Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year - and new story

Now it's time to wish everyone a very happy, prosperous, healthy and successful 2011.

To kick things off, I'm delighted to report that Paragraph Planet will be featuring my latest 75 word story, Home for Christmas, tomorrow (1st January 2011) for one day only. Do go and check it out if you get time between nursing your hangover and washing your shirt for work. ;)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Just a quick line to say 'Merry Christmas' to all my family, friends, readers and assorted associates. ;) Hope it's a good one, hope you have a good relaxing break - and hope you don't get snowed in. *rolls eyes*

I'll 'see' you all in the new year, if not a bit sooner.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Drip... drip... drip

That's the sound of a very, very, painfully, very slow thaw, which is currently going on beyond our windows. Last Saturday we had around 6 inches of snow and it's been so cold since that it's still been lying virtually untouched. But today the temperature rose to *gasp* one degree celsius and the snow has gradually been retreating. It's still so cold, though, that it's creating massive icicles on all the gutters, of our house and just about all the others. Some of them are incredible - about 3 feet long and hanging, Sword-of-Damocles-like, over peoples' front doors. I don't want to be underneath them when they finally break off and fall.

It's also the sound of the thawed water coming through our utility room roof. Our newly replastered utility room roof... Dave shot out with a broom handle and knocked as much snow away from the gutter above that section of roof as possible and we're hoping that will limit the damage, but for now we have an ominously spreading stain on the ceiling and I'm standing by with buckets. Still, if that's the only damage we suffer after more than 2 weeks of terrible weather, we'll have been lucky.

In writing news I've finished yet another crime story and also scribbled a daft little Christmas-themed flash. I submitted the latter to Paragraph Planet but if they decide not to use it I'll post it here as a way of saying 'seasons greetings' to everyone. Watch this space.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Notfrog update

Earlier in the week I finally sat down to write to Hotfrog and ask for my profile (missing, presumed lost in action) to be removed.

After a day or so I had a perfectly pleasant response... which told me that without a company name they... wait for it... could not find my profile.

Only problem is, they didn't give me a company name. I wrote back to explain this and haven't heard since.

My profile is now missing presumed dead, and if even the site administrators can't find it, what hope have I got?

It doesn't inspire much confidence in their search parameters...

Monday, December 06, 2010


As promised over the weekend the temperatures rose... slightly. Here in Birmingham it reached the dizzy heights of 3c. Woo. Saying that, most of the snow has now gone, apart from a few smears along shaded roads and pavements. In Windermere it's a different story. When we left on Saturday there was about six inches of snow lying on the ground and it had got so cold that the local stream was starting to freeze over, and the bottle of water we always leave inside the car had frozen solid!

We're so glad we sold the Mondeo and bought ourselves a (small) 4x4. When we made the decision, after getting snowed in so badly last winter, we laughed and said 'that's one way of making sure we never get another bad winter'. How wrong we were! And how much better off. The Mondeo struggled on snow and ice; our new Skoda Yeti sailed across it all as though it wasn't there. We're very grateful and very relieved to be mobile again.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On the mend...

Apologies for the long silence; I've been recovering after undergoing minor surgery at the beginning of last week. Thankfully I didn't have to stay in hospital but I did need a general anaesthetic which left me a little woozy and I've also been getting over the surgery itself. Glad to say I'm on the mend now and even managed a little writing today for the first time - a 75 word mini-story about an episode from my childhood involving a cactus!

The hospital I had the surgery at was the new Queen Elizabeth in Birmingham. It's only been open since mid-summer and is absolutely huge with 30 operating theatres and several miles of corridors - they have to employ volunteer guides at reception! It's wonderful, though. Spotlessly clean, nicely decorated, and all the staff seemed to be going out of their way to be friendly and informative. No more grumpy receptionists! No more patronising doctors! It made the whole ordeal much less of a, well, ordeal...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hotfrog? More like Notfrog...

Yesterday I received an email telling me that I'd had a profile entered for me at the 'small business directory' Hotfrog.

I'd never heard of the site before, but never one to pass up a promotion opportunity, I set about checking it wasn't spam and seeing what it could offer me. According to the spiel in the email each profile gets an average of 280 hits a day, which sounded encouraging... but after much tearing of hair I've concluded that most of those hits are frustrated advertisers trying to *find* their profile, rather than potential customers.

The email itself was distinctly unprofessional. There was no link to the main Hotfrog page, nor was there a link to my newly created profile. Instead, having told me that I had a profile, it invited me to create one of my own. Huh? And the only link anywhere in the email was to a 'create a profile' dedicated webpage... which also had no links to the main homepage or to anything else. If I wanted to access the main site, I was told, I had to search for it on Google or one of the other main search engines.

I didn't think I needed to create a profile since one already existed. I did, however, need to amend that profile, because the address they'd quoted for me was actually for one of my publishers, Byker Books, and there was no mention of a link to my web site (surely one of the main reasons for being on a directory like this in the first place). I went off, dutifully, to Google for the main site.

Once found, this proved to be an even bigger disappointment. The home page looks amateurish, with a couple of search boxes, a few non-clickable links and a lot of Google ads. You can't search the directory by name, only by place/post code and category - and there's no list of categories. So if you want to find your own profile (or that of anyone else) you have to guess which category it's been created in and you have to know the address. You can't search on one or the other - both boxes have to be filled in. I tried a couple of different combinations, including writer/Newcastle and publisher/Newcastle, neither of which brought up my profile. What they did bring up was an uninspiring 'Yellow Pages' style listing, in no apparent order. Where this ran to more than one page, the back button didn't work. And each page I visited was awash with yet more Google ads.

So. I have a profile, but I can't find it. If I can't find it, what chance have any of my readers of stumbling across it? How is it ever going to be seen by those '280 hits a day'? More worrying, I couldn't see any sign of a link to amend a profile, which means the incorrect address on mine is presumably there for all time. Even more worrying than that, there appears to be no way of getting a listing removed if you don't actually want it. All you can do is unsubscribe from the email notification service.

As I said above, I'm all in favour of new ways of promoting myself and my writing - but they have to work for me. I'm left with the impression that Hotfrog is much less about promotion for its participants, and much more about yet another way to cram Google ads down internet users' throats - and presumably get paid for the privilege.

I'm not impressed.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Finishing touches

I'm just putting the last spit-and-polish to a new story for that crime/noir anthology I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Mind you, when I say 'new' I'm taking liberties, really. I first started the story so long ago it's buried in the mists of time, and I'd never finished it because I got hopelessly bogged down.

On re-reading I realised that I'd been trying to make it too long, and cram too much in, with the result that it lost focus and tailed off into pages of waffle and pointless dialogue with far too little action. There was a story in there somewhere if I hooked it out, though, so I cut away a lot of the later portion of the story, which wasn't very good, and added a whole new ending with what I hope is an entertaining twist.

I'm much happier with the result, which is about the same length but now actually *goes* somewhere, and it just shows that nothing you write is ever wasted, however awful it might seem at the time.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Star gazing

Dave has just started his lifetime's ambition - a part time, distance learning astronomy degree. As you might expect, part of the course work involves observing stars and other objects in the sky, taking measurements of movement, identifying colour and brightness etc etc. Birmingham is hopeless for that sort of thing - it doesn't get dark there so much as orange, thanks to all the street lights - but rural Cumbria is much better, and over the weekend it was clear enough and cold enough to pop out a couple of evenings to gaze at the heavens.

On Saturday we took the car out to a layby part way up a hill to one side of Lake Windermere, where there's a good uninterrupted view of the northern and western half of the sky. When we set off it was clear (and very cold). By the time we'd arrived, only about 20 minutes later, some stubborn high cloud had drifted across and refused to budge. We saw odd frustrating glimpses of the Plough and one or two other bright stars, but nothing else, and we were beginning to turn blue.

On Sunday we didn't even bother with the car, just walked up the road at the back of the house, which eventually comes out onto country lanes in the hills behind the town. Again there was a good view north and west; again it was bitterly cold and this time the sky was clear. It's amazing what you can see when there isn't a constant haze of artificial light; stars were popping out in the most unexpected places. The very bright moon took away some of the clarity but Dave still saw more than enough for his studies. And this time we'd dressed appropriately in umpteen layers and boots and thick woolly scarves, so we didn't even feel the cold.

I have a feeling we'll be doing lots more star gazing in the months to come, as the seaons gradually change and new stars become visible. Thank heavens we spend so much time in an area where we can actually see them...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Currently reading

The last couple of weeks I've been reading 'The Evil Seed' by Joanne Harris (of 'Chocolat' fame). Recently I read her 'Blackberry Wine' and loved it, and was hunting around in our local W H Smith for another of her books to try. I saw 'Chocolat' and very nearly bought that, but then this title leapt off the shelf at me. The cover looked suitably creepy and the blurb sounded really intriguing, full of the suggestion of ghosts and general other-worldliness. I put 'Chocolat' down and bought this instead.

The first thing I found on opening the book was an author's note. Books quite often have explanatory notes from the writer, of course, but they tend to be at the end, once a reader knows what happened and wants some further information. This was at the start, and seemed basically to be trying to disassociate Ms Harris from the book. It was the first one she'd ever written, some twenty years ago. It had been out of print for some time, and only republished at the request of her readers. It had been through some further edits but was mostly still untouched.

It all sounded a little... strange. And when I started reading I soon saw why, because the style was surprisingly different from the seamless, beautiful prose of 'Blackberry Wine'. It was disjointed, with odd unannounced changes in point of view and chapters written in either first or third person depending on which character they represented. On top of that, characters seemed to do the oddest things, like chasing baddies half way across a county in the middle of the night without so much as a torch, and the only explanation was that this was all a bit spooky and supernatural.

The pages turned fast enough because I wanted to know what happened, but I can't really say I enjoyed the experience. The plot became steadily more and more melodramatic and the characters were just plain irritating. By the time I finished I was reading with gritted teeth, and the ending was so dark as to render the whole book rather pointless. Although there were flashes of Ms Harris's later brilliance, I won't be reading this again, whereas 'Blackberry Wine' has gone on my shelf of treasures to be savoured at a later date.

It raises interesting questions about whether writers should give in to their readers' demands. Yes, it sells more books; but if a reader only read this they might go away with a very unbalanced view of the author's capabilities. I'm not sure I'd want some of my earliest writing efforts to ever see the light of day!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Just finished...

I've been scribbling away the last couple of days on a new short story, inspired by recent news events here in the West Midlands. There's been a sudden rash of schools targeted by arsonists - more even than usual - and I was vaguely scratching my head and wondering why. Then a little imp in my head piped up with a wonderful theory and I just had to turn it into a story. I'm not going to give the whole thing away but I will just say 'never trust the headmaster'.

I don't often write stories based on news events; too often they've been and gone before I've managed to think my way through an associated plot. For crime stories, though, a trawl through the newspapers can be invaluable. There are so many people doing so many strange and dark things that it's a positive well (sink-hole?) of inspiration.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Forbidden fruit?

The spam is getting worse, but what an image this particular subject line conjures up:

"Every man should have a huge banana between his legs."

It must be something about the way my mind works, because I've immediately started to think of all sorts of naughty little stories. Bad Fiona. You'll have to blame the spammers.

In the wars...

On Saturday night we went out with friends for a smashing meal at a Thai restaurant in Knowle. The food was delicious and the restaurant very stylish (I set my heart on a beautiful Thai silk scarf that dangled enticingly above our table, but I was good and left it behind.) The only problem was the chairs. I sat down and realised I was a long way from the table, so grabbed my chair to pull it closer. What I didn't realise was that it was solid carved wood, weighed about half as much as a Thai elephant, and wasn't going anywhere. My hand slipped straight off again and I bent back two fingernails so badly that I ate the meal with one hand.

Then this morning our bathroom window jammed shut. It's probably the damp weather we've been getting, coupled with unseasonable warmth, that has made the wood swell. I heaved and shoved and pushed and joggled. Eventually the thing flew open - and promptly banged shut again, straight onto the knuckle of the same hand. It's made a lovely bruise, and typing hurts. Ow.

On a brighter note, I've been getting a sudden rash of spam emails promising me 'Miracle ErectionPills [sic] for you'. All I can say is, if they can give me an erection it'll be a miracle indeed.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Now it's the monitor

Having fritzed my laptop the other week and had to rush out and replace it, I've now spotted that my trusty old monitor is on the blink. It's hardly surprising. I bought it in about 2000, as one of the very first flat screen monitors which at the time was very ground-breaking. Since then technology (as ever) has moved on, leaving my monitor trailing along behind, and it had also faded or 'muzzied' over the years so I was having to sit closer and closer to pick out any detail. Of course, that wasn't doing either my back or my eyes much good, so today I decided enough was enough.

"Let's go to the big branch of Curry's in the Bull Ring," Dave said. "They'll have plenty of choice there."

They might well have, if they still existed. Good grief. We've only been away from Brum for 3 weeks and suddenly everything has changed. That store has vanished without trace, without even a note on the window to tell us where our nearest alternative is, and is in the process of being replaced by yet another teen clothing shop. There are now 953 teen clothing outlets in Birmingham city centre. And nowhere to buy computers.

We drove out to a suburb where we knew there was a Currys and by some miracle that had survived. And I've bought myself a very nice 18.5 inch crystal flat screen that makes reading text a breeze and looking at pictures a pleasure.

But I'm left wondering what's going to break down or give out next...

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Comedy 'riches'

Last night we headed for the Glee Club in Birmingham city centre with a couple of friends, to see the American comedian Rich Hall. In case you haven't heard of him, he turns up quite regularly on tv shows such as QI and Have I Got News For You, and also did a recent series of documentaries about different film genres in the US. Although he hails from Montana he's settled in Britain and has a remarkably British sense of humour. He's caustic, he's sarcastic, sometimes he's downright vitriolic - but he's always very, very funny.

He seems to write all his own stuff and also improvised large chunks of the show, picking on hapless members of the audience and weaving jokes around their relationships and job titles. He had immense fun with one energy manager, for instance, and with a headline he'd recently seen in an Irish newspaper: 'Cork Man Drowns' ("His name was Bob."). He also began with a terrific piece about the Conservative Party Conference, currently taking over a large section of Birmingham city centre around the ICC with the result that parking is almost impossible. "When I say I'm pleased to be here," he deadpanned, "I meant I had to walk all the way from the far side of Edgbaston."

We spent the evening helpless with laughter... which was just as well since the seating arrangements were far from ideal. Around 400 people crammed into a small hall, with tables, is not conducive to space - I've seen sardine tins that were roomier. It was hot, it was squashed, and the poor folk who ordered meals spent the next half hour trying to eat them without elbowing both their neighbours in the ribs (or worse). Rich Hall is clearly a very popular act and you can understand the Glee Club management wanting to cram in as many folk as possible, but this time they went a little too far.

Great night out, though - and we even got a ride back in our friends' swanky new car!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Another chance to see...

Just in case you missed seeing my tiny story 'That Sinking Feeling' on Sunday 19th September, there's another chance now that Paragraph Planet have uploaded their September archive.

Click on the archive link and select Sept 19th from the drop-down box in the middle of the screen. Like my previous Planet entry, 'Rollercoaster Ride', this is based on an episode from my childhood and yes, the neighbours really were that annoyed!

While you're at it, have a look at the entry from Sept 12th which was written by friend and fellow-writer Sharon Maria Bidwell, which is stuffed full of vivid imagery in only 75 words.

You'll be able to catch both stories until the end of November.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Minor disaster

Dave and I were travelling back to Birmingham on Sunday. We always take our last bag of trash to the local tip (rather than leave it somewhere to niff, or bring it all the way back). That morning it was hammering down with rain and there was a big queue for the recycling bins. In the rush the wrong bag got thrown out - the one containing all my work files.

I lost quite a bit. Two whole ring-binders full of work - one a novel in progress, the other a collection of short stories I'm hoping to submit somewhere. On top of that I'd jammed in all my birthday cards, and at least one birthday present. But a cd is replaceable; work isn't. Luckily I had most of the contents saved on a flash drive, but I've still lost all my handwritten notes - and the list of exactly which stories were included in the anthology.

I've spent today printing out two copies of everything so I can keep a copy in each property and not have to ferry files about. I've also slowly rebuilt the anthology, using an out of date copy of the contents list and a good deal of detective work. It might not be 100% back to how it was, but it's getting close.

I still go cold when I think of that bag getting thrown away... but I'm very very grateful that at the last minute I decided to pack my flash drive in my suitcase, not that bag. That really would have been a disaster...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Another paragraph accepted

Paragraph Planet have accepted my latest submission, a 75-word tale about a bicycle ride with an unexpected (and muddy!) outcome. This is another story which really, genuinely happened when I was about ten or eleven and might make you smile.

You can read the story free for one day only (at least until it appears on the archive page) tomorrow, Sunday 19th September, by following the link above.

Friday, September 17, 2010

New gay horror anthology

I keep forgetting to mention that QueeredFiction have a new collection of stories out, this time with a horror theme. The book is called Blood Fruit, contains stories by eleven new and established authors, and as with all their titles is available in both electronic and print formats.

I don't have a story in this one (couldn't get anything finished in time to submit) but if the standard of writing is anything like as high as their recent sf anthology Queer Dimensions, then it's well worth splashing out on a copy. Just follow the link above to QF's website and you'll see the book in the scroll-box in the centre of the page.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Do you forget when to stick the little blighters in and when not to? Then look no further than this snappy little number on YouTube, which is to-the-point and just repetitive enough to help you remember the rules.

Some of the images on the accompanying video are worrying, though. Especially the ones from printed newspapers. I won't go off into 'what's the world coming to' type grumbles but it does make you wonder how much use an education system is if so many people get it so wrong so much of the time...

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Oooh, shiny

A few weeks back I noticed that my trusty old laptop was getting distinctly slow. I've had it for the best part of six years and it's been everywhere with me on my travels, helping me to write and stay in touch. But it didn't have a huge store of memory and the little it did have was obviously clogged.

Dave kindly offered to do a rebuild of the hard disk, to clear out any accumulated rubbish and start from scratch. The other weekend we had some spare time, so I copied any vital files and then handed it over for surgery. "I'm trashing the hard disk... NOW," Dave announced.

Thirty seconds later he added, "Um, you do have the registration number for the XP install disk, don't you?"

You can guess what happened next...

Between us we'd rendered the laptop useless. It wouldn't load XP without that wretched registration number, and it's too old to take anything more up to date. I can use Linux but my favourite word processor, WordPerfect, won't run under Linux and nor will one or two other well-loved programs. So, there was nothing else for it. We bundled into the car, drove to a huge local Tesco which has an excellent technology department, and I proceeded to buy myself a brand new laptop.

This cost less than half the original one, with about six times as much memory, a larger keyboard, an HD-standard screen, and Windows 7 preloaded. It's easier to type on, faster, sleeker, has vastly more storage and a better selection of games for when I'm bored. I wouldn't recommend trashing an old laptop to get hold of a new one, but in this case I think I've done rather well...

Sunday, September 05, 2010


Yesterday for a laugh we went to the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery to catch their T-Rex exhibition, something we've been meaning to do for weeks. We only just made it, because today is the very last day. They weren't quite stacking chairs and sweeping the floor, but it was a close run thing.

And heaps of fun. It cost £5 each to get in (most of the exhibitions are free) but there was a lot to see including several life-size animatronic models of dinosaurs - three T-Rex, an Ankylosaurus and a very dead Triceratops. Unlike most dinosaur exhibitions, which simply concentrate on the history, this one was asking a very specific question: was T-Rex a predator or a scavenger? There were a whole series of displays pointing out the differences between the two forms, both in dinosaur times and in the modern animal kingdom. Differences that included predators being fast and agile, and having strong front legs/claws to hold onto prey - none of which apply to the lumbering T-Rex with its silly little front limbs.

By the end of the exhibition we'd come to the conclusion these huge beasts were probably scavengers, and even posted our vote in the voting booth at the end. But talking about it over lunch we realised that the whole exhibition had been subtly leading us to that conclusion ('Are you sure T-rex was a predator? Are you still sure?') and that reality might well have been fuzzier. No matter, it was a fun morning out.

We also popped our heads into a different gallery to see part of the famous Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard, discovered a couple of years ago, which apparently puts even the Sutton Hoo treasure into the shade. I have yet to be convinced about that (having seen some of the Sutton Hoo artefacts in the British Museum - they are utterly stunning), but the Staffs Hoard is certainly vast, and fascinating. Almost all the pieces are military, with none of the drinking vessels and jewellery you'd expect from, say, a massive royal grave, and yet they're exquisitely made with microscopic gold filigree and finely cut garnet inlay. Which begs the obvious question - what on earth was this hoard, and why were the individual pieces scrunched up before it was buried? I expect the arguments will rage for years.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Reading positions

The Guardian's book blog had an amusing article yesterday on the positions people choose to read, especially if they're reading in bed.

The blog's author seemed to think that lying on one's side is the most common position for reading in bed, and it's certainly the one I find most comfortable. If I lie on my back my arms get tired holding the book aloft; if I roll onto my stomach I end up with neck-ache and sore elbows. Oddly, though, I always lie on my right side, never my left. This makes no sense because I'm right-handed, so lying on my left side would free up my right hand/arm for turning the pages. But I don't, and don't think I ever could.

At least I'm not like one writer friend who doesn't read in bed at all, but in the bath. I'd love to know how she stops the pages getting soggy!

How do you read in bed? Book or e-reader? Sitting or lying? And do you ever fall asleep with the book in your hand?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Currently working on...

It seems like an age since I reported on what I'm currently writing - so much so you might think I've been sitting with my feet up, filing my nails and doing no work at all.

That isn't the case; I've just been concentrating on a couple of long-term projects which are going to take a while to finish. One is a whole collection of short, dark, crime-related stories which I'm hoping to submit somewhere as an anthology once I have enough gathered together. So far I'm up to about eight or nine, including one inspired by a recent story in the news, but obviously I need more than that before any publisher will look at it. And the second project is a brand-new novel, which I've been thinking about for some time but have only just begun committing to paper. Like much of my work it's a darkly humorous take on 21st century relationships (this one involving a landscape gardener and his wife). Given my current record on finishing novels, it's likely to be a couple of years yet before it's in a fit state to even think about sending off anywhere.

But rest assured I am still writing and I'll try to report back on progress from time to time.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Many a true word...

I've been decorating this week, in the little cubby-hole I use as a study. The previous owners of the house had it as a nursery for their young son, and had decorated it beautifully with baby-themed wallpaper which is very sweet but perhaps not entirely appropriate for an office. So I dug out an old pot of paint and got to work.

The wallpaper is mostly cream, with cute baby words on it like 'sleepy', 'hungry' and 'naughty'. I was busy obliterating one of these when the paint brush slipped out of my hand, did a few graceful pirouettes in mid-air, and landed with a pale blue painty splat on the pristine cream-coloured carpet.

So which word was I painting over at the time?



Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Paragraph lost, paragraph regained

A while back now I had a little piece accepted by Paragraph Planet, an online magazine that publishes paragraphs that are exactly 75 words long.

Owing to a slight misunderstanding I missed the publication date, which was actually back in June. However, the good news is that you can still read my offering by following this link, and selecting the entry for 7th June.

The piece is called 'Rollercoaster Ride' and is a (somewhat autobiographical) tale of a child's visit to a fairground. And all in only 75 words. Phew. I'm not going to tell you which bits really happened, though. You'll have to work that out for yourselves!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quick march...

It was a gorgeous day on Saturday - sunny intervals, occasional stormy-looking clouds, warm but with a fresh breeze. We haven't done nearly enough walking in the Lakes lately - Real Life (TM) keeps getting in the way - but this time we were determined to make the most of the opportunity and chose the Grizedale Forest, a huge area of forest trails with the added interest of sudden mountain views and a fascinating sculpture trail.

Over the years we've done several of the trails but this time Dave picked one we hadn't done before, taking in Grizedale Tarn which is apparently the only natural tarn in the whole forest. The way to it was surprisingly rough with steep slopes and ankle-breaker tracks but we followed the white marker posts past some ingenious sculptures (a giant metal wasp, something that looked like huge animal droppings but was probably meant to be seeds) and were rewarded when we staggered out at the top onto rough heathland with a stunning view of the Fairfield horseshoe in the distance.

Although we followed the trail for what we thought was every inch, we somehow managed to miss the tarn completely (or perhaps it's a special tarn that vanishes and springs out at you when you least expect it) but it was still a lovely three-and-a-half mile walk. But towards the end Dave realised the two hours' parking he'd paid for was rapidly running out, and we'd have to hurry. I got back down the rough tracks and steep slopes in record time and we worked out we'd done the entire walk in one hour and forty minutes.

It was only when we were back in the car that Dave revealed the recommended time for the walk was... two and a half hours.

No wonder my legs were shaking!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Drying out

We are slowly but surely drying ourselves out. We've had visits from a local builder, our insurance assessor, and a decorator. We've stripped the vinyl wallpaper off the worst affected part of the hall, since it was acting like a massive waterproof jacket and keeping the water in. We now have two industrial sized dehumidifiers and two colossal air-blowers going, full-tilt, in the hall and pantry. I can hardly hear myself think, but gradually the damp patch is shrinking. And at last, our next door neighbours have also set up dryers in their house so the damp will hopefully stop oozing through the wall. It's all progress.

Mind you, talk about 'after the flood'. The night before last we had an earthquake. O.o

Only a tiddler at 1.7 magnitude, but it was a big enough bang to wake me up and shake the foundations of the house. Whatever next? A plague of locusts? A volcano in the back yard?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Somewhat damp apologies

Sorry, it's been an age since I updated this. I'm not sure where the last couple of weeks have gone, to be honest - I seem to have been working as usual, but the days have zoomed past and I lost track.

I do know where the last couple of days have gone, though, and they've been distinctly damp. During the week we'd noticed water dripping in our pantry (a long narrow space under the stairs) and thought we'd tracked it back to a badly-repaired joint in the main water pipe down there. By Saturday, it was significantly worse so we called out a plumber who banged and thumped and repaired the thing as well as he could (Saturday not being a good day for plumbing since all the builders' merchants tend to shut at midday). He left with profuse apologies for not giving us a permanent fix, and a promise to come back on Monday to finish the job.

On Sunday morning we awoke to find a pool of water on the pantry floor, and the ominous sound of dripping. Further investigation revealed that the joint in the pipe was bone-dry, which meant the water had to be coming from somewhere else - but where? It wasn't until I spotted a mysterious dark stain on the hall wallpaper that we realised the awful truth - it was coming through from next door. This takes some doing, believe me, since the party wall is nearly two feet thick. But coming through it was, and at an ever-increasing rate.

I gathered old towels, and sent Dave off on a neighbour-hunt. Our next-door neighbours themselves were away, but next-door-but-one had a key, and he and Dave went in to investigate. Seconds later Dave shot back, liberally sprayed with water, and hared off again with his toolbox. Turns out their boiler, which is in their attic, had burst, and water had quite literally been cascading down through their house for days. The men got the water turned off at the mains, which at least stopped things getting any worse. There was still an awful lot of water to drain away, though, and although it's slowly drying we've been left with a huge patch of sodden plaster in the hall, and a total mess in the pantry. It'll take weeks or even months to dry out completely and we're thinking of hiring a dehumidifier, to try to keep the damp, rot and mould at bay.

We're just grateful, though, that we discovered it when we did. Things could have been much worse for us, and a complete and utter disaster for our neighbours, if that water had continued to cascade...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In the style of...

This is a bit of nonsense, but fun - and a potential boost to your confidence if you're banging your head against the keyboard and the words won't come.

Enter a snippet of your writing in the box, press 'analyse' and hey presto - it'll tell you which famous author you write like.

I write like
Margaret Atwood

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I would love to know how this gadget works. I suspect it's completely random, since friends have entered different bits of text and it's come up with a different author name every time. On the other hand, it could be doing some impossibly complex calculations, based on common words and phrases...

I'm delighted with the result I got, but here's a word of warning. A friend of mine put a sample of her writing in and it came up with... Dan Brown. I'm trying to talk her down from the parapet of the bridge as I type. :D

Friday, July 09, 2010

Colourful sayings

Do you ever wonder where all those cliches and aphorisms come from? We seem to spout them on a regular basis and some of them are wonderfully colourful, even if their meanings have been lost in the mists of time.

It was usually the older members of my family who trotted these things out any time there was a gap in the conversation. 'It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good' was a favourite of one elderly great-aunt, along with 'it's a long lane that has no turning'; my grandmother preferred 'a little of what you fancy does you good' which is at least clearer, and a great excuse for a bit of quiet excess from time to time.

I don't think any of my family's sayings can beat this, though, taken from a quote on i-Google this morning: 'The black cat is always the last one off the fence.' The author, Solomon Short, adds, 'I have no idea what [my grandmother] meant...' No, nor have I, but I'd love to know whether she knew what she meant. And even more, I'd love to know where that saying came from, and which particular cats it was talking about!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Byker Books - ooops!

Anyone reading my blog post from last week about Andy Rivers' appearance on tv, and trying to watch the programme on Wednesday 6th July, will soon realise that either they're in an alternate universe or else muggins here got it wrong.

Well, as far as I'm aware we'll all stuck in the same reality, which means only one thing. Mea culpa! Sorry. Money Watch, featuring Andy Rivers, is on Tuesday 6th July at 8.00 pm on BBC2.

I'll be watching and, now that we've cleared that up, I hope you will be too!

All that jazz

For a complete change yesterday we gathered up a couple of friends, various chairs and rugs, and the makings of a picnic and set off for the 'Mostly Jazz Festival' in Moseley Park.

This is a brand new music festival in Moseley, which already plays host to the internationally-acclaimed Moseley Folk Festival each September, and whoever organised it clearly has some 'clout' in the music business because the line-up included Courtney Pine, Andy Hamilton and the Blue Notes, and several other luminaries of the jazz scene. (Whoever came up with the dreadful pun in the festival's name wants shooting, on the other hand...).

Moseley Park is the perfect venue for these smaller festivals - pretty, enclosed, intimate, yet large enough to house three separate stages, a food 'village', and space for several thousand spectators sat or laid out on the grassy slopes. Music, company and ambiance were all fantastic; sadly only the weather let us down. On Saturday it was sunny and around 26c. Yesterday iron grey clouds rolled across the sky and stayed there, stubbornly, all afternoon. A strong and surprisingly cold wind sprang up and by four o'clock it was drizzling. By five o'clock we were frozen to the marrow and decided, sadly, to call it a day. Of course, half an hour after we'd got back home the clouds cleared away, the sun came out and the temperature soared again, but at least we'd had four and a half hours of fabulous music and fun - which is better than most concerts when you think about it.

And our favourite 'act' of the day? Well, it had to be The Bright Size Gypsies, playing a range of 'gypsy jazz' and swing. They played brilliantly, and had the audience on their feet and dancing for pretty much the whole of their set.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Killing off dads

No, don't worry, I'm not advocating mass patricide, just pondering a fun little article on the BBC TV blog entitled 'Disappearing Dads'. To put it briefly, the author, Andrew Martin, realised that all his work to date showed fathers as 'mad, bad, just generally useless, or entirely absent' and that lots of other fiction followed the same pattern.

And you know, I think he could be right. A quick trawl round various classics reveals a trail of fathers who are missing, dead, or otherwise incapacitated. In The Railway Children the father is vital, but absent for most of the book. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo was an orphan and brought up by his older cousin Bilbo. Harry Potter's an orphan too, as is Garion in David Eddings' Belgariad series. Even where the hero is a (step)father himself he's absent in mind or body, like Dick in Daphne du Maurier's 'House on the Strand'. And in the two most recent books I've read, firstly the heroine was illegitimate and only discovered at the end of the book that her absentee father was the local lord of the manor; and secondly the hero's future father-in-law drops dead fairly early on. No exceptions to the rule there, then.

I'd love to know why this is. My immediate thought was that perhaps most authors have had terrible relationships with their own fathers and are either seeking revenge or simply have no experience of a good father-child relationship to write about. But Andrew Martin says this isn't the case for him, so it must be something else.

Is fiction simply mirroring the society of the time? In the past, lots of fathers were absent, perhaps because they were away fighting wars or exploring or setting up distant trade routes, and there must have been a good deal of 'seducing and abandoning' going on. These days dads are working away from home, or divorced from their kids' mother and living with someone else. There must always have been millions of fathers who've had a great relationship with their children, of course, but for some reason they don't seem to make it into fiction.

And me? Well, my relationship with my Dad wasn't particularly close and in much of my fiction I've realised to my shame that fathers don't really exist. Characters have doting mothers or bossy mothers or interfering mothers... but they might as well have been brought up in a test tube for all the mention I make of their fathers. Perhaps I should change that before it's too late, and actually write about a kindly, loving father for once.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Sheer brilliance in a book

Psst! Wanna read a book that's hilarious, poignant, intriguing and intelligent, all inside one cover? Then look no further than 'A Very Persistent Illusion' by L C Tyler, which is all of those things and more.

Blurbs can sometimes be vague or misleading but this one captures the book's tone perfectly, as well as summing up the plot: Meet Chris Sorenson - middle-manager, closet poet and co-inventor of the Sorenson-Birtwistle Revised Scale of Girl-Rage. He seems to have made a modest success of his life: he has a beautiful girlfriend (Virginia), two affable future in-laws (Hugh and Daphne) and a classic sports car with a genuine leather gear stick and one good wing mirror.

But Chris's apparently stable existence is about to be sent spiralling when Hugh dies suddenly. With Virginia in tow (as well as a certain French philosopher), Chris begins to uncover the truth about Hugh, Daphne, and his own dark past.

I fell in love with the very first line (Women have many different ways of showing disapproval, only some of which are immediately apparent to men.) and things just got better from there. Hardly a word was out of place and the sections of conversation involving historical philosphers (Descartes et al), which could have seemed awkward or out of place, were a scream.

I finished the book yesterday, after a marathon reading session in the afternoon. It took me less than a week, not because it's thin or because I was skimming, but because I couldn't put it down. I laughed, I turned pages, I identified with the hero, I even cried a little. I see from Mr Tyler's website that he's written several other darkly humorous crime novels. I'll be adding them to the 'to be read' list post haste. I love it when I discover a brand new author I knew nothing about, and they turn out to be this good.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Byker Books on telly!

Author Andy Rivers, whose crime novel 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' has just been published by Byker Books, is to appear on tv next week. Look out for him on Money Watch, BBC2, Tuesday 6th July, at 8.00 pm, when he'll be discussing ways to find work during the recession. Including writing crime novels, presumably. ;)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Who needs football?

We were determined not to watch The Match yesterday afternoon, partly because we're not big fans of football and partly because we had a funny feeling England weren't going to do very well.

We have annual passes for the local aquarium, so thought we'd potter off there because it's slightly off the beaten track and, crucially, nowhere near any pubs with big screens. And it was amazing! The roads weren't quite deserted, but they were very quiet compared to a normal sunny Sunday afternoon. We got a table at the cafe with a view straight up the lake - normally you have to kill someone to get one of those. There was a chap outside giving an owl display and I got to hold a beautiful Bengali Owl on my arm (with a suitable Very Large Glove, I hasten to add), and fuzz his feathers. And in the aquarium itself there were only two other couples wandering about, which gave us ample time to look at all the things we like best (the poison arrow frogs, the pygmy marmosets, the 'underwater tunnel', and even to chat to the staff about the animals.

It was a hundred times better than slobbing around and watching England lose...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Currently reading...

'The House at Riverton' by Kate Morton.

I borrowed this from my mother-in-law just before the holiday, since it looked like the perfect holiday read. Richard & Judy recommended it on their 'summer reads' list (slightly lighter than their ordinary book list) and although it was clearly chick-lit of the historical family epic variety, at first glance it was well-written with some lovely descriptions and a nice turn of phrase.

I have to admit, though, that I'm struggling. Gradually the balance has shifted from chick-lit to outright melodrama, and too often the characters are making choices or taking action based on what the plot requires them to do, rather than what they'd be likely to do in real life. Why on earth would a young serving-girl give up the love of her life, for instance, just so she could stay with her current mistress? I'd have a job believing that in the modern world; in the 1920s when marriage was the most important thing in almost any woman's life (unless she was in a professional career such as teaching, which this heroine wasn't), it just seemed silly.

On top of that, the book is narrated in the present by Grace, the 98-year-old heroine, ostensibly making an audio tape of her life for her grandson, who's vanished while on a round-the-world trip. I was looking forward to finding out whether Marcus ever reappears, and what he thinks of his grandmother's life story. But the book finishes in the past, on a note of high (and ridiculous) drama, and the present Grace vanishes with her own story left unresolved.

It's a good enough read if you want something to flip through by the pool, but I don't think the plot or the characters stand closer examination.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sod's law... alive and well and living in a supermarket in Warwickshire.

On our way home on Saturday we realised we were suffering from Empty Fridge Syndrome after a week away, so called in to a supermarket to stock up. I was reaching for a couple of yoghurts and didn't realise they were precariously balanced, with almost no 'lip' to the edge of the shelf. Inevitably, one toppled over. Even more inevitably, it landed upside down on the floor, burst, and transferred a good half of its contents onto the bottom of my skirt.

Yuck! To (mis)quote Captain Jack Sparrow, I felt sullied and unusual.

Pale cream yoghurt on a black skirt is a tad, um, noticeable, so I was glad when an assistant hurried over bearing the life-saving gift of a couple of wet wipes. I scraped the worst of the mess off and held my nose the rest of the drive back. The skirt went in the wash the minute we got in (as if I didn't have enough washing with all the stuff we wore on holiday) and luckily it hasn't stained.

But why, oh why, do these things always happen to me? *rolls eyes*

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pining for the fjords

Yesterday afternoon we arrived home after a lovely week cruising to Norway and back. We called in at a couple of the fjords a few years ago and loved the scenery and the welcoming people so much we vowed to go back - and this was the return trip.

We cruised with P&O on one of their new super-ships, Ventura. Unlike most passengers the ship is a means to an end for us - a lazy, idiot-proof way of seeing some wonderful areas of the world without having to make too much effort. There's a certain amount of 'institionalisation' involved, but it does make for a very relaxing holiday which is important for two workaholics!

Our first port of call was Bergen, Norway's second city and a beautiful mixture of old and new with an eleventh-century wooden 'old town' and some very swanky shops, bars and restaurants, all surrounding the harbour. Its main claim to fame is as the wettest city in Europe (apparently it rains 300 days of the year) and last time we went it fully lived up to its reputation and we got soaked. Twice. This time, the weather was just perfect - warm and sunny without being too hot - and it was lovely to wander around and take photos without having to wipe the camera lens every two minutes.

Second on the list was Flam (pronounced Flaam, or even Flom, according to the locals), which is a tiny village on an arm of Sognefjord, Norway's longest fjord. This was completely new to us and utterly stunning - a tiny, quiet backwater surrounded by some of the wildest and most beautiful mountain scenery we'd ever seen. Huge waterfalls pounded hundreds of feet down sheer cliffs, rocks the size of houses had tumbled down off the mountainsides, and there was still snow on all the higher peaks, even in mid-June. We strolled up the valley alongside a racing river, and found a tiny watermill that the mill-owner had built himself three years ago, using ancient Viking designs, to grind wheat and barley for the local people. He makes his own beer using the end product and let us try a little - and it was delicious! Far more fragrant than bottled varieties.

After that it was on to Olden, at the head of Nordfjord, for yet more stunning mountain scenery, this time looking distinctly Alpine with summer meadows, snow-capped mountains and glacial lakes. The main reason for stopping here is to see the fast-vanishing Briksdal glacier, but all the trips were hideously expensive so once again we set off to explore along the river and up the hillsides by ourselves. The village of Olden isn't quite as attractive as Flam and some of the passengers were very disappointed that there was nowhere to have a cup of tea. You can't seperate British people from their cuppas for long...

Finally we called in at Stavanger, another attractive city which owes much of its wealth to the oil and gas business. We'd seen it once before so rather than plod round the same streets and shops we set off for the Archaeology Museum (fascinating) and then the Oil and Gas Museum (also fascinating, surprisngly so for me). Stavanger shared the European City of Culture with Liverpool a couple of years back and one result is the largest selection of museums I've seen anywhere outside London. We could just as easily have gone to the Printing Museum, the Canning Museum, the main city museum, the Telecom Museum, the Guards Museum, the Fire Museum, or the Maritime Museum... but we'll save those for next time.

Now all we have to do is unpack, wash pretty much everything we own, and settle back into real life. It feels rather strange at the moment.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What's wrong with quotation marks?

We didn't learn much formal grammar at school, but we did learn a few simple rules that have stayed with me for life. One of these was the use of quotation marks (" or ') to indicate speech. You know how it works - you bung one set of marks at the start of a character's speech, and a matching set at the end, and hey presto - you have a simple, instantly-recognisable shorthand or code that shows when a character is talking.

Just lately, though, I'm coming across an increasing number of books where this rule has changed. I've seen three in recent months, including 'Haweswater' by Sarah Hall which was nominated for the Booker Prize, and 'Accidents in the Home' by Tessa Hadley.

In each of these books the quotation marks had been eradicated, and the only indicator for speech was a long dash at the beginning of the dialogue. There was no corresponding mark at the end, and there were absolutely no speech 'tags' of the 'he said', 'she shouted' variety. As a brief example, a piece of dialogue would look like this:

-- Nice weather we're having.

-- Aye, not bad for the time of year.

-- How's your garden doing?

Straight away I found several problems with this system. One, I'm not used to it, so every time it was used, it dragged me out of the story. That might change, of course, if the system becomes common and I get more familiar with it, but at the moment it's a problem.

Second, as you'll see from the example above, it's very difficult to work out who's saying what. Is that conversation between two people, or three? There's no obvious way to tell if the garden question is character one again, or somebody else chiming in. In long sections of dialogue between more than two people, it's impossible to keep track and you find yourself guessing, or having to go back and count the lines to see if the seventh line is character one, two, or five.

Lastly, without a mark at the end of the dialogue, it's hard to tell when a character has finished speaking and the book has returned to narrative. In Hall's case this was handled by always starting a new paragraph after each piece of dialogue, which sort of works. But Hadley's 'Accidents in the Home' doesn't even follow this logical pattern. You get mad paragraphs like this cropping up:

-- Well, that's what I'm picking up. That's what we're all imagining... It's like a sign, a sign of cruelty and abuse. I don't even want it in the house. Seizing the tea towel again she turned her back on them all and started opening another bottle of wine.

My initial reaction to this was 'WTF? What is going on?' It jerked me right out of the story and the overall effect was so silly I was tempted to giggle, in the middle of a supposedly fraught emotional scene. Hmm. Not, I suspect, what the author or the publisher intended.

So what is this sudden thing with dashes rather than quote marks? Is it purely a fad? Is it an attempt to do away with tagging, which has fallen out of favour in some literary circles? Whatever it is, I have to say to the authors, editors, and publishers concerned, IT AIN'T WORKING, GUYS. Please find something else, or stick to what you know. The quotation mark system has been with us for a long time for a very good reason - it works. Why change that if you don't have to?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Slug's revenge #2

The slugs in our garden must have read my recent story and decided to take revenge. We got back from a week away to find one had broken into the kitchen, made a bee-line (or slug-line?) for my beautiful stainless-steel oven and spent the entire week cavorting madly around, leaving a trail of hideous slime all over the door, the knobs, the handle and anything else it could find. I spent most of yesterday evening with my head in a bucket of suds trying to wash the mess off, but the acid in the slime has etched into the stainless-steel (whoever decided to call that stuff 'stainless' got it dead wrong) and permanently marked it. And of course, the minute I'd finished and turned my back, it crawled out of whatever hole it had been hiding in... and left another gooey trail over the bits I'd just cleaned.

I didn't actually whack it with a mop, but it was a close-run thing.

Perhaps I should have put a disclaimer at the end of my story. You know the sort of thing. "No slugs were harmed during the making of this work of fiction." I'll go and add it now. Otherwise I'm likely to get back from my next shopping trip to find a whole procession of the little blighters, slithering round the floor waving 'no cruelty to slugs' placards.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Safe and sound

Just in case anyone has switched on their tv, seen the terrible events unfolding today in Western Cumbria and is worried about us, I thought I'd drop a quick reassuring line to say that both Dave and I are fine. Luckily Windermere is the opposite side of the county and although it's only around 15-20 miles as the crow flies from Boot, there are a couple of large lakes in the way! The worst that happened was that following advice from the local police, we had to stay indoors with the doors locked for a short time this afternoon, until it was confirmed that the gunman had been dealt with. After that it was business as usual - a short but hot stroll down the hill into Bowness.

It's been a lovely sunny day here which seems to make the day's events even stranger and more surreal. I'm beginning to think Cumbria is jinxed; in the last six months we've had floods, snow, ice, a coach crash and now a string of shootings. Whatever next? :(

Friday, May 28, 2010

Call for submissions - Every Night Erotica

This morning I found an email in my inbox from the editor of this brand new e-zine, inviting me to submit stories. These days I'm concentrating more on my dark, gritty urban contemporaries and flash fiction than I am on romance or erotica, so I thought I'd pass on the call in case anyone else would like to have a go.

The zine pays $3 per story (with a further $3 if you sign away anthology rights) and the only slight worry I have is that they ask writers to electronically 'sign' a contract during the submission process. In the wrong hands, this could lead to (any) publisher taking rights without officially accepting a story, but if you're happy to take that particular hurdle in your stride this could be an interesting new market.

They publish one new story (of up to 2,000 words) every night, US time.

Here's the blurb from the editor.


Every Night Erotica intends to publish a new sexy story each evening 365 days a year! To that end, we are looking for submissions from everyone - multiple times! Please pass the word along! We published our first story on May 1st 2010 and we have been very well recieved thus far. Visit us at to read the latest publication.

We'll satisfy two markets:


Experienced or virgin writers are welcome to submit their own original erotic works using our online form. We are happy to include a short bio of the writer, as long as one is provided.


The reader will visit each evening to enjoy the pro-offered erotic tale. They may choose to sign up with us and we'll send each new sexy story discreetly to their inbox. We're even going to archive past stories so they don't have to, that way they can come back multiple times to renew their favorites or rediscover something sexy from the past.

Please visit us at I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincere Thanks,

Jennifer Case

ENE Editor

Thursday, May 27, 2010

CiB shuts up shop

The free lease on the Created in Birmingham shop has expired and for now the shop has closed. I picked up my remaining Radgepacket volumes this morning which means that temporarily they're unavailable in physical print format from anyone other than the publisher, Byker Books. However, the organisers of CiB say the whole experiment has been a resounding success and they're looking for new premises as we speak.

I'll be saving my books to sell with them again, and as soon as I know where they'll be popping up next I'll post full details here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Woo - a whole paragraph!

I'm not sure I can really call this a 'story' because it's only 75 words long and contained in a single paragraph. They all count, though, and that's exactly what Paragraph Planet, an online flash writing magazine, wants.

I came across the site months ago and have been meaning to send them something ever since. Fellow writer Sharon Maria Bidwell had some success with them in April and that spurred me on. I scribbled two or three different 'paragraphs' (they all have to be exactly 75 words long), chose the best, and submitted it.

Yesterday I had the terrific news that Rollercoaster Ride has been accepted, to appear on 7th July. As usual I'll post a reminder nearer the time so you can read this tiny snippet about a child at a fairground.

Writing to such a tight target is surprisingly difficult, even with previous experience of flash fiction. I don't have too many problems getting a story down to less than a hundred words, say, or even less than fifty. But hitting a specific number of words (which has to include the title) is bloomin' hard work. I found I'd written a very nice story in 74 words, for instance, so I fiddled around and then found it was 76. ::headdesk:: Still, I got there in the end and enjoyed the challenge so much I've now written several more. Watch this space to see if Paragraph Planet take any more in the months to come.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Good grief - is it summer?

It's suddenly turned warm here in Brum. The sun is out, flowers are popping out in their own mini baby-boom and the swifts are swooping and screaming across the skies. I do believe it might be summer.

After such a long cold winter (and an unimpressive spring) I'd almost forgotten what warm weather feels like. It's lovely to be able to stroll outside without wrapping myself in umpteen layers of jackets, scarves, gloves and boots. Goodness knows how long it will last, so I'm off to spend the afternoon in the garden. Normal service will be resumed shortly. ;)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Best guitarist in the world... ever

Last night we had our second Big Night Out in a couple of weeks; this time to the NEC Arena to see Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. The tickets cost an arm and several legs, but we figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing since he's not getting any younger and seats at his concerts tend to be like hen's teeth.

The last time we were at the Arena it was some years ago, to see Rush live. To be honest, it was a memorable night for all the wrong reasons. The venue looked scruffy and unfinished, everyone in front of us stood up the minute the music started so I got no view at all, the air was blue with cigarette and pot smoke (both of which I'm violently allergic to), and the accoustics were absolutely, shockingly awful. The Arena is basically a corrugated tin shed and if you turn up the amps high enough the whole building vibrates in time to the bass and you can't hear a ruddy thing!

Thankfully, this time the experience was much, much better. The Arena was refurbished a couple of years or so ago so it's now vibrant and stylish. The smoking ban has come into force. The stands are no longer so temporary that there's a huge gap at the back of the highest row, leading to a sudden sharp drop back to floor level. And somebody, somewhere seems to have done something about the accoustics because they were fine.

And the concert? Well, it was fantastic. You can't get much better in terms of sheer musical expertise than these two. Clapton played on not one but four different guitars (not all at the same time, I hasten to add) including electric and accoustic, and his economic style made it all look far too easy. And Winwood was a revelation, playing guitar, organ and grand piano and singing beautifully. They played a great selection of tracks including blues, blues-rock, jazz, and one or two poppier hits and they played non-stop for over two hours, with no interval, and came back for a longish encore. And their sheer professionalism meant they were note perfect all evening and improvised and 'jammed' together on pretty much every track.

The Arena holds just shy of 15,000 people now and by the end of the evening every last one of them was on their feet, stomping and cheering two brilliant musicians. We felt a little sorry for Winwood; his lengthy solos brought decent applause but Clapton only had to play two chords and the place erupted. But then he is a legend in his own time and I'm very, very glad we finally got to see him, in the flesh, live.

There's a review of the concert by the Birmingham Mail here which says pretty much the same things I just have, only better. And I promise I won't say a word about the twenty-five minutes it took us to get out of the NEC car park afterwards...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Radgepacket 4 review

Just a line to say there's a new review of Radgepacket Vol 4 at The Crack magazine.

"These short stories aren’t for the timid or fainthearted. They are gritty and wicked and brilliantly written."

You can read the whole review here, and thanks once again to fellow Radger Paul Brazill for bringing this to my attention.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Deafened again...

And it has nothing to do with music this time.

The local council have been digging up the road outside our house. Not just a small patch of tarmac, mind you, but the whole road, from one end to the other. Yesterday they scraped all the top surface off and today they've been putting new tarmac on. It's going to look fantastic when it's done but my goodness, the noise.

Yesterday we had an enormous tarmac-grinding machine tacking back and forth, as well as vans, lorries, a roadsweeper and two pneumatic drills going full-tilt from 8 am to 5 pm. Today we've lost the tarmac-chomper, but kept everything else and gained a huge tarmac-laying machine and two steamrollers.

The house has been quivering for hours and my head is starting to vibrate!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dazzled and deaf

On Sunday night we had one of our annual treats - a trip out to an Aussie Pink Floyd concert at the NIA. This was the third one we'd been to and they're so amazing we decided to invite our friends - and they loved it too. The evening kicked off with a great meal at Around the World in 80 Dishes (good food, worryingly quiet) then a stroll past the canals to the NIA.

Our seats were brilliant - on the raised level but not too high up, and right in the centre so we could see everything. And well worth seeing it was too. Our friend Nicky commented that she'd never seen a concert where there was so much going on - the musicians on stage, vast graphics on a large screen, lasers and lights... and inflatables. ;) It's become something of a tradition that they have an inflatable pig with flashing red eyes, and because the band are Australian, an inflatable kangaroo. :D

The music, as ever, was gobsmackingly good. I swear these guys get better ever time we hear them. They may 'only' be a tribute band but they have a name for being the best tribute band of any band anywhere in the world and boy, are they good. Close your eyes and you'd be forgiven for thinking the clock had reset itself to the late 1980s, a parallel universe had kicked in, and the real Floyd were up there on the stage. The only real difference is that where Gilmour et al managed with a four-piece band, it takes APF two drummers, three guitarists and two lead singers to create the same effect. But when the results as fantastic as this, and when they perform a three-hour set with only a brief interval for drinks, who's complaining. Certainly not us. We came out dazzled by the light show and deafened by the music, but very very happy, and we'll be on the look-out for next year's tickets the minute they go on sale!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Wimping out of a walk

Yesterday I discovered details of this rather fascinating art/sculpture walk around Birmingham, which is being publicised as part of the BBC's new 'Modern Masters' series about modern art.

This morning we were all set with walking shoes, cameras and a map to set off and explore. Then we saw the weather. For the first time in weeks it was raining - not heavily but with a persistant spatter that was too little for umbrellas but too much for comfortable walking. Added to that it was bloomin' cold, and very grey and unprepossessing. It would have been far too dark to take good photos of the sculptures, which is half the fun. So we took a 'rain check' (sorry), left the walk for a better day and went shopping instead.

Shame, as Birmingham has a surprising amount of sculpture hidden away amongst the streets and office blocks and although we know some of it very well (Anthony Gormley's Iron:Man, above), some would have been completely new to us. Hopefully we'll find time to do the walk soon and I'll post any photos I take here.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

All thanks to a savage Alsatian

My oldest cousin died late last week. As with many families left over from Victorian times, our ages were wildly different - she was well over ninety and I'm, well, not.

She'd had a wonderful, full life teaching languages in a local school and making hundreds of friends via the church and her various interests. I'm still sad, though, because she'd been a fixture in my life ever since I first moved to Birmingham to work as a scared twenty-one-year old.

I'd never so much as visited the city before and didn't have a clue. The B&B where I was staying was a mean little place whose owners seemed to live more for their own convenience than their guests' comfort. After a few days they suddenly announced that oh, hadn't they told me? they didn't do food at the weekends. And I was left to feed myself, on a Sunday when pretty much everywhere was closed. There's a Greek restaurant on the main road, they rather unhelpfully said. You can eat there.

I didn't eat there, I phoned my parents. They were too far away to come and bail me out, but they did tell me about Joan. "She lives fairly close, why don't you give her a call?" So plucking up my courage, I did, and she was wonderful. Within half an hour she'd marched straight round and was bobbing nervously up and down on the doormat while the owners' large and savage Alsatian dog hurled itself at the inside of the front door. Once the dog had been dealt with she took me under her wing, took me home, and fed me. It turned out we had all sorts of interests in common and we became firm friends; I joined her church and visited regularly for Sunday lunch, and when I finally got a place of my own I invited her back there too.

I'll really miss Joan. She might have been from an earlier generation but she never lost her fascination with and sheer love of people. She was interested in everything she heard, and a slightly 'Miss Marple' manner hid a keen mind and a wonderful grasp of human nature. You could tell her anything and she wouldn't be shocked, just full of curiosity.

It seems odd to think that if it hadn't been for that B&B I might never have met her. I hated that bloody Alsatian at the time, but looking back I have a lot to thank it for.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Rationalising characters

This week I yanked a novel off the shelf, where it's been festering for the best part of a year. I'd got horribly stuck on one particular scene which stuck out like a sore thumb, but which I simply couldn't think up a suitable replacement for, and it was only this week that I suddenly thought of a solution.

When I came to read through the relevant chapter, though, I found that scene was only part of the problem - a symptom rather than a cause. You get so familiar with works in progress that sometimes you forget the details and in this case I'd forgotten that I'd made the love interest American, probably because I was writing for an American market back in the day when I started the novel.

There's nothing wrong with an American love interest, of course. It's just that being British, I'm not entirely familiar with American dialogue, American history, American culture. Most of what I know comes from tv series and films and might not always be strictly authentic, and I'd never even been to the city I had the character coming from. This all made it much harder to familiarise myself with the character. What would his accent sound like? Where would he work? Which part of the city would he be likely to live in? What's the attitude to gay men in that city? If I don't know this sort of basic stuff, I'm never going to convince my readers that the character is a real person.

I started to ask myself why the character needed to be American. Did it add anything to the plot, or to the character himself? The quick answer was no, not really. There were a few culture-clash style comedy moments but very little else, and it's easy enough to rewrite those.

So, this week my American has become a Liverpudlian. I know that city pretty well; I'm familiar with the accent which means I can hear the character's voice in my mind and know the sort of things he would or wouldn't say. And I can 'place' him geographically, and come up with a few amusing anecdotes about Liverpool, to add a bit of local colour. It'll mean a heap of rewriting, of course, but I already feel happier that the novel will be better as a result.

I don't think I've ever re-nationalised a character before, but there's a first time for everything...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Once there was... a disappearing blog

A couple of months ago I discovered the Midlands-based writing/resources blog Once There Was, and promptly stuck it on the list of blogs I follow. It had some interesting articles and useful links, it wanted stories for an anthology, and it was running a flash fiction contest. I entered the latter and was delighted when my story was 'placed' and appeared on the blog. The winning entries were also posted (and very good they were too), but after that I'd noticed the blog wasn't being updated any more.

I assumed the owner was on holiday or 'otherwise engaged' and checked on a weekly basis for anything new. This week when I clicked the link I was greeted with a mostly blank page and the alarming words 'the author has chosen to delete this account. No content is available'. Well, that can happen with blogs. It only takes the blog provider's server to be up the spout and the whole thing can vanish for an hour or two, and then reappear as though nothing had happened.

But Once There Was hasn't reappeared. The blank page and the message are still there, several days later, and it looks as though the owner has pulled the plug. This is a real shame, not least because it was such a friendly and useful site. I've had to take all the links to my flash story off my website and I have no idea what to do with the story I'd almost finished for the anthology. I'm left in limbo, wondering whether I missed a re-direct to another site, or any other sort of explanation.

If anyone knows what happened or where I can find Once There Was in the future, please get in touch. I'd hate to think I was missing out on all the fun somewhere else on the net! In the meantime, I'll have to chalk it down as the strange case of the disappearing blog...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Phone shop sharks

Dave's been looking around for a new mobile phone lately. His is now several years old and although there's nothing physically wrong with it, the rate technology moves on means it has been left lagging behind. Since he uses it all the time for work, something with the latest gizmos is pretty much essential.

This afternoon we happened to be passing a mobile phone shop, so we called in. We collared a salesman and explained that we were looking specifically at the new Nokia handset and an O2 tariff because several of the places Dave works can't pick up any signal from the other networks. We asked what their best tariff would be. He ummed and ahhed, said he would have to check with his manager, and sat us down to wait.

After a while the manager came over and the two of them started to ask us a load of personal questions and write the answers on a form. First question was: What's your home telephone number? This always annoys me, because it's quite obvious they don't need it and are only taking it for marketing purposes, so I told him it was ex-directory (which it is) and we don't give it out. After that he asked for Dave's mobile number, our name, our post code, and even our broadband provider. Quite why these details were necessary wasn't explained.

In the meantime the manager was doing his level best to sway us away from Nokia and O2, for some unspecified reason. Were we sure we wanted O2? Were we really, really sure? Why didn't we go for the i-Phone? Because we want the Nokia, I rather unhelpfully replied. Oh, he said. But why do you want O2? By the time we'd explained for the fourth time that we couldn't pick up any other signal, we were beginning to wonder what was going on.

Eventually, after much looking up in books and muttering amongst themselves, the pair of them came up with a quote for the tariff, which was reasonably competitive but not exactly outstanding. The salesman then asked Dave to sign the form with all the answers on it. "What am I signing for?" asked Dave, who's been caught before. "Oh, nothing, it's nothing, just some internal stuff for us," the salesman replied, looking shifty. We read the form. It turned out to be an agreement that we would purchase mobile phone insurance from them. Dave promptly ticked the 'no' box, but signed the form.

The next time we turned round, we found the salesman quietly filling in a load of other 'yes' boxes on the form, that quite patently didn't apply to us - but that would have been covered by Dave's signature. I asked for the form back and changed all the 'yes' ticks to 'no'. I then turned the form over. In small print on the back, it said 'by signing this form you are agreeing to let us contact you for marketing and research purposes, and to let us sell on your details to related companies and other businesses for marketing purposes' or words to that effect. On a form that was supposed to be 'nothing' and 'just for internal stuff'.

Needless to say we walked out of the shop without buying a phone, and the whole experience left us feeling grubby and used. What a difference from the O2 shop we visited a few days ago for a similar quote, where they told us the various tariffs without taking so much as our name and were friendly and polite throughout.

I very rarely 'name and shame', but Phones4U Kings Heath branch, you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The reality of writing

Writing, almost more than any other occupation, suffers from a strange and skewed perception of itself. In part this could be due to the way writers are portrayed in films, on television, even in other books. Writers tend to be shown as either mad ('The Shining') or bad ('Secret Windows') and the business of writing is shown as terribly artistic and genteel. I've had any number of people say, when I've told them I'm a writer, 'Oh, that must be a lovely hobby...' and the general perception of writers seems to be that we sit in a summerhouse surrounded by flowers, sipping wine (or tea) and tapping out our latest novel on an ancient typewriter.

At last there's an antidote to all that in the shape of a wonderful, and wonderfully funny, article by author Kate Douglas about the reality of writing and publishing. No floating around in summerhouses for Ms Douglas; she emphasises what anyone who tries to make a living from writing already knows - it's bloody hard work most of the time.

It’s great—you write full time, the kids are grown and three months is more than enough time to get a book written, right?

Yeah…sure. If that’s all you do.

I read the article, laughed, winced in sympathy, and wished I'd written it. I may not be writing simultaneous series of novels for different publishers, but I've been there with the edits and the cover art information and the second round of edits and the third round of edits and the proof-reading, all whilst trying my damndest to write something else. It makes juggling with chainsaws look easy. It's worth it in the end, of course, when you have your latest book or story published, but sometimes I do find myself wishing that people realised just how much of a full-time, business-like job writing is....

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tourists for a week

Last week we had our first visitors to stay at the Lakeland cottage. They'd never seen the area before so we put our tourist hats on and took them for a cruise on Lake Windermere, a walk round Bowness and Ambleside, and a trip to the old grammar school at Hawkshead where the poet Wordsworth was a pupil.

Once they'd gone we forgot to take our hats off again and ended up doing all sorts of other touristy things. We visited the South Lakes Wild Animal Park near Barrow in Furness, we took a ride on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite steam railway, and we popped into the Lakes Aquarium to see our favourite pygmy marmosets (yes, they have monkeys in an aquarium... go figure). All of which was immensely good fun.

The only time we'd been to the Wild Animal Park before was shortly after it first opened. It was very sweet, but a little sparse in the animal department - a few lemurs and wallabies and not a lot else. Now we're pleased to see it's bedded itself in really well, is chock full of animals and has started up a couple of great conservation/rescue services, for spectacled bears and macaws. Long may it continue the good work.

The steam railway only goes about three miles along the south-western shore of Windermere, but it passes through some amazingly pretty scenery along the way and there are all sorts of engine sheds and exhibits to clamber over at Haverthwaite station.

It always feels a little strange being a tourist in an area you call home, but it did mean we got to see things we wouldn't have done otherwise. Maybe next time we'll do a coach tour of the lakes and mountains. Then again... ;)

Friday, April 09, 2010

Crime writer tv show

I'm wondering if anyone else caught the first episode of a new US import called 'Castle' the other night? It was tucked away at 9pm on the Alibi channel so I'll forgive you if you say no, but you missed a treat.

We weren't optimistic at first. Yet another US crime drama. Yawn. Yet another series with the hero's name as the title of the show. Double yawn, step aside House and Dexter. Yet another series where a civilian with an unusual speciality helps the police. Hmm. Haven't we seen that idea before somewhere?

But Castle turned out to be much better than we expected. Nathan Fillion (of Firefly) was excellent in the title role and Stana Katic was equally good as his 'will they won't they' love interest/colleague. The script was a joy, chock full of witty one-liners that had us laughing out loud. And best of all, Castle's unusual angle was that he's a successful crime novelist.

Too often in movies and tv series, writers are shown as dippy floaty artistic types who drink lots of coffee, bang away on an ancient typewriter and talk to the walls. Castle was different, because he was intelligent and because he truly understood his craft. In order to write successful crime novels (possibly more than any other genre) a writer has to understand the motivations of his characters - why they would do something, or why they wouldn't. This was used to great effect in the first episode where several times Castle changed the direction of the police investigation because the motives didn't fit. Of course, it was a little hard to believe trained detectives could be quite that thick, but it was nice to see a writer genuinely using his craft to untangle the foibles of human nature.

Pilot episodes aren't always a good indication of the rest of the series but we're hoping the intelligence continues - and we'll definitely be watching episode two to find out.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Radgepacket 4 reviewed

Thanks to fellow Radgie author Paul D Brazill for spotting this one, the first review of the anthology I've come across. Author Donna Moore recently read Radgepacket 4 and had this to say about it:

"A collection of 22 short stories - gritty, funny, weird, warped and wonderful... They're not all crime stories but many of them have a crime in, and all of them are deliciously nasty. An anthology for those who like their fiction twisted, profane and depraved. Me, I loved it."

I've just finished reading my own copy and I have to agree - there isn't a duff story in the whole collection and many of them are very, very good indeed. My own favourites were Ragna Brent's 'Piano Man', Patrick Belshaw's achingly sad 'Grey's Elegy', Blaine Ward's startlingly chilling 'Eye for an Eye', and Carol Fenlon's poignant 'Half Mile Island'. But you don't just have to take my word for it now - you can pop along to Donna's blog and read the rest of her review.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Authors' rules of writing

The Guardian recently asked a bunch of well-known writers for their own personal top ten rules of writing. The results, which you can read here, were fascinating.

Needless to say every writer had a different set of rules and not a few contradicted each other. Some I found myself nodding over, some were completely new to me, some were hilarious and others I didn't agree with at all.

Margaret Atwood's suggestions for writing on a plane journey had me in stitches. Robert Ford was so brusque it was unhelpful. One author banned the use of prologues and another said all similes and metaphors were taboo. These two worried me. Yes, I've come across books where the prologue got in the way of the story and yes, I've read writing that's so full of imagery it's positively puce. But to ban every instance of something risks losing our wonderfully rich language and variety of writing forms.

And the top of the top ten advice? Well, lots of it was good but I think this, from Elmore Leonard, was pure gold: 'If it sounds like writing, rewrite it'.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Author blog awards

Someone has very kindly nominated my blog for this (I'm assuming) new award, run by which appears to be an online resources centre and networking site for writers.

I'm usually rather cynical about these sort of awards, which proliferate all over the net. You can find awards for blogs, e-books, web design... and I can't help thinking they're set up to provide members/publicity for the people running them rather than any real benefit to the nominated sites. It's still very nice to be nominated, though, and I figured I had nothing to lose by signing up.

You can vote for my blog (until 2 April) by clicking the logo at the top left of the post - apparently there are prizes available for people who vote. And thank you for your support!

Monday, March 29, 2010

RIP Tricity Bendix

My trusty friend of a washing machine, which I've had for the best part of twenty years, finally stopped working on Saturday.

It's been a wonderful companion, sticking with me through thick and thin. I got it when I bought my first flat here in Brum. Buying the property had just about cleaned me out (no pun intended) and I had to choose between carpet, or a washing machine. Having survived the previous three years in a rented flat with nowhere to put a washer, I chose the latter and managed on underlay for the next two years.

The machine followed me around the country, first to Loughborough, then back here to Birmingham. It never broke down, it never sulked, it never even thought about not working. I've used it every other day (sometimes every day if the drying weather is good) and it's been just about the most reliable piece of electrical goods I've ever had. But finally, after eighteen years' hard labour, it decided it had had enough. I switched on on Saturday morning to wash a load of towels and... nothing. Not a peep. The door didn't lock, no water flowed, no hum echoed through the utility room. Dead, as they say, as a parrot.

We dashed straight out and bought a new one and I'm sure it will be terrific. It's a washer-dryer for starters so I can get clothes dry in wet or very cold weather. It has a larger capacity and a wider-loading drum so I can actually wash duvets. It comes with all the latest energy-saving settings, and it even comes in a snazzy grey-and-white design.

I shall miss my loyal old Tricity Bendix, though. And I bet the new one won't last eighteen years....

Friday, March 26, 2010


We were hoping to go on that Odeon cinema bus tour I mentioned the other day, but when I came to book tickets I found it had sold out. Either it's too popular or they didn't hire enough buses! Shame, as it looked as if it was going to be really interesting. Ah well, perhaps next year...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Currently working on...

I have two stories on the go at once which is quite a rarity for me; usually I prefer to finish one thing before starting another.

The first story, which I've just finished to first draft, is a shocking little tale of a man's increasingly frustrated efforts at picking up a parcel for his wife at the local sorting office, and the rather drastic steps he takes to provide suitable ID.

The other is a humorous crime story which begins with a man jumping naked out of the cake at a local crime boss's 50th birthday party. A birthday surprise and then some, you could say...

Both are proving tremendous fun to write and I'm hoping once they're done and polished, to add them to a growing collection of noirish/crime stories which I might submit as an anthology somewhere.

Right, back to that birthday cake...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Birmingham Flatpack Festival

Even after 20-odd years living in Birmingham I'm still finding out fascinating new things about the city. Today marks the start of the annual Flatpack Festival, which celebrates all things cinematic.

One of the highlights this year is a bus tour around three gems of the Odeon cinema empire. The founder of Odeon, Oscar Deutsch, was born in Birmingham (Balsall Heath, to be precise) in 1893 and the early cinemas were all built in the West Midlands in the high art deco style of the 1930s. Over the years the lavish interiors have been toned down (they used to have glamorous uniformed usherettes as well as carpet, chandeliers and potted plants) but the buildings themselves remain as landmarks in many places.

As well as the tour (more details here if you're interested!) English Heritage have a complete collection of photographer John Maltby's pictures of every Odeon cinema in the UK. You can see the photos at the English Heritage viewfinder site - just type 'Odeon' into the search box.