The Maze Runner (Book 1) – By James Dashner

Dystopian, Romance, Sci-Fi

The premise of The Maze Runner is complicated, but well-established: Thomas wakes up in a dark elevator, which eventually opens in a courtyard with dozens of teenage boys staring accusingly at him. He can’t remember his former life or why he was there, and is utterly confused about the other boys’ acceptance of their adversity. Even more perplexing is his innate attraction to becoming a runner – a dangerous job that involves running around The Maze to map it, in the hopes of finding an escape from their predicament. When Gally takes an instant dislike to Thomas, claiming he had seen him before, the others become suspicious and start to question the new boy’s innocence; as uncertainty and unrest propagate, blame is laid on Thomas, who many see as the trigger, the root of all their problems.

After seeing the film (shamefully, I often see the film before I read the book when it comes to YA), I was worried I’d find the book boring. But, although it took away from the suspense, I enjoyed it nonetheless – the plot and setting are what really made it. Dashner’s extensive ‘world-building’ and engrossing plot kept me reading when I otherwise would have given up long before – because apart from these attributes, it wasn’t a great book. Concise chapters are employed to maintain interest and anticipation, which, although effective, become tiresome and often feel forced. Additionally, suspense is sometimes unnecessarily (and clumsily) re-built at the end of a chapter:

“And then something rounded the corner… Something unspeakable. A Griever.”

Suspense had already been built – and with more skill – earlier on when the Grievers (fictional mechanical monsters) were approaching; Dashner’s by now familiar two-word sentences were redundant, even injurious. Apart from Thomas, who is somewhat credible and interesting, and offers an insight into a typical teenage boy’s mind, the characters are largely two-dimensional, underdeveloped and cliche: there isn’t enough opportunity for Teresa to be fleshed out, and I found sympathising with Chuck difficult because of his personality’s lack of substance and appeal.

As a whole, The Maze Runner has a great, engrossing plot and intriguing setting, but is clunkily (see what I did there? – you’ll know what i’m referencing if you’ve read it) written. For someone like me who enjoys character- over plot-driven books, it’s disappointing. However, I think you’d enjoy it if you like Hunger Games-esque books and a lightning-fast pace.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAA (4)

Pace: Fast

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A Window into the Privileged of London: A Week in December – by Sebastian Faulks

Romance, Tragicomedy

A Week in December is a window into the lives of London’s wealthy. It’s narrated by diverse people connected, directly or through mutual friends, by a dinner party; they’re chosen by the host, socialite Sophie Topping, to reflect well on her husband, the newest Conservative MP Lance Topping. Of the list, a handful at most are not millionaires – including unsuccessful barrister Gabriel Northwood and cynical, bitter book reviewer R. Tranter. The rest are a familiar mix of obnoxious businessmen and their skinny wives, a repugnant TV magnate and a surprisingly endearing Polish footballer who is new to the country. As they go about their daily lives, they emulate the ‘spirit’ of the city, with many of them questioning (or unintentionally urging the reader to question) the lack of purpose in their existences. Although many of these people are not kind or likeable, they’re intriguing; I wanted to know what would happen, what decisions they’d make. More than anything, many of them seem like real people, reminding me of people I know or know of.

I suppose this sensation, along with my new-found cynicism of hedge-funds, is unsurprising; I’m expected to challenge our society and its materialism after finishing Faulks’ satirical, aspiring ‘state of the nation’ novel. Many of Faulks’ characters are stereotypical wealthy Londoners: egotistical, self-important and money-obsessed. I deduce that the ‘moral’ of the book is that, despite their privilege, their lives aren’t happy. No amount of money or insincere socialising can give a life substance or enjoyment. Near the end of the book, during the dinner party, minor character Roger Malpasse drunkenly berates Veals for the ruthless and underhanded practices of the Financial industry, his rant highlighting the pinnacle of Veals’ disgusting personality, demonstrated in hid unrelenting mission to bring down a major bank – and a load of African farmers with it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Hassam al-Rashid, who is a jihad-in-training and son of entrepreneur  Farooq al-Rashid (an invitee of the Topping’s party). In Hassam’s sections of the novel, he broods on the Kafir (consumerist, irreligious) world and its disgusting ways, viewing his terrorist activities as an ever-important mission from God, an escape from impiety. Although I enjoyed his character as a change from the others and an insight into a world I know nothing about, I didn’t find him wholly convincing.

Their cynical, circumspect voices work as within an orchestra to render life in London and its diversity. Many of them are realistic, interesting and even likeable, but there were also some that were unpleasant and desperately boring – in particular, Veals, who gives a shameful face to his business and, most disappointingly, doesn’t change at all during the book. I’m sure he is intended to disappoint, representing everything wrong about the rich of London and their inauthentic means of earning money, but I couldn’t help finding him plain annoying – especially his monotonous descriptions of financial deals.

At times, sentences read disjointedly due to their length and uninteresting subject content, and I wasn’t always compelled to pick the book up. However, after about half way, I started to enjoy it more as I became more hooked into the ‘plot’ (although loose). Overall, A Week in December is a good-quality, well-written book – an interesting commentary on life in London. I can’t, however, guarantee it for ‘grip’ or sustained interest. If you like The Casual Vacancy, or perhaps Ian McEwan’s books, then you’ll love it.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Another Hunger Games? The Selected – by Kiera Cass

Dystopian, Romance

The Selected, a dystopian YA romance, sounds anything but unique. Lovable, grounded female lead? Check. Two attractive love interests? Check. A protagonist who gains fame and opportunity by chance, yet wants neither? Check. Its similarities with The Hunger Games are unnumbered – I felt like I’d read parts of it before. Yet despite all of these things, I powered through it at break-neck speed: I was desperate to know what would happen, even though the plot was fairly predictable; I couldn’t help myself loving it, sucked into the fandom like so many others.

Set in the future United States, The Selection is about America, who works as a musician, born into a family of artists with low social status. The book opens soon after a notice has been sent out to the teenaged girls of Illéa (their country), inviting them to sign up to a competition, the Selection, in the hopes of winning the heart of Prince Maxon, and being made his wife and Queen. 35 girls are chosen – ostensibly randomly – to live in the palace, where they will meet the prince and train to become a member of the aristocracy. However, America might be the only girl in the country who has no interest in being one of the Selected – in fact, it’s her worst nightmare, because it would mean leaving her secret love Aspen; after a series of unexpected events, she meets Prince Maxon, and all of her certainties disintegrate.

I’ll be the first to admit that the book doesn’t sound especially promising from the synopsis, and there’s no question that the plot is often predictable, and the characters two-dimensional. As I’ve said, the book definitely has its problems, but – not to be condescending – you kind of expect these things from a YA book. As I approached it with such low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised: the characters were more realistic, the plot was more interesting, and the setting better established than I had hoped; what really made the book was that it exceeded my expectations. So what if it’s not the next War & Peace? It’s not meant to be! It’s a fun, enjoyable YA book that offers an entertaining, easy-to-relate-to escape from life; it does its job well!

Regarding its likeness to The Hunger Games, it’s important to point out that, although the worlds and plots are alike, they are portrayed in different lights and from contrasting perspectives. America isn’t looking to lead a rebellion – in fact, she fears the rebels and is perplexed as to what they’re angry about (despite being a slave to the country’s merciless caste system). Unlike the famed Katniss, The Selection‘s protagonist is only interested in love, and perhaps charity – they’re all she knows.

I commend this book to anyone who loves a good dystopian YA, especially The Hunger Games – but with plenty of romance and no gruesome fighting. It’s short, fairly fast-paced and very easy to read; I don’t suggest it to those who don’t like YA books, or those which are ‘plot-based’ (rather than ‘writing-based’: merited for their good writing, not an interesting plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Fast

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A new take on the teen-cancer novel: Side Effects May Vary – By Julie Murphy

Romance

Side Effects May Vary is about Alice, a teenage girl who is diagnosed with cancer. Knowing that she is going to die soon, she feels free to do whatever she wants, unburdened from the threat of her actions’ consequences. Consequently, she resolves to complete a bucket list, which includes performing an unexpected act of kindness and seeking revenge against people who have wronged her. She enlists childhood friend and persistent admirer Harvey for help, who reluctantly obliges, driven by the prospect of spending time with her. Fully aware of his this, Alice manipulates him into doing things for her; although Harvey is semi-conscious of this, he doesn’t care – he’s in love. Alice suppresses her true feelings for him, fearing the temporary, short-term nature of her life and succumbing to the effect this has on her decisions.

Moreover, Alice isn’t your typical cancer patient/survivor: unlike so many idealistic, exceptionally talented or love-obsessed YA characters, she is unbelievably pessimistic, self-absorbed and manipulative. She hates many of those around her, and mistreats the people that care about her. It comes as a big, not entirely pleasant shock for her when she goes into remission, as she must face up to everything she’s done, as well as figuring out her relationship with Harvey. Alternating chapters are set ‘Then’ (when Alice had cancer) and ‘Now’ (after she went into remission), with both Alice and Harvey narrating. Although officially the novel is about Alice’s bucket list and its effects, the majority follows Alice and Harvey’s complicated, ever-changing relationship.

This book is a quick, easy read, and a welcome relief from the heavier books I had been reading. I stayed interested in the story the whole way through, partly because of the suspense and interest that the unique structure brought to the novel (although at times they confused the plot), but also because it was simply enjoyable to read. It wasn’t particularly cringeworthy or unrealistic, despite its somewhat simplistic plot. It was well-written (for a YA book) – I can say this not because I noticed it, but because I didn’t: it wasn’t irritating or clunky, or even noteworthy at all, but it did its job by remaining unnoticeable, letting the plot take centre stage. This often happens in YA literature, or at least is aspired towards – and I think Murphy achieved it. 

However, there were also some issues with Side Effects May Vary: firstly, many of the characters were two-dimensional. Although this is kind of understandable for secondary characters like Deborah, it’s not sufficient with the protagonist – much of Alice’s hatred and pessimism was left unexplained, and was therefore unconvincing. Secondly, as many people have found, I grew tired of Alice and her ‘spontaneous’, egotistical and sometimes gratuitous ways. The way she treated Harvey was awful, and it was frustrating that he put up with it for so long. Finally, the ending, although effective, was unsatisfying; the book didn’t feel finished. It was a really good part of the plot, but would have been better if it wasn’t the ending – perhaps the book would have benefitted from being longer, with more time on the end of the plot.

You would enjoy this book if you’re looking for a good-quality (although not exceptional or mind-blowing) YA book: it’s short, light and easy to read, with a relatively unsophisticated plot. It’s also interesting as an insight into life with a terminal illness, and its effect on one’s thoughts and decisions.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Medium

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Far from the Madding Crowd – By Thomas Hardy

Classic Literature, Romance

This book is about how the lives of four people – Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene, William Boldwood and Frank Troy – with different backgrounds and aspirations intertwine, charting their relationships through different circumstances.

I have never felt so relieved to have finished a book – Far from the Madding Crowd is ‘thick’ and heavy, despite its short length. Although it isn’t too slow-paced, or wordy, I struggled to maintain an interest in it. The cause of its insipidity is its topic: despite the beautiful romantic story suggested by the blurb, this book is about everyday life, and love, in rural England. Bathsheba Everdene, the centre of so much attention, has ordinary thoughts and feelings, most of which are self-absorbed. Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer – and my favourite of Bathsheba’s ‘suitors’ (or hopeful admirers) – is humble and understated in the way he lives his life. The only characters that seem somewhat fantastical come to their tragic ends through the course of the story. Perhaps this suggests the underrated value in living an ordinary, honourable life – sometimes, the most safe, boring option is the one that will make you happiest.

I felt compelled to read this book, knowing it to be a largely beloved classic; there is something distinctly rewarding in reading a ‘respected’ book, despite this being a poor reason for reading one. Nevertheless, I started it, determined not only to read it, but enjoy it. But frankly, I was disappointed: I tried to like it, but as I wasn’t gripped, I found it hard to pick up. I forced myself to read a couple pages every day, ploughing through it slowly and reluctantly. It wasn’t until the end that I finally began to enjoy it, when the plot gained momentum and exciting events occurred in succession. If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t recommend the book at all: more than once, I came close to putting it down.

Far from the Madding Crowd is Marmite: some rave about it, whilst others think it tedious. I’m not sure which I fit under – I found a lot of it hard-going, but by the end wished I had savoured it. Overall, it’s a great, well-written book, but must be read with patience: eventually, it is rewarding. It’s good for people who like old classics for their language and history, but don’t want too long a book (and don’t mind a drawn-out, sometimes monotonous plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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A Summer Paradise: We Were Liars – By E. Lockhart

Fictional Memoir, Romance

We Were Liars is about the Sinclairs, an ideal WASPy family: the patriarch, his three daughters, and their families. In summers, the clan retreats to its private island off Martha’s Vineyard. We’re told that ‘no one is a criminal’, ‘addict’ or ‘failure’ in the family; that they’re all athletic, tall and handsome, with their wide smiles and square chins. The narrator, Cadence Sinclair, is the eldest grandchild; she’s sick of being forced to act ‘normal’ and composed, and feels – along with her contemporaries on the island – that the family focuses too much on money and competition.

We Were Liars is a readable, intriguing YA novel; it’s fairly well-written, and is based on an interesting story, which many readers will relate to. At times, I felt the plot was unrealistic; however, I don’t feel this took away from the quality of the book. The narrator’s wry, intelligent voice, characteristic to so many YA books is entertaining, although sometimes tedious. The only aspect of the book that made me cringe slightly was the sweet but annoying voice of Gat, always pondering morality in a naive and condescending way.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you are looking for a solid, good-quality YA book – but don’t expect much of it as an adult book. It’s funny, well-executed and has a clever ending that you won’t expect.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Medium

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog – By Muriel Barbery

Romance

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about the inhabitants of an affluent Parisian apartment building. Its split narrative is from the perspectives of a secretly intelligent and well-read concierge, and a twelve-year-old girl who plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. They seem to lack passion and happiness, until a new arrival to the building breathes new hope into their lives.

Up to the middle of the book, I had come close to putting it down a few times. It’s pretentious and aloof, and despite proclaiming that its narrators are highly intelligent, it lacks proof of this. It’s unnecessarily wordy and full of itself; every other page seems to have a block of text describing a pretentious thought or feeling on life, which at least to me seemed either obvious, or nonsensical.

Overall, I struggled to find The Elegance of the Hedgehog’s underlying message. Perhaps I was missing something, but it seemed to me that I was meant to have been inspired by its so-called ‘Profound Thoughts’ and ‘Journal of the Movements of the World’. I didn’t find them profound, just tedious to read. However, it is heart-warming, especially as it progresses, and I couldn’t help but enjoy it. I think its sweet, romantic love story is quite irresistible.

You might enjoy this book if you like books that take a shot at being philosophical, although I think it has an absence of substance. It’s a slow, tedious read, but surprisingly rewarding near the end.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Slow

The Museum of Innocence – By Orhan Pamuk

Historical Fiction, Romance

Set in 1970s and 80s Istanbul, The Museum of Innocence recounts the life of Kemal, a wealthy heir who is infatuated with Fusun, an 18-year-old shopgirl and distant relative. He is about to become engaged to the aristocratic Sibel when he stumbles across his long-lost cousin. He soon falls in love with her, embarking on a passionate affair – involving an obsession with hoarding objects that remind him of her – that threatens to ruin his established life in Istanbul’s high society.

The beautiful intertwining of historical and social details in this book kept me fascinated until the very last page: before reading The Museum of Innocence, I knew nothing about Turkey’s contemporary history; now, I feel as if I lived through it. The intriguing, yet a little disturbing romance that blossoms between Kemal and Fusun somehow manages to last the entire 83 chapters without seeming drawn-out or tiresome to read. My visit to the actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul – crammed with an exhaustive array of curated objects from the story  –  reinforced the realism conveyed by the novel.

I would recommend this book for people who are interested in Turkey’s contemporary history, but would also like to enjoy a beautiful yet devastating love story. Some might find the pace slow, but there’s no doubt that it’s engaging.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow

The Matched Series – By Ally Condie

Dystopian, Romance

The Matched Series is a dystopian romance about Cassia, a teenage girl who lives in the Society, where the deterministic government have taken away choice and decide everything for its citizens. Cassia has always believed in the Society, and when she is matched to her best friend Xander, her belief grows ever stronger… until another face flashes on the matching screen for just a moment. Suddenly she has a choice thrust upon her. Who will she choose? Xander or Ky? The Society or rebellion?

The Matched books: Matched, Crossed and Reached, are beautifully constructed, especially Reached, because it is narrated in turn by each of the three main characters: Cassia, Xander and Ky. Perhaps you could guess which partner she will choose, as this choice has existed since The Garden of Eden, between the accepted and approved, and the illicit and forbidden. What makes this version of the famous dilemma different is the way the choice manifests why she made it.

This book is good for people who like easy-reading, dystopian books, and romantic novels. This book is not good for people who want brilliant pieces of literature, or very slow or fast-paced books. I would recommend the Matched Series for people 12 years old and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAA

Pace: Medium

Rules of Civility – By Amor Towles

Romance

Rules of Civility, set in 1938, pursues the life of Katey Kontent, an aspirational twenty-five-year-old. Brought up in Brooklyn as Katya, Katey is determined to make a better life for herself. Her wit and grace take her from a secretarial pool at a law firm to a distinguished assistant’s post at a glittering new Condé Nast magazine. The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village Jazz Bar, where Katey and her boarding-house roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a clean-cut, handsome young banker. It is Katey’s evolving relationship with Tinker that provides the core of the book and the basis of its themes: the illusion of glamour and the decadence of the wealthy, as shockingly exposed in one scene.

Rules of Civility is a Great-Gatsby-Style novel that discusses class, society and fitting in. I loved how it was grounded throughout on the theme that you can never run away from your past. Although Katey, the narrator and character at the forefront of the story, wants to be better than her past and her background, she also knows that the past will always be a part of her whether she likes it or not. Katey’s surname reflects her personality perfectly: she has content and is substantive, and she is content with herself. Although she strives for more, she is grounded, and has no self-delusions. Rules of Civility is an engaging book with appealing characters.

This book is good for people who like The Great Gatsby, and who like Romantic, 30s novels. This book is not good for people who like slow-paced books. I would recommend this book for people in their mid to late teens and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Fast