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

Monday, 13 March 2017

The reading nostalgia spot: Mary Stewart

I was grazing recently through a new acquaintance's liberal bookshelves, and found myself walloping back through my reading memory when I hit a vein of Mary Stewart's books.

I have not read her fantasy Arthurian novels, though I hear they are popular. What I read, as a teenager, was her romantic suspense novels. She only died three years ago at the age of 98, and was prolific enough to do: an Englishwoman and an English graduate she married a Scottish geologist and was a professor's wife in Edinburgh, retiring to Loch Awe in later years to garden. Ah, bliss!

So I reread, with a little trepidation for one does not always enjoy revisiting what one liked reading at sixteen, The Gabriel Hounds and Touch Not the Cat, though as I reviewed the titles and remembered the books it was hard to choose. Wildfire at Midnight, for example, is set on Skye at the time of the 1953 Coronation, and with references to Fraser's The Silver Bough is a chilling exploration of some Celtic superstitions. This Rough Magic is set on Crete, though it's steeped in Shakespeare's The Tempest. The Moonspinners is there, too: The Ivy Tree uses a trick that appears elsewhere too: she takes, quite openly, the plot of Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar (which I also love), and gives it an extra twist. My Brother Michael (the first I ever read, I think, and one in a series I scrabbled for in charity shops and library sales) is set in Greece; Nine Coaches Waiting in a French chateau where the heroine is a valiant Jane Eyre, while Madam, Will You Talk? is a frantic chase along the French riviera; Thunder on the Right is French, too. Airs Above the Ground is set amongst the Lippizaners of the Spanish Riding School; Thornyhold, one I managed to buy new when it came out, in a sweet cottage somewhere in England with layers of witchcraft sown into it. The books tend to feature first person narration by a woman with an independent streak (remember these were if not all written in the 1950s, certainly set in that period in style), have a romantic interest, and an adventurous plot with a criminal side, and often a bit of a paranormal one, too. The settings are well described and offer something I particularly value in books, the ability to learn something new in each book, even if it's only an awareness of Gilbert White writing The Natural History of Selborne. In my early teenage years these added considerably to my general knowledge, even if they were, even then, a little dated. Because of that there is an innocence to them, but the characters are well-rounded and different, and there is throughout a thread of ironic humour which I enjoy. The richness of the story is enhanced by the writer's own broad and deep knowledge of her setting, her history and her literature, and I'm very glad I went back to them for a visit.

The Gabriel Hounds is set in the Lebanon and Syria (in significantly more peaceful times for those beautiful countries) and takes as its inspiration the story of Lady Hester Stanhope, an eccentric Englishwoman who around 1810 headed off as an independent traveller, dressed as a man and set up a palace for herself in that neighbourhood, attended by a personal physician and a few choice young men, and a staff she subdued with whips and rods. She was a real character, the niece of Pitt, I think, and Mary Stewart has made one of her characters do her best to imitate her in the 1950s. Two young relatives go to visit her and find that not all is as it should be - death and drug-running are involved. I whizzed through this in a couple of days around other things and thoroughly enjoyed it. Some might find her attitudes to the locals a little dated, but this is the 1950s and I think on the whole she's not the worst of her generation by a long shot.

Many of her books feature complex, sometimes tricky families, closely bound for good or bad through generations or across a generation, and Touch Not the Cat (part of the Clan Chattan motto) is a good example. Bryony has always had close links with her cousins and when her father dies in a hit-and-run in Bavaria, the eldest cousin inherits the family home in England. But there is no fortune to go with it, and the family story is more complicated than Bryony has known: her father's last words told her she was in danger, and it is all too true. As always the writing makes the place come alive, and the pacing is perfect.

Don't be put off by the very peculiar covers on the reprints of these - they are very well worth a read!

And to finish: No.2 Cat attempts indoor cultivation.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

February's literary house

Still steering clear of children’s books for now, my next port of call is over 800 years old and in Shrewsbury: it is Brother Cadfael’s hut. Of course, in a series the length of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael one, descriptions of the hut he has in the gardens where he tends his herb plants are littered about. It is not strictly a house but there is a bed in it, and a stove, so I feel it qualifies. It is frequently used as a hiding place, for things and for people, and as a sanctuary within a sanctuary either for those wanting to come and confide in the old brother, or for Cadfael himself to pretend some urgent job so he can miss his other monastic duties – all in the aid of a successful and fair outcome to his investigations, of course… It holds his best wines and is fragrant with the herbs from the abbey gardens in which it stands, and the cosy stove can provide sustenance to the weary traveller on cold evenings. On warm summer ones, Cadfael, with whatever hapless novice has been assigned to him, or with his friend Hugh Beringar, or alone with his wise thoughts and happy memories, can be found on the bench outside, legs stretched out, warming his old face in the last beams of the evening sun.

First draft of eighteenth chapter of Thicker than Water finished - and Helen's cover has arrived! Very exciting.

Monday, 27 February 2017

A Much Travel'd Clown

A Much Travel'd Clown: Première Recordings of Scottish Bassoon Music

A new CD by my dear friend Lesley Wilson, bassoonist, is being launched next week though it can already be bought on Amazon: A Much Travel'd Clown is a great assortment of new music by mostly Aberdeen and the North based composers, and you can't but be cheerful when you hear the first piece! Proceeds will support research into Parkinson's Disease.

The official launch is in the beautiful King's College Chapel at Aberdeen University next Monday (6th. March) at 6p.m., followed by refreshments in the Divinity Library. If you can, come along!

Friday, 24 February 2017

The last dragon (for now!)

Solstice, the snow dragon, heading for northern Norway - hope she flies safely!
Also, five signed copies of [book:A Knife in Darkness|33124051]available in a giveaway until 4th. March (and I think I ticked every country in the world!)
'The distant Scottish spa town of Ballater seems a world away from the stylish and familiar streets of Georgian Edinburgh, but recently married Hippolyta Napier is making a new life amidst its dark woods and pure, flowing waters. But suspicion, intrigue and death await both inside and outside her new home, and the forces of nature take few prisoners.'

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Blogtour part 2: The Magician's Workshop, Vol.2

The second book in this series takes us to the huge, very public ceremony where the young people we've been following have to stand in a queue and have their colours drawn from them - or be found blank - in front of a huge stadium of people. Of course there are theories about how the event is staged, or how statistics can be applied to gauge probabilities - all the usual things that big sporting events or elections attract. The descriptions of how the colours appear and how they differ are rather lovely, but the children's reactions to them are also well portrayed: this is a real coming-of-age trial and will govern the rest of their lives. We might think we know how it will turn out for each of them but this subtlety of the different colours, not just the black and white outcome of whether they will have colour or not, makes the results all the more interesting - and it doesn't necessarily go the way we expect it will anyway. And all through this book there is an increasing air of - perhaps not quite menace, but the quiet threat that not is all quite as it seems in this world of the authoritative and appallingly wealthy magicians and all that they project on their world. We become so engrossed with each character's story that it's not until near the end that we realise there is one storyline we have not touched on at all in this volume - then we go to it and it is more painful than any of the others, but seems to lead us closer to the heart of the mystery.

This is not my usual kind of book, and it is not aimed at my decrepit age-group, but I read it about a month ago and I keep finding myself wondering what happens next. I look forward to the next instalment!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Blogtour - The Magician's Workshop

The Magician’s Workshop


This is a rich and entertaining book for young teenagers / middle-grade readers who enjoy fantasy of an imaginative kind. O’Ceea is a world which exists after a great flood, a place made up of groups of islands. In this world the power is with the Magicians and the Guilds: the magicians are people who have a ‘color’ and the guilds are carefully controlled so that no one who does not have all the requisite skills can enter them. But both magicians and guilds operate by carrying out ‘projections’: very little in this world is real beyond a basic ‘threadbare’ clothing or a thin cake for food. Appearances, smells and flavours, even warmth and texture sometimes, are projected on to the base for clothes, food, ornaments, entertainment, embellishments of every basic. The real is no longer valued, nor the skills in making something real. In the course of the book we follow several teenagers who are approaching the time when they will discover what skills or colours they themselves might have, and therefore reach adulthood and work out what they will be able to do with their lives. From a girl who can’t control her vicious but powerful projections to a boy whose father brought his community into disrepute by shedding magic, from an orphan with powers but no sponsor for the ceremony to a kindly but sad girl whose projections come out blue, the characters are interesting and sympathetic and the world a fascinating one, with the underlying debate over the values of real versus imaginary, and the cost of each.  My main gripe is with the preface, which appears to be aimed at much younger children than the rest of the book, even explaining how the story is written in several volumes (I suspect many of the readers will be well aware of Harry Potter, for example, and quite at home with volumes). The first volume breaks off just at the beginning of the colour ceremony, and I hurried on straightaway to the second volume, which deals with the colour ceremony and its after-effects. They are various and dramatic, and hint more at something happening in the world which will change the way things are run - in a good way or a bad way is not yet clear. The story is exciting and the characters real: though there are rather a lot of them, the way the books are broken into large chunks means you get to know each group of characters well before moving on to the next group, and don’t end up muddling them. A terrific world and a great series.


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Friday, 27 January 2017

This year's New Year's resolution

In another New Year effort to be more organised in my blogging (last year’s resolution to blog books of the month foundered when I had a storm of writing in the autumn), I had my head in a book when I considered all the images of houses I had liked in books, and played with making a list of my favourites and scattering them through the year.

When I thought about houses and rooms I had liked in literature, it turned out that most of them that sprang to mind were in children’s literature, from the days when I had time to read and reread (and reread) books. It also turned out that they mostly had things in common: gardens or plants, books usually, cosiness, fireplaces, some clutter. For some of them, when I went to look for the passage that described the room, I found there wasn’t one, that impressions were scattered about: for others, my image has been coloured by a later film or television adaptation. Lots of lovely rooms, for example, in the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice, but Jane Austen doesn’t often waste her ivory on mere interior décor.

But for January I’ve chosen something a little different from the others in the series: a newish book, an adult book, and an African book, and it’s more the surroundings of the house that grab me than the inside. It’s from Sally Andrews’ Recipes for Love and Murder, set in South Africa near Ladysmith, a book I’ve previously reviewed here, I think.

“So there was Hattie, at my door. She didn’t have to knock because it’s always open. I love the fresh air, the smell of the veld with its wild bushes and dry earth, and the little sounds my chickens make when they scratch in the compost heap 

‘I do love your house,’ she said, patting my wooden kitchen table. ‘All the Oregon and the thick mud walls. It’s so . . . authentic.’ When Fanie died, I sold the house we had in town and got this one out here in the veld. ‘It’s a nice old farmhouse,’ I said. ‘What’s the matter, Hats?’ She sucked in her cheeks, like the words were falling back down her throat too fast. ‘Let’s sit on the stoep,’ I said, carrying the tray to the table and chairs outside. From my stoep you can see the garden with its lawn and vegetables and all the different trees. And then on the other side of my low wooden fence is the long dirt road leading up to my house, and the dry veld with its bushes and old gwarrie trees. The nearest house, is a few kilometres away, hidden behind a koppie, but the trees make good neighbours. Hattie smoothed her skirt under her as she sat down. I tried to catch her eye, but her gaze jumped all over the garden, like she was watching a bird flying about. One of my rust-brown hens came out from where she was resting under a geranium bush and helped herself to the buffet on the compost heap. But this wasn’t the bird Hattie was watching. Hers flew from the lemon tree to the vegetable patch then hopped from the lizard-tail bush to the honeybells and back again. I heard birds calling all around us, but could see nothing where she was looking.”

Andrew, Sally. Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery (Tannie Maria Mystery 1)

Tannie Maria is food-obsessed and her kitchen produces all kinds of delights, for some of which recipes are included at the back of the book. A house that produces good appetising food also hits the mark with me!

Meanwhile I've just finished Chapter Nine of Thicker than Water - blurb available soon, but it's the tenth Murray of Letho book (good gracious). I've ordered the cover from www.ellieallatsea.co.uk, as before - always something to look forward to! But I suppose that means I have to write the other sixteen chapters!