Friday, January 29, 2010

Book 12: Percy Jackson Book Two: The Sea of Monsters

I'm really liking this series. I know it's a Young Adult series, but why should that stop me from enjoying it?

In Book Two, Percy discovers that he has a half-brother named Tyson who is a Cyclops. He brings his brother to Camp Half-Blood, which is being attacked on a regular basis by monsters that have broken through the mystical barrier that protects the land. Meanwhile, Percy's satyr friend Grover is in trouble and reaching out to him through his dreams.

Clarisse, daughter of Ares, is tasked with the quest of finding the Golden Fleece, a magical fleece that can heal anything, including the tree Thalia (daughter of Zeus who was turned into a pine as she lay dying on the border of the camp) which reinforces the camp's mystical border. It turns out that Grover is being held by the Cyclops who is in possession of the Fleece, so Percy, Annabeth (daugher of Athena and Percy's closest friend at camp) and Tyson find themselves also looking for the Fleece and hoping to rescue Grover at the same time.

Along the way, Percy and his friends run into Luke, son of Hermes, who defected from the camp at the end of the first book. Luke has fallen under the spell of Kronos, King of the Titans and father of Zeus, who has been biding his time in the hopes of returning to power. Percy knows that Luke wants the Fleece as well... but he never imagines what he plans on using it for, and the book ends with a surprise that I didn't see coming.

I know I keep gushing, but I really like this series. The plot unfolds quickly in each book, and the action doesn't let up as the story moves along. And I love trying to guess the identity of the mythological creatures and characters that Percy encounters (most are in disguise at first).

I also know that I shouldn't compare every YA series to Harry Potter, but, well, it's damn hard not to. Both series depict their main characters as struggling with identity and fate versus free will. Harry and Percy are both the subject of major prophecies, and they also have to deal with figuring out who they are versus who everyone else thinks they are - they have reputations that precede them (Harry being the Boy Who Lived, Percy being the Son of Poseidon, one of the "Big Three" Gods, the other two being Zeus and Hades).

I will definitely be looking for the third book next time I hit the library.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book 11: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: Book One: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

At first glance, this series would appear to be yet another fish-out-of-water series trying to capitalize on Harry Potter mania. A young boy discovers he's not just a normal kid, but is in fact a half-blood, the son of a Greek god and a mortal woman. However, by setting his characters in a world where the Olympians are no myth, Rick Riordan has created a fully-fleshed out universe filled with adventure and heroic tales - this is no cookie-cutter copy of J.K. Rowling's masterpiece.

I have always had a fondness for Greek mythology. As a child, I would check "D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths" out of the library over and over again... until my mother finally bought it for me for Christmas one year. It remains one of my favorite childhood books. The stories spoke to me in a way that few other books did. So when I heard about this series, I immediately was intrigued. And I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first book.

Percy Jackson is a troubled kid who has bounced from school to school, never lasting more than a year in one place. Odd things have a way of happening to him. He's barely surviving his first year at Yancy Academy when he's attacked by one of his teachers, who reveals herself to be a Fury, one of the God Hades's minions from the Underworld. Shortly after this attack, Percy's world is turned upside-down as he is rushed to Camp Half-Blood, where it is revealed that he is the son of the Sea God, Poseidon, and that the camp is the gathering place for all the half-blood children of the Gods, or "heroes."

While he adjusts to this news, Percy finds himself at the center of a brewing battle between his father, Poseidon, and Zeus and Hades. Someone has stolen Zeus's master lightning bolt, and all signs point to Poseidon... with Percy being the suspected thief working for his father. But Percy and his friends suspect Hades is responsible, seeing as how he's been sending his minions to kill Percy. So Percy is tasked with the quest of finding the bolt and clearing his name while preventing World War III as the Gods take sides between themselves and prepare for battle.

It comes as no surprise that this series is being developed for the big screen. It's a swiftly-paced adventure, a true hero's tale as he faces monsters and fights against evil in the name of saving his friends, his family, and even all of Western civilization from total destruction. I, for one, will be lining up to see the movie when it comes out, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

Book 10: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

I never read the entire Chronicles of Narnia as a kid. I started the series and read "The Magician's Nephew" and "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," and then I guess I lost interest. So I thought the CR would be a great reason to pick it up again.

"The Horse and His Boy" is technically the fifth book in the seven book series, according to Wikipedia, but if you go by the timeline of the series, it's considered the third book. Shasta is an adopted boy raised as a slave by a fisherman in the province of Calormen. One night, Shasta overhears his "father" planning to sell him to a nobleman. Rather than allow this to happen, he decides to run away to the North. He talks to himself as he plots, and the nobleman's horse overhears him and answers him. It turns out he's a talking horse named Bree who was kidnapped (horsenapped?) from his home in Narnia and forced to live as a war horse for the Tarkaan nobleman. He longs to return to Narnia, so he and Shasta make a run for it. Along the way, they meet up with Aravis, a Tarkeena (noblewoman) also on the run with her own talking horse. She's avoiding an arranged marriage; her horse, Hwin, is hoping to return to her home in Narnia like Bree.

The novel is a quick read, the tale of Shasta & Aravis's adventures as they travel north. It's also rather boring. I don't know if that's due to the fact that it's written for much younger readers than I, or if I just don't care for Lewis's style of writing. Although I did enjoy some of his short stories, but they were aimed at more mature readers. Either way, I can't say I really want to finish the series. Maybe if I can't think of anything else to read...

As a kid, I never saw the whole Aslan/Jesus Christ comparison. But now, reading the series as an adult, I can't believe I missed it. Holy crap, is it obvious.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book 9: Prey by Michael Crichton

Well, coming off that last book, this one was a friggin' breath of fresh air. Michael Crichton knew how to tell a story. This novel was a quick, interesting read that I couldn't put down 'til I'd finished it.

Jack Forman is a stay-at-home dad in Silicon Valley. A former programmer who specialized in writing agent-based programs that mimic "biological processes" (computer agents are programmed to think like animals - swarm behavior, or predator behavior), he's been dealing with his recent firing by taking over household duties. His wife, Julia, is a bigwig with Xymos Technology, a company working on developing "molecular manufacturing" aka nanotechnology. Lately, she's been distant and argumentative, and Jack fears she's having an affair with a coworker out in the Nevada desert at the company's fabrication building.

One night, after displaying some odd behavior, Julia is injured in a car accident and rushed to the hospital. The same night, Jack receives a call from his old company, looking to rehire him. It turns out they've contracted Jack's PREDPREY program to Xymos, but they're having trouble with it and need his expert help. This program basically commands a computer agent (or other agents) to mimic the behavior of a predator in order to accomplish its objective or goal. He flies out to the desert the next day and there discovers the truth - the company has succeeded in its goal to create nanotechnology, but their creation has gotten away from them. And thanks to Jack's program, it's acting like a predator, and Jack and his coworkers have become the prey.

I love books like this. Take an interesting scientific/technological topic, add some intrigue and danger, and mix well. I could easily see this being adapted for the big screen one day.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Book 8: The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

I never thought I'd say this, but this is one book that could be improved with a dumbed-down movie adaptation.

Let me explain.

I'm a fan of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's work. I remember discovering his novels at age 12 and getting lost in the worlds of "Rendezvous with Rama" and "Childhood's End." So when I saw this book at the library, I naturally picked it up. It's coauthored by Stephen Baxter, who is apparently a well-known name to science fiction readers (I'd never heard of him, but I'm always behind the times so that's no surprise).

The basic premise of the novel is what captured my interest. Hiram Patterson, the CEO of OurWorld, a major tech company in the year 2035, has discovered a way to create and use wormholes to instantly transmit information. Hiram is a greedy, manipulative genius who is mainly concerned with creating and keeping his vast empire. He's breeding his two sons, David and Bobby, to help him achieve his goals: David is a scientist who works on the wormhole technology, and Bobby is meant to one day take Hiram's place as the head of the company. It isn't long before the wormhole technicians discover that they can use the wormholes to transmit light i.e. to look at anything they want anywhere in the world. And from this development, they learn that they can look not just any WHERE but any WHEN - they're able to open wormholes that look back in time.

Imagine being able to watch Lincoln give his Gettysburg Address. Or to see for yourself just what life was like for Jesus of Nazareth. The whole world changes as they discover once and for all just how history REALLY happened. The "Worm Cams" also completely eradicate the idea of privacy - anyone can look at anyone else at any time they choose, without being seen (the wormholes are too small to be seen by the naked eye).

So the novel is full of interesting ideas. Unfortunately, there are too many ideas, and many are half-developed or abandoned along the way. I felt like the book was more Baxter than Clarke, just from having read a lot of Clarke's stuff before. I mean, Clarke was in his 80's when the book was published in 2000... how much could he really have collaborated?

The characters are poorly developed, the dialogue is stiff and mostly exposition, and the description of the science behind the wormholes is dense and difficult to follow. I managed to completely avoid taking any physics classes in high school or college (stuck to the biological sciences), and I never once regretted that decision... until I started reading this book. Entire pages of explanations blurred beneath my vision. I understand that quantum physics is a popular topic in some science fiction circles, but how much is necessary for the reader to understand in order to enjoy the story? I just need to know the wormholes are plausible; I don't need to know exactly how they work.

The ending of the novel introduces several interesting new developments in the wormhole technology and a new discovery in human history, but both feel rushed and almost out of place, like they were jammed in at the last minute. But why? Why throw interesting ideas in at the end and then not expand on them? And I haven't even gotten to the Wormwood plot yet. Scientists discover that a gigantic asteroid called the Wormwood is headed for Earth and will cause an extinction level event in the next 500 years. We're reminded of this Wormwood over and over and over throughout the book - humanity has become apathetic, people decide "well, it's all gonna end, so fuck it, let's do whatever we want," no one can figure out how to stop it - and then at the very end of the book, it's given literally a three sentence summation - and it's a casual aside that a character says.

I feel like there's so much I haven't mentioned, including a major character that serves as love interest for Bobby. Which brings me back to the idea that this could stand to be adapted for the big screen. Why do I say that? Because this novel could use a lot of simplification. I don't necessarily mean they need to dumb down the science (although that would help people like me out), I mean they need to cut some storylines and focus in on the good stuff.

But maybe I should be careful what I wish for. Next thing you know, they'll be Baynis all over this, and THEN what good would it be?