The Maze Runner, by James Dashner: A Review

I have been eager to read The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, since I watched the movie adaptation back in 2014. At the time, I wasn’t aware it was based on a book. When I found out, I was excited to read it. Thus, it seemed perfectly appropriate that this book join my 2017 Reading Challenge list as #4, a book that became a movie.

The Maze Runner is the story of Thomas, a 16 year old boy who joins a group of other boys ranging in age from about 13-18 who have all been sent to live in what they call The Glade. But there’s a catch. No one can remember anything about their life before The Glade, or why they were sent there.

The Glade sits inside a giant maze, and every day the boys of the Glade run through it, mapping it in detail and searching for an exit. Every night, the walls of the Maze move and the doors close, locking out horrible, mechanical beasts they call Grievers. This has been going on for two years without success. Until Thomas arrives. Then everything changes. I found myself pulling for Thomas and the other boys to succeed.

I have to admit, this book didn’t quite have the “wow” effect I was hoping for. There were a few quirky things I found difficult to get past, especially early on. Maybe this was because I’d seen the movie before reading the book.

Overall this book was a fun read. It’s well written, the plot moves quickly, and I couldn’t help but care about the characters. And the sequel is set up nicely in the end so that I am now eager to continue reading the story. I will say this, however, if you haven’t read it yet, and you haven’t seen the movie, read the book first.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher: A Review

With my writing obligations of late, I’ve fallen a bit behind on my reading obligations. I’m still reading, however and number two on my 2017 Reading Challenge list, is the category, “a book published last year.” Technically speaking, The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher, was published two years ago, but I decided to stretch things a little for this book.

I’ve never read any of Jim Butcher’s books before this one, though I know he has two other ongoing series. My book club has often talked about his books, so I was somewhat familiar with him already. This book joined my list because I went to my friends on Twitter and asked for a recommendation for a book in the steampunk sub-genre, something I’d never read before. This book was recommended, and I am so glad I picked it up. I loved this book!

I love this quote on the back cover by David Weber, which sums the book up very nicely:

It’s steampunk meets magic with a dose of sci-fi for seasoning.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is the first book of The Cinder Spires, a new series by Jim Butcher. It features a Captain Grimm, formerly of the Fleet of Spire Albion. He now captains his own private vessel, working as a privateer, attacking and disrupting trade vessels of rival spires. His ship, however, is something special. It’s a fascinating combination of an old time sailing ship and a zeppelin style airship, but powered by special crystals rather than steam engines or wind. Though both are also possible in addition to the crystals.

The story opens with an amazing air battle scene between Captain Grimm’s Predator and a much larger trade vessel, and then an even larger battle cruiser. Butcher expertly draws the reader in and sets the story up to be an incredibly fun read. I was not disappointed.

Butcher’s action scenes have a cinematic feel, bringing the reader right into the action. So much so that I felt like I was right in the middle of it, seeing the action, feeling the wind on my face, watching the expressions of the characters change as they respond to what’s happening. There is one scene in particular that I will likely never forget. I’d share it, but I don’t want to spoil anything. You’ll just have to read the book!

The characters in this book are delightfully complex. Besides Captain Grimm, there is Benedict Sorellin, a warriorborn (what seems to be some sort of human and animal hybrid), his cousin, the Lady Gwendolyn Lancaster, a pair of etherealists who are very likely insane, and Bridget Tagwyn, a young woman of the lesser nobility. This group of mismatched individuals are sent on a mission to save the spire from the invading force of a rival spire.

Even the villains are fun to read. The rival armies are filled with honorable officers, some I can even sympathize with. The main villain at the heart of the worst treachery is great. She’s fabulously wicked, and someone I loved to hate. I am still intrigued by her, and want to know more about her motivations.

And let’s not forget one other significant member of the party of heroes, Rowl of the Silent Paws. Rowl is a cat, to whom the Lady Tagwyn (known to Rowl as Littlemouse) belongs. The relationship between cats and humans in this story is complicated. And absolutely wonderful. The cats in this story are brilliantly written and add an extra layer of fun.

This book is a truly great read. And, oh! What an ending! I look forward with great anticipation to the next book! In the meantime, I’m going to have to look into the other series written by Jim Butcher.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson: A Review

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo first drew my attention through all the media hype surrounding both the books and the movie. I grew curious enough that finally, upon finding a copy among a selection of used books, I gave in and picked it up. It’s described on the back cover as “a sexy, addictive thriller,” and “a blazing literary sensation.” It sounded fun, and exciting. So I added it to my 2017 Reading Challenge.

Given this high praise, I was a little surprised by how slow this book opened. I was a good third of the way through it before it finally snagged my attention. This could be the slowest book I’ve ever stuck with. It opens with a huge chunk of financial intrigue that I had a hard time wading through. Honestly, I wondered what all the hype was about this book. But I pressed on.

The story opens with the main character, Mikhael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, who has just been convicted of libel and has been sentenced to pay reparations as well as serve some prison time. There is a detailed account of how Blomkvist got to this point before moving on to the story’s main events.

The narrative jumps between Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, a researcher for a security company. Salander is far from an ordinary character. She’s not especially likeable or even relatable. But she is interesting and compelling.

It isn’t until about half way through the story that these two major characters meet for the first time. Salander is aware of Blomkvist, but not vice versa. And neither has ever met the other. The story seems to sort of circle them around each other, drawing them nearer with each pass, until finally, their paths intersect.

This is the point at which the story truly gains momentum. From here to the end, things are happening at last and the story is propelled forward at a much quicker pace. It finally becomes that thrilling ride promised on the back cover.

Overall, the book is well written. The characters are interesting, if slightly over-played. I enjoyed this book, and I am curious to see where the characters will go from here. I’ll likely be reading the next book in the series at some point.

I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore: A Review

Book #7 on my 2017 Reading Challenge, a book with a number in the title, I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore was a fun read if not quite as satisfying as I had hoped. This book is also part of my core “rainbow list” and I’d been looking forward to reading it for some time.

The premise of the story is catchy and intriguing:

Nine of us came. We live among you. Three are dead. I am number Four. I am next.

This book tells the story of a boy, calling himself John Smith. He’s one of nine others who came to Earth from another world and have been hiding here for the past several years. They are being hunted by another race of aliens, the ones who destroyed their home planet.

I Am Number Four opens as John (then called Daniel) and his adult “protector” are compelled to pull up and move again, something that has happened already many times since they arrived on Earth. They end up moving to the small town of Paradise, Ohio.

John makes friends here – and enemies – and doesn’t want to move again. But things begin to happen that makes this almost a certainty.

Overall, I liked this book. The action scenes are great. The suspense and the crisp writing style move the story along at a fantastic pace. My one big complaint is John’s poor decision making. He behaves badly and makes stupid decisions for selfish reasons. And while I understand why he feels the way he does, his responses felt excessive.

Rebel Queen, by Michelle Moran: A Review

If I wasn’t already sold on the idea of audio books, experiencing this book through the superb narration of Sneha Mathan would have certainly sealed it for me.

Rebel Queen, by Michelle Moran, is a historical novel set in mid-nineteenth century India, during the time of British occupation. The story is told through the voice of Sita, a young woman who becomes a member of Rani Lakshmi’s Durga Dal (elite women fighters trained to specifically guard the queen). Written in the style of a memoir, this story is deeply personal.

Because of this memoir style, Moran allows the story to take a meandering course through Sita’s life beginning with her early years growing up in a small village. At times, the narrative wanders as Sita reminisces, but these side trips only serve to deepen and enrich the story.

Moran has painted an incredible picture of life in a Hindu village where women were required to remain veiled and were not allowed outside their home. Her family has no money for a dowry, and so Sita is put into a position where she must either become a temple prostitute, or train to become a part of the Durga Dal.

Sita is ultimately chosen to join the Durga Dal and moves into the royal city of Jhansi. Here she begins a whole new life so far removed from her village upbringing. A life filled with intrigue at every level.

This book is well written, the story and the suspense building so naturally I didn’t even mind that the title character – the rebel queen – doesn’t even make an appearance until well into the book. Even then, Rani Lakshmi remains a background character to Sita’s story, though an important one.

I have little experience or knowledge of the history and culture of India, so I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of Moran’s writing. Nevertheless, she has painted a picture of a world that feels very real and believable. This book makes me wish I did know more about Indian culture.

Rebel Queen is a deeply moving story, one I highly recommend. And while I’m sure the print version of this book is equally enjoyable, I must say, you’ll miss out on something special if you don’t try the audio narrated by Sneha Mathan. Her performance is truly stunning.

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown: A Review

I am so glad I found this book and decided to add it to my 2017 Reading Challenge, #22 a book with a color in the title. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown, is the best book I’ve read in a long time. I read it as if ravenous, though in truth it was the book that devoured me. I don’t remember the last time I was so completely consumed by a book.

This is the story of Darrow, a member of the lowest caste of citizens tasked with the grunt work of terraforming Mars. Society is divided by colors with Red being the lowest, Gold the highest. After the death of his wife, Darrow is approached by group of rebels. He is set on the path of bringing down the corrupt system from the inside.

The book is written in first person perspective, so the reader only knows what Darrow knows, and experiences everything just as Darrow experiences it. Because of this, the reader is thrust alongside Darrow into this new and terrifying world.

It opens a little slow, but this is understandable, even necessary, as the setting is such a foreign one. Here is a world filled with strange technologies. Brown does a masterful job at grounding the reader into Darrow’s world.

I love the character of Darrow. He’s beautifully human. He’s emotional, flawed, and he makes mistakes. Huge ones. And because of the first person point of view, the reader is crushed by these mistakes even as Darrow is, and learns from them as well. This is what makes Darrow such a great character, and the first person perspective work so well for this book.

But Darrow isn’t the only great character. Brown has set up an entire supporting cast of wonderful characters. People with the entire range of human emotions. People who love and hate, who are ambitious and cunning, who are loyal and then betray.

This book has been compared to a number of other well known books. Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, for example. There are certainly similar elements. However, this book rises beyond all these comparisons. It stands alone as a great book all on its own merits.

Red Rising is book one of a series, and I’ve already eagerly moved on to book two, Golden Son. Brown has set up a great story with a fantastic premise and outstanding characters. I’m truly hoping the rest of the series holds up to the promise made in the first book.

Prince Caspian, by C. S. Lewis: A Review

Part of my “rainbow” list for the Year of the Series, Prince Caspian is also #1 on my 2017 Reading Challenge list, a book from my childhood. I remember starting to read the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, but I’m certain I never read the rest of the books. So this was a new experience for me.

Prince Caspian is the second book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, at least by publication date. More recent editions of the series put this book as number four. There is apparently much debate over what order they should be read, whether by publication date or chronologically. Personally, I made the decision to read the books in their original order.

This is the story of Prince Caspian during a time that follows the time of the reign of the four Pevensie siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the realm of Narnia, many years have passed, and the world is much changed. Humans from another land have taken over Narnia and talking animals have become things of legend. Caspian is the rightful heir, but the kingdom has been usurped by his uncle. The story follows his attempt to reclaim the throne with the help of some “old world” Narnians.

Peter, Susan, Edward and Lucy end up getting recalled to Narnia, but without any of their old trappings of rulership. The Pevensies must first rediscover Narnia. Then, with the guidance of Aslan, they go to assist Prince Caspian.

Like the first book, this is the story of the struggles of faith and the triumph of what is right. Even though this series was written many years ago, it is still a fun read. It has remained popular with children for decades, and I’m glad I now get to share this piece of my childhood with my own children.

I started reading these books last year with my boys. Though it isn’t one of their favorites, they will usually go along with it when I pull it off the shelf. I get it. Compared to their usual choices (we’re still in the picture book stage), the Narnia books have a lot of words, and very few pictures. The edition I have does have some black and white simple drawings on some pages.

To be honest, from a child’s perspective (mine are 4, 6 and 7 currently), Lewis’s books aren’t quite as fun as a full color picture book. Still, I keep reading it with them. My oldest seems to enjoy it, and will even sometimes choose the book himself, so I have hope that we will be able to continue to read books together even when they have a lot of words, and not a lot of pictures.

I will continue to read through the rest of this series as my children allow. I hope as they grow they will come to choose these and others like it for us to read together again and again. I am always looking for more such books to challenge myself and my children. What are your favorite read aloud children’s books?