Monday, January 28, 2013

Back to books and blogs

One of the worst parts of my recent move was that it left me disconnected from reading - and with the early cancellation of my internet service, also disconnected from my own and others' blogs.  I had no attention for reading, no concentration, which is why the same books have been listed as "What I'm reading now" for weeks.  When books have always been a distraction and a comfort, it was the strangest, most unsettling feeling, to sit down with a book and find myself unable to connect with it, almost as though it was in a foreign language.  And I have to say, it was also a bit depressing to pack and unpack all the TBR books, though in the process I was able to let quite a few go.

Speaking of TBR books, I have to confess that I cheated on the TBR Double Dog Dare with the first chapters of Les Misérables.  I'm trying to decide if that disqualifies me - and if I'm thinking that because I want to give in and read the rest of the book - or if I just count it as a first strike and carry on.  I think since I only got 32 pages into an 1231-page book, I may give myself an exemption.  After all, I'm not even counting those chapters in old favorites that I re-read here and there as I was packing them away into boxes.

But I did manage to finish an actual entire new book this week - only the second in the whole month, and I can't tell you the last time that happened.  The book is Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold.  I have been a fan of her books ever since I discovered them through a Dorothy Dunnett listserv.  Her main series has revolved around the planet Barrayar, colonized from Earth centuries ago, whose semi-feudal society is dominated by the Vor aristocracy.  Among the highest of high Vor are the Vorkosigans, a collateral branch of the imperial family, staunchly loyal servants of the Emperor and Barrayar itself.  The central character in most of the 14-book series has been Miles Vorkosigan, who had a varied career in imperial service and as a space mercenary before settling down again on Barrayar.

Miles' mother Cordelia survived a chemical weapons attack during her pregnancy, which left the fetal-Miles severely damaged.  He and his parents worked very hard to compensate for his disabilities, against strong social prejudices.  One side benefit of Miles's very obvious physical issues was that despite his impeccable imperial bloodline, they apparently disqualified him from the imperial throne (coups and palace revolutions were a regular feature in Barrayar's history).  With House Vorkosigan eliminated, the next candidate in line, for ambitious kingmakers, was Miles's cousin Lord Ivan Vorpatril.  Ivan's father was killed in a civil war the day that his son was born, and his mother in her anxiety to protect and shield him nearly smothered him.  At age 18, Ivan escaped to the imperial Service Academy and then into a career in the military.

Though tall, dark and handsome, Ivan always suffered in comparison to his brilliant, mercurial, wildly successful cousin Miles.  He did not choose to compete, just the opposite in fact.  To avoid both the political intrigues and his mother's plans for him, he built up the persona of a good-natured, rather indolent, rakish young man about town, rather like one of Georgette Heyer's younger brothers.  He is a very competent officer but in a very quiet way, careful not to attract too much notice.  He has played this part so successfully that he is routinely addressed as "Ivan, you idiot!"  It has become clear over the course of the later stories, though, how much of a façade this is - and not just to the reader.  On the Heyer listserv I belong to, we like to speculate about which minor characters deserve their own book.  Many of Lois Bujold's readers have long wanted to see Ivan play more of a central part in the series.  Here she gives us the "Ivan book," and great fun it is too.

In this book, Ivan is on Komarr, one of the Empire's subject planets, on assignment with his boss Admiral Desplains.  Late one night he receives a visit from a contact in Imperial Security (the dreaded ImpSec), who asks him to help track a mysterious young woman, who may be connected with smugglers that ImpSec is trying to nab.  Though he is intrigued by her beauty, he agrees only after some pressure.  His first attempt to make contact with her ends with him stunned and tied to a chair in her living room, as she and her companion, who think him a kidnapper or worse, debate what to do with him.  Despite this inauspicious beginning, Ivan ends up helping the two, who are fleeing an attack that destroyed their family back on their homeworld, the complications of which will eventually follow them to Barrayar.  Along the way, Ivan gets his chance to shine, and also at long last to find love.  Heyer readers might find echoes of Cotillion, The Unknown Ajax, and Friday's Child here, no surprise since Lois Bujold is a fan as well.

We were introduced to Barrayar in the first books, when Cordelia arrived from her very different home plant to marry Aral Vorkosigan.  I wouldn't want to live there, it's still a bit too feudal for my tastes, but I do love to visit.  Here again we get to see Barrayar through an outsider's eyes, and to note the changes over the 38 years that the series has covered (this story takes place before Cryoburn, which was published in 2010).  When the action shifts back to Barrayar, we also get to meet old friends again, including Ivan's formidable dowager mother Alys and Ivan's equally formidable unofficial stepfather Simon Illyan (once the head of ImpSec).  Though it comes so late in the series, this book might be a good introduction to the series, for anyone who doesn't mind a few spoilers, since Ivan is constantly explaining his family and his world to the non-Barrayarans (I finally learned from this book why Ivan has the title "Lord Vorpatril" though he isn't a Count's heir).

Lois Bujold has apparently let it be known that this will be the last Vorkosigan book for a good long while, if not forever.  Though I've enjoyed her other series, and I will certainly read whatever she writes next, I won't give up hope that one day she will bring us back to Barrayar again.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An unexpected hiatus

As if packing weren't stressful enough, my internet provider has canceled my service, days before they were supposed to, and they now say they can do nothing about it.  I feel ridiculously bereft and uneasily aware of how addicted I've become to checking blog updates and Twitter feeds regularly.

I also have less distraction from the actual packing now, which is probably for the best.  I have to pack those books sometime.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Murder with buzzards

The Buzzard Table, Margaret Maron

This is the latest in Margaret Maron's mystery series set in North Carolina, which feature Deborah Knott, a district court judge married to a deputy sheriff.  She and her husband Dwight Bryant are often drawn into investigating crimes, though from different angles, since the cases rarely fall under Deborah's lower-court jurisdiction.

I always enjoy the mysteries, but what draws me to these stories are the wonderful characters and setting that Margaret Maron has created.  Most of the books are set in the fictional Colleton County.  Once a rural area, it is changing as family farms are dying off, the land sold to developers whose new homes bring in commuters from urban areas.  Deborah's father Kezzie Knott is holding on to his land, which he bought with the proceeds from a long career in bootlegging, from which he has supposedly retired.  Both the judge and the deputy hope that's true.  He in his turn is a little ambivalent about having a judge in the family, though he helped her win an appointment to the bench after she lost her first election (the means he used were unethical but very effective).  Deborah is the youngest of his twelve children, and the only daughter.  She is a great character, smart, inquisitive, loyal, with strong principles and  a good sense of humor - someone you can imagine sitting down with over a cup of coffee.  It's interesting, though, that she has stated in two or three of the books now that she isn't much of a reader.  That catches my attention each time, because it seems unusual; most of the characters I read about are themselves avid readers, including the detectives, from Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane to Corinna Chapman, and I can't off-hand remember another self-proclaimed non-reader.  I find myself thinking of books to to recommend to Deborah!

The first books in the series were almost completely from her point of view, so we got to know her pretty well.  The later books have alternated between her first-person narration and third-person narration, often following her husband Dwight and the members of his team, or sometimes other characters.  This shift gives the stories a wider scope, allowing us to see the crime or the investigation from different angles, and sometimes giving us access to information that not all of the characters have.  These include most of her older brothers, settled around the area on their own land with their children and grandchildren, as are other relatives from both sides of the family.  Each case usually involves some of the many family members (there is a helpful Knott family chart at the start of each book).  Deborah grew up with Dwight, a local boy who attended school with her brothers.  He enlisted in the army after graduation, working in military intelligence, before leaving the service and joining law enforcement.  They are raising his son Cal, who came to live with them after his mother (Dwight's first wife) was murdered.  (Fortunately they are encouraging Cal to read, and in this book Deborah is reading The Hobbit aloud to him.)  Dwight's own family also plays a big part in the later stories, particularly his mother Miss Emily, the principal of the local high school.

In the last book before this one, Three-Day Town, Dwight's sister-in-law Kate gave them a Christmas gift: the use of an apartment in New York City for a belated honeymoon.  One of Kate's Colleton relations asked them to deliver a small package to her daughter in New York, the contents of which led to a man's death.  Deborah and Dwight were drawn into the investigation, which was led by Lt. Sigrid Harald, the main character in an earlier series by Margaret Maron.  Though it is labeled "A Deborah Knott mystery," I felt like she and Dwight were more supporting characters, and I missed them in the story (I didn't really take to Sigrid).

In this book, the tables are turned.  Sigrid and her mother Anne have come to Colleton to visit Anne's mother, Mrs. Lattimore, who is losing her battle with cancer.  Also staying in the area is Mrs. Lattimore's English nephew Martin Crawford, a noted ornithologist working on a book about turkey buzzards.  When the body of a missing real estate agent turns up near the house where Crawford is staying, though, both Dwight and Sigrid start to wonder if the buzzards and their feeding table are a cover for something else.  Then a young high school student also goes missing.  He recently appeared in Deborah's court, accused of trespassing at the small county airstrip, where rumor has it the CIA routinely lands rendition flights to and from Guantanamo (Blackwater apparently got its start in North Carolina).  Could he be connected to the missing woman?  Sigrid rides along with Dwight on part of his investigations, learning about police work in a very different setting.

I very much enjoyed this return to Colleton.  Maron ingeniously winds the different layers of the story together to a complicated but satisfying conclusion.  The political elements make this story feel very topical, and while Maron makes her and Deborah's feelings about war and rendition clear, she is never strident.  I can't say I ever gave much thought to turkey buzzards, but I learned more than I expected from the chapter headings, "taken from the official website of The Turkey Vulture Society" (apparently the birds that we in North America call buzzards are actually vultures).  On a less gruesome topic, I enjoyed meeting the Lattimore/Harald family, as well spending time with the various Knotts and Bryants.  I do wish Deborah's father had played a bigger part in this book, because he's one of my favorite characters.  But we get to see the deepening relationship between Deborah and her stepson, which has had its rough moments.  If it wasn't for the Double Dog Dare, I might even be tempted to go back again to the earlier books in the series.

This book has a lovely dedication to "Barbara Mertz, who extended a generous hand to a ragtag bunch of unknowns,"  one of my favorite authors, who is herself probably better known as Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.