Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Indie author of the month: David Staniforth

The Book of Maker by [Staniforth, David]

This is my first book by this author. It's an intriguing story, aimed I think at teenagers / young adults. The main character, Clarissa, is grumpy and has a mysterious background (missing father, irate mother) as well as poor relationships with her peers at school. Magic and a parallel world are involved as well as teenage crushes and a good dose of both mystery and puzzle/problem solving. It's great stuff, exploring the power of books and plotting and the skill of setting words to do something specific, and as befits its subject, the book is beautifully written but not over-weighty, certainly something that would draw in a teenage reader with ease. Someone who grew up with Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart books would find this book a fascinating read.

Fantasy, in fact, is the main genre of Staniforth's books, though he writes for adults as well as for teenagers. His work includes the well-reviewed Fuel to the Fire trilogy and Void, a book that looks at loss of memory. He can be followed at www.davidstaniforth.co.uk. Well worth a look!

Friday, 29 June 2018

Ballater Bugle 4

Just to let you know that the fourth edition of The Ballater Bugle and a short story, Mrs. Kynoch's Awkward Inheritance, have just gone out to mailing list people - if you want this, or expected it and haven't received it, please let us know at contact@kellascatpress.co.uk!

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Crime Tour of Scotland - Banff

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton: Alexander Seaton 1 (Alexander Seaton series) by [MacLean, Shona]

This month on our Crime Tour of Scotland we’re off to sunny Banff, county town of historic Banffshire (now reluctantly subsumed mostly into Aberdeenshire and partly into Moray), a town of underrated charms. Now, Stuart McBride has ventured up here from Aberdeen, but the crime queen of Banff is Shona MacLean, now writing as S.G. MacLean, accomplished, charming, and seriously into her history (I can at least relate to the last of these!).

She first came to our notice as the author of The Redemption of Alexander Seaton in 2009: this turned out to be the first of a new series, taking us between Banff and Aberdeen and even, for one book, across to Ulster. Set in the 1620s, the series inevitably takes us into the political conflicts of the time and also into the inevitable rivalry between Aberdeen’s two universities (it was said for many years that Aberdeen had as many universities as all of England! They only unified in 1860, and now, of course, there are two again with the development of Robert Gordon’s University from the old Institute of Technology – there you are, every day’s a school day). It’s not always easy to set a historical novel in a place that has changed considerably, in Aberdeen’s case with spurts of development relating to Victorian shipbuilding and 20th century oil discoveries, and Banff is less of a challenge, but in both towns MacLean portrays the place in a way that not only persuades the reader of the historical setting, but also captures the personality of the towns today. The research lies easily in the plot and the characters are very compelling and interesting, their struggles convincing in the context.

MacLean has a new series out, The Seeker, set in the time of Charles II (later 17th. century) which I have not yet tried, and must do so. But I can thoroughly recommend this series, and if you are one of the people who becomes a little bogged down in the complex politics of the Ulster book, then don’t be put off: it’s back to form with Book 3!

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Indie writer for June - Jonathan HIll

The Stars Just Watch by [Hill, Jonathan]

Jonathan Hill, a young writer from Manchester, first came to my attention as a collaborator with Kath Middleton, who’ll feature later in this series, on Beyond a 100 Drabbles. A drabble, for those who don’t know, is a short story of exactly 100 words, and these two authors are unbelievably skilful at them. This collection is great fun – you could just dip into it but it's actually hard to resist turning the page to the next one, so I read it in a couple of sittings. Mind you, some of them do make you wonder about the authors! The stories are amusing and disturbing in equal quantities.

It was a delight then to find that Hill and Middleton had worked together on another project. In Is it Her? they took a picture and each wrote a short story based on what they saw in it. The painting itself is atmospheric and compelling, begging to have its story told, so it is fascinating to read two possible stories by these two accomplished writers. Both are set around the Second World War, and both are love stories, but there the similarities end, and I’ll just talk about Hill’s here. It’s is a tense, brittle account where every word is weighed, beginning with a claustrophic family evening and, through war intervenes, barely allowing us out of that closeknit relationship which is not all it seems, even though we see into the minds of each of the characters in turn. This story is now republished as The Stars Just Watch.

Then I discovered that Hill has a definite turn for comedy, too. The Maureen short stories (for example, A Surprise for Maureen) are lovely bite-sized stories, many of them seasonal, about sherry glugging, probably rather lonely Maureen and her neighbours. Then there are the stories about David and his boyfriend, beginning with A Chistmas Outing. More human than the Maureen series, these tales are touching and very funny - poor David's family are truly awful! In the latest one, This crazy thing I call my Life, David’s life is as funny as ever, with a definite hint of sequels to come. The tenderness and vulnerability of first love is beautifully portrayed.

And then we turn to Hill’s more serious work. Confession time: I haven’t had the courage to read his break-out book, FAG, set in a 1930s boys’ boarding school, but to judge by the reviews it is heart-scalding stuff. However, I have read another school-based book, Not Just a Boy. Here we see Hill at his best. This is a painfully true portrayal of what it is like to be a young teenager who doesn't quite fit in, for whatever reason. The dramatic beginning is not resolved until very near the end, but the tension builds slowly and inexorably through the book. Self-discovery and social survival are the main themes, but a strong element looks at those weird betrayals of which we are often guilty at that age, which we don't even understand but which tear at us for years. It is a terrifically written book, assuring us that Hill is a writer to watch. I hope we see a great deal more from him.

From the sublime to the gorblimey, then - I'm wrestling with two chapters in Tomb for an Eagle but it still looks (from this angle) as if I might finish it on schedule. Lots of editing and beta reading will follow! The launch date, at the moment, is sometime in October - and the plan thereafter is a Hippolyta for Christmas and a Murray for Easter. We'll see!

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Ducks everywhere!

Anyone who has read my comments about poultry (chiefly Scandinavian poultry, admittedly) recently, will be relieved to hear that I have just returned safely from a Duck Festival. Not any old duck festival, I hasten to add, but Ballater Duck Festival.

Ballater was hit by thunder showers on Friday that once more had the inhabitants reaching for their sandbags, but today was hot and sunny - not exactly weather for ducks, I must admit, but excellent for the ice cream vendors in the town. Everyone was out to celebrate the occasion, the Third Duck Festival, a tradition instituted the summer after the flood to, as it were, rebefriend the River Dee. The Quack Quaich was donated by the local masonic lodge as the prize for a duck race on the river, and the festival was born.

The town was pretty crowded, with stalls and events on the Green.

People were selling ducks.

There was a duck tote, for the big race, and business was brisk (proximity to the Mountain Rescue ambulance may have caused a distraction).
The most trendsetting dogs sported duck kerchiefs - this is Isla, by her owners' permission.

Nearby at the church the band was preparing for their key role in the festivities.
The crowd began to move from the Green to the river, massing on the bridge.
Others collected at the water's edge for a more action-packed view (skimming stones while they waited, anyway).
Downstream, the river was quiet.
The commentator was in a prime (if slightly hazardous) position below us.
And the moment arrived - the ducks appeared (no, really! Look harder!)
The suspense was palpable as they advanced towards us.
The field spread out.
Jostling for position, they surged towards the finish line (grounds for a stewards' enquiry?)

But No.4 slips ahead, and wins!
Others are still trailing behind.
The last of the field.
No. 6 finally paddles home (I think the crowds made her shy!).
The winner is piped back through the village, coincidentally passing its sponsoring hotel on the way.
Borne triumphant on the crowds!
No. 4 watches from  the prime position as the band plays.
We sensibly go and spend some money on ice cream and, er, stones.
End of a slightly surreal day - Hippolyta would have loved it! (and she would probably have taken No. 6 home with her).

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Crime Tour of Scotland: Aberdeen

Cold Granite (Logan McRae, Book 1) by [MacBride, Stuart]

This month for my crime tour of Scotland it’s home territory, and Aberdeen. And Aberdeen crime, for the last fifteen years or so, has meant Stuart McBride.

I first met Stuart McBride when he was still in a state of excitement at having his first book out. In a moment of enthusiasm, he agreed to take a workshop at Aberdeen Central Library on plotting a crime novel (he favours mind maps). Poor man, he was not expecting to have in his audience someone who had been trying unsuccessfully for years to be published, and was in a bit of a mental pit over the whole thing.
‘How many people here have written a book?’
Several put up their hands.
The hands mostly dropped.
‘Well, the best thing you can do is write a second book. How many have written a second book?’
Just my hand, then.
‘There, you stand a much better chance with a second book! Now, are you published?’
‘But you’ve written a second book?’
‘Hm. Maybe better try a third?’
‘I’ve written seven.’
But he was a very funny man, and the evening (despite me) was very enjoyable, as the many, many people who have now heard him speak will know.

The Aberdeen he portrays is realistic, hard and noir (there are, honestly, very good, attractive, cultural, welcoming aspects to Aberdeen too and I’ve grown to be very fond of it over the years, they just don’t often feature in McBride’s novels!). It is also very funny, which draws me back again and again even when I think the books are just a touch too noir (when you find yourself avoiding the bins in a street in Rosemount because that’s where they found the first body you know the book’s got into your head a little too much). The somewhat hapless Logan McRae and his dreadful boss, D.I. Steele, are just irresistible. He has undoubtedly put Aberdeen on the crime fiction map, which is, for some inexplicable reason, just where towns like to be these days. We’re not quite at the stage of Laz McRae Tours yet, gazing adoringly into the cafĂ© on the beach where Stuart used, at least, to do most of his writing, or visiting the strange little static caravan park by the Don where McRae found a dead body on his roof. No doubt it will come.

There are a couple of other local crime writers (there are probably more in the woodwork of whom I as yet know little): Shona McLean (S.J. McLean) is one to whom I’ll return as she doesn’t restrict herself to Aberdeen. Claire MacLeary’s Cross Purpose came out a couple of years ago and she has a new one, too, featuring her mismatched pair of women detectives. I read Cross Purpose but I wasn’t quite sure what this book was trying to be – a comedy? A noir crime novel? Something a bit more titillating? A buddy movie? Whatever it was, the pieces did not sit easily together for me, and the pacing was odd: sometimes apparently quite quick, sometimes it seemed weeks had gone by with all kinds of irrelevant action referred to in passing. There was a body at one point but what had happened to it was just a bit peculiar and not wholly convincing. The plot seemed to be solved half by accident and half with a sort of resignation, and beyond one of the main characters the others seemed a little flat. And it could have been set, really, in any largish city. Still, I finished it. I might read the second one. But I fear she has a long way to go before she is much competition for Stuart McBride.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Indie author for May: Rachel Amphlett

Scared to Death: A Detective Kay Hunter mystery (Kay Hunter British detective crime thriller series Book 1) by [Amphlett, Rachel]

"If you want to see your daughter alive again, listen carefully."

When the body of a snatched schoolgirl is found in an abandoned biosciences building, the case is first treated as a kidnapping gone wrong.

But Detective Kay Hunter isn’t convinced, especially when a man is found dead with the ransom money still in his possession.

When a second schoolgirl is taken, Kay’s worst fears are realised.

With her career in jeopardy and desperate to conceal a disturbing secret, Kay’s hunt for the killer becomes a race against time before he claims another life.

For the killer, the game has only just begun...

Back to crime for this author, and anyone who thinks that indie books are all stuffed with every mistake an editor loves would do well to take a look at this clean production. And beyond that, this is an excellent first novel that grips from the very first page. It’s a police procedural with a refreshingly happily married female lead, who nevertheless doesn’t have her troubles to seek, as they say. The characters, both victims and perpetrators, are far from black and white (with one possible exception), and all are interesting. The plot whizzes along at a cracking pace and some parts are pretty disturbing, but on the whole it registers about a 3 on the Conyngham scale – not gory, but with a couple of grim bits.

And I'm over halfway now on Tomb for an Eagle - relief, as it now feels as if it might be a book one day! The cover illustrator is already beavering away with some new-look covers for this new series, so the pressure is on, and I'm still enjoying it!

As for Murray and Hippolyta, the plan is still to have another Hippolyta ready for Christmas and another Murray by Easter 2019. That seems like years away, but I know time is going to fly. I'm considering cloning myself, but the trouble is I want to be all of the resulting personalities - except maybe the one that has to do the laundry.