Monthly Archives: June 2009

“The Maze Runner” by James Dashner


After a slow start, James Dashner's upcoming novel "The Maze Runner" takes off as a twisty thriller packed with action and suspense. Let me set the story up first, since it is a bit high concept. Our teen hero Thomas suddenly wakes up in the Box alone, scared, and with no precise memories of his past life. Turns out the Box is a one-way elevator that regularly delivers one boy to the Glade, a protected area surrounded by towering walls, a complicated maze that shifts every night, and fearsome creatures known as Grievers. Although the Box brings memory-scrubbed boys ("greenies") and supplies from some unknown entity, it cannot be used for a return trip. The boys — some of whom have spent years in the Glade — have devised a well-ordered society complete with occupations governed by Keepers, council meetings, and strict rules to maintain order. Maze Runners (as their name indicates!) spend the daylight hours feverishly dashing through the Maze, mentally recording everything they see, so they can complete detailed maps each evening. When the Maze shifts overnight, they repeat the process the next morning, racing back at night to the Map House to draw new maps and compare the results. With no other visible means of escape, the Maze seems to be their only hope.

There are other complications. The Grievers are a hideous combination of oozing slug and mechanical nightmare, which I bet boys, in particular, will think are awesome. Although they typically emerge in the Maze only at night, a Griever's needle-like sting causes a boy to undergo a process called the Changing, in which memories of their former lives can be recovered. The toll, however, can be devastating, ranging from psychosis to death. Also, as an added bonus, sometimes the Grievers just shred you up into little pieces. Ack!

Shortly after Thomas enters the Glade, while he's still confused, bitter, and afraid, the Box brings forth its first-ever girl. Before entering a coma-like state, she delivers a warning that everything is about to change, and it sure does. The sun grays out, the walls fail to close at night, and Grievers start attacking the Glade with regularity. It looks like the Creators of the Glade and Maze want to bring their twisted game to a final climax … one way or the other!

Before this happens, from the moment Thomas impulsively jumps through the still-closing walls to save two boys — which means spending a night in the Maze with the Grievers — the book jets off at a furious pace, which just about makes up for the slow first third. I appreciate how difficult it is to lay out a complicated mythology, to set up rules for your story's universe, but I found myself annoyed by the other boys' callous initial treatment of Thomas. Their continued refusal to reveal any substantive information about the Glade, Maze, or Grievers was frustrating as a reader. I also cringed every time Thomas repeatedly described the failings of his memory, which, again, brought the story to a screeching halt.

I worry that the draggy beginning might turn off male readers, particularly reluctant ones, which is a shame because the remaining two-thirds are as good as any teen lit out there today. Once the story finds its rhythm, we're treated to an entertaining mix of adventure, mystery, and sci fi with larger themes regarding the price of order, the consequences of punishment, and the morality of seemingly bad deeds. Plus, there are hidden codes, telepathic links, mysterious clues ("WICKED is good"), great bursts of ingenuity, and compelling examples of bravery, cowardice, and sacrifice. Although the obvious comparison here is to "Lord of the Flies," the final stand, in which a small band of boys decides to challenge the Creators directly despite being grossly outmatched, reminded me of the doomed heroism of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

In the end, we get a glimpse of the warped world outside the Glade and then a set of whiz-bang climaxes that set up another book. I, for one, am really looking forward to following Thomas through the next dystopian adventure, and I'm sure most readers will feel the same way. Despite the awkward start, I'd definitely recommend "The Maze Runner" to readers in grades 7 and up, especially boys. Although the characters use substitute curses ("klunk" being my favorite), some of the violence and darker themes might be a bit heavy for younger middle schoolers. Look for "The Maze Runner" in October!

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Posted by on June 12, 2009 in Uncategorized


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“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins


It was well worth fighting the crowds at Book Expo to get "Catching Fire" … I even snagged an autographed copy! Thank you Scholastic.

The short version of this review — I loved it! It's different than "The Hunger Games," but the same rapid pace, emotional complexity, unexpected plot twists, and steamroller intensity are on full display here. Initially, I thought there would be no way Collins could match "The Hunger Games," if for no other reason then that book's concept was utterly unique and compelling. Fear not! Without revealing any of the juicy plot points, District 12 victors and pretend-but-maybe-real lovers Katniss and Peeta are once again thrown into a sadistic ritual by the chilling President Snow and the unseen powers in the Capitol. And, I promise, you will basically devour every page in a frantic rush to find out what happens next!

I vowed there would be no spoilers here, and I'll do my best to adhere to that promise. I can say that the book starts out back in District 12, where Katniss, Peeta, and drunken mentor Haymitch are now living in an upscale victors' village. It's a big change from the unrelenting poverty Katniss had known before the Hunger Games, but it comes with a heavy price. Rumor has it that Katniss' poison berry suicide ploy during the Games and her wearing of the mockingjay pin have helped stoke a simmering revolt in some of the districts. President Snow peronally visits District 12 to warn Katniss that the Capitol basically owns her now. I liked how the overarching threat here of a brutally repressive government is so dark yet believable.

Katniss is also having some issues reconnecting with old best friend and former hunting companion Gale. For me, Gale still hasn't evolved as a complete character, making any potential love triangle problematic at this point. I'm not sure this is even Collins' fault; it may be that we've simply spent too much time with Peeta. Throughout "The Hunger Games, we witnessed firsthand his quiet bravery and devotion to Katniss. With Gale, we don't have that connection, making mere descriptions of his feelings for and bond with Katniss feel hollow by comparison.

Ok, so I'll stop right there, because to go any further may spoil the fun for you. I'll let you experience for yourself the fantastic blend of action, suspense, betrayal, sacrifice, pain, and triumph, since so much of it came as a complete surprise to me. Know that we also get lots of new characters, which at first may seem overwhelming. But we slowly grow to know, care for, or loathe Finnick, Joanna, Nuts, Volts, and Mags. These characters have such depth that we feel something for each of them, which is extraordinary.

The middle book in a trilogy can be difficult to execute, since it typically involves laying the foundation for the big climax in book three. "Catching Fire" is pretty close to perfect. It truly exceeded my expectations, as it's different but no less engaging than "The Hunger Games." It deserves every last bit of praise that it is sure to receive upon its official release on September 1st. I can't wait for the final installment. How long until September 2010?!

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Posted by on June 12, 2009 in Uncategorized


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