Multiple reviews

This is a follow-on from my previous blog post about being asked by a review service to change my reviews to remove any critical opinion. I’m posting them anyway, because honest reviews are useful to readers and writers, and it will give readers an idea of the kind of information the “unacceptable” reviews included.

I’m happy to recommend the books here in any case. They are all 3-4*s.

Mr Frumble’s Hat by Kitty Boyes

Mr Frumble has two problems. He is terribly lazy and also so bad-tempered that he can’t keep any of his staff. When his gardeners, cleaners and cook high-tail it out of his house to look for better jobs, he’s left to cater for himself. As time goes by, Mr Frumble’s house becomes dirtier and dirtier. His kitchen is a cutlery catastrophe. His bedroom is a mess of unclean clothes. His garden is overgrown and his swimming pool (lucky man) is a sludgy green puddle filled with algae. Somehow, Mr Frumble puts up with this for ages, ignoring the mouldering mess of his home and sharing his breakfast with mice. Then, one day, a strange little man turns up wearing an even stranger hat. He offers to sort things out, confident that he and his hat are to the job. But his methods are not like anything Mr Frumble has encountered before…

Mr Frumble’s Hat by Kitty Boyes is a fun fable with a clever ending (although the title gives that away. It features colourful, characterful illustrations by Harry Aveira and a good core message about taking responsibility for your own mess.

It isn’t quite a five-star book for a couple of reasons. Firstly there are some grammar errors here and there. Every book should be as close to perfect as possible, but this is even more vital in children’s books. Young readers are only just starting to understand sentence structure and every story they read will feed into that. They deserve the best blueprint available.

Secondly, though the inside illustrations are great, the one on the front cover doesn’t really do them justice.

Boyes might have an uphill struggle marketing her Frumble books, as the very established children’s author Richard Scarry used the name first. But this is still worth searching for. I’d recommend reading both! Overall, this is an entertaining book.

(Can’t find a purchase link, but info available here)


Yuni by Stephanie DiCarlo


Yuni spends her life growing in a field. She’s an ear of corn, soaking in the sunlight and quite happy, at first, to remain rooted in place. Then she hears two birds twittering about a mythical animal, a magical beast with a long horn and a mane of sparkling hair. This sounds like nonsense to Yuni, but it sparks her curiosity.

With a mighty effort, she springs free of her husk and goes in search of something huge, strange and maybe dangerous. Because Yuni knows she’s ripe and good to eat – and what it the unicorn munches her up? Yuni, written and illustrated by Stephanie DiCarlo, is a tale of adventure and funny little homonyms. Yuni the corn is in search of a unicorn.

Told in rhyming couplets, the adventure is short and sweet (and fortunately – pardon the mild spoilers – it ends well. It’s a book for little kids, what would you expect?). The rhymes don’t always scan, and the rhythms don’t always match up, which is a bit of a shame. When they do work, they work well and have the potential to gently introduce new words into the reader’s vocabulary (I like shrewder/elude her).

The art is simple, almost naïve – but there are plenty of successful children’s books that take this route (example: everything by Lauren Child). I’d scale back on some of the blank pages, though. The copy I received had a few which were just white space or had only one small image in the corner. The story ends a bit abruptly, too.

Overall, a little rough around the edges but a unique (another hidden pun?) little story.

Buy it here.


The Strongest Boy by Renee Irving Lee9780648467212_p0_v1_s550x406.jpg

Max, a little boy has a funny idea of what it means to be strong. His pet parrot/imaginary friend, Bruce (who initially acts like the feathery green spirit of toxic masculinity) has the same view. Strength is nothing but brawn, stubbornness and a pure machismo.

When the little boy is invited to a party, this seems like the perfect opportunity to show off his “strength” – by smashing, crashing and crushing.

This doesn’t make him popular. The poor kid is left puzzled – understandably, given some of the ideas he (and Peter Power) have probably absorbed. Fortunately, Dad is around to offer some wise words and turn things around. Maybe he can win his friends back and perhaps even Bruce the musclebound parrot is capable of change, too…

The Strongest Boy by Renee Irving Lee is a lively, timely book with a good message. Far from undermining the idea of strength, it simply re-defines it in a positive way.

The illustrations are simple and vibrant. There’s nothing wrong with simple: it makes everything nice and clear. The artist, Goce Ilievski, has done a great job of bringing the story to life with bold, expressive characters and understated but warm backgrounds. I particularly like Bruce’s transformations. On the odd double-page spreads featuring a full illustration, the artist’s imagination is given space to unfold, with charming results.

This book would make a great talking point with children about tantrums and dealing with your problems constructively, all while maintaining a sense of fun and good humour. Some grown-ups could probably benefit from this lesson, too.


Buy it here.



Literature Obscura Review: Bear Kingdom

Bear Kingdom & the Golden Sword by Stacie Eirich, 14/20 – rounded up to 4*



Suzie, her brother Jack, and their allies from another world, Liam and Ellen, have set out on their quest. They have been tasked by Sampson, the Tiger King, to find the Book of Destiny and free his queen and cubs from their imprisonment in a remote castle.

Along the way, they will have to pass through a malevolent Arctic forest, through a snow-strewn mountain-range, and into an enchanted ice-fortress. They are aided by magical friends – dragons, a phoenix and others, who are unique to this volume of the Dream Chronicles, as well as enchanted artifacts. But the golden sword, a crown, a mysterious arrow and the key, held by Suzie, will not be enough to complete the quest. The children must show their own qualities and find their courage to overcome the bear king Knut and the dark spell which keeps his kingdom locked in cold darkness.

And, Suzie, the most ordinary member of the quartet, will have to go on alone, facing the dark might of the bear king.

I reviewed the first book in this series, Tiger Kingdom and the Book of Destiny a year or so back. I’m not sure if I’ve softened up since then or if Eirich has become a more confident writer, but I suspect the latter.

This is a huge improvement on the first book. All the things that were missing there – a sense of peril, a task to overcome, an antagonist, and crucially,  internal logic that helps cement the fantasy world – are present here.

The fearsome King Knut is an imposing figure, looming over the entire narrative. He is reminiscent of Iofur Raknison, from the His Dark Materials trilogy – except that this polar bear king wields magic – and there’s a hint he might be redeemable.

The characters, who were fairly interchangeable in the first book, are now much more distinct. Jack is heroic but foolhardy, Liam is distant and makes mistakes, and Elena may be more than human.

This is much faster-paced than the first book and, where the first story saw the children wandering aimlessly, this one is peppered with peril and adventure.

The story still has its flaws. There are grammar errors dotted throughout, like the inconsistent use of ampersands (though these could easily be fixed with a sweep through a checker, or caught by an eagle-eyed beta-reader) and the slightly laboured ye olde poetry pops up in dialogue here and there.

As a counterpoint, the language is often richly descriptive, allowing the reader to imagine the desolate mountain and the snowy landscape in detail.

The amount of help the children get from magical creatures pushes them into deus ex machina territory, and Eirich only narrowly avoids the Lord of the Rings “Eagles” problem  (a phalanx of dragons, who you’d expect would be able to airlift the protagonists at will, have to drop the protagonists off at certain points – inevitably dropping them in danger) by adding hints of the hazards that the flying beasts are unable to overcome.

But, overall, this is a huge improvement over the dreamlike and unfocused first tale. It has a true story arc and works well as a mid-point in the series while standing on its own. The writing is tighter and more confident, and it retains the better aspects of the original book, like the freeform poetry, while improving on it (this time, the poetry adds new details instead of re-treading the story).

While it isn’t perfect, I think this deserves four stars on the basis of how much Eirich’s plot, pacing and characterisation has improved. Colour me impressed.


What are reviews for?

This week I dipped my toe into the murky world of paid-for reviews. I’m not a fan of the idea of authors paying for reviews (I’ve never done that in isolation, though I did pony up for the slightly more pricey option at the Wishing Shelf Award, mainly because I know it’s a one-man operation and deserves support).

The WSA is transparent about what the money is used for and Edward (who runs it) puts a huge amount of effort into providing accurate and honest feedback from what amounts to a focus group. In my case, that was school children, and as I’d written a children’s book, I was really looking forward to getting feedback from my intended audience (most Amazon/Goodreads reviewers are adults, for obvious reasons).

It’s important that the people who sign up to the WSA enter knowing they are not guaranteed a positive review or a win. To find it, I also checked out the competition on Writer Beware (a great resource) and a couple of websites that check whether a contest is run for profit or for the love of writing. The WSA was consistently rated as a competition that put writers before wonga (and it is totally not-for-profit).

Anyway, I signed up for a group I’ll call Feeders Rave-it, just in case I get an angry email from a lawyer, although God knows what they’d have a problem with, as I’m very carefully wording this to avoid implying that the process is dishonest. All I’m going to do is explain how it works and then point out my problems with that.

This is the process:

You pick a book, download it and then write a 250-word review within a 21-day time limit. If you rate it at three stars or below, the organisation won’t post the review publicly, but you can send feedback to the writer to help them improve their work.

So far, I’ve only reviewed books submitted for free (I don’t think writers should pay for reviews – nor should they have to).

I earned the princely sum of $1 per review. The idea was to bank up a bit of money to enter my own books into competitions, and also to have a bit of fun reading colourful and funky books for young readers.

I sort of salved my conscience with the idea that a) this tiny amount of money is unlikely to bias my review, and b) I would be honest about what I found. This was, as a direct quote, “unacceptable”.

The first few reviews went okay. I got 5* feedback from the authors, who liked that I offered useful notes.

Then I got an email from my “editor” (why do you have an editor for reviews, exactly? Surely reviews should be authentic and reflect the opinion of the person who wrote them?).

I’d mentioned some grammar errors in two of the books. It does state in the rules that you should not do this, as indie authors can correct them quite easily (and, indeed, I have done this myself). Fair enough. I would have been happy to remove these, although the reasoning behind this is a bit shaky.  The service argues that a permanent review which mentions technical errors would be unfair because an author might change their work to correct some details later on – although, equally, they might not.

Then the editor also flagged a couple of other comments which made me very uneasy, because they are opinion-based and not technical.


“…the inside illustrations are great, [but] the one on the front cover doesn’t really do them justice.”


“Overall, a little rough around the edges but a unique little story.”

These were in otherwise positive  4* reviews.

According to the editor, I should redo the review according to their suggested content. Their suggestions were entirely positive (what I did like) or neutral. In addition, every review, I was told, should highlight the best aspects of every book.

I agree with that last bit – and I apply that in my reviews. But I don’t think a review should ignore flaws in the work. I’m genuinely not comfortable with this level of interference. As a reader, I look at reviews to offer helpful information. I don’t expect, or want, reviews to be entirely uncritical, as guaranteed good reviews are not reviews. They are advertising.  The whole point of a review is to point out the positives and flaws.

Saying something is a bit “rough around the edges”, for instance, is hardly devastating. Some people might like that kind of authenticity.

I regularly purchase books from all over. To be honest, I’m suspicious of books with universal high ratings and uncritical reviews because no book is perfect. I’d also be pretty annoyed if I bought a book expecting a polished production and ended up with something that wasn’t as brilliant as the review suggested.

As a writer, the reviews I receive include 3* comments (and, currently, one treasured 1* review, which was by someone whose reading profile indicated the book probably wasn’t their kind of thing anyway). I accept them and thank the readers for any constructive criticism they give. If there isn’t any constructive criticism, I just take it on the chin. I only step in when the reviewer has included something that’s factually incorrect. They are always entitled to their informed opinion.

The whole point of a review is to give an honest and balanced response. I was told very explicitly to change the comments because they would discourage buyers, but I believe buyers should be fully informed about what they are buying.

Feeders Rave-it boasts on the website that they only post 4/5* reviews. Again, fine. That’s their policy. However, the reviews I was “advised” to change were 4* reviews. In an exam, if you get 4/5, that means your entry was not perfect. Any accompanying feedback should reflect that. If the feedback is glowingly positive, and the star rating is not, then there is a clear mismatch.

In any case, I’ve withdrawn from the service. It just makes me feel icky. I want to help other writers and have a good time doing it, not feel like I need a shower after writing a review. I’m going back to my old habits, and I’ll be as honest as I want to be. The reviews, unedited, are visible here.

I might not get my payment for the reviews I’ve done, but at this stage, I don’t care.

Everyone has a price (so they say) and if I do, I don’t know what it is yet – but I know it isn’t a few dollars.

Literature Obscura Review: Justice: A Steward Saga

Justice: A Steward Saga by Janelle Garrett. 15/20:  4*



Trinn has given up on any idea of morality in her pursuit of revenge. Riddled with guilt at being unable to save her little sister Aura from execution, she has become a murderer and slaver. She will stop at nothing to finance her vengeance against the informer who gave away her sister’s secret. For Aura, and Trinn too, had Accessing powers, and could draw on the Deep to use forbidden magic.

Her tale opens as her boat, crewed by dangerous rogues and carrying a cargo of slaves, sails into a strange silver mist. The mist has strange properties. It whisks Trinn away from the present day, regardless of where she is and what peril she is in, and forces her to confront painful memories. These memories centre on betrayal, loss and horror – and in them, Trinn is not always the victim.

Her journey takes her across sea and land, into the deep woods and, ultimately, beyond her reality – and at the end, she will have to decide whether her history justifies her misdeeds, whether revenge is enough of a reason to keep living, and how you live with yourself when revenge is beyond you?

This is an unapologetically Christian brand of fantasy, but given the long pedigree of the subgenre, it won’t necessarily be a turn-off for irreligious types. If you were okay with the Chronicles of Narnia, you’ll probably be okay with this, a kind of bloodier and darker cousin.

The opening takes a running jump straight into the new world, and we’re asked to sit back and let all sorts of lore flow past us (the Deep, the Rift, Accessing). But the story soon settles down and becomes clearer. This is a world with its own magics and strange creatures, but it also borrows on more standard fare, like mermaids with a penchant for drag-and-drowning.

The author refers to this book as a series of five stories, but each of these interlock so much I’d be more inclined to call them sections of a novella. Either way, the plot moves fast, balances action and introspection and is tied together by its focus on the protagonist.

Trinn has done despicable things and maintains an unlikeable character most of the way through: she’s angry, defensive and her refusal to take responsibility becomes almost fanatical. This, of course, is her biggest flaw – and all the best characters are terribly flawed. It is her inability to face her own guilt that drives the narrative forward, and despite the interiority of the conflict, Garrett manages to keep things going with moments of peril and difficult choices.

There are a couple of issues. Some of them are very, very minor. There is a rogue apostrophe here and there (“Trator’s don’t get to be remembered or grieved), though the book is soundly edited and reads smoothly throughout. At other points, the language doesn’t quite echo the seriousness of the situation (Trinn “face-plants” a few times – a description that’s quite comic). In general, the writing is good quality.

In terms of structure, the mist acts as a bit of a deus ex machina, and is never fully explained (though a bit of mystery is okay in a fantasy story), and it seems like a bare-bones plot device used to explore Trinn’s history. Having said that, bouncing about between past and present is sometimes disorientating, but it doesn’t slow things down here, although I’m not sure about Trinn’s habit of collapsing whenever she goes into a trance state. Given how often it happens, she’d probably have hit her head at some point.

In terms of the Christian analogy, it’s clear this is a tale of the redemption of a prodigal child – which is fine, but rather unsubtle when a fantasy version of the parable is told in full (and I have a sneaking suspicion I know who “Isa” is meant to be, too).

I’m a bit on the fence about the rating, but on balance, there was enough to enjoy here that I’m happy to put this in the “good” bracket. This is a swift, pointed fantasy allegory full of drama and peril.

Top ten indies for World Book Day

As part of the Literature Obscura project, I’ve read through quite a few indie books over the last two years. As it’s World Book Day, I thought it was about time to rank the top ten indie books I’ve reviewed so far. Some of them are funny, others horrifying, some sad, others otherworldly – but they all impressed me in one way or another (and I’m a picky reader). Note – some of them are very low-price ($2 or less) or free at the time of writing – so get downloading!

Top ten Indie books for World Book Day


Spirit Houses by Die Booth (Twitter: @diebooth)
Elegant literary supernatural/horror.
Matter-of-fact Manda takes communing with demons and ghosts in her stride (though romance proves trickier) until the disappearance of a small child leads her into another dimension.

I Escaped North Korea by Ellie Crowe and Scott Peters (Twitter: )
A thrilling and educational story, well-researched, exciting and eye-opening.
Definitely recommended for middle-grade readers.


Sophie Queen of the Bee by Tonya Duncan Ellis @TonyaDEllis
Some of the words are a little complicated (it’s about a spelling bee, after all), but keen younger readers will enjoy them.
A funny all-rounder.

The Journey of Teddy and Marla by Godsteeth. @Gods_Teeth
Price: £20 (limited number available: hardcopy).
A magical and melancholy journey rendered in stark illustrations and poetic prose.
The Journey of Teddy and Marla is not on Goodreads or Amazon. Find out more by reaching Godsteeth on Twitter

Manna City by Geoffrey Pierce
$2.97 Kindle
Warning: this is not a cheerful read. Desperately dystopian but hauntingly engaging, this short novel follows the journey of a trio seeking a mythical city.


Sleep, Merel, Sleep by Silke Stein @_SilkeStein 
£3.92 Kindle
Merel’s “Sleep”, a tiny, violin-playing creature, vanishes. Merel enters a new world to escape eternal wakefulness. Spellbinding.

Children of the Furnace by Brin Murray. YA Dystopia.
Calling this a fusion of Mad Max, the Hunger Games trilogy and A Clockwork Orange would be unfair. Children of the Furnace is its own creature; brutal, streamlined and fascinating.
Price: unknown. Temporarily unavailable but worth checking out when it’s back.

Doc Chaos – The Chernobyl Effect by David Thorpe @DavidKThorpe
£2.15 Kindle
This is weird, weird, weird, and I like it. Add horror, surrealism, a whackload of nuclear paranoia and a stewing mess of split atoms.
NOT for younger readers.

The Buried Few by M. J. Lau
$3.14 Kindle
This isn’t a perfect book, but it lingered with me for days after I read it.
Set in the near future, parents have are carefully monitored – and no one is free to have children without permission. One couple ends up fighting the system.

When The Music Stops by JT Fuller.
Luscious Victorian male-male romance. Short, sweet and sexy. NOT for younger readers.


Taryn’s Hunt: a Gryphon’s Story by Chrys Cymri @ChrysCymri
An imaginative other-world (rather than underworld) crime fantasy. Novella. Suitable for YA and up.


I won’t rate my own book, as that’s a bit cheeky, but it is free, so I’m dropping the link here as a reminder (and you can make up your own mind).
Ship Rats by me (@RhianWaller)
An adventure involving a storm, a stowaway and a silly little rat. Lu and her sisters join a voyage to Jamaica and must learn how to be Ship Rats to survive the trip.
Suitable for middle-grade (and slightly younger) readers.

Literature Obscura Review: Taryn’s Hunt

Taryn’s Hunt: A Gryphon’s Storyby Chrys Cymri. 4/5 (15/20 rounded up) – a solid story.


Taryn is a cheetah-falcon hybrid, and she’s about the size of a house-cat. But, with wings, claws and a touch of ingenuity, she’s more than a match for most of the petty criminals of her city.

That city is populated by various species: vampires brush shoulders with wer-bears, cockatrices shop downtown, dragons live in enormous hall-like houses and elves drink in bars specially designed to accommodate them. These are the creatures that have given up on their traditional territories to live together – but harmony is hard to find.

The story opens as Taryn and her partner take down a vampire suspected of several crimes – just one of the many trouble-makers netted by the feisty gryphon. Just as she thinks the case is wrapped up, the suspect is bailed by an unknown benefactor. Equally as mysteriously, the vampire ends up dead. The only clues are the scents left behind by the murderer. Taryn’s feathers are ruffled even more when she is assigned a new partner: a human called Peter. Peter must acclimatise to a world without forensics or due process in time to help Taryn catch her – well “man” would be the wrong word, really…

This is a novella and a great introduction to the Penny White universe.

The story is written like a fairly standard crime procedural, with light description, matter-of-fact language and an emphasis on twists, turns and red-herrings. The world is sketched in sparsely, and there isn’t much poetry to the prose. Having said that, the style works well, the familiar, pared-down crime format serving to highlight the strangeness of a world full of supernatural creatures.

There’s even a nod to some of the most established crime clichés – with a twist. You have the odd-couple partners – but one of them isn’t human. There’s an alcoholic with a dark history, but it isn’t Taryn.

The characters are relatable, despite their inhumanity. Taryn is feisty and high-strung, demanding that her partners keep up with her. Peter, as the human thrown into an alien environment, makes a manful effort to learn and keep within the customs and demands of his new beat.

There are a couple of factual issues (policeman Peter, for instance, should know that coroners don’t investigate crime scenes. They act more like arbitrators in a public judicial process that is designed to established who died, when, where and why). These could be addressed pretty easily.

On the plus side, there are lots of extra little quirks that go beyond basic world-building. The use of Welsh as a lingua-franca was fun (my first name should give you a hint of why that appealed to me) and I loved the flying rat postal-service (again, that could have been tailored for me – although the rodents are perhaps not as benevolent as they might first appear. Hopefully there will be a winged-rat goodie in another of Cymri’s books!).

In all, this was a fun, fast-paced and intriguing read. The only real down-side was that the Kindle version was at 70%, I was looking forward to seeing where the story would go next and then wham! – it was over. That’s a good sign though, in a way. Clearly this was good enough to make me want to read on.



5 Star Golden Reads 2018

I’m a bit late to the party. Somehow I missed this. Better late than never, though. How lovely is this?

Working Title Blogspot

This list is not an exclusive list of all the great Indie books out there – or even all the great indie books we have read this year. It is a well-considered recommended reading list of books we have enjoyed in the last twelve months, consciously spanning genres and all books we have given 5 stars in a review.

The main thing is we recommend these books wholeheartedly and if you have yet to read them you should consider doing so if they are in a genre you enjoy.

So, onto the list. This is given in alphabetical order of author name and there is no ranking. All are stonking good reads!

The Working Title Blog 5 Star Golden Reads for 2018

Tales from the SeasideClaire Buss
Little stories with a light touch and an innate sense of pace.

The Nest of NessiesChrys Cymri
Can we…

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My former Sensei from Full Circle Martial Arts jokingly asked me to write a haiku for his dojo. Because I can’t stop at one, here are 13 poems! Each one is a senryū or tanka (verse). They’re similar to haiku, but they are about people rather than nature.

Did you know: you don’t have to stick to the 5-7-5 rule. Japanese is very different to English, and their kanji are loaded with extra meanings. The 5-7-5 syllable rule was only ever a rough guide.

Find out more about senryū here:

More here: on Wikipedia. A note on syllable count in tanka: here.

Click on the pictures to move the slideshow. You might have to zoom in a bit on your browser (ctrl and + on PC, command and + on mac) to see the words clearly.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The best agents and publishers that have rejected me (so far)

My very good friend Bea is trying to go the traditional route. It isn’t quite working, yet…


I’m trying to get my book, Naughty Victorian Days, published.

Unfortunately, most publishers and editors are based in cities several hundred miles from me, and I don’t have the funds to visit them in person.

This means they have all missed out on my usual publishing pitch, which includes a creamy cocktail, gifts of chocolate willies and an erotic dance.

I have to rely on this thing called “e-mail”, which is the written equivalent of chipping off shards of your soul and then flinging them into the void.

Every publisher or agent wants you to do something slightly different. Use size 10 font, Times New Roman or Wingdings only. Use 1.5 spacing. Use double spacing. Put your name in the header. Remove all traces of your identity from the sample. Remove all formatting. Underline every other word. Give us the whole manuscript. Give us 13.6% of the manuscript…

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From Brain to Book

Things have been moving on, somehow. I’m moving on from the Rat Tales books to my next project(s). I have re-started my 365-leap challenge (writing a piece of flash fiction or a poem every day) after abandoning it two-thirds of the way through about ten years ago.
Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 20.51.28.png

The artwork for An Ode to a Toad is pretty much finished, so that will go out to publishers soon. I’m pitching a very odd book for Bea St. Lee (five rejections and counting…) I’m also a third of the way through the first draft of Reality Code.

I’ve been writing on buses, on trains and whenever I can snatch a minute here and there.

I get a little paranoid when I’m writing. I write by hand so I don’t spend my entire day looking at screens – and so I’m not distracted by the lure of the internet. That means I have to transcribe what I’ve written before I lose my notebook to fire, water or curious pet. This is useful in some ways, as it allows me to edit as I go. I cut out big chunks of waffle. It never gets into the Word doc. But touch-typing can lead to errors.

So here is the fairly-raw first chapter of Reality Code, pre proper editing.

Reality Code

When I die – and that might not take long, the way things have been going – I expect today to be in the second worst moments of my life. The first, the one that’ll be at the top when the big scoreboard pops up, was the day everything started.

I’ve always followed the Manual. Mum and Dad saw to that. I never doubted the Code or the Designer. So it was a bit of a shock when my sister stood up during the temple meeting and announced, in the most dramatic way possible, that she’d turned Griefer. She did it by leaping onto the pew in the middle of silent prayer. She pulled off her top, whirled it around in her hand and whooped.

“Kerulion, get down!” Mum hissed.

“Why?” shouted my sister. She looked insane, tap-dancing half-topless on the wooden seat. She struggled with the clip of her bra. I put my head down and covered my eyes. No one wants to see that.

The temple was big. It enclosed the whole population of the town in its white walls and the preacher was way out front and hadn’t noticed the interruption. But the people nearest were trying to get away.

I put my face in my hands.

“She’s a Griefer!” said a little old lady behind us, her voice reedy and brittle.

“No, no she’s not!” said Mum.

Dad made a grab for Keru before she tore her bra free – thankfully – but she sprang away and went running down the aisle, black hair flying behind her like a silk scarf. She swirled her top over her head like a helicopter rotor blade and laughed. I risked a look. People stood as she ran past, so I saw heads rippling up.

“Stop her!” someone shouted. Hands snatched, but she dodged them all. I watched her glorious, awful slalom up to the front. She was always good at athletics.

“Oh, programmers pants,” I groaned as she cannoned into the priest. He looked up at the litany too late. The little man went flying, his Manual dropping to the marble floor. My sister turned. She wore a wild grin and she turned it on the three-thousand souls scrumming, some trying to catch her, others to get away. No one wants to be near a Griefer. It might be catching. Her breakdown, there, in the temple, was blasphemy.

Dad was already up there. Mum clutched my wrist so hard I could feel her fingers on my bones. Screams echoed from pillar to pillar. Shouts were cupped and flung back at us by the cloud-painted ceiling.

“Should I…?” I whispered.

“No,” said Mum, fierce with shame and concern.

“It doesn’t matter,” I heard my sister’s strong voice rise. “It doesn’t matter what we do. None of it matters. We’ll just start again. If it’s not real then why should we follow the rules? You only tell us how to live because it’s how you want us to do. But we could just do what we want. And I… I want to sing!”

She bounced up and down and started belting out the chorus from an old punk song. Then, just when I didn’t think my stomach could plunge any further, the police arrived. One of them shouted for everyone to stand back – and even my Dad obeyed – and then they shot my sister with a Taser.