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!