The Maze Runner

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The Maze Runner (Photo: Random House)I knew it. I knew that eventually in 2014, I would stumble across a book I did not like. It’s bound to happen eventually, but I was hoping that with a streak of 10 really excellent reads in January and February, March would continue to be awesome.

Enter The Maze Runner, which I actually finished last week but am just getting around to posting about now. Next Wednesday is my last day of classes before a long-ish field placement that will take up most of the month of April, so it’s deadlines galore round these parts.

A couple of weeks ago, my English specialization class (I’m a pre-service secondary English language arts teacher) spent some time at the University of Calgary’s Doucette Library of Teacher Resources, which is a fantastic place full of knowledgeable staff who love talking about books for children and young adults. I had heard The Maze Runner was a popular read for kids who liked The Hunger Games series, and with a male protagonist, boys seem quite drawn to this series. So at the end of the seminar, I signed it out.

Maybe the problem is that I’m not a teenage boy, but of all the teenage dystopian fiction out there, I’d say this one is comparatively pretty weak. Yes, we’ve got the familiar theme of teenagers being thrust into uncomfortable situations of leadership as they are manipulated by corrupt adults, and yes, we have lots of pacey, semi-violent combat and strategizing, but that’s about where the similarities end.

The basic premise of The Maze Runner is that 16-ish-year-old Thomas (nobody is really sure how old he is) wakes up in an elevator, which deposits him at a place called the Glade. The Glade is home to several other teenage boys – no girls. Like all the boys, he has no memory of the past. The Glade is surrounded by a maze that is populated at night by creatures called Grievers, which are basically cow-sized slugs covered in saw blades that sting you and/or kill you, depending on their mood. Oh, and the walls close in on the Glade every night, while the walls of the maze outside rearrange themselves into repeating patterns. The boys have been living in the Glade, trying to solve the puzzle of the maze, for two years.

So far, so good, right? Except that where Thomas falls flat is his complete lack of personality. The thing that makes The Hunger Games a bestseller and draws teenagers (and adults) in like moths to a flame is Katniss’s complex range of emotions as she handles truly appalling situations. Katniss is a sharp tack who plays her cards close to her chest. She’s loyal and selfless, but also selfish. She’s confused about love. She’s brave and scared and pragmatic and resourceful and funny and beautiful and complicated. She makes considered decisions sometimes and rash ones at other times. In short, Katniss is human. (This is why the first movie in The Hunger Games series was met with some criticism by fans, because you don’t see a lot of what is going on inside Katniss’s head. However, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did a really, really good job of capturing the spirit of the book.)

By contrast, Thomas tends to feel one emotion – frustration. Thomas is frustrated when he can’t remember anything, frustrated when he can’t do the jobs he likes to do, frustrated when nobody will listen to him when he is new. He isn’t lonely, he’s sort of passively protective, he’s brave out of necessity, and he’s kind of a jerk, taking on a leadership role that nobody wants him to have after two days when all the other kids have been there for two years. When a girl shows up, she’s described rather flatly as black-haired, blue-eyed and beautiful. Oddly, she’s telepathic, too. (Perhaps James Dashner  was watching Star Trek: TNG reruns when he wrote this, because she’s kind of the equivalent of an early Counselor Troi before they gave her actual stuff to do.) Descriptions of the girl, Teresa, never move beyond how beautiful she is, how Thomas feels protective of her, and a couple of times, how she is ‘smart’ (without getting into any specifics about how she is smart, like she might be really good at reading maps or doing math or something). It actually really bothers me that some teachers use this book in junior highs and high schools, because it confirms all kinds of gender stereotypes that I don’t think are fair.

To make matters worse, all the kids in the Glade speak in an absolutely hideous made-up slang-language, which they apparently developed after only two years of living in isolation from the rest of their society.

Because we don’t know anything about these characters, it’s very difficult to care about them. Like all good dystopian YA trilogies, this one ends on a cliffhanger, but unlike The Hunger Games and Divergent, there’s no emotional connection to anyone. I hate to admit it, but I kind of don’t really care about what happens to Thomas or any of the other kids in this book. They’re really irritating and flat. After I read The Hunger Games and Divergent, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequels, but I think I’ll pass on The Scorch Trials.

I’ll also pass on the movie. Even these poor actors in the trailer hate all the slang they’ve been forced into saying. And Teresa isn’t blonde in the book. I feel like they’re likely to make a bad thing worse.

*UPDATE* Whoops, thanks to Mariana, who noticed that the trailer below is the book trailer, not the movie trailer (in which case, I’m still not sure why Theresa is blonde? Though it does explain the acting…). The movie trailer comes out next week, so that is something to look at!

One Summer: America, 1927

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One Summer (Photo: BillBryson.co.uk)Bill Bryson is probably my favourite contemporary nonfiction writer. I think I have read every single thing he’s written (even his books on spelling and grammar, which I loved). I think he’s brilliant and hilarious – and he’s got that rare ability to write across genres (memoir, travel writing, history, biography, science) without losing any of his charm in the process.

The first Bill Bryson book I ever bought was as an exchange student in the UK in early 2006. I got a gift voucher for 20 pounds at Waterstone’s for participating in a photo shoot at Bournemouth University (you can see me in the 2006-07 prospectus) and spent it on a copy of the 1995 travel book Notes from a Small Island. I think that because I was just discovering Britain for the first time myself, and Bryson’s dry, witty observations so closely mirrored my own, it resonated particularly strongly with me (There’s one part where he has trouble finding the ferry at Calais – I had similar trouble at Calais with the Eurostar and ended up in a farmers’ field.). It kind of felt like it was written for me, and at the age of 20, I was hooked on Bill Bryson.

I actually started One Summer: America, 1927 back in October, but it had to take a backseat to my practicum and a few assignment-heavy weeks at school. I wanted to give Bill Bryson the attention he deserved, so I picked it back up over the winter break. It travelled with me up to Donnelly to visit Matt in mid-December and I finally polished it off the day before Christmas.

One Summer is divided into five sections, each representing a different month in America during the summer of 1927 beginning in May and ending in September. Bryson covers Charles Lindbergh’s groundbreaking trans-Atlantic flight, a spectacular summer of baseball for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a sensational murder trial, Prohibition, the beginning of construction on Mount Rushmore, the lead-up to the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, the advent of talking motion pictures, the premiere of the musical Show Boat (one of my favourites, coincidentally) and a host of other events, both big and small.

What I love most about Bill Bryson is that he never dwells for so long on one thing. He turns history into little entertaining stories (which, in my opinion, is the best way to read history anyway) and his keen observations – especially when it comes to odd or humorous details – make for a great read. Like this review in the New York Times notes, Bryson has a great gift for bringing characters to life.

For example, did you know that US president Calvin Coolidge was presented with a cowboy outfit during the summer of 1927 and sometimes wore it just for fun when his workday was over? Or that the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Montagu Norman “always travelled in disguise, even when there was no plausible reason for doing so?” And then there’s this sentence, which I just loved. “Of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America, none had a more pugnacious manner, finer head of hair, or more memorable name than Kenesaw Mountain Landis.” Isn’t that great?

(The New York Times review in the link above also claims that some of Bryson’s facts are wild exaggerations. I’m not enough of a 1920s history buff to know one way or another about this, but I will say that One Summer appears to have a very extensive bibliography and reference notes that are broken down by chapter at the end of the book.)

History is almost never a light read, and I did have to wait for a time where my schedule was a little less intense to read One Summer, but it was well worth it. This would be a great gift for history buffs, social studies teachers and my dad, who gets to borrow my copy now that I’m done with it. Like all of Bill Bryson’s books, I loved it.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

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Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Photo: Hachette Book Group)This book is exactly why book clubs are so awesome. This time, it was Monique’s turn to pick. Her tastes run deeper into the realm of fantasy than mine do, and she’s a great judge of what will be a good read (this makes sense – when we were lowly high school students and young undergrads, we worked together at a bookstore. I always liked her picks then, too – and you could always count on Monique to throw truly awesome Harry Potter-themed parties).

I bought Daughter of Smoke and Bone at the same time as I picked up the hideously awful Geek Girls Unite. These days, I’m trying not to buy too many books (saving for school in September), but the wait list at the library was crazy-long. I took this as a good sign – and I was right.

While Laini Taylor, the author, is American, there are so many European things going on in this book that it gave me the travel bug all over again. The story starts with Karou, a 17-year-old art student in Prague with electric blue hair. She has been raised by chimaera – creatures that share characteristics of different animals and humans – and occasionally is sent on mysterious ‘missions’ to recover teeth for Brimstone, who acts as sort of a father figure. In return, she is paid in ‘wishes’ – this means Karou’s blue hair never fades and that she can fly.

So far, so good, right? Karou thinks so too, and she doesn’t have much trouble concealing her true background until she crosses paths with Akiva, a seraph. Without giving too much of the plot away (because holy moly, this book is full of brilliant twists and turns) Karou and Akiva find themselves taking on the roles of star-crossed lovers with a semi-Biblical twist. What if there were bad angels? What if there were good devils? And what if an ages-old battle between angels and chimaera could be halted with love?

It’s hard to explain this book without the full experience of reading it. Taylor’s sophisticated writing, rich characters, colourful descriptions, zinging one-liners and just the right amount of romance (yes, they go there in young adult fiction – this is one for older YA readers for sure) make this a great for teens and adults alike. It’s one of the smartest books I’ve read in awhile.

If the geek girls don’t feel like uniting over Leslie Simon’s book (and who would blame them?), they should certainly be banding together and passing this one around in the hallways of their high schools. It’s part one in a trilogy and I absolutely can’t wait to read the rest.

 

 

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

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Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven (Photo: Hachette Book Group)When I recently had lunch with my friend Jason and he told me about his plans to travel to North Korea, it immediately reminded me of how much I loved this book, so I decided to read it again.

I first came across Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven at a budget bookstore in New Zealand right down the street from where my former employer’s Auckland office is located. During my last eight or so months in Australia, I made frequent overnight trips to Auckland for work, because I was managing teams of writers in Sydney as well as an expanding office in NZ. As a result, I spent many evenings on my own in this awesome serviced apartment (if you need a place to stay in the Auckland central business district, I wholeheartedly recommend this place) watching a lot of crazy NZ television shows and reading books, including this one.

This is the kind of gripping travel writing that I love – it’s tense and suspenseful with a well-paced plot, plenty of humour and the kind of encounters with really good people that you seem to have when you run into sticky travel situations. In the 1980s, Susan Gilman and her friend Claire decide that they need to go backpacking in China, which has only just opened its doors to tourists. Armed with a Lonely Planet guidebook and inspired mainly by a ‘Pancakes of Many Nations’ special at the IHOP, two white, suburban, middle-class girls get in way over their heads in communist China – where one of them quite literally begins to lose her mind.

Jason raised his eyebrows at the title (so did I, when I first saw it), but for the most part in this book, everybody keeps their clothes on. It’s a thrilling travel memoir – and a great tale of friendship, youth and adventure – that’s well worth a look.

 

The Night Circus

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The Night CircusWhat a lovely surprise this book was! My neighbour Susan gave me a copy of The Night Circus to borrow, and my first impression of the cover was that had the potential to be really, really weird (as a side note, the cover image to the right is not the cover of Susan’s book, but this is what was available from the publisher).

After all, circuses are kind of weird, right? This means that books about circus people are probably also weird, right? Well, hat in hand, I was completely wrong. And I’m so glad I stuck with it beyond the first chapter (which, admittedly, was pretty weird, but made sense later) because this was one of the most surprisingly enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

It’s fantasy without being overly wacky. I’d describe the writing as having a lovely, dream-like quality and there is enough magic to keep things interesting without being over-the-top. There are two parallel stories that take place within this novel – one about the magic of the circus itself, which spans a considerable period of time, and the other about a boy who is enthralled with the show that appears and disappears in the night. Erin Morgenstern has managed to weave together an offbeat tale and an unlikely love story that completely and totally works.

Once I got through the slow-going first couple of chapters, I couldn’t stop. I carried this book with me everywhere. I read it in bed, in the bath and all over my house. It’s an easy, gentle read with a very satisfying conclusion, and coming from a fairweather fantasy fan, this is definitely one worth picking up. Thanks to Susan for her excellent judgement!