Publish & Perish

Publish & Perish (Ben Reese, #1)Publish & Perish by Sally Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was one of my random reads from drawing slips at the beginning of the year. I drew three slips from my “new series” pile. This was on my TBR because later titles in the series were take-offs on Jane Austen titles, an old “theme” that still gets my attention. And the main character has a Welsh last name – Ben Reese – so that got my attention too, and the next book in the series takes place in Scotland, and he is an archivist interested in rare books, coins, paintings, and ancient documents so that all appealed to me.

It’s an old series, published in 1997, but set in 1960. Reviews have compared the author to Dorothy Sayers. I think that’s a stretch but it does have something of that flavor revolving around academia. It started a bit slow, but it grew on me. I’ve already started the second book Pride & Predator. Although marketed as “Christian” fiction, I didn’t find anything off-putting here. He talks about God, and ponders some theological/existential questions but there is nothing pushing his views (or the author’s views) on anyone else. Nothing incompatible with my own decidedly liberal views.

The set up for a series is okay – we get to know the main character, but there is not much in the way of character development for anyone else. The plot moves quite slowly and is mostly introspective until the very end. More thoughtful than action, with some subtle humor. Still, I liked Ben Reese enough to want to read more and find out more about him and what makes him tick.

Book description: Publish And Perish, the first Ben Reese novel, begins in 1960 at an academic research institute near Oxford, England, though the story grows out of tangled relationships at the small Ohio university where Ben Reese is an archivist – an expert in antiquities, in coins and paintings and the dating of ancient texts. He’s also a thirty-seven year old veteran of WWII; a behind-the-lines reconnaissance expert who captured German command posts across France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany until he was stopped by a Tiger Tank.

His war experiences aren’t something he talks about easily. He’s a quiet man, who lives close to the country, and rides his horse, and enjoys the accomplishments of long dead craftsmen, while he tries to get over the death of his wife. It isn’t until his closest friend dies, minutes after phoning Ben in England, that Ben has to rely again on the characteristics that kept him alive from Omaha Beach to the Saarbrucken Forest. Ben looks under a lot of academic rocks at the politics, prejudice and ambition that had to be navigated even then by those with unpopular opinions. That leads the killer to come after Ben with a calculated brutality that takes Ben back to the war, and makes the question of his own survival more than a matter of academic interest.

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Plague Land

Plague Land (Somershill Manor Mystery, #1)Plague Land by S.D. Sykes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Setting: England, Kent, Somershill (fictional manor and rural village)
Time: 1350, two years after the plague has ravaged the country killing half the population.

Chapter One: “It was a hot summer’s morning in June of this year when I first saw them – advancing towards Somershill like a band of ragged players. I would tell you they were a mob, except their numbers were so depleted that a gaggle would be a better description. And I would tell you I knew their purpose in coming here, but I had taken to hiding in the manor house and keeping my nose in a book. At their head was John of Cornwall, a humourless clenched-fist of a man, whose recent appointment to parish priest rested purely upon his still being alive.”

Criticized for being too modern in tone, it was a style that worked for me. It gave a breezy, humorous counterbalance to the dark and macabre time period. Oswald is an anomaly in his time – an atheist and rational thinker with a tendency towards what today would be Zen Buddhism. As the author pointed out in a historical note “there is evidence of unbelief from those times – though it is difficult to gauge the true extent of this, as you were likely to have kept any scepticism to yourself. But even if doubts were rare, impiety certainly was not.” It worked for me, and I think actually makes the Middle Ages perhaps a little more accessible to modern readers. The historical details were otherwise spot on, with all the filth, superstition, and brutality. The black humor and over-the-top characters made me think of a television sit-com. I think it would translate very well to film or television. The mystery was satisfying, even if Oswald seems a bit slow at times, with a nice twist at the end. I definitely look forward to more in the series.

Reread, 2018, audiobook narrated by Shaun Grindell.

Book description: Oswald de Lacy was never meant to be the Lord of Somershill Manor. Despatched to a monastery at the age of seven, sent back at seventeen when his father and two older brothers are killed by the Plague, Oswald has no experience of running an estate. He finds the years of pestilence and neglect have changed the old place dramatically, not to mention the attitude of the surviving peasants. Yet some things never change. Oswald’s mother remains the powerful matriarch of the family, and his sister Clemence simmers in the background, dangerous and unmarried. Before he can do anything, Oswald is confronted by the shocking death of a young woman, Alison Starvecrow. The ambitious village priest claims that Alison was killed by a band of demonic dog-headed men. Oswald is certain this is nonsense, but proving it—by finding the real murderer—is quite a different matter. Every step he takes seems to lead Oswald deeper into a dark maze of political intrigue, family secrets and violent strife.

The Wine of Angels

The Wine of Angels (Merrily Watkins, #1)The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have FINALLY finished this book! Started it a couple years ago, borrowed from the library the next county over. It’s a chunkster and I had to return it because of holds. So then I bought the ebook and started over, and made it more than halfway before I got bogged down with other things I had to read, and just never seemed to pick it up again. However, I liked it. I like it a lot – the setting, the characters, all the threads of the mystery, with some paranormal events, the themes of good vs. evil, religion vs. pagan beliefs and folk customs, a woman vicar (okay – “priest in charge”), a teenage daughter with WAY too much freedom – let’s just say she doesn’t lead a sheltered life!

I knew if I wanted to finish this book, I would have to get it on audio. Well, the library didn’t have it. Interlibrary loan didn’t have it. So I took the plunge and decided to join Audible. Will it be worth the $15 a month? Well, I already bought the sequel and looking forward to it. I just don’t read the way I did when I was young. And I drive. A lot. So yay for audiobooks! The narrator was very good.

Oh yes, I should also say, this takes place in Herefordshire on the Welsh border. I have ancestors from there (Wales and Herefordshire…) The author is from that area and knows his “people.” The book is very atmospheric of both the place and the people. Loved it! Took off a star, because I like to give a series room to grow, and because I got bogged down in the length and the exposition in the print version. The tension really ratcheted up at the end and almost became a thriller. Then the ending… seemed anti-climactic. But I will definitely go on with the series. I need to learn how Merrily becomes an exorcist in the next book….

Description: The new vicar had never wanted a picture-postcard parish—or a huge and haunted vicarage. Nor had she wanted to walk into a dispute over a controversial play about a 17th-century clergyman accused of witchcraft, a story that certain long-established families would rather remained obscure. But this is Ledwardine, steeped in cider and secrets. A paradise of cobbled streets and timber-framed houses. And also—as Merrily Watkins and her teenage daughter, Jane, discover—a village where horrific murder is a tradition that spans centuries.

Narrated by Rebecca Lacey.

 

Blue Lightning

Blue Lightning (Shetland Island, #4)Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one probably needs to be read in order. The first three, not so much, but this one has a clear ending to the original quartet. Still, life goes on – there are three more books (at the present moment) after this one. I won’t say more than that, except that I’ve taken off one star for the authors continued propensity to wrap everything up in one big data dump, as Jimmy explains his suspicions, and how he knew what he knew. For the rest of us, it is a little frustrating to not have all the pieces allowing us to reach our own conclusions. But I’ll still give her high marks for setting and atmosphere.

Note on the TV series: The “fiancé” has been left out of the TV series entirely, so it is much changed from this story. And the rest of the series is not taken from the books.

Book description: Inspector Jimmy Perez takes his fiancé home to Fair Isle, the tiny island he comes from, to meet his parents. The island is a magnet for bird watchers, who congregate at the local inn and lighthouse. When a local married celebrity, who had an eye for the lads, is murdered, Perez discovers that the suspects are very close to him indeed.

Red Bones

Red Bones (Shetland Island, #3)Red Bones by Ann Cleeves
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best so far, but I love stories involving archeology and family history. Jimmy Perez is again the backbone of the novel and the one who ends up solving the crime(s), but the real focus this time is on his young colleague, Sandy. Fran Hunter, Jimmy’s love interest, is mostly absent, but much in his thoughts. Like the first two books, atmospheric and slow-burning. I wouldn’t quite call them thrillers. If I have one criticism, it is that the author tends to present us with an info-dump at the end to reveal who done it. Despite having previously seen the TV show, I didn’t remember and the reveal was a complete surprise. I have already downloaded the 4th book in the series. Now I need to go back and watch the first season of the TV series again. [Update: No wonder I couldn’t remember who done it… the TV version changed it!]

Book description: When a young archaeologist discovers a set of human remains, the locals are intrigued. Is it an ancient find—or a more contemporary mystery? Then an elderly woman is fatally shot and Ann Cleeves’s popular series detective Jimmy Perez is called in. As claustrophobic mists swirl around the island, Inspector Perez finds himself totally in the dark.

White Nights

White Nights (Shetland Island, #2)White Nights by Ann Cleeves
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Decisions…decisions. About the same as the first book, but I rounded up this time, just because. I actually think I liked Raven Black better – the mystery was a little tighter, and the sense of suspense and danger was higher. I love the setting, the atmosphere, the descriptions. I guess we have an omniscient narrator, because, like the first book, we have multiple points of view and get into everyone’s head. The relationship between Jimmy Perez and Fran Hunter is developed, but otherwise, I felt the focus was less on Perez and more on his off-Islander colleague. Still, Perez beats him to solving the crime(s) because of his knowledge of and relationships with the Islanders. The TV series has taken the books out of order, and I don’t think it is essential to read them in order either.

Book description: It’s midsummer in the Shetland Islands, the time of the white nights, when birds sing at midnight and the sun never sets. Artist Bella Sinclair throws an elaborate party to launch an exhibition of her work at The Herring House, a gallery on the beach. The party ends in farce when one the guests, a mysterious Englishman, bursts into tears and claims not to know who he is or where he’s come from. The following day the Englishman is found hanging from a rafter, and Detective Jimmy Perez is convinced that the man has been murdered. He is reinforced in this belief when Roddy, Bella’s musician nephew, is murdered, too. But the detective’s relationship with Fran Hunter may have clouded his judgment, for this is a crazy time of the year when night blurs into day and nothing is quite as it seems.

Raven Black

Raven Black (Shetland Island, #1)Raven Black by Ann Cleeves
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Previous review (Sept. 2015): Originally intended to be a quartet, there are now 6 in the series. 3.5 stars and I can’t quite round up to 4, but I’ll continue with the series. The setting is interesting, though I didn’t feel like I saw enough of it. It has been made into a TV show in Britain, and I think seeing the locale would help a lot. Like most of the main characters, I felt like an outsider looking in. I liked the shifting points of view – it helped keep the suspense. Everyone seemed unreliable and a possible suspect. All except the old man, Magnus, who had been already convicted in the minds of the townspeople. I also did not feel like I knew much about the inspector, Jimmy Perez, by the end. So there is plenty more to be learned in the rest of the series. It definitely shows promise.

Update: 2nd reading on audio CD- This is after watching the TV series called Shetland on PBS. While the TV show takes liberties, it also has added familiarity to this reading. I didn’t feel so much like an outsider. And perhaps because I pay more attention when listening vs. reading, I picked up more of the back-story on Jimmy. The shifting points of view didn’t work as well in audio, so all in all, my rating remains the same.

Book description: Raven Black begins on New Year’s Eve with a lonely outcast named Magnus Tait, who stays home waiting for visitors who never come. But the next morning the body of a murdered teenage girl is discovered nearby, and suspicion falls on Magnus. Inspector Jimmy Perez enters an investigative maze that leads deeper into the past of the Shetland Islands than anyone wants to go.