Thursday, June 21, 2012

What I read on vacation, part 2: Lois McMaster Bujold

I spent many of my formative years reading sci-fi and fantasy, but for some reason I stopped somewhere around the time my kids were born, and lost touch with the good stuff.  So I first heard of Lois McMaster Bujold just a few years ago, although she's quite prolific and has at least two dozen books in print.  Someone recommended starting with Warrior's Apprentice, which I read and enjoyed.  But for some reason it didn't inspire me to read any of her other books.

Fast forward to last year.  As you know, I do much driving--sometimes well over 500 miles a week.  So I listen to a lot of audiobooks.  While searching for a good one last fall, I ran across a bunch of five-star reviews for The Curse of Chalion.  I didn't recognize Bujold's name until later.  Curse is the intricate story of Cazaril, a military man who ended up serving for nineteen months on a slave galley after someone "accidentally" left his name off a list of soldiers to be ransomed.  The novel opens as Cazaril returns to his homeland, his body broken and scarred.  He wants to find a quiet place in his old home town to live in peace.  He is hired to be the tutor of the young royess (princess) and her lady-in-waiting.  When the royess is called to the capitol city to learn court life, they are plunged into a complex warren of political, religious, and personal intrigue.  Cazaril eventually hazards his life to rid the royal family of Chalion of a curse that has followed it for generations.

It's a brilliantly multi-layered story, but the thing that makes it so fascinating--all the detailed intrigues-- is also its major downfall.  There are several times where I just wanted to find out what happened, without needing to know all the details of history, theology, and politics.  But without all those details, the story would be far less rich.  So if you are an impatient reader, this is not the book for you.  But if you love complex world-building, Curse of Chalion is a dream.  I found myself marveling time and again, How did Bujold think of all this stuff?  It's fascinating

But then again, sometimes I am one of those impatient readers.  So I have somewhat mixed feelings about it. Definitely worth reading--great book.  But be prepared to be patient--especially at the beginning. It gets off to a slow start. (The audiobook is great, if you're interested in audiobooks-- good narrator who does a great job with all the voices-- sometimes it's hard to believe it's just one guy.) 

There was one other thing that bugged me. Cazaril, who is 35, ends up with a young, vivacious 19-year-old at the end.  It just didn't feel right to me.  After all of his travels and experiences, it just didn't seem right that he would fall for a teenager who (at the beginning of the book) has never left the town of her youth. It's a relatively small part of the story--this isn't a romance novel--so it certainly doesn't ruin the book, it just didn't feel right to me for his character.  Especially because there is another character named Ista who seemed at times to be a better fit for him.

Fortunately, Ista gets her own entire novel in the sequel, Paladin of Souls, which I read on the plane on the way back from this most recent trip.  I loved this book.  Ista has been through hell and back (as was revealed in Curse of Chalion).  The actions of Cazaril in the previous book have done much to give her a new start on life, but she is stuck in her hometown with nothing to do and nowhere to go.  A chance meeting with a group of pilgrims gives her an idea, so she sets out with a small retinue on a pilgrimage of her own. Many adventures ensue. Although it shares the occasional slowness of pace that Curse of Chalion had, I thought this was a better book than Curse. 

Ista has been touched by the gods of Chalion in her past, with disastrous results.  So when it begins to become clear that they have a new role for her to play, she is dead set against it.  She wants nothing to do with the gods and their vagaries.  But gradually it becomes clear that she cannot refuse to intervene in the lives of the people around her without hurting people she cares a great deal about, so finally she plunges back in to activity.  By the end of the book, she is one tough cookie, capable of taking on ancient, multi-layered demons and kicking their asses back to the world from which they came.  It's frustrating to read her reluctance at the beginning, but it makes sense given her past. Highly recommended.  Memorable characters, memorable problems.  I've been thinking about it ever since I finished it.

There's a third book in the series, but since apparently it doesn't have any overlapping characters with the first two, I will probably wait awhile to read it.  Since some of you are already Bujold fans, tell me your favorites!  I'm happy to have a new author.

What I read on vacation, part 1

What did I read on vacation?  a stack of genre fiction, that's what.  Some I liked better than others, but not a clinker in the bunch.  yay.

The Thin Woman by Dorothy Cannell.  I enjoyed the first third of this mystery novel as much as anything I've read in the past couple of years.  It's a terrific setup.  Ellie, a snarky, overweight woman, hires Bentley, a writer of smutty mystery novels who supports himself by working for an escort service, to accompany her to a dismal family reunion.  Part of what I enjoyed about it is the surprises--I had no idea what was coming. So that's all I'm going to tell you, except there's a death, a huge creepy castle, and a treasure hunt.  It starts to drag a little in the middle-- much telling and very little showing, to use the writer's workshop catch-phrase.  But still, highly recommended.  If you can, keep yourself from reading plot summaries ahead of time.  Cannell writes great dialogue and her characters are memorable and sharply drawn.  The ending doesn't quite live up to the promise of the beginning, but it's still well worth reading.  And although I did guess parts of the ending, she also surprised me with some of it.  I love it when an author can legitimately surprise me.

Watermelon by Marian Keyes.  I'd never even heard of Marian Keyes until about a month ago when someone mentioned her in their blog (Judy?), and then half a dozen people chimed in in the comments.  Watermelon is her first book, and I enjoyed it.  Claire's adored husband leaves her on the day their first child is born.  Heartbroken, Claire heads home to Dublin for her maternity leave, moving back in with her ditzy family.  Since I've never written a novel at all, I'm very forgiving of first novels.  It astonishes me that anyone can write a novel.  I loved parts of this one.  Claire is a terrific narrator, and she is often snarky and laugh-out-loud funny.  But she also needed a better editor.  There were many places where her snark would go on and on and I would start to skim.  Also, while she is in the midst of being heartbroken, her memories of her ex-husband paint a picture that is completely unrecognizable when he finally shows up in Dublin.  Which is wrong?  her memories, or the present?  Keyes never really fully addresses this.  But this is another one I enjoyed.  Great vacation read.  I will look forward to reading more by this author.

The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer.  You all know I love me some Georgette Heyer.  This one is middle of the pack for me.  It's very similar to, but not nearly as good as, The Unknown Ajax, which is probably in my top three Heyer novels.  In both novels, a young man who has recently left the military is thrust into the midst of a family in need of help.  In The Unknown Ajax, Hugo must figure out what is going on with the mysterious actions of the younger brother of the house, ultimately resulting in one of the more clever denouements I've read (it is also one of my all-time favorite audiobooks-- great narrator).  In the Toll-Gate, John Staple gets involved in the life of a community after getting lost in a storm and spending the night in a deserted toll-gate.  It's a good story, and an enjoyable read, but the ending isn't nearly as satisfying as Ajax.  In fact, it's difficult to believe that John will be able to settle down and be happy.  Both books are more about the situation than the romance, although there is a romance in each.

Boy Meets Girl by Meg Cabot- a fun, quick read that worked just fine for a day of airplanes, but wasn't nearly as good as the previous one, The Boy Next Door.  Kate is a human resources representative who must fire Ida, a favorite lunchroom employee, after Ida runs afoul of the boss everyone hates.  There are immediate sparks with the lawyer hired to represent Ida, although there are an appropriate number of hurdles they must surmount before the happily-ever-after.  It was fun, but Kate is just a little too good to be true--the naive, small-town girl schtick doesn't work as well here as it did in the previous book.  Most of the story is told in e-mails, which works really well as long as you remember to check who is the writer and recipient of each e-mail. What doesn't work so well are the numerous journal entries written by Kate, which tended to be long and boring.  And when she writes journal entries on menus in restaurants while she's waiting for people to arrive, it stretches the bounds of believability past the breaking point.  But it's still fun.  Not a bad read.

Then there was the best one, by Lois McMaster Bujold, but it's getting its own post because this is too long already.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

just us and them chickens, part 2

freedom! she let us out!
one of the Buff Orpingtons, Lord Orpington's wastrel sons
My camp chair, with umbrella, since it was raining/drizzling the whole time I was out there
MadMax shivering in the garden.  This one is so you can see what a miserable day it was here.

just us and them chickens

We're about to take off for Nell's graduation and then a week of vacation, and then we will have out-of-town company, and then the trip to Oregon.  So I probably won't post again for quite awhile.  So here is a chicken movie in the meantime.  It's only about 25 seconds long, but it took forever to upload.  I'm not sure what that means for you watching it.  If you have the patience for it, try it and let me know.

 We've been letting them out for awhile every day, but there are so many predators around (foxes, hawks, owls, even the odd bald eagle) that I don't feel comfortable with it unless one of us is out there.  So there I was, wrapped up and sitting in a camp chair with my book, freezing.  Today it is about 45, breezy, and drizzling.  Ah, spring in Montana.  I'm getting pretty fond of our little brood, but they still are not fond of me.  It's easy to herd them, because they're so terrified of me that all I have to do is walk up behind them and off they go.

I'll put a couple of still shots in a separate post in case this takes so long to load that it's not worth it.