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

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!

Saturday 23 February 2019

Granite Noir day one

Well, it’s always worth replacing my annual Granite Noir pen. I arrived early to claim my author’s bag and was taken up to the Authors’ Room, where all the bags were laid out with hand-written labels – James Naughtie, Kezia Dugdale, REAL AUTHORS, and actually me as well! But Stuart MacBride was already nattering away to some other well-kent face so in shyness I went back downstairs to wait with the audience in the bar – not so shy that I didn’t sit wearing my author’s pass conspicuously, hoping someone might as who I was!

It’s a good deal busier at this first event than it was two years ago – that was a dozen middle-aged women in winter coats, nothing else to do on a Friday afternoon, stolidly silent in the bar, waiting to be unimpressed.

Interesting that Stuart MacBride is here already – he’s not ‘on’ till tomorrow though I suppose he has to be here (or in the Music Hall) for the reception at 5p.m.

Inside the theatre the set-up is very familiar from previous years, black and a bit dusty looking. This is not a grand theatre, but an art studio, hosting all kinds of oddities. Two two-seater ‘leather’ sofas, and a Waterstone’s stall to one side. Red flowers in small, dramatic arrangements, water bottles, hot lights. Crumbs, it is warm in here. Should I change my plans for what to wear tomorrow? The first panel is Tony Kent, barrister, and Abi Silver, solicitor, interviewed by Edi Stark, grand dame of Radio Scotland. She talks across them and points to them with her pen, a brisk command, when she wants them to answer a question. The solicitor is much quieter, the barrister performs.

After the panel I sprint home to fetch forgotten tickets and am sprayed by a juvenile delinquent of a seagull. I investigate the contents of the Author’s Bag. It includes a can of Granite Noir India Pale Ale and a buttery – good to see Aberdeen being promoted as a city of culture, not to mention healthy eating!

Back at the Lemon Tree I popped up to the Authors’ Room to find the first Local in the Limelight, Emily Utter, to wish her luck. I think she thought I was about to attack her! I’ll miss two of the other locals, just how it works, but I’ll try to see Jan and Eric if I can. One event down and my hair is everywhere and my nails are chipped already. I’m better in an allotment than anywhere where I have to look the least bit formal.

The first year they wound the place about in police tape, last year it was wanted posters on the stairs. This year there are books everywhere and Victorian mugshots from the City Archives on the walls. How embarrassing if one happened to see an ancestor!

Next panel, Mark Billingham and Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Again he’s a little dominant, ex-actor, but she holds her own with dry Icelandic humour. The interviewer is Fiona Stalker, usually doing Out for the Weekend on Radio Scotland on a  Friday afternoon. She’s a business-like Peter Pan, a fidgety bundle of energy, but the three seem to get on and bounce off each other well.

I meet a lady I spoke to at the launch who booked her accommodation the minute GN dates were announced, even though she only lives about ten miles away. I gave her my first bookmark, and worked up the nerve to ask permission to put a bundle of them in the leaflet rack that everyone stares at as they’re queuing to go into the theatre.

A break, then: there’s another talk, but if I go I’ll be late for the reception and as I have to track down my tickets I’d like to be early. An hour, then, snacking in Pret, insurance in case the GN gin is flowing, trying to take forward the plot of Murray 11. I’ll be two chapters behind by the end of today but it’s almost impossible to put out writing when so much information is coming in, like learning to play the didgeridoo. Due to a netball accident on Wednesday I’m wearing contact lenses instead of my now-wonky glasses.

When I popped into the Authors’ room to wish Emily luck, there seemed to be four authors in a huddle down one end, and Emily pressed into the corner of a seat with only Lee, one of the organisers, to talk to at the other. I keep hearing how friendly crime authors are but that little snatch of an impression didn’t look that way. I imagine I’ll find out for myself tomorrow. One never knows.

Reception was quite good. Naturally the authors and journos kept themselves mostly to themselves, the local librarians and archivists in another group, and local academics in a third. Abi Silver, though, was very friendly and came to chat – first visit to Aberdeen, and we failed to convince her that there is indeed a beach to walk along. She should have found out by now!

After the reception, the star event: Nicola Sturgeon in conversation with Abir Mukherjee. Entertaining and informative, and I was more impressed by the First Minister than I expected to be. She is clearly a big fan of crime fiction – apparently she tweets about it endlessly. No bus afterwards for about half an hour, so I walked home, and bought his first book on Amazon.

Sunday 10 February 2019

The Retreat, by Mari Reiza

Now this one I have read!

The Retreat by Mari.Reiza
 Coming of Age / Psychological Thriller 

About the Book:

An uncomfortable but fascinating ripening journey.
Ahmed has abandoned her. Nadia is gone the way Isabelle did before, her two fallen warriors. But Marie can still hear His voice clearly.
A deep call for justice takes hold in an impressionable teenage girl from a recently broken family during a religious retreat; what happens next will mark her life for years to come.
the Retreat is a story of men playing God, of hurt that doesn’t find its way out.

Find it on Amazon

About the Setting
The story moves back and forth in time and place. From Brussels during Marie's early teenage years with her mother and siblings, to Zermatt where she's sent with the nuns on a fated ski trip. Years later in London, Marie is attempting to find a job and build a life with Ahmed who she met on a plane, when she's lured to a Victorian bathhouse and meets troubled Nadia. But the book begins and ends after Marie's London years, back in her natal Bordeaux. There Marie strikes the final blow in her prodigal daughter's return of sorts.

About the Author:
Mari Reiza was born in Madrid in 1973. She has worked as an investment research writer and management consultant for twenty years in London. She studied at Oxford University and lives off Portobello Road with her husband and child.

Find Mari at:


My review:
With a rich unexpectedness of language and frequent unconventional usages, this is a book that is sometimes hard to follow with its leaps back and forth in Marie’s life. First showing us her present somewhat unlikeable self, the author then justifies her by going into Marie’s teenage years, desertion by the father she loved, moving schools, distance from her mother and sisters, and hints at something awful which Marie did to ostracise herself more completely from much of her family. The author is good at observing vile people and ordinary awkward social situations as she jumps from perspective to perspective in, for example, a gathering of teenage girls urged to look for religious messages in Dirty Dancing. The book is full of sexual references so if that’s not your kind of thing I’d suggest avoiding it. The end is shocking and you’re left wondering if you have misinterpreted the whole book.