Monthly Archives: November 2012

Skipping around: Three Mary Russell books (Yo52B #18, 28 and 31)

I’m skipping around a bit here with the chronology of my reviews, because I wanted to get all of my gushing out in one spot. These three books are all part of the same series. (Also, side note, aren’t those covers just gorgeous? I love both styles so much.)

Have I mentioned Mary Russell here before? If I haven’t, I apologize, as if you know me in real life and I’ve spoken to you at all in the past two years there’s a 90% chance I’ve recommended the Mary Russell books to you in terms so strong that you probably backed away slowly, smiling and nodding and looking for something to defend yourself with in case my not-so-latent maniacal tendencies started manifesting themselves in a more sinister way than book recommendations.

Ahem. Mary Russell is one of my current favorite literary characters. Laurie R. King has created an absolutely fantastic series about this British-American Jewish feminist Oxford scholar in the 1910’s and 1920’s who, at the age of 15, meets up with a retired Sherlock Holmes and becomes his protegee and partner. The books are meticulously researched and just sparkle with wit and intelligence. King’s Holmes is his own character but still true to the original vision of Conan Doyle (although this Holmes is rather testy about any references to Conan Doyle; he dislikes the way the latter man sullied his name by association, especially once Conan Doyle turned more to mysticism and fairy stories).

But Mary Russell, from whose viewpoint the stories are told, more than holds her own with Sherlock Holmes without becoming unrealistically superior to him. He still is able to teach and mentor her without making her appear weak. She is a worthy partner for him in every way, and challenges his mind and opinions more than he has been used to.

I’ve read three of these books this year. The Game is book 7. Later on in the year my book club read book 1, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and I also read book 8, Locked Rooms.

18. The Game, by Laurie R. King

****

In The Game, Holmes and Russell make their way to India at the request of Mycroft Holmes in order to investigate the disappearance of an intelligence officer by the name of Kimball O’Hara, better known as the titular character of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. (One of the delightful things about the Holmes/Russell universe is that many purportedly fictional characters, such as Holmes himself, are actually real and pop up at interesting times.) I loved the atmosphere of this book, which felt simultaneously menacing and full of color and spices. There were a few unexpected but satisfying twists, along with a few threads of a mystery to be picked up in the next book. All in all a solid book and great fun to read, but not quite equal to the top books in the canon (books 5 and 6, O Jerusalem and Justice Hall, were two sides of the same coin and absolute masterpieces. They were two of the top three best books I read in 2011). Four stars.

28. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

*****

It was delightful to re-read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice a few weeks later with the benefit of hindsight (or is it foresight when you know what’s coming in the next few books? Anyway, I enjoyed it, whatever it was) and seeing how later events in the series were foreshadowed as well as seeing the clues to the answer to the mystery as they popped up in the book. It re-confirmed my conviction that Laurie R. King is a master of storytelling, whose writing style is like weaving a huge epic tapestry: everything is connected, somehow, and all the disparate threads come together to make an astonishing whole. (Yes, I have a serious author crush going on here.) Five stars.

31. Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King

*****

I went into Locked Rooms not expecting too much, as I’d heard that it was four shorter stories rather than one complete novel. I was delighted to find that I was mistaken. The book is divided into four parts, yes, but that’s because two of the parts are actually told using third-person narration with Holmes himself serving as the viewpoint character for the first time in the series, with the other two parts in the accustomed first-person narration of Mary Russell. This may sound like it shouldn’t work, but oh, believe me, it does, and is done for very good and sufficient reasons. Far from being disappointed in this book, the ultimate result took my breath away. It stands solidly with books 5 and 6 at the top of the series. This book sees Russell and Holmes arriving in San Francisco to tie up the affairs of Mary’s parents’ estate, and a mystery from her childhood rises up to confront them. I can’t think of anything else to say that won’t give away spoilers or just devolve into garbled author-crush gushing. But seriously. Wow. Five stars and mad applause for Laurie R. King. (And yes, this book is a serious contender for the final six-star best book of the year award.)

Seriously, if you haven’t started reading this series, do yourself a favor and pick up The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. You should read all of them in order so you can properly appreciate the sequence and build of events and facts, and all of them, even the weakest (looking at you, book 3), are solidly on the Books You’ll Be Glad You Read list.

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Year of 52 Books #14-17: Moonspinners, Decide, Bridget, and 39 Steps

So. In the interest of catching up (really this time), I’m just going to post a few thumbnail-type reviews.

14. The Moonspinners, by Mary Stewart

****

I love this book, and re-read it every year around Easter time (yes, that’s how far behind I am with my reviews) and then spend the next few months dreaming of Mediterranean holidays. This book chronicles the adventures of Nicola Ferris, a secretary at the British embassy in Athens, who takes an Easter holiday with her cousin in an out-of-the-way village in Crete. She promptly stumbles into a mystery involving a pair of brothers, kidnapping, thievery, boats, crab-pots and both attempted and accomplished murder. The action is great, but what I love best about this book is the feeling of place that the descriptions evoke. I can easily picture myself into the landscape and always come out of the book slightly bewildered and disappointed that I’m no longer sitting on a patio in the Greek sunshine sipping mint drinks. Four stars.

15. How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer

***

This was another Kindle Daily Deal which I picked up on a whim because I thought, looking at the title, that it might help me with some of my less-decisive tendencies. In fact, in the author’s note on this book, he explains that he decided to write it because he was tired of spending fifteen minutes in the cereal aisle trying to decide between Apple Cinnamon and Honey Nut Cheerios every time he went grocery shopping. However, this book isn’t a how-to guide like you might expect, but more of a how-do guide to the brain and its inner workings. Lehrer opens each chapter with a fascinating story of a real-life situation in which a type of decision was made (such as the Mann Gulch fire, which Megan talked about in her review of Young Men and Fire), and then talks about what parts of the brain and which brain functions influenced, prevented, or made such a decision possible. Most of the time it was fascinating, although sometimes I admit I got bogged down in the super-scientific parts. But if you are interested in the ways the brain works and affects such things as panic, intuition, gambling, autism, serial killers, memory, addiction, etc., then you’ll enjoy this book. The writing style is clear and coherent so that even the super-technical parts are understandable, and the storytelling parts are, quite simply, riveting. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t help with my cereal selection process. Three stars.

16. Bridget Jones’ Diary, by Helen Fielding

***

It had been several years since I’d read this, and flying out of my home state and hometown to move to a new city across the country called for something light-hearted. My Kindle offered me this. And it did what it needed to, in that I was distracted and diverted, but I was a bit disappointed to find out that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first time I’d read it. Maybe it’s that I’ve gotten older and don’t have the patience for as much juvenile-type behavior as Bridget engages in. I don’t know. Despite my impatience with some of her antics, though, Bridget did manage to get in a few great lines, for which I must give her (and Fielding) due credit. My favorite lines this time around (in no particular order):

On the end of a relationship:

It’s no good. When someone leaves you, apart from missing them, apart from the fact that the whole little world you’ve created together collapses, and that everything you see or do reminds you of them, the worst is the thought that they tried you out and, in the end, the whole sum of parts adds up to you got stamped REJECT by the one you love. How can you not be left with the personal confidence of a passed-over British Rail sandwich?

On trying to set the VCR record function:

Feel exactly the same as feel when trying to follow signposts on roads. Know in heart that signposts and video manual do not make sense but still cannot believe authorities would be so cruel as to deliberately dupe us all. Feel incompetent fool and as if everyone else in world understands something which is being kept from me.

And of, course, the classic:

It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting “Cathy” and banging your head against a tree.

All in all, a fun read. Three stars.

17. The 39 Steps, by John Buchan

****

In the interest of full disclosure, I “read” this in audiobook format, which I still think totally counts, while pushing a napping toddler around the apartment complex. This book follows expatriate Scot Richard Hannay, who has recently returned to London from southern Africa and is about to die of boredom. He has determined to leave the country again when he is approached by a stranger claiming to hold information vital to the security of the nation, and who pleads for Hannay’s assistance in hiding him until he can contact the proper people. Hannay puts him up for the night but ignores the wilder flights of his guest’s tales of political plotting. However, when his guest is murdered, leaving Hannay his notebook, Hannay finds that he must not only believe the wild tales of his guest, but must also dodge both the British police (who suspect him of being the murderer) and a formidable force of foreign spies bent on silencing Hannay before he can thwart their nefarious plans.

Bottom line: great book. Lots of action, lots of intrigue, lots of close calls and lots of fun. I’d seen several film adaptations of this story so was excited to get the chance to discover the original. I think the original is of course the best, but was surprised by just how many universal elements from the adaptations were missing from the original book. For example, I kept waiting and waiting for the beautiful woman to appear so they would be forced to run across Scotland handcuffed together and outwitting dangerous spies and . . . nothing. No woman at all other than one or two throwaway characters like farmers’ wives and the like.

I was pleased to find, however, that the resourcefulness, daring and general awesomeness that characterize the Richard Hannay of the adaptations were all there and more. Definitely a character you enjoy spending time with, and certainly one you’d want to have on your side in a pinch. Four stars.

I loved the version I listened to (done by BJ Harrison of The Classic Tales Podcast). I highly recommend checking out his podcasts and audiobooks if you haven’t yet done so.

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