A few book reviews

  1. Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves
  2. A Sea of Troubles by Donna Leon
  3. Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowall

1. Blue Lightning

Ann Cleeves may be better known to some readers for her Vera Stanhope series, which have been televised on ITV. I watched one of them and didn’t watch any more. Didn’t like the way the lead actor was playing the part, though it may have been the case that the portrayal was true to the character.

It’s odd to pick up a book that represents the end of a series, but that’s what Blue Lightning is, the end of Cleeves’ four-novel Shetland sequence. All the titles feature colours, though I haven’t read any of them. In this case, the blue lightning of the title refers to nothing whatsoever relevant to the story. There is a storm, but I don’t remember lightning being mentioned.

Jimmy Perez is a Highlands and Islands detective, on a visit home to Fair Isle to introduce his girlfriend Fran to his parents. They have an engagement party, and the glamorous director of a wildlife centre turns up murdered.

This opens the usual can of worms, as the detective begins to investigate. It’s a classic mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little [Insert Racist Term]s. The island is an island, there was a storm, so the killer is somewhere on the island.

It’s a story of bird watching obsessives, sex, and reputations. Not a bad one. Quite an enjoyable and gripping read. Like many detective genre books, it benefits from its particular location. For glorious escapism, there’s nothing quite so effective as a unique and exotic location.

Cover of "A Sea of Troubles"
Cover of A Sea of Troubles

2. A Sea of Troubles

The same is true of this novel by Donna Leon, which is another one some way into a series. Again, I’m picking up book #10 of Commissario Brunetti’s adventures, and have no prior knowledge. It’s a good test: a writer should always assume a reader who is unfamiliar, and should not include too much dependence on previous reading. In an ideal world, we’d all start at the beginning and read to the end, but in reality life is messier than that.

Brunetti is based in Venice, which is a good location for a murder mystery, though this one takes place on a spit of land across the lagoon, home to a community of clam fishermen.

Anyone familiar with the genre of detective fiction set in Italy will be familiar with the situation. It’s the same for Aurelio Zen, or Commissario Montalbano, or the hunters of the Monster of Florence. Crime happens, nobody wants to talk, everyone is assumed to be corrupt, nobody expects anyone to solve anything.

Brunetti is getting nowhere with the fishing villagers, so allows an attractive administrative assistant (Elletra) from the police station to visit her cousin on the island and see if she can learn anything. Like all Italian detectives, he does not so much solve the crime as stumble into the middle of a solution.

Another entertaining read that makes the most of its peculiar setting, though he does spend an awful lot of time being ferried about on boats.

3. Shades of Milk and Honey

Mary Robinette Kowal signing Shades of Milk an...
Mary Robinette Kowal signing Shades of Milk and Honey (Photo credit: Philip Weiss)

I’ve been following author and puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal on the Twitter and have enjoyed some of her short science fiction (for example, her chapbook “For Want of a Nail”, which has been published in its finished form, along with its first draft and the author’s notes – a must-read for any creative writing student).

Shades of Milk and Honey is the first in her Glamourist series, the most recent of which is Without a Summer.

I wanted to like this more than I did.

Who is it for, really? Fans of the fantasy genre who also like a bit of regency romance? It’s an attempt to blend the Jane Austen milieu with a bit of magic (or glamour). So the set up is familiar: well-to-do families with marriageable sons and daughters and not much else to occupy them do a bit of socialising and try to impress each other and marry off their spawn. The special wrinkle is that as well as reading, sewing, music and horse riding, people engage in a bit of magical illusion, known as glamour.

I got the feeling this wanted to be something like Ian R. MacLeod’s The Light Ages, which reimagines the Dickensian industrial revolution period as something created by magic (in this case Aether), but it fails to grip in the same way. It’s impossible for me to relate to privileged toffs in any event, but I also don’t care if people fall in love with the right people. Whereas MacLeod had magic holding up bridges, the glamourists use it to create beautiful illusions – but no load-bearing walls.

The author has clearly gone to length to write in period-appropriate prose, and often tweets about her researches into authentic vocabulary, but in the end there’s not enough peril, darkness, or danger for this to be anything other than diverting. I also felt the story barely got underway, and there were characters and situations it might have explored in more detail. It may well be the case that later episodes in the series have more bite, but on this evidence I’m reluctant to check them out. That said, I believe the author has ensured in her writing that prior knowledge of the earlier books is not required. So maybe dive straight in with Without a Summer and check out the earlier ones if you like that.

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