Wednesday 19 December 2018

Pretty Little Dead Girls

Just finished reading Pretty Little Dead Girls: a Tale of Murder and Whimsy by Mercedes M Yardley.

I saw the cover go by on Twitter and liked it. I went through a phase of impulsive cover buys from Twitter a couple of years back, but stopped because a lot of what I was downloading wasn't good. The cover tended to be the best part of it.

I hadn't heard of Yardly before, or visited her website, so now that I've just done that, I understand why this was so entertaining. She won the Bram Stoker Award in 2015 and again this year.

BRYONY ADAMS IS DESTINED TO BE MURDERED, but fortunately Fate has terrible marksmanship. In order to survive, she must run as far and as fast as she can. After arriving in Seattle, Bryony befriends a tortured musician, a market fish-thrower, and a starry-eyed hero who is secretly a serial killer bent on fulfilling Bryony’s dark destiny.
A dark, lovely fairy tale with lyrical language and a high body count. 

The cover is by a Hugo Award Winner, Galen Dara, which might be why it stood out.

What to say?

Very unusual.

It's highly stylised, so not for all readers. It's hard to feel close to characters who are spoken about at a distance. That said, the style is part of its charm. Distant characters, and the examination of their lives, are what fairy tales are all about. A chance to examine actions and fate at a distance, and laugh at the in-jokes.

It's nice to actually read a book again, after my recent - and ongoing - Audible binge. It means I can share some nice passages:

"Excuse me," he said, stopping beside the woman as she read her book. She looked up, wiping bits of scone off from her lips.

"Yes?" she asked him with a barely detectable hint of nervousness.

"I'm sorry to bother you," he said, "but I happened to notice that you are reading the same book I am hoping to buy for my wife's birthday. Is it something that you would recommend?" A man walked by lazily, and the murderer's eyes followed him with studied nonchalance.

The woman, his "Kathleen", looked faintly surprised. "You want to buy your wife a copy of Why It Is Prudent To Kill the Man That You Marry?"

The killer's eyebrows raised a fraction before he could control them. "Why, uh... yes. Yes, I do. That is precisely the book that I wish so purchase. For my wife."

"Kathleen" shrugged, and the killer sighed in relief. The woman burst into a long and tedious book report using words like "feminist ideals" and "male oppressive dogs" and by the time they were completely alone and it was time for her to die, the murderer was very, very ready to kill her.


The body floating in Lake Washington had been a particularly young and pretty girl whose name is not important. It would have been to her family if they had been aware of her death, but they hadn't been in contact with her for years, ever since she left to run away with a man named Mike. Every girl has dated a Mike in her life, and very few of them have turned out to be a good decision, but it happens. This Mike turned out to be a typical Mike situation, and as soon as the girl told him that she was having a baby, he left her. Now this turned out to be a miscalculation on the girl's part, and there really was no baby, but since she found out the true depth (or lack thereof) of Mike's character, she decided that she was better off without him. As she would have been under most circumstances, but the very sad fact of the matter was that if she had been with Mike that particular night, she most likely would still be alive. So dead and without a roguish Mike, or alive and with him... really, either of these two options were undesirable, although one was preferable over the other.


A girl disappears, and a body turns up in her place, bereft and without soul. It is not fair trade, but that is exactly how it happens. There are bodies in the woods, bodies in the dumpsters. Bodies hidden in crawl spaces and in the trunks of cars and tossed into ravines. Bodies floating in the water and bodies with a thin skiff of dirt on top. They are soaked by constant, weeping rain, not the strong desert rain Bryony had experienced, but creeping, mewling rain. They are blanched and stepped over, and apple cores are hurled nearby. People, out walking their dogs, stumble upon them, this almost self-sustaining plethora of bodies.

There are so many cute passages, and briar-barbed phrases that catch the attention: a parasol of horrors, the gallantry of windscreen wipers, bird bones - tiny ribbons of calcium, all wrapped up in a beautiful nuclear holocaust. And, yes, I did look up jonquils.

It's been a while since I read something this different. Exceedingly quirky and indeed whimsical. Packed with repeating imagery of deserts and stars, which stays with you.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Full TEDx Luxembourg Event

All of the speakers from TEDx Luxembourg have now been edited. It took place on 26th October 2018 at the University of Luxembourg. Made some lovely friends and wanted to share all the ideas that were spoken about:




Wednesday 12 December 2018

After the Lie

Just finished After the Lie by Kerry Fisher on Audible. 

Sometimes a lie can split your life in two. There is “before”, and there is “after”. Try as you might – you can never go back.

When Lydia was a teenager, she made a decision that ruined her family’s life. They’ve spent the last thirty years living with the consequences and doing their best to pretend it never happened.

Lydia’s husband, the gorgeous and reliable Mark, and her two teenage children know nothing about that summer back in 1982. And that’s the way Lydia wants it to stay. The opportunity to come clean is long gone and now it’s not the lie that matters, it’s the betrayal of hiding the truth for so long.

When someone from the past turns up as a parent at the school gates, Lydia feels the life she has worked so hard to build slipping through her fingers. The more desperate she becomes to safeguard her family, the more erratic her behaviour becomes. But when the happiness of her own teenage son, Jamie, hangs in the balance, Lydia is forced to make some impossible decisions. Can she protect him and still keep her own secret – and if she doesn’t, will her marriage and family survive?

I wasn't sure I would enjoy it, as I tend to gravitate to quite dark fiction and contemporary domestic dramas don't often grip me, but this was very well written and narrated. 

It almost lost me, as the beginning of the book really builds up the question what is the lie? The sort of things I read, I was thinking did she kill someone? Is it abuse?  - so when it was finally revealed, I sort of shrugged and went oh, is that it? But then it started to look more closely at the implications of that event and how it had affected the main character and those involved. As the story went on, it built my empathy and I could see how it could have been that devastating.

Definitely gave me pause for thought.

It's also quite humorous, with some nice one-liners. 

If my mother got any closer we could share a bra.

Overall, I enjoyed this one. Interesting questions over fidelity and social media. Possibly more of a horror story for readers who are parents. It has a satisfying ending, and there's a nice letter from the author after the last chapter.

Monday 10 December 2018


This just dug me out of a hole. I'm self-publishing a story on an online platform and needed a book cover. Wasn't about to buy one for a free book, and know that my design skills leave a lot to be desired. I'm a total technonumpty.

This online software allows you to throw together something acceptable with minimal effort. A useful emergency tool when you need a simple Kindle cover, Facebook banner or promotional poster. Just head to Canva, click create a design, type book cover and away you go. 

First, choose a template from the top left menu, then drag/drop a background over the template to give it texture and depth, then play about with the font.

It's extremely simple but quite effective if you don't have the money to pay a designer or your project isn't important enough to warrant one. There's also an option to upgrade and access many more designs and features. After a thirty-day free trial, it's $12.95 per month pay-as-you-go, or $9.95 ($119.40) on an annual subscription.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Audible Audiobooks

As I mentioned in previous posts, I took out an audible subscription a couple of months back. I already have a Netflix account, but I also like podcasts whilst doing things that require a little more concentration, like stringing the piano and cooking dinner. Some of the podcasts I like include The Allusionist, Blank, Tea and Jeopardy, Unexplained, and Berkhamsted Revisited. But the problem with podcasts is that they often work in seasons, stop broadcasting, or take a week or more to put out a new episode. I'd pretty much caught up with everything I enjoyed, so was looking for something else.

My dad and I used to listen to a lot of audiobooks in the car when I was a kid. With family up in Carlisle, it helped pass long drives up the M6, prizing open chunky plastic boxes containing eight or ten tapes. 

I hadn't listened to an audiobook in years, except Emma Newman's reading of Rosy Hours, my own novel. I think that's when I really became aware that audiobooks were a thing again, but the price always put me off. Audiobooks usually retail for between £13-30, whereas your average Kindle edition comes in around £4-8. 

My friend Tiga suggested Scribd:

I much prefer scribd, which is a digital library that includes books, audiobooks, magazines, sheet music, and documents (often rare books) uploaded by other users. You don’t get to keep the books but you can save and download them. I love it as it allows me to read and listen to multiple books at the same time.

I looked at both but eventually opted for Audible, mostly out of familiarity and keeping all my book lists in one place. A crap reason, I know, especially after once attempting to wean myself off Amazon.

Anyway, I took out a monthly £7.99 subscription, which entitles you to one token per month. A token equals one 'free' audiobook. It doesn't actually mean free, it just means you're paying £7.99 for something that would otherwise cost £13-30. So, in that respect, it's a bargain. Problem is, you're likely to get through your audiobook in about a week. So, what do you do for the rest of the month?

Well, I've been quite satisfied so far, as Amazon regularly run promotional sales. For Black Friday they had a selection of audiobooks for £2.50, so I splurged £20 and now have enough to listen to for a couple of months. There's a Christmas two-for-one on at the moment. They also allow you to buy three-token packs for £18, so £6 per audiobook, which is also a major discount. Then there's the combined packs they do, where if you buy a paperback you get the Kindle copy free or greatly reduced. They also do that with the Kindle and audiobook copies now. 

Personally, I'm not that interested in listening to a book I've already read, but it might be of interest to some customers.

So, on the whole, I'm quite content. The cost of audiobooks is so high because the average full-length novel spans around thirteen hours of audio, and that's just the finished product. It doesn't account for the hours of editing and mouth-noise removal that goes on. You try reading out a chapter of a book without stumbling over your words or mispronouncing something once. It's pretty much impossible, so the process is extremely time consuming. That considered, it's fairly amazing Amazon can offer £2.50 deals at certain times of the year. I have no idea how that works out for publishers, voice artists and writers.

I've seen a couple of polls on the question of whether audiobooks still count as reading a book:

An interesting debate. I think, in terms of content, it's the same. You're getting the same story. But my experience with The Wasp Factory did bring home the difference. I couldn't fully appreciate the writing style, and the quality of the narrator's voice strongly directs your connection with the character. You don't get to choose what the characters sound like. If you don't like the narrator's voice, you might not enjoy the story so much. In the case of The Wasp Factory, I actually felt the narrator's voice gave away a key plot twist. 

My other issue with audiobooks is that I tend to drift in and out of them more than the printed word. We've all done that thing where we've turned a page and realised we've zoned out for the past paragraph or two, but that happens a lot more to me when listening to audiobooks. The nice thing about the audible app is that it has a 'flick back 30 seconds' button that you can hit as many times as you want, to rewind to the last place you stopped listening. I don't usually stop listening because I'm bored, but because I'm often doing other things (piano stringing, cooking, etc.) whilst listening and suddenly that other thing needs more of my attention.

There is another nice feature which puts Audible to bed after 10, 15, 30 minutes, or at the end of the chapter, so you can listen to it whilst you're dozing off at night, safe in the knowledge that Audible will turn itself off without you having to wake up to fiddle with the close menu.

Before signing up to Audible, I did a bit of research on 'whether Audible is worth it', and was interested to find quite a lot of articles from people explaining how it's changed their book habits. How they tend to read printed fiction just as much, but listen to non-fiction, and in this way increased the number of books they get through in a month.

I've certainly noticed that in two months (one month free trial and one on subscription) I've already read two more books than I would have done. Both of those were fiction, but my library also contains quite a lot of non-fiction. I've previously mentioned my love of text-to-speech software when going through lengthy documents (and news articles). It's often easier to listen to, and absorb, spoken facts than to try to retain them whilst reading.

However, I do find it a lot harder to satisfactorily review audiobooks for that reason. When I reviewed The Silk Roads, I repeated some of the parts that I'd most enjoyed. I do the same with fiction. But you can't really do that with audiobooks as you can't flick to the right page as easily, and you have to try to transcribe. It's harder to remember the bits you liked the most - the phraseology and construction of a sentence. 

So, yes. They are different. But, as with print books and Kindle, I'm glad that both mediums exist. I'm definitely enjoying the resurgence in audiobooks.

Friday 7 December 2018

The Wasp Factory

I've been meaning to read Iain Banks for a couple of years. A Scottish giant of literature, I wasn't sure where to start, but my friend suggested The Wasp Factory as a good stand-alone. Unfortunately he died in 2013, but there's a lovely interview with him here.

Q: When you're writing about dark material, is it in any way strange writing in the first person?

A: Not really, no. It's a technique you get used to as a writer, you know? You don't really think about it, you just get on with it. It's an answer to a technical problem, if you like, and so it's something you adopt quite naturally and easily. It has no real bearing on your own psyche.

Q: I know when you ask an actor 'are you a baddie in real life?', of course they're not baddies in real life, but, as I say, there's some dark stuff. Where does that come from? What do you draw on?

A: I don't know, I've just got an overactive imagination gland or something... It's just something I seem to be able to tap. I'm actually quite a nice, bright and breezy person.

He's most well-known for science fiction, but The Wasp Factory is horror. Again, I listened to the audiobook. I've realised with audiobooks that it's a bit annoying that you're not too sure how long the book is. I didn't look at the length on the timer whilst listening, and whereas most full-length novels run to around 13-18 hours of audio, this was only about six. 

I think I might have enjoyed holding the book in my hands more, as it would have prepared me for 'right, now the end is on its way,' whereas it felt the audio finished very suddenly. I was really getting into it.

What I liked about this one, is that it left me rather conflicted. That's something very rare for me with books, usually I know very clearly how I feel about a work, and I do really wish I had a written copy in front of me so that I could look more closely at the writing style. Audiobooks really are a different kettle of fish, and I'll talk more about that in a separate post.

The thing that conflicted me was the extreme violence towards animals. 

I need to explain this carefully.

I personally found it difficult - but I enjoyed that difficulty. 

I can't stand reviews of my own books where people go 'It was a horrible book, it had rape in it.' It's a story, that's a plot, nasty shit happens and the best stories - for me - examine how we react to nasty shit, what causes it, what the implications are, and how people cope. For me, it's about intensity of emotion and experience. The extremities of human experience. I like those sort of stories. I like to write them and I like to read them. Not the only thing I like to write or read - or watch - I love horror, but I'll still enjoy Pretty Woman. Yet, for me, graphic brutality in itself does not make a bad book. Bad writing makes a bad book.

Banks's writing is excellent. His characterisation is delicious. Can't-turn-away train wreck stuff. But the animal cruelty - the rabbits, the one-eyed dog, the sheep - is graphic. Absolutely incredible storytelling, but puts it in the extremely rare category of book where I had to force myself to go on. 

I tried to work out why I had that reaction. Partly, as a writer, I can't shake the deep sense that writing is a form of sorcery and, somewhere out there on another plain, you've actually created something real. Characters that live through a moment over and over. Now, I know this is absolute bollocks, but you keep thinking on it because it's the worst possible thing that could ever be true. It's why the concept of hell and Sisyphus are so popular. Death isn't the worst thing that could happen to you, being tortured for all eternity is. 

So, to create a character that is born purely to suffer is uncomfortable in itself, but for those characters to be animals, and to portray them so vividly as we know animals to be: small creatures at the mercy of human will. It hits a nerve. And that nerve wouldn't be hit if he hadn't written it so very well.

Which is why, if someone hates your book because you made them feel something - you've actually done a good job.

So, hats off completely, it's an excellent book, and the reason I know that is because it made me squirm.

Again, I think this is a book where the written version is a better idea than the audio. The narrator, Peter Kenny, was excellent. Can't fault his delivery, but he characterised it so well that I knew exactly what the twist was from the beginning. Something about the quality of his voice gave it away. I think, if I'd been reading it, I would have been more willing to follow the author's deception and believe the writer until he was ready to reveal. Or maybe I just think about story construction so much that I would have seen it coming anyway. Maybe you were supposed to by the way it's written, but I can't tell, because I wasn't reading it.

Anyway. My friend was right. If you don't know Iain [M] Banks and you enjoy very dark literature, this is an excellent introductory stand-alone. Will check out his sci-fi at some point.

Sunday 2 December 2018

Ishimwe Dady

Shout out to my friend Dady, who just Facebooked this with a cute quote from Dr. Seuss:

Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.

Dady is an exceptional artist here in Kigali. If you're looking for authentic Rwandan artwork, drop him a line