Monday, October 27, 2014

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Maze Runner by James Dashner is yet another dystopian young adult novel in which teenagers, in this case a group of boys, find themselves in an untenable situation, only not all of the boys seem to mind.  When Thomas, the protagonist, wakes up in the Glade, his memory mostly erased, he tries to make sense of the situation in which he finds himself.  The Glade is the center of a maze which changes every night.  Every morning, a group of boys go out to see if they can find a means of escape. 

Within this dystopian setting, there is a seemingly utopian perfection where each boy’s role within the community is determined by his innate skills.  Everyone has a purpose and even the weather seems accommodating, allowing some of the boys to even sleep outside.  Once a week, new supplies arrive.  Every month, a new boy is added to the community.  But when Thomas arrives, things begin to change.  And the other boys begin to distrust him even as Thomas himself begins doubting his own memories, or lack thereof.

The novel is relentless.  The moment you enter the story with Thomas waking up, you can’t help but feel the same confusion he feels.  Who was he before he arrived at the Glade?  How did he get there? Why is he there?  Why does one boy recognize him?  How can they solve the mystery of the maze that keeps them all trapped where they are?  And why do things begin to change when he arrives?  All of these questions not only drive the story but Thomas himself. 

Most of the characters are not very layered but, when you think about how limited their experience is, it is hard to begrudge the author for not developing everyone more fully.  After all, how faceted can characters be when they have only two years, at most, of solid memories to define them?  Yet, the characters are differentiated enough that they don’t become confused with one another.  There is the mentor character, the best-friend, the antagonist bully, and a few others to give a sense of how large the small community truly is. 

Reading this novel is like trying to keep up with a runaway train.  It’s nearly impossible to put down.  There is one turning point in the plot that is significant and is, unfortunately one pivotal plot twist is spoiled in the trailer for the movie. This really disappointed me because I loathe spoilers.   So if you haven’t seen the movie trailer and plan on reading the book, don’t watch the trailer until after reading the book.  I look forward to seeing the movie.  Given the tense breathless pace of the story, I’ve no doubt it’s an edge-of-your-seat film.  

Thank you to my son Marc for the recommendation!   

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Christmas Light by Donna VanLiere

The following is a two-part review. I wrote one, objective review, trying to put myself in the mindset of a reader who enjoys and even appreciates romance novels.  I have seen Donna VanLiere’s novels in bookstores and, based on how many there are, I assumed she is successful and, therefore, exemplary of the best this genre has to offer.  I also went for a holiday romance novel because I don’t mind sentimentality or contrived happy endings quite so much when they are paired with Christmas. 

However, as I was reading, there were things that I found frustrating and, if I were not trying to read through a filter, I would have written a completely different book review.  As a result, I am going to share two reviews.  For those who enjoy romance novels, and especially holiday romance novels, the first book review is for you.  If, however, you typically avoid romance novels for whatever reason, the second book review is for you.

Book Review 1

The Christmas Light by Donna VanLiere is the type of novel I normally avoid but toward which I find myself lured time and time again. I am not overly fond of romances but, I concede, something about Christmas makes me more inclined to enjoy a little romance with a happy ending. VanLiere has published ten books already; this is her eleventh. I felt that, if I were going to give this Holiday Romance genre another try, why not do it with someone who has obviously made something of a success writing these novels.

VanLiere packs a lot of plot into a very few pages and reading the blurb leaves few surprises about how things will end “happily ever after.” You have a pair of single parents—a woman and a man—with daughters of the same age. You have a pregnant teenager. You have a couple who are ready to “start a family.” All five are brought together, through the relentless force of some older matriarchs enlisted to help with their local church’s Nativity production. Add a few coincidences and happenstances and you have a potentially best-selling holiday romance novel.

Predictable? Yes. Without a doubt. Romance novels are designed to pull the characters together so that there is the promise of bliss, especially of the marital kind. VanLiere masterfully manages to pull together a lot of disparate threads and wrap them up in a nice little bow by the book’s end. The characters are occasionally cliché (and the dialogue sometimes trite) but they are, for the most part, likeable. There are some moments of unnecessary head-hopping but I doubt most readers will notice or especially care. (A good editor could have and should have caught these and helped the author revise accordingly.)

Overall an adequate bit of confection that is meant to enchant rather than endure.

Book Review 2

I love the holidays, especially Christmas, and this is the one time of year when I don’t especially mind the things I usually find sentimental, happy endings acceptable, even tolerable. I even love holiday movies where quirky families manage to come together over hot chocolate and gather under decorated trees and true love conquers all.

After seeing so many copies of books by Donna VanLiere at the local bookstore, I thought I’d give her latest holiday romance novel a chance.  Which is how I ended up reading The Christmas Light.  Just reading the blurb, of course, made it easy to see where things would go.  Single parents, Jennifer and Ryan, are bound to meet one another and fall in love.  Lily and Steven are ready to start a family but you know that they can’t have a child of their own even before you read the first page.  And of course Kaylee is, no surprise, pregnant. 

Really, when you read things like this, you have to know the ending and the question is how the writer will tie up the many loose threads.  Credit due, VanLiere does manage to tie all these loose strands together by the novel’s end.  Of course, there are some dues ex machina moments, perfectly suited to a novel whose target audience is Christian.  When I chose the book, however, it was not listed as a Christian one but a spiritual one and, silly me, I actually considered it might not be blatantly Christian.  Yes, I thought this even though the thing that brings these disparate characters together is the local church’s Nativity performance.

Which brings me to the first bit of confusion because, for whatever, reason, this church not only needs someone to direct the show but they have to build the sets and sew the costumes.  This contrivance is an excuse to drag the characters together but it seems to me that, given that the church has done Nativity performances in the past, they would have some resources on hand.  Okay, maybe costumes would have to be repaired or resized. And maybe an object or two would be added to the set.  But these people are all starting from scratch, creating costumes for everyone, even building a manger.  I mean, c’mon.  That doesn’t really make sense.

There are some serious point-of-view problems with the author head hopping between characters in a single scene, sometimes even in a single moment.  For example, early in the novel we are inside of Jennifer’s thoughts, feelings, experiences.  But when she and her daughter are buying a Christmas tree, there is a paragraph when the reader is suddenly dumped into Avery’s thoughts and, in the very next paragraph we are back with Jennifer.  This is the sort of thing a good editor should have pointed out and encouraged the author to revise.  Although some of the head hopping lasts more than a single paragraph, there is never a smooth transition between points-of-view when they occur.  I stopped each time to reread the section and could easily see ways to still give the reader any necessary information without sacrificing the logical flow of the writing.  I don’t understand how, in revision, things like this are not corrected.  But I suppose, when you have a reading audience that doesn’t know any better or necessarily care, an author doesn’t have a reason to make such changes.

The characters are all fairly predictable. There are no surprises, really, and some characters, although they are pivotal, really become more than two-dimensional.  Fact is, I would argue that all of the characters are as flat as the pages they fill.  Worse, they are cliché, especially Miriam and Gloria, the older characters who draw the younger ones together.  Miriam is refined and mostly all business while Gloria is the warmer of the two, inviting Jennifer to not only help with the sewing but even inviting her into her home when she herself is not there.  Of course, this is a contrived opportunity on the author’s part to bring Ryan and Jennifer together again.   

Naturally, there is a happy ending and I suppose it is satisfying but, since none of the characters really stand out as unique, their happiness is forgettable.  I consider this novel a confection, the type of reading that offers nothing substantial or especially enlightening.  Even the heavy-handed religious passages are not inspired.  Or maybe I just find such bludgeoning an insult to the reader’s ability to draw their own spiritual value from the writing, the sign of an author who, in my mind, doesn’t trust herself, her writing, or her reader.  Perhaps in VanLiere’s case, it’s all of the above.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

Falling Into Grace by Adyashanti

Falling Into Grace: Insights on the End of Suffering by Adyashanti is a spiritual-based book that doesn’t overly weigh in on a concept of a deity, although God and Spirit are mentioned.  The focus of the first part of the book is on suffering, interpreted and reframing more familiar Buddhist thought.  Instead of “the Wheel of Suffering” the author prefers “the Vortex of Suffering.” 

So much of what Adyashanti writes has been said before.  The author is often redundant, repeating ideas occasionally verbatim.  And anyone familiar with either Buddhist and/or Yogic philosophy will be covering familiar territory.  Which makes sense.  At the beginning of the book, the author explains that he is not trying to present any unique teachings.  Rather, it is his intention to get back to basics because “it is the fundamentals of the teaching that are the most impactful” (ix).

The emphasis throughout is on his experience and his teachings with only a few quotes from others included.  None of the quotes are specifically cited so when he says Krishnamurti says something or John of the Cross, you pretty much have to take him at his word.   This becomes problematic when he writes something like the following:
I heard a great physicist on a radio program just a few weeks ago, and he said something quite amazing for a scientist:  “You know, even in quantum mechanics, our theories don’t really tell us what’s true and what’s real.  They just explain the behaviors of things.  They’re symbols for reality.  They’re not really real.”  I was amazed!  Here’s a scientist, who spends his whole life attempting to make clear and precise concepts, and what he’s saying is none of those concepts, none of those formulas, are ultimately real.  (84)
To be fair, he isn’t going so far as to suggest that this physicist talking about quantum mechanics is proving some spiritual truth like some other authors are prone to do.  Rather, he is drawing his own inspiration from the statement to find personal meaning and relevance.

Unfortunately, as any careful reader can tell you, a text taken out of context is meaningless.  By not naming the scientist, the radio program, let alone specifically citing both of these resources, the reader is not given the opportunity to explore the meaning as the scientist himself meant for it to be understood.   I tried to look up the quote for this and another from a so-called “great Christian mystic” (88) and both quotes took me to the same primary source:  the author’s book.  In other words, there is no transcript of the radio program available and, for all we know, the author paraphrased or even rephrased what the physicist was saying.  And history is rife with “great” mystics who proved to be psychotic and manipulative and one person’s spiritual leader is another person’s manipulative Rasputin/Manson/Jim Jones. 

Over all, the book is good, not great.  Perhaps a beginning seeker who is ready to go a little deeper will find something profound or the more mature seeker who feels a little lost along the spiritual path.  And, perhaps, I was not the intended audience for this book.  I’ve seen these profound truths presented before in equally accessible forms and by teachers who take the time to specifically cite their sources.  I prefer read those for, after all, the Buddha is said to have warned his students not to believe his teachings. The only problem is, there’s no reliable source for that claim either which is why I say and continue to argue that citing quotes, research, and other resources is essential for ensuring the full exploration and appreciation of any topic even when it is a fundamental teaching, as Adyashanti presents here.
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