Friday, July 24, 2009

Bookworm's progress report #4, 2009

Percy Jackson to the rescue! Since my last progress report, I managed to finish 4 books thanks to Rick Riordan's easy-to-read, entertaining series for young adults. Indeed, all 4 of the books I read in the past 2 months are young adult lit, and it's been refreshing indulging my inner teenage bookworm.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

I fell in love with this teenage love story just as a teenager would: hard, fast, and with all the kilig my jaded 28-year-old self is still capable of feeling. Told from the alternating points of view of the eponymous characters, the account of one night of crazy kismet kicks off with a kiss, and what follows is a wild ride through Manhattan filled with music, madness, making out, and moving on. I really enjoyed this book, primarily because of the authors' terrific writing styles. Rachel Cohn and David Levithan make Nick and Norah come alive using a language that is very now, very honest, and very real. It's intelligent writing, but in a slick, almost subversive way. These are not your pretentiously profound or insubstantially inane high schoolers; they're just a couple of kids with the usual hang-ups and the usual heartaches. Nick and Norah's "voices" are thoroughly believable as teenagers confused and scared by the awesome/awful concept of falling in love, and they remind the reader (at least this reader) that love is always confusing and scary at any age, but also very, very cool.

The Lightning Thief (Book One in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series)

While I enjoyed the first installment in the Percy Jackson series, I did find it too Harry Potteresque for comfort. Young hero going through a rough childhood discovers he's special in a mythical way (magical in Harry's case), gets put in a summer camp for children the gods of Olympus sired with mortals (like a Grecian Hogwarts), and learns of a prophecy that may be singling him out as the chosen one who could either spell the doom or salvation of Olympus (just as "The Boy Who Lived" would bring down He Who Must Not Be Named). Fans of the HP series will either resent or appreciate the many parallels, and in my case I was constantly vacillating between the two.

Where PJ veers away from HP though is the smart and playful use of figures from Greek mythology, which I really liked. The gods and goddesses of Olympus are given fresh, funky makeovers, along with other mythological figures and monsters from ancient Greek lore. The teenaged protagonists, Percy and his sidekicks Annabeth (a fellow half-blood) and Grover (a satyr), unlike the Rowling trio of Harry, Hermione and Ron, are just that, teenagers, speaking and behaving like normal 14-year-old kids would (as normal as offspring of immortals can be), with none of the unrealistic precociousness or artificial maturity young heroes in these kinds of books tend to possess.

In The Lightning Thief, Percy embarks on his first quest as a "hero" (in the tradition of Hercules, Jason, his namesake Perseus, et al), hurdles the usual and some unusual challenges along the way, faces enemies expected and unexpected, and comes to terms with his being the son of an Olympian. Again, there's a Potter flavor to it all, but discounting that, it is a fun, engaging literary romp, with memorable and genuinely likeable characters. As a bonus, Rick Riordan's writing style is better than J.K. Rowling's in that it's less stuffy (less British?), more consistent, and generally friendlier (more American?), and because of that I think it will appeal to younger, hipper readers. Book One of the PJ series was good enough to make me look forward to Book Two, namely...

The Sea of Monsters (Book Two in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series)

The sea in the title refers to the same body of water sailed by my man Odysseus on his way home to Ithaca in Homer's immortal Odyssey. Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase set out on a nautical mission to rescue their satyr friend Grover from the clutches of the cyclops Polyphemus, as well as to retrieve the Golden Fleece to help cure the poisoned tree protecting the borders of Camp Half-Blood. I enjoyed the many Odyssey references sprinkled throughout this 2nd volume in the PJ series, but I still couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I was reading a Harry Potter ripoff. Worse, I could no longer convince myself that Riordan's writing is good-- he may be better than Rowling, but his writing still comes off as flimsy and frivolous. I realize it IS a book for children, but I prefer my children's lit with better style and more substance.

Minus the novelty of The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters is definitely the inferior book. Not only is the writing weaker, but a key character introduced, a young Cyclops named Tyson, is made to sound uncomfortably like a lumbering retard. Every time he appeared on a page I'd skim over his lines as quickly as I could just to avoid cringing. Again, perhaps I should be more forgiving of a book meant for younger readers, but I found myself getting disenchanted with the PJ series. Too bad I had already purchased the 3rd book, which was...

The Titan's Curse (Book Three in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series)

Thankfully, Book 3 of the PJ series was an improvement over Book 2. A lot of new characters are introduced in The Titan's Curse, and some are interesting enough to make one forget about Riordan's unpolished writing style. Percy Jackson is on yet another quest, this time aided by Annabeth, Grover, and a half-blood named Thalia, a tough, street-smart Goth girl (I prefer to picture her as Goth rather than Riordan's choice of "punk", which is just so 90s). After they help rescue half-blood siblings Bianca and Nico Di Angelo, Percy and his posse join forces with the Hunters, a group of immortal Amazonian-like warriors serving the virgin goddess Artemis, to uncover and foil a plot that could lead to the undoing of Olympus. There is more action in this book, more humor, and generally more entertainment, and there were moments that reminded me why I actually like the series enough to keep reading it. There may not be the same emotional attachment to the characters as there was with the cast of the HP series, but they are sufficiently likeable, and while I don't really care about what happens to them, I am curious.

Shortly after finishing The Titan's Curse, I found out there's already a film adaptation of The Lightning Thief, so it gave me added incentive to purchase the 4th and penultimate book in the PJ series, The Battle of the Labyrinth. I'm hoping it will prove to be better than the previous 3 volumes, especially since I'm expecting the series to end with a bang, seeing as how the 5th and final book received a good review in the New York Times. Let's see if Percy Jackson will truly emerge a real hero.


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