Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Scorch Trial, James Dashner

Title:  The Scorch Trials
Author:  James Dashner
Publisher:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year:  2010
Pages:  360
Genre:  Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes:  Survival
Age Range:  6th Grade and Up

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Solving the Maze was supposed to be the end. No more puzzles. No more variables. And no more running. Thomas was sure that escape meant he and the Gladers would get their lives back. But no one really knew what sort of life they were going back to...
 Burned by sun flares and baked by a new, brutal climate, the earth is a wasteland. Government has disintegrated—and with it, order—and now Cranks, people covered in festering wounds and driven to murderous insanity by the infectious disease known as the Flare, roam the crumbling cities hunting for their next victim . . . and meal.
The Gladers are far from finished with running. Instead of freedom, they find themselves faced with another trial. They must cross the Scorch, the most burned-out section of the world, and arrive at a safe haven in two weeks. And WICKED has made sure to adjust the variables and stack the odds against them.

The second book in this series reads and feels very similar to the first.  Thomas and the other Gladers soon discover that getting out of the Maze was only the first step in survival.  WICKED, the shadowy organization that set up the trials, is not done with them yet.  And if the first book was violent, the second takes that violence up a notch.  Violent lightning storms literally blow people's limbs off, deranged sufferers of the Flare sound a lot like the walkers from The Walking Dead, and we once again have hideous monsters created by WICKED to force the young people to fight or die.  While it all seems very sinister, there are constant reminders throughout the book that the trials are supposed to be a good thing; that they are weeding out the weakest to find the future leaders to save the planet.  But no pressure or anything...

As an adult reader I found the increase in tension and intensity in the plot enjoyable, but it may be too much for readers on the bottom end of the readability band for this book.  However, it does bring up all od the same rich topics for discussion as most other high-quality dystopian fiction.  Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?  What responsibility does each of us carry for our fellow humanity?  Is it acceptable to subject people to violence-physical or psychological-in the service of the greater good?  I think this series would make a good choice for a book club discussions in a school or library setting, especially in middle school or early in high school.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool

Title:  Navigating Early
Author:  Clare Vanderpool
Publisher:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year:  2013
Pages:  320
Genre:  Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Loss, Family, Coming of Age
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)

At the end of World War II, Jack Baker, a landlocked Kansas boy, is suddenly uprooted after his mother’s death and placed in a boy’s boarding school in Maine. There, Jack encounters Early Auden, the strangest of boys, who reads the number pi as a story and collects clippings about the sightings of a great black bear in the nearby mountains.

Newcomer Jack feels lost yet can’t help being drawn to Early, who won’t believe what everyone accepts to be the truth about the Great Appalachian Bear, Timber Rattlesnakes, and the legendary school hero known as The Fish, who never returned from the war. When the boys find themselves unexpectedly alone at school, they embark on a quest on the Appalachian Trail in search of the great black bear.

But what they are searching for is sometimes different from what they find. They will meet truly strange characters, each of whom figures into the pi story Early weaves as they travel, while discovering things they never realized about themselves and others in their lives

This newest novel from Newbery Award-winning author Clare Vanderpool is another beautiful example of how historical fiction can show us not just how things used to be, but how they still are.  Jack and Early may have lived in 1940s Maine, but the grief that each of them feels, and the journey they take to find their footing again in a world suddenly turned upside down, is timeless and universal.  Vanderpool has included some elements of magical realism within the story-not so much actual magic, but coincidences and fantastic events that give the whole story the feeling of myth.  The story alternates between the real-life story of Jack and Early's adventure, and the story of Pi that Early claims to see in the numbers.  It becomes clear to the reader as time goes on that Early is making his story reflect the journey that he hopes his brother has taken-one from the familiar to the unknown, from knowing his place in the world to feeling lost in the depths.  The characterization and narrative structure are good for discussion, and students who are older or more mature may see parallels between Navigating Early and other stories that have heroic quests, which can lead to comparing and contrasting texts.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Always War, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Title:  The Always War
Author:  Margaret Peterson Haddix
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Year:  2011
Pages:  256
Genre:  Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes:  War, Fear, Society
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Fifteen year old Tess has always lived in a world of war.  The war that her country is fighting has been going on for over 75 years, and there appears to be no end in sight.  The war has led to shortages of everything, and so many decades of living in a constant state of deprivation has led the people to be depressed and hopeless.  The only bright spot is the occasional ceremony honoring a citizen of their community as a war hero.  But the ceremony for Tess' childhood friend Gideon does not go as planned.  When they attempt to give Gideon his medal, he freaks out, insisting that what he did does not deserve anything but scorn.  Soon, Gideon disappears, and the once bright future that awaited him is replaced with constant surveillance by the government for his "mental" problems.  Tess is sure that something else is going on, and when he escapes into the night, she follows.  Soon she finds herself on a plane, flying into enemy territory.  Gideon is looking for redemption, and the only way he can see to get it is to admit his wrongdoing to the very people he hurt-the enemy.  But what Tess, Gideon, and a young stowaway named Dek discover when they reach enemy territory calls into question everything they thought they knew about the 75 year long war.

As usual Haddix does an excellent job creating a dystopian society.  Like in her Shadow Children series, there is a sense of desperation and despair that just cries out for someone to do something to make a change.  The Always War also has elements of Ender's Game in it, in that the people "fighting" the war are doing it remotely, without having to see the results of the bombs they drop.  Unlike Ender's Game, however, the young "pilots" in this war know that they are fighting a real enemy-but are they?  Haddix also threw in a little bit of "War Games", that classic Matthew Broderick movie of the 80s, by creating a sentient computer that calculates the odds of winning the war.

For the first 80% of the book I was sure that this was the beginning of another series.  The story moved along at a decent clip, but there were still so many things that needed to be resolved that I was sure that there were a couple more books in the works.  Then, in the last 25 pages or so of the book, it appears that everything gets resolved very quickly-and not terribly satisfactorily, if truth be told.  After spending so many pages describing the wartime society that Tess lived in, and then describing in great detail the journey that the young people took, the resolution seemed to happen in a flash.  The big reveal about the war was not a surprise, but once it was done the war ended and the people accepted it in a flash, something that just did not feel very realistic.  It might seem strange to use that word to describe a story about a supercomputer that pretends to fight a war so that humanity doesn't annihilate itself, but until the very end I was totally caught up in my own suspension of disbelief.

That said, there are a lot of good things that can be pulled from the story for discussion.  Turns out the war was about water-that is a very timely topic.  Also, the way that citizens were encouraged to sacrifice their joy and hope for the war effort is also something that has parallels in both our recent and not-so-recent past.  If you are a Haddix fan, then this is a book that you should read, just for the sake of being able to put it in the context of her other work.  If you've never read Haddix before, I suggest you start with Running Out of Time, or Among the Hidden, or Found before trying this one.