Tag Archives: re-reads

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 #12: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

****

Not too much to say about this one, since everyone has read it or seen the movie and I have little to add.

I re-read this book in preparation for the movie, as it had been about two years since the first time I’d read it. I was impressed again by the urgency of the writing, how the pace keeps moving the reader along, as if by staying in one spot too long the reader, too, will get attacked by giant flying fireballs. As before, I cried for Rue (even though I cry at the drop of the hat where movies are concerned—it’s ridiculous, really—it takes a lot for a book to make me cry, so this is fairly high praise). Katniss frustrates me some of the time because it seems like she switches back and forth very quickly at times from competent kick-ace huntress to “wait, what, you actually like like me?” and the contrast seems choppy and uncharacteristic. But that’s probably just me. All in all I still really liked it. I’m looking forward to getting a chance to unpack my boxes of books and re-read the rest of the trilogy. Four stars.

If you’ll indulge my other nerdy obsession, I would like to take a moment here and move away from books to comment briefly on the movie. I thought it was well done—the visuals (when they weren’t obscured by shaky cam) were spot-on; the actors were well-cast, and I loved the adaptation choices they made to help move the story out of Katniss’ head and onto the screen by showing the games control room and the commentary by Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith (see, e.g., the tracker jacker scene). That last bit may have to do with my personal opinion that anything which introduces more Stanley Tucci into a situation is a good thing, though.

I had issues with the overuse of the shaky cam. To clarify, I have absolutely no complaints with the use of shaky cam during the actual games portion of the movie. It lends a good sense of realism to the situation, fits with the emotion of the scene, and also keeps me from having to see too many gory details (and, let’s be honest, kept it a PG-13 rather than an R so more of the books’ target audience could see the movie). HOWEVER. There is no need whatsoever to use the shaky cam while showing opening expository shots of miners walking home from work. If you’re giving your audience a miner-induced headache from immediate shaky cam two minutes into the movie, you’ve got a problem.

Shaky cam aside, though, I liked the movie, but was slightly disappointed in it. It seemed like with all the positives they had going for it—the right cast, right director, right adaptation, right visuals, etc.—they still somehow missed giving it that elusive element called “heart.” I enjoyed the film but it rang a little bit hollow for me. I never truly connected with it. I don’t think I would have sponsored any of the Tributes except possibly Rue, and even then I didn’t cry half so hard for her in the movie as I did in the book. And if you know how ridiculous my crying-at-movies level has gotten, that’s the best example I can give. I enjoyed the movie, but it didn’t grab me by the shoulders and make me care like the book did.

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Year of 52 Books #9: Persuasion

Persuasion by Jane Austen

*****

Side note: I love this cover and wish I had a copy of this version. What a perfect image for this book!

When people ask what my favorite book or movie is, I usually can’t give them a simple answer. It’s like choosing a favorite child (even though I only have the one), I say. I love so many books; you can’t possibly ask me to name just one favorite! I hem and haw and list five or ten books on my rotating favorites list.

But I’m going to admit, here and now, that I really do have one single favorite book, and that it’s Persuasion.

I’ve been thinking over this review for a few weeks now and have been having much more difficulty writing it than might be expected, given that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this book and that I love nearly everything about it. But it’s important to me that I properly articulate why this book means so much to me.

It surprises me sometimes that more people don’t know about Persuasion. Everyone knows and loves Pride and Prejudice, which is kind of the sparkly diamond necklace of the Austen canon: beautiful and dazzling and obviously worthwhile. Persuasion is more of the tiny gold band, plain and sweet and perfect, fitted to the hand from long wear and love. Most people also know about Sense and Sensibility and Emma, mainly because they know Emma Thompson or Kate Winslet or Gwyneth Paltrow. Not as many people know Amanda Root, which means that not as many people know Anne Elliot, which is a true shame.

This book, to me, provides much more than “occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.” It is the book above all others that I know I can go to at any time and in any mood and come away feeling whole and happy, enlightened and enlivened.

It may sound silly to wax so poetic about what many would view as a typical chick-flick-Austen-love-story: poor boy meets well-to-do girl, they get engaged, she is persuaded by (probably snobby) friends that it would be better for him if she broke off the engagement, he gets upset and leaves to make a great career for himself in the Navy, she stays home and never marries. So far, so Nicholas Sparks.

Their paths do not cross again for eight years, which time has served to confirm Anne’s belief that Captain Frederick Wentworth was her ideal match, and to solidify Captain Wentworth’s anger at the woman he loved but who had not, as he believed, loved him well enough to keep him. He turns up in the neighborhood to visit his sister and to look for a wife—any woman but Anne Elliot.

Things work out, as they tend to do in Austen novels, but in a real and moving way that flows perfectly, leaving you with a sense that all is as it should be. No grand coincidences or deus ex machinas here. Anne and Captain Wentworth are drawn back together because there is no other way the world can possibly be; they are meant for each other.

But, for me, this is not primarily a love story.

I will admit that my love of love stories certainly doesn’t diminish my pleasure in this book, and that my sentimental heart beats wildly along with Anne’s through the more suspenseful and sweet portions of the story. But it’s not the romance that keeps me coming back to revisit this book every year or six months.

Ultimately, this is a story about hope. Hope that things can be mended, that mistakes can be made right. Hope that life can be good and worthwhile even if you have family troubles or heartbreak or other problems. And yes, the hope that lost love can return.

I think that’s why the basic Persuasion-style plot line—love is thwarted for a long time but eventually triumphs—is so popular and sees so many iterations. One of the more recent ones I can think of is the delightful movie Letters to Juliet. The ostensible main story line about a perky young journalist (Amanda Seyfried) looking to get her big break and her sparring with the grandson of a woman she’s writing about is cute enough, your standard chick-flick fare. But the secondary story about the grandmother, played by the inimitable Vanessa Redgrave, is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Simply enough, this grandmother comes back to Italy after fifty years to find the boy she fell in love with as a girl and tell him that she’s sorry she didn’t meet him to run away together like she’d promised. She’s not necessarily looking for a grand reunion, romance, the works. She just wants to tell a person who was important to her that she’s sorry she let him down.

Of course things work out, just as they do in Persuasion. But if things never worked out, how would we be able to hope? If we had no memory of light, no hope that it would return, how would we bear the darkness? If we didn’t think that things could be mended, why would we ever try to make them right?

Anne, for all the dreary stretch of years clouded by regret, the dearth of real friendship and companionship in her life and the pain of suspense that she faces, still manages to keep hope and life and quiet joy alive, even when things look bleakest. That is her triumph. Even if Captain Wentworth had married Louisa, Anne would have kept that hope in life. The fact that things DO work out is just the icing on the cake.

And that is why this is my favorite book.

Well, that and the fact that Captain Wentworth can write one heck of a letter.

Five stars.

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Year of 52 Books #8: The Woman in White

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

****

This was a re-read for my book club, but it’s a book I love. The first time I read this book, I was reading it online on Project Gutenberg during my breaks at work. My husband and I were getting ready to move around this same time, and the move date (when we’d be without internet for a couple of days) coincided with my reaching the part where Things Start to Get Really Good. I was also going to be taking a couple of days off work for both the move and my little sister’s wedding (yeah, I know, we have *great* timing), and I could not bear the thought of waiting that long to find out what happened, so I ended up taking time out from packing to run to three bookstores to find a copy because the first two were out.

And I’m glad I did. I think this was my fifth read of this book (yeah, I re-read a lot. I’ll discuss that in another post sometime) and the first time reading it with the specific plan of discussing it with other people, so it was fun to see what themes I picked up on this time that I had missed before or forgotten about.

This book is an early mystery novel of sorts, involving a strange woman in white, two half-sisters, a drawing teacher, a brutish baronet, an invalid uncle, assorted old ladies and a sinister count. Add mistaken identities, lunatic asylums, trained white mice, kidnapping, doomed love, sea voyages, attempted murder, arson, forgery, slander, scandal, and opera-loving Italians of all shapes and sizes to the mix and you have the makings of 400-ish pages of a whole lot of fun.

What can I say? I can’t really sum up the plot of this book succinctly, partly because Collins is anything but succinct. It’s told as a series of first-person narratives, ostensibly so that no part of the story is given second- or third-hand; each part of the story is related by an individual who was actually there to see it or take part. This is great but it means that when Walter is telling the story we have to listen to a lot of extraneous matter about how wonderful and beautiful and perfect Laura is, and when Marian is telling the story we have to listen to a lot of (unconvincing) regrets about how she can’t do anything to save them because she is only a weak woman.

Let me take a break here to say the lady doth protest too much. Wilkie Collins, in Marian Halcombe, appears to have created a character he didn’t quite know what to do with or how to control. She’s smart, she’s sassy, she’s resourceful, she’s basically awesome, but he needed Walter to be in love with Laura instead, you know, for plot reasons, so it feels like he had to keep artificially hobbling Marian to keep her from becoming the main love interest. To do this he specifies that she is ugly (yes, he even goes so far as to give her a bit of a mustache) and keeps having her remind us all that she is only a woman, and what can women do? A heck of a lot, Marian, as you keep showing at every turn. Seriously, Laura’s great and all, but you’re the heroine of this story in my book and only the VILLAIN has the sense to see it. Yeah, you read that right, the hero is in love with bland and actually-helpless and feminine to the core Laura, while the villain has the good sense to fall madly in love with spunky Marian.  (Actually, in the not-really-faithful-at-all 1930’s movie adaptation, the filmmakers DID make Marian the main love interest, kind of the same way that people can’t help but tinker with Fanny Price. This was possible because in the movie Marian did not have a mustache.)

Wilkie, your character was too good for you, and I hope you realize it. (I think you do, because you do have Walter, in his brief pauses between rhapsodizing on Laura’s perfections, mention how amazing a person and what a staunch ally and good friend Marian is. And hey, she’s the one he takes into his confidence when plotting! Seriously, the only thing keeping this woman from taking over the show is that tacked-on mustache. In my mind I see it kind of like a Mr. Potato Head accessory; just shoved on there as an afterthought once the author realized that he’d painted himself into the corner where his reader was naturally going to be rooting for the hero to get with the wrong girl.)

But even with these flaws, I still really enjoy this book. It’s long; it’s an investment and fun to curl up with knowing that you’ll be taking a long journey together. And the good news is that (other than the aforementioned rhapsodizing and self-deprecation from our respective main characters), there isn’t much wasted space (okay, okay, so a few of the landscape descriptions could also have been dropped). What I mean is, all the PLOT elements come back together; even what seem like throw-away bits end up being important to the story later.

If you can get past some Victorian stereotypes, can tolerate unnecessary facial hair, and like fun mystery-type stories, I recommend The Woman in White. It’s worth it, I promise. (Seriously. Just wait till you meet Fosco. He must be seen to be believed.) Four stars.

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Year of 52 Books #6: The Princess Bride

Yes, I’m back, for those of you keeping track. The cross-country move went well but the dust is still settling so I’ll be playing catch-up for a bit, but I should be posting more frequently now. So, without further ado, I give you book number six in my year of 52 books:

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

*****

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

So begins one of my favorite books, The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. This book has been a source of both happiness and confusion to me since I was a young child.

I should explain. As you may have caught on, I’m a bit of a movie geek. Yeah. I’m the one who can rattle off actor resumes and Bacon scores faster than IMDb. If you don’t understand a comment I just made, there’s about a 75% chance that it’s a quote from a movie (and an 80% chance in that case that it’s a movie you’ve never heard of, let alone seen). I, like my father before me, stay until the end of the movie in the theater, not to see if there are any extra scenes, but to read the credits. (The advent of extra scenes, however, has really helped to convince the people with and around us not to bug us to leave early. True story: my parents were once asked to leave a movie theater. They had gone to a late showing of the Disney classic Alice in Wonderland—the real one, not that Tim Burton nonsense—and were the last people left in the theater because my dad was watching the credits. The cleaning staff just wanted to go home so they asked my parents to leave.)

But I digress.

The Princess Bride was one of the first movies I remember seeing in the theater. There was an old dollar theater near our house called The Arcade, and that’s where I remember seeing such movies as The Rescuers, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp (I chose to see that for my birthday movie, probably when I was three or four, and the projector broke), The Little Mermaid and, of course, The Princess Bride. I loved that movie. When it came out on VHS my aunt got it, whereupon she was the most-requested babysitter at our house in spite of the fact that she lived nearly an hour away. One of the best days of my young life was when The Princess Bride had  its network TV broadcast premiere and my dad recorded it so that now we had our own family copy (the downside was that this was the copy I was most familiar with growing up and so I was surprised when I went to college and got my own copy of the movie and there were parts in there I didn’t recognize because the TV version had been edited to run in the time allotted. I made up for it, though, and three years later actually became the campus champion of Princess Bride trivia. No, I am not kidding. My prize: a Princess Bride frisbee full of gummy worms, which the event organizers called “shrieking eels.” The reason I chose that prize was because I already had a copy of the movie, the book and the soundtrack, which is not surprising when you consider how I wound up knowing all that trivia in the first place).

But (coming back to the aforementioned confusion) my mom had raised a question when I was little that had always made me wonder. In the movie, when the grandfather starts reading, he says, “The Princess Bride, by S. Morgenstern. Chapter One.” But in the credits, my mom pointed out that  it says it’s based on William Goldman’s book. Which is the real author?

The real author, of course, is William Goldman. But his book is ostensibly “the good parts version”—that is, he’s writing it as though he’s abridging S. Morgenstern’s longer book, just keeping the good parts and getting rid of all the boring political satire that Morgenstern supposedly stuffed into it. But it’s done well enough that when I first read this book in the sixth grade (no, this isn’t a children’s book), I really did think there was an unabridged version floating around out there. I’m not sure how long it took me to figure out the truth, but much longer than it probably should have. (I’m guessing somewhere around my junior year of high school is when I finally accepted the fact that I would never get to read the hat-packing scenes. It’s kind of like learning about Santa.)

But coming to the book itself—it is simply wonderful. The movie, excellent as it is, doesn’t half do it justice. I still, to this day, am disappointed while reading the passages from the Zoo of Death because they’re not in the movie and it would have been so cool to see them! And then I remember that I don’t like seeing pictures or video or real life of snakes or spiders and think, well, okay, the Pit of Despair will do. But I still use the Zoo of Death passages as great examples of suspense and good writing in classes. I also love how much more back story you get with the characters (young Inigo listening to Domingo and Yeste in particular gives me the giggles), and I have to say that it’s much, much easier to understand the dialogue in the movie’s swordfight scene once you’ve read the book.

William Goldman is an excellent writer in every sense. You’re probably familiar with his work even if you don’t realize it—he’s an amazing and successful screenwriter as well. Think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Misery, Maverick, and of course The Princess Bride. But this book is a marvel of creation and of construction. Everything fits seamlessly together, especially the way he uses the frame story of the abridgment and his father first reading the book to him when he was sick as a child to actually help tell the story. Writers should study this book to see how a master crafts a story.

It’s come to the point where I don’t know for sure which I’ve done more, read the book or watch the movie. But it had been a long time since my last re-read (I know because I found a ticket stub to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban tucked inside my copy when I opened it), and I needed something familiar, comforting and lighthearted-but-not-stupid after the emotional wringer that was Wintergirls. The Princess Bride did the trick very nicely, like a long conversation with an old friend, the kind where you both end up laughing so hard you can barely breathe.

All I can say is, if you have never read this book, please do yourself a favor and pick up a copy as soon as possible. It is one of the most well-crafted novels I have ever read, and it’s entertaining and witty on top of it, which, really, is everything a book ought to be. Five stars.

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Preview of coming attractions.

So I don’t know how many people are actually reading this at this point, but I just wanted to give all y’all a quick shout out to reassure you that I have not, in fact, given up on this venture. It’s just that I’m in the middle of a very sudden and unexpected (but good) cross-country move and haven’t had the necessary time or brainpower to write properly thought-out reviews of the books I’ve been reading. But at some point in the coming weeks I will get proper reviews written for the following books, so stay tuned:

  • #6: The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. (Needed something light and comforting and awesome after the emotionally harrowing experience that was Wintergirls. This is a favorite re-read of mine, and it had been a long time since I’d revisited it.)
  • #7: Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale. (Read this in one sitting. I love anything by Shannon Hale, I loved Austenland, I love mysteries, and I loved this book.)
  • #8: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. (Hosted this book for my book club. Love the early mystery style. This is another book I revisit every couple of years or so.)

Thanks for your patience, and I hope to be back to regularly scheduled blogging (well, regular ANYTHING, really) as soon as possible.

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