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

Friday 29 June 2018

Ballater Bugle 4

Just to let you know that the fourth edition of The Ballater Bugle and a short story, Mrs. Kynoch's Awkward Inheritance, have just gone out to mailing list people - if you want this, or expected it and haven't received it, please let us know at contact@kellascatpress.co.uk!

Thursday 28 June 2018

Crime Tour of Scotland - Banff

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton: Alexander Seaton 1 (Alexander Seaton series) by [MacLean, Shona]

This month on our Crime Tour of Scotland we’re off to sunny Banff, county town of historic Banffshire (now reluctantly subsumed mostly into Aberdeenshire and partly into Moray), a town of underrated charms. Now, Stuart McBride has ventured up here from Aberdeen, but the crime queen of Banff is Shona MacLean, now writing as S.G. MacLean, accomplished, charming, and seriously into her history (I can at least relate to the last of these!).

She first came to our notice as the author of The Redemption of Alexander Seaton in 2009: this turned out to be the first of a new series, taking us between Banff and Aberdeen and even, for one book, across to Ulster. Set in the 1620s, the series inevitably takes us into the political conflicts of the time and also into the inevitable rivalry between Aberdeen’s two universities (it was said for many years that Aberdeen had as many universities as all of England! They only unified in 1860, and now, of course, there are two again with the development of Robert Gordon’s University from the old Institute of Technology – there you are, every day’s a school day). It’s not always easy to set a historical novel in a place that has changed considerably, in Aberdeen’s case with spurts of development relating to Victorian shipbuilding and 20th century oil discoveries, and Banff is less of a challenge, but in both towns MacLean portrays the place in a way that not only persuades the reader of the historical setting, but also captures the personality of the towns today. The research lies easily in the plot and the characters are very compelling and interesting, their struggles convincing in the context.

MacLean has a new series out, The Seeker, set in the time of Charles II (later 17th. century) which I have not yet tried, and must do so. But I can thoroughly recommend this series, and if you are one of the people who becomes a little bogged down in the complex politics of the Ulster book, then don’t be put off: it’s back to form with Book 3!

Saturday 16 June 2018

Indie writer for June - Jonathan HIll

The Stars Just Watch by [Hill, Jonathan]

Jonathan Hill, a young writer from Manchester, first came to my attention as a collaborator with Kath Middleton, who’ll feature later in this series, on Beyond a 100 Drabbles. A drabble, for those who don’t know, is a short story of exactly 100 words, and these two authors are unbelievably skilful at them. This collection is great fun – you could just dip into it but it's actually hard to resist turning the page to the next one, so I read it in a couple of sittings. Mind you, some of them do make you wonder about the authors! The stories are amusing and disturbing in equal quantities.

It was a delight then to find that Hill and Middleton had worked together on another project. In Is it Her? they took a picture and each wrote a short story based on what they saw in it. The painting itself is atmospheric and compelling, begging to have its story told, so it is fascinating to read two possible stories by these two accomplished writers. Both are set around the Second World War, and both are love stories, but there the similarities end, and I’ll just talk about Hill’s here. It’s is a tense, brittle account where every word is weighed, beginning with a claustrophic family evening and, through war intervenes, barely allowing us out of that closeknit relationship which is not all it seems, even though we see into the minds of each of the characters in turn. This story is now republished as The Stars Just Watch.

Then I discovered that Hill has a definite turn for comedy, too. The Maureen short stories (for example, A Surprise for Maureen) are lovely bite-sized stories, many of them seasonal, about sherry glugging, probably rather lonely Maureen and her neighbours. Then there are the stories about David and his boyfriend, beginning with A Chistmas Outing. More human than the Maureen series, these tales are touching and very funny - poor David's family are truly awful! In the latest one, This crazy thing I call my Life, David’s life is as funny as ever, with a definite hint of sequels to come. The tenderness and vulnerability of first love is beautifully portrayed.

And then we turn to Hill’s more serious work. Confession time: I haven’t had the courage to read his break-out book, FAG, set in a 1930s boys’ boarding school, but to judge by the reviews it is heart-scalding stuff. However, I have read another school-based book, Not Just a Boy. Here we see Hill at his best. This is a painfully true portrayal of what it is like to be a young teenager who doesn't quite fit in, for whatever reason. The dramatic beginning is not resolved until very near the end, but the tension builds slowly and inexorably through the book. Self-discovery and social survival are the main themes, but a strong element looks at those weird betrayals of which we are often guilty at that age, which we don't even understand but which tear at us for years. It is a terrifically written book, assuring us that Hill is a writer to watch. I hope we see a great deal more from him.

From the sublime to the gorblimey, then - I'm wrestling with two chapters in Tomb for an Eagle but it still looks (from this angle) as if I might finish it on schedule. Lots of editing and beta reading will follow! The launch date, at the moment, is sometime in October - and the plan thereafter is a Hippolyta for Christmas and a Murray for Easter. We'll see!

Sunday 3 June 2018

Ducks everywhere!

Anyone who has read my comments about poultry (chiefly Scandinavian poultry, admittedly) recently, will be relieved to hear that I have just returned safely from a Duck Festival. Not any old duck festival, I hasten to add, but Ballater Duck Festival.

Ballater was hit by thunder showers on Friday that once more had the inhabitants reaching for their sandbags, but today was hot and sunny - not exactly weather for ducks, I must admit, but excellent for the ice cream vendors in the town. Everyone was out to celebrate the occasion, the Third Duck Festival, a tradition instituted the summer after the flood to, as it were, rebefriend the River Dee. The Quack Quaich was donated by the local masonic lodge as the prize for a duck race on the river, and the festival was born.

The town was pretty crowded, with stalls and events on the Green.

People were selling ducks.

There was a duck tote, for the big race, and business was brisk (proximity to the Mountain Rescue ambulance may have caused a distraction).
The most trendsetting dogs sported duck kerchiefs - this is Isla, by her owners' permission.

Nearby at the church the band was preparing for their key role in the festivities.
The crowd began to move from the Green to the river, massing on the bridge.
Others collected at the water's edge for a more action-packed view (skimming stones while they waited, anyway).
Downstream, the river was quiet.
The commentator was in a prime (if slightly hazardous) position below us.
And the moment arrived - the ducks appeared (no, really! Look harder!)
The suspense was palpable as they advanced towards us.
The field spread out.
Jostling for position, they surged towards the finish line (grounds for a stewards' enquiry?)

But No.4 slips ahead, and wins!
Others are still trailing behind.
The last of the field.
No. 6 finally paddles home (I think the crowds made her shy!).
The winner is piped back through the village, coincidentally passing its sponsoring hotel on the way.
Borne triumphant on the crowds!
No. 4 watches from  the prime position as the band plays.
We sensibly go and spend some money on ice cream and, er, stones.
End of a slightly surreal day - Hippolyta would have loved it! (and she would probably have taken No. 6 home with her).