Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Home of Hogmanay

Hogmanay fireworks above Edinburgh Castle
A freezing sleet swept over the city of Edinburgh, chilling the frozen people of the city as they hurried through grey streets below a greyer sky. The slush under their feet splashed wetly, sending icy shards upwards to soak stockings and trousers alike. The prospect of getting to work and out of the cold was almost something to look forward to on a morning such as this.

Today was the 25th of December but while those in England and elsewhere celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, here in Scotland it was just another miserable winter's day to be endured.

Oliver Cromwell may have cancelled Christmas in the dim and distant past but this was Scotland in the 1950s. Christmas Day itself remained a normal working day until 1958. Boxing Day wasn't recognised as a holiday until even more recently. Christmas, if not banned, was at the very least discouraged and celebrations took place behind closed doors far from prying eyes. 

The Church of Scotland had decreed as far back as 1583 that as the Bible made no mention of any celebrations, and any attempt to mark the day was to fall prey to the evils of the Roman Church. Their evilness knew no bounds and those who celebrated were probably in cahoots with Auld Nick!
With Christmas offering the Scots no opportunity to party, they had to look elsewhere for something they could sink their teeth into. Fortunately hot on the heels of the 'English' celebration came the end of the year. Here was something the Presbytery couldn't find fault with and the people of Scotland seized it with a will and made it their own. That urge to claim ownership continues to this day. You may know it as New Year's Eve, Old Year's Night but in Scotland we know it as Hogmanay!

Why Hogmanay and what does it mean?

No one seem entirely certain where the word comes from although there are several theories. The Scandinavians' feast before Yule was called Hoggo-nott, while the Flemish word hoog min dag meaning 'great love day' fits the tradition of kissing complete strangers on the stroke of midnight at the end of the year. Or possibly Hogmanay may come from the Anglo-Saxon Haleg Monath ('holy month'). Alternatively it could well be from the French Homme est né' or 'man is born'. In Normandy gifts exchanged on the last day of the year were called hoguignetes. Somewhere in there may be the origin of Hogmanay. Feel free to choose whichever pleases.

Certain traditions have remained unchanged over the centuries. One of the most important is First Footing. It is considered lucky that the first person to cross the threshold after midnight should be tall and dark, although handsome is optional. In former days the First Footer would bring whisky, food and a lump of coal for the fire. These days there is little need for coal but the greeting of 'Lang may yer lum reek' persists.

Any housewife would also make sure she had redd oot her hoose before The Bells. If you were going to have visitors after all, the last thing you would want was folk thinking you keep a dirty house and so it would cleaned from attic to cellar.

Dancing in the streets
Another tradition was to gather in public places as a community to welcome in the New Year together before going round the doors as parties were held to which it was normal for the door to be open to all comers.

The famous street party held on Princes Street in Edinburgh is simply the commercial version of the tradition. Other towns without formal street parties make do with the people organising things themselves. Music, drink, dancing, food, drink and of course drink feature heavily in all these bashes. Did I mention they involve mammoth amounts of drinking?

If there is one thing which unites people almost everywhere in the world these days from Beijing to Moscow, London to New York, Adelaide to Edinburgh is a song written by a lowly ploughman from Ayrshire, it is of course 'Auld Lang Syne.'

So as the Bells chime out the end of one year and the birth of the new, raise a glass, mug, tankard of your favourite tipple, welcome in 2015 and remember, 'Wha's like us? Damn few, and they're all died!'

--Stuart S. Laing

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

My Grandfather's War - A Little Peace Among the Turmoil - A Special Wartime Christmas Post from Paula Lofting

A Little Peace Among The Turmoil
Jimmy's Story

      December 1914 was cruelly cold. The grounds above the trenches were frozen; down inside them it was no warmer and oozed with mud and water. On Christmas Eve, as dusk fell and the temperatures dropped dramatically, we hunkered down, wrapping ourselves in our coats, scarves and anything else we could find to stay warm. We began to feel a cold frost beginning to envelope the air about us, a frost so thick if you held your hands out, you could touch the ice in the air with your fingers. The mud squelched around our feet and even our thickest woolen putties and socks could not stop our toes from going numb inside our hobnail boots. I looked up at the sky and saw in wonder, that it was full of beautiful twinkling stars, so bright and so clear. My fellow soldiers looked up to see what I was looking at and as we all sat there, our eyes turned upwards into the sparkling night time sky, I realised that the air was no longer filled with the terrible sounds of shelling, but a faint sound of singing that echoed across No Man's Land. It sounded so close, perhaps only 80 feet away, and I recognised the words sung in German that sounded very similar to English. They were singing "Silent Night." 

        "Sh, sh," I pleaded. "Listen! They are singing "Silent Night" - in bloody German!" I cried excitedly. I jumped to my feet, forgetting the cold and the mud that sought to hold me. "Will you listen to that?"

      "Good God, they are," said Jon Thompson, fighting the mud and the cold to stand to his feet. "Jimmy Lang'on, you're bloody rayt - Listen, everyone, the Fritz are singing ower "Seylant Nayt" in German!" 
     Thompson was a true Geordie from Newcastle with the strongest accent I'd ever heard. I'll  remember to this day his pronunciation of the word German sounded like Jawmun and so unlike the dialects  of our southern counties. Whenever I told this story to my grandkids, I would always say this line in his accent, which had them laughing till their sides ached because, as they said, it was a terrible rendition of a Geordie. Suddenly everyone was alert, their ears pricked and their eyes focused on each other watching  for the reactions on our faces. We were smiling, laughing and whispering words that expressed joy at hearing what was to us, such a beautiful sound in a single moment of a terrible war. I wanted to burst out crying, but I held back. We were men - tough men, hard men - or so we thought; actually the truth was that we were simply boys pretending to be soldiers. The average age of us lads there was 19/20. Most no older than 24, except our sergeant who was 28. Some of our officers were older of course, but on the whole we were just lads and 90 % of us were green at this war game thing. 

      I don't know what it was that made us all so excited, but it may have been something to do with the sudden realisation that there was no longer an enemy on the other side of No Man's Land - just blokes like us, who were singing a hymn that we recognised, and although the words were different, it reminded us of home. I looked around and I saw that some of the hardest men I had ever known were weeping and before I knew it I had joined them. The tears came and then some of us began to sing. Our voices were raised with theirs, but they were near to reaching the end and we had only just started, so as they finished, we were still going.  I'm sure they must have heard us because when we stopped, there was silence for a moment and then shouts of "Bravo!" and applause echoed across from their trenches.     At one point, some of the men looked up over the parapet and described the scene from our enemy's trench as being alight with brightly coloured lanterns and candles, with Christmas trees, their sharp brindled branches silhouetted against the dark background. They said the Germans were waving at us and shouting in English, greetings of Merry Christmas! It was one of the most moving things I can remember of that awful war. And as we sang through the night, taking turns to sing carols and hymns that both sides were familiar with and some that we both weren't, I felt the warmth in my heart rise above the cold in my feet and as I closed my eyes to sleep, I felt like I was home in my local supping brandy and eating mince pies. 

     Morning came, but at that time of year it was 8:00 a.m. before the sun began to appear. As I rolled over in my sleeping space, I realised that light was dawning and a terrible fear began to engulf me. I wasn't in my humble home back in Essex, I wasn't waking up in my nice warm bed as I had last done on my 19th birthday at home before setting out to sign up for the Great War, and I wouldn't hear my mum shout up to me to come down for a plate of sausage, bacon and egg, our traditional breakfast on Christmas morning. No, I was stuck in this damned hole, coming out of a beautiful dream that I was home and tucked up in warm blankets and crisp clean sheets. Yes - I was in a hole. Some of my fellows were already awake and there was shouting and a commotion, but there was still no localised shooting or shelling. I was prodded by someone who shoved my Christmas box at me. I put it to one side as I got myself together to find out what was going on. I saw to my astonishment that men were climbing out of the trenches but were leaving their guns behind. 

      "What's going on?" I cried out to my sergeant who was standing with our captain and looking very annoyed. 

     "They've called a truce, the Germans," my sergeant replied.

      I found out later that he and the captain had warned everyone that if they went over they would be court marshalled and shot. One of them had shouted out as they went over, "They'll have to shoot the lot of us then, won't they lads?" and the men ignored the warning and continued to climb up out into No Man's Land where they were greeted by the smiling Germans, genuinely pleased to be sharing the day with them. I wanted to follow them, but I was afraid if I did, I would be in trouble. I was 19 and I wanted to survive to my twentieth birthday and if I was going to be shot, I didn't want it to be on Christmas Day by my own captain's gun. But something inexplicable happened next as I stared into the captains eyes. 

      "Sir," I said in a pleading voice, "it's Christmas and it might be our last."

     "I know it's bloody Christmas, Langton," the Captain replied in his clipped upper class accent. 

     I don't know what made him relent, but it could have been the fact that many of us would die that year anyway and he knew. Many men had died already, we were just the replacements. Anyway, he nodded, saying "Go on then! If we're going over, we might as well all go!" and I couldn't believe my ears but I needed no more telling and I leapt up over the parapet followed by the sergeant and captain and the sight that met my eyes had me laughing and crying at the same time.

     As I looked over the top of the parapet before jumping out, I saw that the daylight, just clearing, was grey, like the clouds in the sky. Out on the ground, there was a thick layer of frost which made the ground hard, unlike down in the trench where it was waterlogged. I saw Jon Thompson wearing a German helmet. He was stood  with a gathering of others laughing and joking with a group of German lads. He saw me and smiled, and I was smiling too, waving my gloved hand at him. He walked over to me, cigarette in one hand and held out his other  and pulled me out. 

      "Will you look at this?" I said in wonderment as he pulled me out.

      "Ye won't believe it, Jimmy, but this Jawman ova haya, the one smokin' may cley paype, well hey lived in Sunderland for ten yers!"

     "The one smoking your clay pipe, Thommo?" I asked, as if the fact a German was smoking his pipe was the most salient point of his piece of information. 

       "Aye," nodded Thompson as he led me over to them. 

       I knew that some of the Germans spoke English because throughout the months I had been down there in that trench, we had agreed to stop firing at each other for 30 minutes so we all could retrieve the bodies of our fallen and take our rations. On some occasions words had been exchanged, tentative questions had been asked of us about how our conditions had been and we found that theirs were just as bad. It was as if we shared common ground. 

     That day, as I stood there among our new friends, it was as if we were comrades sharing stories, swapping pictures of our loved ones, sharing our Christmas presents and swapping Cadbury's chocolate for tobacco or brandy for schnapps. We found out that they were having a rough time too: the rats, the mud, the unsanitary conditions. I remember seeing our officers fraternising too and wondered momentarily what might happen if the chiefs found out. One German fellow I spoke to was called Walter; I don't remember what he said his surname was, but I spent a long time showing him pictures of my home, my sisters and mother and father. He was married, with two little girls and he told me sadly how he missed his wife and that she was going to give birth again in the new year; this time he hoped for a son. He was 23. I thought that he must have married young, probably at my age. I told him that I hoped to marry when the war was over and he smiled, a twinkle in his blue eyes. 

     The Germans had kindly brought out a Christmas tree and we stood around it singing "O Christmas Tree"; us in English, those who knew the words, and them in German and soon the air was filled with our voices - but in the far distance we could hear throughout the day, those who had not observed the truce, shelling and shooting at each other further up and down the lines. But the best bit as I remember was when Walter and his mates brought out an old leather football and started kicking it around. It was then that a football match between those of us who wanted to play was organised.

     We used the Germans'  Christmas trees for the goal posts. One of our officers came up to see what was going on and offered to referee alongside the German captain. I went in goal; that had always been my favourite position in football. Thommo, Davy, Len and Foxy Theodore were defenders and Carter Blakethorpe, brothers Ivor and Blackie Jenkins the midfielders. Bertie Fresden and Eddy Norton were the forwards with Ronnie Dean as centre forward and captain.There were a couple of professional players in the German side, brothers they were and they were cracking strikers. To this day I still remember their names. I struggled in goal when those two came blasting through. Their names were Ulrich and Oliver as I recall: tall, blonde and very Nordic looking. They each scored, the blighters, and I recall that one of them had the ball, I can't be sure who, and ran right past Blackie, who slid heroically on the frosty ground to tackle him and failed. Then he danced round Thommo, who was a very good left back but had no chance against this fellow, and when he aimed for goal, the ball went straight past Davy's head as he leapt into the air  to header it out of the line of goal, leaving him with a crooked neck for days after that. I got ready to try and catch it; as it came flying towards me at such speed I thought it would send me right back into the tunnels, but I totally misjudged and it whizzed past me like a bullet and a goal was had! We lost that match 2-1 and at the end the Germans wanted to swap shirts, but our sergeant wouldn't let us.

    Nightfall came early and we prepared to retire to our trenches. I shook Walter's hand and he wished me luck. I remember he had the most sparkling blue eyes I had ever seen and his wide smile was genuine. 

     "Hey," he called to me as I went off on my way. I turned and he was still grinning. "I hope you get to marry after the war is over."

     "Thank you and I hope also that you get to be home when your son is born," I replied. 

     As we were all sitting in the trench that night eating the cold turkey dinner we had been supplied with, I could not help but feel sad as all around me the others were chatting away about the day and what a momentous occasion it had been. I thought about Walter and how if things had been different, we would have been friends - perhaps very good friends. I had liked him; he had a certain persona and I think he might have felt the same way. 

     Early next morning I awoke. The sun was just coming up and it looked like it might be a sunny morning. We could hear voices shouting and I figured it was the Germans and the English shouting good morning to each other. I climbed up in my squelching boots and poked my eyes over the parapet. I saw him, my friend, standing on the ground in front of his trench waving a greeting. He called my name - "Jimmy!" he was shouting. "Guten Morgen, Jimmy!"
     I laughed and waved back as my fellow comrades were also doing the same. It was good to see them, our new friends. It hadn't sunk in yet that soon we were going to start the killing again. Nonetheless we carried on the banter until suddenly, there was a loud shot. I heard it and then I saw Walter's body twist and fall forward onto the ground. He hadn't been wearing a helmet and it looked as if the shot had hit him in his head. 

      "Nooooooooooooooo!" I shouted, and I clambered over the sacks just as the Germans disappeared into their trenches. I had not realised it then, but a German sniper further down the line had shot one of our soldiers on sentry duty and his mate had come out for revenge. 

      Stupidly I began to run toward his lifeless body. At that moment, to me, he wasn't a German, a Fritz to be killed on sight. He wasn't the enemy. He was my friend and I wanted to comfort him like I would have done any friend who had been hurt. Luckily for me, two mad fools ran after me and dragged me back to the trenches as the Germans began returning fire. The truce was over and for me it had ended in the most soul-destroying manner. 

     The death of that German lad would be one of those memories that would haunt me for always, just as seeing Thommo, Carter, Foxy and a lot of others die in No Man's Land in that terrible war. Many things happened after that in those trenches, terrible monstrous things that I have never been able to speak about and probably never will. I have always preferred to recall the truce at Christmas 1914 and every Christmas I have told that story, of friendship and the respect for human life that we experienced on that day, to my children, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren. 

      I am an old man now; soon I will be dead, and it won't be long. I did get to marry after the war, but I will always remember that Walter never got to see his son born, nor did he see his family again, and that somewhere in Germany there would be a woman and two little girls weeping the loss of their husband and father. For me and mine, we were the lucky ones. Not so the thousands of men on both sides who lost their lives. 

So when you lift your glass on Christmas Day, remember the little peace we had in the midst of war and hold onto that in this stark world of hatred, war and genocide. If there is love and friendship we can rise above all that is evil.  

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Humble Christmas Tree by Louise E. Rule

The Humble Christmas Tree: most of us have one in our home over this celebratory season. When I was a small child, back in the early 1950s, I remember asking my Mum, “Why do we always have a tree in our house at Christmas?” and the reply was, “Ask your Dad.” so I asked my Dad, and he said, “Because your mother wants one in the house, that’s why.”

So, we had a Christmas tree in the house, and one year it was enormous! It was so tall that my Dad had to cut about one foot off the top to fit it in the front room. We decorated it with baubles, and paper chains that my brother and I had eagerly, and painstakingly licked and stuck together; cotton wool balls were thrown with gusto at the tree, long strands of shiny silver and gold lametta were tossed at the branches to dangle like thin icicles, and lights, oh, the lights! The lights were the best. They were about an inch long, shaped like a tight tulip bud: bright reds, blues, greens and yellows. I would stare at them until I could see nothing else; I just loved them. They would reflect in and off of the baubles, glass, they were, pale blues, silver greens, deepest reds, and gold, the deepest gold that you could imagine. When a yellow light reflected in the gold bauble it was just so beautiful! And if you twisted the bauble so that it spun freely, then let it go, it would make the branch bounce in a syncopated, scintillating rhythm, making the light shimmer around the darkened room, spinning light off the walls like fairy sunbeams. So, the humble Christmas tree is transformed into something spectacular!

Lights on trees now seem full of flash and shimmer: on, off, on, off. For me, I like the steady lights so that you can look into them like the flames of a coal fire, imagining all sorts of things dancing in front of your eyes, just magical. The quintessential Christmas tree is an evergreen conifer tree. The ideal one has branches that spread wide, making it easy to decorate.

So, memories of Christmas as a small person are magical enough, but how did all this Christmas ritual of decorated trees inside our homes come about? It is generally associated with Germany, where it is called Weihnachtsbaum or Christbaum, and, of course, there is the well-known song, 

“O Tennenbaum”  

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,

Wie true sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,

Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
Wie true sind deine Blätter!

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum!
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
Wie oft hat nicht zur Weihnachtszeit
Ein Baum von dir mich hoch erfreut!

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum!
Dein Kleid will mich was lehren:
Die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit
Gibt Trost und Kraft zu jeder Zeit.
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum!
Das soll dein Kleid mich lehren.

“O Christmas Tree”

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves!
You’re green not only in the summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
You can please me very much!
How often has not at Christmastime

A tree like you given me such joy!
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
You can please me very much!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
Your dress wants to teach me something:
Your hope and durability
Provide comfort and strength at any time.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
That’s what your dress should teach me.

We have adopted the Christmas tree from its pagan roots, and worked it into Christian beliefs. The shape of the tree, for example, being of a roughly triangular shape, is supposed to represent the Holy Trinity, and the fact that it is evergreen represents everlasting life.

The Holy Trinity (picture from Wikipedia)

Although we have this knowledge of Christmas trees originating in early Renaissance Germany, it has also been linked to Martin Luther, a Protestant Christian reformer, and it is said that it was he who first put lighted candles onto an evergreen tree.

There is a story about Donar’s Oak which I have found very interesting. Doner’s Oak, sometimes referred to as Jove’s Oak, or Thor’s Oak, was a Germanic pagan sacred tree, said to be somewhere near Hesse, Germany. The story goes that the Anglo-Saxon missionary St. Boniface and his entourage cut down said tree early in the 8th century. Then, reportedly, wood from the tree was used to build a church at the site dedicated to St. Peter. The Germanic people widely venerated sacred trees and sacred groves, and scholars also have linked Donar’s Oak and others to the tree in Norse mythology, Yggdrasil.

From Northern Antiquities,
an English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847.
Painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge. (picture from Wikipedia)

To quote from Encyclopaedia Britannica:

The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolise eternal life, was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans, and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn, with evergreens at the New Year, to scare away the devil, and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.

It has also been said that it is identified with the Tree of Paradise of medieval mystery plays. These plays were performed on 24th December, which is the commemoration and name day of Adam and Eve in various countries. It is said that in plays such as these, the tree is decorated with apples, representing the forbidden fruit, and wafers representing the Eucharist, and therefore, redemption. 

The Tree of Paradise, then, was used for the setting of the plays, much like we now use the crib for Baby Jesus; the Paradise Tree was later placed in homes. In time the apples were replaced by other round objects, usually red, thus we now have our baubles to hang on our Christmas trees.

I believe that nowhere in the Bible does it say that the apple was the forbidden fruit. It is thought to be through a poor translation that we think of it as such, when the Latin word malum should have been translated as evil instead of apple, the accent, (one of a choice of two) over the letter 'a' being critical. 

Many countries have their own mythologies regarding Christmas, together with its pagan origins but on the whole, in this modern age, Christmas means many different things to different people. First and foremost, it is celebrated as the day Jesus was born; but even if one doesn't hold with that, then surely it can be used to symbolise a new beginning, a rebirth, a starting afresh with good intentions. Whatever and whichever is your Christmas belief, enjoy it, have fun, and have a truly great time!

Monday, 22 December 2014

Santa's Magic Sleighride

Ho! Ho! Ho! And let me wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Father Christmas, Saint Nicklaus, Santa Claus. The image is the same: a rotund bearded and jolly fellow from the far north dressed in scarlet. We learn of his mythos as soon as we are born; as children we write him letters assuring him of our good behaviour and how we deserve the gifts we have asked from him. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but the imagery of winter and of Santa calls upon something else, something ancient and decidedly pagan. The reason is that Father Christmas and Christian Saint Nicklaus are two separate entities.

Christianity became a politically expedient creed for European kingdoms to adopt. To become popular with people it had to acquire the mantles of the old beliefs. What better way than to take possession of the pre-Christian festivals? The winter festival was probably the most important to agrarian societies; it is the bleakest time of short days and long, ice cold nights. What better festival to use that this, the one promising hope that the Winter Solstice has been reached and that longer days of sun are approaching? Hence we celebrate Christmas on 25th December but that doesn't explain this Father Christmas character.

In Old English mythology Father Christmas, the bearded figure, is almost akin to the father of the gods, Woden. Dickens recalled him as the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol.  Father Christmas was the symbol of good cheer. Shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in restoration England, he featured in Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas in 1689. Joyless post-Civil War government had labelled Christmas as “Catholic superstition and godless self-indulgence.” Obviously some things never change!

But hang on, "Godless self-indulgence," Santa Claus is a saint, isn't he?

Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century Turkish saint who was the patron saint of children, and renowned for giving gifts. He had his feast day on 6th December. So Father Christmas is Santa Claus? Yes and no, because Santa Claus has enabled the church to Christianize an ancient mythical figure. You see the clue is in Father Christmas' appearance. If he was truly Saint Nicklaus, then why is he not draped in religious symbolism?

One thought has it that Coca Cola commissioned his present form in 1931 for a Christmas ad campaign. Santa Claus had of course come to America via the Sinterklaas known by Dutch settlers, among others. He had been portrayed in numerous guises, including that of the jolly grandfatherly figure which Coca Cola wanted. But this theory is wrong; he was often portrayed as wearing red, long before Coca Cola hijacked him for their corporate imagery.

So we are still left with the questions: why does he look the way he does, why the reindeer and why does he live in the far north and not on a mountain in modern Turkey?

Well there is another, perhaps more plausible theory --one that links all his attached symbolism of reindeer and sleigh rides across the skies -- and it's something much older and darker. It’s probably best if I guide you there, so pull on those warm boots and gloves and wrap that scarf around you…

Take yourself back, back in time, back to dark winter nights; the snow is thick and suffocating. Food is perhaps threatening to become scarce. You wonder if perhaps the winter will ever end; what does the future hold? As the wind and wolves howl you gather with your friends and family in the longhouse.  Outside the eaves are decorated with icicles, but inside it is warm. This is a sacred time; an astronomical milestone has been reached.

By the fire’s light songs are sung and tales are told and the priestly shaman steps forward. His eyes are wild and his beard is long. The gods speak to him and he urges all to listen, too. The shortest day is now upon us, so we must eat and drink to armour ourselves for the next months of hardship, but rejoice, for the warmth and sunlight will now return. He dispenses a wicked smelling brew of Soma to those who would indulge, to join him in receiving gifts of wisdom and visions from the gods, flying over the tree tops under its narcotic influence, on a magical sleigh ride across the sky. What was that? You want to try some? Of course you may; don’t worry, I’ll look after you and guide you back. Yes, it does smell and taste disgusting. I’ll speak to you later, when your senses return…

Ah, you're back. Do you see it now? No? I will explain. You see the reason why you momentarily lost yourself was because you imbibed a hallucinogen. That brew was made from fly agaric mushrooms. Yes, that’s correct, the bright red and white ones – amanita muscaria- a familiar and reminiscent colour scheme, wouldn’t you agree? They grow at the feet of fir trees, like brightly packaged presents under the Christmas tree in fact…

“But,” you say, “fly agarics are poisonous toadstools; what have you let me drink?”

Well, yes they are but don’t fret. You see the shaman is crafty and wise. He knows that reindeer actively seek out these fungi to eat. He observes them and uses their bodies to filter the toxins, but retain the intoxicants. It does mean you've just drunk reindeer urine but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

 Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Linda's Reading Lounge: A Review of Clonmac's Bridge

Clonmac's Bridge: An Archeological Mystery
by Jeffrey Perren

A review by Linda Root with a giveaway copy for a lucky winner
Please see below

Professor Griffin Clonmac is a bit of a celebrity in his field, a maritime archaeologist whose rather startling finds have given him a reputation among television viewers as archaeology's talking head. In the competitive world of academia, that is not always a good thing. The professor has his enemies, not the least of whom is Daley Garvin, a university colleague who unfortunately outranks him and makes a practice of interfering with Clonmac in any way he can. Not long into the book we suspect there is more going on with Garvin than academic rivalry. He seems to have a powerful behind-the-scenes collaborator in his effort to bring Clonmac’s career to ruin.

Garvin’s new target is his rival’s long-time obsession with an almost mythical Irish Bridge, which Clonmac believes to have once spanned the River Shannon. When it seems that Professor Clonmac has a shot at finding it, the going gets dicey. Clonmac’s chances of locating and raising his bridge is no better than his funding and at first Daley seems content in making certain none is found. But as Clonmac refuses to let go of his dream, Daley and his co-conspirator begin interfering with more than money. By the time Griffin Clonmac has selected a potential dive site, he has been thwarted and bamboozled at every turn, and the worst is yet to come. Some powerful person or entity is willing to spill blood.

Meanwhile, nearly half a world away another archeologist is having problems of her own. Aristocratic Mari Quesne, daughter of a wealthy man with political connections, is about to have her project pulled out from under her because her father thinks her profession is inappropriate for someone of her station. He demands she shift her energies to getting married and raising children, and he has the clout to have her license to dig revoked when she refuses. After any chance of a career in South America dissolves, she has no offers but one in Ireland. Even before professors Clonmac and Quesne combine forces to raise the bridge, their associates begin dying. Mari loses a young assistant in a cave-in and Clonmac’s new protégé is murdered while on a dive.

Not long into the book, Perren introduces a parallel story line involving another man’s obsession with the bridge—a ninth century monk with a mysterious superior who seems intent to keep Ireland in the Dark Ages. Thus, two heroes emerge—the man who sought to bridge the River Shannon at Clonmacnoise Monastery in the ninth century, and the twenty-first century celebrity archeologist who seeks to raise it from its watery grave.

The book is not without its share of intriguing twists. There is a side adventure in the world of corporate high finance and a not especially flattering glimpse into the politics of the Roman Church. While a romance between Mari and Griffin is predictable, it is not the only love interest in the story. It is also refreshing when some of the villains turn out to be rather decent after all. Perren keeps his readers hooked by hinting that as bad as the bad guys are, there is a bigger and much darker force lurking backstage pulling their strings. His artful plotting provides clues suggesting the same force that struck out against Brother Riordan in the ninth century may be behind the assault a thousand years later on Griffin Clonmac’s dream.

As the story develops, the bridge itself becomes an object of mysterious properties. It has been submerged for ages and yet remains remarkably preserved. Its condition attracts the interest of board members of an American chemical company whose self-serving motives lead to their funding of Professor Clonmac’s project, but it does not explain why they and other individuals and institutions who should be most supportive of Clonmac’s plan to raise the bridge are precisely the ones determined to sabotage it. The author does a fine job of keeping the secret of the bridge’s mysterious properties obscure until very close to the final paragraph and the book’s successful conclusion.

Jeffrey Perren is a highly-credentialed writer and his skills as a wordsmith are high caliber. The book is well written, researched and edited with only a handful of formatting errors in more than four hundred pages of complex text. He seems as if he would be comfortable on an archeological dig. He also knows his medieval Irish history and a good bit of the politics of the early church. Overall, Perren’s characters both major and minor are well drawn and the historical setting is adequately researched. Any lack of passion in the romance that springs up between the archeologists is excusable, since Griffin Clonmac’s first love is the bridge.

In conclusion, in spite of the crowd of distinguished authors writing in the action-adventure historical fiction hybrid genre, there is room for Jeffrey Perren’s books on the shelf. I am making space in hopes of adding more. While it is not among the much clichéd page turners, Clonmac’s Bridge is a surprisingly satisfying reading experience which I recommend to readers who enjoy the works of Steve Berry, Ken Follett, Douglas Preston and others who meld the past with the present and come up with a taut mystery worthy of the genre.


For your chance to win a free copy of Clonmac's Bridge, simply comment below or at this entry's associated Facebook thread


You can also buy Clonmac's Bridge at Amazon and Amazon UK

About the Author

Jeffrey Perren

Jeffrey Perren is the author of Cossacks In Paris, historical fiction set in the Napoleonic era, and many other novels. He wrote his first short story at age 12 and went on to win the Bank of America Fine Arts award at 17. Since then he has published at award-winning sites and magazines from the United States to New Zealand.

Jeffrey's influences are Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, R.F. Delderfield and E.M. Forster.

Educated in philosophy at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and physics at UC Irvine, he lives in Sandpoint, Idaho.

Jeffrey's blog
Jefffrey's Twitter page
Jeffrey's Facebook page

                             Linda Root is the author of  The First Marie and the Queen of Scots.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Lara's Library: The Abortionist's Daughter by Elisa DeCarlo

The Abortionist's Daughter      
by Elisa deCarlo

Please see the bottom of page for giveaway details

This book is dedicated by the author: “to the actors, actresses, vaudevillians and silent film players who entertained the world on stage and film in the 1910s and 1920s… and to the thousands of women throughout the early 20th century who did not believe that a better life was possible.”

 The Abortionist's Daughter is a novel set in 1916 and follows the life and adventures of Melanie Daniels, the prettiest girl in Muller’s Corners, a town of  New York, and daughter of the town’s doctor, who dreams of making a brilliant marriage. But scandal has doomed her dreams. Six years before the start of the story, a woman died while receiving an abortion from Melanie’s father, and now that “the killer doc” is back from prison, Muller’s Corners won’t forgive and won’t let Melanie forget her family’s disgrace.

This adventurous coming-of-age tale of romance and betrayal narrates the story of Melanie, a young girl in a backward town, whose grandiose dreams of a fairy tale life lead her away from her family’s dark secret and the shame she feels.

The book starts with a prologue that introduces Melanie and a man called James as they attempt to break into a summer cottage in the Adironack camps.  Melanie had barely known James for more than a week and he was already leading her into a dangerous and exhilaratingly daring adventure, exposing her to shock and embarrassment.

"She had wanted real life, but this was too real".  

But here, against the warning of her inner voice and the impulse to run away, Melanie stays. She feels hypnotised by James, a charming stranger who arouses mysterious new feelings in her.  This sets the premise of the book as a romantic novel with a social setting.

I was not sure I was going to like this novel because it is not normally the sort I would read, but it hooked me in from the first page. Abortion isn't really the main topic. The soul of the book in itself is about womanhood and the struggles of the times. Its overall message is for women to have a voice and to break free from the world’s unrealistic expectations. I enjoyed the atmosphere of early 20th century America, and the author stays true to the time and history. De Carlo's insight into the world and time of illegal abortions and the rights of women and contraception is clearly researched and delicately touched upon.

Written from Melanie’s point of view in a narrative form, the novel is written in four parts. I loved the writing style of the author, especially in her very clever use of choosing a later chapter in the book as a prologue. This technique sets the scene, giving valuable and interesting insights into the two main characters, Melanie and James, as well as a complete backdrop to the little town, Muller’s Corners. The narrative and colourful use of dialogue is wonderfully written and well researched in the novel's first parts. DeCarlo’s mastery of excellent dialogue, beautiful and colourful descriptions of the era, the fashion, food, music and films, Melanie’s hometown and then of New York City, had me hooked immediately with intense interest.

Melanie Daniels is a naïve, flawed, selfish and stubborn  23-year-old woman living in a place where the economy is dependent on the local papermill. Melanie had great prospects for marriage, despite believing that her father had ruined her life. Daydreaming about running away from Muller’s Corners, her books and movies and theatre magazines feed her starved inner nature, and fill her with

“optimism about life in a backward town, where her family had dropped from the upper tier of village society to the lower”.

Reading copies of Photoplay,  Melanie is filled with romantic dreams. 

“She wanted to be swept away, romanced, to be overtaken by a love so grand it would leave her altogether a different woman, a happy woman”.

The heroine is a girl ahead of her times in her hometown, yearning for a better life, like the ones that exist in those magazines she reads. She does not want to be trapped, unmarried and having to look after her parents. Melanie’s father, Horace, is like a walking ghost since the trial and her mother, Syrie,  a former dowager duchess of society, maintains an air of threadbare dignity despite her misfortunes. The plight of Melanie’s mother and father gives a strong background and insight into her oppressed life in a small town. She is desperately lonely. Constantly compared to her older sister Olive, she decides to leave town. In trying to get past her family’s history and to find a new role in life and society, she is swept off her feet by the aforementioned James, a much older, finely dressed, handsome man of her dreams, or so she thinks. James is an itinerant salesman. With an air of confidence, he encourages her to follow him to New York City. Melanie soon finds that her loneliness is quickly replaced with anticipation as they head towards the hustle and bustle of Broadway.

It is here on Broadway that Melanie discovers a brand new life and world of theatre, but all is not to last. She is abandoned by the man she knew as James and finds herself alone again, and in trouble.

Without giving too much more of the story away, despite all Melanie’s flaws and bad decisions, the betrayal by James and others, her unbeatable spirit and stubbornness, leads her to a new understanding of her own womanhood and her father’s crime. She triumphs against all odds and her own personal demons.

In part four, things slow down and I was not sure where the book was heading. I felt that I would have preferred a stronger ending, but the overall strengths of the book, the tremendous start, the wonderful character development and richness of the author's writing and storyline override this.

Although this style of book and genre is not something I would usually read, the book's description is what attracted me to The Abortionist’s Daughter. Overall, it is a well written book, and I would highly recommend it to lovers of the stage, and those out there who enjoy reading about early 20th century America.

Reviewed by Lara Salzano

About the Author

Elisa deCarlo was born in Westchester, NY, and grew up there and in New York City. As an actress, she has performed in television, radio and film. She has published two novels, Strong Spirits and The Devil You Say as well as The Abortionist's Daughter. Her humorous essays are also in a number of anthologies, including Life's A Stitch: The Best of Contemporary Women's Humor. DeCarlo has also written and performed a number of solo shows across the country. In 2015, the Exit Press will publish an anthology of her stage work.

She can be followed on Twitter and Goodreads and her books can be purchased on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Ms. DeCarlo is giving a copy of The Abortionist's Daughter away to one lucky reader. If f you would like a chance to win, please comment below or at this blog's associated Facebook thread.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Anna Reviews: The Seventh Moon

The Seventh Moon by Marius Gabriel
Reviewed by Anna Belfrage

See below for information about the giveaway!

Set a book on the Malay Peninsula in 1941, and most readers will understand they’re in for quite the journey into the darkness and horrors of war. Add to the location a beautiful Eurasian woman and her young child, forced to flee to Singapore due to the advancing Japanese, and personally I am quite hooked.

It is late in 1941 when Francine’s English husband orders her to take their daughter to Singapore. He cannot accompany her – he has a mine to run – and besides, he is quite convinced the British soldiers will soon have the Japanese on the run. Francine is not as convinced: her Chinese relatives speak in hushed voices of an unstoppable war machine, of atrocities on a huge scale. But she is young and  intimidated by her husband, so when he tells her to stop worrying and get going she does, having wrested a promise from him that he’ll meet up with them early in January.

Singapore is in chaos. Mr. Gabriel paints a vivid picture of the situation in Singapore in the weeks prior to its fall, complete with racist British who sniff at having a “half breed” staying with them at Raffles. Bombings, panicked troops, people attempting to find berths home, Japanese planes that bomb the few vessels that escape, blackouts, hours spent in shelters – and as an utter contrast, the elegant and hoity-toity New Year’s celebration at Raffles, where Francine is wooed by recently wounded, severely disillusioned, Clive Napier.

Francine’s husband never comes to Singapore. She is forced to leave Raffles – British people need her room, and she is brutally evicted to fend for herself and her daughter, Ruth. Luckily, Clive is there to help her, and for some weeks more Francine and her daughter can cling to some semblance of civilised life in a world turned upside down by war.

Ultimately, Francine and Clive must flee for their lives, ending up in Sarawak. Ruth is severely ill, they’ve lost almost all their belongings, and the Japanese are a day’s march away. Neither Clive nor Francine have any illusions as to their fate should they be captured, and the only way to evade the Japanese is by trekking straight across Sarawak, a perilous and exhausting journey. Impossible to do when burdened with a young, ailing child, and so Francine is forced to make an agonised decision.

We fast forward to the late 1960s. Francine Lawrence is a successful businesswoman, a person who lives a compartmentalised life while flitting from one part of her business empire to the other. She is  cool and unemotional – a woman in control of her life and destiny. A very lonely woman, still struggling with the consequences of the decision she took close to thirty years earlier. Enter Sakura Ueda, a young damaged woman who potentially could be Francine’s daughter. Very, very potentially, especially seeing as Francine has credible proof Ruth is dead…

With Sakura, violence and war yet again enter Francine’s life. Once again, she is obliged to call on Clive for help, despite not having spoken to him in close to two decades. Once again, she must return to Asia to lay her demons at rest.

What happens next is a page turner. To reveal the twisting, convoluted plot would be to do future readers a disservice, but let’s just say it is fast paced, pushing Francine and her companions well beyond human endurance. Set against the backdrop of the expanding war in Vietnam, the resulting chaos in the neighbouring countries and the seedier aspects of the drug trade, the reader hurtles along from one location to the other, accompanying Francine and company deeper and deeper into the war-torn interior of Indochina.

The Seventh Moon is a plot-driven rather than character-based novel. At times, I would have wanted some more introspection, moments of reflection – if nothing else as a welcome relief to all the action. Because of the initial chapters set in the 1940s, the reader has insight into the complexity of Francine’s personality, thereby understanding why she behaves as she does. Sakura, however, remains an enigma: the product of horrific experiences, she has difficulties relating to other people – and to this reader. I suspect, however, that this is intentional: Mr. Gabriel wants to keep the reader wondering about who – and what – Sakura is. Fortunately, these two women have somewhat more accessible male co-protagonists, first and foremost Clive, but also Vietnam veteran Clay Munro, who in many ways I perceive to be the most developed of the various points of view in the novel.

The Seventh Moon’s true strength lies in Mr. Gabriel’s prose. Effortlessly, he transports us to the exotic settings of Asia or to the murkier parts of New York. Elegantly, he describes the political background, giving enough context for the reader to understand, not so much as to bog the story down. I was particularly impressed by the descriptions of the first weeks of 1942 in Singapore, complete with bombings, dead, blood and grime – but also tender moments in the tropical night, little instances of normality in a world that was crumbling fast. And talking about tender moments, Mr. Gabriel gets a five-star rating for the beautifully written intimate scene rather late in the book.

At times, I struggled with the formatting: The Seventh Moon is written in long, long chapters with no breaks in paragraphs – not even when the point of view shifts. This detracted from the overall reading experience. I would also have wanted a less abrupt and more conclusive ending – in fact, after all the emotional upheaval Mr. Gabriel put me through, I feel entitled to some closure, but that may be due to a personal preference for tidy (and happy) endings, while other readers may find things end just as they should. Having said that, The Seventh Moon proved quite impossible to put down, and for those in search of some hours of nail-biting excitement, I can more than recommend this book!

The author has so generously offered a copy of The Seventh Moon for a freebie! If you would like a chance to win, simply comment below or at this blog entry's associated Facebook thread

About the author

Marius Gabriel is the author of six books, most of which are set in the 19th or early 20th century. He is fascinated by historical settings and has lived in various exotic locations, which leads to him enjoying combining the two. At present, Mr. Gabriel is living in Cairo where he is working on a seventh book. Find out more about Marius Gabriel by visiting his Amazon pageThe Seventh Moon is available on Amazon and Amazon UK.


Anna Belfrage is the author of seven published books, all part of The Graham Saga. Set in the 17th century, the books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his time-travelling wife, Alex Lind. Anna can be found on Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and on her website. If you would like Anna to review your book, please see our submissions tab above.