressing and eerily dreamlike, “Collette, Jesse Mason passed away. I saw it in this morning’s paper. I know you two are ancient history, but…” The voice trailed off, dissolving into static. Momentarily the nebulous utterance continued, now barely a whisper, “…you should know. Honey, you can finally let him go. Okay?”

Dropping the phone, Collette collapsed to the floor in hysterical sobs. The events of the last two days combined with her grief over the news of Jesse’s death propelled her into an emotional meltdown. It seemed as though eternity passed before she was able to drag herself to the kitchen and fire up her laptop. Why did she feel compelled to find that obituary and read it? Did it say when or how he died? There were now more questions than answers and nothing would make sense to her until she had some confirmation that he was actually gone.

Feverishly clicking keys to pull up the newspaper’s website, Collette felt vaporous and ethereal. She could feel her energy dimming like the beam of a flashlight with dying batteries, as though any second she would be plunged into darkness. “Where in the hell are the death notices?” she fretted.

A scan of the obituary page revealed nothing. “It has to be here. Karen wouldn’t lie to me about this.”

Quickly typing Jesse’s name and the word “death” in the search box, she hit ENTER and waited. Nervously tapping her fingers on the table, she fidgeted until one match finally returned – an article, not an obituary. She apprehensively clicked the link and began absorbing the words in horror and disbelief.

Jesse Mason, founder and CEO of Bio-Botics, was found dead in his Manhattan penthouse yesterday. Best known as the inventor of artificial intelligence technology that interprets brain waves and nerve impulses and transfers them to robotics, he was credited with developing the first fully integrated robotics-assisted prosthetic limbs. Originally from St. Louis, Mason is survived by his wife, Marie (Gillespie) Mason. He was 48 years old.

Police declined to comment on speculation that Mason’s death may have been due to an intentional drug overdose. They did, however, confirm that prescription medications were seized from the apartment. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a close friend and business associate reported he recently urged Mason to seek psychiatric care, stating Mason believed the ghost of his college sweetheart was haunting him. The woman perished last winter when her car slid off a snow-packed road and plunged into the icy waters of Lake Erie. She left no survivors.

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