Posts Tagged ‘Mary Russell’


Somehow, we’ve reached the end of August. I’ve been writing lots of haiku, running, riding bikes with my guy, and trying to figure out what the fall will look like. And reading, of course. Here’s the latest roundup. (Photo of my current library stack.)

The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Fiona Davis
I adore the stone lions outside the New York Public Library – Patience and Fortitude. Davis’ fifth novel links two women who have strong ties to the library (and each other), 80 years apart. I found both women compelling (and frustratingly naive, at times), and the mystery of several book thefts was clever and well done.

Riviera Gold, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell find themselves in Monaco, not quite by accident, after the departure of their longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Mary falls in with a group of expats and starts unraveling a mystery involving smuggling, White Russians, a bronze sculptor and (possibly) Mrs. Hudson herself. I love this series and this was a great new installment.

The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War, Delphine Minoui
For four years, the Syrian town of Daraya endured constant siege from Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Minoui, a French journalist living in Istanbul, heard about a secret library in Daraya and tracked down the founders: young men who believed in the power of reading and the potential for peace. This book traces their story and the multiple challenges the citizens of Daraya faced. Heartbreaking, and important. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 3).

Mornings with Rosemary, Libby Page
I read this book when it was published (as The Lido) in 2018, thanks to a colleague’s review at Shelf Awareness. It’s the story of a community pool in Brixton, London, and two women who spearhead a campaign to save it from developers: Kate, a lonely young journalist, and Rosemary, age 86, who has been swimming at the lido all her life. I snagged a remainder copy at the Booksmith recently and loved rediscovering the characters – and the writing is so good.

An Irish Country Welcome, Patrick Taylor
I love Taylor’s warm, engaging series about a group of doctors in rural 1960s Ulster. In this visit to Ballybucklebo, Barry Laverty and his wife Sue are expecting their first child, while sectarian violence is rising nearby. A pleasant visit with familiar characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 6).

Clap When You Land, Elizabeth Acevedo
I’ve loved Acevedo’s two previous YA novels, and this novel-in-verse is powerful. Two teenage girls – Camino in the Dominican Republic and Yahaira in New York City – discover they share a father only after he dies in a plane crash. They each struggle to come to terms with his death, the secrets it revealed, and their new relationship. Heartbreaking, sometimes wryly funny, and so good.

500 Miles from You, Jenny Colgan
After witnessing a violent death, nurse-practitioner Lissa is sent to rural Scotland on an exchange program, to help her recover. Cormac, who takes her place in London, is completely overwhelmed by his new surroundings. I loved watching the two of them fall for each other via email and text, and I enjoyed going back to Kirrinfief (this is Colgan’s third book set there). Warmhearted and fun.

Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. LeGuin
In 10 no-nonsense chapters, LeGuin lays out some of the basics of writing: sentences, sound, narrative voice, point of view. Packed with exercises and examples, but my favorite part is LeGuin’s wry, wise voice. Found at Trident.

Tunnel Vision, Sara Paretsky 
Just as V.I. Warshawski’s office building is condemned, she meets a homeless woman who may be hiding out there – and then another woman is murdered in V.I.’s office. Vic’s eighth adventure pits her, as usual, against corrupt local bigwigs while she’s fighting tooth and nail for justice. All her usual helpers – snarky journalist Murray, Viennese doctor Lotty, and her elderly neighbor, Mr. Contreras – show up, too. Grim at times, but so good.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident, Frugal Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith.

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maisie dobbs in this grave hour book

Female sleuths have been my heroes since childhood, from Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden to Miss Marple and Harriet Vane. But these days, my favorite female investigators have an extra dimension: their complex, layered backgrounds inform their approaches to the cases they take.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs starts out as a scullery maid, but thanks to a wealthy patron, she attends university, then works as a battlefield nurse before hanging out her shingle as a private investigator. Her eponymous first adventure lays out her background and her first few cases, and sets up a richly drawn, insightful historical series. My favorite installments illuminate aspects of Maisie’s personal life, such as A Dangerous Place, which follows her to Gibraltar and Spain in the wake of great loss. 

mary russell books series sherlock holmes mystery

Orphaned, bookish and prickly, Mary Russell literally stumbles over Sherlock Holmes while walking on the Sussex Downs. The great detective takes her on as his protege in Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and they eventually become full partners in crime-solving and life. But Mary resolutely pursues her own scholarly interests at Oxford, which leads her to a mystery that quickly goes beyond the academic in A Letter of Mary. Russell’s complicated history, academic prowess and sharp wit make her a more-than-worthy compatriot for Holmes. (I blazed through this series when I discovered it some years ago, and have loved each new installment.)

clare russ book stack julia spencer fleming mysteries

Arriving in Millers Kill, N.Y., the newly ordained Reverend Clare Fergusson, carrying the scars of her Army career, must prove she’s a capable priest (In the Bleak Midwinter). But as Clare is drawn into several local mysteries and a growing friendship with the married police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, things get messy. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s gripping series ably explores Clare’s grit, compassion and her complex bond with Russ. Hid From Our Eyes, the long-anticipated ninth installment, is out this spring, and I can’t wait to see where Clare’s unusual talents take her next.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last week. 

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Perfect Scoundrels, Ally Carter
Kat Bishop and her crew of teenage thieves are back – but this time they’re not stealing art. Kat’s boyfriend, Hale, has inherited his grandmother’s billion-dollar company after her sudden death, and Kat senses something fishy. But Hale is proud to be his grandmother’s heir; how can she tell him the will may be a fake? Carter writes fast-paced, well-plotted, witty stories with great ensemble casts (I love Kat’s crew of thieves and her Uncle Eddie), but somehow the romance felt lacking in this book. Still a fun ride, like all her books.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I’ve returned to this book every winter since we moved to Boston, and I spent part of the recent blizzard curled up on the couch with it. I love the Ingalls family’s closeness, their singing, their humor and grit and perseverance, and the way they glory in the simple things, even when the winter winds howl outside. And I wanted to slip into the feed store for some pancakes with those Wilder brothers. Vivid and hopeful and altogether wonderful.

Full Dark House, Christopher Fowler
A bomb blows up the office of the London police’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, killing one of the unit’s oldest (and quirkiest) employees, Arthur Bryant. John May, Bryant’s partner, reflects on their decades-long collaboration, which began during the Blitz of World War II. As he remembers their first case, he wonders if there’s a link to the present-day bombing. The first in a series following Bryant and May (an Odd Couple-esque pairing) and their unorthodox crime-solving methods. Fun, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I wanted to.

Garment of Shadows, Laurie R. King
Mary Russell wakes alone in a strange room in Morocco, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes is trying to find her, while becoming increasingly preoccupied with the region’s volatile politics. A brilliant mix of history, adventure, political intrigue and wonderful supporting characters (including Mahmoud and Ali, whom we have encountered before). Russell’s ingenious mind and quick reflexes are on display, as is King’s fascination with the Arab world. Wonderful.

A Future Arrived, Phillip Rock
I loved this last volume in the saga of the Greville family, which follows the main characters (and their children) through the late 1930s to the beginning of World War II. Martin Rilke introduces his young brother-in-law to the world of journalism; Lady Alexandra’s son becomes a pilot; and everyone wonders how this war will compare to the last one. Well plotted and excellently drawn; lots of familiar faces and I enjoyed watching the new generation come of age.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
I’ve not read much Hemingway except for A Moveable Feast, which I adore. But I found this tale of Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley and their friends tedious and frustrating. They may have been a “lost generation,” but none of the characters are likeable, and I found the prose style choppy. I did enjoy the descriptions of Pamplona, since I’ve been there, and of bullfighting. On the whole, a dud for me.

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Jan 2013 017

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Kristin Kimball
Kristin Kimball was a total New York City girl, until she fell in love with a handsome, charming, exasperating farmer. This is the story of their first year running a farm in upstate New York, when everything could (and did) go wrong. Despite the trials (and the dirt), Kimball fell deeply in love with her new life and work. She writes beautifully about that year’s triumphs and griefs, about finding new reserves of strength in herself, about struggling forward each day. Lovely and wise.

Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin
I loved Benjamin’s latest, The Aviator’s Wife, so I picked up this novel narrated by Alice Liddell, the original Alice in Wonderland. Benjamin explores Alice’s childhood and her (rather fraught) relationship with Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). I am not an Alice in Wonderland fan; I find the story confusing and creepy. But I enjoyed the descriptions of Oxford in the 1860s/1870s, and I found Alice herself a complex, intriguing character. Benjamin also details Alice’s later life, about which I knew virtually nothing, and which I found fascinating and heartbreaking. A gripping (if at times uncomfortable) story of an unusual woman.

The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends, Humphrey Carpenter
I’m fascinated by the Inklings and enjoyed this “group biography,” meticulously researched and detailed. Because I recently read a new C.S. Lewis biography, the first part (about him) was repetitive for me, but I learned a great deal about Charles Williams, and about the group’s evolution over the years. (It saddens me that it eventually dropped off.) Carpenter’s fictional re-creation of an Inklings meeting, drawn from diaries and letters, is particularly spirited and fun.

The Plain Old Man, Charlotte MacLeod
I needed something light after Alice I Have Been, so picked up this sixth Sarah Kelling mystery. Sarah gets roped into painting both scenery and faces for her Aunt Emma’s community theatre production. All is well until an heirloom painting disappears and a cast member turns up dead. This story started slowly, but the pace picked up later and the eventual solution was clever. Part mystery, part comedy of errors, part wacky family story (as always). Good fun.

The God of the Hive, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell’s tenth adventure finds them separated and on the run, from enemies known and unknown. Russell lands in a forest at a hermit’s cabin, while Holmes makes for Holland with his injured son. After resting and regrouping (and some great use of the Times agony column), they head for London and a confrontation with their foe. Fast-paced, with (thank heaven) more moments of levity than The Language of Bees. I was pleased at the return of Holmes’ bolt-holes around London and his well-known deductive reasoning. Lots of fun.

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books tree snowman christmas

(This really means “week before vacation and vacation” reading, and/or “The Final Book Roundup of 2012.”)

The Secret Keeper, Kate Morton
As a teenager in 1961, Laurel Nicolson sees her mother kill a man. She doesn’t know who he was or why he came to their house – and the family never speaks of it again. Forty years later, as her mother begins to slip away, Laurel and her brother begin a feverish search for answers. This was my first Morton novel and I loved it – so evocative of both modern-day England and London during the Blitz. The sibling dynamics are perfectly drawn, and there were a couple of brilliant, dramatic twists. Utterly absorbing. (I received a galley from the publisher, but was not compensated for this review.)

All Shall Be Well, Deborah Crombie
I tore through this second book featuring the Scotland Yard team of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. They investigate the death of Kincaid’s terminally ill neighbor Jasmine, from a lethal dose of morphine. She had considered (and mentioned) suicide, but the details add up to homicide instead. Better plotted, better written and more interesting than the first one, with more insights into Kincaid’s and Gemma’s lives. (I wonder – especially since the writer is a woman – why she calls him “Kincaid” and her “Gemma.” Perhaps it’s my feminist self being nitpicky?)

At Bertram’s Hotel, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple, staying at the posh, old-world titular London hotel, observes a number of strange events that add up to a murder case. As usual, she solves the crime with keen observation and unruffled calm. Dashing celebrities, foggy nights, fast cars and lots of secrets make this an entertaining mystery.

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver
Oliver’s newest collection is full of lyrical observations, several elegies to a beloved dog, and the nature imagery for which she is known. I didn’t love it quite as much as Thirst, which blew me away, but it was still quite lovely.

The Game, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell travel to India, to search for an Irish spy who has disappeared – none other than the title character of Kipling’s Kim. They travel in the guise of gypsy musicians, stay at a maharaja’s palace, and encounter a dizzying array of characters, both friend and foe. This is a fabulous adventure story and a brilliant tribute to Holmes’ and Russell’s ability to think on their feet. One of my favorites in the series.

Locked Rooms, Laurie R. King
Fresh from their Indian adventure (above), Holmes and Russell land in San Francisco, so Russell can deal with matters relating to her family’s property there. But a series of disturbing dreams forces her to rethink her memories of childhood, and of the car wreck that killed her family. A dazzling portrait of San Francisco in the early 20th century, both before and after the 1906 earthquake. I loved the exploration of Russell’s character and her family history, and the Chinese bookseller, Mr. Long.

The Language of Bees, Laurie R. King
Arriving home at last, Holmes and Russell can’t rest for long: Holmes’ grown son Damian, whom he has met only once before, turns up on their doorstep asking for his father’s help. As they search for Damian’s missing wife and child, Russell doubts Damian’s innocence and worries over Holmes’ refusal to suspect his son. Not my favorite of the series – the plot involves a creepy cult, and the ending is literally “to be continued.” But I’ll still read The God of the Hive to find out what happens.

A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache returns to the village of Three Pines (introduced in Still Life) to solve another murder, this one of a self-styled, self-centered design guru whom no one liked. Many characters from Still Life reappeared, but for some reason this story fell rather flat for me. Perhaps it was too similar to the first, or I was simply irritated at several plot threads left dangling. I do like Gamache, though: he’s a thoughtful, wise character.

What did you read over your vacation, if you had one?

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Back in August, when I raved about Tommy and Tuppence, Agatha Christie’s young, stylish crime-fighting duo, several of you mentioned the Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King. So when our book club needed a September selection, I suggested the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. (As I sat reading it in the Dallas airport, the cover caught the eye of a man across the room, who came over and inquired about it. I hope he read it!)

mary russell books series sherlock holmes mystery

We ended up canceling our book club meeting that month, but we all loved the book so much that we read the sequel, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and discussed both at our October meeting.

And as you can guess from the photo above (or as you know if you read my frequent book roundups), I am hooked.

The series opens in 1915, when Sherlock Holmes has retired to the downland country of Sussex and taken up beekeeping. Mary Russell – orphaned, Jewish, headstrong, brilliant – literally stumbles into him as she walks across the downs, reading. Their first conversation is an argument (a sign of things to come), but he recognizes her quick mind and takes her on as his apprentice.

By the end of the first book, the duo have traversed the UK and spent several weeks in Palestine on a government mission, and Mary has become Holmes’ full partner in solving crimes. By the end of the second book (spoiler alert), they have realized how they feel about one another and (almost grudgingly) decided to get married.

I am a longtime Anglophile and a mystery lover, but I’d never read any Sherlock Holmes stories before starting this series. It doesn’t matter – Holmes looms so large in our public consciousness that even readers who’ve never visited Baker Street will get most of the jokes. (King slyly lampoons Conan Doyle, taking him and Dr. Watson to task for their “outrageous fabrications” of Holmes’ adventures.) I’ve already picked up The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I loved, and I’m planning to spend more time with Conan Doyle as (or after) I spend time with Holmes and Russell.

The series’ chief strength is the crackling, sparring relationship between its two central characters, both of whom are brilliant, stubborn, reckless and care a great deal for one another. Mary fights tooth and nail to be taken seriously (not so much by Holmes, but by others) as a woman, a detective and a scholar. Her other passion is theology, which she reads at Oxford, and while Holmes scoffs at her, this interest gives her character depth and provides a counterpoint to their mystery-solving.

The love of England runs deep in the soul of the series, but Mary particularly adores Oxford, as do I. She never tires of it, and I never tire of her descriptions of the city. (I also love that the American editions retain the British punctuation and spelling.)

The historical backdrop of World War I and the 1920s is a fascinating period (as we’ve all learned from Downton Abbey and the spate of new or rediscovered books set during that time). The series touches on women’s suffrage, various evils caused by the war, the plight of returned soldiers, the precarious political state of Palestine, and rumblings (still far off, as yet) of another war. In these ways it reminds me of the Maisie Dobbs series, which features a private investigator working in England in the same era.

Holmes and Russell are the twin poles around which this series orbits, but King’s minor characters are equally well drawn. They include Holmes’ brother Mycroft, Dr. Watson (known to Mary as “Uncle John”), Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, and a host of suspects, police inspectors and other acquaintances. I am particularly fond of Mahmoud and Ali, two distant cousins whom Holmes and Russell first encounter in Palestine and meet again in England.

If you love England, Sherlock Holmes, a well-plotted mystery, crime-fighting duos who are both brilliant and entertaining, or love stories with as much wit as passion, I highly recommend spending time with Mary and Holmes.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to The Game

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Oxford is a walled city still, and within her black and golden, crumbling, scabrous, aged, dignified, and eternal walls lie pockets of rarefied air, places where, turning a corner or entering a conversation, the breath catches and for an instant one is taken up into . . . if not the higher levels of heaven, at least into a place divine. And then, in the next moment, there comes an eddy of grit, and the ghostly echo of mediaeval oxcarts is heard rumbling down past Christopher Wren’s bell tower on their way from Robert D’Oilley’s castle to his grand bridge over the river.

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The High Street, seen from St Mary’s tower

Up the High towards the tantalising curve, but before entering it, at the very foot of St Mary’s wise divinity, I made an abrupt turn north, and there, oddly satisfying in its scorn for a deliberate and formal perfection, was the quadrangle with the round earthiness of the Radcliffe Camera in its centre, bounded on its four sides by the tracery of All Souls on my right, the height of St Mary’s at my back, Brasenose College on the left giving nothing away, and before me, where there should rightly have been trumpets and gilt, the unadorned backside of the Bodleian and the Divinity School. I was home.

—Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary

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The Radcliffe Camera

I am loving every bit of Laurie R. King’s series following the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, including the convoluted plots, the witty banter, the delightful cast of minor characters and the historical details. But Mary’s love for Oxford, which matches my own, positively thrills me to my toes.

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