Friday, March 10, 2023

  E A R LM  A R C H   2 0 2 3

In 2020, the first lockdown was just starting and we were all talking about the gorgeous weather...

3.00, Friday 10 March 2023

It has snowed.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise as the weather reports had forecast it, but I tend to view weather forecasters as being hyper-vigilant easily-excitable gloom-mongers. They’re always predicting massively disruptive weather which turns out to be extremely disappointing in reality [an example of hyperbole followed by litotes, if any of my English students are reading].

‘FLASH FLOODING EXPECTED THROUGHOUT THE NORTH-EAST!’ turns out to be a slightly faster-than-usual beck in Huddersfield. ‘TSUNAMI HEADING FOR FILEY: RESIDENTS TOLD TO BE PREPARED!’ eventually arrives as a pleasant curler that splashes the promenade and wets a few joggers wearing cagoules.

Even weather-related events that have already happened are reported in such sensational language that it’s difficult to get them into perspective. ‘EARTHQUAKE DESTROYS HOUSES IN BIRMINGHAM’ turns out to mean that a few roof-tiles were dislodged; ‘FREAK HURRICANE BLASTS PICTURESQUE VILLAGE’ is accompanied by a photo of a village green dotted with a snapped-off branches and the pub-sign bent awry.

Obviously, sometimes we do get genuinely serious weather-related disasters in the British Isles. I’m old enough to remember the infamous 1980s hurricane (recreated so effectively in the climax of A.S.Byatt’s novel Possession), and the second one that happened a year or so later. I was at teacher-training college in Greater Manchester, and newly-in-love, so I spent the night wide awake in the arms of my boyfriend, occasionally wondering what the hell was causing all that noise outside (oh, how I miss the era known as ‘back in the day’!). At that time, student accommodation wasn’t what it is today (no modern university student would stand for the conditions students used to accept as normal). We lived on the top floor of an old block of damp council flats perched on top of a steep hill, and the hurricane’s fingers rattled the single-glazed windowpanes, sneaking round the gappy edges so the notoriously chilly flats were cold enough to cause frost-bite. Great howls and creaks could be heard, along with the occasional bang as flying wreckage hit the building or bounced off cars. It felt as if we were in a storm at sea.

I remember at one point my boyfriend said, in another example of litotes: ‘Sounds a bit blowy out there’.

On that occasion, the storm provided a suitable background for our torrid emotions. [An example of The Pathetic Fallacy, for any student reading this].A friend and I had planned to go home to my mum’s house for the weekend, the next morning, and I remember walking to the railway station, feeling dazed through lack of sleep, in a weird silence, the sky lit by a silvery-grey light and the streets strewn with debris like the aftermath of a riot.

However, despite these occasional flurries of exciting weather-related drama – the winds that force people to walk home more or less horizontally, fighting all the way; the floods that lead to Instagram shots of Volvos floating down high streets and old ladies in rain hoods being helped into dinghies; people huddled like refugees in cars topped with two feet of snow on the M25 – we’re not really a country of extreme weather. We don’t suffer volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hail-stones as big as a fist, permafrost. 

Not yet anyway. Who knows what Global Warming will do to our generally sedate climate.

What we do get is a bit of snow now and then. Like yesterday. It fell steadily, feathery and picturesque, coating the grass and rooftops like royal icing on a cake, but leaving the roads and pavements relatively clear. The worst that happened in our household was that our elderly cat refused to go out to pee. We had to gently force her through the patio doors when the snow abated a little, and she then huddled miserably under the garden table staring at the lawn in terror until we let her in again. As far as I knew, unless she had done the job very quickly when we weren’t looking, she hadn’t emptied her digestive system since 7.00 am. Personally, I need to pee about every thirty minutes these days, so I don’t know how she does it!

Interestingly, it snowed more heavily overnight and today our part of the world is coated in beautiful snow and the sky is that gorgeous bright blue you get after a snow-storm. P has gone out for a walk and is probably lying in a snow-filled ditch as I type (last time he went for a walk alone he ended up caught in the vicious embrace of a bramble bush after falling over a stile). The cat went out quite happily an hour ago – it is obviously the actual precipitation she hates – but I’m slightly concerned about where she’s gone. She’s probably paying her previous owners a visit, on the basis that we have fallen short of her expectations by not only failing to stop the snow but also pushing her out into the garden several times against her will. Or she’s also lost in a snow drift.

Of course, when it does snow, all the anecdotes about previous snowfalls emerge from your memory. Like the time when my niece and her partner came to our house with their baby and my mum, one evening round Christmas, and by the time they were ready to leave the ground was thick with snow and the roads ungritted. It was impossible to drive in. My niece tried but the car spun in the road uncontrollably. So they were forced to stay at ours, but my niece and her partner decided to walk back to their house, a couple of miles away but up a steep hill, to get their baby’s travel cot. It took them a long time, but they eventually got back with a bag of stuff they needed and a large ungainly box containing the dismantled travel-cot, which my niece had carried through the snow all the way down the hill to our house, slipping and sliding all the way. She was utterly exhausted, freezing, soaking wet and pissed-off. And it didn’t improve her mood when she opened the box to discover it was empty! We never found out what happened to the travel cot.

My own personal memory of that night, however, is of sitting on my sofa cuddling my great-nephew, who was about eight months old and was still awake, with the light turned low so we could see the twinkling Christmas fairy-lights, and the snow falling in the garden outside the patio doors, singing to him, while he stared wide-eyed at everything. It is a memory I will always cherish.

For every awful snow-related memory there is another wonderful one.

Today’s snow has scuppered our plans for today, though. We were going to take my mum out for an afternoon tea as a birthday treat. The place we’d booked is a nice little tea-room in the middle of the Loxley Valley on the edge of Sheffield, and unfortunately it has had to close today due to the snow. This is particularly irritating as this is the FOURTH time we have booked a table at this particular café in order to take my mum for an afternoon tea, but we have yet to actually get her there. The last three times we had to cancel ourselves (Philip got Covid, mum had a tummy upset, mum was at my niece’s house as she’d forgotten we were going out for afternoon tea). On the third occasion, P booked the table but forgot to tell them we wanted afternoon tea, so it was just as well Mum couldn’t make it as she would have been deeply disappointed – she has an incredibly sweet tooth and loves a plateful of cakes, and she particularly loves taking home the leftovers in a box so she can indulge herself for the next couple of days. This works well as I’m pre-diabetic so shouldn’t really eat cakes, and there is a definite limit to P’s pleasure in eating such things, so mum ends up with most of our share too. Anyway, not today. Maybe there's something eldritch in the Loxley Valley that is refusing to allow my mother to enter its domain, some unseen presence in Oughtibridge silently shouting 'Thou shalt not pass, Woman!'.  Or maybe it's just coincidence.

The cat has just returned, in case you were worrying. She was desperately hungry after her adventure, and - after eating a packet of cat-food and sitting on a towel looking doleful - she has now gone upstairs, presumably to go to sleep on our bed…

Monday, March 6, 2023

Drabbling: The results of the Twenty-Twenty Club Drabble Competition 2023

The pleasures of a 100-word story

Writing a story in only 100 words might seem, on the surface, like an easy task, and there is no doubt that it takes less time than writing a longer piece. However, writing a good story in exactly 100 words is a serious challenge. Such stories are like poems in that the writer has to give a lot of thought to every word. They have to ask themselves many questions: Can I make that same point but in fewer words? If I strip this sentence down to just three words, will it still be clear enough for the reader? Have I organised my material in the optimum way to achieve my effects?

It takes real skill and confidence to pare a narrative down to its bare bones, and real judgement to leave enough room for the individual craftsmanship of the writer, for their ‘voice’ to emerge. It is the judiciously-used flourishes, the carefully-placed image, the clever structural decisions, the knowledge of when to use a sentence fragment or when to leave out a speech-tag, which often make one drabble stand out from the others. The writer needs to trust the reader’s ability to make the necessary leaps in understanding without having everything spelled out for them.

One thing that struck me about the drabbles submitted for this competition was the way that some writers really used their creativity to push the form as far as they could. Ron Hardwick’s ‘Smiler’ and Sue Davnall’s ‘In The Wall’ both use dialogue as the method by which they get their stories across; Jane Langan’s untitled drabble takes the form of a list, inspired by ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle; Ruth Loten’s untitled drabble uses the three-act structure of a play.

The theme of the competition was ‘cats’ but this could be interpreted in whatever way the writers wanted. Several of these drabbles were written from the point-of-view of the cats themselves, and writers took on the persona of the cat with real ingenuity. The narrator in Antonia Dunn’s chilling ‘Misfortune’ is ambiguous until the end, when we suddenly realise how vulnerable this poor animal is; ‘The New Sofa’ by Lisa Gotts uses sentence fragments to convey the cat’s self-centred thoughts; the cat narrator in Ron Hardwick’s ‘Master and Servant’ is a knowledgeable and knowing creature who can easily outwit his supposed master; in Wendy Toole’s ‘Remember Me’, the narrator is more indeterminate, probably the cat who left the paw print but not necessarily.  Others were written in a more straightforward way, from a human viewpoint, but focused on a pet cat: Beck Collett’s ‘Tiddles’, for example, expresses the poignancy of cat-ownership very effectively; Sue Davnall’s ‘The New One’ shows us an inter-species friendship from the viewpoint of a pet-owner who wishes humans could be more like such animals.

Though most of the drabbles were about domestic cats, some weren’t. Ron Hardwick’s ‘Smiler’ considers a comic relationship between a human and a re-engineered talking Smilodon (sabre-toothed tiger); D.H.L.Hewa’s ‘The Nick of Time’ focuses on a magnificent tiger in a zoo and ends almost with a moment of magic realism as the tiger is transformed into Blake’s Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright; her drabble ‘The Symbol’ uses the image of a lion on her birth-country’s emblem as a starting point for considering loss and grief; the ravenous kitten in Jane Langan’s untitled drabble metamorphoses into a spectacular tiger; Sue Davnall’s ‘In The Wall’ considers a creepy mummified cat hinting at pagan witchcraft; Ruth Loten’s untitled drabble uses a performance of the musical ‘Cats’ to tell part of a love story; and Beck Collett’s ‘Sometimes Even Tina’ tells the tragic story of a girl called Caterina. The theme of ‘cats’ was explored fully and in highly interesting and imaginative ways.

The other thing that struck me in this small collection was the variety of moods and atmospheres they created. There was humour, horror, sadness, realism, drama. Some drabbles covered long periods of time (‘Remember me’, ‘Tiddles’), while others were much more focused in time. Every drabble was more than merely an anecdote or a joke – all had a narrative arc of some sort, some surprisingly profound. It is incredible what writers can do with just 100 words!

The judges wish to remain anonymous but I'd like to thank them here for their hard work. Prizes will be sent out to the winner and runner-up this week. Below, I have posted a selection of drabbles from the competition (some people didn't want their work publishing here):


And a big thanks to our unpaid judges.

Painting by Louise Wilford

First Prize Winner: Antonia Dunn

[won a copy of The Unadulterated Cat by Terry Pratchett and a small box of chocolates]

Misfortune by Antonia Dunn

 There's blood everywhere. Splatters all the way up the wall. A fall, they said. She was ninety two, they said. 

          They don't know about the man. He was always doing odd jobs and shopping for her. He was arguing with her about money. She wanted to leave it to the Cats Protection League. 

          Now the police are here, he's back. 

          Why won't they listen to me?

          'This poor cat's been making terrible noises since we arrived. Is there anyone who can look after her?' asks the policewoman.

          'Leave her with me' says the man. 'I'll take care of her.' 


This is a beautifully-structured drabble which uses the cat’s naïve perception of events to create a moving and horrifying story. The judges were impressed by the way it incorporated several features of much longer stories, such as dialogue, description, inner thoughts, and a rhetorical question, and how it moved confidently between past and present. It used all 100 words to excellent effect, using structure to maximise the impact of the final line.

Photo taken by Wayne Miller

Runner-Up: Ruth Loten

[won a small writers' notebook and a small box of chocolates]

Untitled By Ruth Loten

First Act.

My life was a mess. Bad boyfriends. Lousy job.

My new start in London begins at the theatre.

Cats. Singing. Dancing. Twirling. Terrifying.



The man next to me turns. ‘Any idea what’s going on?’

I shake my head. He gestures to the empty seat beside him.

‘Got tickets for my ex. Dance teacher - didn’t know it was based on a book.’ He smiles. ‘I did. No point wasting my money as well as my life.’

A pause.

‘Do you fancy a drink after? Untangle the plot together?’

I hesitate, then nod and smile.


Second Act.



The judges were very impressed by the originality of the form this story took, being set out in three acts, echoing the theatrical performance the characters are experiencing. It was a love story, and conveyed a lot of information for so few words, including dialogue and narrative. They felt the story was clear and told with verve and imagination, and they believed in the characters. They did feel that the tenses were slightly muddled at the beginning (‘was’, ‘begins’).

A selection of other entries

photo taken by Louise Wilford

Sometimes even Tina by Beck Collett  

Caterina was dull. Everyone who met her as a babe remarked that she was ‘no trouble at all,’ which translated as ‘she doesn’t do much, does she?’ By the time she started school, everyone had forgotten Caterina’s name. She answered to all sorts, sometimes even Tina. She didn’t know to correct them, so she didn’t. Everyone who met her remarked how ‘clean and quiet’ she was, which translated as ‘she’ll never leave her mark.’ So, it was rather ironic that when Caterina disappeared that day, everyone finally looked for her. But by then it was too late.


The judges particularly enjoyed the repetition of the idea of certain platitudinous or euphemistic phrases actually implying other things about Caterina. They felt that the central character was clearly and vividly portrayed despite very little being revealed about her, and the ending was shocking and moving. One judge commented that Beck might have left out the explicit reference to the ironic nature of the climax of the tale, as this perhaps was telling too much. However, the ending was an effective response to the first part, leading to narrative satisfaction.

photo taken by Louise Wilford

Untitled by Jane Langan

In the light of the moon, a kitten curled into a ball.

On Sunday, she woke to warm sun on her fur. She uncurled.

Kitty started looking for food.

On Monday she ate one fish but was still hungry.

On Tuesday she ate two voles but was still hungry.

On Wednesday she ate three mice but was still hungry.

On Thursday she ate four eggs but was still hungry.

On Friday she ate six rats, seven birds, a mole, a bat, and a rabbit.

She felt better and fell asleep.

On Saturday, she woke up and was a beautiful tiger.


*Inspired by ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle



Inspired by Eric Carle’s famous children’s book ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, Jane’s story took on the form of a myth or fable in which a mundane creature is transformed into something magical. Unlike Hans Anderson’s ‘The Ugly Duckling’, this kitten is beautiful right from the start, but it becomes strong and powerful as it ingests more and more food. The judges enjoyed the fairytale quality of this narrative, with its use of repetition and the accelerated growth span of the kitten. It had some of the qualities of a poem.

photo taken by Philip Badger

The New Sofa by Isla 

The new sofa’s here. Delivery men gone. Wrapping off. Human not paying attention – time to pounce!

Edge of the arm, my tailed curled under me, claws digging into the new fabric. Mmmm, it’s softer than the last one. Kind of them to buy me this giant new bed.

I give it a scratch. This is the life… Tuna…tummy rubs…sunshine naps…


“Oi, Tabitha…off!” The human’s shout interrupts my daydreams!

Oh – guess it’s not mine! I jump down, swish my tail to show some attitude (I was comfy there before being shooed off) and disappear through my cat flap...



The judges enjoyed the lightness of this drabble, which depicts the thoughts and actions of a mischievous domestic cat when its owners buy a new sofa. The narrative has an effective ‘volta’ in the middle, where the cat suddenly realises the sofa wasn’t bought for him. The cat’s emotions are conveyed clearly and anyone who has ever owned a cat will recognise the realism of this cat’s behaviour. The judges liked how Lisa had got inside the mind of the cat in a plausible way, though they felt that the ending could be strengthened slightly.

Photo by Louise Wilford


Master and Servant by Ron Hardwick 

My master is a little bald man with a Hitler moustache.  I say master, but it is I who is master, not he.  He gets annoyed when I exercise my claws on his sofa.  He feeds me disgusting Kattomeat, which I happen to know is made from the offal of horses.  He left a dish of smoked salmon on the table the other day, which was delicious.  He flipped his lid.  'When I catch you, Minky, I'm going to ring your bloody neck.' I smile, because, inadequate little berk that he is, he needs me more than I need him.


This humorous tale gets inside the mind of a domestic cat with authenticity and comic appeal. The judges enjoyed the tension between the cat’s cynical view of the world and the master’s lack of comprehension of his pet’s opinions. They did wonder how a cat would know about Hitler’s moustache, but felt that this reference was acceptable given the humorous genre. They felt the drabble was well-structured.


Photo by Louise Wilford


Tiddles by Beck Collett

I loved you from the moment I saw you lying upside-down in your litter tray. Eighteen months old and mad, you were meant for me. Nobody else could cuddle you; your pointy black face and moss-green eyes staring up at me in bewilderment. Always.

We removed the wallpaper because you kept climbing it, got used to mopping up puddles of water, puddles of wee when you started to forget, when you went blind.

Now, I hold you to my chest like a new-born, so you can feel my heart beating as your own runs out. I love you. Always.



The judges (all cat-lovers) found this very poignant and realistic. They commented on how Beck had covered so much time in so few words, and praised the story’s structure. They felt that the examples given of the cat’s behaviour, all told from the owner’s viewpoint and revealing the indulgence with which we treat our pets, were very well-chosen and vivid. They liked the phrase ‘so you can feel my heart beating as your own runs out’ and the simplicity of the ending.

Photo by Beck Collett


Smiler by Ron Hardwick 


‘Come again?’


‘Are you threatening me?’

‘Of course.  I’m a smilodon.’


‘Are you stupid?  Smilodon. Sabre-toothed tiger.’

‘Didn’t expect to see one in Runcorn.’

‘I’ve been cloned.’


‘What are you - an echo?’


‘DNA - from thigh-bones, under the ice in Alaska.’

‘How come you ended up here?’

‘Millionaire from Timperley bought me. Private zoo. Escaped yesterday.’

‘You’re one of a kind.’

‘I know.  I’m so desperately lonely.  Don’t suppose you need a pet?’

‘I could do with someone to guard my collection of rare acetylene lamps.’

‘Splendid.  Name’s Smiler, by the way.’



 The judges enjoyed the nonsensical absurdism of this tale of a talking Smilodon clone who had escaped from a private zoo. Ron tells the entire story through dialogue in a clever and humorous way. The deadpan incongruity of the exotic creature paired with the mundane and highly specific references to places such as Runcorn and things such as the collection of acetylene lamps made the judges laugh.


Photo by Louise Wilford


‘The New One’ by Sue Davnall

This was another sweet-centred tale, showing the tension and ultimately the intimacy between two creatures of different species. The judges liked the sentence fragmentation at the beginning and the examples of why the dog finds the kitten irritating and confusing, but felt that maybe the final sentence stated the ‘moral of the story’ a little too explicitly and could have been implied more.

‘In the wall’ by Sue Davnall

The judges were impressed by the way Sue told the story entirely through dialogue, and her confidence in leaving much to the reader’s imagination. The dialogue was realistic, and the subject was fascinating, if creepy! The writer managed to convey what was happening in the story very cleverly simply through the words characters spoke. It was simultaneously scary and humorous, and told a clear and complete tale in a very succinct way.


‘The Nick Of Time’ by D.H.L.Hewa

This is an interesting story with an effective ‘volta’ in the middle, as the observer of the tiger (a child, we assume) is whisked away from the glass window through which she has been watching the huge cat. The judges particularly liked the reference to Blake’s famous tiger poem and the way the writer included this almost like magic realism, as if the tiger is transformed into the creature from Blake’s poem. This intertextuality made this drabble unusual and was very effective.


‘The Symbol’ by D.H.L.Hewa

This is an unusual drabble in this collection in that it uses a symbolic representation of a cat to explore emotions of homesickness, national pride, loss and grief. The judges liked the use of literary flourishes such as the onomatopoeia of ‘crashes, crumbles’, and felt that the story ended on a powerful note, expressing deep feeling. The judges commented that perhaps the symbol could have been linked to the death a little more thoroughly, however.


‘Remember Me’ by Wendy Toole

The thing that most impressed the judges about this story was Wendy’s use of the future tense. This speculative voice, expressed with a tone of confident expectation, was very effective. It wasn’t absolutely clear who was narrating, though the judges decided it was the cat itself, and they felt that this slight ambiguity enhanced the piece. The story was beautifully structured and well-controlled, and the judges commented on how confident it sounded.

photo taken by Louise Wilford

Friday, February 17, 2023

BOOK REVIEWS: A writer's view of other writers

 Mrs Hudson and Sherlock Holmes by Liz Hedgecock

A few months ago, when I couldn’t find anything I fancied reading, I stumbled upon Liz Hedgecock’s cozy comic fantasy series about a magic bookshop  and found it mildly diverting. The books were easy to read quickly, undemanding, gently entertaining, fairly forgettable. However, while looking them up on my Kindle, I noticed she had written a series of detective novels which used the conceit that Mrs Hudson was much more than Sherlock Holmes’s middle-aged housekeeper. I remembered reading some books like this several years ago, novels which I had found gripping and entertaining at the time, and I thought it was odd that Liz Hedgecock might have written them as my knowledge of her writing was based on the magic bookshop series.

            In fact, it turned out that she hadn’t. The books I was thinking of were by Martin Davies. However, Hedgecock’s trilogy about Mrs Hudson also proved to be superior to the magic bookshop series, being much longer, much less lightweight and in my opinion better written.

            In this fictional world, Mrs Hudson is young, attractive and married to a police officer. However, in book one, her husband vanishes and she is forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet. This leads to her meeting Sherlock and Dr Watson, both young men here, and becoming Sherlock’s assistant initially, then later his colleague and eventually his wife! This is all good fun, and is wrapped around a fairly interesting series of mysteries to be solved. The plots are as silly as in the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, but we view them through female eyes which is quite enlightening.

            It was entertaining to see the Holmesian world from a female viewpoint – clothes and make-up, fashion, life in domestic service, the rules of mourning, the strict protocols about visiting and other social interactions, and the restrictions put upon women at the time, are all fascinating and offer a new way of interpreting the stories. Sherlock himself is not undermined by Mrs Hudson’s detecting success, but our view of her as a slightly prim landlady, bemused by Sherlock’s shenanigans, is thoroughly dismantled.

            I enjoyed these novels very much, though they are definitely light reading. They have enough substance to keep the reader interested, and provide excellent reading material for winter afternoons , but they aren’t works of high-brow literature. Hedgecock has written another Holmes series, plus several other cozy detective series involving women detectives, with both modern and historical settings. I would give most of her novels that I've read three stars, but this particular series deserves four.


**** Recommended

If you liked these books, other series which take a sideways look at the iconic Sherlock Holmes stories include:

Sherlock & Jack series by Liz Hedgecock

Holmes and Hudson mysteries by Martin Davies

Mrs Hudson of Baker Street series by Barry S Brown

Mrs Hudson and  Mary Watson Investigations by Michelle Birkby

The Gower Street Detective series by M.R.C.Kasazian (about Sidney Grice,  a detective similar to Holmes)

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry (more of a literary novel than the others on this list}


Other novels by Liz Hedgecock:

Booker and Fitch cozy detective series

Maisie Frobisher cozy detective series

Pippa Parker Mysteries series

The Librarian of Crooked Lane ]Book 1 in The Glass Library series]  by C.J. Archer

This is the first in a series called The Glass Library series. The second book is released today, I believe. These stories are very similar in style to the Liz Hedgecock novels. Set just after the First World War, in a world which is very like our own but in which magic exists, they are the adventures of Sylvia, a young woman who is struggling to survive after the deaths of her brother in the war and her mother of illness. She has never known her father.
        While attempting to investigate her brother's claims in his diary that he might be a silver magician, Sylvia becomes embroiled in an art crime mystery, which leads to her getting to know a handsome and charismatic young man, from a wealthy, eccentric and prestigious family, who happens to be a detective. The basic plot is enjoyable but uninspiring, but the characters are quite endearing and there are some imaginative touches here and there. Archer leaves enough threads hanging loose to suggest that the second book will build on them. 
        I would describe this as a cross between a cosy period detective story, a romance and a magical fantasy, a pleasant book to wile away time while drinking tea or before dropping off to sleep in bed.

*** pleasant, undemanding 

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire [first in The Wayward Children series]

This is another YA fantasy series, but the writing and the imagination on display here is far superior to the run-of-the-mill stuff you often find in such a category. McGuire can really write. Her prose is lucid, engaging, sometimes shocking, often unexpectedly comic, and her stories are fast-paced but still gripping. You could read this book in a long afternoon, and it would not be a waste of an afternoon.
        Imagine a world where lost children haven't necessarily been abducted by psychopaths and kept prisoner in someone's secret room, or become drug-addled prostitutes on the streets of some faceless city. In this world, children who don't quite fit into their families, who are not quite what their parents wanted or who come from dysfunctional families, sometimes find doors into other worlds. These other worlds are many and varied. They can be plotted on a sort of map where the compass points, rather like in Genevieve Cogman's Invisible Librarian series, are Nonsense and Logic, Wicked and Virtue. Children seem to find the place where they feel most at home in these alternate worlds, but sometimes they are thrown out for breaking a rule or they leave or are forced to leave for some other reason. When that happens, they find it very hard indeed to resume their former lives. The worlds in which they have lived change them in fundamental ways. 
        Schools exist to help such children. Some help those who wish to forget their weird experiences and fit back in to the 'normal' human world. Others, such as Eleanor West's Home For Wayward Children, aim to help those tragic souls who desperately wish to return to the worlds from which they have been exiled. The school is a refuge, an escape from parents who can't believe their children's tales or understand the true nature of their disappearances or their intense desire to disappear again. In this sense, it is rather like Miss Peregrine's School For Peculiar Children. However, I would say it is better.
        This first novel considered Nancy, a Persephone-like figure who has been in The Halls Of The Dead living off pomegranates and trying to be as still as a statue. McGuire cuts out all the extraneous stuff and gets right in there - and she doesn't make allowances for the tender sensibilities of her YA readers, which is all to the good. This story is often shockingly gothic, macabre in fact, and reminds me a little of the recent Addams Family spin-off about the daughter of the family. It is also funny and light-hearted at times, poignant and sad at others, capturing the emotions of sensitive teens very accurately, though without wasting time going too deeply into their psyches. What child doesn't feel at some time like an outsider in their own family, like someone who belongs somewhere else, somewhere where everyone understands them and they fit in, even if that place is as bizarre as Alice's Wonderland? 
        I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and that was down to the brilliant writing. The series has won two Hugo Awards, an Alex Award, a Locus Award, and a Nebula Award. and been nominated for both the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award, and it appeared on the 2016 Tiptree Honor List, so I'm not alone in my admiration.

***** Highly recommended

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

  A N U A R Y   2 0 2 3

SHOWCASE: Write Club poets

I want to show-case a few poems by members of Write-Club, the Open Universities’ creative writing group. The poets below all worked with me on a long collaborative poem which we never finished, but which was very stimulating and interesting to write. I thought I’d give them each space here for a single poem of their own choosing (they are in alphabetical order of poet’s surname):


A Sportsman

Suzanne Louise Burn 


Your handshake is cool and light

no hint of the power you wield

in the ring, where your hands

are weapons intent on destruction.

Nobody messes with the big guy

from Hammersmith, all six foot four

yet here on ward ten, in Great Ormond street,

you bring hope while I watch my baby

fight the ravages of chemo, such a tiny body.

You take the time to show you care

moving so quietly from bed to bed

including everyone, a true gentleman.

Superheroes come in many guises, never 

thought I'd meet one in my darkest hours,

yet here you are, and not for publicity

arriving unannounced, dispensing calm.

All it takes is a few kind words to lighten

the loads so many of us bear.

Know what I mean, Frank.             

 [Inspiration for this piece has come from memories of meeting Frank Bruno in Great Ormond Street Hospital in December 1990, when my eldest son Matthew was undergoing treatment for a kidney tumour at the age of 13 months. The poem was written in 2022]


We don’t do hugging

Sharon Henderson


We don’t do hugging, our family don’t.

We don’t do kissing, neither.

We do marmite sarnies,

Even though we hate the smell.

We do jams, chutneys,

And homemade cakes as well.

We do travelling for miles at three am.

Just to be told to go back again.

We do handwritten letters

And weird little gifts.

Send silly messages,

To give people lifts.

We do trawling the shops,

For that one little thing,

Some chocolate or biscuit,

That will make their heart sing.

We do phone calls at midnight,

To listen to tears.

We do standing beside you,

Through all of your fears.

But we don’t do hugging, our family don’t,

And we don’t do kissing, neither.



Coffee Corner

Karen Honnor


There’s a man sat in the corner,

looks like David Baddiel,

The caffeine’s slowly kicking in so

I’m not sure if he’s real.


I found myself staring

and averted my gaze,

For staring at a stranger’s wrong

in oh so many ways.


I came here for a coffee.

and try and write some more,

but I keep looking up to see.

If David’s making for the door.


He seems to have his head down

and is scrolling on his phone,

Should I say ‘hello’ to him?

He probably wants to be alone.


I sip a little latte

and wonder why he’s here

I’m sure he doesn’t live close by,

I glance – he’s coming near.


Now, it’s me that’s got my head down,

I don’t even know why.

I doubt he will have noticed.

I’ve been trying to catch his eye.


Is he working on his next book?

Taking time out from his day,

Stopped for coffee in a corner

before going on his way?

I’d ask him for an autograph.

but I’m not sure how he’d feel,


Hang on,


Wait a minute,


No …


That’s not David Baddiel.

Copyright © 2022 Karen Honnor

[The poem is taken from Just Take Five]  

Winter Needles

Tracy Hutchinson


A life well spent, a day gone by,

another twinkle in her eye.

Her needles clack-clack with white yarn,

growing a sleeve for a newborn arm.


The mother, too young, her grandaughter’s child,

like all youth today, was wayward and wild,

poisoned the foetus with alcohol and smoke,

probably wouldn’t appreciate the matinee coat.


But life had showed her a better way

to fill her heart each passing day.

So, her needles continued to clack-clack in the night,

to finish the jacket of winter white.


A bridge across the years and miles.

A sunny moment filled with smiles,

as the tiny bundle placed in her arms

looked up with baby beguiling charm.

Another child for the family tree,

and the grandmother thought ‘they all look like me.’


[First published in Generations 2019 Write Club OU]

Beside Me
Jane Langan


And over pale skies,
clouds like grey collared doves

undulate and surge in breezes,

beyond our whispered touch.

I watch silhouetted birds
move with grace and freedom,

transported by thermals,

rising and falling,

rising and falling.
I think of you,
I think of you...

Beside me when

thunder came.
Beside me when
we wept, over the lost.

We had so much to give,

instead, our insides, turned out.

Beside me when,

joy filled us up,

like chips at the seaside,

whipped in salty air.
Waves of laughter,

heard through the pull of the tide,

rising and falling,

rising and falling.

As we watched pure

happiness seep from every pore,

of those things we made,

unearthly, almost, in their beauty,

luminous in evening light.

You were there, beside me.

[First published in Blood Kisses, 2021]



Hate vs Love

Lily Lawson

Hate leaks from lips,

its powerful punch poisoning all within its wake,

wasting weighty words on trivial pursuits.


Love flows from the heart,

its calming lotion pouring in caressing streams,

healing wounds, seeping into souls.


Hate’s afflicted admirers

keen to ingratiate themselves

bow and scrape at its feet.

When they hear the battle cry, they charge.


Love listens long.

Its gentle voice persuading, reaching out,

accepting all in its embrace.



Copyright © 2022


[Taken from Rainbow's Red Book of Poetry by Lily Lawson ]


Author biographies:


Suzanne Burn

Suzanne Louise Burn (she/her) graduated from The Open University in 2018 with a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She is currently halfway through studying for a Master's Degree in Creative Writing (also with The Open University) and focussing on fiction writing. She enjoys reading and writing poetry and is hoping to do more of this from Autumn 2023 onwards, once her Master's studies are complete.

She has had poetry, flash fiction, and life writing published in Makarelle magazine, together with six Open University Write Club anthologies for charities: Generations, Footprints and Echoes, The Gift, 2020 Still Together, 2021 Still Together, and Where's the Manual? And Other Thoughts on Parenthood.  She draws inspiration from nature, realism, and human relationships for her poetry and fiction.


Sharon Henderson

[Sharon doesn’t actually look like a teddy bear, but the only recent picture she has of herself is so blurred and dark that she is unrecognisable, so she has sent a picture of Denys instead]

Sharon is a teacher in a large secondary school just outside of London. She loves to teach and also tutors students with additional needs. She has two grown up children and a pet rat named Pandora. Her hobbies include what has been described as a maniacal amount of walking and baking cakes. These are then given to anyone who will take them as she has a gluten and dairy free diet. She also loves to study and has just completed an MA with the Open University.


Karen Honnor

Karen Honnor has always had a passion to write. Mostly, fitting poetry and script writing in around her day job in the past, now she has closed her classroom door and she has the freedom to focus on her writing, in whatever form it takes. Writing is a powerful way to make connections with others and to start a conversation.

She finds inspiration from my everyday and write with honesty and a touch of humour about the subjects that effect us all, building her self-confidence as she goes. Her books and blog continue to strike a chord with readers and she is learning and growing as she writes my way through midlife.

You can check out Karen's blog

and follow her on Twitter here.


Tracy Hutchinson

Tracy Hutchinson writes alongside caring for her family. She gained a first-class degree in English language and literature in 2017, and followed it with an MA in creative writing which she was awarded in 2019. Tracy compiled and edited two anthologies during the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 Together and 2021 Still Together, to raise funds for the NHS Charities Together Urgent Covid-19 Appeal. The two anthologies had over fifty contributors and raised more than £1200 for the charity. Currently, Tracy is working on her first novel, which she is hoping to release later this year.


Jane Langan

Jane has been published in the anthologies, Footprints and Echoes, Dipping your Toes, the Makarelle Anthology ONE and her poetry anthology Blood Kisses. She has had a special mention from The Welsh Poetry Competition and was longlisted in the Mairtin Crawford Awards. Jane has an MA in creative writing.


[Photo accompanying poem and photo of herself above were both taken by Jane herself]




Lily Lawson


Lily is a poet and fiction writer living in the UK. She has had poetry, short stories and creative non-fiction published in anthologies and online, in addition to her poetry books My Fathers DaughterA Taste of What’s to Come and Rainbow’s Red Book of Poetry. She has recently published her first picture poetry book Santa’s Early Christmas. You can find out more about Lily and read more of her work on her blogLife with Lily. Subscribers are the first to hear all her writing news. She can often be found sharing her randomness on Twitter.


[Photos either free-to-use from internet, or by Louise Wilford or Jane Langan or provided by poet]