Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dashner, James. The Maze Runner. Random House Children’s Books, 2009. 374 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-38573794-4. This book is appropriate for grades 6 and up, or ages 11 and up, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

I was lucky enough to take a linguistics course while still in high school, so I have long appreciated authors who take chances with language, even if they do not always work. Some of my favorite works as an undergraduate English major—Ulysses, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, The Waste Land—all featured experiments in the structure, nature, and power of language. Therefore, when an author starts playing with language, I pay attention. Of course, to authors like M. T. Anderson and Cynthia Kadohata, beautiful, provocative language comes naturally, but some need to work at it, and I am guessing that James Dashner belongs to the latter group. Mr. Dashner creates a mini-slang vocabulary a la Battlestar Galactica (frak it!) for his new novel The Maze Runner, and I like it, even if it gets a bit stale after a while. It does manage to hide some weak dialogue, a result of the novel’s excessive length. However, more importantly, the story moves well albeit a bit slowly, and although there are many hints to the ending, it is both reasonable and well-planned. A dystopian series is clearly planned, and if the author can maintain the tension and excitement, it is welcomed as well.

Like all of the other boys before him for two years, Thomas wakes up one day in a metal box with all specific memories of his past wiped clean. Outside of the box is the Glade, home for the 60 or so boys who live there, the place inside the maze. None of the boys know why or how they are in the maze, why they cannot remember more, or the purpose of the obviously artificial environment in which they are trapped: “He remembered lots of little things about life—eating, clothes, studying, playing, general images of the makeup of the world. But any detail that would fill in the picture to create a true and complete memory had been erased somehow. It was like looking at an image through muddy water” (33). However, Thomas feels different somehow, as if he may have knowledge or experience trapped underneath the corners of his brain. He vaguely recognizes this simulation, and he somehow feels responsible for it. Thomas wants to become a Runner, a person who goes out into the maze to map it and search for an exit (the walls shift nightly and the four entrances lock each night), but the other members of the group are unsettled by the newcomer. The tension between Thomas and leaders Alby, Newt, Minho, and Gally is obvious, but if the “Gladers” are to ever get out and find the Creators to learn the secret of their enslavement, they will need each other more than they can imagine.

Suzanne Collins recently succeeded in combining science fiction sub-genres with the Hunger Games series, and James Dashner walks down a similar path. I like the way Mr. Dashner incorporates the sub-genres of post-apocalypse dystopia, the enslavement of Man by his own technology, and the boogeyman-gonna-get-ya adventure/thriller. In this case, the boogeymen are Grievers, half-man/half-machine monstrosities that live in the maze and hunt anything that moves. It is a good effort that I believe my students will like, but I fear they may agree with my overall assessment that it is too long (and they may subsequently lose interest). If the novel was 100 pages shorter, I would have felt more comfortable with the language and the Lord of the Flies mentality, but at 374 pages, it got old, like that moment you realize a movie is too long and you start wondering when you can use the bathroom instead of how the protagonist will solve his problem. But the themes of isolation, feeling lost in a confusing world, and not being able to control one’s environment will resonate in students’ brains, and I admit that I am already looking forward to the sequel and making my own guesses about the next installment, the standard mark of a successful series starter.

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