Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Beekeeper's Apprentice

Laurie R. King started her Mary Russell mystery series over 15 years ago and has had quite some time to develop it. According to the inside of my paperback, she has eight novels so far. I just sat down this week with the first one, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and wasn't disappointed!

The premise of The Beekeeper's Apprentice is that Sherlock Holmes is a real live person living out a quiet retirement in Sussex during WWI when teenager Mary Russell crosses his path. In many ways, orphaned Russell is a younger, female version of Holmes -- complete with acerbic wit, searing intellect, and a penchant for observation and deduction. Holmes is intrigued and sets about casually training her and honing her skills. Predictably, they work together on a few cases that get more dangerous and more personal as time goes on.

At first I wasn't a huge fan of Mary Russell. I enjoyed reading about Sherlock Holmes years ago when I was a teenager, but I wasn't excited to read about a younger, female version of him. So the first few chapters weren't very engaging to me. As she ages and matures, however, her humanness emerges and she becomes a much more sympathetic and interesting character. Holmes himself grew on me as well. It's been so long since I've read any of Conan Doyle's work that my memory of Holmes is a general feeling rather than specifically accurate. But eventually I was able to believe that he was THE Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, even if King's version shows more empathy and gentleness than I remember from Conan Doyle's.

There is mystery and suspense, of course, but mostly it is about the relationship between Russell and Holmes. Holmes plays the role of friend, mentor, even father figure to Russell, but as she approaches her 20's there is definitely the underlying question of another form of attachment -- despite the difference of almost 40 years in their ages -- blatantly raised by outsiders if not the reader. Both Holmes and Russell are very devoted and pure in their friendship, but there is an intimacy there that makes me wonder what King has in mind as Russell grows into full adulthood.

I think I mostly enjoyed this book because I like Sherlock Holmes and I like strong female characters and King did a good job creating both. I'll definitely have to come back for more!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Peace Like a River

Most of the books I read are recommended by other avid readers. This system works great because I usually end up enjoying their recommendations, and it saves me the work of researching new reads on my own. Leif Enger's Peace Like a River was one such book. I probably wouldn't have bothered with it on my own, since I like interesting titles and the title Peace Like a River does nothing for me. Sure, it speaks of depth and deep emotion, but with no sign of whether I would enjoy the journey.

Fortunately, this is one example where the title doesn't do the story justice. Yes, 11-year-old Reuben Land's journey to find his outlaw older brother who has been accused of murder does have depth and emotion to it. But the well-written narrative is not bogged down with sentiment, and keeps up a comfortable pace to engage the reader. Not breakneck speed, mind you, but enough to keep the reader coming back for more. Within the first couple of pages my interest was piqued by the descriptions of Reuben's dad and the unapologetic accounts of miracles he has performed. Soon the details of how Reuben's troubled brother Davy kills two young men drew me deeper into the story, and by the time Davy escapes from jail and Reuben and his father and sister decide to track him down out west in the wintry Badlands, I was hooked.

This story of redemption isn't exactly subtle, folks. The religious themes are so pronounced that I worried sometimes about it crossing over into sickeningly didactic. But it never got that far. I felt like the narrative stayed balanced and true, exploring equally strong themes of family, love, and with the added fun factor of romanticizing the west.

But like I said, the story was clearly a redemption tale. It was obvious that the dad was to represent the Christ figure who gives of himself to save another, though the details of how large or small that sacrifice would be wasn't clear. What was also not clear was which of his sons was to be saved. The most obvious choice was Davy, the sinner on the run who had separated himself from family and civilization and ends up taking refuge with (or being captured by?) an evil man who clearly personifies the Devil. But at the same time Reuben, our honest and flawed narrator, is in need of redemption as well. Living with asthma that can be dangerously life-threatening, his dad voices his wish more than once that he could trade places and take this burden from him.

I was intrigued with how the dad was portrayed. Usually a fictional father who is so deeply religious is portrayed as authoritarian, judgmental, and unforgiving. But this was the opposite of Reuben's dad, who nonetheless was human and flawed despite the sense of the divine about him. It was a refreshing approach for such a character and each of the characters had a warmth and sincerity to them that engendered affection.

My only complaint was that the conclusion seemed to be lacking. I can't quite put my finger on it, but there was just something that didn't sit right with me about it. It didn't seem to hold up to the expectation that had been building throughout the book. Or maybe it's because it relied too heavily on some of the weakest characters to sustain it. But I still enjoyed it enough that I'll probably check out his second novel. After all, it comes with a good recommendation!