By Dan Simmons

After finishing my second series by Dan Simmons, I seem to be noticing a pattern. The first book has an interesting premise, is tightly plotted, and seems to be going somewhere good, but ultimately the series ends up being kind of disappointing. That was true of the Hyperion series, and I think it's even more true of Ilium and Olympos.

This duology is set a few thousand years in the future, when some humans have engineered themselves into god-like beings, others are living a life of ease and ignorance, and there are sentient robots living among the asteroids and gas giants of the outer solar system. There are a number of intertwining storylines--one involving a 20th-century classics scholar who is resurrected by what appear to be Greek gods who task him with observing their recreation of the Trojan war, another involving a group of the post-civilized humans on Earth questioning their existence, and a third involving a group of robots from Jupiter setting out on a mission to find out what's going on back on Earth and Mars. It sounds confusing, and it kind of is, but it starts off really well. And it's really smart when it starts, too, with both oblique and explicit references to literature from the Iliad to Shakespeare to Proust to Nabokov.

Unfortunately, the second book doesn't deliver on the promise of the first. It's just kind of all over the place--a bunch of stuff happens, but it all feels unfocused and scattered, like Simmons had loaded a bunch of ideas into a shotgun and let it spray. Every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, only to leave you to go back to a different plotline. It got kind of aggravating after a while, and the resolution left a lot to be desired.

I think that this is probably worth reading for the first book, but try not to let your hopes ride too high as you go into the second.

Started: 3/13/2009 | Finished: 4/3/2009

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Brokedown Palace

By Steven Brust

It seems like usually when an author continues to write story after story set in the same world, things get stale after a while. Steven Brust appears to be an exception to that rule, though. I've read ten of his Vlad Taltos books, two of the Khaavren Romances, and now this one, and the more I read about Dragaera, the more I want to read.

Unlike most of the rest of Brust's novels set in this world, Brokedown Palace isn't set in the Empire--the focus is on one of the Eastern Kingdoms. (Familiar readers will recognize the setting as Vlad Taltos's ancestral homeland.) The tone is also markedly different from both of the other series. The original series is told in a straightforward, sometimes sarcastic voice. The Khaavren books are modeled after Dumas. This one reads more like a fairy tale--in fact, it appears to be explicitly modeled after a certain oral tradition, which I can only assume is Hungarian as that is Brust's background. As fables go, I found this one to be quite well-written--tight, well-paced, and with a really nice overall structure. I was reminded a little bit of Tolkien's Silmarillion, except this was more fun to read.

The only thing that detracted from the experience for me was the title, which was taken from a Grateful Dead song and is shared with a movie that starred Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale, neither of which have anything to do with this book. But, anyway, overall I have to say I very much enjoyed this one.

Started: 3/9/2009 | Finished: 3/12/2009

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Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

By Chuck Klosterman

If you're at all like me, you have occasionally pondered the cultural significance of things like video games, movies, bands, and other pop culture phenomena. You may have even thought about writing down these ideas you've had, perhaps in a blog or book. If you're like me, well, reading this book may make you despair a little, since Chuck Klosterman does so much better a job with this sort of thinking and writing than I do.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a collection of essays delving into such topics as what paying the video game The Sims tells us about ourselves, or the impact of MTV's The Real World on the personalities of young people today, or why Billy Joel is important despite the fact that he's not cool. It's sharp, funny, and, for the most part, spot-on in its analysis of American pop culture. The only drawback may be that Klosterman's touchstones are not universal--people below a certain age range were too young to be aware of these things when they happened, and people above that age range likely didn't care. So, if you're not between the ages of about 25 and 40, this book may completely miss you. If you are close to my age, though, I'd say this book is probably worth checking out.

Started: 2/13/2009 | Finished: 3/2/2009

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King's Shield

By Sherwood Smith

As you may know from my previous reviews, I loved the first two books in this series, Inda and The Fox. As luck would have it, my copy of King's Shield arrived in the mail the very same day that I finished The Fox, and I was very excited to dive into the next book. Unfortunately, something changed between the two books and I found myself not liking this one quite as much. Don't get me wrong, King's Shield is still pretty good. But I just wasn't captivated by it in the same way that I was by the first two installments.

I'm not sure exactly what it was about this one that didn't do it for me. The characters are still complex and they've grown in ways that make sense. The writing hasn't changed, and the pacing is still good, with action happening in all the right places. Maybe it was the change in focus. The first two books are very much about the principal characters growing up. This one is much more about political intrigue and war. I guess I also didn't really like the way the character Sponge changed--the changes are plausible, but I found that I didn't really care for the adult he became.

Whatever it was that rubbed me the wrong way about book three, I'm still very much looking forward to Treason's Shore, the fourth and, I believe, final episode of the series.

Started: 1/31/2009 | Finished: 2/11/2009

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The Fox

By Sherwood Smith

Whew. Seven hundred seventy-four pages in four days should tell you something about how much I liked this book. Picking up right where the first book left off, The Fox had everything I liked about Inda but moreso.

The first book gave us a glimpse at a very rich and interesting world, but most of the major characters are all from the same country, and even when we later get introduced to the wider world through Inda's sea travels, most of his time is spent aboard ship, so all we get of the rest of the world is through bits of dialogue here and there. By contrast, in The Fox, Smith brings us to all kinds of new places, each one with a strongly developed history and flavor, each with plausible national interests and goals. Smith presents them in such a way that you get an idea of the individual culture of each place, but she does it without resorting to the kind of flat stereotyping you so often see in big fantasy worlds.  (You know, where everybody from this country is a greedy merchant and everybody from that country is a strong, savage warrior.) The characters and personal relationships introduced at every new place seem genuine and relatable.

The strong character development in the first novel continues in the second, especially in the protagonist. His transition to adulthood is handled very skillfully--you recognize both the child you first met and the ways in which his life has shaped him in the man he becomes. And, as before, you get to see so much of the inner workings of even relatively minor characters that they all come to life in a really compelling way.

Further, for a relatively long book, it's very well paced. Events are neither drawn out nor rushed, but everything seems to happen right when it should. I was certainly never bored--I could hardly put the book down!

In fact, the only problem I had was that I was so into this book that I had trouble keeping up with the other stuff I wanted to do--the hard drive on my Tivo, for example, is getting pretty full. I thought I might get a little break after this book, but, to both my delight and chagrin, the Amazon shipment containing the next installment, King's Shield, arrived on the same day I finished The Fox. So, it looks like I'm going to stay busy for a while. The fourth book isn't scheduled to come out until August, so on the one hand I'll have a little time to catch up on the rest of my life, but on the other hand I know the waiting is going to bug me.

Started: 1/26/2009 | Finished: 1/30/2009

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By Sherwood Smith

I have to say, I'm a little surprised by how much I liked Inda. The story is fairly commonplace--a talented young man trains to become a military commander, and in the process he gets swept up into the world-shaking events of his time, destined to become a hero. I've certainly read that one several times before, and I'm sure I will again. What's more, the writing isn't all that great. The author, Sherwood Smith, has this strange tendency to shift perspectives from one character to another abruptly and without warning, which is often jarring.

Despite that, though, I was absolutely riveted, and when the book came to its abrupt ending I was upset that I didn't already have the sequels. (Indeed, the fourth book isn't even coming out until August.) I have, of course, always been a sucker for a coming-of-age story, but, more than that, the world and characters of Inda were quite compelling. The cavalry-based military culture of the Marlovans combined with their language (several words of which you're introduced to throughout the book) evoke images of the Mongols and the Germanic tribes of medieval Europe. But there's more than that. Much of the history of this world is lost to the characters, but a huge backstory is hinted at that seems really interesting--magic, other races, fallen kingdoms, and so on--and perhaps important in later books.

I mentioned changes in point-of-view before, which are odd and often annoying. But they are also a big part of what make the characters so interesting. By seeing so much of each character's internal thoughts, each one is invested with a depth you don't normally see in minor characters. The only problem is that I wound up getting attached to a few characters who didn't end up making it through the book.

It's rare that I read two books in a row that I enjoy so thoroughly, and since I have a good chunk left in both this series and the Black Company series, it looks like I may have a hard time deciding what to read next. Which, when you come down to it, isn't such a bad problem to have.

Started: 1/13/2009 | Finished: 1/20/2009

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Chronicles of the Black Company

By Glen Cook

I heard about Glen Cook's Black Company books via a discussion in the forum, wherein Raja (of Strobelight Review fame) thanked another member for recommending it to him. Now I, in turn, have to thank him for turning me on to this series, because it's the best fantasy I've read in quite some time.

Chronicles of the Black Company is a collection of the first three of Glen Cook's Black Company novels, which follows the exploits of the titular mercenary company over the course of a war between the forces of good and evil. That description makes this seem like just another standard fantasy series, though, which couldn't be further from the truth. To begin with, the Black Company is on the wrong side of the war--they work for the bad guys. But there's more to it than that, because the sharply defined morality that you're used to seeing in fantasy worlds isn't present. There sometimes seems to be little distinguishing the two sides in the conflict, other than that they are fighting each other. The whole thing is presented from a ground-level view with a gritty realism that has more in common with Vietnam War fiction than Tolkien.

I can't recommend this series highly enough. The collection containing the next three books is already out, with the following collection coming soon, and I can't wait to get my hands on them.

Started: 12/12/2008 | Finished: 1/8/2009

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Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and Its Whiskies

By Andrew Jefford

Before sitting down to write this review, I poured myself a glass of Bruichladdich single malt scotch. (The Links Torrey Pines edition, to be precise.) I bought the bottle earlier in the day, inspired largely by what Andrew Jefford wrote in Peat Smoke and Spirit. The scotch is good. So is the book.

A large portion of Peat Smoke and Spirit is, as the title would lead you to believe, about the distilleries of the Scottish island of Islay, and the whiskies they produce. That alone would be enough for me, and Jefford certainly describes the liquor beautifully. But the book encompasses so much more than that--more or less everything about Islay that you could want to know, from the history and geography and people to the flora and fauna and even the geology of the island. Having now read all about it, I have to say: I can't think of any place with a comparably inhospitable climate that I am so keen to visit. Jefford's love of the place is quite apparent from the way he writes about it--the prose is rich and inviting, never dull for a moment--and it really made me want to experience it for myself.

I think just about anyone with an interest in scotch or Scotland will enjoy this book. Just be aware that reading it may make you thirsty.

Started: 10/27/2008 | Finished: 12/8/2008

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By Dan Simmons

It may not be completely legit to review all four of Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels in the same article--it's questionable whether the series functions as a single, cohesive whole, or two parts, or four. One review is less work for me, though, which makes me considerably less likely to quit. (Please, don't hurt me.)

The four novels of the Hyperion series--Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion--easily split into two parts. The first two books follow a group of characters on a pilgramage to a planet on the edge of a huge interstellar empire--each one hoping to find the answers to the mysterious events of his life, while the rest of humanity is on the brink of war. The second two books are set several hundred years later, showing the aftermath and resolution of the events in the first half of the series.

The first book is just fantastic. Structurally, Hyperion resembles The Canterbury Tales--each of the pilgrims telling his own story to the rest as they move toward their uncertain destination--and it's very well done. Each story is distinct in style and memorable in its own right, and Simmons weaves them together wonderfully. In fact, if the series had ended with the first book, I think I wouldn't have minded, despite the fact that it ends in a cliffhanger.

The second book wasn't quite as interesting from a writing standpoint as the first, but the ideas presented were interesting and it provided what I thought was a very satisfying resolution to the action in the first. Several mysteries remain by the end of Fall, but somehow they seemed to be the sort that didn't need explaining.

Unfortunately, the third and fourth novels didn't really live up to the first two. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy them at all, but big chunks of the text got bogged down in discussions about human history and the nature of the universe. Even when there was action taking place, I often found myself skimming over the scenes, just trying to see what happens next.

Overall, I'd say that this series was worth the read, but I most likely won't come back to it.

Started: 7/21/2008 | Finished: 9/24/2008

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Marley and Me

By John Grogan

Ever since Juliette and I got our dog, Cooper, people have been telling us that we had to read Marley and Me. Juliette finally got around to it as part of her annual summer reading kick and convinced me to pick it up next. After V, I needed something easy to read that would get me emotionally involved. Well, this fit that bill perfectly. I'm always a little suspicious of bestsellers, but this was just great.

As a dog owner, there was a lot I found familiar, both in the highs and lows of Grogan's life with Marley. Cooper isn't anywhere near as neurotic as Marley, but he has had some bad times, and in Marley's antics I could recognize some echoes of Cooper's worse moments. And, likewise, the joy of having such a loving, faithful companion is something that, I think, all dog lovers will recognize.

It's strange how having a dog has changed my outlook on this sort of thing. Just a couple of years ago, I don't think that I would really have connected with this book. All of this dog stuff just seemed a little silly to me. And now? Well, I can tell you that by the end of this book I was literally bawling.

Marley and Me was hilarious and heartwarming in turn, and I have to agree that it's a must-read for any dog lover--assuming there are any left who haven't already read it.

Started: 7/12/2008 | Finished: 7/20/2008

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