Saturday, 1 April 2017


In his Hornblower stories C.S. Forester combines historical accuracy with exciting adventure. We
meet seventeen year old Horatio in the first book, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, when he is
commissioned to service as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. The date is January, 1794, five years
after the start of the French Revolution.

Horatio is a quiet lad, not really at ease in society, totally inexperienced and further burdened by a
nervous stutter. Like his famous namesake, Horatio Nelson, young Hornblower is desperately seasick
at the start of every voyage. Added to Hornblower’s inadequacies for adaption to life at sea is his fear
of heights, so it is scarcely surprising he is given a really hard time by his fellow midshipmen who
consider him totally unfit for a life at sea.

Though desperately unhappy, Hornblower carries out his duties faithfully and well. The worst of Horatio's bullies is Midshipman Simpson, a man in his thirties who has failed the Lieutenant's exam so many times he knows he will never get promotion. Simpson finally goads Hornblower into challenging him to a duel with pistols. The ship's captain is informed of this and, by now well aware of Hornblower's potential, steps in to ensure neither pistol is loaded. Later the captain arranges for Hornblower's transfer to another ship, HMS Indefatigable. Aboard Indefatigable Hornblower is plunged into war with the French. He is given charge of a captured brig, loses it, tangles with Spaniards, is confined to a Spanish prison, and finally released.

Arrived back in England, Hornblower achieves the rank of Lieutenant.
In The Happy Return (entitled Beat to Quarters in the U.S.A.), he is now a Captain, under orders to
sail his frigate, HMS Lydia, into South American waters to track down, pursue and sink the Spanish
two-decker Natividad, a ship with nearly twice as much firepower as the Lydia.
Having successfully completed his mission to sink the Natividad, Hornblower sets out in quest of
further victories. 

Alas, in A Ship of the Line, Hornblower meets with ignominious defeat and the
humiliation of yielding his ship to the French. He himself is taken prisoner. 

From the confines of the French prison, and with his own execution imminent, Hornblower
witnesses firsthand the horrors of the guillotine.  Eventually he escapes from Napoleon's marinets
as he is being taken to face a firing squad.

With many adventures along the road, Hornblower makes his way down the Loire and to freedom in
Flying Colours.

Hornblower and the Crisis brings our Hero to the Battle of Trafalgar and, in fierce hand-to-hand
fighting, the most desperate battle of his life.

Following the death of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, Horatio leaves a nation in mourning and returns to
the fray against Bonaparte's navy in Hornblower and the Atropos.

To conclude this blog, when asked what he thought of the Hornblower books, a youthful reader enthused, "Oh, they're incomparable. Terrific writing. C.S. Forester is fantastically knowledgeable but never tedious on technical things. You get such a feel for the period. The lifestyles, politics, attitudes, day to day living, all that sort of thing. And with gripping stories underpinning it all."
What greater praise could be given the series, what greater hook to entice young readers to historical fiction?

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Dogs At War

Throughout history when men have gone to war, so have their dogs.  The first story here, War Dog, by Henry Treece (1911-66), is a stirring tale set in south-eastern Britain, A.D. 43. 

Bran was a black, rough-haired pup who was entrusted to Gwyn, son of the Catavellauni king’s hound keeper, to rear and train as a war-dog.  When old enough, he was taken to the blacksmith and fitted with the broad bronze collar that would protect his vulnerable throat in confrontations with wild animals. Once Bran had sufficiently honed his attack skills against wolves, he was tested against a different foe – a Silurian prisoner.  Though unused to fighting a man and at first bewildered, Bran won this fight. Now he was ready for war, and his bronze collar was overlaid with a massive spiked collar.
In AD43, Claudius launched an invasion of Britain. Bran accompanied Gwyn and his master, Caratacus, King of the Catavellauni, to war against the Roman invaders.  Though the Catavellauni fought bravely, their chariots and stallions were no match for the great number of heavily armoured Romans and their elephants.  At the battle’s end, Caratacus was led off prisoner, Gwyn lay dead on the field, and Bran was beaten unconscious and left for dead as he lay over Gwyn’s body.
He did not die, however; there were more adventures for Bran before his journey’s end, in Rome, far away from south eastern Britain. 
While Henry Treece does not gloss over the hardships, cruelties and uncertainties of the time, he reminds us that the Ancient Britons were not savages but much like ourselves, albeit minus radio, telephones, cell phones, satellites, and television. This neat little book artfully combines an action tale with history, and includes two pages of  historical fact at the end.

 Although Judy’s story is fact, not fiction, she was such a heroine of the war in the Pacific, she deserves recognition.  Robert Weintraub’s book is a children’s version of his earlier adult book. It is a gripping tale of one amazing dog, a true heroine if ever there was one. 
    Judy was born in a kennel for British citizens in Shanghai.  Ever adventurous, she escaped from the outdoor pen at just a few weeks old.  Her first encounter was then, when a Japanese sailor kicked the tiny pup across the street. This, Judy’s first encounter with them, led to a lifelong dislike of Japanese.  Luckily, shortly afterwards a girl who worked at the kennel found the pup and took Judy back.
The story goes from Judy’s days as a Royal Navy ship’s mascot on a gunboat in the Yangtze River to her ship being bombed, her long and dangerous trek through the jungle, her narrow escape when she attacked a crocodile while saving ‘her men’, to her days as an official Prisoner of War, and her many narrow squeaks from being shot by the Japanese guards.  Throughout, Judy went about her work of alerting people to imminent danger, saving many lives, and comforting those in distress.  The last man she attached herself to was Frank Williams, who she sensed was desperately in need of a friend.
While it is a harrowing tale, it does have some funny incidents and young readers will be happy to learn  in 1946 Judy was awarded the Dickins medal, the canine equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

My last choice is the stories of three dogs, from the foul trenches of the first World War, to Greenland in the early days of WWll, and finally to Vietnam.
Sheila Keenan provides the text and Nathan Fox the illustrations.  I must confess I couldn’t follow the graphics – too much – but I am prepared to believe they will appeal to a reluctant reader. 
The first story is of Marcellinus, dubbed Donnie, and his Border Collie Boots.  In December, 1914, they followed Dr. Fulham to Ypres with the Nova Scotia Highlanders.  A white band round his middle, with a broad Red Cross either side, denoted Boots was a mercy dog.  Her task was to crawl into no-man’s-land after dark to sniff out wounded men; she could even detect life in those left for dead.  Then she would guide the stretcher bearers to the rescue.  After one tremendous, blinding explosion Donnie and Boots were separated from the doctor and ended up with an Irish regiment. Boots managed to catch a goose, which made a welcome change from army rations.  The story ends with Boots rescuing a wounded Donnie, and both being reunited with Dr. Fulham.
The second story is a totally different setting, a brand new American Air Force base in icy Greenland, spring 1942.  New recruit Cooper is assigned to work the dog team. Loki, the only white dog on the team is labelled “tricky – he’ll do anything for food and is hard to handle,” by the sergeant.  Cooper forms an immediate bond with Loki, much to the sergeant’s annoyance.  When the sergeant learns Nazis have come on an espionage mission, he sets out on reconnaissance. Cooper, with Loki leading the team, goes with him.  From then on it’s all action – they hear, but cannot see, another sled – Nazis?  An American plane goes down close to them, when they reach it there’s only the pilot alive.  He’s badly injured. The ice starts to move, there’s a top secret weapon aboard the plane, it cannot fall into enemy hands.  One hazard follows another, and Cooper has to depend on Loki’s smarts, strength, and courage to succeed in his mission.
The third story hinges between August 1968 in North Carolina and 1967-68 in Dau Tieng, Vietnam.  Henryis lonely.  His mother assured  him North Carolina, where she came from, would be special.  But the trailer park was anything but special that summer – no other kids, and old Mrs.Johnson who ‘thought she was special because she was the only one with a working television, and kept it blaring all the time to let folk know’.  The trailer next to Henry’s was empty. One day his mother brought home a Beagle pup that Henry named Bouncer.  Alas, Bouncer fell foul of Mrs Johnson. Tibbets, the park manager arrived just in time to see Bouncer knock over a trash can. He told Henry he had to get rid of Bouncer, or he would.  The ‘empty’ trailer door opens, and Lanford orders Henry to pick up the trash.  Tibbets yelps that he won’t stand for it…Lanford grabs Tibbets by the shirt front and stares him down.  Tibbets goes off, muttering, “Crazy Vet, crazy Vet”, which leads to Lanford having nightmares about Vietnam.
Bouncer leaps on him as he lies in his lounger outside his trailer, waking Lanford who commanded, “Down!” and much to Henry’s surprise, Bouncer obeyed.  Lanford had a dog once.
He helped Henry train Bouncer, and little by little man and boy became friends.  Lanford is a super artist. His trailer is full of drawings, of Vietnam, his buddy Hado, and his beloved German Shepherd bitch, Sheba.  She was one wonderful dog. The graphics portray the hell that was Vietnam, Lanford’s pain when Hado was blown apart and still tried to joke, and, even worse when he had to leave Sheba behind.
This story leaves the young reader with a lot of questions, because there are a lot of Lanfords out there, now coming from Iran and Afghanistan.
            The colours chosen for the graphics are evocative of the particular times; the khakis, oranges, scarlet and shadows of the trenches, the starkness of the Arctic, the camouflage greens and duns of Vietnam.  As I’ve said, the written word is more powerful for me, but the bilingual eleven year old grandchild to whom I gave this book loves it.

Thursday, 21 April 2016


Soldier of Conscience

That’s the title of my work in progress, detailing the adventures of Luke Boniface who at the age of fifteen found himself among the ranks of Benedict Arnold’s army marching north from Maine towards the land called Kebec, or, as the French settlers called it, Québec.
Luke, the fourth youngest of the six Boniface sons, had no real interest in the politics of the day; his reasons for joining Arnold’s group were twofold, and simple.  One was to find his elder brother Isaac, who had left the family farm and gone north to seek land and a farm of his own.  The second was simply to seek adventure.  The trail from Maine to Québec was harsh and dangerous, Luke had been told.  This fired his sense of adventure even more.
The Boniface family farm would pass to Matthew, the eldest son.  Matthew was a true countryman, placid, hardworking, who loved the land.  Isaac was ambitious, romantic, and adventurous.  He had no wish to spend his life as a labourer on his brother’s farm, so when he heard the land beyond the Kenebec River was richly arable, and there was so much of it, he decided to head north in quest of some of that land.  In the two years since, only a couple of letters had been received from him and Luke’s mother fretted over this long silence from her second son.  She worried some ill had befallen him.
Luke wished there was some way he could set his mother’s mind at rest, but he had neither the money nor the information to go seeking Isaac.  Then he heard Benedict Arnold was coming to speak at the town hall and made certain he was among those gathered to hear the fiery, fuelled with vigour man .  Arnold’s mission was to urge all able-bodied men to follow him on his march to take Québec City.
 There and then Luke saw how he could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.  If he joined Arnold’s forces he was sure not only to encounter lots of adventure but to seek Isaac also.  Naturally, his mother was not happy.  With Isaac gone, and Joshua, her third son, at a seminary, poor Mrs. Boniface was going to be left with only her husband the dependable Matthew, and her daughters. 
Now her youngest wanted to join a ragtag army and head off through Lord knew what dangers!  It is not to be wondered at she was not at all happy at the prospect of her baby.  Luke was persuasive, and in the end was allowed to go.
Had he known just what awaited him on the arduous march through the dense woods, bitter cold in the winter months, hot, humid and alive with blackflies and mosquitoes in summer, he would not have been quite so excited.  However, adventure, danger and excitement a-plenty he did find.  Much of it excited Luke’s conscience.  Follow orders, or do what to him seemed right?  In the end, Luke even found romance… a romance which set him yet another dilemma.  Should he continue with Arnold or – should he follow his conscience?

Saturday, 2 January 2016


'Tis Christmastide, season of goodwill to all men.  I thought of  Christmas at the time my book is set, in the bleak years of 1939-45, when Britain and her allies were at war with Nazi Germany and Japan.  Then I got to thinking about Christmas customs in different countries, and decided to write about some of them.
                 Despite the restrictions in wartime Britain, Christmas was still celebrated, if in a more muted fashion.  The various church youth groups held parties, for which harassed mothers were pressed into making sandwiches and baking.  In school, we had nativity plays stretched into class concerts; art paper was glued into paper chains to brighten drab halls, and calendars, made from last year’s hoarded Christmas cards and little calendar tabs procured by the teacher, were diligently manufactured gifts for parents, grandparents, and aunties.  Letters with wishes written to Santa Claus were set alight in the fire, and dispatched up the chimney.  Don’t ask me why – I never did find out.  Scots mothers could threaten their unruly offspring with, “You’ll get nothing but a lump of coal or a pile of cinders in your stocking if ye don’t behave.”   It worked, for a few minutes at least.   Stockings were hung over the end of the bed – nobody was going to risk a fire by hanging them at the fireplace - in expectancy of a wish being fulfilled, along with a silver sixpence (the size of a dime), an apple, and an orange.  Toys were few.  Like almost everything else, paper was hard to come by, and new books a precious rarity; my personal most-hoped-for gift was a book.  One cherished discovery on Christmas morning was a John Bull printing outfit.  This was my chance to become a famous author!  Visions of books bearing my name danced in my head.  I think I exhausted its ink pad inside a week.  Our family was lucky in that we always had poultry in some form.  Other families would have a steak pie.  We didn’t have the English Christmas pudding; Mother’s clootie dumpling was famous.  This was an enormous pudding wrapped in a cloth rather than put in a bowl, and set on an upturned soup bowl over a pot of simmering water.  It was served hot with custard.   Into it she inserted carefully-saved silver threepenny bits (smaller than a dime), wrapped in parchment paper, for luck.  Our Christmas began on Christmas Eve and ended twelve days later at Epiphany, when all cards were taken down.     An illustration of the robin is popular on British Christmas cards.
 St. Nicolas and Strewelpeter
The Dutch started their Christmas celebrations early with the arrival of St. Nicolas and his helper Black Peter on 5th December.  St. Nicolas’ Day is actually 6th December, but in the Netherlands he arrives on the 5th, accompanied by Black Peter.  There are many legends surrounding St. Nicolas, or Sinterklass, one of them being Peter was an unhappy slave boy that the saint rescued.  From elementary school days, my memory is of St. Nicolas restoring to life some orphan boys who had been boiled in oil by a cruel butcher; I have not heard that anywhere else.  Dutch children believe that when Peter comes on December 5th with Sinterklass; he carries a huge sack full of toys which he distributes to good children.  However – many must be the harassed Dutch mother who has threatened her offspring with being popped in Black Peter’s sack and carried off, never to be seen again, if their behaviour is less than angelic.   On Christmas Eve, more presents are left for the good children.   Christmas Day is a much quieter festival than that of December 5th and  most families still attend church in the morning then all gather in the grandparents’, or other family members’ home for a big family meal.
St. Lucia
When our primary teachers told us how Christmas was celebrated in Sweden, the class opined Swedish children were lucky.  They celebrated not twelve but twenty days of Christmas, starting off in great style with St. Lucia’s Day.  December 13th, the winter solstice and shortest day of their year, was celebrated in pagan Sweden as a festival of lights.  With the advent of Christianity, the Swedes renamed their festival of lights ‘St. Lucia’s Day’.  According to the monks who brought Christianity to Sweden, Lucia (Lucy means light from lux – Latin for light, clarity) was a young girl who carried food to the Christians hiding in the catacombs under Rome to escape Diocletian’s harsh persecution of Christians.  To free her hands for carrying as much food as possible she lit her path by wearing a circlet of candles round her head.  She was executed in 304 AD.  St. Lucia’s day was first widely celebrated in the late 18th century.  Schools and some towns and villages had their own St. Lucia, and a national St. Lucia was chosen.  She was robed in white and wore a crown of woven lingonberry branches set with lighted candles on her head.  We in Scotland had yearly reports on this Swedish festival, and my romantic imagination was fired by the idea of a ghostly St. Lucia gliding along in her flaming crown.  I remember from photographs ‘St. Lucia’ carried a silver bowl; this probably held the saffron buns popular for this day.  On reflection, I recall some of the girls looked decidedly uneasy under their flaming headgear!  On Christmas Eve there is a huge feast before going to church for midnight mass, and presents are delivered that night.
Polish Christmas 
Polish friends tell of charming and colourful traditions in their native land.   They begin at Advent, when the house is cleaned from top to bottom.  Everything, including every window, has to be washed, and carpets cleaned very thoroughly.  Nothing is left out of place as the home is made spick and span for Christmas Day.  Schools hold Nativity plays which are really more Christmas concerts so that all the children can take part.  A largely Catholic country, Christmas Eve is a busy day in Poland, with the great feast occurring that night.  Legend has it the animals in can speak at midnight, thus the feast consists mainly of fish and dessert dishes.  To mark the twelve apostles, traditionally there are twelve different dishes.  Tradition also has it that the meal cannot be started until the first star appears in the sky, which makes an exciting game for the children.  Halfway through the meal, St. Nicolaus (one of the adults) looks in through the dining room window.  Loud cheers from the children – he has come to lay presents by the tree in the other room!  Alas, no presents can be opened before the meal is over.  Since each course is punctuated by carol singing, it can be a very long meal for the excited, impatient children!   Afterwards, everyone hurries off to Midnight Mass.  Christmas Day and the days through Epiphany are spent visiting and receiving friends.

Germany had similar festivities.  My dear friend Inge loved her Tannenbaum and all the German Christmas traditions.  Her house, the architecture of which was like an illustration from Hansel and Gretel, was always colourfully and imaginatively decorated inside and out. I loved hearing her stories of the great German Christmas markets.  I believe there is now a small stall with traditional German goodies in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, over the Christmas season.   Stollen bread played a major part in German Christmas cooking, and many fine food stores in Canada stock it.  It requires two days in the making, but the smell through the house and the taste of fresh Stollen is wonderful; ample compensation.  German families gather on Christmas Eve for an evening of good food, games, music and singing, and to exchange their presents.
In Ireland, Christmas is celebrated very much as it is elsewhere in the western world.  One old tradition is still kept by some people – that of having a large candle lit, set at the main window and left burning all night long to light the Virgin and Joseph safely on their way as they journeyed to Bethlehem.  One friend tells me the custom was to have a candle in every window in the house.  He didn’t tell me how many fires resulted from this practice, and he himself now has a safety lantern in his window!  
My thanks to German, Polish, and Swedish friends and to  And to all of you, a very joyous Christmastide, good health and a Happy New Year.