A stand-alone short story in the multi-award-winning Troubadours Quartet series
1157: Aquitaine. The wolves are coming! At midnight on Christmas Eve, while the blizzard blasts snow through every crack in the castle walls, Nici the Shepherd’s Dog stands guard in the sheepfold.
Beside him as usual are his pack and the flock they protect but this night is not usual at all. A small boy braves the snowy night, seeking the protection of his great friend while he is banned from his parents’ quarters in the castle. Nici recalls other times and other dangers, his trials and failures, the reasons why he ran away with a young girl, now the little boy’s mother. He would still give his life in a heartbeat for Lady Estela. And yet, on this snowy night, he cannot help her. So, while he waits and comforts Estela’s son, he tells his own puppies the story of a dog’s life.
Nici’s Christmas Taleis a short story, at only 58 pages it is a quick read but each one of those pages is full of rich detail and a beautifully told dog’s tale.
This is my first encounter of the Troubadours Quartet series and indeed of Jean Gill’s writing. I was drawn to the idea of a dog being the narrator and I think Jean has stepped into the mind Nici perfectly.
Nici is a Great Pyrenees. My knowledge of dogs is very limited but you can tell that Jean has a great love for the breed and knows an awful to about them. Nici’s tale is set in the 12th century so it took some research of shepherding of this time for Jean but she has captured time and place perfectly.
Nici’s bond with both his humans and pack is incredibly moving and, from my limited expertise of dogs, absolutely spot on. I love her take on a new life coming into the world on Christmas Eve, with all the worry and trauma that surrounds the birth, especially during medieval times. As Nici recounts his story to his pups we are also taken on his journey, following through his hardships, his courage and at times his despair. This is one brave dog who has encountered great cruelty but never shied away from his duty and what he felt was right. He is certainly a dog I would like to have by my side.
This is a lovely, unusual Christmas tale that I thoroughly enjoyed. Although I am not familiar with The Troubadours Quartet and the adventures of Estela and Dragonetz, I have enjoyed getting to know their most loyal companion and I now look forward to reading more of their tales too.
About The Author
Jean Gill is a Welsh writer and photographer living in the south of France with two scruffy dogs, a beehive named ‘Endeavour’, a Nikon D750 and a man. For many years, she taught English and was the first woman to be a secondary headteacher in Wales. She is mother or stepmother to five children so life was hectic.
Publications are varied, including prize-winning poetry and novels, military history, translated books on dog training, and a cookery book on goat cheese. With Scottish parents, an English birthplace and French residence, she can usually support the winning team on most sporting occasions.
Sign up to Jean special readers’ group at http://www.jeangill.com/ for exclusive news, offers and a free book.
100 years ago today the guns fell silent. After four years of fighting, loss and destruction the war to end all wars was finally over. And for 100 years we have been honouring those who fell, those who survived and those who continue to fight ever since. War is an incredibly devisive subject but no matter your view it is important to remember what has been lost in the name of freedom.
For those of us in the UK, November 11th is a day for us to pay tribute to all those affected by War. There is a wealth of material out there to help us remember, to commemorate and appreciate what has been lost for our future and the future of our children. It is also a way for us to teach our children and younger generation empathy and compassion. Below is a small selection of both adult and children’s books that I personally recommend. There are of course many more so please do add your own personal recommendations in the comments section below.
My first selection are four books by author Hilary Robinson and illustrator Martin Impey. I first discovered Where The Poppies Now Grow several years ago when I worked on the editorial team at Lovereading4kids. It is an incredibly beautifully illustrated book with a moving story about two friends who went to war told in Hilary’s memorable verse. As soon as I saw it I knew that it would be an important book and would help raise discussion and understanding with young children about the First World War . Since then Hilary and Martin have gone on to produce three more tales taking us right through to the end of the War and each story encouraging empathy and hope through difficult times.
Where The Poppies Now Grow by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey
This moving poetic text matched with warm-hearted illustrations captures the lives of two friends and the parts they played in the enormous military campaign of the First World War. From their early days playing together through to their old age they shared everything. Above all, as young men they courageously shared the danger and devastation of the war which took place on their very own land. The result is a book that reflects the lasting importance of both friendship and place and how they can help to heal the tragedy of war.
The Christmas Truce by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey
It’s Christmas Eve 1914. A group of tired soldiers start singing Stille Nacht. Soldiers the other side of No Man’s Land respond with Silent Night. The next day, soldiers on both sides put down their weapons and celebrate the spirit of Christmas Day with a friendly football match. In the sequel to the hugely popular Where The Poppies Now Grow, The Christmas Truce finds soldiers Ben and Ray shaking hands in friendship with Karl and Lars, a tribute to that remarkable moment in history when, for one day, peace found a place.
Flo of the Somme by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey
Following on from Where The Poppies Now Grow and The Christmas Truce, Flo of the Somme pays tribute to the remarkable bravery of the animals who risked their lives during World War 1. Set in a bygone age, Mercy Dog Flo has more to contend with than racing across dangerous battlefields. Can she reach the injured in time with her medical kit, and can she lead Ray and the ambulance unit to the injured? With poignant poetic text sensitively written for a young audience, the rich illustration detail significant landmarksof a battle which is recognised as one of the most costliest engagements of World War 1.
Peace Lily by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey
Peace Lily follows on from Where The Poppies Now Grow, The Christmas Truce and Flo Of The Somme and finds childhood friend, Lily, follow Ben and Ray to the battlefields. Peace Lily marks the contribution made by women to the First World War and celebrates the common humanity shown by all, on all sides.
A Song For Will by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey
When World War One is declared on 4th August 1914, errand boy, Alfie, is disappointed that he is too young to sign up. But his frustration turns to despair as he begins to realise the brutal consequences of battle. During the four year conflict, Alfie’s exchange of letters with Heligan stone mason, Fred Paynter, and the visits home of gardener, William Guy, paint a poignant picture of life at the front. Reading them in a peaceful corner of England, the sanctuary of Heligan, Alfie realises just how different his life could have been. Can Fred and Will survive the horrors of the Somme in 1916? And what worrying news might Alfie receive about other battles? Published in partnership with the Lost Gardens of Heligan and drawing on facts from their archives A Song For Will is a beautiful story of longing and loss, of discovery and hope.
Recently I’ve added a few titles to my school library. There is of course a wealth of choices available but I felt these in particular earned a space there. Each of these books are beautifully produced and I hope will inspire the children to pick them up and read them.
Poppy Field by Michael Morpurgo
Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman have teamed up with the Royal British Legion to tell an original story that explains the meaning behind the poppy.
In Flanders’ fields, young Martens knows his family’s story, for it is as precious as the faded poem hanging in their home. From a poor girl comforting a grieving soldier, to an unexpected meeting of strangers, to a father’s tragic death many decades after treaties were signed, war has shaped Martens’s family in profound ways – it is their history as much as any nation’s.
This is an absolutely beautifully produced book and is perfect to share with younger reader or equally a special read for any age. It is incredibly moving and shows us the effect the war had on the generations since it began over a hundred years ago. Truly special and a small donation goes to the British legion for every copy sold.
The Great War: Stories Inspired by Objects from the First World War
The Great War is a powerful collection of stories by bestselling authors, each inspired by a different object from the First World War. From a soldier’s writing case to the nose of a Zeppelin bomb, each object illuminates an aspect of life during the war, and each story reminds us of the millions of individual lives that were changed forever by the four years of fighting. This remarkable book is illustrated by the Kate Greenaway Medal-winning Jim Kay. Featuring new work from: AL Kennedy, Tracy Chevalier, Michael Morpurgo, David Almond, Marcus Sedgwick, Adele Geras, Ursula Dubosarsky, John Boyne, Timothée de Fombelle, Sheena Wilkinson, Tanya Lee Stone.
Poems from the First World War: Published in Association with Imperial War Museum
Poems from the First World War is a moving and powerful collection of poems written by soldiers, nurses, mothers, sweethearts and family and friends who experienced WWI from different standpoints. It records the early excitement and patriotism, the bravery, friendship and loyalty of the soldiers, and the heartbreak, disillusionment and regret as the war went on to damage a generation. It includes poems from Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Vera Brittain, Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas, Laurence Binyon, John McCrae, Siegfried Sassoon and many more.
The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 to collect and display material relating to the ‘Great War’, which was still being fought. Today IWM is unique in its coverage of conflicts, especially those involving Britain and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present. They seek to provide for, and to encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and wartime experience.
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (Penguin Classics)
Reflecting the voices of poets, soldiers, the families they left behind and their comrades who would never return, The Penguin Book of First World WarPoetry, previously published as In Flanders Fields, is edited with an introduction by George Walter in Penguin Classics.
Unrivalled for its range and intensity, the poetry of the First World War continues to have a powerful effect on readers. This anthology reflects the diverse experience of those who lived through the war – bringing together the words of poets, soldiers and civilians affected by the conflict. Including famous verses from Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen; pieces by less well-known writers such as Gilbert Frankau and Osbert Sitwell; works by women describing the emotions of those at home; and the anonymous lyrics of soldiers’ songs, The Penguin Book of First World WarPoetry offers a blend of voices that is both unique and profoundly moving.
This collection has been arranged thematically, moving through the war’s different stages from conscription through to its aftermath, to offer the reader a variety of perspectives on the same common experiences. George Walter’s introduction discusses the role and scope of First World War poetry anthologies, and how the canon has changed over the years. This edition also contains notes and biographies.
The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay – 9yrs +
The Skylarks’ War is a beautiful story following the loves and losses of a family growing up against the harsh backdrop of World War One, from the award-winning Hilary McKay.
Clarry and her older brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall, staying with their grandparents and running free with their charismatic cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September – boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and a boring life for Clarry at home with her absent father, as the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer.
When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers are finally slipping away from them. Can their family survive this fearful war?
The next title is for YA readers and adults. I have to admit that I saw the BBC adaptation of this before I read the book but both were incredibly moving. It has been some years since I first read Birdsong, but it has always stayed with me.
Bird Song by Sebastian Faulks
Birdsong is a mesmerising story of love and war spanning three generations between WW1 and present day
1910. Amiens, Northern France. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in the French city to stay with the Azaire family. He falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle and the two enter a tempestuous love affair. But, with the world on the brink of war, the relationship falters. With his love for Isabelle forever engraved on his heart, Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front and enters the unimaginable dark world beneath the trenches of No Man’s Land. From award-winning writer Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is an exceptionally moving and unforgettable portrait of the ruthlessness of war and the indestructibility of love.
Regeneration by Pat Barker
The modern classic of contemporary war fiction – a Man Booker Prize-nominated examination of World War I and its deep legacy of human traumas.
‘A brilliant novel. Intense and subtle’ Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, and army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Under his care are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as well as mute Billy Prior, who is only able to communicate by means of pencil and paper. Rivers’s job is to make the men in his charge healthy enough to fight. Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors of the front. Pat Barker’s Regenerationis the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.
This is the first novel in Pat Barkers Regeneration Trilogy. It is followed by The Eye in the Door and Man Booker Prize winner, The Ghost Road.
In the world we live in today there can be times when it is easy to question the sacrifice that so many made and continue to make. There seems to be so little peace within the world. I know there have been moments when I have wondered if all those who died would have believed it worthwhile if they saw the hate that continues to permeate through our world today. Not one single person should have to die in the name of peace but it is not peace that kills, it is hate. Every person and animal who has fought for peace shall be remembered; those who lost their lives and those who survived such horrors. I hope this continues for another 100 years, and then another, and another. I hope that remembrance reminds us that real people lie at the heart of conflict. Real lives. I worry that our young especially an be desensitised to the horror of war by the constant barrage of violent games, film and tv. So these occasions when we actually connect the atrocities to real people, when we make it relatable, are incredibly important.
There is a line where mist becomes fog and during the early days of December it is crossed. But it’s not during fog that what has been growing in the river breaks the surface and takes a look around. It’s on a clear night after a frosty day where sheer cold has made resilient leaves surrender and quiver to the ground.
Today I am delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for the first fictional offering from writer, Tom Cox. I’ve been a follower of Tom on social media on both Facebook and Twitter for some time now and have very much enjoyed his cat related musings and following his highs and lows over the years. I am very much a cat (and general animal) lover and so have been drawn to the sensitivity and connection that he quite clearly has towards them. He is a person who appears to feel things deeply; sensitive, enquiring and what I would call an ‘old soul’. Therefore I was incredibly excited to hear about his latest project of a selection of short stories. Ghost stories. So I am delighted to have been invited to take part in this blog tour celebrating this fantastic book and also to be able to put some questions to the author.
Help the Witchis a beautifully presented selection of short stories with a ghostly, other worldly theme. Storytelling has been prevalent since before man could read and write. Tales told orally would be passed down from generation to generation as a means to educate, inspire and entertain. Of course now there are many means of telling a story. Tom has delighted us for years with his writing through a variety of mediums including books, journalism and his website ,where he states ‘since 2015 I’ve written many many thousands of words about about nature, folklore, music, books, landscape, family, social history, films and more’. I love reading his work and he has a wonderful gift of putting words together to create something rather magical. Help the Witchis his first book of fictional stories and I asked him what inspired him to write this particular selection of short stories.
‘Walking and what I find while I do it has always been a big inspiration for me – particularly during my latest non-fiction book, 21st Century Yokel, and – in a more wintry, haunting sense – ‘Help The Witch’. Derelict buildings. Old clothes left on fence posts, creating an inadvertent figure who, upon being approached from the other side might potentially have a gnashing nightmare face. Copses and spinneys that retain and trap events from the distant past. What you have in ‘Help The Witch’ are some remnant echoes of the folk horror novels I tried and failed to write in my late 20s and early 30s –hopefully in more coherent, less overreaching form. It’s all really the result of aburning ambition to write spooky stories that I’ve had since I was seven yearsold, but tempered with scepticism, questions, a reverence for nature as the truemagic and religion, and executed in a manner more minimalist than it might oncehave been, allowing some spaces for the reader to choose their own adventure.’
So now I ask you reader, do you believe in ghosts? Some people are sceptical, after all we now live in a world where our thirst for knowledge can’t be quenched. In the past 100 years science has moved on in an alarming rate and yet there are still so many questions that remain unanswered. To some, if we can’t explain it then it simply can’t be real. Yet constantly we seem drawn to tales that go straight to the heart of these unanswerable questions, perhaps because they spark curiosity and fear. It is natural to fear the unexplained. Tom has a wise voice, an old soul, who, although a self-confessed ‘near sceptic’, questions the world around him and looks beneath the layers of what surrounds us. I asked him what it is that fascinates him about ghost stories.
‘Apart from the basic thing that makes so many people fascinated by ghosts– a slightly inward looking question about what we are and where all our energy goes when we’re no longer alive – I’m interested in the idea of buildings, and other spaces,that absorb events and seem to hold them. I am interested in the intangible magic that age gradually begins to add to some objects. What is also interesting when you’re writing ghost stories and tell people that is that nearly everyone has a story to share from their life, even if they are a total sceptic: an incident, often nocturnal, with no rational scientific explanation. I’m not a total sceptic, and I’ve got a few of these incidents too, although I don’t think I can honestly state that I have seen a ghost in any traditionally recognised sense. Most of all, I think, as I get older, I am more and more fascinated – happy to get totally lost in – history, and I think if you’re fascinated by that, it’s hard not to be fascinated by ghosts in some form.’
Personally I do believe in ghosts. I believe that we each carry an energy and that events and situations leave an imprint on the places we have been. I too have never knowingly seen a ghost but I often sense something that has been left behind. This is one of the things I found interesting about the stories in Help the Witch, they aren’t simply your traditional creaking doorways and things seen out of the corner of your eye. The stories are almost subtle, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.
I enjoyed the sheer variety of stories that fill the book. No two where the same and I found each and every one enticing. It feels like a collection of tales developed over time, handed down through generations. I can imagine them being read aloud around a camp fire as the sounds of nature surround you, along with the deep, silent dark.
My favourite story is from where the title of the collection is taken, ‘Help the Witch‘. It was to my mind the spookiest, or perhaps just a little more obviously spooky than the others. It’s tone and style of narration put me in mind of Emily Bronte as I read. Tom creates atmosphere and a sense of place wonderfully. He entwines history through the tale, gradually bringing the ghosts alive. I have recently read an article by Tom called ‘the ghosts of the mountain house’ which talks about his (rather brave) plan of method-writing when working on the book, ‘to retreat to a spooky place to put it together.’ I must say it certainly worked, and reading about his stay at a desolate farmhouse in the Peak District makes the story even more spine-tingling.
Each writer is as unique as their stories and I always find the writing process fascinating. I asked Tom to tell me a little of his methods such as if he keeps a writer’s notebook or journal.
‘I wish I’d kept journals when I was younger. I try not to have regrets in life, but that might be one. I started keeping them in earnest about a decade ago, when I was already 32. It would be interesting, just for my own entertainment, to look back on an earlier period in my life in print. Far more interesting than reading record reviews I wrote for newspapers in my early 20s, I’m sure. I had my bag stolen in August, containing a year’s worth of thoughts towards future books. It still hurts, although I don’t think it was my best or fullest journal. I write down weird things that have happened to me or people I’ve met: sometimes incredibly mundane, but weird. Sometimes the very act of writing them helps you remember them and you don’t even need to refer back to them.’
So what happens when the time comes to sit down and write? How does your first draft come? Handwritten or typed?
‘Typed. I’ve becoming better at pushing through and writing a load of text in longhand but ultimately I’m part of the first generation of people whose customary way to write is using a computer: I’m accustomed to the luxury it gives you of fiddling with text as you go along.’
Do you have a writing routine or do you just write as and when?
‘My ideal routine is to start between six and seven am, and write all the way through to late lunchtime. Then maybe go for a walk in the afternoon, or do some editing or admin. These best laid plans happen too seldom though, and in reality my schedule is far more chaotic. One thing that stays a stone fact is that I never write anything very great between 1pm and 4pm. If someone tells you they wrote something great between 1pm and 4pm, they’re lying.’
One of the things that initially drew me to Tom was his love for cats and his ability to look at the world through their eyes with humour, love and compassion. My own cat, Mr Perry, features heavily on my personal instagram account and I am always fascinated how these creatures who share our lives become such an important part of them. There is a feline presence in the title story ‘Help The Witch’ and so I was curious how much of an influence Tom’s cats had on his fictional stories too.
‘I was writing non-fiction and journalism for years without cats being a known theme of my writing life, but they bullied their way into my writing quite often. So I relented and gave them the floor for four books, while also using that as a way to write about lots of other themes. They were like Trojan cats. People saw them on book covers, and didn’t realise they were a way to smuggle in stories about family, the countryside, landscape, other animals, plus a bit of light DIY philosophy. I think they’ll always be popping in, whatever I write, although they’re probably not as dominant as people who haven’t read my books often assume. I’m a creatively stubborn person, but hopefully not needlessly stubborn, and this book has a strong witchy undercurrent. Not letting a few cats have cameo roles to add to that undercurrent would have been needlessly stubborn.’
Help the Witch is a great collection of stories and one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading and writing about. It’s also visually stunning and the illustrations sit perfectly alongside the stories. Even those have left a ghostly shadow on the opposite page, something that only adds to the overall ethereal feeling that accompanies the book. It is only right that I hand the last few words of this piece over to Tom to answer the question, will you be writing more fictional tales?
‘Absolutely. That has always been part of the plan. I’d always assumed that when I finally published some fiction I’d do nothing but that forever. But I don’t quite feel like that now. I get a lot of pleasure out of fiction and non-fiction. I hope to write much more of both. That said, since finishing Help The Witch, so many more eerie stories have been knocking on the door – often in the early hours – and I can only oblige and let them in.’
Help the Witch is published on the 18th of October 2018 by Unbound and is available to order from all good bookshops (find your local independent here), Amazon ,Watersones to name but a few,
Tom has a completely fabulous and fascinating website so do pop along for a look here.
Thank you to Anne Carter of Random Things Tours and Tom for sending me this wonderful book.