Monday 27 June 2016

The Miniaturist

Oh yes, bravo!

On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman knocks at the door of a grand house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. She has come from the country to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt, but instead she is met by his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Only later does Johannes appear and present her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in unexpected ways...

Nella is at first mystified by the closed world of the Brandt household, but as she uncovers its secrets she realizes the escalating dangers that await them all. Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall?

Beautiful, intoxicating and filled with heart-pounding suspense, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth. 

I remember The Miniaturist hit the bestseller list a while back, and I was interested because a very close friend of mine collects miniatures. On her wedding, I ordered a tiny, perfectly decorated wedding cake.

The idea of a book made me smile, but I wasn't at all sure what to expect. I hadn't read the blurb. Recently world-wearied from a run of bad fiction, I wanted something good, and I wanted it to surprise me.

Jessie Burton hit the spot perfectly.

I really have huge admiration for her style. Page after page went past, and I would happily have read more. Characters so beautifully formed, they will not be forgotten.

Wonderful poise and pace:

She has duplicated herself - two hearts, two heads, four arms, four legs - like a monster to be recorded in a ship's log, annotated on one of Johanne's stolen maps.

And a dark glimmer of humour:

'She never married,' Pellicorne says. 'A waste.' For some of us, Nella thinks, it's a waste to be married.

The fascinating thing about this book is that it's a story with many, many questions, none of which really get answered, but for some reason that doesn't matter. You come away feeling satisfied.

Part of that, I suppose, is that it's a very realistic book. A work of historical fiction glittering with magical realism, which makes you believe the fantastical without offering the absurd. Knights on white horses would certainly have been welcome in parts, but instead you get credibility, and somehow that's even better.

I really did enjoy it.

Saturday 25 June 2016

Psycho Physio

Not doing well on the writing recovery front.

Started physio on Thursday. After burning my hand last month, the new skin is growing back really well, but it's extremely stiff. At the moment I can't make a full fist, and the tips of my fingers are too sensitive to touch things. The physio reckoned that I should be able to type again after three to five sessions.

Then yesterday happened. 

I'd felt a real improvement after the first session, so I was looking forward to round two. This is a physio with six years' experience, working for Rwanda's national Association of Physiotherapists, at Kigali University's College of Medical Sciences. I truly believed he knew what he was doing. 

I don't know whether he was distracted by our discussion on the EU referendum or what, but after my hour was up, I turned my hand over to find giant red blisters on my fingers. The tip of my ring finger looked like a strawberry!

After an entire week without bandages, I had to go to the polyclinic to get my fingers wrapped up again. It was hugely distressing, and the cheeky bugger even charged me for the session! FRW 5,000 for the physio then 26,000 to the hospital to treat the damage afterwards.

Not at all impressed. 

Gutting, as I was expecting to be typing again by the end of next week. Reckon it's going to take a bit longer.

Thursday 23 June 2016

About Those Voters Who Couldn't...

I rarely get political on this blog. In fact, the last time was the Scottish referendum, so I suppose I only get political when there's a referendum...

If you're outside the UK, or inside it but bored to the back teeth of the Brexit/Bremain debate, John Oliver gives an entertaining overview above.

If you have been following the debate and would prefer a gritty review spat out in a tone that matches your gut-burning desire to punch someone in the face, watch Jonathan Pie below.

Either way, take five minutes to peruse #dogsatpollingstations, a very British response to the stress of pretending we know what the fuck we're doing when we clearly don't.

I'm currently fairly pissed off.

Months ago, I started the process to register as an overseas voter. 

Because I thought I'd completed this process, I didn't go to my local embassy's open day for voter registration.

I then had a panic when I looked again at the letter I assumed was an acknowledgement of my right to vote overseas, only to realise it was yet another form to sign and return, and the deadline had passed!

So, I wrote off being a voter.

Then I received an e-mail telling me the deadline had been extended and I still had time.

To be extra, extra sure of being able to vote, I not only scanned the form back to my district council, I even sent a copy home to the UK with a friend who posted it from Bristol Airport.

I received another e-mail congratulating me on being registered as an overseas voter and telling me I'd receive a postal vote...

...which I didn't.



When I e-mailed, I was told this was 'always a risk' with postal votes.

Really? Nobody told me this. Absolutely nothing on any of the literature I signed said: Yeah, good luck with this, you probably won't receive your ballot paper anyway.

I'm finding it hard to comprehend, in the twenty-first century, why we don't have an online voting system? Anyone who's ever had to use Government Gateway login to file self assessment or renew their road tax can attest to its level of security. It's so secure, even you can't log into your own account. 

I can review my pension, set up a child trust fund, even register a charity online, yet I can't tick a sodding box?

This isn't about people who don't register. This is about people who go out of their way to try to vote, and still can't.

If you feel this is unfair, please take a moment to sign this petition to introduce online voting options.

Not that my vote counts, but I am for Bremain. 

It may seem a little odd that I'd vote independence for Scotland, but unity for Europe. 

Mostly it's a human rights angle for me. Scotland's record on human rights (no privatisation of water, you can't intentionally make someone homeless etc.) is better than England's, and that level of socialism would probably flourish outside the burning sun of England's rampant capitalism. I'd happily apply for Scottish citizenship.

For a similar reason, the anger and awfulness that's come to the surface during this campaign reinforces my belief that it would be dangerous for the UK to self-govern with absolutely no external mediation. Human rights cannot be self-governed effectively by any country. They always require external, objective mediation. That's the nature of human rights.

I have never been a huge fanatic for sovereignty or nationalism. I find it tends to be a distraction from more important things in life - like living.

As an expat and a globetrotter, I also have the standard concerns about what leaving the EU means for freedom of movement. I already have friends - a couple - who are forced to live in Spain because they are barred from the UK. The reason they are barred is because he, a UK citizen, had the audacity to marry an American citizen.

In a country that boasts of freedom, why should this matter?

Well, because they aren't rich.

If you don't earn a minimum of £18,600 per annum, who you marry is not up to you if you want to build a life in the UK. 33,000 people are already affected by this. Husbands and wives separated, parents separated from children.

How many might this apply to once we leave? Brits who married EU residents. 

And, as John Oliver pointed out, even if we leave the EU, we're still going to have to abide by its laws if we want to trade with them. 

That's just my reasoning. And, luckily for me, I really don't have to deal with the aftermath. At least, not for a little while longer. 

My friend ‏@tattooed_mummy made a really good post, worth a read:  I want my country back.

Instead of talking about who gets to come to the UK, who's in, who's allowed, I reckon everyone should get out of the UK. Looks like it's about to implode. A bit of distance offers a different perspective on things. There are so many lovely places to live in the world. I don't know if it's the weather, our Neanderthal genes, or just that we hate our jobs, but for a country that has so very much, we're in danger of doing very little with it. We really are not the be-all and end-all of anything but our own adventures. Whether we're in the EU or not, we'll remain as divided as we are every time a referendum widens the fissures. There has never been a golden era of unity, any historical fiction author could tell you that. All we have is a golden opportunity to make life interesting, enjoyable and heartfelt. So we'd better get on with it, because time is running out. Every second of every minute of every day. 

Let's face it, if #Operationcroissant couldn't win us over with crumbly, buttery goodness, we're dead inside.


Tuesday 21 June 2016


An entire YouTube channel dedicated to actors eating chillies whilst trying to recite monologues. My life is complete. 

Monday 20 June 2016

Alx Pix

Loving this photo my cousin Alx took of her dog, Dobbie. As well as a singer, she's also a photographer for hire, based in Hertfordshire, UK. You can check her out on Facebook and drop her a line for weddings, events, family portraits and the like.

Saturday 18 June 2016

Happy Birthday #FolkloreThursday

One of my Favourite Mythological Thingies
The Polish Fire Flower

No, its not a Thursday, but it is the one year anniversary of the birth of #FolkloreThursday. One of the greatest inventions ever.

To celebrate, I'd like to share an interview with founder DeeDee Chainey. The interview was originally posted on Pagan Writers Community blog (Facebook). It's reproduced here because, well, I own the site and I can.

So, without further ado, I unveil to you the sheer splendour, the absolute waking joy, that is Folklore Thursday.

Go lose yourselves.

If you're on Twitter, you can't help but notice the hashtag #FolkloreThursday (@FolkloreThurs). It's become something of a phenomenon, even attracting BBC attention. There's now an accompanying website, helping to bring together folklore from around the world. This week, Dee Dee Chainey (@DeeDeeChainey), one of the founding members of #FolkloreThursday, dropped by to answer some questions.

Hi Dee Dee, thanks for joining us. Thursdays are perhaps our favourite day of the week since #FolkloreThursday took off.

For those who don't know, please could you tell us what #FolkloreThursday is and how it came about?

#FolkloreThursday is a weekly hashtag day on Twitter where people can share all things folklore related! Willow and I had been chatting on Twitter for a while, and thought it would be really great if there was a place to go to find out all about folklore. We were already taking part in a lot of the hashtag days, and then the idea came to us that a hashtag day would be a great way to get people together talking about folklore! We planned it for a while, set a date for the launch, and it all went from there!

Why is folklore important in the modern age?

Great question – I really do think folklore is important! I think, in the past, it was a great way to convey social norms and expectations – as well as important lessons – from generation to generation. While many of our social rules today have changed to the ones we see in folklore, narrative folklore really does act as a system of archetypes that give a focus point for us all to reflect on the issues that do still affect us today, particularly through examining the symbols and memes many of us take for granted. Narrative, and other types of folklore, are a great way of connecting to a shared heritage, and an excellent way of learning about cultures: our own and other peoples, allowing us to negotiate ideas, not only about how we’re different, but about how we are all the same; the passing on of traditions and stories are intrinsically human, and something we can all come together to share.

What's been your favourite piece of folklore posted by a participant?

My absolute favourite? Well, that’s a difficult one! I do love ‘body parts’ folklore... so I suppose I have a particular penchant for the Hand of Glory: the ‘guilty’ hand of a hanged murderer that can be lit like a candle, and then be used for all kinds of mischief. Some sources say it will paralyse anyone who sees it, others that it will open a locked door.

Why did you decide to start a website?

We thought it would be great to have a place to gather a lot of the stuff shared on #FolkloreThursday, and have a ‘hub’ for the hashtag that everyone could come to throughout the week. A lot of people said they wished everyday was #FolkloreThursday. I suppose, with the website, it can be!

Does #FolkloreThursday predominantly focus on British folklore, or is it global?

It’s definitely a global thing. We have people from all over the world joining in each Thursday, and they share folklore from all over the place. We’d love to see more diverse folklore each week. We love seeing folklore from people and places we’ve never heard of before!

Have you noticed any similarities in folklore around the world?

Definitely! A lot of the stories shared have very similar themes and plots, particularly those from across Europe and Scandinavia. Some folklore that does stand out to me personally is some of the Japanese stuff, the Yōkai for example. It’s so unique... reading a Japanese folktale is like an adventure – you never know where it’s going to take you!

What's the scariest folklore monster so far?

Ooh, great question! I think I’d have to choose the Encantado from the South American folklore. Legend tells that they are spirits that take the form of dolphins from the Amazon River, then take on human form at night, leaving the waters to seduce unsuspecting human women. They sometimes kidnap humans, and can cause illness, or even death... creepy!

Do you have any theories on why #FolkloreThursday has become so incredibly popular? What is it about folklore that attracts people?

I think maybe it’s different for everyone. We see people using folklore in so many ways: academics, writers using it for inspiration, artists, people relating to it as part of their belief system, others engaging just for fun or escapism. I do wonder how much the interest might be in response to the increase in technology in our daily lives, and things like that. Historically, you do see people turn to the past, as well as to myth and story, for a sense of grounding and reassurance at times of political and social instability.

Personally, I think the current political climate and the trend towards globalisation might have something to do with the resurgence in story, but also with reconstituting a sense of identity and heritage for people. From a #FolkloreThursday perspective though, I would say we’re just pleased that people love it as much as we do, and we’re happy they’re engaging, whatever their motivations! We keep saying it, but we firmly believe that folklore belongs to everyone – it’s a treasure trove of information, and really quite magical at the same time – it’s a way of bringing wonder and awe back into everyday life, and it’s important to have that.

Is folklore in danger of dying out?

From what we’ve seen on the hashtag day, I’d definitely say no! It’s amazing how many things are going on around the world using folklore – from books, to films, theatre productions, as well as a host of local community projects working to get people excited about folklore! I think the popularity of folklore and legends must have risen over the last few years. I’m not sure whether books, films and TV shows like Harry Potter, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Song of the Sea, and the like, have led to the increased interest or have been made because producers realised it’s popular, but you can certainly see a definite trend. And people have responded to that. Folklore has become something that most people are aware of now, in varying degrees.

What are your hopes for the future of #FolkloreThursday?

At the moment we’re still working on getting the website filled with top-notch folklore articles. After that? Well, you’ll just have to stay tuned and wait and see...

How can people participate?

#FolkloreThursday runs every Thursday on Twitter, from 9am to 8pm British time (with a few short breaks in the middle!). To participate, people just need to post their tweet with the hashtag on the end: that means just type the hashtag symbol followed by the words ‘Folklore’ and ‘Thursday’ with no spaces. The tweet will appear in the hashtag feed publicly and everyone will be able to see your post if they’re following the hashtag!

Friday 17 June 2016

Red Bananas

For those of you following the finger fiasco, half my bandages came off yesterday. Almost all better, just a bit red and extremely stiff. Too sensitive to type yet, and it's going to take a while to be able to stretch and clench, but considering what happened, I feel like Wolverine. The healing ability of the human body is truly incredible. Huge thanks go out to Nurse Moses at Polyclinique du Plateau in Kigali, and my GP, Dr. Lovatt, back in the UK who gave me some tips on exercises. Novel writing is still on hold for a while. It's bloody impossible one-handed, I have tried, but I reckon it won't be long now.

In case you're wondering, those aren't off bananas, they're ripening red bananas. Apparently, all bananas were once thus. Extremely yummy, and helping to sustaining my energy through this recovery. 

Thursday 16 June 2016

Future Tense

I've spoken in the past about coincidence in writing; about writing a novel only to discover that it shared startling similarities with a deceased author's short story.

I've even had my share of ghost tales.

What I've never experienced until now, is writing the future. Possibly because I focus on Historical Fiction most of the time.

I know this isn't an uncommon thing. Existence is a story - many stories - so anything we can conceive of could potentially happen someday. I was once on a writing forum where an author swore he'd written his future girlfriend into being, right down to the colour of her hair and the way she walked. So much so, that he could hardly believe his eyes when he turned up to a blind date to find her sitting in front of him. Charlie Brooker expressed a similar level of surprise when #SwineEleven happened, having written a television show called Black Mirror in which the Prime Minister of the UK had sex with a pig.

Accidentally guessing the future is a common hazard for writers, it would seem. I remember listening to an author at Cheltenham Literature Festival speak of a conversation with his publisher. Like Brooker, he'd written something about a popular figure, only that something came true before the book was released, necessitating a rewrite.

In my writing folder, I have a subfolder called Closed Projects. This is where I store the scraps of stories I know will never make it to fruition. Most ideas are worth playing with for a day or two, but part of professional writing is to work out which of those ideas has longevity - about 100,000 words of longevity. Few of them do. Yet, most writers are loath to throw away something they've spent twenty minutes on, yet alone two days. At the back of your mind there is always a sneaking suspicion that those scraps might come in useful one day.

On 1 April 2014, I started a short story with the working title Clowns at the Party.

Two years earlier, I had released a collection of short stories called Splintered Door (now free online). The cover had been designed by Jessica Clark at Raven Feather Photography. I was really smitten with her artwork. I'm a big fan of portraiture, and often draw inspiration for characters from it.

There was one picture in particular that appealed (on the right). I suppose she reminded me a bit of Frankie from Lip Service. One thing you're always looking for in a character is attitude.

I always knew I wanted to write a story around that picture, and Jessica was happy for me to do so. I just needed the right story to come along. Clowns at the Party occurred to me quite suddenly. At first I thought the picture looked like a corpse, a murder mystery perhaps. However, the more I stared, the more I felt she was a living person. Someone who had lost everything and now had nothing more to lose. That sort of mentality makes a person unpredictable, which makes for an interesting character. The type you learn about as you write.

The question was: what had happened to cause such destruction of self?

I based the story in a nightclub in London.

In my story, an anti-gay extremist had walked into a nightclub, started shooting, then blown himself up. My main character, Kay, had just left her best friend, Jodie (the picture), and started walking home. Hearing it begin, she fights her way back looking for Jodie, but ends up in a form of hell, surrounded by casualties.

The story was 3,300 words long when I abandoned it. The idea was that it would be the story of Jodie's recovery and Kay's refusal to leave despite her increasingly irrational behaviour. An examination of trauma, love versus loyalty, the limits of friendship, how one comes to accept an act of unspeakable violence committed against them, and what the alternative is if they can't. 

I'm really glad I didn't take it any further. Some stories are not ours to tell, and that one wasn't mine.

It was cold outside, the city streets damp with old rain. Everything smells different when it’s wet. Dogs have that wet dog smell, grass has that cut grass smell, quim has that salty, satisfied smell, and streets smell like garbage. Hot tarmac and leftover lunches, burnt rubber and plaster dust.

Kay turns for home, not fast enough to avoid a guy shoulder-barging his way past with a sense of pedestrian entitlement. People walk as they drive: pulling out without indicating, slowing for no reason, racing past, overtaking, parking on the pavement and practising emergency stops.

Life is a continuous progression from one state of being to another. It happens over days, weeks and years. We change so slowly that we do not notice we have changed. Like the short hand on a clock, creeping forward imperceptibly until you look up and realise another year has gone. Milestones are things we see retrospectively, looking back. You can pinpoint very few to an exact second in time. A second so precise that it lives in the moment between one foot leaving the pavement and meeting it again. Between a breath in and a breath out. Between the blink of an eye.

When the screams start, they go unheard, absorbed by the towering grey office blocks and hydraulic hush of a passing bus. They rise and refuse to be silenced, as though someone has turned up the volume in a bar so that all smalltalk must end.

Eyes meet eyes, heads turn, feet begin pounding the pavement.

As the short hand continues forward, Kay has no idea how she moves from walking the street to pushing against the river of people flowing from the club’s entrance.

It's futile. They move as one, stampeding onto the road, causing brakes to screech and horns to blare. A girl falls. As Kay reaches out her hand to help, three men push across the top of her, smashing her nose against the pavement. Blood pools. She cries out, then lies still. Kay tries again to reach her, but a boot meets her wrist causing her to draw back in pain.

Sirens can be heard in the distance.

She watches as the girl is lifted over the shoulder of a panic-stricken bouncer, carried above the swarming crowd. Squeezing between bins, she begins running along the side alley. There are fewer people streaming out of the delivery door, making it possible to push between them and enter the club.

It takes a moment to work out where she is. The thunder of feet from above sound as though a freight train is passing overhead. A fire door leads to a stairwell. As it opens, she recognises the girl who steps out.


The girl's hand slips on the handle as she stumbles forward.

Shame hangs over those instances where we should help, but don’t. Where the desire to run to a friend’s assistance meets revulsion at the reason why.

Her white shirt isn't bloodstained, it's saturated.

Kay’s words freeze in her throat. She glances behind to the door, reassuring herself that it's still there. Zoe continues towards it, oblivious of her presence. If she could be two people at once, she would split herself down the middle: go with Zoe, and continue down to the club.

But she isn't two people, and she has to choose.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Sunday 12 June 2016

Word Up: Speech-to-Text

In light of recently maiming myself, I decided to try out Word's speech-to-text function. 

Whilst partially incapacitated, I use my good hand to brows websites. On a news channel I stumbled across something that completely grabbed my attention. So much so that eight hours later I was still reading about it, going from Wiki to Wiki, jotting down notes. I think I've found my next major story subject, but it's driving me up the wall because I can't actually start writing about it. My right hand is currently doing the work of both hands, and it's exhausting. There is a saying: 

On balance, as annoying as it is not being able to tell my story, falling into a fire was a thousand times more agonising.

Anyway, Word.

I've been a huge fan of text-to-speech for a long time. I regularly get Word to read e-mails and news articles to me whilst I contemplate my belly fluff.

Unfortunately, speech-to-text ain't quite all there yet.

Here's a brief Windows explanation on turning on speech recognition for Windows 10 and some further information for Windows 8. Basically, in 10: File Explorer/This PC/Open Settings/type Speech into the Search Box/Speech Recognition.

It's worth taking the time to Train Your Computer, which basically involves training yourself at the same time by reading aloud the user manual. This allows your computer more time to get to know your voice and the way you pronounce things.

I find the whole concept fascinating. Usually, my thoughts appear on the page as I'm thinking them, but with speech-to-text I find myself pausing a lot to consider how my words sound before saying them. I think the type of book I would wright using speech-to-text might be very different.

If that were the only delay, perhaps I'd persist, but there are other issues.

I tried an opener:

The night was cold. Snowflakes fell like falling hope between the cobblestones. White winter swept the town, holding the lives of young and old between its skeletal fingers.  

and got:

Of the the the night was cold.  Snowflakes fell like falling home between the cobblestones.  White winter swept the town holding the lives of young and old between their skeletal fingers.

Perhaps it's an old microphone, but when I was silent for too long, thinking how to begin, the programme filled the silence for me with a couple of extra thes.

I threw it the old tongue twister Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers and received Peter Piper picked up at him for a month for.

Perhaps this would improve with time, but the process of correction is tiring. Each time there is a mistake you have to tell the program correct [word] and either choose a number from the list:


Or spell it out letter by letter, correcting each letter it mishears.


That's really the problem. In the time it takes to correct the mistakes in one sentence, you could have written twenty more. Speech-to-text has still got a long way to go. Which might be why it's tucked away right at the very back of the Windows tool box. I've heard Dragon is pretty impressive, but it's pricey and you'd want to test it out before purchasing.