Furious Fiction October 2019 winner and shortlist

Furious Fiction celebrated its 21st fabulous instalment this month – and we marked the occasion by tipping out 20 of the previous winning words and asking you to pick some for your story. Plus, because it was our birthday-but-you-get-the-presents, we wanted stories set in either a LIBRARY or BOOKSHOP (cue writerly swoons). To clarify, the exact criteria for October were:

  • Each story had to take place in a LIBRARY or BOOKSTORE
  • Each story had to include AT LEAST SIX of the following 20 words – each taken from the openings of the previous 20 Furious Fiction winning stories:
    • BROKEN; MUSIC; AROUND; MECHANICAL; SMELT; GRUBBY; GAME; COFFEE; BEIGE; HANDS; TWELVE; LETTERS; BACKPACK; NAMELESS; COWBOY; OPERATE; CUPID; TRAIN; PUNGENT; UNTOUCHED

And so our twelve hundred, pungent and broken Furious Fiction writers smelt their untouched coffee, put on some beige music and began the mechanical game of crafting letters into around 500 words – forced to operate their train of thought with hands flinging story arrows from their backstory backpack, Cupid style; a nameless cowboy in this grubby Wild West of words…

Every month, all entries are blind judged (no names seen until they’ve been chosen) and this month’s winning story belongs to Megan Blandford of Victoria, Australia. Congrats Megan! She pockets the $500 that we slipped into our birthday card, and you can read her story along with other shortlisted ones below.

Thanks to all who entered. If you don’t see your name here, don’t despair – the stories are many, the standard high and the judging furious. Next month could totally be YOUR month to shine!


OCTOBER 2019 WINNER

BROKEN by Megan Blandford, Vic

There’s a mistake in every book. Every single one. Guaranteed.

I call them the ninjas, these little broken bits of error that escape the eyes of multiple humans—nameless humans who are trained in, of all things, spotting mistakes—to make their way into a book that’s printed, sitting on library shelves, in bookshops, everything.

I take inspiration from these ninjas, as I sit in the school library with a novel plonked open on the table and a pen in my right hand. The librarian and her assistants smile upon seeing me at lunch break; their joy at seeing a thirteen-year-old read so many books is cool in a kinda weird, beige way. I smile back, not even trying to hide the pen. If you do the wrong thing while looking like you’re doing the right thing, no one suspects a thing.

Just ask the tiny ninjas in all these books: hiding in plain sight is where it’s at.

I started this in grade two. I’d sneak into the library, favourite pencil in my grubby dress pocket, before it shut for recess. The school library of a public primary school is completely lame: it’s closed more than it’s open, so you have to use stealth to get in there.

It was the best way to avoid the taunting girls and the boys who made a hobby out of punching me in the gut. When you’re ten centimetres taller than everyone you stand out. “Girls shouldn’t look like that,” they said.

Yeah, well, maybe girls shouldn’t lock themselves in libraries to fix the mistakes in books, but here we are.

I was so happy to start high school this year, because I’d got through all the books in that tiny primary school library. Now, it’s time to move on to more books; bigger books. The odds are way better: if you’ve got one mistake in a junior novel, then chances are you’ll find around two or three in a book that’s double the size.

The librarian, Ms Joans—with spelling that looks like a ninja waiting to be corrected—pulls a seat next to me and puts her big bum in it. “How are you enjoying that story?” she asks, quietly. “It’s quite intense for someone your age.”

I stare at her. “No, all good.” Her hands pat my shoulder as she walks back to the trolley amid a couple of rows of non-fiction. I’m hoping to get to that section within two years.

The story? I’m not in it for stories. I’m in it for the tiny ninjas. The words don’t make a story: the letters make a word that sits next to another word, each one an opportunity for the letters to read ‘ni’ instead of ‘in’ or ‘it’s’ when it should be ‘its’.

I’m in it, pen at the ready, to catch the ninjas that think they can get away with bloody anything. I’m in it to make sure these books aren’t as broken as me.

What we loved:
With a beginning that tugs at our curiosity (spotting typos should be an Olympic sport!), this story is engaging from beginning to end. We are met with a firmly authentic tween narrative voice – free of cliché and instead finely layered with quirkiness, melancholy and originality that rings true throughout. Our protagonist’s mission is just one of those gentle unspoken (“shhhh!”) stories happening every day ‘between the lines’ in libraries around the world – and this story cleverly conjures a compelling character who you can’t help but root for as she hunts down those elusive ninjas that lurk among us. A simple yet powerful ending we can all relate to at that age.


SHORTLISTED

SWIPE LEFT by Charles Duncan, Qld

My orders were clear – swipe left. In the old code, it would have read Eliminate.

I’d grabbed a new release paperback and settled myself in a corner where I could scrutinise everyone who approached the return chutes where the transaction was supposed to occur.

It was an odd setting for a potentially messy operation, but that was the Establishment’s fault, not mine. Quiet environments made me nervous…the occasional click of a computer mouse, the gentle hum of the air conditioner, the respectful rumble of the automatic doors when they opened to admit another patron…I’d have preferred somewhere open and noisy, perhaps with live music. 

I knew nothing of the Target – the only intel I’d been given was that they’d be carrying a certain title.

I came prepared for anything. The tools of my trade were primed and ready and bulged at odd angles from the backpack at my feet.

There! A granny, floral dress, beige cardigan, grey bun, book in hand – was trotting towards the rendezvous. I selected my weapon, a syringe, and moved in just as she was placing Crime and Punishment into the chute.

She caught my reflection in the perspex at the last moment and turned, swinging her handbag at my head. It connected and I reeled backwards, stunned to find its contents felt more like concrete than embroidered handkerchiefs and lipstick.

“That book was due a week ago!” I growled.

“You’ll not get me that easy!” she yelled, whipping a gun from her blouse. 

Mine was still in my bag. Rooky mistake.

I dove into the closest aisle, taking cover behind a wall of sci-fi as the first bullet thudded into the spine of War of the Worlds.

“You’ve borrowed your last book, Granny!”

“Try and stop me,” she cackled.

The other patrons were dashing for the exits. Screaming mothers dragged wide-eyed children after them until, seconds later, it was just me and Granny.

I scrambled to the end of the aisle as Granny turned the corner and let off two more rounds. 

I flung myself into Literary Fiction. With nothing else to defend myself, I swept a handful of hardcovers from the shelf and began throwing them at her like literary frisbees.

She squeezed off two more shots; one punched a hole clean through the Entire Works of Shakespeare while the other ricocheted off Train to Budapest mid-flight.

The fight moved through Mystery & Thriller, Fantasy, Romance then around to non-fiction where we turned the Dewey Decimal System upside-down. 

Finally, we paused, both too exhausted to continue. I surveyed the mess. Books lay everywhere, pages torn, spines broken…such carnage.

“I suppose you know what this is,” she said pressing her gun against a small, brown volume. 

“No! Please! That’s a first edition.”

“Tell them to leave me alone or the book gets it.”

I nodded meekly.

She was gone.

I had no choice but to call it in. I spoke into my watch phone, “Colon, open parenthesis. We…lost connection.”

What we liked:
As previous recipients of the dreaded 30c overdue library book fine, it was with excitement that we welcomed the considerably raised stakes here. Gun-wielding Granny has borrowed her last book… or has she? The resulting tour through the sections of the library is hilariously peppered with wonderful descriptions (‘literary frisbees’; ‘turned the Dewey Decimal System upside-down’) while book titles feature as innocent bystanders to this fully-lit(erary) action scene. The only thing that could have improved it would be if it had been called “Chute Out”…


SHORTLISTED

BOOKMARK by Russell Fox, SA

“Ambulance.” I turned the chattering radio down on my chest at the lady’s frown. “Elderly woman in distress?”

The librarian pulled her glasses off, pointing to a long aisle.

“Down the back.” She sipped her coffee, eyes wide. “Romance. Large Print.”

I nodded and made my way along the carpet tiles. I was conscious of the swishing of my uniform in the perfect quiet. Quizzical looks. Why was I here? What had happened? They peered from behind their newspapers, novels and laptops.

I padded along in the silence, breathing in the musty hardbacks. I found her at a beige formica table, sitting with a young man who kept wringing his hands. She was trembling. Refusing water. A book lay shredded in front of her.

“Ambulance?”

He looked up and rolled his eyes. “Thank God. Yes, this is she.”

I knelt in front of her as he scuttled away. She didn’t look up. I placed my backpack on the table, unzipping it. Her eyes slowly focussed.

“Hello.” I rummaged about for my penlight. “My name’s Alex. You are…?”

She flinched at my voice. Her lips pursed as if she was coming back from a long way away. She smelled of pungent lavender.

“Alex?” She muttered.

I nodded. “What’s your name? Do you know where you are?”

She met my eyes then looked away. “The library. Where he came. Every Thursday.”

“Who’s that, love?” I held up my light. “Just checking your eyes, okay?”

Her eyes snapped to mine. A good sign. Her look was sharp.

“My husband. Derek.” She touched her snowy fly-away hair, then waved me away. “I’m fine, really.”

We both looked to the broken book on the floor. Her voice was mechanical. “Did I do that?”

“Yes, love.” I took her wrist, checking her pulse. “They called. Said you were a bit upset?”

“Yes, I suppose I was.” She gave me a tight smile. “Thing is, Derek’s recently passed and I’d lost his precious bookmark.”

Her pulse checked out. “Special was it? Looked for it here?”

She looked down at the mash of pages. “He only ever borrowed romances. Never let me see the damn thing. A bookmark! Can you believe it?”

She gave a sharp laugh. Her fist tightened, revealing a small blue tassel. “Thirty years of marriage and he kept this one little secret.”

“And you couldn’t find it?” I kneeled back. “Is that why you’re upset?”

She looked down at her hand. “No. I found it. Do you want to see?”

I took it from her. It was nothing more than a grubby piece of blue card with cotton tassel. There were some faded letters I couldn’t make out. 

I handed it back. “Sorry, love. No glasses.”

She took it from me, tilting her chin back. “Derek—for all our years of love and passion together. Love, Peg.”

“That’s great, Peg. Glad you found it.” I blushed as I smiled up at her. “Alright now?”

“Fine.” Her lip curled. “Except, I’m not Peg.”

What we liked:
A change of pace here, in this simply told but tightly constructed scene thanks to well-crafted dialogue and good pacing. The first person narrative is used not for any overly dramatic effect, but rather a believable mix of careworn duty – which when combined with the good use of sensory details ultimately unfolds into this study of grief and the kind of bitter betrayal that can only be awarded posthumously. Some marks don’t fade.


SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Katie Trebs, NSW

Rain and sweat mingled into rivulets and streamed down my face. The city streets flashing by, I pounded onwards, sprinting with all my strength and speed, raw survival instinct scorching through my veins. I snatched a glance backwards.

They were gaining on me. 

I rode the fresh surge of adrenaline and rounded a corner. The footsteps drawing closer behind me hammered a death knell on the pavement. I had to think quickly. I’d never outrun them. Losing them was my only hope now. 

A side alley – I darted down it. A dead end. A doorway at the end. Grubby cobwebbed glass in the door, a faded OPEN sign hanging. It’ll do. I have to hide. Now. 

Wrenching the door open, I burst inside, sweating, dripping. The bell on the door tinkled a furious protest then fell to the floor, broken, the door slamming behind me. The pungent smell of bookshop dust, hanging so still in the air for so long, swirled at the intrusion. 

Behind the counter sat an elderly woman, absorbed in an old book. She looked up. Unflustered, she closed the book and peered over her spectacles at me. 

“Do come in.” she said. 

“Listen,” I gasped. “I need a hiding place. Anywhere. Quickly.” 

The old woman steadied herself on the counter with gnarled hands and rose carefully from her seat.

“I don’t suppose there’s much point asking who ‘they’ are. Bad guys, no doubt. Russian hitmen? Chinese gangsters? Don’t tell me – murderous assassins from underground Romania?”

“What-”

“No time for questions, young man, no time to lose. Follow me.” She hobbled into a gloomy back room lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, bowed under the weight of thousands of mouldering titles. Stopping at a shelf against the back wall, she ran a finger across the spines, mumbling to herself. “Now, it’s here somewhere… ah. Here.”

She alighted on a battered beige paperback and gave it a firm tug. A mechanical creak, and the bookcase swung open to reveal a dark doorway. At the same time, a crash came from the shop – the front door of the bookshop had just been flung open with quite some force, the sort of impolite force a normal second-hand bookshop customer would not dream of applying to a bookshop door. 

“Inside! Quickly.”

I weighed up my choice for a split second, then ducked inside. The old woman closed the shelf behind me with a firm click and a soft cackle. I was plunged into darkness.

“We’ve been expecting you, Mr Bond,” came a nameless voice from the dark.  

“Who’s there?”

“Oh, there are so many of us in here. I’m Alice, formerly of Wonderland. Who else would you like? There’s Bilbo, there’s Aslan, even Harry bloody Potter’s here somewhere. And many more. She collects us, you see.”

“What?”

“And she’s been talking about adding you to the collection for years.”

What we liked:
Just like the genre Bond usually inhabits, this story doesn’t slow down – running at pace from the first sentence. No words are wasted on backstory, as we cut right to the chase (excuse the pun) with our shaken (but not stirred) protagonist seemingly finding the perfect place to shelter. And hey, who doesn’t love a secret bookshelf opening, right? Unfortunately, that question becomes markedly less rhetorical as the voice in the dark makes everything suddenly clear. We’re left to applaud the writer and shop owner’s clever take on “character-building” – definitely one for our collection!


SHORTLISTED

TWELVE O’CLOCK SATURDAYS by Brianna Mac, Qld

I stole another glance at my watch, confirming the hands were indeed closer to midday than last time. Almost immediately, I snapped my attention back to the bookshelf I was pretending to browse, just in case anyone thought I cared about the time.

As far as Dad knew, I was here to work on my Biology assignment. Considering the way the year started, he was just relieved I wanted to fix my grades after how I derailed them. He would be less relieved if he ever found out why I really spent my Saturdays at Belicrest Public Library, but ideally that was a bridge I’d never have to cross.

On the other side of my aisle the usual five-year-olds were beginning to congregate, jostling to get the best position on the bright sunflower rug. 

The beige chair was already waiting for them, prominently placed to begin the show.

Don’t look.

I dragged my attention back to the books, tugging one off the shelf like I cared about The History of Coffee. I was too aware of the watch around my wrist; the expensive leather felt too rough, the clock itself weirdly heavy. It had been a birthday gift from Mum, just before, and now I only ever wore it to the library on Saturdays.

“Alright, alright, quiet down.” The woman’s voice was almost-almost-almost familiar and the preschoolers obligingly shut up.

Twelve o’clock. Finally.

“Today, we’ll be reading the story of ‘The Mechanical Mermaid’. Who’s heard of it before?”

I took a deep breath, listening to the chorus of answering children. My aisle beside the reading corner was still empty, so for a moment I indulged in resting my head against a shelf, closing my eyes.

I suspected one of the librarians knew why I’d spent the past five weekends here; she only ever winked when she saw me take my position, so I guess she found it funny. Fifteen-year-old boy listening to stories for kids between his Physics homework. As long as she never said a word to Dad, she could think it was as funny as she liked.

“…While all the other mermaids had beautiful hair that fluttered in the water, the mechanical mermaid only had tough copper wires…”

Leaving my head on the bookshelf was conspicuous, and not really comfortable. Making sure not to look through the shelf at her, I straightened, opened my coffee book to a random page. As long as I didn’t see the woman the library hired each week, I could still pretend.

Every other day, I could hate Mum for walking out on us, hate her for cheating on Dad and for not even saying goodbye and for only leaving this nameless library woman to tell stories in the same way she did. But for a brief few minutes each Saturday afternoon, I could close my eyes and believe it was her.

What we liked:
There were plenty of romance stories set in libraries and bookshops this month (as you’d expect – they’re the intelligent person’s nightclubs after all!). But this story was one of the most touching love stories at all. Like all love stories, it’s complicated, and although we get a few breadcrumbs and clues along the way, we’re still left off balance by the ultimate reveal (which refreshingly takes a more modern approach than mourning a martyr). A beautifully told, heartbreaking tale of loss and how we yearn for the almost-almost-almost familiar.


SHORTLISTED

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED by Johanna Skinner, Qld

Eliza stood between shelves bulging with worn covers and called up to him.

Excuse me.

He perched on a ladder, his beige shirt rolled up to the elbows, revealing forearms lightly muscled and stippled with black hairs.

Do you have Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina?

He half turned his lithe body on the ladder. His dark eyes locked onto hers and he held her gaze longer than was polite.

She felt something slip away inside. A sudden rush of warmth pooled in her pelvis. She stood in the oblong shaft of light shaped by the long window. Her eyes dropped first. Her careful, cloistered childhood had not prepared her for the rush of feelings that clamoured for air.

He climbed down, placing his hands and feet on the rungs swiftly before he leapt from the last half a dozen. She half expected him to bow. He reached up and pulled a worn copy of Leo Tolstoy off the shelf above her head, one eyebrow playfully raised. She noticed a rush of details, each moment slowed by her attention. He smelt masculine, a heady mix of faint leather and fresh soap. A curl of black hair sat between his collar bones. He was exotic, foreign. She became aware of the way her blond bob brushed her shoulders, the soft caress of her sun dress on her skin, the seductive warmth of the sun on her neck.

Madam. I will wrap for you?

His accent sent tingles up her spine.

She pulled her purse out of her handbag. He looked down and paused. She blushed red. The diamond on her finger glinted dangerously between them. She pulled her hand away. A thread of music floated between the books. 

Wait a moment.

He pulled out a fountain pen and scribbled inside the front cover before wrapping the book in brown paper. He handed it to her with a flourish.

Eliza ran out of Bookends and home. She flung herself on her pink bedspread and wept with anguish. A week later she married Brian in a billow of white. He was kind, reliable and dull. Sunday roasts, annual holidays and sex on Fridays.

He was an adequate husband but she allowed herself one small betrayal. On Fridays she transported herself to a room by the sea, imagined dark eyes softly on hers, content in sweaty entanglement.

Had it really been fifty-two years ago? One week after Brian’s funeral she stood in the same spot. The light was muted now that Bookends was surrounded by apartment blocks. There was the rustle of paper and muted conversations. The smell of coffee filtered through from the café at the back. She looked around then opened her copy of Anna Karenina one last time. Her hands were knotted, knuckles swollen. She traced his beautiful curved letters one last time.

You have one life, use it well. Andreas.

She looked around, slipped it back onto the shelves, and laid him to rest.

What we liked:
Ahhh, the romance of the bookstore. Here it is, in its pure, unadulterated (adulterous?) form. A tale of “what could have been”. The promise of youth. An exotic stranger. An epic passing of time. A hand-scrawled note from the past. There was something about all these ingredients that came together in the right combination here – a simple story of a life lived, and a desire for Eliza to live vicariously through Anna in her book. Tolstoy’s classic centred on the themes of love and death, so it wasn’t lost on us that this also played out here. We also appreciated the cute turn of phrase: “Sunday roasts, annual holidays and sex on Fridays.” Has a marriage ever been so beautifully described in just eight words!


In case you were wondering, the number of stories set in libraries versus bookstores was fairly even – with 56% of entries set in stores; 44% libraries.

LONGLISTED ENTRANTS

And now congratulations to the following entrants whose stories were also under consideration this month. An impressive effort from a field of more than 1100 stories! 

OCTOBER 2019 LONGLISTED (in no particular order):

  • ONCE UPON A TIME IN A … LIBRARY – Mark Peterc, NSW
  • LITTLE ENDINGS – Sam Henderson, NSW
  • SIGNS – Doug Hamilton, Vic
  • THE INCIDENT IN AISLE SIX – Hannah Whiteoak, UK
  • THE YEARLY TRIP TO THE LIBRARY – Rachel Smith, NSW
  • SOPHIE’S SHADOW – Holly Rae Garcia, USA
  • THE LAST BOOKSHOP – Jodie Woodward, Qld
  • A BEST SELLER – Helena McAuley, Vic
  • THE FIRES OF ALEXANDRIA – evirose, Qld
  • UNTITLED – Stephanie Leonard, Vic
  • BOOK – Renee Boyer, NZ
  • LETTERS FROM HEAVEN – T.E. Bradford, USA
  • UNTITLED – Michelle Tang
  • STORIES – E. S. Sibbald, NSW
  • A BRIEF INDUCTION – Barend Nieuwstraten III, NSW
  • TEMPORARY HAVEN – Jenni Carter, USA
  • BIRTH – Jake Corvus, Qld
  • HOVEL OF HOPE – Fionna Cosgrove, WA
  • BROKEN MUSIC – Kate Gordon, TAS
  • TREASURE – Daniel Matters, Vic
  • THE PLOT THICKENS – Jeanna Mason Stay, NT
  • BEGINNING, MIDDLE & END – Joe Coates, NSW
  • QUIET – Briar Douglas, NZ
  • LET ME COUNT THE WAYS – Cyril Fox, Vic
  • BOOKWORM – Dave Evan-Watkins, UK
  • PAYING IT FORWARD – Kevin Phyland, Vic

Comments