Three Line Tales : The secrets of Zed Alley

three line tales week 57: unicorn this way

photo by Fleur Treurniet via Unsplash


The alleyway smelled of oil and clogged drains, it rattled with chip trays and balls of greasy paper that the wheelie bins trapped and kept. The place wasn’t marked on a map and it didn’t have a signpost, though years back someone whispered Zed Alley and that name passed from one person to another, becoming more solid as the years rolled by until it belonged.

When folk think of magic it doesn’t come alone, it comes with half-melted candles and old, heavy books written in secret languages and cloaks with stars and moons stitched in gold thread … not with half-eaten burgers and broken tarmac.

But then what people think isn’t always clever or sensible or right and Zed Alley held more magic than a warehouse full of candles, more than a thousand crumbling spell books. Because there you would find Miss Hollow’s stable for unicorns  …


Written for Sonya at Only 100 Words’ Three Line Tales. Always an inspiring photo to prompt a wayward tale. See here to join in and to read the other stories.

Here is the real Zed Alley in the centre of Bristol – much nicer than my make believe version. And for more strange Bristolian road names, see here.

Zed Alley

  © Copyright Neil Owen and licensed for reuse under thisCreative Commons Licence


The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper : Creepy quote of the day

Crow caught in a spider's web

Image: Pixabay


Young Will Stanton has discovered he is one of the Old Ones, defenders of the Light against the forces of Darkness. It’s Christmas Day and the service has just ended at the local country church. Snow has the land in an icy grip, sinister black birds lurk in every tree and as the congregation fades away, the Dark pins Will and other Old Ones inside the church …

The Old Ones stood in the doorway of the church, their arms linked together. None spoke a word to another. Wild noise and turbulence rose outside; the light darkened, the wind howled and whined, the snow whirled in and whipped their faces with white chips of ice. And suddenly the rooks were in the snow, hundreds of them, black flurries of malevolence, cawing and croaking, diving down at the porch in shrieking attack and then swooping up, away. They could not come close enough to claw and tear; it was as if an invisible wall made them fall back within inches of their targets. But that would be only for as long as the Old Ones’ strength could hold. In a wild storm of black and white the Dark attacked, beating at their minds as at their bodies, and above all driving hard at the Sign-seeker, Will.


The lovely Mandibelle 16 has nominated me for the Three Quotes, Three Days – thanks Amanda – which is a lovely thread where bloggers post edifying quotes to inspire and encourage others.

Sadly, I find I am not the inspiring and encouraging type. So I thought I’d spin the prompt into something more ‘me’ and (it being the season for the scary) post some favourite quotes from crackingly terrifying books instead.

I can’t talk about Susan Cooper’s criminally underrated* The Dark is Rising without, quite frankly, coming across as a bit weird. 

It is without doubt the book that has shaped me the most so far as taste in literature and my own writing is concerned. It’s the mix of Christmas and the snow covered English countryside and pagan, Celtic and Arthurian myth, magic and danger and good versus evil. I’ve basically been looking all my life for a book that will take hold of me the way this book did. Still searching.

*I only say this because so many people haven’t heard of or read these books. Which should be a criminal offence – no exceptions.

P.S I have not watched the film adaptation made in 2007 where all pagan elements were removed along with most of the back story and several major characters and our hero became American. With apologies to my lovely blogging cousins across the Atlantic, but that’s like adapting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and having Tom Sawyer come from a council estate in Central London. Poor show! 

Welcome to the ‘beautiful jungle’ of kids’ fiction


Image: Pixabay

You wait for one blog post about the merits of children’s fiction, and then two come along at once ...

The other day, I was whining on about how underrated kid’s literature was. How the adult reading public tend to see the classification YA or childrens’ and flee like kittens on a hot griddle.

I was pontificating about how serious the themes in YA often are, how high the quality of writing is in books such as Booker Longlister Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. How not all fiction for young people drips with vampires and werewolves and soppy, sparkly love triangles.

People just don’t read the stuff, I whined. Why won’t anyone listen to me? I prattled. Seriously, if you want to read a writer in full whinge mode, then here is a good place to start.

And then do you know what happened?

The next day – the very next day – after that blog was blogged, the Costa Book of the Year was announced. Formerly the Whitbread Book Awards, they’re a pretty deal. Previous winners include Ian McEwan, Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie, Ted Hughes, Hilary Mantell – some of the biggest of the big hitters in literary terms.

There are categories for first novel, novel, biography, poetry and children’s books and then an overall winner is chosen.

And that winner this year was …

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge – a novel written for children featuring a 14-year-old heroine.

Now, I’m not saying tha Costa judges allowed the contents of this blog to sway their final decision. I would never suggest I have the ear of such a prestigious group of people, though it seems a hell of a coincidence, doesn’t it?

And, though I haven’t yet read The Lie Tree I will definitely search it out in the future – it’s a Victorian murder mystery which involves science, gender politics and a tree that grows when you whisper lies to it. What’s not to love about that presmise?

It’s only the second time the Costa Book of the Year has been won by a children’s book, the first one being … The Amber Spyglass

Now, I’m sure the total of £35,000 in prize money Hardinge won will be very much appreciated.

But even better in my view, will be the increase in attention and sales, which will perhaps spill over to other kid’s writers.

As Hardinge said when accepting the award,

For those people who might be hearing this who think that children’s and YA fiction is not their thing please do come and explore – there’s a beautiful jungle out there.


There were some other, very fine nominees for the award, my particualr favourite being Kate Atkinson –  if you haven’t read any of her books, you could do worse than start with her debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum.


Books in the Blood # 9: I am the Cheese by Roger Cormier


Did you have a teacher that made your life a living hell?

You know the type. The kind of unreasonable, dead from the inside-out, black-hearted spawn of Beelzebub who would randomly give you detention for no reason. Well, maybe they’d use some feeble excuse like you didn’t hand in homework, or handed it in late or handed it on time but it was encrusted with desiccated baked beans, which is apparently ‘unacceptable’.

Maybe you had some twisted, power-crazed sociopath who didn’t appreciate the needlecraft skills you had to employ to alter your tent-like, A-line, school regulation skirt so that it was actually fashionable. Okay, this meant taking the seams in, making the skirt so tight you had to walk as though you had a saucer clamped between your knees – but surely this was a small price to pay to defend your right to individualism and freedom of expression.

And, okay, you were caught standing outside the school gates, holding a lit cigarette but was that any reason to take away your Prefect’s badge? You should have been rewarded really, as the fag actually belonged to the Head Girl – Sister Mary-Angela’s pet – for whom you took the wrap, which at the very least demonstrated your strength of integrity and moral fibre.

Free the St. Thomas Moore RC Comp One, I say!

And don’t get me started on P.E teachers. I spent all of my spare time reading books, which common sense would tell you meant I had the upper body strength of an asthmatic hamster. Surely, no such person should be expected to climb a rope? And surely, when that person couldn’t climb a rope, it’s not pleasant or reasonable to make the rest of the class stop what they’re doing, gather round in a circle and watch said person FAIL to climb a rope over and over …

P.E teachers of the world – we do not forget.

BUT … and it’s a huge BUT …

There are always two sides to every coin, even if that coin at first seems tarnished and made of debased metal.

Mrs Anne Shimwell.

Mrs Shimwell was the shiny side of my school coin. She was my English teacher, and a nicer, sunnier, more positive and optimistic soul you’ll never find. She loved literature and encouraged those of us who loved it too to get out there and discover new books, to cherish old ones, to write passionately and openly, to learn, learn, learn. She made words exciting.

It was Mrs S who saw my love of books, who stoked my enthusiasm with her own, who challenged me to read today’s Books in the Blood

I Am The Cheese by Roger Cormier.

Up until then, I read whatever I fancied – mainly fantasy, adventure stories. I Am The Cheese is darker fare than that.

It follows a teenage boy – who we assume has mental health problems – speaking to his therapist. The boy has lost chunks of his memory, isn’t sure at times what’s happened to his parents, what’s happened to him, or even of his own identity. It’s a tough read about memory, alienation, loss and state control. It is deeply unsettling and has a truly downbeat ending and I’m not sure I entirely understood it at the time.

But without Mrs S I would never have read it at all. Actually, without her patience, guidance and encouragement, I wouldn’t be writing this.

Thank you, Mrs Shimwell – you were truly an inspiration.

Years ago, I sent a letter to Mrs S via my old school, telling her what a wonderful teacher she was – she was kind enough to reply. If you had a teacher who made a difference to your life, I heartily recommend you do the same.

books in the blood #4 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen


If you read Friday’s post How to be an escape artist (and quite honestly, if you didn’t where the heck were you, sunshine?) then you’ll know that as a child/ young adult/ not-so-young-adult/ middle-aged fart, I love to vanish down the plughole of my own brain.

It’s a beautifully soothing experience, this slipping away, soft and enveloping as a warm marshmallow cushion, as involving as having a virtual reality chip implanted in your cerebellum. In your head, you’re standing on your windswept hilltop, busting out of your stays as the smouldering, razor-cheeked man of your dreams gets his breeches in a tangle over just how ruddy marvellous you are. There’s probably a stallion big enough for two on hand. And hounds.

Well, when I was a nipper, before a tsunami of hormones swept in and gave my imagination a good kicking, before steamy heroes and the contents of their ‘fall front’ (look it up) were of such fascination, my brain brimmed with other men.

These chaps were cut from a different cloth. Usually elderly in a sprightly, twinkly-eyed way, generally friendly but with a chip of flint driven into their hearts, they would take my hand and whisk me down the rabbit hole. We’d visit new realms, dangerous ones where school was a memory, along with homework, parents, boredom and personal hygeine.

With these old men – and they’re usually VERY old, I mean we’re talking the kind that as a young man bounced the baby Methuselah on his knee – I could be brave, ingenious, fleet of brain and foot, a crafty adventuress who could fight the bad guy, save the world and be back home in time for tea and the Antiques Roadshow.

In the company of these old men, I was no longer the girl who was picked last for sports teams, who could barely swim a length or who was humiliated in front of the whole class by her P.E teacher (you know who you are) because she just really, truly didn’t have the upper body strength to climb a rope.

I was SUPER-ME. Though the old duffers I dreamed of hadn’t been bitten by radioactive invertebrates, weren’t closet PVC-wearing billionaires or members of some secret largely-masculine-and-wholly-posturing government agency, but


I loved a good wizard. Old, cranky, mercurial, stinking of sulphur and saltpetre, strung with amulets and mummified animal parts, preferrably with a beard large enough to hide a cub scout troup in. During primary school, these chaps were my male role models. All right, maybe I would’ve preferred less focus on toxic plant materials and potions and more on bathing and the odd visit to the barber, but they were the pup’s nuts.

The best I found as a we’en? Stand aside Gandalf, Merlin and the Great Soprendo. Make way for the star of this week’s Book in the Blood, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner …

Cadellin Silverbrow.

He’s ancient, odd, twisty in his moods (tick those wizardy boxes), he’s there to help and guide our heroes – brave children, natch – but regularly leaves them alone in dangerous situations, giving them plenty of opportunity to be almost killed by baddies.

The story’s set in Cheshire, under Alderley Edge, a place heavy with witch legends and ghost stories which isn’t too far from where I grew up. It’s set in the countryside and filled with good, strong post-war Englishmen and women with names like Bess, Susan and Gowther Mossock. It has a truly horrifying witch, some very scary chases through cave systems involving hundreds of slithery, Orc-like goblins who would eat a nicely brought up child soon as cough.

It’s a widely acclaimed kids classic and Cadellin is its guiding light. 

Now I’m older, I’d like a mixture of the steamy hero and the crumbly wizard, please. A man who can have your heaving corset unlaced with one smouldering look and enchant the house so it’s self-cleaning.