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

Tuesday 2 July 2024

May and June reading

 I was sure I'd posted last month! Then when I looked at the books I had read, I realised some of them were quite a while ago! Anyway, here they all are, many not with the covers I was expecting: 

Carmen Radtke, Ghost and the Haunted House: This had an extra twist on the previous books – a sense of threat towards the ghostly Adriana. There has always been a background hint of ‘solve the mystery of her death and she can rest in peace’, but now Genie and Adriana are such firm friends that that seems like an unhappy ending – and now there’s the extra threat of exorcism! I gather the next book is to be set in Scotland, so I’m looking forward to that.

Cecilia Peartree, An Unfortunate Return: Another Pitkirtly, hooray! This one involves roadworks and a mysterious disappearance in the Alps, Amaryllis’ heroic cat and a good deal of Pictish Brew. Excellent.

Anna Penrose, Death at Castle Wolf: A good, intriguing locked room mystery in a great setting, an island off the Cornish coast. Mal isn’t sure if her friend Jacques can be trusted and this adds to the spice of the plot.

Vaseem Khan, The Lost Man of Bombay: I see this changed its title! A tantalising mystery with links to wartime Dehra Dun but very current murders in Bombay, and Persis struggling with both her father and Archie in her private life.

Vaseem Khan, Death of a Lesser God: one of Khan’s gifts, apart from strong characters and a cracking plot, is the witty simile, like the one about the man’s wig looking like a dead beaver slapped across his skull. Persis gets a taste of Calcutta in this one as she tried to review the case of a man to be hanged for murder, under pressure from his unpopular English father.

Helena Marchmont, Bunberry, A Murderous Ride: I still feel that the hero is a bit of a mystery in these books. They are not first person but are written so much from his perspective that we don’t get to find out anything he doesn’t want us to, but his charming potterings as he searches the Cotswolds for killers while hinting at the griefs of his past are tremendously readable.

James Oswald, For Our Sins: Good to see Tony McLean back in at least partial action here, in a slightly less paranormal case than usual. It’s still a terrific read, with cameos from Madame Rose and Mrs. McCutcheon’s Cat, even if some of the churchy bits are a little garbled.

Jodi Taylor, The Nothing Girl: I’m a fan of Jodi’s St. Mary’s series, of course, but even more I like the Elizabeth Cage books, and this was rather more like them. Hilarious and unnerving in equal measure, this could have been written as a much less original domestic noir thriller, but instead there’s a hint of the supernatural (well, a large golden horse that only the heroine can see), and a lot of humour. I’ve started the next one already.

Jodi Taylor, The Something Girl: The Patagonian Attack Chickens feature in this book, where Jenny is again under threat and the beautiful (and hilarious) golden horse reappears to support her. I regret to say the end of this book had me laughing out loud and then crying – on a crowded train.

Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle: This is a beautifully observed and witty book about two spinster sisters, one in love still with the awful archdeacon she met when they were students, the other obsessed with curates, and each rather embarrassed by the other.

Mick Herron, Dead Lions: The title made me think of the Lyle’s Golden Syrup logo, but this is the second episode in the now famous Slough House series. Spider Webb’s machinations to achieve greatness by building links with a man tipped to rule Russia are interwoven with a plot from the past in a way that will not spell happiness for all.

Veronica Heley, Murder of Innocence: The series turns serious with an assault on a young boy and Ellie’s efforts to bring his attacker to justice. This is set alongside the usual dreadful Diana, daunting Drusilla, and the other lovely characters we’ve grown to know – and hooray for Rose!

Mike Hollow, The Blitz Detective: Another one that has changed its name, this time with a reissue of the series, it seems. I was wary of reading this when I was actually writing a Second World War book, but London is sufficiently different from Aberdeen to make it not too dangerous, and the setting is a good one, well portrayed here. The body of the owner of a printworks is discovered just before it is destroyed by a bomb, and the investigation tries to uncover precisely what he was doing out that night. I enjoyed the book though I felt there was maybe one coincidence too many at the end.

M.J. Lee, The Coffin in the Wall: I liked the main character and the plot was fine. It could have done with another run-through for typos - a Kilner jar turns into a Kelvin jar at one point. I'd like to have known more about the actual coffin, though it was not important for the plot, I suppose. Apart from the main character and one minor character I found the cast rather thin, and ultimately then the murderer a bit unconvincing. Enjoyable, though.

Liz Wildwood, The Melin Murder: One of those books where you find yourself yelling at the heroine not to trust so and so, or not to go to such and such a place, but a very good read with a well-rounded lead character.

And yes, I've been working on sorting out my mailing list and writing a book of three novellas which will be free to those signing up (or re-signing up!). The first one existing members will have seen before, a Murray novella with a very young Hippolyta in it. The second is an episode in Orkney that sees Ketil and Sigrid in terrible danger, and the third is set in 1940 Aberdeen with the death of a shopkeeper whom nobody liked. Now that's all written (and the technology is almost lined up), I'm making a start on the second Cattanach novel, set in September 1940 ish. I hope it's as much fun to write as the last one was!

Friday 10 May 2024

April reading - not as late as usual

It's been quite a busy month, by the look of it! Some cracking books here.

Masterworks: This is a fairly erudite collection of longer short stories (if you see what I mean) inspired by works of art, all with a historical setting, some of them quite unusual in my reading of historical fiction – for example, 1620 Bohemia, one of my favourites from which I learned a lot. The quality is mostly high throughout. I enjoyed the story of George Romney and Emma Hart, though the conversation was rather anachronistic and Sir William Hamilton is not the same as Lord Hamilton. Another one had some French that had become rather lost in translation, perhaps. Gareth Williams’ evocative piece written through the person of the Chandos portait of Shakespeare was absolutely terrific and thought-provoking. On the whole a very interesting and informative collection.

Anna Faversham, One Stolen Kiss and Other Stories: A lovely little collection of very different short stories, each with a charm of its own. My favourite one might be the drabble featuring Charles Dickens, but really, it was quite difficult to choose. One story is connected with the author’s full length books, so is a good little introduction to those. It's possible she had me at the cat.

Rob Rinder, The Trial: I had never heard of Rinder until he appeared on Strictly, and had few expectations of this book. But as it turned out I enjoyed it very much – well plotted, good characters, and with the technicalities of the legal system observed but not over-explained. It doesn't abide by the Fair Play Rule but it's close.

Veronica Heley, Murder at the Altar: I thoroughly enjoyed this cosy mystery featuring a new widow coming to terms with the virtues and failings of her late husband, as well as their awful daughter and his terrible aunt. Ellie is a good character to spend time with, and I hope there are more in this series soon.

Veronica Heley, Murder by Poison Pen: A good follow-up with some of the same characters already in action when we start. Ellie is still being tormented by her husband’s aunt and her own daughter, horrible characters, and is accused of seeking solace in the company of men – but which men? Her changing relationship with the aunt is very amusing. This was just as much fun as the first one, but disappointingly ended at 93% in the ebook.

Patricia Finney or P.F. Chisholm, A Taste of Witchcraft: Sir Robert’s love, Elizabeth Widdrington, has been accused of witchcraft by her horrible husband, and Robin, though he knows it’s more than likely a trap, is determined to rescue her. There is more to the witchcraft charge than meets the eye, and this is another rollicking adventure of border reivers, conspiracy, tragedy and humour. I hadn’t read one of these for a good while, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

J.D. Kirk, Where the Pieces Lie: the usual entertaining mixture of hilarity, gore and emotion.

David Gatward, The Dark Hours: An interesting set-up, with the victim the tutor on a residential weekend for people wanting to learn to be private investigators – needless to say, the participants on the course are not all that they seem. There’s a subplot about a young lad who flees his awful father and goes missing in the snow, to be sought by Mountain Rescue. All very entertaining, with a good atmosphere.

David Gatward, Silent Ruin: I like the way some of the side plots overflow from book to book, though sometimes it makes it hard to remember what bit occurred in what book. Here we have a pair of missing teenagers and some peculiar activity in a ruined castle, along with the hare coursing we met in the previous book (I think!). The team continues to grow and develop – of course I have a soft spot for Jadyn but I particularly like Gordy and Anna. Not so keen on some of the creeping American spellings, though. And I wanted some serious come-uppance for the couple who invaded the house!

Rhys Evans, A Mark of Imperfection: At last we have a plot featuring the awful Geoghans, who have been flagged up in several books as wanting their revenge on Evan Warlow. Hindering progress is the dreadful KFC or Kelvin Caldwell, never a fan of Evan’s, and a problem with Evan’s beloved dog Cadi.

Catriona McPherson, Dandy Gilver and a Most Misleading Habit: I was stuck in Perth for a couple of extra hours and made my way to the A.K. Bell Library to find a comfy seat and take this off the shelf. I hadn’t read one of them for ages, and had forgotten how much I enjoyed them, so that when I had to leave the library at closing time I made sure I had the Kindle version pretty snappily when I came home. Set in a convent orphanage and a home for mental cases on a bleak moor, this is a great read and made me rush on to find another one in the series I hadn’t read.

Catriona McPherson, Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone: Lots of fun here, too, with Dandy and her family arriving at a spa hotel to find out what happened to a previous guest. The family and the investigation become tangled with some pretty gruesome incidents and a large party of mediums before we reach our conclusion. I love Dandy’s narrative and her blindness to some things, and Alec is of course lovely.

Catriona McPherson, Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder: I enjoyed this but for much of the plot had no real idea who was who in the multi-generational Aitken and Hepburn families, warring over the customers of Dunfermline. The best bit by far is the unexpectedly heroic arrival of Dandy’s mostly-despised husband Hugh at the police station to rescue her, which almost brought tears to my eyes.

Catriona McPherson, Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom: This is better than the above book, much clearer, with some nasty characters in need of a come-uppance. I’m not sure that her Victor Silvester character is based on the real Victor Silvester, who was rather interesting, but any fan of Strictly will find this at the very least a historical curiosity.

Julie Adams, Into the Woods: This feels very like a convoluted family saga for a long time, until it starts remembering it’s a murder mystery of sorts and the pace increases. The narrative is told by various different characters and the plot is full of extraordinary coincidences and a few anachronisms, but in the end is fairly satisfying.

Helen Dunmore, Exposure: It took me a long time to get into this book where bad things happen to good people who can't seem to help themselves, and there appears to be no hope. But it is very well written and observed, the characters deeply drawn, and at last it drew me in. A Cold War spy plot, on the surface, but so much less and more.

Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time: This modern retelling of A Winter’s Tale is a really rewarding and absorbing read, with a summary of the original plot at the beginning and a reflection on the retelling at the end. It felt as all-encompassing as Shakespeare, as ambiguous and as satisfying. I’m delighted to have read it.

Allan Gaw, The Silent House of Sleep: This features a Scottish pathologist in London in the aftermath of the First World War, damaged by his experiences but noted as the most rigorous pathologist available. Here he’s investigating the discovery of a pair of corpses discovered in a most unsettling position while the police come to terms with his expertise and his assistant tries to help. I did find the frequent use of figures rather than written numbers a bit annoying (15 for fifteen) but the atmosphere was good, evoking the period tremendously well, both the trenches and the London police procedural.

Leon Stevens, The View from Here: A strange book, where an older man and a younger woman make an appealing team as they venture into a strange world through a hole in our own, and try to work out how it fits together. It’s intriguing and confusing, and as the start of a series it certainly piques the curiosity.

Jason Vail, There was a Crooked Man: I do like this series except on the occasions when it (a) gets too political or (b) gets too American. Here it works very well, and the book is fast-paced and entertaining.

And the usual update: in order to revamp the mailing list (yes, I know, it's taking ages) I've written a Viking novella and am now embarking on a Cattanach one, before planning the second Cattanach novel. It seemed to make sense to fit them in now, but it's taking longer than I had hoped!

Monday 1 April 2024

February and March reading - spring is in the air!

 Don't know why I forgot to do February's at the time - possibly rushing to finish Sea Stag but I can't remember! Anyway, here's two months' worth - some really good books here.

M.S. Morris, Aspire to Die: A good traditional police procedural set in Oxford around Christ Church. Nice diversionary tactics, and a pleasure to read. I tried the start of one of their (M.S. is a married couple) other series, but did not engage with it so much, so this is the series I'll come back to.

Arabian Noir: a set of short stories compiled by the Gulf Chapter (why do I find that word in this context faintly threatening) of the Crime Writers’ Association. This was interesting, showing different perspectives, mostly expat, of living in the Gulf. I particularly liked Michael Lynes’ own story but all had something to offer. There was a slight problem with the paragraph formatting, which made me stumble fairly frequently, but it was worth persisting.

Tim Sullivan, The Dentist: I found the beginning of this book unnecessarily detailed and complicated, and the frequent switching of points of view confusing, but slowly I began to warm to it. The characters feel very real, particularly in the way they cope with Cross and the way Cross copes with them, and the puzzle of why the first police investigation went wrong is intriguing. Nevertheless there was too much head hopping, which I hope is more controlled in later books.

David Gatward, Unquiet Bones: Harry is trying to move into his new house when two things conspire to hinder him: his father’s escape from prison and a dead body in his new living room. A nifty plot which gets away with shifting sideways halfway through, and the usual excellent bonding in his lovely team.

James Lovegrove, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows: this starts with a very authentic-feeling, if rather heavy, introduction explaining how the author came by the accounts of Holmes’ and Watson’s investigations in Lovecraft’s Cthulan mythos. The language then lightens a little but despite a few anachronisms it still feels pleasantly Victorian, and all much more readable like Conan Doyle. It’s also fairly true to Lovecraft and a pretty authentic blend of the two – an interesting concept, and yet another Holmes rewrite.

Cecilia Peartree, The Watcher in the Shrubbery: I was glad to see this second in the new Pamela Prendergast series, with all the charm of her other books. Pamela is trying to run an art course but is cursed in her venues, yielding to falling trees and dead bodies as she tries to teach her students. As is often the case in Peartree’s books, the real world intrudes into the kind of muddled existence many of us live in, but all is well in the end and our circle of Pamela’s acquaintance is nicely expanded, too.

William McIlvanney, The Papers of Tony Veitch: the second in the Laidlaw trilogy. Again, if I had to find a fault it is that there is rather too much introspection, and amongst the wonderful language there is sometimes a metaphor or a simile over the top, but most of it is just lovely, apposite, telling, and often very funny. And it’s definitely of its time and place, utterly 1970s Glasgow, and proud as punch of it.

Andrew James Greig, The Girl in the Loch: Oddly, I found Tearlach rather flat as a character until he turned violent, and he was suddenly much more believable, less colourless efficiency. The deaths, too, though nasty, are somehow understated. The plot is the saviour as it is increasingly interesting, and gradually the characters develop. There are some odd errors, like ‘errant nonsense’, and ‘she would be dammed if …’ which an editor should have spotted, but then editors are human.

Caimh McDonnell, A Man with One of those Faces: I was expecting this to be funny, from the reviews, but I hadn’t expected the depth to the plot which comes, at least at first, from the well-rounded central character and his self-imposed lifestyle. He takes pigheadedness to Ph.D. level and the action is relentless and very amusing.

Kate Atkinson, Shrines of Gaiety: there’s a lot of biography here and the plot doesn’t move along as fast as I’m used to with Atkinson, one of my very favourite writers. But the atmosphere clings and I kept coming back for more, as the plot twisted round and connected in a very Atkinsony way, some paths comic, some tragic.

J.M. Dalgleish, The Talisker Dead: While I’m a bit off-put by the plot twist about his son, I like the police in this series and of course the setting is delightful, and portrayed much more as a proper island than a holiday destination.

Lindsey Davis, The Ides of April: This, the first Flavia Albia book, did not grab me as quickly as the first Marcus Didius Falco did years ago. I absolutely loved that series, and hoped to love this one as much. Maybe I shall, but I was not quite so taken with this, which had a more bitter feel to it. In the end I quite enjoyed it, but I won’t rush back for a second, not just yet.

Louise Ehrlich, The Sentence: Tookie has served her time in jail for a crime she sort of committed, though she was not aware of the depths of it at the time. Now she is living in Minneapolis, married to the police officer who arrested her, and working in a bookshop, but she is bothered by the ghost of a particularly irritating reader. I found Tookie’s self-deprecating narrative lovely to read, rough around the edges but very endearing as she enjoys a life she is fairly sure she does not deserve. Then Covid strikes, and the awful murder of George Floyd, and real life intervenes. This is a wonderful book, full of layers and delight – so pleased I found it.

Margaret Kirk, In the Blood: I had reviewed this and for some reason my laptop is reverting to earlier versions of documents, so it was lost. Ah, well. Lukas Mahler, fully paid-up member of the awkward squad, travels to Orkney in this one, though not exactly an Orkney I know (some geographical quirks, certainly). He seems to be increasingly high maintenance and annoying, and I don't think any of the other characters really made an impression, but the plot was interesting enough and enjoyable. The title looks to me completely meaningless and unmemorable, something slapped on by a publisher, no doubt.

Jean Gill, Among Sea Wolves: Our main characters are away from Orkney and on a voyage, or pilgrimage, to Jerusalem, in a party that even from the start is divided and fractious. With Skarfr having to hide his true relationship with Hlif, things are tense anyway. This is another tremendous episode in this saga of Viking adventure and romance, where you can see the terrific quantity of research that has gone into it and then forget it and enjoy living the book with all its excitement, not just with Skarfr and his ever-growing list of skills, nor with the wonderful and mystical Hlif, but with the people he has left behind in the north and all their hideous politicking. A great set-up for the next in the series.

Dale Lehmann, A Day for Bones: My fourth in this series which is fast becoming my favourite American police procedural. This one begins with a flood and the mysteries the flood uncovers – bones, chiefly – and a possibly related series of minor problems at a gun shop. Some of the more prominent characters from the first three books take a bit of a back seat here as new ones come in: there’s a touch of over-inclusivity but perhaps that’s an American thing, and it isn’t too intrusive on the plot. Anyway, these are really enjoyable, so dive in!

And as for me, I'm doing a bit of other writing at the moment - a couple of novellas for various purposes. Then, I think, it's probably back to Second World War Aberdeen and Alec Cattanach - care to join me?