Posted by: Tyler Mills | August 29, 2011

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion by Dan Simmons is a Hugo award-winning science fiction novel that kept me mentally engaged in a way that few books do. The book begins when seven individuals are chosen to be members of a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion. The pilgrimage’s are granted by the Shrike church, a mysterious organization that worships a strange monster called The Shrike and the Time Caves (an unprecedented time anomaly on Hyperion).  The Priest, The Soldier, The Poet, The Scholar, The Consul, The Captain, and The Detective all have a history with Hyperion and all of them have something to ask the benevolent/murderous Shrike. The group begins their journey while the Hegemony (the main government of humans) is on the brink of war with a mysterious race of fringe humans called The Ousters. As they travel they tell each other their tales and what brings them to Hyperion. The story style is similar to the Canterbury Tales and the Decameron.

Right off the bat this book had a very steep learning curve as we are bombarded with words like “farcasting” and “hawking drives” and various other rather intimidating references to confusing science. If you stick with it though, Simmons does a fantastic job at explaining the overall universe of his story and the science and history which belong to it as a background for the tales told in the novel. By the end, all you needed to know was made clear (excepting a few threads to lead us into the next book of the series).

Despite my early confusion when thrown into this universe, I found the story intriguing as I tried to piece together information about the world along with the narrative told in each of the character’s stories. Multiple time lines and varied perspectives on totally different aspects of the Hyperion Galaxy offered a very rich and complex setting in which all of these people had a role. In addition to the complexity of the science and history in Hyperion the novel is also rich with religious and literary diversity, speculating how various religious groups would survive if our species became one of galactic proportions. From a literary perspective Hyperion directly references Catholic Priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the “ancient” English poet John Keats, who features fairly prominently in the series, including having  an AI “cybrid”  based on him. (John Keats also wrote an unfinished epic poem called Hyperion).

I enjoyed many aspects of this book especially how many questions it raises about how various conventions of our lives would change if we quite simply applied to to a galactic scale instead of just one planet. I also enjoyed thinking about the aspects of various AI developments and considerations for thinking and learning computers, it was fascinating. Another great feature of the novel was the complexity of the characters and their backgrounds and motivations. They were all very different, and very flawed people who were trying to make the most out of an extremely unusual and trying situation. That was probably my favorite aspect of the book.

The only problem I had with Hyperion was the frequency of sexual references and profane language (especially by the poet, Martin Silenus). I felt that most of it was  unnecessary beyond simply adding color to the characters. Hyperion is a fantastic novel for readers who like to have a lot to contemplate as they read. It will keep you on your toes.

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Posted by: Tyler Mills | August 22, 2011

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher is the second book of The Dresden Files. This story continues the tales of Harry Dresden, resident wizard and paranormal consultant for the Chicago Police Department’s Special Investigations unit. Right off the bat this story plunges into action when Harry is called in to help investigate a series of gruesome murders. These murders occurred around the full moon, and yes, werewolves are suspected to be involved. Mr. Butcher took this somewhat conventional premise and twisted it his own way to make a true Dresden original that was gritty, intense, and considerably darker than the previous novel.

Dresden is really run through the meat grinder in Fool Moon. At the end of Storm Front Dresden is in a terrific battle that completely exhausts his magical strength. In this book that happens about 1/3 of the way in and for the rest of the book he is forced to face his enemies without the benefit of most of his magic. In addition to great external conflicts, Dresden’s  relationship with Murphy is extremely strained as he has had to withhold information from her for her own protection. Dresden is facing the most dangerous enemies he has ever encountered and he is doing it completely alone.

Jim Butcher continues to deliver a fast-paced, intense narrative laced with tension. This book took me several days to finish because it was a lot darker and more intense than its predecessor. I couldn’t marathon the story because it became painful to stay in Dresden’s head for a long period of time. Its that intense.

If you like horror and fantasy I highly recommend Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher.

Posted by: Tyler Mills | August 18, 2011

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose is not at all what I expected. When my sister suggested I read the book she explained the basic premise, which I found to be sound and interesting.  Ms. Prose basically asks why writer’s today are so obsessed with learning to write by taking classes, reading books on writing, learning from authors, etc.  She argues that the great writers of the past didn’t have those resources and still managed to produce incredible stories. I was led to expect that she was going to explain how author’s of the past would have learned to write (which is by reading and practicing, which every book on writing I have ever read repeats frequently) and offer practical advice for aspiring writers to read and better learn from reading. There were several good tidbits of information along this line,  but as for advice in writing itself I was let down considerably as the book progressed (which may have been my fault for having false expectations).

First, let me say that Francine Prose obviously has a background in literature and literary fiction, and it is from that perspective that most of her experience and advice comes. I have never taken a literature class (though that will change shortly), and I have a pretty balanced appreciation of both “literary” and “genre” fiction. I know how to read critically I am generally able to find enjoyment of both types of books, though usually a different type of enjoyment. Just as I can enjoy listening to jazz and classical music for different reasons. I found the book dissatisfying because I expected practical advice and I got several hundred pages of the author rambling about her favorite literature.

Rather than discussing the concept of Story in and of itself, Ms. Prose focuses on close reading and writing. That is to say there were chapters on both sentences and paragraphs where she tried to explain (with long excerpts throughout) what she sees as beautiful and ideal sentences and paragraphs, even some that were in some ways contrary to the usual advice on utility of a sentence. She gave two pieces of advice that I did find interesting to ponder. First, she strongly suggests that the only way to really appreciate a work is to consciously drop your political and personal baggage at the door and enjoy the book for what it is, and from what mindset the author and characters were created from. Second, she suggests slowing down, reading and admiring the words and sentences carefully, “stopping to smell the roses” as it were. I found the advice interesting, and in my recent re-reading of The Once and Future King (review forthcoming!) I found that is was both easier, more relaxing, and much more thought provoking(what a clumsy sentence) to read it  slowly (it took me 8 days to finish The Once and Future King, whereas most books take me two or three).

Ms. Prose offers a fairly hefty suggested reading list with each of her chapters on sentence, paragraph, character, etc. of authors to read and admire their particular strengths. I had only heard of two or three of the authors, and the only one I had read anything of was Anton Chekhov (who is incredible).  Overall, this book offered a very different view of writing and literature then I have ever been exposed to before, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m hoping my literature class this fall can help open my eyes a little bit to the “literature perspective” if you will, so I can better appreciate the kind of works Ms. Prose was talking about. Most of the time when I was Reading Like a Writer she was saying how great a certain author’s characters are, then there would be a series of really long excerpts from various works that I would read and not find that fantastic. Possible solutions: I’m blind. She’s full of it. *shrugs*

I guess I’ll just have to keep reading, keep writing, and find out for myself like all the great authors of old…

Posted by: Tyler Mills | August 15, 2011

Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

!This post contains spoilers!

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockinjay by Suzanne Collins is an interesting trilogy set in a futuristic sort-of-post-apocalyptic North America called Panem. The story revolves around a teenage female protagonist named Katniss Everdeen, a hardened hooligan of District 12 who is no stranger to breaking the rules in order to survive. The story is largely driven by milieu. The Capitol and the twelve surrounding districts are balanced on a very unstable status quo in which the tyrannical Capitol subjugates each of the districts into producing various resources to fuel their extravagances while most people in the districts struggle to survive from day to day. The Capitol uses an institutional “sporting” event called The Hunger Games to keep the districts in fear and remind them how pitiful they are compared to the mighty capitol. Each year teenagers from each district are entered into a raffle  and two tributes are selected from each district to battle to the death in the Hunger Games, the last person standing returns to their District as a hero and lives a life of luxury.

In The Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen gains the attention of the Capitol when she volunteers to be a tribute in place of her innocent cardboard sister, Prim. Her fellow tribute from 12, Peeta Mellark is harboring some latent romantic feelings which despite being confusing and odd from the perspective of Katniss, are very helpful to them in winning popular support during The Games. The first book is recounts the entire 74th Hunger Games in detail.  Suzanne Collins does a fantastic job at introducing the setting and situation of Panem without info-dumping all over the page. The conflict was introduced at a quick, but manageable, pace and when the Games actually begins Collins pacing really shines as we live the action in an intense and painful way. The ending was surprising and I enjoyed it greatly. The only overall complaint I had with the book was with Peeta. Multiple times early in the novel Peeta’s physical skills are foreshadowed as “more than they appear” and yet we never see Peeta do anything physically impressive, I found this broken promise annoying because Katniss always had to haul his butt out of the fire. The redeeming qualities of Peeta and his overall goodness and nobility are also emphasized, and Collins presents them better, but half of them are still off screen (the whole trilogy is told from the first person perspective of Katniss) so we hear about him being a really good guy, but most the time when he is actually around he is a lovesick cripple.

Catching Fire continues the trilogy as Peeta and Katniss find themselves at odds after Katniss makes a series of major communication errors at the end of The Hunger Games. In addition, their swashbuckling defiance of the Capitol’s dominance has apparently incited rebellion in the Districts and President Snow blackmails/extorts/coerces Katniss into trying to twist the public image in the President’s favor. After failing to do so Peeta, Katniss, and Haymitch are thrown into the 75th Hunger Games in which all the competitors are previous victors from their districts. This Hunger Games felt much different from the first one and when the surprise twist was revealed at the end of the book I wasn’t at all surprised. I didn’t know what was going on, but it was painfully obvious that this Hunger Games had more going on behind the scenes then Katniss was aware of.

Mockingjay continues and closes the trilogy as Katniss struggles with a rather convoluted love triangle and comes to terms with being the plaything of the political powers that be. The districts are in open rebellion and the status quo is blown to heck as Katniss & C0. try to ride out the storm and figure out what to do about it. Mockingjay was the hardest novel for me to get interested in because I was getting bored with the characters. There was this fantastic advanced technology war going on and we were still stuck in the head of a teenager who is becoming more and more psychologically screwed as the story continues. By time she finally got involved with the war I was pretty bored and just looking to see the story resolve. The surprise-random-deaths at the end of the book felt pretty stupid to me and at that point I was beyond caring about the resolution of most of the characters. When the romantic conflict was resolved at the end I was fairly satisfied with it, but overall it bothered me that all we were left with was these two invalids living in a house in the middle of nowhere with the whole world gone to heck and they just don’t seem to care. If I can’t care about the characters (or the characters don’t care) I cease to care about the story.

For that reason I think the first book was clearly the best of the trilogy. Katniss makes a heroic decision to save her sister and against all odds is able to survive a truly traumatic and insane event that she didn’t even want to experience in the first place. After that conflict was resolved everything else in the series felt sort of pitiful by comparison. Which shouldn’t happen when the books are about a revolution. Overall I liked the series, I just came away liking it less at the end then I did after the first book.

Posted by: Tyler Mills | August 8, 2011

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front by Jim Butcher is the first book of The Dresden Files, a series of books telling tales of one Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, a wizard and paranormal consultant for the special investigations unit of the Chicago Police Department. I first heard about these books from my college roommate and later had them recommended to me by a number of sources including Brandon Sanderson on Writing Excuses. I finally got my act together and went to the local library to see what all the fuss was about. In addition to the great premise I was instantly drawn in by Dresden’s humor and wit.

Butcher does a fantastic job with pace. I read the entire book in about six hours (of one day) and really had a hard time putting it down.  In Storm Front Dresden gets called in by the Chicago Police department to check out a particularly nasty double homicide. He wants to help out Karrin Murphy (his friend in the SI unit) but has to tiptoe around on a number of nasty rules of  magic/troublesome backstory that prohibit him from doing it in the most direct way possible. Butcher does an amazing job at giving the reader the information they need without dumping it on us. As the story proceeds we slowly gather information about how Dresden’s magic works, a little about his backstory, and a lot of about how Butcher’s world of magic works, all with great humor and fantastic action sequences along the way.

One thing I appreciate in any book that Mr. Butcher did exceptionally well was foreshadowing. In addition to subtle (the only good kind) foreshadowing of events later in the book he leaves several very blatant threats hints of danger that I’m sure will come in later books of the series.

This book was strong all the way through, the blend of magic/fantasy and contemporary features was seamless and provided an intense  setting for an action-packed story.  I highly recommend Storm Front, book one of The Dresden Files to anyone who likes happiness.

Posted by: Tyler Mills | August 1, 2011

Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour

As I do with many authors, if I enjoy their books I will take some time to learn a little about their lives. After I read To the Far Blue Mountains I decided to do a bit of research on Louis L’amour. One source I was led to was The Education of a Wandering Man, a memoir of Mr. L’Amour’s life experiences and learning from many periods of his life spanning from his teenage years until he began his writing career.

The book paints a fascinating portrait of a time in America which is very much forgotten in the modern day. He has an excellent memory and is obviously well-read and intelligent. The only flaw I found in the book was that in places the narrative would take tangents on very loosely related subjects, only to return back to the original topic like twenty or thirty pages later after I had forgotten all about where we were. It rather reminded me of sitting in front of a campfire and listening to an old man tell about the old days. It was enjoyable and he was filled with wit and wisdom, the narrative was just hard to follow at times.

Throughout the book Louis L’Amour frequently refers back to books he read during that time of his life. It was amazing to see the sacrifices he made, even sacrificing meals and other comforts, so that he could continue furthering his education through reading. It was humbling and inspiring to hear of the trials and pains that he endured silently as simply the way that life was in his young adult years. I doubt I could have survived half of the things he did.

If you are interested in glimpsing the life and soul of such a great writer and man, I highly recommend Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour.

Posted by: Tyler Mills | July 28, 2011

Goodreads.com

Earlier this week I was introduced to Goodreads.com, a social networking site specifically designed to rate, review, and share books with friends. I have spent some time exploring the website (including adding over 300 books to my “shelves”) and so far I really like what I’ve seen. Goodreads also has functions to collect your favorite quotes and even share creative writing with your friends. The only issue so far is that I have only been able to add about a half dozen friends, if more people I know were using the site it would be amazing! Hence this post. If you like to read and talk about books (which I assume you do if you bother to read this) then I highly recommend www.goodreads.com.

Posted by: Tyler Mills | July 25, 2011

Vortex by Troy Denning

Vortex is the sixth book of the Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi series and is easily my favorite thus far. Luke and Ben are tricked by Abeloth (who though seriously injured, was not defeated) and she escapes her prison in the Maw. Their tenuous Alliance with the Sith is falling apart and Darth Taalon falls into the pool of knowledge and is experiencing some very bizarre changes. Ben and Vestara’s relationship continues to develop on tenterhooks as she tricked Ben and almost gets Luke killed at the end of the previous novel. Happily, Ben doesn’t buy any of her crap about turning to the Dark Side (which got really old as a theme in Legacy of the Force) and I was impressed by the caliber of Jedi Knight we have in Ben Skywalker. Denning does a really great job at portraying Ben’s toughness as a young Jedi who has experienced a lot of evil in his days without completing abandoning the optimistic (and in some ways idealistic) inner core of his character.

Ben and Luke, and the Sith chase Abeloth to the Fallanasi planet in an effort to finish her off when all heck break loose. (Interestingly, and hopefully leaving a clue, this planet is one of the places where Jacen went on his sabbatical) Very cool battle scenes and some new Force abilities are explained.

Back on Coruscant, the Jedi Council is finally getting their act together even though Kenth Hamner is continuing his idiotic trend. When Saba, Kyp, and Corran discover that Kenth went behind their back to make a deal with Daala it results in an incredible showdown and my favorite battle scene of the book. The slavery uprisings continue across the galaxy, making Daala and her Mandalorian stooges look completely evil. Daala’s reputation and government is on the brink of disaster. Luckily, because the Jedi afflicted by Abeloth seem to be healed, tensions cool somewhat allowing the Jedi to finally get off their butts and send help to deal with the Sith. Jaina, Han, and Leia also lead a strike force to release Jysella and Valin Horn from their carbonite prisons.

Also, the  subplot of Tahiri’s trial moved forward and I found it very interesting and well paced (having never been much of a courtroom drama person before this).

This was easily my favorite book of Fate of the Jedi so far. It felt really good having the Jedi as a whole stop being stuck in the political quagmire and get out saving the galaxy like they are supposed to. My only complaint was how pointless and detached all the slavery stuff is. Even with a very interesting journalism scene that involves the deaths of some important people I have no idea how (or if) it connects to anything going on with the general plot of the Jedi, Sith, and Galactic Alliance.

In fact, as a whole that is one of the weaknesses Fate of the Jedi itself seems to suffer from. Legacy of the Force, the X-Wing Series, New Jedi Order, and other Star Wars series’ had much clearer plot arcs and problems for the characters/groups to solve. When different items are introduced in this series it either has a surprising connection or absolutely no connection, and its impossible to tell until about three books later.

The seventh book of of Fate of the Jedi is called Conviction and it is out as of this posting, but is not immediately available to me. As I will be returning to school soon it may be difficult to get a copy of the book for some time because of library accessibility. The eighth book: Ascension comes out in a few weeks but the final book of the series will not be released until April 2012. It is likely I will read and review all three of the remaining books in the series some time next spring. As usual, there is plenty of fantastic material out there and I will continue to find and share as much as I can with you here at Book Review Rants. Until next time, keep reading!

Posted by: Tyler Mills | July 18, 2011

Jumper by Stephen Gould

Jumper by Stephen Gould is a contemporary science fiction novel published in 1992. I came looking for this book after seeing the movie that is based (very, very, loosely) on the novel. I was drawn to the story by a very simple question. “What would you do if you could teleport?” David Rice gets a chance to answer that question when he accidentally “jumps” to the public library to avoid being beaten by his abusive father. David decides to use his powers to escape his past and run away from home.

Some time later, after getting mugged and having to face survival on the streets, David uses his powers to rob a bank and enjoys a life of travel, reading, and enjoying the delights of the New York culture scene. David meets and falls in love with a tourist named Millie and decides to hide his abilities from her. In addition, he decides to find his mother who abandoned him when he was a child.

The plot thickens significantly in the latter half of the book when the New York Police and later the National Security Agency become aware of David and his powers. They make the mistake of kidnapping Millie and earn the ire of a angry and desperate teleporter.

I enjoyed the story but one thing that bothered me was the frequency of profanity and sexual references. At times David was also a confusing character. He clearly has some serious psychological issues because of his past but occasionally it seemed like Gould would turn on a switch labeled “generic psychological angst” in which David would go from a smart, independent teleporter with some clear issues to a psychotic mental patient who is a danger to himself and others. I felt that David’s mental state and struggles could have been portrayed in a more clear and effective manner.

In my opinion the physical use of jumping and the science behind it was well thought out and explained satisfactorily. I also felt that David behaved logically for someone who discovers he has a super power. Overall I would say the book was a solid read, a 6.5/10 or so on an Tyler’s Scale of Book Rating Awesomeness.

Posted by: Tyler Mills | July 14, 2011

A Word On Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

As the release of the final film fast approaches I want to offer a quick word on the subject of our favorite green-eyed wizard. I love Harry Potter. I grew up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione and my life wouldn’t be the same without them. I think J.K. Rowling is a talented writer, in particular I think her characterization is fantastic. That said, I am not planning to review each of her books just to fanboy over my favorite parts. Earlier this week my friend directed to me to a very interesting review that was written by Stephen King back in 2007. I highly recommend it.

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