Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Wine of Angels: Phil Rickman

I have been wanting to read this book for years. Don't ask me why, it really wasn't my kind of book. Descriptions of the series indicated that the main character is a female vicar who exorcises spirits. I have enjoyed series with either protagonists or secondary characters who are religious, but mixing the supernatural in was questionable. Still I was intrigued, and I kept it on my wishlist. Finally, the series was released in reprint editions in the US, and it was easier to find an affordable copy online. What I did not realize when I purchased it was the length. My copy is 589 pages. Still I was not  daunted. And then I realized it was the perfect book to read for the R.I.P. challenge this year.

The main character, Merrily Watkins, is a recently widowed single mother of a teenage daughter. Her first job as a vicar in the Church of England is in a small town in Herefordshire. At the beginning, there is a death (by shotgun) which could be the result of an accident or suicide.  Later a teenager (a friend of her daughter) goes missing. There are suggestions of supernatural elements involved, both in these incidents and in other strange happenings in the village, but they are subtle. Publisher's Weekly described it as "a first-rate thriller with supernatural overtones".

I loved this book, every page of it, and I only hope I can explain why. For a nearly 600 page book I got through it quickly, and I was eager to come back to it any opportunity I had. It met all my expectations.

The story centers around three characters: Merrily; Jane, her daughter; and Lol Robinson. The narrative moves back and forth between those three character's point of view. I like this kind of story, but it can be confusing or irritating to some readers. The setting seemed well done to me. I cannot speak to how accurate it is, but the book is definitely atmospheric. The series has gotten a lot of praise from readers for the effectiveness of the setting.

The characterization is wonderful. All of the main characters are well fleshed out but especially Merrily and Jane. Jane rejects her mother's religious beliefs, and like many teenagers, is embarrassed by her mother. Lol Robinson, a newcomer to the community, is another significant characterer . The author takes a while explain Lol's backstory and connections with other characters, and I liked the slow revelation of where he fits in. Also, the characters are all realistic; all have flaws. They are mostly likable but far from perfect.  The various townspeople are interesting and convincing, at least to someone who doesn't know a lot about various parts of the UK.

This book is also interesting because it highlights the difficulties of being a woman priest.
As if having a woman priest in the family wasn’t enough, her mother, from the safety of suburban Cheltenham, had been out of her mind when Merrily had gone as a curate to inner-city Liverpool, all concrete and drugs and domestic violence. Running youth clubs and refuges for prozzies and rent boys. Terrific, Jane had thought. Cathartic, Merrily had found.
While her mother was putting out feelers.
Good old Ted had come up with the goods inside a year. The vicar of Ledwardine was retiring. Beautiful Ledwardine, only an hour or so’s drive from Cheltenham. And Ted was not only senior church warden but used to be the bishop’s solicitor. No string-pulling, of course; she’d only get the job if she was considered up to it and the other candidates were weak… which, at less than fifteen grand a year, they almost certainly would be.
‘You’ve had a stressful time,’ Ted said. He’d never asked her why she’d abandoned the law for the Church. 
In those few paragraphs, we learn a lot about Merrily, why she is where she is, and the pressures she experiences.

If I was looking for a book with exorcisms I would have been disappointed. This book is really the set-up to future books with more of that element. The author says that the first book was not supposed to be the beginning of a series, and is different from the rest of the series.
It all started with The Wine of Angels, which is not really representative of the rest of the series.  It began as a standalone, and Merrily Watkins wasn't even going to be the main character. It was just that I had a story in need of a woman vicar.
I will be reading more of this series. The length and the supernatural elements will deter some readers. I hope to hear from others who have read this book or this series with their opinions. Although I found this book to be a fast read with good pacing, my experience differed from that of some reviewers, who complained that it dragged in spots.

See reviews at: read_warbler and Kittling Books.

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Publisher: Corvus, 2011 (orig. pub, 1999)
Length:   589 pages
Format:   trade paperback
Series:    Merrily Watkins, #1
Setting:   small town in Herefordshire, UK
Genre:    Mystery
Source:   purchased my copy


21 comments:

  1. Nice review and thanks for the mention. It's a classy series this one, though I've only read three so far. I have book four on my Nook. I might read it for RIP too. The Herefordshire setting is very accurate. It's a county that feels so old and timeless when you're there and Rickman captures this perfectly. Hope you enjoy subsequent books.

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    1. Cath, I am glad to hear that the setting is accurately portrayed. I had read that in later reviews, but wanted some first hand feedback. I have a book sale to attend at the end of this week and I hope to find more in the series. Doubtful, but I can always hope.

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  2. I actually have several books in this series to try. It helps that you enjoyed them, too. Terrific review, thanks.

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    1. Thanks, Keishon. It will be interesting to see what you think of them, when you get to them. They all tend to be very long, it seems.

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  3. Sounds like the atmosphere and characterisation really put this one over. Must admit, the supernatural element would not draw me so I'll be curious to see how you think that aspect comes through int he later books. Thanks TracyK.

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    1. I am curious, too, Sergio. Based on reviews I read for later books, it seems like readers who want more supernatural elements think there is too little of that, and vice versa. But I really like the writing style so may try some of his other books. Although they mostly seem to be horror.

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  4. Tracy - Hmm....I'm not one for the supernatural. Not at all. Still, I do love a strong atmosphere and of course good characters. And I like the idea of giving a realistic portrait of what it's like to be a member of the clergy. I may try this...

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    1. Margot, it is too bad that these are so long, although that aspect did not bother me with this one. If you do try one, let me know what you think.

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  5. Nicely reviewed, Tracy, but I'm not sure this one's for me at the moment though I don't mind reading supernatural, especially as a sub-segment of horror and fantasy.

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    1. Thanks, Prashant. I haven't found copies of the books easily, Prashant, so it is just as well. You are definitely more comfortable with supernatural and horror than I am.

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  6. I love the idea of a female vicar exorcising spirits. I must look this one up.

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    1. Sarah, I am eager to get into another book and see how it goes.

      I have had problems commenting at your blog (and several other Wordpress blogs) so I will tell you here... I enjoyed your last review (the Hakan Nesser book).

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  7. Glad you enjoyed it, but something I can quite happily ignore, cheers.

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    1. I thought you might feel that way, Col. Both the length and the subject matter probably don't appeal to you.

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  8. I was very frustrated with this book. It's rich in detail and he does a commendable job in creating a believable village and its inhabitants. But I thought it was indulgent. Rickman was totally into creating his world and populating it with hundreds of characters (it sure seems like hundreds) but didn't really know what story he wanted to tell. I stuck with it and grumbled a lot. The story of Merrily her daughter and the weird events surrounding the orchard made it worthwhile. I compared Rickman to Arthur Machen in my amazon review written way back in 2008. That's a high compliment from me. But I've never returned to Rickman for fear that he would repeat this style of writing a novel that favors incident over plot. Jasper Fforde does the same thing and its the reason I lost interest in his books.

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    1. John, I can understand why you did not continue since you had reservations about this one. I do have series that I start and like enough to try again but just never find the time, because there are so many books I really, really want to read. I hope to continue on this series because I the story was entertaining throughout for me. But who knows whether I will really like the next one? I read a few of the Jasper Fforde books but I got tired of them after a while.

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  9. Tracy, Phil Rickman is one of my absolute favourites - I don't know why I haven't ever covered him on my blog, perhaps because he doesn't do much about clothes. But this series has been a huge pleasure to me, and if I need a guaranteed easy enjoyable read then this is the one for me: I always have one of his books saved up for when I really need it. I love following the stories of Merrily, Jane and Lol over the books. And although I don't like a huge supernatural content, these books get it right as they are proper crime stories with explanations at the end, and perhaps something odd off to the side. I'm sure you're going to enjoy the rest of the series. Beautiful and authentic settings too.

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    1. Moira, I am glad to hear this commendation of Rickman's Merrily series. I was thinking about the clothing in this book, and I felt like there must have been mention because of the teenage girls. But as I was reading it I did not notice clothing, mostly outdoor settings and the eeriness of the house. Looking forward to more books, and the length doesn't deter me at all.

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  10. One of my all time favorite series!!

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    1. I finally did succeed at finding another of this series, but it is further along. I like to read in order. I will have to make an effort to find more of them.

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  11. Have enjoyed reading your reviews, found some authors I didn't know, though we seem to have read many of the same mysteries over the decades.

    My question now: Do you read contemporary mysteries? Have you found any beside Phil Rickman's books that you'd recommend? I'm finding a lot of Scandinavian noir, which is sometimes too depressing to finish, and a lot of studies of psychopathic crimes. Oh, for something a little less depressing!

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