Read this book: Black Moon

Have you ever had a wicked bout of insomnia? It’s near dawn and you haven’t been able to sleep, no matter what you do. The world outside your bedroom is fast asleep, but not you. And slowly, you begin to hate all these lucky sleepers as your mind jumps and skitters.

Imagine if that insomnia lasted not one night, but several days — and then endlessly. What would you do? How much of your sanity would remain?

Black MoonThis is the premise of Kenneth Calhoun’s debut novel Black Moon. An unexplained insomnia plague has struck. People are becoming sleepless zombies, losing their minds as they wander the landscape. A lucky few, however, can still sleep. Only they’re targeted by the angry hordes.

Black Moon is a new take on the zombie craze that refuses to die out. It includes several zombie tropes that we all know so well by now — the ravaged landscape, the plucky heroes targeted, the dystopian gloom. The fact that these “zombies” are still alive is a fresh twist.

This strong premise, and not the characterization or plotting, is what carries this book, and it’s unfortunate. Black Moon is a good book. It could have been a great one.

Time for the breakdown. First, the good:

— As I said, the premise is strong. It taps into a nearly universal experience. Most of us have been frustrated by not being able to fall asleep. And we have also had that spacey, drunk-like feeling of being sleep deprived. Black Moon raises an interesting question: how much of our daily life is simply a valiant effort to hold back the unconscious wildness that streaks through our minds at any given moment? Our dream worlds, like our inner monologues, are free flowing and chaotic. Which is our more natural state?

— Apocalyptic books can take one of two paths: the knowledgeable official (government, scientist, etc), who works to solve the problem, or the ordinary Joe/Jane who struggles to survive. I prefer the latter. Black Moon shifted between several characters — average people all struggling to cope. This book provided no answers, and it didn’t even try to. I appreciated that.

— At around 300 pages, Black Moon is short. It is a quick and thrilling read. And Calhoun can write quality prose.

And the not so good:

— Plotting is not one of the stronger suits of Black Moon. We shift between character viewpoints, which isn’t a problem, except when the shifts jump around, leaving the reader confused as to what happened and why. You may find yourself backtracking several times, and not in a good way. Calhoun had the room to explore several scenes more fully, and for some reason, he chose not to.

— The characters were a mixed bag. Biggs is one of the POV characters. He can sleep, and he searches for his insomniac wife, Carolyn. All the while, we get their back story as a couple. While I could relate to Biggs through his interactions with his dying world, I could not relate to the wife he described. I didn’t like her at all, and didn’t care. Several of the characters seemed like cardboard cut-outs, not flesh-and-blood people.

These drawbacks were not insignificant. Luckily, the premise is strong enough to counterbalance these flaws. Ultimately, Black Moon is a fun book. It’s a new take on the zombie craze that will keep you up at night as you race to finish it.

Read this book: The Maze Runner

Short take: The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, is a thrill ride that succeeds despite its lack of heart.

Maze RunnerWhen I was young I devoured the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These books were a plot maze where the reader would make a decision at a crucial plot point, and then be directed to a certain page to continue the story. Some decisions would lead to a dead end — end of story — while others would keep you going. All the books were exciting, plot-driven page turners where character (and character development) was largely irrelevant.

In many ways, The Maze Runner, another entry in the YA dystopian canon, reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. It’s an action-packed story with characters who might as well be blank.

The story: Thomas wakes up in an elevator, with no firm memories, that takes him to a place populated with tough-talking teenage boys. Thomas soon discovers that he’s trapped, as are all the boys. Every day the walls of their compound open, revealing mazes that the boys attempt to navigate. They’ve failed to find an escape, and are threatened by biomechanical monsters called Grievers that lurk in the maze. Thomas is determined to become a maze runner, convinced he can not only solve the maze, but also recover his lost memories.

First, the good:

–Reading The Maze Runner, the first in a series, is like being at a great amusement park. The book is a constant thrill ride that had me turning pages (flipping through my Kindle) at a lightning pace. Dashner excels at turning up the heat and keeping it going.

–Not only that, but Dashner expertly parcels out hints of what’s really going on. He gives us just enough to pique our interest the whole way through.

And the not-so-good:

–Thomas as a character is not relatable. He doesn’t have much of an inner life, largely because he can’t recall his past. Thomas has guts, but he has no heart. I felt the same about most of the other characters — group leaders Newt and Alby, maze-running expert Minho, and the mysterious lone girl Teresa. The only character who seemed three-dimensional was eager, bumbling Chuck. Dashner subtly showed us how desperate Chuck was for friendship. He did this through Chuck’s dialogue and actions. If only Dashner had done that with Thomas and the rest.

–I didn’t buy Thomas’s fledgling relationship with Teresa. Again, maybe it was the fact that both characters were amnesiacs; there wasn’t much to build on. Was Teresa included only to throw in a romantic subplot? If so, then it felt forced.

–While the story was thrilling, there were times when I wanted Dashner to slow down. There was little reflection. The Maze Runner would have benefited from a break in the action now and then.

But these complaints don’t doom the book — far from it.

The Maze Runner is just one among many YA dystopian novels, a trend which seems to never end. The ones I enjoyed the most — The Hunger Games series and Neal Shusterman’s Unwind — excelled because they focused on character. The Maze Runner shows that sometimes you can get away with relying solely on plot.