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

Thursday, 7 March 2019

February's reading

Rather belatedly - the last two weekends have been hopelessly busy - here are my two challenge books for February, and some other things I've been enjoying.

The Hidden Ways by Alistair Moffat  was my non-fiction book for February. An intriguing premise, finding and walking some of Scotland’s lost byways. The description is good and you feel you’re there with the author. The accounts of the actual journeys (not always walks, he is happy to admit) are densely packed with information. Sometimes the analyses are simplistic and even naïve, but I suppose to give a full account of the events and theories would have made this a huge book. However, now and again it would have been helpful to introduce an element of doubt, or a couple of basic references, so as not to mislead readers for whom this might be a primary source. I'm also a little uneasy about his dependence on a mobile phone compass - don't do it! Take a real one! They're not expensive, and they don't need a signal to work!

My non-crime fiction for February was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. This drew me in almost immediately – for a change, it’s the ugly, awkward girl whom the frightening prince in his tower picks to be his ‘companion’ for ten years. We know that his previous companions have emerged unharmed but changed, but already our heroine knows that she is being treated differently. This is a book drawing on the ancient eastern European tradition of menacing forests, and for me it works terrifically well, sourcing the reason why the forest is menacing, and seeing how a mixture of magical traditions, perhaps ones one could describe very basically as ‘male’ and ‘female’, working together can succeed while they fail alone. Hints of Beauty and the Beast, of Rapunzel, of Hansel and Gretel and all the tales we half-remember from childhood linger here.
Now for the crime fiction!
The Hunting Party, by Lucy Foley
There isn’t a person to like at all amongst the guests bound for a posh hunting lodge for New Year, and the staff, too, have histories that could make them act strangely. You don’t find out who the victim is until about the same time as you discover the murderer, and the story is written from about five different points of view in two timelines. Don’t let any of that put you off – this is very readable and an enjoyable mystery. And I think the publisher deserves a prize for a completely unexpected cover - no stressed females, no red coats, no dark country lanes - well done!

The Heir to Marshingdean (Brighton Heirs Book 1)

The Heir to Marshingdean, by Cecilia Peartree
A good historical mystery here from the author of the Pitkirtly series – appealing characters and an interesting setting. In one respect, though, it’s unusual: it’s the first in a group of novels which all fit together, so don’t expect to get all the answers in this one! And I’m looking forward to finding out at least one parallel story in the next one.
A Quest in Berlin (Adventurous Quests Book 5)

A Quest in Berlin, also by Cecilia Peartree
The next in the Quest series by the author of the Pitkirtkly series. I like Clemency and Andrew very much as they guide us through a post-war adventure, amongst characters who appear trustworthy, though of course not all of them are …

Cops and Robbers by Ed James
Previously published as Bottleneck, this was a thoroughly enjoyable police procedural set in Edinburgh and, this time, Glasgow and Angus. The mystery is good, the action exciting, and there appears to be just a danger that Cullen is growing up!
The Vixen's Scream (Detective Chief Inspector Jack Harris, #4)

The Vixen’s Scream by John Dean
This started oddly and I wasn’t sure whether or not to plough on past the first chapter or so, but I did and found it a very good read, a conventional police procedural with a decent plot and convincing characters. I’ll look out for more.
Next Victim (DCI Rachel King, #1)

Next Victim by Helen H. Durrant
A police procedural – not sure if it was me but I didn’t find it particularly gripping though the plot was interesting enough (oh, look, there's that lone female, though!).

The Mechanical Devil, by Kate Ellis
A rather creepy one from Kate Ellis’ Wesley Peterson series. As usual a plot in the past informs and entwines with the present day, and this one I found particularly intriguing. As usual the police are a delight, a family one enjoys revisiting.

Meanwhile, A Deficit of Bones is half-written but going slowly, simply because as I say things have been exceptionally busy recently. At least, I hope it's exceptional! Happy reading!

Monday, 25 February 2019

Granite Noir Day Three

Sunday, a short day for me as I have other priorities in the morning. I made it to Central Library in time for Dr. Kathryn Harkup’s excellent talk on Scottish poisoners, though – she treats it all as if we’re there to receive tips for doing our own poisoning. I devoutly hope no one is!

Her first poisoner was Madeline Smith, and her second was Neil Cream, also born in Glasgow. I’m not a big enthusiast for reading about true crime – I find a lot of it a bit disturbing in the coverage, but it’s worth knowing about as a crime novelist, and I knew at least a bit about both of these. I learned, however, that the plot of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison actually wouldn’t work – it was correct according to the scientific theory of the day, as Sayers’ books are, but we’ve found out more about arsenic since. The third poisoner (though sadly I missed this as I had to report downstairs, but I asked her afterwards) was a man called Paul Agutter, who has served his time for trying to poison his wife with atropine and failing.

Anyway, downstairs I reported to the library staff in the Media Centre, a double-height room with a sort of half-closed off café space to one end. In the open end was part of the excellent exhibition of convict photographs I’ve mentioned before. The library staff kindly distributed the rest of my bookmarks around the room, and I sat about looking awkward and bored once again until they were ready for me.

This talk turned out to be very good for experience. I was in the corner of the café area with a microphone and my script, echoing up into the high ceiling, while people wandered in and out, looked at the exhibition, queued for the next talk … at least there was no clatter of cutlery and hiss of coffee machines, but it was moderately challenging. To their credit there were one or two who seemed to be hanging on my every word (or were simply asleep with their eyes open). Oh, just give me a microphone and stick me up there and I’m happy!

Then it was time to say thank you and scurry off to the back of the crowd again, where I thought I had successfully disappeared. Then two good things happened: one of the Waterstone’s staff hurried over and told me he’d already heard me talk yesterday and thought it intriguing, and where could he buy hard copies of the books? Blackwell’s, I told him firmly, pleased. Then a lady came over and asked ‘Are you Lexie?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘I hadn’t heard about that book,’ she said, waving back at the microphone, ‘but I’ve read your Murray of Letho ones. I think they’re wonderful!’

I could have hugged her, and taken her home for her tea. What a lovely thing to have happen!

Then it was upstairs for a panel chaired again by Fiona Stalker, three new authors all with interesting-sounding books – Claire Askew, Ruth Mancini and Harriet Tyce. It was curious to watch them learning how to do the panel thing, fitting into it with different levels of ease. It overran a little, so I trotted quite fast back over to the Lemon Tree. I hadn’t booked to see Sophie Hannah, author of the new Poirot books, but I felt like finishing off with a last visit to the Lemon Tree where I had spent most of Friday and Saturday, and the sheer bliss of being able to pop into pretty much what I liked with a wave of an author’s pass was not to be passed up despite my needing to get home. And I’m really glad I did – Sophie did a brilliant solo talk about how she came to write the Poirot books, very funny and informative. The hour shot by – and over again.

A bit of a theme this year, I noted, was the contrast between main characters as unchanging catalysts and main characters who develop as series go on and therefore have a limited shelf life. I prefer the latter, I have to say, both to write and to read.

And it was time to go. I paid my last (of very few) visits to the Authors’ Room to find Lee Randell, thank her for making us feel welcome, and give her a copy of my book (as I said to her I’m sure she is given several hundred per festival, but still, and she smiled politely and thanked me). She certainly worked hard to make sure everything came together.

Home to catch up on the dishes and scrub out the degu cage after No.1 Degu cut her tail. A crime scene bloodier than anything in Logan McRae’s experience.

Was it better to go to Granite Noir as a reader or as a local in the limelight? The latter, definitely: I saw more talks than I could have afforded to pay for, and met some interesting people whom I would not have met as just a reader. I enjoyed this year, which was also bigger and busier, more than the two previous years. Did I like getting up under the spotlight and reading to the crowd? Oh, yes: I loved it.

Did I eat my free buttery?

No (but don't worry, I gave it to someone who did).

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Granite Noir Day Two

The day started with the agent’s session – much better attended than the publisher’s session in the same spot last year, but then everything is more crowded. The building seems to have been heated for February without taking into account the small heatwave we’re having, and everyone is roasting. I try to make conversation with the lady at my table, but she is not chatty. A man behind me holds forth on the dearth of books set in Aberdeen – we need more, apparently. Not sure why? I mean, yes, if you’re looking for a new place to set a series that’s important, but is the population going out looking for more local crime fiction?

The agent is Jenny Brown, and she goes about beforehand handing out prepared questions to get the ball rolling, things, she explains, that she’s been asked loads of times before. The session is supposed to last an hour but over runs by half an hour, and apparently we don’t use any of her questions, which surprises me – things like how to prepare a pitch and whether being indie affects your prospects seem to me fairly standard questions.

Jenny Brown tells us that when she set up her agency 17 years ago, a ‘heavy reader’ was one who bought 12 books a year. Now, she says, a ‘heavy reader’ is someone who buys 6 books a year. We gasp in collective horror.

I’m not sure why I come to these talks. I still don’t want to be mainstream, I suppose, but I’m hoping for tips to make myself a more successful indie. You do need to be a pretty successful indie to attract the attention of an agent, and I don’t make it into that category. I suppose what I want is the endorsement of interesting an agent, of being that successful – a bit dog in the manger, then. And am I unsuccessful because of the writing, or because of the marketing? Of course I’d like to think it was the marketing …

Straight into a panel, chaired by a cheery wee body, Jackie Collins who runs Newcastle Noir. She introduces a really excellent local in the limelight who reads a Doric short story called Day Trip, about a woman going to collect her husband’s ashes from Aberdeen Crematorium. Then the panel is Lucy Foley, talking about her very successful recent book The Hunting Party (I’m halfway through it) and Claire McLeary, talking about her Aberdeen series featuring Maggie and Wilma. Jackie Collins is lovely to everyone, like an enthusiastic nursery school teacher. The panel talk about location, how the north affects the books. A bit, anyway.

At half one James Naughtie takes over and expertly chairs a panel on character, with Vaseem Khan, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Douglas Skelton. It’s preceded by another local, Eric R. Davidson, who writes police procedurals set in Edwardian Aberdeen. He’s a bit organised and has handouts to direct people to his books on Amazon – he hasn’t tried the Waterstones route. I’ll get one. At the end of this talk it’s my turn to go off to the Authors’ Room.

 It’s a bit miserable, at first. Lee, the programme organiser, is very nice, and makes sure she says hello and that I have everything I need. But of course the authors all know each other and are mostly working out who’s sharing taxis with whom, so I sit for a bit, and make sure my friend knows where to pick up her complementary ticket for my bit. Then, bless her, Claire McLeary comes over and says hello, and we have a bit of a chat, then Eric Davidson and his wife hurry in all energy after his session. They seem nice – it would be good to keep up. Finally the room boils down to James Naughtie, sitting behind me, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Stella Duffy, Lee and me, and we do chat a bit about butteries and Aberdeen. Then we’re called through to the theatre, and the nerves go and I enjoy myself – hope others did, too! And my friend is not in her reserved seat, so where is she?

Up at the back, of course, I find at the end of the session, but she’s fine. I hand out some bookmarks to a few people who ask for them, and we head off for a cup of tea.

The evening, then, is Stuart MacBride and Susan Calman (and the excellent – at least permanently unfazable – BSL interpreter who has to try to keep up with them). 800 odd people, a really enthusiastic crowd, and though Stuart has been a bit under the weather they are great. Susan is trying to bag the part of DI Steele if they televise the Logan McRae books, and they discussed his cats, of course. A very funny evening indeed, exactly what we all came for.

Apparently there are photos on Twitter. I'd advise you not to go there!