The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

sTitleThe Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson & The Olympians #2)
Author: Rick Riordan
Genre: Children’s fiction, fantasy
Rating4/5

A new year, a new school to get expelled from. Sea of Monsters begins with Percy at his latest school, a feel-good new age school, and he’s managed to make it almost a whole year. He has a new friend- a giant, childish outcast named Tyson- and of course a new set of bullies bent on making his life hard. When the bullies gang up on Percy and Tyson during a dodge ball match with a group of visiting students who happen to be inhumanly strong cannibals, well, long story short the gym goes up in flames and Percy’s on the run all over again.

With the help of his friend Annabeth, Percy and Tyson escape to Camp Half-Blood, which Percy not only has to face the fact that his new buddy is a cyclops but is also Percy’s half-brother. Percy doesn’t have much time to process everything, though, because his best friend Grover is missing, he’s having dreams where Grover is trapped in a cave sewing a wedding dress, and the magical tree that has been protecting Camp Half-Blood has been poisoned, more than likely by their old friend-turned-enemy, Luke. A quest is in the air, and thanks to their new activities director, Tantalus, it’s bestowed upon… Clarisse, the bullying daughter of Ares who, by the way, wants to murder Percy. Surprise, surprise, Percy and his friends sneak off in the middle of the night to (hopefully) save the day.

To answer the question I posed in my review of The Lightning Thief: did Sea of Monsters maintain the momentum and keep me interested? Absolutely! The fast pace of the plot keeps the story from dragging. A lot of the themes remain the same and the stories are predictable, but the characters and adventures are so much for that you hardly notice. I like that Riordan brings in new characters on both sides to keep the pool fresh while continuing to develop his main characters. Tyson was a surprising and endearing new character who allowed for Percy to recognize some of his faults and become a better protagonist. Riordan also ends the story with one hell of a cliffhanger, which makes it impossible not to immediately continue to the third book.

One of the prevalent themes in this series is the questioning of authority. I like that Riordan encourages kids not to follow their elders and superiors blindly, and to stick up for themselves and their friends. Riordan is careful to also include moments where Percy wants to rebel really badly, but he recognizes that he needs to respect that particular symbol of authority. A good example of this is the camp director Dionysus, or Mr. D. Mr. D appears blase and indifferent to the fates of his campers, and Percy is constantly questioning whether Mr. D has their best interests in mind. However, Mr. D is a god, in a position of power, and Percy doesn’t really know Mr. D’s intentions yet, so he holds back around him.

I became much more emotionally invested in Percy as a character through this book, and I look forward to seeing how he grows up and develops throughout the series.

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The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

lTitleThe Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson & The Olympians #1)
Author: Rick Riordan
Genre: Children’s fiction, fantasy
Rating4/5

After reading nothing but full-length novels and short story anthologies the past month or so, I was more than read to sit back and get lost in a fun series. The first installment of Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians series definitely did the trick, as I’m almost done with the third book after starting the series five days ago. I chose this series because I’ve been interested in Greek/Roman mythology since I was a kid and because a number of friends recommended it to me. I’m so glad it lived up to my expectations!

Percy Jackson is a twelve year old with ADHD, dyslexia and a serious knack for getting expelled from schools. When his math teachers spontaneously sprouts wings and tries to murder him during a field trip, he starts to realize that his life isn’t going to get any easier. After being pursued by monsters and losing his mother, Percy ends up at Camp Half-Blood, a summer training camp for the children of the gods, or demigods. It turns out Percy is the son of Poseidon, the sea god, Zeus believes he’s stolen a lightning bolt more powerful than all of the world’s nuclear weapons, and technically he’s not even supposed to exist. He begins his first quest to bring back the bolt and clear his name, and try to find his mom along the way.

What I liked most was Percy’s distinctive voice as he narrated the story. A big problem I have with a lot of children’s and young adult fiction is voice. These genres more often than not nowadays use first person, which is only an effective tool, in my opinion, if you can create an interesting and engaging narrative voice. Nothing is more boring than bland first person POV. Percy’s voice is anything but, and we see his world through a very believable set of twelve year old boy’s eyes. The narrative is hilarious and fun to read, and Percy is both a likable and sympathetic main character.

Considering this is a book for children, and I come from a teaching/education background, I do look at series like this a little critically. I like that this series has a number of strong female characters and that their strength isn’t questioned or made fun of by the male characters. I do wish the story wasn’t so dominated by male characters, but I’m hoping that improves as the series progresses. I also like how Riordan found a way to put a positive spin on ADHD and dyslexia, which still have such a stigma in schools.

If you’re looking for a fun, lighthearted series to lose yourself in, I definitely recommend Percy Jackson & The Olympians. I will continue to review the books as I finish them to see if the series can maintain the momentum of the first.

The S.E.A Write Anthology of Thai Short Stories & Poems

sTitleThe S.E.A. Write Anthology of Thai Short Stories & Poems
Author: Various; Edited by Nitaya Masavisut and Matthew Grose
Genre: Short stories/poetry
Rating3/5

The The S.E.A. Write Anthology of Thai Short Stories & Poems is a compilation of works by authors who have won the S.E.A. Write award from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. The anthology covers five short story authors and six poets, which is a lot for such a small anthology of less than 150 pages. This anthology is more informational than enjoyable, in my opinion, mostly because of its wide range of authors. The anthology does a good job of showing the diversity of Thai writers and their writing styles, but it leaves something to be desired.  I found myself wanting to read more by most of these writers beyond the two or three works included in the anthology, but translation of these works still do not exist today. The anthology itself is outdated as the most recent work is from 1995. I found the short stories infinitely more enjoyable than the poetry, but I think that is more of a translation issue than anything else. Poetry is rhythmical and the meaning is incredibly difficult to translate, even more difficult than a short story or novel.

My feelings of frustration did not keep me from enjoying the writing itself, though. A number of short stories stood out to me as brilliant works which hit various themes of Thai life which were familiar and others that were new to me. The first is “The Song of the Leaves” by Vanich Charungkij-anant, which tells the story of a grandmother deeply involved in a folk music tradition that is dying out around her. She tries to get her granddaughter involved, but with no success. The old woman can feel her life coming to an end, and she worries for her granddaughter whom she’s been supporting through her music, but more than anything else music is always on the grandmother’s mind. She goes to another performance and finds her eyesight going. Her granddaughter comes to her aid, and then next thing everyone sees is the granddaughter climbing the stage and performing in a voice that could only be her granddmother’s. The story crosses the lines of the realistic and the spiritual while describing an aspect of Thai culture I hadn’t read about before.

Two stories which touched on familiar themes were “The Beggars” by Anchan and “Mid-Road Family” by Sila Khomchai. “The Beggars” describes the life of a beggar couple both through their eyes and the eyes of those around them. They stop a monk on his daily alms trip and the monk wonders briefly if they’re going to attack him, but they give him a small offering of cooked rice. A rich couple pass by the beggar woman on the street and the girl, a young celebrity, hands her a 500 baht note (a little less than $20), just to see her react to the amount. The young woman says, “But it’s really a very good thing… that some awfully poor people do exist.” Her boyfriend counters with, “And makes themselves useful for being poor,” poking fun and playfully criticizing the shallow inspiration the actress finds in the beggar’s reaction to money. The reactions to the couple and how society uses them- in one rage-inducing section the author describes the artists and writers who are similarly inspired by the couple without ever offering them aid- contrasted against the couple’s simple but pure way of viewing their world is eye-opening to anyone familiar or unfamiliar with the beggar culture in modern Thailand.

“Mid-Road Family” was a much more lighthearted read, thank goodness. This story touches on a very familiar aspect of life for anyone living in or around Bangkok- the insane levels of traffic. The narrator of the story is a man who loves his car and sees it as another home simply because of how much time he spends in it. He describes how his wife will prepare them for daily outings with all of the necessities for sitting in traffic: food, drink, a change or clothes, even a portable toilet. The narrator never seems frustrated or surprised at the levels of traffic, but conveys the extreme amount through the things he does to pass the time. He gets out of the car to stretch and meets people, which sometimes leads to good business opportunities. A man invites him to start planting a banana garden in a median in the road so the two spend some time gardening and chatting while not a car moves around them. In the midst of traffic hell the man sees his car as an air-conditioned oasis. In the end, the narrator learns that his wife is pregnant, when their last sexual encounter also took place in the car during heavy traffic. And his reactions is priceless:

I gasp, go cold like a log for a second or two before shouting hurray to myself- Chaiyo! Chaiyo! She vomits into the plastic bag. The noise and smell do not bother me at all. I merely want to leap out of my car and cry out:

“My wife is pregnant! Do you hear? She’s pregnant! We did it on the road.”

If you’re looking for just a taste of Thai literary style, I recommend this anthology. For someone like me, who wants to read more when she finds an author whose style she likes, you might also find this anthology one big tease. The short stories and poems do a very good job of introducing modern aspects and themes of Thai life to the newly acquainted reader.

Hooray, my first book review of 2014! I’m proud to say that I’ve already finished my second book as well. Expect another review in the next couple days.

Many Lives by Kukrit Pramoj

many-lives-m-r-kukrit-pramoj-paperback-cover-artTitleMany Lives
Author: Kukrit Pramoj
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3/5

Many Lives is a short novel by Thai author Kukrit Pramoj, who was not only a renowned author but a politician, the thirteenth Prime Minister of Thailand, an actor and a scholar. Pramoj was inspired to write this novel when he passed by a terrible accident on the road. Bodies lay along the side of the street and he wondered who each of those people were and how they all had come to die in such a terrible way in the same place and time. Originally this novel was supposed to be written by Pramoj and his author friends, but when his friends became indecisive he decided to take on the project on his own. The result is this touching and eye-opening novel which tells the life stories of eleven victims of a passenger boat accident.

At the beginning of the novel the undefined narrator asks, “Could each have carried the same weight of heinous karma?” Karma is the Buddhist belief that the actions of your previous lives will affect your current one. If you were a bad person in your old life, you are doomed to suffer in this life. Each of the characters- a thief, monk, prostitute, prince, actor, daughter, writer, mother, soldier, rich girl and doctor- meet their end at entirely different points in their lives after experiencing entirely different things up to that point. Pramoj writes in the epilogue:

All that most of us ordinary mortals, who are not the Lord Brahma, can see if just one thing: which is that death, so much feared by us all, can in some cases be a dreadful punishment for wrongdoing, in some cases a reward for virtue; in others, the solution to a problem, or in still others, a healing balm for a wound unable to be healed by any other means.

So, in a way, Pramoj answers his original question. You cannot assume that a person’s death came as a result of bad karma, and even if it did, death might for that person be not such a bad thing. There is no one way to view death; there are as many kinds of death as there are people in the world.

On a scholarly level, I loved this novel. The wide variety of characters provided a fascinating look into Thai life in the 1950s in all its forms. I especially enjoyed that Pramoj told a story from the point of view of a monk. All Thai boys at some point in their lives become monks in order to make merit. The merit is not only for himself but for his entire family, and will help them all obtain better status in their next lives. Buddhist monastic life and philosophy is extremely interesting and and integral part of understanding Thai society.

Some of Pramoj’s characters, however, rubbed me the wrong way, in particular the way he portrayed the “bad” characters and some of the women. In the story of the bandit, Pramoj writes him off as being evil from the moment he was born. He had no chance to become a functioning member of society and was destined to bring pain to everyone around him. He hurt and killed without a bit of remorse without any tangible, understandable reason for why his personality developed this way. I’m extremely uncomfortable with anyone saying that a person could simply be born this way without there being any external influences. The second character I took real issue with was the prostitute, who was of course a woman, and who Pramoj expects us to believe gets sold into prostitution and then for the rest of her life only sees her body as a way to make money. She is totally consumed by her obsession with making money, which is supposedly a result of her growing up in poverty. At least Pramoj creates a reason behind this behavior, but again I am uncomfortable with how Pramoj gave this character very little depth.

All in all, I recommend this novel. Though set in the 1950s, much of the social classes in Many Lives still exist in some form today. I especially recommend it for getting a taste of the lives lead by Buddhist monks and Thai royalty, whose lives are unique in Thai society.

If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

374233Title: If on a winter’s night a traveler
Author: Italo Calvino
Genre: Fiction/Metafiction
Rating: 5/5

A reader sits down to start reading Italo Calvino’s latest novel. He gets through a single chapter only to find blank pages where the second should be. The pattern repeats throughout the novel in an obvious production error, so the Reader gives up and plans to take the book back to the bookstore the next morning. There we meet a second Reader, a woman named Ludmilla who is passionate about reading and is exchanging the same novel.  The shopkeeper explains to them that not only were there novels faulty, the actual story was not even Calvino’s but an insertion of a different novel by a different author. Already engrossed in the story, both Readers decide to buy a proper copy of this new novel instead. When they resume reading that night, they find that this new novel has absolutely no relation to the one they’ve started.

Thus starts the two Readers’ adventure to try and secure an ending to one of the countless novels they encounter. The story is divided between the actions and thoughts of the original reader and the chapters of what he reads throughout his journey. He travels to distant lands, encounters numerous readers with vastly different opinions on reading and becomes embroiled in literary conspiracies,  all in pursuit of being able to finally finish just one novel.

I gave this novel the subgenre metafiction because it’s an important factor to note when deciding whether or not to read it. As with all of Calvino’s works, the plot of this story is far from linear or anything you’d expect from your average story. This novel is fiction about fiction (the meaning of the term metafiction), and urges the actual reader (though the character readers do this as well) to think about reading and all of the varieties of reading that exist in the world. Why do you read? What do you look for in a novel? What is the most important thing you aim to get out of reading? This novel brushes on the topic of the writer as well, but primarily this story displays the vast diversity of readers and kinds of reading. The writing is witty and at times mind-teasing, but you’ll find that you learn a lot about yourself as you follow the path of the Reader.

As I read I found numerous points of inspiration which I plan to share as a series of quotes to get us all thinking about our reading using Calvino’s amazing language.

Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For A Laugh by Mo Yan

207559Title: Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For A Laugh
Author: Mo Yan
Genre: short stories
Rating: 4.5/5

Shortly after introducing Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For A Laugh in my Monday memes, I finished the last story in the collection. This collection of short stories by Mo Yan contains a wide variety of of themes and serves as a great introduction to Mo Yan for those not already familiar with him. There are eight stories total but in this review I’ll focus on my favorite three: “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh,” “Soaring,” and “Abandoned Child.”

“Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh” is about Ding shifu, who’s been working for the same factory for years and is mere days away from his retirement when the company decides to let go of most of their workers. The title “shifu,” is given to people who are a master of their trade, or just as a way to show respect to someone who has been working for a long time. With no hope of getting his due pension, Ding shifu has to find a new way to support his family and falls into despair. He gets a business idea when he spends an afternoon watching young couples in the park sneak off into the woods to get close. He builds a shack which he charges these young couples to use and makes a killing at it, at least until a couple comes along months later who enter the shack and then become deathly quiet. Convinced the couple has committed double suicide, Ding shifu runs around town trying to figure out what he should do. When he finally brings a police officer to the scene, they find no one in the shack. In this realistically bleak and yet humorous story the reader is left wondering what forces of nature had stepped in and brought an end to Ding shifu’s less than honorable business. Were they ghosts? Did the couple play a joke on Ding shifu for making money off of young love?

In “Soaring,” a newly wedded bride gets a look at her new groom and takes off flying– literally. The entire town gives chase, trying to coax her down as she gets further and further away from her new home. Even her own family gets involved and begs her to accept her marriage or she’ll ruin the marriage for her mute brother which was so hard to set up and is contingent upon the poor girl’s marriage. Nothing affects the flying bridge, who eventually ends up sitting in a tree with the entire crowd watching her. Finally she is shot down and killed with a bow and arrow, and the groom laments the loss of his beautiful bride. Again humor mixes with a stark portrayal of truth about how powerless bridges are in their arranged marriages.

The last story of the collection is “Abandoned Child,” which describes the terrible effects the one child policy has specifically on those who live in the rural parts of China who still cling to the belief that male children are more valuable than female. The main character finds a baby girl abandoned in a sunflower field and brings her home. His family is devastated and angry because he already has one child, a girl, and all of their hopes were for him to produce a second, male, child. He goes to the local government which suggests he go around and ask widows/widowers if they would take in the child, but he finds that these families also only want boys. Meanwhile the government official mentions that if the rescuer keeps the child, he’ll have to pay the fine for having more than one child. The story ends with the fate of the little girl unclear and the main character disgusted by the people of his hometown. This story is devoid of the humor of the previous two but the narrator of the story has a disillusioned, desperate tone that will stay with you long after you finish reading.

As I mentioned, there are five other stories in the collection which are also very worth reading. I hope that readers out there will give this collection, and Mo Yan himself, a chance. I have three of his novels sitting on my TBR pile and they’ve just been given higher priority, so look forward to more reviews of Mo Yan’s work.