Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Maze Runner -- James Dashner
October 2009 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
374 pages Goodreads

When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls.

Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift.

Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up—the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers.

Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.

With how popular as this book has been, I figured I needed to read it eventually, and when it showed up on the bargain books shelf at the bookstore for just a couple dollars I couldn't resist. Now I'm glad I only paid a few bucks for this because it was a bit lackluster.  Not bad, just not terribly good either.  I'm reading Lord of the Flies next and am interested to see how well the two compare.  And by reading it next I mean probably some time after mid terms.  In a month and a half.  Or over Christmas break. I'll read it...soon.

Dashner throws us into his world very abruptly and we spend most of the novel trying to figure out what's going on.  This bugged me a bit, though it was the effect Dashner was going for.  I generally prefer a bit more explanation of the setting and good world building, even if there are a lot of unknowns.  The rest of the series, from the Wikipedia summaries, seem to be a similar collection of scattered events that is supposed to be suspenseful   

The excessive and escalating violence left a bad taste in my mouth.  I'm not opposed to any violence ever, but the characters seemed to relish in it.  At one point, a boy is banished from the safety of the Glade, tied up, and left to be eaten by Griever monster things.  It's a disturbing scene, but some of the characters smile through it.  I really don't like such callousness.  These are just kids; they should be a bit more disturbed by their actions.  I also made the mistake of finishing the book late at night and promply spent the next half hour trying to fall asleep while listening to the night noises of my house, trying to convince myself I was not about to get attacked.  Thanks Dashner.

The characters use slang A LOT, to the point that it felt crude.  "Klunk", "shuckface", "we're shucked", "shucking"--we know you're swearing.  I don't think this would bother most readers, but it bugged me.  Along with this, everyone is always yelling.  Always.  Spitting out death threats or lashing out at people (rationally or irrationally) or whatever.  No one knows how to speak in a normally toned voice.  Maybe I'm not giving the characters enough credit--it's a high stress situation--but anger overused loses its effect.

Also, there is extremely little character development. This is where a novel can really shine and yet where so many novels fall flat, taking the easy route of flat stereotypes.

My number one complaint is that the mystery of the novel is solved only through a dues ex machina bestowal of information.  That's cheating.  Yes, new information is usually needed to solve a mystery, but the characters didn't figure out anything on their own.  Again, I don't know that this would bother a young adult audience, but I prefer the satisfaction of a well-developed, intricate plot that I can sort out along with the characters. I do like the plot twist at the very end of the book.  Dashner has the potential to explore moral/ethical issues about government and science and experimentation a la The Island, but I can't help but think he won't live up to that potential.

I liked the book well enough when I was reading it, but after putting it down I had little desire to pick it up again.  It was a decent book, but I don't feel terribly compelled to read the sequels.  That's what Wikipedia is for.  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Something in Nothing

The art museum at BYU is named with a surprising lack of creativity:  the Museum of Art, or the MOA for short.  I don't know if they were shooting for elegance in simplicity or if they didn't want a donor attached to their name or what.  Anyways, we took a tour of the Islamic art exhibit for my Myths, Legends and Folktales class last week.  I'd been through the exhibit before , but this time we got a guide who gave us more information about the creation of the exhibit and why certain pieces were chosen.

The exhibit is entitled Beauty and Belief:  Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture.  It's a beautiful collection and this is its final week of display.  If you haven't gone yet, go.  If you've gone, go again.  If you can't go because you don't live in Provo or you don't have time, at least look around the website for the exhibit.

Bridge building and crossing is something we can definitely use with a religion and culture as under-understood (is that even a word?) as Islam is.  The exhibit is all about expression of devotion to God.  There are prayer rugs so well used there are holes worn through and ridiculously old manuscripts (8th century was the oldest I could find) of the Quran, carefully copied, some embellished beautifully with colored ink and/or calligraphy.  I loved drawing connections between Islam and my own faith.
This was one of my favorite pieces.  It's a stylized sculpture of the Persian word "heech," meaning "nothing."  Our guide explained this paradox of a dynamic piece signifying nothing.  She said the project director who selected the piece said that even in nothing there is something.  In nothing, in that void from which we remove the noise and concerns of the world, in that nothing God can touch us.

I love that interpretation.  Whether you call it meditating, praying, communing with nature, or being at one with the universe I see this same concept, and I wish I was better at it.  It's so easy to get caught up in the day to day hustle and bustle of the world.  Work, school, homework, friends, family, world events, grocery shopping, cooking, planning, talking, hearing, watching.  I get so busy, often with inane, unimportant things.  I forget, in my haste to accomplish everything on my to-do list, the simple beauty of a quiet moment. I love the rare moments when I just sit and think.  When I really pray, not just recite a worn-out list of thanks and requests.  When I walk around the temple grounds or really think about the scriptures instead of glancing over them.  

I appreciated this reminder to create a void so that God has room in my life.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Book Chat: Books for Our Younger Selves

For my first expedition into the world of vlogging and booktube I'm responding to Misty at The Book Rat and her September Book Chat.  This month's chat is all about books that we wish we had read when we were younger, for whatever reason.

My picks:
Because of Winn Dixie

Take a look at Misty's original post/video here.  What books do you wish you could give to your younger self?  

P.S.  I couldn't figure out how to continue the audio when I put up a picture.  So, if you know how to do that, please let me know in the comments.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan -- Scott Westerfeld
October 2009 by Simon Pulse
434 pages Goodreads

Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.

Over the summer I read a lot of books for my adolescent lit course, and Leviathan was by far my favorite.  The world building was intricate, the characters were real and funny, the plot line was fast-paced and exciting, the illustrations were amazing.  Since reading it I have recommended it to most everyone I've come in contact with.  This is one of the few books I finished and then immediately had to get my hands on the sequels. 

Leviathan was my first real experience with steam punk and it gave me a great impression of the genre.  The illustrations added so much to the story and gave me a feel for the characters as well as the world.  The pictures guided, without limiting, my mental picture of Deryn, the Leviathan, mech suits, and all the other creation in Westerfeld's world.  I was skeptical about the Darwinists at first.  A flying whale airship?  I could accept that in Dr. Who, but in WWI Europe?  However, Westerfeld pulls it off convincingly with the ecosystem of fabricated creatures, a sentient air ship, and the cleverest ferret-things that you sadly don't meet until book two.

Westerfeld does a wonderful job with the characters.  Everyone we meet is fresh and interesting. I loved Deryn.  She was a no nonsense woman of action, who occasionally dreams of love without making the romance take center stage (one of my serious pet peeves about most YA lit).  She keeps a cool head in the face of danger and wields a hot tongue all the time.  I wish my imagination had a better Scottish voice because Deryn has some feisty speeches.  Alek starts out as a static plot device used to move the story along by getting everyone into a series of scrapes, but he gets better as the series continues.  He becomes more decisive, a better leader, and just more fun.  Deryn and Alek felt younger than their stated ages, but I think that caters to the intended audience.  

Going into the book I wondered how Westerfeld would handle his alternate history.  You can't just have your characters stop WWI from happening; that's much too big a change.  Westerfeld manages to keep the characters a small part of the worldwide conflict without making them insignificant.  Alek and Deryn do become more involved in world politics as the series progresses, but by book three Westerfeld has built up the world enough that the changes he makes are believable.

For my summer reading I was supposed to read 20-30 books from all sorts of genres, so I didn't really have time to spend on Behemoth and Goliath, but I couldn't resist--I had to know what happened next.  So I ignored the books I was supposed to be reading and indulged in the world of Leviathan.  It's been a while since a series drew me in so completely.  However, Leviathan's story is complete in itself; it could be a stand alone novel.  It doesn't have one of those cliffhanger must know what happens next endings.  You finish the book dying to know what happens next because you love the world and the characters and the story, not because you're left hanging.  Leviathan is a fantastic read and the entire series now lives on my bookshelves.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Teachers and Our Expectations of Students

I heard a fabulous article on NPR the other day.  The gist is that teachers who expect high performance from their students see greater learning and growth in their students.  This isn't anything revolutionary, but it's hard to implement in a classroom of 30 or more with kids who love to chat with each other or jump out of their seats; meanwhile you're trying to teach the significance and use of metaphors and haven't had a quite moment since before school started.  It's easy in these moments to group kids into the good (quiet, smart) kids and the bad (rowdy, doesn't want to or can't learn) kids.

The article argues that our behavior towards an individual can shape our beliefs about them, rather than the other way around.  When we treat people better we think better of them.

My aunt taught 2nd grade last year.  Before the year began she found out that one of her students had (sadly) already been labeled as one who couldn't learn.  He was just a distraction to the other students.  Things were bad enough that his mom was considering enrolling him in a special program or homeschooling him because public school just wasn't working.

I don't know all the background on this student or on my aunt's thought process, but she decided that she would treat him just like or even better than the other students in her class.  She made a conscious effort to praise him every day for something he had done.  When he acted out she said "That's not like you" or "You're better than that."  She expected him to learn, and he did.  Over the course of the year he made a 180 degree transformation.  He liked school; he did well; he read at grade level.

One of the most difficult parts of teaching, I'm beginning to see, is that the students who are hardest to teach are the ones who need us the most.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

The Looking Glass Wars  -- Frank Beddor
September 2004 by Dial Books
384 pages Goodreads

You know the myth... A little girl named Alice tumbled down a rabbit hole and proceeded to have a charming adventure in the delightful, made-up world of Wonderland...

Now discover the truth... Wonderland Exists!

Alyss Heart, heir to the Wonderland throne, was forced to flee through the Pool of Tears after a bloody palace coup staged by the murderous Redd. Lost and alone in Victorian London, Alyss is befriended by an aspiring author to whom she tells the violent, heartbreaking story of her young life only to see it published as the nonsensical Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alyss had trusted Lewis Carroll to tell the truth so that someone, somewhere would find her and bring her home. But Carroll had gotten it all wrong. He even misspelled her name! If not for royal bodyguard Hatter Madigan's nonstop search to locate the lost princess, Alyss may have become just another society woman sipping tea in a too-tight corset instead of returning to Wonderland to fight Redd for her rightful place as the Queen of Hearts.

Meet the heroic, passionate, monstrous, vengeful denizens of this parallel world as they battle each other with AD-52's and orb generators, navigate the Crystal Continuum, bet on jabberwock fights and travel across the Chessboard Desert.

This book was a lot of fun.  High 3, low 4.  The premise was very interesting:  Carroll got it wrong; Alyss is the escaped Wonderlandian princess.  I really liked Beddor's take on Wonderland.  He preserved the feeling of whimsy and possibility while grounding his novel in something concrete.

Despite much of the book being centered around a 7-year old girl, the book did not feel simplistic.  I loved Alyss's development.  She isn't the chosen one--she is a lost little girl who doesn't know how to cope with the foreign world she's been dropped into, who isn't quite sure if she's mad or sane, who just wants to find a place she belongs.

I felt the character development could have been taken a bit farther.  Let's face it; I'm used to Brandon Sanderson and want all the characters developed in depth, even the minor ones.  But in a fairy tale retelling I especially love to see the villain developed, and that didn't really happen here.  We just get the standard queen who's evil because she's evil, but Beddor set himself up with potential to develop Redd.  The sister who should have inherited the throne but was disowned, so she stages not a coup, but retakes what is rightfully hers.  Beddor could definitely go places in later books; hopefully he will.

I hope he also looks more closely at Dodge.  Beddor didn't neglect Dodge or anything like that; I'm just really interested in where his character goes.  He's so focused on revenge, focused on the pain he's been carrying around.  His character could go interesting directions.

Hatter is awesome.  End of story.  Beddor seems to have written some graphic novel tie-ins all about Hatter, which I will probably check out.

I wished the power of Imagination had been more fully explained.  It is limitless and arbitrary, and Alyss's acquiring of super-Imagination in the maze felt too dues ex machina.  She became the warrior queen without any real effort or training.  Yes, the maze tested her, but you don't pick up ninja skills without a little practice.  No, Alyss isn't a ninja, but that would be another really interesting premise.

Thank you Beddor for not having a swoony female lead and for not putting the romance front and center.  The romance is actually a very small part of the book, if even that.  Alyss and Dodge could almost be considered childhood sweethearts, but so much has happened since then that they're held together more by the memory of their old friendship than by star-crossed were meant to be together-ness.

I think I would have loved this if I had read it during high school.  Now it has elements that bug me just a bit, but it stands out from the standard YA.  In any case, it's a fun adventure and a new take on an old story.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Marvin the Magician

One of the courses I'm taking this semester is on teaching writing. As part of the class we spend a good deal of time writing in response to various prompts. The prompt for our last class gave us random characters, setting, conflict, etc that we were to work into a story. I had a lot of fun with my story but was unable to finish it in class so I'm finishing it here. Please tell me what you think because I know the story needs work and I'd like to make it better. Enjoy!

Marvin had never been a very good magician. He could make lovely herbal teas, cure mild cases of the sniffles, and clear itchy rashes, but he couldn't do anything impressive like the other apprenticed wizards. He couldn't make himself invisible, fight dragons, or even vanish small objects. Once he thought he might have managed to enchant a dog, but it turns out the dog had been able to talk all along.

So in his room in the highest tower of the Wizard Academy Marvin slammed his spell book shut, sighed, and slumped over to the window. On fine days, the other students zipped around, weaving through the castle towers on brooms, rugs, carpets, and the occasional mop they had enchanted to fly. But as this day threatened rain, most students were inside studying, as Marvin was supposed to be doing. His book on the table had been open to the summoning spell. Small balls sat in various parts of the room waiting to be summoned, but as yet, not one had even twitched. The talking dog, which had taken a liking to him, lay dozing at the foot of his bed.

"Why did I even come to the Academy?” Marvin thought as he stared out at the mountains. This was his third year of apprenticeship, but no amount of tutoring or studying seemed to be doing him any good. Once, he had grand dreams of guiding young heroes on quests and saving entire towns from natural disasters; now, he would be happy if he could just conjure objects out of thin air.

Out the corner of his eye, Marvin noticed a knight speeding up from the countryside on his horse and riding toward the castle. Marvin, happy to be distracted from his present course of moping, tossed one of the summoning balls at the dog. "Come over here and look at this."

The dog stretched and lazily trotted over to the window just as the knight arrived in the castle courtyard. Poking his head out, he yawned and then remarked, "He looks a mess." Indeed he did. The knight was covered in festering, red boils—discernible even from the height of Marvin’s tower; and dirty, white feathers were stuck in his armor—some coming loose, drifting down, and making the horse sneeze. He gesticulated wildly, obviously explaining what had befallen him to the gathering crowd.

Marvin knew he was missing out on something exciting, so he turned from the window and started running down the tower's spiral stairs with the dog following close behind. For at least the thousandth time, Marvin wished he had figured out how to work the teleportation spell or even the levitation spell so he could float down from the tower to the courtyard instead of going down each of the 1,469 stairs in his tower. Who assigned him to the top room anyways?

Fifteen minutes later Marvin arrived in the courtyard out of breath, just in time to hear the knight finish what must have been a thrilling tale. "And with one last mighty stroke I slew the feathery beast. But despite my triumph, I am left forever scarred," he said, ingratiating at his boils.

The other students looked on with mixtures of concern and admiration as Marvin tried to put together what had happened. The headmaster led the knight into the castle and the crowd followed, leaving the Marvin, the dog, and the horse forgotten in the courtyard. "It really is remarkable," Marvin thought, "how many of these knights forget about their horses. What do they do when they're off questing?"

Marvin and the dog led the tired beast to the stables. As the dog and horse got acquainted (the horse’s name was Samson and the dog was just called dog), Marvin gathered some oats, pulled off the saddle, and started brushing the horse down. "He says he has an itch just to the right of your hand," said the dog, "and he has feathers stuck to his underbelly.” Marvin brushed the horse's itchy spot as the dog translated the horse's version of his knight's quest. Marvin obtained his most reliable information through animals; they were often the only way he could dig out the truth of knightly quests from beneath the mountain of exaggeration. He adopted this practice after resigning himself to the fact that, living in the top tower, he would always arrive too late to hear the original story before it was embellished beyond all recognition. It turns out that after passing through town after town whose dragons had already been defeated, this knight had to settle for fighting a giant fire-breathing chicken harassing a group of shepherds. It was certainly a unique feat, but his victory was made far less impressive by the chicken's lack of protective scales, horns, or talons.

"He says his master has been unusually fidgety since fighting the giant chicken; he constantly scratches at his boils and has nearly fallen from the saddle at least twice trying to reach an itch the middle of his back," said the dog.

"Maybe he caught something. It's been rather cold lately."

"That's what you get from gallivanting out in the wild instead of staying sensibly at home with warm food and a warm bed," the dog said as he curled up in the hay to take another nap. The horse whinnied in obvious agreement. Had the dog still been awake, he could have translated the horse's grumblings about cold, rainy nights; dry, sparse grass; and an endless series of quests.

After Marvin finished grooming the horse, he headed into the Great Hall where a feast was sure to be in progress for the gallant knight. Knights dropping in without notice may cause distress to the kitchen staff of other castles, but as the Academy kitchens could magic food out of thin air at a moment's notice, the Academy was fond of throwing feasts for even the weary shepherds who stopped a night in the castle. On the way to the Great Hall, Marvin passed the infirmary, which had a habit of relocating itself to where it was most needed: the first floor to mop up a fallen flier; the fourth floor labs to put out a burning student after an exploded potion; or, in this case, the corridor closest to the dining hall so the knight could continue his tale and his meal uninterrupted while his wounds were tended. The infirmary was less crowded than the courtyard had been, a particularly decadent floating cake having drawn away many once eager listeners, so Marvin slipped in to hear the knight's version of his tale, which involved a fiery, feathered dragon instead of a chicken. The knight was still covered in boils and two castle healers stood in the corner poring over their medical texts, supposedly looking for dragon-related maladies. As the knight reached up to scratch a blister on the back of his neck, Marvin realized something.

"You have chicken pox!" he exclaimed. All eyes turned toward him and Marvin realized he had spoken his conclusion aloud, interrupting the knight's tale.

"That's preposterous," sputtered the knight. "I haven't been within a mile of chicken in years. Annoying squawking things!"

Ignoring the knight, Marvin pulled from the shelf a book on common ailments and flipped to "C". "Red rash, blisters, fever, even irritability. It all matches."

"I'm not irritable! And I haven't come near a chicken in..."

"Yes you are and yes you have. Just ask your horse." Marvin left it to the other apprentices to fact-check with the horse. Reading quickly through the book’s recommended treatment for chicken pox, Marvin mixed up the proper healing potion and shoved it into the knights' hands. It tasted far more like Marvin's mint teas than a typical healing potion, but it seemed to do the job. The knights boils cleared, his fever broke, and the healers invited Marvin to study with them instead of the wizard's general course of study.

The next day, the horse, for having betrayed and soiled his master's name, was sentenced to life on a farm near the Academy. He spent the rest of his days munching oats and sleeping in a warm, dry barn stall. The knight continued to affirm that he had been afflicted with something far more deadly and impressive than mere chicken pox. The dog kept on in his established habits of sleeping on Marvin's bed and sneaking the best scraps from the kitchen. Marvin did not become a great magician overnight. In fact, he never mastered the summoning, teleportation, conjuring, or other impressive, flashy spells. Instead, he spent his time in the infirmary learning cures for various magical maladies and patching up the other apprentices when they botched a new spell in a particularly explosive manner. He, of course, had an ample number of subjects to practice on.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Old Guys and Phone Calls

So, I work in a call center for on-campus housing.  All day I get to sit and answer the same boring questions again and again when the answers can all be found online and listen to people complain about where they're contracted to live and work out the mess of their student financial accounts.  


Okay, so that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it does get tiresome occasionally.  After a string of boring or difficult calls I love getting a caller who is not just polite, but appreciative; the little ladies who say, "Oh, thank you.  You're so helpful" just brighten my day.

This past Friday, the end of the work day leading up to a three day weekend, I took a call from the nicest man ever.  All he wanted was his son's mailing address, but we kept talking about what BYU was like when he was here (tuition was less than $200 a semester), how the book of Psalms would be more poetic if we all spoke Hebrew, Elder Holland's Conference talk from a few years ago about the atonement, Psalms 22, and prophecies about the atonement.  This gentleman sounded a bit older and he said he didn't get out much, so we just talked for fifteen minutes or so about things that had nothing to do with housing.  

He made my day.  It was such a pleasant conversation.  He reminded me that callers are real people.


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