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

Friday 2 February 2024

January's reading - a busy start to the year!

 I didn't think I'd been reading quite so much, but here's the month's-worth in no particular order - see if you can find something you fancy!

Kath Middleton, Major to Minor: A wonderful selection box of short stories. Dark Fires and Magda are probably my favourites, but it’s very hard to choose – the one about the Aztecs, the ghost wedding, the lovesick teenager, the edible flowers … just get a copy and decide for yourself!

Olga Wojtas, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Gondola of Doom: Beautifully crafted and very witty, this latest episode sees Shona in 1650 Venice fighting an unexpected plague and homicidal doctors, and vying gondolieri of the Canaletto and Cornetto families. I had thought the Macbeth book the best yet, but this has now trumped it!

Jodi Taylor, Christmas Pie: Another Christmas short from St. Mary’s, narrated by Markham and as funny as ever, as the team try to find the most authentic mince pie for a Women’s Institute competition.

Jodi Taylor, The Toast of Time: again a short, set while Max and Markham are estranged from St. Mary’s. There’s a lovely Christmas spirit to this one, which I suspect was written in lockdown – a particularly productive time for this author.

Gareth Williams, Serving Shaka: This follows on from Needing Napoleon, at the end of which we left Napoleon and our hero Richard stranded in southern Africa after an escape from St. Helena. Here Napoleon gets involved with the growing might of the Zulus. There is a real feel for the countryside, the atmosphere, and the people here, as Richard moves between anxiety, ennui, and despair at his situation. This isn’t a history I know as well as the time around Waterloo and of course (as far as we know!) Napoleon never did meet the Zulus, but I was convinced enough by the plot to worry about how Richard might have changed history. The warfare is even more of a focus in this book than in the first, and is described with authority. But it is the relationships that drive the plot, and in the end Richard is in the grip of them and moving relentlessly on to the next episode.

Valerie Keogh, No CrimeForgotten: A body in a church turns out not to be the person they thought it was, but who is it really and why? And has the theft of identity something to do with his death? Some unappealing characters for the team to deal with in this complex case – I just wish Edel would stop getting involved, too!

Dorothy M. Parker, The Angel of Incompleteness: Art meets quantum mechanics in a time-travelling exploration of the golden age of Parisian art. Louise, leaving behind her misfortunes in the twenty-first century, accidentally falls through a painting to meet Berthe Morisot, artist and protofeminist, in 1871. Actually the science is a light and intriguing touch in a plot that is really about finding one’s own way, discovering one’s own purpose, and accepting that everyone is a work in progress – a human becoming, rather than a human being.

Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry: Not an easy read in places, though brittly amusing, this is a book full of tragedy, irritation and that feeling of wanting to slap the characters even as they can’t fail to walk into disaster. The message it conveys isn’t exactly subtle, but then it is a historical novel. And it’s a terrific read with wonderful characters.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Igifu: A series of short stories or perhaps reminiscences, telling, from various angles, the tragedy of the Tutsis of Rwanda. The writing is beautiful, whether the author is speaking about hunger, AIDS, cattle and the loss of cattle, or the most recent genocide and its aftereffects. A sad, but perhaps hopeful, read.

Pauline Tait, Abigail Returns: This is I think a romantic thriller, if that’s the right term: Abigail has come back home to Skye full of resentment, suffering from amnesia, forced to settle in her grandmother’s old house. Her past comes back to haunt her in the form of not one, but two, handsome young men, and some distinctly dodgy characters. The island itself is an understated but lovely backdrop. I was initially thrown by the lack of page numbers, but once I was settled into the plot I thoroughly enjoyed it, and raced through it in a couple of days.

Sue Lawrence, The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange: I had feared that this was to be another story of a noble and beautiful lady done wrong by her horrible husband, but this is a bit different, and it’s hard to know exactly what to make of Lord and Lady Grange at first. There is definitely fault on both sides! It’s based on a true story, set in Jacobite times, and with a good, readable sense of language and style, though I found the capitalised ‘My Lady’ a bit jarring. I was glad to find an explanation at the end of what was historical account and what was not, as I had read a little about the subject before but not enough to know where things had been changed (apart from the bewildering relocation of Aberdeenshire Kintore to the west coast!). Anyway, altogether I found this a much better read than the author’s The Green Lady, much more satisfying and convincing.

Carmen Radtke, Ghost Stirs the Pot: Back to Cobblewood Cove for this culinary adventure starring the wonderful Adriana, long-dead, and her great great niece Genie, long-suffering. These are great fun, and the animal-whispering is a lovely touch!

Liz Hedgecock, A House of Mirrors: Well, this was fun, and unexpected: I thought Mrs. Hudson would turn out to be surprisingly helpful in the cases we all know of Sherlock Holmes, but here she has her own case, her own mystery to solve, where she does not know whom she can trust. Maybe her relationship with Holmes moves a bit faster than I had expected, but the plot is nicely intriguing.

James Oswald, Nowhere to Run: A Constance Fairchild novel, set at the tailend of lockdown in Wales. This is pretty action-packed with the usual touch of the supernatural, well-written, fast-paced, and very enjoyable.

Helena Marchmont, Murder at the Mousetrap: A good contemporary cosy with a real Golden Age feel, set in a village with a good cast of characters. A tremendously easy read, and very entertaining – and I think there’s a good deal still to learn about our hero in future books.

J.M. Dalgleish, The Dead Man of Storr: Our policeman has transferred back to Skye where a dead man is found on the Old Man of Storr in the snow. An impoverished photographer on the brink of success as a painter, he has plenty of people wanting him dead. An engaging police procedural with a good atmosphere and interesting cast.

Val McDermid, Past Lying: So very well written that the plot is secondary, really: you sort of know what’s going to happen but it doesn’t matter because the ride is so enjoyable. I did wonder why the SOCO didn’t geophys the concrete (if you read it you’ll know what I mean) but perhaps they don’t. Val McDermid would know!

David Gatward, Fair Game: A good if gory start in the lovely environs of Hawes, where a man is found dead in a mantrap. However, nothing is as it seems – poaching, trafficking and mad farmers combine to produce another excellent plot in this series – and once again, the investigating team and their associates  (and dogs) add a substantial amount of charm to the mix.

Dale Lehmann, Ice on the Bay: Again, two cases, one almost cold and one up-to-date, entwine for Peller and his squad – a man of dubious reputation shot dead, and a missing vet’s assistant. This is a thoughtful, intelligent series, yet not without its excitement. The ending is satisfying, the ongoing story of the team is plenty to take me on to the next in the series.

Mark Jackson, The Revenge of Colonel Blood: In 1920s London, four yeomen go AWOL from the Tower of London when the Crown Jewels are stolen and they are suspected. They know there’s a connexion with the Boer War, in which they served, and they go on the run to find the real criminals in a cleverly woven plot. There’s some repetitive description here and a few typos, and the feeling is more Victorian than between the wars, but it’s a good yarn, suitable for teenagers and above.

Chris Nickson, The Anchoress of Chesterfield: The fourth in this very enjoyable series set in mediaeval Chesterfield, Derbyshire, with John the Carpenter as the detective. Six years after the last episode, John is well-established in married life but trade is poor, and when a local lord demands he look into the death of the lord’s daughter, a religious anchoress, John has no choice but to agree. The place and time are very well-written and the characters are very sympathetic, even including the famous crooked spire of the town’s church which makes a guest appearance again here.

And here? Progressing slowly with The Fate of the Sea Stag, looking forward to Granite Noir in a few weeks, entering too many competitions and not looking forward to changing the way I do my mailing list - but it has to be done!

Monday 1 January 2024

November and December's reading, and a cover reveal!

It's been a busy few months, but I think I have a small chance to catch up on a few things, so here we are!

Dale Lehmann, True Death: A well-constructed, multi-threaded plot, interesting, rounded characters, and a good sense of settings – some of the best American police procedural work I’ve read. This is the sequel to The Fibonacci Murders and is, perhaps, better than that. I look forward to the next one, Ice on the Bay.

Tormod Cockburn, The Bone Trap: Someone has apparently found a unicorn skull in the Western Isles, and a dead end archaeologist is sent to investigate, only to find that the matter is more current than he might have thought. The start of a promising series: though I wasn’t keen on the leaps back and forth between past and present tense, the characters are interesting and the plot intriguing.

Hannah Dolby, No Life for a Lady: Violet’s mother appears to have bolted when she was young, but Violet has always wanted to know where and why, not least because it affects her own reputation with the stream of young men her father presents as possible husbands. The detective she has employed is very uninspiring and rather sleazy, so she tries to recruit another one, who has retired and refuses to take her case. How she worrits the poor man into helping her and finds out what happened to her mother, as well as equipping herself for life as a lady detective, is very amusing indeed.

Clifford Witting, Catt out of the Bag: A man goes missing during a carol-singing outing – has he run away or has something more sinister happened? This has a good between-the-wars feel to it, with amateur sleuths and local characters and a spot of Christmas merriment. I spotted the miscreant early on, but it was an entertaining read, all the same.

Peter Boland, Death at the Dog Show: Fiona and her colleagues are once again quick to snatch up the reins of investigation when a prize winning dog owner is killed by lethal injection. Cosy but compulsive, this is a great series for a light read – and I have to keep catching myself now every time I think I might be Partial to something.

Jodi Taylor, The Good, The Bad and the History: Another excellent episode in this wild and eccentric series, the usual mixture of rapid-paced adventure, high-risk time travel, laugh out loud incidents and tragedy – not sure how she keeps all this going but she does!

Carmen Radtke, Ghost takes a Vacation: Lots of fun here as Genie takes her ghostly relative to Italy in search of some of her old possession. The ghost is not only an animal whisperer but also a ferocious matchmaker, but Genie and she make an excellent team in this Italian romp.

Ross Greenwood, Death at Paradise Park: The second in this new series, and we’re back with Ashley and Hector, a really interesting pairing. They’re investigating a number of murders in the upmarket end of a caravan park, but what connects them with the death of a minor criminal in a chippie car park?

Nikki Copleston, A Strange and Murderous Air: I like the detective here and can feel for him as he is partly estranged from his usual team to investigate an abduction with roots in the past. We’re led up and down various red-herring trails, and nothing is quite as it seems until we reach a satisfying solution.

Fiona Veitch Smith, The Picture House Murders: This has a nice period feel though some expressions are a bit off (Joe Soap and topping himself and ducks in a row all feel a bit Second World War or later to me, but I could be wrong). But it’s a good plot, a fine traditional tone, and a good set up for a series.

Jason Vail, The Richest Man in Town: Stephen, the hero, is caught between a number of conflicting duties here as he has to break into Ludlow Castle to further the cause of his employers, and investigate the death of a wealthy merchant. As always the fight scenes are the best bits in these books, but the humour is also appealing and there’s an excellent sense of place and time, though someone should tell him we call Simon de Montfort 'de Montfort' and not just 'Montfort'.

B.R.M. Stewart, The Deaths on the Black Rock: I was on a panel with this author at Angus Literary Festival (standing in for someone) and bought this book from him based pretty much on the title alone! However, it proved to be a very good read. There was a touch too much sleazy porn for my liking but it fitted with the plot – but if this is a series then I’m not sure what direction it’s going to take! I’ll look forward to finding out. No idea what's happened the formatting here ...

Ruth Dudley Edwards, Matricide at St. Martha’s: A politically incorrect yet ultimately charitable tale of murder at an undistinguished Cambridge college, entertaining and appalling at the same time.

Ruth Dudley Edwards, Ten Lords A-Leaping: The outrageous Jack Troutbeck has been made a baroness and is determined to save fox-hunting for the nation, in the face of a really ludicrous number of deaths. If you’re in almost any way sensitive probably best to leave this one, but it’s an entertaining read picked up, with its predecessor, by chance.

Cecilia Peartree, The Riverton Inheritance: I had some chilling flashbacks here to unruly estate office records in my past! Our heroine Kitty is trying to recover her inheritance, Riverton, which seems to have been usurped by a periodically charming naval captain. Kitty is quite prepared to cast all propriety aside to deal with the villain, but fortunately she has Will on her side to keep her on the straight and narrow through all the perils ahead. Very amusing, and very charming!

Gemini Gibson, The Augmentors: This is a steam-punk fantasy thriller, set in an alternative Victorian London. George has been taken in by his respectable uncle as a secretary when his father is disgraced, but finds himself reluctantly allied with a persecuted underbelly class keeping London going at great risk to themselves. “Father always says that the telephonic apparatus is one of the few modern inventions that has little future. There are so few people worth talking to.” The excitement builds relentlessly but there’s enough time taken to make sure that the plot all hangs together, there is some fantastic detail (the arm sleeves will live with me), and as a bonus, the artwork is really good!

And amongst other things I'm catching up on, I'm now nearly 2/5 through the first draft of The Fate of the Sea Stag, the fifth Orkneyinga book. And here's the lovely cover - 

Ballater Bugle

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Wednesday 15 November 2023

September and October reading - late again! and a new book out!

 September, always my busiest month for all kinds of reasons, has this year expanded even further and cast its influence into November! I think I'm maybe catching up now ...

The Business at Blandyce is at last out for preorder, paperback to follow shortly.

Dr Robert Wilson is writing a cultural guide to Europe, and perhaps beyond. Gil Archibald needs to get to Paris. As Dr Wilson’s secretary, he thinks he can reach his goal, but Dr Wilson is not a straightforward employer, and neither of them can make much progress when a body is found in the mud and rain of the Pas de Calais. When neither of them is telling the other the whole truth, how will they ever work together to solve the mystery?

But anyway, to books by other people! It's been quite a selection over the last two months - you'll be sure to find something to enjoy.

Hania Allen, The Polish Detective: Though we don’t know too much about our main character to start with – why she’s in Dundee, for example – she’s sympathetic enough and the case is interesting, a dead lecturer hidden in a scarecrow. The plot evolves to include the Dundee Druidic community – no idea if they exist or not but this is a good portrayal of Dundee and the surrounding countryside, with the additional interesting layer of Polish culture.

Andrea Carter, Death at Whitewater Church: Winter in Donegal, atmospherically portrayed in this, the first in the series with lawyer Ben O’Keefe as the main investigator. When she and the estate agent find a skeleton arranged in a disused chapel that’s up for sale, it triggers an investigation that draws her further into a local community where she has, till now, been an outsider, risking her own secrets on the way. This has a proper small community feel, with layers of dark memories underlying current problems, and a good conclusion that works well.

Carmen Radtke, Genie and the Ghost: This is a lovely start to a new cosy mystery series, where Genie, a young jewellery designer, chums up with her long-dead flapper aunt to solve mysteries. The physical difficulties of living with a ghost, particularly one who can communicate with animals, are wonderfully imagined and touchingly amusing. Looking forward to the next one!

Blue Raven, Adam: I thought this a little overpriced for a novella but was interested by the concept: a criminal discovers time travel and goes back to the past to manipulate politics to cause a nuclear war and start an alternative timeline. The story is told from the future in the alternative timeline, where an AI being called Adam reveals what really happened to cause it. This is perhaps more of a political thriller than a sci-fi book, with shades of conspiracy theories. Sometimes it jumps a little and you wonder if the author is trying to jam too much plot into a short form. I’ll make no comment on anything here about the actual American politics referred to – not my cup of tea. In the last third of the book, the science fiction comes back in and I liked the ending, even if I wasn’t in complete agreement with the character who made it there! Interesting book, but perhaps a novel would have been a better format and less rushed.

J.D. Kirk, A Dead Man Walking: If I had any gripes with this they would be 1/ how could he be so unkind to Logan as to send him to an island with Tammi-Jo and Tyler and 2/ it would never occur to me to wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my Barbour jacket. But perhaps he means the quilted ones, not the proper waxed jobs. As usual, there’s humour and some deep emotion here, and despite the slightly Hallowe’en theme we have a good plot and character development.

Robert Galbraith, The Ink Black Heart: Others have complained about the online conversations in parts of this book. I found them interesting, and laid out very well – except that for some reason the e-book then laid them out again in a different pattern. This was an enjoyable though not always comfortable read with plenty of interesting characters, a few nicely resolved problems, and some horrible reflections on the use of social media today.

Cecilia Peartree, Two Steps to Murder: Hooray! Another Pitkirtly mystery! A teenager is killed and Amaryllis is arrested in the midst of a folk and pop festival which sits over Pitkirtly like a granny-square blanket on a comfy armchair.

Anna Faversham, Hide in Time: Intriguing start here with a dating agent finding she has more and more in common with one of her clients – and we grow to wonder if perhaps one final thing they have in common is that they were both born in a different time. Eventually the plot unfolds into a kind of time-swap romantic adventure, cleverly imagined and ultimately satisfying, with touches of humour that are very sweet.

Groovy Lee, Colors in the Dark: The first action scene snatches you in fast to this charming romantic thriller set mostly in California, with an excursion to Mississippi. Hailey, the narrator, is sweet and sensible and a loving friend, and you just want everything to go right for her! This causes the reader some considerable stress when Hailey heads off on her own to pick up a vulnerable child from a hostile family – my heart was in my mouth for several chapters. No spoilers, though. Just go along for the ride!

Carmen Radtke, Murder at the Races: It’s lovely to be back in 1930s Melbourne – I’ve left this series too long! I’ve enjoyed contrasting this, too, with the author’s new Genie series, which is much more cosy. This is also very Australian, whilst Genie feels like small town America: very clever writing! You can really feel the struggles in a society trying to keep things together in a slump. Frances is trying to clear the name of her vet brother, Rob, caught up in a horse-ringing scandal and murder. Satisfying plot, and great set-up for the sequel.

J.M. Dalgliesh, A Long Time Dead: Our police main character is sent back to his native Skye to investigate when the body of a girl missing since his childhood is discovered in a bog. Though the resolution was maybe a little overdone (I mean I felt I’d read it a few times before), the characterisation was good, as was the sense of place, and I’d happily read another one.

T. Kingfisher, Thornhedge: A charming ugly fairy creature is guarding the thorn hedge around Sleeping Beauty’s ruined tower. She’s been doing it for centuries, when at last a knight comes along to give it a closer look. This is a brilliant twisting of the fairy tale, amusing and touching and ultimately very satisfactory.

Ann Cleeves, The Long Call: Ann Cleeves is a terrific example to us all of how much writing can improve even for published authors. It was coincidence that I started reading both this and A Lesson in Dying around the same time, and The Long Call was instantly more interesting, appealing, and intriguing. I loved the main character, everything seemed to work to further the plot, and the general sense of the author’s ease with writing was clear.

Ann Cleeves, A Lesson in Dying: I really struggled with the first few chapters here. I could see that the different stories were going to link up, but they seemed overly disjointed and unsympathetic – it might just have been the mood I was in, but I was almost relieved when we had a dead body and something definite to focus on. But as we reached the discovery of a second murder, there is a very detailed, intimate portrait of how murder can affect those around it, those not even that closely connected with it, that is beautifully done.

David Gatward, Blood Trail: Another excellent episode in the series, with Grimm really starting to settle down in Yorkshire and a fine mystery with its feet in the past and some very emotional moments.

Rhys Dylan, Gravely Concerned: Some weirdly inconsistent apostrophe use here, but we’re back with the team after Evan’s break for a funeral. There’s a well-paced urgency to the hunt for an abducted boy and a couple of  nice twists. On to the next one soon!

Gareth Williams, Needing Napoleon: A very interesting start, with a man arriving at Waterloo the afternoon before the battle – but from the year 2018. Desperate to get away from his life and help his hero Napoleon, he takes the extreme step of accepting a one-way trip to Waterloo. I found it amusing that the present day is written in the past tense, and the past is written in the present tense – a clever way to show the period that matters more to the main character. Let’s put aside my favouritism here: I’m a big fan of the sensible Wellington, and not at all of the selfish Bonaparte, and Richard is a serious Bonapartist. But the quality of the writing makes him very sympathetic, and renders the time-travel element quite realistic, in an unexpected way.

Valerie Keogh, No Memory Lost: The discovery of a child’s body disrupts West’s self-recrimination over the death of a neighbour, a guilt-trip that I didn’t really find very convincing. But the rest of the case is more interesting. Less convincing is the attack on Edel by an old acquaintance. The book rounds itself up well and I found the ending satisfying.

So there we are! And aside from all of that, I have started (just about) the fifth Orkneyinga Murders book - limited progress so far because of all that September stuff, but perhaps now I can give it a bit more attention!