People of the Forest

Isla, a  fifteen year-old computer wizkid, has escaped from a prison for young offenders in a world where everyone is electronically tabbed by the ever-present Trackers. She crosses paths with Jake, a boy of her age from another world, who is on the run from the Baron’s henchmen. She is flung into his feudal world, getting involved in the intrigues of the Baron’s castle, while Jake tries to survive in her world in company of a group of dissidents living in the wild.

People of the Forest is currently work in progress. Learn more about it and read extracts here.

New flash: Where was I?

I hadn’t written a piece of flash fiction for a while. An encounter early this morning with an old lady inspired this new short story entitled Where was I? 

Where did I put that paper? It was in here somewhere. What a mess. Always so much stuff in my bag. No idea where it comes from. A packet of cigarettes. Empty, of course. Shame. Could have done with a cig. No such luck. (…) Read more.

The rain uninvited

My daily walks in the forest have been marked by heavy rain which even invited itself into the book I am writing: People of the Forest. Here’s the extract.

Isla was startled when Amelia grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the window. She dug in her heals and tried to resist, but Amelia was strong. “Look,” the girl said. Isla peered round the window frame, trying to remain unseen. Jurgen was balancing along ropeways with all the grace of a ballet dancer. The sight of the brute engaged in such nimble steps, his hips swaying from side to side, had her giggling, much to her annoyance.

The forest abruptly darkened as if someone had flung a hand in front of the sun and Jurgen was lost in the gloom, his clothes blending with the trees. A jagged flash outlined his form for an instant, then the building shook as thunder rolled through the forest and the storm broke. Giant drops bounced off leaves and branches, the rattle of rain ringing like the staccato beats of an army of dwarf drummers gone mad.

A window, one of those that reached to the floor, burst open, glass shuddering as it did, and the storm shoved its way into the room with a great gust of rain closely followed by a dark form. The fighter stood in the entrance, not bothering to close the window, rain dripping from his boots and soaked clothes, his long hair plastered to his head and shoulders as he stared unblinking at Isla.

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More People of the Forest

Here’s a third extract from People of the Forest, the new novel I am writing. Meet Len and Samir, a couple of Trackers, law and order officers charged with keeping an eye out for people’s movements, especially criminals and dissidents. Everyone is fitted at birth with a self-expanding anklet that cannot be removed. It serves to track people and is permanently connected to the secure TrackNet. As for Isla Whitehead, mentioned here, you’ve already met her, she was the girl in the second extract I published, … and what about the girl? She’s a screen wizzer, a magician with computers. And here is a link to the first extract: The birth of a new novel.

Remember this is a draft and could change in the final book.

“Get your stunner,” Len said as he buckled the belt of his holster around his waist.

“What’s up?” Samir asked, biting an outsized chunk off a sandwich he’d fished from the machine.

“The two cams came back on at Mack’s shack.”

“It was probably a bug. Anyway, we can’t both go. Somebody’s got to man the screens.”

Len shook his head. “Two cams don’t just switch on and off on their own. That’s no technical glitch. Someone’s messing with TrackNet. You were right about a distraction. This is big stuff. We both go.”

“What about my sandwich?”

Len rolled his eyes. “You’ll get fat.” They were all getting fat stuck behind screens all day. They hardly ever went out on a mission. Seeing his friend’s offended look, he ran his fingers through Samir’s hair. “Bring it with you. I’ll drive.”

They were just out the door when an alarm rang on one of the screens. Samir halted. Len grabbed him by the arm and pulled him towards the Pod. “Check it on your Tab.”

Len slammed on the brakes as he was about to pull out of the Pod park. The Governor’s sleek Pod slid to a halt blocking the road. The sight astonished and alarmed him. The Governor never visited the Tracker station, lest it be for some flashy photo op with the press.

“What the…” Samir said, rubbing his head where he’d bashed it on the windscreen. He’d been reading the alarm message on his Tab and hadn’t seen what had happened.

Len grabbed Sami’s arm to silence him and ordered his window down. The Governor did likewise. Seated next to him was the head of Trackers. “Where are you two off to in such a hurry?” the Governor asked.

“Two cases of untagged suspects and an aggression,” Len replied.

“That can wait. Get back inside. I need to talk to you.”

Samir began to object, but Len backed their Pod out of earshot as he ordered the window up. “That’s the Governor, you daft idiot,” he muttered under his breath. “Cool it if you wanna have a job tomorrow.”

In the Tracker station, the two Trackers stood to attention as the Governor sprawled in Len’s chair. Next to him stood the Head Tracker, looking embarrassed. Over the Governor’s shoulder, Len and Samir had a good view of the archeological site on the screens. A youth was rampaging through the ruins knocking over signposts as he did. Close on his heals loomed an angry bear. Abruptly the youth halted. Ducking under the bear’s outstretched claws, he drove a long knife between the bear’s ribs. The bear faltered, opened its mouth in a silent roar and collapsed forward, trapping the boy as it did.

Both Len and Samir were so engrossed in the action that neither heard a word the Governor said.

“What did I say?” the man asked, getting to his feet. He was taller than both of them and much fitter. Some people apparently had the time and the means to work out. Len just stared back, at a loss what to say, but Samir pointed at the screen, his mouth open. When the Governor and the head of Trackers turned to look, they saw only mournful monuments. Neither the bear nor the boy were visible. The Governor frowned as he fixed the two before turning to their chief.

“I’m beginning to wonder if these two wouldn’t be better doing another job.”

The chief nodded, staring at his feet. So much for siding with his men.

“I’ll give you a last chance to redeem yourselves.” The Governor pulled a photo from his inside pocket and slapped it down on the table. Len, Samir and the head of Trackers inched forward to get a closer look.

The girl was probably about fifteen, though she looked younger. The lines of her face were full and rounded as if yet unmarked by life. Her lips compared to the relative plainness of the rest of her appearance were surprisingly sensuous. The way her chin protruded hinted she knew what she wanted and expected to get it. Her pale brown hair hung to her shoulders and partly concealed a prominent forehead. There was an intelligent look in her eyes although Len had the curious impression she was making an effort to appear nondescript.

“Ilsa Whitehead,” the Governor said. “Don’t be misled by her apparent innocence. She is a very dangerous specimen that just escaped from one of our top security reform schools.”

How ever did she manage that? The place was reputed impregnable. It was the latest generation, high-tech establishment for young offenders that boasted all the latest security gadgets.

“Not only did she break their security system, but we suspect she deactivated her anklet.”

“How did she do that?” Samir exclaimed.

“We know she is a screen wizzer. It was messing with government security systems that got her into reform school in the first place.”

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People of the forest

Almost every day I go for a long walk in the forest above our home, pausing from time to time to sit and write the next paragraphs of my latest book. As I walk, I turn over ideas and words for my book while trying to fend off the myriad other stories that  bustle for my attention. I examine the world around me and take photos or film from time to time. I had been meaning to film the funicular which crosses the path at one point but as the train goes by only once an hour, my passage rarely coincides with that of the ‘Funi’. Today I was lucky.

But it is not only flowers and birds and inspiration to be found in the forest. As I walk, exploring further and deeper each time, I meet a rich variety of people who have also opted for the forest. Here is today’s selection.

The man with gray stubble for a beard opens his plastic bag and proudly exhibits the mushrooms he’s found before plunging behind trees and around bushes in search of more. A Kurd plodding steadily along the road, leans on his sticks. “It’s diabetes,” he says. “And the heart.” He talks of his doctor and the hospital and the precautions he must take. But today he’s decided to be more daring and walk as much as he wants. A woman struggles after a husky up the steady incline as she does everyday. Taking it in turns with her husband, she exercises her dogs whenever using the sled is not possible. A man in a t-shirt, shorts and running shoes cuts through the forest extolling the virtues of getting in amongst the trees. When challenged about the dangers of ticks that are prevalent in the area, he replies, “I’ve been vacinated.” I didn’t now a vaccin against Lyme Disease existed. Finally there’s the lumberjack sawing off lengths of trunks with a cunning measuring device he made himself. Once cut and dried, the wood heats his home and brings “warmth and light” to his friends. When asked whether ecology or cost-saving motivates his work, he replies, “Both. But above all the pleasure.” He talks with evident relish of the different types of wood, how they dry, what they smell of and how they burn.

Protect Net Neutrality

Wednesday July 12th 2017 has been singled out in the States and elsewhere as a day of action in favour of Net Neutrality. If the Trump administration through the FCC reverses earlier decisions and gives the right to Internet access providers to pick and chose how they grant access to the Internet it opens the door to partitioning the Net between haves and have-nots, with ultra high-speed broadband services for the rich and pitifully slow Internet, if any access at all, for the poor and marginalised. In terms of content and content providers, it would give access providers the right to decide what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘unacceptable’, where acceptability may depend on the company’s commercial or political interests rather than any concern for the public good or for the underlying democratic nature of the Internet. To learn more about the question see (amongst many others);

John Horwood: inspired by a wood

At a time when a wood is inspiring me, it seems appropriate to return to the masterly writing of one who was deeply inspired by Duncton Wood, John Horwood. If you haven’t read the Duncton tales, I highly recommend them. His descriptions of places are magic and the story he tells is both thought-provoking and moving.

… and what about the girl?

If you read my last post, you will know a lot of the writing on my new novel has been done in the forest. Should it rain while I’m out walking, and that seems likely as the weather has changed for the worse, I can always shelter under one of the arches of the funicular (see above) to write.

I suspect the first extract from the draft of the new novel I posted a few days ago may have given the impression that it’s all about a young guy called Jake. Well it is, but there is also a girl called Isla and she doesn’t have a very high opinion of Jake after their first brief encounter. Here’s an extract from the beginning of chapter two. Remember this is a draft. Remember also that things aren’t always as they seem…

There is also a video of the author reading this extract: Isla and the boy she bit.

Isla cupped her hands under the fountain for the third time and swilled water round her mouth unable to rid herself of the taste. What if the boy had some dreadful disease? She’d bitten him, damn it! There’d been blood and he stank. Spitting the water onto the ground, she straddled the monoPod ready to ride off and pulled out her Tab. If she’d been a normal girl she’d have denounced the attack. The boy was frankly dangerous. She’d thought he was going to rape her.

Her heart pounded as she recalled how he’d flung himself on top of her. He’d been about her size, but he was much stronger. She’d felt his muscles. His chest. His arms. His legs. His weatherbeaten face had been so close. She could still feel his breath on her cheek. The whiff of mouldy cheese had almost made her gag. And the wild look in his eyes. Like a cornered beast. No. More lost and perplexed. As if he thirsted for an answer.

Isla ran her fingers over the screen of the Tab. It had been hidden in the saddlebags of the monoPod she’d stolen. She had immediately disarmed the location software of both the Pod and the Tab, but using the latter to notify the Trackers was still risky, if not plain stupid. They could trace the call and would want to know how she came to be alone in such a remote spot when she was supposed to be at school.

School? Reform school they called it. A pretty name for a prison for youngsters. A school where teacher was synonymous with warden and learning meant sweeping the floor or clearing away the cardboard Boxits each and every meal was delivered in. A place where brawls were commonplace and abuse, especially of girls and the young and weak, was the norm. In her short stay, she’d spent her time trying to go unnoticed. If they sent her back she’d be in trouble. Inmates didn’t appreciate kids who tried to escape. As if escaping insulted those left behind. She’d bear the brunt of years of pent-up anger. Especially with her being so different. Few could read or write, let alone programme screens. The authorities would surely have twigged she’d busted wide open their precious system. They’d never let her near a screen again.

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The birth of a new novel

As I reached the end of the draft of my latest novel, Stories People Tell, I was concerned that no idea for a new book sprang to mind. Normally I have to put a brake on the new ideas that jostle to be heard as the current book nears completion. But this time nothing moved, even if I nudge and prodded it. What if my source of inspiration had dried up? A worrying thought I tried set aside. I was three-quarters through the first edit of Stories People Tell before an idea came for a possible novel and in unusual circumstances.

My hip had been playing up and rather than try to rest, I decided to start daily walks, hiking first four then eight kilometres early every morning. On the second day, as I neared the eight-kilometre mark I came across a clearing off the well-used track. Littered with moss-covered rocks and some felled trees, the place had a magic quiet to it that appealed to me. I sat on a rock (see photo below), pulled out my iPad and began writing a story that took shape in a very similar place to that one. Every day I paused to sit on that rock and write, except the one day in the month when it was raining.

It was not  immediately clear where the story was going but now I have written twelve chapters (of about one hundred to be written), the direction is becoming apparent. Unlike most of my other books, I have not immediately decided on a title. I just call it New Book. It will be my twelfth novel.

Here’s a short extract from the beginning of the opening chapter. Remember this is a draft and it will probably change before the book gets published.

To think he’d walked so close to the ruins on his foraging trips, never suspecting they were there. Jake glanced at the scattered slabs of stone covered with moss and rampant ivy. Despite its dilapidated state, the sacred ring was discernible amongst the trees, culminating in a majestic menhir that towered over the others.

There was an inner peace to the place, like an insistent silence that called to him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and bowed his head. Easing onto a rock, he shrugged off his backpack. The miles of trekking were taking their toll. His legs ached. He stared at the sullen standing stone, undecided if it were welcoming or hostile. At least the site, nestled in a hallow in the ground that hid it from the main track, offered shelter to break his fast.

He pulled a slice of bread and a chunk of cheese from his bag. The bread was stale and the cheese dry. If only he had some pickles. The moment the thought crossed his mind, he berated himself. The priest would have called him twice cursed, for covetousness and gluttony. The sour-faced man was very free with his condemnations, especially when it came to Jake. All the same, he had to agree. Craving more in the circumstances really was a sin.

A tear trickled down Jake’s cheek at the memory of his mother sneaking into the castle kitchens. Begging her to cease filching food was pointless. How else was she to feed them? The pittance she earned as a kitchen help was far from enough. One day he’d walked in on her spreading ointment on wheals on her back. The sight of the swollen gashes had made him sick. Never had she complained of the whippings. She was lucky, she said, not to get beheaded like other thieves. He brushed the tears angrily from his face and returned the remaining lump of bread to his bag.

Jake was reaching for his water bottle when he froze. In the distance, approaching fast, a group of horses cantered along the main trail sending birds squawking into the air. The Baron’s men. No other group could be out in such numbers. Surely they couldn’t be looking for him so soon. He shouldered his bag and searched for a place to hide. They were bound to stick to the well-used trail, but better to play safe.

He was wrong. The first mounted man trotted between the stones just as he ducked behind the largest of them. The horses snorted when their riders pulled them to a halt. There was a telltale click of buckles and stirrups as the men dismounted. “He must be here,” a gruff voice said. It was the captain of the guard, a thin-faced, vicious blighter  called Jurgen who was the terror of the young in the castle, boasting as he did of eating little children for breakfast. Story or no story, the voice so close made his skin crawl. (…)

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A foretaste of the Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust

The Guardian has just published a short teaser from Philip Pullman’s forthcoming book, La Belle Sauvage, the first of the Trilogy, The Book of Dust. In an interview posted by Random House Kids on YouTube  (see below), Pullman calls the new book a companion to the earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials. This first volume is to be published on October 19th, 2017 in print form, electronically, but also as an audiobook.

What appeals to me in this short extract, apart from the evident air of family with the earlier trilogy which I immensely enjoyed, is the unassuming language. No fancy frills. Just words in the service of a story.