Middle of the Road – Hollow City, I Am Not a Serial Killer and Lexicon

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

I have a tendency to go on at length about the books I discuss here on IROB and that tendency generally means I don’t discuss anything that doesn’t inspire verbosity. Sometimes that bugs me and I’ve decided to start posting what are for me brief reviews of books that were somewhat odd or strange but, for whatever reason, didn’t spark in-depth discussion but were still on some level worth discussing. I’ll try this on and see how it feels.

So here are some books that I want to discuss without blowing a 2K word count per review.

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs is the second installment of the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy. You know, it is what it is – a decently executed young adult novel. Quick synopsis: The peculiar children (peculiars are people who have strange, extraordinary powers) have left their Loop, a sort of place wherein time is frozen, and are trying to save Miss Peregrine, their adult caretaker, while saving themselves. It’s formulaic but it has some interesting elements that, if detected by readers, can raise some interesting questions. For example, the protagonist, Jacob, became sucked into events because his grandfather was a peculiar who decided to leave the Loop and live amongst normal people. When his grandfather is murdered, Jacob finds the Loop wherein his grandfather had lived and meets the peculiar children who live there. The Loop is frozen right before World War Two in England, and there Jacob meets Emma, a young teenage peculiar girl. Emma was once his grandfather’s girlfriend. In this book, Jacob and Emma become boyfriend and girlfriend.

All sorts of questions crop up in this pairing. Emma, despite being frozen in time for over 70 years, has nonetheless been alive and presumably engaging in activities that have advanced her character and experience beyond those of the average teen girl. Jacob, however, is chronologically a teenage boy. He has not lived those extra 70 years and the experience gap seemed strange, no matter how girlish Emma behaves. Stranger and more uncomfortable is the notion that Jacob is dating his grandfather’s ex-girlfriend. Worse, Jacob’s grandfather was a cad and left Emma brokenhearted. Jacob is cleaning up his late-pop-pop’s romantic mess. That’s sort of… unusual to find in a young adult book.

But that mild squick aside, the main reason to read Riggs’ books is because of the manipulated photos that Riggs uses to illustrate his stories. They add a visceral element to the book because this is a book of teenagers and very young children fighting a battle of good and evil wherein they can very easily be killed. The faces of real children give the dangerous actions they engage in a sobering context. Better than that, the pictures are visually interesting. Some are quite beautiful. Genuine pictures from appropriate eras are altered in creepy, elegant ways and the pictures are the “price of admission” for Riggs’ books. For Christmas I got a copy of Ransom Riggs’ Talking Pictures: Images and Messages Rescued from the Past, a collection of found, candid photographs. It’s a compelling collection. While the Peculiar Children series is interesting enough, I guess, I think the use of the altered photographs, of the sort I associate with very arty collages, set the books apart from most young adult, and it seems like it’s more than just a jaded hook to distinguish Riggs from other, more talented writers. The pictures are as important as the text and the books would suffer without them.  Luckily the pictures are evocative, unique and at times disturbing and I have enough invested that when the third and final book is available, I will buy it.  But if you aren’t tolerant of young adult reading and don’t care about photo manipulations, you aren’t going to want to read these books.

I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells is horror/psychological fiction, and book stores really need to shelf it in young adult and not in regular fiction and literature sections.  That way middle-aged women who routinely buy books on a whim won’t end up with another young adult series on their hands.  Because even if this is marketed as adult fiction, it’s young adult, and while I am not a snob against young adult, it’s not my first choice when deciding to read a book.  So that was the first strike against the book and I guess we can blame that on Barnes and Noble instead of Wells.

But Wells has some marks against him, too.  Overall, the idea is interesting – a kid who believes he is a soul-less psychopath and destined to become a serial killer finds out the real thing is living very near him and he is obsessed with finding out who is responsible for the string of gory murders plaguing his town.  He lives with his mother above their mortuary business and for a while you think this book is going to be a nice blend of Catcher in the Rye, Dexter and Mary Roach’s Stiff.  And it is for a bit.  But then you notice that the protagonist teenager really doesn’t seem to meet the criteria for psychopathy and not in a “wink-wink, the kid really isn’t a psychopath but doesn’t know it” sort of way, but rather in a “crap, read the goddamn DSM, please” kind of way. Still, Wells didn’t go off the rails as badly as some writers do when trying to write about mentally unstable characters.

But the real problem with this book was the supernatural element that Wells imbued in the killer.  We went from a real kid with real problems inserting himself into a real crime spree to a questionable episode of True Blood, but since it is a young adult novel, we don’t even have Alexander Skarsgard’s ass or random breast shots to try to distract us from what a bad decision the supernatural element is.  And this is all the worse because the book remained more or less readable, in that I didn’t put it down even as I cursed inside at the really crappy plot twist.  So buyer beware – not the worst book ever and it has some interesting, visceral moments, but I’m totally not reading the rest of the books in this series.

Lexicon by Max Barry is another book I purchased on a whim and because several people I like and respect thought highly of the book, I wanted to like it (though it should be mentioned that Cory Doctorow likes this book and the Venn diagram that shows in common the literature we like is generally two circles that never overlap and I should bear that in mind the next time I buy a book that has a front page blurb from him). And I did like the first part of the book.  I really liked the female protagonist, Emily, and the notion of an elite corps of spies recruited and trained on the basis of their ability to persuade with words, including magic words and phrases that can quite literally destroy the world.  She is on a traditional thriller collision course with the other protagonist, Wil Parke, a man immune to extreme persuasion, and that’s where things started falling apart for me.  Others have commented on how this was a intricate plot that still somehow managed to remain simple for the reader. That was not my experience with this book.

The plot even now doesn’t really make sense to me.  I don’t recall why Emily did as she was told by the agency that recruited her and the plot wasn’t helped by the fact that the people working for this agency all took the names of authors and, you know, since there was more than one Bronte writer, we had a couple of Brontes in the mix. I lost track of who was who at times because of their assumptions of new names. There was a Fight Club-esque twist that irritated me and it’s hard to remember a book in recent memory that left so many open threads at the end.

What makes this book so frustrating to discuss is that the concept is great and elements of this book are very gripping, while character motivations and the plot were weak.  This novel is both excellent and terrible.

I also want to answer the questions presented in the book, questions that when answered honestly can evidently enable people to know you and control you.

1.  What do you do in your spare time.

Answer:  Two prong answer:

a.  All my time is spare time so I guess I do everything.

b.  If all my time is spare time, then spare time is my real time, so I guess I don’t actually have any spare time.


2.  What would you do if you had a year to live.

Answer:  This assumes I have a year to live.  Trick question.


3.  What are you most proud of?

Answer: How organized my books are.


4)  What do you want?

Answer:  The Voynich Manuscript.  In my hands.  Right now.

So we end the first “Middle of the Road” discussions.  I kind of liked doing this.  If you liked it, let me know, and if you have read any of these three books and have opinions, share them.

5 thoughts on “Middle of the Road – Hollow City, I Am Not a Serial Killer and Lexicon

  1. I would like to apologize if I was one of the people who recommended Lexicon to you. I don’t think I was, but I feel guilt all the same. Please, if you go middle-of-the-road with Max Barry again, I suggest Jennifer Government, which is a much better novel. Though surprisingly not as bleak as it should be given the subject matter.

    1. No apologies needed. It was still a three-star book – I didn’t feel cheated at the end the way I do with a truly crappy book. I’ll add Jennifer Government to my to-read list as soon as I find out what Cory Doctorow had to say about it (I jest, but only a little).

  2. I enjoyed this. I like the long discussions, but these small reviews were fun and I think if you do more of them I’ll end up getting some tips for future reading (though from this selection only the Voynich Manuscript really caught my fancy. Lucky there’s a high resolution scan online).

    1. One day I will go to Yale and demand to see the manuscript. And they will hopefully not escort me from the premises or call the police. Each time someone says he or she solved it my heart soars for a moment and then I realize it’s all nonsense. Sort of like all the people who claim to have decoded the last two Zodiac killer letters.

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