Saturday, June 5, 2010

House of Stairs - Mini-Review

I have a bad habit of checking books out from the library, reading them, copying down quotes I think I might want to use in my review, and then returning them to the library. Given the volume of books I read, those quotes don't help me that much if I wait too long to sit down and write the review. The books that I'm "mini-reviewing" left an impression on me and I feel that I can recommend (most of) them without hesitation, I just can't remember enough little details to write full reviews.

Sleator, William. House of Stairs. New York: Firebird - Penguin Group, 1974; 2004. Print.
[Book cover credit:]
ALA Best Books for Young Adults (1974)
When five teenaged orphans each wake up alone to find themselves trapped in a chamber of staircases that would rival an M.C. Escher print (or a David Bowie/Jim Henson hallucination), none of them are all that surprised. Being an orphan isn't easy, and they're used to be put through the ringer by the state. Peter, Lola, Blossom, Abigail, and Oliver find each other on the staircases and figure that they are being put through some kind of test. When it quickly becomes clear that to fail the test means to starve, they start to turn on each other in order to "win."
I checked this out because more than a couple people on the yalsa-bk listserv said that The Maze Runner, which I purchased months ago but haven't gotten to yet, is a redone version of The House of Stairs. I can't find the emails now, but I think I remember them saying it wasn't even that great of a do-over.
Gee, I hope they're wrong.
The House of Stairs did have a lot of weirdness and suspense, especially once the kids all figure out what the machine really wants them to do in order to get food (hint: it's not good), and I did care about the couple of characters that I was supposed to care about. I think where this book fell short for me was the complete lack of backstory and explanation. Those of you who've been reading along here know that I'm not all that into long expository passages; I'd really rather just get to the story. That's all The House of Stairs was! Just story! Still, it didn't work for me. I do need some explanation, and the answers that Sleator offered up at the end were just too little too late to make me like this book. I had too many lingering questions, and not in the good way.
That said, there is a reason this book has been continually printed since it's publication (although, the reason for the bad 80's cover on the 2004 edition still eludes me). It's short and suspenseful and it sucks you in. And it would be good for discussion. A lot of my lingering questions would work well in a group, such as "Why AREN'T these kids shocked to be used as lab rats? Is it because they're orphans, because they're kids, or because this might be some kind of post-apocolyptic world (There is a big discussion about the last time anyone had real meat and about the government living in a compound)?" One (more) caveat, though, for group sharing: there is some serious fat-phobia going on here. One of the orphans is overweight, possibly because she hasn't been an orphan that long and possibly because she wants everything for herself. The fact that this isn't clarified bothered me, as did the fact that she was much more obsessed with getting food than anyone else. These kids are actually starving; the fat girl shouldn't be the only one obsessing. But hey, you can talk about that in a group too.
Book source: Philly Free Library


Ms. Yingling said...

Huh. I hadn't thought about the parallel between this and The Maze Runner. You are right about the cover, though. What were they thinking?

Lawral the Librarian said...

I haven't actually read The Maze Runner yet, but I'm looking forward to playing compare and contrast.

Also, I had no idea I had the 2004 edition until I went to write the citation info at the top of this post. I was sure I had gotten a really old copy from the library! There are a few more, shall we say, timeless covers shown on Librarything. You'd think they'd be mass producing those instead!

Anonymous said...

Really? You didn't like it? I absolutely fell in love with this book at 13, and I still really like it. It was an easy read yet it still left a mark on me. It's one of my favorite books. I also actually kind of liked the cover. It's something for me to laugh at after such a heavy book. I love this book, but I respect your opinion, too. Everybody has their type.