Rambles: An Unfortunate Anniversary

In my work in progress, a character says, “Some days you don’t forget, no matter how long ago they were.”

4:20am, 24th August 1990.

There’s a knocking on the door of the house where I’m sleeping – an aunts house. Insistent and persistent. Barely awake; then there’s a figure at my bedroom door, unmistakably a policeman. For a second, I confuse him with my cousin (also a policeman).

My brother is dead. Car crash.

First thought might be an odd one, but here it is: Oh. Is that all? You couldn’t have waited until…like…six in the morning to tell me that? It takes me a second longer to process the real meaning.

The start of a long day, a long journey home by taxi. My dad howling like a wounded and caged animal; my mum said she heard someone call out her name at about 12:20am when it happened.

It happened around 12:20, but it took a few hours to track us down – my brother’s car was new, and the paperwork hadn’t caught up yet. He was racing on a wet road – slippery enough to kill him. Here’s something else: If he’d done it now – antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, airbags, crumple zones – he’d have probably walked away with a sore head and a story.

I’d only just started to learn to drive as well – the date on my learners licence was the 25th August, 1990, when it arrived later. First thing I asked my family was if they wanted me to carry on.

I’m a very cautious driver, as you can imagine, even now. Driverless cars can’t come fast enough for me, to be honest.

My brother never made it to twenty-one – he was three months short of that milestone. Me? All this happened five days after my eighteenth birthday. I’m forty-three this year.

Twenty five years ago. It’s a long time to be dead, twenty-five years. Never got the chance to marry, have kids, grow old.

Drive carefully, folks.


Review: The Handmaid’s Tale



In a harsh dystopian America, women are stripped of all rights…

It’s scary how prophetic this story is. A coup overtakes America – most members of Congress are killed in a terrorist attack and the constitution is suspended. Fundamentalism takes over, a fundamentalism that regards women as nothing. The reduction of women to non-citizens is done by the simple process of checking their bank accounts. If it has an F in your gender field, your account is frozen. And who, these days, carries cash?

So women aren’t allowed to read; they aren’t allowed to drive; they aren’t allowed money; they must go with their bodies and hair completely covered. They are split into castes that denote their position by the colours of clothing they wear. Women don’t exist without a man to act as a proxy.

Does any of this sound like a Middle Eastern society? Interesting if it does, because the fundamentalists running America are Christian. The subject here isn’t religion; the subject is fundamentalism, the corruption of religion.

This dystopia has a deeper problem as well – a catastrophically falling birth rate. The most fertile women are shoved into the role of Handmaids – inseminators, for want of a better word (artificial insemination is deemed immoral). In a cold and clinical scene, we see the process through the eyes of the protagonist, physically stuck between a wife and her husband in a symbolic and utterly passionless union.

The story is told from first person, and we only have the un-named protagonist to guide us. And we know she’s an unreliable narrator, frequently recounting events and then back-tracking to tell us what really happened.

We never discover her name. She is merely “Offred”, literally “Of-Fred”, nothing more than the property of her male owner and an inseminator for his wife. (Since this is a complete patriarchy, men cannot be sterile; only women can be so imperfect.)

There are complications when the wife, hungry for a child, sets Offred up with the chauffeur, and the husband, breaking taboos, tries to get to know her (intimately) better. For his purposes or just to make Offred’s life easier, we never discover.

There are times when we feel Offred’s sanity start to slip, and we slide along with her, travelling through disjointed flashbacks – sometimes in the middle of a thought. It’s disquieting to feel like you know her so well and then feel her reason falling away.

Attwood has a beautiful descriptive style of writing, throwing in marvellous images that work brilliantly (“I walk along the gravel path that divides the lawn neatly, like a hair parting”). It’s a world, despite its grim nature, that the narrator sees in vivid colours – the reds of the Handmaids, the black of a car, the green of a dress. However, Attwood skips on the punctuation of dialogue except when it suits her, and it can take a few reads to figure it out sometimes.

It’s an engrossing story, and one well worth reading. It took me along for the ride and never dragged or lost my interest. It’s a story not just for feminists or women, but for anyone who thinks and reasons.

Writing Whimsy: AfW’s Sunday Write Up


Aside From Writing’s Sunday Write up!


Using the words: alone     growing     slowly     life    beautiful

There’s no sense, at first, of where I am. Nothing to cause me any alarm. Just static in my left ear. Either my eyes are closed, or I’m blind; there is darkness absolute.

I inhale, feel something constrict my chest. I move my hand towards my body – I have a hand, it seems, and an arm and a body still connected together. The hand is gloved, a thick binding. Somehow I know I will be unable to remove it, that it would be dangerous to try.

Something similarly thick covers my chest. I’m aware of a hissing now, in time with my breathing; some pump below my head. I know this is oxygen, bringing me life and taking the carbon dioxide away.

A panic there. Why did a cold spike run through me then? Oxygen. Growing panic at the word. Why?

Nothing. I try and grab at the memory, but there’s only the darkness and my breathing.

My hand tries to touch my face and comes across a barrier. Smooth and hard, curved.

I’m wearing a helmet. How do I know this is a good thing?

I try to blink, to feel the sensation of my eyes closing, the muscles moving. Barely there. Not much to tell between open and closed. The same darkness. Am I blind?

My body next, anyway. I contract my stomach muscles, bracing myself on my arms. Sit up. A sense of myself now, the life inside me still strong. Hands flow down my legs. Two. That’s good, I think. A good number.

There’s something on my arm, buttons by the feel. Muscle memory pushes one, and the universe opens for me from the bottom up, a slowly opening eye. Grey rocks, intense black shadows are the only colours. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.

Until I raise my head, and see a marble of purest cerulean and green sitting in a velvet bed of black. So near I could touch it, but so far away it might as well be the other side of the galaxy.

I remember now. The emergency visor slamming shut when the errant sunlight hit it. The darkness that descended instantly, the stumble, the fall, the skidding slope.

Another muscle memory moves my hand across the buttons on my arm. The static clears, but there are no welcoming voices, no emergency beacon. They must have searched for hours until they gave up, until they were forced to leave without me.

I am alone.

Writing Whimsy: Fearsome Fred and the House of Red

Over the furthest mountains to the west, past the highest cloud and over the deepest ocean, just past the Post Office and up the hill, there once stood the house of the most terrible of ogres, the King of Ogres, the Lord of Ogres.

His name was Fearsome Fred.

Fearsome Fred was so terrible, so ogre-ish, that when mummy and daddy ogres put their little ogre children to bed (Ogres generally don’t like people to know they have a nicer side, or their reputation would go right out the window and down the street screaming), they would tell them to misbehave or Fearsome Fred would come and sort them out. It was every ogres dream to be half the ogre Fearsome Fred was. He really was that bad.

Fearsome Fred lived in the most terribly red house you could imagine. Everything was red, bright red, traffic light on a clear night red. Windows painted red, walls, floors, ceilings, gardens full of red roses, those little fiddly bits where the underside of the roof sticks out that people are always coming round and asking to fix. All of it: red. Fearsome Fred didn’t really set out to make his house so red, but he got a job lot of red paint from a ghost down the street who did some scaring work a few years before, and red was all that was left.

When he saw the paint, Fearsome Fred shrugged his Scary Shoulders (He held the patent on Scary Shoulders and had done very well out of them selling them to wimpy Ogres), and got on with it.

One day, a man from the council came to Fearsome Fred’s door. “You can’t possibly paint it so red!” he said.

Fearsome Fred growled, and the man from the council fled.

Then a handsome knight came to his door, his silver and gold starred chainmail flashing. “I come to slay you for having such a vile house!” he said.

Fearsome Fred growled, and did something with the knight that doesn’t bear repeating. He was, after all, the most terrible of terrible ogres.

By now, the tale of his house had got out, and people from all around came to see. They gumpled through his garden and over his red grass, trumpled over his red roses and generally made a fuss and bother of themselves.

Fearsome Fred was furious, but when he roared at them, they raised their cameras and took pictures. When he showed them what he did to the knight with the flashing armour, they ooohed and ahhhed and took even more pictures. Fearsome Fred, the most terrible, the most awful ogre, hid and sulked inside his red house and fumed.

Then the beautiful Princess Pringle showed up, a fiery maiden of red hair and a redder dress. Prince Pringle was going to come, but he had an invite to the wedding of someone called Kate and Will, and before that had the Dramatic Dragon of Dartmoor to dispatch, so he was pretty tied up.

Fearsome Fred thought Princess Pringle was like the others at first. She knocked on his door like all the others, so he ignored her and made himself some red tea from his red teapot, and poured it into a red cup. Then she knocked on his kitchen window. This was really too much for Fearsome Fred, who stormed outside and gnashed his teeth at her.

The Princess stood her ground. “Like what is your problem, chick? What’s with the gnashing?”

Fearsome Fred was taken aback. This was new. Most people just fell to their knees and waited for death. Or took pictures.

He tried snorgling. Snorgling is a noise most people never hear, since it’s the sound of an ogre swallowing. Usually, you’d be the one being swallowed, which is why most people never hear it.

“Snorgle? Hang on, let me Google that.” The Princess pulled out a red phone and her fingers danced over it. Fearsome Fred was rapidly turning into Puzzled Fred, which didn’t sound right to him. Puzzled Pete already had the exclusive rights, you see.

The Princess had finished doing whatever she was doing with her phone. “So what’s the prob babe?”

Fearsome Fred waved a hand at the crowd, and the wind from the gesture knocked several of them over. “These…these…people.” He lowered his voice to a mere Greek God volume. “They keep bothering me. I wouldn’t really mind, but they trumple on my roses. I love those roses. Took me years to get them the same colour as the house.”

“Oh…that’s terrible. I do like a nice red as well. Such a pretty colour house.”

Fearsome Fred was astounded. “The man from the council didn’t think so.”

The Princess waved a hand. “Feh. Men, what do they know? Let me see what I can do.”

She turned to the crowd. She tried yelling, but they ignored her. She climbed on Fearsome Fred’s Scary Shoulders™ and tried shouting up there, but they still ignored her.

She climbed down and scratched a beautiful cheek with a beautiful finger, the nail a beautiful scarlet. Finally she turned to Fearsome Fred and said: “Right, here’s the plan…”


The next morning, the crowds gathered at the bottom of Fearsome Fred’s hill. They gasped in amazement. A huge wall had gone up around his house overnight, bright red. At the single gate, the Princess stood, dressed in red, charging admission, while Fearsome Fred sold red T-Shirts and red mugs from a red concession stand. The Princess was so charming and beautiful, the people paid without a thought, and they were so terrified of Fearsome Fred, they paid for the red T-Shirts and red mugs without a complaint.

It was such a roaring success, The Princess and Fearsome Fred started giving tours of the red house, so they moved into the Post Office down the hill and painted that red as well.

And you know what? The roses outside matched it perfectly.

Rambles: A front end for KindleGen

For those of you going, huh? at that title, you can skip this post. The Kindle authors out there can dig in and enjoy…

Last year, I had to demonstrate to a small group of people the way to create a .mobi file. I’d been using Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/) for a while, but it seems like Amazon are tightening up on creating files without using KindleGen (Certainly the last time I used Calibre, the Amazon uploader kicked it back out).

The only choice was using the lousy Amazon command line KindleGen program (Seriously, what is this, 1998?). But trying to explain command lines and file paths in DOS to a group of people who had barely used a computer was really out of the question.

So I Googled and searched around for a while…and I wrote my own front end for KindleGen in .hta and VisualBasic.



It’s pretty self-explanatory. Tell it where the KindleGen application is, tell it where the document is you want converting to .mobi. It takes that input, makes a compound statement and spits out the .mobi at the end in the same location as the document in the second box.

No fuss, no bother.

I really have to wonder if someone with as little coding experience as me can make something simpler than fighting your way through DOS pathways – in less than a week – why couldn’t Amazon?

Feel free to modify it as you like, but let me know if you make it all singing and dancing – I’d love to see it (Especially if someone figures out a way of adding a cover).

Download it here.


Writing Whimsy: Aside from Writing’s Sunday Write up.

Aside from Writing’s blog (http://asidefromwriting.com/2015/05/31/sunday-write-up-may-2015/) is having a little Sunday Scribble…Just for fun.

The prompt for this week are the five words:

follow     missed     bird     delivery     eye

My hand shook as I extended it towards the door, rattling the handle. I snatched it back, trying to still my nerves, spreading the fingers wide to steady them.

From the corner of my eye I saw Lisa lean towards me and she hissed a warning. “Quiet. They’re roosting at the minute, but if you keep making that much noise –”

“I know, I know. God, you think I don’t know what’s at stake here?” Taking in a breath and holding it, I tried the door again, rotating the handle as slowly as I could. The hinges groaned with a horror movie scream as I eased the door slowly open.

I took a step down, but as I was staring at the closest bird – perched and sat on the railing beside me – I missed the step and stumbled. I gave out an involuntary cry and lurched forward, my balance gone. The bird beside me squawked and flapped away, ascending in a flurry of dusty wings. The rest of the birds follow, so we’re instantly surrounded by a thousand beaks.

Lisa screamed and covered her eyes. I reached back and grabbed her hand, dragging her down the steps and further into the avian mass that flapped and flurried around us. Squinting against the brush of wings and feathers, I made it to our destination, almost crawling by the time I finally reached it.

“Are they there?” Lisa screamed. I yelled back an affirmation and reached into the nests, pulling out the freshly laid eggs, still warm. I stuffed them into a box and we hauled ourselves back to the steps and out of the coop, back into the real world. I slammed the door closed and panted for a second or two, the eggs clutched to my chest.

Lisa, however, was not amused. “Jeez, I thought being the delivery driver for this job was hard…next time, you get the eggs from the chickens on your own.”

Writing Whimsy: Dust

It’s been said that no good phone call ever comes after nine at night and before seven in the morning. And when my mobile rings at exactly 6:36 this morning and the caller ID pic is my mum, I know what’s happening before she speaks.

He hasn’t been well for over a year, after all. Hadn’t. Everything about him is past tense now. Something new to get used to.

“He’s gone?” I ask her. I’m calm enough when I say it, but a twisting motion spirals from inside my stomach and my hands start shaking. So this is what cold terror feels like, this feeling of having swallowed a lump of liquid nitrogen.

My mum is crying and finds it hard to answer, and the nitrogen coldness slices me open from inside. My mum doesn’t cry often. The last time was when she was telling me about the people she saw fall from the towers when she was in New York on September 11th.

I tell her I’m coming home and I can almost feel her nod at the other end of the line even though she doesn’t answer. After another few seconds of dead air, another voice takes over the line, one of my mum’s neighbours.

I tell her again that I’m coming home and she agrees it would be for the best. My dad is already on his way, as is my sister, all of us heading for the same point on the map. I tell the neighbour to do what she can, but my lips and throat move without any conscious effort.

I hang up and roll back in bed, looking at the ceiling. Like a car crash in slow motion, the physicality of it hits me then. Dead. My grandfather is dead.

No more stories of how he saw The Beatles at the Cavern Club before they were famous. No more time to hear how he helped Pete Best get his coat back from the guy who stole it. It’s dust now. All that history locked up in his head is no more.

I swear at the empty room, and the world swims to blurriness and dissolves.


My lecturers know I’ve been waiting for the call, and it’s only a matter of a few text messages and I’m free from university for a week. I roll out of bed and something takes over, driving me forward. I sit at the back of my head and watch my hands and body move as they feed me breakfast, then run my hands over myself when I shower and clean my teeth. At some level, I know I’m crying, but autopilot keeps me moving.

There’s part of me, the part I pushed away at seven this morning, that’s screaming in the back of my head. If I turn to comfort her – and I so want to comfort her – then I’ll be back there, sobbing as she is. There will be time to let my tears out. But that time is not now.


Autopilot takes me from my flat and down into the tentacled mass of the London Underground. It uses my Oyster card in all the right places and picks out a seat in a tube train without me even having to think. Every endless second moves me forward, but I don’t feel like I’m moving. A forty-minute journey to King’s Cross station takes me a thousand years, but it doesn’t matter; all that matters is the destination, the things that wait at the end of this long days travel.


At King’s Cross, I walk past a brick wall with a half-buried luggage trolley in it. Above are the words Platform 9¾. There’s magic here…or at least, supposed to be. A wonderful world right through there that we Muggles can’t see.

I wonder if it’s like that where Granddad is now.


There are benches near the departures board and I take one while I wait for the train that will take me back to him.

Even at this hour, the people coming and going are a constant stream. This place never really stops or sleeps. Libraries aren’t where the stories are; it’s here where humanity finds its tales. This train station, that airport. A missed connection that leads to a chance conversation. Paths taken and not taken, decisions made and changed. Five hundred stories an hour come through here, travelling towards life and death. This is one of the knots where our strings entwine, one of the places where we come together or part.

I close my eyes to bite back my tears. Now I’ve stopped moving, autopilot is off and I’m back in charge again. Only I don’t know how to work the controls anymore. None of the buttons and levers are where they’re supposed to be.

I open my eyes again and my Granddad is sitting beside me. I smile at him, or at the illusion of him. At this point, I don’t really care. He doesn’t look the same as the last time I saw him – eaten alive by cancer so slowly you could almost miss it – but the way I want to remember him, hale and well, light sparkling in his eyes from some private joke.

He greets me the same way he always has and a fresh wave of tears nearly overwhelms me. “Ayup, girl.”

“I’m sorry, Granddad. Sorry I wasn’t there.” I manage around the sobs.

He shrugs and waves off my concern. “Got your own life to live, pet. I’ve had mine.”

“I wish I’d been there.”

“Don’t fret, chip.”

A woman wearing a blue wig walks to the turnstiles, beyond which a thunderously humming and vibrating train sits waiting. She’s wearing astonishingly high heels and a very short skirt. She’s also about forty kilos overweight and doesn’t so much walk as lurch, trying desperately to stay upright.

“Bloody hell. Women never dressed like that in my day,” Granddad says.

“You had mini-skirts in the Sixties, Granddad. Don’t tell me you didn’t.”

“Forgot you were the history buff. University! Never knew anyone went to university. Miner’s granddaughter, ay? Who’da thought that?”

“You made a lot of sacrifices for me and mum, Granddad. I know that.”

“It’s worth it to see you both getting on in the world, gal. Well worth it.”

“Just…I wanted to thank you and gran for it.”

He looks around again and leans back against the bench, looking up at the vaulted ceiling fifty metres above us and the clouds visible through the long skylights, this Victorian cathedral to progress and the railways.

“Done this place up right nice now. Bin a long time since I come here.”

“The train to Paris goes from right under our feet.”

He leans forwards and looks between his shoes as though he can see it. “Aye.”

There’s a long silence before I can really ask him what I’m thinking.

“What’s it like, Granddad. Dying?”

“Din’t hurt, if that’s what’s botherin ya.”

“I’ve never been to a funeral before, you know.”

“I know. It ain’t so bad though. Chance to say goodbye and get on. That’s what really matters. Gettin on. Grieve and get on, gal. You got that?”

“I got it, Granddad.”

He turns to me and holds my gaze. “I’m dust now, pet.”

A sob rises to the back of my throat and I stifle it with a fist on my lips. “Oh, Granddad.”

“It’s true. But that ain’t so bad. Everyone came from dust and back to it we go. I just borrowed the dust for a while, just like you and everyone else. The dust is always there, so I’ll always be there. You get me gal? This is important.”

“I get you.”

“You be sure to tell your mam that when you see her. Now, you better get movin. Your train’s here.”

I glance up to the departures board, and when I turn back, he’s gone. In his place is a small pile of grey dust. But in the space of a blink, that vanishes too.

I stare at the empty bench for a long minute. Then I stand and head towards the train that will take me home, back to the place where he no longer lives.


Review: The Hunted, Charlie Higson



Everyone over the age of fourteen has been turned into a flesh-craving monster, with a taste for teenage meat…The kids that are left are fighting to survive.

Book six of seven. I reviewed Book five here, and went straight on to The Hunted.

In terms of pacing, as a comparison, it took me four days to read the four hundred and fifty pages; it took me a fortnight to read The Fallen (the previous book), which is about the same thickness. What was missing there came back here; the characters are pushing forward even when there’s not much happening.

Higson moves the action out of London entirely for this one, into the countryside west of London. It’s no less dangerous though… Small Sam’s sister Ella and her protectors make a break for the countryside. No spoilers, but it doesn’t end well for some of them.

Ed and some fighters go and look for her to bring her back to London, meeting new groups of kids – some friends and some enemies – on the way. There’s also a group of adults, untouched, who have secrets to tell…

There’s a drawing together here, a tying of loose ends that started five books back with characters you thought were long gone. There are ends tied up here that I didn’t even realise were loose, and Higson is clever and subtle in the way he weaves them back into the storyline. Coming out of it are new plot lines for the final book.

The final battle is about to begin…


Review: The Fallen, Charlie Higson



Everyone over fourteen has been infected with an illness that makes them crave human flesh…Only the kids are left to fight and survive for themselves… 

This is book five in a seven series set. Luckily, I’m reading them back-to-back which helps a lot. There’s no way I’d remember all these intertwining stories with a long gap between them. There are a lot of characters floating around London… 

The focus this time is on a group at the Natural History Museum. There’s an infected kid hiding and hunting them, and a second group sets out on a trip to where the disease affecting the adults started, stumbling across a group calling themselves the ‘Twisted Kids’, a teratogenic bunch with odd abilities. 

As though sensing that the endless killing of diseased adults is getting a little repetitive after five books (And it is), Higson keeps the death count down and spreads his wings a little, digging into the characters more, exploring their relationships and friendships. 

Because of that, this is a slower and more thoughtful read than the other books. The pacing slips a little though, and this feels like it could have been shorter by about twenty pages. 

Towards the end, the pacing picks up again when Small Sam and Ed re-appear. There’s a monster of a cliff-hanger with Sam’s sister Ella, but no spoilers as to what’s going on. I’m glad I don’t have to wait a year for the follow-up though. 

As usual, the geography and the world is flawless and the characters (the ones he develops, that is: The rest are sometimes merely second-spear-carrier-on-the-left material) are well thought out and developed. 

It felt like a long walk to those closing chapters, but I’m here for the long haul right the way to book seven in September 2015.


Writing Tips: Short stories 101

I was emailing an Australian friend the other day (Anna Hub). She’s written four novels and just finished a fifth (The Ninth Hunter, well worth looking for when it comes out). But…she’s not sure where to start with short stories.

Most writers start with short stories and progress to novels, so it’s curious to see it the other way round…

“Bigger” (54 words)

“Mick? Did you hear that?” Elbows him awake.
“Something downstairs.”
“Bloody cat.”
“No. It sounded bigger.”
“Bloody dog then.”
“No! Bigger.”
“Bloody kids.”
“Yeah. Lots bigger.”
Mick purses lips. “Burglar?”
Eyes wide. “Yeah.”
“Big burglar?”
“Then he can take the bloody cat, bloody dog and bloody kids. Goodnight!”

 …the trick with short stories is to use your reader’s knowledge of the world to your advantage. I didn’t need to say these two are in bed and asleep when the story starts; I didn’t need to say it’s most likely the middle of the night (Most burglars don’t work afternoons, after all). “Elbows him awake” takes care of all that in three words. Mick has a name, but his partner doesn’t. Trim the fat and leave what you need.

Short stories don’t need to be that short either. Technically, anything under 20,000 words is ‘a short story’, so you have a lot of room to move around in. Most of mine come to between 1500 and 3000 words, for example.

The real fun with short stories is to take what the readers assume and find a way to twist the end. So a short story about a man exploring an alien world turns out to be a robot exploring earth, for instance. Or drop in a humorous spin, like “Bigger”.

Here a great one from science fiction master of the twist and short, Frederic Brown:

“Earth was dead after the last atomic war. Nothing grew, nothing lived. The last man sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”

Everything you need is right there. We know who the story is about, we know the world he lives in, and there’s even a hook for suspense. Twenty seven words to create a world and tell a story.

Shorter than that? Here’s a (possibly apocryphal) story from Ernest Hemingway:

“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

Short stories are a great way of perfecting the art of keeping the bits you don’t need out of your novels as well. Sharpen your skills on them and it will always serve you well.