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

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Literary house for June - or dwelling place, anyway!

Here’s another book I read again and again as a child, and the images are vivid in my mind.

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge was published in 1946 but is set fifty years before that at least. Maria, an independently-minded (and occasionally almost stroppy) Victorian child, has been brought to live with a distant relative in a hidden valley, where she finds she has a great deal in common with others who lived there long ago. Loveday is a mysterious lady but quite enchanting, and it was a revelation to Maria to be shown her house.

“… Maria too walked round the rock, and there behind it, almost hidden by a rowan-tree that drooped over it from the hillside above, was a door in the hill. Loveday stood just inside it, holding it hospitably open and smiling as though this were a perfectly ordinary door to a perfectly ordinary house. ‘Come in,’ she said. ‘This is the back door. I’m afraid it’s a bit dark in the passage. Give me your hand and I’ll shut the door.’

When the door was shut it was pitch dark, but with her hand held firmly in Loveday’s warm strong clasp Maria felt no fear. They walked together down a narrow tunnel, and then Loveday lifted a latch and opened a door, and a lovely green light, the sort of light that Maria imagined lit the world beneath the sea, flowed over them.

‘This is my living room,’ said Loveday.

It was a large cave, but it had windows just like an ordinary room. There were two in the east wall and one in the west wall, diamond-paned windows set deeply in the rock. Outside, they were shrouded by green curtains of ferns and creepers, so that Maria guessed no passer-by could ever have known that the windows were there. The door by which they had entered was in the north wall, and beside it a stone staircase, so steep and narrow that it was more like a ladder than a staircase, was built against the wall and led to an upper room. In the south wall there was another door, with a bell hanging beside it. Hanging on a peg beside the bell was a long black hooded cloak, and upon the other side of the door was a fireplace with a log fire burning merrily upon the hearth, with a white kitten asleep before it. The room was furnished with a settle and table and chairs, made of oak; but in addition there was a dresser against the south wall with gay flowered china upon it and bright copper pots and pans. Pale-pink chintz patterned with roses of a deeper pink hung in the windows, and there were gay rag rugs on the stone floor. There were pots of salmon-pink geraniums on the window-sills and on the table, and bunches of herbs hung from the roof. In its simplicity and fresh cleanliness the room was so like Old Parson’s, though it was three times the size of his, that Maria guessed Loveday had arranged them both. She admired Loveday’s taste in arrangement, but not her passion for pink. There was too much pink in this room, she considered.”

Elizabeth Goudge wrote some fine adult books as well - The Dean's Watch is one of my favourites - but I’m afraid I can trace my love of geraniums, salmon, pink, red or white, to The Little White Horse!

Wednesday 21 June 2017

A Dark Night at Midsummer

Today is midsummer, and we're celebrating with something a little different. Join the mailing list to receive a copy of the Letho novella, A Dark Night at Midsummer, free.

Darkness breeds when the sun is at its zenith, but is witchcraft abroad again on the longest day in Letho?

Subscribers to the mailing list receive a quarterly newsletter (two Hippolyta, two Murray), and alerts for offers and new publications.

You can read the first part of A Dark Night at Midsummer here!


Letho House
By Cupar,

To Charles Murray of Letho,
At Mr. Blair’s
By Lewes,
Sunday, June 22nd., 1817.

Dear Sir,

Thank you for your letter of 3rd. inst. in which you were kind enough to enquire after Mrs. Robbins and the family. The boys are growing stronger each day, by the Lord’s grace, I thank you. The Reverend Mr. and Mrs. Helliwell have asked to send their regards and Mrs. Helliwell particularly enquires after Miss Augusta. I hope I may be allowed to send our deepest respects to Mr. and Miss Blair and our hopes that you and Miss Augusta are well and enjoying the Sussex countryside.

I regret that I must also write to you concerning some happenings at the house and about the place over the last two weeks, which have been both distressing and inconvenient, and the cause of some sudden changes amongst the staff. It is difficult to know quite how to explain the circumstances to you: please forgive me if I stumble over an account with which I do not feel quite comfortable, and in which most of my information does not derive from my own personal experience. Mrs. Robbins, however, assures me that it is an account that will at least make you aware of the vital points of the matter, and with that I fear that I, and therefore, sir, you, will have to be content, at least for now … 

Lizzie Fenwick, working in the serried garden of her little cottage on the edge of Letho village, heard a light footstep in the lane and put a hand to the sturdy stick she had left propped against the wall next to her. It was not that she feared anyone – or very few – but she had no particular wish for it to be generally known that she no longer needed the stick to walk. It suited her to be thought a little vulnerable, though her broken leg had now healed almost completely, and she had grown used to having the stick with her for support, in public, for poking into odd hedges and ditches, and for emphasis should she wish to make a point in a quarrel with her son-in-law. Now she arranged herself around the stick and brushed some of the dry earth from her long skirts, and waited to see who would appear on the lane that passed the cottage.
‘Mrs. Fenwick! I was hoping to catch you at home.’ The voice was Fife, but somewhat cultured from being in service away in the city for years. Mrs. Dean was neat and dark haired, a busy little woman, with the brisk efficiency one would hope for in the housekeeper for Mr. Murray at Letho House. A round bonnet kept the late afternoon sun off her pale forehead, and she wore respectable black with a good pair of gloves. The heat of the day meant she had no need for a shawl, but she had nevertheless arranged a light cotton one around her shoulders as a mark of her age and station. Her eyes were bright and observant and had Mrs. Fenwick’s full appearance from grey linen cap to earthy boots taken and catalogued in a moment, before moving on to the packed garden and the watering can dripping on the path.
‘Oh, but I’m interrupting you! Everything needs watering just now, doesn’t it? What weather!’
‘I’ve just finished, Mrs. Dean. May I offer you a cup of tea indoors?’
Mrs. Dean glanced up at the sky, then across at a plain wooden bench under an apple tree pebbled with tiny apples.
‘Would it be too much trouble to ask just to sit outside? It’s so hot.’
‘Of course, ma’am. Some ale, then? It’s been kept cool.’
‘That would be perfect.’ Mrs. Dean pushed open the little garden gate, and with assurance made her way to the bench. Lizzie Fenwick held the knop of her stick firmly as she stepped across to the cottage door, certain nevertheless that Mrs. Dean knew very well that she no longer needed it. She glanced at the housekeeper from the corner of her eye as she passed her, wondering what she was there for. The two women met occasionally these days, certainly, and on friendly enough terms, but Mrs. Dean had never come to her cottage before. All they had in common … well, they did have something in common, a shared experience. Lizzie Fenwick shivered. She hoped that Mrs. Dean was not there about that.
She managed the two cups of ale on an old tray in one hand, and Mrs. Dean kindly took them from her while she settled herself beside her guest on the bench. There was a moment’s silence as they drew their first appreciative draughts in concert, and contemplated the garden for a moment: lavender, roses, rosemary and sage formed the bulk of the beds, purple and white flowers against soft and deep greens. Tibbs the cat stretched and rolled in a dusty patch of earth, dulling his fine stripes, pink nose twitching with pleasure. The butterflies and bees were busy, the scents heady in the sunshine. It did not seem like a day to rush, a day for serious conversations. It felt like a day to relax and dream.
‘Mrs. Fenwick,’ Mrs. Dean’s precise voice broke across any hope of dreams, ‘we have a problem at Letho House, and I hoped you might be able to help me to solve it. Or that I might help you to solve it, if you would be so kind.’
‘A problem I could solve, ma’am? At Letho House?’ Lizzie considered, raking through local gossip she might have heard recently. ‘None of the lasses is in the family way, are they?’
Mrs. Dean smiled.
‘Not at present, I believe. Or not that I have been told, anyway.’
Lizzie sighed a little. Midwifery she could manage, very happily: she only occasionally helped a woman who was in dire need of being rid of a bairn, but she had a hand in most of the births about the village. Well, if it was not to be midwifery … her other principal skill was not as joyful a task, usually. She frowned.
‘Has someone died, then, ma’am? Do you need me to come and lay them out?’
‘No, no one has died. Well, not recently – not yet,’ said Mrs. Dean, her lips a little tighter over this odd statement. Lizzie felt a deep sense of foreboding, like a heavy cloud across that hot sun. She took another sip of ale, and said nothing, as if by that denial she could fend off whatever disaster was on the horizon, whatever Mrs. Dean had to say. Mrs. Dean was silent, too, though whether she hoped Lizzie would speak or whether she was collecting her own thoughts, finding the right words, was hard to tell. She sipped at her cup, and sipped again, staring at the herbs in front of her, then took a deep breath.
‘You’ll remember what happened, up at the house, and I suppose around the village, too, last autumn,’ she began tentatively. Lizzie saw that she could not avoid a glance down at Lizzie’s stick, and leg. ‘Of course you will. I think we thought at the time that that was that, that the business was finished that night, didn’t we?’ She did not wait for an answer. ‘But as time goes on I’m more and more certain that we didn’t do the job properly. Or I didn’t,’ she finished, with a little apologetic smile.
‘What makes you think that, ma’am?’ Lizzie asked, already wishing that she had not. Her throat was dry. Mrs. Dean straightened her shoulders.
‘It’s the feel of the place, if nothing else. It was never an easy place, not down in the cellars – were you ever in there?’
‘Once, long ago,’ Lizzie said shortly.
‘The staff won’t go there, not even Mr. Robbins now, and when Mr. Murray last went down – during the whole business last autumn – he and young Walter Fenwick saw something. A kind of ghost, they said, the ghost of an old woman.’
‘Oh, aye?’ Lizzie was non-committal. She was not looking at Mrs. Dean: she seemed to be gazing across at the white butterflies on a rosemary bush, but she could feel every nerve in her body wound tight like a badly spun thread.
‘And a few of us have seen something similar, about the place.’ Mrs. Dean glanced round at Lizzie, then away again. ‘I think it’s Grissell Gairdener.’
‘The witch that died in the cellar back in the old days?’ Mrs. Dean explained. ‘I think whatever we did last autumn roused her, and now she’s not going back.’ She waited again for Lizzie to speak, but Lizzie was not sure she had anything to say. What had happened that dark evening last autumn, and in the days leading up to it, were not happy memories for her: she had hoped to put them to the back of her mind for good. Mrs. Dean could never need her help, not hers, with anything of that kind, and Lizzie was fairly sure she had no wish to become involved again.
‘Did Widow Maggot ever say anything about that mirror?’ Mrs. Dean asked, almost casually. Lizzie, taken by surprise, looked round at her. The westering sun made Mrs. Dean’s face a shadow under her bonnet. Maybe this would be the way to get out of it. If she could put Mrs. Dean off altogether, that would be best.
‘The mirror? Do you still have it?’ She made her voice as ominous as possible: it was not difficult, for she was genuinely afraid.
‘I have the mirror, and the bowl, and the box. Kept separately, though,’ Mrs. Dean added quickly. ‘What do you know about them?’
‘Widow Maggot told me once that they had belonged to Grissell Gairdener, all three of them. And she told me they were dangerous, and that no one should meddle with them.’
‘No one at all? What did she have them for?’
‘She kept them safe to try to stop other people meddling with them. As far as she was concerned, they should never be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.’ Lizzie struggled to find the right words to frighten Mrs. Dean off. ‘You’re right to keep them separate, but you should bury them somewhere. The kirkyard, maybe: somewhere safe. Maybe across three kirkyards. And they should be broken. There’s no one,’ she said with heavy emphasis, ‘no one round here as strong as Widow Maggot was: no one around here could keep them safe the way she did.’
There was a thoughtful pause. Mrs. Dean smoothed her skirts with one gloved hand, and licked her lips nervously.
‘I wish,’ she said, ‘that I had asked you earlier, Mrs. Fenwick.’
‘Why? What has happened?’
‘Well, I thought - you know the mirror cracked across, that night.’
‘Oh, aye?’
‘I thought that that had stopped – whatever it was that escaped from the mirror – I thought it was stopping it going back. And of course we wanted it to go back and be trapped again. So I had it mended.’
Whatever it was that escaped from the mirror … Lizzie had a memory of that, a memory that fed her worst dreams. There had been claws, and teeth, and hot, nasty breath. She found she was shaking, but all she could say was,
‘Yes. And then I realised that the cracked mirror might have been the only way to hold it in. And now it’s in the house, and the ghost is appearing, and the staff are – they’re frightened, Mrs. Fenwick, to be honest.’ She turned to Lizzie, sideways on the bench, eyes pleading. Her own voice trembled. ‘Midsummer is approaching, and the family are away, safe in England. This has to be the right time, the perfect opportunity. Please, will you help me? You know yourself what can happen when their influence spreads. We need to be rid of the ghost and the thing in the mirror, before they do any more harm.’

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Blog Tour: Love, Murder and Mayhem

About the Book

Love science fiction stories that all include elements ofLove, Murder & Mayhem?
Then welcome to the latest anthology from Crazy 8 Press! This amazing collection from 15 all-star authors will delight you with superheros and supervillains. AIs, off-worlders, and space cruisers. We’ve also got private eyes, sleep surrogates, time travelers, aliens and monsters—and one DuckBob!
With tales ranging from wild and wacky to dark and gritty to heartbreaking and fun, take the deadly leap with authors Meriah Crawford, Paige Daniels, Peter David, Mary Fan, Michael Jan Friedman, Robert Greenberger, Glenn Hauman Paul Kupperberg, Karissa Laurel, Kelly Meding, Aaron Rosenberg, Hildy Silverman, Lois Spangler, Patrick Thomas, and editor Russ Colchamiro.
You’ll never look at Love, Murder & Mayhem the same way again—and that’s just the way we like it.

About the Editor

Russ Colchamiro is the author of the rollicking space adventure, Crossline, the hilarious sci-fi backpacking comedy series, Finders Keepers, Genius de Milo, and Astropalooza, and is editor of the new anthology, Love, Murder & Mayhem, all with Crazy 8 Press.

Russ lives in New Jersey with his wife, two children, and crazy dog, Simon, who may in fact be an alien himself. Russ has also contributed to several other anthologies, including Tales of the Crimson Keep, Pangaea, and Altered States of the Union, and TV Gods 2. He is now at work on a top-secret project, and a Finders Keepers spin-off.

As a matter of full disclosure, readers should not be surprised if Russ spontaneously teleports in a blast of white light followed by screaming fluorescent color and the feeling of being sucked through a tornado. It’s just how he gets around — windier than the bus, for sure, but much quicker.

My Review
When I read the blurb, I wondered how well this book would hold together – a collection of sci fi short stories linked vaguely by love or murder or crime? But this is a substantial collection full of variety, with some pretty long short stories that give a meatiness to the whole book. There is a bit of a bias, I thought, towards superheroes, but there is offworld, alternative future, and space battle material – something for everyone. What stood out? All the stories are high quality and there are certainly no duds to fill the space, but a sad little tale set in a battle on an unfamiliar planet was particularly touching – Meriah L. Crawford’s ‘Speedeth All’ - and I enjoyed the classic detection in ‘The Note on the Blue Screen’ by Mary Fan and in ‘The Hardwicke Files’ by Russ Colchamiro (also the editor). ‘Invasive Maneuvers’ by Hildy Silverman was both clever and amusing. Colchamiro’s editing seems to have been done with a light touch – the book holds together because no one has tried too hard and been too clever in pushing it together. A very enjoyable and solid collection.

Sunday 18 June 2017

Blog tour for children's books - Changing Places and Dominick and the Dragon

Changing Places, by Anne K. Edwards

Age level: 4-8

Price: $1.99

Pages: 14

Find on Amazon

Changing Places. A black cat named Whiskers encounters a snake that has lost his home when he goes outside to see the world.

 And my review - this is a lovely little story with the simple reminder that the grass is not always greener on the other side! It will appeal to smaller children as you can see by the length, probably three to six year-olds, and the illustrations are sweet.
Now, for slightly older children:
Dominick and the Dragon, by Anne K. Edwards
Age level: 4-8
Price: $1.99
Pages: 42
Find on Amazon
Dominick and the Dragon.  Dominick is a little boy fascinated by dragons. When he finally meets one named Elvis that wants to eat everything, including him, he has to find a way to outsmart him. His adventure proves a boy can be smarter than a dragon.
My review: Actually, never mind the dragon, this is a little boy who beats his unpleasant older brothers at their own game. It's a very good lesson in not taking things at face value! The illustrations are amusing but the plot is the strong suit here.
About the Author:  Anne K. Edwards enjoys writing tales for children when she’s not focusing on a mystery. Some stories are ideas taken from little misadventures of her cat who actually did fall off the porch and land on a large blacksnake as it was sunning itself. Both were more than a little surprised.

Monday 12 June 2017

A reluctant traveller in Edinburgh

I had an unexpected morning free in Edinburgh (much to my disgust at the time, as I had formed careful plans which went pear-shaped). To distract myself from thoughts of the things I was going to say to Person X when I found them, and should have said to Person Y who had told me of the dropping off of the plans’ wheels, if only I had thought of them at the time and not been constrained by a lifetime of not yelling at people in public, I trotted up the hill to Chambers Street Museum, the headquarters of the National Museums of Scotland (or the Eastern Front, as some of us used to call it from branches which were not the headquarters, but enough of that). I love a ramble around a non-specific museum, and once I had calmed down a bit over my pear-shaped plans, I enjoyed myself.


My first port of call was an exhibition on Scots and their achievements worldwide, just a few representative ones like Elphinstone the Indian explorer, David Livingstone the missionary, and the Chambers brothers with their press (astonishingly they set up their press when they were 19 and 17 respectively). Scribbling Murray ideas in my notebook, I wandered on to look at bicycles. Someone at a signing event asked me recently how constricting it was to write crime novels set in the early 1800s before modern advances in crime investigation. In the course of a rather long-winded answer explaining at least in part why I would rather write historical crime rather than contemporary, I said that my only regret was that Murray was unlikely ever to have a go on a bicycle. At that point one of the audience said ‘What, not even a penny farthing?’ Confidently I replied ‘No, they’re a bit later!’ but it was one of those things that began to niggle me – was it a test to see I knew my historical period? Was I wrong? Well, I can now report to my anxious inner self that asks such questions at four in the morning – I was not wrong. Penny farthings couldn’t happen till someone invented long metal spokes, so they are indeed later. A scoot-along bicycle with no pedals appeared at Lord Hopetoun’s estate around 1819, but the first actual pedal-propelled, treadle-driven velocipede was invented by Kirkpatrick Macmillan around 1840. It looks like hard work, but perhaps Hippolyta or Patrick could try one in a few years’ time!


Some fun, then, in a costume exhibition, where I discovered precisely what it is that makes Hippolyta’s vast sleeves stick out so far and found a lovely evening dress which will appear in a later Murray (not on him, I hasten to add), and read a bit about attitudes to crinolines and the development of non-natural dyes.


One of my favourite things about Chambers Street Museum, though, is the grand hall which used to be the entrance hall. It’s large and bright and airy, not much what we think of as Victorian architecture but certainly something between a cathedral to knowledge and a riverboat. Large exhibits come and go, not quite as frequently as the tourists who fill the hall with noise but never quite seem to crowd it. The powers that be have taken away the carp pond, unfortunately, but there are still some patches of lovely encaustic tiles, and I love the round radiators that encircle the pillars all through the museum – though James Watt here seems to have tired of their appeal (and no, the picture would not rotate. Just would not.).



After Chambers Street Museum I wandered further up along the line of South Bridge into Nicolson Street, which Murray knows well though to be honest I was only there to look for a bank. But on my way I noticed the signs for the Surgeons’ Hall museum, which is now open every day (it has been for a while, but when I first went there, many years ago, it was open by some kind of special arrangement – I was lucky enough to know someone who worked there). The Playfair Building, which houses the museum, was purpose built and opened in 1832, a little while after Patrick would have known the buildings when he was a student at Edinburgh University, across the road. It’s a lovely neo-Classical building, arranged now with glass and steel stairs and bridges, to house the surgeons’ museum, with sections on the heart, the history of surgery, anaesthesia, Sherlock Holmes, and finding subjects for dissection (for of course we are in the place of Burke and Hare), and next door the Wohl Pathology Museum, ranks of specimens in glass jars, pickled or dried and varnished, with wax injected to highlight veins and keep the floppier shapes in order. The two rooms are two-storey with plain iron railings to form galleries on the upper floors, and they are well lit for the benefit of nearly two centuries’ worth of students who studied the models and specimens there. There is a wonderful essay by Kathleen Jamie in her collection Findings (one of my favourite books) on the museum, so much better than I could ever manage that I’m not even going to try (the Hvalsalle in the Natural History Museum in Bergen, Norway, is so proud of the essay she wrote about it that the book is everywhere in the museum). Outside is an appropriate bronze sculpture, particularly striking against the 1832 building, and by the time I took this photograph I was almost restored to good humour, though much in need of lunch.


I shouldn’t shop when I’m cross: I spend too much money in a kind of defiance of frustration with events. However, the Scottish textiles book looks pretty interesting! And the pottery one will follow up on a small exhibition in that lovely entrance hall – I’m sure they’ll both come in very useful … honest.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

St. Andrews signing and a vanished dig

Thanks to Brian and all at St. Andrews Waterstone's last Friday for a lovely friendly signing!

And I liked what they did with the book cover for the chalkboard in the shop!
Meanwhile the flash archaeological dig that appeared, Time Team like, for Mayfest, has once again vanished - but not before they discovered what they think is the doorstep of the grammar school that was once attached to 15th. century King's College.

The allotments are bunny-infested again - we think there might be a warren under the plots - and we're clubbing together to buy a humane trap and establish a rota for checking it. It's been very dry but today it has rained solidly since this morning, not great for shopping (though I sneaked in a visit to my favourite wool shop) but good for the crops - and indeed for discovering just where the leak was in my mother's roof, as the wet rot man found.

And in work terms - well, I'm writing a new Hippolyta short story, and in the midst of plans for a new website / blog - I'll keep you posted! And I have to finish editing an old stand alone for later this year, once I get the science side sorted out ...