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

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.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Crime Tour of Scotland - Inverness

Shadow Man by [Kirk, Margaret]

Shadow Man, by Margaret Kirk
A gripping Scottish crime thriller from the winner of the Good Housekeeping Novel Writing competition 2016.
Two sisters
Just before her wedding day, Morven Murray, queen of daytime TV, is found murdered. All eyes are on her sister Anna, who was heard arguing with her hours before she was killed.
Two murders
On the other side of Inverness, police informant Kevin Ramsay is killed in a gangland-style execution. But what exactly did he know?
One killer?
As ex-Met Detective Inspector Lukas Mahler digs deeper into both cases, he discovers that Morven's life was closer to the Inverness underworld than anyone imagined. Caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse, is Lukas hunting one killer, or two?

 I hadn't been going to Inverness on this tour until Margaret Kirk came to my attention, so I snatched up the book to see if it was worth a visit (silly me, of course Inverness is worth a visit! It's lovely). Shadow Man is written in the present tense, which rarely appeals to me, but despite that I liked the book, and particularly liked the main character, Lukas Mahler, from the start, with his rather less conventional family issues. I immediately wanted to know more about the woman he saw on the flight to Inverness. Not a particularly strong sense of place, but a good sense of community, both the police (some of whom are fully paid up members of the Awkward Squad) and the locals. 2.5 to 3 on the Conyngham Scale, but don't let it put you off staying at the hotel where the murder takes place! I'm looking forward to the next Margaret Kirk with enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, I'm back from beautiful Orkney and happy book events at Orkney Library and Stromness Writers Group, knitting some of the wool I bought, reading the pile of books acquired (good thing we had an extra bag for the flight!) and 11 1/2 chapters into Tomb for an Eagle. I swerve between loving it and being sure it'll be a disaster!

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Blog tour - Frozen, by Christine Amsden

Today it's a paranormal fantasy that I enjoyed -

Frozen (Cassie Scot Book Seven)

Apparently, life doesn’t end when you get married.
When a couple freezes to death on a fifty degree day, Cassie is called in to investigate. The couple ran a daycare out of their home, making preschoolers the key witnesses and even the prime suspects.
Two of those preschoolers are Cassie’s youngest siblings, suggesting conditions at home are worse than she feared. As Cassie struggles to care for her family, she must face the truth about her mother’s slide into depression, which seems to be taking the entire town with it.
Then Cassie, too, is attacked by the supernatural cold. She has to think fast to survive, and her actions cause a rift between her and her husband.
No, life doesn’t end after marriage. All hell can break loose at any time.

 My review:

Stupidly, I hadn't realised this was part of a series (you'd think I'd check that kind of thing by now) and though I thought there was quite a bit of backstory cropping up, it's still perfectly readable as a standalone, even with its 'and now we'll go and do this next thing' ending. The plot is interesting and pleasantly complicated, and exciting, too, in lots of places. I can't say I liked Evan much, but the narrator is sympathetic and I galloped through this - really ought to go back  now and find the first one to read!

Buy Links

·Barnes and Noble

Print Release: July 15, 2018
Audiobook Release: TBA

The Cassie Scot Series

Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective (Cassie Scot Book One)
Secrets and Lies (Cassie Scot Book Two)
Mind Games (Cassie Scot Book 3)
Stolen Dreams (Cassie Scot Book 4)
Madison's Song (Cassie Scot Book 5)
Kaitlin’s Tale (Cassie Scot Book 6)

About the Author 

Christine Amsden has been writing fantasy and science fiction for as long as she can remember. She loves to write and it is her dream that others will be inspired by this love and by her stories. Speculative fiction is fun, magical, and imaginative but great speculative fiction is about real people defining themselves through extraordinary situations. Christine writes primarily about people and relationships, and it is in this way that she strives to make science fiction and fantasy meaningful for everyone.

At the age of 16, Christine was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, which scars the retina and causes a loss of central vision. She is now legally blind, but has not let this slow her down or get in the way of her dreams. 
Christine currently lives in the Kansas City area with her husband, Austin, who has been her biggest fan and the key to her success. In addition to being a writer, she's a mom and freelance editor.

Social Media Links:
· Blog

And here's an extract - don't have nightmares!

That’s when I saw it – the thing that had scared Evan. It was … a dog, maybe? But massive. As black as night. And with red, glowing eyes. If it weren’t for the eyes, I might have mistaken it for a werewolf. Well, that, and the fact that the moon hadn’t risen. Wolves didn’t turn when the sun went down, only when the moon rose. It wasn’t even the full moon; I would never have left Ana with Scott if it were.
            The monstrous thing lunged for Jim, a thirty-something man in very good shape who couldn’t seem to outrun it. It tore at the backs of his legs, drawing blood and sending Jim sprawling to the ground on hands and knees.
            I couldn’t move, and not because Evan’s power still held me. That thing was about two seconds from eating Jim, a man I happened to like and who I knew had a wife and two kids at home.
            A strangled yell emerged from Jim’s throat. Guns blazed – I hadn’t even noticed Frank and Sheriff Adams drawing their weapons. The beast growled, momentarily losing interest in Jim as it fixed those demon eyes on the two men trying to fill it with lead.
            Then, suddenly, it was in the air, flying backwards through the trees and out of sight.
            The guns went quiet but the sheriff and his deputy continued to run toward their fallen comrade. Evan stood stock still, staring into the woods, arms raised and waiting. Listening.
            Suddenly, the sound of a canine howling filled the air.
            “Move!” Evan shouted. “It’s coming back!”