Archive for June, 2015

Tenth Man Down by Chris Ryan (book cover)

Geordie Sharpe and his SAS team are sent to Africa to train government forces in the war torn nation of Kamanga. After an accident leaves a young boy dead, the local witch doctor makes a chilling pronouncement. Unless they leave now, ten white men or women will die.

Geordie dismisses the witch doctor’s prophecy; they’ve got a job to do. While they’re only supposed to be there as advisors, when the Alpha Commando unit are sent forward to capture a rebel controlled diamond mine, the SAS team are concerned they’re not ready and go along to keep an eye on things. There they find the rebel forces are bolstered by white mercenaries.

Not long after the government forces takes control at the mine, things take a turn for the crazy. Suddenly a target to the very men they were training, Geordie and his team make a run for it. While trying to stay alive and dodging the rebels, Geordie has to figure out what the hell is going on and why their allies suddenly turned against them.


This story is gritty and frightening throughout. The bloodlust fuelled actions of the Kamangan fighters and their supporters, on both sides, are truly savage. It’s hard to imagine people stooping to such deranged violence, but Ryan describes things in such a matter of fact way, you get the impression some of it is drawn from experience.

The suffering of Geordie’s friend Whinger after he’s badly burned in an explosion was particularly hard to read for someone who recently suffered a bad burn. I could truly imagine the agony and it made my stomach churn.

What this book is not is a clash between SAS soldiers and ex US Navy SEALs as the tagline and blurb promises. Indeed, the only character identified in the book as a former SEAL actually helps Geordie!

I found this irritating.

Let’s face it, I’d been promised SAS vs SEALs and the book never delivered, so I felt cheated. But there was more to it than that.

The expectation created by the blurb influenced the way I read the story. Because I’d been lead to believe that this SAS-SEAL clash was going to be a major part of the story, I was constantly waiting for it to happen. As I read the book I was trying to figure out when and how it would be revealed, and what the implications would be to the story when it did.

I felt like the tag line and blurb were calculated lies to trick readers into picking it up. While I understand the need for compelling blurb on a book, I don’t believe in false advertising like this. Not least because it disrespects the book’s actual content, which is well worthy of readers.

One part of the book I found puzzling was the bookend scenes which took place in the UK. The opening scene features Geordie on a picnic with his son, Tim, and supposedly gives context for Geordie telling the story, but there’s no way the story you then read is something even the most incompetent of parents would tell their kids. Indeed, at the end, Ryan even has Geordie reflect that he didn’t tell his son the specific details that were in the book. So why set it up as if that’s who he is addressing?

The opening scene does provide a view of Geordie that makes him seem human and normal and shows the backstory of his family life. And the closing scene allows Ryan to wrap up the open ends of the story as a series of questions which Tim asks about the story he heard. But I can’t help feel that the story would have started more powerfully around the campfire in Africa which starts chapter 2.

The plot of this book is… messy… in a good way. Not only are there stumbling blocks on the path of the pursuit of goals, like in any good story, but often the goals themselves shift unexpectedly. On occasions the characters achieve things which then turn out to be completely pointless or counterproductive, which is much more like real life. At the end of the book, Geordie’s son Tim asks if the mission was a failure and that’s exactly the question the reader is left thinking, partially because it’s hard to define what success would have looked like. This gave the book a strong sense of realism.

Tenth Man Down is a gritty, intense action-adventure that hints at the bloody truth of war and greed. This was the first Chris Ryan book I’ve read and on the basis of this I will be seeking out more.


I’ve been having a think about what makes a good piece of flash fiction, and while I don’t think I can say it any better than David Gaffney does in this article – Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction (which came out just before the very first National Flash Fiction Day in 2012) – I thought I would share a few thoughts.

1. Get It All Out First

Or as David Gaffney says in his article, “write long, then go short.” This is actually common sense in a way. When you draft your brain is creating as it goes. It’s natural to repeat yourself as you think of better ways to say what you want to say, on the fly.  You need to repeat yourself because the second or third way you brain comes up with to say something might better than the first.

It’s also natural to explore as you write, which creates tangents, distractions and irrelevancies as often as it discovers vital details. You won’t ultimately want half of what you uncover in a short piece, but you have to dig through rocks to find diamonds.

2. Find What’s Important

I recently took a 400 words first draft I really liked and cut it down to 150 words which I liked even more. I started by critically looking at my draft and highlighting the phrases and words which did the work; the ones which conveyed the story, rather than those that enriched, or worse, obscured it. There were actually very few of them.

3. Be in the Moment

For me, the best flash fiction pieces are scenes. This is a matter of taste, true. But there is a reason behind it: constraining a story to a scene constrains it to one moment.

Long fiction contains lots of moments but in flash fiction you only have a moment to create a moment. It could be the start of something, the end, or a change. It could be a moment of connection, realisation, or enlightenment.

Find the one moment you want to share and make the story about that, however you choose to write it.

4. Let the Reader Work for You

In flash fiction, you have to let the reader be an active participant in the realisation of the vision. I say let because writers can be control freaks about getting across their vision.

You don’t have the luxury to spend words and time on description in flash fiction. Trust that your reader will do this for you. Don’t worry about describing characters and settings, let the action show something of their nature and let the reader make up the rest however they want.

5. It Need Not End Here

Most flash fiction pieces will, by definition, be very open ended. They are short stories, moments, within the unspoken wider narrative of your characters’ lives. Let the idea of that wider narrative be there in the background and don’t stress over explaining it or tying up loose ends.


So that’s my top five thoughts on writing flash fiction. If you write something you’re proud of, be brave, share it with someone, or submit it to a publisher!

And on that related note…

The Great Escape Flash Fiction Competiton 2015

The site where I act as fiction editor is running a Flash Fiction Competition this month, in celebration of National Flash Fiction Day on Saturday 27th June.

It’s an open competition with fairly loose criteria, so why not share something you’ve written. Your story might get featured on our site and we could even offer you a spot in one of our anthologies. Visit for all the details.

The Great Escape's Flash Fiction Competition


This is a post about the futility of trying to make capital and physical punishment humane. I read an update on the case of Raif Badawi and (notwithstanding the complete injustice of his case as a whole*), I found myself thinking, this is insane. This is like…

The Land of the Headless

In the novel, Land of the Headless by Adam Roberts, society demands beheading as a punishment for certain crimes, but cannot reconcile this with its moral attitude to murder and death. Therefore they invent technology which allows them to carry out the prescribed punishment of beheading without it being a death sentence. Suffice to say the idea is seriously messed up and makes for a hard time suspending disbelief as a reader.

When I first came across this book, I found the concept completely unbelievable. Would a society really go so far to preserve the letter of religious law? Surely they would recognise that although “beheading” is the prescribed punishment, the implication is that the punishment is death by beheading. And if they did recognise that, surely they would simply change the punishment to something more appropriate in a society that had progressed beyond that which created the law in the first place.


Flogging the Humane WayStop the Lashes - Free Raif Badawi

In the news yesterday it was announced that, despite international protest, Saudi Arabia’s supreme court has ruled to uphold the sentence of 10 years imprisonment and 1000 lashes for blogger Raif Badawi. But, while the sentence has been upheld, at present the next batch of 50 lashes has still not been administered.

Several times now his lashes have been postponed on medical grounds. It seems the judicial system in Saudi Arabia is barbaric enough to sentence him to flogging, but civilised enough to make sure that said flogging doesn’t endanger his life, or cause permanent damage.

It seems likely that the prescription of 1000 lashes was originally meant to be the method by which the convict should die, because no one could survive such a torture. So surely Raif Badawi’s sentence should be interpreted as a death sentence. Instead, by advances in modern medicine, communication and so on, the Saudi’s are attempting to implement the prescribed punishment in a humane way.

They can’t justify lashing a man to death, so they find a way to interpret the law which allows them to stick to the details without carrying out the distasteful spirit of the law.

It’s frighteningly close to Roberts’ imagined concept of humane beheading.

It begs the question, as Robert’s book did, how far would religious fundamentalists go to preserve the letter of religious law while making it morally acceptable? If the technology existed to allow victims of beheading to continue living, would Islamic nations adopt it?

Meanwhile in the Beacon of Civilisation

Across the other side of the world, the US state of Texas last week executed a 67-year-old man convicted of multiple murders. Lester Bower had spent 30 years on death row while the sentence was postponed time and again. He was executed by lethal injection which is usually considered the acceptably humane method in the US.

What makes any one method of killing someone better than any other? What does it matter to the person to be executed whether they are unconscious or conscious, suffer for thirty seconds, or a minute, or an hour? Why would it matter whether they are physically and mentally well before they are strapped down? They’re going to be dead by the end of it anyway.

It’s total bullshit designed to make something that is not okay acceptable. None of it makes execution more humane, it simply makes society feel better about itself after it has done the deed.

Many US states are abolishing the death penalty as they slowly come to the conclusion that no matter how humane they try to make the method and circumstances, it will never be humane to end a human life.

Of course, it is far easier to change constitutional, secular law than it is law founded in religion.

Morals vs Morals

It’s clear that in the modern age, we (the societal we, that is) struggle to reconcile moral outrage with moral responsibility. Within any socio-economic context there are crimes which our moral sensibilities tell us need punishment. We cannot let someone get away with something that offends our sense of right and wrong. But our moral sensibilities also make it impossible to look past the reality of the punishments we deal out. Within any population, those two opposites may be represented by different groups of people, or by a shared personal, internal conflict.

We try to reconcile the two by focusing on the details in the hope that by making the details humane we somehow transform the punishment as a whole into something acceptable.

But really, what kind of messed up crap is that?

If a nation cannot find the conviction to abolish archaic, barbaric punishments, let them go back to public hangings and the stock, where convicted criminals were pelted with rotten vegetables by a baying crowd. At least that was honest, and better that than a land with headless people walking around.

* There has been much debate on the subject of Raif Badawi’s supposed crimes. He has been sentenced for blogging and encouraging free debate about religion, a right and freedom we in the west have enjoyed for a long time. I particularly wanted to highlight the insane and futile notion of trying to make inhumane punishments humane with this blog post, but if you’d like to find out more about Raif’s case, and how you can support the campaign for his release check out the link below:

Support the campaign to free Raif Badawi at Amnesty International


Would You Choose a Transplant?

An article today on the BBC news website covered a dramatic meeting between facial transplant patient Richard Norris and Rebekah Aversano, the sister of the man whose face he now wears.

Richard Norris was severely injured in a shotgun accident some 15 years ago. In 2012 he received a transplant from a motor accident victim; a whole new face. The transplant was one of the most extensive ever attempted and extended from his hairline down to his throat. The operation replaced Norris’s jaw, tongue and nose.

Because the tissue came from a donor, Norris will now live with a lifetime risk of rejection. He will have to take daily immunosuppressants which opens him up to infections and disease.

Tough choices

Reading about Richard Norris’ story got me thinking about the choices he, and others like him have to make. It’s hard to imagine living with a life altering disfigurement. There must be some really complicated head stuff going on, that’s for sure.

What if it was a hand? Lacking a hand makes life difficult, granted, but many amputees live perfectly normal lives, coping with prostheses. I’m sure all of them would agree if there was no downside, but why would someone be willing to live with a reduced immune system, risk of systemic disease such as diabetes, and probably a reduced lifespan in exchange for a partially functional limb?

Should a donor hand be rejected though, there’s always the option to remove it as in the case of the first successful hand transplant in 1998. The recipient of the hand, Clint Hallam, failed to bond with it psychologically, and eventually stopped taking his medication to force doctors to amputate the donor limb in 2001.

Norris has no such option to change his mind and if his body rejects his new face, he will die. There isn’t enough left of his own body to form viable structures and his old face is gone forever.

How much harder then must the decision be to choose a facial transplant? There aren’t many options for prostheses, but reconstructive surgery using the patient’s own tissues can do amazing things to restore functionality. With a facial transplant, on top of all the lifelong health impacts of other transplants, the constant threat of rejection carries with it a certain death sentence. How could anyone live with that hanging over them?

Worse than Death?

Perhaps acceptance of such risks is similar to the mentality which drives people with such afflictions to suicide. There must come a point where living with a disfigurement seems worse than death.

As a healthy, whole person, I struggle to comprehend what that point feels like. I simply have no experience or frame of reference. The closest I can come is to try and imagine life without some aspect or faculty of my body.

What frightens me most is the loss of my sight. There are very few things I do in my daily life that wouldn’t be affected. For one, how would I write? My thought processes are highly visual and without being able to write and read notes I couldn’t organise my thoughts. I would become cut off from the passions which motivate me in life. Without them, would I feel life was still worth living? I’d like to think I would adapt eventually, but I’m not sure I could.

If I lost my sight, and a transplant could restore it, at the cost of my health, would I do it? I think perhaps I would. I would certainly give it serious consideration.

Would you consider transplant surgery for something other than a life threatening condition? What would justify the health risks for you?


If you’re interested in reading more about Richard Norris try these links:

University of Maryland Face Transplant

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