Sunday Sum-Up

Another week has gone by, and once again I don’t know where the time has gone. I’ve spent my days getting the last few things done before I pack up and head to the airport on Tuesday. I bought a watch, got in touch with my hotel in Reykjavic about mundane things like check-in time and parking, and have been trying to get over the fact that my first time driving in a foreign country will be a stretch of highway about 40 miles long after a night of very little sleep. Fun!

Needless to say, it’s going to be a busy, busy week. Today, my book club is going to an orchard to Nebraska City (about an hour and a half drive away) to pick peaches, and then if it doesn’t starting pouring tonight I’m planning to go to the annual lantern float at a local park tonight. Then tomorrow I’ll be packing, Tuesday I head to the airport, and Wednesday my adventure in Iceland begins! I’ll update as I can while I’m away, but no guarantees.

And now for books!

I finished up a couple of in-progress books, started and finished another, and finally remembered a short story by my favorite mystery writer.

24612045I listened to the audiobook version of Eddie Izzard’s memoir, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens, narrated by Izzard himself. While I do love Izzard’s comedy and the random little asides he has in his stand-up routines, I wish I had read this book instead of listening to it. There are tons of footnotes, especially early in the book where Izzard finds it necessary to explain the 1960s and 1970s British culture of his childhood. He interrupts the narrative to read the footnotes and it really disrupts the flow of the story. Had I read the book, it wouldn’t have been so distracting. It does get better as it goes, with fewer footnotes and a faster-paced narrative, but that’s something like eight hours into a twelve hour work.

644655I also finished up Ann Cleeves’s Raven Black, which is the first of her Shetland Islands mystery series. I’m not sure what to think of this one. The story was interesting, the writing was good, and the characters were interesting, but 1) it didn’t spend that much time with the detective, Jimmy Perez, who was wonderful in the television show, Shetland, and 2) the show follows the book fairly closely, so I spent the whole book knowing whodunnit, wondering how they were going to find the killer there vs. how they found the killer on the show. I might give the next book a shot. We’ll see.

 

 

25908693I started and finished The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, and it was wonderful! The only problem I had with the book was that it wasn’t long enough. It’s about 260 pages and covers almost twenty years of A.J.’s life, so Zevin has to race through the story. Her characters were complex and interesting, and the story was engaging, so she could have spent more time engaging with the characters and taking a deeper dive into their lives. That said, I enjoyed this book immensely and would definitely recommend it.

 

 

The last thing I read this week was a Barker & Llewelyn short story by Will Thomas, An Awkward Way to Die. I knew it was coming out at the beginning of August, but I’d forgotten all about it until I saw a posting about it on Facebook. It’s short, fun, and provides a little taste of my favorite detective duo until the next book in the series comes out this fall.

I’m currently reading H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. It’s a memoir of the author’s life in falconry and her training of a goshawk, how she recovered from her grief after her father’s death, and her relationship with a particular book by T.H. White. It’s not a linear narrative, so it’s initially a little strange but once you get used to it, it’s rather beautiful. I’m about 15% of the way through it.

And that’s all for now! If I don’t get moving I’m going to be late for peach picking!

Have a great week, everyone! I’ll write more when I can!

Review- The Curse of Chalion

61886The Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
496 pages
Published 2000

From Goodreads: A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule.

It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it will ultimately lead him to the place he fears most, the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies, who once placed him in chains, now occupy lofty positions. In addition to the traitorous intrigues of villains, Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle, are faced with a sinister curse that hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. Only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics, can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge—an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous, and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death.


My Thoughts

I came across The Curse of Chalion while wandering around Barnes and Noble one summer day some years ago. I was in the midst of a reading slump, having finished up the latest volumes of the various series I was reading. I was having a hard time finding new titles to read, as at the time I was stuck to the fantasy genre and read very little outside of it. But it had come to a point where new series/trilogies just weren’t appealing to me. It seemed like everything was either overly formulaic or trying too hard to be original. I’d picked up a variety of standalone novels and been utterly unimpressed with any of them. So I didn’t have very high hopes when I came across this little paperback book with a shiny gold cover.

The synopsis was interesting, though it sounded like most of the others, which promised world- or kingdom-ending consequences if the protagonists failed in their missions, but they rarely delivered on those promises. So I bought the shiny little book, took it home, and cracked it open.

I was hooked from the very first page.

There aren’t many openings that can paint such a vivid picture of a world, the people who inhabit it, their culture, and establish a fascinating main character within the first few chapters, but Bujold accomplishes just that. From the first few pages, you understand Cazaril and his motives. He begins the story as a broken man, recently recovered from injury and illness after his enslavement at the hands of his country’s enemies. While he wants nothing more than a quiet life, he is given the job as secretary-tutor to a teenaged princess. He must teach her about the world they inhabit and how to survive the deadly game of court politics, even as he strives to keep his enemies at bay as he seeks a way to end the curse that hangs over the royal house of Chalion.

It’s a daunting task. Writers with less skill than Bujold would spend several books explaining the world of the five gods, letting the details bog down the plot until it turned into a multi-book saga no one wants to read. But Bujold is better than that. She can paint a picture of a far away county with a few deft strokes and provide a wealth of sensory detail without chattering on about inconsequential bits. Bujold’s story is so engaging that she needs only mention the orange blossoms once or twice to fill your imagination with the scent.

The characters, too, are so fleshed out that they feel real. I don’t need to imagine what actor might play Cazaril. His oft-maligned and patchy beard is as perfectly imaginable as the determined look on the Royesse Iselle’s face, or Lady Betriz’s dimples. Everyone, from Cazaril on down to minor characters is believable, even the villains. The dangerous dy Jironal brothers are treacherous in their own way, but never become the mustache-twirling, melodramatic arch-villains with a master plan to take over the world. Their motives are just as human as everyone else’s, their vices and virtues as recognizable as their own.

“This wasn’t prayer anyway, it was just argument with the gods.
Prayer, he suspected as he hoisted himself up and turned for the door, was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

Religion plays a major role in the story. Unlike many fantasy stories I’ve read, you don’t have a God of Death, a Goddess of the Harvest, or a God of Trees or whatnot (or, as Eddie Izzard might say, “Jeff, the God of Biscuits and Simon, the God of Hairdos”). The Chalionese religion suffuses the lives of its followers, regardless of their piety. Just like the Christian church did in the medieval world (and still does, to a great degree). There are temples to all five gods, a religious hierarchy, and living saints. There are sermons and prayers, holy days, funeral rites, and marriage customs. The people offers prayers and offerings, and while some do it with true faith guiding their actions, others merely pay lip service.

And when a god appears to someone, that person undergoes a fundamental change in perspective. To brush up against the divine is to be forever changed.

This notion– that gods are beyond anything the human mind can truly comprehend– is not something that often comes up in fantasy novels. Often, when a god is mentioned at all, he/she/it seems to be altogether human in their perspective. Their wisdom is often that of a college professor- like someone who has read more books than anyone else. Their influence is direct and obvious, like the Dungeons and Dragons cleric who prays for a resurrection spell and is granted it.

The Chalionese gods are more ambiguous. Did the Lady of Spring guide Iselle when she lit the first flame during the Daughter’s Day rites, or did Iselle manage to light the flame on the first try because she is young and has steady hands? Did the crow fly to Cazaril because he’d been feeding it, or did the Bastard guide the crow? These questions come up, but it’s impossible to answer them for sure because the divine is ineffable. Only a living saint can see the proof of a god’s hand, but being a saint in Chalion is to be marked as utterly different.

Bujold’s prose, too, sets The Curse of Chalion apart. It is lyrical at times, or philosophical; economical when it comes to Chalion’s history, and sarcastic when Cazaril is feeling snarky. It is never clunky or clumsy. It’s light enough on its feet to dance around the reader, but never gets so full of itself that it leaves the reader behind.

“Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. I’d always thought kindness a trivial virtue therefore. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, with our deaths shouting at us, in the heart of horror, you were still as unfailingly courteous as a gentleman at his ease before his own hearth.”

“Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice – if not whether, then how they may endure.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

There are few books that I declare to be favorites after the first reading. It often takes multiple readings for that declaration. The Curse of Chalion took one of those top spots in my heart from the first. I take great care with my books– I want them to last forever– but my shiny gold paperback copy is starting to fall apart. The front cover is slowly coming away from the spine and I fear the first couple of chapters will go with it. While I have a digital copy, I don’t think it will be long before I go in search of a new, physical version.

The Curse of Chalion doesn’t show up on many ‘Top Ten Fantasy Novels to Read This Summer/Winter/Before You Die’ lists, and that’s a shame. It doesn’t have bold print “New York Times Bestseller” tag on the top, and it’s not new enough to have a flashy book trailer. No one is making a movie or TV series from it. Come to that, I can hardly find it in bookstores. If you can track it down, though, or download an eBook version, it would be well worth your time and money. Cazaril is a different kind of hero from any other you’ll find. His story is complex, beautifully written, and utterly engaging.

 

July Summary and August Preview

I survived July! The heatwave left me tired and a bit stupid and I didn’t finish many of the books I intended to, but oh well. I do not do well in the heat. My face tries to melt off, I have no energy, I can’t sleep, and my Snow White-worthy skin sunburns in ten minutes flat. Seriously. I sunburned in Ireland. And in Scotland. And through tinted windows on the way to Minnesota. Give me autumn and its sweater weather or winter’s snows any day. This week and next promise to be much cooler, though. I have turned off my jankety window air conditioner, so I can actually sleep and hear things again!

Things like the new album from Offa Rex, a collaboration between The Decemberists and Olivia Cheney. Voices I love singing English folk songs? Yes, please!

 

Onto the books! Goodreads says I read twelve books in July. I don’t feel that’s entirely accurate, as three of them were Penny Dreadful comic issues, and so were very short. I finished three of them within half an hour.

  1. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
  2. Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón
  3. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  4. Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
  5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  6. The Awaking: Penny Dreadful #1 by Chris King
  7. Penny Dreadful: The Awakening #2.2 by Chris King
  8. Penny Dreadful: The Awakening #2.3
  9. Penny Dreadful Vol. 1 by Andrew Hinderaker
  10. My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
  11. Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas
  12. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

I decided to start doing the Bookstagram thing, so I made an Instagram account for the blog. You can find me there at traveling.gladly

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What’s on for August? I’m going to Iceland!! I leave next Tuesday evening, and will land at Keflavik International Airport on Wednesday morning. I have several excursions planned to places like Vik, the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and Gullfoss. There are several bookshops in Reykjavik I want to visit, too. I’ve made it a habit of buying a book that’s particular to the place I’m in- Sherlock Holmes books in London, Irish epics in Galway, etc.- and my plan so far is to pick up copies of The Elder Edda and The Prose Edda while I’m there. And photographs. Lots of photographs. I’ll be taking two cameras (three, counting my phone’s camera), and a couple hundred gigabytes’ worth of memory cards. I’m getting more excited by the day!

In light of my upcoming travels, combined with the fact that I won’t be taking trains or buses in Iceland (and thus will have less time to read while I’m gone), plus the inevitable jet lag that follows international travel (Iceland is five hours ahead of my home time zone), I’ve only set aside four books from my collection to read:

  1. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
  2. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
  3. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  4. Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

I will undoubtedly read other books, too. That’s always how it goes. But I think it’s more likely that I’ll finish this set, as opposed to July’s selections, which were maybe a little more dense than the hot days of summer would allow for. August’s selections are relatively short and sound wonderfully interesting.

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Review- Crown of Midnight

DSC01749Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass #2)
by Sarah J. Maas
418 pages
Published 2013

From Goodreads:  “A line that should never be crossed is about to be breached.

It puts this entire castle in jeopardy—and the life of your friend.”

From the throne of glass rules a king with a fist of iron and a soul as black as pitch. Assassin Celaena Sardothien won a brutal contest to become his Champion. Yet Celaena is far from loyal to the crown. She hides her secret vigilantly; she knows that the man she serves is bent on evil.

Keeping up the deadly charade becomes increasingly difficult when Celaena realizes she is not the only one seeking justice. As she tries to untangle the mysteries buried deep within the glass castle, her closest relationships suffer. It seems no one is above questioning her allegiances—not the Crown Prince Dorian; not Chaol, the Captain of the Guard; not even her best friend, Nehemia, a foreign princess with a rebel heart.

Then one terrible night, the secrets they have all been keeping lead to an unspeakable tragedy. As Celaena’s world shatters, she will be forced to give up the very thing most precious to her and decide once and for all where her true loyalties lie… and whom she is ultimately willing to fight for.


My Thoughts

I read Crown of Midnight as a buddy read with Danielle over at Books, Vertigo & Tea. I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. I found the first book, Throne of Glassdisappointing, as Celaena read like a wish-fulfilling Mary Sue instead of a fully fleshed, dynamic character, and Maas’s writing was clunky and uninspired.

Crown of Midnight… is marginally better. Celaena has more depth this time around, and because the story is not lurching toward the end of a protracted contest there is more time to explore her growth as a person and develop her relationships, both romantic and platonic. She’s an assassin with a heart of gold, and it’s made clear early on that she’s only pretending to carry out the king’s orders. Celaena’s ruses go off without a hitch, so that even her closest friends believe that she’s killed all those people.

And, of course, her friends- Chaol, Dorian, and Nehemia- look at her sidewards because Celaena is an awful person for killing them (even though she hasn’t). Despite the fact that they already knew she was an assassin.

What did they think she did before they met her? Skip through meadows and pick flowers while singing to the animals?

*sighs*

Odd expectations of an assassin’s morality aside, the other characters did a little growing up, too. Dorian rose in my regard after he made a particular discovery, though he’s still content to sit back and watch his evil father continue to plan evil things. It seems his idea of ‘making a difference’ is to object to some of dad’s plans in the council chamber, but his objections hardly seem to make much of a difference. I’m sorry, Dorian, but you can’t just thumb your nose at authority and expect things to change on a fundamental level.

Nehemia continues to be one of the most interesting characters in the story, but alas, we hear more from a doorknob than we do the princess of Eyllwe.

Maas’s writing has improved since the first book though the prose is still workaday, walking from one event to the next and doing its job without much flair, like it just wants to get through the day so it can go home and take a nap. Plot twists are telegraphed so far in advance that you could use binoculars to see them coming. There’s no surprise to them, just the satisfaction of knowing you were right.

I have had an issue with the lack of specificity in the two books. We’re accustomed to fantasy novels having foundations in historical lands, whether it’s the Anglo-Saxon-based setting of Tolkien’s Rohan, the medieval Russia of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, or the late-Renaissance Amsterdam-like atmosphere of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. The world of Throne of Glass is harder to pin down and so it’s harder to get a sense of the place, as Maas pulls from a variety of sources to inhabit her world. The character of Baba Yellowlegs, for example, is analogous to the crone Baba Yaga from Russian tales, while the fae spoken of in other parts of the books resemble those of Welsh and Irish stories. In the first book Celaena listens to minuets, a type of dance popular in eighteenth century France. While I realize that Celaena’s world has a variety of cultures, the lack of specificity about any of them makes it difficult to get a concrete sense of the place and thereby get lost in the world. I kept coming across vague terminology (or things that were just used incorrectly) which would make me stop and ask, “What kind of weapon is Celaena using? It just says ‘sword’. There are a lot of different kinds of swords”.

And so, while the characters have grown more likeable in Crown of Midnight, and there is some political intrigue going on, I just don’t have enough interest in the story to want to go out and read the rest of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a snobby reader, but when there are so many amazing fantasy novels with more engaging stories than those of the Throne of Glass books, I just can’t see myself taking the time away from them to read about characters I only sort of like.

Goodreads Monday- The Queen of the Night

Goodreads Monday is a weekly meme where we randomly select a book from our Goodreads To Be Read list and tell the world about it. It’s hosted by Lauren’s Page Turners, so remember to link back to her page so that we can see what everyone wants to read.


17912498The Queen of the Night
by Alexander Chee
561 pages
Published February 2016

From Goodreads: Lilliet Berne is a sensation of the Paris Opera, a legendary soprano with every accolade except an original role, every singer’s chance at immortality. When one is finally offered to her, she realizes with alarm that the libretto is based on a hidden piece of her past. Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.  As she mines her memories for clues, she recalls her life as an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept up into the glitzy, gritty world of Second Empire Paris. In order to survive, she transformed herself from hippodrome rider to courtesan, from empress’s maid to debut singer, all the while weaving a complicated web of romance, obligation, and political intrigue.

Featuring a cast of characters drawn from history, The Queen of the Night follows Lilliet as she moves ever closer to the truth behind the mysterious opera and the role that could secure her reputation — or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.  


I saw this book a while back on the New Releases shelf in one bookstore or another, and it looks fascinating. At 561 pages, it’s tough to find a time of year where I’ll be able to take on longer novels like this one. Perhaps this fall, before the holiday season sucks away all my free time.

Sunday Sum-Up

Another week has come and gone, and once again I’m wondering where all that time went. I really need to get that temporal vortex out of my closet. I know some of the time was spent in finally watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and a little bit was spent watching Will. As for the rest of it? I dunno. Not nearly enough of it was spent sleeping.

*sighs*

DSC01749I only finished one of the books I started the week with, and that was Sarah J. Maas’s Crown of Midnight, the second book in the Throne of Glass series. I’ll have a longer write-up later this week, but for now I’ll just say that, while Maas’s writing has improved somewhat, I’m still not a fan. It was fun to do the buddy read with Danielle from Books, Vertigo & Tea, though, and I’m hoping she’ll want to do it again.

 

The other book I’ve been reading is Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, which is one of my all-time favorite books. If you want a master class in world building and political intrigue in a fantasy setting, then this is the book for you. The characters are beautifully written and utterly believable, and even the villains have logical reasons for what they do. And while the world of the five gods has more books, The Curse of Chalion can act as a standalone novel if you’re not in the mood to embark on yet another lengthy series. I’ll have a further review when I finish it.

In other news, I picked up a couple more books this week, because why not? One was a ‘blind date with a classic’ from one of the indie bookstores downtown. My last experience with a ‘blind date’ book was dreadful, as I ended up with Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which remains the only book I’ve ever thrown at a wall. This one sounded more interesting, though, and given that it was in the classics section I figured another Philippa Gregory incident would be unlikely.

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So what did I get?

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It looks fascinating. I’m debating taking it to Iceland with me to read on the plane. We shall see.

I bought two books in all last night. Passing because of the intrigue factor of the ‘blind date with a classic’, and The Ramayana, because I want to develop a better understanding of more literature from around the world.

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What’s up for this week? Lots of preparation. I leave for Iceland on August eighth, and while I’m prepared as far as reservations, passports, and currency, I will need to do laundry and give my apartment a good cleaning so I don’t have to do that when I get home and am exhausted and jet-lagged. I’ll also need to figure out how to pack my camera gear, since I’m taking most of it with me and security restrictions regarding electronics are higher these days. C’est la vie.

As for books, I’ll read what I can. I should finish up The Curse of Chalion in the next day or so, and then it’ll be on to Ann Cleeves’s Raven Black, a mystery series set in the Shetland Islands off the northern Scottish coast. I have a friend who grew up in the Shetlands, so I’m interested in where he’s from. Also, there’s a great TV series based on the books, Shetland. I think there are only about eight episodes, but it’s fantastic. It’s available on Netflix streaming, though you’ll probably want to turn on the subtitles as their accents are quick thick.

I started listening to a new-to-me podcast today. It’s called Writing Excuses, and features four writers who discuss various elements of writing and how to do things like world building and pointing out that descriptions of a thing can change drastically based on a character’s point of view. It’s entertaining and three episodes in (they’re all about 15-20 minutes long), the hosts have given me a lot to think about regarding my own writing and in the books I’d reading.

Goodreads Monday- Karen Memory

Goodreads Monday is a weekly meme where we randomly select a book from our Goodreads To Be Read list and show it off. It’s hosted by Lauren’s Page Turners, so don’t forget to link back to her page so we can see what everyone’s planning to read.


22238181Karen Memory
by Elizabeth Bear
346 pages
Published February 2015

From Goodreads: “You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”

Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.


I’m not sure where I first saw this book, but it looks interesting. I’ve had a longstanding love of fiction set in the Victorian era, and a slightly newer fascination with Steampunk. It looks like this book scratches both of those particular itches, so it should be a run read!