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

Monday, 4 November 2019

October's books

October was a busy month and I only just fitted in two non-crime fiction - though one of them, sneakily, did have a murder in it. I promise I didn't know before I started it - or indeed until about halfway through!

The book was Rose Tremain's Trespassand I nearly didn’t find out that there was a murder in it as I almost gave up on it. Beautifully written misery, with no sympathetic characters at all, even when they are excused because they are so damaged – my usual experience with Rose Tremain. I still think it’s not really a crime book - certainly not a murder mystery - though (can’t read all this turgidity for nothing!), so I’m telling myself it’s really literary fiction (I’m sure her publisher tells her the same thing) and trying to enjoy the lovely writing instead.

Maureen's (Not So Great) British Cake Off
Very different indeed is the other non-crime fiction for October, Maureen's (not so great) British Cake-Off, by the versatile Jonathan Hill. Another short read in this funny series, this one sees Maureen trying to hold a garden party by generously allowing all her friends to do the work for her. Maureen is an awful character, who brings every disaster on herself, yet she somehow manages to keep our sympathy: she does care for her friends, in the end, and she can't bring herself to be nasty even when some of her neighbours really do deserve it!

Now - in no particular order - for the crime!

What Lies Buried
What Lies Buried, Margaret Kirk: One of those forgettable titles. This, like the first in the series (which I loved) is written in the present tense, and it took me a little longer to get over it than with the first book. I didn’t fall for the book straightaway, either, as I did for the first one. But it was well plotted and compelling: I love the main character and the ‘sidekick’ Fergie, and Kirk doesn’t rest with giving them depth but goes on to portray other people with sympathy and realism. But why present tense? It just doesn’t work for me!

Dead in Venice
Fiona Leitch, Dead in Venice: Funny book from the start, with a blocked writer struggling to come up with a new book in her series and receiving an invitation to Venice. Her portrayals of the difficulties of writing, not to mention how crime writing makes you look at the world, are worryingly accurate! You need quite a suspension of disbelief about the whole thing but it’s entertaining, and Venice is real, and the ending is, well, satisfying in the circumstances – read it and you’ll see.

Births, Marriages and Death
Births, Marriages and Death, Will Templeton: An interesting set up, a registry office, and it's well used. The start is slow and for my own personal preference I like a book where I try to work out the offender along with the investigators, rather than see them in action in parallel with the investigation. But the characters are well-drawn, if often very unpleasant – though even then the unpleasantness is not unmixed with common humanity. And the plot is well-constructed, too. Altogether a good read.

Inceptio (Roma Nova #1)
Alison Morton, Inceptio: Interesting premise – an America handed by the Dutch to the British in the early 19th century then finally given up by the British in the 1860s, with a consequently Dutch-biassed society, and a country called Roma Nova where Latin is still spoken. We’re on Karen’s side immediately, too – victimised for taking reasonable action against a stoned preppie who was tormenting an old man in Central Park. When a new client she takes on helps reveal some interesting things about her childhood and background, her life becomes very complicated and she is thrown into a fast-paced adventure with the handsome Conrad. Of course I love the idea of an up-to-the minute nation still conversing in Latin. The pace changes when she moves right into Roma Nova and starts taking control of her life. There’s a lot packed into this book, but it’s an enjoyable ride and clearly the first in a series.

Dead on Demand (DCI Morton #1)
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Sean Campbell, and/or Daniel Campbell, Dead on Demand This is a familiar idea, made easier with the internet: you want someone dead, you swap victims with another person who wants someone dead. However, this one takes on some extra twists and turns not quite envisaged by Hitchcock or Agatha Christie. The writing is occasionally a little stilted and I couldn’t warm to any of the characters who were very flat or inconsistent throughout, but the plotting is quite clever – it occasionally loses itself, or becomes over-convoluted, and a couple of lines I found completely incredible. But honestly, the Americanisms – ‘toll free number’? Deputies? Where are you trying to tell us this is set? And if it really is the U.K., then when? We haven’t had W.P.C.s since 1999. And even if we had, they would be wearing stab vests …

Expiry Date: a gripping crime thriller (DI Alec McKay Book 4)
ExpiryDate, Alex Walters: These are really very good books, and I was delighted to find a new release in this series. I’ve been reading a few police procedurals recently which will not live long in the memory (and are possibly best not mentioned here) where the characters are just names on the page, and not even memorable names at that – where it’s hard to remember what first name goes with what surname, whether the police are male or female, who is friends / lovers / rivals with whom, whose the body is and whether or not we should even care. These are different. It’s not as if we’re wallowing in character description but they are real people, with depths, humour, emotions, stories. When you add to that good plotting and an interesting case, or intertwining cases, the book is irresistible.

The Innocent and the Dead: gripping Scottish crime fiction (The DI Jack Knox mysteries Book 1)
Robert McNeill, TheInnocent and the Dead: Perhaps not the most gripping of titles, but I liked the cover, which shows an old place of work of mine. But I was a bit confused – the story ended halfway through and another one started. This book must contain some of the wordiest ransom notes in crime fiction history, and again, not particularly interesting characters. Edinburgh became a – not even a tourist brochure, more of a leaflet – in the background. In addition, there were I think three plots in the end which had no connexions – probably a more realistic depiction of police work, but not the grounds for a particularly gripping novel - so perhaps the title was apt.

Early Riser
 Jasper Fforde, Early Riser: I loved Fforde’s Thursday Next books, but hadn’t read one for a while. This is rather different, another cleverly imagined alternative reality (Britain with the kind of winters most people hibernate through), where collective dreams start to drive people mad. It’s less funny (though still witty), more tragic, more all enveloping and challenging. The plot is clever and convoluted and beautifully imagined. My main question, though, is – what happens the animals?

Death in the Dordogne
Deathin the Dordogne, Martin Walker: Enjoyable bit of leisurely French crime, full of lovely food and enviable lifestyles, but the crime has its root in Vichy France and all the pain that involves. An interesting rummage around the tensions of modern France, and an enjoyable read, the first in what looks like a comfortable series. In Dark Vineyard, the second, there are distinct hints of Louise Penny – nasty murders in a charming setting.

The Rat Stone Serenade (DCI Daley, #4)
TheRat Stone Serenade, Denzil Meyrick: Good crack, though the body and violence count is high. The setting is very traditional, family gathering marooned in snowstorm, family business causing family tension. I found the plot stretched credulity a bit far and I spotted the ending coming, but Daley and Scott, and new boss Symington, are very entertaining. One excellent thing about Denzil Meyrick's books, however, is the titles: they're intriguing, hard to forget, distinctive, and relatively easy to find on GoodReads!

Well of the Winds (DCI Daley, #5)
Wellof the Winds, Denzil Meyrick: I’m a bit behind in this series, so followed on quickly with this one. The meshing of contemporary narrative with 1945 was well done and intriguing, coupled with present day conspiracies. The relationship between Daley, Scott and Symington is developing in an interesting way, and there was a good little twist at the end.

And my own progress? Over halfway through The Incident at Lochgorm (Hippolyta V), and planning to get straight into The Slaughter of Leith Hall (standalone) when it's done. And then, perhaps, Orkneyinga III, then Murray XII? The vaguest of plans!

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

September's reading

September, as you'll know if you've listening to me whinging about it, is a ridiculously busy month, and in my distraction I've managed to read two non-fiction books rather than one non-fiction and one non-crime fiction. So here are the two non-fictions (and I'll do it the other way round in October!)

Mary Welfare, Growing up at Haddo: I’m not usually a big reader of autobiography, but this is one I’ve been intending to read for a while. Mary Welfare is the eldest adopted daughter of the 4th Marquess of Aberdeen and his wife, June, and grew up at Haddo House in Aberdeenshire in the years after the Second World War, a time when the estate was not particularly well off and her parents were setting up an extraordinary opera and choral institution. This meant that her childhood, though somewhat impecunious, was spent in a grand, if shabby, country house populated for chunks of the year by the most prominent musicians, singers and composers of the time, from Benjamin Britten to Annie Lennox, members of the Royal Family and random chorus singers from nearby Aberdeen. This is not a name-dropping autobiography, though: it’s gently anecdotal and tells of a time when the country house lifestyle was gradually fading into National Trust land. I found it an amusing read and rather wistful, in the end.
The second is also autobiographical, and written in the present tense, one of my bugbears.

The Outrun: A Memoir
The Outrun, Amy Liptrott: Lovely writing but not the most cheerful of subjects, a woman returning, reluctantly, to her childhood home after her life has fallen apart and seeing it with new eyes. I felt that some of the metaphors were posted up like the illuminated signs over a motorway - having to break down more of a collapsed drystone dyke before you can rebuild it, for example, as she slowly pulls herself together after rehab – and the story, someone hitting the big lights in their early twenties, then hitting the bottle, then hitting rock bottom, is not exactly unique. But as I said, lovely writing: scene-setting, whether in London or in Orkney; situations; the weather; all described with a lighter touch than her metaphors, and really evocative. It’s a reluctant love letter to Orkney, a recognition of the power, good and bad, of social media, and a telling account of addiction and the road to recovery (however tentative that might always be).
And the crime fiction:

No Time to Cry (DC Constance Fairchild, #1)
No Time to Cry, James Oswald: I can’t put my finger on it, but when I started this book I really did not like it. And I speak as a dyed in the wool Tony McLean fan – love them so much I actually spoke to James Oswald at Granite Noir 2018, which for me is quite something. It wasn’t a conversation that went well, but then that’s my problem, not his. I left it for a bit, and went back, and somehow it started to work better for me. I really don’t know why. It’s written in the present tense, which I usually hate, but at least it’s present tense first person which works better. I grew to like the spiky main character with her peculiar background – and of course her cat and her boss’s ghost – if that’s what it is. And the plot is terrific. Roll on the rest of the series.

Where Seagulls Dare
WhereSeagulls Dare, Mark Farrer: Not as laugh-a-minute as I expected, but quite a clever story woven around the well-researched background of the salmon-farming industry. I liked Kim and Cullen, two strong characters bent on justice. Not for the faint-hearted, though. It all fell apart a bit towards the end – Kirkwall geography and a serious overestimate of the speed of Sea King helicopters, even if they were still in service, knocked me out of the plot rather, and there are plenty of typos, but on the whole a good yarn well told.

One is One

  Andrew James Greig, One is One: My first thought was that Orkney Tourist Board weren’t likely to be snapping this one up! It starts with industrial estates and rain and grey and kitsch ornaments and weird people, and terrible driving. It also needs to sort out how to use speech marks, and work out whose perspective the narrative is portraying. Tania, the first main character, is not very appealing at all, prickly and prejudiced. However, the plot warms up nicely: the police investigation in London and on Rum is intriguing and the appearance of Thomas the Rhymer equally mysterious, and the adventures in Iceland (there is no geographical limitation on this plot!) are amusing, too. The whole thing is wrapped in myth and folklore and pretty intriguing – I might well follow up the sequel.
Susan Spann, Claws of the Cat: A charming book, set in 16th century Japan (Kyoto). The investigating pair are a Shogun warrior and the man he has to protect, a Portuguese Jesuit priest – thus many obscure Japanese matters can be explained to the priest by his bodyguard. I think this is the first in a longish series. It was an easy read, well-paced and very enjoyable, and I felt I learned something from it, which is always a plus for me. I probably wouldn't have spotted it but it was the monthly historical crime fiction book club on GoodReads.

A Poisoning In Piccadilly (The Lady Eleanor Mysteries Book 1)
Lynda Wilcox, A Poisoning in Piccadilly: An elegant book, set in a familiar period but rather nicely done. I liked the heroine and her sidekick maid who has a mind of her own, too, and the background in the First World War is, if not unusual, intriguing.

Well, there we are, a shortish list! Meanwhile I'm working on the next Hippolyta, An Incident at Lochgorm, and the stand alone, The Slaughter of Leith Hall, is planned for the new year (oh, dear, these plans!). Now, off to netball ...