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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-07-09 14:16
Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold
Memory (Vorkosigan Saga, #10) - Lois McMaster Bujold

If you choose an action, you choose the consequences of this action.

 ... and this novel is ripe with consequences.

 

First of all, Miles's cryorevival comes with a seizure-condition that rears its ugly head in the most inconvenient moment - moreover, Miles then lies about it in his mission report, and Illyan has little choice but to dismiss him from service.

 

And Miles now has to learn for himself who he is if he doesn't have ImpSec and through them the Dendarii Mercenaries to prop him up. Who is he on Barrayar? Just the little mutant who gained access to the Imperial service through nepotism? Can he be Lord Vorkosigan, and survive without the little admiral?

 

Add to that Gregor falling in love - and Illyan himself falling to pieces. And Miles's focus quickly shifts from personal anguish and depression to that which he does best: problem-solving.

 

I've reread Memory now 5 or 6 times from cover to cover with countless repetitions of the various most memorable scenes, like the confrontation with Illyan over lying, or all the meetings with Gregor... and I'm still as pulled into this story as if it's the first time. The Vor Game was Gregor's story, Mirror Dance Mark's - and this is finally Miles coming fully into his own, accepting and embracing who he is (and not only what he created for himself). He's wrestling with temptation: go down the easy route, or do it right; the realization that despite all insecurities and yearnings there are lines that he won't cross; and the moment calm finally settles his mind, and clarity focuses it - that's still immensely satisfying to read.

 

Some prices are just too high, no matter how much you may want the prize. The one thing you can't trade for your heart's desire is your heart.

 

It doesn't come as much of a surprise that I especially love the Barrayar-set novels within this series. First of all, Bujold's talent to create characters is fantastic, and it's one thing to see Miles in all his glory among the Dendarii (as head of the chain of command), but it's a wholly different experience to see him in a more socially complex setting. Remember, on Barrayar children like him were killed not so long ago (and boy is it an intense scene when he seeks out Raina and Harra Csurik to ask for forgiveness!), even his own grandfather tried to kill him. He's had to fight his whole life to make a place for himself, and most people still think that nepotism is all that got him into service. And that most of his service was in covert ops doesn't help with his self-esteem issues. So, coming from the top of the food chain, he's suddenly the odd one out, having to find his way against prejudice, suspicion and jealousy.

 

Seeing him interact with Gregor, his foster-brother, friend and ultimate liege-commander is always a joy because of the various, sometimes contradicting layers of their relationship. Love Gregor, pure and simple, and seeing him find love and joy is one of the many highly enjoyable facets of this novel (as is his courtship told from Miles's PoV - the horse, groomed to within an inch of its life!!!). The same goes for Illyan who was a confidant of Miles's father, always the protector... but who couldn't protect Miles from himself. Again, so many layers of loyalty, familial and personal, not to mention the chain of command make for a complex and differentiated relationship. Add to that Ivan and Galeni whose lives are inextricably bound to Miles's through various reasons, and the story unfolds. Loyalty, friendship, trust, all these build the foundation and, paired with Miles's (and Gregor's) inimitable judgement of character and indomitable drive, make for a fascinating study of loss, betrayal and overcoming adversity.

 

Yes, Memory isn't an action-packed, fun romp through the galaxy. It's introspective, it's sometimes painful, but, again, oh so rewarding. Chicken always come home to roost. My favourite of the entire saga.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-04-05 22:22
Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
Mirror Dance - Lois McMaster Bujold

This is a novel that grows on you. When I first read it back in 2005, I reasonably liked it. Except for Cordelia's Honor it was the best part of the saga up till that point in the narrative, but I didn't love it. So I only reread parts of it, but never in its entirety - until now. And boy, this time I absolutely fell in love with it. It has a bit of a slow start (which costs it the half star-reduction), but once the shit hits the fan it's one tour de force of psychology and emotion that keeps you biting your finger nails.

 

After 2 years, Mark turns up and basically kidnaps the Dendarii posing as Miles for a raid of House Baraputhra's cloning facilities on Jackson's Whole (where he was created as well). Miles races after him and arrives just as the mission fails spectacularly. He ends up shot in the chest and put in a cryotube which then gets lost in the following chaotic retreat. Mark and Elena have the unenviable task of relaying the news to the Vorkosigan parents which means for Elena a return to a difficult past - and for Mark a step into an uncertain future. But the race to recover Miles (dead or alive) isn't over, and Mark won't stop until there's certainty of his clone-brother's fate.

 

This is Mark's story, who he was, who he is and who he ends up to be. The various roles he has to or chooses to play showcase this, from impersonation, to reluctant and unsure son, to brother and business man - dealing with doubt, guilt, and all the aftereffects that his upbringing with Galen (which is elaborated on here) left him with. Add to that the torture he's put through here, and you get a young man who's somehow toeing the line towards insanity, but nevertheless has never felt more sane and true to himself. It's a veritable tour de force to come to that point, and some chapters are incredibly difficult to read (the black gang's emergence) and make no mistake, Bujold doesn't pull any punches here. This might be the most explicit book in terms of violence and torture against one of her main characters in this saga so far (and overall), and even immoral acts perpetrated by a main character, but it's so rewarding nonethess. Honestly, up till now I've never liked Mark, but in a way Bujold managed to bring him to life in just one (albeit very long) book just as much as she did with Miles. And the Vorkosigan-universe is richer for it.

 

Miles himself takes the backseat here, but of course he gains a new perspective in life - having an brother, not just a clone, for once not being in the heart of things... and a glimpse of mortality. But his resurrection doesn't come without a price as we'll see. Among all the psychology and character-drama the plot surrounding the Duronas and the despicable machinations on Jackson's Whole get a bit sidelined. But I guess we'll revisit both. Overall, I love the image of reciprocity in this novel: every action has a reaction, just like in the Mirror Dance, a popular dance on Barrayar, and that's transferred to practically everything that's going on here.

 

Other than Mark himself, the parts that most fascinated me (and the ones that I kept coming back to) are set on Barrayar: the effects Miles' not-quite death has on the Vorkosigans, Mark's introduction into this family, Aral's health crisis which suddenly turns an academic question of succession into a very real one, Cordelia going toe to toe with Simon Illyan, even the small glimpses and huge nudges of Gregor and Kareen Koudelka who both accept Mark for who he is from the start - not just as Miles's clone, but as an individual.

 

Overall, a stunning novel.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-03-02 13:59
Conclave by Robert Harris
Conclave - Robert Harris

The pope is dead... and 117 cardinals are about to seclude themselves in the conclave to elect a new pope. No, make that 118. There are 4 favourites, but as the saying goes: Who goes into the conclave as pope, comes out a cardinal.

 

Although it's mostly talk and introspection, Harris manages to keep one yearning for more. Especially his point-of-view character Lomeli who presides the conclave is a surprisingly relatable protagonist, with doubts and a crisis of faith that's heart-felt, especially the conflict between faith in Christ and faith in the institution of the Catholic Church. I think that's an important difference because lots of people have lost faith in the Church but not necessarily in God or Christianity. Unfortunately, for some officials that's often the same thing and those people, now looking for a new spiritual home, are left adrift, ripe for the picking for demagogues with unsavoury goals hidden within sweet promises.

 

In the end it's not so much a story about the election of a new pope but of a man regaining his own faith. That's where this novel very much succeeds. As it does in portraying a range of characters, from super-progressive, to manipulative, ambitious, world-weary, some deeply flawed, others shaped by circumstances.

 

However, the plot itself doesn't hold many surprises and much is left unsolved (the events in the outside world, the old pope's last weeks etc), but I imagine that's due to the constraints of the conclave's seclusion which doesn't lend itself to starting investigations. Still, I was captivated throughout but mainly to see if my predictions were right (and they were, every one of them), rather than because of unforeseen twists and turns. And I could have lived with that because it's still a gripping tale of introspection and psychology. But the final twist (especially since it's obvious from a mile away) was a bit too much and went beyond credibility, even more so in modern times. I think that Harris wanted to add something unique into his story - and I agree that at some point such a development will and has to come to pass. But the way this twist was introduced doesn't necessarily mean progress for the Church itself as long as an agenda that speaks of lasting and fundamental change within the structure of the Church isn't mentionned. And let's face it, the respective character and the story itself didn't need this. So, somehow, I can't help but think of this twist as some kind of trendy publicity stunt, and an unnecessary one at that, mind you.

 

Therefore, the ending did put a bit of a dampener on my enjoyment of this novel - but it's still a good and suspenseful tale.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-11-29 19:29
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
And the Mountains Echoed - Khaled Hosseini

This is Hosseini's third novel, his weakest so far.

 

The story begins with the separation of the siblings Abdullah and Pari when Pari is sold to a childless rich couple in Kabul. What follows is a collection of short stories of people who are sometimes closely, sometimes loosely connected to that event, stories of love, of friendship, of blurred lines between these two, of family, of failure, of how people deal with loss, sickness, disfigurement in their own ways. And of how loved ones might not turn out to be whom you thought them to be.

 

"Sometimes a finger must be cut to save the hand."

 

Again, Hosseini manages to weave a tapestry with his words, especially the first story of about 50 pages, and the stories and allegories which are turned into reality within that one, showcase his tremendous abilities as a writer. But as much as the main story arc comes together in the end, there are unfortunately parts that remain apart, that don't mesh with the others... well, that don't quite fit right into this tapestry. Maybe it's the various changes in story-telling, maybe it's the way people are included who don't actually feature in the main plot, but in my opinion 2 or 3 of those short stories could have been cut without damaging the overall arc.

 

Even though this novel didn't grip me as much as his 2 previous ones - although, make no mistake, some stories, the first one, Nabi's and of course the bittersweet ending, again an allegory in itself about the blessing and the curse of forgetting, of letting go and of holding on, again brought a lump to my throat if not outright tears to my eyes -, I'm still in awe of Hosseini's talent and definitely on the lookout for his next book.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-11-24 22:08
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

So, what do you do when the guilt over something that happened in your childhood eats you up and prevents you from really living your life? You'll unconsciously look for a chance to redeem yourself.

 

"A man who has no conscience, no goodness, does not suffer."

 

Amir and Hassan practically grow up in the same household in Kabul, Amir, the son of a philanthropist who's revered in the community, and Hassan, the servant's son. They are close, and Hassan endlessly loyal, even throughout Amir's disparaging comments, until one winter's day the idyllic world is ripped apart when Hassan's assaulted and Amir doesn't interfere - and later on even drives Hassan and his father from the only home they've known. Years later, Amir's now married in the US, an old family friend calls him to Pakistan, uncovers the lies his childhood was built on, and offers a chance of redemption: go back to Kabul and save Hassan's son.

 

Usually, I'm not too fond of 1st person narratives. But they can, as in this case, work astonishingly well. As Amir grows up, so does his view on the world: from the arrogant, inwardly insecure boy always striving for his father's reluctant approval, always seeking out Hassan's presence but just maybe only to have someone to look down upon, to someone who hates himself for what he's failed to do and whose whole life changes because of one single event before it changes even more when he and his father are forced to flee to the US and start anew selling junk at flea markets. At least he finally gets to know the man his father is... even if still only partly because one revelation changes his entire perception. The focus falls on one little boy, left alone in Kabul and fallen into the same hands that ripped Hassan and Amir's childhood from them. And Hassan's reply to every of his demands during his childhood becomes his own after finally seeing a little smile on the face of that world-weary child:

 

"For you, a thousand times over."

 

This novel is an amazing journey into the aftermath of tragedy, into guilt and redemption, and into forgiveness given freely, even if you yourself don't feel you deserve it. But most of all it's a story about love, loyalty, friendship and family. Hosseini has the great gift of weaving a story tapestry with his words that sucks you in and leaves you grasping at every ray of hope that is offered... and those are few and far inbetween. And every time you think there's finally some good on the horizon he throws you right back into the darkness and despair that has you on the edge of your seat and a lump down your throat. An emotional tour de force that leaves you enriched, yet deeply humbled.

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