Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Last Olympian

My son and I recently finished reading RICK RIORDAN's PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS series. The fifth and final book was THE LAST OLYMPIAN, in which Percy Jackson has his final showdown with Kronos, the super-villain introduced in the first book.

This book was an enjoyable read on its own and very satisfying conclusion to the series. Some of the events were predictable, but there were also a number of surprises. The characters evolve, the story has lots of action in it, and the plot is pleasantly free of cheats or contrived moments.

I would highly recommend this as a series to interest young people in reading. I have mentioned before that it borrows a lot from the J. K. ROWLING formula, but it definitely doesn't read like a cheap knock-off. Riordan infuses the stories with a style and theme all his own.

Battle for the Labyrinth

I just finished BATTLE FOR THE LABYRINTH, the fourth book in RICK RIORDAN's PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS SERIES. My son is wrapping up the fifth and final book right now, and I'm looking forward to wrapping it up too, though I can't quite imagine how Riordan plans to pay off all the developing plot lines in one book.

In Battle for the Labyrinth Luke and his band of evil monsters continue their quest to raise Kronos. This time they intend to also exploit the labyrinth, a continent-spanning underground maze, in order to attack Camp Halfblood.

It sounds silly, but it was quite enjoyable. One of Riordan's conceits for the series is that the major locations in the Greek myths migrate with the center of Western Civilization. (And in typical U.S.-centric thinking, that means they are here in the states.) Mount Olympus, for instance, is reached by going to the top of the Empire State Building. In this book we discover that the labyrinth built by Daedalus underlies and has entrances all over the U.S.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Roller Ball Murder

ROLLERBALL (1975) contains a dozen short stories by WILLIAM HARRISON. The handful of people who have picked up this book over the years probably did it for the same reason I did, because of the now-infamous ROLLER BALL MURDER story which was the inspiration for the original movie (ROLLERBALL 1975) and a sequel (ROLLERBALL 2002). Just from flipping through the book I sort of figured out that the book was a collection of short stories, and that few or none of them were related to Roller Ball Murder. Still, I had hopes, and I was definitely surprised to discover that most of the stories aren't even science fiction.

Setting aside my disappointment that this book wasn't fully of cheesy, savage stories about retro-future, 1970's style, made-up blood sports, I was fairly impressed with the writing overall. One reviewer at likened Harrison to a cross between Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl, with a bit of Stephen King thrown in. This is a perfect characterization, actually.

The stories grow progressively darker as they move toward the terminal Roller Ball Murder story. The tales were written between 1968 and 1973, the earliest featuring more nostalgic or redemptive themes (THE PINBALL MACHINES and THE HERMIT).

The somewhat loose threads that bind the stories together are the characters. Most are seekers, chasing after some form of meaning which forever eludes them. Some of the characters chuck it and go for self-immolation or turn into predators who exploit those around them. Mostly though, the search for something "real" is honest. The title character of Roller Ball Murder, Jonathan E, is a good example. Despite the glory and thrill of the game his life is increasingly burdened with weariness and disappointment. He is a self-deluding hamster churning out his life on a wire wheel (albeit a bloody one with 300 mph cannonballs).

Of course, the grim vision of the future in Roller Ball Murder is enough reason on its own to read the story, especially for fans of dystopian fiction.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Drifter's Escape

Ben Lehman, designer of the ground-breaking ROLEPLAYING GAME, POLARIS, has just published THE DRIFTER'S ESCAPE VOL. 1. I bought it at a cool little gaming store in Northampton, MA (MODERN MYTH) and read it on the plane ride home.

The Drifter's Escape is tiny little book (roughly 4" x 5") divided into two parts. I want to talk about the first part last. The second part of the book is a set of very simple, but seemingly very workable rules for communally creating stories. It's a ROLEPLAYING GAME ... not as radical a departure from the "norm" as Polaris, but certainly still pretty innovative. The story revolves around a drifter, played by one person within the group. The other players control a spectrum of characters divided between two conceptual identities, The Devil and The Man. I bought the book just to see what Ben was up to now. The theme didn't appeal to me all that much, but two things changed my mind. The first was the rules. As I read through them ideas kept popping into my head for what I could do with this theme.

The second was the stuff in the first portion of the book, seven bits of fiction by Jake Lehman. (I suppose we can assume some relationship between the two others, but none is stated.) These little vignettes (only one of them could really be called a "story" I think) were really exceptional. I enjoyed them immensely, though they are a bit hard to describe. Most occur in a poetic, dream-like environment where the bounds of reality are constantly and casually trampled underneath underfoot.

At first I thought to myself, "what the hell do these stories have to do with a game about drifters?" The relationship really isn't all that logical. Yes, there are lots of drifters in the fiction, I suppose, but the game itself seems to be more focused on reality than on the kind of mystical journey evidenced in the stories. Still. There is nothing that would prevent someone from telling these kinds of stories using the game. And Jake's tales had a kind of Beat feel to them that I found really inspiring.

There were two lines in the stories that I thought fit in with the game really well. They probably won't make sense out of context, but if you pick up the book watch out for them.

I tell him the truth, "I'm just following the dog."


I didn't say anything. I wasn't about to get between a man and the demons that wanted to drag him under the earth.

I think I'm rambling at this point, so let me wrap it up with this. The Drifter's Escape is totally worth picking up. The game sounds cool to play and the fiction is awesome. It's a real "two-fer."

The Red Book

My friends recently introduced me to the wonderful picture books of BARBARA LEHMAN. Barbara's books are nonverbal; they have no words whatsoever, but they do manage to tell a story. In fact, they can tell a number of stories, with help from you or your children.

THE RED BOOK and THE MUSEUM TRIP were my favorites of the four I read at my friends' house. The books are about 30 pages long. Each page contains one or more nicely drawn "panels" that relate to each other in a narrative way. However, the reader has to do just a tiny bit of work to figure out what is going on between the panels ... which is a good thing.

The books relate almost quirky stories of "wonder" in which the main character is having a little adventure unperceived by the adults around him or her. The adventures window out into clever little spaces and the perspective occasionally changes so that the viewer experiences suprising cognitive shifts (seeing the space through the eyes of a different character or moving in and out of an imaginative plane).

In The Museum Trip, for instance, a student who stops to tie his shoes finds himself lost from his group. He wanders into a room devoted to ancient Minoa (not that this is something kids would necessarily get). There is a statue of a minotaur and a number of drawings of mazes, four or five of which are in a glass case. The boy projects himself mentally into the drawings, running through each maze in turn. At the center of each maze is a tree, except for the last maze which ...

Oh, I can't do it. It's not such a big surprise, but spelling the books out this way kind of ruins your first experience with them. Just go find these books at your library or bookstore and bring them home.

I found the books both simple and profound. They reminded me how powerful pure images can be in telling a story, and I would recommend these beautiful books not just to parents and their children, but to people working in narrative media.

My friends used the books to make their son more verbal; to help him start expressing his ideas in a more complete and rich fashion. They did this by simply asking questions about the unspoken portions of each panel. "Where is he now?" "What's happening?" "What do you think these people are saying?" The books seem like a perfect medium for this exercise.

The Titan's Curse


I mentioned before that I am reading these at the same time as my 10 year old son. (He passes them to me when he is done.)

Not only have I enjoyed this series so far, but the books keep getting better. My son tells me he can't decide if he likes book four better than book three, so I'm excited to move to the next volume in the series. We both agree that The Titan's Curse was better than the first two books, which we both liked as well.

In this installment Percy goes on a quest with other half-bloods to rescue Artemis. I could say more, but it would be too much of a spoiler for both this book and the previous ones.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How toTrain Your Dragon

The kids and I decided to quickly read HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, "translated" by CRESSIDA COWELL, before the movie came out. It was a wonderfully fun little book and seemed to appeal equally to both my 6 and 10 year old. There were a number of nice little jokes in the text and I thought the scratchy, scribbly drawings inside were fantastic. Looking at the movie trailer, though, it doesn't look like it mirrors the plot of the book much.

I would give a synopsis, but it's pretty much all there on the cover. To be a little more specific, though, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, a.k.a. Hiccup the Useless, is a young Viking who, along with his peers, is directed to capture a young dragon and train it as his entrance into manhood and the tribe. Things predictably don't go all that well for Hiccup, but he manages to keep plugging along and, eventually, his particular strengths come in handy.