Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 2 of 8)

Under The Dome – Stephen King

Here’s another book review that’s been in the works for far too long. Back in the days when Keeping Up With The Penguins was still a seed of an idea, I was talking over my to-read list with a friend at a bar. As the night wore on, and the drinks went down, I pulled out my phone and created a new list – the next to-read list – and promised my friend that Under The Dome would be the first book on it. It was her personal favourite, and I swore to her that I’d review it just as soon as I was done with the original 109 books on my list. Well, I’m a couple months late and a dollar short, but I’m finally making good on that promise!

Really, the only reason that I put off reading Under The Dome is that I’m a big chicken. All I knew about Stephen King books is that they’re scary. Also, they’re (usually) huge – this one comes in at a whopping 880 pages. But, as with all fears, it turned out mine were (mostly) unfounded. Sure, it took a little longer to read than your standard 250-page novel, and there were a few spooky elements, but nothing that kept me up at night. So, that’s my first hot tip about Under The Dome: don’t be chicken!

The story starts on 21 October, when a small (fictional) town in Maine is completely cut off from the rest of the world by a large invisible dome that appears seemingly out of nowhere. A plane crashes right into it, killing two pilots (and one unfortunate woodchuck). The dome is unyielding, and pretty much impenetrable – some sound, light, and radio waves can travel through, but nothing with corporeal form (so no one in, no one out). So, as you can imagine, it throws everyone – under the dome, and outside of it – into a bit of a tizz.

As with any crisis situation, there are some who stand to benefit from (among other things) the panic that ensues, and an unlikely hero is called up to save the day. “Captain Barbie”, an ex-military man who was attempting to hitchhike his way out of the town on Dome Day, is charged with figuring out what the fuck is going on (the military is called in straight away, naturally, because America). Luckily, he’s got the keen-eyed flinty-cored local newspaper reporter, Julia Shumway, on his side.



Under The Dome is big in scope. I’m talking huge. I’m talking epic. At first, I couldn’t really see what the big deal was going to be; the map of the town in the front of the book included a book store, and the character list included “Dogs of Note”, so I figured I’d get by just fine in that situation, what could the problem possibly be? But then I was introduced to the town councilman, James “Big Jim” Rennie, who sees the dome as one big opportunity to make a power play that will allow him to take over the whole town. He carefully orchestrates and encourages unease among the townsfolk, using that as a springboard to expand the powers of the police force and silence any troublemakers. The dome basically throws small-town politics into a pot of water, and sets it to boil.

Now, your standard good-guy-Barbie-versus-bad-guy-Jim story would wear out real quick over the course of a book this size; they’re the main contenders in the conflict, sure, but there’s all kinds of other battles and romances and whatnot going on all around them, and King gives each their due. Under The Dome has a huge cast, and pretty much everyone’s point-of-view gets a look in at least once or twice.

The story isn’t exactly a laugh riot (in case you couldn’t tell), but some of the small-town slang and dark humour throughout made me literally laugh out loud. It was good of King to occasionally break the tension for us – believe me, there’s plenty of it. Oppressive religious mores, corrupt town council, dwindling supplies, toxic masculinity run rampant, widespread substance abuse problems, a kid with migraines and a penchant for killing women who annoy him… By putting a small town under a dome, sticking all the residents in a Lord Of The Flies-type scenario, King really lets us zoom in on the fallacy of the American Dream. In fact, King is quoted as saying that he took a lot of the same issues that he addressed in another of his books, The Stand, and used them in Under The Dome but dealt with them in a more allegorical way, taking big-world problems and putting them on a much smaller scale so we could look at them differently. After all, Anywhere, USA has a lot of dirty secrets.



As for the scary bits: well, Under The Dome isn’t horror, but holy heck, some parts are horrifying. Not just psychologically, either – I’m talking visceral, physical violence. It’s not quite supernatural or science-fictional, either. There are some spooky/other-worldly elements, but they’re not the focus or the key driver of the book. I’d shelve this one as more of a suspense thriller, a cautionary tale, with some genre-bending towards the end.

I can see why they made Under The Dome into a TV series (2013-2015); it’s got that strong small-town big-cast vibe that would be perfect for fans of Lost, or any other broad-woven light-sci-fi stories. The characters were quite well fleshed-out and three-dimensional for the most part, which was surprising given how many of them there are (and how many die). The sheer number of them, in the book version at least, allows King to tantalise the reader and reveal information really slowly, BUT the constant changes in perspective make the story FEEL pacy and compelling, regardless.

It was actually really refreshing to read a contemporary epic – not a multi-generational saga set across a century, but an event playing out over just days (a fortnight, tops) with close and intimate attention paid to every detail. Yes, it makes for a hella-long book, but it’s probably as short as King could have possibly made it without sacrificing the multiplicity of perspectives, and without those, the story would have needed a lot of long, boring monologue-y exposition from one or two key characters, anyway. No, thank you, please! Not for a story as complex as this one! I’d be happy to call Under The Dome a long book worth your time, and I must concede my friend was right in drunkenly insisting I read it (apologies, again, for taking so long to finally make good on my word – I’ll do better next time, I swear!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Dome:

  • “Never finished, conned a friend into taking it off my hands.” – Michael A. Swaney
  • “The story is entertaining though much of this book and the voice performance is really great (baaaarbie), but Stephen Kings loony left bias just pops it’s ugly head up way too often. It’s distracting and takes a lot away from the story. Really. Every white male christian is an evil crack addicted psychopath Nazi rapist and every journalist is like a cherub from heaven? Come on dude. I know this is fiction, but these old cliches are not only unbelievable they are boooooooring. If I knew it would have been like this I would not have purchased this audio book.” – Dorian
  • “I know this is blasphemy but I was disappointed with this effort of Stephen King. The baddies are bad. The goodies are good. Smut and flying body parts couldn’t hid a boring read. Sorry, there it is.” – Bod Parr
  • “Good until the ending as usual. 2 1/2 stars.” – L. M.

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

Ah, young love: so smouldering, so passionate, so intensely felt. That’s the subject of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel, Call Me By Your Name. It’s his first book of fiction, though he’s published other non-fiction books and teaches literature, so I’m not sure we could technically call it a “debut”. It tells the story of a blooming romance between 17-year-old Elio Perlman, and 24-year-old visiting scholar Oliver, who comes to the summer home of Elio’s parents in Italy, 1983. This book has become a pillar of the contemporary queer literature canon.

The story is told in retrospect, with grown-up Elio recalling the events of that fateful summer. He always resented his parents’ tradition of taking a doctorate student into their home for six weeks each year, forcing him to vacate his bedroom (that sacred space of a teenage boy) to make room for their guest. That all changed when Oliver, carefree and detached and beautiful, arrived. Without quite understanding why, his burgeoning bisexuality still a mystery even to him, Elio appoints himself to be Oliver’s tour guide, and their attraction (mutual, or not? who knows?) simmers.

Crikey, it’s intense – right from the very first page. Aciman doesn’t ease the reader in at all. Elio’s crush is all-consuming, overwhelming, obsessive and single-minded in an almost-scary way. I felt suffocated by Elio’s passion, trapped underneath the weight of it. Of course, that’s exactly how first love feels, so I think Aciman might have been Doing A Thing(TM) in mirroring that sensation for the reader, but still… maybe steer clear of this one if you’re narratively claustrophobic 😉

There’s a lot of push-pull in Elio and Oliver’s relationship. Elio rejects Oliver’s first overture, then Oliver pushes him away when he tries to get amorous. I know, I know, they were young and it was the ’80s, but sheesh – so much of the heartache could’ve been avoided with some open and honest communication! Elio pulls a very typical teenage boy stunt – he starts an affair with a local girl, Marzia (“see how much I don’t care if you reject me? I’ve got someone else!”), then slips a note under Oliver’s door being all “come meet me”. Unfortunately, it works, and they FINALLY do roots.





Despite the fact that it’s a coming-of-age story, Call Me By Your Name is hardly a young adult book. For one, it’s quite erotic, albeit in a highly literary way. All of the sexual encounters (including one truly smutty incident with a peach) are depicted in detail, but not to titillate – it feels more like Aciman is simply demonstrating the depth and desperation of Elio and Oliver’s desire.

Before he heads home to America, Oliver decides to take a little trip to Rome (as you do), and Elio accompanies him – a lover’s getaway. It’s bittersweet, though, because it’s over almost before it began. By the time Elio returns to his parents’ home, alone, all traces of Oliver have been removed. And, just to compound both the bitterness and the sweetness, Elio’s father intimates that he understands the true nature of his “friendship” with Oliver, and that he approves. I’m so grateful to Aciman for sparing us the parents-kick-him-out-after-coming-out trope!

Of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. A few months later, at Christmas, Oliver visits again – with big news. He’s getting married, to a woman. Obviously, that pisses Elio (still young and in the throes of first love) right off. They fall out of touch, almost completely, for over a decade.





We fast-forward fifteen years, with Elio (relatively) grown up but still unable to let go of that summer romance he had as a teenager. He decides to visit Oliver in the U.S., where he’s now a professor at a prestigious university. You’d think – both being older and uglier and better able to handle themselves – they’d finally sort their shit out, but nope! Oliver admits he’s been online-stalking Elio for years, following his career. Elio tells Oliver there’s no way in hell he wants to meet Oliver’s wife and children, because he’s seething with jealousy and he still has a massive hard-on. They entertain themselves with the could’ve-would’ve-should’ves for a while, then go their separate ways.

Finally, five years after that – so that’s twenty years after their first meeting, and one year before the narrator’s present – Oliver returns to visit Elio in Italy. Elio, in a fit of romantic madness, says that if Oliver remembers and still desires everything between them, he should once more “look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name”. The ending is highly frustrating in its ambiguity – do they? don’t they? what happens next? – so Aciman released a sequel last year, Find Me, to fill in the blanks.

Call Me By Your Name isn’t about Oliver – it’s a strange thing to say, I know, given that Oliver consumes Elio’s every waking (and even sleeping) thought. It might be unromantic of me to even suggest this, but I feel like “Oliver” could’ve been literally anyone who crossed Elio’s path at that point in his life. It just so happened to be him onto whom Elio projected everything: his hopes, his confusion, his sexuality, his history, and his desires. In that view, it’s a fascinating character study of a young queer man coming-of-age through a formative love affair, and deftly avoids all of the tragic tropes with which the canon is littered.

And, of course, Call Me By Your Name was adapted to a critically-acclaimed film, directed by Luca Guadagnino in 2017. It won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, even. I have no idea how they managed to translate such an interior, obsessive novel to the screen, but hats off to them! I’m not sure I’ll be seeking out the film, but I do highly recommend this book if you need something warm to savour with a glass of red wine (or three) on some freezing winter night…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Call Me By Your Name:

  • “Too little for too long” – Amazon Customer
  • “I recomend” – Sandro Guia Los Angeles
  • “This is a foriegn language book trying to return.
    Do not speak This language.” – David Hancock
  • “The writing was beautiful but I wish I hadn’t read it. I didn’t like it AND it broke my heart.” – KatMarie
  • “I’m no soft porn expert, but that’s how this book struck me. On the whole, it was OK but not one I’d recommend to a lot of people.” – Marti Johnson

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

All my life, whenever The Handmaid’s Tale came up in conversation with someone I know well, they were always shocked to learn I hadn’t read it already. I’d absorbed enough about it through popular culture that I had a vague idea of what it was about, of course, but no more than that – somehow, I remained miraculously spoiler-free. I hadn’t even watched the HBO series! So, I sat down to this one with a clean slate, and an open mind.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was first published in 1985. It’s set in a near-future New England (an eerie echo of The Scarlet Letter, perhaps?), re-named Gilead, where a new theological totalitarian regime has overthrown the U.S. government as we would know it in the “real” world (yes, yes, I know, the “real” world now resembles Gilead more than it ever has before, but that point has been made so often that it just feels hacky to even bring it up).

The story follows Offred, a “handmaid” in the house of Fred (get it?), the master whom she is bound to serve in this religious patriarchal hellscape. Basically, widespread infertility has rocked society so hard that they’ve rounded up all the fertile women and started using them as breeders in the households of wealthy elites. Offred is lucky enough to have functioning lady bits, so off she’s carted to Fred’s house, and his wife has to sit around and watch as Fred tries to stick one in her. Fun times!

And where the heck does Atwood even come up with twisted shit like this? The “real” world, of course (turns out I couldn’t help myself, sorry). She drew a lot from the Puritans (interesting-but-only-semi-related-fun-fact: Mary Webster, one of Atwood’s ancestors, was accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England, but survived her hanging), and other regimes in which women are subjugated on “religious” grounds. Basically, Atwood is challenging us to look at what would happen if casually misogynistic attitudes (prevalent in the ’80s, at the time of writing, and sadly still today) were taken to their logical extremes. Atwood has famously said that nothing in her speculative fictional world of Gilead hasn’t already happened at some point in human history. So, that’s a cheery thought!





Of course, the system extends far beyond a simple fertile/non-fertile binary: there’s a (conveniently colour-coded) hierarchy to assign women their status and roles. The Handmaids (red) are in charge of baby-making, the Aunts (brown) are in charge of “educating”, the Marthas (green) are domestic servants, the Wives (blue) are married to the men in charge and pretty much just swan around trying to hide their drinking problems and brunching, and the Econowives (stripes of every colour) are expected to do the lot for lower-status husbands. The hierarchy for men is less clear, but it seems to boil down to Commanders (like Fred) who run things, and their soldiers/lackeys. The only ones free from expectation (as much as one can in a totalitarian regime) are the Unwomen and the Jezebels, who have committed “crimes against their gender” so egregious that they’re not accepted in polite society. Good on ’em!

The history and structure of Gilead is relayed entirely from Offred’s perspective, as well as her own personal story – thus, The Handmaid’s Tale (and things from here on are going to get spoilery, so exit your browser now or forever hold your peace). She points out that dividing women in this way, so visibly and without recourse, stops them from empathising with each other (which, in turn, prevents them from banding together in resistance). Still, her exposition, her explanation of how all of this came to be, is gradual – sometimes frustratingly so. I get that Atwood didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with all the details of her world at once, but in some ways, I kind of wanted her to! Just give me the lay of the land and let’s get on with things! (And that’s why jumpy timelines and I don’t normally get along…)

And jumpy it is: in between drip-feeding us fascinating insights into how Gilead works, Offred tells us the story of both her past and her present. In her past, as the Gilead takeover was happening, she smelled blood in the water and tried to flee to Canada with her husband and child (they’d been adulterous, had a kid out of wedlock, Offred wanted to be able to do stuff like make her own money and read books – all the shit theological totalitarians hate). Ultimately, she was caught and separated from her family. Serving as a Handmaid was her punishment (or “reward”, depending how you look at it – she was “saved” by her functioning ovaries from being exiled to “the colonies”).





In Offred’s present, her life revolves around doing the daily grocery shop (because stretching one’s legs is good for the womb, somehow), and The Ceremony every time she ovulates (i.e., a rape ritual, intended to impregnate her). That is, until her Commander goes off script, and asks to start seeing her on the side. They’re not supposed to have any interaction outside of The Ceremony (she’s not a concubine, after all, she’s a Handmaid), but he’s all keen to get together and play Scrabble, and he gives her lotion and booze as bribes to keep her quiet about his indiscretions. Offred later learns that he tried a similar carry-on with his former Handmaid, and she killed herself when his wife found out.

But Fred’s wife is none the wiser, for the moment, and even decides she likes Offred enough to make her own illicit overtures: she suggests that Offred try to get their driver, Nick, to impregnate her (seeing as Fred’s clearly struggling to get the job done). Offred and Nick develop a relationship, getting it on every chance they get, and eventually start sharing secrets.

Atwood keeps on world-building, right up until the final chapters – I know I complained about that just a minute ago, but I’ve got to give it to her, the writing craft is absolutely superb. It turns out, there is a resistance, and Nick might be able to get Offred out, smuggle her to safety. But can she trust him? He could be a spy – an Eye, as they’re called in Gilead – and it could all be an elaborate ruse to catch Offred out. In the end, Nick shows up with a car full of Eyes, and tells her to let them “arrest” her because they’re actually undercover members of the resistance. She figures she doesn’t have much choice, she’s bundled into the car, and away she goes. Her fate, in the reader’s mind, was left completely uncertain (until the sequel was released last year, anyway).





The real master-stroke, the knock-out punch, is the epilogue that reveals the “truth” of the story’s frame. It turns out Offred’s narrative was recorded onto a series of cassette tapes, and the transcript is being presented at a conference for academics that study “the Gilead period” of history. Atwood implies that Gilead collapsed, at some point, and a more equal society then emerged, with restored rights for women and freedom of religion. The academics, like the reader, have no idea what happened to Offred in the end, and these tapes are one of the few records (or “testaments”, eh?) they have on what went on in those dark days.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a vital book – even if the jumpy timeline(s) and drip-feed world-building annoyed me, I absolutely acknowledge its brilliance and ongoing relevance, on par with Nineteen Eighty-Four. It won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the Commonwealth Literature Prize, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release. Plus, it’s been challenged and banned too many times to count (always a good sign!), because it’s too sexually explicit, it has “adult themes”, it presents a negative view of religion, yadda yadda yadda…

That’s not to say it’s beyond reproach, of course (literature, no matter how good, never is). One particularly interesting critique I read, from Ana Cottle, positioned The Handmaid’s Tale as a manifestation of white feminism. Not only did Atwood barely acknowledge the absence of women of colour in her story (thankfully rectified somewhat by their inclusion in the HBO adaptation), she also borrowed heavily from the lived experience of oppressed women of colour (Cottle specifically mentioned African-American women, but I think her critique is applicable more broadly) and slapped it on women of relative privilege. To loosely paraphrase, the reason we find The Handmaid’s Tale so confronting is that the abuses perpetrated against women of colour are suddenly perpetrated against white women, and that blows our tiny minds. It would probably take a PhD thesis to fully explore this idea and do it justice, but I still thought it worth mentioning.

In the end, I totally understood why all my friends were so shocked I’d never read The Handmaid’s Tale. It was so far up my alley, I almost laughed when I finished it. I’m glad to have read it now, and hope to do so again – it seems like the kind of book that would benefit from many re-reads, spaced out over time. As the world changes, and the reader changes, the story it tells will change too, I’m sure.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale:

  • “Handmade tales. Love this book.” – Annmarie Iamonica
  • “I didn’t enjoy the moral content.” – j3a3r
  • “This book is dark and twisted what are they thinking to come that far for womens rights then give up” – Michael Robertson
  • “Boring, weird and just more weird and boring !!!!!” – Amy R.


Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

Even when I’m working my way through a set reading list, I’m still, at my core, a mood reader. When I’m down, I want a book that’s going to cheer me up. When I’m on top of the world, I want a book that’s going to challenge me. And after Ulysses, I was in the mood for some F.U.N. I didn’t want anything literary or high-minded or complex – I wanted a page-turner, dammit, and I wanted it NOW! So, where to turn but to Liane Moriarty’s ubiquitous smash hit, Big Little Lies? I was worried that I was the last person left in the world who hadn’t read this book. Honestly, how I managed to avoid any spoilers is beyond me… (this review is going to be chock-full of them, by the way, so if it turns out I wasn’t in fact the last person ever to read it, you might want to look away now.)

I had some idea of what I was getting into: I read and reviewed Moriarty’s fifth novel, The Husband’s Secret, last year. Big Little Lies, published in 2014, was her follow-up. It looks like she knew she’d stumbled onto a winning formula (three women-centric stories woven together in a domestic-thriller-type set-up), and figured she’d stick with it. Good call, on her part!

So, let’s meet the ladies. We’ve got Jane, the single mother who moves to Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her son, Ziggy. She enrolls him at the local Pirriwee Public School (entirely fictional, for those of you playing overseas). There, she meets Madeline, who has a daughter Ziggy’s age, and Celeste, who has twin boys that age, too. The three of them strike up a friendship – more of an alliance, really, to protect themselves in the political battles with other factions of school mums.

Each of them, naturally, has their own set of problems. Jane is dealing with the aftermath of the sexual assault in which Ziggy was conceived. Madeline is hella jealous that her teenage daughter from a previous marriage is growing close to her ex-husband’s new hippie wife, Bonnie. Celeste’s relationship with her wealthy, charismatic husband, Perry, is abusive and toxic (to say the least). So, clearly, it’s massive trigger warnings all ’round, for all types of violence against women (even sex slavery gets a look in, via the passion project of Madeline’s teenage daughter). The point, it seems, is that men are garbage – but at least the women in Big Little Lies have more agency than any of the women in The Husband’s Secret. It’s a far more enjoyable read for that reason alone!





As the story unfolds, each chapter is punctuated with extracts from witness interviews with a journalist, just to keep the lure dangling and really exaggerate the characterisation. See, something went down at a school trivia night, someone is dead, and these little snippets are like banner ads from Moriarty every few pages: SUBURBIA IS A LIE! SOMEONE WAS MURDERED! DON’T YOU WANT TO KNOW WHO, AND HOW? KEEP READING! It’s not subtle. I must say, I heaved a sigh of relief when she revealed, about a hundred pages in, that it was a parent who died; I mean, that’s not great news, but at least we were spared any particularly-gruesome child murders.

After the three women have grown quite close, Jane reveals the details of the sexual assault that’s got her all messed up. She says the man’s name was Saxon Banks. That raises a red flag for Celeste and Madeline, because that’s the name of Perry’s cousin. Celeste actually knows him, from family barbecues and whatnot. They decide to keep that little nugget of information to themselves, though, right until the very end. Perry also busts Celeste setting up her own apartment, and figures out that she’s planning to leave him – if you know anything at all about domestic violence, you know that this is Bad News. His violence towards her escalates accordingly.

And let’s not forget all the kiddie drama that’s playing out at the same time! Ziggy is accused of bullying another child at Pirriwee, and the mothers tear one another apart like lionesses fighting over a warthog carcass. It takes a while, but eventually Jane and Celeste work out that it’s actually one of Celeste’s sons doing the bullying, apparently taking after his violent father.

It all comes to a head at the Pirriwee Public Trivia Night fundraiser. All the parents get together, get drunk, and the titular big little lies come unravelled. This is what all the witness statements have been hinting at throughout the book. Perry is revealed to be Jane’s rapist; he used his cousin’s name, the way he used to as a kid, to get out of trouble. When Celeste calls him out (“hello, excuse me, yes, you’re the absolute worst”), he backhands her. Unbeknownst to him, Bonnie – remember her? Madeline’s ex-husband’s new hippie wife – was the child of a violent relationship, and seeing Perry hit Celeste causes her to freak the fuck out. She ends up pushing Perry over the balcony, to his death.





Yes, it’s all a little neat, a little convenient, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I much preferred the structure of Big Little Lies to The Husband’s Secret. The relationships between characters seemed much clearer (if you’re struggling to follow in this review, the fault is entirely mine!), as did the chronology of events. It was just a far better effort overall. Moriarty didn’t even have to resort to a saccharine explains-it-all epilogue. Big Little Lies didn’t have the most realistic ending, but it was certainly a satisfying one.

I was surprised at how dark it was, really, even though it managed to make me chuckle now and then. A New York Times book review said: “A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality”, which is spot on. There are laughs to be had, sure, but they’re ornaments on pretty heavy and disturbing subject matter. I hope everyone who picks this one up does so with eyes open…

The TV miniseries, produced by HBO in 2017 (starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley) won eight Emmy Awards. The second season, based on a follow-up novella by Moriarty, brought in Meryl Streep(!). I haven’t watched either of them yet, but I checked out the trailers on YouTube; it looks like they’ve moved the setting to the States (boo!), but that’s the nature of the beast, I guess.

At the end of the day, Big Little Lies isn’t a “literary” read, but it lived up to the hype as far as I’m concerned. It was just what I needed after the brain-draining monster that was Ulysses! Moriarty’s writing was compelling, perfectly page-turner-y, and reminded me of how much fun reading can be. I would sum up Big Little Lies as being The Slap meets House Husbands, with a female cast and a murder mystery at its heart.

P.S. In her acknowledgements, Moriarty says: “Now seems like a good time to make clear that the parents at the lovely school where my children currently attend are nothing like the parents at Pirriwee Public, and are disappointingly well behaved at school functions.” = LOL!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Big Little Lies:

  • “Maybe little long ?” – Antoinette Ritacco
  • “Too many lies!” – Sissel Kran
  • “Book club torture” – Muffy McGuffin
  • “By the end of the book I didn’t care who did what to whom” – Lynn R
  • SPOILERS shallow self-absorbed helicopter moms and their tedious offspring completely overshadow the underlying tale of infidelity and manslaughter. Schadenfreude and black comedy can be entertaining, but when paired with the serious themes of rape and domestic violence it felt tone deaf and distasteful.” – Weaslgrl


The Maze Runner – James Dashner

Here’s the whole truth: I didn’t feel optimistic going into The Maze Runner. My husband had seen the movie, and he told me it was terrible (I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its movie, but still!). Plus, some ugly accusations about Dashner surfaced in 2018 as part of the #MeToo movement. But the book was already on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, so I figured I may as well go ahead. If nothing else, I suspected it would be over quickly…

… and I was right. On all counts.

The Maze Runner was first published in 2009, the first book in a young adult dystopian series of the same name. Well, it’s the “first” in the sense that it was the first to be published, but it’s actually third in narrative order (so there have been two prequels and three sequels, if that makes sense).

A boy named Thomas wakes up in a stark metal elevator. He has no memory of who he is (other than his first name), or how he came to be in that situation. Right away, I started poking holes in the premise. I mean, it just doesn’t seem right that he could remember his first name but not his last, or anything else – right? I tried to tell myself not to be such a cynical snot, but the whole premise was just so flimsy, right from the outset, that I couldn’t help myself.

The elevator brings Thomas to the Glade, a large courtyard full of boys roughly his age (we’re told later that Thomas “looks” to be about sixteen, but he talks and acts like he’s twelve). He learns that a new boy arrives each month in the same way that he did, and in the same condition (with the memory loss and everything). The elevator also brings them supplies, but no, they can’t use it to escape – they’ve already tried. Thomas’s new home is surrounded by four high concrete walls, forming a square in which the boys are held. Outside the walls, they tell him, is the Maze. They send “runners” out into the maze every day to try and map its pattern and find a way out, but the pattern changes every night. They don’t stay out there after dark, because that’s when the “Grievers” emerge. Thomas is intrigued.

Yep, this is the ol’ newbie-has-to-save-the-day trope.



The “Grievers” are spoken about a lot, and even encountered a few times, but they were really hard to visualise based on the descriptions Dashner used: slimy, but mechanic; lurching, but fast… like villainous monsters designed by committee. And while we’re all rolling our eyes (you’re with me on this, right?), let’s throw something else on top of the shit heap: the boys that live in the Glade have developed their own nonsense slang, a very obvious and very lame attempt by Dashner to give the impression that his characters are very cool and swear-y, without using any actual profanity that would offend the delicate sensibilities of school boards and over-protective parents. It’s completely transparent, nothing like the masterful effort in, say, A Clockwork Orange. On the whole, The Maze Runner had very strong Lord Of The Flies vibes, right down to the bumbling, chubby best friend.

Anyway, the day after Thomas’s arrival, the elevator comes cranking up again. This time, it deposits a girl named Teresa. She carries a note saying that she’s the “last one”, and promptly lapses into a coma. The elevator stops bringing supplies, the skies turn grey, and the doors to the Maze stop closing at night (leaving everyone in the Glade vulnerable to the Grievers). Teresa remains steadfastly unconscious for about half the book. When she finally wakes up, she and Thomas decide that they “feel” like they already know each other. Oh, and they can communicate telepathically.

RANT ALERT: this telepathy thing is the worst! It’s some of the laziest hack writing I’ve encountered in all my reading life. I suspect Dashner just retro-fitted some Special Significance(TM) to it elsewhere in the series, but I’m just going to die without ever finding out and I’m okay with that. For The Maze Runner, it seemed like a deus ex machina cop-out to allow him to have his two central characters communicate privately whenever the plot needed them to. Booooo!



Anyway, I need to charge ahead with this plot summary before my eyes start to hurt from all the rolling. Thomas manages to figure out that the Maze walls move to spell out a super-special secret code. He also figures out how and where the Grievers get in and out off the Maze. He draws the logical conclusion that the easiest way for the boys to escape is to follow them. He also gets himself “stung” by one of the Grievers, on purpose, so that he can go through “The Changing” (I’m biting my tongue, I’m biting my tongue…), because it is rumoured to bring back memories of the victim’s pre-Glade life. Sure enough, he remembers the crucial bits and pieces that allow him to put a plan together. How convenient.

And away they go, down the Griever hole. Thomas, Teresa, and Chuck (the bumbling, chubby sidekick) find a computer at the bottom, and they punch in the Maze code. Hey, presto: the rest of the boys from the Glade appear. They all learn that they are part of a WICKED experiment. No, I’m not suddenly being enthusiastic with the adjective; it stands for World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department (and if that acronym wasn’t backwards-engineered, I’ll eat my hat).

Chuck bites it, like Piggy and all other chubby sidekicks before him. In fact, he does a Dobby, throwing himself in front of the knife that was intended for Thomas. All the surviving Glade boys figure out that these WICKED government guys are bad news, and just as their cogs are turning, another team of grown ups shows up to “rescue” them.

Their saviours whisk them away to safety, which gives Dashner the chance for a whole stream of exposition to explain what the heck is going on (and set up the next book, conveniently enough). Apparently, a bunch of sun flares have ruined Earth, somehow. The world is a wasteland now, and there’s a disease (called “The Flare” – Dashner’s creative hits just keep on rolling) that’s got half the population all fucked up. The Glade boys are taken to a safe house, fed a decent meal, and they’re happy enough with that.

Then, an epilogue reveals that this apparent-rescue and supposed-safe-house are all an extension of the Maze experiment, set up by those WICKED people. *ominous chord* The End.

Ugh. I’m so glad to be done with this book – even writing this review made my eye twitch.



Here’s what I can say for it: the chapters are short. The story moves pretty quickly. Well, it has the illusion of doing so, at least. You could call it “fast paced”. But that’s all I’ve got, folks. The Maze Runner is a real stinker.

I’ve seen it compared to The Hunger Games, and although that wasn’t my favourite book of all time, it was streets ahead of The Maze Runner. In fact, the only way that Dashner bested Collins, in my view, was that he started working in the set-up for the sequel about seventy pages before the end, instead of cramming it into the final chapter. That tells me he’d always envisaged the book as part of a series arc, which is something, I suppose.

As I mentioned up top, there was a film adaptation released in 2014. I watched the trailer on YouTube, and it’s exactly as terrible as you’d expect. All in all, I’d say don’t bother, with the movie or the book. Don’t even bother buying it for the tweens and teens in your life. They’d be better off with almost any other young adult book out there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maze Runner:

  • “my mummy likess this book and me. she thought that it was wonderful. i recommend u read it. Ya yeet.” – Ms Samantha M Thomson
  • “Very disappointing. Just a lot of action. Almost like he’s trying to get a movie deal.” – consumer scientist
  • “If you like terrible prose, a dumb plot, and unrealistic dialogue, this book is for you!” – W V S
  • “All the violence and hate of the Hunger Games without the pesky storyline or plot. I kept hoping the story would develope, but no. Left disappointed.” – John
  • “Yuck, I think I’d rather have a root canal than read another book of this series.” – Amazon Customer
  • “DO NOT READ! Boring, tedious. We bought this for a multi-hour car trip and had to stop the audiobook because silence was better than this story.” – Judy-Lynn Benjamin
  • “I didn’t order this book, so I don’t know why it asked me to rate it . And my name is not Dylan .” – Dylan Chilano
  • “I utterly HATE this book no reason.” – Amazon Customer

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